Archive for October 2009
Yesterday was a day of sharp contrasts for me, when I went from photographing Idaho’s maximum security prison - likely the least accessible of all our public buildings in the state - to the state Capitol, which traditionally has been the most accessible, but has been closed for renovation for the past two years. It reopens in January, and while workers are still working away, it looks very cool. Here’s a view of the dome from inside the rotunda, with the new historically correct two-toned paint job that brings out the architectural details…
Gov. Butch Otter celebrated today at a ceremony marking the completion of a project to widen the most-traveled section of I-84 in Idaho, between Meridian and Garrity Road. “Finally we’re turning this twice-a-day, six-and-a-half-mile-long parking lot into a real highway again,” Otter said. “Now it’s going to be the kind of route that families and businesses won’t go out of their way to avoid; it will be the kind of highway that attracts businesses, career-path jobs and economic opportunities.” The project added a third lane in each direction to the 6.5 mile stretch of interstate. It was funded by GARVEE bonds, which stands for Grant Anticipation Revenue Vehicles. The special type of bonds, created by Congress, allows states to borrow against their future federal highway allocations.
“Our communities are only as strong as our ability to bring people, products and ideas together, through technology and infrastructure,” Otter said. “Completing this stretch of interstate shows our commitment to that goal.” One mile of the new third lane will remain closed under the Ten Mile Overpass until next spring to allow for construction of a new interchange there. In addition to the third lane in each direction, the $113 million project also prepared the highway for a fourth lane that will open in 2011.
Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa notes that the law that permits candidates for federal office to run as long as they’re a resident of the state they’ll represent on the day of the general election is the U.S. Constitution - and the rule applies in all states, not just Idaho. That’s why a New York resident, William Bryk, was able to file a declaration of candidacy for Idaho’s U.S. Senate seat to take on Mike Crapo in 2010, even though Bryk’s never been to Idaho.
Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little launched his re-election campaign today under a fine drizzle in Capitol Park in Boise; now, he’s off to Idaho Falls and Coeur d’Alene for additional announcements. “Government should only be there to protect and create opportunity for individuals and businesses, not stand in their way,” Little declared. Gov. Butch Otter and other elected officials joined Little for his announcement; Otter said people who think he’s proposing budget cuts “without a heart” are wrong “since Brad took office as lieutenant governor, sitting at my side.” Otter, who appointed Little to the office, praised Little’s analyses and compassion as the state faces tough cuts, and urged his re-election. “It was up to me the first time - now it’s up to you,” he said.
Little said the state faces difficult decisions with budget cuts; he said he supports Otter’s move to cut costs now - including cuts in health benefits for part-time state employees - and hope to increase state workers’ pay when times improve. “The timing’s terrible, but we’ve got a lot of things we’ve got to do between now and next February the timing’s going to be terrible on,” Little said. “We’re looking at some other ones that are going to have serious ramifications.”
Idaho’s maximum security prison marked its 20th anniversary on Thursday, with two of its units sitting vacant. It’s not that Idaho doesn’t have enough prisoners — it’s short on money. Inmates have been shifted to the cheapest beds available, like those down the road at the privately operated Idaho Correctional Center, where many of the inmates are housed dorm-style in huge rooms with rows of bunk beds and open toilets. Idaho’s state Department of Correction was able to eliminate 16 positions because it closed 72 beds at the Maximum Security Institution, called the Max, and a similar number of beds at the state-run Southern Idaho Correctional Institution. The private ICC opened a 628-bed addition. But the state is now managing 500 more offenders than it did a year ago, with $28 million less in funding.
At the Max, prisoners today are more violent, and more likely to be involved with gangs - and that’s driven a move toward more segregation cells, which, of course, are more costly to operate. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com, and click here to see a slide show from the Max today.
The Idaho AARP says the combination of state budget cuts with cutbacks in health coverage for part-time state workers and shifting state retirees off the state health plan onto Medicare is “a combination that spells health care disaster for many Idaho residents,” and the organization is calling on lawmakers to address the issue. “It doesn’t make any sense to pull the rug out from underneath Idaho’s part-time state employees and retirees, while continuing to weaken the programs in the community where people turn in times of crisis,” said Jim Wordelman, AARP Idaho state director. “AARP members in Idaho – half of whom are in the workforce – are looking to their elected officials at the state and federal level to tackle this issue now.” Click below to read AARP Idaho’s full news release.
When Idaho’s senior senator, Mike Crapo, last sought re-election, he made history by drawing no challenger on the ballot, just a write-in. This time, Crapo has drawn a Democratic challenger well in advance of Idaho’s May 2010 primary election - but it’s a lawyer from New York who’s never been to Idaho. William Bryk, who’s filed his declaration of candidacy and a campaign finance report with the FEC, says there ought to be a choice. He’s a bankruptcy attorney and upstate New York native who, oddly, won the 2000 GOP primary for vice-president in New Hampshire, writes history columns, and is married to the former theater critic for the New Yorker. Legally, Bryk can run for the Idaho seat - he’d just have to live in Idaho as of the date of the general election. Closest he’s been to Idaho to date? Buffalo, N.Y. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
The Idaho Department of Water Resources is asking for the public’s help to identify improperly abandoned wells, after a hunting dog fell 270 feet into one near Twin Falls, an accident the dog barely survived. “Wells that have not been properly abandoned can be deadly hazards to animals and humans and can contaminate Idaho’s groundwater,” the department said in a news release. Bob McLaughlin, department spokesman, said there’s no estimate of how many such wells could be out there. “They’ve been sinking holes in the ground since before Idaho was a state,” he said. “That’s kind of what we’re asking, is if people stumble across a hole in the ground that appears to be a well, let us know. That way we can track it down … and get it decommissioned.” Many domestic wells are about six inches in diameter, the department said, but irrigation wells can be as large as 24 inches in diameter. Said Tom Neace, groundwater protection section manager, “I’d say there could be hundreds out there - we don’t really know.” Idaho’s required permits for wells since 1987; there are 158,766 registered in the state’s database, plus an estimated 100,000 more active wells that preceded permitting.
