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The politics of Idaho Medicaid

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The most significant political question of the year in the Gem State may involve not the identity of its next governor or member of Congress but a question of policy - one with implications nationwide.

The political statistics web site FiveThirtyEight looked into it last month with an article headlined this way: “Does Medicaid expansion have a shot in a state as red as Idaho?”

It’s a live question. Many states around the country have expanded Medicaid availability under terms of the Affordable Care Act. (In Idaho, the estimate is that 78,000 people would get health insurance coverage who do not have it now.) Though the proposal has been vigorously pushed in Idaho for a half-dozen years, the legislature has refused to go along. Now, Idaho is one of four states (Utah is another) where activists are trying to use a ballot issue to change the law and expand access. If its advocates have luck there, more efforts may be tried elsewhere.

Ballot status isn’t yet assured in Idaho; elections officials have until July 5 to determine if the petition signatures turned in are enough to meet the tough ballot requirements. This is one of those “don’t count the unhatched chickens” kinds of situations, but the odds at present look good.

So suppose the proposal to expand Medicaid’s reach does hit the ballot: Will it pass?

You can make credible arguments either direction.

There is, after all, a political reason the Idaho Legislature hasn’t touched the proposal: A lot of Idahoans, especially in the Republican base, really hate the Affordable Care Act, and the expansion is a key part of it. A Boise State University survey in December turned up 58.8 percent opposed to the ACA compared to 35.2 percent in favor, though the “strong opposed” sub-category outnumbered the strongly in-favor group by well over two to one. (Nationally, the ACA is more popular than not.)

The question gets much more subtle and complicated when you get to Medicaid specifically, because Medicaid itself seems to be mostly popular, even in Idaho.

So what will Idaho think about expanding Medicaid: Might that idea be popular in Idaho even if the ACA still is not?

FiveThirtyEight, after evaluating all the significant numbers it found, suggested this: “Depends on how you ask them. In December of last year, a Boise State University poll of Idaho adults alerted respondents to the 78,000 low-income people who don’t have health insurance in Idaho, people who mostly fall in the Medicaid gap — too poor to qualify for subsidies on the health insurance marketplaces but too rich to qualify for Medicaid under current state rules. It did so, however, without ever mentioning the word Medicaid. It then asked, ‘Would you favor or oppose the governor and state legislature taking action to provide them with access to quality health care?’- Three-quarters of respondents said they would favor the move.”

And there was this: “In 2015, Dan Jones & Associates asked registered voters, “Do you support or oppose an expansion of federal Medicaid coverage in Idaho?” Sixty-one percent said they supported it. After the Republican-controlled Legislature declined to expand the program in 2016, 64 percent of Idahoans said they disagreed with the decision, including 49 percent of Republicans.”

If the issue is clearly and narrowly described when the campaign nears its end this fall, the odds of passage may be pretty good. If it is cast within a framework of the ACA, and of support for Trump or Obama, the result could be quite different.

As is so often the case, depends on how you define what’s in front of you.
 

Shorter name, larger reach

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The newspaper at Nampa changed its name last week, from the Idaho Press-Tribune to the Idaho Press.

Usually, business name changes like this resonate little with me. This one did, for one small reason a little sad, and another larger reason decidedly cheerful.

A few weeks from now will mark 42 years since I first went to work at a daily newspaper. That happened, in the summer of 1976, at the Caldwell paper, called the News Tribune. Some years earlier it had been a fully independent newspaper. By the time I arrived it was closely linked by ownership and otherwise to the Idaho Free Press at Nampa, where the printing press, most of the business offices and the larger share of the staff at the two papers were located. But it still had its own masthead, its own identity, and a substantial office with news, advertising, circulation and other staff in downtown Caldwell. (My job there was to cover county government, courts, local schools and sundry other areas.)

Tightly tied as it was to Nampa, the local News-Tribune did help give Caldwell a specific local identity, and it had a high profile in the community. Its merger into the larger Nampa operation - into what was re-named the Idaho Press-Tribune - and closure of the Caldwell office, in the early 80s, seemed like a diminishment at Caldwell, where the downtown was struggling. At the same time, the result was a larger unified operation.

