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Posts published in “Idaho”

Who’s been in charge?

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The context for the major campaign statement - a sweeping recital of policy and perspective - that Raul Labrador released on January 30, is this:

Republicans have been in control of Idaho state government for the last two dozen years, about a generation. Whatever has happened, whether you like it or dislike it, they’re the ones who made it happen. Aside from a few terms when Democrats were state controller or superintendent of public instruction, they’ve held all of the state executive offices since 1994. And since then, they’ve consistently held more than three-fourths of the state legislative seats.

So bear in mind who Labrador, one of three main contenders for the Republican nomination for governor (the other two being Brad Little and Tommy Ahlquist), is talking about in his call to “Dismantle the power and perks of establishment politicians.”

One of his proposals is small bore, has only slight impact and will be obscure to most Idahoans - “The law governing the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho allows special interest groups to participate in this state-sponsored retirement program that was intended for public employees. Special interest groups that lobby the Legislature shouldn’t receive a benefit reserved for state and local government employees.”

The other points he made have sweeping import.

He said, “In Idaho government, political connections sometimes impact how policies are developed and contracts are awarded. Sweetheart deals and special favors have become both costly and normal.” That’s what Republican governing of the state has wrought?

He said, “Term limits allow fresh ideas and innovations to rise to the surface, and can help stop corruption and cronyism from taking root. Conversely, concentrating power into the hands of people who have been in office for too long can lead to cronyism and, at minimum, a belief that political favoritism is behind policy decisions.”

Aside from the significant number of long-serving legislators, Idaho has a governor and lieutenant governor in their third terms and U.S. senators - and a representative, in the second district - with elective office background going back about as many years as the average Idahoan has been alive. (That latter number is 34.6 years.)

Then: “Idahoans are often asked to just trust that their elected officials aren’t personally benefiting from a government contract or policy change. It shouldn’t be this way. An elected official can have private financial interests, but when those interests are factored into public matters, that’s called corruption. Even the appearance of corruption can erode public confidence in government. It’s well past time for Idaho to require a thorough disclosure of potential conflicts of interest.”

That sounds a lot like the disclosure bill recently shot down at the legislature.

And, “part-time legislators who transition into full-time Idaho government employment after their elected service are rewarded with an extremely valuable perk that’s available to no one else, full-time PERSI credit for part-time work. This loophole can be used to turn a pension worth a few hundred dollars a month into one worth thousands of dollars. This isn’t right.”

That would include, presumably, the current secretary of state, and a number of top officials in the Otter Administration.

There’s merit to many of the points Labrador is making here.

In fact, it wouldn’t be a bad starting point for this year’s Idaho Democratic platform.

But I do wonder how a lot of Republicans, who have been happy at being in charge in Idaho, will react.
 

Lieutenant jumble

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Idaho may be a state where one party is overwhelmingly favored to win, but within that party, there’s a good deal of uncertainty.

Highly competitive races are afoot within the Republican Party for governor and the first district U.S. House seat. Those races, not especially predictable, have gotten the most attention.

The least predictable of the bunch might be the Republican contest for lieutenant governor.

That’s an office that actually gets a significant amount of attention when it does come open, as it was, sort of, in 2002. That year, the office was held by an incumbent (Jack Riggs) who was on the ballot, but he had just been appointed, and had no time to establish himself. A complex, multi-candidate primary, tightly competitive and hard to predict, ensued. (It was won by now-U.S. Senator Jim Risch.)

This year, incumbent Brad Little is trying to move up to governor, opening the post. Five serious contenders are in the field, and none qualifies as an obvious front-runner.

Over the last couple of weeks KIDO radio in Boise has run an online (and self-selecting) poll of the candidates. Here is how the candidates rated when I last checked -- in alphabetical order.

Marv Hagedorn, state senator from Meridian, 18.5%.

Janice McGeachin, former state representative from Idaho Falls, 32%.

Bob Nonini, state senator from Coeur d’Alene, 24.2%.

