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Eye On Boise

Republican Governors Association launches attack ad against Balukoff, calling him ‘typical politician’

The Republican Governors Association has launched an attack ad against A.J. Balukoff, Democratic candidate for governor of Idaho, calling him “a typical politician” who wants to raise taxes and “a perfect fit for California, wrong for Idaho.” Balukoff, a longtime Idahoan and Boise businessman, has served 17 years as an unpaid elected member of the Boise School Board, but other than that has never held political office. He’s running against GOP Gov. Butch Otter, who has held public office since the ‘70s and is one of Idaho’s longest-serving politicians. Otter has served eight years as governor, six as a congressman, 14 as lieutenant governor and four years in the Legislature in the 1970s.

I’ll have a full AdWatch story later this morning examining the claims in the ad; you can watch it here. RGA spokesman Jon Thompson said the ad is running statewide and the ad buy is “in the six-figure range.” Gail Gitchco, RGA communications director, said in a news release announcing the ad, “A.J. Balukoff is a run-of-the-mill, liberal politician, not the leader Idaho deserves.”

Mike Lanza, spokesman for Balukoff’s campaign, said, “The insertion of money from the national party clearly demonstrates that the Washington, D.C., power base of the national GOP recognizes that Butch Otter is in danger of losing the governor's office.” Yesterday, Politico had a story headed “Incumbent governors fear wipeout” listing Idaho as a “wild card,” among states where incumbent governors could lose; the story cited division among Idaho conservatives and Otter's narrow primary win over Russ Fulcher.

Court orders former Sen. Craig to pay $242K for tapping campaign funds for sex-sting defense

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig has been ordered to pay $242,535 to the U.S. Treasury for improperly using campaign funds to cover legal expenses incurred after his arrest in a 2007 airport bathroom sex sting. U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled Tuesday that Craig illegally converted campaign money as personal expenses while attempting to withdraw his guilty plea to one count of disorderly conduct. Jackson found that Craig's effort was personal and not connected to his duties representing Idahoans in Congress. Craig, meanwhile, argued that Senate rules allow reimbursements for any official travel costs. He says he was traveling between Idaho and Washington D.C. for work. However, the Federal Election Commission countered saying Craig violated campaign laws when he relied on donor dollars to cover his legal expenses.

You can read the judge's decision here, which runs 41 pages. In it, Berman Jackson writes that the sum Craig must pay consists of the “amount he was unjustly enriched” by tapping the campaign funds, $197,535, plus a court-imposed $45,000 penalty, “which the Court finds necessary and appropriate to punish defendants’ misconduct and to deter future misconduct by others.”

AdWatch: Balukoff says he’ll take standout school district’s success statewide

The latest TV commercial in Idaho’s governor’s race comes from Democratic candidate A.J. Balukoff, and features a Boise teacher talking about his record as head of the Boise School Board. “A.J. Balukoff made a real difference here. As governor he’ll do that for all of Idaho’s students,” Garfield Elementary School teacher Sonia Galaviz says in the commercial.

“It’s a very positive ad,  in support of Balukoff and his leadership of Boise schools, but it is a Boise perspective, rather than a statewide perspective,” said Jim Weatherby, Boise State University professor emeritus and a longtime observer of Idaho politics. “That will resonate in some areas. In other areas that are somewhat anti-Boise, perhaps not.”

The ad touts well-known distinctions the Boise district has earned for student achievement and for higher rates of high school graduates going on to college. Boise High School has long been ranked one of the best high schools in the nation, and the district’s course offerings, programs and facilities exceed those in many Idaho districts.

That’s in part because the Boise district is a charter school district, one of just three, created before Idaho was a state. As such, it has additional property taxing authority, so its funding is more protected than that of most Idaho school districts. However, its per-pupil spending, while above the state average, ranks just 58th out of Idaho’s 159 Idaho school districts and charter schools. You can read my full AdWatch story here at

Land Board to consider new lease for Tamarack Resort, possible new chapter for troubled ski area

Tamarack Resort could take a significant step toward a clearer financial picture Thursday when Idaho officials decide whether to transfer a ski area lease to a new company that emerged after a sheriff's bankruptcy sale last spring, the AP reports. But first a majority of the five-member Idaho Land Board will have to be persuaded at the special meeting that Tamarack can afford about $278,000 annually to use the 2,100 acres of state-owned land the ski area is built on overlooking Cascade Lake. The lease represents one of the state's more lucrative deals, writes AP reporter Keith Ridler; it's far more than the estimated $80,000 annually the land would generate if it reverted to timber harvest.

