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Eye On Boise

Archive for December 2010

AP: Tax commish chair allegedly used position to help pal in business dispute

The Associated Press reports that Idaho Tax Commission Chairman Royce Chigbrow allegedly tried to use his position to help a friend embroiled in a dispute with a former employer.  The allegations, revealed in emails and documents that the AP obtained under the Idaho Public Records Law, include that Chigbrow sought to provide his friend, Skip Hofferber, with confidential information about the firm's tax problems after the man had been fired from the company; ordered a forced tax collection against the firm; and then improperly handled two company cashier's checks totaling more than $30,000 that Hofferber gave Chigbrow at an Arid Club lunch - and that the firm later reported stolen. Click below to read the full report from AP reporter John Miller.

A day on the slopes…

Sun, clouds, sparkling cold fresh air and a couple feet of fluffy powder right in Boise's backyard made Bogus Basin a great place to be while on staycation this week - especially today.
  

Bank still wants Tamarack lifts

The Bank of America still wants two of Tamarack Resort's ski lifts back as part of bankruptcy proceedings, and is accusing the troubled resort of holding the lifts hostage to extract more money for its assets. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Ruling favors ConocoPhillips megaloads

A state hearing officer has ruled in favor of granting permits to ConocoPhillips to transport its four proposed megaloads of oil refinery equipment across U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho, denying the appeal of 13 residents and business owners along the twisting, scenic route who objected. The recommendation and findings from hearing officer Merlyn Clark now go to ITD Director Brian Ness. ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten said Ness will consider the recommendations, and no schedule has been set for him to issue his decision. “Ness thanks Clark for his time and diligence in reviewing the case,” Stratten said in an email.

Linwood Laughy and Borg Hendrickson, the lead intervenors, said in a statement, “The 13 intervenors are, of course, disappointed and are evaluating their next steps.  This ruling only affects the 4 coke drum shipments of ConocoPhillips.  The intervenors earlier submitted to ITD a request to intervene in the contested case regarding Imperial Oil's proposed 207 tar sands module shipments.”

You can read Clark's full ruling and findings here, and click below to read a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Allred: ‘Common Interest’ group not done

Though unsuccessful Democratic gubernatorial candidate Keith Allred says he'll be focusing on business consulting work for the next two to three years, Allred says the “Common Interest” citizen lobbying group he formed isn't done, and he still hopes to expand it nationwide. You can read our Q&A with Allred here from Monday's Spokesman-Review.
  

Land Board’s PR agent well-known among GOP

Idaho's state Land Board has paid more than a quarter-million dollars since 2007 to one of the state's top Republican operatives for a public relations campaign, but officials say the state's getting a great deal. “We're very happy with the results so far,” said Idaho state Lands Department Director George Bacon.

Mike Tracy's one-man PR firm has developed a DVD about state endowment lands, scheduled dozens of presentations by Tracy or state officials to everything from school boards to chambers of commerce to Rotary clubs, and commissioned two polls to track how much Idahoans know about the state endowment and how they view it. Since it first signed a contract with Tracy in October of 2007, the Land Board has paid him $279,009.  You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Hart backer targets Anderson in complaint

A North Idaho political activist and backer of embattled Rep. Phil Hart is trying to file a House ethics complaint against Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake - though only House members can file such complaints. Anderson filed an ethics complaint against Hart last month, charging that the Athol Republican has violated his oath of office by refusing to pay state and federal income taxes and contending they're unconstitutional; by invoking legislative privilege to try to win delays in his tax cases; and by illegally logging state school endowment land to build a log home and then refusing to pay a still-outstanding judgment for the 1996 timber theft.

Activist Larry Spencer, in a five-page letter to House Speaker Lawerence Denney dated Dec. 20, claims Anderson has a conflict of interest because he's a contractor and voted for contractor licensing legislation that Spencer opposes; and because he worked on a state milfoil eradication program and lives on Priest Lake, which is among the lakes where milfoil is now being eradicated.

Anderson said, “I did know that he was out sniffing around trying to find any dirt that he can on me.” He added, “I don't know if there's anything I can think about what Larry Spencer does. I have a hard enough time keeping my sanity without letting him into my head.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
  

No megaloads decision before Xmas

State hearing officer Merlyn Clark confirmed today that the decision on ITD permits for ConocoPhillips' four proposed megaloads on U.S. Highway 12 won't be out before Christmas as earlier planned, and instead likely will be out before the New Year holiday. Clark is weighing two days of arguments, plus briefing from all sides, submitted as part of a contested-case hearing on the plan.

Reinke touts low recidivism, warns of impact of more prison cuts

As the 2011 Legislature and a tough session of budget setting approach, Idaho Department of Correction director Brent Reinke is talking up his agency's successes, the AP reports. In an op-ed piece, Reinke touted his efforts to reduce recidivism. In Idaho, 62 percent of all released offenders stay out of prison for at least three years. In California, he says, 67.5 percent of all offenders are back in prison within three years. He also talked up efforts to reduce the prison population — the last two years, the number of offenders under his supervision has declined. Reinke says he fears this work could be compromised, if his workers are forced to take even more unpaid furloughs to save money. In fiscal year 2009, his general fund budget was $173.4 million. This year, it's been stripped down to $145.7 million. You can read his full article here.

Boise firm to take over Labrador’s law practice

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Attorney T.J. Angstman says his Boise-based law firm will acquire U.S. Rep.-elect Raul Labrador's immigration practice in a deal expected to close this week. Labrador, an immigration attorney with offices in Boise and Nampa, beat Democratic U.S. Rep. Walt Minnick in the November election to represent Idaho's 1st Congressional District. The Idaho Business Review reports that the firm Angstman Johnson will purchase Labrador's practice, taking on all his cases and retaining his staff, in a transaction slated to close on Friday. Angstman Johnson will run Labrador's former firm as a separate entity called Accelerated Immigration; you can read the Idaho Business Review's full report here.
  

Tamarack picks Eagle firm’s offer to present to bankruptcy court

Tamarack Resort owner Jean-Pierre Boespflug said today that he's selected Green Valley Holdings of Eagle to buy the Valley County ski resort, a move that could kick off additional bidding for the bankrupt golf and ski resort. That firm's Matthew Hutcheson announced earlier a $40 million cash offer for the resort; Boespflug announced today that he's selected that offer over two others, the AP reports. That means he'll submit it to a U.S. bankruptcy judge in mid-January; if the judge approves, other potential buyers could then submit additional bids to gain control of the property. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Why one-year extension precedes big cabin-site rent hike…

Here's some insight into why the Land Board yesterday extended current state-owned lake cabin site rental rates for another year before kicking in a big increase, from 2.5 percent of value to 4 percent of value, in 2012: State law requires six months notice to the lessees of rent increases. They'd already been notified of the proposed phased-in rent increases in proposed new leases that were to start Jan. 1, but a judge blocked those new lease terms with a preliminary injunction. Now, the state needs to give notice again of the larger increases proposed after the one-year extension.

Interestingly, the result for next year is not a rent freeze: Rents actually will rise an average of 5.37 percent. That's because they're not really at 2.5 percent of value now due to rent freezes for the past three years at Payette Lake and the past two years at Priest Lake.

Census: Idaho 4th fastest-growing state

Idaho is the fourth-fastest-growing state, according to 2010 Census results released today, even though the state's population growth in the past decade was slower than the previous decade. Idaho gained 21 percent more residents for a 2010 population of 1,567,582, which is 273,629 more than in 2000. Nationwide, the population grew 9.7 percent since the last Census.

The census showed the U.S. population shifting from the northeast and midwest to the south and west; states that gained an additional congressional seat included Washington, Utah, Nevada and Arizona, while those losing seats included Iowa, New York, Ohio and Pennsylvania. Twelve seats shifted in 18 states, but there was no change in Idaho. The census also showed that Idaho ranked 46th in the nation for population density, with just 19 people per square mile; Wyoming was the least-dense at 5.8 people per mile. Here's a link to a map showing every state's percentage population change; Nevada's was the highest, at 35.1 percent, while Utah and Arizona both edged out Idaho with 23.8 and 24.6 percent growth, respectively.

Crapo, Risch: Wolf legislation fails, won’t come up again this year

Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch said today that legislation to remove wolves from endangered species protection likely won't be considered again this year, after an effort they joined today failed. The two joined senators from Wyoming and Utah to offer a bill for unanimous consent of the Senate, but Sen. Benjamin Cardin, D-Maryland, objected. That, the two Idaho senators said in a joint statement, “ended consideration of the bill, likely for the rest of this session.” Click below to read their full statement.

Big decisions from Land Board today on state-owned lake cabin sites

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the state Land Board's decisions today about state-owned lake cabin sites at Priest Lake and Payette Lake. The state will take public comments for 90 days, starting Thursday, on a plan to get out of owning lots on which private owners build and own cabins, in some cases by giving the lessees a chance to get ownership of the land. The board also voted to extend current lease terms for one year, but move leases after that up to 4 percent of the land value for annual rents, from the current 2.5 percent.

Bud Belles, president of the Priest Lake State Lessees Association, said, “It's all about getting the money for the kids, and we're not opposed to that. We just don't want to pay a lot more money than the market value. … That's what we've been saying all along.” Belles, 69, whose family has owned his cabin since he was 8 years old, said, “I want to own my lot.” More than 300 cabin-site lessees at Priest Lake have expressed interest in a land exchange, Belles said.

Wasden: Land Board now has the ‘unified political will’ to deal with cabin-site issue

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said the lawsuit in 4th District Court in which he challenged proposed cabin-site leases still is alive, despite today’s Land Board action; it will look first at the constitutionality of the entire state law under which Idaho has been leasing out lakefront cabin sites without public auctions. “We’ve got a path forward, and that is a much more healthy place to be,” Wasden said. “I commend my colleagues on the Land Board for doing that.”

He said, “When you go back and look at the 80-year history of this problem, the real problem is not fluctuations in the market. The real problem is the lack of political will to get to a fair return.” He said, “What we need is to have a unified political will to go forward - I think we’ve found that at this point.”

Land Board sets future cabin-site rents at 4 percent of value

Secretary of State Ben Ysursa’s motion, setting cabin-site rents for 2012 and the following nine years at 4 percent of current value, has passed unanimously. Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said the motion will increase revenue to the state endowment beneficiaries by $5.7 million over the next five years. “My personal opinion is that the record supports a rental rate of 6 percent, I also recognize that I am but one vote on this board,” he said. But studies show market rent for the cabin sites should be between 4 percent and 6 percent of value, he said. “It is therefore fiduciarially consistent with this board’s duty, and I will defend this motion.” State schools Supt. Tom Luna objected that the motion leaves the state facing volatility, with ups and downs of the housing market. Gov. Butch Otter said, “We have an obligation to the schoolkids. We also have an obligation to be fair and reflect the market value.”

New motion: Cabin site rents at 4 percent of value from 2012 on

Secretary of State Ben Ysursa has now moved to set state endowment cabin-site rents at 4 percent of value for 2012 and the following nine years, after a one-year freeze next year. Attorney General Lawrence Wasden seconded the motion. Ysursa said it supersedes the board’s action last March to set phased-in rent increases in its new cabin-site leases.

Ysursa said the ultimate goal is dispose of the cabin sites. “But while we do this, I certainly don’t believe we’re going to be able to … snap our fingers and get out of this,” he said. “So there are going to be cottage site leases , they are going to be around for a while.” Ysursa said the whole issue has been handled with “good faith.” He said, “This I believe in my heart of hearts, that this is a good rate for No. 1 the endowment. Secondly, I think it gives some stability down the road of what the cottage site users will face in future years. … The real goal, I can’t emphasize enough, is what we passed earlier in the day. Let’s get a reasonable good-faith effort to dispose of these properties and enhance the endowment.”

One-year lease extension approved

With the state facing an injunction against proposed new cabin-site lease terms, the state Land Board has just voted 4-1 to approve a one-year extension of current lease terms for state endowment land cottage sites on Priest and Payette lakes. That leaves rents at 2.5 percent of current market value. “You’d have to be on Mars to not know we’re in a little bit of litigation over this matter,” said Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. Lessees would have until Feb. 1 to pay.

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna objected, saying the move would mean Idaho will collect less in rents to benefit public schools in 2011 than it would have under the proposed leases. “Apparently the solution thus far is to collect less rent,” he said.

Land Board unanimous, will take public comments on cabin-site disposal plan

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden moved, and Secretary of State Ben Ysursa seconded, to adopt the state Lands Department’s recommendation: A 90-day public comment period on a plan to dispose of the state’s lakefront cottage sites over a number of years. The motion passed unanimously.

Ysursa: ‘A step in the right direction’

The proposed plan before the Land Board to dispose of leased-out lakefront cottage sites anticipates current lessees having three options: Join in an exchange, enter a voluntary public auction with credit for the value of their improvements and the opportunity for installment payments, or continue leasing - but at higher rates. The proposal calls for a 90-day public comment period to start this Thursday.

Secretary of State Ben Ysursa noted, “There are some lands around Priest Lake or Payette Lake that we may want to retain, not necessarily for single residential cottage site leases but for other purposes. Being an eternal optimist, I don’t think the devastation in our land values will continue esto perpetua. But they will come back, and I think some of those properties we ought to look at strategically, at retaining some of those, but not for leases. Those are just my observations. I want to make it clear that we as a board have some more critical thinking to do.” Ysursa added, “This is a first step. … It is a step in the right direction.”

Report: Idaho should ‘dispose of the cottage sites’

Idaho should “dispose of the cottage sites in an orderly and expeditious manner,” according to a report now being presented to the state Land Board. However, Lands Department staffer Kate Langford said first, the department is recommending opening a 90-day public comment period - starting this Thursday - and closing around March 24, 2011. “The purpose of that period obviously this is a huge endeavor that we’re considering, has significant potential to impact the asset mix within the portfolio as well as many other … issues, so we wanted to make sure that there was adequate time for obviously the Land Board and their staff members as well as the beneficiaries and the lessees to thoroughly review, vet their questions,” she said.

A consultant hired to help develop the plan said the cottage sites currently are underperforming assets for the state endowment, and “a financially and emotionally invested buyer pool already exists” - the current lessees of the cottage sites. Options include a series of exchanges, where the cottage sites would be pooled together into twice-a-year land exchanges of at least $20 million value, with the lessees getting title to the cottage sites under their cabins in exchange for the state obtaining “institutional-grade real estate assets;” along with voluntary auctions in which the current lessees would receive a credit for the value of their improvements and be able to pay installment payments.

Luna wants more for schools now from endowment, endowment board disagrees

After state endowment manager Larry Johnson concluded, “There is no compelling fiduciary reason for the Land Board to increase the distribution rate” to endowment beneficiaries - the largest of which is the state’s public schools - state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna said he had more questions. Luna, who wants more for schools in the current budget crunch, noted that in the past 10 years, as Idaho’s number of public school students has grown, the endowment distribution to public schools on a per-student basis has dropped 38 percent, from $179 per child to $110, “and that doesn’t take into account inflation,” Luna said. “So to me that still begs the question whether the current beneficiary is being treated equal to the future beneficiary.”

Johnson responded, “Certainly it’s disappointing to see those kinds of reductions in distributions you have described. … Over time, the current beneficiary must bear the risk of the investment return.” He added, “In actuality, distributions have grown faster than the current fund.”

Endowment fund ‘experience leads to caution’ on payouts

The state Endowment Fund Investment Board is recommending that the state stick with its current distribution rate of 5 percent for payouts to endowment beneficiaries, including public schools, rather than increase it. “Our past experience leads to caution,” endowment manager Larry Johnson told the Land Board. He said, “What happens if we’re too conservative on the distribution rate? What bad things happen if we don’t pay out enough this year?” The answer: “If we don’t distribute the earnings this year, an excess gets transferred to the permanent fund, which automatically generates an increase in distribution the following year. So maybe you have a year or two lag between a higher distribution rate now and what would automatically be generated,” he said.

Johnson warned that the consequences would be far worse if the state promised to pay out a higher amount, then found that its earnings didn’t allow for that and had to cut back mid-year. “The pain of being too optimistic and having to make cuts far outweighs missed opportunities to spend additional funds if expectations prove too conservative,” he said.

Land Board convenes in state Capitol

The state Land Board has convened in the Idaho Capitol Auditorium this morning, with agenda items including addressing the issue of the “split estate” - the situation in which the state owns lakefront cabin sites, but private owners own the cabins they build and use on them. So far, state Endowment Fund manager Larry Johnson has given an update on endowment fund earnings. “November was a month in which the fund essentially broke even,” Johnson told the board, though December so far is up 3 percent. Through November, earnings for the fiscal year on endowment investment funds were at 13.5 percent, but now, as of yesterday, they’re at roughly 17 percent, Johnson said.

Johnson now is addressing a series of questions about distribution policy and investment management submitted by state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna. Among them: How to ensure that once an endowment fund fills its reserves, that the interests of current and future beneficiaries are equally weighted. Johnson said the endowment board has made a change in its distribution calculation to ensure that happens. However, Johnson said the public school fund is currently tipping the balance a bit to current beneficiaries over future ones. As income in the fund recovers, distributions may need to be increased more slowly to address that, he said; if income doesn’t grow, “a reduction in the distribution rate may be necessary.” That’s not likely what Luna wanted to hear.

