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Eye On Boise

Archive for October 2011

Costumed up for trick-or-treat…

First Lady Lori Otter and Gov. Butch Otter dressed up as a referee and a Boise State football player for their second annual trick-or-treat event on the Capitol steps today, at which they handed out candy and toothbrushes to costumed kids.

Shaping a new Idaho Energy Plan…

As Idaho lawmakers work on the first major update to their groundbreaking 2007 state energy plan, draft recommendations would have them back off from pushing incentives for renewable energy development and drop energy efficiency and conservation from the “highest priority” to just a priority. Others are pushing lawmakers to increase the push for solar energy development and power from woody biomass in Idaho, to find new ways to help low-income people afford power, and to end Idaho's distinction as the only western state without a consumer advocate in its utility rate-setting process at the state Public Utilities Commission. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com; a joint legislative committee will hold public hearings this Wednesday and Thursday and is accepting public comments on the plan revisions through Friday.

Dems vote 70-0 to keep party primary open

The Idaho Democratic Party, at its fall state central committee meeting over the weekend in Sun Valley, voted to keep its primary election open to all voters, rather than closing it to anyone but registered party members as Idaho Republicans have opted to do. “Not a single person on our state central committee was interested in disenfranchising voters,” said Democratic Party Chairman Larry Grant.  “The Democratic Party welcomes everyone that has been thrown out of the Republican Party by the extremists trying to purify their ranks by closing their primary.”

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said, “Our Democratic legislators represent everyone in their districts, not just the Democrats but Republicans and independents as well, so our election process should reflect that.” Saturday's central committee vote was 70-0. Idaho's next primary election is May 15, 2012.

Guv, first lady invite kids to trick-or-treat at the Capitol steps this afternoon

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and First Lady Lori Otter are inviting kids and their families to come trick-or-treating on the front steps of the state Capitol today, from 3:30 to 6:30 p.m. It's the second annual event, at which the Otters will hand out candy donated by Walmart and toothbrushes from the Idaho Dental Association (as long as supplies last), along with the first lady's children's book, “Ida Visits the Capitol.” Last year, both the governor and first lady were in costume for the event, she as Snow White and he as a cowboy; their costumes this year reportedly will have a sports theme.

Fed complaint against Hart seeks to set aside ‘fraudulent transfer’ of home to trust

You can read my full story here at spokesman.com on the U.S. Justice Department's lawsuit against Idaho Rep. Phil Hart, which seeks to foreclose on his log home in Athol for more than half a million in back federal income taxes, penalties and interest. Through Oct. 31, 2011, the complaint says, Hart owes the IRS $549,703.48, for back taxes from 1996 to 2008.

Hart wasn't immediately available for comment. He's also fighting the Idaho State Tax Commission over more than $53,000 unpaid state income taxes, penalties and interest; though he's lost repeatedly, his appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court likely will come up for a hearing in April.

The federal complaint also asks the court to set aside the “fraudulent transfer” of the home to various parties including the trust, determine that the trust is a “sham entity,” and rule that “the United States has valid and subsisting federal tax liens on all property and rights belonging to Hart, whether real or personal, wherever located, and whether presently held or hereinafter acquired,” expressly including the Athol home. “The property shall be sold, and .. the proceeds from the sale shall be distributed in accordance with the court's findings,” the complaint states. It also asks that Hart be ordered to pay the federal government's court costs for bringing the case.

According to Kootenai County records, Hart's home, which sits on 10 acres, is only valued for tax purposes at $271,573.

Feds sue Rep. Hart, seek to foreclose on his log home for back income taxes

The U.S. Department of Justice has filed suit against Idaho Rep. Phil Hart in federal court, seeking to foreclose on his Athol home for failure to pay back federal income taxes, penalties and interest. “Hart has neglected, failed, or refused to make full payment to the United States of the assessed amounts and the interest and penalties accrued thereon,” federal prosecutors wrote in their complaint against Hart, filed in federal court in Boise, seeking $550,000. The home is the log home that Hart built partly from timber he illegally logged from state school endowment land, for which he never fully satisfied a court judgment.

Hart, a tax protester, also is currently appealing back state income taxes and penalties to the Idaho Supreme Court. He was removed from the House Revenue & Taxation Committee and agreed to give up his vice-chairmanship of the House Transportation Committee after ethics complaints were filed against him over his tax issues, his use of his status as a legislator to seek delays in his state and federal tax cases, and the timber theft. Hart continues to serve as a state representative, a Republican representing District 3 in North Idaho.
  

Idaho wounded warrior job training program wins national award

Idaho has won a national award for its Wounded Warrior Transportation Job Training pilot program, a grant-funded program aimed at vets injured in Afghanistan and Iraq that helps them train for and find employment in the transportation field. Twenty vets are either currently in school or recently graduated as part of the program, which offers training through the College of Western Idaho; 15 are earning commercial driver’s licenses, three graduated from flagger/safety courses, and two renewed commercial licenses. “We’re ready to move forward on a statewide proposal as additional money becomes available,” said Michelle George, who works in the Idaho Transportation Department's human resources office, and wrote the $99,300 grant with Chris Ramos of the Idaho Department of Labor; the money comes from the Federal Highway Administration.

The program helps the wounded vets with financial assistance for training, day care, transportation, records, licensing and certification. It was awarded the 2011 President’s Transportation Award in Administration from the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO).

Moscow police didn’t know about gun threats ‘til prof had shot student to death

Police didn't know about alleged gun threats a University of Idaho professor made against a graduate student until after he shot and killed her, Moscow Police Chief David Duke told The Associated Press today. The news comes as reporters around the state continue to comb through thousands of documents released this week by the University of Idaho on Ernesto Bustamante, the former professor who shot graduate student Katy Benoit to death in August and then killed himself. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.

You can also read the Spokesman-Review's full story here from today's paper, which includes reporting from S-R reporter Kevin Graman along with the Idaho Statesman and the Associated Press. Also, AP reporter John Miller has a report here on how UI faculty and officials struggled after the killing, wondering whether they'd missed clues to Bustamante's true nature, and the Statesman has published Benoit's June 12 formal complaint here, raising serious concerns to the university about Bustamante.

Labrador puts wife on campaign payroll, says move saves money for ‘frugal’ campaign

Freshman Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador has put his wife, Becca, on his campaign payroll with a monthly salary - a practice that, while legal, has drawn much criticism since a 2006 congressional scandal. Labrador defends it, saying he has “the most frugal campaign in the state.”

In 2007, the House voted to ban campaign payments to congressional spouses other than reimbursement for travel expenses, but the bill died in the Senate. The issue came under scrutiny in 2006 after then-Rep. John Doolittle, R-Calif., was discovered to be paying his wife Julie, a professional fundraiser, a 15 percent commission on all contributions to his leadership PAC and additional commissions on fundraising for his campaign, adding up to close to $140,000 between 2003 and 2006. He abandoned the practice the next year, and after being investigated in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, left office in 2010.

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo was among those who subsequently came under scrutiny from the press and watchdog groups for paying his wife, Susan, $78,514 between 2000 and 2006, for everything from organizing campaign events to driving the senator to them. Crapo still pays his wife for campaign work for both his leadership PAC, the Freedom Fund, and his campaign, spokesman Lindsay Nothern said. However, his campaign finance reports for the past year show no payments to Susan Crapo; his PAC reports show she was paid $4,677 from Jan. 1 to July 31 this year, mostly for expense reimbursements and gift bags she prepared for donors.

Labrador has paid his wife a $2,050 monthly salary since May to keep the campaign's books and submit FEC reports; under FEC rules, members of Congress can pay spouses through their campaigns or PACs - though not through their congressional offices - as long as they provide “bona fide services” and the payments reflect the fair market value of the services.

Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a watchdog group that focuses on campaign finance and consumer issues, said the practice long has been common, but said, “It still raises ethical concerns, because that means some of the campaign money is going directly into the family pockets.” Those funds include money from PACS and lobbyists pushing for the members' attention on pending issues.
  

The other two members of Idaho's congressional delegation, 2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson and Sen. Jim Risch, don't pay their spouses for campaign work. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
  

A ‘Boise, Idaho rainbow sunrise’…

When my daughter, now 21, was little, she used to call this a “Boise, Idaho rainbow sunrise,” and to this day, the phrase comes to mind when I see one. This morning's is gorgeous; it's chilly, just 34 degrees, but something to see.

Bustamante records yield disturbing details

As reporters comb through the thousands of documents released by the University of Idaho yesterday regarding former professor Ernesto Bustamante, disturbing details are emerging, from allegations that the professor engaged in orgies with students to his not only denying his victim's complaints against him, but also maligning her as a drug abuser and drug dealer. Bustamante shot a 22-year-old graduate student, Katy Benoit, to death before killing himself in August. You can click below for the latest story from AP reporter Jessie Bonner, and click here for S-R reporter Kevin Graman's latest report.

Bustamante records show he talked of shooting students

Records released by the University of Idaho yesterday include student evaluations from the fall of 2010 in which a student complained that then-Professor Ernesto Bustamante talked about shooting students, the Associated Press reports. “He talked about shooting students, which was disturbing, and implied that he was (and we should be) drunk and high every other day,” wrote the student, who is not identified in the teaching evaluations. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner. You can read Spokesman-Review reporter Kevin Graman's story here from today's paper on how the UI is strengthening its ban on faculty-student relationships after the slaying of 22-year-old graduate student Katy Benoit by her professor, Bustamante, who then killed himself.
  

GOP presidential candidates may be focused on New Hampshire, not Idaho, on Jan. 6…

Here's the possible fly in the ointment of the Idaho GOP's plan to lure GOP presidential contenders to Idaho with a Jan. 6 Republican straw poll: That's the Friday before the Tuesday that's likely to be the New Hampshire GOP primary, the much-watched small-state contest that's been the first presidential primary in the nation since the 1920s. This year, it's likely to be on Jan. 10th. “My first impression was wow, that's really squeezing up against the New Hampshire primary,” said Boise State University political scientist Gary Moncrief.

New Hampshire prides itself on drawing all the candidates for a marathon of face-to-face campaigning to residents of  the small state. New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner said in a statement, “We have the largest turnout in the country, and our citizens take their roles and obligations seriously.” As a result, after the Iowa caucuses, presidential candidates generally head straight to New Hampshire, clear on the far side of the country from Idaho, and stay there until the primary.

However, Moncrief noted that New Hampshire's is an open primary in which moderate Republicans tend to do well, as opposed to Iowa's GOP caucus, which is dominated by conservatives. “Usually when you have a big field like this, some candidates kind of focus on Iowa, some focus on New Hampshire, and some focus on Florida or Nevada,” he said. “So there may very well be some candidates, especially some very conservative candidates, who feel New Hampshire isn't the right venue for them, so they might actually come to Idaho. That seems like it's possible.” That's unlikely to include the front-runners, however, he said; they'll want to make a mark in the high-profile New Hampshire vote. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

University releases detailed timeline in Bustamante case

Click below to read a detailed timeline released by the University of Idaho today from the hiring of former professor Ernesto Bustamante in 2007 to his murder of graduate student Katy Benoit and his subsequent suicide. The information was released pursuant to the Idaho Public Records Law; the university and news media outlets from around the state went to court for a ruling on whether a personnel records exemption blocked the release of Bustamante's employment records, and 2nd District Judge John Stegner ruled that the public's right to know outweighed any privacy concern in releasing the records.

Among the information in the timeline: Reports of Bustamante's “flirtatious behavior and favoritism” starting coming in within his first semester of teaching, prompting his department chairman to counsel him on proper faculty-student relationships;  his student evaluations in 2009 were “consistently good;” the first report to the university's Ethics and Compliance Hotline of Bustamante having sexual relationships with students including an abusive and coercive relationship with a student other than Benoit, came in December of 2010, but that purported victim refused to file a complaint and Bustamante denied any wrongdoing. Benoit complained to the university about Bustamante in June of this year, but asked to delay the serving of her formal complaint to Bustamante; it was served on him in July.

Then, on July 14, a University Threat Assessment Team was convened, including a representative of the Moscow Police Department, and Benoit was advised that investigators would interview Bustamante on July 19 and that she should stay somewhere other than her apartment to avoid contact with him. Bustamante acknowledged the relationship but denied threatening Benoit, then agreed to resign. The university sent police to Benoit's home when she missed a meeting that day; she was at school and had forgotten it. The university had five contacts with Benoit between then and Aug. 22 expressing concern about her safety, including when she attended a mandatory sexual harassment workshop for graduate students on Aug. 18. She was shot to death on Aug. 22, the same day a university official met with her to inform her that Bustamante's employment had ended Aug. 19 and to urge her remain vigilant and contact police if she had safety concerns.

Nellis to reporters: UI knew Bustamante was bipolar, receiving treatment

In response to questions from reporters, UI President Duane Nellis said former professor Ernesto Bustamante was allowed to resign rather than fired because it was “the fastest way to make that happen.” He said, “We were interested in expediting this, and that was the fastest way to get that done.” Asked if UI personnel gave recommendations to Bustamante, who reportedly had other employment lined up, Nellis said, “Not to our knowledge.” He said, “I think we acted aggressively and appropriately.”

