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Eye On Boise

Archive for August 2009

National press heads for wilds of Idaho

Along with hunters who are headed out wolf hunting in the morning in the Lolo and Sawtooth zones, there’ll be members of the national media. “Today was the busiest day with the media I think we’ve ever had,” said Ed Mitchell of Idaho Fish & Game. “The ABC guys are going to be here tonight, New York Times. National Geographic is here - they’re going to go out with one of our game wardens who happens to be handy at howling wolves up.” Asked if that works, Mitchell said, “The guys who can do it, absolutely. It’s just amazing.”

Genetics part of wolf debate

One concern raised by U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy raised when he issued the 2008 injunction stopping wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana was the lack of evidence of genetic mixing between the wolf populations in the various states. “I don’t think he was provided with enough information on that issue last year,” said Ed Mitchell, conservation information manager for Idaho Fish & Game. “Since he talked about it, both states have gathered up a lot more information about it.”

Evidence of genetic mixing would show that, rather than isolated populations that could, in time, develop genetic problems that could lead to extinction, the wolf population in the region is a single, viable population, Mitchell said. Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, who was in the courtroom in Missoula this morning, where Molloy again was presiding, said there was “a considerable amount of discussion about the genetics that exist between the three states (Idaho, Montana and Wyoming), and there is evidence that there is an exchange of genetic material among the wolf population within those three states.”

Could be days or weeks?

Jenny Harbine, attorney with Earthjustice, the environmental law firm that’s representing the conservation groups that sued over wolf delisting, said of today’s court proceedings, “Well, obviously we didn’t get a ruling, and the judge stated that he would issue a ruling expeditiously. We don’t know exactly what that means, so it could come within a matter of days or within a matter of weeks, and of course the Idaho wolf hunt will start tomorrow.”

For his part, Idaho state Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, plans to leave at 3 a.m. to head up into the Sawtooth zone on a wolf hunt. Hagedorn said he’s not counting on bagging an elusive wolf. “We call it hunting and not finding for a reason,” he said. “It’s more of a celebration of gaining our right as a state to manage our wildlife again, all of our wildlife.”

Idaho offers wolf arguments on the fly

Get this: Idaho wasn’t supposed to be allowed to offer any oral arguments this morning at the wolf hearing in Missoula, but U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy surprised officials from Idaho and Montana this morning by shifting gears at the last minute, and agreeing to hear their arguments as well as those from the 13 environmental groups that sued over the delisting of the wolf, and from the U.S. Department of Justice, defending the decision. “We actually didn’t know that we were going to be allowed to make those arguments until we were in the courtroom this morning,” said Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. “We were pleasantly surprised and grateful that the court was willing to take a few moments and allow the state of Idaho to make its argument.”
 
Deputy Attorney General Steve Strack, who had submitted a 25-page brief detailing Idaho’s position, gave a half-hour of oral arguments on behalf of Idaho. Strack’s argument focused on the “reasonableness of our exercise of sovereign power, in terms of setting a hunting season and managing wolves properly,” Wasden said. You can read Idaho’s brief here.

Start of wolf hunt nears with no ruling yet from judge

While a federal judge ponders whether to issue an injunction stopping wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana, Idaho Fish and Game officials are hurriedly preparing signs to warn away hunters in case an adverse ruling comes down before the start of Tuesday morning’s scheduled hunt. More than 10,000 Idaho hunters already have bought tags for the state’s first-ever wolf hunt, and in two zones, the Lolo and the Sawtooth, the shooting is scheduled to start a half-hour before sunrise tomorrow. Both those zones are remote enough that some hunters already may have headed out into the woods, and may not be able to get final word by phone or radio on the court decision.

Game wardens are standing by if needed to print out the signs and get them posted, saying, in big, bold letters, “Wolf hunt closed by federal court action,” according to Idaho Fish & Game. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy heard three hours of arguments on both sides this morning, but didn’t issue a ruling from the bench. Instead, he said he’d rule “as quickly as I can.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Ban health PAC contributions?

Congressmen Mike Simpson and Walt Minnick were asked, in a question submitted by a City Club audience member, if they’d support banning health care industry PAC contributions while Congress debates health care reform. “I can answer that no, Mike, how about you?” Minnick responded amid laughter. Simpson said, “I’ve never made a vote because of a political contribution that I’ve gotten.” He said his first campaign for Congress cost him $1.2 million; “If I’d known it cost that much, I’d a never run,” he said to more laughter. “But do you think a $2,000 contribution is going to influence your vote when it costs that much to run?” Said Simpson, “The people that support me are the people that agree with me philosophically, at least a majority of the time, and that’s the same with Walt.”

Minnick then said, “A slightly less flippant response than my first one.” His election, between himself and his opponent, cost “$6 million all-in,” Minnick said. “That’s an amazing amount of money.” If the system were reformed, he said, “I think we would get better quality people running, and the people we elect would be” able to spend more time studying legislation and dealing with constituents’ concerns, “if we didn’t have to spend so much time trying to raise money.” Minnick said if a voluntary system of spending limits, shortened campaigns, and open access to the media for qualified candidates so they have an “equal amount of opportunity to get their message across,” plus some public financing, were put in place, “I think we would be better off to ban PAC contributions.” He said, “We’d get better governance and we’d get better politicians.”

Simpson: Got to listen to both sides

The City Club of Boise has an interesting double bill for its luncheon today: Republican Congressman Mike Simpson, and Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick, at a forum dubbed, “Red Elephant, Blue Dog, A Conversation.” Sitting collegially side by side, the two said they do work together despite coming from different parties. “You come from Idaho, you only have two representatives from Idaho, so you’d better work together,” said Simpson, who represents Idaho’s 2nd District. “Walt and I have been able to do that.” Said Minnick, who represents the 1st District, “I could not have a finer colleague.” He noted that Simpson was kind enough to show him around - even showing him how to vote, so he could vote for a bill Simpson was sponsoring.

Simpson commented, “One of the things that concerns me now is we are not working towards bipartisan solutions.” The Democratic majority in Congress has continued to escalate a partisan rift that began with Republicans when they were the majority, Simpson said, tweaking rules and so forth to block bipartisan debate. “We’ve got to de-escalate this,” Simpson said. “Somehow, we’ve got to back off this and get back to where we actually debate issues and listen to both sides.”

No wolf ruling during hearing; judge says will rule ‘as quickly as I can’

The hearing this morning in federal court in Missoula this morning over a possible injunction to block upcoming wolf hunting seasons in Idaho and Montana ended without a ruling from the bench, but U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, according to the Associated Press, said he’ll rule “as quickly as I can.”

