Archive for the 'Mendiola' Category

Jun 01 2014

Merging development groups

Published by under Mendiola

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
Reports

When he addressed a large crowd of eastern Idaho business and government leaders May 30 at Idaho Central Credit Union’s state headquarters in Chubbuck, Idaho Commerce Director Jeff Sayer acknowledged there has been some resistance to merging the economic development agencies of Bannock, Bingham and Bonneville counties into one entity.

Accompanied by Idaho Labor Department Director Ken Edmunds, Sayer spoke at a Regional Economic Development Initiative gathering sponsored by ICCU, Pocatello Medical Center and Idaho National Laboratory. Those attending included INL Director John Grossenbacher, five mayors from the region and congressional representatives.

Similar meetings were held at Idaho Falls in February and Blackfoot in March to address possibly creating a single economic development organization for the region.

Some Pocatellans have expressed concerns that the drive to merge Bannock Development Corporation with Grow Idaho Falls Inc. and Bingham Economic Development Corporation will be to the advantage of Idaho Falls and Blackfoot at Pocatello’s expense.

Sayer said he has heard some refer to creating an eastern Idaho economic development organization “a hostile takeover” and express misgivings that the matter is being forced on them. Others have wanted it created as soon as June.

“There’s a lot of mistrust under the surface,” the commerce director said, mentioning he has heard frustrations that are 10 years old. “If this fails, it will not be resurrected in our professional lifetimes.”

He urged those in attendance to proceed slowly, clarify their message and listen to each other. Combined, eastern Idaho’s work force is the second largest in the state. The Interstate 15 corridor has “a powerful collection of assets,” he said, noting it took Magic Valley 10 years to hit its stride and perfect its business model.

“If eastern Idaho comes together, the ‘great state of Ada’ would wonder what in the heck happened,” Sayer remarked.

Sayer said Idaho is “a long ways behind” competing with other states, some of which are merging as regional forces in the Southeast and the Midwest. He agreed with Mike Mullis of J.M. Mullis, Inc., a project location specialist, who said Idaho has an identity problem. Mullis assisted in bringing a new Clif Bars bakery to Twin Falls.

Sayer emphasized that Idaho boasts robust aerospace, manufacturing and energy industries in addition to its agricultural strengths.

Edmunds said a central focal point or voice is needed to represent regional economic development, but local organizations also need to be retained in some format. He also suggested an independent group be brought in to evaluate the eastern Idaho economic development issue. Continue Reading »

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Apr 30 2014

Otter at Pocatello

Published by under Idaho,Mendiola

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
Reports

Facing a May 20 Republican primary election challenge from Idaho Sen. Russ Fulcher of Meridian, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter touted the state’s economic advancements under his leadership when he spoke at an April 29 Greater Pocatello Chamber of Commerce breakfast.

Fulcher, Senate majority caucus chairman, hopes to derail Otter’s drive to secure a third term as the Gem State’s chief executive. During his morning speech to a crowd of about 400 at the Red Lion, Otter said after his 99-year-old mother urged him to run for re-election, he helped her fill out her absentee ballot.

Otter paraphrased Anglo-Irish statesman Edmund Burke who said all that needs to happen for a good organization to go bad is for good people to do nothing. “Idaho is in pretty good shape,” he said. “The economy in the state continues to grow.”

Publications such as the Wall Street Journal and Forbes have ranked Idaho as the fifth best state in which to do business. The top five states are all governed by Republicans in the West, with Utah topping the list, Otter said.

While much has been said of North Dakota’s oil and natural gas boom, it is not well known that Idaho is now a natural gas producing state with 4.2 million cubic feet a day of “sweet gas” pumped in southwestern Idaho’s Payette County, where Idaho Power runs the Langley Gulch Power Plant capable of generating 300 megawatts of power, the governor said.

In 2008, Otter launched “Project 60” to boost Idaho’s Gross Domestic Product from $51.5 billion in 2007 when he took office to $60 billion last year. The state’s GDP is projected to hit $62.4 billion this year, creating jobs and broadening the tax base, he said. “We’re running ahead of economic projections a little bit.”

Idaho’s unemployment rate went from 2.7 percent about seven years ago to a peak of nearly 9 percent about four years ago before declining to its existing rate of 5.2 percent, which is 1.5 percent better than the nation’s jobless rate, Otter noted. Continue Reading »

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Mar 19 2014

Education and Idaho

Published by under Mendiola

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
Reports

Idaho’s natural beauty and the inherent decency of its people can mask serious problems confronting the state, Idaho Business for Education’s president and chief executive officer says, comparing the Gem State to an old, stately, beautiful mansion whose foundation is rotting, cracking and direly in need of repair.

Addressing a recent City Club of Idaho Falls luncheon, Rod Gramer said unless its owners get to work and invest money, the foundation will crumble and the damage will worsen.

Answering an audience question, Gramer — a veteran Idaho Statesman and KTVB news professional who recently returned to Boise after working in Oregon and Florida — said it has been estimated that it will take $82 million to $120 million to replace the education funding lost in Idaho the past six years.

