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Eye On Boise

Archive for August 2012

Idaho school progress stalls under No Child Left Behind law

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Student progress remains stalled in Idaho under the federal No Child Left Behind law, with about two-thirds of public schools meeting targets. State education officials released results Friday even as Idaho tries to move away from the law's benchmarks and adopt a new five-star rating system for schools. Idaho's request for a waiver from the law, though, is still awaiting approval from the U.S. Department of Education. About 60 percent of Idaho schools met adequate yearly progress last year under the law, which is about the same as the previous year, when 62 percent met the targets, mirroring the previous year. Under the proposed new system, about half of Idaho's 650 schools were ranked as four stars. State officials say the new scale is different because it measures academic growth.

Federal protections to be lifted for Wyoming wolves

The federal government will end protections for wolves in Wyoming, the Associated Press reports; today's  announcement from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service endorses a plan that allows the wolves to be shot on sight in most parts of the state, while retaining protections in certain areas. The move quickly sparked promises of legal challenges from environmental groups. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Bob Moen in Cheyenne. The state would take over management of wolves Sept. 30, and it already has scheduled wolf hunts to start Oct. 1.

Meanwhile, Idaho's wolf hunting season opened yesterday statewide, and runs through January, March or June, depending on the zone.

Idaho flags at half-staff today in honor of Neil Armstrong

Flags on all Idaho state buildings are flying at half-staff today in honor of the late Neil Armstrong, the first man on the moon. His “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind” comment electrified us all as he took that historic step, including me at age 7. Idaho decided to honor Armstrong today in line with a presidential proclamation ordering flags at all U.S. government and military buildings, both in the nation and abroad, to be lowered to half-staff today “as a mark of respect for the memory of Neil Armstrong.”

Wind developer pays Boise for bike race bill

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― An Idaho wind developer that's been tardy on some cycling sponsorship bills has made good on more than $27,500 owed Boise for charges related to the Exergy Tour. Boise spokesman Adam Park says Exergy Development Group president James Carkulis delivered the check in person on Thursday, to pay for police, among other things, during the May 24-28 women's professional race. The money includes Exergy's promised $1,000 contribution to a reward for recovering one team's stolen bikes. Parks says Boise is pleased with Carkulis' payment, and looks forward to another race next year. Exergy's tardy payments came as its business has grappled with regulatory uncertainty for Idaho alternative energy projects. The company suspended $323 million in wind projects and faces a federal lawsuit from Virginia's AES Corp. for missing turbine payments.

Idaho gets $2.9M in drug settlement

Idaho will receive $2,847,890 as its share of a multistate drug settlement, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden announced today; the $181 million settlement with Janssen Pharmaceuticals, a subsidiary of Johnson & Johnson, is over improper marketing of four anti-psychotic drugs. The company allegedly pushed the drugs for unapproved off-label uses; as part of the settlement with 37 states, Janssen admitted no wrongdoing, but agreed to change how it markets the drugs and refrain from false, misleading or deceptive promotions. Idaho's share of the settlement will go to the Attorney General's consumer protection account; click below for Wasden's full announcement.

Judge Lodge rejects part of approvals for CuMo Mine, cites water quality impacts

A federal judge today vacated sections of the environmental assessment issued by the U.S. Forest Service a year ago for the CuMo Mine project 35 miles north of Boise near Idaho City, saying the agency acted arbitrarily a year ago in concluding that expanded drilling at the site won't significantly impact water quality. U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge ordered the Forest Service to do additional analysis; Vancouver, Canada-based Mosquito Gold wants to mine the site for molybdenum, used in the manufacturing of steel products. Click below for a full report from Associated Press reporter Todd Dvorak.

Despite perception, Idaho ranks below middle of states for number of local governments

A new set of data out from the Census Bureau, the “2012 Census of Governments,” shows that it's not necessarily true that every bump on every log in Idaho is incorporated, or that because Idahoans hate government so much they have lots and lots of it, in the form of what seem to be a myriad of special local taxing districts. Actually, Idaho ranks slightly below the middle among the 50 states for the number of local government units it has - 1,161, ranking 28th. That's for 44 counties, 200 cities, 799 special districts and 118 independent school districts, according to the census data.

That does, however, mean Idaho ranks 12th in the nation for its number of special districts. And we of course rank much lower, 39th among the 50 states, for population. We rank 39th for the number of cities, the same as our ranking for population; and 34th for the number of counties.

So who ranked at the far ends in this comparison? Illinois had the most local governments of any state: 6,968, about 2,000 more than second-place Pennsylvania. Hawaii had the fewest local governments of any state at 21, easily eclipsing second-to-last-place Rhode Island, which had 134, and third-to-last Nevada at 190.

Balloons launch into smoky skies over Boise

The brightly colored hot-air balloons rising over Boise this morning are still a pretty sight, but the view is marred this year by the wildfire smoke that's been plaguing our air all month. The Idaho DEQ predicts air quality in the “moderate,” or yellow category for the Treasure Valley today, with an air quality index of 80 due to PM 2.5 pollution - that's tiny particles in the air from smoke. The DEQ is predicting “smoke impacts” from new wildfires in southeastern Oregon, along with smoke from the Trinity Ridge fire in Idaho and from California fires all to impact the area's air quality today.

“Moderate” air quality is defined as an AQI of 50 to 100; 101 to 150 is orange, or unhealthy for sensitive groups; and 151 to 200 is a red alert, or unhealthy air for everyone. So far this month, the Treasure Valley has had one red alert, six orange, and more than a dozen yellow.

I can't remember a year with worse air here. Mike Toole of the Idaho DEQ said he can verify that this year is the worst in the past decade. The only ones that came close were about a week of intense wildfire smoke in 2007, and a seven- to 10-day winter inversion with poor air quality in 2002. “This one we're dealing with now started on Aug. 5,” Toole said, “So we're going on four weeks with this, and we're just not seeing a lot of evidence that we're going to break out of this smoke cycle any time soon.”

Idaho energy tussle - utilities vs. wind developers - sends international ripples

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― A fight over rules governing Idaho alternative energy is sending out international shockwaves, with a Greek construction company now saying utilities' demands to get out of their contractual obligations to buy power from wind farms are a threat to its business. Athens-based Terna GKA said Wednesday that curtailment will negatively affect its efforts to finance its soon-to-be-completed 138-megawatt Mountain Air facility near Mountain Home. Idaho Power Co. seeks permission from Idaho regulators to shut off wind farms like Terna's when they can get power more cheaply from other sources. With the matter unresolved, lenders are wary their money is at risk. Already, Boise's Exergy Development Group has suspended $323 million worth of projects. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission has been asked to intervene to protect wind companies from utilities' demands. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Annual balloon rally to fill Boise skies with color

It's that time of year again, when the Spirit of Boise Balloon Classic draws dozens of brightly colored hot-air balloons to Boise for mass morning launches at Ann Morrison Park. Nearly 40 balloons are expected to participate by this weekend. This morning, about 18-20 balloonists gathered in the park and inflated their balloons, but unfavorable wind conditions - with winds gusting 20 mph at 1,000 feet and reported at 30 mph early on in Ontario - stopped the launch. “We didn't fly today,” said Kevin Godwin of Peak Broadcasting. “We just didn't want to take the chance.” Still, the balloons inflated, and several gave tethered rides to about 50 feet up. (This photo is from last year's event.)

With a small cold front moving through today, better weather is expected tomorrow and through the weekend, with “nice crisp mornings, and that's what we like to fly in,” Godwin said. Tomorrow through Sunday, the balloons are scheduled to launch around 7 a.m. Specialty balloons that will participate include the Mickey Mouse “Happiest Balloon on Earth” from Disneyland, and the POW/MIA Freedom Flight Balloon from St. Cloud, Minn.

The public is invited to see the big balloons close-up in the park at their morning launches; food and coffee vendors will be there too, and activities will include military fly-overs and balloon flight competitions. On Saturday night, there'll be a free concert and “Nite Glow” event from 6-9:30; that's when the inflated balloons, on the ground, light up in a colorful display. For more information, go to www.spiritofboise.com.
  

Health insurance exchange working group meets today, you can watch live

Gov. Butch Otter's health insurance exchange working group meets today from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the Capitol Auditorium; Idaho Public Television will video-stream the meeting live here. The agenda includes speakers, via teleconference, from the Cato Institute and ALEC, along with health law consultant Jack Rovner; you can see the full agenda here. A second working group, looking into a potential Medicaid expansion, is scheduled to meet again in mid-September; both groups will present recommendations to Otter in the fall as to how to proceed under the national health care reform law.

Another wildfire survivor: Bobcat kitten

The bear cub with burned paws who was rescued from Idaho's Mustang Complex fire is not the only baby critter in that fix; fire crews rescued this baby bobcat, nicknamed “Chips,” from the Chips fire in California on Saturday. The tiny female kitten, about the size of a domestic kitten, had burns on all four paws and an eye infection, and is being treated at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, where she is expected to make a full recovery, and after being sheltered with other bobcats through the winter, will be released back into the wild. You can read more here.
  

Bear cub with paws burned in wildfire to get daily medical treatment

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― State wildlife officials say a black bear cub rescued from a wildfire burning the backcountry in eastern Idaho will need daily medical care for burns on all four paws. The 25-pound bear nicknamed “Boo Boo” was discovered Sunday night all alone and clinging to a tree in an area recently scorched by fires associated with the Mustang Complex Fire. Efforts to find the mother were unsuccessful. Officials also say the cub likely had not eaten for at least four days. A veterinarian with the Idaho Department of Fish and Game said Boo Boo has second-degree burns on each paw, needs daily bandage changes and six weeks to heal. Officials wanted to rehabilitate the bear at a wildlife sanctuary in McCall, but the extent of the burns requires more intensive care.

