Latest from The Spokesman-Review
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.
Coeur d’Alene actually had the highest score in the competition for a state mental health crisis center by a slim margin, Coeur d’Alene Press reporter Taryn Thompson reports today, but lost out to Idaho Falls because North Idaho lawmakers didn’t support the project. North Idaho Reps. Kathy Sims, Vito Barbieri, and Ron Mendive and Sen. Bob Nonini all voted against SB 1352, which passed the House 28-6 and the Senate 53-14 and sought to establish three of the centers. JFAC approved funding for just one in the first year, putting three locations – Coeur d’Alene, Idaho Falls and Boise – in competition for it.
Thompson reported that the Department of Health & Welfare scored the competing proposals, then worked with the governor’s office to make the final choice. “The fact that a majority of legislators in eastern Idaho wanted the project helped in the final decision,” Otter’s press secretary, Jon Hanian, told the Press; he cited a “proven level of legislative support in eastern Idaho.”
You can read Thompson’s full report here; she obtained the scoring data through a public records request under the Idaho Public Records Act. Over the weekend, Thompson reported on the magnitude of the mental health crisis in North Idaho that had local officials hoping for funding for a 24-hour crisis center; see that report here. Letters in support of the Coeur d’Alene crisis center were signed by the county commissions and sheriffs of all five North Idaho Panhandle counties.
Barbieri told Thompson that law enforcement and others don’t need to “panic or specifically worry.” He said, “If it turns out that there's as dire a need here as opposed to somewhere else in the state, they'll get it. … Of course, with a bureaucrat, they all need it right away.”
Idaho’s state Division of Purchasing is making progress toward better monitoring of multimillion-dollar state contracts, according to a new state report to lawmakers. Incensed over big problems with big contracts, lawmakers have passed four pieces of legislation in the past two years calling for better oversight; as a result, the division has developed enhanced monitoring requirements for service contracts that are worth $5 million or more over the life of the contract, along with other measures. Though that figure accounts for just 45 current contracts, it covers $2.6 billion in state funding commitments.
“That’s big bucks – billions,” said Rep. Maxine Bell, R-Jerome, co-chair of the Legislature’s joint budget committee and a member of the Joint Legislative Oversight Committee, which today received the new report from the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations. She said lawmakers were spurred by problems with the multimillion-dollar contract the state Department of Administration signed with Education Networks of America for a broadband network to connect state high schools; this year, that contract for the Idaho Education Network ended up costing the state millions more than expected due to questions over the original contract award holding up federal “e-rate” payments that were supposed to cover three-quarters of the cost.
“I think the eyes opened,” Bell said. “There were details that were troublesome.” Big contracts like that are happening at “all levels of government, and no one was paying attention,” she said.
Rep. Shirley Ringo, D-Moscow, JLOC co-chair, said, “Clearly we’ve had some difficulties, and I’m very happy that people are paying attention. We’re going to have to very carefully monitor our progress on this and make sure that we’re getting results. I would say we’re part-way there … but I wouldn’t say we’re at the finish line yet.”
The new report, a follow-up to one issued in January of 2013 on how the state could strengthen its contract management, notes that an array of contracts still are exempt from state purchasing rules – those issued by the Legislature, the judiciary, and under the offices of statewide elected officials like the state schools superintendent. The 2013 report called for lawmakers to consider setting minimum standards for all state contracting, including those areas, but no legislation was introduced. Sen. Elliot Werk, D-Boise, said today that he’s working with a group of lawmakers to address that and is hoping for bipartisan backing.
As a result of the legislation already passed, Bill Burns, head of the state Division of Purchasing, said administrative rule changes are in the works and will be presented to lawmakers in January to follow an array of recommendations from the 2013 report, from developing best practices for all agencies in contracting; to adding more oversight of big contracts, including from the division, the agency, and outside subject-matter experts; to notifying the Legislature prior to contract extensions and renewals. Burns said the division will ask lawmakers next year for a new training position to ensure the new requirements can be carried out; if the Legislature expands the division’s oversight to now-exempt agencies, it may need another position as well, he said.
Ringo said, “This is a direction we need to go, and I think that we’re making progress.”
