Archive for September 2012
Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, reportedly wasn't injured, but his wife, Amy, suffered second-degree burns when the gun room at the couple's Burley home exploded last night. The Associated Press reports that the couple was eating dinner when the explosion happened; she was on the back patio, which is directly over a room they had converted into a gun safe, when the blast happened, causing the patio to collapse. The Times-News reported that Amy Wood was taken by air ambulance to the University of Utah’s Burn and Trauma Center, where she was listed in good condition today. You can read the Times-News' full report here, in which Burley Fire Chief Keith Martin says the Woods were eating dinner when “they heard a sound like a 747 coming from the basement.”
KTVB-TV reported that a Burley fire official said the explosion did not appear to be suspicious, and advises people to keep their cleaning supplies away from their guns and ammunition; read their report here.
Wood is a physician and third-term lawmaker who is a former chairman of the Idaho Fish & Game Commission and an Air Force veteran.
A new television commercial touting Idaho's controversial school reform laws makes claims that are accurate, but still mislead voters about the impact of the reform laws. That's because they focus on obscure points in two of the three laws, without getting into the overall thrust of the measures. “It's not inaccurate, but it's not focused on the real meat and potatoes of the three propositions that have generated so much controversy,” said David Adler, a political scientist and director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University. “This is a classic campaign approach where you honeycomb your message with sweets that will appeal to everybody, without having to rehash the controversial measures.”
You can read my full ad-watch story here at spokesman.com.
Idaho teachers are leaving the profession in bigger numbers, the Associated Press reports, with more than 1,800 making their exit last year. More than 957 of the 1,884 teachers who left the profession during the 2011-2012 school year cited “personal reasons;” the departures increased significantly from the previous year, when 1,276 teachers left the profession, and the year before, when 716 exited.
While opponents of state schools Supt. Tom Luna's “Students Come First” school reforms have cited the laws as prompting more teachers to leave, Luna maintains the economy was more of a factor in the departures. His office also noted an increase in the number of individuals seeking an alternative, quicker route to certification as teachers in Idaho in the last year; click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.
Former UI football player Abdullah al-Kidd is entitled to a jury trial on his claim that the federal government misused a material witness law to arrest and imprison him for weeks in 2003 as a potential witness in a terrorism trial, a federal judge has ruled; al-Kidd never was called to testify in fellow UI student Sami Al-Hussayen's trial. AP reporter Rebecca Boone reports that U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge's ruling is a win for al-Kidd; click below for her full report.
Idaho's new $10 annual “Passport” to all 30 of its state parks and recreation areas will go on sale Monday, three months earlier than planned. The new Passport replaces the current $40 annual pass, and will be available at all Idaho county Department of Motor Vehicle offices, where, if they choose, Idahoans can add on the $10 pass when they register their vehicles each year.
“It's a bargain any way you look at it,” said state Parks Director Nancy Merrill, who initiated the program as part of a big push to make Idaho's parks system self-sustaining, as its annual state funding has dropped from $6.2 million to $1.3 million. Out-of-state residents still will pay $40 for the passes; a single entry fee at an Idaho state park is $5.
Though the new Passport costs a quarter as much as its predecessor, Merrill expects far more Idahoans to purchase the pass, thanks to its low price and the convenience of getting it along with vehicle registration. She studied programs in other states, and developed Idaho's as a “true choice plan - it's not an opt-out.” Idahoans only get the stickers if they choose to buy them. They also can be purchased at any time, not just when vehicle registration fees are due. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
The latest campaign commercial in the fight over whether to repeal Idaho's controversial school reform laws is running statewide, including in the Spokane-Coeur d'Alene market. John Foster, a lobbyist and political consultant who's behind the new “Parents for Education Reform” PAC that's running the ad, declined to identify its financial backers. “We'll file our disclosure reports at the appropriate time, but we're happy to receive enough support to get this ad off the ground, and hopefully do more,” Foster said. “This PAC is just one piece of a larger effort to spread the message of education reform in Idaho, and we'll be announcing more about that in the coming days. It's an effort that is not wholly about this campaign or this election season, it's bigger than that and will go beyond and past November.”
Foster, a former executive director of the Idaho Democratic Party, said he's enjoying working with Debbie Field, the PAC's chairwoman and Gov. Butch Otter's campaign manager, who also is a former GOP lawmaker and longtime GOP activist. “Debbie and I have been on opposite sides of the political fence before in campaign season, but we're on the same side in this issue, which is a bipartisan one,” Foster said. However, the three reform laws passed the Legislature without a single Democratic vote in favor of any of the three; Republicans were split on the measures.
On Proposition 1, which passed as SB 1108 regarding teacher contracts, every legislative Democrat opposed the bill along with 17 Republicans. On Proposition 2, which passed as SB 1110 regarding merit-pay bonuses, every legislative Democrat opposed the bill along with 21 Republicans. Proposition 3, which passed as SB 1184 on technology and funding, was opposed by every legislative Democrat and 21 legislative Republicans.
Foster declined to name other Democrats involved with the PAC. He said he's been in touch with the “Yes for Education” PAC that was formed as the main campaign organization pushing for support for the measures. His ad focuses on one fairly obscure piece of each of two of the laws: A requirement in the teacher-contract bill to include parent input in teacher evaluations; and funding for up to a year of college credit for some students under the technology law, which also funds laptop computers for all high school students and requires online classes. It also lauds the merit-pay bonus program.
“The overall goal of the ad is to engage voters, engage Idahoans, and tell them about these reforms and remind them that it's critical that if they want these reforms in place, they need to go vote in November,” Foster said.
Gov. Butch Otter, asked about the new PAC that's running a TV commercial in favor of the “Students Come First” school reform laws, said, “That's the one that John Foster is running.” Otter said, “There were other groups that came to us. … It was sort of a division of labor, if you will.” The governor said he's involved with the group “Yes for Idaho Education,” the main PAC campaigning in favor of Propositions 1, 2 and 3, but other groups also are getting involved, “even private citizens, like Frank VanderSloot,” Otter said. “He does his 'Community Page,'” VanderSloot's customary full-page newspaper ads. “That's independent.”
Otter said Foster, a former aide to then-Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick, “came in early on and he said, 'I think what you've done is great. I've got kids in school.'” Otter said, “He initiated some discussions with Tom Luna and with myself.”
A new PAC called “Parents for Education Reform” has filed paperwork with the Idaho Secretary of State's office, and is running a new TV commercial in favor of Propositions 1, 2 and 3, the education reform referenda. Debbie Field, former drug czar for Gov. Butch Otter and his former campaign chief, is listed as the PAC's chairwoman; its treasurer is Cordell Chigbrow, who also served as treasurer for Otter's re-election campaign. The Idaho Secretary of State's office reported that the new PAC filed its paperwork on Sept. 21; Field couldn't immediately be reached for comment.
The main PAC that Otter and state schools Superintendent Tom Luna formed earlier to push the three measures, “Yes for Idaho Education,” said it had no involvement in the new TV commercial. “I appreciate the help,” said Ken Burgess, spokesman for Yes for Idaho Education. “There's lots of different groups out there trying to be helpful.”
A “yes” vote on the three propositions would uphold the three school reform laws that Luna and Otter pushed through the Legislature in 2011; a “no” vote would repeal them.
As the governor's Medicaid working group wrapped up its meeting today, Idaho Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong said it was “nice to hear such agreement on many of these principles - that's very encouraging.” He said he'll work on “simple graphic illustrations of costs and impacts” to bring to the panel at its next meeting Oct. 23rd. “I believe we have added to our information base and understanding,” he said, including today's point that administrative costs of the current county medical indigency system haven't yet been included in cost estimates. “We're going to try to put a dollar savings to that, so that was a good find today,” he said. The next meeting may be the group's final one, Armstrong said, but it'll reserve a date for an additional meeting just in case. “It depends on what happens with the November election - we may be back,” he said.
Members of the governor's Medicaid expansion working group are now each sharing “guiding principles” they want to see help guide the panel's future decision on how to proceed. Rep. Fred Wood, R-Burley, a physician, said the group needs clear, easily understood graphics comparing the costs of each option. “If we really believe that it's going to cost us less in the future, we have to be able to show that,” he said. He said there's concern about “creating an adverse business environment in the state of Idaho because we won't expand Medicaid,” to the point that a business considering relocating to the state might say, “Wait a minute, you want me to come to the state of Idaho and pick up a part of your indigent care? We're not coming.”
Susie Pouliot of the Idaho Medical Association said the IMA physicians took a policy position in July in favor of expanding Medicaid in Idaho. She said their hope was not only to get patients into “the appropriate care … at a more appropriate cost,” but also to make the move part of a transformation of health care in Idaho, into a more managed-care type environment, with a medical home model, with community care networks, so that “coordination and transitions are managed in a way that produces good health results.”
Sen. Patti Anne Lodge, R-Huston, said this summer she's received more letters, emails and personal contacts than ever before in a campaign season, and they're on this issue. Lodge said many of her constituents are telling her “they don't like Obamacare and they don't want anything that has anything to do with it,” and it's challenging to explain to them the issues involved. “We are not doing a good enough job … to show the taxpayers and the citizenry what the costs are going to be,” she said.
Gooding County Commissioner Tom Faulkner said, “I think we do want to make the point that we want to promote a strong business environment by minimizing the taxes and the costs to the citizens of the state. That is a big deal.” He added, “Part of the problem with our health care is our providers are going through the roof with the costs … just because they could get away with charging us whatever they want to charge us.”
Dan Chadwick, head of the Idaho Association of Counties, said of the existing medical indigency program, “They're unsustainable numbers. We cannot afford those any longer. And those same people that are going to the county now for assistance are the ones that are paying those increased property taxes or state taxes.” He said the current system “puts incredible pressure on county governments trying to keep up with those costs, simply because they're not predictable.”
Mike Baker of the Idaho Primary Care Association is now briefing the governor's Medicaid working group on Option 3: Expanding Medicaid in Idaho. “You look at the numbers, and this thing, this problem is just ginormous,” he told the panel. But, he noted, “We're paying for a lot of these things right now. They're coming out of inefficient systems, they're probably being paid at higher rates. … I don't think we're working as smart as we could.”
He noted a reference earlier in the day to Idaho's medical indigency program as a type of “debtors' prison.” “There's funding available to help these folks in our community access the care that they need, and it's up to us to figure out how do we utilize what we're paying now … to cover the gap,” Baker said. “There are all these holes in the system.”
He said, “We all know at the end of the day we're going to have some folks that fall through the holes, no matter what program we put together, but the goal here is to reduce the number of people falling through those cracks. … reduce the cost of their care … and stop requiring other folks in the community” to cover the costs through cost-shifting.
Baker, who noted that he sees patients who are part of this population every day at the Kootenai County community health center where he works, said, “This really can work, and get us closer to the day where we can say, 'Access to health care is not a problem.'” He said, “We have 65 percent of patients in our clinic are uninsured.”
He shared data that for Idaho's mentally ill patients, 95 percent could be shifted to an expanded Medicaid, saving $11 million in state general funds. About 75 percent of AIDS Drug Assistance Program clients would qualify for the Medicaid expansion, saving the state about $800,000. Shifting the uninsured population from the state's indigency program to Medicaid would save millions both for the state and for county property taxpayers. “We know cost-shifting is occurring,” Baker said. “This should be a no-brainer decision.”
He told the panel, “If your neighbor is healthy and they're able to work, your community starts getting better.”
Idaho Association of Counties head Dan Chadwick briefed the governor's Medicaid expansion working group on what's been designated Option 2 - Don't expand Medicaid, but redesign Idaho's medical indigency program. “I've talked to my peers around the country and they all scratch their heads,” Chadwick said. “There is no other state that does it the way we do it.”
He said there's no simple way to redesign Idaho's program - he describes it as a “scraper,” that would have to be scrapped and a new system developed from scratch. Possible elements of redesign could include standardizing claims processing and expanding utilization management and medical review, he said. But possible savings would be difficult to estimate - perhaps coming to 2 percent from efficiencies. Because the indigency program is incident-based, not eligibility-based - meaning a person is eligible for benefits only if their medical bills from a particular incident are more than they could pay off in five years - it's very difficult to predict costs, because there's no way to know when someone will get sick or be in an accident. “It's a really unique system,” Chadwick said.
“I don't think anyone think there is a silver bullet or a magic wand that's going to change this program,” Chadwick said. “Many of the providers and the counties really don't like this system. I think we'd all be happy to see it go away. … It's a difficult system to administer, and we don't know even where to start in terms of capturing the administrative costs for this.” You can read my full story here on the program, from the Sept. 9 Spokesman-Review.
The working group is now headed on a lunch break, and will discuss Option 3 - expanding Medicaid - when it reconvenes at 1:15.
