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Posts published in “Idaho column”

Special session rules


There’s a standard rule of thumb when it comes to calling a special legislative session – in any state – and it is this: You do not call it if you do not have the votes to accomplish what you think needs to be done.

The last time a special session was called in Idaho, in 2006, that was the measure of success, and then-Governor Jim Risch passed it.

The issue on deck then was property taxes, the subject of a simmering revolt at the time Risch was sworn into office in May 2006. He promised to deal with the situation, and a few weeks later, amid the prospect of a special session , I wrote this:

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“Risch has said that he won’t call a session unless the votes to pass the needed legislation are lined up in advance, so the session will be a slam dunk. (Which is the completely appropriate standard; it worked well in Oregon earlier this year.) That means he presumably can’t now just call one and hope for the best. But how much progress he’s making with the legislators, getting them whipped into shape, is unclear. The special session talk has been going on for many weeks, well before Risch took over as governor. Since then, six weeks since Risch’s bold inaugural statement, we’ve heard he’s been pressing hard to get the deal done, but no visible indications of success have appeared. We’re inclined to take his recent setting of August 25 as a prospective session date, in fact, as another attempt to pressure lawmakers to the table – an indication that they weren’t rushing there on their own. And if the legislators won’t come to the table, who takes the fall?”

Risch, a deeply experienced and ace vote counter, got the property tax measure House Bill 1 passed in a one-day session. But that makes it sound easier than it was. That single day was grueling, not least because legislative Democrats bitterly opposed the bill and fought it at every turn (they couldn’t stop it, but they could make passage difficult). But there was also this: The vote in the House was 47-23 and in the Senate 24-11, just enough for a two-thirds majority in each chamber, which meant just enough to move it quickly through the system and avoid an even more drawn-out battle. As I wrote that day, “This thing was calculated precisely.”

Now Otter has called his special session (the first of his three terms as governor), for May 18. He does it at some risk. It was the kind of risk he avoided in his state of the state speech, when he called on lawmakers to do various things but avoided prescribing the exact terms. Now, he has to do exactly that; and lawmakers sometimes bridle at the imposition. And he will have to calculate precisely.

Otter made a point of saying the bill whose passage he seeks – a remake of the child support interstate agreement measure killed earlier this month in the House Judiciary Committee – will be posted online so people have time to look at it. He pointed out that the Department of Health and Welfare is able to break down the number of at-risk children by legislative district (and presumably it will). He made a point of saying he’s been working closely on this with House Speaker Scott Bedke, putting Bedke on the line here too. (more…)

Shock and incentive

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A recent e-mailed press release from an Idaho state agency took my breath away with shock when I read it. It still stuns me – and, too, other people I’ve discussed it with, who have a history of working in state agencies and writing press releases.

The Idaho Department of Health and Welfare press release of April 10 (a copy is posted at belongs in some kind of hall of fame for useful press releases, with citation for bravery. It does something I’ve never seen a state agency (as opposed to some elected officials) do before: It explicitly calls out the state legislature for doing harm to people in Idaho.

State agencies hardly ever take on state legislators, especially in public, even in cautious weasel words. It’s dangerous: Legislators have endless ways to take revenge.

And in this release, DHW Director Richard Armstrong could not have been plainer or blunter, with his quote saying “this vote will make it nearly impossible for us to enforce child support like we should, so Idaho’s children are taken care of. The bottom line is that Idaho families may not receive their support money because we will not have the tools we need to make sure those payments are made.”

The reference, of course, was to the House Judiciary Committee vote rejecting a bill to let the state cooperate with national and international entities in collecting child support payments. The winner of that vote was the deadbeat, non-paying parents, and the losers children now at risk of going hungry.

The release went out in the few hours between the committee vote and the legislature’s middle-of-the-night adjournment, and it seemed aimed at convincing legislators to revive the bill (its last line was the unusual exhortation, “All families who rely on child support payments are encouraged to contact their legislators”). The bill died anyway. Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter was left to consider whether to call a special session.

Did Otter know in advance about the release? He seems to have been in support of the bill, and has indicated something needs to be done in light of its rejection, but his response so far is vague and unclear. (That could change.)

