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Posts published in “Idaho column”

In crisis, cause for press hope

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These can look like dark days for news reporting, and for our ability to keep track of and hold accountable those in power, who we most need to keep on a leash.

There are serious economic pressures, a dynamic underway for a generation now; business crunches that have wiped out massive segments of local and regional news reporting. Journalism in New York (mostly) and Washington, and other top centers, goes on. Beyond those places, far less of it is happening today than did a few decades ago.

There are newer political pressures, some of them coming from endless attempts from the White House to call out “fake news” that isn’t fake at all, in the perverse declaration of the press -- the best protector most of us have from the powers that be -- as the “enemy of the people.”

But under that, almost in the shadows, there are signs of hope. One is the nationwide uprising of newspaper editorials this last week, reflected in Idaho among other places, explaining just why an independent and free press really is important.

This message happened to be magnified for me, on a Northwest level, this week.

About five years ago a former colleague, Steve Bagwell (now a newspaper editor at McMinnville, Oregon), and I co-wrote a book, titled New Editions, about the Northwest’s newspapers, their history, present, and future. This week we were asked to revisit that in an interview for an article on a regional press, to bring up to date some of what we found in our research back then. It brought us to consider a more recent summing up.

We found, five years ago, that while the newspaper scene tended to be reduced to a stereotype of “bleak,” the actual picture is more complex. We found that the reality of newspapers and journalism, their condition and vitality, actually varies a lot between regions, types of communities, types of newspapers. That much seems to be just as true today. Not many definitive lines of description apply to all newspaper journalism.

Overall through the ‘00’s, many newspapers seemed to be crashing, to the point that trend lines (and many prognosticators) suggested most might not be around for long, that the print newspaper was close to extinction. But trend lines are often disrupted; the future isn’t so easily predictable. In the years since 2012, the newspaper industry, while still enduring hard time, has to a great degree stabilized at a smaller level. Layoffs have continued and news coverage is down. But those newspapers that were supposed to disappear en masse? Most are still there.

There are also counter-indicators.

One (the subject of a recent column) in Idaho is the growth of the Nampa Idaho Press newspaper organization, the expansion of coverage, hiring of new staff - what looks like an explosion of confidence in the future of newspapering.

A few miles across the Oregon line at the small town of Vale, look at the case of the Malheur Enterprise, a small, struggling weekly newspaper. Well, it used to be struggling. Now, under new owner Les Zaitz, a former Portland Oregonian investigative reporter, it not only is breaking important stories week after week, gaining not just local but even national attention, but it also is growing rapidly in circulation, adding staff and apparently prospering. Zaitz is now in the process of starting a new hard-news digital publication covering the state, based at Salem.

I should mention my own digital publication, the Idaho Weekly Briefing, which has been expanding and is working on its own new business model (involving online crowdfunding).

The times are difficult for journalism, and for people who want to follow serious news reporting. But hard times can make for some of the most creative solutions.
 

Changing Bovill, among others

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Bovill is a lot like many small towns in Idaho, and far beyond.

It was named for two of the earliest settlers, a couple who at the dawn of the twentieth century bought an earlier lightly-used homestead, and started ranching. Before long, timber production became dominant in the area, the couple evolved their activities into other local service businesses, and Bovill became a timber town. In the last generation, as timber has faded as an economic mainstay, Bovill has struggled.

It’s a story similar in outline to that of many rural towns.

Not many years ago, a couple named Jeremy and Heidi Ritter and set up - in this case relocated from Moscow - a different kind of business in the central business area. It is the Camas Prairie Winery (a field covered with camas plants actually is located near town), and it produces wines and has a tasting room.

Not everyone is happy.

As the Lewiston Tribune reported, “Everything was apparently going along fine until earlier this year, when Camas Prairie Winery received a retail liquor license after another Main Street business, Bailey’s Bar, lost its license. Shortly thereafter, the winery (which previously had a wholesale license) was told it needed to make several changes to comply with the town’s building code.”

From there tensions and battles escalated into heated arguments about doorways and public records, well beyond what a simple adjustment to the building site would have suggested.

More is going on here than a simple building code issue. So what’s happening?