Discussing the first option before the Medicaid expansion working group today - no expansion of Medicaid, and no change to the current medical indigency program - state Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong noted, “Clearly no expansion … does not mean no work. There's a significant amount of effort that has to take place.” The current indigency program is facing fast-rising costs, he noted, with a significant offsetter of costs, the pre-existing conditions insurance program, or PCIP, expiring in 2014. Current estimates show the indigency program, now at roughly $60 million a year between state and county taxpayer funds, would rise to $92.2 million by 2020.
Armstrong said those estimates are conservative, particularly because Idaho's household income has fallen for the last three years, even as inflation has continued. “So households today simply are not able to support themselves as they have in the past.”
Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, a physician, asked if those figures include administrative costs, and the answer was no. “These are the direct benefits paid, and not any of the administrative costs,” said Dan Chadwick, head of the Idaho Association of Counties. Armstrong said, “That's a great question. Right now, there are approximately 100 county employees engaged in this process of indigency, and that's a cost we have not thought about until just recently, and needs to be folded into some of these other scenarios.” Administrative costs include everything from processing applications to placing liens on applicants' property and collecting on those liens, when possible, to offset benefits paid out. Hospitals, too, are facing significant administrative costs for participating in the program, said Steve Millard of the Idaho Hospital Association.
Chadwick said, “Fifty-three hearings are being held today on indigent claims in our neighboring county. That includes hospital staff, county staff, attorneys, county commissioners, sitting there listening to all these claims. That's a whole lot of time and effort putting in for just one day. It's a big deal. It's a large cost.”
Armstrong noted, “Sixty percent of the cases that come before the counties are not accepted.” Millard said, “The costs don't go away, just because the state doesn't pay for them, or the indigent program doesn't pay for them.” Unreimbursed costs drive up premiums and costs for everyone, he said.
Three options are up for examination at the governor's Medicaid expansion working group's all-day meeting today: Don't expand Medicaid and keep Idaho's current medical indigency/Catastrophic Health Care Fund program as-is; Don't expand Medicaid and redesign the existing indigency/CAT program; and the third option: Expand Medicaid. The population currently served by the state-county indigency program would virtually all be covered by a Medicaid expansion, which would be largely federally funded; the current CAT program is funded entirely with local property taxpayer and state general tax funds, to the tune of roughly $60 million a year.
Though each of the three options will be explored today, the panel won't pick one; that'll come later. First, today, the group is hearing a presentation on the Leavitt Partners report on the potentially eligible population. Still in the works is a report from Milliman, another consulting group, on the costs of each of the options. The working group will meet again Oct. 23 to get the numbers from the Milliman report.
State Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong asked the working group members to keep in mind the advantages and disadvantages of all three options today. Pros and cons of each option will be recorded and put into a spreadsheet for review. When those considerations plus the numbers from the Milliman report are before the working group, Armstrong said, “We will then be moving to recommendations.”
Gov. Butch Otter's Medicaid expansion working group meets today from 9 to 3 p.m. at the state capitol, to hear a presentation on a newly completed study and discuss Idaho's options on a possible Medicaid expansion. You can listen live here, and see the agenda here.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Resort property owners suing an international bank over allegations of a loan-to-own scheme say the firm has wrongly sealed thousands of pages of documents in the court case. The lawsuit was brought by property owners at resorts in the West and in the Bahamas against Credit Suisse in 2010. They claim the bank set up an offshore branch to skirt U.S. rules, appraised resorts at inflated prices and then provided loans with the aim to foreclose. Credit Suisse has firmly denied those allegations. Both sides agreed in April that some documents in the case should be kept from public view because they contain confidential information. On Tuesday, the property owners asked a federal judge to lift that designation, saying it was being overused. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.
The Environmental Protection Agency has announced thousands of dollars in fines for two gas delivery companies, CityServiceValcon, LLC, and Thomas West Fuels, Lubricants & Chemicals, LLC, for violating federal clean air laws in Idaho, the AP reports. EPA officials say both companies failed to follow mandatory rules for unloading fuel into storage tanks at two gas stations ― one in Lewiston and the other on the Fort Hall Indian Reservation in eastern Idaho. Officials say a lack of vapor control systems caused at least 10 tons of volatile organic compounds to escape at the Lewiston station between January 2011 and January 2012. About five tons escaped at the Fort Hall station. CityServiceValcon will pay a $48,000 penalty, while Thomas West Fuels will pay a $45,600 penalty.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Idaho's $2 billion milk industry failed to get Congress to pass a farm bill this month with provisions to help dairies mitigate rising costs and volatile markets that have spurred three quarters of losses. Though a farm bill cleared the Senate, it's languished in the House. House GOP leaders in Washington, D.C., say they didn't have the necessary votes, with conservatives demanding deeper food stamp cuts and Democrats opposing such austerity. After Congress quit Saturday, a bill likely won't be voted on until after Election Day. That means the current farm bill will expire first. U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson, who represents Idaho's dairy country, pushed for a vote this month. Rep. Raul Labrador declined to publicly back a September vote, however, saying he wants more-robust spending reductions in the bill. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.
A female high school golf champ will be allowed to continue playing with the boys' team at her school, after a proposed rule change was rejected by the Idaho High School Activities Association's board, the AP reports, which met Wednesday in Coeur d'Alene. The rule change was rejected 11-1; it had been proposed after rival coaches complained about 16-year-old Sierra Harr playing on the boys' team at Castleford High School - which she helped win a state championship - after not enough girls turned out for a girls' golf team at the small high school. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.
The young golfer, whose next tournament is next weekend in Sun Valley, told the AP she was pleased with the outcome, not just for her, but for other girls in Idaho. “If you believe in something … you should stand up for it,” she said.
A woman who was about to be released from an Idaho prison is now in federal custody, for allegedly sending a threatening letter saying her prison sentence was coming to an end and the recipient should be prepared for his final moments, the AP reports. The letter included a drawing depicting a battered stick figure and such threating phrases as “No tears,” “No hiding” and “No more you.” Linda Joyce Lakes now faces a federal charge of mailing threatening communications, a felony; click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.
Idaho Public Television's award-winning human rights documentary “The Color of Conscience: Human Rights in Idaho,” is being celebrated with viewings and discussion around the state today. The Idaho State Bar and Idaho PTV are hosting the events, which are taking place at the IPTV studios in Boise; at North Idaho College's Todd Hall in Coeur d'Alene; at the University of Idaho College of Law in Moscow; at Concordia University School of Law Courtroom in Boise; and at the Idaho Statue University Rendezvou Center in Pocatello.
The events feature a showing of the documentary, which also can be viewed online here, along with a panel discussion featuring panelists including U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson, UI College of Law Dean Donald Barnett, attorney and past state bar commissioner Ken Howard, and attorney Norm Gissel of Coeur d'Alene. Click below for more info.
S-R reporter Scott Maben has a rather amazing story today: A fisherman on Priest Lake hauled in a large lake trout on Sept. 11, and when he began cleaning it, he found what looked like a human finger. It's since been positively identified - it's one of four digits a Colbert, Wash. software developer lost in a wakeboarding accident on the lake back in June, when a looped line sheared off part of two fingers and all of two others. A sheriff's detective reported that the finger was in remarkably good condition; you can read Maben's full story here at spokesman.com.
The elected Boise School Board has announced it's endorsing a “no” vote on all three school reform referenda on the November ballot, Propositions 1, 2 and 3. Board President AJ Balukoff said, “We have an obligation as the governing body of the Boise School District to use research, best practice and data to provide the best education possible for our students. This includes communicating the implications of new laws for our students, parents, teachers, and our community.”
The board, in a news release, said, “The Students Come First legislation restricts what school boards are allowed to negotiate with their teachers, establishes a pay-for-performance bonus system for teachers, diverts funding from local districts to pay for laptops for all high school students, and requires online courses for graduation.” Balukoff said, “These three laws politicize public education by taking authority and discretion from locally elected school boards and concentrating it in the Office of the State Superintendent.” You can read the board's full statement on the laws here.
Meanwhile, Gov. Butch Otter has issued a statement urging a “yes” vote on the three measures. In response to a television commercial that's being aired statewide by the laws' opponents, Otter, in a written statement sent to KTVB-TV, wrote, “I didn't sign an unfunded mandate into law, and I didn't sign a tax increase into law. What I signed into law was a way to ensure equity and excellence for our students, opportunities for our teachers and accountability for local school trustees. There's plenty of truthful information available to help voters understand why it's important to vote YES for education reform. Don't believe the union bosses.”
Gresham Bouma, a Moscow GOP legislative candidate, was incorrectly told he needed to move a campaign rally this week because state regulations banned it, the Lewiston Tribune reports; Bouma was asked to move his rally, which his campaign was filming, from in front of a building housing the state unemployment office and a Health & Welfare office in Moscow. Bouma moved to the parking lot of a local business instead; state Health & Welfare officials expressed concern about their clients' privacy. Click below for an AP report on the incident. But here's a sign Bouma wasn't targeted for his views: The Lewiston Tribune's full article today also included this tidbit: “The office manager initially reported that supporters of President Barack Obama were assembling, apparently misreading Bouma's name on a sign.”
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Former Republican Sen. John McGee is due to get out of jail Saturday, five days before his originally-scheduled release date. McGee had been sentenced Aug. 21 to at least 44 days behind bars. That's after pleading guilty to charges linked to allegations of sexual harassment levied against him by a Senate staffer. But Ada County Sheriff Gary Raney's office wrote to 4th District Court Magistrate James Cawthon this month, requesting McGee's early release. Cawthon agreed. Jailers say McGee behaved and completed tasks in an orderly and peaceable manner. Idaho prison inmates must serve fixed sentences and haven't received “good time” credit since the 1980s. But the state allows those serving time in county jails like McGee to have their detention reduced by five days for every month of their sentences. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.
More than 12,000 Idahoans who lost their homes to foreclosure between 2008 and 2011 are eligible for payments under a national settlement over loan servicing errors that may have led to foreclosures, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden announced today. The eligible Idahoans will be receiving application packets in the mail to apply for the payments, which will start at $840.
“This payment is not intended to compensate Idahoans for the loss of their homes,” Wasden said. “Rather, it is a step toward accountability for unfair business practices that harmed Idaho homeowners. I remain committed to improving the mortgage servicing industry for the benefit of Idaho’s current and future homeowners.” Wasden joined in the $25 billion nationwide settlement with five national banks in February: Ally/GMAC, Citi, JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo. They're the largest servicers of mortgage loans in the nation. Click below for Wasden's full announcement, including information for affected borrowers.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: NAMPA, Idaho (AP) ― A school district in southwestern Idaho is removing the book “Like Water for Chocolate” from a ninth grade curriculum after some parents complained about passages including descriptions of sexual encounters. The Idaho Press-Tribune reports (http://bit.ly/QvE2Bf) Nampa School Board Chairman Scott Kido received 15 emails Sunday about the book by Mexican author Laura Esquivel. Kido says he agreed the book seemed inappropriate and it will be pulled. Parent who complained called the novel a “vile piece of work” with “an immense amount of pornography.” Esquivel shot to fame in the late 1980s with the book, which has been translated from the original Spanish into numerous languages. The passionate tale of unrequited love became an international best seller and later one of the highest-grossing foreign films ever released in the United States.
The Legislature's Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee is holding its interim meeting in the Magic Valley; Twin Falls Times-News reporter Melissa Davlin has a report here wrapping up the first day of discussions yesterday. Among the topics: Prison overcrowding, rising firefighting bills, and questions about the state's budget outlook. Davlin reports that lawmakers questioned why the state spent more than three times as much on its lawyers in the Pam Lowe wrongful firing case - which the state settled after fighting the suit for three years - than Lowe spent on hers; they were told despite the high cost, the state's outside lawyer charged the state a lower rate than normal. The meeting continues today; you can see the agenda here, and follow Davlin on Twitter @TNdavlin for updates.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: NAMPA, Idaho (AP) ― The superintendent of the Nampa School District has submitted a letter of resignation as the school faces an estimated $2.8 million budget shortfall. The Nampa School Board was scheduled to meet Tuesday night to discuss the matter. Trustee Dale Wheeler says portions of the meeting concerning Gary Larsen's resignation will not be open to the public. Larsen submitted his letter of resignation on Monday. In August, district officials discovered a miscalculation that resulted in a $2.8 million shortfall. District spokeswoman Allison Westfall told the Idaho Press-Tribune that Larsen's resignation is connected to the district's financial issues and that the problem may be worse than they thought. Two errors led to the shortfall ― incoming funds were overestimated and some revenue was counted twice. You can read the Press-Tribune's full report here.
Leading Civil War scholars from around the nation will gather at Boise State University on Oct. 25 for a day-long conference entitled, “Why The Civil War Still Matters.” The conference is sponsored y the Andrus Center for Public Policy, the Idaho Humanities Council and the Idaho Council for History Education. Advance registration is required; the $25 registration fee, which includes lunch, will be waived for any current high school or college student.
