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Eye On Boise

Archive for November 2009

Citizens’ budget ideas rolling in

Gov. Butch Otter’s “efficiency” Web site has received 217 money-saving suggestions for state government so far, as of this morning. An initial look shows ideas ranging from cutting the pay of the state’s highest-paid employees and elected officials to bringing back time off for good behavior for state prison inmates. A Lewiston man recommended logging the timber on highway rights-of-way, while a Boise man called for decriminalizing and taxing marijuana. Several people suggested consolidating school districts; several pleaded for avoiding cuts to schools. A Coeur d’Alene woman called for reducing the number of months in which studded tires are allowed on roads; “You will save millions$,” she wrote. A Salmon man wrote, “If you need to have a wolf hunt, charge $150 for a license, not $11.50.” Others called for privatizing some state services; some called for tax hikes, some for tax cuts. Several advocated eliminating Idaho’s death penalty. Others honed in on specific items they’d like to see cut, from snacks at government meetings to frequent and close-together school bus stops.

“We knew we were going to get a large response,” said Jon Hanian, Otter’s press secretary. All responses will be reviewed and, if feasible, considered, he said. “Everything is on the table.” Carmen Achabal, a Department of Labor employee who previously managed an employee suggestion program for five years at Weyerhaeuser, is managing and organizing the submissions for review. “You have folks from all over the state that are wanting to give their input, from Sandpoint to St. Anthony,” she said. The site continues to accept suggestions.

Former Congressman George Hansen loses Idaho Supreme Court appeal

Former seven-term Idaho Congressman George Hansen has lost an appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court to get out of repaying hundreds of thousands of dollars to an Idaho couple he swindled in a investment scheme. Hansen was first ordered to repay Ann and the late James Meyers $300,000 back in 1993, when Hansen was serving a federal prison sentence for securities fraud, according to the court decision. He maintained he didn’t remember being served, and also questioned whether he received proper notice of subsequent default judgments against him in the case. In 2006, he filed two pro se motions resisting an order in the case, but then claimed he didn’t know about the default judgment until 2007, when he got an attorney. He also claimed in his appeal that he was “without substantial assets” to pay the judgment.

In a unanimous opinion authored by Justice Warren Jones, the high court wrote, “Hansen’s argument strangely assumes that he was unaware of his own assets until 2007. Moreover, there is no reason why the judgment would become inequitable simply because the judgment debtor cannot afford to pay it.” The court also found, “Hansen personally received his initial service of process and also a mailed notice of the Entry of Default but did nothing.” The original default judgment of $299,350, with interest, has swelled to a judgment of $732,927.

The high court wrote, “Although Hansen characterized the investment as a personal loan to him, Meyers and her late husband invested nearly $300,000 in Ideal Consultants, what they believed was a legitimate attempt to build a revenue-generating program known as the Congressional Accountability Project. This was a fraudulent commercial transaction.” The court awarded costs and attorney fees for the appeal to Meyers. You can read the court’s decision here. Hansen, a Republican, was first elected to Idaho’s 2nd District congressional seat in 1964 and served two terms, before losing a challenge to Democratic Sen. Frank Church. He won election to the House seat again in 1974, and won re-election four times before losing to Democrat Richard Stallings in 1984.

Sun Valley opens new gondola despite recession

In the depths of the recession, Sun Valley ski resort is doing something most resorts aren’t doing these days - celebrating the opening of a $10 million-plus, eight-passenger gondola that will whisk skiers comfortably up to its Roundhouse Restaurant and Seattle Ridge area runs, a trip that formerly required two chairlift rides.

Sun Valley is the only resort in the Northwest opening a new gondola this year, in a year when the National Ski Areas Association projects investment in new ski lifts to fall sharply nationwide to just $16 million, down from $94 million last year and $102 million the year before. The reason: Earl Holding. Sun Valley’s longtime owner, a self-made billionaire who also owns the Little America hotel and truck stop chain and Sinclair Oil, committed to the project two and a half years ago, and kept to it.  You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Guv’s transportation funding task force to hold third meeting

Gov. Butch Otter’s transportation funding task force will hold its third meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 2, starting at 10 a.m. at the J.R. Williams Building in Boise. A national consultant and former Utah transportation director will make a presentation about transportation funding across the country; you can see the full agenda and other info here. The task force is in the midst of an 18-month study of options for adequately funding transportation in Idaho; it’s due to report back to the governor by December of 2010. “The individuals, families and businesses using our highways also are financing them. They deserve real assurance that they are getting what they pay for from our vital transportation corridors,” Otter said.

High court upholds urban renewal

The Idaho Supreme Court has upheld a Rexburg urban renewal project in a case that was being closely watched by urban renewal agencies around the state. In a unanimous ruling authored by Justice Joel Horton, the high court upheld a 7th District Court ruling rejecting a challenge to the project by Rexburg resident Kenneth Hart, who contended it was unconstitutional. Hart acted as his own attorney in the district court case, but was represented by attorney John Runft in the Supreme Court appeal.

At issue was a $6.3 million revenue allocation bond issue to fund a project including a public pool, community center and sports fields. Hart argued that a court couldn’t grant the Rexburg Urban Renewal Agency permission for the bond issue because the agency was just an “alter ego” of the city, and the city’s ability to go into debt is limited by the Idaho Constitution. The court held that “urban renewal agencies are not the ‘alter egos’ of cities under the law,” so the bond issue wasn’t unconstitutional. Nine urban renewal agencies filed amicus briefs siding with the Rexburg urban renewal agency; you can read the Supreme Court decision here.

Idaho’s first-ever prison rape conviction

Idaho’s state Department of Correction says the case of Cody Vealton Thompson, who was convicted by an Ada County jury Nov. 17 of raping his cellmate and attempting to intimidate a witness, is the first conviction of an inmate for raping another inmate inside an Idaho prison in the 120-year history of the state’s prison system. “This case shows Idaho is serious about eliminating prison rape,” said Idaho Department of Correction Director Brent Reinke. He said Idaho has been a national leader in implementing the Prison Rape Elimination Act, a federal law passed in 2003. Click below to read the department’s full news release; Thompson faces sentencing Dec. 22.

Wasden: Mortgage-rescue scams now top complaint, Idahoans beware

With two lawsuits pending against Kootenai County mortgage modification services and several other investigations ongoing statewide, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden is calling on Idahoans to beware of companies that offer to help those facing home foreclosures - for an up-front fee. “Most of the time, the people operating modification companies are unqualified and unlicensed, with no experience in the mortgage industry,” Wasden said. “Even if their initial intentions are noble, they soon discover they cannot fulfill the promises they made to consumers. Inevitably, the company closes or files bankruptcy, and homeowners are left in a worse position than before they contacted the company.”

Anyone having trouble paying their mortgage should contact their lender directly, the attorney general said. Homeowners who have difficulty negotiating a modification can get help from a nonprofit housing counselor; information on the process is available in a new free brochure from Wasden’s office. The brochure, “Foreclosure Prevention and Foreclosure Scams: How to Tell the Difference,” is available online at www.ag.idaho.gov, or by calling toll-free (800) 432-3545.
   
Wasden recently filed a lawsuit against APS Northwest Idaho LLC, a Kootenai County mortgage modification company, for numerous violations of the Idaho Consumer Protection Act. He’d earlier filed a similar lawsuit against Coeur d’Alene-based Apply 2 Save, which is now in bankruptcy, and reached a separate settlement with a former Apply 2 Save executive.

“This year we’ve received more complaints about companies that offer mortgage modification services than any other type of business,” Wasden said. He encouraged Idahoans to report any instances of foreclosure rescue fraud to his office and the Idaho Department of Finance; both agencies have complaint forms on their Web sites. The Department of Finance Web site is http://finance.idaho.gov.

Back to work in Capitol

Legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith, right, and budget analyst Paul Headlee, left, work on budget issues amid the boxes on the third floor of the state Capitol today. Legislative Services workers were the first to move back into the newly renovated Capitol and go to work; they started moving in yesterday.

Over the next three weeks, elected officials including the governor will follow, and the newly renovated state Capitol will open to the public on Jan. 9 at noon. For now, construction workers are still around for some finishing touches, and protective covering has been laid across the newly refinished marble floors to allow furniture to be moved back in without damaging or marring the finish.

Lowe: ‘Taxpayers need to know what’s going on’

Former Idaho Transportation Director Pam Lowe, in an interview with NPR Boise State Radio’s Don Wimberly, talked about her dispute with the state over her firing - a dispute that’s resulted in a wrongful-termination lawsuit - and her reasons for going public over the dispute. “I think the citizens and the taxpayers need to know what’s going on - that is my primary motivation,” Lowe told Wimberly. “I’ve been damaged, so they might as well at this point, they  might as well hear what happened. My reputation, when I was terminated or forced out, was damaged. So at this point I’m somewhat clearing my name by letting people know, hey, here’s what really was going on. Plus, the taxpayers just need to have a light shine on what’s going on behind the closed doors in our government.”

Lowe maintains she was fired for trying to cut back or eliminate a pricey state contract with a politically well-connected contractor. Her lawsuit also alleges sex discrimination and more; she was the department’s first female director. “At some point you have to do the right thing, and to me going public and letting people know what was happening and what is happening is the right thing to do,” she told Wimberly. You can listen to the full interview here.

