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Eye On Boise

Archive for August 2011

Pocatello woman sues over Idaho’s ‘fetal pain’ abortion law

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An eastern Idaho woman who was briefly charged with having an illegal abortion is suing in federal court, contending that Idaho's so-called “fetal pain” law and other abortion bans violate the U.S. Constitution. Jennie McCormack's lawsuit against Bannock County Prosecuting Attorney Mark Hiedeman is believed to be the first to directly challenge the constitutionality of a new Idaho ban on abortions done after 20 weeks, based on the premise that a fetus may feel pain at that point. Idaho is one of six states that have enacted the bans. Heideman could not be immediately reached for comment. McCormack was charged with a felony in June after police said the Pocatello woman took pills to terminate her pregnancy last December. A judge later dismissed the criminal case for lack of evidence. Click below for the full AP report.

Lawmakers crafting revised endowment legislation

Associated Press reporter John Miller reports that Reps. Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, and John VanderWoude, R-Nampa, are planning to work on revised legislation to limit the state Land Board's endowment land investments, out of concern over competition with the private sector. “There's clearly an area where we can legislate,” Burgoyne told Miller after two days of hearings on the issue concluded Tuesday in the Legislature's Natural Resources Interim Committee. “I think House Bill 188 is going to have to be reworded,” VanderWoude said. “But it's going to be something similar to that.” That bill sought to place limits on the state Land Board's management of endowment lands, including requiring that “all business operations located on or using said land, shall be sold to private persons;” it didn't pass. Click below for Miller's full report.

Redistricters out ‘til Friday, as clock ticks…

After Democratic redistricting Commissioner Julie Kane presented some concept maps to other commissioners regarding North Idaho, Co-Chairman Allen Andersen said, “I think there has been some presentation of some potential maps that might address some issues we've been talking about. I think we have another possibility that we can get to you for your consideration … so that by Friday we can have a framework to start concluding this effort.”

Kane said she gave a map to GOP Commissioner Lorna Finman, “but I need to catch a flight right now,” so the commission adjourned for today. Due to schedule conflicts, they're not due back until Friday morning at 10.

Asked afterward if Kane's proposals offer some common ground on North Idaho legislative districts, Finman said, “I think we're communicating, so let's hope so.” GOP Commissioner Evan Frasure said, “We'll get 'er done - we won't fail.” GOP Commissioner Lou Esposito said, “We need to have 'em take a new look at some of this in light of the testimony. I'm not hearing that they're willing to do that at this point, but hopefully I'm wrong.”

Democratic Commissioner Allen Andersen, asked if the Dems are offering some middle ground, said, “I think you could say it addresses their concerns.” But Democratic Commissioner George Moses said, “Show us something.” But, he said, “It's got to be reasonable. Don't show us a plan that runs the line right through the middle of the University of Idaho - please.”

Andersen said, “We've gotten a lot of emails from concerned citizens of the communities up there that say, 'Don't split us up, don't cut us in half.' Do we ignore that?” He said the large District 2 that Democrats drew up north takes in large swaths that are lightly populated, avoiding splitting up more-populated communities.

Redistricting commissioners hone in on North Idaho flashpoint: District 2

Republican redistricting commissioners had a surprising bit of news for their Democratic counterparts this afternoon: They're not ready to submit a new redistricting plan this afternoon, as planned. “We have not yet come to a consensus on this side of the aisle to present one of those concepts,” said GOP Co-Chairman Evan Frasure. “We're still very actively working on it. We recognize that that clock is ticking.” After GOP commissioners attempted again to suggest doing a congressional plan first - an idea Democratic commissioners already have rejected, the two side began talking about a flashpoint issue: The treatment of District 2 in North Idaho in the Democratic plan. That district takes in southern Bonner County, then stretches all the way south through Shoshone County down to Riggins.

“It's not just District 2, I might add, but that's probably a great example,” said GOP Commissioner Lou Esposito. “How do we move forward with that? … How do we find the common ground to deal with that basic fundamental issue of a district like that?”

Commissioner Lorna Finman of Rathdrum said, “District 2 is a worse version of what was done 10 years ago, which up north was an outrage to everybody, an abomination was the word. And to leave a legacy of a District 2 that's worse than 10 years ago, at least to me, was a nonstarter.” She said, “There's no common ground between Lake Pend Oreille on down to Riggins. It's an unwieldy district. We also had strong testimony from Benewah and Shoshone county commissioners … that they would likee to be together. So there's a lot of public input that we're ignoring in this map.”

She added that in the last round of redistricting, “Districts 2 and 31 were so offensive to the people of the state that a bill as put forward and statutes came out of it. I have heard a lot of negative response on District 2 and I agree with it, it is a huge district that violates a lot of the road rule.” That rule, enacted into law in 2009, requires districts to be linked by highways. “You do not have to do that, it's not the only way to do it,” Finman said. “We've presented many maps. They can do it in other ways.”

Democratic Commissioner Julie Kane then asked for a brief recess to get some maps from upstairs with alternative concepts for the area, and the commission took a 10-minute break.

Ysursa to redistricters: Will be here on weekend to accept plan, ‘git ‘er done’

Idaho's redistricting commissioners invited Secretary of State Ben Ysursa to address the commission this afternoon and let them know if they can file their final redistricting plan over the Labor Day holiday weekend. “Any time that you come up with a plan and want to file it, I'll make sure that I'm there or one of my deputies will be there to receive it,” Ysursa told the commissioners. “If in fact you do get a plan, I will make every accommodation.”

Asked what happens if the commission doesn't meet its deadline, Ysursa said that would leave the state with an existing legislative district plan that's clearly unconstitutional, due to population shifts - a big problem for elections. As the state's chief election officer, Ysursa said, he and/or others likely would file with the Idaho Supreme Court to order the commission back to work, though it's not clear at this point who exactly would be sued. “We are exploring with our counsel some procedures,” Ysursa said. He told the commissioners, “There are some very tough decisions to be made, but the people of the state of Idaho wanted you to do this. Hopefully you will accomplish this,” either within the set time frame or outside it. “I wish you godspeed, and as Larry the cable guy says, git 'er done.”

ISP: Six anti-megaloads protesters arrested, future protesters warned

The Idaho State Police has issued a statement acknowledging that it arrested six anti-megaloads protesters on Aug. 26, after those people failed to disperse after repeated warnings, though other protesters did leave. “A large number of people lined the streets within the City of Moscow both in opposition and support of the megaload,” the first very, very large load of Canada-bound oil equipment to come through Moscow from the Port of Lewiston on that date, ISP Capt. Lonnie Richardson said in the statement. “Some individuals chose and were allowed to temporarily protest the movement of the load by sitting down on US-95. After some time was allowed for the sit down protest, an order to disperse was given. We appreciate those who acknowledged and followed the dispersal order.”

The six who refused were arrested for assembly to disturb the peace and refusal to disperse, Richardson said.  “The Idaho State Police fully recognizes, acknowledges and is sworn to uphold the constitution including an individual's 1st Amendment rights, and the Idaho State Police will not interfere with the rights of an individual to peacefully assemble and protest until it becomes a matter of public safety. Allowing the temporary sit down protest during the inaugural megaload transport on US-95, has afforded the opportunity for those interested to voice their protests in that manner.  The Idaho State Police now asks those that choose to protest during future movements of megaloads on US-95, to do so from the safety of a sidewalk or roadside outside the right-of-way.”

He added, “The Idaho State Police has no desire to arrest anyone for exercising their rights.  However, prospectively, those who choose to not comply with officers; directions to not interfere with the movement of any vehicle on a highway, by walking or sitting on the highway or otherwise entering or remaining on the highway after being instructed to move, will immediately be physically removed from the roadway and arrested.”

Mortgage-modification scam targets Spanish-speaking Idahoans

The Idaho Department of Finance is warning that a mortgage-modification scam is targeting Spanish-speaking Idahoans, promising to lower monthly mortgage payments but instead just charging an upfront fee of $1,995. The company is calling itself Freedom Companies Inc., Freedom Financial Mortgage, and several other names containing the word “freedom.” “This company, using the term ‘freedom’ in its name, asks homeowners for private financial information, charges an unlawful upfront fee, and then leaves already distressed homeowners worse off than they were before,” said Gavin Gee, director of the Department of Finance. “That’s not ‘freedom;’ that’s a scam.” You can read Gee's full news release here.

Redistricters agree 5-1 to meet on both Sunday and Labor Day, if needed

Redistricters have now voted 5-1 to schedule meetings for both Tuesday and Monday, Labor Day, with the hope that those final meeting days won't be needed. Democratic Commissioner George Moses voted no, and urged the commission not to schedule a meeting on the day set aside to honor labor; he invited all the commissioners to be guests of the Teamsters Union at their annual Labor Day picnic that day in Municipal Park in Boise. GOP Commissioner Lou Esposito said perhaps having a potential Monday meeting date will serve as an incentive to make sure the commission finishes its work well before then. Commissioner Julie Kane noted that she may have to give away her WSU football tickets for Saturday's game. Moses said the picnic lunch invitation to the commissioners still stands. “Have lunch on us,” he said.

Then, after more discussion of new publicly submitted redistricting plans, Commissioner Evan Frasure asked to recess until 3 p.m., saying, “Hopefully we're in the throes of coming up with a plan this afternon.” When the panel reconvenes, it'll hear first from Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. Before the break, Democratic commissioners submitted a minor revision to their latest legislative district plan aimed at complying with the connecting-road rule in the Twin Falls area. Esposito said the GOP commissioners hope to present a “new plan” this afternoon.

Redistricters chew over legal questions

The redistricting commission has been visiting this morning with Assistant Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane about legal questions, on everything from its deadline to what makes a redistricting plan defensible in court. It's also reviewed several new legislative and congressional plans submitted by the public, along with a new submission from Democratic commissioners, L-48, that makes a change to districts in Ada County as requested by GOP Commissioner Lou Esposito. “Commissioner Esposito pointed out an oversight, as you commissioners will recall,” said Democratic Commissioner George Moses. “In our initial proposal, the city of Eagle was entirely contained in one district. In some of the redraws that somehow managed to get fractured and got by us.”

The revision puts all of the city of Eagle into one legislative district, what is now District 14; rather than pairing part with downtown Boise. Commissioner Evan Frasure had several questions, but said, “I appreciate the effort.”

The discussion of legal points has gone on now for more than half an hour. “The most defensible plan is something that comes from the commission 6-0, it meets all the constitutional requirements, and it meets all the statutory requirements,” Kane told the commission. From that point, there's a hierarchy, with a 5-1 vote and compliance with all constitutional and statutory requirements the next-best. “Do your best,” Kane advised the commissioners. “Make every effort to comply with the statutes and with the Constitution, and if you get stuck, show your work. … If we do that, we've got something that's defensible. I'm not saying it's going to be perfect. But I think that's the best advice that as your attorney I can deliver at this point.”

Idaho wages lose ground during recession

Idaho wages slipped during the recession compared to other states, the Idaho Department of Labor reports, with the average wage falling from 37th in the nation in 2008 to 38th in 2010, and the median wage falling from 35th to 39th. In 2010, the latest survey put Idaho's average wage for all jobs at $18.56 an hour, 15 percent below the national average. The median was $14.54 an hour, 12 percent below the national median; you can read the full labor report here.

Sen. Risch called for jury duty, excused

Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey reports that Idaho Sen. Jim Risch spent Monday morning at the Ada County courthouse after being called for jury duty - but was excused after he explained his schedule to 4th District Judge Darla Williamson. Risch told Popkey that the Senate reconvenes next week, and “I have to cast a vote and if I'm not there, there's a chance a U.S. marshal will be looking for you or me.” He said the judge replied, “I think I will excuse you.” You can read Popkey's full post here.

Redistricters back at it with deadline looming…

Idaho's bipartisan citizen redistricting commission is back in session this morning, with a looming deadline: 5 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 6, according to the Idaho Attorney General's office, which responded to a request from the commissioners with a legal opinion stating that this morning. The reason: The commission's 90 days are actually up on Sunday, but state law makes both Sunday and the following Monday designated holidays - it's Labor Day - meaning congressional and legislative redistricting plans must be submitted to the Idaho Secretary of State by Tuesday at the close of business.

GOP Co-Chairman Evan Frasure, left, questioned the opinion, noting that commissioners have been debating the application of constitutional vs. statutory requirements.  “We could wrap this thing up on Friday if we so chose to,” Frasure said, rather than go to Tuesday. “Even though statutorily they're saying we can, I'm not so sure constitutionally we can.” Democratic Co-Chairman Allen Andersen, right, agreed to wait until Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane arrives at the meeting to answer questions before addressing whether the commission should schedule meetings for Tuesday, and possibly Sunday too. It's already scheduled to meet today, Thursday, Friday and Saturday.

UI, media go to court to clarify public records law on personnel records

The University of Idaho asked a court on Monday whether it can release employment records for the late Ernesto Bustamante, a former assistant professor who killed himself last week after murdering a graduate student, 22-year-old Katy Benoit. The university joined with media outlets including the Idaho Statesman, the Lewiston Tribune and the Moscow-Pullman Daily news in filing the motion for declaratory judgment, which asks the court to interpret the meaning of the Idaho Public Records Law §9-340C(1), which bars public agencies from releasing most personnel records for current and former employees without the employee’s consent. The question is whether that bar still applies after the death of the employee.

Kent Nelson, university general counsel, said, “We want to provide a timely accounting for the public within the bounds of the law. … We’re working with the media outlets to gain a timely answer to this question.” Click below for a full report from the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.

