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About those fire stations

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There’s both good and not so good news in the Twin Falls City Council’s recent approval of a plan to build two new fire stations for the growing city. The really good news is that the need can be met at less than half the price of a previously-rejected bond levy.

The not so good news is that the payments will still come from your pockets in the form of increased fees, and in the specs of the project itself which still seems adorned with “add ons.” (TN, 12/4/2020)

First, the plusses. It’s obvious that Twin Falls fire-fighting capabilities have been stretched by the city’s outward growth. Response times reflect this trend. Growth has meant longer distances from stations to perimeter housing and as the housing spread continues, that pattern makes existing station locations less viable. The current facilities simply aren’t able to hold modern fire trucks adequately or close enough to the growth areas.

That means expansion of stations is more or less inevitable. Our fire-fighters put their health, safety and lives on the line with every call; they need every advantage we can give them as they protect us all.

But the really good news is in the way the council moved on the project. With a pricey, three-station, $36 million bond proposal shot down by voters in 2019, it was apparent that citizens wouldn’t vote to raise their own property taxes with another bond proposal. After the bond defeat, that funding method was off the table. But then, how to move forward?

First, the council then wisely trimmed back the overall station plan, looking at two new facilities instead of three, funding through “no tax increase” methods and taking ideas and plans from other Idaho cities facing fire station upgrades. (TN, 3/30) These ideas were then rolled into a package costing less than half as much as the defeated bond levy. Then third station will wait.

The obvious lesson to citizens here is to be very skeptical of any “first time” ballot proposal; there’s usually a lower-priced alternative. In the case of the fire station bond proposal in 2019, there were numerous questions raised on Facebook and other venues.

Many public works projects, such as jail expansions, proposed recreation centers and other “wants,” are first presented as absolute needs. Mostly, they’re government growth which inevitably fall back on citizens. That’s not to say such proposals are over-sold, but as with autos, the sticker price is usually only the first option.

Now for the not-so-good news. One is in how the stations will be paid for. The city says it will shift monies from one account to another, then use fees coming in to cover the payments. (TN, 3/30). So where do the fees come from? People and businesses, that’s who. These will then likely be passed along in rising costs for new homes, etc. (TN, 12/4/2020). That means back to you, dear citizens, in the form of higher pricing. See, there really is no free lunch.

Beyond that, there’s still a question of what is really needed in new fire stations, and why. Twin Falls doesn’t have any women fire-fighters, yet the two stations are planned to have separate accommodations for female fire-fighters. When asked about this in 2019, the response was, they were looking to the future. Yet, here we are, two years later and still no female fire-fighters? So why not build what we need now with expansion for female staff to come later, when and if Twin Falls ever hires them?

The same logic applies to the proposed training center/tower, which citizens were told in 2019 would only be used a few times annually. So why not use Boise’s training facility when it’s needed and available? That would surely cost less than the proposed training center.

The lesson here is for citizens to keep a sharp eye and pencil on the details of public works, just as you would do if it were your own money, which it is.

Public works projects have a long history of “add ons” which may or may not be necessary, but which are signed off on by elected officials, usually because they want to “get it done” and not offend those pushing for the amenity. It then falls to citizens to keep careful watch.

Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee.  Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He can be reached at Stephen_Hartgen@hotmail.com.
 

That tyranny talk

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Anyone notice the irony here? Malcontents and the arch-rightist, “Get Little” crowd are still trying to clip Gov. Brad Little’s emergency powers and will take more pokes at the governor this week when the Legislature comes back from a two-week COVID recess.

But again, they’re a day late. They call for extreme legislative action just as the real viral COVID emergency fades. Legislative hysterians moan about state mandates, restrictions, Little’s “tyranny.” Except here are the big-picture facts:

COVID infections are dropping state wide, as they are nationally. Health districts and others are loosening restrictions, while still advising people to exercise cautions, but not mandated actions.

A state appointments online program has almost 100,000 signups in its first few weeks. (IdahoPress, 3/25) There was never a state mandate to wear a mask. So much for Little’s alleged “tyranny.”

So now what do average Idaho citizens think? If the rising vaccinations are any indication, hundreds of thousands of Idaho citizens have already been vaccinated and are implicitly rejecting the rightists’ hysteria.

People are voting their choice by rolling up their sleeves for the preventive shots. In a recent poll of 1,000 Idaho Republicans, two-thirds (67%) said they thought Gov. Little was handling the pandemic just about right. And that’s among regular Republicans. How do the Legislature’s extremists explain that? They can’t, so they ignore it.

Here are the real numbers. As of a week ago, nearly 700,000 Idahoans had received at least one COVID-19 vaccination shot, with close to 300,000 fully vaccinated. (Statesman, 3/30). Tens of thousands more have signed up or are waiting for appointments. About a third of Idaho adults had received at least one shot, with the rollout continuing apace week by week. Among seniors, two-thirds of Idahoans over 65 are now vaccinated, as are one-third of those 55-64. (Associated Press, 3/25).