Why Idaho passed its no-severance law…

There’s nothing in the record that shows why lawmakers passed legislation in 1993, with only one dissenting vote in either house, to ban severance payments to state employees who leave voluntarily. There was little discussion in committee, where the bill passed near-unanimously. But a look back at news clips from the time provides an answer: That year’s legislative session opened just as a big scandal was breaking over new U.S. Sen. Dirk Kempthorne’s payment of more than $38,000 in severance bonuses to two top aides who worked for him when he was mayor of Boise, when they left city employment to take higher-paid positions on his Senate staff. The severance bonuses were paid with city funds. The move caused such a fuss that the office of the new senator, on his first day in D.C., was besieged with outraged calls from Idaho, particularly as he had campaigned on a reform platform and decried congressional perks and “midnight pay raises.”

Kempthorne initially said it was then-Boise City Council President Sara Baker who had approved the bonuses, but she said she’d done so only at his request. It turned out the city of Boise had had a severance pay policy in effect since 1990 designed to give it a way to get rid of top executives without lawsuits, but it also was being used to pay a minimum of two months’ pay to top city officials who left for better jobs. After a week of building outrage, both Kempthorne aides paid the money back to the city, and the City Council revoked the policy. In that year’s legislative session, two pieces of legislation were introduced to ban severance payments, one for state employees who leave voluntarily, the other for city or county employees. The city and county bill died on the Senate floor, but the state one passed both houses overwhelmingly, was signed into law by then-Gov. Cecil Andrus and took effect on July 1. Then-Sen. John Peavey, D-Carey, sponsor of the successful bill, said, “It kinda takes a jolt to get something done in the Legislature with that kind of support. Obviously everybody was of a single mind over there.”

He added, “Y’know, there’s that old barn-door story, it’s all well and good to close the door after the horses are gone. In this case, we had a warning, so we busily went around and shut doors before anything else happened.”

Simpson hasn’t endorsed

2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson hasn’t endorsed a candidate in the Republican primary for Idaho’s 1st District congressional seat, spokeswoman Nikki Watts said today. “Mr. Ward asked Congressman Simpson if he could use his name on the event invitation for the event in D.C., and my boss said yes, and he would do the same for any other Republican running in the 1st CD,” Watts said. “Primaries are very difficult, and so he just wants to support all of the Republicans. … We’re doing this and we’ll do it for anybody else.”

The Hill: GOP leaders siding with Ward

The Washington, D.C. newspaper The Hill is reporting that U.S. House GOP leaders are lining up behind Vaughn Ward in the Republican race for a chance to take on freshman Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick, though state Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, says he’ll also be jumping into the race and former GOP Congressman Bill Sali still hasn’t decided whether or not to try for a comeback. Minnick narrowly defeated Sali in 2008 to become the first Democrat to hold Idaho’s 1st District congressional seat since 1994. The Hill reported that an array of national GOP leaders, including House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, Whip Eric Cantor, R-Va., and Chief Deputy Whip Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., will headline a Dec. 8 fundraiser for Ward in Washington, D.C.,  showing that “Republican leaders are asserting their preference in the primary.” The fundraiser invitation also bears the name of Idaho 2nd District Congressman Mike Simpson, the paper reported.

Albertson Foundation pledges $20M to get Idaho kids to go on to college

The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation has announced it’ll put up to $20 million into a big new push to try to get Idaho kids to go on to higher education after high school. That’s a goal that was put front and center by Gov. Butch Otter and a new Education Alliance last week, but that alliance’s new strategy lacked any funding. Here’s what the Albertson Foundation is planning: $11 million in targeted, statewide scholarships “to help Idaho improve college opportunities and increase post-secondary participation and completion”; $6 million to the Idaho Education Network to “increase access to relevant data and increase equal educational opportunities to Idaho stakeholders statewide”; and up to $3 million for an awareness campaign about opportunities beyond high school and for “KnowHow2Go Idaho,” a “support and guidance program that helps turn college dreams into action-oriented goals.”

The foundation’s initiative was praised today by Otter, state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna and state Board of Education President Paul Agidius. Idaho ranks 43rd in the nation for students going on to complete a degree, the foundation said. Already, commercials are airing on TV in Idaho encouraging students to continue their education. Jamie MacMillan, executive director of the foundation, said the initiative “combines a thought-provoking messaging and advertising campaign that we hope will capture the attention of students, parents, government, business and other important stakeholders. We are committed to raising awareness and, even more importantly, to converting that awareness into action. We need to better prepare and provide opportunities for Idaho’s kids to GO ON - go on to high-quality jobs; go on to technical training; go on to post-secondary institutions - if we want them to GO ON to a better life.”

The Albertson Foundation is a private family foundation formed by the founders of the Albertson’s grocery chain, dedicated to improving education in Idaho.

The legal ins and outs

Two state laws are at play in the issue of recent state purchases of PERSI service for certain retiring employees: 67-5342, which bans any severance pay to a state employee who leaves voluntarily, and 59-1363, which covers purchases of additional membership service by a PERSI member. That statute states, “The member shall be solely responsible for the costs of such purchased service, except that an employer may participate in the costs at its option.” Employers who are part of PERSI include not only the state, but local governments, some of which permit severance and have established early retirement incentive programs. Purchases of service by employees have become increasingly common in recent years, according to PERSI Director Don Drum, particularly as retiring employees opt to roll the money from their 401K accounts into PERSI as they retire. Purchasing service is an expensive proposition, he noted; the employee must pay the full actuarial cost so that PERSI is not providing them with an enhanced benefit, they are purchasing an enhanced benefit. Click below to read more.

Retirement boosts raise questions

Idaho state agencies have spent more than $125,000 in the past six months to boost the retirement accounts of three departing employees, including one agency director - though Idaho state law bans all severance payments to state employees who leave voluntarily. Gov. Butch Otter’s administration maintains the payments don’t violate the severance ban because the state paid the money to the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho, rather than directly to the employees. But at a time when many state workers are being hit hard by budget cuts, furloughs and layoffs, lawmakers and a state employee association are upset about the move, and have questions both about its legality and its fairness. You can read my full story here from today’s Spokesman-Review.

ITD on why they’ll pay Ness so much more than Lowe…

ITD said today that the reason it’ll pay new Director Brian Ness $22,000 a year more than fired Director Pam Lowe is because it negotiated a salary designed to be a substantial increase from Ness’ current salary in Michigan, after accounting for higher costs of living he’ll face in Idaho. “Salary of the department’s director is negotiable,” said ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten. “Pam received promotional increases as her responsibility within the organization grew.” Lowe, whose wrongful termination lawsuit against the state alleges sex discrimination and other charges, made $143,000 a year; Ness will make $165,000. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Capitol construction ‘substantially complete’

It’s a milestone for the two-year renovation of the state Capitol: The project has been declared “substantially complete,” and the building is now back in the hands of the state, rather than the contractors. There’s still final work and move-in work going on, however; the first state agency to move back in to the renovated historic structure will be Legislative Services, which is moving in over the weekend and will start working in the Capitol on Monday. Then, over the next three weeks, state elected officials including the governor will begin moving their offices back in. Parts of the Capitol still will remain closed during the process; the whole thing will reopen to the public with a rededication ceremony, housewarming and tours on Saturday Jan. 9, starting at noon. The legislative session will kick off in the building the following Monday; click here to see the state’s announcement about the substantial completion.

Whoops - actually it’s $22K more

ITD has corrected the salary figure it supplied to Eye on Boise late yesterday for new Idaho Transportation Director Brian Ness - it’s not $160,000 a year, it’s $165,000. That makes it $22,000 more than the salary paid to the previous director, Pam Lowe.

New ITD chief to be paid $17K more than Lowe

Idaho’s new state transportation director, Brian Ness, will be paid $160,000 a year, ITD reports. That’s $17,000 more a year than the salary of the previous director, Pam Lowe, who made $143,000.

Henderson: ITD needs administrator more than engineer at top

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, who’s led work on the ITD budget in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee for the past four years, said, “On the basis of what I’ve read about the new director, I am very pleased, because … it’s my opinion that the head of that department needs to be someone skilled in administration.” That’s more important, he said, than “to hire an engineer. We need an administrator. So that’s what they did - they hired someone with public administration experience, he’s obviously knowledgeable of engineering and highways, and he’s had long experience with legislative issues, so I am very pleased.” The new director, Brian Ness, is a civil engineer who holds a master’s degree in public administration and has worked 12 years as a Michigan DOT administrator. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Idaho extends wolf-hunting season

The Idaho Fish & Game Commission today extended the state’s wolf hunting seasons in all of its still-open zones to March 31; all but two had been scheduled to close Dec. 31, while the Lolo and Sawtooth zone hunts already were scheduled to go to the end of March. Three of Idaho’s 12 wolf-hunting zones already have closed because their limits have been reached; those are the Dworshak-Elk City zone, the McCall-Weiser zone and the Upper Snake zone in eastern Idaho. Three more zones are nearing their harvest limit, Fish & Game said; those limits haven’t changed. The Palouse-Hells Canyon zone is two short of its limit of five; the Southern Mountains zone is three away from its limit of 10; and the Middle Fork zone is four short of its limit of 17. Statewide, 110 wolves have been shot since the season started; the statewide limit is 220. Hunters are being asked to call (877) 872-3190 to check whether a zone is still open before heading out. Montana ended its wolf hunt on Monday after its limits were nearly reached in all zones and exceeded in one.

McGee on new ITD director: ‘Excited we’re heading in a new direction’

Idaho Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, had this to say on the appointment today of Michigan transportation official Brian Ness as Idaho’s new transportation director: “I’m excited that we’re heading in a new direction. I’m pleased to see that the process is over, the board has selected a director who seems to be very qualified for the position, and I look forward to working with that director on improving the infrastructure in the state of Idaho.”

