BOISE, Idaho (AP) — The battle over education — from merit pay for teachers to putting Hewlett-Packard laptops in high school classrooms — is The Associated Press' top story in Idaho for 2012.
For the second straight year, the public debate over a series of new laws aimed at reshaping the public schools dominated headlines across the state.
The debate came to a climax in November when voters upended all of the laws passed in 2011 to change teacher contract negotiations, reward teachers for student achievement and integrate more online learning into high school classrooms. In doing so, voters dealt a stinging rebuke to Superintendent of Public Schools Tom Luna and Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter, the chief supporters of the measures.
When the ballots were tallied, two-thirds of voters rejected Luna's plan to spend $180 million to lease laptops and create online-class mandates. A union-busting bill to put limits on teachers' collective bargaining rights and merit pay for teachers also flamed out.
Here are the other top stories for 2012 chosen by The Associated Press:
Idaho experienced one of its worst wildfire seasons, with 1,151 wildfires tallied and a nation-leading 2,600 square miles burned, the most in the state since 2007, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. The fires also claimed the life of 20-year-old firefighter, Anne Veseth of Moscow. She was killed Aug. 12 when she was struck by a falling tree while battling a fire near Orofino.
John McGee saga:
John McGee's political career survived a 2011 drunken-driving conviction, but sexual-harassment allegations ended the former Republican senator's career in February after a female aide told detectives she was propositioned for sex by McGee and subjected to other unwanted sexual advances. The former GOP majority caucus chairman from Caldwell was sentenced in August to at least 44 days in jail after pleading guilty to disturbing the peace.
Former Micron Technology CEO Steve Appleton's life ended Feb. 3 when the experimental plane he was piloting crashed at the Boise Airport. Appleton, who had a reputation as a hard-driving daredevil, was known for takings risks in stunt piloting and he survived a similar crash eight years earlier. Micron colleagues said that same energy and drive helped establish the Idaho company's place on the world stage as one of the leaders in memory-chip production.
Private prison woes:
Idaho's prison system had another rocky year. It kicked off with a report that some prison guards were smuggling in cellphones so inmates could carry out drug deals behind bars and ended with a warning from the ACLU that the state's largest private prison contractor appeared to be violating a legal settlement over conditions at Idaho's largest prison.
The months between were punctuated with scandals: An Associated Press investigation showed that the state's contract with private prison giant Corrections Corporation of America didn't save taxpayers any money at all despite a decade of state leaders promising otherwise; a court-ordered examination of the state-run Idaho State Correctional Institution showed that medical care at that prison was so poor that it amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. In November yet another lawsuit was filed by inmates at the Idaho Correctional Center claiming that private contractor CCA has essentially ceded control to prison gangs in an effort to control inmates and reduce staffing costs
It was no surprise when Idaho voters picked Republican Mitt Romney by a wide margin over Democrat Barack Obama in the race for U.S. President. Months earlier, Romney emerged as the winner in Idaho's first-ever Republican caucus held on Super Tuesday. Results from November also helped pave the way for a change in leadership in the Idaho House, where Oakley Republican Scott Bedke toppled Lawerence Denney in the race for House Speaker.
Idaho ended the 2012 fiscal year in June with more revenue than forecast in January, allowing the state to replenish reserves to nearly $90 million after slowing draining rainy day funds after the economy began to slide in 2008. State officials counted $2.59 billion in revenue through June, amounting to about $35 million more than anticipated and a 5.9 percent increase over the 2011 fiscal year. In another positive sign for the state economy, a 950,000-square-foot, $450 million Chobani yogurt plant opened Dec. 17 in Twin Falls.
Roughed up renewables:
Gov. C.L. "Butch" Otter said in 2011 Idaho was open for renewable energy business, but 2012 turned out to be a bust year for many companies seeking their fortunes from the sun, wind and even cow dung. A sparkling new $400 million polysilicon plant in Pocatello sits lifeless; Exergy Development Group idled $323 million in wind projects and wants out of obligations to build dairy biogas-to-power plants; and the light went out on Micron's twin alt-energy ventures, solar panel panels and energy-efficient LED lights.
Some, like Exergy, blamed uncertainty over rules governing their projects in Idaho for scaring off financiers. Others, like Hoku Corp., the owner of the Pocatello polysilicon plant, and Micron had Chinese rivals and intense global competition to thank for hard times.
During the 2012 Legislature, Senate Republicans introduced a bill requiring women seeking abortions to undergo an ultrasound. Sen. Chuck Winder said his bill originally made reference to an invasive procedure using a vaginal probe, but that language was removed. Conservative House Republicans ultimately rejected the mandatory ultrasound exams after the Senate backed it on a nearly party-line vote. Also, a federal judge heard summary judgment arguments in December concerning a lawsuit over Idaho's so-called fetal pain law and other abortion restrictions. The lawsuit was filed last year by Pocatello resident Jennie Linn McCormack against Bannock County prosecutor Mark Hiedeman after he charged her with a felony because police said she had an illegal abortion.
For the second consecutive year, an inmate execution is among the top-10 Idaho stories. The state executed 53-year-old Richard Leavitt June 12. He was convicted in 1985 for stabbing and mutilating 31-year-old Danette Elg. Leavitt's execution marked the first time witnesses had full viewing access to a convicted killer's lethal injection after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals a few days before the execution sided with The Associated Press and other news organizations seeking full viewing access to a convicted killer's lethal injection.