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Proposed ballot initiative would raise Idaho cigarette tax, lower college tuition

A group launched by former college friends is pitching a 2016 ballot initiative to raise Idaho’s cigarette tax by $1.50 a pack, and use the money to lower tuition at the state’s public colleges and universities.

Bill Moran, a political consultant and 2014 Georgetown University law school graduate who recently moved to Idaho from Arizona, said, “We just started talking about this three to four weeks ago, and we already have about 114 people who have signed up to volunteer to be petition gatherers. That’s before we even did much of a blitz on the campuses.”

It’s a tall order to qualify an initiative for the ballot in Idaho – it requires more than 47,000 signatures, including at least 6 percent of voters in each of 18 legislative districts. The 18-districts requirement passed in 2013; no initiatives have qualified for the ballot since.

But Moran says, “What’s unique about this is the college campuses are strategically located, in a sense, so that you could take up those 18 out of 35 districts.” He said his group, called StopTuitionHikes.com, is seeing “tons of interest.”

Gary Moncrief, emeritus professor of political science at Boise State University and an expert on initiatives, said, “My position on initiatives is it’s an exercise in grass-roots democracy and more power to ‘em if they can do it. But it’s never easy in Idaho.” State lawmakers added the 13 legislative districts requirement in 2013; no initiatives have qualified for the ballot since. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

On how to say ‘sine die’…

In the Maine Supreme Court opinion that was submitted to Idaho justices in the instant racing case as a supplemental authority before this morning’s arguments, a footnote addresses the latin phrase “sine die,” or “without a day,” used to describe when the Legislature adjourns for the year.

“Sine die, the Latin term for ‘without day,’ has become a part of legislative parlance, despite the fact that it is not actually contained in the Maine Constitution,” the state’s justices wrote. “Although Latin scholars pronounce the term ‘see-nay de-ay,’ Maine legislators, and those who work with the Legislature, have historically pronounced the term ‘sigh-neh dye.’ We do not opine on the correct pronunciation.”

In Idaho, the best use I’ve seen of the term over the years was a few years back on the final day of a legislative session, when I spotted a photocopy machine in a Statehouse hallway on which someone had taped a sign, saying: “Out of Toner – Sine Dye.”

New JFAC Co-Chair Keough says she’ll be ‘responsible,’ ‘prudent’

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, the newly appointed co-chair of the Legislature’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee said Monday, “It’s a wonderful appointment – I’m very honored.” Keough, who long served as vice-chair to then-Senate Finance Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said, “I feel like I have some pretty big shoes to fill.”

“At this point I don’t have an agenda,” she said. “I’m anxious to continue to try to guide the committee in a responsible manner. I look forward to working with Co-Chair (Rep. Maxine) Bell. I think the committee has been well-run, with the leadership of Sen. Cameron and Rep. Bell.”

 Keough said her aim is for the panel to “continue to be a responsible steward of the taxpayer dollars, and also a recognition that our state government is expected to provide some services, and to fund those appropriations in a prudent manner.”

Hill on Keough: ‘She’s got the knowledge, she’s got the experience’

Keough

Idaho Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said he’s heard only positive reactions from his Senate GOP caucus about his appointment of Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, to chair the Senate Finance Committee, which makes her the co-chair of the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, which writes the state budget. “Sen. Keough certainly has put in her time there on the Finance Committee,” Hill said today. “She’s got many more years of experience than anyone else. She has turned down chairmanships of other committees” in order to remain vice-chair on the budget-writing panel over the years.

Keough’s co-chair on JFAC is Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, chairwoman of the House Appropriations Committee, meaning this will also be the first time two women co-chair the key committee.

Hill said he spoke with both Bell and former Finance Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, about the appointment, and both expressed great confidence in Keough’s abilities; Cameron left his longtime post to become the state insurance director.

“We felt very comfortable with her,” Hill said. “She’s got the knowledge, she’s got the experience.” He added, “Fiscally, she’s been very conservative, and so far she’s had strong support from the caucus. I haven’t heard any negative comments at all – they’ve all been very positive.”

Keough named JFAC co-chair; Sen. Dan Johnson to be her vice-chair

Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — Republican state Sen. Shawn Keough of Sandpoint has been appointed to co-chair Idaho's powerful budget-setting committee. President Pro Tem Brent Hill of Rexburg on Monday announced that Keough will replace former Sen. Dean Cameron of Rupert, who left the Idaho Legislature earlier this year to lead the state Department of Insurance. Keough has served 20 years in the Idaho Statehouse, making her the longest serving female senator in Idaho's history. Keough has also served on the joint budget-setting committee since 2000. She will join Republican Rep. Maxine Bell of Jerome in leading the legislative panel.