Most school levies pass around state

Most of the school tax levy measures on the ballot yesterday appear to have passed, with all three Kootenai County school districts approving theirs - including a 13-year, $32.7 million bond levy in Coeur d'Alene - and levies in Treasure Valley districts including Kuna, Nampa, Homedale, Notus and Wilder all passing. Potlatch voters were 67 percent in favor of their district's $1.3 million levy to save school programs, electives, sports and teachers' jobs, the Moscow-Pullman Daily News reports, after a similar measure failed in May. An attempted recall of a school board member in Bingham County failed.

In Caribou County, a $5 million bond in the North Gem School District reportedly failed, coming just two votes short of meeting the two-thirds supermajority requirement. Power and Cassia county voters overwhelmingly approved a $1.8 million supplemental levy for the American Falls school district. Buhl voters also approved a supplemental levy, after two earlier tries failed narrowly.

Voters head to polls in 20 Idaho school districts today, most on whether to hike local tax funding for schools

It's election day in 20 school districts across Idaho, as voters head to the polls to decide on school funding measures from a $1.6 million levy in Nampa to fund textbooks and building repairs; to a $3.19 million levy in Kuna to head off 25 teacher layoffs; to a 13-year, $32.7 million bond levy in Coeur d'Alene to fund major building renovations at schools throughout the district. School districts with elections today range from Kootenai, Bonner and Benewah counties to Canyon, Twin Falls, Caribou and Cassia counties; voters are heading to the polls from Buhl to Potlatch, and from Rathdrum to American Falls, which has a bond levy on the ballot. Bingham County has a recall election for a school board member.

In all, 20 districts in 14 counties are holding elections today, all but Bingham to consider funding increases through property taxes.

Idaho Power hires former state homeland security head as new corporate communications chief

Idaho Power has announced that it has a new director of corporate communications: Brigadier General William Shawver , who recently left his position as director of the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security, and who remains commander of the Idaho Air National Guard. Shawver headed the state bureau for nearly five years, and left July 27. He'll start his new position at Idaho Power on Sept. 4.

“Bill brings great experience in leadership, program management, communication and incident response, and we’re excited to have him on board,” said Jeff Malmen, vice president of public affairs for Idaho Power and former chief of staff to Gov. Butch Otter. At the utility, Shawver will lead a staff addressing external and internal communications, marketing and creative services. He is a 37-year veteran of the Idaho Air National Guard. Click below for Idaho Power's full announcement.

Wildlife summit called success, thousands participated

The first Idaho Wildlife Summit is being called a success, with 800 people signing up to participate and 3,000 taking part online. “It went better than I could have expected,” Fish and Game Director Virgil Moore told the Idaho Statesman's Rocky Barker. “I am encouraged that such a diverse group expressed such a strong consensus on conservation values.” You can read Barker's full report here.

Exergy sued over missed turbine payments

An Idaho wind developer that recently suspended projects and hasn't paid its professional cycling sponsorship bills faces a new challenge, the Associated Press reports: A federal lawsuit filed by a Virginia-based energy giant for missing millions in payments for turbines it agreed to buy less than four months ago. Exergy Development Group LLC of Boise failed to pay up to $37.9 million for 32 turbines that were to be transported to Idaho from Pennsylvania, according to the lawsuit filed by a unit of AES Corp. in U.S. District Court in Idaho; click below for the full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Boise Police tase naked man after business break-ins

In odd crime news over the weekend, the Boise Police responded to a report of a burglary in progress at 3 a.m. Saturday, to find 27-year-old Boisean Anthony J. Marsh there, naked except for his shoes, standing next to a broken glass door in front of a business on South Shoshone Street, bleeding from cuts. The suspect was behaving erratically and wouldn't respond to officers' commands, and instead attempted to jump through the broken window. “At one point, officers were forced to deploy a taser to take the suspect into custody to avoid further injury,” the BPD reports. Replacement of the safety glass door was estimated to cost more than $1,000; the suspect was also determined to have broken into a nearby laundromat. He was booked on charges of malicious injury to property and resisting and obstructing an officer. No word on where his clothes were; perhaps being washed at the laundromat?

Analyzing Otter’s evolving position on federal firefighting efforts…

Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker analyzes the evolution of Gov. Butch Otter's position on firefighting efforts in a column today; you can read it here. Baker reports that when Otter took office in 2007, it was the toughest fire season in Idaho since 1910, and he sharply differed with federal authorities' firefighting approach, calling the rules regulating firefighting “The Don’t Book.” Now, Otter is strongly supporting federal firefighting commanders’ plans for protecting his state in this year's tough fire season. “His support for the plans - putting resources in front of communities, while allowing the fires to burn into wilderness and where past fires have reduced fuels - shows that the West is evolving to accept the new realities of fire,” Barker writes.

Child psychiatrist accused of improprieties with patients

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― The Idaho State Board of Medicine has filed a complaint against a Boise child and adolescent psychiatrist alleging he had improper sexual contact with four former patients or foster children and had a three-year affair with a patient to whom he was prescribing painkillers. The complaint against Dr. Richard J. Pines alleges abuses dating back to June 2001. He has denied the allegations in his response to the board. The board's complaint alleges that in two cases Pines said he needed to perform naked massages to maintain his medical license, in one case he took naked pictures of a 14-year-old patient at his cabin and told a former foster child that he needed a “test patient” on which to practice hernia exams. The board seeks a hearing on whether Pines' license should be revoked.

Canal company presses appeal over denial of plan for Bear River dam

Officials with an eastern Idaho canal company are asking state water officials to reverse a July ruling that doomed a proposal to build a dam on the Bear River, the AP reports. The Twin Lakes Canal Co. appealed earlier this month a decision by the Idaho Department of Water Resources on plans to build a 108-foot-high dam in the Oneida Narrows near Preston. An agency administrator ruled the dam would interfere with downstream water rights and conflict with a state water compact with Utah. In their appeal, canal officials say the ruling has factual errors. Idaho Department of Water Resources Director Gary Spackman will make a final decision the appeal.

Environmental groups have long opposed the project, saying it's important to protect the free-flowing nature of that stretch of the Bear River. Click below for a full report from the Associated Press.

Idaho’s delegation to GOP national convention…

StateImpact Idaho has a report today on the Idahoans headed to the GOP convention in Florida, along with a link to the full list of Idaho's 32 delegates - who include both Gov. Butch Otter and First Lady Lori Otter, state schools Supt. Tom Luna, Lt. Gov. Brad Little, Sen. Jim, Vicki and Jason Risch, Frank and Belinda Vandersloot, Roy Eiguren, Sandy Patano, Ruthie Johnson, Norm Semanko, and both Dane and Damond Watkins. Tracey Wasden is a delegate, while husband and Idaho Attorney General Lawrence is an alternate.

StateImpact reports that the Romney Campaign designated most of the delegates, but three were selected by the party’s nominating committee and three more automatically attend based on their leadership positions; all pay their own costs of travel. You can read their full report here.
  

Times-News: What Idaho law says about rape and pregnancy

With Missouri Rep. Todd Akin's controversial comments about rape and pregnancy in the news, Twin Falls Times-News reporter Melissa Davlin took a look at what Idaho law says about rape and pregnancy. What she found: The victim can go to court and terminate parental rights if the pregnancy occurred as a result of rape, incest or lewd conduct with a minor. However, the situation is complicated if the attack wasn't reported or prosecuted. You can read her full report here.
  

Southwick named starting quarterback for BSU Broncos

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Boise State on Sunday named redshirt junior Joe Southwick the starting quarterback for the No. 24 Broncos. Southwick, a 6-foot-1, 187-pounder from Danville, Calif., was a backup a year ago to Kellen Moore, who during his career won more games than any other quarterback in the history of college football. As a backup Southwick mostly saw action in fourth-quarter mop-up duty. In eight games, he was 23 of 30 for 198 yards and one TD and one interception. Coach Chris Petersen says Southwick knows the system well and prepared hard to earn the starting job. Southwick says he feels privileged as well a lot of responsibility in being named the starter. The Broncos open the season Friday against No. 12 Michigan State in East Lansing, Mich. Click below for a full report from Idaho Statesman sports writer Brian Murphy via the Associated Press; the photo above is by Statesman photographer Chris Butler via AP.

Public invited to participate in three-day Idaho Wildlife Summit

The Idaho Fish & Game Department is launching a three-day “Wildlife Summit” this afternoon, to bring together hundreds of Idahoans with varying views to help guide the future of how the state funds its fish and wildlife programs. Currently, Idaho puts no state general funds into Fish & Game, instead relying almost entirely on hunting and fishing license fees and federal funds. But federal funds are dropping, license revenues are limited, and costs are rising with the complexity of the issues.

Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker offers a guide to the summit here, including what's at stake and how to participate. There's more info at the Fish & Game website here. Among the central questions to be addressed at the summit: “What kind of wildlife legacy do we want to leave our children and grandchildren? How can we work together to create a positive future for wildlife in Idaho?”

Idaho ‘medical homes’ pilot project gets $40K from providers

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Nine health care-related organizations gave some $40,000 to a state-led effort that Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter hopes boosts the quality of care and reduces costs, especially for low-income Medicaid recipients. Contributors to Otter's Medical Home pilot project included St. Luke's Health System and Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center, which gave $5,000 apiece, and Cambia Health Foundation, which gave $10,000. The two-year pilot project aims to refocus health care in Idaho from responding to acute situations to a model where patients develop a relationship with their doctors to coordinate preventative care ― before emergencies arise. Otter first announced this effort two years ago, and his office is taking applications from medical providers for this first two-year phase. His office said selections of up to 15 providers will be done in September.

ISU to go smoke-free campus-wide in September, joins BSU, but not UI

Idaho State University will ban smoking campus-wide starting in September, the Idaho State Journal reports, following a recommendation from student leaders, who passed  a resolution nearly a year ago backing the move. That means ISU will join Boise State in becoming a smoke-free campus; BSU enacted its ban in 2009. The University of Idaho has chosen not to go entirely smoke-free, instead enacting policies restricting smoking on campus but not banning it entirely. Other Idaho colleges banning smoking campus-wide include the College of Southern Idaho in Twin Falls and North Idaho College in Coeur d'Alene.

