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Unemployment drops, workforce size up

Idaho’s unemployment rate dropped to 8.4 percent in December, as the state added 2,600 jobs the final month of 2011. The drop in the jobless rate was the fifth straight monthly decline and significantly below the 9.7 percent unemployment rate in December 2010.

The Idaho Department of Labor reported that there were 698,400 jobs in the Gem State last month, almost 13,000 more than a year ago. The state’s labor force, which is the number of people working or looking for work, also grew in the past year. The labor department also said 64,100 people remain unemployed.

Revised employment and jobless rates, based on new statistical data, will be released in late March, which could adjust employment and unemployment data for the next two years.

IBR Staff

Idaho Power increases stock dividend

The holding company of Idaho Power will increase its stock dividend by 10 percent, offering 33 cents per share. The quarterly cash dividend will be available on Feb. 29 to Idacorp shareholders of record on Feb. 6. The dividend is an increase over the 30 cent quarterly dividend Idacorp had offered investors for eight years.

“This dividend increase moves the dividend payout ratio closer to the Board of Director’s previously adopted long-term dividend target payout ratio of between 50 and 60 percent of sustainable Idacorp earnings,”  LaMont Keen, Idacorp President and CEO said in a news release.  “The dividend increase reflects the company’s confidence in the near- and long-term growth of the company and a commitment by the board to take action toward its goal of delivering a competitive total shareholder return.”

Idacorp had offered the 30 cent quarterly dividend since late 2003, resulting in an annual dividend of $1.20. Prior to that, the company offered a $1.86 yearly dividend, according to DividendChannel.com, which tracks dividend offerings.

The increased dividend was expected by D.A. Davidson & Co. analyst Jim Bellessa and research associate Michael Bates in a Dec. 30 research note.

IBR Staff

Report: INL radiation exposure was preventable

The U.S. Department of Energy says an accident that exposed 16 Idaho National Lab employees to radioactive contamination in November could have been prevented.

A report released Wednesday by the DOE’s Office of Health, Safety and Security says the INL missed a number of opportunities to make changes that could have prevented the exposure.

The investigation found that on Nov. 8, workers were taking plutonium plates out of storage when they came upon two containers labeled “Radioactive Materials.” After talking to supervisors, they removed the wrapping.

INL deputy lab director Riley Chase said the plates had been in storage for over 30 years and employees incorrectly analyzed the extent to which they had deteriorated. INL officials say they did not expect the employees to suffer health effects from the exposure.

The Associated Press

Bogus to open Thursday morning

The Bogus Basin Mountain Recreation Area, located 16 miles north of Boise, will open Jan. 19, one day after snow blanketed the slopes and much of southern Idaho. The date marks Boise’s latest ever opening, shattering an old record of Jan. 6.

Bogus officials reported more than 9 inches of snow on Jan. 18. Before opening, the resort cut year-round employees’ pay and lost and estimated $2 million in ticket sales.

IBR Staff

State parks hope voluntary vehicle fee alleviates budget woes

The Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation is launching a new program that allows vehicle owners to voluntarily pay a $10 fee when they register their cars that gives them access to 30 state parks in an effort to raise money for the embattled agency.

Director Nancy Merrill hopes the idea, modeled after a successful program in Michigan, will alleviate financial pressure on her agency that has been mounting since Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter moved to wean it from taxpayer support two years ago.

Parks and Recreation currently offers a similar annual parks pass, but it now costs $40 and raises only $800,000 annually. Merrill is banking on the reduced price — and access to a much-broader audience through Idaho’s car registration program — to help bring in an additional $1.9 million annually.

“We’ve been going through a lot of troubles and strife these last few years, and we’re now an agency reinvented,” Merrill told the Senate Transportation Committee on Tuesday. “We’re seeking a dedicated funding source. It would move us toward a long-term sustainable process.”

She expects a bill to create the program to be introduced Jan. 31. It’s called the Idaho State Parks Passport.

The parks budget is due to fall 2.7 percent to $35 million for fiscal year 2013, with only $1.3 million coming from taxpayers, according to Otter’s recommendation to the Legislature. Almost everything else comes from user fees, including camping, boat launches and recreational vehicle hookups.

State support is down 80 percent from 2010, when Otter gave Merrill the mandate to slash government support as the recession pinched overall Idaho tax revenue.

In Michigan, a similar program raised $10 million in the first eight months in 2011, and ended the year with $18 million in the bank, Merrill said. It allows annual access to Michigan’s 98 state parks and recreations areas and 1,000 boat launches.

About 28 percent of renewing vehicle owners opted for the Michigan sticker.

Merrill said she’s being a little more conservative in Idaho, which has a third as many parks. She estimates at least 20 percent of Idaho vehicle owners, or roughly 250,000 people, will take advantage of the program.

By itself, that would generate $2.5 million.

About $800,000 from Idaho’s existing $40 passport program would be lost, reducing the net take to $1.7 million.

But with revenue from out-of-state Idaho parks users who’d still pay $40 for an annual pass, combined with proceeds from campers, boaters and day-trippers who don’t have an Idaho State Parks Passport, the total new money would top out at about $1.9 million, Merrill estimates.

It’s needed to pay for deferred maintenance, because the loss of state taxpayer funding didn’t negate the need to continue to fix roofs, bathrooms and other ailing park infrastructure.

“We’ve had more visitors with less staff,” Merrill told lawmakers, adding each of Idaho’s 30 parks has been asked to come up with a business plan to capitalize on new revenue opportunities.

For instance, there will likely be Frisbee-golf rentals at Massacre Rocks along U.S. Interstate 84 in southern Idaho, sand board rentals at Bruneau Dunes State Park east of Mountain Home, and weddings at Old Mission State Park in Cataldo in northern Idaho.

“As they talk about ways to improve facilities like fixing bathrooms, they’re also talking about marketing ideas,” she said.

The Associated Press

Idaho leaders search for new jobs for Aberdeen

Eastern Idaho leaders say they’re still working to find a new purpose for the J.R. Simplot potato processing plant in Aberdeen.

The Simplot company announced last fall that it would close the plant in 2014, eliminating about 290 jobs.

Former Pocatello Mayor Roger Chase told the Idaho State Journal that the importance of the plant to the town of less than 2,000 people can’t be overstated.

Chase is one of several working on the issue. He says the first step is for workers to keep doing a good job at the plant in the hopes that Simplot will decide to keep the business open. Officials are also talking with Idaho State University to see if there are classes they can bring to Aberdeen to teach new job skills.

The Associated Press

Hay prices surge, but Idaho potato growers are worried

Last year’s high hay prices have many in Idaho’s agricultural community optimistic about 2012.

Idaho Hay and Forage Association Executive Director Rick Waitley told the Post Register that prices are at an all-time high, with the market averaging about $240 to $260 a ton.

Waitley credits the market to increased demand from Idaho cattlemen and dairymen, higher out-of-state demand and a good spring cutting in 2011. For prices to remain high in 2012, Waitley said growers will need a good first cutting this spring.

Potato prices dropped last year, down from record highs in the 2010. They stabilized slightly above average at year’s end.

Still, potato growers and state and federal agricultural officials are worried about new infestations of the potato cyst nematode. The microscopic wormlike pest was found in three fields last year near Shelley.

The Associated Press

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