I cannot read the minds of the people in Bovill, but the overall dynamics sound familiar. I live in a small town, somewhat larger than Bovill but with a history quite similar. Mine is an agricultural community, situated amidst farm fields not far from foothills forests, founded a little more than a century ago, which later became a timber mill town (my house was once company housing built for mill workers), after which that faded (the mill closed) and the community started looking for other options.

Eventually it found them, in the form of wine. My community seized on wine production and sales, which were growing rapidly in the area, and embraced it. Now Main Street is packed with wine businesses, and visitors from afar stop into the tasting rooms and other spinoff businesses. The place has been growing, to the point that there’s concern about the growth that has materialized.

Not everyone is happy about it. Long-timers in town remember the way the community used to be, and the phrase “It’s a timber town, dammit!” is not unknown in city limits. The question of just how wine-friendly city officials should be is a permanent undercurrent in local politics.

This isn’t really a debate over growth, or exactly a debate over wine. It’s a debate over culture: A timber-based community, or any other based on more traditional resource industries, is going to feel and look different from one where the economic base is something like wine. You can tell the difference driving through, and it feels different living there, too.

It’s not just wine. Any kind of dominant industry in a community will leave its own cultural, political and economic stamp. If a high-tech business became the linchpin of a small farm town, that would change its character just as certainly.

Most likely, some of this is what some people in Bovill are reacting to. Change of one kind or another is coming.

But there’s a catch. Many small towns will have to change, in one direction or another, if they’re going to survive. Some will embrace change and prosper. Others . . . will not.
 

Building a perfect storm

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What would it take for Democrat Paulette Jordan to win the governorship in November over Republican Brad Little?

You might inquire in response, why ask? Little is heavily favored to win, right? And yes he is; and none of what follows should be interpreted to the contrary. But likely is not the same as certainty. Just ask all those prognosticators about their 2016 presidential estimates.

In a batch of conversations around southern Idaho this last week, with some well-informed people in both parties, a common perspective emerged, which might be useful to consider as the campaign season unfolds.

First, the most favorable estimates of a Jordan win put it at about 10 percent: One chance in ten. Others figure the prospect at around five percent. No one went much lower than that, which means a consensus view that she has a small but not insignificant chance of winning.

They gave her a better chance than other recent Democratic nominees. Most people I talked to (opinions were not divided along party lines) thought Jordan was likely to get either the best percentage for governor, or nearly the best, of any Democratic nominee since Cecil Andrus in 1990. Most estimated percentages for her in the low to mid-40s; several thought percentages around 45 or 46 were plausible. That would imply a seriously close contest.

Why? One reason is that she’s a strong campaigner. Most than most Idaho candidates, she has presence and draws immediate attention where she goes, and voters tend to respond to that - and react to the response. The people I talked to in both parties had strong favorable opinions of Little - his character, knowledge of issues and of the state, skill as a leader, and overall probability that he’d be a good governor - except when it came to his role as a campaigner. There his skills were less obvious; he’s not the natural campaigner the current governor has always been. We’re now entering a space in the cycle where that may matter.

Both Jordan and Little emerged from contested primaries. But most people - not everyone but most - thought Little was at greater risk of losing some of his own party’s base because of dissatisfaction with the outcome of the primary. Specifically, the thought was that a number of backers of losing contender Raul Labrador, many of whom likely spent most of campaign season thinking their man would win the nomination, may be disgusted enough to not vote. If the election is otherwise close, that could matter. (There was some argument that dynamic could hinder Jordan too, but most thought that less likely.)

2018 may be a Democratic sweep year. That’s not a certainty, and political waves don’t splash the same everywhere; the waves in Idaho probably would be more like ripples than a tsunami. It would not, for example, come anywhere close to turning the Idaho Legislature Democratic; but a shift of five or six seats (out of 105) toward the Democrats might be a realistic prospect. That could slosh upward, adding a little more to the Jordan column.

Aside from national trends, there’s a local issue that could matter: The Medicaid expansion ballot slot. That might have the effect of drawing out a significant number of Democratic-leaning voters, and become a real factor in races that otherwise are close.