Sage grouse ruling finds BLM improperly issued grazing permits

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge has ruled that the U.S. Bureau of Land Management once again violated federal laws when it issued grazing permits instead of analyzing how grazing could harm sage grouse in four allotments in south-central Idaho. In a ruling released Monday, U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill found that the BLM failed to consider stopping grazing in any of the proposed management plans in the agency's Burley Field Office. The decision is round two of a lawsuit led by conservation group Western Watersheds Project that is challenging nearly 600 BLM grazing allotments spread across southern Idaho. Winmill agreed that the BLM is allowed to automatically renew grazing permits without conducting lengthy environmental reviews. However, it must still comply with federal laws requiring the agency to study rangeland degradation.

Four candidates for governor to debate Friday in Coeur d’Alene

Four candidates for governor have confirmed that they’ll debate this Friday in Coeur d’Alene – GOP Gov. Butch Otter, Democratic challenger A.J. Balukoff, Libertarian candidate John Bujak and independent candidate “Pro-Life.” Jimmy McAndrew of the Coeur Group, which is organizing the noon Friday debate at the Coeur d’Alene Library’s downstairs community room, said the group invited all the candidates on the ballot; all but two, independent Jill Humble and Constitution Party candidate Steve Pankey, accepted.

“So we’ve got four,” he said. “Humble declined, I just don’t think she could make it work. We never heard back from Pankey.”

The community room at the library – the same place where the Coeur d’Alene City Council meets – has seating for 160 people to watch the debate, which also will air live on CDA-TV Channel 19, the local cable channel in Coeur d’Alene that airs City Council meetings. After the debate, re-runs are planned and the program will be posted to the channel’s website. “There’s a lot of hours going into prep for this. Our goal is to come up with questions that don’t elicit canned responses,” McAndrew said. He added, “Hopefully, people will come out of there surprised at something or learn something.”

The debate will start at noon, and run for between an hour and 90 minutes. “The library opens at 10, so people are free to stake out their seats by 10 a.m. that morning,” McAndrew said. Organizers are hoping for a big turnout. “We’d love to have it packed,” he said. “It sounds like there’s a fair amount of interest, so I would tell people there’s no harm in getting there a little bit early.”

This will be the first debate in the governor’s race to include Otter; Balukoff and Bujak debated last week in Twin Falls, but Otter didn’t attend.

Third claim cites sexual abuse at state juvenile detention center in Nampa

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Another person has filed a legal claim against the Idaho Department of Juvenile Correction contending that he was sexually abused by two staffers while incarcerated at a Nampa detention center. The tort claim, filed Friday, marks the third such claim brought in the past 12 months by a youth formerly held at the Juvenile Correction Center in Nampa. In the legal document, the youth is called only John Doe III. His attorney, Bruce Skaug, wrote in the claim that the boy was 16 when he was sexually abused in 2009 by two staffers — a woman who worked as a nurse at the detention center and another who worked as a medical assistant intern. Idaho Department of Juvenile Correction spokesman Jeff Ray says he can't comment on pending litigation.

State Dept. of Ed needs 120 volunteers to review 30,000 questions for new statewide test

Idaho’s state Department of Education is looking for 120 public school parents, teachers, administrators and school board members from all over the state to gather in Boise for four days in December to review test questions for the new statewide testing students will undergo this spring. The review will be Dec. 15-19 and will run from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. If that’s not enough time to get through all 30,000 test questions, participants may be asked to return to Boise Jan. 6-8, 2015.

The review is required by legislation that passed this year; the department says it’ll cover participants’ travel to Boise at the state rate and the cost of substitutes while teachers participate. There’s more info here.

Size of wolf, coyote derby proposed to double to 1,500 square miles

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A group that overcame a court challenge last winter to hold a wolf- and coyote-shooting derby is seeking a permit from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management to roughly double the area for a second event this winter. Steve Alder of Idaho for Wildlife says the tentative dates for the derby in the east-central part of the state are Jan. 2-3. The BLM plans to make public an environmental analysis Thursday and take public comments for 15 days. The agency says about 1,500 square miles are involved. Environmental groups say they will contest the permit. A federal judge last year ruled the hunting group didn't need a permit from the U.S. Forest Service after environmental groups sued. The December 2013 event drew 230 people who killed 21 coyotes but no wolves.

