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Eye On Boise

Ed task force goes back to work in two new committees…

The governor’s education improvement task force met today in the form of two new committees working on teacher compensation and school structure and governance, Idaho Education News reports, and the groups hope to report to members of the State Board of Education and Gov. Butch Otter by August or September on detailed strategies for implementing the original task force’s 20 recommendations. During the 2014 legislative session that concluded March 20, lawmakers partially implemented 13 of the 20 task force recommendations. Accomplishing the full program is “clearly an effort that will require a lot of work,” said Richard Westerberg, task force head.

Idaho Education News reporter Clark Corbin reports that after Mike Lanza of Idaho Parents and Teachers Together complained last week that he was booted off the task force for joining Democrat A.J. Balukoff’s gubernatorial campaign,  George Harad represented the group at today’s meeting, though Lanza also attended and took notes. You can read Corbin’s full report here.

Feds: Idaho H&W spent welfare funds correctly

An official with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says an Idaho agency spent $2.5 million in leftover welfare funding correctly, contrary to the findings of a state audit, the AP reports. Idaho's Legislative Services Office released an audit last week that examined how state agencies spent federal money. In the report, the auditors concluded that the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare wrongly used the money left over from the 2008 budget for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families to cover salaries instead of using it to help pay for food, housing and other assistance.

But department officials contested the auditors' finding, saying that federal rules changed at the start of fiscal year 2009 to allow states to spend leftover funds on all services that help keep needy families together — including the costs of providing those services, like salaries. The department used the money to cover part of the salaries of social workers who focused on keeping the state's poorest children out of foster care by placing them with extended family members when their parents could not care for them. After the audit was released, state welfare officials sought guidance from the federal agency to see if they'd done the right thing.Yes, said Karen Code in an email sent to the state; click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

State seeks dismissal of lawsuit challenging new ‘ag-gag’ law

Attorneys for the state of Idaho are asking a federal judge to dismiss a lawsuit challenging a new law that makes it illegal to secretly film animal abuse at agricultural facilities, the AP reports.  Otter signed the law in February after Idaho's $2.5 billion dairy industry complained that videos showing cows being abused at a southern Idaho dairy unfairly hurt business. The Los Angeles-based animal rights group Mercy For Animals released the videos, which showed workers at Bettencourt Dairy beating cows in 2012. Attorneys for Otter and Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden filed the motion to dismiss last week, saying the law violates neither free speech nor equal protection, and the opponents don't have legal standing to challenge it; click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone. The plaintiffs say the law was designed to criminalize whistle-blowers.

March state tax revenues beat projections by 7.7%

Idaho’s state tax revenues in March came in $11.1 million over projections – 7.7 percent – and 12 percent higher than March of 2013. That puts year-to-date tax revenue at $1.9217 billion, which is 0.8 percent ahead of forecasts and 4.7 percent higher than at this point last year. You can see the full General Fund Revenue Report here for March from the governor’s Division of Financial Management.

Boise hazardous waste firm U.S. Ecology makes big acquisition

Here's a news item from the Associated Press:  BOISE, Idaho (AP) — U.S. Ecology is buying environmental services and waste management company The Environmental Quality Co. in a stock deal valued at $465 million that will help expand its environmental services offerings and broaden its geographic reach. Boise-based U.S. Ecology, through its subsidiaries, provides radioactive, hazardous, PCB and non-hazardous industrial waste management and recycling services to commercial and government entities, such as refineries and chemical production facilities, manufacturers, electric utilities, steel mills, medical and academic institutions and waste brokers. Privately held Environmental Quality, based in Wayne, Mich., has facilities in the Eastern U.S., including one hazardous waste permitted landfill located outside of Detroit, 13 waste treatment and recycling facilities and 21 dedicated service centers. The company is owned by an affiliate of New York private equity fund Kinderhook Industries LLC. The acquisition is expected to close in the second or third quarter.

BSU lands commitment from 4-star quarterback Brett Rypien

Boise State has landed a commitment from four-star quarterback Brett Rypien, a junior at Shadle Park High School in Spokane and the nephew of former Super Bowl MVP quarterback Mark Rypien. The younger Rypien wore a number 11 BSU jersey at Boise State’s scrimmage over the weekend, the number worn by former star BSU quarterback Kellen Moore. Spokesman-Review sports writer Greg Lee writes that Rypien is “arguably the best quarterback in Greater Spokane League history,” where he’s broken record after record; he broke his uncle’s Greater Spokane League career passing record of 4,965 yards last September. Rypien passed up offers from WSU, his uncle’s alma mater, Washington, Arizona State, Oregon State, Colorado State, Mississippi State and Idaho.

