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Posts published in “Year: 2016”

The sortition solution


One of our readers, Michael Pitts-Campbell has a interesting suggestion. And while some may think it’s a new and different idea, the idea is actually old and has an elite pedigree. Thanks for reminding us Michael.

Here’s what he sent me when I asked for reform suggestions

“Here’s one that probably stands as much chance of passing as the others suggested, but would accomplish term limits, removal of campaign money, and probably other goals: for Oregon, make the position of State Representative a civic duty. Just like the Selective Service draft of the bad old days, this would read “Greetings from the Governor. You have been randomly selected to serve as Oregon State Representative for District ?? for the next two (2) years.” The list used for random selection would probably be the list of those holding drivers’ licenses. No partisanship, no political debts owed, no sleazing your way into office as was done in Klamath and Curry Counties, just “You’re drafted.”

We certainly wouldn’t have any campaign contribution limit or spending caps to worry about, or be concerned about special interest candidates buying their way into office.

The method of position by drawing lots is called Sortition. The following is a brief history of sortition’s implementation, (from wikipedia – yeah, I’m lazy, but I did edit it a bit for brevity).

Ancient Athens: Athenian democracy developed in the 6th century BC out of what was then called isonomia (equality of law and political rights). Sortition was then the principal way of achieving this fairness. It was utilized to pick most of the magistrates for their governing committees, and for their juries (typically of 501 men). Aristotle relates equality and democracy:

Democracy arose from the idea that those who are equal in any respect are equal absolutely. All are alike free, therefore they claim that all are free absolutely… The next is when the democrats, on the grounds that they are all equal, claim equal participation in everything.

It is accepted as democratic when public offices are allocated by lot; and as oligarchic when they are filled by election.(emphasis added)

In Athens, “democracy” (literally meaning rule by the people) was in opposition to those supporting a system of oligarchy (rule by a few). Athenian democracy was characterized by being run by the “many” (the ordinary people) who were allotted to the committees which ran government. Thucydides has Pericles make this point in his Funeral Oration: “It is administered by the many instead of the few; that is why it is called a democracy.”

Northern Italy and Venice – 12th to 18th century: The brevia was used in the city states of Northern Italy during the 12th and 13th centuries and in Venice until the late 18th century. Men, who were chosen randomly, swore an oath that they were not acting under bribes, and then they elected members of the council. Voter and candidate eligibility probably included property owners, councilors, guild members, and perhaps, at times, artisans. The Doge of Venice was determined through a complex process of nomination, voting and sortition.

Lot was used in the Venetian system only in order to select members of the committees that served to nominate candidates for the Great Council. A combination of election and lot was used in this multi-stage process. Lot was not used alone to select magistrates, unlike in Florence and Athens. The use of lot to select nominators made it more difficult for political sects to exert power, and discouraged campaigning.

Florence – 14th and 15th century: The scrutiny was employed in Florence for over a century starting in 1328. Nominations and voting together created a pool of candidates from different sectors of the city. These men then had their names deposited into a sack, and a lottery draw determined who would get magistracy positions. The scrutiny was gradually opened up to minor guilds, reaching the greatest level of renaissance citizen participation in 1378–82.

Switzerland: Because financial gain could be achieved through the position of mayor, some parts of Switzerland used random selection during the years between 1640 and 1837 in order to prevent corruption.

India: Local government in parts of Tamil Nadu such as the village of Uttiramerur traditionally used a system known as kuda-olai where the names of candidates for the village committee were written on palm leaves and put into a pot and pulled out by a child.

Today: In the political realm, sortition occurs most commonly in order to form policy juries, such as deliberative opinion polls, citizens’ juries, Planungszelle (planning cells), consensus conferences, and citizens’ assemblies. As an example, Vancouver council has initiated a citizens’ assembly that will meet in 2014–15 in order to assist in city planning.

We’d have to update the Sortition process by including all eligible voters, though we could impose an age limit or other minimum requirements. But our dear reader is absolutely correct, a Sortition, just for the State House of Representatives perhaps, would eliminate campaign contributions that cause undue influence and the fear of perpetual oligarchy class of politicians, political operatives, and consultants.

Interesting idea. And one that the founders of western democracy and some of the most famous democratic societies in history embraced as a way to defeat corruption. If that’s one of the goals of a Democracy.

After the defiance


The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe has defied history.

