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Eye On Boise

Archive for July 2009

How a nice golf course, teen driving helped spur Boise’s high-tech sector

It wasn’t what you might think that made Ray Smelek decide to bring Hewlett-Packard’s printer division to Boise in 1973, launching a high-tech industry in the Idaho capital city that transformed the city’s economy. “From a personal point of view … it seemed like a nice move for our family,” Smelek writes in his new memoir, “Ray Smelek, Making My Own Luck.” There was an attractive golf course. Ski passes were cheap. And the state’s teen driving age of 14, at the time, was highly appealing to Smelek’s kids, who were then aged 7, 10, 12 and 14. (Idaho’s teen driving age is now 15-1/2, still lower than Washington, Oregon and California.) You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Guv’s transportation panel sets first meeting for Aug. 6

Gov. Butch Otter’s transportation task force will hold its first meeting on Aug. 6, next Thursday. The governor’s named the panel his “Task Force on Modernizing Transportation Funding in Idaho.” Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who chairs the task force, said, “Our first meeting will largely be an organizational one, but we intend to make substantial progress this year and return to work after the 2010 legislative session.” I’ll be gone on vacation all next week, so I won’t be covering that one, but I’m interested to hear what comes out of it. I will be back in time for the next meeting of the joint legislative task force that’s trying to fill the hole created by this year’s legislation eliminating gas tax funding for the Idaho State Police and for trails programs in state parks; they’ll meet the following Tuesday, Aug. 11, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Click below to read the full announcement about the governor’s task force’s initial meeting, which includes a link to the agenda. The meeting is open to the public.

State lawmakers to help choose kids for new NASA program for Idaho students

Bright, advanced Idaho high school juniors can now compete to get into a new online science and math course offered in partnership with NASA - in part by impressing a local state legislator. Or, perhaps, just knowing one. “We would like to get state lawmakers involved in this, in endorsing students from their legislative district,” said Idaho Department of Education spokeswoman Melissa McGrath. “Legislators would be involved in the review of applications and helping to select the students. … they’d have a big role in choosing which student goes.” You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna joined astronaut Barbara Morgan, now a distinguished educator in residence at Boise State University, to announce the new program Thursday. It’s modeled after a similar, award-winning program in Texas; there’s also one in Virginia, making Idaho the third state to launch a “Science and Aerospace Scholars Program.” Both Texas and Virginia also involve state lawmakers in “endorsing” kids for the program. McGrath said, “The goal is to get legislators involved in this program and more involved in their local school districts and the public education system, by seeing what students are doing, what their goals are, what they’re working toward. … Also, these students are representatives of Idaho when they go to the summer academy, so we think it’s important to have our local elected officials involved.”

Students who are successful in the rigorous online course, which is aligned to state education standards, could earn an expense-paid trip to a special NASA academy in California next summer. Click here for more info.

Contractors: Blitz will help industry ‘weather tough times’

Here’s a group that’s certainly not bashing U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick’s upcoming “economic blitz” during the congressional summer break: Idaho businesses who are planning to participate. “Congressman Minnick’s ‘blitz’ is being received positively by my contractor members,” said Mark Dunham, executive director of the Idaho Associated General Contractors. In fact, one of the four events, a session on how Idaho businesses can become federal contractors and bid on federal contracts, will be held at the Idaho AGC’s building in Boise, and the group is helping put it on. “The Idaho AGC appreciates working with the congressman in identifying ways to help the construction industry weather tough times,” Dunham said.

Ward bashes Minnick’s ‘blitz’

GOP congressional hopeful Vaughn Ward’s campaign had this statement today in response to Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick’s announcement of an “economic blitz” across the 1st Congressional District during the Congress’ summer break, in which Minnick will host four events to connect Idaho companies and communities to federal funds in an effort to create jobs:

“Walter Minnick claims that his main focus is on creating jobs, yet his boss Nancy Pelosi continues to hurt the economy in Idaho by pushing through a stimulus bill that hasn’t created any jobs, cap and trade legislation that raises taxes on Idahoan families, and a socialized health care plan that costs more than $1.6 trillion dollars. Instead of mortgaging our children’s and grandchildren’s futures, Congress needs to focus on creating jobs through small business, providing real tax relief for Idahoan families, and fight to keep the federal government out of our daily lives.”

Minnick, a member of the conservative “Blue Dog Democrats” in the House, actually voted against the stimulus bill, one of just 11 Democrats in the House to do so. In addition to Ward, Idaho House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts is running in the GOP primary for a chance to challenge Minnick, and former GOP Rep. Bill Sali, whom Minnick defeated, is mulling a possible comeback. Ward, an Iraq war veteran, had raised $125,276 for his campaign through June 30; Roberts reported no campaign fundraising; Sali reported raising just $8,888. Minnick, who hasn’t yet announced a re-election bid, has already piled up $598,616 in campaign contributions for the 2010 election, including donations from some prominent Idaho Republicans.

It was 18 years ago today…

Today marks my 18th anniversary with The Spokesman-Review. Though things have changed quite a bit since I joined the newspaper as its Idaho editor in 1991, we’re still in the same business - reporting the news. We just do it in a lot of new ways now. A much-appreciated note from my paper’s editor, Gary Graham, said today, “Thank you for your commitment to our craft all these years.” And I’d like to say: Thanks to all of you for reading.

Rusche op-ed: Dems continue to lag in Idaho, despite gains elsewhere

Idaho House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, in an op-ed piece, notes recent Democratic gains throughout the West. “Yet the Democratic brand continues to lag across much of Idaho,” he writes. “We know that our fellow Idahoans will not shift long-held voting patterns unless they have compelling reasons to do so. So here’s my best shot at telling you what Idaho Democrats stand for.” Click here to read his full article.

Rusche suggests that Idaho Democrats are misunderstood, and that if voters knew more about them, they’d vote for more of them.

Minnick launches ‘economic blitz’

Freshman Idaho Congressman Walt Minnick says in his seven months in office, he’s become convinced that creating new jobs in Idaho is the most pressing issue he can address, and there’s federal money, contracts and more that could help - if Idahoans just had a little help to tap into them. Minnick announced that during the five weeks Congress is on its summer break, he’ll launch an “economic blitz” in Idaho, holding four events around the state, with Web access, to bring together businesses, communities, economic development officials and more with federal officials, his congressional staffers and other resources to help them get at the federal funding. “It’s making sure that going forward, that no opportunity goes by because we haven’t made proper effort,” Minnick said. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

2010 guv’s race starts shaping up…

Here’s a link to my full story in today’s paper on what’s up in Idaho’s 2010 gubernatorial race, from the half-dozen lesser-known candidates already out stumping to the lack of any campaign launch yet from either incumbent Gov. Butch Otter or a major Democratic challenger. Otter told Eye on Boise, “I’m not gonna lock myself down to a deadline,” but he also pointed out that 105 legislators, three of the four seats in the state’s congressional delegation and all statewide offices also are up in 2010, and to his knowledge, out of all those, only state Controller Donna Jones has so far announced her re-election bid. “There’s six of the seven constitutional officers haven’t announced, Crapo hasn’t announced, Simpson, Minnick, so why the rush for me?” Otter asked. “Frankly, I think the more intense and the shorter these campaigns, the better it is for everybody, certainly the better it is for the constituency, because you kinda condense everything into a shorter period of time. Not to mention the cost to candidates themselves.”

Longtime Idaho political observer Jim Weatherby, a political scientist emeritus at Boise State University, said it’s not unduly late for an incumbent governor to announce his intentions - former Gov. Phil Batt made his announcement the September of the year prior to the election. But it is getting late for a major-party challenger to step forward. “They should be raising money,” Weatherby said. Yesterday, the Idaho Democratic Party launched a candidate recruitment committee, headed by Betty Richardson and aimed at all top races but especially the governor’s race. “Well, you know, I applaud them,” Otter said in response. But, he added, “It would be unfortunate if they had to talk somebody into doing it, because these things are tough enough when you do it and you’ve got fire in your belly.”

Said Otter, “I’ll tell you we’ve got a committee that is working on candidate recruitment as well - not for the office of governor, I can assure you - but candidate recruitment where we think we can marshal our resources and make a difference.” Doesn’t that little aside of his there sound like a hint? Sounds like Otter’s running.

The six lesser-known candidates who already are out campaigning have filed their preliminary paperwork with the state to become candidates and begin raising campaign money. Otter’s paperwork, first filed in 2004, carries over. “I filed that paperwork and I’m raising money,” he said.

‘No, this is Butch’

One of my favorite Idaho reporting anecdotes is the time I called then-Gov. Phil Batt’s press secretary, Amy Kleiner, and a voice that clearly wasn’t Amy’s answered, saying, “Amy Kleiner’s office.” It was Gov. Batt. Well, it just happened again. I put in a call to Mark Warbis, communications director for Gov. Butch Otter, and a voice that didn’t sound like Mark’s answered, “Hello.” “Is this Mark?” I asked. He said, “No, this is Butch - I was just in his office,” and he offered to get Warbis for me. I declined - my question was actually for him, anyway. Asked and answered. I like it!

Idaho Dems launch candidate hunt

The Idaho Democratic Party is launching a “special candidate recruitment committee for the 2010 elections,” at a time when, with the 2010 primary 10 months away, the party has had no major candidate step forward to challenge sitting GOP Gov. Butch Otter. State party Chairman Keith Roark said the committee will be headed by former U.S. Attorney for Idaho Betty Richardson. “Betty did an outstanding job with candidate recruitment when she led the Ada County Democrats.  Now she will bring those skills to bear at the state level,” Roark said; you can read the party’s full announcement here. Richardson also was a Democratic candidate for Congress in 2002; she’s now a Boise attorney.

Roark said the committee will look most closely at the governor’s race. “We intend to offer a better alternative – someone who has a clear vision for Idaho’s future, especially our economic future,” he said. “I want to emphasize that the state party organization will not attempt to select our nominees - our voters will make those decisions in the primary elections next May.  Our role, at present, is to make sure the voters have excellent choices.  Certainly, one-party government has not served Idaho well.”