Hill also released a list of changes on Senate committees, while noting that it is subject to change. It shows that Keough, who had been the Senate Finance vice chair, will have Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, as her new vice chairman. It also shows that Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Twin Falls, will be the new chair of the Senate Commerce & Human Resources Committee, replacing former Sen. John Tippets, R-Montpelier, who is now director of the state Department of Environmental Quality; Patrick had been vice-chair on that panel. You can see the full list here.

Lawmakers kick off urban renewal study

A legislative interim committee on urban renewal has kicked off an all-day meeting today, with Sen. Dan Johnson, R-Lewiston, the co-chair, saying it will look at past changes to Idaho’s urban renewal laws, other possible changes, or perhaps no changes. The panel’s other co-chair, Rep. Rick Youngblood, R-Nampa, submitted a letter to the panel today as he’s not here; he and Rep. Robert Anderst, R-Nampa, met weekly with a working group during this year’s legislative session to examine issues surrounding urban renewal. “There was good discussion, but it was determined that we needed to have a deeper dive,” Anderst said, leading to the interim committee. The concurrent resolution establishing the committee calls for it to “study and address the issues and subject of urban renewal to modernize the process and to provide local units of government with economic development tools.”

Anderst said he hopes the panel will “identify some places within the statutes that do need to be firmed up so that we’ll have a tool that works well but also has taxpayers’ best interests in mind.” He said his concerns include accountability and transparency. Youngblood, in his letter, wrote, “I believe we all understood urban renewal is one of, if not the most important tool our state has for great economic growth and success, used correctly.”

The legislative committee includes some outspoken critics of urban renewal, Rep. Kathy Sims and Sen. Mary Souza of Coeur d’Alene, along with others with extensive local government experience like Rep. Lance Clow, R-Twin Falls, and Sen. Maryanne Jordan, D-Boise. Also serving on the panel are Sens. Jeff Siddoway, R-Terreton; Chuck Winder, R-Boise; and Hy Kloc, D-Boise. 

Today’s agenda includes a series of presentations, including reviews of existing laws, details of public financing in Idaho and Utah, and more. Legislative analyst Mike Nugent started it off with a comparison of Idaho and Utah laws.  “They’ve got a different Constitution than we do,” Nugent noted, and said some parts of Utah’s statute would violate Idaho’s state Constitution regarding lending the full faith and credit of the state. When Idaho’s urban renewal laws first were enacted in 1965, he said, “It was viewed as a way to help jumpstart the economy for local units of government.”

Others scheduled to present today include bond attorney Ryan Armbruster; Zions Bank Vice President of Public Finance Cameron Arial; Idaho Freedom Foundation President Wayne Hoffman; and Minidoka County Assessor Max Vaughn. The meeting is being audio-streamed by Idaho Public Television; you can listen live here.

Big news out of federal court in Idaho today: Ag-gag law unconstitutional; state must pay $223K more in gay marriage case

Big news out of the federal courts in Idaho today: A federal judge has ruled unconstitutional Idaho’s “ag-gag” law, which outlawed surreptitious videotaping at agricultural operations, as a violation of the First Amendment. It’s the first court ruling on an “ag-gag” law; eight states have passed them. Idaho lawmakers acted after an animal rights group filmed cows being abused at a southern Idaho dairy.

You can read the full ruling here from U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill, and a full story here at spokesman.com.

Also today, U.S. Magistrate Judge Candy Dale ordered the state of Idaho to pay an additional quarter-million dollars in attorney fees and costs to the four couples who successfully sued to overturn Idaho’s ban on same-sex marriage. The couples’ attorneys had sought $304,206 in fees and costs on appeal; the state objected, and the court lowered the amount to $223,191. That’s on top of the $401,662 the state already had to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys for the U.S. District Court portion of the case, before Idaho appealed it unsuccessfully to the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court, and the $55,000 the state spent on outside attorneys in the district court portion of the case hired by Gov. Butch Otter. You can read the judge’s ruling here.

Lawmakers seek input from Idaho broadband vendors

A special legislative committee studying broadband access in Idaho is seeking input from vendors who provide broadband services who’d like to address the committee. “We both definitely see the value in having the testimony of those who know the industry and who are innovating new tools for the use of technology,” said Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, co-chair of the committee. His Senate co-chair, Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, said the panel will take care to avoid giving any preference to any vendor. “Especially given the contention around this issue in the past, it is critical that no vendor gets any sort of preferential treatment,” he said.

The two lawmakers are asking vendors to contact them or Brooke Brourman with the Legislative Services Office, (208) 334-4859, by Aug. 4 to indicate interest and how much time they’d need for a presentation. The panel’s next meeting hasn’t yet been set, but it’s likely to be later in August. 

