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Eye On Boise

Archive for May 2011

ISP puts veteran trooper on leave after court cites perjury in murder case

The Idaho State Police have announced that a veteran state trooper who was sharply criticized in an Idaho Supreme Court decision issued Friday - for offering false testimony that helped land a North Idaho man a 25-year prison term for murder - has been placed on administrative leave with pay. Here's the ISP's statement:

“With the May 27th announcement of the Idaho Supreme Court's decision in State of Idaho v. Jonathan W. Ellington, the Idaho State Police is fully aware of the significant issues involved with this case.  As is standard procedure, the ISP has started an Administrative Investigation into the issues identified by the Idaho Supreme Court.  The ISP regards this as a serious matter and fully intends to complete a thorough investigation.  The involved employee has been placed on administrative leave with pay, and since this investigation involves a current employee in a personnel matter, the ISP will not be able comment further.”

The unanimous high court decision said, “It is extremely disturbing to this Court that an officer of the law would present false testimony in any case, especially a murder case. In this case, however, it is impossible to believe there was any truth to the testimony of Cpl. Rice. It is abhorrent to this Court, as it would be to any other court, that a man can be sentenced to twenty-five years for second-degree murder based primarily on the false testimony of a trooper of this State.” The court tossed out the conviction and sentence, which stemmed from a road-rage incident, and ordered a new trial.

Idaho ranks low, falling for school spending

It's not just that Idaho ranks 50th in the nation for per-pupil spending on schools, an area where the state long has ranked low. It's that Idaho's ranking for school spending per $1,000 in personal income in the state has dropped dramatically, from 15th in the nation in 2001 to 41st in the latest U.S. Census report, released last week.

“I think we are in a race to the bottom here, it seems like,” said Sherri Wood, president of the Idaho Education Association, the state's teachers union. “Unfortunately it certainly is not going to be good for the state, and not for our students either.” Melissa McGrath, spokeswoman for state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna, said, “We do not believe that per-pupil spending or the amount of money you put into education is the most important factor in determining a great public education system.” She said students from Idaho and Utah - the only state Idaho beat for per-pupil spending - outperform those in states that outspend them. Utah ranks 38th for school spending per $1,000 in personal income. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
  

E. Idaho roads dustup stretches from state Capitol to the courts…

Over the holiday weekend, the Idaho Falls Post Register broke a story about House Speaker Lawerence Denney and House State Affairs Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona, sidetracking and killing a bill regarding disputes over county roads, while Loertscher and former state Sen. Stan Hawkins were in the midst of a dispute over county roads in Bonneville County - they filed a lawsuit in April seeking to declare three designated county roads there as private, over the objections of neighbors who no longer would be able to use them. The Post Register is calling for an ethics investigation; you can read their Sunday editorial here and the Friday article here by reporter Emma Breysse.

Risch meets with Netanyahu in Jerusalem, praises his ‘vision of peace’

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem today; here's a photo of the two before the meeting. Afterward, Risch praised Netanyahu, saying, “Prime Minister Netanyahu provided a very thoughtful and convincing framework for acceptable borders between a safe and secure Israel and a peaceful Palestine.  Both parties will need to agree on borders, among other final status issues, but Israel should not have to rewind history or sacrifice its security for a hollow agreement.” He also praised Netanyahu's “vision of peace and economic development for the Jewish and Palestinian people,” and said, “I remain convinced that if the political leaders in the Palestinian Authority and Hamas reject violence and accept Israel’s right to exist as the national homeland of the Jewish people, the Palestinian people could prosper and see a dramatic improvement in their quality of life.”

Risch is in Israel with Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Penn., as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee that oversees U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and North Africa. The two senators also are scheduled to meet with the prime minister of the Palestinian Authority and the head of Israel's opposition party, and to receive briefings on border, security and trade issues.

U.S. Supreme Court rules in favor of Ashcroft, against Abdullah al-Kidd

The U.S. Supreme Court has overturned a federal appeals court, saying former U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft didn't violate the constitutional rights of a former University of Idaho football player who was arrested in 2003 and held as a possible witness in a terrorism case - though he never was called to testify and never was charged with a crime - and can't be personally sued over the case. The high court ruled 5-3 in favor of Ashcroft and against Abdullah al-Kidd, who was held in connection with the trial of former U of I student Sami al-Hussayen. Click below for a full report from the Associated Press in Washington, D.C.

Otter on ‘Hire One Act:’ ‘Call it a bonus, call it a reward’

Gov. Butch Otter has sent out an op-ed piece this morning touting the “Hire One Act” he persuaded lawmakers to enact this year, offering a refundable income tax credit for employers who add workers. “Call it a bonus. Call it a reward. Call it whatever you like, but the fact is we expect the income tax credits paid out to employers will be more than fully offset by the income, sales and property taxes paid by those new employees in the workforce,” Otter writes, “not to mention the private economic activity they will generate.” Click below to read his full piece.

Megaloads could skip U.S. on rail-truck Canada route

What if giant megaloads of oil field equipment didn't even have to enter the United States to get from Asia to the Alberta oil sands project in Canada, and what if avoiding the U.S. actually cost less? That's the prospect being floated by a railroad company that owns a Canadian seaport, and it's adding a new wrinkle to the debate over the equipment transports to the third-largest proven crude oil reserve in the world, where dozens of companies are rushing to develop an oil resource that's eclipsed only by those of Saudi Arabia and Venezuela.

A court ruling is pending in Montana and an administrative ruling pending in Idaho on the 200-plus megaload transports proposed by Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil, which would take giant modules fabricated in Korea up the Columbia and Snake rivers by barge to Lewiston, then truck them across scenic U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho to Montana and Canada. The loads are so big they'll block both lanes of the twisting, two-lane highway, creating a rolling roadblock; but they're too tall to travel on most other routes, including interstate highways. You can read my full story here in Thursday's Spokesman-Review.

GOP names redistricting commissioners

The Idaho Republican Party has named its redistricting commissioners: Lou Esposito, Evan Frasure and Lorna Finman. Click below for their full news release.

Of school reform, panic buttons, lawsuits and ranking 50th…

While I'm off enjoying time with family this week, the news marches on: The referendum on this year's school reform legislation has gathered enough signatures to make the November 2012 ballot - read a full report here from AP reporter John Miller - state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna's office installed a third “panic button” in March, according to a report here from Twin Falls Times-News reporter Ben Botkin; a federal appeals court has revived the decades-old “Jeff D” lawsuit against the state of Idaho over substandard childrens' mental health care; you can read a full report here from AP reporter Rebecca Boone; new census numbers show Idaho ranks 50th in per-pupil spending - before the latest budget cuts - the Idaho Statesman's Kevin Richert writes about it here; and a tea party group wants a conservative Idaho publishing house's version of constitutional history taught in schools; read the AP report here.

It’s that time of year…

I'll be off the rest of this week, as my relatives arrive and we celebrate my son's graduation from Boise High this Thursday. Let me know what I miss - I'll be back next week.

Meridian won’t try again on failed school levy

The Meridian School District won't try again this summer on its failed supplemental tax levy request, the Boise Weekly reports, and instead is starting work on cuts including slashing the school year to 14 fewer days than it had two years ago and eliminating 100 teaching jobs. “The taxpayers have spoken,” Meridian Superintendent Linda Clark told Boise Weekly reporter George Prentice. “They expect us to live within the means of state funds and that's what we're going to do.” You can read Prentice's report here.

Democratic, GOP state chairmen clash, highlight differences

Idaho's current Democratic and Republican party chairmen shared a stage for the first time today at the Boise City Club, and some sparks did fly. The two started off with a shared experience: “We both lost to Bill Sali in 2006,” said GOP Chairman Norm Semanko, who lost to Sali in the 1st District GOP primary that year, while current Democratic Chairman Larry Grant fell to Sali in the general election.  “Norm and I did both lose,” Grant said, “and you might conclude from that that the penalty for losing a congressional race is to become the chairman of the party.”

Semanko recounted Republican electoral wins in Idaho since he took office in 2008, from top state offices to the Legislature to county courthouses. Grant retorted, “The only thing history really teaches us is that we made another mistake.” He predicted that Democrats will pick up seats in Idaho next year, and challenged the conventional wisdom going into this year's legislative redistricting process - that Democrats only stand to lose further, and Republicans to gain. “You can't draw those lines without sooner or later making a Republican run against a Republican, and for you political junkies out there, one of the most interesting things to watch is which candidates will they throw under the bus,” he said. “There's no way they can draw those lines to keep all those people in office.” Grant maintained that the Democrats' pockets of electoral success around the state are “easy to draw lines around,” saying, “We'll be able to protect our incumbents pretty easily.”

A bipartisan citizen commission will draw those lines; it starts meeting in June. Democrats named their commissioners last month; Semanko said Republicans will name theirs before the June 7 deadline.

Semanko said Republicans' growing hold on elected offices in Idaho at all levels comes because of the party's “consistent message … of smaller government, less spending, no tax increases, personal responsibility and unlimited opportunity. We like to think that we're the party that listens to people, and we like to think that we're the party of ideas. Even when those ideas are uncomfortable, when the discussion of those raises the ire of many, when it questions what our motivations are, we're not afraid to have the discussion, let the chips fall where they may and let people make their own decisions.”

Grant chided the majority party for backing closing primary elections, deadpanning, “We Democrats have been voting in their primary for years and it's been a very effective strategy.”

Semanko touted the tea party movement, saying, “They felt very strongly about the future of our country and nobody should be demonized for that. The 2010 election was a reflection of that. … I'm not going to apologize for the philosophy that says we should have smaller government, that we should spend less, that we should have less government control in our lives. That is the philosophy of the Republican Party.” Grant said, “The Republican Party had the White House and both houses of Congress for six years and they didn't do anything except spend more and cut taxes.” Noting that Republicans have controlled the Idaho Legislature for more than five decades, Grant said, “I would remind you that if there's anything wrong with Idaho, it's their fault.” Semanko responded, “I happen to think it's a pretty nice place to live, Larry.”

The two also clashed over school reform, with Grant accusing Republicans of opposing public education and instead favoring vouchers to bring government funding to private education, and Semanko citing a national Rasmussen poll to argue that most Americans don't think public school spending is a good use of their tax dollars. “They want to see reform, they want to see change,” Semanko said. “They want to see us use our scarce tax dollars smarter and wiser, in a more efficient manner.”

