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Dennis and Sheila Olsen

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About the same time I started reporting on Idaho politics back in the seventies, in Pocatello, the Idaho Republican Party chose a new chairman, an attorney from nearby Idaho Falls named Dennis Olsen.

He was tough-minded (smooth diplomacy was not his strongest suit), a fine organizer and a careful watcher of the party’s money - all of which he wanted spent on the campaigns, not left over for anything other than electing Republicans. He was a Reagan Republican when Ronald Reagan was president, and he was there at Idaho Falls when candidate Reagan made his 1980 Idaho appearance.

Dennis Olson died in March 1985, shoveling snow at his house. He had prepared a succession plan for the party organization - a fellow Idaho Falls attorney named Blake Hall would take over - but the ripple effects of his work started closer to home: The deep and long-lasting civic engagement of his wife, Sheila.

Sheila Olsen, who recently died at 79 in Idaho Falls, was at least as important a Republican leader as her husband had been. She too would happily have called herself a Reagan Republican. But she was a different kind of leader, with a different sort of legacy.

She was active in the Idaho Republican Party, less as an office holder and more as a lodestar; the kind of person others looked to for good counsel and guidance. For candidates, her support was eagerly sought; her perspective carried weight. She was an electoral college elector, a post which reflected less personal work or decision-making on her part (or that of any other electors), but rather the esteem she held across the Republican Party. A lot of Democrats and independents held her in high regard too.

She was as active as you could be in the realm of civic pushups. Far from being a partisan obsessive, Sheila Olsen was active in the community in a wide range of roles. She served on the Idaho Human Rights Commission for many years, on the Governor’s Work Force Development Council, the state reapportionment commission, the state Employment Security Advisory Council, and other organizations, including a long list at Idaho Falls, as well. She was highly active in her church too.

What the many people who knew her also knew was something else that might have sidelined many others: For about half a century, she had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, which bore down on her as the years went on. But as one of her children said, “She was a glass-half-full girl. It didn’t matter how hard it was for her to get places or do things — she just still did them without complaining.”

There were various good reasons she was looked up to, but that last point highlights one of the most important: She was a supporter, not a denigrator, a backer, not a demolition activist. She would provide endorsements where she thought them merited, but if you were looking for bombs to throw, you’d need to look somewhere else.

Sheila Olsen came into Idaho politics in a day when partisan issues were clear enough, and loyalties were evident, but when the demonizing that has become so commonplace today had not yet taken hold. It didn’t take hold of her.

Her example would be worth some reflection for us now.
 

The winter coast

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Truth is, I wouldn't choose to live on the Oregon coast in the winter.

But that's only as a matter of calculation, not immediate impressions. I sure am glad to live close by (an hour or less, traffic willing, in my case).

The Oregonian has posted a good reminder of reasons why the coast has such appeal in the winter.

This can seem counter-intuitive. In the winter, the coast is typically not terribly icy or snowy, but the mountains that abut it often are, and roadways inland can become a little tricky. Goods and services are sometimes limited on the coast - people I've known have remarked about the number of times they've had to go to larger cities over the mountains for what they need - despite the large number and broad variety of retailers there. The wind is almost always always a reality, and often roars. The skies usually are overcast. The beaches can be treacherous; the waves often run high.

You don't spend a lot of time out of doors, as a rule, in the winter out on the coast.

But it can be a delightful place. We've often headed there for two or three days (many a New Year's holiday) to hang out at some oceanfront spot. The atmosphere is wonderful.

And that's what the Oregonian piece focuses on. When the weather is relatively good, walks and hikes are available in all sorts of places, minus the crowds of summer. There are rainforests in easy reach (where "a drizzly day on the coast can be magical"). The rainy months can be great for exploring many of the area's waterfalls. Many tourist draws, like aquariums, are as good in the winter. Chowder seems especially tasty in the winter.

And you get to beat the crowds, which are the biggest problem with going there in summer. The tourist town of Seaside, for example, draws the reaction, "come winter, the town is practically empty, allowing for peaceful walks on the promenade, quiet evenings in the local restaurants and less competition at the Fascination tables."

Seems like time to cross the mountains again . . .

ALSO Columnist Barrett Rainey, who until recently did live on the Oregon coast, argues that I insufficiently pointed out the downsides of doing so: "You, Sir, have not lived full time on the Oregon Coast. It may be wonderful to come over for a day or two of storms. But try it daily for a year. Or three. Not so much fun. Your planting areas washed out. Your trees uprooted. Repainting the South and West walls every 2-3 years. Asphalt shingles to replace - maybe annually - maybe monthly. The bridge on 101 between you and the next town disappears. Near daily reminders that the "big one" is coming. Bear and cougar pop up in the damndest places - like your backyard."
 

