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Eye On Boise

Archive for December 2011

Otter names state PD Molly Huskey to 3rd District judgeship

Gov. Butch Otter has named Molly Huskey, the state's appellate public defender since 2002, to fill a district judge opening in the 3rd Judicial District; click below for Otter's full announcement.

Fri. will be Brundage’s 2nd-latest opening ever; 9” new snow pushed it over top

Friday will be Brundage Mountain's second-latest opening day in the ski area's 50-year history; the latest was Jan. 8 in 1977. The McCall-area ski resort announced this afternoon that after receiving 9 inches of new snow in the past 48 hours, it's ready to open to skiers Friday morning; it now has 18 inches at the base and 24 at the top, and it's still snowing. “We may not have as many runs groomed as we normally do on opening day,” said April Russell, resort spokeswoman, “but we're eager to get our skiers and riders on the slopes so they can enjoy some holiday turns.”

Brundage will have about 1,200 of its 1,500 acres open on Friday, with just limited grooming; the front side of the mountain will be open from 9:30 to 4:30 p.m. There's more info here.

Big, wet storm finally arrives, but temps still warm; Brundage to open Friday

Now that a big, wet storm is finally hitting the Treasure Valley, the question for our still-closed local ski areas is one of temperatures and snow levels. Bogus Basin reported an inch and a half of new snow yesterday and an inch overnight, but it's raining and 39 degrees up there now. They smeared some snow around on the bunny hill to allow some already-scheduled lessons to go forward over the past week, but the mountain remains closed. Brundage Mountain is reporting 7 inches of new snow since 5 p.m. yesterday, for a summit depth of 24 inches; it's currently 26 degrees there and snowing. Brundage just announced it will open for the season on Friday; Bogus has yet to announce an opening date.

Meanwhile, Sun Valley is holding at 20 inches top and bottom, thanks to its extensive snowmaking, and has done lots of grooming; Tamarack reported 5 new inches of  snow this morning for a 16-inch base and 24 inches at the top; Grand Targhee reported 5 new inches this morning and a 35-inch base; and Anthony Lakes reported 3 new inches this morning and a 33-inch base. Farther afield, Whistler/Blackcomb up in B.C. reports 9 inches of new snow in the past 24 hours and a 67-inch base, with 34 of 37 lifts open.

So just how unusual is this, to have Bogus Basin still not open? Here's the answer: Only twice in the past three decades has Bogus opened after Christmas Day. Both times, in 1986-87 and 1989-90, it didn't open 'til January - Jan. 1 in '86-87, and Jan. 6 in '89-90. Other than those two years, the latest recorded opening for Bogus in the past three decades was Dec. 20 in '07-08; the opening date was Dec. 19 in both '02-03 and '87-88. (There were two years when it opened early, then had to shut back down; in '03-04, it opened Nov. 28, closed Nov. 30, and reopened Dec. 14; and in '05-06, it opened Dec. 2, closed Dec. 22, and reopened Dec. 27.)

Grand Targee reports 10” of new snow

At 6 a.m. today, Grand Targhee was reporting 10 inches of new snow in the past 24 hours, and a 37-inch base; check it out here. Meanwhile, Pomerelle got an inch overnight and now has 20-28 inches; and Tamarack reported 2 inches of new snow yesterday, and now has 13-19 inches. Most other area resorts got nothing or just a trace. Bogus Basin and Brundage Mountain remain closed, awaiting more snow.

Vacation time: Looking for snow…

I'm on vacation for the next two weeks, and with both kids home from college, was hoping for some family ski days at Bogus Basin, though the forecast isn't providing much to support that hope at this point - Bogus remains closed for lack of snow, as is Brundage Mountain at McCall. So what's a Boise-area skier to do?

There are some options. Over the weekend, my family and I made the three-hour drive over to Anthony Lakes ski area in Oregon, just out of North Powder. At the time, they had 32 inches of snow top and bottom and their entire mountain open under sunny skies (today, they're reporting another inch of new snow). It was early-season conditions, with plenty of rocks showing, but the rocks there are big and pretty easy to miss; I only got a few scratches on my rock skis.

The biggest surprise: Some rather stunning steeps, amid a variety of terrain. We really enjoyed the area around Tumble Down and Paint Your Wagon runs, to the skier's left of the chairlift, Rock Garden. There's a sunny-side run off to the skier's right, Starbottle Headwall, that softened up by mid-day and offered fun, spring-like conditions. There were four groomed runs, though it's not a place for manicured, Sun Valley-style cruising.

Anthony Lakes has a nice little bunny hill, but when we were there, the rope tow on it wasn't working, so the resort was offering free rides up it in a snowcat, to the kids' delight. We saw a number of kids who weren't actually beginners go ski the bunny hill anyway, just to get the ride up.

This friendly little resort charges an economical $35 for lift tickets, with a $4 discount for season-pass holders from any other resort; you also need an Oregon Sno-Park pass to park in their parking lot, which costs $4 for a day. Food in the lodge is reasonably priced ($5 hamburgers), and there's a saloon downstairs that attracted a nice day-end crowd and had a crackling fire going in the fireplace; unfortunately, we had to pass to hit the road.

Other options in the region: Sun Valley has been open since Thanksgiving, and its extensive snowmaking means you can ski on its famously groomed runs, top to bottom, with 20 inches of snow. Lift tickets are $89. Tamarack Resort near Donnelly is open, and thanks to a snowmaking boost, has 12-19 inches of machine-groomed snow, four lifts and six runs open, and lift tickets at $49.

Grand Targee near Driggs, Idaho has a 30-inch base and is now 100 percent open, including all four chairs; lift tickets are $69. Pomerelle, out of Albion, Idaho, is open with 20 inches at the base and 29 at the top; lift tickets are $35 and there are two chairlifts and a magic carpet. Down in Utah, Snowbird has a 29-inch base at mid-mountain, five of its 10 lifts plus its tram open and $72 lift tickets.

Up north, things are looking better: Schweitzer Mountain Resort near Sandpoint has its whole mountain open, with a 32-inch base and 58 inches on top; lift tickets there are $67. Lookout Pass ski area also is 100 percent open, with all four lifts running, a 34-inch base, 58 inches at the top and $37 lift tickets.

CdA Tribe details education donations from gaming proceeds

When the Coeur d’Alene Tribe first signed a gaming compact with the state of Idaho in 1992, tribal leaders insisted on donating 5 percent of net casino gaming proceeds to education on or near their reservation – a gesture that has added up to $16.8 million in donations since 1994, including $1.5 million this year and $1.8 million last year. “The tribe originated the idea,” said David High, the now-retired deputy Idaho attorney general who for years oversaw negotiations with the state’s Indian tribes over gaming. “They didn’t have to do it.” In fact, High said, the National Indian Gaming Regulatory Act forbids states from taxing or assessing any kind of fees on the proceeds of tribal gaming. “Congress intended the tribes to get the financial benefit of Indian gaming and did not want the states trying to take a piece of that,” he said. But in the case of the Coeur d’Alenes, “The tribe has agreed to it is the thing,” High said.

Later, the tribe wrote the 5 percent contribution into a tribal gaming initiative that Idaho voters strongly approved in 2002, prompting two other Idaho tribes, the Kootenai and Nez Perce, to add it to their compacts as well. The result has been millions donated to schools and educational programs; you can read my full story here from Sunday's Spokesman-Review. The Coeur d'Alenes agreed to open their books on their educational donations for this article; the largest recipient over the years has been the Plummer/Worley School District.

Idaho's fourth gaming tribe, the Shoshone-Bannock Tribes in eastern Idaho, doesn't have a 5 percent donation clause in its compact. The Sho-Bans signed their compact with the state in 2000, and included a clause calling for a federal court case looking into which gambling machines were legal and which weren't. But their compact also included a clause saying if any other tribe got permission to operate specific machines, they could have them too.

The court case hadn't proceeded far when the initiative passed in 2002. The state tried to get the Sho-Bans to amend their compact to comply with the 2002 initiative, which not only included the 5 percent education donations, but also imposed limits on growth in the allowed number of gaming machines. The Sho-Bans went to federal court, and the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals sided with them in 2006, saying they didn't have to amend their compact. That left the Sho-Bans without either the 5 percent contribution requirement or the initiative's growth limits.

The success of the Coeur d'Alene Casino Resort Hotel, which has made the North Idaho tribe the second-largest employer in North Idaho, behind only Kootenai Medical Center, has prompted some grumbling in recent years over who got how much of the education money. That prompted the tribe to stop holding formal ceremonies announcing the donations for the past two years, which then led to speculation that the tribe no longer was making them, despite a statement from the director of the state Lottery Commission, which oversees tribal gaming, that the 5 percent pledge had been been met.

The hubbub prompted a series of public records requests to the Lottery Commission; most sought a breakdown of who got how much money from the Coeur d'Alenes' 5 percent donations, but the lottery doesn't have that information. Both the tribe's compact with the state and the 2002 initiative say the donations are handed out “at the sole discretion of the tribe.”

The only information the tribes hand over to the Lottery Commission is their audited financial statement, which shows the 5 percent figure, along with other proprietary information about their gaming operations, such as, in some cases, background checks on employees and information about security procedures. The Coeur d'Alene Tribe's compact with the state notes that the information the tribe hands over to the state is exempt from public disclosure under the trade secrets clause of the Idaho Public Records Law; it also states that if a court finds otherwise, the tribe no longer has to supply the documents to the state. Compacts between the state and the other tribes contain similar trade-secrets confidentiality provisions.

