Writings and observations

Article III Section 12 of the Idaho Constitution says, in simple and direct language, the following: “The business of each house, and
of the committee of the whole shall be transacted openly and not in secret
session.” That is all it says on the subject of openness in the Idaho Legislature.

Now let’s imagine a hypothetical bill: HB001, which follows the usual path to adoption. It surfaces in a House committee, which votes to recommend it be introduced by the full House. Sent to the House floor, it is formally introduced and read for the first time, and then – this is what happened to almost all bills – it is sent to a committee, which reviews it. The committee may decide to “hold” – kill – it, or suggest amendments, or send it as is back to the House floor for a vote there. In this case, the bill is given a “do pass” recommendation, returned to the House floor, where it is read (in very abbreviated form) for a second time, and then, a day or two later, for a third time. It then is voted on and, if passed, it is sent to the Senate, where the same process more or less repeats. If the Senate, too, passes it, it goes to the governor for signature or veto.

From the moment of its introduction until it either dies or is sent to the governor, the bill has a continuous history in the House and Senate. When the bill is sent from the House floor to a committee for further review, that is an action of – part of “the business of” – the House; and what happens to it there is surely also a part of the business of the House. One would think.

The Idaho Supreme Court, or at least a 3-2 majority of it, doesn’t so think. In its decision today in Idaho Press Club v. State Legislature of the State of Idaho, our hypothetical HB001 is part of “the business of” the House as long as it remains on the floor, but drops into some lawmaking netherworld once it is assigned to a committee, then becomes once again part of “the business of” the House once it returns to the floor. The public has a constitutional right, the court says, to track activity on that bill while it is on the House floor, but not when it is being acted upon by a House committee.

How can this make sense? In the majority opinion authored by Justice Daniel Eismann, the point is that the constitition didn’t specifically say that committee meetings must be open to the public. More significant, it suggested, is the reference to the “committee of the whole” – noted in the constitution, while other committees are not.

The “committee of the whole” is an odd legislative beast (quite different, as the majority notes, from other committees), used by House and Senate as a theoretical replacement for their full bodies for the purpose of amending bills on the floor. What it means is that – let’s go back to HB001, and say a committee had recommended it be amended – the House would adjourn, and then convene this theoretically completely separate body called “committee of the whole” whose sole purpose is to amend the bill. (No, no sensible reason this runaround is still on the books, or why the regular old House or Senate body shouldn’t be constitutionally enabled to do the amendments, comes to mind.) In other words, the House (0r Senate) has just said, “we ain’t the House (or Senate) any more” – the constitution essentially bans the use of that device as a means to closing floor sessions.

You can see why the majority’s logic relies on a stunning narrow reading of the constitution: A sentence whose purpose seems evidently drafted for the purpose of ensuring openness has been interpresented to allow for closure wherever it isn’t inescapably banned. The basic tenor of the constitution, and of Idaho law for that matter, runs in the opposite direction: Keep it open unless there’s a truly compelling reason for closure.

It is true that for many years legislative committees met behind closed doors in Idaho (as they did in many other states). That doesn’t mean they were acting correctly; several common legislative procedures in use today (such as that used to satisfy the “reading” of bills) could easily run into trouble under legal challenge.

Justices Jim Jones and Roger Burdick dissented. Here is part of what Jones (with Burdick concurring) had to say:

I am unable to read the Idaho Constitution in such a fashion as to allow the State
Legislature, which was established by the people, to have the ability to exclude the people from any stage of the lawmaking process. The majority opines that since committees are not specifically mentioned in art. III, § 12 as being subject to the prohibition against transacting business in secret session, the Legislature can close committee meetings to the public. On the other hand, there is no provision in the Constitution that authorizes or provides for the Legislature to establish committees to conduct any of its legislative business. Just because the Legislature has chosen to conduct a good deal of its work in its various committees does not mean that the legislative business conducted in those committees can be shielded from public view. Based on my understanding of the role of committees and the history of art. III, § 12, I simply cannot accept the notion that the people would require the Legislature to conduct the people’s business in public yet intended to permit the Legislature to create smaller forms of itself and conduct that business behind closed doors. Therefore, I respectfully dissent.

Should be noted: The decision isn’t likely to change actual current procedures at the Idaho Legislature, which with only rare exceptions over a period of decades has been riforously open: Only rarely have committees, in the last generation and more, sought to close their meetings.

But that’s owing to the good will of the legislators – so far – who generally have kept the doors open. If future legislators decide otherwise, Idahoans will get no help in learning about many of their activities from the Idaho Constitution.