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.
 

The fork already taken

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This column originally appeared in the News-Register of McMinnville, Oregon, on February 2.

This year’s Oregon legislative session, which begins today, took its biggest fork in the road well before it even convened, on January 23.

That was when voters across the state passed, by a landslide, Measure 101, upholding the taxes approved last year which helped underwrite a big chunk of Oregon Medicaid costs. The measure was a tax increase, of .7 percent on large hospitals and 1.5 percent on most health insurance policies. This plan was supported by the health industry in the state, which recognized that the income from matching federal payments would amount to more than would be paid in taxes (much of which could be passed on to consumers).

If the measure had lost, a huge revenue gap would have opened, along with the risk of health insurance loss for hundreds of thousands of Oregonians, and dealing with that immediately would have become the major and almost only topic for the short session. As it is, an opening for more subjects has appeared. [[referred portions of the law account for between $210 million and $320 million in state revenue, the loss of which could have resulted in possible reduction of federal funds by between $630 million and $960 million. ]]

Not that the cost of health care will vanish from the lawmaking scene. Complaints about last year’s Medicaid funding bill focused more on the tax structure than the need to pay, so adjustments to the formula might still be proposed. Voters almost surely were expressing more a desire to keep the insurance system alive than they were the specific tax plan.

And House Minority Leader Mike McLane said in a statement after the vote, “We must now shift our focus to improving efficiencies within the Oregon Health Authority and in the administration of the Oregon Health Plan. I hope legislators on both sides of the aisle will make it a priority to safeguard and protect the investment in our state government that Oregon taxpayers have affirmed.” That will likely become a subject for discussion.

As will the next Medicaid-related shortfall, which is expected in another couple of years, and many legislators may want to begin planning for that this year.

Short sessions usually have a lot to do with budget numbers, and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, was quoted as saying, “Our budget focus must now shift to the February forecast and the effects federal tax changes will have on state revenue.”

Some participants in the session may try to take another crack at long-running budget issues. Mark Johnson, until last year a state representative and now the new president of the Oregon Business and Industry group, noted in one commentary that, “the costs associated with funding the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) will continue to consume ever-larger chunks of the state budget until action is taken, and that means less money for classrooms and vital services.” He indicated that may be a focus for his group, though it has proven a stubborn issue for years on end, including in longer sessions.

More than budgeting will come up this session.

A good bet for the top non-budget issue, which already has lots of lobbying to back it up, is talk about a state “cap and trade” (or “cap and invest”) system.

Two bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, already have been prepared and released as “legislative concepts”. The whole of the system is complex, but the core of it would involve a limit on greenhouse gas emissions with mandates that large producers buy “allowances” - in a sense, a kind of greenhouse gas marketplace. Payments would be involved, and those would be used to cover efficiencies, help with consumer costs and shore up communities hit by global warming. The hope is that over the years, emissions would be reduced gradually through a system of incentives.

The concept at least has backing from Governor Kate Brown and House Speaker Tina Kotek.

A good deal of money could be at stake, so the basis for intense lobbying is clear. And strongly-worded arguments on both sides already are shaping the debate.

There will be more. Affordable housing has become an increasingly heated subject, especially in the Portland area but elsewhere too, and some effort to deal with it may come up.

In education several legislators (including Democratic Representatives Brian Clem of Salem and Margaret Doherty of Tigard) are suggesting requiring that class sizes be included in labor contract negotiations.

One lobbyist noted that as coordinated care organizations (for regional health care) look ahead to negotiating new service contracts, they may look to the legislature for adjustments in how they are financed.

The recent federal action on solar panel tariffs could lead to some state response on that subject, in a state where solar energy has become increasingly important.

All of this will be happening in a context of something institutionalized - by calendar - and something unusual:

The normal and unavoidable part is that the 2018 session will happen quickly - it will last only about a month - and in an election year. That normally is a prescription for dealing with necessities and emergencies, mainly of a financial nature, and not a lot else.

And there’s an unusual factor: the large number of new people involved, or people who have been around the statehouse but are moving to new positions. An especially large number of legislative personnel changes happened in recent months, including a new Senate minority leader and a new Senate chair on budget.

On top of that, the legislature’s revenue officer, who has held the job for two decades, retired last year.

Sometimes those personnel shifts kick loose legislation that doesn’t ordinarily see the light of day. The odds are this will be a mostly quiet session, with one or two big policy subjects. But then, 2018 may be an unusual political year.
 

