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Eye On Boise

Archive for July 2010

Llama on the lam in Lewiston

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) — A llama is still on the loose in Lewiston. Nez Perce County Sheriff’s Lt. Bill Madison says they still haven’t identified the owner of the llama, which has been helping itself to neighborhood gardens and shrubbery for just over a week. Madison says if an opportunity arises, officers will try to safely and humanely bring it in. KLEW-TV reports the sheriff’s department is seeking information on the owner of the pack animal.

Basque government signs agreement with BSU, helps fund Basque studies

Boise State University and the government of the Basque Country signed a new five-year agreement today that strengthens their existing partnership in BSU’s Basque Studies Program, and includes $390,000 in funding for faculty and more. “Basques of North America know very well, over the years, through the Basque centers, through universities, programs, Jaialdi itself, that you create social bonds,” Basque President Patxi Lopez said as the agreement was signed amid the once-every-five-years Jaialdi Basque culture celebration this week in Boise. “But you do more than this: you keep the culture alive.  Our culture does not belong to anyone, but is a universal wealth.” Click here to read the full announcement.

Meanwhile, a sister-state agreement is in the works between Idaho and the Basque territory of Bizkaia.

It’s not me…

Imagine how stunned I was to see on the AP wire today that an elusive graffiti bandit is annoying the heck out of Pocatello by emblazoning “BZR” in all kinds of high and hard-to-reach places on buildings and signs in the southeast Idaho city. Yes, those are my initials (Betsy Z. Russell), but I’m definitely not the bandit! Click below to read an AP report, via the Idaho State Journal, about the graffiti artist, whom one local business owner has threatened to make “walk the plank” if she catches him.

The new allegations…

Here’s a link to the letter that Rep. Shirley Ringo’s attorney, Robert Huntley, delivered to the Idaho Attorney General’s office yesterday on secret tax deals, with the three new sworn statements attached along with an earlier affidavit from Stan Howland. One note: One of the affidavits names two names, both of North Idaho legislators. The affidavit of Joe Schwartz, former longtime head of the North Idaho office of the state Tax Commission, includes a comment about  “Representative Hart of Athol,” saying he “refuses to file or pay taxes.” Hart’s tax case, which became public when he filed an appeal to the state Board of Tax Appeals this spring, indicates he failed to file state tax returns for three years in the 1990s, but there’s no indication that he’s failed to file since, though he’s disputing the amount due.

The affidavit also references “Senator Shawn Keough” as an example of lawmakers who allegedly threatened to “punish” the Tax Commission if it attempted to enforce certain laws and allegedly advised constituents not to comply. Keough said, “I don’t recall ever saying anything like that. I don’t remember anyone by that name. I would never tell anyone to break the law.” She added, “I am pretty astounded by the charge.” Said Keough, R-Sandpoint, “At this point, so that the air can be cleared, I would welcome a full investigation and perhaps a court of law is where that needs to occur to remove any cloud of impropriety or political pressure.”

Three more charge that politically influential taxpayers got secret tax deals

Three more longtime senior employees of the Idaho State Tax Commission have come forward with sworn statements charging that secret tax deals were offered to those with political influence, and now Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, is offering to put her pending lawsuit over the deals on hold in favor of an in-depth investigation of the charges. “I think it should make people realize that we have something very serious we’re dealing with,” Ringo said today.     She and her attorney, former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Robert Huntley, sent the three new sworn statements to Attorney General Lawrence Wasden yesterday, along with a letter offering to suspend the lawsuit if the state launches an investigation meeting certain requirements, and grants job protection to current Tax Commission employees who testify.

“We have found several people who work within the Tax Commission who would like to speak up, but they’re in fear of jeopardizing their employment,” Ringo said. Bob Cooper, spokesman for the Attorney General’s office, said, “We did receive Mr. Huntley’s letter yesterday, and we’re reviewing it.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Guv’s top aide has been a lightning rod

Gov. Butch Otter’s administration chief and close friend, Mike Gwartney, has been something of a lightning rod for controversy throughout Otter’s term in office, attracting the ire of state workers for proposing cuts to health benefits and clashing with lawmakers on everything from activities in the newly renovated state Capitol - a project he oversaw - to his plans to trim health coverage for state retirees and part-time state workers. Gwartney, 69, who’s retiring from state service today, is a retired corporate executive who served as chairman and CEO of Farmers and Merchants State Bank and chairman of Regence BlueShield of Idaho; was vice president for human resources at Boise Cascade Corp.; and was a member of the Idaho House from 1976 to 1982.

When Gwartney first was named head of the Department of Administration, Otter was planning to phase the department out; instead, it grew and took on new duties, including consolidating information technology systems for all state agencies and handling the controversial Idaho Education Network project to link Idaho schools with a broadband network; that’s now been shifted to the state Department of Education. In a 2008 interview, Gwartney said, “I’ve learned a couple things. You can’t run state government like you run a business. There’s more transparency, deservedly so. There are more people looking over your shoulder - the Legislature, the governor’s staff. But on the other hand, you can bring business practices to government.”

Gwartney leaving Otter Administration

Mike Gwartney, Gov. Butch Otter’s best friend and his right-hand man in his administration, serving without pay as the director of the Department of Administration, is retiring as of today, and his chief deputy, Teresa Luna, will take over his post on an interim basis. “He is retiring,” confirmed Mark Warbis, Otter’s communications director. “And Teresa is going to be the interim director at this point. She’s taking over the day-to-day for now.”

Jon Hanian, Otter’s press secretary, said, “This has been in the works for quite a while. …. There is a process for someone permanent to be selected, but we’re not going to rush that. … We’ll find the right person.”

Huntley offers to suspend tax deal lawsuit if state launches special investigation

Bob Huntley, attorney for Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, in her lawsuit over secret tax deals at the state Tax Commission, sent a letter to Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden today with three new affidavits attached from longtime senior tax auditors, all making allegations just as shocking as those in the original affidavit from retired senior auditor Stan Howland about special tax deals being offered to those with political influence, and Huntley proposed that if the state would convene a special investigation panel to look into the charges and follow certain requirements, he and Ringo would suspend their lawsuit that’s now pending in 4th District Court.

Labrador fills in for, praises Bachmann

GOP congressional candidate Raul Labrador, while in Washington, D.C. this week for a fundraiser and other meetings, filled in for scheduled speaker Rep. Michelle Bachmann, R-Minn., yesterday at a talk at the Republican National Committee headquarters dubbed the “Fire Pelosi Speaking Series.” “I am honored the RNC asked me to fill in for a visionary leader like Congressman Michelle Bachmann,” Labrador said in a statement. “She is helping lead our country away from the brink of financial ruin and return it to fiscal sanity. I respect her greatly.” You can see Labrador’s full statement here.

Rusche, House Dems: Appreciate committee, disappointed in dismissal

The House Democratic Caucus has issued a statement commenting on the outcome of today’s House Ethics Committee on the conduct of Rep. Phil Hart. Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said in the statement, ““I appreciate the Speaker forming a committee in response to my complaint and am grateful for Chairman Loertscher’s leadership of the committee deliberations. With that said, I am disappointed in the dismissal of the conflict of interest issue by a majority of the members of the committee and their implicit conclusion that Representative Hart’s behavior and actions were acceptable.” Click below for the full release.

Idaho loses in F-35 bid, Utah, Vermont chosen

Idaho has lost out in its bid to land a new F-35 mission at Gowen Field in Boise and at Mountain Home Air Force Base, a decision by the U.S. Air Force that Idaho’s congressional delegation called “disappointing.” They noted, however, that Gowen Field remains in the running for an expanded mission for operations of the  C-27J cargo aircraft, and that Idaho’s bases aren’t out of the running for future F-35 missions.

In a joint statement, Idaho’s senators and congressmen took issue with the Air Force’s conclusion that additional construction costs that would be needed in Idaho tilted the decision away from the state. “That determination is disappointing because all of the sites chosen will require new construction to accommodate three squadrons,” the delegation said. “Other benefits should have factored into the decision besides initial cost savings.  We will be taking a close look at the data used to reach this decision to ensure it was a transparent and apolitical process.” Click below to read the full joint news release from Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Idaho Reps. Walt Minnick and Mike Simpson.  

Disputes over Gulf oil spill wash all the way to Boise’s federal court

Dozens of lawyers from across the country gathered at Idaho’s federal courthouse in Boise this morning to argue about the handling of more than 300 lawsuits filed against BP and other companies over a huge natural disaster thousands of miles away, the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. A small group of protesters met the lawyers outside the courthouse, holding signs with slogans like “BP lies, the Gulf dies” and, above a smiling drawing of the earth, “Before BP.” Inside, a federal judicial panel wrestled with questions of bias and geography in debating where to consolidate the many cases; click below to read a full report from AP reporter Curt Anderson.

Two views of ethics panel outcome…

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the House Ethics Committee hearing today, at which a 4-3 party-line vote cleared Rep. Phil Hart of conflict-of-interest charges. Hart still faces an additional ethics charge of abuse of legislative privilege; the committee will convene another time to consider that charge. Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, the ethics committee chairman, said, “My emphasis has been dealing with this fairly, looking at it totally objectively, trying to divorce the personalities from the issues. When it comes down to that … I think we probably did a pretty good job today.”

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, the panel’s vice-chair, said, “I’m disappointed. I think to me, the perception is out there and the constituents are upset, and his actions do stain the credibility of the institution. And that’s what I’m really concerned about.”

Hart: Lawmakers need ‘flexibility and some deference’ on possible conflict issues

An unrepentant Rep. Phil Hart said at a press conference after today’s House Ethics Committee meeting that he has no plans to declare conflicts of interest in situations like those examined by the committee today, in which he voted on or proposed tax legislation while also pressing his own personal fight against paying a $53,000 judgment from the state Tax Commission for back income tax, penalties and interest. “I think that’s a troubling road to go down, to have a disciplinary action based on perceptions,” he said. “I think as citizen legislators, we all do something else for a living. I think we ought to have some flexibility and some deference to the members.”

Hart said, “I am glad that we had this hearing today … and that there has been an opportunity to present this in front of the public … and to get this out in the open.” He said, “I hope that we don’t have future possible candidates scared away from the electoral process,” because of the attention his case has received.

Hart said he expected the conflict-of-interest charges against him to be dismissed. “I don’t think there is a connection between those votes I made and my personal circumstances,” he said. “I think the issue got an adequate hearing, we heard voices from both sides, and I think the decision was right.” He expressed optimism about his prospects on the remaining charge of abuse of legislative privilege. “I think I’ve got a very solid foundation, and I think when it’s ultimately resolved, it’ll be resolved in my favor.”

One charge remains…

Still pending before the Ethics Committee is the question of whether Hart abused legislative privilege by invoking it repeatedly to win delays in his state and federal income tax cases. The committee will wait for court resolution of that issue before taking it up on the ethics charge. The committee has now adjourned for today.

Committee splits along party lines, votes 4-3 to clear Hart on conflicts

The House Ethics Committee has voted along party lines against the substitute motion to reprimand Rep. Phil Hart and recommend his removal of the House Revenue & Taxation, and then voted, again along party lines, 4-3 to dismiss conflict of interest ethics charges against Hart. All Republicans voted for dismissal; all Democrats on the committee voted against it.

Two motions are on the floor at Ethics Committee

Rep. Bert Stevenson, R-Rupert, has moved to dismiss the ethics charges against Hart with regard to Rule 38, conflicts of interest. Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, seconded the motion. Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, made a substitute motion to reprimand Hart and recommend to the speaker that he be removed from the Revenue & Taxation Committee as a sanction. Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, seconded the substitute motion.

Sayler: ‘It’s a pattern of actions’

Rep. Wendy Jaquet told the Ethics Committee, “When I look at this I wonder in my mind whether Rep. Hart should be on the Revenue & Taxation Committee, because of the history that Rep. Hart is still dealing with with regard to tax matters. … We have a representative who basically is not paying his taxes, and my constituents are paying their taxes. I feel that he should not be on the Revenue & Taxation Committee because of the appearance of conflict.”

Starr Kelso, Hart’s attorney, responded that that’s “a political issue - it has nothing to do with a legal issue of a conflict of interest.”

Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, said, “In this situation, the perception up here for the most part is that Rep. Hart has behaved inappropriately. … It’s a pattern of actions involving taxes on all fronts.” Why, he asked, did Hart continually delay his tax appeals citing legislative privilege? How does he explain his overall behavior?

Kelso, after conferring with Hart, said, “Are we going to be involved in second-guessing how people operate under the rules and laws of our country when they do not impact the legal parameters of the Legislature? I think that the Legislature does not want to go there.” Kelso pointed Sayler instead to “the remedy at the ballot box. … If constituents are concerned and have issues, they vote.” However, of course, Hart is unopposed for re-election in November.

Hart won’t answer questions, lets lawyer speak for him to Ethics Committee

Rep. Phil Hart won’t answer questions from the House Ethics Committee; instead, he’s letting his attorney, Starr Kelso, speak for him.

Raybould: ‘We’ve got to be careful’

Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, said in his view, a legislator can’t have a conflict of interest on a bill if it affects anyone other than the legislator himself. “I think we have to be careful here in terms of singling out a particular piece of legislation that Rep. Hart may be involved with, unless it pertains to him only,” Raybould declared. “If it pertains to anyone else or any class of people that would benefit in a like manner of that which a member voting it or sponsoring it would achieve, I think we’ve got to be careful or we’re not going to be able to have anyone involved in our legislative capacity except people who don’t have family and don’t have jobs.” His comment drew an appreciative mutter from Hart supporters in the audience.

