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Eye On Boise

Archive for May 2013

Idaho scrimps on state employee pay

As University of Idaho President Duane Nellis leaves Idaho this week to become president of Texas Tech, his parting advice to the state was to invest in its workers by funding raises for state employees. That’s something Idaho Gov. Butch Otter declared a priority early in his first term, noting the gap between state worker pay and market rates. But since the downturn hit, Idaho hasn't funded state employee raises in four of the last five years. Now the state is relying on agencies to find budget savings in order to give some workers pay boosts.

Agencies have been directed to use any savings they can identify in their budgets for either one-time bonuses, if the savings are one-time, or for ongoing raises, if they’re efficiencies that will continue. “They’re going through that process,” Otter said. “In fact, I’ve OK’d quite a few of those agency directors’ programs.” Under plans approved by the governor’s Division of Financial Management, $5 million in raises and $4 million in one-time bonuses are going out either this year or in the coming fiscal year, which starts July 1; a few agencies still are working on their plans. But workers in agencies that don’t have savings are out of luck.

Just 23 percent of state workers have gotten raises averaging $1,500 under the plans, and 30 percent have gotten bonuses averaging $900. “Every agency is different,” said Jani Revier, Otter’s budget director. “It was done on the amount each agency could afford.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

By the way, Nellis earned $335,000 as president of the University of Idaho. At Texas Tech, his base salary will be $427,000, plus a $12,000-a-year car allowance, a $60,000-a-year housing allowance and a deferred compensation package.

Idaho’s flawed public defender system could put state at risk for lawsuits

Idaho is at risk of lawsuits over its flawed public defender system, according to a 2010 report, but after several years of study, the state still hasn't agreed on how to fix the system, the AP reports. Now, an interim committee of lawmakers is being tasked with finding a solution. At the heart of the dispute is whether counties should be free to give public defender contracts to private attorneys, with standards, or whether counties should be required to hire a full-time public defender, a big and costly change for the state, but one that would address a fundamental difficulty in the system when lawyers juggle low-paid public defense contracts with other, higher-paying cases.

“Both of those proposals were brought up before the commission,” said State Appellate Public Defender Sara Thomas, who is a commission member. “Ultimately the decision was made that they would go to the governor on equal footing, and now the interim committee will get a chance to review them.” Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Labrador losing fourth staffer in 5 months, this time his chief of staff

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) — An industry group that promotes burning brown coal to make energy poached U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador's top staffer, marking the latest employee to exit the second-term lawmaker's office. The Lignite Energy Council named Jason Bohrer, Labrador's chief of staff, as president and chief executive officer. The Bismarck, N.D.-based group says Bohrer replaces John Dwyer, who is retiring after 30-plus years. In addition to his role in Labrador's office, Bohrer also worked for Idaho Sen. James Risch. Bohrer is slated to start in July. He's a North Dakota State University graduate. Other recent, high-profile departures from Labrador's office include spokesman Phil Hardy, fired in February after sending an errant Twitter message in the congressman's name. District director Jake Ball quit this month, while campaign manager China Gum left in January.

Click below for a full report from the AP; Labrador's now lost eight staffers in a year.

DUIs down over holiday weekend, but drug arrests way up…

The Idaho State Police reported 31 DUI arrests statewide over the Memorial Day holiday weekend, from Friday night through early Tuesday morning. ISP also reported 23 crashes, including one fatality and five causing injuries. There were also 35 drug-related arrests, 28 of those misdemeanors and seven felonies. The stats are for ISP only, and don’t include incidents handled by local law enforcement agencies.

So how does that compare to last year? Last year saw 39 DUI arrests, so that’s down, and 22 crashes including one fatality and five causing injuries, so that’s largely unchanged. The number of drug-related arrests, though, was up significantly - more than doubling. During last year’s Memorial Day holiday weekend, ISP reported only 14, including nine misdemeanors and five felonies.

Wolfinger still undecided on scout charter, says ‘faith influences what I do’

Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger told the Spokesman-Review’s Scott Maben in an interview yesterday that he hasn’t yet decided whether to keep or drop the Boy Scout troop chartered by the sheriff’s office, but he said his Christian faith and what the Bible says about homosexuality are weighing heavily on him as he struggles with the recent decision by the Boy Scouts of America to end the organization’s membership ban on gay youth. “I don’t think I can make any decision in my life without bringing my faith into it,” said Wolfinger, an elder in the large, evangelical Real Life Ministries church. “My faith influences what I do every day.” You can read Maben’s full report here.

BooBoo the bear now back in the wild…

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: MCCALL, Idaho (AP) — An orphaned black bear cub that suffered second-degree burns on its paws during an August 2012 forest fire in eastern Idaho has been returned to the wild, healthy and 70 pounds heavier. Officials with the Snowdon Wildlife Sanctuary in McCall say the bear, dubbed “Boo Boo,” was released into the forests of central Idaho on Wednesday. Firefighters rescued the then-25-pound cub from a tree during the Mustang Fire near Salmon. The bear was initially treated at the Idaho Humane Society before being transferred to Snowdon. Boo Boo was among 10 orphaned cubs being cared for at Snowdon. Boo Boo was released with a GPS collar that will record his location over the next year, when it will fall off.

Crapo blasts Congress, administration over gun-control proposals

Sen. Mike Crapo held a press conference at a Boise gun shop today, where he blasted Congress' and President Barack Obama's bid to tighten gun laws while promoting reauthorization of a 2004 law that, among other things, directs federal taxpayer money for mental health courts. The AP reports that Crapo is using the latest congressional recess to emphasize his reputation as a serious policy maker, not a man on his heels after his December drunken driving arrest and this month's disclosure that his campaign lost $250,000 on a loan-gone-sour.

Despite the turbulence, Crapo said he hasn't thought of retiring or considered consequences for his 2016 re-election. “No, the answer is definitely not,” Crapo told the AP. “I think serving in the U.S. Senate is an incredible honor. I've been very engaged in the 'Gang of Six' and the other efforts to deal with our national debt crisis. I'm still fully engaged in that and all of the other aspects of my responsibilities in Washington, D.C.” Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

U of I names interim law dean

The University of Idaho has named Michael Satz, associate dean in the College of Law, to serve as interim dean of the college, effective June 1. Satz succeeds Don Burnett, who was named interim president of the University of Idaho. When Burnett accepted the interim university presidency, he said he would neither return to the dean's position nor apply for the permanent presidency; he will retain his faculty status after his interim presidency. Satz joined the U of I as an associate professor in the College of Law in 2006; he was appointed associated dean for faculty affairs in 2012. The university said it will begin a national search to identify candidates for permanent College of Law dean; click below for the UI's full announcement.

State’s budget reserve fund filling fast

Here’s a surprising turn of events: With April’s strong state tax revenues, if current trends hold, statutorily required transfers to Idaho’s Budget Stabilization Fund, the state’s main rainy-day savings account, will fill that fund to its statutory cap by the end of the current fiscal year. The stabilization fund, by law, is capped at 5 percent of the state’s general-fund budget. Beyond that point, surpluses would just stay in the state’s general fund.

Legislative Budget Director Cathy Holland-Smith noted that HB 345, the year-end bill sought by the governor this year, directs all year-end surpluses beyond $20 million to the stabilization fund. That now looks like it’ll mean a $58.9 million transfer to the fund at the close of the fiscal year June 30.

The fund had a beginning balance at the start of this fiscal year of $23.8 million. It also will get a statutory transfer, by formula based on state revenue growth, of $25.9 million. And then, at the start of the new fiscal year, the higher-than-expected revenues dictate another statutory transfer into the fund of $27.4 million. Add those up, and the fund will have $136 million in it. It only has $28 million more to go after that before hitting the cap, and more surpluses could materialize in May and June. “We’re looking at almost filling up the budget stabilization fund at the end of 2013,” Holland-Smith said.

Meanwhile, the Public Education Stabilization Fund will have a projected $48.9 million at the close of the fiscal year. “So if things continue the way they are, we’ll have $184.9 million in those two reserve funds,” she told the Legislative Council.

During the recession, Idaho drained nearly $400 million from its various reserve funds and the state Millennium Fund, dropping its reserves to near-zero by 2011. Now, they’re building back up.

Archived audio, video of legislative proceedings could be posted same-day in 2014

Now that the Legislature has approved archiving the video and audio streams of its proceedings during its sessions, Peter Morrill, general manager of Idaho Public Television, told the Legislative Council today that IPTV’s goal for the upcoming 2014 session is to have that day’s audio and video files from committee meetings and House and Senate floor sessions up and posted on the Internet for public access within 24 hours. House Speaker Scott Bedke applauded the news. “I think we’re conducting the people’s business, and they have a right to view those proceedings that directly affect them at their leisure,” Bedke said. “Archiving allows them to not have to be here. We’ve got all this technology – we should use it.”

Legislative interim committees named

The Legislative Council has voted unanimously to approve the appointments for its legislative interim committees; you can see the list here. The new committee on the K-12 education system will be co-chaired by Senate Education Chairman John Goedde and House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt; other members are Sens. Thayn, Patrick, Martin and Durst, and Reps. Horman, Boyle, VanOrden and Woodings.

Of lawmakers and technology…

As the Legislature’s IT division manager, Glenn Harris, opened his presentation to the Legislative Council on technology changes during the 2013 session, he referred to the “hand-holding” sometimes needed when new technologies are introduced. House Speaker Scott Bedke asked if most of that “hand-holding” was needed for older members of the Legislature. “It’s not necessarily the age of the member or the legislative service, it just depends on who the people are,” Harris responded. Amid laughter, Bedke said, “Well said.”

After improvements, the wireless network used by lawmakers worked very well this year, Harris said, and brought no complaints. The public Wi-Fi network, however, was a different story; upgrades are in the works.

A new venture this year was automated updates on House and Senate floor votes on Facebook and Twitter. “This was used by a fair amount of people,” Harris said. “We didn’t advertise this heavily; there was a link on our website.” When surveyed, 59 percent of legislators “actually said they didn’t even know it was happening, but they plan on using it next year.”

The Legislature has run into increasing problems with lawmakers’ mass emails to constituents being labeled as spam. “We’re proposing actually acquiring a mass email newsletter type service that you guys can use to email out,” Harris said.

Another issue for the Legislature in the tech arena: Lawmakers still are doing lots of printing, and the Legislature is going through $8,000 worth of toner each year. “We want to cut those costs,” Harris said. He encouraged lawmakers to print in color only sparingly, and when they need to make multiple color printouts, to take them to the state copy center and use copiers there, which cuts the cost in half.

Legislative Council opens meeting, reviews processes for legislative session

The Legislative Council is meeting this morning, with an agenda that includes appointments to interim legislative committees, including panels on federal lands transfer, the state’s public defender system, natural resources issues, the K-12 education system, Energy, Environment & Technology; and the criminal justice system. There’s also a health care task force and a wind energy task force.

So far this morning, the council has been reviewing the legislative session with legislative services staff, including how the technical end of the session worked; Legislative Services Director Jeff Youtz said the research and legislation division hit the 100 percent performance mark for having all bills turned around in five work days; and the bill-drafting process was almost entirely error-free. “We had an excellent session,” Youtz told the lawmakers.

He’s also named new deputy division managers, a new position, for several of the divisions within the Legislative Services Office; they include Paul Headlee in Budget & Policy Analysis; Eric Milstead in Research & Legislation; and Norma Clark in Information Technology. They’ll assist the existing division managers, Cathy Holland-Smith, Mike Nugent and Glenn Harris.

The meeting runs all day; later items on the agenda include a general fund budget update; a Tax Commission presentation on HB 315, the new business personal property tax exemption bill; and discussion of processes for fiscal notes, public records requests, video archiving of legislative proceedings; improvements to wireless service in the Capitol; and more. 

ITD enlists goats to munch on roadside noxious weeds, results ‘promising’

The Idaho Transportation Department says it’s having success with its latest weed-control method for areas near water, where spraying herbicides is a no-no: Goats. A herd of about 100 rented goats was turned loose into a fenced area around a retention pond on Eagle Road in mid-May, just north of Chinden Boulevard. They spent two days munching on noxious weeds including white top, Scotch thistle and poison hemlock. And unlike either herbicides or mowing, the goats didn’t leave dry plant material behind that can fuel wildfires.

“It just looks better,” said Connie Marshall, ITD southwest Idaho roadside vegetation coordinator. “By the time the goats were done, the eyesore was gone.”

ITD launched its next goat project in the area yesterday, with about 30 goats chewing on weeds around a pond near I-84 and the Robinson Road overpass. Once they’re done there, the goats have two other appointments at unsightly, weedy spots along the freeway. The technique’s been used in other parts of the state and notably by the city of Boise, but this was the first time ITD tried it in this region. Said Dan Bryant, ITD’s Southwest Idaho maintenance coordinator, “The results are promising.”

Judge narrows student fee lawsuit, tells parents to go to small claims court

A lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of Idaho’s school funding system, in part because families are charged fees for various aspects of instruction, has suffered a major blow, after District Judge Richard Greenwood on Friday dismissed all but one school district from the suit, and said parents who object to fees in their districts could just file actions in small-claims court. Reporter Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News has a full report here. Russ Joki, the lead plaintiff, told Richert, “This is not a solution at all, and makes a mockery of the right to a free public education.”

Joki, a former Nampa School District superintendent, contended that fees he was required to pay for his grandchildren’s education violated the state Constitution, which requires the state to provide a system of free, common schools. Greenwood’s ruling dismissed 65 school districts from the lawsuit, leaving only the Meridian School District, to which two of the plaintiffs, including Joki, had directly paid fees. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Farragut shooting range reopening after years-long court fight

The shooting range at Farragut State Park in North Idaho will reopen Saturday morning after a prolonged legal fight; the 70-year-old range has been closed since 2006 after neighboring homeowners sued over noise and errant bullets. This morning, 1st District Judge John Mitchell issued a court order permitting Fish & Game to operate the range, though it will allow only 500 shooter visits per year initially. Mitchell scheduled a court hearing for Sept. 30 to consider allowing more use beyond that; S-R reporter Scott Maben has a full report here.

The injunction shutting down the range was ordered until noise and safety improvements could be made; the state spent $260,000 on improvements, but Mitchell ruled some rounds still could fly out of the range. The Idaho Supreme Court overturned his ruling in November, while leaving it to Mitchell to rule on whether it'd be safe to exceed 500 shooter visits per year.

Magazine reports that Payette CPA was secret author of white supremacist tracts

A longtime CPA in Payette whose firm audited many school districts, cities and other government agencies was also secretly the author of “dozens of racist and anti-Semitic tracts” under the pseudonym Farnham O’Reilly, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports in the latest issue of its quarterly magazine, “Intelligence Report.” The article, by the group’s Intelligence Project director, Heidi Beirich, entitled “The Aryan Accountant,” reports that Timothy Folke was a member of the white supremacist National Alliance, espoused creating an “Aryan homeland,” and started a website to entice like-minded folks to move to his area; you can read the article here.