He commended legislators for this year pumping $32 million in new dollars for education, stressing that that money should be viewed as an investment, not an expense, emphasizing the dots need to be connected between education and Idaho’s economy. He called it “the best public school budget in seven years.”

Gramer said simple formulas mean a weak education system, plus a weak economy, equal a poor quality of life as opposed to a strong education system and a strong economy combining to boost Idaho’s standard of living.

“Fate won’t determine this. The people of Idaho must decide. The choice is ours,” he said, warning that like the Roman Emperor Nero, Idahoans can fiddle while metaphorical Idaho burns.

Gramer noted that in 2012, Idaho ranked 50th among the states in per capita wages. Idaho was No. 1 in the nation for the percentage of hourly workers — 7.7 percent — who made the state’s minimum wage of $7.25 or less in 2012. Nationally, 4.7 percent made minimum wage or less in 2012.

The Idaho Department of Labor reported that more young people are leaving the state than moving to the state.

“These are statistics we ignore at our own peril,” Gramer said. Rebuilding starts with education, which is “a passport to the American dream.” Government for and by the people cannot and will not succeed without an educated populace who can make wise decisions, he added.

Only 39 percent of Idahoans have earned college degrees or have post-secondary trade certification, but 61 percent have some college, high school or less. That level of education was fine in the past for most of Idaho’s history when mining, logging, farming and other such jobs sufficed, but that is not now the case, Gramer said, noting manual work such as driving trucks or working in a body shop now requires computer training.

When the J.R. Simplot Co.’s new 380,000-square-foot Caldwell potato processing plant opens in April, its robotics will make it the most state-of-the-art processing plant of its kind in the world, but only 250 will be needed to operate it. Its existing plants in Nampa, Caldwell and Aberdeen will be shut down with a net loss of 800 jobs.

“The shift in the job market is all over the United States, causing a dramatic effect on the economy and the lives of people,” Gramer said. Continue Reading »

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Mar 09 2014

A new phosphate project

Published by under Mendiola

agrium
A large truck hauls phosphate ore from an Agrium open pit mine on the Caribou/Targhee National Forest. (photo/Mark Mendiola

 

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
Reports

An earlier version of this column appeared in Green Markets

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management has approved the transfer of operating rights for the Dry Ridge Phosphate Project in southeastern Idaho from Solvoy USA Inc. to Fertoz USA LLC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Fertoz Ltd., an Australian company with phosphate operations in Australia and Canada.

Fertoz joins Canadian companies Agrium, based at Calgary, Alberta, and Stonegate Agricom, based at Toronto, Ontario, as foreign companies hoping to realize hefty profits by developing phosphate mines in southeastern Idaho, but at great up-front capital investments.

Agrium has operated Conda processing plant for decades as Nu-West Industries near Soda Springs and runs the North Rasmussen Ridge Mine. Stonegate Agricom is developing the Paris Hills underground phosphate mine near Bloomington and Paris.

In December, Fertoz acquired an option to explore and acquire up to 100 percent of the Dry Ridge lease on the phosphate-rich Caribou/Targhee National Forest, expanding into the United States as it embarks on an ambitious expansion.

It has engaged World Industrial Minerals as a consultant to provide additional geological services to develop an exploration program in alignment with BLM requirements. Cascade Earth Sciences also has been contracted to start environmental permitting as required by the BLM. CES has teamed with Sound Ecological Endeavours and Sundance Consulting to expedite the biological and archaeological processes, respectively.

The approval process is expected to take 12 to 15 months. Fertoz Managing Director Les Szonyi said the BLM’s approval of transferring Dry Ridge operating rights will allow Fertoz to accelerate the permit and exploration approval process and begin drilling at the end of 2015 in Idaho.

Exploration in the United States requires significant third party input and reports before drilling can be approved, he noted, adding he expects Fertoz will submit in the next few months an exploration application, which outlines the proposed exploration plan. An environmental assessment of the project’s impact also must be submitted. Continue Reading »

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Feb 28 2014

Otter, Little review the Idaho scene

Published by under Mendiola

Otter
Idaho Gov. Butch Otter converses with Dakota Bates, who chairs the ISU College Republicans, as Mike Webster, Otter’s eastern Idaho field representative, listens. (photo/Mark Mendiola)

 

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
Reports

Top elected Idaho Republicans did not fritter away their time on the Friday afternoon before the evening Bannock County Republican Lincoln-Reagan Banquet Feb. 21 at Pocatello’s Clarion Inn, which drew about 250 of the party’s faithful, including the state’s GOP elite from Boise and Washington.

Idaho Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter and Lt. Gov. Brad Little discussed education issues at Idaho State University shortly after U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo warned business people at a Mystique Performing Arts and Event Center lunch in Chubbuck of the nation’s worsening fiscal crisis.

Questions about the controversial “guns-on-campus” bill wending its way through the Legislature in Boise were among several questions fielded by Otter and Little in the ISU Student Union Building ballroom. On the previous Thursday, they spent time with Dr. Arthur C. Vailas, Idaho State University’s president.