Kelso’s defense: Bill wasn’t just pointed at Hart

Here’s attorney Starr Kelso’s defense of Rep. Phil Hart’s vote on HB 436, regarding not letting non-filers file again later by adjusting a statute of limitations: “No 1, it applies to all Idaho taxpayers,” he said. “It was a Tax Commission bill. And speaking with Mr. Shaner, i asked him specifically, was it the purpose and intent of the Tax Commission in putting forth this bill to address Mr. Hart. The answer was of course not. There are a number of people with situations like this.” Plus, he said the bill is aimed at those who want to claim refunds. “Mr Hart probably would say to you he wished he was in a position where he was asking for a refund. It doesn’t apply to him at all.”

Rep. Tom Loertscher asked Shaner how many non-filers Idaho has; he didn’t have figures.

New issue comes up at Ethics Committee: Hart voted on tax bill killed in tie

A new issue has been raised by the Ethics Committee with regard to Rep. Phil Hart. HB 436, which would have prevented taxpayers who hadn’t filed returns in a past year from filing later to address those years by adjusting a statute of limitations, is directly applicable to Hart’s case; the state Tax Commission ruled that he didn’t file for the tax years 1996, 1997 and 1998. Rep. Tom Loertscher, committee chairman, called it “a very interesting piece of legislation.” Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane said, “There appears to be an issue with regard to whether or not Rule 38 was invoked.”

Erick Shaner, deputy attorney general, told the committee, “This particular piece of legislation would have affected his ability to address those particular years in regard to his subsequent filing … on his behalf.” The bill died on a tied vote in the House Revenue & Taxation Committee, and Hart voted against it without revealing any conflict. The bill was proposed by the state Tax Commission.

Kelso: ‘Issue was raised by Mr. Hart’

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, questioned Starr Kelso, Rep. Phil Hart’s attorney, about why he submitted legal documents to the state in Hart’s tax appeal stating that the issue of legislative privilege was “being considered by legislative leaders,” and whether Kelso sought that consideration, whether it occurred during a legislative session, and what form it took. Kelso said, “The issue was raised by Mr. Hart to, I believe, the speaker. We were waiting for the response. To my knowledge, there really was no response.”

Loertscher: ‘No legislator has a personal agenda’

Rep. Tom Loertscher, chairman of the House Ethics Committee, responded to vice-chair Rep. Wendy Jaquet’s comments, saying, “I don’t think there’s any legislator that has a personal agenda.” Lawmakers “tend to find issues that they are passionate about,” he said. That doesn’t mean they have conflicts of interest.

Jaquet: ‘Why we’re here’

Members of the Ethics Committee had a few questions about the complaint and charges against Rep. Phil Hart. Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, said, “It looks like to me it’s extremely vague.” Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, responded, “We have an obligation as a body to … represent what is good about Idaho, that we follow the rules and don’t break laws. … I think the reason we are here today is to determine, rather than having the media determine,” whether that’s occurred. “We probably need to invoke Rule 38 more often,” she said, to disclose conflicts of interest. “The representative has some issues in the state and with the federal government, and … that may not be reflective of how our constituents would like to see us. I think we’re held to a higher standard.”

She added that the committee must look at if “the gentleman is using his ability as a legislator basically to further his agenda and to participate in a way that our constituents do not feel is appropriate. I think that’s why we’re here.” She noted that Hart voted on tax rules, introduced a personal bill to eliminate the state income tax, and voted on a silver bill when he’s been involved with a company manufacturing silver Liberty Dollars. Hart’s attorney, Starr Kelso, then told the committee that Hart severed his relationship with that company in 2006.

Loertscher: Hart never declared a conflict of interest during 2010 legislative session

Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, opened the House Ethics Committee hearing by noting that there is a “live proceeding” right now on the issue of whether Rep. Phil Hart improperly invoked legislative privilege in his state income tax case. “We know that there is a live proceeding right now on this very issue,” Loertscher said, referring to Hart’s appeal to the state Board of Tax Appeals. “We would be interfering with an ongoing court case, which is a dangerous place to be. … We don’t want to cloud the issue one way or the other.” So for today, the committee will avoid that issue, Loertscher said.

On the question of conflict of interest, Loertscher noted that the committee has received documents from the Attorney General’s office noting that in the past legislative session, “Mr. Hart not at any time having declared Rule 38,” Hart never disclosed a conflict of interest on any issue in the Legislature.

House ethics committee about to open Hart hearing

The House Ethics Committee is getting ready to start its meeting this morning to look into the conduct of Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol. A handful of Hart supporters are in the audience, wearing pink paper hearts with the slogan, “Protect Idaho’s Hart.” To listen live to the proceedings, go to the Legislature’s website here, and click on the link under “announcements.”

Wildfire contained after dramatic fight

That was a pretty dramatic fight against the Eagle wildfire last night, with planes dropping fire retardant, helicopters dipping and dumping water buckets, crews working on the ground, smoke billowing and winds shifting and gusting. The fire was fully contained by mid-evening after nearly 5,000 acres burned; four homes were lost, but there were no injuries. The smoke even cleared out over Boise as evening settled in. But it’s a sign of what’s to come as the fire season gets under way; lightning touched off the blaze, which went whipping through dry sage and brush that’s extra-thick after this year’s cool, wet spring.

Two homes damaged, evacuations ordered in Eagle wildfire

A fast-growing wildfire northwest of Boise has damaged two homes in the Skyline Subdivision near State Highway 16 in Eagle, and homes north of Beacon Light Road and west of Highway 55 have been ordered evacuated; an evacuation center has been set up at Eagle High School. Numerous firefighting planes, trucks and brush rigs have been dispatched to the fire this afternoon, which has darkened the skies over Boise with brown smoke. This as there’s also another 100-acre grass fire burning between Boise and Mountain Home, and the Teapot Dome fire, about 10 miles east of Mountain Home, reportedly has expanded to 600 acres and is 60 percent contained. Be careful out there.

Uh, so who asked him to?

Here’s why Gov. Butch Otter issued the press release saying he “won’t intervene” in the BSU-UI football rivalry spat: He was asked about it after his speech to the Boise chamber today by Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey. “The governor told him, he said, ‘Personally, my personal view is I’d like to see that rivalry and that game continue, but Dan, honestly, I’ve got to see what authority I have in order to do that,” said Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian. “He said, ‘I need to find that out and let you know.’” Then, Hanian said, “It didn’t take long to determine.”

Said Hanian, “We have not gotten any request from the university. … We were just responding to a question.”

Guv ‘won’t intervene’ in UI-BSU football spat

Gov. Butch Otter just issued this press release:                                                        

GOVERNOR WON’T INTERVENE IN FOOTBALL SCHEDULING

(BOISE) – Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter issued the following statement today about the controversy surrounding continuation of the football series between the University of Idaho and Boise State University after the 2010 season: “As a football fan and an Idahoan, I’d like to see the series continue. As Governor, I have no authority, no role and no interest in micromanaging our universities’ football programs. That’s why we hire university presidents, athletic directors and coaches. I have every confidence that they’ll work things out.”

This after a big clash over BSU President Bob Kustra’s comment to the Idaho Statesman’s editorial board yesterday that he didn’t care if the BSU Broncos never played the UI Vandals again, given Vandal fans’ trashing of BSU’s academic programs. “I frankly don’t care whether we ever play ‘em again,” Kustra told the newspaper. “It’s a culture that is nasty, inebriated and civilly doesn’t give our fans the respect that any fan should expect when visiting an away team.” UI President Duane Nellis then responded in a statement that he was “disappointed” at Kustra’s remarks, and that “in-state rivalries are meant to be fun.” By last night, Kustra had issued a statement saying his comments were “harsher than I intended” and that he plans to leave football scheduling decisions to athletic officials. Click below to read the full statements from both Nellis and Kustra.

Minnick: Idaho needs a 3rd federal judge

Idaho needs a third federal district judge, according to Congressman Walt Minnick, who notes that the state hadn’t gotten an additional judgeship in 56 years. “We have two judges serving two or three times as many people per capita as our neighboring states,” Minnick said today. “It’s wearing out our judges. … We have a better case for a new federal judge than just about anybody in the country.” Minnick is introducing legislation in Congress today, with Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson as the co-sponsor, to give Idaho a third judgeship. “We’ll be looking for opportunities to attach it to something that’s moving, so hopefully we can break this logjam,” Minnick said. “I don’t think there’s any opposition on the merits.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Council: Mussel-fight cost could hit $100M

A new report from the Northwest Power and Conservation Council estimates that it could cost $100 million a year to fight invasive quagga and zebra mussels once they make it into the Columbia River Basin, which echoes alarms that have been sounded for the past three years by Idaho Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, about potential costs to Idaho if the mussels make it here. Click below for a full story on the council’s report from AP reporter Nick Geranios in Spokane.

Labrador says he doesn’t want to be an NRCC ‘Young Gun’

GOP congressional candidate Raul Labrador says he’s opted out of the National Republican Congressional Committee’s “Young Guns” candidate recruitment and training program, though he didn’t say why; click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner, who writes that Labrador’s move is a sign he’s “further breaking ranks with the GOP mainstream.”

Allred: ‘Raising gas tax is wrong’

Keith Allred, the Democratic candidate for governor, said the state’s new highway cost allocation study, released today, validates his longstanding criticism that current Gov. Butch Otter has been favoring “special interests” over Idaho citizens, particularly when the governor proposed a big car registration fee increase but only a small hike for trucks; Otter wanted a study before further changing truck fees. That proposal, like Otter’s proposed gas tax increase, failed to pass the Legislature. Allred said he also opposes a gas tax hike. “Raising the gas tax is wrong for three reasons,” he said in a statement. “First, this is no time to be raising taxes on Idaho families. Second, we have other far more pressing priorities than roads right now, our kids’ education chief among them. Third, raising the gas tax does nothing to correct the unfairness of car and pickup owners paying for heavy trucks’ wear and tear.”

Cars pay more, trucks pay less, and Idaho’s road-funding gap grows

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on how Idaho motorists are paying more and more of the cost of maintaining the state’s roads, while drivers of heavy trucks are paying less, according to a new state study,  though the trucks are causing far more damage to the roads; meanwhile, Idaho faces a “widening gap” between its road funding and its needs, experts told Gov. Butch Otter’s transportation funding task force Tuesday, and task force members said the most promising source to fill that gap is a gas tax increase, the very thing Otter failed to persuade lawmakers to endorse for two years running.

Trucks vs. cars on pavement damage

Consultant Patrick Balducci of Battelle Group told the governor’s transportation funding task force just now that axle weights matter, not just total weight of a truck compared to total weight of a car, when calculating impact on pavement damage. But, under questioning from committee members, he said the rule of thumb is that one fully loaded axle on a big truck is equal to the pavement damage of 10,000 passenger cars. Task force members were stunned. “It’s been measured,” Balducci told them. “For years, millions of trucks have been measured. These are engineering calculations that have been studied by the federal government beginning in the 1950s and continuing today.” When task force member Jim Riley asked what the difference might be if that figure were off by 25 percent - say, if a loaded truck axle were equal to just 7,500 passenger cars - Balducci said that would be contrary to “50 years of research on the part of the Federal Highway Administration.”

Reasons for the car-truck fee disparity…

Part of the reason for the big disparity between heavy trucks and cars in Idaho on paying their fair share for roads: The repeal of the weight-distance tax in 2001, as a result of a lawsuit. Since then, heavy trucks have paid only registration fees. Idaho’s last formally published highway cost-allocation study in 2002 didn’t fully reflect that change, consultant Patrick Balducci told the governor’s transportation funding task force today. An unpublished state highway cost allocation study in 2007 showed figures between the 2002 study and the new one, he said, which provides additional evidence of the trend toward cars paying more and trucks less.

Another factor: More construction, partly as a result of the GARVEE bonding program. When pavement or bridges are replaced in major construction projects, more of the cost of that is allocated to trucks than to cars, Balducci explained, “because of the ratio between axle weights and pavement damage.” That’s as opposed to costs for signals or general highway operations, which are attributed more equally to all types of vehicles. Also, the bonding program was focused on the interstate system, Balducci noted, which sees more heavy-truck travel. He also noted on big trucks the “data that they’re going to do much more damage than the lighter vehicles.”

New study: Idaho cars overpaying, trucks underpaying

The trend in Idaho is clear, according to a new highway cost-allocation study presented to the governor’s transportation funding task force today: “More and more overpayment on the part of automobiles and pickup trucks, and more underpayment on the part of combination trucks.” That’s what consultant Patrick Balducci of Battelle Group told the task force just now. There are a few different ways to look at the numbers. When the full picture of federal and state funding is taken into account, along with the impact of the GARVEE bonding program, the disparity looks even worse: Drivers of passenger cars are overpaying by 47 percent compared to their cost of wear and tear on the roads, drivers of pickups are overpaying by 18 percent, and drivers of combination semi-trucks are paying only 67 percent of the cost they create, a 33 percent underpayment.

Little: ‘We really do need this’

Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who is chairing the governor’s transportation funding task force, says it could well be that a gas tax hike - which Gov. Butch Otter failed to convince state lawmakers to impose despite two years of pleas - could end up being the task force’s recommendation, or a big piece of it. “When you look at the rankings … it ranked highest in fairness and cost-effectiveness, and it’s ready to go. You’re not hiring one state employee. We know it’s imperfect, particularly when a Chevy Volt gets 80 mpg,” Little said. But, he said,  Otter instructed the task force that “everything’s on the table.” Little said, “I think we’ve got our arms around what we think the needs are going to be. This is a big deal - you’ve got to put in a long-term plan to implement it. Having a credible messenger that comes and says, ‘We really need this,’ that’s a big part of it. We really do need this.”

