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Posts published in “Idaho column”

Labrador v. Otter?

idaho RANDY
STAPILUS
 
The Idaho
Column

Now that we're properly into 2013, time has come – yes, it has – to start looking at the political races of 2014. In Idaho, that starts with governor.

The most day-glo prospect, as we sit in January, is that of a Republican primary pitting incumbent Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter against Representative Raul Labrador. It's a prospect too that allows for a real choice for Idaho Republicans.

There's absolutely no certainty it'll play out that way. Otter has said he plans to run, but he may have been saying that for purposes of fundraising or avoiding lame duck status. Labrador has expressed some interest in running for governor, but the pull of Washington is often heady stuff. Neither may wind up filing for the office next year.

There are reasons it could happen, though. The guess here is that a big reason Otter ran for re-election in 2010 was that enough people (Republicans among them) had challenged his handling of the job, and Otter responds to challenges. He has one now. Otter is on the side of the Republican party that is more establishment-oriented and concerned with economic growth; while ideology is important to him, he has shown himself willing to bend on a variety of items. He, like the state's senators and Representative Mike Simpson, could be put in the “realist/pragmatist” camp. You can put on the relevant bill of goods for Otter establishing a state health insurance exchange, dumping immediate reconsideration of the Luna school laws, and improving the state's transportation system.

Those stands have put him distinctly and fiercely at odds with the part of the party that's more ideology-driven. Otter's recent intense lobbying of the state Republican organization for the insurance exchange, and party leaders' repudiation of it, was but one recent example.

And Labrador (along with Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, who seems to have been almost cast off by Otter) is very much a central figure in that more insurgent ideology group, one overlapping with the Tea Party but extending beyond it. He and Otter were in opposition (over gas tax policy) even back when Labrador was in the Idaho, not the U.S. House. In the Labrador-Simpson dustup in the last few weeks, Otter would clearly be placed closer to Simpson. (more…)

Ethics options

idaho RANDY
STAPILUS
 
The Idaho
Column

As Idaho legislators come into session with, for the first time, a review on the table of how legislative ethics are managed, they needn't re-invent the wheel: They could grab one lying on the ground nearby, and modify to Gem State purposes.

Most of the 50 states have gone much further than Idaho is setting up some form of standard approach for overseeing legislator ethics, and they've tended not to be as controversial as you might think.

Among Idaho legislators, the whole subject often is taken personally: Of course I can be trusted. Arguments for ethical oversight usually are taken as personally insulting. They shouldn't be. Taken as a whole, and over time, Idaho's legislature has been generally clean, serious ethical breaches usually ranking low among its various faults.

But no group of people is perfect, which is why Idaho has, for example, a process for reviewing performance and possible ethical problems on the part of judges, a group that mostly holds itself to strong standards but now and again will find a less-than-worthy member in its ranks.

The National Conference of State Legislatures, the professional organization that tracks legislative activities around the country, notes that all state legislatures have some means for internally reviewing legislator problems (or, problem legislators?), but that 41 states also have ethics commissions. Idaho is one of the few without one. Wyoming is the only other state in the region that has none. (more…)

The conservative Republican split

idahocolumnn

If it's a major-office Idaho elected official, it's a “conservative Republican,” for whatever that may mean. (Republican, as a party member, is at least specific enough.) But is it possible to make more precise distinctions?

The New Years Day vote on the Biden-McConnell proposal is a good indicator of this – there are others, and there will almost surely be more to come. And the best way to think about it as not ideological. (Once again: What does “conservative” mean?) One national article suggests drawing the line between “establishment” Republicans and “insurgent” Republicans, at least within the House Republican caucus, and that may be as useful a dividing line as any. John Boehner, the House speaker, is an establishment Republican. Eric Cantor is an insurgent.

In Idaho, then, there's this: The senators, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, are establishment Republicans, as is Representative Mike Simpson. 1st District Representative Raul Labrador is an insurgent.

These descriptions draw from the votes on the bill, as establishment Republicans – a big majority in the Senate but a nearly 2-1 minority in the House – favored the measure, while the insurgents opposed.

The difference is in perspective. (more…)

10 sorta, semi-predictions for Idaho in 2013

idahocolumnn

Some highly hedged predictions (observations anyway) about Idaho 2013 …

1. As legislators hit the Statehouse, the health insurance exchange urged by Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter looks like Topic A. Best guess now is that they pass something that Otter would approve - but make that a highly hedged bet. There'll be plenty of pressure as well to re-up nullification efforts from sessions past; there's a strong never-say-die element. Topic B: A partial Luna Law resurrection.