Moscow police: Bustamante acted alone

Police have completed an investigation into the murder of a University of Idaho graduate student, the AP reports, finding a professor acted alone when he killed the young woman he had recently dated outside her Moscow home and then committed suicide. “No evidence to date has been found to indicate that (Ernesto) Bustamante acted with or was provided assistance by another person while committing this crime,” the Moscow Police Department said Friday; click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.

Clarification from guv’s office: Otter held no elected post from ‘77 to ‘87

The governor's office wants to clarify this line that appeared at the end of my story in today's paper: “Otter has served in elected office since 1973, as a state lawmaker, longtime lieutenant governor, three-term congressman and governor.” Notes Jon Hanian, Otter's press secretary, “From 1977 to 1987 he held no elective office.” That's certainly the case, and I didn't mean to imply that he'd served continuously, but just in case that's how some read it, please note this clarification.

The story was about Otter's announcement this week that he plans to seek a third term as governor in 2014; he's now one year into his second four-year term.

Public invited to view Idaho House remodel at open house today

The Idaho House, the former Simplot mansion that's now Idaho's never-yet-occupied governor's mansion, will hold a holiday open house today to give the public a first look at recent renovations. The event is a benefit for the Wyakin Warrior Foundation for severely wounded veterans; donations will be accepted. It runs from 1-7 p.m., with Gov. Butch Otter and First Lady Lori Otter greeting guests from 5-7 p.m. Parking is at the base of Simplot Hill, where shuttles will run every 15 minutes to bring guests up to the house, where parking is limited. You can see the full invite for the event here.

ITD: Single megaload will travel Highway 12 on Friday night, from east to west

The Idaho Transportation Department has just announced that a giant megaload will travel on U.S. Highway 12 starting tomorrow night, headed from east to west. The load, according to ITD, is a pipe that weighs 185,000 pounds, is 95 feet long, 22 feet wide and 17.1 feet high; it will travel at night. The shipment is planned by Selway Corp., which is sending the large-diameter pipe to a hydro-electric project at Snoqualmie Falls.

This is the same route on which a proposal for large numbers of megaloads of Canada-bound oil equipment prompted lawsuits; it runs through a designated wild and scenic rivers corridor. Megaloads are wide enough to block both lanes of the winding, two-lane route, creating rolling roadblocks; Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil had planned to travel the opposite direction on Highway 12. The Selway load will be traveling from Stevensville, Mont., to Snoqualmie Falls, Wash. Click below for ITD's full announcement.

Weatherby: ‘No governor wants to be considered a lame duck prematurely’

Here's a link to my full story at on Gov. Butch Otter's announcement that he'll see a third term in 2014. It includes this comment from longtime Idaho political observer Jim Weatherby: “Who knows whether it's for real or not? I suspect part of this is in reaction to the speculation that he would not even finish his current term, and no governor wants to be considered a lame duck prematurely. Whether he actually runs three years from now may still be subject to question, but at least he's asserting that he's going to be around for a while, that he's not done.”

Judge: Public can’t see Idaho prison settlement

A federal judge has refused to unseal a settlement agreement between an Idaho inmate and a private prison company involving allegations of rampant violence at Idaho's privately operated prison, the Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise, the AP reports. The Associated Press had asked the court to unseal the settlement between Marlin Riggs and Corrections Corp. of America. However, U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge said Wednesday the interests of Riggs and the company in keeping the settlement confidential outweighed the interest the public has in learning its terms; click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Popkey on Otter re-election announcement: ‘Don’t buy it’

Here's Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey's take on Gov. Butch Otter's announcement that he'll seek a third term as governor in 2014: It's “gubernatorial bluster.” Popkey wites, “My take: He hasn't made up his mind.” He he notes that Otter is “keen to avoid a prolonged lame-duckhood” and has a substantial campaign debt to pay off; and that he's hardly seemed in re-election mode lately, passing on a state trade mission in favor of attending the National Finals Rodeo and spending three weeks since Nov. 13 on out-of-state junkets or on vacation. You can read Popkey's piece here.

Otter’s early re-election announcement…

A few thoughts on Gov. Butch Otter's surprise announcement last night that he'll seek a third term as governor in 2014: First, it's awfully early for that news. Otter is just one year into his second four-year term; that election is three years away. Then again, Otter has a history of announcing early. When he ran for his first term as governor, he announced his candidacy two years ahead of time - before he'd even taken the oath of office for the third congressional term to which he'd just been elected.

Otter's press secretary, Jon Hanian, said, “He announced last night that he was going to run. … He was pretty emphatic about it.”

Second: Otter's decision, if he sticks with it, would depart from the example of one of his mentors, former Gov. Phil Batt. Batt, then 70, stunned supporters in 1997 when he announced that he wouldn't seek a second term as governor, noting, “If I were to serve out another term, I would be nearly 76.'' 
The successful onion farmer and longtime Idaho politician said he'd decided it was time to “step aside'' in favor of the next generation of Idaho leaders.

Otter is 69, and turns 70 in May. If he served out a third term, by the end of it in 2018, he'd be 76.

Rather than surplus, Cameron calls it just lesser ‘degrees of agony’

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said despite the positive budget outlook lawmakers are facing with state revenues growing, he doesn't feel like the state's in surplus mode, with its revenue still below 2008 levels. “From my way of thinking, a surplus is when you have paid all your bills and you have money left over,” he said. “We're not at that point. We haven't paid all our bills.” He pointed to tens of millions that state hospitals and nursing homes assessed themselves to help Idaho keep its federal Medicaid matching funds this year, and automatic salary fund reductions built into the public school budget going years out into the future. “That in my mind should be paid for,” he said. “So in my mind, we're not operating with a surplus.”

Said Cameron, “I guess early on I cringed at all the jubilation. … I'll be happy when we get back to revenues growing at a reasonable pace,” and ground lost since 2008 has been made up. “Then I'll breathe a sign of relief. Until then, it's more pain, it's just in degrees of agony.”

School data system working better now, lawmakers told

Idaho's longitudinal data system for public schools is working better now, JFAC members were informed today. After the big data upload in November to calculate school enrollment, legislative budget analyst Paul Headlee said the state Department of Education is reporting that 141 school districts or charter schools submitted error-free data, out of 159; that's up from just nine the previous year. “So it appears that there's been quite an improvement in the quality of the data that's being submitted from the school districts to the department,” Headlee said.

Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, noted, “The state spent millions on this longitudinal data system.” He asked how much school districts have spent. Tom Taggart, president of the Idaho Association of School Business Officials, said, “It's going to be an ongoing burden on the districts. It'll become less so after we've worked it out and accommodated it. I know in our district we've had five people directly involved and put hundreds of hours into it.”

The ups and downs of Idaho’s budget reserve funds…

Idaho's various reserve funds hit a high of $393 million total at the end of fiscal year 2008, but now they're projected to be at $30.4 million by the end of the current fiscal year on June 30. That includes the unendowed portion of the Millenium Fund, which comes from tobacco proceeds; the economic recovery reserve fund, which basically has been spent all the way down; the public education stabilization fund, which had $11 million on June 30, 2011, and is projected to have $15.5 million by the end of this fiscal year; the budget stabilization fund, also spent down; and the governor's emergency funds, which stand at $3 million.

Legislative budget analyst Ray Houston told JFAC, “It took you five years to get up to $400 million, and it took you four years to get down to $30 million.”

School reform laws could complicate budgeting for pay raises

Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron noted that if lawmakers consider raises for state employees - known as CEC, or “change in employee compensation” in budgeting speak - the “Students Come First” school reform laws could complicate that when it comes to public schools. That's because the laws require a shift of 2.38 percent out of salary funds next year to fund technology boosts and teacher merit-pay bonuses.

“We know the governor, at least at this point, has recommended about a 3 percent CEC,” Cameron said. “One of the dilemmas we have is if you apply that to public schools, if they have 3 percent CEC and at the same time a 2.38 percent reduction, that won't translate to a 3 percent for public schools. We have to keep in mind how to work through that. … There may be a perception issue that there may be more revenue there than will be available.” Legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith responded, “That's correct.”

Otter tells supporters he’ll seek a third term as governor in 2014

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter is telling supporters that he'll run for re-election in 2014. His former campaign manager, Debbie Field, told Boise television station KTVB that Otter made the announcement Wednesday night to a crowd of about 200 attending a governor's ball in northern Idaho. Otter, 69, was first elected governor in 2006. He's been in elected office for 29 years, as a state House member, lieutenant governor and U.S. representative.

State budget: ‘It really is good news, but it’s cautionary’

As Idaho lawmakers begin to plan for setting the fiscal year 2013 budget, they'll have a beginning balance left over from the current year, because state tax revenues came in so far above the amount for which they budgeted. Under current revenue forecasts, that'll be $130.3 million, legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith told JFAC this morning. “This $130 million … assumes that the revenue forecast will stay,” she said. “I think we can all assume that it will go down.”

Then, if state revenues next year grow by a hypothetical 3 percent, $26 million is automatically transferred to the state's budget stabilization fund, the next $15 million bump in the grocery tax credit is funded, and non-discretionary adjustments are covered to keep state services at their current level, lawmakers could cover all costs and still have $79.3 million left over. State agencies have submitted $147 million in requests for new line items vying to be funded from that pot next year, including restoring cuts; other potential uses include pay hikes for state employees who've long gone without; further replenshing drained rainy-day funds; or other moves. “It's going to be the call of the Legislature,” Holland-Smith said.

If state tax revenues next year grow by 4 percent rather than 3 percent, the amount available after covering costs for current service levels grows to $105.4 million. If it's 5 percent, the amount grows to $131.4 million.

“It really is good news, but it's cautionary, because there is a significant pent-up demand,” Holland-Smith said.

