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Eye On Boise

Archive for December 2009

Capitol starts new era in new year

Jake Putnam took this very cool photo yesterday of the Idaho state capitol in our wintry weather; he titled it “Statehouse winter.” After two and a half years of renovation, the capitol reopens to the public next Saturday, Jan. 9th, after a 30-minute rededication ceremony set for noon on the south steps. All are invited; there’s more info here. Three days before the rededication, on Thursday Jan. 7th, Idaho Public Television will air a documentary, “Capitol of Light,” telling the story of the capitol and its renovation; the program airs at 7 p.m. Mountain time, 8 p.m. Pacific, and re-airs on Saturday at 6/5 p.m.; more info here.

Kemp sets campaign launch

Independent gubernatorial candidate Jana Kemp says she’s now collected more than 1,100 verified signatures on her petition for candidacy, and she’s scheduled a press conference for Tuesday, Jan. 5th in Nampa to launch her campaign. It’ll be at 2 p.m. at the Nampa Civic Center. Candidates for governor can either collect more than 1,000 verified voter signatures or pay a $300 fee to get on the ballot. Kemp is a former one-term GOP state representative from Boise.

Otter decries fed health reform bills

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has sent a letter to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi decrying the health care reform bills passed by both houses of Congress, along with the “deal making, arm twisting and the ends-justifying-the-means attitude that we saw throughout the process and recent votes.” The governor says he’ll “explore all my options, including legal action” against the federal legislation should it become law; the House and Senate bills, which differ, now go to conference to determine the final version. Click here to read Otter’s full letter.

Lowe adds another claim to lawsuit

Former Idaho Transportation Director Pam Lowe, whose wrongful-termination lawsuit against the state is now pending in federal court, filed an amended claim today adding an additional “claim for relief” to her case, which already charged sex discrimination, political pressure, due process violations and more: That the state hired a male to replace her and decided to pay him $22,000 a year more. “By paying Plaintiff at a rate less than her male replacement for substantially equal work on a job requiring substantially equal skill, effort and responsibility under similar work conditions, Defendants violated the EPA (Equal Protection Act),” the claim states. “Because Defendants paid her less than it paid her male replacement, Ms. Lowe has suffered and will continue to suffer economic losses.”

Lowe charges she was fired for refusing to yield to pressure to favor a politically well-connected contractor, and also was discriminated against for her gender; she was the state’s first female transportation director. You can read her amended federal court claim here.

Time vs. money…

Today I complete a full week of unpaid furlough, my second this year. These are difficult times in the newspaper business, and like everyone at my paper, I’m doing my part (we also took 7 percent pay cuts this year). It’s been an interesting week. The downside: No paycheck. The upside: Time with family, a chance to relax, and several glorious mornings up on the slopes at Bogus (pictured above). Next week I’m on vacation - no downside to that…

Otter: Could be others in 1st CD race…

Gov. Butch Otter, a guest co-host on KBOI talk radio this afternoon, was asked by a caller what he thinks of the candidates in the 1st Congressional District GOP primary race. Otter briefly praised both Vaughn Ward and Raul Labrador, and said, “The Republican Party’s got a pretty deep bench when it comes to all the offices.” But he added, “There may not be all the candidates in that race yet that may get in it. … Remember they’ve got until the middle of March in order to get in.”

Rammell: ‘We need God’s help’

GOP gubernatorial candidate Rex Rammell has issued a press release entitled “The Constitution will hang by a thread,” explaining his latest campaign tactic, in which he’s inviting men who are elders in the LDS church to meet with him to discuss prophecy in regard to his run for governor. “Some people, LDS and non-LDS, think it is inappropriate for me to hold such meetings,” Rammell wrote in the release. “I think that is ridiculous. … It would only be appropriate for me to address Joseph Smith’s prophecy with people who believe he was a prophet.”

Rammell is among several announced candidates for governor of Idaho; incumbent GOP Gov. Butch Otter, though he’s not yet formally announced his candidacy, has a re-election campaign up and running, and last week, former nonpartisan citizen activist Keith Allred entered the race as a Democrat. Also running are Republicans Sharon Ullman and Ron “Pete” Peterson; independents Jana Kemp and “Pro-Life;” and Democrat Lee R. Chaney Sr. Click below to read Rammell’s press release, which concludes, “We need God’s help and I am not ashamed to ask for it!”

Cold snap on the way…

The Treasure Valley shimmered under a winter sunrise this morning, as seen here from Bogus Basin Road. But despite today’s sunny skies, a cold snap is on the way. The wind chill is expected to drop to zero overnight tonight, according to the National Weather Service, and on Friday morning, it’ll hit 10 below in the early morning. The photo at the left is the ice on my car window this morning.

Bright side of unemployment?

Certainly, it’s not good economic news that Idaho’s unemployment is breaking more and more records. Last week, the $16.2 million in unemployment insurance benefits paid by the state broke the previous weekly record, which was set the first week of April, and the year-to-date figure of $627 million in benefits paid to out-of-work Idahoans has shattered all records - in all of 2008, the state paid out $247 million. But according to the state Department of Labor, there’s an economic silver lining to this: Moody’s Economy.com estimates that every dollar paid in unemployment benefits actually has an economic impact of $1.63, because unemployment, unlike other income, is almost always spent, not saved. And it’s spent on basics like house payments, rent, utilities, food and gas - which boosts the economy.

Impact of run on Common Interest…

Here’s how Democratic gubernatorial candidate Keith Allred responded, in a recent interview, to a question about whether his run on a partisan ticket will destroy The Common Interest, the nonpartisan citizen advocacy organization he’s worked for five years to build:

“If I run and win, I think I have powerfully advanced the vision of The Common Interest, and that’s the reason for running. If I run and lose, then I think I’ve set it back substantially, and I don’t take that lightly - it’s the passion of my life. But I don’t think I’ve ended it. I think there would be ways forward. (He said that might include getting a Republican co-chair, or taking a lesser role in the organization and having others step forward.) “This is a passion that I will follow for the rest of my life.” He added, “I’m not too worried about that, because I intend on winning and showing how to govern this way.”

A different kind of party candidate…

Perhaps the oddest thing about Keith Allred, the newly announced Democratic candidate for governor of Idaho, is that he’s not a Democrat. He’s not a Republican either.    Instead, the 45-year-old former Harvard professor and expert mediator is a passionate advocate for a grand experiment in returning the nation to its founders’ vision of government by the people, in ways that involve ordinary citizens in policy-making and skirt the special interests, including political parties. “I’m turned off by the extremes of both parties,” he said. “As a voter, I have been a committed and proud ticket-splitter all my life.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com; Allred launched his campaign today with an announcement in Twin Falls.

‘Fishy’ or ‘just flat wrong’?

The Idaho Republican Party put out a press release today headed “Allred deceives public,” saying that when it tried to file an IRS complaint against The Common Interest over founder Keith Allred’s email to members informing them he was running for governor, it could find no evidence that The Common Interest had ever obtained IRS nonprofit status in the first place. Jonathan Parker, executive director of the party, said he was trying to find record of “The Common Interest” as a 501c3.

However, The Common Interest Incorporated has had its 501c3 nonprofit status since February, and its other entity, The Common Interest In Action, has had 501c4 nonprofit status since 2004. The c4 status permits some campaign activity. “They’re just flat wrong,” Keith Allred told Eye on Boise. “I don’t speak officially for The Common Interest any more, but as past president I can confirm that the Republican Party is flat wrong. We received our determination letter for The Common Interest Incorporated last winter.”

Parker, who said he’s spent more time than he’d like researching The Common Interest, including reading its state incorporation papers and spending 45 minutes on the phone with someone from the IRS, said, “If that is the case, then I’m back to square one, which is that I believe he violated IRS code, and the Idaho Republican Party will be officially filing a complaint.” Click below to read the full Idaho GOP press release. Parker also noted that he’d learned that Allred had registered his campaign Web site address on Dec. 6th, four days before he filed for office. Between that and questions over nonprofit status, Parker said, “It just seems fishy.”