Back then, I thought the Nampa and Caldwell papers should make a play for the western part of Ada County, picking up more circulation and expanding news and advertising operations in the fast-growing suburban areas. There wasn’t a lot of interest then, maybe in part because growth in the 80s was mostly slower, and the Idaho Statesman at Boise, with much larger regional staff operations, seemed to have a clear hold on the area.

Bringing us to the changes happening now, signified by the dropping of “Tribune” from the newspaper’s name. That change saddens me a bit, cutting the last tie to the old Caldwell paper.

But it’s also an indicator of greater breadth and more ambition. And that’s an encouraging thing.

The owners of the Nampa newspaper have in recent years swept up local news operations in Meridian, Emmett and Kuna, and have been pressing into the western Ada County area. The paper now offers home delivery across Ada County, which it never did before. It has expanded its news gathering in Boise, most notably hiring the veteran (and excellent) state government reporter Betsy Russell away from the Spokane Spokesman-Review. All of that expansion is in part justified because the Idaho Press’ owners also own the papers in Idaho Falls, Pocatello and Rexburg, so the costs of state-level coverage can be shared.

But the local expansion has some larger significance.

It comes at a time when newspapers all over the country are retracting and retrenching, becoming shadows of their former selves. Here we have a case - rare but not unheard of in these days - of expansion and growth, and more news rather than less for local readers.

This isn’t inevitable. Other newspapers in Idaho are still maintaining strong news operations. Believe it or not, there’s still a demand for news outside Washington and New York. And a need.

But how that need is filled, is shifting.
 

Shifts of market and region

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Forty years ago one of the big ongoing news stories, and one of the big serious issues, facing the Northwest was the impending shortage of energy supply. We just weren’t producing enough electricity, we were told, to satisfy the growth needs of the region.

All sorts of things happened in those years in an attempt to deal with this problem, not least the massive nuclear power building in Washington state (remember the wonderfully-acronymed WPPSS?) that resulted in economic collapse and massive debt.

What never did happen was this: The Northwest never did run out of power.

Idaho, Washington and Oregon have kept on growing, economically and demographically, in the years since, and adequate supply of electric power has never been a significant problem. Neither, for that matter, has cost; juice has been about as inexpensive in the region through these years as it has anywhere in the country.

One of several reasons for that has been the existence, for 80 years so far, of the Bonneville Power Administration. Headquartered at Portland, the BPA has the job of taking the immense amount of electric power generated by the federal dams in the Columbia River system and selling it to customers, mainly regional and local utilities. Idaho utilities get some of this power, and the state benefits more broadly from the way the cheap hydropower has helped keep electric rates low.

Political threats to BPA’s existence have surfaced from time to time - there’s been a rumbling from the Trump Administration most recently - but the most immediate and maybe most intractable threat right now is economic. It comes not from anyone trying to do it in, but from broader conditions.

These are laid out in a fascinating short report by Idaho economist Anthony Jones and activist Linwood Laughy (he was involved in the Highway 12 megaload battle), who with several others began looking into the economic changes surrounding electric power in the Northwest. Their report (you can see it at http://rmecon.com/examples/BonnevillePower%20May%202018.pdf) concluded that BPA could be facing extinction unless something dramatic changes.

They’re not alone in issuing warnings. Elliott Mainzer, BPA’s current administrator, warned in March, “We’ve taken huge hits in the secondary revenues market just like every other hydro provider up here, with cheap gas, low load growth, and the oversupply conditions. It’s been a bloodbath for folks in the wholesale market. I’m not in a panic mode, but I am in a very, very significant sense of urgency mode.”

That concisely lays out some of the issues. Oversupply - of electric power - has become real, as solar, wind and other power sources have become major factors in the Northwest. As supply has grown, prices have fallen. The big drop came around 2008 and 2009, when “the open market price of power dropped from $90 to $25.” It has not much rebounded in the years since. The declining need for additional power already has reduced the use of coal-fired plants in the region.

