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Idaho Politics

Political and legislative news out of Idaho.

Latest from The Spokesman-Review

Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill clears Senate committee

The Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill went to mark-up in the Senate Resources Committee today and won committee approval by unanimous consent; the measure, authored by 2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson, already has passed the House without objection.

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch is sponsoring the bill in the Senate, but his press spokesman didn’t return calls or emails today about the bill and its prospects for a vote in the full Senate. Nikki Wallace, press spokesman for Simpson, said, “I do know that Sen. Risch is working very hard on that, I know that our office is working very hard on that, and I also know that the interest groups involved are making phone calls and trying to get that moved up on the calendar. I know there are a lot of people working to try to make that happen so that a vote can occur.”

She added, “Congressman Simpson is very, very pleased and grateful for all the hard work Sen. Risch has done to help move this bill forward.” The measure is a compromise backed by an array of groups, from conservationists to off-roaders to ranchers; there’s more on the bill here.

UPDATE: On Friday morning, Risch's spokeswoman, Suzanne Wrasse, emailed, "The senator is pushing for a vote in the full Senate before the August recess."

Idaho Dems to elect new state chair on Saturday

The Idaho Democratic Party announced today that its state central committee will elect its next party chairman this Saturday, at simultaneous meetings in three locations around the state in Lewiston, Pocatello and Boise. “It’s hard for people to all get to Boise,” said acting Chair Jeanne Buell, who has been acting chair since former chair Larry Kenck stepped down this spring for health reasons. There are currently two candidates vying for the chairmanship: Dean Ferguson, the party’s communications director; and Bert Marley, a former Democratic state senator from Pocatello and the party’s 2014 candidate for lieutenant governor. Earlier in the summer there were four candidates, but two others dropped out after Marley announced.

The central committee meeting will be at 2 p.m. Mountain time, 1 p.m. Pacific time; the three locations will be linked by phone. Members who can’t attend in person can send their proxies; there’s more info here.

Simpson’s Boulder-White Clouds bill passes U.S. House without objection

Idaho Congressman Mike Simpson’s Boulder-White Clouds wilderness bill passed the House without objection today. “Today’s action by the U.S. House of Representatives is a great accomplishment for the thousands of Idahoans working to solve the Boulder White Clouds land management issue,” Simpson in a statement. “I am extremely optimistic that we will continue to move this legislation forward to become law.”

The bill, H.R. 1138, is dubbed the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act. Sen. Jim Risch is sponsoring identical legislation in the Senate, S. 538; it had a committee hearing in May and is scheduled for mark-up in the Senate Energy and Resources Committee this week.

The bill, backed by a wide array of groups, from conservationists to motorized recreation advocates to ranchers and rural county commissioners, has been in the works for more than a decade. If it doesn’t pass, President Obama has indicated he’ll declare a national monument in the area.

Craig Gehrke, Idaho director for the Wilderness Society, said, “Congressman Simpson’s leadership on protecting the Boulder-White Clouds is something sorely needed in Washington right now, and we commend his ability to move this bill cleanly through the process. It’s now up to the U.S. Senate to demonstrate that it can finally resolve this decades-long debate.”

Simpson’s office offered this summary of the provisions of the bill:

Sawtooth National Recreation Area:  The Sawtooth National Forest would remain as the principle administrative body and the current management would remain intact under the existing SNRA law (PL 92-400) and the existing SNRA management and travel plans.  The Challis BLM would remain the managers of the East Fork BLM and Salmon-Challis National Forest areas.

Wilderness:  Three new wilderness areas would be created totaling 275,665 acres. They are the Hemingway-Boulders Wilderness (88,079 acres), the White Clouds Wilderness (90,841 acres) and the Jim McClure-Jerry Peak Wilderness (117,040).  The total wilderness acreage would be reduced by 36,968 acres from the original CIEDRA bill that would have created 332,928 acres.

Multiple Use:  Four wilderness study areas would be released back to multiple use: the Jerry Peak Wilderness Study Area, the Jerry Peak West Wilderness Study Area, the Corral-Horse Basin Wilderness Study Area, the Boulder Creek Wilderness Study Area and any USFS recommended wilderness not made wilderness totaling 155,003 acres. This is up 23,333 acres released from the original CIEDRA bill which totaled 131,670.

Motorized Use:  No roads that are currently open to vehicles, or trails that are currently open to two wheeled motorized use would be closed.  The Grand Prize and Germania trails (including the ridge in between) and the Frog Lake Loop would be excluded from wilderness and remain open to two wheeled motorized use under the existing SNRA travel plan.  The following higher elevation snowmobiling areas would remain open as allowed under the existing SNRA travel plan: 4th of July Basin, Washington Basin, Phyllis Lake Basin, Champion Lakes and Warm Springs Meadows.

