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Eye On Boise

Archive for December 2008

Otter names names

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter says he’ll appoint the state’s lieutenant governor on Tuesday - that’s the same day that current Lt. Gov. Jim Risch will be sworn in as a U.S. senator and resign the state post - and Otter has named names of 16 people he’s talked to about the job. It’s not a complete list - there is an equal number of possibles whom Otter either hasn’t talked with yet or who didn’t want their names released. But the list is an interesting one that includes three North Idaho candidates, an array of folks from around the state, and two who’ve withdrawn from consideration but were still willing to have the news get out that the guv talked to them about the post.

Here they are, in alphabetical order:

State Rep. Scott Bedke, R-Oakley; Sen Dean Cameron, R-Rupert; Brad Egbert, a Rexburg businessman recommended by Sen. Jeff Siddoway; Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs; state Ag Director Celia Gould (withdrawn); longtime Otter pal and current state Department of Administration chief Mike Gwartney; former state Rep. Dean Haagenson, R-Coeur d’Alene; Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake; Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint; Sen. Brad Little, R-Emmett; Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston; Lloyd Mahaffey, an Eagle businessman with a high-tech background; Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell; Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star; Twin Falls car dealer Con Paulos (withdrawn); and former state Sen. Sheila Sorensen, R-Boise.

Mark Warbis, Otter’s communications director, said the governor hasn’t yet made his pick, but will make it by Tuesday. “He’s still in the process of discussing it with other people,” Warbis said. Otter has scheduled a press conference for Tuesday at 11 a.m. in Boise to make the announcement.

Idaho court backs parental rights

A district court went too far when it imposed a no-contact order on an offender that banned him from contacting any minor, including his own two young children, the Idaho Court of Appeals has ruled. No Idaho court had previously ruled on the issue, so the court turned  to the notorious Washington case of Mary Kay Letourneau for guidance, and found that the order violated the man’s “fundamental right to parent his children.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com, and read the decision here.

New Boise judge is Twin Falls lawyer

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has appointed Twin Falls attorney Richard D. Greenwood to be a 4th District judge, replacing Judge Kathryn A. Sticklen, who is retiring. Interestingly, Otter passed over Greenwood for a 5th District judgeship in May of 2007, instead appointing 5th District Magistrate Judge Randy Stoker. That vacancy opened up when 5th District Judge John Hohnhorst died in February of 2007 while awaiting a lung transplant. Seven people applied for that judgeship, and two were nominated by the Idaho Judicial Council - Stoker and Greenwood.

Greenwood, 58, is now planning to move to Boise to take the 4th District judgeship, according to Otter’s office. He’s practiced law in Twin Falls since 1977. Here’s Otter’s comment on the pick: “Dick’s 30-plus years in the Magic Valley have put him in the heart of both Idaho’s rural tradition and phenomenal growth. He brings experience and a common-sense approach to the 4th District bench that will serve the people of the Boise area well.”

Three people applied for the Boise judgeship: Greenwood, 4th District Magistrate Judge Michael J. Reardon, and Lewiston attorney Dean Wullenwaber. The Judicial Council nominated Greenwood and Reardon.

Economy bites, but winter invites

It’s been a good week so far at Boise’s local non-profit ski resort, Bogus Basin. All lifts were running as of Tuesday. On Wednesday, the “Closed” signs that had festooned runs ranging from Liberty and Tiger to Upper Paradise disappeared, replaced by well-warranted “Caution” signs. Then, today, whump - Bogus woke up to a 10-inch overnight dump of creamy cold stuff (three more inches had fallen by noon). That’s a big storm in this arid environment, and powderhounds were reveling. Sure, it was a bit heavy in some places, but that just means it’ll pack well and set up a good season. And in certain spots, it was sweet.

I rode up a chairlift with a Boisean who’s on a forced two-week vacation from Micron. He wasn’t at all pleased about the furlough at first, he said - and then all this snow fell. Now he’s enjoying it.

Bogus opens up Superior

Here’s a final last-minute gift for Boise skiers: Bogus Basin has opened its Superior Chair No. 3, bringing the mountain to full operation. So far, Chair 3 is open for day skiing only, but there’s night skiing on the front side of the mountain (except on Christmas Eve, when the mountain will close at 4:30). Earlier, I wrote that this year’s just-in-time for the holidays opening at Bogus was “extraordinarily late,” but after a reader objected that they opened three days later last year, I changed that to “rather late.” Yes, I was being impatient, but the opening this year was the third-latest in a decade. Just for the record, here’s a history of Bogus opening dates, courtesy of the December issue of the Mogul, the Bogus Basin Ski Club newsletter (click below):
 

New law called into action for big storm

A new law allowing Idaho to enforce mandatory chain-up requirements on commercial trucks on snowy North Idaho passes has made a big difference in the past week, officials say. Prior to this year, Idaho had no chain requirements at all, and snowy spots like Lookout Pass on I-90 frequently were closed due to semi-truck spinouts that blocked the route. “I don’t think we’ve been getting the calls for the jacknifed rigs like we have in previous years, not even close,” said Shoshone County Undersheriff Mitch Alexander. “So I think it’s working.” He added, “It’s always a nice thing when you see something work, you know.”

