Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Day 2 Leg. Gets Prepped

Posted By on Tue, Nov 30, 2010 at 4:20 PM

As we reported yesterday, the Idaho State Capitol is hosting its incoming class of freshman legislators, prepping them for their first day of school work. The troupe sported new fancy-pants laptops in embroidered Idaho bags—though unlike some community colleges, when they're done they won't get to keep the lappies.

After the new electees brushed up on Idaho Statutes, reviewed the budget setting procedure and learned how to best utilize the media, they got a little lecture from the House and Senate Majority leadership on how the whole committee process will shake out.

Oakley Republican Scott Bedke told the new lawmakers that their personal interests or experience may not coincide with the committee they end up on. For example, if you've got an agriculture background, you could end up on the Education Committee—a spot Bedke ended up with, against his wishes.

"This is like drinking out of a fire hydrant," said Bedke. "Where you start out is not where you end up."

His advice was not to sweat it. Stick it out or "they" will know. Bedke also informed the newbies that computers keep track of where each legislator's sitting.

"We have an excel spreadsheet that's pretty sophisticated," bragged Bedke. "So if you move we get a tickler that let's us know."

Although any committee hopping has to be approved by the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tem of the Senate, the Majority and Minority leadership battle hammer out the details of who goes where. As for picking the head legislator of the chambers, that's left up to a "closed, secret" ballot of the bodies, said Bedke.

All this machinery starts up tomorrow, said Senate Assistant Majority Leader Sen. Joe Stegner of Lewiston. That's when the freshman class officially goes on payroll. Next up is the one-day organizational session, in which both chambers will move through their members according to seniority, assigning them to their respective committees.

"At the end of the day when the white smoke comes out of the chimney," said Bedke, "we post it on the wall and read it across the desk."

Tomorrow's line-up: Law School for Legislators. Expect the Ethics debate to dance around the white elephant (one Atholite legislator's tax woes), as well as address conflicts of interest and break-down of legalese.

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Rex Rammell vs. the Elk vs. the Law

Posted By on Tue, Nov 30, 2010 at 3:16 PM

Perennial candidate for governor Rex Rammell has once again gone afoul of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game. Rammell is under investigation for allegedly killing an elk with an expired tag in the wrong hunting zone, then threatening an IDFG officer and refusing to accept a citation.

Here's how it went down earlier today, according to an IDFG: Rammell was stopped after a Fish and Game conservation officer saw him dragging a dead elk with a snowmobile during a late season cow elk hunt in the Tex Creek Wildlife Management Area located east of Idaho Falls. When the officer checked Rammell's tag, he found it was issued for a hunt in the Middle Fork hunting zone that closed in October.

According to IDFG, Rammell then "interfered with the officer's attempt to seize the elk" before threatening the officer, physically dragging the elk back to his snowmobile and taking off. He is accused of refusing to stop until he reached his home, where he then proceeded to refuse to accept a citation written by the officer. Fish and Game did confiscate the elk at that time, and the department states it will seek formal charges against Rammell.

This is far from Rammell's first run in with the wildlife law. Back in 2006, more than 150 elk broke out of Rammell's private elk ranch. Then-Gov. Jim Risch ordered that they be shot on site because of the risk of the elk interbreeding with native elk in the area—which includes Yellowstone National Park. Tests to determine if the elk were genetically modified later came back positive.

Rammall also made national news when, during his last campaign, he joked about issuing "Obama tags." He later attempted to clarify his remark but didn't save much face in doing so.

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ICC Under Investigation by FBI, Justice Department

Posted By on Tue, Nov 30, 2010 at 3:05 PM

The Idaho office of the U.S. Attorney confirmed to Citydesk that a full investigation has been launched by the FBI and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division into the Idaho Correctional Center.

ICC is a privately managed facility, but is under the organizational umbrella of the State Department of Correction. The private operator, the Corrections Corporation of America, came under fire earlier this year when allegations surfaced accusing prison guards of allowing severe beatings of inmates.

"We're looking into whether inmates' civil rights were violated," U.S. Attorney Wendy Olson told Citydesk. "I can't tell you where we are in the investigation, but at its conclusion, it could trigger federal charges."

"Our purview is specifically focused on the ICC prison," said Olson.

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The ICC has a "safe operating capacity" of 1,514. The prison sits south of Boise along with state-run facilities including the Idaho State Correctional Institution, the Maximum Security Institution and the South Boise Women's Correctional Center.

