About those signatures on the Idaho Chooses Life Letter…

The 27 lawmakers who supported an investigation into Planned Parenthood didn’t actually sign the letter sent to Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter, but that doesn’t mean their support is fake.

The letter, written by Idaho Chooses Life director David Ripley, asks Otter to investigate whether Planned Parenthood is engaging in illegal activities.  According to Kimberlee Kruesi of the Associated Press, Otter declined to investigate, saying there is no evidence anything illegal is going on at Idaho’s Planned Parenthood facilities. Read the letters at Eye on Boise.

Each of the lawmakers’ signatures is initialed “DR,” and the handwriting on each signature is the same. Rep. Jeff Thompson, R-Idaho Falls and one of the names listed on the letter, told Idaho Reports Ripley had asked if he’d be interested in supporting the letter, but no discussion of signatures came up.

“But everybody’s name that was on that letter that went to the governor, David had their permission to put their name on the letter,” Thompson said.

(Before you ask why this is a story, in the past, lawmakers’ names have been added to documents supporting issues the individuals didn’t actually favor. An example: During the 2012 session, House Bill 563, which reduced Idaho’s income tax rates for corporations and individuals at the top level, had a lengthy list of legislative co-sponsors. A few of those lawmakers, like Rep. Tom Trail, R-Moscow, didn’t support the bill, didn’t know they’d been added as co-sponsors, and ultimately voted against it on the floor. And if I noticed the signatures weren’t actually those of the lawmakers, I figured I wasn’t the only one, and someone else might have a question about it.)

Ripley couldn’t be reached for comment.

Thompson said he isn’t sure if the lawmakers or Idaho Chooses Life will pursue further action against Planned Parenthood.

“I received the governor’s response and I have not heard anything about moving forward at this time,” Thompson said.

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Idaho and the Clean Power Plan: Easy goals, no clear solution

Earlier this month, the federal government directed states to clean up their energy acts. While deadlines are far off, there is uncertainty about how Idaho should proceed — and how policymakers might react to recommendations.

What is the Clean Power Plan?

The Obama administration initiative lays out goals for nearly all states to reduce carbon emissions from power plants by 2030. Each of the goals is customized for state’s energy portfolios, and states have until September 2016 to submit plans or request an extension. For more information, click here. 

What’s the outlook for Idaho?

On the surface, Idaho has it easy. With mostly hydroelectric and natural gas plants, the state is one of the lowest carbon producers in the United States. Idaho’s power plants emit less than half of the carbon Utah’s produce, and a third of Montana’s emissions. Our goals reflect those numbers; While Idaho’s carbon rate reduction goal is 10 percent, Montana’s is 47 percent. (Click on this interactive map by Idaho Reports associate producer Brad Iverson-Long to compare emissions and goals for Idaho and neighboring states.)

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But there’s a downside to being one of the cleanest in the country. Moving forward, there isn’t much room for improvement — at least in the state’s energy sector. Because of the rule’s complexity and the possibility of partnerships with other states, it will take time before Idaho’s path forward is clear.

And it’s not yet clear if those goals take into account Idaho’s population growth projections. According to the Idaho Strategic Energy Alliance, Idaho’s electricity consumers are using electricity more efficiently, but “there is no doubt that additional electrical supply will be required to power Idaho’s future.” A request for comment from the Environmental Protection Agency wasn’t returned by deadline.

How will Idaho meet its goals?

Good question. There’s no plan right now, and there likely won’t be one for a while.

“It’s a 1,500 page rule,” said John Chatburn, administrator of the Idaho Governor’s Office of Energy Resources. “It’s not as simple as if it was all laid out in three pages (so we can) go look at it and intuitively know what is going to happen.

But there are options. Like all states, Idaho can choose to reduce carbon by either rate (which compares emitted carbon to each unit of energy plants produce) or mass (which would put a set cap on carbon emissions statewide), and the EPA has provided goals for each of those options. Idaho can also team up with neighboring states to tackle reductions together.