Nellis said, “We did immediately contact the Moscow Police Department.” But asked why the university didn't immediately inform the Moscow Police that the professor had assaulted graduate student Katy Benoit with a handgun and threatened her life, UI general counsel Kent Nelson said, “That was information that Katy had and did not want us to disclose it to police. … We respected Katy's wishes.”

Nellis noted that the university did put together a threat team that directly involved the Moscow Police. “That's part of the documents that we have provided today,” he said.

In response to questions about whether the university knew about Bustamante's mental problems, Nellis said, “As the timeline indicates, the chair of the psychology department was informed by Bustamante … that he was bipolar and that he was taking medication for that.” He noted that the university isn't permitted to ask about medical conditions when hiring. “Bipolar is certainly something that's treatable,” he said. When a faculty member asks for assistance or counseling, we certainly want to be supportive of them.”

Said Nellis, “As anyone associated with our university knows, we have a very special community here. We've come together in the wake of an unthinkable tragedy. Going forward we'll be stronger and wiser, and we'll never forget our responsibility to Katy, her family and her friends.”
  

Nellis: ‘We must learn from tragedy and prevent from ever happening again’

“We must learn from this tragedy and do all that we can to prevent it from ever happening again,” UI President Duane Nellis said today. “I believe that that the university's response to Katy's concerns … speaks for itself. The university responded immediately and decisively to protect Katy and to remove Bustamante from our community. We communicated and coordinated with Katy and the Moscow Police Department and counseled Katy repeatedly to seek protection and to use violence protection resources available to her. We still, however, suffered an unthinkable tragedy. We must learn from this and empower our community to take the best possible care of each other.”

Nellis said UI policies already prohibited relationships between a faculty member and a student they supervise or have influence over, but he has asked the Faculty Senate to strengthen its rules about consensual relationships between faculty and students. “We're trying to put stronger wording into that part of the policy,” he said. “Clearly our policies prohibited the situation that evolved here, and Bustamante was advised of that directly.” He said he also wants to implement “criminal background checks on faculty before they're hired,” and on any university staff. “In this particular case, that wouldn't have led to” not hiring Bustamante, he said. “But I think it's just good general practice as we move forward.” In addition, he said the UI will  “redouble our training and education efforts in the area of sexual harassment to include additional mandatory courses for supervisors, faculty and staff.”

The university is releasing Bustamante's employment records today, sending them by overnight delivery to media outlets that filed public requests for them; there are more than 4200 files, aabout half a gigabyte of data.
  

Nellis: ‘We’re honoring the commitment to transparency’

University of Idaho President Duane Nellis said, “Today we are publicly releasing university records pertaining to the tragedy surrounding the death of Katy Benoit. In doing so we're honoring the commitment to transparency that I made personally to the people of Idaho and the family of Katy Benoit as well as the University of Idaho's commitment to full disclosure. I'm also announcing policy and procedural changes that are now under way. Today's release includes the university's record of Ernesto Bustamante's employment at the University of Idaho. This includes his evaluations by students and superiors, documents of the circumstances that led to his separation from the university, and additional detail on the incident timeline that we released earlier.”
  

UI holding news conference on release of Bustamante records

The University of Idaho will hold a news conference momentarily regarding release of the personnel records of former professor Ernesto Bustamante, who killed graduate student Katy Benoit before taking his own life.

Idaho GOP sets Jan. 6 GOP presidential straw poll, invites the candidates

Idaho's Republican Party has scheduled its first-ever presidential straw poll in Boise on Jan. 6, and is hoping to attract the candidates to the Gem State to woo Idaho Republicans. “This is a non-binding straw poll, but this is really an effort to bring the presidential candidates out to Idaho to address our issues,” said party Executive Director Jonathan Parker, “to get to know Idahoans, and hopefully plant some seeds for the March 6th caucuses to determine to which candidate Idaho will send its 32 delegates.” He noted that Idaho's delegate count to the national GOP nominating convention is “more than Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada.”

GOP presidential candidates will get an opportunity to address the crowd at the straw poll, and also to have booths in a lobby area outside to “hand out material and basically to woo our voters for the straw poll,” Parker said. The event will take place at the Riverside Hotel in Boise; any Idaho resident who wants to be a registered Republican can buy a $30 ticket and participate. “They will just need to contact state party headquarters to reserve their ticket ahead of time, or they can just pay at the door,” Parker said. “People that show up, purchase a ticket, we'll be registering them as a Republican as well.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

It’s something lawmakers haven’t faced in years: A ‘manageable’ state budget

Idaho lawmakers are facing something they haven't seen in years: A 'manageable' budget. When they convene in January, they'll likely be able to balance next year's state budget without further cuts, and even make up some cuts and start refilling the state's drained reserve funds, according to figures unveiled Tuesday. They're still wary, however. “We'll certainly know a little bit more by the time the legislative session begins,” said Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill. “It's a long ways from where we were five years ago, but at least it shows we're headed in the right direction.”

After legislative budget chief Cathy Holland-Smith briefed Idaho's Legislative Council on budget scenarios including one assuming 3 percent revenue growth next year, state Legislative Services Director Jeff Youtz, a former longtime legislative budget chief, said he was struck by the fact that the scenarios all showed Idaho easily covering its costs next year, without having to dip into reserves to balance the books. “We haven't been able to do that in three years. We have some options,” Youtz said. “We've got a manageable budget situation.” Said Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter's budget chief, “We still have a lot of work to do on the budget, but it's not going to be as painful as it's been.” Otter's looking as possibly restoring some cuts to education and addressing hard-hit state employee compensation. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
  

Twin Falls County plans court challenge to new redistricting plan

Twin Falls County plans to sue over Idaho's new legislative redistricting plan, the Times-News reports today; you can read reporter Ben Botkin's article here. County Prosecutor Grant Loebs told the newspaper the county is unhappy with the new district lines. “They made three districts out of it, two of which are dominated by population centers outside of Twin Falls (County),” Loebs said. The plan puts the city of Twin Falls into one district, and splits the rural portions of the county into two other districts along with areas outside the county. Under the Idaho Constitution, challenges to redistricting plans go directly to the Idaho Supreme Court.

Lawmakers oppose adding back cut staffers

Idaho's Legislative Council, the joint committee that handles the business of the Legislature when it's not in session, today voted down a proposal to add back two legislative staff positions to partially make up recent years' cuts. Legislative Services Director Jeff Youtz presented a request to add one budget analyst; there currently are six, down from the usual eight; and one legislative auditor, as that division is down three auditors from its level five years ago. Legislative Audits Division chief Don Berg explained that audits of state agencies take a certain number of hours, and they have to be done and done by certain deadlines; with less staff, auditors have to work overtime, and the cost ends up the same as adding back a position.

Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said, “I'm hesitant to approve an increase beyond the status quo. … I would remind us, we're not cutting anybody, we're just talking about adding two new employees. … Although we recognize the workload of our staff, I still maintain we're growing government at a time we don't have an increase in our economic recovery.”

Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, said, “We've been cutting staff and cutting government for more than four years now, since the very beginning of this recession. … Some of the cuts in fact don't save us money. … I think we have to be smart about this.” But Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene, said, “I recognize the challenge that the LSO personnel have in serving all of our needs, but at the same time I don't see a budget coming forth that's going to allow for anything but an MCO (maintenance of current operations) budget, and I would move for an MCO budget, maintenance of current operations.” Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, offered a substitute motion to approve the new staffers, but it died on a voice vote, and Hammond's motion passed.

The final decision will be made by JFAC when it sets budgets. Youtz said, “Whatever the Legislature ends up giving us, we'll make it work for you and make it work well. Thanks for the discussion.”
  

Luna heads on statewide tour for school visits, Rotary Club talks

Idaho state schools Superintendent Tom Luna is headed around the state for classroom visits, tours and community speeches, from New Plymouth and Horseshoe Bend on Tuesday to Sandpoint and Coeur d'Alene on Friday. In the four days, his schedule includes five elementary school visits, four secondary school stops, two school assemblies, two Rotary Club speeches, and a talk at a community breakfast in Gooding.

Luna this year pushed through controversial and far-reaching school reform legislation; it's up for a referendum vote in the 2012 election. Luna's office said in a statement that the tour is his usual practice; “Every school year, Superintendent Luna travels across the state to visit classrooms and hear directly from students, teachers, school administrators and parents.”
  

Idaho gets $23M fed grant for GEAR UP college-readiness program

Idaho has been awarded a $23 million federal grant to continue the GEAR UP program to help prepare kids for higher education and add 6,000 additional students to the program. The state currently has just under 6,000 kids in its first class of GEAR UP participants, which started in 2006 with an $18 million grant; the program includes concerted efforts to ready students for higher education, starting in the 7th grade. The program is available to middle schools where at least 50 percent of students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch; the school districts apply to participate.

“Our goal is to ensure every student graduates from high school prepared to go on to postsecondary education, and once there, they will not need remediation,” said state schools Superintendent Tom Luna. “GEAR UP has proven to be a successful program in helping more students accomplish this goal, and I am proud we will continue this program in the coming years.” Signs of success in GEAR UP students include increasing academic achievement and taking more rigorous courses; schools, colleges, foundations and other groups provide matching funds or services to bolster the federal grant money. The acronym GEAR UP stands for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Program.

Risch drops from 15th- to 16th-richest member of Congress

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch has dropped one spot on Roll Call's list of the 50 richest members of Congress - from 15th last year to 16th this year. The Capitol Hill newspaper analyzes congressional financial disclosures, adding up the minimum value reported for assets and subtracting the minimum value listed for liabilities. It reported that Risch is worth $19.78 million, up just half a percent from last year's $19.69 million. Meanwhile, No. 1-ranking Rep. Michael McCaul, R-Texas, saw his wealth balloon by nearly 300 percent to $294.21 million, largely because of the holdings of his heiress wife; McCaul ranked fifth last year. Second-ranked was Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., whose $220.4 million net worth was up 37.7 percent since last year, when he also ranked second. Risch was the only lawmaker from Oregon, Washington or Idaho to make the top-50 richest list; you can see the full report here.
  

Capitol tunnel to get an art facelift

Wall paintings done by high school students from past decades, some 30 years old, some fading, long have adorned the underground tunnel that connects the state Capitol with the J.R. Williams Building and the Len B. Jordan building across State Street. When the Capitol was renovated, officials wanted to do something to update the tunnel art, too, but it never happened. Today, a committee of state lawmakers, after some debate, voted to move toward painting over the tunnel art and replacing it with 4-by-4-foot reproductions of Ward Hooper art depicting Idaho's 44 counties. Then, they'd like to see a statewide high school art competition launched for the right to display works in the Statehouse - but they'd like them to be shown in a public area, like the new wings, rather than in the tunnel, which is generally used only by state employees and authorized personnel.

Idaho Legislative Services Director Jeff Youtz reported to the Capitol Services Committee that he met with first lady Lori Otter and her staff, and Otter proposed the Hooper art - which she owns, as it's depicted in her children's book, “Ida Tours the 44: A Book of Idaho's Counties.” The cost to the state would be minimal; just the $100 or so to create each of the 44 canvases from the existing digital images and hang them in the tunnel; there's leftover money in the capitol relocation budget to cover the cost. Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, said he thought the plan would “freshen up the tunnel,” and Rep. Max Black, R-Boise, said, “I think that would make a very attractive tunnel, as opposed to a tunnel, what it is right now.”

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, countered, “I really do like the tunnel the way it is.” He said when he sees the decades-old high school students' paintings, he thinks to himself, “That's neat.  … What a part of history.” Sen. Edgar Malepeai, D-Pocatello, likened it to historic graffiti he saw recently at Alcatraz.  But Stegner said, “I don't see down in the tunnel a whole lot, in my mind, to preserve. … If we want to freshen that up right away, this idea is as good as any.” The 44-counties art could be up by the next legislative session, Youtz said; some of the newer wall paintings in the tunnel, including an anti-drug message, likely would be retained.

Said Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Meridian, “This is the state Capitol, and representing the 44 counties would be a positive.” The first lady's book is the second in the Lori & Butch Otter Education Series, published in 2010 by Boise State University; the first was “Ida Visits the Capitol,” which teaches kids about the state Capitol. In the counties book, Ida flies around the state to each county in alphabetical order, learning about each along the way.

State wants public input on revisions to Idaho Energy Plan

Idaho lawmakers are inviting public comments on proposed updates to the 2007 Idaho Energy Plan, which is undergoing a five-year review; a public hearing will be held at 10 a.m. on Nov. 2 in the Capitol Auditorium. In addition, the co-chairs of the Energy, Environment and Technology Interim Committee, Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, and Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, are accepting public comments through 5 p.m. on Friday Nov. 4. The Strategic Energy Alliance has submitted recommended updates to the energy plan; its recommendations, plus various comments on them, can be viewed on the committee's website here (scroll down to the bottom of the page). To submit comments by email, send them to Mike Nugent at mnugent@lso.idaho.gov.

Redistricters decry ‘unnecessary law’ that led first panel to impasse

Another political ripple from this year's redistricting could affect two state laws passed in 2009 that left Idaho’s first redistricting commission this year at an impasse: The three GOP members insisted on following those laws, which required a supermajority to split precincts or draw districts without connecting roads; while the three Democratic members said the laws were unconstitutional, because the Idaho Constitution requires just a four-vote majority to approve a new plan. They noted that the constitution also makes avoiding splitting counties a top concern, above either of those questions.

