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Posts published in February 2017

In the abyss

schmidt

Small ideas take a lot of words; big ones need just a few. This was a small idea I stumbled upon, and the idea itself is not that important, but what happened, more so, what didn’t is the story. People here in Idaho are dying and Idaho’s US Senators aren’t doing much for us. That’s the real story here.

The Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention Workgroup was started 6 years ago to address the prescription opioid epidemic in our state. Idaho, like all states has a prescription monitoring program (PMP). At one of the workgroup meetings I was made aware of a gap in our state monitoring system. Federally sanctioned methadone treatment programs and Veterans clinics are not required to enter their controlled substance prescriptions into the Idaho PMP.

That means if a veteran is on oxycodone for chronic pain and he comes into the ER wanting something for pain and doesn’t tell the ER doctor he’s taking the VA meds, the doctor can’t see the prescriptions in the system. I know; this has happened to me as an ER doctor.

The reason for this exception lies in federal law. I asked the Director of the Board of Pharmacy about this and his eyes lit up. “Do you want to know about this? I have all the research.” He shared with me the specific US code, some proposed changes from different US Senators over the years. It seems not just the uninsured are dying from lack of action.

Congress isn’t dead yet; but the reaction I got to this small idea from Idaho’s Senators was moribund.

This should have had some traction since the prescription opioid epidemic was in the news so much and it is rampant in our state. I drafted a brief letter on my state senate letterhead describing the issue and asked for a conversation. I was sensitive to party affiliation issues and got a Republican state senator to introduce this idea to our US Senators and sent off the email. That was a year ago.

THREE MONTHS later I got an email reply thanking me and telling me there would be follow up. THREE MONTHS after that I got a call from an intern working with one of the senator’s offices. We had a polite conversation and the intern asked me a bunch of questions that could have been answered if he had read my initial email. Now we are six months later, I am no longer a state senator, and I doubt there will be any action.

Was it a bad idea or that it came from an Idaho Democrat, or is just Washington DC so crippled? I would have appreciated some response either way. Maybe a new administration will invigorate Congress.

I understand that things take time.

I understand that many of the folks with different interests need to be involved, but there is no reason I can understand why Methadone Clinics or VA clinics should not be reporting their prescriptions to a state PMP. In fact, the Virginia Attorney General sent a letter to HHS last spring asking for the same change. Idaho did not sign on to that request, but 31 other states did.

Hello Congress: people are dying. Get to work.

Gunfight at SCOTUS corral

carlson

It gets downright depressing to see conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats oiling their guns, sharpening their knives and starting to circle each other in a modern day version of the legendary gunfight at the OK Corral.

It is the latest iteration of that age-old fight which starts off with “he hit me, first! Therefore I’m entitled to hit him back.” Yet even a pre-schooler in a sandbox knows two wrongs don’t make a right. Democrats correctly called foul on the refusal of Senate Republicans to take up President Obama’s nomination of Merick Garland to the Court just about a year ago.

So much for the “advise and consent role” the Constitution lays out as a major responsibility of the U.S. Senate. Instead, the Republican Senate cynically would not even hold a hearing on the nomination let alone hold a Judiciary or floor vote on the nomination.

One reason, however, many Republicans held their noses and still voted for Donald Trump was his promise to nominate Judge Antonin Scalia’s replacement from a list compiled by conservative of “acceptable” court nominees.

Worthy though Federal Judge Neil Gorsuch is, Senate Democrats are planning on filibustering the Trump nomination offering as an excuse that “turn about” is fair play. Because it takes 60 votes to overcome a Senate over-ride of a filibuster, many folks expect Gorsuch may have to withdraw his name, especially if Majority Leader Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky does not avail himself of the “nuclear option” - a simple majority vote of those present and voting.

Even then, if just two Republicans abstain a tie vote would go to the chair to cast the tiebreaker, and this is the only situation that allows the sitting vice president, Mike Pence, to cast the tie-breaking vote.

