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Idaho lags in pre-K enrollment, but debate may be picking up…

Idaho’s pre-K enrollment numbers rank among the nation’s lowest, reports Idaho Education News, lagging even in comparison to the handful of other states that have no state-funded preschool. EdNews reporter Kevin Richert writes that a new report from the National Institute for Early Education Research found that in Idaho, only 1,569 of the state’s 3-year-olds were enrolled in Head Start, special ed or other publicly funded education programs; that’s 6.8 percent, the lowest percentage in the nation. For 4-year-olds, Idaho hit 12.9 percent, ranking third-lowest, ahead of Utah and Wyoming.

While a pre-K pilot bill gained little traction during this year’s Idaho legislative session, Richert writes that the debate appears to be picking up. Last week, about 400 people attended an early learning conference in Boise sponsored by BSU’s Andrus Center for Public Policy and the University of Idaho’s McClure Center for Public Policy Research. During the conference, state Sen. Steven Thayn, an Emmett Republican who has opposed past pre-K efforts, said, “I think we’ll see something happen this next legislative session.” You can read Richert’s full report here.

‘Ag gag’ law: Constitutional rights or ‘motherhood and apple pie’?

When Idaho lawmakers passed the state’s “ag gag” law in 2014, criminalizing surreptitious videotaping of agricultural operations, they said they were targeting “agri-terrorism” and “extremists” who target “our farm families,” particularly by publishing damaging videos online. Now those statements are at issue in federal court, where the law is being challenged as an unconstitutional content-based restriction on free speech – in part because it imposes hefty penalties on those who record at agricultural operations, but not at other types of businesses. The lawmakers’ comments also are being used as evidence of a violation of the 14th Amendment’s equal protection guarantee, showing that lawmakers were specifically targeting animal activists with the law.

U.S. District Judge Lynn Winmill, at a hearing in the case last week, compared the issue to the targeting of ACORN by conservative activists, who under false pretenses, videotaped members of the liberal community organizing group at their offices and used the video to undermine the group’s credibility.

“The principles at stake here don’t really have any politics,” Winmill said. “They don’t even have economics. What they have is just a question of constitutional law. … It’s just a question of what the First Amendment means and how it should be applied in the context of a law of this sort.”

Rep. Gayle Batt, R-Wilder, the House sponsor of the law, was in the audience for the hearing, and bristled at the suggestion that misrepresenting oneself to get a farm job and then taking surreptitious video to publish could be protected under the Constitution.

“We’re talking about motherhood and apple pie here,” she said. “Regardless of what they argued, we’re talking about private property rights and the need to tell the truth.” You can read my full story here from Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.

Mary Lou Reed: Idaho legislature gets a ‘C’

It's not my custom to say kind things about the heavily Republican Idaho legislature. But this year I must applaud our senators and representatives for passing a hefty $1.8 billion dollar appropriation for Idaho's struggling public schools. Democrats and Republicans worked together to craft the seven bills increasing the flow of state dollars to Idaho's 115 school districts. Just about every school sector will get a financial boost in the coming year. The career ladder for teachers has been revived and funded. The whole school ball of wax will receive an infusion of dollars and energy. It's huge. Full Story, Inlander

Do you agree or disagree with Reed's evaluation?

Sims: Sovereignty key reason to hold child-support bill

We are concerned about protecting the sovereignty of Idaho. The United States government has made coercive threats of withholding federal funds from Idaho's child support programs, insisting Idaho recognize orders from foreign countries with little recourse or appeal.

When an Idahoan has a foreign child support enforcement order, S1067 says, “is bound by the findings of fact on which the foreign tribunal based its jurisdiction; may NOT review the merits of the order.” We would be required to enforce ill-gotten Child Support Enforcement (CSE) orders made in a foreign country.

Quoting from S1067, section 7-1065, Contest of Registered Convention Support Order, page 27, lines 47-49 and page,28 line 1: “In a contest of a registered convention support, a tribunal of this state, (a) is bound by the findings of fact on which the tribunal, its jurisdiction; and (b) may not review the merits of the order.”

