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Eye On Boise

Archive for September 2009

Otter is OK with year delay on gas tax funding shift

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter is raising no objection to a joint legislative committee’s decision to hold off for another year - until July 1, 2011 - on shifting gas tax funding away from the state parks department and the Idaho State Police; they’ll recommend that move to the full Legislature. “Overall, the governor is OK with the action that they’ve taken regarding putting that off for a year,” said Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian. Why this is significant: The shift was a key part of a session-ending deal between Otter and lawmakers that allowed the second-longest legislative session in state history to end this spring, after 117 days. That happened after Otter failed, for a second year running, to persuade lawmakers to raise the gas tax and vehicle registration fees to fund more road work.

“Obviously he feels that that problem is not going away,” Hanian said, and the governor’s task force on transportation funding will look into it. “He expects that that’s something that the task force will add to its list of items to accomplish.” Hanian said Otter “understands the concerns that have been raised” about shifting money from the established recreational trails and waterways programs at state parks. “He expects that the task force will take up finding a long-term solution to that funding question.” Otter’s task force held its organizational meeting in August; its second meeting is scheduled for Oct. 8.

Idaho orders first H1N1 vaccines

Today was the first day the National Centers for Disease Control accepted orders for H1N1 flu vaccine, and Idaho got its order in - for 9,000 doses. They’re expected to start arriving early next week, going directly to hospitals, community health centers and public health districts. State epidemiologist Dr. Christine Hahn said, “There is going to be a very limited supply of H1N1 vaccine available during the first weeks of shipments, so initially vaccination will not be widely available to everyone recommended to receive it. Eventually, we hope there will be enough for everyone who wants to be vaccinated.” First priority will go to pregnant women, children, health care workers and people at high risk because of other medical conditions.

ITD has its own money problems…

Here’s a link to my full story in today’s Spokesman-Review on the joint legislative committee’s decision yesterday to delay shifting gas tax funds away from the state parks department and ISP for another year, until July 1, 2011. The panel’s decision is a recommendation to the Legislature, but the Legislature set the panel up to figure out the answer to how to proceed. Here’s an interesting twist, however: Lawmakers on the panel said they felt they had “breathing room” because of savings at ITD due to bids on contracts coming in millions below expectations; some even mentioned “at least $34 million” in savings. That was the amount, earlier this summer, that federal stimulus project bids had come in below expectations; as of now, the total savings is up to $50 million - but ITD has designated all of that savings to additional stimulus-funded construction projects. One of those, for example, is the closing of the 2-mile, two-lane gap that would have been created on Highway 95 in North Idaho between a new four-lane highway and existing four-lane road.

ITD says stimulus savings can’t be used for department operations - like filling potholes or plowing snow - and they are one-time funds that won’t come back once spent. Also, ITD says it’s having money problems of its own right now - last week, ITD announced an $8.6 million holdback on its own department budget - a 3.4 percent cut - because its revenues are falling short, compared to appropriations.

A germ of good economic news…

It’s not huge, but state officials are pointing to a germ of good news in the latest economic data: Economic activity in four Idaho metro areas, Coeur d’Alene, Lewiston, Pocatello and Idaho Falls, rose in 2008 for the second straight year, according to the latest estimates from teh U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Overall, Idaho’s gross state product was up 1.2 percent to $52.7 billion in 2008, from 2007; it had risen 7.3 percent from 2006 to 2007. Idaho Department of Labor Director Roger Madsen called the figures “good news for the stability of much of our economy.” The state’s largest metro area, the Boise-Nampa area, however, saw a decline in 2008 of nearly 1 percent. That was driven by a slowdown in construction and layoffs in manufacturing, especially in high-tech.

Cameron: ‘Wish we had a more concrete answer, but we don’t’

A correction: Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, actually voted “yes” on Sen. Jim Hammond’s motion at the legislative task force today to delay for one year the shift of gas tax funds away from the state parks department; I thought he said “no,” but it was hard to hear him. That makes the vote on Hammond’s motion unanimous, rather than 7-1. To recap: Here’s what the task force decided today: For BOTH parks and the Idaho State Police, it voted to delay the shift by one year, to July 1, 2011. Further, the task force declared its intent that the parks fund shift be permanently reversed, and that the ISP gas tax funds be replaced with a new dedicated funding source for ISP. Said task force Co-Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, “I wish we had a more concrete answer, but we don’t.”

Lawmakers on the panel said they could afford to put off the decision for a year because the Idaho Transportation Department had such significant savings on highway projects this year from bids coming in lower than expected; and also said they didn’t want to get out ahead of the governor’s transportation funding task force. Interestingly, the move puts off a final decision until after the 2010 election, in which every seat in the Legislature is up for election. Off-road recreation advocate Sandra Mitchell told the panel she supported the one-year delay on the parks shift. “It is a program that has worked admirably for decades,” she said of the longstanding deal to send 3 percent of Idaho’s gas tax proceeds to parks, to account for the gas taxes that are paid by snowmobilers, boaters and other off-road enthusiasts on gas they don’t burn on highways. “We do believe that it is wise to wait - we do that reluctantly,” Mitchell said. “We trust … that you are going to do the right thing, and the right thing is to give us back our gas tax.”

Panel votes 7-1 in favor of dedicated funding for ISP - not general fund

Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, moved that “we make it clear that it is the intent of the committee to find dedicated funding for the Idaho State Police in conjunction with the governor’s task force.” He said, “I think that way it’s clear that we don’t want to go down the path that is going to cause other agencies some real concern, and that is going to the general fund.” Wills said there are many user-fee oriented options, and those are appropriate, but he opposed any change in the split between local law enforcement agencies and ISP on fine revenues. “That’s worked for generations,” he said. Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, also spoke against changing that. Wills’ motion passed 7-1, with just Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, objecting. Labrador said he favors possibilities like tapping the sales tax money from transportation-related items, and that comes from the general fund.

Bell motion passes unanimously

Rep. Maxine Bell’s motion to delay the shift of gas tax funding away from the Idaho State Police for a year has passed unanimously, winning the 8-0 support of the joint legislative task force. Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, a retired state trooper, said, “I believe this is absolutely the right path to take. There’s no question that down the road, the revenue stream (from gas taxes) is going to be less. … It gives us an opportunity to look at alternative funding. We need to find alternative funding, there’s no question. … I think this gives us a great opportunity to do that.” Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said she was “intrigued” by the idea of a car insurance surcharge, which, at $1 a month, could raise $19 million a year. “If we’re going to go ahead and delay this, I would like to have us shine some light on that,” she said. “It would be a reasonable source of dedicated funding for ISP.” Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, said he thought the split in some crime-related funding sources between local governments and the state also should be examined. Noted Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, “There’s still an immediate need to appropriately fund the state police.”

Bell: Delay on ISP fund shift, too

Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, has moved to also delay the funding shift of gas taxes away from the Idaho State Police for a year. “This is an area where we need a revenue stream - we need a dedicated revenue stream,” she said, “and again, we’re treading right into the governor’s task force.” Lawmakers on a special task force could pick a new funding source, she said, but it could clash with what that task force decides to do. Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, seconded the motion. “We don’t want to get out in front of the governor’s task force,” he said. Plus, he said, “We know for sure we have $34 million” in savings from ITD contracts coming in lower than expected this year. “We do have some breathing room.”

Labrador motion on intent passes, 8-0

Rep. Raul Labrador’s motion to add a statement from the joint legislative task force that its intention in delaying implementation for a year on the parks funding shift is to permanently reinstate the 3 percent gas tax diversion for parks, has passed unanimously, 8-0. Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said the statement also should recognize the economic impact of recreation in Idaho’s small communities.

Hammond motion passes, 7-1

Sen. Jim Hammond’s motion to delay the parks funding shift for a year has passed on a 7-1 vote, with just Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, objecting. Labrador then said he wants language added noting that it’s the panel’s intent to repeal the shift, not just delay it. (Note: Labrador later said he actually voted ‘yes’ on Hammond’s motion, making the vote unanimous; see correction above)

Labrador: ‘We have all learned that we made a mistake here’

Rep. Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, said, “I would object to any statement that we’re going to find other funding sources. … I just don’t think we should get into that. All we’re doing is tying the Legislature.” Labrador said he’s not sure if he’ll support Hammond’s motion for a one-year delay on the parks funding shift. “We have all learned that we made a mistake here,” Labrador said. “It seems to me that it makes no sense to wait a year … I think we should just back down, reverse this decision.”

Guv is ‘caught, he’s stuck’

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said he and Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, met with Gov. Butch Otter to discuss the parks fund-shift. “The dilemma is that the governor recognizes a significant funding shortage for transportation,” Cameron said. “He had a certain dollar amount he was trying to reach. … He’s caught, he’s stuck. It was a recommendation made by (legislative) leadership.” Cameron said, “His  caution to me was, look, I’d be willing to repeal it, provided that you’re going to provide additional funding for our highways.” The governor does recognize, Cameron said, that the state’s highway fund is healthier than expected right now due to savings on contracts this year from bids coming in lower than expected. “I believe he is willing to go along with the potential delay for a year, and he is willing to go along with a repeal … upon finding additional resources for transportation.”

Hammond: Delay parks shift for one year

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, has moved to delay by one year the shift of gas taxes away from the state Parks & Rec department. “Actually I would go a step further and say that it makes little sense to me that we are diverting these funds,” he said. Instead, he said, “the better part of valor at this point” would be to wait for the governor’s highway funding task force to do its work and see where this fits in. Before he proposed his motion, Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, said she couldn’t see the logic of proposing a pop tax or something else to replace the gas tax funds for parks. “They’re being double taxed - they get to have a tax on the pop they drink while they’re snowmobiling, and they also have a gas tax,” she said. “There really isn’t an alternative funding that is not a double taxation.”

Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, said she’d support the motion, but would prefer a permanent cancellation of any shift away from parks, rather than the motion’s one-year moratorium. There’s been no voting yet on the motion - or any others.

