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Eye On Boise

Archive for September 2013

Basque government expresses ‘great sorrow’ on Cenarrusa’s passing

The Basque government has issued a statement of “great sorrow” upon the passing yesterday of Pete Cenarrusa, prominent Basque-American leader and the former longtime Idaho Secretary of State. In a statement, the government announced that Ander Caballero, the delegate of the Basque Country in the United States, will attend Cenarrusa’s funeral services this Thursday and Friday, and called Cenarrusa “a great friend and tireless supporter of the Basque Country and of the Basque people in the United States.” Basque President Lehendakari Inigo Urkullu sent condolences and affection to Cenarrusa’s wife, Freda, along with a statement of “gratitude for his immense work and commitment.” You can read the full statement here.

Knievel’s legacy a million-dollar boon to Idaho school kids

Motorcycle daredevil Evel Knievel never finished high school, but his stunt-jumping legacy could become a million-dollar boon for Idaho school kids. As the 40th anniversary of Knievel’s attempt to jump the Snake River Canyon on a rocket-powered motorcycle approaches, a flurry of interest from those who want to re-try the stunt has brought an unexpected windfall to Idaho schools. That’s because the state’s public school endowment owns the land on the rim of the canyon that includes the landing site – and after a hotly contested five-way auction last week, Texas motorcycle stuntman “Big Ed” Beckley won the rights to a two-year lease on the land for $943,000.

“We had Cheshire-cat grins on our faces, because it kept going up and up and up,” said Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. “I was thinking, boy, that can buy a lot of books and stuff.” The $943,000 was just the “bonus” bid – the payment for the rights to the lease. The lease itself requires $25,000 in annual rent for two years, plus a percentage of proceeds including broadcast rights and sponsorships, to be paid over to the school endowment.

The best part for Idaho’s schools: The money gets paid, whether or not the jump comes off. Beckley’s already paid the first $25,000 annual rental fee; his $943,000 payment to the state is due Friday. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Cenarrusa to lie in state at the state Capitol on Thursday afternoon

Funeral arrangements for former longtime Idaho Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa still are being finalized, but Summers Funeral Home reports that visitation will be held Wednesday from noon to 6 p.m. at its Boise chapel, 1205 W. Bannock St. Then, on Thursday, Cenarrusa will lie in state at the state Capitol from noon to 7 p.m. Following that, a vigil will be held at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at St. John’s Cathedral.

Then on Friday a funeral service will be held at 10 a.m., also at St. John’s Cathedral, followed by a reception at the Basque Center.

ITD asks for public comment on new rules for extra-heavy trucks on routes around state

The Idaho Transportation Department is taking public comments through Oct 24 on new rules allowing extra-heavy trucks on additional routes in Idaho, and the department has set a series of public meetings around the state, starting in Pocatello on Oct. 7 and running through a Boise meeting Oct. 17. Click below for ITD's full announcement. The Idaho Legislature this year passed new laws making permanent a 10-year pilot project allowing trucks up to 129,000 pounds on 35 specific southern Idaho routes, plus another law allowing additional heavy-truck routes to be designated statewide.

Five finalists named for president at University of Idaho

Five finalists have been named for president of the University of Idaho, hailing from Kentucky, South Dakota, Florida and Pennsylvania. “The search committee was impressed by the number of outstanding applicants for the position,” said state Board of Education member Emma Atchley, who is chairing the search committee. “We are looking forward to having the final five candidates visit Idaho and tour University of Idaho sites across the state.”

Former UI President Duane Nellis left this year to become president of Texas Tech University, which is more than double the size of UI. Law school Dean Don Burnett is now serving as interim president, but said he didn’t plan to seek the permanent position. The five finalists named today are consultant James Applegate, formerly with the University of Kentucky and the Lumina Foundation; Donald Birx, chancellor and professor at Penn State Erie; Laurie Stenberg-Nichols, provost and vice president for academic affairs at South Dakota State University; Jack Payne, senior vice president, agriculture and natural resources, University of Florida; and Chuck Staben, provost and vice president for academic affairs, University of South Dakota. You can read the state board’s full announcement here.

For Idaho uninsured, exchange starts Tuesday

Idaho’s state health insurance exchange opens Tuesday, allowing about 200,000 uninsured Idahoans to begin enrolling in health insurance plans; the coverage starts Jan. 1. Amy  Dowd, a health care consultant hired in April to run Idaho’s exchange, told the AP’s John Miller, “We don't have a set target we're expecting for enrollment. Our goals for our open enrollment period are to educate, get the word out that this is available.” Click below for Miller’s full report on the exchange startup, including a by-the-numbers roundup of costs, salaries, carriers, where to call and more.

Meanwhile, S-R reporter John Webster has a report here on the health care reform law changes and what they mean for you, whether you’re on Medicare or Medicaid, insured through your employer, have individual coverage now or are uninsured.

Catching up: From Denney eyeing higher office to extension of county payments…

Catching up on some of the news from while I was gone over the past week:

DENNEY EYES HIGHER OFFICE:  Former Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, filed initial paperwork to run for Idaho Secretary of State, an office long held by incumbent Ben Ysursa, a Republican; you can read an AP report here on Denney’s move. Ysursa hasn’t said yet whether he’ll be seeking re-election; in an email to Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey, he said, “I intend to make my future plans known within the next few weeks. Until then I really have no comment.”

STATE SURPLUS BIGGER THAN REPORTED? Former state chief economist Mike Ferguson has analyzed state revenues and concluded that in an apples-to-apples comparison, Idaho’s surplus is actually bigger than has been reported. At the close of fiscal year 2013 on June 30, the state’s general fund had an ending balance of $165.3 million, $105.3 million higher than expected at the end of the 2013 legislative session. After transfers to reserve accounts and taking into account law changes, Ferguson concludes, “The current DFM General Fund revenue forecast for FY 2014, at 2.1% growth over FY 2013 revenue, appears to be unduly pessimistic. At 3.1% revenue growth the ongoing General Fund surplus estimate would be $74.1 million, and at 4.1% revenue growth the ongoing surplus estimate would be $111.6 million.” You can read his full analysis here.

ONE INSURER WITHDRAWS: The only for-profit insurer scheduled to offer plans on Idaho’s exchange withdrew on Sept. 26; with Altius' exit, Idaho's remaining insurers will offer 61 plans for individuals, 55 small group health plans for small business, 13 individual dental plans and 17 small group dental plans. You can read about that move here.

COUNTY PAYMENTS EXTENDED: A one-year extension of the county payments under the Secure Rural Schools Act, the remainder of the Craig-Wyden law that has been offsetting millions lost to rural counties and school districts since federal timber harvests fell, cleared Congress and headed to the president’s desk – tucked into a bill about helium. “Passage of the Helium Stewardship Act is a victory for the entire state of Idaho,” said Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo; rural schools and counties would get $270 million under the bill. “This fix does not change the need for a long-term solution that provides a consistent mechanism for the federal government to meet its obligation to rural communities accommodating federal lands, and I will continue to work with Senator Risch and all my colleagues to achieve this objective,” Crapo said; you can read his full statement here

Pete Cenarrusa, Idaho’s longest serving elected official, dies at age 95

Pete Cenarrusa, Idaho’s longest-serving elected official ever, died today at the age of 95 at his Boise home, after a three-year battle with cancer. Cenarrusa, who was Idaho’s elected secretary of state from 1967 to 2003,  also served nine terms in the Idaho House, including three as speaker; that adds up to 52 straight years of service in Idaho’s Capitol. Born in Carey, Idaho to Basque immigrants, Cenarrusa is a direct descendant of the first Spanish ambassador to the United States, who furnished clothing and munitions to George Washington during the Revolutionary War. A University of Idaho graduate, he was a national collegiate boxing champion, a teacher and coach, a Marine Corps veteran, a private pilot, and with wife Freda, a successful and prominent sheep rancher for more than four decades.

Cenarrusa, for whom Idaho’s largest state government office building at 450 W. State St. is named,  is survived by Freda, his wife of 66 years; his daughter-in-law Jean Cenarrusa-Jacobson, two grandsons, two great-grandsons - including one just born Saturday - and numerous nieces and nephews; he was preceded in death by his parents, his four siblings, and his son Joe, who died in a plane crash in 1997. You can read Cenarrusa’s full obituary here. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Keith Ridler.

On Monday morning, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter issued this statement: “No one could have been a better or more passionate advocate for the Basque people, for fair and transparent elections, or for responsible stewardship of our public lands than Pete Cenarrusa. He was an Idaho original, and I was among many in state government – on both sides of the aisle – who benefited greatly from his advice, counsel and friendship. It’s hard to imagine Idaho politics without Pete there. He loved the arena – encouraging public involvement, standing firm on his principles, gently nudging us all toward doing the right thing, and keeping us anchored in reality. Miss Lori and I send his tireless wife Freda and all Pete’s family and friends our love, sympathy and prayers.”

 

  

Off on vacation…

I am headed off on vacation, including seeing extended family; I'll be back in the office on Monday, Sept. 30. I may check in from time to time, but mostly will try to catch up on what I've missed when I return… Have a great week, everyone!

Two INL workers sue DOE after it refuses to release records of their exposure to plutonium

Two workers at the Idaho National Laboratory have sued the U.S. Department of Energy under the Freedom of Information Act, claiming they were wrongly denied documentation about a 2011 accident in which they were exposed to plutonium, AP reporter Rebecca Boone reports. The two filed a public records request asking the U.S. Department of Energy for documentation about the incident, including security video; they contend the federal agency wrongly denied their FOIA request when it claimed the records were the property of a private contractor. Click below for Boone's full article.

Idaho man faces at least 10 years in prison for shooting assault rifle at White House

An Idaho man is facing at least 10 years in prison after acknowledging that he shot an assault rifle at the White House two years ago, the AP reports. Oscar Ramiro Ortega-Hernandez pleaded guilty today to two of the 19 charges against him as a result of the shooting. No one was injured, but the shooting left a number of bullet marks on the executive mansion. President Barack Obama and his wife were in California at the time of the shooting, but other members of the first family were there that night.

Prosecutors previously said Ortega-Hernandez, 22, a resident of Idaho Falls, told acquaintances before the shooting that President Obama was the Antichrist and “the devil” and that he needed to kill him. But one of his lawyers, Robert Feitel, told the AP today that his client's statements were “loose talk” and that he never had any intention to hurt anybody. Click below for the full report from AP reporter Jessica Grasko in Washington, D.C.

