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Legislative comparisons

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To form some basis of comparison between this year’s legislative session and those of the past, let’s start with what many Gem State politics watchers maintain was the best ever: The 38th, in 1965.

You could overrate that session because of the collection of personalities in it, people such as James McClure, Cecil Andrus, Vern Ravenscroft, Phil Batt, Perry Swisher, Charles McDevitt, Pete Cenarrusa, Darrell Manning, Bill Roden, and many others who would be important in Idaho politics and government for a generation to come. But the session gets its ace ranking because of what those legislators did.

Maybe foremost, they passed - after hot debate - a state sales tax, which some people liked and others didn’t but which has helped stabilize state finances ever since. But there was much more: setting up a statewide park system, major changes in both public schools and higher education, creation of a state personnel commission, a standard for how state state rules and regulations would be developed (there had been none until then), approval of urban renewal law, upgrading water management and - on top of all that, the first redistricting in Idaho history of legislative districts, one of the toughest tasks a legislature can handle. Were all of these achievements (and many more) clear public benefits? You might get a reasonable argument about that. Were they all aimed specifically at improving life for Idahoans, and making their government work better? Absolutely, and for the most part at least the benefits are clear. That was the focus for these legislators.

One of those legislators, Perry Swisher, who loved to play the contrarian, has argued that the 1947 legislative session (he was not a member but watched it closely) was even better. There’s no question it was both highly productive and well regarded. That session reorganized public schools in Idaho (the state endured the chaos of almost 1,300 local school districts before the legislature consolidated most of them), started state spending for public schools, rewrote worker compensation law, created colleges at Pocatello (which became Idaho State University), Lewiston and Albion, set up the state corrections board and state archives, and much more. Here again, all of this was aimed specifically at providing benefits to people in the state and improvements to how their government worked.

That’s why so many people have regarded sessions like those as examples that later lawmakers might aspire to. It also provides some basis for measurement, some metric of whether a legislature is doing its job.

This year, the widespread talk is over whether the 2021 Idaho legislative session is the worst in the state’s history. Put aside the transitory foolishness - like the normal run of eye-rolling quotes and poor response to a pandemic that is keeping legislators still in session instead of long since adjourned - and the apparent results, as they seem to be materializing now, provide a strong case for the barrel’s bottom.

What will this year’s legacy be?

A few positives seem to be happening. Hemp is being legalized, and wrongly convicted people will receive compensation. And other odds and ends.

But these modest efforts are swamped by the tide of culture-war issues without benefit to the people of the state. Attempts to kill (in effect) the ballot initiative. Attempts to keep the governor from effectively responding to statewide emergencies. Attempts to defang a (highly capable) attorney general’s office. Killing out participation in Powerball over concern about what stands the government in Australia might take. Attacks on “social justice” (of which there are only slippery definitions) in schools - apparently as an excuse to defund schools; which they seem not to like, as witness the concurrent attacks on teacher pay. Even an attempt (passed by the legislature, awaiting voter action) to amend the Idaho Constitution to take some policy-making power away from the voters and give it, in effect, exclusively to the legislature. And even an attempt to put the legislature in charge of local artwork and memorials.

Tommy Ahlquist, a Republican candidate for governor three years ago, was quoted in the Idaho Statesman as saying, “They’re not for anything. They’re really against anything that they don’t like. So we don’t like any government — unless it’s the government we want. We don’t like any control from government — unless it’s our control. They’ll talk local control and freedom for people, yet look at the legislation that they’re bringing up that is exactly the opposite.”

I’m hard pressed to imagine how a legislative session could get much further away from the high achievements like those of 1965 or 1947, than this one.

On the other hand, there’s always next year.
 

Redistricting in Oregon

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It’s coming around again, almost on schedule. But this time - and with impact for a decade to come - Oregon’s redistricting of its congressional seats has particular interest for new reasons.

The redistricting of the U.S. House of Representatives, done to ensure that all the districts have somewhere near the same population, is dictated by the U.S. constitution and has been undertaken for generations by the Oregon Legislature. Legislators have redrawn the lines between the districts since the state in 1892 first was awarded more than one district. But the changes from decade to decade usually have not been dramatic. Partly that’s because long stretches have passed between adding new districts: the third district was launched in 1913, the fourth in 1943, and the fifth in 1983. (As a matter of timing, we’re apparently about due.)

For several generations, even before the fifth and fourth districts, a mapping pattern set in. One of the districts would consist of Portland and its immediate area, and another would include all or nearly all of the state east of the Cascades. Most of the population growth that resulted in new districts happened west of the Cascades but mostly outside of Portland, and the split of that area has made a once smooth line increasingly complex.