Idaho Legislature’s federal lands panel bills for private lawyer climb to more than $61,000

The bill for outside legal fees for the Idaho Legislature’s Federal Lands Interim Committee has now swelled to $61,375, according to documents obtained by The Spokesman-Review under the Idaho Public Records Act. The law firm Holland & Hart has submitted invoices to the Legislature for work from April to August totaling $19,613; that’s on top of the $41,762 the firm already had been paid before then.

The joint interim committee, which is looking into how Idaho could demand to take over federal public land within the state, hired Holland & Hart lawyer Bill Myers, former solicitor for the U.S. Department of Interior, to advise it. Myers’ most recent charges to the state, at $420 an hour, include charges for a phone conversation and email with Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood in July; charges to review a Montana Senate resolution and correspond with Montana state staffers; charges to meet with committee co-chairman Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise; charges for legal research; and charges to participate in meetings in Montana and Utah. The joint panel's other co-chairman is Rep. Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale.

“I think getting good sound legal advice is well worth it,” Denney told Eye on Boise today. “Of course we have been criticized for not using the Attorney General, but I’m not sure the Attorney General has any attorneys on staff with the time or the expertise that Bill Myers has. So I think for us to get good sound legal advice, I think it’s a good idea for us to hire outside counsel.” Legislative committees can get legal advice from the Attorney General without charge. You can read my full story here at

Not actually Basque…

When little-known candidate Sherri Ybarra won a four-way GOP primary race for state superintendent of public instruction in May, some speculation focused on her Basque-sounding last name as an advantage in the race. Basques are one of Idaho’s more colorful longtime ethnic minorities; they're also known for winning Idaho elections, as Basques have held the Idaho Secretary of State’s office for the last half-century, in the form of current Secretary Ben Ysursa and predecessor Pete Cenarrusa.

Asked about it, Ybarra said she’s not Basque, but her husband’s ancestors were, way back. “That is the No. 1 Basque name,” she said. “It’s a lot like ‘Smith.’ ” I wrote about this and other topics in my Sunday column this week, which is online here.

Denney, Woodings vie to run Idaho elections

Lawerence Denney already has experience shaping Idaho’s election policy. In the Legislature, he pushed successfully to close Idaho’s GOP primary election to anyone but registered Republicans and fought to require voters to show photo I.D. at the polls to vote. He tried unsuccessfully to fire his own appointee to the state’s bipartisan citizen redistricting commission for being too accommodating to Democrats, and unilaterally quashed a long-sought financial disclosure law for lawmakers. Now Denney, the former House speaker, hopes to lead the state’s elections as secretary of state.

His opponent, Democratic state Rep. Holli Woodings, argues Denney’s brand of partisan politics isn’t the kind of experience that would be good for running fair elections. She praises Ben Ysursa, the longtime Republican secretary of state who is retiring. “If somebody else got into this position who was more partisan or who was part of this movement to limit people’s voices, it could look very different,” she said.

The Brennan Center for Justice at New York University reports that 22 states have enacted new voting restrictions since 2010, from requiring more and more documentation to qualify to vote to cutting back early-voting access and hours. “There’s definitely an unfortunate trend that we have seen toward restricting access to the ballot,” said Jennifer Clark, counsel for the center’s Democracy Program. “That’s a huge concern. Voting is a fundamental right, from which all other rights spring.”

Denney says he wouldn’t make big changes in how the office is run. “Most of the things that you are in charge of are in Idaho Code, and the only way to be more partisan is to break the law – and I certainly am not going to do that,” Denney said. “You’re pretty much controlled by what the code says.” He added, “If you can tell me how I could be more partisan, please do.”

Ysursa has a different perspective. “As secretary of state, you’re not merely following the dictates – you can lead,” he said. “At times our law is open to interpretation, like everything else. Nobody’s passed a perfect law; sometimes you can have a nuance or interpretation. Where there’s a doubt, you err, if you err at all, in favor of the voting franchise.” You can read my full story here on the race for Idaho Secretary of State this year, from Saturday’s Spokesman-Review.

Forest Service wanted permits for ‘Outdoor Idaho’ to film in woods twice in past two months

Though the chief of the U.S. Forest Service now says controversial permit requirements for filming and photography on forest lands never were intended to apply to journalists, crews for Idaho Public Television’s “Outdoor Idaho” program have repeatedly been told they need permits to film. The most recent incidents occurred in August and September in North Idaho and eastern Idaho.