A capitol year for unusual ideas…

It wasn't just in Idaho that state lawmakers ventured onto unusual ground this year, attempting to unilaterally nullify a federal law, debating allowing guns on state college campuses and nearly cutting off unemployed Idahoans from receiving federal extended unemployment benefits on grounds that the benefits will make them lazy. Montana lawmakers backed a bill to let local sheriffs stop federal law enforcement officers from making arrests in their counties, though the governor vetoed it. They also debated measures to legalize hunting with a hand-thrown spear and declare global warming “beneficial to the welfare and business climate of Montana.” Florida legislators outlawed droopy pants on schoolkids that show their underwear. Illinois made it legal to pick up road-killed animals for food or fur, saying it'll clean up the roads.

Utah lawmakers ordered schools to teach kids that the United States is a “compound constitutional republic” rather than a democracy, after the bill's sponsor said “schools from coast to coast are indoctrinating children to socialism.” South Carolina looked at setting up its own gold or silver currency in case the federal reserve system fails. And a Georgia lawmaker pushed unsuccessfully to abolish driver's licenses because he said requiring them violates people's “inalienable right” to travel.

“I don't know how many of these are going to become laws or withstand constitutional scrutiny, but it does seem like you have a wider range of ideas that are out there now,” said Seth Masket, a political scientist at the University of Denver who studies state legislatures. “For those who are concerned that politicians have just been peddling the same old ideas for years, this seems like a very good thing. … You have some people who are willing to think outside of the box.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
  

Idaho voters raise taxes for local schools, after state lawmakers wouldn’t

Here's how much in new property taxes Idahoans have voted on themselves so far this spring to shore up their local schools in the wake of state budget cuts: $77.32 million a year, with most of those levies stretching for two years. There's still another round of levy elections scheduled for August. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Most school levies passed statewide

A preliminary report on supplemental levy elections in held in school districts around the state compiled by the Idaho State Department of Education shows that of 36 school districts holding supplemental levy votes on Tuesday, 27 won passage from local voters, while nine failed, including, notably, one in the state's largest school district, Meridian. That means 75 percent passed. The last round of school district supplemental levy votes was on March 8; according to the department's figures, 29 districts held votes then, and 27 passed with just two failing. One of those two, Boundary County, went back to its voters on Tuesday, and this time, they passed the proposed $1.4 million levy.

All told, that means that this spring 65 of Idaho's 115 school districts asked their voters to raise their own property taxes to add to the school district's operating funds, and in 54 of those districts – that's 83 percent – voters said yes.

The moves come as state lawmakers cut state funding for schools for the third straight year, saying they didn't want to raise taxes.

Melissa McGrath, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said the numbers are preliminary, as the counties still are certifying their election results from Tuesday. “I think it really shows that every community makes its own decision on levies,” she said. “We at the state level do not get involved in local levy elections; we leave it up to the local communities.”

What happens when you try to put Ada, Canyon in one congressional district…

Idaho political historian, author and pundit Randy Stapilus tried his hand at the new redistricting software, which is publicly available for anyone to use, to draw up a division between Idaho's two congressional districts that would put all of Ada and Canyon counties, the state's most-populated, together in one district. The result wasn't pretty: Pretty much the entire state ends up in District 1, with just its southwestern corner, including Ada and Canyon, as District 2 – meaning a single representative would have to serve the widely differing and far-apart regions of North Idaho and eastern Idaho. Check out Stapilus' effort here. A bipartisan citizen redistricting commission will start its work in early June, to draw both new congressional district lines and new legislative districts, to match up with the latest census results.

Idaho jobless rate falls for first time in four years

For the first time in four years, Idaho's jobless rate has fallen – in April, it dropped a tenth of a point from 9.7 percent to 9.6 percent, as more than 3,000 Idahoans went back to work. That means the state's economy generated more jobs than expected in April, a good sign as the state struggles to rebound from a deep recession. You can read a full report here from the Idaho Department of Labor.

The gain wasn't evenly distributed throughout the state; 21 of Idaho's 44 counties had higher unemployment rates in April than in March, while 23 saw drops. However, three of the state's most-populated counties saw unemployment fall: Ada County's jobless rate dropped from 9.4 percent in March to 9.1 percent in April; Canyon County's went from 11.8 percent to 11.3 percent; and Kootenai County's dropped from 11.2 to 11.1 percent. Bonneville County, which has much lower unemployment, saw an increase from 7.6 percent in March to 7.8 percent in April. You can see breakouts here for counties and labor market areas.

Montana megaloads hearing: MDOT warned against calling it a ‘high-wide corridor’

Testimony at the third and final day of a court hearing in Montana on megaloads included questioning of Montana Department of Transportation chief engineer Dwane Kailey about an internal email in which he scolded staffers for using the term “high-wide corridor,” writing, “Let's try not to refer to this proposal as a high-wide corridor. That could create some challenges for these companies.” Testimony having wrapped up, the decision is in the hands of the judge; megaloads opponents there are seeking an injunction against roadwork needed to construct new turnouts and other changes to the Montana portion of the route to accommodate the giant oversized loads. You can read a full report here from Missoulian reporter Kim Briggeman.

Yet another firm proposes Highway 12 megaload

Yet another firm has contacted Idaho about sending a giant, oversized megaload across U.S. Highway 12 from Lewiston to Montana, the Lewiston Tribune reports today. Nickel Bros., a hauler, has applied to send one megaload across the route in early June, an evaporator for a Weyerhaeuser plant in Canada, the ITD told the Tribune; click below for a full report from Tribune reporter Elaine Williams.

New research: Private prisons don’t save states money, actually cost more

The New York Times reports today that new research in Arizona and elsewhere shows private prisons don't save states money - they actually cost more. That's in part because the private lockups “cherry pick” the healthiest, least expensive inmates to house, leaving states to deal with the more costly portions of their prison population. “There’s a perception that the private sector is always going to do it more efficiently and less costly,” Russ Van Vleet, a former co-director of the University of Utah Criminal Justice Center, told Times reporter Richard A. Oppel Jr. “But there really isn’t much out there that says that’s correct.” You can real Oppel's full story here.

Albertson Foundation gives Idaho schools $21M grant for software program, network

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation is giving $25 million to Idaho to help better track student achievement and fulfill its cash commitment to the Idaho Education Network. The investment announced Wednesday includes $21 million to the Idaho Department of Education to pay for software designed to improve the performance of students and teachers. The software is designed and distributed by SchoolNet Inc., a private New York company. Albertson Foundation Executive Director Jamie MacMillan says the SchoolNet tool will improve the way schools monitor real-time student progress and teacher effectiveness in a consistent and timely manner. The grant also covers the remainder of the foundation's $6 million pledge toward the $60 million cost for installing broadband infrastructure statewide for the IEN. The network links public schools, universities and businesses.

Fish & Game authorizes sheriff’s deputies to kill wolves in Elk City pack

Idaho Fish & Game has, for the first time, delegated authority to local law enforcement agents to kill wolves, to address a pack of about seven wolves that are suspected in attacks on dogs and livestock in Elk City, the Lewiston Tribune reports. Wolves are now under state management after having been removed from endangered species protections pursuant to a law passed by Congress; already, five wolves in the Lolo zone were shot from a helicopter as part of the state's new efforts to control wolf numbers. Click below for a full report from the Tribune and the Associated Press.

Failed Meridian school levy will mean layoffs, cuts, fewer days in school

After voters in Idaho's largest school district - Meridian - rejected a two-year, $37 million property tax levy yesterday, the school district is saying it will have to lay off teachers and principals; drop dental and vision coverage for district employees unless they pay for it themselves; and cut as much as 14 days off the school calendar - most of those instructional days - to make $14 million in cuts. Eric Exline, district spokesman, told KBOI-TV the lost school days will mean “that much stuff that kids aren't going to learn.”  You can see the KBOI-TV report here and election results here.

Of megaloads, roadwork and delays…

In the second day of testimony at a court hearing in Missoula yesterday, an Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil official testified that delays in sending megaloads of oil field equipment through Montana and up to the Kearl oil sands project in Canada are proving problematic for the company. “Right now, we're readjusting our plans, but we're getting to the point where we're going to be doing out-of-sequence work,” Ken Johnson, manager of the transport project for Imperial, said in Missoula District Court; you can read the full story here in today's Missoulian from reporter Kim Briggeman. A temporary restraining order currently is blocking roadwork needed for the giant loads to travel through Montana; the court hearing is on a possible injunction. Opponents of the loads there say more environmental review is needed for the roadwork. Imperial/Exxon's first load, a “test validation module” designed to test out the route, traveled through Idaho but is now parked at Lolo Hot Springs, awaiting the outcome of the Montana court case.

Idaho prepares to sell or trade away Priest, Payette lake cabin sites

Idaho will start surveys and other groundwork in early June to prepare to sell off or trade away some or all of its 521 leased lakefront cabin sites, including more than 350 at Priest Lake. Top state officials warned, however, that it's not likely to be a quick process. “It's not going to be done immediately,” said Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. “No one wants to get out of this thing faster than I do. But I also have a duty of undivided loyalty to the beneficiaries. We need to do it in a manner where we will get as much as we can.”

Bud Belles, president of the Priest Lake State Lessees Association, said he's disappointed by the time frame. “This is going to stretch out for years if they do it their way, and it doesn't have to,” he said. “If the values go up and nothing happens, a lot of us won't be able to afford our lots … we're going to get kicked off our lots, essentially.” Belles, 70, a retired computer consultant from Nine Mile Falls, said he wants to buy the land under his cabin, which has been in his family since he was 8 years old.

Today's vote came as the state and cabin owners are facing off in court over rental rates for this year and following years; on Friday, 4th District Judge Michael McLaughlin issued a written ruling calling for a rent freeze to match 2011 rents to 2010 levels. The Land Board then filed a motion for reconsideration on Monday, saying if it had to match rents for 2011-2013 to 2010 levels, the state endowment - and Idaho's schools - would lose close to $6 million. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Montana court hearing focuses on megaloads

A three-day court hearing kicked off in Missoula yesterday on a possible injunction to block construction of numerous new turnouts and other roadwork to allow Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil megaloads to pass through Montana. Among those testifying was Steve Seninger, a University of Montana economist who said western Montana, which depends heavily on tourism, stands to lose economically from the transport. You can read a full report here from reporter Kim Briggeman in today's Missoulian.

Land Board wrestles with how to sell or exchange lake cabin sites

Idaho is starting a process to prepare for possible sale or exchange of its state-owned cabin sites at Priest and Payette lakes, and the state's top elected officials wrestled today with the implications. The state plans to spend about $1.48 million to survey and otherwise prepare for the transactions; state lands strategic business analyst Kate Langford said that may sound like a lot, but it's “less than 1 percent of that total estimated value, on a conservative level.” Langford said that work will start at both lakes in June. The first lots should be ready for possible transactions in the first quarter of 2012, Langford told the state Land Board, and the rest could be ready by the end of 2012. For Bonner and Valley counties, she said, “This is huge potential for both of those counties, a very positive impact for their taxable foundation. But it's also something that's not been done in recent times,” so the state will need to work with both counties as lots transition from state to private ownership. “Those discussions will be initiated once we get some direction from the board,” she said.