A campus survey at ISU showed only 8.8 percent of the campus community smokes daily; and 60.7 percent were in favor of ISU going completely smoke-free, with 15.7 percent neutral and 1 percent with no opinion. The campus plans to offer smoking-cessation aid in conjunction with the ban; click below for the full ISU news release.

Judge orders mental evaluation for 14th-time DUI offender

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― An Ada County judge has ordered a mental health evaluation for a 55-year-old Boise man who was recently convicted of his 14th DUI. Terry Ash was to be sentenced Wednesday after a June conviction for driving under the influence last September and for being a persistent offender. Prosecutor Shelly Armstrong recommended that Ash be sentenced to 20 years to life, but Ash's attorney asked for a mental evaluation for his client, citing a history of psychological programs, poverty and other extenuating circumstances. The evaluation is set for Oct. 17 at the Ada County jail. Armstrong says Ash's DUI convictions date back to 1971.

State’s legal bill for defense in Pam Lowe case tops $614K

The state's legal bill for fighting former ITD chief Pam Lowe's wrongful firing lawsuit has swelled to $614,647, according to information obtained under the Idaho Public Records Law. Idaho's Risk Management office in the state Department of Administration, responding to a pending public records request from Eye on Boise, reported that figure for total attorney fees and other defense costs for the state as of the date of dismissal. Kit Coffin, risk management chief, reported, “That is the total of all in hand on the date of dismissal. There may be another bill or two from work relating to that.”

After close to three years of litigation, the state settled with Lowe for $750,000; it also gave her a positive job reference, which was attached to the settlement.

Both sides dispute each others’ ads as school reform campaign launches

The campaign working to overturn Idaho's neducation reforms has launched a new radio advertisement calling a laptop program required under the plan an “unfunded mandate” that will require schools to spend millions of dollars they don't have, the AP reports, but the ad's claim that the laptops are unfunded conflicts with the $2.5 million lawmakers set aside to pay for the devices this fall when they'll go to every high school teacher. Students will start getting the laptops in 2013 under the reforms by public schools chief Tom Luna.

The fight over the three laws in Luna's reform package is heating up with less than three months left before voters decide whether to keep or ditch the sweeping changes that limited collective bargaining, phased out teacher tenure, introduced merit pay and put more technology in the classroom while requiring students to take online classes; click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.

ITD: ‘Concluded a settlement is the best course at this time’

The Idaho Transportation Department, in a news release today on the state's settlement with former ITD chief Pam Lowe, said, “The Idaho Transportation Board still believes it was appropriate and within its legal rights to fire Ms. Lowe, but concluded a settlement is the best course at this time.” ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten said, “The board was prepared to take its case to trial, but the potential risks, time, expense, and possible appeals meant the costs of litigation would continue to escalate.” The board also continued to dispute Lowe's claims in her wrongful-firing lawsuit; click below to read ITD's full news release.

Lowe: ‘I tried to resolve this dispute early on for much less money’

Pam Lowe, former Idaho Transporation chief, had these comments today on the settlement she reached with the state in her wrongful firing lawsuit, in response to questions from Eye on Boise:

“I recognize that $750,000 is a lot of money, but it is a compromise and was much less than my actual damages.” Lowe's attorney fees, back wages and benefits alone added up to close to $500,000. “Comparatively, certainly it's a fraction of the cost to taxpayers of the GARVEE contract,” she noted, referring to the $50 million contract with politically well-connected firms that she tried to trim back to $30 million - and that since has swelled to more than $80 million.

Said Lowe, “I tried to resolve this dispute early on, even as early as at the time of my termination, for much less money than what ITD is paying me now.”

She added, “As you can see from the settlement agreement, my attorneys received 25 percent of the total amount paid. That's in addition to some other fees that I paid them, and I thought they did a fantastic job. But what I paid for my attorney fees was a fraction of what the state paid, and I do believe I got great value.” The state of Idaho paid nearly $600,000 in fees to a private law firm that handled its end of the case, and more bills still could come in.

“I'm certainly happy to put this behind me,” Lowe said. “I've spent my entire career as a public servant dedicated to transparency and to transportation, and I've focused on saving Idaho taxpayers money while constructing the transportation system.” She said, “I'm a positive person and I'm glad to take a positive step and put this litigation behind me and be able to move on with my life. I'm proud of what I accomplished at ITD.”

Attached to the settlement, the ITD board gave Lowe a letter of recommendation for future jobs. “As their employment letter states, throughout my career at ITD including my term as director, I did my job. And that letter was significant,” she said. “I had nothing but positive performance evaluations, and my last written evaluation by the chairman of the board said I was an exceptional manager and saved Idaho $50 million. So I'm pleased with my accomplishments at the Idaho Transportation Department.”

Idaho pays fired ITD chief $750,000, gives her positive letter of recommendation

The state of Idaho is paying $750,000 to former Transportation Director Pam Lowe to settle her wrongful-firing lawsuit, bringing the state's total cost for the case to $1.34 million. That's because Idaho already has paid $590,833 to the private law firm it hired to defend it against Lowe's lawsuit, according to information obtained under the Idaho Public Records Law; more bills may yet come due.

Lowe, the department's first female director, charged she was fired without cause, because she resisted political pressure against reducing a giant contract with a  politically well-connected firm; she also alleged gender discrimination. She was replaced by a man who started at a salary $22,000 higher than hers.

The settlement, released today after final papers were filed in federal court this morning, includes a glowing job recommendation for Lowe, signed by the chairman of the Idaho Transportation Board. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Idaho sends 130 prison inmates to private CCA lockup in Colorado

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― The Idaho Department of Correction has flown 130 inmates to a prison in Colorado because Idaho's prison don't have enough room to hold the state's growing inmate population. The inmates were flown Tuesday morning on a chartered jet to Denver, and from there they took a bus to the Kit Carson Correctional Center in Burlington, Colo. The prison is owned and operated by Corrections Corporation of America. Idaho's inmate population reached more than 8,000 for the first time in April. The Department of Correction has been renting beds in county jails to ease the pressure, but that wasn't enough to accommodate the demand. Department Director Brent Reinke says the move is hard on families, but the state is simply out of room.

Idaho ag exports up 15 percent

Idaho food and agriculture exports for the first six months of this year were 15 percent higher than the first six months of 2011, the state Department of Agriculture announced today, and 2011 was a record-setting year. Dairy is the state's top agricultural export, comprising more than 35 percent; it was up 10 percent. Top export markets for Idaho ag products are Canada, Mexico, China, Japan and South Korea, with exports to China and South Korea showing the biggest increases. You can read the department's full announcement here.
  

Rammell arguments on at Idaho Supreme Court; listen live now

The Idaho Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments this morning in Rex Rammell's appeal over the shooting of his escaped domestic elk; you can listen live here. Rammell sued the state, then-Gov. Jim Risch and Idaho Fish & Game over the incident. Rammell's lawyer just told the justices that he doesn't believe Idaho law permits “the destruction of domestic elk simply for being out of the confines of the ranch for seven days.”

“Doesn't Fish & Game have the authority to issue emergency depredation hunts when situations arise?” asked Justice Jim Jones. Rammell's attorney, Patrick Furey, said there was no evidence the elk were diseased or a threat to the state's wild elk herds. “There was nothing at all about these elk to distinguish them as escapees from a neighbor's cattle herd that got out. … This wasn't a case of velociraptors escaping from Jurassic Park.”

“You can't just proclaim to go destroy private property, you've got to have a reason,” Furey told the justices. Justice Daniel Eismann said the state law doesn't talk about disease. “The statute talks about … domestic cervidae that have been escaped for more than seven days.” Justice Joel Horton noted that the state law extends immunity both to licensed hunters and to state agencies for shooting escaped domestic elk that are in the wild more than seven days. Furey said he thought that law “was intended only to immunize the hunter, and not to authorize what was done here.”

The state's attorney, Mike Kelly, told the justices the issue is narrowly defined: Interpretation of the state law. “Gov. Risch had the authority to issue that executive order,” he said. “Gov. Risch didn't issue that order until 26 days after the escape.”


  

In court, new details emerge about downfall of once-rising GOP star in Senate

During former Sen. John McGee's sentencing hearing today, new details emerged on the sexual harassment allegations that led to McGee's resignation from the Idaho Senate. Asked what happened, McGee told 4th District Magistrate Judge James Cawthon, “Your honor, on Feb. 7, I acted inappropriately and I used language that I should not have used, and I conducted myself in a way, your honor, that was offensive, and I'm guilty of this offense.” The charge against McGee was disturbing the peace of a person.

But Ada County deputy prosecutor Jean Fisher said it went beyond that. The victim was a 25-year-old woman who worked for the Senate in 2011, then returned for the 2012 session. “The job for her, as you can imagine, was very exciting, a unique opportunity,” Fisher said. “It was a great honor for her.” But when the woman returned for the 2012 session, she found McGee, who in the interim had been convicted of DUI in a bizarre Father's Day incident, “mercurial,” subject to “mood swings,” and “acting sexually inappropriately around her.” At one point, Fisher told the court, McGee “called her into his office, locked the door and demanded that she engage in graphic sexual conduct.” The woman escaped. She went home that day and told her mother.

“Co-workers noted her declining demeanor and asked what was wrong,” Fisher said. The victim didn't want to report McGee. “She believed that her job was on the line,” Fisher said. “She and her friend attempted to isolate the victim from Sen. McGee,” in part by moving other workers into the workplace. But, Fisher said, “The senator isolated her again and repeated the barrage of disturbing and offensive sexual innuendo.” At that point, the friend reported the situation to a supervisor, and an investigation was launched, leading eventually to a criminal charge against McGee of misdemeanor disturbing the peace.