Oregon’s remap after the 1970 census gave one district to Multnomah County, one to the northwest corner of the state (including Yamhill), one to the larger southwest area, and one to the east side (with some of Clackamas and Linn counties thrown in). The fifth district added a decade later shifted that Clackamas and Linn territory, along with pieces of the northwestern District 1 and the southwestern District 4, into the new District 5, while Multnomah kept mostly to itself in District 3. Some of the area around Medford was united with the eastern-based District 2 to even out the population.

In the four decades since, those contours have changed remarkably little. District 1 in the northwest, which includes Yamhill County, has shrunk in square mileage as the population of Washington County exploded, but it has remained northwest-corner based. District 5 has shrunk a little too with growth in Clackamas, giving up territory in the Corvallis area to the southwestern District 4. But the basic layout of the districts has not not changed greatly since Oregon was allowed five of them 40 years ago. You’d have to squint to see the difference, in fact, between the two different maps before and after the 2010 census.

This new 2020 census almost certainly will shake things up, however, because Oregon overall appears to have added enough population to justify a sixth congressional district, the only northwestern state to add any.

It will be the object of intense database research by both major parties. One reason is that the U.S. House now is closely divided - Democrats have only a small majority - and every seat is critically important. The other is that the new Oregon seat plausibly could go to either party, and a Democratic miscalculation could even result in flipping one of the current five. The question may come down to whether Oregon’s House delegation in the next decade will be five blue and one red, or four blue and two red.

Of the current House seats, four have been held throughout the last decade by Democrats and the other (District 2) by Republicans.

But the levels of party strength are not the same in all five. The most solidly locked-in district in the last generation has been District 3, which has included most of Portland, and which is overwhelmingly Democratic; there’s been no serious general election contest there in decades. The next most solid is District 2, which is located mostly east of the Cascades with some of the area around Medford; Republicans there have had no close general election races in a long time. District 1 in the northwest (which includes Yamhill County) was somewhat competitive two decades ago but, in the years since, has become heavily blue. The two remaining districts (4 and 5), while represented consistently by Democrats for a couple of decades, are much closer in their partisan balances. In 2016, District 4 - which has been represented by Democrat Peter DeFazio since 1987 - was the closest congressional district in the nation in the presidential contest between Republican Donald Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton; the Democrat won there by 554 votes. It was only a little less close in 2020. But DeFazio’s own races have not been especially close.

In other words, small changes in the contours of Districts 4 or 5 could mean either of those districts plausibly could flip if either incumbent Democrat were to leave.

The carving-out of a new District 6 complicates all this. Oregon after all is decisively but not overwhelmingly a blue state. In the 2020 presidential contest, Oregon voted for Democrat Joe Biden with 56.4% of the vote, and in none of the presidential contests since Democrats started their current streak in 1988 have any of the winners received as much as 57% of the vote. If Oregon has six congressional districts, how many might Republicans, all other things equal, expect to win? Probably two - which would mean a net one-seat gain for Republicans in the U.S. House.

Again, though, things aren’t so clear-cut. Much of the population growth has been in the Portland metro area, and it could be divided in a number of ways. Maps could be drawn, for example, which give Democrats far smaller advantages in one or two districts but spread their numbers out more broadly. That new district could realistically go Democratic or Republican depending on how careful the voting analysts are, and how determined the parties.

The remapping process in some states is run by bipartisan commissions - that’s the case in Washington and Idaho - but in Oregon legislators still are assigned the job. When redistricting was done in 2011, control of the legislature was split, as Democrats controlled the Senate and the governorship (where a redistricting bill could be vetoed) but the two parties shared control of the House. The result was a measure of compromise and little change in district boundaries.

This year, in a process that will probably be running late since final Census returns are running late, Democrats control the governor’s office and the legislature, which could mean a strongly Democratic map is pushed through. That might give Oregon??, which is only mostly Democratic, five of the six House districts. You can find similar results in a number of other states around the country, though mostly in cases benefitting Republicans (Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina being prime examples).

Republicans might decide not to simply throw in the towel. They haven’t got the numbers in the strongly Democratic legislature to pass their own preferred remapping plan but they may, for a time, be able to slow things down with a tactic they’ve used in recent years on other issues: Stage a walkout, to deny one or both chambers a quorum. That would block a vote, for a time at least.

That would come with two problems. First, it probably wouldn’t solve the problem forever: They can’t simply go into hiding for months (or years?) on end. But there’s also a bigger problem. If the legislature fails to draw its own redistricting map, the job then goes to the courts, where Republicans wouldn’t necessarily have an advantage, and which likely would throw out a legislative plan only if a significant legal problem were identified.