The following is quoted for Representative Lynn Luker, an Idaho attorney: “Implementation of the treaty would open federal databases to foreign countries, an important child support enforcement tool is the Federal Parent Locator Service, which includes the National Directory of New Hires and information from the Internal Revenue Service, the Social Security Administration, Veterans Administration, the Department of Defense, National Security Administration and the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” How much can we risk? Read more. CdA Press

Bills that didn’t pass

HB 95, exempting materials used in public roads from the sales tax at a cost to the state general fund of $20 million a year, died for lack of House concurrence in Senate amendments.

HB 18, banning urban renewal agencies from using eminent domain, died in committee in the House.

HB 32, the Idaho Fish & Game Departments’ “fee lock” bill, which would raise resident hunting and fishing license fees, but grandfather in current rates for anyone who loyally purchases one every year, died in committee in the House. Resident license fees haven’t increased since 2005. More here. Betsy Russell, EOB

Any surprises here?

Will Idaho roll dice with wild deer, elk populations?

HUNTING — An obscure rule change sought by domestic elk ranchers could wreak havoc on Idaho’s hunting industry by introducing a deadly parasite into wild game populations – something some Idaho veterinarians are describing as “Ebola for wildlife.”

Elk ranchers say their proposal is safe, but they can't prove that.  Nor can they say for sure that elk won't escape game farms and present a risk to valuable wild herds  that cannot easily be rounded up for any kind of treatment to disease.

  • Remember the brazen case of Rex Rammel, the Idaho veterinarian and anti-government game rancher who said he could control his pen-raised elk, but couldn't. Then he bad-mouthed Idaho Fish and Game and took the agency to court for shooting his escaped elk in order to protect wild herds.

The deadly parasite in farm-raised elk that worries state wildlife officials is a threat worth confronting, scientists say.

Idaho Sportsmen Caucus Advisory Council President Larry Fry is encouraging lawmakers to keep current import restrictions in place.

“If you think wolves are bad for elk, wait until this worm gets in them,” he said.

Idaho shopping for one-year ‘bridge contractor’ for IEN

Idaho is shopping for a “bridge contractor” to run the troubled Idaho Education Network high school broadband service for 2015-16, Idaho EdNews reporter Kevin Richert reports. The state sent out a 31-page “invitation to bid” for the one-year contract yesterday, Richert writes; his full report is online here.

The state’s $60 million contract for the IEN was voided by a judge in November, leaving the service linking Idaho high schools in limbo, along with millions in federal “e-rate” funds that were supposed to pay for three-quarters of the service. The feds stopped paying in 2013 after legal questions arose about the contract, which the state awarded to Qwest and Education Networks of America. IEN spokeswoman Camille Wells offered few details about the bridge contract, telling Richert the state Department of Administration will have more to say at its budget hearing before the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee tomorrow.

New Idaho board spending $4,600 per wolf in control effort

PREDATORS — Idaho’s new wolf depredation control board reported to state lawmakers today that since it was launched July 1, it’s spent $140,000 to kill 31 wolves, all of which were attacking livestock, according to a report just posted by S-R Idaho capital reporter Betsy Russell.

Rep. Van Burtenshaw, R-Terreton, said, “That’s $4,600 per wolf. As the wolf population grows, how are we going to sustain this type of expense?”

Pray tell?

Salamander spotlights ignorance of Idaho lawmakers

WILDLIFE — Usually it's not earth-shaking stuff when school kids approach a legislative body with a campaign to name an official state something-or-other.

But Monday's House State Affairs Committee hearing in Boise on a 14-year-old girl's request to name the Idaho giant salamander as the state amphibian turned out to be an exposé.

  • The meeting is covered in this story by S-R Idaho Capital reporter Betsy Russell.

Several legislators, including some from North Idaho, boldly demonstrated their ignorance by informing the eight-grade student that distinguishing the salamander could prompt federal intervention with endangered species regulations.

