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Posts published in “Idaho column”

More jobs, but more pay?

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Basic economic supply and demand theory suggests this: When supply of something (potatoes, say) is large, prices per item tend to fall, and when supply is low, demand for the scarcer goods will tend to drive up prices.

That economic theory ought to have the effect, in recent times, of driving wages high in Idaho.

Unemployment is low. A normal level of “full employment” where just about everyone who wants a job can get one, allowing for people in between jobs or who need to reduce their hours for some reason, is at about four percent “unemployment.” (I use the quotes because the word is something of a term of art.) Idaho’s unemployment, or jobless, rate, has crashed through the floor and is down in the cellar. For 14 consecutive months, it has been at or below three percent. Ostensibly this is a good thing. However...

I’m not sure we even understand exactly what that means. We know that Idaho’s work force has not been increasing much (the reasons for that might be interesting to explore further, since so many jobs are available in the state), and there’s some stress among a number of employers in finding enough employees.

Theoretically, that should put workers in a terrific bargaining position, much better than normal. Economic theory says pay should be going up considerably, and since Idaho is one of the leading states for low jobless rates, that ought to be happening a lot in the Gem State.

It isn’t. Here’s a summary from a new report by the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy: “While the average American has seen their inflation-adjusted wages increase by more than 21 percent over the last four decades, Idaho wages have gone up only 1.6 percent – representing a potential inflation-adjusted earnings difference of nearly $408,000 over the course of a career. In 1977 the difference between the average American wage and the average wage in Idaho was $4,950 annually and in 2017 the difference was $14,018 - an increase of 283 percent.”

Overall, Idaho does have a lower cost of living than many other states. But it’s unevenly distributed. If you live in a small town well away from any of the urban areas, your cost of, for example, housing may be relatively low. But the often high cost of living in Boise is not so different, in many ways, than the cost of living in many other metro areas around the country.

Why is the Idaho wage lower than those in most states? The ICFP report suggests this: “Idaho’s trailing wages are likely driven by the increasing difference between Idaho’s postsecondary degree attainment and the nation’s. In 1940, the share of Idahoans over 25 years old with a bachelor’s degree was 4.5 percent, compared to 4.6 percent nationally. Last year, the share of Idahoans over 25 with a bachelor’s degree was 26.8 percent, compared to 32 percent nationally.”

Idaho state government has for years had a goal of 60 percent of Idaho young adults (age 25 to 34) holding a college degree, but recent reports have pegged the actual number, for three years in a row, at 42 percent - unchanging.

This does sound like one reasonable suspect, though maybe explaining more the kind of jobs that grow in Idaho than their overall number or wage rate. Probably the reasons behind the slower wage rate increase in Idaho are numerous and complex.

But as Idaho’s next crop of elected officials prepare to take office, they probably should spend a little time considering them.
 

Prognosis Idaho

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The just-ended North Idaho Chamber of Commerce tour for legislators is a biennial tradition, but the word emanating from the first gathering of incoming lawmakers is about an unusual subject as a primary topic.

Taxes and budgets are a little more to the norm. This time something else got a lot of attention, not least in the incoming governor’s address: Health care.

It makes perfect sense, what with the passage of the Medicaid expansion - Proposition 2 - ballot measure only days ago.

Some legislators will be inclined, or even committed, to oppose it and try to kill it. They’ve had the numbers to do that in legislative sessions reaching back almost a decade; hence the arrival of the ballot issue.

But will they try to bury it again in 2019?

Legislators have reversed ballot issues before. They heavily modified at least (some would say gutted) the One Percent initiative of 1978. They outright reversed a term limits issue in the early 90s.

Still, before too eagerly taking the knives to Medicaid expansion, legislators may want to pause a bit. I’ll leave to others to discuss the impacts on the health of actual Idaho citizens, important as that is. Here, I’ll just toss out for consideration a few political facts.

Expansion did not pass by a little. It passed by a lot: 60.6 percent - a landslide.

And it was widespread. Because of the requirement (legislature-imposed) that ballot issues must demonstrate substantial support in legislative districts all over the state, there was in fact support for Prop 2 all over the state.