There’s also a strategic risk Little has to watch out for. His message and approach logically would involve staying relentlessly positive, making the affirmative case for the current administration and sticking with the course. He’s mostly been hewing to that tack up to now - excepting a few shots fired at competitors in the primary - and it’s the smart thing to do. But … if polling shows the race tightening closely toward the end, if voters are simply in a very dissatisfied mood, there would be a temptation to improve his position by going harshly negative on Jordan - to drive up the base and change the conversation and weaken whatever momentum she has. That would be a mistake and probably would backfire. Little probably won’t go there (it’s certainly not in his native temperament). But if the race tightens, the temptation would arise, and I’ve seen any number of campaigns that have given in to it, usually to their eventual regret.

A Jordan win would take a perfect storm in an alignment of stars. The odds are against. But don’t ignore this race; the raw materials for an upset may be widely scattered but they do exist.
 

Summer legislating

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You may think of state lawmaking - the work most visibly done by legislators in their formal sessions, which in Idaho mostly run in January through March - as a winter time activity.

But that’s not all, by a long shot. Lawmaking is going on now, even without factoring in initiatives like the Medicaid expansion measure just approved for the ballot.

There is also state administrative rulemaking, which goes on around the year, mostly when legislators aren’t in session. Summer is a relatively busy time.

State Representative Heather Scott, R-Blanchard, mentioned this in a recent constituent email. She wrote, “Remember that administrative rules are developed by bureaucrats and lobbyists on a monthly basis throughout the year and are required by law to take into consideration all public input and comments received. Citizens can even request public hearings in their communities to get additional information.”

She went on to sound a bit alarmist about some of it, noting that the state rules often incorporate language from federal or other sources outside Idaho. (That’s done so that Idaho can coordinate and cooperate with other states in commerce and other ways.) But she’s correct that rulemaking is substantial in scale, and in urging citizens to get more involved. Most are neither aware nor active enough about it.

Generally, state law (which legislators mostly work on) is intended to state a policy and general guidelines, but administrative rules fill in the gaps, provide the details the legislators didn’t address. Often new state laws specifically instruct state agencies to develop rules to carry out the law. The agency rules can become extremely detailed; the state administrative code, covering rules for most agencies, is many thousands of pages long.

Fortunately, it is available online (at adminrules.idaho.gov), and updates appear in a regular place, the Idaho Administrative Bulletin, which is published toward the beginning of each month. The updates can be significant all by themselves; July’s is more than 200 pages long, which is not unusual for this time of year. (It goes relatively quiet while the legislature is meeting.)

Scott listed in her email some of the items covered in the most recent one, from the rules covering accountants, electrical inspections, pharmacist licensing, school math test requirements, examinations for professional engineers, small employer health reinsurance programs, sales tax provisions covering out of state sellers, sales tax refunds, permit fee prices at the Department of Parks and Recreation . . .

. . . temporary vehicle permits, government license plates, changing the funding rules for career technical schools, water quality standards in certain areas, property tax exemptions during construction, exemptions involving research and development at the Idaho National Laboratory, library grant requirements, commercial filming in state parks . . .

And a good deal more.

All of this is wide open to public comment and participation. Few people from the public actually do get involved. Scott is correct in noting that state agencies and interest groups (often represented by lobbyists) are most active and tend to determine how the rules are written. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

This may seem like dry stuff. But look through the rules and bulletin sometime. You may find some that affect you, and then it’ll seem dry no longer.
 

Idaho and Utah

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Of all the states, Utah may be the most useful as a comparison point for Idaho.

The idea of comparing isn’t commonplace. People in most places think vertically - my community, state, nation, in a way sometimes called “stovepiping” - and not so much horizontally. But that’s often where some of the most useful insights can be found.

A group called Voices for Utah Children, based you can guess where, has recognized as much. In 2016 it decided to run a comparison between two states, theirs and Minnesota, to see how children fare in the two places, and why. Last year it compared Utah and Colorado. This year, in a report just released, it examined the similarities and differences with Idaho.

The Idaho comparison would be useful partly because the states are neighbors, but it’s not just that. The western states are all remarkably distinctive, each with their own character, but Utah and Idaho may be two of the most closely matched in demographics, economics, politics, and overall outlook. The link in religion is obvious enough, but so is the political stance (as one indicator, Republicans control the state legislatures by similar percentages) and the types and influence of business and commerce. (Did you know that the Latino share of the population in the two states is nearly the same?) These two states have a lot in common.

But there are differences.