“My whole concern is potential federal overreach," said Rep. Don Cheatham, R-Post Falls. "In North Idaho we have the water litigation going. I just am in fear that something could be impacted if it became an endangered species.”

Rep. Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, stood up a pitiful role model for the student — and all students — with his confession: “I’m sorry, and I commend you for what you have done and the due diligence you’ve done to bring this to our attention. When I grew up (in Utah), and I was a young boy, in our swimming hole there were salamanders, we called them water dogs. … I learned to despise them. … They were ugly, they were slimy, and they were creepy. And I’ve not gotten over that. So to elevate them to the status of being the state amphibian, I’m not there yet.”

God help us.

In voting down the proposal, a majority of committee members shunned the advice of the Idaho attorney general, who guaranteed the state designation would have nothing whatsoever to do with encouraging federal endangered species protections.

And the panel displayed blatant ignorance on the layers of science and process involved with triggering federal intervention on behalf of a species.

Here are a couple of choice quotes from brighter lights at the Idaho House hearing:

  • “A salamander may be of little consequence to some adults, but I’ll tell you, the Idaho giant salamander that reaches 13 inches in length is a big deal to a fourth-grader. It stimulates their imagination.” 

Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, who urged passage of the bill.

  • “It is a mistake to ever overestimate the ignorance of the Idaho Legislature…. This is just absurd.” 

Frank Lundberg, a longtime Idaho herpetologist who testified in favor of the bill.

Amen.

Idaho giant salamander bill is first one introduced, could have hearing next week

Boise 8th grader Ilah Hickman’s bill to make the Idaho giant salamander the official state amphibian is the first bill introduced in the Idaho Legislature this year, after the House State Affairs Committee agreed to introduce the measure this morning. “I’m hoping this will be House Bill 1,” said committee Chairman Tom Loertscher, R-Iona. “We’re going to get it upstairs as quickly as possible.”

The young woman has been pushing the bill for five years now, and last year, it passed the Senate on a 33-2 vote. But it never got a committee hearing in the House. “In all fairness to her, we were really at the end of the session last year, and we had an awful lot to do,” Loertscher said. “It doesn’t mean that I’m going to vote for it, but in fairness to her, I thought it should be heard.” He said he’s expecting to set a hearing on the bill for early next week.

“I think that the Idaho giant salamander is the best candidate to represent our state,” Ilah told the State Affairs Committee this morning. “It has ‘Idaho’ in its name. The pattern on its skin looks like a topographical map of the Bitterroot Mountains. And it makes its home almost exclusively in Idaho.” She called the salamander an “intriguing animal” and said its designation as a state symbol could help engage students, like her, in learning about Idaho.

Rep. Pete Nielsen, R-Mountain Home, said, “I don’t mean to appear not interested, I am. But I don’t, I’ve never seen one of these rascals. Have you got a picture of it that we could see today?” Loertscher responded, “You got one in your packet this morning.” Nielsen said, “That’s what I get for being late. This is quite interesting.” He made the motion to introduce the bill, which passed with a handful of “no” votes – but no one wanted to be recorded as voting no.

Ilah told the lawmakers that if the bill gets a hearing, she’ll bring in a live salamander to show the committee, “in an aquarium, of course,” and will have testimony from biologists. Rep. Linden Bateman, R-Idaho Falls, said, “I’m just delighted with this proposal. … I think it’s absolutely delightful, and it’s an educational issue, and it glorifies Idaho is what it does, so I support the motion.”

The Idaho giant salamander mainly makes its home in northern Idaho, but Sen. Janie Ward-Engelking said after the committee meeting that her son caught one in the Boise River last summer. Rep. Patrick McDonald, R-Boise, introduced Ilah to the committee. She said she believes the salamander deserves a place alongside other Idaho symbols like the Monarch butterfly, the cutthroat trout and the Peregrine falcon.

