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Posts published in “Idaho column”

The setup

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The setup to Idaho politics 2014, on the congressional level, hardly could be clearer after the October 16 round of votes ending (for now) the federal government shutdown and the threat of federal debt default, not just because the congressional votes but because of the markers it set.

Both of Idaho's senators were in the small group of about one-fifth of the Senate who voted against the measure who opposed the bill taking that step, but in their chamber they were part of too small a group to much affect the outcome. Most Senate Republicans voted in favor.

The House was different. There, the crisis-over bill passed with only a minority of Republicans plus all the Democrats; most House Republicans voted against. And unlike the Republicans in the delegations of Washington (all voting in favor) or Oregon (voting against), Idaho's two House members split their votes. Raul Labrador of the first district voted against, and Mike Simpson of the second in favor.

This sets up and expands the gap between the two (Labrador has declined to back Simpson in his primary contest), and could point up contrasting types of races.

Simpson's press release immediately after the vote got right into that, acknowledging explicitly (this is actually unusual) the politics of the vote. The second paragraph said, “While acknowledging his vote in favor of the bill might be unpopular with some of his constituents, Simpson said the potential economic consequences of continued stalemate outweighed any political consideration.”

In the next paragraph: “The easiest, most politically expedient thing for me to do would have been to vote NO and protect my political right flank,” said Simpson. “Doing so, however, would have been the wrong thing to do for my constituents and our economy. My vote today was about the thousands of people facing layoffs at INL, the multitude of businesses across Idaho that have told me their livelihoods are at stake, and the millions of folks across the country who can’t afford the devastating impacts of default on their investments and retirements. There has to be a way to address our nation’s fiscal problems without making them worse in the process.”

There's his campaign argument for next year.

It's gutsier than it first seems, because here's what Simpson is implicitly saying about the other three members of the Idaho delegation: That they did the wrong thing for their constituents, that they cast aside the people whose lives and livelihoods were at stake, that they would make the nation's future worse by their actions. It's quite a critique, but implicit in any self-defense Simpson would offer. (more…)

Simpson’s moment

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Here soon: The likelihood of a career-defining moment of truth for Representative Mike Simpson. What he does, or doesn't do, in coming days on the federal shutdown and prospective default will be the key to reading his many years of service in public office.

This goes singularly to Simpson because of the shutdown dynamics. If the periodic and regular votes, for the “continuing resolution” (on the budget) and the debt ceiling increase had been done in the usual fashion of obscure housekeeping, they would have been “clean” - with no special conditions for passage attached – and supported by both parties. The president and the Senate (with a supermajority including significant members of both parties) support that. The Republican majority in the House has determined to add conditions before approving either measure. The shutdown results of no agreement on the “CR” are significant and growing; failure to raise the debt ceiling, in which the United States would welsh on debts it already has incurred, would be damaging and could be catastrophic.

Idaho's senators, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, have opposed the measures, but in the Senate they are part of too small a group to impose their will; bluntly, their opposition hasn't mattered. And you could say that Representative Raul Labrador's opposition has been baked in, as an early-on Tea Party-backed House member.

Simpson is a more subtle story. Last week the Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call quoted Simpson: “I’d vote for a clean CR, because I don’t think this is a strategy that works. I think the strategy that works is on the debt ceiling.” That led to Simpson's placement on a list of House Republicans who would vote for such a “clean” CR if it got to the House floor – and maybe to those who would vote for forcibly pulling it to the floor, which could be done if 17 Republicans plus all House Democrats voted in favor.

Simpson quickly replied that he had no such plans: “I am going to continue to support the position of our Republican Caucus in the ongoing shutdown dispute. Having said that, similar to Senator Rand Paul, I could support a very short-term clean CR, perhaps one or two weeks, while we continue to negotiate on a longer-term bill that addresses priorities we believe are important.” (more…)

Shutdown days

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If we're fortunate, the federal government shutdown will be over before you read this. Meanwhile, let's put an Idaho lens on what the shutdown translates to.