McGee said he thinks it’s important that the new director has experience dealing with state legislators. “I think the job of an agency director, of any agency director, can be very complicated. I think having previous experience dealing with the legislature should suit him well in that position.” Asked if he’s still thinking of bringing back the bill he sponsored this year to turn the ITD director into a political appointee of the governor, rather than a professional appointed by the ITD board, McGee said, “I haven’t even thought about it. … I can’t tell you one way or the other. … I’ve been focused on the governor’s transportation task force and trying to come up with new ways to fund the roads that we have.”

Asked why he proposed the bill and then pulled it, McGee said, “Now we’re getting into issues that are being discussed in the lawsuit, and as much as I would like to say something about that topic, because it’s being adjudicated and that’s been referenced in the lawsuit, it’d be inappropriate for me to talk about.” McGee said he has “a lot” to say on that subject, but can’t now because of the court case. Former ITD Director Pam Lowe charges in her wrongful firing lawsuit against the state that ITD board members made a deal with McGee to fire her in exchange for his dropping the bill.

New ITD chief: ‘Focus on moving the department forward’

Newly named Idaho Transportation Director Brian Ness, who will start work Jan. 11, told Eye on Boise, “My focus has to be on moving the department forward, and that’s what I intend to do.” Asked why the longtime Michigan transportation official decided to apply for the Idaho post, he said he’s often visited, and has family in the region. “It’s just a nice area of the country to live in,” Ness said. “And when I did the research for the position, the staff was just phenomenal. There’s a lot of good things here going on as an organization that I’d like to be part of.”

Ness, 51, said the “key things that I’m big on” are team work, customer focus and building and developing strong partnerships. Asked how he’ll cope with a department that’s clearly underfunded for the huge task it faces in maintaining the state’s transportation system, he said, “Well, I know there’s a governor’s task force that’s working on that right now, and I think our role, the Idaho Transportation Department, is to give them information that’s accurate, credible and good information so they can use that in formulating what their final recommendations would be to the governor, and then, when that’s completed, we’ll take a look at that and determine where we go for funding transportation in Idaho in the future.”

In his current post as a regional administrator for Michigan DOT, Ness said he’s worked closely with state legislators from his region, a key part of his job as it was for the state’s other six regional administrators. He said what worked for him was “just face-to-face honest communication, a lot of one-on-one communication, just the relationship-building, so that when you talk to them they know you’re credible, that you’re going to do the right thing, that they can take what you say to the bank.” Asked how he’s handled political pressure - a key issue in the dispute over the firing of his predecessor at ITD, Pam Lowe - Ness said, “I just worked very hard to establish credibility with our local elected officials, and if we couldn’t do something based on policy or procedure, my reputation was good enough with them that I was able to say, ‘No, we can’t do that,’ and they understood why and we moved on.”

Otter’s statement on Pam Lowe firing

Yesterday, in response to a request from the Lewiston Morning Tribune, which has been editorializing against Gov. Butch Otter’s silence on the firing of former Transportation Director Pam Lowe and her wrongful-termination lawsuit against the state, Otter issued the following statement:

“I support the decision of the board to remove the former director and go in another direction. The issue over the past legislative session became Pam and ITD, instead of fixing ailing roads and bridges and addressing the backlog of projects to keep Idaho’s roads safe. Over the course of three years Pam never once raised concerns about the contract with me. In the end, despite her claims, Pam was ineffective and lost the faith and confidence of the board, my office and many in the legislature. Our highways and bridges are critical to Idaho. Now more than ever, we need a leader at ITD who can work with the legislature and board to successfully address our infrastructure needs today and into the future.”

ITD names new director

The Idaho Transportation Board has named Brian W. Ness, an administrator with the Michigan Department of Transportation, as its new director. Current acting director Scott Stokes will return to his position of deputy director in early January as Ness takes over. Click below to read ITD’s full announcement. Ness, a professional engineer, has both a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering and a master’s degree in public administration; ITD board Chairman Darrell Manning said, “Ness possesses the professional background, leadership skills, and energy to make an immediate impact on transportation in Idaho. We know that his degree in public administration coupled with his transportation background will serve him well in effectively leading the transportation department.” The move comes after ITD fired former Director Pam Lowe in July; she’s now suing the state for wrongful termination, alleging sex discrimination, political cronyism and more; her lawsuit says the board fired her for refusing to favor a campaign contributor to the governor who holds a hefty ITD contract.

Idaho unemployment notches up again

Idaho’s unemployment rate has notched up again, this time by a tenth of a percentage point to 9 percent, the highest since June of 1983. The U.S. Department of Labor today revised Idaho’s October rate up from the Nov. 6 forecast, based on additional data; a record 67,800 Idahoans are now jobless, with the state’s total employment dropping below 686,000 for the first time since February of 2005. Click below to read the full news release from the Idaho Department of Labor.

Sali says he still hasn’t decided

While strolling across downtown Boise in the crisp fall sunshine a few minutes ago, I ran into none other than former Idaho Congressman Bill Sali. Of course, I had to ask him: Is he running again for his old seat in Idaho’s 1st District? “Stay tuned,” Sali responded. Asked how long I should stay tuned, Sali was non-committal, saying until he decides one way or another. As he tried to get in his car and drive away, I asked him why, if he’s still considering running, he raised no campaign funds in the last quarter. “If I don’t run, I don’t want to have to give it back to people and go through all that mess,” Sali responded. “When I’m running, I should raise money, and when I am not, I shouldn’t. That’s the honorable thing.” When I asked him what he plans to do about his remaining campaign debt, which is over $100,000, Sali responded again, “Stay tuned.”

Otter on budget cuts, taxes…

Click below to read the memo Gov. Butch Otter sent to state agencies last week asking them to further trim spending and limit all “non-essential activities wherever possible.” In his luncheon talk to the Associated Taxpayers today, Otter said, “Folks, we are going to have a tough session - it’s going to be tough because, obviously, we don’t have the kind of money that we’ve had in years past.” He noted that the amount of money Idaho will have for its budget next year is comparable to what the state had back in 2003-2004. So he’s told state agency heads to go back and look at what they were doing then. Anything that’s been added since then, he said, should perhaps be eliminated, unless it’s required by law or the constitution. “That wasn’t a mandate - it was a suggestion,” Otter explained after his speech. “That would be the low-hanging fruit.”

He also said cuts are unavoidable. “The only other means is to raise taxes, and I tell you, in this environment I believe there is little appetite in the state legislature,” Otter declared. He went on to directly criticize a proposal from Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, for a temporary income tax surcharge on those earning more than $50,000 a year, as something that could “divide by class warfare,” and said, “I don’t want to see that happening in the state of Idaho. … Those who are successful ought to be celebrated and rewarded. … I resist the effort to start class warfare.” He also derided the idea of temporary tax increases, like the temporary sales tax hike enacted under former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne. A year and a half after the temporary tax increase expired, lawmakers decided to raise the tax again, this time permanently, to fund property tax relief. “Let’s be honest about the history,” Otter said. “Putting a new tax on is like getting a tattoo, folks. You don’t get rid of it without some serious trauma.”

Otter: ‘Careful how much we damage that future’

Gov. Butch Otter, in his keynote luncheon speech to the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho today, spoke out strongly on the value of education, and how it’s a central mission of the state per the Idaho Constitution. He shared how he was the first among nine siblings to graduate from college, and proudly described the many advanced degrees now held by his own four children, and his hopes for his grandchildren. “So yeah, we’ve got to make some cuts, and yeah, I’ve already made some cuts - and I’ve been pretty careful about how much we damage that future,” Otter declared.

Otter said he’s a “user-pay guy,” and wants people to pay for the services they use, from roads to parks to hunting programs. But that doesn’t apply to education, he said. “There are those areas where the Constitution of the state of Idaho says otherwise.”

One revenue bright spot…

Two local government officials, Bannock County Commissioner Steve Hadley and Coeur d’Alene City Councilman Mike Kennedy, are sharing their communities’ budget challenges with the Associated Taxpayers conference. Kennedy said Coeur d’Alene’s budget outlook is a difficult one, but there is one revenue source - income from state liquor sales - that’s up. “Being North Idahoans, we do what we do in a crisis - we drank our way through it,” he said to laughter. Then he said he tested out the theory last night at Bardenay in Boise, and “it’s happening in Ada County too.”

‘Transformational’ education strategy unveiled

Gov. Butch Otter and state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna joined business leaders and others at a press conference today to announce a new, broad education strategy for the state, focusing on getting more Idaho kids to go on to post-secondary education, high standards and accountability in public schools, and more. The Idaho Business Coalition for Education Excellence, a group of about 70 CEOs and other business people from throughout the state, brought together education stakeholders in an “Education Alliance” to develop the strategy, dubbed a “transformational education agenda.” “You know you’re on the right track when the teachers and the administrators, the school boards and the parents, the public sector and private industry all come together to focus their collective wisdom, experience and passion on an issue,” Otter said. “I’m happy to be able to facilitate and encourage this effort to create a world-class education system that will enable our students to compete in the global marketplace of ideas.” Otter said the state Board of Education will work with the alliance to try to implement the strategy; you can read the alliance’s full announcement here.

‘Buy Idaho’ capitol dispute resolved

Here’s a news item from AP:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A group that promotes homegrown Idaho products and services will get to spread out in the recently renovated Capitol, after all. The Capitol Commission, which oversees the building, had passed guidelines restricting public events to the fourth floor. But Buy Idaho typically uses multiple floors for its annual event. It complained the new rules would prevent it from getting the word out about its members’ products. On Wednesday, the Capitol Commission agreed to grant an exception to Buy Idaho, letting it use all four floors of the Capitol rotunda come Feb. 17, the date of its exhibition in 2010. This agreement helped de-escalate a dispute over just who controlled use of the Capitol: The Capitol Commission, the Legislature or the executive branch under Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter.