Republicans might also consider another piece of Democratic leverage: If the legislature fails to adopt redistricting maps for itself (the other part of its assigned reapportionment work), the job goes to the secretary state: Democrat, Shemia Fagan, who would have wide latitude in crafting the map. Democrats in the legislature could have the option of threatening to throw legislative districting to her if Republicans aren’t cooperative on the congressional maps.

But then, legislative redistricting is a whole other, and also complicated, story.
 

It only took 20 years

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When I last covered an Idaho legislative session as a reporter, in 2001, one of the legislators I was following closely had a bill proposal that seemed, on the surface, to have everything going for it.

He was on the House Agriculture Committee, a member of the majority caucus (Republican, of course) and allied with the chair of the committee, and this was a bill aiming to deregulate an agricultural practice - to free up the marketplace. He had significant support for the idea around the state, and the proposal he had was making strides around the country. And it allowed only for limited, narrow usage.

This should sound like a prescription for easy passage in the Idaho Legislature. But the legislator was Tom Trail, who was considered suspiciously centrist by some in his caucus, and the deregulation - actually, legalization - was of the crop called hemp.

Trail delivered an entirely compelling argument for the bill at House Agriculture. He got no traction at all. There were no strong arguments against his bill, just a lot of shuffling of feet and a bunch of (semi-embarrassed?) “nay” votes.

He would go on to try again. No luck. The votes just weren’t there.

After Trail left the legislature, others would pick up the effort. Occasionally someone would find a way to score a few more votes, but never nearly enough to actually pass the bill.

This went on for most of the last 20 years.

Hemp, which is related to but different from the cannabis plants that produce marijuana, was swept up in the 1970 federal controlled substances act. In the new century, however, states began experimenting with allowing the crop under state laws. They had motivation: Hemp has been a cash crop in America since the time of the Revolution. You can make clothes, paper, rope, paint, animal feed and much more. Many other countries around the world make plenty of money from it.

When Republican Kentucky Senator Mitch McConnell went to bat for hemp, one think-tank report noted that he “understood much about this issue. First, he knows hemp doesn’t get you high and that the drug war debate that swept up hemp was politically motivated, rather than policy-oriented. Second, Kentucky—the leader’s home state—is one of the best places to cultivate hemp in the world, and pre-prohibition the state had a robust hemp sector. Third, the grassroots interest in this issue was growing in Kentucky …”

After a 2014 change in federal law allowed for pilot programs in hemp manufacture, states nationwide swept into the field - in 2016 alone, states from Alabama to Colorado to Hawaii eased back or reversed completely their rules on hemp. In 2018 Congress essentially legalized commercial hemp production, drawing a distinction between that product and psychoactive cannabis. By last year, every state but Idaho and Mississippi - which relaxed its rules somewhat too - allowed for hemp as a crop.

Idaho now seems on the verge of hemp legalization. Last week, a hemp bill cleared the legislature and is headed for the desk of Governor Brad Little; his signature seems more likely than not.

So what has been Idaho’s problem with hemp all these many years?

In short: It’s a culture war thing. One year momentum seemed with with the crop, but then a retired prosecutor declared, “The culture of hemp is the culture of marijuana,” and, well, that was all it took. No legislator wanted to be identified with the “culture of marijuana,” and actual facts became irrelevant.

Legislation, rules that help people and communities thrive or fail, these days live or die in many legislatures, Idaho’s not least of them, depending on where they seem to sit in the culture wars. Actual benefits and harm seem seldom considered with any seriousness.

That doesn’t mean you can’t pass actual useful, as opposed to culture war, legislation.

But on the evidence of the hemp bill, you might figure on it taking you 20 years.
 

The new news

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Four decades ago at this time of year, the Idaho Legislature was, as it is now, nearing its close. It was a different legislature then, and a different corps of news reporters covered it.

My legislative directory from the 1981 session (yes, I’ve kept it after all these years) included, as the directories have before and since, lists of the news organizations accredited to cover the legislature. The 1981 list included two wire services, nine newspapers (Moscow, Idaho Falls, Nampa, Pocatello, Lewiston, Twin Falls, Meridian and two from Boise), four television stations from the Boise area (including Idaho Public Television) and four radio stations.

The directory from this year’s session includes fewer in each of these categories (except television stations, which are organized and affiliated differently). Fewer reporters from these organizations are full-time at the Statehouse, and overall probably spend fewer reporting hours there.

