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Posts published in “Idaho column”

The whole pie

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Last year the voters in Wisconsin elected Democrats to the U.S. Senate and the offices of governor, attorney general, secretary of state and treasurer - a sweep. In that same election, in the state Senate where 17 seats were on the ballot, Democrats won six, or about a third; and in the House (or, Assembly as it’s called there), Democrats took 36 seats compared to the Republicans’ 63.

Might that at-variance legislative result have happened because of a mass of split tickets - more Wisconsin voters opting for Republicans down-ballot after checking off all those Democrats above? Nope. In the Assembly races, for example, Democrats won 1.3 million votes compared to the Republicans’ 1.1 - while losing seats at a rate approaching two to one.

How could that happen? It’s what can occur when you get clever, and unscrupulous, about how you draw the legislative district maps. Similar stories can be told in other states in recent years, including Pennsylvania and North Carolina; Democrats have done the same in Maryland.

Idaho has managed to evade this sort of thing, mostly. It might not much longer.

The number of legislative seats held by each party should theoretically resemble - at least very roughly - the vote for statewide offices. In many states it does. In Oregon, where a Democratic governor won last year by about six percentage points and the state’s congressional delegation kept its four Democrats and one Republican, the legislature has 56 Democrats and 34 Republicans, a Democratic majority falling between half and two-thirds. In Washington, which has been steadily electing Democrats to top offices for the last couple of decades but sometimes by close margins, the legislature has 84 Democrats and 62 Republicans (one of those an “independent Democrat” who caucuses with Republicans). The splits in those states resemble the overall partisan votes in the state.

In Idaho, there’s also some resemblance, but it’s thinner. Consider the 2018 election, when Republicans won all of the major offices decisively, generally a little above or below the 60 percent mark. (Governor was 59.8 percent, first district U.S. House 62.8 percent, second district 60.7 percent.) So you’d expect Republicans to control the legislature, as they do, and have ever since the election of 1960. So what is the percentage of Republicans in the Idaho Legislature today?

80 percent. That percentage in this cycle actually is the lowest Republican percentage of control at the Idaho Legislature in a couple of decades.

But controlling four seats out of five, a lot more than the three out of five voters would seem to support, apparently isn’t enough for some members of the Idaho Republican caucuses. In some quarters, there’s a perceived need to press the finger a little heavier on the scales.

To be clear about something: Idaho doesn’t today belong the list of gerrymandered states. One reason is that a generation ago, the legislature gave up its reapportionment tasks and, through a constitutional amendment, set up a reapportionment commission (approved by the voters in 1994) evenly balanced between the parties. It has worked, albeit a little messily at times. But the fact that some signoff is needed from both parties has kept the district lines from going too far astray, even if a few of them look a little odd. In a state shaped like Idaho, a few of them always will.

A new piece of legislation, House Joint Resolution 2, was being rushed - not too strong a word - through the legislature to redesign the commission and upset that delicate balance. The proposed constitutional amendment, which still would need approval of the voters to pass, would in effect give Republicans outright control of the redistricting committee, and probably temptation too great to pass up - to clearly gerrymander the legislature to wipe out as many Democratic-leaning or marginal districts as possible. Designing a map with that in mind could cut the number of Democratic districts down to three or two, depending on how the Boise districts were split up.

The resolution got to the House floor last week but then, when uproar ensued, it was kicked back to committee. That may mean it’s dead for the session; “returned to committee” is often another way of killing something. But not necessarily.

If it re-emerges and passes, that could readily give Republicans upwards of 90 percent of the Idaho Legislature. That wouldn’t much resemble the Idaho electorate, but then, that probably would be the point.
 

The flaw in the Medicaid argument

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The Idaho Supreme Court decision in the challenge to the Medicaid expansion initiative - the case Brent Regan v. Lawerence Denney - was highly predictable, and a lot of people did predict it. With the decision in hand now, sustaining the initiative, it’s worth reviewing why that is.

We almost didn’t get this decision because two justices didn’t think Brent Regen, the plaintiff (on behalf of, mainly, the Idaho Freedom Foundation) shouldn’t have been able to bring it. The court’s majority didn’t even entirely dispute that point, admitting that it was stretching things even to deliver an opinion. But it’s as well that they did, since the decision made so clear why the argument against the initiative was so deeply flawed.

