November 14, 2010 in Idaho Voices

Eye on Boise: Campaigning begins for leadership elections

By The Spokesman-Review
 

BOISE – Now that the election is over, for state lawmakers, the elections are coming.

That would be the leadership elections, set for early December when the state Legislature gathers for its organizational session in advance of its 2011 session in January.

Last week, lawmakers from around the state, including newly elected ones, gathered for the North Idaho Chamber of Commerce legislative tour, visiting various sites in the Panhandle and hearing presentations on transportation, timber and more. It was also a chance for the first party caucuses, which included an announcement at the House GOP caucus from Rep. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, that he’s running for majority caucus chairman, challenging current Chairman Ken Roberts, R-Donnelly.

If Nonini won that spot, he’d have to give up the chairmanship of the House Education Committee.

“We have grown to 57 and the reason I’m running for caucus chair is I think I could serve our whole caucus in a good capacity in that position,” Nonini told Eye on Boise. “I’ve chaired the education committee for the last four years. There’s a lot of good talent. I think we have a lot of good members who could step up and do just as good a job as I have done or better.” He added, “We need to make these moves,” to take advantage of “the talent we have in our caucus.”

In the House Democratic Caucus meeting, the mood, according to House Minority Leader John Rusche, D-Lewiston, was “subdued.” Talk focused on the election results, in which the Democrats lost five House seats. For the most part, Rusche said, “Tactical changes in how we did the campaigns and stuff wouldn’t have made any difference. The national Democratic brand was not well-received in Idaho.”

The minority has an opening in its leadership, with Assistant Minority Leader James Ruchti, D-Pocatello, opting not to seek re-election this year; Rusche said “a number of people have expressed interest.”

Wyoming has us beat

Here’s an interesting tidbit shared by Idaho Republican Party Chairman Norm Semanko: Despite the GOP sweep in this year’s elections, Idaho is no longer the “most-Republican” state as measured by Republican dominance in its top offices and Legislature. Wyoming takes that prize.

Wyoming, like Idaho, has its entire congressional delegation and all its statewide offices held by Republicans. The difference: While Idaho has now jumped up to 80 percent GOP in its state Legislature, Wyoming is at 84 percent.

Just a donation

Idaho state Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, has clarified to the state Endowment Fund Investment Board that a check he recently sent for $2,450 to the state’s public school permanent endowment fund is just a donation – not a payment on an outstanding judgment Hart faces for illegally logging timber from school endowment land in 1996 to build his log home in Athol.

In a letter dated Nov. 4 and received at the endowment fund office last week, Hart’s attorney, Robert Romero, wrote, “Please accept the cashier’s check referenced in your letter as a voluntary donation from Mr. Phil Hart on behalf of the Idaho State Public School Permanent Endowment Fund.”

It makes a difference – payments for timber on state endowment lands go into an earnings reserve fund, from which direct payments to schools go out every year; donations to the permanent endowment are held in perpetuity; only their investment earnings are distributed. The response means Hart’s payment falls into the latter category.

Barred from Idaho

The owners of a bankrupt firm, U.S. Fidelis, that once was the largest seller of extended auto warranties in the nation have been barred from doing business in Idaho, under a settlement announced by Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden.

“These individuals got rich by blanketing the country with deceptive mailings, unwanted telephone calls, and high pressure sales tactics, often aimed at senior citizens,” Wasden said. “They made millions selling nearly worthless service contracts, in many cases to people who were covered by a manufacturer’s warranty. This settlement prohibits them from repeating those practices in Idaho.”

Wasden and 10 other state attorneys general sued the defunct company and its founders, Missouri brothers Darain and Cory Atkinson, earlier this year, over illegal actions stemming from deceptive junk mail, telemarketing robocalls and misleading TV ads.

Timing at ITD

It was early in the morning the day after the election when the Idaho Transportation Department announced a “major realignment” of the agency, aimed at reducing management employees, saving money and focusing resources on on-the-ground work. So why that timing?

Eye on Boise asked Gov. Butch Otter, and he said, “How many times do we want to go through the debate on that? The Legislature still has to take a look at a lot of the things that we want to do there. I think it’s important that we not confuse the issue.”

He added, “Obviously we’re anxiously awaiting the report of the governor’s task force.” That, he said, will include “charting some new waters” and “a 20-year vision,” including “the revenue stream.” Said Otter, “I think it’s important that that debate begin. I support their efforts.”

ITD spokesman Jeff Stratten said the realignment plan has been in the works since the department’s new director, Brian Ness, came on board and began meeting with department employees last spring. “The director has the authority to make organizational moves,” Stratten said. “The pieces came together just prior to the election and the decision was made to hold off on it, in hopes that we could … not intermix it in the middle of all the election coverage.”

The department says the realignment won’t mean layoffs, but instead will make changes as employees retire or leave; projections show 55 ITD employees who are supervisors will be eligible for retirement over the next two years. “It’s possible that some people who once managed or supervised may no longer do so,” Stratten said.

Ness said he determined that ITD now has as many as nine layers of management between front-line workers and the director; he plans to reduce that to five.

Betsy Z. Russell can be reached toll-free at (866) 336-2854 or bzrussell@gmail.com.


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