I have a specific reason for focusing here on the press release, one worth considering by anyone unsure whether the key issue is hungry children or a loss of “Idaho sovereignty” to the federal government or Sharia law.

The bill was passed unanimously in the Idaho Senate after discussion of what it did. It failed in House Judiciary after warnings surfaced about governmental roles and subjugation came up – just the sort of thing smeared around in campaign season, or even year-round. It’s not hard to image a legislator gulping; in the face of it, the “safe” vote in today’s environment might have been one against the bill.

The press release from Health and Welfare, however, was highly impolitic in the sense that it’s just the kind of thing that can cost people their jobs – people like Armstrong, for one, for making look foolish elected officials who hold the purse strings of their agencies. (Agency executives do in fact lose their jobs under such conditions.) The people at DHW have no personal incentive at all for doing what they did other than in mounting a last-ditch attempt to protect the lives of Idaho children.

Who would you believe?


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The 2015 Idaho legislative session emerged more productive than its recent predecessors.

Public schools came out better this session than in a long time. A down payment was made on road repair and maintenance (though only about a third of what is thought to be needed). The legislature may not have “added the words”, but it can’t be said to have not heard the arguments on it: Hearings lasted for days after the bill was introduced, both moves sought by advocates for years and this time backed by House leadership. And Senate leaders didn’t get the praise they earned for inviting and courteously attending to an opening ceremony from a regional Hindu leader. There were some high spots in policy too (career ladder and anti-bullying legislation come to mind).

These things happened, however, in a context. You could pick it up in the steady stream of quotes, many internationally viral, such as:

“They (slave owners) weren’t terrible rotten horrible people. . . . And that’s how I see gay people.” Representative Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins, March 25.

“We already have 105 inspector generals [legislators] in this building. . . .I don’t think we need to add more to it. We’re talking about spending $350,000 a year. From what I’ve seen from government agencies, that would just be a beginning. They seem to grow out of control in no time at all. I don’t see where this is going to do anything. I agree there is problems. People do things they aren’t supposed to do.” Representative Joe Palmer, R-Meridian, February 26.

“We’re a nation under God, one nation under God. So when you take Christian prayer out of school, as long as it’s a generic prayer and it’s not specific to any denomination, because our freedom of religion thing was to deal with different denominations, not whether we’re Christian or not.” Shepherd, March 20.

“This bill aims to put in writing the rights of parents to be the primary decision makers for their children. Parents’ rights are given to us by God. We are not saying the state is granting these rights. We are simply putting it in writing in our code that this is the case … and we acknowledge the rights that parents have.” Senator Mary Souza, R-Coeur d’Alene, on her bill allowing parents to pull children from any school activity which “impairs the parents’ firmly held beliefs, values or principles.”

“They have a caste system, they worship cows.’ Senator Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens, March 2.

“Hindu is a false faith with false gods.” Senator Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood, March 3.

Barbieri: “You mentioned the risk of colonoscopy , can that be done by drugs?”
Dr. Julie Madsen: “It cannot be done by drugs. It can, however, be done remotely where you swallow a pill and this pill has a little camera, and it makes its way through your intestines and those images are uploaded to a doctor who’s often thousands of miles away, who then interprets that.”
Barbieri: “Can this same procedure then be done in a pregnancy? Swallowing a camera and helping the doctor determine what the situation is?” Representative Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens, February 23.

(About rejecting the bill that could cost the state funds from enforcing child support) 4/10
“We didn’t want to give up our sovereignty. We have $42 million coming to the state – it wasn’t worth risking our sovereignty to me.” Representative Don Cheatham, R-Post Falls, April 10..

“My whole concern is potential federal overreach. In North Idaho we have the water litigation going. I just am in fear that something could be impacted if it became an endangered species.” Cheatham, January 19, about a proposal to designate the giant salamander as state amphibian.

"They were ugly. They were slimy. And they were creepy." Representative Ken Andrus, R-Lava Hot Springs, January 10.

And a non-quote:

(crickets) – Representative Shannon McMillan, R-Silverton, declining to explain her votes against state budget bills, including not only six of seven pieces of the public school budget but also home-district state operations such as State Hospital North at Cottonwood and the North Idaho Correctional Institution at Cottonwood.

