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Posts published in “Idaho column”

Ray Rigby


He came close to becoming governor of Idaho.

Ray Rigby was for a time a candidate for governor of Idaho, as a Democrat, in 1970. But only for a while; he didn’t file, and wasn’t on the ballot, and didn’t get very close to the office that year. But in the process he and the eventual nominee and governor, Cecil Andrus, became good friends, and four years later he was Andrus’ top choice for lieutenant governor.

In 1974 the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor had some value, both evident and as yet unseen. It was a good year for Idaho Democrats - one of the two best in the last half-century - and the nomination drew four serious candidates. Rigby had strong support but came in second, outdone by fellow state senator John Evans, who had pulled in most of the still-strong labor backing. But that four-way race was highly competitive.

And that was appropriate, because two years later Andrus was tapped for interior secretary, and Evans became governor. It could have been Rigby.

If there was some significance to that, Ray Rigby, who died last week at his lifetime home in Rexburg, never seemed to dwell on it. He had a busy life in his profession and his church as well as in politics. His political adventures back in the 60s and 70s, when he was one of the leading figures in the Idaho Legislature and a serious prospect for higher offices, hardly even figure now in many of the recollections of him.

The biographical article about Rigby in the Idaho Falls Post Register, for example, focused more on water.

And that’s not a mistake. Ray Rigby was a water lawyer and one of the leaders in shaping Idaho state water regulation - his son Jerry, has followed in those footsteps too - and he was one of the people who helped create Idaho’s water regime when it was in formative stages half a century ago, turning into something like what the state has now. Rigby was a practicing lawyer who represented clients, which included many of the larger water operations around eastern Idaho, and he had clear points of view about how things should be. But he was willing to compromise, willing to work with a wide range of people, and willing to experiment.

In the oral history book Through the Waters (disclosure: I published and helped edit it), which tracks the story and history of the Snake River Basin Adjudication, Rigby emerges as a major figure in setting up the state’s water structure after Swan Falls Dam court decision in 1982. (In comments after his death, two of the other major figures in that work, then-Attorney General Jim Jones and his resources division chief, Clive Strong, reaffirmed that.) He was the practical source of the idea of trust waters - a key concept in putting the Snake River water rights agreements in place - and also important because he was so widely trusted, across party lines and across a range of interest groups.

Idaho has one of the best water management systems in the country. The most important ingredient allowing that to happen has been trust, a willingness for people with varying interests to work in good faith with each other. Ray Rigby epitomized that, and he helped make that happen.

He could set a good example for policy makers and political people in Idaho today.

A phantom campaign


The United States north of Nevada and west of Colorado might as well not exist for presidential campaigns, in the general elections at least.

But an odd news story suggested that just maybe there’ll be a little possibility the region won’t be completely ignored this time around.

Or will it?

It’s not that the northwest region is without swing voters; in all, they’re here, in significant numbers. But presidential general elections are won in the electoral college, where states vote in clumps, and those are the same whether the candidate who won that state prevailed by 51 percent or 81 percent. And somewhere in that range, the electoral votes for Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, Utah, Oregon, California, Washington and Alaska (and we could throw Hawaii in here too) all seem to be more or less locked in as either red or blue. Around the country there still exist some “purple” states, but not in this region.

At least that’s been the prevailing wisdom.

That’s why some interest developed when on Tuesday CNN, which had developed a lengthy report on the Donald Trump re-election campaign, said it had “obtained a memo to the Trump campaign from pollster Tony Fabrizio about ideas for ‘expanding the map’ to give the President more options for getting the 270 electoral votes needed to win the re-election, where he mentions looking at Oregon.”

What does this mean?

To back up a moment here, “expanding the map” does make sense for the Trump campaign. It only barely prevailed in the key Great Lakes states - Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania - that went Democratic over many previous elections but gave Trump his 2016 win. Without them, and if nothing else changed, Trump would lose next year. And polling has shown the president not doing well in those places, where Democrats have done very well in mid-term and special elections in the last couple of years. Shorter version: It makes sound strategic sense for the Trump campaign to hold those states if it can, but also find other places to make up votes in other places (that went Democratic last time) if it can’t.