If they do nothing…

If the legislative task force today chooses to do nothing about parks funding, on July 1, 2010 the state parks department will lose 10 positions and $4.25 million, including: $1.2 million from the waterways improvement fund; $1.2 million from the off-highway vehicle fund; $1.2 million from the capital improvement fund; $600,000 from the road and bridge account; and $36,000 from the search and rescue account.

Gas tax has been a declining funding source for the Idaho State Police…

The Idaho State Police used to get 6 percent of the state highway user fund revenue, which mainly comes from the gas tax. Then, in 1992 it went to 5.4 percent, and in 2000, it went to 5 percent. Some lawmakers questioned whether perhaps the amount should be increased, but others said there’s no point - it’s going away, and 6 percent of nothing is nothing, noted Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, said a different funding source is needed. “It just was not working with that formula, regardless of the percent,” he said. “We were losing more every year.”

How to fund ISP…

Col. Jerry Russell, chief of the Idaho State Police, told a legislative task force that whatever funding source is identified to replace gas taxes for ISP, “We believe that it should be one that will grow with the state of Idaho.” He noted Utah’s approach, tying the number of state troopers to either the number of vehicle registrations or population. “Implementing an initiative like this would ensure that the Idaho State Police Patrol is aligned with the continuing needs of the people of Idaho, reflecting growth or decline in the base,” he said in a memo submitted to the task force. He then reviewed the potential revenue from an array of possible alternative funding options, from increased vehicle registration fees and a sales tax hike to an auto dealer vehicle sales tax, tire fee, dedicated sales tax on transportation items, surcharge on local and wireless access lines, vehicle insurance surcharge or increases in other fees. A vehicle insurance surcharge, for example, of $1 a month would raise $19.4 million a year for ISP.

Some costs of Idaho’s seat belt law…

Idaho also is losing out on $4.5 million in one-time funds available for highway safety because lawmakers have refused to stiffen the state’s seat belt law, lawmakers were just informed; another $5 million to $6 million because the state hasn’t attained 85 percent seat belt use; another $1 million for not having a primary-offense seat belt law; and $250,000 for not eliminated the nursing-baby exemption from the state’s child safety seat law. That money would have come in this year, and would have been for highway safety improvement.

One possible funding source: Late fees

If Idaho were to follow the lead of Ohio and start charging a $20 late fee for driver’s license renewals and vehicle registration renewals (after a 7-day grace period), it could raise a little over $5 million, legislative budget analyst Keith Bybee just reported to the joint legislative task force, based on the number of Idaho drivers and vehicle owners who typically are late. However, Bybee noted, that amount likely would fall in subsequent years, once people hit with the fee react by changing their behavior and getting things done on time.

‘We’ll make some decisions’

There are a couple dozen people gathered in the audience for today’s legislative task force hearing on alternative funding sources for the Idaho State Police and the state parks, once they lose gas tax funds next July - a move many task force members now oppose, at least when it comes to the parks money. “By the end of the day, we’ll make some decisions that will appropriately handle our situation,” Co-Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told the panel as it started its meeting.

Delays stall Duncan appeal

Thirteen months after multiple murderer Joseph Duncan was handed three death sentences by an Idaho federal court jury, his appeal in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals remains stalled at its earliest stage: The appellate court has yet to rule on whether it can even consider the appeal. Duncan said he didn’t want to file an appeal, but his standby attorneys filed it for him anyway. The high court has ordered the attorneys to present arguments on two points: Whether the appeal can even be considered, when Duncan didn’t want it filed; and whether he was mentally competent to waive his right to appeal. But the defense attorneys have sought and received two lengthy delays to submit those arguments; the second was granted just last week. You can read my full story here from Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.

To listen or watch…

There was intense interest in Gov. Butch Otter’s announcement today on new state budget cuts; this shot shows the line-up of TV cameras at the press conference. Not visible are many additional reporters and photographers (including me) who were ranged around the sides of the room. The governor’s office has posted several audio clips of the press conference here, here, here, here and here; the first four are Otter speaking, and the fifth is state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna. And you can click below to watch the uncut video of the entire thing, thanks to Idaho Public TV.


ITD also making cuts

The Idaho Transportation Department has announced an $8.6 million holdback on its own department budget - a 3.4 percent cut - even though it wasn’t required to participate in Gov. Butch Otter’s holdbacks because the agency receives no state general funds. ITD Acting Director Scott Stokes said the move comes because ITD’s revenues are falling short, mainly in fuel taxes. “We recognize that our revenue is failing to meet expectations and believe that reducing our budget by $8.6 million is a prudent business decision,” Stokes said. “We will continue to monitor department revenue to determine if additional changes might be necessary.”

The cut will come from the contract construction program, but the funds being cut hadn’t yet been tagged for any specific projects, the department said. Spokesman Mel Coulter said fuel tax revenues to the department have continued to decline, at a time when they normally kick up from the summer travel season. “I think what we’re seeing is the public is doing the same thing we’re doing, and that is they’re having to continually monitor their expenditures and be very frugal with the money they have,” Coulter said. “We’re in that same position.”

Otter says he rejected some deeper cuts proposed by Idaho state agencies

There were even deeper cuts proposed by state agencies that Gov. Butch Otter rejected, when he put together the holdback plan he unveiled this morning, Otter told Eye on Boise. “Yes, yes,” he said to the question, but he declined to give examples. “I’m not going to get into that,” he said. “We said, ‘No, we believe that’s too critical to your mission.’” He noted that Corrections and Medicaid were held to some of the smallest cuts - 2.5 percent for corrections, and 3.3 percent for the state Department of Health & Welfare, including Medicaid. Both departments already had seen cuts; this year’s state budget assumed zero growth in inmate population in Idaho’s state prisons.

In fact, much of Idaho’s state budget has seen major cutbacks over the past two years; this year’s state general fund budget was set at a level $330 million below the budget from two years ago, and that was before today’s holdback announcement. Otter said, “After much discussion with legislative leaders from both parties, with my cabinet, with other constitutional officers, I believe we now have a strategy to put in place for addressing this shortfall.” He said his strategy is designed to set the stage for discussion about longer-term revisions to make “our government leaner and more focused on its core mission.” His new holdbacks apply to general fund agencies, and not to those that are funded with dedicated or federal funds. The courts and the other constitutional officers have voluntarily agreed to join in the holdback, the governor said. Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on today’s announcement.

Bedke: ‘The impacts now are going to be real’

Idaho House Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke said, “We’re ready to stand and work with the executive branch to work this thing out.” He told Eye on Boise that many lawmakers are wary of spending down the state’s budget reserves, when they already face a daunting challenge to put together next year’s state budget. Many holes in this year’s budget were filled with so-called “one-time money,” which won’t be there next year. “Every dollar that we use to prop up the 2010 budget is a dollar we can’t build the 2011 budget around,” Bedke said. “You can’t keep having the worst economy since World War II without it starting to show up in government. All of the slack is out of the system, and the impacts now are going to be real.”

Luna: Last year’s cuts pay off for schools, mean no new cuts today

Idaho state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna said, “I think the reality that we find ourselves in today validates … the decisions that we made in the last legislative session,” when lawmakers made the state’s first-ever cut in state funding to public schools. Luna said some urged spending all of the state’s reserves instead to avoid that. Instead, he said, “We took a more prudent” approach. “If we had not done that, we would be talking about cutting schools in the middle of the school year. … For that reason, we’re not cutting education today.”

Dems: ‘A question of priorities’

Idaho’s legislative minority party says it’s unhappy with the governor’s holdback plan, but the Democrats, like Otter, also say they oppose raising taxes to cope with the state’s budget shortfall. Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise, said the Dems would prefer to tap more of the state’s $274 million in reserves; Otter is only tapping the public schools portion of that, for $49.3 million, to protect schools from the holdbacks. Kelly noted that Idaho also has about $50 million in unspent federal stimulus funds that it’s saving to use in next year’s budget. “Sitting in a savings account, the money does not do us any good from an economic development standpoint and from a recovery standpoint,” Kelly said. The Democrats also oppose cutbacks in higher ed and Commerce during the current recession. “Higher ed is taking a bigger hit than the governor’s office or legislative services,” she said. “It really is a question of priorities.”

Otter’s holdbacks, by agency…

Here’s a link to the governor’s holdbacks from state agency budgets, broken out by agency, showing both the dollar amounts and percentages for each agency.

Higher ed to take cuts

Colleges and universities will take a 6 percent hit under Gov. Butch Otter’s new budget holdbacks, as will community colleges - even as they see enrollment swell due to the down economy. Asked how higher ed will handle that, after already taking big budget cuts, Otter said, “I don’t know - that’s why they’re managing their shops. I suspect every campus will look at it in a different way.” University presidents were involved in meetings yesterday and are working on their own plans. “They don’t like to hear it, I don’t like to deliver it, but it’s the reality,” Otter said.

The biggest percentage holdback is hitting the state Labor Department, at 39.1 percent, but it’s one-time savings due to a balance in a penalty and interest account shifting to the general fund; it would have done so anyway at the end of the fiscal year. Second-biggest is 11.4 percent at the Department of Commerce, but that’s also one-time savings, due to unexpended grant funds. The governor divided agencies into three categories: “Critical and constitutionally required services,” such as the state police and elected officials, which are being cut back from 2.5 to 5 percent; “essential services,” from higher ed to public health districts, which mostly will see 6 percent cuts; and “other services,” which mostly will see 7.5 percent holdbacks.

Leaving most rainy-day funds be…

Gov. Butch Otter plan for coping with the $151 million budget shortfall this year calls for covering 65 percent through holdbacks - new, mid-year budget cuts - and working with agency heads to find additional savings to cover the final $50 million. “If we can’t, then there will be a discussion with the Legislature on how we can ease the pain with those rainy-day funds,” Otter said. But he’s not willing to look to the rainy-day funds now, except for the public education stabilization fund. He can tap the reserves only in conjunction with lawmakers, who make those appropriations.