The Idaho Transportation Board has voted unanimously to approve 80 mph speed limits for southern Idaho freeway stretches on I-84, I-86 and I-15 that now are 75 mph, but only after a long discussion of questions about the changes and with the condition that the new limits be reviewed in one year. The board’s resolution, approved this afternoon during its meeting in Coeur d’Alene, takes note of comments received from the Idaho Trucking Association and AAA of Idaho, and also notes that the new state law allowing the higher speeds requires the board’s concurrence for them to be imposed. The ITD's staff had recommended the changes, after traffic studies showed motorists already are traveling that fast on those routes.
Idaho's new 80 mph speed limit law specifically requires that the state Transportation Board approve any speed limit boosts under the new law – the bill repeated that requirement four times – but the board delegated the matter to its staff and hadn't planned to review the changes. Then, after the department announced that an array of southern Idaho freeway routes would go to 80 mph on July 1 and changes to North Idaho routes were being studied, it heard concerns from the public and changed course. Now, the board will review the proposed higher speeds in southern Idaho at its regular meeting Friday in Coeur d’Alene.
Board members and department officials say they don't think they violated the new law.“I guess it might be kind of a gray area,” said Idaho Transportation Department Director Brian Ness. ITD Board Chairman Jerry Whitehead said, “The board delegates a lot of things. However, we’re going to have a review of that whole thing” at the board meeting.
Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, author of the new law, SB 1284, said he intended the board's review to allow for public input. But Whitehead says he sees little need for public input, as the department's speed studies provide that by documenting the speeds drivers are going on the routes now. “If the traffic is already going 80 mph … then it’s probably a no-brainer,” Whitehead said. “I don’t know as we need public input.” You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
When Idaho lawmakers this year voted to boost the state’s top speed limit to 80 mph, all the focus was on southern Idaho, where the road to Utah connects up to a similarly wide, smooth freeway that already has an 80 mph limit. But the Idaho Transportation Department has announced that in the wake of the new law, it’s studying all rural stretches of interstate freeway in the state - including I-90 in North Idaho - to see where the new higher limit may be warranted. That’s raising some eyebrows in North Idaho.
“The roads are not as straight and flat as down there, and it just doesn’t work,” said former state Sen. Jim Hammond, R-Post Falls, who chaired the Senate Transportation Committee until 2012. “In fact, I’m surprised that there would be any recommendations for higher speed limits up here.”
Damon Allen, ITD’s district engineer for North Idaho, said, “We didn’t have necessarily any 80 mph candidates, but we did have a couple of segments of I-90 that might bump up 5 mph, maybe to 75. So we’re going to do those studies this summer.” Allen said the stretch of I-90 from Stateline to Coeur d’Alene could rise from 70 mph to 75, and the stretch roughly from Kellogg to Wallace could go up from 65 to 70 mph.
Locals haven’t been requesting speed limit boosts, Allen said. “Nah, it’s been really quiet about the speeds up here.” But the new law prompted ITD to take a look at it. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.
The parents of a terribly ill 9-year-old Idaho girl worked with state lawmakers from both parties this past session, Boise State Public Radio’s Adam Cotterell reports, to get an exception to Idaho’s strict anti-marijuana laws for a treatment that could help reduce the child’s frequent, lengthy seizures – but, while lacking in the ingredients that cause users to become high, is extracted from the marijuana plant. However, Cotterell reports, though lawmakers initially kept telling the Idaho couple there was a chance, no legislation was drafted or introduced.
Senate Health & Welfare Chairman Lee Heider, R-Twin Falls, told Cotterell, “This would not be an easy sell, I don’t think, in Idaho, given the nature of our conservative Legislature.” Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, however, said the issue is separate from medical marijuana, and he’s confident lawmakers can address it next year. “If we can find a way that doesn’t legalize marijuana but helps these kids, I believe Idahoans and Idaho legislators are compassionate and will want to work on this,” he said. Utah already has passed an exception for the specific treatment oil to help patients with the rare condition. Idaho lawmakers last year passed a resolution opposing any future legalization of marijuana in the state for any purpose; it passed the Senate 29-5 and the House 63-7. You can see and hear Cotterell’s full story here.
Here’s a news item from the Associated Press: BOISE, Idaho (AP) — A federal judge has denied a request by the Idaho Dairymen's Association to join Idaho in defending the recently passed law criminalizing surreptitious recording at agriculture facilities. The Times-News reports (http://bit.ly/1lDTAxw) that U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill shot down the request Monday. Winmill said in his ruling that the state can represent the dairymen's interests without the group getting involved. 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 allowed the dairymen's group to file a brief supporting the state. Those is in favor of the law argue that it protects private property rights. Opponents counter the law infringes on free speech rights.