Nearly two years ago the Dakota Access Pipeline and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers told the tribe about an inevitable pipeline that would cross near their reservation and within treaty lands. The tribe objected. But it was inevitable. A done deal.

And in April the Camp of the Sacred Stones was set up as a center by LaDonna Brave Bull Allard as a center for spiritual resistance. Crazy, right? A few people standing together cannot do anything against the absolute power of the state of North Dakota and the oil company billionaires who want this done. Inevitable. A done deal.

Then in August Standing Rock Sioux Tribal Chairman Dave Archambault II defied state authorities and was arrested in the pipeline's path. He told Indian Country Today Media Network: "The Standing Rock Sioux Tribe is doing everything it can legally, through advocacy and by speaking directly to the powers that be who could have helped us before construction began." So what? The $3.8 billion pipeline was inevitable. A done deal.

Then in September the tribe and its allies won a battle when the Obama administration said it would review the matter. "Construction of the pipeline on Army Corps land bordering or under Lake Oahe will not go forward at this time," said the joint statement from the Department of Justice, the Department of the Interior, and the U.S. Army. "We request that the pipeline company voluntarily pause all construction activity within 20 miles east or west of Lake Oahe."

But the Dakota Access Pipeline's owners ignored that request. Why should they stop? This entire pipeline route was designed to avoid federal interference. So what if the federal government was reviewing the record. This project was inevitable. A done deal.

In fact a few days later, in an extraordinary exchange before the U.S. Court of Appeals, the company admitted that the process was incomplete. Judge Thomas B. Griffith asked: "Why not wait until you see whether you're going to get the easement?" asked Judge Thomas B. Griffith. "To a neutral outside observer, it looks like you're forcing their hand ... So it's a gamble. You're gambling you're going to win."

And why not gamble? The easement was inevitable. A done deal.

But inevitable blew up Sunday night. On the same weekend when thousands of veterans showed up to support Standing Rock, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said it will not grant the easement under Lake Oahe. And the corps will now require an Environmental Impact Statement.

So what now? That invincible force known as the oil industry is still out there, saying the project is inevitable.

U.S. Rep. Kevin Cramer said: "Today’s unfortunate decision sends a very chilling signal to others who want to build infrastructure in this country. Roads, bridges, transmission lines, pipelines, wind farms and water lines will be very difficult, if not impossible, to build when criminal behavior is rewarded this way."

(Remember the company was proceeding without an easement.)

And from Washington, the president of the National Association of Manufacturers Jay Timmons said the decision "defies logic, science and sound policy-decision making, and the consequences can be measured in lost work for manufacturers and those in the manufacturing supply chain. If a project that has involved all relevant stakeholders and followed both the letter and spirit of the law at every step of this approval process can be derailed, what signal does that send to others considering building new energy infrastructure in this country? We can only hope that President-elect Trump will stand by his promises to invest aggressively in new infrastructure in America and start by overturning this misguided decision and allow the completion of the pipeline."

There we go again. Inevitable. A done deal. If only the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, the Cheyenne River Tribe, hundreds of other tribes, and people from across the planet would not have got in the way.

But there are three critical things to think about in that chronology and the idea of the inevitable.

First, no energy company can roll over a community that's united. And that's all of the communities involved, not just the people of Standing Rock. As Chairman Archambault said today in a news release, "throughout this effort I have stressed the importance of acting at all times in a peaceful and prayerful manner."

Second, President-elect Donald J. Trump can revisit this issue. He probably will. But it will not be easily undone. I have been writing for months that President Obama would likely take this action but it had to be done in concert with the federal agencies involved. A president's power is not absolute. (I am really interested in the structure of the Army Corps' decision to see just how complex it will be for a Trump administration to unwind.)

Third, and most important, this is a moment when North Dakota can tell the world what it really wants to be. The timing is ideal for a new beginning.

Is this a state where the sheer power of police, looking like military, will roll over the legitimate interests of a community? Is this how you tell the world, come to North Dakota, invest, we're open? Or, does the state now take advantage of this unique opportunity to show what can be done in a spirit of reconciliation. This is the time for the state to get serious about an environmental impact statement, a smarter route, to work with the tribes, end prosecutions, and pardon those who are in the criminal justice system now. Even better: Take one more step and build bridges by investing in the Standing Rock neighborhood.

This whole pipeline encounter was a fiasco that was a better story for the 19th century instead of the 21st. It represented the total breakdown in communications between the tribes and the State of North Dakota. However there's now a path toward the healing that needs to occur. And that is what should be inevitable. A done deal. #HealNorthDakota

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes.