The wild winter weather of the past week marked the first time Idaho’s new law was invoked. It applies only to big, interstate trucks on three mountain passes: Lookout and Fourth of July passes on I-90, and Lolo Pass on Highway 12. “It’s got to be a big help,” said Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, who sponsored the bill in the Legislature this year. “Just having the notice, the sign flashing at the bottom of the hill saying, ‘Chains required for commercial vehicles’ heightens the awareness about how bad the roads are, and makes people think twice about how fast they’re going.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Bogus to open backside, night skiing

Here’s a holiday gift for Boise-area skiers and snowboarders: Bogus Basin has announced it’ll open at least part of its backside - Pinecreek Chair No. 6 and Bitterroot Chair No. 5 - plus night skiing, all this Saturday. The non-profit ski resort had a rather late opening for the season on Wednesday, and has only had its front-side runs open through today. So far, the Superior Chair No. 3 is not scheduled to open, “but forecasts promise more snow over the weekend,” the resort said. Bogus’ family-friendly Pepsi GoldRush Tubing Hill also was scheduled to open on Saturday, but due to mechanical problems that’s now been tenatively reset for Sunday.

Luna: Tech cut rumor not true

Idaho’s state schools superintendent puts out a weekly e-mailed newsletter to school districts, and this week’s edition adds a new feature: “Rumor has it.” In it, “this week’s rumor” is debunked - that millions in technology funding that school districts now receive through the Idaho Council for Technology in Learning is “going away,” even as school districts await their January payments. Here’s the item:
 

This week’s rumor: ICTL funding is going away. NOT TRUE.
 
There has been speculation about the future of the ICTL and the critical funding it provides to technology. While the future of ICTL remains unknown, the Legislature and the State Department of Education remain committed to providing funding and support staff for educational technology throughout the State.

That’s followed by a breakdown of the distribution of ICTL funds, which the Legislature appropriated at $9.15 million this year. The technology money is an established piece of the state’s public school budget. While mid-year budget cuts, known as “holdbacks,” are trimming 4 percent out of this year’s budget for most state agencies, public school holdbacks are being made up from a school stabilization fund, so schools don’t take a mid-year hit. The ICTL funds are divided into two pieces; one, which includes ongoing personnel costs, totals $4.05 million and is distributed in January; and the other, which totals $5.1 million, covers equipment and software; 75 percent of it is distributed in August, with the final 25 percent distributed before the end of the fiscal year.

 

Biggest storm ever up north

By the end of the day yesterday, exhausted Idaho State Police folks in North Idaho had this report on their storm toll, headed, “Interesting happenings and thank-you’s.” It was a day when Coeur d’Alene recorded 25 inches of snow in 24 hours, shattering the previous record of 16 inches set back in 1955 - and the snow kept piling up after that, in some cases deeper than 30 inches. Here’s the day-end note from ISP:

“51 Slide offs
2 Hit and run Crashes
6 Property damage crashes
2 Personal injury crashes
The hard working State Police Troopers have dealt with Wrong way drivers on US 95. 1 drunk driver was taken to jail after the driver hit a car and just went home; while the person that was hit followed them.  Reckless driving citations were issued for several drivers not driving safely for conditions.
A semi truck driver was parked on the side of the road when an officer approached him asking what the problem was. The driver advised the officer that his chains DID NOT FIT.
From the Idaho State Police a big Thank you to all the businesses that allowed their employees to stay home and off the roadways. To all of the other drivers who stayed off the roadways as well THANK YOU.
 If drivers could PLEASE stay home as much as possible it would be GREATLY appreciated.”
Today’s another snow day up there as people dig out and recover from the big storm. Gov. Butch Otter is still in Coeur d’Alene, following his full schedule of appearances and speeches that started with his “Capital for a Day” event in Rathdrum on Wednesday.

 

They’d decide differently today

The chairman of Idaho’s  Citizens Committee on Legislative Compensation says if the panel were to meet today, it’d likely reach a different decision, rather than recommending a 5 percent raise in state legislative salaries. “We made that decision last summer,” Rich Jackson said today. “I think our proposal will be rejected.” The citizens committee was trying to keep lawmakers even with inflation, after they went four years without raises before seeing a hike two years ago to $16,116 a year. Jackson said the panel also recommended changes in mileage reimbursement to compensate legislators in very large districts who must drive long distances, sometimes leaving their districts, just to get to other locations within the districts.
 
“Now in reality, do I think the legislators are adequately compensated? No,” said Jackson, a Boise CPA. “But I think within the means of the state and a balanced budget, we probably do as best we can. And if you look at the state of our economy and what’s going on, I think the governor’s being very prudent in the holdbacks.” Similar frugal moves by the Legislature, like foregoing a legislative pay increase, would be “only reasonable,” Jackson said.