So it makes sense to be looking at “blue” states to flip. Some of the states voting for Hillary Clinton in 2016 did so by close margins too: New Hampshire (.4 percent was the Clinton margin there). Minnesota after that (1.5 percent) and then Nevada (2.4 percent) and Maine (2.7 percent). Very likely a lot of research is underway in those places by the Trump forces to figure out how to flip them, and the CNN reporting does indicate they’re doing that.

And in Oregon, too.

Oregon voted for Clinton by 11 percent - not close. It was softer for Clinton than California (29 percent margin) or Washington (16 percent), but it really wasn’t any more on the razor’s edge as a blue state than Idaho was in 2016 as a red. And in that 2016, while Republicans did well around the country, in Oregon Democrats gained ground, and they continued to in 2018.

So is this in the category of a head-fake? Maybe. Political campaigns often engage in some degree of misdirection to keep the opposition off balance.

But if not, western Idaho residents a year from now just might hear some rumblings from over the border, even if the electoral votes there really aren’t much more up for grabs than Idaho’s.

Toward an ongoing edit


I’ve edited books, but nothing quite like the editing project now underway at the Idaho Statehouse.

It’s such a large effort that the suggestion here is that it be made permanent and ongoing.

The subject of this review is Idaho’s state administrative rules, a great mass of material - more than 8,200 densely-packed pages - which has been built up over time. It’s a large code, smaller than the state statutes (that is, the state law) but bigger than any one person is ever going to want to read.

For the last few decades the Idaho Legislature has been making a practice of reviewing the rules each year, and any not getting the legislative sign-off then expire. Usually (only a small number), rules controversial or maybe flawed for some reason, are denied approval. This year, owing to an end-of-session dispute between the state Senate and House, the legislature failed to take any action.

In theory, that means all those rules and regulations - a huge amount of Idaho’s administrative law, prospectively - might go away. Before you start cheering that idea, remember that the rules do all sorts of things. They don’t only impose onerous restrictions on businesses, as the political trope goes; true, some do, but many simply define terms, outline how specifically agencies are supposed to comply with law, protect people’s safety, and much more. In effect, they make it possible for the state to do its work correctly. An instant vanishing of all those rules could mean - no exaggeration - mass chaos.

There was available a legal work-around, and Governor Brad Little took advantage of that, and then smartly went further, preparing some proverbial lemonade in the process.

The quick fix was to re-propose all those rules through his own action, for legislative re-review in 2020. That keeps the ship afloat.

The second action was to use the legal hiatus period as an opening for reviewing all the state rules, to see what could usefully be simplified or repealed. (Public comment on this is being accepted through June 11.) His office said that, after consulting with the state agencies, quite a few pages of rules could change with “the identification of 139 full chapters of rules proposed for expiration – totaling 19 percent of all rule chapters. An additional 79 chapters contain individual rule subparts proposed for expiration, and 31 chapters were rewritten to be significantly simplified. All told, more than 34 percent of all rule chapters are proposed for expiration or simplification.”

That’s not surprising, because administrative rules, like many other government actions, tend to accumulate, grow on top of each other gradually over time, as long as there’s no strong impetus to review or cut out any of the old stuff past its sell-by date (or maybe never worked out to begin with).

Somewhere in the governmental regulatory process there should be a standing procedure - and yes, another agency or board - whose job it is to review, section by section, the standing material and see whether it needs an edit, deletion, or maybe an update or clarification. There’s no comprehensive standing procedure for that, ordinarily. The effort this year through the governor’s office, a worthy start, is about as good it’s gotten.

So: A suggestion that the best way to keep regulation from growing mindlessly is to assign someone to the task, on an ongoing basis, of intelligently reviewing and editing it. This is not a job the legislature realistically could handle. But it’s one the legislature might logically think about funding next time around.

After that, they could get started on the state statutes.

Civic cautions


Boise has a mayoral race, featuring long-time mayor David Bieter and an experienced council member, Lauren McLean, and this may be the first seriously competitive mayoral race in Idaho’s largest city in a long time.