In addition to possible accidents from people or animals falling down the wells, abandoned wells pose a danger to underground aquifers by funneling chemicals and other pollutants down into the groundwater. Groundwater is the source for 90 percent of Idaho’s drinking water. To report an abandoned well, call the department at (208) 287-4800.
Cameron Burke, who has served as court executive for the U.S. District and Bankruptcy Courts in Idaho for the past 18 years, has accepted a new position working with federal courts across the country. Burke will become a federal court financial management liaison, working for the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in Washington, D.C., and also maintaining an office in Boise. He’s worked for the federal courts in Idaho for the past 24 years, and before that served as a chief deputy clerk in Arizona and a trial court administrator in Oregon. He holds a master’s degree in judicial administration from Denver College of the Law; he is a past president of the Federal Court Clerks Association and has served on numerous court management boards and committees.
Idaho’s Anne Frank Human Rights Memorial in Boise has been selected as one of 11 locations to receive a sapling grafted from the chestnut tree that grew outside the secret annex in Amsterdam where Anne Frank hid from the Nazis, which Anne frequently wrote about in her famous diary as a source of solace. It’s a reminder that Idaho, of all places, has the nation’s only permanent memorial to Anne Frank. The reason: The community’s, and the state’s, interest in human rights and combating intolerance.
“We try to really draw the parallels between what happened to Anne and what can happen to anyone,” said Don Curtis of Boise, who with his wife, Susan, volunteers to lead tours of the Boise memorial. “The message is: Understand what happened back then, but don’t think it’s just then.” The memorial, and the center’s educational programs, stress the importance of human rights for everyone, from combating bullying to avoiding discrimination. “The community is immensely proud of the memorial and I think feels a great sense of ownership over the space,” said Amy Herzfeld, executive director of the Idaho Human Rights Education Center. “It’s clearly a space that people are drawn to.”
The 150-year-old chestnut tree outside the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam still stands, but it’s diseased and stands only with the help of a harness. The saplings, grafted from the original tree, will long outlast it. Boise’s sapling is expected to arrive soon, but it’ll go to a city tree nursery for a two-year quarantine before it’s planted. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
Idaho education officials are bracing for a raft of waiver requests
from school districts that have seen student attendance suffer from the
flu - and don’t want the drop in attendance to hurt their district’s
state funding. Idaho bases its funding allocation to districts
for the first half of the year on average daily attendance reports for
the first seven weeks of school - the very time when the H1N1 flu, in
many cases, has dramatically impacted school attendance. That attendance report also affects school staffing levels for the year.
“We did spike about a week ago - we had a couple schools that had up to 25 and 30 percent absentee,” said Coeur d’Alene School District Superintendent Hazel Bauman. Attendance is now back up, she said, but “it has reached that threshold … We will be submitting a request for a waiver.” So will Post Falls, Lakeland, and Meridian schools and many more. Melissa McGrath, spokeswoman for the Idaho State Department of Education, said such waiver requests normally are very rare. The department typically receives only about one a year, usually driven by an early snow day or some such unusual event. This year, however, it’s already received one request, from the South Lemhi School District in eastern Idaho (for a “significant drop in attendance as a result of the flu” for two weeks in October), and it’s heard from many more than have them in the works. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
When Idaho boaters register their boats for the next boating season, they’ll no longer have to purchase a separate invasive species sticker – it’ll all be combined into a single registration sticker. “It saves a tremendous amount of money,” said Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, adding, “That’s what the public wanted, too – they didn’t want another sticker on their boat.” Owners of boats registered out of state or non-motorized boats still will have to purchase the separate invasive species sticker, which raises money for the state’s efforts to keep invasive quagga and zebra mussels and other dangerous critters out of the state’s waterways. But for Idaho-registered boats, the invasive species program will be included within the regular boat registration process, and boaters will receive notice before the first of the year.
Anderson said this year sales of the invasive species stickers raised about $750,000, but the state had hoped to collect $1 million from registered boaters alone. Tying the process into boat registration should improve that, he said. “Next year, we will be much more successful on having the money up-front.” You can read more here in my column from Sunday’s paper.
Developers of a Smiths Ferry subdivision are facing fines of up to $125,000 for storm water violations impacting the North Fork of the Payette River, the EPA announced today. The agency said Sal Gallucci, JJS Southwest LLC and Whitehawk Land Development Corp. failed to apply for a construction general permit under the Clean Water Act before building roads at the Whitehawk Subdivision from 2005 to 2009. Inspections in 2008 and 2009 at the 850-acre property showed that storm water contaminated with sediment, sand, dirt and more was washing into the river as a result of the unpermitted construction. “The operators failed to take proper precautions such as stabilizing slopes to prevent discharges,” the EPA said. The Clean Water Act requires storm water permits for developers and general contractors at construction sites larger than one acre; see more info on that here.
“The North Fork of the Payette River is one of Idaho’s gems, and it must be protected,” said Jim Werntz, director of Idaho operations for the EPA. “Developers and contractors need to follow the permit requirements and properly engineer roads within their construction sites so that sediment runoff does not pollute Idaho’s valuable waterways.”
South-Central Idaho’s Hispanic population has grown by 85 percent since 2000, according to a new University of Idaho study, paralleling the dramatic increase in the dairy industry in the region, which employs a large Hispanic workforce. The two-year UI study, funded in part by the Idaho Dairymen’s Association, examined impacts on communities of the demographic and economic changes driven by the industry’s growth. The study, which was strictly economic and sociological and didn’t examine environmental issues, found largely positive economic and social changes.
“The dairy industry drove population and economic growth, but it’s going beyond agriculture now,” said UI Professor Priscilla Salant. “What it’s meant for communities here, is that communities like Jerome and Gooding which are farming-dependent, they are bucking a national trend. Three-quarters of those kinds of communities around the country are losing population. … That is not happening in the farming-dependent communities that rely on the dairy industry in the state.” Those communities have weathered the recession better than other parts of rural Idaho, the study found. It also found that while child poverty levels remain high in the Magic Valley, health care systems have not been overburdened by the increase in dairy workers; crime hasn’t increased; and schools have seen the biggest impacts. Click below to read more.