Weather whacks North Idaho during guv visit

It’s a mess up north, where 20 inches of snow has fallen at the Spokane Airport and as much as 30 inches at North Idaho locations like Athol. Most schools and government offices are closed, authorities are stretched to the max trying to deal with accidents, slide-offs and clearing the snow, and law enforcement agencies in both eastern Washington and North Idaho are asking people to stay home and not travel. Meanwhile, a bit of snow fell in Boise today, but nothing like that. Gov. Butch Otter is up in North Idaho, where he held his “Capital for a Day” session in Rathdrum yesterday and had speeches scheduled in Coeur d’Alene both today and tomorrow. Jon Hanian, Otter’s press secretary, reported, “I talked to the trooper that’s with him and he said they haven’t been impacted at all. He’s made all the meetings so far - there’s probably a few less people, a couple people didn’t make it that were scheduled to be there.” Otter’s speeches to the Intermountain Forest Association today and the Coeur d’Alene Rotary Club tomorrow both are at the Coeur d’Alene Resort, where the governor’s staying. “The impact, if there is going to be one, may be getting out tomorrow,” Hanian said.

BSU colors take to the air

The Bronco blue and orange will festoon a Horizon Air Q400 jet that will fly the colors year-round as it flies passengers around the West, the airline announced today. Horizon said the decorated plane is planned to celebrate its 25 years of serving Boise. The Boise State-themed plane is not actually unique; Horizon already has “university-themed aircraft” honoring the University of Washington, Washington State, University of Oregon and Oregon State. “Our four university-themed aircraft have generated an overwhelmingly positive response, and they hold a special place in our fleet,” said Dan Russo, Horizon’s vice president of marketing and communications. “Like the others, the Boise State-themed aircraft will be painted at no cost to the university and flown full time across our route system.” BSU President Bob Kustra said he was “very proud” and called the move “another indicator of our increasing stature.”

What they make

When the Citizens Committee on Legislative Compensation made its recommendation in June for a 5 percent increase in Idaho legislative pay, it was the second two-year session in a row the panel had called for an increase. Before that, there were both no-increase recommendations and cutbacks in other compensation for two sessions in a row. In 2005, the Legislature eliminated per-diem payments for interim committee meetings. This year’s recommendation, however, includes some increases in legislative expense reimbursements, including mileage, that lawmakers receive in addition to their annual salaries.


How Idaho compares

Pay for legislators in Idaho actually is on the low end among the states, at $16,116 a year, though there are some quite a bit lower. That compares to $41,280 a year in Washington, and at the top end, $116,098 in California. Montana, on the other hand, pays just $82.67 per legislative day, which means lawmakers are paid only when they’re in session, and their sessions are every other year. Utah pays $130 a day, with sessions limited to 45 days, so that’s just $5,850 a year.

Dems: Don’t raise legislative pay

Back in June, a citizens committee recommended that state legislators get a 5 percent raise this year, from $16,116 to $16,921, effective this month. The committee’s recommendation takes effect unless lawmakers reject it by concurrent resolution prior to the 25th day of the upcoming legislative session, which starts Jan. 12. Now, Democratic legislators are calling for rejecting the raise. “Simply put, we are unwilling to take the pay raise recommended by the compensation committee at a time when so many Idaho families and small businesses are hurting,” said Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, who said he’ll introduce a resolution in the Senate in January to reject the pay boost. Rep. Anne Pasley-Stuart, D-Boise, who said she’ll co-sponsor the resolution in the House, said, “It would be irresponsible to accept a pay raise. When I went door to door during the campaign, the economy was the number one issue that came up.”

Idaho is in the midst of mid-year budget cuts that are requiring hundreds of state employees to take time off work without pay, and Gov. Butch Otter has signaled he’ll be calling for zero raises for state employees next year due to the budget crunch.

The Dems likely will find that Republicans agree on rejecting the raise, House Speaker Lawerence Denney said. “In the House, it’ll probably be overwhelming,” he told Eye on Boise. “With the budgets the way they are, I think it’s going to be difficult for us to accept any pay increase.”

Two warming cars stolen in a week

Meridian police say two cars that were parked and running, as their owners tried to warm them up on cold mornings, have been stolen so far this week. They’ve issued a theft warning, according to the AP, cautioning drivers to carry two sets of keys and leave the running vehicles locked if they’re operating unattended in order to defrost.

Bursting the Airborne bubble

How said. The makers of “Airborne” dietary supplements have agreed to change the way they market their products, as a result of a settlement with Idaho, 31 other states and the District of Columbia, according to Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. The sad part: This was a product that promised to address a common societal problem, the way we can all pick up germs when we’re in the enclosed environment of an airplane during cold and flu season. I used it a few times at the recommendation of a friend; I have no idea if it did anything, but it felt good to at least try something. “Airborne was developed by a school teacher who was sick of catching colds in class,” the package said. It also directed, “Take at the first sign of a cold symptom or before entering crowded environments. 100% Guaranteed Satisfaction.”

