Writings and observations

idaho RANDY
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Idaho

Over the last month, I’ve been pondering a list of currently influential people in Idaho (about which, more later) and out a way to find them: Start with a list of what are likely to be big stories in Idaho in the coming year.

What follows are a half-dozen that helped put names on the list – or, more important, what may make for a lot of discussion in Idaho next year.

In no particular order . . .

Nuclear waste. In 1995 Governor Phil Batt reached an agreement with federal agencies calling for removal of nuclear waste at the (now) Idaho National Laboratory. There’s been unease since about just how well that’s been going, but toward the end of 2014 holdups in those out-shipments, largely because of issues in other states, have been accelerating. The terms of the agreement may be violated before long, and that will be a very big conflict, probably the biggest IN:L story in 20 years.

Health care consolidation. Health care services in Idaho (and not just Idaho) are becoming consolidated. This trend has its advocates, as at St. Luke’s in Boise, where the argument is that this is the way to get health care costs under control and service rationalized. The counter-argument of course is that this is a matter of power and monopoly. St. Luke’s, based in Boise, is the biggest player, but not the only one; it’s cross-town critic, St. Alphonsus, has been growing at a hefty rate too, both of them not just just in the city but regionally around Idaho. This consolidation began to poke upward in 2014, and it may become more visible in 2015, especially as the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals makes its decision, probably early in the year, on a key St. Luke’s purchase in Nampa.

Boulder-White Clouds. The debate over what should be done in the central Idaho Boulder-White Clouds area goes back a long way (as political historians know, it played a role in Cecil Andrus’ first win as governor). Representative Mike Simpson has been pushing a negotiated compromise proposal for some years, but others argue it’s probably DOA in the coming Congress, and urge President Obama to declare the area, or part of it, as a national monument. This issue may finally be coming to a head, one way or another.

Boise’s downtown core. The central core of Boise’s downtown, a couple of blocks south of the Statehouse, is about to see big-time change, the largest at one time maybe ever. (Or at least since the downtown removal of the late 60s.) The result is supposed to include more residential space, more office and commercial state, a transit center and more. Opinions may vary on what’s around the corner, but it’s a major change for Idaho’s largest city. And it happens as Mayor David Bieter considers whether to run for an unprecedented fourth term; at the end of this term, a year from now, he ties the record for longevity as mayor of Boise.

Shifting education policy. The Tom Luna era is over; the Sherri Ybarra era begins – and no one really has a very clear idea what that means. Idaho will get its first sense of that soon though, since education will be a hot topic generally in the legislature, and Ybarra will have to weigh in.

New adjudications. The Snake River Basin Adjudication is now in the state’s rear-view mirror, or nearly so. Up next: New water adjudications in the Panhandle, and possibly in the Bear River Basin as well. Those may start to come more into focus this year as they move to center stage in the water community.

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Idaho Idaho column

idaho RANDY
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Idaho

In England, when the Guardian newspaper wrote last week about the great Pocatello cow escape, they tagged the breakout bovines the “Slaughterhouse five.”

British newspapers have a gift, don’t they?

But the first of the animals to break out, a heifer, sounded as if she had been inspired instead by the Dana Lyons song “Cows with Guns.” (“We will fight for bovine freedom/And hold our large heads high . . .”)

On December 12 she jumped a six-foot fence at Anderson Custom Pack and roared into a rampage, running through Pocatello’s north end, butting an animal control vehicle and two police cars. Finally, police shot and killed her. She may have been unarmed but, in truth, becoming dangerous and the stakes were high. (Sorry.)

Two days later four other cows, slated for the slaughter, went missing. Anderson spokesmen said they thought someone had let them loose; there’s not yet been an official determination on that one way or the other. However the escape happened, the animals were soon roaming around town. One of them was captured, and one was shot.

The other two evidently, at this writing, remain at large.

Here’s a problem, because a lot of people may be conflicted.

We don’t want cows roaming our streets, even cows that don’t ram motor vehicles. And a lot of us enjoy our beef (I do), even if we don’t try to devote a lot of thought about how it transitions from live animal to our plates. Yes, if we want our beef there will be slaughterhouses.