The net result is two exeedingly competent nominated justices, Merick Garland and Neil Gorsuch, both with exceptional records, could be destroyed in this overly politicized gunfight.

Can this stalemate, this at loggerheads ever be resolved? Yes, there is still room for compromise and bi-partianship and there is a path forward that could neutralize the vitriol and animosity.

Here is the proposal:

Step #1: This step is designed to reduce the overt and crippling partisanship now surrounding Supreme Court nominations.

The Senate Judiciary Committee creates a Special Subcommittee to vett all Supreme Court and Federal Distict Judge nominations. The subcommittee chair would be Utah Senator Orrin Hatch. the sitting chair. The ranking minority member, Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy, would also be a member.

Altogether there will be seven members: one seat will be allocated to the sitting president of the American Bar Association. Another seat will be assigned to those who once served as U.S. Solicitor Generals. The majority party will name qualified members of the legal profession to two seats and the minority party will nominate the last seat.

In order for a name to move forward to the full Judiciary Committee a person must have five of the seven votes.

Step #2. This step is designed to forge the only realistic compromise now clouding the nomination of Justice Garland and Justice Gorsuch. Neither should become “road kill” or “collateral damage” in the current fight.

The key though is for one of the several judges on the current Supreme Court who should resign because of age or illness. One of them is the linch pin to this win-win compromise. For arguments sake let’s say Justice Ginsberg volunteers to step down.

The judiciary committee then resurrects the nomination of President Obama’s nominee and the two nominations, Garland and Gorsuch are vetted by the full committee and then sent to the floor for a vote where, based on qualifications alone, both are approved and once again there is a functioning nine-member Supreme Court.

Thereafter future nominees for all federal judgeships are run through the process outlined in Step #1. This is a realistic solution but probably too sensible to be adopted. If someone has a better solution I’m all ears.

The great wall

mckee

Events around Trump can unfold and refold so fast, one cannot keep up. As I was writing and editing this piece, the total circumstance changed three times, not counting the extra little twists and turns, making it impossible to chronicle Trumps actions as they are happening.

In a mind numbing, head spinning whirl, President Trump started with an executive order to build the great wall that realistically wasn’t going anywhere. When Trump saw the situation was developing badly, he made it worse. When that didn’t work, he escalated it and made it much, much worse. When the situation was about to turn into a complete disaster, he tried to bluff his way out and blame it all on Mexico, and when he got called, he tried to out-bluff again. The President of Mexico then tipped over the table and stormed out.

At last, with Congress getting more and more restless, with the realities of international trade beginning to sink in, and with relations between the countries on the brink of disaster, Trump did a silent u-turn and stuffed everything back in the box. The situation is left in limbo, essentially where it started, with nothing positive to show for the hullabaloo that was created. There is an empty executive order to proceed with the wall, but no plans, no money and no means of implementing anything. There is a very angry President Nieto in Mexico, a Mexican press that is boiling over, and a population in Mexico growing more upset with the situation in the United States every day. There is a puzzled ally to our north wondering if Trump has something against Canada that is going to explode, and finally, there is a befuddled White House press with a yard full of inconsistent statements to unravel, and anyone who has been trying to keep up left with a fistful of torn-up and scratched out notes, as the administration’s version of events changed from moment to moment.

As Thomas Friedman pointed out on Meet the Press recently, and what Trump and his cabal of amateurs running the White House do not yet seem to understand, everything in today’s economy is global and everything global is networked. One cannot touch one aspect of anything without reactions and counter reactions spinning through the network to impact trade everywhere.

Mexico is our third largest trading partner. We do over half a trillion dollars in trade with Mexico every year, and, if we don’t screw it up, this could continue to burgeon. President Trump seems bound and determined to screw it up. Trump, who has promised to find jobs, increase trade and improve the economy, wants to build a 30 foot wall between us and our third largest trading partner, and perhaps impose as much as a 20% tariff on all imports.