Task force member: ‘We’re way behind’

Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, who serves on Gov. Butch Otter’s transportation funding task force, had this thought on the task force members’ overwhelmingly ranking a gas tax increase as the top potential funding source for road fixes in Idaho: “This was the first cut of opportunities. There’s a lot of folks that are on this task force who have not been through the minutiae … of what it’s going to take to get us to $250 million or $300 million. We can’t raise gas taxes enough. We can’t raise registrations enough. We can’t tax rental cars enough. I think the rest of the task force is going to come to the same conclusion we in the Legislature did - wow, we’re way behind, and we maybe need to start to incrementally fix this. But I don’t believe we’re going to have one big fix here.”

Medicaid fraud lands provider behind bars

A personal care provider in Bonners Ferry has received a five-year prison term and a $5,000 fine for Medicaid provider fraud, though a 1st District judge suspended the sentence and ordered Coral Mouser to serve 45 days in jail and pay $12,465 in restitution to the state Department of Health and Welfare. Mouser pleaded guilty in May, admitting submitting progress notes on care for clients in their homes that she actually didn’t provide, triggering fraudulent payments to her. The case was investigated by the Idaho Attorney General’s Medicaid fraud control unit, and prosecuted by Deputy Attorney General Kendal McDevitt at the request of the Boundary County prosecutor.

Gas tax hike top choice of task force members

The governor’s transportation task force, after its last meeting, asked all 14 of its members to rank the various potential funding sources for transportation in Idaho on everything from fairness to public acceptance, and the results show a fuel tax increase came out on top. With a 1 cent per gallon fuel tax increase, Idaho could raise $8.2 million a year for roads. The second and third top choices both were variations on a gas tax increase: ranking second was a sales tax on the fuel wholesale price, which would raise $22.5 million a year; and third was indexing the current gas tax, which is 25 cents per gallon, to inflation. If that had been done in 1996 and tied to the Consumer Price Index, Idaho would be raising $73.8 million more a year, and the tax would be up to 34 cents per gallon.

Ranking fourth for the task force was a new excise tax on rental car fees, to raise about $1 million a year; and ranking fifth was a three-tiered increase in vehicle registration fees, closely followed by a tiered increase in fees on heavy trucks; each would raise about $5 million a year. Ranking seventh was indexing passenger vehicle registration fees to inflation; and eighth was local-option registration fees. The top 10 proposals were rounded out by a weight-distance tax on trucks, which could raise $60 million annually; and a permit system for electric vehicles. Things like toll roads, high-occupancy toll lanes and congestion pricing weren’t ranked highly by the panel. Lt. Gov. Brad Little, the chairman, said, “From a practical standpoint as far as generating revenue in the near future, I think it’s the collective wisdom of this task force that we not spend a lot of time on ‘em. … These are revenue sources whose time has not come yet.”

Hart scheduled to testify to ethics committee

The House Ethics Committee has released its agenda for its Thursday meeting regarding Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol; you can see it here. The meeting will begin at 9 a.m. in the state Capitol with discussion of constitutional provisions and House rules, then include a review of the formal ethics complaint against Hart and of his written response, followed by additional comments and testimony from Hart himself. That’s scheduled to be followed by committee discussion and action. Audio from the meeting will be streamed live on the Internet; the meeting will be in the Capitol’s garden level, east wing, room 40.

Toll roads for Idaho?

The hottest topic among states seeking transportation funding is imposing tolls on interstate freeways, consultant David Hartgen told the governor’s transportation task force this morning. It’s currently not allowed outside of demonstration projects, but he said he wouldn’t be surprised to see it permitted to some extent in the next federal transportation bill.

Idaho actually has a higher percentage of its travel on interstates than other states, Hartgen said, and could raise $42 million a year by charging 1 cent a mile for cars and 4 cents a mile for trucks. “It’s relatively easy to administer through a booth approach or electronic systems,” he said. Nationally, “It’s certainly the No. 1 item right now in terms of potential sources of new revenue. … The issue here in Idaho, frankly, is the volume of traffic,” which may not be high enough in the short term for toll roads to be attractive.

Road funding: ‘A widening gap’

Transportation consultant David Hartgen said he doesn’t think Idaho’s revenues for transportation will get much higher than 3 percent annual growth, given current funding sources, and they could drop well below that “if economic circumstances don’t turn around.” The result: A “widening gap” by the end of this decade between needs and funding that could hit $250 million, and that “obviously requires some attention.” Other states also are facing similar issues, he said; from 2008 to 2010, 94 legislative proposals passed around the country, with the largest number, 23, dealing with bonding, followed by fuel tax changes, and smaller numbers on private-sector projects, vehicle registration fees, toll roads, and shifting funds from other areas.

New concepts like fees for vehicle miles traveled, congestion pricing or carbon taxes haven’t advanced at all, Hartgen said. “Interestingly enough, there’s been almost no movement - a lot of talk, but no movement. … A lot of stuff that’s gotten attention in the press and in the trade publications regarding the future of transportation funding hasn’t moved yet into the legislative forum.”

‘Guess we do sort of look alike’

As the governor’s transportation task force opened its all-day meeting this morning, Lt. Gov. Brad Little, the panel’s chairman, warned members that they were about to have “an out of body experience” with the first speaker, David Hartgen. The reason: He’s the twin brother of state Rep. Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, who introduced his brother, an emeritus professor of transportation studies at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte and president of The Hartgen Group. David Hartgen shared some analysis of the economic impact of highways with the task force, but first he said of his brother, “I guess we do sort of look alike,” and joked, “It was a lot of fun serving in the Legislature this last year.” Perhaps even more than their physical resemblance, the sound of the two brothers’ voices is eerily similar.

Hart cast deciding votes on state tax rules

Idaho Rep. Phil Hart, who has big tax disputes pending over back state and federal income taxes, sat on a three-member legislative subcommittee this year that reviewed new state tax rules for all Idaho taxpayers, and he cast the deciding vote on two of them. Those included a new rule for how the state Tax Commission should handle settlements of more than $50,000 in income tax liability - at a time when Hart was facing an order to pay $53,000 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest. Hart never mentioned his case or declared a conflict of interest.
 
A special House Ethics Committee is currently looking into whether Hart had conflicts of interest in the Legislature due to his tax problems, and whether he abused the legislative privilege from arrest or civil process during sessions by invoking it repeatedly to win delays in his state and federal tax cases. Rep. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, who served with Hart on the subcommittee, tried to get two new income tax rules killed because he thought they were too lenient on tax scofflaws. “I would’ve loved to have Phil’s support, because we could’ve defeated the rule,” Burgoyne said. “I had several concerns about it. … I generally take the view that people who get away with not paying their taxes make chumps out of the rest of us.”

Hart said today that he saw no conflict, because his own case had already progressed past the point of a possible settlement. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com. Also, Hart today sent out a guest editorial entitled “Tax Reform for Idaho,” in which he called for eliminating the income tax. “A tax on wages and salaries is a tax on our right to exist.  It is the feudal system of the old world,” he writes. “We threw off the old world system in 1776, but it crept back in.  Today, it is time to do it again.” You can read his piece here.

Judge partially dismisses Syringa lawsuit

A 4th District judge has issued his promised new ruling in the Syringa Networks lawsuit against the state of Idaho over the big contract for the Idaho Education Network, and it has a slightly different outcome from his last ruling: He’s dismissing most of the case against the state, though one count remains, as do the other defendants, Qwest and ENA. Click below to read a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Protesters also headed to Boise…

Personal injury lawyers aren’t the only ones flocking to Boise for this Thursday’s Multidistrict Litigation Panel hearing on the BP oil spill. A group calling itself “antibp-mob.com” has secured permits for a protest outside the U.S. District Courthouse in Boise on Thursday, where its members plan to stage a “March On Boise,” or MOB, with the slogan, “Mad about BP? Join us! Let’s March On Boise.” The group, which says it advocates “peaceful protests for positive change,” is planning to meet at 7 a.m. in the northwest corner of Ann Morrison Park, march to the federal courthouse starting at 8 a.m., and protest in front of the James A. McClure Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse at 9 a.m. There’s more info here; the group says its concern is that “the victims of the Gulf Oil Disaster deserve to be heard by a judge with no ties to Big Oil.”

The multidistrict panel’s hearing on Thursday will focus, among other items, on which judge should hear hundreds of lawsuits against BP over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Why not to cut off a big truck…

Leadfoots beware: The Idaho State Police plans to crack down on aggressive driving, from tailgating to quick lane changes to speeding, in or around trucks on I-90 through North Idaho all week. Sgt. Jim Eavenson of the Idaho State Police said 70 percent of crashes that involve both big trucks and cars are caused by the car. “The problem is, when cars and trucks collide, the cars usually lose,” he said. Many motorists don’t realize that big trucks have blind spots and can’t stop as quickly as cars, he said, so it’s not safe to cut them off or dart in front of them. The ISP’s “Targeting Aggressive Cars and Trucks Program,” or TACT, already has run enforcement pushes in the Boise and Pocatello areas; the Coeur d’Alene area is up this week, through Saturday.

Eavenson said the program has been shown to reduce the number of commercial vehicle crashes in targeted areas in Idaho by more than 30 percent. The trucking industry and safety agencies helped develop the national program. “Our goal is to make the roads safer for everyone,” Eavenson said. “Aggressive drivers, whether they are in a truck or a car, make the roads more dangerous for all of us. This program focuses on those drivers that are making bad decisions and creating an unsafe situation for everyone else.”

Idaho SupCourt upholds registration requirement for out-of-state sex offenders

The Idaho Supreme Court has unanimously rejected an appeal from a man whose 1984 rape conviction in Washington required him to register as a sex offender when he moved to Idaho, even though Idahoans don’t have to register unless their sex offenses were on or after July 1, 1993. The reason: Idaho law requires anyone who was required to register as a sex offender in another state when they moved to Idaho, to register here. That was the case for Richard T. Yeoman, who was convicted in Kootenai County in 2008 for failing to register as a sex offender, a felony, after he moved to Idaho in 2007. Yeoman’s appeal charged equal protection violations and a violation of his constitutional right to travel; Chief Justice Daniel Eismann wrote, “Because he was required to register while residing in Washington, it is difficult to see how the requirement that he register in this state in any way infringed upon his right to travel.” You can read the opinion here.

‘Everyone who’s anyone’ headed to Boise?

The Wall Street Journal’s Law Blog reports that “everyone who’s anyone in the world of personal injury and product liability lawyering is making their way to Boise,” for this Thursday’s Multidistrict Litigation Panel hearing on litigation over the BP oil spill. “Why Boise, you may be asking?” the WSJ asks. “The mountain town more than 2,000 miles away from the oily Gulf shores just happened to be next up on the roving panel’s calendar of randomly selected venues for its regular hearings. What the town lacks in accommodations (‘It doesn’t even have a five-star hotel,’ one Gulf attorney complained) it makes up for in seafood; its oysters come from oil-free Washington State.”

Click here to read the post, and here for the WSJ’s story about the big questions to be decided at the Boise hearing: Where the litigation over the catastrophic spill should take place, and what judge should preside. The hearing is this Thursday in federal district court in Boise; at issue is the consolidation of more than 200 federal civil lawsuits over the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Idaho sees run on geothermal leases on state endowment lands; schools could benefit

Idaho’s in hot water – and that could be good for the state’s schools. There’s been a run on geothermal leases on state lands – 80 applications in the past month and a half – and now Idaho’s retooling its geothermal lease rules in hopes of eventually making millions for schools, the main beneficiary of earnings from the state’s endowment lands. Two North Idaho lawmakers laid the groundwork for this two years ago with legislation to promote all kinds of alternate energy development on state endowment lands, from wind on the plains to biomass in the forests.

“Anytime you do that on endowment lands you win,” said Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, who co-sponsored the bill two years ago with Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene. “We’ve got to find other resources for schools, and I think this is a big part of that puzzle.” You can read my full Sunday story here at spokesman.com.

Jaialdi organizers: It’s not about politics

As one of the largest Basque communities in the United States prepares for the traditional Jaialdi festival in southwestern Idaho, a not-so traditional Basque president is expected to be among the visitors, the AP reports. Patxi Lopez was elected last year, ending nearly 30 years of rule by the Basque Nationalist Party, which focused on seeking independence from Spain. The visit is likely to be closely monitored for any sign of political protest, to which festival organizers respond: Don’t hold your breath. “He has nothing to do with Jaialdi, he’s coming as a visitor. This is not about him,” Dave Eiguren, who is from an old Basque family in Boise and has helped organize the festival since it started in 1987, told AP. The Basque president is customarily invited to Jaialdi, held every five years as a showcase of the culture; click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.

Sandpoint drops water fluoridation

Here’s a news item from The Associated Press:  SANDPOINT, Idaho (AP) — The Sandpoint City Council has voted to quit adding fluoride to the municipal water system that also serves communities from Kootenai to Dover. The 4-2 vote last week followed comments by more than a dozen people arguing against fluoridation at the meeting. Some who spoke out against fluoridation said they were being medicated against their will, the Bonner Daily Bee reported. Fluoride is added to drinking water to help reduce tooth decay.

Gov’s race moves into town halls, rodeo arenas

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Keith Allred drew about 200 people to his town hall meeting in Boise last night at the Egyptian Theater, the second in a series that started at the Sandpoint Community Hall on Monday with a crowd of 30 to 40. Allred, who’s planning similar events at the Nampa Civic Center on Aug. 10 (doors open at 6 p.m., program at 6:30), in Lewiston on Aug. 26, and one still to be scheduled in eastern Idaho, spoke for about 10 minutes, then took questions passed up on cards from the audience to a moderator, Boise City Club-style, for the remainder of the two-hour session. Top questions in Boise: Jobs, education and the economy, said Allred campaign spokesman Shea Andersen. “I was delighted to see that on a beautiful summer evening right around dinner time, that that number of people were willing to stop by and sit for a couple hours and listen to a candidate talk about his views on how to improve the state,” Andersen said.