Reporter Melissa Davlin said she and photographer Jay Krajic were allowed to film at a garnet-digging site on Forest Service land in North Idaho, near Clarkia, in mid-August, but the Forest Service contacted her afterward asking her to fill out a retroactive permit application. Earlier this month, an Idaho Public TV employee who was working on an “Outdoor Idaho” project at Bear Lake in eastern Idaho was sent an email notifying her that a “permit is required of anyone filming on National Forest System lands unless it is breaking news.” Both incidents were outside of wilderness areas, on National Forest lands. You can read our full story here at

Lawmakers look to changes in Idaho’s system for providing public defenders

With Idaho counties calling on the state to set up a statewide public defense system, a legislative committee was told this week that a new commission will provide recommendations before lawmakers convene in January. “We just want to make sure that what we deliver is thoughtful that we've really looked at any potential consequences and that you have the best information to make your decision with,” Third District Judge Molly Huskey, who sits on the Public Defense Commission, told an interim legislative committee on Thursday, the AP reports. “We won't have an answer for you in October or even possibly in November, but we will have some recommendations.”

In 2010, a report from the National Legal Aid and Defender Association found that Idaho isn't satisfying its Sixth Amendment obligations to defendants, writes AP reporter Rebecca Boone. Among the issues, public defenders' caseloads were too high, some defendants didn't meet their lawyers until they were in the courtroom, and defendants sometimes felt pressured to accept a plea agreement rather than go to trial. Click below for Boone's full report.

Of stakeholders, taxes, and starving schools…

Here's a link to my full story at on today's debate at the City Club of Boise between the two candidates for state superintendent of schools. After the debate, I asked former Superintendent Jerry Evans for his impressions. Evans, a Republican, hasn’t endorsed either of the two candidates in the race, Democrat Jana Jones or Republican Sherri Ybarra. Evans said, “Both of them make a strong point about engaging a broad array of stakeholders, which is encouraging to me. I think they both made that point rather clearly.”

“I was a little surprised,” he said, “that Sherri kind of ducked the question of the issue of sales tax on out-of-state sales. I thought they both would say, ‘We ought to explore every opportunity to come up with money for our state’s schools.’”

Current GOP Superintendent Tom Luna has been advocating collecting more of the sales taxes owed on online purchases for the past several years as a way to increase funding for schools; Idaho requires the taxes be paid, but people are “virtually on the honor system,” in the words of today’s debate moderator, Jim Weatherby. Idahoans are supposed to report their online purchases and pay the taxes after the fact on their state income tax returns, but few do.

Asked if they’d push to go after sales taxes on Internet sales to better fund schools, the candidates had differing responses. “I don’t think that there’s a superintendent in this room that wouldn’t want more money for education,” Ybarra said. “If I had a humongous pot of money that was never-ending, it would never be enough. But … it is the responsibility of the legislators to decide the tax formula, and how they provide a thorough education. And I will be a champion and standing alongside them to make sure that that happens, adequate funding in education.”

Jones said, “This has been discussed several times in our Legislature, and it’s something that I think we absolutely should explore and take a look at. Again, the legislators are the ones who decide what we tax, what we don’t tax, where we cut, where we don’t cut. But it’s really critical that we make Idaho’s public schools and our children our No. 1 priority, and as a state superintendent I will strongly advocate for those kids to be No. 1 up front with every legislator.” She added, “I will advocate and work with our Legislature on any way that we can ensure that we have funding for our public schools going forward.”

Evans said, “I think when you’re starving to death, you look at every opportunity to find something for that table.”

Iconic longtime legislative aide Kathryn Yost dies at age 86

Longtime Idaho legislative aide Kathryn Yost has died at the age of 86; she is being mourned today by lawmakers and staffers alike. “She was full of energy and worked hard,” Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, told the Idaho Statesman today. “The appropriations process is very demanding. We have meetings every morning and bills were flying left and right, and she was always on top of all of them.”

Yost, who had worked as the secretary for the House Revenue & Taxation Committee prior to shifting to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee in her 25-year Statehouse career, was known for her style as much as her work, including her flashy dressing, bright red hair and the bountiful array of nuts and sweets she kept on her desk. Said retired longtime Secretary of the Senate Jeannine Wood, “She was an icon at the Legislature and she dressed like a million bucks.”

Idaho Statesman reporter John Sowell has a full story online here. He reports that Yost, who was still active and working, died Wednesday after suffering an aneurysm while playing cards with her sister in Garden Valley.

