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Eye On Boise

Archive for November 2010

Picking legislative leaders…

AP reporter John Miller has this overview of GOP leadership battles in the House and Senate, which will be decided in party caucuses on Wednesday night:

“Secret balloting on Wednesday evening is set to determine if Idaho Senate Republicans will turn to conservative newcomers for guidance — or stick with more-established leaders. All four Senate leadership posts are in play, as President Pro Tempore Bob Geddes’ decision to step down from the Senate’s top post last week helped spur lawmakers in his chamber to seize the moment. Meanwhile, change appears less likely in the House, but GOP Majority Leader Mike Moyle and Caucus Chair Ken Roberts each face a challenge from an established GOP lawmaker with sights on bigger things. With Republicans controlling more than four-fifths of the Legislature after picking up five House seats Nov. 2, these leadership races are significant, because just who is in charge helps determine which issues become priorities.”

Click below for his full report; leadership votes also are scheduled Wednesday night in the House and Senate minority caucuses; Senate Minority Leader Kate Kelly, D-Boise, didn’t seek re-election, leaving her post open; nor did House Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti, D-Pocatello.

Video shows brutal attack on inmate at private Idaho prison while guards watch

There’s a really stunning video story out from the Associated Press about Idaho’s privately operated prison, the Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise, where surveillance videos show an inmate being brutally attacked by another inmate while guards do nothing to stop the attack, even when the attacker stops and sits in a chair to rest, then gets up and resumes the kicking and beating. The victim suffered brain damage and won a medical release from prison. Corrections Corp. of America, which operates the prison for the state, incredibly had this response: That it was wrong of the AP to release the video. “Public release of the video poses an unnecessary security risk to our staff, the inmates entrusted to our care, and ultimately to the public,” CCA said in a statement. You can watch the story below.

Lawmakers look to reform EMS mess

The Joint Legislative Oversight Committee voted unanimously today to work with the chairs of the House and Senate health and welfare committees to introduce legislation in January to reform Idaho’s emergency medical services, which a new performance evaluation found are now a disjointed patchwork of cities, counties, ambulance districts, fire departments, private firms and others that’s led to duplication, gaps in service and possible risks to patients. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Fish & Game: Rammell caught dragging off illegally killed elk

The Idaho Fish & Game Department issued this news release just now about Rex Rammell, the quirky former elk rancher whose run for governor in the Republican primary this year won him 26 percent of the vote, finishing second to  incumbent Gov. Butch Otter in a six-way race:

Rex Rammell, Idaho Falls, is under investigation in the illegal killing of an elk following a confrontation with an Idaho Fish and Game conservation officer. The officer was patrolling the Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area east of Idaho Falls late this morning where a late season cow elk hunt is being held. The officer checked Rammell’s elk tag after he saw that Rammell was dragging a dead elk with his snowmobile. The tag was invalid because it was issued for a hunt that closed in October in the Middle Fork elk hunting zone. Elk tags in Idaho are issued for one of 29 elk hunting zones and are not valid elsewhere Rammell is alleged to have interfered with the officer’s attempt to seize the elk, made a threatening statement, dragged it back to his vehicle and refused to stop until he reached his residence where he refused to accept a citation. Fish and Game confiscated the elk and will seek formal charges.

Report: Idaho’s emergency medical services ‘disjointed,’ leave gaps

When it comes to emergency medical services like paramedics and ambulances, Idaho has a “disjointed assortment of agencies providing services from a mix of resources,” according to a new legislative performance evaluation unveiled today. Those range from cities, counties and fire departments to ambulance districts, private firms and more. “For the most part, friendly working relationships may exist, but no one agency or governing body has explicit governing authority. Statute does not provide for a governing body that has the authority to limit the duplication of services, require statewide coverage, or mandate cooperation among EMS agncies,” the report found. “In the absence of a well-functioning and accountable system, the quality of patient care may be at risk.”

The study, prepared by the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations, was requested by Senate Health & Welfare Chairwoman Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, after years of debate on how to improve Idaho’s EMS system that led to no consensus. The report found, “Idaho’s statutory framework has not kept pace with  the evolution of emergency medical services. Statute limits the state’s ability to improve the delivery of services, leaving Idaho vulnerable to potentially negative impacts.”

The Joint Legislative Oversight Committee is hearing a presentation on the report now. It recommends that Idaho move toward a establishing a better system, noting, “Someone has to be in charge.” Currently, there are about 200 licensed EMS agencies with roughly 4,500 personnel, 60 percent of whom are volunteers. They responded to 143,000 calls for service last year.

The report’s recommendations call for a new framework for EMS, to be established by the Legislature and based around countywide EMS systems that leave no gaps in coverage. It also calls for creating a governing authority and a medical director to coordinate the local systems, an increased role for the Idaho Emergency Medical Services Bureau, and revisions in the funding structure for EMS, all to be developed in concert with stakeholders including the current agencies and providers.

Gov. Butch Otter, in a letter dated today, backed the move. “The Department of Health & Welfare has been fulfilling its legislative mandate of regulating these services for over 30 years, but times have changed, and so must our regulatory approach,” Otter wrote. “Assuring that the quality and integrity of these services are intact without creating unnecessary burden or expense at the local level is central to our state’s interests. Key to our future success will be finding a system of governance that retains local autonomy and collaboration while also assuring accountability to the public and safety for patients. I look forward to collaborating with the Legislature on finding an appropriate governance system for EMS agencies in Idaho.”

FBI investigating Idaho’s private prison

Associated Press reporter Rebecca Boone reports that the FBI is investigating Idaho’s private-run state prison. Here’s her report:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson says the U.S. Department of Justice is looking into allegations of criminal conduct among the staff at Idaho’s only private prison. The inquiry by the Federal Bureau of Investigation is focused on the conduct by prison staff at the Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise. The lockup is run by Corrections Corporation of America, the nation’s largest private prison operator. Olson told the Associated Press Tuesday the investigation is focused on whether prison staff violated the civil rights of inmates at the prison. She said the investigation covers multiple assaults between inmates, including one attack on former inmate Hanni Elabed. His January 2010 assault left him with brain damage and prompted his medical release from prison. Click below to read Boone’s full story.

Prosecutor: Secret tax deals not a crime

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An Idaho prosecutor has declined to pursue a criminal case stemming from allegations that Idaho State Tax Commission leaders gave politically connected taxpayers inappropriate settlements. In a letter obtained by The Associated Press, Ada County Prosecutor Greg Bower told the Idaho attorney general’s office that even if the lawsuit’s allegations were true, “we do not see a criminal law violation.” Bower concluded the matter was best left addressed by the Legislature. Idaho Rep. Shirley Ringo had brought a civil case against tax commissioners. It’s since been dismissed, but Ringo’s lawyer, Robert Huntley, refiled claims after finding new plaintiffs who he says have court standing. When asked about Bower’s move not to pursue a criminal investigation, Huntley said Monday he’s still calling for an independent probe of the settlements.

Idaho to hold full hearings on ConocoPhillips Highway 12 megaloads

Idaho Transportation Director Brian Ness has decided to hold full contested-case hearings on the ConocoPhillips proposal to haul four megaloads of oil refinery equipment across U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho, as recommended by a state hearing officer. “I have reviewed and accept the decision of hearing officer Merlyn Clark that we should proceed with a contested case hearing on the issue. We intend to move forward with scheduling a hearing as quickly as possible,” Ness said. He appointed Clark to preside over the hearings; the schedule has not yet been set. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Meanwhile, here’s some more news on the megaloads issue: The Missoulian reported Friday that an ironworkers union in Edmonton, Alberta is upset that 200 giant modules of oil field equipment that Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil plans to truck in giant loads across Idaho and up into Canada were manufactured in Korea, when 400 more of the modules are being or were manufactured in Alberta.  “We have a lot of module facilities in the Edmonton area that are stone-cold quiet right now,” Harry Tostowaryk, business manager for Ironworkers Local 720 in Edmonton, told the newspaper. “We have capacity for an immense number, and it’s interesting that they’ve chosen to build a third of them overseas.”

The ExxonMobil megaloads are waiting in wings as ITD considers permits for the four giant loads proposed by ConocoPhillips, which are headed to the firm’s Billings refinery; you can read the Missoulian’s full story here.

Coyote ‘acting strangely’ still on the loose despite 3 tranquilizer darts

A coyote that was acting strangely in the around the Capitol and North End areas of Boise was hit with three tranquilizer darts on Friday, but still evaded capture and remains on the loose, the Idaho Fish and Game Department has announced. Fish & Game spokesman Ed Mitchell said the animal was darted with the intent of removing it from the area, but each time it was hit, disturbances from traffic or people roused it before it could drowse off. The coyote appeared to have become habituated to humans and had prompted a number of complaints from the public, Fish & Game reported.

Officials warned anyone finding the 2.5-inch long, clear or bright-yellow darts not to handle them with bare hands and to report them to Fish & Game; also, area residents are being warned not to feed coyotes, not to leave pet food outside and not to leave pets, especially cats, outside unsupervised. Anyone who sees the coyote or finds the darts is asked to call Fish & Game at 334-3700.

Otter ‘open to discussion’ on wolves if it’ll lead to hunting season

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter is en route back from a two-hour meeting this morning in Denver with the governors of Montana and Wyoming and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, which Otter attended at Salazar’s invitation. Otter in October pulled his state out of participating in wolf management, turning all duties over to federal authorities and saying Idaho wouldn’t participate if it couldn’t hold a wolf hunt. “Nobody’s talking about eliminating these animals - our position has been biological stability,” said Otter’s spokesman, Jon Hanian. “We feel we’ve more than reached that, and the problem is that it’s being legislated in the courts. I think that’s why we’ve reached the impasse we currently find ourselves in.”

Idaho and Montana conducted successful state-regulated wolf hunts in the past year while their wolves were off the endangered species list, but a federal judge’s ruling halted plans for another wolf hunt in the two states this fall. Hanian said Otter made it clear when he ended Idaho’s role in wolf management that “we’re open to any discussion that would further Idaho’s efforts to have a hunting season, because we think that’s an integral part of successful management.”

Wolf meeting: ‘A path forward’

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter joined Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer, Wyoming Gov. Dave Freudenthal and U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar at a meeting this morning in Lakewood, Colo. to discuss the status of wolf management in the three states - a meeting Salazar called. Afterward, the secretary said he, the governors and Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks Tom Strickland discussed “a path forward regarding the Northern Rocky Mountain gray wolf population;” you can read our full story here at spokesman.com.

“The successful recovery of the gray wolf is a stunning example of how the Endangered Species Act can work to keep imperiled animals from sliding into extinction,” Salazar said in a statement after the gathering.  “Today’s meeting was very constructive and I appreciate that the governors share our goal to delist the species with a responsible approach guided by science.”

Wolves were removed from endangered species protection in Idaho and Montana in 2009, but remained protected in Wyoming, where the state had no federally approved wolf management plan, and instead declared that wolves could be shot on sight in much of the state. A federal judge this year overturned the delisting decision, on grounds that it couldn’t address the same regional wolf population differently along state lines.

Strickland said, “There are many complexities involved in how we conduct the delisting. In today’s meeting we discussed how we move forward to both delist the wolf and provide appropriate protection in the future.”

Wyoming Gov. Freudenthal told the Associated Press after the meeting, “The frustration from both the governors and the secretary is that everybody recognizes that the (wolf) population is not only recovered, but it is robust. And why we can’t get to delisting, I think, is very frustrating for all of the people sitting around that table.” Freudenthal said Wyoming and the other states haven’t committed to anything. And while he emphasized that Wyoming is open to talking about changes in its tactics, he said it’s not willing to change its fundamental principle that it needs to be able to manage wolves as it sees fit outside the “recovery area.”

New congressman still paying off student loans

Idaho’s newest congressman-elect is a 42-year-old attorney and former state lawmaker, but he’s also still paying off thousands in student loans. “It’s how I got through law school,” said Idaho Rep.-elect Raul Labrador. The Project on Student Debt, a nonprofit research group funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Ford Foundation, says it’s not uncommon for Americans, particularly those with professional degrees, to still be paying off their student loans into their 40s. “It’s taking longer and longer as people borrow more,” said Edie Irons, the project’s communications director. “We’re definitely troubled by it.”

Labrador reported on his congressional financial disclosure form that he still owes between $15,000 and $50,000 in federal student loans. “I’ve been paying on it for, I think, 15 years now,” he said. He said he doesn’t know exactly how much he owes, but it’s toward the lower end of the disclosure form’s wide range. “I believe if that’s the only way you can go to school, you should consider it,” he said. “You don’t have to go to the most expensive school, you don’t have to take out the most loans. Go to in-state schools or other schools that are less expensive.” You can read my full story here from Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.

Labrador in D.C.: ‘Such a privilege’

Idaho Congressman-elect Raul Labrador, after a week of new member orientation in Washington, D.C., pronounced the experience “amazing.” “I just felt the entire week like it was such a privilege to be there, and I was just in awe that the people of Idaho had given me that privilege,” Labrador said in an interview. His orientation started with a dinner with all the newly elected Republicans in the historic Statuary Hall; Labrador was joined by his wife, Becca.

New members also drew numbers for priority in choosing their office space, and though Labrador drew a low number - 78 out of 85 - he said he actually got an office in the Longworth Building that was among his top five choices. “I like the building - it’s kind of smaller offices, but a lot of history. They have beautiful wood paneling and things like that,” he said. “But I would’ve been happy with a closet.” He added, “Especially coming from the state Legislature - I had a cubicle.”

He and his wife arrived two days early to take a look at neighborhoods in Washington, “trying to figure out if we’re going to move our family there, keep our family here - we’re making some pretty big decisions about our life,” Labrador said. “Also trying to decide, if I’m going to be there by myself, where I’m going to live during the week.” For now, Labrador said he’ll commute to Washington and return to Idaho and his family on weekends; he’ll decide next summer whether to move them. Four of his five children are still in school, while the oldest is at Utah State University. “It’s a tough decision,” he said. “Our kids are very heavily involved in sports and school activities, they have great friends, they’re good kids, and obviously that’s to me more important than anything else I do is my family and my children. So I don’t want to do anything to hurt them.”

Labrador released an op-ed piece about his experience at the orientation, in which he said, “I was thrilled to find that most of my new colleagues are as serious as I am about reversing the direction that Congress has pursued the last two years;” you can read it here. He noted that of the 94 new House members, 85 are Republicans and 34 have never held elected office before.

Rattlesnakes and roadkill…

Thanks to concerns from Idaho state legislators, Idahoans now may legally sell up to six rattlesnake skins a year, and the state’s Fish and Game Department is looking into whether to allow Idaho hunters to salvage some road-killed animals. “I’m all for it,” said Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, who last year caused a stir when he proposed legislation to let folks with hunting licenses harvest pelts from bobcats and the like that are found dead on the state’s roads; you can read my full story here from Saturday’s Spokesman-Review.

The state Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously to oppose Harwood’s bill, and he pulled it before it could be debated; but now the commission is examining whether its rules could be adjusted to allow for some salvage; it’s also already approved rules, which the Legislature will review in its upcoming session, to let Idahoans sell a limited number of rattlesnake skins. Said Harwood, “I just hate to see that stuff go to waste.”

Feeling thankful…

Today was the first time since 1994 that Bogus Basin ski area has opened on Thanksgiving Day, and it was a particularly nice one. It was c-c-cold, the powder was fresh, the sun was peeking out and snowflakes were sparkling in the air. Eager skiers and snowboarders enjoyed the frontside and Bitterroot Basin, but here’s the best part: Bogus has just announced that the backside, both Superior Chair No. 3 and Pine Creek Chair No. 6, will open on Saturday.