“I wanted a good coaching staff, good facilities and an atmosphere I could see myself being successful in for four years,” Rypien told Lee. “Boise State definitely has all of that for me.” You can read Lee’s full report here, and a full report from Idaho Statesman sports writer Chadd Cripe here. Rypien would join the Broncos in 2015.

Ads target Crapo over mortgage reform bill

A negative-ad campaign is targeting Idaho Sen. Mike Crapo and six other members of the Senate Banking Committee because of a bipartisan bill that Crapo co-sponsored to reform the mortgage finance industry, Idaho Statesman reporter Zach Kyle reports. The $1.6 million ad blitz from the “60 Plus Association” is aimed at protecting the interests of shareholders in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two government-created mortgage finance companies; the bill would phase them out of existence.

“First, it was Obamacare,” says the narrator of the TV ad. “Millions of Americans had health care plans canceled. Now, Mike Crapo is teaming up with Obama to take over the mortgage industry.” Crapo said the ad misrepresents the bill as big-government and him as liberal. “The people of Idaho know me better than that,” Crapo told the Statesman. Kyle’s full report is online here.

The week that was…

On tonight’s “Idaho Reports” program on Idaho Public Television, I join Jim Weatherby and co-hosts Melissa Davlin and Aaron Kunz for a discussion of the political developments of the week, from the Supreme Court decision on campaign finances to endorsements in the Secretary of State’s race. Also, Davlin talks with House Speaker Scott Bedke about federal land transfer proposals and examines that issue; and Kunz and Rocky Barker report on the Boulder-White Clouds national monument issue. The show airs at 8 p.m. tonight; it re-airs Sunday at 10:30 a.m. Mountain time, 9:30 Pacific; and plays on Boise State Public Radio on Sunday at 7 p.m. After it airs, you can watch it here online any time.

Otter’s statement on personal property tax bill, HB 441a

Here’s Gov. Butch Otter’s statement on why he allowed HB 441a, the personal property tax bill, to become law without his signature:

“I am a strong supporter of eliminating the inherently unfair personal property tax, and I remain committed to working with stakeholders to eliminate this arbitrary assessment. But despite some positive, meaningful and necessary provisions in the original language of HB 441, amendments crafted late in the process have created potential ambiguity for some taxpayers who remain subject to the personal property tax.

I expect Idaho tax policy to reflect the values of predictability, simplicity and fairness. In implementing this law, and the inevitable future legislative efforts to address the tax and paperwork burden on Idaho businesses, I expect that we can and will do better.”

Otter issues first veto, line-item vetoes out gov’s pay increase for next year

Gov. Butch Otter has issued his first veto of this year’s legislative session – on the very last bill. He invoked his line-item veto power to nix an $1,800 appropriation for next year for a 1.5 percent raise for the governor. “While I appreciate the Legislature’s intentions in approving a pay increase for the governor, it is not my desire to accept this increase in the context of having not recommended a similar change in compensation for our valued state employees,” Otter wrote in his veto message.

Otter recommended zero raises for state employees next year; the Legislature instead approved merit raises to average 2 percent, with half of that permanent, and half as a one-time bonus. Separately, lawmakers passed legislation to grant raises to all top state elected officials, mostly 1.5 percent per year, for the next four years; the state Constitution prohibits giving those officials raises during their terms, so that issue can only be considered once every four years, prior to the election.

Otter’s veto message assumes his re-election – that he’ll be the one receiving the governor’s salary next year. The line-item veto was applied to SB 1430, the appropriation bill that followed SB 1395a, the raises bill. He allowed SB 1395a to become law without his signature. In his line-item veto message, he said he intends to donate $1,800 of the governor’s compensation in fiscal year 2015 to Bishop Kelly High School, and wrote, “I also encourage my fellow constitutional officers – who likewise did not seek pay increases – to make similar donations … to the educational institutions of their choice.”

Last year, Otter vetoed two bills; you can read my full story here at

Governor signs 18 bills into law, lets personal property tax bill become law without his signature

As a 4:40 p.m. deadline ticks near, Gov. Butch Otter has signed 18 bills today and allowed one to become law without his signature, and now has just two left on his desk from this year’s legislative session: SB 1395a, and SB 1430. Those are the bill to grant raises to top state elected officials for the next four years, and the appropriation bill tapping the funds for those raises in next year’s budget.

I’m awaiting a copy of the governor’s statement on why he allowed HB 441a, the personal property tax bill that was amended in the Senate, to become law without his signature. The bill was part of a session-ending compromise between the House and the Senate, in which both houses agreed to reject a rule the state Tax Commission adopted in November to draw the line between real and personal property for purposes of the new $100,000 per-taxpayer, per-county personal property exemption.