Lawmakers charged with overseeing IEN huddle with lawyers, take no action

The group of lawmakers charged with overseeing the troubled Idaho Education Network met today, but took no action, just meeting with lawyers behind closed doors, reports Kevin Richert of Idaho Education News; his full report is online here. The group, known as IPRAC, for IEN Program Resource Advisory Council, was huddled with its lawyers for just over an hour, Richert reports. In November, District Judge Patrick Owen voided the multimillion-dollar contract for the network, ruling it was issued illegally to Qwest, now Century Link, and Education Networks of America. The state has requested the judge to reconsider.

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.

Ethics advice for new legislators: Using position for personal gain is the only felony specifically called out in the Idaho Constitution

Idaho’s newest state legislators are attending a “Law School for Legislators” today, with briefing from the Idaho Attorney General’s office on conflict of interest and ethics; from Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa on sunshine laws, campaign finance and working with lobbyists; and more. Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told the group, “You can’t use your position for personal gain – it’s the only felony that’s provided for in the Constitution.”

Lawmakers who stand to gain personally from legislation must disclose that conflict of interest before voting on the measure, Kane said, and at that point may also ask to be excused from voting. But the assumption is that they’re required to vote, if they can ethically do so after disclosing the conflict – because otherwise, the constituents in their district are left unrepresented on that issue.

Kane said senators made 25 disclosures of conflicts of interest last year, and House members made 71, but lawmakers only asked to be excused from voting in a few cases. Kane, who has advised several legislative ethics committees in recent years, said, “No one, as far as I can remember, has ever gotten in trouble for over-disclosure. Every single scenario has been a failure to disclose.” He said, “Disclose – sunshine is absolutely the best disinfectant.”

On Jan. 14, an additional ethics session will be held for all 105 Idaho legislators, new or not; attendance will be mandatory.

Some contested leadership contests in store in both houses

Though no battles are expected for the top leadership posts in either house this year, there will be leadership contests when the House and Senate Republican and Democratic caucuses meet behind closed doors tomorrow night to elect their leaders for the upcoming Legislature. Just one majority leadership position is open in the Senate, with the retirement of Senate Majority Caucus Chairman Russ Fulcher to challenge GOP Gov. Butch Otter in the primary, but four announced candidates are vying for the post: Sens. Todd Lakey, R-Nampa; Cliff Bayer, R-Boise; Marv Hagedorn, R-Meridian; and Jim Rice, R-Caldwell. No leadership contests are anticipated among the Senate Democrats, where all three members of the minority leadership are returning.

In the House, there are two contested GOP leadership races at this point: House Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, R-Nampa, faces a challenge from Rep. Rick Youngblood, also of Nampa; and Rep. Janet Trujillo, R-Idaho Falls, is challenging Majority Caucus Chairman John Vander Woude, R-Nampa. On the minority side, there’s one open leadership post, as former House Assistant Minority Leader Grant Burgoyne was elected to the Senate; Rep. Mat Erpelding, D-Boise, reportedly is seeking that post.

The Legislature will hold its organizational session on Thursday, starting at 9 a.m.; that’s when committee assignments and chairmanships will be hashed out.

The Senate leadership member who can calm an unruly crowd…

When it was time today for the portion of the orientation program for new state lawmakers where they hear from members of the media – a panel consisting of the AP’s Kimberlee Kruesi, Idaho Public TV’s Joan Cartan-Hansen and myself – legislative services director Eric Milstead wasn’t having much luck getting the lunch conversation to pipe down so the panel discussion could start, when a loud, attention-grabbing whistle was heard from off to one side, prompting immediate silence. The whistler? Senate Assistant Majority Leader Chuck Winder, who just happens to be celebrating his 69th birthday today. “I tell everyone it’s the 30th anniversary of my 39th birthday,” Winder said. “It just sounds better.”

Asked about the crowd-calming, attention-grabbing whistle, Winder said, “I have an older sister that taught me how to do that when I was a kid.” He added with a smile, “It comes in handy for unruly crowds.”