Marc Johnson, president of the Andrus Center, said the conference marks the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. “If you are a Civil War buff, a student of history, or just want a better understanding of how a conflict 150 years ago shaped, and continues to shape, our history, this event should be on your calendar,” Johnson said; there's more info here.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Lenders led by Credit Suisse Group could quickly ask for a sheriff's sale of Tamarack Resort assets now that an Idaho judge has refused to block their foreclosure case from advancing. The Swiss bank, whose lender group is owed some $300 million, declined to comment on Monday. But a Tamarack Municipal Association lawyer says a sheriff's sale could be concluded in about 60 days. That wouldn't completely unravel Tamarack's tangled finances. Additional creditors with millions in separate claims to resort assets still need the Idaho Supreme Court's permission before a district court judge can process them. Meanwhile, one Tamarack ski lift has been removed and homeowners booked a $300,000 loss last ski season. Tamarack Municipal Association director Tim Flaherty says his group still plans another ski season, starting this December. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.
Federal authorities are gearing back up their foreclosure lawsuit against tax-protesting Idaho Rep. Phil Hart, now that Hart's voluntarily dismissed his bankruptcy filing - which had placed an automatic stay on the foreclosure case. U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge has lifted the stay in the case that goes after Hart's log home in Athol, but at Hart's request, agreed to a delay until mid-November for the first discovery deadlines in the case, due to the unexpected illness of Hart's Kentucky attorney. U.S. Justice Department lawyers had asked for a deadline a month earlier.
In legal documents filed in federal court in Boise, Hart's lawyers wrote, “Hart has no objection to the lifting of the stay,” as long as the deadlines are pushed back. The lawyer's malady is described variously in the filing as “a sever staph infection” and as a “staff infection.” Hart filed his bankruptcy case in May, just 48 hours before he was scheduled to be deposed in the home-foreclosure case, which seeks to take his house to settle more than $500,000 in back federal income taxes, penalties and interest. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
The hottest election issue of the season in Idaho - possible repeal of the state's controversial new school reform laws - has yielded the first statewide TV campaign commercial, and it makes some questionable claims. “Proposition 3 replaces teachers with computers by requiring that taxpayers fund laptops for high school students,” the ad says. “The Legislature failed to fully fund the laptops required by Proposition 3, so our property taxes could increase.”
Actually, one of the main things the reform laws did was write formulas into state law guaranteeing funding for the laptops into future years. The laws made the laptop program a new “statutory requirement” within Idaho's public schools budget, just like busing, border contracts or salaries and benefits.
“Ironically, the fact that those laptops are funded strengthens their first argument, that laptops are replacing teachers, or funds that otherwise could be devoted to teachers,” said political scientist David Adler, director of the Andrus Center for Public Policy at Boise State University. “In a lot of ways, it's unfortunate, because they have some pretty good arguments on their side, but they've just undercut their position by misstating the issue of legislative funding.” You can read my full story here from Sunday's Spokesman-Review.
The Idaho Department of Environmental Quality has issued a statewide Stage 1 air quality alert, banning open burning all through the state. It's in effect through the weekend; conditions will be re-evaluated Monday morning on a county-by-county basis. The ban includes campfires, recreational, warming, weed control, cooking, and residential fires. “Air quality is generally in the Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups to Unhealthy categories throughout the central and southern parts of the state,” said DEQ Smoke Management Program Coordinator Mary Anderson. “Air quality in the northern Idaho Panhandle is forecasted to be in the good to moderate range; however, stagnant conditions will likely cause smoke from open burning to remain at ground level.” Click below for the full alert from DEQ.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Idaho's seasonally adjusted unemployment rate fell slightly to 7.4 percent in August, in part because fewer people are looking for work. Idaho lost 2,600 workers from its labor force between July and August and more than 5,500 over the summer ― the largest three-month exodus of workers on record in the state. The state Labor Department says nearly 1,100 fewer people were working in August while 1,600 left the ranks of the jobless, dropping the number of people considered to be unemployed to just over 57,000. Since the recession, more than 15,000 workers have exhausted their unemployment benefits without finding jobs and hundreds more lost extended benefits. Businesses report hiring 18,400 workers in August, mostly to replace departing workers.
Idaho has sent another 120 of its state prison inmates to a private prison in Colorado, bring the total transfered there in the past few months to 250. The moves are aimed at easing overpopulation in Idaho lockups; the latest group of inmates was transported by bus in four groups over the past two weeks. They're being housed at Kit Carson Correctional Center in Burlington, Colo., a medium-security prison owned and operated by Corrections Corp. of America, the same private prison firm that runs the Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise.
Idaho's wind industry has won a major victory over Idaho Power in a ruling from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the Associated Press reports. FERC ruled that federal law doesn't allow a utility company to unilaterally curtail electricity purchases during times of light load when it has long-term power purchase agreements in place, like those Idaho Power has with wind-energy producers; click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.
Idaho state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna issued this statement:
“We are aware the laws would not be officially repealed until the Board of Canvassers meets. We continue to work with the Attorney General’s office to ensure we not only have the legal authority at the state to distribute these bonuses, but our local school districts also have the legal authority at the local level to pay bonuses to the Idaho teachers who earned and deserve these bonuses. As our conversations with legal counsel have highlighted, the law contains multiple dates: November 15 as well as December 15. I have been fighting for better compensation for Idaho teachers through base salaries and pay-for-performance for 15 years now, and no one wants to pay these bonuses more than I do. I will find any way legally possible to distribute this money to Idaho’s teachers, not just this year but every year. The only reason we are having these discussions today and facing uncertainty regarding this additional pay for teachers is because the teachers’ union put Proposition 2 on the ballot. They are the only group that opposes pay-for-performance, and while their reasons for opposing it continue to change, their opposition remains the same. The fact is that if the union is successful in repealing Proposition 2, Idaho teachers will not have the opportunity to earn up to $8,000 a year in bonuses.”
Here's a new wrinkle in the ongoing dispute about timing of the first merit-pay bonuses to teachers under the new “Students Come First” school reform laws, in which the Idaho Education Association has been accusing state schools Supt. Tom Luna of holding the bonuses hostage, to be paid out only if the reform laws are upheld; and Luna has been insisting he's constrained by timelines and can't send the bonuses out before the election. Turns out, it actually doesn't matter. Teachers who earned the bonuses last year will get them this fall regardless of the outcome of the referenda vote on Nov. 6. Here's why:
State law requires the bonuses to be sent out on or before the Nov. 15 state payment to school districts. Because the reform laws all had emergency clauses added to them making them take effect immediately - even if they're later overturned by referendum - they're in effect now. If voters turn down the referenda, voting no on the propositions and repealing the reform laws, that move doesn't take effect instantly on the day of the election. Instead, under Idaho Code 34-1813, the repeal of the laws would take effect when the state Board of Canvassers certifies the results of the election, and the governor issues a proclamation declaring those results. The law says the measures would be “in full force and effect as the law of the state of Idaho from the date of said proclamation.”
Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, asked about the process, said the Board of Canvassers, which consists of himself, the state controller, and the state treasurer, is scheduled to meet Nov. 21st to certify the results of the Nov. 6 election. “I think everybody was wondering that,” Ysursa said. “We would prepare this proclamation for the governor to sign, and it's prepared for the same day.”
Ysursa said all the questions about the timing likely are arising because Idaho's law really was written with initiatives in mind, which are citizen-initiated laws, rather than referenda, which are citizen-initiated votes on whether or not to accept laws passed by the Legislature. Typically, the filing of a referendum would “suspend it from ever going into operation,” until after the voters had their say, he explained. But under Idaho Supreme Court precedent, an emergency clause trumps that, allowing a referendum to take effect in the meantime, and then be either upheld or repealed. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― The state Department of Education has posted data online telling school districts which teachers have earned a bonus under a new merit pay plan. Districts were notified Wednesday they'll have 30 days to review and appeal the data used to calculate the pay-for-performance bonuses scheduled to go out Nov. 15. The bonuses, however, are part of a reform package being challenged at the ballot box and must first pass voter muster Nov. 6. The timeline is prompting outcry from critics of the reforms authored by state schools chief Tom Luna. The Idaho Education Association wrote Luna last week asking him to promptly disburse the bonus funding. Luna's spokeswoman says he hasn't yet answered the IEA's letter but plans to respond, and will maintain that the bonus timeline cannot be changed.
Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa is debunking false rumors that the federal government has transferred authority to count ballots from the 2012 election to a Spanish company, reports Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey. Popkey reports that the claim, which has been promoted on local talk radio here in Boise, has been circulating in the blogosphere, despite repeated debunking; Ysursa said he responded with a joke when asked about it at a county GOP event: “I just chuckled and said, 'Well, the Basques have been counting 'em for years ― ever since Pete came in,'” Ysursa said, referring to fellow Basque and predecessor, Pete Cenarrusa, Idaho's chief election official from 1967-2002.
Ysursa told Popkey that states conduct elections, not the federal government, and in Idaho, ballots are counted by counties under the supervision of the county clerk - and not in some far-off country. You can read Popkey's full post here.
Idaho women earned 75.2 cents for every dollar their male counterparts earned in 2011, according to new U.S. Census data released today. That was an improvement from a year earlier, when Idaho women earned 73.9 cents per dollar of their male counterparts' earnings, the data showed, but Idaho still ranked 42nd among the 50 states and the District of Columbia for its earnings parity; this is for full-time, year-round workers. The national average for 2011 was 77 cents.
Washington was above the national average at 77.3 cents; while other neighboring states varied widely. Here are their scores: Nevada ranked fifth at 84.9 cents; Montana was just behind Idaho at 43rd, with 74.6 cents; Utah was 49th at 69 cents; and Wyoming had the largest gap in the nation between female and male earnings, at 66.6 cents.
The National Women's Law Center, which analyzed the new data, reported that from 2010 to 2011, gender wage gaps narrowed in 24 states - including Idaho - while they increased in seven states and stayed flat in 20. Washington, D.C., where women earned 90.4 cents per dollar their male counterparts earned, had the smallest wage gap, while the lowest among states came in Vermont at 86.7 cents. You can see the full state-by-state chart here.
Idaho has set the maximum homeowner's exemption from property tax for next year: It will decline from the current $83,974 to $81,000. “The decrease is smaller than last year’s,” said Alan Dornfest, property tax policy supervisor for the Tax Commission. “This reflects the fact that housing prices trended downward, but at a slower pace than last year.”
The exemption, which is for 50 percent of the assessed value up to the maximum amount, was $50,000 from 1983 to 2006, when it was increased to $75,000 and tied to housing prices. That caused it to hit a high of $104,471 in 2009, after the state's housing prices soared, but to decline back down as prices collapsed.
Yuck. The sunrise was bright orange again, and now the sky is brown. Wildfire smoke is settling densely over the Treasure Valley, pushing air pollution levels up. Today's air quality is predicted to be in the “upper moderate” range, a range that stretches from 50 to 100 AQI, up from yesterday's AQI of 64. Moderate, or yellow, air quality falls short of the next range, orange, or “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” This morning's 9 a.m. readings included 113.6 at Boise Fire Station No. 5; 84 in Meridian; and 84 in Nampa. Dave Luft of the Idaho DEQ said, “We're hovering right between the yellow and the orange right now. … The prognosis going forward is that we may get a break come Saturday, but that's kind of iffy.” Personally, I've had a bad scratchy throat since yesterday morning, and I'm not even in any sensitive groups. Time to pray for rain…
The University of Idaho is launching a review into staff salaries, according to a memo sent to employees, with the goal of making its compensation policies more equitable and understandable, the Associated Press reports. A faculty group recently complained about hefty raises awarded to some administrators and staff, but university spokeswoman Karen Hunt said the review into staff salaries is not related to concerns raised by the Idaho Federation of Teachers. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.
The Idaho Department of Health & Welfare has received its full report from consultant Leavitt Partners on potential expansion of Medicaid in Idaho under the Affordable Care Act. The governor's Medicaid expansion working group has scheduled a Sept. 27 meeting to review the report; click here for the full meeting announcement and links to the full report and its executive summary.
Among the report's findings: There's no deadline for the state to decide whether or not to expand its Medicaid program, and states can opt out of the expansion at any time. If Idaho decides to expand, the report recommends doing so in 2014, giving the state a full three years of 100 percent federal funding, and the option of opting out after those three years. That would require taking steps now to prepare, it notes. Other points in the report: Most of those who would become eligible for expanded Medicaid in Idaho have income of less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level - 75 percent fall below that level, and despite those low incomes, 64 percent are employed.
Idaho's existing Medicaid program offers no coverage to childless adults. Its current income limit for jobless parents is about 21 percent of the federal poverty level - that's $4,584 a year for a family of four - and for working parents, 39 percent. The expansion would cover people with incomes up to 138 percent of the poverty line.
Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey reports that 1st Congressional District GOP Rep. Raul Labrador has decided to campaign for Mitt Romney in Florida today, despite potentially missing 27 scheduled votes in the House just days after he came in for criticism for his election opponent, Democrat Jimmy Farris, for missing more votes than all three of his predecessors in Congress and than anyone else in the delegation. Popkey writes that Labrador “is joining Mitt Romney at a critical moment in Romney's outreach to Hispanic voters, which also offers an opportunity to turn the page on this week's 47-percent flap.” You can read his full report here.
Meanwhile, Farris has issued a press release declaring that Labrador “already broke his promise” from earlier this week to improve his attendance at congressional votes. “He’s choosing Florida over Idaho,” Farris said in the release. “He’s choosing to ingratiate himself to Mitt Romney in the hopes of getting a new job, instead of doing the job he already has. … The citizens of the First District have no voice in Congress today – because Labrador is busy interviewing for his next government job.”
In the end, Labrador ended up missing just two recorded votes in the House today; the rest of those that had been scheduled were either delayed to later this week, or approved on unrecorded voice votes.
Labrador will join Romney as the GOP presidential candidate appears in a candidate forum on Spanish-language TV network Univision and at a “Juntos Por Romney” rally afterward, which translates to “Together for Romney.”
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― A fundraising committee for Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney says his wife, Ann Romney, will headline a reception next week in Meridian. The Idaho Statesman reports (http://bit.ly/QmMIK7) Ann Romney's first campaign appearance in Idaho is scheduled for Sept. 27 at The Club at SpurWing in Meridian, with contributions ranging from $1,000 to attend the reception, to $25,000 to serve as a co-host. The event will start with a VIP photo reception at 5:30 p.m. and the general reception is scheduled for 6 p.m., to be followed by a private dinner scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Organizers are asking attendees to arrive at least 30 minutes early to clear security. Mitt Romney's Idaho finance chairman, Travis Hawkes, says there will be no free events during Ann Romney's visit.
The Idaho Supreme Court, sitting in Coeur d'Alene today, heard arguments on a challenge to the results of a Coeur d'Alene City Council election in 2009, in which Mike Kennedy edged Jim Brannon by five votes, a number that fell to three after a District Court challenge - but Kennedy remained the winner. Starr Kelso arged for Brannon; Kennedy was represented by Michael Haman and Scott Reed. You can read our full report here from S-R reporter Scott Maben.
The Idaho ACLU says its ongoing lawsuit over the state's attempts to outlaw the “Occupy Boise” protest vigil from state property across from the state Capitol has turned up a multi-agency law enforcement plan dubbed “Operation De-Occupy Boise.” The group says the plan called for “arrests and detention of protesters, despite that the new state anti-camping statute only authorizes ticketing violators, not arrest.”
The state, in legal arguments filed with the federal court, argued against releasing the documents through the discovery process, saying they were subject to a law enforcement privilege, as they “reflect planned operations that the Idaho State Police developed to implement 2012 Idaho laws.” The state's attorneys wrote, “The anticipated implementation action was scheduled to occur shortly after … (the law) became effective on Feb. 21, 2012, but did not take place as a result of this Court's order that granted in part … (the Occupy group's) emergency motion for a temporary restraining order.” They argued that release of the plans could identify individuals involved and the state's methods for conducting “potentially complex enforcement actions.” The judge in the case, U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill, ruled that redacted versions of the documents should be provided.
In a statement, the ACLU also charges that the state missed legal deadlines in its attempts to clamp down on gatherings or protests near the Statehouse through rule changes; you can read the ACLU's full statement here. The Occupy Boise group, marking the one-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement, re-established its Boise encampment yesterday.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Officials in Boise County say they've arrested an 18-year-old volunteer firefighter suspected of igniting a blaze that destroyed one home and is threatening about 100 other residences. Authorities identified the suspect Tuesday as Nathanial Fay Bartholomew. He was arrested on a felony arson charge for allegedly causing the Karney Fire that has so far burned 250 acres in the Robie Creek area of the Boise National Forest. Forest spokesman David Olson says the fire started late Monday afternoon. About a dozen residences were evacuated Monday night while additional homes received evacuation orders Tuesday morning. Sheriff's officials said Bartholomew lives in the area. Investigators say it appears the fire was set some in pine cones and other fuel at the side of a road then spread to a nearby home.
Meanwhile, KTVB-TV is reporting that Bartholomew was arrested while actively fighting the fire; that under questioning, authorities said he confessed to intentionally starting it; and that the apparent motive was to get the attention of his father, a firefighter; you can read their full report here.
A federal grand jury in Boise has indicted 21 people in a major methamphetamine distribution and firearms investigation focused on the “Aryan Knights” gang, which authorities say is active both in and outside of prison. “Methamphetamine trafficking is Idaho's most serious drug crime,” said U.S. Attorney for Idaho Wendy Olson. “The involvement of known gang members and the presence of firearms pose significant danger to our communities.”
The indictments come as a result of a joint federal, state and local law enforcement effort involving the FBI, the Drug Enforcement Administration, the Internal Revenue Service, the Treasure Valley Metro Violent Crime Task Force and more. Five of the defendants were arrested earlier today; 12 already were in custody and there are outstanding warrants for the remaining four. Most are from Boise; there also are two from Twin Falls, one from Pocatello, one from Ogden, Utah and one from California. You can read the full announcement here from the U.S. Attorney's office.
Wayne Hammon, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter's budget chief for the past five and a half years, is resigning Sept. 28 to become executive director of the Idaho Associated General Contractors. Hammon, who heads Otter's Division of Financial Management, wrote in his resignation letter, “After serving as DFM administrator longer than any of my predecessors, it is now time for me to move on.”
The previous AGC executive director, Mark Dunham, resigned in June after suffering a stroke in January; he had held the position since 2007. The group has more than 600 members, and in 2011 Dunham described it as the state's “premier construction lobby” and “the premier voice for Idaho’s construction industry at every level of government.”
Hammon's been a lobbyist before; he served as director of government relations for the National Association of Wheat Growers from 1999 to 2001 after working as a congressional aide to U.S. Sens. Larry Craig and Orrin Hatch. Hammon also headed the USDA Farm Service Agency in Idaho for seven years before joining the Otter Administration. When he left the Wheat Growers, the group's president, Dusty Tallman, said Hammon “made our organization a potent lobbying force.” Hammon is the latest in a line of top Otter Administration officials who've left for positions lobbying state government, including two former chiefs of staff.
Hammon, 41, who holds bachelor's and master's degrees in public policy from BYU, said, “I count Butch Otter as a friend, and I'm honored that he trusted me with this job, and I'm happy to have been of service as long as I have. It really is an honor.” He said the opening at AGC was a “great opportunity” for him. “We're right at the beginning of a tremendous boom in the economy - I think the recovery is happening,” Hammon said. “So that industry's got a very bright future, and I'm excited to be part of that.” Late this afternoon, Otter issued a news release about Hammon's departure; click below to read it.
Boise State University is expecting more than 70,000 people on its campus Thursday, as events collide, from regular classes, to two performances of “Les Miserables” at the Morrison Center, to a 4 p.m. women's volleyball game, to the 7 p.m. football matchup against BYU. The campus has 7,700 parking spaces.
As a result, BSU is declaring Thursday to be “Give Your Car a 'Brake' Day,” encouraging alternate transportation and offering parking tips in advance of the big crunch. Click below for the university's full news release.
Jimmy Farris, the Democratic challenger to 1st District GOP Rep. Raul Labrador, is criticizing Labrador for missing votes at triple the rate of his three predecessors, the Idaho Statesman's Dan Popkey reports today, and Labrador is acknowledging Farris has a point. “I don’t think it’s acceptable,” Labrador told Popkey. “Of course, if my son gets sick, I’ll miss as many votes as I have to miss. But no, I think I can get that down. The people of Idaho hired me to do a job and I should be there.” Farris accused Labrador of a “lack of work ethic,” and said voters should fire him.
Labrador cited three major reasons for his 72 missed votes: His now-9-year-old son’s weeklong hospitalization in 2011, the first-ever GOP presidential caucus in March, and his own primary in May. Those prompted him to miss full days of votes. Also, he said, five delayed flights from Idaho caused him to miss more.
But Popkey also reports in a follow-up today that if Labrador goes to Florida as scheduled Wednesday to campaign for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, in part by doing an evening TV interview with Spanish-language network Univision, he'll miss 27 scheduled votes just that day. You can read Popkey's full report here, and his follow-up here.
Idaho's state endowment investments grew by 2 percent in August, investment manager Larry Johnson reported to the state Land Board today, but it's gotten better since then, he said: “So far in September things have been very good - we've earned almost 3 percent for the month, so as of yesterday, our fiscal year-to-date returns were up to 6.6 percent.” That's up from a 3.4 percent gain for the fiscal year as of the end of August. On Aug. 31, the state's endowment fund was worth $1.3 billion.
This morning's state Land Board agenda included a recommendation to approve a stipulation to settle the title for some property on the shore of Payette Lake on which a 1942 deed had incorrectly identified the property lines, including part of the lakebed, which the state owns. The owner, who acquired the property in 1981, filed a “quiet title” action, resulting in the stipulation to make the correction. But when it came time to vote, Gov. Butch Otter, who chairs the Land Board, said, “For the record, the chairman will not vote.” Secretary of State Ben Ysursa responded, “I had a hunch.”
The property owner? Otter's ex-wife, Gay Simplot.
Idaho's state Land Board voted unanimously this morning to approve a mineral lease for recreational dredge mining on the Salmon River, over objections from the Idaho Conservation League and longtime anglers on the river, who said suction dredge mining there is damaging the pristine river and leaving dangerous and deep holes. Opponents also raised questions about conflicting state laws regarding reclamation and other issues. Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden asked the board to hold off on the vote last month so he could visit the site and look further into the issue, which he did.
“This river is a unique and important river to the people of this state,” Wasden said. He said those who protested the lease raised “a serious overarching policy question … whether recreational dredge mining or dredge mining at all is appropriate for this stretch of river. But that question was answered already by the state Legislature, by the Department of Water Resources and by the Department of Lands in the adoption of a series of statutes and rules. So that question has been answered under the law, at least for today. This stretch of river is open to recreational dredge mining.” He added, “The broader question is a question for another day and another forum.”
The lease, Wasden said, would actually limit such activity by giving the lessee, Mike Conkin, exclusive rights to minerals on a half-mile stretch of the river. That would limit the number of people dredging there, Wasden said, and he said he thought that was appropriate. “This is a pristine and beautiful river,” he said. The attorney general said the state should look into clarifying the rules and statutes to address concerns brought up by opponents. “It seems to me that that is an appropriate discussion in which we should engage,” Wasden said.
Jonathan Oppenheimer of the ICL said after the vote that he was disappointed that the Land Board didn't move to protect the river; he said the EPA is likely to step in under federal clean water laws, if the state doesn't take action. Reporter Aaron Kunz of EarthFix has a deeper look at the issue here; it's one that divides the community of Riggins, where gold-mining enthusiasts and fishing and floating outfitters have competing interests.
It turns out that state law doesn't require the state Department of Education to wait until after the November election before sending out merit-pay bonuses to teachers under the “Students Come First” school reform laws after all. A bill that passed the 2012 Legislature, SB 1329, changed the reform law to require that the bonuses go out “by no later than” the third payment of state funds to school districts, which goes out Nov. 15, rather than the previous wording in the law, which said they should be “made as part of” that payment. Nevertheless, the state Department of Education maintains current timelines would prevent the payments from going out earlier anyway.
“We cannot send data out and have it be incorrect,” department spokeswoman Meliss McGrath told the Associated Press. “We are talking about people's money here, and we have to get it right.” Opponents of the reforms have accused Luna of holding the payments “hostage” to try to persuade voters not to repeal the laws on Nov. 6.
Meanwhile, the state has again delayed the release of data telling teachers whether they've earned a bonus under the new law. It had originally been scheduled to go out Sept. 1, but the department said Friday it's being held up because school districts were given more time to appeal student achievement results. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Booted off their grazing land, Idaho sheep ranchers have now been rebuffed in state Supreme Court after justices ruled against them on Friday. The Idaho Wool Growers Association and several ranchers had brought suit against Idaho, claiming the state failed to make good on promises to protect them against the loss of their Payette National Forest grazing allotments. The allotments were closed to protect wild bighorn sheep from diseases spread by their domesticated cousins. The ranchers previously lost in 3rd District Court, but appealed on grounds the state was responsible for making good their losses. Justices upheld the lower court ruling, determining that a 1997 letter from the Idaho Department of Fish and Game contained no promise to protect ranchers. The court also awarded attorneys' fees to Fish and Game.
There's more good news for BooBoo the bear, the cub who was rescued after his paws were burned in an Idaho wildfire. The Associated Press reports that at the McCall-area rehab facility where BooBoo was moved Friday, he has the company of another cub and the run of a 2-acre wooded enclosure. Linda DeEulis, director of the Snowdon Wildlife Sanctuary, initially was worried about the bear's claws and his ability to climb, but those concerns were quickly put to rest. “He's doing fine - the first thing he did was run up a tree,” she told the AP. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.
