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Legislative leaders offer varying visions on transportation funding, taxes

Idaho Reports co-host Melissa Davlin has this report on what legislative leaders had to say today in a lunchtime panel at the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho conference in Boise today, where they addressed transportation funding:

Gas tax, user fees and general fund money are among the options to fund repairs and maintenance to Idaho's roads and bridges, and legislative leaders on the panel disagreed (or expressed lukewarm support) on the suggestions. “Let's look at a balanced approach to see what we can come up with,” said Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill. The panel, moderated by Lt. Gov. Brad Little, also included House Speaker Scott Bedke, R-Oakley, House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, and Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum.

Hill advocated increased transportation funding, showing a map that showed the locations of every bridge older than 50 years in Idaho. (“See all those little red dots? I was excited. I thought they were Republican strongholds,” Hill quipped while showing off the map.) Hill told the audience that any proposals to increase funding would likely go through the tax committees and not the transportation committees.

Stennett agreed that transportation and infrastructure should be a priority, but said health care, mental health, and education need to stay on the legislature's radar as well. She also pointed to the appointment of Sen. Dean Mortimer to both the joint finance committee and as the chairman of the Senate Education Committee. The Senate rarely puts committee chairmen on JFAC; this year, there are two. “When you have a chairman who is going to oversee the largest budget on the budget committee…. we want to make sure we're really careful how we go forward with this new dynamic,” Stennett said.

During the panel, Bedke also discussed reshaping urban renewal law to allow more flexibility for how tax increment financing is used. He said that urban renewal agencies stretched interpretation of current urban renewal law, and that the law needs to be revised to give the Department of Commerce and local agencies more tools. “I think this would be a nice tool for Director Sayer,” Bedke said. Bedke also spoke in favor of lowering the corporate income tax to be more competitive with neighboring states. 

Rusche said this is the first ATI meeting he can recall where lowering taxes wasn't the main focus. “What I'm hearing instead is we need to stop borrowing from our future and start investing in our future,” Rusche said.

Ybarra mum on budget, policy, says she’s on a ‘silent tour’

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Sherri Ybarra says she's staying mum on all things budget, policy and staffing until she's sworn into office on Jan. 5. The recently elected Republican is in the middle of transitioning to become Idaho's next superintendent of public instruction. Ybarra told The Associated Press Wednesday that it would be inappropriate to discuss changes she's considering because current state Superintendent Tom Luna is still in office. Instead, Ybarra says she is on a “silent tour,” and focusing on gathering input from lawmakers and staffers. Ybarra is a school administrator and former teacher from Mountain Home.

Ybarra names interim chief deputy, transition team

Idaho state schools Supt.-elect Sherri Ybarra has named an interim chief deputy to join her administration when she takes office in January: Former Nampa interim schools Superintendent Pete Koehler, Idaho Education News reports. She also named a 16-person transition team to help her gear up for her new job, headed by former longtime Idaho state schools Superintendent Jerry Evans. The team also includes the superintendents of five school districts and several current and former Idaho lawmakers, reports Idaho EdNews reporter Clark Corbin; his full report is online here.

“I’m looking forward to a couple of meetings and getting their input, but they are not a decision-making body,” Ybarra said of the transition team. “These are people who bring expertise to the table, and in order for the transition to be smooth, those folks are at the table giving input.”

Idaho Media Initiative offers grants for reporting projects

The Idaho Media Initiative at Boise State University is inviting journalists to submit applications for one of five $2,000 reporting grants for public affairs reporting projects in 2015 that investigate Idaho public affairs issues that would otherwise go unreported, enhance learning opportunities for BSU journalism students and support civic engagement. “Journalism is vital to a healthy, vibrant democracy and the Idaho Media Initiative aims to promote civic engagement through innovative projects and initiatives that educate, engage and inform,” said IMI co-founder Carissa Wolf. There’s more info here; click below for the full announcement.

Seven finalists, including Woodings, named for Boise council seat

Boise Mayor Dave Bieter has announced seven finalists for an open City Council position, all of whom he will interview; the seven include former state Rep. Holli Woodings, D-Boise, who ran unsuccessfully this year for Idaho Secretary of State, garnering 43.8 percent of the vote but losing to GOP rival Lawerence Denney. “I think the residents of Boise would be well-served by any of these seven individuals,” Bieter said; 31 people applied. 

In addition to Woodings, the finalists include Brian Ellsworth, owner and president of EKC Construction Inc.; Jeff Gabica, a Realtor and CEO of Jumpin’ Juice & Java; Sylvia Hampel, CEO of Clearview Cleaning Service; Rich Harris, owner of the Bandanna Running and Walking store in downtown Boise; attorney and real estate developer Scot Ludwig; and Beth Oppenheimer, executive director of the Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children. You can read Bieter’s full announcement here.