Ruling: Megaloads opponents have a right to be heard

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on today’s ruling from a state hearing officer that residents and business owners along scenic U.S. Highway 12 who object to giant mega-loads of oil equipment traveling the route and blocking both lanes have a right to be heard at formal hearings before Idaho grants permits for the first four loads. The route is a designated scenic byway dotted with campgrounds, hot springs, and historic sites; it roughly parallels the route explorers Lewis and Clark followed, and follows the protected Lochsa and Clearwater rivers.

Though ConocoPhillips plans just four mega-loads - consisting of two giant coke drums that have been cut in half, to replace two aging drums at its Billings, Mont. refinery - they are the first of more than 200 mega-loads proposed for the route. Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil plans to send 207 extra-large loads of equipment along the route from the Port of Lewiston, across Idaho on Highway 12 and up through Montana to Canada for its Alberta oil sands project. A Korean firm also has contacted ITD about sending dozens more giant loads along the same route.

Business group: Megaloads should roll

A business group that actively supports the prospect of megaloads of oil equipment traveling on U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho has issued a statement that it’s “concerned” over a hearing officer’s ruling today that opponents of the loads have a right to be heard in formal contested-case hearings. “These particular loads have been appropriately subject to additional requirements and safeguards and should leave the Port of Lewiston immediately,” Alex LaBeau, co-chairman of “Drive Our Economy” and president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, said in the statement; you can read the full statement below. LaBeau said, “Yet because some individuals object to the end use of that particular equipment, they are throwing up legal roadblocks at every turn.”

The “Drive Our Economy” group contends opposition to the megaloads is really coming from national environmental groups opposed to the Alberta oil sands project, but the four ConocoPhillips megaloads are actually bound for the firm’s Billings refinery, where they’ll replace existing aging parts. The opponents are people who live or have businesses along the route the loads would travel.

The hearing officer’s decision…

Hearing officer Merlyn Clark, in his 20-page ruling, detailed how ITD reviewed the proposal for the four ConocoPhillips megaloads and determined they could travel safely - but he also found that the three opponents who sued to block the loads clearly have a “direct and substantial interest” in the matter, and thus must be heard in a contested-case hearing. “The Department must hold formal contested case hearings before the applicants’ overlegal loads are allowed to travel under the permit,” Clark wrote in his decision. “To allow the loads to travel before a formal contested case hearing is conducted would contravene the right of the parties to intervene and be heard upon the issues as provided under the Rules of Administrative Procedure.”

He added, “It is the decision and recommendation of the hearing officer that the department must hold formal contested case hearings before the applicants’ overlegal loads are allowed to travel under ther permits.” He noted that his decision is a “recommended order,” and doesn’t become final without action of the agency head. Clark also noted that any party could file for reconsideration of his ruling within 14 days.

Megaloads opponents: ‘It is good news’

Linwood Laughy and Borg Hendrickson, two U.S. Highway 12 residents who were among those who sued to block megaloads of oil equipment two lanes wide from traveling the route, had this statement today in response to the hearing officer’s decision:

“We feel that it is good news that a neutral lawyer has said, yes, residents and business owners who live, work and recreate along U.S. Highway 12 do have a voice in government agency dealings that directly affect them. We look forward to moving ahead with the contested case process.”

ITD says it can ‘accept, reject, modify or hold’ hearing officer’s decision

Adam Rush, public involvement coordinator for the Idaho Transportation Department, said ITD Director Brian Ness “can accept, reject, modify or hold the recommendation” from hearing officer Merlyn Clark for full contested-case hearings on permits for four ConocoPhillips megaloads on U.S. Highway 12. “He’ll certainly take time to review it and look into it and consult with staff here and see how to proceed,” Rush said. While that happens, Rush said, the stay on the permits remains in effect.

You can read the hearing officer’s 20-page decision here.

ITD: Will review hearing officer’s recommendation

The Idaho Transportation Department just announced that its hearing officer, Merlyn Clark, has ruled that opponents of the four proposed ConocoPhillips megaloads on U.S. Highway 12 have a right to contest permits for the loads. ITD Director Brian Ness “will review the recommendation,” the agency said in a brief news release, “and will decide the final action of the transportation department.”

Click below to read the full news release.

ConocoPhillips on megaloads decision: ‘We are disappointed’

No word yet from ITD on the hearing officer’s decision on the four ConocoPhillips megaloads proposed for U.S. Highway 12, but apparently the decision has gone against the company, and in favor of holding full contested case hearings. ConocoPhillips just issued this statement:

“We are disappointed by the recommendation from Hearing Officer Merlyn Clark regarding our shipment of four pieces of refinery equipment to Billings, Montana.  We do not believe the recommendation adequately accounts for the careful planning by ConocoPhillips, Emmert International, the ITD, and other state and local agencies.  We are well prepared to transport our refinery equipment from Lewiston to Billings safely, and in a way that protects roads and accommodates traffic flow. The recommendation also could delay an important part of our planned maintenance activities at the Billings refinery.  We will continue to pursue our options for shipping this equipment to Billings and plan to continue our 60-plus year tradition of providing a dependable supply of quality fuels to customers in Idaho, Montana and the rest of the Rocky Mountain region.”
 

Otter won’t propose any road funding improvements in coming year

Gov. Butch Otter, in response to yesterday’s action by his transportation funding task force, says he won’t propose any transportation funding increases in 2011. Otter, in a news release, said the task force called for “delaying revenue enhancements for now.”

In its all-day meeting yesterday, the task force debated proposed wording in an initial draft of its resolution calling for making $543 million in improvements to Idaho’s roads and bridges “when the Governor and the Legislature have determined that the economy of Idaho has improved to the extent that economic conditions allow an increase in transportation funding,” with several members calling for removing that economic-trigger language, saying it wasn’t their business to dictate timing to the governor and Legislature. Task force member Gordon Cruickshank said, “I guess I look at that as what happens if the economy doesn’t improve? We’re basically saying if it doesn’t improve, we’re not going to do anything.”

After much discussion on that point, the task force moved on to other issues, but never resolved whether it’d remove the part about when the economy improves. It ended up staying in the resolution, which still is going through final edits.

“Our transportation needs are real and growing, and the safety of Idaho citizens remains one of our highest priorities,” Otter said in his news release. “But too many people remain jobless, under-employed or on the ragged edge financially to impose higher costs on them right now. I won’t ask the Legislature to approve any funding increases in 2011, but the task force has provided us with a path forward while we keep doing all we can to get people back to work by growing our economy.” Click below to read the governor’s full news release, which came out last night at 8 p.m.

Lake: ‘We chose a cautious way out’

Here’s  a link to my full story at spokesman.com on today’s final recommendations from Gov. Butch Otter’s transportation funding task force, which were 18 months in the making. House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, cast the only vote against the task force’s final  resolution. “I wanted the task force to come up with specific recommendations to fund enhancements for the Department of Transportation - we didn’t do it,” Lake said. “I think that we chose a cautious way out.” Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, disagreed. “We’ve identified the problem, we’ve identified the tools - that was our task,” she said. “Now that goes to the governor and the Legislature.”

While stopping short of calling for any specific revenue increases or any specific timeline for them, the task force said Idaho needs to spend $543 million a year more on its roads, and it laid out a prioritized list of two dozen possible ways to raise the money, topped by increasing the state’s gas tax.

Task force: ‘Our work is done’

The governor’s transportation funding task force also has agreed to support a legislative task force’s recommendation to permanently restore to the Idaho Department of Parks & Recreation the 3 percent share of gas taxes that it’s long been receiving for trails, reflecting the amount of gas that’s burned off-road in ATV’s, boats, snowmobiles and the like.  An end-of-session compromise on transportation funding two years ago sought to shift that money to ITD, but lawmakers then agreed to put that off until July 1, 2011; this recommendation would reverse it permanently, should the Legislature follow it. Task force members said there’s no need for them to address how to fund the Idaho State Police as a legislative task force will address that; they were the other, larger piece of that funding shift. The task force agreed that that portion of the shift should continue.

When Lt. Gov. Brad Little asked for unanimous consent to all items in the task force’s final resolution, only Rep. Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, objected. “OK, with one objection they’re accepted,” Little said.

“Task force members, I think our work is done,” Little told the panel. He added, “One of the things that makes Idaho a great state and makes us very competitive is how hard it is to raise taxes.” But he said being proactive to address major needs also distinguishes the state, versus other states that end up having to do things like release prison inmates due to budget shortfalls. “Frankly I’m very pleased at how things came out today,” Little said. “I think we’ve come up with a  roadmap. I think we’ve acknowledged how difficult it’s going to be.”

Task force: ‘We can’t do it now’

Rather than come up with specific proposals to raise gas taxes, registration fees or other revenue sources, the governor’s transportation funding task force has opted to simply send along a matrix it agreed to earlier in which it defined and prioritized the various ways the state could raise hundreds of millions more for roads. Increasing fuel tax is at the top of the list. The task force also has agreed to forward a recommendation from its cost allocation subcommittee to consider phasing over several years any moves to correct equity between how much cars and heavy trucks pay for roads; included a call for re-examining distribution formulas to local highway jurisdictions; and noted a subcommittee’s list of possible ways to fund public transportation in the long term, including local-option taxes.

This goes along with the task force’s determination that Idaho needs $543 million a year more to address its transportation needs. “Chairman Lake was exactly right - we can’t get there from here with the fuel taxes and things in the economy that we have,” said task force member Jim Kempton. “There may be a time in the future we can do it. We can’t do it now.”

No decisions yet, but plenty of disagreement

No decisions yet. House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, noted that if Idaho were to raise its gas tax enough to fund the whole $540 million-plus need the governor’s transportation funding task force has identified, “We’d be facing a 66 cent a gallon fuel tax increase. I don’t think there’s a person on the committee that thinks that’s realistic.” House Transportation Chair JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, said, “Realistically, if you’re going to go through the committee and ask them to raise the gas tax, you’re going to run into reluctance to do it higher than the states around us. So how much can we do that? … This is difficult.”

Other task force members said all options need to be looked at, not just gas tax hikes. But they disagreed on whether their recommendation should be for what should be done when the economy improves, or what should be done when the governor and Legislature think the time is right, or what. Task force member Gordon Cruickshank said, “I guess I look at that as what happens if the economy doesn’t improve. … We’re basically saying if it doesn’t improve we’re not going to do anything.”

Little: ‘Now things get more interesting’

The governor’s transportation task force has been wordsmithing by committee various “whereas” clauses in its proposed resolution, on things like how funding for local highway jurisdictions should fit needs, rather than just follow a distribution formula. Some districts have dozens of bridges, for example, while others have only a few. Up next: The actual recommendations on how to fund stuff.

“Now things get a little more interesting,” said Lt. Gov. Brad Little.

Some task force members wary of any suggestion trucks underpay

Several members of the governor’s task force are expressing squeamishness over wording in their proposed resolution that calls for the state to “move toward a more balanced system of cost responsibility between broad classes of vehicles, but … do so in a way that does not place an undue financial burden on a single class of highway users or hamper the competitiveness of Idaho businesses.” Rep. Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian, said he wanted that statement removed. Jim Riley, a task force member, said he thinks the system’s already balanced now, between how much trucks and cars pay - despite the findings of a cost-allocation study that the task force voted unanimously to accept, and which found that currently, cars and pickups overpay for their wear and tear on the roads, and heavy trucks underpay.

Riley recommended deleting any reference to “move toward a more balanced system” and just saying the state should “maintain a generally balanced” system. Rep. Bill Killen, D-Boise, said the wording made sense as-is; task force member Jim Kempton, who chaired the subcommittee on cost allocation, agreed. House Transportation Chair JoAn Wood, R-Rigby, said what lawmakers went through on the weight-distance tax on trucks was “agonizing,” and “We really thought we had it worked out well,” but that proved not to be the case. “I think there needs to be some correction, no doubt about it,” Wood said. She said she recognized some members’ “discomfort,” and would support Riley’s proposal. “I know we’ve got to work on it,” Wood said.

After much debate, Kempton proposed that the clause say “maintain a balanced system,” and the panel generally agreed.

Road needs: $543 million

The total figures being tossed around by the governor’s task force on transportation funding are big: $262 million to operate, preserve and restore the current road system, both at the state and local level; plus $281 million needed for “capacity and safety enhancement” at both levels. That’s a total of $543 million. The figure is the average the 14 task force members’ responses on a survey. “I think it’s the first time that the total numbers really have been presented in a way that the public can understand it,” said task force member Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Meridian. “$240 million … was a maintenance budget. I think these numbers indeed reflect a more accurate picture of what the need is. Now, whether it gets funded at that level is another question, but I think it accurately depicts the need.”

Road funding: How to fill in the blanks

The governor’s transportation funding task force has begun working through a proposed resolution - which currently contains lots of blanks - on what it should recommend for future road funding in Idaho. Among its clauses: One saying that federal funding likely “will remain essentially flat for the foreseeable future and cannot be relied on to solve the lack of adequate transportation funding in Idaho.”

Instead, the resolution, as currently drafted, declares “that when the Governor and the Legislature have determined that the economy of Idaho has improved to the extent that economic conditions allow an increase in transportation funding, that the Idaho legislature pass and the Governor of Idaho sign legislation that will increase revenue for transportation in the amount of (blank).” That’s then followed by a long list of fill-in-the-blank options, from gas tax and registration fee increases to a weight-distance tax on trucks.

Road funding debate to start at 12:45

The governor’s transportation funding task force has been kicking around some questions about how it should fashion its recommendations, but hasn’t yet begun debating the specifics - that’ll happen this afternoon. Lt. Gov. Brad Little, the task force chairman, is passing out a draft resolution with some blanks in it for task force members to ponder over their lunch break. Because the meeting is running ahead of schedule, the task force will reconvene at 12:45 after its lunch break to start debating things like gas tax hikes, taxes on car rentals, increases in car registration fees and the like.

Bogus opens Thursday for season

Here’s some news: Bogus Basin ski resort will open for the season on Thursday - Thanksgiving Day. “Recent storms have delivered 2-feet of snow for a ‘front side’ opening,” the resort just announced on its website. Chairs 1, 2, 4, 5, 7, Easy Rider and the Fundsy magic carpet will be open; hours Thursday through Sunday will be 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., with tickets discounted to $25. The Nordic Center will be open the same hours Thursday through Sunday, with trail passes discounted to $12.

H&W closes 8 offices for day due to weather

Severe winter weather and hazardous driving conditions in central and eastern Idaho have prompted the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare to close all of its offices in regions 5, 6 and 7 for the day - that’s Burley, Blackfoot, Idaho Falls, Twin Falls, Pocatello, Rexburg, Preston and Salmon. All other Health & Welfare offices currently remain open, the department reports; you can read its announcement here.

Missoula extends fee on megaloads

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  MISSOULA, Mont. (AP) — The Missoula City Council has voted to make permanent a $200 fee for companies seeking permits to haul oversized loads through the city. Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil is seeking permits from Idaho and Montana to haul 200 loads of oil field equipment from Lewiston, Idaho via U.S. Highway 12. The loads would be brought through Missoula and travel through northwestern Montana and into Canada. The loads are up to 24 feet wide, 30 feet high, 210 feet long and can weigh more than 30 tons. The commission passed an emergency ordinance in August to double to $200 the permit fees for oversized loads. The emergency ordinance expired Monday. The Missoulian reports the city council voted unanimously Monday for a similar temporary emergency ordinance and passed a permanent ordinance that will take effect in 30 days.