The top three counties in levels of support - Blaine, Teton and Latah - could be explained away by critics as places that do have significant Democratic bases. And that’s true. But Valley County, which to date is strongly Republican, supported it 67.3 percent. Twin Falls County backed it 58.2 percent, Bonneville 57.4 percent, Canyon 56.8 percent, Payette 56.6 percent. If Idaho has a localized beating heart of movement conservatism you could probably best place it at Kootenai County, and even there it passed, albeit narrowly, at 50.4 percent.

Of Idaho’s 44 counties, just nine opposed Prop 2, but none overwhelmingly: Its weakest county was Jefferson, and there it received about 41 percent support.

I skipped the most significant county. From a standpoint of raw politics, the most important was Ada County, where Prop 2 passed with 69.7% - and that’s county-wide, not the city of Boise, but Meridian, Kuna, Eagle and Star as well. All but four precincts out of more than 140 approved it.

Ada is important not just because it is the largest county, accounting for more than a third of the Idaho general election vote. And not just because it is growing rapidly, while most of the lower-support counties are growing slower.

It is also important because Ada County west of Boise is where Republican dominance is most critically being challenged, where in this year’s election breaches were found, on the Ada County Commission (two seats flipping to Democrats) and in legislative District 15 (two seats at least flipped there). Maybe the Democratic push goes no further. But know this: It can progress in 2020 if its candidates have good ammunition in hand, and legislative reversal of Prop 2 would be some of the strongest ammunition they could have.

The national evidence this year is that health care is a big issue; many of the newly-arriving Democrats to the U.S. House campaigned more heavily on that than on anything else. There’s no reason it can’t be potent in Idaho next time around as well.

Republican legislators might be able to round up the votes to reverse or gut Medicaid expansion at the Statehouse. But they would be well advised to consider all the consequences, political included, if they do.
 

Persistence

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Back during the campaign season of 2010, I sat down for coffee with a candidate who had no better than a very long shot of winning. And he didn’t win.

Steve Berch, who was a long-time manager at the Hewlett-Packard plant in west Boise, was running for an Idaho House seat in what was then District 14, in the Eagle/West Boise part of Ada County. He was doing so as a Democrat, in an area that was and is blood red Republican. Only once in the previous decade had any Republican candidate for any of its three seats failed to top 65 percent of the vote (and even that one exception candidate was easily elected). Berch had set himself an extraordinarily difficult task.

He mapped it all out with the microscopic attention to detail you’d expect of an experienced H-P planner, and backed that with exhaustive work, raising plenty of money and building an organization, but centered around his personal door-knocking and hand-shaking. In all it was an effort that must have matched or exceeded the campaign work of any other candidate in the state.

His reward was 32 percent of the vote. About the same as if he’d put his name on the ballot and then done nothing.

That experience would have been enough for most candidates. But then one day Berch called to tell me he was running again. He wasn’t able to run in the same district, because of the shifting lines of reapportionment: Now he lived and would run in the new district 15, and he outlined his plan for doubling down, doing even more, planning and executing even more intensively.

This time, running against a different Republican, he pulled 46.9 percent of the vote. More than respectable for a still-Republican district, but nonetheless a clear loss.

Undeterred, unbowed, Berch (who in 2013 did win a nonpartisan election to the Boise Auditorium District board) came back for 2014, running in the same district but for the other House seat, one held by Republican Lynn Luker. He once again organized his effort intensively, figuring this time he could do a little better.

He did, a little: 48.4 percent of the vote.

Still, after three losing races for the same office in the same area, nearly all candidates I know would have thrown in the towel. Not Berch. He buckled down and steeled himself in 2016 for a rematch with Luker. He did it all over again.

The result: 49.2 percent of the vote.

The fates, or God, or something, seemed almost to be toying with him. Four losing races, albeit that there was a little progress each time, but . . . would you have tried again? Would I? Probably not.

But there was Berch yet again this year, back on the ballot, facing Luker for a third time, campaigning at least as ferociously as he had four times before.

The result this week?

He won, with 54.5 percent of the vote, on his fifth try.