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said he's worried that cabin owners on state-owned lots are getting “unrealistic expectations” that all the lots will be sold or traded quickly, and that's not likely to happen. “It's not going to be done immediately,” he said. “No. 1, you're working with the state, and No. 2, the market itself is going to dictate how fast some of this happens, and as we all know, the market's not real hot.” He added, “No one wants to get out of this thing faster than I do. But I also have a duty of undivided loyalty to the beneficiaries. We need to do it in a manner where we will get as much as we can.” Plus, he said, the state may opt against disposing of some of the cabin sites, choosing instead to buy out cabin owners. “Eventually those values are going to go back up, and we're going to have some valuable recreational property around lakes that no one's making any more.”

Under the state's current plan,  the lake cabin owners who now lease their lots from the state would have three options: Voluntary participation in consolidated land exchanges, voluntary participation in rolling auctions for sale of the lots, or continuing to lease the land from the state. “We're going to be leasing lots for the next foreseeable future, quite a while, because we're not going to get rid of them in that quick a time frame,” Ysursa said.

After much discussion, the Land Board voted unanimously to adopt recommendations from its staff for the process, including all three of those options, but didn't adopt a proposal to set up installment payment programs for cabin owners who participate in auctions. Several Land Board members, including Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, said they had concerns about the state acting as a “bank” for those transactions; they may revisit the installment issue later.

Idaho endowment investments outperforming other public funds

Idaho's permanent endowment fund gained 3 percent in April, endowment fund investment manager Larry Johnson reported to the state Land Board this morning, for a fiscal year-to-date gain of 26.8 percent. “April was a very good month,” Johnson said. And year to date, “We have outperformed our benchmark.” May so far hasn't been as good, showing a drop of about 2.1 percent, “so we've given back some of that gain that we earned in April. But all of our investment managers are performing as we would expect in this environment,” Johnson said. “We have been outperforming vs. other public funds.”

Meanwhile, receipts from endowment lands for the first nine months of the fiscal year show an increase of 5 percent from the same period in 2010, Johnson said, “about equal to where we were in 2009.” Both the endowment lands and the fund benefit the beneficiaries of the permanent endowment, the largest of which is the state's public schools.

State launches negotiated rule-making process on ‘fracking’ for natural gas

The Idaho Land Board, sitting as the state Oil and Gas Conservation Commission, voted unanimously today to start a negotiated rulemaking process on hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking.” The initial notice matches a temporary rule the board's already adopted. Secretary of State Ben Ysursa asked about the Bridge Energy fracking plan and the recent denial of a permit for a related compression station in Payette County, but Lands Department staffer Eric Wilson said, “That is not something the Department of Lands is involved in.”

Gov. Butch Otter said the state should at least be offering advice to Payette County about how other states have approached issues regarding fracking plans. “Obviously this is new to all of us,” he said. “We oughta have a one-stop shop,” whether that means involving the PUC, the DEQ, or other state agencies. “They ought to be at least a part of the rulemaking process or participating in it.”  Here's a link to a Friday report from the Boise Weekly on the Payette County P&Z vote.

Moscow City Council votes to roll out welcome mat to megaloads

The Moscow City Council has voted to welcome megaloads to travel through town - and invite them to stop off to patronize the city's motels, stores and gas stations along the way. The vote Monday came after Mayor Nancy Chaney had submitted a draft resolution to the council calling on the Idaho Transportation Department to deny permits for Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil's proposed 207 megaloads of oil equipment; the company wants to haul the giant loads from Lewiston to Montana across U.S. Highway 12, but is cutting 33 of them in half so they could instead travel north from Lewiston through Moscow to Coeur d'Alene before heading to Montana on I-90, then up to Canada. Click below for a full report from Moscow-Pullman Daily News reporter Christina Lords.

Luna, teachers tussle over political activity warning

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna is warning Idaho teachers they could lose their certification if they participate in recall efforts against him or a referendum effort to repeal his school reform legislation or engage in other political activities on school grounds. Idaho Education Association officials decried the warning, which went out in a statewide email to school districts and school boards on Friday, with IEA President Sherri Wood saying, “Through his email, Luna is trying to shut down a process in which he has a clear political interest.” Melissa McGrath, Luna's spokeswoman, said, “We are in no way trying to stop someone from being politically active. We just make sure educators are following the code of ethics.” You can read Luna's full email here, the IEA's full response here, and click below for a full story from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.

Six to receive Idaho Medal of Honor

It was an evening last June when an EMS crew from the Coeur d'Alene Fire Department was dispatched to a scene where a vehicle had crashed into a home. Firefighters Nathan Hyder and Dylan Clark found a truck crashed into the garage, its wheels still spinning, its accelerator pressed to the floor, with the female driver unconscious inside and the garage so filled with black smoke and flying debris from the spinning tires that there was no visibility at all. Despite great risk, the donned their breathing apparatus, entered the garage, broke out a window of the pickup, turned off the ignition and rescued the driver, saving her life. Now they're both receiving the State of Idaho Law Enforcement, Firefighting and EMS Medal of Honor, as are three Boise police officers, Adam Crist, Casey Hancuff and Jason Rose, who rescued a critically injured shooting victim in August of 2010; and a U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officer who was killed in a gunfight in 1989, Brent “Jake” Jacobson. Jacobson, who was pursuing brothers James and Joseph Pratt after a home-invasion robbery and hostage situation in Sagle when he was shot, is receiving the award posthumously.

The Medal of Honor, which the Idaho Legislature established in 2004, is presented each year at the Idaho Peace Officers Memorial ceremony, which this year is scheduled for Friday at 10 a.m.; the first recipient was slain Idaho state Trooper Linda Huff. “By their selfless actions, these six professionals demonstrated their commitment to the service of others,” said Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, who chairs the Idaho Medal of Honor Commission. There's more info here about the award and recipients.

4th Conoco megaload reaches Montana; 3 megaloads now parked at Lolo

The fourth and last ConocoPhillips megaload has arrived at the Montana line, and is now parked at Lolo Hot Springs, the Idaho Transportation Department announced this morning. That means three - count 'em, three - giant megaloads are now parked at the hot springs resort at the top of Lolo Pass: The two from ConocoPhillips, and the ExxonMobil “test validation module,” which is stopped there awaiting further go-aheads from the state of Montana, which has a court hearing today on a possible injunction against road work to allow that module to proceed.

The final Conoco load, taking equipment to the company's Billings, Mont. refinery, left milepost 169 on U.S. Highway 12 in Idaho at 10:01 p.m. Sunday, and reached the top of Lolo Pass at 10:48 p.m. It crossed into Montana at 11:06 p.m., ITD reported, following a revised transportation plan for the Conoco loads that allows six days to travel from Lewiston to the Montana line. The third Conoco load was at Lolo Hot Springs waiting for it, where it's been since May 6th. “Montana is allowing them to travel in a convoy fashion,” two at a time, said ITD spokesman Adam Rush. “We've asked them on our side to create space between them.” The fourth Conoco load left Lewiston on May 10th. The ExxonMobil test megaload has been sitting at Lolo Hot Springs, on private property, since May 4th.

“We're all there ready to go,” said Mark Hefty, spokesman for Emmert International, the hauler for the ConocoPhillips loads. Asked if there's enough space for all three giant loads in the same area, Hefty said, “There has to be, otherwise the states wouldn't allow us to stop. I don't think we're all right there on top of each other. I think we're close but not exactly the same place.” The two Conoco loads are scheduled to start moving into Montana tonight shortly after midnight, and arrive in Billings around June 8.

Water, water, everywhere…

There's even some snow mixed in this morning here in the Boise foothills, in this spring that still doesn't seem to have sprung. Here, the rain on my window yesterday afternoon turned the green Boise spring landscape into an impressionist painting. According to the Natural Resources Conservation Service, year-to-date precipitation is well above average in every basin in Idaho, from 119 percent in the Boise basin to 139 percent in the Bruneau. Plus, the “snow-water equivalent,” the measure that shows the depth of water in the snowpack if it were melted, is running even higher - from a statewide low of 113 percent of normal in the Big Lost River basin to a whopping 326 percent of normal in the Weiser River basin; that shows the risk of flooding…

Idaho’s day-care wars didn’t end in ‘09, but new law this year could settle issue

When Idaho passed landmark legislation two years ago to, for the first time, require state licensing of day-care operations that served fewer than 13 kids, the state's day-care wars didn't end. Instead, social conservatives in the Idaho House who opposed the whole idea of day-care regulation - including some who said mothers should just stay home with their kids - blocked approval of the rules to implement the new law two years running, though it took effect anyway under temporary rules.

Now, a compromise reached at the close of this year's legislative session between the House and Senate has brought changes to the law that all sides expect to settle the issue, in part by removing all maximum group sizes for child care operations and restructuring required staff-child ratios. Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said, “It is simple, it's easy to understand, and it's easy for people to comply with.” Broadsword, who along with Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, revamped HB 129 to remove House-backed changes including no longer counting kids of providers in staff-child ratios, said, “I think that everybody had the best interest of the children of Idaho at heart. We just saw different ways to get there.” You can read my full story here from Sunday's Spokesman-Review.

Parks dept urges young off-roaders to sign up now for newly required classes

Under much-debated legislation passed by the Idaho Legislature this year, youngsters 15 and younger who ride off-highway vehicles on U.S. Forest Service roads are required to be supervised by an adult who is riding within 300 fee; also, all riders who lack driver's licenses, including youngsters, must take an approved off-highway vehicle safety course. The new law, SB 1001, takes effect July 1, but the state Department of Parks and Recreation is urging young off-road enthusiasts to sign up for the required classes now. “Our agency would like to encourage people to take classes early, so that we can accurately gauge what demand is going to be for the classes and do our best through the summer to help accommodate that demand,” said Jennifer Blazek, state parks spokeswoman. You can find out about available classes here, and get more info here.

Luna’s office: No big-bucks hires for reforms, just staff shift, promotion

Though rumors are rife that the Idaho state Department of Education has added highly-paid staffers to implement the new “Students Come First” school reform plan, Luci Willits, chief of staff for state schools Supt. Tom Luna, says it's not true. “We're doing what we're asking school districts to do, which is to do things differently” with existing funding, Willits said. “At this point we haven't hired anyone new. All we've done is repurposed positions.” She added, “Everyone's job at the department will be changing under Students Come First.”