Vailas told them he had been notified by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission that it does not allow nuclear research and development on campuses where guns are allowed because of security concerns. “I had never heard that,” Otter said, noting about 60 percent of ISU’s R&D is nuclear-related.

Another complication if guns are allowed despite the opposition of the state’s university presidents and law enforcement officials is ISU’s Meridian campus is shared with a high school, and state law forbids guns to be carried at high schools, the governor said.

Asked if he would sign a “guns-on-campus” measure if it is passed by legislators, Otter says he never signals his intentions as lawmakers finalize a bill’s provisions, mentioning he has been a lifetime member of the National Rifle Association.

Little defended the controversial Common Core curriculum being implemented by school districts nationwide that is supported by governors and superintendents. While the U.S. Department of Education puts money into it, it’s really driven by the states, the lieutenant governor said.

In November 2010, the Idaho State Board of Education adopted Common Core standards. In January 2011, the Idaho House and Senate Education Committees gave final approval to adopting Idaho Core Standards in mathematics and English. Some Idaho school districts have implemented those standards, Little noted.

Many Idahoans are concerned that Common Core is part of a national curriculum and the federal government is developing a massive data base on each student in the United States, Little said, noting his father and grandfather had to meet standards to graduate from high school.

Otter noted that of Idaho’s $2.85 billion budget, 68 percent of it goes toward K-12 programs. The State Board of Education has set a goal that 60 percent of Idahoans 24 to 35 will get a degree or certification by 2020.

Right now, Idaho boasts a high school graduation rate that is relatively high at 88-89 percent, but only 38 percent of high school graduates go onto college and even fewer graduate, making Idaho’s college graduation one of the nation’s lowest. Continue Reading »

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Feb 14 2014

At the tele-town hall

Published by under Mendiola

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
Reports

Several Idahoans who phoned into Idaho U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo’s tele-town hall meeting Wednesday night, Feb. 12, expressed concerns that President Barack Obama is abusing executive orders, creating a constitutional crisis that might require impeachment proceedings to be brought against the nation’s chief executive.

They said they fear Obama is directly violating the U.S. Constitution’s separation of powers between the government’s executive, legislative and judicial branches by arbitrarily circumventing Congress and ignoring or even contradicting enacted laws with his executive orders.

During the hour-long town hall session, Crapo’s constituents also asked about missing Idaho POW Bowe Bergdahl, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare,” the Keystone XL Pipeline, the U.S. Farm Bill, the minimum wage, environmental protection, broadening the tax base and reforming the tax code.

Crapo said at this point a majority of members in the U.S. House and Senate have not concluded that impeachment of the president would be a proper step.

The U.S. Constitution allows for presidents, vice presidents, federal judges and civil officers to be removed from office via impeachment if they have committed “high crimes and misdemeanors,” including criminal actions or serious misuse or abuse of office.

In American history, the U.S. House of Representatives initiated impeachment proceedings against only two U.S. presidents — Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton. The Senate acquitted Johnson by one vote and dismissed charges against Clinton.

Crapo said he is increasingly hearing the impeachment issue raised “as the president steps outside the law and whether that amounts to high crimes and misdemeanors.” While Congress now is unlikely to impeach Obama, the Idaho Republican said he will not say that will not happen.

Crapo was among 45 Senate Republicans to file an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court saying it was illegal for Obama to make “recess appointments” of three members to the National Labor Relations Board and Richard Cordray to head the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) when the Senate was still in pro forma session and without its advice and consent.

Crapo said Obama was literally in violation of the Constitution by taking that action. “I don’t think he accidentally did this.”

Three federal appeals courts have ruled those appointments were improper. The Supreme Court heard the landmark case in mid-January. Its decision is expected in late June.

Last November, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., pulled the trigger on the so-called “nuclear option,” making a controversial, historic Senate rule change that eliminates filibusters blocking presidential nominees and allows a simple majority vote, rather than 60 votes, to confirm nominees, limiting the power of minority Republicans. Continue Reading »

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Jan 16 2014

Price on unifying economic developmnt

Published by under Mendiola

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
Reports

Bank of Idaho President and CEO Park Price strongly encourages eastern Idaho’s three economic development organizations – Bannock Development Corp., Bingham Economic Development Corp. and Grow Idaho Falls Inc. – to effectively flex their collective clout by merging into a single regional force.

Speaking at a recent Rotary Club of Pocatello luncheon, Price noted the three organizations have been discussing the possibility of consolidating into a single entity, which he said would pay dividends for years to come throughout the region.

The Idaho Falls bank executive – who holds an economics degree from Dartmouth, ran a successful Pocatello car dealership for many years and has been engaged in economic development for more than 30 years – noted the Pocatello/Idaho Falls region boasts a population of 250,000 and a work force of nearly 130,000, the second largest in Idaho behind Boise.

Price praised successful economic development efforts in the Magic Valley where communities and counties in the Twin Falls area cooperate as a cohesive unit. The Southern Idaho Economic Development Organization (SIEDO) has wracked up several impressive achievements, including $800 million in industrial projects built or announced since November 2012, creating more than 1,200 jobs.

