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Posts published in May 2019

The eastern Idaho economic boom


As keynote speaker, Dana Kirkham – chief executive officer of the Regional Economic Development for Eastern Idaho (REDI) – launched the April 24 Eastern Idaho Outlook conference by firing off an impressive list of the region's accomplishments, attributes and amenities that have it poised for explosive growth.

REDI partnered with Colliers International and sponsors Idaho Central Credit Union (ICCU), Hirning Buick/GMC and Portneuf Health Partners to host what they hope will be an annual conference at the newly renovated Shoshone-Bannock Casino Hotel.

Kirkham told more than 200 area business and government leaders that Eastern Idaho played a key role in the fact that Idaho was the nation's fastest growing state in 2018, expanding by 2.2 percent or 37,000 new residents. Last year, the Gem State was ranked first for wage growth, plus eighth happiest and healthiest state.

From 2016 to 2019, Eastern Idaho's gross domestic product totaled $13 billion compared to the state's total GDP of $70 billion, Kirkham pointed out, adding all of the 86 health care facilities totaling 6,000 employees and 2,400 physicians between Rexburg and Pocatello expanded the past two years.

Idaho Falls ranked in the top 10 for cheapest places to live in Idaho, top 25 for safest cities for families in the United States and top 50 for best places to live in the U.S. Pocatello ranked second for best economic potential, third for high tech manufacturing growth, fifth for micro city of the future for affordability and in the Forbes top 20 for best small places for business and careers.

Eastern Idaho's unemployment rates also have been hovering at historic lows. Out of 395 Metropolitan Statistical Areas (MSAs) nationwide, Idaho Falls ranked eighth with a 2.4 percent rate and Pocatello 27th with a 2.7 percent rate. Out of 3,219 counties nationwide, Madison County ranked sixth with a 1.7 percent rate; Bonneville County, 147th and Bannock County, 352nd.

Kirkham noted that Eastern Idaho has the second largest labor force in Idaho with 191,350 workers, and 50,000 students are registered at the region's universities. BYU-Idaho reported that about 30 percent of its graduates in Rexburg have decided to stay, live and work in the state. CNBC ranked Idaho as the fifth strongest economy in the nation, third for business friendliness and fourth for cost of doing business.

Major new multi-million-dollar construction projects under way in Eastern Idaho include the Northgate housing/commercial development and interstate exchange, and new LDS temple in Pocatello; Jackson Hole Junction and Snake River Landing in Idaho Falls; Rexburg multiple student housing; a new Madison high school; the Blackfoot Rose interchange exit and a new Chubbuck city hall.

Idaho is ranked fifth overall in the nation for lowest tax rates when property, sales, individual income and corporate taxes are gauged. Companies based in Eastern Idaho include Melaleuca, Premier Technology, BioLogiQ, Idahoan Foods, Klim and Amet. Its major sectors include health care, agriculture, advanced manufacturing, technology and energy.

“We cannot ignore agriculture,” Kirkham said, noting that sector employs thousands of workers. “Forty-four percent of all food processed in Idaho is done here.”

She noted potatoes are the nation's top produced crop – with most grown and processed in Idaho. Wheat comes in second as Idaho's second highest yield crop. Clark Seed of Idaho Falls is North America's largest producer of quinoa. Idaho also is the nation's largest barley producer with Eastern Idaho boasting three large malting plants, including Great Western Malting which recently doubled its capacity in Pocatello with a $100 million expansion.

Six percent of all Eastern Idaho jobs are related to advanced manufacturing, which pertains to the rapid transfer of science and technology to private food processing, energy and technology sectors.

ON Semiconductor has committed to investing $76 million into its Pocatello plant by 2021, Kirkham said. Premier Technology, which employs 300 at its Blackfoot plant, plans to add 100 more when its $15 million expansion is completed. ICCU and Melaleuca also are developing new major data centers in Chubbuck and Idaho Falls, respectively.

The FBI plans to hire at least 350 new employees at its new $100 million Pocatello data center and annually invest $65 million in Eastern Idaho. The Idaho National Laboratory, which employs 4,000, also is developing what promises to be one of the most powerful super computing systems in the world, Kirkham said.

Very few states can claim access to nuclear, hydro, geothermal, biomass, wind and solar energy sources like Idaho, Kirkham said. The INL is positioned in the forefront of developing revolutionary small modular reactor technology that will generate 3,500 construction jobs for four years and more than 300 permanent jobs over 40 years at the site. The Naval Reactor Facility on the Arco Desert also is undertaking a $1.65 billion expansion.

“There's a lot going on in Eastern Idaho,” Kirkham concluded – in what may have been the ultimate inadvertent understatement.