The core VUC findings - remembering here that the focus is on children: “notwithstanding Idaho’s increasing economic vitality, the most noteworthy findings of this report is that Utah ranks far ahead of Idaho by key metrics of standard of living, including median household income, median hourly wage, and poverty rates. It should therefore come as no surprise that Utah also ranks far ahead for educational attainment and worker productivity.”

Worker productivity? The report cites a study (the stats come from the U.S. Department of Commerce) showing, “Utah lags behind most states in productivity per worker at 39th place, but Idaho is even further behind in 49th place.”

In some ways, the report acknowledged, Utah may not rate as high (relatively) as it should: “Utah’s recent decision (FY 2016) to invest state tax dollars for the first time in public preschool has yet to register in the national rankings, which always have a lag of a few years, leaving Utah behind most states.”

The take on children’s wellbeing brings a bunch of related factors into play, including economics and health. So we also get into subjects like these:

“Utah is the clear winner by most measures of wages and poverty. Utah’s median hourly wage was 5% higher than Idaho’s last year, though that advantage shrinks by about a fifth when adjusted for Idaho’s lower cost of living. Utah’s slightly higher median hourly wage is consistent with (though much smaller than) the state’s 17% advantage over Idaho in higher education attainment (Bachelor’s degrees and above) and 16% advantage over Idaho in worker productivity. By the poverty metrics, Utah leads in nearly every category. Idaho biggest advantage over Utah in the Standard of Living metrics is its
low cost of living. Idaho also enjoys better air quality and shorter commutes.”

Which state stands to benefit most over the long haul? We’ll see when a future version of this report comes out.
 

Uneven distributions

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The latest data dump on population estimates running up through 2017 from the U.S. Census office offers, as usual, some numbers worth considering.

Two items in the latest round of Idaho statistics - you can see them at lmi.idaho.gov/census - seem especially worth pondering.

One of them is a chart showing the growth in Idaho population by raw numbers from 1969 through 2017 - broken out by county.

The differences are dramatic. Ada County had just over 100,000 people in 1969, and more than 450,000 now, a quadrupling of residents, which means the blue line on the chart zooms upward at better than a 45 degree angle. The growth in Ada in that time has been spectacular. The Census also reports the change in how much each county accounts for a percentage of the state’s population overall. Ada’s went from 15.6 percent in 1969 to 26.6 percent in 2017.

Below that on the county chart, a salmon line representing Canyon County rose about half as fast, from around 60,000 people to more than 220,000 - more than tripling. Kootenai County, which had about 35,000 people in 1969 - fewer than Twin Falls County - now has more than four times as many as it did back then. (For all the significant growth over the years in Twin Falls, that county now has about half as many people as Kootenai.) And Bonneville County has, in the last half-century, doubled its population.

But if you then look at the rest of Idaho’s counties, 38 or 39 of them, you see them all bunched together in something close to a straight line - almost no population change at all in 50 years. All that massive growth you’ve heard about in Idaho has happened in the space of only a few hundred square miles, a tiny sliver of the state.

We can parse this growth, in greater and lesser amounts, in lots of other ways too. One of them is by age.

While Idaho’s population has been growing overall different age groups have been growing at different paces. The state Department of Labor summarizes a piece of this:

“The number of Idaho’s seniors – people age 65 and older – grew nearly 8 percent from mid-2016 to mid-2017, the highest percentage of all age groups. Overall the state experienced a significant population increase of nearly 37,000 or 2.2 percent across all age groups for the same time period, according to estimates recently released by the U.S. Census Bureau. While the 2017 data shows Idaho’s senior group represented 33 percent of the total change in population, or one out of three people, all age groups experienced growth. The 19-and-younger age group and the 40- to 64-year-old groups grew by 1.5 percent each, while the 20- to 39-year-old age group grew 2.3 percent.”

But the impact of elder growth is not evenly divided among the counties. The report noted that, “Twenty-nine of Idaho’s counties had a median age above the state’s median age.”

And: “Adams County had the highest median age in the state at 55. Boise, Clearwater, Custer, Idaho and Lemhi counties, also has a median age older than 50. Madison County, home to BYU-Idaho, had the lowest median age in the state at 23, and Latah County, home to the University of Idaho, had the state’s second lowest median age at 29.” Put another way, the older-population counties are mostly the most rural.