Those projects include Chobani’s massive $100 million yogurt plant near Twin Falls, Glanbia’s $15 million cheese innovation center, Frulact Group’s $40 million fruit processing plant in Rupert adding 100 jobs, a new $160 million Clif Bar plant employing 250, McCain Foods’ expansion adding 150 jobs in Burley, Monsanto’s Wheat Technology Innovation Center in Filer with 30 jobs, Gossner Cheese’s $20 million investment in a Mini-Cassia plant, etc., etc.

“Major private investors in Bannock Development and Grow Idaho Falls with whom I’ve spoken are in favor of a regional approach,” Price said, noting the Salt Lake Valley and areas around Bozeman, Billings and Missoula, Mont., pose the greatest competition to eastern Idaho for jobs that pay living wages. “The competition is no longer other communities in Idaho.”

Price warned the trend of companies incorporating technology in all their processes and emphasizing automation to remain competitive does not bode well for low- or semi-skilled workers, whom he said are part of the long term unemployed.

He mentioned that in September he toured the J.R. Simplot Co.’s new 380,000 square foot plant in Caldwell, which has brought about the closure of Simplot plants in Aberdeen, Caldwell and Nampa.

“The three older plants employed about 1200. The new plant will employ just 265. The plant is a fine example of technological efficiency,” Price said, adding there are not fork lift operators, sorters or other laborers employed there, only employees who operate computers or maintain equipment. Continue Reading »

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Nov 26 2013

After Heinz, what now for Pocatello?

Published by under Mendiola

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
Reports

A few years ago, the Heinz frozen food plant in Pocatello employed more than 800 who worked its packaging lines, eclipsing Union Pacific Railroad, the J.R. Simplot Co. and ON Semiconductor as the Gate City’s largest private employer.

Heinz’ recent announcement that it would close its imposing factory on Pocatello’s north end near the Quinn Road overpass and terminate its remaining 410 employees within five to eight months stunned the community, sending shock waves throughout Bannock County.

That bad news came on heels of the shutdown of the $700 million Hoku polysilicon plant in Pocatello. A bankruptcy judge recently blocked that plant’s sale to JH Kelly Inc., the plant’s Longview, Wash.-based general contractor, which bid $5.27 million for the abandoned complex and says it is still owed $25 million for its work on the project.

The entire Hoku plant will be re-auctioned onsite on Dec. 17. Its fair market value has been set at between $6.25 million and $35 million. The plant’s owner has filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy and owes an estimated $1 billion to creditors. Once operating, the plant was to initially employ 200 and eventually boost its payroll to 400 — or equivalent to the number now employed at the Heinz plant on the opposite side of town.

That Pocatello plant is one of three Heinz plants to be closed by the summer of 2014. The others are at Ontario, Canada, where 740 work, and Florence, S.C., where 200 are employed. Heinz plans to add 470 employees at existing plants in California, Iowa, Ohio and Canada, bringing its total work force in the U.S. and Canada to 6,800 hourly and salaried workers.

While displaced Pocatello Heinz employees will get severance benefits, outplacement services and other support, that’s little comfort to some who have worked at the plant for decades, stemming back to when it was owned by Kraft and Ore-Ida Foods. The unexpected shutdown is devastating for many of them and a major blow to Pocatello’s economy.

Kraft Foods built its first Pocatello cheese factory and warehouse along the Portneuf River in 1924, well east of Simplot’s existing phosphate fertilizer plant. By 1955, production at Kraft’s three-story structure on Kraft Road began to wind down, not far from Great Western Malting’s existing plant, which is east of the Hoku plant.

In 1967, Kraft Inc. started constructing its 450,000-square-foot plant where Heinz now operates and abandoned its old site along Kraft Road. In April 1989, 500 were working at the processed cheese plant when Kraft announced it would move operations to Tulare, Calif., after operating in the Gate City for some 65 years. Kraft had hoped 80 percent of its Pocatello workers would move to California, but only about 10 percent opted to do so, preferring Southeast Idaho’s much lower cost of living and other amenities.

By May 1989, only a month after Kraft’s bombshell announcement, it was disclosed that Boise-based Ore-Ida Foods Inc. had taken an option to buy the Kraft property to process low-calorie entrees and frozen potato products.

To their credit, Idaho Gov. Cecil Andrus and Commerce Director Jim Hawkins hustled to dispatch a rapid response team to Pocatello to help soften Kraft’s gut punch to the greater Pocatello area and quickly fill the food factory.

By the end of March 1990, 150 Kraft workers were terminated after 50 laborers had been idled the previous February, leaving fewer than 50 distribution personnel before Ore-Ida took over the plant. Weight Watchers low calorie meals were among the main products churned out after Ore-Ida took over the plant.