Holdbacks could mean state layoffs

Layoffs could be part of the new 4 percent holdbacks Gov. Butch Otter ordered today, but Otter said he’ll leave that up to agency directors. “I’m going to let that director, that cabinet member, call those shots,” he said. “They are the managers. I trust them.”

Otter orders 4 percent holdbacks

Gov. Butch Otter has announced plans for a “tiered” holdback, cutting the state’s budget back mid-year by 4 percent, but with varying amounts for each agency. “The message I want to leave with you today is that we’ve been here before and we can do this again … I am still optimistic about the future,” Otter said. He said his holdbacks are “in the spirit of hoping for the best and planning for the worst.” Public schools would be protected from the holdbacks by a transfer of $49.3 million from the public education stabilization fund.


BSU prof wins grant for novel new scanning microscope

A BSU associate professor of physics, Byung Kim, has been awarded a three-year, $240,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for his novel scanning probe microscope. “It will be the first instrument of its kind in the world,” said Kim. The Korean-born BSU professor has been working on the concept for five years, and recently published a paper about his work in the journal Applied Physics Letters.

The instrument is called a “cantilever based optical interfacial force microscope,” or COIFM. It’s a radically new twist on interfacial force microscopes that were invented in the 1990s.

“The original tool is innovative, but it is limited to measuring the interaction of a huge number of molecules,” Kim explained. “COIFM’s single molecular measurements will provide a better understanding of intermolecular interactions, which could lead to the development of drugs and other biomedical applications.” The BSU prof has involved undergraduate student researchers in his work.

AAA: Gas prices drop in other states, but not here in Idaho

The Idaho AAA says gas prices in Idaho are now the ninth highest in the nation and they’re “refusing to budge,” even as prices are falling in other states. “The peak driving season is over and prices in the rest of the country have dropped from their seasonal highs in most regions of the country, but not here,” said AAA Idaho Public Affairs Director Dave Carlson. Idaho’s average price for regular gas is now $2.71, AAA reported, within a penny of its level for the past month. Nationwide, national average gas prices have dropped 14 cents in the past month to $2.53. Things are even worse up north, AAA noted, with gas in Sandpoint and Lewiston at $2.83 and Coeur d’Alene at $2.75. Click “continue reading” below to read AAA’s full press release.

Otter calls press conference on state budget shortfall

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has called a press conference for tomorrow at 10:30 a.m. “for an important announcement on his plan for dealing with an impending revenue shortfall.” The governor’s been reviewing proposals from state agencies and meeting with legislative leaders for the past two weeks to decide how to respond to a $151 million shortfall in the current budget year; he could order holdbacks, or mid-year cuts, in the already much-trimmed state budget, or he could strike a deal with lawmakers to dip into Idaho’s $274 million in reserves, or there could be a combination of the two. If Otter opts to cover the entire shortfall through new budget cuts, he’d have to order holdbacks of 6 percent.

New ITD director could be someone who’s never worked in transportation

Idaho’s next state transportation director could be someone from an entirely different field who’s never worked in transportation. The Idaho Transportation Board, which already has winnowed a field of 126 applicants down to a short list of a dozen, advertised for someone with leadership skills, business acumen, political skills and “a minimum of five years of senior executive level management experience.” But it didn’t say anything about highways or bridges.

“We just decided that it was probably time to broaden our horizon and see where it would lead us,” said Jim Coleman, ITD board member from North Idaho. “Some of the finalists that we have interested had not had any transportation department experience.” The board’s search for a new director comes after it fired former Director Pam Lowe in July amid complaints about her political skills in dealing with the Legislature, as the governor’s bid to increase the state’s transportation investment failed two years running. Lowe, who is contesting her firing, is a professional engineer, like all but two Idaho transportation directors since 1974.

Idaho state law says, “The board shall appoint a director having knowledge and experience in transportation matters.” But Coleman said, “That’s a pretty broad definition … that could go all the way down to driven on a highway, taken a bus, been in an airport, flown on an airplane. … It could mean that (in) the business setting that they had to deal with transportation issues … whether it’s licensing, making sure the products get to market, coordinating the transportation system within the corporation. I mean, transportation is a part of every business and every governmental agency.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com, and click here to read the job posting for the new director.

What bad times are doing to us…

The recession and high unemployment rates are altering how Idaho residents live, according to new data released today by the U.S. Census Bureau: More families have both parents working or looking for work; more households have had extended family members move in; more grandparents are raising their grandchildren; and 17.8 percent of Idahoans had no health insurance in 2008, the 12th highest in the nation. You can read more here at spokesman.com.

Bidders for special wolf tags are being sought back East and on the Net

Those commemorative wolf tags that Fish & Game has authorized to be auctioned off to the highest bidders won’t be offered just to Idahoans - one of the six auctions by nonprofit groups, which will be for Tag No. 1, will take place in North Carolina, and three will be on the Internet, including one on eBay. The Mule Deer Foundation will have the first auction Sept. 30, with sealed Internet bids, to sell tags nos. 3 and 8. A day later, Sportsmen for Fish and Wildlife will hold an auction for tags nos. 4 and 10. Then, on Oct. 3, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation will hold a live auction in Mackay for tags nos. 5 and 9.

On Oct. 15, the Congressional Sportsmen Foundation will put tag No. 1 up for bid in a live auction at the “Wine, Wheels and Wildlife” event in Lexington, N.C.; and Nov. 15, the Safari Club International, Treasure Valley Chapter, will have tags nos. 2 and 7 up for bid on eBay. The commemorative tags are being called “Wolf Conservation Tags,” because proceeds go to wolf conservation and management activities. Because a hunter can have only one wolf tag per calendar year, those who’ve already purchased a regular tag will be allowed to turn it in if they secure one of the special tags. Bidders also must hold 2009 Idaho hunting licenses.

Homeowner’s exemption going down

When Idaho lawmakers raised the homeowner’s exemption from property tax from a maximum of $50,000 to a maximum of $75,000 in 2006, they also tied future changes in the exemption to the Idaho Housing Price Index, which tracks home prices in Idaho. That’s meant it’s gone up substantially in the last few years, hitting a maximum of $104,471 this year - but it also means it’ll go down next year. The Idaho Tax Commission announced today that the maximum homeowner’s exemption 2010 will drop to $101,153.

“The decrease reflects the current state of the real estate market for residential property,” said Alan Dornfest, property tax policy supervisor for the Tax Commission. The homeowner’s exemption exempts from taxes half the assessed value of the home and up to one acre of land for an owner-occupied home, up to the maximum value. The maximum was first set at $10,000 in 1980, then raised to $50,000 by voter initiative in 1983, where it stayed until 2006.

Dornfest noted that the decrease for 2010 isn’t unexpected; according to Tax Commission figures, residential property values already have dropped across the state. “It’s hard to say how much effect this really has, because if it tracks along with your home’s assessed value going down, it may have no effect,” Dornfest noted. “That’s impossible to say (now), because it’s dependent on the 2010 values.” The first tax bill to be affected by the change will be the one that comes due in December of 2010, he noted. “The intent of the Legislature, I think, was to keep it level, basically, with respect to market changes, and I think this just reflects that.”

Politico: Minnick making waves with financial reform proposal

An article today on Politico.com says Idaho Rep. Walt Minnick has floated a new plan for financial regulation reform - an alternative to President Obama’s proposal - that’s drawing support from his fellow Blue Dog conservative Democrats and others in Congress. Minnick told Politico, “I’m trying to serve as a broker and a catalyst to the process, within the confines of the Financial Services Committee.” The article notes Minnick’s surprising credibility on the issue as an Idaho freshman, due in part to his degree in economics and Harvard MBA, and his career as a timber industry executive. You can read the full article here. A followup article on the Huffington Post, however, notes opposition to the “Minnick alternative,” including from key Rep. Barney Frank.

Budget cuts could trim jobs, but lack of jobs drives budget shortfall…

As Gov. Butch Otter ponders whether to make additional cuts in Idaho’s already much-trimmed state budget, he faces a dilemma: Budget cuts could trim state jobs, at the same time that a precipitous drop in jobs is what’s driving Idaho’s state budget crunch. In August, Idaho had fewer jobs than it had in August of 2005 - despite adding more than 100,000 residents.

“We talk about the budget shortfall, but that’s the symptom,” says House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, a physician. “The disease is the fact that people aren’t working.” So far, proposals coming in from state agencies on ways to make further cuts include possible additional layoffs or furloughs of state employees.

Since the current state budget crisis began, Idaho has laid off 71 employees due to budget cuts, according to state payroll records. In addition, more than 4,500 state employees were given unpaid furloughs in the last fiscal year, which ended July 1, resulting in more than 12,000 unpaid days off work. Since July 1, 4,625 employees have been put on furlough and taken more than 7,000 unpaid days off, and that’s less than three months into the fiscal year. Some agencies have shut down entirely on specified days, for agency-wide furlough days. Not included in those figures are cuts made by attrition, where state agencies opted not to fill vacancies when they occurred and instead eliminated the positions.

Most expect Otter to impose some kind of additional cut, though this year’s state budget already is $330 million less than Idaho’s budget was two years ago. “I don’t see any way he can not,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, JFAC co-chair. You can read my full story here in today’s Spokesman-Review.

Bipartisan bill bans texting while driving

Idaho’s got bipartisan legislation in the works to ban texting while driving, a move roughly two dozen states already have made. Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, proposed similar legislation this year, but now he’s got a high-profile co-sponsor on board: House Transportation Chairwoman JoAn Wood, R-Rigby. “I’ve ben thinking about it for quite some time,” Wood told Eye on Boise. “Maybe it’s because I’m not very good at it anyway - there’s no way that I could do that and drive. I see kids coming out of the high school and doing it, and it really bothers me that they’re on the road and doing it.”