Fundraising letter says send donations to Gov. Otter - at Idaho Freedom Foundation

Of all the odd things to find in my mailbox over the weekend, there was a letter from Gov. Butch Otter, addressed to Ben Ysursa, who happens to be Idaho's secretary of state, but at my address. Since it's a federal crime to open someone else's mail, I took the letter to Ysursa's office so he could open it, and he said he got one at his home as well. It was a membership pitch from the Idaho Freedom Foundation, asking people to send from $50 to $5,000 to become “charter members” of the group - and to send the money to Gov. Butch Otter, care of the Idaho Freedom Foundation.

Ysursa said, “As you get into it, it's pretty clear it's not the state of Idaho that's doing this, it's the Freedom Foundation. I saw it and opened it up, and was able to discern that it was a membership drive letter for the Freedom Foundation.” Ysursa, who's in charge of enforcing campaign disclosure and lobbying reporting laws, said, “Over the years, Gov. Otter and other elected officials at times get asked to sign letters of endorsement for various interests. I don't see where it violates anything - it's just kind of a judgment call by the elected official.”

The foundation is listed on the back of the envelope with its P.O. box return address, but on the front of the envelope, the only return address, below Otter's signature, is, “C.L. 'Butch' Otter, Governor.” It also states, on the front of the envelope, “IMPORTANT OBAMACARE LAWSUIT UPDATE.” In the letter, Otter writes, “Last year we worked together to pass the Idaho Health Freedom Act, and I look forward to working with the Idaho Freedom Foundation in the future to ensure that we continue protecting liberty and the free market.” He adds, “I hope you will join the Idaho Freedom Foundation as a Charter Member and let your voice be heard.”

Wayne Hoffman, head of the Freedom Foundation, said the use of the governor's name - including on the donation form (“To: GOVERNOR BUTCH OTTER, Idaho Freedom Foundation, PO Box 2801”) and as the addressee, care of the Freedom Foundation, for donations people may send, is a “standard thing.” The Freedom Foundation did the same thing last year when it sent out a fundraising letter endorsed by former Idaho Sen. Steve Symms, Hoffman said. The foundation, which doesn't disclose its donors, is “probably up to 500 donors” at this point, Hoffman said. With the new mailing, which went to tens of thousands of people statewide, “I expect we'll generate thousands of new members.”

The donations won't actually go to Otter; they'll go to the Freedom Foundation. Hoffman said he doesn't consider the labeling misleading. “It's a very normal practice,” he said. “People understand that Butch is supporting our efforts and he's put his name behind a good organization that is supporting the principles that he's fought long and hard for.” Otter has no affiliation with the foundation, Hoffman said, other than that he donated a belt buckle at the group's annual banquet in May and he and Tom Luna received an award from the group for the “Students Come First” school reform initiative.

Jon Hanian, Otter's press secretary, said, “I can confirm that the governor did approve that letter.” The group asked because they share Otter's concern “over the issue of the health care mandate,” he said. “We read and approved the letter that went out. That was the extent of our involvement in it.”

As to how the letter made its way to my mailbox, Hoffman cited a database glitch.

Idaho wolf hunting season opens tomorrow

Idaho's second-ever wolf hunting season opens tomorrow, running from Aug. 31 through Dec. 31 in the Island Park and Beaverhead wolf management zones, Aug. 30-June 30 in the Lolo and Selway zones, and Aug. 30-March 31 in the remaining nine zones. Click below for Idaho Fish & Game's full news release.

Lawmakers question state endowment land management, suggest sales, PILT

Lawmakers on the Natural Resources Interim Committee have raised an array of questions about management of state endowment lands. Among them: Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton, asked state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna if Idaho might not have been better off to sell some of the endowment land when values were soaring, “if some of that land could've been liquidated,” and give the money to schools. Luna said no. “I do not think it's wise to sell any of the assets to the endowment and distribute the money made off of that sale,” he said. “I think through proper management, we … take the money we've earned from that sale and invest it in other hopefully higher-profit generating ventures that then generate more revenue for the endowment. … If it means distributing the corpus, then I don't think that's wise.” Luna said some states have taken that route in the past “to the point where they have nothing left.”

House Majority Leader Mike Moyle noted that the federal government pays PILT, or payments in lieu of taxes, to local communities for some federally owned land, and Idaho's Fish & Game Department now makes such payments when it purchases formerly private land and takes it off the tax rolls; a constitutional amendment authorized that. He suggested the endowment should look at something similar if it acquires property that formerly was private.

Rep. John VanderWoude, R-Nampa, said the state endowment's commercial property has seen its value drop from $45 million in 2007 to $36 million in 2010, and he said his calculations show the property's bringing in a return of just 2 percent of its value per year for the state. “It seems like that investment's going south,” he said. Secretary of State Ben Ysursa noted that “the commercial property and the value of it goes with the market, and of course goes down if in fact commercial real estate has gone down.” He noted, “I think taking snapshots is maybe a little bit unfair, as to how this is working. I think maybe you have to look at the long term on all this.” He added, however, “I am concerned - you brought up some good points, and I'm going to ask those same questions myself.”

Ysursa: ‘Crossroads of three branches of government’ in endowment debate

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa told the Legislature's Natural Resources Interim Committee today that after watching the process for the past 37 years, “I think we're at an interesting intersection, crossroads … of the three branches of government dealing with endowment property.” The executive branch, through the Land Board, manages the endowment. “We have the legislative branch who wants to know, and they're good questions, how far can they go in putting up sideboards on what we can do.” And then, the judicial branch is weighing in: A decision is pending from the Idaho Supreme Court on whether a section of state law regarding not holding conflict auctions for endowment-owned cottage sites is constitutional. “The folks at the Supreme Court are going to have an opportunity to give us all some more guidance, I think, fairly quickly,” Ysursa said. “We are going to get some more guidance from the State Supreme Court … on how far can the Legislature set the sideboards.”

He said, “I think the real evolution I've seen in the 37 years is that we don't wear two hats, we wear one hat.” Court decision after court decision has come down telling the state that it can't consider other interests in managing endowment land, such as the health of the state's grazing industry or even the general public interest; it has to focus solely on getting the maximum long-term return for the endowment's beneficiaries, the largest of which is the public schools. “As a trustee, I totally understand the furor over some of our recent decisions and where some of our investments are,” Ysursa said. “We're at an intersection. You have your interests as a legislative body. We certainly have ours as the executive branch, and very shortly the judicial branch will give us some more guidance. And I welcome this. … I welcome and need legislative input, we need input from beneficiaries, to provide constructive alternatives.”

J.D. Williams to lawmakers: Endowment ‘ain’t broke, don’t fix it’

Former state Controller J.D. Williams told lawmakers today, “Every dollar that we can make for these endowment lands and the trust fund is a dollar that does not have to come from taxpayers. The more we make, the more it grows and the less taxes have to be collected.” Williams said when he was first elected as state controller and to a seat on the state Land Board, he went to a conference of lands commissioners from other states, and found that some were making 10 times what Idaho was from its endowment lands, and using the money to fund schools and other needs. That concern was part of the driving force behind the endowment reforms initiated in the 1990s and approved by voters as an amendment to the state constitution, Williams said.

“Talk to Gov. Batt about this - endowment reform was led by Gov. Batt, without him it would not have occurred,” he said. A major piece of the reform allowed the endowment fund to be invested into higher-earning but riskier investments, such as the stock market, rather than just in low-return bonds; it also allowed the funds and land to be managed together; and called for diversifying the portfolio of land investments, including exchanging away lower-yield land such as cottage sites and grazing land, for higher-yielding land, from timber land to commercial property.

Williams said much of the commercial property that was acquired was in the immediate vicinity of the state capitol. “I thought it made a lot of sense to diversify the portfolio and we would also protect the vicinity of the capitol for further generations,” he said, noting that some states have ended up with their state capitols in deteriorated or unsuitable areas. Williams noted that when he was first elected state controller in 1990, the state endowment was worth $320 million. “When I left in 2002 it was worth almost $600 million, almost double in 13 years. Today … it's worth $1.2 billion. It's doubled again in nine years. As Ronald Reagan said many times … if it ain't broke, don't fix it. I think they're on the right track.”

Lawmakers take ‘Trust Law 101,’ learn about state endowment

The Legislature's Natural Resources Interim Committee is taking a course in “Trust Law 101,” starting with a presentation from University of Idaho professor and author Jay O'Laughlin. Idaho's state endowment is a trust for which the Land Board holds a fiduciary duty, O'Laughlin told lawmakers. That means they must manage the trust's assets for the sole benefit of the trust beneficiaries - mainly public schools, but also the University of Idaho and other state institutions - not for the general public. “It is a fact that trust businesses have always competed with the private sector,” O'Laughlin said. “The underlying issue here is determining the appropriate business enterprises from which to maximize income from the endowment assets.”

The panel also is hearing today from University of Idaho constitutional law professor Dennis Colson; current and former state Land Board members; representatives of the trust beneficiaries; and more. Tomorrow, the joint committee will hear about the management of the trust's current assets, from the state's permanent endowment fund to timber and grazing land to cottage sites. The committee is meeting in room EW 42 of the state Capitol; live audio from its meetings is being streamed live here.

The discussion follows the introduction of HB 188 in this year's Legislature by Rep. Bob Schaefer, R-Nampa, which sought to place limits on the state Land Board's management of endowment lands, including requiring that “all business operations located on or using said land, shall be sold to private persons.” The measure, which didn't pass either house, was co-sponsored by five other state lawmakers.

The Natural Resources Interim Committee includes 10 state lawmakers from both houses, plus eight more lawmakers from both houses who serve as ad hoc members. Colson, an expert on Idaho's state constitution, shared the history of the endowment and constitutional requirements with the lawmakers. “The idea was that the endowment was directly related to keeping taxes low for public schools,” he said.

Otter says he’ll keep low-balling state budgets

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter is promising more of the same from his administration: tight budgeting that may underestimate state revenues, forcing budget cuts that later prove unnecessary, to avoid mid-year holdbacks. That approach attracted criticism this year after Otter and state lawmakers discounted economic forecasts and set the state budget tens of millions of dollars lower than estimated revenues, then ended the fiscal year June 30 with a fat surplus, most of which was doled back out to make up budget cuts to schools.

“You can expect the same thing the remainder of my time in office,” Otter declared last week in a talk at a luncheon sponsored by the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce and attended by more than 400 people. “The future budgets that we’ll have in the state are going to not look an awful lot unlike budgets that we’ve had the last three and a half years,” Otter said. “We’re still going to be conservative. We’re still going to work at institutionalizing a lot of the changes that we made during this economic downturn.” You can read my full Sunday column here.

Labrador’s take on grizzly shooting case

1st District Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador issued this statement on the Jeremy Hill grizzly bear shooting case in North Idaho:

“Only Jeremy knows the threat this bear posed to his family and property.  No one from D.C. or Boise was present to know the circumstances surrounding his actions, but the Endangered Species Act shouldn’t force us to second-guess these types of life or death decisions.  If the facts that have appeared in the media accounts are true and accurate, then the judgment call Jeremy made to protect his family and property appears to be justified.

“It is heartening though to see the great people of northern Idaho rallying around the Hill family during this difficult time.  Jeremy Hill deserves a fair trial and the moral and financial support he is receiving from his neighbors will help ensure that he does.  However, this situation clearly illustrates that the Endangered Species Act needs to be looked at with fresh eyes as animal populations recover while human populations increase in close proximity. I will work with my colleagues in the Idaho Congressional Delegation to address such concerns within that law.”

Idaho senators weigh in on grizzly shooting

Both of Idaho's U.S. senators have now weighed in on the case of Jeremy Hill, the North Idaho man who's charged with killing a two-year-old male grizzly bear on his property on May 8; Gov. Butch Otter already wrote a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar going to bat for Hill. Here's Sen. Jim Risch's statement:

“The federal case against Mr. Hill for shooting a grizzly that was on his property, where he believed he was protecting his family, is another example for the need to reform the Endangered Species Act.  Protection of your family and property has been sacrosanct since this country was formed.  What Mr. Hill did was not a criminal act in the court of common sense.  My hope is that common sense prevails in this case.”

Here's Sen. Mike Crapo's statement:

Urges swift and fair treatment for accused

Washington, DC – The U.S. Attorney for the District of Idaho recently filed federal criminal charges under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) against Jeremy Hill of Porthill, Idaho, for killing a grizzly bear on his property on May 8, 2011.  Idaho Senator Mike Crapo, a member of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee (EPW) which handles oversight of the ESA, says that Mr. Hill deserves swift and just treatment, and urges the federal government to show fairness and common sense when considering the case.

“I have deep concerns about this incident and the decision of the government to prosecute Mr. Hill, who did what any parent would do in this situation.  Clearly, Mr. Hill thought that his family was in danger and was protecting them from harm.  I understand that the Endangered Species Act is intended to protect threatened and endangered species, but Congress never intended to do so at the expense of basic public safety and the ability to protect oneself or their loved ones in the face of danger.  The American people need to know that they can protect themselves, their families and property when threatened by federally protected wildlife, and that the government will support their right to do so.

Mr. Hill and his family deserve for this matter to come to a fair and swift conclusion, and once that happens, Congress needs to get to work on commonsense ESA reforms to ensure that this deeply unfortunate situation never happens again.  In the meantime, I am going to work with my delegation colleagues and the governor to ensure that Mr. Hill and his family get the fairest possible treatment under the law and can move on with their lives.”