Two positions already are changing: Deputy Superintendent Mary Beth Flachbart has been assigned to oversee the implementation of the reforms, which include shifting teacher salary funds to technology investments, implementing a teacher merit-pay bonus program, and phasing in a program to provide one laptop computer or other computing device for every Idaho high school student. Flachbart, who oversees federal programs, special education, Title 1 and school improvement efforts, will continue to be a deputy superintendent; her salary of $89,315 a year (before furloughs) won't change because of the new assignment.

Camille Wells, a program specialist at the department for communication and governmental affairs, will be promoted to a “coordinator” position in which she'll work full-time on Students Come First, Willits said. That will move her up a pay grade; her new salary hasn't been set, but it will rise from the current $34,507 a year (before furloughs) to at least $44,034 a year in the new pay grade. Willits noted that the reform plan is phased over several years. “Some things happen now, some in the future,” she said.

Luna's Department of Education budget for next year will see a 10.5 percent boost in state general funds, but that's in part because a federal grant ended to fund the state's student longitudinal data system and the state is having to pick up those costs, including six positions. The department's budget in total funds will be up 2.8 percent. “We had a 3.5 percent cut overall in the department if you look separately from the longitudinal data system,” Willits said. That system, to track student achievement, was a requirement of receiving federal stimulus funds; Idaho was the last state to implement one. “Those longitudinal data funds can't be used to fund something else,” she said. According to state budget documents, the number of authorized full-time positions at the department will rise from 130 this year to 133 next year; three positions were eliminated due to budget cuts.

UI economist: Idaho caught in low-skill, low-wage jobs trap

Idaho is caught in a low-skill, low-wage jobs traps, according to a new analysis by retired University of Idaho agricultural economist Stephen C. Cooke. The professor, who retired in December, has studied the issue for the past decade, and reports that Idaho workers earn nearly $11,000 less than the national average. “Why are wages so low in Idaho? That's the question I'm trying to answer,” Cooke said. The answer is complex one, including a lack of priority on educating the state's workforce, he found, and a failure to recruit enough highly paid jobs; Colorado and Utah did things differently and fared far better, he found. Click below for a report from the University of Idaho's Bill Loftus on Cooke's findings; Cooke will present a seminar about his work at the university on May 27.

TV report: State employee’s fraud scheme endangered school kids, cost districts

KTVB-TV reporter Nishi Gupta broke a rather stunning story this week: An Idaho DEQ employee fraudulently secured a big-bucks DEQ contract in 2008 to install emission-reducing devices on school buses around the state through a federally funded program; three years later, school districts around the state are facing hundreds of thousands in repair work for the shoddy and even dangerous work done to their buses, and the former state employee - who was arrested in the Virgin Islands - has pleaded guilty to federal charges. You can read the full story here.

Mullan ‘Capital for a Day’ reset for May 25

Gov. Butch Otter's “Capital for a Day” event in Mullan, postponed last month after an accident at the Lucky Friday Mine that prompted an urgent but ultimately unsuccessful rescue effort and left a miner dead, has been rescheduled for May 25. “The people of Mullan and Shoshone County have been through a traumatic time. They live with the dangers and uncertainties of mining every day, and I’m interested in hearing how they see the road ahead,” Otter said. “Silver Valley residents are tough and resilient. We all could learn a lot from listening to their concerns and reflecting on the sense of community that binds them together.” Click below for his full announcement.

AARP: Lawmakers ignore voices of older voters, campaign finance reforms needed

The Idaho AARP has issued a new report on campaign contributions in Idaho, concluding that corporations, businesses and PACS spent $2.7 million on Idaho's winning 2010 campaigns for governor, lieutenant governor and state Legislature; that 35 percent of those contributions came from outside Idaho; and that 34 legislators received 90 percent or more of their campaign contributions from those groups - including seven for whom it was 100 percent. The report also showed that nearly 90 percent of lawmakers got the majority of their campaign funds from corporations, businesses and PACs.

Idaho AARP State Director Jim Wordelman said the group was disappointed with the Legislature's lack of response to AARP members' concerns, including finding new revenues to address the state budget shortfall, such as closing business tax loopholes, rather than cutting programs; and protecting the wishes of dying patients from being overridden by the conscience concerns of medical providers. “The outcomes of this past legislative session left many AARP members believing that Idaho has a golden rule, and that is, those who have the gold make the rules,” Wordelman said. “When the most powerful voting group in Idaho, voters aged 50 and older, feels that their voices and issues are ignored by state lawmakers, we've got an issue of public confidence in the system.”

The seniors group is calling for requiring Idaho candidates to raise the majority of their campaign funds from individuals living in their districts; limiting contributions to and by PACs; and limiting contributions to state political parties. You can see the AARP's full report here, and its statement here.

Census: North Idaho population aging

North Idaho is aging faster than the rest of the state, numbers released this week by the U.S. Census Bureau show. The median age in each of Idaho’s five northern counties rose much more over the past 10 years than did the statewide average; in Kootenai County, the median age rose from 36 in 2000 to almost 39 in 2010. In Bonner County, the jump was from 40.8 to 45.8. In Shoshone County, it went from 41.8 to 46.2. In Boundary County, it rose from 38.3 to 42.8 and in Benewah County, from 39.2 to 44.8. Statewide, the median age in 2010 was 34.6, up from 33.2 in 2000. You can read S-R reporter Alison Boggs' full story here, and check our our interactive, searchable Idaho census data site here.

Pro-megaloads group decries opposition

A business group backing megaloads on Highway 12 in Idaho is decrying the megaloads opponents' arguments as “littler more than unverifiable claims and personal opinions.” Alex LaBeau, president of the Association of Commerce and Industry and a member of the group “Drive Our Economy,” said he believes three weeks of testimony in a contested-case hearing at ITD supported his side. “The hearing not only showed that oversize shipments are safe and well-planned, but also shined a light on the opponents of shipping and commerce, exposing their arguments as little more than unverifiable claims and personal opinions,” LaBeau said in a “Drive Our Economy” news release.

Added Idaho County Commissioner Skip Brandt, “Our communities are on the verge of losing important jobs and critical economic activity that the majority of residents support, simply because a handful of activists and their national allies are ideologically opposed to commerce. … It's time to put an end to these legal system  fishing expeditions and costly delays and get this important opportunity moving.” There's more on the group's website here.

Pew Center on States report: Idaho ranks middling on targeting transportation investments

Idaho ranks in the middle of the pack - one of 19 states with “mixed results” - in a new report out today from the Pew Center on the States and the Rockefeller Foundation on how states are measuring and managing their transportation investments. Washington, meanwhile, ranked in the top group of 13 states identified as “leading the way.”

Says the report, “States spent an estimated $131 billion on transportation in fiscal year 2010, but many cannot answer critical questions about what returns this investment is generating.” States scoring highest in the report are those with “goals, performance measures and data that decision makers can use to choose cost-effective policy options and ensure the likelihood of a strong return for taxpayers.” Why it matters: “Most states are entering their fourth year of the ongoing budget crisis, with revenues far below pre-recession levels and expenditures rising—and policy makers around the country are making tough choices about where to spend limited resources,” the report says. “Meanwhile, some members of Congress are proposing that the next surface transportation reauthorization act, the law that governs the largest federal funding streams for states’ transportation systems, move from a compliance-based to a performance-based approach and more closely tie dollars to outcomes.”

According to the report, Idaho's worst score came for tracking the impact of transportation investments on jobs and commerce. Click below for more.

ITD: Hearing allows airing of concerns, demonstration of safety, efficiency

Here is the Idaho Transportation Department's statement on the contested case hearing over Highway 12 megaloads, in which testimony concluded today, though briefing still is continuing: “The contested case hearing gave those who are concerned about the shipments the opportunity to present their concerns,” said ITD spokesman Adam Rush. “It also gave the Idaho Transportation Department the opportunity to demonstrate the steps taken to move the equipment shipments safely and efficiently.”

Megaloads debate continues…

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the wrapup today of testimony in the megaloads contested-case hearing, after three weeks; a decision is due in June. Tonight, company and ITD officials will be in Moscow, Idaho for a public meeting on the plan at 7 p.m. at the Hamilton Indoor Recreation Center, 1724 East F Street.

In addition to the Idaho contested-case hearing, the Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil plan to send more than 200 giant loads of oil equipment across U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho faces a May 16 court hearing in Montana on an injunction to block construction of new turnouts and other roadwork there to allow the giant loads to travel through that state; and a lawsuit is pending in federal court over the loads. In the federal lawsuit, Idaho Rivers United has sued the U.S. Forest Service, contending it's required by federal law to protect the designated wild and scenic river corridor from being turned into “an industrial high-and-wide corridor for megaloads,” and asking the federal court to block the loads.

ExxonMobil: ‘We eagerly await the judge’s decision’

Cynthia Bergman White, spokeswoman for ExxonMobil, issued this statement after the close of testimony in the megaloads hearing today: “The hearing process further demonstrated the years of careful planning and steps taken to ensure these loads can be transported safely and with minimal disruption to the public. We eagerly await the judge's decision.”

The low-key lawmaker who’s the new House transportation chairman…

Dan Popkey of the Idaho Statesman has an interesting profile of Rep. Joe Palmer, R-Meridian today, the new chairman of the House Transportation Committee who's been so low-key he's refused to even talk to reporters 'til now. You can read it here. Palmer was moved up into the chairmanship when House Speaker Lawerence Denney this year stripped two GOP moderates of their committee chairmanships as punishment for not voting with their leadership on procedural votes; they were Transportation Chairman Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls, and Agriculture Chairman Tom Trail, R-Moscow.

Megaloads testimony wraps up with focus on traffic plans, pavement damage

Testimony in the contested case hearing on megaloads on U.S. Highway 12 has wrapped up; in the final testimony, ITD called Jeff Miles, a materials expert for the department, to respond to testimony from Pat Dobie, a traffic engineer called by opponents of megaloads on U.S. Highway 12. Dobie testified that the test megaload that Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil sent over the route didn't follow the traffic control plan, so it wasn't a valid test of the plan. Miles said the plans are “intended to be a minimum requirement.” That echoed a concern the hearing officer, retired Idaho District Judge Duff McKee, brought up during Dobie's testimony about the test. “You're saying the permit is not just the minimum requirements,” McKee said to Dobie. Dobie responded, “It's my understanding that the requirement is, if you're going to change the plan, you go back and change the permit.”