Democrats hold only one major state office in Idaho, the 1st District congressional seat held by freshman Rep. Walt Minnick. In addition to the remaining seats in the congressional delegation, Republicans hold the governor’s office and all other statewide offices, plus three-quarters of the seats in the state Legislature.

Spend it now or spend it later…

The National Conference of State Legislatures has surveyed all the states to see how quickly they’re spending their federal economic stimulus money - some are spending it all to close their state budget gaps in the current fiscal year, leaving nothing for the following year and prompting fears about state budgets “facing a cliff” when the federal money runs out. Idaho falls in the middle of the pack of the 25 states that have responded to the survey so far, spending 54 percent of its stimulus money in fiscal year 2010, which started July 1. Washington was a bit more cautious, spending 33 percent. Highest on the list was Texas, which is spending 96 percent of its stimulus money in the current year; at the bottom is Alaska, spending only 3 percent.

“Whether they welcomed or snubbed the federal economic stimulus package, state lawmakers took advantage of the bailout dollars this year to help patch their state’s shaky finances,” reports Stateline.org. “Now, as they start thinking ahead to next year’s budget and the 2010 elections, lawmakers are increasingly apprehensive about what will happen when the stimulus money dries up. They predict even deeper cuts in services, higher taxes and raids on rainy day funds to balance budgets.”

Not your average campaign kickoff…

When Ron “Pete” Peterson announced his candidacy for governor today at a Boise bikini bar, there wasn’t exactly a crowd on hand, but the few people there were mostly supportive. “I think it’s wonderful,” said a dancer named Tawni, who slipped off her 8-inch-high stilettos when Peterson marveled at her height, and suddenly became 8 inches shorter. “It’s out here where the normal people would come.”

Two BSU students who are making a documentary about Peterson’s campaign wore his bright blue “Beat Butch.com” campaign T-shirts. Joshua Blessinger, a 30-year-old communications major and former Marine who served in Iraq, said, “He’s a citizen who’s actually trying to be part of the process. … One of my goals is to show people politics can be fun and it matters - especially in Idaho, where people think, ‘This Republican’s going to win and it doesn’t matter.’” Added Blessinger, “If everybody got out and voted, something might change.”

Oddly, instead of his own “Beat Butch” T-shirt, Peterson wore his old yellow “Otter for Idaho” T-shirt from a previous congressional race, when Peterson was an Otter supporter. “I like irony,” Peterson explained. “I always liked him,” he said. “He just seems really arrogant and disconnected now. He’s gone south on me.” Peterson said he wants lots of candidates to join the race and lots and lots of citizens to vote. “My little vote counts as much as J.R. Simplot’s - probably more since he’s dead,” he said. “What I want to do is have people aware of the power and beauty of democracy.”

Incidentally, Peterson says he wasn’t a regular at the Torch 2 club, where he made his announcement, until three weeks ago when he began planning his campaign launch. The club’s manager, for his part, noted that the business isn’t endorsing anyone and Peterson’s just a customer.

It’s now officially rabid bat season

A bat in Ada County has tested positive for rabies, prompting Idaho health officials to remind people throughout the state to take precautions around bats and make sure that their dogs, cats and horses are adequately vaccinated against rabies. It’s the first rabid bat found in Idaho this year; last year, there were 10. But here’s the part that’ll drive you batty: “People who wake up from sleeping and find a bat in their room may have had an exposure without realizing it; the teeth of a bat are very small and people are sometimes bitten in their sleep without feeling it,” Idaho Health & Welfare reports. “The bat should be tested for rabies if there is any question that an exposure may have occurred.”

Click below for the full announcement from H&W; over the past 20 years, Idaho’s had several cats, a skunk, a bobcat and a horse turn up infected with the bat strain of the rabies virus.

Risch, Crapo both to oppose Sotomayor confirmation

Both of Idaho’s U.S. senators, Republicans Jim Risch and Mike Crapo, said today they’ll vote against confirmation of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Differences on 2nd Amendment/gun rights issues were among the top concerns the two cited; both met with Sotomayor personally. “There is no question she is a genuinely nice, smart and well-intentioned person,” Risch said. “However, her belief and pronouncement that the Second Amendment is not a fundamental right is something I cannot accept.”

Crapo said, “Judge Sotomayor has distinguished herself throughout her career, serving as a strong role model for many as she has excelled in her chosen field.  She has demonstrated one of the greatest things about America—the opportunity to become whatever you want with your God-given abilities.  I enjoyed my meeting with her and found her to be a personable individual. However, after having studied her positions and taken careful consideration through the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings earlier this month, I have concluded that I cannot vote to confirm her to a lifetime appointment on the U.S. Supreme Court.”

Click below to read the full statements from Risch and Crapo, both of whom are lawyers.


Candidate: ‘They took advantage of the fact that I was crazy to commit me’

Now that we’re starting the 43rd week before the next Idaho primary election - yep, it’s way off on May 25, 2010 - the candidates for governor have begun emerging. Six already have filed preliminary paperwork with the Secretary of State’s office (you can read about them all here in my Sunday column in Handle Extra). Today is the day that one of them, 58-year-old Ron “Pete” Peterson, an amateur comedian and retired state employee, will announce his gubernatorial candidacy at a Boise bikini bar, the “Torch 2.” Why there? “Why not?” he asks. “Like everything else in my campaign, it sets me apart.”

So does his arrest record. Back in the ‘70s, he was arrested and convicted for “defrauding an innkeeper” after leaving the Red Lion Riverside without paying for a meal (“I was kind of drunk that night,” he said) and, also in the ‘70s, there was a disturbing-the-peace conviction related to his involuntary commitment to State Hospital South at Blackfoot for four months for “being a danger to myself and/or others.” “I’m a manic-depressive,” Peterson explained. “The way I always phrase it, is they took advantage of the fact that I was crazy to commit me.”

Other than another four-month stint at Blackfoot in 1975 after going off his medications, Peterson says he’s been doing well. “I’ve been religious since then in taking my medications,” he said. He likes the advice a favorite social worker gave him: “He said, ‘Look, Pete, you can be as crazy as you like as long as nobody knows. You can be crazy inside your own head. It’s when you start talking and doing things that people start noticing.” He added, “I’m much more fortunate than some people. Some people, their bipolar manic depression, they have real difficulty controlling it with any kind of medication. Mine has been relatively easy to control.”

Peterson ran for office once before - he filed for governor in 1998 as an independent, but never got the required 1,000 signatures to make the ballot. He holds a bachelor’s degree in psychology from BSU and worked as a computer programmer for the Idaho Transportation Department before his retirement. He’s appeared at open-mike comedy nights from Boise to London. “I’ve done comedy and politics, and comedy is much more difficult,” he said. “Politics, they may not like your politics, but in comedy they don’t like YOU when it goes south, and it’s a very personal thing.” As for his run for governor - with the slogan (and Web site) of “Beat Butch.com“, Peterson said, “The main thing is for fun. I have a lot of fun meeting people, and when you don’t have the concern about winning, it takes all the stress out of it.”

No one’s definition of fun: Swine flu outbreak at Idaho prison

Did you know that the influenza virus can survive on surfaces for two to eight hours, spreading the disease? That’s what the CDC says, and the warden of Idaho’s privately operated prison, Phillip Valdez of the Idaho Correctional Center, says he has no “no idea how we got it” at the prison south of Boise, where at least 13 inmates have been sickened so far with the H1N1 virus - swine flu - and all visitors and volunteers have been shut out for at least two weeks. “You know, I wish we could pinpoint it - it sure would make it easier,” Valdez told Eye on Boise. “But I think, to be honest with you, we’re all susceptible to it. You and I could go to a Wal-Mart store, shake a hand, touch a doorknob.” The ICC has been sanitized with cleaning chemicals from top to bottom, inmates have been educated about hygiene, and Valdez says none of the sickened inmates thus far has suffered complications. All those with the virus have suffered from high fevers that peaked on the third day; all have been quarantined.

At the ICC, which is operated for the state by Correctional Corp. of America, there are beds for 1,805 Idaho inmates, including 708 in open dormitories, in which 59 inmates share a single large dorm unit filled with bunk beds. Others are housed in two-man cells. Before the ICC outbreak was first reported July 14, one inmate at the South Idaho Correctional Institution Community Work Center, a state-operated facility also located south of Boise, tested positive for the swine flu virus in late June. That inmate was moved to an isolation unit. You can read my full story here from Saturday’s Spokesman-Review.

Priest, Payette Lake lot fees in limbo

When owners of hundreds of cabins on Idaho state land submit their applications to renew their leases next year, each will have to pay a $250 fee – up from $10. But that doesn’t have the owners upset, because it’s small potatoes compared with the bigger issue: How much Idaho will charge for rent on the land under their cabins. In June, the state Land Board voted unanimously to freeze the rents for one more year at both Priest and Payette lakes, after making the same move a year earlier. Meanwhile, a Land Board subcommittee has missed a June 15 deadline to come up with a new methodology for setting rents. “It’s a work in progress,” said Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who heads the subcommittee. You can read my full story here in Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.

ITD taps stimulus to eliminate Highway 95 bottleneck at Garwood

The big Garwood-to-Sagle freeway project on U.S. Highway 95 in North Idaho won’t have a two-lane bottleneck at its south end after all, the Idaho Transportation Board decided today. The board designated $15.8 million in economic stimulus funds toward expanding the stretch from Wyoming Avenue in Hayden to the Idaho 53 junction to four lanes; the money will come from savings after bids on other stimulus projects came in lower than expected. The Dover Bridge replacement alone came in $15.2 million below estimates; a freeway interchange in Boise came in $21.2 million low.

The highway already is four lanes south of Wyoming Avenue. But plans for the new freeway left a two-mile gap; legislation to fix that this year got shot down in last-minute scuffling between the House and Senate. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said, “Funneling traffic from four lanes to two lanes in this short section creates a real safety risk that needs to be eliminated.” He said, “Designating some of the savings from stimulus projects to this heavily traveled segment of U.S. 95 makes good sense.”

Attacker flicked cigarette, asked, ‘What country do you think you’re in?’