Six FBI special agents and support personnel from Idaho also have been awarded the U.S. Attorney General’s Award for Excellence in Law Enforcement for their work on the Joseph Duncan case, joining five from the U.S. Attorney’s office prosecution team. The six from the FBI: Special Agents Mike Gneckow and Gail Gneckow, Supervisory Senior Resident Agent Donald Robinson Jr., Investigative Operations Analyst Dorothy Boyles, Evidence Technician Esther Tamez, and Financial Analyst Michele Lewis.
Special Agent in Charge Timothy J. Furhman of the Salt Lake City FBI field office had this comment: “As we have said from the beginning, the number one goal of the FBI and the United States Attorney’s Office personnel who investigated and prosecuted this case, was to achieve justice for the victims of the heinous criminal act perpetrated by Mr. Duncan. Recognition of the efforts of the personnel most deeply involved in this case is a testament to not only their efforts, but a number of other personnel from the U.S. Attorney’s Office and the Salt Lake City FBI Field Office. They worked together to achieve justice for Dylan Groene, Brenda Groene, Slade Groene, Mark McKenzie, and of course, Shasta Groene. These efforts by both the investigative staff and prosecutive staff are in the highest traditions of the FBI and the Department of Justice. Finally, this recognition could not have occurred without the cooperation and involvement of Steve Groene and other family members and friends of the victims.”
U.S. Attorney Tom Moss said, “This was an opportunity to applaud the commitment and efforts of our dedicated employees as well as our dedicated federal, state and local law enforcement agents and officers, notably the FBI, Idaho State Police, Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office and Coeur d’Alene Police Department, but also a time to remember the victims and survivors of this tragic event. Although nothing we can do will heal the wounds this family has suffered, we hope that we have brought some sense of justice and closure.”
Gov. Butch Otter has released his letter responding to House and Senate Democrats who formally requested him to delay a sharp increase in health insurance premiums for part-time state employees. In it, Otter maintains the state will see higher savings than initial estimates have shown from the move, and sticks by the decision, refusing to delay it. “I am committed to working toward making healthcare more accessible and affordable for all Idahoans,” he wrote. “We are working with insurers, providers and other stakeholders every day to advance that effort. However, using taxpayer dollars to subsidize the healthcare premiums of part-time State employees comes at the expense of many who have no healthcare at all, and no opportunity to obtain it.” You can read the full letter here.
Instead of raising more revenue, a fee increase hitting out-of-state hunters and anglers has resulted in less money flowing to the Idaho Fish and Game Department this year. “Usually in Idaho we sell out right away when it comes to our nonresident deer and elk hunters, and at this time we are not sold out and we’re seeing a lag,” said Fish and Game Director Cal Groen. “We have tags left over.”
In a survey, hunters from outside the state cited the fee increase, the poor economy and the state’s growing wolf population as reasons they’re staying away this year. Lawmakers had considered a Fish & Game proposal to charge more for the most popular hunts – a plan intended to raise an extra $7 million a year – but instead approved a more modest increase only on out-of-state residents. If nonresident tag sales held steady this year, the change was expected to net $2.5 million more. That hasn’t happened. Three months into the state’s new fiscal year, revenue from tag sales is 9 percent, or about $1 million, below the same point last year. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
Gov. Butch Otter’s surgeon reports that his shoulder surgery today went “exceptionally well.” Dr. Michael Curtin of Intermountain Orthopaedics, an orthopedic surgeon, said, “Surgery went exceptionally well, and in contrast to the injury he had earlier this year, and the surgery he had earlier this year on his right shoulder, which was also a rotator cuff tendon tear, this tear was much smaller and much more readily repairable. I anticipate his recovery will be likewise easier on him, and should be more expedited.” Otter had a tendon tear in his shoulder that was about 2 centimeters long, Curtin reported, and a partial injury to his bicep tendon, both of which were repaired in the operation. Curtin said the operation was “medically necessary” because of pain the governor was suffering. “He may not be showing it out in public, but the last month he had really been struggling with a great deal of pain in that shoulder, and this repair will help that pain considerably.”
First Lady Lori Otter, who was with her husband immediately following the surgery, said he was released shortly afterward. “I am feeling really optimistic that he is going to have a full recovery from the injury,” she said, “and will be able to go forward and, as Dr. Curtin said, do the things that he wants to do and be active. As you know, he is a pretty active guy, so this won’t keep him down for very long.” Otter is scheduled to work from home for “a few days” as he recovers from the surgery.
The Idaho Supreme Court has tossed a lawsuit ruling that resulted in one of the largest jury awards in Idaho history, the AP reports. The court’s ruling today essentially sent a case between MRI Associates and Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center back for a new trial; a jury had initially awarded MRI Associates more than $63 million in damages, though a judge later lowered that to about $36 million. Click below to read the full story from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.
Five employees of the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Idaho, including Assistant U.S. Attorneys Wendy Olson and Traci Whelan, have been honored with the Attorney General’s Award for Excellence in Law Enforcement for their work on the Joseph Duncan case, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder announced today. All five were part of the Duncan prosecution team; in addition to the two attorneys, those honored included Paralegal Specialist Denise Price, Litigation Support Specialist Pam Rocca, and Victim-Witness Specialist Kristi Johnson. “It is my privilege to honor these recipients for their outstanding service and commitment to our country,” Holder said. “Their varied accomplishments have advanced the interests of justice on behalf of the American people, and I’m proud to call them my colleagues.”
Duncan was given three death sentences plus multiple life prison terms in federal court in Idaho for his 2005 attack on the Groene family in Coeur d’Alene, which left four family members dead and which just one 8-year-old child survived.
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter underwent rotator cuff surgery on his left shoulder this morning, according to his office, to repair an injury that occurred several weeks ago while he was clearing brush on his ranch near Star. “Fortunately it is not as serious as the one I had in February on my right shoulder, but I was working out at the ranch, fell over backwards and jammed my left shoulder and tore the rotator cuff, the tendon that attaches the bicep muscle to the shoulder and one of the tendons that’s in the shoulder,” Otter said. “But it is significantly less than what I had to go through in February of this year.”