The lying ‘news’


Here we are. About four weeks after our national election. In that time, I’ve not written about the “winner” nor the tragic outcome. I won’t start now.

But, there’s an important issue related to the event that does need to be widely talked about, thoroughly examined and brought to the attention of every American: fake “news.”

The immense danger of phony news has been building in this country for a long, long time. It’s not really new. Much of hate radio is filled with it daily. Absolutely baseless, absurd, totally fabricated “stories” and commentaries meant to defame, humiliate and destroy public figures - sometimes of both political parties - or institutions like Planned Parenthood, the ACLU or the PTA.

One of the best warnings of just how ingrained this destructive B.S. has become, and how dangerous it is, comes from - of all people - Glenn Beck. Beck - one of the chief purveyors of false “facts.” A guy who’s become immensely rich from a broadcast and publishing empire built on his often lunatic participation in media lying. Now, he’s apologizing.

His point? For more than 30 years, the right wing has bashed all forms of news media coverage. Over and over and over and over. Limbaugh, Coulter, Ingraham, Jones, Medved and hundreds of local “wannabees” have excoriated legitimate media of all types. They’ve sown distrust, hate and fear for any media not favorable to their questionable - or outright fact-less - pronouncements.

Faced, as we are, with a real political threat to our national survival, Beck asks, “Is it any wonder millions of Americans don’t believe the facts of the dangerous conditions we’re experiencing?” Admitting his own guilt as a longtime participant in falsifying information and condemning legitimate national media, Beck expresses doubt millions of us will ever again really trust “The Fourth Estate.” He’s right, of course, though awfully late coming to the table.

Now, another of our technological marvels is adding endlessly to the problem. Daily. Hourly. The Internet. Specifically, “social” media. I hate that term because often its anything but “social.” Pages I scan too often contain lies each day. Call it “false information,” if you insist. But lies are lies no matter the verbiage.

Some nutcase, living in a garage in Cleveland, can pass himself and his demented thinking off on “social” media looking like The New York Times, Washington Post, Time or Newsweek. With no editor - no fact checker - no filter to catch and destroy his lies - his trash flows right into the “information river” and to our computer screens. It’s been proven repeatedly too many Americans have little to no understanding of how our system of government works and have little interest in learning. They read, watch and, too often, believe.

The spread of fake “news” is worse since the presidential election. Much worse. Coming even from the apparent winner. Outright lying tweets about “three million voting fraud cases,” or “illegal immigrants voting” and other complete B.S. without fact. No elections official has confirmed any major wrongdoing. Just more lies. But some major media pick it up and repeat it.

To anyone who doesn’t know how elections are run, what safeguards there are, how the ballots are screened or voters qualified, those lies are “truth.” And that’s just one instance.

Sometimes, it’s subtle. Here’s a headline. “Trump charges three million illegal immigrants voted.” Wrong! Here’s how it should read. “Trump falsely charges.....” See the difference? Or, “Breitbart Reports Massive voter fraud.” No. The correct headline would be “Breitbart makes unsubstantiated charge of voter fraud.”

We’ve become a divided nation largely because many, many people believe “facts” supporting previously held beliefs rather than searching for truth. If truth differs, it’s rejected. Unfortunately, the Internet has become a two-edged sword. Its ability to inform is as great as the ability to misinform. Without fact checking, confirming sources, finding and weeding out the junk, lies can look very real.

There doesn’t seem to be any solid solution to this media cancer to change the pattern. But, if you want to deal in reality, there are some Internet sites that can be trusted. “,” of course. But also “,” “” or “” And there are others you’ll find to cross-check articles or postings just to be safe.

The unchecked, unedited Internet too often makes us victims of our own technology. National media fall prey to the lies at times. So do the locals. Me, too. Facebook and Twitter are full of baseless charges and fact-less “stories.”

Fake “news” is likely with us to stay. It’s up to each of us to “check it out” before passing it on. Or, simply believing something that just doesn’t add up. It’s crazy out there. It’s only going to get worse.

3 concerns in a time capsule


Sydney Duncombe, a professor at the University of Idaho, spent an extremely influential quarter-century teaching young Idahoans about government and politics, not just the theory but also the practice. That mattered to Idaho because so many of his students, like former Governor and Senator Dirk Kempthorne and former Senator Larry Craig, went on to leadership positions in Idaho.