Panel backs changing some misdemeanors to infractions as part of public defense reform

One move to change Idaho’s public defense defense system that’s getting support from an interim legislative committee: Reducing caseloads for public defenders by changing some misdemeanors to infractions, reports Idaho Reports co-host Melissa Davlin. People charged with misdemeanors are entitled to a public defender if they can’t afford their own attorney; not so for infractions, like traffic tickets. Davlin reports that Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, has drafted multiple bills to make such changes; you can read her full post on her blog here.

Lawmakers reject counties’ proposal for state to be in charge of public defense

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Lawmakers on a committee charged with improving Idaho's broken public defense system have killed a resolution that would have given the state full responsibility for assigning attorneys to indigent defenders. Earlier this year, representatives from the state's 44 counties voted in favor of a resolution calling for Idaho to manage the public defense system. However, members of the Legislature's Public Defense Reform Interim Committee at a meeting Monday agreed that counties should remain in control. According to committee member and Republican state Sen. Dean Mortimer, county officials have local expertise to best address the system. The American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho and other legal experts have warned lawmakers since 2010 that Idaho's public defense system is a potential target for lawsuits. The Idaho Association of Counties says the resolution won't be presented again.

Idaho loses Syringa Networks case, contract award for IEN ruled illegal

Idaho has lost the Syringa Networks lawsuit over the multimillion-dollar contract award for the Idaho Education Network, with a 4th District judge declaring the contract award void, and “made in violation of state procurement law.” The summary judgment ruling, which came out late yesterday from 4th District Judge Patrick Owen, is highly critical of the state Department of Administration’s continuing efforts to salvage the deal, which already has resulted in the cut-off of tens of millions in federal e-rate funds that were supposed to pay for three-quarters of the cost of the broadband network linking every Idaho high school.

“An agreement made in violation of the state’s procurement law cannot be fixed or cured,” the judge wrote in his ruling. “The award to ENA violates state procurement law, and as a result, is void.”

There were two bidders on the original $60 million contract: Education Networks of America, partnering with Syringa Networks; and Qwest, partnering with Verizon. The Idaho Department of Administration, under then-director Mike Gwartney, awarded the contract to both ENA and Qwest, with subsequent amendments dividing the work so all the parts that Syringa originally would have handled in its partnership with ENA – the technical network services, or “backbone” of the broadband network – instead would be done by Qwest, and Syringa would have no part in the contract. Syringa sued.

Syringa charged an array of counts of wrongdoing against the state, including breach of contract, tortious interference, and improper influence. The district court initially dismissed all the counts, but Syringa appealed to the Idaho Supreme Court, which resurrected the case on just a single count: That the contract was awarded illegally, in violation of Idaho law. The Supreme Court ruled that by splitting up the duties after the contract was awarded, the state Department of Administration was “in effect, changing the RFP after the bids were opened.”

The Supreme Court sent the case back to the 4th District court, where the state has tried to fight it on multiple grounds, but the judge found in favor of Syringa, in a ruling the state still could appeal again to the Idaho Supreme Court. “The consequence of entering into a contract which violates state procurement law is governed by Idaho Code,” Judge Owen wrote. “This statute requires that agreements made in violation of state procurement law ‘shall be void.’”

Owen also rejected ENA’s request to dismiss the claim with regard to its part in the contract. “ENA is seeking a ruling that would allow ENA to benefit from an improper award,” the judge wrote. “In the Court’s view, such a result would fly in the face of the Supreme Court’s decision in this case.”

He also noted that the state sought to extend the case to allow for “additional discovery and ultimately a trial on the merits. In the Court’s view, there is no good reason to further delay this case,” the judge wrote. The state has paid more than $750,000 to a private attorney, Merlyn Clark of Hawley Troxell, to represent the state in the case.

The judge wrote, “To date, DOA (Department of Administration) refuses to acknowledge that its bid process in this case was and remains fatally flawed. Even after the Supreme Court decision, and despite further rulings from this court rejecting DOA’s post appeal arguments, DOA continues to fund these contracts. DOA even tries to fix what cannot be fixed.”