Otter taps Soda Springs rancher to fill Tippets’ Idaho Senate seat

Idaho has another new state senator, as Gov. Butch Otter today appointed Soda Springs rancher Mark Harris to the Senate to replace former Sen. John Tippets, R-Montpelier, who is now head of the state Department of Environmental Quality. Otter picked Harris from a list of three nominees submitted by the legislative District 323 GOP central committee; the other nominees were Larry Oja and Scott Workman.

“Mark brings with him some valuable experiences gained while working in Idaho agriculture and serving on various voluntary boards and committees,” Otter said. “While he has some big shoes to fill, I am quite confident that Sen. Harris will live up to those expectations.”

He is a trustee at Bear Lake Memorial Hospital and serves on the Bear Lake County Planning and Zoning Committee. He holds a political science degree from Utah State University and is fluent in Spanish. He’ll serve out Tippets’ term, which runs for another year; all state lawmakers, in both the House and Senate, serve two-year terms.

Harris previously served on Otter's campaign team as a regional co-chair during the 2014 election, according to the Associated Press; he also sits on the Idaho Republican Party's executive committee. In 2011, the governor chose Tippets over Harris to fill the same Senate seat.

The appointment follows last month’s appointment of Rupert city administrator Kelly Anthon to the Senate to replace longtime Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, whom Otter tapped to head his state Department of Insurance. And in March, Otter appointed Boise City Council President Maryanne Jordan to the Senate to replace Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, whom Otter appointed to the state Tax Commission.

Broadband panel to meet again in late August, look at other states’ solutions

Here’s a link to my full story at spokesman.com on today’s all-day legislative hearing on Idaho high school broadband, post-Idaho Education Network. The joint legislative committee will meet again in August, and members said they want to hear more about how other states handle the issue, hear from vendors who want to address the panel about what they do in Idaho, and learn more about how Idaho can promote broadband access statewide, beyond just schools and libraries, which were the focus of the IEN. Said Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d'Alene, the committee's co-chair, "I think it's way too early … to say where we're going with this. I think this committee needs to hear from as many stakeholders as possible."

Odd moments and signs of progress at broadband hearing…

A few really odd details have emerged this afternoon at the Legislature’s Broadband Access Study Committee hearing, as Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, repeatedly questioned Greg Zickau, chief technology officer for the state Department of Administration, about the now-void contract for the Idaho Education Network.

First, Davis, reading from 4th District Judge Patrick Owen’s decision, said in order for Admin to make a multiple contract award – awarding the IEN contract both to Education Networks of America and to Qwest, now CenturyLink, Admin was required by law “to make a written determination that multiple awards satisfy” one or more of three legal requirements. “And what I’m reading from Judge Owen’s decision is that there was such a written determination, but that written determination occurred only after there was a public records request, not prior to the determination and award of multiple contracts. Am I right so far?” “Yes, that’s correct,” Zickau replied.

Davis, an attorney, said his reading of the law is that omission alone renders the contract void. Deputy Attorney General Scott Zanzig told Davis, “The fact that that may have been a technical violation of this statute was never an issue in the lawsuit, because none of the parties including Syringa ever challenged the original multiple award.”

It was later amendments to the award, dividing the work so that Qwest handled the entire “backbone” of the broadband network while ENA was the e-rate contractor, that led to courts declaring the contract illegal, saying the state changed the terms after the bid award.

Davis said, “The statute says … you’ve got to follow these standards, and if you don’t, the contract is void. So whether Syringa raised it or not, the next fellow in line could have raised it. Because the contracts are not ‘voidable.’ They are void. Setting aside contract division, amendments or otherwise, doesn’t the fact there wasn’t a … written declaration of the reasons make the contracts void?”

“I’m not aware of a court having decided that’s the case,” Zanzig replied. “I understand your legal argument. … The Supreme Court hasn’t said that that was a problem.” Davis commented, “Judge Owen did.” The state is currently appealing Judge Owen’s decision; it has spent more than $1 million on attorney’s fees in the case.

In another oddity, Zickau said the Department of Administration, after awarding the contract to both ENA and Qwest, “had to determine the best method to proceed, and concluded that one option would be for Qwest to assume responsibility for schools in its service area, and ENA and Syringa … in its service area,” in a “geographic division.” Zickau told the lawmakers “They raised this possibility with Greg Lowe of Syringa, and he had responded that he would not participate, stating ‘No, I’m getting it all.’”

Lowe, CEO of Syringa Networks, who was in the audience, immediately denied that. “I never said that,” he said, “and I’m troubled that Greg Zickau would misrepresent that information in front of this committee.”

Syringa, which had partnered with ENA in the top-rated bid, is the company that successfully sued and got the contract declared illegal after the contract amendments cut it out of the deal entirely. Zickau also told the lawmakers, “Syringa did not submit a proposal and has never been a bidder,” and said the firm “does not have any rights that a bidder would have.”

Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene, co-chairman of the legislative panel, said, “I don’t want this to be a courtroom. I want to move forward here. I don’t want to litigate what’s been done.”

