Thursday, March 19, 2015

Idaho State Controller's Office Strikes Back at U.S. PIRG Report on Online Data Transparency

Posted By on Thu, Mar 19, 2015 at 1:30 PM

  • U.S. PIRG
The Idaho Office of the State Controller pushed back March 18 against a United States Public Interest Research Group report that gave Idaho an "F" for online state data transparency.

"[U.S. PIRG] has no credibility with our office," said Chief Deputy Controller Dan Goicoechea.

The report, titled "Following the Money 2015: How the 50 States Rate in Providing Online Access to Government Spending Data," is the nonprofit's sixth annual report rating the completeness and ease of use of each state's online information about how they spend taxpayer dollars, including corporate tax incentives, purchasing goods and services, and state contracts.

Each state was given a letter grade and Idaho joined Alaska and California among states that received an "F" for not meeting multiple transparency standards—including not giving the public online access to data on tax subsidies for economic development or tax expenditure reports.

When U.S. PIRG researchers offered states their findings, the report said that the Gem State was one of three states that did not give researchers feedback, but Goicoechea said that his office never heard from researchers about their conclusions.

“They gave us an ‘F’ without any comment at all,” he said.

Goicoechea was quick to condemn the report, saying that it used a single rubric to judge states’ online transparency access regardless of their economic profiles or statutory differences.

“We don't have any respect for their rating system,” Goicoechea said. “It tries to apply one template to all 50 states without looking at the laws that pertain to those states.” 

In other words, a measure of what counts as transparency in Texas or Pennsylvania may not be applicable in Idaho, and vice versa. Beyond that, however, is the question of user experience: Is the public satisfied with what and how information can be accessed? Goicoechea said the answer is “yes.”

“I’ve been here 13 years. In all our years, not once have we had one citizen complain that they could not get the information they needed,” he said.

Idaho's online portal to state government data is Transparent Idaho, which was launched in 2013 and designed to make state government data available to the public. Despite the website, Idaho's U.S. PIRG transparency grade fell from a "C" in 2013 to an "F" in 2014.

"Idaho's transparency websites fail in part because they do not provide any information on the recipients of economic development subsidies. Additionally, Idaho does not link to tax expenditure reports from its portal."

U.S. PIRG "Following the Money 2015" 
PDF Following the Money 2015
Read the report here.

While U.S. PIRG Senior Analyst Phineas Baxandall said Idaho has made strides in making more information available online, the state still has work to do making systems that make accessing that information more user friendly. For instance, being able to determine what information is and is not available online could be a step forward for the state.

“We think that there can be legitimate reasons why a state might not put up every dollar. But at least listing what kinds of things, what agencies are excluded, is essential for having a debate about where those boundaries should be,” he said.

That would mean doing what Ohio has done in the past year—making more information available online while also adding keyword searches and an auto-filling feature to its transparency website search bar. In 2014, U.S. PIRG gave the Buckeye State a “D-.” This year, it received an “A+.”

Baxandall said that Idaho’s path to a better grade on next year’s report could be similar to Ohio’s. While some Idaho information, like state economic development subsidies and vendor-specific spending information, can still be tricky to find, Transparent Idaho’s ease of use could be improved.

“We look at search because you can't find out something without search capabilities,” he said. “Can you search by department? Keyword? Then we look at things such as off-budget agencies, economic development subsidies. Are those kinds of things also listed?”

For U.S. PIRG, a portion of the significance of public access to state data is starting conversations about how money and resources are used. It’s part of how the public holds state government accountable—and a way for  the public to sniff out corruption.

According to the 2012 State Integrity Investigation, Idaho scored a “D-,” making it  the ninth most corrupt state in the U.S.

Part of that score was a “C-,” or 72 percent, for public access to information, including a score of 75 percent for the legal right of citizens to access information and 69 percent for the effectiveness of that access.