Little said that by tomorrow, the day before the Legislature reconvenes, Idaho would expand availability of vaccines statewide to anyone over age 16, as some health districts have already done. (Pos-Register, 3/25). Again, where’s Little’s “tyranny” in that?

Sure, there are some who won’t take vaccine shots, ever, for anything. They’re mostly “anti-vaxxers” (IdahoPress, 3/24), a noisy, small group that is beyond trying to convince. If they had their way, we’d all be back in the medical Dark Ages with people dying of smallpox and polio. We take for granted too much of medical advances; perhaps these nay-sayers should migrate to the many such places in the world with contaminated water and poor public health.

They see national and even international conspiracies in every public health measure, as if a vaccination program somehow pushes Idaho toward a world-wide, globalist order. To them, Bill Gates and other “globalists” are devils incarnate. Medical professionals, to their way of thinking, are just pawns in this vast conspiracy. Idaho’s “sovereignty” is at stake. Got that?

They hold Governor Little in the same low regard for multiple reasons, only a few of which have anything to do with the COVID-19 pandemic. Mostly, they’re sour and bruised that Little defeated their rightist candidate, Raul Labrador, in the 2018 Republican primary.

Since that loss, they’ve vowed to make Little a “one-term” governor. They’ve already settled on their candidate, Lt. Gov. Janice McGeachin, who has spent her time in office coddling up to rightist, militia toy-soldiers and even put one of her anti-police adherents, Parrish Miller, on the state’s payroll in her office. (IdahoPress, 3/2; 3/16).

These extremists attempt to thwart Little at every turn. In the Legislature, they intimidate others by fear of bill “rankings,” which Miller gathers for his Rasputin overlords at the Idaho Freedom Foundation, a secretive rightist Idaho group with ties and money from oligarchs both and outside Idaho. (IdahoPress, 1/20; Post-Register, 5/20/2020)

Little, much to his credit, has mostly ignored these ankle-biting Pomeranians. He’s got a state to run; they just carp, whine, complain and Bible-thump about how world is going to hell in a handbasket. But Little’s nobody’s patsy. He’s learned that if he turns the other cheek to these malcontents, he just gets slapped again. Sometimes you have to quit trying to find common ground. You just get run over. That’s the way it is with fanatics.

So Little just keeps on doing what he was elected to do, that is to take measured, appropriate actions on behalf of all Idahoans. Again, no tyranny in that.

The COVID-19 pandemic is beginning to fade in Idaho’s mirror, and perhaps with it, we’ll see a decline in the extremism Little has had to face. It would have been better if he had a working partner in the Lieutenant Governor’s office across the Capitol hallway, on issues like economic development and transportation. Instead, he has the opposite today in McGeachin who cow-tows to kooks and other destroyers of civil order.

So Little has had to turn to others for support and has found it among reasonable, common-sense Republicans, state-wide leaders in all walks of life and average citizens. He may not get the credit he deserves for defeating COVID-19, but he and Idaho’s medical and public health community and legions of common-sense Republicans have done so nonetheless. That’s called leadership. Average Idahoans won’t turn him out to be replaced by ideological fanatics and charlatans.

Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee.  Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He can be reached at Stephen_Hartgen@hotmail.com.
 

Two major bills

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For all its dawdling for two-thirds of the session, the Idaho Legislature moved some major legislation before taking two weeks of recess off to squelch the spreading COVID-19 virus.

When they return April 6, the measures include a major income tax reduction and an infusion of money to upgrade Idaho’s highways and bridges. These will help Idaho citizens immensely and should be applauded as examples of what can be done if there is the will.

Sure, legislators could have done more on other tax proposals, such as a sales tax reduction and local property taxes, but these are separate issues. They were included in the initial drafts, but neither gained enough broad support. That’s the way legislative politics works sometimes; ideas die if they can’t win wide backing.

Nonetheless, the income tax reduction is indeed a big deal. It drops the top tax rate from 6.9 percent to 6.5 in all brackets, saving Idaho income tax payers almost $200 million annually. That’s money left in your pocket. An additional section gives taxpayers a one-time, 9 percent rebate from state income tax paid on 2019 income; on a $4,000 tax bill from that year, you’d get a rebate of $360. That’s more money left in your pocket.
The measures still need Senate approval and Gov. Brad Little’s ok, but they’re close to what Little proposed in his budget address.

The vote on the income tax reduction in the House was 54 Republicans voting yes and all 12 House Democrats voting no. How can Democrats not want you to keep more of your own money? Simple. They and their liberal friends in the media prefer a larger government with more and more spending on social programs. What they really want is to take more of the money you earned and give it to someone who didn’t earn it. That’s pure “wealth distribution” right out of the Bernie Sanders economics textbook.

