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Weighing the cost: Blaine County attempts to deter use of death penalty, then backtracks on plan

HAILEY — Blaine County commissioners last week unofficially agreed to withdraw from a state fund that helps cover defense costs in death penalty cases. The move was an attempt to deter use of capital punishment, they said.

But just two days after the Jan. 2 meeting, each of the commissioners publicly announced that they had changed their minds. Pulling out of the Capital Crimes Defense Fund would have had the costly side effect of cutting off the county’s access to the State Appellate Public Defender’s Fund, which represents indigent defendants through all post-conviction appeals — something Commissioner Larry Schoen, who spearheaded the push, said he didn’t realize at the time.

Going forward, Schoen said, he plans to recommend that the county stay in the fund, while seeking a legislative amendment that would separate participation in the fund from access to the State Appellate Public Defender’s Office.

Though the incident likely won’t lead to any significant changes in Blaine County, the discussion and subsequent backlash from the county prosecutor and others raises questions about just how and why prosecutors decide to pursue the death penalty.

Pulling out of the Capital Crimes Defense Fund would have put the high cost of defending those facing the death penalty entirely on Blaine County — a shift that commissioners said they hoped would discourage the prosecutor’s office from pursuing the death penalty in the first place.

The death penalty, while legal in Idaho, is rare: the state has only put three people to death since 1976.

In his 22 years as Blaine County prosecuting attorney, Jim Thomas has never sought the death penalty in a murder trial. But, he said, money has never played a role in that decision. And he says if the county were to pull out of the fund, it wouldn’t have affected any future decisions.

Determining whether to pursue the death penalty is a “huge process” that involves considering the circumstances of a homicide, conversations with the family of the victim, consultations with law enforcement, and seeking advice from other experienced prosecutors, Thomas said.

“It’s probably the most important, weighty decision that I would make,” he told the Times-News. “And to think that we would make it on the basis of finances — I think that’s probably what insulted me most, frankly.”

To be eligible for the death penalty in Idaho, a case has to fit a certain set of criteria. First, the defendant must be found guilty of first-degree murder. But the case must also fit at least one factor under the legal statute governing whether the death penalty can be given.

Possible factors listed under the statute include “especially heinous, atrocious, or cruel” murders, a defendant who is seen as a continuing threat to society, and the murder of somebody working in the criminal justice system, such as a judicial officer or prosecuting attorney, for reasons related to their work.

By law, a prosecutor must be able to prove at least one of these factors beyond a reasonable doubt. But ideally, a prosecutor should be able to prove more than one of these factors, Twin Falls prosecuting attorney Grant Loebs said.

Just because a prosecutor can legally pursue the death penalty in a case doesn’t mean they will, as the legal criteria is just the beginning of the decision-making process.

Factors such as the mental health of the defendant and whether drugs, alcohol, or the bad influence of other people played a role in the crime must be taken into account, Loebs said, along with conversations with the defendant’s attorney and the wishes of the victim’s loved ones.

In Twin Falls County, prosecutors have sought the death penalty three times since 2006, according to Loebs. None of those cases resulted in a death sentence.

Twin Falls County commissioners have never discussed withdrawing from the Capital Crimes Defense Fund, Commissioner Don Hall said, and it appears unlikely that they’ll do so anytime in the near future.

“It really is a good insurance policy we all put in, especially for the smaller counties that maybe don’t have as much of a budget to handle something like that,” Hall said.

But in the event that Twin Falls commissioners were to consider pulling out, Loebs said, their withdrawal wouldn’t have an effect on the number of death penalty cases pursued by the county.

“It’s too monumental a decision to allow things like dollars and cents to play into it,” Loebs said.

“It’s probably the most important, weighty decision that I would make. And to think that we would make it on the basis of finances — I think that’s probably what insulted me most, frankly.” Jim Thomas Blaine County prosecuting attorney

If you do one thing

If you do one thing: Classic Movie Club will gather for a film and discussion at 6:30 p.m. at the Twin Falls Public Library, 201 Fourth Ave E. Free admission.

City plans to rehabilitate section of Pole Line Road to Eastland Drive North — and beyond

TWIN FALLS — The roadway has started to fail where Pole Line Road curves into Eastland Drive North. On Monday, the City Council will consider awarding a contract to get it fixed.

As bid, the project would go from Pole Line Road west of Mountain View Drive to Eastland Drive North south of Bitterroot Drive, stopping before Falls Avenue East. The contractor would do essentially a full reconstruction of the road, but it would reuse — and add cement to — the base layer materials, Twin Falls Public Works Director Jon Caton said.

While it’ll make the road safe for another 20 years, Twin Falls drivers could see delays along the major section of roadway all the way through the spring and summer.

“That sub-base has failed in some locations,” Caton said.

Reusing the base layer materials saves about 30 percent of the project compared to a traditional reconstruction, where the contractor would remove and replace the entire roadway, he said.

Twin Falls had anticipated this project before, but the harsh winter of 2016-2017 accelerated the need for it, Caton said. But contractors ran out of time to get the work done last summer.

This year, the city decided to greatly expand the project from the original plan.