It also includes this rather startling editor’s note: “In April, after this story was completed, Timothy Folke again contacted the Intelligence Report to say that he had ‘experienced the loss of my wife and family’ and had ‘withdrawn from all activities dealing with the public, as well as all aspects of my previous profession and business.’ His CPA firm’s website was taken down, as were his own website and some of his racist writings. The Report contacted his son, Kurt Folke, who said that his father had only informed his family of his ‘deeply disturbing’ secret life the previous weekend, and confirmed that his parents were divorcing and his father had ‘retired from the firm.’ His father, he said, ‘is out of the picture and out of our family and our lives.’ Kurt Folke added: ‘He needs to reflect on what he’s done. He’s going to retire and reflect on what he’s done.’”

Kurt Folke, who now works at a new accounting firm in Payette, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Kootenai sheriff mum after meeting with Boy Scouts group; CdA considers anti-discrimination ordinance

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: COEUR D'ALENE, Idaho (AP) — The CEO of the Inland Northwest Council of the Boy Scouts of America says he met with a northern Idaho sheriff after the sheriff said he planned to drop his office's charter of a Boy Scout troop over the organization's decision to lift its ban on openly gay Scouts. Last week, Kootenai County Sheriff Ben Wolfinger said it would be inappropriate for the sheriff's office to sponsor an organization that promotes a lifestyle that violates Idaho's sodomy law. Inland Northwest Council CEO Tim McCandless told the Coeur d'Alene Press (http://bit.ly/11yfDBI ) that he met with Wolfinger on Tuesday and gave him more information about the policy change. McCandless said Wolfinger did not indicate if the meeting changed his mind. Sheriff's Lt. Stu Miller said Wolfinger had no further comment.

Ironically, that news item emerged the same day that a Coeur d'Alene city committee voted 2-1 in favor of a non-discrimination ordinance covering sexual orientation and gender identity, modeled after Boise's ordinance; the measure now moves to the full City Council for consideration. The council is scheduled to take up the ordinance at its June 4 meeting. 

Series of house raffles to bail out troubled school district canceled, after found to violate law

A plan to bail out the financially troubled Nampa School District through a series of house raffles has been suspended, after it turned out to be in violation of state gambling laws. Retired developer Phil Allaire planned to sell $100 raffle tickets for 40 Nampa homes he would buy and refurbish; he’d be reimbursed for his costs, and he estimated the school district could get $4.3 million in proceeds. Allaire had been working with the state Lottery on his plan, but the Lottery sent him a letter Tuesday saying his plan violated several state and federal laws.

Allaire, who’d already sold 47 tickets, said he’ll refund them. He criticized the Lottery’s “obstinate attitudes and positions,” and said he may sue. Among the problems the Lottery’s charitable gaming enforcement division identified in his plan: Since he was donating the homes to the non-profit that would run the lottery, state laws wouldn’t allow him to be reimbursed for his costs from the lottery’s proceeds; lottery ticket sales over the Internet violate state law; and no specific date was set for the drawing, which Allaire planned to hold whenever 2,500 tickets had been sold for the next house.

The Idaho Statesman has posted the Lottery’s letter here and Allaire’s announcement here; Idaho EdNews has a full report here, and the Statesman’s full report is here. KTVB-TV has a report here.

Former candidate for governor arrested, charged with marijuana trafficking

Twin Falls podiatrist, anti-nuclear activist and former candidate for governor Peter Rickards has been arrested for trafficking in marijuana, the Twin Falls Times-News reports. The newspaper reports that Rickards was arrested at his home on May 24, and investigators with a search warrant seized 4.3 pounds of processed marijuana and 32 live plants.

Rickards ran for governor as an independent in 1998, and received 3.2 percent of the vote. In 2008, he ran for the state House of Representatives as a Democrat, collecting 27.9 percent of the vote, compared to 72.1 percent for GOP victor Jim Patrick.

Medicaid lawsuit seeks class-action status

A group of Medicaid patients with severe disabilities who sued the state last year over cuts in their care are now seeking class-action status for their lawsuit, on behalf of about 3,600 people who receive care through a waiver program for people with developmental disabilities. The AP reports that a federal judge already had ordered the state to reinstate the plaintiffs' benefits or make other changes, but the plaintiffs said the state made the changes only for the 13 plaintiffs, and continued to follow its disputed practices for everyone else on the program.

If the judge agrees to make the case a class-action lawsuit and restore the coverage to all 3,600 patients, the state could have to spend $3.1 million more on the program in state dollars, and more than $10 million when the federal match is added in; click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone. All of the plaintiffs have multiple medical or mental health problems or developmental disabilities, and all of them need supervision. Some require 24-hour care.

Clearwater Collaborative reaches landmark agreement

The Lewiston Tribune reports that the Clearwater Collaborative, a group that includes environmentalists, lumber companies, the Nez Perce Tribe and local and state officials, has reached an agreement intended to restore wildlife habitat and protect pristine areas while also allowing economic activities such as logging in the Clearwater Basin in northern Idaho. “We believe this balanced package is the blueprint for breaking the gridlock that has paralyzed land management actions in the past,” said Alex Irby of Orofino, a co-chairman of the group.

The group has been meeting since 2008; its landmark agreement proposes new wilderness and wild and scenic river designations, an increase in timber harvest from areas with roads, and economic development and financial support for timber-dependent counties. Click below for a full report from the Tribune via the AP.

9th Circuit says unions can revise their lawsuit over two Idaho laws

Union groups are getting a chance to revise their lawsuit and add new defendants in a challenge to two Idaho laws targeting organized labor, the AP reports, following a ruling by the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals. The Building and Construction Trades Council AFL-CIO and the Southwest Idaho Building and Construction Trades Council AFL-CIO won their lawsuit in U.S. District Court, overturning both laws, but the state appealed to the 9th Circuit. Before the high court could take up the appeal, lawmakers ditched the criminal penalty for one of the laws, changing the arguments before the appellate court; click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Idaho now has more than 50 farmers’ markets

Idaho now has more than 50 farmers’ markets statewide, according to the state Department of Agriculture, which has a new guide out here, complete with locations, times and dates of operation. In the Boise area, farmers’ markets from downtown Boise to Eagle, Kuna and Mountain Home are listed. In North Idaho, there are markets from Bonners Ferry to St. Maries.

The growth in the open-air markets for fresh produce direct from those who raise it has been happening both in Idaho and nationwide; since the U.S. Department of Agriculture began tracking the numbers in 1994, the number of farmers’ markets nationwide has grown from 1,755 to 7,864 as of August, and that August figure was up 9.6 percent from a year earlier. Ten years ago, Idaho had just 22 farmers’ markets; today, it has 52.

“It’s becoming more popular – we’re seeking markets pop up all over the place,” said Kim Polzin, a trade specialist at the Idaho Department of Agriculture. “Every purchase you make at a farmers market not only feeds your family fresh and healthy products, but supports local farmers, ranchers and producers.” The state department also offers a manual here to help farmers’ markets establish and follow best practices.

Otter kicks off canal safety campaign, warns parents, kids of hazards

Gov. Butch Otter kicked off an expanded canal safety campaign today, joining agriculture groups, Idaho Power, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation, state broadcasters and more to launch a series of TV and radio ads and an expanded public education effort. “We have thousands of miles of canals in the state of Idaho,” Otter said. “They’re essential to our ag economy. … They can also be extremely deadly.”

Irrigation canals are cold, deep and swift, and often have nearly vertical banks, making it difficult for anyone who falls in to escape. They also have dangerous undertows and turbulence. Each year, a half dozen children and adults drown in Idaho canals, according to state figures; more children drown in canals every year in Idaho than in any other body of water.

“We need everybody to be aware of that, especially parents,” the governor declared.

Otter is featured on three 30-second TV commercials, including one targeted at children in which he appears with the cartoon character “Otto Otter.” Responding to the cartoon otter, the governor says, “Take it from this Otter – canals can kill. … This summer stay cool, but don’t use canals as your pool.” The ads start running throughout southern Idaho tomorrow.

The commercials also urge parents to keep kids away from canals, and urge pet owners to keep their pets out of the fast-running waterways. The campaign also includes an “Otto Otter” coloring book that will be distributed to children in school classrooms and that includes a Spanish-language version; a Spanish-language radio ad also will air.

Various groups conduct canal safety campaigns in southern Idaho each year and Otter has been involved with some of them in the past; this year, he pulled all the players together for a coordinated campaign that he estimated is worth $100,000, most of it in in-kind donations. “Every year we lose lives to these canals, so we’re going to do everything we can to help avoid that,” Otter said. “These canals are vital to our economy, but they can also be dangerous.”

Nellis’ parting message to Idaho lawmakers: Fund CEC

Duane Nellis, the outgoing president of the University of Idaho, penned a guest opinion saying goodbye and offering Idaho policy makers his final bit of advice: Fund CEC. That’s the acronym for Change in Employee Compensation, the mechanism by which traditionally, each year, the governor and lawmakers decided how much to increase pay for state employees, from university professors to agency secretaries, maintenance workers to customer-service folks. But in the last five years, that system has broken down.

This year, for the upcoming fiscal year 2014, the governor recommended, and the Legislature approved, zero funding for CEC. That’s the same funding allocated for fiscal years 2010, 2011 and 2012. For the current fiscal year, 2013, a 2 percent CEC was funded for all state employees meeting performance standards; normally, CEC is parceled out on a merit basis, not across the board.

Nellis, who leaves the University of Idaho in a week to become president of Texas Tech University, had high praise for the quality of the faculty and staff at the U of I. “If I could give one final piece of advice to my friends in the state Legislature, it would be to invest in these people,” he wrote. “I would hope that your highest priority next year is CEC – Change in Employee Compensation. CEC affects our teachers, police, firefighters, librarians and thousands of other Idahoans who work hard to make our state and our communities better. It is critical for a state like Idaho to invest in its people, in the expertise it has, and not let them slip away to other states that pay a bit more.”

For a 20-year history of CEC in Idaho, click here.

Welcome back…

Welcome back, everyone. Hope you had a relaxing holiday weekend. This image here is from Payette Lake on Saturday.

Faces of the fallen…

In honor of Memorial Day, the Spokesman-Review has published its “Faces of the Fallen” feature, which you can see here; it shows the faces of the men and women from our region who are part of the 1,084 military personnel who have died in Afghanistan since the fall of 2001 and 4,400 who have died in the Iraq war since March 2003. Links by the pictures take you to the stories behind each one.

Of holiday traffic, extra enforcement, and drunk driver passed out with head on blaring horn…

At 4:30 this morning, Boise Police were called to a scene where a driver had passed out at the wheel of a running car, his head on the horn and the horn blaring non-stop; citizens called the cops. The suspect, Levi R. Curtis, 33, “appeared to be very intoxicated,” police said. With prior DUI convictions, he was charged with felony DUI. And that was the second one of the night.

Two and a half hours earlier, police had stopped a moped rider after several illegal lane changes; that suspect, Anton D. Moore, 35, also “appeared to be very intoxicated” and registered a .17 blood-alcohol level. He, too, had prior DUI convictions and was charged with felony DUI.

As the holiday weekend kicks off, more than 70 law enforcement agencies around the state have additional officers on the road patrolling, as part of a statewide mobilization from May 20 to June 2 funded by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The mobilization, which funds additional overtime hours for traffic patrol officers, is aimed at seatbelt enforcement, but in Idaho, with no primary seatbelt law, officers have to pull drivers over for another offense in order to issue seatbelt tickets. “Basically they’re going to be out doing traffic enforcement,” said Steve Grant, Idaho Transportation Department spokesman.

Meanwhile, the AAA is projecting that more than 164,000 Idahoans – 10.3 percent of the population – will be out on the roads over the holiday weekend, driving to their holiday destinations. Be careful out there…

Crapo defends ex-campaign manager, while calling $250K loss ‘deeply distressing’

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo is defending his former campaign manager who lost $250,000 in campaign funds in a risky investment, while also calling the incident “discouraging” and “deeply distressing.” Crapo’s then-campaign manager, Jake Ball, loaned $250,000 in campaign funds in 2008 to a longtime friend’s now-defunct investment company, Blueberry Guru LLC, which invested it into real estate ventures in Nevada and California that promised a quick profit. Instead, the money disappeared.

Crapo said he wasn’t informed about the bad loan until late 2010; he worked with the FBI and U.S. Attorney’s office to try to pursue the matter, but to no avail; now, he’s filed amended campaign finance reports for 2008 and 2009 to reflect the loss.

In his quarterly telephone town hall meeting with Idahoans this past week, Crapo addressed the issue before taking questions on other matters. Among his revelations: Crapo said 1st District Rep. Raul Labrador was informed about the investment loss when Ball left Crapo’s staff to become Labrador’s district manager in Idaho in December of 2010. “At that time, my staff informed me that he had informed Rep. Labrador about the circumstance,” Crapo said. When the news of the investment loss surfaced two weeks ago, Ball quit his job with Labrador, saying he wanted to pursue a business opportunity.

“Jake had been working for me in different capacities since about 2002, starting as an intern and holding positions in Washington, D.C. and in Idaho, in my Senate office before moving to my campaign, and he had always exhibited good judgment in those positions,” Crapo said. “In fact, during his tenure as campaign manager, through traditional investments which are government-backed CDs, he had brought in over $300,000 in interest payments. But this one bad loan was made and it was very discouraging.”

Crapo said he’s “taken steps to ensure nothing like this ever occurs again on my campaign.” Now, he said, “At least two separate individuals review and approve any expenditure.” Plus, an accounting firm, Professional Data Services, has been hired to oversee all campaign expenditures and reports. “This is a very discouraging circumstance,” Crapo said. “I deeply appreciate those who have contributed to may campaign over the years. And it’s distressing to have to report this matter not only to those donors, but to all Idahoans.”

Crapo’s quarterly tele-town halls are posted as audio on his Senate website, but you won’t find these comments there; they’ve been edited out. The reason: “It’s because we can’t post on the Senate’s official website anything of a campaign nature,” said Crapo spokesman Lindsay Nothern. “We had a big discussion about that, because we wanted to put (up) the whole thing, but we checked with the Ethics Committee,” and it wasn’t permitted. 

Jerome backs off attempt to bill building owner for $96K firefighting cost

The city of Jerome has backed off from its attempt to bill a downtown apartment building owner $96,000 for firefighting costs after a fire destroyed her building and damaged two others, the AP reports. “The invoice sent to Sylvia Moore was sent in error. No recovery costs will be sought against Ms. Moore for the fire occurring upon her property,” city officials said in a statement issued Thursday. After receiving the three-page, itemized bill, Moore told KTVB-TV, “You think you've got a fire department that's paid with your tax money. I don't know what to think. Really I don't.” Click below for the full AP report.

