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Eye On Boise

Sunday column: Recounts, lawsuit, Crane claim, state land reinvestment plan…

Here’s my full column from Sunday’s Spokesman-Review:

With a couple of close legislative races around the state, the question of possible recounts arises.

“We don’t have automatic recounts,” said Betsie Kimbrough, state elections director in the Idaho secretary of state’s office. But for the closest races – those where the margin is within five votes or one-tenth of 1 percent – a free recount is available.

Neither of Idaho’s close legislative races meets that criterion. Fruitland Sen. Abby Lee had a 28-vote win over primary challenger Viki Purdy, and Post Falls Rep. Don Cheatham had a 64-vote win over challenger Peter Riggs. Lee’s was the closest at four-tenths of a percent.

“So it doesn’t qualify for a free recount,” Kimbrough said. However, the losing candidate in either race – in any race, for that matter – can request a recount, if he or she pays the $100-per-precinct cost.

Those requests can’t be made until after the state Board of Canvassers meets to certify the election results, which won’t be until June 1. Then, the candidates would have 20 days to file a recount request with the Idaho attorney general’s office.

Lawsuit dismissed

Remember that federal lawsuit filed against the state by the Idaho Freedom Foundation challenging the state’s membership in the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, known for the SBAC tests for schoolkids? It was quietly dismissed last month. U.S. District Judge B. Lynn Winmill found that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue.

Brent Regan, IFF board chairman, was the lead plaintiff in the 2015 lawsuit, which targeted Gov. Butch Otter, state schools Superintendent Sherri Ybarra and state Board of Education President Don Soltman, and charged that SBAC was “an illegal interstate compact not authorized by the U.S. Congress.” Attorneys for the plaintiffs were Bryan Smith of Idaho Falls, a former unsuccessful congressional candidate; and Christ Troupis, a former unsuccessful candidate for Idaho attorney general. They sought to make an argument that Idaho’s core standards for student learning and the tests tied to them were illegal.

Winmill dismissed the case without prejudice, giving the plaintiffs an opportunity to amend and refile their complaint within 30 days to address the standing issue, but they didn’t do so; that deadline passed May 11.

Claim targets Crane

Idaho state Treasurer Ron Crane is the target of a whistleblower claim from a 10-year employee of his office who says he was fired for objecting to Crane wasting taxpayers’ money for his own political gain.

In the tort claim, Christopher Priest said his firing last November from the office’s Investment Division violated the state’s whistleblower law.

Priest is seeking at least $207,460 in damages. Among his allegations: Crane personally selected Idaho Trust Bank to invest tax anticipation note (TAN) proceeds, a function the office could have handled in-house, at a fee of $75,000 a year since 2005. The claim says “several investors and highly-ranked executives at Idaho Trust Bank are personal friends and campaign donors of Treasurer Crane.” When staffers pushed to put the service out to bid in the spring of 2014, Crane agreed, but said it’d have to wait until after his re-election campaign in the fall. “He was counting on TAN service providers to support his campaign, and he could not risk offending them prior to his campaign,” the claim charges.

Finally, after receiving numerous lower bids, Crane again awarded the service to Idaho Trust Bank.

Among other charges, the claim says Crane refused to put out for bid another contract, for the tax anticipation notes financial adviser, instead awarding it again to the longtime adviser, Cheryl Cook, without bids, because “he could not offend Cheryl Cook” because “Ms. Cook’s political support was essential.”

Crane said he couldn’t comment on personnel matters or possible litigation.

New state land reinvestment plan

Idaho’s state Land Board has voted unanimously to approve a new strategic reinvestment plan that’s been years in the works, and calls for shifting the state endowment’s land assets out of residential cottage sites and commercial property and into timberland and, in some limited cases, agricultural land.

It’s a big deal, because the state’s Land Bank fund now has a balance of $31.85 million, and another $50 million is expected to flow into the fund this year from auctions of state-owned lake cabin sites and sales of commercial property now owned by the endowment. State Lands Director Tom Schultz said those sales likely will generate another $15 million to $25 million for the next three years after this big one.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden said, “It appears to me, with this plan, what we’re doing is we’re leveraging the stability of our land assets against the volatility of our market-based assets.”

Sally Haskins, senior vice president of Callan Associates, the consultant who helped develop the plan, said, “I think that’s correct. And it’s not just about return, it’s about managing the risk in your portfolio by maintaining investments that create stable cash flow and also have low to negative correlations with the financial assets.”

The Land Board is required by the Idaho Constitution to manage the endowment for maximum long-term financial returns to the beneficiaries, the largest of which is the state’s public schools. The state endowment now owns 2.44 million acres of land, plus the permanent endowment fund, which totals $1.87 billion.


Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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