The governor was at Idaho Elks Rehabilitation Hospital, and his orthopedic surgeon, Dr. Michael J. Curtin of Intermountain Orthopaedics in Boise, said he’ll likely need eight to 10 weeks of rehabilitation and physical therapy after today’s operation. The governor’s office reported, “He will be working at home for a few days, but the procedure will have no impact on his ability to perform any of his duties as Governor.” Otter said the injury occurred “about a month or five weeks ago.” By my count, this is the governor’s fourth surgery since he’s been in office: Two shoulder, one hip, and one eyelid.
Gov. Butch Otter is defending a move to sharply increase health insurance costs for part-time state employees, even though some will face premiums that exceed their take-home pay. “This is the same thing the city of Boise does, the University of Idaho does, every company in the private sector that I know of, does the very same thing,” Otter said Wednesday. “If you’re a part-time employee, you receive part-time benefits. So I say we’re being competitive with the marketplace.”
Since he became governor, Otter has been pushing to raise state workers’ pay while cutting benefits, to make their compensation more like the private sector. But the state’s economic downturn has put the brakes on any pay increases; rather than raises, state workers these days are seeing furloughs and other cutbacks. Nevertheless, Otter’s director of administration, Mike Gwartney, is pushing forward with the benefits change for part-time employees, effective Nov. 1. Those who can’t afford the new premiums can drop health insurance. The House and Senate Democratic caucuses sent a letter to Otter this week formally requesting the governor to delay the move, but he said Wednesday that he won’t. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
Idaho Congressman Walt Minnick is being lauded by the National Rifle Association for his work to protect spring-assisted pocketknives from being reclassified as switchblades, an issue that prompted Minnick to display his own such pocketknife at a congressional committee hearing last summer. The change has now been written into the appropriation bill for the Department of Homeland Security. “This amendment was necessary to prevent commonly-used pocketknives from being branded as illegal switchblades,” said Chris W. Cox, NRA chief lobbyist. “The National Rifle Association would like to thank Congressman Minnick, whose leadership helped fix a provision that would have criminalized millions of law-abiding Americans – including many hunters and sportsmen in Idaho.”
Minnick said, “Like most Idahoans, I carry a pocketknife. That shouldn’t make me a criminal. Passage of this bill means that the kinds of knives we use while rafting Idaho rivers or fishing its streams or hunting its mountains – or even just to open a stubborn package at the office – will remain legal and free of regulation.” You can read our full story here from today’s Spokesman-Review on the legislative change and the role of Post Falls-based Buck Knives in it, and click below for Minnick’s full press release. The new language was first championed by Minnick and Rep. Bob Latta, R-Ohio; Minnick also thanked Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, for their work on the issue.
Idaho’s Senate and House Democratic caucuses have sent a joint letter to Gov. Butch Otter, on behalf of all 25 Democrats serving in the House and Senate, formally requesting the governor to delay a plan to impose much higher premiums on part-time state employees for their health insurance on Nov. 1. “We are particularly disappointed with the timing of this action by your office and the lack of formal legislative or public hearing in your decision making,” the lawmakers wrote. “The announcement of this major shift in policy came exactly one week after the 2009 legislative session adjourned. It came without any formal or public discussion in the Legislature. Moreover, the fact that the cost shift is slated to be implemented on November 1 means it will go into effect before the Legislature returns for the upcoming session.”
The hike, which is being pushed by Otter’s director of administration, Mike Gwartney, means some part-timers will face premiums that exceed their entire state pay; those who can’t pay will lose their health coverage. The legislators, in their letter, warned that any savings the state sees from the move likely would be be eaten up by increased costs in Medicaid or the Catastrophic Health Care fund as uncovered workers turn to public assistance. “Rather than shifting insurance costs onto workers who can ill afford them, efforts should be made to use the State’s bargaining position to lower State government’s health care costs as a whole,” they wrote to the governor. “You are in a critical position to lead such an effort and we encourage you to do so.” You can read the full letter here.
Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise, said lawmakers have been hearing “just these awful stories” from the affected part-time state workers. “This is 25 legislators saying, ‘This isn’t the best policy, in terms of the execution and what’s being done here,” she said. “It’s just frightening for these families.”
Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little has scheduled his “official announcement tour” to announce his candidacy for re-election as lieutenant governor, but when I looked at the tour announcement, I only saw “Brad Little for Idaho.” It named his campaign co-chairs, who are the state’s last four lieutenant governors: Gov. Butch Otter, U.S. Sen. Jim Risch, Hon. Jack Riggs, and Hon. Mark Ricks. And it noted announcements planned for Oct. 30 in Boise, Idaho Falls, and Coeur d’Alene. But it never said just what office Little would be announcing for. So I called campaign spokesman Jason Lehosit with the question: What’s Little running for? “That would be lieutenant governor,” he replied. Gov. Butch Otter, who’s strongly hinted that he, too, is seeking re-election, has yet to schedule his own formal announcement.
Idaho Reports, the weekly legislative program on Idaho Public Television, will be a full hour this year, which is good news for a show that happens to be the longest-running legislative program in the West. Click here for a cool history of the show, which debuted in January of 1972 with host Gene Shumate. Over the years, the show went through various format and name changes, but it was consistently a daily report on the doings of the Idaho Legislature; it took its current name, Idaho Reports, in 1982. A big change came in 1997, when budget cuts at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting forced the show to cut back from daily to once a week - a much-bemoaned change. Before that year, Idahoans knew all they had to do was watch the show each evening during the session, and they’d be up to speed on everything going on in the Legislature. The weekly program started off with just a half hour, but it’s gone up and down. Now, host Thanh Tan has confirmed that this year, it’ll be a full hour.
It’s been my pleasure to be among the guests and regular commentators on Idaho Reports over the years, and I’m looking forward to another good season of the show.
When Paul Kjellander, head of the Idaho Office of Energy Resources, briefed a legislative interim committee this morning about the wide-ranging work on options for Idaho’s energy future being done out of his office by the Strategic Energy Alliance, an effort launched by the governor that includes task forces, a board of private industry representatives, and a council that includes state agency heads, Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, said she had a legal concern. The work of the alliance, which was created by an executive order from the governor, is “in a gray area with regard to whether the work is public or private,” she said. That’s why she’s been working with the governor’s office on legislation to codify the entire Idaho Office of Energy Resources, which actually doesn’t exist in state law, but also was created by executive order. Writing the agency into state law would give it the Legislature’s blessing as well, she noted, as well as clarifying that everything it does is subject to the state’s open meeting and public records laws.