County hit with $4 million verdict for obstructing home for troubled teens

The developer of a proposed residential treatment center for troubled teens with emotional or substance-abuse problems has won a $4 million jury verdict against Boise County for scuttling the project after neighbors opposed it. A federal jury ruled that the county violated the Fair Housing Act by imposing such restrictive conditions on the Alamar Ranch project - including limiting it to 24 residents instead of 72 and requiring construction of a helicopter landing pad and an on-site fire truck - that it wasn’t feasible to build. County commissioners approved the project off Highway 21 and Grimes Creek Road with the restrictive conditions, overturning a P&Z recommendation to deny it.

The Fair Housing Act protects against housing discrimination against the disabled, including proposed group homes, and its definition of disability is “those individuals with mental or physical impairments that substantially limit one or more major life activities,” with “mental or physical impairment” defined as including  alcoholism and drug addiction along with such things as blindness and mobility impairment. In the lawsuit, the developers said, “The would-be residents of the proposed RTC (residential treatment center) are deemed to be ‘handicapped’ for purposes of the FHA as they would include 12-17 year-old males suffering from mental or emotional illnesses and/or recovering from drug or alcohol abuse.” They said neighbors who opposed the plan essentially said, “We don’t want teenage alcoholics and drug addicts in our neighborhood.” Click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.

Free ski/snowshoe day in Idaho state parks set for Jan. 8th

It’s the silver anniversary of Idaho’s free ski and snowshoe day at state parks and park-and-ski areas. On Saturday Jan. 8th, Nordic skiers and snowshoers will be able to use the parks and park-and-ski lots for free to access the trails, from Priest Lake to Island Park; it’s the 25th annual event. Entrance and ski trail fees will be waived that day for everyone, as will park-and-ski parking permit fees, and some parks will host special events ranging from clinics to welcome parties.

Among them: Farragut State Park will offer free Nordic lessons from 10 a.m. to noon (bring your own equipment, meet at the Visitor Center), along with free cookies, coffee and park access. Priest Lake State Park will offer free cross-country ski lessons, hot chocolate and coffee; Harriman State Park will have free lessons all day and free rentals while supplies last; and Ponderosa State Park will offer snowshoe lessons and tours, Nordic ski lessons and free equipment rentals from 11-2:30. Said state parks chief Nancy Merrill, “The goal of Free Ski/Snowshoe day in Idaho is to introduce newcomers to the wonderful terrain and winter recreation opportunities across the state.”

Tickets go on sale today for Inaugural Ball, the public, self-funding one

Tickets go on sale today for the Inaugural Ball, a once-every-four-years public event that celebrates the inauguration of the new governor and includes a “grand procession” of elected officials in the state capitol. This affair is separate from the pricey political events also typically held in conjunction with inaugurals; this one is for the public, and anyone can go for the price of a $20 ticket.

The ball will be Satuday Jan. 8th, with doors opening at 7 p.m. and the grand procession of statewide elected officers, legislators and distinguished guests beginning at 8. It’s a dressy, family-friendly event with punch and cookies, dancing to the music of the 25th Army Band from the Idaho National Guard, and lots of Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts on hand, doing everything from helping with coat check and serving refreshments to getting the first dances with the first lady and governor. Tickets are on sale at the Welcome Center in the garden level of the state capitol, which is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays excluding holidays. They also can be purchased online here.

State law charges the Idaho National Guard’s adjutant general with administering the ball, which is funded entirely through ticket sales. The adjutant general also oversees the public inauguration ceremony for the governor and constitutional officers, which is set for Jan. 7 at noon on the capitol steps.

Public records show Tax Commish chair intervened for son’s firm’s clients

The Associated Press reports today that public records it obtained under the Idaho Public Records Act show Idaho State Tax Commission Chairman Royce Chigbrow intervened on behalf of clients of his son’s accounting firm, over the objections of Tax Commission employees, bringing the clients significant breaks on their taxes. “The heavily redacted documents were among those collected by the Idaho attorney general’s office while representing the Tax Commission in a pending lawsuit that alleges commissioners have given politically connected taxpayers secret sweetheart deals for years,” reports AP reporter John Miller. Click below to read his full story.

Among the incidents detailed in the documents: Chigbrow’s son’s firm sent the chairman an e-mail in February seeking to reduce a state-recommended payment plan of $2,000 monthly for a client to $500 per month to satisfy an estimated $50,000 tax bill. The firm later received the reduced plan, over objections from the commission’s staff. In November 2007, Chigbrow’s former accounting firm, now run by his son, sent him two e-mails asking him for help in waiving tax penalty payments of $931.20 and $644.04. “Can you forward this request to someone in the appropriate department,” the firm’s e-mail requests at 10:51 a.m. Nov. 15. Eight minutes later, Royce Chigbrow forwarded the message to an unidentified Tax Commission employee. “Would you follow up on this,” he asks. A third e-mail from an employee shows the taxpayer received the abatement the next day.

Chigbrow, former longtime campaign treasurer for Gov. Butch Otter, denied any wrongdoing and said he just passed along messages. Lawmakers from both parties are now talking about ways to restructure the state Tax Commission, which now is operated by four political appointees.

In historic change, JFAC to take public testimony on K-12, H&W budgets

The powerful joint committee that writes all budget bills in the Idaho Legislature is also the only committee that’s never taken public testimony - but it will this year. With huge budget challenges facing the state, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is scheduling two public hearings in January in the state capitol where any citizen can weigh in on two crucial areas of the state budget: School funding and health and welfare programs.

The move comes as JFAC also plans to hold unprecedented joint budget hearings with the House and Senate education and health and welfare committees in the coming session - two areas that make up the largest chunks of the state budget and where budgets are expected to be painfully tight. Among those hailing the changes is Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, who late last year co-sponsored an unsuccessful bill to crimp JFAC’s ability to set policy or change laws as it writes budgets. “I think it’s a really, really important step forward to basically have better access and a better review,” Anderson said. “Hopefully it runs smoothly. Honestly, I don’t want to make their work any more difficult, but I think it does answer some questions that we raised. I’m very proud of ‘em for doing that.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, JFAC’s Senate vice-chair, said, “I applaud the co-chairs for their continued efforts to reach out for input, feedback and ideas at this very difficult economic time in our state’s history. We are all in this together.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Report: Anyone following Rammell’s advice would face law enforcement action

If Idaho County residents take the advice of failed gubernatorial candidate Rex Rammell and start illegally killing wolves, law enforcement will step in. “I think it’s pretty clear to say that if there’s a federal law that is violated, then the federal law will have to be engaged,” Meggan Laxalt Mackey, an external affairs specialist with the agency, told the Lewiston Tribune, adding, “Federal law enforcement officials will have to act.” Click below for a full report.

Loertscher on Hart: ‘That bill will come due someday, then hammer will fall’

Spokesman-Review columnist Shawn Vestal, in today’s paper, interviews Rep. Tom Loertscher, chair of the House Ethics Committee, about the Phil Hart case and why Loertscher was the lone vote against looking further into the latest ethics complaint against Hart. First, there’s that business of Loertscher saying, “As legislators we all have something in our past.” Writes Vestal, “Nothing whets the journalistic appetite like the prospect of a Gem State skeleton. I called Loertscher to drag the truth out of him. Do we really all have something in our past? ‘Don’t you?’ he asked. Why yes. Yes I do. More than one thing, perhaps. But the question, Mr. Representative, is do you? ‘I hope not,’ he said. ‘I haven’t shot anybody or gotten a deer out of season or anything.’

Vestal goes on to note, “He said he’s not endorsing Hart’s behavior so much as doubting whether his committee is the place to deal with it. I think it is, but Loertscher’s not necessarily a white-washer to see it otherwise. ‘Judgment Day eventually comes,’ he said. ‘When he’s exhausted all his remedies, he’ll have a bill to pay or not. That bill will come due someday … and then the hammer will fall. That’s the way it works.’” You can read the full column here.

Roll Call: ‘Idaho’s Minnick says he’s done for good’

The Capitol Hill newspaper “Roll Call” reports today that Idaho Congressman Walt Minnick says he’s “gone for good” from elective politics. “I think I’m done with elective politics,” he told the newspaper.  “I’m not sure what I’m going to do, but I think it’s time for somebody else.” The article examines the dismal elective record of Democrats in Idaho in the past three decades, and the Idaho party’s future prospects, perhaps with conservative, well-funded Democratic candidates like Minnick. “I might’ve fit the profile of a winner, but it was a bad year,” Minnick told Roll Call before one of his last votes in Congress. “It was a big wave, and I was on a low island.” You can read the full article here.

Labrador committee assignments: Resources, Government Reform

Idaho Congressman-elect Raul Labrador has been assigned to the Committee on Natural Resources and the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform for the 112th Congress, assignments he welcomed. “I ran for Congress to serve Idaho and to restore the people’s faith in government. These two influential committee assignments position me perfectly to accomplish these goals,” Labrador said. Click below for his full announcement.  

SEC charges purported Idaho nuke plant developer with fraud

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Securities and Exchange Commission has charged an Idaho company with fraudulently raising money to build a $10 billion nuclear power plant. The SEC on Thursday also asked a court to freeze the assets of Alternate Energy Holdings Inc., of Eagle, and two of its executives. The regulator alleges the company was involved in a scheme to enrich its chief executive at the expense of investors. The SEC says AEHI manipulated its stock price through misleading public statements that hid the profits by CEO Donald Gillispie and a senior vice president Jennifer Ransom. The SEC says it has records that Gillispie and Ransom secretly unloaded stock holdings and funneled the money back to Gillispie, who allegedly made six times the amount he claimed.

You can read the SEC’s complaint against AEHI here, which includes this statement, “AEHI and Gillispie have raised millions of dollars from individual investors in Idaho, elsewhere in the U.S., and Asia by making misleading statements about the viability of AEHI, which has no realistic possibility  of building a multi-billion dollar nuclear reactor. AEHI has never had any revenue or product.” Click below for a full report from AP reporter Todd Dvorak.

Rammell: Idaho County residents should start killing wolves

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  GRANGEVILLE, Idaho (AP) — A failed Idaho gubernatorial candidate has told a crowd they should take matters into their own and start killing wolves. The Lewiston Tribune reports that Rex Rammell spoke to a crowd of more than 100 Wednesday night in Idaho County, one of the only counties to support his primary bid against Republican Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter. Rammell says county commissioners should declare an emergency that allows citizens to kill wolves on sight. But, he adds, residents should organize a hunt and start killing wolves anyway even if no such order comes. He says he does not believe the sheriff, the state or federal authorities would interfere. Wolves lost their endangered status in Montana and Idaho in 2009, but were returned to the endangered list this year following a lawsuit from environmentalists.

Judge sides with Lowe in proposed decision

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on U.S. Magistrate Judge Ron Bush’s preliminary ruling in favor of fired Idaho Transportation Director Pam Lowe on a key point underpinning her wrongful-firing lawsuit, her argument that she wasn’t an “at-will” employee who could be dismissed without cause, as the state alleges.

Lowe contends her firing came because she tried to scale back a big contract with politically well-connected firms; that she was fired without cause and without being allowed a hearing; and that she was discriminated against because she’s female. She was the first woman to head the Idaho Transportation Department; she’s since been replaced by a man who’s being paid $22,000 a year more than she made.

Preliminary ruling favors fired ITD director Pam Lowe in wrongful firing case

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge has sided with former Idaho Transportation Department Director Pamela Lowe in a proposed ruling, setting the stage for her wrongful firing lawsuit against the state to proceed. But U.S. Magistrate Judge Ronald Bush says he’s giving Lowe and the Idaho Transportation Department until Jan. 14 to submit additional information that could alter the outcome. Bush indicated in the proposed decision late Wednesday that the Idaho Transportation Board was limited to firing Lowe for “inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance or non-feasance.” The department’s lawyers argued Lowe could be fired for any reason. Lowe contends she was dismissed in July 2009 for political reasons, not for the four reasons outlined in Idaho law. Bush found evidence to conclude the Idaho Legislature provided guidelines governing when Transportation board members could fire a director to protect the agency’s leader from political pressure.

You can read the Request for Additional Briefing and Proposed Memorandum Decision and Order here.

Constitutionality of state cabin-site leases in question

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on today’s preliminary injunction blocking new state cabin-site leases from taking effect at the end of this month. Attorney General Lawrence Wasden sought the injunction, arguing that the state’s whole system for renting out cabin sites is unconstitutional.

Clark argues separation of powers

The attorney representing the state Land Board today was none other than Merlyn Clark, the attorney who’s been recently in the news as the state’s hearing officer on the Highway 12 megaloads case, a decision that’s now pending in his hands.

Clark argued in court today that the Land Board takes no position on whether the 1990 law that eliminated conflict auctions for cabin sites in favor of “market rents” is constitutional or not. “As I understand the argument of the Attorney General, it’s that the board should assume the role or the duty of the court in determining whether that statute is constitutional. … We still have separation of powers,” he declared.

Clark said, “The board cannot choose which law it will follow and which law it will not follow.” He also told 4th District Judge Deborah Bail that according to the ISEEO school lawsuit decisions from the Idaho Supreme Court, “You do not have the power or authority to tell another branch of the government how to do their job. … You have the power to declare the statute unconstitutional,” he said. But, he said, “We don’t think you have the power to enjoin the board.”

Deputy Attorney General Clay Smith said the Attorney General’s proposal for a preliminary injunction wouldn’t enjoin the Land Board; it merely blocks state Lands Department Director George Bacon from entering into the new cabin-site leases. “That does not restrain the board from taking appropriate action at its next meeting, which is scheduled for Dec. 21,” Smith told the court. He also said the idea that the Land Board must comply with unconstitutional laws until a court tells it otherwise was “remarkable.” Said Smith, “The real dispute here lies with the Land Board’s failure to comply with the Constitution.”

Ysursa: ‘We need leases in place’

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who sat through the court hearing today in which fellow Land Board member Lawrence Wasden won a preliminary injunction halting the signing of new cabin-site leases, emerged from the hearing frustrated. Ysursa chaired a Land Board subcommittee that’s been working for years, and heard hours of testimony, on the issue. “I think the key thing we have to figure out is what does that mean to our lease situation,” Ysursa said. “The bottom line is to get the leases done and get revenue for the endowment beneficiaries.”

He noted that if the current lease terms were frozen, the state would be collecting less - the new lease terms call for a 9 percent increase in 2011, and 54 percent over the next five years, and cabin-site lease rents have been frozen for three years at Payette Lake and two years at Priest Lake. Plus, he noted, “We gave people six months notice June 30, as required by law,” about the new rental rates. “We need leases in place.”

Wasden: ‘The ultimate answer’

After a judge’s ruling today to grant the preliminary injunction he sought against the state Department of Lands, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said, “We welcome the court’s decision. I certainly look forward to working with my colleagues on the Land Board to try and resolve these issues.”

Asked about the board’s upcoming meeting on Tuesday - at which a plan to move away from state ownership of ground on which private owners build and own cabins already is on the agenda - Wasden said, “If we had unity of title, we wouldn’t be having the kind of problems that we’ve been having.” He noted that every member of the state Land Board supported moving that direction. “That’s the ultimate answer,” he said. But he noted that there likely will be a number of preliminary steps before the state can get there.

‘An exceedingly unusual situation’

Deputy Attorney General Clay Smith said in court today that the case involves “an exceedingly unusual situation,” and 4th District Judge Deborah Bail agreed. Attorney General Lawrence Wasden went to court to block a decision made by the state Land Board, on which he serves; the board voted 3-2 last March for a new rent scheme in new 10-year leases for state-owned lake cabin sites. Wasden was among the dissenters in the vote.

The cabin sites include 355 at Priest Lake and 167 at Payette Lake on which private owners have built and owned their cabins, in some cases, for generations, while the state owns the land underneath. In wrestling with the situation over the past year, the state Land Board voted unanimously to move toward unifying the estate for cabin sites, which means the same owner would own both the land and the structure. That plan is on the Land Board’s agenda for its meeting on Tuesday.

Judge: Entire law on which state cabin rents are based likely unconstitutional

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden argued that the entire state law on which Idaho has based its cabin-site rents for state endowment lands - a 1990 state law that requires the state Land Board to charge “market rents,” while eliminating the requirement that cabin-site leases be auctioned off to the highest bidder, like other state endowment land leases - is unconstitutional. Wasden long has maintained that position; it was laid out in an official 2009 attorney general’s opinion. Today, 4th District Judge Deborah Bail agreed. “Clearly the Legislature was trying to balance some fairly sensitive issues, but the Constitution is plain and the interpretation of the Constitution is clear,” Bail declared in court. “I think the state has met its burden … for a preliminary injunction.”

The judge said she had done extensive research, and a long string of Idaho Supreme Court cases clearly supports that determination. “Nothing in my ruling means that anybody wasn’t trying to do the best,” Bail said. “It’s just that the Constitution is clear.” She added, “I believe that the public auction requirement of the Constitution can’t be negated by a statute. I think it will require a constitutional amendment to negate that requirement.”