(picture: REDI Chief Executive Officer Dana Kirkham addresses the first Eastern Idaho Outlook conference at the Shoshone-Bannock Casino Hotel/by Mark Mendiola)

Operating at the fringe


My father used to joke that every little town has its town character; an odd, interesting or off-the-wall person who everyone in town understood to be, well, a half bubble off plum. But, the place he grew up, so my father said, was different — the characters had a town.

Increasingly it seems that Idaho’s political characters now inhabit their own state. Perhaps it’s in the water or more likely it’s a function of a state dominated by one political party that with some regularity produces a dyed-in-the-wool crackpot and elevates that fringe candidate to high public office.
Idaho Representative George Hansen, “he just went ahead and did what he was going to do.”

I’m remembering, for example, the lumbering 6 feet 6 inches of rightwing nut jobbery that for seven terms represented Idaho’s 2nd Congressional District. George Hansen was a member of the Tea Party before there was a Tea Party. Hansen was the mayor of Alameda, an eastern Idaho community, before he went to Congress in the mid-1960s just in time to vote against Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights legislation and everything else that smacked of progress. Somehow it seems fitting that Hansen, whose legislative accomplishments could easily be recorded on the back of postage stamp, was the mayor of a town that no longer exists.

Hansen made a career in the federal government by opposing everything the federal government does. He hated the Internal Revenue Service and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and opposed all forms of “federal intrusion into all our lives.” Hansen was so opposed to regulation that he just ignored regulation when it applied to him.

“There was a certain naivete about George,” his lawyer once said. “He never lawyered up. He just went ahead and did what he was going to do.”

A Republican appointed federal judge eventually sentenced Hansen to four years in prison and a big fine for defrauding a bank and 200 individuals of $30 million in a wacky investment scheme, better described as old-fashioned check kiting.

But you had to hand it to Big George; he was once and always a salesman — he sold life insurance before turning to political snake oil — and nearly 100 of the people he defrauded so believed in him that they sent the sentencing judge affidavits attesting to their continuing faith in the fallen congressman. Hansen’s “victims are offended that the court would take them as victims,” the judge said, marveling at “that kind of blind allegiance.”

Hansen had barely gone to prison before Idaho was blessed with his worthy successor in Congress, the archconservative Helen Chenoweth-Hage who represented the 1st District for three high-profile, zero-accomplishment terms. Like Hansen, Chenoweth-Hage had a knack for generating headlines, the kind of headlines that often makes out-of-staters wonder just what is wrong with Idaho.
Representative Helen Chenoweth-Hage

Chenoweth-Hage was an early adopter of the “states’ rights” cause of the Civil War, and she said Idaho salmon couldn’t possibly be endangered since you could buy salmon in a can at Albertsons. Her idea of good government was to eliminate the departments of Education, Energy, Commerce and Housing and Urban Development — not for any particular reason, just because it made a good applause line.

She infamously condemned the “black helicopters” of the evil U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for harassing Idaho ranchers, even though Chenoweth-Hage eventually admitted there was little evidence that such a thing ever happened.

When Chenoweth-Hage tragically died in an auto accident, her obituary mentioned the helicopters, but there was nary a word about any legislative accomplishment.

Idaho has had more than its share of political characters.

Sen. Herman Welker was Joe McCarthy’s best friend in the Senate before Frank Church made him a one-term wonder.

Congressman Bill Sali was another one-termer best — or worst — remembered for linking breast cancer to abortion. Sali once wondered out loud about why he had trouble following what was happening in congressional hearings. Few who knew him were surprised.

Now it would appear Idaho has a new political character vying for a star on the boardwalk of crazy, the state’s Republican lieutenant governor, Janice McGeachin. Like Sali, Chenoweth-Hage and Hansen, McGeachin is a product of a one-party state where it’s often enough to win an election by merely ending up on the ballot with a “R” next to your name.

In each of her five elections for the Legislature, McGeachin ran unopposed in the Republican primary and four times ran unopposed in the general election.
Idaho Lt. Governor Janice McGeachin with some of her Real 3 Percenter followers.

After 10 years in the Legislature distinguished only by her prominent perch on the outer fringe of the Tea Party right of the Idaho Republican Party, McGeachin ran last year to become Gov. Brad Little’s understudy. She won a five-way GOP primary with less than 29 percent of the vote. Next thing you know, she’s a heartbeat away.

McGeachin has made two big splashes in her first four months in office, on each occasion being photographed fraternizing with Real 3 Percenters, members of a fringe, frequently gun-toting, anti-immigrant, militia-like group. McGeachin, while acting governor, administered “an oath,” the same oath applied to the National Guard, to some of these armed jokers near the Statehouse in Boise. McGeachin had earlier shown solidarity with one of the anti-government types jailed for his role in the Bundy standoff in Nevada.

