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Posts published in October 2018

Searching for the argument against


When it comes to ballot issues, the voter calculus ought to involve these questions:

What, at core, is the argument supporting?

And what, at core, is the argument against?

Maybe there’s a third as well: Are any of the core arguments something that would be better decided by the courts than by the voters?

In the case of Proposition 1 (you can find it at, the historical horse racing initiative, the sides seem to be asymmetrical. I’m having a hard time locating the compelling argument against.

First, a political note: In a time when practically everything seems to have split along party lines, this one has not. Prominent Republicans and Democrats can be found on both sides.

Prop 1 would allow the return of historical horse racing (or “instant racing”) terminals at places where live horse racing takes place. They were legalized in Idaho in 2013, but the Idaho Legislature banned them again in 2015 after being persuaded they were too much like slot machines. The central benefits to the state noted are an increase in jobs at horse tracks - the Les Bois in Ada County shut down after the 2015 ban - and some additional revenue (probably a modest amount) going to the state school fund. The benefits are small in scale, but they are definable.

So that’s the pro side. And the argument against?

The anti group Idaho United Against Prop 1 (their site is at said that “Proposition 1 is all about gambling machines, not horses. The text of Prop 1 will allow historical horse racing machines to be permitted anywhere that live racing or simulcast horse racing occurs – but machines are permitted to remain on 24/7 even if no racing is taking place. Casino-style gambling could be expanded to every corner of Idaho unless voters say NO this November.” That (along with the point that revenue to schools would not be large) is evidently the core of the argument.

The Idaho Racing Commission lists active horse racing locations in Pocatello, Idaho Falls, Rupert, Jerome, Malad, Burley and Blackfoot. But in 2018, the commission said, none operated more than six race days during the year. The initiative wouldn’t allow the instant machines in any place that didn’t run races at least eight days a year. Presumably, that would entail a revival of the Les Bois operation, or something similar. But it doesn’t sound like a prescription for an Idaho overrun with gambling machines.

A second argument is that these historical racing machines are a lot like slot machines, and that’s a question I have raised in this space in the past. But if true (and it’s at least debatable) that seems more like a question for the courts (where this doubtless will go if the initiative passes) than it does for the voters.

The other criticism is about how the finances are structured and how much schools actually would receive. There’s no real debate, though, that the schools and the state would receive something, more at least than they do now. And if the amount funneled off to the state does strike people as too small, the legislature could adjust it.

So what’s left is a modest but real argument in favor, and a vaporous argument in opposition.

Unless someone has something more concrete to offer ...

How do we choose?


Idahoans have chosen Butch Otter to be governor for the last twelve years, despite not thinking too highly of him. A recent poll showed he had a “net approval” of +12 while the state had a “Republican partisan lean” of +34, so he was actually 22 points behind any generic Republican. Idaho’s partisan lean was the third highest in the country.

A high-priced political consultant from back east presented some information to Idaho Association of Commerce and Industry 4 years ago about Idaho politics. He explained that Idahoans just weren’t politically engaged. His graphic evidence showed that ten times more Idahoans Googled “otter” meaning the cute river or sea mammal, than “Otter” the governor.

I always did a lot of door knocking when I ran for State Senate. I would knock and wait, then introduce myself, “Hi, I’m Dan Schmidt your state senator.” The most common response was, “You are?” and a look of surprise. I would ask about their concerns and explain why I thought they should vote for me. If the door didn’t slam, I would usually ask how they decided who to vote for. I’d hear: “Oh I decide based on the person, what I know about them.” That’s the myth people want to believe about their decisions, that they are informed and make wise choices. The truth is, most people can’t name who are their elected representatives, let alone what they stand for or any work they have done. It’s pretty hard to stay informed on all the details. And it’s boring. Netflix is better.

When an electorate is not engaged, there is usually low participation and certain default choices. Idaho voters show up in presidential year elections at a 70-80% participation of registered voters (which is less than 60% of eligible voters). Midterm years (like this year), it’s about 50-60% of registered voters.

There is no doubt partisan affiliation is the default setting when the voter decides to participate and only has limited information. The very strong Republican Party brand in Idaho right now is complicated by the question “Which Republican Party?” If the polling is accurate, Proposition 2/ Medicaid Expansion has pretty strong statewide support. Even a slim majority of Republicans seem to support it. Yet Republican Lieutenant Governor candidate Janice McGeachen successfully got the state Republican party to condemn Prop 2.