Dobie also disputed Miles' earlier testimony about pavement damage from the loads; he said the pavement on the route would suffer more damage because of its thinness. Miles wasn't asked about that in his final rebuttal testimony.

Laird Lucas of Advocates for the West, attorney for the opponents, said afterward that Dobie's testimony that ITD's fees for the megaloads plus gas tax revenue from their passage through the state would cover only about 20 percent of the loads' damage to pavement on Highway 12 was significant. Even by ITD's figures, he said, it'd be only about 30 percent. “It still means they're not covering even half the cost they're imposing on the pavement itself, using ITD's numbers, and that was unrebutted.”

McKee set a briefing schedule calling for all sides to submit their final written arguments, and then replies, by the end of May. He told the assembled attorneys for the opponents, ITD, Imperial/Exxon, and Mammoet Transportation, the hauler for Imperial/Exxon, “Thank you, everybody. This has been a professional pleasure for me.” McKee said there's “nothing I enjoy more than watching good lawyers” argue issues.

Megaloads hearing takes back up…

The contested-case hearing on Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil's proposed megaloads on U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho has taken back up this morning, with the megaloads opponents recalling their expert witness, Boise traffic engineer Pat Dobie, as a rebuttal witness. Asked about testimony from ITD officials that accident rates on Highway 95 are worse than those on Highway 12, Dobie said, “Highway 12 isn't the worst highway in the state, but it's 35 percent worse than the average. … We're talking about the average for Idaho. … This is a state with a pretty high average crash frequency to begin with. … This is a relatively unsafe road in the state.” He added, “Clearly, traveling at night is more difficult from a safety perspective than traveling in the daytime.”

The proposed giant loads all would travel at night; Imperial/Exxon wants to send more than 200 of them over the twisting, scenic highway, blocking both lanes as they travel because of their size. Today is expected to be the last day of testimony in the contested-case hearing, which is in its third week.

ISU faculty, administration still in turmoil

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  POCATELLO, Idaho (AP) — Faculty members at Idaho State University have elected new leaders in a shake-up endorsed by the state Board of Education. The board voted in February to dissolve the university's previous Faculty Senate, which had clashed with school President Arthur Vailas and called for his ouster. While new faculty leaders were elected this month as part of a plan to smooth things over, the two sides still appear at odds. The locks at the Faculty Senate offices were changed after Vailas successfully pushed to dissolve the group. But when the newly elected faculty leaders asked the administration for a key so they could immediately begin their work, that request was denied. The Idaho State Journal reports university administrators want the new Faculty Senate to wait until the fall.

Blue-and-orange purchases add another $700K to BSU scholarship funds

The continued popularity of blue-and-orange Boise State Broncos gear will result in $700,000 for scholarships to BSU this year, the university announced today. “It's been growing,” said Mike Reed, BSU bookstore director, with the biggest jump coming in 2007 when Boise State's football wowed the nation at the Fiesta Bowl. That year, merchandise sales from the bookstore and “Bronco Shops” around the area resulted in a record $800,000 for scholarships; it's been in the $600,000 to $700,000 range ever since, Reed said, up from just a couple hundred thousand in the late '90s.

The bookstore and its affiliates return a portion of all profits to the university each year for scholarships. This year's payment will support a freshman-retention scholarship program for BSU students entering their sophomore year in the fall, and two other scholarship programs, for Idaho high school students and for high-achieving students.

Referendum backers say they’re halfway there

Idahoans for Responsible Education Reform, the group backing referendum measures on all three major school reform bills that passed this year, has announced it's nearly halfway to its goal of collecting 60,000 signatures on each of the three petitions. The required number is just under 48,000, but Mike Lanza, group chairman, said the 60,000 goal will allow a “cushion” to account for any signatures that can't be verified.

“We are just shy of 30,000 of each of the three petitions,” Lanza said. Click below for the group's full news release.

Schools could get back part of budget cuts

Strong tax revenues in April, the biggest month of the year, could mean Idaho's public schools will get up to a $55 million one-time boost at the end of this fiscal year on July 1 - an amount that exceeds the $47 million cut state lawmakers imposed on schools for next year. That wouldn't stop the bleeding - it doesn't reverse the unprecedented $128.5 million in cuts schools took this year, which are continuing next year. But it's a sign that the gloomy revenue assumptions lawmakers used to slash budgets were off. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Megaloads on Highway 12: One per night or three? ITD now says two…

Here's another oddity in the megaloads case: Throughout the contested-case hearing on the proposed 200-plus Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil megaloads, there's been confusion as to whether the proposal calls for just one megaload to be on the road in Idaho on any one night, or three. The company's plan calls for a staged approach in which no single location along the route would be passed by more than one load on any night, with three stages; and says one load could leave Lewiston per night and take three nights to travel to Montana, suggesting there could be up to three on the road at any time.

The Idaho State Police testified that they don't have the staff to assign escorting officers to three loads per night, and were anticipating one per night. The opponents of the megaloads called their own traffic engineer to testify, Pat Dobie of Boise, and he said if there are three loads on the road each night, the traffic impacts would triple; while if there's just one, “it's going to take over 600 days to move them … and this is a condition that's going to go on for multiple years.”

An information request to the Idaho Transportation Department last week yielded this result: “The Transportation Department will allow two individual shipments per night,” said ITD spokesman Adam Rush in an email. That's regardless of which company they're from, he noted; last week, there were two on the road at once, the third ConocoPhillips megaload bound for that company's Billings, Mont. refinery; and the ExxonMobil “test validation module” for its loads.

Laird Lucas of Advocates for the West, attorney for megaload opponents, said their interpretation of the traffic control plan is that it “allows three to be out there, because it does say one can leave per night from Lewiston. … So if they're saying now it's only two, I think that's a change.”

Pius Rolheiser, spokesman for Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil, said his company's transportation plan envisions a “maximum one module per night, per stage.” That would be up to three on the full, three-stage route. Asked about ITD now saying it has a limit of two, Rolheiser said, “I don't know exactly what ITD said.”

The contested-case hearing continues Wednesday, which is expected to be the last day of testimony.

Andrus on track to win revenue bet

Idaho's state tax revenues for April, the biggest revenue month of the year, backed a more optimistic view of Idaho's economy than lawmakers and Gov. Butch Otter used to set this year's state budget, meaning schools could get back some of the state funds that were cut and former Gov. Cecil Andrus is on track to win a $100 bet with Otter over the revenues. Andrus bet Otter $100 in early 2010 that final collections for fiscal year 2011 would be closer to a forecast of $2.43 billion by former Idaho chief economist Mike Ferguson than an austere $2.29 billion estimate approved by the governor during that year's Legislature, AP reporter John Miller writes, as part of criticism of Otter for being too dour about the likelihood of Idaho's economic recovery in 2011 — and too quick to cut budgets.

Idaho has collected $2.06 billion so far, or about $74.2 million more in general fund revenue than forecasts from just a few months ago; if the final two months of the fiscal year just meet forecasts, Andrus wins the bet. Click below for Miller's full story.

Initiative pushes for medical marijuana

Conservative Idaho might not seem like the most fertile ground for a medical marijuana movement, but supporters have launched an initiative drive that could change the terms of the debate. The reason: 74 percent of Idahoans say they support allowing “terminally and seriously ill patients to use and purchase marijuana for medical purposes.” That was in this year's Boise State University public policy survey, a result so overwhelmingly favorable that researchers initially thought it had to be wrong.

Heidi Golden, a Boise florist and spokeswoman for “Compassionate Idaho,” said, “It's just so completely wrong that there is this wonderful, wonderful plant that is some of the best medicine you could have, with no side effects, it's nontoxic, and people are dying, they're going through a lot of pain. It's so unnecessary.”

The initiative, which is being coordinated through the “Compassionate Idaho” Facebook page, isn't as restrictive as a medical marijuana bill offered this year by Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow; it would let patients get more than twice as much marijuana - up to 2.5 ounces every 14 days - and in addition to allowing for registered dispensaries, would let patients grow their own or have a “primary care giver” do it for them; each primary care giver could supply up to four patients. Backers need 47,432 signatures to make the November 2012 ballot; they have another year - until April 30, 2012 - to gather those. Golden says the signature-gathering so far has been “going really well,” though the biggest event the group's hit so far was the Moscow Hemp Festival, where, according to the Facebook page, it gathered 535 signatures from 20 counties.

College of Idaho political scientist Jasper LiCalzi said, “What I think you could get out of this is if enough people are starting to sign this petition, that would poke the Legislature in next year's session maybe to pass Trail's legislation or look at it more closely.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
  

When a delay is not a delay…

A contested-case hearing over plans for hundreds of giant megaloads of oil equipment to travel through a scenic Idaho river canyon will stretch into its third week next week, after a full day of testimony today. Among the issues that have surfaced over the past week is a dispute over just how Idaho is defining its 15-minute limit on traffic delays from the wide loads that would take up both lanes of narrow, twisting U.S. Highway 12.

For that purpose, the Idaho Transportation Department has defined “traffic delay” as only occurring when motorists are stopped, continuously, by flaggers because of the megaloads, rather than also counting time they're traveling slowly behind the loads. Adam Rush, ITD spokesman, said, “In order to have a practical field measurement, the transportation department uses the time that a flagger actually stops a motorist. That can be measured, and is a practical way to measure how long a motorist is stopped.”

Megaloads opponents called their own expert, Boise traffic engineer Pat Dobie, who disputed that definition. James L. Pline, a former international president of the Institute of Transportation Engineers who worked as a traffic engineer for ITD for 35 years and then became a consultant, told The Spokesman-Review that the accepted definition of traffic delay is “the additional travel time experienced by a driver, passenger or pedestrian.” Pline said that's the definition he used in his 35 years with ITD. “And it's the official definition out of the highway capacity manual, so it's the one that's used all over the country.”

Pline, who once lived in Kamiah, said he sees no problem with the megaloads, “as long as they take care of the roadway and don't hold up traffic.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com; the hearing is scheduled to continue on Wednesday, which may be the final day of testimony. That will be followed by briefing; a decision could come in mid-June.

PERSI has seen 65% gain since 2009

The Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho has announced that it's now 91.7 percent funded, as of April 29, up from 78.9 percent at the end of the last fiscal year, June 30, 2010; the preferred standard for such plans is to be at least 80 percent funded for all future liabilities. The PERSI fund's value has jumped nearly 65 percent since March 6, 2009; it's now valued at $12.2 billion, up from $7.6 billion then. “By applying a conservative approach in both its investing and operational practices, and by relying on the sound structure put in place by state legislators nearly 50 years ago, PERSI has remained one of the strongest and best run public pension systems in the country,” said Jody Olson, the PERSI board chairman. “Maintaining discipline during tumultuous times can be difficult; sticking to a proven investment strategy has contributed to our recovery.” You can read PERSI's full announcement here.
  