“In my view, there’s public policy being created by the Office of Energy Resources through the Strategic Energy Alliance, and in my view, the process should be open and transparent,” Kelly said. “The codification would have that value.” Kelly noted that while the governor’s office has worked with her on the legislation, it’s indicated that this year is not the right time to enact it. Asked to explain that, Kjellander told lawmakers, “There will be a time in the near future, I hope.”
He said the “main concern from the state’s perspective, the Office of Energy Resources in cooperation with the governor’s office,” is that the coming legislative session will be a time when consolidating agencies will be under consideration, and “even the potential discussion of eliminating some agencies. … Those discussions are likely to take place in the hallways across the street,” at the state Capitol. To write Energy Resources into law as a new official state agency at the same time, Kjellander said, “might … just be poor timing.” Kjellander said the executive order that created his office still is in effect, and it can continue operating under it for now. He also pledged to keep its operations “transparent,” saying, “I feel confident that I’ll hear your messages pretty loud. … I think Sen. Kelly communicated her concerns very clearly.”
Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, says Idaho’s efforts to keep invasive quagga and zebra mussels from getting into the state’s waterways appear to be succeeding. “We were very successful this year,” he told the Legislature’s interim committee on energy, environment and technology. “We seem to have avoided any contact with these critters in our waterways this year.” Seventeen sites were set up statewide to inspect boats coming into the state, and Idaho required boaters to buy a special sticker to fund the anti-mussel efforts. “It’s absolutely paramount that we stay diligent - we’re going to have to do more,” Anderson said. “We have been successful - this is like trying to prevent a terrorist act. Professionals out there feel that we have really dodged a bullet.”
One boat that was chased through three states actually was launched in the Spokane River, Anderson said, but extensive monitoring followed and no contamination was found. “I was concerned because I just live downriver, just downstream from that,” said Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene. He said the launch took place at Blackwell Island. Anderson and officials said the boat turned out to have been out of the water long enough before its Idaho launch for any invasive critters on it to have died.
Here’s a news item from AP: State wildlife officials say the first wolf hunting tag ever printed in the state has sold for $8,000 to the highest bidder. The high bid came from North Carolina resident Jonny Morris, the founder of Bass Pro Shops. Morris bought Wolf Tag No. 1 last week in an auction sponsored by the Congressional Sportsmen Foundation. Morris says he will give it to his son, who is planning to hunt in Idaho later this year. The auction is one of six held by nonprofit groups around the nation to help raise money for wolf conservation. The special tags are good for bagging one wolf, but also commemorate the first public wolf hunt in Idaho history. Tag No. 3 went for $1,700 at an event hosted by the Mule Deer Foundation, while tag No. 5 sold for just $350 at the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation auction.
University of Idaho Professor Jay O’Laughlin just told the Legislature’s energy, environment and technology interim committee that woody biomass - converting mill or forest residues into thermal and electrical energy - provided 4.7 percent of the energy consumed in Idaho in 2007, and 1.8 percent of the energy consumed in the U.S. At the U of I, he said, “We’ve been heating the campus with wood for 20 years.” The UI’s wood-fired steam plant uses 22,000 dry tons of woody biomass material a year; the result is big savings on utilities for taxpayers, O’Laughlin said: The UI is saving $1.5 million a year compared to natural gas costs. Currently, he said, Idaho’s mill residues are being fully utilized; expanding use of woody biomass for energy in Idaho would require new supplies of logging slash and leftovers from additional forest thinnings. “I view wood bio-energy as a bridge to the next energy technology,” he said. “Wood has always been an important part of our energy picture.”
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has opened the door to delaying the next scheduled increase in the state’s grocery tax credit, possibly saving the state from another $15 million-plus in budget cuts next year that could otherwise hit public schools. “There’s cost vs. value there,” Otter said in an interview with the editorial board of the Twin Falls Times-News; the governor’s office posted a link to video of his comments on the state’s Web site. “I think we would suffer if we can’t do all that’s possible to do for K-12.”
Otter emphasized that he’s “not going to get out in front of the Legislature” on the issue, but made it clear he’d consider a delay - something he starkly foreclosed this year, even faced with widespread budget cuts. Jon Hanian, Otter’s press secretary, said, “What he said there I think speaks for itself.” He added, “He’ll weigh anything that is brought to him, in terms of trying to figure out how we get through this difficult period.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
In his latest “Project 60” message, Gov. Butch Otter touts the recent $5 million state grant to Micron for an LED project, and praises various Idaho companies that are innovating or expanding. “It doesn’t matter if you sell alfalfa or write software, it takes innovation to efficiently produce value, get your product to market and grow your business,” the guv writes. “At the Innovation Summit, as well as my Business Summit in August, I was reminded again just how strong and resilient our companies are in Idaho. We have industry leaders who aren’t seeking shelter from this economic storm; instead, they are actively repositioning themselves and innovating for future success.” You can read his full article here.
Well, that was pretty awful. I don’t know if the H1N1 is really worse than seasonal flu, because I’ve gotten a flu shot every year for at least the past 10 and haven’t had the seasonal flu. But I sure don’t remember anything quite this bad. Worst part: The first night, with the fever, chills and aches. I feel fortunate to be done with it in less than a week; I’ve heard of others suffering longer. Thing that helped the most: Sipping ice water. Constantly. And sleep. So out of it I didn’t even turn on the computer for three days! Glad to be returned to health and back in the land of the living; still taking it a bit easy.
Idaho’s state budget news is bleak, lawmakers heard as they gathered today for the interim meeting of the Legislature’s joint budget committee: One in five Idaho school districts has declared a financial emergency. State prisons are managing 500 more offenders than a year ago, with $28 million less in funding. Part-time state employees already hit with furloughs and other cutbacks will face sharp increases in their health insurance premiums. And Idaho’s Medicaid program could see a shortfall so extreme it’d have to eliminate 23 percent of the health benefits it provides to the state’s poor and disabled.