Corruption can mean many things to many people—not least of all the people who measure corruption. The State Integrity Investigation used 14 criteria to grade states' risk of corruption, including public access to information; executive, legislative and judicial accountability; ethics enforcement; state budget processes; and civil service management.

Another corruption report from 2014, “The Impact of Public Officials’ Corruption on the Size and Allocation of U.S. State Spending,” used the number of public officials convicted for violations of federal corruption laws in each state, then indexed that measure with population and employment. By those measures, Idaho ranked as the 15th and 13th least corrupt state in the union, respectively.

That rankled Oguzhan Dincer and Michael Johnston, who wrote in a Harvard University Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics blog post that approaching corruption from the standpoint of convictions “suffers from several significant problems,” including incomplete data, failing to incorporate the resources available to prosecute corruption in each state, partisan bias, time lag between crimes and convictions, and the relative seriousness of the crimes.

In their rankings—based on a survey of journalists from each state—illegal corruption like bribes are “not at all common” in any of Idaho’s three branches of government. Bribes were found to be “not at all common” and “moderately common” in so-called “legal corruption,” defined as corruption that is legal but even seemingly unethical. Researchers based their study on the perception of journalists because they have “a better knowledge of state governments and spend a great deal of time observing the government officials and interacting with them.”

"Idaho, North and South Dakota and the majority of the New England states—Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont—are perceived to be the least corrupt states."

"Measuring Illegal and Legal Corruption in American States: Some Results from the Corruption in America Survey," Dec. 1, 2014
While academic studies wrestle with the problem of how to measure and define government corruption, a few experts have noted how the Internet and access to government information is changing public perceptions about it. 

Boise State University Associate Professor of Political Science Jaclyn Kettler said that increased online access to government data has begun to shift the definition of corruption from quid-pro-quo relationships and under-the-table deals, to campaign finance and misuse of taxpayer funds. Searchable databases are allowing the public and the media to piece together trends and patterns of behavior more quickly and efficiently.

Boise State University Political Science Professor Jaclyn Kettler. - BOISE STATE UNIVERSITY
  • Boise State University
  • Boise State University Political Science Professor Jaclyn Kettler.
“I do think we’re seeing some changes, and we’re not just focusing on the big stories, like the Oregon governor [John Kitzhaber] and his partner. I think we’ll start to see more of the identifying of minor violations of the law, these smaller types of things,” she said.

“Smaller” criminal and ethical violations on the part of government officials could include the series of scandals that ousted Illinois Republican Congressman Aaron Schock, who was reimbursed for about 170,000 miles on his personal car, which, when checked, registered about 80,000 miles on its odometer. As political bribery, blackmailing and murder become more rare, fraud and unethical behaviors are replacing them in the media.

That shift is having consequences for public appreciation of lawmakers.

“I think people increasingly are talking about money and politics and how it’s all corrupt. It’s a very negative evaluation. These stories compound that attitude,” Kettler said.

While there may be a correlation between corruption and the public’s ability to access state data online, Baxandall indicated that such a correlation may be more sophisticated than meets the eye.

“What’s the cause [of corruption]? What’s the effect? A place that’s generally considered to be fairly corrupt might have a fairly good ranking [in the U.S. PIRG report]; it could be that the past corruption causes the good transparency—or the new transparency shows the present corruption,” he said.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly described The State Public Integrity Investigation as a report of corruption. It is, in fact, a report on states' risk of corruption.
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Monday, September 22, 2014

Audit Clears Treasurer's Office

Posted By on Mon, Sep 22, 2014 at 2:04 PM

A management audit issued Sept. 18 has cleared Idaho State Treasurer Ron Crane's office of wrongdoing, the Spokesman-Review reports.

The audit cleared Crane's office of three longstanding concerns, including those having to do with gas card purchases totaling nearly $8,000 for trips between the capital and Crane's Canyon County home; the "Smart Money, Smart Women" conference, for which the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee has authorized $10,000 annually in Crane's budget; and trips to New York, where Crane, as part of an Idaho delegation, rode in stretch limos. Crane said that the delegation now rides in sport utility vehicles.