Among the things Airborne has agreed to no longer claim: That the product can “mitigate, prevent, treat or cure colds, coughs, the flu, an upper respiratory infection or allergies.” The product, mainly made up of vitamins, also can’t be promoted as something to “take at the first sign of a cold symptom.” Said Wasden, “We took action to address unsubstantiated and misleading claims that Airborne could prevent the common cold or provide relief from cold symptoms.” The idea that a dietary supplement could do all that is clearly a popular one; Wasden’s office said Airborne has become the top-selling product in the cold and cough aisles of major retailers. 

Treasure Valley CPI drops

The overall consumer price index in the Treasure Valley dropped by 2.2 percent in November, according to Wells Fargo, which tracks it. That exceeded the national CPI drop for the month of 1.9 percent (or 1.7 percent seasonally adjusted). That national seasonally adjusted figure was the largest drop in CPI since the U.S. Department of Labor began reporting the figures in 1947. “The drastic decrease in energy costs coupled with slow retail sales have brought concerns of deflation in future months to the forefront,” reports Cicero Research, which analyzes consumer price data for Wells Fargo. “The U.S. could be entering a deflationary period which may last into early next year depending on how quickly the influx in liquidity, via the congressional bailout and the actions of the Federal Reserve, takes effect.”

Land Board freezes cottage site rents

Idaho’s top elected officials have agreed to freeze the rents they charge cabin owners on state lands for the next year. The narrow, 3-2 vote brought sighs of relief from cabin owners who crowded into the old courtroom where the state Land Board meets, some of whom had traveled from Spokane. The vote averts a 15 percent rent hike that the board had tentatively approved in June for 2009. The Land Board also voted to set a June 15 deadline to come up with a new system for setting rents for state-owned cottage sites at Priest Lake and Payette Lake, with members agreeing with leaseholders that the current system isn’t working. “It is a disaster in North Idaho - the real estate market has crumbled,” Chuck Lempesis, attorney for the Priest Lake State Lessee Association. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

When zero earnings are (relatively) good

Idaho’s state endowment fund lost 4 percent in November, the state Land Board learned this morning, “which brings the fiscal year-to-date to a whopping 25,” said manager Larry Johnson. The loss to the fund in November was 4.4 percent; fiscal year to date, it’s 25.2 percent. “We’re in very unusual times,” Johnson told the Land Board. “If it’s a small consolation, so far in the month of December we’ve earned zero. The investment managers are performing as we would expect they would.”

No ‘faithless electors’ here

Idaho’s portion of the Electoral College met today at noon, and the four electors, John Erickson, Melinda Smyser, Ben Doty and Darlene Bramon, dutifully cast their ballots for Republicans John McCain and Sarah Palin. Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who was presiding along with Gov. Butch Otter, said, “They are free to vote their conscience.” But all four followed the state’s election results. In fact, Idaho’s never had a “faithless elector,” Ysursa said, which is the name for one who chooses to vote differently from what the election results dictate, but other states have. He and Otter recalled a Washington state elector who refused to vote for Jerry Ford, instead casting a ballot for Ronald Reagan. And Ysursa said in 2000, one Washington, D.C. elector refused to cast her vote in protest of the national election results, though Al Gore had carried the district.

That was a year when much attention was focused on the Electoral College proceedings, Ysursa said, because the results were so close that any state could have thrown the election to Gore or Bush in the process. The popular vote nationally had gone to Gore, but the electoral college edge had gone to Bush. “We had Karl Rove on the phone to Phil Reberger,” Ysursa recalled. “Everybody was worried.” Idaho’s election results weren’t in doubt, though. “If they called us, they were worried about every state.”

Each party with a candidate for president on the ballot in Idaho appoints four electors, whose names appear on the ballot; the group from the victorious party casts the Electoral College ballots. If Barack Obama had carried Idaho, the electors today would have been Cecil Andrus, Chris Bray, Bethine Church and Dave Whaley.

Ysursa said some states have laws to fine or otherwise penalize faithless electors. “Idaho’s never had that,” he said, and it’s never had a problem. “The parties submit these,” he said. “These are good, staunch Republican workers.”

Campaign expense: Pig, sheep, rabbits

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, reported some unusual campaign expenditures during this year’s campaign – a pig, a sheep, and a pen of rabbits. “I kept the pig,” the North Idaho senator said. “I paid my campaign back for the meat at market price.” The rest of the animals – purchased at auction at the Benewah County Fair – Broadsword donated back to the 4-H kids who raised them. “It’s important for these kids to continue in the 4-H program,” she said. “Having people who are willing to support the program and buy the animals makes it work. We get this PAC money without asking for it – this is one way I can put it back into the community.” You can read more here in my column in today’s S-R Handle Extra.