At the same time, most people love a good escape story. From “The Great Escape” to “Prison Break” most of us root for the people inside to get out, even if (as in “Prison Break”) some of them really are bad guys. And animals too (think about all those movies featuring an animal caged). We root for freedom, not for captivity. It’s hard not to cheer for the cows.

A few days after the second breakout, with two bovines still out there somewhere, the Farm Sanctuary group called in, and offered to find and take the animals back to their 300 acres at Orland, California, where they would be left to graze for the rest of their natural lives.

Farm Sanctuary National Shelter Director Susie Coston said in a statement that, “The processing plant expressed concern for the cows, one of whom is pregnant. It’s cold outside and they’re worried that the animals are tired, hungry and thirsty, so we’re hoping they will work with us to bring them to sanctuary. It would be a happy ending for everyone involved, but especially for the cows, who want nothing more than to simply enjoy the one life they get just like we do.”

Okay: It’s a story by turns strange, comic, a little dangerous and (maybe, depending on what happens next) heart-warming. It might have found a place on the Colbert Report were it still on the air.

But reflect on this: Idaho is home to about 2.2 million cattle, about half again as many head of them as of us.

Better hope they never hear “Cows with Guns.”

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Idaho Idaho column

idaho RANDY
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Idaho

In about three weeks new administrations will take over in two important Idaho offices – superintendent of public instruction and secretary of state. That means, or should mean, the incoming officials in those places will be busy right now getting prepared.

Offered for consideration a little advice, from an observer of transitions, for Idaho’s new statewide officials, SUPI Sherri Ybarra and Secretary Lawerence Denney.

1. Apart from maybe one or two personal advisors, keep the existing staff in place, for a while at least. Yes, you will have authority to replace them wholesale if you choose, and as you eventually find (as you will) people who ought to go, they can be shown the door. But for the moment, remember that they, not you, know how things work in this place, and by that I mean all the little bits and pieces which make these offices tick; both the formal procedures (and requirements) and the informal methods and pathways that help work get handled. In any office, governmental or not, these things take a while to suss out. You’re going to have a learning curve. Accept that and let your staff, which mostly will probably be eager to help inform you, guide you through the early steps.

No one coming in fresh from the outside will understand enough of that at first. But both state offices are empowered and restricted by a mass of laws, rules, legal decisions and more. Former Superintendent Jerry Evans, who probably understood the SUPI world better than anyone in recent decades, had a gift for explaining the inner workings of “the coalition” and “the formula” – central to the office’s operations – in startlingly clear fashion to people like legislators and reporters. But so complex was his subject that many people (such as me) could not maintain comprehension of it for more than a day or so; after that we’d have to go back for a refresher. The details of this stuff are more complex than they look from the outside. Respect that.

2. Spend as much time as you can in the office. Get a sense of the patterns, personalities and rhythms there before you have to run it yourself.

3. Find a few old hands and, if not bring them into the office, turn them into a kitchen cabinet, an advisory group. Collect some expertise you can trust, and some people who aren’t your natural allies so you’re not just entering an echo chamber, telling you what you want to hear. And then make use of what you hear.

4. Reach out to the constituencies. Both newcomers are, for different reasons, making nervous a lot of people who will be dealing with the offices. Best advice: Pro-actively reach out to them and establish a line of communication. That’s most critical probably in the superintendent’s office, where many of the “stakeholders” in Idaho education (yes, in fact should include everyone in the state) aren’t sure what to expect. Keep a regular line of communication going. Institutionalize communications. Go to them, and let them come to you. You don’t have to agree on everything (and the stakeholders may often quarrel with each other), but you will fare best if everyone knows where they stand.

5. Engage the public on your priorities. Do this with the public too – and that means among other things communicating through the news media.

Jobs like secretary and superintendent are in part inherently political (something the new superintendent may be reluctant to accept). That means doing some campaign-type things as part of the job: Communicating with lots of people, building alliances, finding out where the differences are and figuring out how to bridge them.

Done in a useful way, it’s complex work. You’ll need all the help you can get.