Idaho tax burden 6th lowest in nation

Idaho’s overall tax burden, per capita, is the sixth-lowest in the country and the lowest among western states, the Idaho Tax Commission says. That’s the result of its latest tax burden study, which showed significant impact from the 2006 legislation that lowered Idaho’s property tax, although it also increased the state’s sales tax. The study showed that Idaho’s tax burden is 29.5 percent below the national average, the lowest it’s been compared to the national average since similar studies started 22 years ago. Click below to read the full news release from the Tax Commission.

Laird Noh on why he’s co-chairing Keith Allred’s campaign

In his letter describing why he’s co-chairing Keith Allred’s Democratic gubernatorial campaign, former GOP state Sen. Laird Noh writes, “I am a Republican rancher with nothing bad to say about Butch Otter.” Citing his longtime Republican credentials, he asks, “Why would a person like me be supporting Keith Allred?”

His answer has to do with the work Noh has done with Allred at The Common Interest, a citizen advocacy group the two founded together in Idaho; Noh was a founding board member. “It is not often enough that we find someone of such uncommon ability, objectivity and energy who is willing to devote their scarce hours in this land to political public service and leadership,” Noh writes of Allred. “I believe that once you become acquainted with Keith, regardless of partisan affiliation or the lack thereof, you, too, will not want to let this opportunity slip away.” He adds, “These are not ordinary times for Idaho or the nation. We must come together.” You can read Noh’s full letter here.

Allred opens gubernatorial campaign, names a Republican as his co-chair

Keith Allred formally announced his candidacy for governor as a Democrat this morning, at a rally in the Twin Falls High School gym, the same place he gave his first speech as a sixth-grader and where he spoke often when he was the school’s student body president. Allred had a surprise announcement: Joining former four-term Democratic Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus as honorary co-chairman of his campaign will be former state Sen. Laird Noh, R-Kimberly, the longtime Republican chairman of the Senate Resources Committee. Noh also served on the board of Allred’s nonpartisan citizen advocacy group, The Common Interest. Click below to read Allred’s full news release.

Common Interest response: ‘Well within the bounds of the law’

In response to the Idaho Republican Party’s announcement that it plans to file a complaint with the IRS over Keith Allred’s letter to The Common Interest members telling them he was running for governor,  Common Interest board member Marguerite McLaughlin of Orofino says the communication was “well within the bounds of the law,” and she added, “In fact, we have acted with an abundance of caution in this matter.” McLaughlin said Allred resigned as president of The Common Interest to run for office, and the organization is suspending its activities until after the election.

The Common Interest includes both a 501c3 educational arm, and a 501c4 political advocacy arm, according to its Web site; a 501c4 can engage in some partisan politics if that’s not its sole focus. However, McLaughlin didn’t mention the two entities in her response; click below to read the full news release from The Common Interest. She noted that Allred’s letter to members said, “The Common Interest does not endorse candidates. That includes me or anyone else.”

Idaho GOP plans complaint against Allred

The Idaho Republican Party has put out a news release saying it plans to file a complaint with the IRS against Keith Allred for the Dec. 10 letter he emailed out to members of his citizen advocacy group, The Common Interest, informing them that he was going to run for governor as a Democrat. Jonathan Parker, party executive director, said the letter was partisan campaign activity inappropriate for a nonprofit, and accused Allred of trying to “exploit the non-profit tax-exempt status of The Common Interest to further his own personal and partisan agenda.” Click below to read the full Idaho GOP news release. Allred campaign spokeswoman Jean McNeil said any response will have to come from The Common Interest rather than the campaign.

More details on lawsuit over IEN bid

Associated Press reporter Rebecca Boone has filed a full report on the lawsuit that Syringa Networks filed against the state of Idaho today, charging that a multimillion-dollar broadband contract for the Idaho Education Network was awarded to Qwest, even though that firm didn’t have the lowest bid. Among the suit’s allegations: That state Department of Administration chief Mike Gwartney warned Syringa that its other contracts with the state would be in danger if it complained about the arrangement, in which Syringa’s bidding partner, Education Networks of America, was awarded part of the job but allegedly told to keep Syringa out of it. Click below to read Boone’s full article.

Bogus Basin will open Thursday

It’s been a long wait for Boise skiers, with Bogus Basin not yet open even as the holiday season approaches. But now, thanks to the current storm, comes the good news: The local non-profit ski resort will open for the season on Thursday. According to an announcement just posted on their Web site, chairlifts 1, 2, 4, 7 and Easy Rider will run, and operating hours for Thursday and Friday will be 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Lift tickets will be discounted until the full mountain opens.

“We hope to add the Bitterroot Basin to the mix on Saturday,” said Steve Shake, vice president of  mountain operations.  “We’ll open more of the mountain, including night skiing and riding, as we receive more snow.”

State faces suit over Ed Network bid

Here’s a news item from the AP:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Syringa Networks is suing the state, saying the Idaho Department of Administration illegally awarded a lucrative Idaho Education Network contract to Qwest even though Qwest didn’t have the lowest bid. In the lawsuit filed in 4th District Court, Syringa’s attorneys say an impartial evaluation team selected by the Department of Administration found the company was the most technically proficient bidder and also the least expensive. But, Syringa contends, department director Mike Gwartney decided to award the contract to Qwest Communication Co. anyway, depriving Syringa of an estimated $60 million in work over the next two decades. The work is part of an ambitious project to link public schools, universities and businesses over a high-speed broadband network. Gwartney and other department officials could not be immediately reached by The Associated Press.

Lowe case moves up to federal court

Fired ITD Director Pam Lowe’s wrongful-termination lawsuit against the state is being removed to federal court, as a result of a move by the state of Idaho today. The state’s appointed special deputy attorney general for the case, attorney B. Newal Squyres of the firm Holland & Hart, filed the required notice today in state 4th District Court to move the case up to federal court. Squyres called the move “standard practice,” because the plaintiffs filed claims under federal law. The state had the option of either defending the case in 4th District Court or removing it to federal court.

Lowe, in her lawsuit, charges sex discrimination, political pressure and cronyism, and says she was fired without cause, despite positive performance reviews, for resisting pressure to favor a politically well-connected contractor. She was the department’s first female director. Her lawsuit alleges violations of her rights under both the state and federal constitutions.

Lowe’s attorney, Erika Birch, said, “We’re just anxious to get the case moving forward, whether it be in state court or federal court.”

CQ weighs in on Idaho 1st CD race

CQ Politics writer Greg Giroux quotes former Idaho Democratic congressional candidate Larry Grant describing GOP 1st Congressional District hopeful Vaughn Ward as “a Sarah Palin Republican” and rival Raul Labrador as “a Bill Sali Republican,” and adding, “The moderate Republicans … won’t run because they know they can’t beat the ultraconservatives in the primary.”

The two GOP rivals have lately been engaged in something of a contest in which each has tried to portray himself as more “conservative” than the other guy. Giroux was following up on an earlier Grant comment - repeated on several blogs - that Grant might jump into the race as a Republican, but Grant told Giroux that was a joke, designed to make a point that “the moderate Republicans in this state have no place to go in their primary.” You can read the CQ item here.

Idaho libraries get Gates Foundation help for broadband grants

Idaho’s Commission for Libraries has been selected by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as one of 13 state library agencies that the foundation will help apply for federal broadband stimulus grants, with the aim of bringing high-speed Internet access for the public to all of Idaho’s 140 public libraries. The foundation will give the state library commission help and technical assistance in applying for the grant, and if they’re successful, it’ll provide the required matching funds.