“This issue was a bit under the radar when we brought it up last winter,” Bock said. “But clearly, the time has come to enact legislation that will help drivers realize that it’s neither safe nor smart to text while driving.” He added, “Public awareness of the dangers of texting while driving has increased exponentially this summer. We now know that the longer we wait to act, the more lives will be lost.”

Bock’s other co-sponsors for the bill so far include Assistant Senate Minority Leader Elliot Werk, D-Boise; and Reps. Liz Chavez, D-Lewiston; Elfreda Higgins, D-Garden City, and Anne Pasley-Stuart, D-Boise. Bock also has legislation in the works to require use of a hands-free device while talking on cell phones while driving, something that’s already the law in Washington. Wood said she hasn’t signed on as a co-sponsor on that one at this point; she plans to look into the issue and confer with other members of the House Transportation Committee.

Minnick: Bill will help troops transfer credits

Here’s a news item from AP:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An Idaho congressman says a provision in the student aid bill House lawmakers passed Thursday will allow troops to more easily transfer academic credits they’ve earned while serving to four-year colleges. Democratic U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick’s office says there have been reports that community colleges and universities do not have plans in place to accept these credits. An amendment Minnick added to the student aid bill will require schools receiving money as part of the federal legislation to address this issue and ensure the credits are transferrable.

The bill House lawmakers approved represents the biggest overhaul of college aid programs since their creation in the 1960s and aims to oust private lenders from the student loan business and put the government in charge. The bill goes next to the Senate, where its fate is a little less certain.

Ward lands two more county GOP chairmen’s endorsements

GOP congressional hopeful Vaughn Ward has secured the endorsements of two more county Republican chairmen, Al Cole of Lewiston, who is the party’s Nez Perce County chair; and Bill Dire Jr. of  Wallace, who is the party’s Shoshone County chair. This follows his earlier announcement of the endorsement of Brad Corkill, Kootenai County chair; Ward is targeting such endorsements, just as rival Ken Roberts is toting up endorsements from sitting state lawmakers; Roberts, who is the House majority caucus chair, has tallied up 29 of those so far. The two are facing off in the GOP primary for a shot at 1st District Congressman Walt Minnick; also in the GOP race is retired physician Allan Salzberg of Boise.

He’s THAT rich…

Freshman Idaho Sen. Jim Risch is the 13th wealthiest member of Congress, according to a new analysis by Roll Call newspaper, and is richer than the late Ted Kennedy, Sen. John McCain or House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Risch doesn’t dispute the report, but declined to comment on it. He’s well-known in Idaho as a self-made millionaire, who built a fortune as one of the state’s most successful trial lawyers while also building a political career as a longtime state senator from Boise, and bankrolled his first run for statewide office from his own pocket. Still, longtime Idaho political observers who have followed Risch’s career said his ranking was unexpectedly high; Roll Call put his minimum net worth at $19.29 million. “I’m really surprised,” said Jim Weatherby, political scientist emeritus at Boise State University. “Jim Risch does not come off as a man of that kind of wealth, which I guess is to his credit.”

Weatherby also noted that extreme wealth can sometimes be an advantage for a politician. Kennedy, for example, was known for supplementing top staff members’ salaries out of his own pocket, to keep key people, including future U.S. Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer, working on his Senate staff. You can read my full story here, and see the Roll Call report here.

Idaho borrowing from feds to bail out unemployment insurance trust fund

Idaho has borrowed more than $51 million from the federal government since July 1 to bail out its unemployment insurance trust fund, despite a 70 percent tax rate increase for Idaho employers this year. It gets worse: The state expects the borrowing to rise to $190 million by next spring - even with a much larger tax increase likely to hit next year. “The rate will go up in 2010 and it will go up more than it did this year,” said Bob Fick, spokesman for the Idaho Department of Labor.

For much of the past decade, business interests pushed to freeze tax rates when they would otherwise have gone up, pushing off a reckoning. But that’s not likely this year. “We kinda knew we were in a situation where, given the severity of this downturn, and particularly the severity for Idaho, things really weren’t going to be looking good for this fund,” said Alex LaBeau, president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry. “It’s not on our list as something that we are going to push for legislative amendments.”

You can read my full story here. With soaring unemployment, Idaho expects to pay out $550 million in federal and state unemployment benefits this year - the highest it ever paid before was $247 million in 2008. “We’re talking about doubling it in one year’s time,” Fick said. “This is a severe circumstance.”

The skinny on ‘special wolf tags’

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on how the Idaho Fish & Game Commission is planning to authorize the auction of 10 “special wolf tags” to the highest bidders - even if they may not be all that special, considering that 15,339 wolf tags has been sold as of the end of the day yesterday. The special tags will, however, be those numbered sequentially 1 through 10, which weren’t sold earlier. “I think there’ll be some value in the novelty,” said Jim Unsworth, deputy director at Idaho Fish & Game. But, he said, “We don’t expect this to be a big fundraiser.” That could change in the future, he noted, if the department opts to hold controlled hunts - which means limited tags - for wolves in certain areas.

Gov. Butch Otter, who’s said for the past two years that he wanted to be the first to bid on a chance to shoot a wolf, already has a tag. The governor bought his wolf tag on Aug. 26, according to department records. That was during the first week the tags went on sale; he purchased the tag at a Boise sporting goods store. “He said he wanted to get a wolf tag, he’s got a wolf tag,” said Otter spokesman Jon Hanian. “I don’t know if he’s going to bid at the auction or not.” But Hanian said Otter “thinks it’s great” to hold the auction.

Nancy Merrill named state parks director

Former Eagle Mayor Nancy Merrill has been named Idaho’s new state parks director, the state Board of Parks and Recreation announced today. “The Board selected Nancy Merrill from among some very qualified candidates and because of her abilities to work collaboratively with diverse groups of people, her genuine enthusiasm for Idaho’s recreational opportunities, and a political acumen with the people who govern this state,” said Steve Klatt, board chairman. “She will provide the potential benefits of a creative fresh outlook on the troubling aspects of agency budget reductions we are forced to live with.”

Merrill replaces former director Bob Meinen, who stepped down earlier this year amid health problems. You can read the full announcement from the parks department below by clicking “continue reading.”

Otter: ‘Attitude a big part of recovery’

Gov. Butch Otter, in his monthly “Project 60” message today, touts optimism and attitude as keys to the state’s economic recovery. “One message came through loud and clear from my recent Business Summit with representatives of all kinds of companies from throughout Idaho: There’s a lot of optimism among business leaders that hard work, creativity and the quality of our people will enable us to emerge successfully from this economic slump,” the governor wrote, adding, “In my experience, attitude is a big part of recovery.” You can read his full message below; click “continue reading.”

Fish & Game looking at auctioning off ‘special wolf tags’

Idaho’s Fish & Game Commission will hold a meeting, via conference call, tomorrow morning to authorize “special wolf tags” that would be auctioned off as a fundraiser for wolf management and conservation. Like special tags for bighorn sheep, the special wolf tags would be auctioned off through a nonprofit organization. “They’re actual tags - you could take one out and use it if you shoot a wolf,” said Fish & Game spokesman Niels Nokkentved. “It would entitle you to shoot one wolf.” So what’s special about the tags? They’ll be the the first ones, those numbered 1 through 10. The tags that are being sold to hunters now on an unlimited basis, for $11.50 apiece on top of the cost of a hunting license, started with No. 101.

“It’s a fundraising thing,” Nokkentved said. “The way we look at it here, it’s a chance for folks to own a piece of Idaho hunting history, being as it’s the first time we ever issued tags for wolves.”

Dueling endorsements in primary race

Vaughn Ward, the decorated Iraq war veteran and former McCain-Palin campaign official, and Ken Roberts, the Idaho House majority caucus chairman from Donnelly, are announcing dueling endorsements in their face-off for a shot at challenging 1st District Congressman Walt Minnick. Ward today announced the endorsement of Brad Corkill, chairman of the Kootenai County Republican Party. “I believe Vaughn has the moral, ethical, and conservative values that will lead our country back to prosperity,” Corkill said in a Ward press release. Yesterday, Roberts announced the endorsement of Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa, a 2nd-term state representative. “Ken will make sure Idaho families and small businesses have a strong conservative voice in Congress,” Crane said in a Roberts press release.

Roberts has been toting up endorsements from fellow state legislators; so far, he’s tallied 29. Ward early on secured the endorsement of Sen. John McCain, and last month brought Sarah Palin’s dad and father-in-law to Idaho to stump for him. Also in the race is retired physician Allan Salzberg of Boise. You can read Roberts’ latest endorsement press release here, and Ward’s here.

BSU confirms first swine flu case

Boise State University has confirmed its first case of H1N1 flu, or swine flu, and the patient is a student who lives in the residence halls. “Most cases to date have been mild and people have recovered quickly,” the university reports; BSU also is in the midst of a campaign to help faculty, staff, students and the community cope with the flu season and prevent infection. Click below to read their full announcement. This after Washington State University in Pullman made headlines last week with the nation’s highest number of campus swine flu cases, at 2,500 - more than a third of the college student cases nationwide. Learn more about swine flu, its symptoms, and how to prevent infection here at spokesman.com.

Another uptick in unemployment

Today the U.S. Department of Labor adjusted Idaho’s forecasted August unemployment rate upward to 8.9 percent, a seasonally adjusted figure that’s the highest rate since June of 1983, when Idaho joblessness hit 9 percent on a seasonally adjusted basis. “Total employment at 686,400 was at its lowest level since February 2005,” the Idaho Department of Labor reported. “In just the last year, Idaho lost over 48,000 jobs.”

The high rate means workers who’ve exhausted their federal and state unemployment benefits will qualify for some additional payments, for another three to seven weeks after regular benefits have run out. Bob Fick, Idaho Department of Labor spokesman, said roughly 150 Idahoans a week are now exhausting their unemployment benefits.

