Long, complex road ahead for lawmakers looking for broadband solution

Lawmakers listen to testimony during a July 21 meeting of the Broadband Access Study Committee in Boise. (Seth Ogilvie/Idaho Reports)

Lawmakers listen to testimony during a July 21 meeting of the Broadband Access Study Committee in Boise. (Seth Ogilvie/Idaho Reports)

Earlier this week, Idaho Reports producer Seth Ogilvie attended the Broadband Access Study Committee and wrote this about the long-term challenges facing lawmakers who are tasked with finding a solution.

“Internet access is now like air” Seth Deniston, Director of Technology for the Coeur d’Alene School District, told the Broadband Access Study Committee on Tuesday. The committee is tasked with figuring out the “minimum service level” at which the air should be provided.

The answer might seem simple: Analyze the usage, judge the outcomes and buy bandwidth to fit. But broadband in Idaho has never been simple. Standing in the way is six years of history with the Idaho Education Network, a lawsuit, and the Idaho constitution. Add in two years of political feuding, perceptions of subterfuge, betrayal and broken political relationships, and you have a complicated policy environment.

The Idaho Education Network was ostensibly shut down in February, but districts found their own broadband solutions. Alan Dunn, Superintendent of the Sugar-Salem School District put the current situation in perspective for the committee. “We’re paying less, significantly less,” he said. The district left the statewide contract earlier this year and was able to find an adequate broadband provider in a very rural area with no interruption in service.

Deniston echoed Dunn’s numbers, saying his school district went from a $14,000 monthly contract to a $2,000 contract after they were forced to negotiate on their own. The Idaho Falls School District 91 and the Boise School District also saw significant savings without compromising services.

The situation might be solved if it wasn’t for E-rate dollars and a constantly growing need for more bandwidth. The Legislature planned on using E-rate dollars to fund more than two thirds of the broadband costs. The money comes from Universal Service Administrative Compan — or USAC — a non-profit company set up by the FCC to fund telecommunications projects across the nation. They have granted $41 billion nationwide and $123 million to Idaho.

E-rate dollars stopped for the State of Idaho in 2012. The last payment in 2012 came to $6.5 million, a significant portion of the broadband budget. Requests for $6.8 million in 2013 and $7 million in 2014 were never allocated. The state failed to even make a request in 2015.

This added a significantly larger price tag to the state’s budget and forced the state to reevaluate the process. E-rate dollars did continue flowing to individual schools and districts that managed their contracts and requests outside of the state system.

Losing E-rate dollars for three years (around $21 million) is not the end of the problem. The specter of the previous refused contracts could still bias USAC decisions. Winston E. Himsworth, a representative from E-Rate Central, gave an auspicious warning to the committee.

“Once you get a target on your back, things are not easy for you,” he said.

The statewide problems have the local districts worried. “We must have funding,” Dunn told the committee. “We can’t survive without it… we cannot afford broadband access without your support.”

Then there’s the Idaho State Constitution. The constitution says the education system must be “uniform and thorough.” Districts like Boise and Idaho Falls would have no problem going it alone as they did in recent months. Districts like Sugar-Salem, however, anticipate higher prices because of their rural location. They also lack the tax base of a Boise or Idaho Falls school district to cover the costs, and the institutional knowledge to successfully apply for E-rate dollars. This could pose a significant problem to the uniform constitutional charge.

The simple solution to the uniform problem is a unified state system. The current system, however, would have to change, and accepting that the current state-level solution is broken could be a problem.

In one of the most dramatic exchanges of the day, Sen. Bart Davis cross-examined the Department of Administration’s Chief Technology Officer Greg Zickau.

“I want to understand what happened, so we don’t repeat it,” Davis said.

“We believe what we did was in accordance with the statute,” Zickau said.

Davis repeatedly cited from 4th District Judge Patrick Owen’s ruling against the state that declared the state’s contract void. “You divided the services, the contract, the menu,” which would be out of compliance with the law, he said.