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Columbia River Getting Ready to Shut Down for 14 Weeks

Posted By on Tue, Nov 30, 2010 at 1:31 PM

What's huge ... moves on the water ... but can't move on land? Oh, come on. You know this one. Citydesk will give you a hint: they're Korean. Right! Mega-loads!

ExxonMobil has continued shipping T-Rex-sized oil equipment across the Pacific and up the Columbia River to the Port of Lewiston, in spite of the fact that they can't even have a discussion yet about moving them across land. The ExxonMobil loads are piling up in Lewiston because no decision has been made yet on their Japanese cousins, four loads of equipment belonging to ConocoPhillips (those were built in Japan).

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But now, it looks like the water route is about to shut down for the winter. In just a few days, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is shutting down the shipping lanes on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. The Corps will be replacing navigation lock gates on three of the dams, and that's expected to take at least 14 weeks.

By the way, if you think the oil equipment is huge. Take a look at a section of the new John Day Dam making its way up the river. It's 30-feet tall, 98-feet wide and 225 tons.

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  • Courtesy of U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

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They'll Be Home for Christmas ... 2011

Posted By on Tue, Nov 30, 2010 at 12:43 PM

More than 100 soldiers of the Boise-based 391st Engineer Company of the U.S. Army Reserve are mobilizing for a yearlong deployment to Iraq.

"Our mission will be to conduct route clearance operations," said Company Commander Capt. Ryan Strong. "The IED [improvised explosive device] threat is still there in Iraq."

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Strong told Citydesk the Army has made great strides since the beginning of the war in much of the equipment his men will be using.

"They've designed the new vehicles to sustain a greater blast," said Strong. "As the technology increases, there's also a greater chance of survivability of the soldiers inside the vehicles."

If you've seen the Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker, well, this is the real thing. The 391st EN CON detects and neutralizes explosive hazards on main supply routes in Iraq.

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For many of the young men of the 391st, this will be their first deployment into a theater of war. This is Strong's second—he spent 15 months in Iraq in 2005-2006.

"I'm almost looking forward to the differences between now and then," said Strong. "It's my understanding that the changes are staggering."

Thursday, the local chapter of the VFW and Veterans Support Services will sponsor a goodbye event for families of the soldiers. That same day, the 391st ships out.

"That'll be a tough day for everybody," Strong told Citydesk. "The good Lord willing, we'll be back in Boise for Christmas 2011."

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Sweeping Food Safety Bill Passes Senate, Crapo and Risch Vote No

Posted By on Tue, Nov 30, 2010 at 9:30 AM

Idaho's U.S. senators voted against a bill Tuesday that would see sweeping changes to the food industry. The $1.4 billion food-safety package passed 73-25.

The bill, as written, would allow the Food and Drug Administration to order recalls of tainted foods. Currently, the agency can only negotiate with businesses to voluntarily recall the foods. The measure also requires food processors and manufactures to create detailed food safety plans. Supporters said passage was critical in the wake of widespread E. coli and salmonella outbreaks in peanuts, eggs and produce.

Opposition came from advocates of locally produced food and operators of small farms, who said the new requirements could bankrupt some small businesses. Senators eventually agreed to exempt some of those operations from costly food safety plans required of bigger companies.

Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch joined 23 other Republicans in voting no.

Though precious days remain before the end of the 2010 session, the bill's sponsors said they had an agreement with some members in the U.S. House to pass the Senate bill, which would send the legislation straight to President Barack Obama's desk.

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Everything Must Go. Nampa Classical Academy Liquidates

Posted By on Tue, Nov 30, 2010 at 8:01 AM

A Canyon County auction site is advertising what it calls the "complete liquidation of Nampa Classical Academy Charter School."

Friday, Dec. 3, everything from computers to a full phone system to a laundry list of musical instruments will be on the auction block.

In September 2009, NCA opened its doors to 500 students, instantly becoming one of the largest charter schools in Idaho. But in a matter of months, controversy erupted when school administrators proposed to introduce the Bible and religious texts into the classroom. Then the state charter commission questioned the credentials of some of the school's top administrators. Ultimately it was the charter school's financial instability that proved its undoing. An appeal to the State Board of Education failed on a 4-3 vote.

A spokesman for Downs Auction in Nampa said there are so many items to liquidate that two auction rings will be run concurrently on Friday. You can see a list of the auction items here.

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Monday, November 29, 2010

New Hearings on Mega-Loads Slated For Dec. 8, 9

Posted By on Mon, Nov 29, 2010 at 4:03 PM

The Idaho Transportation Department isn't wasting any time to schedule a formal contested case hearing in the mega-loads case.