The Regan argument didn’t have to do specifically with the expansion of Medicaid benefits, or even with Medicaid at all. That may come as a surprise, given the political rhetoric surrounding the case, and the issue. The legal argument for overturning the initiative was, roughly:

The initiative violated the Idaho Constitution for the reason that it gave away legislating authority from the state to the federal government, since the agreement with the federal government on Medicaid expansion might commit the state to agree to future changes in the rules governing Medicaid.

First, the Supreme Court said, that is simply wrong. The court reviewed previous decisions that refer to references to law in other places, and found those, “affirmed the idea that when a statute references a second statute, it adopts that statute as it is in its current form. Subsequent amendment or repeal does not affect the initial statute.”

Anyone who follows the Idaho Legislature should know as much. Look through the annual list of bills passed by that body and often you’ll see new bills passed to update for changes made elsewhere. The state income tax law, which integrates in places with the federal, is regularly updated by the legislature (sometimes provoking debate along lawmakers).

The court made that point in its decision: “It should be noted that section 56-267 [the Medicaid expansion provision] is not the first nor is it the only statute to reference federal law. In fact, many Idaho statutes reference federal law. For example, Idaho Code section 33-2202 provides that: The state board of education is hereby designated as the state board for career technical education for the purpose of carrying into effect the provisions of the federal act known as the Smith-Hughes act, amendments thereto, and any subsequent acts now or in the future enacted by the Congress affecting vocational education …”

A truckload of laws relating just to commercial activities in the state would have been upended if the Medicaid expansion challenge had been approved, because the same principle in law would have torn up all kinds of federal, interstate and other agreements. It wouldn’t be a reach to say that large sectors of Idaho’s economy could have been thrown into chaos by a bum decision in this case.

Here’s another example the court cited: “the statute governing who could sell prescription drugs did ‘not specify which drugs shall require a prescription order, but instead conditions that status upon three possible alternatives: (1) another state law, (2) a law of the United States, or (3) a rule or regulation of the Idaho Board of Pharmacy. … In noting that the area of drug regulation demanded particular practical considerations, this Court said, ‘[i]n deciding whether a delegation is proper the court’s evaluation must be ‘tempered by due consideration for the practical context of the problem sought to be remedied, or the policy sought to be effected.’’’

The practical effects of this Medicaid expansion decision, had it been handled badly, could have been extreme. That partly explains why so many legal analysts thought the decision in favor of the initiative was a slam dunk, and why the court’s major internal disagreement on it concerned whether a ruling on the challenge was even warranted.

The beneficiaries of Medicaid expansion dodged a bullet here, but not only them. So did a lot of other people.
 

DIY legislature

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You too can follow the Idaho Legislature, at least mostly. As the legislature prepares to kick into gear for this year’s session, the time feels about right for a look at the best way to do that.

As in so much these days, the best, albeit not the only, way is online.

It’s not everything you need, but it gives you quite a bit.

The legislature’s own website, at legislature.idaho.gov, has a large batch of resources probably not known by most Idahoans.

There’s information about each of the legislators, of course, and e-mail addresses for each. Not many years ago the only way to keep track of legislators was to carry a legislative directory booklet, which many people (such as me, when I was reporting there) kept in pocket along with other vital items (like car keys and wallet). Now a smartphone can as easily access it all.

The legislature’s website also connects to the state constitution and laws and even the administrative code (the state regulations). That makes sense considering what the legislature does, but it also makes for a handy central repository.

The doings of the legislature since 1998 are available there too, including all bills introduced, committee minutes and much more. Schedules for floor and committee activities are there; a big improvement from the days I recall when the only way to get that information was to go physically to the third floor of the Statehouse to find a printed copy.

There’s a specific current page I check almost daily: legislature.idaho.gov/sessioninfo/2019/legislation/minidata/. That’s where you can find the list of every bill, resolution, memorial and proclamation introduced this session, its current status and links to its full text and also its statement of purpose.

