Latest from The Spokesman-Review
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.”
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.
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 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.
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.
BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Legislature doesn’t start until another two months, but state lawmakers are already hoping for an early adjournment.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Federal money for IEN still being withheld, IEN to seek another multimillion-dollar bailout from state
Federal officials still are withholding millions in e-rate funds for the Idaho Education Network, Idaho Statesman reporter Cynthia Sewell reports today, and as a result, the IEN plans to ask state lawmakers for another multimillion-dollar bailout when they convene in January. Lawmakers voted last year to give the broadband network that links Idaho high schools $11.4 million state funds to replace the missing federal money; that will only keep the network going until February. At the time, state Department of Administration Director Teresa Luna said she was confident the situation would be resolved and the missing federal money would arrive.
The feds cut off the money – which was anticipated to fund three-quarters of the cost of the broadband network – after an Idaho Supreme Court ruling in a lawsuit questioning the original contract award for the IEN to Education Networks of America and Qwest; the lawsuit still is pending, with its next hearing set for Oct. 10, Sewell reports. That Supreme Court ruling was in March of 2013, but lawmakers weren’t informed until January of this year that the funds had been withheld all that time. They also weren’t informed that the state Department of Administration extended its contract with ENA through 2019, even though it wasn’t yet up for renewal for another year, through 2019, putting the state on the hook for another $10 million.
Sewell’s full report is online here. The IEN mess prompted lawmakers this year to impose new requirements on state agencies to notify the Legislature before renewing big contracts with private vendors.
Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge has denied Idaho's request to dismiss a lawsuit arguing that the recently passed law criminalizing surreptitious recording at agriculture facilities is unconstitutional. U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill says in a ruling issued Thursday that the case raises First Amendment concerns because it restricts protected speech. However, Winmill added that he is dismissing Gov. C. L. "Butch" Otter as a defendant from the case because Otter does not directly oversee enforcing the law. Animal rights, civil liberties and environmental groups are suing the state to overturn the so-called "ag-gag" law. The law, which lawmakers passed in February, was backed by Idaho's $2.5 billion annual dairy industry.
Winmill, in his 33-page ruling, rejected the state's argument that Idaho's law doesn't implicate constitutional concerns under the 1st or 14th Amendments. Instead, he found that the claims directly implicate free speech, equal-protection and whistleblower concerns under the 1st and 14th Amendments and under federal law, and that the case should proceed to examine those claims. "The ultimate question of whether (the new law) … is unconstitutional remains for another day," the judge wrote.
The ruling notes that even false speech - like misrepresenting oneself on an employment application to gain access to a dairy, which the new law makes a crime - can be protected free speech. "False statements that do not constitute defamation, fraud or perjury are fully protected speech," Winmill wrote, citing a 2012 U.S. Supreme Court case. He also noted that making videotaping a crime can be a restriction on free speech - because only those who publish the resulting videos likely would be punished. Indirectly, that makes the restriction on videotaping a restriction on publishing the resulting videos. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Kimberlee Kruesi.
An interim legislative committee kicked off a series of meetings today to look at how Idaho’s $1.7 billion state endowment is invested; it now generates more than $31 million a year for public schools from earnings both on state lands and investments of the cash in the permanent fund. Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert covered the panel’s meeting and has a report here.
The Federal Lands Interim Committee, a joint legislative interim committee co-chaired by Rep. Lawerence Denney, R-Midvale, and Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise, has scheduled a seventh public hearing, this one in Sandpoint on Sept. 12. That’s in addition to the six already scheduled over the next two months, including Sept. 11 in Kamiah and St. Maries; Oct. 9 in Idaho Falls and Soda Springs; and Oct 10 in Twin Falls and Hailey.
The move already has prompted a “jeer” from the Lewiston Tribune’s editorial page that Denney “just happens to be making a series of statewide swings at taxpayer expense, right in the middle of campaign season, including stops next month in Kamiah and St. Maries.” Denney, former speaker of the House and current House resources chairman, is running for Idaho Secretary of State; he faces Democrat Holli Woodings in the November election.
Denney said, “We thought that it was important that the people have their say in what they think about the state taking over title to the federal lands. And that was certainly always the plan – last year was to be fact-finding, this year was more public hearing.”
Winder, Denney’s co-chairman, said, “We have to report back to the 2015 session. So in trying to coordinate schedules, it was very difficult to get anybody to where we could get like two days together, actually going back to July or August.” Denney said the pre-election timing “wasn’t my choice,” saying, “I would like to have started way earlier, because it’s going to take time away from me right when I think I need it most in the campaign. … I think it was just logistics.”
Asked why the panel is heading to small towns like Soda Springs, Kamiah and St. Maries, Denney said, “A lot of the people who want to come and testify are from these more rural areas, and why make them travel? … They always have to travel.”