The current flap all started with an executive order that mentioned beginning construction of the border wall between the United States and Mexico. Trump’s campaign mantra. But there is no money, no source of funding mentioned in the order, and no mechanism for obtaining funds. Congressional leadership indicated that tax revenues would not be available. Without a means to implement construction, the executive order was meaningless – other than perhaps for its value as a token to Trump’s base that he was thinking about the promises he made.

When the White House press made this point to Trump, he hauled out his bumper sticker from the campaign and insisted that Mexico would be expected to pay for the wall. Now, it is one thing for this kind of statement to be made by a candidate for election. The American press, and certainly the world in general, does not place much weight on campaign rhetoric. It is quite another thing, however, when the statement is made by the sitting President of the United States.

Mexico’s President Pena Nieto firmly declared that Mexico had no intention of paying for the wall. Trump rejected this demurrer, and repeated that it would so be paid for by Mexico, eventually, one way or another. In response to this arrogant stance, Nieto suggested that if this was Trump’s position, the state visit should be postponed. Trump promptly replied that until Mexico displayed a more respectful attitude towards the United States’ position, the meet should not happen. The Mexican president declared the next morning that the meeting was off. Trump replied with a harrumph that it was a mutual decision.

The developing situation ended for the day with Sean Spicer’s explanation that funding for the Mexican border wall would come from a 20% import tax – a tariff – that, notwithstanding the clear prohibitions of NAFTA, Trump proposed to impose upon Mexican imports. This set off a blizzard of protest from every quarter. The tariff, of course, would not be a tax on Mexico but on the American consumer. A tariff as stiff as 20% would materially impact trade – all of it, not just the imports, and if U.S. – Mexico trade was impacted, the effects would reach around the world. Everything is networked, remember – one cannot affect one segment without the reactions being felt everywhere. Every competent economist that has looked at this has reported that an untargeted general tariff of this size against imports of this magnitude could well precipitate a global recession.

As the press reported it, President Trump insulted the sovereignty of Mexico on several levels, proposed an intent to breach the trade relations that have existed between the two countries for almost 25 years, and then suggested that Mexico was being disrespectful. Both English and Spanish fail to provide words to describe this developing situation; in Yiddish, however, characterizing brash and insulting behavior has been elevated to a fine art: one then might say the arrogant chutzpah of the new U.S. President trying to cast the blame for any of this upon the Mexican President is jaw-dropping.

Trump’s reaction to this whirling piece of meshuggeneh has been to turn about and walk away. He has not withdrawn or undone anything. There was a telephone call between the two presidents that more or less patched things up personally, but no definitive agreements were reached. We are now advised by Spicer that the 20% tariff was never an actual proposal, but just an idea – it might be 5% or 10%, or not at all – as Trump was just sounding out possibilities. The Congressional reaction towards providing funds to build the wall is unchanged, and Trump has made no further formal request in this area. The executive order is still outstanding, and the meeting with the President of Mexico has not been rescheduled.

These events are still unfolding. Whether the damage to our relations with Mexico can be repaired would seem to be up to Trump. Right now, only egos are involved; no real damage to either country has occurred. But if Trump stays true to his reactions towards every potential crisis up to now, and cannot be counseled to pay attention to the comments of the likes of Thomas Friedman and realize that everything is interrelated, then one may well expect that things eventually will in fact get much, much worse.

“It’s all going to pot”

rainey

“Well, it’s all goin’ to pot,
Whether we like it or not.
Best I can tell,
The world’s goin’ to Hell,
And we’re gonna miss it a lot.”

Willie and Merle. My favorite dispensers of wisdom. And - often - reality.

When that song made the charts a few years back, we Oregonians were tinkering with the idea of legalizing marijuana. Backers had been trying unsuccessfully to get the issue on ballot before. But, in 2014, with more research and the history of other pot-legal states on the record, things seemed more in line for passage.