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.
 

Pro-Trump, annotated

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On the 17th, the New York Times did an excellent service, turning over its editorial page to backers of President Donald Trump. That offered a useful counterpoint to the Times' own views, which have run deeply in opposition to the president over the last year, and prior.

Those of us who have asked over the last year, "What can they be thinking?" when it comes to Trump support got some answers here, as a page-worth of letters to the editor pitched the Trump case. They offer up a clear picture of what their side of the argument looks like.

One noted, for example, "Some of the many positive results of his policies are a booming economy, low unemployment (record low for black Americans), soaring stock market, lower taxes, the repeal of mandatory health insurance coverage." You can read the whole thing at the Times site.

Those arguments can be broken down to 10 core, frequently-made points (and I'll throw in a peripheral, less-mentioned extra), noted here in no particular order. But each of them also cries out for an annotation, which is also here.

1. "The economy is up ... low unemployment (record low for black Americans), soaring stock market ..." The economy is in fact doing well - now. It is doing almost exactly the same as it did a year ago, in the last year of Barack Obama's administration, and in the years before that, which is to say that nothing much has changed. The point has been made that the stock market made better progress in the early Obama Administration (after a severe crash at the end of the Bush Administration), and the point could be made that a high stock market these days often has more to do with stock buybacks and employee layoffs than it does actual national productivity or prosperity. But the larger point is that many of the same conditions which led us to the 2008 crash are now - blindly - being brought back as policy choices. You say the economy is doing well today? Great. Stay tuned. We'll see how long it lasts.

2. "foreign tyrants are afraid ... putting real pressure on North Korea and Iran ... stronger plans to prevent North Korea and Iran from using nuclear weapons." Here we move into fantasy. Whatever else they are, the leaders of Iran and North Korea seem to be not in the slightest intimidated; they're seeing, to the contrary, a president who can be manipulated with astounding ease.

3. "has largely defeated ISIS in Iraq." The ISIS news out of Iraq is indeed excellent, but this is much like the situation with the economy: The military pattern from 2016 - which involved United States military backup, but not a primary combat role - was in general continued through 2017, with similar results; this was a matter simply of leaving a reasonable policy to run on autopilot. Almost any president likely would have done something similar. You can fairly credit Trump for not trashing it, but that's about as much credit as is reasonable to give.

4. "the repeal of mandatory health insurance coverage." Well thank God we're not required to get health insurance! Who knows what that might lead to? What this provision, slipped in at the last moment (without, God forbid, any hearings or study of impact) likely will do is destabilize the insurance marketplace for us all - which would mean higher prices and reduced coverage. The point of the mandate is to spread risk widely; spreading risk is the point of insurance, period. The ACA may be flawed, but many of its critics seem not to understand even in the most general terms what insurance is or how it works. They should educate themselves about that.

5. "our embassy will be moved to Jerusalem." There are arguments to be made, and some people have made them for decades, about why this might be a good idea; those seem to be heavily outnumbered by the arguments for why it seems more likely to exacerbate tension and conflict in the Middle East. But my point here goes to none of that. It is: How does the location of an embassy in another country benefit us Americans at all? What's the benefit for us? Why is this something for us to celebrate?

6. "tax reform is accomplished." This - the massive bill passed in December - is a fraud. It is not tax "reform"; to call it that is an abuse of the word. When passed, it was so haphazardly put together that even the legislators voting on it did not know what was in it, and there was no time for public exposure or comment. (If there had been, the bill surely would have died.) Beyond that, this comment from conservative commenter Jennifer Rubin: "A tax cut that grows the deficit and gives disproportionate benefits to the rich is a 'win' and 'conservative' because, because … why?" And those recent reports of worker bonuses and the like? Call it a diversionary tactic.

Update: The makers of Kleenex announce layoffs in late January of more than 5,000 nationally. And (in a tweet the next day): "Toys R Us closing 180 stores, Sears closing 63 stores, Kmart closing 45 stores, Macy's closing 68 stores, Sam's Club 63 stores closing, JP Morgan closing several branches." I don't blame any of that on Trump. But don't bother telling me about the job-creating wonders of this tax bill.

7. "has named a number of solid conservative judges." If you're philosophically conservative, I'll give you this one (which would have gone to any Republican elected president). But bear in mind that for a whole lot of Americans, this is a bug, not a feature. Whether this is good or bad depends solely on where you sit, and for a lot of Americans the verdict is not positive.