Boise City Councilman T.J. Thompson served as the moderator for the event. But perhaps the biggest impact came from the theater’s marquee, which in huge letters, for two days, proclaimed “Allred for Idaho,” since that was the coming attraction and then the now-playing event. It was the equivalent of a giant billboard for the campaign in the center of downtown Boise.

Incumbent Gov. Butch Otter, meanwhile, is competing in team roping tonight at the Snake River Stampede, part of a long tradition the 68-year-old governor has of performing in rodeos as part of his campaigns. “He did one last week in Jerome,” said Otter campaign manager Debbie Field. “Whenever he gets an opportunity, he does it, he loves it.” Field said the Otter campaign is looking into holding “tele-town hall” meetings every other week starting in August, to allow people to question Otter. She said the campaign is “paying attention to what we need to do, and that’s turning out Republicans to the polls and answering questions. … We’re working with our team across the state. People will start paying attention when the summer gets over and the kids get back in school.”

Independent gubernatorial candidate Jana Kemp will appear in Pocatello’s “Pioneer Days” parade this weekend. Also on the ballot for governor are independent “Pro-Life” and Libertarian Ted Dunlap.

Immigration raids nab 22 in Magic Valley

A federal immigration “enforcement surge” across the Magic Valley area has resulted in the arrest of 22 immigration violators, including two who now face federal charges in Idaho. One of those two had previously been deported four times, and also had been convicted of cocaine possession. Six of those arrested had criminal histories, from drug possession to theft to domestic violence. Fifteen, including those six, had previously been ordered deported. U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement “fugitive operations teams” based in Boise and Salt Lake City made arrests starting Tuesday in nine Idaho communities including Burley, Buhl, Castleford, Hailey, Jerome, Rupert, Shoshone, Twin Falls and Wendell. Most of those arrested were from Mexico; there also was one each from Nicaragua, Honduras, Peru and Russia.

ICE spokeswoman Lorie Dankers said the two “most egregious violators” will be charged in federal court in Idaho with illegal re-entry after deportation. The other 22 are in ICE custody, where they’ll either face an immigration judge or be deported. “ICE is committed to smart and effective immigration enforcement that targets individuals who pose a threat to public safety,” said Steven M. Branch, field office director for ICE’s Enforcement and Removal Operations  in Idaho.  “ICE is committed to identifying those who come to the United States, commit crimes and blatantly disregard our nation’s laws.”

Clearwater collaborative forest plan makes list of 10 funding finalists

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) — A federal advisory council has selected a northern Idaho proposal by conservationists, loggers and others aimed at restoring forests and streams on 1.4 million acres of the Clearwater and Nez Perce national forests. The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program advisory committee on Thursday selected the plan by the Clearwater Basin Collaborative as one of 10 plans accepted around the nation to be considered for approval by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, the Lewiston Tribune reported. If approved, the plan could provide up to $40 million over 10 years in northern Idaho to thin forests, remove old logging roads, fight noxious weeds, and restore fish and wildlife habitat. Republican Sen. Mike Crapo of Idaho says the plan would create 300 good-paying jobs while improving the land and habitat in the region.

Crafting the next state revenue forecast…

Idaho House Minority Leader John Rusche is calling on Gov. Butch Otter to consider a broader than usual call for economic expertise in August when the state revises its 2011 budget revenue projection. “These are unusual and somewhat volatile times,” Rusche said. “I know legislative leaders would have a better comfort level if a broader group was to submit in writing to the Division of Financial Management economist their take on the economy and the amount of General Fund revenue they forecast will come in FY 2011.” Rusche suggested that the various groups, from industry representatives to the state Tax Commission to Idaho university economists, who submit forecasts each year to the Legislature’s revenue projection committee be called on to have input into the August revision, which normally is prepared by the state’s economists in the governor’s Division of Financial Management.

Wayne Hammon, Otter’s budget chief, said the administration already is working on a plan to do just that, but for the December revenue forecast, not the August update. “I appreciate your interest in getting it up and running in time for the upcoming August update, but I disagree,” Hammon wrote back to Rusche. “I think it is essential that the best and brightest economic minds be invited to participate and organizing the group in such short notice just isn’t practical.  Furthermore, the August revenue update is just a mid-year check on how we are doing.  The budget actually submitted to the Legislature for consideration is based upon the December update, giving it much more weight.” Click below to read both Rusche’s full statement, and Hammon’s full response.

RNC: Idaho part of ‘D2H’ strategy

The Republican National Committee and the Idaho Republican Party announced today that the previously announced funding the RNC is sending to the Idaho party for two staffers to run a parallel campaign against Congressman Walt Minnick is part of the party’s “Delaware to Hawaii,” or “D2H strategy to compete aggressively in all fifty states.” RNC Chairman Michael Steele said in a statement, “In an effort to replace Walt Minnick with Raul Labrador, the RNC is excited to be partnering with the Idaho Republican Party to provide the necessary support to win this important race.” Idaho GOP Chairman Norm Semanko said the state party was “grateful” for the help from “my good friend, Chairman Steele.” Click below to read the full RNC news release.

Appliance rebates still available in Idaho, but they’re going fast

Idahoans can still get rebates of up to $300 if they’re replacing an older appliance with a new Energy Star-rated one, according to the Idaho Office of Energy Resources. The Idaho rebate program, which is funded by federal stimulus legislation, has nearly $300,000 still to hand out of its original $1.2 million; so far, more than 3,600 rebates have been awarded in Idaho. “If people have been waiting to buy a new appliance and get a rebate, they should act soon,” said state energy resources chief Paul Kjellander. “We anticipate that funds will be exhausted by the end of August, perhaps earlier.” Click here for more info. Kjellander’s office calculates that people who replace older appliances can save the amount of the rebate or more every year just from their energy savings, because the newer ones are more efficient.

Idaho whooping cough cases surge, vaccinations urged

Idaho has seen a sharp uptick in cases of pertussis this year, also known as whooping cough. The disease is most severe for babies, so the state is urging anyone who is around infants to get vaccinated with a pertussis booster vaccine, known as Tdap. “We urge parents, household members, and other caregivers to get vaccinated against this disease, to protect babies,” said Dr. Christine Hahn, state epidemiologist. “We know that in many cases, it’s the mom, dad, grandparent, or sibling that infects the babies that end up getting so sick. Vaccination of the rest of us remains the best way to protect the most vulnerable persons in our population, who are too young to be fully protected by their immunizations.”

Idaho had 77 reported cases of pertussis in the first six months of 2010, compared to 45 during the same time period a year ago. At the same time, California has experienced an epidemic of pertussis that has taken the lives of six babies. Adults who get the disease might not even know they have it; vaccination is considered the best prevention, but Idaho’s vaccination rates are among the lowest in the nation. Click here for more info from the state Department of Health & Welfare, and you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Rasmussen: Otter leads Allred 53-36

Rasmussen Reports has released its latest automated poll in Idaho election campaigns, and it shows incumbent Gov. Butch Otter leading Democratic challenger Keith Allred, 53 percent to 36 percent. The same group’s May poll showed a 54-32 Otter-Allred lead, and in March, 60-32. Rasmussen reported that the latest numbers show Otter “still holds a sizable lead over his Democratic opponent,” and said, “Any Democratic candidate faces long odds in Idaho. The state hasn’t elected a Democrat governor in 20 years.” Shea Andersen, spokesman for the Allred campaign, had a different take: “To me, the direction is clear,” he said. “This shows Keith Allred gaining and Butch Otter slipping.”

The automated poll also showed Sen. Mike Crapo with a big lead in his re-election bid, and 56 percent of Idahoans approving of the job Otter’s doing as governor, while 41 percent disapproved; there’s more here.

NRCC boosts ‘Young Gun’ congressional candidates, Labrador not on list

The National Republican Congressional Committee elevated 33 more GOP congressional candidates to its “Young Guns” program today, but Idaho GOP challenger Raul Labrador wasn’t on the list. The Hill newspaper reported today that 14 candidates made the “Contender” level, and 19 were named to the “On the Radar” list. In February, Idaho 1st District congressional candidate Vaughn Ward was named to the top tier of the program, “Young Gun” status; Labrador then defeated him in Idaho’s May GOP primary. The NRCC describes the “Young Guns” program as “the candidate recruitment and training program for House Republicans” and says it’s “designed to assist Republican candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives build a foundation for victory.”

The Hill reported that Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee spokesman Andrew Stone said in a statement, “After the NRCC got burned by investing heavily in serial plagiarist Vaughn Ward while Congressman Minnick worked hard in his district and tallied up a cash advantage of 16 to one over Raul Labrador, it’s looking more and more like this district is falling off the NRCC’s radar.” An NRCC spokeswoman, however, told the newspaper that the group believes incumbent Democratic Rep. Walt Minnick faces a tough challenge from Labrador.

Research will seek answers on why students don’t choose tech disciplines

With fewer U.S. students going into key technical areas - a decline that’s raised major concerns about the nation’s future competitiveness - the University of Idaho today announced a new grant to study just why Idaho students aren’t choosing to study science, technology, engineering and mathematics.     ”This is not just unique to Idaho, although I think it’s more acute in Idaho,” said UI President Duane Nellis. “It is a real concern, and it’s very revealing and fairly graphic, the decline of students tracking in this area.”

The Micron Foundation gave the UI a $1.2 million, four-year grant to research the issue. The project will include focus groups, surveys, interviews with students, teachers, parents and school administrators, a statewide dialogue and more aimed at identifying why students don’t choose the STEM disciplines or don’t succeed in them.     ”We will be able to identify those exact factors that influence a student’s ability to excel at STEM education,” said Dee Mooney, Micron Foundation executive director. “We look forward to learning all about the results.” UI officials said the research should help guide STEM programs not only in Idaho but across the nation; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Syringa decision being reconsidered

The court decision that tossed out a lawsuit over the state’s award of the multimillion-dollar Idaho Education Network to Qwest is being reconsidered, after a 4th District judge said he forgot to consider a component of the case. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Todd Dvorak.

Kempthorne to Congress: Big spill never expected, pressure was for more drilling

Former Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, former Secretary of the Interior under President George W. Bush, told a congressional committee today he never anticipated an oil spill as large as the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico, but no one else did either, the AP reports. In fact, Kempthorne said when he testified to congressional committees as interior secretary, he was pointedly asked why Interior wasn’t doing more to expand offshore drilling, not less - questions that came at a time of $4-per-gallon gas prices. Click below to read a full report from the Associated Press on testimony this morning from Kempthorne and his predecessor, Gale Norton; current Secretary Ken Salazar also was scheduled to testify today. You can read Kempthorne’s full testimony here.

Among Kempthorne’s comments: “Until now, I have declined multiple media requests to comment in the belief America was best served by letting those now in charge to stay focused on job No. 1, of stopping the oil spill.” He said he agreed to testify “out of respect for Congress where I served for six years.” Kempthorne told the lawmakers, “I do not envy my successor. … It is easy to second-guess and criticize.” He noted that while he was secretary, royalty rates for deepwater offshore leases were increased twice. But, he said, “There had not been a major oil spill in 40 years.” All planning for future drilling, he said, will be forever changed by the disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. “Never again will decision makers not include planning for events that might be low-probability events, but which, in the unlikely event they occurred, would be catastrophic.”

Kempthorne also addressed the scandal at the Minerals Management Service. “On Sept. 18, 2008, I unequivocally told congress that the conduct disgusted me and there would be prompt personnel action. Because that action was under way, I was advised by Interior’s lawyers that I could not discuss it in detail. Now I can, including the fact that we fired people.” He said, “Those involved were fired, retired, demoted or disciplined to the maximum extent permissible. The facts are that all of these actions were taken before we left office.”

Idaho the ‘point of the spear’

Idaho is the “point of the spear” as conservatives work to reshape the GOP agenda across the nation, writes AP reporter John Miller, as he examines the outcome of this year’s Republican state convention in Idaho Falls last month. Click below to read his full article.

State endowment fund: ‘A good year in 2010 after a very tough year in ‘09’

Idaho’s state endowment fund made 16 percent on its investments in the just-completed 2010 fiscal year, though it dropped 2.2 percent in June. “All of the managers are performing as we would expect them to,” Larry Johnson, manager of investments, told the state Land Board this morning. “It was a good year in FY 2010, after, of course, a very tough year in 2009.” The state endowment board will meet in August to decide on a recommendation to the Land Board for distributions to the endowment’s beneficiaries next year, including public schools. At this point, Johnson said, the board’s staff is recommending staying with this year’s levels for the most part, but discontinuing the special $22 million, one-time distribution to public schools that the board approved this year at the urging of state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna.

As of May, all the endowments except for public schools had reserves of at least four times the approved 2010 distribution, while public schools reserves were at 2.3 times, after the special distribution. The reserves serve as a “shock absorber” to protect annual distributions when investment earnings have ups and downs. Luna had pressed for twice as big a special distribution to help spare schools from big budget cuts.

‘Normal’ fire season predicted on state lands

As of the close of the state’s fiscal year on July 1, emergency fire suppression costs incurred by the state Department of Lands for the year were $1.95 million. That’s similar to last year’s costs, and is 33 percent of the 20-year average. The number of acres burned was just 12 percent of the 20-year average, at just 31 acres; the average is 253 acres. In fiscal year 2010, there were three lightning-caused fires on state lands and 20 human-caused fires, but only 31 acres burned. The reason: A warm, dry winter was followed by a cool and wet May and June. A report to the state Land Board today said, “Even though early July is predicted to be warmer and drier than normal, the summer is predicted to have normal temperatures with normal rainfall. At this time, the National Interagency Coordination Center is predicting a normal fire season for Idaho.”