Those states had taken the step and survived, making the idea of recreational pot less onerous. Their histories were largely positive. Medical and social resistance didn’t seem as strong. National statistics didn’t show necessarily higher rates of crime or more bad driving being traced to pot. Even some of the voices of opposition weren’t as strident. The question of legality got to the ballot. And passed 56%-44%.

To the legislative credit of both Democrats and Republicans, the new law was carefully crafted. An experienced Oregon Liquor Control Commission was tasked with creating the first rules and taking oversight as applicants for licenses lined up in the halls in Salem.

Sales started July 1, 2015. In general terms, all the bad things that were supposed to happen haven’t. No sharp rise in highway deaths/accidents because of new pot access. No increased cases of family breakups traced to pot use. Local communities decided for themselves whether to allow sales. Some did. Some didn’t. All in all, implementation came and went and everybody went back to whatever they were doing the day before.

But - on the plus side - things have been very, very busy. For example, the number of sales outlets in the first 18 months under the new permissive law went from zero to 487! A weed-like growth spurt. You should pardon me.

And that’s not all. Oregon has also licensed laboratories, processors, producers, wholesalers and researchers. All together, 1,802 licensees in our flourishing public pot industry. All subject to paying taxes.

So, has it paid off? Well, year-to-date (December 30), the marijuana tax of 25% has brought in - wait for it - $60,000,000 for 2016! The State will deduct costs of collection - a few million. Then, 40% of what’s left will go to education, 20% drug services and mental health. The rest to drug abuse prevention and law enforcement.

By the way, this doesn’t include what counties and local communities are taking in. Each has authority to levy a local tax. Most do. And they’ve been pleasantly surprised at the size of this new largesse. Financially, everybody’s smiling.

A monthly breakdown of when the bucks flow in - and from where in our state - is also interesting. Summer is the big “selling” season. Tourists, you’d guess. And you’d be right. Largest sales numbers are generally West of the Cascades with most along the Pacific coast from Portland to the California border.

Since Washington and California also now permit recreational pot, I’d guess - given watching license plates on our highways - Idaho, Utah and Montana are “higher” now than they used to be. Montana allows medical but the other two don’t. Idaho’s western border is solidly cheek-by-jowl up against pot-legal states. Don’t look for that to change any time soon.

So, how big a seller is recreational “MJ?” The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) figures about 13% of us have “used” in the past three years. But, that’s just the national average.

You just know California is #1. About 18% users. But, surprisingly - at least to me - Portland has about 13.32% and Seattle 14.31%. Got a little “Pacific High” goin’ there.

Some 23 states allow recreational and/or medical marijuana use. That number will increase bit-by-bit as residents demand it and states look for more income to pay the bills. Kinda like gambling. Most legislators would rather face a constituent angry about a “yes” vote on legalized pot than one on a tax increase. Any tax increase!

Our little coastal county of some 47,000 souls has about 20 pot shops. Seems excessive but no one really knows for sure. Their products, while accessible and plentiful, are not cheap. Transactions are “cash only.” No checks or credit cards. All sales are final. No returns.

For those wondering if I’ve had a “loaded” brownie or two, I have not. We retirees need to be careful with our “disposable” dollars. Besides, I’ve got a Jack Daniels budget to consider.

You laugh? Well, there’s one more legalized recreational pot factor here. Oregon booze sales are down. Down! Looks like some of that “disposable” income has jumped the fix fence.

Idaho Briefing – February 6

This is a summary of a few items in the Idaho Weekly Briefing for February 6. Interested in subscribing? Send us a note at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.

The money race gets well underway for the 2018 Idaho governor’s contest, while incumbent Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter goes internationally viral with his defense of the Trump Administration’s priority for Christian refugees over others.