You may get the impression via some reports that the shutdown closes a few campgrounds and admission to some monuments, and some paper-shuffling bureaucrats may be sent home. Passports will be harder to get. Not so bad: And at first, it isn't. But as the closure persists, effects accumulate.

In Idaho, Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter pointed out that in impact, "Gowen Field, Mountain Home, and probably the Idaho National Lab would be the biggest and the civilians that may be assigned to those." Yes, together with Idaho's massive national forests and Bureau of Land Management property.

But the nearly 12,000 Idahoans who work for the federal government (Idaho politicians tend to forget many constituents are also those hated feds) pull down around $800 million in a year in pay – a big driver in Idaho's economy. A Boise State Public Radio news report quoted a state researcher as estimating those jobs have an economic multiplier of 4.74. For every federal job eliminated in Idaho, five non-federal jobs could be lost. Remember too, many “essential” federal workers on the job are working without pay.

While the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Defense (at Mountain Home Air Force Base) and the Department of Energy (Idaho National Laboratory) are the biggest federal employers, many other agencies do work in the state. Bear in in mind that even the less popular are there for a reason. The Environmental Protection Agency in Idaho just from April to June this year stopped a half-dozen businesses dumping waste into waterways, pumping filth into the air, violating pesticide rules and more – threatening the health of Idahoans. That protection largely goes away with the shutdown. Along the same lines are massive cuts in the Department of Health and Human Services, which tracks toxic substances and remedies for them, disease information, Indian health services, substance abuse, services for Medicare and Medicaid – services to protect the health of actual people.

But the shutdown affects more than just federal agencies. When you see reports about Idaho's state budget, most attention is on the “general fund,” about $2.7 billion fed by state taxes and fees. Did you know that nearly as much – another $2.4 billion this fiscal year – is “federal funds”? (more…)

The less visible and more honorable road

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UPDATE: This column was written before news broke earlier today that former Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa died at Boise. Condolences to his family and many friends, and to Idaho too: Public servants of this caliber aren't so easy to find these days, but at his passing his long-time chief deputy and successor, Ben Ysursa, was - as this column strives to point out - upholding the tradition.

In 1976, a deputy to the Idaho Secretary of State resigned after becoming the target of charges that he had improperly been selling copies of the Idaho state code. To the best of my memory, that's the last time – 37 years ago – the Idaho Secretary of State's office has been the center of a serious controversy.

Considering that this is the office overseeing, among other things, elections across the state, that's a remarkable record of cleanliness.
My most regular interaction with the office is on its website, which offers access to loads of records. I can tell you that in most cases those records are more extensive, useful and easier to access than on the web sites of the counterpart offices in high-tech Washington and Oregon.

Absence of malfeasance and quality on-line records may be tangential in evaluating the office and its longtime chief, Ben Ysursa. But they indicate work properly and consistently well done, in an office where the consequences of shoddiness can be a little frightening. Idaho has a long history of clean elections, and capable state oversight has surely been a contributor to that. The office also manages a lot of other records, such as business filings and many other documents, and a good deal of commerce could be thrown into chaos if the unglamorous work of the office were steered into a ditch. It also oversees lobbyist filings and records.

The secretary of state's office, then, is one of those places you seldom see in the headlines when things are going well, only when they go badly. Take it as a compliment, then, that the office has been largely invisible for decades, the quiet broken most notably on those occasions when Ysursa and his crew went after someone, without any evident favor for any side, for failing to stick to the law.
This comes up became the 2014 race for the office has taken a turn, and Idahoans would be well-served in paying attention. (more…)

The swap(s)

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Last year the Idaho Department of Lands swapped out the University of Idaho Science Campus at McCall, which it managed as part of the state endowment lands used to generate money for public schools. It obtained in exchange an office building and about three associated acres in Idaho Falls, owned by the private firm IW4 LLC; the Idaho National Laboratory lead contractor leases space there.

Were this being done exclusively by private businesses, no one outside the parties involved would know or care; and probably not much either if only government entities were involved. The business deal gets more complicated when public and private entities both are involved, and this one shows why someone outside the process ought to oversee such exchanges.

