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Posts published in “Idaho column”

How not to celebrate Christmas


The Christmas season is based in religious practice but has other meanings as well. President Calvin Coolidge called it “a state of mind. To cherish peace and goodwill, to be plenteous in mercy, is to have the real spirit of Christmas.” Clergyman Thomas Monson suggested, “Christmas is the spirit of giving without a thought of getting. It is happiness because we see joy in people. It is forgetting self and finding time for others.”

We do see this around us, and we can rejoice in it. But Christmas brings out not only our better angels but sometimes our darker selves.

Welcome to Christmas at West Hayden Estates, in rural Kootenai County, where Christmas season has brought anger, death threats, lawsuits, donkeys, gun-packing and lights. Very bright lights.

The full story of the low-grade fever that has gripped this subdivision is very well recounted in a recent edition of the Inlander newspaper. There’s not nearly enough space here to tell it all, but in summary:

In 2014 an attorney named Jeremy Morris, who is very enthusiastic about Christmas, lived at Hayden. His Christmas decoration of his house that year -- and in subsequent years -- involved lots of light bulbs; many more than in most houses, reportedly as many as 200,000. (This is Las Vegas casino level.) He also planned some associated activities, holding a lighting event with seasonal food and drink and more, at least partly as a fundraiser for local charities. About a thousand families said they would come to visit and, the Inlander noted, he expanded the show a bit: “He called up a woman who owned a camel, recruited kids at Lakeland High School to sing Christmas songs and marshaled an army of volunteers from his church, Candlelight Christian Fellowship, to help out.” Attendees evidently enjoyed it and the charities wound up with good contributions.

At least some neighbors were unhappy, though, about the bright lights, the sound, the crowds and what is described as a traffic jam in the neighborhood. When Hayden city noted that permits were needed for some of his activities, Morris decided to find another location.

This, outside of Hayden city, is at his new house in West Hayden Estates, where the local power is not a city but a homeowners’ association. Informed in advance by Morris of his plans - which he was describing also as his ministry - the HOA expressed some concerns, mirroring some of those of his former neighbors, in addition to violations of the neighborhood covenants. There was also this line in one document (which the writer probably would dearly love to retract): “I am somewhat hesitant in bringing up the fact that some of our residents are non-Christians or of another faith, and I don't even want to think of the problems that could bring up."

And of a sudden this became not just a matter of neighborhood comfort and aesthetics, but one of War on Christianity and War on Christmas. Since we’re talking here about rural Kootenai County, I shouldn’t need to emphasize how unlikely it is that any neighborhood in that area would want to engage in such a war. But the story line quickly became irresistible, nationally.

Before long, the Morris homestead became ground central for all kinds of fierce emotions and activities. And threats; people were talking, darkly, about all the guns they were packing. Weeks prior to the famous sit-in at the Malheur wildlife refuge in Oregon, members of the Three Percenters showed up to offer support for Morris. Morris told one federal judge that a neighbor “threatened to murder me in front of my family, threatened in explicit detail about things that could be done."

Yes, judge, because of course this thing has been all over the court system. It may continue there for a while.

Somewhere in all this, do we still have room for:

Merry Christmas. Peace on earth, good will toward men. And neighbors, too.

Too eager


You can’t read thoughts, but you do have to wonder if someone at Alta Mesa is thinking this:

We didn’t think they’d respond this way, because on the front end they gave us no reason to think they would.

Cast your memory back to early in this millennium and the enthusiastic response from many people in Idaho, and so many state officials, to the prospect of serious oil and gas production in Idaho.

For decades oil and gas development in Idaho was slight, and even now it’s not enormous; modest in size and largely limited to one corner of the state. But it got serious in 2005 when a private firm began leasing mineral rights in the Payette County and the nearby area, and started exploration wells, which showed enough promise to warrant continued research.

The big player has been Alta Mesa Company, a Texas-based organization whose spokesman in 2014 referred to Idaho’s “very friendly climate and environment for doing the work.” That same year Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter called the prospect of more drilling “very exciting.” During a tour of the facilities he also said, “This is a long-term investment that will not only benefit the companies doing it but also the state of Idaho.” (The next year Otter was rated at a perfect 100 percent by the Independent Petroleum Association of America.)