"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," Crane told the Spokesman-Review in the wake of the audit's findings.

Earlier audits uncovered that the treasurer's office may have cost the state as much as $27.4 million after it shifted some $10 million from distressed local investment accounts to the state's account and purchased mortgage-based securities at face, rather than market, value at a loss of approximately $17.4 million. These issues were not addressed in the recently released audit.

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Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Judge: Peterson Is Out as Idaho GOP Chair

Posted By on Wed, Jul 30, 2014 at 9:50 AM

A 5th District Court judge in Twin Falls has ruled in the matter of the who exactly is the chairman of the Idaho Republican Party.

The verdict is: The party doesn't have a chairman.

Judge Randy Stoker ruled Tuesday that embattled Idaho GOP Chair Barry Peterson is out; Peterson insisted that he's still in charge, in spite of this summer's state convention being unable to choose a chair. Peterson went as far as changing the locks on the party headquarters in Boise, which triggered a number of resignations from staffers.

Meanwhile, a meeting is set for this Saturday, Aug. 2, when party officials are expected to gather again in hopes of voting on a new chairman.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Idaho Statesman Reporter Dan Popkey Joins Raul Labrador's Office as Press Secretary

Posted By on Tue, Jul 29, 2014 at 3:30 PM

Former longtime Statesman reporter Dan Popkey, shown here discussing the Legislature at a 2011 meeting of the City Club of Boise. - CITY CLUB OF BOISE VIA FACEBOOK
  • City Club of Boise via Facebook
  • Former longtime Statesman reporter Dan Popkey, shown here discussing the Legislature at a 2011 meeting of the City Club of Boise.

For nearly 30 years reporter Dan Popkey has been pounding the streets of Boise and haunting the halls of the Statehouse, covering politics and the Legislature for the Idaho Statesman. That career started on the police beat, but led him to such high-profile stories as the sex scandal surrounding former U.S. Sen. Larry Craig—which earned him a Pulitzer nomination in 2007—and, more recently, taking on a larger role as a commentator on Idaho politics.

According to an announcement from Idaho Congressman Raul Labrador's office Aug. 29, Popkey, 55, is moving on from the Statesman to serve as press secretary for the Republican House member, known for frequent appearances on national television programs. As of July 6, Labrador has appeared nine times on NBC's Meet the Press.

Making note of Popkey's long experience as an observer of state politics, Labrador stated that "Dan will help me better communicate my message to constituents and the media."

For his part, Popkey applauded Labrador's "independence, integrity and fierce commitment to setting our nation's fiscal house in order," and said he is "thrilled with the opportunity to apply what I've learned to help advance our state's priorities in Washington."

Popkey will remain in Idaho, running Labrador's national press operations from the congressman's office in Meridian. According to the Statesman, Popkey's resignation from the paper is effective immediately.

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Saturday, July 26, 2014

Vast Majority of Migrant Chidren Have Already Found Families

Posted By on Sat, Jul 26, 2014 at 12:00 PM

In the wake of the revelation from the U.S. Department of Heath and Human Services, which indicated that some unaccompanied miigrant children had already been settled into Idaho, it turns out that the vast majority of children arriving in the U.S. from Central America are already in the custody of relatives.

On July 23, Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter fired off a letter to the Obama White House, saying Idaho didn't want any of the children, but within 24 hours, HHS said some children had already come to the Gem State. Even more children had been settled into Oregon and Washington. Democratic gubernatorial candidate A.J. Balukoff said Otter's letter was nothing more than political posturing.

And the New York Times is reporting that a total of 30,340 migrant children have been released to sponsors, according to the Office of Refugee Resettlement. Texas leads the list (4,280 children), followed by New York (3,347), Florida (3,181), California (3,150), Maryland (2,200) and Virginia (2,200).