Davis then focused in on a point he said aggravated him. “The administrator should have entered a written statement,” Davis said, citing Owen and other precedent, but the administrator for the contract didn’t present that written statement until after a public records request was made. “He went back and said, ‘Gee this is what I was thinking,’” Davis said.

Officials from the Department of Administration who were present had no alternative for what might have happened.

If true, Davis said, that alone would make the contract void, forcing the state to do a new contract differently. Zickau and the incoming Director Bob Geddes did not admit that was a problem, and offered no ideas to rectify it in the future. The exchange ended with co-chair Sen. Dean Mortimer steering the conversation towards a different lawmaker.

What does it all mean? There is a lot of work to do. Relationships have to be built back up. Trust has to be regained. A problem has to be described and accepted in order for lessons to be learned. The path forward will be complicated mainly because of the path the Idaho Education Network has left behind.

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Higher-than-expected growth for Idaho’s general fund. So what’s next?

(Updated at 3:50 pm Friday to reflect additional General Fund sources.)

Idaho’s General Fund revenue grew by 8.6 percent in Fiscal Year 2015, leaving Idaho with a $108 million surplus that will be divvied up between budget stabilization and transportation funds.

What were the factors in that surplus? Higher-than-anticipated filings in all tax categories, resulting in about $92 million more than expected for the state. The other $16 million comes from other revenue sources, mostly money unspent by agencies that reverted back to the state’s General Fund, said Jani Revier of the Division of Financial Management. See the Division of Financial Management report, with all its glorious figures and charts, here.

That extra money is already called for, but how might these numbers affect budget and policy decisions next year?

“I think it provides an opportunity for us to look at us cutting taxes,” said House Assistant Majority Leader Brent Crane. “It’s the taxpayers’ money. We’ve got too much of it. We need to return it back to them.”

In other words, don’t be surprised if these numbers are used to argue for a decrease in corporate and individual income tax rates and/or elimination of the grocery tax next legislative session — both on the priority lists for a number of lawmakers on all parts of the political spectrum.

Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, said she has mixed feelings about the report. “We’ve been trying to fund education and bring it back to a level it should be, and we still haven’t done that yet. People were really concerned about taking money out of the general fund, even the governor, because it would be in competition with education,” she said. “In some regard, it’s good news for transportation — roads and bridges. However, I still have the feeling that that should be going to education. We’re still not at the place we should be.”

Wintrow added she had concerns about the transportation funding deal reached by the 2015 Legislature, which included a 7 percent gas tax as well as the two-year surplus eliminator, adding she would like to see the state explore public transportation options in the future.

Read the press release from Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter below:

STATE OF IDAHO ENDS BUDGET YEAR $92 MILLION ABOVE PROJECTIONS

(BOISE) – Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter and State Controller Brandon Woolf announced today that Idaho closed the fiscal year that ended June 30 with a surplus, collecting $92 million more than anticipated during the previous 12 months.

“We balanced the budget and we put money in our rainy day funds. This wasn’t an accident. This was accomplished as a matter of political will, grounded in common-sense fiscal restraint and guided by the principle that our state government must always live within the people’s means,” Governor Otter said.

“The tax dollars of Idaho’s citizens are accounted for in accordance with the law, and the state of Idaho closed its fiscal year with a balanced budget,” said State Controller Brandon Woolf.  “Because of the prudent decisions made by our state’s leaders, Idaho will continue to maintain an exemplary credit rating.”

The State Division of Financial Management (DFM) reported General Fund revenue of $3,056,765,517, leaving the state $92.3 million above economist’s projections for FY 2015. General Fund revenue grew by 8.6 percent, significantly higher than the 5.3 percent rate that was forecast.