The northernmost legislative district in Idaho, District 1, saw some of the hottest election contests in the state in May's primary, with tea party challengers trying to knock off longtime Republican incumbents and lots of outside interests taking sides. But it's a different story in the general election contest this fall. Although Democratic challengers originally had filed to challenge all three GOP incumbents, two of the three have withdrawn their names from the ballot, and the third isn't actively campaigning.
“I had only filed as a placeholder,” said former Democratic Senate candidate Laura Bry of Sandpoint, adding that the idea was that she, or someone else, would run if the incumbent, Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, lost in the primary. “Shawn won the primary, so there you go,” said Bry. “Most Democrats I meet are actually pretty happy with our representatives in the Legislature. They do a really good job of representing the legislative district.”
Former Democratic state Sen. Tim Tucker, who had filed to run against Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, said he, too, was a placeholder. Andrew Sorg of Sandpoint is still on the ballot to challenge Rep. Eric Anderson, R-Priest Lake, but Sorg hasn't actively campaigned and didn't return a reporter's repeated phone and email messages. “Personally, I have to take it seriously - if his name is on the ballot, I'm going to have to run a race,” said Anderson, a four-term representative. “But my races are always pretty cordial anyway.”
Keough, an eighth-term senator and vice-chair of the Legislature's powerful joint budget committee, said, “I intend to still mount a campaign, albeit a lot less expensive one. I'm still going out and meeting and greeting and participating in the forums that I can make it to, because the campaign, really, is a time to reconnect with people and find out how you're doing.” She said, “I am humbled by what has occurred.” You can read my full Sunday column here.
There's good news on the bear front: BooBoo is heading back to the woods. Idaho Fish & Game reported today that the injured bear cub, who was rescued by firefighters after he was found clinging to a tree with four badly burned paws amid the Mustang Complex wildfire, left the Idaho Humane Society shelter in Boise where he was recuperating, en route to a wildlife sanctuary in the mountains outside McCall. There, he'll have the run of a two-acre enclosure of forest, and if he continues to heal well, he could be released to the wild, possibly as soon as later this fall.
The bear cub's weight has doubled since he was rescued, from 23 pounds to 46 pounds, and as this photo shows, he's looking much heartier. Click below for the full announcement from Idaho Fish & Game.
A proposal to amend the state Board of Education's policy regarding required health insurance for state university students failed today, when a motion to approve it for a first reading failed to even get a second. The changes would have included lifting a requirement that state universities offer insurance to students, and lifting a requirement that students obtaining their own insurance get policies at least equal to school-offered plans.
Boise State University argued that 85 percent of its students obtain insurance elsewhere, a number that's been rising, and with climbing premiums, it's becoming too expensive for the school to be in the insurance business. Instead, officials there said they'd like to focus on helping that 15 percent of their students to find appropriate insurance plans from other providers. BSU said it still would offer school-based insurance for student athletes and international students, because of other requirements.
However, the University of Idaho reported that an increasing number of students there are choosing to go with the school's own insurance plan. And Idaho State University Vice President Jim Fletcher urged against lifting the requirement for school-based plans, saying that while just 29 percent of ISU students now choose the school's student health insurance, among “lower income students over 50 percent are taking that, and more are dependent on that.” At Lewis-Clark State College, 28 percent are covered by the school's plan, a number that hasn't changed much in recent years.
Fletcher said, “We do believe that these changes would have the net effect of watering down our coverage.” Board member Rod Lewis said, “I personally have some real concerns about what it means for students. … We're not making available the last-resort ability to get coverage.”
Eastern Idaho Technical College requested to be exempted from the insurance requirement entirely, arguing that it's more like a two-year community college; Idaho's community colleges aren't subject to the state board's requirement, because they are locally run, property-tax supported schools with their own elected boards. The board voted 4-2 against granting EITC the exemption, with just members Bill Gosling and Emma Atchley backing the exemption. State board staffer Matt Freeman said afterward, “The board just feels very strongly they want students insured.”
The Idaho Supreme Court has rejected an appeal from frequent political candidate and former elk rancher Rex Rammell in his lawsuit against the state over the shooting of his escaped domestic elk. In the unanimous ruling authored by Justice Jim Jones, the court held that “the plain language” of Idaho state law “supports defendants' argument that the statute provides authorization for the state to legally take escaped domestice cervidae.” It also held, “The Rammells have pursued this appeal without a reasonable basis in law or fact,” and awarded attorney fees and costs to the state. You can read the decision here. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.
The state Board of Education will again consider changes to its policy requiring that full-time public college and university students have health insurance, in a special meeting today that starts at 1 p.m. The Lewiston Tribune reports (http://bit.ly/QfQpB4) that the board took up the issue in April, rejecting a request by some schools to suspend the rule for a year because of sharp increases in insurance premiums; if the board reverses course, students wouldn't be freed from the requirement until next fall because health care contracts for the current year are already in place. Some of Idaho's universities sought to suspend the requirement last year, the paper reports, as insurance premiums spiked by as much as 46 percent with fewer students opting for school policies and instead remaining on their parent's insurance plans.
Board spokeswoman Marilyn Whitney told the Associated Press that the changes under consideration would remove the portion of the board's policy that requires students who don't have health insurance to purchase a policy through their school, and eliminate the part of the policy that requires students who are already insured to have a policy that is equivalent to the coverage they would receive through their respective university or college; the requirement for all students to have health insurance would remain in place.
For those who want to listen in, the teleconference number for the special board meeting is (877) 807-5706, and the public participant code is 556261. The matter is the second of two items on the agenda; you can read the proposed policy changes here.
Helene Byrne is 110 years old, and one of the few with memories from the Great Fire of 1910, the Twin Falls Times-News reports; the Buhl resident celebrated her 110th birthday on Wednesday. Click below for the full report from reporter Alison Gene Smith of the Times-News.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Idaho's first big solar energy project could begin construction soon, a bright spot for alternative energy developers that are wrangling with regulators and utilities over their future. Solar panels for the Grandview Solar PV I have been delivered to a 180-acre field leased from the J.R. Simplot Co. southeast of Boise. Mark Scher is the Albany, N.Y.-based energy developer who purchased the project more than a year ago from an Idaho group. He told The Associated Press construction could begin “within the next few weeks.” Scher has a contract with Idaho Power Co. to sell an average 10 megawatts of electricity and aims to begin operations in January. Idaho Power now buys only minimal solar electricity, from customers who feed power from their panels back into the grid. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.
According to an open-government website that crunches numbers on members of Congress, the member of Idaho's delegation who's most likely to miss a recorded vote in Congress is 1st District Rep. Raul Labrador. Gov.Tracks.us reported that Labrador missed 4.7 percent of recorded or roll-call votes, nearly double the median of 2.5 percent, from January of 2011 to September of 2012. That's 72 of 1,518 votes. By comparison, the site showed that 2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson has missed 2.9 percent of the votes during his time in Congress, from January of 1999 to September of 2012; Sen. Mike Crapo has missed 2.2 percent, from January of 1993 to the present; and Sen. Jim Risch has missed just 1.5 percent, from January of 2009 to the present.
The site also offers an interesting take on ideology and leadership, based on number-crunching, that assigns each member a political spectrum score and a leader-follower score, based on which bills they co-sponsor and who co-sponsors their bills. The results don't necessarily match the conventional wisdom. Here's how Idaho's delegation fared:
Labrador was ranked a “centrist-Republican follower.” Simpson came out as a “rank-and-file Republican.” Crapo's scores made him a “moderate Republican leader.” And Risch's scores ranked him as a “lonely far-right Republican follower.”
You can check out the site here. It focuses on finding new ways, through algorithms and statistics, to arrange and present raw data about Congress so the public can access it; it was created by Joshua Tauberer, a software engineer, author and open government activist.
Nearly 700 service members, veterans and their spouses attended the “Hiring Our Heroes” job fair at the Idaho Center yesterday, the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce reports, and 81 of them got job offers at the fair. “In addition, many follow-up phone calls and interviews were scheduled yesterday, as the companies present at the fair plan to hire 327 additional new employees over the next 12 months,” the chamber said in a statement today; the fair attracted more than 100 employers.
The latest figures for veteran unemployment rates in Idaho compared to the overall population, from the 2010 Census, showed that while non-veterans in Idaho had an unemployment rate of 9.5 percent, veterans were at 12.8 percent.
The job fair, one of a series of such events across the country sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Employer Support for the Guard and Reserve, the U.S. Department of Labor, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and various veterans and military organizations, was co-sponsored in Boise by organizations including the Boise Chamber, the Idaho Department of Labor, KTVB-TV and more.
A federal jury has ordered the city of Boise to pay $1 million to an organization that helps homeless people, for discriminating against women and children and retaliating against the organization when board members complained, reports AP reporter Rebecca Boone. The verdict was handed down Wednesday evening in U.S. District Court in the lawsuit brought by Community House Inc. “The city respectfully disagrees with the jury's decision and will be reviewing all its options to reverse this verdict,” Boise city spokesman Adam Park said in a prepared statement released this morning; click below for Boone's full report.
Well, the Treasure Valley's break from the wildfire smoke lasted exactly 11 days, and then yesterday, smoke came pouring back in, this time from the opposite direction, the northwest. Air quality broke out of the “good” category into the “moderate” range yesterday, and that's where it remains this morning. “There are a whole bunch of fires,” said Mike Toole, regional airshed coordinator for the Idaho DEQ. “There are three wildfires up kind of by McCall. And then Washington over the weekend got a thunderstorm and there's a bunch of fires up in Washington now. So with the winds coming out of the northwest, it was blowing all that smoke toward us.”
Things could improve a bit today. “We have some smoke in the valley now,” Toole said. “'Based on what we're seeing … this afternoon after the morning inversion breaks, we'll hopefully get some more clearing.” Winds have switched to a southeasterly direction, he noted.
“The forecast for tomorrow looks like we're still going to have the southeasterly wind component, so tomorrow it looks like it clears up fairly good. But Saturday switches back to northwesterly wind,” Toole said. “That could push the smoke right back into us.” He added, “We did have a nice couple-week break, but there's a lot of new fires going on.”
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) is now investigating the theft of two specialized competition bicycles that Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong rode in the Olympics. “The bicycles are believed to have been stolen while in transit from Germany to Idaho,” the bureau reported.
HSI special agents in the U.S. and Germany are on the case, and are asking anyone with information to contact the HSI Tip-Line 24/7 at (866) 347-2423 from the U.S., Mexico, or Canada; 1-802-872-6199 (from any country in the world), or online at http://www.ice.gov/tips. In a statement, the agency said, “HSI combats worldwide criminal enterprises who seek to exploit America's legitimate trade, travel and financial systems and enforces America's customs and immigration laws at and beyond our nation's borders.”
The Lewiston Tribune reports today that a 21-year-old University of Idaho student is in serious condition at a Spokane hospital after falling from the second floor of his fraternity house this morning, suffering facial fractures and other injuries. After officers were called to the Alpha Tau Omega house at 12:30 a.m., witnesses reported that the student had climbed out of a window and was trying to open another window on a locked room when he fell; he reportedly had been drinking earlier in the evening at a party at another fraternity. You can read the Trib's report here.
Among previous incidents: In September of 2009, a 19-year-old woman fell from the third story of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house after a drinking party and suffered permanent injuries; a court just dismissed her family's million-dollar lawsuit. In August of 2009, a 20-year-old male student fell three stories from a window at the Delta Tau Delta house and suffered serious injuries. In October of 2011, a 19-year-old male student fell up to 25 feet from a fire escape at the Kappa Sigma fraternity house; alcohol was believed to be a factor in the fall. In 1993, an 18-year-old woman fell three stories from her UI sorority house and was seriously injured, after drinking at two fraternity house parties earlier in the evening.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― A school district in southwestern Idaho is allowing the use of community volunteers as substitute teachers to help offset a $2.8 million budget shortfall. The Idaho Press-Tribune reports (http://bit.ly/PrAfEP) the Nampa School District approved the new policy Tuesday. District officials have reduced funding for substitute teachers to help cover the shortfall and say that while there is still some money available, it's not enough to meet all of their needs this year. That is where the volunteers come in. District human resource officer Steve Kipp says volunteers will have to pass a background check, undergo drug testing and sign a contract outlining their duties. They will not, however, have to complete an online training course required of paid substitutes. The lack of that requirement has raised concerns with the Nampa Education Association.
