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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.”

Joseph was not allowed to return either to Oregon or Idaho, but instead was held in Kansas and Oklahoma until, in 1885, he was sent to the Colville Reservation in northeastern Washington. He sought to return to the Wallowa country to the day of his death in 1904, but permission never came.

Chief Joseph became a nationally famous figure during his lifetime; he met with presidents, and was the subject of poems and books by the turn of the century. Few Native American figures have been so positively regarded for so long. His famous surrender message likely was crafted mostly by an army officer, but his eloquence on other occasions was clear.

The truth here seems to be that Joseph was a man with a homeland, located in the center of the Northwest, that would be denied him for most of his life. There has to be some irony in the idea that so many places now would like to claim him for their own.

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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.”

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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.)

Wisecaver added that “It’s a seven-day-a-week job if you own it,” and that was no doubt true as well.

Likely, it’s one reason the paper is now closing.

Sandra Wisecaver died in February, and her husband Joe has been putting out the several editions since. But it takes a particular kind of determined person to put out a community newspaper like Buhl’s, and after searching for a replacement, he will bring the Herald’s history to an end this week.

He told the Twin Falls Times News, “I’ve been getting a lot of phone calls. But what can you do when you run out of people?”

Good question. It’s a question one Idaho’s shrinking number of locally-owned weekly newspaper communities may well continue to ask themselves in coming years.

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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 46.01.01.100 is being amended to delete these provisions.”

Some rules do have larger application. Of one Department of Water Resources rule a statement of purpose remarked, “This rule was rejected in committee because it eliminated the current boundary lines of the Eastern Snake Plain Aquifer, and not enough technical data was available at the present time for the Department of Water Resources to accurately evaluate the underground water sources available in the additional territory added to the ESPA to define the effects on the various sections of the Aquifer.” Maybe that’s all true, but is the legislature really the right body to provide the kind of technical review that resolution contemplates?

That’s the sort of thing which occupies a large chunk of the limited time span of Idaho legislative sessions – not general policy, decisions about going in this direction rather than that, but evaluating exactly what education standards should be needed for jobs like veterinary technician applicants. Is this a useful way for legislatures to spend their limited time in Boise?

Seems as though there should be a better way.

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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?

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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.”

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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 (wrcc.dri.edu), 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.

The story was the same almost everywhere I went. The good news was the roads were clear and dry, a contrast to many February road trips around Idaho. But there are some serious negatives.

I’ve heard a number of reactions to all this. One is a growing sense that the risk of major wildfires is rising rapidly, and that may be the case.

But it’s also looking like a low-water year generally. There’ll be some tense times ahead.

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About a dozen years ago, Martin Peterson and I started work on a book project. Peterson, who had spent a career and then some in the core of Idaho state government, is an Idaho history obsessive, and we had latched onto the idea of writing a book about the 100 most influential drivers of Idaho history.

We had a lot of ideas about who should populate the list and how to rank them, but we wanted to run those ideas (and our understanding of the facts and context) past an unimpeachable authority who knew enough about Idaho history to be able to tell us, conclusively, if we were somewhere running off the rails.

Exactly one name came to us both: Judy Austin. And from the beginning of the project until shortly before it went to print, she looked over our lists, provided sage background and suggestions, and kept us on track. At least, as much as anyone could have.

This week, Austin is receiving the annual Idaho Humanities Council Outstanding Achievement in the Humanities award for her work on Idaho history. That work, which has been ongoing since 1967 and continues at full speed today, is so wide-ranging as to defy any further definition. The center of it, probably, is her more than two decades as editor of Idaho Yesterdays history magazine, up until its closure in 2002. (That closure by state officials, depriving the state of its only major historical publication, was and is a travesty.) Along the way, as the IHC noted, she “became a mentor, writer, bibliographer, co-author, consultant, and general encourager to countless researchers, young and old, engaged in exploring the history of Idaho and the American West.”

Those range from national bestselling author Anthony Lukas, whose magisterial Big Trouble (about the Haywood murder conspiracy trial) benefited greatly from Austin’s help, to Lin Tull Cannell, an amateur historian at Orofino who turned her interest in the pioneer William Craig into a book (which – disclosure here – I published) called The Intermediary. And, among many others over the years and on other efforts besides the 100, me.

When she arrived in Boise in 1967, she went to work for the Idaho historian who more or less founded the field, Merle Wells. During the two decades they worked together and into his retirement, a foundation was set for research and publication of Idaho history. It was institutionalized, with strong staffing and steadily improving collections and public service.