The timing is good because Boise has important decisions to talk about. And think about.

Some of them are obvious. The recent battles between the city and large groups of residents over the planned massive library and stadium projects suggests a disconnect that needs addressing, one way or another. Problems with affordable housing which seem to be getting worse rather than better are another.

But some of the changes are more subtle,and may take even more nerve to address. Here too, timing is good, because some of this emerged from a report last week from the Brookings Institution called “Growing Cities that Work for All.” Boise was one of four cities around the country profiled and analyzed in it as examples of what’s going right or wrongand what cautionary notes should be hit.

The report, in reviewing the city’s (and surrounding area’s) economic and social picture, said in many ways Boise is doing well but is “a city at a crossroads. Both Boise and Idaho will require bold action not only to maintain growth, but to grow in an inclusive way that benefits all citizens. The complexity metrics suggest an unsupported tradable sector and a dearth of industries that normally complement high-tech firms. The complexity of industry has decreased in recent years as high-tech companies struggle to find talent. Recent economic growth has primarily come from non-tradable service sectors rather than from growth-sustaining, export-driven sectors. Population growth resulted in part from retirees who drive housing prices, but who have less incentive to fund public goods such as education and workforce development.”

It sounds a little ominous. But what does it mean?

Part of it is that the technology sector that has been a central motor of Boise’s economic development has become “fragile”: “The synergies that drove Boise’s growth over the past 40 years are no longer sufficient for the region’s economy to compete globally. In downturns, economies are likely to shed the least competitive industries. Therefore, that Boise struggled more than other cities during the recession implies the city’s rapid growth since 2012 may be unsustainable.”

That’s because much of the more recent growth has come in the service sector, in places like health, government, and travel, and these did not spin off additional growth the way, say, a Micron or Hewlett-Packard or Simplot does. These sectors also tend not to pay as well, even though they sometimes have the effect of driving up prices (like housing). The Brookings projections suggest significant “disinvestment” from the Boise area among key local economic engines.

The report also warns that Idaho’s educational system hasn’t kept pace. By next year, it said, nearly two-thirds of all jobs will require more than a high school diploma, and Idaho’s college education rates are not keeping up with neighboring states. “The state needs to reduce the prevalence of poverty, ensure the inclusion of rural students, and invest in specialized programs outside the 4-year degree option,” it said.

To keep growing an economy that will work for the people who live in and around Idaho, Brookings said, “the city will need to foster firms that can employ Boise’s workers, provide benefits, and pay a living wage,” and focus hard on bringing in the new generators of new business, the way Micron and Simplot once did. That may mean bypassing giving special advantages to businesses that may add new jobs for a while but aren’t as helpful strategically in the long run. It means understanding which options are most useful rather than grabbing for everything.

It requires, in other words, some real sophistication on both the state and local level in carefully planning what kind of growth it has, not simply opening the gates and letting it happen.

Is this something Idaho leaders can embrace? This year’s election for city offices in Idaho, maybe most especially in Boise, would be a good place to ask the question.

High traffic, no bypass


Last June, the Lewiston City Council had two decisions to make, one easy and one hard.

The easy one had to do with one of those mostly invisible local government services no one notices unless something goes wrong: Wastewater treatment, which was becoming not exactly an immediate crisis but surely a pressing need. The city’s wastewater facilities were aging and needed replacement and upgrade, soon, and that work isn’t cheap. Tens of millions of dollars would be needed, in the neighborhood of $70 million. The council evidently had no difficulty seeing the need for the work or for raising money for it.

Leading to the second decision. Local governments have two basic ways of going after that money, which would have to be paid ultimately by taxpayers or ratepayers - mostly, that is, the same people, residents of the city. They could put the question, which would be in the form of request for approval of issuance of financial bonds, on the city election ballot. Or they could do something called a “judicial bypass” - a formal request that a district judge unilaterally approve the rate or tax increase, avoiding the vote, on grounds the situation was an emergency.

The council was deeply split. It tilted toward asking a judge to grant permission, which is what happens most often when a local government either doesn’t want to bother with trying to sell the issue to the public, or thinks the voters might turn it down, as they often do in the case of finance issues. Then the Lewiston officials got what might have come to some of them as a shock: two district judges rejected the request.