That “statement of purpose” (that’s the formal name for the document) is written for each bill and is something particularly worth checking out if the rough subject of the bill is of interest to you. Bills often are crafted in such a way that their full intent and effect may not be obvious on a casual read. Statements of purpose are supposed to be written in plain language, describing what the effect is, and what it will cost (mainly, whether it will have an effect on a budget or on general fund taxes). These are best read with a cautious eye, since advocates sometimes have been known to use poetic license in describing effects and costs. But they’re a good first stop to try to understand what’s happening with a specific bill.

If you want to track things in real time, you’re also in luck. On the legislative front page there’s a link to “live audio and video streaming,” and that takes you to the Idaho Public Television site, which operates like video and audio streams of many legislative sites. Streams include the Senate and House floors, the committee room of the Joint Finance Appropriations Committee (which drafts the state budget), the Lincoln Auditorium, where many of the larger hearings are held, and a bunch of other committee rooms as well.

There’s still nothing that can replace the understanding-by-immersion of actually being there, observing the atmosphere and talking to the people. There’s a reason legislators still need to meet personally, in one place, rather than conducting committee meetings and floor sessions by Skype. (Or is that day coming?)

Short of that, you can observe a lot online.
 

A shutdown of votes and wishes

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On December 19, the U.S. Senate passed on a voice vote - with no opposition in evidence - a bill aimed at averting the impending federal government shutdown. It had support of all or nearly all Republicans and Democrats in the chamber, and was thought likely to pass in the House of Representatives. Senators started singing Christmas carols on the floor.

Then came a declaration from President Donald Trump, who initially seemed to back the bill, but after taking heat, said he would not sign it because it did not include funds for construction of a border wall with Mexico. That killed the bill in the then-Republican-led House. It was nonetheless an actual compromise, something un-thrilled Democrats and Republicans could (and in the Senate, did) vote for.

After party control shifted, the House wound up passing a measure much like the old Senate bill - which, once again, had been supported by nearly all Senate Republicans as well as Democrats - with the statement that funding for the wall could be considered separately. In fact, it has voted for 10 related bills along those lines, with mostly Democrats in favor but picking up some Republican backing. One Republican voting aye on the bill passed on Wednesday was Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho. He will take heat for that.

On Thursday, the Senate voted on and killed two budget bills. One was backed by Trump and touted as a compromise, though it contained no concessions and included what the corporate world would call “poison pills”. Only one Democrat supported it. The other was called the Democratic bill - though, once again, this was largely the same thing Senate Republicans had solidly backed a month earlier - and though it got a half-dozen Republican votes, it too failed. Idaho’s senators, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, were not among the six.

Idaho’s congressional delegation has had a busy week.

Simpson said, “The House voted on a package of bills that were negotiated last year between the House and the Senate, Republicans and Democrats. Although it does not represent my preferred starting place for negotiations, I support it because it includes provisions that are important for Idaho that I personally worked to secure, including increased funding for sage grouse conservation, PILT, wildfire prevention and suppression, and a prohibition on listing sage grouse as an endangered species, among many others.” But he also blasted Democrats for not looking more favorably on the Trump proposal.

His new fellow Idaho representative, Russ Fulcher, was quoted as saying, “It’s not a debate about what the right thing to do is, it is a power play between the speaker and the president. That's basically all this falls down to."

Actually, it must be more than that, or else the votes behind the speaker and the president, which allow them to take these positions, wouldn’t be there. And it does after all have immense national impact.

Fulcher: “My urging is to forget about the politics, forget about the party moniker right now.” But unlike Simpson, he voted against the proposal which, once again, had been developed and approved by both Republicans and Democrats.

A week ago, Risch participated with a group of Senate Republicans offering a bill to avert federal government shutdowns in the future, by setting up an automatic continuing resolution - sort of putting the federal government on temporary budget autopilot - in case of a budget stalemate. He also said, “Shutting down the government is the complete opposite of what we were elected to do - govern. I have co-sponsored this legislation year after year and hope we can finally move it forward. Real people with real problems get caught in the balance of government shutdowns and we need to act for them and for the sake of government efficiency. I would prefer a smaller and less intrusive government than what we have, but regardless it needs to operate.”

Good sentiments, and at the least a reasonable legislative concept. But with all these good intentions and good will, why are the votes - all of the delegation’s votes - still not there for an actual compromise, like the one Congress had but a month ago, to end a shutdown now with no end yet in sight?
 

The Idafornia shirt

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The operative phrase used to be “don’t Californicate Idaho.”