Here’s the initial report from AP: “Wolf hunting will begin in the Northern Rockies under a cloud of uncertainty, as a federal judge weighs a request by environmental and animal welfare groups to stop the predators from being killed. Hunters in Idaho, where up to 220 wolves could be killed, head into the field Tuesday. Montana’s season is set to begin Sept. 15, with a quota of 75 wolves. At the end of a three-hour hearing into whether the hunts should be allowed, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy on Monday gave no indication as to how he might rule. Molloy says he will decide on an injunction requested by wolf opponents ‘as quickly as I can.’”

Most state tort claims are denied

Here’s what happens with most tort claims against the state, though the one filed by fired ITD Director Pam Lowe is hardly run-of-the-mill: Idaho’s risk management office, in response to a public records request, reported that the state received 1,867 such claims in the last three years. Of those, 1,025 were denied, 530 were paid, and 21 resulted in judgments in favor of the state, while 286 are still open or in court.

More than half of Idaho’s claims are submitted by prison inmates, often about minor issues. In one recent one, for example, an inmate complained his constitutional rights had been violated because he wasn’t given scotch tape he’d requested. Tort claims give the state 90 days to respond, either by paying up and settling the claim, or denying it and freeing the filer to head to court. Claims not responded to within 90 days are automatically considered denied.

Murky Idaho law boosts Lowe’s wrongful-firing case, experts say

Legal experts say ousted Idaho Transportation Director Pam Lowe has grounds to dispute her firing, not necessarily because of her explosive allegations about sex discrimination and political pressure, but because of an unclear Idaho law. The dispute also threatens to embarrass a governor who’s up for re-election, and it’s already provided an opening for the state’s minority party to declare his administration corrupt. You can read my full story here in Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.

Dad: Palin is off writing her book

While the national media wonders what Sarah Palin’s doing and what she’ll do next, she’s holed up working on her book, her dad said today. “Sarah’s been out of town for almost a month now,” said Chuck Heath, who is on a campaign swing through Idaho for GOP congressional candidate Vaughn Ward. “I don’t know exactly where she is, but she’s writing her book. She e-mails me quite frequently. She asks, ‘Oh, what happened on June 13, 1978?’ This is material for her book.”

Palin, the former Alaska governor whose turn as John McCain’s running mate last year made her a much-watched political figure, signed a book deal in May with HarperCollins. Her e-mails to her dad, he said, have asked about “trivial things like maybe a basketball game, ‘How many points did I score here?’ ‘When did we go to the Boston Marathon?’ … Mainly sports.” She’s made no public appearances since she resigned as governor of Alaska on July 26. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Otter slams Rammell’s ‘reckless, inflammatory statement’

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has ripped into challenger Rex Rammell for “reckless and inflammatory statements” about shooting the president, though Rammell said he was just joking. Saying “I reject and condemn this kind of rhetoric,” the governor said such statements “gravely damage confidence in the political process and the good citizens who serve the public.” Click below for his full press release. Rammell, like Otter a Republican, is running for the governor’s seat.

Crapo: Rammell should apologize

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo issued the following statement about the comments regarding shooting President Obama made by gubernatorial candidate Rex Rammell, who like Crapo is a Republican:

“Rex Rammell’s comments are in very poor taste and should not have been said.   Remarks like these should not even be made jokingly.  We are engaged in a critical national debate over many major issues facing our country today.  Remarks like these are not only unhelpful in that debate, but they undermine it.  He should apologize for those remarks and for the perception they may have created.“

Rammell’s explanation

GOP gubernatorial candidate Rex Rammell says “anyone who understands the law” would know he was just joking about buying a hunting tag to shoot President Barack Obama, “because Idaho has no jurisdiction to issue hunting tags in Washington, D.C.” This after the Idaho Republican Party distanced itself from Rammell’s comments; “The Idaho Republican Party does not condone Rex Rammell’s comments, whether in jest or not,” said party executive director Jonathan Parker. Click below to read Rammell’s full press release with his jurisdiction explanation.

Candidate says just joking about shooting the president

In more news from the campaign front, the Times-News reported today that GOP gubernatorial candidate Rex Rammell was highly critical of Gov. Butch Otter for not purchasing a wolf hunting tag on the first day they went on sale, which Otter didn’t do because he was attending the Lewiston funeral for the late Bruce Sweeney, longtime Idaho state legislator, former Senate minority leader, and a basketball chum of Otter’s from back in their legislative days. Rammell’s riposte: “That’s a lame excuse.” Really. That’s what he said. You can read the full story here from Times-News reporter Jared Hopkins, who also reports in the piece that when questioned, Rammell acknowledged saying at a Republican event this week amid discussion of the wolf hunt, “The Obama tags? We’d buy some of those,” but said it was a joke.

“I was just being sarcastic. That was just a joke,” Rammell told the paper. “I would never support him being assassinated.”

Hmmm, Senator Harwood?

Oopsy. Ken Roberts’ congressional campaign sent out a press release first thing this morning noting that Roberts, R-Donnelly, the current House majority caucus chairman who’s running for the 1st District congressional seat, has now been endorsed by 30 legislators from the 1st District. The release included a list of the representatives and senators, but there was an oddity: Among the senators listed were Carlos Bilbao, Judy Boyle, Stephen Hartgen and Dick Harwood. They all serve in the House, not the Senate. Two and a half hours later, a corrected version went out with the correct split between representatives (25) and senators (5). “We had them all in one list and then somebody said, ‘Oh, let’s splice ‘em into senators and representatives,’” explained Roberts campaign manager Kevin McGowan. “It was me working with some volunteers. … Somebody worked on it and I sent it out and I went, ‘Oh, no, we sent the wrong version.’”

Roberts and Vaughn Ward are facing off in the GOP race for a shot at challenging Democratic 1st District Congressman Walt Minnick. As the race begins to take shape, Roberts has been announcing legislative backers, including his campaign chairman, House Speaker Lawerence Denney, and Ward has scheduled his own town hall meeting on health care reform for Sept. 1 from 6-8 p.m. at the Nampa Civic Center; Minnick has held several town hall meetings on the issue around the district. Here are links to the two rivals’ campaign websites: www.robertsforidaho.com  and www.vaughnward.com

Controversial multimillion-dollar contract at center of ITD firing dispute

Fired ITD Director Pam Lowe says in her wrongful-firing tort claim that she was ousted just as she prepared to cut back or eliminate a multimillion-dollar contract with a politically well-connected firm, after strong pressure from the governor’s office not to do it. But the Legislature actually directed her to do just that - she was following the law. Lawmakers wanted to save money. The directive was included in “legislative intent language,” a type of strings attached to the department’s budget that has the full force of law. It first was imposed in 2007; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com, including Lowe’s account, in her tort claim, of how Jeff Malmen, then chief of staff for Gov. Butch Otter, called her on the carpet over her plan.