The Idaho State Historical Society has better quarters these days, near the old Idaho Penitentiary on the eastern edge of Boise, than it did then. But budgets have been cut, and the hard-working and skillful staff there is increasingly stretched thin. Preservation and research into Idaho history has not been a state budget priority, especially not in the last decade. A lot of the institutional building, developing the field of Idaho history that made such progress in the mid-to-latter 20th century has been chopped away in the 21st.

These have been difficult times for many history programs around the country, and Idaho’s has been hit especially hard. A state that ties itself to tradition the way Idaho does – you hear it in state political campaigns every cycle – could benefit especially from a very strong understanding and recording of the facts instead of the myth.

Judy Austin richly deserves her award this week, not least for her work keeping the facts and the myths in their relative places.

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Here’s what public affairs news made the front page of newspapers in the Northwest today, excluding local crime, features and sports stories. (Newspaper names contracted with location)

Idahoans head to North Dakota for oil money (Boise Statesman)
Capone case costs county half a million (Lewiston Tribune)
Aquatics center called ‘structurally unsafe’ (Moscow News)
Pullman may build new school (Moscow News)
OPE report suggests move legal work to AG (Nampa Press Tribune)
Schools treat e-cigarettes like drugs (Nampa Press Tribune)

Setting sales cost for Eugene Electric land (Eugene Register Guard)
Feds expand Kitzhaber finance probe (Portland Oregonian, Eugene Register Guard, Medford Tribune)
Congress looking into Cover Oregon issues (Portland Oregonian)
Republicans seek advantage in scandal (Salem Statesman Journal)
Polk Co puts law enforcement levy on ballot (Salem Statesman Journal)

Unfunded initiatives may face law (Tacoma News Tribune, Vancouver Columbian, Bremerton Sun, Olympian, Port Angeles News, Longview News)
Changes planned for 4th Street in Bremerton (Bremerton Sun)
Amazon drones may be barred by FAA (Seattle Times)
Washington rules going after carbon (Spokane Spokesman)
Pierce property taxes going up 7.7% (Tacoma News Tribune)

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The St. Luke’s Idaho Health System web site lists “facilities” – mainly meaning hospitals – at locations around Idaho including Boise (two hospitals there), Nampa, Caldwell, Eagle, Fruitland, Mountain Home, Jerome, Twin Falls, McCall, Meridian and Ketchum.

That’s some major reach. The main barrier keeping St. Luke’s from monopoly status is the St. Alphonsus organization, with hospitals in Boise and Nampa, an emergency room as well in Eagle, and other facilities in Caldwell.

These are not unusual cases: Nationally, health care is seeing major consolidations. The day of the independent, more or less, local hospital is at twilight, and more health businesses and non-profits (the differences between them can be subtle in some cases) are becoming Wal-Mart behemoths. And where will that take health care?

This question was peripheral – though it did relate – to the 9th Circuit Court decision handed down last week upholding Idaho District Judge Lynn Winmill in his order that St. Luke’s divest itself of the Saltzer Medical Group. The court described Saltzer as “the largest independent multi-specialty physician group in Idaho, [which] had thirty-four physicians practicing at its offices in Nampa.”

There’s a sense among many health providers that moving toward integrated systems, unifying the networks of physicians and health care organizations, is the best avenue toward controlling and maybe reducing health care costs. There’s some logic to this. The efforts underway to some extent nationally and to a larger degree in some states (Oregon and Washington for two) toward coordinated care are aimed at focusing on better health results for patients and a reduction of the pay-per-service approach, and systems that routinely bring people into the system via emergency rooms, which between them help drive up many costs. These efforts rely on bringing broad networks of health providers together to seek out efficiencies, rather than pit everyone individually to grub as much money out of the system as they can.

The 9th Circuit noted that “Saltzer had long had the goal of moving toward integrated patient care and risk-based reimbursement. After unsuccessfully attempting several informal affiliations, including one with St. Luke’s, Saltzer sought a formal partnership with a large health care system.” That turned out to be St. Luke’s. And leadership at St .Luke’s has mentioned as well the idea of more cooperative systems as a way to control health costs and improve results.

There’s some tension here between that possible improvement and concerns about monopoly. From the 9th Circuit decision again: “The district court expressly noted the troubled state of the U.S. health care system, found that St. Luke’s and Saltzer genuinely intended to move toward a better health care system, and expressed its belief that the merger would “improve patient outcomes” if left intact. Nonetheless, the court found that the “huge market share” of the post-merger entity “creates a substantial risk of anticompetitive price increases” in the Nampa adult PCP [primary care physician] market. Rejecting an argument by St. Luke’s that anticipated post-merger efficiencies excused the potential anticompetitive price effects, the district court ordered divestiture.”