The GOP primary to succeed retiring Gov. Butch Otter got started a while ago, with both Lt. Gov. Brad Little and ex-state Sen. Russ Fulcher announcing their candidacies last year. Little brought in $340,000 from July to December, and he added $50,000 of his own money. That's far better than Fulcher, who lost the 2014 primary to Otter 51-44; since he announced in late August, Fulcher hauled in just $50,000.

Senator Jim Risch on February 1 introduced the Greater Sage-Grouse Protection and Recovery Act of 2017, legislation allowing states to implement their own specific conservation and management plans to protect greater sage-grouse populations and their habitats, in lieu of federal management. Original cosponsors of the bill include Senators Mike Crapo, Dean Heller (R-NV), Orrin Hatch (R-UT), Mike Lee (R-UT), and Steve Daines (R-MT).

Micron Technology, Inc. on February 2 announced the retirement of Chief Executive Officer Mark Durcan.

The Boise City Council on February 1 endorsed a resolution highlighting the city’s long-standing role as a welcoming community and a community of refuge for those fleeing violence and persecution from conflicts around the globe.

A recently completed audit shows logging operations examined on private, state, and federal lands in Idaho overall were 96% compliant in applying laws designed to protect water quality.

The seventh annual ACHD revenue and expense report details more than $1 billion in spending on transportation within each city and Ada County since 2002.

PHOTO Idaho Fish and Game is feeding big game animals at nearly 110 sites this winter and expects to spend about $650,000 on the effort (photo/Department of Fish & Game)

Montana bottler; Calistoga win; well closure

Water rights weekly report for January 9. For much more news, links and detail, see the National Water Rights Digest.

A Kansas court has closed permanently two wells operated by the company American Warrior in light of a lawsuit filed by a local senior water right holder, the Garetson family. That extends a temporary injunction that had been in place, ordered by District Court Judge Linda Gilmore, since 2013.

The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation on January 14 issued a preliminary water right permit for Montana Artesian Water Company, which would prospectively allow it to withdraw large amounts of water from the Deep Artesian Aquifer through a well.

The city of Calistoga, California, on January 26 prevailed in a challenge to its municipal water supply rights.

The town board of the Colorado city of Windsor voted on January 23 to buy a large batch of water rights – priced at $2.1 million – to maintain nearby Lake Windsor and levels of current water use in the city. Windsor is a community of about 20,000 people.

The documentary film “Water & Power: A California Heist” was shown at the Sundance Film Festival in Utah in late January.
Director Marina Zenovich visited communities in the San Joaquin Valley where water disparities abounded. As a review in the Salt Lake Tribune said, “where locals can't get clean tap water. However, in the corporate agribusinesses near those towns, there's plenty of water to grow almonds, pistachios and pomegranates.”

Legislating beyond the state

stapiluslogo1

It may come as a shock to Idaho (and many other state) legislators, but their purview is limited to the borders carved out at statehood. They have a great deal of authority inside, and very little out.

You can pick up the nature of some of these limits, and the narrow ways they can be expanded, in two new House bills, 59 and 65.

HB 65, from Representative Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins, got the bigger headline splash, because its reach would be so broad if it passes (wouldn’t bet against it) and survives a legal challenge (extremely unlikely).

Here’s the key language: “The Idaho Legislature hereby declares that the state of Idaho, on behalf of its citizens, is the final arbiter of whether an act of Congress, a federal regulation or a court decision is unconstitutional and may declare that the federal laws, regulations or court decisions are not authorized by the Constitution of the United States and violate its meaning and intent, and further, are null, void and of no effect regarding any Idaho citizen residing within the borders of the state of Idaho.”

The shorthand for this is “nullification” - a unilateral declaration by the state that if we here (well, actually, if the legislature here) don’t like it, it doesn’t apply to us. That’s just a half-step away from secession from the union, a question pretty much resolved a century and a half ago.