School districts across Idaho are weighing whether they want to continue with or sign on to a statewide contract for WiFi at every high school in the state, or set up their own WiFi networks with state funding that lawmakers approved this year. “We were not real happy that we had entered into a multi-year contract with one-time money, so we wanted to give the districts an opportunity to really choose,” said Senate Finance Chairman Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, following a JFAC discussion today. “It’ll be interesting to see how they choose.” Last year, lawmakers allocated funding to start paying for high school WiFi; state schools Superintendent Tom Luna relied on that to sign a five- to 15-year contract with Education Networks of America to put WiFi in at every high school in the state. This year, JFAC gave school districts the option of joining that contract or getting funding for their own networks.
The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee heard from tech officials from two school districts – Bonneville and Boise – both of whom said they’re weighing their options. Scott Woolstenhulme of the Bonneville School District said it would cost his school district about $180,000 to replace what it’s getting from the state contract with Education Networks of America, and the district would qualify for about $65,000 a year in state funding. The advantage, he said, is that in three years, that could all be replaced and the district could start adding WiFi networks at its middle and elementary schools, where it has none.
David Roberts of the Boise School District said it’d cost his district about $345,000 to replace the contracted WiFi. “We could get about half of that if we opted out,” he said. Joyce Popp, chief information officer for the State Department of Education, said the department is working to get information to all school districts about the choices available to them. “We let people know that they had choices,” she said.
Sen. Dan Schmidt, D-Moscow, said, “It’s a fascinating policy question that needs a lot of attention. I’m very appreciative of how we’re getting feedback from the districts.” Cameron said he’s been hearing that some districts think the state contract may have more stable funding than the direct funding to districts who don’t take part in the contract, but that’s not the case. “I believe they’re both on equal footing,” he said.
Idaho still has no answer on more than $14 million in missing federal e-rate funding for the broadband network that links all the state’s high schools, but officials say they’re at least in contact with federal officials now. State Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna told the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee today that he brought the issue up with the chairman of the FCC when the two spoke at the same conference a couple of months ago; in a phone call an hour later, “He said he had directed USAC to engage with us, and they did,” Luna said. “It definitely got the attention of USAC.”
That’s the agency that administers the federal e-rate funds, which come from telephone fees and were supposed to pay for three-quarters of the cost of the Idaho Education Network; it’s called the Universal Service Administrative Company. Last year, lawmakers learned to their surprise that the federal money had stopped flowing due to concerns about a lawsuit challenging the award of the contract for the IEN to Education Networks of America and Qwest; that stuck the state with the full tab, at least for now.
Deputy Attorney General Brian Kane told the lawmakers, who were gathered at Boise High School as part of a three-day interim meeting, that the Attorney General’s office has had a conference call and sent some letters. “They seem somewhat receptive, but they’re also skeptical,” he said. “We’ve got someone that we can talk to, at this point.” Kane said the state’s trying to impress upon the federal agency the point that the services are being provided – funds haven’t been hijacked to buy someone a yacht or anything. It’s just that there’s a dispute between parties who wanted to be the ones to provide the service to schools. “Generally, they’re looking for some sort of fraudulent conduct,” he said.
Teresa Luna, director of the state Department of Administration, said the lawsuit, filed by unsuccessful bidder Syringa Networks, is continuing; a hearing on several motions in the case was held May 6, and a ruling on those is expected in a couple of weeks. “I don’t expect that we’ll hear from USAC before … mid-August,” she said. “It is still our first priority.”
JFAC Co-Chair Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, said after the briefing, “In some ways it’s heartening. I’m a little disappointed we haven’t made more headway with the lawsuit, but it sounds to me like the appropriate contacts have been made with USAC so we can at least make our case.” Lawmakers have agreed to cover the missing federal funds only through February; if the issue isn’t resolved by then, they’d have to ante up millions more or see the broadband network connecting the state’s high schools go dark.
The Legislature’s joint budget committee is starting a three-day interim meeting in Boise today that will include tours and presentations along with discussion of state revenues and where the state budget stands. Comparing the budget that the Legislature set for fiscal year 2009 to the budget for the year that begins July 1, fiscal year 2015, the impact of the big recession is clear: The total state budget is still $23.2 million less than it was; that's 0.8 percent less. That’s despite big increases in student numbers, Medicaid caseloads, population and more.