The resettlement office says the children's sponsors must be vetted by criminal-background checks and promise to make sure that the child appears for required immigration court appearances. The adults do not have to be legal citizens, and the Times reports that officials acknowledge that some sponsors may be living in the U.S. illegally.

Children who are not able to find qualified sponsors (about 10 percent of the total) are placed in long-term shelters or foster care.

The majority of the children are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Idaho GOP, Dems Will Convene in Moscow Over the Next Two Weeks

Posted By on Thu, Jun 12, 2014 at 9:27 AM

The ratio of noise versus news will dial up considerably this weekend and next as Idaho Republicans and Democrats gather for their annual state political conventions. Reporters love conventions because there is a disproportionate number of men and women who love to see their names in the paper. Politicians love them because ... well, there are plenty of reporters to oblige politicans' desire to see their names in the paper.

So you can expect to read a fair amount of "he said, she said, he disagreed" news reports in the coming days as the Idaho Republican Party launches its annual state convention today in Moscow. The event continues through Saturday. Much will be made about struggles for party leadership and similar matters that rarely impact citizens' lives.

Former Arkansas Gov. and perennial presidential wannabe Mike Huckabee will be the guest speaker at this evening's convention kickoff dinner at Moscow's Best Western University Inn. Kentucky's junior senator, Rand Paul, will give the convention's keynote address Friday. Most of the convention's activities will be held at the University of Idaho Kibbie Dome.

Less than a week after Republicans hit the road, Idaho's Democrats will be going to Moscow to hold their own state political convention Friday, June 20, and Saturday, June 21.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

VanderSloot Sues Former Idaho Reporter for Defamation

Posted By on Tue, May 13, 2014 at 3:19 PM

Melaleuca CEO Frank VanderSloot has named a former Post Register reporter in his defamation lawsuit against Mother Jones, the Associated Press reports.

VanderSloot's attorneys have requested that Peter Zuckerman be added to a list of defendants for his appearance on MSNBC's The Rachel Maddow Show in May 2012. The lawsuit was originally filed in Idaho Falls' 7th District Court in early 2013, in which he contends that a February 2012 article about him, as well as two promotional tweets, defamed him. 

Should the court not allow his addition to the defendants list, a separate defamation lawsuit has been filed against Zuckerman.

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WSJ: Club For Growth Appears to Give Up Hope Simpson Can Be Defeated

Posted By on Tue, May 13, 2014 at 9:58 AM

Club for Growth, which had poured substantial amounts of cash to help fuel Bryan Smith's challenge to eight-term U.S. Rep. Mike Simpson in the May 20 GOP primary, has reportedly turned off the spigot.

The Wall Street Journal's political blog Washington Wire reports that Club for Growth "appears to have given up hope Mr. Simpson can be defeated."

Blogger Brody Mullins writes that new data indicates that Club for Growth hasn't spent a dime on Idaho race television advertising in the past two weeks after flooding the market with anti-Simpson ads since February.

"We're in a constant state of assessing and reassessing our races, moving resources in and out—depends on the day or week," Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller told the Washington Wire. "We did move considerable resources into the Nebraska senate race in the last two weeks."

Mullins writes, "The development in Idaho is a big win for the incumbent, Mr. Simpson, as well as the Washington political groups that have been supporting his campaign."

According to advertising data reviewed by the Wall Street Journal, more than $600,000 from the Chamber of Commerce and "establishment organizations" has been spent on pro-Simpson ads in the last months, compared with just $230,000 in spending by groups opposing his re-election. Leading the way was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce with nearly $400,000 in pro-Simpson advertising.