You could put Berch’s picture next to “persistence” in the dictionary and not be far wrong. But in winning this year, in a hitherto impregnable Republican area, he did more. Not coincidentally, the other Democratic House candidate in the district, Jake Ellis, also won (by a smaller margin), and the candidate for Senate came so close to winning (by six votes) that his election results will go to a recount. Now, this suburban Boise district, a key to Democratic hopes for expanding their voter base, may be flipping.

That kind of change doesn’t happen in a day, or with a single race. It doesn’t always take five straight elections, each one run at full speed, to break through. But sometimes it does take persistence.
 

And in Idaho . . .

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A few preliminary thoughts about the highly nationalized election in Idaho, which was evidently less nationalized in Idaho than in many other places.

Generally, you can divide the Idaho results into big picture and granular, and the picture looks a bit different from those differing perspectives.

Big picture, not a lot changed. For major offices, Republicans won across the board as they normally have. For governor, Republican Brad Little stopped just short of 60%, which is in the ballpark of his predecessor's recent results.

The race where Democrats had the best shot, for superintendent of public instruction, fell just about where their experience from four years ago, against the same Republican opponent, would suggest - close but still short of the majority they need. In 2014 what became apparent was that a Republican firewall of just about, or just over, 50% of the vote had been put in place, and on a statewide level that seems to be pretty much still in place.

The state legislature's partisan numbers will not change greatly. There were not many flips in legislative seats. The next Idaho Legislature will look and act a lot like the last one.

That's the big partisan picture. Shift the lens a little, and you also see some other things.

The biggest was the passage of Proposition 2, Medicaid expansion, and not barely but by a landslide. The same voters overwhelmingly supported Medicaid expansion and a whole lot legislators who do not. There's a significant dissonance here, and I'll return to that soon.

The other important development - and it will merit a separate column too - concerns legislative District 15, in western Ada County.

I've argued for years that the path, if there is one, to expanding Democratic party opportunities in Idaho, is in the Ada County and Canyon County suburbs. Nationally, shifts in those suburbs are what allowed Democrats to take over the U.S. House. In Idaho, ground zero for that development is District 15, adjacent to the Boise legislative districts that have become solidly Democratic. Up to now, District 15 has seen a series of increasingly close legislative races, but Republicans have held on, election after election.

Until now. On Tuesday, the two House seats in 15 flipped from Republican to Democratic, and the Senate seat is hanging by a margin of six votes. (A recount probably is in the cards there.) For the first time since Idaho's current political environment started to lock in around 1992, the suburban wall has been breached.

Whether that will be pushed back or expanded upon is for future elections to say. But an important transition occurred there.

The 2018 election was not politically important for big, immediate, sweeping changes in the state's politics. But it may have laid some groundwork.

More on these point to come ...
 

The Tuesday watch

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Election day this coming week is a big national event, truly one of the most significant of our time. (That’s often said, but unusually true on this occasion.)

Idaho specifically has some items on its ballot worth a close watch. Here are some I’ll be watching closely on Tuesday night, and probably writing about in the next few weeks.

Top of the line is Proposition 2, the Medicaid expansion ballot initiative. It will have national implications, and may rock Idaho specifically - and not only for the 70,000 or so people whose insurance would be most directly affected. It will be a signal for how Idaho might handle health care in other ways and for other populations. Its implications even could reach beyond health care, and into other areas of politics.

The vote on this Prop 2 is so potentially significant it could overshadow everything else, though the race to fill an open governor’s seat is, of course, no small potatoes. On that ballot line, I’ll be watching most closely how this current contest compares to the last two for the office, four and eight years ago.

Several statewide office races have become significantly active, but the other one drawing the most interest and where the outcome is least clear is for superintendent of public instruction. That is the one statewide office that has been persistently (not always) competitive between the two parties; was the last one held by a Democrat and one a Democrat came very close to winning in the very Republican year of 2014.

The Republican winner then, Sherri Ybarra, now is up against an unusually strong Democratic candidate Cindy Wilson, who has educational background and ties in all corners of the state, and some endorsements from sources unusual for a Democrat. I’ve heard regular comments to the effect that if just one major-office Democratic candidate wins this year, she’s probably that candidate.

This one deserves a close watch on Tuesday night.

Then there are a handful of heated legislative races.

There are two I’ll be checking with top interest: Senate District 5, and House A in District 15.