$1-a-month surcharge on car insurance could make up lost ISP funding

Idaho could impose a $1 per month surcharge on auto insurance policies and raise $19.4 million a year - enough to replace the millions in funding for Idaho State Police that ISP would lose if a planned shift off the gas tax takes effect, to redirect those gas tax funds to transportation; that shift already has been delayed once. Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, co-chairman of the task force on alternative funding for the Idaho State Police and state parks and recreation, told the governor’s task force on transportation funding just now that that was one of his task force’s top two choices for funding ISP, with vehicle registration fees being the other. The panel held off on making any recommendation, though, to let the governor’s task force decide first if it wanted to do anything with registration fees or the like.

Cameron said his task force backed permanently restoring gas tax funds to parks and recreation. The share of those funds reflects gas burned in ATV’s, boats and other off-road vehicles. He said once the governor’s task force makes its recommendations, his task force will reconvene and make its final recommendations.

New ITD management system set to go live

ITD Deputy Director Scott Stokes is briefing the governor’s transportation task force on efficiency moves at ITD. The agency’s goals are safety, mobility and economic vitality, Stokes said. Its new computerized management systems - a key recommendation from a legislative audit - “begin going live on Dec. 17,” Stokes said. “That is a huge step for Idaho.” The systems will allow ITD to better track the condition of roadways and bridges around the state, he said. “We can see and quantify the heartbeat, blood pressure and stress levels of our system in real time,” Stokes said.

Study: Local highway jurisdictions need local-option tax authority

The state’s Local Highway Technical Assistance Council held a “local highway efficiency summit” in October and completed a study of efficiency at Idaho’s local highway districts. The results, LHTAC administrator Lance Holmstrom told the governor’s transportation task force this morning, showed that “local highway jurisdictions are actually doing quite well” at meeting an efficiency standard of addressing 1/20th of paved miles in their jurisdictions each year. However, the study found that they need more funding to do sufficient reconstruction and rehab on roads and bridges to avoid continued deterioration. It also found that additional funding should be based on needs in specific jurisdictions, not just spread around to all. The study’s recommendations included giving local highway jurisdictions “authority to develop alternative funding options,” such as local-option sales taxes.

Transportation task force opens final meeting with ‘lot of work to do’

The governor’s transportation funding task force has convened its final meeting this morning in the state Capitol. “We’ve got a lot of work to do,” Lt. Gov. Brad Little, the task force chairman, told members as the meeting opened. First off this morning, the task force is hearing reports on efficiency at local highway districts and at the Idaho Transportation Department. It’ll also discuss funding options for Idaho State Police and state parks and rec, after a shift of gas taxes away from those was proposed, then delayed. By the end of the meeting this afternoon, the task force is scheduled to settle on its recommendations - how to fund transportation in Idaho now and into the future. Those recommendations will go to Gov. Butch Otter and the state Legislature.

Hilde Kellogg dies at age 92

Longtime Idaho state Rep. Hilde Kellogg, R-Post Falls, died Monday at the age of 92. She served in the state Legislature until age 88; she died of natural causes at Kootenai Medical Center and services are pending. You can read the Coeur d’Alene Press’s full story here.

Immigration sweeps round up 13

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) — Federal immigration officers arrested 13 illegal immigrants across southern Idaho last week and all but one are expected to be immediately deported. The Post Register reports the Boise office of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement arrested 10 men and three women in a four-day sweep that ended last Friday. Seven people were arrested in Idaho Falls, with one each in: American Falls, Firth, Hamer, Lewisville, Shoshone and Sugar City. ICE spokeswoman Lorie Dankers says 12 have final orders of deportation. One man was turned over to the Bonneville County sheriff’s office for an outstanding arrest warrant on battery charges.

Cameron’s not running for pro-tem

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, isn’t running for president pro-tem of the Senate. “From my perspective, either Bart Davis or Brent Hill would be an excellent choice for being pro-tem,” Cameron said. “As long as those guys are considering running, then I’m in full support of them being pro-tem and I’m happy to continue with my responsibilities on the joint committee.” Cameron co-chairs the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, the powerful panel that sets the state budget.

Cameron said he unwittingly broke Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes’ embargo yesterday on his announcement that he was stepping down; Cameron hadn’t seen the email that contained the embargo. “I had heard through the rumor mill so I had called the pro-tem this morning,” he said Monday. “He didn’t tell me it was top secret. I apologize - I kinda outed him before maybe he was ready.”

Poachers shooting ‘alarming number’ of deer, elk near Kamiah, leaving to rot

Idaho Fish & Game is investigating what it calls “an alarming number” of big game animals shot and left to waste along a single stretch of road east of Kamiah - seven deer and elk since late October. “We’ve investigated poaching activity in this area in the past, but nothing to this extent,” said Roger Westfall, a senior conservation officer based in Kamiah.  “There is no excuse for these senseless crimes – it’s outrageous.” F&G reported that the kills, all found along a 1.5-mile stretch of Beaver Slide Road, included two whitetail does, a cow elk, a mature mule deer buck, a small whitetail buck and two more elk. All appeared to have been shot from the road illegally; no meat was taken from any of them.

“Anyone observing suspicious activity in this area or with information about these crimes is encouraged to contact the Citizens Against Poaching hotline at 1-800-632-5999,” Fish & Game said in a news release. “Callers can remain anonymous and will be eligible for a reward.”

The agency also is asking for help in finding the poacher of a trophy-class white-tailed buck that was shot from Deer Creek Road west of Whitebird around Nov. 16; those poachers took the head, including the animal’s huge and distinctive antlers, and left the rest of the carcass to waste.

Tamarack offer one of five

Today’s new offer to buy Tamarack Resort for $40 million cash is one of five being considered by Jean-Pierre Boespflug, the French-born co-founder of the ski and golf resort, the Associated Press reports. “Obviously we’re happy that they’re interested,” Boespflug said. The five include a $42 million offer submitted in August by Salt Lake City-based Pelorus Group and three others whose details haven’t been disclosed; click below to read a full report from AP reporter Todd Dvorak.

The race for pro-tem is on…

The race is on for the Idaho Senate’s top leadership post. Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, already has notified other senators that he’s running for Senate president pro-tem. Fulcher currently is the Senate majority caucus chair, the No. 4 position in the majority leadership; a commercial real estate broker, he’s starting his fourth term in the Senate.

Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, chairman of the Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee and a sixth-term senator, confirmed that he, too, is interested in the post. “I’m planning on running,” Hill told Eye on Boise. “Obviously, Bob’s done a great job. I think the atmosphere that he has helped create there, the culture, I think is something that we need to have carry on.”

Click below for more from Hill on why he’s running.

Geddes won’t seek another term as pro-tem

Longtime Idaho Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes has decided not to seek another term in the Senate’s top leadership post, and his decision already has prompted two senators to seek the post - Sen. Russ Fulcher, R-Meridian, and Sen. Brent Hill, R-Rexburg.

Geddes distributed an embargoed press release to his fellow senators in hopes that he could hold off the announcement until Wednesday, the day his local newspapers come out, to allow them to break the news. But it quickly spread on the Internet, and Geddes said this morning, “I’m guessing that floodgate is open.”

He said, “I don’t know that anybody was going to challenge me, but it’s always good to leave before you have to face that challenge. It’s been a wonderful experience for me to serve as the pro-tem for 10 years, the longest term in Idaho’s history.” During his time in the top leadership post, Geddes has made a series of changes - including a key change in committee hearing schedules - that diluted the impact of seniority and allowed all senators to have more of a role in the body’s decision-making. “I think what I’ve tried to do is change a little bit of the dynamic and the mentality and the structure of the Senate,” Geddes said. “I’ve worked hard to empower all of the senators to be able to represent their districts and represent themselves.”

Gone are the days when a few key senators served in leadership, held down committee chairmanships and also occupied coveted spots on the joint budget committee, a time when, a few decades ago, the lineup of powerful senators was referred to as “Sirloin Row.” Said Geddes, “My objective was to kind of put sirloin in every row. I think we have that now.”

Geddes said when he first started in the Senate in 1995, seniority was such a big factor that he wasn’t able to get but a single committee assignment, education. “A new senator would come in and they were told to sit in their seat and if they wanted to say something not to, that their job was to learn at the feet of the older senators,” he said. “We don’t have that luxury any more, because people are a little bit angry at the political process anyway. … When those people are elected, they’re elected to represent a district. Those districts all have a need for a senator who is capable and credible and has access to the process.”

He said he figures those changes are part of what kept him in the highly sought top leadership post for so long. Plus, his schedule changes mostly freed up Friday afternoons from committee hearings - a popular move for senators who often faced a many-hours drive home each Friday night in winter weather.

As for what’s next for Geddes, he said, “I really don’t have seniority on any committee. And so if you look at the seniority process, I’m probably not in line for a chairmanship. I will have a very nice office in the basement, because all of the basement offices are very nice. I hope to contribute. I hope to be a senator who enjoys the responsibility and the benefits of serving, and doing a good job.”

40-year-old entrepreneur makes $40 million cash offer for Tamarack Resort

That was a very strange press conference. Matthew Hutcheson, co-founder of Green Valley Holdings, took no questions from the press. Instead, he made a statement, then posed to himself and answered a series of questions, such as whether “JP” would be involved in the resort in the future. “We do not anticipate that he will be involved,” was the answer; JP is Jean-Pierre Boespflug, Tamarack Resort founder and former owner.

Hutcheson said he and his partners - his wife, Annette, and Larry, Scott and Rod Givens - are offering $40 million cash for Tamarack Resort, which he termed a “fair price.” He acknowledged that none of them have experience running a resort, but said they’ve “assembled an initial team of experts,” and if their offer is successful, they’ll bring in others with expertise “to make Tamarack a successful and viable going concern.”

Hutcheson is an independent fiduciary, a 40-year-old entrepreneur, an advocate of 401K reform and a bit of a mystery; check out this article from August in Retirement Income Journal headlined “The Gospel of Matthew Hutcheson.”

Hutcheson said today, “My professional career has been dedicated to securing and if possible enhancing the financial security of American workers.” He cited his push for regulatory reforms, and the insecurity Idahoans and others face in planning for secure retirements, particularly in this time of economic downturn. “We believe Tamarack’s future can be secured by taking a benevolent approach,” Hutcheson said, though he did not elaborate. He said he hopes to “enhance hope and economic vitality in Valley County.”

Green Valley Holdings LLC was established specifically to purchase Tamarack, Hutcheson said, finish construction projects there including the base village, and restore jobs. “This is a special property to us and for the state of Idaho. … We intend to be stewards of Tamarack, prudently safeguarding its resources,” he said. “Significantly greater work and investment lies ahead if our bid is accepted.” He said his offer calls for closing the sale no later than March 15, 2011.

New firm says it’ll buy Tamarack

Green Valley Holdings has called a press conference for 10 a.m. today to announce its intent to purchase Tamarack Resort, the bankrupt Valley County ski and golf resort. Green Valley Holdings is a newly established limited liability company based in Boise and headed by Matthew Hutcheson.

Snow day in Boise…

It snowed all day yesterday in Boise without sticking, but today’s a different story, as the city awoke to a fluffy white blanket of snow a couple of inches thick. It’s the first driveway-shoveling day of the season, and for schoolkids, it’s time for snowman-building - Boise School District kids are out of school the whole week for Thanksgiving this year, thanks to budget cuts. Meanwhile, police have reported more than 100 traffic accidents across the state since Sunday due to winter driving conditions; be careful out there.

Pro-megaloads group adds members, claims opponents aren’t local

A business group that’s backing proposed mega-loads on U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho issued a press release today saying it’s added three new members: The Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry, the Port of Lewiston, and the Idaho Chamber Alliance. “As people who actually live here, we need to ensure that our state officials continue to maintain a job friendly atmosphere,” IACI President Alex LaBeau said in the statement. “That’s why an increasing number of local groups are voicing their support of these shipments and the new economic activity they bring to the region.”

The statement also decried “opposition from groups thousands of miles outside of our communities,” though it’s not clear to whom that referred; the mega-loads have been challenged in court by three Idahoans who are Highway 12 residents and business owners, and they’ve been joined now by 10 more who’ve submitted affidavits. Idaho lobbyist Ken Burgess, who is working with the “Drive Our Economy” group, said its members think the opposition has been drummed up by national and local environmental groups. “They’re stirring up all their membership up there to write letters to the editor and make noise publicly to make it appear that there’s a lot of opposition,” Burgess said. Advocates for the West, the conservation group that’s providing legal representation for the mega-loads opponents, is based in Boise. Click below to read the business group’s full press release.

Advocates: ‘People really stand to be injured’

Laird Lucas of Advocates for the West, a conservation group that’s providing legal representation for Highway 12 megaloads opponents for free, said after today’s ITD hearing, “I feel like we did a good job of showing the judge that people who live and work along Highway 12 really stand to be injured by these mega-shipments. I know he’ll take it seriously, and we’ll have to wait and see what his decision is, but I’m hopeful he’ll agree that we should be allowed to intervene.”

ConocoPhillips statement: ‘Very confident in our plan’

ConocoPhillips issued this statement this afternoon in response to this morning’s hearing on its four proposed Highway 12 megaloads:

“ConocoPhillips agrees with the administrative judge overseeing today’s hearing that a decision in this matter is long overdue and are pleased that he signaled a decision will be made before Thanksgiving. We are very confident in our plan to safely and responsibly transport our four loads from Lewiston to Billings. We hope that the outcome of today’s hearing will result in a decision that will allow us to begin to transport our equipment very soon.”

Today’s megaloads hearing…

Lawyers for opponents and backers of the first four mega-loads of oil equipment proposed to travel north-central Idaho’s U.S. Highway 12 faced off in a crowded Idaho Transportation Department auditorium today, sparring over whether more hearings must be held before the four loads can roll; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. ConocoPhillips, which wants to truck the four giant loads to its Billings Refinery so it can replace aging coke drums there, argued that the opponents’ protest is too late to be considered, that residents and business owners along the route have no real stake in the issue, and that if further hearings are held, the opponents should have to put up a $2 million bond to protect the company against any further losses from delays in the shipments.

Lawyers for the opponents, who live and operate businesses along the route, maintain the big loads will damage their use and enjoyment of their property, hurt their businesses, impact their own use of the highway and threaten their “health, safety and welfare.” ITD, in its own legal filings, argued that the residents’ concerns are “speculative” and really are more about a larger proposal from ExxonMobil for 207 megaloads - which doesn’t yet have permits - than about the four ConocoPhillips loads. Hearing officer Merlyn Clark promised a ruling before Thanksgiving.

Billings plant manager: Concerned about jobs, refinery, community

Steven Steach, plant manager at the ConocoPhillips Billings refinery, said a busload of 54 plant employees and contractors came over for today’s ITD hearing on Conoco’s four proposed megaloads on Highway 12. “We drove 11 hours, got in last night at 11,” he said. “They’re concerned about their jobs. They’re concerned about our refinery and our community.” The Billings refinery provides 7 percent of Idaho’s gasoline and 25 percent of Montana’s, Steach said; it produces 60,000 barrels a day, and has 10 percent of the refinery capacity in the Rocky Mountain region.