But this tax reduction is, by definition, a reduction of taxes for those who pay them, not a gimme-gimme entitlement for those who didn’t. You work, you earn income, you pay taxes on it. Wisely, the House vote leaves you with more of your own money, and returns some beyond that. Simple, really.
So the next time you hear Idaho Democrats or media guru say they support tax reductions, you can ask why they didn’t support this one, totaling almost $400 million? Get ready to hear the usual cries of “we-need-this, we-need-that” rhetoric, or listen for the to try to shift the discussion to so-called Republican failures. It’s classic ‘what-about-ism.” Humm. there are a lot of folks in other states who’d love to have the coming tax reductions and rebate, much less both. (Idaho Press, 3/17).

The transportation bill will open the way for major upgrades to the state’s highway corridors which we all know are barely keeping up with traffic increases. Idaho is one of the fastest growing states; more people mean more vehicles, from autos to trucks.

The new bill allows transportation projects to come on line faster, from design to build to opening. It allows the state Department of Transportation to bond construction costs, with the bonds secured by sales tax revenues coming from increased online purchasing. Up to $1billion could be available.

The new bill also diverts more money to local highway districts, which have generally not been able to stay ahead of heavier use, but doesn’t fall back on local property taxes. That should help the many local highway districts which often have responsibility for county roads.

Both income tax reduction and the highways proposal will need Senate approval and there may well be alterations as both bodies reconvene in nine days. And there are some other important issues to be resolved, including COVID-19 federal stimulus money (Associated Press, 3/20), property tax fairness, limitations (if any) on the governor’s emergency powers and revisiting the initiative process to limit undue out-of-state influence.

The Legislature also will use the recess to examine federal guidelines on the latest COVID-19 stimulus package, estimated to bring an additional $2 billion to Idaho. The recess will also give legislators and Gov. Brad Little a chance to do further planning on how to best allocate those funds in a “prudent” fashion. (Associated Press, 3/18).

There’s a lot on the legislative “to do” list, but the tax measure and transportation funding are good starting points.

Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee.  Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He can be reached at Stephen_Hartgen@hotmail.com.
 

Killing the Powerball

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Ever bought a Powerball Lottery ticket in the hopes of winning a huge jackpot? An Idaho resident from Star won $200 million some years ago, and just last week a Nevada man won $50,000. (Times News, 3/13). He drives to Twin from Ely every two weeks to shop in the Magic Valley and play in Idaho’s Powerball. Neither Nevada nor Utah has a Powerball game, so he comes here.

No more. This past week, a small group of Idaho legislators – just 10 House members, two-thirds of the State Affairs Committee – voted to scrap the popular Powerball draw, which generates about $14 million specifically for Idaho public schools. Poof! Gone!

No more lines of cars up from Utah to Southeast Idaho towns as the pot grows week by week. Gone too are the surges of traffic at virtually every convenience store in the state.

We don’t play the lottery much, but when we do, it’s with the fervent if distant hope of a huge winning payout. Admit it, so do you. Indeed, says Lottery director Jeff Anderson, an estimated one half of Idaho adults play at least occasionally. That’s a lot of people. The revenue to Idaho from Powerball totals almost $30 million annually, of which about half goes directly to Idaho public schools. It’s been that way for three decades. Now, gone!

So why would a handful of Idaho legislators suddenly deep-six a money-making and popular enterprise? Mostly, it appears, out of fear. Ever alert to internationalist “threats,” the nay-sayers were led by arch-rightist Rep. Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, who questioned whether opening the game to Australia and Great Britain would lead the way to support of other country’s gun restrictions.

Canadian residents can play now and they’ve got stricter gun laws that the United States, so it’s hard to see how Idaho’s sovereignty would be impacted by adding these two other countries to the pool of potential players.

No matter, don’t let facts get in the way of a decision. Despite Anderson’s explanations, the rout was on. In the end, 10 committee members voted to kill Powerball in the state. Two Republicans, James Holtzclaw and Rod Furniss, and two Democrats, John Gannon and Chris Mathias, voted to keep Powerball in Idaho, but it wasn’t enough.

The lopsided vote reflects the effects of group-think and ideological conformance now being practiced in the Idaho House by narrow special interests with their own agendas. Out-of-state money and “dark funds” poured into selected legislative contests, for some candidates and against others who are dubbed “Rinos” by the ideological extremists.