District 5 is centered in Latah and Benewah counties, and is closely competitive between the parties; its mostly Democratic area at Moscow is countered by most of the rural precincts around it. The district in this area often has supported centrist Republicans and Democrats alike, but now has as senator the hard-edged Dan Foreman, who has “for example” referred to Moscow as a “cesspool.” His opponent, David Nelson, is thought to have an edge. But the district’s dynamics mean this race may be close.

The District 15 House race is a case of perseverance: Democrat Steve Berch has been running for this seat, or a nearby one, for several cycles, losing the last several times to Republican Lynn Luker. In 2012 and 2014 he came within about two points of beating Luker, and in 2016 within about one point. More than a few people think 2018 may be the year he crosses the line, which could have big effects: If Democrats are ever to become a competitive party in Idaho, the Boise suburbs - and District 15 specifically - is where that would almost have to begin.

Beyond those, kept watch on legislative races in Lewiston (District 6), Twin Falls (District 24) and Pocatello (District 29).

Of course, it’ll never hurt to scan up and down the list. There are always surprises.
 

Medicaid adjustment

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Last week I had coffee with an Idaho Democrat who ran for the legislature eight years ago. He recalled that back then, soon after passage of the Affordable Care Act - Obamacare - he was warned by his party’s advisors not to raise the subject when out campaigning.

And that was good campaign advice, he said, finding that attitudes on the new law in many places were so harshly negative that he wouldn’t get a hearing.

Skip forward to 2018 and what is in many ways the top item - the one that will surely receive most national attention whatever the result - on the Idaho ballot: Proposition 2, the initiative to expand Medicaid.

There are no election results out yet. But this measure, which would bring in Idaho a key element of Obamacare which has been stoutly and steadily blocked by the state’s majority-elected officials for eight years, looks poised for passage.

Given Idaho’s history with the ACA, and that of the officials its voters have routinely re-elected over these years, the fact that the initiative even reached the ballot is remarkable. Idaho’s insurance marketplace (which has worked effectively) came into place only after a lot of angst. Skeptics had to wonder, when the activists started their extensive qualification efforts, whether they even would come close to a vote, not just because Idaho’s ballot-access rules have been ratcheted so tight but also because the state just seemed so reflexively anti-ACA.

But ballot status was gained, with a lot of effort but also as advocates found a lot of local support. Polling has shown strong support for the measure. Endorsements have come from some startling places. (Most interesting to me still is the sheriffs’ association, but notable backing has continued to emerge even last week.) The pro side financially has vastly outraised and outspent the opposition. People who a few years ago would have taken care to avoid the whole subject now sound confident it will pass, and pass easily.

In theory, this measure could have been proposed for the ballot in 2010 or 2012, but it wasn’t, and probably few people then would have expected it either could reach the ballot or pass if it did.

What changed?

There’s a significant question, because something evidently has. If voters do decisively reject Proposition 2 next month, that maybe a sign that not much is new. But if voters in Idaho (and possibly Nebraska and Utah as well, both similarly red states) approve it, then time has come for some serious thinking.

Maybe part of it was watching the Idaho insurance marketplace come into being and discovering that the health care world hadn’t collapsed, and did improve for a lot of people. Taken as individual pieces, the provisions of the Affordable Care Act, such as helping people with pre-existing conditions, mostly have been highly popular across most of the country. (The main consistent exception was the insurance purchase mandate.)

Another aspect may be the experience of other states where the reaction to Medicaid expansion has been positive. Except for Wyoming, every state surrounding both Idaho and Utah (nearly all of the western states) have approved the expansion, and none are reporting any big problems.

The costs of not expanding Medicaid have become ever clearer too. The support Idaho sheriffs have delivered for the proposal should be a powerful message, and in many smaller counties it may be. So may the message that expanding Medicaid could be just the financial tonic needed to keep many small rural hospitals, many of them struggling, afloat.

The results in another week or so will tell a lot. But Idahoans do seem to be looking at health care differently than they did only a few years ago, and that may carry a load of meaning in years to come.
 