With all that in mind, Idaho’s laws on oil and gas drilling were changed several times in the last decade, and the commission governing oil and gas spun off from its old role as an alter ego of the state land board and into a free-standing commission. The Idaho severance tax rate is especially low, and the royalty rate is the same as oil-friendly Alaska’s. What’s not for an oil or gas company to like?

Moving forward to late 2018, the picture surrounding Idaho gas and oil extraction looks a little different.

In late November, Idaho regulators settled with Alta Mesa, which now has hundreds of oil and gas leases in southwestern Idaho, on a variety of issues.

A few samples show the tenor. In September the state required Alta Mesa to pay overdue royalties and provide other required information. It followed up weeks later with another warning that if the materials weren’t provided by late January, the state “may terminate the leases and begin eviction proceedings.” In October the state sent a violation notice to Alta Mesa for failing to get state approval for working on a well. Also that month, the state subpoenaed the company for other records.

This is the same state government that only a few years earlier went out of its way to encourage the development.

These issues seemed to reach a settlement by the end of November. But the state is far from alone in its concerns about the development.

Back in August a federal district judge held that, as one news story put it, “Idaho officials violated the U.S. Constitution by forcing several landowners to sell their natural gas and oil to a Texas company without giving them a meaningful way to fight the state’s decision.”

And yes, there have been landowner protests which have begun to change the political climate surrounding their activities.

Economic developments no less than political are Newtonian: For every action, an equal and opposite reaction. Sometimes they take awhile to develop, but eventually develop they do.

Red, blue and purple


What’s a red state, or county, or city for that matter? What qualifies as blue? What’s purple?

The lines are not as perfectly clear as we sometimes like to think. The point came back to me with an email from a Democrat in Valley County, who took issue with a characterization I made of his county.

Noting that Valley voters backed Proposition 2 (Medicaid expansion) 67.3 percent, I went on to describe the place as “strongly Republican.” My correspondent countered that Valley is not “very red” and “I would say is a purple county.” In support of that, he cited a Democrat elected to the three-member county commission, and that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paulette Jordan received 46.97 percent of the vote in the general election. These might be indications Valley is gradually moving toward a less-red hue.

But consider a few other factors.

Democrat Dave Bingaman did win a commission seat, with 46.2 percent of the vote (an independent got some of the rest, denying anyone a majority). But Bingaman was the only county-level Democrat on the ballot. Assessor, clerk, treasurer, coroner and another commission seat all went to Republicans without a contest. That’s not an indicator of a purple county.

Republican congressional candidate Russ Fulcher won Valley 51.2 percent to 41.7 percent, and with one exception (superintendent of public instruction) Republicans won there for all the statewide offices. And for all three state legislative seats (though in one of them the Republican margin in Valley was held to a thin 52.5 percent). Two years ago in 2016, Republicans won all the county and legislative races, most of them uncontested by Democrats. Donald Trump won Valley County with 54.3 percent of the vote - not a close call.

So, with all respect, I’ll stick with the characterization of Valley as a Republican county.

But, a qualification is called for, even in Valley County’s case.

At what point might we say a county is blue or red turf? I’ll suggest: When it routinely and ordinarily (not necessarily always) votes for candidates of one party. It shades purple when these outcomes get hard to predict regularly.

By that standard, there’s one blue Idaho county: Blaine, because of the deep blue vote based in the Wood River Valley.

A few others are more competitive. Consider Teton County, purplish tingeing toward blue. Trump won there in 2016, but by all of eight votes; Republicans won that year for U.S. Senate and U.S. House as well. This year, however, Democrats swept Teton, winning for all of the contested statewide and most of the county offices. Teton has elected local officials from both parties in contested races in recent years; no one should take it for granted. That’s purple.

What about Ada County? While Boise City is blue - look at the legislative delegation there, and the vote percentages Democrats have been getting there - the rest of the county has been red enough routinely to tip Ada Republican. In 2016 Trump won decisively in Ada, as did three Republicans for congressional offices. The 2018 results were far more competitive: Democrats won for governor, lieutenant governor, superintendent of public instruction and lost for secretary of state and attorney general. They won two county commission seats and coroner, lost for clerk and treasurer. The county’s legislative seats split 13 Republican (pending one recount) and 14 Democratic. The two congressional districts in the county went in opposite directions. On the basis of 2018 Ada looks purple. What will 2020 show?

