Undisclosed Lobbying: Idaho’s secret economy

By Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Reports

An almost half a million dollar ecosystem has developed around the Idaho Statehouse, built around peddling access and persuasion.

Last year, lobbyists spent about $435,000 attempting to influence policy in the state of Idaho. After sifting through hundreds of PDFs on the Secretary of State’s website, Idaho Reports could account directly for only about $12,000 worth of that almost half a million dollars.

Lobbyists in Idaho have to directly disclose only the names of public officials if the amount exceeds $110, but take this example; Tyrel Stevenson is a lobbyist for the Coeur d’Alene Tribe. He spent about $26,000 on entertainment, food, and refreshment in the second month of the legislature. Assuming that money was equally divided amongst all 116 of the state and federal elected officials that would still add up to $224, double the required direct disclosure limit but names are not attached.

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The majority of the $26,000 was spent on a 2018 event for legislators involving an entertainer called The Mentalist. “But yes, you’re right,” Stevenson said. “I should have listed the legislators. I did some bad math.” After Idaho Reports contacted him, Stevenson said he did not know of the error, but he will correct the report quickly.

When asked if he had received a call from the Secretary of State’s office about the error, Stevenson said, “I have not ever received a call on a lobbying report. No one has ever been called.”

Stevenson isn’t the only person wining and dining elected officials in Idaho. Last year, politicians received a free lunch to the tune of $267,254, and the names of the beneficiaries were almost entirely unreported.

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Idaho statute says “A public official shall not take any official action or make a formal decision or formal recommendation concerning any matter where he has a conflict of interest and has failed to disclose such conflict as provided in this section.”

Legislators in the Idaho statehouse routinely rise from their seats and declare they have a conflict of interest on issues before them. They do not, however, disclose conflicts due to receiving gifts or benefits from lobbyists. The disclosure of this conflict is the responsibility of the lobbyist, according to Brian Kane, Chief Legislative Counsel at Idaho Attorney General. That means the only record of possible conflicts of interest hide in these cryptic PDF’s.

That’s what we don’t know. What we do know is that Idaho had some significant spenders last year, and the primary piece of legislation that was fueling the dinners and drinks was Marsy’s Law. Lobbying for this single piece of legislation topped $48,000 and put a couple lobbyists on the top of the spenders’ list.

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The dispersal of disclosed money trends Republican. Almost 85 percent of the directly disclosed money went to Republican politicians in Idaho, but that shouldn’t be much of a surprise given the Republican dominance in the state. What was somewhat surprising was the top recipient in 2018 based on these disclosure forms was  Superintendent of Public Instruction Sherri Ybarra who banked over $3,400 in lobbyist money from natural resources groups. That amount is almost 30 percent of all the direct disclosures we could find.

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The amount of money spent lobbying in Idaho is bucking the apparent national trend.

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As more and more money is dumped into political campaigns, the amount of lobbying money paid and then disclosed in Idaho is going down. 2018 had the least amount of lobbying money in the past five years.

If you want to play around with the database we built up click on the chart below and explore for your self.

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Rule debate highlights shortcomings in Idaho’s prescription tracking program

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

A new rule designed to prevent Medicaid participants from abusing opioid prescriptions sparked debate in House Health and Welfare on Friday, and in the process highlighted issues with the state’s prescription tracking system.

The rule, presented by Medicaid program manager Tiffany Kinzler, would prevent Medicaid recipients from paying cash for controlled substance prescriptions.

The idea behind the rule: Medicaid participants who have obtained prescriptions through legitimate means wouldn’t normally be paying for their prescriptions in the first place, explained Tami Eide of the Idaho Medicaid Pharmacy Program.

Rep. Sue Chew, D-Boise and the only pharmacist on the committee, said it raises red flags when someone with a Medicaid card ends up paying for a pain killer prescription.

Rep. John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, expressed concern that the state’s prescription tracking program wasn’t catching abuse. That system, Eide replied, is imperfect.

Most pharmacies don’t have access to look at that,” she told the committee. Chew agreed.

“Our system to try to mitigate (abuse) electronically, it’s getting there, but it doesn’t work that great,” Chew said.

Matt Wimmer, Administrator for the Division of Medicaid, told the committee that the prescription tracking system helps when physicians use it — but not everyone does.

We don’t have a legal requirement that you must (update it) all the time,” Wimmer said.