Fisher said the victim just wants the whole thing over. “She is so ready to move on and be done with this process that has been a horrible disruption in her life,” she told the court.

Scott McKay, attorney for McGee, said his client disputes some of Fisher's allegations. “He admits that on Feb. 7 he committed the crime of disturbing the peace,” McKay told the court.

McGee made this statement to the court: “Your honor, I accept responsibility for my actions.” Then he paused before continuing. “Serving in the Idaho Senate has been a great privilege, but with that privilege comes responsibility, and over the last year I did not live up to that privilege. And I'm sorry for that. I apologize.”

Judge sends former Sen. McGee directly to jail, revokes withheld judgment

An Ada County judge today sent former Idaho Sen. John McGee straight to jail, revoking his withheld judgment for a 2011 DUI and imposing another six-month jail term for a disturbing the peace charge related to allegations that McGee sexually harassed a Senate staffer. Magistrate Judge James Cawthon  declined to follow a plea agreement worked out between prosecutors and McGee's attorney that would have required McGee to serve just five days of jail time; instead, McGee, 39, must serve 90 days, the first half of that with no option for work-release or community service.

When McGee's attorney, Scott McKay, asked the judge if his client could have seven days to say goodbye to his family and turn himself in to serve the sentence, the judge responded, “The court will order the execution of the sentence at this time.” McGee was taken into custody at the close of his sentencing hearing. His wife, Hanna, who along with his parents, brother and church pastor accompanied McGee to the hearing, left the courtroom in tears.

Cawthon also sentenced McGee to three years of supervised probation, counseling, restitution and court costs. “What the court's going to impose here I think sends a message in terms of general deterrence,” Cawthon told McGee. “I hope it reflects … the serious nature of the offense.”

McGee was on probation for a 2011 DUI conviction - in which he received a withheld judgment and more serious charges of stealing and damaging a vehicle were dismissed - when he allegedly sexually harassed a 25-year-old female Senate staffer in February. After an investigation, a criminal charge, a misdemeanor charge of disturbing the peace, was filed against McGee, along with a charge of violating his probation. “This isn't just disturbing the peace,” the judge told him today. “You weren't playing music too loud. … Whatever this is, it's sexual in nature.” He said, “I don't know if you just lost your moral compass because of the positions you had.” He called it “amazing” that McGee would risk his marriage, his family and his career a second time while still on probation for the first crime.

He also said he sentenced McGee on the DUI just as he would any other first-time DUI offender. But he said, “This new offense happened … in your role as an Idaho state senator. It happened at the Capitol.” He said he was treating McGee like any other public servant who “misbehaves to the level of committing criminal offenses in the course of their public service.”

Otter to tour wildfires today; his cabin is among structures in communities at risk…

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter will join National Guard and state Homeland Security officials on a helicopter tour of wildfires burning in the Pine and Stanley areas today, along with some on-the-ground stops; he'll then meet with reporters and share what he's seen. It's an issue that's personal for Otter, who many years ago was a wildland firefighter himself, and who spent last Thursday, Friday and Saturday at his log cabin in Pine, clearing pine needles, downed branches and other flammables away and removing keepsakes from the cabin as the huge Trinity Ridge fire burned toward the small communities of Featherville and Pine.

Otter's had the riverfront cabin since April of 2001; it was a favorite getaway during his three terms in Congress and a jumping-off point for hunting trips; he has fond memories of family Thanksgivings there in years past, though he's had little chance to get there in recent years. “I'm ashamed to say that it has been a good two years, except for this last weekend,” he said today. While Otter and First Lady Lori Otter were at the cabin, they removed keepsakes including a letter from then-President Ronald Reagan that Otter had framed and kept on the wall. “We were able to get all the pine needles and pine cones, all that kind of stuff cleared out,” he said.

While he was there, he also attended three public meetings at a local senior center. “The crews just came in and did a tremendous job of planning, explaining to us … why we should leave,” Otter said. “When we left, we told them, 'We're gone,' so they didn't have to worry about us being there.”

It's a log cabin, but Otter said he's glad it has a metal roof, given the fire danger. Asked how smoky the air was during his visit, Otter said, “Oh, it was awful, it was awful.”

While he was working around the cabin, a news crew from KTVB-TV caught up with him; he said with a chuckle that after footage aired of him operating a chainsaw, he got a call from Valley Tool, where he buys and repairs his saws, saying, “Hey, get in here and get a pair of safety goggles!” Otter said sheepishly that he had the goggles; he just hadn't put them on.

Prosecutors recommending five days jail, court costs, counseling for McGee

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Authorities are recommending that former Republican Sen. John McGee serve five days in jail, pay $500 in court costs and undergo private counseling in exchange for pleading guilty to disturbing the peace. According to court documents filed by McGee's attorney, both sides are also recommending McGee pay $960 in restitution and attend classes about having healthy relationships and setting appropriate boundaries. The court documents say McGee intends to plead guilty Tuesday to the charge, which is linked to sexual harassment allegations that resulted in his February departure from the Idaho Legislature. At the time of the sexual misconduct investigation, McGee was on probation following a 2011 drunken driving conviction. McGee is also expected to plead guilty to violating the terms of his probation during the hearing Tuesday.

Click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.

No increase in endowment funds for Idaho’s public schools next year…

Idaho's state Land Board has voted unanimously to approve a recommendation from the state's Endowment Fund Investment Board for no increase in the distribution from the state endowment to public schools next year, holding schools at their current annual distribution level of $31.3 million. Larry Johnson, investment manager for the endowment fund, said the board recommended a 2.8 percent increase in total distributions from the endowment, based on earnings, but no increase for public schools and one other beneficiary, normal school, because their reserves are not yet at the target level, which is enough to cover five years' worth of distributions.

The board also recommended that $7.9 million from earnings reserves for six endowments be transferred into their permanent funds on Sept. 1, because those endowments, which include penitentiary and university, now have more than five years worth of distributions in their reserves. “The recommended distributions and transfers appear to be achievable and represent an appropriate balance between the interests of current and future beneficiaries, taking into account the current level of earnings reserves and expected future fund revenues,” Johnson said in his report to the Land Board.

The Idaho Constitution requires the state's endowment to be managed for maximum long-term returns to the beneficiaries, the largest of which is the state's public schools. With no discussion, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden moved to approve the recommendation, Secretary of State Ben Ysursa seconded the motion, and it passed unanimously. State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna wasn't at the meeting; he's out of state.

Grim Land Board members hear report on wildfires in the state, question safety

A grim Idaho state Land Board heard a report this morning from the state Department of Lands on the ongoing destructive wildfires in the state. Attorney General Lawrence Wasden noted that he saw the headlines in the newspaper this morning about concerns about hazards on the Steep Corner fire, in which 20-year-old Moscow firefighter Anne Veseth was killed, including questions about communications and coordination by the state Department of Lands on the fire. “I'm concerned for our own crews, making sure they have the communication, organization,” Wasden said. He asked state forester and fire official David Groeschl, “Do you feel satisfied with the communication, coordination, and organization that we have, that it would protect our firefighters?”

Groeschl responded, “We are very diligent.” He said crews receive extensive training and protective gear. “I am very proud and very confident in our folks and what they do out there,” Groeschl said. “The last thing we want to do is put them in harm's way, undue risk.” He noted that firefighting is risky. “We will continue to, as much as we can, ensure the safety of our firefighters.”

Groeschl offered condolences on Veseth's death, and noted that the state Lands Department is conducting one of four investigations into it. The others are led by OSHA, the Forest Service law enforcement branch, and a “serious accident investigation team,” he said.

Groeschl said the state has spent $7.6 million on wildland firefighting so far this season, and expects to recover about $3.1 million from other agencies, for a net cost of $4.5 million. National Guard resources have been mobilized to assist. “Resources now are being stretched thin nationally,” he said. “The next couple of weeks will continue to be challenging. We do not see any season-ending events as far as rainfall for the next couple of weeks.”

The Lands Department's firefighting goal is initial attack, he said, with the goal of containing 95 percent of new fire starts within 10 acres.

State pays another $35K to law firm for defense in Pam Lowe wrongful firing case; bill up to almost $600K

Public records revealed today that the state has sent another $34,594 payment to the private law firm it hired to defend the state Transportation Board against a wrongful-firing lawsuit from ousted former state Transportation Director Pam Lowe. Lowe, the department's first female chief, recently settled her lawsuit, which charged both gender discrimination and political pressure; the settlement hasn't yet been disclosed. The state's legal bill to the law firm of Holland & Hart now adds up to nearly $600,000 - more precisely, $590,833.

Former Sen. McGee to be sentenced tomorrow in 4th District court

Former Idaho Sen. John McGee, R-Caldwell, is up for sentencing tomorrow at 1:30 p.m. in 4th District Court in Ada County; McGee is facing sentencing for a charge of disturbing the peace on Feb. 7, 2012, related to charges that he sexually harassed a Senate staffer; and violating his probation in connection with the same allegation. At the time, McGee was on probation for driving under the influence in June of 2011, for which he received a withheld judgment. An additional charge of driving/operating a vehicle without the owner's consent and causing more than $1,000 damage in the June 2011 incident was dismissed in exchange for his guilty plea on the DUI.

Court records show that McGee has completed 24 hours of community service; was fined $947; wrote a letter of apology to the victims in the driving case in July of 2011; was sentenced to one year of unsupervised probation; and was assigned 24 hours of alcohol/DUI education class. He also was sentenced to 180 days in jail with 175 suspended and received work release.

McGee, the former Republican caucus chairman, resigned from the Senate after the sexual harassment allegation surfaced. Prosecutors told 4th District Magistrate Judge James Cawthon in June that at the Aug. 21 sentencing, McGee will plead guilty to misdemeanor charges of disturbing the peace and probation violation.