Courage award: Wasden ‘lets the chips fall where they may’

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has been awarded the “Courage in Public Service Award” from the Conference of Western Attorneys General, presented at the group’s annual meeting in Santa Fe today. The award, which has only been presented four times and was last given out in 2004, recognizes an Attorney General who “has acted with courage and integrity to uphold the office of the Attorney General, above and beyond the high standards always expected of its occupants,” the group said.

Wasden notably pressed charges public officials of his own party for official misconduct, including former Boise Mayor Brent Coles, and he’s currently challenging the state Land Board - on which he serves - over the constitutionality of a cottage-site rent plan. Karen White, the group’s executive director, said Wasden was recognized for “placing himself in a position of political peril with his peers, in order to better the state of affairs for the people of Idaho and throughout the country,” and that he “is an effective leader because he consistently does what he thinks follows his legal obligations and responsibilities of office and lets the chips fall where they may.”

Minnick rejects Tea Party Express nod

Idaho Rep. Walt Minnick has decided to decline an endorsement from the Tea Party Express group - he was the only Democrat the national Tea Party group endorsed - in the wake of the group’s spokesman posting a controversial blog about the NAACP that Minnick dubbed “reprehensible.” You can read Minnick’s letter to Tea Party Express here, which was first reported today on Idahoreporter.com, and click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.

Case proceeds, contract grows…

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on developments in the Pam Lowe case today, in which the former ITD director is suing the state in federal court, alleging wrongful firing; meanwhile, the Idaho Transportation Department acknowledged that a controversial management contract that Lowe contends she was fired for trying to scale back has now swelled to $85 million.

ITD’s contract with Connecting Idaho Partners now up to $85M

The contract with Connecting Idaho Partners - the one that former ITD Director Pam Lowe contends played a key role in her firing - is now up to $85 million, according to the Idaho Transportation Department. The department signed an additional contract with the group, which consists of CH2M Hill and URS Corp., formerly Washington Group, in April for $14 million for management work related to the next $228 million worth of GARVEE bonds, which finance highway projects by borrowing against future federal highway payouts. In June of 2008, ITD signed another $26 million contract with CIP, that time to oversee $250 million in bonds; and the original contract, issued in August of 2006 and originally envisioned to total $52 million, ended up at $45 million after various reductions. That was for startup of the program and overseeing the first $215 million in bonding.

“We made reductions where possible,” said Jeff Stratten, ITD spokesman, noting that $7 million in work was pulled from the first contract and handed back over to ITD staff. The second contract, in 2008, started around $30 million, but was scaled back the same way to $26 million. “We’re following the legislative intent by bringing as much work back to ITD as possible,” Stratten said.

Connecting Idaho Partners won the huge management contract after a contentious process that saw an unsuccessful bidder crying foul; Lowe contends in her wrongful-firing lawsuit that she was pressured by the Otter Administration when she tried to cut back the contract with the politically well-connected firms, and then fired. The administration has denied her claims.

The three contracts ITD has signed with Connecting Idaho Partners cover a total of $693 million in bonding; the entire Connecting Idaho program, first promoted by then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne as a way to do 30 years worth of highway projects in just 10 years, originally was estimated at $998 million, but Stratten said cost savings and other cutbacks have lowered that to closer to $900 million. He said it’s not clear whether another contract still would be signed with CIP, but the final phase of Connecting Idaho would be mostly construction, which the department tends to manage in-house. “It’s yet to be determined if another one is required,” he said, noting that it’s up to the Legislature to authorize bonding each year. “If CIP’s services were required, it would likely be less than the $14 million of the latest contract, but that’s yet to be determined.”

Federal judge raises questions in Pam Lowe’s wrongful firing case

Federal Magistrate Judge Ron Bush raised questions at a court hearing today about whether fired ITD Director Pam Lowe actually was a classified state employee entitled to specific hearings and appeals; whether her lawyers’ arguments in her wrongful-firing case would have entitled her to serve in the position for life; and whether the question of if Lowe was an at-will employee or not should be referred back to the Idaho Supreme Court - a move that could delay the case for years.

The judge’s questions came up during a federal court hearing today on Lowe’s motion to decide a key point in her case now - whether the state’s transportation director is an at-will employee who can be fired for any reason or no reason. That’s the position the state has taken in the case. A specific state law says the transportation director “shall serve at the pleasure of the board and may be removed by the board for inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance or nonfeasance in office.” None of those grounds was cited when the Idaho Transportation Board fired Lowe last year; she’s charged that she was ousted for trying 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 of her gender, as the department’s first female director. Lowe has since been replaced by a man who’s being paid $22,000 a year more than she made.

B. Newal Squyres, a private attorney representing the state, told the court that the four reasons in the law are just examples of why a director can be fired. “They provide some guidance, they provide some examples, they counsel the board that the director is performance-based, but they’re not a limit on the board’s authority,” he told the court. The Legislature’s Statement of Purpose for the 1974 law, he said, is “irrelevant” because “it’s not in the statute.” The Statement of Purpose, which Lowe’s attorney, Erika Birch, submitted to the court to bolster her argument, says the director “shall serve at the pleasure of the board and may be removed by the board only for stated cause.”

Lowe said after the hearing, “I thought Erika’s argument was really compelling. Clearly, the judge wanted to hear and gather a lot of information, which I thought was positive.”

Birch argued that grounds for dismissing the transportation director - which aren’t found in the laws about any other state department heads - were designed specifically to “provide at least one level of political insulation between the governor and the director.” The judge said if the director doesn’t violate the four grounds, “Is that person entitled to serve for life in that position then?”  “I think they are,” Birch responded. “I think the Legislature was singling out this position to give them a potential lifetime or until-retirement security in their position … unless those specific grounds are found.” She added that directors in the past have been removed only for cause. “We know that directors have traditionally held long tenures with the department.”
 
Neither side contended that Lowe was a classified employee subject to the state’s civil-service rules, but Judge Bush said he wasn’t convinced she wasn’t. “You may be comfortable” that she wasn’t, Bush told lawyers on both sides, “but I don’t know that I’m comfortable. … Then we have a whole different ballgame.” He also noted the possibility of referring the at-will question to the Idaho Supreme Court, though both sides said they thought the case was properly before the federal court, and Birch said such a move would “significantly delay this case by years.” Bush responded, “I’ve considered that, and that’s part of what I’m weighing.” He took the motion under advisement and will issue his ruling in writing.

Parties tangle, accusations fly

The political war of words between the state’s top party leaders continues today, with Norm Semanko, Idaho Republican Party chairman, issuing a statement sharply critical of Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Keith Roark’s guest opinion last week, which was entitled, “You Have Been Invited to Leave the Idaho GOP” and derided the “fringe element now running the Idaho Republican Party,” saying Idaho voters are “tired of one party rule and your loyalty oaths.”

Semanko called Roark’s statement “sad” and an “attempt to mislead Idahoans and spread falsehoods about what took place at the Idaho Republican Party State Convention in Idaho Falls when he wasn’t even there.” He went on to charge that the Democrats are the only party in Idaho using a “loyalty oath,” citing the pledge participants must sign to take part in Democratic presidential selection caucuses; and slammed the Democrats for closing their platform deliberations to the press during their state convention at Worley last month, while those deliberations at the Republican convention were open; you can read Semanko’s full statement here.

Idaho Democratic Party Executive Director Jim Hansen disputed both points. The pledge used at caucuses is a national party requirement to make sure voters don’t participate in both parties’ caucuses in the same election, he said; in many states, Republicans as well as Democrats hold caucuses. Hansen dubbed Semanko’s comparison “intellectually dishonest.” And as for the decision to close the deliberations at the Democratic convention last month, Hansen said, “Well, actually, the press didn’t come, unfortunately.” The only reporter covering the convention was one from the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s Idahoreporter.com. “They didn’t consider Wayne Hoffman’s group a press outlet, they considered it a Republican entity,” Hansen said. “They would not have excluded the press.”

Hansen said convention delegates debated the closure and then voted in favor of it, though the vote was divided; the Idahoreporter.com representative was allowed to attend all proceedings other than the final deliberations on the platform, which lasted about two hours. “There was a difference of opinion expressed,” Hansen said. “Most people, I think, lamented the fact that the press was not present, and that this was the only tool available to keep this Republican entity from distorting what was happening in the proceedings.”

Idahoreporter.com covered both parties’ conventions this year, but there was considerably more press coverage at the Republican convention in Idaho Falls, which also was covered by the Associated Press, the local newspaper and more. Click below to read the Idaho Falls Post Register’s editorial take on the closure, in which it offered “jeers” to both the Democratic Party and the press.

IACI: Beware politicians who tout small biz

The Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry, the influential lobby group that represents the state’s largest businesses, sent out a guest editorial last week warning Idahoans to beware of “candidates of every political persuasion” who call for promoting small businesses. “In reality, the real cynical political motivation for touting ‘small business’ is to create an ‘us versus them’ mentality that is not only a misrepresentation of reality, but a dangerous path of rhetoric that leads to an economic caste system,” warns IACI President Alex LaBeau. You can read his full op-ed piece here.

The immigration issue…

A white paper from Boise State University’s public policy center, which analyzed the results of immigration questions in the most recent statewide BSU Public Policy Surveys in 2006 and 2007, found strong concern among Idahoans about illegal immigration: 54 percent said undocumented immigrants reduce the overall quality of education for Idaho children; more than 50 percent said Idaho should deny indigent medical care to undocumented immigrants; and 68 percent supported adopting an “English only” policy for the state. Boise State Public Radio interviewed Professor Greg Hill about the research this morning; you can listen to their story and see the white paper here.

At the same time, a new report from the L.A. Times notes that when the U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit last week to stop a far-reaching Arizona immigration law from taking effect it said immigration policy is a national responsibility and “a patchwork of state laws will only create more problems than it solves,” but according to experts, that’s what we already have, with states enacting 333 immigration-related laws and resolutions last year, up from 32 in 2005. You can read that story here at spokesman.com.

Court tosses out Syringa lawsuit

The Syringa Networks lawsuit against the state Department of Administration over the award of the multimillion-dollar Idaho Education Network contract to Qwest has been dismissed, as 4th District Judge Patrick Owen granted the state’s motion for a summary judgment. “It does appear that Syringa was cut off from participating in the work,” the judge wrote in his decision; you can read it here. But he found that Syringa didn’t show sufficient evidence of breach of contract in the move, and didn’t exhaust all its administrative remedies by appealing the contract award through an administrative appeal before suing.

“By ruling in our favor, Judge Owen vindicated the integrity of our purchasing processes as well as the integrity of our employees,” said Department of Administration Director Mike Gwartney. Gwartney said the court decision “will allow continued implementation of the Idaho Education Network,” a project to connect all Idaho high schools to a high-speed broadband network to expand educational opportunities for students.

Allred sets ‘town hall’ meetings

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Keith Allred has scheduled a series of “town hall” meetings starting Monday in Sandpoint, where he’ll answer questions from the public in a format similar to that of the Boise City Club, where volunteers collect written questions from the audience and a moderator poses them to the guest. Allred said he welcomes Idahoans from across the political spectrum to the events. “When you run for governor, you’re not running to be governor of Republicans or Democrats or a particular special interest group,” Allred said. “It’s supposed to be government by, for and of the people. That’s been the driving passion of my whole life.”

In addition to Monday’s session, set for 6:30 p.m. at the Sandpoint Community Hall, the former nonpartisan citizen activist, Harvard professor and mediator scheduled town hall meetings for July 22 at the Egyptian Theater in Boise, also at 6:30; followed by additional sessions in Nampa on Aug. 10 and in Lewiston on Aug. 26. Allred is challenging GOP Gov. Butch Otter. Also running are independents Jana Kemp and “Pro-Life” and Libertarian Ted Dunlap.

Otter announced today that he and First Lady Lori Otter will ride in the Snake River Stampede Parade at 11 a.m. Saturday in Nampa, and the governor will compete in team roping at the Stampede on July 23 at 7:45 p.m. at the Idaho Center in Nampa. Kemp has appearances in Twin Falls on Monday and Meridian on Thursday.

The latest campaign finance news in 1st CD

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the news from the latest campaign finance reports in the 1st District congressional race, in which incumbent Congressman Walt Minnick has a million-dollar cash advantage over his Republican challenger, Raul Labrador. Labrador’s reaction? “I’ve been outspent before, and I’ve beaten people who outspent me and outraised me before, so it doesn’t concern me one bit.”

Interestingly, eight major donors to Vaughn Ward, whom Labrador defeated in an upset in the May primary, stepped forward to give to one side or the other in the general election race - three went to Minnick, and five to Labrador. Also, Minnick attracted support from Idaho business leaders, out-of-state individuals and PACs, while Labrador’s report was heavy on Idaho GOP lawmakers who are backing the two-term state representative from Eagle. You can read Labrador’s full report here, and Minnick’s full report here.

Rep. Hart’s tax woes add up to $700K

Idaho state Rep. Phil Hart’s tax problems appear to be worse than previously disclosed. When federal tax liens filed against Hart’s various business entities are combined with the hundreds of thousands in liens the IRS has filed against him personally in his ongoing fight over back income taxes, the third-term Idaho lawmaker faces a total of more than $644,000 in outstanding federal tax liens. A state income tax judgment against him that he’s attempting to appeal pushes that total up to nearly $700,000.