BPA has been protected somewhat by long-term contracts with many of its utilities, but some of those utilities are agitating for lower prices from other sources, and negotiations are likely to be fierce as contracts come up for renewal. Traditionally, BPA has made money by selling excess power to California, but California also is seeing a massive increase in renewable energy: It is being flooded with additional power as well. Meantime, BPA has a number of costs, from environmental requirements to pension funds to compensation for dam maintenance, that it cannot reduce. It is being squeezed, hard.

That started about a decade ago, and there’s an easy way to measure it. In 2008 BPA had financial reserves of almost $1 billion; now, only about $5 million of that is left, the rest of it gone to pay for costs when income hasn’t kept up.

The Northwest energy world has been turned on its head since those energy-shortage days of 40 years ago. It may look a lot different a decade from now.
 

Where the numbers went

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Not so many weeks ago, more than a few Idaho Democrats and democratic sympathizers, observing the developing contested primary for governor within their party, were heard to wonder: How many Democrats will be left to vote in it?

The logic went like this: The race for governor likely would be settled in the Republican primary, and among Democrats there was a clear preference among the major GOP candidates: Lieutenant Governor Brad Little was considered much the most acceptable, and Representative Raul Labrador the worst option. (The third major candidate, Tommy Ahlquist, got less visceral reactions.) So quite a few Idaho Democrats, at least anecdotally, said they would cross over and vote for Little. Presumably that would leave, among other things, a smaller Democratic contingent to decide their own party’s race between second-time candidate A.J. Balukoff and former legislator Paulette Jordan.

Not a few Republicans also thought the scenario might play out that way.

So how did it work out?

The shift of Democratic voters across the aisle to the Republican side is hard to measure. We can’t know for sure how many there were. The number of voters (that is, ballots cast) in the Republican contest for governor was up compared to 2014 by about 25 percent; if you factor in population growth and the greater interest in a race with three major candidates, that’s not a tremendous difference. Were there enough Democratic crossovers to give Little his 9,000-or-so vote win over Labrador? Best guess is that those voters didn’t account for all of it, maybe only half or less. The presence of Ahlquist in the race may have been a larger factor.

Bear in mind that Little received 72,518 votes, which is less than his close ally and current Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter received in 2014 (79,779 votes). His vote could be accounted for if just most of the Otter voters stuck with him (as they most logically would have), allowing for some falloff.

One reason for thinking so is in looking at the vote in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. Only about a third as many people voted on the Democratic side as on the Republican, but four years ago the difference was six to one, not three to one. Turnout in the Democratic primary increased by about 150 percent, a massive increase especially when bearing in mind the much higher-visibility Republican campaign.

Across the board, Democratic primary votes increased far more from 2014 than did the Republican (though theirs grew too). Scan down through the other major office races and though the state legislative primaries, and the same holds true. Of course, most people once stuck with one or the other party’s ballot will continue to vote for a number of offices

But the Democratic ballot increase really is remarkable. The number of votes cast in the Democratic primary for governor is the largest ever cast in that party for that office. What was about 25,000 Democratic primary voters (for governor) in 2014 grew by about 40,000 this year.

Was it a coincidence that the recently-completed petitions for the Medicaid initiative activated similar numbers of voters? Might that have helped generate some of the participation?

On Tuesday, voters in Georgia held their primary election, and Democrats there chose (in a hot contest) a nominee for governor who among other things has based the strategy of her campaign not on the goal of reaching out to Republican and centrist voters, but of activating what she maintains is a large corps of non-voters who (she figures) would vote mostly Democratic if they participate.

How many of them actually are out there, or whether they can with certainty be brought into the voting base, no one yet knows for sure.

But the numbers in the week-old Idaho primary election suggest that significant numbers of them actually are out there. Maybe not enough to win general elections. But significant nonetheless.
 

Bill Hall

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Veteran Idaho journalist Bill Hall, for many years editorial page editor of the Lewiston Morning Tribune, died at Lewiston on May 21. I wrote this column (from December 17, 2016) about him, when he opted to end his long-running column in that and other papers. Our sympathies to his family and to his friends, who are legion.