Late Monday, ITD Director Brian Ness scheduled Wednesday, Dec. 8 and Thursday, Dec. 9 to hear arguments for and against a proposal from ConocoPhillips to ship four giant loads of oil equipment across Idaho's U.S. Highway 12.

Last week, special hearing officer Merlyn Clark recommended that opponents have a formal opportunity to state their case against the mega-loads.

"I have reviewed and accept the decision," said Ness. "We should proceed with a contested case hearing on the issue."

The hearing is scheduled to be held in Boise.

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Legislators Get Oriented

Posted By on Mon, Nov 29, 2010 at 3:47 PM

Monday kicked off 2010's New Legislator Orientation Program—essentially lessons for new and returning citizens legislators, schoolin' them on everything from legislative processes to Schoolhouse Rock style "How a Bill Becomes a Law" lessons.

Sophomore legislators Sen. Melinda Smyser of Parma and Rep. Brian Cronin of Boise coached incoming freshmen with advice they picked up. A glance at Cronin's crib-notes showed "Be a Good Dad" and "16K Salary" high on the list. Citydesk counted eighteen new legislators in the comfy committee chairs.

Next up was Dr. Gary Moncrief, political science professor at Boise State. Author of three books, including State Legislatures Today: Politics Under the Domes, Moncrief knows a thing or two about state government. After a brief introduction from Sen. Smyser, who outlined the tough year ahead, and provided a Vince Lombardi quote, Moncrief broke down how Idaho compares to other states.

Dr. Gary Moncrief of Boise State offers advice to freshman legislators
  • Dr. Gary Moncrief of Boise State offers advice to freshman legislators

According to Moncrief, the spartan operating finances of the Idaho Legislature makes the establishment more JC Penney than Nordstrom, citing the lack of support staff, growing constituency to legislator ratio, and size of chambers.

Compared to the 400 House seats in New Hampshire, Idaho's a pretty small operation at 70 members. Pennyslvania boasts 203 members, Georgia 180; Idaho's more like Montana and Alaska, who have 100 and 40 members respectively. On the Senate side, ID hosts 35 members to a state like Minnesota's 67.

In California, the average district population is a whopping 911,000 people, and in Texas, 760,000. Idaho? About 40,000 (though that number has doubled since 1970). Populous states might have a lot of constituents, but at least their elected officials have support: to the tune of 3,461 staff members in New York, and 2,682 in Delaware. In California, the ratio is 15:1 support staff to legislators. In Idaho the ratio is 0.7:1. We have a total of 80 support staff members, ranked 44th in the nation.

Think our citizen legislators pull in too much dough? Compare their meager salary of $16,116 to that of California which trimmed legislator pay from $116,000 to a cool $99,000 per year. Stark contrast to the $200 paid to the House members in New Hampshire.

In reference to salary and per diems for Idaho legislators, Moncrief added:

"You add all that up, it's pretty much slave labor you're doin' here."

Surprisingly: Idaho's House ranks 9th in most-lopsided along party lines; the Senate as 11th most-lopsided. Moncrief acknowledged that Idaho's pretty much a one-party system. Lastly, he lauded the Idaho system of rootin' out the rif raff of bills by opting not to print them—some states print every bill drafted. He cites that as the reason behind the high rate of roughly 63% (in 2004/2005) of laws enacted that made it to the floor. He calls Idaho's system efficient, utilizing limited resources and time. Sometimes that means working the political game to get your bills printed.

His advice for incoming legislators:

"Get to know your committee chairs. Bring them gifts."

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Idaho Judge Named to Panel Examining Proposition 8

Posted By on Mon, Nov 29, 2010 at 12:33 PM

An Idaho jurist will be part of a three-judge panel next week, scheduled to hear arguments in the legal battle over California's ban on same-sex marriage.

The panel, announced Monday, includes N. Randy Smith, a federal judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit. Smith was associate and assistant general counsel for the J.R. Simplot Company, professor at Boise State and Chairman of the Idaho Republican Party in the 1990s. Smith was named to the federal bench by President George W. Bush.

Also on the panel will be Judge Stephen Reinhardt of California—dubbed the "lion of the left" for a career of liberal rulings—and Judge Michael Daly Hawkins of Arizona, considered a moderate.

The Ninth Circuit will hear arguments beginning Monday, Dec. 6, in the appeal of a federal judge's ruling this summer striking down Proposition 8, the voter-approved ban on same-sex marriage.

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