Over the years he wrote a few newspaper columns and a kind of practical guide to Idaho government, but his larger-scale view of Idaho – where it was going, what concerns he had – were a little obscure. What did he take away from so many decades of intensive study about the state?

Some of his ideas now are on display in three little-seen and little-known novels he wrote near the end of his life, between 1999 and 2002, which now are being republished. (Disclosure: I’m the publisher.)

These are fictional stories, cast as thrillers – you could safely call them entertaining page-turners – but they are set in Idaho and clearly draw on Duncombe’s understanding of the state.

In the first, The Unlikely Candidate, the hero is a retired state budget director. (Duncombe himself held that position in 1971.) It’s a murder mystery and a thriller about a massive scandal in Idaho government, but it moves through a wide range of people and interests around the state. As a professor, Duncombe’s trademark tactic was to impersonate (while wearing any of a number of hats) people from a range of interest groups, and point up how they interact, cooperate or conflict with each other. Much of this forms the narrative bed of The Unlikely Candidate. Idaho, in other words, is complex, and more complex than it seems on the surface. A more subtle point is a reminder that bureaucrats too can be heroes; he would not have disagreed with such a sentiment.

The second, Blizzard in August, is the story is about several groups of people hiking in the White Clouds (a place Duncombe also frequented); all stranded by a sudden and early snowstorm. Duncombe knew the area and the circumstances well enough to describe them carefully; he was once caught by a freak early blizzard in that region himself. But the story centers more on questions of personal responsibility, and the responsibilities we have to other people, including to people we do not know. It lightly touched on politics, but the greater implications were directed more toward all of us; not just governmental officials.

Last of the three was Freedom County, also a thriller but one that approaches dystopian fiction. In it, a central Idaho county (presumably Custer from the description, though no real name is given) is taken over by extremist and racist militia, and then its leaders launch a plot to reshape Idaho government along their preferred lines. A cautionary tale, then, and while Duncombe’s telling rolls right along as a good thriller should, his meaning and message is clear: This is bad news, there are worrisome signs pointing in this direction, and don’t let it happen here.

I felt a slight chill when reading it.

Duncombe died in 2004, and maybe if he’d lived longer he would have written more novels on Idaho. These three, in any event, are the three messages he most basically leaves behind.

All three could not be more pertinent a decade and a half later.

All I want for Christmas …


Unless one attended the University of Idaho during the late 60’s or the 70’s and 80’s, chances are good they have never heard of Syd Duncombe.

Not one to toot his own horn, he was nonetheless one of the most beloved instructors on the campus. Several generations of future Idaho political leadership started to learn the craft in Duncombe’s political science courses.

A case can be made for putting him on the 100 Most Politically Influential Idahoans list. The list of Duncombe’s accolytes and fans is a virtual Who’s Who of Idaho political leadership: Dirk Kempthorne, a former governor, senator and Interior secretary; Larry Craig, former senator; Steve Symms, former member of Congress and senator; David Leroy, former attorney general and lieutenant governor; Robie Russell, former Region 10 EPA Director; Jim Risch, a former governor and current senator; and, Phil Reberger, a former Kempthorne chief of staff, to name just a few.

Duncombe was noted for keeping his students engaged by a facility to costume dress coupled with role playing. His lectures were often SRO. His enthusiasm for politics was infectious.

One of the paradoxes for Duncombe was almost all his students, especially those who later ran for office, became or were dyed-in-the-wool Republicans. Duncombe was a life-long Democrat and as recently as 2012, a daughter, Mary Ellen Haley, was defeated in a race for a legislative seat in Idaho Falls while running as a Democrat.

Duncombe, however, was not a hard partisan and worked in a very non-partisan way with governors and legislators on both sides of the aisle.

Duncombe was introduced to the then young State Senator Cecil D. Andrus from Clearwater County by Gordon Law, an instructor in the television/radio bureau (the forerunner of KAID-Television and the IPTV) at a reception on campus in the fall of 1965. Both Duncombe and his wife, Mary, became life-long Andrus supporters suffering through the double loss in the 1966 gubernatorial race and the comeback victory in 1970.

Shortly after his victory Andrus asked Duncombe, who had been a budget analyst for the state of Ohio before entering academia, to help him put together his first budget, a task which Duncombe took to with relish.