Some members are pushing back at this group-think agenda control. In a recent newsletter, Rep. Scott Syme wrote “I have said this before and will say it again.  I don’t vote based on a score or a grade.  No lobbyist owns me, especially the Libertarian lobbyist that scores bills.  I am a Conservative Republican not a Libertarian.  From the Libertarian Platform, Libertarians believe my rights are more important than yours, “all individuals are sovereign over their own lives and are not forced to sacrifice their values for the benefit of others.”  Abortion they are pro-choice: “we believe that government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration.”  Sex trafficking; “The Libertarian Party supports the decriminalization of prostitution.”  These statements are not Republican values and that is why I don’t value their scoring.  I vote based on what is good for Idaho and what I believe the majority of my constituents want.”

So are long-time lobbyists, who decry the turn to ideology over practical solutions to real problems. “Meanwhile in Idaho,” writes Wyatt Prescott of the Idaho Grain Producers Association, “we see certain elected officials flaunting guns and Bibles to make a political point. Perplexed as I have been over this, a friend of mine summed it up in a way that I believe all of you would appreciate, “A real cowboy does not need to wear his spurs into a bar.” He cites a “loud libertarian faction” who “paints good conservatives into a corner, where if they do not agree with every aspect of the ideology, then of course, words offend you.” (Idaho Grain, w/2020)

There’s a long list of bills this session in which ultra-right legislators bunched up herd-like around an ideological perspective, and a few “must pass” budget bills were in the mix despite their lopsided approval by the Joint Appropriations & Finance Committee. In effect, this small group is acting like spoiled, intolerant teenagers, protesting for its own sake with little or no respect for the common good. The vote on the Powerball lottery was just the latest example.

Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee.  Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He can be reached at Stephen_Hartgen@hotmail.com

photo/Tony Webster
 

Public art

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In this era of continuous discontent and discord, it was predictable that putting public art decisions to public votes would surface as an idea in the Idaho Legislature. The proposal (HB 311) is before the House; if it passes there, it would still need Senate and Gov. Brad Little’s approval.

Let’s think this through a bit. While it may seem logical to give voters the up-or-down decision on expenditures for public art, it’s better for Idaho to trust local community arts councils, local arts commissions, city councils and county commissions to review public arts ideas. Their decisions and choices are generally right in line with their own community standards and tastes. You’d be hard pressed to think of a single otherwise example in Idaho.

The bill’s author says his motivation is to give such public expenditures a democratic voice. (Idaho Press, 2/25). Apparently, some Lewiston-area citizens don’t appreciate the “Canoe Wave” sculpture at one city entrance, nor the cost, which came to about $100,000. (Lewiston Morning Tribune, 3/4.)

But there’s nothing offensive about the art itself. This is no Christ statue in a jar of urine, no sexual obscenity in sculpture, no painting of anatomy, no depiction of “alternative” lifestyle. Nada. Nothing.

That’s true of most other public art displays all across America. We seem to veer, if at all, toward stylized renderings of historical figures, locations and events, such as Twin Falls’ city hall sculpture of John Hayes, the city’s original surveyor; the I.B. Perrine sculptor at the Snake River Canyon overlook; or the iron horse at a Twin Falls intersection which reminds us of our history; or of Pocatello’s Old Town murals. (ISJ, 8/3/2019).

Let’s suppose the tables were turned here and Moscow residents voted and approved a sculpture depicting amorous college lovers in a close embrace. Moscow being a college town, one could argue such a rendition would likely be both historically and currently accurate. While the bill may have the underlying intent of suppressing voyeuristic images, the “lovers” scene would stand under the bill’s provisions if it had two-thirds voter approval and cost at least $25,000.

The issue raises the broader question, what’s the purpose of art? The English essayist D.H. Lawrence writes that “through art, we may be brought to live many lives…and each may have so many fields of life to wander as to never feel wretched and empty.”

Southern Idaho is blessed with many panoramic landscapes and vistas; early traveling artists often remarked on its wondrous scenes. The region’s character for public art often reflects our natural beauty a well as our common heritage. For example, an excellent large reproduction of Thomas Moran’s painting of Shoshone Falls (1900) is on display at Twin Falls city hall. It cost $7,500, well below the bill’s proposed threshold.

Also in Twin Falls, at the City Park, a monument of basalt boulders arranged in a ragged circle on a base of native Oakley stone plates, with their inscriptions and water seeping down, seems a fitting sculptural summary of Southern Idaho’s founding and heritage. It represents a known past of strain and effort, the unbroken rock of he region.

Artistically, this is the most unusual public sculpture in Southern Idaho. It’s a five-boulder placement from which water flows; an appropriate symbol for the valley’s settlement and reminiscent of Stonehenge in its circular form. Engraved sayings and quotations on the rocks speak to our heritage and present-day life.

The display itself is a horse-drawn, single bottom plow, guided by hand, the handles retaining the smoothings of weather, time and the sweat of the hard labor.