April tax revenue numbers are in, and it’s good news for state, now $74.2M ahead

The much-awaited state tax revenue figures for April - the biggest month of the year - are in, and the news is good. April tax revenues beat forecasts by $14 million, putting the state's tax revenue to date for the fiscal year $74.2 million above the state's forecasts. “Obviously this is great news, and it confirms the wisdom of Gov. Otter’s conservative approach to budgeting in collaboration with legislative Republicans,” said Otter's budget chief, Wayne Hammon. “If these strong returns continue through the end of the fiscal year, we should have some extra money for education. But we still have two months to go, so we’ll continue to be prudent and watch the numbers closely.”

Because of maintenance of effort requirements attached to federal stimulus funds that Idaho accepted, a portion of any additional revenues has to go to public schools, which suffered historic state funding cuts both last year and this year, though it's not yet clear how much the schools could receive. Click here to see the full Idaho General Fund Revenue Report for May, which covers the April figures.
  

Thomas Nelson, federal appeals court judge, dies at 74 at Boise home

Senior Judge Thomas G. Nelson of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit has died at age 74 at his Boise home; click here for a full announcement from the court. Nelson was named to the Court of Appeals by President George H.W. Bush in 1990; he took senior status in 2003 but continued hearing cases through 2009. Prior to his judicial appointment, Nelson was an attorney in private practice in Twin Falls.

ITD calls test megaload a ‘success,’ despite power outage, delays

A “test module” for proposed megaloads on U.S. Highway 12 in north-central Idaho that made it into Montana this week took weeks to arrive and caused a five-hour power outage and hour-long traffic delay along the way, but state transportation officials and Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil are calling it a success. “With the exception of the tree branch we clipped out of Lewiston and the guy wire, that move was very well done,” Kenneth Johnson, Kearl module transportation project manager for Imperial Oil, a Canadian affiliation of ExxonMobil, told a state hearing officer Friday. Adam Rush, ITD spokesman, said, “If there's a delay above 15 minutes, we don't automatically characterize that as a failure.” Rush said he couldn't say what would have made the test a failure. “ITD viewed the test module as a success,” he said.

But Laird Lucas of Advocates for the West, an attorney representing residents and business owners along the route who object to the giant loads, dubbed the test a failure. “Based on what happened with the test module, they should pack up all their gear and go with a different route,” Lucas said; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Idaho wolf tags now on sale

The Idaho Department of Fish & Game has started selling wolf tags for a fall hunt, at a cost of $11.50 for Idaho resident hunters and $186 for non-residents, including vendor fees. A valid 2011 Idaho hunting license is required to buy a tag; they're available at Fish & Game offices and hunting license vendors.

Seasons, rules and limits haven't yet been set for Idaho's planned wolf hunt; the Fish & Game Commission will set those this summer. In Idaho's first state-sanctioned wolf hunt in 2009-2010, more than 31,000 tags were sold and 188 animals taken by hunters; the harvest limit was 220. A federal rule published today officially removed wolves in Idaho from endangered species protections, allowing the hunt plan to move forward.

Luna says he’ll expand ‘Students Come First’ tech task force to 35 members

Idaho state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna announced today that he's expanding the 28-member technology task force that will oversee implementation of his “Students Come First” tech plan to add seven additional members - two parents, three local school board members, and two “at-large” members. Of the 28 members already called for in SB 1184, the school reform bill that included the task force, Luna is charged with appointing 17. “Because of overwhelming interest from across Idaho, I have added positions for parents, school board trustees and at-large members to ensure we have broad-based and balanced representation on this task force, which will play a critical role in the implementation of Students Come First,” Luna said. Click below for his full announcement; he's accepting applications and nominations for his appointees to the panel.

Luna can do this because the clause of SB 1184 that calls for the task force, on page 21 of the 24-page bill, says he'll serve as the chairman of the task force and designates particular types of appointments he'll make to the task force “at a minimum,” including four school district superintendents, one head of a virtual public charter school, two secondary school classroom teachers and so forth. The others who get to appoint task force members - the House and Senate, which get two appointments each; the governor's office, which gets one; and the Idaho Education Association, Northwest Professional Educators, Idaho School Boards Association, Idaho Association of School Administrators, Idaho Business Coalition for Education Excellence, and Idaho Digital Learning Academy, each of which get one appointee - don't have that “at a minimum” language.

Steele convicted on all four counts

A federal jury in Boise has returned its verdict, and North Idaho lawyer Edgar Steele has been convicted on all four counts in a murder-for-hire plot. You can read S-R reporter Meghann Cuniff's full story here at spokesman.com.

Two lawsuits challenge wolf de-listing

The AP reports that two lawsuits have been filed today in U.S. District Court challenging the congressional legislation that de-listed wolves as unconstitutional. Here's the item from AP in Billings:  BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Environmental groups are challenging as unconstitutional Congressional legislation that took gray wolves off the endangered species list. Two lawsuits were filed in U.S. District Court on Thursday, as control over more than 1,300 wolves was turned over to state authorities in Montana, Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Utah. A federal budget bill rider in April mandated the lifting of wolf protections. Western lawmakers said they wanted to go around a federal judge who blocked prior efforts to hunt the animals. But environmentalists say that violated the separation of powers required under the Constitution. Plaintiffs in the lawsuits are the Center for Biological Diversity, and the Alliance for the Wild Rockies, Friends of the Clearwater and WildEarth Guardians. Hunts for hundreds of wolves are planned this fall in Montana and Idaho.
  

BSU gets its biggest gift ever: $13M from Micron for new Ph.D program

Boise State University is receiving the largest charitable gift in the university's nearly 80-year history: A $13 million donation from Micron Technology to the College of Engineering to start a Ph.D program in materials science and engineering. Steve Appleton, Micron CEO, said, “A doctorate program focused on materials science and engineering will strengthen Boise State’s ability to develop breakthrough technologies and help create the associated broad-based economic and societal benefits.” BSU President Bob Kustra said, “This landmark gift will position Boise State’s materials science program as one of the top research engines in the region and we are grateful for Micron’s continued support.” You can read the university's full announcement here.
  

Idaho gets $47K in drug settlement

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A global pharmaceutical company has agreed to pay Idaho $47,000 to settle a fraud lawsuit over a prescription drug for treating multiple sclerosis. Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden announced the settlement Wednesday. Idaho's case is part of bigger lawsuit involved several states and the federal government against EMD Serono, Inc. The company makes Rebif, a prescription drug used to treat relapsing forms of multiple sclerosis. State and federal attorneys alleged the company made inappropriate payments to hundreds of doctors for prescribing Rebif between 2002 and 2009. Of Idaho's share, more than $18,000 will go to the state Medicaid program as restitution, while the additional $28,000 will go into the state's general fund. Altogether, the company agreed to pay more than $44.3 million to the federal government and other states.

Idaho congressional delegation on wolves: ‘Consider it a victory’

In a joint statement, Idaho's congressional delegation praised the Interior Department's move today to delist wolves, as directed by legislation crafted in party by Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson. “No one can rationally argue that the Rocky Mountain gray wolf is still endangered,” Simpson said. “Wolf populations in the west are robust and far exceed recovery goals. If the Endangered Species Act is going to be effective at all, we need to remove recovered species from the list and consider it a victory.”

U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo said, “The wolf is recovered in the northern Rockies and the State of Idaho has proven that it can and will effectively and responsibly manage wolves.  Now that the federal government has taken this step, the State of Idaho can finally get to work.” Added Sen. Jim Risch, “Common sense has finally prevailed.” And Rep. Raul Labrador said, “The original purpose of the ESA has been perverted to do the bidding of activist environmentalists. This is the first step to ensuring these groups no longer misuse the ESA to permanently protect a species regardless of its recovery.” Click below for the delegation's full joint statement.
  

Defenders on wolves: ‘A terrible precedent’

Defenders of Wildlife has issued a statement in response to the de-listing of wolves in the Northern Rockies at congressional direction, calling it “a terrible precedent for side-stepping America's bedrock environmental laws whenever it's politically convenient to do so.” Suzanne Stone, Northern Rockies representative for the group, said, “We will be watching closely over the next several months as Idaho and Montana gear up to manage wolves once again. Even though the vast majority of Americans still continue to support wolf recovery, it will be up to dedicated conservationists and wildlife enthusiasts in Idaho and Montana to hold their elected officials accountable for how they manage wolves. We must stand up to the anti-wolf extremists who want to turn back the clock and eradicate wolves once again.” Click below for the group's full statement.

Otter on wolves: ‘We didn’t want them here at all’

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, answering reporters' questions at a ceremonial bill-signing ceremony in Greenleaf today, said, “Not more than 20 minutes ago, I received word from Secretary Salazar that wolves will be delisted tomorrow. When we knew that Congressman Simpson and Congressman Rehberg from Montana and other folks that worked so hard to get that continuing resolution (wolf de-listing) amendment, I immediately got a hold of the Fish and Game Commission, and the new director, Virgil Moore, and asked them to start preparing, right now, a responsible management plan, not unlike what we did in ’09, so we have a good boiler plate. We have got a good primer on how to do it correctly and responsibly.”

He said, “You can probably expect within the next couple of weeks some announcements on the calendar of when the wolf hunt will begin, how many we will be taking. In ’09 our quota was 220. We successfully took 188 wolves and it will be that same kind of response and that same kind of responsible management plan.”

Otter added, “Actually we didn’t want them here at all. But they said ‘don’t worry about it, because you will only have a hundred wolves.' It is estimated we have over 1700. So we have far exceeded their expectations, and so  it is time to do the right thing. And Secretary Salazar, under the direction of the concurrent resolution, is doing the right thing.”

Idaho gears up for Lolo wolf kill, fall wolf-hunting season

Now that wolves are once again being removed from Endangered Species Act protections, Idaho Fish & Game Director Virgil Moore says the state is gearing up for a fall wolf hunting season and will move immediately to reduce wolf numbers in the Lolo zone. The state had been awaiting approval from federal authorities to kill wolves there under Section 10J of the ESA; that no longer applies, now that the state is taking over wolf management again, and the department can go ahead on its own. Aerial shooting, summer trapping and other measures are possible there, in what Moore characterized as a “multi-year operation.” “We're going to move expeditiously to get going with all that,” Moore said from his office at Idaho Fish & Game headquarters, where he answered reporters' questions today.