The second commission, appointed after the first panel deadlocked, voted unanimously to suspend both laws, and all six members said the ban on splitting precincts made no sense and should be repealed. Precincts are redrawn by counties right after the redistricting process; some are so outdated they cut through houses. “It's unnecessary law,” said Democratic Commissioner Shauneen Grange. Said GOP Commissioner Sheila Olsen, “It's hard enough to do the apportionment without having to worry about precincts.”

GOP Commissioner Randy Hansen said the group tried to follow precinct lines at first, but found them a mess. “We said this is ridiculous - the people will hate us,” he said. Instead, they heeded county clerks' advice to use major roads as recognizable boundaries between districts.

The commissioners paid some respect to the road rule by noting road connections in their legal findings justifying the new districts, but several said that law was unnecessary, too. However, Democratic Commission Co-Chair Ron Beitelspacher, a former longtime state senator, said his “personal recommendation” would be to wait until after the next election before considering any legislation to change the redistricting process. With so many current legislators landing in districts with fellow incumbents, he said, feelings might be too raw just yet to take it up.

Redistricting: When the music’s over…

Here's a link to my Sunday story on redistricting, which takes note of the ripples sent across Idaho politics by the state’s new legislative redistricting plan, from ending the Senate career of a four-term North Idaho lawmaker to prompting a game of political musical chairs in districts from St. Maries to Idaho Falls. Also, click below for AP reporter John Miller's weekend story on the fallout from legislative redistricting, which he says will leave Idaho legislative politics “a little less country, a little more suburban, as the state's power base continues its shift to more populous areas from its agrarian roots.”

Per-diem dustup could prompt legislation

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An Idaho legislator says he'll introduce a measure in 2012 to prevent Boise-area lawmakers from boosting their state retirements with per diem payments. Rep. Dennis Lake of Blackfoot says it's unfair that local lawmakers can get more-generous pensions compared to out-of-town legislators for identical work. Three weeks ago, The Associated Press reported Canyon County Sens. John McGee and Curt McKenzie banked daily $122 payments for a second residence — even though McGee lived with his parents and McKenzie slept on an office couch. The AP also reported these payments count toward McGee's and McKenzie's pensions because their primary residences are within 50 miles of the Capitol. Meanwhile, Idaho's government payroll system doesn't count per diem toward retirement for lawmakers like Lake whose primary residences are more than 50 miles away.

Where the new districts are…

For those looking for detail on where the legislative (and congressional) district lines ended up, various maps, including statewide maps and close-ups of various parts of the state, are posted online at the Redistricting Commission's website here. Here's a look at the North Idaho legislative districts; District 4 is basically the city of Coeur d'Alene; District 3 includes Post Falls and Rathdrum; District 5 is all of Benewah and Latah counties; District 6 is all of Lewis and Nez Perce counties; and District 7 is the big one, taking in a chunk of Kootenai County along with all of Shoshone, Clearwater and Idaho counties.

The A’s and B’s of it…

Under Idaho's new legislative district plan, there are six House districts that contain three current incumbents, plus one that contains five. Each district has two House seats. So that means in the three-incumbent districts, two will have to face off if all want to stay in office - but which two? I posed that question to Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, and he said, “It's totally up to them, totally how they file.” He noted, “There's a Seat A, Seat B right now designation that they're quote unquote in, but they don't have to file for their same alphabetical designation or anything. It's up to them.”

That's sometimes led to last-minute drama after past redistrictings, as various candidates try to wait to see which designation the other candidates choose so they can decide who to challenge. Others file early, staking a claim to an A or B seat and letting whoever wants to challenge them make the choice. “It'll make for some interesting, we don't want to call it musical chairs, but the music will stop at 5 p.m. on March 9th,” Ysursa said. “It's part of the declaration of candidacy that says Position A or B. So that's where the proof will be in the pudding.”

There have been cases where a candidate's filed for one seat, then withdrawn. But to try switch to the other seat requires a whole new refiling, including a new fee payment. “We don't necessarily want to speculate on 5 p.m. and people coming in and out,” Ysursa said. “I'm not saying it's never come up before, it has. People like to play games and withdraw and refile.” He noted ruefully of Idaho's fee for legislative candidate filings, “$30 is hardly a deterrent.”

Bar complaint charges Bujak with fraud, embezzlement from clients

Beleagured former Canyon County Prosecutor John Bujak had a complaint filed against him by the Idaho State Bar today for professional misconduct including embezzlement and fraud, asking to suspend him from the practice of law and order him to pay restitution for two cases: One in which he allegedly embezzled more than a year's worth of monthly payments in a property dispute in which he was representing a buyer, cashing the checks himself and keeping the funds; and another in which he persuaded an elderly woman client to sign over all her assets, including her home and vehicle, to an irrevocable trust benefiting himself and his assistant; five years later, after the woman contacted another lawyer and said she'd been misled, Bujak agreed in court proceedings to relinquish his claims against her estate. You can read the full bar complaint here.

Ripples from redistricting: Candidates have two weeks to move

Legislators or candidates who don't like the districts where they landed in this year's reapportionment still have time to move to run in a different district - but not a lot of time. Candidates for the Idaho Legislature must live in their district for a year before the election. The next election is Nov. 6, 2012, so by Nov. 6, 2011 - just over two weeks from now - anyone moving would have to get it done.

Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said he doesn't recall redistricting-prompted moves happening all that much over the years. “There was contemplation of some folks doing it this time around that I'd heard, but the way it came out, it wasn't quote unquote necessary,” he said.

Sen. Joyce Broadsword, for one, doesn't plan to move - though she's near the line between District 1 and 2 in the new districts (she represented District 2 in the old districts). “We live on ground that was homesteaded by my husband's grandparents,” said Broadsword, R-Sagle, who landed in District 1 along with longtime Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint. “I'm not willing to move to possibly retain a Senate seat.” But she added with a laugh, “Although I have been asked by the people of Shoshone County to consider moving down there.” They even offered to find her a job or a house or both, she said. “I've made some really good friends down there, and they are disappointed that I won't be able to represent them after my term's over.”

Shoshone County landed in the new District 7, the largest new district in North Idaho, which takes in part of Kootenai County plus all of Clearwater, Idaho and Shoshone counties. Broadsword lives in southern Bonner County.

Broadsword won't seek a fifth term in the Senate in 2012, in deference to Keough. “I have known since they started talking about reapportionment that there was no way I was going to run against Sen. Keough - I have too much respect for her, she is too valuable to the folks of North Idaho to lose her in the Senate,” Broadsword said. Keough is vice chair of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, the key legislative panel that writes the state budget. “So I will gladly bow out and let her continue, throw my support behind her.”

Elsewhere in the state, there will be five open Senate seats and 10 open House seats due to redistricting; it's possible that lawmakers who landed in adjacent districts and now face races against other incumbents may move to try for those open seats, or that House members in crowded districts may switch over and run for an open Senate seat, as in District 8 - where there's an open Senate seat, but five House incumbents, including House Speaker Lawerence Denney and Assistant Majority Leader Ken Roberts.

The open Senate seats are in districts 8, 12, 14, 15 and 21. The open House seats are in districts 9 (two seats), 10, 12, 15, 20, 21, 22, and 33.

State board narrowly endorses lifting charter school cap, but with limits

Idaho's State Board of Education today endorsed legislation to lift the cap on the number of new charter schools that can be created each year, but the 3-2 vote came only after the proposal was limited to no more than one new charter school per school district. “The concern was that you could cripple a school district if more than one charter school were approved in a year,” board spokesman Mark Browning said during the board's meeting at Lewis-Clark State College. “There will be continued work on this, but for now it's been green-lighted.” Click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie L. Bonner.

Idaho prepares for execution

Idaho's new death chamber is ready for the scheduled execution of Paul Ezra Rhoades, convincted of a string of murders and sexual assaults that terrorized eastern Idaho in the late 1980s. The state prisons have constructed a new death chamber, and moved Rhoades to a small holding cell just across the hall. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Red tree appears, autumn is here…

Each year, the appearance of a single flame-red tree, amid a sea of green leafiness in Boise's North End, signals the start of fall for me; I first spotted it two days ago, but this was my first chance to snap a picture. Already, the foliage around it is starting to take on glints of gold.

Oppenheimer Ethics Symposium is today at the Capitol; free and open to public

The University of Idaho's Oppenheimer Ethics Symposium is today at the state Capitol Auditorium, and it's free and open to the public. From 8-9:30 a.m., businessman Bill Drake, chairman of Drake Cooper Marketing and Advertising, will give a keynote address, with Sean Evans, publisher of the Idaho Business Review, serving as MC. From 2-5:30, there will be three symposium presentations:

* “Journalists, Judges and Lawyers: Converging or Diverging Standards of Ethics,” by Dean Donald Burnett, University of Idaho College of Law
* “New Media and the Law,” by Lisa McGrath, Internet and social media attorney
* “Media Ethics in the Digital Age,” a panel discussion - I'm the moderator - featuring Vicki Gowler, Idaho Statesman editor; Anne Wallace Allen, managing editor, Idaho Business Review; Wayne Hoffman, publisher, IdahoReporter.com; and Kate Morris, executive news director, KTVB

At 6 p.m. is the symposium keynote: “Rules of the Road: Navigating the New Ethics of Local Journalism,” given by Jan Schaffer, executive director of J-Lab. All sessions both free and open to the public, and will be web-streamed live by Idaho Public Television. The symposium is underwritten by a gift from Doug and Skip Oppenheimer, and supported in part by a grant from the Idaho Humanities Council. The event is subtitled, “Reinvigorating ethics in education and practice in the digital age.”
  

Idaho Dems ‘a lot less negative’ with new congressional candidate on board

Idaho Democrats are markings something of a milestone today with the emergence of a new candidate for Congress in the 1st Congressional District, former NFL player and Lewiston native Jimmy Farris; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, said with Congress' low approval rating, “This might be the time for somebody who's totally different to make an impact.” Said Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, “We don't exactly have dozens of people lining up to run that race on the Democratic side, and he's a candidate that I think doesn't fit the traditional mold of the kinds of folks we traditionally run. And I think that may be a very good thing.”

Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Larry Grant said, “Jimmy has a great story - I mean, he walked on to the NFL, for crying out loud. You don't do that. … He's taken on the challenges. He's got the determination.” Grant said he's been talking with potential legislative and congressional candidates since he took the party post in February. “I would say, in terms of serious folks that I thought could mount a serious race, I've had probably three of 'em turn me down,” he said. “There are two others or so that I'm still talking to but they're not stepping up. With Jimmy on board now in the 1st District, I'll focus my attention on the 2nd District. … I really don't expect to see him have a primary.”

He added, “Guys like Jimmy, they're a breath of fresh air. And the Democratic Party's starting to move a little bit. I'm not saying that we're optimistic, but we're certainly a lot less negative than we were six months ago.”
  

Farris launches congressional bid, says he’s ‘faced longer odds’

A 33-year-old Lewiston native who retired as an NFL football player in 2009 after playing for the New England Patriots, the Atlanta Falcons, the Washington Redskins and the San Francisco 49ers has launched a run for Congress in Idaho, taking on freshman GOP Rep. Raul Labrador in the 1st District. “I'm a passionate person, and what I really want to do is make a difference, and be involved in something I really care about, something I think really matters,” says Jimmy Farris. “I don't think most people like what they see happening in D.C.”

Farris is running as a Democrat, which puts him at a disadvantage in the Gem State, where Republicans currently hold all statewide elected offices, all the congressional posts and more than 80 percent of the seats in the state Legislature. But he says people will either support him or not, which he figures gives him 50-50 odds at a time when people are deeply dissatisfied with Congress. “I've faced longer odds than that being an average-size, average-speed wide receiver from Lewiston, Idaho, to make it and play six years and win a Super Bowl,” Farris said. “That was an uphill battle. … If entering into a situation where the odds weren't favorable was something that I shrunk from, then I would have never achieved anything.”

Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Larry Grant is excited about the new candidate. “Everybody's always telling us we've got to do something different, we've got to think outside the box, we've got to come up with some new people,” Grant said. “I think this is exactly the kind of thing not just Idaho needs, but politics in general needs - new people that are not career politicians, that just want to work hard and do the right thing.”

Farris has never sought elected office before, other than an unsuccessful junior-high student body election bid. He didn't even vote until 2008. “No, I've not voted very often,” he said. “There was a point early on while I was in college and shortly after where I just didn't think it mattered. … I realized it really does matter.”

He said, “I'm a Democrat mostly because I feel like it's important to take care of each other and give back. I'm somebody who's been very fortunate, and I've always felt the need to help out those in need. … I want to make things easier for other people, make their lives better. I'm a Democrat because I'm interested in what's going on in the lives of everyday people in this state and around the country.”

After retiring from the NFL, Farris worked for Comcast Sports Southeast in Atlanta - his last on-air appearance for them was in the run-up to the Boise State-Georgia game, offering commentary on the “Sportsnight” program. But he was in the midst of moving back to Idaho. “I'd always planned on being back here and raising my own family here … living the rest of my life where I grew up,” Farris said.