“The desire expressed by the budget committee was to try to bring as much work as possible in-house to reduce costs,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, vice-chairwoman of the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “Where we could put more money on the roads, it makes sense to me to do that. … It just seemed that if we had the capacity within ITD to do the work in-house, that we should do that.”

The management contract has been controversial from the start. Washington Group is a generous funder of Idaho political campaigns, and, as Lowe’s tort claim noted, a significant contributor to the campaigns of both Gov. Butch Otter and Idaho Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell. According to state campaign finance records, Otter has received $21,000 in contributions from Washington Group since 2005, and $1,000 from CH2M Hill. McGee received $1,500 from Washington Group. In addition, top executives from both firms gave Otter another $11,500 and McGee another $900, according to state records.

The consortium, dubbed “Connecting Idaho Partners,” won the giant contract in 2005 only after a big fight. An ITD evaluation team unanimously selected the competing bidder, New York-based Parsons Brinckerhoff and HDR Engineering. The New York firm had handled similar state highway programs for numerous other states. But the ITD board voted 4-1 to pick the local bidder instead, with only the late Bruce Sweeney, who died last week, dissenting. Parsons Brinckerhoff sued and the Federal Highway Administration warned Idaho that local preference can’t be considered under federal contract rules. ITD redid the bidding process, and again awarded the contract to the same firms.

Then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, too, was a recipient of significant campaign donations from Washington Group, which gave more than $18,000 to his re-election campaigns and $10,000 to the Idaho Republican Party. Kempthorne’s staffer who handled the issue, Lance Giles, later worked as a registered lobbyist for the firm, and his former chief of staff, Phil Reberger, was one of Washington Group’s paid consultants on the project. When the contract first was signed, then-ITD Board Chairman Frank Bruneel decried its size and said it should be scaled back. “That would be very disappointing to me if we spent that kind of money,” Bruneel said then. “We have manpower to provide a lot of these services, and it’ll be the board’s policy and intention to do those things in-house where we have the resources available.”

‘Room for improvement’ for stimulus sites

Every state has now created a “transparency” Web site to allow residents to track federal economic stimulus money, but according to a report by a good-government group, some sites are better than others. Washington ranked among the top three in the nation, while Idaho tied for 28th for its overall site and ranked 9th for its transportation site.  “Overall, there’s room for improvement for a great majority of states,” said Michele Lee, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C.-based Good Jobs First, a research group that developed the “Show Us the Stimulus” report.

Wayne Hammon, head of Idaho’s Division of Financial Management, noted that much of the data Idaho was knocked for lacking, including county-by-county breakdowns of spending, is scheduled to go up in October, when state agencies start submitting reports to the federal government. Lee said if Idaho posts the additional data in October, it’ll likely see its ranking from the group improve. That’s what Illinois did, after the state - President Barack Obama’s home state - took an embarrassing last place in the report’s initial findings, scoring a zero. “The state went into action and has been very active in changing their Web site so that it can be better,” Lee said. “Now their score is tentatively at 75 (out of 100), and it’s one of the better ones.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com, which includes links to the Idaho and Washington sites.

Times-News: Blick a key figure in Lowe case

The Times-News in Twin Falls reports today that its local member of the Idaho Transportation Board, Gary Blick, has repeatedly refused to comment to the paper since emerging as a key figure in the firing of ITD Director Pam Lowe. Lowe’s tort claim against the state includes allegations of sex  discrimination, including statements by Blick when the board was considering appointing Lowe as its first-ever female director. “Mr. Blick stated that ‘no little girl would be able to run this department’ or words to that effect,” the tort claim says. “Mr. Blick also questioned Ms. Lowe’s appointment by rhetorically asking, ‘What are we going to do when she decides to start a family?’”

Blick is a trucking company owner from Castleford; his wife told the Times-News she was “protecting”  him from the press. Click here for the full story from Times-News reporter Jared Hopkins.

Pam Lowe’s lawyers

The law firm representing fired ITD Director Pam Lowe in her wrongful termination claim against the state, Strindberg & Scholnick LLC, specializes in employment law, and is the firm that last year won a $4.2 million settlement on behalf of more than 300 employees of a major Utah defense contractor, EG&G, over unpaid overtime. Also in 2008, the firm won a racial harassment case against Union Pacific Railroad on behalf of an African-American employee who was subjected to racial slurs, a white manager who called him “boy,” repeated racist graffiti and, the final straw, a hangman’s noose suspended from a clock in the workplace. The company argued that various different employees, not the company, were responsible for the harassment; the company lost.

The Utah-based law firm has had its Boise office for just over a year; its Web site is sprinkled with quotations from Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa. “We do all employment-related cases,” said attorney Erika Birch, “and mostly for plaintiffs, which most times are employees who have been terminated or discriminated against or harassed.”

A look at Pam Lowe’s tort claim

A look at fired ITD Director Pam Lowe’s tort claim against the state for wrongful termination shows some explosive allegations, beyond sex discrimination and improper dismissal. Among them: That Jeff Malmen, then Gov. Butch Otter’s chief of staff, called Lowe and ITD Board Chairman Darrell Manning into a meeting after her 2007 budget presentation to the Legislature’s joint budget committee, to angrily object to her plan to reduce a $50 million management contract for the Connecting Idaho program, a contract held by Washington Group and CH2M Hill. “Members of both companies’ board of directors and staff and their families were significant campaign contributors to Gov. C.L. ‘Butch’ Otter and Senator McGee,” the Senate transportation committee chairman, the claim says. The firms held the contract under the name Connecting Idaho Partners, or CIP.

The tort claim says at the meeting, “Mr. Malmen was extremely upset and told Ms. Lowe that she should not have said she would renegotiate the CIP contract. Sometime after this meeting, Mr. Manning also told Ms. Lowe that she ‘needed to be careful with CIP,’ and that the ‘Governor could be compromised.’” Lowe proceeded regardless, the claim says, and took several projects back from the management contract to administer them in-house at ITD as a money-saving move. “In the summer 2008, Ms. Lowe directed her staff to implement ways that ITD could take back program management so as to phase out the CIP contract as quickly as possible. In Fall 2008, Mr. Manning once again told Ms. Lowe that she should not take the Program Management back from CIP because the Governor would not like it.”

Negotiations on the contract were scheduled to begin after the 2009 legislative session, the tort claim says, but just three days after the session concluded, Manning asked Lowe to resign as ITD director, despite positive performance reviews. “The Board terminated her on July 16, 2009 before she had a chance to cut back the CIP contract and eliminate waste of funds,” the claim says. You can read Lowe’s full tort claim here.