Please pardon the reminiscing, but the time of year encourages it, as did a newspaper column I read a few days ago.

The column from last weekend was by Bill Hall, whose writing base for about six decades has been the Lewiston Tribune. Its message was, that column would be his last.

By the time I arrived at the University of Idaho back in 1974, Hall already was renowned around Idaho for his editorials and columns at the Tribune. Soon after that he departed, for about a year and a half, to work for Senator Frank Church, and there wasn’t a certainty he’d be coming back. But Church lost his presidential bid in 1976, Hall wrote a book about it (“Frank Church, D.C. and Me,” from Washington State University Press, a great read on all three topics) and soon returned to Lewiston.

His departure and his return was much noted and not just in Lewiston, where Hall’s blistering, biting and often funny editorials so often launched political conversation in the mornings. It was a big deal statewide, even in the far reaches of the state, and even in the pre-Internet era. Politically-interested people considered it necessary to get hold of what Hall was saying.

One of the Tribune writers who worked closely with Hall, Jay Shelledy (now a journalism professor at Louisiana State University), was quoted in one article about Hall, “There are not many papers in the United States where the best-read page is the editorial page. Without question, Hall is the best-known journalist in the state's history.”

He learned about Idaho in the three corners of the state, growing up in Canyon County, then attending college and starting his newspaper career in Pocatello. By the time in 1965 he left for Lewiston, he already was well-schooled in Idaho politics. When I arrived at the Idaho State Journal newspaper a decade-plus after he’d left, I often prowled through his writings about local and state politics, using them to fill in gaps in what I was learning elsewhere.

By then I knew where to look because of Hall’s editorials, which I’d read at college and afterward. They were a lethal combination: Well informed and witty, and up for taking on just about anyone. Even Idaho hunters, as he wrote when the idea arose of a wildlife council picking Fish & Game Commission members: “That could be a two-edged sword because it might tend to give a disproportionate voice to those chronic whiners who want to blame state biologists every time they get too drunk, inept, or unlucky to kill an elk.”

Many newspapers shrink from editorial heat, but the Tribune never has. Hall’s view as I heard it was that he was good business: People might yell at the newspaper but they sure kept reading it.

Part of what allowed this to work was the unusual atmosphere at the Tribune, which issued punchy editorials before Hall’s tenure and has continued to since, under the local control of the Alford family. But Hall’s humor has been a critical individual part of the mix. Since his mid-70s hiatus his columns have been humorous, personal, often gentle – different to an almost drastic degree from the sometimes fiery editorialist. But the two sides could never be separated entirely, and a serious sensibility underlies even many of his more recent columns, since he retired from editorial writing in 2002.

No more Hall columns. Hardly seems like Idaho.
 

(Primary) election night

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Tonight, a short running updated blog on the elections. My intent is to keep at it until we get resolution of the key races ... as long as that's tonight ...

11:24p It's mostly wrapped up now; the closest question mark seems to be the lieutenant governor's race. More comments on various of these contests coming soon ...

9:55p Numbers are still incomplete, of course, but returns now indicating a long string of Idaho Republican legislators, a few in the north and a nch in the east, may be lose their primaries. The numbers currently so indicate for Reps. Heather Scott, Jeff Thompson, Julie VanOrden, Tom Loertscher, Ron Nate.

9:25p Waiting on votes from northern Idaho, maybe especially significant in the Republican governor's race, where Raul Labrador has fallen, for now at least, into third place. The north might energize his numbers a bit.

On the Democratic side, the Jordan lead seems to be holding steady.

9:15p Be it noted that there was a special election in Pennsylvania for a state House seat, and it flipped from Republican to Democratic. Pretty much everything else on the ballot today was of an intra-party nature; this was nearly the only thing to amount to a true party contest.

8:55p Ah, the New York Times has faster data.