Otter, Idaho exchange officials defend exchange, say feds won’t run it

Gov. Butch Otter and Idaho Health Insurance Exchange Board Chairman Stephen Weeg are defending Idaho's work toward a state-based insurance exchange, after a Wall Street Journal article today pointed to decisions by Idaho and New Mexico to make use the federal government's computer platform for the exchange's initial launch as a sign that the two states are no longer committed to state, rather than federal, exchanges.

At its May 9 meeting, the Idaho exchange board voted to move on “parallel tracks” toward setting up its own IT platform for its health insurance exchange, and exploring the benefits of using the federal government's platform temporarily, until Idaho's is ready to go. Today, the board voted to take the same step for the “SHOP” portion of the exchange, which stands for Small Business Health Options Program, and is the portion of the exchange that will serve small businesses, while the rest is for individuals purchasing insurance plans.

Asked by other board members to clarify the step, Weeg said, “We’ve made a decision to use the federal government’s contractor that operates the platform to be our contractor for our platform for a short period of time, while we can get our platform fully developed.” He and other board members stressed that only Idaho insurance products would be sold under Idaho rules on the state exchange, regardless of whether it uses the federal IT platform.

Otter and Weeg distributed a guest opinion to Idaho newspapers today entitled, “Implementing state insurance exchange requires moving quickly, creatively,” in which they stressed that Idaho's still looking at a state - not federal - exchange. “Once again - and despite misleading headlines and the drumbeat of those who oppose anything short of nullifying a federal law that's already been found constitutional - our efforts will not result in a partnership or a federal exchange,” the two wrote. “Idaho is building and will have a consumer-friendly state-based exchange run by Idahoans for Idahoans.” Click below to read the full opinion piece. 

Idahoans snap up cheap parks passports

Idaho's sold more than $500,000 worth of its new $10 state parks passports in the first six months of the program, and state parks officials have high hopes the low-priced passes tied to Idahoans' vehicle registrations will take off big and help fund the park system. “The process is a little more complicated, but I think Idahoans have been so receptive,” said Jennifer Okerlund, Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation spokeswoman. “I think sales are on track.”

 The transition to the new system has been a little confusing for folks, however; you can't buy the new annual pass at the parks, only at the county Department of Motor Vehicles. For out-of-staters, there's still a $40 annual pass that can be purchased at the parks. But the real bargain is the $10 annual pass for Idaho residents. With state park entry fees at $5, there's a quick break-even for those who purchase it. As of the end of March – after six months of sales – 41,389 Idahoans had done so, including 6,839 in Kootenai County. They have the option of a one-year pass for $10, or a two-year pass for $20.

The complicated part: The pass is good for a year, but the year cycle must be the same as that of the registration for the vehicle for which it’s purchased. That means if your car registration is up in September and you buy a pass now, it’s only good until September; if you renew then, you’ll get a full year. There’s no pro-rating. Kootenai County Assessor Mike McDowell, whose office oversees the local DMV, said he’s advising those who want to head to parks now but have a registration that’ll expire mid-summer to just renew their car registration early. That way, they can get a full year out of their new parks pass; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Settlement over pricing will bring restitution to Idaho e-book purchasers

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden has announced two more settlements with e-book publishers, entitling Idahoans who purchased e-books to $485,000 in restitution. It's part of a 33-state settlement, and still awaits federal court approval; it involves allegations that Penguin and MacMillan conspired with other book publishers and Apple Inc. to manipulate prices for e-books. “These settlements have a dual effect of gaining restitution for Idaho consumers forced to pay higher prices for e-books and restoring competition in the e-book market by promoting competition,” Wasden said. Similar settlements were reached earlier with three other e-book publishers; click below for Wasden's full announcement.

Idaho population growth in 2012 again concentrated in cities

Eighty-eight of Idaho’s 200 cities lost population in 2012, while 107 gained and five went unchanged, according to the latest U.S. Census figures. Statewide, Idaho’s population went up by 0.8 percent in 2012; city populations were up 1 percent from 2011 to 2012. The upshot: Idaho’s population gain in 2012 was concentrated in its cities rather than its rural areas, continuing a longstanding trend. In 2012, 69 percent of Idahoans lived in incorporated cities; that’s up from 59 percent in 1990.

Cities losing population were mostly the smallest ones; there were just three with populations of more than 10,000 that had losses: Rexburg, Mountain Home and Blackfoot. Click here for a full report from the Idaho Department of Labor, including a breakdown by city that shows each city’s population in 2010, 2011 and 2012.

Middleton school board election needs do-over, after tie, ballot errors

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: MIDDLETON, Idaho (AP) — Election officials in southwest Idaho's Canyon County say it appears a do-over vote will be needed to determine the winner in a school board election. The Idaho-Press Tribune reports (http://bit.ly/10Ojjcr) that 23 Middleton voters were assigned to the wrong school zone in Tuesday's election that ended in a tie for a trustee position. Canyon County Chief Deputy Clerk Brad Jackson says the number of voters in the wrong place is high enough to trigger another election. Bu he says he's waiting for the Idaho Secretary of State to tell them how to go forward. The school board election ended in a tie between Marc D. Gunning and Steve Cluff.

Mountain lion attacked dogs in three adjacent fenced back yards in Surprise Valley, two of the dogs died…

Three next-door neighbors in east Boise have had their small dogs attacked by a mountain lion in their fenced back yards in the past two weeks, and two of the dogs have died. Fish & Game officials are calling on the public to immediately report incidents with mountain lions in town. The three attacks happened at Surprise Valley, a neighborhood on the city’s eastern edge that backs up to native sagebrush land; it’s the first mountain lion incident reported in Boise this spring, but the city’s had plenty in recent years. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

“We have mountain lions in Boise all the time,” said Evin Oneale, Southwest Idaho regional conservation educator for the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. “They come and go all the time. Some of them we see, some of them we don’t, but they don’t tend to cause any issues or hang around. It’s when we have a lion like this that exhibits this kind of behavior that our awareness of the situation becomes heightened.”

Fish & Game learned of the big cat when a Surprise Valley resident called the sheriff’s department yesterday morning. She’d let her two Yorkshire terriers out into her backyard about 5:30 a.m., and a few minutes later, heard a yelp; click below to read more.

No new death sentence to be sought for Lacey Sivak

Prosecutors now say they won't seek a death sentence for Lacey Mark Sivak, who was one of the longest occupants of Idaho's Death Row after being sentenced to death in 1981 for the murder of Dixie Wilson; his sentence was reversed on appeal in 2011, and he's up for re-sentencing this fall. The Associated Press reports that Ada County prosecutors have decided to ask for a fixed life term in prison, after consulting with relatives of the victim, then-30-year-old Dixie Wilson.

“They've waited 30 years for this to end, and now they have the prospect of having to wait another 20 years, because you know how long it takes to get an execution in the 9th Circuit,” Ada County Deputy Prosecutor Roger Bourne told the AP. “They didn't want to wait. They decided they needed closure. So, we are asking the judge for a fixed life sentence.” Click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone; Idaho currently has 12 people on Death Row, 11 men and one woman.

Rep. Patterson complains to Secty of State about Sheriffs Association lobbying

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The 2013 Legislature's passionate debate over gun rights has been extended beyond the session, with a lawmaker whose bill was killed now complaining that his measure was torpedoed by lobbyists who weren't properly registered. Republican Rep. Mark Patterson of Boise sponsored a measure to charge Idaho law enforcement officers with a crime for assisting the federal government in confiscating newly banned weapons. The bill died. But Patterson this month complained to the Idaho secretary of state that Idaho Sheriff's Association director Vaughn Killeen wasn't registered as a lobbyist. Furthermore, Patterson contends the group's registered lobbyist, Michael Kane, didn't properly disclose his firearms-related lobbying. Killeen and Kane have since amended their filings. Killeen contends he wasn't required to register as a lobbyist, but did so May 15 to avoid future misunderstandings.

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

Election results: Two of three GBAD incumbents ousted

Yesterday was Election Day across the state, with elections for an array of school district and special district races. In some of the most notable races, two of three incumbents were defeated for seats on the Greater Boise Auditorium District board, two of three members elected to the board of the financially troubled Nampa School District are new, and in the Coeur d’Alene school board race, a slate of conservative Republican activists, including an appointed incumbent who home-schooled his children, was defeated by challengers.

Voter turnout is typically low for the low-profile races; in Ada County, where ballot issues included the Auditorium District, school board races in Meridian, Kuna and Melba, a bond issue in Eagle, and sewer district races in Eagle and West Boise, a total of 9,457 ballots were cast, for a turnout of 5.38 percent of registered voters; you can see full results here.

For the GBAD board, unofficial final results showed incumbent Peter Oliver winning a two-year term by the narrowest of margins, just 19 votes, over challenger George Tway. For the two six-year terms, challenger Jim Walker was the highest vote-getter, with 24 percent, followed by challenger Steve Berch at 22 percent. Incumbents Rob Perez and Stephanie Astorquia trailed with 19.43 percent and 19.67 percent, followed by challengers John May, 11.37 percent, and Noah Bard, 3.44 percent.

Nampa School District voters returned just one incumbent to their school board, Bob Otten, the Idaho Statesman reports. Twelve-year trustee Dale Wheeler was defeated by challenger Mike Fuller; and former board member Brian McGourty won a three-way race for an open seat after board chairman Scott Kido decided not to seek re-election.

In Coeur d’Alene, school board incumbents Brent Regan and Ann Seddon, both of whom were backed by the conservative Kootenai County Reagan Republicans, were defeated by challengers Christa Hazel and Dave Eubanks. Tom Hearn won an open seat; Hazel, Eubanks and Hearn all were backed by Balance North Idaho, a group that countered the Reagan Republicans’ push to target local non-partisan races and used the slogan “qualifications over ideology.” Reagan Republicans-endorsed candidates did win two seats on the Post Falls school board, however. They lost bids for two seats on the Kootenai Hospital District board; you can read a full report here from S-R reporter Scott Maben.

In other election results, the Idaho Falls Post Register reports that Salmon-area voters again rejected a school bond to replace the local elementary and middle schools – the ninth defeat for the proposal in eight years – and also voted down a $3.6 million proposal for safety repairs at the schools. A state loan program will now step in to cover the safety repairs, and local taxpayers will have to repay the loan. Jefferson School District’s supplemental levy measure failed.

The Boise Guardian reports that just six voters cast ballots in another contest, for a $325 million bond issue proposed by the Spring Valley CID north of Eagle. Four of the six favored the bond, giving it the needed two-thirds majority; future homeowners will have to repay the debt.

Idaho Education News has a roundup here on school bond and levy votes around the state; they report that voters around Idaho said yes to at least $128.7 million in bonds and levies.

Priest Lake cabin owners can get new appraisals

Priest Lake cabin owners who object to new Idaho appraisals that showed the state-owned land under their lake homes ballooning in value this year by an average 84 percent can request new appraisals, the state Land Board decided Tuesday, and if they object to the new values, they can appeal. The catch: Once the new values are set, the leases for the cabin sites again would be offered up for potential conflict bids from others. And for those cabin owners who are already part of pending land exchanges aimed at trading other ground to the state so they can gain ownership of the land under their cabins, new appraisals might not be ready in time.

“People are going to have to decide what’s in their best interest,” said Chuck Lempesis, attorney for the Priest Lake State Lessees Association. But he called the Land Board’s unanimous decision “a very positive step forward” that provides “options for our lessees who are in difficult positions.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Terror suspect to remain in custody

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — An Uzbek national facing terrorism-related charges in Idaho will remain jailed pending his trial after waiving his right to a detention hearing. Lawyers for Fazliddin Kurbanov on Tuesday waived a hearing where a U.S. District Court judge was to have considered whether he should stay in Ada County jail in Boise until his July 2 trial. Kurbanov is a refugee from Uzbekistan in Central Asia who arrived in Boise in 2009. He was arrested last Thursday. The 30-year-old truck driver was indicted by a federal grand jury on charges that included teaching people to build bombs intended to target public transportation. It's unclear whether the alleged targets were in the United States or elsewhere. Prosecutors say they've contained Kurbanov's threat, but haven't said if more arrests are pending.

Idaho ed spending still at the bottom

Idaho remains stuck at the bottom of public education funding, ranking second to last of all states in per-student spending for a third straight year, the U.S. Census Bureau reported today; S-R reporter Scott Maben has a full report here. The latest census data showed Idaho spent $6,824 per student in the 2010-11 school year, above only Utah. Meanwhile, neighboring Washington ranked 30th – up two spots from the previous year – with $9,483 spent per student.

Both Idaho and Washington fell below the national average of $10,560 per student, and the average itself has dropped 0.4 percent from 2010. That’s the first decrease in per-student spending since the Census Bureau began collecting data in 1977.

Asked about the new figures today, Idaho state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna said, “How much we spend per student is an important factor, but it’s not the only factor.” He said Idaho’s low ranking is influenced by demographics.  “There’s a reason that Idaho and Utah constantly end up at the bottom end … and it’s because we have large families,” Luna said, adding that he has six children. “We have fewer taxpayers per student in Idaho than we have in many other states.”

The 2000 Census found that Utah had the highest number of children under 18 per family, followed by Alaska at second-highest, Idaho third, and California fourth. However, Alaska ranked third-highest for per-student spending in the latest Census report; California was 36th.

While acknowledging that Idaho’s school funding per student compares poorly to other states, Luna said, “What I measure our system against isn’t how much are we spending per student – it’s are we getting the results?” Currently, he said, the answer is no – too few Idaho students go on to college or other higher education after high school. He said that means Idaho needs reforms for its schools.

Fish & Game backs delisting grizzlies in Idaho

The Idaho Fish & Game Commission, at its meeting late last week in Coeur d’Alene, voted to support the removal of grizzly bears in Idaho from the federal list of threatened and endangered species, saying the bears have recovered sufficiently and now are starting to move into areas where there are increasing conflicts with humans. Tony McDermott, Panhandle Region commissioner, said, “Idaho can manage the bears better.”

The commissioners adopted a position statement saying that state has the regulatory and enforcement mechanisms in place to manage grizzly bears, and that people in Idaho would be more tolerant of bears if the state were managing them. “Key to the success of this effort is effective and efficient management of bear-human conflict,” the statement said.

It also said if delisting were to occur, the commission would continue to act to ensure sustainable grizzly bear populations in the occupied core habitats that the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has identified in Idaho. You can read the full statement here.

Idaho endowment fund value hits all-time high

The value of Idaho’s state endowment fund hit an all-time high of $1.46 billion at the end of March, up 14 percent from the start of the fiscal year July 1. That’s partly because of strong investment returns this year – through yesterday, the fiscal year-to-date investment earnings show a 19 percent gain – and partly because of higher revenue from endowment trust lands, which was up 14 percent through the end of March compared to same nine months of the previous year.  The receipts: $59.5 million. Much of the land revenue comes from logging on endowment lands. (In April, the fund had more gains, bringing it to $1.48 billion as of April 30.)