Idaho delegation commemorates 9/11

Both of Idaho’s U.S. senators and the congressman representing North Idaho have issued statements today on the anniversary of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, honoring the sacrifices of those who protect Americans and remembering the attacks and how they affected the nation. Click below to read their full statements.

Otter appoints two new district judges

Gov. Butch Otter named Caldwell attorney Susan Wiebe as a 3rd District judge today, and picked  Bannock County Magistrate Judge Robert Naftz of Pocatello for a 6th District judgeship. Weibe succeeds retiring 3rd District Judge Stephen Drescher, and Naftz succeeds retiring 6th District Judge Peter McDermott. You can click below to read Otter’s full press release on the appointments.

The candidates for the judgeships were screened by the Idaho Judicial Council, which selected three finalists, two lawyers and a magistrate judge, for the 3rd District position from among four applicants; and four finalists for the 6th District position from among eight applicants, seven lawyers and one magistrate judge. The Judicial Council, which screens and recommends potential new judges to the governor, is busy these days. The council is mulling eight applications for the 1st District judgeship that’ll be vacated by the retirement of Judge Charles Hosack in Kootenai County, and nine for the 5th District judge opening created by the pending retirement of Judge Barry Wood. Plus, it’s taking applications through Sept. 28 for another 5th District judge opening in Minidoka County, created by Otter’s appointment of 5th District John John Melanson to the Court of Appeals, effective Sept. 30.

Judges are elected in Idaho, but most leave office before the end of their terms, in which case the Idaho Judicial Council screens candidates and the governor appoints the new judge, who then can run for re-election as an incumbent at the end of his or her term on the bench.

Commemorating Sept. 11 with volunteer service to communities

Everyone’s deeply aware of the significance of today, the anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. In commemoration, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter signed a proclamation this morning recognizing Sept. 11 as a day of service and remembrance; today is the first official, national “Day of Service and Remembrance” established by the president and Congress to  “honor the sacrifices of 9/11 heroes, and engage more Americans in serving their communities.”

Said Otter, “One of the best measures of our character as a community, and our civic virtue as individuals, is the degree to which we are willing to reach out to our neighbors in time of need. Idaho is richly endowed with citizens who put their good will into action through volunteerism and service. This is a day to recognize them, and that ability in all of us.”

The Governor’s Commission on Service and Volunteerism, along with several other organizations, is encouraging Idahoans to volunteer in their community in commemoration today, and continue their volunteer efforts throughout the year. Click below to read the governor’s full proclamation.

Major employer shuts down in Twin Falls, erasing 500 jobs

Dell Computers is closing its Twin Falls call center that employed 500 people, the Times-News reports today; the center, opened in 2001, was attracted in part by $1.5 million in incentives from the city’s urban renewal agency, Chamber of Commerce and the state, which helped attract Dell to open the center in a former Twin Falls grocery store. You can read reporter Joshua Palmer’s full story here. This news comes as more than 66,000 Idahoans already were out of work in August, up from fewer than 40,000 a year ago, according to Idaho Department of Labor figures.

Newspaper: Otter should have more direct oversight of ITD

The Twin Falls Times-News, in an editorial today, called for Idaho’s governor to be given direct oversight of the state’s transportation director, reversing a stand the paper’s editorial page had taken for years that the agency’s independence should be preserved in the interest of avoiding politics. Senate Transportation Chairman John McGee, R-Caldwell, proposed legislation this year to give the governor the power to hire and fire the ITD director, but it didn’t advance; that power is now held by the state Transportation Board, whose firing of Director Pam Lowe has brought the state a scathing tort claim and the prospect of a lawsuit.

Meanwhile, Gov. Butch Otter’s transportation and education adviser, Clete Edmunson, is leaving for a position in the state Department of Labor. Edmunson led Otter’s failed efforts this year and last to convince lawmakers to raise the gas tax and registration fees to fund more road work in the state. Click below to read an email from Otter chief of staff Jason Kreizenbeck informing state agency directors of the move.

Rep. Simpson picks up primary challengers

Rep. Russ Mathews, R-Idaho Falls, plans to challenge 2nd District Congressman Mike Simpson in the GOP primary. The three-term state lawmaker announced his candidacy on an Idaho Falls talk radio program yesterday, the Idaho Falls Post-Register reported today. Reporter Nick Draper reported that Simpson has never received less than 62 percent of the vote in a general election since he won the congressional seat in 1998, and in the 2008 GOP primary, he took 85 percent of the vote against two challengers. Mathews is a business consultant and three-term state lawmaker. Also in the GOP primary race is retired Iona businessman Chick Heileson, Draper reports.

Children of unemployed workers could qualify for free school lunches

Children of unemployed Idaho workers may be eligible for free or reduced-price breakfasts and lunches, and state and federal agencies are putting out the word. USDA Child Nutrition Division Director Cynthia Long said the food programs “can be a valuable resource for households affected by unemployment,” and the state Department of Labor noted that more than 66,000 Idahoans were out of work in August, up from fewer than 40,000 a year ago. Eligibility for the free and reduced-price meals is based on weekly household income; children in a family of four are eligible if that income is $785 or less.

Across the state, 45 percent of the school meals served to kids last year were free or reduced-price. “We expect to see that number increase as the economy is struggling,” said Heidi Martin, child nutrition programs coordinator for the state Department of Education. “We’re having schools telling us they’re getting more and more applications for their free and reduced program.” A few districts in the state already have very high percentages of their kids participating in the free and reduced-price program; in the Wilder school district, it’s 93 percent. Numbers in North Idaho’s biggest school districts are closer to the state average: 40 percent in Coeur d’Alene, 43 percent in the Lakeland school district, and 49 percent in Post Falls.

Though applications for free and reduced-price school meals are typically sent home at the beginning of the school year, the Department of Labor said unemployed workers can apply for the program at any time; they can contact their child’s school for more information.

Bradbury will comply, but says rural drug, mental health courts will suffer

2nd District Judge John Bradbury says he’ll comply with the Idaho Supreme Court’s order to make Idaho County his main residence within three weeks, and swear to it in an affidavit. But he said the move could endanger the drug and mental health courts he operates in rural Clearwater County, in which 32 people are enrolled. “I can’t service those and drive the prairie every week in the winter, and none of the other judges are willing to take it over,” Bradbury said.

“I have said I will comply and I will,” Bradbury said. But, he said, “They’re making it as difficult as they can for me to do my job.” The twice-elected judge - who last year nearly won a race for an Idaho Supreme Court seat - said he operates the only rural mental health court in the state. “The rural counties have been the orphans of the judicial system in Idaho,” he said. Though his judgeship requires “actual residence” in Idaho County, much of his caseload is in Orofino, Bradbury said. “If I only had one trial in Orofino every three years, it’d be easy. I’ve had probably 40 trials there since I’ve been a judge.” He added, “I travel an average of five or six hours a week doing my job.”

Because of caseload and the topography of his largely rural judicial district, Bradbury has repeatedly proposed changing the state residency law for his judgeship to allow more flexibility on the judge’s residence; he presides in three counties, but the law requires him to live in one of those, Idaho County. The Idaho Judicial Conference has endorsed the change unanimously three times, but the Supreme Court has declined to propose the change to the Legislature each time. “They won’t agree and they won’t give a reason,” Bradbury said. “What conclusion can you draw from that except it’s personal?”

Justice Jim Jones, writing the decision for the court majority that found Bradbury in violation of the residence law, wrote, “While the Legislature’s decision as to which district judge position will be funded and where it will be located may not always coincide with what is ideal from an administrative standpoint, it is not for the courts to second guess or circumvent such decisions.”

Justices to Judge Bradbury: Move within three weeks

The Idaho Supreme Court has ruled that 2nd District Judge John Bradbury is violating the residency requirement for his judgeship, and ordered him to make his primary home in Idaho County within three weeks. Click here to read more at spokesman.com, and you can read the court’s 19-page ruling here. For more on what Bradbury’s case has revealed about Idaho’s secrecy-laden system for disciplining judges, click here; the judge has homes in two counties within the judicial district, but spends more time at his home in Lewiston, which he says is closer to his court hearings. The Idaho Judicial Council initiated ethics proceedings against Bradbury because the law requires him to “actually reside” in Idaho County. He has a home there in Grangeville, but stays there less often than in Lewiston.

In a 3-1 decision authored by Justice Jim Jones, the Idaho Supreme Court declined to suspend the judge from office, as the Judicial Council had recommended; instead, it merely ordered him to make Idaho County his home, and prove it by providing the court with an affidavit within three weeks. “So long as Petitioner carries through with these representations, the matter will be satisfactorily resolved,” Jones wrote. Justice Pro Tem Wayne Kidwell dissented, saying the law requiring judges to “actually reside” in an assigned county doesn’t clearly prohibit having homes both there and elsewhere. When Bradbury was elected judge, he bought a home in Grangeville, registered to vote there, and established his homeowner’s exemption there.

Kidwell noted in his dissent, “Neither the record presented or the majority opinion suggests any shirking of his job. On the contrary it appears that Judge Bradbury is dutifully carrying out the responsibilities to which he has been constitutionally elected.” Bradbury maintained that because of the nature of his sprawling multi-county judicial district, he couldn’t return to Idaho County every night and still do his job as a judge. Bradbury is a maverick who narrowly lost an election for a Supreme Court seat last year. An outspoken reformist and advocate of electing rather than appointing judges, he’s also known for operating multiple drug and mental health courts within his district and frequently travels to hear cases.

Crapo: Idaho wolf management is ‘effective and sustainable’

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo has sent out this statement on the federal court decision to allow the state’s wolf hunt to continue:

“Idaho has thoroughly traveled the path toward delisting wolves.  The state has a plan that is acceptable to the Federal government and the Idaho Department of Fish and Game is already demonstrating its capability of managing the wolves in an effective and sustainable way.”