So, Valley County? The growing parts of the county (like McCall) seem to be moving in a purple direction. Possibly one reason Democrats haven’t fared better there is that they have fielded so few candidates locally. Put up a few more, and that purplish tinge might in fact start to grow. Let’s see what it looks like in another couple of years.

More jobs, but more pay?


Basic economic supply and demand theory suggests this: When supply of something (potatoes, say) is large, prices per item tend to fall, and when supply is low, demand for the scarcer goods will tend to drive up prices.

That economic theory ought to have the effect, in recent times, of driving wages high in Idaho.

Unemployment is low. A normal level of “full employment” where just about everyone who wants a job can get one, allowing for people in between jobs or who need to reduce their hours for some reason, is at about four percent “unemployment.” (I use the quotes because the word is something of a term of art.) Idaho’s unemployment, or jobless, rate, has crashed through the floor and is down in the cellar. For 14 consecutive months, it has been at or below three percent. Ostensibly this is a good thing. However...

I’m not sure we even understand exactly what that means. We know that Idaho’s work force has not been increasing much (the reasons for that might be interesting to explore further, since so many jobs are available in the state), and there’s some stress among a number of employers in finding enough employees.

Theoretically, that should put workers in a terrific bargaining position, much better than normal. Economic theory says pay should be going up considerably, and since Idaho is one of the leading states for low jobless rates, that ought to be happening a lot in the Gem State.

It isn’t. Here’s a summary from a new report by the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy: “While the average American has seen their inflation-adjusted wages increase by more than 21 percent over the last four decades, Idaho wages have gone up only 1.6 percent – representing a potential inflation-adjusted earnings difference of nearly $408,000 over the course of a career. In 1977 the difference between the average American wage and the average wage in Idaho was $4,950 annually and in 2017 the difference was $14,018 - an increase of 283 percent.”

Overall, Idaho does have a lower cost of living than many other states. But it’s unevenly distributed. If you live in a small town well away from any of the urban areas, your cost of, for example, housing may be relatively low. But the often high cost of living in Boise is not so different, in many ways, than the cost of living in many other metro areas around the country.

Why is the Idaho wage lower than those in most states? The ICFP report suggests this: “Idaho’s trailing wages are likely driven by the increasing difference between Idaho’s postsecondary degree attainment and the nation’s. In 1940, the share of Idahoans over 25 years old with a bachelor’s degree was 4.5 percent, compared to 4.6 percent nationally. Last year, the share of Idahoans over 25 with a bachelor’s degree was 26.8 percent, compared to 32 percent nationally.”

Idaho state government has for years had a goal of 60 percent of Idaho young adults (age 25 to 34) holding a college degree, but recent reports have pegged the actual number, for three years in a row, at 42 percent - unchanging.

This does sound like one reasonable suspect, though maybe explaining more the kind of jobs that grow in Idaho than their overall number or wage rate. Probably the reasons behind the slower wage rate increase in Idaho are numerous and complex.

But as Idaho’s next crop of elected officials prepare to take office, they probably should spend a little time considering them.

Prognosis Idaho


The just-ended North Idaho Chamber of Commerce tour for legislators is a biennial tradition, but the word emanating from the first gathering of incoming lawmakers is about an unusual subject as a primary topic.

Taxes and budgets are a little more to the norm. This time something else got a lot of attention, not least in the incoming governor’s address: Health care.

It makes perfect sense, what with the passage of the Medicaid expansion - Proposition 2 - ballot measure only days ago.

Some legislators will be inclined, or even committed, to oppose it and try to kill it. They’ve had the numbers to do that in legislative sessions reaching back almost a decade; hence the arrival of the ballot issue.

But will they try to bury it again in 2019?

Legislators have reversed ballot issues before. They heavily modified at least (some would say gutted) the One Percent initiative of 1978. They outright reversed a term limits issue in the early 90s.

Still, before too eagerly taking the knives to Medicaid expansion, legislators may want to pause a bit. I’ll leave to others to discuss the impacts on the health of actual Idaho citizens, important as that is. Here, I’ll just toss out for consideration a few political facts.