He was a football standout at Lewiston High School - where he also was named MVP as a senior in basketball - and went on to play football for the University of Montana, where he earned a degree in marketing and management. He was signed by the 49ers in 2001 as an undrafted free agent, before moving on to the other NFL teams; he has a Super Bowl ring from the 2001 Patriots championship team. He established the Jimmy Farris Future Leaders Foundation to help underprivileged kids “excel academically, spiritually, socially and athletically.” And he has a past connection with House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston - Rusche was his pediatrician when he was a kid.

Farris, who's now living in Meridian, said he's not specifically targeting Labrador, though he said, “I feel like as a whole, Congress has shown an inability to work together and actually pass bills that will help people. At times, Raul's been an obstructionist, he's been somebody that's not been willing to work with people on the other side or even people in his own party. I really feel like one of the things Congress needs right now are people who have the ability to work together with other people to get things passed. People are hurting, and that's the bottom line.”

He compared it to being on a football team. “Every member of a team understands that his strength and what he brings to the table benefits and betters the team as a whole. Sometimes you have to put aside your own wants and desires and needs, and make sacrifices for the greater good. … That's one of the things I know how to do the best, that's what I've done for the last 20 years of my life.”
  

Court sets execution date for Rhoades

7th District Judge Jon Shindurling issued death warrants today for Paul Ezra Rhoades, setting the execution date for Nov. 18, 2011. If it goes forward, it would be Idaho's first execution since 1994; Rhoades was sentenced to die for the 1987 murders of Susan Michelbacher and Stacy Baldwin. Click below to read the full announcement from the Idaho Attorney General's office.

Public has ‘til next Wednesday to comment on new online course grad requirement

Public comments on the State Board of Education's proposed new online class graduation requirement - requiring every Idaho high school student to take two online courses to graduate - are being accepted through next Wednesday, Oct. 26, at the state board's website here. Meanwhile, the state Department of Education also is taking public comments on several other new rules related to the “Students Come First” school reform legislation that passed this year.

The deadline for those comments also is Oct. 26. They include rules requiring school district negotiations with teachers unions to be conducted in open meetings; and requiring parent input and student achievement growth to be included in teacher evaluations. Comments on those rules, plus others regarding reinstatement of expired teaching certificates and modifications to the Dual Credit for Early Completers program, can be submitted on the department's website here.

Meth kingpin gets 20 years; it’s a 32-year-old woman from Homedale

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A woman accused of leading a drug-peddling gang that brought methamphetamine into Idaho by the pound will spend 20 years in a federal prison. Amanda Smith of Homedale was sentenced Monday in U.S. District Court in Boise. Prosecutors say the 32-year-old Smith sold 100 percent-pure methamphetamine to Norteno gang members, stashed the proceeds in out-of-state accounts and directed people to cross into Nevada and return to Idaho with their illicit cargo. Prosecutors say Smith once helped kidnap a drug customer at gunpoint, to make sure a payment for a drug deal was made. U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson said there's been an alarming spike in high-potency methamphetamine coming from California, Arizona, Nevada and Mexico. Three others in Smith's drug ring previously received sentences of up to 16 years behind bars.

Simpson praises redistricting commission’s work, ‘hope it’s a model’

Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson, who represents the 2nd Congressional District, was asked at the end of his talk to the Idaho Environmental Forum today about what he thinks of Idaho's new congressional districts, which just took effect today. “Love it,” he said quickly to laughter.

He added, “We didn't really participate in that,” and recounted how when he was Idaho House speaker and the late Jerry Twiggs was Senate president pro-tem, both had been through the 1990 reapportionment. “It was ugly, and there were 105 legislators trying to protect themselves,” he said. “We decided … we were going to put together a commission like some other states had done, because we were going to take the politics out of reapportionment.” Amid laughter, he said, “You can't take the politics out of reapportionment.”

“Nevertheless, I think the second commission did a great job, and I hope it's a model that'll be used by commissions in the future,” Simpson said, “to sit down, don't care where people live, don't care if you run incumbents against incumbents. Reapportion it so that it makes sense, which is what I think they did.”

As for the congressional district lines, he said, “That should be a pretty easy one - we've only got two congressional districts in Idaho. Go to Ohio where they're reducing two seats - it's getting kind of ugly there.” He said the new district plan, which simply moves the dividing line in Ada County to the west, “to me makes more sense than some of the other proposals.” He said, “I would ask people, would you rather have one representative who cares about Boise and needs to care about Boise, or two? So actually splitting Ada County, that's OK, and it's evenly split down the middle. … It's worked in the past, and I've always appreciated having Boise in our district.”

U.S. Senate backs unlimited spuds in school lunches

The U.S. Senate today voted to block an Obama Administration proposal to limit potatoes in school lunches to two servings a week; instead, the lawmakers voted to block the USDA from putting any limits on serving potatoes or other vegetables in school lunches. The amendment approved on a voice vote in the Senate today was proposed by GOP Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, and co-sponsored by Democratic Sen. Mark Udall of Colorado, both potato-growing states. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Mary Clare Jalonick in D.C.

Former NFL player, Democrat Farris to take on Labrador in 1st CD

Here's a news item from the Associated Press and Lewiston Tribune:  LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) — Former NFL player Jimmy Farris plans to run in the 2012 Democratic primary race for Idaho's 1st Congressional District. The Lewiston Tribune reports (http://bit.ly/pj2XYx ) Farris moved back to his home state earlier this year and has launched his bid for the U.S. House seat, which includes western and northern Idaho and is now represented by Republican U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador. Farris graduated from Lewiston High School in 1996 and played at the University of Montana before landing in the NFL in 2001. His professional career spanned parts of seven seasons before wrapping up in 2007. Idaho Democratic Party Chairman Larry Grant says some advised Farris to start off his political career with a less ambitious target. But Grant says he's convinced that Farris is destined for bigger things.
  

Risch goes on Lou Dobbs today to discuss Idaho family’s clash with EPA

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch will appear on the Fox Business Network for an interview with Lou Dobbs tonight, discussing government regulations and the case of Mike and Chantell Sackett of North Idaho, who the EPA says are attempting to build their home on a wetland. The interview will air live at 5:25 p.m. Mountain time, 4:25 p.m. Pacific time. The Sacketts bought their Priest Lake-area property for $23,000 in 2005; the 0.6-acre lot on the west side of the lake is surround by several other homes and has a sewer hookup. But when they moved to build a home, the EPA told them their land was a wetland; they've appealed all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which plans to take up their case in January. You can read more about the case here.

Browning to leave Ed Board, become new VP at North Idaho College in CdA

Mark Browning, the chief communications and legislative officer for the Idaho State Board of Education, has been named the new vice president for community relations and marketing at North Idaho College. He was selected after a nationwide search, to replace retiring Vice President John Martin. Browning has been with the state board since 2007; prior to that, he was news director for KBCI CBS 2 News Boise, where he supervised a staff of 40; he also worked at other news organizations in southern Idaho and is a former president of the Idaho Press Club.

NIC President Priscilla Bell said Browning will serve as a “liaison between the college and the counties we serve,” and added, “His extensive experience in government relations will no doubt reinforce NIC's legislative efforts as well.” Browning said, “This is a tremendous opportunity for me professionally and for my family. And I'm looking forward to becoming a part of the NIC family.” He'll start his new job on Jan. 2.

Gov. Otter’s chief of staff leaves to take new lobbying gig

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter's chief of staff, Jason Kreizenbeck, is leaving his post at the end of this week to start a lobbying firm with prominent lobbyist and former state Sen. Skip Smyser, the Associated Press reports; Kreizenbeck will be replaced by David Hensley, currently Otter's staff legal counsel. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

State Treasurer Ron Crane has open-heart surgery

Idaho State Treasurer Ron Crane underwent open-heart surgery this morning, and his office reports that Crane had a successful triple bypass operation and is resting comfortably in a Boise hospital; he is expected to return to work at the state Capitol in about two weeks.

Crane, 62, is serving his fourth term as state treasurer; last year, he was re-elected without opposition. A Republican, he served 16 years in the state House of Representatives before being elected to the state office, in which he serves as the state's chief fiscal officer and banker of monies collected by the state.

New districts now ‘the law of the land’

Idaho's new congressional and legislative districts are now in effect, Secretary of State Ben Ysursa declared this morning after receiving the new plans from the bipartisan citizen redistricting commission. “This is now the law of the land,” Ysursa said. “I for one want to applaud the commission.” He said, “It took two commissions to get it done, and I appreciate that - and I know the people of Idaho do.”

Ysursa said the new district lines will immediately go out to the public and county clerks, so people will know which districts they're in, where they vote and who their elected representatives might be. Idaho's primary election, the first to take place with the new districts, is in May. “We ned to get finality,” Ysursa said. “I can't thank you enough for your public service, all of your. It's good to see how things can work.” He also thanked the previous commission, saying, “They certainly laid a foundation.” Said Ysursa, “Now it's up to the people to participate. … Participation is the essence of democracy.”

Commissioner Sheila Olsen of Idaho Falls said, “To me, it's a triumph of civility, notwithstanding real differences that we all bring. I think it sets a high mark.” Said Commissioner Elmer Martinez, “My other hope was that we could reaffirm to the citizens that the processes of government can work. I think we honestly made that effort in this commission.”

Ysursa said, “I hope this is the last time you're all together as a commission - there's only one way you can come back.” That's if the Idaho Supreme Court orders the commission back to work to make revisions in response to a lawsuit. That could well happen, he noted, but said, “Hopefully it will not happen this time. … You did get it done, and I think it's defensible.”
  

Redistricters take one more unanimous vote

When Idaho's redistricting commission adopted its legislative district plan unanimously on Friday, it first had two other unanimous votes - to suspend a state law preventing splitting voting precincts without at least a five-of-six vote, and to suspend another preventing creating districts without connecting roads without a five-of-six votes. This morning, as the commission prepares to submit its final legislative and congressional district plans to Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, it had to take one more similar step.

“We've split some of the precincts in the process of drawing straight lines in Ada County” in the congressional district map,” Democratic co-chairman Ron Beitelspacher said. “Because of that, the state statute … requires that there be a 5-0  vote, and we only had a 4-2 vote. I guess that kinda puts these folks in the driver's seat here,” he said, gesturing to Democratic Commissioners Shauneen Grange and Elmer Martinez, who cast the two dissenting votes against the congressional plan.

GOP Co-Chair Dolores Crow said, “I have one more question: This does not do anything to what we've done?” Beitelspacher cracked amid laughter, “Well, it moves Canyon County.” Crow, who's recovered from a bad cold from which she was suffering the last few days, cautioned, “You've gotta remember - I feel good today.” When the roll was called, all six commissioners voted yes, including Grange and Martinez.

“I should clarify,” Beitelspacher said. “There was a lot made of how that vote went yesterday. The aye votes by Commissioner Martinez and Commissioner Grange don't signify approval of this division, but attempt to try to … make sure this commission works.” Crow responded, “The chair would like to say thanks to all three of you for doing what is difficult to do. … I appreciate that.”
  

Hampikian on Amanda Knox case: ‘I know what happened’

For Boise State University professor Greg Hampikian, there's no mystery at all about what happened to 21-year-old Meredith Kercher, who was found murdered in 2007 in Perugia, Italy, prompting charges against her roommate, Amanda Knox of Seattle, and two others, who later were cleared. “I know what happened,” Hampikian told an audience of about 200 at Boise State University today. Kercher, he said, was sexually assaulted and murdered “by one guy - Rudy Guede.”

Guede, a drifter from Ivory Coast, was convicted of the murder and remains in prison. But just after the crime, he wasn't the one arrested - a prosecutor, based on a hunch aroused by Knox's behavior, arrested Knox, her boyfriend, and bar owner Patrick Lumumba, and theorized that three people committed the attack. Lumumba turned out to have an airtight alibi - he was working at his bar at the time. And when the DNA evidence came back, it didn't match any of the authorities' three suspects - it matched Guede. He'd left a bloody handprint in the victim's blood on her wall. His DNA was on and inside the victim, all over her room and more. “You had one guy whose DNA was all over the victim,” Hampikian said.

But rather than release Knox and her boyfriend, Raffaelle Sollecito, prosecutors went back to the  crime scene 46 days later - after many people had been at the scene, including Knox and Sollecito, who were allowed to retrieve belongings - and found a bra clasp that they tested and found showed a tiny bit of Sollecito's DNA. They also took a kitchen knife from a drawer at Sollecito's home and found it showed a tiny bit of Knox's DNA on the handle and a tiny trace of Kercher's on the blade. Hampikian said those traces, not large enough to be reliably tested, likely were the result of contamination by the testers, and that knife was not the murder weapon. The bra from which the clasp came had been collected 46 days earlier and was covered with Guede's DNA, not Sollecito's.

Hampikian headed his talk, “How science freed an innocent woman … and how bad science multiplied the victims of a terrible tragedy.” He conducted an experiment in his lab at Boise State, in which researchers collected soda cans that had been used by employees of the dean's office, and brand-new knives, still in the package from a dollar store. In collecting and tagging the cans and knives - without changing gloves between every piece of evidence, but only between every other piece - lab workers unknowingly transferred a tiny amount of one of the employee's DNA to one of the knives, though she'd never seen or touched it. That's what happened with the evidence in the Knox case, he said. “You can transfer DNA in this way.”