Bail said her ruling will maintain the status quo while all parties in the case are given an opportunity to weigh in. She also granted a motion to intervene from Payette Lake cabin-site lessees who already are suing in Valley County to challenge the new rent scheme - they claim the new rents would be too high. The preliminary injunction, she said, will “preserve the status quo and then we will let everyone weigh in fully before we address the permanent injunction,” including arguments on the constitutionality of the 1990 law.

Judge grants preliminary injunction in Wasden cabin-site challenge

Fourth District Judge Deborah Bail, ruling from the bench, today granted a preliminary injunction barring the state Department of Lands from entering into proposed new leases with hundreds of cabin owners on state-owned cabin sites on Priest and Payette lakes, in response to a constitutional challenge from Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.

Dannon to pay millions, turns out yogurt a day won’t solve tummy trouble

It turns out that eating a particular yogurt a day for two weeks won’t solve intestinal problems after all, and drinking a particular dairy drink won’t give you immunity from colds or the flu. Now The Dannon Company Inc. will pay Idaho $425,000 as part of a multi-state settlement over its “unsubstantiated and unlawful marketing claims,” according to Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, who joined with the attorneys general of 38 other states in a $21 million settlement with the yogurt firm.

Under the settlement, Dannon doesn’t admit any wrongdoing, but it promises not to claim that Activia yogurt and DanActive dairy drinks “can prevent, treat, cure or mitigate disease,” and the firm is required to “possess competent and reliable scientific evidence to support otherwise permissible claims about the health benefits, performance, efficacy or safety of its probiotic food products.” Click below to read Wasden’s full announcement of the settlement.

F&G chief pleads guilty to hunting trespass charge, pays $500 fine

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  GRANGEVILLE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho’s top fish and game official has pleaded guilty to one count of trespass to hunt and ordered to pay a $500 fine. Idaho Fish and Game Director Cal Groen told a judge Tuesday he wasn’t hunting on the property near Elk City on Oct. 13, but just assisting others tracking an elk. Groen said only after crossing on to the land did he realize it was private and closed to public hunting. The Lewiston Tribune reports Groen was also given a withheld judgment by Magistrate Randall Robinson. The 63-year-old director was charged with three others for crossing on to the property without permission. Groen has said his partners previously hunted the land but were unaware it changed ownership. Groen says the lesson is hunters can’t assume they have permission to hunt on private land.

Labrador names legislative director

As Congressman-elect Raul Labrador continues to round out his new congressional staff, he announced today the hiring of Jason Bohrer, who most recently worked as legislative counsel for Sen. Jim Risch, as his legislative director. “I am delighted Jason has decided to join my staff,” Labrador said. “His knowledge and understanding of the issues critical to Idaho as will his experience working on the Hill will be valuable assets as we hit the ground running in January.” Bohrer also worked as a regional director of Sen. Larry Craig and as a policy director for the Idaho Republican Party. Click below to read Labrador’s full announcement.

One of ‘most powerful tweets’ came from Idaho

The Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey reports this morning that Congressman Walt Minnick’s concession on Twitter made Twitter’s list of the “10 Most Powerful Tweets of 2010,” ranking No. 8. The tweet, sent by campaign manager John Foster around 2 a.m. as Election Night stretched into morning, said, “Congratulations to Raul Labrador on a hard-earned win, and best of luck as Idaho’s next Congressman.” 

Other tweets making the list included one from NBC reporter Ann Curry, seeking clearance for a Doctors Without Borders plane to land in Haiti; one from the president of Ecuador declaring a state of emergency; and one from the British royal family announcing the engagement of Prince William to Kate Middleton. Popkey reported, “Asked to comment Tuesday, Foster said in an e-mail, ‘I’m stunned. It’s a huge honor.’”

You can read Popkey’s full post here, and see the full Twitter list here.

Crapo to chair Senate GOP’s ‘Committee on Committees’

For the fourth time in a row, Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo has been selected to chair the Senate Republicans’  Committee on Committees - yes, that’s really what it’s called - to handle GOP committee assignments for the 112th Congress. “Mike is a trusted advisor and has the respect of his colleagues,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “He has a proven track record and the entire Republican conference is honored to have him once again leading our negotiations on committee assignments.” Said Crapo, “I look forward to working to ensure my colleagues have the best possible opportunities to make a mark on the important agenda of the 112th Congress.” Click below to read McConnell’s full press release.

Hart wants to ‘get on with legislation,’ including new ‘sound money’ bill

After today’s House Ethics Committee deliberations, Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, said, “Well, I still think they’re looking for their allegation that shows that there is bona fide violation of Rule 76. … They’re still empty-handed.”

Asked what he hopes happens next, Hart said, “I’m hoping that I can get on with the legislation that I want to run in 2011,” including a new version of his “sound money” bill and others. The new bill will be “a similar concept” to Hart’s silver medallion bill from this year, he said, “although I don’t have anything finalized yet. There will be some changes from last year’s bill.”

Kelso: ‘Where politics and due process meet’

Starr Kelso, attorney for embattled Rep. Phil Hart, said after today’s House Ethics Committee meeting, “What I can say is that the legislative process is a fluid and complex process where politics and due process meet. And so, I guess it was reasonable that they asked Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane to put his thoughts in writing. He seemed to me that he had expressed his thoughts verbally, but to require that they be in writing, that’s certainly the prerogative of the committee. So I wasn’t disappointed. They do what they do.”

Hart denies telling Anderson of being ‘watched’; ‘it was not confrontational’

Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, says his conversation with Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, at the Legislature’s organizational session wasn’t confrontational. “I did approach him and I did say, ‘Eric, if you need to get together or if you see a need for us to get together and talk, I want you to know that I’m open to doing that and available,’” Hart told Eye on Boise. “And that was the first thing I said to him.” He said, “We talked for a little while. I do remember that that’s the way I initiated the conversation. It was not confrontational and it didn’t go on for too long. I did not tell him he’s being watched.”

Hart added, “I did tell him that I felt that in these types of situations, it should’ve started with a one-on-one conversation between he and I, I do remember telling him that. … That’s what I thought the starting point should have been,” as opposed to an ethics complaint. Anderson filed an ethics complaint against Hart; the House Ethics Committee voted 6-1 today to investigate it further and convene again in January.

Denney warned Anderson of ‘fallout’ if he filed ethics complaint against Hart

House Speaker Lawerence Denney said today that Rep. Eric Anderson’s removal as vice-chairman of the House State Affairs Committee - shortly after Anderson had filed an ethics complaint against Rep. Phil Hart - was merely an oversight, but also said he’d warned Anderson of “fallout” if he filed the ethics complaint. As for the vice-chairmanship, Denney said, “What’s done is done, and we’ll continue for two years as it is.” He said, “When you get those names and everything out there, things change and sometimes we miss things. … Sometimes people who should get something don’t. It’s not that we’re punishing anybody, it’s that sometimes we miss it.”

Denney said, “No one was punished, even those who ran for leadership; we didn’t punish anyone.” Rep. Bob Nonini, who unsuccessfully challenged House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, kept his chairmanship of the House Education Committee. But Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, who unsuccessfully challenged House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, lost his JFAC seat; Bayer said it was his choice to move to the Rev & Tax committee.

Anderson didn’t run for leadership, though he was rumored to be a candidate in the weeks before party leadership elections were held. But after he filed the ethics complaint, he lost his committee vice-chairmanship and also was denied his request for a third committee assignment, a seat on the judiciary committee. Anderson, R-Priest Lake, is a fourth-term representative; the vice chairmanship went to third-term Rep. Brent Crane, R-Nampa.

“You know, I don’t have a problem with him filing the ethics complaint,” Denney said. “When he came and asked me about it, I suggested that he have somebody else do it, because there could be fallout. You know, there are people in our caucus who fully support Phil Hart and there are people in our caucus who do not. So, you know, for one of our members to do that, I think it could be tough.”

Denney said, “I think Phil has every right to pursue all of his legal avenues. … In Phil’s case, we were very careful - I didn’t want to show that we were rewarding him, and I didn’t want to show that we were punishing him.” Hart, who at the recommendation of the House Ethics Committee was removed from the House Rev & Tax Committee, was simply reduced to two committee assignments instead of three; he saw no other changes. “That was his choice,” Denney said. Hart retained his vice-chairmanship of the House Transportation Committee.

Denney said he’s not concerned about Anderson’s report that Hart confronted him over the ethics complaint at the entrance to the House chambers during the Dec. 2 organizational session, and told him he was being watched. Denney said with a chuckle, “Well, you know, I think people are watching all of us.” He added of the confrontation, “You know, I think it would be hard not to do when they’re together.”

Ethics panel backs full investigation into Hart ethics issues

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on today’s House Ethics Committee meeting on Rep. Phil Hart, in which the panel voted 6-1 to launch a full investigation into the latest ethics complaint against Hart and reconvene in January, rather than dismiss the complaint today.

Motion passes, 6-1

The motion passed 6-1, with just the chairman, Rep. Tom Loertscher, voting against it. “You know, as legislators we all have something in our past,” said Loertscher, R-Iona. He said he doesn’t feel that the “constitutional rights to exhaust our remedies ends the day we take office, or the day we run for office.” He added, “As it pertains to the timber sales, this certainly happened before his involvement in the Legislature, and I would hate to have an ethics investigation into my own personal background prior to my being a legislator. I’m not here to tell you that there’s anything you would find, but there might be something that someone would have a perception about.” With the motion approved, the Ethics Committee will convene again once the legislative session begins, at the call of the chair.

Motion: Investigate full complaint further, meet again

“We have before us a copy of the minutes of our last meeting,” Rep. Tom Loertscher said as the ethics committee came back into session. “On page 6, on the last page, Rep. Raybould moved that the committee dismiss the complaint of misuse of constitutional immunity by Rep. Hart, Rep. Wills seconded the motion, that motion passed 5 ayes and 2 nays. So we have dealt with this issue and brought it to a conclusion at that point in time.”

Rep. Bert Stevenson then made a motion to direct the committee’s staff and Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane to do “further investigation into these issues” and how they affect the “status of the Legislature and reflection on the Legislature.” He said, “I would move that we continue this hearing to a further date and instruct Mr. Kane to do that investigation that would be necessary, to the issue of the timber sales as well as other issues that Mr. Kane might feel appropriate to bring forth.” Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry, asked to include in the motion asking Kane to prepare an Attorney General’s opinion on the foundation of the claims in the ethics complaint. Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, asked to also include a review by the Attorney General’s office of the House ethics rules, and whether items not specifically delineated in the complaint can be examined by the ethics committee.

Sounds in the background…

During the Ethics Committee’s break, over the speaker system is coming a muffled conversation by Rep. Phil Hart, talking at his lawyer’s office, and strains of music.

Ethics panel debates whether already settled legislative privilege question

Rep. Eric Anderson said children have asked him how the courts could repeatedly say Hart was wrong, but he could continue to say he’s right. Rep. Tom Loertscher, Ethics committee chairman, asked Anderson, “Is Rep. Hart denied the opportunity to challenge … in any court … the same as any other citizen would have - does he have that right or did he give that up as a representative?” Anderson responded, “I’ve never implied that he does not have that right. It’s not in my complaint.” Loertscher said, “The only way that he could be in violation of these ethics rules is if he used his office to escape these responsibilities. … If there’s evidence of that, I think that we should proceed.” But Loertscher said he thought the ethics committee already had resolved that there was no such evidence with regard to the tax issues.

Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, took issue with that. Earlier, the panel refrained from dealing with Hart’s legislative privilege claim in his state income tax appeal because the appeal was pending, Killen said, but that’s since been decided, both by the state Board of Tax Appeals and the District Court. Both ruled against Hart. Killen said it’s time for the ethics panel to look at that issue. Loertscher disagreed, and said the committee decided “that he hadn’t abused that.” He said, “That’s what we decided at our final meeting.” Now, the panel has taken a brief break to review its minutes.

Anderson: ‘Diminished that oath’

Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, told the House Ethics Committee, “It could be an array of things that cause ethics issues to rise up. … I don’t know why we have an oath if it’s not going to be enforced.” He said he believes Hart has violated his oath of office. “I take that very serious when I raise my hand to swear on upholding the constitution of both the state and the federal government, I think that we all should and most of us do. But it is a reflection when we are doing things that are inappropriate, we have … diminished that oath. When one person, one part diminishes it, I think it’s diminished for all.”

Anderson noted that Hart has gone through numerous court proceedings on his claims, all unsuccessful. “There have not been any of these proceedings that have been favorable in terms of Rep. Hart, but yet he still continually as a legislator says that he’s done no wrong,” he said.

Panel debates whether can talk about silver issue

Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said after reviewing Rep. Eric Anderson’s complaint, there was no mention in it of the silver issue. Therefore, he said, he apologized to the committee and it shouldn’t even be discussing it. Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, asked if under state laws and House rules, “If it’s not listed in the complaint, that we can’t talk about it?” In response, Loertscher asked Legislative Services Director Jeff Youtz to read the ethics committee rules. He did so. They make no specific mention of that question.

Loertscher said if items not specifically mentioned in the complaint can be brought up, “Then we could probably open this up to almost any action of any legislator at any time - do we really want to go there?” Jaquet asked Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, to comment; he’s doing so now. “The intent there was to show that there is a pattern of behavior,” Anderson told the panel.

Hart backers grumble, call meeting ‘circus’

A half-dozen Hart supporters in the audience, who are wearing white paper cut-out hearts in support of Phil Hart, are grumbling loudly, “This is a circus” and other complaints about the Ethics Committee proceedings.

Silver coin issue ‘murky’ for ethics panel

Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, said if the Ethics Committee is going to proceed further “on this silver coin issue,” it needs a lot more information about the organization, the bill Hart introduced in 2010, and more. He said he didn’t think that was what the panel was gathered for today. Said Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, “I think we did resolve that issue already as to whether or not he was in violation of House Rule 38 in not disclosing to the body that he had some affiliation, because as he stated here today, he didn’t have that affiliation.”

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, responded, “He did take an oath to uphold the laws of the state and the constitution of the United States and the state.” She said Hart’s involvement in the alternative currency movement suggested his bill might have been related to that, not just to promoting an Idaho commodity. “Should that bill have even been brought?” she asked. “There is some additional information that is murky.”

Kelso: Hart had ‘no involvement’ with NORFED Liberty Dollars group in 2010

After Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, pressed repeatedly, attorney Starr Kelso finally conferred with his client, Rep. Phil Hart, and said Hart was not involved with the NORFED Liberty Dollars organization after 2006 or 2007. When he introduced legislation in 2010 regarding silver medallions as currency, Hart “had had no involvement with those folks at that time,” Kelso said.

Kelso: ‘Just an incredible fishing expedition’

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, asked whether Hart had proper permits to sell NORFED or Liberty Dollars. Starr Kelso responded, “That issue, to the extent it was raised, was discussed in the original hearing.” He said the question of whether Hart paid sales taxes on the Liberty Dollars he sold is “just an incredible fishing expedition - what does that have to do with anything?” he asked. The Liberty Dollars were an alternate currency minted from silver that were promoted as legal tender; an FBI raid put a stop to the operation in 2007, which was deemed illegal. Kelso said Hart was no longer involved with the group when he introduced a silver currency bill in 2010.

“What I’m trying to figure out is the role that Rep. Hart played in that organization in 2007, and why he chose to bring legislation in 2010,” Jaquet said. “We talked about whether he had a personal benefit. You said that he did not have any share in that company any longer. I’m confused about the role that he played … I did not know that he was a ‘regional currency officer’ (for the group), and if he was still a regional currency officer when he brought that legislation.”

Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, said he wanted to hear from Hart himself on that question, but Hart isn’t answering any questions, leaving that to Kelso.

Ethics panel discusses relevancy of timber issue

After Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, said of the timber issue, “I believe that there’s some merit there, that we should look into this further,” Ethics Committee Chair Tom Loertscher R-Iona, said, “The thing we should consider is if Rep. Hart used his office as a means of not paying that obligation. That would be a violation of the ethics rules of the House.” If not, he said, that would “not seem to be a topic that is appropriate for an ethics hearing. … If he’s used his office to say, ‘You can’t touch me because I’m a legislator’ … I don’t believe that anything in the record indicates that that’s the case.”

Jaquet said she wondered whether the reason that the state Department of Lands dropped the ball on collecting its judgment against Hart was because he was a legislator. She said the panel should at least look into that question.

‘Flatly against the law’

Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said there are three points in the ethics complaint: Theft of logs from state endowment lands, claiming that state and federal income taxes are unconstitutional, and personally benefiting from silver legislation. “We dealt in our last meetings about these items having to do with taxes,” Loertscher said. “We have disposed of those.” Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, said, however, that he’s had “an opportunity to revisit the law” since then. Killen, an attorney, said, he discovered a section of law that “makes it a misdemeanor, makes it a crime to willfully fail to pay your taxes.” He said, “Based on that, I think that we should proceed further down the road on this. It seems, regardless of the rationale, regardless of what personal subjective beliefs of Mr. Hart, what he’s engaged in is flatly against the law in the state of Idaho, and I think should be engaged in beyond this hearing.”

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, noted that Hart came to the Legislature in 2004 with an outstanding judgment against him for the 1996 timber theft, which he didn’t pay.