The state Land Board was briefed on the fund’s gains today by the Endowment Fund Investment Board, and there were smiles all around.

Investment returns for Idaho’s endowment fund have averaged 6.7 percent for the past five years, a big turnaround from the precipitous drops the fund saw after the state first started investing it in the stock market in the early 2000s. The fund lost nearly 15 percent of its value from 2000 to 2002, going from $803.7 million to $683.2 million.

BLM unveils new use rules for Birds of Prey area

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Federal land managers are imposing a ban on paintball warfare and rock climbing in and around a raptor sanctuary along the Snake River canyon south of Boise. The U.S. Bureau of Land Management announced the new rules Monday for the Morley Nelson Snake River Birds of Prey area. Agency officials have been crafting the rules for several years in hopes of better protecting raptor habitat and improving public safety in the area. New rules prohibit rock climbing and rappelling in the canyon within the sanctuary boundaries to protect 16 species of raptors that nest along the rock walls, though bouldering is allowed. Paintball guns have also been outlawed inside the area and within a quarter-mile of the boundary. New restrictions have also been implemented for campfires. Offenders could be fined or sentenced to prison.

Click below for the BLM's full announcement.

Idaho couple and Sun Valley in Twitter tussle

A Sun Valley couple who had been using the Twitter handle @SunValley for three years is suing after the Sun Valley Resort and the online service took the handle away, saying it belongs to the resort. Twitter told the couple that after the resort brought the issue to its attention, it determined that their use of the handle violated its policies as a “non-parody impersonation.” Click below for a full report from the AP and the Idaho Mountain Express.

Animal rights worker arrested for videotaping rodeo event

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: JORDAN VALLEY, Ore. (AP) — An animal-rights activist has been arrested after refusing to quit videotaping at an Eastern Oregon rodeo with an event where contestants rope horses by the legs. The Malheur County sheriff's office says 30-year-old Adam Fahnestock (fawn-stock) of Vancouver, Wash., was accused Saturday of disorderly conduct and resisting arrest. The group Showing Animals Kindness and Respect says he is a volunteer. Undersheriff Travis Johnson told the Ontario Argus Observer (http://bit.ly/12ppCpt) the Jordan Valley Big Loop Rodeo was on private property, so it could refuse to allow videotaping. The rodeo in far southeast Oregon is the only one in the state known to hold an event that sponsors call horse roping and opponents call horse tripping. The Oregon Senate has voted to ban the event. The House is considering the bill.

Crapo’s campaign suffered from poor financial controls

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo said earlier that the $250,000 investment loss his campaign suffered in 2008 - and just now disclosed - came at a time when the campaign was between treasurers, so only then-campaign manager Jake Ball authorized the expenditure, in the form of a loan to a longtime friend. But William Corbett, who was Crapo's volunteer campaign treasurer at the time,  tells the AP he was never informed about the transaction. “Obviously, if I would have, it would have been reported,” Corbett said. AP reporter John Miller reports that aides for Republican U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson and Sen. Jim Risch say their campaigns have safeguards and internal controls to protect donor money from a similar fate; among other things, investments such as the ones Ball said he employed with his friend would be forbidden. Click below for Miller's full report.

Otter will accept reinstated housing stipend

Gov. Butch Otter will accept the $4,500 a month boost in his pay that’s coming June 1 when his housing stipend resumes, Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian, confirmed Friday. The state paid the housing stipend to governors until the 2009 when the hilltop mansion donated by the late J.R. Simplot to the state for a governor’s mansion opened for use after renovations, but Otter never lived there; he’s Simplot’s ex-son-in-law. Instead, he continued to live at his ranch in Star, just west of Boise. Now, the mansion’s being handed back over to the Simplot family.

Otter, a multimillionaire, accepted the payments earlier, saying if other governors got the payments, he’d take them as well; Hanian said the governor’s reasoning hasn’t changed. You can read my full Sunday column here at spokesman.com.

The $54,000 a year in housing stipends will be on top of the governor’s $117,000 a year salary; by law, that salary will rise another 1.7 percent on Jan. 1, 2014 to $119,000.

Powerball jackpot climbs to $600M, lines expected for ticket buyers

The Idaho Lottery is expecting lines of ticket-buyers into the weekend as the jackpot for Saturday night’s Powerball drawing hits a record $600 million. It’s the second-biggest jackpot on record, eclipsed only by the $646 million Mega Millions jackpot handed out in March of 2012. “We want to strongly emphasize to everyone to please play responsibly,” said Jeff Anderson, Idaho Lottery director. “Enjoy the games and imagine what you might do if you win, but please only play what you can afford.”

The Powerball tickets can be purchased until 7:55 p.m. Mountain time on Saturday; they cost $2 apiece. Lottery officials encourage ticket buyers to sign their tickets right away; lottery tickets are “bearer instruments,” so whoever signs and presents the winning ticket for payment will get paid.

The largest Powerball jackpot collected by an Idaho winner to date was $220,300 in May of 2005. Powerball is a multi-state game played in all but seven states.

Kurbanov makes first court appearance, pleads not-guilty to all charges

Fazliddin Kurbanov made his first appearance in federal court this morning, dressed in yellow-and-white striped scrubs stamped “Ada County Jail” on the back and speaking through an interpreter. Kurbanov, a 30-year-old truck driver from Uzbekistan, is charged with providing material support to terrorists and possession of a destructive device. “For the record, has the defendant been read the indictment in his native language?” Judge Mikel Williams asked. “He has, your honor,” replied federal defender Richard Rubin, who appeared with Kurbanov in court this morning along with Boise attorney Thomas Monaghan; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

“Does the defendant understand the nature of the charges against him and the maximum penalty that can be applied as to each of those counts?” the judge asked. Kurbanov, who has a short, neatly trimmed beard and a full head of dark hair parted on the side, listened to the interpreter on the telephone, then nodded and shrugged. He entered a plea of not guilty to all three of the charges, which each carry penalties of up to 15 years in prison.

The initial appearance was delayed for close to 40 minutes as Rubin got his first chance to meet with his client; they spoke in the courtroom, while the other attorneys and audience waited outside. An interpreter in California translated for Kurbanov into Russian via telephone. Asked if Kurbanov speaks any English, Rubin said, “Very little, very little.”

Kurbanov, who was legally present in the country at the time of his arrest and was living in Boise, struggled to follow the proceedings as he held a corded phone handset to his ear to listen to the interpreter. Court officials said they are working on getting an interpreter to be present in court for Kurbanov’s detention hearing, which was set for May 21 at 1:30. The judge said, “All right. That’ll make things work a little smoother.”

The judge questioned Kurbanov about his financial status in relation to whether he qualifies to have an attorney appointed for him. “The financial affidavit states that you were working as a truck driver up to the time of your arrest, is that correct?” Williams asked. The interpreter said, “Yes,” as Kurbanov nodded. “It also states that other than some used automobiles and a small amount of money in a checking or savings account, you have no other assets or money or funds to hire your own attorney. Is that correct?” the judge asked. After some repeating and pauses, the interpreter told the court via speaker, “That’s correct, your honor.”

The judge then appointed the federal defender to represent Kurbanov, and advised Kurbanov of his rights, including that he’s presumed innocent and the burden of proof is on the prosecution to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. He set the trial in his case for July 2 before U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge, though delays likely will push that back.

Boise man from Uzbekistan arrested on terrorism charges in two states

A Boise man from Uzbekistan has been arrested on terrorism charges; he's been indicted in both Idaho and Utah on federal charges including possessing an unregistered destructive device, providing material support to terrorists, and distributing information relating to weapons of mass destruction. Click below for the full new release from the U.S. Attorney's office. Fazliddin Kurbanov, 30, was arrested this morning in Boise and will make his initial appearance in court tomorrow in Boise; that appearance has now been rescheduled from 9 a.m. to 8:30 before Judge Mikel Williams.

You can read my full story here at spokesman.com. In this AP/Idaho Statesman photo by Joe Jaszewski, federal agents search a Boise bench apartment on Thursday in connection with the case. 

Five Idahoans indicted in spice bust, authorities say major national player has been taken out

Five people from Boise and Meridian have been indicted on federal charges for smuggling, money laundering, and selling “spice,” a synthetic marijuana product, and authorities say they were operating across the nation. “This investigation has taken out a major player in the synthetic drug industry who was operating coast to coast,” said DEA Special Agent in Charge Matthew G. Barnes. “Criminal drug organizations prey on our youth to line their pockets with millions of dollars in drug proceeds. This emerging industry poses a significant threat to our communities and regardless of how they are marketed, we will continue with our law enforcement partners to aggressively pursue them.”

Click below for a full news release from U.S. Attorney for Idaho Wendy Olson; the indictment by a federal grand jury in Boise was unsealed yesterday. The indictments are the result of a joint operation by an array of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. “Although we don't yet know the full toll that these substances that mimic cannabis have taken on users, we do know that emergency room workers, parents and law enforcement officers have terrifying stories of medically dangerous and sometimes deadly reactions,” Olson said. “I commend all of the agencies and prosecutors who spent countless hours bringing the investigation to this point.”

Warden of troubled private prison quits

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The warden of the privately-run Idaho Correctional Center has quit, one month after his company acknowledged falsifying staffing records for much of 2012. Timothy Wengler, who works for Corrections Corporation of America, lasted three years as warden of the prison south of Boise. The Nashville, Tenn.-based company with the contract to run the prison through 2014 says Wengler's last day is May 31. CCA spokesman Steve Owen says Wengler had been thinking about quitting for a year and described his departure as a “personal decision.” Wengler was supposed to help repair problems at the prison. He arrived in Idaho in 2010, a replacement for a previous warden the company removed after the American Civil Liberties Union sued over claims of brutal inmate-on-inmate violence. CCA says it's mulling Wengler's replacement now.

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

Monkey killer gets up to seven years

The 22-year-old man who broke into Zoo Boise and killed a Patas monkey in November has been sentenced to two to seven years in prison, KTVB-TV reports. Michael Watkins of Weiser admitted to the drunken incident and apologized; you can see KTVB's full report here. The Idaho Statesman reports here that the judge retained jurisdiction, meaning Watkins could get out on probation if he successfully completes an intensive 9- to 12-month program.

Boise Police rank high for Twitter followers

The Boise Police Department has been ranked fourth-highest in the country among mid-sized police agencies for its number of Twitter followers, with more than 6,300. The only other city in the region to make the ranking was Salt Lake City, which ranked 10th at 3,712 followers.

“Twitter connections mean a lot to us, and it’s good to know that, judging by the number of followers, that connection means a lot to citizens as well,” said Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson. The chief said his department uses Twitter to “share urgent and important public safety information” along with safety-related community events, and citizens use it to interact with the department. On Twitter, the BPD is @BoisePD.

The International Association of Chiefs of Police released the rankings today; you can see their full announcement here. The No. 1 overall? The Boston Police Department, with 314,232 followers. Of course, the numbers were taken on April 30 – two weeks after the Boston Marathon bombings. NYPD came in second at 61,633.

Toy gun leads to felony-style takedown

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: MOSCOW, Idaho (AP) — Police in northern Idaho say a person waving what turned out to be a toy gun from a car window resulted in officers with weapons drawn stopping the vehicle at a fast food drive-thru and handcuffing the three males and one female inside. Police Lt. James Fry tells the Moscow-Pullman Daily News (http://bit.ly/147bGT7) that a report Wednesday afternoon of a person waving a gun resulted in the felony-style takedown of the vehicle's occupants. Fry says officers typically take emergency precautions when a gun is reported as part of an incident. Fry says a 20-year-old male passenger was taken into custody on an arrest warrant in Latah County for failing to appear in court on charges of minor in possession of alcohol and possession of drug paraphernalia.

Two conservation groups question Coast Guard’s turnabout on St. Joe jet boat race

Two North Idaho conservation groups, Friends of the Clearwater and the Kootenai Environmental Alliance, are questioning the U.S. Coast Guard's turnabout on permits for the upcoming “Race the Joe” jet boat race on the St. Joe River near St. Maries, allowing the race to go forward as scheduled May 17-19. “We’d like to know how the Coast Guard went from needing 130-something days to complete the environmental assessment to being able to complete it in a week,” said Brett Haverstick of Friends of the Clearwater. “With that kind of speed, the Coast Guard should consider entering the race.” Click below for the two groups' full statement.

Both Gov. Butch Otter and three members of Idaho's congressional delegation appealed to the Coast Guard to issue the permit in time to allow the event to take place as scheduled; Otter also sent a memo from Idaho Fish & Game saying the event wouldn't harm bull trout or bald eagles if organizers agreed to keep people and vehicles out of buffer zones around eagle nesting sites.

Suspects in Emmet church arsons: Convicted killer and four-time arsonist

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: EMMETT, Idaho (AP) — The Gem County Prosecutor has filed criminal charges against two men accused of intentionally setting fire to a pair of Emmett churches last month. One of the suspects charged Wednesday was convicted of killing his adoptive parents in 1989. Prosecutor Richard Linville charged 41-year-old Bradley Thomasson and 45-year-old William Dorahush Jr., with two counts of first-degree arson. Both were also charged with burglary and theft. Investigators say the men are responsible for the April 27 blazes that damaged Community Bible Church and First Baptist Church. Records show Thomasson spent 22 years in prison for killing his adoptive parents in Nez Perce County in 1989. Dorahush has a criminal record that includes four convictions for arson. Both churches are blocks from downtown Emmett and suffered extensive fire, smoke and water damage.

Canyon commissioners threaten defiance over bird-protection rules on Lake Lowell

Canyon County commissioners now say they won't help enforce new on-water regulations that might be enacted by federal authorities on Lake Lowell at the Deer Flat National Wildlife Refuge and won't abide by federal rules until federal agencies prove the federal government has jurisdiction over the irrigation water that fills the lake. Click below for a full report from the Idaho Statesman and the Associated Press.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in March released a new draft plan for proposed changes at the refuge that includes significant alterations to a 2011 draft plan, as the agency attempts to balance its responsibility of managing a wildlife refuge with the recreational desires of local residents. The new plan eliminates many proposed no-wake zones by attempting to preserve bird populations by closing small portions of the lake where the birds gather for part of the year. Those closures would be based on identifying areas where eagle, osprey, heron and grebe gather.

The county posted on its website a petition that area residents can sign as the federal agency takes comments heading toward a final decision.

