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Posts published in August 2017

Idaho Briefing – August 14

This is a summary of a few items in the Idaho Weekly Briefing for July 17. Interested in subscribing? Send us a note at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.

Idaho State University President Arthur C. Vailas on August 9 announced his plans for retirement. The announcement was made to the Idaho State Board of Education during its monthly meeting.

Construction of a non-motorized trail between the Redfish Lake recreation complex and the City of Stanley will soon become a reality, according to the Sawtooth National Forest.

The Bureau of Land Management on August 9 said livestock grazing will continue on BLM-managed portions of the Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho.

Major General Gary L. Sayler (pictured) announced on August 10 that he will retire October 31 after more than seven years as Adjutant General of the Idaho National Guard, capping a 45-year military career.

The Department of Finance announced on August 10 that financial regulators from five states, including Idaho, have reached a joint settlement agreement with two subsidiaries of IQor Holdings Inc. for failure to comply with federal and state consumer protection laws related to debt collection practices.

PHOTO Six thousand tons of alfalfa containing elevated levels of bromide could soon be bioenergy thanks to a collaboration between the state of Idaho and Idaho National Laboratory. (photo/Idaho National Laboratory)

Eclipse the revelator

stapiluslogo1

A line of argument in politics in recent years, as in the great Lyndon Johnson books by Robert Caro, has held that the old saying is a little off: Power doesn’t so much corrupt, as it reveals. Power can make the doing of things easier and with less consequence, so we can see more clearly what lies underneath.

It turns out that a solar eclipse can do the same thing.

Friends of ours, who live in the upcoming eclipse totality zone, are hosting a couple of out of state eclipse-interested friends. (Our house, six miles away, is merely in 99.8 percent totality.) They’re not charging their friends any rent or room fee. As matters sit today, I call that a passed character test.

The eclipse, to be sure, is an understandable business opportunity, and there’s no harm and nothing immoral in taking some advantage of it. But at some point, somewhere along the line, it turns into greed, and totality areas all over the country have seen some ugly behavior and sad exposures of character.

There was, for example, the news story about a woman formerly from Idaho, now living near Washington, D.C., who booked an Idaho Falls hotel room back in October 2013. They had an agreement (for a fairly high room rate based on normal Idaho Falls levels). Some months ago the hotel said it wanted to raise the rate by $60; the couple reluctantly agreed. Then, earlier this month: "[The manager] started questioning us and telling us that our rate was way too low for this event and he wanted to raise our rates. My husband said, well you have already raised our rates once and we have a contract with you.”

That hotel in the news story now reportedly has rooms listed at $700 during the eclipse period. If you’re familiar with Idaho Falls lodging, you know this is not just a slight price increase. It is not even an outlier increase, or among the highest. Quite a few establishments regionally have been shooting far over $1,000 a night for rooms that ordinarily would rent for a tenth as much. (The Idaho attorney general’s office has fielded a number of complaints about room rentals.)

Okay: Room rates are, as a normal and reasonable matter, marketplace-flexible. They vary with seasons and holidays and location popularity, and they can sometimes be negotiated by late arrivals (at places with plenty of empty rooms that same night) or by third-party deals. There’s nothing holy about a particular rate.

But when rates rise abruptly, even during times of high popularity, by factors of seven or ten or more, you have to think something in the system, and in people’s willingness to simply take advantage of others and throw conventional rule books out the window, is wrong. There are human consequences. Good luck if you need to travel then for business, or visit a relative. Good luck if you’re not wealthy.

I don’t mean here to focus over-heavily on the lodging industry; lots of private homeowners are renting out their houses for a couple of days for almost unbelievable amounts. And I don’t mean to focus either just on rental rooms; the urge to suck up stray bucks seems to have become notably intense with this particular phase of the moon. (Airbnb reports an explosion of both requests for homes, and homes on offer.)

Consider what this kind of grasping reveals not only about our willingness to take advantage of others.

There are people in the totality zone who should, in bright light, take a good look in the mirror.