The claimants of Chief Joseph

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When I started to cover the Idaho Legislature decades ago, the Idaho Statesman had a picture poster on its Statehouse office wall that dominated above everything else there. It was a picture of Chief Joseph, of the Wallowa band of the Nez Perce. It was there in a place of pride for decades, and no one ever seemed to question that it was rightly there.

A lot of Idahoans, including many who take the history of Idaho seriously, claim the legacy of Chief Joseph. It’s not hard to understand, considering the man’s fame, his vigorous history of leadership, eloquence and many other admirable qualities.

This comes up because Oregon has been considering replacing its two statues of notable historical figures (John McLoughlin and Jason Lee) now in place at the U.S. Capitol at the National Statuary Hall. (Idaho’s choices, George Shoup and William E. Borah, might also merit reconsideration.) A study commission considered alternative choices, and it picked Chief Joseph along with suffragette Abigail Scott Duniway. The legislature now is deciding whether to give its approval.

Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter followed up last week, writing to Oregon legislators that “Chief Joseph's story and legacy in the Northwest is indeed historically notable. But a close examination of history may indicate a more significant historical tie to Idaho than any other state in our region.”

Chief Joseph was a northwesterner, but pinning him down to any one state may be too difficult.

He had Oregon roots, born and raised and lived as a young man in what is now the Wallowa country of northeastern Oregon, around the Oregon city of Joseph, which was named for him. While “treaty” Nez Perce concentrated in north-central Idaho by the early 1860s, Joseph generally stayed with the “non-treaty” tribal members in the Wallowas for more than another decade. To the end of his days he considered that Oregon country his home, and for decades of forced residence in Idaho and elsewhere, he never quit trying to return.

But his Idaho connection was significant too. Joseph probably spent substantial time over the years in the Idaho side of the Nez Perce reservation, though he was based in Idaho relatively briefly. It was then, however, when he emerged as a leader of the Nez Perce who made their spectacular escape to Canada, pursued and periodically embattled by the U.S. Army. That event crossed hundreds of miles in Idaho, then into Wyoming and Montana, where the army finally cornered them and forced them to surrender. Montana was where Joseph was said to have delivered (though in fact he probably never did) his much-quoted message that, “I will fight no more forever.” (more…)

So how does this work?

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Let’s take last week’s Bonneville County Muslin newsletter article – that took Idaho national once again on the subject of fear and loathing of an “other” - from a slightly different angle.

The article in question, “Islam in Idaho,” went out over the name of Doyle Beck, chair of the Bonneville County Republicans, though it apparently was written by another member of the group, Becky Prestwich. An apology to Idaho Muslims reportedly is in the works.

It consisted mainly of four paragraphs. One referred to “Political Correctness [which] is code speak for the ability to silence your critics. I don't believe in it . . . I will vociferously attack egregious political issues and endeavor to let the people I serve know what is happening.”

What that is, came in paragraph two: “It is no secret that the "islamatization" of America is a wide spread fear. . . . And make no mistake; if you are not a Muslim, you are an infidel. Period. Even in Muslim nations there is constant murder of Muslims not of the same flavor. So you have to be the right kind of Muslim, but even that depends on what kind of Muslim attacker you encounter.”

The third paragraph suggests that depictions of Islam in a less harsh way are deceptive.

Here’s the fourth: “So when someone brings to our attention that Muslims are infiltrating even in places like Idaho, we must pay attention. We must demand that our lawmakers and law enforcers pay attention and ascertain whether or not there is a potential threat. Read this article and decide for yourself if we have a potential problem in Idaho. I, for one, believe this is something to take seriously. If you do too, contact your legislators and let them know you expect them to look into this. Please, don't wait until something bad happens.”

So . . . how exactly would this Islamic takeover of Idaho work? Give me the nuts and bolts. What exactly is it that some portion of the Bonneville County Republicans are so concerned is going to happen?

Let’s make this concrete. Are we expected to believe Muslims are going to start winning elective office in Idaho in such numbers as to take over county courthouses, the Idaho legislature and judiciary? Let’s imagine Muslims winning Idaho’s congressional seats, shall we? How about the governor’s office while we’re at it? For all the radio talk show chatter about imposition of Sharia law in America . . . where exactly has that ever been attempted? And how exactly would it happen?