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Idaho Idaho column

idaho RANDY
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Idaho

The predominant news out of the just-finished organizational session of the Idaho Legislature didn’t make the front page of most Idaho papers, and that was a reasonable call.

There were a few committee changes, and a few on the lower rungs of leadership. But the top spots in the Senate and House stayed pretty much the same.

In the bigger picture of Idaho legislative history, there actually is some news in this stasis. Until the last decade or a little more, leadership under the rotunda tended to change regularly. In recent years, that’s slowed down.

In the Senate, the top leadership job is president pro tem. (You might think that would be lieutenant governor, since he’s the default presiding officer, but when caucuses are held and decisions are made the lieutenant governor is outside of the room, with the rest of us.) For most of Idaho history, the norm was to hold that job for two or three terms, provided your party was in control. The first ever to keep the job longer was Republican James Ellsworth of Leadore, for four terms from 1968-76.

That record was broken by Robert Geddes of Soda Springs, who was elected to the post in 2000 (mid-session, when Jerry Twiggs, who was in his fourth term as pro tem, died). Geddes held the job for 10 years, and currently holds the record. His replacement, Brent Hill, was elected to it for the third time last week, and there’s no particular reason he won’t reach Geddes’ mark over time.

In the House, no one broke the three-term ceiling until Bruce Newcomb, who was elected speaker in 1998 and stayed until he retired in 2006 – four terms. His successor, Lawerence Denney of Midvale (soon to be secretary of state), then was speaker for three terms but narrowly (apparently) lost a bid for a fourth in 2012. The man who defeated him, Scott Bedke of Oakley, appears like Hill, to be settling in. Neither he nor Hill were opposed for the top leadership positions in the organizational session.

Take a look at the job of majority leader in each chamber. In the Senate, Bart Davis of Idaho Falls has held that job 12 years. In the House, Mike Moyle of Star has been majority leader since 2006, but he was assistant majority leader in 2002 – 14 years so far in one position or the other.

Before you consider this a call for term limits, though, consider that longevity is much less widespread in the overall legislative ranks. Just nine of the 35 senators, for example, are entering their fifth term or better. Despite the fact that nearly all legislative districts are a lock for one political party or the other (mostly for one of them, of course), there’s a good deal of turnover among them.

But not so much in leaders. In fact, Idaho is seeing a good deal of continuity in its upper political leadership ranks. It has a governor, C.L. “Butch” Otter, in major office continuously for 28 years. It has two U.S. senators whose entrance to major-level state politics came nearly 30 years ago in one case and 40 in the other. One of the two U.S. representatives came to the Idaho House more than 30 years ago and first entered leadership there not long after.

You could draw several possible conclusions from this, depending on your attitude toward the personnel involved.

But it seems many Idahoans often do seem a lot less determined to rock the boat than their rhetoric would often have you believe.

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Idaho Idaho column

idaho RANDY
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Idaho

How many Idahoans watched President Obama’s speech Thursday about changes in the federal response to immigrants who got here against the law? Was Representative Raul Labrador among them – and did it spark any activist thoughts in his own mind?

Idaho generally has some particular reason to pay attention. A study by the Pew Research Center released last week showed that Idaho is one of just seven states where unauthorized immigration rose between 2009 and 2012. The population declined in 14 states – twice as many. Maybe more notable: Idaho and Nebraska were the only two western states where that segment of the population increased during those years; it fell in Oregon, Nevada, California and others.

Immigration has become so hot an issue that emotions often drown out facts. A lot of the responses to the Obama talk, pro and con, was suffused with emotion. The reaction from Idaho’s politicians was, as you might expect, harshly negative against Obama’s outline. Representative Mike Simpson said Obama’s actions “have the potential to throw us into a Constitutional Crisis,” though he also said “We cannot shut down the government, impeach the President, or allow this issue to impede progress on deficit reduction, tax reform, or other critical priorities for the American people.” Congressional Republicans will have a lot to talk about in the next few days and weeks.

Labrador does have some expertise in the subject, having worked as an immigration attorney in his private practice. After Obama’s speech he declared, “this is illegal,” and suggested in essence that the Senate reject over the next two years any appointments, budget requests or anything else coming its way from the White House.