New Washington state insurance exchange rates a surprise: Costs actually lower for most consumers

As Idaho works through the early stages of organizing its new state-based health insurance exchange, neighboring Washington is much farther down the road, and now has released the rate proposals from health insurance companies that plan to sell coverage on its state exchange. The big surprise: Expected large price increases didn’t materialize. Instead, most consumers who purchase insurance through the Washington exchange would pay less than they do now, and get more coverage. Only those under age 30 would face higher costs, and they’d have options for lower-priced catastrophic coverage. In addition, those who qualify for subsidies based on their income would pay less than the newly announced rates.

“We’re pleasantly surprised with the individual rates we’ve seen so far,” said Washington state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler. “In many cases, people will get better benefits and pay less – especially if they qualify for subsidies.” Meanwhile, Idaho’s exchange is just getting organized. So far, the 19-member exchange board has met twice, elected officers, hired an executive director and established six subcommittees on everything from information technology to operations. It will function as an independent, quasi-governmental agency; it is working on plans to issue requests for proposals to establish its online portal and make the exchange operational by Oct. 1. You can read our full report here at spokesman.com.

CdA schools propose dropping family health coverage for teachers to make up budget shortfall

The Coeur d’Alene School District is proposing to drop all health coverage for the spouses and dependents of teachers, while raising deductibles from $200 to $2000, doubling premiums and setting up health-savings accounts. District officials, who are in the midst of contract negotiations with the local teachers union, said they need to make up a $3 million-plus budget shortfall. “We really can’t think of any other things to cut,” said school board member Tom Hamilton.

Under the proposal, a teacher who had a baby would pay $15,000 out of pocket, and no prescription drug coverage would be offered. “This is unconscionable,” said teacher Michael Emory, who was among more than 350 union members who attended the public negotiation session between the district and the Coeur d’Alene Education Association last night. You can read a full report here at spokesman.com from S-R reporter Jody Lawrence-Turner.

Idaho to restart $4,500 monthly housing allowance for governor June 1

Idaho plans to resume paying a $4,500 monthly governor's housing stipend to Gov. Butch Otter starting June 1, the AP reports, as it clears out furniture from the vacant governor's mansion in Boise where he never lived in preparation for returning the home to J.R. Simplot's family. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller. The state decided earlier this year to give the hilltop mansion back to the descendants of Simplot, the billionaire potato mogul who donated the 7,400-square-foot home to be used as a residence for Idaho's chief executive in 2004, four years before he died at age 99. Otter, Simplot's former son-in-law, declined to live in it, however, and escalating costs of about $180,000 annually to water the expansive lawn and maintain the 33-year-old home threatened to quickly drain what had once been a $1.5 million fund to cover housing expenses for the state's chief executive. It's dwindled to just $775,000, as maintenance, electricity and repair costs added up.

The decision to restore the housing stipend to 2009 levels — it was discontinued after the house was ready to live in following renovations — was unanimous among the Republican and Democratic members of the Governor's Housing Committee. The panel concluded the $54,000 annual cost was a relative bargain, compared to keeping the home. “It's a lot cheaper than $179,000,” said Rep. Phylis King, D-Boise, who said future governors may not be from the Boise area and could require support beyond their salary to maintain a second residence and entertain official guests, as Otter does now at his ranch west of Boise.

Ferguson: Idaho on track to open 2014 legislative session with $162M surplus

Former longtime chief state economist Mike Ferguson analyzed the latest state tax revenue news – which showed revenues surging 13.2 percent over forecasts for April, the biggest tax revenue month of the year – and concluded that lawmakers likely will have $162 million more on hand when they convene their 2014 legislative session than they thought they would two months ago, at the close of this year’s session. “While the numbers will change (for example, we don’t yet know actual May and June revenue numbers, and we don’t know what revised forecast growth rate will be used for FY 2014), it is clear there will be substantially more revenue available than policymakers thought less than two months ago,” Ferguson writers. “How this additional revenue is utilized will depend on Idaho’s public policy priorities.”

The tax revenue jump is big news for the state, Ferguson writes. “This is a significant departure from the revenue forecasts the FY 2013 and FY 2014 budgets are based on, and it has significant implications for the fiscal condition Idaho’s state budget faces in those two years (and beyond).” You can read his full analysis here. Ferguson is now the director of the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy.

Coast Guard issues permit, ‘Race the St. Joe’ jet boat race is back on

The “Race the St. Joe” jet boat race near St. Maries on May 17-19 is back on, after the U.S. Coast Guard today issued a permit for the event. Gov. Butch Otter and Idaho's congressional delegation had pleaded with the Coast Guard to permit this year's race, rather than first require a lengthy environmental assessment that would have taken until far past the race date. The permit was issued today.

Commander Eric Belleque, chief of external affairs for Coast Guard District 13, said Friday that environmental concerns were being addressed “by requirements imposed by federal, state and local agencies on the event sponsors,” and that he was confident the permit would be issued in time. Otter's letter to the Coast Guard included a memo from Idaho Fish & Game addressing concerns over eagle nests and bull trout, and recommending that zones be established around eagle nests for the event and spectators and vehicles kept out of those zones. With those steps, Fish & Game Director Virgil Moore said the event wouldn't impact sensitive wildlife in the area.

Belleque said, “As environmental stewards, the Coast Guard is responsible for ensuring that our marine event permit process complies with the letter and spirit of the law.” Click below for Otter's full announcement.

Feds back off on court appeal over slickspot peppergrass listing, Otter welcomes move

The Obama Administration today decided to drop its appeal in the 9th Circuit of a federal judge's rejection of its move to list slickspot peppergrass as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act; Gov. Butch Otter applauded the administration's decision. “It took a while, but the feds apparently have figured out that collaborating and finding common ground is more effective than forcing a wrongheaded listing down our throats,” Otter declared. He said if the plant had been listed as threatened, critical habitat designations that would follow would have been “devastating for farmers, ranchers and recreational land users in southwestern Idaho.”

Click below for Otter's full statement. The Obama Administration first listed slickspot peppergrass as threatened in 2009, but the move was overturned in court when federal Magistrate Judge Candy Dale ruled that the process the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service used for listing the plant was flawed. Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker has more info on this here.

Idaho’s first rabid bat of season confirmed, after it flew into Kootenai County home

The season’s first rabid bat has been reported in Idaho, after it flew into a northern Kootenai County home and the residents found it lying on their staircase. “It was still alive, and they just kind of used a towel to pick it up and put it outside,” said Cynthia Taggart, spokeswoman for the Panhandle Health District. “They thought it would fly away, but it didn’t, it died – and that’s not a good sign. They wisely sent it off to us for testing and it was rabid.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Everyone in the house is now being treated for rabies, Taggart said, as there’s no way to know whether anyone was bitten by the bat. “There’s no signs of bites,” she said, “But bats have such sharp teeth that they can bite and you don’t know.” Current rabies treatment involves a series of five shots administered over a couple of weeks; two of the shots are given on the first day of treatment, which must commence within 10 days of exposure. “No one’s ever developed rabies who started within that 10-day window, and these people did,” Taggart said.

Rabies is considered endemic in Idaho’s bat population, and rabid bats have been found statewide. Usually, they don’t turn up until July, but Taggart said, “This last week of hot weather was really out of the ordinary for us, so I guess a lot of bats woke up. They hibernate over the winter.”

State health officials are warning Idahoans to stay away from bats. “People should call their health care providers immediately if they have been bitten or scratched by a bat. Medical therapy administered to people after an animal bite is extremely effective in preventing rabies,” a viral illness that is fatal in humans and animals, said Dr. Leslie Tengelsen, deputy state epidemiologist. “It is extremely important for people to avoid bats or other wild animals that appear sick or are acting aggressively or abnormally.”

Said Taggart, “It’s important to let people know that if they do have a bat in their house, that they’re considered exposed. … They don’t know that it hasn’t bitten anybody, so they should right away get a hold of us.”

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare has these tips:

·Do not touch a bat with your bare hands.

·If you have had contact with a bat or wake up to find a bat in your room, seek medical advice immediately.

·If you come in contact with a bat, save it in a non-breakable container if it is alive, or sealed and double-bagged in clear plastic bags without touching it if it’s dead. Call your public health district to determine whether testing the bat for rabies is indicated. If it is determined that you or your pet may be at risk of exposure to rabies, testing of the bat is a free service.

·Always vaccinate your dogs, cats, ferrets, and horses — even indoor pets could be exposed to rabies if a bat gets into a home.

·Bat-proof your home or cabin by plugging all holes in the siding and maintaining tight-fitting screens on windows.

·Parents should teach their children to avoid bats and to let an adult know if they find one.

Feds: States should lower DUI level to .05

Federal officials are now calling for states to lower their blood-alcohol thresholds for drunken driving to .05 percent, down from the current .08, saying the move would help reduce alcohol-related traffic deaths, the AP reports. That .05 standard would be reached by a 120-pound woman after just one drink; or by a 160-pound man after two drinks. “Our goal is to get to zero deaths because each alcohol-impaired death is preventable,” said Deborah Hersman, chair of the National Transportation Safety Board. “Alcohol-impaired deaths are not accidents, they are crimes. They can and should be prevented. The tools exist. What is needed is the will.” You can read the full AP story here.

Idaho lowered its threshold for DUI from .10 to .08 in 1997, the 14th state to make that change. Now, all 50 states have the lower .08 level. Idaho’s standard for drivers of commercial vehicles is .04. 

Crapo’s lost campaign cash went to Las Vegas firm, intended for quick profit

The $250,000 bad loan of campaign cash from Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo's campaign went to a Las Vegas company that offered a quick profit in two months, according to documents obtained by the Associated Press. Then-Crapo campaign manager Jake Ball, who resigned last week as Idaho 1st District Rep. Raul Labrador's district director, said in a sworn affidavit that he trusted a longtime friend who “invested the money in a less than professional manner and, without knowing it, in fraudulent enterprises with persons who absconded with the funds.” Ball said as a father of four, he didn't have the means himself to repay the funds to the campaign. Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller. The now-defunct Las Vegas company was called Pyramid Global Resources.

With budget cuts hitting firefighting efforts, Jewell calls on folks to get ‘fire-wise’

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on today’s visit by the secretaries of the departments of Interior and Agriculture to NIFC, the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, where the two said sequestration and other federal budget cuts will hit hard just as a “difficult” fire season looms for the nation.

New Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called on citizens and communities to be “fire-wise” and take steps to protect their homes, particularly those in or near the woods or wildlands, from burning in a wildfire. “We as private citizens … play an important role,” she said, “especially in these areas where we want to live, have our cabins up in the mountains, and they are oftentimes in harm’s way.” Jewell said people need to create defensible space around homes or cabins, clear brush, trees and flammable materials, and help their neighbors do the same. “I really encourage you to do that,” she said.

This year’s fire season already has seen 13,000 fires start, but that’s actually a low number – the lowest in the last 10 years. That’s mainly because there’s been ample rain and snow across the eastern United States, limiting the fires that otherwise would normally have ignited by now in the Southeast.

But this year is expected to see above-normal risk in parts of the west, particularly the southwest, due to precipitation that’s run far below normal. Southern California has gotten only a quarter of its normal precipitation so far this year. NIFC officials said the wildfire season in West Coast states is expected to start a month earlier than normal this year as a result; fires already have been burning in southern California and even in southern Idaho.

The fire that crafting caused…

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: JEROME, Idaho (AP) — Officials in Jerome say a fire that destroyed an apartment building and damaged two nearby buildings last month started when a woman accidentally left a hot glue gun on a plastic chair. Fire Chief Jack Krill says a woman who lived in the apartments was using the hot glue gun to make piñatas on April 30. She set the glue gun down to help a customer and then left to pick up her children from school, forgetting she left it plugged in. The fire spread from the apartment building to an adjacent restaurant and an office building. Krill says the estimated damage to the buildings is more than $1 million. Krill says the woman will not be cited for starting the fire because it was accidental. He did not release her name.

All four peregrine falcon chicks downtown have now hatched…

Here’s the latest update from the Peregrine Fund on all the activity over a busy Mother’s Day in the peregrine falcon nest that sits high atop a downtown Boise building:

“It was a busy Mother’s Day for the female Peregrine Falcon! She had three new chicks in the nest on Sunday and gained another one on Monday. Both the male and female will brood the four chicks for about 10 days, depending on the weather. The young birds are not yet capable of regulating their own body temperatures, so they need to sit under the adults for warmth. The young ones also can huddle together to keep warm. The empty shells visible in the nest today will be blown out of the nest or removed by the adults along with feathers, bones, and other litter.”

You can watch live here. Early this morning, I found it very hard to stop watching the adult feed the fuzzy white chicks, a couple of whom were stretching their mouths up expectantly, while the others alternately snoozed, bobbed their heads, or were stepped on by their siblings as they cuddled together in a rough pile of fuzz.

Idaho inmate suicide reported; third such hanging in a year and a half

The Idaho Department of Correction reports that a 34-year-old inmate apparently committed suicide by hanging himself in his cell at the Idaho State Correctional Institution over the weekend. Brandon Munk was found hanging in his cell Saturday at 6:12 p.m.; emergency responders were able to restore his pulse, and he was taken to St. Alphonsus Medical Center, but he died there early Sunday afternoon. Munk was serving a two- to five-year sentence for forgery in Bannock County; he was scheduled to be released in July of 2014. The department has asked the Ada County Sheriff’s Office for assistance in investigating the death.

It was the first suicide reported at an Idaho state prison this year; last year, there were two, one at ISCI and one at the Pocatello Women’s Correctional Center, and both also by hanging.

Judges fear IDOC using probation to manage budget

Idaho judges are raising concerns that the state Department of Correction is pressing to inappropriately release some offenders on probation to ease a swelling prison population, the Idaho Statesman newspaper reported Sunday in a front-page article by reporter Dan Popkey. At issue is the state's “rider” program, in which judges can retain jurisdiction over offenders while they undergo an intensive program for 90 to 180 days, after which the judge can decide whether to release them on probation, or release jurisdiction and send them to prison for their full sentences, based on how they fare in the program. Fourth District Judge Mike Wetherell is raising the alarm, as is 4th District Judge Cheri Copsey. In a letter to the heads of the House and Senate judiciary committees and IDOC chief Brent Reinke, Wetherell wrote, “I believe the problem could in the future, if it has not already, create serious public sfety concerns.”

Wetherell noted a case in which an IDOC employee recommended probation for a sex offender, telling the court, “We're out of space in the prison and they want us to be very judicious in who we recommend,” Popkey reported. Two weeks after Wetherell sent that offender back to prison, Copsey rejected a probation recommendation from another offender and attached the 82-page transcript of Wetherell's earlier sentencing hearing. Wetherell said in the hearing that he objected to “a system in which pressure is placed upon employees,” and said, “It is their obligation to say we would like to recommend incarceration in this case, but budgetary constraints prohibit us from doing so. That's called honesty.”

