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Eye On Boise

Archive for August 2013

State legislator hiking the length of Idaho

State Rep. Mat Erpelding is attempting to hike a 950-mile route along the Centennial Trail stretching the entire length of Idaho in about 40 days, reports S-R outdoors writer Rich Landers, who has a write-up about Erpelding’s hike here. Erpelding said he’s making the big hike to raise awareness of trails in Idaho, and as a fundraiser for the Redside Foundation, which promotes health programs for outdoor guides. Erpelding, D-Boise, is a mountain climbing guide and outdoor educator who teachers college-level PE and leadership courses.

Landers writes that the route is a network of trails, roads and bushwhacking through at least 10 national forests and three wilderness areas. Despite devoting 10 hours to a 13-mile navigation error over White Mountain, Erpelding, 38, had covered 220 miles in 10 days as of Wednesday, Landers reports. “Crossed the Selkirks, Cabinets, and some of the Bitterroots,” Erpelding posted on Facebook. “Only had to get my bear spray out once.”

Bujak gets law license reinstated

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Former Canyon County prosecutor John Bujak can practice law again after his license was re-instated by the Idaho Supreme Court. Bujak's license was suspended in 2012 as he was fighting prosecution for misusing hundreds of thousands in taxpayer funds. He's since fended off nearly all the charges and now is considering a run for governor as an independent in 2014. Bujak quit as prosecutor in September 2010 after being accused of diverting money from a $734,000 contract he'd struck for the Canyon County prosecutor's office to handle misdemeanors for Nampa. Bujak maintains it was a legal contract that saved taxpayers money, earned Canyon County lawyers raises and bolstered his personal pay. A jury in 2012 found him not guilty, though he pleaded guilty to a charge of contempt of court.

Lightning touches off three new fires, even as wildfire season starts to wind down

Lightning touched off three new, large fires in Idaho, a reminder wildfire season is continuing even as crews finally get some help from shorter days, lower temperatures and higher humidity that accompany fall's arrival, the AP reports. Meanwhile, massive blazes that earlier burned in south-central Idaho are nearly contained, and the nation's 2013 fire season is slowly grinding to a halt, with favorable weather across Idaho and the West helping keep flames in check.

The new fires include the 3,000-acre Hells Canyon fire 15 miles northwest of Weiser; the nearby 1,500-acre Raft Fire; and the 993-acre Kelley Fire seven miles southeast of Featherville. Meanwhile, the huge Beaver Creek fire that earlier threatened Sun Valley and Ketchum is now 95 percent contained; and the LIttle Queens fire that threatened Atlanta is 20 percent contained. 

The nation actually is on track to have the second-lowest number of square miles burned by wildfires in a decade, AP reporter John Miller reports, largely because rain in states like Florida, Oklahoma and Nebraska kept big, early-season grass fires to a minimum. So far, only 3.7 million acres had burned across the United States through Friday, about 60 percent of average. In the West, however, fire activity has been average or above-average. Click below for his full report.

Outdoors adventures away from the smoke for holiday weekend…

Looking for some outdoor adventure over the holiday weekend, but want to avoid the wildfire smoke? Longtime Idaho outdoors writer Steve Steubner has some suggestions here at his blog, Stueby’s Outdoor Journal. Among them: Five easy-to-access kid-friendly lakes in the McCall area; camping near Cascade and McCall; and Salmon River beaches upstream of Riggins.

Stuebner also has posted a really enlightening NASA image that shows where the smoke plume from California’s Rim Fire near Yosemite flows in Idaho.

Wayne Hoffman offers apology to Emily Walton in dust-up over city bond proposal

First, Idaho Freedom Foundation President Wayne Hoffman issued a letter to the city of Boise asking it to back off on its proposed bond issue member on November’s ballot for parks, open space and public safety improvements. Hoffman contended the bond includes “items that fall under the category of ‘fun,’” and wrote, “The funding for the project will come on the backs of people who may still be unemployed, may be facing unemployment or are seeing a decline in their income.”

In response, Emily Walton, a recent BSU graduate (and 2012 commencement speaker) and founder of the Idaho Civic Engagement Project, which encourages young voters to become involved in non-partisan civic issues, wrote a response entitled,  “What Wayne Hoffman doesn't undserstand about Boise,” arguing passionately in favor of asking Boiseans to vote on whether they want the bond issue or not; it would take two-thirds voter approval to pass. “Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t even live in Boise, but Hoffman’s misguided plea to our Boise City Council to not put a bond on the ballot this November demonstrates a lack of understanding about  Boise, Boiseans, and the history of the city that we love,” she wrote. Hoffman lives in Nampa.

Hoffman responded in an email to the Boise Weekly that his organization has its offices in Boise and many of its employees live in the city. Dustin Hurst, a contractor for the IFF whom Hoffman said “writes a couple stories a week for me,” posted a comment on Facebook saying, “Emily Walton just picked a fight with Wayne Hoffman? This will not end well for Emily. Not at all.”

Walton responded this morning with a press release demanding an apology from Hoffman. “That’s a pretty ominous threat,” she wrote. “It’s not going to end well for me? … My sister is wondering if I need to hire a bodyguard. … Part of me finds this threat laughable but the other part is appalled. Who do you think you are? Is the Idaho Freedom Foundation not aware that Idahoans have the right to disagree with them?” Click below to read her full press release.

Hoffman told Eye on Boise this morning, “Dustin is not threatening Emily. Dustin is a really nice guy. … If Emily feels that way, then I respect that feeling and I certainly wouldn’t want anyone to feel as if they’re being threatened. Her opinions are valuable, they’re her opinions. … I value and respect the fact that we have differences of opinion.” He added, “It should never be personal, and I sincerely doubt that Dustin meant anything harmful by his comment. … If she feels offended and she wants an apology, she has it.” Hurst declined to comment.

Balloons over Boise…

After adverse weather conditions halted the balloon launches two days in a row, this morning’s mass balloon launch from Ann Morrison Park for the “Spirit of Boise Balloon Classic” was a sight to see. Dozens of brightly colored balloons rose from the park; some drifted directly over downtown, while others floated out to the west. Many completed their flights and then nestled right back into the park.

More than 40 hot air balloons are participating in the five-day event, with the “Nite Glow” and free concert in the park set for tonight from 6-9:30 p.m. That’s when a dozen balloons will inflate while still on the ground and light up as the music plays; the family-friendly event is free, and food beverage vendors will be available. The Big Wow Band will play.

Saturday morning’s balloon launch will include a competition, the Governor’s Cup for Aviation Excellence.  On Sunday, the event will try something new: A mass launch of 40-plus balloons all lifting up into the air at the same time, rather than gradually. It’s the first time such a “Great Launch” has been attempted at the event.

Balloon launches begin at about 7 a.m. each morning, and the public is welcome at the park to see; food and coffee vendors are available. The Spirit of Boise Balloon Classic, produced by Peak Broadcasting and Lighter than Air America, is sponsored this year by Mattress Land, along with an array of others; it’s a Boise tradition that started as a centerpiece of the Boise River Festival, and continued after the festival’s run ended. There’s more info at www.spiritofboise.com. Scott Spencer, balloon pilot and the event producer, says this year’s event marks “when the ballooning world returns to the Park to color our skies for the 22nd time.”

Two Idaho cattle operations, sued by FDA, agree to stop selling overly-drugged cows

Two cattle operations and dairies in southwestern Idaho have agreed to stop over-drugging cows - at such high levels that the medications could pass to human consumers - in response to a lawsuit from the federal government, the AP reports. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration sued T & T Cattle and T & T Cattle Pearl, both dairy farms and livestock dealers in Parma, along with owner Gregory T. Troost and manager Mark A. Mourton earlier this month in Boise's U.S. District Court; click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

The FDA contended that animals at the farms were given medications in such high doses that once they were sold for human consumption their meat contained illegally high drug residue levels that could be dangerous for some consumers.

Under the agreement filed in federal court Wednesday, the farm operators said they would keep better treatment records, refrain from selling animals that have illegally high drug residue in their tissues for human consumption, and stop using animal medications in unapproved ways. “We're working wholeheartedly with the FDA and trying to get this whole matter resolved,” said Troost on Thursday. “Our action plan is in place and I think it's working very well so far.”

Simpson, Labrador aligned on Syria strike

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — It took potential military action against Syria to get Republican U.S. Reps. Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador on the same side. The feuding Idaho lawmakers signed a letter to President Barack Obama, urging him to seek authorization from Congress before ordering a strike against Syria after its government allegedly used chemical weapons against its own people. Simpson and Labrador, who have traded barbs this year including over whether House Speaker John Boehner should be leading the chamber's majority, joined Boehner in the letter on Wednesday. In the document, they argue that Obama is required by the Constitution and the War Powers Resolution of 1973 to consult with lawmakers before authorizing a strike. Many Democrats are also urging Obama not to take action without first seeking proper authority to do so.

Donation allows replacement of faded yellow ribbons on Capitol

The faded, ratty-looking yellow ribbons that have festooned the front columns of the Idaho state capitol for several years were replaced this morning with bright new ones, thanks to Support Our Troops, an Florida-based organization that established a Boise office in March; the state hadn’t replaced the old ribbons since November of 2010.

When the organization’s chairman, Martin Boire, arrived in Boise, “He looked at the Capitol and said, ‘Why haven’t they done something?’” said Roy Eiguren, Idaho coordinator for the group. “The state didn’t have the money. So Support Our Troops paid. It was only about $1,000.”

The ribbons have hung on the front of the Capitol since the Kempthorne administration, when then-Gov. Dirk Kempthorne had them installed during the Iraq war, in which large numbers of Idaho soldiers were deployed. The state has replaced the ribbons periodically.

Said Eiguren, “The ribbons are a way to show our troops that we miss them and pray for their return soon, so it’s appropriate to keep the ribbons vibrant.”

ISP plans enhanced patrols for Labor Day holiday weekend

The Idaho State Police has announced enhanced patrols for the upcoming Labor Day holiday weekend, including its second “All Hands on Deck” operation of the summer, in which every officer who's working is out on patrol, inluding those who normally would be working behind a desk. During the first one of those this year, which came during the July 4 holiday weekend, ISP Director Col. Ralph Powell wrote his first citation in 11 years, after a young driver zoomed past him doing 70 mph in a 35 mph chip-seal construction zone.

The “all-hands” effort is scheduled for Friday; in addition, ISP is in the midst of a “Drive Sober or Get Pulled Over” push that started Aug. 26 and runs through Sept. 8, targeting intoxicated drivers.

“This summer has been deadly on Idaho’s highways,” Powell said in an ISP news release. “Since Memorial Day weekend, ISP has investigated 46 fatal crashes on Idaho’s highways.” Enhanced patrols can help persuade more drivers to slow down and follow traffic laws, he said. Click below for ISP's full release.

Ada County woman tests positive for West Nile Virus

An Ada County woman in her 50s has tested positive for West Nile Virus, the first confirmed human case in Ada County this year. That brings the number of reported human infections in southwestern Idaho this year up to six; previous cases were reported in Payette, Washington and Owyhee counties.

The latest victim, however, told authorities she likely contracted the virus - carried by infected mosquitoes - in Valley County, where she spends most weekends in the outdoors. Both Ada and Valley are among 12 Idaho counties in which infected mosquitoes have been reported this year. “This case should serve as a reminder to everyone, but especially to outdoor enthusiasts, that they need to make every effort to keep from getting bitten,” said Kimberly Link, program manager for communicable disease control at the Central District Health Department; click below for the department's full announcement.

