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Posts published in June 2012

Perry Swisher

Perry Swisher

News reports have proffered a shorthand description of Perry Swisher, who died Wednesday, as a legislator, utilities commissioner and newspaperman, which is accurate. But nowhere near explanatory.

The closest anyone has come to explaining Swisher in a single sentence may be this, from a profile of him in the Lewiston Tribune upon his departure from that paper:

“As a journalist, legislator, gardener, publisher, guru, crusader, advisor to the mighty and the molested, critic, bard, counselor wondrous, administrator, confessor, orator, pundit laureate and consummate pain in the posterior – to place the adjective ‘former’ in front of those titles is not to know the man – Perry Swisher has been handing down observations and decrees ever since he presided over his Owyhee County birth 55 years ago.”

He was 88 when he died, and the description still fit. And still leaves out so much.

Swisher made his mark at Pocatello, as a reporter, political activist and candidate (not mutually exclusive then). He became a businessman, running a bookstore and a weekly newspaper. That paper, the Intermountain, covered regional and state politics, with other subjects, and Swisher wrote nearly all of it for more than a decade. His range was tremendous, from detailed commentary on government to “Madame Fifi,” an Ann Landers parody. (Great reading about the time and place even now.)

(One correspondent wrote today to remember: "One of my best recollections of Swish was when he was still knocking out the Idaho Intermountain weekly, even though it consistently operated in the red. It was kind of like Public television. Very few people actually bought it, financially supported it, or admitted that they saw it. However, somehow everyone seemed to know what was in it.")

The only business he ran that made money, he once said, was a restaurant – nicely located across the street from a movie theatre, toward which the fans’ exhaust was directed.

But his sense of public service was strong enough that he won legislative office regularly as a Republican in Democratic Bannock County. In 1966, after more than two decades of intense political and governmental work, he threw away his livelihood and his standing in his political party to mount a hopeless run for governor as an Indpendent because, he felt, someone had to be out there supporting the newly-enacted sales tax, which the the voters were about to either sustain or reject. (They voted aye. Swisher is one of the main reasons Idaho has a sales tax.) In the next decade, he returned to the legislature for one term as a Democrat, but this was no usual conversion: He could be as harsh about his new party as his old one.

He was an unpredictable speaker because he never stopped thinking and learning. A cup of coffee with Swisher was a journey on a switchback trail through first one topic (say, low-head hydro), across to another seemingly unrelated (the rate of worker comp insurance) to yet another (maybe a local election in Burley) and on and on – it was to see the connections and causal relationships, different angles of lighting, otherwise not obvious at all. This journalist was always a wonderful interview, partly because of his absolute blunt candor with a twist. He described Lewiston as “caught in a time warp,” a place where the mayor should be Rod Serling and all the cars should have tailfins. On appointment to the utilities commission Swisher, who strongly favored utility regulation, said he wasn’t a “consumer advocate” because he didn’t approve of heedless consumption. He was a font of ideas, and of thinking them through to reach practical conclusions.

Swisher was unique. His legacy in thought and practice that will influence Idaho for a long time.

Carlson: Teacher messaging/apology

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

As the school year draws to a close Idaho’s teachers face a challenge: do they spend their summer recreating and holding down a summer job somewhere as many have to do; or, do they get actively involved in the campaign to repeal the Otter/Luna reform that further eviscerates Idaho’s already weakened commitment to public education?

Their future as well as the economic growth of the state depends on their response. Bottom line is people, especially those with children in public schools, trust teachers to know what’s best when it comes to learning.

Voters know teachers are more credible on educational matters than are
administrators or politicians like Governor C.L. “Butch Otter” or State Superintendent Tom Luna when it comes to knowing and convincingly talking about “students come first.”

It should be a no brainer that teachers would man the ramparts and lead the charge for the three ballot repeals but it is not that simple. Teachers in some districts are faced with a classic short term gain vs. longer term gain if they sacrifice. What voters do not realize is the insidious genius in the financial gamesmanship that was orchestrated during the last session of the Legislature.

To over-simplify, some school districts are withholding the $3000 pay increase (a combination of the new merit pay if it is not repealed plus replacing a previously withheld pay boost) that teachers on average will receive IF the repeals are defeated. If the repeals are passed then the new pay will not be distributed, especially the “merit pay” portion. It is a classic “damned if you do, damned if you don’t.”

The net effect is some teachers are incentivized to at least stay neutral. Whoever thought this up is a malevolent genius (my candidate is Luna’s right hand, Jason Hancock).

So, not only do all teachers have to get actively involved in campaigning as those most in tune with what is truly best for students, some have to do so while sacrificing a short term pay boost for their longer term goals of reasserting that they know best and they are repelling this assault on their collective bargaining rights.

Additionally, teachers have to advocate “preemptively” for more financial support for their endeavors. Not only is Idaho lagging badly in per pupil support for education, the system continues to operate in large part ignoring a judicial mandate to improve significantly the physical structures where education is conducted by underpaid teachers.