A brand new legislator, Representative Randy Armstrong, R-Inkom, inquired in the meeting where the bill was presented: “Do we have that right as legislators or as citizens, to be able to declare something unconstitutional? Isn't that the area judges are supposed to rule on? How do we earn the position to declare something constitutional or unconstitutional?” Well, there you are. We do have courts whose job it is to rule on constitutionality; that’s a court function, not legislative. The courts also get to parse when federal rulings apply to the states (mostly, but not always). A legislature can declare it has super-powers, but they won’t last long in a real challenge.

Is the legislature completely confined to state boundaries in its impact? Not necessarily.

House Bill 59, proposed by Representatives Ilana Rubel and John McCrostie, both D-Boise, would have Idaho join an interstate compact in which - if all 50 joined - each state would commit that their electoral college representatives would vote for whoever won the national popular vote. Such a proposal coming in this season after last year’s presidential carries a partisan tinge, but the idea has been around for many years, has been adopted by some states and others are considering it this year. (You can see more about it at http://www.nationalpopularvote.com/). Both red and blue states have entered into it.

The odds for passage in Idaho are not good, and we can’t completely be sure what a court will make of the idea. But there’s a good case for why it may be upheld. The federal constitution (in Article II) says “Each state shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof shall direct, a number of Electors,” and generally leaves the process in the hands of the legislatures. It would effect a change in an area where states seem to have full discretion to act.

For both bills, as a movie star once suggested, it’s a matter of knowing your limits.

Advice from a Democrat

schmidt

What I stand for is what I stand on.” - Wendell Berry

If you love where you live, stay put. Get to know your neighbors, your countryside, the history and the institutions. Ask yourself what it is you love, and then find out what your neighbors love; surely you have a lot in common besides your zip code.

You may feel marginalized; indeed you may experience prejudice. There is good evidence that people feel more strongly now about party affiliation than they do about race. It seems now people are more nervous about a family member marrying into the other political affiliation than across a racial divide.

Now relax, don’t hide your face or use a different drinking fountain. Understand we are all in this together, no matter the insults and labels that come too easily to mind. For the community you love and our state to prosper, we all will need to participate. A good conversation is in order. Maybe you could start with what exactly your vision for prosperity means. Listen to your neighbor’s vision. These conversations require patience, respect and time. I hope you have all three, because nowadays it seems they might be in short supply. Show your neighbor you have some to spare.

Know you may be in a Facebook or CNN or NPR or Fox News bubble. The slant of those we listen to can make us think we are all knowing; disabuse yourself of that arrogance. Such humility can be hard when one feels marginalized, and it can be even harder when you feel affirmed. We all are on shaky ground.

Don’t let outrage be the slogan on your t-shirt, even if that’s what you see on your neighbor’s ball cap in the grocery aisle. Be yourself; a citizen with all our rights and responsibilities. And expect your fellow citizens to be too. Let them know respectfully when they fall short, but never shirk your duty either.

Know your community. There may come a time when your love of community is deeply questioned and my original advice to stay put seems questionable. But remember that there’s something here you love, and your neighbors must also. It is not unreasonable to be in a place where there is conflict. Lend your voice and your effort to this conflict so that a vision for prosperity can emerge. We need a shared vision.
Don’t whine and don’t bitch. Get to work. Is there a cemetery district that needs a commissioner? Could you make your city council stronger? Is your church serving your community, or just the parishioners? Do you have faith in the institutions that make your community one you love, and if not, what can you offer to restore that faith? We need work.

Finally, I ask you to question party affiliation; not give it up, but make sure of the value.

Does this branding we do serve us, and the communities we love? It can be such a tribal marker that bears no use for the vision we have for prosperity. If we weren’t looking through the colored lenses of the glasses we have put on, would the world, our neighbors, their vision for the future and ours look clearer? Don’t be afraid to take those tinting lenses off and see people, neighbors, and institutions in the clear light of day.

We are all flawed. We all need work. Let’s get to it.