Famous for its Tater Tots, the Ore-Ida brand was acquired by the H.J. Heinz Co. in 1965. Its division headquarters was in Boise until 1998-99 when a new frozen foods division was created in Pittsburgh, Pa. At that time, 235 of the 320 employees of Ore-Ida’s Boise HQ lost their jobs and 150 Weight Watchers plant workers in Pocatello were cut.

There have been telltale signs in recent years that production at the Pocatello Heinz plant has not been kept at full capacity as a steady drumbeat of layoffs sliced and diced employment by 50 percent.

In September 2009, 65 Heinz employees were let go. Last February, 80 workers were terminated as Heinz ended its TGI Fridays frozen meals line. The number of employees has plummeted from an 800 peak to its 400 level now. It’s been estimated that the Heinz plant shutdown will adversely impact another 200 people indirectly, worsening Pocatello’s unemployment rate.

In August, the city’s jobless rate stood at 7.8 percent, the highest of Idaho’s 11 largest cities. The Idaho Department of Labor on Friday, Nov. 22, disclosed that the Gate City’s unemployment rate declined from 7.7 percent in September to 6.9 percent in October. Continue Reading »

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Oct 24 2013

Wasden and the stresses of law

Published by under Idaho,Mendiola

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
Reports

The rule of law is the basis of freedom and security in the United States, binds Americans together as a society and distinguishes the U.S. from many nations, Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden says.

It also is the guideline he says he uses as Idaho’s top law enforcer when he must render difficult decisions on controversial legal issues such as Idaho nullifying the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”), managing federal lands, funding public education or regulating the influx of nuclear spent fuel.

Elected Idaho’s 32nd attorney general in 2002, Wasden is the longest serving attorney general in the state’s history and was president of the National Association of Attorneys General from 2006-2007. He earned a political science degree from Brigham Young University and a law degree from the University of Idaho.

wasden
Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, center, converses with attorney Timothy Hopkins, right, and Areva Vice President Robert Poyser in Idaho Falls. (photo/Mark Mendiola)

 

“Sometimes public service can be a challenging experience,” Wasden told City Club of Idaho Falls members before answering questions during a Q&A session following a recent luncheon, noting his office processes 5,000 to 6,000 legal matters at any given moment.

Wasden was asked about the Idaho Tax Commission’s ruling that same-sex couples recognized as legally married in other states must recalculate their Internal Revenue Service filings before filing their state returns. Idaho is among 35 states that forbid same-sex unions following a constitutional amendment approved in 2006 by voters.

The IRS has ruled that same-sex couples will be recognized as married for federal tax purposes. Wasden said he would defend Idaho’s constitutional amendment, adding he was disappointed and critical of his counterpart in California who refused to represent citizens in that state who had voted against recognizing same-sex marriages.

Wasden was one of the nation’s first attorneys general to file a lawsuit challenging the federal health care law’s constitutionality, but when the Idaho Legislature tried to nullify the federal law by enacting a state statute, he told the legislators what they were trying to do was unconstitutional. Continue Reading »

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Oct 07 2013

Drones ahead?

Published by under Idaho,Mendiola

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
Reports

Idaho Department of Commerce Director Jeff Sayer sees the state potentially taking the lead in converting military drone technology into commercial unmanned aircraft applications, but he worries the Idaho National Laboratory’s lucrative nuclear research and development projects are at risk.

During a recent presentation to the Rotary Club of Pocatello, Sayer noted Idaho has the 46th largest economy in the nation and essentially zero R&D funding, putting it at a significant disadvantage with competitive, wealthier states.

The state’s three universities and industry are cooperating to concentrate on work force development, which is difficult to accomplish but crucial for Idaho’s economy, said Sayer, who has headed the state’s commerce department since October 2011.

“We’ve got to find a way to train people industries need. It’s the single most important thing to do to move the state forward. We’re coming together at an unprecedented level,” Sayer said. “There’s going to be a shortage in the nation and the world of a qualified work force. That’s not lost on Idaho.”

Idaho can capitalize on its existing assets to develop unmanned aircraft that can be used in agriculture, wildlife management, transportation and many other fields, Sayer said. The INL has the second largest authorized flying area for drones. The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) considers INL its leading test site for unmanned aircraft.

Idaho can move faster than any state in developing an unmanned aircraft industry and still protect citizen privacy rights, Sayer said, mentioning there are more than 100 companies engaged in the state’s robust firearms industry.

Since last year, Sayer has chaired the Idaho Leadership in Nuclear Energy (LINE) Commission forged by Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter to support and protect the INL and the state’s nuclear energy industry. In 1995, Idaho, the U.S. Navy and DOE reached an agreement settling a lawsuit filed by the state to prevent shipment of spent nuclear fuel to the INL for storage.

Otter “knows the political risks stepping into this arena,” Sayer said, praising his foresight in initiating the LINE Commission. “It was an environmental issue, but now it is an economic issue. We’re actually getting involved in the nuclear industry to make sure what happens comes to Idaho. … Things have changed in 30 years.”

As of 2010, the INL accounted for 24,000 jobs and a $3.5 billion economic impact. “None of us in eastern Idaho wants to see that go away,” he said.