2. No gun-related legislation this year, other than reaffirming more guns in more places.

3. The 2014 governor's race should take on clearer contours by the end of 2013. By then, incumbent C.L. “Butch” Otter ought to – fellow Republicans will insist - clarify whether he's on the ballot once again. He has said he plans to run, but there are reasons for saying that (political strength, fundraising, etc.) that may not translate to ballot status. A year from now, we should know who the major candidates are and aren't. Note: An Otter candidacy doesn't necessarily preclude a primary challenge.

4. Don't expect other major non-incumbent candidates to surface during the year (unlike most recent off-years). Apart from the governor's race, 2014 isn't looking very exciting in Idaho.

5. But: Better than even odds another fairly high profile ballot issue, on some topic, arises for 2014. Non-conservatives had their biggest statewide win in many a moon in 2012 with the ouster of the three legislative “Luna laws.” There'd be a lot of political sense in going back to the electorate to challenge other things the Idaho Legislature may do next session, whatever those might be.

6. There are no partisan general elections in Idaho in 2013, but cities will be electing. One of the most interesting contests could be in Pocatello, where in 2009 Brian Blad came out of nowhere to defeat incumbent Roger Chase. What kind of opposition will he draw this time? Watch too the city races in Coeur d'Alene, where an emotional ideological battle in 2012led to a (failed) recall effort, and is likely to yield hard-fought, even bitter, races for some of those same offices in 2013.

7. A correspondent points out that in the coming year, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals likely will decide whether the Idaho Roadless Rule stands or falls. He suggests: “If it stays it becomes a success story in collaboration with the support of some conservation groups like Trout Unlimited and the Idaho Conservation League. ... If the 9th Circuit strikes it down the victory goes to the Wilderness Society and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition who were hold outs and did not want to work with the state on a state-based rule.” Real poliltical implications could emerge from all that.

8. Looks like a pretty good water year. As 2012 ended, every one of Idaho's water basins had above-average snowpack (the Little Wood River was at 172 percent of normal accumulation). As 2011 ended, most of Idaho's river basins were below-average; the Weiser River area, for example, was at 72 percent.

9. Chances are good that the Snake River Basin Adjudication may actually wrap up this year: As 2012 ends, it's getting close. In the context of big water adjudications, that would be a speedy success.

10. Overall in the change department: Don't expect a lot to shatter the earth. Idaho is not likely to be a great deal different as it approaches 2014.

Personal property tax: What it is …

idahocolumnn

For those who have to pay it, the personal property tax must be one of the most aggravating.

Many Idahoans probably don't know much about it – don't often encounter it – and may have wondered what the deal was when a report about the Idaho personal property tax was released by the state Tax Commission last week. It may be one of the least liked taxes among small businesses; under its terms, businesses have to itemize things like office equipment – furniture, computers and much more – and estimate their value, with taxes to be paid on them. The taxes have not been massively high, but in relative terms the paperwork can be extensive.

Unsurprisingly, there's been a movement for some years to eliminate the personal property tax, and it's picking up steam. (The lobby at the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry is working on it, for one, following up on lobbying it did last year.) Prospects are fair or better that the personal property tax in Idaho may be amended or maybe even eliminated next session.

At the same time, not a lot has been known about it – what it raises, where it goes, what it covers.

Some of that information gap ended with the Tax Commission report's released on December 18, and it should provide the information base around which debate will run. It's the first report on the subject the commission has ever released. After reading it, you suspect it won't be the last.

It tells us, for example, that the PPT brings in about $140 million a year. Split among the hundreds of local government districts (the sewer districts get $12,852), that's a fairly small piece of the tax pie. Even so, $140 million would make a dent of some kind, especially in the cities and counties, if it abruptly went away.

A close read of the report suggests, though, that changes could be made that might ease its often onerous nature without cutting away all the revenue – and in fact the personal property tax probably due for some good review and a legal rewrite anyway. (more…)

Next session’s purity test

idahocolumnn

Last week, Washington and Oregon were two of the first six states to get initial (conditional) approval from the federal government for their plans to set up state-based insurance exchanges. Idaho is rapidly approaching a final decision point on whether to start.

An Oregon statement on the plan called Cover Oregon says: “Cover Oregon is a central online marketplace where individuals and small businesses can shop for and compare health coverage options and access financial assistance, starting in October 2013. Coverage for plans purchased through Cover Oregon will be effective January 1, 2014. Through Cover Oregon, individuals and families will be able to easily compare plans, see quality grades for carriers and plans, and access financial assistance to help pay for premiums.”

Doesn't, in truth, sound much like tyranny, and actually sounds more like a free marketplace.