Though most of Idaho’s libraries offer Internet access, about 40 percent are below minimum standards for bandwidth, said Idaho libraries spokeswoman Teresa Lipus. State Librarian Ann Joslin said, “This is an unprecedented opportunity for the public libraries in Idaho lacking broadband access that is affordable, sustainable and scalable to meet future needs.” As part of the effort, the foundation will train Idaho librarians on how to apply for federal “E-Rate” funding for ongoing broadband connection costs.

“A successful grant proposal by the Commission means more citizens will be able to get online at their public library to look for a job, find workforce resources, and access government information,” Gov. Butch Otter said. “This is a meaningful and cost-effective way to provide needed services to the people of Idaho.”

Allred schedules Thursday announcement

Keith Allred, the founder of The Common Interest who’s decided to run for governor as a Democrat, will announce his candidacy on Thursday at 11 a.m. in the gym at Twin Falls High School, the place where he gave his first speech when he was in the 6th grade and where he spoke often as high school student body president; he’s a 1983 graduate of the school. Allred said in a news release that he’ll appear at events afterward in Boise on Thursday and Coeur d’Alene on Friday, but the Twin Falls event will be his only official announcement. Allred hasn’t yet spoken publicly since filing his declaration of candidacy last week, a big surprise as he’d made his mark in Idaho politics previously in a strictly nonpartisan role, with the citizen advocacy group he founded.

Allred will take on GOP Gov. Butch Otter, who’s not yet formally announced his re-election plans but has a campaign up and running. Also in the race are independents Jana Kemp and “Pro-Life;” Republicans Sharon Ullman, Rex Rammell, and Ron “Pete” Peterson; and Democrat Lee R. Chaney Sr.

Cenarrusa to speak, sign memoir

Pete Cenarrusa, Idaho’s longest-serving elected official, is turning 92 and has released his memoirs, “Bizkaia to Boise: The Memoirs of Pete T. Cenarrusa.” The longtime Idaho secretary of state and former lawmaker and speaker of the House will hold a book signing on Wednesday, from 5 to 7 p.m., at the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, 611 Grove St. At 6 p.m., the event will feature remarks by Cenarrusa and by three former AP reporters who covered his career, Quane Kenyon, Mark Warbis and Bob Fick. Copies of the new book will be available for $20, with all proceeds going to the Cenarrusa Foundation for Basque Culture.

In 2003, Cenarrusa and his wife, Freda, helped establish the Basque Studies Program at BSU; and he recently donated his papers to BSU’s Albertsons Library. The library is currently showcasing an exhibit on Cenarrusa in its second-floor Special Collections window display boxes.

A plan to cut taxes?

AP reporter John Miller reported over the weekend that three House Republicans are working on legislation to cut Idaho’s individual and corporate income tax rates, even as the state struggles to balance its budget in the face of falling tax revenues at the existing rates. House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, and Reps. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, and Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, are working up the plan; click below to read the full AP story.

Wheeler resigns from Common Interest board

Former House Resources Committee Chairman Cameron Wheeler, R-Ririe, now a state Fish & Game commissioner, resigned from the board of The Common Interest yesterday after founder Keith Allred told him he was running for governor as a Democrat. “Common Interest was nonpartisan, and that was the beauty of it,” Wheeler said. “So when Keith put a D in front of his name, honestly, I’m appointed by Butch Otter to the Fish & Game Commission, so it put me in a tough spot. So I figured the only thing to do that was honorable was to resign, and Keith understood that, he was very comfortable with it.”

Wheeler said he’s still a fan of The Common Interest idea, which sought to get citizens more involved in their government to promote common interests, as opposed to special interests. “I thought his concept was good and it made a lot of sense to me,” he said. “I always believed there was solutions to public policy and there’s better ways of doing it.” As for Allred, Wheeler said, “He’s a sharp, intelligent person, and I’m sure this is a well thought-out decision.” He added, “I think he had some influence, I think he did some good things. I wouldn’t have been on the board if I didn’t believe in his concepts and in Keith himself.”

The big news in Idaho politics…

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on Keith Allred’s filing to run for governor today, which stunned Idaho’s political establishment. Allred’s been distinctly nonpartisan in his political activity to date. Now, he’s filed as a Democrat to run against GOP Gov. Butch Otter.

Allred’s message to Common Interest members

Keith Allred has sent a long, heartfelt letter to the 1,500-plus members of The Common Interest, the good-government citizens group he founded, explaining why he’s decided to run for governor. In the letter, he says he initially wasn’t inclined to run, “because the vision that I’m so passionate about is so non-partisan, my strong inclination was that this was not the right path.” However, he said Democratic Party official Betty Richardson told him the party expected him to “campaign and govern just as I had led The Common Interest. She said that it was that work that attracted the party to me as a candidate and that they didn’t want me to change that. Rather, she said, the party wanted to embrace that approach. Honestly, this was a surprise to me.”

Allred said in later discussions, “party leader after party leader expressed great respect for what we have accomplished at The Common Interest and genuine enthusiasm for me campaigning and governing that way.”

Allred announced the formation of the group in February of 2005, joined by former Sen. Marguerite McLaughlin, D-Orofino, and former Sen. Laird Noh, R-Kimberly. The group, they said, was designed to counter a trend that saw politicians getting more and more extreme and polarized at both ends of the political spectrum, while regular citizens were actually getting more moderate, creating a disconnect between voters and their elected representatives. The group promised to reconnect voters; it asked prospective members for no membership fees, but instead to commit to voting in the primary and general elections and giving an hour of their time to research an issue.

After reviewing the members’ research, the group voted on its most important issues, and when there was a strong majority, the group took positions and Allred lobbied for them in the Legislature. He had notable successes, including enactment of his proposal to tie the homeowner’s exemption from property taxes to ups and downs in the real estate market. The Common Interest also worked for election reform, open meetings, and fairness to both motorists and truckers in state transportation policy; it was Allred who, while researching transportation legislation, discovered a $10 million calculation error in one of Gov. Butch Otter’s main bills last year and alerted the administration. The bill never ended up passing. Last year, the group backed an increase in beer and wine taxes to fund substance abuse treatment, but the bill died after heavy lobbying from opponents including the beer and wine industry, restaurants and retailers.

Click below to read Allred’s full letter to Common Interest members.

Latest employment data fuels optimism

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the promising economic news unveiled today by Gov. Butch Otter’s chief economist, Mike Ferguson. He told the Boise City Club that new, not-yet-published labor data shows that Idaho’s non-farm unemployment levels, which have been sliding, ended their fall in October, and actually showed a slight increase from October to November. “If this holds, this is the bottom,” Ferguson said.

Idaho Dems ‘delighted’ Allred’s running

The Idaho Democratic Party, in a news release, expressed “delight” over the decision by citizen activist and Harvard professor and mediator Keith Allred to run for governor as a Democrat, and said he’s expected to formally announce his candidacy next week. “He will be an outstanding candidate and would make a fine governor,” said former Gov. Cecil Andrus, who will be Allred’s honorary campaign chairman. “Keith will immediately be a credible, serious candidate.”

Bethine Church, a party icon and widow of Sen. Frank Church, said, “I think we can expect one of the liveliest campaigns we’ve seen in years.” Party Chairman Keith Roark said, “We’ll have to wait and see if anyone else files, but this is a great start. Keith Allred is a proven problem solver, someone who can bring people together. He will bring energy, enthusiasm and a new perspective to the race. And most importantly, this is someone who would be an outstanding governor for Idaho.” You can read the party’s full news release here.

Ed Board votes 5-1 to waive 10 percent cap on tuition hikes for one year

Idaho’s State Board of Education has voted 5-1 to waive its 10 percent cap on tuition and fee increases for state colleges and universities for one year. The lone dissenter was board member Ken Edmunds. We know this thanks to the very efficient Twitter posts of board spokesman Mark Browning, who has been sending up-to-the-minute tweets all day on the action at the State Board meeting in Twin Falls. The move is designed to allow flexibility for colleges and universities as they plan for next year in the face of state budget cuts and swelling college enrollments.