Bid to block Idaho, Montana wolf hunts rejected

The Associated Press reports that a federal appeals court in Helena, Mont. today rejected a request by environmental groups to halt wolf hunts that are scheduled to begin next week in Idaho and Montana. Click below for the full AP report.

Goedde: Opponents of online-course requirement just think ed reform is bad

Here's a link to my full story at on the vote today by a subcommittee of the state Board of Education to approve a two-online-course requirement for high school graduation in Idaho, starting with next year's freshmen (the class of 2016). The move came despite overwhelming opposition at seven public hearings around the state; the full state board will consider it in a special meeting between now and Sept. 9, and if they approve it, it takes effect immediately, though lawmakers still could reject it in January.

Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, who served on the subcommittee, said the rule will “start Idaho students down the road to digital education,” and “provide students with job skills that they're going to need when they enter the workforce, and with the skills to move forward in the post-secondary environment where more and more classes are being offered online.”

He dismissed the negative testimony at the public hearings, saying, “I don't know the makeup of the people that testified. … I was there for the Coeur d'Alene testimony, and without exception, every person that testified was either an educator or a former educator. And I think that is just consistent with their insistence that education reform is a bad thing.”

Online class grad requirement heads to state board, applies to next year’s freshmen

After a state Board of Education subcommittee approved a couple of changes to wording regarding students who fail online courses and alternatives for districts, the new online-class graduation requirement will now head to the State Board of Education, which will consider it in a special meeting between now and Sept. 9. If approved, it'd take effect immediately as an administrative rule; it'd go before lawmakers review during the legislative session that starts in January, at which point they could reject it or let it stand. As proposed, the committee went with requiring Idaho high school graduates to take two online courses, one of them 'asynchronous,' despite overwhelming opposition at seven public hearings around the state. The requirement applies to next year's freshmen, the high school class of 2016.

Subcommittee member Anne Ritter, a Meridian School District trustee, said, “I have huge concerns. I think it's too far too fast. I think flexibility would have been a much better approach.”

Panel opts to stay with two required online courses, one asynchronous

The state Board of Education subcommittee on online learning has voted to go with two courses as proposed for an Idaho high school graduation requirement, one of them being asynchronous; there were two dissenting votes, from Meridian school trustee Anne Ritter and Vision Charter School teacher Kurt Scheffler. Now, they're debating changes in some of the definitions and details, including a proposal to adjust the rule banning teachers from ever being in the classroom with students during an asynchronous course - that change passed unanimously. It replaces the total ban on the teacher being present with students in an asynchronous course with this sentence: “An online course in which an online platform and teacher deliver all curricula.” The remainder of the definition remains the same.

The panel is now debating the provisions regarding students who fail online courses and alternatives for school districts, a particular point of concern among people at the hearings.

Panel weighs ‘asynchronous’ course rule

Anne Ritter, Meridian school district trustee, called for doing away with the “asynchronous” requirement entirely, as part of Idaho's new graduation requirement for two online courses, one of them asynchronous - meaning the teacher isn't present in the classroom and students and teachers participate in the class on their own schedules. “I think the parental concerns need to be looked at,” she said.

Several other committee members then spoke out in favor of a requirement for an asynchronous course, saying students will need to be able to take that kind of class when they get to college; other committee members are undecided. Andy Grover, Melba school superintendent, said, “We have about an 80 percent passing rate for asynchronous courses.” Students who fail go back into a traditional class, he said. He said he saw merits to flexibility for school districts, but also saw merit to exposing students to that type of course.

Vast majority at seven hearings opposed online ed requirement as written

The subcommittee of the Idaho State Board of Education working on the online course requirement for high school graduation is meeting this morning by videoconference, with a couple of members at the state Department of Education in Boise and the rest linked in from Coeur d'Alene, Moscow and elsewhere. First up was a review of the public input received at seven public hearings around the state. About 100 people showed up, 46 testified, and 30 submitted written comments. Of the 46 who testified, only eight supported the rule as written. All the rest opposed the rule, which requires two online classes including one that's asynchronous, wanted it changed or had concerns about how it would work. Of the 30 written comments, all opposed the rule as written, raising concerns about parent choice, impact on disadvantaged students, infrastructure and more.

The subcommittee members, who include two Board of Ed members, some high school teachers and principals, a Meridian school board member and several others, are discussing changes to the proposed rule to do away with a provision preventing the teacher from being in the classroom with students during instructional periods, for the asynchronous course. SB 1184 bans the teacher from being there a majority of the time; the rule as written would prevent the teacher from being there at all during class, even for an occasional visit to the students.

State Department of Education official Jason Hancock said he saw no need for school districts to provide a teacher to be with students who are choosing to take a class from some outside, online provider. “You provide a proctor to make sure the kids aren't bouncing off the walls,” he said.

Idaho prison razes sweat lodge

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho prison officials say they have leveled a tribal sweat lodge and reconfigured a patch of ground that has served the religious needs of Native American inmates for more than 25 years at a prison south of Boise. Idaho Department of Correction Spokesman Jeff Ray says the work done Wednesday at the South Idaho Correctional Institution was intended to address health and security concerns. The prison's Native American inmates are frustrated by the department's actions. But Ray says officials intend to rebuild the sweat lodge and maintain the parcel for tribal worship. Ray also says the prison intends to carve out a separate space on the grounds for inmates of other earth-based faiths to worship. Prisons nationwide are required by federal law to make space available for religious worship.

Sheriff’s reports reveal new details on McGee DUI arrest

Reports released today by the Canyon County Sheriff's Department reveal new details about state Sen. John McGee's Father's Day arrest for drunken driving and taking and jacknifing a stranger's vehicle, reports Dan Popkey; read his full report here in the Idaho Statesman. Among the new details: McGee's brother, Mark, who played in a golf tournament with him on June 18, said he was supposed to give McGee a ride home but couldn't find him; he reported that he called his brother about 10:15 p.m. and he responded he was “about a block away” from a house he was walking to; the brother then went searching for McGee unsuccessfully.

The reports also show that McGee's brown flipflops were found about a block away from the street where he was arrested, and that he told officers he'd had “three or four gin and tonics” after the golf tournament with the last one between 10 and 11 p.m.  He also told officers that he thought two others were driving him to Jackpot to gamble in the SUV in which he was found; he was found asleep in the back seat.

GOP redistricters accuse Dems of ‘raw partisanship’

Idaho's three GOP redistricting commissioners have sent out a guest opinion accusing their Democratic counterparts of “raw partisanship” and a “hardball, union-style negotiating tactic,” and giving something of the impression that the moves toward compromise between the two sides that marked the commission's last two days of meetings have evaporated. However, Commissioner Lou Esposito, spokesman for the GOP commissioners, said the guest opinion is referring only to the drawing of a congressional district plan - not to the drawing of new legislative districts, on which the two sides softened in their last public discussions, the Republicans agreed to use the Democrats' last proposed map as a starting point for changes, and some movement toward compromise appeared afoot.

“This opinion is only speaking to the congressional,” Esposito said. The GOP commissioners plan to distribute a second op-ed piece about legislative redistricting early next week, he said. “I would hope that the Democratic commissioners … this week off have really given some serious thought to working towards a compromise; I know my fellow commissioners and I are very serious about doing that,” Esposito said. “We've yet to see the kind of movement that we were hoping to see to fully believe we are going to be able to get there. Now we're hoping we're going to get there, but there's still some work to be done.” Click below to read the GOP commissioners' full guest opinion on congressional redistricting. The commission reconvenes on Tuesday; its deadline is 5 p.m. on Sept. 6.

Otter appeals to Interior Secty Salazar re North Idaho man who shot grizzly

Gov. Butch Otter has penned a letter to Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in defense of Jeremy Hill, the Boundary County man who shot a grizzly bear that had entered his yard while his young children were out playing, and now faces federal charges. “I recognize the federal jurisdiction under the Endangered Species Act, but I strongly support the right of individuals to defend themselves and others in such situations,” Otter wrote. “Many, including me, feel Mr. Hill did what a concerned parent would do.”

The governor wrote, “No one disputes that Jeremy Hill killed a grizzly bear. The dispute appears to be over the reason for shooting the bear. I would sincerely appreciate your looking into this case and assisting in any way you can.” You can read Otter's full letter here.

Mortgage relief scam targets Idaho homeowners

Idaho homeowners are being targeted in a scam in which notices that look like government forms are mailed to them or posted on their doors, inviting them to join lawsuits against their mortgage lenders and claiming they can get large principal reductions or other monetary relief. “The scam is a pretext to collect an unlawful $5,000 upfront fee from homeowners,” said Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.  “The representations in the solicitations are false and are designed to prey on vulnerable homeowners.  My office is currently investigating this company.” The company called Corvus Law Group; click below for the attorney general's full news release and consumer alert.

Idaho financial analyst wins national award

David Hahn, a senior financial management analyst in the state's Division of Financial Management, has been awarded the George A. Bell Award from the National Association of State Budget Officers for “outstanding contributions and service to public budgeting and management in state government.” The award, which has been given annually since 1978, has only once before gone to an Idaho analyst, when it went to Larry Schlicht in 2005, marking his 32 years of work on state executive budget materials, issues and policies. Hahn is the DFM's budget team leader and handles budgets for constitutional officers, the Tax Commission, the legislative branch, the military division and more; he's also led DFM efforts to implement zero-based budgeting.

Since Schlicht's award in 2005, the winners of the national award have come from Alabama, California, Kentucky and Maryland.

Prosecution of homeowner who shot grizzly arouses concern in North Idaho

Here's a link to our full story in today's paper on the prosecution of a Boundary County man who shot and killed a grizzly bear that had appeared in his yard with its mother and another two-year-old cub on May 8, while his six children were playing outside. Jeremy Hill, 33, pleaded not guilty to the federal charge yesterday; so many supporters showed up at his arraignment that the hearing had to be moved into a larger room in the federal courthouse in Coeur d'Alene. Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, told S-R reporter Becky Kramer after the hearing, “It seems unjust to me that someone would be charged when they were protecting their family. I’m at a loss to understand why the U.S. government is pursuing this in the manner they are.”

Hill called Idaho Fish & Game to report the incident immediately after. “Jeremy did the right thing, he called Fish and Game,” Keough said. “I think that prosecuting this case really sets back the grizzly bear recovery effort. … People are saying, ‘Boy, if that happened to me, there’s no way that I’d report it.’ That’s a human reaction.” A jury trial for Hill has been set for Oct. 4; if convicted of illegally killing a federally protected species, he could face up to a year in prison and fines of up to $50,000.

New lands chief could help Idaho tap into gas revenues

Idaho's new state lands director has lots of experience in Montana managing oil and gas revenues from state trust lands, reports Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker, which should come in handy as Idaho begins to look at potential revenues from natural gas on its state endowment lands. Barker reports that Montana's revenues from oil and gas on state trust lands jumped more than 200 percent, or $20 million, between 2005 and 2006, in part due to prices and in part to the new fracking technology. You can read his full post here.

‘Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy’ to launch in fall, headed by former state economist Mike Ferguson

A new non-partisan fiscal policy center is being launched in Idaho, with Mike Ferguson, former longtime state chief economist, chosen to head it. The Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy will be housed at the Mountain States Group, and is funded by a grant from the Northwest Area Foundation. “The whole idea behind the center is to provide an independent, nonpartisan, unbiased source of factual information and analysis relating to Idaho's fiscal policies,” Ferguson said, “in particular the revenue stream, but it'll also of necessity have to deal with issues on the spending side – basically that's why you raise revenue in the first place, the whole question of adequacy.”

Ferguson will be the new center's full-time, year-round director; he retired after more than 25 years with the state, and served as chief economist for six Idaho governors from both parties. “I am really excited about this opportunity,” Ferguson said. “I look forward to helping the public and Idaho's elected decision makers by providing helpful and easy-to-understand information that hasn't been readily available before.”

The new center will publish a “primer” explaining how Idaho's state budget is developed each year along with a report about the state's tax structure, when the center formally opens in the fall; the reports will be published on a new website to be unveiled then, and widely circulated to policy makers, the news media and citizens.

Chris Tilden, executive director of Mountain States Group, a non-profit 501c3 community resource organization, said, “It is important that citizens be involved in government, but understanding how government finance works is complicated. Few people understand the state's budget like Mike Ferguson. He is the perfect choice to lead this effort. Our aim is for the center to become the most trusted source for information about the way Idaho pays for the services we all depend on.”

Idaho ranks last in nation for rate of breast cancer screening

Idaho now has the lowest rate of breast cancer screening of all states plus the District of Columbia, the state Department of Health & Welfare reports, with more than 122,000 Idaho women over age 40 reporting they've not had a mammogram in the previous two years. Only 63.8 percent of Idaho women over 40 reported getting the screening in the past two years; the national average for those 2010 rankings is 76 percent, and the top state, Massachusetts, is at 83.6 percent. Washington state ranks 29th, with 74.6 percent of Washington women 40 and older reporting being screened for breast cancer in the last two years.

“Idaho has consistently ranked at or near the bottom for breast cancer screening,” said Patti Moran, head of the department's cancer program. “We want Idaho women to take note, and if they are 40 or older and haven’t had a mammogram this year, to make an appointment today to get screened. It could save their life.” Cancer has been the leading cause of death for Idaho women since 2008, and breast cancer rates are exceeded only by those for lung cancer. According to the Cancer Data Registry of Idaho, in 2009, 1,100 Idaho women were diagnosed with breast cancer and 185 died.