Now, in the age of the meme, it’s an image, showing Idaho melded to the top of California, the merger called Idafornia.

On a shirt.

An artist from Nampa named Scott Pentzer created it, though the design is so simple almost anyone could have. Pentzer said he drew it in 2014 but didn’t bother putting it on a shirt or trying to sell it until very recently.

When he did, he got reaction. Fox News said on its website, “Within hours the internet lost its mind. After two hours on the Facebook page, the post garnered 200 comments.” More than 500 more were added to that before the post was killed. (Doesn’t take much for the internet to lose its mind.)

The image on it shows a single red fill outlined to the shape of Idaho perched on top of California, with the word “Idahfornia” within.

What’s the point? To note the real link between the states, what with so many Californians moving to Idaho - an estimated 21,000 of them in 2017, presumably as many or more last year. Most say they’ve moved to escape the high prices in California, which mainly means exploding housing prices in the coastal state. Buying a home in many of California’s urban areas has moved beyond middle-class capacity, but houses in Idaho are cheaper - albeit fast becoming more expensive, partly because Californians selling their old digs can afford to pay more. In turn, many Idahoans are being priced out in places like Boise.

Pentzer told the San Francisco Chronicle, "It tapped into a nerve or something. I know [California transplant resentment] is out there a bit, from some of the stories I heard. But I never knew Idahoans hated Californians that much."

There’s long been some California resentment. (And not only in Idaho: An Oregon governor’s famous plea to vacation in Oregon but not stay there was aimed largely at Californians.) And it goes back a long way: Aside from Native Americans and farmers from Utah, most of the early territorial settlers in Idaho, and many of its leading government and business leaders, were former Californians. That fact drew some sharp words even a century ago.

But what are the effects now of this growth driven in significant part by California?

Politically, the analysis on that has shifted over time. In the mid-eighties, when the modern California stream of newcomers got underway, there was for a while some thought that Idaho politics might veer left as a result of more moderate incoming people from the coast. Obviously, it didn’t turn out that way: Idaho seemed to be a magnet mainly for more conservative Californians, politically red people escaping a state getting steadily bluer.

But might some of that be changing now? I got an e-mail inquiry last week from a woman considering moving to Sandpoint but hesitating because she’d been hearing it might be overrun with racists and skinheads. Over time, the conservative flood of the last generation may thin out.

Many moving to the Boise area, meanwhile, seem to be arriving with the idea that it’s simply another modern American metro area - which it is - and the politics hasn’t been a large factor. That suggests a broader mainstream of people may be coming to Idaho, and if it continues it could lead to political moderation as well.

The Fox report quoted one Tweet as opining something reflecting that idea, after a fashion: "What happens when Californians flee their failed state but bring their failed political ideology with them? They transform Idaho into California. Cali used 2 b one of best states in the US, now it's the worst. Won't be long b4 Idaho turns from red to purple, then blue.”

That end result may be overstating things. But it’s a point to ponder.
 

What Little said, and didn’t

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Like many State of the State speeches by Idaho governors, Brad Little’s first speech to a joint session of the Legislature this week was notable for what the new governor said and what he left unsaid.

No one will accuse Little of scaling many oratorical heights, but his compact, workmanlike 35-minute address did help to both establish his agenda and begin to define his governorship as distinct from outgoing Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter. Little paid tribute to his political partner for the past decade, but then pivoted on a dime and said, “I stand here today not to reminisce about Idaho’s past, but to look to our future.”

The Otter era is over and something new is beginning to unfold.

Little’s rhetoric about the importance of improving education in Idaho was short of aspirational flurries, but the sentiment he expressed about the importance of education seems entirely genuine.

“I know there’s a strong correlation between our education system and the attractiveness of our state to entrepreneurs and businesses,” Little said. “Most importantly, a strong education system helps ensure we keep our best and brightest here in Idaho.”

The challenge to Idaho of keeping the best of the state’s talent at home to gain an education and then land a good job will only increase, and Little seems to instinctively grasp that better schools equal a better economy. His stated determination to keep education at the head of his agenda will serve him well and, I suspect, eventually put him at odds with the skinflints in the Legislature. And that highlights what was left unsaid by the new governor.