Hart, who’s facing a state ethics inquiry over the use of his legislative position in his tax fight, said he doesn’t understand how the authorities could think he owes that much. “I don’t even know if I’ve made that much in that period of time,” he said, “so the tax rate must be 100 percent or something.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com, plus see the documents.

Minnick has $1M cash edge over Labrador

Republican congressional challenger Raul Labrador has just filed his campaign finance report, showing he raised $101,616 from May 6 to June 30, spent $78,246, and has $68,789 on hand for his campaign. Incumbent Congressman Walt Minnick raised $291,966 during the same period, spent $93,778, and had $1,139,111 in cash at the close of the fundraising period. That puts Minnick’s cash edge over Labrador at $1.07 million.

Labrador ‘heartened’ by his poll, shows him 10 points behind Minnick

GOP congressional hopeful Raul Labrador has released results of his campaign’s internal poll showing Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick leading him by 10 points, 37 percent to 27 percent, with 26 percent undecided. “I have to say that I am very heartened by this polling data,” Labrador said. “Obviously, I would rather be ahead, but I am satisfied that the polling shows Idaho is ready to make a change, that this race is more than winnable.” You can read Labrador’s news release here.

Rabid bat attacks fisherman near Hailey

A fisherman on a tributary of the Wood River west of Hailey encountered an aggressive bat last weekend, and is now being treated for rabies after the bat tested positive for the fatal viral illness. It’s the second rabid bat of the season identified in Idaho; last year, there were eight.

The bat was aggressively flying around the man while he was fishing, and when he packed up to leave, he found it attached to his life vest, handled it and killed it. “Bats and other mammals can carry rabies, making it extremely important for people to avoid bats or other animals, wild or domestic, that may appear sick or are acting aggressive or in an abnormal manner,” said Dr. Leslie Tengelsen, deputy state epidemiologist. “People should not pick up or touch any bat. People should call their health care provider immediately if they have been bitten or scratched by a bat. Medical therapy administered to people soon after a possible rabies exposure is extremely effective in preventing rabies.”

The first rabid bat found in Idaho this year was found in Shoshone County in March; here’s a link to the full announcement from Idaho Health & Welfare.

Plans to truck huge oil equipment through scenic river corridor protested in two states

Plans to truck huge loads of oilfield equipment bound for Canada through the scenic Lochsa River corridor from Idaho through Montana are being challenged in both states. The Missoula County commission wants Montana’s Transportation Department to do a more extensive environmental impact statement of Imperial Oil’s proposal to haul the gear to an oil field in northern Alberta. Meanwhile, three Idaho conservation groups are challenging an assertion by their state’s transportation department that it must issue permits for oversized loads if haulers can prove their ability to navigate a road safely without causing damage; click below for a full story from The Associated Press.

Boise Police ban texting while driving

The police department of the largest city in the state is banning texting while driving for its officers on patrol, an interesting move after the Idaho Legislature this year failed to pass such a ban for all Idaho drivers, even with an exemption in it for law enforcement and emergency workers. “There’s growing evidence that texting takes a driver’s eyes off the road for too long, and sadly, already has been a deadly distraction on our roads,” Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson told The Associated Press. “We have to follow the same safety advice we give to the people we serve — do not text and drive.” Click below to read the full story from AP reporter John Miller.

Hart denies ethics charges

Idaho Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, denied the ethics charges against him Wednesday in a formal response to a special House Ethics Committee, and decried the complaint against him for citing “news accounts” and “perceptions.” “I have no hesitancy in accounting for, and defending, all of my actions as an elected representative of District 3,” Hart said in a letter to the committee. “I am, however, concerned that anyone could choose to base an ethics complaints on what ‘appears’ from ‘recent news accounts.’”

Hart is charged with possible abuse of legislative privilege for repeatedly citing the constitutional protection of lawmakers from arrest or civil service during legislative sessions to seek delays in his federal and state income tax fights, and possible conflict of interest for serving on the House Revenue and Taxation Committee while pressing his personal tax fights; the Spokesman-Review reported on Hart’s moves in a series of articles over the past month.

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, who filed the complaint against Hart, said, “Certainly there’s a difference of opinion, and I’ll leave it to the Ethics Committee to decide on the appropriateness of the behaviors and whether or how they reflect upon the credibility and authority of the House of Representatives.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com, and see the complaint against Hart here.

Hart: ‘Tell that story I will’

Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, has filed his response to a House Ethics Committee’s charges against him; click here to read his response. In an email with his response, Hart wrote, “I want you to know that this part of the process of governance does not minimize the passion I have to serve the people of the 3rd legislative district. I sought this office because I wanted to be in a position to protect our constitutional rights and the liberties of the people. I am seeking re-election now because, with my six years of experience, I feel I can be more effective in attaining those lofty goals. American patriots fight for what is right in the country and reject is what is wrong with the country. This battle for me is no less than fighting for what is right and just in the legislative arena and in the state that I have grown to love. This battle for what is right gives me the opportunity to tell an American story. And tell that story I will.”

Hart, who is unopposed for re-election, simply denies both the charges in his response - that he abused legislative privilege by invoking it repeatedly to seek delays in his state and federal income tax fights, and that he had a conflict of interest in serving on the House Revenue & Taxation Committee while pressing those fights. He also decried the complaint against him for citing “news accounts, appearances and perceptions.”

Honoring Vernon Baker, World War II hero

Idaho Senator Mike Crapo today offered this tribute on the passing of Idaho Congressional Medal of Honor recipient Vernon Baker of St. Maries: “Mr. Vernon Baker, an Idahoan, received the Congressional Medal of Honor 50 years after his honorable service in World War II.  He is the only living African-American to receive Congress’ highest honor.  Baker is a true war hero and he will remain a legend and testament of determination and steadfastness in the face of unspeakable discrimination and extreme obstacles.  I join all Idahoans in mourning his passing but honoring his achievements.”

Gov. Butch Otter issued this statement: “Vernon Baker was the embodiment of what it means to be a patriot – someone whose courage, commitment and sacrifice made him a role model and an icon for a generation of Americans. I was proud to know him and proud to call him an Idahoan. Vernon was a humble man, but he was among the greatest of the Greatest Generation. It’s too bad it took the government so long to recognize and acknowledge that.”

Sen. Jim Risch issued this statement:  “I am saddened by the passing of Vernon Baker, a Medal of Honor recipient who lived in St. Maries, Idaho.  I had the honor of meeting with Vern during my tenure as governor and appointing him to the Idaho Commission on Human Rights, where he faithfully served. Vern epitomized what has been called the ‘greatest generation’ and selflessly served this nation at a time when he was not welcome in all places.  He loved his country and was deserving of all the honors bestowed upon him for his outstanding service and sacrifice.  For nearly 25 years, Vern Baker chose to call Idaho his home, and now we salute him one last time for his selfless courage and grace.”

Baker was the only living black World War II veteran to receive the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest commendation for battlefield valor. He died at age 90 after a long battle with cancer. You can read more here at spokesman.com.

Bunker mine villain now top Tory official

S-R reporter Becky Kramer has a fascinating story today about how the man accused of stripping millions of dollars from health insurance funds for retirees of the Bunker Hill Mine and Smelter in North idaho in the early 1990s has resurfaced as the treasurer of Britain’s Conservative Party.

David John Rowland and another executive allegedly transferred nearly $200 million worth of Bunker Hill assets overseas when Rowland was chief executive officer of Gulf Resources and Chemical Co., Kramer reports. Instead of paying for pensioners’ health insurance and environmental cleanup in Idaho’s Silver Valley, the money went into New Zealand real estate, a British retail chain, a Scottish castle and sunken treasure in the Arabian Sea. Gulf sued Rowland and other officers for reckless investing and fraud. The company was forced into bankruptcy in 1993, leaving taxpayers on the hook for tens of millions of dollars in Superfund cleanup costs. For years afterwards, Rowland stayed out of the public spotlight. But now he’s emerged as a prominent figure in British politics. Read Kramer’s full story here at spokesman.com.

Smeed undergoing cancer treatment

Here’s a news item from The Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A libertarian activist who once called Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter “obscenely handsome” is being treated for cancer at a Houston clinic. Ralph Smeed, from Caldwell, is tolerating his medication, according to an e-mail distributed by supporters including Elizabeth Hodge, a former Republican state lawmaker. Another e-mail, from a group that backs Ron Paul, says Smeed has pancreatic cancer. Smeed is at the Burzynski Clinic, which according to its website relies on the “natural biochemical defense system of our body, capable of combatting cancer without harming the healthy cells. Hodge says the 88-year-old Smeed’s tumor hasn’t spread. In addition to his gushing support for Otter, Smeed is known for his billboard in Caldwell with political commentaries, including, “It has been so bitter cold lately that some politicians have had their hands in their own pockets.”

Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey, who spoke with Smeed today, has more here, and here’s a report critical of the treatment Smeed has chosen.

Kemp: ‘What’s missing is action’

Independent gubernatorial candidate Jana Kemp had this response this morning to Gov. Butch Otter’s comments yesterday about the state budget at fiscal year-end:

“While the Governor and Legislature did a good job focusing on realistic revenue numbers and budgeting accordingly, what’s missing is the action toward building Idaho’s business and job base so that such drastic cuts don’t have to keep happening year over year. What is also missing from elected official leadership is action on the much-touted plans for business growth. As I travel Idaho, I’m hearing from business owners and product innovators in technology and in agricultural fields who repeatedly say ‘What has the Governor done for my business? Nothing, he’s helping companies that are already big.’ Continued bragging from the Governor’s office about what was done right in 2010 implies that everything went well and we all know that it didn’t. The continued bragging about correct forecasting also leaves out the discussion of what comes next for 2011 and what plans are being made to help Idaho’s economy improve. Statewide, we need informed action!’

Alcohol poisoning kills UI student

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: MOSCOW, Idaho (AP) — Moscow police say a University of Idaho senior died of respiratory arrest, apparently due to alcohol poisoning after a night of drinking to celebrate his 21st birthday. Emergency personnel responded to a report of an unconscious man at Sigma Nu fraternity at 2:42 a.m. Tuesday. They located Benjamin Harris of Burley on the third floor and began CPR. He was pronounced dead on arrival at Gritman Medical Center. Assistant Police Chief David Duke says Harris may have had as many as 15 shots in two-and-a-half hours as he celebrated his birthday Monday night. A preliminary investigation indicated Harris died of respiratory arrest caused by alcohol poisoning. The cause of death will be determined by the medical examiner after review of the toxicology reports.

Idaho wraps up tough budget year

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on how Idaho closed the books on a tough budget year today. Overall, revenue for the fiscal year that ended June 30 was $86.5 million below the state’s official forecast, at $2.26 billion - lower even than the $2.28 billion figure lawmakers adopted at the start of this year’s legislative session. Returns of unspent money from various agencies helped make up part of the shortfall; an $8.26 million transfer from the state’s permanent building fund brought Idaho to a zero balance at fiscal year-end. The transfer, Gov. Butch Otter said, “could have been a whole lot more if we wouldn’t have gone out to the state agencies earlier and said, ‘If you don’t absolutely have to spend the money don’t spend it.’”

Allred response: Otter missing the point

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Keith Allred has issued a response to Gov. Butch Otter’s press conference today on the state budget, saying “Otter’s still missing the point.” Allred said he agreed that the Legislature was right to hold the line on spending in the 2010 fiscal year. “I’ve never argued otherwise,” he said. “Second, as I’ve said all along, the governor was wrong to build next year’s budget based on the assumption that it will be as bad economically as this year. … Instead of building fiscal year 2011’s budget based on sound evidence and good planning, he’s chosen to go down in history as the first governor to cut funding to our schools.” Click below to read Allred’s full statement.

Otter did discuss education funding during his press conference today, saying, “We would’ve liked to have given them more. We took from many other areas, including an unprecedented reach into the endowment fund.” He added, “We’ve made that commitment that as the economy recovers, education in Idaho is going to be our No. 1 priority,” and then said, “It looks like we’re in a recovery mode right now.”

Asked if, in that case, he wants to rethink the budgeting decisions for next year that call for an unprecedented $128 million cut to public schools, Otter said, “If we exceed the revenues that we had anticipated … obviously we’ll go back and revisit that budget and see if there’s room to revisit that $128 million. We’re doing that process all the time.”

Guv: Budget decisions were prudent

Gov. Butch Otter, joined by several lawmakers including the vice-chairs of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, called a press conference in his office today to announce year-end budget numbers that he said showed he and the Legislature acted responsibly in their budgeting decisions this year. “The budget is balanced,” Otter said. “There were some tough decisions.” June’s state tax revenues came in $6.9 million below projections, for a total shortfall for the fiscal year ending June 30 of $86.5 million below the state’s forecast. After a series of mid-year cutbacks, the final figures required only an $8.26 million transfer from the state’s Permanent Building Fund to balance the books as of the end of the year; that money otherwise would have gone to building maintenance projects. The shift doesn’t impact next year’s budget.

“I just want to say how proud I am of the Legislature and the legislative leadership,” Otter said. “We did that without raising taxes.” He also thanked state agencies who endured cutbacks and whose workers took unpaid furloughs. Senate Finance Vice-Chair Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “During this last session in particular, the governor and the Legislature took a lot of criticism for what has now been shown to be their prudent approach to budgeting.” Click below to read the governor’s full news release.

