The Presidential primary was not on Denney’s radar

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By Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Reports

The Secretary of State and the Governor’s budget recommendation to the legislature forgot about the Idaho presidential primary.

“It just slipped through the cracks because it wasn’t really on our radar,” said Secretary of State Lawerence Denney. “We didn’t even think about it.”

The Idaho presidential primary cost taxpayers $1.9 million in 2016. The budget recommendations from the Secretary of State and the Governor had zero dollars allocated to the election.

Early in the legislative session, Rep. Paul Amador discovered there was no money for the primary. “I was talking to the analyst,” said Amador. “Where are we going to get the money this year? Is it in the budget? And she looked and said ‘no, it’s not in there.’”

The members of the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee (JFAC) were caught off guard. “Budget writers usually don’t like surprises, especially when they increase the budget,” said Amador. “We always like surprises when they lower it.”

The legislative services analyst then informed the Secretary of State. “They called Tim [Hurst] and said you guys left out a big chunk of money,” said Denney. Hurst is the Chief Deputy Secretary of State.

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“A lot of people have known about this and it hasn’t been a hush hush secret among JFAC members by any means,” said Amador. “We’re just finally getting to the Secretary of State’s budget today.”

JFAC is currently setting the 2020 budget, which is the year the presidential primary will take place. “The counties are not going to want to run the election unless there’s some money to pay them back,” said Denney.

That forced JFAC’s hand to find the money somewhere. “It’s just an extra two million dollars from the general fund appropriation,” said Amador. “So it’ll just come off the bottom line.”

In 2015 the legislature changed the way primaries work in Idaho. It moved the presidential primary to a set date in March and required the state to pay for it. The cost of the presidential primary was not included in the Secretary of State’s budget that year.

The presidential primary was funded in the bill that changed how the primary was administered, not in the Secretary of State’s budget.

“It wasn’t on our radar because last time around it was appropriated in the bill that created the presidential primary,” said Denney, “so it wasn’t in our regular schedule thing.”

This year, the Democratic Party has chosen to participate in the primary, but Denney doesn’t anticipate that changing the overall cost. “It will be the same. It may up the cost a little bit if there’s twenty five candidates and we have to print another page, but I think there’s enough to cover it and if it doesn’t it’ll come close.”

Today the primary was funded by JFAC and will go to the House and Senate for approval. “It wasn’t in the ‘you need to do this every four year line,’” said Denney. “But I can tell you it will be next time.”

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Idaho Supreme Court rules on defamation by implication case

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By Melissa Davlin, Idaho Reports 

The Idaho Supreme Court has ruled in favor of USA Today and KTVB in the defamation case concerning a former teacher. The opinion, released Monday, also defines defamation by inference, clarifying the standards for future potential lawsuits against media outlets and allowing a challenge against an Oregon television station to move forward. Read Monday’s opinion here. 

The case centered around former Idaho teacher James Verity, and reporting done by the USA Today network on a sexual relationship he had with an 18-year-old student at a previous job in Oregon. A lawsuit filed by Verity and his wife named USA Today, KGW, and KTVB as defendants. Read more here.

At the heart of the issue is “defamation by inference” — essentially, whether media outlets can be sued for reporting that isn’t inaccurate, but may imply defamatory information.

In this case, Verity argued that some reporting done on his relationship with the student implied that the student was a minor — not because the reporting outright said so, but because readers and viewers might think she was.

Both KTVB and USA Today said the student was 18, and focused the reporting on state reporting systems and national databases. KGW, however, did not mention the student’s age.

The opinion says to prove defamation by implication, a plaintiff must make a “rigorous showing” that a report must “reasonably understood to impart the false innuendo,” and that the author “intends or endorses the inference.” In other words, context matters, and so does intent.

The court ruled KTVB and USA Today didn’t hit those standards, ordering counts against KTVB and USA Today be dismissed.

The court, however, did affirm the district court’s conclusion that “a reasonable jury could find that KGW impliedly defamed Verity about having a sexual relationship with a minor.”

“Sometimes a communication will not be defamatory on its face, constituting express
defamation, but through context, omission, or other rhetorical devices, a defamatory implication might arise,” the opinion says.

In addition to intent and context, the subject of the reporting also matters, the court ruled. Reporting on a private individual such as Verity is different than reporting on a public figure with access to communication channels, according to the opinion — even if that private individual is a government employee, as was Verity.

“Verity lacked access to a bully pulpit and the USA Today article was published nationally, so any influence Verity could have had to defend his reputation as a public schoolteacher would be minuscule,” the opinion says.

The Supreme Court remanded the case back to district court.

(Full disclosure: The Idaho Press Club joined in an amicus brief in support of USA Today and KTVB. I serve as vice president of the Idaho Press Club and was involved in those discussions.)

Seth Ogilvie contributed to this report.

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Overworked and underpaid

prison2By Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Reports

Last year the Idaho Department of Correction paid out approximately $5 million for almost 300,000 hours of overtime. The department averaged a worker shortage of 87 people throughout the year, with spikes in the summer when construction jobs have a tendency of luring away correction workers.