Ethics hearing opens

Ethics Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, opened the ethics committee hearing this morning saying, “The purpose of our meeting today is to make a determination as to whether or not there is merit enough on this complaint to go further. This is not a hearing into the matter in any way.” Hart is participating by phone, but when asked if he was on the line, his attorney, Starr Kelso, answered for him.

Listen live to Hart ethics meeting

This morning’s House Ethics Committee meeting will be broadcast live on the Internet; you can listen in by going to the Legislature’s website and clicking on the link under “Announcements.”

Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, has submitted letters of support from GOP central committees in Boundary, Bonner and Benewah counties, saying he should be cleared of all ethics charges. “We know that Representative Hart received 75.2 percent of his district’s vote and this was after the people already knew about his problems with the IRS and Tax Commission,” wrote Pamela Kaynor, Benewah County GOP chairman. The committee also received several emails and letters from Hart supporters, several of them identical. W.L. Leiby of Coeur d’Alene wrote in a Dec. 9 letter, “What is the problem here? Is it that rep. Hart supported and was supported by the tea-party? Is it that he supported staunch new conservatives against tired old dead-wood? Why is it Rep. Hart is  being persecuted by the establishment?”

According to public records including IRS liens and court documents, Hart owes more than $500,000 in back state and federal income taxes, penalties and interest. He also has an outstanding judgment for thousands of dollars stemming from a 1996 timber theft on state endowment lands that he unsuccessfully defended in court.

Anderson: Hart confronted him over ethics complaint, said he’s being watched

Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, who filed an ethics complaint against Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, that’s the topic of a House Ethics Committee hearing later this morning, says Hart confronted him over it during the Dec. 2 organizational session of the Legislature, and Anderson subsequently was punished in his committee assignments, losing the vice-chairmanship of the House State Affairs Committee and being denied a third committee assignment he’d requested, on the judiciary committee. “They made this very personal with me,” Anderson said.

“He confronted me, right coming out of the chambers, right there at those doors where you come out of the (House) chambers,”  Anderson said. He said Hart told him “that he’s been cleared of all these things, it’s ridiculous that I’m doing it, and no one is that pure.” He responded, he said, by asking about Hart allies who’ve been looking into Anderson’s record with a state milfoil fund and checking into his service on a local utility board. “He says, ‘There’s people watching you all over,’” Anderson said.

The House Ethics Committee meets at 11 a.m. today for its initial meeting in response to Anderson’s ethics complaint against Hart, which alleges that Hart has violated his oath of office by fighting against paying his state and federal income taxes and declaring that they’re unconstitutional; by invoking legislative privilege to try to win delays in his state and federal tax fights; and by illegally cutting logs from state school endowment land and using them to build his log home in Athol in 1996, and never paying an outstanding judgment over the theft.

Last Thursday, a Kootenai County judge tossed out Hart’s appeal of a state Tax Commission order to pay $53,000 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest, calling Hart’s arguments “wholly unsupported,” “unthinkable,” and, in his arguments that an Arizona case showed legislative privilege should exempt him from time limits to file his state tax appeal, making an “attempt to deceive this Court.” Hart said last week he hasn’t yet decided whether to appeal again.

River advocates deliver peanuts to ITD, say megaloads opponents aren’t ‘nuts’

More than a dozen Idaho river advocates gathered in front of the Idaho Transportation Department’s headquarters today to deliver a 50-pound bag of peanuts to DMV administrator Alan Frew. “The people who oppose the megaloads are not ‘nuts,’ Mr. Frew,” declared Bill Sedivy, executive director of Idaho Rivers United. “We take exception to your testimony characterizing those who oppose the mega-shipments as ‘nuts.’ We believe your comments exemplify ITD’s dismissive attitude toward those who have legitimate concerns about these proposed, region-altering shipments.”

On Wednesday, during the first day of the two-day contested-case hearing on the proposed ConocoPhillips megaloads, Frew testified that ITD decided to have turnouts along Highway 12  barricaded 24 hours in advance to avoid “nuts” protesting the loads from blocking traffic. Sedivy said his group had no intention of doing anything like that. “Certainly we wouldn’t condone any kind of behavior that threatens harm or injury to anybody,” he said. “That’s not our way, that’s not how we do business.”

The group gathered in front of the ITD headquarters included famed Idaho whitewater boater Rob Lesser, who has been boating the Lochsa River along Highway 12 since 1970. Lesser called the Lochsa “one of the stellar resources in the state of Idaho,” and said any plans to block the turnouts where whitewater rafters, anglers, hikers, sightseers, tourists and others park is “unacceptable if it happens during any of these recreational periods.” Though the ConocoPhillips is proposing just four megaloads which it wants to ship as soon as possible, ExxonMobil is proposing more than 200 more over the next year and another firm is proposing dozens more starting next spring.

The group today also included a woman dressed in a fish costume holding a sign saying, “‘Nuts’ for the Lochsa,” along with others holding signs with such slogans as “Hunters Against Megaloads” “Protect our Rivers,” and “Idaho’s heritage is not for sale” under a drawing of a silhouetted Lewis and Clark, the explorers whose path the highway roughly follows.

Conoco statement: ‘Look forward to decision’

After the conclusion yesterday of a two-day contested-case hearing on ConocoPhillips’ proposed megaloads on Highway 12, the company issued this statement:

“ConocoPhillips appreciated the opportunity to reaffirm to ITD and the public our detailed plans to transport four shipments of equipment from Lewiston to the Billings Refinery. Our refinery has a daily workforce of about 450 people who operate an important regional supply of secure, North American energy.  This includes providing transportation fuel to Idaho, Montana and several other western states. Our experts clearly demonstrated that we have thoroughly anticipated and planned for every stretch of road along the route.  We are confident we can apply careful coordination by the road crew and state and local agencies, highly experienced drivers and state-of-the-art equipment to transport the shipments safely while keeping traffic flowing. We look forward to a decision that will allow us to move our equipment to the Billings refinery soon, so we can conduct our planned maintenance  and continue operating this important facility safely and reliably.”

The hearing’s final witness, Conoco Billings refinery manager Steven Steach, was asked during cross-examination if the firm was paying its busload of employees who traveled to Boise and attended the hearing, wearing matching T-shirts backing the project. “We said we wouldn’t dock ‘em if they were scheduled to work today,” Steach responded; those who were scheduled to work but came to the hearings were paid for their regular shifts. The workers, he said, wanted “to show their support. They’re very proud of the refinery.”

State Board: Tuition hikes may exceed 10 percent next year

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The state Board of Education will once again allow Idaho’s public universities to seek tuition and fee increases of more than 10 percent. Trustees voted 7-1 on Thursday to temporarily waive the board policy that prohibits requests for tuition increases of more than 10 percent for full-time students. Board members have stressed that the one-year waiver does not mean they will automatically approve the higher tuition and fee requests in April. The board waived the policy last year, but did not approve any increases above 10 percent. Students at Idaho universities and colleges are now paying between 8.75 percent to 9.5 percent more in tuition and fees compared to last year.

Clark says he’ll rule ‘at least before Xmas’

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the two-day contested-case hearing on ConocoPhillips’ proposed megaloads on U.S. Highway 12. State hearing officer Merlyn Clark said he’ll take the issue under advisement. He asked attorneys on all sides to submit briefing on several issues to him by Wednesday at noon. “They want to expedite, and I’m going to do my best to get ‘em an expedited decision,” Clark said. Asked when he’s likely to rule, Clark said, “I’d like to say at least before Christmas, but just as soon as I can get it done.”

Hearing is adjourned; Clark says he ‘has no idea’ what his ruling will be

Hearing officer Merlyn Clark said he’ll rule as quickly as he can, but there’s a lot of information in the record that he’ll need to review. He asked the attorneys on all sides to submit post-hearing briefs by noon on Wednesday, “so I can then prepare a decision that is fair and as accurate as possible, and I have no idea at this point what that will be.”

That was final witness

That was the last witness - now the hearing officer and attorneys are discussing the schedule for post-hearing briefing.

ConocoPhillips Billings plant manager: ‘We did our homework on this’

ConocoPhillips has called Steven Steach, manager of its Billings refinery, to testify. “For the last 60 years we’ve been supplying transportation fuels to the Rocky Mountain Region,” Steach said. “We’re about 10 percent of the refining capacity in this region.” Steach noted that the plant has 300 employees and 150 contractors, and while most are there working today, a “large contingent” came over for the hearing “to show their support.”

Steach said it was “absolutely not” a corporate gamble for Conoco to ship its drums to Lewiston before getting ITD over-legal load permits. “We did our homework on this and we did our research,” he said. “We’ve done extensive engineering. … We hired an expert, Emmert. … We ran their study by five other nationwide transportation firms and they all concurred with the results.” Steach also said he doesn’t believe the drums would be usable if they were cut again; each already has been cut in half for transport.

Emmert already has hired barricade firm

Emmert International’s project manager, Mark Albrecht, said his firm has hired a barricade company to block the turnouts along U.S. Highway 12 before the ConocoPhillips megaloads come through. Though ITD’s proposed permits call for barricades for 24 hours in advance of the loads, Albrecht said, “We’ll try to accommodate ‘em as much as we can.” He said his firm will have someone at the pullouts to warn people who use them earlier in the day, and likely would close them off around 6 p.m. If there aren’t problems with protesters after the first day, he said, the barricading plan might be abandoned.

Asked if he’s consulted with the Nez Perce Tribe about blocking turnouts its members use to exercise their ancestral fishing rights, Albrecht said no. He also said Emmert hadn’t consulted with the Forest Service, which operates a rest area along the route; Albrecht said he wasn’t sure that was required.

Emmert: ‘We gauge each section of road’

Under cross-examination, Mark Albrecht, project manager for Emmert International, is defending the details of how the specialized trailers for the ConocoPhillips megaloads will work. “We gauge each section of road,” Albrecht said.

Emmert: If load went in river, it’d be cut up, pulled out in pieces

Mark Albrecht, project manager for Emmert International, said the specialized trailer his firm would use makes it almost impossible that the giant drum could tumble off into the river below. “The trailer was specifically chosen for this route and this load,” he said. “That trailer would have to go completely sideways to where it’s falling over for that load to come out.”

If a drum were to fall in the river, he said, it’d be ruined, because it’d no longer be perfectly round. So it could then be cut into 30,000-pound pieces, winched out and loaded onto standard trucks; Emmert wouldn’t attempt to lift the entire drum in a single piece, so it wouldn’t need a huge crane.

Emmert says it’s coordinating with area trucking firms on Highway 12

Emmert International project manager Mark Albrecht said his firm has contacted several commercial trucking firms in the Highway 12 area to coordinate plans and set up protocols for notifying each other when trucks are moving. Asked why the ConocoPhillips megaloads are planned to move at night, Albrecht said, “ITD asked us can we move at night, and we said yes we can.” He said he personally surveyed nighttime traffic on several parts of the route, and found it light.

Trucking firm measured route ‘25 to 30 times’ to plan for megaloads

In the three years that Emmert International worked on its transport plan for the four ConocoPhillips megaloads, project manager Mark Albrecht said, “I’d have to say that route’s been measured at least 25 to 30 times. … We really wanted to make sure that we … met the requirements and get through there safely.” He said his company also hired outside firms to do some measuring and study of the route, and developed a video of the entire route. “There were some tight areas, and in those tight areas, engineering came back and said if we would modify the saddles” within the trailer configuration, the loads would have more room to maneuver, he said. Those changes then were made, Albrecht said, “to enhance the safety and maneuverability of the trailer.”

Emmert manager: ‘This load, this size … this was the only option’

Mark Albrecht, project manager for Emmert International, said his firm considered other routes to move the huge coker drums from their manufacturer in Japan to ConocoPhillips’ Billings, Mont. plant. “We knew that we were looking at something coming from overseas, so we looked at several of the riverports as well,” he said. “Oklahoma was really our preferred area, and there is a hard obstruction there,” Albrecht said. “The highest one there is 24 feet, and we could not get these loads down.” He said Emmert concluded, “That this load, this size, cut in half … for transport, that this was the only option.”

Next Conoco witness: Project manager from Emmert International

ConocoPhillips has now called its next witness, Mark Albrecht, who has worked for Emmert International for more than 30 years and started there at age 15. He started as a laborer and now is a project manager and director of operations. He said he’s handled more than 100 other big-load moves as project manager, including the move of Howard Hughes’ airplane the “Spruce Goose.”

Emmert recovered Mammoet’s lost megaload in Indiana, fell off truck

In his cross-examination of Terry Emmert, attorney Laird Lucas asked Emmert, “Emmert is in the business of hauling heavy loads?” Emmert responded, “Yes.” “And it’s good business for you if you can open up a new corridor for hauling heavy loads?” Lucas asked. “Yes,” Emmert responded.

Then Lucas asked Emmert, “Isn’t it true that today Emmert has completed a haul of equipment about this big all the way from Oklahoma to a refinery in Montana?” Emmert said yes. Lucas then showed  on the big screen a website from the Billings Gazette, featuring the heading, “Movers haul big load to Lockwood refinery.” The megaload in question was refinery equipment manufactured in Tulsa, Okla., and trucked without incident to an ExxonMobil refinery in Lockwood, Mont.

Lucas also asked Emmert what he meant by never having “lost” a load, and whether there had ever been accidents with large loads. “I’m sure there has been incidents,” Emmert said. Lucas then asked Emmert about two major accidents another carrier, Mammoet, has had with megaloads in the past five months; that carrier is the one hired to haul the ExxonMobil megaloads on Highway 12. Emmert said his firm was hired to recover one of those, a giant tower that fell off its truck in Indiana.

Conoco’s first witness: Terry Emmert

ConocoPhillips has called its first witness, Terry Emmert, whose father started Emmert International 45 years ago. That’s the firm Conoco has hired to move its four megaloads from the Port of Lewiston to its Billings, Mont. refinery. Emmert is testifying about other giant loads his firm has moved, including moving several large buildings. He said Emmert moves 700 to 1,000 loads per year, large and small. “We have never lost a client’s load,” he said.

Emmert showed and explained a diagram of the trailer configuration and helper dollies proposed to be used in hauling the ConocoPhillips megaloads.

ITD’s testimony on ‘balancing needs’ raises hearing officer’s concern

Hearing officer Merlyn Clark said he has “some concerns about Mr. Frew’s testimony about balancing, as opposed to primary concern for safety and convenience.” ITD motor vehicles administrator Alan Frew testified yesterday that ITD balances all highway users’ needs, including balancing the needs of those who want to transport over-legal loads against the needs of the traveling public. ITD regulations require the safety and convenience of the traveling public to be a primary consideration in granting permits for over-legal loads. But Clark said, “I can’t rule on (just that). I’ve got a whole record, and that record is very extensive.”

Conoco’s motion is denied

Conoco attorney Erik Stidham, arguing for his motion for a directed verdict, said, “What is clear is that the intervenors are trying desperately, desperately to call this a precedent and it’s not.” He said all the concerns they’ve brought up were considered by ITD. But hearing officer Merlyn Clark denied the motion. He said he’ll still need to draw some legal conclusions about it, and asked counsel for both sides to submit arguments on several points, including what ITD regulations mean in terms of necessity, and whether ITD can only consider alternate routes within the state of Idaho, as it maintains.

Opponents: ‘Where is the concern for the public?’

Laird Lucas, attorney for the megaloads opponents, arguing against Conoco’s motion for a directed verdict, asked, “Where is the concern for the public? It is not in the record. … To this day there has not been a public meeting on the Conoco loads.” He noted that ITD held three public meetings on the larger ExxonMobil proposal for more megaloads on the same route. “The department knows full well that a precedent is being set here,” Lucas said. Yet, it’s maintained throughout the contested case hearing that the Conoco proposal has nothing to do with the Exxon one.

Lucas said, “We’ve had frankly some games played. ITD’s saying it’s speculative to talk about other permits, and we know Highway 12 is available.” But the only reason the route is available for the megaloads is because ExxonMobil paid to bury or raise large numbers of utility lines to accommodate extra-high loads, Lucas said. He also said the past two days of hearings showed “that ITD does not check Emmert’s assertions about the road, about the travel time. … We’ve shown that their assertions about the size of turnouts and things are not credible.” He added, “In a case of this importance, they have not done the full homework. They have not gone out and checked. They relied upon the applicant.”

Lucas said, “We have met our burden of proof, and we ask that you deny the motion.”

Conoco: Opponents failed to make case

The hearing is back under way, and there were no questions on cross-examination for Linwood Laughy. That concluded the intervenors’ case in full. Next up is ConocoPhillips; attorney Erik Stidham rose and read a long statement moving for a “directed verdict,” saying that the intervenors failed to make their case. “The intervenors have simply not carried their burden to show that ITD abused its discretion or acted arbitrarily or capriciously by issuing permits for the four loads here,” Stidham said. He also said there’s nothing to the intervenors’ claim that ITD violated its own regulating calling for a limit on traffic delays of 10 minutes. “There is no such thing as a 10 minute limitation,” Stidham declared. “It’s been shown that the 10 minute limitation is a creation of intervenors’ counsel. It is simply not how ITD reads its regulations now or ever has read its regulations.”