“It’s breathtaking,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, vice-chairwoman of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. “I think everyone in Idaho needs to understand where we’re at, and be prepared to sacrifice in a lot of ways. They need to communicate to us what their priorities are - what can they do without in services, and what do they feel they absolutely have to have, and how do they want to pay for that?” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
Based on estimates of federal funding levels for Medicaid once the federal economic stimulus boost is gone, Idaho’s Medicaid program is looking at having to cut costs by $387 million - about 23 percent of the Medicaid program. Various savings efforts already are under way. But Idaho Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong said, “The dilemma is this: Even with all of this cost-containment activity, we are looking at a shortfall that is just extreme.” He said, “That is going to be extremely painful.”
Stunned lawmakers on JFAC had no questions at the end of Armstrong’s presentation. “I think we just all have our breath taken away already this morning,” said Co-Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “We’ll look forward to working with you, to try and figure out a way out of this situation.”
Idaho’s state Department of Correction is managing 500 more offenders now than it did a year ago, with $28 million less in funding, Corrections Director Brent Reinke just informed JFAC. The department, he said, is working “to really try to do a much better job managing our population.” That’s included closing 150 costly state beds, including beds at the maximum security prison and the Southern Idaho Correctional Institution, in favor of less-costly housing for prisoners including new beds at the privately operated Idaho Correctional Center. Closing those state beds meant the department could eliminate 16 positions, Reinke said. However, he said the furloughs and other money-saving moves the department has been making are “not sustainable” for continuing to appropriately manage the inmate population. The state has 7,338 prison inmates, as of this morning. A relatively stable inmate population has helped lower costs.
The first report to the feds on Idaho’s federal stimulus money spending is out, and it shows that the money spent so far, $12.8 million, has created or preserved 492.58 jobs, Gov. Butch Otter’s budget director, Wayne Hammon, informed lawmakers this morning. That means it was about $26,000 per job. However, it’s not particularly illustrative - because the reports so far reflect only the money actually spent, not the money that will be spent on the projects that already have started. So those numbers will change substantially over the course of the next year.
JFAC has begun reviewing the health insurance benefits for state employees, including part-time workers who are facing big cuts next month. Legislative budget analyst Keith Bybee told the lawmakers that the executive branch is making the changes for part-timers as of the Nov. 14 payroll. Concerned state employees have sent letters to the joint committee about the hardships some part-time workers will face when their health insurance costs rise dramatically; some say they could end up with premium costs that exceed their take-home pay. Bybee said the savings from the change stay with the agency. Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, asked if agencies have the flexibility to not make the change, “to say, ‘we’re going to lose these employees?’” Bybee said, “The agency could, in fact, raise some of those part-time employees’ pay to offset some of those premiums.” Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, thanked Bybee for presenting the information, and said, “Obviously that will be a discussion item in this next session.”
One in five Idaho school districts have declared financial emergencies, legislative budget analyst Paul Headlee just informed lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. He said 23 school districts, 20 percent of Idaho’s 115 districts, made the declaration as permitted by HB 252, legislation that passed this year. Many reduced school supplies, eliminated or reduced positions, reduced their textbook budgets, and left vacant positions unfilled; some have negotiated cuts or freezes in salaries.
As state agencies look at budget cuts and how to replace federal stimulus money once it’s gone, they’ve also been asked to look for possible new revenue sources other than the state general fund, legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith told JFAC as she wrapped up an overview of the state’s budget situation. If the state goes that route, a range of fees, from park fees to college tuition, could rise.
A fairly long list of supplemental appropriation requests is looming for lawmakers to consider, for everything from rising caseloads in foster care to a $13.5 million Medicaid shortfall. Those are items that need to be funded in the current year. One item on the list is a $1.97 million request from the College of Western Idaho for unexpected enrollment growth. “You potentially could be looking at enrollment caps,” Holland-Smith told lawmakers. “That’s not a direction we’ve gone to. … That’ll be something you’ll have to discuss.” JFAC members looked uncomfortable.
How bad will the state budget cuts ahead be for next year? “It’s not going to be nibbling around the edges any more,” legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith cautioned lawmakers this morning. “We just don’t have that type of flexibility. We’re talking about significant changes for some agencies.”
The Idaho Legislature’s joint budget committee has begun its interim meeting this morning at the Stueckle Sky Center at BSU, starting with an update from legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith on the state of the general fund. Overall: Not so good. The state faces a $151 million budget shortfall in the current year; Gov. Butch Otter has ordered holdbacks to make up part of that. “The Legislature will have to act on this when you come to town,” Holland-Smith noted.
Thousands of Idaho college students who were scheduled to receive $500 “Promise Scholarships” this year will get just $400 instead, under a plan that’s up for final approval Thursday by the state Board of Education. The same tough times that have driven the state to slash its budget have prompted huge increases in college enrollments throughout the state - and the combination of the two left the scholarship program without enough money to keep its full promise this spring. “The reality is we’ve just got far more people eligible that have applied, and we’ve got fewer dollars to work with,” said Mark Browning, spokesman for the state Board of Education.
The scholarship, started by lawmakers in 2001, is for any Idaho high school graduate with at least a B average, who attends an Idaho college, public or private; it helps those students with expenses for their first two years of college, as long as they maintain their grades. Close to 9,000 students across the state received fall-semester payments of $250 this fall, but that was before Gov. Butch Otter imposed mid-year budget cuts last month, including a 6 percent cut from college and university budgets. Now, the spring payment may be just $150. Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, who worked with the late Sen. Bob Lee, R-Rexburg, to establish the scholarship program in 2000, said, “I think it’s really a shame.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
Idaho has reached a $13 million settlement with drug manufacturer Eli Lilly & Co., the state’s biggest financial recovery under the Idaho Consumer Protection Act aside from the 1998 tobacco settlement. The state sued the pharmaceutical manufacturer over its marketing of Zyprexa, an anti-psychotic drug, saying the drug company “engaged in deceptive marketing” and “failed to warn health care providers of serious side effects, resulting in significant costs to Idaho Medicaid.” Part of the money will go to reimburse the federal government, which pays part of the cost of Idaho’s Medicaid program, while about $6.9 million will go to the state’s general fund. “Off-label promotion of pharmaceutical drugs is a deceptive practice and creates unnecessary risks to consumers,” Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said. “In this instance, the company’s practices also resulted in additional costs to Idaho Medicaid, at the expense of Idaho taxpayers. Fortunately we were able to reach this settlement and recover those taxpayer dollars.” Click below to read Wasden’s full announcement.