Poached wolf was 6 to 8 months old

The wolf killed by a poacher east of Cascade on Sunday was described by Fish & Game as “a small female, still a pup.” F&G chief of law enforcement Jon Heggen said, “Our officers seized the wolf, but I don’t know that it was aged by the biologist yet. We’re guessing that it was last spring’s litter, so (it was) within 6 to 8 months old.”

‘It’s wrong, is what it is’

Jon Heggen, chief of law enforcement for Idaho Fish & Game, says, “We want to treat the wolf hunt like we do any other big game hunting season, no different than we would bighorn sheep or an elk or a deer case.” And what they’ve done - issued two poaching citations, with serious penalties - is exactly that, he said. Way back, Heggen used to work as a game warden out of Yellow Pine, covering the very area where the wolf pup poaching occurred. “I have issued citations 15 years ago in that same area for people hunting elk doing the same thing - claiming they were in the open area and being on the closed side,” Heggen said.

He noted the offense of shooting from a public road is simply a crime, it’s not even necessarily a poaching offense. “It’s not even necessary to be hunting - just shooting a firearm from a public road would be a violation,” Heggen said. He added, “That’s not hunting. You know, a hunter’s going to know where they are, they’re going to follow the rules and they’re not going to do things like shoot from the road and shoot in areas that are closed. That’s not hunting. In layman’s terms, it could be being lazy, not wanting to follow the rules. It’s wrong, is what it is.”

The only reason the poacher hasn’t yet been named is because the charges haven’t yet been turned over to the prosecutor and filed in court, at which point they become public record. “It’ll happen by the end of the week,” Heggen said. “It’s just a matter of tidying up some loose ends and getting a report written.”

The penalties for poaching

Here are the penalties for the two poaching offenses for which an Eagle man was cited, after shooting a female wolf pup about 30 miles east of Cascade on Sunday:

Shooting a firearm from a public road, a standard misdemeanor, carries possible fines of $25 to $1,000, and up to six months in jail.

Shooting a wolf in a closed season also is a misdemeanor, but because it involves a big game animal, it carries a minimum fine of $200 and maximum of $1,000, a $400 civil penalty, and a loss of hunting, fishing and/or trapping privileges for one to three years, along with up to six months in jail.

Simpson: ‘Idaho hunters have acted responsibly’

Idaho 2nd District Congressman Mike Simpson met with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Sam Hamilton today, and then released this statement about the federal court decision today on Idaho’s wolf hunt:

“The judge’s decision to uphold Idaho’s wolf hunt was welcome news.  In a conversation with Fish and Wildlife Service Director Sam Hamilton this morning, I again expressed my support for the decision to delist the wolves and put management in the hands of capable state agencies. Idaho’s hunters have acted responsibly and I want to commend them for doing so in the face of uninformed and undeserved criticism.  I also want to commend Governor Otter for setting reasonable limits in order to manage these animals effectively.”

Ironically, Simpson’s statement came out within minutes of the news that an Idaho man has been cited for poaching a female wolf pup in a public road, then falsely reporting that he shot the animal in an open hunting zone. The poacher faces what could potentially add up to thousands in fines, loss of hunting and fishing privileges, and possible jail time.

Idaho man cited for poaching wolf pup

Idaho Fish & Game has issued two poaching citations to an Eagle man for illegally shooting a small female wolf pup on Sunday evening. The shooting was in the McCall-Weiser wolf zone, which is not yet open for wolf hunting. The man shot the wolf from a public road; witnesses told officers he shot it while standing in the road at the back of his pickup truck. He called the 24-hour wolf harvest reporting line on Tuesday morning and reported that he’d killed a wolf in the Sawtooth hunting zone, which is open for wolf hunting. But later in the day, when he checked in at the Fish & Game office in Nampa, he said he’d thought he was in the Sawtooth zone, but looked back at a map Sunday evening in camp and discovered he was actually in the McCall-Weiser zone.

Fish & Game officers seized the wolf hide and skull, a rifle, camera and tag; their investigation is ongoing. They issued two citations to the man: Shooting a wolf in a closed season, and shooting from a public road. Because Idaho’s wolf hunt has specific limits on the number of wolves that can be taken in each hunting zone, one will be deducted from the limit for the McCall-Weiser zone to account for the poached wolf.

Defenders: ‘Disappointed’ but also ‘hopeful’

Suzanne Asha Stone, Northern Rockies representative for Defenders of Wildlife, said, “We’re disappointed that the injunction wasn’t granted, and I think that right now we feel that a hunting season for wolves at this point still poses a threat to the regional wolf population.” But she said the group, one of 13 that sued over the delisting of the gray wolf in Idaho and Montana, is “hopeful that the court recognizes that we’re likely to prevail on our legal claim, that the Fish & Wildlife Service acted illegally by delisting wolves in Montana and Idaho. We’re encouraged that our ultimate goal of restoring a healthy wolf population to the region and making sure that it remains so after delisting is still very much a viable goal.”

Stone said there’s been a “missed opportunity” in the debate over the wolf for all the stakeholders in the region to come together and find compromise. “I think that’s been the one missed opportunity that has just really plagued this issue over the long term,” she said. “The conflicts have been so polarized, based on mostly misinformation, emotion and politics rather than on science and true negotiations on resolving these issues. We have another opportunity to try that again.”

Judge’s ruling suggests wolves may end up back on endangered list

The 13 conservation groups that sued over the delisting of the wolf in Idaho and Montana and sought to stop wolf hunting in the two states lost their bid for a preliminary injunction, but the judge’s ruling suggests strongly that they could win their overall case - and wolves could be put back on the endangered species list. “This Order is not a final determination of any issue in the case,” U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy wrote in today’s ruling. “The Order only addresses the propriety of granting the extraordinary relief of a preliminary injunction. … Because the absence of a ruling hangs like the Sword of Damocles, I am issuing this Order which will be followed by a fully reasoned decision on the Plaintiff’s motion for a preliminary injunction.”

The judge goes on to conclude, “Because there is insufficient proof of irreparable harm to the wolf population, as opposed to individual wolves, the request for a preliminary injunction is denied.” Scientific proof submitted to the court shows the wolf population can withstand one or two years of hunting at the levels Idaho and Montana have identified, the judge wrote. But the larger issue in the case - whether the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service can legally de-list the wolf in Idaho and Montana while leaving it still listed as endangered in Wyoming - suggests the conservation groups will prevail, the judge indicated.

“The Service cannot delist part of the species below the level of DPS (distinct population segment - in this case, the Northern Rockies) without running afoul of the clear language of the ESA,” Molloy wrote. “Though the record here is incomplete, the earlier delisting case gives rise to an inference that the laudable efforts of the Fish and Wildlife Service resulted in a practical determination that does not seem to be scientifically based.” He added, “Even if the Service was permitted to delist only a part of a DPS like it has done here, it cannot do so in an arbitrary and capricious manner. The Service has distingished a natural population of wolves based on a political line, not the best available science. That, by definition, seems arbitrary and capricious.” You can read the judge’s full ruling here.

Fish & Game: ‘Pleased’ by decision, ‘will responsibly manage wolves’

Idaho Fish and Game Director Cal Groen says the department is “pleased” by the federal court decision to allow Idaho’s current wolf hunt to continue, and pledged that his department will “demonstrate that the Fish and Game will responsibly manage wolves like the other 10 big game species.” Click below to read the full press release from Idaho Fish and Game.

Minnick, Risch praise Judge Molloy’s decision

Two members of Idaho’s congressional delegation have immediately weighed in with statements praising federal Judge Donald Molloy’s decision to reject a move to halt wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana. Here are the statements from 1st District Congressman Walt Minnick, a Democrat, and Sen. Jim Risch, a Republican:

Minnick: “Today’s ruling by Judge Molloy was a victory for those of us who want land-use and wildlife decisions made at the local level, using sound science, collaboration and consensus. I applaud the decision, and now urge all parties, including the state of Wyoming, to work with scientists to ensure a healthy but balanced population of gray wolves in the Northern Rockies.”

Risch: “I am pleased that the judge has allowed wolf hunting in Idaho to continue, and I hope this brings an end to lawsuits opposing the hunt.  Wolf numbers have far exceeded the recovery goals set when they were introduced into the state.   It is time to let Idaho’s game managers do their job and manage wolves just as they do bears, cats and other species.”

Judge refuses to block wolf hunt

U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy has denied a motion for a preliminary injunction to block wolf hunts in Idaho and Montana; Idaho’s already has begun, and three wolves have been taken by hunters. The two states included hunting in their management plans for gray wolves, which until May were on the endangered species list; since they’ve been delisted, the two states now manage their wolf populations. Here is Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s response to the judge’s decision:

“Judge Molloy did the right thing.  Idaho has met and exceeded the criteria agreed upon by all parties for recovery. We have a plan in place for managing wolves, based on the best science available, and we intend to keep our promises outlined in that plan. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game and Idaho Fish and Game Commission have done a great job of setting hunting numbers to ensure a sustainable wolf population and genetic connectivity. We are and will continue to be responsible stewards of the species.”

Luna: Obama back-to-school speech was ‘appropriate and timely’

Idaho state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna watched President Barack Obama’s back-to-school speech today with a classroom full of 8th graders at Fairmont Junior High School, and afterward Luna called the president’s speech “appropriate and timely.” He said, “I thought the message was very similar to messages that we hear public officials give to students often - it’s definitely something that I say every chance I get in front of students, that students need to be responsible for their education, they need to come to school every day ready to learn.”

Luna said the kids he watched with paid attention and took notes, then answered questions from both their teacher and him afterward. “I had a number of kids tell me that they were going to try a little bit harder this year … that even if they encounter obstacles or challenges, they were going to keep trying and do a little bit better every day.” Luna, a Republican, said he was puzzled by the outcry from some quarters over the president addressing school kids, “because I remember when I worked for the Bush Administration … the president was always at a school the first day talking to students. That’s why he was at a school Sept. 11 reading to students, because it was the first day of school in Florida.”