If these horrors are going to happen in Idaho, presumably they would be happening in other states. Which states exactly are those? Where is religious Muslim control ascendant in this country?

Or is this supposed to be a violent takeover? Are we being asked to imagine Muslims behind the Idaho sagebrush, stockpiling weapons to . . . uh, do what exactly? Come on, be specific: What precisely do you expect they – it’s always a “they” - are positioning themselves to do?

The letter is specific enough in one sentence contending, “It is no secret that the ‘islamatization’ of America is a wide spread fear.” There’s plenty of fear being generated, all right, on the radio, by political figures: Fear without basis. There is no threat, no measurable prospect, of a Muslim takeover of any part of this country, even a single county, and much less in Idaho. Making that point doesn’t even contradict the Bonneville letter, so full is it of weasel words: “ascertain whether or not there is a potential threat. . . if we have a potential problem in Idaho . . . something to take seriously. . .. don't wait until something bad happens.” You’ll search in vain for anything resembling specifics: There aren’t any.

There is only the promotion of fear, and people who sense advantage in trying to scare their fellow Americans and fellow Idahoans to death. So I’d suggest posing to the Bonneville County Republicans a question about why they’re so busy trying to terrify Idaho people over a non-existent problem. With that in mind, I suggest:

“Read this article and decide for yourself if we have a potential problem in Idaho. I, for one, believe this is something to take seriously. If you do too, contact your legislators and let them know you expect them to look into this. Please, don't wait until something bad happens.”

One less voice

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A couple of years ago another writer and I were researching for a book on the Northwest’s newspapers (it would be called “New Editions”), which involved calling many of the proprietors one by one. One of the most memorable was Sandra Wisecaver, who would not have called herself – but who was – one of the more remarkable journalists in the region.

She was owner and operator of the Buhl Herald, a paper with a heritage going back more than a century. The area around Twin Falls sprang up like magic, as its valley name would attest, just after the tun of the twentieth century, and Buhl’s downtown was platted in 1906. In the manner of the day, the town’s newspaper set up shop (having moved several miles over from Filer) a few months later.

Through the decades since it has published consistently, running very much as it did at the beginning. It was never bought by a larger organization, but was run for decades by the Bailey family. In 2005 Sandra Wisecaver, who had worked there for some years, bought it.

It had not been, and she didn’t try to turn it into, a paper with lofty pretensions. It didn’t join the parade of many papers to the Internet, even to Facebook. (Today, there is a modest Facebook page for the Buhl Herald, evidently started last year.) And she seemed almost a little apologetic about the paper’s brand of journalism: It wasn’t a regular breaker of gee-wow news stories, of scandal or spectacle.

It was, rather, a small town community newspaper: “Business is a little slower, but we have advertisements every week and people read them. It’s probably because you’re not going to find the stories that we print somewhere else. The daily is not going to carry the applause for somebody who’s done something good in the community, or been a great volunteer. I think its important to have the kids in.”

She was exactly right, and the Herald’s kind of journalism helps provide the glue in a community. With all the disaster and catastrophe we’re daily exposed to, even on Facebook and Twitter much less cable TV, we need the reminders that the world around us is not all aflame. The Herald did that. The children got in the newspaper through the years, and many of them probably felt themselves part of the community in a way children in many larger communities never quite do.

(I should add: The Buhl Herald also did run this column for some years back in the 90s.) (more…)

Through the weeds

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For the last couple of decades, much of the work at the Idaho Legislature during the opening weeks has been devoted to examining the state’s administrative rules – those proposed or tentatively adopted during the previous year – and deciding which if any should be rejected.

Usually there are a few, and there are this year. The legislature’s work on administrative rules is stretching out all the way to the end of the session this time; several concurrent resolutions (the legislative tool for acting on administrative rules) calling for rejections were introduced as recently as last week, when lawmakers theoretically were preparing for adjournment. (Don’t place any bets on that happening this side of April, by the way.)

After lawmakers finish parsing through fat binders of densely written legalese, which is some of the less-known and more tedious work they do, a relative handful of rules usually wind up facing possible rejection. Generally, these are rules which have drawn complaints or concerns from someone, whether the regulated, the regulators, legal counsel or someone else. At this writing, 11 such rejections have been proposed, and several of those have cleared the legislature.