You can read Popkey's full report here; click below for a shorter version of the story via the Associated Press. IDOC denies that it's pressuring employees to release offenders on probation who shouldn't be released, and said the employees must have misunderstood. In a sidebar, Popkey reports that another Idaho judge is raising concerns that IDOC's medical services contractor is skimping on prescription medications for inmates in the rider program, causing them psychological and medical problems that then lead to them failing the rider and being sent to prison for their full terms.

Budget cuts hit as ‘difficult’ fire season looms

With a “difficult” fire season looming, firefighters are facing budget cuts that will result in 500 fewer firefighters for the Forest Service alone and 50 fewer engines available, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack said this morning in a visit to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise. “We’re going to be faced obviously with a difficult fire season, make no mistake about that,” he said. “The resources are limited. Our budgets have obviously been constrained.”

Other agencies also are facing cuts. New Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, who toured NIFC yesterday and today, said, “We will fight the fires and we will do them safely, but the resources will go to suppression, which is not ideal. … What you’re not doing is putting the resources in place to thoughtfully manage the landscapes for the future.” That means things like replanting and efforts to reduce hazardous fuels will suffer. “If we have a really tough season, we … may bring in more contract resources,” Jewell said. “We’ll have to take it out of other parts of our budget which are also struggling. We may be making decisions in the short run to take care of fires but in the long run not setting ourselves up for success.”

Sen. Jim Risch, R-Idaho, said if catastrophic fires are burning in August and sufficient resources aren’t available, he believes Congress would come through with emergency funding. Vilsack responded with a chuckle, “You get that down? Can you send that to me?

Vilsack said in addition to the 5 percent sequestration cut that the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture took, “Congress added on that another 2 percent.” Making those cuts this far into the fiscal year, he said, means they cut “in essence 15 percent of your remaining money.”

Hoffman gets speeding ticket, now he wants speeding laws changed

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A conservative Idaho think tank's leader upset at his $155 speeding ticket is calling for the Legislature to hold hearings on the state's laws governing driving too fast. Wayne Hoffman of the Idaho Freedom Foundation doesn't like the rules governing excessive speeding, which he says were set by the courts. He thinks the Legislature should take up the matter. Hoffman was caught recently driving 73 miles per hour on a northern Idaho road where the limit is 55 miles per hour. Hoffman thinks the 1988 Legislature abandoned its constitutional role by leaving matters including the definition of excessive speeding up to the Idaho Supreme Court. In a guest editorial, Hoffman says he'll cut something out of his budget to pay the fine, but it won't be food for his kids.

Peregrine chicks hatch downtown

At least some of the four eggs in the peregrine falcon nesting box atop a downtown Boise skyscraper have hatched, and tiny, fuzzy chicks are now being brooded, or kept warm, by their mother on this Mother’s Day.  You can watch live here. There’s some info here on how peregrine falcon chicks grow and develop and what to expect in the coming days and weeks. When I peeked at the webcam this afternoon, the mom was brooding the chicks, then flew out of the nest and returned with some food, ate most of it, and fed some of it to the softly cheeping chicks, concentrating on one of the two. There appeared to be two chicks and two remaining eggs still to hatch.Then the proud mom settled back in, huddling over the chicks and eggs.

Former Crapo staffer: ‘He trusted me to place cash and I did’

Here's the latest on the Crapo campaign's $250,000 loss from a bad loan by former campaign manager Jake Ball: Ball has now resigned from his current position on the staff of 1st District Rep. Raul Labrador, though he says it's unrelated to the loan issue. Ball told the AP he decided to leave to pursue a personal business venture. He said he made no effort to keep the loan of Crapo's campaign funds to a longtime friend secret, though he didn't disclose it to Crapo until he was leaving his campaign staff in late 2010. “We never generally discussed investments,” Ball said. “He trusted me to place cash and I did.” He said he regrets the campaign lost money, but calculated in 2008 that he'd done sufficient due-diligence on his investment with his friend to conclude that the transaction was appropriate. “I saw what Gavin was going to do on his end, I saw how the funds were going to be held, and I evaluated it to be safe,” he said.

Ball released this statement: “I deeply regret that the campaign lost money.  I am grateful for the amazing experience I’ve had to work for both Senator Crapo and Congressman Labrador. I have evaluated my future and options. Even though Congressman Labrador offered to support me if I wanted to stay on staff, I elected to depart and pursue a business venture I have been working on for several years.  The venture is an e-commerce website, www.childrensbookstore.com.”

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

Former Crapo campaign chief made the bad loan to longtime friend

Stephen Ryan, a Washington, D.C. attorney hired by Sen. Mike Crapo’s campaign to look into the loss of $250,000 in campaign funds through a bad loan, said this afternoon that then-campaign manager Jake Ball loaned the money to Gavin McCaleb, whom he’d known for 16 years, and McCaleb invested it into real estate ventures in Nevada and California that went sour. McCaleb is bankrupt, and the campaign can’t collect from him, Ryan said.

Ball, who now works for 1stDistrict Rep. Raul Labrador, didn’t tell Crapo about the bad loan until he was leaving the staff in late 2010; because the campaign was between treasurers, he was the sole staffer who approved that use of the campaign funds. “We had a campaign person who made a bad business decision and lost the money,” Ryan said; he said Ball was not fired for the incident. “I think Mr. Ball made an error of judgment in making the investment, but I found no evidence that he intended to benefit personally in any way,” Ryan said. “He did trust someone who he knew well,” and that didn’t turn out well.

As for the campaign donors who gave that $250,000 to Crapo’s campaign, Ryan said, “Certainly there’s been a lot of money that’s been properly used in his campaign.” He said, “I think most people understand that this can happen in a business situation, that somebody makes a mistake and it’s a loss and it’s unfortunate. So there’s probably 250 people who cared enough about the senator to give $1,000 and may have to dig deep and give it again.” Crapo has $3.3 million piled up in his campaign warchest, far more than any other member of Idaho’s congressional delegation, though he’s not up for election again until 2016.

Sen. Crapo says his campaign lost $250K on a bad loan to Idaho company

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo’s campaign is filing amended campaign finance reports for 2008 and 2009 to reflect an “investment loss” of $250,000 in the form of a bad loan to an Idaho company. “The loan was never repaid,” Crapo’s campaign said in a statement today, after a third party “absconded with the money.”

The $250,000 loan was made to an Idaho-based limited liability company called Blueberry Guru LLC. “According to Gavin McCaleb, the managing member of the company that invested the loan, Blueberry Guru handed the funds over to a third-party venture that absconded with the money,” the Crapo campaign said, adding that the senator was informed of the loss in late 2010. Since then, the statement said, the campaign has been working with legal representatives in Idaho and California, and voluntarily reported the matter to federal law enforcement. “Ultimately, the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office indicated late last year that neither were in a position to pursue the matter further and the investigation was closed.”

The campaign said Crapo himself was not involved in the decision to make the loan, and learned of it only after the investment had gone bad. The campaign has retained a Washington, D.C. attorney to advise it on how to recover the money and how to report it to the FEC; attorney Stephen Ryan advised that recovery is unlikely. “Although the campaign reviewed many avenues to retrieve the money, those efforts have been unsuccessful,” Ryan said, “and it is necessary and appropriate to file amended campaign reports for the time period involved now that this conclusion has been reached.”

The Associated Press reported this morning that the loan was approved by former Crapo campaign manager Jake Ball, who is now on U.S. Rep. Raul Labrador's staff; Ball didn't immediately return an AP phone call seeking comment.

“I was not asked about nor approved this loan, and am certainly disappointed that the money was lost,” Crapo said. “This circumstance occurred during a period of transition between treasurers. I have ensured that the campaign has made the appropriate adjustments to prevent this, or anything similar, from happening in the future.”

Crapo spokesman Lindsay Nothern said the campaign had made no other similar loans; it had invested in CDs and other similar investments to designed to increase campaign funds during off-election years.

Security tightened at Idaho prisons HQ after Colorado shooting

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho's prisons chief says steps have been taken to bolster security at the agency's headquarters in Boise after the fatal shooting in March of Colorado's prisons director. Idaho Department of Correction Director Brent Reinke said Thursday that armed security guards have been moved to the first floor of the agency's main office building. Reinke also informed the Board of Correction that more mirrored windows have been installed throughout the office to better monitor traffic. Reinke says the agency is trying to be more vigilant, aware of surroundings and not taking safety for granted. In March, Colorado's corrections chief Tom Clements was gunned down at his home near Denver. Colorado authorities believe the shooter was a former inmate released early because of a clerical error.

Film, discussion tonight designed to spark anti-hunger efforts in Idaho

The Idaho Hunger Relief Task Force and an array of other non-profit, anti-hunger and religious organizations are sponsoring a showing of the film “A Place at the Table” at the Egyptian Theater tonight, followed by a panel discussion and opportunities for attendees to get involved in fighting hunger and food insecurity in their communities. Kathy Gardner, task force director, said,To provide food security for all Idahoans and address issues of obesity and health, the focus must change. There are a lot of ways for people to get involved.”

Tickets for the 7 p.m. screening are $10 general or $7 for seniors or students; proceeds will benefit Fresh Fund, which provides low-income consumers with incentives that match the amount of food stamps they spend on healthy local foods at local farmers' markets. There’s more info here.

Idahoans displaced by foreclosure have ‘til June 30 to apply for aid

Time is running out for Idahoans displaced by foreclosure to apply for assistance, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden and Community Action Partnership Association of Idaho Executive Director Christina Zamora said today. Wasden said Idaho's legal settlement last year with the five largest mortgage servicers covered a grant to CAPAI to assist Idahoans with expenses like moving costs, first and last month's rent, security deposits and more to move from a foreclosed home into safe and affordable housing. “I encourage eligible Idahoans to contact CAPAI immediately to take advantage of this limited opportunity,” Wasden said.

Said Zamora, “We still have nearly $94,000 available to assist Idahoans who are in transition due to foreclosure, but that funding expires on June 30.” Click below for more information.

Governor, congressional delegation push Coast Guard to OK St. Joe jet boat race

Both Gov. Butch Otter and Idaho’s congressional delegation fired off letters to the Coast Guard yesterday pushing for approval of the jet boat race on the St. Joe River in North Idaho that had been scheduled for May 17-19 – until the Coast Guard launched an environmental assessment process that will take until long after the race date has passed. “We ask that you use your authority to issue the permit to allow the races to proceed as planned,” Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo and 1stDistrict Rep. Raul Labrador wrote to Coast Guard Rear Admiral Keith A. Taylor. Wrote the governor, “Since the race is in less than two weeks, I am requesting the USCG use its discretion to assess the merits of the complaint and exercise its authority to issue a permit by May 10, 2013, to ensure that the race can take place.”

Both said the event had all its needed permits from the state and Benewah and Shoshone counties, but after a protest was received, the need for a Coast Guard permit was triggered – and the Coast Guard said it would take a 135-day environmental assessment before that could be issued. “This series of events has placed the race organizers in a no-win situation,” the senators and congressman wrote. “They did not need a permit from the USCB until a complaint was filed, and the complaint was not filed in time for the USCG to complete an environmental assessment so that a permit could be issued before the dates of the races.”

Otter attached a memo to his letter from Idaho Fish & Game Director Virgil Moore saying the proposed races wouldn’t have significant impact on bull trout; and potential impacts on bald eagle nests could be mitigated by setting up a zone around each nest site a quarter-mile in radius, on both sides of the river, where no spectators could gather or park to watch the race, and monitoring the nest sites both before and after the race.

Wrote Otter, “As you can see from the biological science, the jet boat race should be permitted if proper steps are taken by race organizers.” He argued, “The Race the Joe! Jet boat race has an important positive economic impact to the surrounding communities.”

The congressional delegation encouraged the Coast Guard to complete the environmental assessment for future events, but let this year’s race go forward. You can read the governor’s letter here, and the delegation’s letter here.

‘Bottom Rung:’ Idaho’s tech boom in ‘90s stalled, job transition ‘fell apart’

StateImpact Idaho’s current series on low-wage work in Idaho, entitled “Bottom Rung,” has an eye-opening look today on how Idaho’s labor picture is changing, and it’s not an encouraging one. “The structural problem is that the nature of the economy is changing,” retired University of Idaho economist Stephen Cooke told StateImpact. “It looked as if Idaho was about to make a very nice transition to a high-skilled manufacturing sector, and then it fell apart.” 

“Cooke says this is the important story, and it’s one that has unfolded gradually, obscured by the noise of Idaho’s rapid growth and deep recession,” StateImpact reports. “In the 1990s, Idaho looked poised to stake its claim to a sizable number of skilled manufacturing jobs. That stalled. Over 10 years, computer and electronic manufacturing employment in Idaho fell by 40 percent.” You can read StateImpact’s full report here.

Idaho wages drop to 84% of national average in 2012

Idaho workers’ average hourly wages were 84 percent of the national average in 2012, the Idaho Department of Labor reports, down from 85.2 percent of average in 2011. That ranked the state 45th in the nation, down from 44th in 2011. For all occupations, a new report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics showed that Boise workers made 11 percent less than the national average wage; Coeur d’Alene workers, 21 percent less; Idaho Falls, 22 percent less; Lewiston, 17 percent less; and Pocatello, 19 percent less. Pocatello was the state’s only metro area where the percentage increased from the year before. You can read a full report here from the Idaho Department of Labor.

New heavy-truck routes in North Idaho likely at least a year away

Controversial legislation to let extra-heavy trucks – up to 129,000 pounds – run by permit on state and local routes throughout Idaho is now law, but it’s unlikely any new routes will be designated for the heavier trucks in North Idaho before the spring of next year. Idaho’s state transportation board is starting a lengthy rule-making process to figure out how to handle requests for trucks exceeding the state’s current 105,500-pound weight limit, including requests for segments of busy, winding U.S. Highway 95 through North Idaho. The new rules would be presented to lawmakers for approval in their 2014 legislative session.

“I think the primary thing is the way the roads are built in North Idaho: Can they handle the weight?” asked Jim Coleman, the Panhandle member of the state transportation board. “I think you have to evaluate them on a case-by-case basis.”

The ITD’s approach is drawing plaudits from the new law’s opponents, who include North Idaho lawmakers, local government officials, highway districts and even loggers and truckers. Mill owners and agricultural producers, led by Coeur d’Alene-based Idaho Forest Group, proposed and backed the new law, saying hauling bigger loads will boost their efficiency and bottom lines in a big way – and also mean fewer trucks total on the roads. State Transportation Director Brian Ness said, “We can’t rush something through and risk public safety. … We serve the taxpayers of Idaho, and we have an obligation to listen to them, get their input.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Hatch nearing for four peregrine falcon eggs in downtown nesting box…

The chicks in the four eggs in the peregrine falcon nesting box atop a downtown Boise building are preparing to break out of their shells, the Peregrine Fund reports this morning. When I looked at the Falconcam, an adult falcon was looking down expectantly at the eggs. Click below for more info on what’s happening, and you can watch live here.