The Democratic contest foe governor is quite the spectacular. With 17% of precincts in, Paulette Jordan is way ahead, 58% to A.J. Balukoff's 39%, and has been ahead consistently. Blaine County is a big facotr in this - it's nearly all in - but the biggest chunk of the reported vote so far is in Ada County, a third of which has reported, and which theoretically ought to be Balukoff's base. A long way to go, but this could be a significant upset in the making.

On the Republican side, things have been steadier all evening, with a not-massive but steady lead by Brad Little. Of the 17 counties reporting so far, Raul Labrador is leading just two two (Canyon and Jefferson), while Tommy Ahlquist leads in four - leaving Little ahead in 11 of 17. Many numbers yet to come in, but Little has a good, solid start.

And Republican lieutenant governor is still close, and the 1st House district (with Fulcher way ahead) still is not.

8:51p On the Oregon gubernatorial, Buehler seems to have the nomination locked down. But he's getting less than half of the vote, after spending many months (until quite recently) commonly considered the obvious nominee. There seems to be a significant part of the party's electorate unwilling to embrace him. In truth, he's been bipartisan enough that it's not hard to understand. But he's not likely to attract many votes from the other side of the fence, either, in the fall.

Statewide Idaho vote is coming in a little sluggishly, at least on the state website.

8:45p On a local level, have to say I'm surprised that our city's public safety bond - a small one, to build a new and much-needed police building - looks to be failing, and decisively, about 60-40. It seemed to have lots of support, with more than 150 yard signs posted (this in a town of 2,000 people) and lots of positive reaction, only limited negative. (Disclosure: We did some volunteer work for the campaign.) But goes to show you never can take these local tax measures to granted, not that the advocates did - they ran a sound and energetic campaign. But the subject is going to have to be addressed again.

8:29p Early numbers now in both Idaho and Oregon; nothing decisive yet, though. Maybe.

In the Oregon Republican gubernatorial, Bend legislator Knute Buehler is off to a good start with close to half of the overall vote (in a large field); if that holds for a while longer, he may have the nomination sewn up. So far, he's showing leads in all of the populous western and central counties, and his closest competition, San Carpenter, has leads mainly in the low-population rural eastern counties. The theory that a split opposition leads to a Buehler win seems to be holding up. (On the Democratic side, a lightly opposed incumbent Kate Brown has well over 80% of the vote.)

In Idaho, far fewer votes are counted as yet (49 of 961 precincts). The early numbers give a big lead in the 1st House district to Russ Fulcher, with David Leroy in a distant second, and all others bunched far behind; this is looking like what it long seemed to be, which was a Fulcher-Leroy contest (with the edge to Fulcher). The early numbers also are showing a modest but real lead in the Republican gubernatorial for Brad Little, with Raul Labrador in second place and Tommy Ahlquist in a not too-distant third (the percentages early on were about 40-30-25). Some clue about the meaning of that may come in the Democratic primary, where in the early voting Paulette Jordan was running far ahead - about 2 to 1 - of A.J. Balukoff. The large-field lieutenant governor's race looked to be a tight three-way battle between Marv Hagedorn, Janice McGeachin and Steve Yates, and this one is far from settled.

7:48p Most of the PA and NE races, in truth, are not high-stakes in the larger picture. One or two of the PA House races could matter, in terms of whether a party will be well-enough candidate-armed come the fall. That may be true as well in NE-2. And certainly Pennsylvania could be pivotal in deciding whether the House flips. But the individual races tonight, mostly at least, do not seem very determinative. Oregon and Idaho, at least locally, promise to be more so.

7:31p A good chunk of the Nebraska vote is in, enough to discern one of the hotter primaries of the evening so far. Nebraska 2 is the one realistically competitive congressional district there, and it's looking like a close call between Brad Ashford (very narrowly in the lead) and Kara Eastman. Eastman is the outsider, Ashland the legislative veteran. (The winner will face Republican Don Bacon, the uncontested incumbent.)