Lands Dept. defends McCall land exchange, group continues to criticize it

Idaho's state Department of Lands is defending a 2012 land exchange in which it traded the University of Idaho's McCall Science Campus property for office property in Idaho Falls that houses the lead contractor for the Idaho National Laboratory; the deal came under fire this week from two state lawmakers who've joined with a group called Tax Accountability Committee, or TAC, to criticize it. The lawmakers, Reps. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, and Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, and TAC commissioned their own review appraisal on the Idaho Falls property that found it was worth just $4.5 million, not the $6.1 million the state's appraiser settled on; they contended that means the private owner involved in the exchange, who then sold the McCall property to the University of Idaho for $6.1 million, profited in the amount of the difference. The Lands Department is standing by its appraisal and says the review appraisal that TAC commissioned overlooked various significant factors; the state endowment's annual rental revenue from the property more than doubled as a result of the exchange.

Meanwhile, Gov. Butch Otter was asked yesterday, at the close of the state Land Board meeting, about the TAC allegations and Vander Woude and Burgoyne's announced intention to introduce legislation requiring review appraisals in all such land exchanges in the future. “They are expensive,” the governor said, noting that it's not clear yet “whether or not I would accept it, whether or not they could override a veto.” Said Otter, “Is the Legislature prepared to spend the money? If they want to insist on it,” they'd need to fund it, he said. “I think all these things need to be weighed.” That said, he noted that he'd not yet had a chance to review the TAC letter to the Land Board, which was sent Monday; Otter spent that day with First Lady Lori Otter, who underwent successful but unexpectedly extensive shoulder surgery. Otter said she's recovering.

Click below for the three documents related to this: The full AP article by John Miller on the dispute; a TAC statement in response to a Lands official's comment in the AP article; and a statement on the appraisal issues from the Department of Lands.

Public comment sought on school rule changes, from cursive instruction to PE as grad requirement

The Idaho State Board of Education is taking public comments on six proposed rule changes, on everything from requiring Idaho school kids to get cursive writing instruction to adding two credits of PE as a high school graduation requirement. Idaho Education News has a rundown here on the rule changes and how to comment; there’s a public hearing set for Oct. 8, and the state board is scheduled to consider the rules at its November meeting. Comments will be accepted through the end of October.

All six rule changes were proposed by state schools Superintendent Tom Luna; you can read his office’s summary here of the changes and public comment opportunities. In addition to cursive and PE, the rules address ISAT testing, an adjustment to math and science requirements, teacher education and endorsements, and an in-service math training requirement for teachers.

Forest Service issues closure order for megaloads on Highway 12

The U.S. Forest Service has issued a closure order barring megaloads from Highway 12 through the Lochsa-Clearwater Wild and Scenic Rivers corridor in north-central Idaho, pursuant to a federal judge's ruling; you can see the order here. In a statement, the Forest Service said the route, from mileposts 75.2 to 174.4 in the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forest, is now closed to loads more than 16 feet wide or 150 feet long; to loads that would take more than 12 hours to traverse that section of road; or loads that “requires physical modification of the roadway or adjacent vegetation to facilitate passage beyond normal highway maintenance.” The closure order is in effect “until rescinded,” the Forest Service reported; click below for the Forest Service statement.

Today is the day that Omega Morgan, the transport company at which the closure order is addressed, had planned to ship another giant load across the route for a subsidiary of General Electric, an evaporator headed for the Canadian tar sands.

Lt. Gov. Little launches re-election bid, quelling talk of run for governor…

Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little launched his re-election campaign this morning, quelling – at least for now – speculation that Gov. Butch Otter would step aside and allow his hand-picked running mate a shot at the top job. “I’m here to support Brad,” Otter declared as he joined more than 100 of Little’s supporters at City Park in Emmett, Little’s home town, for a combination pancake breakfast and campaign kickoff.  Asked if he thinks Little is a future governor, Otter shot back, “He should be.”

But the 71-year-old GOP governor said he’s set on seeking a third term. “I think we’ve been a great team,” he said. “I think we’ll continue to be a great team for the next four years.” Otter said if he’s re-elected, “I have no reason to believe I will not complete four years.” He added, “I’m healthy as a horse.”

Little, 59, a prominent rancher and former four-term state senator, was appointed lieutenant governor by Otter in 2009, and elected to a full term in the part-time post in 2010. Otter’s given him a more prominent role than past lieutenant governors – including Otter himself, who was Idaho’s lieutenant governor for 14 years; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Utah boosts rural interstate speed limit up to 80 mph

For travelers on I-84 heading east toward Oregon, Idaho can feel like the speediest state around, with its 75 mph speed limit on the freeway. But as soon as motorists hit the Oregon line, they drop back down to a 65 mph limit. Now, Utah is taking it up a notch: That state passed a new law this year raising speed limits on rural stretches of interstate to 80 mph, after a Utah Department of Transportation study showed fewer crashes at the higher speed. Signs are going up this week with the new limits. Among the new, speedier stretches: Interstate 15 from north of Brigham City to the Idaho border in northern Utah; Interstate 80 from the Nevada border to Utah Route 36 in eastern Utah; and I-15 between Santaquin and North Leeds in central-southern Utah. Click below for a full report from the AP in Salt Lake City. 

Labrador co-sponsors bill to avert government shutdown only if health reform defunded, delayed

1st District GOP Congressman Raul Labrador announced today that he is co-sponsoring a resolution introduced today by Rep. Tom Graves, R-Georgia, to avert a government shutdown Oct. 1 only if President Obama's health care law is both de-funded and its individual mandate to purchase insurance delayed for a year. “If there’s any single issue that can unite House Republicans and has the strong support of the American people, it’s getting rid of ObamaCare,” Labrador declared. “The resolution I’m cosponsoring will keep the government open while keeping overall spending at the same rate the Senate has already agreed to through the sequester.  House Leadership should bring it to the floor for a vote.  If the House passes it and the Senate rejects it, it will be the Senate that’s responsible for shutting down the government.  Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, but House Republicans must seize this opportunity to keep our promises to the American people on ObamaCare.” 

Click below for Labrador's full news release. Meanwhile, President Obama, in a White House speech yesterday, blasted House Republicans who are taking that position, saying, “I cannot remember a time when one faction of one party promises economic chaos if it can't get 100% of what it wants.” In his speech, which House GOP leaders criticized as partisan, Obama asked, “Are some of these folks so beholden to one extreme wing of their party that they're willing to tank our whole economy?”

Land Board votes down Luna’s proposal to raise school payout, 4-1

Idaho’s state Land Board has voted 4-1 to keep the endowment distribution for public schools next year at $31.3 million, the same level as this year, with only state Schools Superintendent Tom Luna objecting; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. Luna made an impassioned plea to raise the payout for schools to $37 million, saying the number of students has risen but the endowment distribution has been frozen at the $31 million level for the past four years.

Larry Johnson, investment manager for the Endowment Fund Investment Board, presented a detailed analysis of Luna’s proposal, and said the endowment board still recommends sticking with the $31 million figure, to keep growing reserves in the school fund toward the goal of covering five years of payments, in order to weather ups and downs in land and fund investments in the future. He said the endowment board makes distribution decisions based on the financial condition of the fund - not on the beneficiaries' requests.

Luna offered a compromise proposal to boost the payment to schools next year to $34 million, saying that way, the reserve fund wouldn’t fall – it would grow by $3 million, and remain at 3.9 years of payments. Gov. Butch Otter seconded Luna’s motion “out of respect” so it didn’t die for lack of a second, but voted against it.

Luna presented charts and tables showing that the reserve fund has grown by 900 percent since 2001, while the payout to schools has dropped 30 percent from that year's level. But Johnson told the board, “In '01 and '02, we were distributing more than the assets could support, so at some point there had to be reductions.”

Gov. Otter said, “I can’t discuss this in a vacuum, without considering our goal and … our confidence in sort of our safety level, and that’s at five years. So as quick as I can get that to five years, then I can be a lot more generous.” He told Luna, “But I want to tell you I really appreciate the efforts that you and your department have put into it, because it is impressive. And maybe it does beg for change, but not exception.”

After voting down Luna’s substitute motion, the board approved the investment board recommendation with just Luna objecting, but at Attorney General Lawrence Wasden’s urging, it added two additional provisions, which Luna backed: It called on the investment board to complete a review of its investment and distribution strategy for the endowments, including the five-year target for the reserves; and it asked state Lands Director Tom Schultz to conduct a similar review for the lands portion of the state endowment, including reviewing strategies such as moving into commercial property investments in addition to the traditional timber and grazing land.

Land Board members surprised by human remains on cottage site, but say it’s state property

Before this morning’s Land Board meeting, Eye on Boise queried board members about the upcoming conflict auction of a Priest Lake cabin site that includes generations of human remains from the extended family that’s had its cabin on the state-owned property there, under a state lease, since 1933.

“That’s our property,” said Secretary of State Ben Ysursa. “We had no idea, but conflict auctions are conflict auctions.”

Gov. Butch Otter said he didn’t know about the remains. “We’ll have to have to make sure this doesn’t become issue for confiscation,” he said. Attorney General Lawrence Wasden noted that the state hasn’t yet been formally served with the lawsuit over the auction. “We’ll take a look at it once we receive the documents,” he said.

Land Board to take up school endowment distribution this morning…

The state Land Board is meeting this morning; a major agenda item is the distribution from the state endowment for public schools next year. Last month, state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna pushed to increase the distribution by $5.6 million above the recommendation of the state’s Endowment Investment Board. His motion died for lack of a second, but the board then agreed to send Luna’s proposal to the endowment board for review, and reconsider the issue this morning.

The endowment board is proposing holding schools at $31 million, the same distribution as the past four years, to help reserves in the school fund built up toward targeted levels. Since the Land Board in 2010, at Luna’s urging, voted to give schools a one-time additional $22 million distribution, the reserve fund for the schools hasn’t met the goal of holding five years worth of payments; it’s now just over three years and dropped to two years after the 2010 extra payment.

The endowment board this morning is again recommending sticking with the $31 million distribution to schools for fiscal year 2015, which starts July 1, 2014.

State Lands Dept. sets auction for longtime family burial ground at Priest Lake

The Starlin family stands to lose a lot more than the lake cabin their great-grandfather hand-built on leased state land back in 1933 when Idaho auctions off the parcel next month. They could be leaving behind generations of family members whose remains have been buried there, too.

Marissa Olsson still remembers the moving ceremony in which 30 extended family members shared memories of her grandmother, then each placed a handful of her ashes in a spot that held special memories of her; she took hers to the beach where she made her grandma mud pies, and her grandma obligingly pretended to eat them, a spot the two had dubbed the “Priest Lake Cafe.” Now, the family’s modest cabin is one of four set for conflict auctions next month, and the family has filed a lawsuit against the state of Idaho challenging the process, joining another cabin owner also facing a conflict auction.