On the one hand McGeachin’s regular flirtations with anti-government, militia-like groups resembles earlier Idaho fringe politicians who embraced the John Birch Society or the Posse Comitatus movement. But her associations and lack of judgment are also different.

The lieutenant governor isn’t just some legislative backbencher. That she is comfortable with very public associations with the militia movement and its borderline connections to violence and domestic terrorism means McGeachin isn’t really embracing Little’s pragmatic — which is to say serious — agenda. Rather she has gone where too much of the GOP has gone — the radical fringe.

There have been reports of Little’s dismay over his No. 2’s wing-nut behavior, but the governor still recently gave McGeachin a high-profile role chairing a review of state agency services. Here’s betting the governor can’t long have it both ways. Serious politicians shouldn’t long tolerate what can only be described as outlandish behavior, even if being a crackpot has long been a feature of Idaho Republican politics.

Plus or minus


As hot debates go, on (college) campus, this one at least seems more in tune with the place:

Plus and minus, or not?

At the University of Idaho, the faculty seem to like it, the students seem not to, and the president may have to weigh in.

There’s a bit to unpack here.

The debate is over what it sounds like: Should students be graded on their assignments with an A, B, C and so on, or an A+, A, A-, B+, B and so on? The standard has been full letters only, but many schools - many in higher education and many in K-12 schools as well - use the fuller system. (The fact that many others use the more varied system is one of the arguments for adopting it at UI.)

The university faculty voted at a meeting on Wednesday in favor of the expanded approach, to take effect in 2023. (We don’t want to rush into these things.) It’s not the first time they have suggested the change; a proposal to do much the same was tried in 2005 but killed by the university president.

The arguments pro and con may seem like a narrow (and for non-students, not especially important) subject. But the implications around it are worth thinking about.

Do you want precision, or is a more general view appropriate? Number grades - zero to 100 - are a sometimes-used approach too, and in some cases, such as a test with numerous objectively right-or-wrong answers, may be the right measure. But is an essay test properly rated an 86 or an 87? That can be harder. Deciding between an A or a B may be clearer and more easily understandable.

And - here’s where some of it hits the road - deciding between an A- and a B+ can be a subtle thing, not a lot different than navigating that 86 or 87; but the difference between the two reads to the student, and to anyone else encountering the score, is something quite distinctive. For a casual observer, it seems like the difference between really good (A-) and just okay (B+), even if it may not have been quite intended that way.

The student newspaper The Argonaut (disclosure: I wrote for it many years ago) quoted plant science professor Allan Caplan as being concerned about attempts at too precise grading: “I doubt I can slice the pie that fine as to distinguish C+ from B-, even though my courses are heavily fact-based.”

A counter view in that article came from ecology professor Penelope Morgan, who, “...said it will help her better communicate with her students about their performance. She said that for students who fall in the B and C ranges, the system could provide more incentive to improve. She said if students don’t think they can move from a B to an A, for example, a B+ may seem more achievable and that could motivate them to work harder and get more out of a class.”

This gets my attention now because we all have to assess and issue metaphorical grades when it comes to developments in our society and in our politics: Is your state legislator or member of Congress an A- or a D+, or do we have enough information to make a clear distinction?

Or is pass/fail good enough?

Blanche and Dennis


Blanche had the dinner done for the “boys” as she called them. She checked for the ingredients for tomorrows dinner and said good bye to the hashers who would do the dishes and clean up. “Make sure you get that grill clean tonight. I’m doing pancakes in the morning.”

“Yes Blanche,” they said in unison.

She didn’t figure she had time to go out to Walmart and get home to make dinner for Dennis, her 10-year-old grandson, so she stopped at Askers in her small town. The 20-minute drive was twilight in this early spring evening.
She shuffled her groceries to the checkout where Randy, the owner greeted her. “How you doing Blanche?”

“My feet and my back hurt.”

“You still cooking for that fraternity?” He started ringing up the items.

“Yeah. On my feet all day and bending wears me out.”

“I know where you could get some hydros. They’re all over this town.”

Blanche stared at Randy. “I ain’t that bad.”

“Oh, I’m not selling any, just saying.”

“That stuff is how Melanie got started.”

“How is your daughter? You still got her boy?”

“She’s OK; maybe out this summer. Yeah, Dennis is with me. I gotta go make him dinner and check his homework.”

“You hear the governor has a plan for that opioid problem? I read he’s going to make an order about it.”

Blanche looked off. “That’s the second time today somebody’s told me he was going to solve our problems.”


“Yeah, I guess he was here to talk to the fraternity boys about staying here in Idaho. They ate it up.”

“Well, they gotta make a living. How’s little Dennis doing?”

“He’s a good kid. But Melanie was too at that age. I don’t know where things changed.”