Those interested in the facts should carefully review former Budget officer Mike Ferguson’s outstanding report which also documented the precipitous decline in support for public education as a percentage of personal income.

In these economically stressed times teachers cannot think they can simply ask for more from the general fund without their critics saying this would require a tax increase. It behooves them to identify new sources of revenue other than new taxes. Fortunately, there are several excellent “targets of opportunity”:

1) Sell the state-owned leases or truly up to fair market value the properties on Payette and Priest Lakes.
2) Charge the State Tax Commission to get on with a program systematically reducing the numerous sales tax exemptions granted over the years as was recommended by a bi-partisan interim committee several years back that had as one of its members Senate Pro Tem Brent Hill (R-Rexburg).
3) Enforce the annual 5% of net gaming proceeds due the State Treasury from ALL gaming tribes, especially the Sho-Bans (levy for back taxes owed?) who have ignored the initiative mandating the 5% giveback on the grounds that their compact trumps the initiative. It does not and some legislator ought to ask the Attorney General to opine.

Those three steps could bring millions in new revenue to the state to be reallocated to strengthening support for public education and teachers. More importantly it not only would comply with the state constitutional mandate it would be an investment in Idaho’s future all should be willing to make.

An apology: I owe Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter an apology. Sometimes, to make a point one engages in too much hyperbole and crosses a line, as I did in my column seconding Governor Cecil Andrus’ warning about possible changes to the 1995 Nuclear Waste Agreement negotiated by Governor Batt.

While I do not trust the Department of Energy at all, Governor Otter reiterated his unequivocal commitment to standing by the agreement. Butch Otter is a man of his word. It was simply wrong for me to indicate he would betray this state he loves as much as anyone. My bad, my wrong and my shame. I disagree with much of what Butch advocates but I do apologize for impugning his integrity and his honesty. We’re both Mass-going, bead-carrying Roman Catholics. I was correctly admonished by our mutual good friend, Father Tim Ritchey, who often talks also about forgiveness.

Passion dies

There will be more commentary along various other lines of analysis, but here's one related to the Wisconsin gubernatorial non-recall that bears direct consideration in Idaho:

A year-plus ago in the Gem State, the Idaho Legislature, on request of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, passed three sweeping education laws that riled a lot of people, including most of the state's teachers. A referendum was developed for a voter decision on the measures, and at the time - a year ago - the passion against those three new laws was running very high. Advocates of repeal had little trouble getting them on the ballot. The vote comes in November.

Based on the Wisconsin experience, the odds are: Those referenda have almost no chance of passage.

Why? Well, in Wisconsin the passion against Governor Scott Walker, when he pushed through the legislation and other actions that so outraged his critics, was running very high. In 2011, polling month after month consistently showed he was all but dead politically, easy picking for a recall. Pro-recallers easily collected a million signatures against him. Polling was consistent that he would lose to the man who he beat in 2010.

This year, the polling reversed. Walker hasn't become hugely popular, but his face came up from underwater. By election day, he was able to survive - in the rematch against the man who nearly beat him in 2010, and very likely would have last year.

Conclusion? Keeping that heat on for a long period of time is very, very hard. People in Idaho don't talk so much about the "Luna laws" the way they did a year ago. And that will make it vastly harder to do them in at the polls. As Wisconsin demonstrated.

Klamath too

While more of the county-budget-nightmare attention has been focused on the southwestern counties - Josephine, Coos, Jackson, Curry - there's another fierce storm broiling to their east in Klamath County.

A rundown in the Sunday Herald and News calls it a "perfect storm," and this one almost seems to fit the overused description.

Let's see: We can start with the personnel issues, like sexual harassment claims against a former treasurer; accusation of a former assessor that he sent e-mails variously racist and including porn; a state review of the mental health agency (and resignation of its head). Three legal actions by whistleblowers. The end of federal timber payments (which is what's bedeviling the counties to the west). And a review by the state finding the county's bookkeeping in a “general state of disarray.”

Time, maybe, for some soul-searching - not least on the part of the voters.

In the Briefings this week

Tobacco seized from prison inmates in Idaho. (Photo/Idaho Department of Corrections)

Last week, Washington state's initiative requiring a legislative supermajority to pass tax and fee increases was struck down by a court. Former New York and Miami school chief Rudy Crew was named to head Oregon's education reorganization efforts. Ada County has denied a major property tax exemption for the Idaho Youth Ranch.

An Oregon state audit looked into the overally financial condition of the state's 36 counties, finding most of them in acceptable shape but several (mainly in the southwest) serious troubled. Idaho's first wildfires of the season have cropped up. King County is taking a closer look at the sports arena plan proposed by the county executive and Seattle's mayor. Washington has set up I-5 from Canada to Vancouver for electric car recharges. Multnomah County has set its new annual budget.