Intervenors’ attorney Laird Lucas said the only court that has reviewed the issue of the 10-minute regulation - 2nd District Judge John Bradbury - agreed with the intervenors on it, though his decision later was reversed on technical grounds. Lucas maintained that ITD’s interpretation that it doesn’t have to follow the 10-minute rule if there’s a traffic control plan doesn’t comply with the regulation. Lucas said, “When you look at the record, what you’ll see is public convenience and safety were never a primary concern.”

Hearing breaks for noon hour

It’s just before noon in Boise; the megaloads hearing is taking a break for lunch and will resume at 1 p.m. Mountain time.

Laughy says loads would have to travel 49 mph in one stretch to meet delay limit

Linwood Laughy said based on his calculations, he doesn’t believe the megaloads can meet ITD’s standard of not delaying traffic more than 15 minutes. “I’ve calculated it out,” he said. “One stretch they’d have to go 49 mph.”

Attorneys for ConocoPhillips are now cross-examining Laughy, asking him if he has an engineering background or has ever worked with an oversized load. He answered no. “You’re not an engineer,” attorney Erik Stidham said to Laughy. “Is this just one of those situations where you look at it and you just say, ‘I don’t understand how this is going to work?’” Laughy responded that he can use a calculator and Google. “I can certainly handle the measuring tape pretty well,” he said.

Stidham questioned whether a misplaced decimal in an ITD chart, in data provided by ConocoPhillips, might have thrown off Laughy’s calculation to yield the 49  mph result; Laughy said it’s possible. “I looked at your data, and it said you were going to travel 8.2 miles in 10 minutes,” Laughy told Stidham. “I took your word for it.”

Laughy: Barricading Highway 12 turnouts would have ‘huge effect’

Asked how it would affect him if turnouts along Highway 12 were barricaded 24 hours in advance of megaloads passing through, resident Linwood Laughy said, “I drive in that area - I will of course not be able to pull over if I had any difficulty with a vehicle, I would not be able to pull over to enjoy the scenery, I would not be able to pull over in some sites that are my favorite fishing holes.” He added, “These turnouts are used a lot, by various people for various purposes - first of all the commercial truckers, to take a break. … And once kayaking season starts, the kayakers and the rafters fill those turnouts and then the tourists just follow them. … If those turnouts are barricaded, it’d have a huge effect.”

Yesterday, ITD motor vehicles administrator Alan Frew testified that ITD decided to include the 24-hour barricading of turnouts to deter “nuts” from trying to protest the megaloads and blocking traffic.

One megaload arrives in Montana from the other direction - from Oklahoma

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — While officials debated the safety of hauling huge loads of equipment from Idaho into Montana, an oversized load of refinery equipment made a two-month trip from Oklahoma to south-central Montana. The Billings Gazette reports the huge piece of equipment arrived at the Exxon Mobil refinery in Lockwood Wednesday night. It left Tulsa, Okla., on Oct. 18 and was hauled by Oregon-based Emmert International. Emmert spokesman Greg Brooks says the top speed for the load was about 20 mph and travel was sometimes hampered by snow, ice and poor visibility. The 600,000-pound load measured 215 feet long, just over 24 feet tall and 25 feet wide. Department of Transportation Chief Operations Officer Dwane Kailey says the department received no public comments on Exxon Mobil’s permit application.

Laughy: ‘It would shut that down’

Attorneys for the megaloads opponents have put back up on the big screen the photo of a stretch of U.S. Highway 12 where a sheer rock wall rises on one side of the road, and a wooden guardrail 31 feet from the rock wall marks the other edge, just above the river. Attorney Laird Lucas asked Linwood Laughy what the impact on him would be if one of the megaloads had an accident and blocked the road in that spot. “Blocked highway access … it would shut that down,” Laughy said. He said it would block residents like himself from getting to the grocery store, to medical services, or to town to see their grandchildren.

Laughy: Promised limits on traffic delays didn’t seem feasible

Linwood Laughy testified that after discovering the 200-plus megaloads were in the works, he filed public records requests and his wife set up a website. Laughy said he started sending out “ITD Alerts” when he found new information, hoping to alert ITD to concerns. “I had studied the route pretty thoroughly and looked at turnouts for example, measured turnouts, the curves.” Laughy said based on what he found, he “could not figure out how they were possibly going to” avoid holding up traffic for more than 15 minutes at a time, as ITD promised, when the megaloads traveled the highway taking up both of its two lanes.

Then Laughy said he heard there was a 10-minute limit on traffic delays in ITD regulations, and he looked up the rule and found it. When the issue came up at a public meeting, local ITD officials said they’d never heard of a 10-minute rule and they followed a 15-minute rule.

First hint about megaloads for local resident: Power went out

Highway 12 resident Linwood Laughy said the first he heard about the proposed megaloads was in April of 2010, when he was working in his home office and the power went out. He headed down the road, and encountered an Avista power truck and crew working on the lines. “They told me they were raising all the power lines on the highway becuse there were some very tall loads that were going to be transported,” he said. “We got a little concerned and started investigating.”

He and his wife, Karen “Borg” Hendrickson, found a federal grant application in which the director of the Port of Lewiston wrote that if one oil company is successful at using this route, many others would follow its lead. “Conoco is first in line,” Laughy testified. He and other residents had received no notice that the megaloads were in the works.

Laughy: ‘A very unique and special area’

Linwood Laughy said the Highway 12 corridor is “a very unique and special area.” It’s designated as the Northwest Passage Scenic Byway for the entire 174 miles from Lewiston to Lolo Pass. Most of the Lochsa River and all of the Selway River are in a congressionally designated wild and scenic rivers corridor, he said. “It’s a huge recreational area,” Laughy said. “It’s all seasonally based … there’s a rhythm to it. Kayakers, they’re on the river late February, early March, and they’re parked all over the turnouts along the Lochsa. April and May, the whole valley up there is flooded with rafters.”

The route also is one of 27 nationally designated “All American Roads,” it’s part of the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail, the Nez Perce National Historic Trail, and the Nez Perce National Historic Park. The “All-American Roads” designation, Laughy said, is “sort of the next level up from a scenic byway. … The real key is not only does it have particular unique values … but it’s also a destination in itself. People come there just to experience that road.”

ConocoPhillips attorneys are objecting to Laughy’s testimony, saying it’s largely irrelevant; he’s the opponents’ final witness. Hearing officer Merlyn Clark overruled the objection.

Laughy is next witness

Linwood Laughy, the lead plaintiff in the litigation over the megaloads, is the next witness. He’s lived in the region since 1948, when his family moved to the Lewiston Orchards area when he was 5. He’s an honors graduate of Harvard, with a master’s degree in counseling and a doctorate in education and psychology; he’s a retired educator and published author; he’s lived in the Highway 12 river canyon on and off all his life, and continuously since 1996. He and his parents acquired property there in 1965 and built a home where they eventually added a cable car to cross the river, replacing the previous access - a canoe. He and his wife now live in another home on 10 acres, overlooking the river and highway.

Among his other works, Laughy and his wife, Karen “Borg” Hendrickson, published a mile-by-mile guide to the Clearwater Country. He also conducts heritage tours in the area. “We are tied to the land,” he said. “I’ve been researching the history of that area since high school.”

When megaloads pull off at turnouts, still would block part of highway

Attorneys for the opponents of ConocoPhillips megaloads have shown slides of various turnouts along U.S. Highway 12 where the loads would pull off the road to let traffic pass, and some appear to be much narrower than the loads, meaning the giant loads still would protrude far out into the highway. Showing one, attorney Natalie Havlina asked ITD maintenance engineer Doral Hoff, “So the public would have one lane to get around the transport?” Hoff responded, “Maybe a little bit less.”

ITD: Curves in road ‘not necessarily’ a reason to slow down

Through a series of detailed questions about specific points along the route and how the ConocoPhillips megaloads will negotiate them, attorneys for the opponents appear to be suggesting that ITD has underestimated how long the loads will hold up traffic at each of those points. Plus, ITD’s testimony during the hearing yesterday that the loads actually will travel faster than it earlier said - more than 25 mph top speed and more than 15 mph average - has been called into question today, particularly at points along the route with bridges, sharp curves, rock walls along the road and the like, also suggesting longer traffic delays.

ITD District 2 maintenance engineer Doral Hoff was asked this morning, “How fast can these loads go?” He responded, “Since the beginning they’ve told me that they can average easily 20 to 30 mph and actually go faster than that. … What I’ve been told is that they can maneuver through these at an average speed 20 to 30 mph throughout the route.” Asked if a vehicle should generally slow down to go around a curve, Hoff said, “Not necessarily.”

Sheer rock walls and sharp curves…

Some stretches of U.S. Highway 12, shown in slides on a big screen at this morning’s megaloads hearing, have a sheer rock wall on one side, and a guard rail on the other above the river, with just 31 feet between the two, along sharp curves. Attorney Natalie Havlina asked ITD maintenance engineer Doral Hoff how the 29-foot-wide transports will negotiate those curves.

Hoff said the vehicle traveling two hours ahead will chalk a route for the transport through those particular curves to help ease their passage. Havlina asked if traffic would be stopped while they do that, and Hoff said no. “Are you saying that either ITD staff or Emmert staff is going to be out marking up the highway in the dark at this time of year without any kind of flagging?” Havlina asked. Hoff responded that the chalkers will be wearing bright clothing, and there’s little traffic at night when the loads would be traveling.

The loads may be “crabbing,” or moving forward and back, to get around those curves, Hoff said. Plans also call for using hydraulic controls on the transports to lean the loads to clear the rock walls. Asked what speed they’ll travel as they move through those curves, Hoff said he didn’t know. “They said they can make it around there smooth,” he said.

Transport for megaloads is 5 feet wider than road

The ConcoPhillips’ megaload transports are 29 feet wide, ITD District 2 maintenance engineer Doral Hoff said just now under questioning from attorney Natalie Havlina. Yet the road, U.S. Highway 12, is just 24 feet wide - two 12-foot lanes. So that means the transport will hang over the fog line of the road as it travels.

Megaloads hearing Day 2 begins

Day 2 of the contested-case hearing on ConocoPhillips’ proposed megaloads on U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho has resumed this morning, with attorney Natalie Havlina continuing to question ITD District 2 maintenance engineer Doral Hoff. Asked how long the entire convoy, including the giant truck, will be, Hoff said it’ll include an escort in front and in back, Idaho State Police in back, an ambulance and vehicle-repair truck, plus another vehicle two hours in front. All told, the convoy for each of the four megaloads would be “probably 265, 270 feet” long, Hoff said.

Judge: Hart’s state tax appeal arguments ‘unthinkable’ and ‘wholly unsupported’

Here’s a link to our full story at spokesman.com on today’s 1st District Court decision tossing out Rep. Phil Hart’s state income tax appeal. Hart, a tax protester who owes more than $53,000 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest - and hundreds of thousands in back federal income taxes, penalties and interest, according to public records including IRS tax liens - made arguments in his appeal that 1st District Judge John Mitchell dubbed “unthinkable” and “wholly unsupported.” Reporter Alison Boggs covered the hearing and has the full report; Hart told her today he could not comment because he had not seen the ruling and had not decided whether he would appeal it.

Megaloads hearing adjourns ‘til tomorrow

Rather than run another hour into the evening, hearing officer Merlyn Clark announced just now, “We’re going to recess for the evening at this time - we’re going to resume this hearing at 8 a.m. tomorrow.”

Could still be another hour of testimony today - or not

It’s 5 p.m. in Boise, but rather than break for the day, hearing officer Merlyn Clark is considering allowing the hearing to continue so questioning of current witness Doral Hoff could be completed today and he could return to Lewiston. However, that’s estimated to take an hour. They’re now taking a short break to decide.

ITD: If megaload went into river, could take a month or two to remove

If a megaload were to go into the river on Highway 12, it would be difficult and complicated to bring in a large enough crane to lift it out of the river, ITD maintenance engineer Doral Hoff acknowledged under cross-examination. Some spots along the river simply wouldn’t accommodate that type of crane. But, Hoff said, “We’re confident it won’t go into the river. … We’ve had a number of wide loads go up U.S. 12 and we haven’t had any accidents.”

Asked how long it would take to get a load out of the river, Hoff said, “We don’t know how long it might be. It could take up to a month or two months, I don’t have any idea. But during that time the traveling public wouldn’t be inconvenienced.” Attorney Natalie Havlina responded, “But there would be something the size of a small building in the middle of the river.” Hoff said, “Yes.” When she questioned whether a huge crane attempting to retrieve the load would block traffic, Hoff said that’d be part of what ITD would take into account in planning for the load’s removal. He mentioned experience dealing with avalanches along the route in 2008. “One methodology would be to cut this drum up,” he said. At that point, he said, “It would be a reduced load of no value to ConocoPhillips.”

Next witness called by opponents: ITD District 2 maintenance engineer

Opponents of the Highway 12 megaloads have called their next witness: ITD District 2 maintenance engineer Doral Hoff. The questioning is focusing on the role Hoff played in approving the permits for ConocoPhillips, and on recent changes to the route to ease the passage of megaloads at the shippers’ expense, from removal of traffic islands and curbs to burying and moving of utility lines.

ITD on scenic values: ‘It’ll look the same once the load has gone by’

U.S. Highway 12 where it runs through the Lochsa and Clearwater river canyons is a designated scenic byway on which highway management is coordinated with the U.S. Forest Service, ITD district engineer James Carpenter acknowledged under questioning from attorney Natalie Havlina. “There are some changes in signing requirements and things like that … but we already have agreements with the Forest Service,” he said, on things like requiring brown or green signs. “Didn’t the Forest Service object a few years ago when your staff put up metal as opposed to wooden guardrails on said highway?” Havlina asked Carpenter. “Yes, they did,” he responded. Then, she asked how allowing an obstruction “the size of a building to be placed between the road and the river” - the megaloads when they’re parked in turnouts for the day - could be consistent with scenic values. “I look at that as a temporary thing,” Carpenter responded. “It’ll look the same once the load has gone by.”

Carpenter said the transportation department is required to comply with the corridor management plan. That plan includes such restrictions in the scenic byway as restrictions on billboards.

Rammell charged with poaching

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) — Former Idaho gubernatorial candidate Rex Rammell has been charged with poaching an elk in eastern Idaho. Bonneville County Prosecutor Bruce Pickett says the Idaho Falls man was charged Tuesday with misdemeanor possession of game that was unlawfully taken. Idaho Fish and Game said Rammell was in illegal possession of an elk on Dec. 8. When an officer asked Rammell for his hunting permit, he produced one for a different zone that expired in October. Rammell said previously he thought the tag enabled him to hunt in any area he chose to. Rammell ran in the Republican primary for Governor this year and two years ago as an Independent for the U.S. Senate. He is scheduled to be arraigned on Dec. 23.

Opponents call Lewiston district engineer

The intervenors have now called their next witness, James Carpenter, ITD’s district engineer in Lewiston. Carpenter told attorney Natalie Havlina that when he attended a meeting in Kooskia about ExxonMobil’s proposed megaloads, he was asked about traffic delays. “My response was that I was unaware of the 10-minute rule,” he said. “We normally use 15 minutes, because that’s what we use in construction for delays on our projects.”

ITD didn’t solicit public comments on megaloads

ITD public involvement coordinator Adam Rush, under questioning from attorney Natalie Havlina, confirmed that ITD received a petition over the summer opposing the megaloads with signatures from about 3,000 people, opposing the granting of permits to ExxonMobil, ConocoPhillips or any other corporation “to transport massively oversized road-obstructing industrial equipment on U.S. Highway 12.” Asked if he’d solicited public comments about the megaloads proposals, Rush said, “Comments weren’t officially solicited. We received many from folks and responded to them.”

Rush said the department received 700 to 800 comments regarding megaloads, and some mentioned ExxonMobil’s proposal for more than 200 megaloads, some mentioned ConocoPhillips’ proposal, and some didn’t specifically mention either. Havlina, in response to an objection, said the opponents called Rush “as an adverse witness.” She noted that ITD scheduled three public meetings on the ExxonMobil proposal, but none on ConcocoPhillips, and asked why. “A lot of the concern that was expressed was with regard to the ExxonMobil shipments,” Rush responded, adding that ConocoPhillips was proposing just four megaloads. He said he didn’t recall whether a public notice was issued that the ConocoPhillips loads were expected to roll in August. As he is questioned, Rush’s voice is getting softer and softer.

Opponents call first witness: ITD’s public involvement coordinator

After a short break, the megaloads contested-case has resumed and it’s time for the intervenors’ case-in-chief. The opponents have called their first witness: Adam Rush, the public involvement coordinator for ITD in its office of communications.

Crowd grows restive at megaloads hearing

As attorney Laird Lucas continued cross-examining ITD motor vehicles administrator Alan Frew, he noted that Frew, in his memorandum of decision, described public comments the department received as “subjective and hypothetical concerns,” and asked whether he’d reviewed the chances of an accident. Frew said there was “probably not even one in a million chance that this load will end up in the river. We’ve got lots of safety considerations in place. … We’re trying to do the very best that we can to ensure that these moves happen orderly and safely.”