Mountain Bikes:  All areas currently open to mountain bikes outside of the proposed wilderness will remain open.  Under CIEDRA, the 4th of July trail would have been closed to mountain bikes and will now remain open.  This allows the Pole Creek/Washington Basin/4th of July loops to remain open.  The Germania/Grand Prize Corridor trails and all trails outside of the wilderness would remain open to mountain bikes subject to the SNRA travel plan.

Grazing:  Grazing plays an important role in the heritage and economies of rural Idaho and Custer County.  Along the East Fork of the Salmon River, generational ranching families provide significant benefits in maintaining the historic character and nature of East Fork while providing significant conservation benefits to the land, including sustaining the wide, open spaces and un-fragmented landscapes of the East Fork valley. In order to provide another tool for these families to maintain their livelihoods, a provision has been included to provide permittees within and adjacent to the proposed wilderness areas with a way to help them remain viable with as little disruption as possible.  Permittees with allotments within the boundaries of the “Boulder White Clouds Grazing Area Map” would be allowed to voluntarily retire their grazing permits and be eligible for compensation from a third party conservation group.  With this compensation, it is hoped that the ranching families will be able to create more secure and certain opportunities for future generations.

Support to Counties:  Over $5 million in grants have been provided to Custer County and the surrounding Boulder-White Clouds communities for a community center, a county health clinic and EMT support, and improvements to Trail Creek Highway.  Individual parcels of land will be conveyed to Custer and Blaine counties, and rural communities for public purposes the per latest CIEDRA bill.

Recreation Support:  Over $1.5 million in grants have been provided to the SNRA for trail maintenance and improvements, including maintenance and improvements to existing motorized trails and two existing trails to provide primitive wheelchair access, and for acquiring the land to build a mechanized bike/snowmobile access trail between Redfish Lake and Stanley.

Ex-Idaho Rep. Phil Hart settles federal tax dispute, home to be auctioned

Tax-protesting former Idaho state Rep. Phil Hart has settled his long-running delinquent taxes case with the IRS, agreeing to let the feds auction off his Athol home for back taxes - the same home he built partly with logs he illegally cut from state school endowment land, arguing he had a right to them as a citizen.

As part of the settlement, Hart dropped claims that an array of others actually owned his home, and a string of bankruptcy filings in which he attempted to avoid losing it. He also agreed to make both monthly and annual payments to the IRS for the next nine years toward his more than $500,000 federal tax debt. If he misses a payment, the full amount would be due immediately: $586,304.70.

Hart was defeated in his bid for a fifth term in the state House in the 2012 GOP primary, but he’s remained active in state GOP politics. He currently is the Idaho Republican Party’s Legislative District 2 chairman, and is vice-chair of the Republican Liberty Caucus, an affiliated group.

Hart stopped filing both federal and state income tax returns in 1996 while he unsuccessfully pressed a federal lawsuit challenging the federal income tax as unconstitutional; after the case was rejected, he began filing returns again, but authorities said he never fully paid up. He’s also been fighting an order to pay more than $53,000 in back state income taxes, interest and penalties; he’s lost numerous appeals in that case, including one to the Idaho Supreme Court. The federal settlement doesn’t cover the state taxes.

“The state of Idaho still has a claim against Phil Hart,” said Phil Skinner, lead deputy Idaho attorney general for the Idaho State Tax Commission. “However, the reality is the IRS has such a large claim against him and they’re first in line in priority, that we’ll probably never see anything.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

As part of the settlement, Hart agreed to preserve the Athol home in its current condition and maintain insurance on it; and vacate it within seven days of the sale if he’s not the high bidder. He agreed to allow an open house within the two weeks prior to the sale, and not to “deter or discourage potential bidders from participating in the public auction, nor … cause or permit anyone else to do so.”

Court documents say Hart will be allowed to bid on the Athol home like any other bidder, if he’s able to obtain financing; but if he’s the high bidder, he’d have to pay all the back property taxes on top of the sale price. Since 2012, Hart’s racked up $8,777 in unpaid property taxes on the home, according to Kootenai County records. If someone else has the high bid, the back property taxes would come out of the sale proceeds.

Hart tried to get a federal bankruptcy court to seal the settlement, arguing that it would expose “scandalous” information about him, but Chief Bankruptcy Judge Terry Myers refused. “Sealing is … inconsistent with the general proposition that the judicial records and processes of the federal courts are open and public,” the judge ruled. Hart “did not suggest a good reason, much less a compelling reason, for this court to depart from its view on the public and open nature of its records.”

Sen. Hill working on compromise bill on discrimination protections for gays

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, is working on a compromise bill regarding discrimination protections for gay and lesbian Idahoans, NPR reporter Jessica Robinson reports today. Hill said he is drawing on a newly passed Utah law, but not copying it.