Davis said if the state opts for a new statewide broadband network contract, it will need to dissect everything that went wrong with the last one and how to make sure it doesn’t recur. But, he said, “I’m not hearing today that that’s necessarily the way we go.”

Sen. Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, said, “I am hopeful that under the leadership of Sen. Geddes we will chart a positive path forward. I was disappointed that Mr. Zickau started us down the path of once again trying to justify what they did. … That was really disappointing. Our charge is a path forward. I was dismayed by the tone, and the choice that he made to try to rehash components of what’s still in the legal system. … We’ve tried to finish it, but it seems like it has a life of its own. I really feel like he didn’t need to go there.”

Davis said, “I just want to problem-solve.” If there are problems with the state’s purchasing statutes, lawmakers need to fix them, he said. Overall, he said of today’s hearing, “I thought that was a really good first day, I really did. You had school districts say, ‘This worked,’ ‘This worked better,’ ‘We can live with this,’ ‘Please don’t do that.’ That’s a healthy conversation to have.”

Zickau: ‘There are a few things I would do differently’ with IEN

Greg Zickau, chief technology officer for the Idaho Department of Administration, after recounting the history of the now-defunct Idaho Education Network, told lawmakers, “There are a few things I would do differently if we were doing this over again.” Among them: The focus on a statewide private network. “Frankly, most of the schools weren’t taking advantage of what a private network brings,” he said. “So I would only roll out a private network to those schools that are sharing curriculum with other districts.” Other districts would get public internet. “A private managed network, you really only wring the full benefit out of it when the districts are sharing content between the two,” Zickau said. “I think that’s a valuable use of the technology, but it’s up to districts to decide whether they’re going to share it or not.”

In addition, he said, he’d rethink the focus on providing video teleconferencing equipment and capability to all high schools. A state audit this year showed much of that pricey equipment goes largely unused. “I would only roll out VTC’s for those districts that affirmatively say they’re going to actually use it,” he said. “The current IEN legislation, it implies a private network, and states that every high school will have a VTC.”

Rep. Greg Chaney, R-Caldwell, told Zickau, “In a couple places it seems like we were working to pump out bushels of apples to some places that only needed oranges.” Zickau responded, “Yeah, in some cases, I think that’s correct.”

Zickau said he doesn’t know if there’s a real advantage one way or the other to individual school district contracts or a statewide contract, but said a statewide contract allows for up-front infrastructure costs to be amortized over time, then end. “You want to watch those,” he said. “That is an advantage of managing things centrally – it makes it a little easier to do that, but in terms of raw cost savings, it doesn’t show up one way or the other.”

Zickau acknowledged that the school districts’ individual contracts with vendors now for broadband service are showing significant savings over the IEN. He estimated that 10-12 percent of the savings is because the IEN contract included long-term payoff of up-front infrastructure costs to establish the network.

Geddes: Idaho’s made strides toward vision of better broadband statewide

Former Senate President Pro-Tem Bob Geddes, now director of the state Department of Administration, told the Legislature’s school broadband access study committee today that the Legislature’s vision over the years went beyond a network providing broadband service to schools with the Idaho Education Network. “We wanted a system that provided high-bandwidth network to replace some of the infrastructure we had that was supporting state agencies,” he said. “A little bit more broad than just focusing on schools and libraries, it was going to allow private industry to access that, it was going to allow private citizens to be more closely connected with the legislative procedures and processes. We thought that we could develop things such as telemedicine that would help our citizens in rural communities have better access to the care that they need. We thought it could even be a tool to promote and inspire economic development. Well, I think it still can.”

Geddes said Idaho’s made great advances in providing technology to its schools. “What we have so far has been measured to be a great success,” he said. “Every representative from a school district (who’s addressed lawmakers today – there have been four) has indicated just how dependent they are on that technology.”

Lawmakers get primer on ‘time-consuming, bureaucratic and confusing’ e-rate program

The Legislature’s Broadband Access Study Committee is currently getting a primer on the federal e-rate program. E-rate is the largest federal technology funding program, and was initiated in 1998 by the Federal Communications Commission. It supports technology infrastructure for schools and libraries to the tune of $4 billion a year; schools and libraries can receive reimbursements for between 20 and 90 percent of their costs, depending on student eligibility. To date, $123 million in e-rate funds have come to Idaho.

“They are very sensitive to competitive bidding,” Winston E. Himsworth of E-Rate Central, a national consulting firm, who is briefing the legislative committee by phone, told the Idaho lawmakers. “This competitive bidding thing they take seriously, as Idaho has found. It’s got to be fair and open competition. You’ve got to treat all bidders equally. Vendors can’t get involved in that planning process.” The program also has strict bans on gifts that exceed restrictions for other federal procurements.