The McCall property was estimated to be worth $6.1 million, and maybe it was since, after the Idaho Falls firm IW4 LLC obtained it, it flipped the property to another buyer for $6.1 million. However: The buyer was the University of Idaho, a state agency. So you could say the state sold the property to a private buyer for $6.1 million, which paid in the form of another piece of property, and then bought it back for $6.1 million. Or: IW4 LLC used the state to convert its Idaho Falls property into $6.1 million, rather than just sell it to a cash buyer themselves.

Huh? This still might make some sense if the Idaho Falls building and land was in fact worth, and salable for, $6.1 million. But here's the catch.

Last week a group called the Tax Accountability Committee, whose spokesman is Boise attorney John Runft, together with state representatives Grant Burgoyne, D-Boise, and John Vander Woude, R-Nampa, threw some additional light on the situation. They had developed their own appraisal and concluded the Idaho Falls property was worth $4.5 million, which would mean IW4 LLC effectively cleared an easy $1.6 million on the overall deal. (Boise blogger David Frazier, who has been tracking state property purchases closely, said that Bonneville County has assessed the property for as little as $2.2 million.) Vander Woude and Burgoyne said they plan to introduce legislation in the next session to require review appraisals.

The question of what the Idaho Falls property actually was worth has led to a round robin of squabbling. The Idaho Department of Lands has replied that is did a proper review, and pointed out that while both properties generate rental income, McCall's amounts to about $250,000 annually while Idaho Falls' comes to $538,000 (although, since these are income properties, such rentals should have been factored into the appraisal valuations). Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter, who chairs the land board which approves such transactions, said that full appraisals could be expensive.

Burgoyne countered that, “When doing a $6.1 million transaction or any other transaction involving endowment land, the cost of a review appraisal is not, as IDL contends, excessive; it is simply prudent, will save money by avoiding over and under valuations, and bring IDL into conformity with business standards of care.” (more…)

In the cities

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With candidate filing for Idaho cities now done, it's time to take a look at which races might carry some useful lessons come November.

The largest Idaho city with a mayoral contest, Nampa, shouldn't be much of a firefight; Tom Dale, mayor for three terms, seems likely to move into his fourth (over three opponents). But one is a city council member, there's a dispute over taxes, and this could turn into a fight over tax levels. If Dale runs into trouble, that may be why.

The next largest city, Pocatello, could be more interesting, though probably not. The 2009 mayoral came up with a surprise when veteran Mayor and former legislator Roger Chase lost to a little-known challenger, Brian Blad. Blad has not exactly been a major force in the Gate City, but he hasn't stirred great controversy either. Chase has filed for a re-match, which could mean a hot contest for November. But Chase is said to have not to be getting a lot of traction. And there's this: Incumbents on the ballot usually are helped by multiple opposing candidates – in the Pocatello mayoral, there are three. So it wouldn't be a shock to see Blad get 50 percent of the vote, and avoid a runoff. If Chase does force him into a runoff, no bets will be accepted.

Idaho Falls and Coeur d'Alene are the largest cities with open mayoral seats – incumbents in each not seeking re-election – but they're likely to be very different situations.

Idaho Falls city politics traditionally is low-key, involving long-time city hall people. The first election of current mayor Jared Fuhriman in 2005 was a surprise because he was relatively little-known and his opponent was a veteran and well-known county commissioner. Four candidates are running this time, one (Sharon Parry) a council member. Will an outsider prevail again?

If Idaho Falls is likely to be quiet and civil, Coeur d'Alene may rock and roll. Mayor Sandi Bloem is wrapping up her third term, the longest-serving mayor in Coeur d'Alene history – an indicator of the rapid rotation in the Lake City (a contrast from, say, Idaho Falls). She has played an outsized role in the city over the last decade, so the contest to replace her may be outsized. (more…)

Polite power

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On the one occasion when Louise Shadduck ran for office, this being for the U.S. House in 1956, she lost, and later dismissed the experience as “a fit of temporary madness.”

On that this insightful and politically skilled woman was wrong.