7:20p A lot of the Pennsylvania numbers are coming in, though it's a little difficult at this point to work out the meaning of many of them. The catch is partly that some of the numbers - including sometimes-pivotal Bucks County - look a little odds, in terms of totals and amounts. For example, in one Republican contest, " A moment ago, 13% of the vote was reporting statewide in Pennsylvania, and Lou Barletta had just a 53-47 lead on Jim Christiana. Now, with 14% reporting—in other words, a fairly small increase in the total vote—Barletta’s leapt out to a 66-34 advantage." Will keep a watch.
 

Choosing the partisans

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Primary elections, one which Idaho holds this week, are in a sense first or preliminary elections - hence the name - but for many people they take on another meaning.

These are the elections in which major party - Republican and Democratic - nominees are chosen. But that’s not all they are. Non-partisan ballots will be filled out by people who do not choose to take part in those party contests - maybe because, well, they don’t consider themselves party members - and other choices remain to be made.

Judgeships in Idaho are non-partisan. That hasn’t always been true; Supreme Court justices were elected as Democrats or Republicans up through the thirties. And most local government offices - including city, school district, highway district and other offices - have long been nonpartisan. (Of the ten largest cities in the country, seven have non-partisan mayors, but New York, Houston and Philadelphia do choose by party.)

This seems like a reasonable point, in this time of party nominee selection, to consider whether all of Idaho’s partisan offices should be.

Some seem to make good sense that way. Legislative offices are logically partisan (only Nebraska runs counter to that) partly because of the organizing and issue development options it offers. Governors and lieutenant governors make sense as partisan offices, because the appointment powers and the need for overt political leadership.

The partisan need for some other offices is less clear, though in many cases the partisan leanings of candidates and office holders emerge anyway. All statewide executive branch offices in Idaho are partisan, but there are exceptions in other states. In Oregon, the commissioner of the Bureau of Labor and Industries (there’s no real equivalent for this in Idaho) is non-partisan, technically, though most recent elections have boiled down to candidates who clearly amount to party favorites. In Washington state, the superintendent of public instruction (similar to Idaho’s) is nonpartisan, though here again the party stance of the office holder usually isn’t a great mystery. In Utah, three offices - the commissioners of labor, insurance and agriculture and food - are non-partisan. In Nevada, the commissioners of insurance and labor are. In California, it’s the state auditor and the secretary for natural resources.

The distinctions between partisan and non-partisan offices often relate to how much a political philosophy plays - or should play - into the handling of the job. For a governor or legislator or member of Congress, that’s obviously going to be considerable. If you’re managing a more technical office where the job mainly consists of properly following the rules, where the input from political philosophy is more limited, maybe partisan considerations should be minor. And maybe the office shouldn’t be partisan.

In Idaho (as in a number of other states), county coroners are elected as partisan office holders. But what’s the difference between how a Republican or Democrat would handle the office? Yes, I can hear the jokes coming, but really: There shouldn’t be any difference.

Ask the same question, then, of a state or county treasurer, for example. Those are the kind of offices usually quietly humming along when they work well; is there a good reason for a party label for their administrators?

How about secretary of state, or county clerk, offices where the administrator has to properly handle the election contests of one party in opposition to another. True, as in other states, those offices have been handled generally quite well by partisan office holders. (Idaho long has been fortunate in that regard, and most other states have too.) But is there any reason they should be partisan? Might voter confidence be a little higher if they were non-partisan?

In a time of low confidence, it might be question worth asking.
 

A pattern for the ballot

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For the elected officials in Boise who just wanted to pass laws as they saw fit and be done with it, the initiative had become a nuisance.

Now, there is the potential for it to become more than that - as a result of the best efforts to hack it away.

The initiative, a process that gained popularity nationally a little more than a century ago, is a way for voters to pass a state law, one with the same standing as a law passed by the legislature. It’s intended to be a way for the voters to get what they want when the legislature refuses to do it. Initiatives are allowed by 24 states, each of which have different rules for getting an initiative on the ballot.

In Idaho, where 14 initiatives have passed since the process was authorized in 1912, initiative access rules have changed over time. The success of ballot measures has been a factor. The last big ballot measures contravening legislative will came in 2012, when three referenda - another type of ballot measure, aimed at rejecting (or sustaining) a legislative-passed law - killed three new laws relating to public schools. When legislators got back to Boise the next year, they passed Senate Bill 1108, which made ballot access for initiative proposals a lot harder. It made access so hard, in fact, that there have been no initiatives on the Idaho ballot since.