Malmen, who is now vice president for public affairs at Idaho Power, didn’t respond to a request for comment about the allegations from the Associated Press on Thursday, and couldn’t be reached for comment this morning. Manning told the AP that Lowe’s claims were without merit. The governor’s office told the AP that it couldn’t comment on a pending legal matter.

Why Butch didn’t show up

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has been saying for two years that he wanted to be the first to bid on an Idaho wolf hunting tag, but today, when unlimited sales of the tags opened at Fish & Game offices around the state, at vendors and online, Otter didn’t show. The reason: He was at Bruce Sweeney’s funeral in Lewiston, which started at 11 a.m. “He was hoping to do that but he was in Lewiston,” said Otter’s spokesman, Jon Hanian. “So he didn’t get an opportunity today, but as soon as his schedule permits, he will do that and that’s still his plan. He would’ve gotten it today, but he went to the funeral.”

Defenders: ‘It depends what happens Monday’

The court hearing in Missoula next Monday before U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy, on a possible injunction to block the impending first-ever wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana this fall, is following rather swiftly after the 13 groups that earlier sued in federal court over wolf delisting filed for an injunction last Thursday. “So it was a very expedited hearing schedule, which was really appreciated,” said Suzanne Stone of Defenders of Wildlife. With more than 4,000 wolf hunting tags sold today in Idaho, Stone said, “As far as what it means, it really depends on what happens on Monday.” Stone said she views the issues before the judge as “almost identical” to those in 2008, when Molloy blocked the wolf hunt. “It’s still the same plan,” she said, though Wyoming no longer is a part of it. “It’s kind of like deja vu all over again.”

Wolf tags sold so far: 4,196

Here’s the 4:45 p.m. total of wolf hunting tags sold today in Idaho: 4,196, of which 61 were to non-residents. All the rest went to Idaho hunters. There’s no limit on the tags, and they continue to be sold both at vendors like sporting good stores and online. Fish & Game spokesman Ed Mitchell said it was busy, but “we’ve had crazier days.” He recalled years ago when Fish & Game had an emergency hunt for deer after a large swath of winter deer habitat burned, and the Boise headquarters had lines down the street for those tags, which enabled hunters to take a second deer the same season. “This was never like that,” he said.

Today, some tag buyers had the mistaken impression that the wolf hunt tags - which give hunters a shot at up to 220 of Idaho’s wolves, about a quarter of the population - were limited. They’re not. “Nobody ever said that; it was just inferred by some people,” Mitchell said. As a result, some wolf advocates came in “to buy tags so they could save one wolf’s life.” Said Mitchell, “The kill is limited, the tags are unlimited.” Earlier, Sagle Fish & Game Commissioner Tony McDermott estimated that Idaho will sell about 70,000 wolf tags; that’s half the number of folks who hunt for big game in the state each year. Said Mitchell, “Hunting is still a very big deal here, even on a subsistence basis.” Particularly in the state’s rural areas, he said, “There’s a whole lot of Idaho people who really count on a deer or elk … to supplement the year for ‘em.”

As to whether Idaho’s wolf hunt actually will go forward or not, there’s a hearing scheduled in federal court in Missoula on Monday on a request for an injunction to block the hunt, brought by 13 environmental groups that sued over wolf delisting. The hearing is before Judge Donald Molloy, the same judge who in July 2008 issued an injunction that blocked Idaho from holding a wolf hunt last year.

More than 3,000 wolf tags sold by mid-day…

Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter’s budget director, reports that he bought a wolf tag during his lunch break and got tag No. 3,080. “That was at like 12, 12:30,” he said. “So I imagine they’ll sell five or six thousand by the end of the day.” Hammon bought his at Cabela’s, where there was no line, but staffers reported they’d had a line first thing in the morning when the first-ever wolf hunting tags went on sale. Hammon said he’s “not a big hunter” but fishes a lot, and buys a combo license each year. “I hunt a little, and I figured you might as well have one. I’m supporting the commission,” he said. “I just like the idea of having a wolf tag.”

First wolf tag buyer: ‘Now there are too many of ‘em’

The first hunter to buy a wolf tag at Idaho’s Fish & Game headquarters in Boise this morning, J.D. Dennis of Kuna, arrived 55 minutes before the sale started. “Fortunately, I was in the neighborhood,” said Dennis, who stood at the head of a line of about two dozen hunters waiting for the state’s first-ever sale of wolf tags to begin.

Tags also are being sold online and at Fish & Game offices and private vendors statewide, wherever Idaho big game tags are sold. Dennis, 57, an avid hunter for most of his life, said he wanted a tag “to assist in the reduction of the amount of wolves we have - they’re taking away way too many elk and deer.”

He said, “I originally was a proponent of bringing them here, and after hunting for 10 years, I’ve seen them deplete the herds.” The idea of wolves in the state seemed appropriate, he said, “just to complete the outdoor experience. Hearing a wolf howl when you’re in the tent completes the outdoor experience. They were here before we were. But now there are too many of ‘em.”

Dennis said he doesn’t know if he’ll bag a wolf. “They’re pretty elusive,” he said, but, “I’ll be up elk and deer hunting anyway.” When he got his tag, he held it up and shouted to the crowd waiting behind him, “There’s one, guys!” and was met with applause. A deep-voiced man in the crowd shouted back, “Save a hundred elk!”

Idaho’s wolf hunt is giving hunters from both in and out of state a shot at up to 220 of the state’s wolves, about a quarter of the wolf population. The hunt starts in September - unless a federal court steps in with an injunction. Thirteen groups that sued over the removal of wolves from the endangered species list are seeking an injunction to stop the hunt; Montana also plans to have a wolf hunt this fall for up to 75 of its wolves. If an injunction comes down before Idaho hunters have had their shot at wolves, Idaho Fish & Game said, it’ll give refunds for the wolf tags. A tag to shoot a wolf will cost $11.50 for an Idaho resident, or $186 for a non-resident. That’s in addition to the cost of a hunting license, which runs $12.75 for residents and $154.75 for non-residents.

Could wrong woman be in prison, real criminal still on the loose?

Idaho’s capital city’s been rocked recently by horrifying crime news, from the first-degree murder arrests of the mother and mother’s boyfriend in the case of an 8-year-old boy, Robert Manwill, whose disappearance prompted an intensive community search, to the double life sentences handed down to John Delling, the mentally ill young man who went on a road-trip rampage aimed at tracking down and murdering his childhood friends. Less noticed has been something going on behind the scenes: A possible new twist in another terrible crime.

The Idaho Innocence Project at Boise State University says it has unearthed evidence showing that Sarah Pearce, a woman who was convicted in 2003 for the savage beating of a Washington state motorist who was passing through the area on the freeway, may actually be innocent, in a case of mistaken identity. “There are now witnesses that have come forward with a different story … that clears Sarah and clearly implicates someone else,” said Greg Hampikian, a forensic scientist, biology and criminal justice professor and director of the Idaho Innocence Project. You can read my full Sunday column on the case here.