After an Idaho Supreme Court decision last summer overturned a state law protecting cabin leases from conflict auctions, bids were solicited. Three Priest Lake cabin sites and one at Payette Lake drew conflict bids, meaning someone else wants to bid against the existing cabin owner for a chance to take over the lease. If the outsider wins the bid, the existing cabin owner must be paid for the value of their improvements at the appraised price.

Among the concerns raised in the lawsuit: Though the state is allowing every other cabin owner at Priest Lake a shot at a new appraisal for their cabin site, after the latest ones were challenged as inaccurate, those facing conflict options weren't allowed to object; they also weren't allowed to join land exchanges to try to get ownership of their cabins before the conflict auction. Appraisals determine the yearly rent that cabin-site lessees pay; the family’s rent for the site in question was $7,223 in 2011; it’s proposed to go to $22,880 next year.

But the most eye-catching item in the lawsuit, filed late last week in Bonner County, is the human remains. The cabin site is the final resting place not only for Olsson’s grandmother, but also for her great uncle, her step-grandfather, and two cousins, including a little girl who was stillborn in 1939. Permanent memorials to all five are located on the site. “The whole family is very upset about it,” said Olsson, now an attorney in Seattle; her aunt, Jan Nunamaker, holds the lease now. State Lands Department Deputy Director Kathy Opp said Monday that she knew nothing about the human remains and hadn’t yet seen the lawsuit; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Judge says CCA persistently understaffed privately run Idaho prison

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge says private prison company Corrections Corporation of America is in contempt of court for persistently understaffing an Idaho prison in direct violation of a legal settlement. U.S. District Judge David Carter made the ruling Monday in a lawsuit between inmates at the CCA-run Idaho Correctional Center and the Nashville, Tenn.-based company. Carter wrote that CCA had ample reason to make sure it was meeting the staffing requirements at the prison, yet the level of understaffing was apparently far worse than the company originally acknowledged. He is appointing an independent monitor to oversee operations at the prison, and says steep fines will follow if the company violates the agreement again. The fines will start at $100 an hour if more than 12 hours are understaffed in a single month.

“It is clear that there was a persistent failure to fill required mandatory positions, along with a pattern of CCA staff falsifying rosters to make it appear that all posts were filled,” the judge wrote. Those deficiencies continued even in the weeks leading up to hearings in August on whether the company should be found in contempt for violating a court settlement agreement, he wrote; you can read his decision here.

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

Results: Vets get jobs, find leads at Hero2Hired job fair

At last Thursday’s “Hero2Hired” job fair for veterans at the Idaho Center, 71 firm and 205 conditional job officers were made to Idaho veterans, active duty military members, members of the National Guard and Reserve and military spouses; it was Idaho’s largest military hiring fair to date. The job fair, sponsored by the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, the Idaho Department of Labor, Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve and an array of others, also saw numerous interviews scheduled for job openings over the coming year; more than 135 employers participated, along with 835 job seekers.

Wasden says he’ll seek re-election as attorney general in 2014

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden says he’ll seek a fourth term in 2014; he told Idaho State Journal reporter Jimmy Hancock, “Every day is an interesting ride, and we are going to keep going. I intend to run for re-election.”

Wasden has been Idaho’s attorney general since first being elected to the post in 2002; he won re-election in 2006 and 2010. Though he’s been rumored as a future candidate for higher office, Wasden said he’s still enjoying his job and wants to keep doing it. “Every day is a challenge, every day is different,” he said. See the State Journal’s report here.

State Lands Dept. under fire over family burial ground auction, land swap…

Idaho’s state Lands Department is under fire from two different directions this morning: In a new lawsuit that charges it’s about to hold a conflict auction on a family burial ground, and from a bipartisan group of lawmakers who say an inadequate appraisal allowed a private party to benefit to the tune of $1.6 million on a state land exchange, instead of the state endowment’s beneficiaries.

The new lawsuit over Priest Lake state-owned cabin sites charges that two cabin-site lessees who will face conflict auctions in late October haven’t been allowed to challenge their appraisals, as all other lessees at the lake were allowed to do after big concerns were raised over the newly set values; that the two weren’t allowed to go into land exchanges to avoid the conflict auction, though the department had indicated earlier that would be allowed; and that one of the cabin sites has been held by the same family since its inception in 1933, and five family members' remains are located there, including scattered ashes and permanent memorials. “The earliest of these human remains has been on the property since at least 1939,” says the lawsuit, filed in Bonner County.

Lands Department Deputy Director Kathy Opp said she knew nothing about the graves and hadn’t yet seen the lawsuit; she confirmed that lake cabin lessees who were targeted with conflict bids this year – there were four, including three at Priest Lake and one at Payette Lake – aren’t being allowed to appeal their appraisals or join land exchanges until the conflict auctions have been held.

The land exchange issue involves the University of Idaho’s McCall Outdoor Science School Campus, which had been owned by the state endowment, but last year was traded for commercial property in Idaho Falls that houses Battelle Energy Alliance, LLC, the operating contractor for the Idaho National Laboratory. Both properties came in with identical appraisals of $6.1 million; after the swap, the private owner of the Idaho Falls property, IW4 LLC, sold the newly acquired McCall property to the university for $6.1 million. That left the university in control of the site, which had been the source of increasing tensions as the Lands Department considered big rent increases to match its constitutional requirement to maximize income from endowment lands.

But House Majority Caucus Chairman John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, and House Assistant Minority Leader Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, have joined a new group with former GOP Rep. Bob Forrey and attorney John Runft, the Tax Accountability Committee, that commissioned its own review appraisal on the Idaho Falls property, and it came in at just $4.5 million. If that’s right, the private owner in Idaho Falls profited to the tune of $1.6 million, at the expense of the state’s endowment, something the TAC group dubbed “a travesty.” Vander Woude and Burgoyne, who held a Statehouse news conference this morning, say they’ll bring legislation requiring review appraisals in all future endowment land exchanges, along with more legislative scrutiny over such transactions. You can read the TAC letter to the Land Board here.

Opp said the department stands by its appraisals, and hasn’t routinely ordered review appraisals in addition. “It can be costly – you’re paying another appraisal fee,” she noted. Opp said the Idaho Falls property has been “performing as expected” as an endowment investment; it earns annual rent of $538,312, more than double the annual rent from the McCall science campus lease of $248,000. The series of transactions was approved by both the state Land Board and the State Board of Education.

Idaho Freedom Foundation’s charitable status scrutinized

In the ornate public gallery of the Idaho House of Representatives, lobbyist Erik Makrush of the Idaho Freedom Foundation leaned over to a reporter sitting next to him and whispered, “If you have any questions, you can ask me.” The House was debating one of 11 bills that would trim the powers of urban renewal agencies in the state, a hot political issue in Idaho’s 2011 legislative session. Makrush said he’d written all of them. A year later, Idaho Freedom Foundation President Wayne Hoffman persuaded a House committee chairwoman to pull a bill he opposed just as debate was about to start on the floor. Both episodes illustrate the raw political power of a nonprofit charity that some believe is abusing its lucrative tax-free status.

Although charitable organizations are allowed to do some lobbying without risking their tax benefits, the Idaho Freedom Foundation actively pushes and opposes legislation on dozens of issues every session in ways that more closely resemble a full-on lobbying group. “If Wayne Hoffman can call a committee chairman and have a bill pulled, that’s pretty remarkable clout,” said House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston.

At issue is whether taxpayers should be subsidizing its activities. As a charity organized under Internal Revenue Code section 501(c)(3), contributions to the Idaho Freedom Foundation are tax deductible. Contributions to lobbying groups organized under section 501(c)(4), such as the Sierra Club or the National Rifle Association, are not.

In its scant five years in existence, the IFF has become one of the most active and influential groups in Idaho’s Statehouse. “We have good relationships,” Hoffman said of his group’s activities. “So they (lawmakers) take our calls, they listen to us, they read our emails.” “They’re pretty darn active,” said Sen. Cherie Buckner-Webb, D-Boise. “They’re visible in every committee room I serve on.” Hoffman maintains it’s really not a lobbying group and that it does only a small amount of lobbying. He reported spending just $13,000 on lobbying in 2012, out of $447,108 in total expenses. In 2011, he reported just $10,290 spent on lobbying; in 2010 and 2009, he reported that the group spent zero to influence legislation.

“We’re an education organization,” said Hoffman, who was paid $99,645 by the group in 2012. “Our biggest focus is the education of policymakers.”

However, experts say IFF likely is underreporting its lobbying under federal tax laws, which potentially could endanger its tax-free status. “I think there’s a serious yellow flag here,” said Lloyd Hitoshi Mayer, a nationally known expert on nonprofit tax law and a law professor at the University of Notre Dame; you can read my full story here from Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.

Forest Service says it’s preparing megaloads closure order, pursuant to court ruling

The U.S. Forest Service has issued the following statement in response to U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill's ruling today halting megaloads on scenic Highway 12 in North Idaho: “In compliance with the Judge’s order, the Forest Service is preparing a closure order for mega-loads traveling Highway 12 between mileposts 74 and 174.  The Forest Service anticipates its study of the corridor to be completed by the end of September and it will continue to consult with the Nez Perce Tribe. We are continuing to review the decision to determine what further action, if any, to take.”

Elizabeth Slown, director of public and governmental relations for the Forest Service's northern region in Missoula, said no decision has been made as to any appeal of the ruling.

Idaho Falls bans housing, employment discrimination against gays

Idaho Falls has become the seventh city in Idaho to enact a local ordinance barring discrimination in housing and employment on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. The City Council approved the new ordinance last night around midnight, after a meeting in which more than 45 people testified and more than 100 attended, the Post Register and Boise State Public Radio report; you can see BSPR’s full report here. The cities took action after the Idaho Legislature rebuffed years of attempts to expand Idaho’s Human Rights Act to cover such discrimination.

Unlike ordinances passed earlier in six other Idaho cities, Idaho Falls’ new provision doesn’t cover discrimination in public accommodations, though it does bar job and housing discrimination. Sandpoint was the first Idaho city to enact a local anti-discrimination ordinance covering sexual orientation and gender identity in December of 2011; it was followed by Boise, Ketchum, Moscow, Coeur d’Alene and Pocatello.

Former Jerome fire chief claims he was told to ‘take the heat’ for $97K bill to building owner

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: JEROME, Idaho (AP) — Former Jerome Fire Chief Jack Krill said the city administrator told him he would be “taking the heat” for a nearly $97,000 bill for firefighting costs sent to the owner of a building that was destroyed by a fire in April. The Times-News (http://bit.ly/1e9TOOy ) obtained emails from Krill to Mayor John Shine in which Krill said City Administrator Polly Hulsey told him she was worried criticism over the bill would cost her her job. Krill told the mayor in June that he tried to explain to Hulsey they couldn't bill the building owner for firefighting efforts, but she insisted he put together an invoice for the owner to submit to insurance. Hulsey told the newspaper it was Krill who came up with the decision to bill the owner. Krill resigned Sept. 4.