In place of the rule, which specified that a group of types of property like railroad tracks, pipelines and cell phone towers are real property – not personal property – and thus not eligible for the exemption, HB 441 as amended in the Senate rewrote the definitions in law, rather than rule. The outcome moves Idaho back to a more clear “three-factor” test to define the two categories, and has essentially the same result. HB 441 is retroactive to Jan. 1, 2014.

Among the 18 bills signed so far: SB 1410, which sets standards for wireless networks in Idaho high schools to receive state funding; SB 1396, setting up a 30-member committee to review student test questions and suggest which ones to revise or eliminate; HB 633, the budget for the state Department of Agriculture; HB 593, to set up a tax relief fund and deposit into it any sales taxes remitted to Idaho by remote retailers who aren’t now required to do so; and SB 1370aaa, the bill regarding legislative substitutes that was amended three times in the Senate, and in the end does little to change the current system beyond asking lawmakers to verify that their subs are eligible to serve.

59% of Idaho voters still unaffiliated as primary election approaches

As Idaho’s May 20 primary election approaches, 59 percent of Idaho’s registered voters remain unaffiliated, Secretary of State Ben Ysursa told a gathering of Idaho Republican Party members this morning at the party’s state headquarters. That means when those voters arrive at the polls, they’ll be free to affiliate with the GOP and vote in the closed Republican primary, or to choose other options, including voting in the Democratic primary or voting the non-partisan ballot only, which includes judicial races. Those who already are affiliated with another party – Democrat, Constitution Party or Libertarian – won’t be able to vote in the GOP primary races.

Anyone who already was registered to vote when Idaho changed its law to allow a closed primary was automatically considered unaffiliated until that voter declares otherwise. Those who didn’t vote in the 2012 primary, which drew only 24 percent turnout of registered voters, remained as unaffiliated. Ysursa said he’d like to see higher turnout. The 2012 primary turnout, he said, was dragged down by Ada County, the state’s most populated county, where only 16 percent of registered voters cast ballots. Currently, in Ada County, 65 percent of voters are unaffiliated. In Kootenai County, it’s 61 percent; Canyon County, 57 percent.

As for turnout this time around, Ysursa said, “We’re thinking it’s going to be in the 27, 28 (percent) range.” He said, “I call it the ‘acid test’ of the closed primary, because we have what I consider some very competitive races going on in the primary.” He said in Idaho, “Getting people registered is not the problem – it’s getting those people who are registered to vote.”

More than a dozen people turned out for Ysursa’s talk, one of a monthly series the party’s been holding, including two of the GOP candidates vying in a four-way primary for Ysursa’s seat – chief deputy Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane, and former state Sen. Mitch Toryanski, R-Boise.

Rand Paul to address Idaho GOP state convention in June

Sen. Rand Paul, who topped the latest CNN poll about GOP presidential contenders for 2016, will speak at the Idaho Republican Party’s state convention in Moscow on June 13, Idaho Statesman columnist Dan Popkey reports. Idaho GOP Chairman Barry Peterson told Popkey that Paul was invited by Idaho 1st District Congressman Raul Labrador. “It’s a big deal,” Peterson said. You can read Popkey’s full post here.

Arizona girl drives off in Idaho police car

Here's a news item from today's Spokesman-Review: A girl in the back of a Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office patrol car slipped off her handcuffs, crawled into the front seat and drove away in the car Thursday evening at the Huetter rest area on eastbound I-90 in North Idaho. Kootenai County sheriff’s deputies and Idaho State Police troopers gave chase as the girl drove through Coeur d’Alene and then south on Highway 95. She was stopped on a dead-end road near milepost 421, according to a Sheriff’s Office press release. The girl was one of two juveniles in the car who had been reported as missing/runaways in Chandler, Ariz. The license plate reader on I-90 had identified the 1982 blue Chevrolet El Camino they were riding in as being associated with their disappearance.

Bogus Basin to stay open yet another week, ‘til April 13

It’s happened again – Bogus Basin is extending its closing date for another week, with daily operations now scheduled to run through April 13 due to good snow conditions, including 23 inches of new snow in the past week. “Spring skiing conditions couldn’t be better,” the resort announced today. The non-profit community ski resort will begin discounting daily lift tickets to $25 this Friday. Weekday operations will be 10 a.m. to 4:30, and weekends 9 a.m. to 4:30. The Nordic center and trails also remain open.

This Sunday, Bogus will celebrate with a “retro” costume theme day and live music from “Bread and Circus” inside the Simplot Lodge at 1 p.m.; on Sunday April 13, there’ll be live music outside the lodge, also at 1. There’s more info here.