Kelley Packer, state representative from McCammon, 16.7%.

Steve Yates, of Idaho Falls, former state Republican chair, 8.5%.

I don’t mean to make much out of a self-selecting poll; candidates often encourage their backers to weigh in (and I saw a Facebook post from one of these candidates encouraging just that). My guess is that Yates’ percentage may be a little understated, because his contacts in the state party structure may be a little less visible now and come more into play later. All of the others, all current or former legislators, have built bases of support within the party, have (loosely) similar levels of political experience, and won election more than once in their home districts. If none of these candidates is an obvious front-runner, there are no clear also-rans either.

Their bases of support also would seem to overlap quite a bit. There could be some perception (not necessarily correct) that Yates and Packer hail a little more from the more establishment Republican side, and Hagedorn a little more from the activist-insurgent side, but even if true that’s not a point you could press very far. Listen to any of them, or check out their web sites, and while you might see somewhat varied emphases you won’t see a great deal of difference between the way they describe themselves. They aren’t describing themselves as champion of one wing or another of the party, or even of a specific group. Everybody is a “conservative” of course, but what else is new? (McGeachin’s site says, “Make Idaho conservative again.” The implication being that it’s a liberal place?)

So how will they differentiate - how will any one of these candidates say, in a compelling and gripping way, that you need to vote for me and not one of those other guys?

First one to figure that out might win.
 

A flock of subjects

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A few policy subjects that seem worth a quick review, and seem timely, as the Idaho Legislature kicks into full steam for this session.

States often pay little attention what goes on in the legislatures of even their close neighbors, but Idaho might want to reflect on a vote last week in Oregon that set in motion the course of this year’s legislative session there. The vote was on whether to accept or reject a tax increase passed by the last session; a ballot issue aimed at rejecting it was proposed by several Republican House members. In the vote last Tuesday, Oregon voters statewide approved the tax increase by a landslide 61.5 percent.

What was this tax? It was a levy on certain larger hospitals and on health insurance premiums - both industries were in favor of it - as a way of helping pay for the state’s expanded Medicaid program. Rejection of the tax would have blown a billion-dollar hole in the state budget; approval meant, more or less, status quo. Health insurance for several hundred thousand Oregonians was in the balance.

That Oregon would be more amenable than Idaho to such a proposal is no shock. But the big margin of the vote in a special election - this one question was the only thing on the ballot - and the voter turnout of about 40 percent should give some pause to Idahoans thinking about how to handle Medicaid and health insurance.

Item the second: The recent column about the proposed (by Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter) change in administration of Idaho state higher education, which would involve a state “CEO” overseeing the colleges and universities, drew this e-mail inquiry, requesting an answer:

“If Otter wants to really make a move toward a “Chancellor” system, why is he so timid about calling it what it is? If he doesn’t, why did he make this toothless proposal?”

The proposal has been making its way through the system, drawing an endorsement from the state Board of Education. The guess here is that it might not have if it had used the word “chancellor” (which Otter specifically disavowed).

So what’s the difference between a CEO and a (in the usual sense) chancellor, as an overseer of the system? That’s much harder to say, and Otter didn’t really seem to clarify it. The point here may be that using the one term is politically and popularly acceptable, and the other isn’t. Go figure.

Finally, a return to last week’s column about “historical horse racing.” I raised a question about how well the bettor terminals in the planned system comply with constitutional pari-mutuel requirements, which drew an emphatic response from an HHR backer that yes, it did.

He noted that, “the HHR terminals are the same as approved by the Legislature in 2012 in respect to the workings of the pari-mutuel operation and system of betting.” And, “the terminals that are proposed to be operated in Idaho are distinguishable from those that were proposed to be used Nebraska and Maryland nearly a decade ago, and can be legally and constitutionally operated in the state of Idaho. I reference Nebraska and Maryland here because AG opinions in those states were cited in the recent Idaho AG’s Certificate of Review. Again, I point out that those opinions from those states are dated and do not comport with the changes that have taken place in the HHR industry. The statutes in those states also differ from Idaho, so it’s not a true apples-to-apples comparison.”