Closed-primary lawsuit proposes historic change for state

In the federal lawsuit Idaho GOP v. Ysursa, which now will continue further into the fall (see earlier posts today), the Idaho Republican Party sued the state, seeking to close its primary elections to anyone other than registered Republicans. Currently, any voter can select which party’s ballot to vote at the polls. But here’s where the case intersects with Idaho history: “Idaho’s never had party registration, in its history, and Idahoans pride themselves on their independence,” said Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa.  “Idahoans as a whole, and the independent voter and how they’re treated is a crucial part of this whole scenario,” Ysursa said, “and there’s quite a bit of disagreement over that.”

Time growing short for primary election changes

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa says regardless of how the federal court case (Idaho GOP vs. Ysursa) over Idaho’s open primary election system goes, it’s getting late to make any changes for this May’s primary. “The county clerks and this office are proceeding with status quo like we have to, as far as this next primary,” Ysursa said. “Filing is going to open up March 8th. It seems we’re coming up against it, on any sort of change that would have to happen.” If a federal judge declares Idaho’s current system unconstitutional - as the Idaho Republican Party contends - the Legislature still would have to change the system, and they start meeting in January. And there’s the possibility of an appeal, whichever way the court rules. Idaho will have a big election year in 2010, with offices ranging from the governor to every seat in the state Legislature on the ballot. Said Ysursa, “People think it’s a long ways away - we elected officials do not, that work in it.”

Ysursa is an Idaho Republican himself. “I think there’s only one thing worse than being sued by your enemies, it’s being sued by your friends,” he joked. But he added, “Election issues and things of that nature, I get sued by various folks. So it’s nothing new - it comes with the job title.”

Semanko: Idaho GOP ‘welcomes today’s decision’

Idaho GOP Chairman Norm Semanko had this response to today’s federal court decision asking for more proof before ruling on whether Idaho’s open primary elections are unconstitutional: “The Idaho Republican Party welcomes today’s decision, rejecting the attempts that have been made to throw this case out. The matter will now go forward for a final decision in an expedited manner.” Click below to read the rest of Semanko’s statement.

Boise buzzes over Oregon game

Boise is still buzzing in a big way over the wild BSU-Oregon game last night at Bronco Stadium, which drew a record crowd and ended in a 19-8 win for Boise State. Excitement was running so high about the game that it seemed that business came to a standstill in Boise around mid-day yesterday, as folks poured down to the stadium and its vicinity. There was even a bit of a delay in issuing the governor’s press release about the state’s latest budget shortfall yesterday afternoon, as staffers scrambled to get their boss’s final approval on the press release when he’d already headed out to the stadium.

The game was wild, full of errors and missed opportunities on both sides, but it was BSU’s night, culminating in a bizarre moment when, live on national TV (ESPN), Oregon running back LeGarrette Blount, reacting to taunting from BSU player Byron Hout, punched Hout in the face, knocking him to his knees. Several large men had to restrain Blount as he left the field, as he lunged toward BSU fans who again taunted him. Blount apologized the same night; according to AP, he said, “I just apologize to anyone watching that. I just apologize to all of our fans and all of Boise’s fans. That’s something I shouldn’t have done. I lost my head. … I should have handled that situation a lot better than I did.” Click here to read the full AP story as posted this morning on the U of O’s Web site.

To top things off, the game started much later than usual - kickoff was at 8:15 p.m. - and went deep into the night, so those who watched, whether at the stadium, at an overflow viewing center set up at BSU’s Taco Bell Arena, at gatherings or at home on TV, are generally exhausted this morning. Perhaps it’s time for the long weekend to begin…

Judge to Idaho GOP on ‘crossover’ voting in primary elections: Prove it

Here’s why U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill said in his ruling today in Idaho GOP vs. Ysursa, Idaho’s closed-primary election lawsuit, that he can’t decide the case yet: The Idaho GOP, in its arguments, relied almost entirely on a U.S. Supreme Court case, California Democratic Party v. Jones, in which the high court overturned that state’s “blanket” primary as unconstitutional. In that case, the Supreme Court justices were presented with extensive statistics, studies and expert testimony on crossover voting the blanket primary brought about, and its impact on the party’s right of association. But Winmill noted that blanket primary elections, in which voters pick and choose among candidates from various parties, are different from open primary elections like Idaho’s, in which voters must choose a single party’s ballot and vote only for candidates on that ballot, not mix and match candidates from different parties.

Winmill wrote that all he got in the Idaho case was Idaho Republican Party Chairman Norm Semanko’s testimony that he “can’t say whether (crossover voting) did or didn’t or has or hasn’t affected the ultimate outcome of any particular primary,” that no studies of that exist, but that Semanko asserted that “Every single Republican who has been on the primary ballot since 1988” has modified his or her political message, ideology and position on public policy issues in order to persuade nonparty members to back him or her in the primary. “Chairman Semanko and IRP cite no evidence supporting this conclusion,” the judge wrote. “Surveys, expert testimony, statistics and/or testimony from the candidates themselves is needed.”

Therefore, Winmill concluded, “Genuine issues of material fact remain - mainly whether and to what extent ‘crossover’ voting exists in Idaho, and whether and to what extent the threat of such crossover voting affects the message of IRP and its candidates.” He reopened the case to submission of such evidence, and declared his intent to “conduct the trial or evidentiary hearing, and issue a final decision, well before the 2010 Idaho legislative session begins.”

Federal judge in Idaho’s closed-primary election case: More hearings needed

In Idaho GOP vs. Ysursa, a federal lawsuit filed against the state by the Idaho Republican Party seeking to declare Idaho’s primary election system unconstitutional - and let the Republican party hold primary elections that are closed to anyone but registered Republicans - both sides have been waiting since February for some ruling from the court. Both sides had filed summary judgment motions seeking to either dismiss or grant the party’s bid; U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill held a hearing on those motions on Feb. 18. Now, today, he’s issued his ruling - he’s denied all the motions for summary judgment, and ruled instead that he needs to hold a full trial or evidentiary hearing to decide the complex constitutional issues raised by the case.

“Time is of the essence,” the judge wrote in his ruling today. “The Court hopes to conduct the trial or evidentiary hearing and issue a final decision well before the 2010 Idaho legislative session begins.”

Keough: Shortfall is what rainy-day funds are for, also look at cuts

Here’s the reaction of Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, vice chairwoman of the Legislature’s joint budget committee, to the new state revenue forecast showing a $151 million shortfall this year, while the state has $274 million left in rainy-day funds:

“It’s obvious that Idahoans aren’t doing very well, and so we need to set up clear priorities for the services that we deliver and make some hard decisions from there. … Thankfully we have some rainy-day funds that we can tap into, and that was part of our thinking, that we shouldn’t spend them all, and save us some so that we could continue trying to cushion the need for cuts. And so in that respect, our forecasting on the legislative side and the planning on both the legislative and the governor’s part was sound. I think that that’s what the rainy-day funds were there for, that’s why we left them on the table, to cushion us against further downturns, so I think that we certainly need to discuss that, and again prioritize where we use them. … They’re definitely on the table. We also may need to take a serious look at what services Idahoans feel they can do without, if we have to start shutting things down.”

‘Everybody’s been dreading it’

Mike Ferguson, Gov. Butch Otter’s chief economist, said of today’s new state tax revenue forecast, “Everybody’s been dreading it, but I don’t think anybody’s going to be particularly surprised by it, because we’ve known that things have not gone terribly well. Hopefully we’re getting closer to the bottom.” Ferguson said employment in Idaho actually is forecast to start growing in fiscal year 2010, “but this is still September - we’ve got a ways to go before we’re there, and it’s still not going to feel that great.” The fiscal year started on July 1. “What this does,” Ferguson said, “is it gives some hard numbers that the policy makers can chew on and figure out how they’re going to deal with it.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Hammon: ‘We still have tools’

Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter’s budget director, said today’s gloomy state revenue news doesn’t necessarily mean more pain for already struggling state employees, who already are being hit with 5 percent cuts in personnel funding this year. That’s coming out in furloughs, layoffs and more. “We have tools available to us other than just the state employees,” Hammon said. “We are looking under every rock.” He added, “This is not unexpected. … Last year, when we knew things were starting to get bad, there were a lot of people who clamored that we had to spend more of the rainy-day, spend more of the rainy-day. So far we’ve spent 30 percent of the total rainy-day funds, the four funds. So going forward, we still have tools available to us.”

Idaho’s four “rainy-day” funds are its budget stabilization fund; a public education stabilization fund; an economic recovery reserve fund; and the portion of the tobacco-settlement Millenium Fund that’s not set aside in an endowment. The governor doesn’t have authority to spend rainy-day funds on his own; he’d need legislative concurrence. He does, however, have authority to impose mid-year budget cuts, though lawmakers would then have to decide whether to make those permanent. “He wants to counsel with all of them, get their perception of what needs to be done before he makes any decision,” Hammon said.

More bad budget news for Idaho, choices loom…

Idaho’s new state tax revenue forecast is out, and it’s not good news. It’s down another $173 million, or 6.8 percent, from the last official forecast, which was in February. However, state officials knew in April that the state’s economic situation had deteriorated, and accounted for that in the budgets they set. As a result, this is Idaho’s situation: There’s a $151.4 million shortfall in the current budget year, fiscal year 2010, which started July 1, but there’s also $274.3 million still left in the state’s various rainy-day funds. Those funds had $391 million at the start of this year’s legislative session; some was spent, but the Legislature and governor also imposed deep cuts, including the state’s first-ever cut in state funding for public schools and a 5 percent cut in personnel costs statewide, for all agencies, that’s left state workers facing furloughs, layoffs and more.

