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Megaloads court date set in Boise

Federal Judge B. Lynn Winmill will hear final oral arguments Feb. 6 on whether the United States Forest Service or the states have management power over what vehicles are allowed to travel through Highway 12.

Environmental groups filed the lawsuit in 2011 arguing that the USFS had jurisdiction over the highway because it falls within the designated Wild and Scenic River area for the Lochsa and Clearwater rivers. The Forest Service argues that the highway is an easement to the states of Idaho and Montana, giving the states authority over what traffic it can handle.

The issue arose after a plan to send 209 “megaloads” – or oversized, heavy truckloads of goods – belonging to Exxon Mobile and Conoco Philips along Highway 12 toward Canada became public.

Environmental groups, including Idaho Rivers United, which filed the lawsuit, and some residents of the river corridor sought to get the USFS in control of the decision-making after USFS personnel publicly stated that they were against the megaload transportation.

A decision is expected within a couple of months of the final arguments, but there is no hard date for Winmill to rule.

By Sean Olson

Lowe’s to hire 45,000 seasonal workers for spring

Home-improvement retailer Lowe’s Cos.plans to hire 45,000 seasonal workers ahead of its busy spring season, a sign that the nascent housing recovery is creating jobs.

Lowe’s, based in Mooresville, N.C., also plans to add 9,000 part-time employees on a permanent basis.

On average, seasonal employees will work 20 to 25 hours per week and the length of seasonal employment will vary. Most jobs will start in February. Some could last until September.

The prolonged housing slump hurt home-improvement stores, in part because homeowners have held back on big-ticket renovations. But now, most economists say the housing market is recovering and that the gains should continue this year.

Home prices rose 7.4 percent annually in November, real estate data provider CoreLogic said the week of Jan. 21. That’s the biggest annual increase since 2006, when the housing bubble burst.

On Jan. 22, The National Association of Realtors reported U.S. sales of previously occupied homes dipped in December from November, in part because of a limited supply of available homes. But for all of 2012, sales rose to their highest level in five years.

The Associated Press

USFS officials recommend against forest merger

U.S. Forest Service officials are recommending against merging the management of the Bridger-Teton National Forest in northwestern Wyoming and the Caribou-Targhee National Forest in southeastern Idaho.

Acting Regional Forester Marlene Finley has concurred with the recommendation from the supervisors of both forests who said consolidation wasn’t in the public’s best interests, agency officials said Jan. 22.

Former Regional Forester Harv Forsgren last year had asked the forest supervisors to examine whether consolidation could reduce fixed costs, saying options would need to save at least $1 million annually to be viable.

Bridger-Teton spokeswoman Mary Cernicek said Jan. 22 that agency officials didn’t see enough cost savings to warrant a merger, and there wasn’t enough overlap of the issues of each forest for a merger to make sense. They also found that consolidation would hurt the services the forests offer the public.

Both forests had already been examining workforce realignments. Cernicek says the forests will go ahead with implementing those plans.

Rep. Cynthia Lummis, R-Wyo., released a written statement saying she was pleased with the decision against “a very bad idea.” She had previously questioned whether administering a combined forest across state lines would work.

The Associated Press

Sunshine Mine targets 2014 for ore production

Executives with the Sunshine Silver Mines Corp. say the company intends to begin producing ore in 2014.

Company officials filed documents laying out their timeline with the Securities and Exchange Commission last month.

The Shoshone News Press also reports the company is preparing to sell shares and become a public corporation. The goal of the initial public offering is to raise $250 million — with some of that cash to be used for upgrades at the mine near Kellogg.

The company has 48 employees on site, but there is no ore being produced.

Historically, the mine has produced more than 360 million ounces of silver in the last 125 years.

Officials say recent and future improvements should enhance potential for extracting more silver ore from the site.

The Associated Press

Law firm sues former client

Moffatt Thomas, a full service law firm with offices all over Idaho, is suing former client Ally Financial for unpaid legal bills totaling about $150,000.

Ally Financial, formerly known as GMAC, separated its home mortgage division from Ally’s other banking and auto loan businesses before filing for Chapter 11 bankruptcy May. The Moffatt Thomas lawsuit, filed Jan. 10 in Ada County district court, alleges that Ally is refusing to pay its bills from legal issues arising before and after the bankruptcy filing.