There was virtually nothing in Little’s speech to challenge the overwhelmingly Republican Legislature and in fact he took two potentially contentious issues off the Legislature’s plate, at least temporarily.

By finessing the first half-year funding for the Medicaid expansion approved overwhelmingly by voters in November, Little left that fight for next year.

Likewise, while citing uncertainty about state revenue collections, the governor effectively postponed another battle about eliminating the sales tax from grocery purchases, a position he had campaigned on but now acknowledges he lacks the cash to pay for.

In politics, a decision postponed is a decision made and this can was kicked down the road. We’ll see how long the can keeps rolling.

To his credit, the new governor stepped up to assume responsibility for what he called “accountability to Idahoans” for such things as the recent customer service snafus with driver’s licenses. But pointedly Little did not extend the idea of accountability to the ethics of lawmakers or to improvements in campaign and personal financial disclosure, areas where Idaho continues to be very old school and very far from transparent.

Little also declined to challenge legislators with any big plans for really addressing Idaho’s woeful record of high school graduates advancing to further education.

He passed on pushing for meaningful pre-kindergarten education, an initiative broadly supported by the business community and by virtually everyone who understands the importance of giving kids an early educational launching pad. The Legislature has long dithered on such issues and this year at least the new governor seems content to let the dithering continue.

As Boise State University professor Stephanie Witt wisely pointed out, the governor’s speech was also devoid of “fed bashing,” and happily so.

Poking a stick at a federal agency or two has been a standard feature of State of the State speeches in the recent past. Instead, Little struck a cooperative, collaborative tone with talk of working with public land managers. Little’s approach is a welcome change, especially if he sticks with it.

Also missing entirely from Little’s accounting of the State of the State was anything about great and pressing issues that consume Washington, D.C., and threaten the economy.

“Idaho remains a heavily trade-dependent state,” Little said, “with around $2 billion in agricultural exports. When markets are open, agriculture makes the most of those opportunities. When markets are disrupted, we feel it.”

Well, markets are being disrupted, thanks to the simple-minded trade policies of a president who never met a market he didn’t seek to upset. Idaho’s dairy, fruit and potato growers, even the state’s upstart brewing industry, have felt the sting and there was no mention of Idaho’s trade future in China and Mexico, where the state actually has offices to push exports.

One has to assume that pointing out unwise trade policies promulgated by a Republican administration, even when those policies hurt Idaho industries, is apparently too sensitive an issue to raise in a room where 84 of the 105 legislators are Republican.

No single speech, even a new governor’s first State of State, can possibly articulate the full vision of a new administration.

Little may have wisely limited his first year agenda to schools, keeping the economy strong and providing careful stewardship of the state budget. What the governor’s vision lacks in aspiration is balanced by its careful and modest practicality.

Little’s real test will be whether he’s willing to use the full power of the office he now holds to shape legislative outcomes he truly cares about.

His predecessor often seemed reluctant to engage and occasionally confront a Legislature that has rarely in Idaho history cared much about what George H.W. Bush famously called “the vision thing.”

Governors can, if they wish, create a vision and with real leadership push and pull a Legislature to be better than the status quo. Little has all the necessary preparation for the job. His first big speech provided some broad brush hints at what he wants to do.

Check back in April to see if he leads the Legislature or if, more in the style of Otter, he affirms what lawmakers ultimately decide to do.

Johnson served as press secretary and chief of staff to the late former Idaho Gov. Cecil D. Andrus. He lives in Manzanita, Ore.
 

Brad speech, Butch speech

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Brad Little now has two major addresses - inaugural and state of the state - under his belt as Idaho governor, and they might have given a focused indication of what he will do.

But not exactly. We’re probably going to have to keep watching to figure that out.

The speeches were capable, professional and appropriate. But they were not revelatory; he almost seemed to be holding back rather than expounding on how he thought things should be.

The inaugural was a hello, a thanks and a pointer to the upcoming state of the state speech, delivered as usual on the first day of the Idaho Legislature regular session.

That speech, at about 4,000 words, was shorter than all but one of predecessor C.L. “Butch” Otter’s speeches (and maybe even shorter than that one, from 2017). But otherwise, beyond a slight difference in tone - attributable to different personalities - Little’s address was a lot like most of Otter’s. Little, of course, was present to watch and learn from his predecessor; he was on the podium just behind Otter while most were delivered.