Earlier, the board voted unanimously to approve a deal with J.R. Simplot Co. to save the Parma university extension research center; extension centers at Sandpoint and Tetonia are now guaranteed funding through June 30, the end of the current fiscal year. All three were threatened by budget cuts.

Otter campaign: Incumbent guv ‘not focused’ on upcoming race

Asked for its response to Keith Allred filing initial paperwork today to challenge Gov. Butch Otter in 2010, Otter’s re-election campaign issued the following statement:

“With the Legislature convening in about a month, the Governor is working on finalizing his state budget and preparing his State of the State address.  He is focused on his efforts to energize the state economy by creating more career-path jobs for Idahoans, right-sizing state government so its more efficient and responsive to the people and protecting our state sovereignty from an ever-expanding federal government.  He is not focused on who the Democrats may or may not get to run against him next year.”

Some good economic news…

Mike Ferguson, Gov. Butch Otter’s chief economist, had some rare good economic news today: In a presentation to the Boise City Club, he said the most recent data suggests Idaho has hit bottom and is ready to begin emerging from the current recession. “What we’ve seen is a pretty abrupt decline, but I think we are now seeing evidence that we have hit the bottom,” Ferguson said. The new data from the U.S. Department of Labor suggests that after being hit much harder than most states by the downturn, Idaho’s employment decline stopped in October. The data, he said, “shows something that’s very heartening to me, and that is that we have very abruptly hit the bottom. … That is substantial.” He added, “It’s not time to pop the corks on the champagne bottles yet, but if we continue to see this decline arrested, I think we’ll be shifting from ‘when are we going to hit the bottom’ to ‘What is the path out of this?’”

Bob Maynard, chief investment officer for the state’s PERSI retirement fund, who spoke after Ferguson, said, “That’s the most optimistic I’ve heard Mike in a couple of years.”

Allred has filed

Keith Allred has filed his initial paperwork to explore a run for governor as a Democrat, taking on GOP Gov. Butch Otter. Former state Rep. Margaret Henbest is his campaign treasurer. “In working with him in the Legislature with the Common Interest, I have great respect for his approach, and I think in many ways it mirrored how I functioned in the Legislature in terms of a bipartisan, centrist, what’s the best solution to the problem, not looking at necessarily the political drivers but what was best for the state,” Henbest said. “So I was ecstatic to hear that he was going to run and happy to support his campaign.”

She said, “He’s a centrist candidate and I think that the governor has struggled to complete or make progress on issues that are important to him. I think there is an opportunity there.” She added, “This is going to be exciting.”

Otter names ‘Mommie Dearest’ author to Benewah County Commission

Actress and author Christina Crawford, daughter of actress Joan Crawford and author of the book “Mommie Dearest,” has been appointed to the Benewah County Commission by Gov. Butch Otter.

Otter named Crawford, who now operates the Seven Springs Country Inn near Tensed and who has served on the Benewah County Soil and Water Conservation Board, to fill the county commission vacancy created by the death of Commissioner Terry Doupe of DeSmet on Nov. 22. Like Doupe, Crawford is a Democrat; she joins commissioners Jack Buell and N.L. “Bud” McCall on the three-member commission.

Crawford, whose best-selling 1978 memoir told of abuse by her adoptive mother, has a master’s degree in communication management from the University of Southern California. She is a former executive for the Coeur d’Alene Hotel & Casino, has written several other books and is a former television show host.

Allred looking at governor’s race

Keith Allred, founder of the non-partisan The Common Interest citizen group in Idaho and a Harvard professor and mediator, is expected to file initial paperwork today to begin exploring a run for governor of Idaho as a Democrat. “He is not a candidate because he hasn’t filed his C1 yet,” said Betty Richardson, chair of the Idaho Democratic Party’s candidate recruitment committee. “However, I would expect that a filing will take place later today.”

Richardson said she’d been talking with Allred and his wife, Christine, “rather intensely” for the past two weeks. “Over the last five months since the committee was formed, we talked to a number of individuals, and I think we got the best person we could possibly get to be on the brink of throwing his hat into the ring. There will be others, and the voters will decide who the nominee is at the time of the primary election. But speaking for myself right now, I do think Keith will make a simply outstanding candidate and a tremendous governor.”

Allred couldn’t immediately be reached for comment; no paperwork has yet been filed, according to the Idaho Secretary of State’s office. Allred has made a name for himself in Idaho politics as a neutral, nonpartisan voice who brought together people from all sides to work on public-interest issues, from reforming Idaho’s primary election system to open meetings. Said Richardson, “I’ve never recruited somebody who I didn’t think could do a great job if they were elected, and in this instance I feel such a sense of certainty. … I’m very hopeful. I really love this state and I want to see that it has good leadership, and I think Keith can provide the leadership it is currently lacking in the governor’s office.” Reporter Jill Kuraitis of NewWest.net broke the news this morning; here’s a link to her full story.

State Ed Board to consider waiving 10% cap on tuition hikes

Idaho’s State Board of Education will decide tomorrow whether to temporarily waive its rule that caps tuition and fee increases for state colleges and universities at 10 percent a year. It’s not that any school has proposed a larger increase; the board is being proactive and taking up the issue long before tuition for next year will be set in April. Board spokesman Mark Browning said the idea is to decide early whether the state’s higher education institutions should have more flexibility on that issue as they contemplate next year’s budget in a time of sharp state budget cuts and fast-growing student populations. This year, tuition and fee increases ranged from 7 percent at Lewis-Clark State College to 5 percent at Boise State University.

The board imposed the 10 percent cap out of concern that increases were getting out of hand in the early part of the decade, Browning said. But there’s also concern about cutting college offerings when enrollment is swelling. “It’s a very tough balancing act for the board,” he said.

‘Hope I can bring a little gender diversity’

Jan Vassar is the first woman to serve on the Idaho Transportation Board since it was established in 1974, and also since its predecessor board, the Board of Highway Directors, was established in 1951, a distinction she called “pretty amazing.” No women have previously served on either panel, according to ITD. Asked about his historic appointment of the first woman to the board, Gov. Butch Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian, said, “The governor looked at it in terms of finding the best person for the job. … He was interested in finding the best person, and he feels he has.”

Vassar said, “In my position, I’ve been the first woman or the only woman oftentimes in the room, but I feel like I’ve been afforded respect and consideration for my viewpoints. I’m excited. I hope I can bring a little gender diversity.”

Why the short time period for appointment…

Jon Hanian, Gov. Butch Otter’s press secretary, says Otter didn’t have the option of appointing Jan Vassar to a full six-year term on the Idaho Transportation Board now. “The way it works is we have a vacancy, we have to fill that vacancy,” Hanian said. “The term goes with the vacant seat, and the Bruce Sweeney seat happens to expire at the end of January.” He added, “He couldn’t just go ahead and appoint her for the next term before the first one expires.”

Of course, the governor could have announced that he planned to do so. He also could have left the position vacant until the end of January and made the appointment then, Hanian said, but the governor’s had lots of inquiries about when he’d fill the vacant seat for the Lewiston region on the board. Vassar will “go through the process of consideration for reappointment just like any other candidate who had been there for the whole term,” Hanian said. The appointment also requires Senate confirmation, which  might not occur until after the full-term appointment is made.

Vassar: ‘Big shoes to fill’

Jan Vassar, newly appointed member of the Idaho Transportation Board, said she was interviewed by Lt. Gov. Brad Little and members of Gov. Butch Otter’s staff, but hasn’t yet gotten a chance to speak with the governor himself. “So I can understand why he might want to get to know who I am,” she said,  before deciding whether to appoint her to a full six-year term on the board.