Last year, 17 people in Idaho reported West Nile Virus infections; in 2006, Idaho led the nation in West Nile illnesses with almost 1,000 infections, which contributed to 23 deaths. UPDATE: The Twin Falls Times-News reported Thursday morning that a man in his 40s has tested positive for the virus, the first Magic Valley case of the year, bringing the statewide total to seven.

Treasure hunters cause ‘ghastly’ damage to historic Oregon Trail ruts near Snake River

Treasure hunters likely using metal detectors have dug hundreds of holes in the historic wagon ruts of the Oregon Trail near the Snake River in Idaho, causing what BLM archaeologist Suzann Henrikson calls “ghastly” damage, Boise State Public Radio reports. Henrikson discovered the damage last week while taking a Boy Scout leader and a local historian to see the historic trail. BSPR reports the treasure hunters may have been inspired by a Spike TV reality show featuring people who go out with metal detectors, find and dig up historic artifacts and sell them; see BSPR’s full report here.

The diggers likely violated the federal Archaeological Resources Protection Act, a felony; the 1979 law declares that “archaeological resources on public lands … are an accessible and irreplaceable part of the Nation’s heritage.”

Bock won’t seek another Senate term, applies for judgeship

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho Sen. Les Bock aims to be appointed as a judge and says he'll leave the Senate in 2014 even if he's not named to the bench. The Idaho Statesman (http://tinyurl.com/pj9tflz ) reports Bock, a Democrat from Boise, is among 14 people vying for a new judgeship on the 4th District Court bench. The 2013 Legislature added the post this year. It pays $114,000 annually, plus benefits. Bock, a lawyer, served one term in the Idaho House before switching to the state Senate, where he's in his fifth year. He says it's “about enough time” and believes it's the appropriate moment for some “new blood” to fill his seat. Bock said he'll support House Assistant Minority Leader Grant Burgoyne, a Boise Democrat and three-term representative, to replace him in the Senate.

Most Idaho school tax levy votes pass, North Idaho district can now reverse deep cuts

For one small North Idaho school district, yesterday’s levy election results brought welcome news, with voters approving a two-year $1.1 million supplemental level that’ll allow the reversal of deep cuts, including eliminating all sports, cutting kindergarten to half-time, furlough days for all employees and cutting a day off the school week starting this fall. “Needless to say, we are ecstatic,” Plummer-Worley Superintendent Judi Sharrett told S-R reporter Scott Maben; you can read his full report here. The final tally was 561 votes in favor, 374 against. This morning, in a special meeting, the school board voted to reinstate funding for sports, full-day kindergarten and a five-day school week.

Plummer-Worley had been the only school district in North Idaho without a voter-approved supplemental property tax levy to offset state budget cuts to school; an earlier levy proposal fell short in May. It was one of about half a dozen Idaho school districts with levy elections yesterday; most passed. Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News reports that Cassia County and Emmett school districts passed levies after scaling back proposals that earlier failed. Homedale voters rejected a levy for a second time, while Parma voters overwhelmingly approved a 10-year, $2.5 million facilities levy. You can read Richert’s full report here.

Sun Valley back open for business after wildfire, governor urges visitors to return

Baldy reopens at Sun Valley today, with gondola rides from 10-5 daily through Sept. 8 and the Roundhouse and Lookout restaurants open. This comes as the resort community pulls out of the unexpected high-season slump brought by the huge Beaver Creek wildfire, which is now 93 percent contained. The focus there is turning to rehab after the wildfire, and the community’s big Wagon Days event is on for this weekend.

Gov. Butch Otter yesterday urged people to return to the Sun Valley-Ketchum area. “If you get a chance to go to Wagon Days, if you get a chance to let those folks know that we’re thinking about them, go to Sun Valley, spend a little money – please do,” he told more than 600 people at a Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce luncheon yesterday. “Because they’ll appreciate it, because they recognize that we are all one family and we care about them.”

Otter said he’s had lots of calls asking if the Governor’s Cup golf tournament fundraiser, scheduled for Sept. 5-7 in Sun Valley, would be canceled. “No, we’re not going to cancel it,” he said. “I am going to Sun Valley next Wednesday, and fortunately I’ve got about 650 people that are going to come there as well.”

Davlin, Kunz named the new co-hosts of Idaho PTV’s ‘Idaho Reports’

Melissa Davlin, former Statehouse reporter for the Twin Falls Times-News, and Aaron Kunz, a producer for EarthFix, a public media project that includes Idaho Public TV, Oregon Public Broadcasting and KCTS Seattle, have been named co-hosts of Idaho Reports, the long-running public television program on Idaho Public TV that covers the Idaho Legislature. “I’m excited about the strengths of our young co-hosts,” said Bruce Reichert, Idaho Public Television’s executive producer. “They understand the value of this venerable show to Idahoans and are committed to making ‘Idaho Reports’ informative, insightful, and even fun to watch.” Click below for the full announcement from Idaho Public TV.

Idaho’s first lady dislocates shoulder in calf-roping accident

Idaho First Lady Lori Otter dislocated her shoulder in a calf-roping accident and is facing surgery, Gov. Butch Otter announced today.  “For those of you … who asked about Miss Lori, the first lady and I had intention to go out and rope cattle once in a while,” Otter told the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce at the opening of his annual “Address to the Business Community” today at the Boise Centre. “And we were at a rodeo over in Baker, Ore., actually it was a little town called Haines, Ore. … The first lady did dislocate her shoulder. Fortunately, we made it to St. Al’s in Baker.”

Said Otter, “I could not believe how that doctor put her shoulder back in. He put his foot on her armpit, and jerked on that arm. I was thinking medical abuse here, instead of spousal abuse – I couldn’t get away with that.”

Mrs. Otter is recovering, the governor said. “She is going to have to go in and have the shoulder repaired. But she’d been concerned about all my operations, because I got a new left ankle, new right knee, new right hip, both shoulders, and I had some work done on one of my eyes. … I told her even though she’s 23 years younger, I said, you know, one more operation, Lori, and I’m going to be younger than you, with all these new parts.” As the crowd of more than 600 roared with laughter, Otter quipped, “So I think she’s trying to catch up.”

Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian, said the accident occurred the weekend before last, on the couple’s anniversary, when the first lady was roping and had just caught the calf over its head with her rope.

Otter endorses ed stakeholders’ task force recommendations

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter today endorsed the sweeping recommendations of his school reform task force, including restoring tens of millions cut from school budgets during Idaho's recession years. “It met every one of my expectations of what we could come out with,” the governor said.

Otter said he's asked his Division of Financial Management to put a price tag on the 21 proposals. “We know it’s going to be roughly $350 million bucks,” he said. “We … know we can’t do that in one year, we can’t do that in two years, or maybe three years. But what we can do is set ourselves on a course that we accomplish so much each year, and … four or five years out, we’ve accomplished the entire package.”

The recommendations include big increases in teacher pay as part of a new 'career ladder;'  advancing students to the next grade only when they've mastered the material;  changing the school funding formula; boosting school technology; raising standards for student achievement; expanding professional development and mentoring for teachers; a new tiered professional licensing structure; and more.

Otter, who spoke about the reforms in response to questions at his annual “Governor’s Address to the Business Community” speech to the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce today, said he met with legislative leaders this morning and discussed the task force recommendations, which were developed by a 31-member panel he appointed to represent all sides in the school reform debate, including both opponents and backers of Idaho’s failed “Students Come First” school reforms; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Idaho recovers $28M, wins reforms in litigation over Medicaid drug pricing

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden announced today that the state has recovered more than $28 million, as a result of six years of litigation regarding overcharging by major drug manufacturers who sold prescription drugs to Idaho’s Medicaid program. Idaho has settled with 33 drug companies – three of those without litigation – and also won price disclosure concessions Wasden says will prevent such improperly inflated price reporting in future years. “In negotiating these settlements, we tried to look forward as well as backward,” Wasden said. “We recovered a significant amount of money to compensate the state for past practices. But equally as important, the state will receive pricing data from these companies going forward. That element of the settlements will help protect the taxpayers from future pricing abuses.” That data would otherwise have been confidential.

Until July 1, 2011, prescription drug prices paid by Idaho’s Medicaid program relied on companies’ reports of the “average wholesale price,” or AWP, as a basis for determining the acquisition cost to pharmacies. Wasden said, “One of them indicated that ‘AWP’ stands for ‘ain’t what’s paid.’”

While other states also have sued drug manufacturers over the issue, Wasden took a different approach, first calling all of them in for a meeting. As a result, three settlements were reached without the state even having to sue. The litigation led to reforms in how drug pricing for Medicaid is calculated, which state Health & Welfare Director Dick Armstrong said are now “saving over $10 million a year for the citizens of Idaho,” saying Idaho has now “completely changed the way drugs are priced and paid for” through its Medicaid program.

Because the federal government pays 70 percent of the costs of Medicaid in Idaho, which provides health coverage for the state’s poorest and disabled residents, the feds will get $13.56 million of the recovery, in the form of credits against future federal Medicaid payments to Idaho. The state’s share of the settlements, $7.2 million, was deposited in the state’s general fund for appropriation by the Legislature. The rest of the money went to cover the costs of the investigations and litigation; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Wasden filed the first lawsuits in 2007; the first settlements were reached in 2005, 2006 and 2008, and the last one, with Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. for $750,000, was reached last month.

Boehner in Boise, predicts ‘whale of a fight’ over debt limit in the fall

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner raised more than $95,000 for 2nd District Congressman Mike Simpson in Boise yesterday, reports Dan Popkey of the Idaho Statesman, speaking at a $50 a plate luncheon at the Boise Centre that drew 430 and a roundtable for 36 high-dollar contributors.  The speaker, a close ally and friend of Simpson, was on the 22nd day of a 35-day cross-country bus tour supporting GOP House members seeking re-election. Simpson faces a challenge from Idaho Falls attorney Bryan Smith as he seeks a ninth term. Boehner said, “I’m going to do everything I can to make sure that he is re-elected.”

In his address to the luncheon crowd, Boehner predicted “a whale of a fight” over the debt limit in the fall, Popkey reported. “I’ve made it clear that we’re not going to increase the debt limit without cuts and reforms that are greater than the increase in the debt limit,” he said. “The president doesn’t think this is fair, thinks I’m being difficult to deal with. But I’ll say this: It may be unfair but what I’m trying to do here is to leverage the political process to produce more change than what it would produce if left to its own devices. We’re going to have a whale of a fight.”

Popkey reports that 1st District GOP Congressman Raul Labrador, who has said he’s remaining neutral in the primary race, attended the luncheon; read Popkey’s full report here.

Megaloads hearing delayed, but no loads to travel before new hearing date

A federal court hearing originally scheduled for tomorrow afternoon on Highway 12 megaloads has been postponed to Sept. 9, after a company that’s already sent one giant load over the route this summer agreed to hold off on any further shipments until at least Sept. 18. The U.S. Forest Service asked Omega Morgan, the shipping company, to hold off on that first load until it could develop review guidelines for such loads and consult with the Nez Perce Tribe, in accordance with a federal court ruling last winter that the Forest Service has jurisdiction over the loads. But the Idaho Transportation Department issued Omega Morgan a permit, noting that it still had to deal with the Forest Service; the company then shipped the load, which drew protesters along the route, saying it’d consult with the Forest Service after the shipment, and the Forest Service didn’t stop it.

Protesters who were arrested included nearly every member of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee.

The Nez Perce Tribe and Idaho Rivers United then filed a federal lawsuit against the Forest Service seeking an emergency injunction halt such shipments. That’s what the now-delayed hearing was on. The owner of the giant equipment, which was being shipped to the Canadian oil sands, GE Water and Process Technologies, has now filed to intervene in the lawsuit on the side of the Forest Service; the court announced, “The proposed intervenors represented that no shipments will proceed over Highway 12 before September 18, 2013. In reliance on that, all agreed to the following schedule,” including rescheduling the hearing to Sept. 9; that will allow all parties to file required briefs and responses. U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill, who also issued last winter’s ruling, will preside over the hearing.