Some of Otter’s earlier speeches leaned heavy on ideology: free markets, limited government, Washington is awful, etc. The last of those came in 2011, and since then Otter - while of course never leaving his philosophy behind - spent most of his SOS speeches talking about policy specifics.

Senate Democratic leader Michelle Stennett was quoted as saying of the Little speech, “I did a happy dance. Because really, much of what he said is something that as Democrats we have been talking about and trying to pass for 10 years — at least as long as I’ve been here. ... Education, the highlights of his speech, are things that we have been working very hard toward.”

That suggests this speech marked a clear change in direction from the last gubernatorial dozen years (at least). Maybe that will materialize, but the speech provided little evidence.

I asked one veteran observer of these speeches what differences he saw; he cited a higher visibility for the first lady and representatives of the state’s Indian tribes, and no real Washington-bashing. But that was about all.

Consider education, to which Little devoted a large chunk of his speech. He had quite a few specifics on offer and some policy changes, though nothing as prospectively dramatic as Otter’s recent proposal to upend the structure of Idaho higher education. But then, Otter has talked about education quite a bit too. In all of his last half-dozen speeches, at least, he devoted about as much discussion to education as Little did. Education accounted for almost a quarter of his longest address, in 2018. And he put his discussion of it in strong terms, as when he started in 2013 by saying, "Like you, my highest priority remains public schools."

The most-noted specific in Little’s speech: “On election day over 60% of voters approved Medicaid expansion. For months I made it clear I would honor the will of the people. I intend to work with you to implement Medicaid expansion using an Idaho approach. We need spring in our safety net so that there are multiple pathways for the gap population to move off Medicaid and onto private coverage.”

The first part seemed definitive enough, but what did the last part mean? Was he calling for work requirements, and if so what kind, or something else, or would that be a misreading? What are the parameters he would or would not accept? Little’s short statement on the subject was treated almost as a break from Otter, but Otter repeatedly (albeit unsuccessfully) tried various compromise approaches in the Medicaid-expansion area, up to and including 2018. Would Otter have said something much different about the Medicaid initiative if he were still governor today? Not a bad question.

How the Little Administration will differ from the Otter Administration, other than in personnel (locus of many changes) is something we’ll need more time to process.
 

No it didn’t

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Shortly I'll get around to an overview look at the first state of the state speech delivered by new Idaho Governor Brad Little. But before I get to that, one allegation contained in it deserves a review.

The context was Little's statement that "I intend to work with you to implement Medicaid expansion using an Idaho approach," though he didn't specify exactly what that would entail.

Then he made this statement, reflecting some of what he said during the recently-concluded campaign:

While making health care available to low-income individuals we should also do what we can to make affordable, accessible, quality health care available to all Idahoans.
An unintended outcome of the Affordable Care Act is that too many people are priced out of health insurance coverage. In the past two years, the number of uninsured Idahoans increased by 125,000 – almost double the gap population. As Idaho continues to enjoy the fastest-growing economy in the nation, the number of insured Idahoans should be increasing not decreasing.
We must pursue strategies that contain health care costs.

My first response when I heard this (and the many comments like it made by many Idaho politicians) was this:

That's funny. Before the Affordable care Act, I went more than a decade without health insurance; which is to say, without health insurance that would have done me any good. I could have afforded a garbage health insurance policy that would have done me no good, but what would have been the point? A policy like the one I have had since the ACA went into effect was simply out of reach for me then; it would be now but for the subsidies the ACA has provided. (A decade ago, without insurance, I was hospitalized and faced a hospital bill of tens of thousands of dollars, and calculated that if I had been able to afford health insurance then, the premiums would have been so costly that dealing with that massive bill alone was better. Some insurance.) Today and for the last several years I have decent coverage.

My second response was that this isn't just me. Something like 20 million people have been in the same position and gotten insured thanks to the ACA when they otherwise could not (the best efforts of the Trump Administration and Congress to kill their health insurance options notwithstanding).

Priced out of health care? My policy, which covers has been roughly similar through the ACA years, did bump up in price a couple of years ago, actually dropped a bit this year, but throughout has remained decidedly affordable. The numbers of people using marketplace insurance policies has remained more or less stable, which ought to put paid to the idea that "An unintended outcome of the Affordable Care Act is that too many people are priced out of health insurance coverage."