IRU: Oil sands projects can find other shipping routes to Canada, or build their equipment there

Idaho Rivers United, the Idaho conservation group that joined the Nez Perce Tribe in suing to block megaload transports on scenic Highway 12 in north-central Idaho, called a federal judge’s ruling today in the case “a win for all who cherish the esthetic, spiritual and recreational values of the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers.” Kevin Lewis, IRU conservation director, said in a statement, “The judge has provided the time-out needed to complete the environmental reviews, tribal consultation and rule-making necessary to protect this beautiful river corridor.”

The group said the case has implications for other federally designated Wild and Scenic River corridors across the country. “Industrialization doesn’t work there,” said IRU Executive Director Bill Sedivy. Lewis said as numerous large oil projects get under way in northern Alberta’s oil sands, “These companies, some of the largest in the world, can afford to build their equipment in Canada or find other routes to ship it there.” You can read IRU’s full statement here.

G.E. ‘disappointed’ by court ruling, defends megaload shipping plans

A subsidiary of General Electric that hoped to ship a second giant megaload over scenic U.S. Highway 12 in North Idaho next week in route to the Canadian oil sands said today it was “disappointed” with a judge’s order blocking its shipment, and defended its shipping plans. “While we now must review our options, we have addressed the safety, environmental and aesthetic considerations in choosing this route for shipment,” Bill Heins, chief operating officer of RCCI, the affiliate, said in a statement. The company said the equipment it wants to ship, a water evaporator, has “significant environmental benefits” because it will result in big water savings and less wastewater discharge during the heavy oil recovery process in the tar sands. You can read the firm’s full statement here.

Nez Perce Tribe applauds megaloads ruling

Silas Whitman, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, issued a statement today applauding a federal judge’s ruling ordering the Forest Service to halt megaload transports across scenic Highway 12 in central Idaho until it’s completed a corridor study and consulted with the Nez Perce Tribe. “The Tribe is pleased the Court’s decision recognizes the Tribe’s sovereignty and its rights and interests,” Whitman said. Noting the judge’s statement in his ruling that the tribe is seeing to “preserve its treaty rights along with cultural and intrinsic values that have no price tag,” Whitman said, “This speaks to the truth regarding the heart of the Nez Perce people and our connection to our homeland.”

“The Tribe will not let U.S. Highway 12, both through the national forest and Wild and Scenic River corridor and the Nez Perce Reservation, be transformed into an industrial corridor,” Whitman said. You can read his full statement here.

Judge scolds attorneys in prison lawsuit

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge is scolding attorneys in a lawsuit alleging understaffing and mismanagement at a private Idaho prison, warning both sides that they need to play nice or risk losing their case. U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge wrote in an order Wednesday that attorneys for private prison giant Corrections Corporation of America and attorneys representing a group of inmates at the CCA-run Idaho Correctional Center have refused to interact with each other reasonably and civilly. Lodge says he considered lots of ways to make them get along, but decided against ordering the attorneys to play a game of “rock, paper, scissors.” Instead, Lodge is sending them to mediation, where they must try to resolve all their pending disputes over what evidence they must share and other pretrial issues.

Federal judge orders injunction blocking Highway 12 megaloads

U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill has ruled in favor of the Nez Perce Tribe and Idaho Rivers United, ordering an injunction blocking further megaload transports on scenic U.S. Highway 12 until a corridor study and consultation with the tribe have been completed by the U.S. Forest Service; you can read the judge’s ruling here, and read my full story here at spokesman.com.

The judge noted that after he ruled last winter that the Forest Service had authority over megaloads on the route, the Idaho Transportation Department nevertheless issued a permit to Omega Morgan to haul a General Electric megaload over the route in August, an evaporator bound for the Canadian oil sands, and the Forest Serrvice objected, but didn’t stop it. “In an earlier decision in a related case, the Court held that the Forest Service must ‘enforce all relevant legal authorities, including, but not limited to, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act … .’ ” Winmill wrote in his ruling.  “The Forest Service was taking the position that it had authority to review but not to enforce. Obviously, that was an erroneous reading of the Court’s decision.”

The injunction orders the Forest Service to close Highway 12 to any Omega Morgan megaloads from mileposts 74 to 174, “until the Forest Service has conducted its corridor review and consulted with the Nez Perce Tribe;” the company had planned to send another giant load over the route on Sept. 18. It argued that it will lose millions if it can't deliver the equipment to Canada on time, but the judge wrote that the company had been informed by the attorneys for megaload opponents back in April of the opposition and the costs incurred by previous firms proposing megaload shipments on the route.

“In April of 2013, plaintiffs’ counsel sent a letter to Omega-Morgan putting them on notice that they would be attempting to block any shipments down Highway 12 unless Omega-Morgan obtained permission from the Forest Service,” Winmill wrote. RCCI, the GE division sending the load, “decided, however, to proceed before the Forest Service could complete its corridor study and consultation with the Tribe. In other words, RCCI knowingly put its loads into a position where the company would incur $5 million in losses if it must wait for the Forest Service review. Given these circumstances, the Court cannot find that the balance of equities tips in defendants’ favor. In fact, it tips the other direction due to the clear command of the Tribe’s Treaty rights, NFMA (National Forest Management Act), and the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. For those same reasons, the Court finds that an injunction is in the public interest.”

He noted, “The plaintiffs are not seeking damages; they are seeking to preserve their Treaty rights along with cultural and intrinsic values that have no price tag.” 

Legislator switches from state-long hike to bike, after injury

Idaho state Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, hasn’t given up his plan to travel the length of Idaho this fall by muscle power to promote trails, experience rural areas and raise funds for the Redside Foundation, reports S-R outdoors writer Rich Landers, but Erpelding says a leg injury has forced him to change his plan from hiking the 950-mile Idaho Centennial Trail. He’d hiked 220 miles in 10 days from Upper Priest River Falls to Mullan, but a few days later on the stateline trail along the Bitterroot Mountains, the leg injury got to be too much. He's now biked down the old Lewiston Grade and past Riggins, reaching the Mountain time zone; Landers reports that Erpelding took time off to don a suit and attend a legislative hearing in Boise this week, but will soon head back to pick up where he left off. You can read Landers' full post here.

Risch, Crapo both set ‘tele-town hall’ meetings next week

Both of Idaho’s senators, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, have scheduled “tele-town hall” meetings in the coming week; Risch’s will be on Monday, and Crapo’s on Wednesday, both starting at 7 p.m. MT, 6 p.m. Pacific time. Any Idahoan who wants to can participate, but you need to sign up online in advance. Crapo says he’ll take questions and offer insights on issues Congress must deal with this fall, including potential military intervention in Syria; Risch says he’ll give a brief update on issues being discussed in Congress and take questions for the bulk of the hour-long session. Risch also will ask participants to respond to poll questions on various issues.

To sign up for Crapo’s tele-town hall, go to his website here, and click on the tele-townhall icon on the right side under “Action Center.” That’ll take you to a townhall page, where the signup box is located in the middle of the page; there’s more info here.

To sign up for Risch’s tele-town hall, click this link.

Ed groups unanimous on top priority: Restore school funding

During its all-day meeting today, the Legislature's K-12 Educational System Interim Committee invited representatives of three key stakeholder groups - the state’s school boards association, school administrators association and teachers union - to share what they see as the most pressing challenges and needs. All said funding, in the wake of steep budget cuts since 2009. The state budget now allocates only $20,000 per classroom for operational costs; in 2009, it was $25,696. Schools have lost $82.5 million a year in state funding.

Rob Winslow, executive director of the Idaho Association of School Administrators, said districts have had to make “a lot of significant cuts,” including cutting days from the school year and trimming teacher numbers. “Class sizes that used to be, 30 would seem high – now we’re seeing it’s not that uncommon to start seeing class sizes in the 40s, which is a big problem,” he said. “Our No. 1 area that we really would like to see addressed is that restoration of operational funding.”

Jessica Harrison, director of policy and government affairs for the Idaho School Boards Association, agreed. Costs are rising even as funding has been dropping, she said. “All districts are facing the challenge of the increasing cost of mandatory expenditures,” she said, from insurance to utilities to school supplies. “There is only so far it can go.”

Penni Cyr, president of the Idaho Education Association, noted the increase in successful local property tax override votes for school funding. “Idaho citizens want great public schools, and if the Legislature is unable to put money into their local schools, the electorate will either vote taxes upon themselves … or the system will suffer, and parents, students and educators will flee for better, more supportive systems.” She said many Idaho teachers continue to leave the profession. “It’s frustrating to me that once again I have to report to you that the departures continue at historic levels.”

Middle-aged cyclist wowing the competition in international race

Riding against opponents who on average are 14 years his junior, 41-year-old American Olympic cyclist Chris Horner could become the oldest-ever winner of one of his sport's biggest races, the Tour of Spain, AP reporter John Miller reports. Horner, known to fans in his Bend, Ore., home as the “Flying Smile” because of his big grin, is in second place with four stages left. The man to beat, 28-year-old Italian Vincenzi Nibali, wasn't even a teenager when Horner began his professional cycling career in 1997. Horner, a father of three, is aiming to put down the same marker as other middle-aged champions and standouts: Jack Nicklaus with his 1986 Masters win at 46; pitcher Nolan Ryan with his 1991 no-hitter at 44; and, just last week, Diana Nyad, at 64 becoming the first to swim 110 miles between Cuba and Florida without a shark cage, to name a few. Click below for Miller's full report.

28 members of Nez Perce Tribe charged in megaload protest

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: LAPWAI, Idaho (AP) — Twenty-eight members of the Nez Perce tribe, including eight members of the tribe's executive committee, are charged with public nuisance infractions for protests last month seeking to stop a “megaload” from traveling through the reservation. The Lewiston Tribune reports (http://bit.ly/17sW9yW) the charges were filed Wednesday. Tribal executive committee chairman Silas Whitman was among those charged. Court documents say those charged entered the eastbound lanes of U.S. Highway 12 early on Aug. 6 “while traffic was attempting to proceed and refused to leave the highway.” An arraignment is set for Sept. 20 in Nez Perce Tribal Court. Special Prosecutor Michael Cherasia was appointed to handle the cases. The equipment they tried to stop is to be used to treat water at an oil sands project in Alberta, Canada.