“This gut feeling is a very dangerous thing, especially in law enforcement, and it's a very persistent force,” Hampikian said. “I have them as well. That's the best part of being a scientist, is that you have data that tells you it's wrong.” Standards for measuring the supposed DNA on the evidence in the Knox case were lowered so far that the tests weren't valid at all, he said - and that's what the court eventually found, clearing Knox and freeing her. “All of this has to do with controls,” he said, “which, if you're in my lab, that's all you hear about.”

Hampikian is director of the Idaho Innocence Project, and is a professor of biology and criminal justice at Boise State.

New districts: ‘There wasn’t any other way to do that’

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on today's adoption of new congressional district lines, with which Idaho's citizen redistricting commission wrapped up its task in less than three weeks and proved the commission process can work. Redistricters will formally deliver their new legislative and congressional plans to Secretary of State Ben Ysursa tomorrow.

Commission Co-Chairman Ron Beitelspacher said the new legislative district plan makes a point of keeping cities and towns intact in legislative districts. “That's in response to both sides,” he said. “A lot of rural people who attended the hearings didn't want their vote diluted by a city vote, so we have given them a clear voice that comes from where they are.” He and other commissioners said they didn't know where incumbents lived and didn't want to know; unlike earlier plans, this map doesn't pit Sens. Denton Darrington and Dean Cameron against each other, but Beitelspacher said that's because “that Snake River Canyon is like a giant divide - you don't have a lot of bridges across it. We tried to respect that without dividing counties, and we did it.”

Other plans also would have forced Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis of Idaho Falls to face off with other senators to keep his seat; this one doesn't. “Sheila Olsen determined where was the best place to draw the boundaries around Idaho Falls,” Beitelspacher said, “but if you look at it, it is a rectangle. We have no lines that go down to pick up a precinct and back up.”

As for the new legislative District 8, which includes five House incumbents - including House Speaker Lawerence Denney - Beitelspacher said it was just a matter of the population numbers. “You're really boxed in if you think you're going to play a bunch of political games,” he said.

Boise State University political scientist Gary Moncrief agreed. “Personally, I could see that one coming a long way off,” he said, “just because of the numbers. … There had to be a squeeze coming down past Grangeville somewhere, you had to squeeze what had been two districts into one, and you could see it was going to happen there in what now is District 8. … There wasn't any other way to do that.”

Idaho moves to toss legal challenge to its execution method

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Department of Correction has asked a federal judge to reject a lawsuit over the state's method of execution, saying its newly revised lethal injection policy mirrors other states whose methods have already passed muster with the courts. The motion to dismiss was filed late Friday. It comes in response to a lawsuit filed by death row inmate Paul Ezra Rhoades last month. Rhoades, who was convicted of three murders in Idaho Falls and Blackfoot in 1988, says lethal injections are frequently botched and that Idaho's protocol doesn't require enough training for its executioners. Rhoades also contends that there are several other problems with Idaho's execution policy and that they would render his execution unconstitutional.

Redistricters: ‘There’s life after the Legislature’

Idaho's successful citizen redistricting commission, having wrapped up its task in just two weeks, says it paid no attention to where incumbents lived - and and didn't even know which incumbent matchups it had created, including putting the House speaker into a district with four other House incumbents. Instead, the commissioner said they tried to focus on sensible, compact districts that worked for communities. “The clerks are going to love us, because everything used major roads, it's squared,” said GOP Commissioner Randy Hansen. “We put together what we felt was best for the community as a whole. … So yes, somebody's going to be ticked off because they're running against somebody else. I love what Dolores said - if you're a good enough politician, you'll win.”

Added Democratic commission Co-Chair Ron Beitelspacher, a former longtime state senator, “And there's life after the Legislature, I might add.”

Here, the commissioners sign commemorative copies for each other of the legislative district plan they agreed on unanimously, 6-0. They'll gather again tomorrow morning at 10, and will formally present their legislative and congressional district maps to Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa.

Idaho adopts new congressional districts, will still split Ada County

Idaho has new congressional districts - and the approved plan, C-52, still divides Ada County, moving the line between districts 1 and 2 slightly to the west to reflect population shifts. “It's a little bit of a revamp of what the last commission did,” said Democratic commission Co-Chair Ron Beitelspacher. “We just cleaned it up a little bit.” The plan passed on a 4-2 vote, with all three Republicans in favor, plus Beitelspacher; voting against were Democratic Commissioners Elmer Martinez and Shauneen Grange. Beitelspacher said he voted in favor “reluctantly,” saying, “I spent a lot of time in the Legislature, and I've had some wonderful pieces of legislation, but if you haven't got the votes, they're not going to pass. I can count.”

Grange said she was surprised that Ada County will be split again. “I just don't think it's necessary, and Boise's the one that's suffered the most out of it,” she said. “Ten years ago it didn't work out that you could keep counties whole,” while this time, she said, it could have. But, she said, “We came up with a compromise … and got 'er done.”

GOP Co-Chair Dolores Crow said, “It doesn't change it so radically. That's a big chunk of people to move around.”

With the approval of the new congressional districts today, on top of the new legislative districts adopted Friday, the citizen commision's work is now done - in only two weeks. The commission had up to 90 days. “I am amazed that three Democrats and three Republicans can get along this well, and we have,” Crow said. “We all really like each other - still. It's been a real pleasure, a real surprise to me that we can do that.”
  

Redistricters say they’re ‘standing on the edge of the beach’

Idaho's redistricting commission has recessed until 1 p.m., with hints that the six members are close to a decision on new congressional district lines. “Moses hasn't quite parted the water yet, but we're standing on the edge of the beach,” announced Co-Chairman Ron Beitelspacher, who added afterward, “We're working on trying to keep Boise together.”

Possible new congressional district plans were citizen-submitted…

The possible congressional redistricting plans that commissioners are discussing this morning are C-47, a citizen-submitted plan from Mark Briggs, that splits only Elmore County; four plans submitted earlier by three citizens, C-9, C-24, C-25 and C-27, all of which split no counties; and C-38, the plan approved by the previous redistricting commission after its deadline had passed, which splits Ada County, just moving the current dividing line to the west. You can see all these maps online here; above is C-47.
  

To divide Ada? Or move it into 1st CD, Canyon into 2nd CD?

Redistricting commissioners are taking a 15-minute break now after getting into something of a debate about whether it's better to not divide Ada County between the two congressional districts - instead moving all of Ada County into the 1st CD and all of Canyon County into the 2nd CD - or to stick with the traditional approach, dividing Ada and just moving the line a little further to the west to reflect population shifts.

“I've not heard any testimony from any citizens … that said please cut up the city of Boise,” said Co-Chairman Ron Beitelspacher. “I'm proud of what we did in this commission to come to those legislative districts, I really am. There are no towns, no cities that we've divided up, and we worked hard at that, and some of us, Commissioner Hansen in particular, I'm sure is going to take a beating over that but it was the right thing to do. And when it comes to the largest city in the state, everyone for the last 30 years has been anxious to take the saber and just whack it up in order to divide the state.” He noted, “When you go door to door, people frequently have no clue what district they're in because it's so doggone confusing.”

Commissioner Randy Hansen said he's worried that the proposed new lines would reduce the political equity in the 1st CD, which has seen “three close elections.” He said, “I'm just concerned that by completely changing the dynamics of that, that there might not be the equity that there currently is in that district.”

Commissioner Elmer Martinez called it “a matter of integrity” to keep cities and communities together in districts. “That effort made so much sense,” he said. “I think that same level of integrity in keeping communities whole and cities whole shouldn't change because we're doing congressional lines vs. legislative lines.”

Commissioner Sheila Olsen said she'd like to go back and study the public testimony the previous commission received about the congressional district split, since this panel didn't get a lot. Just moving the existing line to the west again, she said, “I believe … would be less disruptive. Even though there is some confusion, but people can learn. It's less disruptive to move the line a few blocks than the whole county … into the 1st District.”

Redistricters eye congressional district lines that don’t divide Ada County

Five of Idaho's six redistricting commissioners, working last Friday on possible congressional district lines, “homed in on a couple of plans,” commission Co-Chair Ron Beitelspacher said this morning, “one was the one that had no county divisions, and the other was the one that had a county division in Elmore County.”

Commission Co-Chair Dolores Crow has a bad cold and went home early on Friday; but all are back and participating now. “Would you care to look at the plan that the previous commission did?” Beitelspacher asked, and the group decided to do so. That plan, C-38, has zero population deviation and divides Ada County.

The commissioners asked Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane to discuss legal considerations; he said getting as close as possible to zero population deviation between the two districts is the “most defensible … especially if you can do it without dividing any counties.” Beitelspacher said the plan commissioners reviewed earlier with no county divisions had a population deviation of 0.42 percent.

Commissioner Shauneen Grange said on Friday, she looked at how the line between Idaho's first and second congressional districts long has divided Ada County. “I was curious to see if we can keep counties whole,” she said. Commissioner Randy Hansen commented, “It completely changes the dynamics of these two districts. … That's a concern that I have.”

Redistricters back at work on congressional district lines…

Idaho's bipartisan citizen redistricting commission is jovial this morning; Democratic Commissioner Shawneen Grange brought her fellow commissioners flowers, while GOP Commissioner Sheila Olsen brought them trinkets from the Capitol gift shop. “I just couldn't resist,” she said. “It was in the gift shop downstairs, so I was supporting the capitol renovation.”

Commissioner Randy Hansen noted that his hometown paper, the Twin Falls Times-News, had an article over the weekend in which one lawmaker who must face off against another incumbent described the commission's new legislative district plan, L-87, as the worst gerrymandering job he'd ever seen, while a few paragraphs later, another described it as the best redistricting plan he'd seen - and he doesn't have to face another incumbent. The commissioners shared a laugh. “I had nothing but emails saying 'Thank you for getting it done … no matter what we did,'” said Commission Co-Chairman Ron Beitelspacher.

The redistricting commission's next task is to draw new lines dividing Idaho's 1st and 2nd congressional districts. Click below for AP reporter John Miller's article over the weekend on Plan L-87, which includes this quote from Beitelspacher: “We did not deal with any partisan politics. We started out as strangers, we became friends. And we did it according to the Constitution, so help me God.”
  

Report: Water Users Association plays bank for Semanko

Idaho Statesman reporters Cynthia Sewell and Rocky Barker report that Idaho Republican Party Chairman Norm Semanko owes the non-profit Idaho Water Users Association, his employer, $161,000, a result of a loan the group made to Semanko; such a loan to an executive is legal in Idaho, but is banned in several other states. Semanko is now a candidate for mayor of Eagle. You can read their full report here.

Parent-teacher group seeks input on school reform

The group behind the referendum campaign to challenge Idaho schools Superintendent Tom Luna’s “Students Come First” reform laws is launching a new project aimed at gathering ideas on how to make Idaho schools better. The volunteer group has dubbed its new project the “Great Idaho Schools Project,” and plans to incorporate the input into a report to be issued in January and distributed to school boards, administrators, state leaders and the public.

“We want to do what Mr. Luna, the Legislature, and Gov. Otter did not do: Involve a wide array of the public in a conversation about how to build great public schools,” said Mike Lanza, co-founder of Idaho Parents and Teachers Together.  “We don’t know yet what we’ll hear from people,” Lanza said. “But we do believe that Idahoans want a more inclusive process than was employed by our elected leaders to determine the future direction of our public schools.” You can read my full Sunday column here at spokesman.com.
  

Seven new House districts pit incumbents, including speaker, majority leader

Seven of the 35 new legislative districts approved unanimously by Idaho's bipartisan citizen redistricting commission today include more than two current House incumbents, but have just two seats - meaning if they want to remain in office, some of those incumbents would have to battle each other in the primary or general election. That's what makes redistricting such a politically thorny subject. The biggest House contest would come in District 8, which includes five current incumbents, including current House Speaker Lawerence Denney. Also in the new District 8: Reps. Carlos Bilbao, Judy Boyle, Ken Roberts, who is the assistant majority leader, and Steven Thayn.

Here are the other House contests set up by the new district plan:

District 5: Reps. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries; Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow; and Tom Trail, R-Moscow
District 14: Reps. Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle; Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian; and House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star
District 16: Reps. Max Black, R-Boise; Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise; and Elfreda Higgins, D-Boise
District 23: Reps. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home; Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls; and Rich Wills, R-Glenns Ferry
District 24: Reps. Sharon Block, R-Twin Falls; Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls; and Leon Smith, R-Twin Falls
District 30: Reps. Janice McGeachin, R-Idaho Falls; Erik Simpson, R-Idaho Falls; and Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls

Getting the word out…

By the way, I'm not working today - I'm clear across the country at a family gathering back east - but I heard about the unanimous adoption of the new legislative district plan today and wanted to get the word out to you, so I'm doing a bit of blogging on it. I'll look into it more in-depth when I return to work on Monday.