The implications of the ruling are huge. At stake are not only the tens of millions in federal e-rate funds that haven't been paid for the broadband network since 2013, but also the e-rate funds that were paid out before that date. And any future expenses for the school broadband network paid out to ENA and Qwest would have to come 100 percent from state tax funds, rather than just 25 percent. The ruling appears to order ENA and Qwest to refund to the state all money they were paid under the contract. And the future of the broadband network linking Idaho schools is uncertain.

Capitol due for $400,000 in accessibility upgrades to meet ADA requirements

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 public galleries of the House and Senate, to improved ramps and handrails, 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.” You can read my full report in my Sunday column here.

Idaho lawmakers eye early adjournment

BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Legislature doesn’t start until another two months, but state lawmakers are already hoping for an early adjournment.

Legislative Council hears generally positive budget numbers

The Legislative Council, the bipartisan leadership panel that handles matters between legislative sessions, met today, and among the reports it heard was an update on the state budget. It was generally positive news; although revenue estimates have been adjusted downward slightly since the end of the last legislative session, some costs have come in lower than anticipated, including a multimillion-dollar rescission from the Medicaid program due to lower than anticipated costs. As things stand now, the state general fund is on track toward an $85 million ending balance, or surplus, when fiscal year 2015 ends on July 1, 2015, up from the estimate at the end of the legislative session of $79.4 million.

Looking ahead to next year, based on agency budget requests, Idaho could end the 2016 fiscal year with a $50.7 million surplus, if revenues hit the projected 5.5 percent. “We’re glad to see the economy going the direction it is and at a little faster rate, as we recover from the recession,” said Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, who co-chairs the Legislative Council.

He was particularly pleased to hear estimates from legislative budget analyst Paul Headlee that while this year’s public school budget is $44 million below the fiscal year 2009 level in general funds, if current requests are funded, next year’s would finally exceed that ’09 level, by roughly $43 million. That’s based on current state schools Superintendent Tom Luna’s proposed budget for next year, which could be amended by his newly elected successor, Sherri Ybarra. Luna originally proposed a 6.9 percent increase for schools, but that’s been amended down to 6.4 percent because an anticipated PERSI rate increase was cancelled by the state retirement fund’s board, so those anticipated costs have been removed from all state agency budget estimates.

“If we were to follow the recommendations so far, we will have restored all of those cuts plus shown some increases,” Hill said.

The council also heard a report on the potential costs of the pending tiered licensure rule at the state Board of Education. The controversial proposal may well change; it’s been the target of heated criticism at hearings around the state.

But as proposed, the rule has generally been described as costing roughly $220 million a year once it’s phased in, for a new teacher compensation program that would raise teacher pay while tying it to three new performance-based tiers of teacher licensing. Headlee plugged in the costs of benefits and growth, and came up with a new total figure: $304 million a year in ongoing costs at the end of the five-year phase-in. He also calculated the costs of sticking with Idaho’s current teacher compensation system for the next five years, which requires certain increases for years of experience and education; staying with the current system would have an ongoing additional cost of $127 million to the state general fund by that same five-year point.

That means the difference, or “new money,” required to bring on the new tiered system would be $177 million. Hill that analysis may make the concept “more palatable” to legislators.

In-depth ‘In Crisis’ series examines shortfalls in Idaho’s mental health care system

The Idaho Statesman and Boise State Public Radio are running an extensive, five-part reporting project this week on Idaho’s mental health system, titled, “In Crisis.” Among the revelations so far: Involuntary mental commitment cases in the state rose from 2,337 in 2007 to 4,686 in 2013. The state is short on both treatment facilities and providers, and its suicide rate is 48 percent higher than the national average. More than 22 percent of uninsured adults who don’t qualify for Medicaid now – but would if the state expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act – were in “serious psychological distress.” And prisons and jails are among the state’s top mental health care providers.

