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Eye On Boise

Archive for April 2012

Hart paid lawyer with campaign funds; state says nothing prohibits that

Idaho state Rep. Phil Hart paid $1,000 in campaign funds in 2011 to Coeur d'Alene attorney Starr Kelso, who's representing him in his ongoing fight against back state income taxes; Hart lost his tax appeal to the Idaho Supreme Court last week. But Hart said the payment was for helping him defend against a series of House ethics complaints.    The fourth-term lawmaker faced ethics complaints over his tax fight and an illegal state timber harvest; Kelso represented Hart at two House Ethics Committee hearings in Boise in 2010 and submitted documents on his behalf.

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa said, “There's nothing prohibiting that.” Campaign funds can be used for anything “related to being a holder of public office,” he said. And while Idaho state law doesn't specifically mention the use of campaign funds for legal defense, Ysursa said, “We look to the feds for some guidance, and they have in the past indicated that legal defense fund use of campaign funds was OK.” There's a prominent precedent among Idaho politicians: Then-U.S. Sen. Larry Craig tapped his campaign funds for more than a quarter-million dollars after his arrest in a Minneapolis airport restroom sex sting in 2007, including $23,000 for an attorney to represent him in a Senate ethics investigation. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
  

As May 15 primary approaches in Hart’s district, ‘whole lot of politics going on’ in North Idaho

Tax-protesting state Rep. Phil Hart may be the most controversial lawmaker in North Idaho, and his re-election bid for a fifth term in the state House has drawn a bevy of challengers in the May 15 GOP primary. It’s a far cry from the last election, in which Hart was unopposed both in the primary and on the general election ballot. But an unprecedented 20 percent of the vote went to a write-in challenger in the general election in 2010, after news broke about Hart’s court fights over back taxes and a 1996 timber theft case. He subsequently lost his seat on the House tax committee and gave up a vice chairmanship on the Transportation Committee to avoid House ethics sanctions.

Hart said this year’s campaign is keeping him busy. “I think there’s a lot more interest this year, just because people are paying more attention to politics,” said Hart; you can read my full profile of the race here at spokesman.com. Hart's primary opponents include Ron Vieselmeyer, 71, an outspoken Christian conservative, ordained minister, former state lawmaker and current North Idaho College trustee; longtime Hayden real estate appraiser Ed Morse; and local firefighter Fritz Wiedenhoff. The winner of the four-way race will face Democrat Dan English in November.

Vieselmeyer said issues aren’t as much at stake in this year’s race as people. “It’s either somebody else wins and represents them, or they continue to have Phil Hart representing them,” he said. “And that’s been an uncomfortable situation for a lot of people.”

The district’s other two legislative seats are both held by close allies of Hart whom he recruited to run two years ago, Sen. Steve Vick and Rep. Vito Barbieri, both of Dalton Gardens. Both Vick and Barbieri face challenges in the Republican primary this year as well, and Democratic challengers are standing by to run against the GOP primary winners in November. That’s an anomaly for this district – no Democrat has even run for the Legislature from the district since 2002. Former Sen. Mike Jorgenson, R-Hayden Lake, whom Vick defeated in the primary two years ago to win the seat, is running against Vick; and businessman Mark Fisher is challenging Barbieri.

Fisher echoed Hart about the interest he’s seeing locally in this year’s legislative primary election, which historically has drawn low turnout and little interest. “There’s a whole lot of politics going on up here,” he said.
I also have profiles of the contested primary races in District 3 and District 4 in today's paper.

Rocky Mountain governors gather for ‘roundtable’ on federal lands

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter today joined the governors of Utah, Wyoming and Nevada for a “Rocky Mountain Roundtable” discussion of common concernss that focused heavily on federal land management issues. “The Western states need to bind together and unite their voices,” said Utah Gov. Gary Herbert, who hosted the talks in Salt Lake City. “We have a uniqueness that other people don't understand.”

The participating governors, all Republicans, also included Wyoming's Matt Mead and Nevada's Brian Sandoval, who joined the conference by phone. Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, a Democrat, had planned to attend but canceled because of issues at home. Herbert said today's all-day talks were just the beginning; Otter said he hoped that by banding together, the Rocky Mountain states could have more influence in Washington, D.C. on issues including “the use of natural resources, the management and control of public lands and the assets that are on those public lands.” He noted that the states share the distinction of having vast amounts of their territory consisting of federal public lands. “As a major stakeholder and as one who's going to either suffer from or benefit from some of those solutions that come up in Washington, D.C., I just think we need to have more input in them,” Otter said. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Josh Loftin in Salt Lake City.

Idaho Supreme Court: Send child to dad in Mexico

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― The Idaho Supreme Court ordered a 3-year-old girl in state custody be delivered to her father, a Mexican citizen who has never met his daughter because he's legally barred from entering the United States. The justices ruled Thursday a lower court erred when severing the man's parental rights last December. The man married an Idaho woman in 2007 while living illegally in the U.S. He returned to Mexico under court order, with his wife, in 2008 but she soon went back to Idaho, giving birth. The state took custody of the baby months later, citing neglect. Both parents' rights were terminated at the state Department of Health and Welfare's request. When reinstating the father's rights, the high court questioned the department's motives, noting an employee wanted to adopt the girl.

You can read the full court decision here; click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.

Bob Smith, orthodontist, powder-skiers’ hero, dies at 78

Here's an obituary from the Idaho Mountain Express/AP: KETCHUM, Idaho (AP) ― Robert Earl “Bob” Smith, an orthodontist whose passion for skiing powder snow helped turn him into a goggle and sunglasses pioneer, died last week of complications related to heart surgery. Smith's family confirmed his April 18 death in California to the Idaho Mountain Express (http://bit.ly/InsEWq ). He was 78. After frustrating goggle-fogging experiences while skiing, Smith in the 1960s used dental tools and foam to create a double-lensed ski goggle whose inner lens was protected from the cold. Drew Smith, his son, says the goggle resulted from his need to see while skiing deep powder. Smith built the Smith Sport Optics headquarters in Ketchum in the early-1970s. But before he struck a deal for the manufacturing of Smith goggles in the late-1960s, Smith would often trade his goggles for lift tickets.

Hart: Pledges to continue to fight, says he doesn’t owe the state any tax

Idaho Rep. Phil Hart tonight issued a defiant press release after the Idaho Supreme Court unanimously rejected his state income tax appeal, saying he plans to continue to fight. “It is but another phase of my quest for justice,” Hart wrote in the release he posted on Facebook; you can click below to read it in full. He maintained, “I do not owe the State of Idaho any tax.”

Idaho Supreme Court unanimously rejects Rep. Hart’s income tax appeal

A unanimous Idaho Supreme Court has rejected state Rep. Phil Hart's appeal of an order to pay more than $53,000 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest on grounds of legislative privilege; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. In a seven-page opinion authored by Justice Jim Jones, the unanimous court held that the Idaho Constitution's legislative privilege clause from arrest or “civil process” during legislative sessions didn't protect Hart, or permit him to file his state tax appeal months later than anyone else would have been allowed to.

“Hart's untenable argument flows from his misunderstanding of the word 'process,'” Jones wrote. “In this case, Hart was not obligated to do anything but pay his taxes.” The state didn't try to “compel Hart’s appearance before a tribunal,” the court wrote. “No court sought to hold Hart responsible for a new legal obligation. No sheriff or other agent of the State sought to arrest Hart or compel him to appear anywhere or take any other action. In other words, no one tried to hold Hart liable to civil process. Rather, Hart sought to avail himself of … appeals procedures, which he had until January 4, 2010 to do. He missed that deadline by almost three months.”

Wrote the court, “In this instance, Hart is just a taxpayer, with no greater privilege than his constituents.”

The court also dismissed Hart's argument that 4th District Judge John Mitchell abused his discretion by refusing to delay a motion hearing when Hart was in Boise participating in a legislative debate; he wasn't required to attend the hearing. The high court wrote, “Hart's argument on this issue is devoid of reasoned analysis or relevant authority.”

The court awarded attorney fees and costs to the state. “Hart's position here is groundless,” Jones wrote.

Hart's first court appeal in his state income tax case charged that Idaho's state income tax is unconstitutional; that argument wasn't considered, because the appeal was thrown out for being filed too late. Hart, a tax protester who stopped filing both federal and state income tax returns for three years in the 1990s, while he pressed an unsuccessful lawsuit charging the federal income tax was unconstitutional, had 91 days to appeal his order to pay more than $53,000 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest for tax years 1996 to 2004, but instead waited more than six months, saying an intervening legislative session entitled him to more time. Because it was too late, his appeal was rejected, a decision he's now unsuccessfully appealed five times.