Private ag land owners could get fed help to rehab from wildfires

Special funding is available through the USDA's Natural Resources Conservation Service to help agricultural producers rehab private land burned in the recent wildfires, but they have to apply by Friday. “NRCS can help ranchers and agricultural producers that were significantly impacted by this year’s devastating wildfires,” said Jeff Burwell, Idaho NRCS State Conservationist, for expenses such as fencing, seeding, livestock water development, herbaceous weed control, and erosion control on rangeland, pastureland and non-industrial private forest land; click below for more info.

State Board backs UI law school expansion in Boise, rejects UI Law enrollment cap

The State Board of Education, in a special meeting this morning, has voted 5-3 in favor of adding a second year to the University of Idaho’s law school program in Boise, which currently offers only the third year of law school; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. The vote came after much debate, during which past opponents of the move said they’d support it if it came along with a cap on total UI law school enrollment.

“I certainly have felt that the quality of the program, both in terms of instruction, in terms of enrollment, etc., would be improved by being in the Boise market where it’s so close to the center of state government, and so close to the business community in the Boise area, and also legal professionals in the Boise area,” said board member Rod Lewis. “It’s not their intent that by doing so, they would significantly expand the size of the school.” He proposed a cap on total law school enrollment of 360, which is slightly over the average enrollment for the past five years, to accompany the funding.

UI President Don Burnett said, “We do think that the second year program (in Boise) will make the law school more attractive and more competitive. I do think the principal effect will be quality and giving more access to students in areas where they want to get either specialty training or get their training at a place advantageous to themselves and their families, economically and professionally.” But, he said, “Our preference is not to have a cap. … Our preference is that we be given the same sound discretion that other academic units have, rather than a cap, even though the 360 is a figure we could live with.”

Adding the second year in Boise would cost the state about $400,000 a year. Board member Richard Westerberg said, “Frankly, I’m still conflicted, because what we’re really talking about here is almost another million-dollar annual subsidy to produce lawyers. … If we actually got another million dollars going forward to spend on something, is the highest and best use to produce attorneys?” But he said he’d support the move with the cap attached.

Lewis said there’s an oversupply of attorneys nationwide, but Burnett said those statistics don’t count the 30 percent of UI law graduates who choose to go into another profession, rather than practice law. Board members noted that Concordia Law School, a private law school, has opened in Boise and already attracted more than 70 students. “Concordia is showing us that there is a demand to have this kind of education in Boise,” Lewis said, adding that he believes the UI law school should be moved to Boise. Burnett said Boise is the best location for students in some fields, and Moscow is the best for others; he said Idaho is a net importer of attorneys, with only 28 percent of those admitted to the bar in Idaho in recent years having graduated from the U of I. He added, “We are nowhere near saturating the legal education market. We are still admitting only about half of the applicants,” Burnett said.

Board member Emma Atchley called a cap “a very bad precedent,” and board member Bill Gosling suggested it might even violate the Idaho Constitution’s requirement that the UI law school provide legal education throughout the state. Atchley said, “I guess I’m rather amazed that we would even take a step of this nature.”

Gosling made a substitute motion to back funding for the second-year Boise program with no mention of a cap; it passed 5-3, with just Lewis, Westerberg and member Ken Edmunds dissenting. Those voting in favor were Gosling, Atchley, Don Soltman, Tom Luna and Milford Terrell. The proposal now goes to the governor and the Legislature.

Fire update: Beaver Creek fire 90% contained, Boise gets smoke from Calif. fire near Yosemite

The huge Beaver Creek fire that threatened Sun Valley and Ketchum is now 90 percent contained, with full containment estimated for Aug. 31. Growth potential has dropped to medium, and all evacuation orders have been lifted, but some Forest Service and BLM area closures remain in effect, including forest lands from Galena Summit south to the SNRA Headquarters on both sides of Hwy 75; that includes Baker Creek and Easley.

The Little Queens fire that’s threatening the tiny town of Atlanta is now 10 percent contained, and 390 firefighters are battling it; five miles of control line have been established from the north side of Atlanta to the west down the Middle Fork of the Boise River drainage. The town remains under an evacuation order. The fire has grown to 20,956 acres.

Meanwhile, the smoke that filled Boise’s skies over the weekend has been coming in from the southwest, from the Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, currently the biggest wildfire burning in California. It’s burning on 133,980 acres, is only 7 percent contained, and its growth potential is rated as “extreme.” NIFC reports that rapid fire growth and extreme fire behavior are hampering suppression efforts.

Annual DEA flight spots 3,300 marijuana plants in Sawtooth National Forest

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BURLEY, Idaho (AP) — Law enforcement officers in south-central Idaho seized 3,300 marijuana plants from a grow site in the Sawtooth National Forest. Cassia County Sheriff Jay Heward says the street value of the plants was estimated at $6.6 million. Forty-six people helped pull up the plants Thursday and load them onto large nets that were carried out by a U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration helicopter. Heward says the DEA was flying an annual mission to locate marijuana plants when it discovered the grow site. The sheriff says the investigation continues, but persons of interest have been identified.

Idaho ordered to pay another $376K in attorney fees re overturned abortion law

The state of Idaho has again been ordered to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney's fees after losing a court battle over the Legislature's latest anti-abortion law, the Associated Press reports, with the tab now rising to more than $1 million since 2000. The latest bill comes in a lawsuit over Idaho's fetal pain law and other abortion restrictions; U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill ruled Thursday that the state owes more than $376,000 to attorneys for Jennie Linn McCormack, who sued over she was charged with a felony last year for allegedly having an illegal abortion. The Pocatello woman won her case last year, overturning several Idaho abortion restrictions.

Idaho won't have to pay that bill immediately because an appeal over some aspects of the case is still pending in the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, reports AP reporter Rebecca Boone. If the state wins that appeal, it could reduce the amount it owes McCormack's attorneys. But if Idaho loses, it could result in a double-down of sorts with the state ordered to pay McCormack's appellate costs, as well; click below for Boone's full report.

Ed task force endorses teacher career ladder, mastery-based student advancement, more…

The governor's education stakeholders task force has agreed on a slew of recommendations to recommend to Gov. Butch Otter, from a teacher career ladder program that could cost $253 million over six years, to advancing students based on mastery of subjects or concepts rather than grades. Idaho EdNews reporter Kevin Richert has a rundown at his blog here; click below for a report on some of the recommendations from AP reporter John Miller, including a near-unanimous vote to endorse the new Idaho Core standards for student achievement. Richert also has posted a report here on today's outcome, its remarkable unanimity compared to the school reform fight that preceded it, and what happens next.

A list of the approved recommendations from the State Board of Education is online here, along with a link to details in lengthier documents from today's meetings.

A bull-and-bear day in Boise?

Two animal incidents marked the news yesterday in Boise: A bear found wandering in the North End, which was tranquilized and taken off to the forest north of Lowman for release; and a bull rampaging down the Greenbelt in Eagle after breaking out of its pasture. Initially, authorities warned people to beware on the Greenbelt near Merrill Park yesterday morning as they hunted for the bull, but no capture was ever reported. “They didn’t seem very concerned by yesterday afternoon,” said Ada County Sheriff’s spokesman Patrick Orr. “It was swimming in the river. … They were pretty confident it was going to swim back to the pasture it broke out of.”

The black bear, pictured above, was first sighted around 7:30 Thursday morning behind the Boise VA hospital on Fort Street; it then led sheriff’s deputies and Fish & Game officers on a few hours of “hide and seek,” Orr reported, before the F&G officers were able to get close enough to tranquilize it. Fish & Game warned that dry conditions in the mountains could drive bears to visit town over the next few months, so they advise those living near the foothills to keep trash sealed up and don’t leave food outside. 

Ed task force debating reform ideas…

The governor's education stakeholders task force is now getting into something of a debate over Idaho Core standards; Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert is following today's debate in a live blog here, and you can watch the meeting live here. So far, the task force has voted on one recommendation from its “structural change” subcommittee, unanimously backing a “mastery based” education system. That means students advance based on content mastery, rather than “seat time” requirements.

Storms bring mixed news for firefighters, dampening some blazes, but sparking new ones too

Last night’s drenching rain in Boise apparently bypassed the Sun Valley area, but the Beaver Creek fire was rained on early today, the AP reports, keeping fire activity minimal; crews there are reporting good progress. Click below for a western wildfire update from AP reporter John Miller. As of 10 last night, the fire was 67 percent contained; there are still 1,500 firefighters battling it.

Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker has an interesting report today about how many Sun Valley area residents ignored guidance on how to make their homes and property fire-wise after the 2007 Castle Rock fire, resulting in an extremely difficult fight for firefighters along the Greenhorn Road area north of Hailey, where Barker reports that “wooden houses, some as big as small hotels, with cedar-shake roofs and trees hanging over them,” line the road.  At the height of the firefight on Tuesday, Blaine County sent out this tweet: “Ketchum Fire Chief: ‘We had a lot of roof fires in Greenhorn. Shingles have got to go. They aren't worth it.'

Meanwhile, the Little Queens fire continues to threaten the tiny town of Atlanta, which remains under a mandatory evacuation order; the rain bypassed that blaze. As of this morning, 367 firefighters were battling the wildfire on 12,787 acres, and NIFC reported, “Additional resources that have been requested continue to arrive and be assigned to the fire.”

The Gold Pan Complex of fires in the Bitterroot National Forest 35 miles southwest of Conner, Mont. has forced area closures, including along the Magruder Road corridor, and spread to 34,028 acres; and the Lodgepole Fire 10 miles west of Challis, which has been burning since July 20, is up to 22,856 acres and structure protection efforts are being assessed for historic cabins in the Twin Peaks area, though overall the fire is 75 percent contained.

The storms that rolled over southern and central Idaho overnight brought mixed news for firefighters, with rain dampening some, but lightning touching off numerous new wildfires, including at least 13 in the Boise National Forest.

Ed task force to vote up or down today on each subcommittee recommendation

The governor’s education stakeholders task force has convened this morning, to begin assembling its final recommendations to Gov. Butch Otter. Chairman Richard Westerberg told the group, “There’s been a considerable amount of work been done and we’ll see the fruits of that work the rest of today, and hopefully get it to the finish line with a set of recommendations that we can forward on to the governor.” First, he said, each of the task force’s subcommittees will meet for 30 minutes to work through their recommendations. Then, the full task force will reassemble at 9:45 and each subcommittee chair will present their panel’s recommendations. Task force members will ask “clarifying questions” on each proposal, and when they all understand  it, they’ll take a vote on whether or not to include it in their final recommendations for the governor.

“We’ll do that on each of the recommendations,” Westerberg said.

Ed task force releases its subcommittees’ proposals

The draft recommendations from subcommittees of the governor's education stakeholders task force are out; Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News has a report here, and you can see the recommendations here, along with the agenda for tomorrow's task force meeting, which will run from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at the Hatch Ballroom at the BSU student union building.  The 31-member task force is scheduled to consider its subcommittees' recommendations Friday and decide on its recommendations to Gov. Butch Otter. You can listen live here.

Idaho inmate fraud artist takes plea deal

Idaho inmate fraud artist Mark Brown pleaded guilty today to two federal counts of mail fraud, avoiding a trial on a 12-count federal indictment and agreeing to forfeit $60,000 in proceeds from his scam. Brown also agreed, as part of a plea agreement with federal prosecutors, to forfeit the cherished electric typewriter he used to pull off the unprecedented financial fraud from his Idaho prison cell, which took in big corporations, courts and attorneys around the nation and got hefty checks sent to him in Idaho over a period of several years.