Ultimately, the committee voted to adopt the rule, with Vander Woude joining Reps. Bryan Zollinger, John Green, Chad Christensen and Marc Gibbs in voting no.

After the meeting. Chew explained that the current rule mandates that pharmacists and physicians register with the prescription tracking system, but nothing forces them to actually participate and update the tracker.

That’s why we’ve got a dilemma,” Chew said. “If we had a magic wand, we’d mandate that all pharmacists look on those things before they dispense.” The problem? “In this state, no one likes mandates.”

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A lesson in compromise from water users

On Thursday afternoon, the House Resources and Conservation Committee was filled with water users and representatives from the Idaho Department of Water Resources.

For the past several years, you wouldn’t have been able to find those stakeholders in the same place, at the same time, agreeing on hardly anything proposed by IDWR.

But that changed last year with a settlement on a long-running fight between Boise Basin water users and the state.

The fight involved flood releases from Idaho reservoirs during high water years, senior and junior water rights, and irrigation concerns. In short, if the Bureau of Reclamation releases water from Lucky Peak early in the season to avoid spring flooding in the Treasure Valley, should those releases count against water users’ rights — even if it’s too early for them to use that water for irrigation?

The fight resulted in litigation, as well as the threat of a special session during the summer of 2018. That was avoided with a settlement — moderated in part by House Speaker Scott Bedke, who started bringing together the different parties for lengthy meetings during the 2018 legislative session.

On Thursday, Bedke presented one piece that compromise in the form of House Bill 1 to the House Resources and Conservation Committee. The bill codifies how storage is filled after those flood releases from reservoirs.

“From my perspective, it’s a credit to the water users, both in the Treasure Valley and the state,” said IDWR director Gary Spackman. He also praised Bedke for bringing together the different parties, even when they were cantankerous. “He dedicated time to this he didn’t have to,” he said.

The water users agreed.

“It was a very divisive, very angry issue…. Three years ago, you would not have heard all that praise for the director, for the state, for the legislative leadership,” said Paul Arrington, executive director and general counsel for the Idaho Water Users Association. “There was a lot of frustration about this issue.”

Clinton Pline agreed.

“They were very dug in,” said Pline, president of Treasure Valley Water Users Association and a board member of the Nampa and Meridian Irrigation District.  “We’ve come to a point where we’ve realized that everybody needs to give and take some, and this is where we are today.”

Does this mean Bedke needs to head to DC to solve the federal funding impasse over border security?

When asked, Bedke rolled his eyes.

“(Compromise) is something they know how to do,” he said. “They do it every day.”

 

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More licensure changes — This time from the Board of Medicine

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

Idaho’s physician shortage has been a long-simmering problem in the state, especially in rural areas. But the Board of Medicine is removing licensure barriers for doctors from other states and countries in an attempt to improve that deficit.

Anne Lawler, executive director of the Idaho Board of Medicine, presented rule changes to the House Health and Welfare Committee on Thursday morning, citing then-Lt. Gov. Brad Little’s 2017 Licensing Freedom Act executive order as incentives for removing some requirements for medical license applicants.

Among the numerous changes: Broadening allowances for international medical school graduates, raising the dollar amount of malpractice settlement reporting requirements from $50,000 to $250,000, and eliminating a requirement that applicants report past health conditions.

Previously, applicants who attended international medical schools had to show that those institutions had been graduating students for at least 15 years. Just one other state had that requirement, Lawler said, and it had prevented at least one physician from getting her license in Idaho.

The Board of Medicine also repealed multiple rule sections that Lawler described as redundant, as those issues are addressed elsewhere in Idaho’s administrative rules. Those rule sections addressed telehealth, supervising and directing physicians registration, complaint investigations, and more.

The committee adopted the rule changes on a voice vote, with Rep. John Green, R-Post Falls, praising Lawler and Little for slimming down the regulations.

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No more Gab for Idaho

gab logoIdaho state employees and legislators can no longer Gab on state computers and networks.

The controversial libertarian-leaning website Gab is now blocked by the Idaho state IT department.  

“We do not specifically block this site,”  said Jon Pope, Chief of Operations for IT Services in the Executive Office of the Governor. “However, as part of the automated protections in our firewall, this site falls into a security rating of ‘questionable.'”gab

The “free speech” website entered the zeitgeist in the wake of the Pittsburgh synagogue shootings when it was discovered that minutes before the incident Robert Bowers posted “I’m going in” on the Gab. Bowers then allegedly killed 11 people and injured many more in the anti-semitic attack.