Public comments being taken on ed stakeholders plan until Sept. 27

Richard Westerberg, who headed the governor's 31-member education stakeholders task force, outlined the group's 20 recommendations to lawmakers this morning, and noted that a public comment period is now open - people can submit their comments on the recommendations until Sept. 27 for consideration. Comments can be emailed to taskforce@osbe.idaho.gov. There's more info here.

Luna: ‘Stark reality’ is Idaho K-12 students meet standards, but fail at higher ed - because standards are too low

Idaho state schools Superintendent Tom Luna told the Legislature’s K-12 interim committee this morning that there’s a “stark reality” about education in Idaho: The state has a “very high graduation rate, one of the highest in the country,” but one of the lowest percentages of students that go on to further education after high school. “And then we see that of those that do go on, almost half of them have to take remedial courses … 38 percent of them do not go on to their second year.” As a result, fewer than 40 percent of Idaho adults have some sort of degree or certificate beyond high school. “That’s in a world where 60 percent of jobs require some form of post-secondary degree or certificate.”

Luna said Idaho students are showing strong results in meeting state standards while they’re still in K-12 schools, but the data for what happens after that shows the standards aren’t high enough. “That’s why Idaho is moving forward with higher academic standards for all students … this school year.” He called the move to the new Idaho Core Standards “a necessary and critical change in Idaho’s education system.”

He went on to highlight Idaho's efforts in recent years to transform how it tracks student progress through a longitudinal data system, saying, “We want an education system that is based on results. In order to accomplish that, we must have high-quality data.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Legislature’s interim committees gear up; three are meeting today

The Idaho Legislature’s interim committees, which are panels of both senators and representatives that meet in the interim between legislative sessions, are finally getting rolling this week, with three committees meeting, including the most high-profile, the K-12 Educational System Interim Committee, which convened its first meeting this morning at 8:30 in the Lincoln Auditorium; you can listen live here.

Also meeting today: The Energy, Environment & Technology interim committee is in the second day of a three-day meeting; and the Public Defense Reform Interim Committee meets this afternoon; there's more info here.

Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert is posting a detailed live blog of today’s K-12 committee meeting throughout the day today; you can see it here. The meeting is scheduled to run until 4:30.

DeMordaunt: Panel won’t craft bills, but will ‘spawn ideas’ that could become bills

House Education Chairman Reed DeMordaunt, R-Eagle, told the K-12 Educational System Interim Committee, “As I think about this committee, I think of kind of three purposes. First is retrospective, the opportunity for us to look back at some of the things we have done, recently done, and make sure they are working the way they are intended. We know the old phrase, if you fail to learn, then you’re doomed to repeat, something along those lines. So it is important that we learn. Second I think for this committee is forward-looking. The opportunity for us to learn, to be educated on certain things, and potentially craft some legislation. Now I don’t see this committee crafting legislation, but I hope this is an opportunity for us to spawn some ideas that we potentially will see in legislation.”

He said, “The third reason for this committee and a charge that I would give every member of this committee, is the responsibility we will have now to take the information we are gleaning over these next several sessions and go back and share it with our respective House and Senate committees. … So those are the three purposes that I see for this committee, and I’m hoping we can move forward in that.”

After his opening remarks, Don Soltman, president of the State Board of Education, discussed Idaho’s goal of having 60 percent of citizens go on to some form of higher education after high school. Currently, he said, “Idaho’s rate is about 39 percent.”

Goedde to K-12 interim committee: ‘Huge task ahead of us’

“We’ve got a huge task ahead of us,” Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, declared as he convened the first meeting of the Legislature’s K-12 Educational System Interim Committee this morning in the Lincoln Auditorium; you can listen live here. Goedde added, “Some of which was done by the governor’s task force and we will get a report on that. Some things outside of what the governor’s task force addressed will be also on the table for us. Our challenge, as I see it, is taking all these recommenations into consideration and moving forward. An interim committee report or a task force report that sits on a shelf someplace is worth nothing, so the challenge is implementation.”

This morning, the panel will hear a report from Don Soltman, president of the State Board of Education, and Mike Rush, executive director of the Office of the State Board of Education; from Tom Luna, state K-12 schools superintendent; and Richard Westerberg of the state board, who will give an update on the governor’s task force and its recent recommendations.

Then representatives of the Idaho Association of School Administrators, the Idaho School Boards Association and the Idaho Education Association will make presentations on their perspective on challenges and needs in the K-12 educational system. After that, the rest of the day’s agenda is mostly devoted to considering the longitudinal data systems the state has been implementing in both K-12 schools and higher education, how it’s working and what could be improved.

Ed task force posts, submits final report

The final report of the governor's education stakeholders task force has been submitted to Gov. Butch Otter and posted online; you can see it here. The report offers detail on the task force and its 20 recommendations (there were 21, but two were consolidated due to duplication), which range from literacy to advanced learning, from restoring operations funding for schools lost through recent budget cuts to substantially boosting Idaho teacher pay through a new career ladder, and from statewide electronic collaboration to more training and mentoring for teachers and administrators and a new tiered professional licensing system. The 31-member task force drew together all sides in the school reform debate, including both opponents and backers of Idaho’s voter-rejected Students Come First school reforms; it included lawmakers, teachers, administrators, school board members, parents, union representatives, activists, officials and business leaders.

The panel worked on its recommendations for eight months, including seven hearings across the state and extensive work in subcommittees. Otter praised the task force's plan last month, saying, “It met every one of my expectations,” and said he's trying to attach a price tag to the plan - which he said likely will be about $350 million - and a proposal for implementing it over four or five years. The Idaho Statesman reported yesterday that state schools Superintendent Tom Luna, who pushed the voter-rejected reform plan, is strongly backing the new task force plan - he served on the task force and voted for the recommendations - and acknowledging missteps in pushing his earlier plan, which sought to roll back teachers' collective bargaining rights, impose a new merit-pay system, and put a new focus on online learning while supplying every high school student with a laptop computer.

Luna asks for more time to craft school budget request to match task force recommendations

Idaho state schools Superintendent Tom Luna has asked for more time to prepare the 2014-15 public schools budget request so he can build it around an education reform task force’s recommendations, Idaho Education News reports. While state agencies typically submit budget requests around Sept. 1, Luna submitted only a placeholder “statutory budget” on Sept. 3, IdahoEdNews reporter Clark Corbin writes, and asked for an extra 30 days to submit a formal budget request “so I will be able to submit a budget that is relevant to the Task Force’s recommendations.” The request was granted by Otter’s budget chief, Jani Revier, and Idaho legislative services director Jeff Youtz. You can read Corbin’s full report here.

Luna’s spokeswoman, Melissa McGrath, told Idaho EdNews, “Superintendent Luna will be working closely with all stakeholders as well as the staff at the State Department of Education on developing a budget request that addresses the recommendations of the Task Force.” The stakeholders task force, appointed by Otter and coordinated by the State Board of Education, gave near-unanimous approval to a sweeping set of proposals last month, from boosting Idaho teachers’ pay to advancing students to the next grade only when they’ve mastered the material.

WSU student injured after drunken fall down frat house stairs, amid concern over excessive student drinking

The AP reports today that a Washington State University student is in stable condition at a Pullman hospital after falling down a flight of stairs inside the Delta Chi fraternity. Pullman police say 21-year-old Anthony Pentecost is the second intoxicated student to fall at one of the university's fraternities since mid-August; on Aug. 14, a 19-year-old woman fell through a fire escape at Phi Kappa Tau. Police say Pentecost reportedly had been drinking wine early Tuesday morning when fellow fraternity members told him to go to bed. Students heard a thud and found him unconscious at the bottom of the stairs.

Last year, five WSU or U of I students were injured in falls from buildings between September and November; three of the five were at frat houses, and four of the five involved alcohol. And in earlier incidents at the U of I: In October of 2011, a 19-year-old male student fell up to 25 feet from a fire escape at the Kappa Sigma fraternity house; alcohol was believed to be a factor in the fall. In September of 2009, a 19-year-old woman fell from the third story of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house after a drinking party and suffered permanent injuries; a court just dismissed her family's million-dollar lawsuit. In August of 2009, a 20-year-old male student fell three stories from a window at the Delta Tau Delta house and suffered serious injuries. In 1993, an 18-year-old woman fell three stories from her UI sorority house and was seriously injured, after drinking at two fraternity house parties earlier in the evening.

In August, U of I President Don Burnett announced a crackdown on student drinking, calling excessive drinking and substance abuse among college students a “public health crisis.” 

Gooding bans girls from youth football, though league says they can play

UPDATE: The Twin Falls Times-News reports this afternoon that the Gooding district has now reversed itself and agreed to let girls play - by a unanimous vote of the district's board.

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: GOODING, Idaho (AP) — A southern Idaho recreational football district is banning girls from play, even though the rules for the league the district belongs to specifies that girls should be included. The Times-News (http://bit.ly/18PNQMG) reported that Gooding Recreation District Director Kent Seifert recently told youth football coach Smokey Legarreta to remove two girls from his team after Legarreta allowed them to join. Legarreta registered his stepdaughter, Waycee Irish, and a friend of hers, Justice Prince, on his team. Seifert, who declined to comment on the ban, didn't find out that the girls were part of the team until after they had attended a practice.

Legarreta says when Seifert did find out, he told him to take the girls off the team before the Magic Valley Youth Football League jamboree held last weekend. Legarreta refused to pull the girls before the jamboree, but told them they wouldn't be able to play after Saturday's last game. Gooding is the only district in the Magic Valley Youth Football League that bans girls, and league rules say both girls and boys are eligible. League Commissioner Mike Preece says he doesn't have enforcement power over member districts, but the league will review the situation next year. Joleen Toone, the president of the Gooding Recreational District's board of directors, said the rule banning girls has been in place for at least 10 years. “I don't think girls should be in tackle football,” Toone said.

North Idaho freeway becomes site of billboard battle over aid to Israel

An 8-mile section of I-90 in North Idaho has become the unlikely scene for a billboard battle over U.S. aid to Israel, now that a billboard in Coeur d’Alene criticizing U.S. military aid to Israel has prompted a second billboard to go up Tuesday in Post Falls celebrating the alliance. Spokesman-Review reporter Scott Maben reports that foreign policy feels out of place on the stretch of freeway, where advertisements normally highlight pickup trucks, lottery jackpots and tribal casinos.

The first billboard, which suggests the money would be better spent at home, also is upsetting to some in the area’s Jewish community, in part because it went up right before the Jewish holidays Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur. You can read Maben's full story here at spokesman.com. Two groups that helped fund the differing billboards are engaged in similar billboard battles across the country.