The last time Idaho Republicans went through this sort of test was when Otter (not the cute one) had the gumption to have a fight over establishing the state-based health insurance exchange (Your Health Idaho). Many Republican legislators were condemned by their local county party committees for their support of this brave initiative. YHI went on to be the most popular state exchange in the country; indigent and Catastrophic Health Care costs plummeted, reaping the general fund a tidy return and decreasing Idaho’s uninsured rate significantly. But that bitter fight left some deep scars in that big tent Republican Party.

Will Republicans shy away from an intramural fight before the November election? Some aren’t afraid to make their stance known. Twenty Republican House members signed on to opposition of Prop 2 last week. Most moderate Republican candidates I’ve heard aren’t willing to commit. And if their brand is strong enough, and the voters aren’t too engaged, maybe it won’t matter for them. They might welcome being mistaken for a cute water mammal.

Idaho Weekly Briefing – the campaign


Local and regional journalism is in financial trouble and under attack from critics. That means we're all in trouble. Do you know what your elected officials are doing? If you don’t know, how can you keep them accountable? Studies are showing that governments are less efficient and more corrupt when the people see less of what they’re doing. And the same applies to other kinds of organizations.

For people in Idaho, The Idaho Weekly Briefing helps. We have been reporting about Idaho’s governments, business and other organizations, and the demographic and other changes sweeping the state, for many years. Our reports and analysis, some original and some curated from source documents, are packaged in an e-magazine 40 to 50 pages in length. Easy to scan quickly or read in depth.

I'm Randy Stapilus, editor and publisher. I’ve been reporting about Idaho for more than 40 years, as a newspaper editor and reporter, writing about a dozen books and editing periodicals about the state. My weekly column runs in newspapers serving Boise to Twin Falls, Lewiston, Pocatello and beyond.

The Idaho Weekly Briefing is read by legislators, activists, government and business leaders, and interested citizens, has always been sustained by subscription fees. We're launching this campaign to make the Weekly Briefing free of charge, freely available, through e-mail or download. No paywall, no ads, no subsidiary income stream.

We need $6,000 to underwrite the next year's Briefings - just enough keep the Briefing going free-access, for 52 issues.

But we hope to go beyond that, to continue into the future ... and to make the Briefing more than it is now. We want to add more features, news and investigative articles from writers around the state, mid-week updates, and much more. The more funding we receive, the more we can do.

As another organizer on IndieGoGo said about their effort, "This campaign is about so much more than money. It's about community - because success requires a huge backing of people who believe that it's possible, and want to be a force in making it happen."

We see the Idaho Weekly Briefing is a prototype. If we can make it work in Idaho ... with you as a contributor as well as a supporter ... it could inspire more efforts around the country. We want to be a part of that, and I’m asking you to become a part of it too.

The good, the perplexing, the ugly


Ever since serving as state Attorney General in the 1980s, I have been pleased with the way Idaho’s Sheriffs run their offices.

Sure, they run on partisan tickets, but law enforcement should be free of politics and that is the way our Sheriffs generally conduct themselves. I was impressed when the Idaho Sheriffs’ Association recently came out in favor of the Medicaid expansion initiative, Proposition 2 on the November ballot.

Clearwater County Sheriff Chris Goetz, the government affairs chair, explained, “The vote for this was not even close. Sheriffs voted overwhelmingly to support Proposition 2 to save taxpayers money, to keep people out of jails, and to keep people out of the emergency room. By expanding coverage to low-income people with health issues or mental health issues, they’re more likely to contribute to society and less likely to end up back in the system.” Thanks to the Sheriffs for bringing common sense to the debate.

County sheriffs’ offices and city police departments are critical agencies in providing safe school campuses and protecting our kids. It is perplexing why Sherri Ybarra, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction, did not call on their help in developing her almost $20 million school safety program. Other important stakeholders— associations of teachers, school boards, and school administrators—have indicated they were not invited into the process.

The manager of the Idaho Office of School Safety and Security said, “We didn’t even know she was looking at doing any kind of safety initiative until she announced it to the general public.” You would think this office, which the Legislature established in 2016 “to enhance the safety and security of students and educators,” would have been a primary participant in the program. Ybarra’s go-it-alone approach is symptomatic of the way she has handled her office.