So what’s the future for rural counties in Idaho? What’s the future for most counties in Idaho?

It may be time to start thinking not just about the future of the state, but about the future of its components.
 

To the test

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Most of what you see in political party platforms and resolutions is more or less than you’d expect to see. There’s a good reason most of what they have to say generates few headlines.

Close watchers could pick out a little more than that this year from the state party conventions a week ago at Pocatello (the Republicans) and Caldwell (the Democrats).

For the Democrats, the point is of a party statement that feels a little more assertive than it has most years (a call for legalizing cannabis, including recreational, for example). You can imagine the climate of 2018 and the presidential contest of 2016 contributing to that.

For the Republicans, a couple of other types of items jumped out.

One was a proposal to make city offices partisan: Candidates for mayor and council would not, as they now do, run outside the party structure, but would carry R and D labels.

The question of what offices should be partisan has been visited periodically in Idaho; many may not know that generations ago, elected judges ran on party slates in Idaho. County officials still do, of course, though how a Republican or Democrat would differently deal with the work of a county assessor or (is there a novel in this one?) a coroner, is hard to fathom.

Idaho has 200 cities, the bulk of them small enough that the people there know the candidates quite well and have no need know party membership for a voting guideline. In the larger cities like Boise, where voting populations have in many cases gotten more competitive on a partisan level or even trend Democratic, Republicans might be wary of what they ask for.

Gold medal for the most illuminating item to hit either convention however was the Republican proposal concerning employment of people not legally in the country. The idea was to punish businesses employing undocumented workers, a clear extension of the Trump Administration immigration and deportation approach.

This one is based on the real-world point that people who come to the country illegally mostly are doing it for money -- to find work -- and that would be impossible if employers weren’t offering it to them. One northern Idaho supporter of the proposal (a Republican Party leader in the Panhandle) was quoted, "If your business depends on illegal practices then I call that organized crime."

Considering Idaho Republican support of the Trump Administration, and presumably of its immigration policies, this would sound like close to a slam dunk. Except . . . what that last quote did was to describe a large portion of Idaho agriculture and food producers, which is to say a large share of Idaho’s economy, as “organized crime,” and potentially represented a dagger at those industries’ employment heart. The Idaho Republican convention certainly couldn’t have that, either.

Irresistible force, meet immovable object.

In this case, the irresistible object, the ag community, prevailed, mostly. The resolution proposal lost in committee and on the floor, though its backers demonstrated substantial support and clear determination.

Maybe these party conventions really can generate news sometimes.
 

All the people

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On average, Idaho legislators, each representing one of 35 districts in a state of about 1.7 million people, have about 49,000 constituents. No legislator, however conscientious, can know them all.

In practice, though, they - and not just legislators but most public officials - only really know a thin slice of their constituents. Some weeks ago I helped canvass - drop off campaign information - several neighborhoods for a local ballot issue in my small town of 2,000 people. Many of those people felt their city hall was remote from them, distant and out of touch. This isn’t physical distance: Many of them lived within a three-minute walk of the building where council meetings are held.

Elected officials, like most of us, tend to congregate among people we know and who are like us. The less similar to us, the less we are likely to know other people, and the more out of touch we are. State legislators, to take one example, know their friends and other social connections, their political base, sometimes their adversaries and activists of various types. But most people in their districts, most of the 49,000 or so, are outside those orbits.

And some are well outside.

On occasion an elected official tries to break through that bubble. One who did recently was state Representative Mark Nye of Pocatello, and he wrote about the experience.

His account started with a visit to the Pocatello community action center, a place he had been involved in setting up years ago, and which offers help to the homeless - as it can. Its capacities are limited, and the needs tend to far outdistance them.

That observation prompted Nye to explore further - to look into the world of the homeless in Pocatello.

“I learned where the homeless can get a hot meal,” he wrote. “One place is a hall near Poky High. I saw poor people lined up there waiting for the doors to open. I watched and wondered where they came from and how this could be happening in our city. I volunteered to wash dishes and watch. I did this for a couple of weeks, but this wasn’t enough. Sixty-eight people were needing a meal and there were some children. One women was tall, with stringy hair, wild eyes and skinny like a stick. Her clothes were a mess and she wasn’t the only one like this. It was cold outside and some had coats — ratty coats. Some had no coats.”