The program can be “time-consuming, bureaucratic and confusing,” Himsworth said. He noted a series of complicated new rules enacted for the program in 2014, and stressed the importance of timing in the process and all the required forms and submissions.

Idaho could benefit from a major focus on broadband connectivity in the program looking forward, Himsworth said, including President Obama’s “ConnectEd Initiative.” He also recommended more statewide coordination of e-rate use in Idaho, and said funding may be available from e-rate for Pre-K and Head Start.

Idaho Falls schools ‘better off’ post-IEN, want to keep option of going own way

Camille Wood, who has been technology director for the Idaho Falls School District for the past 13 years, said her district contracted with Syringa Networks for broadband service after the Idaho Education Network went dark. “We are better off than we were during the IEN contract with ENA,” Wood said. “The cost is, for our district, much lower than it was prior. … It’s better quality at a lower cost.”

When the IEN was still up and running, it provided only about half the large district’s broadband needs, she said. The district contracted for a second connection for elementary schools and support services; the federal e-rate program picked up 74 percent of the cost of that.

Now, it still has a two-provider set-up, with Syringa and CenturyLink, she said, and the two connections provide the added protection that if there a major disruption to one of the services, like a car hitting a utility pole, the other, physically separate service would continue to function.

Said Wood, “Our broadband needs … are constantly growing.” She urged the state to be guided by the Idaho Education Technology Association and the state Department of Education on how best to serve all students in the future. Wood also said she hopes her district will keep the option of securing its own service, rather than just a statewide contract.

For Boise schools and broadband, ‘it’s a bandwidth issue’

David Roberts, technology program administrator for the Boise School District, said according to national standards, his district should have 26 gig of bandwidth for 2017. “And right now, going into this year, we have 1.5,” he said. “You can see that we are far from what the national standards are. But why are they recommending that? It’s a simple fact that access to high-speed broadband is now a component that’s a part of the infrastructure, it’s our air, it’s the electricity. … We can’t operate without broadband at this point.”

The Boise district, which has 26,000 students, has tripled its bandwidth in the last two years, he said. “We have purchased approximately 8,000 mobile devices for students since last July. We have opened up bring-your-own device opportunities at every level, from kindergarten through high school. … We have numerous cloud-based applications that are being used. … The expectation is the students can access the documents they’re creating, their work, anywhere, anytime, and we can’t do that without broadband.”

Roberts said he never dictates to any principal or school official what type of devices they should get; just how many. "I think if we say this is the only tool you can use … we are going to inhibit success," he said. The Boise district doesn’t allow students to access YouTube, he noted. “It’s not a filter issue, it’s a bandwidth issue.”

CdA schools say they have better broadband service now, post-IEN

When the Coeur d’Alene School District went out for broadband service to replace the defunct Idaho Education Network, it got four bids, and local firm Ednetics had the lowest bid, district Technology Director Seth Deniston told lawmakers today. “They were the lowest by quite a bit, actually,” Deniston said. From the 2014-15 school year to the 2015-16 school year, the district’s cost dropped from just under $14,000 a month to less than $2,000, and its bandwidth speeds rose from just over 200 mbps to 1000 mbps. “We really feel like we’re able to get a great deal. A big part of that is because of our location on the I-90 corridor here,” Deniston said.

“High-speed broadband is critical to our operations and instruction in our district, everything that we do,” he told lawmakers. He said that ranges from teachers preparing their lessons to students communicating with teachers to remedial and credit recovery programs. Deniston said the Coeur d’Alene district supports the Idaho Education Technology Association’s proposal for future school broadband service. “Our elementary students are using the internet just as much as our high school students are now,” he said. “Internet access is now like air – if we don’t have it in our schools a lot of our teachers and students feel like they cannot breathe.”

Answering questions from lawmakers, Deniston said the Coeur d’Alene district’s broadband service is higher-quality now, and didn’t decline with the end of the IEN; he said school districts may have varying experiences based on their locations.

For one small, poor eastern Idaho school district, internet has ‘changed ed in tremendous way’

Alan Dunn, superintendent of the Sugar-Salem School District, is giving the first of four school district presentations to lawmakers as part of today’s legislative hearing on school broadband service. Dunn said his is a small district, with 1,550 students, in a rural farming community north of Rexburg; the county has little or no business or tourism and has the second-lowest property value in the state. Yet its students rank in the top quartile in academics.

The district makes extensive use of broadband, Dunn said; it’s had 300 students take classes over the IEN in the past two years. Its high school students all are assigned a computer; almost all research is done online; and the district has developed its own enhanced digital textbooks. Teachers sometimes teach remotely via Skype. And the district’s phones all are VOIP, voice over internet protocol, so they require broadband access to function. Student testing all is done online, as is the district’s state reporting.