He did such a good job that Andrus offered him the post of State Budget director, but Duncombe, who had worked on a volunteer basis, declined not wanting to give up his tenured position at the University of Idaho. He remained a close friend and advisor to Andrus even after he retired from teaching in 1987 shortly after Andrus began his second stint as Idaho governor.

When not teaching Duncombe loved to backpack various wilderness parts of Idaho often leading family members into remote mountain lakes in the Sawtooths or the Big Horn Crags.

In his retirement, unbeknown to any but a few family members and close friends, Duncombe took up writing fiction with political machinations and mystery woven into fascinating plots. Using an old typewriter he pounded out several books that drew on his knowledge of politics as well as the role budget directors play in government.

The result was two fine reads, The Unlikely Candidate, the story of a retired budget director who runs for the Idaho State Senate as a way to expose budget shenanigans by a governor, and Freedom County, a murder mystery that is set in a county that is a cross between Lemhi and Custer counties that is taken over by the posse comitatus.

Duncombe’s third novel, Blizzard in August, is based on a true incident, a freakish late August blizzard that beset the Sawtooths in 1969 and caught many backpackers unprepared for such weather in late summer.

Anyone who has hiked the Sawtooths will recognize the settings and it also has a romance element including a sex scene that surely embarrassed Duncombe’s family.

All three of these books were self-published and never marketed, so only a few folks were aware of their existence. The books were rediscovered last year and the family was approached on republishing them with some marketing support. The family agreed with their share of sales proceeds being contributed to the Syd Duncombe scholarship in political science fund at the University of Idaho.

Randy Stapilus, a former Idaho newsman who has specialized in books on Idaho politics well as other things, his firm, through Ridenbaugh Press, agreed to republish the books with new forwards written by former students of Duncombe’s. The Communications Department at the university is assisting with some target marketing to Idaho alums.

Look for the books at a bookstore near you or go to for more information. The set of three makes a terrific Christmas gift for any one who loves politics and Idaho.

Who’s evolved?


Several years ago we had a small pet rat colony – four of them (all females BTW). As we observed this little group we noticed they had formed a little society: There was the “Lookout” rat who always sat where she could monitor the entire room and watch for any danger; the “Shopper” rat who was responsible for bringing back food and supplies to the main cage (we had a bit of a maze and left food in various areas); and there was the “Homemaker” rat who spent her days cleaning and rearranging the nests and food supply.

And last, there was the one we called the “Welfare” rat. We never actually saw her involved in any activity that added to the quality of life for this little group, but with zero reluctance or animosity the others shared with her the fruits of their labors. For whatever the reason, the other three seemed to have determined that she needed care and protection, and they gave it willingly.

This little society has been heavily on my mind the last few weeks – and especially the last few days as I've ended up in discussions about the funding and necessity of the social assistance programs in our country, and what's going to happen to them as we begin a new era of government.

I have two friends whose viewpoints regarding the Affordable Care Act and Medicare/Medicaid differ greatly from mine. As I listen to their arguments against these programs one attitude stands out: “I worked and paid for MY healthcare and I resent having to help subsidize anyone else. Let them go out and get their own job and pay for their own healthcare.”

Of course, both of these individuals seem to think that the only people in need of societal assistance and support are the drug addicts and alcoholics. They forget about some of the folks my friend who runs a soup kitchen tells me about: The couple from out of town who are trying to qualify for assistance for her cancer treatment. They are sleeping in their car because they have no money.

And there's the young guy my friend is helping to get surgery … he had a stroke which did some great mental damage and rendered him incapable of holding a normal job. He became homeless and the years of living rough have deteriorated his physical condition to the point where he now lives with chronic severe pain. There are surgeries that could help him, but he's not mentally capable of dealing with the bureaucracy that will get him help. So when he can get in to see a doctor, they just prescribe pain killers … addictive pain killers. And the addiction of course makes it that much more difficult for him to communicate or pursue a more permanent fix which in turn could enable him to hold down a job.

But...he's an addict, so why do we want to share our hard-earned money to help him?

And I think of a friend who at least has a family and support network in place, but who suffered a brain aneurysm several years ago. She can no longer work and their family went from being comfortable middle class to moving back in with parents and struggling to keep the bills paid.

Of the 20 million people who now have some health coverage thanks to Obamacare; and of the millions more on Medicare and Medicaid, these stories are the far more common. And yet, my one friend tells me that for people living in states that have turned down the Obamacare assistance – it's not a problem. People with chronic issues can still get help; they can just go to the emergency room.