Ada County has announced it'll open up its county courthouse parking at 200 W. Front Street for BSU football fans during home games, in a $5-per-car fundraiser for Faces Family Justice Center, a non-profit partnership that provides services to victims of domestic violence, child abuse and sexual assault; the center is operated through a partnership between law enforcement, medical providers, prosecuting attorneys, legal services, and victim advocates. The benefit parking will be open during each Boise State Broncos home football game, including this Saturday's home opener against Miami of Ohio.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― The bicycles that Olympic gold medalist Kristin Armstrong rode in the Olympics were stolen at some point while they were being shipped to Boise after being on display at an event called “Eurobike” in Germany. Her gold medal time trial bike is worth nearly $30,000 and her road bike is valued at almost that much. Armstrong says the time trial bike is a symbol of all the hard work she put in and she's sad that somebody took that away from her family. The bikes were shipped from Bremen Germany on Sept. 7 and made stops in Frankfurt and Atlanta, but only empty boxes arrived at Armstrong's house Tuesday. It's unknown when the bikes went missing. Her team “Exergy 2012” is offering a substantial reward for the return or knowledge of the whereabouts of the bikes; there's more info here.
The controversy over a proposed $75 million garbage-to-energy plant at the Ada County landfill has blown up into a full-scale brouhaha, with citizens petitioning for a public hearing that county commissioners refuse; a retired FBI investigator hired by the county sheriff's department to look into allegations of criminal misconduct surrounding the contract; two of the three commissioners rebuffing public records requests and citizen requests to address the issue; and the county engineer, the state Department of Environmental Quality, and the city of Meridian all calling for further review of the project. Proposed by Dynamis, the plant would use experimental technology and would be the company's first. Idaho Statesman reporter Cynthia Sewell has been tracking the controversy; you can read her full report here on the latest developments, and the Statesman's editorial on the issue here.
Sewell reported that the lone dissenting county commissioner, Dave Case - who defeated Commissioner Sharon Ullman in the primary and then was appointed to fill out the remaining term of former Commissioner Vern Bisterfeldt - spoke publicly yesterday about his concerns over Ullman's and Commissioner Rick Yzaguirre's handling of the project. “This is not about politics,” Case said. “This is about honoring and serving the people of Ada County and protecting their health and their safety. I cannot idly sit by and see all this stuff going on behind closed doors. It makes me an accessory and I will not be an accessory to their dealings.”
The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals today ruled that Idaho's law imposing felony penalties on women who obtain abortions in the state that don't follow all the state's legal guidelines likely is unconstitutional, a win for a Pocatello woman who was charged after obtaining abortion drugs over the Internet and inducing an abortion. “There can be no doubt that requiring women to explore the intricacies of state abortion statutes to ensure that they and their provider act within the Idaho abortion statute framework results in an 'undue burden' on a woman seeking an abortion of a nonviable fetus,” the appeals court wrote in its decision. That leaves in place an injunction barring a prosecutor from reimposing the charges against the woman, which had been dropped but could be refiled.
However, the court also ruled that the woman didn't have standing to challenge another Idaho abortion law, banning all abortions after 20 weeks on the basis of presumed fetal pain; that law was passed after her case occurred, and exempts the pregnant woman from its criminal penalties, instead imposing them on providers. The woman's attorney, who also is a physician, still is challenging that law. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone; you can read the court's ruling here.
Idaho's gas prices have jumped 5.5 cents a gallon in the past week, AAA Idaho reports, pushing the state's average price up to $3.855, a penny higher than the national average of $3.843. A month ago, Idaho's average price for a gallon of regular gasoline was 12 cents below the national average; since then, it's risen 28 cents a gallon.
Still, AAA Idaho notes it could be worse: Nine states currently have average prices above $4 a gallon, including Oregon at $4.04 and Washington at $4.06.
Today, on the 11th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, the names of all 62 of Idaho's fallen soldiers since that day were read at a ceremony at the new Idaho Fallen Soldier Memorial, located in front of the Capitol Annex near the state capitol. Gov. Butch Otter and First Lady Lori Otter alternated reading the names, the dates and where they died; the list started with two Idaho military members who died at the Pentagon in the Sept. 11 attack, Ronald Vauk and Brady Howell. Most on the list died in Iraq, and the most recent, in Afghanistan. After each name, date and location was read, a uniformed military member pointed out the name on the memorial's plaques where the names are engraved, and a bell was struck; more than 100 people gathered for the ceremony, including families of the fallen soldiers.
The memorial honors Idahoans from all branches of the military who were killed since Sept. 11. It includes seven who died in the past year: Robert Dyas, Ryan Sharp, Kenneth Cochran, Daniel Brown, Chris Workman, Cody Moosman, and Ethan Martin.
The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has ruled against a Boise couple who sued after their 5-week-old baby was seized from her mother's custody at a hospital emergency room and given a spinal tap and antibiotics without her parents' consent. Doctors feared meningitis, a rare but very serious risk to the baby, though the infant turned out just to have a cold. “At best, this case involves a series of nighttime emergency room judgments and decisions made under pressure about which people might differ,” wrote Judge Stephen Trott in the unanimous decision. “At the end of the day, however, a jury of their peers decided on the basis of a full and fair airing of their evidence that the Muellers had not proved their case.” Click below to read more.
Idaho's presidential ballot has been finalized, and it doesn't just have Republican Mitt Romney and Democratic incumbent Barack Obama on it. Instead, there are six candidates, all representing various parties (though two are running as independents in Idaho, as neither the Justice Party nor the Green Party has ballot status in Idaho). The Idaho Secretary of State's office has a ballot list here with links to each presidential candidate's website.
Here's the roundup of the other four lesser-known candidates on Idaho's presidential ballot:
Rocky Anderson, former two-term mayor of Salt Lake City, lawyer and human rights activist, is the Justice Party candidate for president. It's a new party that says its guiding principles are “integrity, justice, and liberty for all.” Anderson was a longtime Democrat who resigned from the party in 2011, calling it “a gutless, unprincipled party, bought and paid for by the same interests that buy and pay for the Republican Party.”
Virgil H. Goode Jr., the Constitution Party candidate, a former congressman from Virginia. Goode was first elected to Congress as a Democrat, then after two terms switched to independent and won a third term. Before winning his fourth term, he switched to the Republican Party; he was known as a strong supporter of the tobacco industry.
Gary Johnson, the Libertarian candidate, is the former two-term Republican governor of New Mexico, serving from 1995 to 2003. He was known as “Governor Veto,” having issued more vetoes - more than 750 - than all previous New Mexico governors combined. He also built and owned a major construction company and is an avid skier, mountain climber, cyclist and adventurer.
Jill Stein, the Green Party candidate, is a physician and environmental health advocate with two Harvard degrees; she's the author of the 2000 report “In Harm's Way: Toxic Threats to Child Development.” She is the co-founder of the Massachusetts Coalition for Healthy Communities. She was the Green Party candidate for governor of Massachusetts in 2010 and in 2002, when she lost to Romney.
Some scammers who apparently are a bit behind the times are lighting up fax lines in southern Idaho - and elsewhere in the country - with a Nigerian letter scam pitch. “We just have been inundated since 3 p.m.,” said Robb Hicken of the Better Business Bureau in Boise. “Our phone lines are just going off the hook.”
Such scams promise riches if the recipient will just kindly help the desperate sender, usually identified as a relative of an official or member of a royal family, get a large sum of money out of his country to the U.S., for a handsome fee. In reality, victims get nothing except ripped off.
Hicken said such scams most recently have been going out by text; before that, they typically came in spam emails. Before that, faxes were more common, and before that, they arrived in the mail. “We just haven't seen fax scams forever,” he said. “Sounds like somebody bought a whole list of fax numbers.” Best advice for those who receive the pitch: Ignore it. And above all, don't send money or respond with personal information.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) ― Wildlife officers used doughnuts, cake and sardines to lure a black bear down from a tree after it caused a disturbance in a planned community along Idaho Highway 55. The Idaho Department of Fish and Game says the bear will be relocated Monday to a remote area. Fish and Game spokesman Evin Oneale told the Idaho Statesman (http://bit.ly/OBiDDp) a homeowner in the Avimor development was cooking bacon Sunday afternoon when the bear tried to enter the residence, tearing two window screens. The bear then left the home and climbed a tree, where it was tranquilized but couldn't be safely retrieved. While the bear slept, wildlife officers stocked a trap below with goodies that proved too tempting for the bear to ignore; the bear was captured about 10 p.m. last night.
Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey had an interesting report over the weekend on how freshman Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador has been campaigning in Nevada and Colorado for GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, joining former SBA chief Hector Barreto and Romney's Spanish-speaking son Craig to pitch Romney to Hispanic voters, including addressing Hispanic business groups and doing interviews with Spanish-language media. You can read Popkey's full report here, which also examines other to Idaho officials' close ties to the Romney campaign. Now, Labrador's Democratic opponent, Jimmy Farris, has issued a news release criticizing Labrador for the move, saying he's ignoring voters in his home state.
“Congressman Labrador is ignoring the people of Idaho,” Farris said in his release; click below to read it in full. “He’s in Colorado and Nevada wooing Hispanic voters for Romney, but he’s failing to answer the simplest of questions from voters in his own state.” Labrador has consistently refused to comment on anything Farris has brought up in the campaign so far, though he has agreed to debate him on live statewide TV on Oct. 25; the debate will air on Idaho Public Television.
I quizzed JFAC Co-Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, today about the what-if question I explored in my Sunday column: What happens if voters in November reject Propositions 1, 2 and 3, repealing state Superintendent Tom Luna’s Students Come First school reform laws, which already are in the process of being phased in?
A rejection of the three referenda would leave roughly $33 million sitting appropriated but unallocated in the public school budget for the current year; if lawmakers took no action during their 2013 session, it'd flow into the state's Public Education Stabilization Fund at the end of the school year. “I think we're still trying to get our arms around what would happen with the funds,” Cameron said. “The Legislature's going to act one way or the other, and we're going to appropriate the funds one way or another.” He added, “I think JFAC and the Legislature would certainly address it. Putting the funds toward salaries is very plausible, particularly the money that was allocated for pay for performance.” Other portions could go to discretionary funding for school districts, he said. “To me, those would be reasonable expectations.”
Cameron added, “I know the Legislature's not going to sit back and say … this money isn't going to be allocated towards education. It's going to be applied to education in a way that's appropriate.”
Idaho's state tax revenue for August came in 1.1 percent below forecasts, but 3.7 percent higher than last August, according to the state Division of Financial Management. Overall, general fund tax collections for the second month of the fiscal year were $197.6 million. Individual income tax withholding saw the biggest shortfall compared to projections, pushing down individual income tax collections for the month to 7.2 percent below the forecast. But sales taxes came in above forecast by 2.5 percent for the month, and were 15.2 percent over last August's figure. Corporate income tax, product taxes and miscellaneous revenue all beat projections. For the fiscal year to date, state tax revenues are running 1.3 percent below forecast but 4.2 percent above last year's level; you can read the latest General Fund Revenue Report here from the DFM.
Idaho's state Department of Education is disputing a national study that showed Idaho's per-pupil education funding has dropped by 19 percent since 2008, the fourth-biggest drop in the nation. StateImpact Idaho reports today that the department takes issue with the study from the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, saying its own figures show Idaho's per-pupil spending fell just under 12 percent from 2008 to 2011. Among the differences in the figures: The national study, which examined all 50 states, looks at a longer time period and adjusts the numbers for inflation. You can read StateImpact's full report here.
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: CHEYENNE, Wyo. (AP) ― Two environmental coalitions have filed notice that they intend to sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over the agency's decision to end federal protections for wolves in Wyoming. Both coalitions filed notice Monday in U.S. District Court in Washington, DC, that they intend to sue the agency. The groups are concerned that the state of Wyoming has classified wolves in most of the state as unprotected predators that could be shot on sight. The state has scheduled a trophy wolf hunt in the area around Yellowstone National Park starting Oct. 1. Congress specified that there could be no legal challenges to the recent federal action ending protections for wolves in Montana and Idaho, but there has been no similar protection yet for Wyoming. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Ben Neary in Cheyenne.
A 16-year-old golf champ from Buhl could be prevented from playing with the high school team she helped win the 2012 state championship in May, the AP reports, if Idaho's high school athletics governing body approves a rule change. The golfer, Sierra Harr, played with the boys' team this year, after her high school didn't field enough female players for a girls' team. But some opposing coaches are objecting. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.
Idaho state Department of Insurance Director Bill Deal's update to lawmakers this morning on the progress of the governor's health insurance exchange working group included some eye-openers for legislators on the Health Care Task Force, from impacts of a federal exchange on Idaho's current insurance regulations to prospects dimming for a privately run option.
Sen. Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, asked, “Do we have any idea yet how much flexibility (Idaho would have), with regard to what we can do differently in a state exchange than in a federal exchange?” Deal responded, “I would say we have some latitude in areas that I think are important to Idaho. An example would be how our producers are allowed to do business with an exchange.” He listed an array of things the state would retain in a state-run exchange, including its current regulatory authority over insurance companies and approval of rates and policy provisions. “Are you saying that if we go to a federal exchange, that we will lose the ability to regulate insurance companies in Idaho?” Vick asked. Deal said, “If we go to a federally facilitated exchange, we pretty much lose the authority to regulate the health insurance industry in Idaho.”