8. "has prioritized American citizens over illegal immigrants." In terms of rhetoric, Trump has done this, in his fashion. But his approach has had the larger effect of setting Americans against each other. Many Americans have views nothing like the hard-anti-immigrant attitude at much of the core of the Trump base. And much of what we're seeing from that core, egged on by Trump, is cruel and heartless. America has had, since before our nationhood, an ambivalent feeling about its immigrants, but never a president who has whipped up that feeling the way this one has. Actual changes in border crossings, actual practical on-the-ground effects (apart from instilling lots of fear among millions of people) have moved hardly at all in the last year. The emotional climate in the country has changed much more, and not for the better.

9. "has gotten us out of several bad international agreements ... getting out of biased United Nations organizations." Um, no, with the main exception of the Paris climate change accord (which imposed no hard requirements on the United States at all) and to some extent the Pacific trade agreement, he hasn't. We're still in the United Nations. And not much else by way of international trade has much changed. Foreign policy analyst Daniel Drezner points out, "In his first year, Trump can point to no new alliances, trade deals or favorable basing agreements. Trump obsesses (wrongly) about trade deficits, but they increased with both China and Mexico in 2017." And, "The United States is losing its global standing because the world hates Donald Trump. Anyone who tells you differently is selling you something."

10. "has removed a number of wasteful regulations." We hear a lot about "wasteful regulations" but remarkably little about which regulations, exactly, those are. Of course there are regulations that impose needless cost or imposition, and we ought to be targeting and getting rid of them. But that takes effort, time and expertise, none of which have been in evidence over the last year. What we seem to be seeing is a mindless meat-axe, the results of which will come home to roost when we start to discover why those regs were crafted in the first place. Rubin again: "It is not conservative to favor reversing everything President Barack Obama did without regard to changed circumstances or alternatives. That doesn’t make Obama’s political legacy wonderful; it makes those advocating blind destruction without reasoned alternatives anything but conservative."

A bonus argument: "and respect for the flag and the rule of law." Sigh. Respect for the rule of law? Does this really even require a response? Really?

A brief but useful comprehensive rebuttal to all this comes from TV host Joe Scarborough. It's worth a read.

Now as for the list of arguments against Trump, I'm afraid we'd need a list much longer than a top 10 . . .
 

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.
 

Legislative sunshine and shielding

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About a year ago, my wife was sworn in as a member of the planning and zoning commission of our small city (population 2,000). Before she could become a member, this being in the state of Oregon, she had to fill out a financial disclosure statement outlining any prospective conflicts of interest.

The point behind that, as state law says, is to "prohibit public officials from using office for financial gain, and require public disclosure of economic conflict of interest." There's reason for that; people who come before the commission have property and dollars at stake, and with the disclosures on record they can have some assurance that the people making the decisions aren't doing it just to benefit themselves. The level of detail required in the forms comes up for discussion occasionally, but the overall point doesn't.

Most states have requirements somewhat like this, and they tend to become more specific as you move upward in the reach of governmental authority. In the case of legislatures, 48 of the 50 states require financial disclosures. One exception is Michigan. The other is Idaho.

Idaho at least will have to wait a little longer. In November, an interim legislative committee voted to suggest such a law in Idaho, and the committee's chair, seven-term Representative Tom Loertscher, said he would carry it. It wouldn't be one of the most rigorous disclosure laws in the country (it's much like Utah's) but it would set a system in place giving Idahoans a little more confidence in why all of their legislators do what they do.

Today, Loertscher, who also chairs the House State Affairs Committee (which handles such matters as rules for public officials) brought in the measure for introduction. He voted for it, as did the committee's two Democrats. All the other members, all Republicans, voted against. (One of those Republicans, temporarily chairing the committee, did not vote but said he would have been in favor of introducing.) So it stayed un-introduced.

The arguments against? Really, much the same as veterans around the Idaho Legislature have heard for decades. Rep. Steven Harris, R-Meridian: "I think this thing is a huge damper to those who want to challenge us.” Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens: “I just don’t agree that the Idaho public thinks that this body is full of dishonest individuals. I just don’t buy that.” Rep. Christy Zito, R-Hammett: “I feel like we’re on the edge of a George Orwell book with thought police here, asking people to disclose what they think, down the road, may be a conflict of interest.”

If you're sitting almost anywhere but in a legislator's chair, none of this is likely to instill a lot of confidence. Quite the contrary.

Loertscher warned the committee members, “Financial disclosure of elected officials is in your future, because this will happen at some point." He is surely right.

But not today. And not, perhaps, until a few legislators pay a political price for their shielding.
 

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.