USFS crew refused to work on Steep Corner fire day before Veseth’s death, due to hazards

The Lewiston Tribune is reporting that a day before 20-year-old U.S. Forest Service firefighter Anne Veseth was killed on the Steep Corner Fire, a specialized Forest Service fire crew refused to work on the fire due to hazards including multiple cedar snags burning from halfway up down to the base. Veseth, of Moscow, was killed the next day when a tree fell and crashed into another, which fell on her. You can read the Trib's report here. Click below for more on this from the Associated Press; you can read the full SAFENET report here on the hazard concerns; hat tip to Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker for the link to the report.

Boise air tanker base sets record for fire retardant dumps in big wildfire year

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Federal officials say the air tanker base in Boise has so far dumped more than 1 million gallons of fire retardant on wildfires burning across Idaho this year. That surpasses totals recorded for the past 11 years dating to 2001 and the first eclipse of the 1-million gallon mark since 2007. This fire season, pilots have dumped 1.2 million gallons of the red retardant on wildfires, topping the previous record of 1.19 million gallons in 2006. Officials at the U.S. Forest Service Air Tanker Base say the annual average during the last 11 years is 611,000 gallons. Nearly a third of the 2011 dump has targeted fires on the Boise National Forest. More than 245,000 gallons were dropped on the initial attack on the Trinity Ridge Fire burning near Featherville.

20 years later, events at Ruby Ridge still reverberate…

Twenty years after the 11-day Ruby Ridge siege in North Idaho left three people dead, longtime Spokesman-Review reporter Bill Morlin examines the effect the event had on right-wing extremism in America, helping spark the militia movement of the 1990s; you can read his report here at spokesman.com. Meanwhile, Ruby Ridge survivor Sara Weaver, pictured here, has found religion and says she's now ready to forgive. Longtime AP reporter in Spokane Nick Geranios interviewed the now-36-year-old woman, who lives in Montana and has recently published a book; she told him, “I decided I was broken and needed to be fixed.” Click below for his full report.
  

Silver Mountain gondola rider climbs out window, plummets to his death

A 26-year-old man riding the Silver Mountain gondola over the weekend climbed out of a window and plummeted 85 feet to his death, authorities report, landing in steep, rocky terrain; his companion repeatedly entreated him to climb back inside, but he wouldn't. You can read more here at spokesman.com.

Idaho Supreme Court to begin live video-streaming its oral arguments

Idaho's Supreme Court will begin live video streaming all its oral arguments from its main Boise courtroom next week, in a joint project of the court and Idaho Public Television, which pulled it together despite a dearth of state funding. Though Washington has long televised its Supreme Court arguments, fewer than a third of states provide such video access; it's a big step for Idaho, expanding the service that now live-streams all legislative proceedings and some executive-branch meetings on the Internet so folks anywhere in the far-flung state can watch.

“There's a definite benefit to the citizens,” said Steve Kenyon, clerk of the Idaho Supreme Court. Among those likely to tune in to the webcasts: Parties in appeals to the state Supreme Court, who now won't have to drive to Boise to see the arguments before the justices; lawyers who are litigating similar issues in district courts around the state and can see how those issues play out live at the state's highest court; reporters covering cases that originated in far-off corners of the state; and citizens interested in seeing the highest level of the judicial branch of state government at work.

“It's giving people around the state the ability to stay in contact with their governmental process, and we're just proud as punch to be involved with it,” said Peter Morrill, general manager of Idaho Public Television. Adding the high court's arguments will expand IPTV's “Legislature Live” service, which already has been streaming numerous executive-branch proceedings in addition to legislative action; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com, along with links to the new stream.

Auto theft solved when thief in stolen car cruises by cop taking the theft report

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: LEWISTON, Idaho (AP) ― Officers in northern Idaho didn't have much trouble resolving a stolen vehicle case after the missing car drove by while police were taking a report from the owner. The Lewiston Tribune reports (http://bit.ly/NN5beq ) Dianne E. Blazer of Lewiston noticed her 2003 Nissan Sentra had been stolen overnight and was talking with police at 9:30 a.m. Thursday when an officer noticed the car driving down the street. The officer ran after the vehicle and ordered the driver to stop. Chon E. Tackett of Coeur d'Alene told police he didn't remember how he got the vehicle and was trying to find a friend's house. Tackett, who is 30, was arrested for possession of a stolen vehicle and driving under the influence.

Idaho jobless rate hits three-year low

Idaho's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate hit a three-year low in July, falling two-tenths of a percentage point to 7.5 percent, the Idaho Department of Labor reports. Meanwhile, the national unemployment rate rose a tenth of a point in July, to 8.3 percent.

The Conference Board estimated that Idaho now has fewer than five unemployed workers for every two posted job openings. Back at the peak of the recession in 2009, there were nine unemployed people jostling for every two posted job openings in the state. You can read the full announcement here from the Department of Labor.

Crapo, Simpson to host public discussion on debt Monday in Boise

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo and Congressman Mike Simpson are inviting the public to a discussion of the “fiscal cliff” and financial and debt issues facing the country, on Monday at the Idaho Statehouse. The discussion will feature Maya MacGuineas, president of the Committee for a Reponsible Federal Budget. Crapo's office said the committee is “launching a new effort to go out at the state level to spread the word about the need for a bipartisan solution to these imminent, dire threats to all generations of Americans.” The session will run from 12:15 to 1:15 p.m. in room WW55, and is entitled, “A critical discussion on solving the debt crisis facing all Idahoans and Americans.”

For those who can't attend in person, the session will be live-streamed by Idaho Public Television; you can watch live here. Click below for more info.

Otter declares statewide disaster due to wildfires, National Guard mobilizing

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has issued a statewide disaster declaration due to wildfires, allowing Idaho National Guard troops to be mobilized to help fight fires burning across the state. The declaration, signed yesterday, is for the next 30 days, but notes that it could be extended. “There is an imminent threat to life and property as a result of wildfires within the state of Idaho,” the governor's declaration states. “Dry fuels, lightning, high winds and smoke have created this perilous situation.”

Rob Feeley, public affairs officer for the Idaho state Bureau of Homeland Security, said the declaration is allowing National Guard troops and equipment to be mobilized starting today. They're headed to the Trinity Ridge, Halstead and Mustang Complex fires, including ground transportation to help move supplies and personnel, traffic control crews, and standby helicopters for medical evacuation.

“This is because the fires around Idaho are having trouble securing the resources that they need to be able to fight the fires,” Feeley said, “because there are so many fires going on across the nation, across the western United States, that some of the things they need they just can't get, for example helicopters. Every helicopter that meets their safety inspection requirements is already contracted.”

Otter also signed a separate disaster declaration yesterday for Elmore County at that county's request, to allow the county to receive FEMA funds for structure protection at Pine and Featherville from the Trinity Ridge fire. The federal fire management assistance grant is for “when the situation is dire enough there are houses, businesses at risk,” Feeley said. The federal grant will pay 75 percent of the costs for structure protection there; the resources targeted on that fire now are for wildland firefighting. Several city fire departments from throughout the state of Idaho are now mobilizing and heading there to protect the towns.

Invasive bug turns up in Ada, Kootenai counties, threatens turf, gardens, trees, crops

A new invasive insect has turned up in Ada and Kootenai counties, prompting warnings from the state Department of Agriculture. The Japanese beetle, a half-inch-long, shiny metallic-green bug with copper-brown wing covers, destroys trees, rose bushes, stone fruits, garden and field crops, and its larvae or grubs destroy turf by feeding on the roots of grass. If you seen green and yellow traps, that's what they're for; Ag is also asking anyone who finds one of the bugs to place the dead specimen in a baggie and mail it in - there's more info here. The beetle first was introduced to the United States in plants imported from Japan.

Fires intensify, rafters shuttled out from Middle Fork of Salmon River

Here's how bad western wildfires are getting: Not only are dozens of homes burning in central Washington near Cle Elum and two towns preparing for evacuation in Idaho, but 250 rafters were stranded for up to two days on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, after authorities closed a backcountry access road due to falling boulders and debris caused by wildfire. Authorities shuttled the stranded floaters out this morning with pilot cars, but this afternoon, more debris came down and the road closed again. That means as more rafters head down the Middle Fork to the Main Salmon, the point where they typically board buses for the trip out after a six-day rafting trip, they, too, could face delays.

There was a steady stream of traffic leaving Pine and Featherville today as the residents of the two small communities were advised to pack up their belongs as the Trinity Ridge fire approaches, reports AP reporter Jessie Bonner; that blaze has burned more than 100 square miles in the past two weeks and is headed for the outskirts of Featherville. “It's not a question of if, but when,” Boise National Forest spokesman Dave Olson told the AP; click below for the full report. National Interagency Fire Center spokeswoman Jennifer Smith said fires have intensified in recent days in Washington, northern California and Nevada. “Nevada has been hammered,” she said, “and Idaho has some big ones that are going to burn until the snow falls.”

Idaho to lower flags to half-staff through Sunday to honor firefighter, soldier

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Idaho plans to fly flags at state government buildings at half-staff through Sunday, to honor a firefighter and a soldier who were recently killed in the line of duty. Anne Veseth, a 20-year-old Moscow woman, died when a tree fell and struck her last Sunday while she was working to contain a wildfire near Orofino. And 22-year-old Spc. Ethan J. Martin of Bonners Ferry and Lewiston died on Aug. 7 in Afghanistan after being wounded by small-arms fire when his unit was attacked. Veseth and Martin are being interred by their families on Saturday. Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter's spokesman Mark Warbis said on Wednesday that the lowered flags beginning on Thursday would pay tribute to Veseth and Martin and their sacrifices.