“Use of the internet has changed the education we provide for our students in a tremendous way,” Dunn told lawmakers, noting that the district has “four sets of encyclopedias – they are never pulled off the shelves, they are never looked at.” Students can “get it quicker online,” he said.

“Our district is poor,” Dunn told the legislators. “Without your help, we would be unable to have district broadband access.”

School tech chiefs: Stick with local broadband contracts for FY ‘17, plan statewide options for ‘18

Schools now rely on broadband service for everything from telephones to classroom instruction and materials. “Without the internet, education just stops,” Will Goodman, president of the Idaho Education Technology Association, told lawmakers who are holding a day-long hearing today on school broadband. He said some school districts have told him that if the internet goes out, they’ll have to close school, just as when the power goes out.

Goodman said the Idaho Education Network allowed school districts across the state to buy the infrastructure to upgrade broadband service to modern levels, in some cases bringing in fiber that then allowed cell phone towers to be constructed and broadband service to become available to the entire community. But in the future, the equipment will continue to need updates and upgrades, he said, in order to keep up with the increasing standards for broadband service.

The association is recommending the state continue the current plan in which school districts contract on their own for broadband service and are reimbursed by the state for fiscal year 2017, the year for which lawmakers will budget when they begin their next legislative session in January. There’s not time to set up a new program and qualify for federal e-rate matching funds before then, Goodman said; that has to be done a year in advance.

But then, for fiscal year 2018 and beyond, they’re recommending an optional statewide program with some significant changes from the IEN: Access for all schools, not just high schools; a program that is “removed from politics;” transparency, including all pricing being made clear; and support for school districts with whichever items they need help on, including funding, competitive bidding, e-rate support, and technical support. Goodman said the proposal follows along the lines of legislation introduced late in the last legislative session by Rep. Luke Malek, R-Coeur d’Alene.

“A district that is better able to do it themselves should be able to do it themselves,” Goodman said. But smaller districts or those that lack technology staff “should be able to have that assistance available to them.”

Goodman returned to the podium later in the day to clarify: “We are not recommending a statewide managed network,” he told the lawmakers. “I don’t know that I made that very clear. What we are recommending is more of a service agency.” The idea is a service agency that would provide schools funding for broadband, and help them with e-rate support, technical support, bidding support and so forth. “What we would like is the districts to have the ability to opt out of any one part of that service if it did not fit their needs.” Some school districts in the state are entirely capable of submitting their own e-rate applications, for example, he said; others may need help.

If districts needed help bidding the contracts, “This agency would be bidding at the local or regional level, if a district requested help,” Goodman said. “We are not encouraging a return to a managed statewide network.”

No students were disrupted when IEN went dark

When Idaho schools made the switch from the Idaho Education Network to local district contracts with vendors for high school broadband, “No students loss classes due to a loss of internet, and no seniors were unable to graduate due to a loss of internet,” Idaho Education Technology Association President Will Goodman told lawmakers this morning. Those were the two big worries going into the transition, he said. But, “Districts were able to get the switch done very quickly and ensure that that did not happen.”

Goodman said the total state savings for the just-concluded fiscal year came in at $2.7 million, compared to the $5 million that was returned from the state Department of Administration, which had been running the IEN.

High school broadband cost a third less than budgeted, after demise of IEN; $1.4M reverting back to state

Out of the $3.64 million that the state Legislature sent out to school districts this year to cover their own local contracts with vendors to provide high school broadband service after courts overturned the $60 million state contract for the Idaho Education Network, only $2,265,800 was spent and the state Department of Education will be reverting $1,374,700 back to the state. “The transition, we’re hearing, went well,” legislative budget analyst Robyn Lockett told the Legislature’s Broadband Access Study Committee this morning; the panel is holding its first meeting all day today. “The actual expenditures came in much lower than the appropriation itself, and again much lower than the IEN structure, which realized a savings to the general fund.”

Lawmakers appropriated $7 million to school districts for the fiscal year that began July 1, but it’s already looking like they won’t need that much, Lockett said. Some federal e-rate matching funds, which can cover up to 75 percent of the costs, have been flowing directly to school districts, she said. That will bring down the costs.

Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, asked the reason for the savings. “The short answer is it was cheaper, it cost less money to go directly to the districts,” Lockett said, “but I don’t know if you were purchasing the same things. The school districts certainly will be able to tell you their satisfaction with what they’ve purchased under their local vendors and what they purchased under the IEN structure.” Several presentations from school districts are scheduled as part of today’s meeting.

Will Goodman, president of the Idaho Technology Association, said school districts were purchasing “commodity internet instead of a managed service,” so it didn’t include staff support and some other features that came with the IEN. Another factor driving savings for the coming year is that districts couldn’t get e-rate funds for the last part of this year, because they have to be applied for in the previous year; for next year, they’ll be able to get those funds. “You’ll see about an average of 75 percent savings on the bills just by being able to go out and procure e-rate,” Goodman told the lawmakers. The budget figure was set with the assumption of no federal e-rate funds being available – a worst-case scenario that matched the state Department of Administration’s situation with the IEN.

