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Luna on Idaho’s next state superintendent: ‘I hope they’re bold’

Sept. 19, 2014 11:17 a.m. - Updated: 11:18 a.m.

Curious about his comments to the Times-News last week, I chatted today with state schools Superintendent Tom Luna about the race to replace him. Luna confirmed that he has not endorsed either candidate in the race – Republican Sherri Ybarra or Democrat Jana Jones.

“It’s likely or possible that a Democrat could win this race – I don’t think that’s news to anyone,” he said. Luna also said he met with GOP nominee Sherri Ybarra last week. “She ran a very non-traditional campaign in the primary. I’m assuming she’s taking a similar approach in the general,” Luna said. “But I will tell you that having met her and talked with her, I think she can win, but more people are going to have to get to know her the same way I have. And I’ve only got to know her recently.”

Luna compared Ybarra’s prospects to his own first run for the position, when he lost, but came back four years later and won, “because I had a network in place, I had name I.D. built.” He said, “It’s not uncommon for a Democrat to hold this position. … I don’t think anyone would assume that this will be a cake walk for a Republican.”

Luna, who has served two terms as state superintendent and is the first non-educator to hold the post, said, “I think I have accomplished a lot, and it hasn’t been without controversy, obviously. But I think we have accomplished a lot and I leave office pleased with the results that we’ve seen.” He pointed to improvements in technology in Idaho schools, high school students taking college-level courses, increasing numbers of charter schools, and changes in how teachers are compensated to include factors beyond education and years of experience. “I specifically ran on those things, and we’ve accomplished them,” Luna said. “The bottom line is by every academic measure, our schools and our students are doing better than they were eight years ago when I came into office.”

He said, “I hope the next state superintendent is looking to make a difference and not make a career. I hope they’re bold. I hope they’ll stand up to people that support them and work with people that don’t. It won’t be easy … but it’ll be the most rewarding experience of their life. That’s how I feel about my time in office.”

I’ll have a story on this year’s race for superintendent in Sunday’s Spokesman-Review.

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Ysursa urges voters to register, marks National Voter Registration Month

Sept. 19, 2014 9:29 a.m. - Updated: 9:52 a.m.

Idaho Secretary of State Ben Ysursa is reminding voters that September is National Voter Registration Month, and urging them to be aware of deadlines for the upcoming Nov. 4 general election. “Participation is the essence of democracy, and I encourage all eligible voters to check their registration status online or with their county clerk before going to the polls in November,” Ysursa said.

His idahovotes.gov website allows voters from anywhere in the state to check their registration status and find their polling place. Anyone who is 18 or older, a U.S. citizen, and a resident in Idaho and in the county for 30 days prior to the election is eligible to vote. People who have recently moved or changed their name need to update their voter registration.

Ysursa noted that Idaho is one of eight states that offer same-day registration at the polls on Election Day. However, voters can save time at the polls by registering early. The deadline for early voter registration for the November election is Oct. 10. You can see Ysursa’s full announcement here.


Senate votes to back Obama on Syria; Risch, Crapo both vote ‘no’

Sept. 18, 2014 4:13 p.m. - Updated: 4:19 p.m.

The U.S. Senate has voted 78-22 in favor of President Obama's plan for the U.S. military to train and equip Syrian rebels for a war against Islamic state militants. Like yesterday's 273-156 House vote, support for the president's plan was bipartisan - but both Idaho's senators voted no, as did both of Idaho's congressmen yesterday. Idaho Sens. Jim Risch and Mike Crapo issued these statements on their votes:


“I have real reservations about choosing from over 200 different ethnic and religious groups within Syria and arming those that are labeled ‘moderate’ by some in our government. I am not convinced there is a group of ‘moderate’ rebels in Syria.  There is no easy choice here, but President Obama has not laid out a clear strategy, instead the strategy I have seen is not in my opinion destined to succeed, but drag us further into the mire.  I want to support a winning strategy, but I cannot support his $500 million proposal without a better plan.”


“ISIS poses a very real threat to the United States and our national security. The President’s announced action leaves many questions for the American people and Congress.   Unless the Administration provides more details about a comprehensive strategy, I cannot support it.”

Click below for a full report from the AP in Washington, D.C.


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Management review says state treasurer’s office has cleared up gas card, limo issues, finds no new problems

Sept. 18, 2014 12:57 p.m. - Updated: 1:21 p.m.