That aspect of it – the federal requirement for a setup notwithstanding – may have resonated with free marketeer Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter, who (a day after the federal approval for the neighbors) said he would support establishment of a state-run exchange in Idaho. (Failure to set one up on the state level would result in establishment of a federal-run program.) But actual setup takes action as well by the state legislature, and that's where things get complicated, and political.

A comparable proposal died earlier this year in the legislature but, partly because of personnel changes, chances may be better in 2013. An early spate of news stories on key players in the health and welfare committees suggest the proposal has at least a reasonable chance of getting to the floor in either chamber.

But whether it passes remains an open question, and so is its impact on Idaho Republican politics.

The insurance exchange easily could turn into a purity test for Idaho conservatives, with “squishes” – presumably including, improbably, Otter – being distinguished from the purists who simply say: hell no. It might (we don't know yet if it will) pit parts of Republican leadership (not all of it) against large parts of the caucuses. It could split Republican leaders against each other. (more…)

Leadership ripple effects

idahocolumnn

Representative Lawerence Denney did not lose the Idaho House speakership this week to Scott Bedke over questions of who was more “conservative,” which would have been a pointless argument. Their world view, to judge from their stands on issues, is pretty similar.

But that doesn't necessarily mean that Idaho, and the rules it lives under, won't be affected by the change.

Here's one indicator: A legislator suggested to me, post-vote, that the change in speakers might add three weeks to the session.

That wasn't meant as a criticism. Idaho (or any state) is better off with a longer but more thoughtful session than a shorter but less useful or more reckless one. It was Denney's style, in his three terms as speaker, to keep things under wraps, to bottle up or shut down legislation or other actions (such as moving against former Representative Phil Hart, when Hart got into tax trouble). There's some indication, speculation at least, that Bedke's style may be more free-flowing and open. He already has shaken up the committee assignment picture. Of course, there's some uncertainty in what Bedke's ascension may mean too, since the speakership can look a little different from the inside than from the outside.

Again, none of this is ideological, and it could mean both that the House has a more open and responsive feel, which could generate positive headlines, and that it takes up even more controversial legislation than in recent years - which, as legislative observers in Idaho know, would be saying something – and that could cut the other way.

At least a couple of specific decisions, during the just-concluded organizational legislative session, indicate that the House and maybe the Senate too aren't yet done with their ideological journey to the right. (more…)

What the state owns

idahocolumnn

A logical subject for hearings, and maybe legislation, when Idaho lawmakers convene in January: Deciding what Idaho's endowment property policy should be. question: Should it be fungible?

When Idaho gained statehood in 1890, it got 3.6 million acres to be used for support of certain public institutions, mainly schools. The restriction was that they be managed “in such manner as will secure the maximum longer term financial return.” The job of directly managing the property was given to the State Land Board, which includes the governor and four other statewide electeds.

For many years governing these lands, widely scattered and often timber lands, was straightforward. Many were managed as timber properties, sometimes as leasable livestock grazing territory.

But what if the highest long-range return isn't managing the lands this way? What if, as Idaho moves beyond a resource-based economy, other ways of generating income are more profitable? Should the lands be considered fungible – translatable into money, or into other sorts of money-making property?

The question is not entirely new. About a third of the endowment lands were sold in Idaho's first half-century as a state, the money placed in an endowment fund. (Those sales have diminished, though exchanges have continued.) But more recently another development has caught interest: Acquiring private property as a money-making venture.

There are gray areas. Private companies have, since before statehood, managed their lands as timber property around Idaho, and some still do, so there's no bright line between public and private in that field either. Still, when news broke a couple of years back that the state owned and operated a rental storage building – in effect, private-type business – attention was paid. Should the state be so overtly in competition with private businesses? Is that what the endowment lands were intended to do? (more…)

A speaker ouster?

idahocolumnn

Challenges to incumbent leaders in the Idaho Legislature are not rare. Successful challenges are.

The last top-level ouster (there have been a few others for lower-level leadership spots) goes back 30 years to 1982, when then-Senate Majority Leader Jim Risch defeated president pro tem Reed Budge in a contest very much underground until near the end. Risch (the current U.S. Senator) was a master at caucus politics; six years earlier, he defeated future U.S. Senator Larry Craig for majority leader.

But we may see another ouster when the closed-door voting occurs in Boise on December 5.

Contests for open seats are more the rule than not; usually, there's no individual person in a party caucus that so obviously stands out as to preclude anyone else from giving it a shot. Not a lot is really required to enter a race for leadership – no paper filing, no fundraising, no public campaigning.

The public doesn't have much to do with these choices, and public campaigns for them would be difficult because they usually amount, mostly, to matters not of philosophy or floor votes but of personality and style. They are partly popularity contests in part, but also relate to how the person handles the job and the public perception of them – of a House speaker of Senate president pro tem is the public face of the chamber.