Forecast calls for pain

Idaho’s economic forecast calls for pain, the governor’s chief economist says, even as state agencies struggle to meet budget cuts imposed earlier this month. After years of faring better than the nation, Idaho’s economy is now looking at its worst outlook in a quarter-century, state economist Mike Ferguson said Friday. The bad economic news - including new figures out Friday showing that Idaho shattered its record for a single week’s unemployment payouts over the past week - comes as numerous state agencies are ordering workers to take time off without pay and the state Department of Health and Welfare is cutting Medicaid payments by $35.2 million. Those cuts are to meet the 4 percent cutbacks in the current year’s budget Gov. Butch Otter ordered this month, due to falling state revenues. The casualties include everything from 65 temporary workers at the state Tax Commission, who will lose their jobs the day after Christmas, to the annual state ceremony celebrating Martin Luther King Jr./Idaho Human Rights Day, which is falling to the budget knife at the state Human Rights Commission. You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

‘It’s not getting better’

Mike Ferguson, chief economist for Gov. Butch Otter, gave a briefing for reporters on the state’s revenue outlook this morning, and said, “The economic outlook is changing rapidly, and it’s not getting better. … Idaho is actually leading in terms of the decline in economic activity.” Though Idaho has fared better than the nation economically in recent years, that’s starting to change. “The recent economic information shows that Idaho is among the hardest-hit in terms of the economic downturn,” Ferguson said.

In January of 2008, Idaho’s unemployment rate was the third lowest in the nation. In October, it was 19th. In January, we were ranked 21st for the percentage growth in nonfarm employment in the state, vs. the same month a year earlier. In October, we hit 47th. The only states faring worse on that measure were Arizona, Florida and Rhode Island. All this doesn’t bode well for the state’s budget outlook. “We are now at a point where this forecast, as of October, is the worst experience in Idaho since the early ‘80s,” Ferguson said, when Idaho suffered an economic downturn that was “brutal.”

Until fiscal year 2002, there had never been a year when Idaho’s general fund revenue actually dropped from the previous year, but it happened that year. Now, it’s happening again. As of the last forecast in August, it looked like Idaho’s general fund revenue this year would be 4.9 percent less than last year. Now it’s clearly going to be much worse. January’s forecast still is being developed, but Ferguson said, “From the standpoint of the economy, what we’re going to be experiencing is pain. That looks to be the case for the next year or so.”

But what to get them?

The Libertarian Party is celebrating its 37th birthday today, having been founded on Dec. 11, 1971, and ranking as America’s third-largest political party. So what to get the birthday celebrant? Here’s what Idaho gave the party’s presidential candidate this year, Bob Barr: 3,658 votes. That’s 0.6 percent.

Could Craig appeal again?

After losing his case at the Minnesota Court of Appeals, Idaho Sen. Larry Craig could appeal to the Minnesota Supreme Court, but he’d have to petition the court to hear his case. “Review is not automatic, and the court grants relatively few petitions,” said Steve Simon, a law professor at the University of Minnesota. Plus, Simon noted that the Court of Appeals ruling in Craig’s case was issued as an “unpublished” opinion, which means it has no value as a legal precedent. “The Minnesota Supreme Court grants review of very few unpublished opinions,” he said. Here’s a link to my full story in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Craig’s Minnesota appeal denied

The Minnesota Court of Appeals has denied Idaho Sen. Larry Craig’s appeal in a restroom sex-solicitation case, rejecting each and every one of the senator’s arguments for overturning his conviction on disorderly conduct charges, to which he earlier pleaded guilty. The senator, who was arrested in a men’s room at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport in June of 2007, argued that his mailed-in guilty plea contained insufficient facts to prove the crime; that the Minnesota law required “others” to be offended by Craig’s actions and that only one undercover officer in the next stall was affected; that the undercover operation in the men’s room constituted entrapment in that the officer “invited” Craig’s conduct; and that the Minnesota disorderly conduct statute is unconstitutionally overbroad and infringes on 1st Amendment rights to free speech.

The court, in a unanimous opinion written by Edward Toussaint Jr., chief judge of the Minnesota Court of Appeals, wrote, “Appellant’s argument is unsupported by the record.” The plea was legal and adequate, the court ruled, and “others” being affected includes just one person being affected. The appeals court cited a Minnesota statute that states, “The singular includes the plural, the plural, the singular.”

They rejected any notion of entrapment, writing, “Here, the complaint clearly indicates that the criminal intent originated in the mind of appellant, not in the officer.” And they upheld the constitutionality of Minnesota’s disorderly conduct law. “Although Minn. Stat. § 609.72, subd. 1(3), is not directed particularly at public-restroom behavior, here it is the place in which the conduct occurred, as much as or more than the nature of the conduct, that determines its offensive nature. The conduct charged here occurred in a place in which the ordinary citizen might feel most eager to ‘avoid unwanted communication,’” the court wrote. The judges added, “Even if appellant’s foot-tapping and the movement of his foot towards the undercover officer’s stall are considered ‘speech,’ they would be intrusive speech directed at a captive audience, and the government may prohibit them.”