Large crowd turns out for Idaho 9/11 commemoration honoring fallen soldiers

There was a large crowd for the Idaho Fallen Soldier Memorial commemoration this morning, honoring all of Idaho’s military members killed since the 9/11 attacks. Since last year’s ceremony, four more names have been added to the list and engraved into the memorial: Shane G. Wilson, killed Oct. 18, 2012; Thomas P. Murach, killed May 4, 2013; Mitchell K. Kaehling, killed May 14, 2013; and Octavio A. Herrera, killed Aug. 11, 2013; all in Afghanistan. There are now 63 Idahoans’ names engraved on the memorial, starting with Ronald Vauk and Brady Howell, who died at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 11, 2001.

All the names were read today by Gov. Butch Otter and First Lady Lori Otter; after the reading of each name, a bell was struck. The ceremony also included remarks from military officials, Kelly Meyer performing the national anthem, a wreath laying by members of the Boise Rescue Mission Veterans Ministry and a rifle salute and taps.

9/11 anniversary marked with commemoration at Idaho Fallen Soldier Memorial

On today's 12th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, Idaho Gov. Butch Otter and First Lady Lori Otter will lead a ceremony commemorating Idaho military members who died fighting terrorism since Sept. 11, 2001, starting at 10 a.m. at the Idaho Fallen Soldier Memorial, at 514 Jefferson St., in front of the former Capitol Annex now called the Idaho Law Learning Center. There, the names of the fallen soldiers are engraved as part of the memorial. The solemn commemoration will include presentations to the families of the four Idaho soldiers killed in the past year.

Court of Appeals upholds driver’s license suspension for former Kootenai court official

Idaho’s Court of Appeals today overturned a lower-court ruling that blocked a driver’s license suspension for a former Kootenai County court official after a misdemeanor DUI arrest in 2010. The Idaho Transportation Department appealed the decision about the license suspension for Marina Kalani-Keegan, former Kootenai County juvenile drug court coordinator. A hearing officer had ruled that the administrative license suspension was invalid because the arresting officer’s original signature wasn’t on his sworn statement, but it was; ITD sought reconsideration with a statement from a notary that the signature was original, but the hearing officer declined to change the ruling, nor did a district court.

In a unanimous opinion written by Court of Appeals Judge John Melanson, the appellate court found that not only was the ruling about the original signature incorrect, an original signature from the officer wasn’t even legally required, and a copy would have sufficed. Wrote Melanson, “The district court erred in demanding something more than that which the law provides.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

FDA receives 89 reports of illness after eating tainted batch of Chobani yogurt

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) — At least 89 people have reported getting sick after eating Chobani Greek yogurt manufactured in Twin Falls, the Food and Drug Administration reported. FDA spokeswoman Tamara Ward told The Times-News (http://bit.ly/17nnX7P) on Monday that some have described nausea and cramps. No link has been confirmed between the illnesses and the yogurt. However, Ward says the FDA is working with Chobani to hasten its voluntary recall. Chobani last week told grocery stores to destroy 35 varieties of yogurt reported to have been contaminated by a mold associated with dairy products. Last Thursday, Chobani spokeswoman Amy Juaristi said 95 percent of the tainted product had been destroyed. The affected yogurt cups have the code 16-012 and expiration dates between Sept. 11 and Oct. 7.

Health officials have said the yogurt is not a public health threat, but the company said last week the “mold can act as an opportunistic pathogen for those with compromised immune systems.” Juaristi told the newspaper on Monday that the company had identified the source of the issue at the Twin Falls plant and had taken steps to prevent it from happening again. The company has not said what caused the outbreak or how it would prevent a reoccurrence.

130+ employers on tap for ‘Hero2Hired’ job fair for vets Thurs. at Idaho Center

More than 130 employers will be hiring at the third annual “Hero2Hired” job fair for veterans, military members and military spouses on Thursday at the Idaho Center in Nampa. The employers, all of whom have open positions, will conduct interviews with interested job seekers on the spot. The event will run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and is open to veterans, active duty military, members of the National Guard and Reserve, and military spouses. Job seekers and employers can still register online to participate at labor.idaho.gov; walk-ins also are welcome.

The event is sponsored by the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce, Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve, Hero2Hired, the Idaho Department of Labor, the U.S. Department of Labor, the Idaho Center, and KTVB-TV; at last year’s job fair, 81 vets were hired on the spot and 327 additional hires were planned by participating companies over the next year.

Inmates harvest record yield from prison farm for food bank

Inmates at the minimum-security South Idaho Correctional Institution south of Boise had a record harvest this year from their 10-acre prison farm, and the whole yield will go to the Idaho Foodbank to feed hungry Idahoans. Yesterday, a selected group of 20 inmates, shown here, harvested and bagged potatoes from the farm; beans and corn grown at the prison farm already are being distributed by the food bank. Volunteers and donors, including a retired potato farmer, helped make the project work, and farmers and ag and trucking companies donated supplies and equipment. The prison farm project for the hungry is in its fourth year, and expanded this year from six acres to 10.

Jenifer Johnson, food bank vice president, said, “The Idaho Foodbank is interested in every opportunity to provide fresh, locally grown produce to our partners in the statewide charitable hunger-relief network. The collaboration with Idaho farmers, seed companies, truckers and the staff and inmates at the South Idaho Correctional Institution is rewarding on many levels, but it is especially appreciated by the hungry families who are already enjoying these healthy vegetables.”

Latest salmon recovery plan offers no major change in strategy

The AP reports that the Obama administration has released its latest plan for making 14 hydroelectric dams in the Northwest safe for salmon; the 751-page draft supplemental biological opinion is online here. The last plan was struck down in 2011 for depending too much on habitat improvements and failing to consider the possibility of breaching four dams on the Snake River in Eastern Washington, but the new plan says that current dam operations are working fine, and habitat improvements are on track to be fully implemented by 2018; it also doesn't call for breaching the dams. A final version of the supplemental biological opinion is due out Jan. 1; click below for a full report from AP reporter Jeff Barnard.

Labrador comes out against military strike on Syria

1st District GOP Congressman Raul Labrador today came out against a military strike against Syria. “I will vote ‘no’ on any Congressional authorization to use force against Syria, and I will encourage my colleagues to do the same,” Labrador said. The second-term congressman said he reached his conclusion after reviewing the arguments on both sides, attending a classified briefing and talking to the Obama Administration. “Nothing they said changed the fact that we are not the police force of the world, we don’t have any compelling national interest in Syria, and it’s doubtful that an alternative government in Syria will be any better than the current one,” Labrador said. “While no one doubts that Bashar al-Assad is a brutal dictator, it’s very likely that removing him power will embolden al-Qaeda and other terrorists.”

Click below for Labrador's full statement; Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, who serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, earlier came out against a strike as well, and voted against it in the committee last week.

Megaloads fight hits courtroom; tribe says it’s being ‘pushed into a corner’

An exhausted federal judge, nearing his 10th hour in court, promised late today to have a decision by Friday on the Nez Perce Tribe’s challenge to continued megaload shipments along scenic Highway 12 through its reservation. “I don’t know when we’ll find the time, given what we’re doing now … but we’ll somehow have a decision out before the end of the week,” U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill said after hearing an hour of arguments from both sides in the case; he’d been in another extended trial since early morning, a major white-collar crime case that had been expected to be wrapped up by now, but instead has several weeks left.

Silas Whitman, chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, welcomed the prospect of a quick decision. “We need the word one way or another, what’s going to happen,” he said. Whitman said he’s “very concerned” about the prospect of another giant load traversing the route as soon as Sept. 18; Whitman was among those arrested in protests of an earlier, similar load in August. “They’re pushing us into a corner,” he said, “and the last time we were pushed, we left and tried to go to Canada.  We’re tired of being pushed into corners to carry out manifest destiny. That’s not the name of the game any more.”

Bill Heins, vice president and chief operating officer for GE Water and Process Technologies, a subsidiary of General Electric, said he, too, is eager for the judge’s decision. His firm has a giant water evaporator sitting at the Port of Wilma awaiting transport to the Canadian oil sands; he said in court documents that GE will face $3.8 million in fines under its contract if the equipment doesn’t arrive in time. “We’re eager to get this piece of evaporator equipment up to the job site,” Heins said after the court hearing.

Winmill ruled last winter that the U.S. Forest Service has authority to review megaload shipments over the scenic route, which crosses through the Nez Perce Reservation, a federally designated Wild and Scenic Rivers corridor, the national forest and numerous historical and recreational sites. The Forest Service has announced plans do a study of the corridor and consult with the Nez Perce Tribe over the matter, and pleaded with the Idaho Transportation Department not to issue permits for more megaloads in the meantime; they are loads so large that they take up both lanes of the two-lane, winding road, creating rolling roadblocks. But ITD issued permits for the August load anyway, and the Forest Service, while noting it hadn’t approved the load, took no action to stop it.

Monday’s arguments centered on whether the court can order the Forest Service to take action, including to close the road temporarily to further megaloads; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Jerome sheriff’s office settles deployed Guard member’s employment rights case

The U.S. Justice Department has reached a settlement with the Jerome County Sheriff’s Office over allegations that the sheriff’s office violated the employment rights of an Army National Guard member when he was recuperating from a knee injury he suffered during military service. While the sheriff’s office doesn’t admit all the violations alleged by the Department of Justice, it agreed to pay the employee, a corporal, $150,000, including $75,000 in lost wages, and to provide a letter requesting his return to eligibility for state employment.

The corporal, Mervin Jones, started working for the sheriff’s office in 2002 as a correctional deputy; he was promoted to corporal in 2007. In 2004, while deployed to Iraq, he injured his knee, an injury that was aggravated in 2008 during a weekend Guard training. In 2009, while Jones was recovering from multiple knee surgeries, the sheriff’s office allegedly denied his request for light duty, required him to fill out family medical leave paperwork unnecessarily, subjected him to an unlawful “fitness for duty” evaluation and physical fitness test and fired him.

The Uniformed Services Employment and Reemployment Rights Act of 1994, or USERRA, protects the employment rights of service members who leave their civilian jobs temporarily for military service; U.S. Attorney for Idaho Wendy Olson announced the settlement.

August state tax revenues just below forecast, 3.5% above last August

Idaho state tax revenues came in very close to the forecast in August, falling just one-tenth of a percent below it, a difference Gov. Butch Otter's Division of Financial Management dubbed “negligible.” Tax revenues for the month were 3.5 percent above the previous August; for the fiscal year to date, which is two months old, revenues are running 3.8 percent above last year, but 1 percent behind forecasts. Individual income tax was $4.2 million below forecast for the month, but corporate income tax was $3.6 million ahead, while sales taxes slightly exceeded expectations. You can read the full monthly General Fund Revenue Report here.