Early diagnosis of breast cancer, through screenings such as mammograms, vastly increases survival rates. “One out of eight women will get breast cancer during their lives, so early detection is their best protection,” Moran said. Click below for the department's full news release, including tips on screening resources.

From UI drama to D.C. shaking to pricey spud-bowl naming rights…

Wild news day today, what with the Moscow shooting (psych professor at UI kills 22-year-old female grad student, then shoots self) and the D.C. earthquake (5.9 magnitude, centered in Virginia, felt along east coast, some damage, widespread evacuations).

Meanwhile, Idaho has a new state lands director – click below for AP reporter John Miller's take on the challenges former Montana lands official Tom Schultz will face at the Idaho agency – and it turns out that naming rights for the “Famous Idaho Potato Bowl,” formerly the Humanitarian Bowl, don't come cheap – the Capital Press reports that the Idaho Potato Commission will spend $2.49 million over the next six years for the naming rights for the college football bowl game in Boise. You can read their full report here.

Land Board picks Montana official to head Idaho Department of Lands

Idaho's state Land Board has voted unanimously to hire Tom Schultz, current administrator of trust land management for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, as Idaho's new state lands director. Schultz, 42, replaces George Bacon, a longtime department employee and the director from 2007 until about a month ago, when he retired; Schultz was chosen from among four finalists, including two from within the department. Schultz will be paid $112,800 per year, the same salary Bacon was earning; it's below the state policy level for the position of $116,000, but he'll get a review and possible adjustment after six months.

“We had four quality candidates, and I appreciate them stepping forward, especially those that are a part of the department,” said state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna. “I think Tom brings a set of skills from Montana that will take the department to the next level.”

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said, “We had some very fine candidates – Kathy Opp in particular.” Opp is the acting director and current deputy director; she's been with the department since 2004, and also worked for the department from 1992 to 1998, serving as its fiscal officer. Opp also worked for Boise Cascade.

The other two finalists were Bob Brammer, assistant director at the department for lands, minerals and range; and Lon Lundberg, a businessman and property manager from Meridian. “We had some great people that applied for the job,” said state Controller Donna Jones. “I think we were very lucky.” Added Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, “I think we're going to have the best of both worlds – hopefully our candidates from inside the department will decide to stay and be part of the team.”

This is the first time in decades a director has been selected from outside the department. Gov. Butch Otter said Schultz “brings a lot of new ideas and experiences, especially concerning return on assets.” In Montana, Schultz has headed the trust land management division for the state since 2001; he's been with the state since 1997 and has also served as chief of the forest management bureau and administrator of the water resources division. Schultz is the current president of the Western States Land Commissioners Association. An Air Force veteran, he holds a degree in government from the University of Virginia, a master's in political science from the University of Wyoming and a master's in forestry from the University of Montana.

Said Gov. Butch Otter, “He comes with a pretty well-established background on natural resources and on management of same.” Plus, he said, “He was a great interview.” The governor said, “We saw it as a great fit for what we consider to be a great team.”

AARP, contractors praise Otter for stand on health insurance exchange

Gov. Butch Otter is winning praise today for his pitch to lawmakers yesterday about the importance of setting up a state-run health insurance exchange, rather than letting the federal government come in and set up and run an exchange for Idaho. Jim Wordelman, state director of the Idaho AARP, said, “The creation of the exchange would allow individuals, families and small businesses to find affordable health care by giving them the same advantages large companies have when they negotiate group rates. AARP strongly supports the implementation of a state driven approach to the exchange with strong consumer protections and commends Governor Otter for his stand.” You can read the AARP's full statement here. Also today, the Idaho Associated General Contractors sent out this tweet: “Idaho AGC commends Governor Otter for being a responsible leader on health care exchanges.” You can read my print story here from today's Spokesman-Review.

Idahoans targeted in ‘phishing’ scam that poses as calls from bank

Idahoans increasingly are being targeted in a “phishing” scam in which people receive calls that claim to come from their bank, suggest that their account has been compromised, and ask the victim to provide information to reactivate the card. The Idaho Attorney General's office today issued a “Consumer Alert” about the scam, which often uses the name of Wells Fargo bank; click below to read the full alert. Also today, the Idaho Bankers Association issued a warning about the scam.

Idaho ‘at crossroads’ on health insurance exchange

You can read my full story here at on Gov. Butch Otter's pitch to state lawmakers today for the state to apply for a $40 million federal grant to set up its own health insurance exchange - to avoid the feds stepping in and doing it for the state - and the supportive response from lawmakers, including some who are leery of any participation in national health care reforms. The state has to apply for the grant by Sept. 30; it could decide later to return some or all of the money with no penalty, Otter said.

Lawmakers back Otter, say apply for grant for Idaho insurance exchange

Lawmakers on the joint Health Care Task Force say they're supportive of Gov. Butch Otter's strong pitch to them this morning for Idaho to apply for a $40 million grant to set up its own state health insurance exchange; if Idaho doesn't create an exchange, the federal government will step in with its own. “We should not be wasting any time,” said Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston. “There's no risk,” said Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert. “The risk is in not applying, and then turning the individual and small group market over to the federal government.” Stegner added, “We're going to be extremely short-sighted if we let this opportunity pass.”

Rep. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, the House Health & Welfare Committee chairwoman, said, “We can go forward and establish our own exchange, and I think we should. It's my sense that we probably should consider applying for the grant.” However, McGeachin said she's still not convinced that Idaho couldn't later decide not to spend the federal money, and fund an exchange with state funds; she said she wonders if it couldn't be done for less. “Our country's going broke,” McGeachin said. “We just need to be sure no matter where the money's coming from, that we're spending it appropriately. Those questions for me need to be answered.”

Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, said, “I think I could support … the use of the federal money to design an Idaho exchange. What I've not understood yet are what kinds of strings are attached to that decision. When we're having a tough time finding money to pay our part of Medicaid claims, I think $40 million is unrealistic in state money for development of the exchange. The key is if there are more strings we haven't heard about to the federal money.”

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “To me it's a no-brainer.” He added, “It's unfortunate that the Legislature kind of painted itself into a corner by not only saying 'no,' but 'hell, no.' Now they're going to have to, I hope, look at what's best for the citizens of Idaho, not only for political posturing.”

Idaho lawmakers this year passed legislation aimed at opting the state out of complying with portions of the national health care reform legislation, after first considering several measures aimed at attempting to “nullify” the federal law. Otter vetoed the bill, but imposed an executive order instead banning Idaho from accepting any federal money under the federal health care reform law unless he personally approves a waiver. So far, he said, he's approved 10 of the 13 waivers state agencies have requested, mostly for grant programs unrelated to health care reform whose funding now falls under the bill; he needs only issue another waiver to approve the grant application before the Sept. 30 deadline.

Deal: 2,500 Idaho insurance agents could be forced out of business by fed-run exchange

If Idaho went with a federal health insurance exchange, rather than starting its own, state Insurance Director Bill Deal said as many as 2,500 Idaho insurance agents who are licensed for health and life insurance only could go out of business. “I think there would be no question that agents would probably not be needed in the exchange, using the federal concept,” Deal told lawmakers. “I think it would be a definite economic disaster from the standpoint of more unemployment,” he said. Plus, he said, “If a federal exchange would come in, likely there would be a national carrier involved in that.” Idaho companies would lose market share, he said, “which would result in a loss of premium tax.”

State insurance chief: Feds running Idaho exchange would be ‘very disruptive to Idaho marketplace’

Idaho Department of Insurance Director Bill Deal said Idaho is one of 12 states that have had no legislative action to date to establish a health insurance exchange. Meanwhile, 13 states have enacted such legislation, including Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Utah, California, Colorado and California. There's a January 2014 deadline to have the exchange up and running and certified, Deal said. “If Idaho does not have that exchange in place, then we … are going to be provided that exchange coverage through the federal government, which many of us don't think that's the best plan,” he told the Legislature's Health Care Task Force this morning.

As far as how much it'll cost to set up an exchange, Deal said the state of Washington estimates it'll cost $99 million from 2011 to 2013; Kansas estimates $62 million over two years; and Wisconsin estimates $49.5 million from 2010 to 2013. “If Idaho does not demonstrate that it is … ready to run an exchange, the federal government will impose and run an exchange in Idaho,” Deal said. “My personal view of this … it's going to be very disruptive to the Idaho marketplace and particularly with our domestic insurance companies and our agents, and that's a big issue. And also, the other part that is just as concerning to me, that the regulation of the health insurance industry in Idaho will not be state-based but without question, the federal government's going to dictate the policies that are followed here in Idaho with health insurance.”

He said, “We do have some options. … We can submit that grant application. … It does not lock Idaho in. … Securing the grant allows Idaho time to make the decision, we have the money, we can continue to move forward. … If something comes along, we can take that exit strategy. … This gives us time to wait for the lawmakers to decide options for the Idaho exchange.” He added, “In my view, time is the enemy.”

HW chief: 31% of Idahoans age 18-34 lack health insurance, exchange could help

In Idaho in 2010, 31 percent of people age 18 to 34 had no health insurance, state Department of Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong told lawmakers this morning. Overall 17 percent of Idahoans lack insurance, but years of rising costs have pushed the healthiest population - the 18-to-34-year-olds - to drop insurance. The number now, he said, is “strikingly high.” That means, Armstrong said, “An individual without insurance then has limited access to health care services, which results in a diminished quality of life.” Plus, as insurance increasingly covers only the sickest people, costs rise. “We all know the current system is unsustainable,” he told the Idaho Legislature's Health Care Task Force.

The national health care reform legislation includes an array of changes, including 41 programs, 10 of which became law in 2010 and were implemented, and another eight of which are taking effect in 2011. Among those that took effect in 2010: Raising the age limit for dependents to be covered on their parents' health insurances, coverage of pre-existing conditions for children, regulation of lifetime benefit limits and coverage of preventive services. “Many of you are already seeing or have taken advantage of some of those changes,” Armstrong said, noting that he has, as the parent of a 26-year-old.

The health insurance exchange idea, Armstrong said, “As the governor mentioned, is not a new idea. It was first a product of the Reagan Administration. It's been around.” The idea, he said is “to allow businesses to pool together, like large self-insurance customers have done for years, because from a risk standpoint, the more people that are insured the better the risk and the more stable the rates will be. … You actually are able to spread the fixed costs over more citizens in Idaho.”

Otter to lawmakers: Time to decide whether take fed $, or let feds design Idaho insurance exchange

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter told the Legislature's Health Care Task Force this morning that Idaho has been working on the idea of a health insurance exchange since 2007, and “That idea I believe was co-opted by Obamacare.” In fact, he said, “We find that many of the things we were doing in Medicare, many of the things we were doing in health care services for children adults, from Medicaid services to dentistry, have been co-opted by the Affordable Health Care Act.” That's why, he said, he's issued waivers for 10 of the 13 requests he's received from the state Department of Insurance and the state Department of Health & Welfare under his executive order that forbids accepting any federal health-care reform money without his personal approval for a waiver.

Otter said Idaho is “at a crossroads,” at which it must decide - by Sept. 30 - whether or not to apply for a $40 million federal grant to build a new Idaho state insurance exchange. “If we do not apply for the grant, then under the Affordable Health Care Act, the federal government will come in and establish and impose upon us … an insurance exchange.” It would make use of national insurance firms, he said - not Idaho companies.  “The date of Sept. 30 is coming at us at a rapid rate,” Otter told House and Senate members who serve on the joint task force. “What's the state going to look like in terms of our health care exchange? … Should we decide not to go for the $40 million grant, and let the federal government then assume responsibility for the health care exchange within the state of Idaho?”

House Health & Welfare Chairwoman Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls, asked if Idaho couldn't set up its own exchange without taking the federal money. Otter said that's possible, but there'd be a cost. He also noted that Idaho could apply for and receive the grant, and then - as Kansas and Oklahoma already have done - decide to return part of it rather than comply with regulations attached to the money, without having to pay back any portion already spent. “We can stop - return the money and we're not required to return any of the money that we've already spent,” Otter said.

If redistricting commission fails, job could go to high court

Idaho’s citizen redistricting commission appeared to move toward compromise last week, but after weeks of partisan impasse, it’s worth asking: What happens if the commission fails to agree by its September deadline? “My personal opinion is the Supreme Court would recognize the constitutional duty of the commission to do reapportionment, and I personally believe would kick it back to them, and tell them to reconvene again,” Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said. Ten years ago, when the commission reached a plan that was challenged in court, the Supreme Court reconvened the commission to redraw it.

Other possibilities: The court could take over the job, or it could appoint a “special master” to work on the issues. But any failure by the bipartisan commission could buoy opponents who’d like legislators to draw new legislative and congressional lines. “I think either method has its strengths and weaknesses, but people have a short memory if they think the legislative process was cleaner,” Ysursa said.

Some lawmakers never have been happy with the commission system – especially now, when Republicans control more than 80 percent of the Legislature and all statewide elected offices but have only half the seats on the commission. You can read my full story here from Sunday's Spokesman-Review.

Longtime Idaho Senate secretary retires

Longtime secretary of the Idaho Senate Jeannine Wood has retired; she held the position for 21 years and has worked for the state Senate since 1976. Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey writes, “For me, Wood’s equanimity embodied the majesty of representative government. After a contentious, emotional debate, her calm calling of the roll was a reminder that we live under the rule of law.” You can read his full column here.