Of transportation investments, taxes, and economic development tools…

At the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho conference today in Boise – a traditional run-up to the legislative session – Idaho Reports co-host Melissa Davlin reports that Lane Beattie, president of the Salt Lake City Chamber of Commerce, spoke on the importance of funding transportation. He described the I-15 improvements before the 2002 Winter Olympics, citing a $1.7 billion project funded entirely by state money. “It had to be done,” Beattie said. Beattie said road maintenance costs don't go away if you ignore them, and encouraged lawmakers to make transportation funding a priority. “If you want higher transportation costs, just don’t invest,” Beattie said.

Earlier in the program, Idaho Department of Commerce director Jeff Sayer asked Tommy Ahlquist, COO of Gardner Company, what economic growth tools Utah uses that Idaho should emulate. Ahlquist said Utah has more flexible bonding, lower taxes, and more urban renewal tools. All of those would help Idaho, he said. “I think you probably need a comprehensive list of options so you use the right tool for the right objective,” Ahlquist said. However, of course, lowering taxes takes money out of the revenue stream, which may make it more difficult to secure transportation funding…

Learning the ins, outs of Idaho’s open meeting law

Moscow’s historic, wood-paneled City Council chambers was the scene of some hilarity last night, as City Councilman Walter Steed, left, played the part of a lucky reporter overhearing his local county commissioners illegally conducting public business over breakfast at a local café – while Latah County Prosecutor Bill Thompson, second from right, played the county commission chairman, throwing in some zingers at Steed while he was at it. The skit was part of a workshop on Idaho’s open meeting and public records laws that drew nearly 30 people last night; additional sessions are set tonight in Coeur d’Alene and Thursday afternoon in Sandpoint.

In the skit, the fictional county commissioners ended up with $500 apiece fines for knowingly violating the Idaho Open meeting Law. “An important note with the penalties,” Deputy Idaho Attorney General Brian Kane told the crowd, “Those are to you as a person, meaning that your government entity doesn’t pick up the tab for you violating the open meeting law.”

Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden was the lead presenter at the workshop, sponsored by Idahoans for Openness in Government and co-sponsored by the Moscow-Pullman Daily News. Wasden said all sides need to understand what the rules are. Lee Rozen, Daily News managing editor, said, “These laws are often misunderstood in the details and in the intent – either by the public, by the press, by government staff and by elected officials.” That’s why all those groups are invited to the IDOG sessions.

There’s more info here about IDOG and the workshops, which Wasden and the group have been holding around the state since 2004; the Moscow session was the 31st.

Federal lands panel backs away from takeover demand, looks to collaborate

The Idaho Legislature’s interim committee looking into a possible takeover of federal lands is backing away from any demand for the lands, instead focusing on long-term collaboration approach with federal officials, the AP reports. “I think for us to make a demand … is meaningless,” said state Republican Sen. Chuck Winder of Boise, the panel’s chair. “It certainly doesn't help us.”

The tone is a marked shift from the 2013 resolution Idaho lawmakers passed that explicitly demanded the federal government immediately cede most of its public lands —which cover nearly 60 percent of Idaho— back to the state. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Kimberlee Kruesi.

Idaho unemployment insurance tax rate to fall 16.8% in 2015

Idaho’s unemployment insurance tax rates are set to drop another 16.8 percent in 2015, the Idaho Department of Labor announced today, as the economic recovery eases the pressure on the state’s Unemployment Insurance Trust Fund. The fund went broke in 2009 and 2010 during the economic downturn, prompting moves including raising the tax rate to its legal maximum in 2012 to restore the fund. The rate has since gone down in 2013 and this year, so next year will mark the third straight rate reduction. There’s more info here from the state Department of Labor.

Risch blasts release of CIA interrogation report as ‘unconscionable’

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, both Republicans who serve on the Senate Intelligence Committee, released a joint statement today blasting the release today of a report on the CIA’s detention program that questions the agency’s claims on the effectiveness of harsh interrogation techniques. Risch and Rubio called the release of the report “unconscionable,” saying, “We are concerned that this release could endanger the lives of Americans overseas, jeopardize U.S. relations with foreign partners, potentially incite violence, create political problems for our allies, and be used as a recruitment tool for our enemies.” You can see the full statement here.

The Washington Post has posted the full 528-page executive summary of the report online here.