Dodgeball

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A viewer of the Monday night Idaho governor debate, between Republican Brad Little and Democrat Paulette Jordan, could be forgiven for sensing a discussion slipping away. Rather than coming to grips with topics of discussion, these candidates seemed to have trouble - or maybe avoided - obtaining purchase on a number of them.

Both candidates sounded uncomfortable at first, picking up more control as the hour wore on. The seeming uneasiness was a little odd since, by now, both have had months (in Little’s case, a year and a half) to polish their messages. There were no questions from out of left field; the subjects raised mostly were more or less predictable.

And yet both candidates seemed to have trouble grasping them. If they were trying to avoid sounding like purveyors of sound bites, they succeeded; but a lack of clarity and some evident dodginess was there instead.

Jordan’s campaign has generated a stack of the kind of headlines no candidate should want, from staff departures under mysterious circumstances to - this surfaced last week - spending for campaign services with a brand new company (Roughneck Steering Inc.) organized in Wyoming which appeared designed to hide information about itself from Idahoans. This isn’t just a gotcha situation; how a candidate runs a campaign realistically can be seen as a precursor to the methods used to run an administration.

Understandably, Jordan was asked about some of this, most specifically about the Wyoming company. Her response suggests she was not prepared for it. She didn’t answer the question, at all, even after a reporter clearly stated it three times. She did say repeatedly she favors transparency in government, but that didn’t come across well after her opaque answers about her campaign. (Little didn’t have a great deal to say in this area, reasonably since his campaign has had no comparable problems.)

She also tripped on the question of who she would choose to populate her administration, and how they would be chosen, and seemed (it sounded like an afterthought) to promote the idea of bringing in people from out of state to run Idaho agencies. That might not go over well.

She was able to score on Little, however, when the discussion turned to immigration and health care, two subjects where she answered clearly but he had his own difficulties. Little pointed out correctly that border issues are mainly a federal rather than state responsibility, and said reform of immigration policy is needed. But he became tangled, and shifted to avoidance, when asked about what policies he personally recommended and what he thought of the Trump Administration’s approach. He’s in a tough spot, in a state where the Trump policies on immigration are popular through much of his party but not in the many areas (including farm areas) where they create problems. Sill: Leadership grows out of the ability to make such choices.

Something similar happened when the subject was the ballot issue on Medicaid expansion, which Jordan clearly supports. Little has said (previously as well as here) that he would support the will of the people and implement the expansion if the voters pass it. But what does he recommend the voters do - pass it or oppose it? Little simply dodged.

Clarity did show up in some places. Little’s view of Idaho’s economic, education and social status is brighter - it should be, since he’s in a de facto incumbent position - than Jordan’s, and voters can make their own assessments accordingly.

Debates sometimes can be a place where a skillful candidate can take aim at his or her own weaknesses by addressing them strongly. Voter who watched this debate know this much: It didn’t happen here.
 

To write them in

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Until this month,when she was briefly a national figure for her party-line-breaking vote on a Supreme Court nomination, Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski merited political attention for an entirely different kind of reason.

She is one of the few people in recent generations at least to win high office in this country through a write-in campaign. She did that in 2010, as a first-term senator who lost her party’s primary but came back to win the general election as a write-in. (In 2016 the Republican Party did renominate her for a third term, which she won.)

That was so remarkable because it’s hardly ever accomplished, for high office or lower. (Strom Thurmond in 1954 was the only other occasion of such a win for a Senate seat.) Ordinarily, when you hear about contenders trying to win through write-in, without the advantage of a visible spot on the ballot, you’re best off to, let’s say, minimize their chances.

Many non-incumbent candidates will tell you how hard it can be to become reasonably well known around the electorate even with a ballot spot to help out. Invisibility there makes it a lot harder.

Still, that’s not to say they have no chance at all. And at least one legislative contest in Idaho might put that to the test.

In all, six candidates have filed in Idaho to run as write-ins. Two are for major offices: Michael Rath of Saint Maries for the first district U.S. representative and Lisa Marie of Boise for governor. There’s a state House candidate in District 23 (a district based in Elmore County), Tony Ullrich from Hammett.