The two giant coke drums, which have been split in half to make four mega-truckloads, would replace 20-year-old drums at the refinery that have bulged and cracked from years of heating and cooling. Conoco is hoping to get the drums to Billings in time to be welded back together and ready to install during a planned plant shutdown this spring. The maintenance and repair work that’ll go on during the shutdown will bring in 1,700 workers, Steach said.

“Our desire is to get ‘em moving before the end of the year in order to meet the current shutdown schedule,” Steach said. If that doesn’t happen, he said, “We’ll have to re-evaluate.”

Conoco hearing concludes, decision next week

The hearing has wrapped up on the ConocoPhillips megaloads and whether to allow opponents to intervene in the permit case. “I will take this matter under advisement,” said hearing officer Merlyn Clark. “I will issue a decision before Thanksgiving, it will be a written recommendation to the director, it’ll then be in the hands of the director,” he said. “I want to compliment counsel for the excellent work that you have done providing me the briefing and the factual information I need to make a decision. Thank you. We are adjourned.”

ITD: ‘Difficult to imagine’ that four megaloads could transform route

ITD attorney Tim Thomas is now giving the agency’s legal argument, siding with ConocoPhillips. The objections from opponents, Thomas said, are “not specific to these four permits - four permits for four loads for four days’ time.” In its brief, the ITD argued that any harm the opponents might suffer is “speculative.” The opponents do, Thomas said, have a “direct and substantial interest” in their own health and safety and in their use of the route on which they live and do business, “no doubt about that … it would be silly to say otherwise.” But he said that just isn’t impacted by the four ConocoPhillips loads. In its brief, ITD wrote, “It is difficult to imagine how four trips over four days, traveling at night, will turn Highway 12 into a ‘high and wide’ corridor.”

Conoco attorney: ‘They’re in a bind’

ConocoPhillips’ Billings oil refinery is “intertwined with the Idaho economy and the Montana economy,” Conoco attorney Erik Stidham said as he wrapped up his legal arguments. “There’s no assurance that they will not have to have an unplanned stop if they are not allowed to have these repairs done.” If that were to happen, he said, it could be a $40 million impact; he said the oil company already has lost $2.5 million due to delays in moving the four megaloads. “They’re in a bind right now,” he said.

Conoco: ‘Really is about politics’

“Going back to what is really at issue here,” ConocoPhillips attorney Erik Stidham told an ITD hearing officer this morning, “we’re facing a situation that really is about politics and not about this refinery in Bilings.”

He displayed a protest website that referred to “Axles of Evil.” “This is not about the ‘Axles of Evil’ as proposed intervenors would have you believe,” Stidham said. “It’s again … about four shipments. It’s not about a broader agenda.”

He added that U.S. Highway 12’s status as a scenic byway doesn’t bring any restrictions on commercial use. Stidham said, “We’re not contending that this stretch of road is any less beautiful than any of the other 29 stretches of scenic highway, but the reality is that there are no commercial restrictions placed on this.” He showed slides of several industrial sites along the route near Lewiston. “It’s a working road,” Stidham said.

Conoco attorney: ‘Plenty of safety precautions’

Erik Stidham, attorney for ConocoPhillips, has begun his arguments. “They want to talk about things beyond the four permits,” he said of the opponents of the four ConocoPhillips megaloads, things “that don’t relate to four shipments traveling in the middle of the night with plenty of safety precautions to take care of repairs that need to be done in Billings.”

He said at Conoco’s Billings refinery, “There are coke drums in place that are near the end of their useful life.” He asked, “Why the Port of Lewiston? It’s by far the closest inland port to Billings, by a factor of thousands of miles.”

Conoco offers ambulances to follow each load

One of the concerns residents along Highway 12 have raised is about blockage of the road during medical emergencies, when a resident might need to travel the route quickly to get to the emergency room - as one of the plaintiffs did while suffering anaphylactic shock. Conoco, in its filings with ITD, has now committed to have an ambulance follow every load, at its expense, to address that concern.

Megaloads opponents: Loads will be ‘the size of an office building’

Laird Lucas, attorney for the megaloads opponents, said the loads will “be approximately the size of an office building going up along the Lochsa River, that curvy road that you know and that the rest of us know. … These will block both sides of the highway completely.” He said ITD and Conoco have been discussing the project since 2007, but “never was the public advised. In fact the public had to scratch and dig and scrape to find out these projects were even proposed.”

He asked why Conoco shipped the giant coke drums from Japan and up to the Port of Lewiston without ever having a permit in place. “They were led to believe they would get a permit,” he said. “In fact, ITD … has said that ITD does not have discretion to deny these permits as long as highway safety can be assured. In other words ITD took the position that public convenience was not a part of their analysis, only the road … and they had to grant the permits. That’s what they said publicly before we got involved.” Lucas argued that violates ITD’s regulations for such permits.

He represents three residents and business owners along the route, but also has now submitted affidavits from 10 more; those additional filings aren’t being considered in today’s hearing.

‘Believe they’re going to set a precedent’

The hearing today on whether to allow full contested-case hearings on the four proposed ConocoPhillips megaloads on Highway 12 will focus just on those four loads, hearing officer Merlyn Clark warned. “I am limiting my scope of examination today to the four loads that are proposed for this permit. I am not considering the fact that there may be 200 more loads from another applicant on another date,” he announced. “I will not consider the “high and wide” issues. I will limit my examination to what impact, what these individuals can show, as particularized injury by these four loads. So I ask that you all keep that in mind as you present your arguments today.”

Laird Lucas, attorney for the opponents of the loads, said he’ll take exception to that, in part because the Conoco loads couldn’t travel but for extensive prep work done along the route by ExxonMobil, which plans the larger project. “Because they’re the first ones they’re really important,” Lucas said. “We believe they’re going to set a precedent.”

Conoco decision will come before Thanksgiving

ITD hearing officer Merlyn Clark said he’ll have his ruling on the ConocoPhillips megaloads done by Thanksgiving. “I intend to spend the weekend and the first part of next week getting the decision out so you will have a decision before Thanksgiving -  before I leave for the Reno game,” he said to a murmur of laughter from the crowd. “In my mind time is of the essence with this matter, and it’s been delayed enough and I don’t want a further delay, but I do want give it all the time it needs to make a reasoned decision that the director can act upon.”

Clark: ‘I know the river, I know the highway’

Hearing officer Merlyn Clark began by reading the letter from ITD Director Brian Ness laying out the issues for today’s mega-loads hearing. He then notified all present that he practiced law in Lewiston from 1964 to 1979, working for a firm that represented the Port of Lewiston. He also is very familiar with the U.S. Highway 12 and the rivers that run along it; “I have probably fished just about every inch of it,” he said. His wife’s family owned a cabin along the route on Wilson Creek. “We sold that cabin 30 years ago when I moved to Boise. But I am familiar w/the highway,” Clark said. “I don’t think any of this information prejudices me or biases me from being neutral today. … I know the river, I know the highway.”

Big crowd for ITD hearing today

Today is the day that an ITD hearing officer will hear arguments from all sides on the proposed four mega-loads of oil refinery equipment that ConocoPhillips wants to send across U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho. ITD’s auditorium is quite full; among the crowd are more than 50 Conoco employees and supporters of the project who are wearing T-shirts touting it. The Billings, Mont. refinery employs 400 people, including about 100 contractors.

Judge tosses Ringo’s tax deals lawsuit, but new version already filed

4th District Judge Cheri Copsey on Thursday “reluctantly” granted the state’s motion to dismiss Rep. Shirley Ringo’s lawsuit over secret tax deals for lack of standing, but said in her decision that Ringo’s allegations were “very troubling” and should be addressed. Ringo’s attorney, former Idaho Supreme Court Justice Robert Huntley, said he’d anticipated the ruling, and already had filed a new version of the lawsuit on Tuesday with six new plaintiffs who he believes have clear standing: three education associations, a public school student, a parent of a student, and a public school employee. “I think we’ll be just fine with the case with the six new plaintiffs,” Huntley said in an email.

Ringo, D-Moscow, in her lawsuit, submitted sworn affidavits from eight current and former state Tax Commission employees saying the commission has been improperly cutting secret deals with influential taxpayers, letting them off the hook for millions in taxes due.

Favorable poll boosts campaign for cigarette tax hike

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on how Idahoans overwhelmingly support raising state taxes on cigarettes and alcohol to address the state’s budget deficit, according to a new statewide poll, even as they oppose other tax hikes and spending cuts. The poll, conducted by Moore Information, was released today by a coalition of health groups that launched a push for a big hike in Idaho’s 57-cent-per-pack cigarette tax in the coming year. Backers said a $1.50-per-pack hike would be a “huge win for Idaho’s public health.”

Poll: ‘Narrowly optimistic’ Idahoans don’t want funding cuts or most tax hikes

There’s some very interesting data in the Moore Information poll released today by a coalition of health groups pushing for a big cigarette tax increase in Idaho. Among the results: 47 percent of Idahoans say the state is generally headed in the right direction, while 40 percent think Idaho’s on the wrong track. That’s pretty closely divided; the poll’s margin of error is plus or minus 4 percent. Pollster Bob Moore calls that a “narrowly optimistic” voter mood.

While really big numbers favored increasing taxes on alcohol and tobacco to address Idaho’s budget deficit, respondents strongly opposed raising the sales tax, income tax or gas tax. And by even bigger numbers, they opposed reducing funding for roads, health care or education. You can read the full results here.

Kelly joins EPA in Seattle

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho’s outgoing Senate minority leader is taking a job with the Environmental Protection Agency in Seattle. Sen. Kate Kelly, a Democratic senator since 2004, will be director of the Office of Ecosystems, Tribal and Public Affairs at the EPA’s regional headquarters. There, she’ll work on programs including National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, wetlands management and ocean disposal. She’ll supervise a staff of 87 in Alaska, Idaho, Oregon and Washington. Kelly, elected as Senate minority leader in 2009, didn’t run for re-election this year. Before becoming a state senator, Kelly was a former administrator at the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality. A lawyer, she also served as a deputy in the Idaho attorney general’s office for six years.

Rep. Lake backs cig tax hike

Idaho House Tax Chairman Dennis Lake, R-Blackfoot, said he supports a big hike in the  state’s cigarette tax in the coming year, and may co-sponsor the legislation. “I do support it,” he said. “They wanted to bring a bill to raise cigarette taxes last year and I wouldn’t let them, told them no, that last year was all about reducing the base budget, because we had to do that,” Lake told Eye on Boise today. “So when they approached me this year, I said yes, we’d hear the bill.” Lake said he’s not sure about a health coalition’s proposal for a $1.50 per pack increase, however. “I’m not sure that that amount will fly. But I think that we will have a bill that will increase cigarette taxes, yes. Whether it’s a dollar and half or a dollar or some other figure I don’t know.”

Lake said he agrees with a new poll that shows Idahoans strongly backing the move. “I think people do support it,” he said. But he said he’s reluctant to rely on a cigarette tax increase as a “revenue enhancer.” Instead, he said it’s warranted on public health grounds. “I’ve seen the figures on what they think the reduction in teenage smoking would be, and I think that alone makes the project worthwhile,” Lake said.

New poll: Idahoans overwhelmingly back big hike in cigarette tax

A new poll conducted by Moore Information shows a startling 71 percent of Idahoans favor increases in state taxes on tobacco and alcohol to address Idaho’s budget deficit, and 73 percent support a $1.50 per pack increase in the cigarette tax to preserve Medicaid funding and fund tobacco-cessation and youth prevention programs. A broad coalition of Idaho health groups, from the American Cancer Society to the Idaho Medical Association to the Idaho Academy of Family Physicians, released the poll today and launched a new push for a big hike in Idaho’s cigarette tax in the coming year.

Dr. Ted Epperly, a family physician from Boise, said smoking is the No. 1 most preventable cause of death in the United States, yet 5,000 Idaho kids try their first cigarette each year and 1,500 Idahoans die from smoking each year. “By raising the state’s tobacco tax, Idaho will reduce smoking … especially among kids,” Epperly said. “The science could not be more clear.”

That’s not all - the groups project that a $1.50 per pack increase in Idaho’s cigarette tax also would bring in an additional $52.3 million to the state’s treasury, even after accounting for the drop in cigarette sales it’d bring about. That money, Epperly said, could help shore up Medicaid, “a program that is in crisis at this time.” Epperly said the state also would see reduced health care costs as the number of smokers drops - an estimated $8 million in savings just in the first five years.

Said Epperly, “This will be a huge win for Idaho’s public health.”

IRS looking for Idahoans to give them $$

The IRS says it has half a million dollars it wants to pay to 408 Idahoans, but it can’t find them. Here’s the report from the Associated Press:  NAMPA, Idaho (AP) — The Internal Revenue Service is looking for 408 Idaho taxpayers — and it’s actually good news. The Idaho Press-Tribune reports the agency has tax refund checks totaling nearly $500,000 to deliver to those people. The average refund is just over $1,200. Nationwide, nearly 112,000 taxpayers had about $164 million in refunds returned to the IRS as undeliverable. Refund checks are mailed to the address listed on a taxpayer’s return. But those checks can be returned as undeliverable if a taxpayer moves without updating his or her address with either the U.S. Postal Service or the IRS. Taxpayers can update their addresses on the “Where’s My Refund?” tool on the IRS website. Those without Internet access can call 1-800-829-1954 for instructions on how to update their mailing information.

Allred amending campaign disclosure

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Keith Allred is amending his campaign’s disclosures to include an in-kind contribution worth $3,000 to $4,000 for work done by the Boise-based business consulting firm he joined this week as a partner. Employees at HB Ventures conducted an analysis around March to examine how far Idaho’s economy had fallen behind neighboring states — and why it had slipped in the rankings. But Allred, who lost to Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, didn’t report the contribution. Allred said Wednesday he was filing new paperwork, to correctly account for the in-kind contribution. Allred wasn’t the only candidate to make a disclosure mistake in the 2010 Idaho elections, with 1st Congressional District candidates Raul Labrador and Vaughn Ward both forced to amend filings, too. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Official turnout: Lowest since ‘78

Idaho’s state Board of Canvassers met today to certify the results of the Nov. 2 election, and here’s the news: Just 58.1 percent of Idaho’s registered voters cast ballots. That’s the lowest turnout for a midterm election since 1978 (that year it was 56.51 percent), and well below the Idaho Secretary of State’s office forecast of 63 percent. That forecast, based in part on heavy early voting and fairly high interest in candidates and issues, simply was off, said Tim Hurst, chief deputy secretary of state, and it’s not clear why. The percentage of Idaho’s voting-age population that cast ballots, based on the official results and U.S. Census figures, came in at 40 percent, Hurst said. “It’s still the lowest in years,” he said. “People just for some reason didn’t show up. We’ve always talked about how candidates and issues are what get people out to vote, and we had candidates, we had issues, and nobody voted. I don’t have an explanation.”

One piece of good news from the final canvass of the election results: Nothing changed from the unofficial results the morning after the election. That means Idaho’s election-night count was accurate. Turnout figures as a percentage of registered voters aren’t apparent in those early results, because Idaho has same-day registration.

Trend shows fewer eligible Idahoans voting

The “Interstices” blog crunched some numbers and found that the Nov. 2 election marked the lowest turnout as a percentage of Idaho’s voting age population in a gubernatorial election in the past 50 years.  That measure, as opposed to the percentage of registered voters who cast ballots, has long been declining, but in the last three gubernatorial elections was relatively stable. This time, Interstices found, fewer than 40 percent of eligible voters participated, down from more than 65 percent back in 1962. You can read the full post here, and more here.