New rules for Capitol Mall protests: 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. only, other restrictions…

Idaho's state Department of Administration has published new rules for use of the Capitol Mall grounds, as authorized by last-minute legislation that passed on the final day of this year's legislative session. The new rules, which take effect immediately but still will be reviewed by next year's Legislature, are targeted at the Occupy Boise protest across from the state Capitol, but also include rules for protests and exhibits in and around the state Capitol and other state facilities. Among them: No event can run more than 11 consecutive hours or seven consecutive days, and events are limited to the hours of 7 a.m. to 6 p.m.

The effect of the new rules on the Occupy Boise vigil are unclear, as a federal judge has ruled the 24/7 vigil and its tents are protected free speech; a June 7 court hearing is scheduled on the matter. The Idaho Statesman has a full report here on the new rules; you can read the new rules here, along with information on how to submit written public comments. A separate set covers indoor events. The Department of Administration is accepting written public comment on the rules through 5 p.m. on Friday, June 1.
  

Idaho personal income, business profits rise

Here are some signs of economic recovery, courtesy of the Idaho Department of Labor: Thirty-seven of Idaho's 44 counties saw total personal income rise in 2010, vs. just five in 2009, according to new estimates from the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis. Meanwhile, business profits rose more than wages, jumping 13 percent statewide, vs. 2.1 percent for worker paychecks.

Some examples: In Boundary County, total income was up  6.8 percent from the previous year, even though the average wage, at $31,114, fell 1.1 percent, and the number of jobs, 3,636, was down 2.5 percent. Kootenai County saw a 1.5 percent drop in the number of jobs, but a 2.2 percent rise in the average wage to $33,071; total income was up 3.3 percent. In Shoshone County, total income was up 6.4 percent, while the average wage was up 8.3 percent to $35,214, even as the number of jobs fell 3.3 percent. You can read Labor's full announcement here, including county-by-county data.

Occupy Boise blasts state attempt to evict their tents to allow lawnmowing, maintenance

The Occupy Boise group says there's no emergency requiring evicting their 24/7 vigil to allow lawnmowing, sprinkling and the start of a construction project inside the vacant Capitol Annex. In its response filed this week to a state motion asking a federal judge to reconsider his earlier ruling allowing the tents to remain, Bryan Walker, attorney for the Occupy group wrote, “Things are just as they were when this Court entered the injunction: the State's unceasing efforts to squelch disfavored political protest still continue.” Walker referred to the state's motion asking the judge to alter his order as “its latest scheme to evict Occupy Boise.”

A hearing in the case is scheduled for June 7. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Alex Morrell; you can read the Occupy group's filing here, and the state's motion here. At the Occupy site today, across from the state Capitol, a couple of tents were being moved, while others stand. A volunteer explained that some were being moved around to accommodate the state's planned construction fencing for its work inside the building; there's still plenty of room on the lawn for the remaining tents. Two other people sat smoking and talking, along with a small dog, inside one of the larger tents; there was no one else around.

The federal judge's earlier order found that the 24-hour presence of the tents is a form of symbolic speech protected by the 1st Amendment, so the state couldn't evict them; but he didn't block the state's new law, enacted on an emergency basis by lawmakers this session, to ban camping on the Capitol Mall grounds. That means the Occupy group can have its tents there and maintain a 24-hour vigil, but can't sleep in them.

New Idaho election rules cause confusion

The upcoming May primary election will be Idaho's first under the state's new closed-primary and party registration law, and the new rules are causing lots of confusion. Idaho Statesman reporter Cynthia Sewell has a nice how-to article about it here. The upshot: To vote in the primary, you have to register your affiliation with a party – Constitution, Democratic, Libertarian or Republican – or choose unaffiliated. Only those who register as Republicans can vote in the GOP primary. Anyone can vote in the Democratic primary – except those who vote in the Republican primary, because you can only vote in one or the other - and anyone can vote on the nonpartisan offices, which in May are just unopposed judicial races. Whatever choices you make, they'll be public record.

Congressional candidate terms felony charge ‘a fly in the ointment’ to campaign

1st District congressional candidate Cynthia Clinkingbeard, who filed to run in the Democratic primary but then was arrested for aggravated assault on March 16 after pulling a gun on employees at a Staples store, has termed her legal case “a fly in the ointment” to her campaign, reports Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey. He reports that Clinkingbeard, in an email, offered this update on her congressional campaign: “I just got out of the hospital a couple days ago and have not quite caught up with everything yet. My media guy took off for Afghanistan so I am having to start over and gear back up. My legal case is a bit of a fly in the ointment, but I am hoping that will be closer to resolution soon.”

A court-ordered mental health evaluation for the former physician is scheduled for May 4; she is running against former pro football player and Lewiston native Jimmy Farris for a shot a challenging GOP 1st District Rep. Raul Labrador in November. You can read Popkey's full post here.
  

Gingrich sends cashier’s check to replace bounced one, makes Utah ballot

Utah elections director Mark Thomas confirmed today that his office has received a $500 cashier's check from the Newt Gingrich campaign, in time to make an April 20 deadline to replace an earlier bounced check and qualify Gingrich for the state's June 26 presidential primary election. “They corrected the issue, so at this point we are anticipating him to be on our June 26th ballot,” Thomas told Eye on Boise.

A week and a half ago, Gingrich told ABC News that the bounced check to Utah was “one of those goofy things,” and said it was accidentally written on a bank account that had been closed. Bounced checks also were an issue back in the 1992 election for Gingrich, when an opponent highlighted Gingrich's having bounced 22 checks written on the House bank when he was House minority whip, at the height of the House banking scandal; Gingrich barely won the election.

Thomas said it's not unheard of for candidates to bounce their filing fee checks to the state of Utah, but it's certainly not common. In the six years he's been there, “we've had a couple,” he said, but they were from candidates for local offices, not high-profile state or national races.
  

Payette County sued for role in nuke plant stock-fraud scheme

Payette County is being sued for approving a proposed nuclear power plant that critics say was actually just a stock-fraud scheme. “Payette County failed to prudently represent the public interest and directly injured the hardworking neighbors of the purported power plant site,” a group of 11 neighbors of the proposed plant site said in a statement. They've sued both the county and Alternative Energy Holdings Inc., along with the firm's two leaders, Don Gillispie and Jennifer Ransom; they're asking that all approvals for the project be reversed.

The lawsuit, filed in 3rd District Court in Payette County earlier this week, says the county's approvals, including a comprehensive plan change, zoning change and variance, “materially aided the Defendants in the fraud scheme by which Defendants raised millions of dollars.”

The county's approvals were the only sign of legitimacy for the project, the neighbors charge, saying, “Payette County allowed the Idaho Local Land Use Planning Act to be abused as part of a get-rich-quick scheme.” Notably, the plaintiffs' attorneys include the firm that won the Alamar Ranch case in which Boise County was hit with a $4 million  judgment for an improper zoning decision that violated federal law. You can read the 63-page complaint here.

Benoit settlement of $375,000 all will go to charity

In addition to a series of changes on the University of Idaho campus, the settlement of a $3 million tort claim that the family of slain grad student Katy Benoit reached with the university calls for the university to pay the family $375,000 in exchange for the family dropping all legal claims. “The Benoit Family has chosen to donate all settlement proceeds to charitable causes,” the family and university said in a joint statement yesterday, “primarily via the Katy Benoit Memorial Fund, which has been established through the Idaho Community Foundation.”

The dollar amount was revealed today pursuant to a public records request; the state Board of Education unanimously approved the settlement yesterday at its meeting in Moscow. The settlement also calls for stepped-up communications between the university and the Moscow Police Department; a new system for anonymous complaints by students or faculty; improved sexual harassment training for students, staff and faculty; and an annual on-campus safety event named for Katy.

The young woman was shot to death by former professor Ernesto Bustamante, who then killed himself. “Katy’s life and the events pertaining to her death have provided an abundance of lessons that the Benoit Family and the University of Idaho are fully committed to learning from and helping others learn from,” the family and university said in their statement. “It is our hope that these lessons can help create a perpetually safer and wiser culture not just at the U of I, but on other campuses throughout the nation.”