It's not yet clear how many wolf kills Idaho will authorize in the fall hunt; the Fish & Game Commission will decide that this summer. Last time, the state set a harvest limit of 220 animals and sold more than 31,000 tags. “It's probably going to look very similar to what we had in 2009 and 2010,” Moore said. “We saw a significant drop in the number of livestock wolf depredations after that hunting season.”

Current official estimates are that Idaho has a minimum of 705 wolves, but state game manager Jon Rachael said state Fish & Game wasn't involved in the monitoring in the last part of this year, and believes the number likely is closer to 1,000. As many as nine packs in remote areas may have been missed in the most recent survey, Rachael said.

Moore said Idaho's goal, as set by the state Legislature, will be to manage its wolf population in such a way that there's no risk of falling below the federal minimum of 150 wolves in the state at any time and risking federal sanctions or re-listing. “Wolves are here to stay, OK, they are part of the landscape,” he said. “Whether you agree with how they got here or why they got here, they are now wards of the state and we will manage them appropriately, in balance with the management goals we have for other species, and we will avoid any risk of ever getting these things back listed again in our management actions, just like we plan to do with all species that we have.”

Wolves now officially de-listed

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has announced it's reinstating its 2009 decision to remove the gray wolf in the Northern Rocky Mountains from the endangered species list - a decision that affects Idaho, Montana, and parts of Oregon, Washington and Utah, but excludes Wyoming, “although the Service is working closely with that state to develop a wolf management plan that would allow wolves in Wyoming to be removed from the list in the future,” according to a FWS news release.

U.S. Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said, “Like other iconic species such as the whooping crane, the brown pelican, and the bald eagle, the recovery of the gray wolf is another success story of the Endangered Species Act.” But it was recently passed congressional legislation that took the wolves back off the endangered list, reversing a federal court decision. A final rule published by the agency today reinstates the terms of its 2009 delisting, as directed by the legislation.

“We are implementing the recent legislation that directs the delisting of the gray wolf in most of the Northern Rocky Mountains,” said Interior Deputy Secretary David J. Hayes. “As with other delisted species, we will be applying the Endangered Species Act’s post-delisting monitoring requirements to ensure that wolf populations remain robust, while under state wildlife management.” That includes wolf hunts proposed in both Idaho and Montana. You can read the full FWS news release here, and click below for a full report from the Associated Press.

Exxon test megaload arrives in Montana

The “test validation module” for more than 200 megaloads proposed for U.S. Highway 12 by Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil reached Montana this morning, the Idaho Transportation Department reports. The test shipment left milepost 169.1 on the road at three minutes after midnight, and reached the top of Lolo Pass at 12:38 a.m., where it waited until 1:30 a.m. to enter Montana, per a state requirement there. ITD reports that the test megaload traveled through light snowfall but the highway remained clear; it encountered no traffic on the final 35-minute leg of its trip.

The test megaload, which is designed to match the tallest, longest and widest of the huge, three-story-tall loads that take up both lanes of the two-lane road, left Lewiston on April 11, but struck a guy wire its first night, knocking out power to two Idaho towns and leading to a delay of more than two weeks, while 16 utility lines were raised along the route and extensive tree-trimming conducted throughout the scenic highway corridor. Then on April 26, the load traveled more than 100 miles in one night, stopping at a chain-up area at the base of Lolo Pass, where it remained due to inclement weather until last night.

The loads are scheduled to travel in specified stages taking a total of three days each, though that's not how it worked out for the test module; ITD rules require them to delay traffic no more than 15 minutes, though delays so far, from both the Exxon test load and two ConocoPhillips megaloads that traveled earlier, have stretched up to an hour. A contested-case hearing on the Exxon plan is under way at ITD; after two full days of testimony Monday and Tuesday, it's now on a break and will resume Friday.
  

State-land cabin owners at Priest, Payette lakes score surprise win in court

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on how cabin owners on state land at Priest and Payette lakes scored a surprise win in court today, as a district judge in Boise indicated he'll issue an order to freeze the rents they pay for the state-owned lots under their cabins and reject a bid to toss out a state law protecting them from conflict auctions when their leases come up for renewal. “I don't see where it precludes the Land Board from maximizing long-term financial return,” 4th District Judge Michael McLaughlin told a courtroom crowded with cabin owners who rent their cabin sites from the state of Idaho.    McLaughlin said he'll issue a full written ruling, but wanted to let all sides know where he was headed.

“The court will be issuing an order that the rents remain as they were prior to the December decision to raise those rents,” the judge said. “We'll square those other things around as we get through this process. So I'm giving you a little insight as to where I'm headed.” His move would throw the state Land Board's much-debated plan for resolving contentious issues over the cottage-site leases into disarray. Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, who serves on the Land Board and watched the hearing from the audience, said, “Well, one could say we are in various stages of disarray to begin with.”

Judge aims wrench at Land Board’s plans for state-owned cottage sites

A district judge in Boise indicated today he's likely to throw the state Land Board's move toward resolving much-debated cottage-site lease issues into disarray. Fourth District Judge Michael McLaughlin, after a two-hour hearing, told a full courtroom, “Where I'm leaning, I can't find, even after this terrific oral argument today, I'm not looking at 58-310a as being unconstitutional. … I don't see where it precludes the Land Board from maximizing long-term financial return.” He also indicated he wants to again freeze cabin-site rents at the rates from a lease that expired in December; the Land Board, which consists of the state's top elected officials, already has set new methodology for calculating values and rents, and granted a one-year lease extension through 2011, plus a two-year extension after that at a higher rate.

“The court will be issuing an order that the rents remain as they were prior to the December decision to raise those rents,” McLaughlin said. “We'll square those other things around as we get through this process. So I'm giving you a little insight as to where I'm headed.”

The law in question, Idaho Code 58-310a, exempts leases of state-owned cabin sites from the conflict-auction rule that applies to other state leases; the Idaho Supreme Court hinted in an earlier ruling that it was likely unconstitutional, an earlier preliminary injunction from another judge suggested the same, and the state Land Board unanimously agreed and asked the Legislature this year to repeal it. The bill narrowly passed the Senate but stalled in the House.

Bud Belles, head of the Priest Lake State Lessees Association and a longtime cabin owner on Priest Lake, said after the two-hour hearing, “I liked when he was nodding his head - it seemed like to our side.”

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said he'll have to wait for the judge's written ruling to fully understand its implications, but said as far as the Land Board's two-year struggle over cottage site leases and rents, “One could say we are in various stages of disarray to begin with.” The board voted earlier this year to move away from the current situation, in which the state owns the land under the cabins but cabin owners build and own the improvements; doing away with that “split estate” would mean either buying out the cabin owners or selling them the land, possibly though land exchanges or auctions.
  

Cottage-site case draws crowd as lawyers argue over constitutionality

There's a full courtroom at the Ada County Courthouse today for a hearing in the cottage site lease case, in which cabin owners on state-owned lands at Payette and Priest lakes are arguing they should be able to extend their previous leases, and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden is arguing that a state law exempting cabin-site leases from conflict auction requirements is unconstitutional. A judge already issued a preliminary injunction finding the law unconstitutional. It protects state endowment cottage site leases from conflict auctions at the end of the lease terms, partly on the grounds that some of the leases have been in the same family for 50 years and conflict auctions “caused considerable consternation and dismay to the existing lessee at the prospect of losing a long-time lease.”

The state Land Board is required to manage state endowment lands for maximum long-term returns to the endowment's beneficiaries, the largest of which is the state's public schools - and not for other purposes.

More than 50 people, many of them lease holders, are watching as the attorneys for the various sides offer their arguments on two summary judgment motions. The constitutionality issue focuses on the meaning of the word “disposal:” The Idaho Constitution says state endowment lands shall be “carefully preserved and held in trust, subject to disposal at public auction for the use and benefit” of the trust's beneficiaries.

The cabin owners are arguing that “disposal” just means sale, and shouldn't be interpreted as covering their leases. Attorney Phil Oberrrecht, representing Payette Lake cottage site owners, cited Black's Law Dictionary and Webster's dictionary definitions of the word “disposal” to bolster his argument. “How does one dispose of his real property? By renting it? I don't think so. That's how you manage it,” he said. “This is the common meaning. … If you're going to dispose of something, you get rid of it - you don't go store it someplace or give it to temporary possession by somebody.” Fourth District Judge Michael McLaughlin drew laughter when he told Oberrecht, “I'm just glad you didn't quote from Wikipedia.”

Deputy Attorney General Clay Smith, representing Wasden, cited a string of Idaho Supreme Court cases and told the court, “It has to work this way because that's what the Constitution said.” He told the court, “It is a lease. And any suggestion to the contrary is simply untenable. The only issue before the court is how the term 'disposal' shall be construed.”

Attorney Merlyn Clark, representing the state Land Board, didn't offer arguments on the constitutionality issue, but spoke against the lessees' motion to renew their leases. “There's no option to renew, there's no contractual right to renew,” Clark told the court. “Only if the board determines to offer a right to renew does one exist, and not otherwise.” The Land Board has offered lessees both a one-year extension of their 10-year leases that expired Dec. 31, and an additional two-year extension after that, but at a higher rental rate.

The state Land Board unanimously supported legislation this year to repeal the law exemption cabin sites from conflict auctions on grounds it's unconstitutional; the bill, SB 1145, passed the Senate in March on an 18-16 vote but never came up for a committee hearing in the House.

Edgar Steele case nears finish

Lawyers in the Edgar Steele murder-for-hire trial could give closing arguments as early as Wednesday, reports S-R reporter Meghann Cuniff. Defense lawyers are trying to secure the appearance of an audio expert to question the authenticity of FBI recordings in which Steele discusses with handyman Larry Fairfax the plan to kill his wife, Cyndi Steele, but their expert, George Papcun, currently is vacationing with his wife in Bora Bora; lawyers are scrambling to fly him back. Steele himself, a self-described “attorney for the damned” who's represented controversial clients and is charged with a plot to kill his wife and mother-in-law, may still testify as the case wraps up in federal court in Boise. U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill said the case likely will be with the jury by Thursday morning; you can read Megann's full report here at spokesman.com; there's more on the case at her Sirens & Gavels blog here.

GOP leaders to meet Wed. to mull redistricting commissioner choices

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Republican leaders meet Wednesday to discuss their picks for the panel that will draw Idaho's legislative districts for the next decade. House Speaker Lawerence Denney of Midvale plans to meet with Senate President Pro Tempore Brent Hill and state GOP chairman Norm Semanko in Boise to discuss their selections for the six-member redistricting commission. Democrats have already made their choices: Allen Andersen of Pocatello, Julie Kane of Lapwai and George Moses of Boise. Now, Denney, Hill and Semanko, who each get to choose one representative, must decide before the commission starts statewide hearings in June. Denney says he's not certain how quickly the Republican leaders will announce selections. Fast-growing suburban areas near Boise are likely to gain political clout while rural Idaho will lose power, based on 2010 census numbers.