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forestGood perspective in an Oregonian piece on a tectonic change in the timber industry. “Tectonic” may be the wrong adjective since it connotes glacial speed; but we’ll stock with it in suggesting a fundamental realignment.

The core point in the piece was this: “Historically, giant timber companies managed vast empires that included both mills and forestland. At their peak, International Paper Co., Louisiana-Pacific Corp., Georgia-Pacific Corp. and Boise Cascade Corp. owned more than 25 million acres. But tax and business changes over the past decade encouraged specialization, and companies increasingly split ownership of the trees from production in the mills.”

Now, privately-held partnerships, like the Obsidian Finance Group, Forest Capital Partners and the Campbell Group, increasingly are buying and holding the timber lands.

Why the change? The article doesn’t spell it out, but one suggestion is this: Management of timber lands properly should be considered a long-term investment proposition, not something you can turn into big profits in the next quarter. But what they lack in immediate returns they gain in solid, long-term value, something concrete and real that will have value, and likely not lose value, years from now. (The Campbell Groups likes to say that “Over the past 35 years, timberland has outperformed common stocks and long-term corporate bonds.”) In other words, sounds like a job for a privately-held company: One less concerned with the hot analysis from Wall Street next week than it is in building value deep into the future.

Something to think about as we consider the structure of resource industries, and of business in general, in this country.

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migrating salmon - FPC pictureWonder if this will get as much attention?

A few months back, Idaho Senator Larry Craig inserted language into a bill which aimed to de-fund the Fish Passage Center at Portland, it being the organization that actually counts the number of fish (of certain types) passing through the Columbia River system. Craig said the small agency duplicated efforts elsewhere; advocates said that was not true, and the real issue was that the FPC was collecting data inconvenient to Craig’s position on salmon recovery. Most directly, the Center has been paid for by the Bonneville Power Administration.

That story was the last most Northwesterners heard of the situation. Quietly, however, Indian tribes and environmental groups challenged the action legally, and on Friday their efforts paid off. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals held that the measure into which Craig inserted his de-funding language was not actually a bill which was made into law – that technically, it amounted to a statement of intent and nothing more. And ordered the Center re-funded.

Next move?

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Oregon Washington

Oregon officials have been debating for some time whether they will practically be able – as Seattle has started to do – to get in on the next generation of high-tech activity: biotechnology. The signs have looked good, but the results haven’t been there.

Till Friday. That was when the California biotech firm Genentech said it would set up a substantial shop at Hillsboro, eventually hiring 200 to 300 people to staff it. Specifically, the company “announced its decision to acquire land in Hillsboro, Oregon for the construction and development of a biotherapeutic fill/finish manufacturing facility, which is expected to be licensed and operational in 2010.”

Those jobs, which likely will pay well, are significant, but much the smaller part of the importance of this. (Though Fortune mangazine has named Genetech number 1 on its list of best American companies to work for.) The Beaverton-Hillsoboro area already has many of the components you’d need to make biotech go: It has Intel, loads of other tech development, and major medial research and provision organizations (notably the Oregon Health & Sciences University) in the immediate vicinity, and all the big-city resources that could be needed right over the mountain in Portland.

Now, with the arrival of a major corporate biotech presence – and Genetech is a major operator in the field – the engine may have what it needed to start turning.

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Filing time is over, and it’s time for a quick overview of where parties and candidates stand as campaign season formally kicks in.

You can check the full and final candidate list as well – it’s just been posted – and various points will be worth dwelling upon. For now, consider these . . .

Vacancies. Before reviewing the Idaho vacancy rate, let’s place it in context. Ten days ago candidate filing ended in Oregon; there, with 75 legislative seats up for election, Republicans failed to fill nine ballot spots (a miss rate of 12%) and Democrats failed to fill four (5.3%). Now, in Idaho? Of 105 legislative seats up for election, Republicans filed to fill 11 (10.5%) while Democrats failed to fill 36 (34.3%). (Three of the seats unchallenged by Democrats are actually open seats, including those of retiring Speaker Bruce Newcomb and congressional candidate Bill Sali). The blank rate is much higher in Idaho, and we can easily see to whose advantage.

Having said that, the surprise here isn’t the number of vacancies allowed by the Democrats – 36 isn’t especially unusual, and better than in some years – but rather those allowed by the Republicans. After all, there are only 20 Democrats in the whole legislature, and more than half of them have been given a pass.