Crowd turns out for open government workshop in Lewiston

More than 45 people gathered at Lewis-Clark State College in Lewiston last night for the first of four open-government workshops in North Idaho this week featuring Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden. The free sessions, sponsored by Idahoans for Openness in Government, or IDOG (full disclosure – I’m IDOG’s president), cover how to comply with Idaho’s two key open government laws, the Idaho Open Meeting Law and the Idaho Public Records Act, and are for local and state government officials and employees, reporters, editors and photographers from all media, and interested citizens.

Monday night’s session, co-sponsored by the Lewiston Tribune included interactive skits in which audience members took on roles, including the one pictured above, in which Doug Bauer of the Tribune portrayed a county prosecutor and Jaynie Bentz of the Port of Lewiston a county commissioner, helping illustrate the do’s and don’ts and generating laughs along the way. Lewiston Tribune Publisher Butch Alford, at left, guaranteed the session would be worth the price of admission, or he’d refund double the price.

Among the issues that came up during the session: Chief Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane noted that members of public boards shouldn’t be texting one another during meetings. “We’ve actually had cases of folks texting during a meeting and not having the discussion,” he said. “If you’re texting during the meeting, you’re robbing the public of the purpose of the Open Meeting Law.” Plus, he noted, those texts become public records and the public’s entitled to see them.

He also emphasized a line in the Open Meeting Law that says the “mere presence of legal counsel” does not justify a closed executive session; the law requires more than that. “The corollary to that is folks will send an email and copy it to their attorney, and claim it’s attorney-client privilege” to evade the public records law, Kane said. “It doesn’t work that way.”

When an audience member asked where notice should be posted if a board meeting is held at a board member’s home, the answer was: That’s not advised. A public meeting means anyone can come in, even to that home. But if that’s the place, notice must be posted somewhere prominent, like on the front door or the mailbox out front.

Additional IDOG workshops will be held tonight in Moscow; Wednesday night in Coeur d’Alene; and Thursday afternoon in Sandpoint. There are details here on locations, times and how to RSVP.

Horatio Alger Association honors Vandersloot

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: IDAHO FALLS, Idaho (AP) — Idaho businessman Frank Vandersloot has won an award previously given to former President Ronald Reagan, former hockey star Wayne Gretzky and country music icon Johnny Cash. The Post Register reports that Vandersloot is one of 12 to receive a Horatio Alger Award. Furthermore, the Melaleuca chief executive officer is just the fourth Idahoan ever selected for the award. The Horation Alger Association gives the award to successful individuals who come from humble backgrounds and later used their success to do good, particularly with higher education. The association gives scholarships to students with impoverished backgrounds. Vandersloot grew up on a farm in northern Idaho. He worked to put himself through college at Brigham Young University and now heads a business with a reported $1.2 billion in annual revenue.

New UI study estimates millions in costs to state for federal lands takeover

A new study by the University of Idaho’s Policy Analysis Group finds it would cost the state up to $111 million a year to manage 16.4 million acres of Forest Service and BLM land in Idaho if the state were to take it over; the study predicted millions in losses for the state in eight of nine scenarios, with the only one showing a profit relying on both a massive increase in logging and high timber prices. The study drew criticism from the Idaho Conservation League in part because it excluded include Idaho's legally protected roadless areas and wild river corridors; the ICL contends a legislative resolution calls for the state to take over 28 million acres of federal land, not 16.4 million, so the study overlooked a large portion of the costs to the state. It also excluded all transition costs, assuming the state already had taken over management of the lands. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Kimberlee Kruesi.

Why Labrador voted ‘present’

When the U.S. House voted 219-197 late last week to disapprove of President Barack Obama’s executive action on immigration, Idaho Rep. Raul Labrador didn’t vote “yes.” He didn’t vote “no” either. Instead, Labrador voted “present,” mystifying the folks back home.

A request for comment to his office Friday yielded a referral today to this Roll Call article, which reports that three of Obama’s biggest GOP critics in the House – Labrador, Rep. Steve King of Iowa and Rep. Paul Gosar of Arizona – all voted “present,” because they were sending a message. The message: While liking the substance of the measure, they thought it was a sop to them, a move, Roll Call reported, “brought to the floor only to pacify lawmakers like themselves, who don’t want to vote to fund the government past Dec. 11, when current federal spending expires, unless it includes a policy rider explicitly defunding the immigration policy changes.”

“I believe in the principle; I also want to make sure this isn’t a cover,” Gosar told Roll Call. Labrador said, “The language is OK, but as a standalone bill, it was a meaningless action.”