The website Factcheck pointed out, "Republicans say the average family health insurance premium has increased by $4,154 under President Obama. That’s right — and it’s a much slower rate of growth than under President George W. Bush. In fact, employer-sponsored premiums have been growing at moderate rates for the past few years. This is a prime example of what we call a “true, but” claim: an assertion that’s technically correct, but changes in meaning or significance once it’s put in context or fully explained."

And: The RNC’s “fact check” goes on to list more figures from the KFF survey, including the accurate statistic that the average premium for single coverage through employers has gone up 28 percent “under Obama” That’s right again, but much lower than the growth of individual premiums during Bush’s first six years. That increase was 72 percent."

The situation isn't great now, for sure. But it's a massive improvement over what came before it.

That's the ACA marketplace aspect of the picture, of course - not many other aspects of health care. The Medicaid expansion fix is another element of that. The biggest aspect, not much covered in the talk about insurance, is the cost of health care and its many drivers, and the problem of health cost won't really really be reined in until that is addressed.

But let's be clear about this: For tens of millions of Americans, the Affordable Care Act has made the health insurance picture better, not worse. Period.
 

The western secretary

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When in early 2006 Idaho was mentioned as source material for a new federal Interior secretary, I was a little skeptical. But it panned out: The state’s then-governor, Dirk Kempthorne, was named and confirmed to the position.

My reason for being dubious wasn’t specific to Kempthorne. He was a second-term governor not seeking re-election (and presumably looking for his next landing place), with a fellow Republican who would succeed him and no disqualifying scandals or other problems. All of that made for understandable sense as a prospect.

My skepticism came from how Idaho almost always seems to be mentioned for Interior, but has been far more often bridesmaid than bride. Before Kempthorne, just one Idahoan led that department - another governor, Cecil Andrus - but someone in the state almost always seems to be mentioned as a prospect.

I was asked last week why that is, and the answer seems straightforward.

Much of it is regional - as in western regional. The Department of Interior’s activities are national in scope, but they seem to to tilt western. The bureaus of Land Management and Reclamation, two of Interior’s largest agencies, operate mostly in the western states. Western governors and legislators - including Idaho’s - tend to have some focus on environmental and natural resource issues, usually more than most of their colleagues to the east. A lot of BLM and Bureau of Reclamation leaders have come from the western states.

(You could say something similar for secretary of the Department of Agriculture, a job never filled by an Idahoan, with the qualified and partial exception of Ezra Taft Benson.)

These things are true for most of the western states. Consider where the recent Interior secretaries have come from: Ryan Zinke from Montana, Sally Jewell from Washington, Ken Salazar from Colorado, Kempthorne from Idaho, and before him Gale Norton of Colorado, Bruce Babbitt of Arizona and Manuel Lujan of New Mexico. The principle applies the same for both parties. The last non-westerner in the position was Don Hodel, in the Reagan Administration. Of the 26 secretaries in the last century, all but six have been westerners.

Few cabinet jobs seem to have a strongly specific regional attachment, but Interior does.

No wonder that as Zinke heads for the door, the list of possibilities to replace him is strongly western. Names mentioned on the long list include just-departed Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter and Representative Raul Labrador, both loosely plausible from a resume standpoint. Otter, 76 years old and just wrapping 12 years as governor, spent six years in Washington as a member of Congress and seldom missed an opportunity to say how much he wanted leave. Labrador is a better fit in some ways but Interior-related subjects do not seem to have been a high priority for him. He has never been an executive (many cabinet members are former governors). Besides that, he lost the Republican primary for governor last year, a primary many had expected him to win, which would not be the best positioning for building political capital in the Trump Administration.

My best guess for an Interior nominee, at least following the usual political logic, might be to look toward Nevada, which has two departing Republican top office-holders (Senator Dean Heller and Governor Brian Sandoval), both with some established strength in a competitive political environment. No Nevadan has ever been confirmed as Interior secretary, while states around it have contributed. (The same is true of Utah; might that state provide a possibility too?)

I remain a little skeptical for an Idaho answer to the new Interior opening. But there’s always room for a surprise.