Draft horses are gone today except in show arenas, though they numbered in the thousands at the time of settlement. Work gloves are still in daily use everywhere, but modern farm equipment has replaced some of the hand implements of earlier farm life.

But the recollection of these times remains in both individual and community memory, often the residue of childhood, carried later in life from a far-back place and remembrance. It also so with villages, which then grow into towns and cities. They change, but they remain in memory changeless and enduring.

Some last longer others. The engraved sayings on the Twin Falls stone monument are already showing weathering, the simple deterioration of time, leaving some almost unreadable after fewer than twenty years. No matter; they will be here long enough. The land was transformed, shaped, put to both common and individual use and thereby built and sustained a community, culture and heritage. The same can be said of Pocatello’s Main Street murals or Lewiston’s “Canoe.”

In Twin Falls’ case, it is the simple pair of work gloves, set on the plow’s handle, placed as if the owner planned to return shortly and again take on the unsparing soil. Those gloves say, in effect, there is no work beneath us, no work unworthy, only tasks yet ahead. In their simplicity, they remind us of where we have been and what we have accomplished throughout the Magic Valley by this labor, this plow, this hardened rock, this water, this alkali soil, these stones, this land.

Why would we want to subject that heritage to the vagaries of an up or down vote? Place and remembrance are hard enough to preserve in this fractious world. We shouldn’t make that even harder. “The past is never dead,” says the novelist William Faulkner, “It isn’t even past.”

Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee.  Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He is the author of two new books on Southern Idaho, “Tradition & Progress: Southern Idaho’s Growth Since 1990.” and “Spirit of Place: Southern Idaho Across Generations.” He can be reached at Stephen_Hartgen@hotmail.com.
 

More questions than answers

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Congressman Mike Simpson’s rejoinder (TN, 2 /26) to my recent column on his “Save The Salmon” plan (TN, 2/21) raises significant questions, but provides few definitive answers.

The Congressman has his plan posted on his website (Simpson.house.gov/salmon) and he and I both encourage people to read it. Simpson vigorously defends the plan, saying it provides certainty on the ongoing salmon recovery debate and thereby offers a path forward, an “opportunity” as the plan puts it. Many others disagree.

Simpson has served in Congress for more than two decades and has shown repeated good judgment and leadership for Idaho and the Second Congressional District. He’s thoughtful, hard-working and congenial, and over the years, there’s been much to applaud and little to critique in his performance. Voters appreciate him and return him to office by wide margins.

But here are some questions his salmon recovery plan doesn’t answer:

Lack of broad support. Big proposals almost always depend on broad consensus. In this case, Idaho leaders from the governor on down and key groups like the Farm Bureau and the Idaho Water Users have come out either against Simpson’s salmon plan it or have raised specific questions. If this salmon plan is so good, why is there such a wide array of skeptics? What are these leaders and groups missing here that’s such an ‘opportunity’ as Simpson’s plan asserts?

Jobs “retraining” for Lewiston. The plan seems to say those no-longer-needed port workers can just find jobs in recreation. Humm. This may surprise the plan writers, but many port workers may not want to become eco-guides, drift boat rowers, tourism managers or find other recreational jobs. Reminds me of Kerry’s and Biden’s comments that oil field and coal mine workers should just learn to make solar panels and learn how to code. Otherwise, they’re written off with shrug.

An article last week confirms that uses of a dam-less river would benefit drift boaters, bank fishermen and a few hunters, but general boating would be lost. Isn’t that what the ecos always want, an expansion of ”Birkenstock America?” (Spokesman-Review, 2/28). A designated “wild rivers” bill would surely follow in Congress to eliminate vehicle access, beyond any lawsuit moratorium. Simpson’s plan plays to the elitist group of urban recreationals at the expense of the rest. How’s that good for Idaho?

Product shipping. Lewiston’s port handles close to half the total grain shipments from Idaho. Losing that would cause a huge jump in transportation costs to truck and rail and would likely bankrupt many farms, plus clog highways with truck traffic. How is that good for Idaho? As many have stated, barging of wheat and other products remains the most efficient and environmentally-friendly means of transport.

Simpson’s plan has the support of the tribes. And why not? They don’t give up anything in this plan to help salmon recovery. Invoking their “treaty rights” and court-decreed “sovereignty,” tribal salmon netting takes thousands of fish, which are then sold like cordwood out of pickup trucks along highways. Why doesn’t the Simpson plan address this issue? The real solution here would be for Congress to restrict the scope of tribal “rights,” but that’s hardly likely under a Biden minority-dominated administration,

Electric generation. The four dams (which all have fish ladders) generate some of cheapest hydro “alternative” energy in the country, which power nearly a million homes. Yet, the plan blissfully waves this away in favor of alternatives like wind, solar and bio-mass. Let’s see. We breach perfectly good, cheap, non-fossil hydro facilities and replace them with subsidized, expensive alternatives that can’t maintain 24/7/365 energy. How does this make sense?