The rules had set the bar for ballot entry high already. Before 2013, advocates had to get petition signatures - valid ones, complying with a series of rules - from six percent of all registered voters. Since that allowed for a concentration of votes from the bigger urban areas as enough to pass, the 2013 rules added a provision that the six percent mark had to be reached in more than half of the state’s 36 legislative districts (that is, 18 of them). And they had to do it within a narrow time frame.

So initiative backers this year needed to collect at least 56,192 signatures, and certain portions of them had to come from within certain legislative districts - not just any Idaho voter signatures would do.

The frustration that needed to develop before organizers were able to pull together the volunteer effort needed to accomplish this must have been awe-inspiring. And it appears to be enough. The final checks are still ongoing, but there’s a good chance that the signatures turned in by the May 1 deadline will be enough to ensure a Medicaid expansion measure reaches the statewide ballot in Idaho in November.

That may make for a significant change in state law. (We’ll see: A legislature and governor still have the power to repeal it.)

But more than that, it could serve as a template for political organization.

Think about what those petition signatures - the total number of names could amount to 62,000 or so - could mean. These are people who have in effect become part of an organization, a political organization, one dedicated to changing the law and politics in Idaho. Suppose, as a result of the high level of energy and skill developed, and the contacts and reach engendered, through this ballot effort, the work is turned into future ballot issues. And beyond that: Suppose it becomes the backbone of a new political organization around the state.

For a couple of decades I’ve suggested that one of the best organizing tools Idaho Democrats (or, really, any outsider group with a still-large base of support) could use is ballot issues, partly as an indicator of what the group is for, and partly as a tool for helping it organize.

To make that work, to make it matter, an easy process for achieving ballot status would do little good, since there would be no need for a really strong and large organization.

But the harder that task is, the stronger the organization must be to get the job done.

The Medicaid expansion organization has proven itself highly capable of making a difference. The question its leaders should be asking now is: What should we do next?
 

Primary-speak

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There was a moment in the Idaho Public Television debate last week between the three main Republican gubernatorial candidates when one of them started to talk about something that wasn’t a political cliche.

A little more than halfway through, businessman and physician Tommy Ahlquist was discussing health care policy. A former emergency room physician himself, he talked for a minute or a little more about his observations of the way health care costs have risen, about the lack of transparency in costs and methods, and other problems he observed. He spoke of a meeting in Twin Falls where he asked other physicians how much a particular procedure would cost - and none of them had any idea. (That rings absolutely true: I’ve heard about similar questions and replies in other states.) The subject was compelling and would have been enlightening for a lot of viewers, had he pursued it.

But this was, after all, a debate among the three candidates for the Republican nomination for governor of Idaho, so Ahlquist caught himself and veered into support for “reform” of Medicaid (which he didn’t clearly define, but which at the national level tends to mean moves toward defunding it).

Ahlquist was on stage with fellow contenders Brad Little, the lieutenant governor demonstrating the most specific knowledge about state government, and Raul Labrador, the U.S. representative who spoke most clearly and articulately. All three were fluent in GOP primary-speak - as they should be, having become deeply experienced in the world of candidate forums over the last year - and based on their performance the differences between them at this point seemed to relate more to personality and style than to questions of governance.

All three made sure to use the word “conservative” every couple of sentences or so, as if it were a gulp of air when underwater, or fairy dust or a magic potion sprinkled to brighten the picture or ward off opposition. The word also is never clearly defined, of course; to define it would rob it of its all-purpose use. The only point to be made is that, “I have more of it than you do.”

Asked about President Donald Trump, the basic response from all three was to quibble about his “style” (the word seized on by all three, also left undefined) but to express general approval of what he has done, or hasn’t, substantively. “I see great advancement,” Little said; the others more or less concurred.