“States will have many opportunities under the plan to choose the type of plan that they want to proceed with,” said Janet McCabe, acting assistant administrator for the EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation, in an August 4 conference call.

There is a lot to sort through before settling on a plan, though. Chatburn said his office, the Department of Environmental Quality, and the Public Utilities Commission are working through the document to make sure they don’t miss anything.

In September, Idaho officials will meet with representatives from other states to discuss tentative plans, Chatburn said.

How will policymakers react?

Any recommendations will likely end up in front of the Idaho Legislature for approval — whether in the form of a proposed statutory change on emissions, or as a rule change under the DEQ’s existing air quality authority.

That could set Idaho up for a fight. Many in the Legislature don’t take kindly to federal directives, with some lawmakers introducing legislation in recent sessions to limit the EPA’s powers, or nullify the agency altogether. 

House Energy, Environment and Technology Committee Chairman Jeff Thompson said he hadn’t looked into Idaho’s goals under the Clean Power Plan, but added any discussions involving regulations and the EPA often result in “good, vibrant discussions with passion.”

How will plans affect customers?

That depends on many things — and not all of those factors are in Idaho’s control.

Idaho imports a lot of its electricity. And while just one percent of Idaho’s in-state energy is generated from coal, about 35 percent of Idaho’s total energy is imported, and most of that comes from coal-fired plants in other states, according to the Idaho Strategic Energy Alliance. 

Whatever changes those states make, it could result in rate hikes for consumers.

Last week, Ken Miller, energy program director of clean energy advocate Snake River Alliance, told Rocky Barker of the Idaho Statesman that while there may be cost increases from coal plants shutting down, “for Idaho, those costs will be more than offset through reduced electricity bills and the addition of new jobs and economic activity as Idaho stops exporting our energy dollars to other states in exchange for a new clean energy economy with expanded renewable energy and energy conservation investments.” Read more here.

Whatever those effects might be, they’re on Thompson’s radar.

“It’s going to be something we’ll be informing the committee of and having discussions about in committee,” Thompson said.

What about other sources of emissions?

They’re not addressed by the Clean Power Plan. And for most states, especially those reliant on coal plants, that makes sense.

But Idaho has other, much bigger contributors to its carbon emissions — namely, the agricultural industry and transportation, according to data from the World Resources Institute.

The EPA doesn’t regulate emissions — carbon or otherwise — from farms, confined animal feeding operations, and other ag facilities, and most counties in Idaho don’t produce enough pollution to require emissions testing under federal standards. So even if the state or private sector found ways to reduce emissions, it wouldn’t count for the Clean Power Plan goals.

Seth Ogilvie, Melissa Davlin, and Brad Iverson-Long contributed to this report. 

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President Obama’s remarks at Sawtooth National Recreation Area signing

In case you missed the news, President Barack Obama signed H.R. 1138, the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act, this morning.

Here’s a transcript of his remarks, courtesy of the White House Press Office. And watch for a segment on SNRA on Sunday’s PBS NewsHour Weekend, produced by our own Aaron Kunz and featuring the Idaho Stateman’s Rocky Barker.

THE PRESIDENT:  Well, first of all, over the last six years, the American people have worked really hard to bounce back from the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression.  We got jobs numbers today, showing that America created another 210,000 new jobs.  That makes 65 consecutive months of private sector job growth.  This is the strongest two-year run of private sector job growth that we’ve seen in the last 15 years.  And it is a testament I think to the incredible ingenuity and resilience and hard work of the American people.

So, even as we continue to focus on rebuilding our economy, providing more opportunity, one of the things that we’ve also been trying to focus on is leaving a legacy for the next generation in preserving this incredible beauty, the God-given blessings that we’ve received — those of us who live here in the United States of America.

I think everybody here knows that one of the prettiest states that we have with some of the greatest national treasures is the great state of Idaho.  I am very proud to be able to sign this piece of legislation, enacted by the House of Representatives, entitled the Sawtooth National Recreation Area and the Jerry Peak Wilderness Additions Act.  And what this does is it designates three additional wilderness designations in the great state of Idaho.