Winder said the Sandpoint session was added at the request of Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who said her constituents “felt like it was too far to go to St. Maries to testify.”
The panel is charged, during its two years, to “undertake and complete a study of the process for the state of Idaho to acquire title to and control of public lands controlled by the federal government.” It’s already spent more than $41,000 on legal fees to Bill Myers, a Boise attorney and former solicitor general for the Department of the Interior, whom it hired to advise it.
Winder said, “We’re already pretty confident that from a legal perspective, we don’t stand on very firm ground if it were a matter of litigating. But we do think there are alternatives available to us in existing laws and potential for congressional changes in how the states interact with the federal agencies that manage public lands. … We think it’s worth the effort.”
An interim committee of Idaho lawmakers tasked with determining if Idaho endowment lands are being managed properly to generate revenue is scheduled to meet for the first time Thursday, the Lewiston Tribune reports; click below for a full report from the Trib via the AP. "We'll focus on the structure of the state Land Board and the functioning of the Idaho Department of Lands, and look at the returns the endowment is getting on its various investments," Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, co-chairman of the committee, told the Tribune. The entire endowment of land and investments is worth more than $3 billion, but it only generates about $50 million in annual payouts to public schools, universities and other trust beneficiaries, he said. "That's not a very good return," he said. "So what should we be doing? A lot of endowment lands don't make any money. Should we hang onto them or try to sell them and find a better investment?"
The committee will meet Thursday from 8:15 a.m. to 4:15 p.m. in room EW 42 of the state Capitol; it will be live-streamed so people can watch online. Here's a link to the full agenda.
Also this week, the Legislature's Public Defense Reform Interim Committee will meet Tuesday from 8-3 in Room WW53; that meeting, too, will be streamed live online. The agenda is here.
Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The Idaho Transportation Department says speed limits on rural sections of interstates in the southern part of the state will go up to 80 mph starting Thursday. That's an increase from 75 mph on rural sections of Interstates 15, 84 and 86. Speed limits for trucks will increase to 70 mph. The agency says speed limits on interstates in urban areas will remain unchanged at 65 mph. Speeds will also not increase in northern Idaho. Agency officials say the speed limits won't increase until signs are put in place. Lawmakers approved the increases earlier this year.
Idaho argued its appeal in the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals today of a federal judge's ruling overturning the state's "fetal pain" abortion law that sought to ban all abortions after the 20th week of pregnancy. Idaho was one of seven states to enact such laws in 2011; it was voided by a federal judge in March of 2013 as unconstitutional. Jennie Linn McCormack, an eastern Idaho woman, and Richard Hearn, an attorney and medical doctor, sued the state after she was charged with felony illegal abortion because prosecutors said she took an abortion-causing drug obtained over the Internet to terminate a pregnancy that was past the 20-week mark. In its appeal, the state contended McCormick couldn't argue the law put an undue burden on women because charges against her had been dropped and the case was moot. But that argument drew sharp questions Friday from the appeals court judges to Deputy Idaho Attorney General Clay Smith immediately drew sharp questions Friday, especially after it was determined the 5-year statute of limitations on the charge initially faced by McCormick hasn't expired. Click below for a full report from AP reporter Keith Ridler.
Year-end state tax revenue figures announced yesterday showed that Idaho ended up with $7.2 million more than expected at the end of the fiscal year June 30, but the state actually has a significantly larger budget surplus than that. Here’s why: This year’s state budget didn’t call for spending all the tax revenue the state expected to collect. Instead, $36 million was transferred to various budget stabilization funds, and another $44.4 million was left unspent, creating a year-end balance or surplus.
The monthly Budget and Revenue Monitor from the Legislature’s budget staff lays out the figures; you can see it here. It shows the ending balance, or surplus, at the end of fiscal year 2014 at $44.4 million, $17.6 million higher than was anticipated at the close of this year’s legislative session.
Factors pushing the number higher, aside from the increased revenue collections, are year-end reversions of unspent money from various state agencies, including $6.4 million from the Catastrophic Health Care Program due to lower than anticipated costs; $5.9 million from other agencies; and $1.6 million in other year-end adjustments, all adding to the surplus. (If you’re doing the math, the Legislature’s budget figures already counted part of the $7.2 million based on revenue reports that came in before the Legislature adjourned; so by its calculation, the additional year-end boost from revenues was $3.6 million beyond expectations rather than $7.2 million.)
When lawmakers return to town in January, they’ll need to act on a series of deficiency warrants largely consisting of $17.5 million for firefighting costs; that would still leave more than $26 million from the surplus. An additional reversion from Medicaid also is expected to boost the total in August or September.