One party? Get real

trahant

September is going to be a mess. Congress must sort out some really complicated fiscal issues. There is the budget, an increase in the debt limit, how much to spend on federal programs and services, and, if there’s time, tax reform.

This should be easy in a one-party government. Republicans only need to come up with a budget plan. Then the House acts, the Senate does its thing, and President Donald J. Trump signs the idea into law. Easy. Except there is no Republican majority in Congress (other than the R listed by members’ names.)

The House is made up of at least three factions, or parties, and no majority. (The three groups are: Republicans, Democrats, and the more conservative House Freedom Caucus.) So in order to gather enough votes to pass a budget, or any other of the challenges, at least two of the three factions have to agree on a plan.

The Senate has its own divisions within the Republican Party. (The very reason why a Republican replacement for the Affordable Care Act has not yet become law.)

And the White House is not on the same page either. The president proposed a stingy budget that’s been pretty much rejected by members of the House and the Senate (except the more conservative elements such as the House Freedom Caucus.)

For example the Trump proposed budget calls for $4.7 billion for the Indian Health Service, a cut of some $300 million or 6 percent of the agency’s budget. But a House spending plan calls for an increase of $97 million over last year’s levels. Indeed, the Appropriations Committee that funds IHS and the Bureau of Indian Affairs plans to spend a total of $4.3 billion more than the president requested on programs under its jurisdiction. (In general: The president’s budget reflects significant budget cuts across Indian Country, according to analysis by the National Congress of American Indians.)

The Senate will come up with its own spending plan. Then, in theory, the two houses will resolve their differences and agree on how much the federal government should spend next year (and the president can go along or veto the legislation and start all over).

But no. That’s not how Congress is actually legislating these days. More often Congress agrees to a temporary spending measure based on last year’s budget, a Continuing Resolution. That’s an easier sell to members even if it does represent a last minute, throw up your hands, and do something approach. The other alternative is a government shutdown. That could happen. President Trump tweeted in May that "our country needs a good 'shutdown' in September to fix mess!"

Yes, the budget is a mess. Period. Even take the word, “budget.” That’s a proposal from the president. But in Congress a “budget” is a spending limit that Congress imposes on itself. It sets a ceiling that each of the 12 Appropriations subcommittees have to live with. And, more important right now, the budget sets the rules for debate so the Senate can pass some legislation (such as the health care bill) with only 50 votes. (Most bills need 60 votes to stop a filibuster from stopping the process.)

Back to the congressional budget. Last month the Budget Committee approved a plan that would cut domestic spending by $2.9 trillion over the next decade. The full House will vote on this plan when it returns. It’s a bleak document that would end up slashing many of the programs that serve American Indians and Alaska Natives. Remember the appropriations committees would still figure out how to spend the money; but the budget would act as an overall cap. Less pie to divide.

This budget plan starts off with historically low federal spending that is compounded by even more severe budget cuts between now and 2027. To show how out of touch this budget is, it includes program cuts for Medicaid that were a part of the failed health care legislation. (What's changed? Nothing.) This bill tips action toward the conservatives who want deep spending cuts to be sooner, as in right now.

That makes the problem political. There are probably not enough votes to make this budget so. A few Republicans don’t see this harsh approach as good government. And even if the votes are found in the House, the Senate is another story. Think health care.

And if this budget cannot pass, it’s not likely there is another one that would. Democrats in the House say they want to spend more money: “Congress cannot continue to underfund these crucial investments … (and) without relief from these spending caps, vital government programs are facing significant cuts for fiscal year 2018 that would have significant effects on American families all across the country.”

And the budget is only one fiscal crisis. Another issue that is immediate and serious involves the debt limit. That’s the amount of money the federal government can borrow and it's currently set at $19.85 trillion (federal debt exceeds that level now, but the Secretary of Treasury can basically shuffle money from different accounts). Conservatives want spending cuts as part of any deal to increase the debt limit. As Rep. Tom Cole, R-Oklahoma, and a member of the Chickasaw Tribe, told MSNBC. A debt limit increase without spending cuts is “like having a credit card and saying, ‘I've reached my limit, I'm just going to change the limit higher without changing any of my spending habits.’”