Hearing pans online ed proposal

Here's a news item from the Associated Press and the Idaho Statesman: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Attendees of an Idaho Board of Education hearing in Nampa largely panned a plan to require students to take two online courses to graduate, starting with the class of 2016. Thursday's meeting was the sixth of seven public hearings on the rule passed this year by the state Legislature. Teachers and others Thursday expressed doubts about the plan. The Idaho Statesman reports ( ) several don't want the proposal to require a course to be held without a teacher in the classroom. Former state Rep. Branden Durst, who teaches at the College of Western Idaho, says requiring online classes would add stress to students who are already under a lot of pressure. A board committee will meet Aug. 25 to review the comments and come up with a recommendation.

Idaho charter school loses federal appeal over Bible teaching

A now-defunct Idaho charter that sued the state because it wanted to use the Bible and other religious texts in the classroom has lost an appeal to the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. The appellate court rejected the argument from Nampa Classical Academy founders that the U.S. Constitution's First Amendment gives them the right to use religious texts in their state-funded classrooms.

The Idaho Constitution out-and-out bans state funding for religious instruction in Article 9, Section 5, and in Article 9, Section 6, states, “No sectarian or religious tenets or doctrines shall ever be taught in the public schools,” and adds, “No books, papers, tracts or documents of a political, sectarian or denominational character shall be used or introduced in any schools established under the provisions of this article.” That's why the Idaho Charter School Commission's deputy attorney general concluded in 2009 that the state constitution “expressly” limits use of religious texts. Click below for a full report from Associated Press reporter Jessie Bonner.

Redistricters cite progress, wrap up for now

Idaho's redistricting commission spent some time trading ideas on two sticking points in legislative district maps - District 2 in North Idaho and District 31 in southeast Idaho - before breaking up in good spirits this afternoon. GOP commissioners offered critiques of how the latest Democratic plan, L-46, draws those two districts. “For us attempting to draw lines based on your format is … a huge concession, in all candor,” GOP Co-Chairman Evan Frasure said. “We're not backing off our legal position,” he said, in the tiff between the two sides over constitutional vs. statutory requirements, and preserving counties vs. making sure districts have connecting roads. “That still is our official position.” But, he said, “In the spirit of compromise, I didn't come over here to fail. In all sincerity, I am putting on a brand new set of glasses.”

GOP Commissioner Lou Esposito said he also has problems with the Democratic plan's District 18, which pairs downtown Boise with Eagle. “I think there'll be some work done on the Ada County map to help fix that,” Esposito said. Democratic Co-Chairman Allen Andersen said, “We are looking at that to try to fix that.”  And Democratic Commissioner Julie Kane noted that she and GOP Commissioner Lorna Finman have been exchanging maps with different ideas to improve the lines for District 2. “I think we're coming closer to each other's positions on it,” she said. The commission has now adjourned until 10 a.m. on Tuesday Aug. 30; commissioners left with high hopes that they'll wrap it up well before Sept. 6. Frasure told his fellow commissioners, “I really don't want to see your smiling faces on Labor Day.”

Twin Falls jail goes virtual for all inmate visits - no more in-person visiting

At the Twin Falls County Jail, inmate visits are now virtual, rather than in-person, the Times-News reports today. Last month, the jail switched from traditional jail visitation to the new video system, which it got for free as a beta test of the new equipment. “We're the guinea pigs,” Lt. Mike Wiggins told the newspaper. For now, visitors go to a kiosk in the jail lobby, while inmates use video terminals in their cell blocks; within two months, the system will allow visits from home computer webcams. Inmates get two 30-minute visits per week for free; visitors pay for additional time at $3 per half-hour; you can read the full report here from Times-News reporter Bradley Guire.

Idaho high school juniors can now take SAT at state expense

All Idaho high school juniors can now take the SAT for free, state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna announced today. Lawmakers in 2007 approved requiring completion of a college entrance exam by the end of the junior year as a graduation requirement, starting with the class of 2013; this year, they appropriated $963,500 for a statewide contract to pay for the tests. After a competitive bid process, the State Department of Education selected the SAT, and signed a one-year contract with the College Board.

“Our goal is for every Idaho child to be college- and career-ready,” Luna said. “For the first time, every Idaho student will have the opportunity to take a college entrance exam, paid for by the state, and to know whether they are prepared for the rigors of postsecondary education.”

Under the contract, students will take the SAT for free during their school day. They can still take other college entrance exams, like the ACT, at their own expense in addition. The contract, for $920,000, also covers various test-prep tools for students. Click below for Luna's full announcement.

Giant toilet paper spill finally cleared from Lochsa River along Highway 12

Here's a news item from the Associated Press and the Lewiston Tribune:  LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) — State officials say cleanup crews are finally done removing massive rolls of unprocessed toilet paper that spilled off a truck and were lodged for weeks in the upper Lochsa River. Idaho Department of Environmental official John Cardwell says teams yanked out the final remnants of the rolls last weekend when lower river flows made the work more manageable. The Lewiston Tribune reports ( ) crews wrapped the rolls with a reinforced mesh before they were pulled out by a tow truck. Earlier attempts to pull out the paper was called off when the paper started disintegrating, creating an even bigger mess in the stream. The landed in the water after a truck hauling the load along U.S. Highway 12 slid into the river. The driver was cited for inattentive driving.

Tale for redistricters: ‘We may all place different values on different things’

Before the redistricting commission went at ease until 3 this afternoon, Democratic Commissioner Julie Kane shared a story, saying, “Maybe it'll help with our mindset when we take some time to go over maps.” She said a friend of hers works for the Navajo tribe in their legal department, and recently was having a busy day at work when her husband called, reminding her that it was their anniversary. He offered to cook dinner if she'd pick up a bottle of wine at the grocery store on the way home, which she did. Coming out of the store, she saw a Navajo elder woman whom she knew, and offered her a ride home. On the way, as the miles rolled by, the older woman asked what was in the bag. Kane's friend responded, “Oh, that's a bottle of wine. I got it for my husband.” The Navajo woman responded, “Good trade.”

“We may all place different values on different things,” Kane said amid laughter. She encouraged all the commissioners to “take a look at where we're at now and where we can move, to get to where we need to go for the people of Idaho.” Co-Chairman Evan Frasure said, “I don't think I can top that,” and recessed the meeting. Afterward, Commissioner Lou Esposito said the long break today is “in order for us to take a close look at the maps, have some (one-on-one) sidebar discussions.”

Redistricters seek ‘common ground’

Idaho's bipartisan citizen redistrict commission convened briefly this morning, then took a break to allow for some “sidebar conversations.” Before the break, GOP Co-Chairman Evan Frasure said he's hoping when the panel comes back it can “move the ball forward today in a significant way.” During the break, Frasure sat down with Democratic Co-Chairman Allen Andersen and went over some explanations of various district lines. Said GOP Commissioner Lou Esposito, “We are trying to find some common ground and a way to move this process forward.” That same phrase, “common ground,” wafted over from Frasure and Andersen's conversation.

After the break, Frasure said the commission will return to L-46, a new legislative district plan Democratic commissioners submitted yesterday that Republican commissioners hailed as a sign of progress.

New ‘Kids Count’ report shows Idaho kids suffered setbacks in recession

A new report shows the well-being of Idaho's children has improved overall in the past decade, but the percentage of kids living in poverty and teens who have dropped out and don't have jobs has increased amid the recession, the Associated Press reports; click below for their full report on the latest “Kids Count” report.

Spirit Lake to be this month’s ‘Capital for a Day’

Spirit Lake, Idaho, population 1,945, will be the state's “Capital for a Day” on Aug. 31, Gov. Butch Otter announced today. It's part of Otter's series of meetings in different Idaho towns, to which he brings a slew of senior state officials and members of his cabinet for an all-day gathering open to local citizens. This month's “Capital for a Day” will run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Spirit Lake Community Senior Center, 32564 N. 4th Avenue, including a no-host lunch at noon at the city park with Otter, Lt. Gov. Brad Little, and Spirit Lake Mayor Todd Clary. Among those attending will be the heads of Idaho's departments of Fish & Game, Health & Welfare, and Lands, along with others; click below for Otter's full announcement.

Good news for redistricters: They have two extra days on the clock

Idaho's citizen redistricting commission got some good news today - it actually has two more days than it thought to reach an agreement on legislative and congressional district plans. A check of statutes showed that the first day, when the commission was convened, doesn't count toward its 90-day deadline; that means the deadline falls on Sept. 5, instead of Sept. 4, and Sept. 5 happens to be Labor Day - so the deadline falls at 5 p.m. the next day, Sept. 6.

“I guess we're going to be working Labor Day weekend, by the looks of it,” said GOP Commissioner Lorna Finman. But with the clock ticking, the added time could be valuable. “We are all glad to see that,” she said. “Hopefully we do something that serves the citizens.”

Commissioners struck a conciliatory note this afternoon, after degenerating over recent weeks into an ugly, combative, finger-pointing impasse. GOP Co-Chairman Evan Frasure had praise for a new plan submitted by Democratic commissioners, L-46, and assured the Democrats, “We do hold the Constitution in the highest regard.” The two sides have been sparring over whether the constitutional ban on dividing counties whenever possible should override the statutory requirement for connecting roads within legislative districts, unless five commissioners vote to waive that requirement.

Frasure said it's that statutory requirement that's pushed the GOP legislative district proposals up to 11 county splits, and said, “We realize that's a lot of county splits.” The latest Democratic plan divides seven counties, up from six in their first proposal; Frasure said there may be some middle ground between the two parties' positions. “We see progress, and we're encouraged,” he said.

The commission will reconvene in the morning at 10; after tomorrow's meeting, it's off for a week and a half before it reconvenes. Republican still don't like the sprawling new District 2 the Democrats are drawing in North Idaho, and Democrats still don't like GOP plans to pair half a district's worth of Ada County with Boise County and points east; there are other big disagreements, too. But both sides were optimistic this afternoon that compromise can be found. Said GOP Commissioner Lou Esposito, “I don't think failure is an option. … We've been been empowered to do a job, and we're going to figure out how to get the job done.”

Dems submit new redistricting plan

Democratic members of Idaho's bipartisan citizen redistricting commission proposed a new legislative district plan today, L-46. The new plan divides seven counties, up from six in the Dems' original plan. “This represents an effort to comply more closely with the statutory guidance that we have, and we believe that it has been improved in a number of ways,” said Democratic Commissioner George Moses. “It is not perfect. There are places that we have not met that. We heard from the sponsor yesterday that that was expected.”

Yesterday, former Idaho Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, who sponsored the 2009 legislation requiring legislative districts to be connected by highways unless five of six redistricting commissioners vote to waive the rule, addressed the commission yesterday. Republican commissioners have submitted seven legislative district plans that divide 11 counties, but more closely follow the roads rule.

Commission GOP Co-Chairman Evan Frasure said, “We do appreciate the new plan. It gives us a lot to consider.” The commission then took a break until 3 this afternoon, to allow the GOP commissioners to review the Democratic proposal and be prepared to respond. “We do appreciate the fact that we've got something to look at here,” Frasure said. You can see the new plan, L-46, online here.

Land Board votes 4-1 to keep school funding from endowment even next year

Idaho's state Land Board voted 4-1 this morning to distribute $47.5 million to state endowment beneficiaries including public schools next year, up 2.3 percent overall from this year's distribution of $46.425 million, but with no increase for schools, which would get $31.29 million, identical to this year's level. State schools Supt. Tom Luna cast the lone dissenting vote, prompting a questioning look from Gov. Butch Otter, who's chairing the meeting, as he hadn't spoken against the motion from Attorney General Lawrence Wasden to approve the endowment board's recommendation. “I chose not to rehash my concerns I've expressed before at this time,” Luna said, “seeing it wasn't going to change any votes.” Otter responded, “You're probably right.”

Luna successfully advocated an additional $22 million payment from the endowment to schools the year before last to help ease them through state budget cuts, but the board agreed to that only on a one-time basis. The endowment board's recommendation is based on the state's management formula for the fund, that 5 percent of the permanent balance be distributed to the beneficiaries each year; the largest beneficiary is public schools, while others include the University of Idaho, State Hospital South, the state penitentiary, and other state institutions. That formula would actually result in a small reduction for schools and one other beneficiary next year, but endowment fund investment manager Larry Johnson said there are sufficient reserves to make sticking with at least last year's level “prudent.”

Some of the other endowments have actually exceeded their targets for reserves; in accordance with the state's policy, $28.6 million from those funds' reserves will be transferred into their permanent funds. There's no transfer back for public schools, which now has enough reserves to cover three years of distributions, below the target of five years; all other endowments have five years' worth of reserves. “The recommended distributions and transfers are prudent and achievable, and … they represent an appropriate balance between current beneficiaries and future generations,” Johnson told the Land Board.

The distribution level approved by the Land Board today will now be built into budget requests for 2013 that lawmakers will consider in January.

Megaloads opponents file ‘exceptions’ to Highway 12 permits ruling

Opponents of giant megaloads of oil equipment traveling on north-central Idaho's scenic U.S. Highway 12 have filed “exceptions” with the Idaho Transportation Department to the decision of a state hearing officer recommending issuing permits for 200-plus loads. “The director should reject the hearing officer's proposed findings, conclusions and recommendations because the hearing officer applied an improper legal standard, erroneously assumed the petitioners had stipulated to certain facts, and reached conclusions contradicted by the record,” argue the opponents, who include residents and business owners along the route.