Apparently she doesn't get that someone in need of surgery is not likely to get it from an emergency room visit; someone with a chronic, debilitating condition such as – say, kidney failure – cannot show up at the emergency room for a regular dialysis treatment. And never mind that ultimately all of us do pay for those emergency room visits which are passed on in higher charges for the patients who do have insurance; and higher county and state indigency subsidies which come out of our taxes.

Of course, we don't have to worry about them for long because they do die off a lot sooner.

Now, my friend actually does have a degenerative nerve disease and she has refused to give in to the relentless progression. She continues to work and to drive herself … and stay out of a wheelchair. I admire and honor her courage and her determination to keep going and to care for herself. But I also know that very few of us are that determined and that strong nor do we all end up with some of the resources that she had and was able to exploit when her condition was first diagnosed.

When last I spoke with her, she was, in fact delivering turkeys to a local food bank because, “Even poor people have a right to a turkey on Thanksgiving.” But, apparently, they don't have a right to medical care if they can't pay for it.

My other friend just feels that she and her husband worked hard and paid for everything they got; and she resents now having to again pay for Medicare when the money she paid in when she was working just got dumped into the General Fund – at least that's what she was told by the folks at Medicare – and by golly, if you didn't work to pay for your Medicare, why should she help you out?

Which makes me think of my neighbor who was a stay-at-home mom; she raised her children – and then she raised foster children – a bunch of them! – and so she never had a job with a paycheck that had Medicare or Social Security deducted. She can barely make ends meet with what little pension she gets from her deceased husband's retirement; rent, utilities and food pretty well eat that up.

And yet, she performed a pretty valuable service to our society. Don't we owe her something? At a minimum decent health care? According to my friend, we don't.

I think of both of my friends as loving, caring – good people. They attend church. They donate to various causes. But, they seem to have a blind spot when it comes to who “deserves” medical care: not someone who didn't work and earn it; not drug addicts; not the homeless or jobless; not immigrants; not the mentally or physically disabled. Nobody, it seems other than people like themselves. The rest? Well, they'll just have to live in pain and misery because nobody should be asked to share their resources with those who don't have any.

So, I think about our little rat colony, and I have to ask myself: Which of us is actually the more evolved species?

The brokest states


“Brokest.” Interesting word. Doesn’t exist. But it should. In this age of disintegrating media accuracy, one national outlet used that word in a headline. “Brokest.”

Regardless of the linguistic ignorance, the story really was about the “brokest” states in our nation. The ten at the bottom . The ten, based on household wealth and income, that showed up in a 2014 Federal Reserve survey - a sampling conducted every three years.

Now, I don’t know how much research time was devoted to this work by our national government. Nor do I know the cost. But, in 2017, when it’s done again, I hope they call me first and give me a chance to bid. ‘Cause their conclusion was the same as mine. Yours, too, I’d guess. These were the words in the summary. “The rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.” Wow! They actually paid for that?

Now, an outfit called “WalletHub” has analyzed that pile of stats and tweeked the formula to update the rankings. It used income, gross domestic product per capita and federal taxes paid per capita. A double weighting was given to income because of its importance. Nearly the same results.

Here they are in order from 40 down to 50. The “brokest”10: Maine, Montana, Arkansas, Idaho, Kentucky, New Mexico, South Carolina, Alabama, West Virginia and, as usual in nearly any survey of just about anything, Mississippi dead last. 50th.

One interesting commonality jumps out when you look at these 10 that wound up on the economic bottom. They all have Republican governors and GOP control of the legislatures in either one house or both. In other words, Republicans call the shots in each state. Nary a single Democrat control in any.

I suspect if we had a survey of this type now there would be at least one change in the ranking. I’d guess Kansas would replace Mississippi at the very bottom. Ol’ Gov. Brownback and his mossy legislative brothers and sisters have whittled and carved on so many state budgets Kansas couldn’t get a loan from the Mafia.

Given the overwhelming GOP persuasion of those in charge, it would seem budgeting decisions in those states have been made mostly for political expediency rather than actual need.

The two can coexist, as many of the states in the middle rankings can attest. But, when ideology trumps need, there’s seldom a reasonable balance. Idaho Republicans, with continuing abject refusal to extend health insurance coverage to nearly 100,000 uninsured, is such an example. A long-lasting Idaho GOP propensity to create bad laws while rejecting competent legal advice is another. Many millions of Idaho tax dollars have been paid out because of laws based on faulty political “thought” and an absence of common sense.