For now, Vassar will serve out the remainder of the late Bruce Sweeney’s term, which runs through the end of January. “We’ve had two strong district representatives in Bruce Sweeney and Mike Mitchell and they’re big shoes to fill,” Vassar said. “I would like to contribute if I can.”
    
Vassar currently serves on ITD’s public transportation advisory council, and when she was city manager for Lewiston from 1992 to 2006, she supervised both the city’s transportation program and the airport, along with police, fire, parks, community development and public works. “So I felt like I had some background and maybe some talent I could bring to the position, hopefully,” she said. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from Washington State University. Prior to becoming city manager in Lewiston, Vassar was director of administrative services, executive assistant to the city manager, and city clerk.

Otter names Lewiston woman to Idaho Transportation Board - for now

Gov. Butch Otter has appointed Jan Vassar, former longtime city manager of Lewiston, to the Idaho Transportation Board, the first woman ever to serve on the board. However, Otter appointed Vassar only to fill out the remaining term of the late Bruce Sweeney, the Lewiston board member and former state senator who died in August. Sweeney’s term expires at the end of January 2010, which means Vassar, at this point, has been appointed to serve for just seven and a half weeks. Transportation board terms last six years. Otter’s office said in a press release, “The Governor will decide later whether to reappoint Vassar to the Board for a full six-year term.”

Otter praised Vassar, saying, “I’m pleased that Jan is joining us in the work of maintaining and improving our essential state infrastructure. Her experience with handling budgets, managing employees, overseeing construction and being entrusted with the people’s money will be a great asset to the Transportation Board.”

The board is currently being sued by former state Transportation Director Pam Lowe for wrongful termination, in a lawsuit that includes allegations of sex discrimination in her firing. Lowe was the department’s first-ever female director.

Cure for stress: Idaho vacation

Last spring, Idaho issued a call in Seattle for nominations for a “stressed-out” family member who could use an Idaho vacation. Julie Lumpkin nominated her hard-working husband, Toby, and the couple and their two young children beat out more than 50 other contestants to win a 10-day Idaho vacation. Now, the Lumpkin family’s Idaho adventure, from river rafting, horseback riding and fishing to golf, bicycling and sightseeing has been captured in a reality show-style video that the state will use for a tourism marketing campaign it’ll launch this spring

State Tourism Director Karen Ballard said the project filled a void in “video assets” for the state’s tourism promotion efforts, and snippets from it will be used for a variety of tourism promotions. For the Lumpkins, it was an idyllic vacation with their 9- and 7-year-old kids. In the video, Julie Lumpkin says of her husband, “I think he was wound as tight as a drum when we first left Seattle - now, he’s starting to relax.” Her husband adds, “It’s been one of the most rewarding things we’ve ever done as a family.”

State tourism officials are unveiling the video during their annual “tourism tour,” a series of meetings around the state with Idaho tourism business operators and organizations, including one in Post Falls today and one in Boise on Dec. 15th.

Promoting the state on a high-tech shoestring

With one of the lowest budgets for promoting tourism among states – but with a $3 billion tourist industry seen as key to the state’s ailing economy – Idaho is turning to high-tech tools and tricks to help market the state. The state’s Division of Tourism is beta-testing a new technology from a Sandpoint firm that enables prospective visitors to virtually fly over the state, checking out attractions, lodging and scenery along the route as they go. “We feel we have technology that will really help the state attract more visitors and help the tourism businesses attract more visitors,” said Mark Williams, CEO of GeoData Technologies.

Idaho’s also using new 360-degree panoramic photography on its tourism Web site, exploring an iPhone app and planning a campaign for spring around the reality show-style story of a stressed-out Seattle family that won a free Idaho vacation. “People don’t know about Idaho, and we don’t have the funding to get the traditional advertising out there,” said Idaho’s Division of Tourism administrator, Karen Ballard. “If we can use this online visual world, where you get the visuals of who and what we are, we’re all for that.” You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Unload the Guv’s mansion?

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — After spending $310,000 in private donations to remodel and furnish the governor’s mansion, a five-member panel is now investigating whether to unload the vacant hilltop home. The Governor’s Housing Committee decided late Monday to spend two months gathering information about the advantages of keeping the place — or putting it on the market. There’s little parking, electricity bills are exorbitant and the steep, narrow drive makes access tricky — especially when it snows. And so far, no governor has ever lived there.

The late J.R. Simplot donated the home in 2004 and Idaho must give the potato mogul’s surviving family the right of first refusal, though at market prices. Though empty, it is being used for state meetings and even private events. Otter and his wife may occasionally stay there, when they don’t want to drive back to their private residence west of Boise, though they’ve not done so yet.

Labrador fires back at Jorgenson

Rep. Raul Labrador fired back at Sen. Mike Jorgenson’s criticisms of him on immigration, saying he’s working with Rep. Phil Hart on an immigration bill now that “would actually penalize employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens,” among other provisions. Jorgenson criticized Labrador for voting against SB 1157 in 2007, a successful bill sponsored by Sen. John McGee to require anyone receiving public benefits in Idaho to first prove legal residency; the bill passed the House on a 47-21 vote. “The problem with that bill was the report at the time was that it was not going to do anything, and it was going to cost the state money,” Labrador said. “The federal law already said that you cannot give benefits to illegal aliens. So it was a law that was not necessary.”

Jorgenson also said, “He has not been supportive on anything that would enforce immigration in the state of Idaho. … The fact that he represents and works for industries that are pro-amnesty is wrong.”

Labrador responded, “That’s the problem with Jorgenson right now, is that he has no clout in the Senate, he killed his own bill in his own committee by not knowing what the bill included, and then he blames other people for his ineptitude.” Labrador said Jorgenson wanted to require Idaho employers to use the “e-Verify” system to screen potential employees for legal residency, but “that’s a violation of the federal law, of the e-Verify law. The e-Verify says that you cannot use it for screening. … E-Verify is supposed to be once you hire an employee.”

Labrador said he thinks the dispute between the two lawmakers goes back to the fight over the gas tax in last year’s legislative session, when Labrador was an outspoken opponent of Gov. Butch Otter’s proposal to raise the tax to fund road work. “Jorgenson was one of the great supporters of the gas tax, and he was upset, very upset when we could not pass a gas tax in the House,” Labrador said. “And he and some of his friends had decided that this is the way to get back at me because he wanted to raise taxes in the middle of a recession and I would not support that.” Click below to read Jorgenson’s full press release calling on Labrador to withdraw from the congressional race.

‘We welcome Raul to the race’

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on today’s developments in the 1st District congressional race, in which Rep. Raul Labrador formally entered the GOP primary race while Sen. Mike Jorgenson called on him to withdraw. Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, backs GOP rival Vaughn Ward, whose campaign issued a statement late today saying, in part, “We welcome Raul to the race and look forward to discussing the issues that are important to Idahoans and our differences on those issues, including illegal immigration.”

When Labrador made his announcement in Coeur d’Alene, he was introduced by Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, and supporters included Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, who was part of a gathering of about 20 backers at the Coeur d’Alene resort. Labrador said he’ll be campaigning in Coeur d’Alene for the next three days. A retired Boise physician, Allan Salzberg, also has said he’ll run in the GOP primary. Idaho’s primary election is May 25.