"I don’t think that a business should deny services to a person because of their sexual orientation," Hill told NPR. "However, I think that businesses should have a right not to participate in events that promote something that’s contrary to their religious beliefs.” While saying he’s not ready to talk specifics, Hill said he wants to make sure photographers, bakers and other businesses in the wedding industry are not obligated to participate in same-sex weddings.

Hill said his bill wouldn’t change the existing Idaho Human Rights Act, and instead would create a new section in another portion of Idaho law; you can see Robinson’s full report online here.

New study finds four-day school weeks don’t save school districts money

A new study by a rural education group examined the 42 of Idaho’s 115 school districts that have gone to four-day school weeks as a money-saving move, and found that none have seen significant savings as a result. “Minimal savings could be achieved by reducing time for hourly employees, but districts were often reluctant to take this step,” wrote researchers Paul Hill and Georgia Heyward of ROCI, the Rural Opportunities Consortium of Idaho. “Contrary to expectations, some districts saw their costs rise as a result of the need for additional enrichment activities and after-school snacks during the extended day.”

The researchers found some benefits from the new schedule, from opportunities for enrichment on the fifth day to longer days on the other four that better matched parents’ work schedules. But, they wrote, “None of the districts interviewed had rigorously assessed the effects of the four-day week on student achievement. Just one had set out criteria for reviewing its impact and returning to a five-day week if necessary. This means that the educational consequences of the four-day week, at present, are virtually unknown.” Read more in my full story here at spokesman.com.

You can read the full report here. ROCI is an initiative of the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation. The study also found that Idaho has far more school districts on four-day school weeks than the rest of the nation; just 1 percent of school districts nationwide have adopted a four-day school week.

Idaho closes fiscal year with big budget surplus; it goes to roads and savings

The final state tax revenue figures are in for the fiscal year, and with June’s revenues $9 million below the forecast, or 2.9 percent below, the final outcome for the year was 8.6 percent growth in general fund revenue – which is $92.3 million more than was forecast. When additional funds reverted from agencies that didn’t spend part of their allocations is added in, the state’s year-end surplus comes to just over $108 million.

Under legislation lawmakers approved this year, it’s all already spoken for – Half, or $54.2 million, will go the Budget Stabilization Fund, the state’s main rainy-day savings fund; and the other $54.2 million will go to the Strategic Initiative Program Fund, a transportation funding program. That split was established in HB 312, this year’s transportation funding bill, which included a “surplus eliminator” provision to split unanticipated revenue between savings and transportation. You can read the governor’s June General Fund Revenue Report here, and the Legislature’s General Fund Budget Monitor, which has additional budget impact information, online here.

Gov. Butch Otter hailed the year-end numbers, saying in a statement, “Idahoans can be proud that their state is heading in the right direction because the state’s executive and legislative leaders did not only what was tough, but also required laying the foundation for continued economic prosperity and ensuring our best years are still ahead of us.”

Top recipient of Idahoans’ presidential campaign contributions so far: Rand Paul, followed by Ben Carson

How engaged are Idahoans so far in the 2016 presidential race? Measured at least by Idahoans who are reaching into their wallets, according to the latest campaign finance reports the answer is $113,160 worth. That’s how much Idahoans have contributed to all presidential candidates through June 30. Republican Rand Paul had the highest total from Idahoans, at $24,011, but he was closely followed by Republican Ben Carson, at $23,806.

Next in line: Democrat Hillary Clinton, $16,825; followed by Republicans Ted Cruz, $14,686; Marco Rubio, $11,895; and Jeb Bush, $8,100; and Democrat Bernie Sanders, $6,163. Trailing were Republicans Carly Fiorina, $3,225; Rick Perry, $2,700; and Mike Huckabee, $1,000.

Idahoans had given more to presidential candidates as of the first report than donors in Montana, who’d given $98,736, or Wyoming, $86,111; but less than those in Utah, who gave $169,960; Oregon, $406,869; or Washington, at $1,325,004. Clinton was the biggest beneficiary of those Washington contributions, at $738,490.

Carson was the top recipient of contributions from Wyoming; Cruz from Montana; Clinton from Oregon; and in Utah, Clinton was on top with $30,301, but closely followed by Jeb Bush at $28,350. Carson is a retired Johns Hopkins neurosurgeon and author who first drew national attention for his speech at the National Prayer Breakfast in 2013; a conservative, he joined the Republican Party in 2014 and said he planned to run for president.