A step toward vote by mail…

Here’s a link to my full story on the vote-by-mail initiative that’s in the works, not for the 2010 election, but for the 2012 one. It’s the first Idaho ballot initiative to launch a signature drive with such a long time frame. If enacted, it would be a relatively modest step, simply allowing voters to request permanent absentee ballot status, rather than having to make a new request every election like they do now. At least four states, including Washington, allow voters to file no-excuses, permanent absentee ballot requests, and absentee voting has been gaining popularity both nationwide and in Idaho. In the 2008 election, 29.5 percent of Idaho’s votes were cast by absentee ballot, and the numbers were higher in Kootenai County - 35.4 percent - and Ada County, the state’s largest population center, at 43.5 percent.

Though the permanent-absentee idea was backed by all of Idaho’s county clerks and the secretary of state’s office, the Idaho Legislature has refused to consider it. The state’s highest percentage of absentee voting came in rural Teton County, which hit 50.8 percent in 2008.

The backup plan for wolf hunt

Idaho Fish & Game will start selling tags for the state’s first wolf hunt on Monday at 10 a.m., but it does have a backup plan in case opponents win a court injunction to block the hunt: If an injunction comes through, tag-buyers who haven’t started their wolf hunts could get refunds for the tags. “If the wolf season is blocked before September 1, hunters who have bought a wolf tag would be eligible for a refund,” Fish & Game announced. “If the season is blocked on or before Oct. 9, hunters who can show in good faith they did not hunt may be eligible for a refund. The hunter must submit a request for refund by Dec. 31 on a Fish and Game form along with the original wolf tag.” Fish & Game commissioners have set a wolf hunting season, starting in September, for up to 220 wolves, a quarter of the state’s wolf population.

Pam Lowe’s tort claim: Sex discrimination, cronyism at ITD

Fired Idaho Transportation Department director Pamela Lowe is seeking damages from the state, alleging improper termination and gender discrimination, the AP reports. Among her claims: One board member said “no little girl would be able to run this department.” In documents obtained by The Associated Press, Lowe also details a whistleblower claim against the state because she was fired after refusing to give into pressure by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s appointees not to cut a contract held by major campaign donors. Lowe is seeking lost wages, compensatory, emotional distress and punitive damages; read more here at spokesman.com, or click below to read the full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Otter names Melanson to Court of Appeals

Gov. Butch Otter has named 5th District Judge John Michael Melanson to the Idaho Court of Appeals, to fill the vacancy that will occur when Appeals Court Judge Darrel R. Perry retires on Sept. 30. Melanson, 61, has been a district judge in Minidoka County for the past eight years, and previously served as a magistrate judge in Lincoln County for six years. He practiced law in Buhl for 13 years before that. Said Otter, “I have tremendous confidence in John and the reputation that he carries into this new appointment.”

Melanson was one of four candidates recommended to Otter by the Idaho Judicial Council; the other finalists were Kent A. Hawkins, Michael A. Henderson and Molly J. Huskey. Twelve people applied for the opening, including two judges and 10 lawyers.The Judicial Council in Idaho handles both screening for selection when a judge leaves office before the end of a term, and discipline of judges; the discipline part takes place in strict secrecy, except when a case goes all the way to the Idaho Supreme Court. Only two ever have, including one that’s now pending; click here to read my Sunday package on the current case, involving 2nd District Judge John Bradbury, and the light it’s shining on the council’s operations.

Idaho vote-by-mail backers launch multi-year initiative campaign

Backers of a voter initiative to let Idahoans put in permanent absentee ballot requests, rather than having to file a new request every election, are trying something unorthodox: Instead of shooting for the 2010 election, they want their measure on the ballot in 2012, three years away. Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said it’s the first time he’s seen such a long timeline for an initiative, but the plan’s legal. “This is kind of a different take on it,” he said. “But they’re also looking at two years of county fairs, things like that.”

Larry Grant, a former Democratic congressional candidate and the head of Idaho Vote by Mail, said, “It will be easier to gather signatures when people are more involved in an election year. We just felt that we wanted all of 2010 to get those signatures.” Another possibility: After hearing about the signature-gathering campaign all through the election year, lawmakers could be prompted to drop their opposition and pass the measure on their own. More on this over the weekend, when my full story will come out in The Spokesman-Review.

Former Trus Joist execs bring firm back to Boise

A landmark Boise timber products company is returning to the Idaho’s capital city - kind of. A group of former executives of Trus Joist Corp., along with Atlas Holdings LLC, has purchased the commercial division of Trus Joist from Weyerhaeuser, its current owner, and will headquarter their new firm in Boise. The new firm is being called “RedBuilt,” in tribute to Trus Joist co-founder Harold “Red” Thomas and the company he built. Thomas is among the investors in the new firm.

“We’re back in Boise because we think this is the place it belongs, and we have a team that can make it go,” Thomas declared. “It makes me feel 40 years younger, because that’s where we started this company in 1960.” Trus Joist pioneered a type of engineered lumber that revolutionized the wood products industry; while Weyerhaeuser will retain the Trus Joist name for its residential-construction wood products, the new RedBuilt name will go on the new firm’s products for commercial, industrial and multifamily markets. RedBuilt has 234 employees, 32 of them in Boise; president and CEO Kurt Liebich said he expects Boise operations to expand. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

New school bond fees draw fire

For nearly a decade, Idaho has offered to guarantee bonds issued by its local school districts to win them a better interest rate, save local property taxpayers a few dollars and make the bonds easier to pass. Now, the state Endowment Board has decided to start charging fees to school districts that participate in the program - up to $1,000 for an application fee, plus up to 5 basis points, which adds up to about $15,000 for a typical $20 million bond issue. State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna is vehemently opposed to the new fees, and says he’ll fight to reverse them in the upcoming 2010 legislative session; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Govt transparency site launched in Idaho

A nonprofit group on Tuesday launched a new “government transparency” Web site designed to give anyone who’s interested details about state and local government spending in Idaho, from a mayor’s salary to an agency’s computer purchases. “Transparency is a non-partisan issue - it’s not Republican, it’s not Democrat, it’s not something that typically divides people,” said Wayne Hoffman, executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a nonpartisan think tank that launched the site, “OurIdaho.com.” You can read more here at spokesman.com.

Bruce Sweeney dies of bone cancer at 77

Longtime state lawmaker Bruce Sweeney died today at age 77, after battling bone cancer, the Lewiston Tribune reports. Sweeney, a moderate Democrat from Lewiston whose legislative service spanned two decades, most recently served on the Idaho Transportation Board. You can read more here at spokesman.com.