Here’s a link to our full report on the federal hate crime convictions of three Idaho men in an attack last July 4th outside a Nampa Wal-Mart store. Among the details: The 24-year-old victim had gone to the store to buy milk. As he left the store, one of the attackers asked him, “What country do you think you’re in?” and flicked his cigarette at the man, who is African-American. The three attackers then chased their victim across the parking lot, tackled him, and then punched and kicked him until he was unconscious. The attackers and victim had never met before. Afterward, the attackers laughed and bragged about what they’d done.

Hate crime in Nampa leads to federal convictions

Last year on the Fourth of July, three men, shouting racial slurs, ambushed, chased and beat a 24-year-old African-American man as he left a Wal-Mart in Nampa. Now, two of the men have been convicted of hate crime assault by a federal jury in Boise. The third earlier pleaded guilty, and testified against the other two; the two just convicted, Michael Bullard, 22, of Middleton, and Richard Armstrong, 24, of Nampa, face up to 20 years in federal prison for the attack.  “Driven by bigotry and prejudice, the defendants brutally assaulted a young man because of the color of his skin,” said Loretta King, acting Attorney General for the Civil Rights Divison. “We are pleased that a jury of their peers has brought them to justice, as hate crimes have no place in America. The Civil Rights Division will continue to vigorously prosecute those who commit such acts of violence to the full extent the law allows.”

U.S. Attorney for Idaho Tom Moss said, “These convictions mean that racial crimes will not be tolerated, not in this country, not on any day.  Idaho, like most other parts of this nation, has had inglorious moments in its past when people endured oppression and criminal acts merely because of their skin color, race, national origin, gender or religion.  We are long past that time.” The two defendants will be sentenced  in October. Click below to read the full news release from the U.S. Attorney’s office.

Idaho Dems more likely than GOPers to give at tax time

In a state where Republicans hold all but one of the top elected offices and three-quarters of the seats in the Legislature, Idaho Democrats have consistently outperformed the GOP in one key area: Donations via the state’s tax form checkoff. Idahoans are given the opportunity to donate $1 apiece to the party of their choice on their state income tax returns; it doesn’t raise their tax or lower their refunds. This year, 18,278 Idahoans sent their dollars to the Democratic Party, while just 13,378 chose the GOP. In fact, since the checkoff was started in 1976, Democrats have collected a total of $735,574 - edging out the Republicans, who’ve taken in $728,412. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Idaho justices grill lawyer for former justice candidate

Idaho Supreme Court justices had sharp questions today for Michael McNichols, the Lewiston attorney who represented District Judge John Bradbury before the high court, challenging a move by the state Judicial Council to suspend him for not living in his district. Bradbury maintains he does live there - when elected judge, he bought a house in Grangeville, has his homeowner’s exemption there, registered to vote there and votes there, and lives there when he is in Grangeville, at least one day a week. But he also has a home in Lewiston.

Justice Warren Jones questioned whether that was enough. “If I happened to have a home in five different counties,” he said, would he be deemed to live in each? He also noted that someone could live in Boise but have a lake house in McCall in which they spent each weekend, and asked if that meant the person resided in McCall. Chief Justice Daniel Eismann asked if perhaps “the Legislature simply didn’t want judges to be traveling late at night.” To that, McNichols responded, “What the Legislature  wanted was for the judges to go to the county where the business was, and do the county’s judicial business, and Judge Bradbury does that.” McNichols argued that the Judicial Council apparently confused the legal concepts of residency and domicile - the law merely requires the judge to reside in his district. It doesn’t say the judge must reside there full-time, or reside there and nowhere else, he said. At one point, McNichols said, the Judicial Council told Bradbury that he must “stay” in his Grangeville home. “That means he can’t go out of his house … can’t go to the store, can’t go to the post office … most importantly, he can’t go to the courthouse.”

Justice Jim Jones said small communities wanted local judges - not carpetbaggers who just showed up in town to decide cases. “The judge was going to be right there sleeping with all the neighbors,” Jones said. McNichols said the state owes Bradbury a definition of what “reside” means before it charges him with violating that. “You come out with a definition, Judge Bradbury will adhere to it, and he’ll comply,” McNichols told the justices. “But he’s entitled to have that definition before he’s punished for violating that.” He also said, “The Judicial Council apparently thought he had to sleep there every night. That’s the reason he’s being put through these proceedings at the risk of his elective office.”

Bradbury made a statewide splash in 2008 when he ran for the Idaho Supreme Court and nearly defeated newly appointed Justice Joel Horton; Bradbury got 49.9 percent of the vote to Horton’s 50.1 percent. Horton isn’t sitting on the case; retired Justice Wayne Kidwell is sitting in instead. Attorney Keith Roark is representing the Judicial Council. He told the justices, “This is a bewildering case.” It’s all about the judge being there when needed to give a defendant a fair trial, he said. He discounted arguments that the Judicial Council was biased against Bradbury. “Judge Bradbury is either actually residing in the county or he isn’t,” Roark told the court. The only other possibility, he said: The law is unconstitutionally vague. The justices had some pointed questions for Roark as well; he said Bradbury is inviting the court to “open up a can of worms” by getting into details about what residency means, by specifying days per week or anything like that. “I wouldn’t go so far as Justice Jones by suggesting that they were expected to sleep with the neighbors,” Roark said, sharing a chuckle with Jones.

Ground broken for Dover Bridge

The groundbreaking is on now for the infamous Dover Bridge replacement, a project that languished for three decades for lack of funding - despite a large chunk of the bridge deck falling away, and national attention from such media outlets as Popular Mechanics magazine and the History Channel, which highlighted the Bonner County bridge as one of the worst in America. “The Dover Bridge is exactly the kind of project that reflects the critical need for us to think long-term about our road and bridge needs, and our responsibility for addressing them,” Gov. Butch Otter said today in a news release. “This isn’t a quick fix, and our approach to this issue can’t be either.”

The $21.6 million project, which is being paid for with federal economic stimulus money, will replace the 24-foot-wide, two-lane bridge with a five-lane structure that’ll be 72 feet wide and 1,200 feet long, compared to the current 295 foot length. The original bridge, which runs over railroad tracks on Highway 2, was built in 1937.

Gov. Otter: ‘More to hoo-rah than I thought’

Gov. Butch Otter has written another guest opinion touting Idaho businesses that are growing. “I planned on sharing just a few positive news items with you here,” he wrote. “But as I looked around the state, I realized there was even more to hoo-rah than I thought.” He highlights everything from stimulus-funded new jobs at the INL to Melaleuca’s groundbreaking for a new manufacturing facility in Idaho Falls to a new Western States CAT facility in Hayden. Click below to read his full article, entitled, “Idaho business is on the move and growing.” 

When a 17.9% loss is good…

Idaho’s permanent endowment fund, whose earnings benefit public schools and universities, has been battered by the market in recent years. But there was relatively good news this week: For the fiscal year that ended July 1, the fund was down just 17.9 percent. That may sound like a huge loss. But in February, the fund was down 31 percent. “So we made some significant ground since the low point,” Chris Halvorson, an investment officer with the Endowment Fund Investment Board, told the state Land Board. For the month of June, the fund had a tiny, 0.1 percent gain. Another hopeful sign: Through July 20, the new fiscal year (20 days in) showed a nearly 3 percent gain.

The next question is what the annual fund distribution will be to schools and other institutions for the next year. “Based on the information available today, EFIB staff would recommend that distributions be maintained at FY 2010 levels,” the investment board’s report to the Land Board said. The endowment board will examine investment results through the end of July and an updated forecast of land revenues before setting on its final recommendation at its Aug. 12 meeting.
 

Otter praises lottery’s ‘self-taxation’

Gov. Butch Otter today approvingly called the Idaho Lottery “probably the clearest form of self-taxation that we have in the state.” Here’s a link to the governor talking about how much the lottery has raised for schools and state buildings in Idaho in the past 20 years, how much the state needs money right now, and how “we appreciate the people taxing themselves, voluntarily, through the lottery.” When Idaho’s state lottery commission chairman, Roger Jones, made ready to present this year’s check to Otter on Tuesday, he said amid some laughter, “We’re able to give another million dollars more than last year. … Maybe it’s all spent, Butch, I don’t know.”

Winner: ‘A couple of bucks for some hope’

When Eye on Boise asked him why he thinks Idahoans are still buying lottery tickets despite the downturn, Idaho’s biggest-ever lottery winner, Brad Duke, who won $220.3 million in a Powerball drawing in 2005, said, “There’s always the chance, there’s always the hope. I suppose for some people, that goes a long ways - to invest a couple of bucks for some hope might give ‘em a little relief.” Duke, 37, said he still plays the lottery from time to time. “It’s always been a hobby of mine - I like numbers games,” he said.

Since his big win, he’s gone from manager of a local Gold’s Gym to owner of a consulting firm that travels around the country and helps people run their gyms. He’s also done some traveling to indulge his hobby of downhill mountain biking, in which he competes, and he’s set up a family foundation that’s given more than $100,000 to charities including the Children’s Home, Project Patch, Hope House, the American Diabetes Association and the LiveStrong Foundation. Duke, who still lives in the same Star, Idaho home as before his big win, said the philanthropy was the most rewarding part. He told state and lottery officials, “Thanks for making it possible for Idaho people to win big money.”

Idaho lottery profits up despite downturn

Though the economic times are grim, there’s one way Idaho’s still making money: By chance. Idaho’s state lottery announced today that its revenues for the recently concluded fiscal year set a record for the seventh time in eight years, coming in 2 percent over last year. That bucks a national trend that has many states seeing lower lottery proceeds this year, including Washington, where lottery proceeds were down 6 percent. “The principal reason is this is a low-cost form of entertainment for the people who play - I mean, it’s only a dollar,” said Idaho Lottery Director Jeff Anderson. “We know that people are cutting back on their expenditures for a lot of things.” Idaho’s state lottery also celebrated its 20-year anniversary today, with free hot dogs and birthday cake for anyone who showed up to a celebration across from the state Capitol in downtown Boise.