The office of state Treasurer Ron Crane received a clean bill of health in a new management audit out today from Idaho’s state auditor’s office. The new management review, which covers fiscal years 2011, ’12 and ’13, is a turnaround from the previous three-year report, which highlighted three concerns that state auditors reported to the Idaho Attorney General having to do with gas card purchases, staff time and state funds supporting a program that wasn’t specifically authorized by the Legislature, and travel costs for annual bond rating trips to New York, including the use of stretch limos to transport Idaho’s delegation there.

All three of those have been “satisfactorily closed,”  the new management audit reports.

Crane welcomed the new audit, saying, “I am extremely proud of our office and my staff!” which he said runs “a clean, efficient and smooth operation for the benefit of taxpayers in Idaho.” Said Crane, “We strive to provide the best service possible through innovation and to protect the state’s assets by applying prudent and ethical banking and investment practices.”

The gas card issue dealt with Crane charging nearly $8,000 on a state credit card for gas for his commutes from his Canyon County home to the Capitol; while auditors thought that violated the state’s travel policy, the Attorney General later found that it didn’t. Nevertheless, Crane stopped charging the state for gas for his commute, and now pays for his own.

The second finding involved the “Smart Money, Smart Women” conference that Crane’s office has been sponsoring annually around the state. The Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee now authorizes $10,000 in annual expenditures specifically for that conference in Crane’s budget.

The third, dealing with the New York trips, prompted changes in how travel costs are accounted for in the annual bond rating trips to New York. Also, Crane said the Idaho delegation now is transported in SUVs rather than stretch limos.

The three-year review is required by state law; the state Audits Division, which falls under the Idaho Legislature, conducts the management reviews for all agencies. They are online here. The management reviews are separate from the statewide Comprehensive Annual Financial Report and Internal Controls Report, online here, which is required under governmental accounting standards and examines financial details; it is completed every year for all state agencies. That financial audit is the one that highlighted issues with Crane’s shifting of investments from one investment pool to another, which the audit said cost state taxpayers $10 million; a 90-day follow-up to that audit issued at the end of June said auditors still haven’t received documentation of a full review to show whether there were other such issues.



Smoke plume from California wildfire rolls into Boise, blankets valley

Sept. 18, 2014 8:44 a.m. - Updated: 9:04 a.m.

Foul-smelling smoke from a huge wildfire in northern California that's burned hundreds of homes and other structures rolled into Boise this morning, limiting visibility, diminishing air quality and staining the sky a brownish-grey. “With the way the jet stream’s going and the wind patterns, we got hit with the plume from the California fire that’s getting all the press,” said Dave Luft, Idaho DEQ air quality manager for southwestern Idaho. As for air quality, “ We’re well into the yellow or moderate category.”

Luft said the smoke likely will clear up some this afternoon, and it could vary throughout the day with showers and other weather changes. “When it warms up, we’ll start to get better ventilation, and it will thin out a bit,” he said. A change in the weather is expected tomorrow that should alter the wind patterns and clear up Boise’s skies.

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House backs president on Syria, but both Idaho reps vote no; Senate votes today

Sept. 18, 2014 8:13 a.m. - Updated: 8:17 a.m.

The U.S. House voted 273-156 in favor of President Obama’s plan to train and arm Syrian rebels to fight Islamic State militants yesterday, but both Idaho GOP representatives, 1st District Congressman Raul Labrador and 2nd District Congressman Mike Simpson, voted no. The Senate votes today. Click below for a full report from the AP in Washington, D.C. There was both bipartisan support and bipartisan opposition to the move; The Hill has a full report here

Labrador, in a statement, said he’d support a “targeted operation” to go after the killers of two Americans murdered by ISIS, but not a broader move to support rebels who want to remove Syrian President Bashar Assad. Here’s Labrador’s statement:

“Like all Americans, I am outraged and saddened by the murder of two Americans by ISIS. I would support a targeted operation to hunt down the killers and win justice for the victims and their families. Instead, the president has engaged in a broad intervention without congressional approval and sought authority to arm Syrian rebels whose primary interest is removing President Assad.

“As I warned last year, regime change could lead to a worse outcome for America. While Assad is a brutal dictator, I still believe backing rebels allied with al-Qaeda and on the same side as ISIS in this civil war likely would bring to power even worse elements in Syria. Our focus should not be on resolving an age-old religious civil war, but on bringing to justice those who took the lives of our citizens.”

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Idaho playwright says genius grant will let him devote himself to his work in ‘huge way’

Sept. 18, 2014 8:03 a.m. - Updated: 8:07 a.m.