At least for now. Slots can still be filled at the primary election through write-in. But ordinarily, only a few slots per cycle are filled that way. Mostly, what we see now is what we get.

Among major and statewide offices, just one – secretary of state – lacks a major-party contest. Even if some others are placeholders, that’s a better record than usual.

Late surprises. There are always a few; this time most are on the Democratic side. Foremost among these this time has to be the filing in the lieutenant governor’s race of Democrat Larry La Rocco, a former two-term congressman (1990-94), who has been threatening to run for something for a few years now. The filing places him in a primary contest with Canyon County activist Dan Romero, who has been in the race since early in the year at least. But if La Rocco wins the primary, the result would be a fascinating setup: He and the Republican nominee and incumbent, Jim Risch (who almost certainly actually will be governor by the time the general election gets here), faced off exactly 20 years ago in a state Senate race. (We remember; we were there and covered part of it.)

Also of interest on the legislative level is the run of Chuck Oxley, till recently an Associated Press newsman and now communications director for the state Democratic Party; and Jim Ruchti, a young Pocatello Democratic leader who could easily become one of the major political figures in that part of the state in years to come.

The standout late surprise on the Republican side: Dennis Mansfield, former (2000) congressional candidate and activist, running in the Republican primary for the state Senate against John Andreason, who has been a figure of frustration for some years to more socially conservative people. That should be a race to watch.

Judges. Just two district judges are challenged – John Mitchell of the 1st district in the north, and James Herndon of the 7th, over in the east. Neither Supreme Court Justice Dan Eismann nor Court of Appeals Judge Darrel Perry is challenged. Sounds as if the riot against “activist judges” isn’t running high in Idaho.

Question mark. Are we reading this wrong, or is Andy Hedden-Niceley – co-founder of the liberal Boise Weekly, former Democratic candidate – running for 1st District U.S. House under the very conservative Natural Law Party banner?

APPENDIX. Legislative seats left unopposed (incumbent noted):

By Republicans: 2 House A (Shepherd); 7 House Bil (Rusche); 16 Senate (Langhorst); 16 House a (Henbest); 19 House A (Pasley-Stuart); 19 House B (LaFavour); 25 Senate (Stennett); 25 House A (Jaquet); 25 House B (Pence); 30 Senate (Malepiei); 30 House A (Boe)

By Democrats: 3 House B (Hart); 4 Senate (Goedde; Lee listed as filing but has announced withdrawal); 6 Senate (Schroeder); 6 House A (Trail); 9 House A (Denney); 9 House B (Edmunson); 10 Senate (McGee); 10 House A (Ring); 11 Senate (Little); 11 House A (Skippen); 11 House B (Bauer); 13 House Bil (Deal); 14 House A (Moyle); 15 House Bil (Black); 20 House A (Snodgrass); 21 Senate (Fulcher); 21 House A (Sali, departing to run for U.S. House); 21 House B (Bayer); 23 House B (Brackett); 24 Senate (Coiner); 24 House B (Block); 26 Senate (Cameron); 26 House B (Bell); 27 Senate (Darrington); 27 House A (Bedke); 27 House B (Newcomb, retiring from House); 28 House A (Lake), 28 House B (Cannon, retiring from House); 31 Senate (Geddes); 31 House A (Bradford); 31 House B (Loertscher); 32 House B (Rydalch); 34 Senate (Hill); 34 House A (Shirley); 34 House B (Raybould); 35 House A (Wood).

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Lest you forget, there’s still an Idaho legislative session going on. Brandi Swindell, pro-life activist and former Boise city council candidate, has not forgotten, nor has she forgotten that the current favorite congressional candidate of the pro-life community, Bill Sali, still has a piece of pro-life legislation floating around the House. So she held a press conference, attended by reporters on the steps of the statehouse to announce that she was going to schedule a meeting to, uh, presuambly, get that bill moving. Of course reporters showed up, an announcement of intent to schedule a meeting being such important news.

All of which did in fact lead to a meeting, of Swindell with House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, to which the speaker didn’t admit reporters but after which he probably wished he had. The usually amiable speaker reported to the Lewiston Morning Tribune: “She called me a bitch. I didn’t know the speaker of the House could be a bitch.”

Swindell’s version of events at the meeting is at odds with Newcomb’s. (The story is in the March 17 Tribune; no free link available.) The speaker is undoubtedly right, though, that Swindell was after not a meeting or a negotiation or an effort at compromise, but rather a confrontation and a media event. The intended beneficiary, presumably (whether Swindell acknowledges it or not) would be Sali – the narrative being that his efforts to champion pro-life legislation are being squashed again by those squishies in the legislative leadership. (Never mind that similar legislation has been repeatedly thrown out by courts, and that Sali hasn’t yet come up with a version of it that even he’s willing to stand by.)