Senior U.S. District Judge Justin Quackenbush expressed some puzzlement about Brown’s crimes. “How’d you get involved in all this, Mr. Brown?” he asked him. “Just tell me how it got started.” Brown responded with a nervous chuckle, “Um, the idea just popped in my head.”

Quackenbush, who was the chief judge for the Eastern District of Washington until 1995, when he took senior status, responded, “Well, people in custody ordinarily aren’t filing claims. I’ve handled a lot of class actions in my years on this federal bench … and approved a lot of settlements. … How’d you get started in the filing of false claims?”

Brown, 54, said, “Uh, it was my view that if a claim was filed, even if it was false, there was a small percentage chance that it would be paid.” When the judge pressed him as to how he heard about the big class-action legal settlements and bankruptcy and security settlements in which he filed claims, Brown said, “Well, I read the newspapers and watch TV.”

“What newspapers were you reading – the Wall Street Journal?” the judge asked. “Oh, yes,” Brown replied.

The plea agreement could bring Brown a slightly reduced sentence, though that’s not binding on the court; Quackenbush set his sentencing for Nov. 13. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Rafters on Middle Fork of Salmon River sickened, possibly by norovirus

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho health officials are trying to determine what is causing the gastrointestinal illness that has affected commercial and private rafters on the Middle Fork of the Salmon River, as well as fire personnel. Mike Taylor, an epidemiologist with the Eastern Idaho Public Health District, tells the Idaho Statesman (http://bit.ly/1f4HI5f ) that river guides have fallen ill and a Forest Service weed control crew had to be flown out after getting sick. Taylor suspects it may be norovirus, a highly-contagious viral illness that causes nausea, vomiting and diarrhea and lasts for about two days. About 50 people have reported getting ill while rafting or working on the river in the past month. However, three people who were tested came back with three different illnesses — one had norovirus, one had E. coli and one had giardia.

State tests school emergency preparedness with drill at Burley high school

Gov. Butch Otter, state schools Supt. Tom Luna, and the Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security came to Burley yesterday for a school-safety drill that simulated a violent attack at a school, inspired by the Newtown, Conn. school shootings last December.  School wasn’t in session at Burley High School during the drill, which was based on a scenario involving a disgruntled parent who caused an explosion in a chemistry lab. “It gives us an opportunity to say if we find any problems in Burley, we need to check that all over the state of Idaho,” Otter said of the exercise.

The 90-minute exercise involved multiple state and local agencies and was watched by a team of evaluators who will make recommendations on how to improve local preparedness and readiness in schools across the state. The Twin Falls Times-News has a full report here. After an ambulance crew removed a simulated burn victim from the school, Burley High Principal Carolyn Hondo told the Times-News, “I can't believe how real it feels.”

Ed task force proposals could be pricey

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A preliminary list of recommendations created by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter's new Task Force for Improving Education shows a focus on recouping lost education dollars and improving the workforce by paying teachers more money. The Idaho Statesman (http://bit.ly/18JYBRn ) reports the preliminary list includes a draft recommendation to raise minimum teacher salaries from $31,000 to $40,000 statewide, and to seek to restore $82.5 million in operational revenue that school districts have lost since 2008. The recommendations aren't final — task force members are expected to meet Friday to further discuss the list, which reflects subcommittee recommendations to the full task force. The task force was created eight months ago to bring stakeholders together after a stormy education fight that led to the defeat of the Students Come First laws in a referendum last November.

Fire update: Major progress on Beaver Creek fire; Atlanta evacuated for Little Queens fire

The Beaver Creek fire in the Sun Valley/Ketchum area is now 30 percent contained, a sign of major progress on that huge, erratic blaze; there’s a full update here. More than 1,700 firefighters are still working on it. Meanwhile, the tiny town of Atlanta is under a mandatory evacuation order as the Little Queens fire, now 9,500 acres, burns toward it with no containment. The fire has reached China Basin and is now three miles northwest of Atlanta; 150 firefighters are battling it and structure protection measures are in place.

The Elk Complex fire is now 85 percent contained; and the North Fork Fire 20 miles southeast of Cascade is 50 percent contained at 327 acres.

The Highland Fire, which broke out yesterday and burned 600 acres just east of Boise near Lucky Peak Dam, is in the mop-up stage and has an estimated containment of 9 tonight; six structures have burned. The fire caused a power outage that hit the Idaho Shakespeare Festival, where actors performed the first act of Richard III with no power, lights or amplification last night in a gripping performance, before calling it a night due to increasing darkness.

Senators say nation’s wildfire prevention system needs ‘bold reforms’

Idaho's two GOP senators joined with Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden today to launch a new bipartisan push to use the fall budget negotiations in Congress to reform the way the nation funds wildfire prevention. “In my view, the fires that are ripping their way through Oregon, Idaho, California and much of the West are proof that the federal government’s policy for fire prevention is broken,” Wyden declared in a visit to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. That’s because it taps fire prevention funds to fight raging fires, landing the nation in a vicious circle as it does less prevention, he said.

“And I say that given the heroic efforts that have been made by our firefighters,” Wyden said. “The reality is simple: For western members of Congress in the House and the Senate, there is no higher priority this fall than fixing this broken system.”

Wyden is the chairman of the Senate Energy Committee, on which Risch also serves; Crapo and Wyden both serve on the budget committee. Wyden quipped that 3 percent of the U.S. Senate is already on board with the new push – the three of them – and said they’ve also gotten enthusiastic  support from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who has been working to make sure the Forest Service is first in line for seven tanker plans that should become available from the military this month to boost firefighting efforts.

Wyden said there’s “no better time to bring about these changes than this fall,” as Congress grapples with the budget sequester, the need to raise the debt ceiling and the end of the fiscal year. “This brings front and center the debate about what our priorities are and what our choices are,” he said; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. 

Idaho insurance exchange goes live on the web with new URL

Idaho’s state health insurance exchange now has a web address: Yourhealthidaho.org. The website was unveiled at a news conference today by Gov. Butch Otter and Idaho exchange executive director Amy Dowd; it’s the site where residents and small businesses can shop for health insurance coverage provided by competing private health insurance companies, with premium costs reduced by federal subsidies; enrollment starts Oct. 1.

“I’m still against Obamacare,” Otter said. “But I recognize we do have an obligation. If Obamacare does happen to go away, it does not absolve us right here in Idaho to do what we can to take care of our own.” You can read our full report here from S-R reporter John Webster.

According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, more than 222,000 Idahoans have no health insurance; many of the uninsured work for small businesses or are self-employed. The Affordable Care Act prohibits insurance companies from declining to issue health insurance because an applicant is sick, prohibits higher rates for those with existing health problems, prohibits lifetime or annual caps on the benefits insurance policies will pay, requires coverage of preventive care without co-pays, and requires standard benefit packages so consumers can make apples-to-apples comparisons when selecting a policy.

Political fireworks fly at Land Board over school endowment distribution

Political fireworks flew at the state Land Board this morning, as, for the second time in five years, state schools Superintendent Tom Luna sought to increase the endowment distribution to public schools beyond the recommendation of the Endowment Fund Investment Board. The board is recommending fiscal year 2015 distribution increases to seven of the eight endowments, but not to the largest – public schools – instead holding schools at the $31 million distribution level it’s been held at for several years. The reason: Since the 2010 board decision to give schools a one-time additional $22 million distribution, the reserve fund for the schools hasn’t met the goal of five years worth of payments; it’s now just over three years, and dropped to two years after the 2010 extra payment.

But Luna said the recommendation means departing from the board’s policy of distributing 5 percent of the three-year rolling average of the endowment to the schools each year, and would drop schools next year to about a 4 percent distribution.  Aside from the $22 million one-time boost, schools have been held at the $31 million level for five years now, Luna said, even as the number of public school students has grown by 15,000.

“We’ve never had to reduce the balance of the reserve in order to meet distributions,” Luna argued. “And we just went through the worst recession that I think we’ve seen. And now we see a recovery. So I would argue that we should distribute the 5 percent of the rolling three-year average, per our policy. We still increase the amount in reserve in the years going forward. … It would mean an increase in the distribution of about $5.6 million.”

Luna said school districts are suffering now. “I guess what concerns me is that while we’re building our reserve, school districts are depleting theirs, and … many of them have no reserves left at all. They literally go from state distribution to state distribution.”

Luna made a motion to grant the increase, but it died for lack of a second. Gov. Butch Otter said he just heard Luna’s proposal last night. “I’d like to see us delay it at least until the September board meeting,” he said. Luna responded, “I did sent you a letter Friday – I know you were putting out fires.” (You can read Luna's letter here, obtained under the Idaho Public Records Law.)

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said, “A number of years ago we addressed this issue, and really, it was part of a political ambush that was unleashed on the Land Board. And at that time my view was that we needed to send this matter to the Endowment Fund Investment Board for their analysis and report back to us.” Wasden said for the Land Board to exercise its fiduciary duty to the endowment, as required by the state Constitution, it’s incumbent on the board to get the investment board’s input before making such a decision.

Secretary of State Ben Ysursa recalled “the way we agonized over the $22 million,” and noted that the 2010 extra payment was actually his motion – Luna had wanted more than twice that amount. “I reiterated that was a one-time deviation from the recommendation of the endowment fund,” Ysursa said. “That term ‘one-time’ continues to stick in my mind. But I think the superintendent has raised some good points.” He noted that the 2010 decision was a tense 3-2 vote.

Luna responded, “If I understand the motion, maybe not all the rhetoric that went with it, it’s that we will approve the distributions for all but public schools, and public schools we will set a distribution at our September meeting.” Wasden responded, “That is correct.”

Luna said he’s proposing sticking to the state policy, regarding a 5 percent distribution of the rolling three-year average, not violating it. But Ysursa noted that there’s also a policy targeting 5 years worth of distributions as the reserve level. “We’ve got two competing policies, is what’s going on,” he said.

The board then voted unanimously for Wasden’s motion, putting off the decision on the public school distribution to its September meeting.

‘A very active fire season’ on state lands

Idaho’s fire season on state lands is now at about 50 percent of the 20-year average both for the number of fires and the number of acres burned, the state Land Board was told this morning. “But it is a very active fire season and there’s quite a bit ahead of us right now,” said state Forester David Groeschl. “Those are the fires that we are responsible for right now on our IDL protection.”

As of Aug. 1, state costs for firefighting were estimated at $12.6 million, with about $4 million reimbursable from other jurisdictions, for a net state cost of $8.6 million. That includes $1.7 million in aircraft costs. On Aug. 1, there had been four major fires on state-protected land, but two more were added yesterday, Groeschl said: One in Craigmont that’s already burned one primary residence and four outbuildings and is estimated at 800 acres; and one on Lolo Creek that’s not currently threatening structures.

State personnel and equipment also have assisted on the Beaver Creek fire near the Sun Valley/Ketchum area. “There’s not been a lot of activity over the last couple of days, which is good,” Groeschl said. “They’re lifting some of the evacuation orders around Ketchum, so some of the residents are being able to return.”

State firefighters also have assisted with the Elk Complex fire, Groeschl said. “We have been actively engaged … down here with our federal partners,” he said. “That has been going very smoothly this year.”

Another wildfire impact: Livestock carcasses that could attract scavengers

Gov. Butch Otter noted another impact of the wildfires in Idaho this year: The Elk Complex fire has left behind about 100 head of cattle and 100 head of sheep that were burned up in the wildfire. “Have we notified Fish & Game about those carcasses out there and what may happen?” he asked state Forester David Groeschl, who was briefing the state Land Board this morning about the fire season. Groeschl said he’ll check.