Rep. Clark: ‘A strong conservative’

As the candidates in the GOP primary race for the 1st CD continue to try to out-conservative each other, Rep. Raul Labrador’s campaign has put out a statement from “Conservative Representative Jim Clark,” a Hayden Lake Republican and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, backing Labrador in his race against Iraq war veteran Vaughn Ward, whose Web site touts “conservative Republican values.” Here’s Clark’s statement:

“I am extremely encouraged by today’s announcement that my colleague and fellow conservative Raul Labrador is running for Congress in Idaho’s First Congressional District. I have known Raul for some time and have served with him in the Idaho Legislature and I have seen firsthand what a strong and principled conservative Raul is. When Raul was first elected to the Idaho House of Representatives, I looked into his background, education, and legal experience and came away with the belief that he was a strong conservative and a good leader.  I was proud to serve with him on my committee and his voting record has been nothing but conservative. Whether the issue is taxes, protecting the sanctity of life, fighting to reduce the size and cost of government, or immigration, Raul Labrador has been there in the trenches fighting for conservative values and I am confident that, if elected to Congress, he will continue to stand up for conservative principles in Washington.”

Number of times the statement contains the word ‘conservative’: Six.

Lawmakers, activist back Labrador

Among those posing for pictures with Raul Labrador after his 1st CD announcement this morning were several other lawmakers who are supporting him: Sens. Russ Fulcher and Shirley McKague, both Meridian Republicans; and Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise. “I’m supporting my House colleague. I think he chose some very good words to describe his campaign, ‘proven conservative leadership,’” Bayer said. “I think he has all the credentials, I think he makes a wonderful candidate.” Added GOP activist and former state Sen. Rod Beck: “He has taken some tough shots for the conservative cause.” Beck said he wouldn’t switch his allegiance if former Congressman Bill Sali decided to enter the race. “He just waited too long,” Beck said. “I wouldn’t change now. I’m with Raul.”

GOP lawmakers clash on immigration

Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, put out a press release this morning calling on Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, to withdraw from the 1st District congressional race, just as the GOP candidate was formally announcing his candidacy. “Raul Labrador is an immigration attorney and admits to defending illegal immigrants in his law practice,” Jorgenson declared in his release. “His pro-illegal immigrant stances are wrong for Idaho taxpayers and Idaho’s unemployed.” Asked why he sent out the release, Jorgenson said, “The fact that he’s running for the 1st Congressional District and I have very strong feelings against what his established record is in that area.” Jorgenson has been the sponsor of several unsuccessful anti-immigration bills in the Legislature focused on Idaho employers. “I’ve had many debates and discussions with Raul Labrador and I do know his history on this,” Jorgenson said.

Labrador, asked about the Hayden Lake senator’s move during his Boise announcement, didn’t mince words. “You know, Sen. Jorgenson is usually a person who doesn’t have a lot of friends,” Labrador said. “So I wouldn’t worry too much about what Sen. Jorgenson has to say.”

He added, “The immigration issue is one of the most important issues facing America today, and we have a broken immigration system, and I’m the only candidate in this race who actually understands the immigration issue, because I’m actually somebody who has actually studied it and worked on it for many years. We have to have a system where amnesty is not the solution, but we have to have a way that we can solve the immigration problem, and there’s good, conservative ways that we can solve this problem.”

After his announcement, Labrador told reporters three things are needed to fix the immigration system: 1 - Enforce our current immigration laws; 2 - Put more law enforcement officers at the border and “give them the resources they need to do their job;” and 3 - “We need to have a guest worker program that works … without amnesty, a guest worker program that puts American workers first.”

Said Jorgenson, “My concern is, to me he’s demonstrated his position on this issue. I don’t want him as a representative for me in a federal office.” Jorgenson has endorsed Vaughn Ward in the GOP primary for the 1st CD.

Be careful out there…

It’s been snowing like mad on and off all morning in Boise, and some roads are slick. But here’s the odd thing: It’s sunny up at Bogus Basin, our local ski resort, which still doesn’t have enough snow to open. That’s not how it’s supposed to work!

Labrador announces for 1st CD

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, formally announced his candidacy for the 1st District congressional seat this morning, to a loudly cheering crowd in the rather cramped third-floor lobby of the Capitol Annex. Labrador, a second-term state representative who was an outspoken opponent last session of Gov. Butch Otter’s proposals to raise gas taxes and car registration fees to fund road work, declared, “I will fight to protect your liberty and freedom from an ever-expanding federal government,” and said, “Now is not the time to send an unproven person to Washington.” He’s entering a GOP primary race that already includes Vaughn Ward, an Iraq war veteran who’s been campaigning hard for months and has rolled up big fundraising numbers; state Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, dropped out of the race last month. The target: First-term Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick, an incumbent who already has raised far more than any of the Republicans for his re-election bid.

Former GOP Rep. Bill Sali, whom Minnick defeated in 2008, has also said he’s considering a comeback bid but remains undecided. Labrador said he’s running regardless of what Sali does. “Bill Sali’s a good friend,” he said. “I will allow Bill Sali to make his own decision. … What I’m going to do is I’d fight to win this race.” Labrador said jobs and the economy are his top issue; he heads to Coeur d’Alene this afternoon for a similar announcement.

Not a campaign ad…

The TV commercial features images of women over 40, transforming into a large pink ribbon that fills the screen. “185,000! That’s the estimated number of women who will be told they have breast cancer this year,” a narrator intones. “Early detection is key to survival, which is why getting screened regularly is so important.” Then Idaho Congressman Walt Minnick appears, introduces himself, and says, “If you’re over 40, I urge you to call your doctor or health care provider to schedule your annual mammogram.”

What with the widespread controversy over a panel’s new report urging against annual mammograms for women between 40 and 50, and with the Obama Administration still officially calling for the annual screenings, was Minnick taking sides on what’s become a hot-button issue for women nationwide?

Not exactly - the commercial, which has been airing occasionally in Idaho, is a public service announcement that Minnick actually taped last May for the National Association of Broadcasters, long before the new report. Minnick also taped another spot at the same time about diabetes, and he recently taped one about H1N1 flu. Other members of Congress have done the same; the association provides the spots to local TV stations to run if they choose.

“They’re really apolitical, innocuous,” said John Foster, Minnick’s press secretary. “The whole point of a PSA is just a friendly reminder to people about an important issue, and this is clearly an important issue to a lot of women and to a lot of men whose spouses have family histories. It’s just a nice way to remind people and offer a public service.” Foster said Minnick stands by the ad, and he noted that despite the news about new recommendations, “The existing guidelines still stand.”

A snowy day in the foothills…

Awoke this morning to three inches of fluffy new snow, arousing excitement in this household about possible skiing soon. However, we soon learned it was a localized phenomenon - Bogus Basin, where it’s 1 degree this morning, got only half an inch, and most locations around the city got less than an inch, though it was enough to cause a flurry of weather-related accidents during the morning commute. Here in the Boise foothills, it’s a snowy scene, enough to require shoveling - or, possibly, creativity: It’s so light and fluffy that one neighbor has brought out his leaf-blower to clear some of the snow from his driveway.

Retired postal inspector convicted, sentenced for mail misuse

A retired senior postal inspector who held a high position with the Postal Service in San Francisco was sentenced in federal court in Boise today for mailing 64 separate parcels containing everything from his golf clubs to a microwave oven to Boise, where he had purchased a home last summer and was retiring, without paying postage on the parcels. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the inspector, Gregory Staisiunas, 50, sent the parcels via registered mail using “penalty cover” labels that showed postage and fees had been paid; those labels were supposed to be only for official government mail. He also admitted sending liquor and ammunition through the mail, which is illegal. Convicted of two misdemeanors and five petty infractions, Staisiunas was sentenced to $2,504 in restitution for the unpaid postage, $13,944.57 in fines and 200 hours of community service. Click below to read the full news release from the Idaho U.S. Attorney’s office.

Speaker: Get ‘er done quick

House Speaker Lawerence Denney has sent a memo out to all House committee chairs and vice-chairs asking them to take steps to wrap up the upcoming legislative session by April 1 to help the state save money. Denney told Eye on Boise he’s “trying to encourage people to keep this session as short as possible, because with the holdbacks, we’re going to be, I think, fairly tight as well.” It costs an estimated $30,000 for every day the Legislature is in session; last year’s session went 117 days, the second-longest session in state history, and wrapped up on May 8. If this year’s session, which begins Jan. 11, ended March 31st, it’d be an 80-day session.