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

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

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

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

Idaho high school broadband costs trending upward, but still well below IEN costs

Idaho’s high school broadband costs are trending upward, but the local Internet contracts still represent big savings from the defunct Idaho Education Network, reports Idaho Education News. EdNews gathered preliminary budget requests for school districts for 2015 that showed the savings for local contracts vs. IEN should continue into 2015-16, but with slight cost increases. The news comes as a legislative interim committee prepares to meet on Tuesday to begin delving into the state of broadband service in Idaho schools, the history of the troubled IEN, and future options. EdNews reporter Kevin Richert has a full report here.

Letter shows Otter knew of broadband money woes

Gov. Butch Otter knew for months that the federal government had withheld funding for Idaho's now-failed school broadband program, but lawmakers remained in the dark until much later, the AP reports. According to a letter obtained by The Associated Press, Otter wrote to one of the program's contractors on Nov. 4, 2013, that federal funding —known as "e-rate" dollars which come from monthly fees on landline and cellphone bills— had stopped because of a recent whistleblower complaint regarding the state's $60 million statewide broadband contract. However, state lawmakers weren't informed until near or after the start of the 2014 legislative session in January.

You can read AP reporter Kimberlee Kruesi’s full report here.

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

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

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

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

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

What I have learned from Senator Cameron

 This week that changed with the departure of Cameron, who will be joining Gov. Butch Otter's administration as the director of the Idaho Department of Insurance.

Cameron will be an asset to an executive branch too often plagued by incompetence, if not corruption. He is a well-established insurance expert and has a proven record of making government more efficient and effective. Hopefully his advice will be sought on issues far outside of those officially under his oversight.

As JFAC co-chair, Cameron will be replaced by the only Idaho elected official I respect more: North Idaho Sen. Shawn Keough. More here.

H/t Arpie

Lawsuit charges Idaho’s public defense system violates state, U.S. constitutions

Despite five years of warnings, Idaho has continued to violate the U.S. and Idaho constitutions by failing to provide poor people charged with crimes with lawyers who can adequately defend them, a class-action lawsuit filed today charges. Instead, the state has responded by creating a series of “virtually powerless committees,” and enacting minimal law changes in 2014 that, the lawsuit says, not only didn’t go far enough to fix the problems, but aren’t even being followed.

Among them: The 2014 legislation banned “fixed-fee” contracts with public defenders, in which they’re paid a set amount regardless of how many clients they represent or how complicated the cases are. That provides them an incentive to spend as little time as possible on each case, particularly if they also have paying clients, the lawsuit says. Yet, 19 Idaho counties still use fixed-fee contracts. You can read the full complaint here.

Idaho established a public defense subcommittee of its Criminal Justice Commission in 2010 to examine the problem after an audit pointed to serious deficiencies. It set up a special legislative committee in 2013. That panel then established “yet another commission to make recommendations to the legislature,” the lawsuit says. “Astoundingly, the state failed yet again in the recently concluded 2015 legislative session to fund or improve its public-defense system. Because the executive and legislative branches refuse to take the necessary actions to fix Idaho’s public-defense system, it falls on this Court.”

The 2014 legislation set up a state Public Defense Commission, which among other things, was to propose rules and standards for public defenders statewide by January of 2015; it hasn’t done so, according to the lawsuit.

“State officials themselves have recognized the current constitutional crisis regarding indigent services in Idaho,” says the lawsuit, filed in state court by the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho, the national ACLU’s Criminal Law Reform Project and Hogan Lovells, an international law firm. “In August 2013, the Chief Justice of the Idaho Supreme Court noted that ‘our system for the defense of indigents, as required by Idaho’s constitution and laws, is broken.’ And Gov. Otter acknowledged in his 2015 State of the State address that, despite the 2014 amendments to Idaho’s public defense statutes, ‘our current method of providing legal counsel for indigent criminal defendants does not pass constitutional muster.’”

The 2014 legislation also directed Idaho’s 44 counties to either establish an office of public defender, partner with other counties to do so, or establish contracts that don’t rely on fixed fees. Seven now have such offices, while two have partnered in a joint office. Thirty-four still contract the services out, with 19 of those under fixed-fee contracts, the lawsuit says. And one county has no arrangement, just appointing lawyers on an ad-hoc basis.

Repeated surveys and studies have found that caseloads are so high for Idaho public defenders that many poor defendants can’t reach their attorneys, the lawsuit charges, no matter how hard they try, and barely get to speak to them before they appear in court; among the named plaintiffs, one called his public defender more than 50 times from jail without reaching him. Plus, the lawsuit says only five of the 44 counties provide public defenders at defendants’ initial appearances, when pleas are taken and bail set – even though Idaho law specifically requires legal representation at initial appearances. As a result, several of the named plaintiffs spent months in jail after bail was set that was too high for them to afford, and they had no idea how to contest it.