Lawn care tent ban ends, but Occupy Boise tents haven’t returned

An eight-week ban on tents at the Occupy Boise vigil site on the grounds of the Capitol Annex in favor of lawn care has ended, but the tents haven't returned. Occupy members told the Associated Press they might wait until fall, as any tents erected now would have to be removed nightly to allow for watering and weekly for mowing. Plus, in the fall, Idahoans will be more focused on politics and the upcoming election. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Evacuation planned for Pine, Featherville

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Fire managers are trying to gather residents of two small central Idaho towns to discuss evacuation plans as the Trinity Ridge wildfire grows closer. The Great Basin National Incident Management Team announced that a meeting would be held at 10:30 Wednesday morning at the Pine Senior Center to discuss evacuation plans for Featherville and Pine with residents. The Trinity Ridge fire is burning on about 100 square miles just 7 miles from Featherville, and it's showing extreme fire behavior, with embers lighting new blazes far from the main body of the flames. Campers in the area have already been evacuated, and officials are warning residents of Atlanta to evacuate if they have respiratory health problems.

State finances still on track for budget surplus, even after $35M tax cut…

Wondering where the state's finances stand? The Division of Financial Management recently revised its fiscal year 2013 General Fund revenue forecast downward by $29.6 million to $2.6077 million; add that to the state's beginning balance for fiscal year '13, which started July 1, and there's $36.1 million more available than the estimate used by the Legislature this year to set the FY 2013 original appropriation. Included in the revisions: Impacts of law changes, including a $35 million permanent tax cut for corporations and top earners.

The revised forecast is 3.2 percent above actual collections in fiscal year 2012. The state still must cover costs for fires, pests and hazardous material incidents that occurred last year, but even after that, there's an estimated ending balance for FY 2013 of $31.8 million. That's $27.3 million higher than what lawmakers expected at the close of this year's legislative session - in other words, if the forecast holds, it's a surplus.

Although July state tax revenues came in slightly below the forecast, at $3.4 million below, revenues still are tracking higher this year than last year - $10.1 million higher. The Legislature's monthly General Fund Budget Monitor report lays out the numbers; you can read it here.
  

Feds: Rep. Hart’s bankruptcy plan ‘not feasible’

Federal prosecutors are calling for Idaho Rep. Phil Hart's proposed bankruptcy plan to be dismissed, saying it's improper, it wouldn't appropriately satisfy his half-million-dollar federal income tax debt, and it relies on an income source that will disappear at the end of this year: His legislative salary. Hart, a tax protester and fourth-term state lawmaker, was defeated in the May GOP primary, so his legislative salary will end in December.

“Hart's plan is not feasible,” wrote U.S. Department of Justice attorney Adam Strait in legal arguments filed in federal Bankruptcy Court. Hart had proposed paying $200 a month for five years - a total of $12,000 - to get his entire debt of more than $600,000 discharged. Most of that debt is to the IRS; it also includes more than $50,000 in back state income taxes, penalties and interest, and $22,000 in credit card debt. The plan, Strait wrote, “fails to make adequate provision for paying the United States' priority income tax debts.”

Prosecutors also noted Hart's refusal to answer numerous questions about his assets during a bankruptcy proceeding last month, from the home where he lives to the car he drives - neither of which he acknowledges owning. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Gas prices soar, but not in Idaho - yet

As gas prices shoot up dramatically across the nation, Idaho's escaped much of the latest jump, AAA Idaho reports, with Idaho's average gas price now sitting at $3.59 per gallon. That's 11 cents less than the national average, and 40 cents below the West Coast average. The national average has shot up seven cents in the past week and 30 cents in the past month, amid various domestic supply and distribution issues and an uptick in oil prices. The problems have included a Richmond, Calif. oil refinery fire that particularly impacted California and other West Coast states. California's average gas price is now $4.10; Oregon is at $3.89 - up 21 cents in the past week - and Washington is also at $3.89.

Dave Carlson, AAA spokesman, said Idaho still could see some impact. “How high gas prices will move on the West Coast depends on how quickly the Richmond refinery is operating and how much of the slack caused by the fire there can be picked up by regional refineries,” he said. “Whether Idaho prices will be similarly affected will depend on whether gasoline intended for this market is diverted elsewhere.” You can read more here.
  

Fugitive Idaho ‘sovereign citizen’ leader ‘I am: Sam’ arrested in North Dakota

The Las Vegas Review-Journal reports that fugitive “sovereign citizen” movement leader Samuel Davis of Council, Idaho, who calls himself “I am: Sam” in court documents to symbolize his refusal to recognize the establishment, has been arrested in North Dakota. Davis, 57, faces nearly five years in prison for his role in a $1.3 million money laundering scheme in Las Vegas; he pled guilty, but went on the lam in June rather than surrender to serve his prison time. Davis' co-defendant, Shawn Rice, a self-proclaimed attorney and rabbi from Arizona, was convicted last month. Adherents of the “sovereign citizen” movement declare themselves above the government's jurisdiction and claim they're not obligated to pay taxes or comply with various other laws; you can read the Review-Journal's full report here.
  

Moscow firefighter’s death highlights dangerous job crews face on fire lines

The death of 20-year-old U.S. Forest Service firefighter Anne Veseth of Moscow while fighting the Steep Corner fire near Orofino is highlighting the dangerous job crews face as at least a dozen blazes continue to burn across the state, the Associated Press reports. Veseth died Sunday when a tree fell and crashed into another tree, causing it to topple on her. “The Forest Service is devastated by the loss of one of our own,” said Forest Supervisor Rick Brazell, adding that his agency is investigating the fatal incident. “We ask the public to join us in keeping the family in their thoughts and prayers.”

Veseth, pictured here, was a student at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston, where she was studying auto mechanics; her older brother also is a wildland firefighter in Idaho. You can read more here.

Court rejects family’s lawsuit over UI frat-house fall, family may appeal

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: MOSCOW, Idaho (AP) ― A state judge has dismissed a lawsuit filed against the University of Idaho by a student who fell from a fraternity house window in 2009. The Lewiston Tribune reported (http://bit.ly/MYkJv7 ) that 2nd District Judge Michael Griffin tossed the suit on Friday brought by former student Amanda Andaverde of Caldwell and her parents. Andaverde was a 19-year-old sophomore when she fell from an upper story window during a Sigma Alpha Epsilon frat house party and suffered debilitating injuries. The university recently rejected the parents' $1 million offer to settle the case. In court earlier this month, a UI lawyer told the judge the university can't control what students do on private property and shouldn't be held liable for accidents. Andaverde family attorney Warren Dowdle says a decision to appeal is pending. Click below for a full report.

One in 6 Idahoans now gets Social Security; program marks 77th anniversary

One in six Idahoans now receives Social Security benefits, according to the Idaho AARP; the program marks its 77th anniversary tomorrow, amid debate about its future solvency. Idahoans collect $3.6 billion a year from Social Security, with the average monthly benefit check at $1,130, AARP says; for two in three Idaho seniors age 65 or older, Social Security makes up 50 percent or more of their income.

Nationally, AARP has launched a “You've Earned a Say” campaign to mark the 77th anniversary, urging Americans to join in the debate about the future of Social Security and Medicare. “We've enlisted policy experts from the Brookings Institution and the Heritage Foundation to help lay out the pros and cons of the options for the public,” said Idaho AARP spokesman David Irwin, noting that future solvency options for Social Security being examined in the nation's capitol include raising the retirement age; recalculating the cost-of-living adjustment; and increasing or eliminating the payroll tax cap, which now exempts wages over $110,000 a year from Social Security taxes.

Wildfire smoke prompts Stage 1 air quality alert, all open burning banned in 10 southern Idaho counties

The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality has issued a Stage 1 Air Quality Alert for 10 southern Idaho counties, including mandatory bans on all open burning. The counties affected are Ada, Boise, Canyon, Elmore, Gem, Owyhee, Payette, Washington, Lemhi and Custer. The DEQ has also issued a caution that unhealthy air quality will continue at least until mid-day tomorrow, and everyone should limit exertion outdoors. The pollution, in the form of PM 2.5 fine particulates, is from smoke from multiple wildfires in northern California, southern Oregon, northern Nevada and, closer to home, southwestern Idaho.

In the good news, the brush fire that kicked up this afternoon off Cartwright Road, the Ourada Fire, has been knocked down at 419 acres, the BLM reports, and crews are mopping up; no structures were damaged. When that fire started around 11:30 this morning, we went outside to take a look, but couldn't see it. The reason? It was already too smoky.

Schemer tries to profit from lost cell phone, ends up in jail on extortion charge

Here's an odd one from today's Boise Police crime report: A 27-year-old Boise man is facing extortion charges after he found a woman's lost phone over the weekend, then allegedly contacted her demanding payment or he'd sell it. The victim had lost her phone downtown on Saturday night; suspect Joshua G. Escoto allegedly contacted her last night about 11:30. The Boise Police reported, “After a detailed investigation, the suspect was arrested when the victim arranged to meet him to make the exchange.” In addition to theft by extortion, a felony, Escoto was booked into the Ada County Jail on an additional charge of carrying a concealed weapon without a license.

Idaho women’s prison sees second inmate suicide in two years

An inmate at Idaho's Pocatello Women's Correctional Center apparently committed suicide yesterday; 51-year-old Cindy R. Jones was found hanging in a shower area at the women's prison at 4:38 p.m., and paramedics were unable to resuscitate her. It was the second suicide in two years at the women's prison; the last was in November of 2011. Idaho Department of Correction spokesman Jeff Ray said since 2006, seven inmates have committed suicide in Idaho state prison facilities; three more Idaho state prison inmates committed suicide while being held in private prisons or county jails.

Ray said from January 2006 to June 2012, the prison system has had a far higher number of “suicide events,” defined as when prison staff place an inmate on suicide watch after the inmate threatens to kill him or herself: There were 3,909 such “events.” Said Ray, “All IDOC correctional officers undergo suicide prevention training when they join the department and receive refresher courses annually.”