Guv won’t need to bid on wolf tag…

In 2007, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter told cheering, camouflage-bedecked hunters at a snowy rally on the Statehouse steps, “I’m prepared to bid for that first ticket to shoot a wolf myself.” But it turns out no bidding is necessary - for Idaho’s first public wolf hunt, the tags will be sold everywhere Idaho big game tags are sold, including all Idaho Fish and Game offices, online, and private vendors such as Cabela’s. Sales will start at 10 a.m. next Monday, Aug. 24 - unless a federal court issues an injunction to stop the hunt.

Otter: ‘We support the decision’

Gov. Butch Otter, through spokesman Jon Hanian, had this reaction to the Fish & Game Commission’s decision today to have hunters go after 25 percent of Idaho’s wolves: “We support the decision that was made by the commissioners today, and the governor has supreme and utmost confidence in the ability of our professionals at the Department of Fish & Game to manage these predators responsibly and implement their plan.” Incidentally, the 4-3 vote on which the wolf-hunting quota was approved was the reverse of the previous 4-3 vote that killed a more aggressive plan to have hunters target up to 49 percent of wolves. The three “no” votes on the final plan were from Commissioners Wayne Wright, of Twin Falls, the panel’s chairman; Cameron Wheeler of Ririe, and Randy Budge of Pocatello. They were the same three who backed the more aggressive quota.

Commissioner: Wolves not easy to bag

Panhandle region Fish & Game Commissioner Tony McDermott said wolves are not easy to hunt, and though the commission has set a quota allowing up to 220, or 25 percent, of Idaho’s wolves to be shot by hunters starting in September, “We’ll be lucky to probably hit half of the hunter harvest limit that we’ve set. … Although we’re encouraged that in the open country we’ll be successful, in the forested areas of central Idaho and northern Idaho, it’s going to be much more difficult.” He estimated that about 70,000 hunters will get wolf tags, but said many may not succeed in taking wolves. “So it’s a trial and process to see exactly how Idaho works this out,” he said.

Idaho targets 25% of wolves for hunt

Idaho will start selling tags next Monday for its first-ever public wolf hunt, to give hunters from both inside and outside the state a shot at up to 220 of Idaho’s wolves, or about 25 percent. Idaho’s Fish and Game Commission set the numbers for the wolf hunt this afternoon, a decision that was closely watched both by hunters who’ve been deluging Fish and Game with inquiries about the hunt, and by wolf advocates who maintain the state’s going too far to target a species that until May was considered endangered. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com

Fish & Game rejects most-aggressive option for public wolf hunt

Idaho’s Fish & Game Commission has voted 4-3 against its most aggressive option for the state’s first public wolf hunt, which called for letting hunters kill 49 percent of the state’s wolf population, or 430 wolves statewide. They’re now debating a second option, for 25 percent or 220 wolves. Also on the table is a proposal for a 15 percent “harvest rate,” or 130 wolves. The commission is meeting in Idaho Falls; once the final vote is taken, commissioners will hold a call-in press conference for reporters from around the state.

Case shines light on Idaho’s secrecy-laden system for disciplining judges

A bitter dispute between a crusading, reformist judge and Idaho’s judicial establishment is shining light on a little-noticed quirk: Idaho is the only state where, by law, the same person who chairs the council that disciplines judges presides over the Supreme Court’s review of that council’s actions. “This is the organization whose job it is to ensure that judges do the right thing,” said District Judge John Bradbury, who faces possible removal from his elected judgeship over a residency dispute in a case now pending before the Supreme Court. “I just think if there’s a dispute between the fox and the chicken, the fox shouldn’t be one of the judges.”

Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Daniel Eismann, who both chairs the Idaho Judicial Council and presided over the high court when it heard attorneys’ arguments for both the council and Bradbury, said, “I would personally prefer it not to be set up that way.” Last week, he recused himself from Bradbury’s case, but not because of the dual-role question. You can read my full story here in today’s Sunday Spokesman-Review, along with my sidebar here on Bradbury’s claim that he’s being targeted for his reformist stance, and an additional sidebar here on judicial discipline.

Click the “continue reading” link below to read more on this story.

GOP’ers vie to take on Minnick

Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, has brought on House Speaker Lawerence Denney as his campaign chairman in his bid for the 1st Congressional District seat, and says he’s gearing up his campaign - though Roberts reported raising not a penny for the run as of June 30. Meanwhile, fellow GOP hopeful Vaughn Ward has been actively campaigning for several months, has raised more than $125,000, and has his own big GOP names on board. Both are vying for a chance to take on Congressman Walt Minnick, the first Democrat to hold the 1st District congressional seat since 1994. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Group lauds rep who beat its favored congressman

Here’s a link to an interesting piece in CQ that leads with this slightly odd news: Club for Growth, the anti-tax group that was the major funder of former GOP Rep. Bill Sali’s initial campaign for Congress in 2006, has given a perfect score to Sali’s replacement, Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick, on its latest rating, the “RePork Card” rating House members’ efforts to rein in public spending. While most Democrats fared poorly in the group’s eyes, Minnick joined 21 Republicans in earning a perfect, 100 percent score for voting for all 68 amendments the group tallied that were aimed at stripping out earmarks from spending bills. The reason Minnick’s in Congress now and not Sali: Minnick defeated Sali in the last election, denying him a second term.

Idaho lawmakers: Restore trail funds

An Idaho legislative task force is now leaning heavily toward undoing an unpopular law passed this year to raid recreational trail funding in order to shift the money to road repairs. “We may need to give the gas tax back to the recreationists and look for other funding,” said Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, as the joint task force wrapped up an all-day meeting today. On July 1, 2010, all gas tax money that goes to the state Parks and Recreation Department for trails and to the Idaho State Police for highway patrol will shift to the Transportation Department for road work. The legislative task force was set up to identify alternative funding for parks and ISP. But overwhelming public testimony at both of the panel’s meetings so far has opposed the shift of the trail money. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Public testimony: ‘We want our gas tax back’

The legislative task force has begun taking public testimony, and there are 11 people signed up to testify. First up is Clark Collins, founder of the Blue Ribbon Coalition, who spoke in favor of what Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, and Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, already advocated earlier today - undoing the decision to take away the fuel tax money paid by off-road vehicle operators, boaters and snowmobilers from the state parks for their trails programs, and shift it into road repairs. “No hard feelings - we understand how the Legislature got cornered into a hasty vote to sidetrack the fuel tax funding that has been going to our trails,” Collins told the panel. “There is no fair way to replace that funding from other sources. I just hope that there are no hard feelings, now, when we say WE WANT OUR GAS TAX BACK.”