Craig pleaded guilty Aug. 8, 2007 to disorderly conduct, paying more than $500 in fines and receiving a year’s probation and a stayed 10-day jail term. An undercover officer, who was in the bathroom stall next to Craig, said the senator used a foot-tapping, hand-gesturing ritual to solicit sex. Craig was one of 40 men snared in the undercover investigation over several months, according to police reports, and most used near-identical signals. Some of the suspects admitted soliciting sex, while others denied it. The investigation was launched after complaints of lewd conduct in the busy airport restroom.

After news of his arrest and guilty plea became public, Craig strenuously denied being gay and began working to overturn his guilty plea. He initially said he’d resign from the Senate, but then changed his mind and is serving out his term, which ends this month. He didn’t seek re-election.

TV changeover problematic in Gem State

When television broadcasting switches to digital on Feb. 17, 2009, most Americans won’t be affected, because they already get their TV signals from cable or satellite. But in Idaho, more than 400,000 people still get their TV signals over the air – a percentage that’s well over the national average of 15 percent. In the Treasure Valley, a whopping 27 percent of households get their TV over the air, and they’ll all have to do something before Feb. 17 or they’ll stop being able to watch TV. “We’ve been pretty aggressive at trying to communicate to at least our viewers the fact that the conversion is coming … and they really need to take some action if they want a smooth transition from the television that they have now to the next step,” said Peter Morrill, general manager of Idaho Public Television.

There’s more. Idaho Public TV has identified four major areas where after the changeover, there won’t be any over-the-air TV signal at all, at least from IPTV: Idaho City; the upper Wood River Valley, including Sun Valley, Ketchum and Hailey; the east side of Emmett, with downtown as the division point; and the large, upscale Harris Ranch neighborhood in southeast Boise. In all four of those locations, the topography interferes with TV transmission, but all can now get a snowy or staticky TV signal over the air. With digital TV, snow and static are a thing of the past – there’s either a perfectly clear picture, or no picture at all. But with the low-quality signal that reaches those areas, the result will be no picture at all. You can read my full report here, and click here for more info from IPTV.

ITD announces budget cuts

The Idaho Transportation Department has announced that it’s cutting its budget by $9 million and reducing administrative costs an additional $1.6 million, by transferring 18 administrative positions to “such critical services as bridge inspection, snowplowing, and road and bridge maintenance.” Pam Lowe, ITD director, said the agency is acting in accordance with Gov. Butch Otter’s direction to all state agencies to “act prudently and cautiously with taxpayer dollars.” Though ITD wasn’t subject to Otter’s newly ordered budget holdbacks because it receives no state general funds, the governor also ordered the agency to cut its administrative costs by 6 percent; the transfer accomplishes that. The other cuts are because of “declining revenue from the state’s fuel tax and economic slowdown,” the department said. Click below to read the full announcement from ITD.

Why not Risch?

Here’s a question: When Gov. Butch Otter was too sick this week to give a key speech, why didn’t he turn to his official stand-in, Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, to do it for him, rather than chief of staff Jason Kreizenbeck? Risch says the governor didn’t ask him, and besides, “The appropriate person to deliver that speech was Kreizenbeck. Kreizenbeck worked closely with him on these issues, knew them substantially better then me. Kreizenbeck was the right one.”

Risch, who sometimes stands in for Otter at appearances but gives his own speeches when he does so, said, “I think that would’ve been unusual, for him to ask me to deliver his speech. … That speech really needed to be given as he wanted it given. That was altogether appropriate, and well-done, well-executed.” Asked what he thinks of Otter’s transportation proposal unveiled in the speech, including a gas tax increase and hikes in vehicle registration fees, Risch said, “I think probably I would leave that to he and this Legislature. I’ve got my plate full, and it would be counterproductive of me to weigh into that.”

Risch, who will be sworn in as a U.S. senator on Jan. 6, said he won’t resign his lieutenant governor post until that date. “I ran for that office and I was elected to do it,” he said. Since Otter has said he won’t announce his pick for Risch’s replacement until Risch has resigned, that means some continued uncertainty in the state Senate, where at least two members of GOP leadership are among the contenders for the position. If one of them – Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes or Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Brad Little – gets the post, senators would have to hold new leadership elections, a process they just completed this week, re-electing both to their posts.

Guv met them halfway

When the Senate sent a committee just now to inform the governor that it’s organized and ready for business, Gov. Butch Otter got a call that the senators were on the way, and made a point of heading out from his office and meeting them in the park, midway between his office and the Capitol Annex where lawmakers are meeting. “He met us halfway,” Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, happily announced. Lawmakers are hoping that’s a sign of the cooperation ahead.

The Senate has now completed its organizational session, and its new committee assignments have been announced. The only change in committee chairmanships in the Senate is on the Agriculture Committee, where former Chairman Tom Gannon passed away. The new Ag chairman is Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, and Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, is vice-chair.