Cuts will necessarily hit state employees

Budget cuts mean hits on state employees, legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith told the ATI conference. “Most of our costs are in personnel … and you can’t avoid that,” she said. So when the state makes budget cuts, “You’re either reducing people’s pay, you’re furloughing them or you’re laying them off.

Otter dropping NGA membership

Among the budget cuts on which Gov. Butch Otter already has decided: He’ll be the only governor next year who won’t be a member of the National Governors Association, his budget chief, Wayne Hammon, just told the ATI conference. “It just costs too much money,” Hammon said. He said in his office, the Division of Financial Management, staffers also will be dropping their national association memberships. Hammon said the federal government’s boost to Medicaid funding through the economic stimulus, which raised the percentage of Medicaid costs the feds covered, was crucial to balancing this year’s budget, and the future of that matching rate affects Idaho’s future budgets. “There’s no way we could’ve balanced the budget last year without this FMAP change,” Hammon said.

In next year’s budget, he said, “You won’t see a lot of new initiatives or projects.” It’s not the time, he said. State employees likely won’t get raises, and there likely will be further cuts in their benefits.

Gov warns state agencies to prepare for possible further holdbacks

In fiscal year 2009, Idaho’s state general fund revenue was down by 15.3 percent from the year before, exceeding the 2002 drop of 14.3 percent. Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter’s budget director, told ATI that the forecast for the current year, fiscal year 2010, calls for another drop: Down another 3.6 percent. “That’s the first time since the state switched to annual appropriations in 1971 that that has occurred,” Hammon said. “This is the first time since ‘71 that we’ve had two negative years in a row.” He then ran down the big budget cuts many state agencies already took for this fiscal year, before Otter imposed additional holdbacks in September; and the additional cuts that came with the holdbacks. “There are less troopers on the road today,” Hammon said. “There are less prison guards … they’ve had to restructure how we maintain our prisons. We’re to the point where the cuts have started to have real impact.”

Now, more cuts loom. Hammon said that late last week, Otter sent a memo to all state agency heads, “and told them to prepare for additional cuts … not to make any spending unless it was absolutely necessary, not to fill positions unless they have an emergency situation, and to prepare for further holdbacks. Will that happen? We’re not sure.” The state will know in December, he said.

Fulcher: ‘Violently agree’

Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, said he has to “violently agree” with Rep. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, that Idaho can’t just “play defense” in its budget cuts, and must focus on job creation. “That’s what’s going to dig us out of this hole,” Fulcher said.

Ruchti: ‘We can’t just play defense’

Rep. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, the House assistant minority leader, said tax cuts in recent years have helped put the state in the revenue crunch it’s in right now. “There’s millions of tax revenue dollars that we don’t have now that we desperately need,” Ruchti told the ATI conference. “My guess is the votes would have come out much differently if we knew then what we know now.” He added to some laughter, “I think it’s very important, whenever you get a chance, to say I told you so.”

Ruchti said lawmakers need to look to create and retain jobs, not just make cuts. “We can’t just play defense,” he said. “I am especially concerned about cuts to higher education.” This year’s budget debates, he said, “are not going to be easy decisions, and I think Sen. Fulcher and I are in agreement on that.”

Fulcher: ‘We will make someone mad’

Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, the Senate majority caucus chairman, told the ATI conference just now that lawmakers this year will be looking at difficult budget cuts in the very areas where people most don’t want them - education and health services. “Everything is on the table,” he said. “The one thing I will guarantee you is we will make someone mad.” He said much of Idaho’s state budget goes to education and health and welfare. “The overall budget forecast is more than 20 percent less than what we budgeted against 18 months ago. … Folks, you have to touch education, and you have to touch health services. It simply is mathematical.”

He also said to expect talk of consolidating or merging state agencies, such as the Commission on Aging and the Hispanic Commission, and about consolidating some of Idaho’s 113 school districts. But he doesn’t foresee a tax increase. “I just do not see the collective appetite,” Fulcher said. “I just don’t see it happening.”

A first: Feds top funding source for state government

Hundreds of business people, government employees, legislators and more are gathered in Boise this morning for the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho annual conference, which is traditionally something of a warm-up for the legislative session that kicks off in January. The program opened with a national expert, Eileen Sherr of the American Institute of CPAs, giving an update on federal tax policy and the state of the federal budget - grim - and Joseph Crosby, head of a trade association that tracks tax policy for large multistate businesses, talking about how the tax climate is changing in states due to recession-driven budget crunches. “A lot of the states that are relying on personal income taxes are seeing dramatic underperformance in those taxes,” Crosby told the conference. Some states are turning to sales tax rate increases, which he said are “the easiest way to get money in the door quickly.” With the federal economic stimulus - which saved Idaho from drastic state budget cuts this year - Crosby said in the first quarter of this year, the federal government became the largest funding source for state government, something that had never happened before.

Suggestions rolling in from Idahoans…

Gov. Butch Otter’s “efficiency” Web site, which asks Idahoans for their ideas on how the state can save money, has received 112 suggestions as of this morning, according to Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian. “We know people have a lot of ideas and opinions about what the state should or shouldn’t be doing, and so I think we certainly expected there was going to be a good deal of interest,” Hanian said. “So far, that’s been the case.” The site was just launched on Friday.

Idaho settles grazing lease lawsuit

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho has agreed to pay $50,000 and pledged to follow anti-discrimination rules to settle a federal lawsuit against state officials who awarded grazing leases to ranchers, not the environmentalist who had offered more money. The five-member Idaho Land Board, including Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, has also committed to revising its rules to allow conservation groups to lease state endowment trust lands, a big change after years of fierce litigation. In 2006, Washington state businessman and environmentalist Gordon Younger was the high bidder on seven Idaho grazing leases, but lost when the Land Board under then-Gov. Jim Risch gave them to livestock owners. Younger sued in U.S. District Court, contending he was the victim of discrimination. Laird Lucas, Younger’s attorney, says he’s optimistic Tuesday’s settlement represents a departure from the past, when conservation groups were bullied out of winning state grazing leases. Click below to read the full story.

Land Board approves North Idaho land swap with Avista Corp.

Idaho’s state Land Board approved a land swap with Avista Corp. today that’ll give the utility land at Trestle Creek near Hope, which it’ll use for a bull trout restoration project, in exchange for some easier-to-log rolling timberland a few miles away that the state endowment would rather have. Avista wants the Trestle Creek land as part of its ongoing mitigation efforts for relicensing the Cabinet Gorge and Noxon Rapids dams, on which it’s spending $5 million a year for 45 years; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Minnick unveils job-training bill

Idaho Congressman Walt Minnick today unveiled job-training legislation he said he’s been crafting for the past eight months. The measure, H.R. 4072, entitled the American Manufacturing Efficiency and Retraining Investment Collaboration (AMERICA) Works Act, would route federal workforce training funds toward programs that provide “nationally portable, industry-recognized credentials,” and make other reforms to the programs without expanding their cost. It won praise from North Idaho College, the Northwest Carpenters and the National Association of Manufacturers, whose senior vice president, Emily DeRocco, said it would “help ensure both new and transitioning workers have the education and skills necessary to succeed in the 21st century manufacturing economy.” You can read Minnick’s full news release on the bill here; the Democratic freshman has three cosponsors so far, all fellow Democrats.

Pam Lowe files sex-bias suit against state

Idaho’s first-ever female transportation director was fired, in part, simply for being a woman, a lawsuit filed today charges. Pam Lowe, who last week filed a “whistleblower” complaint against the state alleging that she was fired for resisting political pressure to favor a big campaign donor to Gov. Butch Otter, filed an amended complaint today bringing in six additional claims for violating her rights under both the U.S. and Idaho constitutions.

“Her gender was specifically referenced as a reason that she should not be promoted and/or that she would not be successful,” the lawsuit states. “Ms. Lowe’s gender was a contributing factor to the board’s decision to terminate her employment, in violation of the equal protection clause of the United States Constitution.” Lowe’s legal filing in 4th District Court in Boise repeats her earlier allegation that Idaho Transportation Board member Gary Blick of Twin Falls said “no little girl would be able to run this department, or words to that effect” and asked, “What are we going to do when she decides to start a family?” But Lowe, a professional engineer and 15-year department employee, said that wasn’t the only instance of gender discrimination she suffered at the department. “I have some other information that I think will probably come out as part of the trial process,” she told The Spokesman-Review.

Lowe’s six additional claims charge that the state Transportation Board violated both the U.S. and the Idaho state constitutions in three different ways: By engaging in sex discrimination, violating her right to equal protection; by firing her without citing any of the statutory reasons why a transportation director can be fired and without allowing her a hearing, violating her right to due process; and by impugning her good name with “false allegations of unsatisfactory job performance,” hurting her professional reputation and “foreclosing other employment opportunities.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com, and read her amended complaint here.

Wasden: Idahoans could share in Vonage settlement

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden says Idahoans who had trouble canceling their Vonage Voice Over Internet Protocol service may be eligible for refunds, as part of a new multistate legal settlement. Consumers with unresolved complaints dating back to January 2004 may be eligible; they must file written complaints with the AG’s office by March 16, 2010. More information, including complaint forms, is available online here.