There’s some sense here that the tension is between the opportunity for reasonable cost control on one hand, and monopoly (with all its attendant problems) on the other. Something like this happened a century ago with the electric power industry, which led to a compromise which generally has worked since – a series of profitable monopoly businesses that have been tightly regulated.

The time may be coming when we need to look at health care providers in a new way. Maybe that way.

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The headline on the Idaho Reporter story said, “Idaho lawmakers mandate car dealership hours,” but that’s only one piece of the tale. The remainder is the portion few Idahoans see but accounts for a lot of the much-despised regulation of industry.

This particular instance arrived February 3 before the House Transportation and Defense Committee, which was reviewing new Idaho Transportation Department rules. One of them required a certain number of hours per week car dealerships must keep their doors open to the public, and report their business hours to state regulators. By a thin margin, the committee approved the rule.

Several committee members argued that this was governmental regulatory overreach – a government agency seeking more power than it ought to have.

But the underlying story emerged when Representative Patrick McDonald, R-Boise, said that “We need to support this because people in the industry support it.”

What? The industry supports this added piece of government regulation?

You bet.

The motivations may be several. One car dealer warned of shady operators who might be hard to find if things go wrong during a purchase or later. There could also be some motivation to set the bar to entry in the business a little higher, excluding people who might try to start a small dealership working on weekends. Without trying to read minds here, there may be in all a mix of rationales, both public-serving and self-serving. But these motivations come chiefly from the industry. In the case of the car dealer hours rule, you would not have seen such general support from the industry if that industry wasn’t the basic source of the proposal.

The testimony indicated that the department wrote the rule, but it’s a very safe bet that the push for it came from the auto dealers themselves. Remember the governmental rules regulating banking hours? Recall who was pressing for that? Here’s a hint: It wasn’t either bureaucrats or consumer groups.

Anyone who draws a bright line between government and business poorly understands either. Business lobbyists visit the legislature every year for more laws and rules, but that’s only the proverbial iceberg tip. Many of them, or representatives for them, are a regular presence at agencies too. The savvier associations lobby agencies all year long to alter or adopt rules they see as in their benefit (and maybe the public’s as well). Revolving doors between the regulators and the regulated are commonplace at the federal level but show up in the states too.

Regulation of most of the business and professional organizations that are today regulated, from doctors and lawyers to surveyors and truckers, got started in most cases with requests from those industries that they be regulated. When the doctors first sought regulation, they wanted to weed out the quacks and improve professional quality, and raise the bar to entry to limit the number of doctors. It’s an old story.

Not that this is all bad. Government should be responsive, and it should listen to the regulated as well as the rest of the public. It’s called the right of redress.

And there are sometimes public interests to be considered too; in the auto hours case, several legislators argued that steady hours would be clearly a consumer benefit. Maybe so.

Either way, when you hear about the mass of government rules and regulations bearing down on business and the rest of us, remember: The push for it came from somewhere, and in most cases it probably wasn’t from a bureaucrat looking for more work to do.

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Idaho

In the spring of 1941 the United States, not yet at war but observing that much of the rest of the world was, was cranking its defense industry to full speed. It hit road bumps, one being a systematic unwillingness by some employers to hire certain workers, often on the basis of race or religion.

To counter this, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 8802. He declared that, “There is evidence available that needed workers have been barred from industries engaged in defense production solely because of considerations of race, creed, color or national origin, to the detriment of workers’ morale and of national unity.” And he ordered that defense contractors hire and treat employees the same regardless of “race, creed, color, or national origin,” not just as a matter of fairness but also as a matter of national security.

This long preceded the civil rights movement, but if the language sounds familiar, that’s no accident. The move toward equity seeded in World War II later set a kind of bar. In areas far beyond national defense, Congress and state legislatures declared that, in varying ways and for diverse groups of people, large-scale and commonplace discrimination has occurred, and that pushing back against it is in the national or state interest.

The 20-plus hours of testimony last week in Boise over House Bill 2, the now-rejected proposal to “add the words” of sexual orientation and gender identity, was an emotional event on both sides, but questions of broader interest, touching all Idahoans, got little attention.

The experience of other states and Idaho cities that have adopted similar language indicates that actual usage of the law probably would be slight. Since Boise passed a similar ordinance in December 2012, either two complaints or none (depending on your analysis) have been filed, and quietly handled, under it. That would be in line with most of the 20 or so states that have passed similar laws; the few much-noted cases involving cake-bakers and florists are rare enough to serve better as fluke news stories rather than as harbingers of trends.

