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Energy secretary touts nuclear power, warns of global warming

Aug. 20, 2014 5:04 p.m. - Updated: 5:09 p.m.

U.S. Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz, speaking at an Intermountain Energy Summit in Idaho Falls today, championed the use of nuclear power and urged politicians and leaders in the energy industry to adapt and modernize energy production to help minimize the fallout from global warming, the Associated Press reports. Other speakers at the conference included Idaho Sens. Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson. “The predictions of a world where we do nothing predict unhealthy outcomes for our forests,” Moniz said. “Working hard on it means innovating energy technology.” Click below for a full report from AP reporter Kimberlee Kruesi.

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Firefighting costs continue to eat into Forest Service management budget, while disaster funding bill languishes…

Aug. 20, 2014 10:59 a.m. - Updated: 11 a.m.

A new report out today from the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that costs allocated to fighting wildfires have grown from 16 percent of the U.S. Forest Service’s overall budget in 1995 to 42 percent today. “This has led to substantial cuts in other areas of the Forest Service budget, including efforts to keep forests healthy, reduce fire risk, and strengthen local economies,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a statement today as he released the report.

Those percentage figures don’t include so-called “fire borrowing,” he noted, in which the Forest Service borrows from other areas of its budget once it’s used up its allocated amount for firefighting but blazes are still going. Vilsack renewed his request to Congress to allow an existing disaster funds to cover firefighting costs in years when they exceed allocated amounts.

A year ago, Idaho GOP Sen. Mike Crapo and Oregon Democratic Sen. Ron Wyden, along with Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, gathered at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise to kick off a push to end the borrowing and instead tap disaster funds when firefighting costs balloon over allocated amounts. Their bipartisan legislation had been picking up support in both houses – Idaho GOP Rep. Mike Simpson is among the House sponsors, along with Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Oregon – but paradoxically suffered a setback earlier this year after President Barack Obama not only endorsed it but included it in his budget.

“That spurred some folks to be cautious about it,” said Lindsay Nothern, Crapo’s press secretary. “Honestly, it’s been kind of bottled up. It’s been affected by politics.” The House version of the bill has 131 co-sponsors, including Idaho 1st District GOP Rep. Raul Labrador. The Senate version has 18 co-sponsors including Risch.

In the House, “Some folks are concerned about changing the spending matrix, primarily Paul Ryan, head of the budget committee,” Nothern said. “We did go out and get a CBO report that showed it is budget neutral, because we already spend disaster money on disasters such as this.”

He added, “There is support for it among leadership in both the Senate and the House, on both sides of the aisle.” But on its first attempt at passage, Nothern said, the proposal got lumped in with other issues including the president’s border proposal, and it didn’t pass. “We are hoping for a stand-alone bill, and then the only opposition we have is Ryan.” He said backers of the measure are hoping they can persuade Ryan to drop his opposition by showing it won’t spend new money.

Vilsack strongly agreed. “Bipartisan proposals to fund catastrophic fire like other natural disasters could help ensure that efforts to make forests more healthy and resilient and support local tourism economies aren’t impacted as significantly as they have been in recent years,” the secretary said. “These proposals don’t increase the deficit, they just budget smarter by allowing existing natural disaster funding to be used in cases of catastrophic wildfires.”

Nothern said there’s a slim chance the bill could be brought up in the September session, but it’s more likely that it won’t get considered until the “lame-duck” session that follows the November election. He’s confident, though, that it will pass. “It’s a question of when,” Nothern said. “We’re out of money again this year. It shows the need to do this.”

The new USDA report shows that staffing for managing national Forest Service lands has dropped by 35 percent since 1998, while fire staffing has increased 110 percent. Even before fire borrowing is taken into account, funding to support recreation has dropped 13 percent; funding for wildlife and fisheries habitat management is down 17 percent; and research funding is down by more than $36 million. Funding for maintenance and capital improvements has been cut by two-thirds since 2001, showing the impact of the shift of resources to wildfire suppression. The full report is online here.

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CdA Charter Academy posts state’s top SAT scores

Aug. 20, 2014 10:10 a.m. - Updated: 10:53 a.m.

Idaho students’ scores on the SAT are out, and Idaho Education News reporter Kevin Richert reports that the top scores in the state came at Coeur d’Alene Charter Academy, which had an average score among its juniors taking the test of 1,818. The statewide average was 1,363, a mark matched exactly by the average at Lake City High School in Coeur d'Alene, which Richert dubbed the “most average” in the state on the scores. Lowest was Murtaugh High School, at 1,000, but Richert notes it had a small sample – only 13 students there took the test.

Other schools making the top 10 for their students’ scores: Compass Charter School, Renaissance High School, Victory Charter School, Xavier Charter School, Idaho Distance Education Academy, Moscow Senior High School, Boise High School, Meridian Technical Charter High School, and Kootenai Junior-Senior High School. Richert’s full report is online here.