Incumbent senators would face off in five new legislative districts…

Idaho's new legislative district plan, adopted unanimously today, would mean these incumbent senators would have to face off to remain in office, as they landed together in districts that have just one Senate seat:

District 1: Sens. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, and Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle
District 11: Sens. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, and Melinda Smyser, R-Parma
District 16: Sens. John Andreason, R-Boise, and Les Bock, D-Boise
District 20: Sens. Shirley McKague, R-Meridian, and Chuck Winder, R-Boise
District 23: Sens. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, and Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home

Tea party activist lands government job

AP reporter John Miller reports today that a tea party activist interviewed by late-night TV’s David Letterman last year has a new title: Government employee. Pam Stout is Bonner County's new $25,000-a-year, 19-hour-a-week head of the “Bonner County Property Rights Council,” a new arm of local government aimed at slashing county spending and seeking free-market alternatives to regulations. You can read Miller's full report here.
  

First look at Idaho’s new legislative districts

Here's a first look at legislative district plan L-87, which was adopted on a unanimous, 6-0 vote by Idaho's bipartisan citizen redistricting commission today. Though it's a little hard to tell from the full-state map, District 1 takes in all of Boundary and much of Bonner County; District 2 has three Bonner precincts and the rest from Kootenai County; districts 3 and 4 are all within Kootenai County; District 5 consists of Benewah and Latah counties; and District 6 consists of Lewis and Nez Perce counties. District 7, the large district geographically, takes in part of Kootenai County, plus all of Clearwater, Idaho and Shoshone counties.

There are closer-up maps here of the various parts of the state, on the commission's website (scroll down).

Redistricters agree on map

Idaho's redistricting commission has unanimously adopted a new legislative district plan, L-87, that splits 11 counties and has a population deviation of less than 10 percent. The plan will be posted on the commission's website shortly. “They all drew it together,” said redistricting staffer Keith Bybee. “There was buy-in from all six of them; they spent time working in teams.” The redistricters will begin looking at congressional district lines this afternoon, and will meet again Monday morning at 9:30.

Report: GOP official helped firm now banned from doing business with state

Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey reports today that Jonathan Parker, now executive director of the Idaho Republican Party, arranged a meeting between consultant Arup Patranabish and Idaho’s top purchasing official shortly after GOP Gov. Butch Otter took office in 2007, at which the consultant  asked for help to skirt the state bidding process and get a contract “handed” to his firm. Patranabish’s Boise company, AnalyzeSoft, now has been disqualified from doing business with the state for one year because it allegedly double-billed the Idaho Department of Correction, charging $2 million for an inmate tracking system that remains incomplete, Popkey reports; you can read his full report here.

Idaho Internet scammer gets federal prison term

A 34-year-old Romanian man has been sentenced to 38 months in federal prison, followed by three years of supervised release, for using an altered passport in an Internet scam in which he bilked more than 70 victims across the United States, including three in Idaho, into wiring him money to buy non-existent cars. Andrei Mirel was arrested in March at a U.S. Bank branch on ParkCenter Boulevard in Boise, where he'd presented a Kingdom of Netherlands passport showing him as “Keith Howard,” with a Boise address. He also had a Romanian driver's license and a Washington state ID card, both with his picture and real name.

U.S. District Judge Edward J. Lodge also ordered Mirel to pay restitution of $8,318 to the three Idaho victims, and general restitution of $200,780 to 71 other victims across the country.  Mirel pleaded guilty to wire fraud, use of an altered passport, and improper entry by an alien on July 27.

Wendy Olson, U.S. Attorney for Idaho, said, “This was a heartless scheme to defraud many people desperately short on cash and desperately needing to purchase inexpensive and reliable vehicles. This type of scheme is not uncommon.  Individuals purchasing vehicles sight unseen over the Internet run the risk of dealing with unscrupulous criminals on the other end of a telephone call.  Caution should be used to make sure you are dealing with legitimate automobile dealers, or to make payment only with the vehicle in hand and the title duly endorsed.”

According to the plea agreement, Mirel and others advertised non-existent vehicles on the Internet, and purchasers used Western Union to wire him money for the cars. He then sent the money by wire transfer to European bank accounts, where it became untraceable. Mirel could have gotten up to 10 years in federal prison.

Would-be Tamarack Resort rescuer faces financial questions, AP reports

A would-be buyer of Tamarack Resort in Idaho is the subject of new questions, as AP reporter John Miller reports that Matthew Hutcheson is being investigated by the U.S. Department of Labor, plus faces liens on his home plus bad checks and a former employee's lawsuit totaling $350,000. Click below for Miller's full report.
  

Areva gets U.S. license for Idaho plant

France's state-owned nuclear reactor builder on Wednesday won a U.S. license to build and operate a gas centrifuge uranium enrichment plant in eastern Idaho, the AP reports, a key step in the company's plans to expand production of nuclear fuel in the United States. Click below for AP reporter John Miller's full article.

Software glitch fixed - redistricters now plan to work both Thursday, Friday

OK, scratch that - the redistricting commission won't be taking tomorrow off after all, because the Maptitude software glitch they were struggling with has now been resolved. Therefore, the commission's plans have changed: They'll reconvene tomorrow morning at 9:30, and go at ease to continue what they were doing today - working in small groups on possible legislative district lines.
  

Software glitch forces break for redistricting commission, but members report progress

Idaho's redistricting commission will take tomorrow off, after a glitch surfaced today with its “Maptitude” computer software. The commission's staff is working with the software company to fix the glitch, but it's not expected to be done until late tomorrow afternoon; the commission will reconvene on Friday at 9:30 a.m.

Commissioners, who've been hard at work on possible legislative district lines all day, working in twos and threes, looked like they were ready for a break. “The issues of reapportionment are difficult enough without incorrect math,” said Democratic Co-Chair Ron Beitelspacher. “Two and two should equal four.” Republican Co-Chair Dolores Crow said, “I don't see any point in spending the taxpayer's money when we're not working - so we'll see you on Friday.”

All, however, sounded optimistic about their work. “It's going really well,” said GOP Commissioner Randy Hansen. “These are hard workers, I have to tell you,” said GOP Commissioner Sheila Olsen. The commissioners even worked through lunch today, “literally, eating our sandwiches while we're looking at maps,” she said. Said Democratic Commissioner Elmer Martinez, “I think things are proceeding along well, and we are definitely working together. … I'd say we set the tone early to work together as a full commission.”

So far, the commissioners are working only on legislative district lines; they haven't yet addressed the lines dividing Idaho's two congressional districts. “You do one thing at a time, my dear,” Crow said. “We haven't finished what we're doing now.”

The panel, which is evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, has been getting along “like a family - or better than most families,” Crow said. Said Olsen, “There's a great deal of mutual respect among the commissioners.”

Redistricters back at work in small groups…

Today, Idaho's new citizen redistricting commission is back at work, but its public session lasted only moments. “We're going to do much like we did yesterday,” Co-Chair Dolores Crow announced - work in small groups on possible district lines for various parts of the state. “We probably won't come back here.” The full commission will get together for lunch - but the commissioners can't talk about redistricting while they lunch, or they'd be violating the open meeting law. It's something this new commission has made a point of doing, for personal bonding; they talk about kids and get to know each other. The bipartisan panel's co-chairs both say they're making progress; they're scheduled to continue meeting all week.

Idaho U.S. Attorney’s office gets biggest payment ever: $77M from Hecla settlement

The U.S. Attorney's office for Idaho posted its biggest collection ever today, when Hecla Mining Co. paid $77.5 million as part of a settlement involving the Bunker Hill Superfund site in North Idaho. The settlement was announced by the U.S. Department of Justice in June; in it, Hecla agreed to pay $263.4 million plus interest to the United States, the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, and the state of Idaho. The settlement is to pay for cleanup of mining contamination in the Coeur d'Alene Basin.

Payments already have been made to the tribe and the state; Hecla is scheduled to pay another $43.3 million to the federal government by August of 2014. “This historic recovery to resolve one of the largest cases ever filed under the Superfund statute compensates the United States for more than three decades of clean-up efforts,” said U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson, “and establishes a strong basis for future cooperation between Hecla Mining Company, the tribe, the state, and the federal government.”

Moscow wants reimbursement for megaload policing costs

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: MOSCOW, Idaho (AP) — Moscow officials want a company transporting oil equipment for Exxon Mobil to pay $12,800 for police services. The Moscow-Pullman Daily News (http://bit.ly/mT5GWi) reports the costs are from police services from July to September. The city plans to submit weekly reimbursement requests to Mammoet as it transports the gear toward Alberta, Canada's oil sands. Moscow officials said Mammoet is getting better at notifying the city when a shipment is expected. Another is expected this week, with two more shipments next week. The shipments, originally slated for U.S. Highway 12, have diverted through Moscow on U.S. Highway 95 while a court challenge in Montana holds up transports on the original route. There have been protests by environmentalists on U.S. Highway 95, too, including an Aug. 25 incident when six people were arrested.

Tech task force to examine funding quirk in reform law for online classes

Here's a link to my full story at spokesman.com on the issue that came up this week at the “Students Come First” school technology task force about funding for online classes - that a quirk of the new reform laws means that online course providers will get far more state money for providing classes to students in some Idaho school districts than in others. For example, an online provider sending a class to a high school student in Boise could tap roughly $210 for a one-semester online class from the Boise district's state funding stream, according to state estimates, while a provider sending the same online class to a student in Midvale could collect roughly $733 from that smaller district's state funding.

State schools Superintendent Tom Luna said he doesn't think the issue warrants amending the law, but he agreed today to bring the issue back next month for more discussion at the task force's November meeting.

State gearing up for first execution since 1994, with end of Rhoades appeals…

Idaho is gearing up for what could be its first execution since 1994, now that the U.S. Supreme Court has refused to consider the case of Idaho triple murderer and death row inmate Paul Ezra Rhoades, effectively ending his appeals. Rhoades has a lawsuit pending challenging Idaho's lethal injection execution method, and could still appeal for clemency, but the state is taking steps to prepare for a possible execution, reports AP reporter Rebecca Boone, including building a new execution chamber and revamping state policy to reflect current court rulings. Click below for her full report.

Tamarack homeowners work to buy, open ski lifts

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Tamarack Resort homeowners want to buy two ski lifts that Bank of America has been trying to tear out. Tamarack Municipal Association director Tim Flaherty told The Associated Press on Tuesday he's been in discussions with the bank. Bank of America was stiffed on the lifts by Tamarack majority owner Jean-Pierre Boespflug, who disappeared this year when the bank sought $4 million. Even with Boespflug on the lam, Flaherty says he's also working to open the ski resort for a second straight year. Tamarack Municipal Association ran a limited season last year on a $1 million budget, earning a small profit. Flaherty is now in talks with Idaho over another sublease to 2,100 acres of public land where the ski runs are located, in advance of a Dec. 15 opening.

Redistricters launch deliberations…

Idaho's citizen redistricting commission convened to start its deliberations this morning, and then immediately went at ease for caucuses. “We're going to be probably in small groups and caucuses all day today,” said Co-Chairman Ron Beitelspacher, a Democrat from Grangeville. This morning's is the commission's first caucus, Beitelspacher said, but members already have begun working in small groups on possible district lines for various parts of the state. “My No. 1 concern is progress - progress in a personable way and legal way,” he said.

The commission just wrapped up three public hearings around the state last week. Beitelspacher said he was personally disappointed to hear at the Coeur d'Alene hearing from a woman who questioned why the commission is equally split between the two parties, when Republicans hold big majorities in the Legislature. “I don't like what all the political crap is doing to our country, and I don't like to see it in Idaho,” he said. “I'm used to an Idaho where we helped our neighbors because they were our neighbors, not because of whose yard sign they had out at election time.” The evenly-split commission was established by a two-thirds vote of both houses of the Idaho Legislature and approved by vote of the people in the 1994 general election, placing it in the state Constitution.

Between the three hearings in Idaho Falls, Coeur d'Alene and Boise, the commission heard plenty of criticisms of plan L-83, the legislative district plan adopted by the previous commission as a compromise, after its deadline to act had passed. “There were many comments about how unpopular it was, and some of it with some justification,” Beitelspacher said. “However, I've been through a lot of reapportionment processes, and there will always be someone who's unhappy with some aspect of a new legislative district.”
  

Online class funding would vary sharply among Idaho school districts, under new laws

A quirk of the “Students Come First” school reform law's complicated formula for shifting funds from school districts to online course providers means that the providers will get far more money for providing classes to students in some school districts than in others. For example, an online provider sending a class to a high school student in Boise could tap roughly $210 for a one-semester online class from the Boise district's state funding stream, while a provider sending the same online class to a student in Midvale could collect roughly $733 from that smaller district's state funding.

Here's why: The law, under this year's SB 1184, allows students or their parents to enroll a student in any approved online class, with or without their school district's permission. Then, the provider of the online class is entitled to two-thirds of that district's state funding for the student for that class, while the district keeps one-third, to cover its costs for providing a classroom, a proctor, or other fixed costs for the student, who likely would take the online class on campus during the school day. The formula is dubbed “fractional ADA;” it would apply unless the school district has a contract with the online provider setting a different payment amount.

The complicated formula through which Idaho sends state funds to school districts based on ADA, or average daily attendance, has many factors that cause it to vary by district, however. Those include the size of a school district, to reflect economies of scale in larger districts and fixed costs in smaller districts; the distribution of students across different age categories from kindergarten to high school; and the experience level of the district's teachers and administrators, which also triggers differences in state funding.

