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Eye on Boise: Lawmaker thankful for ‘America, the land of redemption’

Idaho Gov. Butch Otter has appointed Tony Potts, a property manager and salesman at Bish’s RV Super Center in Idaho Falls, to replace longtime Sen. Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls.

The District 33 GOP committee gave Otter three choices: Potts; current state Rep. Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls; and Bonneville County GOP Chairman Mark Fuller, an attorney who was listed as the committee’s top pick.

So why did Otter pick Potts over Zollinger and Fuller? He’s not saying, noting only in a news release that Potts, 40, has a bachelor’s degree in communication from Brigham Young University and is active as a local Boy Scouts leader, and also has been a GOP precinct committeeman and vice chair of the District 33 legislative committee, as well as an unsuccessful candidate for county commission in the 2016 GOP primary.

It may or may not be relevant that Fuller, a longtime ally of former county Chair Doyle Beck, was the leading opponent of forming the College of Eastern Idaho, a new community college that eastern Idaho residents approved in May with 71 percent of the vote. Otter was a major proponent of the new community college.

Zollinger is a first-term state representative whose long-ago criminal record has been drawing some attention. He was convicted of five misdemeanors and one felony – grand theft – between 1994 and 1999. The misdemeanors included DUI, for which he was sentenced to 90 days in jail; malicious injury to property, which was reduced from a felony charge of arson and drew him 10 days in jail; another malicious injury to property charge that drew him a 90-day jail term, with 30 days suspended; and various alcohol-related offenses.

“When I was a teenager and college student I made some bad choices, and I’m thankful to live in America, the land of redemption,” Zollinger said. “I’m thankful for the mentors I had along the way who believed in me and helped me get through those tough years.”

Zollinger, 41, was just 19 years old when he was convicted of grand theft in Madison County in July of 1995 and sentenced to 90 days in jail and $564 in fines; that was the same year he incurred both the malicious injury to property convictions. He was 23 in 1999 when he had the DUI conviction. A Rexburg native, he’s now an attorney and former Idaho Falls school board member; he was elected to represent Bonneville County’s District 33 in the Idaho House in 2016.

In a Facebook post, he said he’s been warned in recent months that political opponents planned to draw attention to “a few of my teenage escapades.”

“I figured one day it’d come up,” he told Eye on Boise. “Everyone probably makes mistakes when they’re young and dumb, and I was definitely young and dumb.”

In addition to those convictions, Zollinger has had four other misdemeanor charges dropped by prosecutors, all during the same time frame; and his court record shows 18 infractions, mostly speeding tickets, with two of those occurring in the past two years.

This is all public record; anyone who logs on to the state court system’s public records repository can see it. It came to my attention because someone sent me an anonymous letter about the court records. So I called Zollinger, because I understand that there are lots of Zollingers in eastern Idaho, and it could’ve been someone else with the same name. “It’s me,” he told me.

By the way, I checked the public records for Fuller and Potts, as well. Though there are others with similar names, the Idaho court records repository appears to show that Fuller had a speeding ticket in 2006 and an expired-registration ticket in 2013; and Potts had a single speeding ticket in 2002.

Senators want fire funds

A bipartisan group of Western senators introduced legislation last week to allow states affected by catastrophic wildfires to tap into federal disaster mitigation assistance to help them recover. That assistance now goes to recovery efforts for other types of disasters, from hurricanes to floods, for which there’s been a presidential designation of a major disaster. But wildfires seldom receive those disaster designations. The bill, proposed by senators including Mike Crapo and Jim Risch of Idaho, would let wildfire-stricken states apply for those funds anyway to help communities recover and to prevent future wildfires.

“Throughout the American West, we have felt firsthand the devastation wildfires have on our habitat, our health and our way of life,” Crapo said in a statement. “The Wildfire Mitigation Assistance Act would allow fire-prone communities to apply for Hazard Mitigation grants through the Federal Emergency Management Agency in order to undertake ‘fire-wise’ projects for homes in the wildland urban interface or to reduce hazardous fuels. Congress must continue to pursue efforts aimed at reducing the risk and severity of wildfires, as well as improve the response, prevention and mitigation efforts.”

The new bill is separate from legislation already introduced by the same senators, and companion legislation in the House, to change the nation’s wildfire funding system and end so-called “fire borrowing,” in which federal lands agencies borrow from fire-prevention accounts when firefighting bills mount. Those bills are rapidly taking over their budgets, in a vicious circle that’s also leading to less preventive work at a time of more and worse fires.

Western lawmakers, including Crapo, Risch and Washington Sen. Maria Cantwell, reintroduced the Wildfire Disaster Funding Act of 2017 in September, seeking to tap into disaster funds for firefighting when the bills mount, rather than borrow from prevention programs. They counted it as a promising sign when the Trump administration’s Office of Management and Budget recommended replacing the more than $570 million in fire borrowing that’s anticipated due to this year’s intense fire season with emergency funds, as part of a disaster funding bill in the wake of Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

The new bill would go beyond the fire-borrowing fix to also extend hazard mitigation programs to wildfire recovery.

“Massive wildfires destroy homes, businesses and ecosystems in the West just like catastrophic hurricanes destroy communities in coastal regions,” Risch said. “This bill will help local governments in Idaho and across the West deal with the aftermath of large wildfires.”

Asked if the senators have gotten pushback from senators from hurricane-, tornado- and flood-prone states concerned about others tapping into the same disaster funds they’re counting on, Lindsay Nothern, communications director for Crapo, said, “Not officially.”

“There was concern earlier, when we first introduced the fire borrowing bill,” he said, “will this legislation take money away from our hurricane money or our tornado money, and the answer is no, because it’s disaster funding.” Nothern said, as envisioned, the bill wouldn’t reduce the amount of money available for other disasters. Instead, “More would be appropriated and more would be spent.”