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9th Circuit rejects Otter’s bid for initial en banc review in gay marriage case

Aug. 19, 2014 6:35 p.m. - Updated: 6:36 p.m.

The 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals has rejected, without comment, Gov. Butch Otter’s request for Idaho’s same-sex marriage case to go directly to a full 11-judge panel of the court, rather than the usual three-judge panel. Otter made the request in July, saying a full-court review by the appellate court rather than a smaller panel would enhance the “perception of the legitimacy of this court’s resolution.” It’s highly unusual for such a request to be granted.

Today, the 9th Circuit issued a 10-word order, saying only, “Appellant Otter’s petition for initial hearing en banc is denied.”

U.S. Magistrate Judge Candy Dale overturned the Idaho Constitution’s ban on same-sex marriage in May, saying it violated the U.S. Constitution’s guarantees of equal protection and due process. The state is now appealing her ruling to the 9th Circuit; the appeals court has set arguments for Sept. 8.

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Yates names new Idaho GOP exec director, David Johnston

Aug. 19, 2014 6:19 p.m. - Updated: 6:20 p.m.

David Johnston has been named the new executive director of the Idaho Republican Party, Idaho GOP Chairman Steve Yates announced today. Johnston most recently worked as an energy specialist for the governor’s Office of Energy Resources; he’s worked on campaigns and for the Legislature, has a degree in political science from BSU, and served four years on active duty in the Marine Corps. Johnson grew up in Lava Hot Springs.

“I am thrilled to have someone of David’s caliber fill this critical role,” Yates said in a statement. “He has a record of hard work, service, and attention to detail that will be a major asset to the party and all of its members.”

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Report: Future Idaho school students to be poorer, more urban, more diverse

Aug. 19, 2014 1:55 p.m. - Updated: 2:05 p.m.

A new study commissioned by the Idaho Charter School Network and funded by a grant from the Albertson Foundation projects that Idaho’s school student population will see significant demographic changes in the next five years, becoming increasingly urban, more racially diverse and poorer. “These trends will present challenges for many districts,” the study finds. “Many rural districts will continue to lose students while more urban districts will struggle to meet growing enrollments.”

The study is aimed in part at identifying where the best opportunities are for charter schools in the state, but Terry Ryan, president of the Idaho Charter School Network, said the data also has implications for education in the state more broadly. “Idaho is changing, and how it does schooling needs to adapt if the state’s schools are to adjust to the changing needs of its children and families,” he said.

Idaho’s Hispanic student population is projected to be its fastest-growing portion, while the non-Hispanic white student population is projected to decline. Meanwhile, “Idaho is expected to see net growth in lower income households and net declines in households with incomes above $50,000,” the report says. It also documents the increasing reliance of school districts on voter-approved local tax override levies – an option that’s not available to charter schools. Overall, the report concludes that the current state school funding system is “not well aligned with the coming demands of an increasingly urban, more diverse and poorer student population. The report, entitled “Shifting Sands,” is online here.

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Luna’s new job to start Jan. 1

Aug. 19, 2014 1:41 p.m. - Updated: 1:43 p.m.

Idaho state schools chief Tom Luna will start his new job as a vice president with Project Lead the Way, a national education non-profit, on Jan. 1, 2015, according to the project’s spokeswoman, Jennifer Cahill. The non-profit, which provides STEM curriculum and training to schools nationwide, is based in Indianapolis, but Cahill said it has more than 50 “remote team members” who work from home in their home states; that’s what Luna will do as well. Luna will oversee four regional directors who will live and work in their regions, and all will travel as needed to Indianapolis.

Luna’s position – and the team he’ll head – is a new one for the firm, Cahill said; it won’t involve any direct lobbying. Instead, it’ll be focused on policy, advocacy and research, aimed at identifying growth opportunities and barriers to growth for the group’s programs. The new team, she said, will develop “general policy concepts and advance those through informational pieces.”

While Project Lead the Way began as a foundation-funded nonprofit, it no longer receives foundation funding, Cahill said, instead operating on the fees that schools pay to participate in the programs, which vary from $750 to $3,000 a year. In addition, it has numerous corporate partners, who give grants directly to the schools to help with the cost of the program; they include Chevron, Lockheed-Martin, Cargill, Toyota, General Motors, Dow Chemical, Amgen and more.

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Luna will join national STEM nonprofit as VP after his term as state schools chief is up

Aug. 19, 2014 10:58 a.m. - Updated: 1:03 p.m.

Idaho state Superintendent of Schools Tom Luna has accepted a new job with a national education non-profit focused on science and technology courses and teacher training, starting in early 2015. Luna will be vice president of policy, advocacy and research for Project Lead the Way, a provider of STEM programs and teacher training; you can read my full story here at spokesman.com.