Risch calls Iran deal ‘horribly flawed’ as Idaho delegation weighs in

Members of Idaho’s congressional delegation have sent out statements today sharply critical of the newly reached nuclear arms deal with Iran, with Sen. Jim Risch saying, “The West will have to live with a nuclear Iran and will abandon our closest ally, Israel, under this horribly flawed agreement.”

He, Sen. Mike Crapo, and Reps. Raul Labrador and Mike Simpson all expressed concern that the deal didn’t include release of Idaho Pastor Saeed Abedini, who has been imprisoned in Iran since 2012 and received an eight-year sentence for attempting to build a Christian church network in private homes in the Muslim nation. Sen. Mike Crapo said he was “deeply disappointed” that Abedini’s release wasn’t part of the agreement, and called it a “bad deal.” Reps. Raul Labrador and Mike Simpson said they will closely review the details of the agreement; Simpson pronounced himself “skeptical,” and Labrador said the continued holding of Abedini and other Americans “raises foundational questions of trust that should have been addressed before striking any deal with Iran.” Here are their full statements:

Sen. Mike Crapo:

 “I am deeply disappointed by the failure of the Administration to secure the release of Boise Pastor Saeed Abedini and other Americans being held prisoner in Iran. Their release should have been a prerequisite to beginning any negotiations in the first place, let alone a final agreement.  When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that no deal was better than a bad deal before a joint session of Congress, he was right.   Though I will fully scrutinize the deal in further detail as Congress begins the review process, initial reports indicate that the agreement is just that—a bad deal.  The Administration has repeatedly provided concessions to Iran and weakened our bargaining position with little, if any, assurances they will abandon their nuclear ambitions. The consequences of an agreement that leaves Iran’s nuclear program intact and allows the country to continue its aggression in the Middle East are monumental and pose a very real threat to the United States and the world.” 

Rep. Mike Simpson:

“I have serious concerns with the Iran nuclear deal.  So far, I am skeptical that this will really promote global security and reduce the threat of nuclear proliferation. I also have a hard time trusting a country to stick to its word after they have held Pastor Saeed Abedini hostage for over three years.  However, Congress has 60 days to review the fine print, and I intend to do so. ” 

Rep. Raul Labrador:

“I will carefully review the proposed agreement and decide whether it is a prudent replacement for the long-established sanctions aimed at blocking Iran’s attempt to build nuclear weapons. The Iranian government claims to want constructive engagement with the world. Yet, Iran refuses to free Boise Pastor Saeed Abedini, imprisoned since 2012. Last month the House unanimously called for the release of the U.S. citizens held in Iran, as well as information on any Americans who have disappeared. That these men remain captive is deeply disturbing and raises foundational questions of trust that should have been addressed before striking any deal with Iran.”

 Sen. Jim Risch:

"From the start, Congress was told by President Obama and Secretary Kerry there would be clear red lines for any deal with Iran. This deal violates every priority the administration initially laid out and crosses every red line that was initially drawn, from complete access to Iran's facilities and scientists to a robust inspection and verification regime. This deal allows Iran to accelerate its nuclear weapons development program and will provide international legitimacy to their program within a limited number of years. It also provides Iran with billions of dollars it will certainly use to fuel terrorism and instability in the world, just as it has done with the limited funds it had under the current sanctions regime.

"In addition, the deal shreds the legacy of arms control and nonproliferation that the United States has championed for decades - it will spark a nuclear arms race in the Middle East that will be impossible to contain. This deal falls disastrously short of what the Obama Administration originally promised and gives the Iranian government what it desires. The West will have to live with a nuclear Iran and will abandon our closest ally, Israel, under this horribly flawed agreement. In addition, the failure of the administration to secure the release of Pastor Saeed Abedini, which should have been a simple task, even at the outset of negotiations, has been ignored despite the chorus of pleas to achieve this goal."

State Bar seeks to disbar Bujak

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho State Bar is seeking the disbarment of former Canyon County prosecutor and gubernatorial candidate John Bujak. Bar counsel for the Idaho State Bar, Bradley Andrews, filed a complaint Thursday alleging Bujak violated rules regarding professional conduct. The complaint addresses many of the allegations made in Bujak's criminal trials. Bujak resigned in 2010 after being accused of embezzlement from Canyon County and was eventually found not guilty of the charges. He was acquitted again in 2014 of other charges including bankruptcy fraud and money laundering. Bujak has been practicing law in Eagle since his license was restored in August. Bujak didn't immediately return a call for comment Monday. He has 21 days to respond to the complaint or longer if he seeks an extension.

Idaho Press-Tribune reporter Kelcie Moseley has a full report here, and Idaho Statesman reporter Kristin Rodine has a full report here.