As mandated by state law, half of the surplus will be transferred to the budget stabilization fund and the other half will be dedicated to transportation infrastructure improvement projects. As a result, $54.1 million of the surplus will be used for transportation which is in addition to the $95 million approved earlier this year by lawmakers. Year end totals in each of the state’s rainy day funds are as follows:

  • Budget Stabilization Fund:                                         $243.8 million
  • Public Education Stabilization Fund                          $  90.9 million
  • Higher Education Stabilization Fund                         $    3.4 million

“Idahoans can be proud that their state is heading in the right direction because the state’s executive and legislative leaders did not only what was tough, but also required laying the foundation for continued economic prosperity and ensuring our best years are still ahead of us,” said Governor Otter.

DFM’s complete Idaho General Fund Revenue Report can be found here:

http://dfm.idaho.gov/publications/eab/gfrr/gfrr2016/gfrr_jul2015.pdf.

“Our economy is on the right track because of the discipline and commitment at the statehouse,” Governor Otter said. “I have maintained that predictability and sustainability are essential to our continued economic recovery. These figures confirm that we have budgeted wisely so our tax structure remains predictable and our economic vitality remains sustainable. Our commitment to these principles allows for continued investment in schools, roads, public infrastructure and workforce development, all essential for a prosperous Idaho.”

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Kelly Anthon appointed Dist. 27 state senator

Gov. Butch Otter announced Thursday he has appointed Rupert city administrator Kelly Anthon as state senator for Dist. 27.

Anthon replaces Sen. Dean Cameron, who was appointed director of the Department of Insurance in May. He lives in Declo. He will serve the remainder of Cameron’s two-year term.

Anthon couldn’t immediately be reached for comment, but here’s a Feb. 2015 profile on him from the Times-News, headlined “Kelly Athon: The Architect of Rupert’s Growth.”

“Since Anthon became city administrator, Rupert has aggressively recruited businesses, said City Clerk Bayley Fuller. With Anthon leading, the city now goes after every lead,” wrote reporter Andrew J.F. Deskins.

One other senate appointment is pending; Sen. John Tippets will step down from his seat in early July to take over at the Department of Environmental Quality.

See the press release from Otter’s office below.

C.L. “Butch” Otter

GOVERNOR

NEWS RELEASE

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:                                                         CONTACT:  Jon Hanian

July 2, 2015                                                                                                        (208) 334-2100

15:043

GOVERNOR OTTER APPOINTS RUPERT ATTORNEY TO IDAHO SENATE

(BOISE) – Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter announced the appointment today of Rupert city official, Kelly Anthon to the Idaho State Senate.

Anthon, a 7th generation Idahoan, will fill the vacancy that was created when former Senator Dean Cameron of Rupert was chosen to become the Director of the Idaho Department of Insurance. Anthon was selected from a group of nominees submitted by the District 27 Republican Legislative Committee. Anthon will serve out the remainder of Senator Cameron’s term. The other nominees were Doug Pickett and Wayne Hurst.

“Kelly’s extensive experience in economic development, the legal profession and agriculture uniquely qualify him to represent the people of the Mini-Cassia area,” said Governor Otter. “I am confident he will ably serve the constituents of District 27.”

Anthon is the administrator for the city of Rupert. He is also a past president of the Burley Rotary Club, worked as a board member for two economic development organizations and served on the boards for two local hospitals.

“It is an honor to be appointed by Governor Otter to serve the community I love,” said Anthon. “My family and I feel humbled at this opportunity and I will do all I can to serve the people in the Mini-Cassia area and to represent our community values.”

Anthon and his wife Joelle live on their family farm near Declo and have five children.

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Risch to donate $500 to charity after campaign contribution from white supremacist

Sen. Jim Risch will donate $500 to charity after campaign finance documents revealed the president of an organization classified as a white supremacist group by the Southern Poverty Law Center made a campaign contribution to Risch.

Council of Conservative Citizens president Earl Holt made the contribution in August 2013. That $500 is in addition to about $25,000 in donations he made to other Republican politicians, including Rand Paul, Rick Santorum and and Ted Cruz.

“Prior to your mentioning the name Earl Holt to me today and me mentioning that name to him, the senator had never heard of Earl Holt,” wrote Suzanne Wrasse, media contact for Risch, in an e-mail to Idaho Reports. “Senator Risch has received donations from thousands of different individuals, PACs, and institutional donors over the past seven years. Since there are thousands of donors, it is inevitable that the list of donors contains some “scoundrels.”