The attempts by all three to differentiate themselves - as any good marketer would - seemed especially facile this go-round. Labrador talked, “the courage to make the tough decisions”, Little about how, “Idaho is the envy” of other states (a reference to his larger experience in state government, a resume point he didn’t push too hard), Ahlquist about how, “we need to change the status quo.” Every so often someone would offer a specific data point in support, but those were widely scattered and not effectively linked.

After a year of candidate events, you’d imagine that all of them would be prepared for just about any inquiry at this point, but all three had weak moments. The most jarring may have come when Ahlquist was asked about the proposal to impose criminal punishments for abortion, specifically whether he would sign a recently-proposed bill to that effect. Ahlquist’s weave and dodge wasn’t even artful. Labrador and Little both said they would not sign it. When Labrador then suggested Ahlquist’s non-answer should disqualify him from the governorship, and Ahlquist was given the opportunity to reply, his response was to blast Labrador rather than directly answer.

So. There are lots of data points to use to choosing among the candidates for the Republican nomination, which you could mine from news reports, official statements and other places over a period of years. But on the evidence of their statements and performance in the main debate from last week:

If your concern in deciding who to support or oppose is about who is the “conservative” (however you personally might define that), or if you’re a Democrat or a non-conservative Republican, I have no idea what to tell you. Flip a three-sided coin.
 

A Meridian milestone

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This seems too significant a milestone in Idaho history to go unheralded - and noted for what Idaho is becoming.

From the Community Planning Association of Southwest Idaho (COMPASS), on Tuesday:

“In 1990, the City of Meridian had a population of less than 10,000. Today we estimate a population of 106,410 – a leap of more than 10-fold in 28 years, making it one of the fastest growing cities in the nation.”

That’s not exactly an official number, since it isn’t a U.S. Census statistic, but it’s probably pretty close. Likely it means that after the 2020 census, Meridian will be reported with a population well over 100,000, and Nampa, which will be in third place among Idaho cities, has a good chance of clearing 100,000 as well. (Below that the numbers will fall steeply, down to Idaho Falls at probably about 65,000.)

The city on top, Boise, now is estimated at 232,300 people.

This means those three largest cities, all within a few miles of each other, between them will be home to nearly a half-million people. But even that understates the picture, since COMPASS also estimates the current overall population of Ada and Canyon counties at 688,110. At the current growth rate, if that number is a good estimate, then those two counties may account for close to 750,000 people by the time of the next census.

Idaho’s total population is now estimated at 1.75 million by the Census. If COMPASS is right, then Ada and Canyon alone now account for 39.3 percent of the state’s population. In, say, 1980, that percentage was 27.1 percent.

Put another way, Ada and Canyon together are becoming a much bigger piece of the Idaho population. A generation ago, it accounted for about a quarter of the Idaho population; not many years from now, it may account for half. This is a long-term trend, and it will change Idaho.

What does the future of Idaho look like?

Look at Meridian. When I came to Idaho in the early 70s, Meridian’s population was under 6,000 people; now, you have to add 100,000 to that. They live mostly in a vast expanse of subdivisions and other housing developments.

What has generated that development? At core, it isn’t business or government growth. Lots of businesses and government (and educational and health facilities) have sprouted, but they’re mostly there to service the people who moved to the area. These people moved to a sprawling field of suburbia, a relatively affordable place with lots of new housing and new services. It is a bedroom community, serving the nearby area and its own internal growth.

Don’t expect this to end soon. In the new book (put together by the Association of Idaho Cities and which - disclosure here - I published) called Idaho’s 200 Cities, Meridian saw its future this way: “By 2050 Meridian’s population will more than double with many of its boundaries abutting those of neighboring cities.” That does not sound like an unreasonable projection from where we are now.

The smaller-population areas of Idaho that also have been growing quickly - around Twin Falls and Coeur d’Alene, for example - are similar: Suburbs that look a lot like Meridian.

The people of Idaho were once, in large part, cowboys, farmers, miners and loggers. Some still are, but increasingly they are suburbanites. Look upon Meridian, and see Idaho’s future.