Water allocation. Does Simpson truly believe environmentalists will stand by while farmers, cities and industry seek the nearly 500,000 acre feet of salmon reserve water for agricultural and other beneficial uses? Ecos will surely continue to claim Idaho’s water, as they’ve done for decades. Does Simpson really think dam-breaching will put an end to lawsuits and Biden-ista closures? Yep, water in the West is for fighting. Under Simpson’s plan, farming and electric generation would suffer. Lawsuit moratorium or not, the ecos will just continue to sue, object, rail, fund-raise, etc. It’s what they do. Birds that quack like ducks are, well, ducks.

We all know how important agriculture and water are to Idaho. Where’s the success? The biggest ruse of the salmon recovery proposal is that it likely won’t work. Wild salmon have already been replaced by hatchery stock, which have DNA exactly the same as ‘wild” salmon; of close to 800,000 released smolts in a recent year, fewer than 25 returned to Redfish, and only one was a “wild” fish.

How’s that for a pathetic rate of return?

Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee.  Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He is the author of two new books on Southern Idaho, “Tradition & Progress: Southern Idaho’s Growth Since 1990.” and “Spirit of Place: Southern Idaho Across Generations.” He can be reached at Stephen_Hartgen@hotmail.com
 

Tax cuts

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After weeks of huffing and puffing about Gov. Brad Little’s so-called tyranny, wiser heads in the Idaho Legislature finally turned attention last week to the substantive matter of reducing citizen’s taxes.

It’s a good first draft, incorporating the critical principles of leaving money in Idahoans’ pockets, while maintaining sales taxes on consumer goods but reducing the overall rate by close to 12 percent. The tax you pay on most consumer purchases would decline sharply. What’s not to like about that?

House bill 199 which runs some 17 pages, was introduced in the House Revenue & Taxation Committee, where it will get closer scrutiny, but as it has House leadership’s blessing, key Senate support and is close to what Gov. Little has proposed, its broad outlines seem more or less secure.

Sure, there will be critics who have their own ideas of what Idaho’s tax profile ought to look like. Many Democrats want to see an Idaho economy more like California’s, with bigger and more expensive government programs to help the needy, pay educators more and expand numerous social services. (TN, 2/17) A fair amount is either waste or coddling of special interests.
Rightists generally want to shrink government, reduce law enforcement, legalize “recreational” drugs, force the needy further onto the backs of churches and non-profits, eliminate public schools, slash state and local government pensions, limit health care and generally and impose a you’re-on-your-own economic Darwinism on everyone.

But neither of these extremes are dominant in the Idaho Legislature, where common sense conservatism usually carries the day. We do what we can afford to do, being neither chinczy nor spend-thrift. Both liberals and hard-rightists complain, but this middle course has served us well.
That measured, pragmatic approach has given the state one of the best economic growth profiles in the nation, with a nice $600 million surplus despite the COVID pandemic and a balanced, three-legged stool of taxation spread among sales, income and property assessment.

One key part of the proposed tax reduction would drop income tax rates across the board, for all income taxpayers, to 6.5 percent. Sure, this would help high-income folks more, but they now pay proportionately higher taxes for top incomes. Reducing the rate benefits all.

The proposal follows an income tax reduction in 2018, which like this plan, left more money in people’s pockets rather than funding bigger government as many liberals want. Many studies show that driving down tax rates attracts new residents, new business and expansion and thus propels further growth (Rich States, Poor States, 2020 report).

Another section would decrease the sales tax on consumer purchases from 6 percent to 5.3 percent (Associated Press, 2/16) A $15,000 auto bought at 6 percent carries an Idaho tax of $900. Under the new plan, the tax would drop to $795, a savings of more than $100. Who wouldn’t like that? Taxes paid on groceries would remain in place, but the overall rate would drop along with other purchases. Tax committee chairman Steven Harris, R-Nampa, is right when he says most Idahoans would pay less tax overall in the new proposal. (Idaho Press, 2/16).

In the Bernie Sanders world of sick-it-to-the-rich and among some rightists, eliminating the food tax” is a Holy Grail of tax reform. But a significant percent of so-called “grocery tax” is spent on fast foods and sodas. Dropping the tax would only encourage their consumption and would give out-of-state travelers a “free” trip across Idaho. You can observe this pattern at any travel store with customers buying both gas and armloads of travel snacks to go.

House Bill 218 offers another tax reduction plan, to phase out the personal property tax over a decade. Known as the ‘pots and pans” tax, its usefulness has declined over the years and the record-keeping is immense.

It’s time to let it expire.