The Obama policy may activate people on the other side as well, though. Recent national polling on the matter has been split on Obama taking a unilateral action on the subject. But many in the Latino community will be watching closely what happens next, and Republicans who hope to attract many of their votes in 2016 will have to approach the subject with some caution and diplomacy.

When Labrador went to Congress, one of his assets was strong personal knowledge of how the immigration system works (or fails to), the presumption being that he might be in a position to help move things ahead. So far – and not, certainly, to pile all this on him – a measure has passed the Senate, but efforts to come up with a compromise measure in the House have collapsed. Labrador’s stands on the subject, and his shifts in alliances on it, have been far from clear.

For a while, he was a central player in the group of House members working to come up with a House counterpart to a measure that passed the Senate, but then he dropped out of it, and for a year or so has argued against the House passing anything on the subject.

What Obama most clearly has done has been to place the immigration issue on the front burner – and, while taking unilateral action, he specifically asked Congress to come up with something better if it can. It’s a direct political challenge. House Republicans could avoid it by passing nothing, but do they really consider that a better approach? (And after all their disaster-has-struck rhetoric of this week, how would they defend it?)

If Labrador has any interest in playing a major role on this issue, as he is uncommonly well placed to do, this would be the time to act.

With substance, that is, rather than boilerplate.

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Idaho Idaho column

idaho RANDY
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Idaho

When market analysts such as politicians need insight into how people really view something, they often convene a focus group.

Last week I sought out something like that, consisting of party-line Republican Idaho voters. The 19 responses were enough (together with a collection of comments from a range of other sources) to tell me this much: The 220,000 or more (more in a presidential year) who vote down-the-line Republican in Idaho arrive at that result not by any one, but in variety of ways.

First, thanks to all who responded. I’ll honor the requests for anonymity from a number of respondents; I will say that none of them were familiar to me or are well-known public figures. Eight of the 19 didn’t specifically meet the terms of the request: They broke from the Republican ticket once or twice, mostly in the superintendent of public instruction race, but also for governor and secretary of state. The explanations for the vote were usually specific, several about as lengthy as this column.

Detail wasn’t absent from all down-the-line respondents. One said of GOP superintendent candidate Sherri Ybarra: “much more complete in the debates and showed her concern about educating the WHOLE child. She understands the use of money and how best to use in to get the most out of what she is given. She will not just have her hand out. She will fit in with the Republican Legislators and the land board.” Of Lawerence Denny for secretary of state: “This was a tough one for me. Reason, experience and land board.” Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter: “I’ve been disappointed at times. Idaho taking on the Federal mandated Insurance exchange for one. Balukoff ran a one issue race on more money for education without answers.”

Some respondents clearly had followed the campaigns, but there seemed a gap: Was it just coincidence that all their choices went to one party?

Most of the all-R voters, however, focused on the nature of the parties.

One seemed to focus on President Obama: “Considering the Republican tide that swept the country on Nov 4, with Obama stating he wasn’t on the ballot but his policies were; a vote for any Democrat was a vote for Obama’s policies. Idaho voters priorities were in step with the country and were clearly shown. Stop Obama’s policies!!!”

Another: “The ways that I disagree with various Republicans is small compared with the intense disagreement I have with the stances, the behavior and philosophy of the collation of interests groups , known as the Democratic Party. I cringe at the thought of Frank Church, I am surrounded by people who despise Harry Reid, Nancy Polosy(?) and Jesse Jackson. Guilt by association? Yup!”

Another focused on the parties more broadly: “Who are democrats as a party? They support illegal immigration, extend financial aid of all kinds to them, are pro abortion, against right-to-work, do not support our military, and back liberal environmentalism ala climate change. I do not want anyone in public office that holds to these views as are enumerated in the Idaho Democratic Platform. So, even if I have ought with republican candidates, there is no alternative.”

And: “First, I have an inherent distrust in the news media. This includes the local newspaper (Twin Falls Times) as they seem to work overtime pounding on every Republican in sight. What I see is Democrat GOOD, republican BAD. How simplistic! I feel like we are being treated like a bunch of half wits too stupid to understand why we should vote for the democrats. You Sir are in the same camp so don’t act like you are a moderate and continue your line of questioning. Come to think of it, you have the same mentality as the used care salesman we have in the whitehouse. Wake up and smell the roses.”