Certainly not all states suffer economically because of Republican economic intransigence and decisions based on philosophy rather than need. Some are doing quite well. Ranking nicely in the Federal Reserve and WalletHub surveys.

But, what about the top states? What about the ones ranking highest when dealing with income and all that? Who are they and what’s their makeup? Glad you asked. The top five, in reverse order: Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut and a tie for first place with New Jersey and the District of Columbia. How ‘bout that?

And the political makeup? Three have Democrat governors and all are in Democrat legislative control of one or both houses. In the case of DC, the mayor and city council are all Democrats.

Now, I’m not saying Republicans are bad at economics and Democrats are better. But, the rankings by economic factors, and the politics of the governments of the top and bottom states, make for some interesting thought.

One fact does seem to float to the surface. When budgetary needs of a government are answered with true economic means rather than political expediency or other non-budgetary considerations, those states tend to rise to the top of the rankings. Reverse that formula and they drop to the bottom.

And nobody wants to be among the “brokest.” Nobody.

Now or later


We see examples of this all over, in our personal lives as well as public. Fix a small leak in your house’s roof today, or wait and let it become a much more expensive problem in a year or two.

Or a minor pothole in the road that turns into a major repair project after several months of neglect.

There’s a common phrase for it: “Pay me now, or pay me later.” With the “later” usually being a lot more pricey.

Last week came another good example, and we’ll be interested to see how the Idaho Legislature responds.

This comes in a request by the state Department of Health and Welfare – there’s one strike, since hardly anyone in official Idaho really likes funding those guys – for new funding (how are you going to manage tax cuts if you go adding more spending?), to the tune of $11.2 million. At least the amount is modest in the context of state budgeting. What would it be going for? Drug and mental health treatment? You can almost feel the lack of legislator ardor.

You might say the proposal doesn’t enter the process on a glide path to passage.

Here’s the background.

In Idaho, about 15,000 people are “in the system” of state probation and parole. Officials have been breaking them out into categories, based on risk of having to return or send them to prison. Around 2,000 are considered low-risk, so the parole and probation people have begun to keep them on a looser leash.

The higher-risk probationers and parolees are another matter. In a great many cases, half or more, these are people who have drug abuse and mental health problems.

Those factors have a lot to do with how much time and effort our “system” spends on them. I’ve seen this personally recently, watching not far from where I live a household with people snarled in drug and mental issues turn into a problem for the area, with local law enforcement, jails, probation and parole spending endless hours over a period of years trying to deal with it. You probably can easily find similar examples in your community. (If you can’t, just ask your local police.)

So: The $11.2 million DHW is seeking would go toward providing drug rehabilitation and treatment and mental health services directed toward the significant number of parolees who would benefit from them.

Getting back to the matter of paying now or later: A study last year by the Western Intermountain Commission on Higher Education estimated the average cost for this kind of drug/mental help would amount to about $1,514 per offender.

The state now spends about $30,400 per offender to manage these people through conventional probation and parole. More than a third of felon offenders typically have returned to prison, where the cost for housing them is upwards of $20,000 a year – but that’s just the beginning, if they’re then paroled out again (or even serve their terms and then return to the streets unprepared). They will again, one way and another, eat up many our dollars, tax dollars and otherwise.

We could pay all that, or ... a much smaller amount on the front end, and maybe even get a productive citizen out of the deal.

We’ll see what the Idaho Legislature does.

Trump and tribal sovereignty


A few years ago I had a chance to ask President George Bush what he thought about tribal sovereignty in the 21st century. His answer went viral: “Tribal sovereignty means that. It’s sovereign. You’re a … you’re a … you’ve been given sovereignty and you’re viewed as a sovereign entity.”

Think about that question today; we would be lucky to get a similar answer. Bush (except for the “given” part) was correct: tribal sovereign means that, you’re sovereign.

This idea is relevant now because during the campaign Donald Trump was dismissive of any sovereignty except his perception of what America’s sovereignty is all about.

So a treaty with Mexico and Canada? Junk it, day one. A United States pledge to reduce global warming? Out. Perhaps even historic military alliances will disappear into lost budgets.

And when it comes to the federal relationship with American Indian and Alaska Native governments as sovereigns we will likely see ideas pop up that were long ago discarded as impractical, expensive, or out-and-out wrong.