While the House works on income and sales tax reductions, senators are looking at ways to reduce local property taxes, which have escalated rapidly in many places and threaten to drive fixed-income residents from their home taxs. Several main ideas are under consideration, including allowing higher home-owner deductions, collecting so-called “impact fees” on new construction, and tightening government spending limits for cities and counties.

It’s a tougher nut to crack because local entities, including schools, depend on property taxes for much of their operations and local bonding for capital expenditures like jails, courthouses and education facilities.

Yet, with valuations of property increasing, residents are rejecting more bonding proposals.

Proposals to tighten or cap costs has been sharply opposed by local entities, but there’s plenty of evidence that local government spending needs firmer controls. Legislators are heeding a rising cry by homeowners and others about huge local tax increases, but finding the right balance isn’t easy. Too little control would likely spark tax revolt initiatives, but too much control would harm local government’s many services. Idaho generally has lower property taxes (34th in 2020 Tax Foundation report) than many other states, but that’s cold comfort when annual increases are often over 15 to 20 percent.

The good news is that the state remains near the top for fiscal responsibility and prudent handling of tax policy, both revenue and spending. We should count that as a decided blessing.

Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee.  Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He is the author of two new books on Southern Idaho, “Tradition & Progress: Southern Idaho’s Growth Since 1990.” and “Spirit of Place: Southern Idaho Across Generations.” He can be reached at Stephen_Hartgen@hotmail.com
 

Simpson and salmon

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Idaho Second District Congressman Mike Simpson’s proposal to breach Snake River dams does something very few Idaho proposals have ever achieved: it would effectively destroy major economic vitality in big parts both north and Southern Idaho.

That’s quite an accomplishment for a Congressman who has served two decades representing Southern Idaho, but who now proposes a plan which would dry up Southern Idaho farmland as well as eliminate the Port of Lewiston as an inland products terminal and rob the whole Northwest region of electric power to light a million homes. And this to fall short of its stated goal of “Saving the Salmon.” (www.simpson.house.gov/salmon/)
Indeed, the plan admits it may not succeed. No matter. Nothing done so far has worked, so the plan says, so it doubles the money spent. It’s a truly stunning proposal in its scope but also in its likely negative impacts on all of Idaho.

The price: $33billion dollars, twice what we’ve already spent trying to “Save The Salmon” with virtually no success, and with both the old and new money to come from our pockets in the form of increased federal debt and inevitably higher taxes and other costs.

And, as with many government proposals, the real costs are likely much higher. Doubling the costs to $33 billion wouldn’t begin to cover losses in agriculture, electric power generation and shipping. (CapitalPress, 2/11).

What in the world is Simpson thinking? Is this a “grand solution,” a Frank Church Wilderness monumental salmon plan? Or did he just “move left” with an idea which reads like it could have been written by the Sierra Club or The Idaho Statesman? Or is there some notion that without this, the new Biden `administration would go even further to “protect” the species?

Simpson’s plan is a classic “let’s-throw-more-money-at-it” so-called solution to an issue which is really beyond Idaho’s control. Salmon runs have been declining for decades all along the coast, from Mexico to Alaska. Even the best science doesn’t have the complete answer, which may lie in changing ocean patterns as well as natural predation by orcas and sea lions. These were once considered “endangered” but now inhabit the lower Columbia River system in growing numbers.

Simpson’s open-money-spigot idea seems right out of traditional liberal thinking on many issues. Poverty? Do a Great Society. Transportation? How about a billion-dollar national rail system, which every liberal loves but no one rides? Iran nuclear threat? Buy them off with a planeload or two of Obama-Biden taxpayer cash. Climate change? Biden proposes to fix it by eliminating all fossil fuels and imposing forced energy from “alternatives” which will cost ratepayers more. (PS. How did the wind turbines do this past week in Texas’ cold snap? They froze. WSJ, 2/14)
What’s next? Put a fence and road blocks around all of Central Idaho to keep people out of “restored” grizzly bear habitat? How about depopulating the Mountain West to make way for DNA-reconstructed wooly mammoths, saber-tooth tigers, the Hagerman horse and ancient ground sloths?

Saving endangered species is the coin of the realm for ecos; there’s hardly a Spotted Owl, Bruneau snail or Sweetspot Peppergrass which can avoid the ‘protections” of federal designation, all at the expense of local communities and livelihoods.

Yet, in the case of the salmon, they are almost all hatchery-raised now, with DNA that’s the same as the “wild” ones. Effectively, there aren’t many ‘wild” salmon in Idaho to be saved. When the history of America is written for the past 50 years, they will surely wonder how these “movements” took hold and will see such liberal fanaticism for what it is and for what it costs us all.

Amazingly, Simpson’s plan virtually ignores tribal netting, which takes tens of thousands of fish from the Columbia and which are then sold out of pickup trucks along the highways. If the salmon are so “sacred” why is this happening? Are we afraid of being called woke salmon racists if we address the Indian take?