The last one notwithstanding: Anyone whose rationale wasn’t reflected here (or was), feel free to send me a note. I expect to come back around to this area. I find voters a lot more interesting than politicians.

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Idaho Idaho column

idaho RANDY
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Idaho

Don’t say there was no difference in the received vote between Republican candidates who were noncontroversial and those drowning in negatives in the just-ended campaign. Yes, they all alike won, but the counts varied and even give us some measure of controversial-ness.

Atop the ticket, Senator Jim Risch, whose re-election campaign didn’t draw massive public attention, despite strenuous efforts from his opponent, won about 285,000 votes. (I’m rounding off for simplicity.) Fellow Republicans Lawerence Denney for secretary of state won about 44,000 less, C.L. “Butch” Otter for governor about 50,000 less, and Sherri Ybarra for superintendent of public instruction about 68,000 less (barely avoiding a loss). You likely remember, or can Google, the many issues surrounding them.

This means about 40,000 to 60,000 Republicans did split off from an otherwise Republican ballot when presented with compelling arguments to do so. That’s significant, and I’ll return to them on another occasion. But an operating majority of voters, somewhere around 220,000 of them, were by comparison impervious to the arguments that peeled off other Republicans.

That point is being made not just from the left. Kent Marmon, a sometimes Republican candidate in Canyon County who often critiques the Idaho Republican establishment from the right, said on a Facebook post, “As I watched the election results unfold last night, I couldn’t help but think that if Barack Obama moved to Idaho, joined the Republican Party, and ran for office as a Republican…. he could get elected. Issues apparently don’t matter. Neither does anything else.”

Also on Facebook, a woman from Nampa (a Democrat) sent an open request to Republican friends: “Please name three (3) reasons you voted for Sherri Ybarra. I’m not being snarky. I genuinely want to know why you would pick Ms. Ybarra over Ms. [Jana] Jones. Serious answers only, please.”

She got about 90 replies, but from down the line Republicans . . . nothing.

Of the many apparently non-Republican respondents, a few said the election was “rigged,” which it was not, and others thought gerrymandering was involved, which it could not have been. One said, “I cannot find a Republican that will admit to voting for her.” But, evidently, a whole lot of them did.

Another: “My guess is that people who voted for her didn’t even know what she was running for. They saw the “R” beside her name and colored the circle in. I don’t think you will find an educated Republican who did vote for her.” And: “Based on what I heard said: 1) she’s Republican. 2) there is a black man in the White House (who wants to take my guns). 3) she’s ‘good looking’.”

A variation: “It simply was the ‘obama/bogeyman syndrome’ that many in Idaho believe. It started with the IACI labeling Mr. [A.J.] Balukoff as a “liberal” and using that simplistic tactic in all the races. Ibarra with “D” in front of her name would have gotten less than 10% of the vote (taking into account of really stupid voters who pay absolutely no attention to who their voting for) To hear some of the people on fb and KIDO and KBOI, you would think that AJ was the “antichrist” because of the lies spread about him.”

How close to the truth did these latter comments come? Good question. They’re guesswork from outsiders speculating about the opposition camp.

One writer said she had a number of Tea Party friends who “are very vocal on their own feed. This thread may not feel safe for them. But holy jelly donut – stand up for what you believe in, otherwise it’s just a herd of lemmings talking to themselves in the mirror.”

So I’ll pitch a request here, to party-line Republican voters (others, please hold off): Send me a note, at the email address below, noting the main reason or two why you voted for Ybarra, Denney and Otter. Call it a public service. Idaho will be better off if the whole of the state has a clearer idea why its next round of elected leadership was chosen, and few majority voters are clearly explaining that now.

I’ll follow up next week.

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Idaho Idaho column

idaho RANDY
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Idaho

The big national story Tuesday night will have to do with control of the U.S. Senate, which as this is written is a very close call.

In Idaho, control of the legislature will not be much of a point of suspense. But there’ll be plenty to watch elsewhere.