That’s how politics is played these days – as the news media, which will tomorrow be blasted once again by conservatives as “liberal,” gets used like their child’s plaything once again. Or, in the language of pro-life meetings these days, like their bitch.

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The frustration must be immense. Jim Risch will (very likely) become governor of Idaho in a few weeks, replacing Interior Secretary-designate Dirk Kempthorne, only to relinquish the job at the end of the year. A job for which, not so long ago, he was set to run this year. And then go back to being the light-gov, the fill-in, the understudy.

Jim RischThis is the last day of candidate filing in Idaho (and we’ll file on that later today too), and Risch still had barely enough time to have withdrawn his candidacy for a second term as lieutenant governor and filed for governor. His announcement this morning that he will not do that, but seek re-election instead, may end some overnight suspense in Boise, but in spite of it all doesn’t come as a surprise.

Risch is a pragmatic guy, no tilter at windmills. By saying, as he did in November, that he would not run for governor, he effectively released all his supporters to run over to the camp of C.L. “Butch” Otter, whose campaign juggernaut is extremely well funded and organized at this point. With two months left until the primary election, the odds against success had to be overwhelming, even with the incumbency advantage. Risch, one of the smarter political analysts in the state, must understand that as well as anyone.

There is another factor, though, that follows from a thread running through Risch’s many years in and around public office: His respect for institutions. His regard for the institution of the state Senate, as an institution, surfaced often in his years of debate, observation and voting there. Risch has been one of the leading voices in support of preserving the old Ada County courthouse – again, a regard for tradition and institution. Many of Risch’s predecessors as lieutenant governor have spoken, at some point or another, of abolishing the office; Risch (to our knowledge) never has, but does seem to have some regard for the office as such. Looking across the hallway to the governor’s office, the same thought processes probably carry through: That the office itself is something worthy of treating with high respect, and not casually.

In explaining his decision for a re-elect campaign, Risch was quoted as saying this morning, “The decision comes down to this: Do I want to engage in a difficult campaign or do I want to discharge the duties of governor? I’ve chosen the latter.” Risch’s personal history suggests that framing had to do with more than lofty rhetoric, and it may speak well of his prospects as he prepares for his new, albeit temporary, job.

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ferry passengers at Seattle docks-pic from Washington State FerriesThe Seattle waterfront area – especially what the the revival of debate over the Alaska Way Viaduct – has been good for a strong debate over what is best for that area. It’s about to get reinforced.

Tomorrow’s Federal Register has this notice: “The Federal Highway Administration and Federal Transit Administration are issuing this notice to advise the public that an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) will be prepared for the Washington State Ferries Seattle Ferry Terminal Project in Seattle, Washington.”

Comment deadline will be May 19. Details are available at the ferry terminal project site.

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Invitation to WCF eventYou could say it was just a dinner, and it was an honor, and it wasn’t explictly ideological at all, and leave it at that, and be honest as far as that goes. But this attendance at this event is going to go much further: you can just see it working its way into campaign speech after campaign speech over the next few months – and not the speeches of the honoree.

The event in question was an awards dinner by the WCF, the Women’s Campaign Fund, and it was held in New York City on March 13. The group is about encouraging women to run for office – no particular or specific philosophical inclincation necessary, and people of both major political parties are involved. (It’s buried in the organizational literature these days, but the group clearly is pro-choice on abortion.) And yet you get a sense that there is a tilt here. The guests include Massachusetts Senator John Kerry and his wife, and Ann Richards, the former Democratic governor of Texas (before she lost to George W. Bush) and Charles Rangel, the Democratic congressman from New York. The guest speaker is Al Franken, of Air America.

The lone “honored guest” from the Northwest: former Idaho state Senator Sheila Sorensen, now seeking the Republican nomination for the U.S. House.

Who really might have done better without the honor.

This was one award that, as the Red State Rebels blog predicted, hasn’t yet appeared on Sorensen’s campaign web site. But it has been noticed.

Consider this post from Bryan Fischer of the Idaho Values Alliance: “. . . it seems that Ms. Sorenson has shown her true colors by attending a pro-abortion event earlier this week in New York City. The Women’s Campaign Fund held a fundraiser Monday night, hosted by liberal talk show host Al Franken, to raise money for its foundation and its political action committee. The fund offers financial help to women candidates of both political parties who support abortion rights. Ms. Sorenson was in attendance, and her pictured appeared prominently in at least one press account of the event.”