Collins, whose comments were echoed by subsequent speakers, said the existing system - slated to end in a year - is “based on the user pay, user benefit principle, and that’s how it should be.” The amount of money involved, about $4.5 million a year, “wouldn’t really buy a lot of miles of highway, but it buys a lot of miles of trails and trail improvements,” Collins told the lawmakers. “It’s a significant benefit to Idaho’s trails, and we really want to see it going back to that purpose.”

Tom Glass of the Idaho Recreation Council told the panel, “Finding an alternative that is as fair and works as well is indeed a daunting task.” He said one idea suggested to him by a young friend was to slap a surcharge on video games, DVDs and the like and “have the couch potatoes fund recreation.” That drew a laugh. But overall, Glass and others said the gas taxes paid by off-roaders should stay with parks.

Maybe tax soda pop and candy?

Among the ideas the state Parks Board threw out to fill the hole when their gas tax funding for trails goes away: Diverting sales taxes from sales of boats and off-road vehicles to trails; imposing a new tax on sporting goods to fund recreation; and slapping an extra tax on soda pop or candy, which 19 states already do. Another idea was to tap a federal funding source that now goes to Idaho Fish & Game for their boating facilities, though the board acknowledged that’d create a new funding hole at Fish & Game. Other ideas included raising Idaho’s motor vehicle registration fees by $3 specifically for recreation, and giving parks a share of lottery proceeds, which now go to schools and the state building fund.

These fees already have gone up

Acting state Parks Director David Ricks reported to lawmakers that the state Parks Board is “adamant as far as opposing registration fees to replace fuel tax cutbacks.” Here’s why: Snowmobile, boat and ATV owners already have seen huge registration fee increases in the past four years. Here are the increases:

* In 2005, snowmobile registration fees went up 5%
* In 2007, snowmobile registration fees went up 51% - that’s not a typo
* In 2007, boat registration fees went up 48%
* In 2009, registration fees for motorbikes and ATVs went up 20 percent.

That’s not counting the invasive species sticker that was enacted this year, Ricks noted, which is on top of boat registration fees.

ISP trooper staffing way below other states

Col. Jerry Russell, chief of the Idaho State Police, just presented stats to lawmakers in response to questions last month about the ISP’s staffing. When compared to the six surrounding states - Wyoming, Montana, Nevada, Utah, Washington, and Oregon - Idaho ranks dead last for its number of troopers per citizen, with 11,288 citizens for every state trooper. Washington’s at 8,874. When compared to states of similar size - New Mexico, West Virginia, New Hampshire, Nebraska and Maine - Idaho again ranks dead last, by a huge margin. “Findings from this analysis found that states with similar populations to Idaho have 1.5 to 4 times the amount of troopers on staff,” Russell told lawmakers. He added, “We need 88 more troopers - minimum 88 more troopers - to … get that 24-hour coverage out there on the state and interstate highways.”

Hammond: ‘Unring the bell’ on trail funding

As the legislative task force looking for money to replace gas taxes that now go to ISP and Parks & Rec broke for lunch, Eye on Boise asked Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, what he thought of what he heard this morning. In answer, he grabbed his blue-striped tie and mimed hanging himself. “First, it confirms that access to the general fund is not the answer,” he said. “Secondly, it tells you that you can raise fines and so forth but it could be just like the cigarette tax - if you reduce offenses, which it’s supposed to do, then the revenue decreases.” Hammond said it makes sense to him to examine some type of fee increases related to state police services to help fund ISP. But, he said, “Parks & Rec, there’s a direct nexus there. I don’t see why we want to fool with it. … It is a direct connection, how it’s generated and where it’s spent.”

Lawmakers this year voted to remove the gas tax money that now goes to both agencies, effective in a year, and set up the task force to fill the gap. But Hammond said it makes little sense to shift gas tax money that’s paid on gas burned in off-road vehicles, boats and snowmobiles to road repairs. He’d rather “unring the bell” and reverse this year’s decision. “I think that’s going to have to be on the table,” he said. “It just makes so much sense.” The amount in question is about $4.5 million that now funds trails, and would shift to road work. Said Hammond, “We need to fund that somewhere else.”

What other states have tried…

Other states looking for funding sources for their state police - to replace gas tax money - have tried a variety of approaches, a legislative task force heard today. Ohio formed a task force that recommended various fee increases, and the General Assembly and governor approved several to the tune of $93 million a year. Oregon spent nearly three decades hunting for a dedicated funding source for its state police, looking at everything from beer and wine taxes to car insurance surcharges; it hasn’t settled on one, and they’re still funded from the state’s general fund. Pennsylvania is looking at charging fees to cities for state police services. And then there’s Virginia, which decided to target the worst drivers with very high fines rather than raise the gas tax on everyone; the result, in which a speeding ticket or wrong turn signal could net a $1,050 fine, caused a huge public outcry and part of it was challenged in court.

Legislative budget analyst Paul Headlee said the trend among states seems to be to steer clear of large gas tax increases in favor of a patchwork of smaller steps. As of 2007, the National Conference of State Legislatures reported that fewer than a third of states had raised their gas taxes in the past decade. “What I found is this patchwork approach, this reluctance to do large increases in the gas tax or registration fees,” said Headlee, who briefed a legislative task force on his findings. Idaho lawmakers just approved an increase in an array of motor vehicle fees this year, from driver’s license fees to title fees. “We’ve kinda played that card,” Headlee said.

‘The number will always be wrong’

Dan John, tax policy manager for the Idaho State Tax Commission, told a legislative task force that it’d be very difficult, under Idaho’s current sales tax categories, to define specific categories of products subject to the sales tax in order to shift the taxes paid on those to road repairs or other purposes. Idaho uses six pages of categories for sales taxes, he said. “They are very broad.” He said, “If there is a move to take the sales tax from a particular product, the number will always be wrong. We’ll get it as close as we can.” The Tax Commission is planning a survey of retailers to get more info on that, John said. Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, said he’s estimating there could be as much as $200 million a year in sales taxes being paid on cars, car parts, and other auto-related items. “I could start out with $25 million,” he said, by writing a bill to “put it to roads.” John said that could be done. “You could take a fixed amount or percentage, yes.”

Lawmakers could also decide to impose a new excise tax on certain items, he said. “If you wanted to, you could do that. … It doesn’t come cheap.” There would be significant startup costs for programming, John noted. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, asked about eliminating tax exemptions. John said some are more doable than others. The “casual sales exemption,” for example, which exempts yard sales from sales tax, appears to hold lots of potential revenue, he said, but, “There are not enough mini-vans on this earth for us to enforce a sales tax on yard sales.”