Simpson’s wilderness bill clears unanimous House committee

Idaho 2nd District Congressman Mike Simpson’s wilderness bill for the Boulder White Clouds clared the U.S. House Resources Committee today by unanimous consent, and now heads for a vote in the full House. The bill, which Simpson and an array of stakeholders have worked on for years, would designate new wilderness areas, while also authorizing various land conveyances and striking other compromises with communities within the area, ranchers, snowmobilers and more. “To say I am pleased about the BWC bill moving forward would be an understatement,” Simpson said. “For more than a decade, Idahoans of all walks of life have worked tirelessly on this legislation. It is because of their dedication that we are one step closer to achieving our goal – creating an Idaho solution for managing the Boulder White Clouds.”

A Senate version of the bill, sponsored by Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, is awaiting action in the Senate Resources Committee. Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker has a full report here; he notes that 1st District Rep. Raul Labrador, who earlier expressed reservations about the bill, could have objected to it in the committee today but didn’t.

The Obama Administration reportedly has given Simpson six months as a last chance to get his bill passed, before it unilaterally declares a national monument in the area, which could be much larger.

Idaho falls from 1st to 9th in nation for % of workers earning minimum wage or less

Idaho, which not long ago ranked first in the nation for the percentage of its workers earning minimum wage or less, has dropped to 9th. “It’s a pretty good bump,” said Bob Uhlenkott, chief of research for the Idaho Department of Labor. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics today released 2014 data showing that the percentage of Idaho workers making the minimum wage or less dropped to 5.1 percent, down from 7.1 percent the year before and 7.7 percent in 2012.

In 2013, Idaho ranked second in the nation for its percentage of minimum-wage workers, behind only Tennessee; in 2012, Idaho was No. 1. For 2014, Tennessee again holds the No. 1 rank at 6.8 percent, followed by Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi and Indiana. At the other end of the spectrum, Oregon and Washington tied for the lowest percentage of workers earning the federal minimum wage or less, both at 1 percent; both have state minimum wages that exceed the federal level, while Idaho matches the federal minimum wage.

Of the 412,000 workers paid hourly wages in Idaho in 2014, 12,000 earned exactly the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, and 9,000 earned less. Nationally, just 3.9 percent of all workers earn minimum wage or less.

In 2003, just 3 percent of Idaho’s workers earned the minimum wage or less.

Of the 21,000 Idaho workers earning the minimum wage or less in 2014, 57 percent were women.

About those 2010 proposals to eliminate Idaho’s state parks department…

Gov. Butch Otter is taking some issue with the sentence in my Sunday parks story that says that in 2010, he “proposed shutting down the parks department and eliminating funding.” Otter said in an interview that his move was designed to send a message – he wanted business plans from all state agencies, and parks was one of four that didn’t immediately produce one. However, Otter’s formal executive budget proposal submitted to the Legislature in 2010 for fiscal year 2011 called specifically for cutting general funds for the state Department of Parks & Recreation to zero, and “devolving” the department, handing over its functions to the departments of Lands and Fish & Game.

Here’s how the proposal read in that year’s legislative budget book: “Devolve IDPR. The Governor recommends transferring the Department of Parks and Recreation’s property and operation management functions to the Department of Lands and transferring the license and registration function to the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.”

Here’s a link to Otter’s executive budget document from that year; it reflects the “agency consolidation” and the reduction of the budget for the Department of Parks & Recreation to zero. That didn’t happen, for a variety of reasons, some of which were explored in my story. That year, Otter also proposed selling the state Department of Parks & Recreation headquarters and surrounding property, anticipating making $5 million; here’s a link to that proposal in his executive budget, listed directly under the “ending balance” line in the middle of the first page. That, too, didn’t happen.

Otter told me, “I guess the value that came out of this is people had to make assessments on the value they were getting. The people said, ‘This is nice, but it’s a necessary part of the local economy.’” He added, “Parks is emblematic – a good example of what we learn about ourselves, how much value do we put on what function of government. We learned that lesson out of necessity.”

That same year, Otter recommended a four-year phase-out of state funding for the Idaho Human Rights Commission, proposing nearly a 25 percent cut in the commission’s funding in FY 2011. The commission ended up moving to the state Department of Labor, where its budget was transferred, taking a 7 percent cut in the process. He also proposed four-year phase-outs of state funding for five other agencies: Idaho Public TV, the State Independent Living Council, the Developmental Disabilities Council, the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission, and the Hispanic Commission. None were approved, though all the agencies took smaller cuts; the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission was transferred from the Department of Health & Welfare to the Division of Vocational Rehabilitation.

Otter said, “It was to encourage them to say, ‘You know, the governor is serious about this. He wants to know what we’re going to do to continue to exist with less state funds.”