Highway 12 megaloads dispute heads to Boise federal courtroom today

The dispute over megaload transports on Idaho's scenic Highway 12 heads to a Boise federal courtroom this afternoon, as U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill hears arguments from both sides. The Nez Perce Tribe and Idaho Rivers United have sued the U.S. Forest Service for failing to block a megaload transport in August, after Winmill ruled last winter that the Forest Service has jurisdiction over the transports through the national forest and designated wild and scenic river corridor; the Forest Service had initiated a study and consultation with the tribe over the issue and asked the Idaho Transportation Department not to issue permits for the giant load while those efforts were in progress, but when it did anyway, the federal agency didn't stop the transport. Protests ensued as the load traveled the route, and among those arrested were nearly every member of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee.

The giant loads are so large that they block all traffic on the on the narrow, two-lane highway, creating rolling roadblocks. Resources Conservation Company International, a division of General Electric that sent the big load and has another one awaiting transport on the route, has intervened on the side of the Forest Service in the case, and says it stands to lose $3.6 million if it doesn't get the loads to the Canadian oil sands on time. In addition, the Specialized Carriers & Rigging Association, which represents the oversized-load trucking industry, has filed to participate in the case on the Forest Service's side. 

The tribe and IRU are asking the court to immediately block any further megaloads from the route until the Forest Service completes a corridor study and consults with the tribe about the transports, as required under an array of federal laws. “The agency cannot simply waive or defer its consultation responsibilities until after the management activity occurs because to proceed with enforcing its directives would be inconvenient or politically challenging for the Forest Service,” attorneys for the tribe and IRU wrote in documents filed with the court. The Forest Service counters that it's made no final decision that could be reversed by the court, and still is studying the issue; it argues that if the tribe and IRU want to block ITD from issuing permits, it should sue ITD. Click below for a preview of today's hearing from AP reporter John Miller.

9th Circuit rejects argument that Pizzuto’s IQ is too low for execution

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has rejected Idaho death row inmate Gerald Pizzuto Jr.'s claim that he is too mentally disabled to be executed. In the Monday ruling, a three-judge panel said the Idaho Supreme Court correctly applied federal case law when it found that Pizzuto was eligible for execution. Pizzuto had appealed his sentence, saying that his IQ was below 70, making it illegal for the state to execute him. But state attorneys have maintained Pizzuto's IQ is actually higher, and that there's no evidence he meets the criteria for Idaho's law banning capital punishment for mentally disabled criminals. Pizzuto was sentenced to die in 1986 for killing 58-year-old Berta Herndon and her 37-year-old nephew Del Dean Herndon as they were prospecting near McCall.

Labrador: Immigration reform likely to be pushed to back burner by Syria, debt

As Congress returns from its summer break today, 1st District Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador says the debates over Syria and the debt limit are likely to push immigration reform to the back burner, the AP reports. Labrador said he and other members of Congress “were all hoping we would have a debate in October, now it looks like September and October are going to be pretty full with other issues.” Click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Idaho woman reports 3-year-old daughter shot self at Yellowstone campground

An Idaho woman camping in Yellowstone National Park reported that her 3-year-old daughter shot herself with a handgun; the child died after resuscitation efforts failed, the AP reports. It's the first shooting death in the park since 1978. The shooting occurred Saturday morning at Grant Village Campground; park officials are investigating. A federal law went into effect Feb. 22, 2010, allowing visitors to possess firearms in the park. Click below for a full report from the Associated Press.

Report raises residency questions about Boise senator

KTVB-TV reported Friday that Idaho Sen. Branden Durst, D-Boise, is now splitting his time between Idaho and Washington state, where his wife is now employed as a teacher near Seattle; reporter Jamie Grey also reported that the Idaho Legislature has no residency rules once a senator has been elected, though candidates are required to live in their district to run; you can see her full report here.

Grey visited Durst’s home and found him there working in the yard, though his house is largely empty; there’s a rather entertaining interview in which she talked to and filmed him through his fence, when he declined to emerge. Durst told Grey he’s spending at least 50 percent of his time in Boise. “I still have a bed and clothes all here. All my stuff's still here. Everything else is gone,” Durst said.

He later emailed a statement to KTVB, saying, “I am and will continue to be the state Senator from District 18. As any professional, I have looked beyond the borders of my legislative district for meaningful employment. However, I am committed to serving my constituents and have been doing so diligently. I am attending meetings on their behalf, conducting research, and keeping abreast of issues impacting District 18 and the state of Idaho. I look forward to continuing to serve my community in the legislature into the foreseeable future. Any discussions of ethics are simply an attempt to distract people from the real issues facing our state that I am attacking relentlessly head on.”

Grey also spoke with Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, who said, “It justifies some investigation. I'm certainly not in a position at this point to say that anything inappropriate is going on there. But it is an unusual situation, and we should look into it and make sure that Senator Durst's constituents are being served, as well as the interests of the Senate itself.”

H&W: Teach kids to avoid bats

Idaho's Department of Health & Welfare is advising parents and schools to teach kids to avoid bats, and never handle live or dead bats that they may come across. The warning follows a 2006 incident in which children walking to school in Boise found a dead bat and brought it to school, exposing a number of schoolchildren to the potentially deadly rabies virus. “It is very important for parents to teach children to never handle a bat, or any other unfamiliar wild or domestic animal, even if they appear friendly,” said Dr. Leslie Tengelsen, Idaho deputy state epidemiologist. “Don’t let them bring bats into show-and-tell, and teach children to report any contact with a bat to an adult right away.” Click below for H&W's full announcement, including tips to protect yourself and your pets; 20 bats have tested positive for rabies in Idaho so far this year, and at least 49 people have undergone rabies shots after exposure. The most recent rabid bat found in Idaho was captured in central Idaho over the Labor Day holiday weekend, after swooping down on people in an outdoor pool.

Even after downward adjustment, ENA price still higher than low bidders

Idaho Education News has a report this afternoon noting that even after the downward adjustment in the price tag for the controversial statewide high school WiFi contract (see my story here), the cost is still higher than the low bid submitted by a different firm, Tek-Hut Inc. of Twin Falls; you can read their full report here. Tek-Hut bid $1.65 million a year for the contract; Education Networks of America’s successful bid was $2.11 million a year, which now, due to an agreement to charge only for schools ENA actually connects, will drop next year to about $1.89 million. Another bid, from ID Consulting, which unlike Tek-Hut didn’t make the short list of three finalists for the contract, came in at $1.86 million a year.

Retired purchasing agent: ‘They’ve totally changed the terms of the contract’

Scott Sherman, a retired purchasing agent from Idaho Falls, has been raising questions for weeks about Idaho’s controversial high school WiFi contract with Education Networks of America; last Friday, state schools Superintendent Tom Luna replied to several questions Sherman had emailed him, including one about the fixed-price nature of the contract. In the Aug. 27 email, Luna defended that approach, writing, “The RFP was written intentionally with a fixed bid price component for two reasons: 1) to meet the language set forth in Senate Bill 1200 passed by the Idaho Legislature, and 2) to ensure the vendor assumed the risk involved, not the state.”

Sherman disputed that, saying, “It was totally inappropriate for a fixed-price contract, because they didn’t know how many users there were going to be.” Rather than shifting the risk to the vendor, he said, the approach shifted the risk to the state, by saying it would pay full-fare regardless of participation. That, in turn, gave vendors an incentive to up their price to protect themselves against the uncertainty. “They just about ate the whole budget up to protect themselves,” he said.

When Luna sent his Aug. 27 response to Sherman, the superintendent already knew that ENA had made a unilateral concession in an Aug. 6 letter, agreeing to bill the state only for actual work done at Idaho schools, not for the full contract amount, but he didn’t mention that; the state accepted the offer in an Aug. 22 letter. His spokeswoman, Melissa McGrath, said in an email today that the contract has not changed. “The original contract remains in the place,” she wrote. “These letters clarify the billing process and additional questions that were raised in initial meetings with ENA.”

Sherman, who has long been retired but was a purchasing agent with the atomic energy division of Philips Petroleum when the company was the main contractor at the Idaho National Laboratory, said, “In my mind what they’ve done is totally changed the terms of the contract. It’s gone from a fixed price – which given the kinds of things they were asking the potential suppliers to do was ridiculous – to a cost-plus contract.” He said, “That entirely changes how the others would have responded.” Nine companies bid on the contract; ENA was among three finalists, along with two Idaho companies. “I would think that the other suppliers or bidders would have every right to come back and say, people, what have you got?” he said. “You’ve just given these people a million bucks under totally different circumstances.”

Idaho alters school WiFi deal under pressure from lawmakers

Under pressure from state lawmakers, Idaho’s State Department of Education and Education Networks of America have agreed to a change in their statewide high school WiFi deal: ENA will be paid only for the schools it actually connects, rather than a flat fee for all eligible schools whether they participate or not.  hat could lower the price for the contract’s first year from $2.11 million to $1.89 million, but key lawmakers say they still have questions about the deal.

“To me, it made no sense being charged the same whether one school signed up or every school signed up,” said Senate Education Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene. But, he said, “The concessions didn’t necessarily satisfy all my concerns. Whether the concessions they’ve made will be palatable enough for the Legislature to appropriate funds again is the real issue.”

State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna signed the five- to 15-year contract with Nashville, Tenn.-based ENA in July, based on a one-time appropriation from the Legislature of $2.25 million for the upcoming school year. But the contract runs for five years, with options to renew for up to 15 years. It includes a clause that if lawmakers don’t budget money in future years, the contract will end. But it also says the contractor – ENA – owns all the equipment it installs, including miles of cabling to be installed in every Idaho high school to provide wireless networks, and if the contract ends, it must remove everything it’s installed.

Goedde said the cabling issue is another one that concerns him. “I have no problem with them pulling out devices,” he said. “Devices age quickly, and what they install today, in two years will probably be outdated. But I do have an issue with the cable.” An insurance agent, Goedde said, “Any time anybody installs something in a building, it becomes a part of the building.” ENA offered only a partial concession on the cabling, saying it would renounce its ownership rights after the first full five-year term; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Risch: Better to do nothing than launch strike against Syria

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, in a Boise news conference today, said he believes the nation is better off doing nothing than launching a military strike against Syria in the wake of that country’s chemical weapons attack against its own citizens. “Nothing I say today should be taken as minimizing this attack that was done by the Assad regime on his own country,” Risch said. But, he said, “There are no good answers here. … My judgment is the risk of doing something is worse than the risk of doing nothing.”