State Board: ‘Profoundly sorry’ for Benoit family’s loss

Newly elected Idaho State Board of Education President Ken Edmunds has issued the following statement on behalf of the board, regarding the settlement reached with the family of slain UI grad student Katy Benoit:

The settlement announced yesterday between the Benoit family and the University of Idaho was unanimously approved by the State Board of Education. The Board members, individually and collectively, want the family to know we are profoundly sorry for their loss. The Board is thoroughly committed to providing a safe and supportive environment at all of Idaho’s public education institutions.  We appreciate the efforts of the Benoits and the University to focus on the best interests of Idaho students. They deserve all we can do to safeguard their future.”

Idaho unemployment drops for 8th straight month, falls to 7.9%

Idaho's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate dropped below 8 percent in March for the first time in two and a half years, the Idaho Department of Labor reports. The drop to 7.9 percent was the eight straight month that the state's jobless rate fell; more Idahoans found work in March than in any other month since October of 2006. You can read the full announcement from Labor here.

Benoit settlement includes campus changes

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― The University of Idaho and the family of a graduate student who was killed by a professor she had previously dated have reached a settlement. School officials and Katy Benoit's family issued a joint statement Thursday night. Financial terms weren't disclosed, but Benoit's family plans to donate the settlement proceeds to charitable causes. The statement also detailed actions that would be taken to make the campus safer as part of the settlement, including improved communication with police. Benoit complained to the university last June about psychology professor Ernesto Bustamante, saying she ended their relationship after he pointed a gun at her head, threatening her life. Police say Bustamante resigned Aug. 19, days before killing Benoit then himself. Benoit's family filed a $3 million tort claim against the university in December. Click below for the full joint statement.

State Ed Board signs off on new five-year contract for Coach Pete at BSU

Idaho's state Board of Education has signed off on a new five-year, $11.7 million contract for Boise State football coach Chris Petersen, the Associated Press reports; the board unanimously approved the new contract at its meeting today in Moscow. Petersen's new package includes a bump in base pay each of the five years plus a series of incentives, according to the AP; they include a $250,000 annual licensing payment for use of Petersen's name and image. Earlier this year, the board approved giving Petersen a $375,000 raise for 2012. The contract is designed to keep Petersen's salary competitive and retain him as the head of the Broncos highly successful football program.

Ed Board endorses Vailas plan to again dump ISU faculty leaders, get new ones

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Faculty governance at Idaho State University will again be revamped under a plan endorsed by the state Board of Education. The board voted Thursday to approve the recommendation from school President Arthur Vailas, who called for the election of a new Faculty Senate this fall. The board voted last year to dissolve the previous Faculty Senate, which been at loggerheads with Vailas. The university then elected new, temporary faculty leaders to work with Vailas to adopt a new constitution. The provisional Faculty Senate was due to sunset this month, or upon the completion of constitution. But the two sides appeared far from a consensus in February, when faculty reported they had reached an impasse with Vailas. Vailas recommended work on the constitution continue with a new, permanent Faculty Senate.

Labrador works to bring conservative GOP freshmen’s voices into the news

Idaho GOP Congressman Raul Labrador's work to bring together tea party-backed freshmen and get their voices into the news through the new monthly “Conversations with Conservatives” event – the second event was this week – is chronicled in an article today by McClatchy reporter Sean Cockerham; you can read the full story here in today's Spokesman-Review. Labrador told Cockerham, “Usually they don't want to talk to a freshman. We wanted to make something that is interesting, that would attract people, but at the same time have the opportunity for us to raise issues.” The on-the-record forum invites reporters and bloggers to hear from a dozen or so conservative lawmakers, and ask them about anything.

Two GOP senators face off for same seat…

Times-News reporter Melissa Davlin today profiles the race between two Senate incumbents from the Magic Valley: Sens. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, and Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home. The two, thrown into the same district by redistricting, say they vote together 95 percent of the time, but there are key differences. You can read Davlin's full report here. Corder is a fourth-term senator, trucking company owner and current chairman of the Senate Local Government & Taxation Committee. Brackett is a second-term senator who earlier served a House term, a rancher, and a member of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee.
  

State Board OKs higher ed tuition hikes; says rates ‘still the best deal in town’

The State Board of Education has approved tuition and fee increases proposed by the state's colleges and universities for next year as requested by each institution: 4 percent for Lewis-Clark State College; 6.1 percent for the University of Idaho; 5.7 percent for Boise State University; 4.7 percent for Idaho State University; and 4.7 percent for Eastern Idaho Technical College. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

All the votes were unanimous except the U of I and BSU increases, which passed on 5-2 votes, after board member Ken Edmunds said he worried that state lawmakers expected lower increases and said, “Regardless of what's happening in other states, the barrier to our students is significant … due to financial issues.” Edmunds and board President Richard Westerberg cast the dissenting votes.

Student body officials from the schools backed the increases; among their reasons: If the schools can't hire enough instructors for them to get the classes they need, they can't graduate on time, and their education will cost even more. BSU President Bob Kustra told the board, “We are all dealing with what is a balancing act, balancing affordability against the quality of the education we are able to afford our students.” He noted that after an extensive public-involvement program on his campus, the recommendation presented to him was for a 7.2 percent increase, but he worried about the message that would send to prospective parents and students “about the cost of higher education today. … I came down on 5.7 percent as a realistic approach to what Boise State needs to fund itself.”

He noted, “We are agonizing here over what is … some of the most modest, affordable, bargain-rated tuitions anywhere in the United States of America. That's really a credit, I think, to this board, it's a credit to the universities the board holds responsible that we can do what we do with the minimum expenditure from our students when it comes to tuition.”

ISU President Arthur Vailas told the board that public university tuition has been going up across the country for years, whether state appropriations are up or down. “It's because the universities … have been in a catch-up mode for the last 25 years,” he said.

Board member Milford Terrell, who made all the motions, cited “the compelling arguments that I've heard here today that we're still under most of our sister institutions throughout the United States. … We're still the best deal in town.”

Idahoans most commonly name babies Olivia, William; some opt for Espn, Hemi

Idaho's most-popular baby names in 2010, according to the newly published state vital statistics report: Olivia and William. Placing second: Emma and Samuel, with Sophia and Logan right on their chubby little heels in third place. Rounding out the top names for girls, in order: Ava, Abigail, Elizabeth, Emily, Isabella and Ella, with Addison and Brooklyn tied for 10th place. For boys, the fourth-top pick was Ethan, followed by Jacob, Aiden, Mason, Noah, Alexander and James.

Among the more unusual names selected by Idahoans for their new babies in 2010: Espn, Koal and Rootsy for girls, and Character, Hemi and Laugh for boys. Really.

No consensus on Idaho field-burning changes

Possible changes to Idaho's field-burning regulations still are up in the air after an advisory panel of farmers, health advocates and regulators agreed today that some weekend burning could be considered, but couldn't reach a consensus on whether to allow more burning when ozone pollution levels are high. Patti Gora-McRavin of Safe Air For Everyone said, “It's a life and death issue for us. It is the line in the sand.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Based on the advisory group's discussions, both today and in an all-day meeting last month, Idaho DEQ Air Quality Division Administrator Martin Bauer will make a recommendation to DEQ Director Curt Fransen, who will decide in late May whether to launch a negotiated rule-making process to make changes in Idaho's field-burning rules.

More than 6,300 have signed pro-‘flagship’ petition for UI, board urged to restore

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― The University of Idaho's student body president says more than 6,300 signatures were collected on a petition asking the state Board of Education to reconsider removing the proposed term “flagship” from the school's updated mission statement. Samantha Perez implored trustees Wednesday to revisit their decision, prompting a chuckle when noting more people signed the petition than live in Preston ― board president Richard Westerberg's home town. Westerberg responded, tongue-in-cheek: “We are working on our population.” Perez and others approached trustees over the “flagship” removal during a board meeting in Moscow. School officials have long used the term “flagship” to brand the university, Idaho's oldest, but it was only added to a proposed new mission statement last year. Board members didn't deem the term appropriate and it was struck in February.

Board of Ed considers tuition, fee increases for universities…

The state board of Education is currently hearing pitches from state universities for tuition fee hikes for next year; University of Idaho President Duane Nellis said the UI's proposed 6.1 percent increase is “a very important figure to help us stabilize our situation after four years of cuts.” It would mean an additional $356 a year for resident students. Samantha Perez, student body president, told the board students have been strongly supportive of the plan. “I haven't received one verbal or written complaint about the proposal,” she said. If the increase were approved, the UI's resident tuition and fees for a year would rise to $6,212, Nellis said, while the average among comparable schools is nearly $8,300. You can watch the meeting live online here.
  