Anderson said the Idaho lottery sold its first ticket in 1989 to billionaire J.R. Simplot; that ticket didn’t win. Idaho’s lottery proceeds are split evenly between public schools and the state’s permanent building fund, which maintains state buildings; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Otter: Idaho needs ‘total and complete transparency’ on public lands

A committee of top real estate professionals was asked to review how Idaho could update its rules for transfers of state endowment lands to match “modern business practices,” and this morning, the panel presented its recommendation to the state’s top elected officials. Among them: Eliminate the requirement for public auctions of endowment lands, and exempt the transactions from the state’s Public Records Act. Idaho Gov. Butch Otter immediately objected.

“We have to make sure that there is total and complete transparency,” the governor declared. “Taking it off public auction inherently reduces the transparency. … I would have a problem with that.” Otter said he’d also oppose exempting state land transactions from the public records act. “Oh yeah,” he said, “and I think every member of the board would.” The state Land Board, which commissioned the report from the committee of professional real estate experts, praised the panel and thanked it for its work. “This board was formed to look at one narrow issue,” said Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. “There are a lot of other factors we have to take into account … such as can we create a system that will preserve transparency.”

The Land Board is made up of the state’s top elected officials and is charged by the state Constitution with getting the maximum long-term financial return from state endowment lands. Board members didn’t raise objections to other proposals from the panel, to amend the Constitution to eliminate acreage limits on transfers of state land to a single individual or company. Those limits, according to the panel’s report, “do not conform to modern business practices.” The panel also proposed allowing sales of state endowment lands “in any reasonable manner” rather than only by public auction; and changing the Admissions Act that made Idaho a state to remove a clause that requires endowment land to be “sold only at public sale,” instead saying they “shall be sold as provided by Idaho law.”

“Our intent was to provide flexibility to the state, then let the state decide through its laws how best to govern these transactions,” said Robert Phillips, president of Hawkins Companies and a commercial real estate developer. George Kirk, a residential real estate developer and member of the panel, told Otter, “Your points are excellent and well-taken. … There are ramifications both corporate, personal and moral that you bring up.”

The group’s report said, “Participants in private sector and commercial business transactions typically expect confidentiality in negotiations and protection of trade secrets of the parties. Likewise, it is recommended that the same protections be afforded to the state Board of Land Commissioners when negotiating leases, purchases, or sales of state endowment lands,” in order to secure maximum financial returns. Otter said there might be a point during negotiations when not everything is released, but it would all have to become public eventually, he said. Though the panel proposed an ambitious timeline, to present its recommendations to the Legislature this year and then get constitutional amendments on the ballot in the 2010 election, Land Board members said they thought that was unrealistic. “It could be worked out this legislative season,” said residential real estate broker Bryant Forrester of Homeland Realty, but state Controller Donna Jones shook her head.

‘Bergdahl represents Idaho, nation courageously’

Idaho’s congressional delegation - Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Reps. Mike Simpson and Walt Minnick - has issued the following joint statement about the capture of an Idaho soldier, Hailey native Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl, by Taliban forces in Afghanistan:

“Out of respect for Private First Class Bergdahl and his family, we have been declining to comment on his capture by the Taliban. With the Pentagon now confirming his identity, we add our thoughts and prayers with others for his reunion with family, friends and Army colleagues.  Private Bergdahl represents Idaho and his nation courageously.  We remain ready to assist in whatever manner his family and the U.S. military so chooses.”

More lieutenant guvs moving up to guv

More lieutenant governors are succeeding and becoming governors this year than in recent history - think Alaska, Utah, Illinois - prompting renewed attention to just who the lieutenant governors are, and whether they’re ready to govern. Idaho’s Brad Little says Gov. Butch Otter is training him as his “B team,” involving him in cabinet meetings and keeping him up to date so he’d be prepared. He says if a lieutenant governor hasn’t been involved and suddenly becomes governor, “I don’t think the state would be well-served.” Washington’s Brad Owen, who’s made his own focus in office on youth programs and international trade, says it’d be “exciting” to become governor if he didn’t have to run, because campaigns are so nasty. You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Senator: Cash-strapped parents skipping kids’ shots

Here’s a link to my full story on Idaho’s child immunization dilemma: The state has the lowest child immunization rate in the nation, but budget cuts that hit July 1 are making it more expensive and more difficult for Idaho families to get shots for their kids. A legislative task force today called unanimously for reversing the cuts, at least through the end of this year; Gov. Butch Otter would have to approve. “I’m already getting calls from parents,” said Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home. “We already have a number of young parents who are planning not to immunize because they don’t have the money. … We really need to do something about that.”

Lawmakers have ‘whipped up on’ last few ITD directors

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on today’s firing of Idaho Transportation Director Pam Lowe, something that’s been the topic of rumor for months but became reality today. ITD Board Chairman Darrell Manning, asked about Lowe’s comments today, said, “Considering that she’s considering her legal options, I don’t think I’d better say anything. … There’s a letter that will go to her that has all of the particulars, and it’s a legal privileged document,” which he said means he won’t discuss what’s in it. As far as his asking her to resign on May 11 after receiving only positive performance reviews, Manning said, “That’s pretty much the case.” He added, “The last review was in the process of being done when the board started that action, that was in April.” Lowe’s final performance review never was completed by the board, he said.

Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, who served as ITD board chairman for 11 years, told Eye on Boise this spring that he’s long seen legislators’ ire aimed at the ITD director when there are concerns about transportation. “They are a lightning rod,” he said. “They’ve whipped up on the last two or three.” Said Winder, “Some of ‘em are valid, some of ‘em are political, and some are just ways to try not to address the funding for ITD.”

Lowe says she was ‘blindsided,’ may sue over firing

Ousted Idaho Transportation Director Pam Lowe says her performance evaluations and feedback from the state Transportation Board about her performance as director have all been positive, and she’s not been given any indication why they wanted to get rid of her. “Darrell Manning asked me to resign May 11th, and … that came out of the clear blue sky,” she told Eye on Boise. “I had no warning that they were unhappy with my performance, in fact I was completely blindsided.”

Lowe, a professional engineer and 15-year employee of the department, said she asked the board to meet with her in executive session, with no staff present, to explain the request. “I demanded to have that meeting,” she said. “There were just very, very vague reasons. I have not got any clue as to why they have terminated me.” Here’s why that matters: Idaho state law, in Section 40-503, allows the transportation director to be “removed by the board for inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance or nonfeasance in office.” Said Lowe, “I have never been told by the board that it was terminating me for any of those reasons, or even that the board had any concerns about my performance. … In fact, the feedback I’ve got, and reviews from the board, were good.” Lowe, who is Idaho’s first female transportation director, said she’s talked with an attorney and is evaluating her legal options.

“When I look at that section of code regarding the director’s position, I think it’s really clear that the Legislature showed foresight that this position was unique, and required the board to remove the director only for performance-related reasons - and that prevents this position from becoming a political position,” she said. Lowe said she’s proud of her tenure at ITD, including her work with the Legislature. “I think I’ve had many successes with the Legislature, when you look at, three years I was able to get our budget through JFAC and the Legislature virtually unscathed,” she said. “Just this last year we did get the DMV fee increases through. … We got the stimulus through, that put us as No. 2 in the nation delivering our stimulus projects. Not to mention GARVEE … which was very contentious. I don’t believe we would have had any of those accomplishments with a negative relationship with the legislators.”

Lowe also pointed to major efficiency and accountability reforms she brought to the department, including the “practical design” program. “My requiring redesign of projects - that saved $70 million in real money that went back onto the roads,” she said. She also worked with the association of general contractors to re-examine all the department’s construction and materials-testing processes. “We cut red tape and bureaucracy,” she said. “What we’re seeing is lowered bid prices for contractors, and it’s saving taxpayer dollars and allowing us to get more projects out on the road.”

She said she also got the GARVEE bonding project back on track. “That program had been over-promised and under-delivered, it was absolutely in a shambles. There was absolutely no workable plan,” she said. “I put together a plan that was approved by the board, and it’s a plan that we take to the Legislature every year. … Those projects are all being built, and they’re being delivered to the public on schedule. And that was guaranteed to fail, until I put that plan together.”

Lowe said when Manning asked her to resign, “I actually said, ‘No, I won’t resign.’ I’ve not done anything wrong.” She said, “Telling an employee, ‘You’re doing a good job, we like your work,’ and then terminating me. … They have not given me any indication, just these vague, political type of comments. I have got nothing from them as to why they are doing this, and I think that’s absolutely not  in accordance with the law - and I think it’s absolutely inappropriate.”

Scott Stokes, new interim ITD director

The ITD’s new interim director, L. Scott Stokes, is well-known in North Idaho from his decade-long service as the district engineer for ITD’s District 1, based in Coeur d’Alene. Stokes became the the transportation department’s deputy director in February of 2007; he started with ITD in 1992 as a staff engineer in the bridge section.

A Salmon native, he holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in civil engineering from BYU, and worked in the private sector for about eight years before joining ITD. His dad, Elden Stokes Sr., retired from ITD in 1984 as a maintenance foreman, after a 40-year career with the department. Stokes took over as director today, when the state transportation board voted to fire Director Pam Lowe.

How child immunization cuts are affecting Idaho families

Click below to read about how Idaho ended up cutting state funding for child immunization, an area in which the state now ranks the lowest in the nation and that was a top priority for past governors to improve, and how that’s affecting Idaho families and medical providers across the state.

ITD fires Director Pam Lowe

The Idaho Transportation Board just voted unanimously to fire director Pam Lowe. Deputy Director Scott Stokes was named the interim director while a new director is sought, with the search focusing both inside and outside ITD. Board Chairman Darrell Manning said, “The board determined this change was necessary to help the department continue improving customer service, economy of operations, accountability and our relations with the Legislature.”

Lowe’s termination is effective July 31, but she’s been placed on paid administrative leave until then and is immediately off the job. Manning said, “It’s a decision that affects many people, and cannot be made lightly.” The board has held a series of closed executive sessions on personnel matters over the last three months; Manning said, in response to reporters’ questions, that board members discussed Lowe’s performance with her during one of those sessions in May. “Everyone knows that the department has had its issues, good and bad, with the Legislature, and we hope to improve those in the future,” Manning said. “There’s no nice way to do a change like this. I’ve had a lot of sleepless nights over trying to come to an accommodation.”