Idaho state parks thrive, draw crowds despite budget cuts

Idaho’s state parks are thriving, just five years after Gov. Butch Otter proposed shutting down the parks department and eliminating funding. State funding for parks in Idaho is still less than half what it was in 2006, and that’s reflected in smaller staffs, a backlog of maintenance projects and reduced services during off-peak months. But all the parks have remained open, and they’re welcoming record numbers of visitors this summer for everything from camping to weddings to paddle-board rentals to disc golf.

“Everybody predicted we’d have to close down parks,” Otter told the Spokesman-Review in a recent interview. But he said all he really wanted back in 2010 was to “do more with less – and by golly, the Idaho folks did it.”

Budget cuts have forced states around the nation, including Washington, to consider closing state parks over the past decade, though few actually ended up taking that step. Three states are looking at that now, however, including Wisconsin and Louisiana. A proposal in Alabama would close any park that doesn’t cover 100 percent of its operating costs, according to Lewis Ledford, executive director of the National Association of State Park Directors.

Ledford said he believes that’s a shortsighted measure, as it overlooks the value parks generate for the economies of their surrounding communities. “If citizens have a chance to vote to support funds for their parks, it’s overwhelmingly being popularly endorsed,” he said. And people also are “voting with their attendance.” State park visits are soaring nationwide, with the latest estimate of annual state park visitors topping 730 million. You can read my full story here from Sunday’s Spokesman-Review, including photos and a map of North Idaho park attractions. Last week, Idaho’s state parks system celebrated its 50th anniversary; then-Gov. Bob Smylie established the parks system in 1965.

Catching up on the week’s news…

There’s plenty of news to catch up on from the past week that I’ve been gone, starting with the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision legalizing same-sex marriage in all 50 states the Friday before last. Gay marriage already became legal in Idaho last October, but Gov. Butch Otter had been continuing to attempt to appeal the decision, both filing an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and filing a brief supporting the states involved in the 6th Circuit case the Supreme Court agreed to rule on; he lost on both counts, with the Supreme Court’s ruling settling the question nationwide. A June 30 letter from the U.S. Supreme Court's clerk formally announced Idaho's appeal had been denied.

Otter called the decision “truly disappointing for states, including Idaho, where the people chose to define marriage for themselves as between one man and one woman.” Meanwhile, hundreds of gay rights supporters celebrated on the Idaho Capitol steps, and Rep. John McCrostie, D-Boise, currently Idaho’s only openly gay state lawmaker, said, “This is a great and historic time for the LGBT community both in Idaho and in America, but our joy is tempered knowing that, while we can be married on Saturday we can still be fired and evicted on Monday, until Idaho adds the words to our Human Rights Act. We celebrate this victory, and we continue to fight for equality with housing, employment and public accommodations.” Today, AP reporter Kimberlee Kruesi reports that Idaho’s unenforceable ban on same-sex marriage remains in the Idaho Constitution, and prospects are uncertain on whether lawmakers will remove the now-moot wording, which would require both two-thirds support of the Legislature and a majority vote in a general election; you can read her full report here.

Several notable appointments happened in the past week, including Otter naming a new Idaho Court of Appeals judge and naming a replacement for longtime Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, now head of the state Department of Insurance. Third District Judge Molly Huskey was Otter’s pick for the Court of Appeals seat, where she’ll replace Judge Karen Lansing, who is retiring after 22 years. Huskey is the former state appellate public defender and holds a law degree from the University of Idaho. The appointment keeps a single female among the judges of Idaho’s Court of Appeals and Supreme Court; Lansing had been the only one. For Cameron’s Senate seat, Otter gave the nod to Rupert city administrator Kelly Anthon, a 7th generation Idahoan who lives on a family farm near Declo.

On July 3, U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge, Idaho’s longest serving judge, took senior status; there’s been no word as yet on a possible replacement, as Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch have been conducting an extended, secret screening process to suggest possible replacements to President Barack Obama.

Idaho’s gas tax went up 7 cents per gallon on July 1 with the start of the new fiscal year, as part of the transportation funding deal state lawmakers approved this year. Interestingly, when we drove back into Idaho from Oregon at the end of our vacation on the Fourth of July, gas at the first stop was still priced identically to its level over a week earlier.

Idaho Public Utilities Commissioner Mack Redford died last week; he’d served on the PUC since 2007. An attorney, Redford was the former general counsel for Morrison Knudsen International, served as legal counsel for the Channel Tunnel project connecting England and France, and was general counsel for Micron Construction.

Statewide student test scores aligned to the new Idaho Core Standards were released last week, and Idaho students did better than expected, Idaho Education News reported. EdNews reporter Kevin Richert has a full report here.

The annual Crime in Idaho statistical report came out and showed that Idaho’s crime rate dropped 2 percent from 2013 to 2014, while violent crimes dropped 1.6 percent. Idaho is ranked 43rd in the nation for its violent crime rate. Crimes against property were down 4.6 percent.