But, like on the budget issue, the votes are not there. (Especially in the Senate where 60 votes will be needed.)

This is tricky because the Republican administration understands what failure could do to the country. Budget director, Mick Mulvaney, is now supporting a debt limit increase. But when he served in Congress, Mulvaney said he was willing to risk a default to force a discussion on spending.

Key point here: Votes from Democrats will be needed in both the House and the Senate to pass an increase in the debt limit. But will there be enough Republicans?

If Congress does not pass the debt limit, the impact would be “catastrophic.” And, almost immediately, this failure would hit federal budgets because interest rates would spike upward. Interest rates are already the fastest growing part of the federal budget and a sharp increase in rates would add significantly to the total federal debt. In other words: By voting against a debt limit increase, Congress would make the debt problem worse. Far worse.

But Republicans have campaigned against a debt limit increase for a long time. So it’s going to be one tough vote.

In case you’re keeping score: Republican leaders plus Democrats will be needed to increase the debt limit. Most Republicans including the House Freedom Caucus will need to vote for the budget and appropriations bills. Or, those budget and spending bills will have to include more Democratic priorities to win that party’s support.

So yes, September is going to be a mess. And after the budget, spending bills, and debt limit is complete, there’s still tax reform on the agenda. Yet another mess.

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.

Looking to the future

carlson

It was a small news item and it escaped public notice which is a shame because it speaks volumns about the fundamental basic intelligence of America’s body politic.

The item was a report on Maine Senator Susan Collins’ return home for the August recess following her vote against repeal of the “ObamaCare” health plan without anything to replace it. As she deplaned the commercial airliner she had flown into Bangor, Maine, there was a good sized crowd stacked up waiting to board the plane.

Almost instantly, Collins was recognized and as she walked into the terminal and down a causeway spontaneously every one stood and applauded the Senator as an expression of appreciation for her courage. For any political officeholder it doesn’t get better than that.

Senator Collins along with Alaskan Senator Lisa Murkowski, who also cast a courageous no vote, are just two of the women reshaping the Senate and their respective political parties. On both sides of the aisle women are showing men what leadership is about.

Most people are familiar with old cliches like “the hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.” Such condescending statements reflect shallow thinking about a woman’s influence being exercised behind the scenes. It may have had some validity 70 years ago but it sure as heck isn’t true today.

It is safe to say that the future of the Democratic party, as well as the Republican, rests in the hands of the increasingly talented pool of women governors, congressional representatives and senators. In the not too distant future one may see a woman as the presidential candidate of each party.

Idaho holds a unique place in American political history as the first state in the nation where each party’s standard bearer in a race for a congressional seat was a female. The year was 1956. The incumbent in the First Congressional District was Gracie Pfost, a Democrat and a former Canyon County official. The challenger was Louise Shadduck, a former journalist, the state’s first female chief of staff for a governor, and the first head of a cabinet agency, the Department of Commerce and Economic Development.

Despite Dwight D. Eisenhower winning a second term easily, he proved not to have any coattails in Idaho. Shadduck lost, but many pegged her to become Idaho’s first female governor or U.S. senator. However, while remaining politically active she never sought office again. The glass ceiling for those two offices remains unbroken.

It is almost too obvious to say that the future of both political parties is tied to which one does the best job of addressing issues the woman voter determines to be most important. Their agenda is more practical and less ideological.

According to many national polls, women voters care most about economic issues and health care matters. Regardless of party, women voters strongly support “equal pay for equal work.” Access to affordable health care is another critical issue which more and more is seen as a fundamental right, not a function of privilege and income, and access to higher education without incurring crippling debt brought on by too easily obtained stuent loans.

Women are more attuned than men to the homeless issue, the opiod crisis, and the lack of enforcement of laws against spousal abuse and child abuse.

Each party caucus in the Senate has some outstanding veteran female legislators as well as some rising stars who bear watching. On the Democratic side Caucus chair Patty Murray from the state of Washington is a classic “work horse” who gets things done. Noted for her common sense, excellent staff, and an ability to work across the aisle, she could emerge as a future majority leader.