Finance reports: Labrador gears up campaign as rivals lag

North Idaho's freshman GOP congressman Raul Labrador has geared up his re-election campaign, according to the latest campaign finance reports, while his prospective opponents haven't. Labrador's pulling in PAC money and donations from prominent Idahoans, while his little-known GOP primary opponent hasn't raised a penny; nor has the Libertarian, the Independent, or one of the two Democratic hopefuls, the reports show.

The exception: Democrat Jimmy Farris, a former professional football player and Lewiston native, who's raised $25,904 since he entered the race in October, including $13,909 in the first three months of 2012. Farris' primary opponent, former Boise physician Cynthia Clinkingbeard, didn't file a campaign finance report; she was arrested for aggravated assault last month after pulling a gun on employees at a Staples store.

Meanwhile, Labrador has raised a total of $461,311 since the start of 2011, including $260,480 from individuals and $198,175 from PACs; he's spent $300,967 and has $200,339 cash on hand for the upcoming campaign; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
  

AP: UI has reached settlement with family of slain grad student

The Associated Press reports that the University of Idaho has reached a settlement with the family of Katy Benoit, the 22-year-old graduate student who was shot to death last August by a former professor who then killed himself, and that the state Board of Education will consider the settlement this week. Click below for the full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.

Labrador: Romney needs to reach out to conservative leaders

Idaho GOP Congressman Raul Labrador is joining a group of colleagues today for “Conversations with Conservatives,” an on-the-record Q-and-A with reporters and bloggers featuring a dozen GOP congress members. Labrador and Reps. Tim Huelskamp, R-Kansas, and Jeff Landry, R-Louisiana, are chairing the new monthly confab, which will feature different members each month along with the three. Billed as a Tax Day discussion, today's session started off with a question about a highway funding bill; you can watch live here.

Asked if any of the members are excited about the candidacy of Mitt Romney, who was endorsed by House Speaker John Boehner today, Labrador said, “I am actually excited. I have not endorsed any candidate. I'm excited that the process is over, I'm excited that we have potentially a nominee who is going to be taking it to Obama. … We are going to be able to contrast the visions between the Republican Party and the Democratic Party. … I think it's time for conservatives to get behind the nominee. It's time for conservatives to start getting excited.”

That discussion was interrupted online by a Harley-Davidson commercial, and the online view is out of focus, but members said they welcome the forum. Labrador said of Romney, “He needs to reach out to every one of us who's sitting at this table, and to all the other conservative leaders throughout the United States to make sure he's not just speaking to a few select groups, that he's speaking to the grass roots … all the people who were passionate in the 2010 election. … because that's how he's going to win. … We can help him with that, but he needs to reach out.”

Rep. Louie Gohmert, R-Texas, said, “I'm not as excited as I am desperate.” He cited gas prices, saying, “It's a desperate situation. … People in America, conservatives that I know, are very desperate to replace this president.” Ellen Carmichael, Labrador's spokeswoman, reports that there's a standing-room only crowd for today's forum in the visitors' center of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Idaho fetal-pain abortion law, passed last year, faces federal court challenge

The first challenge to the constitutionality of the so-called fetal pain anti-abortion laws enacted in several states has come from an unlikely place; so has the second, reports the Associated Press. Rick Hearn, the lawyer in the center of this fight, represents an Idaho woman challenging her state's abortion laws in an effort to avoid future prosecution. The same Rick Hearn, who also is a physician, is attempting to jump into the case as a plaintiff using his status as a doctor, even though he has never terminated a pregnancy, in an effort to make sure that if the case is successful, it applies broadly enough to get his client off the hook for good, reports AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Idaho is among more than half a dozen states that have recently passed legislation banning abortion after 19 weeks of pregnancy based on disputed scientific testimony about ability of fetuses to feel pain at 20 weeks. Idaho's law passed last year; it's now being challenged in federal court. Click below for Boone's full report.

Libraries offer summer jobs for low-income, tech-savvy teens…

More than 40 summer jobs for low-income, tech-savvy teens around the state are open at their local libraries, which are looking for teens for new grant-funded summer positions as “digital literary coaches” - teachers of basic computer skills to library patrons; the participating libraries each have one or two positions. “The unemployment rate for Idaho teenagers last year was over 20 percent,” library commission spokeswoman Teresa Lipus said. “These jobs offer a helping hand to young people, especially those from low-income homes, while at the same time help Idahoans from all walks of life navigate the computer world.”

The jobs, which pay minimum wage, are for those age 16-21; more than 70 percent of Idaho's libraries are the only free source of Internet access in their communities. Click below for more info in the full announcement from the Commission for Libraries and the Idaho Department of Labor.

Idaho wins $2.6M drug pricing settlement

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has announced a settlement with prescription drug maker GlaxoSmithKline for $2.6 million, settling charges of drug overpricing to Idaho's Medicaid program. Since 2005, this is the 14th such case Wasden has resolved, resulting in total recoveries of more than $20 million. Click below for Wasden's full announcement. Three more cases, naming eight other drug manufacturers, still are pending.

AP: Idaho now taking bids on laptop computers for every high school student

Idaho is now taking bids on the contract to provide every high school student and teacher in the state with a laptop computer, as part of its “Students Come First” school reforms. That AP reports that computer manufacturers have until May 25 to submit their pitches, and the state is looking for devices that weigh 6 pounds or less, have at least a 12-inch screen and a physical keyboard, and are durable enough to withstand the occasional spill, according to the request for proposals; click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner. The state estimates the first five years of the phased-in laptop program will cost $60 million, if voters don't overturn the reform law in a November referendum.

Report: Idaho’s school funding system is trending toward violating state Constitution

Idaho's former longtime chief state economist, Mike Ferguson, has released a 20-page report on public school funding that reaches a series of startling conclusions: Public school funding, as a share of total state spending, has dropped dramatically since 2000. Even as state lawmakers in 2006 eliminated the key property tax levy for school operations while raising the state's sales tax by a penny, schools that saw decreasing state funding have turned increasingly to property tax levies, which, unlike the levy eliminated in 2006, are no longer “equalized” with state funding and accentuate disparities in wealth among the state's school districts. The result: Idaho's current school funding system may be violating two key provisions of the state Constitution, requiring the Legislature to “establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools” and requiring taxes to be imposed uniformly. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

“Actions that drive local school districts into making dramatic increases in the use of local property tax resources … raise serious doubt that the Legislature is fulfilling its Constitutional obligations,” Ferguson wrote. “It is probably not realistic to expect a quick fix. It is reasonable to expect an open and honest discussion of the direction of Idaho's public school funding, and whether it is living up to the duties and responsibilities handed down by Idaho's founding fathers. Hopefully this report will contribute to that discussion.”

You can read the full report here; it explores Idaho's public school funding from 1980 to 2013. Among the figures revealed by its analysis: Idaho spent 34 percent of its state spending on public schools, on average, in the 1980s and 1990s; that had dropped to 26 percent by fiscal year 2012. The share of Idaho's personal income that went to schools - which Ferguson describes as Idaho's “funding effort” for schools, or “the share of our aggregate income invested in our children,” dropped from a steady 4.4 percent average in the '80s and '90s, and 4.4 percent in fiscal year 2000, to 3.5 percent in fiscal 2012; in the governor's executive budget for 2013, it fell to 3.4 percent. Ferguson noted that's a 23 percent decline, a change he called “a stunning reduction in the state's commitment to public schools.”

And more than two-thirds of Idaho's school districts now have supplemental property tax levies, which are voter-approved local taxes that raise sharply varying amounts from one district to the next, depending on the local tax base. Even after the elimination of the major operations levy in 2006, “Considerable amounts of public school funding are still derived from property taxes, and the relative share is once again increasing,” he wrote.

Ferguson is now director of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy, a non-profit, non-partisan grant-funded organization whose mission is “to provide Idaho citizens and elected officials with fact-based information and analysis they can use to make informed public policy decisions.”
  

State tax revenues beat forecasts for fourth straight month

March was the fourth straight month that state tax revenues came in ahead of forecast, running $3.9 million ahead, according to the latest figures. For the fiscal year to date, that puts the state $36.6 million ahead of projections. Among the strong spots: Sales taxes and individual income taxes. That brings state tax revenue growth to date for the fiscal year to 5.5 percent, well above the predicted 3.3 percent. You can read the state Division of Financial Management's monthly General Fund Revenue Report here, and the legislative budget office's General Fund Budget Monitor here.