Idaho’s Hispanic population grew at its fastest rate in four years, according to a report from the Idaho Department of Labor, and made up 12 percent of the state’s population in mid-2014, up from 11.2 percent in 2010. The state’s Hispanic population grew 2.9 percent from mid-2013 to mid-2014, while the non-Hispanic white population grew 1.2 percent.

Boise brand marketing firm Oliver Russell amended its articles of incorporation to become the state’s first “benefit corporation,” a new class of corporation lawmakers created during this year’s legislative session. Benefit corporations, while still for-profit corporations, are required to consider not only their shareholders, but also benefits to the public, including workers, community and the environment.

Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney sent out a press release warning of a scam targeting Idaho businesses, who are being told they need to purchase a “certificate of goodstanding” to be in compliance with state law. State law has no such requirement, Denney said; an organization calling itself “Division of Corporate Services, Business Compliance Division” has been perpetrating the scam.

And Idaho Sen. Jim Risch has quietly introduced legislation to define work slowdowns as an unfair labor practice, in response to the backlog of ships and containers along the West Coast during months-long contract negotiations between the International Longshore and Warehouse Union and port operators. The Oregonian reports that Risch’s bill has no co-sponsors and no Oregon lawmakers are publicly supporting it; you can read their full report here.

Labrador ‘stunned,’ Crapo ‘disappointed’ by today’s Obamacare ruling

All four members of Idaho’s all-GOP congressional delegation have now issued statements on the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in King v. Burwell, which upheld the tax credit subsidies for consumers who buy their health insurance on the federal insurance exchange in states that didn’t set up state exchanges; Idaho has a state exchange, so wasn’t affected by the case. Here are their statements:

1st District Rep. Raul Labrador:   

“I am stunned that the Supreme Court expanded the power of the executive branch to rewrite law it doesn’t like. Not only does this decision prop up a failed policy, it enshrines the principle that the president can trump Congress. One of my first votes as your congressman was to repeal this massive government takeover of our nation’s health care. The challenge now before Congress is to unequivocally repeal Obamacare and replace it with patient-centered, market-based care. The president’s misguided policy has limited access and increased health care costs.  It’s our job to expand access to quality care and restore incentives for innovations that improve and save lives.”

Sen. Mike Crapo:

“Today’s ruling is disappointing and in no way validates the President’s health care law as some are claiming. The court did not rule on the merits of Obamacare, but, rather, on a one-sentence provision in a 2,700-page ill-advised law.  Obamacare is broken—plain and simple.  Millions of Americans, including thousands of Idahoans, have been pushed from their preferred health plans and doctors and continue to see their premiums rise.  In some cases, by as much as fifty percent in just two years—contrary to the President’s many oft-repeated promises.  Though this particular window of what many have viewed as an opportunity to swiftly replace the law with reforms may be closed, I will continue to work with my colleagues to push for nothing short of a full repeal of Obamacare.  Only when we address the real drivers of the cost of health care in this country and put in place market-oriented solutions, such as allowing states flexibility to regulate the insurance market and prioritizing the doctor-patient relationship over federal mandates, will Americans have access to the truly affordable, quality health care they want and deserve.”

2nd District Rep. Mike Simpson:

“While the Supreme Court made their ruling, it doesn’t change the fact that Obamacare is severely flawed. The House acted earlier this week to roll back two of the most onerous provisions of the Act. My colleagues and I will continue to look for ways to protect Americans from the harmful consequences and focus on finding patient driven solutions to healthcare.”

Sen. Jim Risch:

“I am disappointed but not particularly surprised by the Supreme Court’s ruling. Because of the disaster that Obamacare has visited on most Americans, we have worked to try to repeal it and replace it with a system that is patient- and provider-driven, provides substantially more patient choice and is substantially less expensive than Obamacare. Since it is obvious that Obamacare is going to need at least substantial change, and more appropriately, full replacement, we will continue to pursue that over the next 574 days.”

 

Otter: ‘Our continued focus has got to be on education’

Gov. Butch Otter, in his annual address to the Boise Metro Chamber of Commerce today that’s billed as the “Governor’s Address to the Business Community,” had this message: “Our continued focus has got to be on education, because that’s our future, because that’s our economy.”

Otter said the reason that this year’s Legislature approved a 7.4 percent funding increase for public schools and a five-year career ladder teacher pay plan was because “we knew that there was a direct correlation between an educated workforce and the health of the economy.” He told the crowd of several hundred, “We know as business people that the next generation of your products, of your services, of your ability to manage your business, is sitting around in a classroom someplace today.”