Smyser registers as a lobbyist for ConocoPhillips

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A big oil company has hired one of Idaho’s best-known lobbyists as it tries to convince the state to allow four massive loads of refinery equipment along U.S. Highway 12. Skip Smyser registered as a lobbyist for ConocoPhillips on Monday with Idaho’s secretary of state. The Houston-based oil giant is preparing for a hearing Friday, where it will defend its plans to ship coke drums between the port of Lewiston and Billings, Mont., along the winding riverside highway through mountainous north-central Idaho. Environmentalists, residents and some business owners along the U.S. 12 corridor are fighting those shipments — and more than 200 additional proposed oversized loads planned by Exxon Mobil Corp. The Idaho Transportation Department issued permits last Wednesday for ConocoPhillips’ loads, but they can’t move until shipment foes get a hearing.

Roark to let Hansen go, Dems say they’ll ‘try some new things’

Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Keith Roark has decided not to reappoint party Executive Director Jim Hansen when Hansen’s term ends Dec. 31, though Roark insists he doesn’t blame Hansen for the GOP sweep in the Nov. 2 election. “There is a need for some new direction, some new approaches,” Roark said. “Obviously with the Democratic Party in the situation that it’s in, looking forward, we’re going to have to try some new things that have not been tried before.”

 

Hansen, a former three-term Democratic state lawmaker from Boise and the son of former Idaho Congressman Orval Hansen, headed United Vision for Idaho for 13 years before he took the party post in 2008; there, he was recognized with a prestigious $100,000 leadership award from the Ford Foundation in 2005. When Hansen became the party’s executive director in 2008, Roark, in a press release, called him “one of Idaho’s best known and most experienced community leaders.”

 

Roark, who has served as party chairman for three years, said he’s not sure himself if he’ll seek another term in February. “I think our biggest failure has been the failure to develop and articulate a message that clearly reflects what we stand for, and consequently we have found ourselves in a position where we are defined by the Republicans, rather than by members of the Democratic Party, and that’s a significant shortcoming on our part,” Roark said. “We’ve had a very difficult time creating an identity and a message for Idaho Democrats that is separate and distinct from the national Democratic Party. That’s a challenge.”

 

Roark added, “Jim has worked extremely hard,” and said no individual could have fixed the problem. “We’ve got to look forward, and that means some new names, some new faces and some new personalities with different ideas than those that we pursued for the last three years,” Roark said; click below to read his full message to the party’s central committee about the move.

‘It’s not all a state responsibility’

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on how Idaho’s Medicaid program is facing such a big potential shortfall next year that officials are suggesting turning to volunteers to help out the disabled and poor who now rely on its services. State Health and Welfare Director Dick Armstrong told state lawmakers today that back in the 1950s and 1960s, volunteers performed many services that Medicaid provides today - and perhaps they could be recruited again, for everything from driving disabled people to doctor’s appointments to checking on whether mentally ill patients have taken their medication. “I think it’s a good idea,” said Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, the vice-chair of the Senate Health & Welfare Committee. “That’s part of helping our community as a whole. If we don’t all pull together, we have less opportunity to come out of this as a healthy state.” Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said, “I think there’s some merit there. We all have an obligation to help our fellow citizens - it’s not all a state responsibility. I’m intrigued by his comment and hope there’ll be some ways we’re able to pursue that.”

Idaho F&G seeks taunting poacher

Idaho Fish & Game is seeking help to identify a poacher who’s been taunting the agency; here’s the AP’s report:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho Fish and Game is seeking help in identifying the person who wrote to the agency bragging about recently poaching a deer. On Nov. 12, the agency received a letter from “Poacher X” that included photos of a buck the writer reported poaching in northern Idaho. “Poacher X” wrote of plans to illegally kill a pronghorn and a turkey in the state and promised to forward pictures of those kills as well. The letter had an Everett, Wash., postmark. Anyone with information may call Citizen’s Against Poaching at 1-800-632-5999, 24-hours a day. Callers may remain anonymous and may be eligible for a reward.

Otter faults CdA basin cleanup plan

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  COEUR D’ALENE, Idaho (AP) — Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter has sent a letter criticizing the federal government’s proposal for the next phase of cleanup in Idaho’s Silver Valley region. Otter sent a letter Monday to the Environmental Protection Agency saying he cannot support the plan unless it ensures cleanup work will not impede existing or future mining in the region. In the letter, reported by the Coeur d’Alene Press, Otter also says the cleanup cannot last forever and urged the EPA to set reasonable and achievable goals. The EPA is taking public comments on its proposal to expand the cleanup of historic mining wastes in the upper Coeur d’Alene River basin. The EPA Director of Environmental Cleanup Dan Opalski says they will consider Otter’s comments and others submitted in the process.

Land Board OKs Tamarack ski season plan

Idaho’s state Land Board voted today to keep Tamarack Resort’s lease for state land alive through next June, opening the door to a possible ski season at the ailing Valley County resort this winter. “My only comment would be ‘bravo,’” Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said before voting for the lease deal. Click below to read the full story from AP reporter John Miller.

Idaho prisons chief pleads for end to staff furloughs

Idaho’s state prison system, with its crimped budget, has continued to put employees on furlough this year, to the tune of 90,000 furlough hours for the fiscal year. That includes 15,000 fewer hours spent monitoring probationers and parolees in the community. State Corrections Director Brent Reinke said the department is saving $1.89 million this year because of furloughs – they’ve even helped push down the overall cost per inmate from $57.44 per day in fiscal 2009 to $52.22 per day in fiscal 2010 - but it doesn’t want to continue them next year. In fiscal year 2010, staff furloughs were equivalent to losing 35 staffers, Reinke told JFAC, at a time when the prison system also eliminated 71 permanent positions and 32 temporary ones.


Idaho’s corrections budget has dropped 19 percent since fiscal year 2009. Cost-saving moves have included everything from trimming food costs to 83 cents per meal to setting up a trio of options for short-term sentencing, with three, six- and nine-month options, and carefully shifting inmates among the lowest-cost beds that are appropriate for them. Meanwhile, Reinke said, other states are looking at releasing thousands of inmates due to budget crises, a move Idaho hasn’t considered. “Idaho’s path is different from other states,” Reinke said, focusing instead on moves to drive down the inmate population and control costs. “We want to be sure in the department that the short-term crises that we have do not lead to long-term consequences.”

 

But the cutbacks are taking a toll, he said, particularly on staff. Turnover has ballooned to 28 percent, which then bumps up training costs. “I need to be able to touch the minds and hearts of our staff, because I’ve already picked their pocket,” Reinke said. “It’s got to be about keeping Idaho safe.”

Big Medicaid shortfall could force Idaho to rely on volunteers

Idaho’s Medicaid program is projecting a $42.3 million shortfall in the current year, in state general funds. Last year, the program pushed $89.4 million in bills into the current fiscal year – leaving providers waiting from three weeks to three months for payment – in order to balance next year’s budget. But if that were tried again, state Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong told legislative budget writers this morning, the delayed payments would then fall under the reduced federal matching rate that Idaho will see next year.


“That doesn’t mean it might not be a good strategy, but it has a significant cost attached to it that we didn’t face last year,” he told JFAC.


Looking ahead, Idaho’s facing a projected state fund shortfall for Medicaid in fiscal year 2012 of $171.6 million. That’s a huge hole, and Armstrong said it’ll likely mean cutting services. Children are protected, so “we would have to focus on adult services – that’s where we’d have to go. We would have to eliminate major categories of service.” Armstrong said “every state in the nation” is looking at the same “Draconian” type of cuts.


One suggestion he offered to cope with the crisis: Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s, there was much more use of volunteers in providing services to the disabled and others. Idaho could “see if there could be a resurgence of voluntary assistance, specifically around keeping adults stable in the home environment,” Armstrong said.

Budget writers: ‘It’s going to be hard’

You can read my full story here at spokesman.com on today’s JFAC discussions, in which state lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee got a grim glimpse of the decision-making that awaits them when they convene in January, including a possible budget shortfall for next year in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

“We can’t spend money we don’t have,” said Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, who said the state may have to eliminate some programs that are “not as effective as others.” “We have to see where we may be able to do less,” said Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, JFAC co-chair. Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, disagreed. “We’re in a culture of timidity with respect to taking the responsibility to match revenue to meet our needs,” she said. “I think in part the role of this committee should be to identify those things that we think we responsibly have to provide, and supporting that we have to find the means to do that.”

Groaned Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, “Why would anybody want to be on JFAC this year? It’s going to be hard.” Hammond, a former school principal, noted that the state constitution requires the Legislature to fund education. He said, “I guess I’m still hoping that we’ll find something out there that’ll help us avoid cutting deeper.

On Tuesday, the joint committee will hear presentations on likely shortfalls in funding for Medicaid, state prisons, colleges and universities.

Student data system could bring savings

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A state budget analyst says Idaho could bank hefty savings from a new system designed to collect and monitor student test scores, attendance and other data from the time they enroll in kindergarten. Paul Headlee, an Idaho Legislature budget analyst who covers public education, says Arkansas realized savings of $15 million after its newly installed longitudinal data system found the state had over-counted students by 2,200. Headlee told lawmakers Monday that there is potential for Idaho to realize some savings as well. Idaho is among few states without a longitudinal data system to better track and count students. The state has put more than $2.5 million toward the creation of a student data system since March 2008. Headlee said the state applied for, but did not win, a $20 million federal grant to finish building the system. During the upcoming legislative session, public schools chief Tom Luna plans to request $926,000 in ongoing state funds for the program, along with $43,000 in one-time funds to purchase equipment.

Initial school budget request wouldn’t restore any of $128M in cuts

A public school budget request for next year that would make this year’s historic $128 million funding cut for schools permanent – none of it would be restored - was reviewed by the Legislature’s joint budget committee this afternoon. The request is preliminary, having been prepared in September, and state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna said it’s likely to change before January. But it gave lawmakers a sign of what’s to come.

The request calls for discretionary funding to school districts to remain where it is this year, while adding in funding for an anticipated 5,000 additional students, or 250 classroom units; and replacing one-time funds that were plugged into this year’s school budget with state general funds. That combination plugs $60 million more into the general fund budget total, without increasing per-pupil spending. There also are a couple of new items, including $47 each to pay the fee for college entrance exams for every high school junior in the state, and an undetermined amount of funding for a new third year of math and science that will be required for high school graduation for the class of 2013.

Overall, the budget request totals $1.29 billion in state general funds and $1.62 billion total, which would be 6.2 percent more in general funds than schools got this year, and 2.6 percent more in total funds. (That compares to this year’s figures of $1.21 billion in general funds and $1.58 billion total.) Luna said the request will change when there’s more information about the economy, state revenues and more. Mostly, he said, it was intended as an “instructional piece” to show that even if Idaho just wants to keep school funding where it is now, the total will have to rise to cover growth and lost one-time funds. “We have a $60 million hole that we have to fill before we see any increase in per-pupil spending,” Luna said.

Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, JFAC co-chair, said, “I know this will be a tough budget for this coming year.” Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter’s budget chief, called the request “reasonable,” and said it’s no “pie in the sky.” However, he also noted that it replaces all the one-time money, such as federal stimulus money, that propped up this year’s school budget with state general funds. Noting the grim overall budget outlook lawmakers heard earlier today, Hammon said, “I think that’s a very ambitious goal in light of what we saw this morning.”

Tax commission wants extra auditors made permanent

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A State Tax Commission official says the agency will request $2.7 million in the upcoming Legislature to permanently take on workers who were hired on a temporary basis to collect unpaid taxes. Randy Tilley, administrator of the agency’s Audit and Collections Division, says the commission will request an additional $2.3 million to hire another 48 temporary workers next year. Earlier this month, Tilley said temporary workers had brought in more than $5.5 million at a cost of just $157,092 over a three-month period that began July 1. The collection goal for the temporary workers was $1.266 million. He presented the information to the Legislature’s joint budget writing committee on Monday. Lawmakers will likely use that information in deciding whether to dedicate funding to make all of this year’s temporary positions permanent and hire more temporary workers.

Rumors of PERSI demise all false

Idaho’s public employee retirement system has been deluged by calls, email and visits from worried state retirees who are concerned that it’s going to be eliminated or cut back, but PERSI Director Don Drum said there’s no truth to the rumors driving those concerns. “I think it’s being driven by national media coverage,” Drum told lawmakers. “There are many funds out there that are in trouble.” But Idaho’s isn’t, he said.

When he’s heard rumors that some Idaho legislator is working on legislation to change or eliminate PERSI, Drum said he’s tried to track them down and found them all false. “I have not found any legislator who is working on any changes to PERSI,” Drum said. “I’ve talked with the governor, the governor is not working on any changes to PERSI. That’s the message I’m trying to get out.”

He added, “I’m not aware of anyone who is working on any changes to PERSI, and the fund is recovering well. … Time is on our side.”

PERSI healthier than other state retirement systems

The Public Employee Retirement Fund of Idaho has gone from 78.9 percent funded in October of 2010 to 87.7 percent funded as of last Thursday, fund director Don Drum reported to lawmakers on the joint budget committee this morning. The system’s unfunded liability has dropped to $1.5 billion, less than half the figure from June 30, 2009 that alarmed some lawmakers during this year’s legislative session.

Bob Maynard, the fund’s investment director, noted that the fund was 105 percent funded back in 2007, before the recession hit. “Prospects for the future are reasonable, but very fragile,” he said. Maynard told JFAC, “We are still in a hole, but the hole is relatively much shallower” than those for other state retirement funds. Funds typically don’t want to be 100 percent funded because that means the current generation is paying too much; 90 to 95 percent is the ideal, Maynard said. “We have a pretty modest plan structure. We don’t have medical. We have a healthy employee contribution going into the system. … We have consistent employer contributions … a relatively modest level of benefits, there’s no frills, no attempt to use this for economic development in the state, a small mandatory COLA. … There’ve been no permanent benefit increases in good times, and always required a reserve.”

He added, “From day one, all benefit increases that have been put into the system have been fully funded from contribution rates, unlike other retirement systems.”

What that’s meant for Idaho’s state retirement system is that it needs to earn only 3.75 percent above inflation to meet statutory benefit requirements, whereas other systems need 5 percent or more. Thus, a simple, conservative investment approach can work, and that’s what’s happened.

State forecasters ‘very comfortable’ about revenue growth

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said he’d put state economist Derek Santos on the spot, as JFAC often did to newly retired state chief economist Mike Ferguson, while recognizing that there’s always risk in economic forecasting: He asked him what his level of confidence was that Idaho’s state tax revenues would actually grow by 3 to 4 percent in fiscal year 2011. The official state forecast calls for 4.7 percent growth.

Santos looked back to his boss, DFM chief Wayne Hammon, who gave him a nod and said, “It’s your neck.” Amid laughter, Santos said, “Recognizing this may be a career decision, I’m very comfortable with 3 to 4 percent. I would be very comfortable with 3 to 4 percent, and I’m still comfortable with 4.7 percent.”

Idaho tax revenues beat forecast again

Gov. Butch Otter’s Division of Financial Management is presenting its latest revenue figures to JFAC; in October, state tax revenues were up $8.8 million over projections, for a year-to-date total of $22.8 million ahead of projections. Both individual and corporate income taxes are running well ahead of projections. Overall for fiscal year 2011, DFM economist Derek Santos said the prediction is for $2.36995 billion in state tax revenues, an increase of 4.7 percent over fiscal year 2010.