In response to questions from Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, Deal said there are 782 insurance companies licensed to sell health insurance in Idaho, but only about 192 have done so. Idaho's premiums are among the lowest in the country, Deal said, and the state has the fewest mandates on insurance companies as far as what must be provided in their policies.
Goedde asked about an option he's pressed for, a privately run exchange, or a public-private hybrid, rather than a federally or state-run exchange. Deal responded, “I don't see that there's another option. … The hybrids probably aren't going to meet muster. … At our last meeting we talked a little bit about Utah. The last we heard is their hybrid might not work, and for sure they don't have an individual exchange that will be approved at this particular time the way they're approaching it.”
At the working group's next meeting tomorrow, it'll hear from officials from Colorado and Nevada to “get some updates on a fast way to move, if we should decide to,” Deal said. With a Nov. 16 deadline looming for Idaho to notify the federal government about its exchange plans, that might be a possible route, “if Idaho could participate with some of the infrastructure that they have in place,” Deal said. In October, the group will receive a consultant's cost-analysis study.
The Legislature's 14-member joint Health Care Task Force is meeting all day today at the state Capitol, and first up, it heard an update from state Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong on the progress of the governor's working group examining a possible Medicaid expansion under the national health care reform law. Armstrong said a consultant's study that was expected to be out today has been extended to Sept. 14, “so we can get all the information we needed.” He said, “It is a very good document. I've of course seen the draft a number of times. It is very neutral, it is very factual.”
The population that would be included in a Medicaid expansion, he said, is made up largely of the working poor. “Sixty percent of those individuals are employed,” Armstrong said. “We do know this population has chronic disease, greater than the normal population, and we know what types of ailments that they suffer from, so it's very good data.”
Rep. John Rusche, D-Lewiston, noted that if Idaho doesn't expand Medicaid, it still will have “the statutory responsibility under the indigent program for care.” Armstrong responded, “Yes, if we don't expand, the existing statutes will stay in place in Idaho as far as how we handle indigent care.”
Sen. Joyce Broadsword, R-Sagle, said, “In my opinion we're still paying for those people whether they're going to be in the Medicaid program or not - we're either paying for them through Catastrophic Health Care plan, or through the prison system, or through hospitalization after the fact. So to me, Medicaid expansion is probably the way we need to go to make sure that we get the best outcomes.” Armstrong said the study will give the state “some numbers we didn't have before,” as to current costs for that population's health care and how it's being paid. “Their cost won't go away,” he said. “It is a matter of how do you manage that. … The question is what is it going to cost, and out of which pocket does it come.”
Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, task force co-chairman, cautioned that the state should look at the long term costs, 10 or 20 years out, as well as the shorter term. Armstrong said it's difficult to forecast medical inflation rates that far out, and the federal government is saying it will start by paying 100 percent of the cost for the expanded population for the first three years, phasing that down to 90 percent in six years and thereafter. But he raised the possibility that sometime in the future, the federal matching rate might fall to the 70 percent the feds now pay for the rest of Idaho's Medicaid program. “What we're being told by the feds is oh, no, the 90 percent will go on forever. Well, we know forever is not forever, it's as long as somebody's in office,” Armstrong said. Cameron said, “It's really easy for us to get caught up in the short-term cost savings. My fear is we'll have the short-term savings, and that will be spent in one way or another, and then 10 years, 20 years from now, not us but colleagues of us will be sitting around the table trying to figure out how to pay for this.”
Every Tuesday morning at 9, they file in, some crying, some defiant - all with big medical bills they can't pay, pleading with Kootenai County commissioners for help. “It's at times frustrating, and at times gut-wrenching,” said Commissioner Dan Green, “especially when I have people that really need the help and then they don't qualify for the program, and then I see people that we are forced to help that think it's some sort of entitlement.” The scene is repeated in each of Idaho's 44 counties, which state law makes the last resort for uninsured patients who can't pay their medical bills.
Idaho's unique system for paying the catastrophic medical bills of indigent patients - which relies solely on local property taxes and the state's general fund - may make it the state that would benefit the most from the expansion of Medicaid under the federal Affordable Care Act, which would expand the federal-state medical insurance program for the poor to cover the same population that now is thrown on the mercy of county commissioners - and do it almost entirely with federal funds.
If Idaho were to replace its current system with a Medicaid expansion, the state and its county property taxpayers could save hundreds of millions of dollars over the next six years, according to a Spokesman-Review analysis of current and projected costs. But some prominent Idaho politicians already have come out against the move, saying they want no part of “Obamacare.” You can read my full story here from Sunday's Spokesman-Review.
There’s a what-if question being debated in Idaho politics that matters quite a bit: What if voters in November reject Propositions 1, 2 and 3, repealing state Superintendent Tom Luna’s Students Come First school reform laws? The laws, passed in 2011, already are being phased in.
Here's how the process would work: If the three measures are defeated, much of the $60.5 million now tabbed for laptop computers, teacher merit-pay bonuses, tech upgrades and other Students Come First reforms in the current year would sit unallocated within the public school budget. Some would be used to reinstate programs the laws eliminated, such as a 99 percent funding “floor” for school districts that lose large numbers of students from one year to the next, and a $14.8 million allocation to teacher and administrator salaries. If lawmakers took no further action, the remaining money, roughly $33 million, would flow into Idaho’s public education stabilization fund, a state savings account for schools, at the end of the school year.
But when the Legislature convenes in January, it could redirect those funds through a supplemental appropriation rather than just let them sit all year. If lawmakers sent the money out as discretionary funds to school districts, districts would decide how to spend it. The portion of Idaho’s public school budget that goes out to districts as discretionary funds has been sharply cut in recent years. Legislative budget analyst Paul Headlee, asked about the process, said: “They could do that. They could put it into salaries. They could even take it out of the public schools budget and put it somewhere else in the state budget.”
You can read my full Sunday column here, including what both sides are saying about the what-if question, and what it portends. With GOP nominee Mitt Romney all but guaranteed to carry Republican-dominated Idaho, the presidential race is far from the hottest thing on Idaho’s general election ballot – instead, it’s the school laws.
The Twin Falls Times-News reports today on a tiff over comments in the statements for and against the school reform referenda - Propositions 1, 2 and 3 on the November ballot - in a state-funded voter guide that goes out statewide. Despite concerns raised by both sides and requests to make changes, the arguments are running as submitted - because the Secretary of State has no legal authority to alter them after the deadline for submitting them. Times-News reporter Melissa Davlin reports that there has been one exception: In 1994, an argument submitted for the voter guide regarding an anti-gay rights initiative included a claim that an Idaho deputy attorney general was a homosexual. The Secretary of State's office removed the man's name after he threatened to sue for libel. You can read Davlin's full report here.
Boise is holding its 58th annual Art in the Park festival this weekend at Julia Davis Park, a fundraiser for the Boise Art Museum that's also a spectacular place to find one-of-a-kind holiday gifts, if you're planning ahead. But you don't have to go to the park to find art downtown. Among the public art there are nine newly decorated traffic boxes, unveiled for First Thursday this past week, each with an Idaho artist's unique design; that brings the total number to 53. This one's by Yen Ching restaurant on 9th Street. City public art manager Karen Bubb says, “The program brings public art to the street, decreases graffiti, and increases the unique character of Boise.”
Olympic cycling gold medalist, Boisean and University of Idaho alum Kristin Armstrong will greet fans, sign autographs and give away free copies of a new UI poster featuring her in London with her gold medal, pictured above, tomorrow at the Capital City Public Market in downtown Boise. Armstrong's appearance from 10 a.m. to noon outside the Vandal Store, 821 W. Idaho St., is sponsored by the UI, but UI spokeswoman Ysabel Bilbao said it's “not just for Vandals, but for our entire community.” Added Bilbao, “There will be posters for everyone and Kristin will be there to sign anything people want.” Fans are encouraged to bring personal sports memorabilia for the Olympic cyclist to sign.
Armstrong's appearance will be under a Vandal tent outside the store.
A Lewiston man apparently trying to get the most bang for his drug-purchasing buck mistakenly sent a text message to a narcotics detective while he searched for people to join him in a methamphetamine buy, the Associated Press reports; as a result, Aaron D. Templeton was arrested this week and charged with conspiracy to deliver methamphetamine. A police detective received a text Wednesday morning asking if he knew anyone looking for drugs, and after determining it wasn't his co-workers playing a joke, arranged to meet the man named Aaron the same day to deliver $150 that would be pooled with money from other buyers to enable a bulk purchase of meth, officials said. Click below for the full report from the AP and the Lewiston Tribune.
Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey reports today on the controversy over Idaho schools Supt. Tom Luna's public information officer, Melissa McGrath, editing his bio on Wikipedia, which led to something of an online battle among Wikipedia editors in which Luna's biography on the site was revised 60 times in the past two weeks. In the end, the bio was left straight, without pro- or anti-Luna changes.
Idaho teacher and blogger Michael Strickland wrote about the squabble on Daily Kos and 43rd State Blues and it became a big topic in social media. Today, Popkey weighs in, saying, “This humble outlet says McGrath overstepped with her praise of her boss and would have been better off contacting Wikipedia about her concerns rather than editing herself. But Luna's foes were even farther over the line. Wikipedia's senior editors seem to agree. They have revised the bio, stripping slanted material on both sides, leaving a balanced piece.”
Popkey's article is accompanied by a side-by-side comparison of some of the revisions; you can read it here. Boise State Public Radio reporter Adam Cotterell also looked into the issue today, and interviewed with public relations experts on the ethics of dealing with Wikipedia; you can read his report here.
Mike Lanza, chairman of “Vote No on Propositions 1, 2, 3,” the group urging repeal of the “Students Come First” school reform laws in three ballot measures, had this response to state schools Supt. Tom Luna's question today on how opponents of the laws would manage the “disruption” to Idaho's public school funding that would occur if the measures are defeated in November:
“Consistent with what we've said all along, we want to see control of local schools returned to local school boards and educators. So the money that has been appropriated for public schools should rightly go to public schools, but without those strings attached. Our schools need those resources. They've been short-changed for too many years.”
The defeat of the three measures would leave the funds now tabbed for laptop computers, teacher merit-pay bonuses and other “Students Come First” reforms unallocated within the public school budget; if lawmakers took no further action, it would flow into Idaho's public education stabilization fund, a state savings account for schools, at the end of the school year. But when the Legislature convenes in January, it could redirect those funds through a supplemental appropriation, rather than just let them sit all year; if it sent the money out as discretionary funds to school districts, districts would decide how to spend it. Legislative budget analyst Paul Headlee, asked about the process, said, “They could do that. They could put it into salaries. They could even take it out of the public schools budget and put it somewhere else in the state budget.”
Said Lanza, “I do believe that the local school districts are best able to decide how to run their schools. And if the state allocated funds to them and allowed them decide how to spend it, I think they'd be a lot better off than with the handcuffs the Luna laws placed on them.”
Luna, when he unveiled his budget request for the state's schools for next year earlier today, said he thought schools would see a major disruption if the referenda are voted down and the reform laws overturned. “You have districts right now that are under contract to pay for technology that they will not be able to pay for,” he said. Luna said he thought opponents should have proposed alternatives or changes to the reform laws he championed, rather than attempting to repeal them at the ballot box. “They chose to go at this with a meat ax and create such a disruption to our schools,” he said.
Lanza said, “It sounds to me like Superintendent Luna is complaining that it's greatly inconvenient for him and his office that the people of Idaho have decided they want the final say on his laws. His problem seems to be with the democratic process. There are many of us in the state, as evidenced by how many signatures we collected in a short time, who think that Tom Luna is the one who has created this disruption in the schools and it's already under way, and that we're going to be better off once we repeal these laws.”
Food co-ops across the country, including the Boise Co-Op, are bracing for big-time competition, as organic and specialty food stores like Whole Foods and Trader Joe's open new stores nationwide, the AP reports. With demand for organic, natural and specialty food continuing to outpace other segments in the grocery industry, traditionally low-key co-ops say they must improve their stores, identify trends and appeal to a changing audience as the competition moves in; click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.
Idaho state schools Superintendent Tom Luna released his budget request today for the state's schools for next year, calling for a 5.1 percent, $64 million increase in state funding. Luna said he met with stakeholder groups over the summer, including the Idaho School Boards Association, Idaho Association of School Administrators, Idaho Education Association, Idaho Association of School Business Officials and others, to formulate the request; it reflects some of those groups' common priorities, he said, including “backfilling” the 1.67 percent cut in salary funds for teachers and administrators that was imposed in 2011 under the “Students Come First” school reform laws. Restoring that funding next year would mean a $14.8 million increase in base salaries for Idaho teachers, administrators and classified staff from this year's level, Luna said; those base salaries still would remain below 2009 levels, however.