At the top of that list: Shifting power from the federal government to state capitals. That was Ronald Reagan’s plan when he came to Washington. In 1981 he proposed rolling dozens of federal programs into block grants for states. Then the budget was cut by 25 percent, the argument being states could deliver the services more efficiently. But a Republican Senate didn’t buy the whole plan. In the end most of the programs were managed by states, but under federal oversight. According to Congressional Quarterly, Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, then chairman of the Senate Labor Committee said at the time, it was the best deal possible. “We’ve come 70 to 80 percent of the way to block grants,” Hatch said. “The administration is committed to pure block grants, and so am I. But there was no way we could do that.”

Expect Hatch, and House Speaker Paul Ryan, to take another shot at substantial block grants to states, representing a fundamental shift for programs that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Ryan’s agenda, “A Better Way,” proposes to do this with Medicaid. It says: “Instead of shackling states with more mandates, our plan empowers states to design Medicaid programs that best meet their needs, which will help reduce costs and improve care for our most vulnerable citizens.”

This is a significant issue for the Indian health system. Under current law, Medicaid is a partnership between the federal and state governments. But states get a 100 percent federal match for patients within the Indian health system. Four-in-ten Native Americans are eligible for Medicaid funding, and, according to Kaiser Family Foundation, at least 65,000 Native Americans don’t get coverage because they live in states that did not expand Medicaid.

The Affordable Care Act, which is priority one for repeal and replacement, used third-party billing as a funding source for Indian health programs because it could grow without congressional appropriations. The idea is that when a person is eligible, the money is there. The Indian Health Service budget in fy 2017 includes $1.19 billion in third-party billing, $807 million from Medicaid programs. This funding source is especially important because by law third-party billing remains at the local clinic or other unit. And, most important, when the Indian Health Service runs short of appropriated dollars it rations health care. That’s not the case with Medicaid funding.

One problem with the Affordable Care Act (after a Supreme Court decision) is that not every state participates in Medicaid expansion. So an IHS clinic in South Dakota would have less local resources than in North Dakota or Montana. This especially important for health care that is purchased outside of the Indian health system.

The most important gain from the Affordable Care Act has been insuring Native children. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation: “Medicaid plays a more expansive role for American Indian and Alaska Native children than adults, covering more than half of American Indian and Alaska Native children (51%), but their uninsured rate is still nearly twice as high as the national rate for children (11% vs. 6%).”

Ryan’s House plan would convert Medicaid spending to a per capita entitlement or a block grant depending on the state’s choice. There is no indication yet how the Indian health system would get funded through such a mechanism.

During the campaign Trump promised to repeal the Affordable Care Act, including Medicaid expansion, but said there would be a replacement insurance program of some kind.

Earlier this year Sen. John Barrasso, R-Wyoming, chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, and Sen. John Thune, R-South Dakota, introduced legislation to “improve accountability and transparency at the IHS.”

Barrasso is a physician.“A patient-centered culture change at the Indian Health Service is long-overdue,” he said. “This bill is an important first step toward ensuring that tribal members receive proper healthcare and that there is transparency and accountability from Washington. We have heard appalling testimonies of the failures at IHS that are unacceptable and will not be tolerated. We must reform IHS to guarantee that all of Indian Country is receiving high quality medical care.”

What will reform look like after the Affordable Care Act goes away?

Last week Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, said on CSPAN that the Indian Health Care Improvement Act was one of the good features of the Affordable Care Act and ought to be kept. But nothing has been said by Republican leaders about how to replace the Indian health funding stream from Medicaid, potentially stripping $800 million from the Indian health system that is by all measures underfunded.

Perhaps the most important idea in government, one that had been expanding, is the idea of including the phrase “… and tribes” in legislation and funding. That means tribes get money directly from Washington rather than the round about from DC to state capital to tribal nations. And clearly in this era that’s a hard sell. Just last week the state of North Dakota opted to punish (or so it thinks) tribes by canceling a joint appearance before the legislature because the state is not happy with the Dakota Access Pipeline protests. At a moment where there should be more talk, not less, the state walks away.

That, of course, begs the question, is this how government will work over the next four years?

Mark Trahant is the Charles R. Johnson Endowed Professor of Journalism at the University of North Dakota. He is an independent journalist and a member of The Shoshone-Bannock Tribes. On Twitter @TrahantReports