Expansion did not pass by a little. It passed by a lot: 60.6 percent - a landslide.

And it was widespread. Because of the requirement (legislature-imposed) that ballot issues must demonstrate substantial support in legislative districts all over the state, there was in fact support for Prop 2 all over the state.

The top three counties in levels of support - Blaine, Teton and Latah - could be explained away by critics as places that do have significant Democratic bases. And that’s true. But Valley County, which to date is strongly Republican, supported it 67.3 percent. Twin Falls County backed it 58.2 percent, Bonneville 57.4 percent, Canyon 56.8 percent, Payette 56.6 percent. If Idaho has a localized beating heart of movement conservatism you could probably best place it at Kootenai County, and even there it passed, albeit narrowly, at 50.4 percent.

Of Idaho’s 44 counties, just nine opposed Prop 2, but none overwhelmingly: Its weakest county was Jefferson, and there it received about 41 percent support.

I skipped the most significant county. From a standpoint of raw politics, the most important was Ada County, where Prop 2 passed with 69.7% - and that’s county-wide, not the city of Boise, but Meridian, Kuna, Eagle and Star as well. All but four precincts out of more than 140 approved it.

Ada is important not just because it is the largest county, accounting for more than a third of the Idaho general election vote. And not just because it is growing rapidly, while most of the lower-support counties are growing slower.

It is also important because Ada County west of Boise is where Republican dominance is most critically being challenged, where in this year’s election breaches were found, on the Ada County Commission (two seats flipping to Democrats) and in legislative District 15 (two seats at least flipped there). Maybe the Democratic push goes no further. But know this: It can progress in 2020 if its candidates have good ammunition in hand, and legislative reversal of Prop 2 would be some of the strongest ammunition they could have.

The national evidence this year is that health care is a big issue; many of the newly-arriving Democrats to the U.S. House campaigned more heavily on that than on anything else. There’s no reason it can’t be potent in Idaho next time around as well.

Republican legislators might be able to round up the votes to reverse or gut Medicaid expansion at the Statehouse. But they would be well advised to consider all the consequences, political included, if they do.



Back during the campaign season of 2010, I sat down for coffee with a candidate who had no better than a very long shot of winning. And he didn’t win.

Steve Berch, who was a long-time manager at the Hewlett-Packard plant in west Boise, was running for an Idaho House seat in what was then District 14, in the Eagle/West Boise part of Ada County. He was doing so as a Democrat, in an area that was and is blood red Republican. Only once in the previous decade had any Republican candidate for any of its three seats failed to top 65 percent of the vote (and even that one exception candidate was easily elected). Berch had set himself an extraordinarily difficult task.

He mapped it all out with the microscopic attention to detail you’d expect of an experienced H-P planner, and backed that with exhaustive work, raising plenty of money and building an organization, but centered around his personal door-knocking and hand-shaking. In all it was an effort that must have matched or exceeded the campaign work of any other candidate in the state.

His reward was 32 percent of the vote. About the same as if he’d put his name on the ballot and then done nothing.

That experience would have been enough for most candidates. But then one day Berch called to tell me he was running again. He wasn’t able to run in the same district, because of the shifting lines of reapportionment: Now he lived and would run in the new district 15, and he outlined his plan for doubling down, doing even more, planning and executing even more intensively.

This time, running against a different Republican, he pulled 46.9 percent of the vote. More than respectable for a still-Republican district, but nonetheless a clear loss.

Undeterred, unbowed, Berch (who in 2013 did win a nonpartisan election to the Boise Auditorium District board) came back for 2014, running in the same district but for the other House seat, one held by Republican Lynn Luker. He once again organized his effort intensively, figuring this time he could do a little better.

He did, a little: 48.4 percent of the vote.

Still, after three losing races for the same office in the same area, nearly all candidates I know would have thrown in the towel. Not Berch. He buckled down and steeled himself in 2016 for a rematch with Luker. He did it all over again.

The result: 49.2 percent of the vote.

The fates, or God, or something, seemed almost to be toying with him. Four losing races, albeit that there was a little progress each time, but . . . would you have tried again? Would I? Probably not.

But there was Berch yet again this year, back on the ballot, facing Luker for a third time, campaigning at least as ferociously as he had four times before.