Members of the Legislature have urged that she work more closely with them to advance education programs. Her attendance record at Land Board and Board of Education meetings is less than stellar. My high school English teacher, Mrs. Murphy, told me you can’t get much done if you have too many absences.

The ugly part of this column is the President’s lowball refugee cap for the next fiscal year. Our great country, which has been a leader in giving refuge to people fleeing persecution, will admit less than 25,000 endangered people next year. That is a record low in the 40-year history of the refugee resettlement program. The current year’s cap is 45,000 and we will probably admit only half of that number. It is likely that actual admissions next year will be just a fraction of the 25,000 cap.

The historical average of refugees being taken in by the U.S. is 80,000. That should be the very floor for the coming year. This country has been responsible for creating more refugees than almost any other country in the world since the turn of the century. Our involvement in wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen has created an historic global refugee crisis and we are shirking our moral responsibility by turning our back on the victims. If we don’t at least triple our intake of refugees next year, it will be stain on the honor of our country long into the future.

A very sorry mess


It’s absolutely impossible to look back on last week’s Senate Judiciary hearing with anything but disappointment, shock, anger and disgust.

Regardless of how one feels about the nominee, the entire proceedings were shameful. Members of the panel more than characterized the divisions in this nation. By their noxious, immovable and completely partisan behavior during the whole sorry affair, new and horrendous political and societal fissures were created that won’t heal in a generation. If ever. In the process, Republicans, especially, ignored the time-honored method of selecting, vetting and impartially examining merits of a U.S. Supreme Court pick.

Against the knowledgeable and politically accurate advice of his own Majority Leader, and with deadly malice aforethought, the president lit the fuse. He turned the selection process over to a right wing think tank after placing his own asterisk by Brent Kavanaugh’s name.

There was no vetting process. Documents were secreted. Outlandish attempts were made to conceal important information about the nominee’s legal career and personal history. Millions of dollars were spent on a whitewash ad campaign. Republican members of the committee staff were openly partisan and blocked attempts of Democrat counterparts to develop and present their own findings.

The nation has seen the outcome. Two badly damaged people, pitted against each other like gladiators in some coliseum, encouraged by partisans to “do battle” as witnesses. The whole damned thing should never have been allowed to proceed after the first wisps of smoke appeared in the candidate’s background.

The prostituted process lacked the one ingredient that could have saved the whole sorry affair: a thorough FBI check into the various claims arising from the nominee’s past. A week’s impartial examination - maybe even only a few days - could have produced necessary information for the Committee to make a just and informed recommendation. Republicans repeatedly refused anyone who asked. They, uniformly, would not yield to even common sense.

There is now an FBI investigation in progress. But, look at the cost of the accumulated wreckage. Look at the career and personal damage to witnesses and politicians alike. All of it - all of it - could have been avoided.

There’s enough blame in this whole sorry mess to go around. Democrats also played a role in fouling the deal.

But, Republicans are in charge. They have the dominant numbers. They have the gavel. They call the tune - set the stage - direct the show. They have complete responsibility that goes with all those facts. To our everlasting shame, with the world watching, they conducted this demonstration of barbarous partisanship and may have set despicable “standards” for future judicial proceedings.

You can choose to believe the accuser(s). You can believe the nominee. But, one thing you must personally believe was the visible demonstration of intemperance, overwrought emotions, combativeness and deep anger displayed by Kavanaugh. Then, regardless of political outlook, you have to ask yourself “Are those characteristics ones you want sitting in judgement on all issues brought before the U.S. Supreme Court?” What if it’s your “issue?” How trusting would you be your issue would be judged impartially?

Finally, the entire tragedy could have been avoided with the selection of someone not carrying the baggage of years of political partisanship. Someone characterized by demonstrated legal acuity, possessed of emotional and other personal traits desired in a Justice of the highest court. Someone known by peers to be capable of withstanding the pressures and rigors of serving on a panel carrying the full weight of one-third of this nation’s constitutional governance.

This tragic affair could have been avoided if those charged with conducting the matter had relied on tradition, rules, common sense, compassion and law. They did not.

Regardless of the outcome of November’s election, the bad feelings, anger, resentment, emotional damage and political ruptures will linger. For a long, long time.