A Boise State University study said that global warming could impair the region's aquifers. Representative Peter DeFazio is asking White House help to look into gas prices on the West Coast. A federal sea lion policy allowing for killing of sea lions is allowed to stand.

All this and a lot more in this week's Briefings. For more, write us at

Different places, different economies

As you hear politicians talk about the economy this season, and next, bear in mind this question: Which economy?

Idaho’s statewide unemployment rates, for example, get substantial notice in news reports when they come out each month, but county jobless rates often are a little more obscure. (We’ll bypass for the moment the many questions associated with what those statistics include, and don’t.)

As of March, for example, the statewide unemployment rate was 7.9%. (It fell by two-tenths of a point the next month; March is the most recent month for which all county statistics are available.) But it was not the same everywhere. In Adams County, it was 18.6%, while in Owyhee County – in the same region of the state, also a rural area and barely an hour’s drive away – it was 4.9%. If all of Idaho were at 4.9%, it would not be said to have a significant unemployment problem at all; at 18.6%, Idaho would have slipped into serious depression.

This broad range isn’t unusual. Go back pre-slump to March 2007, when the statewide rate was 2.8%, and you’ll find numbers much smaller but also highly variable. Then, Clearwater County was at 7.2% (Adams was second), while the lowest jobless rate was 1.3% in Teton County. (The growth of high-end resort areas slowed during the slump.)

In the last few years, the same set of counties have bunched together at the high and low ends. Adams, Clearwater, Benewah, Valley (since collapse of the Tamarack resort development) and Shoshone have been high-jobless, consistently, often in close to that order. The low-jobless counties much of the time since the slump has begun have included Owyhee, Oneida, Franklin and Bear Lake.

This seems to belie the usual talk of an urban-rural split, wherein most jobs and money migrating to urban areas (which tend to rank toward the middle among Idaho’s 44 in jobless rates) and leaving rural counties, especially counties where population has been stagnant or has even declined. But “slow-population” described most counties both at high and low on the jobless list. And all of them rely a lot on resource industries of some sort.

Why the gap? Kathryn Tacke, an analyst with the state Department of Labor, pointed to the difference between the timber economy and the farm economy. In timber areas (Adams, Clearwater, Benewah, Shoshone, and several other high-jobless counties fit), recovery has been sporadic, as the national construction industry has been slow to return. But, she noted, with good prices for commodities like wheat and cattle, “it’s actually been a pretty good time for farmers. And farmers have been spending money.” That helps tamp down unemployment in rural southern counties like Franklin and Owyhee.

The splits run more ways, too. Ada and Canyon counties are seamlessly united in one dense population area, but Ada’s unemployment rate in March was 7.2%, while Canyon’s was 10.1%. The specific mix of industry patterns, and probably government employment, likely to have a lot to do with it.

This is all a lot more specific than you might think from the politicial rhetoric floating around and getting ever thicker.

Burner v. Koster?

The first poll is out for the ever-fascinating Washington District 1 contest, with a whole cadre of presumably strong Democratic contenders and just one major Republican, John Koster.

Most of these Democrats are well-financed and have run major races before, are comparably well known, have decent campaigning skills and they're not (evidently) terribly far apart on issues. That has made th business of trying to figure out a front runner a complex matter.

No longer.

The poll shows two-time District 8 Democratic nominee Darcy Burner ahead whether you measure all likely voters (19%) or just Democrats (45%). Next, but well behind, two other veterans of major-office races: Laura Ruderman (6%/13%) and Suzan DelBene (4%/11%).

In the top two runoff, then, if this poll is accurately reflective of the landscape, looks like it's Koster v. Burner.

The poll (KING5/SurveyUSA) also tested several of the Democrats against Koster. Koster led all of them, but Burner at nine points behind (48%-39%) came closer than any of the others. (A presumption: Those numbers tighten post-primary, a typical development in campaign cycles.)

The race begins to take more shape.

Washington legislature runs close, but a turnover?

No major arguments here with the Washington legislative races overview just out from Chris Vance (a former state Republican chair) in the Crosscut.

He figures the contest for control of the Washington legislature - both houses now are in Democratic control - is close, but leans Democratic. The Senate currently is 27 to 22, and the House 56-42. That sounds like a slightly stronger Democratic lead than it really is, especially in the Senate; a three-seat turnover there would reverse control of the chamber, and Democrats seem to have nearly conceded one of their current (admittedly difficult to hold) seats, in Pierce County. The House is a little more a stretch, since an eight-seat turnover would be needed.

Since in Washington at least the year is likely to benefit Democrats a little more on the presidential level, and since that filters down to the legislative level, their odds of retention are helped a bit. But there are a number of vulnerable seats on both sides. This isn't a legislative contest either side can simply assume will wind up in their favor, as Democrats have generally been able to do the last couple of cycles - and Republicans are not without hope of majorities. (They seem to be moving assertively enough that they evidently understand that.) The once-big Democratic majorities have been whittled, and there's not as much room for error as there was.