The legislative monitor notes that that latest figures push Idaho tax revenue to $91.7 million more than last year at this time. The result, given HB 702, which passed this year and transfers any additional surpluses at the end of fiscal year 2012 into the Budget Stabilization Fund, will be larger deposits into that reserve account, up to nearly $60 million.
  

Idaho Dems plan presidential caucuses Saturday across the state

Idaho Democrats will caucus on Saturday morning to select their presidential delegates, and they're inviting folks to join them at the gatherings in each Idaho county. At locations from Mugsy's Tavern in Bonners Ferry to the Morrison Center in Boise, Dems will gather at 10 a.m. local time - meaning the doors will close then, so those who want to participate should arrive before that hour; you can read my full story here in today's Spokesman-Review.

“People who turn out are people that are excited to be Democrats, they're excited to have a Democratic president to support, and this is their chance to do it,” said state party spokesman Dean Ferguson. “I'd expect quite a bit of enthusiasm.” Ada County Democratic Chair Colleen Fellows said, “This will be an exciting up-beat rally atmosphere.”

Any qualified voter who lives in the county and will be 18 by the November election can participate; participants also must sign a pledge form stating that they're a member of the Democratic Party and declaring either support for President Obama or that they're uncommitted. Many of the caucuses around the state, including those in Ada and Kootenai counties, will include the showing of the new Obama documentary, “The Road We Have Traveled.”

Four years ago, roughly 22,000 participated in Idaho's Democratic presidential caucuses and threw the state's support to Barack Obama over rival Hillary Clinton by a two-thirds margin; this time, President Obama is unopposed. Sally Boynton Brown, state party executive director, said, “Lack of competition means these events will not offer the drama or draw the crowds of 2008, but the caucuses are important gatherings for party members who want a say in the party's state and national platforms.” For more information, go to idahodems.org.

Idaho universities tone down their tuition hike requests for next year

Idaho's state universities overall are looking at lower tuition increases next year than they've imposed in recent years, AP reporter Jessie Bonner reports; the universities will make their pitch to the State Board of Education next week. Click below to read Bonner's full report.

Diamond wedding ring recovered 18 months after it was accidentally flushed

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A Boise woman says she believes in miracles after sewer workers found the $6,000 diamond wedding ring she accidentally flushed down the toilet 18 months ago. Mechelle Rieger claimed the seven-diamond ring Thursday morning at City Hall in Kuna, bringing with her a photo and the March 2001 appraisal from the jeweler that made it. Rieger thanked city workers Travis Fleming and Carey Knight, who spotted the ring along with loose coins in a filtration basket while doing routine maintenance last week. Rieger said she freaked out and “just started screaming” when the ring accidentally fell in the toilet. She says there was more screaming involved when she got a voice message from a friend relaying the news about a ring being found in the sewer in her old neighborhood.

Boise marks symbolic end to its longtime shopping inferiority complex…

Has the City Without a Nordstrom finally ended its sad distinction? This is Boise, where for years, hundreds of shoppers boarded buses to Ogden, Utah each year to shop at what their hometown lacked - a Nordstrom department store. Today, the first Nordstrom store in the state of Idaho opened, but it's not a full-line department store, it's an off-price Nordstrom Rack. The difference: A focus on discounted merchandise, in a 37,000-square-foot store - a full-line Nordstrom department store typically offers 138,000 to 140,000 square feet of shopping.

Happy customers who crowded the newly opened store this morning didn't seem at all perturbed by the difference; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. Kristin Magruder, 40, recalls that when she moved to the Boise area from Southern California at the age of 6, “I couldn't understand why we couldn't go to the mall and get frozen yogurt.” The reason: “Because literally there was no mall.” Boise's grown since then, and now has a big shopping mall, Boise Towne Square, and a plethora of big box stores, but it's long continued to lack a Nordstrom; Magruder admits to visiting the store in places like Salt Lake City and Portland.

“It's been nice to see Boise evolve from Hicksville to at least a mid-sized market,” she said with a smile. “I think we'll get there eventually.” She added, “It's nice not to take my shopping out of state.” Check out my 1995 column here on how Boise shoppers used to do just that.

The new Nordstrom Rack store was packed with shoppers this morning, and its vast parking lot was full; it's in a former Linens 'n Things location next to Old Navy, in a strip-mall development just outside the Boise Towne Square mall. Joan Endicott, who's lived near Caldwell for 31 years, remembered shopping at Nordstrom Rack in Portland long ago, and was glad to see it arrive. “They have extraordinary customer service,” she said. “I'm so delighted and excited that it's here.”

The mostly unadorned store seems vast and almost warehouse-like, but it's clean, filled with merchandise, and along with shoppers, with ubiquitous brightly-attired store employees who were attentively making sure customers were finding what they sought. Nordstrom spokeswoman Kendall Ault said, “This was a great opportunity in the shopping center here … that was an exact fit for a Nordstrom Rack store. A lot of things have to fall into place in order for us to open a full-line store in a market. … We know we're fortunate to have a lot of customers in the area, and we wanted to find a way to better serve them.”

The new Boise store is Nordstrom's 106th Rack store, and Boise is the third city to get a Nordstrom Rack without also having a full-line Nordstrom department store - the other two are Tucson, just this past fall, and Manhattan.

Back in 1987, when the Ogden Nordstrom first started busing Boise shoppers down to Utah, the Buy Idaho campaign protested vigorously to no avail. Then-executive director Karleane Allen told the Associated Press, “It's an interesting marketing strategy, to find our weak point, and Nordstrom is our weak point … knowing how much everybody wants them here.”

Co-op’s landfill gas power plant lands in middle of utility energy credit fight

Methane gas that long has formed deep within the rotting garbage at Kootenai County's Fighting Creek Landfill is going to a new use today: It's generating enough electricity to power 1,800 homes. The county and the non-profit Kootenai Electric Cooperative flipped the switch on their joint venture last month, launching a new clean, renewable, local power source that has officials beaming with pride.
    
“It's going to generate revenue for the county, and it's so good for the environment,” said Kootenai County solid waste director Roger Saterfiel. “We were just burning the gas off. … It's being put to a use now.”

But in the larger world of energy politics, the project has landed KEC in the middle of a big-bucks fight between Idaho's largest utilities and small generators of renewable power that's threatening a key piece of the new plant's long-term financial plan.     At issue are renewable energy credits, also called “green tags,” which have great value in states where utilities must generate a significant and growing percentage of their power from renewable energy. Idaho isn't among those states - Washington is - but the credits can be sold on the open market, potentially for millions.

Idaho's three largest utilities - Avista Corp., Idaho Power and Rocky Mountain Power - introduced legislation this year declaring that when a utility buys power from a renewable generator, it gets the credits too. The bill didn't pass, but it set off a fiery debate that's now playing out in a pending case at the Idaho Public Utilities Commission, which has approved some contracts in recent years in which utilities and generators split the credits.

KEC's already given half the credits from its new 3.2 MW plant to the county, under its contract, and is counting on the other half for its own money-making purposes. Now the cooperative is trying to sign a deal to send the landfill power to Oregon - where state law says the generator gets to keep the renewable energy credits; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

AP: Billion-dollar fed-tribal settlement includes three Idaho tribes…

The federal government has agreed to pay more than $1 billion to settle a series of lawsuits brought by American Indian tribes over mismanagement of tribal money and trust lands, resolving claims brought by 41 tribes from across the country to reclaim money lost in mismanaged accounts and from royalties for oil, gas, grazing and timber rights on tribal lands. The AP reports that negotiations continue on dozens of other cases. The settlement, announced today by the U.S. Justice Department and the U.S. Department of the Interior, includes nearly $34 million for Idaho's Nez Perce Tribe. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Shannon Dininny in Yakima. According to a Justice Department news release, the 41 tribes covered by the settlement also included the Coeur d'Alene and Shoshone-Bannock Tribes in Idaho, and the Spokane Tribe in eastern Washington.

Coeur d'Alene Tribal Chairman Chief Allan spoke at the White House announcement today, and called the settlement long overdue; the Coeur d'Alenes will receive $18 million. “Today is a great day because it is a new day – a day when tribes across this nation can close the door on many wrongs of the past and open the door to a future of mutual respect and cooperation,” Allan said. He said the North Idaho tribe receives the money in exchange for dismissing its lawsuit against the United States to reclaim millions that were lost due to the federal government’s mismanagement of the tribe’s trust accounts and trust resources like timber, grazing and crop proceeds.