House is done

The House has reconvened, read off its list of committee assignments for the upcoming session, and officially adjourned its organizational session. There were no changes in House committee chairmanships. House GOP Caucus Chair Ken Roberts said, “Ladies and gentlemen of the House, our work is concluded for the organizational session.” There were only a few final announcements, but one elicited concerned gasps: Former state Rep. Jerry Shively, D-Idaho Falls., suffered a heart attack on Monday, House Speaker Lawerence Denney announced. “All I know is that he’s in stable condition,” Denney said, asking members for their prayers. House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, told members that divvying up committee slots today was a little like “splitting the baby,” but he said, “We did our best and we’re glad you’re all here. We look forward to getting work done in January.”

Ill guv is back on the job

Despite bronchitis that prevented him from delivering a key speech yesterday, Gov. Butch Otter is back at work, and last night appeared at a campaign event with legislators. Sen. Brad Little, R-Emmett, spoke for the governor, before Otter spoke very briefly. “He had a croaky voice,” said Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, who attended. This morning, Otter gave the same speech he’d prepared for the Associated Taxpayers yesterday to a closed IACI board meeting, this time delivering the talk himself, highlighting his transportation funding plan. “He’s still got bronchitis,” said Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian. “They told him to take a couple of days off, but this is such a busy time. He’s kind of the walking wounded.”

No leadership changes for GOP

House and Senate Republican leadership will remain the same as the last legislative session, with House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, leading the House, and Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, leading the Senate. At this morning’s organizational session, legislators were sworn in and selected their seats in the chambers for the upcoming session, and there was little change there, too.

In the Senate, after the oaths of office, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, invited guests who were in the chamber to leave, and pointed out that members of the press had their designated areas but weren’t to encroach on the center area occupied by Lt. Gov. Jim Risch, or they could risk his ire. Risch, who was holding an extra-large gavel, pooh-poohed the warning, saying, “We have a kind lieutenant governor,” to which Davis responded, “We hope to in January.” Risch, who leaves office in January to join the U.S. Senate, pursed his lips and smiled, but declined to respond.

Spoken the way it was written

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, who’s among the speakers this afternoon at the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho annual conference, opened his talk with this comment about Otter chief of staff Jason Kreizenbeck’s delivery of the governor’s keynote speech at lunch today: “I think that’s the first time I’ve ever seen any of the governor’s speeches given the way it was written.” Amid laughter, Moyle noted that among the lines Kreizenbeck delivered was, “We’re eating our seed corn.” Moyle cracked that he wondered if Kreizenbeck “really knows what seed corn is.”

Reaction mixed, mostly positive

Reaction to the governor’s transportation proposals from legislators is mixed, but mostly positive so far. “I’ve said all along that we need to focus at least on maintenance, so that we don’t fall farther behind,” said House Speaker Lawerence Denney. He joked, “With the volatility in the gas prices right now, if you didn’t report on it nobody’d notice that we’d raised it 10 cents a gallon.” But, he said, “With the down economy it’s going to be a tough sell.” He praised the governor for looking to user fees for funding. Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes said, “I think the governor showed some tempering from what his position was last year. … I think the governor is ready to come up with a package that works for not only the Department of Transportation, but for the people that have to pay for it.” However, he said, “I don’t think the crisis was created because we have 6 percent too much administration. I think we could run a little leaner in administration.”

Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “My ears went up when he said he was going to start tracking sales tax revenue from motor vehicle-related sales, because anything that could get deferred from general fund revenue to transportation would have a definite impact on education. I see education as the catalyst that, when our economy turns, will springboard us into the limelight. We have to have workers that are ready to take the jobs that are already there.” Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, said, “I think it’s a good first step. The governor has now outlined what I think is a well-balanced approach to solving the problem. I like the part about accountability. If we’re going to ask for more money, then we have to make sure it’s spent right.”

House Assistant Minority Leader George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, said the governor’s proposals are “kind of a consolidation of what’s been talked about the last year or two. I do agree that we need to increase the fuel tax – it was a mistake at the time probably not to adjust it” for inflation when it last was raised in 1996. Sayler said the accountability piece is important to gain legislative approval, but most of all, “We need to be adequately funded.” Fixing the transportation system, he said, “should help us get out of the hole a little sooner.”

Otter wants gas tax hike, fee increases

Gov. Butch Otter informed legislators today that Idaho needs to raise its gas tax, increase car and truck registration fees, tax rental cars and more to fund pressing transportation maintenance needs around the state. “What will be revealed in January is whether we have the political will, the political courage to make the choices that are needed,” Otter said in a speech he planned to deliver to the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho today, but because the governor is suffering from bronchitis, his chief of staff, Jason Kreizenbeck, delivered his prepared remarks for him.