Education funding overall has dropped 5.3 percent since 2009, including a 3.1 percent drop in funding for public schools; funding for natural resources programs is down 35.2 percent; and funding for economic development is 16.1 percent lower. Health and Human Services spending is up 10 percent from the 2009 level, public safety is up 13.1 percent, and general government spending is up 3.1 percent, including costs for the Idaho Education Network through the state Department of Administration.
Eric Milstead, who’s been a non-partisan staffer for the Idaho Legislature for the past 17 years, today was named the next director of legislative services; he’ll take over at the end of September when longtime director Jeff Youtz retires. Milstead was selected by a unanimous vote of the Legislative Council, after the bipartisan panel of lawmakers that oversees legislative business outside of sessions interviewed four finalists; the others were Ross Borden, Dwight Johnson and Ken Roberts.
“I am quite honored and humbled,” Milstead said. He’s an Idaho native who holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Oklahoma State University and a law degree from the University of Kansas; he practiced law for a while and clerked for a court of appeals, then saw a job opening working in budget and policy for the Kansas Legislature. “It sounded intriguing – I jumped at it,” Milstead said. After four years in that position, “We kind of wanted to get back to Idaho,” he said. So he joined the Idaho Legislature as a performance evaluator at the Legislature’s Office of Performance Evaluations. In 2001, he switched to the office of budget and policy, where he worked as a budget analyst, until 2007, when he shifted to research and legislation, taking a position as a research analyst and bill drafter.
Milstead is married with two children; the youngest just graduated from high school, and the oldest is in the Navy.
Four finalists are being interviewed today to be the state’s next director of legislative services, after current longtime director Jeff Youtz retires Sept. 30. More than 30 people applied for the position; the four finalists who will be interviewed by the Legislative Council today are Eric Milstead, Ross Borden, Dwight Johnson and Ken Roberts. The interviews will take place in a closed-door executive session of the council; then, this afternoon, the council will convene in public again and vote on the appointment.
“We had a lot of great applicants,” said House Speaker Scott Bedke. A selection committee consisting of the speaker, the Senate president pro-tem, and both the House and Senate minority leaders winnowed the group down to the four finalists. The new director will take over Oct. 1.
The council met this morning to go over reviews of various details of this year’s legislative session, wording for ballot statements on a constitutional amendment regarding administrative rules, and interim committee appointments; it consists of lawmakers from both parties and is chaired by the speaker and pro-tem.
A legislative interim committee investigating prospects for state takeover of federal public lands has spent more than $40,000 on a private attorney, the AP reports, tapping into a new legislative legal defense fund. “We've hired legal counsel from outside of state government primarily because we didn't feel as the Legislature that we were getting the help that we needed from the attorney general's office, once they determined the legal prospects of the case against the federal government on this didn't have much merit,” said Sen. Chuck Winder, R-Boise. “They didn't give us a whole lot of imagination or creativity on what the political solutions might be. So we've gone to an expert attorney … to use his background and expertise to help us with this process.”
Committee member and Senate Minority Leader Michelle Stennett, D-Ketchum, said she was disappointed the panel was not informed that private attorney William Myers was being considered before his hiring. “I think it was done rather hasty without letting the rest of the committee know,” she told the Associated Press. “But they're using taxpayer money. I would have preferred for them to be more transparent.” Click below for a full report from AP reporter Kimberlee Kruesi.
Sen. Dean Mortimer, R-Idaho Falls, is interested in taking over as chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Idaho Education News reports today, now that longtime Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d’Alene, has been defeated in the GOP primary. EdNews reporter Kevin Richert reports that Mortimer, who was unopposed in the primary and also faces no opponent in November, is already thinking about how he’d head the panel; you can read Richert’s full report here. Decisions on committee chairmanships and assignments won’t come ‘til the Legislature’s organizational session in December.
Republicans in North Idaho have been splintering into increasingly bitterly divided factions, and some say it’s reached the point of dysfunction – and the cracks have to close if the aim is to get anything done, like bring in more jobs or improve schools. “We need everybody to get together,” said Patrick Whalen, who is running against state Sen. Bob Nonini, R-Coeur d’Alene, in the May 20 GOP primary. “I don’t think we can continually split the party and succeed.” Now, an influential local group that had great success in the last election has endorsed challengers to five GOP incumbents in the primary, including Whalen over Nonini, and all sides are readying for battle. You can read my full story here at spokesman.com.