Manning said he’s kept Gov. Butch Otter informed of the board’s discussions. “The governor said that’s a board decision,” he said. “He said, ‘I’m not involved in that at all.’”

Lowe is a professional engineer who was ITD’s first female district engineer when she was named to that post in 2000. She first joined ITD in 1993 as a construction associate; became planning services manager in 1995 and regional engineer in 1997. She was named administrator of the Department of Motor Vehicles in 2004, then deputy director of ITD in 2006, and was named ITD director on Jan. 16, 2007.

She’s also worked for the Arizona Department of Transportation, the Federal Highway Administration, and in the private sector. She is a registered professional engineer in Idaho, Oregon and Arizona. Gov. Butch Otter affectionately calls her “Pammy.”

Stokes has been with the department since 1992 and served as deputy director since 2007. He’s the former district engineer for North Idaho.

Panel: Shift the money

The Legislature’s joint Health Care Task Force has just voted unanimously to request the governor and the Health & Welfare Department to shift funds within the department to restore Idaho’s child immunization program through Jan. 1. Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, said, “Based on the conversation we’ve heard today, it seems like in the end this may ultimately be a cost savings. … We seem to be defeating some of the actions that we’ve taken in the past by not agreeing to this recommendation.” Former Govs. Phil Batt and Dirk Kempthorne both made raising Idaho’s dismally low child immunizations top priorities during their administrations.

Task Force Co-Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, warned that the Legislature will have to come up with money to keep the program going in January. “What the department is facing for their budget, particularly in Medicaid, in 2010 and 2011 - it isn’t pretty,” he said. But, he said, “I believe there’s actual evidence that the lack of immunization actually costs us more.” Health & Welfare official Dick Schultz said the department will follow whatever course the governor sets. “It would certainly buy us some time,” he said. “There was certainly some consternation on everyone’s part going into this.”

Cameron: Put the money back for child immunizations

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said when the Legislature went along with the governor’s proposal to cut state funding for child immunizations, it didn’t intend to create the current situation. “We made decisions during the Legislature based on information that hasn’t … quite worked as anticipated,” he said. He asked the Health & Welfare Department how much it would take to keep the program operating through Jan. 1, 2010, reversing the cuts that went into effect July 1. H&W officials said they’ll work up an estimate and bring it back to the Health Care Task Force this afternoon.

Said Cameron, “What I’m thinking … we’re in a little bit of a pickle, and we can’t really address it until the next legislative session. In the meantime, there’s going to be a lot of consternation and concerns that people aren’t getting immunized.” Cameron said there are a couple of alternatives, including possibly shifting funding from another Health & Welfare program, or appealing to the governor for economic stimulus money. “The governor does have access to about $7 million for emergency situations,” he said. This afternoon, he said, depending on the figures Health & Welfare brings back, he’ll likely call for a vote of the Health Care Task Force on “whether or not the committee wants to suggest or request that the governor use some of that money to tide us over until Jan. 1st and buy us a little time.”

Sara Stover, DFM analyst for the Health & Welfare budget, said, “I think that seems like a completely feasible idea to take back. … It was something that the governor knew we were way behind in our immunization rates, and at that time the state was paying for everybody.” Some policy shift seemed desirable, she said. “I think he would’ve liked to have a little more time. Ideally, if there were some other options … this wasn’t something that we set out to do without having some options.” Said Cameron, “Maybe that’s a direction we can take. If we can get six months breathing time, maybe we can figure it out.”

State savings from cutting child immunizations: $2.8 mil

The amount Idaho’s saving by cutting state funding for child immunization in this year’s state budget: $2.8 million. Jane Smith, administrator of the state Division of Health, said the exact appropriation was $2,856,100, but that might have been a little on the low side because the state didn’t plan for inflation in the cost of vaccines.

Doctor: ‘I’ve had patients die’

Dr. Stephen Ryter, medical director of Blue Cross of Idaho, a pediatrician, told the Legislature’s Health Care Task Force, “We are No. 50 out of 50, as far as immunizations go.” He said, “People don’t think these diseases exist any more.” Yet, he said, “I’ve had a number of my patients die of meningitis.” When most of the population is immunized against serious diseases, the incidence of those diseases goes way down due to the phenomenon of “herd immunity,” Ryter told the lawmakers. “As we get lower and lower in our rates, we lose the effect of ‘herd immunity.’”

Blue Cross tried to set up a purchasing cooperative with the state when funding was cut for child immunizations, to allow at least those with Blue Cross insurance to still get vaccines that were purchased through a federal-state purchasing pool, which cuts their cost by 30 to 50 percent. “The group purchasing cooperative was a good idea,” Ryter said. “We were just shocked and disappointed when the bids came in.” There was only one valid bid, and it was actually higher than just buying the vaccines on the open market. “There has to be some kind of a fix for this, so that we can have a single supply,” Ryter said, “… improve our rates and have a net lower cost.” Task Force Co-Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, thanked Blue Cross for trying, even though it didn’t work out.

‘We were down to nickels and dimes’

Quizzed by lawmakers as to why Gov. Butch Otter, in his budget recommendation this year, called for cutting state funding for child immunizations - a cut the Legislature approved, but thought would be offset for a year by stimulus money, which didn’t come through - Sara Stover, Otter’s Division of Financial Management analyst for Health & Welfare, said, “It literally came down to the last days of the governor’s recommendation. We had to balance a budget, and we were down to nickels and dimes. … It was a big policy issue … and we didn’t think it was necessarily a great thing to just leap in like that.” But, she said, in the end it was simply “a fiscal issue.”

Idaho’s immunization rate ‘deplorable’

Idaho’s child immunization rate for the measles is lower than that of Indonesia, Pakistan or Croatia, and its rate for polio is below that of Botswana, Latvia and Sri Lanka, the Idaho Legislature’s Health Care Task Force was told just now. Now, on top of that, state budget cuts are making immunizations more expensive and more difficult for Idaho families to get. “We’re lowest in the country - we’re at 57 percent,” Jane Smith, administrator of the Division of Health in the state Department of Health & Welfare, told the panel, a rate she called “deplorable.”

Lawmakers have been hearing plenty about the funding cut. “It was a decision made first by the administration, and apparently we concurred by not funding it,” said task force Co-Chairman Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, who also co-chairs the Legislature’s joint budget committee. He recalled that when Health & Welfare came before the joint committee, Smith indicated that federal economic stimulus funds should ease the state’s immunization program through without changes for another year. She said that’s what they thought then - but the federal funding was far less than anticipated. “The decision was based on the state’s lack of resources - that’s where the money was cut,” Smith said. The cuts took effect July 1.

Region’s lawmakers want more fed help with invasive mussels

Lawmakers from states and Canadian provinces throughout the Northwest are sending a sharply worded letter to the U.S. secretary of the interior and the Canadian minister of fisheries and oceans, seeking much more aggressive measures to contain quagga and zebra mussels once they’ve invaded an area waterway. The letter, from the Pacific Northwest Economic Region group, calls it “absolutely critical” that federal authorities move to contain and decontaminate boats as they leave Lake Mead in Nevada and other infested water bodies. It follows a similar letter sent by Idaho Gov. Butch Otter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar a month ago.
    
“Mr. Secretary, please seriously consider instituting within all U.S. Department of Interior agencies, including the National Park Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a mandatory decontamination requirement for ALL vessels leaving mussel-infested waters such as Lake Mead,” Otter wrote. Otter’s office said he’s not yet received a reply. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

‘They are different people’

It’s a bit of an oddity that Idaho’s state legislator who’s been a key instigator of programs targeting aquatic invasive species, including quagga and zebra mussels, has the same name as the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife aquatic invasive species coordinator. So at this morning’s invasive species session at the PNWER conference in Boise, Idaho Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, who is co-chairing the session, introduced himself first, and down the table, Sgt. Eric Anderson, when it was his turn, said, “I’m Eric Anderson, but I’m the Washington state Eric Anderson.” Allen Pleus, a Washington state official who was up next, said, “I’m not Eric Anderson.”

Then, when Amy Ferriter of the Idaho Department of Agriculture was showing a slide show about Idaho’s anti-mussel efforts, she came to a photo of both Andersons together. “For a long time, I thought they were the same person moonlighting,” Ferriter said to laughter. “They are different people.”

Region could see economic boon from 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics

The 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver will be an economic boon at a time when one is badly needed, Canada’s minister of state for sport told officials from throughout the region today. “It’s put us in a very strong position,” Minister Gary Lunn told 500 U.S. and Canadian officials gathered in Boise for the annual summit meeting of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region. “You’re going to see a lot of Americans traveling to the Pacific Northwest.” Already, he said, “The province built a brand-new highway from Vancouver to Whistler.” In addition to boosting access to the Olympics, that’ll make the popular Whistler-Blackcomb resort area more easily accessible to travelers permanently.

Canada already has spent $2 billion on the Olympics, Lunn said, an investment it expects to pay off in increased tourism and economic spinoffs that will last for decades. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Experts: Region’s energy resources form the ‘Middle East of North America’

The Pacific Northwest, on both sides of the Canadian border, is the “Middle East of North America” when it comes to energy resources, experts say, and it will eventually supply both nations with an array of fuels, from wind, geothermal and biofuels to oil, coal and uranium. “The resources are there, and in my opinion, they will get used in the future,” said John Grossenbacher, director of the Idaho National Laboratory. “So let’s do it in a way that 50 and 100 years away, we’re happy with the outcomes.”

