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Posts published in “Idaho column”

Leadership ripple effects

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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

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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?

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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

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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.

A disconnect

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Idaho's 44 counties voted 132 times in all on the three ballot propositions on last week's Idaho ballots, concerning the school-related “Luna laws.” In those 132 contests, counties voted to sustain them 11 times and reject them 121 times. In the case of Prop 3, all 44 counties voted to reject the laws strongly promoted by Idaho's governor, superintendent of public instruction and passed by both houses of the Idaho Legislature.

(Those contrary counties, by the way: Fremont, Jefferson and Owyhee backing Props 1 and 2, and Adams, Boise, Cassia, Lemhi and Madison just on Prop 1.)

That was a stunning result, much the biggest news from this year's Idaho general election, and not even so much the grand total as it was how widespread it was. The big Republican wins on the presidential and congressional side were of course expected, and the Idaho Legislature's remaining exactly as Republican (extremely) was no shock either – at most it might realistically have shifted by a couple of seats or so. Nearly without exception, Idaho elections 2012 played exactly to the norm we've seen for two decades running.

The education issues were no given, however. Surveys and anecdotal evidence a year ago and into this spring seemed to suggest the efforts by the Idaho Education Association and others to repeal the laws passed in 2011 would fail. Idaho voters have no strong history of overturning at the polls what their legislators have enacted. And in this case, the enacting was done by the people elected overwhelmingly by Idaho voters.

Someone asked if there are voters who thought these laws originated from Democrats. That's hard to answer conclusively, but the association between the laws and Idaho's overwhelming governing party could not be clearer. Nor is there much dispute that the laws are an extension of recent Idaho state policy on education, teachers, accountability, outsourcing and more. They tie together coherently.

So this question: Is there a disconnect between voters attitudes on candidates (and their parties) on one hand, and public policies on the other? Or, more bluntly: Are there a lot of Idaho voters who really like electing Republicans, but without closely linking that to whatever those Republicans do once in office? I'm not claiming an answer here, but I think the question is fair. (more…)

The lonely independents

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In 1928, a man named A.L. Freehafer was elected to the Senate from Payette County. (Back then each county elected a senator and at least one representative.) We don't know much about him, but we do know that he had served a couple of terms two decades previous, and one more after the election of 1930.

We also know this: He was elected in 1928 as an independent, not as a member of any party. That is a rarity in Idaho. Every Idaho legislator elected in the years since, including Freehafer himself in 1930 (as a Democrat), has been elected either as a Republican or a Democrat.

Such are the odds for any candidate choosing not to run under the umbrella of one or the other. Usually, non-major party candidates aren't a big deal in terms of the vote count, picking up a sliver of the vote. If a major party candidate isn't opposed by the other major party, a third-party or independent candidate might collect a quarter or even more of the vote. But close calls have been almost nonexistent.

But before we cross to the far side of election day, take note of a legislative race that's not on most radar screens, and after the fact might or might not be of interest. On election night, cast a glance over to District 7 and the Senate contest between Republican Sheryl Nuxoll, of Cottonwood, and independent Jon Cantamessa, of Wallace.

Those candidate addresses give you a sense of the size of this district: Immense, from the outskirts of Sandpoint down to where northern becomes southern Idaho. It is also hard to get around, since so much of it is in backcountry with winding highways, if those. Newly created this decade, it will be a hard district to represent.

The more or less incumbent – she current is a senator – is Nuxoll, now wrapping up her first term. In 2010 she defeated an incumbent Republican in the primary and easily won in the general in her old district, which takes in much of the southern part of the new one. She is well positioned in the Idaho County and Clearwater County communities, with deep family and other connections. She has made a few missteps as well, though, such as sending campaign-like mailers on the state dime to not just current constituents, but to people in the northern part of the newly-formed district.

Cantamessa has his base of strength too, in the northern part of the district; he has been a Shoshone County commissioner (his brother is running to replace him), and has been involved with a mass of regional organizations. His family has operated a grocery at Wallace since 1925.

Like Freehafer, Cantamessa has some background with major parties. When he was elected to the Shoshone commission in 2004, he ran as an independent against both a Republican and a Democrat. Seeking re-election in 2006 and 2010, though, he did so as a Democrat. But he has picked up support from other quarters. His web site carries endorsements from Phillips Baker, CEO of Hecla Mining and Republican Senator Joyce Broadsword (she's not on the ballot this year), whose district is close by.

District 7 is Republican territory, and Nuxoll may win easily. But this is an unusual case, and Cantamessa a more-advantaged candidate than usually runs as an independent. Keep a watch here for an indicator of how well, or not, an independent candidate for the Idaho Legislature can do.

Laptop alternatives

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Large government contracts, those in the tens or hundreds of millions of dollars or – gulp! - more, can be hard things for non-fiscal specialists to digest. But along came one in Idaho a few days ago we could chew on.