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“There’s certainly an element of exhaustion and being tired and added stress,” said Josh Tewalt, Director of the Idaho Department of Correction. “The secondary piece is just how tough it can be on families. They’re the ones that also have to bear that burden when they don’t know when Mom or Dad is gonna be able to come home.”

Excessive overtime has an emotional price tag. “There are enough stressors inherent to working in a correctional facility,” said Tewalt. “You don’t need to add to it.”

1 (4 of 4)That emotional price tag can lead to attrition. “You have to think of it in the terms of tolerance threshold,” said Tewalt. “People will put up with only so much crap for this much money. When you get out there and you actually feel the impact it has on staff, it’s like, man, this isn’t something that can wait. We’ve got to get to work on this right now.”

Overtime creates a cycle that leads to more overtime. People get sick from working the extended hours. “They’re tired they’re exhausted and guess what happens,” said Tewalt. “You’re sick calls go up.”

People quit or find other employment because they don’t want to work 16-hour shifts in a dangerous environment. They can find a similar wage at Costco with less stress and more dependable hours.

“It’s not reasonable to expect that we’re ever going to have zero percent turnover because we are competing against other law enforcement and other entry-level jobs,” said Tewalt. “It is a very unique line of work and it takes a very unique person to see how rewarding that can be.”

The overtime also has a financial cost. Idaho Reports analyzed the average wages and benefits required to fill the 87 positions and compared it to the overtime costs accrued last year and found that the overtime cost was over $1.5 million more than filling all the vacant positions.

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The chart shows a spike in November. That is partially because of an extra pay period in June and November. All other months have two pay periods, November and June have three.

The staffing problems also dictate how the Department of Correction deals with issues like out of state prisons. Entering this year’s legislative session a proposal was discussed to build another Idaho detention facility. The proposed facility would allow Idaho prisoners currently housed in two private prisons in Texas to come home. If those prisoners came home, they would be able to more easily meet with family members during visitor hours, creating a link to the community they will eventually reenter. Strong family and positive relationships within the community are a strong indicator of recidivism and successful outcomes after incarceration.

With the staffing crisis currently happening in Idaho, the possibility of finding hundreds of more workers to staff a new prison seems unlikely, leaving the two Texas prisons as seemingly the only short-term option.

Tewalt and Gov. Brad Little have some ideas about how to solve the problem. Filling those positions will take some changes. One of those changes is money. “It’s really hard here in the valley with what the prison over in Ontario Oregon pays,” said Little.

1 (5 of 4)“We’ll never be able to afford to pay them what I think they’re worth,” said Tewalt. “But we’ve got to be able to give them enough that they can afford to stay doing something that they love.”

The other portion is creating a scheduling and work environment that works for the correction employees. Arranging schedules to fit the needs of the institutions, the workers and the incarcerated could not only effect worker retention, but could have a positive effect on outcomes.

“We talk about needing improved outcomes in the community,” said Tewalt. “We talk about needing to have people coming out of prison in a better position to be successful in the community. We won’t do any of that unless we shore up our workforce.”

Providing education and training for inmates to help them be successful when they reenter communities is impossible without people to teach them and facilitate the programs they need.

The director’s solution is two-fold: Better wages and better personnel management. “If we hit both of them hard, if we’re able to affect the amount of money that’s going in their pockets, and we’re able to affect their satisfaction with the work they do, then these numbers will improve,” said Tewalt.

This isn’t just about correction workers and inmates. The vast majority of people incarcerated in Idaho will eventually become your neighbor, your coworker or possibly just a stranger walking down your street. The time spent in a correctional facility has a huge impact on how the incarcerated act when they receive their liberty back and rejoin the Idaho community.

“Our number one obligation is to keep Idahoans safe and that includes our employees,” said Little. “There is a problem and I think that Director Tewalt is doing a good job.”

The job, however, will not be completed overnight, and if this two-part plan doesn’t work or isn’t supported, the next options could be even more costly and more difficult.

 

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Talking about talking

By Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Reports

1 (5 of 4)It took zero emails between the Governor and the Superintendent of Public Instruction to pass a $1.9 billion public schools budget through the Joint Finance and Appropriation Committee with zero dissenting votes.

“The emails, maybe they give the impression that there’s no communication,” said Greg Wilson, the Governor’s senior policy adviser on education. “I feel like the lines of communication between our offices are very very open.”

The critical bridge between the two offices appears to be deputy superintendent Marilyn Whitney.

“Marilyn used to do education policy for the Governor (Butch Otter),” said Governor Brad Little. “She knows instinctively where I am on a lot of these issues, so the relationship is good.”

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“I think we’re working really well together,” said Wilson. “Marilyn Whitney is over there now, she’s my predecessor, and she and I talk on a daily basis.”

At the Idaho Press Club’s annual breakfast with the governor on Wednesday, Little said that he and the superintendent meet regularly. “There’s no electronic record of she and I sitting down in my office, or in the conference room and talking,” said Little.

Superintendent Sherri Ybarra posts her schedule weekly. The record goes back to November 26th, twenty days after the election. Her schedule shows only one meeting listed with Little before the inauguration, a 60-minute conversation on December 18th. After Little and Ybarra were sworn into office, they have had one 30-minute meeting on February 8th, according to Ybarra’s schedule.