“I think we should, so that they know where those locations are,” Otter said, “because the scavengers will be collecting up, and we don’t need any more disease problems than we’ve already got.” He also said the state should “have a plan to execute salvage as quickly as we can on our acres” that burned, because there’s only a two-year window to salvage burned timber. “We ought to have a plan ready to execute right away,” Otter said. Groeschl said it’s in the works.

Firefighters turn corner on fighting Beaver Creek fire

Firefighters have turned the corner on the Beaver Creek fire near Sun Valley and Ketchum, the Idaho Statesman reports today, with a combination of a massive aerial assault and several thousand firefighters working on the ground cooling hot spots and allowing pre-evacuation orders to be lifted for parts of Ketchum and Sun Valley, though many areas remain evacuated.  Statesman reporters Rocky Barker and Katie Terhune have a full report here. All told, today 1,850 homes remained under mandatory evacuation orders, and 5500 homes under pre-evacuation notices. 

Meanwhile, Boise State Public Radio reports today that the cost of fighting the explosive Beaver Creek fire is closing in on $11 million; read their full report here.

This morning, the National Interagency Fire Center announced that the nation's fire preparedness level has been elevated to its highest level, PL-5, for the fifth time in the last 10 years. Top federal and state fire managers made the announcement, saying, “The raised level reflects a high degree of wildfire activity, a major commitment of fire resources, and the probability that severe conditions will continue for at least a few days. ”

At the PL-5 level, additional military assistance may be requested along with international resources. The fire forecast for most of the West shows a general continuation of hot and dry weather into the fall, NIFC reports.

Judge rules against Nampa School District in teacher contract case

The Idaho Press-Tribune reports today that a Canyon County judge has upheld collective bargaining law for Idaho teachers, ruling that the Nampa School District can’t skirt the local teachers union to sign contracts with individual teachers calling for unpaid furloughs. The Nampa Education Association, not the individual teachers, is the legal negotiating agent between educators and the district, 3rd District Judge Molly Huskey ruled.

Paul Stark, attorney for the NEA, told the Press-Tribune, “We’re appreciative that the rule of law has been upheld in this case, and that the collective bargaining process has been defended and validated. The ruling is going to ensure that deviations from the law like this will not happen again in Nampa, and hopefully not in other parts of the state.

The newspaper reported that district public information officer Allison Westfall said the district was disappointed with the order, but glad the matter’s now settled. “Our sole intent last December was to find a way to accommodate those individual teachers who came forward wanting to volunteer for furlough days to help with the district’s financial crisis,” she said. Read the paper’s full report here from reporter John Funk.

Ringo to run against Labrador in 1st CD

Longtime Idaho state Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, announced Monday that she’ll seek Idaho’s 1st District congressional seat in 2014, the first opponent to emerge for second-term GOP Rep. Raul Labrador.  Labrador, a high-profile tea party favorite, just announced last week that he’ll run for a third term in Congress, rather than run for governor of Idaho, in an effort to quiet speculation that he said was getting out of hand.

Ringo, a former longtime high school math teacher who holds a key seat on the Legislature’s joint budget committee, said, “We all know that Congress doesn’t have a very positive approval rating at this time, with their inability to compromise and get things done. And I have the sense that Congressman Labrador is part of the problem.”

Ringo acknowledged that she faces an “uphill battle” as a member of Idaho’s small Democratic minority, but said she’s talked with moderate Republicans who are “not particularly happy with the direction that some of the more extreme members of their party are taking.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Newly unsealed CCA documents say staffing logs falsified for years

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Several documents have been unsealed in a contempt of court case against private prison company Corrections Corporation of America that provide some detail to inmate allegations that CCA understaffed an Idaho prison in violation of a court order and a state contract. CCA has acknowledged that its employees filed reports with the state that falsely showed 4,800 hours of vacant security posts as being staffed during 2012. The company says it has taken steps to fix the problems and it will reimburse taxpayers. But inmates at the facility and the American Civil Liberties Union say that number grossly underestimates the understaffing, and that problems continue today. In one of the affidavits, CCA employee Susan Fry says it's been the practice to falsify staffing logs at the Idaho prison for years.

Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Boehner headed to Boise for Simpson fundraiser lunch next Monday

U.S. House Speaker John Boehner is headed to Idaho for a campaign fundraiser for 2nd District Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson on Aug. 26, reports Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey, with plans calling for a $50-a-person lunch at the Boise Centre. The event will begin at 11:30 a.m. and tickets are being sold through Simpson’s campaign; Boehner, Simpson and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter are scheduled to speak. Simpson faces a GOP primary challenge from Idaho Falls attorney Bryan Smith, who's being backed by the national group the Club for Growth. You can read Popkey’s full post here.

Idaho Supreme Court rejects Shackelford appeal, upholds sentence

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Supreme Court has upheld two life sentences given to a former death row inmate who killed his ex-wife and her boyfriend in 1999. The court ruled Friday against 51-year-old Dale Shackelford and his argument that he should have been given a different judge for his resentencing in 2011 and that some testimony shouldn't have been allowed. Shackelford was convicted of shooting Donna Fontaine and Fred Palahniuk to death in the northern Idaho town of Kendrick. He was sentenced to death. However, the U.S. Supreme Court later ruled that juries, not judges, must hand down death sentences. At a new sentencing hearing Shackelford received two fixed life sentences. Latah County Prosecutor Bill Thompson says he's pleased with the recent decision because Shackelford remains a threat to society.

Idaho man sues over false info in credit report, kept him from buying a house

A 27-year-old Idaho man is suing the credit reporting company Experian Information Solutions, saying it incorrectly tagged him with someone else's bad credit and refused a dozen requests to remove the false information, ruining the man's chances of getting an auto loan and buying a house, the AP reports. Two other credit reporting bureaus, Equifax and TransUnion, also had the wrong information, but removed it when Jose Luis Calderon of Caldwell pointed out the error; click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone. 

Fire update: Structure protection successful, but growth potential still ‘extreme’

As of last night at 10, no additional structures were known to have burned in the Beaver Creek fire in the Sun Valley/Ketchum area, but more than 2,200 homes were under mandatory evacuation orders and the fire was just 8 percent contained. According to NIFC’s incident information system, “Firefighters have been successful defending structures west of Highway 75 between the towns of Hailey and Ketchum despite dry and windy weather conditions that have generated extreme fire behavior across the fire.” Growth potential for the fire was rated as “extreme,” with 1,150 firefighters battling it. The fire was up to 100,921 acres.

Meanwhile, the Elk Complex fire is 65 percent contained at 130,178 acres, but closures continue in the area; evacuated residents of Pine, Featherville and Prairie were allowed to return to their homes, but the road remained closed to the general public. Returning residents were warned that the area “will not look the same as when you left it,” but that blackened areas “will recover through time,” and residents likely will continue to see and smell smoke for weeks to come. The Pony Complex fire northeast of Mountain Home is 97 percent contained at 149,384 acres and in the mop-up stage. Click below for a full report from the AP; the Idaho Statesman's Rocky Barker reports here that this will be a “make or break week” for central Idaho wildfires, with thunderstorms in the forecast.

UPDATE: At 9 this morning, the Blaine County Sheriff's Office lifted the mandatory evacuation order for about 100 homes in the Indian Creek area, allowing those residents to return home, but keeping them on pre-evacuation notice. You can follow the sheriff's office updates here.

Much wilder fire behavior the ‘new normal’

The wildfires now burning in central Idaho have been moving far faster than last year’s massive Trinity Ridge fire, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell and Idaho Gov. Butch Otter said today. “The Elk (fire) burned 114,000, 115,000 acres in about six days,” Tidwell said. “So I cannot stress enough about the type of fire behavior that our folks are having to deal with.” He called it a “new normal.”

Otter said by comparison, last year’s Trinity Ridge fire took six weeks to burn between 125,000 and 130,000 acres. Tidwell said, “It’s just what we’re seeing everywhere. Any more, this is becoming the normal type of fire behavior for this time of year.” He added, “Folks are doing an incredible job, our firefighters, men and women.”

Part of the strategy in fighting the fires this year is to drive them back into areas that already burned, where there’s less fuel, including from last year’s Trinity Ridge fire and the 2007 Castle Rock fire near Sun Valley.  

“I really regret the loss of structures that occurred on these fires,” Tidwell said, “and I’m sorry for those folks that have had to evacuate their homes. … People need to leave so that firefighters can do their job to address the fire and not have to worry about people staying behind.”

Said Tidwell, “I’m here in Idaho because these are the highest priority fires today,” but fires also are burning in Oregon, Utah and Montana, he said. “It’s that time of year when things are tight, resources start to get tight, and that’s where the group here that works out of NIFC … makes sure that we’re putting the resources in the right place at the right time so they can be effective.” The AP/Times-News photo above, by Ashley Smith, shows the Beaver Creek fire north of Hailey.

‘There’s a chance’ fire could come into Sun Valley, Ketchum; ‘difficult’ day expected

U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell just announced at the National Interagency Fire Center that the Beaver Creek fire, which is now threatening Sun Valley and Ketchum, has become the nation’s No. 1 top-priority wildfire. “They’re going to make sure they’re going to use their resources and do everything they can to keep that fire from coming any further north,” Tidwell said somberly. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Asked if the fire could come into Sun Valley and Ketchum, Tidwell said, “At this time, there’s a chance, and that’s why they’ve done the pre-evacuation notices. They’re also making sure that if a spot fire gets across Highway 75 that they have the … helicopters ready to be able to quickly jump on a spot. … They’ve also pre-positioned crews right there.”

Said Tidwell, “They’re going to probably have a difficult day today with the fire behavior they expect. … They have a plan and they’re implementing that plan. First thing they’re going to do is make sure they get the people out of the way.” He said, “The fire is close so there isn’t really an opportunity to do a lot of a burning operations in there now.” As weather conditions ease into the evening, he said, back-burns might be possible and are part of the strategy.

Gov. Butch Otter said about 3,500 people have received pre-evacuation orders in the Wood River Valley, including Sen. Michelle Stennett, R-Ketchum. In addition, shortly before noon, the Blaine County Sheriff’s Offices ordered those in mandatory evacuation areas to “GO NOW.” UPDATE: Late this afternoon, the number of mandatory evacuations rose to 1,300.

“Please carry the message back,” Otter told reporters at the National Interagency Fire Center. “If you’re asked to leave, it’s not something that the sheriff or the incident  commanders do just on a whim. If you’re asked to leave, they know that there is a specific threat. Please leave. Those people’s job is to fight fire, not rescue people and evacuate them after they were told to go and they refused to do it.  .. If you’re asked to leave, please get out.”

Added Tidwell, “We’re not going to ask anybody to leave unless there is a real threat.”

Otter, Tidwell touring fire lines, to report this afternoon

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell are touring the central Idaho wildfires today, and will speak to reporters this afternoon at the National Interagency Fire Center. Their tour includes visiting the fire lines and being briefed on the Elk Complex and the Beaver Creek fire, from which the cities of Sun Valley and Ketchum are now under pre-evacuation orders.

The Blaine County Sheriff's Office issued this alert: “It is recommended that if you do not need to travel north to the Ketchum/Sun Valley area that you avoid doing so.” People in the area are being asked to limit their cell phone use to accommodate emergency services, and stay off Highway 75 where possible to accommodate firefighters and evacuees. Those in mandatory evacuation areas, including Baker Creek, Easley, East Fork, Timber Gulch, Golden Eagle, Greenhorn Gulch and Deer Creek from the Big Wood Bridge west, are being advised to “Take your essential belongings and pet and GO NOW.” 