Lucas responded, “We heard from the oil industry that drilling in the Gulf was perfectly safe,” at which point he was suddenly drowned out by loud grumbling from the crowd - including dozens of ConocoPhillips Billings refinery employees - and multiple objections from attorneys for Conoco and ITD. The objections were upheld and Lucas was advised to stick to Highway 12.

He then went on to cite accidents involving megaloads elsewhere, saying they were “similar loads” and ITD should have looked into them in reviewing the request. Hearing officer Merlyn Clark sustained the objections and didn’t admit the information about the other accidents as evidence, but noted that they’re now in the record and could be cited in any future appeal.

District court tosses out Rep. Hart’s state income tax appeal

Tax-protesting state Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, today lost his attempt in 1st District Court to appeal a state Tax Commission order that he pay $53,000 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest. In a sharply worded decision, District Judge John Mitchell granted the state’s motion to dismiss Hart’s appeal, and said Hart’s claim “lacks any cogent legal argument.”

The state Board of Tax Appeals tossed out Hart’s belated attempt to appeal the order to pay the back taxes because he filed it months after the expiration of the 91-day appeal period; Hart argued that his status as a state legislator should make him exempt from the time limits, because the appeal period ran out shortly before the start of the 2010 legislative session. When Hart asked the Board of Tax Appeals to reconsider, it said that even if his argument about legislative privilege was correct, he still filed too late - and also paid a required fee too late.

Judge Mitchell agreed, and also noted that legislative privilege as applied in an Arizona case that Hart cited clearly would not apply to Hart’s appeal. In this case, the judge said, it was Hart himself who left the Board of Tax Appeals and the district court without jurisdiction to take up his appeal - because it was he who filed far too late. Hart also argued in his appeal that Idaho’s state income tax is unconstitutional; today’s decision doesn’t address that argument because it tosses out the whole case. You can read the judge’s ruling here.

ITD: Highway 12 turnouts would be barricaded to avoid protests from ‘nuts’

Here’s why the permits for the ConocoPhillips megaloads call for barricading turnouts along U.S. Highway 12 for 24 hours before loads arrive: “It’s my understanding that we had received information from ISP and from other sources outside the department that there would be protests, and … they would seek to interrupt the movement of this traffic,” said Alan Frew, ITD motor vehicles chief. “What we don’t want to have happen is that protesters, no matter how well intentioned, to disrupt the flow of traffic and create an unsafe situation.” Asked if barricading the turnouts on the narrow, twisting road for 24 hours at a time wouldn’t impact public safety and convenience - which state regulations require ITD to make a primary consideration - Frew said, “We’ve never gotten this level of public … scrutiny, and along with that comes, I’ll call ‘em nuts, that very well intentioned and well-meaning but they do seek to interrupt the flow of traffic.”

Attorney Laird Lucas responded, “But it’s not going to just affect the nuts. Anyone who travels Highway 12…” at which Frew responded, “Yeah, to a certain extent, for these four loads, I don’t think it’s going to be very extensive.” Not all 100-plus turnouts along the route would be barricaded at the same time, Frew said, though all those along a certain stretch of the road might be. “What we do is we try to balance the needs of all the highway users, and we think we do a pretty fair job of this,” he said. “For a short period of time, we’re going to have to balance those needs.”

ITD: Megaloads would travel at ‘a safe speed, whatever that is’

Attorney Laird Lucas questioned how ITD motor vehicles chief Alan Frew could have had wrong information in his memorandum of decision about the speeds at which the Conoco megaloads will travel - and say today essentially that, contrary to what the memorandum says (maximum speed 25 mph, average 15 mph), they can travel as fast as they want. Frew said he erred, and should have gone to the source to get the appropriate speeds - the trucking company, Emmert. “I expect them to maintain a safe speed, whatever that is,” he said.

ITD witnesses met with Conoco attorneys to prep for today’s hearing

Both ITD officials who’ve been called as witnesses at the ConocoPhillips contested-case hearing on megaloads today acknowledged under cross-examination that they met with Conoco’s attorneys to prepare for today’s hearing.

ITD: Frequent passing means every 15 minutes

There’s been lots of sparring over how an ITD regulation says over-legal loads shouldn’t block traffic for more than 10 minutes, but ITD used a 15-minute delay standard in issuing the ConocoPhillips megaloads permits. Alan Frew, ITD’s motor vehicle administrator, said his interpretation is that the 10-minute limit doesn’t apply if there’s a traffic control plan, and in this case, there was. “The department has broad discretion to interrupt traffic for these kinds of movements,” Frew said. Attorney Laird Lucas asked Frew, “So the department has determined, at least in your determination, that 15 minutes constitutes frequent passing?” Frew responded, “Yes.”

ITD: Conoco sent loads to Lewiston with ‘no guarantee’ it’d get permits

Asked why ConocoPhillips would ship its four megaloads of oil refinery equipment to the Port of Lewiston without permits in hand to truck them over Highway 12 to Montana, ITD motor vehicles administrator Alan Frew said, “There was no guarantee. There were probably some informal assurances given that the weights look good based on what we had seen so far. But we were a long way from approving this.”

ITD ‘pre-approved’ megaloads configuration back in 2007

Attorney Laird Lucas’ cross-examination of ITD motor vehicles administrator started off with Lucas assuring Frew that he appreciates ITD and the job it does, and Lucas asked Frew if he’d ever seen a proposal like this one or the level of public concern that has arisen over the proposal for megaloads on U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho. Frew said he hadn’t, and that he understands why the public is concerned. “I think the public just wants to know that the department is doing its job,” Frew said.

Lucas referred to the “special values” that the route has, as a unique and scenic route, and the fact that the megaloads are larger than anything ever proposed before for the route. Frew said, “As a package, this is the biggest stuff that we’ve moved up on Highway 12, I’d agree with that.”

Lucas asked Frew about the megaloads having been “pre-approved” in 2007, several years before the public even learned of the proposal, citing ITD documents. Frew said that’s not uncommon, and means ITD has analyzed the proposed configuration of the loads as sketched out. As for the pre-approval, Frew said, “I wasn’t aware of it but I’m not surprised by it.”

Megaloads hearing goes on noon break

The ConocoPhillips megaloads hearing has gone on a break for lunch; it’ll be back in one hour at 1 p.m. Boise time, at which time cross-examination of the second witness of the day, Idaho DMV chief Alan Frew, will begin. (Note: The time stamps on these blog posts are in Pacific time, as that’s where our newspaper’s server is located - this is actually being posted at noon Boise time.)

ITD: ‘Scenic nature’ of route not a factor

Alan Frew, ITD motor vehicles chief, said, “In my experience, there is nothing 100 percent safe on the highway. We checked and rechecked to make sure we were reasonably sure that these loads could move safely.” Asked if he received public comments about the planned megaloads, Frew said, “There were some public comments that talked about over-stressing the bridges - that is certainly a concern to us, but also a concern that we had addressed. There were some comments that addressed the scenic nature of this route, and that is in my view, a policy decision. … We really don’t have anything that we can do for policy decisions. That’s the purview of the Legislature.”

ITD: Same trucking firm moved Spruce Goose, Hubble telescope

“Safety comes into pretty much everything that we do,” Idaho DMV chief Alan Frew said at the megaloads hearing this morning. “There’s a very detailed traffic control plan.” He said the trucking firm involved in the ConocoPhillips plan has a stellar reputation. “Emmert International is very well-known for their expertise in moving things like the Spruce Goose and the Hubble telescope,” Frew testified. “I’ve never seen a more detailed traffic control plan than that provided by Emmert International.”

Frew: ITD decision on Conoco understated speed loads will travel

Idaho DMV chief Alan Frew is the one who signed a memorandum decision issued in August approving the four ConocoPhillips megaloads. Frew just told the contested-case hearing that he got three things wrong in his memorandum, both in the August version and in a later updated version. “I relied on some information that I relied upon that wasn’t accurate,” Frew said.

First, he wrote that the megaloads would have a maximum speed of 25 mph and average speed of 15 mph. “In point of fact, these vehicles are able to safely move at speeds greater than those,” he said, both for the maximum and the average. Secondly, he neglected to identify additional locations along the route where traffic couldn’t pass the megaloads, which will take up both lanes of the two-lane road, for more than 10 minutes. Thirdly, he thought two of the drum sections would be “moving in tandem in convoy,” when actually they’ll be traveling separately. “So those are the points of clarification I wanted to make,” Frew said.

Idaho DMV chief called as next witness

The next witness called at the contested-case hearing on ConocoPhillips megaloads today is Alan Frew, ITD department of motor vehicles administrator. Frew has worked for ITD since 1985.

Barricades and byways…

A provision in the ConocoPhillips permits that allows the company to barricade highway turnouts on U.S. Highway 12 24 hours in advance of when its megaloads would need to pull off in them has come up in today’s hearing. Laird Lucas, attorney for the megaloads opponents, asked Reymundo Rodriguez, ITD commercial vehicle services manager, “Have you ever seen an overlegal permit where an applicant is allowed to barricade public highway turnouts 24 hours before the move?” Rodriguez responded, “This would be the first that I am aware of.”

ConocoPhillips attorney Erik Stidham, in his cross-examination of Rodriguez, asked him to read from documents about the designated scenic byway along the route, including a clause that notes, “Truck traffic along the byway can be substantial and aggressive” and says that commercial traffic constitutes 27 percent of the route’s use. Attorneys for the opponents objected, but were overruled; Stidham said he was trying to make the point that the scenic byway designation is irrelevant to the megaloads issue.

Lucas also quizzed Rodriguez about why ITD applied a 15-minute rule to the permit, saying traffic must be able to pass every 15 minutes, rather than the 10-minute rule contained in an ITD regulation. Rodriguez said the 10-minute rule didn’t apply because there was a traffic-control plan. The 15-minute rule doesn’t come from any written policy, Rodriguez said. “Over the years we have determined that 15 minutes does meet that criteria of frequent passing,” he said, based on “experience, the folks out at the districts.”

ITD’s never denied an over-legal permit based on public convenience

Attorney Laird Lucas, in his cross-examination of ITD commercial vehicle services manager Reymundo Rodriguez, asked Rodriguez, “Have you ever denied a permit based on public convenience?” Rodriguez answered no. Lucas then asked, “In the 64,000 permits that you granted last year, did the public ever protest any of them?” An objection was overruled, and Rodriguez answered the question: “No.”

He also asked if Rodriguez took into account the fact that U.S. Highway 12 was a designated scenic byway, a national scenic byway and an “All-American road.” Rodriguez said no.

Witness: ITD made Conoco cut its two huge drums in half to make four loads

Reymundo Rodriguez, ITD’s commercial vehicles service manager, testified this morning that ConocoPhillips originally proposed to move its two giant coker drums as two huge megaloads, but ITD determined that in that configuration, they were too big to travel the route from the Port of Lewiston along U.S. Highway 12. So it asked the firm to cut the drums in half to make four loads, which the company did. “We were concerned because of the length of the drums and the weight,” Rodriguez said under cross-examination by attorneys for the loads’ opponents. “We agreed that once they cut them in half, it was something that could safely travel on this highway.”

First witness: ITD issues 64K overlegal permits a year, ‘don’t want unsafe loads’

ITD commercial vehicle services manager Reymundo Rodriguez is the first witness to be called this morning in the ConocoPhillips megaloads hearing. Rodriguez, under questioning from ITD attorney Tim Thomas, said he’s worked for ITD for 23 years. Typically, ITD issues about 64,000 over-legal permits a year, he said, and about 30,000 of those are for “non-reducible loads such as these.” That means they’re loads that consist of single pieces of equipment that can’t be reduced by transferring part into another load. He’s also describing the permit process that ITD typically follows for proposed loads that exceed legal weight limits. That’s the process that also was followed in the ConocoPhillips case, he said.

“If it is something that is extremely heavy,” the proposal is submitted to an engineering analysis to ensure bridges can handle it, Rodriguez testified. For particularly large loads, a traffic control plan is required. “We don’t want unsafe loads traveling on highways,” Rodriguez said.

Short break, then witnesses…

This morning’s contested-case hearing in the ConocoPhillips megaloads case has paused for a 10-minute break after opening statements, after which ITD will begin presenting its case in chief. Its first witness will be ITD staffer Reymundo Rodriguez. Here, attorneys from all sides mill about before the start of the hearing this morning.

ConocoPhillips: ‘ITD did exactly what it should’

ConocoPhillips attorney Erik Stidham said in his opening statement, “ConocoPhillips believes strongly that the process worked exactly as it should in this case. ConocoPhillips has a specific need for these permits.” He said the Billings refinery has giant coker drums that are “at the end of their useful life;” the four giant loads are the replacement drums. He said of the refinery, “Four hundred people work there, generate fuel that serves the needs of folks in Montana, Idaho, Washington, Utah and Oregon region. About 7 percent of Idaho’s gasoline comes from the refinery that we’re talking about today.” Dozens of those employees are in the audience today, wearing T-shirts supporting the plan.

Stidham said Conoco “hired the best in the business” to move the loads when it hired Emmert International, the trucking firm, which has “46 years of experience with these types of loads.”  He said, “These are customized trailers … custom-made to handle U.S. 12 and the loads they’re going to be carrying.” He told the hearing, “ITD did exactly what it should be doing in this case and it did it well,” and said, “in fact, it’s the only route” the equipment could travel.

ITD: ‘A great deal of thought’ went into megaloads transportation plan

Deputy Idaho Attorney General Larry Allen, in ITD’s opening statement at the megaloads hearing this morning, said, “ITD has a good process in place and it takes very seriously the charge, as testimony will show today, of insuring public safety and convenience.” He said, “ITD’s charge is to move both people and commerce safely through the state,” and said, “A great deal of thought has gone into this traffic control plan.”

Allen said ITD listened to public comments and asked for changes in the plan because of them. “Bridges are of course the weak link of the highway system, and there has been exhaustive engineering testing done to make sure they will not be impacted,” he said. “This was not a knee-jerk reaction. This was a plan developed over the course of three years.”

Opponents: ITD ‘brushed aside’ objections

Natalie Havlina, attorney with Advocates for the West, is giving the opening statement for the opponents of the megaloads. “What is reasonable under these circumstances depends on what is appropriate and isn’t for this particular road,” she said. “This particular road is a scenic byway, it’s the only way for residents to get to the places where they need to go.” She said though 3,500 people have signed petitions against the loads, ITD didn’t consider the public’s concerns about safety and convenience a “primary consideration” as its regulations require. “It brushed them aside lightly as subjective,” she said. She also charged that the department violated its own regulations in making the decision.

Conoco, ITD try to exclude array of evidence, but their motion is denied

As the hearing begins, ConocoPhillips and ITD moved to exclude an array of evidence, from anything about the larger plan from ExxonMobil for more than 200 megaloads to other information about Montana regulations, routes, accidents and more. “There has been no showing or evidence why those loads relate to these loads. … It’s simply not relevant,” said Erik Stidham, attorney for ConocoPhillips. Laird Lucas, attorney for the opponents of the loads, responded that some of that information may well be relevant, and he’d oppose any blanket exclusion. Hearing officer Merlyn Clark denied the motion. “I will consider any objections that are made at the time the evidence is presented,” he said. He also rejected, in similar manner, a motion to exclude testimony from the lead plaintiff, Linwood Laughy, on the grounds that he’s not an expert on transportation plans and safety. “He’s very, very familiar with this road,” Lucas said. “He’s going to be testifying about his own personal experiences.”

There are now 13 plaintiffs, up from 3, opposing the ConocoPhillips megaloads

As hearing officer Merlyn Clark opened this morning’s contested-case hearing, he announced that he met with counsel from both sides last Friday, and among the topics discussed were the addition of 10 more plaintiffs beyond the original three, all people who live, work or do business along the Highway 12 corridor where the megaloads would travel. Clark said, “I subsequently ruled that they should be allowed to intervene in the same manner as were the initial intervenors, and the director has entered a final order approving the intervention of the amended petitioners.”

Full house for megaloads hearing

There’s quite a full house this morning for the contested-case hearing on the four ConocoPhillips megaloads proposed for U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho. With all seats taken, there are now more being set up in the back of the room.

Susan Bennion dies at age 65

Susan Bennion, the longtime Idaho legislative analyst, redistricting whiz and consummate professional in the political world of the state Capitol has died of cancer at the age of 65. She worked for the state Legislature for more than three decades and retired in 2005. Funeral services are Friday at 11 a.m. at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2290 Warm Springs Ave. She is survived by her husband, David, a daughter, a son and a granddaughter; there’s a full story here in today’s Idaho Statesman.

Hart heads to court over back state taxes

Embattled Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, headed to court in Coeur d’Alene today to try to appeal the state Board of Tax Appeals’ decision to reject his state income tax appeal; he faces an order from the state Tax Commission to pay $53,523 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest. The state filed a motion to dismiss Hart’s appeal, arguing that the court has no jurisdiction to take an appeal because Hart missed the filing deadline, by many months, to file an administrative appeal. That’s what the Board of Tax Appeals ruled. Hart contends that as a state legislator, he should’ve had months longer to file, but the board ruled that even if his claims about legislative privilege were correct, he still filed too late. He also argued in his appeal that Idaho’s state income tax is unconstitutional.