The lawsuit, filed in 4th District Court in Ada County, was filed against Gov. Butch Otter and the seven members of the Idaho State Public Defense Commission, including two state lawmakers, a judge, and the state appellate public defender. Otter’s office had no comment; neither did Attorney General Lawrence Wasden's office.

Lots of Magic Valley Republicans vying for appointment to Cameron’s seat…

Longtime Sen. Dean Cameron’s departure from the Idaho Senate to become the new state insurance chief has prompted an array of Magic Valley Republicans to express interest in being appointed to Cameron’s seat, reports Nathan Brown of the Twin Falls Times-News. Among those expressing interest: Rupert City Administrator Kelly Anthon; Clay Handy, a former Cassia County commissioner and owner of a trucking company; John Stokes, who co-owns several grocery stores; Wayne Hurst, a farmer from Burley and former president of the National Association of Wheat Growers; Wayne Schenk, a farmer from Rupert; Bruce Burtenshaw, the former owner of Kodiak America; Harold Mohlman, of Rupert, who unsuccessfully challenged Cameron in 2010 in the primary; and Charlie Creason of Rupert, who was president and CEO of Project Mutual Telephone for 23 years.

Brown reports that Doug Pickett, a rancher and Cassia County GOP chairman who ran for the seat in 2012 and for the state Republican chairmanship last year, also is weighing whether to apply. The GOP committee for the legislative district is scheduled to meet Friday night to recommend three nominees for the post to Gov. Butch Otter; Brown’s full report is online here.

North Idaho Sen. Keough in line for JFAC co-chairmanship

North Idaho Sen. Shawn Keough is in line to become the first-ever female Senate co-chair of the Idaho Legislature’s powerful joint budget committee, and if she gets the post, it would mark another historic first: Both co-chairs of the powerful joint committee that writes the state budget next year would be women. House Appropriations Chair Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, has served as the House co-chair since 2001.

On Friday, Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, was appointed to be the next director of the state Department of Insurance by Gov. Butch Otter; he’ll step down from the Senate when he takes on his new job in mid-June. Already, he’s strongly and enthusiastically recommended Keough as his successor; she’s served as his vice-chair since 2005.

“I could not have asked for a better vice chairman,” Cameron said Monday. “We’ve been through a lot of tough times. She and I think a lot alike – we both support education, we both feel very strongly on trying to make sure that our teachers are paid for and that there are appropriate programs that have to be funded.” He added, “She hasn’t sough the limelight or been out in front much, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t doing the work – she certainly was.”

Cameron welcomed the prospect of two women heading the Legislature’s most powerful committee. “I think it’s great – I think we stand back and watch,” he said. “I think they will both do a great job. They’re outstanding individuals.”

Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, on Friday asked Keough to step in as acting chairman as soon as Cameron departs. “That’s the only commitment I’ve made at this point,” he said Monday. “We’ll wait until closer to the legislative session to actually appoint a replacement for Dean.” Keough has more seniority on the joint budget committee than any other senator; Sen. Steve Bair, R-Blackfoot, is seven years her junior in seniority and currently chairs the Senate Resources Committee. Third in line by seniority is Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, the Senate Education Committee chair. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

Sen. Dean Cameron named head of state Dept. of Insurance

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has named Sen. Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, the new director of the state Department of Insurance, replacing former director Bill Deal, who retired at the end of 2014. Cameron, a 13th-term state senator, co-chairs the powerful Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, which writes the state budget. He also owns an insurance business in Rupert.

“While the loss to the Legislature in experienced and skilled leadership will be significant, the Department of Insurance and the individuals and businesses it serves will benefit,” Otter said in a statement. “I know the next person in line will step up admirably in the Senate, just as I know that Dean will do a great job leading the Department of Insurance as Bill Deal did before him. I also want to publicly thank Tom Donovan for his exceptional work since Bill’s retirement and throughout his career.”

Donovan, the department’s chief deputy director, has served as interim director since Deal’s retirement.

Cameron, 54, is a Burley native who holds an associate’s degree in political science from BYU-Idaho and was a Life Underwriting Training Council fellow in 1992. In addition to co-chairing the joint budget committee, he has co-chaired the legislative Health Care Task Force and served on the Senate’s commerce and resources committees.

“I appreciate the governor’s confidence and I’m looking forward to the new challenge,” Cameron said. “I also want to say how much I have appreciated the support of the people in District 27 and the opportunity to serve them in the Senate, as well as my time as co-chair of the budget committee with Representative Bell. I will be forever grateful for those experiences.” The appointment is subject to confirmation by the Senate.