Otter: Education is state’s top economic priority

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has sent a  guest opinion out to Idaho newspapers declaring that education is the state's top economic priority. “We have a variety of incentive programs designed to foster business opportunities in Idaho, but the most important thing we’re able to provide is our people,” the governor writes. “Idahoans are creative, resourceful and hard working – exactly what growing businesses need. But we also need to provide graduates who are prepared. Education is the key to higher-paying jobs.” Click below to read his full article. 

Three more Idahoans infected with West Nile Virus, total now up to five

Three more southwestern Idaho residents have contracted West Nile Virus, the dangerous illness carried by mosquitoes, and state health officials are warning Idahoans to take precautions to avoid mosquito bites. A Washington County man in his 40s, an Owyhee County man over the age of 60, and a woman from Payette County in her 30s were all recently infected, in addition to the two previously reported cases from Payette County. Meanwhile, mosquitoes carrying the virus have now been found in 11 Idaho counties.

“The increase in West Nile virus activity is a reminder that people are at risk for the mosquito-borne disease until a killing frost, and is a good warning for people to continue to take precautions,” said Dr. Leslie Tengelsen, deputy state epidemiologist. “It is very important that we all prevent mosquito bites and take protective measures; this includes wearing repellent and reducing mosquito breeding habitat around our homes.”

Last year, 17 people in Idaho reported West Nile Virus infections; in 2006, Idaho led the nation in West Nile illnesses with almost 1,000 infections, which contributed to 23 deaths. Click below for the full announcement from the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare, including tips to avoid mosquito bites.

Idaho jobless rate ticks up in July

Idaho’s unemployment rate notched up two-tenths of a percent in July to 6.6 percent, though it was well below the previous July’s rate of 7.2 percent.  Six of Idaho’s 44 counties posted double-digit unemployment rates: Adams, Benewah, Clearwater, Lemhi, Shoshone and Valley; a year earlier, 10 Idaho counties hit that mark.

The Idaho Department of Labor reported that hiring levels slipped below normal in July and seasonal government layoffs ran slightly higher, driving up the seasonally adjusted unemployment rate, which now has risen for three straight months, for a rise of half a percentage point since April.

Ada County posted a 5.7 percent unemployment rate in July, down from 6.4 percent a year earlier; Kootenai County, 7.4%, down from 9.4% a year earlier; and Bonneville was at 5.6%, down from 6.1 percent in July 2012. You can read Labor’s full announcement here, and see by-county chart here.

Idaho grad requirements for math, science now don’t cover computers, engineering; rule change in works

It turns out that when Idaho increased its high school graduations for math and science to require three years of each, the definition of classes that qualified didn't include advanced engineering or computer science classes. As a result, students who wanted to take those classes only got elective credit, and didn't fulfill their math and science grad requirements. Now, state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna and the Idaho Technology Council have partnered to propose changes to the state rule to define dual credit engineering, dual credit computer science, or Advanced Placement (AP) computer science as eligible for the math and science credits.

The State Board of Education gave the rule change initial approval at its meeting in Pocatello yesterday; now, it'll go out for public comment, then return for final approval in November. It still would need legislative review, and wouldn't take effect until the 2014-2015 school year. Jay Larsen, president of the Idaho Technology Council, said it makes sense to encourage students to take these courses in high school to prepare them for future careers in STEM fields. Luna said, “Often, students have interest in STEM courses, but are not willing to give up electives to take these classes. By expanding our math and science requirements, we will open up a world of high-tech opportunities to every high school student.” Click below for Luna's full news release on the proposed rule change.

Idaho NCAA college athletes score well in academic performance report

Idaho's NCAA college athletes fared well in the latest report on academic performance, the State Board of Education learned at its meeting yesterday in Pocatello. The NCAA tracks student athletes on every Division 1 team, with scores awarded for eligibility, graduation, and retention for each student athlete on scholarship. Out of 1,000 possible points, Idaho State University got 983 in the latest report, which covers 2011-12; BSU, 977; and the University of Idaho, 961. Click below for the state board's full announcement.

Idaho high court backs state regulation over Native Wholesale Supply cigs

The Idaho Supreme Court ruled today that company on a New York Indian reservation shipping Canadian cigarettes to a retailer on the Coeur d'Alene Reservation isn't exempt from state law due to tribal sovereignty. Native Wholesale Supply, a supplier on New York's Seneca Reservation, argued that Idaho had no business interfering with shipments of more than 100 million Canadian cigarettes since 2004 to Warpath Inc., the Coeur d'Alene reservation business, the AP reports. States are forbidden by federal law from meddling in activities of a tribal member or a member's business operating within Indian Country, Native Wholesale Supply contended. But Idaho justices concluded such sovereignty claims weren't applicable in this case.

Not only was Native Wholesale Supply a corporation not entitled to protections otherwise afforded individual tribal members, the high court concluded unanimously, but the nature of its transaction with Warpath involving two countries, multiple tribes and at least three states was sufficient to transform the cigarette shipments into an off-reservation activity that Idaho had every business regulating. Click below for a full report via the Associated Press.

Burdick to lawmakers: Idaho’s public defender system is ‘broken’

Idaho’s criminal defense system for indigent defendants is “broken,” Idaho Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Burdick told lawmakers this morning. Though Idaho’s law and state constitution require such defense, soaring caseloads, short funding, and lack of qualified, experienced and suitably trained attorneys have eroded the fairness of the system, he said.

Burdick said the judicial system is a “three-legged stool,” with the three legs the prosecutor, the criminal defense attorney, and the impartial third party – the judge – who applies law to a set of contested facts. “All three-legged stools are only as stable and useful for their intended purpose as the three legs,” he said. “In Idaho’s system of justice today, defense for the indigent is the weakest leg in the system. … Frankly, our system for the defense of indigents, as required by Idaho’s constitution and laws, is broken.”

Idaho must look at ways to “aggressively improve the system that exists today,” Burdick said, from addressing caseloads to establishing a “well-funded, systematic state-approved training program.” Plus, he said, “Part of the funding issue needs to include an analysis of lowest bidder or fixed-fee contracts. The conflict of economic interest is inherent in this approach and must be eradicated.”

The interim committee met all day today at the state Capitol. Burdick’s remarks this morning were followed by presentations from national, state and county perspectives; a public defender study conducted in Canyon County; and additional information from the Idaho Criminal Justice Commission, the 6th Amendment Center and more.

Burdick told lawmakers that Idaho law and the constitution already set the standard, and the state needs to meet the standard: To “make sure that every person accused of crime not only is given a fair and impartial trial but every reasonable opportunity to prepare his defense and vindicate his innocence upon trial.” Burdick said, “It has been the duty of this state before statehood and continues today. It is our duty to protect these fundamental ideals for the future.” You can read his full remarks here.

All 10 members of the interim committee, which includes five senators and five state representatives, attended today’s meeting; a second meeting will be scheduled in September.

State Board of Ed adopts policy to protect privacy of student data

Idaho's state Board of Education adopted a new policy today requiring that the privacy of student data be carefully protected, as the state ramps up its Statewide Longitudinal Data System, which has been years in the works to help better track student progress. Here's the board's new policy:

The privacy of all student level data that is collected by the SLDS will be protected. A list of all data fields (but not the data within the fields) collected by the SLDS will be publicly available. Only student identifiable data that is required by law will be shared with the federal government.”

Don Soltman, board president, said, “The board recognizes it is essential to provide all the safeguards necessary to ensure that student data are handled with the greatest care,” and said the board is “committed to protecting the privacy of individual student data and will continue to closely monitor the collection and use of all data.” Click below for the board's full announcement.

By the numbers: Incumbent Idaho guvs almost always win primaries, but record spottier for general

Political scientist Eric Ostermeier of the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs has dug up some interesting numbers in light of 1st District Congressman Raul Labrador’s announcement yesterday that he won’t challenge Gov. Butch Otter in the GOP primary this year. Among them: Only two Idaho governors seeking re-election since 1904 have failed to win their party’s nomination, Democrat Barzilla Clark in 1938 and Republican Robert Smylie in 1966.

However, once they get to the general election, incumbent Idaho governors historically haven’t done as well. Only 19 of 30 incumbent governors – 63 percent – who sought re-election won. The record’s even worse for GOP governors: 10 victories and 7 defeats since statehood, with eight not seeking re-election. That’s a 58.8 percent success rate. Democratic governors have won nine of 13 re-election bids, or 69 percent, with five not choosing to run for re-election.

Another tidbit: Since 1954, only three GOP candidates for governor were unopposed in the primary: Robert Smylie in 1958, Jack Murphy in 1974, and David Leroy in 1986.

Ostermeier also notes that only three Idaho governors were ever elected at least three times to the post, as Otter will attempt in his bid for a third term: Ben Ross, Robert Smylie and Cecil Andrus. You can read his full report here; it’s rich with historical detail and worth a look.

Otter on Labrador: ‘My door has always been open’

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter had this response tonight to Congressman Raul Labrador’s comments about wanting to work with him  on issues now that Labrador has made it clear he’s not planning to challenge Otter in the primary: “My door has always been and will always be open to any member of the delegation and the Legislature.”

Otter was busy this evening with a fundraising dinner and reception for his re-election campaign, after which both he and First Lady Lori Otter rode out in the opening ceremonies of the Caldwell Night Rodeo.

ESPN buying Famous Idaho Potato Bowl

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Famous Idaho Potato Bowl is being bought by ESPN. Bowl officials said in a statement Wednesday that the network had agreed in principle to acquire the bowl game from the Humanitarian Bowl Inc. Details of the deal were not released. The Potato Bowl would be the eighth bowl game to be owned and operated by ESPN. The game features teams from the Mid-American Conference and the Mountain West Conference. It is played at Bronco Stadium on the Boise State campus. The 17th annual game will be played Dec. 21.

Labrador to seek third term in Congress, not run for governor

1st District Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador announced this afternoon that he'll seek a third term in Congress, not run for governor. “I've decided to end all the speculation and announce that I have no plans at this time to run for Governor,” Labrador said at a Meridian news conference. “I do not feel that I have yet completed the mission you sent me to Congress to do. There is still much work to be done. Whether at the state or the national level, I will always be an advocate for Idaho.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com; here's a link to Labrador's statement to supporters.

In response to questions from reporters, Labrador said, “I never really thought about it seriously. At first it was kind of funny when people would ask me – I had only been in Congress for less than one term, and people just started asking me if I would run for governor.” He said he’d actually decided against it about three months ago, but when he started calling supporters to let them know, they got mad, so he considered it some more. “Running against Gov. Otter would have been a tough race,” he said.

Labrador said he never did any polling. “You can’t ever say never to anything,” he said, but said, “At this point I don’t think it’s in the cards.”

Asked if he thinks Otter is doing a good job as governor, Labrador said, “You know, Butch Otter could do a better job, and I don’t think I’ve been shy about saying what I think.” He said now that het’s made it clear he won’t challenge Otter, he hopes the two can talk and work together. “I hope now that he doesn’t see me as a competitor, that he can see me as a partner.”

July state tax revenues below revised forecast, but 4.2% ahead of last year

Idaho’s July state tax revenues are in for the first month of the fiscal year, and they’re 1.8 percent below the revised forecast for the month – but 4.2 percent above last year at this time. The new forecast for fiscal year 2014 general fund revenues is for $2.8088 billion, a 2.1 percent increase over the previous fiscal year. It’s for a  higher amount than the January forecast, but a smaller percentage increase – mainly because fiscal year 2013 revenues came in much stronger than forecast. The new forecast also reflects the impact of a $20 million state expense in fiscal year 2014 to reimburse local governments for a business property tax cut. You see the DFM’s full monthly General Fund Revenue Report here.