Wasden said the company had been paying incentives to customer service representatives to convince customers not to cancel their accounts, and customers reported pressure that made it difficult to cancel. “When a contract allows a consumer to cancel within a certain time period, consumers have a right and are entitled to exercise that right without undue obstacles thrown up by the other contracting party,” Wasden said.  “Consumers who were hurt will be able to obtain redress and the problems we saw ought not continue in the future.” As part of the $3 million multistate settlement, the company agreed to reform its marketing practices.

How to cope with budget crunch…

Here’s a link to my full story from Saturday’s Spokesman-Review on the latest on Idaho’s state budget crunch, from Gov. Butch Otter appealing for money-saving ideas from citizens to Moscow Democratic Rep. Shirley Ringo’s proposal for a 5 percent income tax surcharge to stave off deep cuts in services. Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes had this reaction to Ringo’s proposal: “I can’t imagine that would sell well right now.”

Otter: Need public’s help on budget cuts

Gov. Butch Otter today launched an “efficiency” Web site aimed at laying out the state’s budget and soliciting money-saving ideas from citizens. “We need your help. Government does not have a monopoly on good ideas,” Otter wrote in the site’s introduction. “There are hundreds of thousands of smart, thoughtful and civic-minded people in Idaho with constructive and useful insights on what State government should do, what it can do better, and what it shouldn’t do at all. We want to hear from you. Some changes made at the agency level already are making a difference – travel restrictions, more use of video-teleconferencing and other available technologies, more consolidating of responsibilities, leaving job vacancies unfilled, and even such things as reducing the use of paper and other office supplies. But more needs to be done.”

The site offers a view of the total dollars going to each agency or budget area, along with links to more detailed information. Next to each broad budget area, such as natural resources, economic development, or state revenue, viewers are solicited to send in their money-saving ideas for that area.

Lawmaker calls for temporary income tax hike to stave off cuts

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, and Moscow economist Judy Brown have sent a letter to the editor to newspapers across the state calling for a temporary tax increase to head off a “train wreck” of cuts in state services. “We believe (a) temporary tax increase can be less harmful to families and less damaging to the state’s economy than the alternative: deep cuts in vital services,” the two wrote. They pointed to former Gov. Dirk Kempthorne’s temporary, one-cent, two-year sales tax hike to avoid cuts to education in 2003 as a model, but said this time, “a temporary income tax surcharge would provide the solution we seek. … A modest 5 per cent surcharge on state income tax with taxable income exceeding $50,000 would generate about $44 million per year.” They estimated that for a family of four with house hold income of $76,000, that’d mean a $162 surcharge. Click below to read the full letter.

Ringo was careful to note that her letter doesn’t represent the view of “either political party;” neither Republican nor Democratic caucuses in the Legislature have been advocating a tax increase. But Ringo said she’s hearing concern from people in her district about serious cuts to everything from higher education to Medicaid to parks. “I just see an awful lot of needs, and I think we’re actually going to be hurting people,” she said. “If we can’t provide some of these services one way or another, I think we’re going to be doing more damage to the economy than not. I just think we should have a full-blown debate about all the pros and cons, and not just have the knee-jerk anti-tax reaction.”

The 90 days has run out…

When fired ITD Director Pam Lowe filed her initial lawsuit against the state, contending she was fired in part for resisting political pressure against cutting a contract with a big campaign donor to Gov. Butch Otter, there were still a few days left for the state to respond and seek to settle Lowe’s tort claim, which also alleged wrongful firing, sexual discrimination and more. Now, the full 90 days has run out, and there’s been no settlement. That frees Lowe to file an amended complaint in her lawsuit, bringing in all her claims from the tort claim. Kit Coffin, risk management program director for the state, reported that the full 90 days has run, and there has been no change in the status of Lowe’s claim against the state. “Statute allows claimants to deem a claim rejected if there has been no decision within 90 days,” Coffin wrote in an email. “Claimants may file suit after that time.  It is not necessary to do so immediately, but they have the right to proceed if they wish. If a suit is filed and served, the state will respond according to the laws and rules applicable to such lawsuits.”

The cost of plastic…

For Idaho restaurant owner Kevin Settles, the fees that credit card companies charge for every transaction are outrageous - 2 to 2.5 percent off the top, in a business where the average profit margin is 3 to 5 percent. “It’s almost equal to my utility bills, gas and electricity,” said Settles, who owns the Bardenay restaurants in Boise, Coeur d’Alene and Eagle. “That’s a big number.” He joined the Idaho Lodging and Restaurant Association and a national group called “Consumers for Competitive Choice” to speak out Thursday for legislation to regulate the transaction fees that credit card companies charge. Robert Johnson, president of the national group, said Americans paid $48 billion in such transaction fees in 2008, triple the amount paid by consumers and small businesses in 2001. “We’ve created an unregulated financial behemoth,” he said. “We’ve reached the point where we’ve got to put brackets on it, and make sure that there’s fairness and not price-gouging that’s going on.”

It’s an issue because these days, people are putting everything on their credit cards, particularly at restaurants. “About 85 percent of all restaurant sales are paid for with a credit card, and the number has been gradually rising over the years,” Settles said. He said it costs him only 10 cents to process a check, but 2 percent or more of the transaction for a credit card. Contracts the major credit companies require businesses to sign prevent them from offering discounts to those who pay with cash or checks. Johnson said, “Is 2 percent correct? I don’t know. We know that is the highest rate in the world, so I suspect that’s a subject worthy of inquiry.” His group is trying to generate attention to the issue as Senate Finance Committee Chairman Christopher Dodd crafts credit card reform legislation. So why did his group reach out to Idaho? Our senior senator, Mike Crapo, is a member of the Senate Finance Committee.

Otter: Some good news, some caution on state’s economy

Gov. Butch Otter, in his monthly “Project 60” message, says “we may finally be at the bottom of this downturn and starting to turn things around.” But he warns, “We are not yet anywhere near where we were or where we want to be,” and says, “Things might still seem a little worse before we start realizing they are better.” As he usually does in such messages, Otter highlights examples of businesses around the state that are growing, but he sounds a bit less jubilant than he has. “We are all in this together,” the governor writes. “None of us should be taking this recession lying down, or taking recovery for granted. We are addressing our challenges head on, and I’m proud to be part of that effort.” “Project 60” refers to Otter’s push to increase the state’s gross domestic product to $60 billion, which would be nearly a 15 percent increase. Click below to read his full message.

Labor: Beware of site charging for unemployment filings; they’re free

Idaho’s Department of Labor is warning against a private company that’s soliciting out-of-work Idahoans to pay it $9.95 to file their claims for unemployment benefits. Actually, unemployed workers can file such claims themselves for free, either at a local unemployment office, by phone or online. “People need to steer clear of Web sites that appear to offer legitimate applications for unemployment insurance benefits when, in fact, they do not,” said Josh McKenna, benefits bureau chief for the department. “Using an unofficial site will not only cost money that doesn’t need to be spent but could also delay benefits.” The department’s official Web site is the place to go instead, McKenna said, along with its “Idaho Works” online benefits application site.

‘Buy Idaho’ group wants exception from new rules on Capitol displays

It’s hard to think of a regular event in the state Capitol that’s more chaotic than the annual Buy Idaho day, when purveyors of Idaho products annually fill all four floors of the Capitol rotunda with 100 or more booths, handing out samples of pork-n-seeds, fresh bread, candies and cosmetics and showcasing their businesses. When the newly renovated Capitol opens in January, it’ll have a new policy limiting exhibits to just the fourth-floor rotunda, but Buy Idaho, a group that Gov. Butch Otter helped found, wants an exemption. You can click below to read the full story from AP reporter John Miller.

The dispute came to the Legislative Council last Friday, but the panel declined to take any action after Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, offered to try to mediate and see if the Buy Idaho group could see merit in using just the fourth floor rotunda, but having it for an entire week. Until that point, it sounded like a battle was brewing with the Legislature and the state Capitol Commission on one side, and Otter and his Administration chief, Mike Gwartney, on the other, with Gwartney citing one state law and saying he can overrule everyone else on what happens in the Capitol, and lawmakers and the Capitol Commission citing other laws and strongly disagreeing. The new exhibit rule already has been communicated to other groups that come to the Capitol with displays each year, from a watercolor society to state universities to a home-educators’ “Pie Day” event, and they’ve all accepted it.

“My feeling is that it’s hard to make one exception,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston. Said Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, “We just got done spending $120 million of the public’s money on trying to maintain that building.” Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, said, “We can’t let that building fall into disrepair. … We have to protect and preserve and honor the investment that has been made.”

Setting rivalry aside - temporarily

Boise State University and the University of Idaho will meet on the football field this Saturday amid all the usual rivalry, but a day earlier, the presidents of the two universities say they’ll set rivalry aside to talk research. UI President Duane Nellis and BSU President Bob Kustra are scheduled to meet with faculty researchers on Friday for discussion and lunch, joined by state Board of Education members, focusing on collaborative research work between the schools on water and energy issues. Those collaborative efforts include work by the Center for Advance Energy Studies, the Idaho Network for Biomedical Research Excellence, the Idaho Water Resources Research Institute and the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research in Idaho, according to the schools.

The research discussion will take place at the Stueckle Sky Center, which, of course, is at Bronco Stadium - the same place the two schools will clash on the field a day later.

Missing no more…

When the remains of 13 veterans were interred at the Idaho State Veterans Cemetery last Friday, with full military honors and a formal flag-folding ceremony, it was just the latest sign that the Missing In America Project is accomplishing its goal in Idaho - to locate and recover the remains of veterans and their spouses that have been lost or forgotten, and provide them with a proper military burial at the veterans cemetery. The project is a national one, but it started here, when the Idaho veterans cemetery interred the cremated remains of 21 veterans in November of 2006. To date, the remains of 70 Idaho veterans and five spouses have been interred through the project at the Idaho veterans cemetery near Boise.