Nampa schools take another financial hit

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: NAMPA, Idaho (AP) — The Nampa School District is facing a $1.2 million hit after a financial analyst discovered the money went to general operations rather than repayment of bonds. District Finance Officer Michelle Yankovich told the Nampa school board Tuesday that the money is a “cash flow” problem and does not add to the district's $5.1 million budget deficit. The district has been beset with money problems after budgeting errors that included counting almost $3 million in one-time money twice and over-expenditure of about $1 million. Board members at the meeting voted to borrow as much as $6.3 million from D.L. Evans Bank to meet daily expenses. Interim Superintendent Tom Michaelson says he hopes the bond debt is the last of the financial problems to be uncovered.

Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News has a full report here.

Tax-protesting ex-Idaho lawmaker’s funds to be probed

A bankruptcy judge has ordered a tax-protesting former Idaho state representative to submit to intense new scrutiny of his finances, something federal lawyers say is necessary to prevent him from hiding assets from creditors including the U.S. government, the AP reports. Phil Hart now must appear at a hearing May 20 in U.S. Bankruptcy Court in Coeur d'Alene, according to an order from Chief U.S. Bankruptcy Judge Terry Myers.

Hart, a Republican from Athol who lost his bid for re-election in the GOP primary last year, has been ordered by courts to pay the federal and state governments more than $600,000 in delinquent income taxes, interest and penalties. He filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy protection in January after the U.S. government moved in 2011 to seize his log home in northern Idaho to satisfy debts; it was his third bankruptcy filing, after the first two were questioned as inappropriate and were either withdrawn or dismissed.

With his order, Myers is forcing Hart to submit to what's called a “Rule 2004 Examination,” a provision of bankruptcy law meant to untangle a debtor's murky finances; among other things, Hart must provide statements from every account he's controlled since 2011. Click below for a full report from Associated Press reporter John Miller. Hart told Miller, “My understanding is this is a normal process for a person going through bankruptcy.”

Idaho’s state tax revenues for April surge 13.2 percent over forecast

Idaho’s general fund tax revenue in April – the biggest revenue month of the year – came in 13.2 percent ahead of forecasts, with collections surging $56.4 million above the expected level, the largest margin by far of any month this fiscal year. That puts the state $79.05 million ahead for the fiscal year, for an overall year-to-date surplus over forecasts of 3.5 percent, according to the state Division of Financial Management.

You can read the full April General Fund Revenue Report here. April marked the second month of this fiscal year in which all revenue categories beat their respective targets, with individual income tax coming in the strongest, at $35 million over the forecast. Corporate income taxes were $14.4 million ahead of forecasts for the month, while sales taxes were closest to projections, at $3.5 million over. For the fiscal year to date, Idaho has collected $2.32 billion in general fund tax revenues, well above both the $2.24 billion forecast  and last year’s mark at the same time of $2.17 billion.

Idaho Court of Appeals upholds sentence, rules defendant statement not a constitutional right

While criminal defendants in Idaho have a right to make a statement before being sentenced, it’s a procedural right, not a constitutional right, the Idaho Court of Appeals has ruled. Declining to overturn the sentencing of a North Idaho man on a statutory rape charge, the unanimous court held that the only time that the right of “allocution,” or making a statement, is a constitutional right guaranteed by due process is when the defendant requests to make a statement, and the district court “affirmatively denies” the request.

In the case of Scott Anthony Hansen, who was sentenced in 2011 to two to eight years in prison by 1st District Judge Steven Verby in Bonner County, the judge told Hansen at sentencing that he’d afford him an opportunity to make a statement. Hansen’s attorney said his client did have a statement, but first he had information for the court and three witnesses to call. The witnesses were called and arguments presented, and the defense asked for a maximum sentence of five years, while prosecutors asked for up to 10 years. The judge listened to the arguments and witness testimony, then directly questioned Hansen on several points, before imposing the sentence of up to eight years.

“Hansen … argues that the violation of his due process rights, by denying him allocution at sentencing, resulted in a greater punishment than the district court otherwise would have imposed,” Chief Judge Sergio Gutierrez wrote in the court’s unanimous opinion. But, he wrote, “From the record, we cannot conclude the district court’s failure to later invite a statement was an affirmative denial of the opportunity to allocute, and not simply an oversight.” He added, “A violation by the district court of a rule of procedure does not necessarily equate to a deprivation of a constitutional right.”

In the same ruling, the Court of Appeals rejected Hansen’s contention that he’d been given an excessive sentence. He was charged with one count of statutory rape and one of lewd conduct with a minor under the age of 16 for sexual relationships with two 13-year-old girls when he was 18; under a plea agreement, he pled guilty to the statutory rape charge and the other charge was dropped. The judge retained jurisdiction, which means Hansen had the opportunity to be released on probation after completing an intensive “rider” program at the North Idaho Correctional Institution at Cottonwood, but less than two months into the rider Hansen’s case manager at NICI recommended revocation of the rider due to numerous disciplinary issues. “Hansen grew more defiant and blatantly disregarded treatment requirements and recommendations,” the court found. So the judge relinquished jurisdiction, sending Hansen to prison for up to his full term; he remains there now.

“The district court noted that Hansen’s high risk for recidivism and unwillingness or inability to comply with the law supported an execution of the sentence originally imposed,” Gutierrez wrote. “The sentence was not excessive.” You can read the full ruling here.

Idaho home prices show 4th-biggest gain in nation

Idaho home prices showed the fourth-biggest gain in the nation in a national survey comparing home prices in March to those a year earlier; Idaho home prices were 14.5 percent higher. Nevada saw the largest gain at 22.2 percent; California was next at 17.2 percent, and Arizona was third at 16.8 percent. Oregon was just behind Idaho with a 14.3 percent increase.

The data, from Core Logic, a real estate data provider, showed that nationwide, home prices increased 10.5 percent, and that they've now increased for 13 straight months. Record low mortgage rates, more demand and a limited supply of homes for sale were among factors driving the increases; the number of homes for sale in March was 17 percent below that of a year earlier. Click below for a full report from the Associated Press in Washington, D.C.

Soldier from Meridian killed in Afghanistan

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A 22-year-old southwestern Idaho man was among five soldiers killed over the weekend in a roadside bomb blast in Afghanistan. Specialist Thomas Paige Murach of Meridian died Saturday in Maiwand in southern Afghanistan, not far from the border with Pakistan. Military officials say Murach was among five soldiers from Fort Bliss in Texas serving in the 1st Brigade, 1st Armored Division who died in the attack. Murach died alongside Spc. Kevin Cardoza of Mercedes, Texas; 1st Lieutenant Brandon James Landrum of Lawton, Okla.; Staff Sgt. Francis Gene Phillips the Fourth of Meridian, N.Y.; and Spc. Brandon Joseph Prescott of Bend, Ore. Murach's family members issued a statement Monday after the announcement, saying Murach was “passionate about everything he did,” and saying, “Tom loved being an Army infantryman and he never complained about the difficulty of his duties. He believed in the mission the Army performs, and he saw the value of that mission and the impact he was making in Afghanistan.” 

Click below for a full report from the Idaho Statesman via the AP.

Senate passes online sales tax bill; both Risch, Crapo vote no

The Marketplace Fairness Act, the bill allowing states to require merchants to collect and remit sales taxes for online purchases by their residents, has passed the Senate on an overwhelming 69-27 vote, with bipartisan backing. It's expected to face a tougher time in the House; click below for a full report from McClatchy's bureau in Washington, D.C.

Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch both voted no, though they’ve both been supportive of the concept and backed the bill in an earlier procedural vote. “They basically felt at the end of the day there wasn’t enough amendments that were offered,” said Crapo spokesman Lindsay Nothern. “There was a lot of concern about different provisions in the bill. We got some feedback from a lot of small businesses that were concerned about it.”

Just one amendment to the bill was offered in the Senate, and both Crapo and Risch supported it; it passed, 70-24, and included changes easing states’ process for participating. But it didn’t include raising the small business exemption from the bill’s $1 million annual receipts level, something both Idaho senators favored. “They did express support for the right of states to be able to determine this and not the federal government,” Nothern said, “but in the end felt that the bill had some flaws that could have been ironed out with the amendment process but were not.”

Otter sent letters pitching Idaho to 79 gun, ammo makers in 28 states

When Idaho Gov. Butch Otter decided to go after gun and ammo manufacturers elsewhere in a bid to convince them to move their businesses to Idaho, he didn’t do it in a small way. The governor penned a two-page letter that went out to 79 gun and ammunition manufacturers in 28 states. “Here in Idaho, gun ownership is more than a constitutional right; it’s a way of life,” Otter said in the letter. “That’s why I’m personally extending an invitation for you to grow your bottom line here in Idaho and joint the business momentum we are experiencing in Idaho.”

He added, “In Idaho, we know what ‘business friendly’ means. We cherish and defend freedom, and we protect the Second Amendment. Those principles are in the very fiber of who we are, and we welcome the opportunity to show you our great state and be a partner in your future success.” You can read the April 25 letter here.

Fish & Game: Go catch all the fish you want at Little Camas Res before it’s drained

The Idaho Department of Fish & Game today issued a “salvage order” for Little Camas Reservoir in Elmore County, lifting all bag, possession and size limits. That’s because the reservoir is headed for a draining by early summer for irrigation, and Fish & Game “would like the public to use as many of the fish as possible.” Fish may be taken, F&G announced, “by any method except firearms, explosives, chemicals or electric current.”

The order takes effect on Tuesday, May 7, and runs through Sept. 30. F&G cautioned anglers that regular limits remain in place elsewhere, including possession limits. So if someone caught 20 trout at Little Camas, which historically has been known for its trout fishery, and then moved elsewhere to do more fishing and brought the 20 fish along, they’d be in violation of the possession limit at the new fishing spot. Another thing to note: Fishing licenses still are required.

Not just anyone can comment on Castle Rocks climbing closure; here’s what’s up…

By the way, after I posted the AP story a few posts down about the BLM’s decision to close off climbing access at the popular Castle Rocks in eastern Idaho, a reader asked for a link to where people could offer public comments. That turned out to be a good question, and opened up kind of a can of worms. I couldn’t find anything on the BLM’s website, so I contacted them. It turns out they’re not in a public comment period on the Castle Rocks climbing access issue, they’re in a 30-day “protest period.” That means the decision’s already been made, but they won’t carry it out until after they review and consider any protests filed during that period, which started April 17 and runs for 30 days.

However, and this is a big however, the only people who can protest during this protest period are those who submitted public comments during the public comment period, which ran from August to December of 2011. Mike Courtney, Burley field manager for the BLM, said anyone who participated in that public comment period got a green card by certified mail instructing them of their opportunity to protest the decision. The date in their card is the date on which their 30-day clock starts ticking. Plus, the only protests that can be raised are issues that were submitted for consideration in the planning process that ended in December of 2011.

The public is clearly concerned about this issue, and also equally confused about the process. “We’re getting hundreds of emails,” Courtney said. “We’ll go through ‘em.” But according to the formal process the BLM must follow, those emails can’t be considered. “Using this process, they’re not going to get weighed in the decision,” he said. Many of those sending the emails, however, commented in the earlier process, he said, and are eligible to participate in the protest period.

Here's how to find out about the protest process: Go to this link, and then click on “Castle Rocks Proposed Decision Record and FONSI.” (FONSI, it turns out, has nothing to do with Henry Winkler, and instead is a federal-ese acronym that stands for “Finding Of No Significant Impact.”) That will take you to a 12-page PDF document; the instructions for filing protests are on Page 6. Courtney said, “You’ve got to read that document. It’s very specific.” For example, protests may not be filed by email; only by hard copy, and they go to D.C.

Courtney said, “People who have not been engaged but want to engage now should work through the Access Fund.” That’s a non-profit rock climbing advocacy group based in Boulder, Colo., that’s been engaged throughout the project; see its website here. Policy analyst R.D. Pascoe is the contact person there on this issue. “I submitted the protest today,” he told Eye on Boise. The group's “Action Center” page on the issue can be seen here.

Pascoe said, “We’ve worked closely with the state park and the BLM and the Forest Service since 2003 at least to try to work out a climbing management plan.” That plan was adopted to govern climbing at the Castle Rocks State Park portion of the area in 2003, he said, and “it has been used successfully there this whole time.” Pascoe said if the protests aren’t successful, his group will consider a lawsuit.

 

Otter signs first two pardons as governor, both for first-time drug-sale offenders

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has pardoned two first-time offenders who were convicted of selling drugs to undercover officers, years after they served their time, paid all restitution and fines, met and exceeded the terms of their parole and lived for years in society as employed, productive citizens. They are the only pardons Otter’s signed since he first was elected governor in 2006. “I do not condone the sale or manufacture of illegal drugs,” Otter wrote in his orders approving the pardons of each of the two men, Eric Robert Hinckley, 37, and Robert Frank Thornton, 57. “Notwithstanding these concerns, there are several mitigating factors that weigh in favor of clemency.”

Hinckley was convicted of delivery of a controlled substance in 2002 in Bonneville County, for selling methamphetamine. Since completing his sentence and his parole, he’s obtained a college degree, married and held the same job for nine years. Thornton was convicted of two counts of delivery of a controlled substance, cocaine, in an undercover police operation in Ada County in 1992. Like Hinckley, he pled guilty, completed his sentence and parole; since then, he’s been a law-abiding citizen for 17 years; he is employed as a construction supervisor. Both men are married with children and own homes. “This is the way it’s supposed to work,” Otter said in a statement. “We send people to prison to protect the public, for punishment and as a deterrent. But we also send them to prison to be rehabilitated and, we hope, to be redeemed as citizens, neighbors, fathers, husbands and taxpayers. Too often it doesn’t work out that way. But for Robert Thornton and Eric Hinckley, it did. I’m proud of them. I’m confident they’ll stay on track.”

Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian, said although the orders were dated April 8, Otter just signed them last week. “So we just put it out,” he said. “He was doing is own due diligence; that’s what took so long.” The two cases had “unique circumstances,” Hanian said, including unanimous recommendations from the state Commission on Pardons and Parole to grant pardons. “These are the first two pardons that the governor has ever signed,” Hanian said. “It’s unusual that one reaches the governor’s office.”

How about the ‘Official Month of Many Proclamations,’ perhaps?

May is a multi-purpose month in Idaho, according to seven official proclamations (so far) signed by Gov. Butch Otter. May 2013 in Idaho has now been officially proclaimed as 2nd Amendment Protection Month, Building Safety Month, Community Action Month, Electrical Safety Month, Lupus Awareness Month, Mental Health Month, and Motorcycle Safety Awareness Month.