He explored beyond that, taking a place in the group. “The next week, I put on my old Levi’s, a black T-shirt and old baseball cap and drove down to the place. I hid my car blocks away and went to the front door early to wait. About 18 people were already there. They were standing around, some on the stairs, some on the curb, some alone and in small groups. There was little talk. I was afraid what they might do to me if I was recognized. But I had learned the walk. The walk was a slow shuffle, with head bent down and no eye contact. We waited for the door to open. I felt conspicuous but no one was watching. I was just another one standing there.”

Nye developed several observations out of all this, but one of the most significant is also one of the most obvious: These people are not numbers, not statistics, and not even just people, but also constituents. Nye recognized that he held a responsibility to them in the same way he does to the people he ordinarily meets and works with, the people who show up at the Statehouse as lobbyists or that he meets at a political gathering.

It’s an important point. The 49,000 include not only friends and family, supporters and activists and even opponents. They also include a lot of people many of us actually try not to see. It takes some effort to see them. But that’s what being a public servant should entail.
 

Another fork in the road?

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The history is broadly familiar, but it bears repeating for consideration now. It’s worth considering even in Idaho.

In 1994, Republican Pete Wilson was running for re-election as California governor in tough conditions: His approval rating was low, and he was running behind the challenging Democrat. During the campaign, he jumped onto a ballot initiative, Proposition 187, and greatly ramped up its visibility. At a time when illegal immigration was getting more attention in California, Prop 187 banned people in the country illegally from using public schools, non-emergency health care and various other services. The initiative gained steam and passed, and Wilson was re-elected (in a Republican wave year, it should be noted).

It was the very picture of a Pyrrhic victory. 187 was challenged in court and killed off legally and politically. But that was only the beginning. It enraged California’s large and growing Latino population, and many other people besides. Republicans were linked to the measure, and starting in the late 90s they began losing elections by larger and larger margins. California’s roster of elected officials, dominated by Republicans a generation and more ago, now is overwhelmingly Democratic, nearly as Democratic as Idaho is Republican, and the trigger of Prop 187 was the fork in that road turning California blue.

That came to mind last week as the nation watched the heart-rending scenes of family separation on the southern border, sort of reversed in a limited way, after huge national pressure, by President Donald Trump. This too has a political dimension and has caught attention of Americans of all descriptions. But it could have a special impact, as happened a quarter-century ago, on the politics of the Latino vote.

Before Prop 187, the Latino vote in California tended to number below its available population, and it was not overwhelmingly dominated by either of the parties. That changed.

Might it change now in, say, Idaho?

The Latino vote in Idaho long has had a low profile: The vote is there, but the numbers have tended to be smaller than the eligible population would indicate, and there’s not a lot of evidence that either political party has dominated it. There’s also this: The most prominent Latinos to run for office in Idaho have been Republicans. The most recent and successful has been Raul Labrador, elected four times to the U.S. House; his ethnic background has been known and noted but hasn’t become controversial, or an obstacle to winning office or a Republican party nomination. (He recently lost a primary contest for governor, of course, but none of the many analyses I’ve seen of that race have suggested his heritage as a reason for that.)

Still, the Idaho Latino vote in some ways resembles California’s pre-1994.

It’s a smaller portion of the state’s electorate. In a Pew Research Center study in 2014, the eligible Latino voting population was pegged at seven percent; in California it was 28 percent. Any impact of a large and well-organized Latino vote in Idaho necessarily would be much smaller than in the Golden State. Idaho ranks 16th among states for Latino vote eligibility (California is third).

That doesn’t mean it couldn’t be powerful. That voting population is concentrated enough in some places to swing legislative and other seats if well organized.

The Latino population is growing faster than Idaho overall, and an article in the Spokane Spokesman-Review two years ago pointed out, “10 Idaho school districts – and eight Idaho counties, including Boundary County – would have lost population from 2010 to 2014 if not for the growth in their Hispanic populations.” The central Magic Valley is about one-third Latino, and Canyon Court about one-fourth.

Don’t expect Idaho to do any time soon what California did after Prop 187. But don’t be surprised if some smaller-scale changes aren’t in the works nonetheless.