Elective office – and running for it – would have suited her well had she tried again, and she likely would have handled it expertly.
Read the new book Lioness of Idaho: Louise Shadduck and the Power of Polite, by Mike Bullard (who for some years was her pastor at Coeur d'Alene) and you get both a sense of what politics ought to be, and what kind of attributes you should look for as you consider who ought to be elected to represent you in office.

Louise Shadduck had a whole lot of those qualities.

The Bullard book, you should know, isn't a hard-edged inquiry or tough investigation; it was written more in appreciation. But the appreciation is understandable. Louise Shadduck was one of the most productive people in Idaho public affairs, notably around the 1950s and 60s, heading up the state's economic development efforts during a a critical period and becoming involved in a wide range of governmental activities. She was a solidly loyal lifelong Republican (though she grew up in the Coeur d'Alene area back when it was strongly Democratic), and worked on Republican campaigns for decades, apart from her own run for office.

That one campaign didn't sit well with her, and when she said “never again,” she meant it. The irony was that she had all the qualities you'd want in a candidate. She was one of the best networkers in the state, long before the term was invented. She took the time to understand the state and its people and their needs and concerns; she understood the “issues” quite well. She favored cooperation and working toward solutions that would be broadly acceptable; building coalitions was a big part of what she did. She listened to people, and she didn't pigeonhole them; for her, Democrats were people on the other side of elections, and with whom she might agree less than with her fellow Republicans, but people nonetheless who she easily worked with. The Bullard book's subtitle, “The Power of Polite,” is totally apt in her case. (more…)

An opening door

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Since Washington and Colorado voters last year chose to create a legal marketplace for marijuana, and other nearby states like Idaho watched closely – or, like Oregon, positioned themselves to follow suit – the big question has been: What will the federal government do?

Marijuana is still banned under federal law, and nothing in the law stops federal officials and agents from swooping into Washington and Colorado (and any followup states) allowing for legal consumption, and imprisoning, at least in theory, a whole lot of people for doing something their states have okayed.

There's also this, however: Law enforcement officials, and prosecutors, always have made choices about which laws to enforce, and how. There are far too many laws on the books, too many infractions, misdemeanors, and even felonies to even consider trying to enforce them all with equal force. (I once asked a veteran Idaho legislative staffer how many felony offenses are on the books in Idaho, and he had no idea.) Talk privately to a cop or a prosecutor, and they'll probably acknowledge a kind of triage: usually, they enforce strenuously laws aimed at protecting people from some kind of specific harm. Murder and other violent crime, for example, are very high priority, which seems to make sense.

When Attorney General Eric Holder on Thursday issued his department's policy on marijuana in the age of state legalization, he seemed to bear that concept in mind. As an operating principle, he said, the department would let Washington and Colorado (and other states) do their thing on “marijuana-related conduct” – but he also provided a collection of eight red flags that might draw in federal responses.

Those “enforcement priorities”, listed in a “memorandum for all United States attorneys”, include keeping pot from being distributed to minors; keeping money from marijuana sales out of the hands of criminal elements; keeping pot from seeping out of smoking states to non-smoking states; keeping legal market activity from being used as a cover for illegal activity; preventing violence or use of firearms in cultivation and distribution; preventing drugged driving; avoiding grows on public lands; and barring marijuana use on federal lands.

In deciding whether the feds should jump in, the memo said, “The primary question in all cases – and in all jurisdictions – should be whether the conduct at issue implicates one or more of the enforcement priorities listed above.”

The point might be made, though it wasn't explicitly by the department, that all these things already have been happening under prohibition, and that a legal market regime might be best judged not by absolute compliance but by improvement.

Still, while the new federal rule is a long way from an open free-for-all – a totally free marketplace? - it has set down for the first time a set of rules under which states could legalize without risk of federal pre-emption. That may be important.

It's likely, for example, to increase the odds (already favorable) that Oregon will vote for legalization next year, since the terms of federal cooperation now are a lot clearer.

And for Idaho, the question will arise: How can Washington (and maybe Oregon, and conceivably Nevada too) draw the line at their border so that legal pot doesn't cross to the Gem State? Does the border at Idaho, totally porous without any slowdowns to the west now, start to sprout checkpoints and enhanced law enforcement?