The result: For high-school age students, state funding per ADA varies from a low of $4,334 per student per year at the Idaho Virtual Academy, closely followed by the next-lowest Caldwell School District, at $4,757 per student, Vallivue at $4,780 and Kuna at $4,789; to a high of $17,595 per Midvale high school student. The South Lemhi school district gets $17,470 per high school student; Culdesac gets $16,897. (All these figures, by the way, are based on state Department of Education finance guru Tim Hill's calculations for the 2009-2010 school year, so they're not the absolute latest, but Hill considers them a good basis for comparison.)

The state's largest school districts are on the low end for ADA. The Meridian School District gets just $4,843 per high-school student; Boise gets $5,047; and Coeur d'Alene, Lakeland and Post Falls school districts all come in just under $5,000.

The issue came up at the “Students Come First” technology task force meeting today, as state Department of Education official Jason Hancock demonstrated an example: In Middleton, an online provider would get $191 for a one-semester high school course; if the class costs more, parents would have to make up the difference. Rep. Wendy Jaquet, D-Ketchum, who serves on the task force, said, “So I think if I were a provider, I would first concentrate on these districts where this credit is worth a lot more money. I wonder if you've explored the idea of a cap.”

Hancock replied, “That's how the legislation reads. It's just built around essentially what an ADA is worth … and it is different from district to district.” He said that's why a subcommittee of the task force is looking into statewide contracts with online course providers, to secure lower rates for smaller districts that are more comparable to what larger districts would pay.

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna said, “We'll learn a lot once these laws are in place, and I think that's what we want to do, is learn from actual application of the laws, not make changes based on what we think may happen. … I don't think we've seen a perfect law yet.”

Hill said most students are likely to take online classes for which their districts sign contracts. “None of us know how many families are going to say, 'I understand what you're offering, district, I'm just not interested. I demand for my child to go take these other classes.'”

Hancock said that provision was included in the “Students Come First” law as “another example of providing parents with more choices.” He said, “Parents know best what is best for their children.”
  

School tech task force grapples with laptop questions, online course funding

Idaho's school technology task force, charged with figuring out how to implement plans for buying laptop computers or other devices for every Idaho high school student and teacher and implementing state school Superintendent Tom Luna's “Students Come First” reform plan's new focus on online learning, is meeting today and tomorrow in the Capitol Auditorium; you can listen live here. The task force is now hearing a presentation from Professor James Basham of the University of Kansas on “Universal Design for Learning;” you can see the full agenda here.

Among things that have come up so far today: Three vendors have expressed interest in Idaho's statewide contract for the computing devices so far, as the state moves through its “request for information” phase prior to issuing a request for proposals. Also, a subcommittee of the task force is developing a request for information for a statewide contract for online courses. Approved online courses would have to be taught by a teacher with an Idaho certificate, but the teacher could be located elsewhere. Later this morning, the task force is scheduled to hear a presentation on technology and services for the deaf and blind, and discuss the controversial “fractional ADA” funding formula in the reform law that shifts a portion of a school's per-student state funding (known as ADA, or Average Daily Attendance) to an online course provider if that student chooses to take an online course from the provider.

Redistricters finish whirlwind hearings, start deliberations tomorrow

Here's a link to my Sunday column on the redistricting hearings that the state's new bipartisan citizen commission held around the state last week; after crisscrossing the state, from Idaho Falls to Coeur d'Alene to Boise in three days, the commission will start its deliberations on new legislative and congressional districts tomorrow. The hearings gave Idahoans a formal chance to respond to plan L-83, the compromise legislative district plan agreed to by the former commission after its deadline had passed; new Commissioner Randy Hansen said the input gave him ideas for “improvements.”

Over the weekend, Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey reported that the new commission appears united in its goal of following legal precedent, including Idaho Supreme Court decisions specifically declaring the importance of not unnecessarily dividing counties; you can read his report here. There's more info here on the redistricting commission, proposed plans, and upcoming meetings.

Bear complaints way down this year in North Idaho

Though problems with bears have been all over the news this year - including the New York Times' recent suggestion that some of Idaho's slow-Internet problems are due to bears - this year is actually seeing far fewer bear complaints in North Idaho than last year. Spokesman-Review reporter Becky Kramer reports that last year, Idaho Fish & Game received 770 calls regarding problem bear activity in Bonner, Boundary and northern Kootenai counties; this year, the tally is just 158 complaints. More-abundant natural food supplies this year are the likely reason for the drop; last year, hungry black bears suffering through a poor huckleberry season were raiding bird feeders, upsetting garbage cans or prowling for dog food; you can read Kramer's full report here.

State tax revenues coming in on track

Idaho's general fund revenue report is in for September, and it's almost exactly on target, coming in very slightly over the forecasted level (about $69,400 above). That means state revenues for September of $229.1 million were on target at 9.5 percent higher than the same month the previous year. State chief economist Derek Santos reports that while sales taxes came in slightly below forecast for the month, at $91.6 million compared to a forecasted $93 million, all other categories of revenue came in ahead of forecast, including individual income tax receipts, which were $1 million ahead of forecast at $93 million. Since the fiscal year began July 1, total state tax collections are coming in very close to the forecast, lagging just 1.4 percent behind ($9.2 million). You can see all the numbers here.

Redistricters term new hearings ‘well worth the while, well worth the exhaustion’

Idaho's redistricting commission has closed its Boise public hearing, after more than an hour and a half of testimony. “It's been very informative and helpful,” Co-Chair Dolores Crow told the audience. “Thank you for coming. … We will continue to do the very  best we can, and with your input, it really does help, it really does.”

Afterward, she said, “We've gotten some good ideas .. and there are things we'll look at.” That was true with all three hearings, she said - Idaho Falls on Wednesday night, Coeur d'Alene on Thursday night, and Boise today. The commissioners have followed a grueling schedule, rising at 4 a.m. today for a 6 a.m. flight back from Coeur d'Alene to Boise, a pace they kept up all three days. “I didn't think in the beginning that it was necessary,” Crow said, because the commission has the benefit of the entire hearing record amassed by the previous redistricting commission, which missed its deadline in early September, prompting the appointment of a second panel. “But it's been well worth the while - and well worth the exhaustion.”

Loebs: Redistricting like Dr. Frankenstein’s task

Twin Falls County Prosecutor Grant Loebs told redistricters today, “The last commission ended with a plan that hacked Twin Falls county into four pieces. Well, that's clearly unconstitutional, because Twin Falls County, based on its size, must be divided, but must be divided only one time. … If you make a third district, that's clearly unconstitutional.” He said he was up late recently watching the movie “Frankenstein” and thinking about redistricting - Dr. Frankenstein didn't do a bad job stitching his monster together, Loebs said, but he settled for a damaged brain after dropping it on the floor. “I urge you guys not to settle, to stay in as long as you have to stay in to get it done,” he said, “because this is very important for the whole state of Idaho.”

Crow to Beck: ‘Next time you do this job’

Former state Sen. Rod Beck told the Idaho redistricting commission today that he never was in the Legislature during redistricting, but said, “I was one of those people in Ada County that was getting jerked around.” He said as a young Boisean, he looked up who his senator was, and it was someone from Grand View. “That sort of thing breeds cynicism,” he said. He praised commission Co-Chairman Ron Beitelspacher for his comments last night in Coeur d'Alene about serving the people, even if it makes all the political folks mad. “I commend you for that position, and I hope you maintain that position throughout the … process,” Beck said. Unreasonable district lines occur “because of politics,” he said. “Draw some legislative districts for the people of Idaho that's easily understood and that's easily articulated.” He said the previous commission did a good job on Ada County lines, because “it's a clear, distinct line, people can understand where they live.”

When Beck offered a few jabs about the redistricting process, Co-Chair Dolores Crow bristled. “You know I have a really good idea,” she told him, “next time you put your hand up to do this job.”

Rep. Darrell Bolz, R-Caldwell, urged the redistricting commission to consider communities of interest - and not where current lawmakers like him live. “You have to look at population,” he said. Bolz said if he ends up in a district where, should he choose to run again, he'd have to face another incumbent, “So be it.”

Ray Stark of the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce encouraged the commission to draw nine complete legislative districts within Ada County. “We think it can be done because of the numbers,” he said. “We don't know if it can be done in 2021, but right now the numbers work out in 2011 for nine districts in Ada County.” He noted that the compromise plan reached by the last redistricting commission, L-83, did that; he said the chamber has no recommendation on where the lines go within Ada County, but wants the full nine districts. Crow told Stark, “We'll take a good look at that.”

Meridian mayor pleads for at least one all-Meridian legislative district

Meridian Mayor Tammy DeWeerd told the Idaho redistricting commission that her city is the third largest in the state. “The proposal that the last commission left with divides our city in five different districts,” she said. To the east, portions of Meridian would pair with Boise; to the north, with Kuna and Star; “and then District 22 goes clear to Mountain Home. … Our concern is being the third-largest city, that we would like to have at least one district within our city that is whole to our community. That way we know at least one district will have two representatives and one senator who will be more focused on our community's issues.” Under plan L-83, she said, “We could have zero, or perhaps we would have 15 - we don't know how that would turn out.”
  

Boise redistricting hearing opens with light crowd…

The new redistricting commission has opened its Boise public hearing today, to a fairly light crowd of about 20; first to speak was Tom Faulkner, Gooding County commissioner. He said his county would prefer to be in a district with another county like Twin Falls, rather than with Blaine County as it is now, as his county doesn't like “being included in a county that has such a liberal leaning, I guess.” Next up was West Boise resident Steve Berch, who suggested dividing a proposed district in his area horizontally rather than vertically, “on the principle of trying to create like communities together.” Commission Co-Chair Dolores Crow responded, “Great idea.”

The Boise crowd is lighter than those seen elsewhere around the state; last night in Coeur d'Alene, about 50 people attended, and the night before in Idaho Falls, there was a standing-room-only crowd of about 80 people.

Sen. Stegner a finalist for UI’s top lobbyist job

The Lewiston Tribune reports today that Sen. Joe Stegner, R-Lewiston, is among three finalists to replace the retiring Marty Peterson, longtime University of Idaho special assistant to the president for government relations and top lobbyist for the university in Boise. Stegner, a seven-term senator, current chairman of the Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee and former assistant majority leader, will join the other two finalists - Wayne Hammon, Gov. Butch Otter's budget chief, and Idaho Grain Producers Executive Director Travis Jones - next week on the UI campus for interviews and open forums with the UI community.

Tribune reporter Joel Mills reports that there were about 100 applicants for the position; both Stegner and Jones are UI alumni. UI Vice President for Advancement Chris Murray told the Trib, “The interest was very, very high,” and praised all three finalists. “First and foremost, they're very solid people,” he said. “Each of them has great skills relative to working in the state Legislature. That's an important part of our budget, and it's an important part of our success. In order to serve the state, we need to have the proper state funding.”

Redistricters hold Boise hearing today

The new Idaho redistricting commission will hold a public hearing in Boise today, from noon to 2 p.m. at the Capitol Auditorium. The commission is inviting testimony relevant to the redistricting process, from areas of local community interest, demographics, and economics to geography, population trends and political and historical factors that could matter as they draw new legislative and congressional district lines. This is the third of three days of public hearings the commission is holding around the state; starting Tuesday, it'll begin its deliberations. There's more info here.

Redistricting hearing: ‘I suppose all the political folks will be mad at us when we get done’

Helo Hancock, legislative director for the Coeur d'Alene Tribe, told the redistricting commission tonight that the tribe is the largest employer in Kootenai County, with nearly 2,000 employees, 60 percent of whom are not Indian.  “The tribe has a very significant and important interest in Kootenai County and we feel like there is truly a community of interest that meets the definition and certainly the intent of that provision in the statute,” he said. “Our request was that the reservation be kept whole and that it be joined in a district in Kootenai County.” None of the plans proposed thus far really does that, Hancock said, but he said the earlier plan L-64 probably came the closest in North Idaho. He said rumors that any plan that divides the Coeur d'Alene Reservation would mean an automatic lawsuit from the tribe are untrue.

Clearwater County Commission Chairman Don Ebert urged against including his sparsely populated county in a very large district that's difficult to travel, but said, “I really don't have the solution for you. The thing that I see, though, that I would encourage you not to let happen: Don't use our last little part of the state to balance for the rest of the state.” Redistricting Commission Co-Chairman Ron Beitelspacher of Grangeville responded that when he represented that district back when, “At one time I was clear down at the Ada County line, so I understand what's involved in driving those distances.” He noted that the “magic number” to make a legislative district is roughly a population of 45,000. “If you take Idaho and you take Clearwater and you take Lewis County, you're still short,” he said.

Phil Lampert, Benewah County commissioner, said proposed plan L-83 is “completely unacceptable for Benewah County - it splits Benewah County, it splits Benewah County's seat, St. Maries, right down the middle.” Former state lawmaker Gary Ingram noted that when he served in the 1970s, he represented all of Kootenai County. “Things have changed,” he said. But county lines still matter more than “nebulous” concepts of communities of interest, Ingram said. “Weigh the counties more … and get 'er done.”

Beitelspacher, closing the hearing after nearly two hours of testimony, said, “I suppose all the political folks will be mad at us when we get done, and so be it. We're here to serve the people.” His comment was greeted with applause.