“My focus and priority today continues to be the children of Idaho,” Luna said in a statement. “There are several major initiatives that need continued attention such as teacher quality and pay through a new tiered system of licensure and a well-funded career ladder, technology implementation to increase access throughout Idaho, dual credit opportunities for all high school students and ensuring students are reading proficiently by the time they exit third grade. These are my highest priorities as I finish my second-term as state superintendent of public instruction.”

Luna will be based in Idaho in his new job, according to his office. “It was really important to Superintendent Luna that he gets to stay in Idaho,” said spokesman Brady Moore. Luna will be “creating his own team” for Project Lead the Way, Moore said.

In his new job, Luna will oversee a team focused on federal, state, and local policies, as well as research initiatives that support STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) growth across the United States. He’ll oversee four regional directors and a team of policy analysts and researchers.

According to its website, Project Lead the Way is the leading provider of K-12 STEM programs to schools in the United States, serving more than 5,000 elementary, middle and high schools in all 50 states and the District of Columbia. It started in 1986 in upstate New York when high school teacher Richard Blais began offering pre-engineering and digital electronics classes to his students; he received support from the Liebich family’s Charitable Leadership Foundation in 1997 to expand the high school engineering program to 12 schools in upstate New York, and it grew from there.

Asked if the organization currently does business with the state Department of Education, Moore said, “Currently Project Lead the Way does not contract with Idaho at the state department level. They may do some work with schools independently, but on a statewide level, we haven’t worked with them at all, and we will continue to not work with them.”

Idaho Education News has a full report here, including these details: Project Lead the Way curriculum is currently offered in Boise, Nampa, Meridian, Kuna, Caldwell and Fremont school districts; and Idaho’s Division of Professional-Technical Education website encourages teachers to offer the nonprofit’s programs. Annual fees range from $750-$3,000 per school; the organization also has corporate sponsors.

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New GOP Chair Yates: ‘We ought to be able to work out our differences’

Aug. 19, 2014 10:08 a.m. - Updated: 10:11 a.m.

New Idaho GOP Chairman Steve Yates has been starting from scratch at the Idaho GOP office, where the last remaining employee when he took over – recently hired party Executive Director Judy Gowen, who was brought in by former Chairman Barry Peterson – left shortly after the Aug. 2 meeting at which Yates was elected chairman.

“She seemed to be a very qualified and good person,” Yates said of Gowen, former political director for Sen. Russ Fulcher’s unsuccessful primary challenge to GOP Gov. Butch Otter. “I had a conversation with her very soon after the Aug. 2 meeting, and she let me know that she preferred to go back to school. She did not seek to be a candidate for executive director going forward.” Yates said he’s made a selection for a new executive director and is just awaiting executive committee approval. “We’re also now anxiously working through a process to identify a finance chairman that can help field a team that works on trying to breathe some oxygen into the effort that we have for the November (election) cycle,” he said.

After the party’s state convention failed to elect leaders over the summer amid a bitter intra-party divide, Peterson sued, claiming he still was chairman. A judge said no, prompting the election of Yates Aug. 2. “I have a reasonable amount of experience dealing with things that can be hashed out in the situation room in the West Wing, or in territorial disputes abroad,” said Yates, a former aide to Vice President Dick Cheney who moved to Idaho Falls in 2011. “I have to believe that whatever our disagreements may be within the party, less is at stake … and that we ought to be able to work out our differences.”

He said, “First priority is to build up a capacity and execute a plan that supports all our nominees through the November cycle with the things the party usually does – absentee ballots, get-out-the-vote efforts, field offices and things they can do to help all the candidates. We’re beginning the efforts to liaise with all the campaigns.” Yates said after the party gets through the November election, “We’ve got longer-term issues to deal with by way of rules and processes that led to where we ended up this year.” He said he’s heard from lots of Republicans who felt that party rules weren’t fairly applied; new rules and processes can address that before 2016, he said. But for now, “In the closing months of the election cycle, people need to be focused on the work.”

Later, he said, “perhaps they’ll have … time to decide how much they like the person standing next to them.”

“We’ve certainly got our work cut out for us,” he said, “in the sense that we’re amping up as a state party midway through an election.” I spoke with Yates yesterday; the Idaho Statesman also published a profile of Yates in today’s paper by reporter Sven Berg. It’s online here.

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Three Treasure Valley businesses agree to cease Idaho operations in consumer protection case

Aug. 19, 2014 8:33 a.m. - Updated: 8:38 a.m.

Owners of three businesses that duped Idahoans on everything from satellite TV systems to vendor spaces at events to fake college credits have agreed to cease all operations in Idaho, Attorney General Lawrence Wasden announced today, under agreements with the attorney general's Consumer Protection Division. The three are Geo Marketing, LLC, of Boise; Kasey Thompson, of Boise, and Philip Braun, owner of the bankrupt Caldwell-based Canyon College of Idaho, Inc. Click below for Wasden's full announcement.

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