Idaho Dems: ‘Every American can share in this victory’

The Idaho Democratic Party has issued a statement saying it's “relieved” at the news of the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. troops, and expressing gratitude to all those involved. “Every American can share in this victory,” they said; click below for their full statement.

New statewide poll commissioned by IEA: Luna’s unfavorables soar from a year ago

The Idaho Education Association has released partial results of a poll it commissioned both last year and this year, showing that likely voters in Idaho continue to have strongly favorable views of teachers, but give state schools Supt. Tom Luna considerably higher unfavorable ratings now than a year ago. “Superintendent Luna is currently on a taxpayer-funded tour to try and sell the bad laws that he pushed through the Idaho Legislature this year,” said IEA President Sherri Wood. “But Idahoans rightly remain skeptical of these laws that impose costly new mandates on our school districts and will lead to larger class sizes and lost Idaho jobs.”

The poll, conducted by Grove Insight of Portland, Ore., queried 600 registered Idaho voters likely to vote in November 2012 from March 13-15 this year; it had a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent. When asked about their impression of teachers, 75 percent of respondents had favorable views, compared to 77 percent a year ago. Just 6 percent had unfavorable views, down from 7 percent in March of 2010. Asked about Luna, respondents were 25 percent favorable and 41 percent unfavorable, compared to last year's results of 30 percent favorable, 18 percent unfavorable. Respondents who were neutral on Luna fell from 51 percent to 30 percent.

Asked their view of the IEA, the Idaho teachers union, respondents were 47 percent favorable, up from 39 percent a year ago; and 19 percent unfavorable, down from 22 percent in March of 2010. You can read the IEA's full statement here.
  

Traffic engineer points to flaws in megaload transport plan

Pat Dobie, a traffic engineer who has a consulting business in Boise, is testifying at the megaloads hearing this afternoon. He said the traffic-control plan for the 200-plus proposed Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil megaloads is unclear, suggesting one load would leave Lewiston per day, but there would only be one on the road at a time. If one left every day, there'd be up to three on the road at a time, he said. “It would significantly affect the safety, because instead of having one moving hazard zone, you're now going to have three moving hazard zones.” It'd also affect the convenience of the traveling public, he said, which could “in theory run into it three times in a single day.”

If the plan is to just have one megaload on Highway 12 between Lewiston and Montana at a time, Dobie testified, “Then it's going to take over 600 days to move them out, one day at a time … and this is a condition that's going to go on for multiple years.” He also testified that the plan for flagging crews leapfrogging up the road from turnout to turnout to alert motorists about the megaload - which would take up the entire road - is insufficient, and would require three full crews to accomplish plus far more time than is allotted in the plan.

When Dobie tried to testify that the flagger-crew procedures in the traffic plan didn't work in the case of the “test validation module” that's currently on the road, attorneys for ITD, Imperial/Exxon and Mammoet Transportation objected, saying Dobie didn't personally observe the flagging or the loads. Dobie said he spoke with area resident Linwood Laughy about his observations and monitoring reports on the loads, but ITD attorney Larry Allen said, “That's double hearsay.” The judge upheld the objection, saying, “Mr. Dobie wasn't there, he didn't observe any of these loads. I'd be much more comfortable if you'd talked to somebody from ITD or Mammoet.”

Otter on bin Laden: ‘Remind the enemy no one is beyond our reach’

“This is an outcome we’ve been wanting since those of us in Washington, D.C., at the time were still watching smoke rise from the Pentagon,” Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said today in response to the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. troops in Pakistan. “It’s my hope that they and all bin Laden’s victims take a measure of comfort from his death, and that it serves to remind the enemy that no one is beyond our reach.” Click below to read a full statement from Otter; Brigadier General Bill Shawver, director of the state Bureau of Homeland Security; and Col. Jerry Russell, director of the Idaho State Police.

Judge blocks part of megaloads opponents’ testimony

Retired District Judge Duff McKee has blocked any testimony at the megaloads hearing about past accidents that the hauler, Mammoet Transportation, has had with giant oversized loads. “My take on this … is the existence of past accidents is really not relevant - accidents happen,” McKee declared. Instead, he said, his concern is whether traffic plans adequately cover how to deal with any accident. “If one occurs … have they anticipated in the traffic plan,” he said.

He also refused to allow testimony from lead intervenor Linwood Laughy that a portion of the traffic plan dealing with how to route traffic past an accident was unrealistic because Laughy, who lives on and travels the route, says the road is not wide enough to do what's proposed. McKee said Laughy's not a traffic engineer, and the traffic plan was prepared by traffic engineers.

The judge did allow Laughy's testimony about “public convenience,” which Idaho is required to make a primary concern in considering oversize load permits; these loads are so wide they'll block the entire road, making rolling roadblocks. Laughy said it's more a matter of “public inconvenience.”

He testified today that in the megaloads permits, ITD defined “traffic delay,” which can't exceed 15 minutes, to only include when traffic is stopped by a megaload - not when it's moving slowly behind one. “You could follow a megaload at 5 mph for three hours and never have been delayed, according to this permit,” Laughy said. He said he's also been stopped for repeated 10-minute periods, then moved 100 yards up the road for another 10-minute delay, and ITD hasn't considered that more than a 15-minute delay. “I would call that a 20-minute stop,” Laughy said. He said the three megaloads that have moved across the route so far all have violated the 15-minute limit on traffic delays. Plus, he said there have been numerous other traffic delays and power outages related to the loads, for everything from raising utility lines to trimming trees to accommodate the high-and-wide loads.

However, McKee upheld objections from lawyers for Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil and Mammoet to letting Laughy say whether he thinks the company's proposed 200-plus megaloads will be able to meet the 15-minute limit on delays, again noting that Laughy isn't a traffic engineer. “I will permit opinion testimony in certain areas,” McKee said, “but this isn't one of them.”

State officials discuss security post-bin Laden

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Officials with Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter's office are meeting with the state's law enforcement and security leaders to discuss security issues in the wake of Osama bin Laden's death. Robert Feeley, public affairs officer with the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security, says his agency hasn't been notified of any credible threats. However, he says that the bureau's director, Brigadier General William Shawver, and Idaho State Police Director Col. Jerry Russell are meeting with Otter's office to determine what action, if any, the state is going to take in response to bin Laden's death. Feeley says his bureau wants to remind Idaho residents that as always, people need to be aware of their surroundings and anyone who notices anything out of the ordinary should contact local law enforcement.

Laughy takes stand at megaloads hearing

Author Linwood Laughy is testifying this morning at the Highway 12 megaloads hearing; he's a longtime resident and property owner along the scenic river corridor who's led more than 5,000 people on historical tours in the area. “We visit six original Lewis and Clark sites, read the journals,” Laughy said. “The magic is when you can get people on the ground, where these events occurred.”

Among his works are “Clearwater Country,” a book he published with his wife, Karen “Borg” Hendrickson, that's now in its sixth printing and offers a mile-by-mile guide to U.S. Highway 12 from Lewiston to Missoula, Mont. “We have every significant thing along the highway, with a little story about it and descriptions,” he said, along with photos, drawings and side trips. “That area is so rich in so many ways,” Laughy told hearing officer Duff McKee, a retired district judge.

Laughy, who is among the lead intervenors in the case challenging permits for more than 200 giant megaloads proposed to travel the highway by Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil en route to the Alberta oil sands project, also testified that his driveway is right off Highway 12, the only route in or out of the area. He said he once had to rush his wife to the hospital in the middle of the night along the route, and said, “My wife almost died.” The contested-case hearing on the megaload permits enters its second week today.

Idaho congressional delegation’s statements on death of Osama bin Laden

All four members of Idaho's congressional delegation have issued statements on the death of Osama bin Laden at the hands of U.S. troops:

From Sen. Mike Crapo:
“Over the last few hours, as I have reviewed the information regarding the death of Osama bin Laden, I share the relief that Americans have expressed.  The military action that resulted in his death was impressive and carried out with precision, and we owe eternal gratitude to those who conducted that operation as well as to all those who have served in the war on terrorism for nearly ten years.  While bin Laden’s death carries huge symbolism and is a blow to the al Qaeda network, it does not end the threats to our country and American citizens.  We must stand ready to guard against those who would attack us and support those who remain on the front lines of our defense at home and overseas.”

From 1st District Rep. Raul Labrador:
“Osama Bin Laden was responsible for the deaths of thousands of innocent Americans. Many of America's bravest men and women lost their lives pursuing him and in the ongoing War on Terror.  President Obama and former President Bush deserve praise for their resolve in following through on this long mission of justice.  All U.S. military and intelligence personnel once again proved they are the best in the world and I thank them for their tireless dedication.  This is a great day for America and freedom.”

From Sen. Jim  Risch:
“Today is a day that brings some closure for the victims of the September 11th attacks, the American people and those who have suffered from terrorism around the world. For nearly 10 years, capturing Osama Bin Laden has been our number one objective.  The dedication and persistence the U.S. military and intelligence community have shown in accomplishing this deserves our praise and gratitude.  We should be proud of what this operation achieved, but we must also remain vigilant in the war on terror because al-Qaeda and others are determined to bring destruction to America and our allies.”

From 2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson:
“It goes without saying that news of Bin Laden's death is welcome news here in the United States and across the globe and stands as a stark reminder to would-be terrorists that our nation will not rest until it brings to justice the many faces of terror. While we celebrate this news, it is important that we remember the victims of terrorism and offer our gratitude to the men and women of our nation who have sacrificed so much to protect our freedoms. It is also important that we remain vigilant against those who would do us harm and act prudently in the coming days, weeks, and months to guard against future acts of terrorism.”

Independent Idaho in for poll surprise…

Say you're an Idaho voter who wants to cast a ballot in next year's primary election for Sarah Palin for president, or Mike Huckabee, or Mitt Romney. In a state that's never had party registration, you could be in for a surprise at the polls, where voters will be required to become party members - or they might not get to vote in anything but nonpartisan judge races. “Being an independent, you don't like that too well,” said Mitch Campbell, a Twin Falls businessman who heads the American Independent Movement of Idaho. “I think there's just a lot of people that don't like it too well.”

Click here to read my Sunday story about Idaho's complicated new primary election system, a modified-closed primary that replaces the state's long-established open primary.

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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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