Sayer said the Idaho Cleanup Project, administered by CH2M-WG Idaho, is one of the most successful cleanup projects in the nation. From the 1950s to the 1970s, waste management at the INL site consisted of dumping, isolating, diluting and minimizing exposure, he said. Now, spent fuel onsite is carefully managed by using top technology, he said. Continue Reading »

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Sep 24 2013

Taking a while on the comeback

Published by under Mendiola

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
Reports

Pocatello companies were hard hit by the nationwide recession, and the Gate City is taking longer than Idaho in reaching pre-recession employment levels, an Idaho State University economics professor told a large crowd attending Bannock Development Corporation’s 22nd annual economic symposium.

Dr. C. Scott Benson and Idaho Lt. Gov. Brad Little gave the economic and state keynote addresses, respectively, on Monday, Sept. 9, at the impressive ISU Stephens Performing Arts Center.

An ISU professor for more than 20 years, Benson has been preparing legislative economic forecasts about the state’s general fund revenue for nearly 30 years. He also has been preparing Idaho personal income forecasts for the Idaho Tax Commission for more than 10 years.

“I would like to come here and tell you that happy days are here again, but you know better than that,” Benson said, calling the economic recovery anemic. He concluded, however, that Idaho, Bannock County and Pocatello should continue to add jobs and see accelerating growth after several harsh years.

In July, Idaho’s seasonally adjusted unemployment rate rose two-tenths to 6.6 percent for the third consecutive monthly increase in the rate, which has risen half a percentage point since April. Total employment dropped for the second month in a row, falling 800 to just above 723,000 – the lowest total employment since October 2012.

The Pocatello Metropolitan Statistical Area’s unemployment rate stood at 6.8 percent in July, down from 7.0 in June and 7.3 percent in July 2012. The city’s personal income grew 2-3 percent in 2012 and is projected to grow 4.5-5.5 percent this year and in 2015, slightly faster than the state’s personal income growth rate.

Benson said Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter’s goal of generating $60 billion in state personal income could be achieved “hopefully sooner rather than later” in Fiscal 2015.

“Idaho and the Pocatello MSA were harder hit than most states,” Benson said, noting Idaho’s unemployment rate tripled while rates in other states doubled. While the recession was severe, the recovery has been slow. “Manufacturing employment is not a pretty picture.”

Benson estimated 9,000 to 10,000 people are employed in Pocatello’s government sector or up to 25 percent of people working in the city, including those employed at ISU and the state women’s prison.

Education and health services picked up jobs during the recession, he said. Construction, natural resources and mining once represented up to 7 percent of total jobs, but that has declined to 4 percent, Benson said. Leisure and hospitality provide jobs, “but they don’t pay all that well.”

The area retail industry has encountered tough times, he said, estimating Bannock County generates up to $28 million a year in annual sales tax revenue for the state. Continue Reading »

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Sep 02 2013

The complexities of the exchange

Published by under Idaho,Mendiola

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
Reports

It’s been a tall order. The new Idaho Health Insurance Exchange’s 19 board members were given only 4½ months to launch an enrollment period in compliance with the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, commonly known as “Obamacare,” which officially takes effect on Jan. 1, 2014.

Idaho is getting late into the game. Most other states have been working out details for more than two years to comply with the mandate by either joining the federal exchange or creating their own exchanges. Insurance companies argued strongly in favor of an Idaho-based exchange.

All Idahoans 18 and older will have six months to enroll (from Oct. 1, 2013, through March 31, 2014) and choose among 79 plans from five insurance carriers to get mandatory health care insurance. If they don’t enroll, they face penalties. The exchange covers all 44 Idaho counties.

How Idaho would comply with Obamacare turned into one of the most bitterly debated issues in the final weeks of this year’s legislative session, pitting Republicans versus Republicans, causing a delay in the enactment of an Idaho-based exchange. The Legislature adjourned on April 4 after agreeing in March to establish the state-based exchange.

Weeg
Stephen Weeg

When he named the Idaho Health Insurance Exchange board members on April 10, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter announced that Stephen Weeg — a veteran health care professional from Pocatello who retired in July 2012 after eight years of directing Health West Inc. — would chair the Gem State’s exchange. The members met for the first time on April 21.

In addition to rigid time constraints, also complicating matters for the exchange board is the fact about 190,000 Idahoans find themselves below the poverty level and 222,000 have no health insurance; the state’s median family income is among the lowest in the United States; the average hourly wage in Idaho in 2012 was 46th in the nation, and the state’s minimum wage is $7.25 an hour — making it difficult for people to afford health care insurance. Idaho has the highest number of per capita minimum wage earners.

Although their travel expenses are reimbursed, the exchange board members do not get paid and do not have a staff.

“Other than that, it’s been a piece of cake,” Weeg remarked to Rotary Club of Pocatello members when he explained the Idaho Health Insurance Exchange on Thursday, Aug. 29, noting only 35 days remained before the enrollment period would start. Weeg spent 40 years in health and human services administrative positions.