The proposal makes a true assertion that it would be extremely expensive, but suggests that’s ok, because it’s only one to two percent of an anticipated Biden multi-trillion-dollar proposal on energy, transportation, an overall “green” agenda from the Biden-istas. It’s a plan to tap the coming Biden open spending account.

Simpson’s plan, in effect, is an effort to pander to various interest groups with big blobs of federal credit card debt, a few hundred million for agriculture, a few hundred million more to “save” energy generation, a few hundred million more to make good Lewiston’s loss of its port, a few hundred million more to enhance alternative energy research, on and on.

His website on the plan effectively dismisses the economics of these broad categories in fuzzy, blissful paragraphs, focusing rather on the “opportunity” before us. Yea, sure. That’s why Idahoans already are giving the plan mostly negative reviews, from the Farm Bureau to the Idaho Water Users Association, who know it would be Idaho’s water that flushes the salmon downstream.

Simpson has long served Idaho well in Congress, but this “Save the Salmon” concept is fundamentally out-of-touch with Idaho interests. As a political concept, it’s Dead on Arrival. Simpson should re-think it – entirely.

Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee.  Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He is the author of two new books on Southern Idaho, “Tradition & Progress: Southern Idaho’s Growth Since 1990.” and “Spirit of Place: Southern Idaho Across Generations.” He can be reached at Stephen_Hartgen@hotmail.com
 

A flawed idea

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Of course, you say. As a former newspaper publisher, I’d hardly be expected to support a proposal in the Idaho Legislature to allow government entities to discontinue printed legal notices in newspapers and just go with the entity’s on-line listing (HB 53). After all, you might add, it’s just about money, as in the newspaper’s money. It failed on a 32 -38 vote in the House on Wednesday.

Dropping printed legals would indeed hurt newspaper revenue. The ‘hit” would hurt weekly publications the most, because they generally operate in small markets have a larger proportion of legals and fewer other revenue options. Some might fold entirely, thus depriving those smaller community citizens of local news.

Ok, you say, but who really cares if we don’t see a write-up on Mrs. Jones’ sister visiting from Minnesota and bringing a lutefisk recipe, corn relish and some hand-woven wooly mittens. Ya sure, you betcha.

But it really is an issue about transparency as well as community news. Think, for a moment, whether you have time to wade through dozens of government websites every day, week or month to learn that there’s a bond proposal on the ballot you didn’t even know about. Or there’s a “call for bids” on a new public structure with the deadline for submitting a bid is just days away. Or that a federal land management agency wants comments on proposed trail closures or grazing restrictions.

Sure, printed legal notice publication may cost a bit, but it’s still the best way to inform the widest reach of local citizens. Even legislators with bristly press relations support openness and see that the measure would lead to less transparency (TN 2/6). Quite a few years ago, when I was publisher of the Times-News, I worked with others to put the ‘online legals´ in place as an option, but not to discontinue printed notice (IC 60-106). The legals rate is set by law, so one publication pays the same as any other. Legal notice is required in many governmental laws and rules, but the rate hasn’t changed.

Also, the proposed bill doesn’t require entities to make and/or keep an historical record of transaction, thus leaving no “paper trail” which can be followed. In issues like zoning and water adjudication, a title of record is essential; leaving this without a clear record isn’t good public policy.

Then there’s the issue of transparency again. Despite the internet, printed legals are often the only way citizens can keep up with such changes in their communities. Many seniors don’t use the internet, so online only legals would inevitably leave out many who own their own homes and follow proposed zoning carefully. And for those who use the internet, there’s already a convenient website established d by the newspapers themselves, which gathers and sorts state legal notices (idahopublicnotices.com) by type and location. So why dismantle or duplicate what’s already being done?

In the past two weeks since the bill’s introduction, many editors and publishers have pointed out various flaws, particularly those dealing with transparency. Jon Brown, editor of the Owyhee Avalanche, Homedale, put it concisely: The “proposal may save a few pennies in taxpayer money. But in the long run such a shift will further erode the public trust in government, further diminish the public's participation in participatory government, and further threaten the survival of community journalism.” That’s well-stated indeed.

It's mainly cities and counties who wanted the change, which have the largest portion of legals submissions. But if printed legals were dropped, they’d still have to have someone, at further expense, organize and enter the information. Those costs alone would likely override any savings. The issue comes up from time to time, but once carefully considered, it was set aside. That was the right move yet again.

Stephen Hartgen, Twin Falls, is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee.  Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He is the author of two new books on Southern Idaho, “Tradition & Progress: Southern Idaho’s Growth Since 1990.” and “Spirit of Place: Southern Idaho Across Generations.” He can be reached at Stephen_Hartgen@hotmail.com