Idaho has a serious legislative leadership contest this year, for the most powerful single legislative position, speaker of the House. After the 2006 retirement of veteran Bruce Newcomb, the then-assistant majority leader, Lawerence Denney, took over. He was then the assistant majority leader, and the (incomplete) shorthand description of the contest was that he was the conservative defeating the more moderate Bill Deal of Nampa, who now is the state director of the Department of Insurance. In that case, philosophical differences may have been a factor in the voting process. (You can never be totally sure, since the choosing is done by secret ballot.)

This year, Denney is being challenged by the current assistant majority leader, Scott Bedke of Oakley. Bedke seems to be the betting pick to win. Denney has run up a string of bad headlines over the years, and maybe more pointedly there appears to be some dissatisfaction in the ranks. Bedke is said to be broadly popular by comparison, and said also to be campaigning hard. He also has been donating freely to campaign warchests for a number of House members, a fact remembered when time comes to ask for a leadership vote. Denney has made either few or no campaign contributions to other caucus members.

Denney and Bedke haven't often been on opposing sides of substantive issues; the House will not likely be much different in voting patterns either way. It may differ when it comes to such matters as handling ethical issues, deciding on committee assignments (a centrally key job for the speaker), managing appointments and overt politics. (Denney came under fire for trying to fire an appointee to the state redistricting commission).

If Bedke succeeds, he will be the first person to oust a sitting House speaker in many decades. In the more than five decades that Republicans have continuously controlled the chamber, every House speaker departed that job either to retire from the legislature or pursue another office. (That second category includes U.S. Representative Mike Simpson and former Secretary of State Pete Cenarrusa.) It may be an indication, light as it is, that Idaho politics isn't totally unchangeable.

A few shifting battlegrounds

idahocolumnn

For all that nothing has changed in the numbers of Republicans and Democrats in the Idaho congressional and legislative delegations, the state's battleground picture may have shifted a little.

Not a lot. But in some notable places.

Of the 105 seats, 21 were unopposed (one of those a Democrat, Michelle Stennett of Ketchum), and 58 more were decided in true landslides of 60 percent or more of the vote, so 79 of the 105 seats were generally not competitive at all. If we scale back a little further and look at races won only by realistically close margins – under 55 percent – then just 14 races, out of the 105, remain.

When you look at where in the state they were, the geography of the races makes sense.

Two of those close races were in the new District 5, which meshes Democratic-leaning Latah and Republican-leaning Benewah counties. Democrats won two of the three races there, but the closest legislative contest in Idaho this year resulted in the Republican win of Cindy Agidius (helped by strong connections in Moscow) by 123 votes over Democrat Paulette Jordan. The third-closest was the win of Democratic incumbent Senator Dan Schmidt over the man he beat more easily two years ago, Republican Gresham Bouma. This will be a hotly-contested district in 2014.

The second most competitive race was in District 26, the big Magic Valley district where the largest population base is in Democratic Blaine County. In House A, there was just enough Republican support in Gooding County to deliver a win for Republican Steve Miller. This may be a more competitive district now than it has been. Races in Lewiston and Pocatello ran close too, reinforcing that these are truly competitive areas, not the Democratic-leaning cities of yore.

Another district represented twice in this group may augur more for the future. Democrats made a strong bid for the seats in District 15, which is on the west side of Boise and historically has been solidly Republican, though electing relatively moderate Republicans. Did redistricting create a district more open to Democrats than the area had been in the past?

The top line in 15 is that Republicans Fred Martin won the Senate seat (52.1%) and Mark Patterson won the House B seat (53.1%). But these contrasted sharply with Republican wins in the old, differently mapped District 15, where Republicans often won landslides and in the last decade never got closer than the 53.2% (in 2002). Precinct results show the two Democrats there, Betty Richardson and Steve Berch (respectively), won a batch of precincts in the middle of the district that could form a clear base for Democrats in future races. District 15 has emerged as a true battleground.

In 2010, the foremost battleground in Idaho was District 18. on the southeast side of Boise: Republican Mitch Toryanski won the Senate seat there by just 103 votes over Democrat Branden Durst, and in House A the Republican Julie Ellsworth beat Janie Ward-Engelking by just nine votes. It was hard-fought this time too, but not quite as close – and running in the other direction. Democrats Durst won with a margin of 1,496 votes, and Ward-Engelking by more than that, 2,259 votes. The trend line suggests 18 may be following the rest of Boise in a Democratic direction.

These are of course changes at the edges. As a while, the Gem State is as Republican as it ever was.