Two of the write-ins are better known, and in fact were on the ballot only a few months ago. Peter Rickards of Twin Falls ran this year for the Democratic nomination for the second district U.S. House seat; now he’s running for state Senate against an otherwise unopposed Republican incumbent. Rickards’ odds are not good, but his experience of many years as a candidate may add some interest to the race.

The most interesting situation is in District 32, in the rural southeast corner of the state. In May long-time Representative Tom Loertscher, a Republican, lost his party’s nomination in an upset to Chad Christensen of Idaho Falls. Loertscher has been a mainstay of legislative politics in that area since his first election to the House in 1986 (and he was a Bonneville County commissioner before that). Now he’s trying to do exactly what Lisa Murkowski did in 2010, return as a write-in by defeating his own party’s nominee.

In some ways Loertscher fits the profile of the kind of candidate who might be able to pull it off. He’s deeply experienced and connected in the area, is familiar to a lot of people there and for that reason he might be more advantaged running in a general election than in a primary.

Running as a write-in is nonetheless tough, and Loertscher has an added burden in this case: A sixth write-in contender also has filed in that same district. That candidate, Ralph Mossman of Driggs, seems to be drawing more support from the Democratic side (his web site lists support from the Idaho Education Association and former Democratic Representative Richard Stallings, for example). But he, like Loertscher, is listed as an independent write-in, so the fallout is far from clear.

Hard campaigning work will be central here. The numbers generated on election day should be fascinating.

A personal disclosure is needed here. My wife is running for city council in our small town, one of three candidates for three open seats. There’s no declared opposition, not even on the write-in level, as yet. That means her odds of winning next month are pretty good.

But she’s campaigning anyway. After all, you can never take those write-ins for granted ...
 

Searching for the argument against

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When it comes to ballot issues, the voter calculus ought to involve these questions:

What, at core, is the argument supporting?

And what, at core, is the argument against?

Maybe there’s a third as well: Are any of the core arguments something that would be better decided by the courts than by the voters?

In the case of Proposition 1 (you can find it at https://sos.idaho.gov/elect/inits/2018/init04.html), the historical horse racing initiative, the sides seem to be asymmetrical. I’m having a hard time locating the compelling argument against.

First, a political note: In a time when practically everything seems to have split along party lines, this one has not. Prominent Republicans and Democrats can be found on both sides.

Prop 1 would allow the return of historical horse racing (or “instant racing”) terminals at places where live horse racing takes place. They were legalized in Idaho in 2013, but the Idaho Legislature banned them again in 2015 after being persuaded they were too much like slot machines. The central benefits to the state noted are an increase in jobs at horse tracks - the Les Bois in Ada County shut down after the 2015 ban - and some additional revenue (probably a modest amount) going to the state school fund. The benefits are small in scale, but they are definable.

So that’s the pro side. And the argument against?

The anti group Idaho United Against Prop 1 (their site is at http://idunitedagainstprop1.com/) said that “Proposition 1 is all about gambling machines, not horses. The text of Prop 1 will allow historical horse racing machines to be permitted anywhere that live racing or simulcast horse racing occurs – but machines are permitted to remain on 24/7 even if no racing is taking place. Casino-style gambling could be expanded to every corner of Idaho unless voters say NO this November.” That (along with the point that revenue to schools would not be large) is evidently the core of the argument.

The Idaho Racing Commission lists active horse racing locations in Pocatello, Idaho Falls, Rupert, Jerome, Malad, Burley and Blackfoot. But in 2018, the commission said, none operated more than six race days during the year. The initiative wouldn’t allow the instant machines in any place that didn’t run races at least eight days a year. Presumably, that would entail a revival of the Les Bois operation, or something similar. But it doesn’t sound like a prescription for an Idaho overrun with gambling machines.

A second argument is that these historical racing machines are a lot like slot machines, and that’s a question I have raised in this space in the past. But if true (and it’s at least debatable) that seems more like a question for the courts (where this doubtless will go if the initiative passes) than it does for the voters.

The other criticism is about how the finances are structured and how much schools actually would receive. There’s no real debate, though, that the schools and the state would receive something, more at least than they do now. And if the amount funneled off to the state does strike people as too small, the legislature could adjust it.

So what’s left is a modest but real argument in favor, and a vaporous argument in opposition.

Unless someone has something more concrete to offer ...