1st District Judge John Mitchell took arguments from both sides on the motion to dismiss today, and took the case under advisement; he indicated he may rule as soon as tomorrow.

Otter on wolves: Negotiations still on

Here is a statement from Jon Hanian, press secretary for Gov. Butch Otter, on the wolf de-listing negotiations between Idaho, Montana, Wyoming and the U.S. Secretary of the Interior:

“The Governor was encouraged to hear that Secretary Salazar continues to  share our belief that wolves are recovered and should be delisted in the northern Rocky Mountains. However the Governor expressed concerns over the latest legislative language proposed by the Secretary of the Interior on Monday. The State of Idaho received and responded to an inquiry from the US Fish and Wildlife Service Tuesday morning. And at this point in time, the Governor is waiting to hear back from the Secretary.”

ITD says it won’t permit loads that exceed bridge capacity, despite what permits say

Idaho Transportation Department spokesman Jeff Stratten said, “These loads will not exceed the capacity of any bridge on the route. Permits will not be issued if they cannot supply us a configuration that the models show is under the capacity of the bridge.” The permit issued, but stayed, for the four ConocoPhillips megaloads proposed for U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho show that the loads will be up to 29 feet wide, 28 feet high, and 227 feet long, and have a gross weight of up to 664,096 pounds; they also show that “helper dollies” will be required for the loads to cross several bridges on the route - with those helper dollies included, the loads will have a gross weight of up to 675,500 pounds.

On Page 2 of the permit, under “Special Bridge Requirements,” the permit states, “The load exceeds the normal capacity of all the bridges on the route listed above. The load may travel U.S. 12 from MP 2.45 to MP 174.42 with special requirements. The load must travel down the center of all bridges, be the only vehicle on each bridge, and have front and rear pilot cars while crossing each bridge. Additional requirements apply to the bridges listed in the chart below.” That’s followed by a chart listing four bridges: Arrow, Maggie Creek, Fish Creek and Squaw Creek, with special requirements for each, from a maximum speed of 5 mph to requirements for helper dollies. The same requirements are repeated later in the permit for the second configuration within the four loads.

Stratten said the helper dollies distribute the weight to bring it within the bridge’s capacity. “It is a complex science calculating load ratings on bridges, and each one is unique to the trailer configuration,” he said. “(For) every trailer configuration, there is a capacity, but there isn’t one single capacity for the bridge. It all depends on how many axles, how wide the axles are, how that’s distributed.”

Despite the permit’s statement that “the load exceeds the normal capacity of all the bridges on the route,” Stratten said the department won’t permit any loads that exceed the capacity of the bridges over which they’ll travel. “We stand by that 100 percent,” he said. You can read the full 30-page permit here, in a link that first was posted here on Nov. 10th.

Stratten said that statement in the permit about exceeding the “normal capacity” refers to normal operating conditions, such as at posted speed limits and when multiple vehicles are on the bridge at the same time. “The ConocoPhillips loads are not being allowed to cross the bridges under normal operating conditions. In the permit are the operating requirements for each bridge,” he said.

Opponents: ConocoPhillips megaloads exceed bridge capacities on route

The Missoulian newspaper reports today that the four mega-loads of oil refinery equipment proposed for U.S. Highway 12 by ConocoPhillips each will exceed the weight capacity of every bridge on the route in Idaho, and on one of the bridges, the Arrow Bridge, the push-truck behind the loads will have to be disconnected to permit the loads to safely cross the bridge. That was among an array of concerns raised by megaloads opponents as ITD prepares to hold contested-case hearings on the ConocoPhillips proposal starting tomorrow; you can read the full Missoulian story here.

PERSI to postpone rate increase

PERSI, the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho, will postpone its contribution rate increase that had been scheduled for next July 1, based on the system’s current strong funding position and the impact an increase would have on the budgets of public employers and employees in the coming year. “Significant investment gains in recent months bolstered PERSI’s funding status to nearly 88 percent, relieving the need for a rate increase at this time,” said Jody Olson, chairman of the PERSI board. “We are confident postponing the rate increase will not compromise PERSI’s stability, and we know how much it will help the state and other public employers and their employees manage tight budgets. The action taken today will provide some much-needed breathing room.”

Postponing or even cancelling rate increases is not uncommon for PERSI; two others were first postponed and then canceled in the past decade due to the system’s strong funding position.

The PERSI board also announced today that it’ll grant PERSI retirees a mandatory 1 percent cost-of-living adjustment effective March 1, 2011; that’s based on a measure of consumer prices that went up 1.15 percent from August of 2009 to August of 2010. PERSI has 125,000 members, retirees and beneficiaries and 739 employers, the largest of which is the state; local governments across the state also take part. You can read PERSI’s full announcement on the rate increase here and its COLA announcement here.

No comment yet from Otter on wolf de-listing impasse

There’s no comment yet from Idaho Gov. Butch Otter on the report from Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer about wolf de-listing talks going bad; Otter is in Las Vegas for a Western Governors Association meeting, and that’s where he participated in yesterday’s 6 p.m. conference call between Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and the governors of Montana, Idaho and Wyoming. Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian, said the conference call was a follow-up and another one took place on Dec. 2 involving the same parties; that was a follow-up to their in-person meeting in Denver on Nov. 29, to which the governors were summoned by the interior secretary.

Montana guv says Idaho, Wyoming rejected wolf-delisting deal yesterday

The governor of Montana, Brian Schweitzer, says negotiations to remove wolves from the endangered species list - and allow wolf hunts starting next month in Montana and Idaho - stalled yesterday, when Wyoming and Idaho refused to go along with an Interior Department proposal that would have de-listed wolves in Idaho and Montana while giving Wyoming three years to come up with an acceptable plan. Schweitzer said it happened during a conference call yesterday between the three states’ governors and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, and as a result, Congress won’t act on wolf de-listing this year; click below for a full report from the Associated Press.

Bankruptcy judge gives go-ahead for ski season at Tamarack

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Skiers and snowboarders hoping to hit the slopes at Tamarack Resort should thank a federal bankruptcy court judge who gave his approval to using equipment and property necessary for skiing to begin Dec. 20, as planned. U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Terry Myers’ decision late Monday sets the stage for the first lift-serviced skiing at the resort since March 2009. Tim Flaherty, who is leading homeowners who are financing the skiing plan, says his group is “totally ramped up for this.” Myers’ endorsement was necessary because Tamarack’s equipment is collateral in the $300 million bankruptcy case. Lawyers for lenders led by Credit Suisse Group spent the day trying to convince Myers to move the beleaguered vacation getaway out of a reorganization — and into liquidation. Those proceedings are due to continue Tuesday morning.

Oh, my, look at that sky…

Wild weather, fog, clouds and flashes of blue sky combined to bring this sunset over Boise this evening, as the rain-pelted snow on the ground turns to slush…

Election flier hoax being investigated

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: MOSCOW, Idaho (AP) — A Republican who lost his bid for the Idaho Senate says religious mailers that were sent to Latah County voters and appeared to carry his endorsement may have cost him the election. Gresham Bouma is offering a $1,000 reward for information on who sent the fliers, which featured his picture and urged voters to become true believers or be “struck down,” The Moscow-Pullman Daily News reports. Bouma beat nine-term GOP senator Gary Schroeder in the Idaho primary to face Democrat Dan Schmidt in the November general election. Bouma lost to Schmidt by 810 votes. Latah County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Brannon Jordan says about 150 of the postcards have been collected and sent to a forensics lab as part of an investigation into where the mailers originated. Jordan says authorities “don’t want to let this go.”

Rex Rammell’s tale

After being caught last week dragging an illegally shot elk behind his snowmobile, former political candidate Rex Rammell has released an op-ed piece claiming he was misled by a sporting goods store that sold him an elk tag and that state Fish & Game wardens are “Nazis.” In his piece, he says he told the game warden, “You better get your gun out, because you’re going to have to shoot me if you want this elk.” He also opines, “The rules are ambiguous and I am not the only hunter confused by them and misinformed by Sportsman’s Warehouse.” Click below to read his full article.

Wasden files cabin-site rent challenge in District Court

As promised, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has filed his legal challenge to state cabin-site rents on endowment-owned lands in 4th District Court in Ada County. You can read his complaint here and brief here; Wasden is asking for a preliminary injunction and a declaratory judgment that the rent plan violates the state Constitution by not securing maximum long-term returns for the endowment’s beneficiaries, chiefly the state’s public schools.

House unveils committee assignments, plenty of shakeups

The House, at long last, has announced its committee assignments and adjourned. They include a shakeup in chairmanships. Click below for the complete list.

More shuffling of House committee chairs…

Rep. Bob Schaefer, R-Nampa, reportedly is out as chairman of the House Commerce & Human Resources Committee, in a shuffling of committee responsibilities that has that panel taking on some duties that now go to the Health & Welfare Committee, and former Health & Welfare Chair Sharon Block, R-Twin Falls, taking over the Commerce chairmanship. Meanwhile, Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, reportedly would become chair of the Health & Welfare Committee.

Some House chairmanships becoming clear…

There’s still been no announcement in the House on committee assignments or even on chairmanships, but word is starting to dribble out. Rep. Bob Nonini confirms that he’ll continue to chair the House Education Committee. “I’m glad,” Nonini said. He said he had lunch with Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, today, and discussed how JFAC wants to hold joint meetings with the House and Senate education committees this session in the Capitol Auditorium, to involve the germane committees more in policy decisions that go along with budget-setting.

Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, said he’ll no longer be on JFAC, but will be moving to the House Revenue & Taxation Committee. “It is by choice,” said Bayer, who made an unsuccessful run for leadership, challenging House Majority Leader Mike Moyle R-Star.

The open committee chairmanship created by the retirement of House Judiciary Chairman Jim Clark of Hayden Lake this year reportedly will go to Rep. Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry. He was the Ways & Means Committee chair; that’s reportedly going to go to Rep. JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, the House’s longest-serving member. She was the House transportation chair; that spot reportedly will go to Rep. Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls. But nothing’s for sure until it’s read across the desk when the House convenes, which should happen shortly. Word is that the holdup now is that the minority party still is finalizing its committee assignments, and majority leaders are holding off on announcing theirs in case the Democrats’ decisions require them to make adjustments.

PERSI may forego rate hike

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Government workers and teachers may avoid a planned increase in their pension contributions that could cost them hundreds of dollars after a key lawmaker asked the board overseeing their $10 billion retirement account to forego a planned rate hike. Sen. Dean Cameron, the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee co-chair, suggested the board that governs the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho not recommend hiking the contribution rate come July 1. Cameron’s motivation is twofold. For one, Idaho doesn’t have $15 million — its share of the increase in fiscal year 2012 — due to a looming budget gap. But as other states consider trimming pension benefits to cover massive liabilities, Cameron says taking focus off Idaho’s fund during the 2011 Legislature and beyond will reduce lawmakers’ temptation to tinker with it.

House still working on it…

It’s still hurry-up-and-wait time in the House, where the majority leadership was huddled behind closed doors much of the day trying to figure out committee chairmanships and assignments. Now, chairmanships reportedly have been worked out, but there’s been no announcement, and representatives are lining up in the hallway outside leadership offices to put in their choices for office space and committees. Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, estimates the House is about half an hour away from settling it all.

Senate completes committee assignments

The Senate is back on the floor, and is reading over the desk its committee assignments and chairmanships for the 2011 legislative session. Click below for the full list. Here, the committees appointed to inform the House and the governor that the Senate is organized and ready for the session report back, a final step before adjournment of the organizational session, at least on the Senate side.

House Ethics Committee sets Dec. 13 meeting on Hart

The special House Ethics Committee to look into the conduct of Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, will meet on Dec. 13 at 11 a.m., its chairman, Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said today. “We’re going to have our first meeting to determine whether or not to go further, to look at the nature of the accusations,” Loertscher said. The panel also will consult with Brian Kane of the Idaho Attorney General’s office on legal questions and “whether or not it warrants further investigation,” Loertscher said.

He noted that two of the three charges raised in a complaint against Hart from Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, deal with topics also raised in an earlier complaint from House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewistion. Those have to do with Hart’s fights against back state and federal income taxes and his repeated invoking of legislative privilege to win delays in his personal tax fights. The panel dismissed the charges in Rusche’s complaint, but voted unanimously to recommend that Hart be removed from the House Revenue & Taxation Committee while he pursues his personal income tax cases; Speaker Lawerence Denney followed that recommendation after Hart requested he do so.

While Rusche’s complaint suggested conflicts of interest between Hart’s votes on tax legislation and his tax fights, Anderson’s focuses on a possible violation of Hart’s oath of office. However, Loertscher said, “Two of these charges are the same thing we already resolved. That’s an easy one - you don’t get a second bite at the apple. I’m assuming the committee will take a look at that and say that’s all taken care of.” The third charge, regarding Hart’s theft of timber from state endowment land in 1996 to use in building his home, is new, Loertscher said. On that charge, he said, if the panel decides to proceed further, it’ll need to provide notice to Hart and a chance to respond, and conduct an investigation. “We’ll go from there,” Loertscher said.

Anderson said, “I’m glad that there’s finally been a date set for a hearing.”

Three new committee chairs in Senate

The Idaho Senate has named all its committee chairs, and three are new: Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, will chair the Resources & Environment Committee; Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, will chair the Local Government & Taxation Committee; and Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, will chair the Transportation Committee. All other standing committee chairmanships remain the same as last year. The Senate is now working on committee assignments, and appears to be making substantial progress. In the House, the majority leadership is ensconced behind closed doors and there’ve been no announcements at all.

Hammond to chair Senate Transportation

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene, is the new chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee. He said he’ll be the first transportation chair from North Idaho in some time. “It’s exciting to have that position and be able to advocate for our roads issues up there,” Hammond said. “We’re the third-largest county in the state. We need to continue to advocate for our needs up there, so it’ll be great to have a platform to do that.”

Hammond will give up his seat on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee to take on the transportation chairmanship. He’ll also continue serve on the Local Government & Taxation Committee and the agriculture committee.

Hammond said he was glad the governor’s transportation task force didn’t call for tax or fee increases in the coming year to improve transportation. “I think it would just be butting up heads right now to try to do anything,” he said. “Because I’m on Health & Welfare, I get a lot of folks that are really hurting - the last thing we need to do is create a tax that’ll take any more money out of their pockets when they’re struggling to even put food on the table.”

Crapo to back deficit reduction plan

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Oklahoma, released a joint statement today saying they’ll support the recommendations of the President’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform, on which both serve, even while calling them “flawed and incomplete.”  They said, “Everyone in America should be prepared to sacrifice, beginning with politicians in Washington. Everything has to be on the table.”

The two said, “History has not been kind to great nations who borrowed and spent beyond their means. Doing nothing will, sooner rather than later, guarantee that this nation becomes a second-rate power with less opportunity and less freedom. … The time for action is now. We can’t afford to wait until the next election to begin this process.” You can read their full statement here.

Congressman-elect Labrador taps NRA lobbyist as chief of staff

Idaho Congressman-elect Raul Labrador has named his chief of staff: John Goodwin, who most recently worked as a lobbyist for the National Rifle Association in Washington, D.C. Prior to that, Goodwin was communications director for Rep. Peter Roskam of Illinois and press secretary for Rep. Rob Simmons of Connecticut. “John’s vast Capitol Hill experience will be an excellent resource to Idaho as I begin the people’s work in Congress,” Labrador said.

Labrador also announced two other staff hires: Phil Hardy, who served as communications director for Labrador’s campaign, will be the regional director for central and southwest Idaho; and Mike Cunnington, a Nampa native who was finance director for the campaign, will be Labrador’s scheduler and personal assistant in Washington, D.C. Earlier, Labrador announced the hire of Jake Ball, a former aide to Sen. Mike Crapo, as his district director. You can read Labrador’s latest announcement here.

Watching the action…

The Senate gallery had eager onlookers this morning, watching as senators picked their new seats in the Senate chamber - many were family members of the senators, including spouses, kids and grandkids. After seat selection and other formalities were done, the Senate recessed until 3 p.m. to allow time for committee assignments. Senators were asked to stay close so they could be found and called into leadership offices as that progresses. Meanwhile, the House has gone at ease at the call of the chair, which means it could go back into session at any time to announce committee assignments and chairmanships, though that’s not likely to happen before late afternoon. House Speaker Lawerence Denney said he expects the process to be completed today, rather than stretching into tomorrow.

Senate convenes organizational session

The Senate has now convened, sworn in its members, and formally elected Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, as the new president pro-tem of the Senate. Next up is seat selection, in order of seniority.

Nonini: ‘Glad I put my hat in the ring’

Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, didn’t win his race last night for leadership, challenging House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, but Nonini said this morning, “I was glad I put my hat in the ring. I think our caucus deserved choices.” He said he was proud of Rep. Cliff Bayer, R-Boise, for running as well; Bayer unsuccessfully challenged House Majority Leader Mike Moyle. Nonini said he thought having choices was “good for the system.”

He said, “If they keep me as chairman of the education committee, its going to be another tough year.” That’s because of the likelihood that rather than just adding intent language to budget bills in the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, JFAC will more heavily involve germane committees in policy decisions that accompany budget cuts. “I feel I have the experience in the four years I chaired that committee,” Nonini said.