His points (these and others) are fair and reasonable, but there’s room to rebut them too. My overall sense is that this is a complex and even technical debate, and if the legislature goes there it should plan on spending a while in hearings to get the specifics right. Maybe as much as with health insurance.
 

Reality betting

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Here’s a really old-fashioned political battle - one centered around the idea of betting on horse races - that raises some questions for the future, about what is real and what is electronically simulated, and also about Idaho’s constitution.

It comes in the form of a new proposed ballot initiative, the Save Horse Racing in Idaho Act.

The background runs this way.

Idaho’s constitution contains a stringent no-no on the subject of gambling, which a few generations back was used to shut down a briefly thriving slot machine business in the state. It still explicitly bans “slot machines” and specifically “any electronic or electromechanical imitation or simulation of any form of casino gambling.”

But gambling does have a way of poking its way back in. Voters chose to amend the constitution in 1986, for example, to allow for a state lottery, which still exists. The constitution now allows bingo-type games associated with charities. And it allows “Pari-mutuel betting if conducted in conformity with enabling legislation.”

The trick here is in the definitions. What exactly, for example, does “pari-mutuel betting” mean?

Strictly, it doesn’t mean what either the constitution or most people probably contemplate. It comes from a French term for “mutual betting” in which “a betting pool in which those who bet on competitors finishing in the first three places share the total amount bet minus a percentage for the management.” In effect, those bettors are to some extent betting against each other. Because that approach is common in betting on horse races (you bet on win, place or show), it’s loosely become a term of art for betting on horse races. You can see the language already is a little slippery here.

So we’re getting to: betting on horse races is okay under the constitution if done in compliance with state laws. And a ballot initiative, if passed, puts a state law in place.

But in its review of the initiative, the Idaho Attorney General’s office suggests this one may run afoul of the constitution anyway. And it has good reason to think so.

The initiative aims to legalize betting terminals, which are a lot like slot machines (depends, again, on how you define “slot machine”) which let gamblers place bets on random actual horse races from the past; it’s called “historical horse racing.” The legislature has at various times voted both to approve and disallow it. This would be betting undertaken by individuals, essentially against the machine (or the house), not against other bettors. At least not other actually, physical, live bettors, only theoretical ones, which turns the “pari-mutuel” element of this into a new kind of proposition.

The new initiative tries to elide some of this by proclaiming - defining - that the new terminals would be pari-mutuel gaming. But courts might look askance if they decide this is just an attempt to re-define a word. The point has come up in other states. In Wyoming, the Supreme Court said of something similar that, “we are not dealing with a new technology here, we are dealing with a slot machine that attempts to mimic traditional pari-mutuel wagering. Although it may be a good try, we are not so easily beguiled.”

Still, there is some new technology involved: This is something new.
And awaiting a clear settlement.
 

Higher education unification

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For decades, through the generations Idaho has had more than one university, there’s been the argument that they should be more closely managed as a single system rather than letting them run relatively independently. The idea is that efficiencies can be had, and money saved, without necessarily diminishing services.

In his last state of the state speech at the launch of this year’s Idaho legislative session, Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter gave renewed voice to that idea. But will it go any further than it has in the past?
Quite a few states have roughly unified higher education systems; loosely, this is called the “chancellor” system after frequent title of the top official in charge. Typically, the institutions each also continue to have “presidents” although sometimes, confusingly, in some places the top executive is the president and the institution heads are chancellors.

These broader state systems work in a variety of ways, and most states have some version of them. Montana and Nevada, for example, have systems including universities with distinctive names. California has two university systems with institutions sharing names but otherwise quite distinct.