“I did try to retire a year ago,” Weeg said, noting he got a call at the end of March from the governor’s office urging him to take on the major challenge of chairing Idaho’s health insurance exchange board. “I asked, ‘Can’t anybody in Boise do this?’”

Weeg emphasized that the exchange board consists of Idahoans engaged in small business, health care and health insurance. Three legislators and the directors of the Idaho Departments of Insurance and Health & Welfare also serve. Continue Reading »

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Aug 28 2013

Risch at Idaho Falls

Published by under Idaho,Mendiola

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
Reports

During two stops in Idaho Falls on Friday, Aug. 23, Idaho U.S. Sen. Jim Risch criticized what he perceives as the U.S. federal government’s mismanagement of nuclear waste, spiking health care costs, intrusive surveillance of Americans and increasingly onerous business regulations.

On a return visit to Idaho during the August congressional break, Risch addressed a large auditorium crowd at a City Club of Idaho Falls function and discussed financial concerns with small business owners and operators during a more intimate roundtable session.

Asked if he would support Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden’s Nuclear Waste Administration Act of 2013 that would create a new federal agency for overseeing the nation’s nuclear waste in place of the U.S. Department of Energy and initiate a pilot spent fuel storage site, Risch said it is more likely the large bill’s details would be voted on in committee rather than on the U.S. Senate floor.

The Idaho Republican who serves on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee stressed that Yucca Mountain’s use as a repository for high level nuclear waste has been authorized by Congress. “It is not an idea. … It is the law of the land,” Risch said, stressing that $96 billion has been invested to develop it in Nevada.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., however, “convinced the president of the United States they should ignore the law of the land. It has not been repealed,” Risch said, noting the executive and legislative branches of government are blocking that law. Congress officially selected Yucca Mountain as a repository in 2002, but the Obama administration halted its development in 2009.

The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, however, this month ordered the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to resume legally mandated licensing for Yucca Mountain. In its 2-1 ruling, the court – which Risch said is one of the nation’s most liberal – said the NRC acted improperly when it shelved licensing hearings for the repository.

Risch said it remains to be seen whether President Obama will obey the appellate court‘s ruling. The Supreme Court does not need to take the case, he mentioned.

Risch noted the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act or “Obamacare” also is the law of the land, but President Obama has decided to delay provisions with the stroke of a pen. In fact, Obamacare’s Medicare cuts and the law’s employer mandate have been delayed until after the 2014 congressional elections.

It was mentioned in the Federal Register that the administration would delay enforcement of a number of key eligibility requirements for the law’s health insurance subsidies. Another costly provision of the health law — its caps on out-of-pocket insurance costs — also will be delayed for one more year.

According to the Congressional Research Service, the Obama administration had missed as many as one-third of the deadlines specified by law under the Affordable Care Act as of November 2011.

Risch and Idaho U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo have asked for a full delay of all Obamacare components to avoid the economic harm they say it would inflict on American families. They criticized Obama’s decision to waive provisions without the consent of Congress. Risch said he is a co-sponsor of legislation to repeal Obamacare.

He called Obamacare “an absolute abhorrence to the free market system” and said he would not vote for a continuing resolution to fund it.

While supporting repeal of the Affordable Care Act, which he said nationalizes one-sixth of the entire U.S. economy, Risch denied that he supports shutting down government to do so as some Republicans have advocated.

“It’s a dumb idea to talk about shutting down the federal government,” Risch said. “You don’t govern by shutting down the entity you’re running.”

Risch predicted that Reid would not allow any budget bill to be introduced to the Senate floor without inclusion of funding for the Affordable Care Act, a 3,000-page bill enacted without a single Republican vote. He also said he expected a continuing resolution would be enacted before the government would shut down even though he and 30 others would vote against such a resolution. Continue Reading »

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Jul 23 2013

Where’s Pocatello going?

Published by under Mendiola

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
Reports

Pocatello lost about 3,200 jobs between 2007 and 2009 when companies moved out of the Gate City, shuttered their businesses and closed their doors. From 2002 to 2010, Pocatello grew only about 1 percent in population, losing its status as Idaho’s second largest city, Pocatello Mayor Brian Blad reflects.

By comparison, Chubbuck grew about 46 percent and Idaho Falls grew by double digits during the same period. Pocatello now ranks behind Boise, Nampa, Meridian and Idaho Falls in size, according to 2010 Census data.

Speaking on a recent “Business Dynamics” interview program that airs on Pocatello’s Vision 12 cable access station, Blad said from 2003 to 2006 the city’s economy was doing pretty well in tandem with the nation moving forward. However, things started turning downward from 2007 to 2008, he noted.

“Things got pretty tough after the market meltdown,” said Blad, a political unknown who defeated Pocatello Mayor Roger Chase in a 2009 municipal election upset.

Chase is running again for the city’s top post, hoping to reverse an embarrassing defeat. It is widely presumed Blad will seek re-election although he has not formally announced.

When Blad took office in 2010, “we were in pretty bad shape. I might add we’re not in great shape now. We’re still 1,000 jobs down. We’re still in trouble in my mind,” he said, estimating 2,200 jobs have been added the past 3½ years.