Sometimes the aftermath is subtle

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If you've traveled much of the West, you've seen the aftermath of wildfire. It's easy to spot, even long after the ground has turned from black to brown and then sprouts new green.

Many of the effects are less obvious, and we could see some of those in the months and years ahead in the parts of Idaho hard hit by this season's fires.

The biggest – not the only – may be the Beaver Creek fire, around the Wood River Valley, an area where thousands of people were told to evacuate. Some may have snarked at the news reports of wealthy homeowners shouting bitterly at sheriff's deputies from their Lexuses, but the wealthy weren't the only people affected.

August is usually a busy time at the stores and restaurants of Ketchum and Hailey, but not last week. Many businesses remained open, but traffic was light at best. A public radio news report last week quoted Sarah Hedrick, owner of Iconoclast Books at Ketchum, who said she hasn't yet paid off a large disaster loan from 2007, and now watches business drop. She said, “If I lose my bookstores – and I don't mean to a fire, I felt very confident my store was going to be safe – I then lose my house, I then lose my livelihood, and I have four children to support. You know, the reality of a fire has a completely different impact.”

And that's in the case of a fire stopped before it gets to town. Idaho hasn't for decades seen a wildfire actually destroy all or even a significant part of a town, but this season is showing it could happen. Some Beaver Creek fire fighters said this is the first time they have seen a fire come so close to a substantial-sized town.
A year ago the University of Oregon released a study from the Joint Fire Science Program finding that overall, the economic effect of wildfires is – surprise – mixed.

Cassandra Moseley, who worked on the project, said, "The increased spending on services related to fire suppression efforts certainly does not undo the social and economic damage caused by a wildfire. But that initial burst of money does offset some of the immediate economic damage. How the Forest Service spends its suppression money greatly influences how a community experiences a fire.”

A summary also suggested that, “...employment and wages in a county tend to increase during large wildfires. But those same fires often lead to longer-term instability in local labor markets, by amplifying seasonal “ups and downs” in employment over the subsequent year. Among the sectors most affected in the months following a fire are tourism and natural resources, which are often vital to the well-being of rural communities.”

It said that, “Local capture of suppression spending is important because it helps mediate labor market impacts. For every $1 million spent in the county, local employment increased 1 percent during the quarter of the fire.” The catch: Many counties, especially those small and rural, often lack the kinds of businesses that would “capture” the spending and cycle the money back into the local economy.

Of course, all of that is a separate issue from the loss of tourism in places that look not quite as pretty as they did before. Not to mention homes and businesses that are actually, you know, burned, or people injured or killed. All of which has to be factored in as Idaho plans ahead in a time of fire.

The movement, not the candidate

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The last time an Idaho governor faced a serious primary re-election challenge, he won easily, but not because of massive across-the-board popularity: He proceeded to lose the general election. The last time it happened before that, the same man successfully defeated the then-incumbent governor, who had been elected three times before.

A lot depends on the mood of the party.

This bit of history involves Sandpoint rock dealer Don Samuelson, the conservative Republican who in 1966 beat three-term Governor Robert Smylie in the Republican primary, and won the office in that year's general election. In 1970 he was challenged, fairly seriously, by former Board of Education member Dick Smith, but easily won the primary. However, he lost in the fall to Democrat Cecil Andrus. He lost in part because some Republicans had become disaffected: The tenor of the party had shifted in ways that made them feel unwelcome and they voted across party lines.

That bit of history came to mind last week when Representative Raul Labrador, who has been much discussed as a possible gubernatorial candidate, said he would run for re-election to Congress instead.

The decision to stay put surely was the safer move. Ask politically connected Idahoans how they think a primary race between Labrador and incumbent Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter would play out, and you get a widely scattered opinions. Party registration for Republican primaries would have been a boon to Labrador, and he would have had a corps of enthusiastic backers, including much of the party structure – an unusual case when a two-term governor is talking about a third term. Labrador would have been a strong contender.

At the same time, Otter has a well-established network, a campaign structure in place, all the financing he could want, and eight years of identification with the office. Those are strong advantages, but they're also the kinds of advantages Robert Smylie had. (more…)