Wayne Hammon, DFM chief, told JFAC members, “I believe the current forecast is accurate as a breakdown by month. … It’s not skewed.” However, the fact that revenues so far aren’t growing by the full 4.7 percent could be a sign of further forecast revisions ahead, Hammon said.

Senator back on dry ground after eventful cruise experience

Idaho Sen. Jim Hammond is back on dry ground and in the light, after a sojourn on a Carnival cruise ship that drifted powerless for days. Hammond, during a break in this morning’s JFAC hearing, said it was his first cruise in 15 years, and the experience wasn’t what he expected – cold sandwiches, salads and cereal, card- and dice-playing in relative darkness, and only cold water. He and his wife Cyndie joined three other couples on the cruise, and with their full refunds, already are planning to try again. “I don’t think we’d go on the Splendor again,” Hammond said of the ship.

With 3,200 people aboard, “People were really good – nobody panicked,” Hammond said. But there were waits of a couple of hours for a plate of cold food, and Hammond was really glad he’d spent the extra money for an outside cabin with windows and a small balcony – inside cabins were left in total darkness. After the ordeal, the Hammonds spent a night at a hotel in San Diego, and ironically, when they woke up, the power was out. “So once again, I showered and shaved in the dark,” he said with a smile. “At least I had hot water.”

He chuckles about the attention the incident got, considering no one was hurt and worldwide, many live in worse conditions day in and day out. “It was just more of an embarrassment for Carnival,” Hammond said.

JFAC reviewing grim budget figures

JFAC, the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, is holding its interim meeting in the state Capitol today, as lawmakers begin looking ahead to the budgeting task they’ll face in January when they convene. Among the figures reviewed thus far: One-time money used in setting the fiscal year 2011 budget – the year now under way – that won’t be available in fiscal year 2012 adds up to $270.7 million. Additional costs to which the state’s already committed in 2012, from school enrollment growth to a second year of a phased-in increase in state tax auditors to collect uncollected taxes, add millions more, for a potential shortfall of $340.2 million if revenues don’t grow.

The state’s general fund tax revenue is forecast to grow 4.7 percent in 2012, but lawmakers are leery about the estimate; so far, it’s been closer to 2.8 percent.

Also, under terms of the federal stimulus funding, if state revenue increases beyond the 2011 appropriation unexpectedly, more than half of that must be funneled back into school and higher ed funding, per federal “maintenance of effort” requirements. That money can’t go into reserve funds or capital projects. And the state already faces $27.3 million in supplemental budget request for the current year, for everything from Medicaid costs to the catastrophic health care program to enrollment growth at the College of Western Idaho. In addition, there are numerous requests from agencies for additional general funds, for everything from making up one-time funding cuts that aren’t sustainable to urgent needs to cover additional costs.

Richardson: Labrador, three others key to immigration reform

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, addressing statehouse reporters from across the country this morning at the Capitolbeat conference in Phoenix, said he thinks the election of four Hispanic Republicans to Congress – including Idaho Congressman-elect Raul Labrador – is a promising sign for bipartisan immigration reform in the coming Congress. Richardson, who is Hispanic and who served in Congress for a decade and a half before becoming governor, said, “I think the chances are improved. There could be some areas of bipartisanship and the ability to get something done.”

He and other border-state governors have struggled with the immigration issue, dealing regularly with border violence and lawlessness. “You never win any votes dealing with this immigration,” Richardson said. “You know, Ronald Reagan pardoned 2 million immigrants. … Unless there’s bipartisanship, there will not be a comprehensive immigration bill.”

Richardson, a Democrat, a second-term governor, and former energy secretary and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said, “My hope is the newly elected Hispanic Republicans … move beyond their campaign rhetoric, which was mostly anti-immigrant, and become … leaders.” He said, “I see them as potential linchpins of a bipartisan compromise agreement.”

Montana could issue megaload permit ‘very quickly,’ but will wait for Idaho

Jim Lynch, director of the Montana Department of Transportation, says that state has gone through an environmental review of ConocoPhillips’ application to run four giant, oversized truckloads from Lolo Pass to its Billings refinery. “Right now, we’re working out the details,” he said. That includes finalizing a memorandum of understanding laying out emergency plans and specific responsibilities for ConocoPhillips and its shipper, Emmert International. “We’re close to the end of our process, so it could happen very quickly,” Lynch said Friday. However, he said, “The state of Montana can’t issue a permit until we know that the shipper has a legal right to be at our border.”

That means it has to wait for Idaho to act first, since the mega-loads, now at the Port of Lewiston, have to travel U.S. Highway 12 through Idaho to get to the Montana line at the pass. Idaho has oral arguments scheduled for Nov. 19 on whether to allow opponents to intervene and participate in a full public hearing on the proposal.

ITD sets Nov. 19 hearing on whether to allow hearings on megaloads

Idaho Transportation Department Director Brian Ness has scheduled a hearing for next Friday, Nov. 19, on the petition to intervene by opponents of the ConocoPhillips megaloads. That’s the hearing on whether or not the department will hold a full contest-case hearing on the proposal. You can read Ness’ letter here, which also sets a deadline for briefing on the question of next Wednesday.

Library summer reading programs swell

The number of Idaho children and teens participating in this year’s Summer Reading Program at their public libraries was up 9 percent to a record 69,000. The Idaho Commission for Libraries reports that since it launched its “Bright Futures” program in 2004, which includes a “Read to Me” program, school and outreach visits and more, summer reading enrollment has more than doubled. “More Idaho children participate in summer reading programs than any other organized youth program in the state,” the commission reported.


Libraries around the state told the commission that factors helping drive increased enrollment this year included, among others, the economy driving more families to libraries for free services and programs.

Business group backs megaloads

A business group called “Drive Our Economy” was launched this week – actually within moments of the ITD’s announcement that it was issuing but staying permits for four U.S. Highway 12 mega-loads - to promote plans to move gigantic loads of oil refinery equipment along the scenic North-Central Idaho route. Lobbyist Ken Burgess said the new group has launched a website to argue for the economic benefits of the mega-loads. “The bottom line is this: They are concerned about precedent,” Burgess said, as many oversize loads travel Idaho roads, though not to the scale of the mega-loads.

 

Click below to read the group’s full news release, which says the effort is “a project of the Idaho Farm Bureau Federation.”

Big loads not rolling yet…

The permits that ITD issued this week for the first four mega-loads on U.S. Highway 12 may say they’re valid as of 10 p.m. tonight, but at this point ITD says the ConocoPhillips loads won’t be moving tonight. The permits were stayed while a hearing officer determines whether ITD should hold a contested case hearing; that hearing officer, attorney and former Idaho State Bar President Merlyn Clark, hasn’t yet issued a ruling and it’s not clear how long that process will take. Plus, ITD’s permits are contingent on Montana also issuing permits for the giant truckloads – which will take up both lanes of the two-lane highway – to travel in that state as well. That hasn’t yet happened.

“We will only issue a permit to Conoco when we are convinced that Montana is ready to issue one as well,” said Jeff Stratten, ITD spokesman. Montana officials were notified when ITD issued but stayed its four permits this week, Stratten said; “They were aware of what we were doing.”  At that point, he said, there was “no need” for Montana to issue permits because ITD’s permits were stayed and weren’t going into effect.

Stratten said the next step in the process is setting briefing and hearing schedules for the arguments on whether or not to allow parties to intervene and participate in hearings; both should take place within the next week to 10 days, he said.”The hearing officer could rule at the conclusion of the oral arguments or could issue a ruling later,” Stratten said.

Mega-load opponents: ‘Very encouraged’ by ITD decision to issue, but stay, permits

Here’s a link to the permits that ITD issued today to ConocoPhillips for the first four proposed Highway 12 mega-loads, and here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on ITD’s action today, issuing permits for the first four mega-loads proposed for U.S. Highway 12, but staying the loads for a ruling on whether or not hearings must be held first. Laird Lucas, attorney for the residents and businesses along the route who sued to block the mega-loads, said, “We’re very encouraged that ITD is staying the permits.” He said, “There’s been a flurry of activity and Conoco, I think, was expecting to be able to throw its weight around and get those shipments out of the Port of Lewiston tonight.” Lucas said he was encouraged that that didn’t happen. “The public is entitled to a full and fair hearing,” he said.

ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten said the new permits become valid on Friday at 10 p.m., but can’t be used until the department lifts the stay it’s placed on them pending a ruling on whether to allow intervention by interested parties and hold contested case hearings. “The department’s suspension of travel means the permits cannot be used,” Stratten said in an email. “The permits would need to be amended or possibly reissued in the future if the loads are allowed.”

ITD issues permits for first four mega-loads, but suspends pending ruling

The Idaho Transportation Department just announced that it has issued permits today for the first four mega-loads proposed for U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho, the four proposed by Conoco-Phillips, but is suspending the shipments until after a hearing officer rules on a petition for intervention and  hearings by residents and businesses along the route. Click below to read ITD’s full news release.

Yesterday at 5 p.m., ConocoPhillips filed a legal brief with ITD arguing against allowing anyone to intervene in the case and in favor of letting it go ahead with the shipments. The four giant loads of oil refinery equipment already are at the Port of Lewiston, and rumors have been hot and heavy that they’ll be moving soon. You can read Conoco’s brief here.

Conoco spokesman John Roper said it’s true that the loads have been being readied for transport. “We did get some stuff prepped” as a “prudent business decision,” he said. “If we can get ‘em rolling, we want to.”

The previous permits ITD issued for the four Conoco mega-loads were only good for five days; ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten wasn’t sure how long the new permits issued today will be valid, given the suspension.

Otter on election results: Forget the sour grapes and chest-thumping

In a new opinion piece today, Gov. Butch Otter says he’s “read all the postmortems and punditry about the ‘meaning’ of the November 2nd election results,” and declares, “I believe most of it is well-intentioned, although there certainly is a fair amount of cynicism, condescension and sour grapes involved. And yes, there has been a little chest thumping too. None of it is warranted.”

Otter says, “The truth is that each of us from our own perspective – regardless of our political affiliation – are doing our level best to make Idaho a better place for our children and grandchildren than it is today. We agree on more than we disagree, and we mutually embrace more values than divide us.” Click below to read his full op-ed article.

Latest state economic forecast shows slower recovery

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho trimmed its economic growth forecasts, predicting fewer jobs and less personal income by 2013 than had been expected just three months ago. The new forecast indicates Idaho workers’ personal income will be about $820 billion lower in 2013 than in July’s forecast. Why the changes? Two big reasons: First, the economic forecasting tools that Idaho relies on to set its predictions lowered its outlook for the nation. And second, Idaho’s nonfarm employment over the summer missed projections, with 4,500 fewer jobs in the second quarter than had been predicted. Derek Santos, the state economist who prepared the latest numbers, wrote the new forecast isn’t a cause for lost hope, just lower expectations. He says, “Idaho’s economy will recover, just not as fast as in the previous forecast.”

Self-storage lobbying group protests state endowment venture

A national self-storage lobbying group says Idaho is engaging in unfair competition with the private sector and undermining tax revenue that would otherwise go to local governments, the AP reports, by the state’s foray into the self-storage business. The state, as part of its management of the endowment that benefits the state’s public schools, paid $2.7 million for Affordable Self-Storage southwest of Boise’s downtown in August; the move was part of a continuing effort to increase investment returns on the state’s land endowment. Click below to read the full story from AP reporter John Miller.

Newspaper: Crapo’s daughter lobbies for some recipients of senator’s earmarks

The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call has come out with a story about lobbying by Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo’s daughter, Lara; she represents numerous health-care-related interests, the paper reported, including several Idaho medical facilities for which the Idaho Republican has sought earmarks, according to federal lobbying disclosure records. Paul Lee, a former Senate aide and founder of the firm Strategic Health Care, where Lara Crapo serves as government relations director, said the office maintains a strict separation between Crapo and her father’s office. You can read the Roll Call report here.

Denney: Hart one of ‘hardest-working’ reps; Hart decries ‘over-reach’ of tax laws

House Speaker Lawerence Denney’s announcement of his decision to remove Rep. Phil Hart from the House Tax Committee says he made the decision because Hart himself, in an Oct. 29 letter, asked him to do so. “Representative Hart was duly elected by the people in his district to represent them in Boise,” Denney said in his announcement. “Phil’s one of the hardest-working members of the House and, I believe, he’ll continue to be responsive to his constituents while serving on another committee.”

Hart, in his Oct. 29 letter to Denney, said it was “with real sadness” that he asked for a different committee assignment. “I continue in my passionate belief that we must fight the over-reach of government through its power to tax,” Hart wrote. “However, the developments of the past several months have created a rather toxic environment for me and members of the House. I fear that my continued service on this committee would only serve to provide fodder to members of the media and my political opponents.”

Denney also said in his announcement that he’ll appoint a new ethics committee to look into Hart’s conduct “as soon as possible.” You can read both Denney’s announcement and Hart’s letter here, and my full story here. Also, you can read a statement from Hart here, issued this evening, saying he voluntarily stepped down from the tax committee and that his move “precludes any action by Denney” to remove him.

Roberts: ‘Glad to see the speaker take action’

House Majority Caucus Chair Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, had this response to today’s announcement from House Speaker Lawerence Denney that Rep. Phil Hart will be removed from the House tax committee and a new ethics committee will be appointed:  “I think it was important to have some action taken, especially on the previous ethics panel recommendations. I was glad to see the speaker take action on that. He’s pretty much required by the rules of the House to get another ethics panel together. … That’s the place for it to play out.”

Roberts said Hart’s case was a topic of discussion during the North Idaho Chamber of Commerce’s legislative tour, which drew dozens of lawmakers to a series of events and presentations in the Panhandle Sunday through today and included a banquet and speech from Gov. Butch Otter last night; Hart attended the banquet, but was missing from most of the tour. “There’s been some discussion about it, sure,” Roberts said. “I think people were looking for a decision by the speaker.”

House ethics vice-chair questions why Hart removal from tax panel took so long

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, who served as vice-chair of the House Ethics Committee that voted unanimously in September to recommend that Rep. Phil Hart be removed from the House tax committee, had this response to Speaker Lawerence Denney’s announcement today of Hart’s removal from the panel: “I think he should’ve done it right away. Why did he wait so long? … I think he sent a message that it probably wasn’t as important as maybe those of us who are on the committee thought it was.”

Jaquet said the same lawmakers likely will serve on the new ethics committee to investigate Hart in response to a complaint from Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, but one change on the Democratic side is that Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, retired, so another member of the House minority will replace him.

Jaquet said she wasn’t surprised at the new allegations from Anderson about Hart, a tax protester who’s waging a fight against back state and federal income taxes and who illegally logged state school endowment land in 1996 for logs to build his Athol home. “What I was concerned about all along was how he was tarnishing the reputation of all legislators,” Jaquet said. “I think if he would resign, that would be an appropriate thing to do - resign before we have to convene an ethics committee.”

Rep. Hart booted from House Rev & Tax, new ethics committee to be appointed

Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney announced today that he’s removing Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, from the House Revenue and Taxation Committee and that he’ll convene a new ethics committee to look into a new complaint against Hart from Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake. Hart, a tax protester who’s locked in a fight with the state Tax Commission over back state income taxes, also owes thousands on an outstanding judgment over a 1996 timber theft from state school endowment lands.

Denney, who announced his decision this morning at the North Idaho Chamber of Commerce legislative tour, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment. House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, confirmed that Denney had made the decision to remove Hart from the committee, but wasn’t aware of reports that Hart had first told Denney he’d voluntarily step down; Hart refused to do that when offered the chance by a special House Ethics Committee in September.