Searches indicate there are Idaho members of Gab, but it’s unclear how many, nor is it clear if the website had been frequented by state employees or individuals on the state system before the site was blocked.

Gab was accessible by state computers through the beginning of 2019 before it was flagged as a possible “threat introduced to our network,” said Pope.

Last November, Gab had 800,000 users, including far-right personalities like Richard Spencer and Alex Jones.

The site calls itself a laissez-faire platform for discussion but has been characterized by multiple scholars as a safe haven for hate speech.

Facebook, Twitter, and Reddit are still accessible through the Idaho state network.

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Proposed workload standards might not save Idaho from the courts

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By Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Reports

New rules addressing public defense in Idaho could have huge implications on the ability of indigent Idahoans to receive a fair trial and the state to fend off a lawsuit from the ACLU.

On Monday, the Senate Judiciary and Rules Committee accepted new public defender workload standards. The change would cap public defender workloads at two active capital cases at a time, as well as 210 non–capital felonies, 520 misdemeanor cases, 232 juvenile cases, 608 civil cases, or 35 non–capital substantive appeal cases a year.  

“There are approximately 16 states with standards,” said Kathleen J. Elliott, Executive Director of the Idaho State Public Defense Commission. “Idaho is a leader and one of only a few states that conducted an actual study.”

The study assumes 2,080 work hours in a year, according to Elliot. The math on 2,080 hours paints an interesting picture. That would mean public defenders would be able to work a full 40 hour week worth of casework, for 52 out of the 52 weeks in a year. They would not have time for vacation or sick time. That number leaves no time for travel or administrative and clerical work they may be responsible for, without exceeding a typical 40 hour work week. They would be able to work full time on cases every week of the year and then do every other job requirement on top of these hours and still meet the expectations of the survey.

In a nutshell, that means public defenders who hit the maximum on these standards would take no vacation and no sick time, or they work far more than 40 hours a week.

“It needs to be an Idaho-based system, so we did the Idaho study,” said Chairman Todd Lakey, R-Nampa. “This may not be the final, end-all answer, but it’s a good start, and it substantially increases the standards, which again means we’ve got to fund it.”

“I’m a bit disturbed when I hear we can’t afford to comply with the constitution,” said Sen. Mark Nye, D-Pocatello, upon learning of possible problems funding the new guidelines.

The Idaho Association of Counties had previously opposed the standards. “Counties have born the brunt of financing this system,” said executive director Seth Grigg. On Monday, though, the association remained neutral “because compliance with the standards is tied to funding from the state.”

The Public Defense Commission standards allow for a higher caseload than the National Advisory Commission on Criminal Justice Standards, or NAC, standards.  These standards were created in the seventies, long before advanced forensics and audio and video recordings became prevalent in trials. These modern pieces of evidence require more extended case hours. NAC standards permit defending attorneys no more than 150 felonies, 400 misdemeanors, or 200 juvenile court cases.

“It’s going to result in ongoing Sixth Amendment rights violation for people who are charged with crimes, and this probably also means more people in prison,” said Kathy Griesmyer of ACLU Idaho. “It’s this assembly line of, you meet your client, and you plead them out because that’s all you have time for.”

The American Bar Association says NAC caseload standards “should in no event be exceeded.” Despite this warning, the Idaho standards allow for ongoing workloads for attorneys in Idaho that go beyond this standard.

That doesn’t worry Lakey. “Their numbers weren’t generated by an empirical study,” he said, referring to the NAC standards. “It was people sitting in a room at a hotel at a conference coming up with, ‘Here’s what I think it should be.’”

According to 2018 caseload reports, over 50 percent of indigent cases in Idaho were handled by attorneys with caseloads exceeding the PDC standard, and attorneys violating the NAC standard handled almost 90% of cases.

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A December motion made by the ACLU in Tucker v. Idaho states it bluntly: “The undisputed factual data makes it plain that, at best, no more than half of indigent defendants in Idaho are being assigned to defending attorneys who are not overextended by caseloads that force them to triage individual cases. The other half of the cases, or more, are being handled by attorneys who are forced to triage and prioritize cases due to excessive caseloads.”