61st session of Idaho Legislature convenes

The House is on the floor, beginning its organizational session, starting with the formal election of the speaker and then swearing-in of the representatives, followed by selection of seats. The Senate hasn’t started yet. Today’s agenda, aside from the formalities, includes lots of behind-the-scenes negotiating as the leadership in both houses decides committee assignments and chairmanships.

Denney names ethics panel on Hart

House Speaker Lawerence Denney says he’s appointed an ethics committee to look into a complaint filed by Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, about the conduct of Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, including Hart’s 1996 theft of timber from school endowment land for use in building his home; his continuing problems with past-due state and federal income taxes; and his citing of legislative privilege to win delays in his tax cases. Denney said the panel will be the same as the one that investigated an earlier complaint against Hart from House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, with one exception; Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, has retired; his slot will be filled by Rep. Elaine Smith, D-Pocatello. Denney said he doesn’t yet have a meeting date for the ethics panel. “I think it will probably be within a couple of weeks,” he said.

Lawmakers shake up leadership posts

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the outcome of leadership contests in all four legislative caucuses tonight. There was no change in the House GOP caucus, where Speaker Lawerence Denney and Assistant Majority Leader Scott Bedke were unopposed, while Majority Leader Mike Moyle turned back a challenge from Rep. Cliff Bayer and Majority Caucus Chair Ken Roberts defeated Rep. Bob Nonini of Coeur d’Alene to keep his post. But there were shakeups elsewhere, including the Senate, where Sen. Brent Hill is the new president pro-tem and Sen. Chuck Winder defeated Sen. Joe Stegner for assistant majority leader, and the Democratic caucus chose Sen. Edgar Malepeai of Pocatelloo as minority leader.

Malepeai is new Senate minority leader

Senate Minority Caucus leadership decisions are in, and there’s a shake-up: Sen. Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, is the new minority leader. The Assistant Minority Leader is Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise; and the caucus chair is Sen. Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum.

Brent Hill is the new pro-tem

Senate Republican leadership elections are done, and the new Senate President Pro-Tem is Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, who defeated Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian. Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, held his seat as majority leader over a challenge from Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton. But there was one upset: Assistant Majority Leader Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, lost to Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Meridian. For the caucus chair position opened up by Fulcher’s move to run for pro-tem, Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, was elected, defeating Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls.    

McGee, who as caucus chairman is the spokesman for the caucus, said, “We have a lot of difficult decisions to make, and we feel like this leadership team is the right group to help make those difficult decisions.”

House Dems pick their leaders: Rusche, Higgins, Cronin

All four caucuses of the Legislature - both houses and both parties - are meeting behind closed doors tonight to select their leadership for the upcoming session. First to report results is the House minority caucus, in which Minority Leader John Rusche, who was unopposed, was re-elected; Rep. Elfreda Higgins, D-Garden City, was voted assistant minority leader, defeating Rep. Elaine Smith, D-Pocatello, for the position that opened up when former Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti of Pocatello decided not to run for re-election; and Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, was chosen as caucus chair, defeating Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise; former Caucus Chair Bill Killen, D-Boise, opted to step aside.

Rusche said his caucus is “anticipating a difficult session,” but is pledging to point out the consequences of decisions pushed through by the majority, which outnumbers the minority Democrats in the House 57-13. “That’s one of our jobs as minority - loyal opposition,” Rusche said. “The other thing is we think it’s still vitally important to focus on what we can do to increase jobs. The Republicans have been really in control for quite a while, and I have yet to see very much in the way of real progress in jobs development. … Protecting jobs and promoting jobs has got to be one of the top concerns of the Legislature.”

State cabin-site rent debate continues…

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on today’s Idaho Supreme Court decision tossing out Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s constitutional challenge that charged that the state Land Board set rents for state-owned cabin sites too low, and Wasden’s announcement that, based on the high court’s procedural ruling, he’ll now refile the challenge in district court. Meanwhile, state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, who like Wasden serves on the Land Board, issued this statement:

“At this point, what is best for kids is to stop spending precious tax dollars on attorneys in this case. As I said before, if the Attorney General thinks the current cottage site lease rates are unconstitutional, then as a fellow member of the Land Board he needs to put a motion on the table that he believes is constitutional and let the Board debate it in a public forum. We’ve already spent too many tax dollars on this matter and going to district court without first putting a proposal on the table will just continue to cost taxpayers, and ultimately schoolchildren, dollars that are need elsewhere.”

Two views of Idaho’s budget ‘hole’

The final speakers at the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho conference today were two members of the Legislature’s leadership, Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, Senate assistant minority leader, and Rep. Mike Moyle, R-Star, House majority leader. Werk said there’s “no free lunch,” but the public apparently believes there is. “The public believes that they can get the services they want and need, and don’t have to pay for them,” Werk said. “We have a very, very large hole to either fill or cut down our services to.”

Werk said, “So we have a situation in the Legislature where I think we have unrealistic expectations in terms of the public, we have legislators that have made promises, the governor’s made promises, there’s all kinds of promises out there about what we’re going to do.” He said, “I don’t have those answers … but understand that at some point the Legislature’s going to have to make some decisions that are going to be very, very difficult, and there’s no way to avoid those things any longer.”

Moyle said this year’s Legislature will likely discuss three ways of “getting out of this hole:” tax increases; budget cuts, including cuts in services; and “reduction of taxes.” That third one, he said, “may sound kind of odd.” But he said he’s concerned “that we do no harm.” Said Moyle, “We’ve got to be careful that we don’t create tax burdens in areas that will force businesses to leave the state.”

Moyle declared, “Tax policy has a direct effect on where jobs are created.” He recalled when Micron built a plant in Virginia, and said he thought tax incentives could have persuaded the company to expand in Idaho instead. “I firmly believe that the answer is jobs, and to get those jobs you’ve got to have a tax policy that attracts those jobs here,” he said.

More megaloads arrive in Lewiston

The Lewiston Tribune reports that another 12 Korean-manufactured modules have arrived at the Port of Lewiston, as part of Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil’s plans to send 207 huge loads across U.S. Highway 12 through Idaho and Montana and up to Canada over the next year, though those loads, as yet, have no state permits. Meanwhile, an amended petition from megaloads opponents to the Idaho Transportation Department has added 10 more opponents to the three already on record, all residents or business owners along the route in Idaho; and ConocoPhillips, which has a contested-case hearing on its permits for four megaloads coming up next week, released a statement, saying in part:

“We look forward to demonstrating that our plans anticipate and address every reasonable concern, and that a favorable ruling will support significant job creation, commerce, and fuel supply security to Idaho and the surrounding region. ConocoPhillips believes the hearing will show that ITD followed its regulations and properly issued the permits.  We have developed this transportation plan for more than three years, working closely with ITD and Emmert International, a respected and experienced transporter of large equipment.  As a result of ITD’s direction and the significant preparation and extensive measures taken by ConocoPhillips and Emmert, the plan is comprehensive and complete.  The plan ensures the safe transport of the refinery equipment, provides enhanced access to emergency medical services, and minimizes inconvenience to the traveling public.”

Click below to read a full report from the Lewiston Tribune and the Associated Press.

County offers to take state inmates

Shoshone County Commissioner Jon Cantamessa was sharing his county’s moves to cope with declining revenue, from freezing employee salaries to turning off lights to re-bidding health insurance contracts to avoid big cost increases, when he added this: “I do have one thing I want to pitch to Brent Reinke as long as he’s here. … We have a jail that has probably 30 or 40 extra beds.” The state may not need them now for its prisoners, he said, but when it does, the county could use the $250,000 it could make by renting them out.

Cantamessa was one of two local officials tapped to tell the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho how local governments in the state cope with downturns.

Idaho prisons chief: ‘We do have gangs, and they are a problem’

Brent Reinke, Idaho state prisons chief, as he opened his presentation to the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho today, said Idahoans may be wondering, “What about this violence story? What’s happening here?” He said he’d be glad to speak with any legislator who’s been contacted by constituents with concerns about family members housed at the Idaho Correctional Center, the privately operated state prison south of Boise, where a brutal inmate-on-inmate attack - while guards watched - was shown in a video released by the Associated Press yesterday.

Reinke said he “won’t go into detail today to explain to you all” the issues about the private prison. But, he said, “I’m very confident and very comfortable with our new warden in that facility, and things are progressing. We are doing a much better job of monitoring than we have in the past; we have a new contract.” He added, “In the Department of Corrections, 80 percent of our problems are bought forth by 20 percent of our population. We do have gangs, and they are a problem.”

PERSI is now 86% funded, beats 80% standard that’s considered ‘excellent’

Jody Olson, chairman of the PERSI board, told the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho, “PERSI is not like Social Security, and it’s not going broke. … It is sustainable for the future.” For a public employee retirement system to be 80 percent funded is considered “excellent,” Olson said. “Ours is now, as of yesterday, 86 percent funded. … We’re pretty bullish on the future.”

Henderson to leave JFAC to focus on economic development legislation

Rep. Frank Henderson, R-Post Falls, has decided to give up his coveted seat on the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee after five years to focus on economic development legislation in the coming session. “My background is economic development, it is business management,” said Henderson, a fourth-term lawmaker. In JFAC this year, with revenue so short, Henderson said, the task will be “to do more of what we did in the last two years - keep crunching it smaller and smaller. We so badly need new revenue. I want to find ways to help our existing industries - help them expand into the domestic markets, help them expand into new markets, so they can retain their present workforce and hopefully expand it, so we can get more money into the local economies.”

Henderson isn’t thinking tax incentives. “I can’t think of any tax incentives that are needed,” he said. “But I think there are ways the resources of the Commerce Department can be used more intensely.” He offered an example: A firm moved to Post Falls that manufactures a special type of ultraviolet light that’s used in industry to dry paint very quickly, in order to speed production processes. He stopped in to ask them about the market for their product. The answer: “They have a huge market in the Far East, but they don’t have a good way to access it.” Henderson put the firm in touch with the international division at the state Commerce Department. “And within five weeks, they were shipping product to Taiwan,” he said. If Commerce were out contacting Idaho businesses, it could get those same results across the state, Henderson said. “I just think they can be more aggressive.”

Henderson said he’d like to stay on the House Business Committee, and would like to move from the local government committee to the transportation committee, since he’s handled the transportation budget on JFAC for the past five years. He’d also like to be on the House State Affairs Committee. But, he said, “I don’t care where they put me - I’m still going to do economic development.”

Little on upcoming session: ‘The good, the bad and the ugly’

Lt. Gov. Brad Little said his luncheon address to the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho today is on “the good, the bad and the ugly” - it’s about the outlook for the upcoming legislative session. “Additional tough choices are going to be required,” Little told the group. “We’ve reduced spending by just a little under 19 percent.” Idaho’s state retirement system is strong, it’s not raised taxes like other states, and the state has handled shortfalls thus far while maintaining a balanced budget, he said. But, he said, “We know when the economy recovers it’s going to take 18 months before those dollars start dropping down into the bottom line, so we are going to have tough choices to make this session.”

Little said public schools are “always our highest priority,” but the state will have to “continue to try to protect quality … but at the same time lower the cost as best we can.” In higher education, there’ll have to be continued collaboration with business, he said. The biggest funding problems, though, may be in Health & Welfare and Medicaid, Little said. “That’s where the money is.”

The federal government funds roughly 80 percent of Health and Welfare in Idaho, and a quarter of public education, Little said. But he said the feds aren’t likely to send Idaho more money. “The federal government is broke, and state and local governments will likely at some point be responsible for accepting some of the functions that they’re currently providing,” Little said, calling that a “cloud that hangs over every state.” He warned, “We do need to prepare for the impending federal defunding which I think is going to happen, because if the federal government doesn’t come to the conclusion the people that own their bonds will.”

Lawmakers, others gather at tax confab

Hundreds of state lawmakers, local officials, lobbyists, business people and others are gathered for the annual Associated Taxpayers of Idaho conference today, which will feature Lt. Gov. Brad Little as the luncheon speaker on Idaho’s priorities as the 2011 legislative session and the new budget year approach. So far, the group has received briefings on taxes, health care and the economic outlook, including a lively presentation on health care reform from Joy Wilson, senior federal affairs counsel and health policy director for the National Council of State Legislatures.

Wilson noted that the reason the national health care reform bill included a controversial universal mandate - a requirement that virtually all Americans purchase insurance coverage - is because insurers insisted on that, in part in tradeoff for requirements that they must insure those with pre-existing conditions. The nation’s employer-based health care system is different from any other country’s, Wilson said. “It is a competitive drain on our large companies, because the competition does not have to deal with our health system the way it is, but our companies do.”

Michael Morris, executive vice president of real estate for Zions Bank, is now presenting information on the real estate market and financial risk; earlier, Ed Karl, vice president for taxation of the American Institute of CPAs, discussed federal tax policy. This afternoon, the conference will focus on Idaho, from the state’s budget position to PERSI to the prison system to how Idaho’s local governments cope with recessions.

Two Idaho lobbying firms merge

Two prominent Idaho lobbying firms are merging: Sullivan & Reberger is merging with Eiguren Public Policy, and the new firm, Sullivan Reberger Eiguren, will represent the clients of both firms. Sullivan & Reberger is Pat Sullivan and Phil Reberger, while Eiguren Public Policy is Roy Eiguren. “We were just at points in our lives which made some sense for us to do it,” said lobbyist Pat Sullivan. “Phil’s looking more toward slowing down a little bit and redirecting.” Eiguren said, “For me, it adds depth and a broader scope to my practice, because I’ve been a sole practitioner for five years.”

Added Eiguren, “It’s a relative comment, but we’ll be the largest lobbying firm in the state.” In addition to the three principals, the new firm likely will bring on another lobbyist, Sullivan said. The firm’s anticipating a busy legislative session. “I’ve got tax issues, environmental law issues, retail grocery issues, bail bond issues, budget issues,” Eiguren said.

Eiguren’s current clients include Amalgamated Sugar, American Ecology Corp., Exergy Development Group, Prison Health Services Inc. and Verizon Wireless, among others. Sullivan’s include AREVA Inc., Associated General Contractors of Idaho, Eli Lilly Corp. and Moneytree Inc., among others.

Wasden headed to district court on state cabin-site rents

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden issued this statement following the Idaho Supreme Court’s endowment lands cottage site lease decision today:

“I appreciate the Court’s consideration of our petition.  We knew going in that a writ of prohibition is an extraordinary remedy.  Nonetheless, we chose this course in the hope of obtaining a speedy answer to the underlying question of whether the Land Board is fulfilling its statutory and constitutional duties to the beneficiaries.  The Court’s decision only means that the underlying issue must now proceed through the normal course of litigation.  Because of the critical importance of resolving this long-standing question, I plan to follow the Supreme Court’s advice and proceed to district court in order to vindicate the constitutional rights of Idaho school children and the other beneficiaries of the endowment trusts.”

Idaho Supreme Court tosses Wasden’s cabin-site rent challenge

The Idaho Supreme Court, in a 3-2 ruling today, has granted the state’s motion to dismiss Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s legal challenge to state-owned cabin site rents, which charged that the state Land Board is violating the Idaho Constitution by not securing the maximum long-term return for the beneficiaries of the state’s endowment lands, the largest of which is Idaho’s public schools. The decision, authored by Justice Joel Horton, didn’t dispute Wasden’s contention that the Land Board is violating the Constitution. Instead, it essentially ruled on procedural grounds, saying Wasden could approach the case in a different manner starting at a lower court. Horton wrote that “there is a plain, speedy, and adequate remedy in the ordinary course of law such that the extraordinary remedy of a writ of prohibition would be improper.” Chief Justice Dan Eismann and Justice Pro Tem Linda Copple Trout concurred in the majority opinion.

Justice Roger Burdick dissented, writing, “The facts in this case are not in dispute. The record clearly demonstrates that the Land Board is exceeding its discretion in leasing the cottage sites for less than market value and failing to obtain the maximum long-term financial return for the beneficiaries, which is a violation of both I.C. § 58-310A and the Idaho Constitution. The majority does not deny this, instead finding that the Attorney General has other plain, speedy and adequate remedies available.” But Burdick said he does not, disputing the majority opinion’s contention that Wasden could get a preliminary injunction and seek a declaratory judgment. All of the state’s cabin site leases expire this month and are up for renewal. Justice Warren Jones concurred in the dissent. You can read the full ruling here.

It’s a snow day in Boise…

Boise schools are closed for a snow day today, with the school district reporting that “the significant amount of snow that fell during the day and evening of November 30 and into the morning hours of December 1 have made for dangerous traveling conditions for school buses and also for students, parents and District staff members.” The district made the call to cancel school at 4:30 a.m. today. The last snow day for Boise schools was Jan. 30, 2008, but that time the district made the call the night before in anticipation of snow and cold, only to have little fall; it’s been years since the last closure before that. This time, it’s for real, and kids can rejoice: Boise has at least 6 inches of snow, judging by the snowfall at my house, and it’s still falling.

Bogus Basin has 8 inches of new powder and it’s still snowing there; they open at 10 a.m.

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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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