The law firm had represented Ally in Idaho courts since 2009, when the company faced “a large increase in litigation initiated by dissatisfied borrowers against banks and residential mortgage lenders related to residential mortgage lending, servicing and foreclosure practices,” the lawsuit states.

Ally was one of five major mortgage lenders that agreed to pay a total of $26 billion as part of a settlement with state attorneys general regarding the mishandling mortgage foreclosures.

Moffatt Thomas reports in the lawsuit that for the cases it represented Ally or its subsidiaries in the law firm “obtained favorable results for Ally in numerous judicial actions and experienced no unfavorable outcomes.”

The lawsuit requests a judge order Ally to pay the nearly $150,000, plus attorney fees.

By Sean Olson

Principals from two firms join forces

Principals from two trial litigation firms in Boise have joined forces to create the Andersen Banducci firm.

Both Steve Andersen and Thomas Banducci, along with partners in their previous firms, have been involved in some of the highest stake litigation in Idaho in the past several years.

Banducci’s former firm, Banducci Woodard Schwartzman, was responsible for the highest jury award granted in Idaho — $63 million from Saint Alphonsus. Andersen is a specialist in product defect lawsuits, including winning a $56 million award for a defective agricultural fungicide and acting as an attorney in the ongoing potato price fixing case in federal court.

Wade Woodard and Ben Schwartzman, partners in Banducci’s former firm, are listed as partners in the new venture. Amanda Brailsford, who had worked with Andersen, is the final partner listed in Andersen Banducci.

Banducci said the realignment to a new firm was meant to add capabilities to handle even more types of trial litigation.

“We have expanded capability and just a whole lot more experience in trial than we did before,” he said.

Sean Olson

Some Idaho Legislators Want Limits on Citizen Initiatives

Some Idaho state Senate Republican leaders are pushing a bill that would make it harder for citizen initiatives to qualify for state ballots. The Spokesman-Review reports Idaho Farm Bureau lobbyist Russ Hendricks requested the legislation, which would require signatures from at least 6 percent of the residents in 22 out of Idaho’s 35 legislative districts before an initiative or referendum could qualify for the ballot.

The current rules require signatures from at least 6 percent of voters in half of Idaho’s counties. Sen. Curt McKenzie, R-Nampa, sponsored the measure on Jan. 21. Farm Bureau spokesman John Thompson says the group is concerned about animal cruelty initiatves proposed in other states that would restrict some farming practices. Last year three citizen initiatives resulted in Idaho voters rejecting three school-reform laws.

The Associated Press

Report forecasts growth for U.S. chemicals industry

Large discoveries of unconventional oil and gas across the nation are expected to fuel rapid growth in the domestic chemicals industry, though most of that production will be consumed overseas as demand for plastics and other products increases in the Middle East and China

Those were the findings of a study released Jan. 23 by market research firm IHS. According to the report, domestic consumption of chemical products is expected to remain moderate over the next decade, though overall production is expected to increase 5 percent from 2013 to 2020 driven largely by exports.

The report, which examined the impact of unconventional finds on the global industrial landscape, noted a glut in U.S. natural gas production, and the resulting drop in gas prices, is making North America a more attractive place for chemicals production.

Manufacturers use natural gas and other hydrocarbons as raw materials in the production of plastics and other chemicals, and fuels stock can represent as much as 75 percent of the total cost of production, according to the report. Lower natural gas prices mean manufacturers can produce more products for cheaper.

Methanex of Vancouver, the world’s largest methanol supplier, has started construction on a $550 million methanol plant in Geismar and is weighing a decision to move a second dormant plant from Chile to the site. The state offered Methanex $3.8 million to offset the cost of infrastructure improvements and $1.5 million for relocation expenses.

The IHS report predicts North America will remain a low-cost source of energy and feedstock for the industry for the foreseeable future. The environment could encourage manufacturers of certain durable and non-durable goods largely produced overseas to return to the states, including polyethylene producers. Polyethylene is the thin plastic used to make packaging, plastic films and bottles.

Dolan Media Newswires

Study: High school grad rate highest since ’76

A U.S. Education Department study says the high school graduation rate nationally is the highest since 1976, but more than a fifth of students fail to get a diploma in four years.

The study released Jan. 22 says that across the U.S. the dropout rate for male students was 3.8 percent. For females, it was 2.9 percent.

