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Taking a while on the comeback

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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. (more…)

The complexities of the exchange

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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. (more…)

Risch at Idaho Falls

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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. (more…)

Where’s Pocatello going?

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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. (more…)

Developing Bannock

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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. (more…)

Lincoln and Idaho

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Reports

Linking Idaho to Abraham Lincoln’s four greatest speeches, David H. Leroy - former Idaho lieutenant governor/attorney general who has collected 1,500 historic Lincoln-related items - said the nation’s leaders in Washington would be wise to study and respect the U.S. Constitution as did America’s 16th president.

Lincoln signed the bill creating the Idaho Territory on March 4, 1863, effectively blocking the spread of slavery to the West during the Civil War. Idaho’s gold and silver mines, in turn, helped finance the Union’s war against the Confederacy.

Lincoln appointed Idaho’s first three territorial judges, including Samuel Parks who had practiced law in the same Illinois courts as Lincoln. The Republican president mentioned the Idaho Territory in his State of the Union addresses to Congress in 1863 and 1864 and approved the name “Idaho” for the territory.

lincoln

Leroy told the City Club of Idaho Falls that those in the federal government’s executive and legislative branches need to focus on their constitutionally defined roles as the nation once again finds itself divided.

Speaking at the club’s June 13 annual dinner about Lincoln and the birth of Idaho, Leroy said individual rights and the concept of privacy need to be jealously guarded. In response to a question, he urged elected officials to comply with the oaths they take to uphold and defend the Constitution, which underwent a severe crisis during the Civil War.

A Republican and practicing attorney in Boise, Leroy served as Idaho’s 28th attorney general from 1979 to 1983. He was the Gem State’s 36th lieutenant governor from 1983 to 1987 and unsuccessfully ran for governor against Cecil Andrus in 1986. In 1990, President George H.W. Bush appointed him U.S. nuclear waste negotiator, a position he held for three years.

Leroy chaired the 2009 Idaho Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. When the Idaho History Center in Boise opens a “Lincoln Legacy” exhibit in September, it will permanently display books, letters, photos, relics, paintings, cartoons, statuary and campaign items donated from the extensive collection of Leroy and his wife Nancy.

“After 45 years traveling the breadth and length of the land, I suggest to people that Idaho more than any other state is related to Abraham Lincoln,” Leroy said, even more so than Kentucky, Illinois and Indiana.

In 1913, a University of Oxford vice chancellor in Great Britain listed the three greatest speeches ever given in the history of the English language. Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address were two of the three, Leroy noted.

In February 1860, Lincoln delivered his Cooper Union speech to a capacity crowd of 1,500 in New York and noted that 21 of the 39 signers of the Constitution believed Congress should control slavery in the territories and not allow it to spread. At the time, the nation was in danger of splitting apart.

“What is the frame of government under which we live? The answer must be: ‘The Constitution of the United States.’ That Constitution consists of the original, framed in 1787, (and under which the present government first went into operation,) and 12 subsequently framed amendments, the first ten of which were framed in 1789.” (more…)

Crapo’s town hall

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Reports

The Idahoans who called into U.S. Sen. Mike Crapo’s town hall teleconference Wednesday night, May 22, virtually all expressed concerns about the federal government’s increasingly intrusive actions that they fear are eroding their constitutional rights.

The nation’s debt crisis, the Internal Revenue Service, Obamacare, illegal immigration, the U.S. Farm Bill and gun control were among the hot button topics touched upon during the hour long call-in event.

Crapo noted that the U.S. national debt now approaches $17 trillion with Washington doing little to brake torrid deficit spending. “Entitlement programs all are screaming toward insolvency. We have a significant battle in front of us the next few months,” he said. “We’re seeing one-to-two trillion dollars in new taxes hitting the American people.”

President Obama successfully has pushed dozens of taxing and spending increases via different bills without tax and entitlement reforms getting enacted, the Republican said, noting there is a tremendous amount of gridlock in the nation’s capital.

“Our Social Security is going full speed toward insolvency, which means not just our children and grandchildren, but everybody … is going to see their benefits dramatically reduced,” Crapo said. Medicare also is heading for bankruptcy sooner than Social Security, and Medicaid is not far behind.

The “unfair, complex and expensive” U.S. tax code badly needs reform, he said, adding tax rates could be lowered by broadening the tax base and eliminating abusive tax loopholes.

Crapo served on the Bowles-Simpson National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform and was among the bipartisan “Gang of Six” senators charged with resolving the debt ceiling crisis. He also serves on Senate banking and finance committees.

Crapo said he grilled Treasury Secretary Jack Lew about whether the IRS’ income tax audits of hundreds of conservative political and religious groups was politically motivated. Lew appeared before the Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee.

Noting he has called for an independent special prosecutor to investigate the IRS scandal, Crapo said: “I will do everything I can to stop this from being covered up.” Both Democrat and Republican senators “are not going to drop this any time soon until we get to the bottom of this,” he added, saying deep layers are involved.

Crapo predicted an independent prosecutor also will be engaged to determine the truth of what happened Sept. 11, 2012, when an American ambassador and three other Americans were murdered at the American embassy in Benghazi, Libya. He accused the Obama administration of conducting a “complete disinformation campaign” to deny it was an act of terror.