The 2018 reports don’t only reveal a system that surpasses the PDC standards but highlights many individuals who exceed the limits. An attorney in Payette County, who resides in the judiciary committee’s Vice Chair Sen. Abby Lee’s district, reported handling 63 felony cases, 776 misdemeanor cases, 105 juvenile cases, 34 felony probation cases, 32 family law cases, and 71 misdemeanor probation cases.

Based on the PDC proposed caseload standards and 2018 reports, Idaho would need around 28 new attorneys added into the system to meet its PDC requirements. If Idaho were to adopt the “not to be exceeded” NAC standards, they would need to hire around 75 new attorneys.

“The numbers that were proposed were adjusted to diminish the number of attorneys that are needed,” said Griesmeyer. “Despite knowing that, they would still be excessively high caseloads that attorneys would be asked to take on.”

These numbers are likely not even the full picture. Thirty-eight counties allow defense attorneys to have a private practice, adding even more work on top of their indigent defense caseloads. “I mean, the study was what it was and it’s still three times the standards,” said Lakey. “And everybody’s nervous about how we’re gonna pay for it.”

Time is of the utmost importance for the state, both for the people currently in the system and the looming litigation. “We cannot procrastinate on this,” said Elliott. “We need to make ongoing improvements to the system.”

The adoption of these rules sits in the shadow of the ACLU lawsuit against the State of Idaho, meaning the real PDC standards may be set in a courtroom, not in the legislature.

“If the state was not interested in having this lawsuit, they should be significantly considering the recommended suggestions by the ACLU, and we’ll be asking a judge to decide,” said Griesmyer. “It’s not a threat, but just a really encouraged suggestion.”

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Board of Pharmacy changes get bipartisan praise, and interest from private business

By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports

Don’t want to go to urgent care for that nagging cough? Now, you might not have to.

Changes in rules governing Idaho pharmacists received bipartisan praise on Monday, as presenters noted how experiences for patients and pharmacists alike have improved since those rules took effect last year.

At a House Health and Welfare meeting, Idaho Board of Pharmacy chairwoman Nicki Chopski presented rule changes that allow, among other things, pharmacists to prescribe certain medications and the removal of a $250 law exam once required for pharmacists to get their license.

These changes, along with ones in previous years, have already made a difference, according to those who testified in front of the committee.

Former board chairman Mark Johnston, who currently represents CVS, said the Board of Pharmacy and legislature’s actions caught CVS’s attention — particularly a modification from last year that allows pharmacy technicians to do data entry work remotely.

As a result, the company is opening up a mail order facility in west Boise. That facility is scheduled to open in late summer, Johnston said, and will eventually employ an estimated 150 people.

The facility won’t have any drugs on-site, Johnston told Idaho Reports. Instead, employees will do data entry and other work for CVS shipping facilities located around the country.

That wouldn’t have been possible before last year, said Alex Adams, former executive director of the Board of Pharmacy.

We used to have a law that required anyone working for a pharmacy had to be physically at the pharmacy,” Adams said. But doing data entry in the busy atmosphere of a pharmacy can be distracting, and allowing technicians to do that work elsewhere has resulted in more accurate reports, Adams told the committee.

Currently, only a handful of states allow technicians to do data entry and paperwork away from pharmacies, Johnston said. That was key in attracting the CVS facility to Boise. Since the rule change went into place, other companies have expressed interest in opening similar branches in Idaho, Adams said.

Another change that allows pharmacists to write prescriptions for certain common maladies — such as minor acne and mild coughs — has proven popular among patients and pharmacists alike, Chopski said.

Adams cited one case in which a pharmacist in McCall was reportedly able to help a woman with an ailment, saving her from driving to Boise for care.

“The first prescription was written within hours of this rule taking effect,” Adams said, and has resulted in zero complaints.

Chopski said the Board of Pharmacy has cut six licensure categories. “This year, you’ll see us continue in that same direction,” she said.

Committee members of both parties praised the Board of Pharmacy for its actions.

“I feel like the Board of Pharmacy is taking the lead in slashing regulations and promoting a free market,” said Rep. Bryan Zollinger, R-Idaho Falls.

Rep. Sue Chew, D-Boise and the legislature’s only pharmacist, agreed.

“It’s so nice to get outside of the lines we’ve been constricted to and do the things we’re more than capable of doing,” Chew said.

 

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