Many thought with the retirement of Nevada Senator Harry Reid, Murray might challenge New York Senator Charles Schumer for the minority leader post. Murray, however, recognized that minority leader was a thankless job with little upside and wisely took a minor position while biding her time. She enjoys broad support among all the female senators and counts Senator Murkowski as a real friend.

Murray incidentally has constantly ben underestimated over the years. She holds the Sente record for having defeated the most members of the House in her re-elections---having defeated five.

Looking down the road it is easy to see that the rising stars in both parties, and the key to whether they can expand their base by attracting more of their gender, rests in the hands of new, young and energetic senators like California’s Kamela Harris on the Democratic side and Joni Ernst on the Republican side. Keep your eye on them.

The role of an AG

jones

There has been a great deal of discussion of late about the rift between the President and Attorney General Sessions. President Trump apparently feels that Sessions should have stayed with the Russia investigation and nipped it in the bud. While I disagree with much of what Sessions has done, he was absolutely justified in recusing himself from issues related to Russia and the campaign. The attorney general is the person charged with upholding the rule of law. He should not be a political operative. This applies at both the federal and state level.

An attorney general must have some independence from both the executive and legislative branches. Whether at the state or federal level, an attorney general swears an oath to support the constitution and laws of the jurisdiction. He or she swears no oath to any individual in the government. The attorney general is responsible to the citizenry to see that the laws are carried out and that law enforcement is even-handed.

Browbeating the justice system, whether the target is an attorney general or the courts, erodes public confidence in the system and the rule of law. If the attorney general were to act as a political lackey, we might have a replay of the Watergate fiasco where President Nixon’s attorney general, John Mitchell, was convicted for his participation in the Watergate cover-up. Think how different things might have turned out if Mitchell had exercised some independence and advised Nixon to let the investigation move forward without obstruction.

Sessions correctly recused himself because of an apparent conflict. The President seems to feel that Sessions had a professional obligation to him. That is simply not the case. However, officeholders in the legislative and executive branches often have a similar misconception about the attorney general being their personal lawyer. When I served as Idaho Attorney General in the 1980s, some members of my party had the idea on occasion that my official decisions should favor the party. I had to advise them that my responsibility was to follow the law.

That is not to say that an attorney general cannot engage in political activity. I certainly did and almost all other Idaho AGs have done so—attending party functions, taking stands on legislative issues, supporting political candidates, and the like. But, there must be a distinct division between political or policy matters, on the one hand, and interpreting and enforcing the laws, on the other. Allowing political considerations to influence the manner in which justice is administered is an injustice in itself.

Idaho’s current attorney general is a good case study. While I may have disagreements on some policy matters with Attorney General Lawrence Wasden, I admire his courage in correctly following the law. He has been unfairly criticized by members of his party for not toeing the party line on certain hot button issues. His record of being vindicated by courts of law indicates that he was right and the critics were wrong. The State has paid out a lot of money in attorney fees to private parties by disregarding his advice.

When Wasden said the State Land Board was violating the Idaho Constitution by failing to get the maximum long-term return from State cabinsite properties, his advice was not heeded. He filed suit against the Board and was upheld by the Idaho Supreme Court. This precipitated action by the Board to get greater economic values from those lands. This is what a good attorney general does--faithfully follow the laws, regardless of friendships or politics. Presidents, governors and legislators should understand that an attorney general must have independence in order to fulfill that important role. Sniping, obstruction and interference are detrimental to the rule of law, which is the foundation of our system of government.

Thug in the White House

richardson

It seems like just yesterday our nation met the new White House Communications Director Anthony Scaramucci. Then, in the blink of an eye, he was gone.

Scaramucci’s rapid ascent and more rapid descent provide a cautionary tale. His debut interview, filled with vulgarity, was dismissed by some as merely "colorful." But that benign description didn’t do it justice. It was a profane diatribe, replete with the most repugnant imagery imaginable.