The dropout rate was higher among males in every state. The percentage gap between male and female dropouts ranged from lows of 0.2 percentage points in Idaho to highs of 1.7 in Connecticut and Rhode Island

Officials said the steady rise of students completing their education is a reflection of the struggling economy and a greater competition for new jobs.

The national dropout rate was about 3 percent overall, down from the year before.

The Associated Press

Idaho-made vodka served at inaugural ball

Revelers at the Presidential Inaugural Candlelight Reception in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 21 could raise a glass of organic vodka made in Idaho. American Harvest Organic Spirit, made by Distilled Resources near Rigby, was the exclusive vodka for the reception attended by President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden and both of their wives.

American Harvest, made using organic wheat grown near Idaho Falls, hit Idaho liquor store shelves in May 2011 and will be available in all 50 states in March. The brand, owned by Sidney Frank Importing Co. of New York, will be the first spirit available nationwide made by Distilled Resources, according to spokesman Gray Ottley. Sidney Frank owns and imports other brands of spirits, including Jagermeister liqueur and Gekkeikan Sake.

Distilled Resources also makes several brands of spirits using Idaho potatoes, including Blue Ice, Teton Glacier and 44 Degrees North vodkas, as well as Cheap Shot, a boxed vodka. The eastern Idaho distiller has 26 employees.

By Brad Iverson-Long

Mortgage brokerage files for bankruptcy protection

A couple behind a once-prominent Maui mortgage brokerage is seeking Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

The Maui News says Kathleen Patricia Morris and David Duffy Herman’s court and legal documents indicate between 100 and 199 creditors, and between $1 million and $10 million in estimated liabilities. The couple’s voluntary petition requires only an estimated range of creditors, assets and liabilities.

The couple said in a joint bankruptcy filing that the debts are tied to their Kihei-based company Hawaii’s Premiere Mortgage Co. Those debts include unpaid mortgages and loans against more than two dozen properties in Hawaii and Idaho.

A reorganization plan proposes paying the first mortgagees or most senior secured creditors on 26 different properties monthly payments at 3.5 percent interest over 20 years. Multiple creditors are against the plan.

The Associated Press

AT&T buys Alltel

AT&T Inc. has reached a deal to buy remnants of the Alltel wireless network for about $780 million to boost its spectrum holdings in rural areas.

The Dallas-based phone company is buying the licenses, retail stores and network assets, along with about 585,000 subscribers, from Atlantic Tele-Network Inc. The news sent the Beverly, Mass.-based company’s shares up $4.73, or 12 percent, to $44.10 in late afternoon trading. AT&T shares added 30 cents to $33.74.

The network, operated under the Alltel brand, covers about 4.6 million people in mainly rural areas across six states — Georgia, Idaho, Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio and South Carolina. It generated revenue of about $350 million for the first nine months of 2012.

Alltel was a wireless network that operated in 34 states until it was bought by Verizon Wireless in 2009. Federal regulators made Verizon sell off parts of the network to AT&T and ATN.

Analyst Christopher King at Stifel Nicolaus observed that ATN bought its six-state holdings for $223 million in 2010, meaning it more than tripled its money in three years.

AT&T said it expects that as it upgrades the network in the acquired areas, mobile Internet service will improve for both Alltel and AT&T customers. However, it will need to convert the cell towers from the “CDMA” technology Alltel uses to the “GSM” technology AT&T’s network uses. That means Alltel subscribers will need new phones.

The deal remains subject to approval by the Federal Communications Commission and Department of Justice. The companies said they expect the deal to close in the second half of the year.

The Associated Press

Committee introduces bill on cold call restriction

A House committee has agreed to debate a bill to lift the ban placed on the ability of telephone companies to make customer cold calls.

The House State Affairs Committee introduced the bill Jan. 24 and sent it to the Business Committee for review.

The bill is being pushed by Minnesota-based Frontier Communications and Louisiana-based Century Link Inc. The companies say a 2000 law to end cold calls to customers and create a “Do Not Call” list hampers their ability to market new services to new customers.

Lobbyist and former Idaho Rep. Jim Clark says the bill gives customers the ability to opt out from solicitation calls.

Pioneer is a landline company with more than 100,000 customers in northern Idaho that is trying to break into the high-speed Internet market.

The Associated Press

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