Risch, who was in the minority on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voting against a resolution yesterday authorizing limited use of force by President Obama, said he wanted Idahoans to know his thinking on the issue; the resolution cleared the panel on 10-7 vote. He’s posted the full video of the news conference on YouTube; you can watch it here.

“There’s tons of nerve gas and other weapons of mass destruction in Syria,” Risch said. “We know where some of those are. Unfortunately, we don’t know where all of those are.” He said, “If this attack unseats the Assad regime, it puts radicals in control of those weapons of mass destruction. Now this is the problem I’ve got with that: I have asked over and over again in Washington, D.C., what are you going to do if that happens? What is the plan to keep weapons of mass destruction out of the hands of some very, very, very bad people? I’m not getting answers to that that are adequate, other than it’ll be right. And I’m not satisfied with that.”

Risch said, “The bottom line here is I cannot support a military attack on Syria at this time. I don’t deny that what he’s done on Aug. 21 is very, very bad. What he did before Aug. 21 was even worse, where he’s killed tens of thousands of people through conventional means.” Risch said if the Assad regime had used weapons of mass destruction against Americans or American interests, “This would have been an absolute no-brainer for me and I would have come down differently on this.” But he said the Syrian conflict is a civil war, and at this point, he doesn’t believe Assad has attacked American interests or allies.

Risch predicted the resolution would pass the Senate over his opposition, but said he can't predict what will happen in the House.

Idaho insurance exchange to offer 161 health insurance plans

Idaho’s state health insurance exchange announced today that it will offer 161 health insurance plans at various coverage levels, from eight providers, when it opens for business Jan. 1; enrollment starts Oct 1. The selection will include 76 individual health plans, 55 small-group health plans for small businesses, 13 individual dental plans and 17 small-group dental plans. “We are pleased that our Idaho insurance companies have offered plenty of plans to choose from,” said state Department of Insurance Director Bill Deal. “We encourage Idahoans to visit Yourhealthidaho.org and speak with a producer or in-person assister to learn more about their options.”

The exchange will allow eligible Idahoans – those who don’t already have employer-provided health coverage, and who fit certain income guidelines – to shop, compare and enroll in the various plans, and access government subsidies, if they qualify, to help offset their costs. Monthly premiums, before any subsidies, will range from a low of $160 for an individual to a high of $1,098 for a family of four. You can read the exchange’s full announcement here.

Bill would require Idaho to compare state, private prison costs

After Idaho’s state Board of Correction refused to consider state operation as it seeks a new operator for a troubled privately run prison south of Boise, a state lawmaker has drafted legislation requiring all state agencies to consider that option when they solicit bids. Rep. John Gannon, D-Boise, said he’s not convinced the state is saving any money by paying Corrections Corp. of America $30 million a year to operate the Idaho Correctional Center. “There is a view that private contractors can perform functions less expensively, but I think sometimes they can’t,” he said. Gannon is now circulating his proposed bill, trying to get discussion going among lawmakers.

In late June, the state Board of Correction voted to seek new bids to operate the Idaho Correctional Center starting next year, but rejected the idea of considering state operation as well. Board Chairwoman Robin Sandy said at the time that state operation would grow Idaho’s government, which she opposed. “There would be several hundred more state employees,” she said. Five years ago, the state Department of Correction sought permission from Gov. Butch Otter and the board to submit its own bid for comparison, but the board refused, and Otter deferred to the board.

His spokesman, Jon Hanian, said Wednesday that Otter’s position hasn’t changed. “The governor doesn’t seek to micromanage his agencies,” Hanian said.

Gannon drafted his bill after reviewing pay figures from other states showing that Idaho’s wages for prison guards far below those in most states; he said that shows that private prison companies can operate more cheaply in some states – but not in Idaho. House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, was non-committal Wednesday on the idea of legislation, but said, “I don’t think it’s a bad thing to bid it, to get a price from either side. … You would think that would be just a good practice.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Senate panel passes Syria force resolution 10-7, Risch votes no

Idaho GOP Sen. Jim Risch was among the minority in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee just now opposing a bipartisan resolution giving President Obama authority to use limited military force against Syria in response to a deadly chemical weapons attack; the resolution, crafted by the panel’s Democratic chairman and GOP ranking member, passed on a 10-7 vote. Five Republicans and two Democrats opposed it; seven Democrats and three Republicans supported it; while one Democat, Sen. Ed Markey, D-Mass., voted “present.” The measure now moves to the full Senate for a vote next week.

It would permit the president to order a limited military mission against Syria, as long as it doesn't exceed 90 days and involves no American troops on the ground for combat operations; you can read the full resolution here. Among Republicans voting in favor of the measure were Arizona Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake. CBSNews has a full report here on the debate and vote; the New York Times has one here.

Idaho congressional delegation wary of strike against Syria

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Idaho lawmakers in Washington, D.C., were deeply skeptical of President Obama's plan for a strike against Syria's chemical weapons infrastructure. In responses this week, Republican U.S. Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo and Reps. Mike Simpson and Raul Labrador all expressed wariness such a strike would enhance U.S. power or bring a swifter end to Syrian President Bashar Assad's regime. Risch committed to opposing a strike. Obama says Assad's government was responsible for numerous gas attacks, including one Aug. 21 said to have killed 1,429 people. In Tuesday's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, however, Risch worried a post-strike Assad would emerge stronger. Republicans including House Speaker John Boehner support a strike. Though Simpson is usually a Boehner ally, the Idaho Republican's spokeswoman said he's “strongly leaning against supporting military action.”

Read a report here from S-R reporter Kip Hill, including comments from Idaho and Washington senators; click below for a full report from AP reporter John Miller.

Rains trigger mudslides at Sun Valley burn areas

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: HAILEY, Idaho (AP) — Crews in Blaine County are cleaning up clumps and mud and debris that have been washed down hillsides scorched and left bare by recent wildfires. The Times-News reports (http://bit.ly/17ponqP ) that up to 18 inches of mud covered at least one public road outside of Hailey. Heavy rains that passed through the area Monday and Tuesday flushed mud and debris into several other roads that access subdivisions threatened by the Beaver Creek Fire. So far, Blaine County Sheriff Gene Ramsay says no homes are threatened by the mudslides. But some homeowners are hiring private contractors to help clean up driveways and private roads. Fire officials declared the 170-square-mile fire contained Monday.

Idaho church leaders launch fast, prayer vigil for immigration reform

Immigration reform advocates are joining the Episcopal Diocese of Idaho along with Mennonite and Unitarian churches in Boise to launch 11 days of fasting and prayer for immigration reform, culminating in a candlelight prayer vigil Sept. 13 at Lakeview Park in Nampa, with the 11-day timeframe symbolizing the 11 million undocumented immigrants now estimated to be in the United States.

Church leaders said the issue goes straight to their faith. “Abraham himself was an immigrant,” said the Rev. Debbie Graham, an Episcopal priest serving Meridian, Payette and Weiser, in a news conference at Boise’s historic St. Michael’s Episcopal Cathedral today. She noted the Biblical injunctions to welcome the stranger. “One of the sad things in our country is that for too long, our undocumented neighbors have been strangers to us,” she said. The advocates noted that the Catholic Church is planning immigration reform messages at services nationwide on Sunday.

Mark Schlegel, pastor at Hyde Park Mennonite Church, said his Mennonite ancestors came here in search of religious freedom, “in search of a place where they could farm in peace.” He recalled the nation’s struggles as it absorbed immigrants from Ireland, China and more. “But as a nation, we forget our stories,” he said. “And when we forget, we become the oppressors.”

The Rev. Karen Hunter of Grace Episcopal Church in Nampa said her congregation is conservative, but the issue was brought home for them when a church member was imprisoned because he is undocumented; he was brought to the United States as a young child, and has a wife and three children, including one with autism. The man now faces deportation. “This has kind of opened our eyes and our hearts to the real injustice of the present situation,” Hunter said.

Bishop Brian Thom of the Episcopal Diocese of Idaho, which includes 30 congregations, said, “In exercising the immigration laws that we have now, we actually do harm to our souls and families. … It must change.” The religious leaders and the Coalition for Immigrant Rights of Idaho called on Idaho’s congressional delegation to make immigration reform a top priority when Congress reconvenes next week.

New book chronicles how journalist Louise Shadduck helped transform Idaho

Louise Shadduck was a well-known Coeur d'Alene author and longtime journalist - and a former Spokesman-Review reporter - but when she died in 2008, her pastor at First Presbyterian, who had known her since 1993, was stunned when he walked into the church to conduct her funeral. “The church was full of plain-clothes cops,” Mike Bullard said, and the front three rows were filled with current and past governors and top state officials. “They'd chartered a plane.”

The now-retired pastor decided to go through Shadduck's extensive papers at the University of Idaho to write a biography, and found pictures of Shadduck with presidents Eisenhower, Nixon and Reagan; records of how she changed Idaho and helped both boost the state's then-moribund economy and create Farragut State Park; and much more. Shadduck was 93 when she died, and Bullard says few alive today know of her remarkable early career, including her work for two Idaho governors, a U.S. senator and a congressman. His book, “Lioness of Idaho: Louise Shadduck and the Power of Polite,” came out Sunday; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Flash flood watch issued in wake of fires

A flash flood watch has been issued for Boise National Forest areas burned by the massive Elk, Pony and Little Queens fires, the AP reports, as well as for the Payette National Forest, where the Weiser Complex Fire has burned about 40 square miles along the Snake River near Brownlee Reservoir. “Travelers should be cautious if high water is encountered at creek crossings and avoid those areas,” said Boise National Forest spokesman David Olson. “In addition, minimizing travel on roads in burned areas is suggested until the flood watch elapses due to the risk of rocks falling onto a road.” Scattered showers and thunderstorms are in the forecast all week; click below for an AP report on the situation.

Coach Pete: ‘Matter of time’ before BSU suffered big loss

Boise State coach Chris Petersen said Monday it was “just a matter of time” before his Broncos suffered a lopsided defeat like Saturday's 38-6 drubbing at the hands of Washington, especially since he nearly always schedules a tough opponent to start the season, the AP reports. At a post-loss news conference in Boise, however, Petersen praised the Broncos for focusing at practice earlier in the day, saying “they went back to work.”

BSU's decision to schedule teams like UW this year and Michigan State a year ago to start the 2012 season — the Broncos lost 17-13 then — only served to increase the likelihood that eventually a lopsided outing would catch up with one of his squads, Petersen said. “You open up every year like we open up, you're going to get your nose bloodied,” he said at Monday's news conference, according to the Idaho Statesman. “It's just a matter of time.” Click below for a full report from the Associated Press; BSU plays the University of Tennessee at Martin on Saturday for the Broncos' home opener.

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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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