The argument of efficiency through coordination isn’t held everywhere, though. Some places have gone in the other direction. In Oregon, the Oregon University System which for decades oversaw seven separate universities around the state (such as the University of Oregon and Oregon State University) was in 2015 abandoned in favor of closer local control by the institutions. (The trigger for that was the firing of a UO president, which led to a local uprising.) Part of the argument in favor of local control was contention that overriding statewide rules made things more costly - that institutions could run more efficiently and at lower cost if they were more independent. Some of them would tell you that’s been the case since they “declared independence.”

All of Idaho’s universities report to the same board (though for constitutional reasons it’s called the Board of Regents in the case of the University of Idaho), but as Otter pointed out, the board is spread too thin to closely manage each of them. Idaho’s system tips the scale a bit on the side of independence for each.

In his speech, Otter noted that his task force on increasing the percentage of high school students going on to state college “will never achieve the 60-percent goal the way higher education in Idaho is structured today.” So: “...my budget request includes funding for the State Board of Education to hire an executive officer to coordinate the work of all our higher education institutions. The executive officer also will manage a system-wide consolidation of higher education support operations and the board’s continuing policy functions. There’s no doubt these changes will upend the status quo. They will mean less working from isolated silos and more rowing in the same direction.”

He discouraged calling this a chancellor system: “What we’re talking about here is not a chancellor system with schools becoming campuses of a single university. I agree with the task force finding that such a change would be overly disruptive. But there is no doubt about the advantages and the necessity of adopting an executive officer model if we are serious about making and keeping Idaho economically competitive.”

His timing may be good, considering that two of Idaho’s university presidents are retiring this year and a third was reported applying for work elsewhere last year. And if it’s structured right, maybe some efficiencies will result.

This might be as reasonable a time as any to change the system, in one direction or another.
 

Sizing the snowpack

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Every day, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, gathers statistics about water levels and snowpack. These tell a great deal not only about what’s on the ground now but also about what to expect in months to come.

I’ve checked these numbers at least weekly for years (they’re posted online at https://wrcc.dri.edu/snotelanom/snotelbasin) and they’ve offered a fair indication, when you put them into context, for what’s coming by way of water supply in areas all over the western United States.

This year, Idaho is coming off a good water year, and that should help the state at least somewhat in maintaining an adequate water supply in months to come. The year before that, 2016, conditions were dryer, but in most places still better than in much of the west, where drought was prevalent. In a number of other recent past years, the state has seen drought.

So, three months or so into the new water year (annualized measurements start in October), what does 2018 look like?

The set of stats I check most closely are those showing the “percentage of normal accumulated precipitation,” which very roughly translates to: How good is the snowpack, at this point, compared to historical averages? Those numbers vary around the state, and they’re broken out by river basins, or in some cases other regions.

To get a sense of what they mean (get ready for some numbers), you can compare them with past years at the same time. Here’s how some of the basins look as of now.

• In the northern Panhandle, the current percentage is 103. Last year at this time it was 134, and in 2016 it was 120.

• The Salmon River basin now reports 90 percent. In 2017, it was 106; the year before, 115.

• The Payette basin is coming in at 82 percent. A year ago, it reported 99 percent; in 2016, it was 115.

• The Boise now shows 79 percent. Last year this time: 104 percent; the year prior, 120.

• The Big Wood is clocking in at 79 percent too. In 2017: 124 percent. In 2016: 118 percent.

• The Bear River now is at 76 percent. Last year it showed 137 percent; the year before, 86 percent.

• The Snake River above Palisades Dam is at 97 percent of the norm. In 2017, it was 155 percent; in 2016, 92 percent.

You can catch a few themes in this.

One is that a really good water year (in a particular place) can help tide over an area receiving less the next. (The Bear River area would be an example.)

But you also can see how the accumulation levels this year overall are a good deal shallower than they were last year, or the year before. They’re also, on balance, a little lower than in 2015. (And note too: They’re lower still to Idaho’s southwest and south.)

The last year they were lower - and then they were significantly lower - was in 2014, though in that year the state happened to pick up enough snow and rain in late winter to help out, and the snowpack returned to roughly normal levels. But you could consider that a late save.

Get ready for some careful water usage and conservation, and extra caution in the wildfire department, in the months to come.
 