In late September, Gov. Butch Otter ordered $99 million in mid-year budget holdbacks, including a “suggested” 5 percent holdback on expenses for the House and Senate. In his memo, Denney said the House “will participate in that.” Click below to read the memo.

Sen. Stennett names temporary sub

Sen. Clint Stennett, D-Ketchum, announced today that his wife, Michelle, will sub for him for the first part of this year’s legislative session. Stennett missed last year’s session while undergoing treatment for brain cancer; former Sun Valley Mayor Jon Thorson filled in for him. Thorson had also filled in for Stennett for a week the previous year, when he underwent surgery for the cancer.

Stennett said in a statement that his tumors are gone and he recently completed his final chemotherapy treatment, but his recovery is delaying his return. “I am so grateful to be looking forward on this journey and must keep my health and wellness as my focus,” he said. “In the meantime, I am confident that Michelle will do a great job representing District 25. She travels the area with me and has a clear understanding of the issues affecting our communities.” He added,  “I thank the people of my district and this state for their prayers and good wishes on my behalf.” Click below to read his full news release.

Now everyone under 65 can get H1N1 vaccine

Idaho public health officials have decided to open up the H1N1 swine flu vaccine to everyone under age 65 immediately, including healthy adults. This after vaccines through the season thus far have been limited to specific high-risk groups; the flu strain has contributed to the deaths of 17 Idahoans so far. Click below for details from the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare. People 65 and over will be able to get the vaccine in the coming weeks, the department said.

More bad economic news: Idaho’s ‘job gap’ is growing

Anyone who was lucky enough to find a job in Washington or Idaho in 2008 likely ended up with one that doesn’t pay enough to support a family, according to a new study out today. The Northwest Job Gap study, which the Northwest Confederation of Community Organizations has sponsored each year or two since 1999, calculated that a living wage for a single adult with two children in Washington was $28.67 an hour, and 77 percent of job openings last year didn’t pay that much. In Idaho, the figure was $26.98 an hour, and 89 percent of job openings fell short.

Not only that, the report noted that since the 2008 figures were gathered, the situation’s worsened considerably, with the number of job seekers in Colorado, Idaho, Oregon and Washington nearly doubling. And the percentages of jobs whose wages fall short have grown substantially since a similar study in 2004. “Due to the economic conditions, things are not getting better - they’re getting worse,” said Boise economist Don Reading. “There are fewer jobs available. They’re paying lower wages.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Semanko gets RNC budget seat

Idaho GOP Chairman Norm Semanko has been tabbed for a seat on the Republican National Committee’s budget committee, which state party executive director Jonathan Parker said “other than the executive committee, is the most influential committee on the RNC.” The budget seat previously had been held by Blake Hall as Idaho’s national committeeman for the party; Hall resigned the national committeeman post after his conviction last month on stalking charges in Idaho Falls. The state party has three positions on the RNC, for its chairman, national committeeman and national committeewoman, a post that’s long been held by Cindy Moyle. The state GOP central committee will vote on how to fill the vacant national committeeman seat, which Hall had held since 1990, at its Jan. 9 meeting.

Risch: Afghanistan puzzle is a ‘Rubik’s cube on steroids’

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch described the situation in Afghanistan as “a Rubik’s cube on steroids” this morning while participating in a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in which committee members questioned Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Michael Mullen about the Obama Administration’s new Afghanistan strategy. “As polarized as this country is … this is an issue that we all really, really need to pull together on,” Risch said. “There are no good choices. There are only choices to be made that are in the best interest of the American people.”

Risch asked whether the officials had considered speeding up the troop withdrawal from Iraq beyond the schedule the president already has announced; they said no. “I’d encourage that we keep an eye on that,” Risch said. He also questioned whether the July 2011 date the administration has set for beginning to pull troops back out of Afghanistan, after a 2010 buildup of 30,000 additional troops, is a “hard date” rather than a target. Gates responded that it’s a “firm date that the president has established” for beginning troop withdrawals, but said, “The pace of that withdrawal … will be conditions-based.”

Mullen noted, “This date has also been described as arbitrary - it’s not arbitrary at all.” The date marks the third summer that Marines will be in the Helmand province, he said. At that point, “We will have a clear indication which way this is going.”

No Idaho roads fix this year…

The governor’s transportation funding task force has wrapped up its third all-day meeting, but it won’t be proposing any road fixes in the upcoming Idaho legislative session. The panel set its next meeting for Feb. 18th. “They’re not going to propose anything for this legislative session in terms of revenue increases, but they are going to use the legislative session as a task force and with the Senate and House transportation committees to do some more work,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, a task force member. The group still is struggling to define the need, and bogged down today on questions of whether needs are being uniformly defined. Though the task force was scheduled to come up with proposed revenue-raising concepts for discussion at its next meeting, “We didn’t get there,” Keough said. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

POST chief fired, no reason given

The head of Idaho’s POST Academy was fired on Nov. 5, the AP reports today, and the state didn’t publicly acknowledge the dismissal until the Associated Press inquired about it this morning. Jeff Black, executive director of the academy and a former longtime state trooper, had been on leave since Sept. 29 and is contesting his firing; below is the full AP story.

Tamarack lawyer quitting for lack of pay; bad sign for season startup

The Associated Press is reporting that the lawyer for Tamarack Resort, Steve Millemann, has asked a 4th District judge for permission to withdraw because the resort “no longer has funds available” to pay him. That’s not a good sign for efforts by homeowners at the resort who are trying to arrange for the ski lifts to open this winter. Below is the full story from AP.

Labrador plans Monday announcement

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, said today that he’ll announce his candidacy for the 1st District congressional seat on Monday, with announcements in Boise and Coeur d’Alene. Already in the GOP primary race is Iraq war veteran Vaughn Ward; state Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, dropped out of the race on Nov. 10, at which time Labrador said he planned to jump into the race in about a week. Ward, who’s making his first run for office, has been campaigning hard for months and had outraised Roberts by four times. Labrador said he’s filed his initial paperwork with the FEC and begun fundraising; you can read his full news release below. The Republicans are vying for a chance to challenge 1st District Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick.

How we’re falling short on roads…

Tom Cole, chief engineer for the Idaho Transportation Department, is presenting figures to the governor’s task force on how much the state is falling behind on preservation and restoration of state and  local roads and bridges. If our goal as a state were just to keep the system in the condition it’s in now, he said, we’re short $211 million a year. If our goal is to get away from the “worst-first” approach to fixing roads and start gradually improving their condition, we’re $270 million a year short.

Preservation and restoration, he said, are “the kind of things we do just to keep the roads open,” from fixing potholes and seal-coating roads to plowing snow. It may include some upgrades required to keep roads up to current standards, but not expanding their capacity by adding lanes or anything like that.

Neighbor state found success in light rail funded by local-option tax

Light rail has been a big success in Salt Lake City, transportation consultant Tom Warne told Idaho’s governor’s transportation task force, in response to questioning from panel members including state lawmakers. The system has been largely funded by incremental increases in the sales tax in Salt Lake County, he said; those voter-approved hikes required just simple majority approval. “The ridership numbers are way more than anyone projected. … The public is very, very supportive and likes it.” He added, “Now, transit never makes money - nor do highways, for that matter. … But the fact is that people like it enough that they want to support it and continue subsidizing it.”