“The House of Representatives will not let this slide and will investigate to the fullest extent,” he said.

When a man from Spirit Lake said he is worried about the IRS enforcing the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, better known as “Obamacare,” after the IRS was shown to target conservatives on an enemies list. “This is like a death sentence,” he said, wondering if the IRS will determine who gets life-saving medical treatment. (more…)

A leak in the Caribou country

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MENDIOLA

 
Reports

A version of this article originally appeared in Green Markets.

The Bureau of Land Management has given Monsanto until the end of May to submit a corrective action report in regards to an earthen holding pond leaking three million gallons of water onto a meadow near its new Blackfoot Bridge Mine in southeastern Idaho’s phosphate-rich Caribou County.

The March 29 breach along a spillway conduit in a catch basin created a 150-foot-long sediment plume on the wetland, but recent testing of the water showed no elevated selenium levels, said Randy Vranes, Monsanto’s mineral operations manager. State and federal regulatory agencies were alerted to the pond failure.

Selenium is a toxic byproduct created when water reacts with phosphate waste rock or overburden. The catch basin is designed to allow for the controlled release of natural runoff and snow melt water into the meadow.

The Blackfoot Bridge Mine is expected to start operating later this year with a 17-year life expectancy. In June 2011, the BLM approved the 1,469-acre mine, which will disturb about 740 mostly private acres not far from the Blackfoot River.

About 10 percent of it would be on BLM land. Monsanto’s South Rasmussen Mine is expected to be exhausted this year.

Monsanto uses the phosphate from its mines to manufacture elemental phosphorus and Roundup weed killer at its three-furnace plant near Soda Springs.

An engineering design investigation is under way to ensure the new mine’s advanced water management system functions reliably, Monsanto spokesman Trent Clark said, noting the mine’s comprehensive design incorporates many environmental protections.

Jeff Cundick, the BLM’s minerals branch chief in Pocatello, said the failed settling pond is part of a network of ponds controlling surface water runoff. Initial reports indicate as the pond was filling the buoyant force of a 60-inch pipe caused it to float enough to separate its joint and allow water to flow around the outside of the pipe, washing away the dam’s center part.

BLM is working with other federal and state agencies to assess if any statutory violations occurred and to review Monsanto’s reports and revised designs to ensure similar failures do not recur, Cundick said, adding no waterways or wetlands were adversely impacted.
The company has constructed a temporary berm so the pond is able to function consistent with the approved water management plan.

Marv Hoyt, Idaho director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said he toured the pond failure site with Monsanto managers. He said there was not a lot of sediment that flowed into and covered some of the wetlands downstream.

“On the other hand, it is somewhat troubling that one of the simplest and least complex pieces of a highly complex mine failed,” Hoyt said. “It certainly gives us reason to scrutinize future mine proposals in the region.”
Fifteen phosphate mine sites in Southeast Idaho are listed as Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) or Superfund sites, encompassing 15,000 acres, mostly in Caribou County.

HEW were the toughest parts

Horman
Representative Wendy Horman (center) at the Idaho Falls City Club. (photo/Mark Mendiola)

 

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Reports

For Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill, the controversial health insurance exchange, education reform and Medicaid issues tackled by lawmakers this year made the 2013 Idaho legislative session one of the most challenging he has experienced. For Wendy Horman, it was her baptism by fire.

Republicans Hill, a Rexburg District 34 senator, and Horman, an Idaho Falls District 30B representative, gave their takes on the recently concluded session as a veteran and a rookie, respectively, at a recent City Club of Idaho Falls luncheon.

This past session was the 12th for Hill, a CPA who serves on the Local Government & Taxation and State Affairs committees, and the first for Horman, a small business owner who serves on the Education, Judiciary, Rules & Administration and Local Government committees.

Hill said the Legislature’s Joint Finance & Appropriations Committee is the envy of many states because of its efficiency. It was informally decided about 25 years ago as part of an unwritten power sharing rule that if someone sat on JFAC, he or she could not chair a committee or be a member of leadership, he said.

“That spread the opportunities around,“ Hill said. “Being in the Legislature is exciting, and it’s frustrating. It’s rewarding, and it’s stressful. There’s always drama.”

Horman said intensive three-day legal training in ethics and procedures enabled freshmen legislators to “hit the ground running. That was not an accident. There’s a very good correlation. … I’m telling you right now, the freshman class were not ninth graders.”

The magnitude of responsibility as a legislator is almost overwhelming, she said, but 11 years on a Bonneville school board helped prepare her for the task at hand.

Horman said process, policy and people had to align as guiding principles when she was a school board member. As a new legislator, she said she had to add a fourth “P” as a principle -- politics.

“The partisan world is not something you can overlook or you do so at your own peril,” Horman said, adding a “crud filter” must be applied when processing information as a legislator. She said she was an “abject failure” in answering hundreds of messages flooding her e-mail box.

Many of those e-mails addressed gun control. Hill said legislators resisted pressure to impose gun restrictions and called Idaho one of the most Second Amendment-supportive states in the union. (more…)