ITD says megaload shipments can resume

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Transportation Department has approved a plan allowing large loads of Imperial Oil equipment to resume travel on the state's highways. The megaloads were suspended Dec. 6 after a driver tried to leave a staging area on U.S. 95 near Moscow and the equipment hit a passenger van. The truck driver was cited for inattentive driving. ITD said Wednesday it approved a plan to allow the shipments to resume. Two loads were to leave the Port of Lewiston after 8 p.m. Wednesday. A third module north of Moscow was to resume its travel Wednesday night, as well. The oversized shipments of components for a processing plant at the Kearl Oil Sands in Alberta, Canada were to stop at a parking area east of Coeur d'Alene before entering Montana.

Latest numbers suggest $77 million state surplus, after covering all supplementals

Legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith noted that there are differing views of the $16.2 million that state tax revenues have lagged behind forecasts since the start of the fiscal year on July 1. Though that's only a 1.6 percent shortfall from the forecast, and lawmakers budgeted well below the forecast, it suggests that “that revenue forecast is not going to hold,” she said.

“Right now, on paper, there's $160 million … of additional revenue that's available compared to when you budgeted,” she told lawmakers on the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee. If Idaho then covered the $4.2 million in deficiency warrants that have been run up for fires and pest control, and funded all $30 million in supplemental budget requests for the current year that have come in, lawmakers still would have a $127.2 million surplus as they begin their budget-setting task for next year, if revenue continues to come in as predicted in the August state forecast.

“That's not likely to happen,” Holland-Smith said. Rather than growing by 6.4 percent, she said it's now looking like state revenue may grow at 4 or 5 percent, so the forecast could be revised. “It's likely that you're going to begin to see that pushdown,” she said. Because every 1 percent of the state general fund is $26 million, “You can quickly see where that would change,” she said. “We'd be probably right in the (range of) $50 million off of that $127 million surplus.”

That would leave lawmakers with a $77 million state budget surplus.

JFAC opens interim meeting…

Every member of the Legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has turned out for today's interim meeting, where the first agenda item is a general fund update. JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, told legislative budget director Cathy Holland-Smith that the lawmakers are looking forward to hearing about all the extra money the state's going to have.

Trade mission to Latin America reports sales, leads for Idaho businesses

Idaho's delegation has returned from a trade mission to Mexico and Brazil and reports “tremendous interest and opportunities in both countries for Idaho products and services,” says Lt. Gov. Brad Little, who led the mission. Seventeen Idaho businesses or organizations participated, from Mountain States Oilseeds, which reported that it secured agreements for five more semi-truck loads of mustard seed to be exported to Mexico, to Ground Force Manufacturing, which reported a $1 million sale and additional likely sales over the next two years of up to $12 million from contacts made on the trade mission. Click below for the state's full announcement; Idaho's next trade mission will be to China in April 2012.

Idaho’s Freedom of Religion Act fails to protect Boisean from marijuana charge

A Boise man has failed to convince Idaho's Court of Appeals that he can't be prosecuted for marijuana possession because he used the weed as a religious sacrament after Idaho lawmakers in 2000 voted to elevate religious rights over all other rights in the state's “Free Exercise of Religion” act. That law, pushed by then-Idaho pastor Bryan Fischer, an outspoken Christian conservative who a year later was named chaplain of the Idaho Senate, and passed over the objections of nearly all the state's mainstream churches, promised attorney fees and costs to anyone who wins a case under it claiming the government violated their religious rights.

Cary William White was arrested for marijuana possession and drug paraphernalia after a traffic stop in 2007, and he appealed his case to the state Court of Appeals, saying his religion, including a mix of Christianity, Rastafarianism, and various other beliefs, was behind his marijuana use. “The sacrament of Marijuana is a gift from my creator and I enter into the experience of Marijuana with the intent to bless it,” White said in court documents.

He said he had been smoking marijuana for seven years after trying it as a natural pain reliever after a fall from a ladder, and he found it to be a “spiritual experience” that “drew me into a whole different mode of prayer.” He also told a lower court that marijuana calmed his mind and that he used it as an exercise of his belief that he should have the freedom to engage in such actions.

Idaho's Court of Appeals judges, in a unanimous decision authored by Judge Sergio Gutierrez, tossed out White's appeal. “While White may have testified in a manner to link his marijuana use to legitimate religious beliefs and practices, this was more of an instance where he has utilized parts of various recognized religions 'to meld into a justification for his use of marijuana' and did not … establish a link between any recognized religious beliefs he may have and his marijuana use,” the court wrote. The judges also pointed to a 1995 federal court case that warned that religious freedom laws could become “the first refuge of scoundrels if defendants could justify illegal conduct simply by crying 'religion.'”

ITD to hold off a year on trucker texting ban

The Idaho Transportation Department had been working on legislation to propose in January to ban texting by commercial truck drivers, to comply with a recently enacted federal rule, but now the proposed legislation is being withdrawn. The reason: Another new federal rule has come out, banning all use of handheld cell phones by interstate commercial truck and bus drivers while operating their vehicles.

Idaho has to comply with the first rule by Oct. 20, 2013; it has three years to comply with the new one on cell phones. Rather than move ahead with just the first part, ITD's staff is recommending holding off until the 2013 legislative session, and developing legislation to bring the state into compliance with both rules. The ITD board, which is meeting today, is expected to approve its staff's recommendation to hold off until next year to come up with more comprehensive legislation, to “avoid confusion on the part of vehicle operators and law enforcement.”

Meanwhile, Idaho lawmakers have been debating texting-while-driving bans for all drivers for several years, without ever reaching agreement on any particular proposal; some Idaho cities, including Twin Falls and Meridian, have passed their own bans since state lawmakers haven't acted.

Of seniors, insurance exchanges and SHIBA…

During the state Legislature's Health Care Task Force discussion this morning on health insurance exchange legislation, Rep. Carlos Bilbao, R-Emmett, said he's visited lots of senior centers and nursing homes in his district in the past few months, and has found people there both concerned and confused about the exchange and what it would mean. State Department of Insurance Director Bill Deal responded, “First of all, if you're at your senior citizen centers, you're dealing with a different group of people.” People age 65 and over qualify for Medicare and aren't a part of the exchange. “The exchange goes up to (age) 64,” he said.

Task force Co-Chairman Rep. Gary Collins, R-Nampa, noted that for seniors, Senior Health Insurance Benefits Advisors, or SHIBA, offers guidance on how to navigate the various coverage options under Medicare; SHIBA's website at the state Department of Insurance says, “We offer free and unbiased information, counseling, and assistance regarding senior health insurance. We do not sell insurance, recommend policies, agents, or specific companies. It is our goal to provide you with up-to-date and objective information to assist you in making informed buying decisions.”

Deal said the idea under the proposed Idaho health insurance exchange is that uncompensated “navigators” would fill the same role for those ages 64 and under that SHIBA does for seniors with Medicare.

Lawmakers review latest version of health insurance exchange bill

The Idaho Legislature's Health Care Task Force got a detailed rundown this morning from Bill Deal, director of the Idaho Department of Insurance, on the latest draft of legislation to establish a health insurance exchange in Idaho. Deal said the latest draft, from Dec. 9, has been developed by Gov. Butch Otter's health care council, a drafting committee from the Department of Insurance, and “innumerable recommendations that have come from people interested, and many of those have been incorporated.” The department also has been holding public meetings around the state on the plan; a recent one in Idaho Falls drew more than 60 people.

The plan envisions a resource for Idaho purchasers of individual and small employer health benefit plans, that would include listings of all the qualified plans available along with their costs and benefits, and uncompensated “navigators,” who could be anyone from chambers of commerce to unions, who could help purchasers sort through the various plans. The exchange would be overseen by a 13-member board, including three representatives of health insurance companies, two of insurance agents or “producers,” one of individual consumers, and three representing various sizes of small employers in Idaho. The governor would appoint the board. An advisory panel of providers, including physicians, pharmacists and so forth, would advise the board, and the board would designate at least one of its members as a liaison to the provider advisory committee.

Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “I think the advisory committee is a good approach.” But, he said, “I have had feedback from several people that the governance board seems to be very heavy with the insurance industry … (and) light on purchaser or citizen input.” Deal said the board will be an administrative body, and it'll be important for members to have management experience and know a lot about information technology, since the whole exchange will be tied to an online portal. The board, he said, won't be reviewing the financial stability or market conduct of insurance providers - that duty will remain where it is now, with the Department of Insurance.

The Health Care Task Force likely will meet again, possibly the first week of the legislative session, to review the final version of the legislation.

Malek to run for Chadderdon’s House seat, with her endorsement

Luke Malek, former North Idaho regional director for then-Gov. Jim Risch and currently a Kootenai County deputy prosecutor, has announced he's running for the seat being vacated next year by four-term state Rep. Marge Chadderdon, R-Coeur d'Alene; Chadderdon has endorsed Malek, a Republican and Kootenai County native who bills himself as a “conservative leader who understands the importance of economic growth, increased job opportunities and smaller government.”

Megaload driver cited after crash; loads still suspended

Here's a news item from the Associated Press and Lewiston Tribune: MOSCOW, Idaho (AP) — The driver of a large load of oil refinery equipment that struck and damaged a van in northern Idaho has been cited for inattentive driving. The collision on Dec. 6 near Moscow led the Idaho Transportation Department to suspend shipments of Imperial Oil equipment to an oil sands project in Canada. ITD spokesman Adam Rush said the agency is awaiting an internal report from the hauling company, Mammoet, before the license will be considered for reinstatement. The Lewiston Tribune reports ( the Idaho State Police cited driver Vladimir Purgar of Calgary, Alberta after an investigation. Van owner James Urquidez says he ducked when he saw the equipment was going to hit his van. He says his side window broke from the pressure and his windshield was crushed.