Otter signs new jobs tax-reimbursement incentive bill into law

A plan to use big tax breaks to lure businesses to expand in Idaho won the governor's stamp of approval, the AP reports. Under the new law, HB 546a, which Gov. Butch Otter signed today, Idaho would refund up to 30 percent of state corporate income taxes, payroll taxes and sales taxes to businesses that create 50 new jobs in urban areas and 20 in rural areas. Proponents hope that will be enough to sweeten the deal for big employers mulling a move to the Gem State. The incentive will also apply to Idaho-based businesses that expand or take on a new project, if they create the required numbers of new jobs paying at least the county average wage; click below for a full report from AP reporter Katie Terhune.

Former Gov. Phil Batt backs McGrane for Secty of State, makes rare primary endorsement

Former Idaho Gov. Phil Batt has endorsed Phil McGrane in the four-way GOP primary for Idaho Secretary of State – a notable endorsement not just because Batt is a respected former governor of the state, but also because he’s a former highly successful chairman of the Idaho Republican Party. Asked how often he’s made an endorsement in the primary, Batt said, “Oh, not very often, I don’t think.”

In this case, though, he said, “One candidate has demonstrated the ability as well as the character and integrity necessary to fulfill the obligations of this office and that is Phil McGrane.” Batt, shown here in a 2013 photo, said, “Over the years, I’ve had the utmost respect and confidence in the Secretary of State’s office being led by Pete Cenarrusa and Ben Ysursa to be run with sound judgment, common sense and fiscal responsibility. Phil McGrane is the right Republican to continue this tradition. I encourage others to join Ben and me in voting for Phil McGrane for Secretary of State.”

Ysursa endorsed McGrane for the post he’s retiring from this year on Tuesday.

There are four candidates vying in the GOP primary; in addition to McGrane, they include former House Speaker Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale; former Sen. Evan Frasure, R-Pocatello; and former Sen. Mitch Toryanski, R-Boise. The victor will face Democratic Rep. Holli Woodings of Boise in November; she’s unopposed in the Democratic primary.

Batt said the Secretary of State’s office is unique. “I think a person has to be studiously objective in that office,” he said. “Certainly there’s no room for any partisan maneuvering at all, favoritism. It’s an objective-type position. I think it’s extremely important, because there’s always people trying to maneuver election possibilities. I think it’s necessary to have an objective person in that office.”

State auditors question use of federal welfare funds

State auditors say the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare misspent $2.5 million in federal welfare funding on salaries instead of using it to help pay for food, housing and other benefits provided to Idaho's poorest residents, the AP reports. But department officials say the money was used properly to help keep extremely low-income children out of foster care. The finding by the Legislative Services Office's Audits Division was part of the state's annual audit of how federal cash is used by Idaho agencies; click below for a full report from AP reporter Rebecca Boone.

Fewer Idaho workers having to settle for just part-time work…

The proportion of Idaho workers who are working just part-time because they can’t find full-time jobs dropped below the national average in 2013 for the first time in six years, the Idaho Department of Labor reports. The figures, from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, show that Idaho had about 39,100 workers in that category in 2013, 5.4 percent of its workers. The national average in 2013 was 5.5 percent. Idaho’s rate has dropped from 6.2 percent in 2012 and a high of 7.6 percent in 2009; the state now ranks 16th on that measure, down from fifth in 2009. There’s more info here.

Lanza booted from Otter’s ed task force after he joins Democratic challenger’s campaign

Mike Lanza, the parent-turned-education activist who chaired the campaign that successfully overturned the “Students Come First” school reform laws, says he’s been booted from Idaho Gov. Butch Otter’s education improvement task force because he’s signed on with Otter’s Democratic opponent’s campaign. The 31-member task force brought all sides in the education reform debate together and made 20 recommendations, all of which Otter endorsed; the Legislature started work on some of those this year.

Lanza, who is now communications director and education adviser to Democrat A.J. Balukoff’s gubernatorial campaign, also still heads Idaho Parents and Teachers Together, the group that grew out of the successful referendum campaign in 2012. “There are politicians and candidates now serving on the task force, and no one questions whether they should be, and I don’t question whether they should be,” Lanza said. “They all have an appropriate role. No one has ever suggested that any of the dealings of the task force have been politicized.”

Marilyn Whitney, spokeswoman for the State Board of Education, which oversees the task force, said task force head Richard Westerberg, a board member, made the call, in consultation with board Chairman Don Soltman and board Executive Director Mike Rush, none of whom were immediately available for comment. “What I do know is that if IPAT wishes to have someone they can, but that it’s problematic and could be counter-productive for that person to be Mike, given that he now represents another entity,” Whitney said. “I think the board worked very hard to keep the previous task force process from being political and politicized.” The original 31-member task force is now reforming into two new committees; you can read my full story here at

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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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