 ”Rep. Hart will not be on the Rev & Tax Committee for the next two years,” Moyle said. “I hope he can get his issues resolved in regards to his tax situation. I don’t know enough about the timber deal to really comment on that. But the voters in his district sent him back with 75 percent of the vote, so I assume he’s going to be a legislator. I hope he has the time to get his problems solved.” Moyle added, “I feel sorry for him. … It’s a real touchy deal. … It’s a bad deal for all of us.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Hart files motion to disqualify judge in his state tax appeal

Phil Hart has filed a motion to disqualify the judge in his state income tax appeal case in 1st District Court in Kootenai County, Judge Lansing L. Haynes. Hart’s motion, filed late last week by his Coeur d’Alene attorney Starr Kelso, cites an Idaho court rule that permits a judge to be disqualified without cause; Kelso declined to comment on the motion, which could delay Hart’s case, now scheduled for a court hearing on Dec. 7 on the state’s motion to dismiss the appeal; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Haynes has been a district judge since 2006, and was re-elected this year; prior to becoming a judge, he worked for the Kootenai County prosecuting attorney’s office for 18 years, where he was chief criminal deputy, specializing in major felony prosecutions and particularly crimes against children. Before he became a judge, Haynes served on the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee.

Hart, who just was re-elected to a fourth term in the state House of Representatives, is going to court to fight an order from the state Tax Commission to pay $53,523 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest. He first appealed to the state Board of Tax Appeals, but it rejected his appeal, saying it was filed too late - after the expiration of the 91-day appeal period.

Hart argued there, and is arguing again in his court appeal, that the state Constitution’s legislative privilege provision means he should have months longer to file his appeal, because the appeal period ended within 10 days of the start of the 2010 legislative session. The constitution protects state legislators from arrest or “any civil process” during legislative sessions or 10 days before they start. The state, in its motion to dismiss the court appeal, wrote, “Not being liable to any civil process does not mean that taxpayer is relieved from the operation of statutes of limitations. … The taxpayer, Phil Hart, is seeking to use his status as a legislator to relieve himself of having to comply with the statute of limitations set forth in Idaho Code.”

The state’s motion said, “In this case, the taxpayer is seeking to invoke the jurisdiction of this court and is not defending himself from civil process. It is the taxpayer who is filing this action.”

Hart lawyer: It’s really just a donation

Idaho state Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, has clarified to the state Endowment Fund Investment Board that a check he recently sent for $2,450 to the state’s public school permanent endowment fund is just a donation - not a payment on an outstanding judgment Hart faces for illegally logging timber from school endowment land in 1996 to build his log home in Athol. In a letter dated Nov. 4 and received at the endowment fund office today, Hart’s attorney, Robert Romero, wrote, “Please accept the cashier’s check referenced in  your letter as a voluntary donation from Mr. Phil Hart on behalf of the Idaho State Public School Permanent Endowment Fund.”

It makes a difference - payments for timber on state endowment lands go into an earnings reserve fund, from which direct payments to schools go out every year; donations to the permanent endowment are held in perpetuity; only their investment earnings are distributed. The response means Hart’s payment falls into the latter category.

Three ed groups seek to join lawsuit over secret tax deals

Three education groups are seeking to join Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, in her lawsuit over secret tax deals at the state Tax Commission, saying the alleged deals are causing education funding in the state to suffer.     ”We take the allegations very seriously,” said John Rumel, general counsel for the Idaho Education Association, one of the three groups. “The representative’s allegations indicate that because of some sweetheart deals and corrupt practices, a substantial amount of funds that should be going into the coffers of the state are not getting there.”

In addition to the IEA, the Idaho Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers local from the University of Idaho all have filed motions to intervene in the case as plaintiffs. The UI group represents 65 professors and staffers at the university; the IEA is the state’s largest teachers union, with 13,000 members. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com, and read the latest filings in the case here.

Deceptive extended auto warranty sellers barred from doing business in Idaho

The owners of a bankrupt firm that once was the largest seller of extended auto warranties in the nation have been barred from doing business in Idaho, under a settlement announced today by Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. “These individuals got rich by blanketing the country with deceptive mailings, unwanted telephone calls, and high pressure sales tactics, often aimed at senior citizens,” Wasden said.  “They made millions selling nearly worthless service contracts, in many cases to people who were covered by a manufacturer’s warranty. This settlement prohibits them from repeating those practices in Idaho.”

Wasden and ten other state attorneys general sued the defunct company and its owners earlier this year, alleging the illegal actions stemming from deceptive junk mail, telemarketing robocalls and misleading TV ads. Click below to read Wasden’s full news release.

Missoulian: Highway 12 permits in ‘chicken-or-egg’ situation

The Missoulian reports today that Idaho is taking the position that it won’t permit mega-loads of oil equipment to travel U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho until Montana issues permits for its leg of the trip, and Montana is taking the position that it won’t issue permits until Idaho approves the huge loads. “We’ve said all along we can’t issue a permit for someone to bring this size of a load through Montana until we know that they can be at our border legally,” said Jim Lynch, director of the Montana Department of Transportation. “That means they have to have permits in place to get there as well.” However, neither state views this as a problem, and both say they can work it out. You can read the full story here from Missoulian reporter Kim Briggeman.

Lawmakers gather, at least one leadership contest takes shape

Lawmakers from around the state, including some newly elected, rolled on buses into the Silver Valley this morning as part of the North Idaho legislative tour, after hearing a presentation from Lt. Gov. Brad Little about the work of the governor’s transportation funding task force. Last night, the legislators held party caucuses, which included an announcement at the House GOP caucus from Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, that he’s running for majority caucus chairman, challenging current Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly.

If Nonini won that spot - elections will happen at the early-December organizational session - he’d have to give up the chairmanship of the House Education Committee. “We have grown to 57 and the reason I’m running for caucus chair is I think I could serve our whole caucus in a good capacity in that position,” Nonini told Eye on Boise. “I’ve chaired the education committee for the last four years. There’s a lot of good talent. I think we have a lot of good members who could step up and do just as good a job as I have done or better.” He added, “We need to make these moves,” to take advantage of “the talent we have in our caucus.”

In the House Democratic Caucus meeting last night, the mood, according to House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, was “subdued.” Talk focused on the election results, in which the Democrats lost five House seats. For the most part, Rusche said, “Tactical changes in how we did the campaigns and stuff wouldn’t have made any difference. The national Democratic brand was not well-received in Idaho.” The minority has an opening in its leadership, with Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, opting not to seek re-election this year; Rusche said “a number of people have expressed interest.”

New ethics complaint filed against Hart by North Idaho Rep. Eric Anderson

A GOP lawmaker from North Idaho has filed a new ethics complaint against Rep. Phil Hart, saying Hart’s 1996 theft of state school endowment-owned timber, claims of legislative immunity and tax protesting show he’s violated his oath of office.

Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, calls Hart’s actions a “stain” on the House and says he should be removed from office.  “I’m a little frustrated with leadership right now because they haven’t taken action,” said Anderson, a third-term representative who just won a fourth term in the House. “The speaker should have done something a long time ago.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Semanko: As red as Idaho is, Wyoming has us beat

Here’s an interesting tidbit shared by Idaho Republican Party Chairman Norm Semanko on IPTV’s “Dialogue” program last night: Despite the GOP sweep in this year’s elections, Idaho is no longer the “most-Republican” state as measured by Republican dominance in its top offices and Legislature. Wyoming takes that prize. Wyoming, like Idaho, has its entire congressional delegation and all its statewide offices held by Republicans. The difference: While Idaho has now jumped up to 80 percent GOP in its state Legislature, Wyoming is at 84 percent.

Idaho teachers sue over financial emergency pay-cut negotiations

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A dozen teachers in the tiny town of Harrison are the first to sue an Idaho school district over pay and benefits negotiated under financial emergency declarations that started two years ago. The lawsuit against the Kootenai School District was filed Tuesday. The suit claims the district made a decision to worsen their “last best offer” after the deal was extended — and rejected — by teachers and that decision violated the financial emergency statutes. Teachers are guaranteed by state law at least as much money as they earned in the previous year. But lawmakers for the past two years have allowed districts the option of financial emergencies to make cuts to help balance budgets. Attorney John Rumel, general counsel for the Idaho Education Association, says this is the first lawsuit the union has brought on behalf of teachers as the result of financial emergency negotiations in the past two years.

ITD’s ‘major realignment’ and its timing…

It was early in the morning the day after the election when the Idaho Transportation Department announced a “major realignment” of the agency, aimed at reducing management employees, saving money and focusing resources on on-the-ground work. So why that timing? Eye on Boise asked Gov. Butch Otter, and he said, “How many times do we want to go through the debate on that? The Legislature still has to take a look at a lot of the things that we want to do there. I think it’s important that we not confuse the issue.”

He added, “Obviously we’re anxiously awaiting the report of the governor’s task force.” That, he said, will include “charting some new waters” and “a 20-year vision,” including “the revenue stream.” Said Otter, “I think it’s important that that debate begin. I support their efforts.”

ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten said the realignment plan has been in the works since the department’s new director, Brian Ness, came on board and began meeting with department employees last spring. “The pieces just came together just within the last week or so,” Stratten said. He added, “The director has the authority to make organizational moves.”

Stratten said, “The pieces came together just prior to the election and the decision was made to hold off on it, in hopes that we could … not intermix it in the middle of all the election coverage.” The department says the realignment won’t mean layoffs, but instead will make changes as employees retire or leave; projections show 55 ITD employees who are supervisors will be eligible for retirement over the next two years. “It’s possible that some people who once managed or supervised may no longer do so,” Stratten said.

Ness said he determined that ITD now has as many as nine layers of management between front-line workers and the director; he plans to reduce that to five. Click below to read Ness’ message to ITD employees about the realignment.

Semanko, Roark to analyze election results, take calls tonight

Idaho’s state Republican and Democratic party chairmen - Norm Semanko and Keith Roark - will analyze the election results and take calls from viewers tonight on Idaho Public Television’s “Dialogue” with host Marcia Franklin; there’s more info here.  The show airs live at 8:30 p.m. Mountain time, 7:30 Pacific; to join the conversation, you can email your questions in before the show to dialogue@idahoptv.org, or call in live during the show, toll free, at (800) 973-9800.

Former guv, senator, interior secty begins new gig as insurance lobbyist

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — After a quarter-century in public office, Idaho’s Dirk Kempthorne has officially rejoined the private sector as the top lobbyist for the nation’s life insurers. The former Idaho governor, U.S. senator and Interior Secretary became president and CEO of the American Council of Life Insurers on Wednesday. The group announced the hiring in September. Kempthorne succeeds former Oklahoma Gov. Frank Keating as chief executive officer for the group. Early in his career, Kempthorne was a lobbyist in Idaho for chemical maker FMC Corp. Now, Kempthorne and his staff will advocate for more than 300 legal reserve life insurer and fraternal benefit society member companies.

Idaho’s first Hispanic congressman-elect says vote sent message about state

Idaho elected its first Hispanic to represent the state in Congress on Tuesday, as Raul Labrador upset freshman Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick with a decisive 51 percent to 41.3 percent victory. Labrador, a conservative Republican state lawmaker and immigration attorney who charged during the race that Minnick’s attack ads against him had racial overtones, said he thought the “first” was significant because it sent a message to the nation about Idahoans.

“People have such a bad connotation of what Idaho represents,” Labrador said, “a bad place, a racist place. I can’t think of a better message for Idaho to send than to send a young man who was born in Puerto Rico, was raised in Las Vegas and was adopted by this state.” Tony Stewart, a founding board member of the Kootenai County Task Force on Human Relations, said the election result is one of a long string of firsts in Idaho’s history that belie the state’s image, which was tarnished by the presence in the 1990s of a small but violent group of white supremacists.

Idaho elected the nation’s first Jewish governor, Moses Alexander, in 1914, and the nation’s first Native American attorney general, Larry EchoHawk, in 1990. It’s also elected Native Americans to the state Legislature and at one time elected a high percentage of women to the Legislature compared to other states. “So there’s a track record there of looking at the merits of how people are seen as candidates, and they’re not basing it on race, but on the issues,” Stewart said. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

GOP tide sweeps out six-term lawmaker

The Republican sweep of Idaho’s elections on Tuesday carried off one of North Idaho’s longest-serving lawmakers, a Democrat who often voted with the Republicans and whose campaign slogan was “as independent as Idaho.” Rep. Mary Lou Shepherd, D-Prichard, lost her bid for a seventh term in the Idaho House to political newcomer Shannon McMillan, who won with 54.9 percent of the vote. It was one of five seats Republicans picked up in the Idaho House while holding even in the Senate, boosting their supermajority in the Legislature from three-quarters of the seats to four-fifths.

Shepherd, 77, a retired restaurant/tavern owner who’s served in the House since 1999, said she’d never heard of McMillan before the campaign. “It doesn’t seem to matter what you do or how you do, it’s if you have a big ‘R’ or not,” Shepherd said. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Denney says he’s reached decision on Hart, will announce it in next week

Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney says he’s made a decision on the unanimous recommendation from a special House Ethics Committee to remove Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, from the House Revenue & Taxation Committee, but he’s not yet ready to announce the decision because he wants to talk with Hart first. With the upcoming North Idaho legislative tour, which starts Sunday, Denney said, “I think we’ll have an opportunity.” Once that occurs, he said, he’ll issue a press release.

Former Otter chief of staff arrested for election-night DUI

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s former chief of staff was arrested early Wednesday morning on driving under the influence charges after attending an event celebrating the GOP’s big wins in the previous day’s election. Jeff Lyn Malmen, who is 43, was arrested by Boise Police Department officers and booked into Ada County Jail at about 4 a.m. before being released. He’d been drinking at Republican Party election night headquarters at the Doubletree Riverside hotel in Boise prior to his arrest. Malmen was Otter’s chief of staff while Otter was a three-term U.S. House member and during Otter’s first year as governor. Malmen left Otter’s government in November 2007 to take a lobbying job with utility Idaho Power Co.

Victorious Republicans rally on state Capitol steps

Victorious Republican candidates gathered on the Statehouse steps for a rally today, where Idaho GOP Chairman Norm Semanko declared, “Last night was the biggest victory in the history of Idaho Republican politics.” Newly elected 1st District GOP Congressman Raul Labrador said he can now remove the bright red “Fire Pelosi” pin he’s been wearing on his lapel for the last few weeks. “We have done the job and I can take it off, because the mission has been finished,” Labrador declared. Newly re-elected Gov. Bucth Otter said, “Our focus for the next four years … is to continue on exactly what we’ve started the last four years.”

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo, who won a third term in the Senate, said, “I think the message from America, which is the same message that people here in Idaho were sending us, is that we need to get to work. … My hope is that we can now get down to work, to work across party lines, develop consensus-based, conservative, constitutional focused solutions to the issues facing our nation. We can do it, we will do it.”

Idaho voters OK four constitutional amendments

All four constitutional amendments that were on the Idaho ballot passed, and passed fairly easily. SJR 101, allowing “tuition” at the University of Idaho (rather than just “fees”), passed with 64.1 percent of the vote. HJR 4, on hospital debt, got 63.5 percent; HJR 5 on airport debt, passed with 53.3 percent support, and HJR 7, for municipal electric system debts and power contracts, passed with 57 percent. All had received overwhelming support in the Idaho Legislature - that’s how they got on the ballot - though the Idaho Republican Party at its convention this year voted to oppose the three debt amendments.