Ken Cheveldayoff, minister of enterprise and trade for the Canadian province of Saskatchewan, said, “We all want a safe, secure, sustainable, clean energy supply. By working together, we can enhance our two countries’ goals.” Both spoke at the Pacific Northwest Economic Region conference in Boise on Tuesday, where 500 state and provincial lawmakers, other officials and business people from the United States and Canada are gathered to explore economic issues including energy, agriculture, border issues and economic development. Energy has been a key focus of the conference, which runs through Thursday. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Officials, experts at PNWER decry tightening of U.S.-Canada borders

Officials and experts from two nations say a United States border policy driven by concerns about terrorism and problems at the U.S.-Mexico border is disrupting operations at the nation’s borders with Canada - and hurting Pacific Northwest communities. “We’ve got a much more open border there, and we’ve got a real intense personal and commercial relationship,” said Idaho Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, whose district borders Canada in Boundary County. “We’re trying to decide what to do with the Canadian border based on what we do with the Mexican border - I think that’s wrong, because we’ve got different problems.”

As 500 officials, experts and business people from the United States and Canada gathered for the annual meeting of the Pacific Northwest Economic Region here to discuss cross-border economic issues including energy, agriculture and economic development, there was lots of talk about the impact of border policy changes in the United States since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Donald Alper, a Western Washington University political scientist and director of the Border Policy Research Institute, said his research shows a substantial drop-off in cross-border travel at the Canadian border with the security increases of the past eight years. He co-chaired a session on the issue on the first morning of the conference on Monday. “My personal view is it’s probably ludicrous that we’re securitizing the border with Canada to the point that we are,” he said. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Bear found, and it’s OK

The mama grizzly bear that attacked an eastern Idaho hunter after his hounds surrounded her and her cubs has been located, and either the hunter’s brother missed when he fired his pistol at the bear, or any wound she suffered was minor. Idaho Fish & Game reports that DNA tests showed the grizzly was a radio-collared female with three cubs who was known to be in the area. Spotted by a Fish & Game monitoring flight, both the collared bear and her three cubs “appeared fine,” reported Daryl Meints, regional wildlife manager for the Upper Snake Region of Idaho Fish & Game. The injured hunter was treated for lacerations to his right arm. He and two others were hunting black bears when they surprised the grizzly; the incident left Fish & Game warning that a wounded grizzly might be on the loose in the area, on Bishop Mountain near Harriman State Park. Now, F&G officials “recommend that anyone heading into the backcountry carry bear spray.”

Otter: Feds should ‘get the hell out of the way’

In his luncheon keynote speech today at the Pacific Northwest Economic Region’s big annual conference, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said the best answers come from groups like PNWER, which brings together state and provincial officials from both the United States and Canada to address regional issues. Ideas that bubble up from communities around the region, he said, “are going to be a whole lot better than either you get out of Ottawa or we get out of Washington in the United States.” That drew a burst of applause. “I’m gonna look for answers from you,” he said. “… All we need is for the rest of those folks to get the hell out of the way.”

Among those Otter was fingering: He said at a recent meeting of western state governors in Park City, federal officials attending included representatives of “the White House committee on we’re gonna disapprove of whatever you want to do - whatever that committee is called.” That drew a laugh. “By the completion of this conference, I believe we can start truly planting the seeds for designing our own destiny,” Otter declared. The PNWER annual conference runs through Wednesday; it’s the first time it’s been held in Boise.

Energy institute for lawmakers launched

Legislators from both the U.S. and Canada will have a chance to learn all about current energy issues through a new Legislative Energy Horizon Institute launched today at the Pacific Northwest Economic Region summit meeting in Boise. Gov. Butch Otter joined University of Idaho President Duane Nellis to announce the new certification program, along with Washington House Speaker Pro-Tem Jeff Morris, D-Mt. Vernon, and Idaho state Sen. Curtis McKenzie, R-Nampa. Nellis said the institute will help prepare policy-makers for a “future that I think will be more promising as far as sustainability.”

The program will run for 18 months and result in a certificate in energy policy planning for the participating lawmakers. It’s a joint project of PNWER and the National Conference of State Legislatures, in partnership with the U of I and the U.S. Department of Energy, which is providing funding.

Energy is among the top issues that officials from both the United States and Canada are examining at the group’s annual summit meeting in Boise this week. The first keynote speaker this morning, Roger Woodworth, vice president of Avista Corp., told the several hundred delegates, “We are in an era of transition. … Our relationship with energy must and will change. … We are tremendously blessed with energy resources of all kinds here in the Pacific Northwest region - the question is how will we decide to optimize those.” He added, “If ever there was a time to be bringing policy leaders together to decide how are we going to deal with this … this is the time.”

Next session WILL be in renovated Capitol, not back in annex

Idaho’s state Capitol has been closed to the public for renovation for more than two years, but workers now say it’ll definitely reopen in time for January’s legislative session. It’s been on a tight schedule from the start, with completion set for mid-November, just in time for the big move-in before lawmakers convene Jan. 11, 2010. If it wasn’t ready, the session couldn’t start – or lawmakers could be forced to hold a third session in their cramped temporary quarters in an old courthouse across the street. As of January, the project was 30 days behind schedule. But that’s now been cut to 14 days, and renovation manager Jan Frew says the backlog should be gone by September. “At this point we have committed that they definitely will be able to hold their session in the building. We’re comfortable with that,” she said.

You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review, and click here to watch a narrated slide show about the renovation. Here are a few tidbits that didn’t make it into my story: Configuration of the governor’s and lieutenant governor’s offices has changed; the lieutenant governor will now be over in the east wing, rather than across the hall from the governor in the west wing. Also, Gov. Butch Otter will have a new “working office” in space adjacent to the formal governor’s office that previously was occupied by staffers; it includes a small, private bathroom with a shower. The new lieutenant governor’s office also has its own bathroom - but no shower.

The House chamber originally had just a curtain around its back boundary, behind where lawmakers sit, rather than a solid wall; stories abound about who passed what through that curtain. Due to noise concerns, the historic renovation of the Capitol won’t take the chamber back to just a curtain; instead, a curtain will hang in front of the solid wall, matching the previous look but not the noise level (or mischief potential). One more tidbit: Previously the House and Senate each had its own dining room; in the newly renovated capitol, they’ll share a single, larger one on the new “Garden Level” (basement). There are 105 legislators, between the two chambers. Seating capacity in the new dining room: 104.

Last out-of-state Idaho inmates returned to Idaho lockups

Idaho’s state Department of Correction says it’s brought back 188 inmates who were being housed in a private prison in Oklahoma, and that completes the job - Idaho now has no more inmates housed out of state due to overcrowding. It’s been four years since the state could say that. “This is a milestone for the department and something the people of Idaho can truly celebrate,” said Brent Reinke, state corrections director. “We’re saving taxpayer dollars, and in the long run, making our communities safer.” Click below to read the department’s full announcement.

Coming soon to Idaho: A $7.25 per hour minimum wage

Idaho’s minimum wage, currently $6.55 per hour, will rise to $7.25 per hour on July 24, as part of a three-step increase in the federal minimum wage approved by Congress in 2007. Idaho ties its minimum wage to the federal one, rather than setting its own; many of the surrounding states, including Washington, have much higher minimum wages.

Idaho Department of Labor spokesman Bob Fick said the three-year boost “has combined with the dampening effect of the national recession to actually give minimum wage workers a boost in buying power for the first time in over a decade.” Before the start of the three years of increases, Idaho’s minimum wage - since 1997 - had been $5.15 an hour. Today, that’s equal to $7.05 per hour - so the July increase will actually increase minimum-wage workers’ buying power above where it stood in 1997. About 40,000 Idaho workers will be affected by the July 24 pay hike, twice as many as were affected by the two earlier ones, to $5.85 in 2007 and to $6.55 in 2008.

Said Fick, “Communities along the Oregon and Washington borders are likely to feel the impact of this month’s wage increase the least, since Oregon’s minimum wage is $8.40 an hour and Washington’s is $8.55.” Nevada, with a minimum wage of $6.85 an hour, and Montana, at $6.90, will be affected by the increase, as will Utah, which, like Idaho, matches the federal minimum. Idaho sets a lower minimum for tipped employees, at $3.35 an hour, though employers must make up the difference if tips don’t bring those workers up to the minimum.

 

Denney now says he’ll allow full hearing on Sunshine Law expansion

The Idaho House speaker who single-handedly killed legislation this year to require personal financial disclosure from the state’s elected officials now says he won’t do it again. “In the upcoming session, if it comes back, I think we will try to make sure that it gets the full hearing and see where it goes,” said House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale.

The bipartisan bill, which passed the Senate unanimously and was drafted in part by Gov. Butch Otter’s office, died this year when Denney held it at his desk and never assigned it to a committee for a hearing. Recently, Idaho was again ranked last in the nation for its financial disclosure requirements for lawmakers. Jon Hanian, spokesman for Otter, said, “We’ve worked on this issue in the past and we’re going to continue to work on it.” Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, said, “I applaud the speaker for his willingness to make progress on this legislative concept in the upcoming year, and look forward to working with” the House on the measure. You can read my full story here at www.spokesman.com.

Nellis: Partner with industry to keep Parma extension center open?

New University of Idaho President Duane Nellis - who is in his first week on the job, and is touring the state - said at a gathering at the Parma Research and Extension Center yesterday that perhaps industry can partner with the state to keep the center open in the face of budget cuts. “As the governor mentioned earlier, maybe there are ways to partner with industry,” Nellis told a crowd of concerned farmers, legislators, university and ag officials at the center. “We need to look at being more entrepreneurial and making those connections in different ways. This announcement has truly brought out industry and they seem to have a vested interest in what is happening here.” Here’s an audio clip of Nellis’ comments.

The U of I’s research and extension centers operate on 4,000 acres statewide, including locations in Aberdeen, Caldwell, Dubois, Salmon, Hagerman, Kimberly, Moscow, Parma, Sandpoint, Tetonia, and Twin Falls.

Guv: There’s a $250K rule

Gov. Butch Otter says a state rule requires State Board of Education approval for funding cuts at universities above $250,000. The fact that that didn’t happen is part of the reason he and new UI President Duane Nellis have decided to indefinitely delay the decision on whether to close the Parma Research and Extension Center. The UI is considering closing two or more centers due to the Legislature’s approval of budget cuts of $3.2 million in state funding for the Ag Research and Extension Service for the the 2010 budget year, which started July 1. The governor’s office said, “The recommendation to close the facility was made by a statewide committee whose 19 members represent diverse backgrounds and interests. The new review phase will build upon the foundational analysis provided by the earlier committee.”