North Idaho lawmakers on loyalty oath

Three North Idaho lawmakers who joined Gov. Butch Otter for a press conference today on state revenues also expressed concerns about the GOP platform loyalty oath, as did the governor. Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said, “I swore an oath to uphold the Constitution of Idaho and the Constitution of the United States. My loyalty is to the people that elected me, and I have no desire to sign anything for anyone.” Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said she wasn’t at the convention and hasn’t had a chance to study the new platform. “It’s still not clear to me just exactly what’s in there,” she said.

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, said, “I’ve read the platform, and if I decide to sign off, it’s going to be with exceptions.” Asked to name one, he said, “I don’t support repealing the 17th Amendment.” The party platform does; that’s the amendment that calls for direct election of U.S. senators. Goedde said there probably would be other items, too, where he’d differ.

Otter won’t sign loyalty oath to party platform

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter is the latest high-ranking Idaho Republican to say he won’t sign a loyalty oath to the state GOP platform that was approved at the recent state party convention. “I understand the motivation behind that,” Otter said, “but obviously there are things in there that I’d wholeheartedly support and things in there that I can’t.” The question of allegiance to the party platform, he said, “I don’t think can be answered by a single signature.”

The party-approved provision calls for all GOP candidates, before primary elections, to pledge to support the entire platform, or specify where they disagree.  GOP activist Rod Beck, who sponsored the measure after unsuccessfully pushing a similar proposal four years earlier, describes it as a “candidate disclosure.”

Asked today if he’d participate in that disclosure process, Otter said, “Nope.” However, an hour later, he said he’d consider specifying his disagreements with party platform planks before the next primary election, as the measure requires; but he said he didn’t want to go into any specifics now. “Obviously things are problematic there,” Otter said. “I’m not prepared to accept all or none. … If somebody wants to know why … I’m willing to give ‘em why. Before the next primary, I’ll do that.”

Otter on state lottery sales increase: ‘Purest form of voluntary taxation’

Idaho’s state lottery has set a seventh consecutive record for the dividend it turns over to the state this year, handing over $36.5 million in lottery profits to the state’s schools and the permanent building fund.  It marked the third consecutive year that Idaho Lottery sales have increased. Asked why he thinks lottery sales have continued to increase despite the economic downturn, Gov. Butch Otter said, “It’s probably the purest form of voluntary taxation. I think people want to support the school system, but they also want to win some money.” And in tough times, winning money may seem more attractive, he said.

“We’ve been very fortunate in Idaho … maintaining the integrity and the honesty of our lottery system,” Otter said. “We’ve not seen at least a lot of the predicted gaming addictions. We’re very watchful for those.” He noted that he endorsed the concept of a state lottery back in 1986 when he was running for lieutenant governor. “I felt at the time, if people want do to it, they ought to be free to buy a lottery ticket,” Otter said. This year’s dividend is split with $17 million each going to schools and the permanent building fund, and $2.5 million going to the school bond levy equalization fund. Here, Otter and state officials hold a giant check for the permanent building fund portion.

Parents sue over 8-year-old’s arrest at school

The parents of an 8-year-old autistic girl who was arrested at her North Idaho elementary school are suing the school district and the sheriff’s department in federal court, the Associated Press reports, contending the agencies violated the Americans With Disabilities Act. Spring Towry and Charles Towry, along with their daughter, Evelyn, filed the lawsuit Friday in Idaho’s U.S. District Court against the Lake Pend Oreille School District and the Bonner County Sheriff’s Department; click below to read the full story from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

AAA: 30 states have now banned texting while driving, time for Idaho to join

AAA says 30 states have now banned texting while driving, with the recent addition of Delaware, and the auto association says it’s Idaho’s turn to act. “Thirty states have shown there is legislative and public momentum to address texting in the larger framework of distracted driving. Twenty-four of these laws have been enacted in just the past two years,” said Jim Carlson, director of public and government affairs for AAA Idaho. “A year ago, AAA pledged its support to enact texting bans in all 50 states by the year 2013. AAA believes it’s Idaho’s turn to act on this issue.” You can read the AAA’s full statement here.

The politics of the day

It’s apparently becoming fashionable in Idaho politics these days to call on elected GOP nominees who’ve won primary elections to drop out of the general-election race because they’re not deemed Republican enough. First, the Idaho Republican Party at its state convention made such a call regarding longtime Ada County GOP elected official Vern Bisterfeldt, who won the primary in May for the Ada County commission, on which he’d long served earlier; Bisterfeldt is a current Boise city councilman who’s dared to support some Democrats, even serving as campaign treasurer for Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick. Now, Brian Schad, an independent candidate for the 2nd Congressional District seat, has put out a long and scathing “open letter” to six-term  2nd District Congressman Mike Simpson, accusing him of voting like a Democrat and calling on Simpson to drop out of the race, despite his strong victory in the GOP primary.

“I am asking you to voluntarily part ways with The House and come home to beautiful Idaho,” Schad writes in his open letter. “For the good of the most conservative political state in the Union, Mr. Simpson, please step aside of the race and let others who keep the Constitutional tradition alive compete for your seat.” Simpson won the GOP primary with 58.3 percent of the vote, despite facing three challengers.

Meanwhile, Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Keith Roark has sent out a guest editorial inviting Idaho Republicans to leave their party, and take a look at his party’s candidates this year instead. “If you are an independent, clear-thinking voter with a commitment to moderate, pragmatic and limited state government, the extremists now running the Idaho Republican Party are moving that party ever further away from you,” Roark wrote. You can read his article here.

PERSI fund shows $1 billion gain

Idaho’s public employee retirement fund gained a billion dollars on its investments in the past year, and fund officials say it’s healthy, despite a $2.8 billion unfunded liability over the long term. “We’ve just made a good rebound,” said Patrice Perow, Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho spokeswoman. “We’ve been healthy - we’re in good shape, particularly compared to our peers.”

PERSI ended the fiscal year on June 30 77 percent funded, up from 73.3 percent a year earlier, when the unfunded liability hit $3 billion. That figure prompted Idaho House Republicans to push this year to block a scheduled 1 percent cost-of-living increase for state and local government retirees, but the move, which angered retirees who said lawmakers were taking away their money, not the state’s, fell short in the Senate. “I just chalked that up as lessons learned,” said House Speaker Lawerence Denney. He said, “That’s good news that they’re gaining. I just hope everything continues.”

Experts recommend that pension funds be 80 percent funded as a benchmark; Idaho’s was funded at 105.1 percent as recently as 2007, and 2009 and 2010 are the only fiscal years in the past decade that it fell below 80 percent.You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

State: Ringo can’t sue over secret tax deals

Idaho’s initial response to Moscow Rep. Shirley Ringo’s lawsuit over secret tax deals:  She can’t do that. The state has filed a motion to dismiss the case, saying Ringo lacks standing to sue as a lawmaker, something she and her lawyer dispute. Meanwhile, Ringo’s filed an amended complaint saying the secret deals that allegedly allow some wealthy and politically connected taxpayers to get millions in breaks violate constitutional guarantees of equal protection under the laws. Ringo’s also asking for an injunction to stop all secret tax compromises until Idaho institutes a new system.

“If we don’t do something like that, it’ll just be business as usual,” Ringo said, “and sometimes these things take quite a long time to work their way through the system. … It puts a little bit more urgency on it.”Bob Cooper, spokesman for the Idaho Attorney General’s office, declined to comment on the pending case, saying, “We will make any response to the court.” Fourth District Judge Cheri Copsey has scheduled a Sept. 9 hearing on the state’s motion to dismiss the case. If she grants it, the lawsuit would end there; if not, Ringo is seeking a November hearing on the proposed injunction; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com, plus read the documents filed in the case.

Is it or isn’t it?

Idaho GOP activist and former state Sen. Rod Beck is peeved about everyone calling the GOP platform plank he successfully sponsored this year a “loyalty oath.” “It’s just a candidate disclosure, that’s all it is, it’s not a loyalty oath,” Beck declared. “It just asks candidates to say if they support the platform, and if they do, fine, if they don’t, state which areas that they don’t.” Beck, who pushed a similar proposal unsuccessfully four years ago, said he copied the language for this year’s successful proposal from Utah’s GOP. Beck said the term “loyalty oath” is “used as a pejorative in a propaganda sense.” However, he said, “The last time, Blake Hall called it a litmus test - I didn’t like that either.”

The former state Senate majority leader and current closed-primary backer said to him, a loyalty oath implies a penalty, but there’d be no penalty for those who don’t agree with the platform - the party would just publish their replies on its website, for all federal, statewide and legislative candidates prior to every primary election. Beck said in his view, it might even help improve the party’s platform - say, if every candidate objected to the same plank, the party might think about changing that one next time.

Incidentally, according to thefreedicitionary.com, a loyalty oath is, “An oath that declares an individual’s allegiance to the government and its institutions and disclaims support of ideologies or associations that oppose or threaten the government.” My Webster’s Collegiate says loyalty is “the tie binding a person to something to which he is loyal,” and an oath is “a solemn attestation of the truth of inviolability of one’s words.” Here’s a link to Beck’s guest-editorial on the subject.

Idaho ranks low in school spending

Idaho long has ranked low compared to other states in per-pupil education spending. The latest U.S. Census report shines additional light on that: Idaho ranks 50th (out of 51 states plus the District of Columbia) in per-pupil spending (Utah is last), and when state spending on schools is compared to personal income in the state, Idaho still ranks low at 41st (while Utah rises to 25th). The census report, which gathered data from all public elementary and secondary school systems in the nation, is based on 2008 data, so it’s from long before this year’s legislative decision to slash $128 million from Idaho’s school budget. Here’s a link to the full report, and here’s one to just the rankings, both in text and chart form.

Simpson spurns GOP loyalty oath

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson is the latest Idaho Republican who won’t sign a so-called “loyalty oath” that was included in the party’s platform at its convention two weeks ago. Simpson joins state Rep. Maxine Bell and Sen. Joe Stegner is expressing concern about the oath, which asks candidates for elected office to sign a statement saying they support the GOP platform — or list the areas where they disagree. Simpson told The Associated Press he takes one oath: to defend the U.S. Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic. Former state Senate Majority Leader Rod Beck, a delegate at the GOP convention in Idaho Falls, succeeded in having the provision added to the platform. Beck says it will help primary voters determine if elected officials support Republican principles.

Tax commissioners to donate furlough pay

The AP reports that tax commissioners will donate the pay they’re being forced to accept for what they had anticipated would be unpaid furloughs:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho’s top tax collectors are donating vacation time to an employees’ leave fund after they were barred from taking unpaid furloughs. The leave fund benefits state employees beset by personal or family illness. The issue emerged last month, when the Idaho State Tax Commission’s four commissioners learned they couldn’t voluntarily turn down their full $85,000 salaries. By then, they’d already taken 292 furlough hours, worth nearly $12,000, to save money and show solidarity with workers facing wage cuts. With their vacation donations, commissioners — Royce Chigbrow, David Langhorst, Sam Haws and Tom Katsilometes — aim to ease chagrin that they’d still get paid for time they took off. Said spokesman Dan John, “They wanted to participate … not treat folks in the agency differently than the heads of the agency.”

UI settles with retirees

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: MOSCOW, Idaho (AP) — The University of Idaho and more than 250 retired employees have settled a lawsuit over changes to the retirees’ insurance benefits. The settlement was approved by the Latah County District Court on Thursday, and it says that barring a financial emergency, health insurance premiums for retirees won’t increase by more than 10 percent over the previous year. The settlement also holds that life insurance benefits won’t drop below $10,000. The terms of the settlement were short of what retirees had hoped for, but it means they won’t have to pay the university’s attorney’s fees. The retirees had originally contended that the school agreed to pay the full tab for medical and life insurance premiums, but later revised the benefits. But the school maintained — and a judge later agreed — that it had reserved the right to change the benefits.

International Basque seminar coming to BSU

An international academic seminar on Basque immigration will be held at Boise State University July 28-30, at the height of the once-every-five-years “Jaialdi” celebration of Basque culture. The seminar, held in a different European or U.S. location each year, will include scholars from the U.S., Japan, Argentina, Mexico, Peru, Spain, France, Italy, Iceland and the Madeira Islands, and presentations will cover everything from the status of the Basque language in America to the origin of Basque surnames.

The symposium is entitled “Euskal Herria Mugaz Gaindi,” or “Basque Country Beyond Borders.” “It is an honor, but quite appropriate, for Boise State to host such a gathering of the world’s leading Basque scholars,” said Alberto Santana, director of BSU’s Basque Studies Program. Boise State has the largest Basque studies program in the world outside the Basque country.

The Jaialdi festival is scheduled for July 27 to Aug. 1, and several popular downtown Boise hotels already are sold out. The event draws thousands of attendees from around the world; there’s more info here.

Minnick’s fundraising called ‘impressive’

The national political media is making much of preliminary fundraising numbers released by Idaho Congressman Walt Minnick for the upcoming campaign finance report, which isn’t due until July 15; CQ Politics reported today that Minnick’s campaign raised $410,000 from April through June 30, putting his total contributions for the election cycle at more than $1.9 million and leaving him with $1.1 million in cash as of July 1. The political news site called Minnick’s fundraising “impressive” and changed its rating of the race from “tossup” to “leans Democratic;” you can read its story here. Minnick’s challenger, Raul Labrador, hasn’t released preliminary fundraising numbers; campaign spokeswoman China Gum said, “We’re not going to be releasing it, not today anyway.”

John Foster, spokesman for Minnick’s campaign, said, “It’s not due until the 15th, but we’ll probably file our actual report sometime this week. We’re just going through the final crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s today.” He added, “It’s been one of the best three-month fundraising periods Walt’s ever had, so the support has been appreciated and it gives Walt good momentum heading into summer.”