Those honored last week included 12 veterans whose cremated remains sat at a Kellogg funeral home unclaimed for years. Two of those veterans served in World War I, including one who died in 1973 at age 84, and whose remains waited unclaimed for 36 years. Others served in World War II, Vietnam, and other conflicts. At last Friday’s ceremony, shown in these photos by Patti Murphy, solemn and dampened by rain, members of each branch of the armed forces participated in the flag-folding ceremony and presentation; an Army bugler played taps; and Marines offered a rifle salute.

Labrador statement: Decided to run after ‘talking with friend Ken Roberts’

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, has issued a statement about his plans to enter the 1st District congressional race; click below to read his full new release. In it, he says, “Becca and I made this decision after talking with our friend, Ken Roberts.”

‘Tough to run campaign without money’

Former GOP legislative candidate Kevin McGowan, who was GOP congressional candidate Ken Roberts’ campaign manager until he  recently resigned, said, “I wish Ken and his family the best. He’s a good person.” Asked why he decided to leave the campaign, McGowan said, “It was obvious we were having fundraising challenges, and it’s really tough to run a campaign without money.”

The political ins and outs…

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the developments in the 1st District congressional race today, in which Ken Roberts has dropped out, Raul Labrador says he’s jumping in, and Vaughn Ward is powering ahead. All this activity is on the GOP side of the race, for a chance to challenge first-term Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick.

Labrador? Sali?

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, says he’s planning to jump into the 1st District GOP primary race, which already includes Iraq war veteran Vaughn Ward and retired Boise physician Allan Salzberg, but no longer includes House Assistant Majority Leader Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly. “I am making preparations to announce formally,” Labrador told Eye on Boise. “I will be running.” He said while Roberts was in the race, “I wasn’t sure that it was the right thing. Ken’s a good friend and I respect him a lot.”

A second-term state representative and an attorney who specializes in criminal and immigration law, Labrador was an outspoken opponent in this year’s session of GOP Gov. Butch Otter’s proposed fuel tax increase and registration fee hikes to fund transportation improvements. “I think it’s going to be a pretty tough race, but I think the people of Idaho are waiting for the right candidate to get into this race, and I think they will be energized by my message,” Labrador said. “They know me, they know the work that I have done in the Legislature, and they know that I say what I mean and I mean what I say.”

Labrador said when Roberts referred in his withdrawal statement to “two individuals” who told him they want to carry the “conservative banner” in the race, “I assume I’m one of the two.” Said Labrador, “I have had communications with Ken,” but he said those “communications have been private. … I’m just praying for him and his family.”

Meanwhile, there’s still the question of whether former Rep. Bill Sali will get back into the race. He’s had little to say on that score for the past six months, beyond suggesting he was mulling it and asking supporters to pray for him as he made his decision. But Sali’s latest campaign finance report certainly shows no evidence of any building campaign. In the quarter that ended Oct. 1, Sali received no contributions - zero - and his persistent campaign debt actually increased, to $112,725, from the $110,103 that it stood at in July. Sali hasn’t returned calls today; his answering machine message says “memory full.”

Ward on Roberts withdrawal: ‘I’m in’

Vaughn Ward, GOP candidate for Congress, had this comment this morning on GOP rival Ken Roberts’ withdrawal from the race: “He’s a leader in the Idaho Statehouse, and he’s served Idaho well over the past 10 years. I know that he’s going to continue to tackle the important issues facing our state in the coming session.”

Ward said he’s put in a call to Roberts, but hasn’t yet spoken with him. As for Roberts’ statement that he’s “been approached by two individuals who have expressed a strong interest” in entering the race to carry the “conservative banner,” Ward noted that he was endorsed yesterday by the American Conservative Union. In announcing the endorsement, ACU Chairman David Keene said, “Vaughn is a true conservative who will champion our values in Congress. … I am confident that Vaughn will be a strong voice for all conservatives in Washington, D.C.” Ward said, “This is the definition of conservative politics by Republican standards, is the American Conservative Union, and having their endorsement, it means a lot. Idahoans will say, ‘This is the guy who’s viewed as being a conservative representative and he’s running for Congress.’ That’s important to us.”

Ward, who’s been actively campaigning for the past eight months, said he’s focused on gatherings around the 1st District where he gives a short speech, then answers any questions the audience might have. During a gathering at a grange hall south of Coeur d’Alene on Saturday, 76 people turned out, “and besides the hosts, I didn’t know any of ‘em,” Ward said. “I spoke for about seven minutes, who I am, why I’m running, and for two hours they asked me questions. I think that’s the type of venue that Idahoans and Americans are demanding.” He said, “I think we are running a no-kidding, $5 and $10 and $20 check, grass-roots, come meet me, ask your questions, shake my hand kind of a campaign.”

Among the candidates who’ve expressed interest in the race over the past year is the congressional seat’s former occupant, Bill Sali, who lost to Democrat Walt Minnick in 2008. But Sali’s made no announcement. Said Ward, “I don’t know who may, when, where, get into the race. I’m in, and I’m going to continue what I’m doing.”

Roberts withdraws from 1st CD race

Ken Roberts announced this morning that he’s withdrawing from the 1st District congressional race, in which he was vying for the GOP nomination for a chance to challenge 1st District Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick. Roberts cited “an unexpected health issue,” and also hinted that other candidates might be getting into the race; click below to read his full announcement.

Already in the GOP race is Vaughn Ward, an Iraq war veteran who’s been campaigning hard and who had out-raised Roberts, as of the last campaign finance report, by more than four times.

Roberts loses campaign manager

Idaho state Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, who’s running for the 1st District congressional seat, has gotten off to a rather slow start in his campaign, lagging far behind fellow GOP hopeful Vaughn Ward in fundraising eight months out from the primary election. As of the last campaign finance report, Roberts had raised $62,021 and had $41,661 in cash in his campaign war chest; Ward, an Iraq war veteran, had raised $245,877 and had $178,533 cash on hand. Now comes the news that Roberts has lost his campaign manager, former GOP legislative candidate Kevin McGowan. McGowan sent out this email today:

“On October 23rd, I told Ken Roberts that I would be resigning as Campaign Manager from the Ken Roberts for Congress campaign.  I said that I would support him until he was ready to manage the campaign without me.   Ken accepted my resignation on November 5th but I wanted to make a formal announcement of that resignation so that questions and calls about the campaign can be properly addressed. All questions about the Ken Roberts for Congress campaign should be directed to kenrobertsforcongress@hotmail.com or the campaign website www.robertsforidaho.com.  I wish the campaign the best of luck in the future and I thank those who were helpful.
    Kind Regards,
    Kevin McGowan”

Former Idaho Rep. LaRocco signs on with big D.C. lobbying firm

Washington, D.C. lobbying firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck is touting its newest addition of “top tier talent to its growing government relations group,” namely former Idaho Congressman Larry LaRocco. LaRocco, who previously had his own public affairs and lobbying firm, LaRocco & Associates, will be a policy director for the group with a focus on financial services and natural resources. When he represented Idaho’s 1st Congressional District in Congress from 1991 to 1995, LaRocco, a Democrat, served on the financial services and natural resources committees. “Larry’s experience as a member of Congress coupled with his deep relationships and extensive knowledge of Capitol Hill make him a significant addition to our firm,” said Al Mottur, managing partner of the lobbying firm’s Washington, D.C. office.

LaRocco called the move “a natural next step in my career” and said, “I look forward to working with the firm’s experienced team of policy advisors on these constantly evolving and game-changing issues.”  The Brownstein firm says it’s “ranked among the fastest growing and top lobbying firms in Washington, D.C.”; it was founded in 1968 and employs a “bipartisan team” of nearly 240 attorneys and legislative consultants that “works to secure the client’s best interest in areas such as energy and environment, telecommunications and financial services.”

Blake Hall resigns from national GOP role

Former Idaho Republican Party Chairman Blake Hall, a lawyer, longtime public official and prominent political player in the state, has resigned from his seat on the Republican National Committee, Idaho party Chairman Norm Semanko announced today, two days after Hall reported to the Bonneville County Jail to begin serving time for a misdemeanor stalking conviction involving an ex-girlfriend. Semanko released this statement:

“Over the weekend, Blake Hall informed me that effective immediately he has resigned his position as National Committeeman of the Idaho Republican Party.  Blake’s successor will be chosen by the Idaho Republican State Central Committee.  I am grateful for Blake’s many years of service to the Republican Party and appreciate that he put the Party first by submitting his resignation.”  

Click below to read the full story from reporter Todd Dvorak of the Associated Press.

Fallout from health care reform vote

Both of Idaho’s representatives, Mike Simpson and Walt Minnick, voted against the health care reform bill in the House over the weekend, while the two split on a stringent anti-abortion amendment that was added to the bill at the last minute; Simpson voted in favor, Minnick against. Here’s a link to Simpson’s statement on his vote on the overall bill; here’s one to Minnick’s on the bill and on the amendment; and here are links to commentary on how this is playing out from political historian Randy Stapilus and from Idaho Statesman editorial page editor Kevin Richert.