The web site of Bill Sali, the top campaign fundraiser so far, had this from its campaign manager: “I’ll guess Sheila Sorensen is hoping nobody notices way back here in conservative Idaho. Apparently Sheila thinks she can talk conservative with the voters of Idaho and then raise money from some of the most liberal activists across the country. Does Sheila believe that what happens in New York stays in New York? Since she is running as a Republican candidate, Sorensen owes the voters of Idaho an explanation for why she was an “honored guest” at a liberal fundraiser headlined by Al Franken, a radical liberal who has called for the impeachment of George W. Bush, and said in his own book that he supports gay marriage and abortion on demand.”

This is only the beginning: You’ll be hearing much more about this. Over and over again, in the next couple months . . .

UPDATE (3/18) The Sorensen campaign notes, in response, that it is not raising or accepting money generated from the WFC event, and that Sorensen attended in large part t0 listen – not a bad thing for a prospective lawmaker to do. It also noted that not all the people noted as being invited guests at the event actually appeared there. Our view was not, in any event, that Sorensen was wrong to attend – other than from a politically strategic standpoint. On that front, we still see no reason to think that damage will not occur, or that it will be minor when it does.

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M aybe the face time with President Bush last summer helped turn the trick. Maybe the hammering Vice President Cheney has taken in recent weeks contributed. Maybe the field of people who wanted to sign up with an increasingly beleaguered administration has been shrinking. Whichever, or for whatever other reason, Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne is about to move on out of the region, back to D.C., to become secretary of the Department of Interior.

Dirk KempthorneHe was listed from the beginning as a top prospect for the job, but then he’s been listed as a prospect for other Bush Administration jobs before, and been turned down. This one happened relativley quickly, without a lot of public vetting of names (some have surfaced, but not for long), and without any public comment to this point from Kempthorne himself. Some advance comment once before may have cost him an earlier opportunity.

This appointment has a number of spinoff angles, various of which we’ll address soon. Consideration 1: Kempthorne as interior secretary, and as ex-governor.

He will not have a long time in the job, just somewhat over two years (presumably). How much can get done by way of policy change in that amount of time is unclear. But then, the question may answer itself: Kempthorne probably won’t be charting new paths are changing many directions, because the approach and p0licies under Gale Norton are Bush Administration plans that will continue through 2008.

Those policies, and the actions of the office, have developed some controversy. (The tribal gaming problems in the office, while in no way Kempthorne’s doing, will continue to be closely watched.) For the moment, though, Kempthorne may avoid most of it. While he has stuck closely to the conservative Republican line on environmental matters, he is smoothly-enough spoken to have avoided lightning-rod status on any of those matters. As governor, environmental issues have not been at the forefront of his efforts, other than on some local endangered species matters (the grizzlies and the wolves, notably). If you don’t like the Bush Administration’s approach generally on environmental matters, you won’t like Kempthorne’s. At the same time, he won’t stand out from that crowd as especially objectionable, the way James Watt did under Ronald Reagan.

That likely means confirmation by the Senate, of which he is a former member (such a consideration usually helps), will not be a problem. Idaho’s congressional delegation has already jumped on board with its support, and the Senate vote isn’t likely to be close. (Though it will be interesting to see what criticism doesn materialize.)

The timing of this appointment has some perversity from several angles. From Kempthorne’s. there is this: His gubernatorial legacy is in peril, right now, just as this is happening. In the last couple of years he has proposed major state overhauls on highways, parks and other matters, the kind of big, ambitious projects the state’s major governors are remembered for. In the last few weeks those projects have withered and collapsed under assault or indifference from legislators, and the state has been awaiting Kempthorne’s response. In a couple of past sessions, that response was strong and even fierce: He would hold legislators hostage till he gave them what he wanted. That possibility still loomed, right up to this afternoon. Now, with new matters on his mind, is all of that to be whisked away into nothing?

In favor of an interior secretariat which likely affords little opportunity for establishing an independent legacy?

Of course, it’s not something most people would turn down. Cabinet posts don’t come along every day, and Kempthorne has for some time made clear his interest; if he actually had rejected this one, there would surely be no other call coming. It’s a step he wanted to take, and he will do it enthusiastically.

But, you have to imagine, with a little bit of wistfulness as well . . .

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