The previous suicide at the women's prison came when Cheryl Ann Spellmeyer, 48, was found unconscious in her cell in 2011 with an apparent self-inflicted ligature mark around her neck; she was serving time for robbery, forgery and DUI in Twin Falls County and would have been eligible for parole less than a year after her death.

Jones was serving up to 20 years in prison for 2nd degree kidnapping, aggravated assault and illegal possession of a weapon in Ada County; she was scheduled to be released on July 22, 2018. The state prison system has asked the Idaho State Police to assist in investigating her death.

Renewables have rough ride in Idaho…

Despite high hopes, Idaho's renewable energy sector has had a rough ride, reports the Associated Press, with major projects that the state enthusiastically touted ending up mothballed or killed, from Hoku Corp.'s $400 million Pocatello solar polysilicon plant to Micron Technology's solar energy venture, Transform Solar. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

A newsy week for summertime, from state legal woes and wins to Olympic cheer…

For the dog days of summer, there was a fair amount of news happening in Boise last week while I was off on vacation. Here are some highlights:

* Public records revealed that the state has sent another $15,760 payment to the private law firm it hired to defend the state Transportation Board against a wrongful-firing lawsuit from former state Transportation Director Pam Lowe. Lowe, the department's first female chief, recently settled her lawsuit, which charged both gender discrimination and political pressure; the settlement hasn't yet been disclosed. The state's legal bill to the law firm of Holland & Hart now adds up to $556,239.

* U.S. District Court Magistrate Judge Candy Dale sided with Idaho Gov. Butch Otter in a lawsuit challenging the federal listing of slickspot peppergrass as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act. The court decision requires the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to revisit the issue; a jubilant Otter said he was “encouraged” that the court agreed the federal decision was “flawed.” The plant, a native desert flower found only in small parts of southern Idaho, was declared threatened in 2009 despite several years of efforts by the Otter Administration to develop a conservation plan. The primary threats to the rare flower are trampling by livestock, off-road vehicles, agriculture and other human activity.

* The Idaho Department of Lands announced that fiscal year 2012 saw a record timber harvest of 330 million board feet of timber from state endowment trust lands; that's about 35 percent of the total timber harvest in the state, though state-managed forests are only about 5 percent of Idaho's forest lands, and it's 150 percent of the five-year average for state timber harvest. However, it's only 98.5 percent of the five-year average for state timber harvest receipts; that's due to lower timber prices that have dropped significantly in the last five years.

* An archaeological dig by the University of Idaho in the heart of downtown Boise found artifacts dating back 130 years in an old well discovered on the Basque Block; items recovered included an intact decorative bottle of Gilt Edge ladies' shoe polish, marbles and jacks, and the head of a porcelain doll.

* A state prison instructor was arrested for having sexual contact with a prisoner, a felony; the female instructor taught at both the South Boise Women's Correctional Center and the South Idaho Correctional Institution, a minimum-security prison for men south of Boise.

* Boise Police raided six massage parlors in a sweep resulting in charges ranging from prostitution to licensing violations.

* State tax revenues for July came in 1.5 percent below forecast, $3.4 million down. All but one category, miscellaneous revenue, missed the forecast, which called for the month's general tax revenues to rise by 6.4 percent over last year's July revenues; instead, it was 1.5 percent lower.

* Idaho has seen an increase in fatal motorcycle accidents, with preliminary data showing 13 motorcycle deaths in the state so far, compared to six at the same time in 2011. Six of the 13 were in July. Most of those who died were men over age 40; those who went through the state-sponsored motorcycle skills training, STAR, or Skills Training Advantage for Riders, had a 79 percent lower risk of being involved in a crash.

* Olympic cycling gold medalist Kristin  Armstrong was welcomed home to Boise by a crowd of more than 1,000 at a group bike ride and celebration on Saturday, at which Gov. Butch Otter proclaimed it “Kristin Armstrong Day” in the state, and Boise Mayor Dave Bieter declared Armstrong's almost-2-year-old son Lucas honorary mayor. It was also Armstrong's 39th birthday.

Time for vacation…

I'm headed off for a week's vacation; I'll be back on Monday, Aug. 13th and catch up then. (Yes, I'm changing the vacation photos every day or two; you can see more here). Let me know what I miss, and have a great week…

Sandpoint is first Idaho city to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation; others lining up

Sandpoint Chamber of Commerce President Kate McAlister wasn't expecting it when a woman in her 60s walked up to her at a community function, hugged her and started crying. “She said, 'I want you to know that because of what you did, for the first time in all our lives I can take my partner to a Christmas party without fear of being fired,'” McAlister recalled.

This was after McAlister helped push through a new city-wide non-discrimination ordinance in Sandpoint barring discrimination in employment, housing or public accommodations based on sexual orientation or gender identity. In Idaho, it's still legal to fire someone because they're gay, or to evict them from their home, or deny them service in a restaurant. But it's no longer legal in Sandpoint.

“When it passed, there was a round of applause from the audience,” said Sandpoint Mayor Marsha Ogilvie, who added that she was surprised to learn that Sandpoint was the first Idaho city to enact such a law. Sandpoint's seen no opposition to its ordinance, which passed unanimously. Pocatello is now drafting a similar ordinance; its city council could take a vote on it as soon as this fall; and Boise is now looking into an ordinance. Said McAlister, “If tiny little Sandpoint can do this, anybody can do it. I'm not sure what's stopping us.”

Idaho appears to be in the early stages of a process that's already happened in neighboring states. In Oregon, a dozen cities or counties, including Portland, Salem, Bend, Corvallis, Eugene and more, had passed local non-discrimination ordinances regarding sexual orientation before a statewide non-discrimination law was enacted in 2007. In Washington, local laws also were passed in a dozen cities and counties before a statewide law passed in 2006. Spokane's local ordinance passed in 1999; Seattle's passed back in the 1970s. In Utah, 15 cities or counties have now enacted non-discrimination ordinances for sexual orientation, including Salt Lake City and Salt Lake County, which did so with the strong support of the Mormon church, the state's dominant religious organization.

But Utah hasn't yet passed a state law, despite repeated attempts in the Legislature. And in Washington, the process was a long one - the bill there was introduced every year for 29 years before it finally passed. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com, and my sidebar here on how in neighboring states, employers have led the push to enact such laws.

New closed GOP primary lifts veil on party affiliation of political appointees

Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey reports today that the controversial practice of appointing just independents and Republicans - and no Democrats - to some state boards that are required to not be dominated by members of one party has been placed in jeopardy, because the new closed GOP primary has revealed that some of those independents actually are Republicans - they've registered as Republicans in order to vote in the primary. Popkey found that of 117 members of boards and commissions with the party-split requirement, 10 switched in this year's primary from the affiliation they declared at the time of their appointment by the governor; you can read his full report here.

Former Sen. Craig argues Minn. airport bathroom visit was official Senate business

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Former Republican U.S. Sen. Larry Craig aims to scuttle federal campaign charges against him by arguing his infamous July 11, 2007 Minneapolis airport bathroom visit that ended in his sex-sting arrest was part of his official Senate business. He's hoping to avoid repaying $217,000 in campaign funds the Federal Election Commission claims that Craig misused to defend himself. Craig was sued in June by regulators, on grounds the campaign money was converted to personal use because Craig's defense in Minnesota had no connection to his campaign for federal office. Instead, Craig's lawyer argues in U.S. District Court this week that his Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport bathroom visit fell under his official duties. He cites a U.S. Senate rule in which reimbursable per diem expenses include meals, lodging ― and baths. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

UI prof’s research on ‘blade runner’ Oscar Pistorius could lead to new generation of prosthetic limbs

A University of Idaho professor's research not only helped clear “blade runner” Oscar Pistorius to run in the Olympics - it also may open the door to a new generation of prosthetic limbs that could help amputees ranging from elite athletes to returning veterans win a race, return to combat, or just live a normal life.
 
Craig McGowan, an assistant professor of biological sciences at the UI in Moscow, was part of a research team that gathered with Pistorious at Rice University in 2008 for three days of intensive testing and experimentation. The results were presented to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, Switzerland, and persuaded the court to overturn its ban blocking Pistorious from the Olympics; he was born without fibulae in his lower legs, prompting their amputation below the knee when he was a baby.

“There was no evidence that would support an advantage, so he was allowed to run,” McGowan said. “We found that he produces less force against the ground, he can't push off as hard against the ground as other athletes can. How much force you can push on the ground and how fast you can do that is one of the major determinants of how fast you can run.” The researchers also found no decreased energy use in Pistorius because of the springy blades that sub for his lower legs and feet. “The results showed that really there is no energetic advantage to this,” McGowan said. “I think he is a very inspirational guy.  He's where he is because of a lot of hard work.”

The research didn't end there, however. McGowan and other members of the team continued looking into how prosthetics are used by high-level athletes, and what lessons that holds. “I think this is just the beginning of understanding,” McGowan said. His research is aimed at developing a new generation of prosthetic limb that is “more biological, that does truly emulate what the biological limb does.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Farris releases 10 years’ tax returns, calls on Labrador to do the same

Idaho 1st District Congressional candidate Jimmy Farris released 10 years of his income tax returns today, and called on incumbent Congressman Raul Labrador to do the same. Labrador immediately rebuffed the request. “He just said, 'No comment,'” said Labrador's campaign spokeswoman, China Gum.

Farris, at a news conference in downtown Meridian, declared, “In the spirit of George Romney and Frank Church, I think it's important that our elected officials show the utmost amount of transparency.” Romney, father of current GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney, famously released 12 years of his tax returns when he was running for president in 1967.

Longtime Idaho Sen. Frank Church released his tax returns not only when he ran for president in 1976, but throughout his many years in the Senate. His widow, Bethine Church, recalled Thursday, “His colleagues got sort of mad at him over it, because it put the pressure on them. … He just thought it was fair that people know where his money was coming from. … He said it was important to have his integrity.”