Luna emphasized that the budget proposal fully funds all the reform programs under “Students Come First,” including a $61 million teacher merit-pay bonus program, up from $38.8 million this year, and phasing in laptop computers for all high school students. Under the plan, teachers are to get the computers this fall; the first third of Idaho high school students would get them in the fall of 2013.
The budget request also calls for “unfreezing” one of two years on the state's teacher salary pay grid to provide scheduled increases for teachers who have additional years of experience; that change would cost $6.2 million. Luna said he hopes to remove the other frozen experience step on the grid the following year. He's also proposing a 2 percent increase in discretionary funds to school districts; and small increases in the current level of funding for information technology staff at school districts and for remediation for students falling behind.
Luna held a roundtable meeting with reporters to release the budget request, which now goes to Gov. Butch Otter. But he said it would all change if voters in November reject the “Students Come First” laws by passing three referenda, Propositions 1, 2 and 3. If the measures fail, he said, “Until the Legislature comes to town, we'd have no legal authority to distribute those funds.”
Luna hasn't formulated an alternate plan on how to proceed if the reforms are overturned, which would redirect the money for merit-pay bonuses, laptops and other “Students Come First” programs; that money still could only be spent on education. Luna suggested asking opponents of the reform laws, who collected more than 70,000 signatures to place the three measures on the ballot. “I'm very curious as to what their plan is for managing this disruption,” he said. “We've made it very clear in the past that you cannot cut school budgets in the middle of the school year, and that's what this amounts to.” You can see Luna's full budget request here; click below to read his news release.
Ray Smelek, the man who brought Hewlett-Packard to Boise in 1973 and launched a high-tech industry that transformed the capital city's economy, died Monday at age 77. “There’s no question that it’s changed Boise,” Smelek wrote in his 2009 memoir, “Making My Own Luck.” “Highly educated people came here to work for HP and then went on to launch their own tech companies and they stayed in the Treasure Valley. … The fact that HP was here drew other tech companies and suppliers who wanted to be nearby. It’s given a lot of credibility to Boise as a technology center.”
Smelek’s career with HP started in 1957 as a college intern. He retired from the firm in 1994 and led several other Boise tech businesses, including Extended Systems and The Network Group. In remembrances today, Smelek is being recalled as “transformational” figure in Idaho's economy. KIVI-TV has a full report here, and the Idaho Statesman has a full article here. Click below to read my 2009 article on why Smelek chose Boise over Spokane and Corvallis.
For several years, refugees have raised their own produce at community gardens in Boise; a Washington Post article today reports that it's a trend across the country that's helping refugees with agricultural backgrounds connect with their past and culture while they build new lives in the United States. Ruben Chandrasekar, executive director of the International Rescue Committee's Baltimore office, said, “On a small scale, it's giving people a little bit of an opportunity to grow food for their salad, but on a larger scale, it's an opportunity for people to grow and build a space with what they have.” Click below for the full report from Washington Post reporter Tara Bahrampour.
Job-hunting veterans and their job-hunting spouses are being invited to a big job fair for vets next week at the Idaho Center entitled “Hiring Our Heroes.” It'll be next Wednesday, Sept. 12, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.; participants are asked to pre-register online here. The job fair will feature more than 85 employers, all with current job openings; it is open to military veterans, their spouses, and members of the National Guard and reserve. One in a string of such events across the nation, it's sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Idaho Committee of the Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, the Idaho Department of Labor, the American Legion, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and more.
Chris Ramos, Idaho Department of Labor veterans program coordinator, said, “This is a real opportunity for Idaho employers to take advantage of the skills and abilities veterans bring to the workplace, and for veterans and their families to get an opportunity for employment with some of Idaho's great businesses.” The event is free, both for the veterans and the employers; for more information, contact Roberto Gonzales at the department, 364-7781 ext. 3372. The department also is sponsoring a workshop for veterans tomorrow to prepare for the job fair; it'll be at 1 p.m. at the Canyon County office, 4514 Thomas Jefferson St., in Caldwell; contact Gonzales to sign up.
A Kootenai County man should get a chance to appeal his conviction on drug charges, the Idaho Court of Appeals held today, because he told his lawyer immediately after the jury verdict that he wanted to “appeal everything.” The lawyer told the man, Kirk Julliard Gosch, to schedule an appointment to discuss “exactly what he wanted to appeal,” but Gosch never did so, and didn't respond to several subsequent contacts from the lawyer. 1st District Judge Benjamin Simpson held that it was not the lawyer's inaction, but Gosch's that resulted in no appeal being filed; the appellate court disagreed.
“If counsel either neglects or refuses to file an appeal despite a criminal defendant's request to do so, counsel is deficient,” wrote appeals court Judge John Melanson in the unanimous decision. The ruling sends the case back to 1st District Court, where Gosch can now file a petition to appeal his conviction for manufacturing a controlled substance, possession of marijuana, and possession of marijuana with intent to deliver.
Cases of West Nile virus are on the rise in Idaho, the state Health & Welfare Department warns today. The state now has eight confirmed cases of people who have contracted the virus, and five more cases under investigation; five horses also have become ill. The virus is spread by infected mosquitoes; mosquitoes have tested positive for the virus so far this year in 10 Idaho counties. Click below for the full advisory from Health & Welfare.
Boise Mayor Dave Bieter does a radio interview with Geraldo Rivera in this photo taken at the Democratic National Convention yesterday by Idaho Rep. Brian Cronin, D-Boise, who along with Bieter is among Idaho's 31 delegates to the national confab. Cronin said Rivera lobbed mostly “softball” questions at Bieter, along with asking about the city's political climate. “He was basically being the PR guy for the city of Boise,” Cronin said. “I think it actually gave the mayor a chance to talk about some of the great things that are going on in the city.”
Cronin, who's attending his first national party convention, said he's sensing a “tremendous amount of energy and enthusiasm” among the crowd. “For me, I think, it's just a really exciting time to be surrounded by people who in general are like-minded but also serious about elections, and about the people we elect to represent us in government.”
Here's a news item from the Associated Press: PASADENA, Calif. (AP) ― A federal appeals court has reinstated an Idaho prison inmate's claim that a female guard groped him after he tried to break off their romantic but nonsexual relationship. The Los Angeles Times (lat.ms/Q4JoAz) says Tuesday's decision comes after a lower court ruled the touching was consensual. Three 9th Circuit Court of Appeals justices say the imbalance of power between an inmate and guard make it hard to tell consent from coercion. The justices say sexual abuse in prisons is rampant and inmates sometimes trade sexual favors for things like gum, cigarettes, more phone time and longer visits with children. Inmate Lance Conway Wood said he tried to end a relationship with guard Sandra de Martin after he became suspicious that she was married because adultery violates his religious beliefs.
When the U.S. Treasury announced yesterday that the nation's gross debt has topped $16 trillion, Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo called the news a “wake-up call.” Crapo, a member of the Senate's bipartisan “Gang of Six” that's been working on a debt-reduction plan to include spending cuts and caps, tax reform and entitlement reform, said that's still the best way to reduce the national debt.
“Many in Congress and on the various debt commissions agree spending is the largest part of equation when it comes to reducing our federal debt,” Crapo said in a statement late yesterday. “We can use this $16 trillion debt threshold as a rallying point. Spending is not the only issue. A bipartisan agreement to reform our tax code to make it simpler, fairer and more competitive is within reach if we in Congress can continue to show the American public we will work together on a solution. One of the best ways to spur those efforts is for the American public to call us, write us; let us know they want a bipartisan solution to slow spending and speed efforts on tax reform and to keep our entitlement programs solvent for retirees both now and in the future.”
Air quality in Lemhi and Custer counties has hit the “very unhealthy” category, prompting warnings from the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare to stay indoors as much as possible; older adults, young children and those with medical conditions will be most affected, but it's bad enough that everyone is being advised to avoid heavy work or exercise outdoors in the affected areas. “Salmon's getting inundated with smoke,” said Mike Toole of the Idaho DEQ. “They're in the 'very unhealthy' category continually.”
Meanwhile, the Treasure Valley's air has improved so much that it's actually inched into the green or “good” category, though the forecast was for it to stay in the yellow or “moderate” range. Current pollution is in the 40s on the air quality index, at the high end of the “good” category that ends at 50. “The forecasts we made were actually high,” Toole said. “It's fantastic. … We've actually experienced a lot better air quality than we anticipated.” Favorable wind and weather conditions have cleared the valley's air so well that even when changing conditions bring smoke back in, it's likely not to get as bad as it's been in recent weeks, Toole said.
Because wildfire smoke is such a highly visible pollutant, people who live in areas without air monitors can tell how bad it gets just by looking. “If visibility is reduced to less than eight miles, sensitive groups should limit activity,” Health & Welfare advises in a statement today. “If visibility is reduced to less than three miles, air quality is considered unhealthy for everyone. Visibility of less than one mile is considered hazardous and everyone should avoid all physical activity outdoors.” People in Salmon who lack air conditioning are being advised to visit the Salmon Public Library or Salmon Valley Baptist Church for relief from the smoke; click below for Health & Welfare's full advisory.
Idaho's 31 delegates at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, N.C. include five state lawmakers, Boise Mayor Dave Bieter, tribal leaders, a retired mailman, a teacher, an electrician, and the president of Idaho Young Democrats, Morgan Hill, StateImpact Idaho reports today. “There’s a kind of complicated formula, but the majority of the people on the list were elected at the state convention,” Dean Ferguson, the Idaho Democratic Party’s communications director, told StateImpact. “They had to give speeches to their fellow delegates about why they were best to go.” You can read their report here, which includes a link to the full list of the delegates.
A kayaker paddles into a wave at the new whitewater park on the Boise River, dropping suddenly from sight so that only the top of his bright-red helmet and the flashing blades of his paddle are visible amid the spray. A few moments later, he pops up and flies through the whitewater, turning gently as he zooms downstream, hits an eddy, and paddles back to do it again.
While Spokane has struggled for years to achieve the vision of a whitewater park in the Spokane River, Boise’s opened this summer, and has proven highly popular. “I think it’s sweet,” declared Mason Shaw, 23, shaking water from his hair after a wave ride that left him shouting, “Wooh!”
The Boise River Park that’s now attracting kayakers, surfers and boogie-boarders in throngs didn’t just happen. “It was 12 years in the works,” said Amy Stahl, Boise city parks spokeswoman. “They’re very complicated projects.” You can read my full story here from today's Spokesman-Review.
As Idaho voters decide on a sweeping education overhaul this November, teachers opposing the reforms may find themselves in a bind at the ballot box, the AP reports: By rejecting the changes, they could also be turning down a performance bonus after years of reduced or stagnant salaries. Idaho introduced merit pay under the reforms approved in 2011 and teachers worked toward those financial incentives last year. But the bonuses won't be paid out until Nov. 15, nine days after the referendum, and state officials say they can't distribute the money if the laws are repealed. The timeline is prompting outcry from the state's teachers union, which is fighting to overturn the reforms authored by Idaho schools superintendent Tom Luna; click below for a full report from AP reporter Jessie Bonner.
Firefighters are reporting some progress against major Idaho wildfires, though there are currently nine major fires burning and several are proving difficult to bring under control. The evacuation of Featherville due to the giant Trinity Ridge fire was lifted on Sunday for residents, and that blaze is now 43 percent contained; Boise's skies have noticeably cleared of smoke over the past two days, though air quality was predicted to remain in the moderate range. (An earlier official report that the fire was 68 percent contained turned out to be a calculation error; it was adjusted downward to 43 percent today to correct that.) Full containment on the Trinity Ridge fire still isn't expected until Oct. 1.
Meanwhile, the Halstead fire is just 3 miles north of Stanley and is only 7 percent contained, and the Mustang Complex fire in the Salmon-Challis National Forest is 16 percent contained with an estimated containment date of Sept. 30. Both those fires were started by lightning, while the Trinity Ridge fire is classified as human-caused, having started when an ATV caught fire Aug. 3. Idaho also has five active wildfires burning in the Nez Perce National Forest and one in the Clearwater, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. Click below for a fire update from the AP.
Idaho employers facing high unemployment insurance costs can, in part, blame those who get fraudulent benefits, the Associated Press reports; the Idaho Department of Labor is now trying to recover $20 million in fraudulent payments. The state's unemployment trust fund already was under pressure as the 2008 recession pushed the jobless rate north of 9 percent, forcing the state to borrow from the federal government, then sell bonds to repay the debt; the rate at which employers pay into the fund is now at its maximum.
In this year's legislative session, the department proposed a fine for employers who don't report new hires, enabling those workers to fraudulently keep collecting unemployment benefits; it passed the Senate unanimously but was narrowly rejected in the House. Since then, the department has tried radio ads to try to encourage employers to comply with the reporting requirement. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.