City Hall then changed course. It launched a large-scale public education campaign, working through social media, community groups, news media and elsewhere to pitch the need for wastewater upgrades.

Back to Lewiston in a moment; here’s some statewide context.

First, the biggest story from the local government finance elections last week came in Canyon County, which for years now has needed a new, or vastly expanded, jail. The county has grown enormously since the last jail facilities were built, and there’s no serious debate about the need. County officials (be it noted: there are not a lot of big government advocates in Canyon County elected office) three times put ballot issues before the voters asking for money for jail expansion; three times they were turned down. On Tuesday they tried again, and lost for the fourth time in a row. And not only did they lose: The vote was about two-thirds in opposition, while a two-thirds favorable was needed for passage. It was a definitive loss.

Around Idaho, a number of relatively routine school issues passed, but many of those for specific new projects failed. A library bond effort failed in Chubbuck, two significant ballot issues in fast-growing Kuna went down, as did a proposal for fire station development in expanding Twin Falls.

But a police station plan in Moscow passed.

And then there’s Lewiston, where the ballot result was really unusual:

Not only did the two wastewater bond issues pass, but they received about 90 percent of the vote. It was a stunning, overwhelmingly favorable vote.

That’s a result worthy of some further study. But one immediate statistic that could be a partial explanation was this: Voter turnout was 22.5 percent, which would be poor for a general or primary election but was actually very strong, uncommonly strong, for a special election like this one.

It was significantly stronger than most of the other bond and levy issue turnouts around the state.

Local governments might take a clue from that. Maybe they don’t need judicial approval as much as they think; what they really need is to spread the word about the needs when they happen, and then get enough voters out to the polls.

Other natural resources


As long as people have been here, the Northwest has been a place of great natural resources available for human use. Some of those resources are less obvious than others, but that doesn’t mean they’re less valuable.

The earliest travelers through the region, the Native Americans and eventually people from the east along the Oregon Trail, took clear note of many characteristics of the Idaho region - like the blazing sun, the blustering winds shooting across the desert plains, the roar of the rivers cut into deep canyons. For them, such things were more obstacle, annoyance or even hazard than they were anything else. They were conditions to march through and get behind them.

But the sun and the wind and the rivers all have turned out to be massive resources of immense value - commercial and financial value on top of everything else.

The rivers were recognized that way first, initially as sources for irrigation water, but not long after as generators of electric power. Questions of water use and power manufacturing - the context of the time - were subjects of discussion as long ago as at Idaho’s constitutional convention.

Now, more than a century later, the sun and the wind are beginning to be recognized for the powerful natural resources they are.

We see the vast wind farms whenever we travel around the state, especially around southern Idaho. When I lived in eastern Idaho I often felt the winds sharply and it was one of the characteristics of the place I might have changed if I could. Now, wind turbine farms, found in many scattered locations across the southern part of the state, are turning what once seemed to me an annoyance into juice and profits, and undergirding an important part of the economic development of the area. In the last few years I’ve made a practice of retracing some back routes - away from the interstates and busier roads - and I’ve been consistently struck by how extensive wind power development in the region has become. (Not just in Idaho, of course; I could say something similar about much of the northwest.)

Wind power is of course not the only major resource Idaho is newly able to tap.

The largest solar energy farm in the Northwest may be built soon in the relatively remote and barely populated desert. Recent news reports about a project by Alternative Power Development, which is based in Boise, point to a massive new solar development not far from the northern side of the Nevada border some miles from Jackpot. The land is owned by the J.R. Simplot company, and would be leased from it.

If the reported development follows through as planned about 120 megawatts of electricity would come online about three years from now. That one development, in other words, probably would supply enough juice for somewhere around 60,000 to 80,000 homes.

If the project works as planned, you can reasonably expect more like it to pop up across Idaho’s vast wide open spaces.

Idaho Power is slated to buy the Jackpot-area electricity, as it is more or less required to do under the law. But the law doesn’t have to twist Idaho Power’s arm; the utility has been moving steadily in recent years toward more use of renewable power (that would also include its use of Snake River hydropower), including solar and wind. Over time, that should keep some of the lower power rates in the nation low for even longer.