Farris, a former NFL football player and Lewiston native, released tax returns from 2001 to 2010 that cover the entire arc of his professional football career, from his rookie year with the New England Patriots in 2001 when his wages were $70,020, to his peak earning year with the Atlanta Falcons in 2004, when he earned more than $350,000. A Spokesman-Review analysis of his returns shows he paid more than $73,000 in taxes in 2004, 21 percent of his earnings that year, and donated $62,443 to charity, nearly 18 percent of his income.

Over the 10 years, the analysis showed, he donated $204,526 to charity, mainly through church programs; in 2006, he gave nearly a quarter of his income to charity.

“One of the reasons why I'm running is because of the importance of giving back and paying it forward and doing what I can to help people,” Farris said. “One of the things you'll see in my tax returns is a significant amount of charitable contributions that I've made. They are in line with what I've said before, that I really, really value helping out and giving a hand to people.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
  

Insurance exchange working group sets another meeting this month, to ‘work as fast as we can’

After hours of presentations, including extensive information about federal requirements and about what other states are doing, the governor's Health Insurance  Exchange Working Group has wrapped up its first meeting and set another for late August, likely the 29th or 30th. “We really want to move forward with this committee and get those recommendations to the governor as soon as we can,” said working group Chairman Bill Deal, director of the Idaho Department of Insurance.

Among the key points covered today: If Idaho were to do nothing or fail to meet the federal government's mid-November deadline to decide what it'll do on a health insurance exchange, it'll get a federally run exchange. One mid-way step, if the state isn't in a position to meet the deadline, is to propose a partnership in which the feds would facilitate the exchange, but the state would take on certain duties, possibly as a transition toward a fully state-run exchange in a future year.

“I hope this meeting today was of benefit to you to get started with this,” Deal told the working group. The group is dividing up a list of 14 questions to research in the weeks before its next meeting. Said Deal, “We're going to move as fast as we can.”

UI lawyer to court in frat-house fall case: School can’t control students 24/7

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  MOSCOW, Idaho (AP) ― A University of Idaho attorney says the school can't control what students do on private property outside of school hours, and so it can't be held liable for injuries a 19-year-old sophomore sustained when she fell out a fraternity window after a party. Lewiston attorney Theodore Creason presented the school's arguments in 2nd District Court Wednesday, asking Judge Michael Griffin to throw out a lawsuit from former student Amanda Andaverde and her parents. The Andaverdes contend the university, state board and several fraternities and sororities on the Moscow campus didn't do enough to ensure the safety of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon house where their daughter was injured in 2009. The judge took the matter under advisement and will issue a written ruling at a later date; click below for the full report.

Big PUC hearings next week to focus on future of renewables in Idaho

Big hearings at the Idaho Public Utilities Commission next week are expected to attract a crowd of lawyers, utility executives and environmentalists, the AP reports, as the PUC weighs how to set the course for Idaho's renewable energy industry for years to come. “These issues have been going on since 2005,” said Gene Fadness, PUC spokesman. Commissioners “are more than ready to have all the parties come to some sort of agreement.”

Among the points of dispute: How to set the price utilities must pay renewables developers for their power; whether utilities can refuse to buy power from alternative projects when relatively few people are using electricity; and who has the rights to lucrative environmental credits that accompany renewable energy projects - the utilities or the renewables developers. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Otter appoints Gestrin to House to replace Roberts

Terry Gestrin, a Donnelly businessman and former Valley County commissioner, has been appointed to the Idaho House to finish the four months left in the term of former Rep. Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly, whom Gov. Butch Otter appointed to the Idaho Tax Commission. Otter announced the appointment today; Gestrin was the top choice of the GOP committee from the legislative district. Gestrin will face Democrat Karla Miller on the November ballot for a shot at a full two-year term. Click below for Otter's full announcement.

Gov’s insurance exchange working group opens first meeting

There's a capacity crowd of more than 60 in the audience this morning as the governor's Health Insurance Exchange Working Group gathers for its first meeting. “Our challenge is to find some solutions,” state Insurance Director Bill Deal told the audience, adding, “We also extend a welcome to all of you who have chosen to join us this morning. We've got a good crowd, and that is good.”

The agenda for today's meeting, which runs from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the west conference room of the J.R. Williams Building across from the state Capitol, includes overviews of the Supreme Court's health care decision; the Idaho insurance market; insurance and market reforms in the health care act; legal requirements, deadlines and options for a health insurance exchange; and discussion of next steps for the panel. “Today I think our goal of this working group is to establish the foundation for future meetings,” Deal said. The 13-member panel includes lawmakers, representatives of Idaho's major insurers, lobbyists, a business owner, a physician and an insurance agent.

Deal said the panel won't take any public testimony today, but is offering the public the opportunity to submit questions on cards, which will be answered via email. Audio streaming also is being offered for those who want to listen from afar; there's a link on the Department of Insurance website here.

Deal said thus far, there are 15 states planning for state-run health insurance exchanges; one planning for a partnership exchange; seven that have decided against a state-run exchange; and the rest, including Idaho, still are weighing options.

Appeals court clears North Idaho man of 3 felony charges, says jury erred

A Kootenai County man has been cleared of three felony charges, after the Idaho Court of Appeals ruled a jury didn't have sufficient evidence to conclude he had a gun when he angrily confronted friends of his ex-girlfriend in 2010 after vandalizing their home. David Loren Curry was convicted of burglary, aggravated assault and unlawful possession of a firearm, with a sentence enhancement added for being a persistent violator; the burglary charge was based on the argument that he entered a garage with the intent of threatening the occupants with a deadly weapon.

The friends said Curry kept his hand in his pocket, and one said he saw him partly remove a black object that appeared to be the barrel of a gun. However, no proof was found that Curry actually had a gun, and he never threatened to shoot or said he was armed. Curry was separately convicted of malicious injury to property for the vandalism, which he admitted. He was represented in his appeal by the Boise law firm of Nevin, Benjamin, McKay & Bartlett. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com, and read the court's decision here.
  

Crapo, Risch honor Olympic gold medal cyclist Kristin Armstrong

Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch today honored Boise's Kristin Armstrong on her Olympic gold medal in the cycling time trial in London - her second straight gold in the event, after winning it in 2008 in Beijing - with a statement submitted into the congressional record; Armstrong is shown here celebrating her victory with son Lucas. “Kristin is truly a gifted athlete with immense abilities and talents,” the senators said in the statement. “Her capacity to push forward beyond the challenges provides encouragement to all of us, and we congratulate her on this, and her many, extraordinary achievements.” You can read the full statement here.

Priest Lake cabin-site restrictive covenants win Land Board endorsement

Idaho's state Land Board voted unanimously today to impose restrictive covenants on state-owned cabin sites at Priest Lake, to ensure that the land use there doesn't change as some or all of the lots move to private ownership in the future. A few Priest Lake cabin owners whose cabins are on the state lots objected to the move, saying they didn't want a homeowner's association to enforce restrictions in the future, but most backed them; here, Land Board members hear comments from Priest Lake State Lessees Association President Denny Christensen, who spoke in favor. Kaari Burrows Davies, a dissenter, told the board, “We don't need to now put a homeowners' association in place that's going to cause division or wreck a good system that really is working.” Several other cabin owners submitted emails to the board; one, from Neil Maris, said, “Please do not let the voices of a few disgruntled lessees influence your decision. They DO NOT speak for us!”

The state is moving toward possible land exchanges to rid the state endowment of the lakefront cabin sites after years of struggle to charge appropriate rents; the endowment is required by the Idaho Constitution to be managed for maximum long-term returns to its beneficiaries, the largest of which is the state's public schools. The Idaho Supreme Court recently overturned as unconstitutional a state law that protected the cabin sites from conflict auctions when leases come up.

The board, which consists of the state's top elected officials, held a special meeting today, after it put off the issue at its last regular meeting to request a formal legal opinion from Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. That opinion was delivered, and it found that the board has the authority to impose restrictive covenants on the land; it doesn't need leaseholders' consent to do so; and the standard that should govern the board's actions is its fiduciary responsibility to the endowment's beneficiaries. State consultants and Land Board staffers said covenants would protect the value of remaining state endowment land in the area once some cabin sites change ownership.

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa made the motion to approve the staff's recommendation to impose covenants on the cabin lots, citing the constitutional requirement to maximize long-term income for the beneficiaries. “In my humble opinion, I think CC&R's will do that,” he said. His motion passed unanimously, with all five Land Board members present; in addition to Ysursa, they include Wasden; state schools Superintendent Tom Luna; acting state Controller Brandon Woolf; and Gov. Butch Otter, who chairs the board.

Caldwell mayor asks for removal of billboard message that’s drawn national outrage

The Idaho Statesman reports today that the mayor of Caldwell has asked the Ralph Smeed Foundation to remove a billboard message at a prominent entrance to the city that compares President Obama to Aurora, Colo. theater shooter James Holmes, picturing the two side by side, but the foundation has refused. The billboard message has drawn national outrage. Foundation chairman Maurice Clements, a former Idaho lawmaker and an unsuccessful candidate for the state Senate this year, told the newspaper he planned to change the message on the readerboard sign on Friday as scheduled.

Among those who have objected to the message are families of the Colorado shooting victims, who say the sign politicizes the crime that killed more than a dozen people at a Batman movie premiere. Clements told the Statesman he's received about 1,000 emails and phone calls about the billboard message, and has done interviews with the New York Daily News, TMZ and radio stations in Los Angeles and Denver. You can read the Statesman's full report here from reporter Katy Moeller.

Boise’s Kristin Armstrong wins gold medal in Olympic cycling time trial

Boise's Kristin Armstrong won the gold medal this morning in the Olympic cycling time trial in London, her second straight Olympic gold in the event. Armstrong, 38, beat Judith Arndt of Germany by more than 15 seconds; Arndt took the silver medal, while Olga Zabelinskaya of Russia took the bronze. Click below for a full report from AP sports writer Dave Skretta in London.

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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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