9th Circuit judges skeptical in Idaho NSA surveillance case

A three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals was highly skeptical this morning of arguments on behalf of a Coeur d’Alene woman that NSA cell phone surveillance violates her constitutional right to privacy; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com. When Coeur d’Alene attorney Peter J. Smith began his arguments, noting that the plaintiff in the case is Anna J. Smith, 9th Circuit Judge Richard Tallman interrupted him, saying, “Who’s your wife.” “That is correct, your honor,” Smith replied. Later, when Smith was arguing that a 1979 U.S. Supreme Court case regarding specific phone surveillance of a criminal suspect for a three-day period, Smith v. Maryland, shouldn’t bar a privacy claim in this case of sweeping, bulk data collection, Smith said he wasn’t asking the judges to overturn Smith v. Maryland. The judges burst out laughing. They said that’s not their place.

In their questioning of attorneys on both sides, the judges, who also included Judges Margaret McKeown and Michael Hawkins, had sharp questions over whether the Coeur d’Alene woman has standing to bring the case. U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill earlier ruled that she did, but held that she couldn’t prevail under current high-court precedents, including the 1979 case.

“We knew that we’d be faced with a lot of skepticism, and we knew that standing was going to be a big issue,” said Idaho Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, who is among Smith’s attorneys in the case. “I think they were intrigued probably by just the way we filed this case, just taking a client who we knew well and would be tolerant of the whole process.” He added, “I’m very excited. This case is a long way from being done, because this issue is a long way from being done. There’s a lot to be decided on privacy in the digital age.”

Thomas Byron, attorney for the U.S. Department of Justice, told the court that Winmill correctly applied the law in his earlier dismissal of the case. When Hawkins asked him, “By an individual popping open their cell phone and typing … that’s voluntarily giving up that information… (and the) expectation of privacy?” Byron responded, “That was the court’s finding in Smith v. Maryland.”

The Idaho case has attracted widespread attention, including friend-of-the-court briefs filed by U.S. Sens. Ron Wyden, Mark Udall and Martin Heinrich, the Center for National Security Studies, the Electronic Privacy Information Center and 33 technical experts and legal scholars, arguing the bulk data collection is unconstitutional. The three senators, all members of the Senate Intelligence Committee, argued that they've seen “no evidence that the bulk collection of Americans’ phone records has provided any intelligence of value that could not have been gathered through means that caused far less harm to the privacy interests of millions of Americans.”

Idaho case challenging NSA cell phone surveillance goes before 9th Circuit today

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments in Seattle this morning in an Idaho case in which a nurse from Coeur d’Alene sued the president and other top national officials over the bulk collection of cell phone data by the National Security Agency.

In legal briefs submitted to the court, attorneys for Anna J. Smith wrote, “To decide the Fourth Amendment issue here, the Court must answer a question that the Supreme Court has never confronted—whether the government’s long-term collection and aggregation of call records invades a reasonable expectation of privacy. … It does.”

U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill dismissed the case in June, writing that existing U.S. Supreme Court precedents hold that data collection doesn’t violate the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment, but that the court could – and very likely might – change that precedent. Smith appealed.

“What is novel here is not primarily the nature of the data collected, but the scale of the collection,” wrote her lawyers, who include state Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene; Coeur d’Alene attorney Peter J. Smith IV, the woman’s husband; and attorneys for the ACLU and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. “Technological advances have vastly augmented the government’s surveillance power and exposed much more personal information to government inspection and intrusive analysis. If courts ignored this reality, the essential privacy long preserved by the Fourth Amendment would be eliminated.”

They argue that years-old court precedents came long before the ubiquitous use of cell phones by Americans. “When collected in bulk, call records reveal religious, familial, political, and intimate relationships; sleeping and work habits; health problems; and business plans,” the lawyers wrote. The government could do targeted surveillance of suspects in terrorism cases without bulk-collecting data from all Americans, they wrote, and still accomplish its goals. “The bulk collection of Americans’ call records is extraordinarily intrusive,” they wrote.

Smith contends that her Verizon cell phone was her primary means of communication with family, friends, her employer, her children’s teacher, her doctor, her lawyer and others, and that her communications were none of the government’s business – and had nothing to do with terrorism. Winmill found that Smith had standing to sue, but couldn’t prevail under current court precedents.

North Idaho Panhandle bucks state trend with new crew of conservative GOP lawmakers

North Idaho has a new crew of conservative GOP legislators who took office this past week, even as the rest of the state resisted a push to oust lawmakers who favored a state health insurance exchange proposed by GOP Gov. Butch Otter. Of the 45 Republicans in both houses of the Idaho Legislature who voted in favor of the exchange in 2012, just four fell to challengers from the right in this year’s GOP primary – but three of the four were in North Idaho. Two longtime Idaho lawmakers were ousted – Sen. John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, by new Sen. Mary Souza, and Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, by new Rep. Sage Dixon; while freshman GOP Rep. Ed Morse fell to new Rep. Eric Redman.