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Idaho Political Experts Weigh in at Boise State Public Radio's 'Road to Red'

Posted By on Tue, May 13, 2014 at 9:03 AM

From left to right: Betty Richardson, Jim Weatherby and Ben Ysursa - HARRISON BERRY
  • Harrison Berry
  • From left to right: Betty Richardson, Jim Weatherby and Ben Ysursa

Idaho's Congressional delegation, governorship and state legislature run so red they're scarlet. That hasn't always been the case. In the 1970s, Gov. Cecil Andrus became one of the state's most popular governors, and Democratic Congressman Walt Minnick served from 2008-12 until being unseated by Rep. Raul Labrador.

At a panel titled The Road to Red and hosted by Boise State Public Radio, the evening of May 12, outgoing Republican Secretary of State Ben Ysursa, Democratic strategist Betty Richardson and retired Boise State University Professor Jim Weatherby assembled to unpack why Idaho runs so crimson.

While the panelists discussed the conceptual reasons for why Idaho's elected leaders are predominantly Republicans, they also characterized the ascendance of Idaho's Republican majority as a function of the state's economic, demographic and electoral histories.

"The power of the Democrat Party was certainly diminished greatly by the mining, the timber, the unions. I don't think it's any surprise that the Republicans have risen," said Ysursa.

In the 1980s, Idaho had a popular Democratic governor, Cecil Andrus, but economic decline following the collapse of many of the state's natural resource industries weakened unions that traditionally supported Democrats. Meanwhile, a wave of immigration from California to the Idaho Panhandle turned a blue stronghold into a red one for generations. 

"These people weren't coming in from the Bay Area, they were coming in from Orange County. The people were moving to Idaho for cultural reasons rather than economic reasons. They were re-enforcing the conservatism that was already there," said Weatherby.

By 1994, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Larry Echo Hawk lost to former Lt. Gov. Phil Batt, whom Ysursa characterized as an inclusive Republican who built a statewide election apparatus.

"This sounds like heresy now, but he was saying, 'We need to be the party of the big tent,'" he told the crowd. 

Contemporary pressures are currently shaping the political landscape as voters prepare to hit the polls May 20, and the panelists wrapped up the symposium with their projections for this upcoming election.

"I think the current Republican Party platform is extreme. You see similarities to 1988. I think we're seeing generational shifts and geographic shifts. It's hard to say where we'll move in 2014, but I hope it's not glacial but I suspect it won't be," said Richardson.

"We still need to be the party of the big tent," said Ysursa. "But that might be utopian." 

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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Video of White House Correspondents Dinner: Comedian in Chief

Posted By on Sun, May 4, 2014 at 10:28 AM

Joel McHale and President Barack Obama
  • Joel McHale and President Barack Obama

It's unofficially called the "Nerd Prom."

And Saturday night's White House Correspondent's Dinner, attended by Washington, D.C.'s elite and a cavalcade of celebrities lived up to its promise with a lot of pomp and punditry. The guest of honor was, per usual, the president, and this year's comedy emcee was Joel McHale of NBC's Community and E's The Soup.

But it was Obama who got the best laughs of the night:

"The Koch brothers bought a table here this evening but they used a shadowy right-wing organization as a front. Good evening, Fox News."

“I’m feeling sorry for the speaker of the House as well. These days, House Republicans give John Boehner a harder time than they give me. These days, orange really is the new black."

“In 2008, my slogan was ‘Yes we can.' In 2013, my slogan was ‘Control, Alt, Delete.’”

And here are a few from Joel McHale:

"Over 8 million people have signed up for Obamacare, which sounds impressive; until you realize Ashley Tisdale has 12 million Twitter followers."

“I’m a big fan of President Obama. I think he’s one of the all-time great presidents. Definitely in the top 50.”
"The launch of HealthCare.gov was a disaster. It was so bad. I don't even have an analogy because the website is now the thing people use to describe other bad things. They say things like, 'I shouldn't have eaten that sushi, because I was up all night HealthCare.gov-ing.'"

"Mr. President, when you said you would close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, that was a classic. That was hilarious."

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