In short order the president grew annoyed that Scaramucci’s mobtalk had eclipsed his own and decided Scaramucci had to go. But Trump knew what he was getting when he hired the guy and, according to initial reports, Trump “appreciated” Scaramucci’s trash talk, finding his shtick “amusing.” Of course he did. As former House Speaker and Trump sycophant Newt Gingrich was quick to note Trump and Scaramucci "speak the same language." Who can doubt it? Certainly no one who remembers Trump's “Access Hollywood” tape.

And that, of course, includes our children. Trump and Scaramucci modeled behavior that will imprint on millions of impressionable young minds just weeks before the new school year begins. Anyone want to guess what kind of taunts schoolyard bullies will be using this fall?

When I was three years old, I overheard my dad and a couple other mill workers in conversation. One of the men called someone a "no-good S-O-B." Later, I asked my dad, “What is an S-O-B?” He paused for a moment, and then said, "It means soft old baloney." Taking him at his word, I adopted the expression and told my mom that the boy next door was a "no-good S-O-B." "Where did you learn to say THAT?" she asked. "From dad," I answered. The next thing I knew, dad was getting an earful from mom, and I never used that expression again.

Of course, it's not news that "little pitchers have big ears." What is new is that our president is now the Vulgarian-in-Chief. We have in the Oval Office a man who treats our beloved country like a crime syndicate and who, like the mob bosses he strives to emulate, bullies and intimidates his “enemies,” with crass threats. What have we come to when our president himself encourages police brutality, brow beats vanquished opponents in a speech to the Boy Scouts, and enthrones a two-bit hood like Scaramucci in the White House?

Perhaps the most notable takeaway from the Scaramucci affair is this: “The Mooch” wasn’t fired because of what he said or how he said it. He was fired because he had begun to occupy the center stage spotlight the president reserves for himself. Scaramucci’s foul language simply provided a convenient excuse.

Scaramucci may be history, but a narcissistic thug remains in the White House.

A doomed Marine

rainey

The new high level employment of Gen. John Kelly (Ret.) isn’t likely to last more than six months. And that may be generous.

In a very real sense, a White House Chief of Staff is administrative president of the United States. The guy he works for gets his picture taken a lot. If the CofS does his job, he’s in very few pictures. The president makes public statements and handles the outward artifices of politics. The CofS does the nitty gritty of making those statements reality and is detail-oriented to always make the boss look good.

CofS runs the staff. Almost nothing gets to the President he hasn’t seen or approved. He hires and fires. He organizes, assigns work, ramrods the smallest details, is gate keeper to his boss and, in the best circumstances, has a full range of authority. The CofS is the eyes and ears of the administration, the top collector of information, the dispenser of rules and the power behind the Oval Office.

He has one other job. Telling the President when he’s wrong. When he is. Which, currently, is daily. About most everything. He’s as close to being a remote conscience as Jiminy Cricket.

Now, set all that aside. Now, think of a man in his 70's who’s completed 45 years of military service - a “Marine’s Marine” - who’s lived his entire adult life going from a stripe on his sleeve to four stars on his shoulder. His body carries wounds of combat while his head is filled with massive details that go with command of hundreds of thousands of men and women. In peace and on the battlefield. Imagine four decades of being instantly ready to carry out any order - or give one - expecting the same immediate response.

All of that - and more - is Ret. Marine General John Kelly. Who is now in the employ of one Donald Trump.

It’s not necessary to “background” Trump. You know him. If there were ever two lives lived at opposite ends of a set of values, you’d be hard-pressed to find better examples.

Trump has filled his White House offices with arrogant egos, political newcomers with little to no experience of how to successfully operate at the top of government. Dozens of political neophytes and political zealots. He’s attracted hangers-on bringing no experienced skills to their new jobs. He’s got a staff filled with wannabees looking out for themselves and not for the President. And now, after the firing of the previous Chief of Staff and a trash-mouthed communications boss, Kelly is inheriting an incompetent and lying press spokesperson, power struggles within the offices and the Trump family as well. Senior staff conditions that could be properly likened to a snake pit.