2018, through a dark glass

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As was the case a year ago, this space won’t (mostly) predict what will happen next year. But it will ask some questions.

The end of 2017 was marked by a census report that Idaho’s population in the last measured year has grown faster - in percentage - than any other state. Will that continue?

Odds are the growth will keep on, assuming the national economy holds up (not something to take for granted). A thought for 2020: Almost certainly, Idaho will not pick up a third congressional district, though - a thought for 2030 - it likely will a decade hence.

But plenty of other questions for the year ahead are more open-ended.

Will this be another good water year - 2017 was one of the best in a long time - or do early indications follow through with less precipitation? Will a sequence of wet and dry years lead to a rougher wildfire year, after a relatively fortunate 2017?

2017 was a good year for new agribusiness in southern Idaho, especially in the Magic Valley. Is it topping out - because of resources, workforce supply, or other considerations - or will that growth continue for a while longer? The guess here is that it’s not quite done, but about due for a slowdown in growth. We’ll see.

The questions get no more easily predictable in the political arena.

Nationally, 2018 is widely predicted (based in part on recent election results around the country) to run strongly toward Democratic candidates. Even if there’s a national wave, of course, it would have to crest extremely high to sweep over Idaho, or even make a significant difference, and that seems unlikely. Still, in a season when Alabamans can elect a Democrat to the U.S. Senate, should we shut the door on Democratic prospects in Idaho? And even if major offices prove elusive, might Democrats see substantial gains in the legislature or in the courthouses?

In the last few weeks more Democratic candidates for Idaho offices have been surfacing. (Take note, for example, of Paulette Jordan, the legislator from Plummer who now is set to give that party, alongside the Republicans, a competitive primary.) How well will Democrats do in filling their side of the ballot this year? Nationally, the party has been packing ‘em in; what will happen in the Gem State?

Answers to the partisan balance question will come in November. Half a year earlier, in May, we’ll get some resolution to two Republican primary contests, for governor and for the first district U.S. House seat, that already have been running for half a year or so, otherwise known as the place where many people expect the state’s next leaders to be chosen.

These contests have some parallels between them. There are candidates from the establishment Republican world (Brad Little for governor and David Leroy for Congress), and from the outside-activist wing (Raul Labrador and Russell Fulcher, respectively), and candidates a little harder to easily classify. Will we see a consistent thread running between them? Will this year’s Republican primary turn into a battle between slates of candidates the way 2014 did? Will it lead to bitter conflicts the way that one did, or settle out more easily?

2018 stands to be a lively political year. In one way or another, Idaho looks to be a part of that. That much should stand as a reasonable prediction.
 

2017, reflected

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Time has come to reflect on the year that was: A strange and startling year nationally, less eventful overall in the Gem State.

In Gem State’s 2017 I think first of the departure of the most prominent Idaho political figure of the last half-century, Governor and Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus. None quite like him are on the horizon today.

But through the year we saw some pointers to what’s ahead.

The closest I came to experimental columns this year was the two-pack about gubernatorial candidate Tommy Ahlquist, one projecting why he might come in first in the Republican primary (ahead of both Lieutenant Governor Brad Little and Representative Raul Labrador), and the other why he might come in third (behind them). Comment came partly from people who read the one column and hadn’t yet absorbed the other. And from the Ahlquist campaign, which indicated I understated the candidate’s tenure and activity in Idaho, as in hindsight I probably did. But so far as I can see, the outcome of that race remains as cloudy today as I thought it was then.

I see no reason to greatly rethink the April 28 column about Labrador, with the suggestion he might be unwise to gamble on a run for governor, as opposed to keeping his sure-shot House seat. On the other hand, the prospects of the U.S. House shifting into Democratic hands after the 2018 election have been growing, so maybe this is not a bad time to move on.