“This time of year is our peak for proclamations,” said Jon Hanian, Otter’s press secretary; May and June are the busiest months. The governor signs lots of proclamations declaring official days, weeks or months, usually at the request of various organizations. But no organization requested today’s “2nd Amendment Protection Month” proclamation, Hanian said. “In this case, he initiated this. … This was something he wanted to do.”

“He wants gun manufacturers to know that while there are some states going after the 2nd Amendment, in Idaho we plan to uphold it,” Hanian said. “We want them to know that here in Idaho, the welcome mat is out.”

Otter to gun, ammo makers: Come to Idaho

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter today proclaimed May to be “2nd Amendment Protection Month” and is inviting arms and ammunition manufacturers to consider relocating to the Gem State. “The National Rifle Association ranks Idaho as a gun-friendly state whose laws are among the least restrictive in the nation,” Otter said in his official proclamation. “The state of Idaho openly embraces companies in the arms and ammunition manufacturing sector to expand or relocate to the state.”

The governor also sent letters to industry leaders to press his invitation, writing, “In Idaho, we know what ‘business friendly’ means.”

His proclamation and efforts were touted in a press release from the state’s Department of Commerce, which quoted Fred Newcome, vice president of sales for PNW Arms, which recently relocated to Potlatch, Idaho, saying, “Idaho offered us an opportunity to relocate somewhere where we could be in a more comfortable environment.”

The department said in its release, “Idaho already is home to a robust, thriving arms and ammunition industry with over 180 companies that manufacture custom arms, aftermarket parts and specialized ammunition. The state embraces this industry sector and has a number of statutes in place restricting lawsuits against firearms or ammunition manufactures and limiting product liability.” Click here for a link to the governor's full proclamation; click below for the full Commerce announcement. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Popular eastern Idaho rock climbing spot threatened with permanent closure

The federal Bureau of Land Management may permanently close a popular climbing site in southeastern Idaho, reports AP reporter Hannah Furfaro, over opposition from local rock climbers who argue the plan is too restrictive and was pushed through without stakeholder input. The 400-acre area known as Castle Rocks has been closed off and on to climbers since 2003, and may close permanently sometime this summer. Agency officials say they hope make a decision this month, depending how much feedback they receive from the public.The site atrracts climbers not only from Idaho but from around the world; click below for Furfaro's full report.

Labrador continues to surprise Idaho’s political establishment…

Spokesman-Review correspondent Kip Hill writes in Sunday’s paper, “While speaking to Latino voters in Boise about a decade ago, Raul Labrador caught the eye of Idaho’s highest-ranking Democrat in the state House of Representatives. The audience was captivated by Labrador, an immigration lawyer fluent in Spanish, and former state House Minority Leader Wendy Jaquet recalls pulling the charismatic speaker aside to explore his interest in running for a seat in the Idaho Legislature. “I talked to Raul and asked, ‘Would you be interested in running for office?’ ” Jaquet explained, learning that Labrador already had given it some thought. But when they began talking partisan allegiances and Jaquet’s interest in recruiting him to run as a Democrat, Labrador began to laugh. “No, no, I’m a conservative Republican,” he told her.

Writes hill, “It wasn’t the first time, nor would it be the last, that the political establishment would be surprised by Labrador, now Idaho’s 1st Congressional District representative. In a seven-year political career, the 45-year-old from Eagle has positioned himself as a resoundingly conservative voice among young Republican lawmakers trying to broaden the GOP’s appeal among voters. With immigration reform as a potential vehicle to do just that, Labrador is combining his political wisdom with a familiar leadership role to try to nudge the party back to its populist conservative roots.” You can read the full article here.

Raising it, spending it…

A few more tidbits from the first-quarter campaign finance reports: Yes, Sen. Mike Crapo and Rep. Raul Labrador both actually spent more than they raised in the first quarter of this year (Crapo raised $32,000 and spent $103,000; while Labrador raised $22,120 and spent $37,158). Crapo’s biggest expenses were $13,168 for fundraising consulting, $15,000 for polling and $29,243 for legal fees. The legal fees were for campaign finance legal advice, and weren’t related to Crapo’s Jan. 4 guilty plea to DUI. Said Crapo’s press secretary, Judd Deere, “No campaign funds have been used in relation to the DUI. … It was a personal matter and he paid for it with personal funds.”

Labrador’s biggest single expense for the quarter: The $6,046 he paid in salary to his wife, Becca, who keeps the campaign’s books.

Sen. Jim Risch, who raised more than twice what he spent during the quarter, had campaign events as his biggest expense. Rep. Mike Simpson, who ended the quarter with the smallest campaign warchest of the four, nevertheless  transferred $20,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, described as a “transfer of excess campaign funds.”

Crapo’s campaign warchest biggest in Idaho delegation

Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo has by far the biggest campaign warchest of anyone in the Idaho congressional delegation, Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey reports today, with $3.3 million piled up. Popkey went through the first quarter reports filed with the Federal Election Commission, and reported that Crapo, who won’t be on the ballot again until May of 2016, raised about $32,000 from January to March and spent about $103,000. Meanwhile, Sen. Jim Risch raised $50,400, spent $23,170, and had $259,523 on hand; 1st District Rep. Raul Labrador raised $22,120, spent $37,158, and had $235,433 on hand; and 2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson raised $86,850, spent $81,513, and had $71,826 in cash. You can read Popkey’s full report here.

First ‘Idaho Gives’ day brings in more than $578K for nonprofits

The take from the first “Idaho Gives” day: More than $578,000 in donations to 500-plus Idaho non-profits, with nearly 6,200 people across the state making donations. “I really felt that if we got a couple hundred thousand dollars I would have thought we were pretty successful,” Lynn Hoffman, executive director of the Idaho Nonprofit Center, told the Associated Press. “So to almost reach $600,000 is amazing.”

The Idaho Humane Society was the biggest beneficiary, with $13,123; both the Idaho Foodbank and Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest also received more than $13,000. Smaller nonprofits also got into the act, with seven small groups bringing in more than $3,000. Click below for a full report from the AP.

 

Blackfoot woman receives open government award

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A Blackfoot woman who helped expose secret school district payments won kudos for making government more open. Joyce Bingham, a substitute teacher, was named Thursday as recipient of the 2013 Max Dalton Open Government Award, for which she'll receive $1,000. Bingham gets the award, awarded annually since 1999 by the Idaho Newspaper Foundation, after making a request under Idaho's Public Records Law to the Blackfoot School District. She'd heard rumors former superintendent Scott Crane got a large payout for resigning. The district denied her request, prompting Bingham to take trustees to court where she eventually won. The documents showed the district paid $210,000 to Crane — and conspired to keep the cash secret. Foundation director Tom Grote says Bingham risked retaliation to ensure important information saw the light of day.

Bus passenger smelled like marijuana, drug dog finds $27K worth in his luggage

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BURLEY, Idaho (AP) — Authorities in south-central Idaho say a drug-sniffing dog found $27,000 worth of Marijuana on a passenger bus at a stop in Burley. The Cassia County Sheriff's Office tells The Times-News (http://bit.ly/11YByje) that Kuma found the nearly six pounds of marijuana in luggage on Wednesday. Police say 24-year-old Romal Khair was taken into custody and faces charges of felony drug trafficking. Police say they responded to the Greyhound Lines bus stop on West Main Street in Burley after receiving a complaint that a passenger smelled like marijuana.

Immigration rally, march in Boise draws more than 700 participants

Two themes — keeping families together and giving immigrants equal access to work, benefits and school — dominated a rally and march Wednesday in Boise, where more than 700 demonstrators urged lawmakers to overhaul the nation's immigration laws and system, the Associated Press reports. Demonstrators, waving American flags and placards and wearing red, white and blue T-shirts, chanted pro-immigration slogans and called out in unison during the march “Si se puede,” Spanish for “yes we can.” Some carried signs with messages such as “No human being is illegal” or signed petitions addressed to Idaho's congressional lawmakers, urging them to get behind changes to federal immigration laws; click below for a full report from AP reporter Hannah Furfaro.

Boise march, rally today to focus on immigration reform

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Labor and immigration activists are expected to rally and march in Boise in support for an overhaul of the nation's immigration system. The demonstration Wednesday is part of the May Day rallies planned in cities across the country, where demonstrators are demanding changes in the federal government's immigration laws. Activists are expected to meet at Julia Davis Park in downtown Boise before marching a half-mile to the state Capitol. More than 200 people have indicated they plan to attend the rally on a Facebook event created by the Coalition for Immigrant Rights of Idaho, a group pressing for changes in the law. Participants will begin gathering in Julia Davis Park at 4 p.m., where music and speakers are planned, before a “Family Unity March” to the state Capitol at 6.

Boise Police arrest suspect in 15-year-old cold case, Kay Lynn Jackson’s murder

Fifteen years after she was killed while walking along the Boise Greenbelt on her way to church, carrying a Bible, the Boise Police today arrested a suspect in the murder of 22-year-old Kay Lynn Jackson.  Patrick Jon Zacharias, 40, has been charged with 1st degree murder and rape in Jackson’s death. Police said the break in the case came when a DNA test conducted on Zacharias, who has been serving time at the Idaho State Correctional Institution since an unrelated conviction in 2007, was entered into a national crime information database and came up as a match.

Jackson was killed on the morning of Palm Sunday in 1998. “The lead detective, Mark Ayotte, has worked this case since Kay Lynn’s death,” Boise Deputy Police Chief Pete Ritter said at a news conference today. “His case files have stayed on his desk, never more than an arm’s length away. Detective Ayotte led a team that includes officers, investigators and support staff from Boise, all over Idaho and indeed all over the country. Their hard work has led to this critical point in a case that has touched so many lives for 15 years.” You can read the BPD’s full news release and statements here.

Jackson's murder was the first of three on the Greenbelt in which women were raped and murdered over a three-year period; it was the last of the three to remain unsolved. Darrell Payne received a death sentence for the July 2000 murder of BSU student Samantha Kay Maher, 22; and Erick Virgil Hall was sentenced to death for the September 2000 rape and murder of Lynn Henneman, a flight attendant who was walking from a restaurant to her hotel when she was killed.

Charges against former lawmaker dropped

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: COUER D'ALENE, Idaho (AP) — A misdemeanor battery charged against a former northern Idaho lawmaker has been dismissed. The Coeur d'Alene Press reports (http://bit.ly/1037wqm ) the case against former Republican state Sen. Mike Jorgenson was dismissed late last week ahead of a trial scheduled to start this week. City of Coeur d'Alene chief criminal deputy attorney Wes Somerton says his review of witness statements, a 911 audio recording and security video raised doubt about whether an unlawful battery occurred. The 64-year-old Jorgenson was arrested in February at his Hayden restaurant, The Copa, after an apparent scuffle with an employee. The employee says Jorgenson grabbed him and threw him to the ground during a dispute about money. Jorgenson's attorney says Jorgenson was leading the employee out of the restaurant by the “scruff of the neck” when their legs got tangled and they fell to the ground.

First NIFC outlook for upcoming wildfire season predicts above-normal risk

A pair of small but unseasonably early fires burning in California's wine country likely is a harbinger of a nasty summer fire season across the West, reports John Miller of the Associated Press. The first summer fire outlook for the upcoming season from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, issued today, suggests that a dry winter and predicted warming trend mean the potential for significant fire activity will be above normal in the West Coast states, the Southwest, and portions of Idaho and Montana. In the Northern Rockies including Idaho and Montana, fire danger is forecast at near normal through May and June, before escalating in July and August to above-normal potential. Click below for Miller's full report.

Otter calls Asia trade mission a success

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has returned from a six-day trade mission to Asia, and reports that he views the mission to South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam as a success. During the trip, the Idaho Department of Commerce signed a memorandum of understanding with the Taiwan Industrial Development Bureau on cooperation in research and development of geothermal energy. Two fresh produce importers in Taipei singed up to import onions from the Idaho-Eastern Oregon region this fall; the Idaho Potato Commission identified market segments it can tap in Korea and Vietnam; and Idaho food products, wine and vodka were featured at a promotion in Taipei that included a chef demonstration by Rod Jessick, executive chef at the Coeur d’Alene Resort.

Click below for the governor’s full announcement.

Past state cabin-site lease auctions have been tumultuous, controversial…

Here’s some interesting historical perspective from Idaho Statesman reporter Dan Popkey: The last time Idaho held a conflict auction for state-owned cabin site leases was in 1987, when the state Land Board auctioned off 22 lots at Payette Lake in an effort to establish market values. It was a failure for the state; all but one of the 22 lots sold to existing leaseholders who paid the minimum bid, Popkey reports.

Plus, he reported, “The only bidders to contest an existing leaseholder were a Boise couple, Al and Sharon Hutchins, whose bids were booed by the crowd at a school gym in McCall. They got the lot, however, paying $46,000, $11,000 over the minimum.” You can read Popkey’s full report here.

Times have changed since then. In 1990, the state had scheduled a cottage-site conflict auction, but it was canceled, after then-Gov. Cecil Andrus signed into law new legislation protecting cabin-site lessees from conflict bids. In July of this year, the Idaho Supreme Court overturned that law as unconstitutional.

Back in 1990, then-Superintendent of Public Instruction Jerry Evans noted that the whole legality of the new law rested on charging market rents for the lots, an issue the state would struggle with over the following years, repeatedly backing off from proposed big rent increases after protests from longtime cabin owners, who own the cabins they’ve built on the state land. In fits and starts, though, rents rose substantially.

Popkey also notes that 85 percent of the state-owned cabin sites at Payette Lake are leased to Idaho residents, but the figure at Priest Lake is just 10 percent. Many of the Priest Lake lessees are from the Spokane area, which is the largest population center near the lake. For Payette Lake, that population center is Boise.

In 2007, Idaho tried to auction off two new lakefront cabin sites at Priest Lake with a lease rate double what others then were being charged, 5 percent of value vs. 2.5 percent. It was a flop; no one bid. About 50 existing lease holders attending the auction at the Coeur d’Alene Inn burst into cheers. Now, lease rates are set at 4 percent of value per year; the state is required by the Idaho Constitution to manage its endowment land – including the cabin sites – for the maximum long-term return to the endowment’s beneficiaries, the largest of which is the state’s public schools.

Former state senator’s bid for unemployment after leaving Senate denied

Former state Sen. Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, sought unemployment benefits after leaving the state Legislature to run for Congress, the Idaho Statesman’s Dan Popkey reports today, but was denied. Popkey talked with legislative leaders from both parties; none supported the move. “My concern was much broader than just this individual claim,” Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, told Popkey. “If she qualified, then what about all the other legislators who got redistricted out, or decided not to run, or got beat in the primary or general election? Are all of them eligible for unemployment?”

House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, told Popkey, “It makes me uncomfortable to think that elected officials, when they were defeated or chose not to run, would have unemployment insurance coverage.” You can read Popkey’s full report here; click below for a shorter version of the story via the Associated Press.

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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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