Jones, Ybarra each say they’re the leader Idaho schools need

In their closing comments at today’s City Club of Boise debate, the candidates, Democrat Jana Jones and Republican Sherri Ybarra each said they’re the leader Idaho’s schools need. “You know we only get one chance to educate our kids and we owe it to them to get it right the first time,” Jones said. “This isn’t a Democratic value, it’s not a Republican value. Education should be and it is a strong Idaho value. I believe very deeply in the greatness of Idaho, having been born and raised here, educated here, I know this is the best place in the country to live. And I believe we can rebuild an education system that’s worthy of it.” She added, “The next superintendent has a lot of work to do. Vital programs have been cut, budgets have been cut, classrooms are overcrowded, local control has been lost.” She said, “We need to get moving forward. … I pledge to you today that I will always be the advocate for our kids and our schools, that I will trust our communities to make the best decisions … and I will provide the kind of leadership that is inclusive, transparent, accountable and most importantly, leadership that you can trust.”

Ybarra kept her closing comments shorter. “You really do have a stark difference in choices in candidates for this position,” she said. “I will be the candidate who is the conservative leader, who will be a tireless advocate for our children, over 250,000 in grades K-12 to always focus on adequate funding and a vision for the future. I have the energy level and the enthusiasm and the skill set. I am in the prime of my career and I want to help you build an excellent education system for our kids.”

How to recruit, retain teachers…

Asked about how Idaho could better recruit and retain teachers, Democrat Jana Jones told the City Club of Boise that she saw districts starting school this year with vacant teaching positions, having to fill in with student teachers or long-term substitutes. An Idaho teacher, she said, “can drive over the Teton Pass and get a $20,000 raise immediately, just walking in the door. We are not competitive.”

Republican Sherri Ybarra said teachers across the state “all say the same thing to me – the money is nice, and of course … if elected I will do everything I can.” But, she said, they say, “The money’s nice – I want to be respected for the work that I do. So tiered licensure is a step in the right direction. I think we need to make sure that the message that we send, though, is that we offer a supportive working environment, lots of training, and welcome to Idaho to join our vibrant team of professionals.”

Jones, Ybarra spar on resources, party, standards…

Asked if, as a member the Democratic minority, she can work with the GOP-dominated Legislature, state schools superintendent candidate Jana Jones said, “We’ve had eight years of leadership under the same party and look where we are today. It’s important that we have someone who can stand up and advocate for leadership … for our kids and our schools.” She said, “I can do it by staying focused on our kids.”

Republican candidate Sherri Ybarra said, “I will be an advocate for students for adequate funding, and what is not adequate funding is large classroom size, not having the supplies at the classroom level, and some of those districts that are on four-day work weeks.”

Asked why Idaho’s schools are falling short, Jones said educators in Idaho “are telling me that we do not have adequate resources to do the things we need  to do in our school districts. … It’s really absolutely critical that we come to agreement on what these schools need.”

Ybarra said, “I think it’s a fallacy that we are last in the nation for achievement. We are last in the nation for funding, I’ll give you that. … We are stagnant in achievement. We as Idahoans stood up and decided that we needed new standards to address that.”

Schools chief hopefuls outline differences…

The first question posed to the two candidates for state schools superintendent was about the main philosophical difference between them. Republican Sherri Ybarra responded, “My proven method of address the whole child is a method of just individualizing education and paying attention to the unique needs of our students. What that means is I will be the conservative leader who believes in not just naming the problem but getting in there and finding it, and then maintaining a focus on a vision for the future, laying out that plan,” and making sure “every day what you are doing in education is that plan. Focusing on moving forward. Adequate funding, stretch the dollar that you have, empower districts to do what they need to do. Maintain a focus on your vision and your plan and live it every single day.”

Democrat Jana Jones responded, “In Idaho, we’ve been working very hard to individualize since at least the 1980s, to individualize for all kids in our schools. It’s a good thing that we need to do. But we need to do more.” She said, “Make sure that the things we’re doing in our classrooms are research-based, best for our kids.” Jones also called for enhancing local control, “because our districts in our state are so uniquely different. … So it’s really important that we have a state superintendent who understands those concepts, has the broad perspective of a statewide approach, not a single-district approach, and that we can take that philosophy remove the strings that are binding the hands of our state’s local boards, give them the opportunity to make the decisions that are right for their schools, their communities, and not have a top-down approach that we’ve been living under for the last eight years.”

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About this blog

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

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

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