The “exceptions” filing, which followed the hearing officer's rejection of the opponents' motion for reconsideration of his decision, goes to ITD chief Brian Ness, who then decides whether or not to grant the exceptions and makes a final decision; that final decision would be appealable in court. The prospect of megaloads on Highway 12 also is facing obstacles in Montana, where a judge partially granted a preliminary injunction against permits for the Montana portion of the route. In the meantime, Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil has reduced some of the loads in size to send them by freeway instead, and proposed a new route from the Port of Pasco through Spokane, Coeur d'Alene and Butte on U.S. Highway 395, I-90 and I-15 to get the equipment up to Canada. You can read the exceptions filing here; it asks Ness to reverse and remand the contested case for a new hearing.

Redistricters split 3-3, adjourn for day

The citizen redistricting commission, after hearing from former Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, took up GOP Commissioner Lou Esposito's motion to waive a state law against precinct splits for one precinct split in the Idaho Falls area that's part of one of his proposed legislative district plans, L-37. “This particular cleanup is going down a five-lane highway,” said GOP Co-Chairman Evan Frasure. “This eliminates the old ditchbank that it used to follow.” But Democratic commissioners said they weren't ready to vote on that at this point, before reaching agreement on which district plan should be adopted. “We don't even know if this plan is going to be one we are going to deal with in the end,” said Democratic Commissioner Julie Kane. “I think it's pretty clear we don't have a problem with waiving any of these five-person rules.” Said Democratic Commissioner George Moses, “Without reference to the merits of the proposal but only because of procedural deficiencies, I vote no.” The motion failed on a 3-3 party-line vote. The commission then adjourned for the day; it'll be back at 10 a.m. tomorrow.

GOP Commissioner Lou Esposito said, “Hopefully things will start moving tomorrow. I think the legislative intent is clear. I think we would ignore the statutes at our peril.” Democrats maintain that the constitutional provision against unnecessarily dividing counties overrides the statutory requirements.

Geddes: Law was intended to make redistricters’ job easier, not harder…

Former Idaho Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes told the citizen redistricting commission today that when he co-sponsored legislation adding requirements that districts be connected with roads and precincts not be split without a five-of-six votes supermajority, “The Legislature did want to make your jobs easier.” Instead, the commission has become hung up in a partisan procedural split over the issue. The idea, he said, was to preserve communities of interest - not to match up areas in districts that really have no connection and never interact, “to say that if you choose to connect couunties that don't have commonality, that it should be a conscious decision, not just fitting the parts of the puzzle that you're trying to put together.”

Geddes said, “Did we think you could do it without making any deviations? I personally did not. But I thought the guidance … would allow you to make communities of interest geographically perhaps a higher priority than it was given in the previous redistricting effort.” Geddes noted that state law sets these as the first three priorities for drawing legislative districts: 1- Avoid dividing counties whenever possible. 2 - Have a road or highway connecting established communities of interest. 3 - District boundaries and local voting precincts shall remain intact as much as possible.

“Communities of interest in my opinion should be perhaps the paramount goal of the commission,” Geddes said. “That is what makes Idaho unique.” As Geddes spoke and was questioned by the commissioners, among those looking on from the audience was Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, who's joined the meeting this afternoon and is sitting in the front row of the audience.

Redistricters: ‘This state has changed’

Redistricting commissioners spent a contentious half-hour discussing the proposed Democratic congressional redistricting plan, without reaching any agreement. GOP Co-Chairman Evan Frasure said the plan would move roughly 300,000 people from one of Idaho's two congressional districts to the other. “The public who just went through elections and elected a new congressman for that district, we're taking roughly a third of them and putting them in the 2nd District,” he said. Plus, roughly 150,000 people in Ada County would move from the 2nd District to the first, he said. “You're looking at over half the citizens of Idaho going to have a new congressman from this plan.”

Democratic Commissioner George Moses responded, “This state has changed in the last ten and a half years. … In the 1st Congressional District, the last four elections have produced a different congressional representative. So those folks are coping with change pretty well. If what we're really talking about is the comfort of the incumbents running in their old districts, that gets me no sympathy at all.”

Redistricters: ‘We’re down to about seven business days to solve this’

Idaho Redistricting Commission Co-Chairman Evan Frasure reopened the commission's deliberations this afternoon by saying he understands the Democratic commissioners' position, that statutes requiring five votes to split precincts or draw districts without connecting highways are unconstitutional. “We recognize that this is a point of contention, and hopefully we can work our way through it,” Frasure said. “My understanding of statutory law is that we are required to follow it in our guidelines. … It is very difficult in this process.” Toward that end, he's invited House Speaker Lawerence Denney to address the commission this afternoon at 3 to explain the thinking behind those statutory requirements.

Frasure said, “In reality, we're down to about seven business days now to solve this.” That's in part because Frasure has commitments and can't make three previously scheduled meeting dates at the end of the month. He's encouraging discussion of congressional district plans while commissioners await the speaker.

Idaho could end next year with $179 million surplus

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho is expecting its second year of big budget surpluses when the 2012 fiscal year ends, presenting conservative Idaho with tough choices that could include restoring programs or cutting taxes. Come July, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter's office and the Legislature expect to have $179 million in the bank, based on the spending plan passed by the 2011 Legislature. That's after an $85 million surplus in the fiscal year that ended June 30. All this depends on Idaho's economy continuing to produce healthy tax revenue, something Otter's budget chief Wayne Hammon says is uncertain given the national debt downgrade and European turbulence. But if the forecast holds, it'll leave conservative Idaho lawmakers grappling with the question of managing surplus cash when their natural inclination is to cut spending or reduce taxes. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Redistricting commissioners spar

Idaho's bipartisan citizen redistricting commission is meeting today, and went over three publicly submitted legislative district plans this morning before turning to the latest plan proposed by GOP Commissioner Lou Esposito – his seventh. The newest plan, L-45, is another version of his L-34, this time making some changes in southwestern Idaho to pair Washington, Adams, Valley and Boise counties with a portion of Ada County, joined by Highway 21. It also keeps Gem and Payette counties together with a portion of Canyon County.

“We've been proposing any number of plan options, hoping to get our Democrat colleagues to the table to start negotiating,” Esposito said. “So we keep proposing variations on L-34.” He said his various plans are aimed at complying with all state laws and constitutional requirements. “I believe the Republican commissioners have acted in good faith,” he said.

But when Esposito asked for a specific vote now on allowing a precinct split in the Idaho Falls area in the latest plan, Democratic commissioners objected, noting that laws requiring five votes to approve a precinct split or a district without connecting roads conflict with the constitutional provision requiring just four votes to approve a plan. It was the latest example of partisan splits over procedures at the commission, which is split 3-3 between Democrats and Republicans. Democratic Commissioner George Moses said, “It's unconstitutional.” Democratic Co-Chairman Allen Anderson said, “What they're doing is essentially we would have to vote five votes on the pieces of the map before we could have a whole map.” That would essentially require five votes for any map, rather than four, he said.

Esposito said, “We need to follow the law, and that's what we're going to do, we're going to follow the law.” A week ago, he tried a similar move to approve an exception from the connecting-road rule aimed at keeping Lewis and Nez Perce counties together in a district, as Democratic Commissioner Julie Kane had advocated; Kane abstained and that motion failed on a 3-2 party-line vote.

Anderson said, “It's frustrating, really it is – it's a 'gotcha' game, essentially. You're going to play by my rule or we've got you. I don't appreciate that – I've told 'em before.”

The commissioners, from both parties, said from the start they hoped to have a unanimous, 6-0 vote on a redistricting plan. Asked if the four-vote or five-vote requirement really matters, given that goal, Anderson and Moses said that would be fine – if the two sides had a legislative district map they could agree on. “Right now, I haven't seen one that's even close to agreeing,” he said. Democratic commissioners object to splitting 11 counties in the GOP proposals; avoiding county divisions unless needed to meet the one-person, one-vote standard is a constitutional requirement. “In Bannock County I think it was three or four cuts,” Anderson said. Moses said some communities of interest are “cut to ribbons” in the GOP plans. “Pocatello is cut into three pieces,” he said.

Moses said, “Could we negotiate something? I think probably we could, presuming a willingness to give on both sides.” He said, “They've raised objections to our plan based only on the statute.” The Democratic legislative district plan, L-28, splits only six counties, but ignores the statutory requirement for connecting roads within districts.

State Lands: ‘We will not be running a brewpub’

The recent brouhaha over operation of a mini-storage business on Idaho state endowment land is expanding today, with a report on the Boise Guardian here headlined, “Land Board to build brewpub?” about the state Lands Department advertising for a restaurant construction manager for a downtown Boise brewpub. But Kathy Opp, acting director at the Lands Department, said, “We are not going to run a brewpub.” Instead, what's going on is that a potential tenant for one of a dozen endowment-owned properties in downtown Boise, which include parking lots and commercial properties mostly leased for retail or office use, is interested in opening a restaurant.

“Our current relationships for constructing tenant improvements are all office retail,” Opp said. “So restaurants are potentially very different for that. So to construct a responsible different type of establishment for a tenant, we felt it was needed.”  The negotiations are still under way, so the department isn't releasing the name of the potential tenant or site, though the construction manager RFP listing identifies it as a one-story 1915 building at 9th and Bannock. “It's currently got some retail space in it and some vacant,” she said. “But we would not be running a brewpub. This is simply to secure tenant improvements, which every investor has to do.”

As part of the negotiations, the state, as the landlord, and the tenant would negotiate who pays for what as part of the tenant improvements. “All those are negotiated,” Opp said. “That's what investors do all the time.”

The state endowment, a land trust that benefits public schools and other state institutions like the University of Idaho, owns property in downtown Boise as a result of a land exchange conducted between 1998 and 2000, when it acquired it as part of swap involving cottage sites and forest land. Two state agencies, the Public Utilities Commission and the Endowment Fund Investment Board, rent space in endowment-owned buildings; the remaining tenants are “mostly private firms,” Opp said.

She said, “We're not doing anything that any other investor wouldn't do to try to get a tenant in their space, and we will balance any tenant improvement with the long-term return for any potential lease. Contracting for these services does provide jobs for the construction company – we're not a construction company, so it does provide private-sector jobs.” Click below for a list of all commercial property owned by the endowment in Ada County.

Idaho docks Medicaid contractor $3 million

Idaho is docking its payment to a Medicaid claim processing company, Molina Medicaid Systems, by $3 million because of the major problems the company had implementing its new system last year, the Associated Press reports; meanwhile, the state is still trying to recover nearly $10 million in double payments that were made to Medicaid-covered health care providers amid the chaos. Nevertheless, the state says Molina is improving and has made progress toward fixing the problems. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

State Board stands behind embattled ISU President Vailas

The State Board of Education is standing behind embattled Idaho State University President Art Vailas, the Idaho State Journal reports today, while he remains deeply unpopular with some faculty members at the university in Pocatello. Board vice president Ken Edmunds said there are no immediate plans to replace Vailas. “We are letting him see through the changes that he saw fit for the university,” Edmunds told the State Journal. “We will then evaluate his performance after he has had the opportunity to carry out his vision.” Click below for a full report from the Associated Press.

Dems: Weigh constitutional factors over statutory ones on redistricting

The three Democratic members of Idaho's redistricting commission today distributed a guest opinion to Idaho newspapers addressing the apparent impasse on the commission, which is split 3-3 among Democrats and Republicans. They're calling for honoring constitutional provisions – including the one-person, one-vote rule and keeping county splits to a minimum – over statutory requirements for redistricting, such as ensuring that roads connect all parts of a legislative district. “Refusal to do so will create deadlock, waste taxpayers’ dollars, and erode the constitutional framework that protects individuals,” the Democratic commissioners write. Click below to read their full piece. The Redistricting Commission begins meeting again Monday at 10 a.m.; there's more info here.

Hart argues his state income tax appeal was stymied by his House duties

Tax-protesting Idaho state Rep. Phil Hart is arguing that a district judge abused his discretion by refusing to delay a court hearing when the state representative was in Boise, debating legislation to permit guns on state college campuses that he strongly supported. Hart, R-Athol, devoted much of his opening brief in his appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court to arguments over how a Coeur d'Alene judge, John Mitchell, went ahead with a scheduled hearing in Hart's case on March 16 when the Idaho House was “debating a very important piece of legislation which my constituents most certainly expect, and would demand, that I be present to vote on.”

Hart, who is contesting an order to pay more than $53,000 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest from the tax years 1996 to 2004, disagreed with the court's ruling that the hearing - on Hart's own motion for reconsideration of Mitchell's order rejecting his case - merely consisted of legal arguments by the attorneys and didn't require Hart's presence, but that he could participate by phone if he chose to. He declined. State Tax Commission attorneys have cited “a pattern of delay and obstruction” in Hart's tax protests, and objected to any further delays. You can read my full story here at, along with a link to Hart's brief to the Idaho Supreme Court.

Mixed news in latest state revenues

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho released new economic and tax revenue forecasts, but state officials say there's no telling if these numbers will weather the test of time, especially given this week's stock-market turbulence that followed a downgrade of the nation's debt rating. Thursday's forecasts includes good and bad news. For instance, tax revenue for fiscal year 2012 is now expected to be $80 million more than a previous estimate. Meanwhile, economic growth forecasts were slightly downgraded, even though Idaho's economy is still expected to expand through 2014. Given these mixed signals, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter's budget chief, Wayne Hammon, says there's ample reason for caution amid Wall Street turmoil and the shaky finances of European governments. Case in point: Moody's Investors Services told Hammon Wednesday the likelihood of a double-dip recession is growing.