Discrimination against gay and transsexual people, however, is not rare and not hard to document in substantial numbers, and in many places has mirrored the experience of people originally covered under the “race, creed, color” approach. Not many other social segments mentioned as prospects for “covered” groups (tall people, obese, smokers, others) can claim that scale of negative treatment.

Is there a social problem here, a need for action, as Roosevelt cited in 1941? Departing Boise Police Chief Mike Masterson offered one, saying that communities will be safer with the law in place because people afraid to report violent attacks became more willing to do so after Boise changed its ordinance. “We’ll all enjoy a safer community if we add the words to protect sexual orientation and gender identity in our Human Rights Act,” he said.

Some business owners testified last week they are concerned about the possibility of lawsuits under HB2, but many others have called for the change, in other states and in Idaho; the Boise Chamber of Commerce, for example, endorsed the bill.

There’s a specific state interest as well, of course, in protecting the right of people to exercise their religion. (Though this isn’t the religion-v-gay rights battle some people seem to want to pitch; quite a few in the clergy supported HB2, as others opposed it.) If harassment against people of faith in Idaho does emerge, the legislature should have some work to do. But it seems improbable. In a state with Idaho’s richly-churched demographics, the idea of freedom of religion being at risk, while churchgoing people carry on as they always have in places like Seattle and Portland, seems a little far fetched.

Some of the critics of HB 2 made the useful point that protections in one place can mean a loss somewhere else. That’s not only true, it’s the reality underlying all kinds of legislation (the “ag-gag” law, for example, benefits one group and disadvantages others). In the case of HB2, and eventual future-numbered bills (which will emerge with time), as with other anti-discrimination legislation, any real evaluation has to put these elements in context. Do the people of America get more out of the right to discriminate by race, which advantaged some people, or out of a defense industry where that wasn’t allowed? Do Idaho and the people in it get more out of the current silence on sexual orientation and identity in discrimination law, or out of protections like those in HB 2?

That question won’t go away. It may resolve in the end, as these things often do, more on calculation than on feelings.

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Idaho Idaho column

idaho RANDY
STAPILUS
 
Idaho

The legislative activities most likely to draw a rolling-eyes reaction, at least in the days when I was a newspaper legislative reporter, was the designation of something as the official Idaho state “something.”

Idaho has a roster of them: 16 including the state song, motto and seal. The official fossil (the Hagerman horse; no jokes please). The official fruit (the huckleberry; no jokes, please). The official raptor (the peregrine falcon; you know the drill) as well as the official state bird (the mountain bluebird).

Most reporters and legislators used to think, at least: Do we really need more? Is there need to spend legislative time on additional designations? Turns out there are some practical reasons to do so.

The first bill introduced in this session, House Bill 1, sought to designate the giant salamander as the state amphibian. It was rejected on January 19 by the House State Affairs Committee.

It’s given me cause for a rethink.

At the hearing, Frank Lundberg of Boise, who is as expert on the subject of reptiles as anyone I know, pointed out that state symbols aren’t just ornamental: “They are a way to promote and enhance understanding of qualities that are unique to the state. Our symbols serve as messengers of what is special about Idaho to other people, states and countries.”

Why a state amphibian? Lundberg: “Amphibians are one piece of the natural heritage of Idaho that makes this state such a wondrous place to live. They have some amazing characteristics, some that could one day help medical research. Salamanders can regenerate lost limbs, some frogs freeze solid in the winter, having no heartbeat, and yet defrost in the spring and hop off. The word ‘amphibian’ means double life, referring to the fact that they are born in water but often live on land. Idaho Giant Salamanders epitomize the name ‘amphibian’ as they are born and live in water with external gills, yet for reasons we don’t quite understand yet, some individuals absorb their gills, grow lungs , and go live on land, only returning to the water to breed. Twenty other states have recognized this uniqueness by including these marvelous creatures in their state symbols.”

And, he pointed out, Idaho is the only place where the Giant Salamander lives.

How would Idaho benefit from this? “It says something good about Idaho. It says we care about the things that are unique to our state, to Idaho. It provides us with yet another symbol, another tool, which we can use to promote the benefits of Idaho to others. While it may be safely stated that not everyone cares if there’s a state amphibian, many in the country do care and will take note of one unique to Idaho. A few more people will visit the state. A few more scientists will study something in Idaho. School students will have another opportunity to learn more about Idaho.”

Practical benefits, then, at no cost.

The bill, proposed by a Boise junior high student, got support from Boise-area Democrats and Republicans, but not nearly enough to clear the committee.

The counter argument seemed to be the default worry at the legislature: That there might be feds under the bed. Rep. Don Cheatham, R-Post Falls: “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.”