The series also reported that Idaho's per-capita spending on mental health was the nation's lowest except for Puerto Rico at $37, but the state Department of Health & Welfare disputes that figure, saying a glitch in how data was examined for a Kaiser Family Foundation report comparing states left out part of Idaho's spending, which H&W says actually came to $143.56 for fiscal year 2010, above the national average of $120.56. You can see the full series, which continues tomorrow, online here and here; it includes audio, video, data and more.

Crane drops plan to challenge Bedke for House speaker

House Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane, R-Nampa, has decided against challenging House Speaker Scott Bedke for the House’s top leadership post, Idaho Reports co-host Melissa Davlin reports today on her blog; you can read her full report here. Crane had said earlier this year he was considering a challenge to Bedke, but now says he wants to remain as assistant majority leader.

Legislative leadership positions will be decided during the Legislature’s organizational session, which is set for Dec. 4, after the November election.

Otter statement on IEN: Syringa ‘has no legitimate claim for monetary damages’ from state

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter, through his campaign, has released a lengthy statement on the legal dispute over the contract award for the Idaho Education Network, the statewide broadband network designed to link every high school; the state is embroiled in a lawsuit from Syringa Networks over the award of the $60 million contract to Qwest and Education Networks of America. The legal questions over the contract award prompted the federal government to stop paying its three-quarters share of the project in 2013, and lawmakers had to bail out the IEN with $11.4 million in extra state funds this year to offset the missing federal "e-rate" money; millions more may be requested when the Legislature convenes again in January.

In response to questions raised by Democratic challenger A.J. Balukoff about news reports that the state was seeking a confidentiality agreement in its negotiations with Syringa, Otter's statement says, "Confidentiality agreements are common in mediations to ensure both parties negotiate in good faith. Syringa refused to sign a confidentiality agreement; nevertheless, the state proceeded with mediation. There are no 'secret' negotiations taking place." Click below for Otter's full statement, which includes several references to court documents in the case. It also asserts that Syringa "has no legitimate claim for monetary damages" from the state. You can read the full Idaho Supreme Court decision here in the case, which remanded it back to the district court on a single question: whether the contract was awarded illegally.

State’s legal bills to defend IEN contract award in lawsuit top $760K

Idaho has paid $762,952 to the law firm Hawley Troxell since 2010 for legal defense in the Syringa Networks lawsuit over the contract award for the Idaho Education Network, Idaho Statesman reporter Cynthia Sewell reports today. The lawsuit over the award of the $60 million, 20-year contract has prompted federal authorities to stop federal e-rate payments to the state that were supposed to cover three-quarters of the IEN’s costs; as a result, lawmakers this year approved an extra $11.4 million in state funds, and are looking at more when their next session starts in January.

Sewell reports that mediation in the case has failed, after Syringa requested up to $17 million to settle the case, and rejected alternatives including a “six-figure” settlement, some additional work for the state, and “a very strong confidentiality agreement to keep things secret,” according to a letter Syringa’s lawyers sent to several Idaho lawmakers. Sewell’s full report is online here.

IEN contract dispute shows no signs of resolution, state could be on hook for millions more…

Syringa Networks, the company that sued over the 2009 broadband contract for the Idaho Education Network, is now demanding $17 million to settle the dispute, Idaho Education News reports. House Education Committee Chairman Reed DeMordaunt today dubbed the request “outrageous,” and the dispute appears unlikely to end soon. It’s already forced the state to put $11.4 million in state taxpayer funds into the IEN because the feds have refused to provide their three-quarters of the IEN’s funding with the contract award in dispute. The disputed contract went to Education Networks of America and Qwest, now known as CenturyLink. In the coming legislative session, lawmakers could be asked to hand over millions more. EdNews reporter Kevin Richert has a full report here.

Idaho Legislature’s federal lands panel bills for private lawyer climb to more than $61,000

The bill for outside legal fees for the Idaho Legislature’s Federal Lands Interim Committee has now swelled to $61,375, according to documents obtained by The Spokesman-Review under the Idaho Public Records Act. The law firm Holland & Hart has submitted invoices to the Legislature for work from April to August totaling $19,613; that’s on top of the $41,762 the firm already had been paid before then.