All 11 constitutional amendments that have appeared on Idaho’s ballot since 1998 have won approval from Idaho voters, including complex measures dealing with endowment investment reform. Idaho voters tend to support them. This AP photo by Charlie Litchfield shows a scene from Idaho’s polls yesterday.

Election expands GOP supermajority in the Idaho Legislature

The Republican sweep that swept across Idaho yesterday did more than return the state to a 100 percent Republican congressional delegation to match its all-GOP slate of top statewide officials: It also added five seats to the Republican majority in the Idaho House. According to final, unofficial results, the five switches came as seven-term Rep. Mary Lou Shepherd, D-Prichard, lost to first-time GOP candidate Shannon McMillan in District 2; Republican Kathy Sims beat Democrat Paula Marano for the seat formerly held by Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene, in District 4; Rep. Liz Chavez, D-Lewiston, lost to Republican challenger Jeff Nesset in District 7; Republican Jim Guthrie won the District 29 seat formerly held by Rep. James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, defeating Democrat Greg Anderson; and, in the closest race in the state, former Rep. Julie Ellsworth, R-Boise, edged Democrat Janie Ward-Engelking by just nine votes in District 18, to win the seat formerly held by Rep. Branden Durst, D-Boise.

Durst lost his bid for the Idaho Senate seat formerly held by Sen. Kate Kelly, D-Boise, to Republican Mitch Toryanski by just 103 votes. But Democrat Dan Schmidt defeated Republican Gresham Dale Bouma to take the Senate seat formerly held by longtime Sen. Gary Schroeder, R-Moscow, whom Bouma defeated in the GOP primary; that leaves the Senate’s party balance where it was, with 28 Republicans and seven Democrats.

The Idaho House went from 52 Republicans and 18 Democrats to - if these election results hold - 57 Republicans and 13 Democrats. That drops the Dems from a quarter of the seats in the House to under a fifth. Overall, that means the Idaho Legislature goes from three-quarters GOP to four-fifths.

Labrador, Minnick comment on results

Outgoing Congressman Walt Minnick issued a statement early this morning, saying, “It now appears that Raul Labrador will be the victor when all the votes are finally tallied. Therefore, early this morning I placed a call to Raul and wished him every success as Idaho’s next Congressman. I, in particular, hope he can be successful in working with the Administration and his colleagues of both parties in the exceedingly important task ahead of putting our country back to work and of balancing our nation’s budget.”

Meanwhile, the victorious Labrador issued a statement saying, “Everywhere I campaigned throughout the district people wanted someone to bring sanity back to Washington DC.  Whether it was a coffee shop in Nampa or a small business in Coeur d’Alene the message was the same; our government is out of control. I have always put the voters of Idaho first and I’m humbled by the support we received.  They have placed their trust in me.  I will hit the ground running in Washington to restore their faith in Congress and start working to create jobs.”

You can read Labrador’s full statement here, and click below to read Minnick’s full statement.

Labrador wins, beats Minnick

The Associated Press has called Idaho’s 1st District congressional race in favor of GOP challenger Raul Labrador. The latest figures from the Idaho Secretary of State’s office show that with 753 of 961 precincts reporting, Labrador had 50.2 percent to Minnick’s 42 percent, with independent Dave Olson garnering 5.9 percent and Libertarian Mike Washburn 1.9 percent.

Minnick’s campaign said on Twitter just now, “Congratulations  to Raul Labrador on a hard-earned win, and best of luck as Idaho’s next Congressman.”

Otter claims victory, promises ‘conservative leadership in tough times’

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has claimed victory in his re-election bid, saying in a statement, “I give credit to my opponent, Mr. Allred, for running a very tough race. In the end, Idahoans spoke loudly that strong conservative leadership is what they wanted during these tough times.” You can read Otter’s full statement here. In this AP photo by Matt Cilley, Otter, joined by his mother, Regina Otter, delivers a thank-you message to supporters earlier tonight; he waited to claim victory until he heard from Allred.

Allred concedes in guv’s race

Democratic candidate for governor Keith Allred has conceded to GOP Gov. Butch Otter in the governor’s race. “I believe more strongly than ever in the Founding Fathers’ wisdom that the best solutions are those that attract support across the lines that divide us,” Allred said in a statement. “It’s been my privilege to take that message to the people of Idaho.” Allred, who called Otter at 12:36 a.m. to concede, said, “I wish Governor Otter all the best as he works to guide our state through a difficult time.”

Meanwhile, GOP congressional hopeful Raul Labrador took the podium at Idaho GOP election night headquarters and said, “I want to go to bed. It’s too early to call it.” He thanked his supporters, and noted that he was outspent both in the primary race and in the general election contest. “I think they have shown what you can do with a little bit of money, a lot of energy and a lot of faith,” Labrador said.

Latest results in guv’s race

With vote-counting delays in Kootenai, Ada and Canyon counties, the election results have been very slow to come in tonight, prompting several major candidates to hold off on either declaring victory or conceding - including Gov. Butch Otter and Democratic challenger Keith Allred. Here are the latest results from the Idaho Secretary of State’s office: With 543 of 961 precincts reporting, Otter has 60.5 percent to Allred’s 31.7 percent, while independent Jana Kemp has 5.7 percent, Libertarian Ted Dunlap has 1.2 percent and independent “Pro-Life” has 0.8 percent.

AP declares Luna, Little, Ysursa winners

The AP has called three more Idaho races: Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, Lt. Gov. Brad Little, and state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna all have won re-election, the AP says. The most high-profile race among those three was Luna’s; he faced a challenge from Stan Olson, the just-retired superintendent of the Boise School District, the state’s second-largest district. With 227 of 961 precincts reporting, Luna’s lead was 62.7 percent to Olson’s 37.3 percent.

Minnick: ‘I expect it to be very close’

Freshman Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick, the only Democrat among Idaho’s congressional delegation, said tonight that he’s not surprised he’s in such a hard-fought re-election race. “It’s the most Republican district to have elected a Democratic challenger in a Democratic year,” he said of his election in 2008. “We’re now in a very Republican year. In that circumstance … I think it was a given that it was going to have a lot of attention.” He said that was regardless of who the GOP nominee was against him.

Minnick said with a “Republican wave” out there, “more and more people have been asking, why shouldn’t it affect Idaho?” Plus, he said, it’s a time when “emotions are high and there is a great deal of disaffection,” given the nation’s economic straits and their impact on people. “Will people look beyond party label to the policies and background of the candidates as individuals? That’s the issue,” he said. “I’m of course hopeful that they will. We’ll have to see how it turns out. I expect it to be very close.

Early numbers look good for Labrador

The early numbers looked very good for GOP congressional hopeful Raul Labrador - with 124 of 961 precincts reporting, Labrador had 50.7 percent of the vote to incumbent Congressman Walt Minnick’s 42.6 percent, with independent Dave Olson trailing at 5.2 percent and Libertarian Mike Washburn at 1.4 percent. Labrador said he’s not surprised the race is so competitive - even though he was underfunded and running against an incumbent congressman. “I think people this year, more than ever, were looking at the message and not at the money spent,” Labrador said. “When they saw the ads, they wanted to find out for themselves if those things were true.” He speculated that Minnick’s ads drove voters to Labrador’s website to check him out.

He also noted that while his name recognition at the start of the campaign was very low statewide, by the end it was up to 90 percent - a change he attributes to Minnick’s negative ads against him. “I want to thank him,” Labrador said with a grin. He added of the race, “It’s too early to call.”

AP calls top races…

The Associated Press has called several of Idaho’s top races - it’s declared Sen. Mike Crapo a winner, winning a third term in the U.S. Senate; along with 2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson, winning another term in the House; and the AP has declared Gov. Butch Otter the winner in his bid for second term - though only a small fraction of Idaho’s votes have been counted. The AP’s projection was based on exit polls along with the earliest results.

Democratic candidate for governor Keith Allred, shown here greeting supporters at the Idaho Democratic Party’s campaign headquarters at the Owyhee Plaza Hotel in Boise, said of his first run for office, “It’s been exciting and a lot more fun than I thought.”

Long night ahead…

Check back here later for election results; for now, there’s still an hour of voting left in southern Idaho and two hours in North Idaho. It could be a long night ahead. Among the factors threatening to make the vote-tallying take extra-long: Write-in candidates in two key races in Kootenai County, for a county commission seat (incumbent Rick Currie is the write-in, challenging Jai Nelson, who beat him in the GOP primary) and for a legislative seat (write-in Howard Griffiths challenging state Rep. Phil Hart). Kootenai County is part of the 1st Congressional District, where the hot race is between freshman Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick and GOP challenger Raul Labrador.

Today is the day…

It’s Election Day, and the polls are open from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. At my local polling place, things were busy but running smoothly with a steady flow of people showing up to vote. The ballot’s quite long, with everything from U.S. Senate to highway district board, and from constitutional amendments to a slew of magistrate retention votes. Voters in Boise are being greeted by brilliantly sunny skies and vivid fall foliage; it couldn’t be a nicer day to go out and cast your vote…

Rep. Hart goes to court to fight $53K in back state income taxes

Idaho state Rep. Phil Hart is going to court over his back state income taxes, filing an appeal in 1st District Court in Kootenai County charging that Idaho’s state income tax is unconstitutional. Today, the state of Idaho filed a motion to dismiss the appeal; the court set a Dec. 7 hearing on the motion.

Hart’s seven-page appeal raises an array of issues, including whether Idaho’s state income tax “as a graduated tax, fails the uniformity requirement” of Idaho’s state Constitution; and whether the state Board of Tax Appeals, in Hart’s case, “upheld the sanctity” of Idaho’s constitutional privilege protecting state legislators from civil action during legislative sessions.

Those were among the issues Hart raised in appealing an order to pay $53,523 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest last spring, but the state Board of Tax Appeals rejected his appeal. It also rejected a motion for reconsideration Hart filed in September.

In late September, a special House Ethics Committee voted unanimously to recommend that Hart, a three-term Republican state representative from Athol, be removed from the House Revenue and Taxation Committee while he continues his personal fights against back state and federal income taxes. Hart refused to step down from the committee voluntarily, maintaining that he has no conflict of interest; House Speaker Lawerence Denney has said he’ll wait until after Tuesday’s election to decide whether to remove Hart from the panel. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Advocates: Ruling could mean more public hearings before megaloads roll

The Idaho Supreme Court’s highly technical decision today in the Highway 12 mega-loads case may mean more public hearings and other steps before the giant truckloads could roll, according to the attorneys for Highway 12 residents and business owners who sued to block the loads.

Laird Lucas of Advocates for the West, which represented the residents for free, said if the Idaho Transportation Department must follow contested case hearing rules on the mega-loads, that’ll “allow for a much fuller airing of the issues.” Lucas already has filed a formal petition with ITD for a contested case hearing on the ExxonMobil proposal; he said he plans a similar filing on the ConocoPhillips mega-loads very soon.

“That’s better for everybody to get all the facts out on the table,” Lucas said. “We’ve had a lot of dealings behind closed doors here. I actually thing the Supreme Court ruling is a positive step for us even though technically they dismissed our petition. I think they opened up the doors for the public to be much more involved in the decision-making over these mega-loads.”

SupCourt ruling rests on technical issue

The Idaho Supreme Court decision in the mega-loads case turns on the question of whether the ConocoPhillips application for permits should be considered a “contested case” or not; the majority of the court said it should, and the dissenters said it shouldn’t. That’s a technical issue that affects the jurisdiction of the court to review the outcome; neither the majority nor the minority addressed the direct issues of whether the loads were properly permitted or not. In his dissent, Justice Jim Jones wrote, “As persons who live along the route and who will be affected by the transportation of the ConocoPhillips units, Respondents certainly appear to be aggrieved persons. As such, they have a right to be heard.” But it’s not clear when - just not, at this point, in court.

Jones also notes in his dissent that the permits for the first four mega-loads “apparently … will lie dormant until such time as the state of Montana issues permits.” It hasn’t yet done so.

Chief Justice Dan Eismann and Justice Joel Horton concurred in the majority opinion, written by Justice Warren Jones. It holds that the issue was a “contested case,” though informally handled, which meant it can’t be reviewed in court and instead should be reviewed at the agency. However, the majority opinion held that “the Court must dismiss the case and does not have the power to remand to the agency for further proceedings.”

High court overturns Judge Bradbury, OKs four mega-loads on Highway 12

The Idaho Supreme Court has ruled in favor of allowing four mega-loads of oil refinery equipment to travel scenic U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho, overturning a lower-court judge who revoked the permits for the four giant truckloads. The court, in a 21-page ruling, found that it didn’t have jurisdiction to revoke the permits for the loads, and neither did the district court.

“It is entirely possible that Respondents have real grievances with ITD’s decision in this case,” the court held. “Even so, the Constitution and the Legislature have limited the Court’s power to act here. … The Court’s only choice is to remand with instructions to dismiss without prejudice.”
Justice Warren Jones wrote the 3-2 decision; Justice Jim Jones wrote a dissent, in which Justice Roger Burdick concurred; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com and read the opinion here.

ConocoPhillips Corp. wants to send the loads, which are so wide they’ll take up both lanes of the two-lane road, across the route immediately to get the equipment to its refinery in Billings, Mont., though it still must receive permits from the state of Montana. They’re just the first mega-loads proposed for the route, however; Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil has a proposal in the works for 207 giant loads to start traveling this month and continue for a year, to run from the Port of Lewiston through Montana and up to its Alberta oil sands project in Canada.

Yep, donations to Idaho’s school endowment fund are tax-deductible…

Numerous Eye on Boise readers have been asking whether Idaho Rep. Phil Hart’s voluntary donation to the state school endowment fund would be tax deductible, so I posed the question about such donations to Dan John, tax policy manager for the Idaho State Tax Commission. The answer: Yes.

“Under federal law, which we adopt, it would be deductible by an individual who itemizes their deductions as a charitable contribution,” John said.  “There’s a specific code section under Internal Revenue Code that allows charitable contributions to the United States, states or possessions and their political subdivisions.” The section, Internal Revenue Code Section 170(c)(1), comes into play fairly often, John said, as it applies to such things as donations of parks to cities. “We have charitable contributions all the time,” he said.

Hart made ‘donation’ to endowment, not restitution for ‘96 timber theft

Idaho state Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, sent a check as promised to the state’s school endowment for $2,450, but called it a “voluntary donation” to the permanent fund, not a payment on a judgment over a 1996 timber theft; Hart used the stolen logs to build his Athol home. That’s left the state endowment’s managers scratching their heads as to how the check should be handled. Revenue from timber sales on state endowment lands goes into an earnings reserve fund, from which direct payments to schools go out every year. Donations to the permanent endowment are held in perpetuity; only their investment earnings are distributed.

“It is somewhat at odds with his public statements, where he said, ‘I’m sending this money in respect to, to clear up any amount due on unpaid timber,’” said Larry Johnson, manager of investments for the endowment. “So I sent a letter back to his attorney asking him to clarify whether he really meant it as a donation, or whether he meant it as a payment for timber. But I guess if we don’t hear from him, we’ll take the letter at face value and assume it’s a donation.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com, from Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.

One day left ‘til the election…

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com from Saturday’s paper on the outside ads being run against Democratic candidate for governor, Keith Allred, thanks to a big cash infusion to the Idaho Republican Party from the Republican Governors Association. And here’s a link to my Sunday Handle Extra column on the upcoming elections in Idaho, including new voter ID requirements and a rundown of contested legislative races in North Idaho.

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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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