Gov. Butch Otter issued a statement on the revised forecast, reiterating that he doesn't want Idaho's state government to grow as fast as its economy; click below for his full statement.

Contractor who mishandled, dumped asbestos gets 6 months in federal prison

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A former construction supervisor convicted of mishandling pipe coated with asbestos during an upgrade of Orofino's municipal water and sewer system four years ago has been sentenced six months in prison. U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge handed down the punishment Wednesday in the case of 52-year-old Douglas Greiner, a former long-time employee of Owyhee Construction Inc. As part of a deal with prosecutors, Greiner pleaded guilty to one count of violating work place standards of the Clean Air Act. Federal investigators say Greiner didn't follow procedures for removing the asbestos-coated pipe and illegally dumping the material at 16 different locations around town. The Environmental Protection Agency stepped and spent more than $3.9 million to clean up the disposal sites. The ongoing EPA criminal investigation is now focused on OCI executives.

BSU researchers working to build computer chip based on human brain function

BSU researchers are working on developing a computer chip based on the human brain, funded by a three-year National Science Foundation grant. “By mimicking the brain’s billions of interconnections and pattern recognition capabilities, we may ultimately introduce a new paradigm in speed and power, and potentially enable systems that include the ability to learn, adapt and respond to their environment,” said BSU Prof. Elisa Barney Smith, who is the principal investigator on the grant. She's working with fellow electrical and computer engineering faculty members Kris Campbell and Vishal Saxena; Cambell's Boise State lab is one of only half a dozen in the world that's capable of the project, BSU reports.  

The university says the team’s research builds on recent work from scientists who have derived mathematical algorithms to explain the electrical interaction between brain synapses and neurons; click below for BSU's full report on the research project. 

As Idaho pitches for drone biz, has to explain new law passed this year

States including Idaho have been jostling for attention at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, or AUVSI, convention in Washington, D.C. this week, looking for a piece of the drone business as the unmanned aircraft market balloons and states compete to become federal test sites. The group’s website calls it “THE global market place for all things unmanned,” and says 8,000 attendees from more than 40 countries are attending.

But while Ohio’s booth served Buckeye State-shaped cookies, Politico reports, and North Dakota Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley personally pitched his state as a test site, Idaho’s delegation had to explain a graphic in the AUVSI magazine distributed at the conference showing Idaho as bright-red on a map, one of seven states that’s passed “anti-UAS bills.” Idaho’s delegation told Politico that was misinformation, and Idaho’s new legislation “ensures the taxpayers that the technology won’t be abused.”

The twice-amended bill, SB 1134, passed after much debate this legislative session. Sponsored by Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, it bans the use of unmanned drones to conduct surveillance or record or photograph “specifically targeted” persons or private property without their written consent, including for the purposes of publishing. The bill exempts drones used in mapping or resource management, law enforcement activity with a warrant, and emergency response for safety, search and rescue or controlled substance investigations; you can read the bill here. The governor signed it into law April 11, and it took effect July 1.

The Politico article says Idaho’s legislation may even be a selling point for the state in the test-site competition, showing that it’s wrestled with drone privacy questions at a state level.

Hannah Anderson goes online, shares details, says her kidnapper deserved to die

The 16-year-old California girl kidnapped by a close family friend suspected of killing her mother and 8-year-old brother says he threatened to kill her if she tried to escape and got what he deserved when he died in a shootout with authorities in the Idaho wilderness, the AP reports. Hannah Anderson went online barely 48 hours after her rescue Saturday and started fielding hundreds of questions through a social media site. Many were typical teenage fare — she likes singer Justin Bieber and her favorite color is pink — but she also answered queries about how she was kidnapped, how she survived captivity and how she is dealing with the deaths of her mother and brother.

Among her online comments: Anderson said she was too frightened to ask for help when four horseback riders encountered her and an armed James Lee DiMaggio in the Frank Church-River of No Return Wilderness. “I had to act calm I didn't want them to get hurt. I was scared that he would kill them,” she wrote. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Elliot Spagat in San Diego.

Bujak to run for governor?

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A former southwestern Idaho county prosecutor who successfully fought off criminal charges including misuse of public funds now says he may run for governor as an independent. Former Canyon County Prosecutor John Bujak filed paperwork with the Idaho secretary of state's office indicating he's raising money to challenge for the chief executive post in 2014. He also built a web site announcing an exploratory campaign. Bujak quit as prosecutor in September 2010 after being accused of diverting public funds. A jury ultimately found him not guilty of the main charge, however, though last month he pleaded not guilty to a lesser charge of contempt of court. In an Associated Press interview, Bujak contends he was a victim of politics and pledged to take on what he calls Idaho's “good-old-boy system.”

Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Labrador to make campaign announcement Wednesday afternoon

Speculation is running wild back in D.C. as to whether Idaho 1st District Rep. Raul Labrador will seek a third term in Congress or run for governor of Idaho instead; Labrador will put the rumors to rest tomorrow afternoon. “Rep. Labrador will hold a press event on Wednesday afternoon in Meridian to make a campaign announcement,” his office told me in an email last night. Now, the details are in: Labrador's announcement is set for 3 p.m. tomorrow at the Meridian City Hall building, where he has his congressional offices.

The outspoken Labrador, who frequently appears on national political TV shows and has been the subject of rumors in D.C. about everything from a future speakership to a future presidential bid, served two terms in the Idaho state House before being elected to Congress in 2010. Prior to heading to Congress, he was an immigration attorney.

How tech and company qualifications were scored for WiFi contract…

Here’s a link to the full scoring documents for the 10 bids submitted for the state’s controversial high school WiFi contract, which went to Education Networks of America. The contract, at $2.11 million a year for five years with options to extend for up to 15 years, could cost the state $33.3 million if it runs the full 15 years. These documents were obtained from the State Department of Education under the Idaho Public Records Law.

While cost proposals were scored through a formula (see the post below), in the other two equally weighted categories, company overview/experience and technology, scores of zero, 1, 5 or 10 were assigned for an array of items, from financial statements to “corporate culture” to wireless bandwidth to having a Boise office.

ENA, which won the contract despite having four others submit lower-cost bids, scored the most 10’s, with 15 of its 28 scores coming in as 10’s, far more than anyone else’s. Ednetics got six 10’s; Tek-Hut got four on its lower-cost bid No. 1, and three on its bid No. 2. In the scoring documents, a “10” was defined for many of the 28 subcategories as: “Offeror exceeds requirements and expectations. Demonstrates lengthy experience on successful large or complex projects.” You can read the full 34-page scoring form here, that eight members of an evaluation committee used to assign the scores. (A ninth member, David McCauley, didn't participate due to illness.)

For technology subcategories, a “5” was defined as, “Evaluators are generally confident that offeror has adequately shown its willingness to produce satisfactory results,” while a “10” was defined as, “Offeror exceeds requirements and expectations. Demonstrates willingness and provides evidence of its commitment.”

In all the subcategories, a zero was for failing to respond; a 1 was for “marginal” or “minimal” compliance with that item.

How cost was scored in the controversial state WiFi contract…

I am still sorting through the documents I received from the State Department of Education on the scoring of the nine bidders on the state’s multi-year, multimillion-dollar high school WiFi contract, but here’s a link to the overall scores for each of the 10 bids in the three equally weighted areas, cost, company overview/experience, and technology; and here’s a link to the breakdown on the cost scoring. If the cost scoring seems a little obscure, here’s why: Points were designated based on a formula. That’s why the highest bid, for more than $40 million over five years from Carousel, got a score of 1,915 out of the possible 2,500 points, or 76 percent; while the lowest bid of $8.3 million over five years, from Tek-Hut Inc. of Twin Falls, got a score of 2,381, which is 95 percent of the available points. (Tek-Hut submitted two bids; that’s why there are 10 bids from the nine companies.) The second-most expensive bid, from Compu-Net at $30 million over five years, got a 2,067 cost score, or 83 percent.

Here’s the formula:

1-(5-year Individual Bid/5-Year Total of All Bids) x 2,500 possible points = Total Score for Costs

Smoke socking in mountain valleys, H&W advises limiting outdoor activity

Yep, it's looking awfully smoky out in Boise, and now comes this word from the Idaho Department of Health & Welfare: Air quality in some parts of the central Idaho mountains has reached the “unhealthy” or “unhealthy for sensitive groups” level, and they're alerting people to limit outdoor activity. “The Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is forecasting unhealthy levels for areas of Boise, Elmore, Blaine, Camas and Custer counties,” H&W says in a news release. “Because of wildfire activity and weather patterns, air quality conditions are not expected to significantly improve through this week.” Click below for the full H&W announcement, which also advises drinking plenty of water, avoiding heavy work or exercise outdoors when air quality hits unhealthy levels, and taking care for the very young or old and those with respiratory conditions.

Boise was only predicted to be moderate today, but Mary Anderson, smoke management program coordinator for the DEQ, said, “Based on visibility downtown, it's more likely into the unhealthy for sensitive groups or possibly in some areas unhealthy. The closer we get to kind of where the smoke is coming down from the mountains is where it's the unhealthy.”

Anderson said the DEQ issued a Stage 1 air pollution forecast and caution today after monitors in Idaho City, Garden Valley, Ketchum, Lowman, Atlanta and Challis all went into the unhealthy or unhealthy for sensitive groups zone. “It's basically from the Elk Complex and Pony Complex fires,” Anderson said. “They're heading north. … Basically all the mountain valleys are getting impacted. It's pretty widespread.” Idaho's interagency smoke blog has been activated here; it has links and info on smoke impacts.

Otter issues disaster declaration for wildfires

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has issued a state disaster declaration for Elmore County and other parts of the state impacted by significant wildfire activity, allowing firefighting resources from various parts of the state to be tapped to help respond. Already, fire engines to protect structures have been sent from Boise Meridian, Eagle and Donnelly to help protect homes in Pine and Prairie, which have no formal fire protection districts. The disaster declaration means the state can process requests to fund those efforts.

“This declaration means we can tap in to the collective strength of the state of Idaho,” said Idaho Bureau of Homeland Security Director Col. Brad Richy.  “We thank Governor Otter for his support and we will stand side by side with the impacted county to make sure they have the resources they need.” Click below for the full BHS news release.

Crapo raises alarm over data collection by Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo held a Boise press conference today to press his concern about collection of consumer financial data by the federal Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, an issue on which he’s requested a GAO investigation that’s now under way.  Crapo acknowledged that the CFPB has been at the center of partisan battling in Congress and that he opposed its formation, preferring to keep regulation of consumer finances with that of the safety and soundness of banks and other financial institutions; Crapo, the ranking minority member of the Senate banking committee, lost that fight.

But he said revelations of the amount of consumer financial data the new agency is tracking should be of concern to all, particularly in light of concerns over NSA tracking of phone calls and other federal agencies’ use of data about Americans. The CFPB has “very, very little political oversight,” Crapo said. “It has the ability to run its own agenda. … This agency is run by a single individual.”  

Crapo was joined at his Idaho Capitol news conference by fellow Idaho Sen. Jim Risch; Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden; Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative watchdog group from Washington, D.C.; and John Zarian, a Boise attorney who handled major California litigation over misuse of personal credit report data by Trans Union Corp.

Zarian warned of the dangers of identity theft and fraud from misuse and security breaches of individuals’ data; Fitton told of how Judicial Watch pressed Freedom of Information Act requests to find out the extent of the data the bureau was collecting on 5 million Americans. Crapo said although the CFPB says it is not collecting data that identifies individuals – “personally identifiable” financial information on consumers, which the law creating the agency forbids gathering – the scope of its data collection could lead to that. “This agency was created to watch out for Americans, not to watch Americans,” Crapo declared.