The joint interim committee, which is looking into how Idaho could demand to take over federal public land within the state, hired Holland & Hart lawyer Bill Myers, former solicitor for the U.S. Department of Interior, to advise it. Myers’ most recent charges to the state, at $420 an hour, include charges for a phone conversation and email with Sen. Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood in July; charges to review a Montana Senate resolution and correspond with Montana state staffers; charges to meet with committee co-chairman Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise; charges for legal research; and charges to participate in meetings in Montana and Utah. The joint panel's other co-chairman is Rep. Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale.

“I think getting good sound legal advice is well worth it,” Denney told Eye on Boise today. “Of course we have been criticized for not using the Attorney General, but I’m not sure the Attorney General has any attorneys on staff with the time or the expertise that Bill Myers has. So I think for us to get good sound legal advice, I think it’s a good idea for us to hire outside counsel.” Legislative committees can get legal advice from the Attorney General without charge. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Lawmakers look to changes in Idaho’s system for providing public defenders

With Idaho counties calling on the state to set up a statewide public defense system, a legislative committee was told this week that a new commission will provide recommendations before lawmakers convene in January. "We just want to make sure that what we deliver is thoughtful that we've really looked at any potential consequences and that you have the best information to make your decision with," Third District Judge Molly Huskey, who sits on the Public Defense Commission, told an interim legislative committee on Thursday, the AP reports. "We won't have an answer for you in October or even possibly in November, but we will have some recommendations."

In 2010, a report from the National Legal Aid and Defender Association found that Idaho isn't satisfying its Sixth Amendment obligations to defendants, writes AP reporter Rebecca Boone. Among the issues, public defenders' caseloads were too high, some defendants didn't meet their lawyers until they were in the courtroom, and defendants sometimes felt pressured to accept a plea agreement rather than go to trial. Click below for Boone's full report.

Iconic longtime legislative aide Kathryn Yost dies at age 86

Longtime Idaho legislative aide Kathryn Yost has died at the age of 86; she is being mourned today by lawmakers and staffers alike. “She was full of energy and worked hard,” Rep. George Eskridge, R-Dover, told the Idaho Statesman today. “The appropriations process is very demanding. We have meetings every morning and bills were flying left and right, and she was always on top of all of them.”

Yost, who had worked as the secretary for the House Revenue & Taxation Committee prior to shifting to the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee in her 25-year Statehouse career, was known for her style as much as her work, including her flashy dressing, bright red hair and the bountiful array of nuts and sweets she kept on her desk. Said retired longtime Secretary of the Senate Jeannine Wood, “She was an icon at the Legislature and she dressed like a million bucks.”

Idaho Statesman reporter John Sowell has a full story online here. He reports that Yost, who was still active and working, died Wednesday after suffering an aneurysm while playing cards with her sister in Garden Valley.

Legislative Director Youtz honored as retirement approaches - after 36 years

Legislators, staffers, state agency heads and more are among the crowd gathered in the third-floor rotunda of the state Capitol this afternoon for longtime state legislative services Director Jeff Youtz’ retirement reception, which runs from 3-5 p.m. today. Youtz is retiring Sept. 30 after 36 years of work for the Idaho Legislature, including serving as budget director starting in 1994, and in the top post since 2006. “There are actually some legislators that were born after I started working here,” Youtz said, “so that gives you an idea how long it’s been.”

As a member of the state Capitol Commission, Youtz played a key role in the renovation of the state Capitol building that restored and enlarged the grand, historic structure. He also led a nonpartisan legislative staff that’s received national recognition. The Legislature this year approved a resolution, HCR 63, honoring Youtz and his work.

“It’s just been a wonderful privilege to work for the Idaho Legislature,” Youtz said today. “It’s an institution I really love. I’ve been lucky. I’ve had one of those careers where you look forward to going to work every morning.” Eric Milstead, who's been on the Legislature's non-partisan staff for the past 17 years, will succeed Youtz when he retires.