State schools Supt. Tom Luna says Idaho’s public schools need a 9.2 percent increase in state general funds next year, just to keep even and fund student growth. In a budget request for fiscal year 2011 that Luna’s scheduled to present to the state Board of Education on Thursday, he calls for a $1.34 billion general fund appropriation for public schools next year, $1.73 billion in total funds. That’s up from $1.23 billion in general funds this year - the first year that Idaho’s schools have taken a cut in state funds from what they received the year before. This year’s school budget, in state funds, was 7.7 percent below last year’s $1.33 billion level.
In his submission for Thursday’s state board meeting, Luna said his budget request for next year would require a $112.7 million increase in general funds to replace federal stimulus money that helped prop up this year’s school budget, and to fund growth. He’s also calling for a $28.1 million appropriation from the state’s Public Education Stabilization Fund to finish closing that gap. In total funds - including federal stimulus money, some of which was targeted to specific programs - this year’s school budget was set at $1.71 billion.
University of Idaho President Duane Nellis has announced his plan for the 6 percent mid-year budget cut at the university ordered by Gov. Butch Otter. The U of I considered furloughs, but decided against them for now. Much of the UI’s $7.1 million in cuts will come from personnel costs, including eliminating vacant positions and travel; there also will be cuts in operating expenses, capital outlay and reserves. Nellis said the plan “required exceedingly difficult choices, and virtually every part of the university has been impacted.” He also called on the state to “protect the essential nature of its investment in higher education,” and declared, “Continued disinvestment should no longer be an option.” You can read his memo to faculty, staff and students here.
With mid-year budget holdbacks hitting, lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee will gather for their interim meeting this week to examine what’s going on with the state budget, impacts of cuts already approved earlier this year and more. Among the agenda items for the two-day meeting that starts Wednesday: How school districts are coping with this year’s budget cuts; impacts of statewide personnel cuts; an update on cuts in health insurance for part-time state employees; and how state prisons and Medicaid are coping with the holdbacks.
Idaho state officials flew on a state plane for a lobbying tour of phosphate mines last month, with a mining industry group footing the bill, the Associated Press reports, though the Idaho Transportation Department doesn’t allow private groups to charter state planes. Lt. Gov. Brad Little said the move will save taxpayers money, but a group that opposes Idaho phosphate mine expansion questioned the arrangement. Click below to read the full story from AP reporter John Miller.
The $54 million transportation funding compromise that ended Idaho’s second-longest legislative session this year has now shrunk to about $28 million, far less than Gov. Butch Otter said was needed right away to keep Idaho’s roads up to par. First, a joint legislative task force recommended delaying a $21.1 million funding shift from parks and the state police to road work until July of 2011. Now, the other bills that passed this year, from removing an ethanol exemption to creating new truck-trailer plates for out-of-state firms to buy, are bringing in significantly less money than anticipated.
An increase in fees for driver’s licenses, titles and the like is now expected to bring in $11.5 million, instead of $13.1 million, as recession-weary Idahoans opt to renew their licenses and registrations for shorter periods of time. Repeal of the ethanol exemption is raising $15.4 million, about $1 million less than expected. And legislation estimated to raise $5 million a year from new truck-trailer plates is now expected to raise just $500,000; it’s brought in only $105 so far. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
More than 100 people gathered in the crisp fall coolness of sun-dappled Municipal Park in Boise this afternoon, to remember Chuck Oxley, the 46-year-old longtime Idaho journalist who died in a car accident last weekend. Chuck, who’d been a reporter for various newspapers and the Associated Press and also served for a time as spokesman for the Idaho Democratic Party, had returned to journalism and was working as editor of the Blackfoot paper when he died; his 10-year-old daughter, Susannah, survived the accident. Today, friends, relatives and co-workers recalled Chuck, whose bigger-than-life presence seemed to fill the picnic shelter as so many who knew him told their favorite Chuck stories, laughed together, and shed a few tears. In this photo, Chuck’s brother, Chris, shared the final recollections.
Less than a week before he died, Chuck sent an email to “close friends, family and colleagues” about his newfound passion for learning to fly, and his determination to move on past tough times to new challenges in life. He concluded his note with a sentiment all at the park shared today: “Thank you for being my friend over the years. Fair winds to you, and to yours. Chuck.”
I asked Mark Travers, a research scientist at the Roswell Park Cancer Institute, if the institute has done studies in other states like its examination of bar air quality in Idaho, and whether the results were comparable. The answer: Yes, in 35 other states. “The results in Idaho are very similar to what we’ve seen in other places,” he said. “The point is to try to bring to people’s attention just how bad the air quality is in an indoor place where you allow smoking. We spend a lot of time, effort and money monitoring and regulating that outdoor air … but we spend 90 percent of our time indoors, where the result can be much worse. It’s a result of being in an enclosed place and in close proximity to the source of the pollution, in this case, the cigarettes.”
The institute’s study found that air in Boise-area bars that permit smoking is 36 times worse that the area’s smog, that the air quality in those bars is in the “hazardous” range, and that workers in smoking-permitted bars are exposed to four times the EPA’s annual limit for fine-particulate pollution exposure. “The only time you would see outdoor air pollution that would be comparable to what we found in the Idaho bars would be during a forest fire,” Travers said.
October is Hunger Awareness Month, and the state marked the occasion this morning when Lt. Gov. Brad Little joined a wide array of religious leaders, anti-hunger activists and children from the Boise Urban Garden School to make it official. The children presented a basket of locally grown produce from farmer’s markets and community gardens around the state, and Little said he’s seen first-hand in his hometown of Emmett the success of interfaith efforts to get fresh, local produce to the needy. Idaho is ranked as the 24th hungriest state, Little noted, and it has the 10th highest percentage of food-insecure children under age 5. “It is important at this point in time, particularly in Idaho where we have so much agricultural products, that there are people who are hungry,” Little said, calling on Idahoans to “be aware of the necessity to take care of our own.”