Testimony: ‘Political posturing’…

Republican James McMillan of Wallace told the redistricting commission that tonight may be the only time he agrees with Wallace Democrat Jon Ruggles - both expressed concerns about the large new District 7 proposed in legislative district Plan L-83, which includes Shoshone County. Others questioned why the citizen redistricting commission is evenly divided between the two parties, when Republicans dominate the Idaho Legislature. Several said they want rural residents' voice preserved, though commissioners responded that districts have to have close to 45,000 people to meet the one-person, one-vote constitutional requirement.

Paula Bauer of Viola said, “Map L-83 feels like a slap in the face to many rural residents” and warned against “political posturing.” Commission Co-Chair Dolores Crow responded that she's heard more political posturing from those testifying at tonight's hearing than she's heard from anyone on the commission.

Hassell: CdA now ‘almost mathematically perfect’ for a legislative district

Longtime Coeur d'Alene City Councilman Al Hassell told Idaho's bipartisan citizen redistricting commission that according to the latest census, Coeur d'Alene's population is now 44,137 - almost exactly the perfect legislative district population size of 44,788. “This makes your work quite easy, I think, keeping Coeur d'Alene whole in redistricting,” he told the commission. “It is not only sensible, but almost mathematically perfect.” Ten years ago, when the population was less, the city was divided into three districts, he said. He presented a letter signed by the entire City Council and mayor requesting that Coeur d'Alene be kept whole in a single district.

Harwood to redistricters: ‘I didn’t like what I seen’

State Rep. Dick Harwood, R-St. Maries, told Idaho's citizen redistricting commission at its hearing in Coeur d'Alene tonight that his current district is “gerrymandered” - including moving one woman's ranch into District 1 because she didn't want to be in District 2. “There was a lot of gerrymandering that went on,” Harwood said. “Another thing that I feel is wrong is we're using the reservation as a boundary. I didn't complain about that last time and I kinda wish I would've, because I believe our law says that you have to use a visible road, or a crick. The reservation boundary … heaven knows where it's at sometimes.”

Harwood objected to the new district he'd be in under L-83, the plan reached by former redistricting commissioners after their deadline, saying it's just too big. “For me to serve Riggins, it'd take me about three and a half, four hours to get there for an hour meeting and then another three and a half, four hours to get back. It's just unserve-able,” he said.

The commissioners responded that they have no intention of engaging in gerrymandering. “There will be no ranch on the other side of the line just because somebody doesn't like the representation on the other side of the line,” declared Co-Chairman Ron Beitelspacher. “I don't know where anybody lives, I don't care where they live. … We have a difficult enough job to do, much less worrying about some legislator who may not run again. … It's foolish.” Co-Chair Dolores Crow said, “We are dedicated to do it the legal way, and when we start out to look at anything, it's with blinders on. We see nothing but the map and the roads and the way that our Constitution says it must be divided. That's kind of hard-nosed, but that's the way to stay out of court, and it saves a lot of money and time and effort and whatever.”

Harwood responded, “Plato said your silence gives consent, and I didn't want to be silent because I didn't like what I seen.”

Redistricting hearing: Idaho Falls senator ‘banished to Bingham County’

At last night's Idaho Redistricting Commission hearing in Idaho Falls, among those testifying was Idaho Falls retiree Carrie Scheid, who told the commissioners she was upset to see that in L-83, the plan agreed on by the former redistricting commission after its deadline passed, Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis of Idaho Falls was “banished to Bingham County - not that there's anything wrong with that, Bingham's great, but they don't know who he is down there.” Saying Davis has “so well represented Idaho Falls, he's just a wonderful elected official,” she said, “What a loss for Idaho Falls. To see a line almost curve around his backyard to move him to Bingham was a little disconcerting.” Plan L-83 would put Davis in the same district as Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot.

Rep. Dell Raybould, R-Rexburg, said of his eastern Idaho district, District 34, “If I had my druthers I would say leave it the way it is, but because of the population in Madison County increasing because of the university there, that's not going to be possible for you to do.” Still, he urged the commission to keep District 34 a natural resources-dominated district.

Power County Commission Chairwoman Vicki Meadows told the commissioners, “I want to tell you people, I wouldn't do your job for any amount of money in the world.” Tonight, the redistricting commission is in Coeur d'Alene, where it'll hold a public hearing from 6-8 p.m. Pacific time at Coeur d'Alene City Hall. On Friday, the commissioners will hold a Boise hearing, from noon to 2 p.m. in the Capitol Auditorium.
  

Idaho Supreme Court declares state’s current legislative districts unconstitutional

The Idaho Supreme Court has made it official: The current legislative district plan now in effect in Idaho is unconstitutional. In its written order, issued today, the high court canceled plans to hold oral arguments on that issue on Oct. 12, as “no parties came forward to defend the constitutionality” of the current district setup, given the population data from the latest U.S. Census, issued in 2010.

Today's order is the final order in the case in which the court already declined to order a citizen redistricting commission back to work after it blew its Sept. 6 deadline, and instead forced the appointment of a new commission; that new bipartisan six-member panel is holding public hearings this week, including one last night in Idaho Falls, one tonight in Coeur d'Alene, and one tomorrow in Boise. You can read the Supreme Court's order here.

Otter at Women’s Day on selling Idaho to China: ‘We have not, we will not’

An array of female state government officials, including state Controller Donna Jones, state Department of Agriculture Director Celia Gould, state Appellate Public Defender Molly Huskey, state Historical Society Director Janet Gallimore, and many more, are gathered in the Capitol Auditorium for today's second annual “Women's Day at the Capitol.” Gov. Butch Otter told the group, “Women have been intricately involved in the history of Idaho.”

The governor, First Lady Lori Otter and the officials are taking questions from the roughly 70 attendees; the first was from the owner of a very small business, inquiring what the state is doing to help the state's smallest businesses, like hers with just herself and one part-time employee. Otter said, “I would tell you in Idaho, small business is our economy.” Bibiana Nertney from the Idaho Department of Commerce discussed loans and other programs her department offers. The next question, submitted in writing and read by moderator Natalie Hurst, was, “Can you explain the Chinese situation - are you really selling part of the state?”

Otter said, “No - that's the answer. I don't know how that got so convoluted, but I guess it had to do with poor timing on our part. The first lady and I led a trade delegation to China.” He noted that Idaho's international sales have risen dramatically since 1987, when he first became lieutenant governor, and touted that growth. “Somehow the connection was made between a visit that was made to the state of Idaho by a Chinese group and my trip to China,” Otter said. “I have never ever talked to anyone or got into a discussion with anyone that wanted to buy 50,000 acres right next to Gowen Field, which we don't have, by the way, and open up a free trade zone, which we only have one in Idaho, and it's actually up on the Canadian border with Canada. … We have not, we will not.”
  

Governor, first lady hold second annual ‘Women’s Day at Capitol’ today

Gov. Butch Otter and First Lady Lori Otter are inviting people to their second annual “Women's Day at the Capitol” today, from 3-6 p.m. in the Capitol Auditorium. The governor called it “kind of an offshoot to Capitol for a Day, as we go around the state and visit other communities, we thought it would also be nice to have a day where we focus on the women in our Cabinet and in our administration, and be able to answer questions for ladies that would otherwise be curious of what we do here at the Capitol, what we do in state government and how much the women in our Cabinet add to the effectiveness of government.”

He added, “We had a great turnout last year, I don’t remember the exact number, but I think a lot of people were surprised that we had that many women in leadership positions in state government, and how very effective they were at answering questions and engaging in conversation with folks so that they would better understand what we do in government.”

Crapo, Risch co-sponsor bipartisan bill to extend rural county payments

Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch are introducing compromise legislation with a bipartisan group of senators to continue funding for the Secure Rural Schools program and the Payment in Lieu of Taxes program for the next five years. Among the other original co-sponsors: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada; Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-New Mexico, and Lisa Murkowski, R–Alaska, chairman and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources; and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, chairman of that panel's Public Lands Subcommittee. The new legislation comes as payments to timber-dependent rural counties - including many in Idaho - face expiration, with the end of what formerly was known as the Craig-Wyden program to make up for lost timber revenues to those communities.

“For years, our counties have been impacted by losses in timber and tax revenues on federal lands,” Crapo said.  “The federal government has a responsibility to be a good neighbor to these counties – they have already lost substantial funding for schools, roads and other essential services.” Risch said, “In many of our counties, the federal government is the majority landowner.  When these large tracts of land are locked up by changing policies, a greater portion of education and transportation costs are pushed on to private property owners.  As a landowner, the federal government has a responsibility to help shoulder that burden.”

Both senators acknowledged that the legislation is a short-term, rather than long-term solution to the county payments issue; in a joint statement, they also said, “While this funding is a top priority, it must also be paid for by finding bipartisan, responsible offsets without raising taxes.” Thus, the proposed legislation is just a “first step” to more discussions in Congress. You can read their full joint news release here, and click below for an AP story on the bill.

Seasons change…

I was out of town the first part of this week, and caught something special Wednesday morning: The year's first snowfall at Lake Tahoe, shown here. After our warm, summery September, the season really is changing now, as Boise's chilly rain today attests. It must be time…

Homeowner’s exemption drops again, this time to $83,974 for 2012

The state Tax Commission has set the maximum homeowner's exemption from property taxes for 2012, and it's dropping again, this time down to $83,974. That's down from $92,040 this year. The exemption is tied to the Idaho Home Price Index, so it goes up and down with Idaho home values, under a 2006 law. The maximum exemption hit a high of $104,471 in 2009, then began declining as Idaho home values dropped.

The homeowner's exemption exempts 50 percent of the value of an owner-occupied home from property taxes, but it's capped at the annually-adjusted maximum. That maximum was set at a fixed $50,000 for 23 years, from 1983 to 2005 - causing a big property tax shift onto homeowners as home values escalated but the exemption stayed the same - before the 2006 Legislature decided to raise it to $75,000 and tie it to future ups and downs in home prices.

The drop in the maximum from 2011 to 2012 won't make any difference for owners of lower-priced homes, according to Alan Dornfest, property tax policy supervisor for the Tax Commission, who noted, “There will be no change in the amount of the homeowner’s exemption for anyone whose home has a 2012 market value under $167,948.” Click below for the Tax Commission's full announcement and a table showing changes in the maximum exemption over the years.

Per-diem dustup could prompt reforms…

The dustup over legislators' per diem - after the Associated Press reported that two Canyon County senators billed taxpayers $6,400 apiece for a second Boise residence during the session while one slept on his law office couch and the other stayed with his parents - could prompt reforms of the per diem system, AP reporter John Miller reports today. Click below for his full article.

Redistricters hit the road, first hearing on tap Wednesday in Idaho Falls

Idaho's new citizen redistricting commission is hitting the road, with its first public hearing scheduled for Wednesday in Idaho Falls, from 6-8 p.m. at Idaho Falls City Hall, 680 Park Ave. The panel will head to Coeur d'Alene on Thursday, from a hearing from 6-8 p.m. at Coeur d'Alene City Hall, and will wrap up on Friday in Boise with a hearing in the state Capitol Auditorium. There's more info here.

Nampa senator must repay Nampa-Boise mileage, also was paid for spending night in Boise, not driving

AP reporter John Miller reports that state Sen. Curt McKenzie of Nampa must return more than $2,400 in inappropriate mileage reimbursements for travel from his Nampa home to the state Capitol during the legislative session, when he also was getting reimbursed for maintaining a second residence in Boise during the session, while actually sleeping on the couch at his Boise law office. McKenzie said he was unaware he was also getting the mileage reimbursement, and didn't ask for it; click below for Miller's full report. Before that news came out, McKenzie sent a guest opinion to the Idaho Statesman defending his per diem use; you can read it here at Kevin Richert's blog. It says, in part, “The suggestion that any of us serve in order to get a little extra per diem just doesn’t hold water.”

Judge orders Bustamante records released

2nd District Judge John Stegner has ordered the personnel records of former UI Professor Ernesto Bustamante released, in a court case in which the University of Idaho and media organizations from across the state appealed to the court to see if privacy protections for state personnel records persist after the employee is dead; Bustamante shot himself to death after police say he fatally shot UI student Katy Benoit outside her Moscow home. “This provides us with what we sought: a clear path forward,” University of Idaho general counsel Kent Nelson said in a statement. “It has always been the university's intention to be as open and transparent as the law allows in this matter.” Click below for a full report from the Lewiston Tribune and the Associated Press.

Judge Stegner, ruling from the bench, held that the definition of “former official” does include one who is dead, but then applied a balancing test and ordered disclosure of the records, determining that the public's right to know outweighed the privacy right of the “former official.” The UI doesn't plan to appeal the ruling, which sets precedent for such cases in the future.
  

Lawmakers to discuss health insurance exchanges, Molina, more…

The Health Care Task Force, a joint committee of seven state senators and seven state representatives, meets Tuesday starting at 9 a.m. at the state capitol, with an agenda that includes an update on the problems with the Molina system; the latest from the National Conference of State Legislatures on states' efforts to comply with national health care reform legislation; and both an update and a panel on the Idaho health insurance exchange, including information from state Insurance Director Bill Deal on where things stand, and opinions from 10 interested groups, from IACI and the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network to the Idaho Chamber Alliance, the Idaho Association of Health Plans and the Idaho Freedom Foundation.

You can see the full agenda here, and listen live here.
  

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About this blog

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

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

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