Charleston shooting suspect Dylann Roof cited Holt in an online manifesto he wrote before opening fire on a prayer group at a historically black church in Charleston, South Carolina last week, killing nine people.

Since then, a number of candidates have distanced themselves from Holt, and some have returned his contributions or made donations to a fund set up for Charleston victims’ families.

“Given Mr. Holt’s statements regarding race it would be inappropriate to retain his contribution,” Wrasse said. “The amount he contributed will be donated to a charitable fund.”

Wrasse said she didn’t know which charity Risch would donate to.

A request for comment to Council of Conservative Citizens wasn’t returned by Monday afternoon.

See the campaign disclosure form for the Holt donation to Risch here.

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New DEQ director’s former employer has environmental record dings

Aerial view of Agrium Conda’s Soda Springs phosphate operation, next to Woodall Springs. Image from Google Maps

By Melissa Davlin and Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Reports

The incoming director of the Department of Environmental Quality worked for a fertilizer company that is currently being monitored by Environmental Protection Agency.

The company was also involved in multiple incidents requiring hazardous materials response clean-up.

Sen. John Tippets, R-Bennington, was appointed earlier this week as new DEQ director beginning July 6. Previously, Tippets worked as a public affairs manager for Agrium, an agricultural supplier with multiple locations in Idaho and across the globe. Tippets retired from the company earlier this year.

The EPA has monitored Agrium’s Soda Springs phosphate operation since 2009 after a series of spills over the years, including one in March 2007 involving 285,000 gallons of waste water containing phosphoric acid. Pursuant to a 2009 order through the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, the company continues to provide data and conduct testing for the EPA. 

As for the current status of Agrium’s RCRA compliance, the EPA is in confidential negotiations with the company. “Since that process is ongoing, we are unable to discuss this matter further until the negotiations or other actions related to this order are resolved,” wrote Mark MacIntyre, senior communications officer for EPA’s Region 10 office in Seattle.

According to the EPA’s website, the company is listed as out of compliance with RCRA with a “significant violation.”

Since 2011, when Tippets began working for Agrium, the company has also been listed on 21 hazmat incidents across the country, including a serious truck accident in Idaho that killed the driver and spilled 500 gallons of liquid nitrogen into a drainage ditch in February 2014.

That incident involved a contracted transport company and not a truck owned by Agrium. The driver was not an Agrium employee, records confirmed.

Of the 20 other hazmat incidents, some of the leaks were minor, and involved transport companies and non-Agrium employees. Others, however, were the result of improper packaging on Agrium’s part, according to the US Department of Transportation’s Hazmat Intelligence Portal.

See a database of the hazmat reports here. See a map of the incidents here.

The Department of Environmental Quality doesn’t respond to hazmat incidents by itself; That’s under the purview of the Bureau of Homeland Security. However, DEQ assists on some clean-ups, providing on-site control and assessment, according to Elizabeth Duncan of Bureau of Homeland Security. DEQ also continues to monitor the scene and ensure hazardous materials are properly removed.

The number of hazmat incidents involving Agrium nationwide is comparable to other companies that produce fertilizer. In that same time period, the JR Simplot company had 29 hazmat incidents, including 5 classified as serious. Helena Chemical Company had 20 hazmat incidents, of which 3 were serious.

Still, the question remains: Is it appropriate for someone who worked at a company with dings on its environmental record to head the state Department of Environmental Quality?

In an interview with Idaho Reports, Tippets said he had agreed to recuse himself from any DEQ discussions specifically involving his former employer, and knew he would have to be sensitive regarding discussions involving mining, fertilizer and agri-business. As to whether he would recuse himself from decisions affecting similar companies, he said that would be too broad a decision to make.

“Where do you draw the line? That’s a little difficult,” Tippets said. 

Tippets added there are advantages to having someone with agri-business experience heading the DEQ.