Start with the voter turnout; information about that should be released early. High turnout tends to mark enthusiasm for something; low turn out, a turning off. Very early indicators from early-voting states around the country have been mixed (North Carolina running high, Nevada running low). The turnout level may give some meaning to the wins and losses in its wake. What are voters thinking?

Turnout could also affect how some of the Idaho races settle, too.

Attention always goes first to the top of the ballot, but in most Idaho races there’s not a lot of basis – at least in considering polling and other normal indicators – for expecting close contests. If the early results for congressional and governor races do show close numbers across a range of counties, expect a long night, but be wary of betting on that happening. Do the Republicans running for Congress reach landslides (which I define as 60 percent of the vote or better), as they typically have in the past, or does a generic dissatisfaction hit, making the races closer?

The governor’s race will get central attention, of course, after a number of tea-leaf readers have begun to conclude it’s close after all. How close?

The real interest more likely ought to go to places on the Idaho ballot that generally get little attention, those statewide offices like secretary of state, state treasurer and superintendent of public instruction, all of which have seen lively campaigns this year.

There’s not been a lot of polling on these races, either (when it’s really infrequent you get no trend lines or basis for comparison), and it’s hard to know how much the campaign messages have been sinking in. Many Idaho voters probably couldn’t tell you very accurately what the state secretary, treasurer and superintendent each do, and therefore how to assess the importance of the campaign arguments. Did some of those messages actually connect? Are voters willing to look beyond party labels, which is what many typically seem to use as a guide to voting?

That in fact may be another thing to watch for: Any sign of split-ticket voting, which has been in decline in Idaho (as in many other places) for a couple of generations now.

Do more than two or three legislative seats change party control? A scan of the field suggests no more than half-dozen realistically are in the field to do so; if the switches much exceed two or three, take that as a real indicator.

Finally – and for a lot of people this gets down into the weeds, but it’s worth the watch – see what happens in the county races. When Idaho began its definitive move into the Republican column a couple of decades ago, one of the places where the change seemed to lock in was in the courthouse races. How are the courthouses split after this election?

That could be what you’d call a long-term indicator.

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Idaho Idaho column

idaho RANDY
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Idaho

Think for a moment of political news, background and impressions, falling from the skies upon the electorate, like rain. It may be the rain that soaks you and makes you wet and miserable or it may be the rain causing flowers to bloom and crops to grow. Depends on your perspective.

A good deal of such rain has fallen in Idaho’s campaign seasons this year. From the batch of scandal-like problems associated with Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter (private prison, broadband for schools and more), to the financial issues attached to Treasurer Ron Crane, to the personal assessments of Secretary of State candidate Lawerence Denney, to the many missteps of Superintendent of Public Instruction candidate Sherri Ybarra, and others too, there’s been a lot, especially of the negative kind. Republican candidates, who are the kind that almost always, in the last 20 years, have emerged winners in the November elections, have provided a lot of it.

This rain of bad headlines, gaffes, missteps and so on has been seized on by people watching Idaho’s elections, and with reason. Such problems have, in years past, derailed any number of Idaho candidates, and some of the complaints and criticisms have been serious enough to go to the heart of the jobs these people are seeking.

A meaningful political analysis has to go one step further, though. Even flood-level amounts of rain won’t make the crops grow or the flowers bloom if it does not fall on receptive soil. Rain falling on concrete simply runs off, at least in the short term.

Idaho’s electorate (to carry the analogy one uneasy step further) used to be gently rototilled, open to new information and ideas and news, willing to adjust its views. It has become less so in the last couple of decades – much more hard-packed, less receptive, than it used to be.

People looking for changes in, say, the governor’s race, need to look not just at the rain but at something that would churn the hard-packed soil, to make it more receptive to changes in the environment.

Maybe it’s there and just not very visible, but so far I’m not seeing much change on the ground. Nor am I picking up many indicators of it.

To explain this a little further, here’s a small plot of Idaho political ground where conditions may be more receptive: The race for Superintendent of Public Instruction. One factor is the many problems Republican Ybarra has faced, and the steady campaign of Democrat Jana Jones.