Gov. Butch Otter could impose mid-year budget holdbacks, or he could work with legislators to tap the reserves, or there could be some combination of those, but one way or the other, the state has to balance its budget. Otter is scheduled to meet with state agency heads Sept. 10 “to discuss potential savings;” he’s meeting with GOP legislative leaders on Sept. 11, and he’s meeting with legislative minority leaders on Sept. 16, all before he puts forth his proposed plan.

“We have been here before,” the governor said in a statement. “We have the experience, the tools and the commitment needed to address this situation while maintaining necessary public services. We are fortunate to be far better off than most other states, thanks to sound, conservative fiscal management and a strong understanding of government’s limited role in people’s lives. Our job is not to protect government, but rather to protect the people who pay for government as well as those who rely on it. These difficult economic times require that we work even more closely together toward those goals.”

Semanko disses health care rally, but not counter-rally

Idaho Republican Party Chairman Norm Semanko has put out a statement criticizing the “Dispel the Myths/Squash the Fear Rally” in Boise in favor of health care reform today, but it makes no mention of the counter-rally that sought to shout down the main rally. Speakers at the main rally, including owners of small businesses around the state, said they just want to be able to afford to offer health coverage to their employees; several urged protesters to contact their representatives if they don’t like what’s in the current bill, and make sure something workable gets passed. Jonathan Parker, party executive director, said he didn’t attend the rally, and said he and Semanko decided to put out the statement in response to an email from a party member. “For the record, the Idaho Republican Party didn’t rally opponents of universal health care to attend this rally and shout down the pro-reform Obama care folks,” Parker said. “This was just average everyday Idahoans standing up for what they believe in.”

The pitch for counter-protesters to attend the rally went out on the website of the 912 Project Idaho, an online “Meetup Group” that claims “344 patriots” as members and is part of Fox TV personality Glenn Beck’s “9/12 Project.” Click below to read Semanko’s statement.

Health care rally turns into shout-down

A health care reform rally in Boise today featuring Idaho small-business owners who are struggling to provide health insurance for their employees was disrupted by a counter-rally of health care reform opponents, who tried to out-shout the speakers at the rally. “That’s kind of democracy - isn’t that a debate?” asked Shanna Smith, who held a bright-green “Kill the Bill” sign and was among the loudest of the shouters. “I’m not angry - I’m afraid for our country,” she said. “I’m afraid for the road we’re going down, the road to socialism. … It’s pretty scary what’s going on in that bill. It gives the government way too much power over our lives.”

When the Rev. Betty Beck spoke at the main rally, framing health care as a “moral issue,” protesters in the back hooted. When another speaker invoked “human rights,” a woman in the back shouted, “You’re a bunch of socialist dupes.” Near a sign that said, “Poop on Obama care,” a little boy in back yelled out, “I say you guys go back where the heck you came from!” His mother quickly hushed him.

Wendy Somerset, owner of Furniture and Appliance Outlet in Twin Falls, said her employees won’t take the insurance she provides because of the cost: “It’s groceries or health insurance,” she said. “We need reform and we need it now.” As she spoke, flag-waving protesters in back yelled, “Take your socialism!” and “Read the Constitution!” and a woman shouted, “We’re not going to pay for your abortions!” When rally organizer Nancy Snodgrass of the Main Street Alliance appealed for quiet and respect from both sides, protester Lucille Verdolini shouted from the back, “Let’s pray that you don’t get breast cancer and die.” The group in back then chanted, “Obama lies, Grandma dies.”

Michaile Metro, owner of Metropolis Hair Salon in Boise, responded to the heckling by raising her voice and rallying the group in front, which numbered about 80, to cheers, temporarily drowning out the group in back, which numbered about 50. “I think they were trying to drown me out because they have fear, and they wanted to make sure my voice wasn’t heard,” Metro said. “It didn’t really scare me, it fired me up and inspired me.” Metro said she doesn’t offer health insurance to her employees, but she wants to. “We’re willing to pay,” she said. “All we want is affordable health care.”

Verdolini, whose husband, Jim, said he put the word out on the Internet to prompt the counter-rally, said she grew up in England, and doesn’t want to see America go the British way. Holding a sign saying, “How lucky for Obama that his supporters can’t think,” Verdolini said, “I know what socialist care is all about, and I am desperate to make people understand that it is a desperate hazard to people’s health, especially women. I am desperate to make people understand they are getting duped.” The Verdolinis said they’re “9/12’ers,” which he described as people who want to recapture the patriotism, religious sense and unity Americans felt the day after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Both sides declared victory. “We need to all speak our minds - this is a free country,” Snodgrass said, “but we need to take care of one another, and provide health care reform. So I was thrilled they were here. I believe we outspoke them. I believe our voices were heard.” Jim Verdolini, a Boise retiree, said, “I think it was more of a success for us than it was for the other side.” He added, “I’d sorta like my semi-fixed income not to be looted in order to pay for health care for illegals.”

Big drug maker settles case over kickbacks, drug marketing fraud

Idaho is getting $658,528 from a multi-state health care fraud settlement with drug maker Pfizer Inc., for offenses including paying kickbacks and illegally marketing certain prescription drugs for off-label uses, state Attorney General Lawrence Wasden announced today. The full settlement, which is being shared by states and the federal government, is $1 billion in civil damages and penalties. Idaho’s share will be split in half, with $329,624 going to the state’s Medicaid program to compensate for the illegal activity, and the other $329,624 going to the state general fund, for the Legislature to appropriate as it wishes. Click the “continue reading” below to read the full announcement from Wasden; it’s the biggest health care fraud settlement in U.S. history.  

First Idaho wolf reported shot by hunter

Robert Millage, a real estate agent from Kamiah, shot the first wolf in Idaho’s wolf hunt today, according to state officials. Millage, who bagged an adult female gray wolf from 25 yards away in the mountains near the Lochsa River, told the Associated Press, “I just wanted to beat my buddies to the punch, but I didn’t know I’d beaten everybody in the state.” Millage, 34, has hunted in Idaho for 22 years. “It was really an adrenaline rush to have those wolves all around me, howling and milling about after I fired the shot,” he said. You can read reporter Todd Dvorak’s full story here at spokesman.com.

Semanko statement on Rammell

On Friday, after GOP gubernatorial candidate Rex Rammell began making comments critical of Idaho GOP leaders - comments he repeated today - as he defended his earlier joke about shooting the president, Idaho Republican Party Chairman Norm Semanko issued this statement:

“Yesterday, the Idaho Republican Party made it clear that we do not condone Rex Rammell’s comments, whether in jest or not. Today, Rex Rammell’s unwarranted and reckless comments about our elected and former elected Republican leaders — including Senator Crapo and former Governor Batt — have crossed the line from civil, political discourse into a ridiculous and desperate publicity stunt. As the Chairman of the Idaho Republican Party, I call upon Rex Rammell to take responsibility for his actions and apologize for his remarks as Rammell’s comments do not reflect the views of Idaho Republicans and are a distraction to the important issues facing Idahoans like the Democrats’ plan to take over health care, the lagging national economy and reckless government spending in Washington.”

Defiant Rammell refuses to apologize

A defiant Rex Rammell refused to apologize today for his joking remarks about buying hunting tags to shoot President Obama, and instead accused top Idaho Republican leaders of conspiring to sabotage his run for governor by strongly condemning his remarks. “They’re trying to ruin my run to be the governor,” Rammell declared at a press conference across from the state Capitol.

At a Republican barbecue in Twin Falls last week, during a discussion about wolf hunting tags, someone in the audience shouted out “Obama tags,” and Rammell responded, “The Obama tags? We’d buy some of those.” Widely reported, his remark prompted a storm of criticism from GOP leaders at home, as well as talk across the nation. Rammell is from Rexburg, the same eastern Idaho town where after last year’s election, elementary school children riding home on a school bus chanted, “assassinate Obama,” prompting statewide consternation and a public apology from the town’s mayor. “There’s an underlying animosity to Obama and his policies,” Rammell said. “I think it comes out in these comments.” But, he said, “I meant nothing by it. … I wasn’t serious, and it didn’t even start with me. It would’ve been rude for me to condemn the lady for saying it - this country needs to lighten up.”

Instead of lightening up, however, Rammell launched his own attacks against top Idaho GOP leaders and office-holders, accusing Gov. Butch Otter of “betraying the conservative movement” and calling his appointment of popular GOP state Sen. Brad Little as the state’s lieutenant governor “unforgivable;” criticizing Congressman Mike Simpson for “literally selling Idaho and America down the road” through votes in Congress, and bashing former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt, who also is a former state GOP chairman, for “idly standing by while the federal government was dropping wolves on our big game herds in 1995.” Rammell is a veterinarian and former elk rancher with a big grudge against former Idaho Gov. Jim Risch, now a U.S. senator, for ordering his escaped elk shot to avoid possible harm to Idaho’s wild elk herds. Risch, like the rest of Idaho’s congressional delegation, has strongly condemned Rammell’s remarks about hunting the president.

“I’ll tell you the main reason that I won’t apologize, is because of the over-the-top comments by the GOP leaders,” Rammell declared. “I am not sorry for saying the comment - I am sorry that some people took it incorrectly.”

Two citizens, both dressed casually in shorts and both of whom decided separately to show up, attended Rammell’s press conference, but he refused to take any questions from them. One, Mike Reineck, an Air Force retiree with a long, gray ponytail, said he wanted to see if Rammell had any supporters who’d show up; none did. The other, Brad Cozzens of Eagle, 45, said, “I’m an Idaho resident who’s a lifelong Republican, who finds Mr. Rammell to be an embarrassment.” Cozzens, a stay-at-home dad, said he heard Rammell on a local talk radio station make a comment he took as anti-Hispanic, and he called in to protest it to no avail. “I don’t see how anyone can take a joke about licensing the assassination of the president in any manner except highly offensive,” said Cozzens. “I don’t like Obama much, and I find it highly offensive.”

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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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