PressTrib: Bujak accused of embezzling $236,000 from city of Nampa

The Idaho Press-Tribune is now reporting that former Canyon County Prosecutor John Bujak is accused of embezzling $236,000 from funds the city of Nampa paid the county for prosecution services; you can read their full story here. Reporter Mike Butts reports that Bujak was arrested on charges of deception and felony grand theft by embezzlement, and that today's arrest concluded a 13-month investigation by the Idaho State Police. Bujak posted $5,000 bond and was released from jail about two hours after his arrest.

Luna: Professional development funding key to school reform plan’s success

Idaho state schools Superintendent Tom Luna said today that he's not yet decided whether he'll revise his budget proposal for public schools for next year to increase funding for professional development, as recommended by a 38-member technology task force today. Luna noted that he supported the recommendation, which was approved unanimously. Luna said his “Students Come First” school reform plan already contemplates an ongoing commitment of nearly $4 million to professional development for teachers each year. “It's historic amounts,” he said. “What we've learned is that we need to make sure that we have enough revenue, because if we don't do proper amounts and the proper kinds of professional development, then Students Come First will not be as successful as we envision.”

Stefani Cook, chair of the Classroom Technology Integration subcommittee of the task force and Idaho's 2011 teacher of the year, said, “From a teacher's standpoint, the professional development will be the key to the success of Students Come First.” She said, “We also know that the most effective professional development is teachers teaching other teachers. If I'm using technology in my classroom, if I can share that with the other teachers in my building, that is so successful.” She added, “Of course more funding would most definitely be needed and most definitely be helpful, but we are very thankful for the funding that is in the formula right now.”

Luna, who gathered with the four subcommittee chairs to talk about the recommendations after the panel unanimously approved all of them, said, “This group is not window-dressing.” Added Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, who chaired the “One-to-One Governance” subcommittee, “These recommendations come with such a great amount of thought and work and effort that I think we would be foolish to ignore them. The learning that has taken place here is profound. … I think that the Legislature will definitely pay attention.

Luna said the task force's work is giving him confidence as the state approaches a 2012 referendum vote on whether to dump the whole Students Come First program. “Not every student has had access to the same technology, the same types of information and learning opportunities - we've accomplished that through Students Come First,” he said. “Just as this committee came to that realization, I think the more people see these laws being implemented and the positive effect they have, that come November of 2012, I'm very confident the voters of Idaho will say this is the path we need to stay on.” Click below for a full report on today's recommendations from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.

Tech task force approves all recommendations unanimously

The “Students Come First” technology task force has voted unanimously in favor of the recommendations from its first subcommittee, on “One-to-One Governance and Instructional Integration,” without discussion.

One the second one, the “Classroom Technology Integration” subcommittee, Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, offered a substitute motion, which was seconded by Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, to add that the task force recommends that the Legislature “consider increasing funding for professional development,” and also to ask Idaho's colleges of education to work to assure that pre-service training includes classroom technology integration.

“I think that this report is really good, but there is a problem with adequate funding,” Jaquet said. Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, said, “State dollars are very few and very precious.” All the task force can do is recommend, he said. “We certainly can't try to commit the Legislature to spending them.” State schools Superintendent Tom Luna said the “Students Come First” plan anticipated spending nearly $4 million a year on professional development. But, he said, “We've learned from other states that a critical component of the successful implementation of technology is professional development, and ongoing professional development.” Jaquet's motion then won unanimous approval.

The task force then approved the third and fourth subcommittees' recommendations unanimously. “This has been historic work, and I'm very pleased with the work of the committee,” Luna said.

Former Canyon prosecutor Bujak arrested for felony grand theft

Former Canyon County prosecutor John Bujak was arrested today on two felony charges of grand theft, the Idaho Press-Tribune reports; the paper says Bujak was arrested during a divorce court hearing, during which others were asked to leave, and then Bujak was arrested and take out the back of the courtroom. You can read more at the Press-Tribune here.

Huge Areva cutbacks may not kill 300 of the firm’s Idaho jobs

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter says news that France's state-controlled nuclear giant Areva has decided to suspend plans to build a uranium enrichment plant in eastern Idaho may not be as it sounds. Areva announced Tuesday a series of job cuts and other steps to make the company profitable after a disastrous 2011. Otter Spokesman Jon Hanian says the governor met with Areva officials this week and was briefed on the company's strategy. But Hanian says the company intends to keep as many as 300 engineering, design and planning jobs already in place at the Eagle Rock Enrichment Facility near Idaho Falls. Hanian says Areva intends to fund those jobs through 2012. Areva won a license to build and operate the planned $3 billion gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant in October.

Click below for a full report from the Associated Press.

Grover: ‘Some interest brewing’ from online course providers

Andy Grover, Melba School District superintendent, is giving the final subcommittee report to the Students Come First technology task force, this one on online learning implementation. Grover said his panel recommends that funding for online courses paid out to providers through “fractional ADA” should be by credit hour. It's also backing the idea of an online portal where parents could see what online classes are available for their students. “Something we've spent a ton of time on was talking about the quality of an online course … what makes it a good online course,” he said. The panel sent out a request for information to more than 4,000 online course providers. “We don't know exactly what kind of feedback we're going to get from these different entities, but we do know that there is some interest brewing out there on it,” he said. “That's exciting for us.”

The subcommittee also is calling for a review by the state Department of Education of the differences in funding between online courses and regular courses.

Recommendation: Idaho should give kids laptops, not tablets

Idaho should get the same laptop computer for all students and teachers statewide, Jayson Ronk, chair of the Platform, Specifications and Procurement subcommittee of the technology task force, told the task force this morning. “Our recommendations I think are fairly straightforward … on this device and procuring it,” said Ronk, vice president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry business lobbying group. “We did want to make a a recommendation that it be a laptop rather than a pad. … We believe that a laptop is the best way to go right now. That does not lock us in forever, but we think for this go-round that's the best option.”

The group also is calling for a managed service to provide and maintain the computers, under the “one throat to choke model. Said Ronk, “It's statewide for the simple purchasing power for the state.” The subcommittee also concurred with the first subcommittee that phase-in should be to entire high schools, rather than one grade level at a time.

Recommendation: More than triple professional development hours for teachers

Stefani Cook, chair of the Classroom Technology Integration subcommittee of the technology task force and 2011 Idaho teacher of the year, said her panel recommends developing a “comprehensive plan clearly explaining and linking the various components of Students Come First and the timeline for its implementation,” addressing one-to-one computers, wireless Internet, classroom technology integration, online learning, the state's new longitudinal data system, Schoolnet, common core state standards, teacher and administrator evaluation, student assessment and more. “If there's not a comprehensive plan, how will this ever come together?” Cook asked.

The group also is recommending more than tripling professional development hours for teachers within the school calendar; and distributing technology integration funds to districts based on the state's school funding formula on a specific schedule, with the largest payments coming in the fall and smaller ones in the spring.

Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, expressed concern about increasing professional development hours that take teachers out of the classroom from a maximum of 22 hours to a maximum of 72 hours. “I'm always concerned about the number of classroom hours that a teacher really isn't in the classroom,” Jaquet said. Cook responded, “To effectively integrate technology, teachers are going to have to learn how to do it, but they're going to need some time.” She said the additional training will make the teachers more effective when they are with students.

Linda Clark, Meridian schools superintendent, questioned how districts could pay for it. “The bottom line is we currently have no resources to deliver this,” she said. Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, said, “That would represent a considerable financial commitment on the part of the state if we were to fund that.” Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, called it “a key piece of whether this succeeds or fails.”

Tech task force considers different rollout for student computers

The “Students Come First” technology task force has four subcommittees: “One-to-One Governance and Instructional Integration,” with the “one-to-one” referring to the goal of providing one “mobile compputing device” for every student; “Classroom Technology Integration;” “Platform, Specifics and Procurement;” and “Online Learning Implementation.”

State Rep. Reed DeMordaunt, chairman of the “One-to-One” subcommittee, was the first to present his panel's recommendations this morning. They include having all schools provide face-to-face parent training as a required measure before students are allowed to take their new school-issued laptop computers home. “Let's engage the parents in this process,” he said. The subcommittee also is recommending that districts establish policies for use of the computers, covering everything from Internet filtering to appropriate use; suggests an insurance fee for students to pay; and recommends a different rollout of the laptop program: Instead of going first to all 9th graders in the state, they'd go first to a third of the state's school districts, so that all high school grade levels in those districts would get them at once.

That could create problems with the new requirement for online courses, DeMordaunt noted. Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, said he thought that would be a problem, as the state shouldn't require online courses for kids who don't yet have computers. If the state goes that route, the Legislature should change the online course requirement to phase it in in a way that matches the computer rollout, Goedde said.

Luna to tech task force: ‘The work that has been done here is historic’

After six months of meetings, lots of presentations and visits to schools across the country, the 38-member “Students Come First” technology task force is meeting this morning to hear - and vote on - the recommendations from each of its subcommittees, on how to implement new technology initiatives in Idaho schools, including phasing in providing a laptop computer for every Idaho high school student and teacher and a new focus on online learning. “The work that has been done here is historic, and it's definitely unprecedented in its scope and in its focus,” said state schools Superintendent Tom Luna, the task force chairman and the architect of the “Students Come First” reform plan. “Every member of this committee brings a different background and a different opinion, but we all had the same goal, and that is to assure that we're preparing our students for the 21st century world that they'll live in.”

Before beginning the subcommittee reports, Luna went over the budget request that he's prepared for public schools for next year. “There is good news in this budget proposal, because it's the first time in a number of years that we've been able to request an increase and justify it,” Luna said. He's calling for a 5.1 percent increase in state funding for schools next year, including additional state funds to pay for the laptops and a new teacher performance-pay bonus plan; the Students Come First law, passed by lawmakers this year, calls for cutting teacher pay to fund those items. “This budget backfills that so that there will not be a decrease in salary-based apportionment,” Luna said.