The blazing sun and the blustery wind are annoyances no more. They are becoming key components of Idaho’s natural resource mix.

Idaho’s art of the deal


The annual Idaho Deal Flow Report came out last week, and its statistics show some noteworthy trends, though you have to look beyond the toplines to find them.

The report comes by way of the Idaho Technology Council and participation of a number of private businesses (Alturas Capital and Holland and Hart among them), and “demonstrates the strong Idaho economy which is driving a demand for more talent and supports increased capital investment.”

Sounds like a positive and happy story, period. But the details are a little more of a mix.

It certainly shows a good deal of business activity. The report essentially monitors the number of substantial business transactions over the course of a year (in this case, 2018). There’s little by way of definition; the reports lists 163 “deals” for the year (loosely comparable to the annual totals over the last decade), but what constitutes a “deal” isn’t entirely clear.

The report also includes this reasonable disclaimer: “Readers should understand that the information
contained herein has been collected from several different sources and not all of the information contained in this publication has been independently verified, substantiated, or audited.” It did say it used an array of reports, some publicly available, and put more than 700 hours into its development.

The report does offer a number of category breakdowns, though, and that’s where some of the information gets interesting.

We do get an estimate of the dollar volume of the transactions: $1.73 billion last year, which is a significant amount but the second-smallest amount in the last decade; only 2016 was a little lower.

The deals were not spread evenly around the state. The Ada-Canyon County area accounted for close to two-thirds of the deals, and nearly all the rest were in the Panhandle, around Kootenai and Bonner counties. The average size of each deal was far larger as well in those two regions than elsewhere.

The report tracks number of public offerings, which truly can be considered a big deal. Over the years their number has fluctuated, peaking at a dozen each in 2010 and 2013; there were nine in 2012 and seven in 2011. Last year there was one, and three each in the two years prior.

There have been a number of mergers and acquisitions - 54 of those reported in 2018 - but while the numbers there have been stable, last year’s was the smallest in a decade, and the dollar amount involved was on the small side as well.

The report also totals “private placements,” which the Investopedia defines as “the sale of securities to a relatively small number of select investors. Investors targeted include wealthy accredited investors, large banks, mutual funds, insurance companies and pension funds.” That Idaho number was on the high side last year in number of transactions, but down to about average in dollar amount.

The picture you might take away from the breakdowns is a moderately slowing economy - not necessarily a bad thing, but lacking the indicators of a continuing boom. You also continue to get the sense of a highly regionalized and varied kind of economic growth, still very strong in Ada-Canyon and around Kootenai County, but relatively softer elsewhere.

All this does realistically reflect one of the hardest data points available, the tax revenue coming into the state of Idaho, which for this fiscal year has been running behind original estimates.

The deal seems to be: A somewhat slower economy ahead.

Plus or minus


As hot debates go, on (college) campus, this one at least seems more in tune with the place:

Plus and minus, or not?

At the University of Idaho, the faculty seem to like it, the students seem not to, and the president may have to weigh in.

There’s a bit to unpack here.

The debate is over what it sounds like: Should students be graded on their assignments with an A, B, C and so on, or an A+, A, A-, B+, B and so on? The standard has been full letters only, but many schools - many in higher education and many in K-12 schools as well - use the fuller system. (The fact that many others use the more varied system is one of the arguments for adopting it at UI.)

The university faculty voted at a meeting on Wednesday in favor of the expanded approach, to take effect in 2023. (We don’t want to rush into these things.) It’s not the first time they have suggested the change; a proposal to do much the same was tried in 2005 but killed by the university president.

The arguments pro and con may seem like a narrow (and for non-students, not especially important) subject. But the implications around it are worth thinking about.

Do you want precision, or is a more general view appropriate? Number grades - zero to 100 - are a sometimes-used approach too, and in some cases, such as a test with numerous objectively right-or-wrong answers, may be the right measure. But is an essay test properly rated an 86 or an 87? That can be harder. Deciding between an A or a B may be clearer and more easily understandable.