This is a remarkable area.  It is used by fishermen, hunters, rafters, people taking hikes.  It is not only beautiful, but it’s also an important economic engine for the state — attracting tourism, creating jobs.  And thanks to the work of a broad-based coalition of folks in Idaho, but spearheaded here in Congress by Congressman Mike Simpson — who was able to receive not a single “no” vote — (laughter) — which does not happen often in the House of Representatives — something that folks have been working on for quite some time is going to be reality.

And so we want to congratulate all of them.  We want to urge the American people to visit these new, incredible wilderness areas, and recognize that not only will this give opportunities to people in Idaho, but it’s going to be there for future generations as well.

One last point I want to make — we want to be thinking during the course of this summer about the firefighters who are taking on some really tough fires all across the Western states. As I’ve noted before, we’ve seen a consistent escalation of the severity and the length of wildfire season.  And a lot of that is attributable to the fact that climate change is going to be raising temperatures and creating less water, more vulnerability to a lot of forests out there.

One of the things we’re trying to work on with Congress is making sure that we are able to properly fund firefighting efforts, but also that we’re engaged in the kind of conservation planning to ensure that we’re preventing fires from happening in the first place.

And so that’s a project that, at least in the Western states, you get a lot of bipartisan support for.  Hopefully we’ll be able to get that same kind of support here in Washington.

So, again, congratulations to all of you.  Mike, congratulations for the great work you’ve done.

I will now sign this designation.

(The bill is signed.)

There you go.  Good job.  (Applause.)

END             12:10 P.M. EDT

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Reactions from key players on ag-gag ruling

Judge B. Lynn Winmill’s ruled Idaho’s law banning surreptitious filming in agricultural facilities is unconstitutional, and reactions from key players are rolling in.

Bob Naerebout of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association said the organization is still reviewing the ruling and has no comment at this time.

Sen. Jim Patrick, R-Filer and sponsor of the original bill, said Monday afternoon he was a little surprised. “It’s disappointing to me because I felt like we were on good grounds,” Patrick told Idaho Reports, adding an appeal is still an option. “I feel strongly, and all of us feel strongly, that it’s wrong not to report animal abuse when you watch it or see it.”

Richard Eppink, Legal Director of ACLU Idaho, cheered the ruling. “It’s good to see that the federal court has recognized the serious First Amendment and equal protection problems that Idaho had with that law,” Eppink told Idaho Reports, added that ACLU is prepared to fight an appeal should one be filed. “If that’s what’s necessary, then obviously we’ll continue to challenge the statute at the appeals court and defend Judge Winmill’s ruling… It’s unfortunately not a surprise that the Attorney General’s office here in Idaho continues to fight losing battles rather than defending the constitution.”

The Animal Legal Defense Fund, the lead plaintiff in the case, issued a press release. “Undercover video and photography has exposed numerous shocking practices that are “industry standards.” These pervasive, systematic procedures include routine mutilation, including debeaking birds with electrically heated blades and castrating male animals by slicing open their scrotum and ripping their testicles out without pain relief or anesthesia and intensive confinement—where animals are literally unable to turn around for months on end. Exposes have also detailed the sickening farming conditions resulting in contaminated meat products—posing serious health risks to the public—and life threatening conditions for farm workers.”

Read Winmill’s ruling here: ALDF Memo Decision (2)

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Winmill rules so-called “ag-gag” unconstitutional

US District Judge B. Lynn Winmill has ruled Idaho’s so-called ag-gag rule unconstitutional.

The Animal Legal Defense Fund challenged the law, which criminalized surreptitious recordings in agricultural facilities, alleging it stifled public debate about modern agriculture and criminalized investigative journalism.

Todd Dvorak, press secretary for Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, said the office is reviewing the ruling and has no further comment at this time.

Read the ruling here: ALDF Memo Decision

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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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