John also detailed how Idaho used to give refunds to off-road users for the gas tax they paid on gas used off-road, but stopped doing that when the funds from those taxes were directed to the state Parks Department for trails. Now, the Legislature has decided to shift them back to the Transportation Department, effective July 1, 2010. Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, after hearing John’s presentation, said, “It seems like where we were with off-road vehicles and the gas tax that wasn’t going on the roads, it was going on the trails, was a pretty good place to be. It was easy to administer.”

Starting from a tough place…

As the legislative task force looking at how to replace the millions of dollars the Idaho State Police and state parks will lose in a year when their gas tax funding shifts to roads, it started off this morning with a review of where state revenues stand. It’s not a pretty picture. Legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith told the joint legislative panel that the budget the Legislature set this year anticipated a $57.8 million ending balance at the end of fiscal year 2009 on July 1, largely due to increased federal matching money for Medicaid. But when July 1 rolled around, the actual ending balance for the fiscal year was only $13,400. “What actually occurred is that our revenue number did not hold through June,” Holland-Smith told the lawmakers. Instead, state tax revenue for the year fell $95 million short.

Lawmakers had anticipated some revenue declines, and planned for them in SB 1227, which kicked into place, transferring millions from the public school stabilization fund and the state budget stabilization fund to keep the state budget balanced. “Although the revenue did not come in as projected, the state had tools in place in order to balance the budget,” Holland-Smith said. In the same bill, lawmakers planned for more transfers as the new fiscal year began amid recession, initially setting the figure at $30 million from the budget stabilization fund to kick off fiscal year 2010. Instead, that transfer had to balloon up also, adding another $50 million from two different funds. There’s still about $200 million in state reserves, between the budget stabilization fund, the public school stabilization fund, and the economic recovery reserve fund. All could be needed to balance this year’s budget, depending on what happens.

Holland-Smith noted that with the falling revenue in 2009, the budget that lawmakers set for 2010 now shows a 3.4 percent revenue increase from ‘09 to ‘10, rather than being flat or showing a decline. “It just doesn’t seem to be realistic,” she said. Idaho’s never had two straight years of falling tax revenues, she noted, but all states are seeing unprecedented revenue drops in the current recession. “It is just a reflection of the times.” Even though the recession seems to be lessening, state revenues are budgeted a year out, Holland-Smith said. “We don’t recover as quickly in our revenue.”

To add to the possible budget pain ahead, Gov. Butch Otter already has said the state Department of Health & Welfare has a $20 million budget shortfall in Medicaid due to rising caseload, and likely will seek a supplemental appropriation from next year’s Legislature to cover this year’s costs. Corrections costs, budgeted based on no growth in prison populations, also could grow and require supplemental appropriations, though that hasn’t happened yet. Overall, Holland-Smith said, “There are some significant challenges right now with the general fund. … We don’t have all the information at this time, it’s fairly early.” Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, the co-chair of the task force, said, “When you see your favorite part of government disappear, you heard it here first.” Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, the Senate co-chair, said, “This is the problem that this task force faces.”

Year-long survey: Boise River offers ‘pretty darn good fishing’

Idaho Fish & Game has completed an extensive, year-long “creel survey” to measure fishing activity and fish harvest along the Boise River through the heart of the city, in response to concerns raised about possible overfishing. The result: It’s pretty much all good.

“Observed harvest rates do not appear to be high in relation to the number of fish in the river,” Fish & Game Southwest Region fisheries biologist Art Butts reported today. Rainbow trout was the most common catch, but anglers released nearly 80 percent of those they caught, even though in most cases it would have been legal to keep some. “Creel survey results reveal that the Boise River is indeed a very popular destination for local anglers,” Butts reported. “It also suggests that a majority of anglers prefer to release fish to be caught again rather than take them home.”

The Boise River between Barber Park and the Americana bridge, with its adjacent greenbelt path, “offers access to many outdoor opportunities including some pretty darn good trout fishing,” Butts wrote. “Rainbow trout, brown trout, and mountain whitefish provide year-round angling, and in the fall, steelhead trout trapped at Hell’s Canyon Dam are transported to the river.”

When fire season, back-to-school collide…

It’s nothing new for the University of Idaho to have some students arrive late for school in the fall because it’s still fire season, and they’re off fighting wildfires - 11 students delayed their return to classes last year for that reason. With classes starting Aug. 24, the UI announced today that student firefighters have options there. “We are supportive of their efforts, and encourage the student firefighters, or a family member, to contact us so we know they do plan on returning,” said Nancy Krogh, UI registrar. The firefighting students can either start late, or if they decide not to return for the semester, their tuition and fees are refunded. For more information, call (208) 885-6731.

What a difference a week makes…

When I left Boise a week ago, it was 100-plus degrees. While I was gone, it turned unseasonably cool and rainy with flash flooding, and now it’s settling down somewhere in between. Among the news developments of the week (I’m still catching up): On Tuesday, Gov. Butch Otter agreed to shift $2.1 million from the state’s rainy-day fund to purchase childhood vaccines through January 2010, at the request of a joint legislative task force. “The $2.1 million that we are putting in will only get us to January, so I am hopeful that their task force and some of the other legislative work can provide an ongoing protocol and an ongoing program to provide the necessary vaccines for the citizens of Idaho,” Otter declared. The move came as Idaho’s system for vaccinating kids was thrown into turmoil due to budget cuts, at a time when the state’s immunization rate is the lowest in the nation.

On Thursday, Otter launched his transportation task force’s first meeting, saying that though the panel will look broadly at transportation funding issues and report back in December of 2010, it’s OK to make recommendations earlier, too. “I’m prepared to move as soon as you are prepared to move,” Otter told the group. “We don’t have to wait 18 months.” Meanwhile, Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey wrote an interesting Sunday story here about why and how Otter’s transportation initiatives have failed so far.

The Lewiston Tribune reported Saturday that this year’s legislation from Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, requiring Fish & Game to ask other states if they want any of Idaho’s wolves drew responses from 20 states - all saying “no.” And Blake Hall’s former seat on the state Board of Education has been filled; Otter’s choice to finish the remaining eight months in Hall’s term is Emma Atchley of Ashton, a former teacher and school board member, University of Idaho Foundation board member and GOP activist.

On a sad note, the intensive search that was on for a missing 8-year-old boy, Robert Manwill, ended with the recovery of his body from a canal and a homicide investigation; the little boy’s funeral took place over the weekend. And Idaho’s unemployment rate increased again in July to 8.8 percent, the highest in 26 years. The modern-day record is 9.4 percent, recorded from October 1982 to February 1983.

Wind on the water…

Here’s what I’ve been up to this week while I’m on vacation - one of my favorite pastimes, windsurfing in the Columbia River Gorge. It’s warm and windy here, and getting windier. I’m very happy. Back on Monday.

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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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