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Eye on Boise: Capitol seeks to meet disabilities act with upgrades

Idaho’s state Capitol is due for $400,000 in accessibility upgrades, to bring the renovated historic structure in line with requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

They range from new wheelchair-accessible seating areas in the fourth-floor public galleries of the House and Senate, to improved ramps and handrails in various locations, to new signs.

A complaint two years ago led the U.S. Department of Justice to look into accessibility in Idaho’s Statehouse. “There were 110 areas they wanted us to look at,” said Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg. “Some were major, and some were minor.”

He said, “We hope by the end of the year to have a signed agreement that we’re in compliance, or have a plan in place to be in compliance.”

A three-year, $130 million renovation was completed in 2010, adding additional underground wings to provide spacious new public meeting rooms and an auditorium, and updating the grand, domed structure’s aging mechanical systems, structure and fittings.

Idaho’s Capitol first opened in 1912, with the east and west wings dating to 1920.

Funding for the modifications will come from state endowment funds that are dedicated to maintenance of the state Capitol.

Highest since 1996

Nels Mitchell, the Democrat who ran against Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, was a little-known Boise attorney when he launched his campaign and was outspent nearly 4-to-1, but he polled the highest percentage of any Democrat running for the U.S. Senate in Idaho since 1996. Mitchell got 34.7 percent of the vote; Risch took 65.3 percent to secure a second six-year term.

Mitchell said, “It was an honor to be the Democratic nominee. I’ve learned a lot, as a first-time candidate, and it was just a great experience. I got to meet so many people around the state. It’s a great state, and hopefully we’ll change the politics.”

Risch, in his election-night victory speech, called his re-election “a clear vote of confidence and trust” and touted the GOP takeover of the Senate majority. “Tomorrow we go about governing, we go about creating jobs, we go about working to repair the damage that’s been done over the last six years,” he said. “And it looks like we’re finally going to have some help in the Senate to get that done.”

The last time a Democrat exceeded Mitchell’s percentage in an Idaho Senate race in 1996, the Democrat was Walt Minnick, who got 39.9 percent against then-Sen. Larry Craig. Minnick went on to win a term in the House in the 2008 election.

‘You betcha’

Sherri Ybarra, Idaho’s newly, and narrowly, elected state superintendent of schools, issued this statement the day after the election:

“First I want to thank my family for standing by my side and for all of their love and support. I want to give a huge thank you to all of my supporters in Idaho for the most humbling experience of my career and life. I am honored and proud because they have entrusted me with the position of ‘Chief of Schools’ and I will do everything I can to defend that trust. I also want to thank my opponent for her hard work running a statewide campaign.  It isn’t easy, so thank you Jana Jones.  I am excited about moving education forward for Idaho’s students.”

Ybarra said she will immediately begin working with outgoing GOP Superintendent Tom Luna “for a seamless transition in the leadership of Idaho’s Department of Education.” Luna had earlier offered both candidates for the post an opportunity to move into an office next to his immediately after the election so he could help them in the transition; during a pre-election debate, both Ybarra and Democrat Jana Jones said they weren’t interested, but Ybarra later said she was.

On election night, asked what she’d do if she won the then-deadlocked race, Ybarra said, “Address the whole child, work on the budget. I’m going to take that opportunity to transition in.”

Ybarra, who is in her second year as federal programs director and curriculum director for the Mountain Home School District, spent 11 years as a third-grade teacher and served as a vice principal and for two years as a principal before starting her current job; she will take office as state superintendent on Jan. 1. “Address the whole child” is a mantra she repeated throughout her campaign, to describe her approach to education.

She also held a “campaign catchphrase” contest on her Facebook page during the campaign, and named the winning slogan on the morning of Election Day: “Ybarra, You Betcha!” 

Political reporter Betsy Z. Russell can be reached at betsyr@spokesman.com or (208) 336-2854. Russell posts updates on the Eye on Boise blog at www.spokesman.com/blogs/boise. Follow her Twitter handle: @BetsyZRussell.

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