“I think, frankly, it can be a good thing to have that insight,” Tippets said. “You kind of know the questions to ask.”

Jon Hanian, press secretary for Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter, who made the appointment, said the hazmat incidents weren’t specifically addressed during the appointment process. “However, you should know we talk to all appointees about potential conflicts and the perception of conflicts and how those issues would be addressed, if and when they arise,” Hanian wrote in an e-mail to Idaho Reports. “Senator Tippets was treated no different.”

As of Friday, Agrium officials couldn’t be reached for comment.

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Tippets named DEQ director

Sen. John Tippets, R-Bennington, has been appointed as the new director of the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality, as first reported by Idaho Reporter.

“I never planned on going to work for the state full time,” Tippets said in a Monday interview with Idaho Public Television. “I’m looking forward to it now.”

Tippets, who plans to move to Boise for the position, said he doesn’t plan on making major changes at DEQ.

“I told the governor that this wasn’t a department that needs someone to go in and fix it. It’s operating well. Director Fransen did a good job,” Tippets said.

That said, Tippets said he’ll miss serving in the Senate.

“Some of the best people I know serve in the Idaho Legislature,” Tippets said.

Tippets starts July 6. Read the press release here.

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GOP committees pass on opening primary, support Sunshine Law and pres primary changes

The Idaho Republican Party State Central Committee meets Saturday to consider a short list of resolutions and party rule changes, including one supporting a Sunshine Law change and another adopting a presidential primary.

First off all, why do party rule changes and resolutions matter? Considering Republicans currently hold the majority of legislative seats and every state seat and congressional seat in Idaho, in-party decisions (like a rule to have a closed primary election) can have major implications for everyone in the state — Republicans, Democrats and independents alike.

Resolutions aren’t legislation, but sometimes plant the seeds for future bill proposals.
The state central committee as a whole will consider the passed resolutions and rules on Saturday.

The resolutions committee voted not to pass a resolution to end the party’s closed primary after a spirited debate. Dennis Turner of Bear Lake County, who presented the amendment, cited declining voter participation in primary elections.

Committee vice chair Tyler Hurst struggled with the resolution. “I don’t understand why we would want people voting in our party if they don’t want to stand up and be counted as a member of our party,” Hurst said. Ultimately, the resolution died on a 5-8 vote.

Among the resolutions that did pass: A proposal to change to Idaho’s Sunshine Laws to increase the minimum amount on contributions and expenditures political committees must report. Currently, political committees with expenditures that exceed $5,000 must report individual annual contributions exceeding $50, and all individual expenditures exceeding $25. The proposal would raise the reporting requirement on individual contributions to $200 and expenditures to $100 for political committees with expenditures that exceed $20,000. That resolution passed the committee with just one no vote.

The committee also passed a resolution that supported the use of Bibles in school as instructional and reference texts. Some members of the committee expressed concern with other religious texts, such as the Quran, being used in the same way, while others questioned whether a change would violate the Idaho State Constitution. Ultimately, the divided committee amended the resolution to take out a phrase supporting classes on the Bible in school.

The rules committee adopted the presidential primary passed earlier this year by the Idaho Legislature. Committee members voted down a controversial “Pay To Play” proposal, which would punish county chairmen if their counties don’t pay party dues. The committee also declined to pass a proposal that would kick people off of the state central committee if they campaign against Republican nominees after the primary election.

“People should not be allowed to be in leadership and take positions against the people they are leading,” said presenter Chuck Reitz of Shoshone County. Ultimately, committee members had concerns about due process, and a motion to pass the rule out of committee died for lack of a second.

The rules committee made it through just one-fourth of its agenda before adjourning, meaning other rules — such as one that would disqualify candidates for state or congressional office from holding central committee seats — won’t be considered this year.

The debates today have been spirited, and some frustrations have bubbled over, but nowhere near on the same level as last year’s Republican state convention. There are disagreements and split votes on the resolutions and rules committees, but no shouting matches or overly tense moments.
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