The entire Students Come First plan, which also includes removing most collective bargaining rights from teachers, is up for a vote in November of 2012 in a referendum, which could repeal it.

Hart gets delay in tax case, hires Kentucky attorney

Tax-protesting Idaho state Rep. Phil Hart has asked for and received a 30-day delay in the deadline to file his legal response to federal authorities' move to foreclose on his Athol, Idaho home for years of unpaid federal income taxes, interest and penalties. Hart, acting as his own attorney, asked for a delay until Jan. 5, which is four days before the start of this year's legislative session, to allow him time to bring on and qualify an out-of-state attorney and get him up to speed to file the response.

“Defendant Hart states that the purpose of the continuance is not for delay, but it is needed for him to obtain counsel and allow said counsel to be admitted … and review the case in preparation for filing an Answer,” Hart wrote in his motion to the federal court. Justice Department attorneys raised no objection, and U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge granted Hart a delay to Jan. 5.

Now, Hart has filed to have Kentucky attorney Charles E. McFarland represent him in the case. McFarland represented excavation business owner and tax protester Fred Allnutt Sr. of Ellicott City, Maryland, in an unsuccessful appeal to the 4th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals in 2008, charging that a statute of limitations should bar an IRS notice of deficiency ordering Allnut to pay $2 million; the appellate court rejected the appeal.

The U.S. Department of Justice says Hart owes $549,703.48 to the IRS as of Oct. 31, for back income taxes, interest and penalties. It's filed in federal court to foreclose on his Athol home to satisfy the debt. The log home, ironically, was built partly from timber Hart illegally logged from state school endowment land in 1996, for which he never fully satisfied a court judgment. Hart, a Republican, is in his fourth term in the House.

Rep. Nesset to run for Stegner’s Senate seat

Here's a news item from the Associated Press and Lewiston Tribune: LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) — State Rep. Jeff Nesset says he'll make a run for the Idaho Senate in 2012.The Lewiston Republican plans to seek the seat that was vacated by Sen. Joe Stegner, who resigned from the state Legislature last month so he could take a new job as the chief lobbyist for the University of Idaho. The Lewiston Tribune reports ( ) Nesset was first elected to the Idaho House in 2010. He was not among the final three candidates that Republican leaders have recommended to serve out the remainder of Stegner's seventh term. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter is expected to name Stegner's replacement for the 2012 session by the end of the month. Nesset says he's long been interested in filling Stegner's seat once the senator left office.

New IEN director says project a year ahead of schedule, under budget

Cliff Green, the new executive director of the Idaho Education Network, told the “Students Come First” school technology task force this morning that later this week, state schools Supt. Tom Luna and Gov. Butch Otter will be in St. Maries for a ceremony to mark all Idaho school districts being connected to the broadband wireless network. “We're one year ahead of schedule and 16 percent under budget,” Green said. “It was estimated it would cost about $50 million to build. The team brought it in at approximately $42 million, which is a huge savings. … The building of this was funded through federal stimulus and e-rate dollars, as well as a very generous donation from the Albertson Foundation, so no state moneys have been used to date.”

He stressed that the IEN is the “backbone” for providing online content to the schools or allowing them to share it, but isn't creating any curriculum itself. Joining Green for the presentation today are Brady Kraft, whose title is IEN technical director; and Garry Lough, whose title is IEN director of communications.

Green said, “One of the reasons that I was brought on was to bring the stakeholders together, create a … plan for the future of the IEN. … Once we complete this strategic plan, we'll operationalize it and effectuate it. … We've already begun work on it. We have a facilitator in place, and we hope to deliver the product March 31st.” The plan, Green said, will go to Luna, the State Board of Education, and the governor for approval.

Green is a former executive director of the Idaho School Boards Association who in 2008 was named executive director of iSucceed Virtual High School, and this year formed Praxis Management Group. A former teacher, from 1998 to 2002 he worked for the Idaho Division of Professional-Technical Education.

More than 230 attend open-govt seminars in North Idaho, Boise session mulled for spring

More than 230 people throughout North Idaho attended open government seminars last week sponsored by Idahoans for Openness in Government, from Sandpoint to Coeur d'Alene to Moscow to Lewiston; each was led by Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, and every attendee got the latest copies of his Idaho Open Meeting Law Manual and his Idaho Public Records Law Manual. Local and state government officials, reporters and editors, and interested citizens all were invited and turned out in force; you can read my full Sunday column here about the seminars. IDOG likely will be holding another session this spring in Boise.

ITD suspends megaload shipments after crash south of Moscow

The Idaho Transportation Department has suspended the ongoing Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil megaload shipments after a crash south of Moscow on U.S. Highway 95, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News reports. One of the giant loads of oilfield equipment bound for the Alberta oil sands crashed into a van, causing severe damage and pushing the van into another vehicle; however, no injuries were reported. “This was clearly driver error,” Idaho State Police Capt. Lonnie Richardson told the Daily News. Imperial Oil spokesman Pius Rolheiser told the Moscow newspaper the company “won't move until we're confident this won't happen again.” Click below for a full report from the Associated Press and the Daily News.

Lewiston open government seminar an eye-opener for crowd of 50

At the IDOG open government seminar in Lewiston on Thursday night, A.L. “Butch” Alford, owner of the Lewiston Tribune and a charter board member of IDOG, told a crowd of 50, “Our mission is to foster open government, supervised by an informed and engaged citizenry. We believe we all benefit when the public, the media and government officials are fully aware of the public's rights to access government information and observe the conduct of the public's business.” Added Alford, “Tonight's mission is to enlighten the public, government officials from all levels, and the press.”

All were well-represented in the group that filled a lecture hall at Lewis-Clark State College, from city council members to board clerks to reporters and editors to a state lawmaker. In their evaluations of the evening session, one reporter wrote, “A terrific review - and enjoyable.” An elected official wrote, “My entity needs to review our open meetings.” Wrote a school board member, “We need to be more careful with email,” adding that her takeaway was, “Don't stall on public records requests and watch the emails.”

The session was an eye-opener for some in the audience, including one who's been working with a county task force and who realized he may have slipped up on open meeting law requirements. “I MAY be in a hell of a lot of trouble,” he wrote in his evaluation, adding three exclamation points; he conferred directly with Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden after the session on the steps he should take to make sure he's in compliance.

“Compliance is very critical,” wrote a local government employee in her evaluation. An elected official wrote, “You can work with the law.”

The session focused on the Idaho Open Meeting Law and Public Records Law, what they require and what they don't, and how everyone can make sure they comply with them. Wasden, who has led all 23 of the IDOG sessions held around the state since 2004, said, “In order for citizens to be involved, they have to know and understand what their government is doing.”

Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told the group, “The No. 1 goal of the open meeting law is compliance. … If you look at the open meeting law as an entity and say, 'How can we get around it?' you've defeated the basic purpose - openness.”

Issued covered included recent changes in the law, including a “cure” process for agencies that allows them to correct an open meeting law violation, and new fee provisions for public records that require any labor charges to be clearly itemized and charged at the hourly pay rate of the lowest-paid employee qualified to handle them, and also make, in most cases, the first two hours of labor and 100 pages of copies free.

There's more information at the IDOG website, IDOG stands for Idahoans for Openness in Government; Wasden's office partners with the group in the open-government education project, which also is supported by the Idaho Press Club, the Idaho Association of Cities, the Association of Idaho Counties, and receives grant funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation through the National Freedom of Information Coalition. The Lewiston session wrapped up a week-long run of well-attended open government seminars in North Idaho, starting in Sandpoint on Monday and also hitting Coeur d'Alene and Moscow. A Boise session likely will be held this spring.

Court upholds UI campus gun ban

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  MOSCOW, Idaho (AP) — A state judge has ruled in favor of the University of Idaho in a lawsuit challenging the school's restrictions on keeping firearms in on-campus housing. The ruling was handed down Thursday by 2nd District Judge John Stegner in a case brought by second-year law student Aaron Tribble. Tribble filed his lawsuit in January, claiming that the university's ban on firearms at his on-campus apartment infringed on his constitutional rights. The Moscow-Pullman Daily News reports ( ) that Stegner concluded that Tribble essentially waived his right to keep guns at his apartment when he signed a license agreement live there. Stegner also wrote the state Board of Regents has a right to regulate and maintain a safe environment on campus. University officials intend to issue a response later Thursday. You can read the court decision here, and click below for a full report from the AP and the Daily News.

Latest estimate on state budget surplus: $156.7 million

The Legislature's General Fund Monitor for November is out, and it puts into perspective the November state tax revenues, which came in $5.4 million below projections, making a cumulative shortfall below projections for the fiscal year to date of $16.2 million, or 1.6 percent. Lawmakers budgeted for well below the projected amounts, however. What the numbers mean: Idaho is looking at a year-end surplus of roughly $156.7 million in its general fund.

That's the difference between the ending balance lawmakers expected to have at the end of the fiscal year and the amount they're now projected to end up with, if the Legislature covered all fire, hazard and deficiency costs already incurred. It doesn't take into account supplemental budget requests for the current year that lawmakers will consider when they convene in January, but those total only about $30 million. You can  see the November General Fund Monitor here.

Moscow crowd learns about open meetings, public records laws

Despite stiff competition - a hard-fought UI basketball game against the Washington State Cougars and the downtown holiday lights parade - nearly 40 people turned out last night for IDOG's open government seminar in the ornate, wood-paneled, hundred-year-old City Council chambers at Moscow City Hall. Those attending included the mayor, city and county attorneys, reporters and editors, academics and clerks, elected officials, interested citizens and agency staffers who deal with open records and meetings questions daily. The session was co-sponsored by the Moscow-Pullman Daily News.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden told the group that some might think someone making a public records request is “just fishing.” But, he said, “The public records act is a license to fish.” Public records have to be disclosed to the public.

Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told the group, “Any time you have a question with the open meeting law … resolve all doubts in favor of openness.”

In humorous skits exploring what the public records and open meeting laws require, Moscow City Councilman Walter Steed, shown here, portrayed a lucky reporter - seated next to three county commissioners at a cafe, who are busy illegally conducting the county's business as he overhears. (The commissioners were portrayed by Kenton Bird of the UI, Moscow City Attorney Randy Fife, and Moscow-Pullman Daily News staffer Kelcie Moseley). The scenario is actually based on a real case in Idaho.

The IDOG seminars move to Lewiston tonight.

Popkey: ‘Reasonable’ Republicans rebel

Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey reports today on the latest splits among Republicans in North Idaho, with a new group backing “reasonable” Republicans and another saying it's so conservative it disavows Richard Nixon as liberal.

“You can’t be on the Republican Central Committee unless you can look through a keyhole with both eyes at the same time,” former state lawmaker Dean Haagenson told Popkey; he's among the founders of the new North Idaho Republican Political Action Committee, aiming to find sensible, business-friendly candidates for the May primary. “We’re raising money to support candidates that are better than Phil Hart.”

Popkey reports, “Hart, R-Athol, is the best example of how the North Idaho GOP has veered from its good government, Chamber of Commerce roots. After seven years in the Legislature, Hart owes the Idaho State Tax Commission and IRS more than $500,000. He pilfered trees from state land to build his house. He’s been elected four times. Hart says that knowing what he knows now, he couldn’t support Nixon because he expanded government.” You can read Popkey's full column here.

New redistricting challenge disses second commission, calls for first to return

Seven northern Idaho counties have filed their challenge to Idaho's new legislative redistricting plan, and attached to it are some rather interesting affidavits: One from House Speaker Lawerence Denney says he thinks the Idaho Supreme Court was wrong to order a second redistricting commission appointed this year, even though he appointed one of its members, and if a commission must still deliberate further, he wants it to be either the original commission or an entirely new one. Another from Lou Esposito, a GOP member of the first redistricting commission, faults the plan reached by the second commission, charging that portions “appear to be gerrymandered” and that the plan, L-87, violates the state constitution and state law. You can read all the documents here (it's an 82-page PDF, so it may take a moment to open), and read my full story here at

The new challenge, filed by attorney Christ Troupis on behalf of Boundary, Bonner, Benewah, Shoshone, Clearwater, Idaho and Lewis counties, asks the high court to either adopt the North Idaho portion of plan L-82, a plan submitted earlier by members of the first commission, or adopt earlier plan L-76, which splits just five counties.

Otter sounds cautionary note on budget surplus

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter is sounding a cautionary note, after November state tax revenues came in $5.4 million below projections, for a cumulative year-to-date shortfall vs. projections of $16.2 million; that's 1.6 percent below the forecast. Since lawmakers and the governor budgeted for spending well below the projected amounts, there's no shortfall, but Otter's warning that projected big budget surpluses could shrink. “The more probable scenario is for both FY 2012 and FY 2013 to continue to be years of limited growth that will require us to be very selective in the authorization of new General Fund spending,” he wrote today in a letter to members of his cabinet. You can read the monthly general fund revenue report here.

Big crowd, lots of interest at CdA open government seminar

A whopping 92 people attended the open government seminar in Coeur d'Alene last night, sponsored by IDOG, Idahoans for Openness in Government, and co-sponsored by the Spokesman-Review and the Coeur d'Alene Press. Press Managing Editor Mike Patrick told the crowd it was the first time he could remember the two competing newspapers co-sponsoring an event. Among those attending were numerous local government officials and staffers, reporters for a variety of news media, political activists, several former state legislators and lots of interested citizens.

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden singled out an audience member, former state legislator Gary Ingram, for special recognition: Ingram is the author of much of the Idaho Open Meeting Law, including the key wording in the preamble:

“67-2340. Formation of public policy at open meetings. — The people of the state of Idaho in creating the instruments of government that serve them, do not yield their sovereignty to the agencies so created. Therefore, the legislature finds and declares that it is the policy of this state that the formation of public policy is public business and shall not be conducted in secret.”

Said Wasden, “We owe a great thanks to give to … (Rep.) Ingram for his work on this.”

Also recognized for traveling the farthest to attend: Bannock County Commissioner Howard Manwaring, who traveled from Pocatello to attend the session. It ran well into the evening because the audience had lots of questions, on everything from executive sessions to notice requirements to public records requests to minutes.

In interactive skits to demonstrate various nuances of the open meeting law and the Idaho public records law, actors included Kootenai County Prosecutor Barry McHugh, who portrayed an upset county commission chairman, and Kootenai County Commission Chairman Todd Tondee, who portrayed a county prosecutor. Coeur d'Alene Press reporter Maureen Nolan acted the part of “Trusty the city clerk,” opposite Coeur d'Alene Schools Superintendent Hazel Bauman, playing “Crusty, the reporter.”

Among the comments in the evening's evaluations: From a school district clerk: “I learned some new information.” From another public employee: “How to keep my entity legal and in compliance.” Another attendee wrote that he learned: “Documents are meant to be public; give public officials a chance to provide them.” Wrote another, “My organization needs to change agenda format and will probably put minutes/agenda online.”

Every attendee got copies of the latest version of the Attorney General's Open Meeting Law Manual and Public Records Law Manual; both also are online at his website here. Wrote a citizen who attended the Coeur d'Alene seminar, “The booklets will be a great help. There are ways to stay out of 'trouble.'” Wrote another, “Be cooperative, be helpful, when in doubt check the book.” Tonight, the open government seminar will be in Moscow, and tomorrow, Lewiston; there's more info here.

Corder to chair Senate tax committee, Siddoway takes ag

Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, has been named chairman of the Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee, as that panel's chairman, Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, has left the Senate to be the new chief lobbyist for the University of Idaho. Corder is a fourth-term senator who currently chairs the Senate Agricultural Affairs Committee; that post now will go to Sen. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton.

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill said, “As we enter this session, continuing Idaho's slow but stable recovery is paramount. Sen. Corder is a proven businessman who understands the need for a pro-growth approach to tax policy. I look forward to his continued leadership on the committee.” Corder already served on the panel, as does Hill, who chaired it before he was elected president pro-tem.

Siddoway, a third term senator and a rancher, is a past president of the Idaho Wool Growers Association. In a news release, the Senate GOP leadership called Siddoway a “natural fit” for the ag chairmanship.

Sandpoint turns out for open government seminar

It's a balmy 28 degrees in Sandpoint this morning, where last night more than 50 people packed the public meeting room at the Sandpoint Library to learn about Idaho's open meetings and public records laws. “Open meetings and public records are very important to us as a citizenry,” Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden told the group.

It was the first of four North Idaho seminars this week sponsored by Idahoans for Openness in Government, IDOG, in partnership with the Attorney General's office and recommended by the Idaho Press Club, the Idaho Association of Counties and the Association of Idaho Cities. Last night's seminar was co-sponsored by the Bonner County Daily Bee; publisher David Keyes said the turnout shows people here really want to know about these issues.

Among the points that got a lot of attention last night: The Open Meeting Law says the public can attend the meeting, but doesn't say they can speak or participate; it just guarantees that citizens can observe. E-mails are public records. Agencies can't take 10 days to decide whether or not to release a public record in response to a request; that decision has to be made within three days - the law only allows taking up to 10 days to provide the records when it takes longer than the specified three days to locate or retrieve them. And a new law passed this year makes the first two hours of labor and the first 100 pages of copies free of charge in public records requests, excepting only those records for which there's a separate fee-setting statute, such as records in court files. “What this means is that 90 percent of your public records requests are going to be free,” Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told the Sandpoint crowd.

Tonight, it's on to Coeur d'Alene, where there's been high interest, followed by Moscow on Wednesday and Lewiston on Thursday. Full disclosure here: I'm the president and a founding board member of IDOG. Last night was IDOG's 20th open government seminar since 2004, and the first in North Idaho since 2005; Attorney General Wasden has led every seminar. There's more info, including an online guide to these laws, at

Consumer protection chief targeted in fraud

Of all the people to be targeted by identify theft: The head of Idaho's consumer protection division? Deputy Attorney General Brett DeLange tells the Idaho Statesman today that fraudulent charges were made to his credit card, and the first he knew of it came when the credit card company called him to verify that he'd ordered five video cameras - he hadn't. DeLange immediately checked his credit card online and found several other fraudulent charges; he notified the credit card company, which canceled the account and took care of the charges, reports Idaho Statesman reporter Sandra Forester. DeLange is suggesting that all credit card users monitor their statements regularly for unusual activity. You can read Forester's full story here.

A December Monday at the Boise airport…

Things are looking pretty festive today at the Boise Airport, where I'm heading up to North Idaho for a week-long road show of open government seminars sponsored by IDOG, Idahoans for Openness in Government; I'll be in Sandpoint tonight, Coeur d'Alene tomorrow, Moscow Wednesday and Lewiston on Thursday.

Despite plenty of travelers, Boise's airport somehow lacks the sense of hustle and bustle of most airports; it's downright quiet, but for the corny Christmas music playing in the background. One reason: The big-screen TVs that used to play in the waiting areas are gone; an airport staffer said they were pulled out a couple of years ago. Instead, now there are screens here and there in the walkways that just silently show ads.

One thing very popular with travelers here: The free Wi-Fi, which works great.