The result this week?

He won, with 54.5 percent of the vote, on his fifth try.

You could put Berch’s picture next to “persistence” in the dictionary and not be far wrong. But in winning this year, in a hitherto impregnable Republican area, he did more. Not coincidentally, the other Democratic House candidate in the district, Jake Ellis, also won (by a smaller margin), and the candidate for Senate came so close to winning (by six votes) that his election results will go to a recount. Now, this suburban Boise district, a key to Democratic hopes for expanding their voter base, may be flipping.

That kind of change doesn’t happen in a day, or with a single race. It doesn’t always take five straight elections, each one run at full speed, to break through. But sometimes it does take persistence.

And in Idaho . . .


A few preliminary thoughts about the highly nationalized election in Idaho, which was evidently less nationalized in Idaho than in many other places.

Generally, you can divide the Idaho results into big picture and granular, and the picture looks a bit different from those differing perspectives.

Big picture, not a lot changed. For major offices, Republicans won across the board as they normally have. For governor, Republican Brad Little stopped just short of 60%, which is in the ballpark of his predecessor's recent results.

The race where Democrats had the best shot, for superintendent of public instruction, fell just about where their experience from four years ago, against the same Republican opponent, would suggest - close but still short of the majority they need. In 2014 what became apparent was that a Republican firewall of just about, or just over, 50% of the vote had been put in place, and on a statewide level that seems to be pretty much still in place.

The state legislature's partisan numbers will not change greatly. There were not many flips in legislative seats. The next Idaho Legislature will look and act a lot like the last one.

That's the big partisan picture. Shift the lens a little, and you also see some other things.

The biggest was the passage of Proposition 2, Medicaid expansion, and not barely but by a landslide. The same voters overwhelmingly supported Medicaid expansion and a whole lot legislators who do not. There's a significant dissonance here, and I'll return to that soon.

The other important development - and it will merit a separate column too - concerns legislative District 15, in western Ada County.

I've argued for years that the path, if there is one, to expanding Democratic party opportunities in Idaho, is in the Ada County and Canyon County suburbs. Nationally, shifts in those suburbs are what allowed Democrats to take over the U.S. House. In Idaho, ground zero for that development is District 15, adjacent to the Boise legislative districts that have become solidly Democratic. Up to now, District 15 has seen a series of increasingly close legislative races, but Republicans have held on, election after election.

Until now. On Tuesday, the two House seats in 15 flipped from Republican to Democratic, and the Senate seat is hanging by a margin of six votes. (A recount probably is in the cards there.) For the first time since Idaho's current political environment started to lock in around 1992, the suburban wall has been breached.

Whether that will be pushed back or expanded upon is for future elections to say. But an important transition occurred there.

The 2018 election was not politically important for big, immediate, sweeping changes in the state's politics. But it may have laid some groundwork.

More on these point to come ...

The Tuesday watch


Election day this coming week is a big national event, truly one of the most significant of our time. (That’s often said, but unusually true on this occasion.)

Idaho specifically has some items on its ballot worth a close watch. Here are some I’ll be watching closely on Tuesday night, and probably writing about in the next few weeks.

Top of the line is Proposition 2, the Medicaid expansion ballot initiative. It will have national implications, and may rock Idaho specifically - and not only for the 70,000 or so people whose insurance would be most directly affected. It will be a signal for how Idaho might handle health care in other ways and for other populations. Its implications even could reach beyond health care, and into other areas of politics.

The vote on this Prop 2 is so potentially significant it could overshadow everything else, though the race to fill an open governor’s seat is, of course, no small potatoes. On that ballot line, I’ll be watching most closely how this current contest compares to the last two for the office, four and eight years ago.

Several statewide office races have become significantly active, but the other one drawing the most interest and where the outcome is least clear is for superintendent of public instruction. That is the one statewide office that has been persistently (not always) competitive between the two parties; was the last one held by a Democrat and one a Democrat came very close to winning in the very Republican year of 2014.

The Republican winner then, Sherri Ybarra, now is up against an unusually strong Democratic candidate Cindy Wilson, who has educational background and ties in all corners of the state, and some endorsements from sources unusual for a Democrat. I’ve heard regular comments to the effect that if just one major-office Democratic candidate wins this year, she’s probably that candidate.