After an October 27 column reviewing an article about the Kootenai County Republican Party organization, and its chair Brent Regan, I thought I might hear some response from the Lake City. I was expecting it the more because not long before, on August 4, I went after them for their blast at Idaho’s two - ahem - Republican senators for their support of sanctions against Russia. I did get a couple of critical emails about that August piece, from North Idahoans who apparently were Russia enthusiasts, but nothing from the Kootenai GOP.

Occasional columns through the year focused on various statistical changes around the state. (If I weren’t doing a year-end review, this column might be about Idaho’s reported first-in-the-national growth rate; I may yet circle around to that.) The most intriguing of these subjects to me, one for which I’ve seen more supporting data since, was the September 8 piece on the changing religious composition of Idaho, and diminishing rates of religiosity. What that may mean for Idaho’s future is something we’ll have to revisit.

A pair of election results on the same subject -- but on votes several weeks apart -- seemed the most interesting Idaho ballot items during the year. On May 26 I noted the approval by Bonneville County voters of creation of the district to govern the new College of Eastern Idaho in Idaho Falls. That was a followup to a January 13 column about how strong the enrollment has been at its Ada-Canyon community college counterpart, the College of Western Idaho. But if I thought it was a major social indicator, it was a soft one, since weeks later Bingham County rejected joining that new eastern Idaho district.

I remain surprised at the massive turnout for a legislative hearing on climate change (the March 17 column): "Who would have guessed that the biggest turnout for an Idaho legislative hearing this year would come on the subject of climate change? It was all the more surprising because there’s no active Idaho legislation specifically on the subject this year -- nothing moving through the system." Will it repeat in 2018? And - a point prompted by a January 6 column: Whatever happened to the ballot petition aimed at treating abortion as murder?

Many questions await 2018 for answers. We’ll get to a few of those next week.
 

Polling goodness

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The U.S. Senate election in Alabama on Tuesday settled not only the identity of that state’s new senator but also some open-ended questions about polls.

There’s Idaho resonance in that, since polling results lately have become a topic of discussion in the Gem state as they are elsewhere.

Several writers, including me, have been contacted about the results of a recent poll on the Republican nomination contest for Idaho governor. That poll showed the three-way race fairly close, with a high level of undecideds. (The latter point was the main focus of my column.)

The poll has been criticized since by one of the campaigns. I’ll not get into the weeds on that here (and circle around as to why), but it is good reason to talk a little about political polls . . . since we’ll surely be hearing more rather than less about them, locally and beyond, in the coming year.

Polls can be highly useful political tools, a good way to tell any candidate where they are and, especially, what they need to do, mainly in the case of well-run and highly detailed polls. Those pollsters who keep you on the phone for a longer time with more questions are likely to produce polls of more value to somebody.

But there are all kinds of somebodies, and of pollsters, and differentiating between them isn’t always easy. My website has a simple one-question opt-in poll which is fun to watch, but I make no pretensions about its scientific accuracy. When I worked for the newspaper in Pocatello, it used an informal supermarket poll - people who came by the store could “vote a ballot” - and we’d report the results. For local elections, it often proved remarkably accurate, though it would have passed no tests for professional standards.

Mainly, what you see are independent and candidate polls. Independent polls often are run by news media (though much less often than they once were) and sometimes other organizations, including interest groups. Candidate polls are, as you might expect, run for the use of candidates, who sometimes figure they have reason to release them, or release part of them, to the public.

Both kinds of polls can have issues. Usually, I tend to pay more attention to independent polls for two reasons. The more obvious is that campaigns tend to release results that are beneficial to themselves, and only those. The less obvious is that some pollsters will provide feel-good results to candidates whose business they would like to have; it’s not a common-place marketing tactic and many professional pollsters are careful not to do it, but it does happen: I’ve seen it. Independent polls can be subject to their own problems. Since money often is an object, some independent polls (not all) can wind up with cost-cutting that reduces their accuracy.

And any of these polls can vary by the way they’re conducted. Do they rely on telephone contacts or opt-in online surveys? Do they account for the change to cells phones, and if so, how? These elements and many more matter a lot.