Legislative oversight of the rules makes sense. Developed and published by state agencies, these rules have the effect of law, and they are imposed through the authority of laws passed by the legislature. They do it that way because most state laws are relatively general, even a little vague, and that’s not a criticism. It’s the business of the legislature to set the policy, not so much to bury itself deeply in the weeds of administrative rules, where things really get, ah, specific.

Very specific. Very detailed.

Here’s an example of a rule proposed for legislative rejection, from the “non-technical” (that is, reader-friendly) description offered by the agency: “The Board of Veterinary Medicine issues certifications to qualified veterinary technician applicants. Current rule provides several ways a certified veterinary technician (CVT) applicant can demonstrate completion of the educational requirements for certification. Two of the existing methods for an applicant to satisfy these requirements are to submit evidence of graduation from a veterinary technology program equivalent to a program approved by the American Veterinary Medical Association or, if a foreign graduate, graduation from a program of veterinary medicine from a foreign school approved by the Board. The Board has determined that it lacks the expertise and means to adequately evaluate whether a non-accredited CVT program is equivalent to an accredited AVMA program or to approve foreign schools of veterinary medicine. To ensure uniformity in entry-level knowledge of certified veterinary technicians in Idaho, IDAPA is being amended to delete these provisions.” (more…)

Belated good news

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The news is good. Very good.

But attached to it comes the ugly question: Did anyone figure this out earlier? If not, why not? And if so, why was the information kept under a rock?

The story here is about something gone bad abruptly gone good: the statewide contract for providing broadband service contracts for high schools. That contract, developed and signed through the Otter Administration, was the subject of bitter wrangling and battling and court fights, and finally last year was voided entirely by a state district judge. School districts around the state were warned, as recently as a few weeks ago, that their broadband access might be cut off, and no one knew exactly when it might be restored.

Hoping to patch the problem, the Idaho Legislature actually moved quickly to spend $3.6 million to keep the broadband signals alive. The money would go to the state Department of Education, which would distribute it to local school districts, each of which would have to find its own broadband supplier. It sounded like a band aid on a bullet wound.

But no: It has worked. And not only that, it has worked so well that it puts the statewide effort to shame. The broadband will not only survive, but do so in much better form than would have been the case. The Idaho Ed News site noted, for example, that “The short-term contracts — signed by school districts in the past couple of weeks — carry a projected price tag of slightly less than $2 million. Over that same time period, the defunct Idaho Education Network broadband system would have cost the state more than $3.2 million.”

Almost two-thirds of the districts and charter schools found less costly local sourcing. And many of those local sources provided much more robust broadband: “Fifty-five districts and charters were able to secure more bandwidth under their new contracts. The Jefferson County Joint District, for example, saw its broadband capacity increase from 84 megabits per second to 20,000 Mbps.”

The results have been so good that the legislature – quite rationally – now is likely to scrap the whole idea of a statewide system and just provide funding assistance for the locals.

Certainly, the local districts and the Department of Education deserve a good deal of credit for all this.

But loose-end questions remain. Spreading a service over a larger area usually means reductions in costs, so why did the statewide system cost so much more and deliver so much less than the patchwork local efforts?

Why did not one figure this out long ago?

Did no one, in developing the statewide school broadband system, look even casually at the idea of local provision and consider what the relative savings might have been? (Or might it have been that no one simply saw a financial incentive in doing it that way?)

Or if someone did figure all this out long ago . . . why is none of this coming to light until now?

The words not heard

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The phrase “religious equality” turned up last year in a U.S. Supreme Court decision – in the minority opinion, though there’s no particular reason the majority would have argued with it – defined this way: “the breathtakingly generous constitutional idea that our public institutions belong no less to the Buddhist or Hindu than to the Methodist or Episcopalian.”

The Hindu reference will have some resonance, of various sorts, at the Idaho Senate. Last week, for the first time, the Senate received its morning invocation from Rajan Zed, the president of the Universal Society of Hinduism. It was a choice that must have been approved, or at the least not opposed, by the Senate leaders, primarily President pro tem Brent Hill and Majority Leader Bart Davis. It’s not hard to imagine them giving their assent, or even encouragement.