These are the people and the working conditions being dropped in Gen. Kelly’s lap. A man with the reputation of a “straight shooter” is being tasked to bring order to a gang that can’t shoot straight. He’s got dozens of employees with no first-person familiarity with anything military - part of a generation that abhors restrictions in anything. He’ll compete with family members, in-laws, business partners and now lawyers having absolute access to the Oval Office and who won’t be giving up that access anytime soon.

But most of all, he’s going to have to take orders from a racist, lying, unprincipled, duplicitous misogynist who, thus far, has ignored all attempts at self-control and adherence to decorum from any and every one. He’ll be dealing daily with someone with no understanding of military codes of honor, ethics and brotherhood.

His marching orders will come from someone who takes orders from no one - who has no understanding of the structure and roles of the separate branches of government much less military and political protocols - a man who has proven he honors no agreements or contracts - a president who advocates police brutality and believes the presidency carries with it supreme powers akin to dictatorships.

In other words, the military respect for authority, personal responsibility, honor and truth of a Gen. Kelly will run smack into a commander-in-chief devoid of such characteristics who’ll be assigning his daily duties. What could possibly go wrong?

The only “positive” factor here is that, currently, Kelly believes in Trump, voted for him and has - so far - managed to overlook nearly all of Trump’s massive flaws and shortcomings.

But, how long will a principled former U.S. Marine general stand his post, defending a boss who neither respects nor practices the qualities that have combined to make Kelly the respected wearer of the four stars his lifetime career has bestowed?

Six months may be entirely too long a prediction.

Idaho Briefing – August 7

This is a summary of a few items in the Idaho Weekly Briefing for July 17. Interested in subscribing? Send us a note at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.

Beginning August 5 Idahoans needed to dial the area code along with the seven-digit telephone number in order to make a local call. The Idaho Public Utilities Commission approved a new area code for the state in December 2015 to address the need for additional phone numbers. To implement the new area code, the Commission also approved mandatory 10-digit dialing for all of Idaho.

Two of Idaho’s largest and best-known business law firms said on August 1 that, they will join forces and unite as 75 attorneys strong under the Hawley Troxell banner.
Moffatt Thomas is joining Hawley Troxell.

The first sockeye of the year recently arrived in the Stanley Basin, including a naturally produced fish on July 27 and a hatchery fish on Aug. 2. The fish completed a 900-mile journey that included passing through eight dams and swimming 6,500 vertical feet in elevation from the Pacific to Stanley.

The Idaho Department of Insurance has posted proposed health insurance premium rates and the requested increases for plan year 2018 on its website.

The biggest solar event to pass through the area in years is just a few weeks away and the city of Pocatello is helping residents, businesses, and visitors to the Gate City get prepared.

SEAL COATING Seal coat work coming to many Magic Valley highways, impacting I-84, US 93, ID 75 and many others. (photo/Idaho Transportation Department)

Water Digest – August 7

Water rights weekly report for July 24. For much more news, links and detail, see the National Water Rights Digest.

As part of its effort to restore a self-sustaining Chinook salmon population within the San Joaquin River while minimizing impacts to water contractors, the San Joaquin River Restoration Program resumed its Restoration Flows to the river July 21. Since January 4 of this year, Friant Dam releases have been managed for flood control. This precluded the program’s Restoration Flows, which include releases from Friant Dam for downstream riparian interests. With the change, water users should be aware that diversions of Restoration Flows are not allowed unless authorized by the Bureau of Reclamation, as these flows are dedicated for preservation and enhancement of fish and wildlife resources pursuant to Water Code section 1707 and are protected under the California Water Code.

AQUAOSO™, an early-stage water management and trading platform that helps customers manage, identify, buy and sell water rights is launching a beta version of its water trading platform. This initial roll-out is intended to better connect buyers and sellers of water rights.

Mexus Gold US President Paul Thompson and Marco Martinez, CEO of MarMar Holdings, announced on July 31 that there is substantial amount of gold in the pregnant pond and on the heap leach pad which is currently being leached.