“She did have him young, didn’t she?”

“Sixteen. I had her when I was fifteen. Wasn’t no big deal back then.”

He had the items bagged and totaled. Blanche was looking in her purse for her cash. She put the twenty on the counter. “It’s $23.46 Blanche. Did you want credit?” She looked deeper: a five and four ones would have to get her through the week. Good thing she had gas.

“No credit. That’s as bad as those pills. Here you go.”

Randy rang it up. “You know Blanche, you’re a hard-working woman. I’m sure the governor’s plan will help out Melanie.”

“What she really needs is a good job.” Blanche looked Randy in the eye. “You hiring?”

Randy looked down and closed the cash drawer, putting the coins on the counter. He paused a while and glanced at Blanche. “I don’t know Blanche. I really have to be able to trust the folks I hire.”

Blanche sighed deep.

Randy perked up. “Maybe that governor’s plan can help Melanie with treatment and counseling, since we expanded that Medicare.”

Blanche grinned. “You sure know your politics. How do you find the time?”
“It’s not busy in the day much here. I read the papers and then fold them back up.” He grinned.

Blanche tried again. “You get a good worker in here and you could buy one and do the crossword.”

“I’ll think about it. I can’t pay much either, just so you know.”

Blanche took her bag and waved and smiled as she left.

Dennis had the house clean and had finished his homework. After their dinner Blanche checked it and his spelling was getting better.

“Hey Dennis, do you know who is the governor of Idaho?” Blanche asked the fifth-grader.

“What’s a governor?”

“Oh, he’s the boss of the state.”

Dennis frowned and looked down. “So, he’s the man who made mommy stay away?”

Blanche looked down, sorry she’d tried something new. “No, Dennis, your mom broke the law and she has to pay for her mistake.”

Dennis had heard this before. “Who is the governor?”

Blanche blushed. “I don’t know his name, but he’s supposed to help us out. Good bosses do that.”

Voter fraud


After the 2016 general election, a large number of elected officials - Republican primarily - expressed an interest in checking into voter fraud, a subject the incoming president said he planned to pursue. One of them was the secretary of state in Oregon, Dennis Richardson. In September 2017, having reviewed voting cases around the state, in an election in which two million votes were cast, he said his office had identified 56 voter fraud cases cases to the state’s attorney general’s office.

In April 2019, after reviewing the cases, that office said it had obtained guilty pleas in 10 cases, involving people registered in three parties (including both Democratic and Republican) and none at all. The 10 were charged with felonies initially, but those charges were negotiated down to lesser offenses. (Some of the others remain formally under investigation, though most simply never led to charges.)

Most of the cases had to do with voting both in Oregon and Washington state. One person was “was suffering from kidney infections which impacted his cognition” - he was confused. Another was a woman who filled out a ballot for an elderly parent in Washington, and then her own proper ballot back in Oregon. Another was an Oregon student living in Colorado, and forgot that he had already voted in one state when he cast a ballot in another.

All of those, and the others, were offenses - these were voters who broke the law, and shouldn’t have, and they’ve been fined. But none of them represent any kind of grand conspiracy, and their numbers were so very low - 10 voters, ultimately possibly a few more - out of two million votes cast, that they do not represent a significant threat to the election regime in Oregon.

That’s more or less the norm in the United States: A few people who screw up, but hardly any cases of messing with the system in such a way as to try to influence the outcome of elections.

It’s not that voter fraud, of one sort or another, doesn’t or hasn’t ever occurred. The Robert Caro volume Means of Ascent about Lyndon Johnson contains a few hundred pages about how Johnson stole - not too strong a word - the 1948 Democratic Senate primary in Texas, through all sorts of means including the mass fabricating of votes. It is one of the most extreme cases of voter fraud - though ordinary voters generally had little to do with it - in American history.

The most striking recent case was in North Carolina, a well-publicized case in that state’s 9th congressional district, aimed specifically at electing one candidate, Republican Mark Harris. Months of investigations followed, along with an eventual order to hold a new election. During one hearing, a news report said, “State investigators established their theory of the case — that a Republican operative, Leslie McCrae Dowless, directed a coordinated scheme to unlawfully collect, falsely witness, and otherwise tamper with absentee ballots — and workers who say they had assisted him in the scheme delivered damning testimony describing their activities.”[] That case involved hundreds of fraudulent votes, evidently enough to change the outcome of the election.

But both of those cases (historical and recent), and all of the other small numbers of organized vote-tampering cases, involve political activists (sometimes though not always involving candidates) who subvert the actions of the voting public. The voting public is not the problem - not more than a flyspeck, at least.

“Voter fraud”, then, seems a misnumber. “Political activist fraud”, as uncommon as it, too, is, may be a more appropriate way to express what’s going on.