This was the contract, one of the largest single state government awards in Idaho history, by the Department of Education awarded to Hewlett-Packard Corporation: $181.9 million for laptops, and their repair and a wireless system, for Idaho schools. The price adds up to about $293 per laptop (for a half-million of them), plus additional for upfront and buyout costs. (Those should be considered approximations; there are a lot of moving pieces among the contract numbers.)

This per-unit price doesn't sound unreasonable, factoring in on one hand the normal purchase price for basic laptop Windows computers, and on the other the cost savings in such as large mass buy.

In our small business, though, it wouldn't have made the cut.

Not because of the HP brand: Two of our most-used machines, including the laptop on which this is written, are HPs. But we make only limited use of Windows (somewhat more of a couple of Apple computers). Mostly, we use the operating system called Linux, and we use it on those HP machines. One reason we use it is because it's free – literally, downloadable for free, no strings, no catch. All the software we use on it, ranging from close equivalents to Windows Office to browsers to desktop publishing and technical software, and a good deal more, is also free. It ranges the Internet even better than Windows, no surprise since the bulk of web server computers worldwide are run on Linux or on closely allied software. And not only that, it's “open source,” which means you can (if you choose) go into the guts of the program, and change anything you want. Can't do that with proprietary programs.

This software is coded so efficiently that everything I use on my Linux machines can nearly fit onto a single CD; you'd need shelves of CDs to contain Windows or Windows Office. It can run efficiently on smaller and older computers than Windows can, and run longer on them as they age. A nonprofit in Portland (called Free Geek) for years has been reconditioning old and small-capacity computers, outfitting them with Linux, and sending them to local nonprofits and to underdeveloped countries around the globe; those machines are great for education, and they cost a pittance. Open source runs faster, with fewer errors, and is nearly impervious to viruses, worms and the like. (No need for expensive anti-virus software.) One of the main world headquarters for open source development is the Pacific Northwest; the original developer of Linux, a Finn named Linus Torvalds, lives outside Portland.

Another educational point relating to open source: Tech-oriented students could actually take the lead in setting up computer systems and wireless networks around the schools.

Is this news to you? (Was it ever considered by the Department of Education?) Here's something Linux and open source don't have: A huge marketing budget underwritten by a massive corporation. There are several fair-sized companies developing variations (called “distributions”) of Linux, and profitable spinoffs, but most people on the street have never heard of them.

If they had, you wonder what they might think on reflection about the state of Idaho's new contract.

An actual proposition fight

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From since a couple of months past the time the three school propositions – 1, 2 and 3 – aimed at overturning what have been called the “Luna laws” were developed and circulated, they looked like losers. I've written and said as much.

Today, not so much. In Idaho's political climate, you couldn't possibly call them a slam dunk for passage, but the route to repeal does look more realistic than even, say, a month ago.

The laws were passed, at the request of Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna and Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter, in the 2011 legislative session. They were sprung as a massive surprise, unmentioned in the preceding election campaign (Luna had never hinted what was ahead), for legislators as well as people in the state generally. They've become known for greatly reducing teacher collective bargaining ability, merit pay which could link to teaching to tests, and large-scale provision of laptop computers to students.

Jerry Evans, the four-term Republican SPI which retired in 1995 and one of the most knowledgeable Idahoans ever on the mechanics of the state's education system, cited the impacts in a recent column opposing the laws as aimed at reducing the influence of the Idaho Education Association, “in effect trading teachers for computers” and prospectively “the base salary for all teachers may be further reduced.” (Don't try arguing school budgeting with Evans; he knows more about that than you do.)

Still, in Idaho's political climate, there's a “so what's your point?” element to the debate. The passion against the laws seemed to trend downward from the spring of 2011 through this summer, and that kind of passion can be hard to rebuild. The November election looks likely to draw out a lot of Republicans to vote in Idaho, and while not all Republicans supported the laws, most of Idaho's Republican leadership did and does.

But something is afoot. Numbers from by the Associated Press (sourced from the Department of Education, which Luna runs) show that the number of Idaho teachers departing of their own volition, as opposed to layoffs or firings, increased in 2011 by more than 500 compared to the year before, and more than 1,000 more than the year before that – this in a bum economy that logically would have kept teachers hanging on to their jobs. Word of such a large trend may well have circulated around the state.

Have there been other changes on the ground? Based on the purely political evidence, you tend to think so. News stories about the slowness of laptop deliveries may have sunk in. There's been an energetic campaign pushing the referenda which seems to have cohered only since mid-year, but maybe that has something to do with it too.

Debates over the issue, such as one a few weeks back featuring Luna and (in the opposition) state Representative Brian Cronin, have turned unexpectedly testy – an indicator that this isn't a runaway issue. And then there's the recent polling, some by the anti-law group but also from news media, which seems to show the laws failing.

Whether they will is still unclear. A lot depends, as ever, on who turns out to vote, and Idaho's very conservative voters are likely to be there in full force. But in a way that didn't look likely even a couple of months back, this seems to be developing into a real, live, serious battle.

An Idaho gender history

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The most frequent specific reaction to the book Martin Peterson and I just released, Idaho 100: The people who most influenced the Gem State, is this: Only five women out of 100 people? Really?