Meanwhile, the retirements of two GOP lawmakers from North Idaho who had voted for the exchange prompted contested primary races, both won by the most conservative candidates – new Rep. Don Cheatham, R-Post Falls, who replaces former Rep. Frank Henderson of Post Falls; and new Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, a fisheries biologist who replaces former Rep. Eric Anderson of Priest Lake; she's pictured above. She handily defeated Republican Stephen Snedden in the primary, who had been endorsed by Gov. Butch Otter.

In my Sunday story here, I take a look at North Idaho’s new crew of lawmakers, and also run down some numbers, including these: 11 GOP exchange backers were challenged unsuccessfully in the primary. Seven of them, none from North Idaho, defeated their primary challengers with more than 60 percent of the vote. Of the four who had closer primary races, two were from North Idaho. There were 27 Republican lawmakers who voted for the exchange and then drew no challenge in this year’s GOP primary election; none of them were from North Idaho.

November state tax revenues beat forecast

Idaho state tax revenues in November came in 5.9 percent ahead of forecasts, the governor’s Division of Financial Management reports, pushing the fiscal year-to-date total collections to $12.3 million, or 1.1 percent ahead of projections. The biggest jump came in individual income tax collections, which were up 9.7 percent. Sales tax collections, while 8.1 percent of the previous November, fell 0.8 percent short of forecasts. Overall, state tax revenues for the fiscal year to date, which started July 1, are 5.8 percent ahead of last year’s pace. You can read the full monthly General Fund Revenue Report here.

Glanbia Foods announces $82M expansion after being promised state, county tax breaks

Here's a news item from the Associated Press: TWIN FALLS, Idaho (AP) — Officials with cheesemaker Glanbia Foods have announced an $82 million expansion of manufacturing plants in south-central Idaho. The company in a statement on Thursday says the expansion at its headquarters in Twin Falls and a plant in Gooding will add up to 50 new jobs. The company says the expansion will help meet demand for whey — a byproduct from cheese-making. The Times-News reports (http://bit.ly/1ywJQjr) that the company finalized its decision after the economic advisory council of the Idaho Department of Commerce approved an incentive plan involving payroll and income taxes. The deal is worth about $1.25 million over 10 years to the company. Gooding County also offered a property tax exemption on capital investment worth up to $2 million over five years.

Corder to be a top staffer to Supt-elect Sherri Ybarra

Idaho state schools Superintendent-elect Sherri Ybarra has been mum since the election, but she was at the Capitol during yesterday’s organizational session, meeting with lawmakers and others. Accompanying her was former Sen. Tim Corder, R-Mountain Home, who acknowledged in response to a reporter’s questions that he’ll be a top staffer for Ybarra when she takes office in January.

Ybarra said, “His job title is probably going to be ‘special assistant to the superintendent.’” Asked if that will be a full-time position, both Ybarra and Corder said yes. Much attention has been focused on whom Ybarra will bring on as her key staffers, given her lack of experience in statewide politics; Ybarra is a school administrator and former third-grade teacher from Mountain Home.

Idaho Education News reporter Clark Corbin spoke with lawmakers yesterday about Ybarra’s transition to the state office; his full report is online here. He reports that Ybarra has assembled a transition team and has accepted outgoing Superintendent Tom Luna’s offer to work with his team to begin preparing to take office, something State Department of Education spokesman Brady Moore confirmed. Ybarra has also met with education stakeholders. “We talked with her about some of our issues and concerns and also welcomed her to her new office,” IEA President Penni Cyr told Idaho EdNews.

Corder served in the Senate from 2005 to 2012. A trucking company owner, he chaired the Agricultural Affairs and Local Government and Taxation committees. He lost to Sen. Bert Brackett, R-Rogerson, in the GOP primary in 2012 after redistricting forced the two sitting senators into the same district.

Corder was an outspoken advocate of reviewing Idaho’s $1.75 billion in existing sales tax breaks, which prompted IACI to unsuccessfully target him for defeat in the 2008 election. He co-sponsored landmark child care licensing legislation in 2009 with then-Rep. George Sayler, D-Coeur d’Alene. And he was the lead sponsor of a bipartisan bill in 2008 to extend the Idaho Human Rights Act to ban discrimination based on sexual orientation. A Senate committee voted 6-2 to introduce the bill, which included an exemption for religious organizations, but it never got a hearing.

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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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