So credit them, and maybe others as well, for giving the Idaho Legislature an unusual basis for asserting that it’s more open-minded and inclusive than many people think.

And the message from Zed was hardly (or ought not to have been) at all exotic: “Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. Do your work with the welfare of others always in mind.”

Most of the Senate was there to hear it. Seven members were not. Four of the absentees said they were late getting to the chamber; that could be the case since traditionally, people don’t walk on or off the floor during the prayer. (Prayer is an official part of legislative business in Idaho; in the Senate it together with the pledge of allegiance is the “second order of business.”)

The other three - Senators Steve Vick, R-Dalton Gardens; Sheryl Nuxoll, R-Cottonwood; and Lori Den Hartog, Meridian, all Republicans - appeared to absent themselves from the chamber simply out of protest. Nuxoll, in one of those quotes that fast shot around the world, remarked that “Hindu is a false faith with false gods.” Hartog expressed discomfort with participating in a prayer ceremony from a religion that wasn’t hers.

Nuxoll’s response got most of the attention – it’s not every day a state legislator so derisively dismisses the beliefs of a billion people – but Hartog’s is even more worthy of note. Her unease with the idea of involving herself with a religious activity – a prayer – which is not of her own faith, a discomfort apparently strong enough that she could not be physically present for it, is understandable and not unique. It could in fact give her some cause for reflection. Many people in Idaho are not Christians, and yes there are more than a few, and they understand it daily when governmental services are launched with a Christian (and maybe on unusual occasions a Jewish) prayer.

That means she might adopt one of two positions: Either prayers ought to be dropped as a formal part of governmental activities, so all citizens would be equally comfortable being there; or say that she thinks Christians alone are citizens with a proper role in government, and others are second-class and ought not to show up.

Hill and Davis evidently would reject both of those propositions, in favor of acknowledging a wide variety of perspectives. A question: If asked, how would the people of Idaho come down on this?

In the meantime, the intentionally absent senators might have benefited most of all from hearing Zed’s words: “Strive constantly to serve the welfare of the world; by devotion to selfless work one attains the supreme goal of life. Do your work with the welfare of others always in mind.”

A dry time

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When I want to check an official record for an indication of how wet or dry the region is, I usually go to the Western Regional Climate Center (, which among other things compiles snowpack information for the western United States. The numbers there rise and fall, but at the moment the numbers on its charts seem not to look all that bad.

Usually I look for the percent of normal accumulated precipitation, which shows how various areas – river basins mainly, but broken down to much smaller units – are faring. 100 percent at this time of year typically would indicate normal levels. 150 percent would suggest some risk of flooding (at least in some places, depending on the lay of the land); 50 percent or less usually means dry times ahead.

The “water year” for measurement purposes started at the beginning of October, and for some weeks toward the end of last year the numbers were looking good, even on the high side. But in the last couple of months there’s been a gradual drop.

They’re still not terrible, and if they maintain where they are now into summer Idaho would have ample water. The Spokane River basin, at this writing, was 90 percent; the Salmon River, 97 percent; the Little Wood River basin 80 percent. Some are lower, like the Medicine Lodge area (64 percent) and Bear River Basin (76 percent). These are areas not usually awash in water to start with.

The problem is that so far this year, week after week, the numbers have been falling. The omens are not especially good.

I’d be uneasy about interpreting some of this except for the road trip I took last week around the Northwest. I know what February usually looks like in many of the state’s landscapes – in most years past there’s a good deal of white out there, especially in higher elevations - and it doesn’t much look that way now.

The standout was the Long Valley – the McCall and Cascade area. February is when McCall holds its traditional Winter Carnival, the centerpiece of which is a large collection of ice sculptures. The dates this year were January 27 to February 5, and there were as usual some great sculptures. (The winner was a Sphinx and pyramid theme. McCall usually is bathed in white during and for some time after the event.

But this year they held it not a moment too early. By the time early last week I passed through McCall, the snow was almost all gone, and only a few small, melting sculptures remained.

Look up to the mountainsides around Long Valley and you’ll find checkerboard broad and white surfaces, nothing like the solid white of yore. (more…)