This one deserves a close watch on Tuesday night.

Then there are a handful of heated legislative races.

There are two I’ll be checking with top interest: Senate District 5, and House A in District 15.

District 5 is centered in Latah and Benewah counties, and is closely competitive between the parties; its mostly Democratic area at Moscow is countered by most of the rural precincts around it. The district in this area often has supported centrist Republicans and Democrats alike, but now has as senator the hard-edged Dan Foreman, who has “for example” referred to Moscow as a “cesspool.” His opponent, David Nelson, is thought to have an edge. But the district’s dynamics mean this race may be close.

The District 15 House race is a case of perseverance: Democrat Steve Berch has been running for this seat, or a nearby one, for several cycles, losing the last several times to Republican Lynn Luker. In 2012 and 2014 he came within about two points of beating Luker, and in 2016 within about one point. More than a few people think 2018 may be the year he crosses the line, which could have big effects: If Democrats are ever to become a competitive party in Idaho, the Boise suburbs - and District 15 specifically - is where that would almost have to begin.

Beyond those, kept watch on legislative races in Lewiston (District 6), Twin Falls (District 24) and Pocatello (District 29).

Of course, it’ll never hurt to scan up and down the list. There are always surprises.

Medicaid adjustment


Last week I had coffee with an Idaho Democrat who ran for the legislature eight years ago. He recalled that back then, soon after passage of the Affordable Care Act - Obamacare - he was warned by his party’s advisors not to raise the subject when out campaigning.

And that was good campaign advice, he said, finding that attitudes on the new law in many places were so harshly negative that he wouldn’t get a hearing.

Skip forward to 2018 and what is in many ways the top item - the one that will surely receive most national attention whatever the result - on the Idaho ballot: Proposition 2, the initiative to expand Medicaid.

There are no election results out yet. But this measure, which would bring in Idaho a key element of Obamacare which has been stoutly and steadily blocked by the state’s majority-elected officials for eight years, looks poised for passage.

Given Idaho’s history with the ACA, and that of the officials its voters have routinely re-elected over these years, the fact that the initiative even reached the ballot is remarkable. Idaho’s insurance marketplace (which has worked effectively) came into place only after a lot of angst. Skeptics had to wonder, when the activists started their extensive qualification efforts, whether they even would come close to a vote, not just because Idaho’s ballot-access rules have been ratcheted so tight but also because the state just seemed so reflexively anti-ACA.

But ballot status was gained, with a lot of effort but also as advocates found a lot of local support. Polling has shown strong support for the measure. Endorsements have come from some startling places. (Most interesting to me still is the sheriffs’ association, but notable backing has continued to emerge even last week.) The pro side financially has vastly outraised and outspent the opposition. People who a few years ago would have taken care to avoid the whole subject now sound confident it will pass, and pass easily.

In theory, this measure could have been proposed for the ballot in 2010 or 2012, but it wasn’t, and probably few people then would have expected it either could reach the ballot or pass if it did.

What changed?

There’s a significant question, because something evidently has. If voters do decisively reject Proposition 2 next month, that maybe a sign that not much is new. But if voters in Idaho (and possibly Nebraska and Utah as well, both similarly red states) approve it, then time has come for some serious thinking.

Maybe part of it was watching the Idaho insurance marketplace come into being and discovering that the health care world hadn’t collapsed, and did improve for a lot of people. Taken as individual pieces, the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, such as helping people with pre-existing conditions, mostly have been highly popular across most of the country. (The main consistent exception was the insurance purchase mandate.)

Another aspect may be the experience of other states where the reaction to Medicaid expansion has been positive. Except for Wyoming, every state surrounding both Idaho and Utah (nearly all of the western states) have approved the expansion, and none are reporting any big problems.

The costs of not expanding Medicaid have become ever clearer too. The support Idaho sheriffs have delivered for the proposal should be a powerful message, and in many smaller counties it may be. So may the message that expanding Medicaid could be just the financial tonic needed to keep many small rural hospitals, many of them struggling, afloat.

The results in another week or so will tell a lot. But Idahoans do seem to be looking at health care differently than they did only a few years ago, and that may carry a load of meaning in years to come.