Wasden said, “Privacy in this day and age is a valid concern.” He praised Crapo for raising the alarm, and said the GAO investigation should show “whether CFPB’s data collection and use of that data is lawful.”

The agency has said it is collecting data so it can track fraud to protect consumers; it’s also developed a database of consumer complaints about a variety of financial services, from credit cards to mortgages to credit reporting, and posted that online for public use. Risch said, “If you like government, you will love this agency.” Fitton said, “For all the noise in Washington about the NSA, our real damages in Washington as far as privacy abuse resides in the Consumer Financial Protection Board.”

Fight at Idaho’s private prison sends inmate to the hospital

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Prison officials say one inmate and a guard suffered injuries during a fight between inmates at the state's private prison. Corrections Corporation of America officials say the fight broke out Friday night at the Idaho Correctional Center south of Boise. CCA officials say the fight didn't last long and was broken up by prison staff. The prison was immediately placed on lockdown. The company did not provide any details of the injury to the inmate who was taken to a Boise hospital for treatment. The guard was treated and released. The Ada County Sheriff's Office is conducting a criminal investigation into the fight.

Idaho ‘ground zero’ as rift in GOP moves from Congress to campaign trail

Idaho’s not only getting national attention for the gripping back-country manhunt that rescued a 16-year-old California girl from her kidnapper over the weekend, and for the wildly spreading wildfires now threatening hundreds of homes. It’s our politics, too. Politico today called Idaho “ground zero” for what it describes as a proxy fight for a rift in the national GOP, writing, “The tensions dividing Republicans in Congress are now spilling onto the campaign trail.” The article highlights 2nd District GOP Rep. Mike Simpson’s primary challenge from Idaho Falls attorney Bryan Smith, who the Club for Growth is claiming credit for recruiting to run. It notes that House Speaker John Boehner will visit Boise later this month to headline a fundraiser for Simpson; you can read the article here.

Politico says the 2014 midterm elections “will likely feature a long list of primaries in which House and Senate incumbents will encounter significant threats from insurgent challengers,” though it predicts the vast majority of the incumbents will win.

Catching up on a particularly newsy week…

Wow, what a week of news I missed! A quick catchup:

The eyes of the nation turned to Idaho as a kidnapped 16-year-old from southern California and the man who took her and was suspected of murdering her mother and 8-year-old brother were spotted in the Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness by horseback riders; a dramatic search ensued, in which the FBI shot the kidnapper and rescued Hannah Anderson. Here’s an AP report at spokesman.com.

A giant Omega Morgan megaload passed through the Highway 12 wild and scenic rivers corridor en route to the Canadian oil sands, but not without back-to-back nights of protests, in which more than 30 people were arrested, including nearly every member of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee. The tribe is back in federal court contesting future such shipments, which were permitted by the Idaho Transportation Department, but not the U.S. Forest Service, which notified Omega Morgan it had not permitted the shipment nor had time for consultation with the tribe; a federal judge ruled last winter that the Forest Service has jurisdiction over such hauls. You can read more here.

Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News reported that four bidders for the state’s controversial multi-year, multimillion-dollar high school WiFi contract underbid the successful bidder, Education Networks of America; you can read his report here. I’ll have more on this in the coming week as I examine the documents released under the Idaho Public Records Law.

S-R reporter John Webster has a report here in Sunday’s Spokesman-Review on the differences in how Idaho and Washington are approaching health care reform. Among them: The poorest of Idaho’s poor still won’t be covered next year, and Idaho will have to rely on a federal website with an Idaho “skin” for the first year because its approval of a state-based insurance exchange came so late.

A federal judge ordered documents unsealed in a case involving the Idaho state prison south of Boise operated by the private company Corrections Corp. of America, saying, “Idaho taxpayers pay CCA to operate one of their prisons. With public money comes a public concern about how that money is spent.” Read the AP report here.

Meanwhile, wildfires continued to burn around Idaho, and 200 homes were evacuated. A legislative interim committee studying the pros and cons of a state takeover of federal public lands in Idaho held its first meeting on Friday, but co-chair Sen. Chuck Winder said it won’t make any recommendations until 2015. Idaho Statesman political columnist Dan Popkey reported that 1st District Rep. Raul Labrador won’t endorse fellow Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson in the GOP primary against challenger Bryan Smith. Idaho state labor director Roger Madsen plans to retire Nov. 15 after 20 years on the job, Statesman business reporter Zach Kyle reported.  And the AP reports that Gov. Butch Otter has named his campaign manager, Jayson Ronk, for his upcoming bid for a third term.

I’m back…

For the past week, I’ve been away from the smoke and the breaking news, doing things like eating fresh-picked blackberries, dancing in the rain, skimming across the river, flying off the swells, tasting wine, eating well, getting some stuff done, enjoying the company of friends and spending quality time with the one I love, my husband of 26 years. Here, a rare sight over in the Columbia River Gorge: A downwind race of 40-foot sailboats, at the same time as numerous windsurfers like us out enjoying the river, at the same time a big barge passed through, all set against the backdrop of dramatic clouds and later, thunderstorms. It was a fun week of vacation. I’m physically tired and tanned from seven straight days of windsurfing, but mentally rested, recharged and ready to go. Now, back to work…

Expert calls Idaho wireless pact ‘ridiculous’ and ‘a bad deal’

Shawn Swanby built his high-tech company from the ground up, starting in his living room in 1997 back when he was a University of Idaho student. Now he runs a Post Falls-based firm that provides technology services to schools across the Northwest, from the Coeur d’Alene School District to Seattle Public Schools. But he couldn’t win a statewide contract in Idaho to provide wireless networks in Idaho high schools; nor could a Twin Falls, Idaho education technology firm that already has worked with 71 of Idaho’s 113 school districts.

Instead, the 5- to 15-year, multimillion-dollar contract went to a politically connected Nashville, Tenn. firm. Both Idaho firms – who were the two runners-up among nine bidders for the contract - say the state’s taxpayers will pay much more because of the way the deal’s been structured, than they would if school districts had come to companies like them, as they’ve done in the past. The state maintains it’s the most cost-effective way to get wireless to all high schools, but a nationally known expert calls the plan “ridiculous” and “a bad deal.” In today’s Spokesman-Review, I have three stories about the wireless contract: The story about the two Idaho firms here, one of which says it bid half a million dollars a year less than the chosen bidder; a report on the state’s process for reviewing the bids here, in which review committee members say it was fair and professionally handled; and the expert’s critique here.

I am on vacation for the next week, and the State Department of Education still hasn’t fulfilled my July 25 and 26 public records requests for the complete proposals from the three finalists, the scoring awarded to all three including breakdowns, and the costs proposed by each of the three. They haven’t even released the cost proposal from the winning bidder, ENA. The Idaho Public Records Law requires the department to release these public documents, so I expect to get them in the coming week; I’ll write about them when I return.

60% of eligible schools sign up for state wireless contract

203 of 340 eligible schools have signed up to participate in the state's new statewide high school WiFi contract, state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna announced this morning; schools had until midnight last night to decide whether or not to opt in for the service. That's 60 percent of the eligible schools, which include all high schools, junior highs or middle schools in the state that serve students in grades 9 through 12. (An earlier version of this post left out the 21 charter schools participating.)

With an annual cost of $2,111,655 and 203 schools participating, the state's cost per school next year will be $10,402. 

Luna said the participation involves more than 80 percent of Idaho's school districts and charter schools; Idaho has 113 school districts and 26 charter schools. “As a state, it is our goal and our responsibility to ensure every child has equal access to the best educational opportunities, no matter where they live,” he said. “It is clear schools are eager for this connectivity so they can provide teachers with the tools and resources necessary to meet the needs of every student.”

Luna signed the sole-source, statewide contract last week with Education Networks of America; he relied on a one-time appropriation for next year for $2.25 million to fund it. If the Legislature doesn't come up with funding in future years, the contract would be canceled, and ENA would be required to remove all the equipment it had installed in the schools. It calls for ENA to be paid $2.11 million a year for the next five years, with options to renew and raise the price by up to 5 percent for two additional five-year periods; if it runs the full 15 years, the contract could cost the state $33.3 million. Click below for Luna's full announcement; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

ITD issues permit for Highway 12 megaload

The Idaho Transportation Department today issued a permit for a giant megaload to travel across scenic Highway 12 in northern Idaho en route to the Canadian oil sands, even though the U.S. Forest Service has said the load cannot be allowed without extensive federal review and consultation with the Nez Perce Tribe, and a federal judge ruled that federal agencies have oversight in the wild and scenic river corridor. ITD issued the permit anyway, which it said is effective starting Monday at 10 p.m., but also told the shipper, Omega Morgan, that it'll have to deal with the Forest Service and the Federal Highway Administration. The load already has been barged up the Columbia River to the Port of Wilma.

“The shipper has met Idaho’s criteria to be issued an over-size permit,” said Idaho Transportation Department Chief Deputy Scott Stokes. “We have issued that permit so that it now can be reviewed by the two federal agencies.”

The Forest Service had urged the ITD not to issue the permit, and took issue with ITD's position that it has no choice under state law.

Officer cited for wrong-way crash

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A Boise police officer has been cited for causing a crash at a downtown intersection while he was responding to another officer's call for backup. Garden City Police investigated the July 9 crash and found that Officer Nicolas Ellis did not yield to traffic already in an intersection and struck an SUV driven by Robert McCarthy of Boise. McCarthy and his wife, Fredrikka, sustained minor injuries. They were treated at a Boise hospital and released. Ellis was traveling southbound on a northbound one-way street at the time of the collision. He was cited for failing to stop when traffic is obstructed. The citation carries a $90 fine. Boise police will continue an internal investigation to determine if Ellis followed department policies and procedures in responding to the call.

New hires in July climb above pre-recession levels

The number of new hires in Idaho exceeded pre-recession rates in July for the first time since the economic downturn, the Idaho Department of Labor reports, with Idaho employers hiring 23,400 workers during the month. The monthly report based on employer filings of newly hired workers within 20 days of their hiring showed July’s total exceeded July 2007 by 500. The figures cover people hired to fill new jobs, along with those hired to fill existing jobs that open because a worker retired, died, quit or was fired. Click below for the full announcement from the Department of Labor.

Idaho schools’ new star ratings out

Idaho schools fared slightly better this year in the state's new “star ratings” system, with the number of top-rated 5-star schools rising from 78 to 91, and the number of bottom-rated 1-star schools falling from 35 to 22. The number of 4-star schools fell slightly, 3-star schools rose slightly, and 2-star schools stayed roughly even. Click below for the full announcement from the State Department of Education, in which state schools Supt. Tom Luna says, “I am proud to see Idaho schools continue to make academic progress every year.”

In addition to the new star ratings, the announcement reports that 90% of Idaho students scored at or above grade level in reading and 82.2% of students scored at or above grade level in math this year.

Candidate flying around district on supporter’s plane, may violate fed law

A Republican U.S. House candidate in Idaho has been flying to campaign and political events on a private airplane owned by one of his biggest supporters, even though federal law generally forbids prospective office holders from flying on non-commercial aircraft, the AP reports. Bryan Smith, an Idaho Falls lawyer seeking to unseat U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson in Idaho's 2nd Congressional District in next May's GOP primary, flew on June 27 to campaign events in Boise, Twin Falls, Pocatello and Idaho Falls aboard an airplane owned by Phenix of Idaho, a construction company and federal government contractor founded by Doyle Beck, a Smith backer whose family has given the GOP candidate nearly $13,000 for the primary race against Simpson next year. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

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About this blog

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

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

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