“This type of construction is always better if you can do a little bit more, because of bulk purchasing,” Caton said.

Kloepfer Inc. submitted a low bid of just under $2 million — about 4 percent lower than the engineer’s estimate. If approved, utility work could begin in late February or early March, with construction in full swing by April, Caton said. The whole project likely wouldn’t be complete until August.

“Generally speaking, we plan to build it a half at a time,” he said. “We’re going to maintain traffic.”

Drivers can expect flaggers at times.

The reconstruction will be paid for using $1.2 million of emergency road funds granted by the state. The rest would be covered by the city’s street fund reserves.

This section of Pole Line Road and Eastland Drive North varies in width from five lanes to two lanes, Caton said. The city hopes that conversations with nearby landowners will result in the project becoming five lanes for the entire width — having two lanes in each direction, plus a center turn lane.

The City Council considers offering Koepfer the contract at its next meeting, which starts at 5 p.m. Monday in City Council Chambers, 203 Main Ave. E.

The Council will also hear an update from planning and zoning staff who have been working to amend the city’s Title 10 — zoning and subdivision regulations. Some code revisions have already been authorized, including wording to encourage xeriscaping, Senior Planner Jonathan Spendlove said.

But with a number of revisions to Title 10, staff is coming to the City Council to ask for more authorization.

“The discussion we’re going to have with the Council is, ‘Do we look at potentially rewriting the entirety of Title 10?’” Spendlove said.

Proposed changes are drafted only, and would still have to come up for approval later.

Also at the meeting, the Council will:

  • Swear in Twin Falls Police Officer Chelsea Akers.
  • Present operator license certificates to Dustin Peterson, Masyn Malmstrom and Brent Sanders.
  • Hear an update on the Twin Falls Urban Renewal Agency’s Main Avenue redevelopment project.
  • Hear an update from Twin Falls Fire Capt. Corey Beam and driver/operator Jesse Bowman on future fire stations and remodel projects.
  • Consider authorizing the mayor to execute a state local agreement to improve pedestrian safety at the intersection of Washington Street North and Caswell Avenue. Over the past five years, there has been one crash involving a pedestrian crossing Washington Street, and four rear-end crashes caused by vehicles attempting to stop for pedestrians waiting to cross Washington Street.
  • Have a public hearing for a request by the College of Southern Idaho to amend its development agreement in order to allow residence halls and rooming houses and raise the maximum building height to 50 feet at 315 Falls Ave.
  • Have public hearings for requests from Papa Murphy’s Take ‘N’ Bake Pizza owner Ryan Bybee, who wants zoning changes, and to vacate an easement, at the southeast corner of Canyon Falls Road and Harrison Street.
  • Have a public hearing on a request for a zoning title amendment that will allow wedding chapels and event centers to exist with a special use permit in portions of the area of impact.
  • Adjourn into executive session for the purposes of considering the evaluation, dismissal or disciplining of — or to hear complaints or charges brought against — a public officer, employee, staff member or individual agent or public school district.

Federal tax overhaul could cost Idaho taxpayers $100M

BOISE — Idaho taxpayers could end up paying roughly $100 million more next year as a result of the Republican tax overhaul that President Donald Trump signed into law last month, according to a recent analysis from the head of Idaho’s tax commission.

That number, however, is likely to fluctuate as lawmakers begin to prepare to dive into tax policy during the 2018 legislative session — which kicks off Monday.

Ken Roberts, chairman of the Idaho State Tax Commission, first revealed the fiscal impact of the tax reform law to lawmakers during Friday’s Economic Outlook and Revenue Assessment Committee meeting.

“All told, we believe the impact on Idaho (tax revenue) will be a positive $97.4 million,” Robert said, referring to collections during fiscal year 2019 — which doesn’t start until July and goes until the end of June 2019.

The federal policy cuts tax rates and nearly doubles the standard income deduction. It also caps or eliminates some popular itemized deductions, and sets the personal exemptions to zero.

“I think the perception was that this was going to be a tax decrease,” Roberts said. “But when Idaho doesn’t have as many provisions as other states, and you eliminate the exemptions, the standard deduction only gets you so far. Then you start paying more tax.”

The Idaho Legislature typically syncs the state’s tax code with the federal version each year to make it easier for residents and businesses to do their taxes, as well as avoid having to keep separate accounting books to track the different rules.

The typically mundane request comes from the Idaho Tax Commission at the beginning of each legislative session to ensure Idaho’s definition of adjusted gross income matches the Internal Revenue Code.

Yet this year, the issue of if and how Idaho will choose to conform has become a top priority for Idaho lawmakers. That’s because how lawmakers handle conformity will be the driving factor on how much money will be available for possible tax cuts while still ensuring education and other budget needs don’t get shortchanged.

State lawmakers are already tossing around ideas, but many of the details are not quite fleshed out.

For example, Senate President Pro Tem Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, said last month the state could consider keeping a personal exemption or offering a state child tax credit after citing concern the new state revenue would come disproportionately from larger families because of the elimination of the exemption.

Meanwhile, Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter declined to address the topic during The Associated Press annual legislative preview on Friday and instead said he would talk about it during Monday’s State of the State address.