 

Retiring Rep. Cronin takes Strategies 360 post

Retiring state Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, will take over as head of the Idaho office of Strategies 360, the same lobbying and communications firm that fired former two former aides to Congressman Walt Minnick in February, reports Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey. Cronin, who's had his own marketing and communications firm for a decade, told Popkey he won't lobby; you can read the full post here.

Disability services lawsuit dropped

Three guardians for developmentally disabled Idaho residents have dropped their lawsuit against the state over Medicaid changes, reports AP reporter Rebecca Boone; click below for her full report. The attorney for the group said the shift to a single provider of residential habilitation services for such patients statewide will result in more work for law enforcement and emergency rooms.

Hutcheson, who sought to buy Tamarack, arrested by FBI, charged with fraud, theft

Eagle businessman Matthew D. Hutcheson, who made a bid to buy failing Tamarack Resort, was arrested by the FBI today as a federal grand jury indicted him on 17 counts of wire fraud and 14 counts of theft from an employee pension benefit plan. The charges include that in 2010 and 2011, Hutcheson, 41, allegedly misappropriated millions in pension plan assets for his personal use, including to renovate his home, to purchase luxury cars, motorcycles, ATVs and a tractor, and to put up $3.2 million toward his bid to buy Tamarack. Wendy Olson, U.S. Attorney for Idaho, said, “We take allegations of pension fraud very seriously. I commend the federal law enforcement officers who conducted the deliberate and detailed investigation in this case.” You can read Olson's full announcement here, and the federal indictment here.

SLTrib: Gingrich filing fee check bounced, may not be on Utah primary ballot…

Whoops - Salt Lake Tribune columnist Paul Rolly reports that Newt Gingrich's check for the $500 filing fee for the June 26 Utah presidential primary election bounced, and he may not be on the ballot as a result. “Utah Elections Director Mark Thomas said a designated agent for the Gingrich campaign brought the filing papers and a check for $500 in March, but the state was notified by the bank that the check had bounced,” Rolly reports. “He said the office has tried to contact the Gingrich campaign through the telephone number and email provided on the application, but has not received a response. Recently, the state sent a certified letter to the campaign, stating that if the fee isn’t paid by April 20, Gingrich will be disqualified and will not be on the ballot.” You can read his full column here.

Idaho women make 74% as much as men, ranking state 43rd in nation…

Idaho ranks 43rd among the states for its gender pay gap, according to a new study from the American Association of University Women, which found that, based on 2010 federal data, the median pay for a full-time worker over age 16 in Idaho is $41,128 for men, but just $30,403 for women. That means Idaho women earn 74 percent as much as Idaho men; State Impact Idaho reports here that it's just the latest study highlighting Idaho's gender pay gap.

Neighboring Washington and Oregon ranked 27th and 28th, at 77 percent; while neighboring Utah and Montana fared even worse than Idaho in the study, with Montana ranking 46th at 73 percent and Utah 49th at 69 percent.

Interestingly, the Idaho Statesman recently highlighted a pay gap among top women in Gov. Butch Otter's administration, which Otter declined to discuss with the newspaper; their report found that Otter's female cabinet members earn 83 percent of what their male counterparts earn. I reported on a similar finding in June of 2010, when I found that of the 77 heads of Idaho state agencies under the Otter administration, 27 were women and 50 were men, and the average salary for the male agency heads was $109,658, while for the females it was $88,681. Otter said then that he would analyze the gap. “If there's inequities, then we oughta correct them where we can and as soon as we can.” Click below to read my 2012 report.

Idaho abortion case an uneasy one for both sides…

NPR reporter Jessica Robinson reports that the arrest of a Pocatello women for using RU-486 purchased on the Internet to self-administer an illegal abortion is proving to be an uneasy one for both sides in the abortion issue. Even as Jennie Linn McCormack prepares to take her case to federal court - and her attorney says he's willing to take it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court - neither pro-choice nor pro-life groups are making much of the case, for a variety of reasons. You can read Robinson's full report here.
  

KKK mailing targeted several Idaho lawmakers, including Idaho’s only black legislator

The Idaho Statesman reports that Rep. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise, the state's only black lawmaker and a current candidate for the state Senate, received an application in the mail to join the Ku Klux Klan, hand-addressed to her and postmarked in Great Falls, Mont. “It conjured up a lot of things for me that weren’t very comfortable — not fear, but sometimes we get to thinking things are settled,” Buckner-Webb told the Statesman; you can read the Statesman's full story here. Meanwhile, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News reported that three other Idaho lawmakers also received similar mailings; click below for their report. Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, said he also received the letter. “I was offended and shocked as well (we have an adopted daughter from India),” he said in an email. “But in this job we get a lot of offensive mail so I did what I do with the rest of it and threw it away.”

Death Row inmates challenge Idaho’s execution procedures

Four Death Row inmates have filed a federal lawsuit over Idaho's new execution procedures, asking a judge to stop all executions until problems in the procedures are addressed. The move comes as Idaho's next execution nears; Richard Leavitt, an eastern Idaho murderer convicted in 1984, is nearing the end of his appeals. In November, Idaho carried out its first execution in 17 years, executing triple murderer Paul Rhoades by lethal injection; it was the state's first execution since 1994 and only its second since 1957.

The four inmates, who include Leavitt along with Thomas Creech, James Hairston and Gene Stuart, contend the new procedures adopted earlier this year give too much power to prison officials, create a risk of severe pain and would allow unqualified workers to carry out medical procedures. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Otter lets last three bills become law without his signature; no vetoes this year

In the end, there were no vetoes - not a one - as Gov. Butch Otter today allowed the last three bills passed by lawmakers this year to become law without his signature. That makes 342 bills passed and zero vetoes. The three:

SB 1321a, which altered a law about the Fish & Game winter feeding account to specify that it only can be spent for actual food, not for improvements to winter range for the same animals being fed, or for anything else. That controversial measure passed the Senate 25-8 and the House 40-30; it was sponsored by Sens. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, and Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton. Otter pointed out some serious problems with the bill in his transmittal letter - including that by specifying the fund could only go for food, it couldn't pay for the transportation costs to get the food out to the animals and other related costs, and therefore would put pressure on fishing and hunting license funds to fill in those costs. Nevertheless, he  didn't veto the bill.

HB 603, the new “97 percent protection” bill for Idaho school districts, which partially restores a program eliminated under the “Students Come First” school reforms that protected districts from big, sudden drops in state funding if they lose students from one year to the next. Under the bill, districts that lose more than 3 percent of their students from one year to the next will be funded as if they've lost just 3 percent, but the money for the protection will come from school districts themselves, spreading the cost among all the state's school districts. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Mack Shirley, R-Rexburg, and the Idaho Association of School Administrators, received only one “no” vote in either house - from House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star. Otter said in his transmittal letter that he opposed such funding protection as double funding of students.

HB 611, the bill that was promoted as a move to ease sale of abandoned horses by horse boarders by adjusting a law that currently requires, after 60 days, that the animals be sold at a licensed livestock auction, to simply allow them to be sold at a public auction. Sponsored by Rep. Judy Boyle, R-Midvale, the bill passed both houses unanimously. However, Otter noted in his transmittal letter that “the scope of this legislation goes beyond the intent 'to provide for an alternative method of selling boarded horses when the owners do not pay.'” Otter, an avid horseman and rancher himself, wrote, “The legislation is not limited to horses but provides for public auction of 'livestock of any kind.' This broad language has raised concerns from owners of livestock auction yards.” Still, he didn't veto the bill, saying instead  that he looks forward to “working with all parties in resolving these concerns” during next year's legislative session.

Construction begins to refill Boise’s long-vacant downtown ‘hole’

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — There is finally some evidence that the infamous hole in downtown Boise will be filled with a new building. Crews on Monday began removing street signs and making other preparations for the demolition of concrete, rebar and other materials littering the vacancy at the corner of 8th and Main streets. A small crane will also be installed this week to help remove materials from the site — jokingly referred to in Boise as “The Hole.” The property has been vacant since fire destroyed the Eastman building in 1987. Several developers have proposed projects for the site since, but all efforts have failed. Current plans call for a 16-story, 268,000-square-foot building anchored by Zions Bank. Demolition and foundation preparation will take up to six weeks before vertical construction gets under way.