IBR: Times-News owner’s bankruptcy filing won’t increase cutbacks at paper

The Idaho Business Review reports today on the Chapter 11 bankruptcy filing of Lee Enterprises, owner of the Times-News newspaper in Twin Falls and 47 other daily newspapers. Reporter Brad Iverson-Long reports that no Times-News employees will be impacted, but the paper already has laid off a half-dozen reporters this year. Click below for his full report.

Popkey: Idaho’s ‘two Mikes’ making history in D.C. deficit reduction battle

Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey had an interesting look on Sunday at the role Idaho's “two Mikes,” Sen. Mike Crapo and Congressman Mike Simpson, are playing in the current deficit reduction talks in Washington, D.C., at considerable political risk to their own careers. Writes Popkey, “Wise men — from Secretary of State Ben Ysursa to political scientist Jim Weatherby — could cite no previous example of two members of Idaho’s tiny congressional delegation playing leading roles on the major issue of a generation. 'It takes a lot of guts in this highly toxic anti-tax environment,' said Weatherby.” You can read his full column here.

Washington liquor privatization could impact Idaho state liquor sales

With Washington gearing up to privatize its liquor sales by June, Idaho state officials are worried about losing sales at their state-run liquor stores along the Washington-Idaho border; already, they've tabled plans for new state liquor stores in Oldtown and Post Falls. “I think we will continue to remain competitive,” said Idaho State Liquor Division Director Jeff Anderson, “but we really don't know.” Last year, Idaho's liquor division distributed $50 million in profits to the state's general fund, cities, counties and courts.

For now, Anderson said, Idaho won't add any new stores, and will instead try to “get more out of the stores we have.” At least 13 of Idaho's state liquor stores are within 15 miles of the Idaho-Washington border, according to researchers at the state's Office of Performance Evaluations, which has been raising something of an alarm about the pending change. “They account for 23 percent of the sales in the state,” researcher Jared Tatro told Idaho lawmakers this week, “$34 million in sales, $13 million in profits last year alone.” If sales at those stores drop by just 10 percent next year, Idaho could lose $3.3 million in profits, he warned.

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene, said, “I've been told that the Post Falls stores sell more than anyplace in the state, and I'm sure it's because of the sales to Washingtonians.” You can read my full story here at

Boise police, fire unions agree to trim back contracts to avoid layoffs

Boise's police and fire unions have announced an agreement with the city in which they'll give up cost-of-living pay increases in fiscal year 2013 that already were promised in their existing contracts, to help the city balance its budget and avoid layoffs. “This agreement is a shining example of how city governments and public-safety unions can work together to solve difficult problems,” said Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, who said the city will save $1.275 million. Click below for the city's full announcement.

Second redistricting challenge now likely won’t be filed until next week

A second lawsuit challenging Idaho's new legislative district plan still is in the works, but hasn't been filed this week as planned. “I'm sitting here working on it now,” said Christ Troupis, the Eagle attorney who's representing seven northern Idaho counties in the case. “We're probably looking at Monday to get it actually filed.”  Bonner, Boundary, Benewah, Lewis, Idaho, Shoshone and Clearwater and working with Troupis on the challenge, which in part objects to the large new District 7 proposed in the plan approved by Idaho's citizen redistricting commission; the group of counties favors instead the North Idaho districts drawn in an earlier proposal, L-82.

A separate challenge from Twin Falls, Kootenai, Owyhee and Teton counties already has been filed, objecting to 11 counties being divided in the district plan; the Idaho Supreme Court has set oral arguments in that case for Jan. 5.

AP: BSU names Coyle new athletic director

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Boise State University has hired Mark Coyle as its new athletic director. University President Bob Kustra hired Coyle on Thursday to take over for Gene Bleymaier, who was let go in August after serving 29 years as the head of Broncos sports programs. Coyle has been deputy athletic director at Kentucky. Kustra fired Bleymaier in the wake of sanctions imposed by the school stemming from an NCAA investigation. The NCAA placed Boise State on probation for three years and imposed other sanctions for major violations by the football program and other sports. Coyle will have a series of challenges: Keeping football coach Chris Petersen from jumping ship for a larger program, raising millions for ambitious facility expansion plans and keeping Boise State's nose clean with college sports' governing body. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Lawmakers look ahead to political battles

 Idaho's headed for a different kind of legislative session in January, one marked less by painful budget cuts and more by political and philosophical battles, key lawmakers said Thursday; you can read my full story here at House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, noted that it'll be an election year, with every seat in the Legislature up for election, the filing period for legislative candidates starting right in the midst of the session and Idaho's first closed Republican primary looming in May. “I think it's going to be very disrupting,” he said. “Everybody will be trying to get to the right of somebody else because of the closed Republican primary.

Idaho's legislative session starts Jan. 9.

School reform ‘tweaks’ limited to adjustments to dual-credit program

State Department of Education spokeswoman Melissa McGrath said at this point, there are only two “tweaks” to the “Students Come First” school reform legislation that are in the works, both involving a clause of SB 1184 that permits high school students who complete all graduation requirements by the end of their junior year to take dual-credit courses and earn college credit in their senior year at state expense, up to 36 credits. One change would clarify that those students' junior-year math courses would fulfill a requirement to take a math class in the final year of high school. The other, propose by some school districts and parents, would permit students who finish all graduation requirements the first semester of their senior year to take part in the program for their second semester.

“There could be a few changes other than that,” McGrath said. “These are the only two I'm aware of that have been discussed and that we know we'll bring forward.”

Denney: ‘The good news is we are growing’

House Speaker Lawerence Denney said, “We will get through the next session, we will balance our budget, we're required by our Constitution to do so. We hear rumors of surplus, but I can tell you, the good news is that we are growing. Our growth line is pretty flat; we're growing at about 3 percent. … That's going to take us probably several years to climb out of where we have been.”

Denney said the question of funding a health insurance exchange and whether to accept part or all of the federal funding for it that Idaho's just been awarded “is going to be a very serious discussion this year.” He said, “Boy, I have mixed feelings. … It's going to be one of those debates that just tears you up.”

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill told the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho that the upcoming legislative session likely will include discussion of guns on campus, state nullification of federal laws, possible tax cuts, and more. He said he doesn't expect lawmakers to eliminate any sales tax exemptions, discuss collecting taxes on Internet sales, or consider increases in tobacco or beer and wine taxes. He added, however, “My predictions are about as good as Boise State's game against TCU - you just can't rely on 'em.”

Hill vows that school reform ‘tweaks’ won’t affect upcoming referendum vote

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said any “tweaks” that lawmakers enact to the “Students Come First” school reform plan in the coming legislative session will be minor, and won't affect the upcoming November 2012 referendum vote on the package. “We don't want to affect the referendum,” Hill said. “They had 40,000 signatures to put it on the ballot. We owe the people the right to vote on that. We're not going to sabotage that.”

Hill said he's conferring with the Idaho Attorney General's office to make sure any proposed legislation doesn't affect the referendum vote. He said the possible “tweaks” would come from state schools Supt. Tom Luna and Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, who sponsored the original package last year, “some small things they want to do to make it work better.”

Hill: Lawmakers to ‘tweak’ ed reforms

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill and House Speaker Lawerence Denney are supposed to be sharing their “game plan for the 2012 legislative session,” but Hill said, “Actually we have 105 game plans, folks.” That's the number of legislators between both houses. “Everyone running their own plays. And then we got a bunch of you folks out there calling in plays from the sideline,” he said to laughter. “And yet it works amazingly well, it works amazingly well.”

Hill said, “I think we've seen the bottom of additional cuts, and we'll start climbing out now as the economy improves, but it's going to be slow.”

He said, “We're going to make some tweaks to the education reforms that we did last year, and those tweaks come from suggestions from parents and teachers. I think they'll make the reforms even better, and they'll make them easier to implement.”

AP: Idaho’s new student data system scores well in national report

A new report released today shows Idaho has met all 10 goals in a national project to collect and monitor data on student achievement, but the state still needs to improve when it comes to effectively using the information being collected, reports AP reporter Jessie Bonner. Idaho was among the last states to launch a longitudinal data system to track student achievement; it started operating the system last school year amid strenuous complaints from school districts around the state about difficulties with the new system. The state Department of Education says it's gotten better; click below for Bonner's full report.

County commissioner: Counties required by state law to provide services

Roger Christensen, Bonneville County commissioner and board chairman of the Idaho CAT Fund, told the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho that much of what Idaho's counties do is required by state law - it's not voluntary. “You do have these tremendous pressures on the local taxpayers, that normally have been provided for with a broader tax base, now being shifted down,” Christensen said. County services, he said, are directly affected by changes in federal and state funding and regulations, from jails to roads to care for the medically indigent. “We're required if there are no other resources at the county level to pay for services, if they meet certain criteria,” Christensen said. “If that mandate is not removed from the local level, that's where they end up.”

He said, “All I know is that I'm standing in the water, it's kind of rising, and it's getting deeper.”

Rep. Roberts: Fed govt ‘hell-bent on destroying greatest nation on earth’

House Majority Caucus Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, is addressing the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho on “state legislative perspectives past and forward.” Roberts said as part of his remarks, he'll be commenting on “a very dysfunctional federal government that is hell-bent on destroying the greatest nation on earth.”

Roberts also decried the rising cost of Idaho's catastrophic care fund, which helps counties cover indigent residents' medical expenses, saying he objects to “the whole idea of government paying for a growing list of personal needs.” Said Roberts, a sixth-term lawmaker, “Are we going to continue to expand the role of government and raise taxes to pay for the growing list of personal needs and wants? … We must rethink how we think about government, starting with the local fire and cemetery districts and moving all the way up to the massive, out-of-control federal budget.”