And - here’s where some of it hits the road - deciding between an A- and a B+ can be a subtle thing, not a lot different than navigating that 86 or 87; but the difference between the two reads to the student, and to anyone else encountering the score, is something quite distinctive. For a casual observer, it seems like the difference between really good (A-) and just okay (B+), even if it may not have been quite intended that way.

The student newspaper The Argonaut (disclosure: I wrote for it many years ago) quoted plant science professor Allan Caplan as being concerned about attempts at too precise grading: “I doubt I can slice the pie that fine as to distinguish C+ from B-, even though my courses are heavily fact-based.”

A counter view in that article came from ecology professor Penelope Morgan, who, “...said it will help her better communicate with her students about their performance. She said that for students who fall in the B and C ranges, the system could provide more incentive to improve. She said if students don’t think they can move from a B to an A, for example, a B+ may seem more achievable and that could motivate them to work harder and get more out of a class.”

This gets my attention now because we all have to assess and issue metaphorical grades when it comes to developments in our society and in our politics: Is your state legislator or member of Congress an A- or a D+, or do we have enough information to make a clear distinction?

Or is pass/fail good enough?

Testing under the influence


And the tests of Idaho’s elected officials go on. The next one might involve medical marijuana.

A measure proposed for Idaho ballot status in 2020, already in the early stages of its process, would set up a regulated but legal regime for medical marijuana and industrial hemp in the state. Many of the people who sought to restrict (or nearly eliminate) initiative ballot access seemingly - to judge from what a number of people around the Idaho Legislature said during the session - made that effort partly out of concern that voter approval of medical marijuana might be the next thing voters could adopt after getting no traction at the legislature.

After a session in which legislators were beaten up week after week for loudly telling voters what they couldn’t do and the choices they couldn’t make … they might be stuck with more of the same after the 2020 election. Maybe.

For now at least, the cannabis ballot issue is going forward. Answers to at least one and maybe both of the key immediate questions may be apparent by the time the legislature next meets:

Can the marijuana advocates climb the massive hurdles that the Medicaid expansion forces did, and manage to get their proposal on the ballot?

And, if they do, would the voters of Idaho pass it?

The answers to each question are highly uncertain in the spring of this year. But for now, positive answers to both questions do seem plausible.

Although the ballot restrictions the legislature proposed this year failed (remember, they may be back in the 2020 session), the difficulties already on the books for getting a citizen initiative on the ballot are large. A big, well-organized and reasonably well-funded grass roots effort would be needed to accomplish it. The Medicaid expansion forces had that, and by pushing exceptionally hard managed to reach their goal.

Whether the Idaho Cannabis Coalition and its allies will be able to put together as strong an effort is far from clear; a marijuana ballot issue failed to reach the ballot in 2018. But the Medicaid forces did set out a template: They showed issue advocates exactly what was needed and how such a campaign could succeed. With enough resources and energy, the ICC and others might be able to follow in its tracks.

If they do, could the measure pass? Idaho voters cannot be mistaken for those in Washington or Oregon or California, or most other legalization states, no doubt. But voters in places like Utah and other deep red states have approved medical marijuana. And there is this: The tough bar for getting on the ballot could help the advocates win an election, because of the immense amount of organizing and persuasion they would need to do to get in front of the voters at all. By the time voters saw the measure on the ballot, a lot more of them might be persuaded than would be the case if ballot access were a slam dunk.

Of course, we don’t yet know how capable the cannabis organizers will turn out to be (we can’t assess that until we see them in action), and we don’t know how persuadable Idaho voters may be.

But if it does pass, two more questions will quickly emerge.

One is whether the Idaho Legislature once again wants to put itself through a repudiation of the voters of the sort it did this year. (A good bet would be yes.)

The second test would go to Governor Brad Little, who last year said he would respect the will of the voters when they acted on Medicaid expansion. Last week, at his first Capital for a Day event, Little declared clearly his opposition to marijuana legalization. So, if the voters were to pass the planned initiative in 2020, what would Little do? Would he respect the will of the voters even when he happens to disagree with it?