Otter also praised the state’s new STEM Action Center, which will open July 1 as a division of his office, to coordinate STEM education and workforce needs. “That was the brainchild of Reed DeMordaunt, the House education chairman, and Sen. Bob Nonini from Coeur d’Alene,” Otter said. “They put that idea together with the help of many of you here including the Idaho technology center.” Science, technology, engineering and math are “what you are demanding,” Otter told the audience of business people. “That’s what the future workforce has got to be proficient in.” He said the new center will be “up and running by the first of July.”

He touted favorable economic news about Idaho from national magazines, and noted that state tax revenues have come in well above projects this year, meaning this year’s surplus-eliminator bill will put more money than expected into transportation projects and state savings accounts.

“We’re growing, and why shouldn’t we be?” Otter asked. “Those are pretty impressive figures, and they didn’t happen by accident.” He said Idaho’s created an attractive environment for business in part by lowering taxes over the last few years. 

Idaho university officials report program, staff cuts

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — All four of Idaho's four-year public universities and colleges have eliminated degree programs, dissolved academic departments or reduced staff over the past year as part of a statewide effort to cut costs and prioritize college programs. Boise State University restructured several of its academic departments, including its College of Social Sciences and Public Affairs, which is being replaced by a new School of Public Service. Meanwhile, the University of Idaho discontinued 19 degree options. This included bachelor degrees in American Studies, Art Education and Medical Technology. Lewis Clark State College consolidated a student testing center and Idaho State University eliminated eight degree programs. Idaho's State Board of Education first directed college officials to begin evaluating programs in 2013 after seeing a decrease in revenue from tuition and state funds. AP reporter Kimberlee Kruesi has a full report here.

Documents suggest ISP misled officials about CCA investigation

There’s more on the Idaho State Police’s non-existent investigation into Corrections Corp. of America, with the Idaho Statesman reporting that records it obtained under the Idaho Public Records Law show the Idaho Board of Correction believed ISP had conducted a criminal investigation and found no violations, a belief that fed into its decision to sign a $1 million settlement with CCA over understaffing at Idaho’s largest prison, which at the time had earned the nickname "gladiator school" for its rampant violence. But a year after the investigation supposedly had been under way, ISP said it never launched a criminal investigation.

Statesman reporter Cynthia Sewell reports on numerous references to the supposed investigation over the year, including a letter from a deputy attorney general assigned to the Idaho Department of Correction urging ISP to turn over its investigation results to the county prosecutor. Then-state prisons chief Brent Reinke formally requested a criminal investigation by ISP in February of 2013. As IDOC officials believed the ISP investigation was under way, they held off on their own probe, and turned over documents to the ISP. Sewell’s full report is online here.

After ISP announced it had done no investigation in February of 2014 and Gov. Butch Otter defended the agency, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden urged Otter to order one, and after initial delay, he agreed. ISP then determined it had a conflict of interest and the investigation was taken over by the FBI. On May 20, U.S. Attorney for Idaho Wendy Olson announced that the year-long federal investigation resulted in no federal criminal charges, but did uncover "miscommunications" and "uncorrected assumptions." "While these miscommunications ultimately gave rise to suspicion of an effort to delay, hinder or influence a state criminal investigation, such miscommunications, unsupported by any other evidence, do not rise to the level of criminal misconduct," Olson said. "There were a number of other actions or inactions that may be of concern to the state agencies, to the voters, to whatever."

State-paid lobbyists no longer report, Denney wants law changed so they’ll start again

State employees who lobby the Legislature or government officials as part of their jobs – like, for example, the lobbyists for the state’s universities – always used to register as lobbyists and disclose their spending. But Idaho Statesman reporter Bill Dentzer writes that after an Attorney General’s opinion found they didn’t need to, the university lobbyists and other state workers whose jobs entail lobbying stopped filing. BSU, ISU and the U of I all had registered lobbyists in 2011; none have had any since.

Now, Dentzer reports, new Idaho Secretary of State Lawerence Denney wants to propose legislation to make them register and disclose again, along with all state employees whose jobs entail lobbying lawmakers or the executive branch. He also obtained a new Attorney General’s opinion stating that gifts to lawmakers or executive branch officials must be disclosed, even if they come from state employees in the course of doing their jobs.

Denney told the Statesman, “Any agency or any entity that actually spends money lobbying or entertaining legislators or executive officials, I think they should report the money that they spend. … The people have a right to know if a state agency is doing lobbying.”

Bruce Newcomb, director of government relations for BSU since 2007 and, like Denney, a former speaker of the House, said he doesn’t object to registering. “I did it for five years,” he told Dentzer. “What I object to is having all this inconsistency, of having one system and then changing it. If you’re going to be consistent, then all state agencies ought to report, and I agree with Lawerence in that regard.” Dentzer’s full report is online here.