He said, “We must create an economic habitat which supplies the factors necessary for the existence of our species. Once this habitat is created, businesses will flourish again, but as long as we compare ourselves to other states and other nations and say, 'we are about the same in this area' or 'a tax is a little lower in that area,' we will struggle to have the reforms that are needed. What I'm talking about is a complete paradigm shift that needs to permeate our entire system.”

Hawkins is back; new state Commerce chief Jeff Sayer calls him a ‘mentor’

Jim Hawkins, the North Idaho businessman who was Idaho's groundbreaking commerce director from 1987 to 1996 and who was appointed to senior positions by three different Idaho governors, is back as a volunteer consultant to new Idaho Commerce chief Jeff Sayer. “Jim's playing a key role in helping us connect the department directly to business,” Sayer said. “We're taking steps to actually move at the speed of business. Jim's helping us lead that charge.” Added Sayer, “He's been a mentor to me.”

Sayer, a CPA and a BYU graduate, was appointed by Gov. Butch Otter to head the department in September; an entrepreneur, he most recently had been managing partner of Novayx Group and president and chief financial officer for Mountain View Hospital in Idaho Falls. Hawkins, also an entrepreneur, has worked in banking, auto supplies, venture capital and more; he's a University of Idaho business grad who also holds an honorary UI doctorate.

Guv is in Florida, Little’s acting guv

Here's why Lt. Gov. Brad Little gave the luncheon speech at the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho conference in Boise today, an event that typcially features an address from the governor: Gov. Butch Otter is away in warmer climes, attending a Republican Governors Association conference in Florida. Otter left early Tuesday and will return late Friday; Little is acting governor when the governor is out of state.

Lt. Gov. Little: ‘The days of deficit denial are about to end’

Lt. Gov. Brad Little shared his favorite quote from Erskine Bowles: “We can take little comfort in America that we are the healthiest horse at the glue factory.” He said, “It's gonna be ugly, it's gonna be brutal, but I think the days of deficit denial are about to end.” Little said, “It will generate significant disruption in how federal funding and tax policy affects the state of Idaho” and its local governments. He said the state should be in better shape than many to withstand upcoming “enormous shocks emanating from the federal government. … Idaho, thanks to our limited-government, free-market philosophy can proudly boast, as the governor did in Roll Call last week, of a balanced budget,” Little said.

ATI applauds Dan John; longtime state tax policy manager is retiring

Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little started his luncheon talk to the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho today by recognizing state Tax Commission Tax Policy Manager Dan John, noting how many in the Legislature and elsewhere have relied on John for years to answer their tax questions. “Enjoy your retirement - you deserve it,” Little told John; the crowd responded with a standing ovation.

Idaho Supreme Court upholds law that abolished insanity defense

The Idaho Supreme Court has upheld the constitutionality of the law that abolished the insanity defense in Idaho, upholding the sentence of mentally ill multiple murderer John Delling of Boise, who went on a killing spree targeting his childhood friends. He was sentenced to a determinate sentence of life in prison after pleading guilty to two counts of second-degree murder. “None of Delling's constitutional rights have been infringed by the abolition of the insanity defense,” wrote Chief Justice Roger Burdick in the court's unanimous opinion; you can read it here.

Casey on D.C. ‘dysfunction’: ‘We govern like a parliament’

Greg Casey, the president and CEO of BI-PAC, the Business Industry Political Action Committee, offered this view of the “dysfunction” in Washington, D.C.: “Those of us who are involved in that process spend so much of our time worrying about winning elections, we spend too little time worrying about winning policy debates, which is the idea that elections are supposed to be about.” Addressing the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho, he said, “It is this focus, I believe, on who has the political control in the process … that has contributed mainly to the dysfunction in Washington, D.C. … This was on clear display last week.”

Casey, former president of the Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry and former sergeant-at-arms and doorkeeper of the U.S. Senate, said, “This focus on the power … has all but destroyed the process itself.” He said decisions have been made “in conference rooms, not in hearing rooms,” and said, “We've gone from a nation of laws and procedures … to a government that is driven by ad hoc  impulse. … We lurch from decision to decision without any commonality in the theme. … So we act like a representative republic at election time, but now we govern like a parliament, where those who are in charge of the party basically focus on doing that which they want to do, to circumvent whatever process or rules they need to circumvent in order to pursue their policy or their philosophy. That's sort of where Washington is at this point in time.”

Casey said “both parties have practiced this over the last couple of decades.” He said it's “equally bad, whether you do it for the philosophy of the left or for the philosophy of the right.”

Why some states grow faster than others…

Keith Phillips, senior economist and policy adviser for the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, is discussing “Why some states grow faster than others,” noting that regional differences have evened out considerably since the volatile days of the 1980s. The reasons for the differences, he said, include which industries are important in a state and how they're doing; business cycle sensitivity and recessions, including things like the housing boom and bust; and weather crises like Hurricane Katrina.

Phillips also offered this observation about his profession: An economist, he said, is “someone who's good with numbers but doesn't have the personality to be an accountant.”

Phillips compared average annual job growth over the past three decades among all the states. Idaho ranked 6th. Nevada was first, and Washington 10th. “You all know that obviously Idaho's been a strong growing state in terms of jobs,” he told Associated Taxpayers of Idaho. “The strong states tend to be states that are southern, mountain, or agricultural states. The weak states tend to be the older manufacturing states in the northeast and the Great Lakes regions.”

Technology also can have impacts - like air conditioning did in his home state of Texas, Phillips said - as can state policies. “So that's where job growth has occurred in the past.” As to where it will occur in the future, a key factor is where people want to live, and where businesses can maximize their profits, he said. One study showed that states with “high economic freedom,” measured by taxes, size of government, labor restrictions and other factors, had strong job growth. “Within these three subsectors, tax burden was the least significant,” he said. “Government size and labor restrictions were most important.”

State budget outlook ‘looks pretty good - a lot better than it has’

Legislative budget chief Cathy Holland-Smith ran through all the numbers and said under current estimates, if the state were to cover all its nondiscretionary adjustments in next year's budget and all supplemental budget requests, assuming a conservative 3 percent revenue growth, “You would have $77 million after you paid for those items and used all of your revenue … for all those great line items and enhancements that are out there.” She said, “Well, how much did agencies ask for? They asked for $142 million. … So there's positive to this, but there's also a sense of caution.”

Nevertheless, it's a budget situation that calls for deciding which additional items to fund or how to allocate additional revenue - rather than what to cut further. Said Holland-Smith: “This looks pretty good, doesn't it? It looks a lot better than it has.”

State budget: ‘Nobody really anticipated the revenue to be that robust’

Idaho legislative budget chief Cathy Holland-Smith has begun presenting a state legislative budget update to the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho conference this morning. The figures, she said, were first presented to the Legislative Council, but because the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee hasn't yet held its fall meeting, many lawmakers are seeing the figures for the first time. Here's my story from the Legislative Council meeting, which noted that Idaho lawmakers are facing something they haven’t seen in years: A ‘manageable’ budget. When they convene in January, they’ll likely be able to balance next year’s state budget without further cuts, and even make up some cuts and start refilling the state’s drained reserve funds.

Idaho’s state tax revenues fell 16 percent from fiscal year 2008 to fiscal year 2011, and though they’re now growing again, they still haven’t hit the 2008 level. The state’s general fund budget, set at $2.959 billion in fiscal year 2009, was set at just $2.529 billion this year, down 15 percent in three years. Lawmakers and Gov. Butch Otter intentionally left $91.5 million on the table, unbudgeted, for fear that revenues would dip below state economists’ projections. Instead, the state is on track to easily cover its costs next year. That’s even with an automatic transfer of $26 million to the budget stabilization fund - a move triggered by the revenue growth. In recent years, Idaho’s drained all its reserve funds just to balance its budget.

The strong revenues required the state to send more money out to schools to meet federal maintenance-of-effort requirements. “Nobody really anticipated the revenue to be that robust,” Holland-Smith said.

Tax Foundation: Idaho ranks 36th among states for total tax burden

The Tax Foundation calculates “Tax Freedom Day” for each state, the date on which workers theoretically have earned enough to cover their full tax burden at the federal, state and local levels. Economist Mark Robyn told the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho this morning that Idaho's date is April 3rd, which at 93 days ranks as 36th in the nation. Nationally, the foundation sets the date at April 12, at 102 days. That national date is three days later this year than last year, but nearly two weeks earlier than it was in 2007, reflecting a lower overall tax burden comparatively.

Robyn shared graphs and charts showing stats about the nation's tax system, including that top federal tax rates have dropped significantly since the 1950s. “A large and growing percent of families and households … don't pay federal income tax,” he said, displaying a chart showing a sharp rise in “non-payers.” “It's creeping up to near 45 percent.” Meanwhile, since 2000, more business income is now taxed under the individual tax code than the corporate tax code, Robyn said.

The statutory corporate tax rate for the U.S. is second only to Japan's, Robyn said, and there's some interest in reforms. “Lots of people will say the rate doesn't matter, no one pays the 35 percent corporate tax rate, which is true. They have credits and deductions,” he said. Still, he said a statutory high rate can be a “disincentive,” though “it is true that effective tax rates are much lower.” One study by the Tax Foundation showed the effective corporate tax rate since 1994 has averaged around 26 percent.

Big crowd at ATI conference today…

There's a big crowd already this morning for the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho annual conference, and more are filing in. First up this morning is a federal tax policy update from economist Mark Robyn of the Tax Foundation in Washington, D.C., followed by a state legislative budget update from Cathy Holland-Smith, the Legislature's budget chief. Among those in attendance: Legislators, lobbyists, business people, local and state government officials, reporters and more.

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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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