What Utah did…

The governor’s transportation funding task force got an overview of a “Utah case study,” looking at what that state did to increase transportation funding. It started with a year and a half-long “growth summit” in 1995, which involved citizens across the state in envisioning how best the state should cope with growth. A statewide poll found that 48 percent of Utahns felt that roads were Utah’s No. 1 growth problem. Eventually, the state developed the Centennial Highway Fund, to complete 41 specific highway projects statewide. It was funded by a 5 cent gas tax increase, a large federal transportation funding increase that came through at the time, billions in state general funds, millions in local contributions, and a state sale of billions in general obligation bonds. It covered a 10-year building program.

“It had very specific projects, and it had a lot of local support,” consultant Tom Warne, former Utah transportation director, told the task force. “At the end of the day this was a very bought-into project by the Legislature … supported by the Legislature and the governor.” Plus, he noted that the process that developed the plan was “very engaging for the public.” He said, “Citizens are willing to pay for transportation if there is a plan that includes projects, a schedule and a limit on the tax increase.”

Most states holding off on transportation funding hikes due to budget shortfalls

Transportation consultant Tom Warne is now reviewing what other states are doing to solve their transportation funding problems: Rental car fees - sometimes very significant ones; sales tax increases; tolls; vehicle taxes; state and local gas tax hikes; and more. However, more than half of states experienced negative budget growth in fiscal year 2009, he noted, which meant they were struggling for money in general. “Most states are very hesitant about doing anything with transportation funding in this climate,” Warne said.

The governor’s transportation funding task force has been charged by Gov. Butch Otter to report back by December of 2010 - that’s a full year away, and after the next election.

Little new fed transportation funding likely to arrive from Congress

The next transportation funding bill to pass Congress likely won’t bring much of a bump to Idaho in funding, transportation consultant Tom Warne told Gov. Butch Otter’s task force on transportation funding this morning. The bill likely won’t be for as many years as past transportation bills, possibly only covering two years, and it will include more regulation and new requirements on ITD, he said. “I don’t see a significant increase in federal funding, honestly. There might be a little tweak.” He added, “I think you probably can’t rely on them to solve your problems.”

Idaho relies on feds for transportation money

Idaho ranks 12th in the nation for relying on federal aid to fund its transportation program, according to transportation consultant Tom Warne, at 52 percent. State fuel tax supplies 26 percent, and registration fees, 13 percent. The least reliant states are Wyoming, 13 percent, and Oregon, 17 percent.

Expert: Toll roads won’t work in Idaho

Toll roads are among the top proposals supported by the Obama Administration for increasing transportation funding, transportation consultant Tom Warne told Gov. Butch Otter’s transportation task force, but, he said, “There are places like Idaho and Utah where there’s probably limited opportunity for toll roads, let’s just be honest. … That’s just not going to work.”

Overall, he said, “The most important message I can share with any state leaders is that they cannot rely on the federal government to solve their transportation problems. Each state must take control of its own transportation future.”

‘Huge need to invest in transportation’

Gov. Butch Otter’s transportation task force has opened its third meeting this morning, with a full house. First up is a presentation from Tom Warne, former director of the Utah Department of Transportation and now a transportation consultant, on the regional and national transportation funding picture. “I’m not here to tell you how Idaho should do this,” he told the group. “There are decisions you’ll have to make as elected officials.”

He noted some stats: From 1990 to 2007, Idaho’s population grew 48.6 percent, its vehicle miles traveled grew 55 percent, and its roadway capacity grew by just 3.3 percent. Utah’s numbers are similar, and that’s the situation nationwide, he said. “There is this huge need for us to invest in the transportation system just to keep it in a functional condition.”

Idaho delegation urges support for troops after Afghanistan announcement

All four members of Idaho’s congressional delegation issued statements tonight in response to President Obama’s announcement that he’ll send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. Also, the Idaho Statesman’s Washington, D.C. reporter, Erika Bolstad, reported tonight that the troop buildup drew “grudging respect” from the Idaho delegation; you can read her full story here. Below are the full statements from Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Reps. Walt Minnick and Mike Simpson.

Silver Creek fish OK to eat after all

The Idaho Department of Health & Welfare has lifted a mercury advisory for consuming fish from the famed Silver Creek area near Picabo, after it turned out that test results showing dangerous mercury levels in brown trout from the watershed were in error.  “This is one of Idaho’s premier sport fisheries and is good news for the Silver Creek watershed,” said Jim Vannoy, the environmental health program manager who oversees the Idaho Fish Advisory Program for Health & Welfare. “It was an unfortunate error, but the lab has assured us that they have implemented procedures to prevent this from happening again.” The error was a calculation error by an out-of-state analytical lab following a 2007 sampling of fish from the watershed; it was discovered when the latest test results showed a surprising drop in the mercury levels. Click below to read the full news release from Health & Welfare.
  

An Idaho political story extraordinaire

The recent Idaho Supreme Court decision that brought former seven-term Idaho Congressman George Hansen back into the news - he lost an appeal to get out of repaying hundreds of thousands of dollars to an Idaho couple he swindled in an investment scheme - recalled a remarkable chapter in Idaho’s political history. The former congressman, now 79, retired and living with wife Connie in Pocatello, served time in federal prison for a multimillion-dollar check kiting scheme in the 1990s, after previously going to federal prison for four counts of violating federal ethics laws by falsifying financial disclosure forms while serving in Congress. A crusading congressman who railed against the Internal Revenue Service and made a unilateral trip to Iran in an unsuccessful attempt to negotiate for the freedom of American hostages, Hansen has long contended that the government was out to get him. In 1984, seven months after his conviction on the ethics charges - which later was overturned by a 1995 U.S. Supreme Court decision that modified the law - Hansen narrowly lost his last re-election bid by just 170 votes.

“George Hansen was one of those guys - a really engaging personality, a very effective campaigner, and had some loyalists to the very end despite his financial difficulties and legal problems,” said Boise State University political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby. Hansen, the only sitting congressman ever convicted under the 1978 Ethics in Government Act, lost one of the closest congressional elections in state history at a time when he was on his way to prison. Nine years later, when U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge sentenced Hansen to four years in prison for 45 counts of bank fraud in 1993, the judge said he was stunned that many of Hansen’s victims still supported him - even though they were owed hundreds of thousands of dollars. “I’ve never seen that kind of blind allegiance,” the judge declared.

Hansen, a Republican, was first elected to Idaho’s 2nd District congressional seat in 1964 and served two terms, before losing a challenge to Democratic Sen. Frank Church. He won election to the House seat again in 1974, and won re-election four times before losing to Democrat Richard Stallings in 1984. Hansen’s wife, Connie, ran for the seat in 1986, but came in second in a five-way GOP primary, losing to Idaho Falls Sen. Mel Richardson. Stallings held the seat until he left it in 1992 to run for the U.S. Senate, losing to Republican Dirk Kempthorne, who later served as Idaho’s governor.

Top proposal: Cut pay for the highest-paid

Of the 217 money-saving suggestions Gov. Butch Otter’s “efficiency” Web site had received by yesterday, the runaway winner was a cut in pay for the state’s top-paid officials. “Start with a 5 percent decrease in all executive pay - you too,” wrote William Weiden of Sandpoint. “Work your way down ‘til you hit employees who make less than 35 grand a year.” A Spokesman-Review analysis of the the first two weeks worth of suggestions showed that a pay cut for the highest-paid was the most popular suggestion for coping with the state’s budget crisis, with more than 5 percent of respondents making that proposal.
    
Raising taxes was the next-most popular choice, with five times as many people calling for hikes as for tax cuts. Citizens suggested everything from tax hikes on gas, cigarettes and booze to extending the sales tax to services and online purchases. “We need to tax services,” wrote Donna Pottratz of Hayden. “Women from Spokane come to the Coeur d’Alene Resort and get a $350 day at the spa, and pay not one dime of tax.”

Next-most popular: Consolidating Idaho’s 113 school districts. Wrote Christy Swenson of Rexburg, “I think (it) is silly to have multiple school districts in a small geographic area. I see no need for all the administrative personnel that this requires.”

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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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