Guv sick, but speech still on

Gov. Butch Otter went home sick yesterday and was bad enough off that he went to the doctor, only to find out he has bronchitis. “He just sounds terrible,” said Jon Hanian, Otter’s press secretary. Otter’s scheduled to give a big speech today to the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho conference where he’ll unveil his transportation proposal to an audience that includes much of the state Legislature. He won’t be able to do it in person now, but he’s sending his chief of staff, Jason Kreizenbeck, to deliver it for him. “He would be there if he could,” Hanian said.

Disgraced lawmaker in trouble again

Former state Sen. Jack Noble, who resigned from the Idaho Senate in 2005 in an ethics scandal, is in trouble again, this time being dunned for failing to provide workers compensation insurance for workers at his now-defunct Idaho dairy. The bankrupt Noble reportedly has moved to Texas. Click below to read AP reporter John Miller’s full report.

State revenues could be down 8%

Back in August, the governor’s Division of Financial Management estimated that state tax revenues would be down 4.9 percent from last year, a significant drop – but now the figure’s larger. State chief economist Mike Ferguson would only say yesterday that it’s worse; revised revenue estimates haven’t yet been released, but they’re low enough to prompt Gov. Butch Otter to order budget cuts totaling 4 percent so far, with another 2 percent held in reserve. Today, new state legislators, as they were being briefed on how the state budget process works, got a glimpse into the figures. Legislative budget office chief Cathy Holland-Smith stressed that this is nothing but her prognostication on where the figures may end up, but she’s estimating revenues will be down between 7.7 and 8 percent. Idaho’s biggest budget drop in recent memory was a 14.3 percent decline in general fund revenues in 2002.

Report calls for raises, Guv says no

Idaho’s annual Change in Employee Compensation report, which was required by law to be submitted to the governor and Legislature today, shows that state employee wages still lag 15 percent behind market rates, and calls for 5 percent raises, to be distributed by merit, to be funded for state employees except public school employees next year. But that’s not what Gov. Butch Otter is proposing in his budget. Otter said today he can’t advocate any raises at all for state employees next year, due to the state’s budget crunch.

“We did see the report before it was issued today,” said Otter’s budget director, Wayne Hammon. “They have certain things that they’re mandated to put in that report and go forward, so they did that, they’ve done their job. We just can’t do it.” The report also calls for making state employees pay for an increasing share of their benefit costs; Hammon said that, too, is likely to be put on hold. “In light of the current economic conditions, we have to slow the whole thing down,” Hammon said. Without raises, Otter won’t be proposing the accompanying benefit cost hikes, he said.

The report quotes state law, saying, “The Legislature declares its intent in Idaho Code 67-5309A that ‘regardless of specific budgetary conditions from year to year, it is vital to fund necessary compensation adjustments each year to maintain market competitiveness in the compensation system. In order to provide this funding commitment in difficult fiscal conditions, it may be necessary to increase revenues, or to prioritize and eliminate certain functions or programs in state government, or to reduce the overall number of state employees in a given year, or any combination of such methods.’” But Hammon said, “I believe that’s a requirement of the Legislature, who sets the budget. … All we do is recommend a budget. It’s the Legislature that actually sets it.” Here’s a link to the full CEC report.

Dems: ‘A bleak budget picture’

Idaho Democratic legislative leaders aren’t disagreeing with Gov. Butch Otter about the need for new budget cuts, but have issued a statement calling for “responsible, targeted cuts that protect critical services to middle-class Idaho families.” House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, and Senate Minority Leader Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, thanked Otter for meeting with them before announcing the cuts. “Times are hard and the state clearly is facing a bleak budget picture,” Jaquet said. “We need to be as prudent and fiscally responsible as possible. The holdbacks give us all an opportunity to look at what we’re doing and how we are spending and whether we ought to do things differently.”

“But,” she said, “We also need to cut carefully. For example, Idahoans who’ve recently been laid off need opportunities to retrain for new jobs, so this is no time for drastic cuts to vocational and secondary education programs.” Added Stennett, “We need to be thoughtful and prudent in our approach to budget cuts.”

‘Maybe a bad time to say it’

As he closed his press conference this morning after announcing new state budget cuts, Gov. Butch Otter said, “Thank you all very much for being here this morning.” And then he added, with a rueful chuckle, “Maybe this is a bad time to say it, but Happy Holidays.”

Announce cuts, then celebrate?

The timing just worked out that way – Gov. Butch Otter will be announcing new state budget cuts today at an 11 a.m. press conference, and then at 5:30, the governor and first lady will host a ceremonial tree lighting with singing, cookies, Starbucks coffee, hot cider, and free books for kids, all “in the spirit of the season.” Otter invites the public, “Come join us to enjoy some music and the warmth of fellowship and goodwill.” The public tree-lighting will be at the corner of Capitol Boulevard and Bannock Street in downtown Boise, and will include performances by the 25th Army Band, Meridian’s Cecil D. Andrus Elementary School Honor Choir, First Lady Lori Otter reading “The Night Before Christmas in Idaho,” and a sing-along of “Oh Christmas Tree.”

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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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