The same thought occurred to us as we populated the list. Were we, for some reason, just missing a lot of women who really ought to be on the list? We concluded we weren’t, at least not by the criteria we had set for the book. The reasons say something about the actual past and actual present of Idaho.

We weren’t saying women collectively didn’t influence the course of Idaho. Idaho became civilized as the female population increased; in politics, women were the main backers of prohibition, education and temperance, among other things. Many of the men on our list were strongly influenced by women, one way or another, and many women had a lot of specific, individual effect.

But individual leaders among women, especially early in Idaho’s history, are harder to find.

This is the history. Men led the original expeditions into what’s now Idaho. They scouted the trails, started the trading camps, found the precious metals, built the mining camps and boom towns and mapped their locations. In the early agricultural developments, women were more likely to be present, but men (like Charles Rich, Thomas Ricks, William Budge and William McConnell) were the leaders and founders of the early farm communities. Men designated the early roadways, specified boundaries on maps, designed and built the early water and transport systems on which the core of Idaho’s settled civilization was built. Men founded the major businesses – mining, timber, agricultural, communications and transportation – that formed the economic basis of Idaho in its early decades and beyond. The people who did these things account for many of the spots on the 100.

Idaho today has many prominent women in its business community, but that was not always the case, and in the context of two centuries of history, it’s a recent development. You’ll search in vain for the women who founded or controlled major Idaho businesses in the 19th century, or even the early 20th. (This isn’t necessarily true elsewhere, but it was in Idaho.) The first major female entrepreneur in Idaho with major reach and influence was Georgia Davidson, the key founder of Idaho’s television (and to a degree radio) industry, and she is on our list, but her greatest influence didn’t begin until 1940s and 50s.

It’s more stark on the government side. Idaho never has had a female governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, attorney general or U.S, senator, and just two representatives in all these years to the U.S. House. Idaho territory elected no women at all (so far as I can tell) to any territory-wide or legislative office. The Idaho state legislature was all-male well into the 20th century; the first female Idaho state senator took office in 1937, and the numbers did not rise substantially for more decades. Idaho did start electing women as superintendent of public instruction in 1898 (with Permeal French, listed in the 100), but decades passed before they reached any other statewide office.

When more recently women have argued that they long have been underrepresented in the state’s support political, economic and social ranks, they have been right – and that has changed, to some degree at least, in recent decades. But what has preceded this last generation or two is much of Idaho’s formative history. We didn’t argue that’s the way it should have been, or should be in the future. But we’d be dishonest to argue it’s not the way it actually was.

The hot chatter over bull—-

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The hot chatter among political people in Boise last week was about bulls---.

It was the underlying and overt topic at a panel discussion before a statewide group of high school teachers, and it was a subject of high interest. And although the incident was minor, there's an aspect to it that may keep it alive for some time to come.

Here's the background. Earlier in the week, a Boise club held a debate forum on the three school-related referenda on the ballot in the general election, to decide if the 2011 school overhaul laws championed by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna should stand or be thrown out. Luna was there arguing for the laws, and Democratic state Representative Brian Cronin, who is also working for an anti-laws group, were debating the subject.

The crowd was apparently civil and well-behaved, generally at least, but things got little intense between Luna and Cronin. After Cronin delivered his opening statement, Luna leaned over and whispered something to him. What it was is in dispute. Luna says he said something critical about Cronin's talking points, but that it was G-rated. Cronin said the language was more, well, intense.

It might have ended there except that the moment was caught on audio, and even has been broadcast. The audio isn't definitive. Reporter Betsy Russell of the Spokesman-Review wrote that it "is very difficult to make out, because Luna is practically whispering in Cronin's ear while the audience is applauding loudly." There have been attempts at noise reduction, and word circulated that another recorder also caught the exchange, but these aren't definitive either.

None of this is very important as to the merits of the referenda. But there is some significance, because both Luna and Cronin are being mentioned as possible candidates for governor in 2014. Cronin is best known around the state as a critic of the "Luna laws," and Luna himself is much more identified with the legislation than with most anything else. One meaning of this is that political futures could be affected by whether the laws survive the election or not, and another is that Luna's and Cronin's performance in this ballot issue battle cold set a stage for the future campaign.

That's mattering a little more as time goes on, because the dispute is unresolved. If, say, Luna had acknowledged the remark Cronin alleges – whether it was real or not, or maybe some kind of half-mea culpa (“I may have been a little heated there,” or something similar) might have sufficed - he would have had the whole matter behind him; the subject is asked and answered. Representative Raul Labrador did that when his opponent criticized him for missing too many votes in Congress. He offered a partial explanation, but then said that, yes, he had missed more votes than he should have, and he would try to do better in future. That closed the subject (for now anyway).

It's the nagging loose ends that give the story some legs. The comment Luna was said to have delivered wasn't, after all, so terribly extreme even if true. But the did-he or didn't-he aspect may not specifically go away, and it may feed into other narratives down the road.