Those are some of the reasons one independent poll in the Alabama race showed one candidate ahead by about nine points in one poll, and another poll showed the other ahead by 10. Many polls also weigh their results to match demographic (gender, race and other elements) of a population. One pollster showed how, in that Alabama race, you could shift those assumptions, each time in a plausible way, and drastically shift the poll’s bottom line outcome. It took the same polling data and applied a different filter to give of the two Senate candidates a big lead, depending on which assumptions were adopted.

So what to do? Best thing to do is to balance or average out the results from a bunch of polls, and recent history shows this tends to yield closely accurate results.

The catch in Idaho, of course, is that polling is sparse. There are neither a lot of polls nor a lot of providers. That creates a problem in depending on them. It’s why I was willing to use just one poll in writing that earlier column: There’s not a lot else available. But I’d be a lot more comfortable talking about Idaho poll results if there were.
 

How we grow

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When we talk about how to make our communities grow - and the state, and the nation - we often get fuzzy. Ideology tends to take over, and it seldom teaches us much.

We learn a good deal from hard, concrete data, and in Idaho’s case there’s a load of it in a new multi-volume history book project just out from the Association of Idaho Cities, edited and partly written by former legislator Hal Bunderson. (Disclosure: I am the publisher.) The books in the series called Idaho’s 200 Cities - one each for the north, swouthwest and east regions of the state, plus three books of trivia questions and answers - include about 1,600 pages of fine grain detail about the founding and development of each of Idaho’s cities, from Boise to barely-there Warm River.

The sections that most grabbed my attention were those in each city’s chapter called “turning points.” In these, each city outlined what development, for good or ill, most contributed to developing the city in the direction it ultimately went, especially those that founded it and set it on its course. These sections were contributed by the cities themselves.

The most influential simple development by far, to judge from the number of times it was listed as the top or second turning point, was the arrival or departure of the railroad. We look at railroads now and tend not to see them as especially basic elements of most communities. But they once were.

Some Idaho communities are well known even today as railroad towns, such as Nampa, Pocatello and Shoshone. We don’t often associate any more most small and rural communities with an important rail presence. But places like Spencer and Leadore, Donnelly, Arimo, Parma,Troy, New Meadows, Ferdinand, Homedale, Kooskia, Glenns Ferry, Fruitland, Stites, Acequia, Cambridge, Tensed, Oldtown, Moyie Springs, Midvale, Mountain Home, Huetter, Bliss, Rathdrum all said the railroad’s arrival was central to their existence. Blackfoot “owes its origins to the Utah and Northern Railroad.” Clark Fork “had its origins as a railroad town.” Caldwell “had its origins as a railroad town.” And on and on.

Sun Valley too, and not just because of the Harriman family connection in founding the resort there.

Even in places like Moscow, where the University of Idaho was soon to be a major shifting point, railroad was listed as the initial turning point,

What was in a distant second place after the railroad? Acts of Congress, mainly the Desert Land Act, the Homestead Act, the Dawes Severalty Act and (especially in the Magic Valley and the Carey Act, for expanding irrigation. Many of the Magic Valley and southwestern Idaho communities called these pivotal, even above the railroads.

State laws relating to alcohol and gambling were the specific reasons a number of cities, including Chubbuck, Garden City and Island Park, were created. Forts were the main reason Boise and Coeur d’Alene grew where they did. For the 43 cities which are county seats (little Murphy in Owyhee County is unincorporated), those government offices were highly important too.

Developing resource industries were critical components too, of course. Mining was the pivot for a number of mainly mountain communities (Salmon, Bellevue, Hailey, Pierce, Idaho City and the Silver Valley communities among them). And similarly, sawmills were the seed for a number of others, such as McCall, Elk River, East Hope, Winchester and Cascade.

But most of Idaho’s cities, like many cities elsewhere, were planted or designated by outside forces, a national railroad or federal government, as much or more as they were by local people. An uneasy reality, but worth pondering as Idahoans plan for their communities in the generations to come.