Blad credits hiring by Allstate Insurance, Petersen Inc., Pocatello Regional Medical Center, WinCo, Dick’s Sporting Goods, ON Semiconductor and other employers for contributing to the city’s turnaround in recent years.

“We’ve been able to chip away at the deficit of 3,200 jobs,” he said, adding he hopes a recent successful recruiting trip to California will generate hundreds of new jobs for Pocatello and eliminate that deficit.

Blad and Bannock Development Corp. Executive Director John Regetz visited 10 California companies in three days. Seven of those companies have committed to visit Pocatello this summer, which historically does not happen. Usually, it’s a two-year process before a company will visit a prospective site after being contacted, he said.

The prospective California firms range from high technology to retail to construction, Blad said. The owner of one company that potentially could employ 1,000 and be located at the Pocatello Regional Airport is very interested in relocating, but prefers to pay his workers $9.50 an hour.

The city counters that $15 an hour is a living wage and argues he could afford to pay that by the amount of money he would save in taxes, energy costs and other expenses by moving to Idaho, which is much more business-friendly than California, Blad said.

A very high tech company could employ up to 30 employees, but pay them $150,000 to $200,000 a year. An existing company could eventually hire 440 workers, but some creative financing needs to be arranged, the mayor said. Some of the contacted companies would pay $40,000 to $75,000 in annual wages.

Allstate nearly backed out of locating a customer service center in the Pocatello area after it had indicated it would “sign on the dotted line,” Blad said, noting that last minute conflicts arose, which nearly scuttled the deal. “To have the carpet ripped out from under you is just devastating.”

Blad said he and other city officials scrambled to help make arrangements for Allstate to locate in Chubbuck by providing Pocatello building inspection, engineering and legal assets, which Chubbuck lacks. He also traveled to Allstate’s corporate headquarters in Chicago, whose number of employees there virtually equal Chubbuck’s population.

Allstate executives were concerned about Bannock County’s relatively small population base and were hesitant about locating a customer service center in the Pocatello/Chubbuck area, which would be the company’s smallest market in the nation, Blad said, adding Allstate was considering Chicago, Charlotte, N.C., and San Antonio for a call center. Pocatello also was competing against Salt Lake City and Ogden for it. Continue Reading »

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Jun 27 2013

Developing Bannock

Published by under Mendiola

mendiola MARK
MENDIOLA

 
Reports

An Idaho State University vice president recently submitted proposals to Idaho Commerce Director Jeff Sayer to remove constitutional barriers impeding research and economic development at the state’s universities, which he says put them and the Gem State at a competitive disadvantage.

When he addressed the Bannock Development Corp.’s June 18 annual investor reception at Allstate’s new customer service center in Chubbuck, Dr. Howard Grimes, ISU vice president of research and economic development, mentioned he had given Sayer the proposals.

Grimes has overseen ISU’s new 250,000-square-foot Research and Innovation in Science and Engineering (RISE) Complex on Alvin Ricken Drive since November. He leads initiatives in biomedical and renewable energy research, and nano-material development for innovative sensor design, as well as environmental and geoscience networks.

He predicted the RISE Complex will dramatically change Southeast Idaho the next 15 to 20 years. “My vision is it will remain somewhat empty during its entire life span,” Grimes said, explaining new businesses will need space to operate. He expects it will be up to 80 percent full.

Grimes said he is talking with two startup companies now, and an established company is at the point it will need to do advanced manufacturing on a commercial scale. He mentioned he also is negotiating with a “very, very well-known multinational global company” whose annual net revenue exceeds $2 million.

“Six months into it, we’ve got multiple things on the burner,” he said, adding he recently was notified the National Science Foundation was awarding ISU a $5 million grant. “That is not easy to accomplish.” He expects another large grant to be announced in a matter of weeks.

The NSF also has awarded a five-year $20 million grant to Idaho universities, including ISU, to study how society and landscapes are interconnected.

Virtually every state within the past 10 years has radically altered constitutional statutes and changed policies to “incentivize” universities so they can do innovative research and economic development. “We have not done that in Idaho,” Grimes said. “Significant things need to change.”

States like Texas, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Colorado and Utah are making major advancements in developing research universities, he noted, citing Utah State University’s 30 business startups as an example. States up and down the East and West Coasts also are well ahead of Idaho in this regard.

“Paradigm shifts need to happen in the state of Idaho for all of it to be successful,” Grimes said, emphasizing there has been a fundamental shift in the federal government’s approach to funding research. “The private sector is going to have to lead the brigade forward.”

A former Washington State University graduate school dean and research vice president, Grimes championed WSU’s largest grant funding growth in the university’s history — 85 percent since Fiscal 2008. He also directed WSU’s Center for Environmental Research, Education and Outreach.

Grimes said universities started morphing into research and economic development five to six years ago. They have been forming teams of scientists to advance their work with private sector partners and secure grants, adopting an entirely different strategy of accelerating “lab bench to market” innovations, which previously took 20 years to complete. Continue Reading »

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