1 (3 of 4)Ybarra was one of the first people Little met with when developing his education priorities. Even before the election was decided, according to Wilson, Ybarra and Little sat down in an attempt to set the K-12 budget.

That meeting was not in the time frame covered by Ybarra’s publicly available schedule. Other forms of communication, like telephone calls or chats in the hall, would not be a public record either. According to Wilson, these conversations are their preferred method of communication. “They either communicate in person or on the phone,” he said.

Marissa Morrison, the Governor’s Press Secretary, said that the office is not having in-person conversations to bypass public records laws. “It’s never been like an edict or something that we’ve talked about not to do business over email,” said Morrison. Furthermore, there is no law that says all state discussions must have an electronic record.

Despite the lack of public documentation, the governor’s office seems very happy with its relationship with the Superintendent. “The e-mails don’t reflect the fact that we’re working in the same direction on a lot of issues,” said Wilson.

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Less than a week left for Medicaid expansion

By Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Reports

Idaho has five days to submit its plan on Medicaid expansion to the federal government. Monday, February 18th is 90 days after Proposition 2 was certified, and the clock started ticking.

“Work is in progress and continuing,” said Niki Forbing-Orr, Public Information Manager for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. “It may change between now and when it is submitted.”

Looming in the background of this due date is another possible government shutdown and an Idaho bill that would put time restrictions on Medicaid eligibility for people in the gap population as well as an optional training element.

Draft Eligibility_Page_1IDHW doesn’t believe the government shutdown will impact their deadline. “The shutdown does not impact HHS,” said Forbing-Orr. “We will submit prior to the 90 day requirement in Idaho code.”

Adding a training element or a time restriction, however, could be more complicated. Health and Welfare may need to apply for an additional waiver from the federal government. “It would depend on the specific legislation,” said Forbing-Orr.

That could add uncertainty into the system. Over the next week, Idaho will submit a plan to the federal government that, in its current draft, looks like a “clean” Medicaid expansion with no sideboards. That plan will take effect on Jan 1, 2020, if approved by the federal government. That plan would then be the policy “unless the legislature modifies this section of Idaho Code,” said Forbing-Orr.DRAFT_Page_1

The current bill, proposed Sen. Mary Souza, would change Idaho code, but it doesn’t change the deadline, and that bill will likely not be signed by the governor before next Monday.

That could put Health and Welfare in an awkward position. If Souza’s bill, or something like it, passes after the department submits its plan, the department would likely have to ask for a waiver if its current plan is approved. It’s also possible the department will have to resubmit its plan entirely to comply with the new section of Idaho Code.

That theoretically could leave the state of Idaho with an approved Medicaid expansion plan that does not comply with Idaho code, if a federal waiver is not granted for new legislation passed after the department submits a clean program. In other words, it could be a mess.

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Former director of Idaho’s teachers union accuses the president of sexual harassment

By Seth Ogilvie, Idaho Reports

In October, Sue Wigdorski left her position as the executive director of the Idaho Education Association without much explanation. But in January 2018, she penned a letter to the IEA board that accused Kari Overall, now the IEA president, of sexual harassment against the teacher union’s employees.  She also implied her departure was partially due to her working rapport with Overall.

“There was a formal sexual harassment complaint lodged against your IEA president,”  wrote Wigdorski in her Jan. 25 letter to the board. “Senior staff were made aware of this complaint, communicated their concerns to me, and requested that there be a formal investigation.”

IEA on Tuesday told Idaho reports in a prepared statement that “The letter written and improperly distributed by a former Idaho Education Association employee contains false information and inaccurate, unsubstantiated claims.”

According to the letter, Overall was ordered through a settlement to change her behavior. “There was a written settlement agreement reached with the employee,” Wigdorski wrote. “The agreement specified that your IEN president would need to agree to modify her behavior in several ways… She also agreed to attend sexual harassment training.”

Wigdorski claimed the alleged inappropriate actions were not an isolated incident. “Your president began to behave in similar inappropriate ways with other staff from both the IEA and the state Department, ” Wigdorski wrote. “This behavior was the source of conversation with stakeholders and was a source of embarrassment, stress and constant vigilance by me.”

In their statement to Idaho Reports, the IEA did not rule anything out in response to the Wigdorski. “The IEA will pursue all avenues necessary to protect the integrity of the association and its president.”

Wigdorski closed the letter implying her continued employment at the IEA was put in jeopardy by her relationship with Overall.

“(Overall) informed me that she was not inclined to recommend me for another contract because ‘I did not respect her enough,'” Wigdorski wrote.

“I apologize once again for not keeping the IEA Board informed about the behaviors of their leader,” Wigdorski added. “I did not understand what it would cost us all.”

The IEA told Idaho Reports in their statement they will not be distracted by this letter. “The IEA remains committed to advocating for our members and our students and will not be distracted by these false claims from a former employee.”

Idaho Reports reached out to Wigdorski for comment on her letter. “I do not have a statement at this time,” said Wigdorski.

 

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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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