The designation would have nothing whatever to do with an endangered species status. (And the water litigation is aimed not at increasing but at limiting federal ability to pursue water rights.)

Looks as if there’s some room left on the learning curve at the legislature, and not just about salamanders.

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Idaho Idaho column

news

Here’s what public affairs news made the front page of newspapers in the Northwest today, excluding local crime, features and sports stories. (Newspaper names contracted with location)

Hospital taxes continuing even for privates (Boise Statesman)
Mediation entering criminal cases (Boise Statesman)
New political website from Zion Bank (Boise Statesman, Lewiston Tribune)
Boise phosphorus facility in Canyon protested (Nampa Press Tribune)
Large rally at statehouse for ‘add the words’ (Nampa Press Tribune)
Muslims at TF plan mosque expansion (TF Times News)
Checking in on drug court grads (TF Times News)
Looking at a quarter century of the lottery (TF Times News)

Damaged Leaburg Dam impacting fish hatcheries (Eugene Register Guard)
Pot panel goes to work on new rules (Eugene Register Guard)
Wyden town hall held at Klamath Falls (KF Herald & News)
Some scofflaws run up huge parking fees (Portland Oregonian)
Homeless in Portland high numbers than national (Portland Orgonian)
Analyzing widely varied gas prices in Salem (Salem Statesman Journal)

Legislature considers carbon tax idea (Everett Herald)
Longview industrial park going green (Longview News)
Cuts at Lewis-McChord seem highly likely (Tacoma News Tribune, Olympian)
Looking at direct flights to SeaTac (Port Angeles News)
Genetic study finds more about Kennewick Man (Seattle Times)
Clark jail issues emergency body alarms to some (Vancouver Columbian)
Reviewing Yakima’s homeless situation (Yakima Herald Republic)

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Idaho Idaho column

idaho RANDY
STAPILUS
 
Idaho

Of all the subjects under the purview of Idaho government and politics, few ought to be less controversial than roads and road repair.

There’s no dispute that this is something state government ought to be doing. There’s no disagreement anywhere about the need for good roads, and that we need them for all sorts of reasons. And yet roads – or rather, paying for their upkeep, repair and the occasional expansion – have been in recent years the most difficult subject for Idaho governors and legislatures for reaching common ground.

Roads were the reason for the longest legislative session in Idaho history, in 2003. Roads got then-newbie Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter into big fights with the legislature right from his first session, and in 2009 roads funding was the main driver behind the second-longest legislative session in Idaho history.

And here we may be again. Right on schedule, even.

Otter’s case for road and bridge work was touched on quickly in his State of the State address, but it was compelling. He said, “We know that after education, investing in infrastructure is among the smartest, most cost-effective and frankly essential uses of taxpayers’ dollars to promote the public’s general welfare and sustain economic growth.” He’d probably not get much argument with that from the public – he pointed out surveys showing similar attitudes among Idahoans – or even among most legislators.

“We already have 785 state and local bridges in Idaho that are over 50 years old and considered structurally deficient. That number will grow to almost 900 bridges by 2019 even after completing work on the 68 for which we already have funding.”

And yet . . . it costs money. A lot of money.

Otter on that: “Chairmen Brackett and Palmer, legislative leaders, I am not going to stand here and tell you how to swallow this elephant. That would be contrary to all we have learned about each other and the people we serve in recent years. But we all know it must be done. I welcome financially responsible legislation that addresses steady, ongoing and sustainable transportation infrastructure in Idaho; however, I will NOT entertain proposals aimed at competing for General Fund tax dollars with education and our other required public programs or services.”

Sounds as if, on one hand, Otter is unwilling to trap himself into proposing a specific tax increase (which might fail), but on the other, telling legislators they have to do it, on whatever their own terms may be . . . so long as they’re not cutting other budgets to do it, which is another way of saying a tax increase will be needed. And Otter appeared to be saying he would veto any attempt to violate that proscription.

That would usually indicate a gas tax increase would be in the works. Given the wonderfully low price of gas right now, that may be the case. (The low price of gas also might help with gas tax revenues, since people may be buying more gallons than they were before.)

But the phrases “tax increase” and “Idaho legislature” haven’t gone together easily in recent years. Maybe recognizing that, Otter also proposed a few tax cuts – a sweetener for some legislators? – but at least one of those is likely to balloon over the next few years, slicing into state revenues.

What’s in development is an echo of those bitter road battles over the last dozen or so years. Don’t be too surprised if this shapes up as a longer, rather than a shorter, session.

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Idaho Idaho column