You can read the state's new economic forecast here and the monthly general fund revenue report here, which shows that July revenues came in two-tenths of a percent below forecast, but 5.3 percent above last July's figure.

Drug maker to pay Idaho $2.5 million

Prescription drug manufacturer AstraZeneca has agreed to pay Idaho $2.5 million in a legal settlement related to overpricing drugs for the state's Medicaid program, in violation of the Idaho Consumer Protection Act. More than $620,000 of the payment will go to the state's general fund; $50,000 to the consumer protection account to cover investigative and legal costs; and $1.5 million to the state’s Cooperative Welfare Fund as a credit against the federal government’s next payment to Idaho Medicaid, of which the feds pay about 70 percent of the costs.

“This settlement provides relief to Idaho taxpayers and brings the matter to a conclusion without the need for continued litigation,” said Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.  “I appreciate that the companies were willing to work with my office to reach an appropriate resolution.” Wasden has resolved 10 such cases with drug manufacturers since 2005 and recovered more than $13 million; cases against 18 other drug manufacturers still are pending. Click below for Wasden's full announcement.

AstraZeneca spokeswoman Laura Woodin said, “AstraZeneca has competed responsibly with respect to pricing and marketing of our medicines, and we firmly believe that we have acted at all times in accordance with the law.  Although we deny liability, after years of costly litigation, we believe that this agreement was the appropriate way to resolve this matter quickly and allow the company to focus on our core mission to deliver meaningful medicines to patients.”

AP: Feds broke word to Shoshone-Paiutes, canceled transfer of I-84 property

The federal government broke its word over a land deal with an Indian tribe from Idaho and Nevada, reports AP reporter John Miller, stymieing economic development plans that could include gaming and resurrecting native groups' enduring mistrust for the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Click below for his full report on how the federal goverment transferred a 26-acre parcel along I-84 just east of Boise to the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes, whose remote reservation has 40 percent unemployment, then canceled the transfer months later.

Canyon County GOP backs McGee

Here's a link to reporter Mike Butts' full report in the Idaho Press-Tribune today on last night's Canyon County GOP meeting, at which the county central committee rejected a move to investigate Chairman John McGee's recent DUI and instead voted 23-6 in favor of a resolution to support McGee and not address the issue again. One committee member called member Ronalee Linsenman's bid to investigate and possibly remove McGee from the chairmanship “an example of a personal vendetta rather than a serious motion.”

McGee told the Press-Tribune he was “humbled and flattered” by the county central committee’s support, and said, “I look forward to continuing to serve as the chairman of the party and continuing to serve my role as state senator.” He said he thinks the DUI matter has been put to rest. “The vast majority of people in that room said enough is enough. The party’s moving forward and my family’s moving forward. It’s time to move on to other things.”

The outcome was much different from the Idaho State Republican Central Committee meeting last month, at which, after extended debate, the state committee passed a symbolic resolution declaring “no confidence” in McGee over the incident, while defeating one calling for his resignation as Senate majority caucus chairman.

The story on Idaho’s credit rating upgrade…

Here's the story on Idaho's credit rating upgrade: It happened in the spring. In March, Moody's upgraded Idaho's rating from AA2 to AA1, and in April, Standard & Poor's upgraded it from AA to AA+. “That's one notch below the AAA,” said state Treasurer Ron Crane. Because the Idaho Constitution forbids general long-term debt, that rating applies only to a few areas, including GARVEE bonds for road work, the state's bond bank and the state building authority. Most of Idaho's borrowing comes in short-term tax anticipation notes, for which the state long has had the highest rating from all three rating agencies: MIG-1 from Moody's, SP-1+ from Standard & Poor's and F-1+ from Fitch, which doesn't issue a long-term rating for Idaho.

Those short-term debt ratings are key, Crane said. “That translates to every bond that's issued in the state, all debt from all subdivisions in the state.” As a result, when Idaho did its last issue of short-term tax-anticipation notes in late June, the entire $500 million was snapped up at a highly favorable interest rate of just 26 basis points, or 26 one-hundredths of a percent interest for a year. “That's virtually free money,” Crane said. “That's the interest rate we had to pay to borrow, which is really, really a good rate.” For the mutual funds that are the main buyers of such notes, “When Idaho comes on the market, they know they're going to get paid back, so they grab it, and it's really valuable in the marketplace.”

According to Standard & Poor's, a AAA rating signifies “extremely strong capacity to meet … financial commitments,” while AA shows “very strong capacity,” and “differs from the highest-rated obligors only to a small degree.” For comparison, Washington state has AA+ ratings from Fitch and Standard & Poor's and an AA1 rating from Moody's; and Utah has a AAA rating from Moody's. Crane said, “We're certainly in the top tier.” Idaho was rated “stable” in its most recent analysis from S&P. When that ratings firm upgraded Idaho in April, Crane said, “That was an unsolicited upgrade that occurred, and what they cited is the way that we're managing our finances. They were just very impressed with the way that we have handled this whole situation.”

Crapo: ‘Gang of Six’ plan could have headed off credit rating downgrade

The Rexburg Standard Journal reports today that Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo, in a speech to the Rexburg Chamber of Commerce yesterday and in an interview with the paper, said the “Gang of Six” debt reduction plan he helped fashion is “the most powerful solution that's on the table right now” to the nation's fiscal crisis - and if it'd been enacted, the nation wouldn't have seen its credit rating downgraded last week. “I'm absolutely certain that if our proposal had been accepted the downgrade would not have happened,” Crapo said. You can read a full report here from Standard Journal reporter Joseph Law, in which Crapo says, “I personally believe this debt crisis is the most serious threat we've ever faced. I think the American dream is at risk.”

Otter on Fox News: Idaho budget a ‘model for what the nation ought to do’

Gov. Butch Otter took to the national airwaves last night, in a phone interview with Fox News' Greta Van Susteren, touting Idaho's budget management as a “model for what the nation ought to do.” Otter noted Idaho's recently upgraded credit rating of AA+, the same level to which the national debt was just downgraded by Standard and Poor's, from AAA. “Idaho, obviously, with our upgrade, we went to AA+ while the nation was coming down, because we balanced our budget, we saved money when we had a surplus, and we didn't spend more money than we had during the economic crisis,” Otter said.

He also called for cuts in entitlement programs, touting Idaho's Medicaid cuts as a success story and recalling the “soul-crushing tyranny of entitlement” line he used in his last State of the State message. “There wasn't anybody thrown out in the streets,” Otter told Van Susteren. “People became more responsible for their own needs. And when they had to share the cost when there was co-pay for some of the entitlements they were getting, then they were more judicious in how they spent that money. The second thing that happened was churches and the rest of the community said we can help a little, but you have to help yourself.” Click below for a transcript of the interview provided by the program, “On the Record with Greta Van Susteren.”

Idaho cut $34 million from its Medicaid program this year, including new co-payment requirements, big new assessments on hospitals and other care providers, and trims in provider reimbursements. There were also cuts to services: More than 42,000 poor or disabled Idahoans lost their non-emergency dental coverage on July 1; dozens of patients are being discharged from nursing homes to home-based care; treatments like chiropractic care, podiatry, vision coverage and hearing aids were cut; and the state is revising programs to move to more of a managed-care approach. A federal lawsuit has halted one move, to a single residential habilitation agency for developmentally disabled patients in certified family homes, that would have driven dozens of existing agencies out of business and drastically reduced oversight of the treatment of those patients.

Dietrich resigning as Commerce director

Idaho Department of Commerce Director Don Dietrich is resigning from his post effective Sept. 2. Dietrich, a former executive with Aspen Technology and Cargill Inc., said he plans to return to the private sector. He's also been a lightning rod as rumors have circulated that Gov. Butch Otter's “Project 60” trade-building initiative is really a plot to sell Idaho's sovereignty to China; the John Birch Society has been pushing the theory and using quotes from Dietrich about trade with China. The furor even spread to the Idaho Republican Party's Central Committee, which passed a “China Beachhead” resolution last month calling on the Legislature to look into it.

In his resignation letter, Dietrich wrote, “I am proud of what we have accomplished during these challenging times. However, it is clear to me that a change is necessary – for the Department and for me personally – in order for you to continue building on these successes and to meet my desire to return to the private sector.” Otter praised Dietrich as “a key member of my team for more than three years now,” and said, “His professionalism and commitment have been exemplary, especially as all of us in state government learn to do more with less.”

A search is under way for Dietrich's successor; click below for Otter's full news release on the resignation. Here's a link to a June 27 article by the Idaho Statesman's Rocky Barker debunking the China-buying-Idaho rumors; Jon Hanian, Otter's press secretary, when asked what connection there was between the China brouhaha and Dietrich's resignation, said he didn't think there was any connection. Here's a link to Otter's FAQ's about Idaho-China trade.

Idaho’s high court installs new chief justice

Today, Gov. Butch Otter administered the oath of office to new Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Burdick, who takes over from Chief Justice Daniel Eismann, who remains on the court after serving four years as chief justice. Burdick, in brief remarks after taking the oath, said, “I also wish to recognize Chief Justice Eismann, newly demoted Chief Justice Eismann.” Amid laughter in a full courtroom, Burdick said, “I can't help but refer to him as chief. He has done such a remarkable job in light of so many personal challenges in the last four years. … I will try to continue in that vein and to that high expectation.”

Eismann survived a bout with cancer during his term but continued serving; the illness was related to Agent Orange exposure during his combat service in Vietnam as a crew chief/door gunner on a Huey gunship. A judge for the past 35 years, Eismann was first elected to the Supreme Court in 2000, and was unopposed for re-election in 2006.

Burdick said, “Idahoans are independent by nature and conduct, and so is your Idaho judiciary.” He said the state's courts show their independence “in fashioning creative ways to solve the citizens' problems, from days' pay forfeited during the budget crisis, to working with the Idaho Department of Corrections for new and innovative ways to best protect society for the least cost. … We fashioned administrative solutions to Idaho problems based upon Idaho needs, based upon Idaho constraints, and used the best practices available in the nation.” He thanked his colleagues on the court who elected him to the chief's position, and the family and friends gathered for the investiture ceremony. “I'm fully aware of the large responsibility I've been honored with by these justices,” he said.

Burdick has been an Idaho judge for 30 years; he was appointed to the high court in 2003 by then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and was re-elected in 2004 and 2010. A former county prosecutor, public defender, private practice attorney and state water adjudication judge, he holds a degree in finance from the University of Colorado and is a graduate of the University of Idaho School of Law.

Statewide hearings set on new online course requirement for high schoolers

The State Board of Education has set seven public hearings around the state on Idaho's proposed new online learning requirement for high school graduation, which, as proposed, would require two credits, one of which must be an “asynchronous” course, defined as one in which the teacher is not in the classroom with the student during instructional periods and both students and teachers participate in the course on their own schedules, rather than at a fixed time. The hearings start today in Idaho Falls from 4-8 p.m. at University Place; they continue Wednesday in Pocatello, Aug. 15 in Coeur d'Alene, Aug. 16 in Moscow, Aug. 17 in Fruitland, Aug. 18 in Nampa and Aug. 22 in Twin Falls. You can see the full schedule here.

“Our intent is to get all over the state as much as possible and get as much input as we can,” said board spokesman Mark Browning. After the public hearings, a board committee will vote on its final recommendation for the rule - which could change based on the public input - and that recommendation will go to the full board for a vote, likely in September or October.

The requirement to take online courses to graduate from high school was part of state schools Supt. Tom Luna's “Students Come First” school reform legislation that passed this year; originally, Luna pushed to require eight online courses to graduate, then four, and then the final version left the number to the state board, which is looking at two; Idaho would be the first state with such a requirement. It's part of the reform plan's move to shift state funds from teacher and administrator salaries to technology boosts, merit-pay bonuses and online learning. You can read the full proposed rule change here.

ExxonMobil has 50 megaloads in Pasco, awaiting OK to travel Wash. freeway route

It turns out that 50 Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil megaloads already have arrived at the Port of Pasco, where they're awaiting approval to travel up U.S. Highway 395 to I-90 at Spokane, then east on I-90 through Coeur d'Alene to Montana and north on I-15 to Canada. The Washington Department of Transportation is in the final stages of reviewing the application, which it received six weeks ago and calls for shipping 98 modified megaloads along the Washington route, headed for the Alberta oil sands in Canada. Exxon spokeswoman Cynthia Bergman White said the loads of oil equipment now in Pasco are full-sized modules, but are bolted together in a way that should ease their disassembly. The reduced-size loads that travel on freeways would be up to 15 feet 10 inches tall, 24 feet wide and 208 feet long, and weigh up to 345,000 pounds.

Washington Department of Transportation spokesman Bill Legg said there are no fixed structures along the route that would impede the loads; road construction schedules are being checked and bridge and pavement capacities compared. “We move a lot of superloads through the state - these are not unusual at all,” Legg said. “We move over 7,000 superloads a year in Washington, so this is part of our business.”

New route: Mini-megaloads could rumble through Spokane on the freeway

Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil has announced that some of its controversial megaloads, instead of traveling a scenic route in Idaho, may instead rumble through Spokane on U.S. Highway 395 and I-90. The company said “lengthy permitting delays” for the original route across scenic U.S. Highway 12 from Lewiston, Idaho to Montana, then north through Montana to Canada, have forced it to look at alternative routes, though it still will pursue the Highway 12 route.