But as important as that is the ground surrounding Idaho voters’ relationship to the office. It was the last statewide office surrendered by Democrats, in 2006, and then only barely, so voters in recent years have been accustomed to and may be comfortable with a Democrat there, in a way not true in other offices. The job has been held for eight years by Republican Tom Luna, amid recurrent controversy, and in 2012 Luna’s signature education overhaul effort was decisively rejected by the voters. This was a distinctive message from the ground, a clear rejection of a major education policy backed by the state’s Republican establishment. The growing number of school levies, too, with their variable results, probably has affected voter attitudes toward education and state government.

In education and education politics, in other words, there’s been some churning of the ground. With that as a prerequisite, the steady rain of Ybarra’s problems – reaching a voting public listening to and absorbing the information, combined with a capable Jones campaign, may be enough to make a difference in 2014. The elements, at least, are there.

Has there been underground churning going on elsewhere? If you see many other Democratic wins on election day, that probably will mean there has. But if so, they’ve been quiet and underground.

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Idaho Idaho column

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Idaho

A reader points out that Idaho voters next month will decide whether to pass an amendment to the state constitution, and “The only info I have is in the “Idaho Voters’ Pamphlet” and it’s not enough”: She requests some guidance.

Okay: On this one, you can feel comfortable throwing a dart blindfolded at your ballot. Whether you pass it or fail it, it will make no difference whatsoever, not to Idaho voters, their government, or anything else. When I read that one of its main floor backers, Senator Curt McKenzie of Nampa, said it was among most significant pieces of legislation he’d dealt with, I hoped that his legislative career has amounted to more than that.

What House Joint Resolution 2, which passed both chambers with not a single vote opposed, does say is that the Legislature can authorize and holds final effective approval power over all agency rules and regulations. That would be significant if the legislature already had not been doing that. Legislatures take varying roles in dealing with agency regulations, but the Idaho Legislature has been overseeing and accepting and rejecting rules for decades – to my knowledge at least since the 70s, and probably long before that.

For many years, the legislature gave the rules a quick look, maybe throwing out two or three controversial ones in a normal session. Since the mid-90s, it has been applying a microscope to them, spending the first quarter or so of each session hunkered down over not legislation but administrative rules to decide whether they will stay there, or should be kicked out, or amended. Some studies have concluded that the Idaho Legislature has, for a couple of decades, had more power over and more closely reviewed the rules than any other legislature in the country.

So what is the new proposed amendment intended to accomplish? Basically, to allow the system Idaho has had for a couple of decades to stay in place.

Is there any reason to think it won’t? Legislative backers point out a couple of challenges to legislative rule approval at the Idaho Supreme Court; but the court has each time upheld the legislature. That’s too much locked-in precedent for such a change to happen easily.

But even if it did, the practical difference would be, as a lawyer would say, de minimis. Administrative rules can be set up only within the terms of state law, so the legislature sets the parameters to start with. If the rules color outside the lines, they can be challenged and thrown out in court. Legislators can also change state law as they please to rein in regulatory ideas they don’t like or impose those they do; there’s not a lot of limit on how specific law can be. (Laws can be held unconstitutional for vagueness but generally not for specificity.) Legislators also hold the power of the purse, and can (and often do) include statements specifically describing what money cannot be used for, or must be used for – which amounts to sweeping control of what an agency does. A legislator might argue that a governor can veto a bill, even a budget bill; but two-thirds of the legislature can override vetoes.

In an opinion article against the amendment Jack McMahon, a former chief deputy attorney general with deep background in how state government works, also points out that “the Legislature has inserted a ‘poison pill’ in the law making it virtually impossible to take away its power to review agency rules. The power is said to be so ‘critical and integral’ that if it is ever struck down, every agency rule adopted in the last quarter-century ‘shall be deemed null, void and of no further force and effect’.”

Given all this, the idea of administrative rules running riot over a helpless Idaho Legislature begins to sound almost a little paranoid.

So vote for it or vote against it and either way worry about it not at all. Fret if you will over your vote for irrigation company or sewer district; that may matter a lot more.

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Idaho Idaho column