Here are links to two audio clips of Otter talking about the issue in Parma yesterday: In the first clip,  the governor describes the $250,000 rule. In the second, Otter compares the delay to his decision to give his transportation funding task force until the 2011 legislative session to propose solutions. We purposefully allowed them an extra year so they could look at it and do the right thing. That is exactly what the president and I are talking about,” Otter says, as Nellis can be heard agreeing in the background.

Otter: Parma center closure question should’ve gone to State Board of Ed

Gov. Butch Otter told a crowd of at least 75 people, including lawmakers, university and ag officials, farmers and more, at the Parma Research and Extension Center today that any decision to close the center needs to go through both the president of the University of Idaho and the State Board of Education. “The governor was concerned,” said Otter’s spokesman, Jon Hanian. “They were put in kind of a difficult position, because you had a president that was leaving … and a president that was coming in. The concern was that the chain of command and the chain of responsibility on a decision like this really needed to go through the president, and once the president signed off on it, it needed to go to the board, and that didn’t happen in this case.”

Otter and new UI President Duane Nellis announced that the closure plan would be put on hold indefinitely for review. “He made no promises out there as to ultimately what will happen,” Hanian said, “but he did say, ‘Let’s take a step back and look at this and allow it to go through the process.’ ” Hanian added, “In fairness to the president, he’s only been on the job for what, eight days? The governor pointed out he’s drinking from a fire hose right now, and they’re on a tour around the state. He wants to give him some time, a couple of months to get his sea legs, and then take a look at this, and then it will go to the board, and once the board reviews it, it’ll go to the governor.”

Otter’s been at the Allen & Co. media business confab at Sun Valley this week, and he’s back there now, having flown out to Parma just for a few hours. He spoke at a luncheon at the Parma facility, where a large crowd - two buses full - had gathered for a tour.

Parma center closing delayed

Gov. Butch Otter and University of Idaho President M. Duane Nellis have jointly announced an indefinite delay in the proposed closure of the Parma Research and Extension Center, a closure that drew an outcry of protest from fruit growers and others in the area. “Given the current budget situation, and my newness to the university, the governor and I agreed on the need to take additional time to conduct a more thorough review of the Research and Extension centers statewide,” Nellis said, during a joint announcement with Otter at the center in Parma. Click below to read the full announcement from the university.

Idaho ranks last again for disclosure

The Center for Public Integrity has come out with its latest ranking of states for their disclosure laws, and once again, Idaho has tied for last place - because it has no personal financial disclosure law at all for its elected officials. Washington, by contrast, ranked second in the nation and earned a grade of “A.” The center found that 14 states have improved their rankings since its last survey in 2006, but Idaho, Michigan and Vermont stayed smack-dab at the bottom, with no personal financial disclosure laws on the books.

Idaho took half a step toward such a law this year - a bipartisan proposal backed by Senate Republican and Democratic leaders and the governor passed the state Senate unanimously. But House Speaker Lawerence Denney never assigned it to a committee for a hearing in the House, so it died. Reporter Jared Hopkins has a story out today in the Times-News on Idaho’s poor showing; Idaho also ranked last in the center’s survey in 1999. Here’s a link to the center’s report.

Stimulus money arrives to help restart stalled affordable housing development

Affordable housing projects planned or in construction across the country saw their financing threatened when the recession killed the market for low-income housing tax credits, which are the nation’s main funding method for low-income housing development. Now, federal economic stimulus money is rolling in to help bridge that gap. U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan last week released $2.25 billion in stimulus money to “jump start” as many as 1,000 stalled affordable housing projects across the nation. Washington got $43 million, and Idaho got $8.75 million.

“It’s significant funding,” said Bob Peterson, tax credit manager for the Washington Housing and Finance Commission. “Investment has dropped off in Washington state.” Developers of low-income housing typically sell the federal tax credits to help finance their developments. But as the housing market dropped in the past two years, the value of the credits plummeted. Peterson said two years ago, investors routinely were paying 95 cents on the dollar for the credits; now it’s down to as low as 65 cents. The economic stimulus money will come in the form of grants to close that gap; both Idaho’s and Washington’s housing finance agencies are now reviewing competitive applications for the money, with decisions due within the next one to two months. Though an Idaho Housing and Finance Association spokeswoman said IHFA doesn’t know how many projects are stalled in Idaho, Washington has identified at least 10, and a joint effort by four Spokane churches to provide more affordable housing in that city could be among the projects to benefit from the new funds. You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

FEC says its staff failed Sali

Here’s a news item from AP: BOISE, Idaho (AP) - The Federal Election Commission concluded its own staff failed to adequately assist then-U.S. Rep. Bill Sali file a 2008 campaign finance report. In a May 1 memo, FEC staff members wrote the “repeated failure on the part of Commission staff to promptly follow-up…and help them with their software problem” led to the Republican House member’s tardy July 2008 quarterly filing. At the time, Sali’s staff cited data file woes to explain troubles posting to the FEC Web site before a federally mandated deadline. A phone call to Sali, who lost to Democrat Walt Minnick in November, wasn’t returned Tuesday. In an e-mail to supporters, however, he blasted media and Minnick for “innuendo” suggesting reporting improprieties. Sali said, “They bear the real blame” for negative publicity. Sali also wrote he’s making an “earnest examination” of a possible 2010 GOP primary run.

A bit of good news: Crime is down…

Crime is down in Idaho, continuing a multiyear trend, and it’s down even more in North Idaho. Both the number of serious crimes committed and the area’s crime rate in 2008 fell significantly from the previous year, according to the state’s latest statistics; that trend also held statewide. The Panhandle now has the third-lowest crime rate of the state’s six regions and is below the state average. Interestingly, the Southwestern Idaho region that includes Ada and Canyon counties saw its crime rate fall even more - 10.6 percent, vs. 8.8 percent in the Panhandle and 7.9 percent statewide. Offenses committed in the southwest region dropped by 8.6 percent. That region has the second-highest crime rate (per capita) among the six regions - the highest is southeastern Idaho, and third-highest is north-central Idaho. The lowest crime rate, by far, is in east-central Idaho, but that was also the only region to see the number of offenses increase (by 1.2 percent). You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review, and read the annual Crime in Idaho report here.

Luna: ‘It’s still a high bar’

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna says he’s always been an advocate of lowering the supermajority to pass school bonds, while also reducing the number of possible dates when bond elections can be held. The successful legislation this year to consolidate elections, which will reduce school bond votes to only four dates starting in 2011, just did half of that - and would therefore, on its own, make it tougher for Idaho school districts to build new schools. “I think you’ve raised the bar considerably,” Luna told Eye on Boise. “And I don’t think that was necessarily the intent of all of those who supported election consolidation - it sure wasn’t my expectation that we would stop with just election consolidation.”

Luna, who will propose a constitutional amendment to lawmakers in January to lower the supermajority from two-thirds to 60 percent, said, “I think it’s still a high bar the districts need to get over in order to pass local bonds and levies.” Election consolidation means “you’re going to see a lot more people show up at the polls,” he said. “I’m not predicting that it will mean that districts will have an easier time. Quite frankly, with more, quite possibly with seven or eight times more people showing up at the polls, 60 percent is still going to be a high bar to get over.”

He acknowledged that numerous past efforts to lower the supermajority have failed, but said they never had election consolidation already in place. “It’s not going to be an easy process - it’s not easy to change the constitution, it shouldn’t be easy,” he said. “But I think it’s a worthy cause. I think that people will see the value and the reasons for doing it. I think we’ll be successful.”

ALEC names Jim Clark ‘Legislator of the Year’

Rep. Jim Clark, R-Hayden Lake, is one of nine lawmakers named “Legislator of the Year” this year by the American Legislative Exchange Council, a national conservative group of legislators and business people that promotes “limited government, free markets and federalism.”

Clark, a seven-term lawmaker and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, said, “It’s an honor for me to be selected for this award and the fact that it comes from my peers in the American Legislative Exchange Council makes it even more special. I have benefited tremendously by being a part of ALEC and participating in the wide range of discussions on policy issues. I am a better legislator for Idaho and District 3 as a result of my association with this outstanding organization.”

ALEC spokesman Jorge Amselle said nine legislators will receive the award this year at the organization’s annual meeting, which will be in Atlanta on July 17 and feature Zell Miller and Newt Gingrich as keynote speakers. In a press release, ALEC said, “This award goes to state legislators who are ALEC members in good standing and have distinguished themselves by advancing, introducing and/or enacting policies based on the fundamental Jeffersonian principles of free markets, limited government, federalism and individual liberty.”

Clark is the Idaho state chairman for ALEC, “so he’s taken a really strong leadership position in promoting membership in ALEC and assisting other members to attend our meetings,” Amselle said. The group creates model legislation on various issues; its business members have full votes just like the legislative members.

Former GOP lawmaker launches independent campaign for governor

Former GOP state Rep. Jana Kemp has filed to run for governor of Idaho in 2010 as an independent. Kemp, who served a single term in the state House from 2004 to 2006, was an active and outspoken lawmaker who staked out moderate positions. “A whole series of events and namely the same passion for education that prompted me to run for the House of Representatives is a leading reason to jump into the mix again at this point,” Kemp told Eye on Boise. She also cited her business experience; she’s a business consultant and author of five books on time and meeting management. Kemp said, “My voting record demonstrates the independent approach I take to collecting information, drawing conclusions and solving problems. And so, as I took a step back to look at what’s the right way for me to communicate my message about who I am and what I can contribute to the state of Idaho as a public servant, the only answer was to run as an independent.”

Kemp represented a swing district in Boise, District 16, in which she was defeated in 2006 by Democrat Les Bock, who is now a state senator. Asked why she thought an independent candidate for governor could have a shot in Idaho, Kemp said, “Because the Kentucky Derby winner this year was a 50-1 long shot. Because we have the Boise State Broncos who weren’t supposed to win the Fiesta Bowl. Because we have a president of the United States who wasn’t supposed to make it through the primary process. Long shots can win.” Hat tip to Jared Hopkins’ “Capitol Confidential” blog, which broke the news of Kemp’s candidacy earlier today.