Wolf season closes in McCall zone

Idaho Fish & Game says the wolf hunting season is closed as of today in the McCall-Weiser zone, where the limit of 15 wolves was reached. It’s the second of 12 zones in the state in which the wolf hunt has closed; the first was the Upper Snake zone, which closed Nov. 2 when its limit was reached. As of today, a total of 97 wolves have been killed during the unprecedented wolf-hunting season; the statewide limit is 220, but it’s divided into specific limits by zone. Fish & Game advises hunters to call to check whether a zone remains open, (877) 872-3190.  In the Lolo zone, only five of the limit of 27 wolves have been killed; just two have been shot in the Salmon zone, with a limit of 16; and eight have been taken in the Panhandle zone, where the limit is 30.

When parties step into non-partisan races…

Idaho’s elections last week were all officially non-partisan city races, but there’s growing debate in the state about what role - if any - political parties should play in those contests. In Idaho Falls, where the county GOP central committee endorsed a candidate in the city council election, the move backfired, said county GOP Chairman Damond Watkins. “Ultimately, I believe it hurt the brand of the Republican name - well, we lost, we lost hard, and we’ve divided our base,” he said. Boise State University political scientist emeritus Jim Weatherby said he sees a “disturbing trend” toward more partisanship in city elections not only in Idaho, but across the country. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Complaint: Fired director was ‘excellent manager’ with ‘exceptional ability’

Here’s a link to former ITD Director Pam Lowe’s whistleblower complaint filed in 4th District Court today, in her wrongful firing lawsuit against the state. The complaint includes this quote from Lowe’s last performance evaluation: “Mrs. Lowe has quickly taken charge of the Department. She excelled in reviewing the conditions of the department’s functions and making needed changes in personnel, functions, and organization. … She identified over $50 million in savings that will be directed to improved highway operations. Mrs. Lowe is an excellent manager and has exceptional ability as a professional engineer. In this rating period she has completed all assignments made by the Transportation Board.”

Minnick to vote against health care reform bill in the House

Idaho Rep. Walt Minnick says he’ll vote against the big health care reform bill that’s coming up for a vote in the House. Click below to read his statement.

Pam Lowe: No choice but to sue

Fired Idaho Transportation Director Pam Lowe is suing the state, after it never responded to her wrongful firing tort claim alleging sex discrimination, political cronyism and more. Her legal complaint includes explosive new allegations about political pressure, which the head of the Idaho Transportation Board immediately disputed. “I filed that tort claim in good conscience and in good faith, looking for answers and looking for resolution,” Lowe told The Spokesman-Review, “and was disappointed that they chose not to respond in any way, at least yet. And I’m left with no choice but to file this lawsuit.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Idaho lawmakers not ready to opt out of health reform or alter constitution

Idaho lawmakers would be foolish and premature to try to either opt out of federal health care reforms or, following Arizona’s lead, change the state’s constitution to try to keep reforms out, lawmakers of both parties concluded today after hours of testimony.  “It’s premature - opt out of what?” said Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston. Said Rep. Gary Collins, R-Nampa, “It would be foolish to do something like that.” House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, called any such moves “extremely premature.”

The Idaho Legislature’s health care task force, which includes both senators and representatives from both parties, invited insurers, underwriters, representatives of doctors and hospitals, the AARP and more to give presentations on whether Idaho should opt out of national reforms or change its constitution, and what reforms would help the state. None of the presenters favored either move.

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, who co-chairs the task force with Collins, said some Idaho legislators are working on a constitutional amendment. “I am told that there are legislators that are considering it,” he said. “I think we heard pretty clearly that it’s, A, premature, and B, may not be the most effective way of us stating our opinion of whatever the health care reform may be.”

Underwriters: ‘Lot of work to do’ if Idaho chooses to opt out

Opting out of a public option likely wouldn’t mean that a state could simply do nothing, Scott Leavitt of the Idaho Association of Health Underwriters warned lawmakers. Instead, states that opt out likely would have to show they’re offering something better. “You have a lot of work to do if you opt out,” he told lawmakers.

IACI: ‘Something has to happen’ on health care reform

Alex LaBeau, head of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, told lawmakers that he doesn’t think much of federal health care reforms being debated in Congress, but his group isn’t recommending opting out. “With most of these proposals, essentially we’re punishing 85 percent of Americans for the benefit of 15 percent of Americans,” he said. “That’s the problem with what’s going on in Washington, D.C.” Simply improving reimbursement levels to private providers for Medicare and Medicaid would be “one reform that Congress should look at,” LaBeau said. “We do need some reforms. I don’t think Idaho can say that we’re taking our marbles and going home.” The state and Idaho businesses should engage in the national debate, he said. “Whether or not we get any reform this year or next year or the year after, something has to happen.”

AARP: Opting out could carry ‘unintended consequences’ for state

David Irwin, director of communications for AARP Idaho, told lawmakers on the health care task force that Idaho could face “unintended consequences” if it decides to opt out of federal health care reform. “A move to opt out could reduce or cut federal relief for our state’s increasing number of uninsured,” he said, noting that a recent Kaiser Family Foundation study showed that nearly 88 percent of Idaho’s 221,000 uninsured residents have jobs, and 75 percent have full-time jobs. “The reality is many don’t have health care because it costs too much,” he said.

“Opting out could vastly reduce Idaho’s bargaining power for better health care prices, as opposed to being part of a national purchasing pool that can negotiate lower prices,” Irwin told lawmakers.

Handicapping health care reform

Among the items being discussed in the congressional health care debate, NCSL health policy director Joy Wilson told Idaho lawmakers, is extending the boost to the federal match for Medicaid funding that came with the economic stimulus legislation for an additional six months. That would be a big deal for states that otherwise will need to fund a big jump in Medicaid costs when the stimulus money is gone. Wilson said that issue could be in the health reform bill, or in a separate bill.

Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, asked Wilson to “handicap” the chances that a health care reform bill will pass. “I’m covering less than 50-50 now,” she responded. “The Senate seems to be pretty split, the Senate Democrats, and so that’s a real problem. The surprise is that the speaker doesn’t have her votes locked up either. I think I was 60-40 before - I’m not there any more.” She added, “I want to believe that before it fails, somebody is going to blink. … It is a little troubling that they’re this close to going to the floor in the House, and they’re acknowledging that they’re short of sufficient votes.”

Rep. Gary Collins, R-Nampa, co-chairman of the Idaho Legislature’s health care task force, said, “Just like everything we’re hearing, it’s all over the board.”

Congressional health reforms still ‘fluid’

The Idaho Legislature’s health care task force has interrupted its panel discussion on whether Idaho should opt out of federal health care reform for a conference call with the National Conference of State Legislatures on the status of federal reform legislation. “There is still a lot of negotiation going on, a lot of posturing,” Joy Wilson of NCSL told the Idaho lawmakers. “So there are no done deals yet with health care reform.” She said the House has a Democratic bill and a Republican alternative, but “on the Senate side, things are a lot more fluid.” As for the prospect of any opt-out provisions for states, “To date I have not found anyone that knew what anyone would be opting out of or how we would go about it,” Wilson said. “The Senate language may not be available until the 16th.” That may mean the congressional debate runs past the holidays into January, she said.

IMA: If everyone in Idaho were covered, not enough docs to treat them

Susie Pouliot, CEO of the Idaho Medical Association, told lawmakers just now that “with all due respect, it is very difficult to pin down the pros and cons” to Idaho of possibly opting out of national health reform measures, when federal legislation hasn’t been finalized. “I hope you don’t think this is too much of a cop-out,” she said. Idaho doctors are on both sides of the issue on whether there should be a public option insurance plan, she said, but a majority of the IMA has come out against that prospect. “We very strongly support universal coverage and access to health care,” she said, ” … not necessarily a single-payer system.” She added, “Part of our discussion is if we had everyone covered tomorrow, would we have an adequate physician population” to treat all those patients. Unfortunately, she said, the answer is no. “We are woefully low,” and rank 50th among states for doctor-to-patient ratio, she said. The IMA backs increased medical education and training and other measures to increase the number of doctors in the state.

How bad it could be…

The Medicaid shortfall that Idaho could face next year could require cutting as much as $500 million out of the state’s Medicaid program, Idaho Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong told the Legislature’s health care task force today, including $130 million in state funds. There are already about $75 million in cuts in Medicaid in the works to save money, from cutting rates paid to hospitals and nursing homes to trimming mental health benefits; if the larger shortfall materialized, those cuts would be just the tip of the iceberg. “Some of this is rather bad health policy, but we don’t have a choice at this point - we have to have a balanced budget,” Armstrong told lawmakers. “There will be lawsuits, there will be challenges. … As we look ahead, we are clearly very concerned about this all. This is a huge change that has to be made, and it will not be easy.”

Those figures are based on a projection that the federal match rate for Medicaid - now boosted by the economic stimulus legislation to 79.18 percent, or nearly 80 cents in federal money for every 20 cents the state spends - will drop to 68.85 percent in 2011. That’d force Idaho to come up with millions more to fund the program, and anything for which the state can’t fund the match would have to be eliminated. It’s possible that the federal match rate might not drop after all, but Armstrong said Idaho won’t know until long after it’s had to set its state budget. “We have to put a budget forward based on what we know now,” he said. Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said that approach means “trying to make the most-vulnerable people, basically, pay to balance the budget.” Medicaid provides health coverage for Idaho’s poorest and disabled residents.

Idaho ‘nowhere near’ on H1N1 vaccine goals

So far, Idaho has been allocated 165,200 doses of H1N1 swine flu, state epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn reported to lawmakers this morning. Normally, about a third of the state’s 1.5 million residents are vaccinated for seasonal flu. Hahn said even if that were the goal - and the state would like to vaccinate many more residents than that - “we are nowhere near.”