AP: Purported Idaho nuke plant developer to pay $450K to settle with angry investors

The head of a company seeking to build a nuclear power plant in Idaho has agreed to pay $450,000 to resolve a lawsuit with a group of angry investors, reports AP reporter Alex Morrell. Shareholders of Alternate Energy Holdings Inc. in late 2010 sued the company, Chief Executive Officer Don Gillispie and Vice President Jennifer Ransom, claiming they schemed to mislead investors about their compensation and manipulated the company's trading value; a Boise lawyer representing the investors said an agreement was reached in mediation last week, calling on the company to pay $450,000 by the end of June or face a $2 million penalty judgment. A federal judge must still approve the settlement; click below for Morrell's full report.

Luna heads off on statewide tour of school districts, talking reforms, legislation

State Schools Superintendent Tom Luna is headed off on a tour of school districts around the state, to update them on new legislation and the implementation of his “Students Come First” reforms, the Associated Press reports. The plan, as originally passed last year, shifted money away from salaries over several years to help pay for new classroom technology and teacher merit bonuses. “I think it's safe to say this was probably the most unpopular part of these laws for most people,” said Luna's deputy chief of staff Jason Hancock. This year, lawmakers partially reversed that move, cancelling scheduled salary cuts for future years, while maintaining the reforms as the top funding priority in the school budget. Cuts already made this year weren't reversed.

Luna's tour started in Nampa, with additional stops planned in Idaho Falls, Pocatello, Burley, Coeur d'Alene and Moscow; click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.

No vetoes yet, and just three bills to go…

Gov. Butch Otter has acted on all but three of the bills passed in this year's legislative session; he has until 1:50 p.m. tomorrow to either sign or veto the final three, or let them become law without his signature. Asked if these are measures the governor just hadn't gotten to yet, or whether he was still debating on them, Otter's press secretary, Jon Hanian, said, “I think there may be a little of both.”

The remaining bills: HB 1321a, on the Fish & Game winter feeding account; HB 603, on education support units and attendance; and HB 611, on livestock liens. So far, Otter hasn't vetoed a single one of the 342 bills passed by this year's Legislature.

Wild March brings big snowpack boosts to some parts of Idaho, big drops to others…

The latest precipitation levels and snowpack figures for Idaho are varying so wildly that hydrologists at the National Resources Conservation Service are calling it “March Madness.” Said Jeff Anderson, NRCS hydrologist in Boise, “Diverse conditions would be an understatement to describe the present snowpack situation in Idaho. Since March 1, we’ve measured one of the greatest one-month changes in snowpack on record.”

Measurements showed the snowpack decreased up to 22 percent in low- and mid-elevation southern Idhao basins including Bear, Blackfoot, Bruneau, Owyhee and Portneuf, dropping them to as much as 60 percent below normal; while March storms boosted the Panhandle snowpack up to 120 percent of normal. Many areas north of the Snake River Plain saw their snowpacks jump as much as 34 percent from the hit-and-miss March storms.

Click below for the full news release from the NRCS, which documents how storm after March storm moved through central and North Idaho but left parts of the south dry.

Idaho to license massage therapists, joining 43 other states

Idaho will join 43 other states and start licensing massage therapists, after Sen. Jim Hammond‘s bill was signed into law last week by Gov. Butch Otter. Therapists will have 18 months to become licensed; currently, anyone can claim to be a massage therapist and charge for the service, including criminals. “Everybody giggles about massage therapy, but really it has become a mainstream therapy for healing and for maintaining good health,” said Hammond, R-Coeur d’Alene. He said people taking a relative or family member for massage therapy – which now often is prescribed for everyone from people recovering from medical procedures to the elderly or disabled – “want somebody of high moral character … who’s well-trained.”

You can read more in my Sunday column here, which also includes info on why the governor let two other bills become law without his signature - on one, he noted a conflict of interest - and the state asking for public input on arguments for and against the two constitutional amendments that will appear on the November ballot, the Right to Hunt amendment and a one-word change regarding county misdemeanor probation services.
  

Sending off the season…

Spring skiing, costumes and frivolity were the orders of the day as Bogus Basin held its end-of-season sendoff on Saturday, marking the close of a late-starting but still-fun ski season for the local non-profit ski resort. Bogus has announced a bonus weekend, when it will reopen next Saturday and Sunday with just the No. 1 Deerpoint and Coach chairs operating, along with the Easy Rider carpet; tickets will be discounted, and there's more info here.
  

Final ‘Idaho Reports’ show of the season airs tonight

On tonight's “Idaho Reports,” I join Jim Weatherby, host Greg Hahn and two retiring lawmakers, Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, and Sen. Melinda Smyser, R-Parma, to discuss the recently completed legislative session. Tonight's program also includes Hahn's interviews with Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder, R-Meridian; and with Rep. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise; and a panel of business reporters including Brad Iverson-Long, Bill Roberts and Emilie Ritter Saunders.

The show airs tonight at 8 p.m. on Idaho Public Television; it repeats Sunday at 11 a.m. Mountain time, 10 a.m. Pacific; and will be replayed on Boise State Public Radio on Sunday at 6 p.m. After it airs, “Idaho Reports” also can be viewed online at www.idahoptv.org/idreports/.

Nearly one in five Idaho Lottery tickets are sold to Utah residents

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: SALT LAKE CITY (AP) — Nearly one-fifth of Idaho's traditional lottery ticket revenues come from sales to Utah residents, who trek across the border from the state that outlaws all forms of gambling. The Salt Lake Tribune reports (http://bit.ly/HjMEmv) an analysis of Idaho Lottery Commission financial data from 2011 shows 19.4 percent of lottery ticket sales came from sites on the Utah border. The owners of those stores say the overwhelming majority of those sales come from Utahns. Alexis Daniels, manager of the Top Stop Chevron in Malad, Idaho, says 99 percent of its lottery tickets are sold to Utahns. Top Stop is the top-selling lottery store in Idaho — especially busy amid high-jackpot drawings like the $640 million Mega Millions record set last week. Utahns play scratcher and pull tab games far less often.

Otter signs texting ban into law

Gov. Butch Otter has signed HB 1274a, the bill banning texting while driving, into law. The new law, which passed this year after three  years of unsuccessful attempts in the Legislature to enact such a ban, makes texting while driving an infraction. Idaho currently has misdemeanor penalties for inattentive driving, but unlike most states, no specific law banning texting while driving.

Two years ago, a ban that had passed the Senate died on the final night of the legislative session in the House, when then-Rep. Raul Labrador, now an Idaho congressman, used a parliamentary maneuver to force a two-thirds vote. The bill failed, with just a 37-30 majority. Last year’s version would have banned texting while driving if it distracted the driver, but not if it didn’t; it failed.

This year’s bill got strong support in committee hearings, from teens to law enforcement to the AAA to to insurers. It also got a solemn boost when an 18-year-old Caldwell woman, Taylor Sauer, died in January in an Idaho freeway crash while texting. Her surviving family members offered tearful testimony in favor of the bill in committee hearings in both houses.

Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Coeur d'Alene, sponsored this year's bill, a simple, one-page measure; the new law takes effect July 1.

State asks court for permission to evict Occupy Boise tents for lawnmowing, watering

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho officials are seeking permission from a federal judge to temporarily remove Occupy Boise from their encampment on state land so they can perform repairs to the property. The Attorney General's office filed a motion last week asking U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill to modify his preliminary ruling in February prohibiting the state from evicting protesters' tents from the old Ada County Courthouse grounds. Winmill will continue hearing the case in June. The state says it needs Occupy to vacate the lawn so it can fix damage caused by the protesters' nearly six-month long vigil and also to perform seasonal maintenance, including weekly mowing. The motion says part of the property will also need to be closed in May for construction and that protesters haven't agreed to voluntarily relocate. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Alex Morrell.

Federal judge dismisses Rep. Hart’s legislative immunity claim in federal tax case

U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge today dismissed one of tax-protesting state Rep. Phil Hart's key defenses in the federal lawsuit seeking to foreclose on his Athol home: That he's protected by legislative immunity. “Defendant Hart can only raise a legislative immunity defense if it is available under federal law,” the judge wrote. “He has not done so here.” Hart was citing a provision from the Idaho Constitution.