Luna calls for lowering supermajority

There was a time when then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne told a joint session of the Legislature, in his State of the State speech, that he wanted them to pass a constitutional amendment to lower the two-thirds supermajority now required to pass a school construction bond - and he wanted them to do it unanimously. It went nowhere. Now, state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna is taking on the issue, and told the Moscow-Pullman Daily News that it’ll be the first piece of legislation he’ll propose next year - to lower the supermajority from two-thirds to 60 percent. Lawmakers already passed legislation this year to limit school bond elections to just four dates per year, as part of sweeping election consolidation legislation, rather than letting them be scheduled on any date. Constitutional amendments need two-thirds approval in each house of the Legislature, plus majority approval from voters at the next general election to pass. Click below to read the full report from the AP.

Langhorst named to Tax Commission

Former Democratic state Sen. David Langhorst of Boise has been appointed to the Idaho Tax Commission by Gov. Butch Otter, to replace Democratic Tax Commissioner Colleen Grant of Fruitland. Langhorst was assistant minority leader in the Senate in 2008 when he left the Legislature for an unsuccessful run for Ada County commissioner. He’s worked most recently as a real estate appraiser and previously operated a marketing firm. In the Senate, Langhorst served on the Local Government and Taxation Committee and served on two interim committees on tax policy; he also served a term in the House. Click below for Otter’s full news release on the appointment.

A list we didn’t make…

Politico’s Michael Falcone has an article out today on “Capitol Hell: The worst states to govern,” which tags California first as the worst spot to be governor today, with its fiscal and political turmoil. New York, Arizona, New Jersey and Michigan also made the list, with “honorable mentions” for South Carolina, Illinois and Nevada. Idaho’s not to be found on the list; in fact, Gov. Butch Otter has put out a fiscal year-end statement declaring that Idaho has its “financial house in order,” and lauding the state’s “safe, sound and cautious approach.” He declared that “many other states wish they had the kind of balance sheet that Idaho’s state government enjoys,” though he noted that measures like holdbacks, program cuts, furloughs and layoffs are part of Idaho’s budget-balancing approach. “Nobody likes making those decisions, but they have to be made to fulfill our duty to the people we serve,” the governor wrote. Click below to read his full statement.

Eight new staffers join state Dept of Ed

It might seem odd that during these tight times, the state Department of Education is announcing eight new staffers for a new division to oversee all statewide, federally mandated student testing and the GEAR UP program, a program to help low-income students work toward college. But what’s being added at the department is being cut from the Office of the State Board of Education, so it’s a wash. It’s part of Gov. Butch Otter’s initiative to remove everyday management of K-12 schools from the state board office, and send it back to the department, which is headed by the elected state superintendent of schools. That’s how it used to work, before the programs were shifted amid political fighting when the state superintendent was a Democrat, and the governor a Republican. (Now, both, including Supt. Tom Luna, are Republicans.)

Five of the eight staffers in the new unit are moving directly over from the board office. Two are new hires who are taking on positions that had been vacant recently at the board office; the eighth, 2008 Teacher of the Year Carol Scholz, is filling a vacant position at the department for a special education coordinator that’s now being moved into the new unit. “We had some space for ‘em and we squeezed them in, and we’re glad to have ‘em,” said department spokeswoman Melissa McGrath.

Why Project Filter ran out of money

Idaho’s “Project Filter” is now once again offering four weeks of free nicotine replacement therapy to smokers who want to quit, after the program was suspended in May and June due to lack of money. The start of the state’s new budget year yesterday put the nicotine-replacement program back in place with the new fiscal year’s funding. It’s a popular program started in July of 2008, authorized by the state Legislature through the Millenium Fund (tobacco settlement money) and operated by the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare. But the demand for it soared in late spring after a big hike in the federal tobacco tax. That, in turn, caused a huge jump in the number of Idaho smokers who wanted to quit, according to Health & Welfare - and the rest of the year’s worth of funding was quickly used up.

Jack Miller, program manager for Project Filter, said, “We know that there are many Idahoans who are serious about quitting smoking. Once someone makes that decision that today is the day to quit, we’re here to help.” The replacement therapy includes a free four-week supply of nicotine patches, gum and lozenges. It’s available at (800) QUIT-NOW or www.idaho.quitnet.com.

Daley-Laursen gets new assignment at UI

After serving as the university’s interim president, Steven Daley-Laursen takes on a new role today, University of Idaho President Duane Nellis announced, as a senior executive to the president with a focus on “special federal initiatives.” It’s a one-year appointment for the former dean of the College of Natural Resources. The university said Daley-Laursen “will remain a tenured professor of forest resources in the College of Natural Resources, but decided not to return as dean of that college.” Part of his work at the federal level will be taking over from Marty Peterson, who is scaling back his workload as he moves toward retirement; Peterson, who had been handling both federal and state government relations for the UI, now will focus on state relations. Click below to read the UI news release.

Recession prompts rural Idaho residents to stay put

Rural Idaho residents have been staying put during the current recession, unlike during the previous recession, when they moved in large numbers to the state’s urban areas. “The length and depth of the current recession … has severely impeded the ability, and the rationale, for people to move,” Idaho’s Department of Labor reported. This according to a state analysis of the latest U.S. Census figures for city populations. Until the current downturn, Idaho had been seeing a steady migration from its rural areas to its urban ones, a trend that was even more pronounced when the state’s economy was booming. But that was when the draw of the bigger cities promised jobs. Said Labor spokesman Bob Fick, “The biggest job losses have been in the city.” You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Back on the horse?

Gov. Butch Otter is out on a three-day trail ride along the Idaho-Nevada border, along with Nevada Gov. Jim Gibbons, legislators and federal and state officials. It’s an annual tradition for Otter, who started the rides as a congressman to discuss resource issues and see effects on the land close-up. The Twin Falls Times-News has an article today about this year’s ride, which is in the Three Creek area. It includes this mention: “Otter said he brought his own horse, Snuff, a 22-year-old roping quarter horse, while First Lady Lori Otter will ride another family-owned horse, Cooper.”

Otter, of course, was injured in a team-roping accident this past winter, losing a key week of the legislative session for shoulder surgery after, in Lori Otter’s words, “the governor zigged and his horse zagged.” He came back with his arm in a sling and endured weeks of physical therapy even as he battled with lawmakers over his legislative agenda. So is he, now, back on the horse that threw him? It’s an intriguing concept - and one that seems right in character for our cowboy governor. But no, Otter’s winter roping accident came when he was astride Cotton, a 9-year-old gelding quarterhorse, according to news reports.

Snuff does, however, have a history. Back in 1988, Snuff was the horse Otter pal Mike Gwartney was riding when he broke his back and suffered other serious injuries that almost killed him. In 2008, recounting the incident to Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey, Otter said, “Snuff is a three-quarter-million-dollar horse. I paid $3,000 for him and Gwartney paid three-quarters of a million for all the medical stuff he went through.”

Idaho open meeting law reforms take effect today

Among the new laws taking effect today are reforms to Idaho’s Open Meeting Law, which had been limited by a 2007 Idaho Supreme Court decision that blocked prosecution of any violations that couldn’t be proven in court to be “knowing” or intentional. Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, sponsor of the reform legislation, said, “It was in need of revision to ensure the people’s business remains the people’s business.” In a news release, Wasden said, “The hard work and foresight of the journalists, local government officials and my staff who worked hard to overhaul this law is commendable.  For my part, I will continue to work tirelessly for open government and will recommend legislative changes to help ensure open government.” Click below to read his full release.

Full disclosure here: As the president of both the Idaho Press Club and IDOG, Idahoans for Openness in Government, I was among those who worked with the AG on the legislation. IDOG has worked with Wasden’s office to present seminars to hundreds of local government officials, reporters and interested citizens around the state over the past five years to encourage knowledge of and compliance with the state’s open meetings and open records laws; the Supreme Court decision had the bizarre effect of creating an incentive for ignorance of the law. That ends today.

Idaho chief justice named to national drug court ‘Hall of Fame’

Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Dan Eismann has been named to the National Drug Court Hall of Fame, the highest honor given by the National Association of Drug Court Professionals, which represents more than 2,300 drug courts nationwide. As a district judge, Eismann founded the Ada County Drug Court a decade ago; it’s now had more than 600 graduates, 80 percent of whom have had no new criminal charges. The courts focus on integrating criminal justice procedures and drug addiction treatment, with the goal of stopping the “revolving door of crime, victimization, and incarceration by drug addicted criminal defendants,” according to the Idaho Supreme Court. Eismann also pushed for expansion of drug courts to all seven of Idaho’s judicial districts and broadening the model to include mental health courts.

Idaho now has 55 of the special “problem-solving” courts; other states have used Idaho as a model. The award Eismann received is officially called the Stanley M. Goldstein Hall of Fame Award, named after the Florida judge who established the nation’s first drug court 20 years ago. Click below to read the full press release from the Idaho Supreme Court.

Idaho gets new Juvey director

Sharon Harrigfeld, a longtime Idaho juvenile corrections employee and official, has been named the new director of the Idaho Department of Juvenile Corrections, replacing Larry Callicutt, who is retiring Aug. 1. “We’re losing a great director and a valued member of my team with Larry’s departure,” Gov. Butch Otter said in a statement. “His dedication, experience and professionalism will be sorely missed. At the same time, I couldn’t ask for a more qualified, better prepared or more committed person than Sharon to be taking the reins. I know that Juvenile Corrections won’t miss a beat under her leadership. The people of Idaho will continue getting the kind of protection they deserve and our troubled youths will get the firm and just guidance and direction they need.” Click below to read more.

Statewide crackdown on impaired driving starts today

A statewide effort by law enforcement agencies to target impaired drivers kicks off today and runs through July 12. Funded by a federal grant, it’ll focus on catching and arresting anyone driving under the influence, including motorcycle riders. Special patrols are planned over the Fourth of July holiday weekend. Click below to read ITD’s announcement.

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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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