The event came as a recent survey by the Northwest Area Foundation found that in the past year, 55 percent of Idahoans said they’ve cut down on the amount they’ve spent on food; 32 percent had problems paying for basic necessities like their mortgage, rent or heat; 33 percent had trouble affording medical care; 26 percent said someone in their household has lost a job; and 38 percent said someone in their household has had their work hours cut. “This poll confirms what we are seeing in Idaho,” said Mary Chant, executive director of the Community Action Partnership Association of Idaho. “We’re seeing a whole new group of people who’ve never experienced financial difficulties of this magnitude. It’s the former high-earning, two-income families who’ve lost a job and have a heavy debt load. It’s putting a huge stress on our services, because we’re still working with all the low-income families we’ve typically helped in the past.”
Former Idaho Sen. Larry Craig’s new consulting firm, New West Strategies, has been hired by Cassia and Minidoka counties to help Cassia County land a $300 million federal prison. The Twin Falls Times-News reports that both counties’ commissioners agreed Monday to pay Craig’s firm a monthly fee of $5,000 plus a $500 monthly travel budget. The city of Burley also plans to chip in for the contract. Craig, who retired from the Senate amid scandal after he was cited in a Minneapolis airport men’s room sex sting, formed the consulting firm this year with partner Michael Ware, his former chief of staff.
Craig initially said his firm likely would focus on energy issues, but its website says, “We provide strategic advice, guidance, and advocacy to companies, trade associations, and other clients on a wide range of legislative and regulatory issues.” Though Craig, as a former senator, is banned from lobbying for two years after leaving office, his associates can lobby. His firm’s website, which repeatedly refers to Craig as “Senator Larry E. Craig,” touts his service in the Senate and House, his committee assignments, and his “reputation as a stalwart against environmental extremism.”
Kim Barnes, author and University of Idaho professor of creative writing, has been awarded the PEN USA award for fiction for her second novel, “A Country Called Home.” That’s a prestigious award, putting her in the company of such other winners this year as creative nonfiction winner Steve Lopez, who won for “The Soloist,” now a hit movie; and Dustin Lance Black, whose screenplay for “Milk” won the screenplay category.
But that’s not the most interesting thing about Barnes’ award; this is: It’s for a book that she wrote while teaching her U of I students about writing, “with my students creating their own stories and essays right along beside me,” Barnes said. “As I submitted ‘A Country Called Home’ for publication, I shared with my fiction students the process of writing, revising and submitting a novel. I showed them every agent comment, good and bad, and each editorial rejection and, luckily, acceptance. Finally, we’re all in this together.”
Barnes was a finalist for the 1997 Pulitzer Prize for her memoir “In the Wilderness: Coming of Age in Unknown Country,” and won the 2001 Pushcart Prize for her essay, “The Ashes of August.” Her first novel, published in 2003, was “Finding Caruso.” She’s now at work on her third.
While the number of Americans without health insurance has been rising for the past decade, the picture is different in Idaho, where the percentage who lack insurance has stayed roughly the same - except when it comes to children. Far more of Idaho’s children were covered by health insurance in 2008 than in 1999, according to the latest U.S. Census data, with the percentage of uninsured kids dropping from 19.8 percent in 1999 to 8.9 percent last year. The reason: It wasn’t just the start of the Children’s Health Insurance Program in 1997; it was a private foundation’s efforts to promote that program that alerted many Idahoans that their kids qualified for coverage, either through that government program or others. “We saw a huge increase, mostly in regular Medicaid, that’s mostly all children,” said Idaho Health & Welfare spokesman Tom Shanahan; it also happens that children are among the least costly populations to insure.
The U.S. Census data, which comes from the annual Current Population Survey, shows that if children were taken out of the equation, Idaho’s rate of uninsured residents under age 65 stayed about the same from 1999 to 2008, at 21 percent. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
Fine-particulate air pollution in Boise bars that permit smoking is 36 times worse than outdoor pollution levels in the valley, according to a new study by the Roswell Park Cancer Institute released today by the Coalition for a Healthy Idaho, and four times the EPA’s standard for annual exposure. Testers actually went into 19 bars and restaurants in Boise, Meridian and Garden City in May and June, operated air quality monitors, and recorded how many people were there and how many cigarettes were burning. “Sampling was discreet in order not to disturb the occupants’ normal behavior,” the study reports. Its conclusion: The second-hand smoke is a health threat to those who work in the bars.
“This study shows precisely why city councils in Idaho should implement comprehensive smokefree ordinances covering all indoor workplaces and all workers,” said Shauneen Grange, campaign coordinator for Smokefree Idaho, a group working for such bans. “The study demonstrates conclusively that the smokefree air law in Idaho is effectively protecting the health of workers and patrons from the health effects of exposure to secondhand smoke in restaurants, while those in smoking-permitted bars are still exposed to hazardous levels of air contaminants.”
Idaho law bans smoking in restaurants and, after lawmakers overrode a veto from Gov. Butch Otter, bowling alleys. But it doesn’t ban it in bars where no one under 21 is allowed in. The sampling took place at 14 bars where smoking is permitted, one where the bar has chosen not to allow smoking, and four restaurants. The smoking-permitted bars were in the “hazardous” air quality range, while the other bar and the restaurants were down in the good to moderate range.
Gov. Butch Otter’s transportation task force has released its agenda for its second meeting, which is coming up on Thursday, as part of an 18-month review and report back to the governor on transportation funding now and in the future. Though the panel’s report isn’t due back until Dec. 1, 2010, Otter says he “would welcome the task force’s findings and recommendations as soon as they are ready.” Said the governor, “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. The task force will put some reality behind the rhetoric about maintaining and improving our roads and bridges, and about what it will take to keep our people safe and economically competitive.” Click here to see the agenda for the all-day meeting and more info on the task force.