Plus, Lodge wrote that legislative immunity under federal law covers only “legitimate legislative activity.” He wrote, “The claims raised in this case are in regard to Defendant Hart's private actions in allegedly failing to pay his federal income taxes.”

The U.S. Department of Justice filed a motion to dismiss Hart's immunity defense; Lodge granted it. “Granting the motion in this case will avoid the expenditure of time and money that must arise from litigating spurious issues,” the judge wrote, adding that Hart's immunity claim “clearly lacks merit under any set of facts that he might allege.” You can read the judge's decision here, and our  full story here at spokesman.com, from reporter Tom Clouse.

State cost to fight Pam Lowe’s lawsuit tops half a million; CIP contract swells to $82.9M

The cost to the state of Idaho for fighting the wrongful-firing lawsuit from former ITD chief Pam Lowe: $540,479 and counting, reports Idaho Statesman reporter Cynthia Sewell today, who learned that figure by filing a public records request under the Idaho Public Records Law. That's the total as of March 31 for the taxpayers' tab for the private law firm the state hired to fight Lowe's lawsuit. You can read Sewell's full report here.

Meanwhile, I'm on vacation for much of this week (and the spring skiing up at Bogus Basin today was fabulous, absolutely fabulous!), but I did receive some info in response to a public records request of my own to ITD: The Connecting Idaho Partners contract, which Lowe contends she was fired for trying to trim back, has swelled to $82,929,461 - that's right, $82.9 million - as of the end of March 2012. The management contract with URS, formerly Washington Group, and CH2M Hill, was first envisioned at $50 million over 10 years; Lowe was trying to reduce it to less than $30 million.
  

Six weeks later, ISP still investigating McGee…

Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey reports that the Idaho State Police are still looking into the actions of state Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, who resigned Feb. 22 amid allegations of sexual harassment of a female Senate staffer. “It is still with ISP and is an ongoing investigation,” ISP Capt. Steve Richardson told Popkey. “There would be nothing that we would release at this time. It has not been forwarded to any other agency.” You can read Popkey's full post here.

Rep. Hart presses legislative privilege argument to skeptical justices in state tax appeal

Tax-protesting Idaho Rep. Phil Hart pressed his case to the Idaho Supreme Court today, arguing to the justices in Coeur d'Alene that his status as a state lawmaker should have given him months longer than other citizens to appeal an order to pay more than $53,000 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest. “It’s not about me,” Hart told S-R reporter Tom Clouse after the hearing. “It’s really about the Legislature and whether it’s going to be free to do its work or … be subject to distractions when they are trying to do the work of the people.” Clouse reports that “the justices appeared to have little patience for the Athol lawmaker’s claims that the state constitution shields him from tax collectors.” You can read his full report here at spokesman.com.

Local option supporters plan initiative for 2014 election

A group of local officials from throughout the state has announced that it'll pursue a local-option tax initiative in the 2014 general election, after determining there wasn't time to make the 2012 ballot. “Our commitment to the success of this effort has not wavered. By adjusting our target to the November 2014 General Election rather than this fall, we will have the time we need to make this a truly statewide effort,” Boise businessman Clay Carley said. Click below for the group's full announcement.

Hart takes tax appeal to Idaho Supreme Court in CdA today…

By the way, tax-protesting Idaho State Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, takes his appeal of his state income taxes to the Idaho Supreme Court today; the arguments start at 11:10 a.m. Pacific time in the old courthouse in Coeur d'Alene, second floor, Judge Luster's courtroom. S-R reporter Tom Clouse is there and we'll have a full report.

ITD: Disappointed, will consider appeal

The Idaho Transportation Department has issued the following statement on a federal judge's ruling over the weekend in favor of fired former ITD Director Pam Lowe:

“The department is disappointed in the ruling and will consider an appeal. Based on this ruling, the next step is to determine whether or not the Idaho Transportation Board provided due process to Ms. Lowe. The ruling does not address claims of gender discrimination and wrongful firing. No schedule has been set by the court to hear these claims.”

Lowe: ‘It was McGee, and it was blackmail’

“I am absolutely elated,” fired former ITD Director Pam Lowe said this morning, after a federal judge sided with her over the weekend in a key ruling in her wrongful termination lawsuit. “It absolutely vindicated me and what I had been saying, and that is that the board was happy with my work, I had done a good job, I had had nothing but positive comments from the board as well as certainly my formal evaluations, but that the board succumbed to political blackmail and pressure from John McGee when he ran that bill.”

McGee, then chairman of the Senate Transportation Committee, introduced legislation in 2009 to strip the Idaho Transportation Board of the ability to hire and fire the director, though the bill didn't pass. “He was interested in helping his campaign contributors,” Lowe said, “and I didn't want to do what he wanted done with that contract, which was to throw a bunch more money at them that didn't need to happen, and he ran that bill to strip the board of their powers.” McGee, who resigned from the Senate this year in the wake of sexual harassment allegations from a female Senate staffer, couldn't immediately be reached for comment; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

In 2009, a multimillion-dollar contract with two Idaho firms to oversee major bonded highway construction projects in the state was being cut back; the lead firm, URS, formerly Washington Group, was a big donor to Gov. Butch Otter's election campaigns, as well as to McGee's. Lowe said the governor's chief of staff pressured her not to reduce the contract, and McGee's bill was in response to her move.

“I had more than one board member tell me that it was McGee and it was blackmail,” she said. “They had no reason other than pure politics to terminate me.” She added, “It was purely political reasons, and it was certainly not one of the four reasons that the judge has said needed to happen in order for a proper termination to occur.”

Lowe wins key ruling in her wrongful firing case as ITD director

U.S. Magistrate Judge Ron Bush has ruled in favor of fired ITD Director Pam Lowe on a key point in her wrongful-firing case: That she wasn't an “at-will” employee who could be dismissed without cause. It's a significant win for Lowe, who contends her firing came because she tried to scale back a big contract with a politically well-connected firm; that she was fired without cause and without being allowed a hearing; and that she was discriminated against because she's female. She was the first woman to head the Idaho Transportation Department; she since has been replaced by a man who is being paid $22,000 a year more than she made.

The judge's ruling, issued Saturday, opens the way for consideration of the gender-bias and political pressure claims.

At issue was the 1974 law creating the ITD director's position, saying, “The director shall serve at the pleasure of the board and may be removed by the board for inefficiency, neglect of duty, malfeasance or nonfeasance in office.”

The department didn't cite any of the four reasons from the law in firing Lowe. Instead, the ITD board said in 2009, that Lowe's firing would “help the department continue improving customer service, economy of operations, accountability and our relations with the Legislature.” In court documents, the state contended Lowe was fired for not adequately dealing with the Legislature, which it said meant she was doing a poor job despite good reviews for her internal management of the department. You can read the judge's 57-page decision here.

The session that was…

Idaho’s legislative session this year was long on drama, but many of the biggest and hottest debates won’t mean much for most of the state’s residents. Instead, it’s the smaller things, some of which passed with little controversy, that will make the most difference in everyday Idahoans’ lives. Examples: Idaho became the first state to enact legislation letting drivers show proof of insurance electronically on their smartphones. New youth concussion legislation will require schools to better protect young athletes who suffer head injuries on the playing field. A state suicide hotline got funding to start back up after a six-year gap. Some of the session’s biggest debates, on the other hand, will have little effect on state residents. You can read my full story here in today's Spokesman-Review.

In other looks back at the session, click below for AP reporter John Miller's report on “what went splat” during this year's legislative session, from ultrasound to insurance exchange to a cigarette tax hike. You can read my Sunday column here, “Session comes to a screaming end.” AP reporter Alex Morrell has a session wrapup here, read how Gov. Butch Otter backtracked here on an education funding claim, and read a report here from Times-News reporter Melissa Davlin on the high number of retiring lawmakers this year, including five longtime Magic Valley legislators.

Otter stimulus praise puts him at odds with Romney

Gov. Butch Otter on Friday offered begrudging praise for President Barack Obama's 2009 economic stimulus fund, saying it has helped complete highway projects in Idaho, create jobs and reduce the need for state gas tax hikes, reports AP reporter John Miller. Those comments appeared to put him at odds with Mitt Romney, who has the Idaho governor's backing for president and who says Obama's $814 million stimulus “didn't create private-sector jobs,” Miller reports. The apparent difference is notable because Otter is the Romney's Idaho campaign chairman; he introduced the former Massachusetts governor at Idaho's March 6 “Super Tuesday” caucus, where Romney beat Rick Santorum. Click below for Miller's full report.

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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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