A 33-year-old Idaho-born playwright is among the 21 winners of this year’s MacArthur Foundation “genius grants.” Samuel D. Hunter, now of New York, is the author of plays including “A Bright New Boise” and “The Whale.” The prize comes with $625,000. “What's going to change about my work is ostensibly not very much,” he told the Associated Press. “I just think I'm going to have so much more time and freedom to devote myself to it in this huge way.” Click below for a full report from AP reporter Warren Levinson in New York.

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Of democracy, fundamental rights, and one key U.S. Supreme Court justice…

Sept. 17, 2014 3:55 p.m. - Updated: 3:58 p.m.

Tom Perry, attorney for Gov. Butch Otter, said U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy, the author of the Windsor decision, has “sort of carved himself out as the swing vote, and we’ll see which side he goes on.” Said Perry, “This is a question of state authority, a question of the democratic vote in 2006 where Idahoans nearly 2-1 voted to retain the benefits of man-woman marriage. Justice Kennedy, as an advocate for gay and lesbian rights, is also a big proponent of democracy and federalism. So that’s where you’ve seen kind of the push and pull here.”

Deborah Ferguson, attorney for the couples challenging Idaho’s ban on same-sex marriage, said, “If we are discussing a fundamental right … then that is not subject to the will of the majority, and we all don’t get to decide what the fundamental rights might be of a minority group. That is not the American way.”

She said, “There is the question: Is this a fundamental right? That’s our due process argument. The other is our equal protection argument. These are laws that discriminate against a group of people. … So does the government have a legitimate reason to discriminate against that group of citizens? That’s the equal protection argument I think in a nutshell.”

The attorneys are speaking at the University of Idaho's Constitution Day statewide panel discussion, with audiences in Boise, Moscow and Coeur d'Alene. Craig Durham said he agreed with Ferguson on democracy and fundamental rights, but also agreed with Perry that Justice Kennedy likely will be the deciding vote on the nation’s highest court.


‘Never seen access to the courtroom so tightly controlled’

Sept. 17, 2014 3:39 p.m. - Updated: 3:44 p.m.

The first question posed to the lawyers from Idaho’s gay marriage case was about the atmosphere in the courtroom at the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals when the judges heard arguments in Idaho’s case earlier this month. Deborah Ferguson said the arguments were in the San Francisco courtroom that’s normally used for en banc arguments, when larger panels are convened. “It’s a very beautiful courtroom of marble and mosaics,” she said. “The building predates the great earthquake in San Francisco.” She added, “It’s the first time I’ve ever seen access to the courtroom so tightly controlled, and every seat was spoken for.”

The arguments were streamed live on YouTube, she noted. “Personally, I’d rather not be videotaped, although you forget about that very quickly as they start asking you questions, the judges, that is.”

Craig Durham said, “I had the unfortunate revelation afterward that I was on YouTube sitting behind whoever was speaking.” Tom Perry said, “I share Craig’s perspective – you would turn on your phone and you’ve got 300 texts, ‘Hey, I see you,’ as you’re pawing through your briefs trying to respond to an argument.”

Asked to rate the 9th Circuit judges’ questions compared to those from other circuits, the attorneys declined. Durham said he was a bit surprised that the 9th Circuit judges didn’t ask the lawyers any questions about Baker vs. Nelson, an early 1970s case that’s been a topic of questions at arguments in some other circuits.

Perry noted, “A lot of times, judges take you to places that really aren’t the principle thrust of your case.” He added said, “For degree of toughness, I really thought Judge (Candy) Dale, on both sides, she was really pretty tough on both of us.” Dale is the U.S. magistrate judge who overturned Idaho’s ban after hearing arguments this spring in Boise.


Lawyers: Marriage law debate offers chance to see ‘cutting-edge’ constitutional law arguments take shape

Sept. 17, 2014 3:28 p.m.

Deborah Ferguson, the attorney who made the arguments in the 9th Circuit this month against Idaho’s ban on same-sex marriage, told the UI’s Constitution Day crowd, “It’s been sort of a remarkable turn of events in how quickly everything has developed … in a period of just 14 months.”

Tom Perry, attorney for Gov. Butch Otter – who’s on the other side of the case – agreed. A UI grad himself, he told the law students participating in today’s statewide discussion, “There aren’t really very many opportunities as a student to learn constitutional law from a real-live example,” but the marriage debate is just that. “The briefing in these cases is really quite good across the nation,” Perry said, advising law students to read it. “You’re reading cutting-edge equal protection (arguments), from both sides.” He added, “From both sides, we’re really seeing some fantastic advocacy, and it’s really worth a look to get a better flavor.”

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