How that went…

After the Idaho Republican Party took the unusual step of passing a central committee resolution backing party involvement in non-partisan city races, one county’s GOP central committee endorsed a challenger, Alex Creek, in a city council race in Idaho Falls; some party activists portrayed a Boise City Council race as partisan because one candidate, T.J. Thomson, was a key organizer for Barack Obama’s Idaho campaign; and a non-official GOP group endorsed and campaigned for a city council challenger, Jim Brannon, against councilman Mike Kennedy in Coeur d’Alene. The result: Creek lost 2-1; Thomson won handily; and Kennedy won by five votes.

This morning, Idaho GOP Chairman Norm Semanko held a press conference call with reporters to “discuss the 2009 elections and what they mean for Idaho in 2010.” But Semanko focused on the outcome of governor’s races in Virginia and New Jersey, both of which were won by Republicans. “Americans soundly rejected the big-government policies of President Obama and the Democrats,” Semanko said. “There’s no other way to interpret the numbers.” Republicans also lost a seat in Congress in a special election in New York, but Semanko dismissed that as a special case and a “non-story.”

As for the Idaho races, Semanko said, “No. 1, they’re nonpartisan races, so nobody had an elephant or a donkey next to their name, so it’s really hard to even analyze it from that perspective. People were focused in different races on different local issues.” He said the state party has responded to the central committee resolution by leaving any moves up to local county party organizations. “We would never jump in over the top of the local party and suggest what they should be doing,” Semanko said.

Gridley: It’s a state law

Coeur d’Alene city attorney Mike Gridley says the campaign finance law that Sen. Mike Jorgenson may have violated when he ran a $1,090 ad for Coeur d’Alene city council challenger Jim Brannon is a state law, not a city ordinance. Idaho Code 67-6610A limits contributions by an individual, corporation or political committee to $1,000 each for the primary and general elections; that limit applies to legislative, city, county or district judge races. A violation can bring a civil fine of up to $250, and potentially criminal penalties if it was a knowing violation. “It sounds like he is claiming that he didn’t know,” Gridley said. “All we’re doing is enforcing Idaho Code that our fine Legislature has passed, and that’s applicable to all elections.” However, the limit may not apply if Jorgenson’s ad is considered an independent expenditure; if that’s the case, the disclosure reports he’s arranging to file with the city may clear up the violation.

“We won’t know until we get his filing,” Gridley said. “If it’s an independent expenditure, he’s not limited by the thousand dollar amount. If he coordinates it with a campaign, then it is a contribution to that campaign, and it would violate the $1,000 and would need to be reflected on the candidate’s sunshine report, too.” Jorgenson said he did the ad on his own; he told Eye on Boise he got the list of roughly 50 campaign supporters to list in the ad from Brannon’s campaign. “I got it through his campaign headquarters - it’s available to anybody that walks in there,” Jorgenson said. “I just called them.”

Jorgenson: ‘I made a boo-boo’

Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, says he didn’t mean to violate campaign finance laws when he placed an ad for Coeur d’Alene City Council challenger Jim Brannon, and he’s working with Coeur d’Alene City Clerk Susan Weathers to clear the matter up. “I was just on the phone with Susan,” Jorgenson told Eye on Boise in a conversation at a Boise coffee shop. The North Idaho senator is in town working on business related to the Idaho Indian Affairs Council, which he chairs.

Jorgenson spent $1,090.80 to run a flier in the Coeur d’Alene Press touting Brannon and including a list of Brannon’s supporters. But the limit for campaign contributions is $1,000, and he filed no independent expenditure report and no 48-hour report of a last-minute campaign expenditure over $1,000, as required. “So help me, if I had of known, I would’ve not spent $1,090 - I would’ve spent $995,” Jorgenson told Eye on Boise. “Had I known that I was doing anything that even approached a violation, I would’ve done it differently and I wouldn’t have spent as much money.” He added, “If I was trying to be secretive about it, I wouldn’t have put my name on the ad, the name of my business. So if I made a boo-boo, it was inadvertent.” Click below to read more.

A party take on non-partisan elections?

It was a little surprising to get a media advisory today that Idaho GOP Chairman Norm Semanko will hold a press conference call tomorrow morning “to discuss the 2009 elections and what they mean for Idaho in 2010,” because Idaho’s 2009 elections - today is Election Day - are all non-partisan, municipal races. Jonathan Parker, state GOP executive director, said the idea is “to discuss national elections as well, like the Virginia governor’s race, the New Jersey governor’s race, and how those trends we see will be affecting races in Idaho such as our statewide races, as well as the 1st Congressional District.”

However, the Idaho GOP Central Committee did pass a resolution in June calling for the party to “participate in non-partisan local elections” and stating that “Idaho’s Republican Party should identify and support the election of Republican candidates to local governments such as city councils and school boards.” Parker said, “What Chairman Semanko and I decided to do in response to this resolution was to work with the counties individually to see if this is something that they would be interested in. … We did not want to step on anybody’s toes.” Parker said he’s aware of only one county GOP central committee, Bonneville County’s, that decided to endorse candidates in a local city council election in Idaho Falls. “In Boise, the central committee has not endorsed anybody, but a lot of the members have been very active in supporting certain candidates,” Parker said.

Semanko himself is a candidate for re-election to the city council in Eagle. The party hasn’t endorsed there, Parker said. “We’ve had a completely 100 percent hands-off approach with Norm’s race,” he said.

It’s still free: Summer of recession saw kids flock to library programs

This past summer saw a big jump in participation in Idaho libraries’ summer reading programs for kids, which registered 63,300 children, 38 percent more than 2008. “Every  year we hope to see the numbers of children being reached by these valuable programs increase, but we were totally blown away by the numbers this year,” said Idaho Commission for Libraries summer reading coordinator Peggy McClendon. “We know more families may have stuck closer to home this year, but all the work librarians are doing with outreach to schools, daycares, and other community partners is also really paying off. The outreach statistics show that libraries are reaching more low-income and underserved children than ever.”

Wolf hunt closes in one Idaho zone

Idaho’s wolf hunting season has closed in the Upper Snake zone in eastern Idaho, where hunters have now taken the limit of five wolves. It remains open in the remaining 11 zones, but two others are nearing their limits: In the McCall-Weiser Zone, with a limit of 15 wolves, 14 wolves have been taken, leaving one; and in the Palouse-Hells Canyon Zone, with a limit of five, two have been taken, leaving three. As of today, according to Idaho Fish & Game, 86 wolves have been killed statewide in the state’s first designated wolf hunting season; the statewide limit is 220.

The zones that are farthest from their limits, at this point, include the Lolo zone, where hunters have shot five wolves and the limit is 27; the Salmon zone, with a limit of 16, where hunters have taken two; and the Panhandle zone, where hunters have taken eight and the limit is 30. Fish & Game advises hunters to call (877) 872-3190 for the most up-to-date information on whether a zone is open or not; there’s also information online here.

CWI gets $7.5M gift from Albertson Foundation

The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation announced today that it’s giving $7.5 million to the College of Western Idaho, fulfilling an earlier pledge to give a total of $10 million to Idaho’s newest community college. In December of 2008, the foundation awarded the college $2.5 million for startup costs, scholarships and business planning aimed at increasing community college access. Now, the rest of the pledge has been fulfilled. “Our goal from the start has been to increase access to high quality, affordable, comprehensive community college education in Idaho,” said Jamie MacMillan, the foundation’s executive director. You can read the foundation’s full announcement here.

The Albertson Foundation, formed by the founders of the Albertson’s grocery chain, is a private family foundation dedicated to improving education in Idaho.

League backs permanent-absentee ballot measure

The Idaho League of Women Voters has endorsed an initiative petition to let Idahoans request permanent absentee ballot status, rather than have to request an absentee ballot every time there’s an election, a change that’s been supported in the past by the state’s county clerks but rejected by state lawmakers. “The League has a long history of supporting voter registration and ballot access,” said Kathryn Bonzo, co-president of the Idaho League of Women Voters.  “Permanent absentee balloting is a positive step forward for voters in Idaho.” All 44 of the state’s county clerks backed legislation to make the change in 2007, but lawmakers didn’t pass the bill. “The Idaho League supported the vote by mail bill sponsored by the county clerks,” Co-President Susan Steele said.  “We are endorsing the permanent absentee balloting initiative because it will make it easier for voters who need or want to vote by absentee ballot.”

The League of Women Voters is a nonpartisan organization that encourages informed and active participation in government. The “Idaho Permanent Absentee Ballot Initiative” has qualified to collect signatures in an effort to get on the ballot, but if successful, voters wouldn’t see it until the 2012 election. Click below to read my story from August about the unusually long time frame for the initiative. At least four states, including Washington, allow voters to file no-excuses, permanent absentee ballot requests, and voting by mail by sending in an absentee ballot has been gaining popularity both nationwide and in Idaho.

Layoffs hitting from holdback

Dozens of Idaho state employees lost their jobs in the past month as a result of midyear state budget holdbacks imposed in late September, and more cuts are coming. Gov. Butch Otter’s decision to impose varying budget cuts at different agencies meant some were hit harder than others with layoffs. Agencies facing 7.5 percent cuts included the Department of Water Resources, which laid off 19 workers this month; the Department of Environmental Quality, which let 10 people go and imposed additional furloughs on all remaining employees; the Department of Parks and Recreation, which cut its seasonal staff by 25 percent; and the Department of Lands, which laid off three people in Boise and one in Coeur d’Alene, on top of four range managers it laid off in July.

“It’s tough times for everybody,” said Lands Department Director George Bacon. “Although we’re feeling pain, others have felt worse.” Click below to read more.

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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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