As of the last official report - the pre-primary report - Minnick had raised $115,570 from April 1 to May 5, $1.6 million for the election cycle to date, and had $937,713 cash on hand and $250,000 in debt to the candidate. Labrador had raised just $12,409 in the same time period, $81,312 for the election cycle to date, and had $35,919 in cash and $20,000 in debt to the candidate.

State announces new health plan option for Idahoans with pre-existing conditions

Idahoans who’ve been unable to obtain health insurance because of a pre-existing health condition have a new plan available to them, according to the Idaho Department of Insurance. They can now purchase coverage “comparable to that of a healthy individual,” said state Insurance Director Bill Deal, through the new Pre-Existing Condition Insurance Plan administered by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services. Idaho is one of 21 states opting to have HHS administer the plan; Montana, Washington, Oregon and Utah are among those running their own plans; the new plans are part of the national health care reforms approved by Congress. You can read the full Department of Insurance announcement here.

SupCourt says I.F. needs vote for BPA power agreement, cites Frazier decision

The Idaho Supreme Court, in a 3-2 decision, has overturned a lower-court ruling that the city of Idaho Falls’ long-term agreement to purchase power from the BPA was an “ordinary and necessary” expense and therefore didn’t require a vote of the people; Idaho Falls Mayor Jared Fuhriman appealed the district court’s order. Justice Roger Burdick wrote the majority opinion, in which justices Dan Eismann and Joel Horton concurred; Justice Jim Jones wrote the dissent, in which Justice Pro-Tem Wayne Kidwell concurred. In his dissent, Jones wrote that the city of Idaho Falls has been providing electrical power for a century, so acquiring power was part of its ordinary activities, “to carry on an on-going and long-standing municipal service,” rather than a new venture creating special indebtedness.

Burdick, in the majority opinion, wrote that under the court’s earlier Frazier decision, the power purchase agreement, which wouldn’t have taken effect until Oct. 1, 2011, wasn’t urgent, so there was time for a public vote. You can read the court’s decision and dissent here.

The fair fiesta fracas…

Here’s a link to the letter sent by the Bonner County Republican Central Committee to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, about the committee’s plans to “make a statement at the Bonner County fair” by departing from the fair’s “Fiesta at the Fair” theme, and instead decorating its booth with Arizona license plates and the theme “Celebrate!” to “make it very clear that English is our primary language.” And here’s a link to my story in today’s S-R. The letter was first reported by the Sandpoint Reader weekly paper, then picked up on the Huckleberries blog, which prompted my editors to ask me to look into it. Cornel Rasor, BCRCC chairman and a Bonner commissioner, said he’s surprised the committee’s move has gotten such attention. “I think this has gotten a life of its own - it’s kinda weird,” he said.

Longtime Bonner Fair Board Chairman Tim Cary said no previous fair theme has aroused this type of protest, though on occasion, “some people say, ‘that’s silly, we can’t decorate to that’ or something like that.” He said, “Never had anybody go to such extremes as this - my God, they must have something better to do with their money and time. I guess whatever turns their crank.”

Idaho cutting service at local tax offices

Idaho plans to shut down face-to-face customer service at its five Tax Commission field offices outside Boise on Aug. 2, to free workers in those offices to focus on audits and collections. That means customer service that’s been offered for more than 35 years in Coeur d’Alene, Lewiston, Idaho Falls, Pocatello and Twin Falls will go away. Instead, people who come to those offices will find a lobby phone that’ll connect them to a customer-service center in Boise, and a drop box for payments.

“It’s a big change,” said the commission’s tax policy supervisor, Dan John. “But, you know, we haven’t experienced the kind of strain on resources that we’ve had in the last couple of years, so you have to look at everything we do. Are we doing it the best way possible? And technology has changed.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com

Once the change comes, customers with questions may be better off calling or emailing from home, instead of visiting their local state tax offices. The Idaho Tax Commission’s toll-free information number is (800) 972-7660, the the email address for general tax questions is taxrep@tax.idaho.gov.

‘Fiesta’ theme for county fair riles some in Bonner GOP

The Bonner County Republican Party central committee’s quibble with the “fiesta” theme of the Bonner County Fair this year is raising eyebrows in Sandpoint, where the party’s planning to decorate its fair booth with Arizona license plates and use “celebrate” as its theme instead. “The Republicans at BCRCC want to make it very clear that English is our primary language, and call our booths ‘Celebrate!’ and display some Arizona license plates if you have some to spare,” committee Chairman Cornel Rasor, a Bonner County commissioner, wrote in a letter to Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer. Rasor said, “Having a fiesta theme at the fair was OK with me, I didn’t even think about it ‘til somebody brought it up. But their concerns are very real to them, so I don’t want to downplay it.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Hemmer out, Hardy in

The Idaho Republican Party has named Phil Hardy as its “2010 Victory Director,” a position that will oversee a parallel campaign in favor of Raul Labrador’s challenge to 1st District Congressman Walt Minnick’s re-election. Just a month earlier, the party had named Lindsay Hemmer to that post, but party executive director Jonathan Parker said Hemmer ended up declining the position just before she was to start on June 8. Hardy, who’s now on the job, most recently served as communications director for the Idaho Senate majority caucus; he’s also been an aide to Lt. Gov. Brad Little. Previously, Hardy worked in international communications and marketing in New York and London, and was media director for a London-based professional basketball franchise.

The new “victory director” position is one of two for which the Idaho GOP secured funding this year from the Republican National Committee to work against Minnick’s re-election; the other is a North Idaho field office head, Jeff Ward.

The GOP convention: ‘Positive and inspiring’ or ‘astounding’ and ‘radical’?

It’s hard to imagine two more different takes on the outcome of the recent Idaho Republican Party convention than those in statements issued by state GOP Chairman Norm Semanko and Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Keith Roark. Semanko called the Idaho Falls gathering “positive and inspiring,” and wrote, “More than 500 delegates, elected by their peers from across the state, packed the convention hall in Idaho Falls to welcome their candidates and share in a common goal. … Americans — Republicans, Democrats and independents alike — are frustrated and they want to be heard by their elected leaders. As the party of ideas, only the Republican Party has been listening. At our State Convention, we embraced these ideals and united behind our candidates statewide.” Semanko entitled his statement, “Republican State Convention: Toppling Obama’s Ivory Tower.”

Roark, whose statement was headed, “Idaho Republican Party Finally Leaves Idaho Voters Behind,” said the state’s voters are “astounded at the radical right-hand turn taken by the Idaho Republican Party at its recent state convention.” He blasted platform planks from repealing direct election of U.S. senators to a loyalty oath for candidates to a call for an elected GOP nominee to step down because he also supported some Democrats. “The Republicans proposed measures so far out of the mainstream that Idahoans should be disturbed that they were even considered,” Roark wrote. “If you are tired, irritated and frightened by the right wing extremism of the Idaho Republican Party you are always welcome in our big tent.”

You can read Semanko’s statement here, and Roark’s statement here.

Hart: ‘I do plan on responding’

Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, had this response today to the convening of the newly appointed House Ethics Committee: “I guess I would say I’m anxious to get through the process, and I’m confident everything’s going to work out OK for me.” Hart said he’s received the formal letter from committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, “and I do plan on responding to it.”

Ethics panel wants to be ‘completely fair’

The newly convened House Ethics Committee promised a “by the book” investigation into the conduct of Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, during its first meeting today; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. Click here to read the committee documents - the order appointing the committee, the original complaint, and a statement from the House speaker. Said Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, “We want to make sure that we are completely fair in all our deliberations.”

Hart won’t be excluded from hearings

House Ethics Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher said Rep. Phil Hart asked Speaker Lawerence Denney if he should attend today’s meeting, and Denney checked with Loertscher. “I said we won’t have questions for him today,” Loertscher said. “We will not exclude him from any of the hearings,” Loertscher said. Here is the letter the ethics committee sent to Hart, seeking his formal response to the charges.

Hart doesn’t have to respond…

Rep. Phil Hart doesn’t have to respond to the Ethics Committee, Chairman Tom Loertscher noted. “We may not receive a response - he doesn’t have to respond if he chooses not to.” Loertscher cautioned committee members about talking with Hart. “Just so that you know, I have not been approached by Rep. Hart at all on this matter,” Loertscher said. “I would caution the committee not to have those conversations and be careful.” Loertscher said he ran into Hart in Idaho Falls during the state GOP convention, and “he avoided me like the plague - we said ‘hello’ and that’s it.” Said Loertscher, “It was very appropriate.”

The committee has set its next meeting for Thursday July 29th at 9 a.m.

Ethics panel’s four options…

The ethics committee has four possible recommendations it can make to the House regarding Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol: Dismissal of the charges; reprimand, which requires a majority vote of House members; censure, which also requires a majority vote of the House; and expulsion, which requires a two-thirds vote of the House pursuant to Article 3, Section 11 of the Constitution. Any recommendation also could carry a sanction recommendation, such as removal from certain committees.

Ethics panel: All will be done in the open

Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, said he’d like the Attorney General’s office to provide the House Ethics Committee with a legal briefing on the constitutional provision regarding legislative privilege from arrest or civil process during sessions. Committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, said, “That certainly is appropriate.” Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, also asked for briefing on applicable laws. Deputy
Attorney General Brian Kane said there are two issues: The constitutional privilege provision and whether it was abused, including questions about related laws; and House Rule 38 regarding conflicts of interest. On the constitutional privilege, Kane noted, “Since there is a current, live legal proceeding with regard to that, that question may actually be answered by a court.” But that doesn’t stop the committee from ruling on the issue with regard to ethics rules, he said.

Loertscher told the committee members that as soon as he receives Hart’s response, “I’ll see that you get that the minute that I receive that, so that you have a chance to review that.” Questioned by committee Vice Chair Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, on whether that document and others in the proceeding are public, Loertscher said, “Absolutely. All of this is done in the open. There’s no executive privilege here whatsoever. Everything that I receive with regard to this I’ll make sure that you all get a copy of that.”

Ethics panel briefed on process

Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told the ethics committee, “You have the authority to take testimony, to hear from witnesses.” The committee’s decision will be in the form of a recommendation to the full House, he said. “Only the full body can take final action.”

Ethics panel asks Hart to respond in writing

Rep. Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, chairman of the House Ethics Committee, said, “I did send a letter to Rep. Hart asking for his response. … we want to make sure that we do this correctly and that we give everybody a fair opportunity to respond.” Hart was invited in the letter to respond in writing to the ethics complaint against him. “We would expect a response back from him no later than July 14 so that we could proceed,” Loertscher said.

Ethics committee convenes, Hart isn’t here

The House Ethics Committee has convened its first meeting; Rep. Phil Hart, whose conduct is being investigated, isn’t present.

Loertscher: ‘We want to do this by the book’

This morning’s first meeting of the House Ethics Committee will focus mostly on procedure, said Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona. Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane will brief the committee on the process, and Loertscher said the committee will then assign the Attorney General “to do an investigation of what we tell him to do.” Then, after the initial investigation into the conduct of Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, Loertscher expects the committee to hold a full meeting meeting in late July.

As for this morning’s gathering, at which three of the seven committee members, including the chairman, will participate in person and the other four by phone, “I don’t think we’ll be here terribly long - it just depends on how many questions the committee members have,” Loertscher said. “We want to do this by the book.”

Ethics committee on Hart to convene

A rare House Ethics Committee convenes on Tuesday morning at 9 a.m. Boise time to review the conduct of Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol. The conference-call meeting is the first since the bipartisan panel was appointed last week; it will take place in the House State Affairs committee room, East Wing Room 40 in the lower level of the state Capitol, and you can listen to a live audio stream here.

Here are links to my articles in the past month about Hart’s tax woes:
     * IRS goes after Idaho lawmaker
     * Idaho lawmaker claims extra time to appeal taxes
     * Hart used session to hold off tax man 4 times, starting in first term in office
     * House to convene ethics panel on Hart
     * Hart defends tax fight, welcomes ethics probe
     * Lawmaker also delinquent on property taxes, paid late every year since 2002

Allred audit plan wins Hill’s support

Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Keith Allred’s plan to audit tax deals between the Idaho Tax Commission and those protesting their payments has been endorsed by the state Senate’s tax committee leader. Sen. Brent Hill, a Rexburg Republican who heads the Local Government and Taxation panel, told the AP that Allred’s proposal would boost public confidence in the tax system’s fairness while protecting taxpayer privacy; click below to read the full story from AP reporter John Miller.

A week on the water…

Here’s how I’ve been spending my time this week - windsurfing in the Columbia River Gorge. This shot is from Doug’s Beach earlier this week; it’s been great.

Meanwhile, political news has continued to break in Boise. Here’s a link to the announcement that 1st District Rep. Walt Minnick has been endorsed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a leading business group, and here’s a link to rival Raul Labrador’s response to the endorsement, which charged that the Chamber has a “big-government tilt.” Also this week, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Keith Allred was endorsed by the former GOP Senate tax committee chairman, Hal Bunderson, who said current Gov. Butch Otter has allowed serious problems to develop in the state’s tax system and “now Idaho school kids are also paying the price.” You can read that announcement here.

And some GOP state lawmakers now say they won’t pledge loyalty to Idaho’s new state party platform, despite a candidate disclosure measure approved at the 2010 state convention last weekend asking them to do so. State Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, and Sen. Joe Stegner, of Lewiston, said the disclosure could be used to narrow the party’s base, not promote healthy debate. Rep. Carlos Bilbao, R-Emmett, told the AP he hasn’t decided what he’ll do, but has heard from “five or six” lawmakers who won’t sign any pledge. Click below to read the full story from AP reporter John Miller.

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About this blog

Betsy Z. Russell covers Idaho news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Boise.

Named best state-based political blog in Idaho for 2013 by The Fix

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