“We have met or exceeded the requirements typically imposed on other oversize load shippers that have used the U.S. 12 route,” said Chris Allard, Kearl senior project manager for the oil company. “We will continue to pursue the permits for those full-sized modules through Idaho and Montana, which is more efficient and cost effective. However, we will also move forward with alternative routes to maintain project schedules.” The firm already has cut down 33 of the giant loads of Korean-manufactured oil field equipment at the Port of Lewiston so they can be transported up U.S. Highway 95, then along I-90 from Coeur d’Alene to Montana and then up I-15 to Alberta, Canada. There, the equipment will be used in the giant Kearl oil sands project in northern Alberta

Now, it's identified an additional alternative route for similarly reduced-size loads: From the Port of Pasco, Wash., by truck on U.S. 395 in Washington and along I-90 through Washington, Idaho and Montana, then north on I-15 to the Canadian border. You can read my full story here at

Idahoans have nation’s dimmest view of President Obama’s job performance

Gallup Polls is reporting today that Idahoans gave President Obama the lowest approval rating in the nation, at 27 percent, for the first half of 2011, even as the number of states where Obama's approval rating was 50 percent or higher jumped from 12 in 2010 to 16 in the first half of 2011. Overall, the president's approval rating is at 47 percent, the polling firm reported; you can see its full report here. Idaho's 27 percent approval rating of the president's performance falls well below the three next-lowest states, Wyoming, Utah and Oklahoma, which were tied at 32 percent.

Federal judge halts one Medicaid cost-saving move, for now

A judge says Idaho can't switch to just one provider for some types of Medicaid services for the developmentally disabled until the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services decides whether the practice complies with federal law, the Associated Press reports. The decision from U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill was handed down Thursday — just one day before the state's contract with Community Partnerships of Idaho was to go into effect. The ruling keeps dozens of other residential habilitation companies across Idaho in business, at least for now; click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Stoking Idaho’s conservative fire: A look at Idaho’s legislative District 3

Conservatism is practically a religion in Idaho's legislative District 3, the district that's elected tax-protesting state Rep. Phil Hart four times and this year added two like-minded lawmakers he recruited to run.     “I was considered a radical to my friends in California, and then I got up here and found out I was a moderate,” said Vito Barbieri, a first-term state representative and, like many district residents, a California transplant who moved north.

The district, which takes in Hayden, tony Hayden Lake, the once-agricultural but fast-developing Rathdrum Prairie and little towns like Spirit Lake and Athol, has seen massive development and population increase over the last decade, but its conservative nature is nothing new - no Democrat has even run for the Legislature here since 2002, and then there was just one candidate, who lost. The last one elected was in 1994. What's different, though, is the intensity of the conservative leanings. Former state Sen. Mike Jorgensen, who represented District 3 for six years but lost to Hart-backed Sen. Steve Vick in the primary in 2010, said, “These radical losers think that having legislation that requires contractors to register is communistic - any kind of reasonable government is too much government.”

With the Republican Party's strong dominance in Idaho statewide, District 3 may offer something of a window into the future as conservatives within the party, some of them former third-party members, increasingly seek to steer it to the right and seize the reins from more moderate Republicans they deride as “Republicans in name only,” or RINOs. You can read my full Sunday story here from today's Spokesman-Review.

Squabbling redistricters holding first Saturday meeting

Idaho's citizen redistricting commission, after squabbling yesterday, is holding its first Saturday meeting today; it's scheduled from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. in the Capitol Auditorium (though it may not run that long), and you can watch live here. Here's a report from Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey on yesterday's squabble, which centered on new legislative district plans the GOP commissioners have submitted; they insisted on an immediate vote on one dividing line in north-central Idaho within those, over objections from the Democratic commissioners, one of whom, Commissioner Julie Kane, refused to vote and abstained, saying she first needed time to review it.

Rammell pleads guilty to contempt, gets probation, fine

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) — Former Republican gubernatorial candidate Rex Rammell has pleaded guilty to criminal contempt and will serve nine months of probation to end a case that started when he was arrested for tampering with jurors in his poaching trial. In an agreement reached with the Bonneville County prosecutor's office, Rammell pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and was given a withheld judgment, meaning the conviction can be erased from his record if he completes terms of the sentence. Rammell, a former elk rancher who also ran for the U.S. Senate in 2008, was charged in May with a felony for attempting to influence jurors. He was charged after he passed out leaflets from the Fully Informed Jury Association to potential jurors called to serve on his elk poaching case.

The plea agreement not only ended Rammell's latest legal tiff, but also ensured he can pursue political office without having to wait to clear a felony from his record. “I still believe that what I did was innocent and harmless and not against the law, but a guy has to pick and choose his battles,” Rammell said. “This is a battle for someone else for another day.” The judge also ordered Rammell to pay $500 in fines, but suspended $250.

Rammell ran last year in the GOP gubernatorial primary, finishing second with 26 percent of the vote to incumbent C.L. “Butch” Otter. He lost in the primary in 2008 in his bid for the GOP nomination in the race for an open U.S. Senate seat, ultimately won by Jim Risch.

Rammell said moving past the jury tampering case enables him to focus instead on appealing his conviction in the poaching case. He was convicted July 1 of unlawful possession of wildlife for killing an elk in November in a different hunting zone than allowed on his hunting tag. “There are issues in that case that I am still furious about,” Rammell said. “I think I can prove that I did not get a fair trial.”

Popkey: Speculation about a redistricting/school reform conspiracy…

Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey has a look today at “the talk of the Statehouse this week,” that the GOP's proposed new redistricting plan would target eight moderate Republicans who voted against state schools Supt. Tom Luna's school reform legislation. “The speculation of a conspiracy is fueled by the role of Jason Hancock, Luna’s numbers guru and a former budget analyst for the Legislature,” Popkey writes. “Called “Luna’s brain” by some lawmakers, Hancock is working part time for GOP commissioners.” You can read his full column here.

Federal judge in Montana upholds congressional wolf-delisting rider

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A federal judge has reluctantly ruled to uphold a congressional budget provision that removed federal protections for the Northern Rockies gray wolf outside of Wyoming. U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy says that binding precedent by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals requires him to rule against a constitutional challenge of the rider passed by Congress earlier this year. Molloy wrote in his order Wednesday that without that precedent, he would have ruled unconstitutional the provision that strips wolves of their endangered status in Montana, Idaho and parts of Washington, Oregon and Utah. Molloy says he believes the way Congress passed the provision undermines and disrespects the fundamental idea of the rule of law. Before Congress' action in April, Molloy had twice blocked attempts to lift protections for the predators.

Wyoming reaches wolf delisting deal with feds

Wyoming and the U.S. Department of Interior have announced a deal for delisting wolves in that state, which previously had been excluded from delisting because of its shoot-on-sight policy declaring wolves predators; that still would be allowed in most of the state under the tentative agreement, the Associated Press reports today. Click below for a full report from reporter Ben Neary of the AP in Cheyenne, Wyo.

Six months later, Conoco megaloads have now arrived in Billings

The final ConocoPhillips megaload to travel across U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho has arrived at its destination in Billings, many months after it was expected. To transport a Japanese-made replacement coker drum to its Billings refinery from the Port of Lewiston, ConocoPhillips had it cut into four giant megaloads each 26 feet high, 29 feet wide, and weighing 350 tons; the first one left Lewiston on Feb. 1, anticipating a 25-day trip. It and the second one arrived in Billings 64 days later. The third and fourth loads left Lewiston in early May, anticipating a June 8 arrival in Billings; instead, they got there today, Aug. 3rd.

Among the obstacles they faced along the way: weather delays, court challenges, detours and delays in Montana due to spring flooding and washouts, and more. The Conoco loads are just the prelude to the much bigger proposal from Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil to ship 200-plus megaloads of oil equipment across scenic Highway 12 from Lewiston to Montana, then north to the Alberta oil sands; permitting delays and court challenges have slowed those, and so far, Imperial/Exxon has sent several of its huge loads north from Lewiston via a different route, up Highway 95 through Moscow to Coeur d'Alene, then on the freeway into Montana and up to Canada.

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — The final two huge shipments of equipment for the ConocoPhillips refinery have arrived in Billings despite several court cases, some protests and weather delays. The two halves of the second coker drum stopped along Montana Highway 3 early Wednesday and were scheduled to be moved to the refinery overnight. The first two so-called megaloads arrived in Billings in early April as part of a refinery upgrade. The coker applies heat and pressure to heavier, less valuable components of crude oil, converting them into more useful products. The drums traveled from the Port of Lewiston in Idaho to Montana, mostly on two-lane roads. Conservation groups sought to stop the loads, saying they threatened tourism, public safety and pristine waters along the route. Refinery manager Steven Steach said he's relieved the coker drums have finally arrived.

Man in bunny suit and tutu frightens Idaho Falls kids; all safe here in Oregon

Here's an odd news item from the Associated Press: IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) — Police in Idaho Falls have told a 34-year-old man to stop wearing his bunny suit in public because it was annoying his neighbors and frightening their children. A police report says officers responded Monday after a resident reported her son had been frightened by William Falkingham wearing a black bunny costume and hiding behind a tree pointing his finger at the boy like it was a gun. The officer spoke with other neighbors, who were also disturbed by Falkingham wearing the bunny suit. They also reported he occasionally wears a tutu with the costume. The report says Falkingham told officers he enjoys wearing the suit, but understood his neighbors' concerns.

Meanwhile, no bunny suit here, I'm sticking with my wetsuit and enjoying the Gorge on my vacation this week. That's me on the right, with the yellow sail, sailing today at the Hatchery; on the far shore is the Columbia Gorge Hotel in Hood River with its scenic waterfall down the cliffs.

Redistricting: GOP plan makes waves…

Over in Boise, the redistricting commission met again this afternoon; read Dan Popkey's wrapup here of the Democratic critique of the new GOP redistricting plan, L-34; and his coverage here from Monday, the day the plan was introduced, which notes that eight moderate GOP senators who voted against state schools Supt. Tom Luna's “Students Come First” education reforms this year would face other incumbents if they want to keep their seats.

I asked GOP Commissioner Lou Esposito, who proposed the plan, what it accomplishes, and here's his response:

“The plan follows the constitutional mandates, statutory guidelines and court rulings. I built the plan based on the public testimony and the recognition that it was our job to present a plan that served all the citizens of the state. I looked at the impact on incumbents after the plan was completed. The number of county splits was the secondary consideration. The deviation of my plan is 7.64, a 2.22 gain over L28. This one person one vote improvement came at the expense of 5 additional county splits. I avoided making any connecting road and precinct splits, since they require a 5 vote majority. In summary, I believed following all the laws, public testimony and a smaller deviation was the best and most defensible approach, as opposed to a singular focus on the number of county splits.”

I also asked Democratic Commissioner George Moses, who proposed the Democratic plan, L-28, for his response to the new GOP plan; here it is:

“My initial reaction is that their plan cuts far too many counties, and so is probably constitutionally insufficient.  As for the number of incumbents pitted against each other, that mostly is irrelevant.  Our job is to draw good, fair districts where voters have a fair opportunity to pick their representation.”

The redistricting commission is scheduled to meet again all day Wednesday, Friday and Saturday this week; you can watch live here. You can also see archived video and audio here from all of the commission's previous meetings and public hearings.

New GOP redistricting plan spells possible trouble for a third of incumbents

GOP Redistricting Commissioner Lou Esposito introduced his proposed legislative redistricting plan this morning, L-34; you can see the details here. Among the features of this new plan: A new District 35 would combine all of Blaine County with Butte, Camas, Clark, Custer, Lemhi and Lincoln counties; a new District 5 would combine all of Benewah and Shoshone counties with part of Kootenai and part of Latah County; that new district would have five sitting representatives to vie for its two seats: Reps. Tom Trail, R-Moscow; Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow; Marge Chadderdon, R-Coeur d'Alene; Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton; and Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries.

Like the Democratic plan introduced earlier by Commissioner George Moses, the new GOP plan would force face-offs in the primary by GOP Sens. Shawn Keough and Joyce Broadsword; by longtime GOP Sens. Dean Cameron and Denton Darrington; would have three GOP representatives, Bert Stevenson, Fred Wood and Scott Bedke, vying for two seats in one district, the new District 26; and would mean Sen. Les Bock, D-Boise, would face Sen. John Andreason, R-Boise.

But there's more: As much as a third of the Legislature's current members could face potentially face competition from other incumbents to keep their seats. The GOP plan would mean GOP Sens. John McGee of Caldwell and Patti Anne Lodge of Huston would have to face off in the primary if both wanted to stay in office. Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, would face freshman Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Lewiston in a new District 6. And GOP Sens. Steve Bair and Bart Davis would have to face off if both wanted to keep their seats, as would GOP Sens. Tim Corder and Bert Brackett.

In addition, three Democratic representatives, Reps. Bill Killen, Sue Chew and Phyllis King, would vie for two seats in a Boise district, the new District 19; three Republicans, Reps. Rich Wills, Pete Nielsen and Jim Patrick, and Democratic Rep. Donna Pence would vie for two seats in the new District 23; GOP Reps. Ken Andrus, Jim Guthrie and Marc Gibbs would face off for two seats in the new District 28; and in the new District 32, GOP Reps. Janice McGeachin, Erik Simpson and JoAn Wood would vie for two seats.

For more on the Democratic legislative district plan, L-28, see my Sunday column here.

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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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