Except . . . I left something out of that newer listing that wasn’t in the old one, a new type of news organization: The non-profit.

The Idaho Statehouse for some years has seen energetic work from the Idaho Education News, a web-only news service which specifically covers education issues in the state but also keeps a close eye on legislative activities. A nonprofit organization staffed by experienced journalists, it has done a highly creditable job. Skeptics at the start noted that major funding came from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation, which had an interest in a number of education issues. But the IEN operation has proven itself as reliable, independent and a highly useful information source. (Disclosure: I make use of some of its reports for one of my publications.)

It offers some precedential hope, for people interested in seeing more public affairs reporting in Idaho, and for another non-profit news organization that started just last week, in time to catch the tail end of the current legislative session: The Idaho Capital Sun.

Allied with a group of nonprofit state-level news organizations around the country, the Sun describes itself as Idaho’s “newest nonprofit news organization delivering accountability journalism on state politics, health care, tax policy, the environment and more.” Its editor is Christina Lords, who until not long ago edited the Idaho Statesman daily newspaper, and others on staff also have newspaper backgrounds. Lords described the organization as “a small — but mighty — team of experienced Idaho journalists interested in diving into these issues and more as Idaho’s newest nonprofit online journalism outlet. We’re a part of our parent organization, States Newsroom, which has outlets in 20 other states, including our neighbors Montana and Nevada.”

This Idaho development is part of an under-reported national trend. Non-profit news gathering is growing, while for-profit news gathering has been shrinking in size (notwithstanding recent expansions in some places, like the Adams newspapers in southern Idaho). That carries pluses and minuses, but the differences can be subtle. Both are reliant on their income sources - chiefly donors for one, advertisers for the other - and could be subject to external influences.

But the new organizations also come with a lot of potential. The Sun, for example, gives as its purpose “relentless investigative journalism that sheds light on how decisions in Boise and beyond are made and how they affect everyday Idahoans.” That’s specifically what the people who set it up and lead it expect of it, which is much more ambitious than most of Idaho’s (or other) traditional news organizations can say.

A lot will depend now on how many people read it and contribute to it. The Sun and its kin have a significant challenge.

The press corps is changing, but some of the changes may help make up in years to come for some of what we’ve lost. At least, we have some improving grounds for thinking so.
 

Universities, ethics and social justice

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In 1976 Harvard University President Derek Bok wrote an article asking, “Can Ethics Be Taught?” Concluding that it could and should be, about a decade later (no point in hurrying these things) he asked a new hire to set up a system of "problem-oriented courses in ethics" covering a range of disciplines.

The ethics center at Harvard grew rapidly, as a history of it recounted: “The Center's accomplishments have multiplied exponentially, but so have the complexities of modern life. As the need for leaders who can make sound moral judgments in public and professional life increases, the wisdom of establishing a Center with the mission of promoting ethics teaching and research is more apparent today than ever.” There is some logic to that - to at least developing thinking, not necessarily prescription - to the subject, because our knowledge so often outruns our moral wisdom.

Ethics instruction in American colleges, and even in public schools, goes back many years, but it has expanded into practical ways in recent years. One website noting some of the courses available listed, for example, Moralities of Everyday Life (Yale University), Ethics, Technology and Engineering (Eindhoven University of Technology), Data Science Ethics (University of Michigan), and Effective Altruism (Princeton University) among many others.

Might this become a subject of controversy? Easily, and has at Boise State University. There, a couple of weeks ago, the institution suspended its main set of courses in the area, under the grouping of University Foundations 200: Foundations of Ethics and Diversity, after “We have been made aware of a series of concerns, culminating in allegations that a student or students have been humiliated and degraded in class on our campus for their beliefs and values.”

There was no further explanation. About the same time, the Idaho Legislature took the unusual step of budgeting for each individual higher education institution - instead of, as traditionally, leaving the higher education split to the state Board of Education - and cut $409,000 from the Boise State budget … with the intent of slicing into any nefarious “social justice” activity.

This week (with the legislature in recess?), the university reversed and said UF200 “will resume immediately online and asynchronously. Students will engage with faculty, receive and submit assignments, complete the course, and achieve their learning outcomes online …”

Why was any of this controversial and a reason for a slashed budget by the legislature? In the rhetoric of today’s culture wars few phrases evoke more visceral disgust than “social justice,” unless maybe “diversity.”

To get more specific, we can look at what’s under this University Foundations 200 umbrella. How radical is it? Look for yourself on the university’s UF200 webpage, which describes the course options (students can choose up to a few among several dozen).

The summary says, “Ethics guide how we ought to live, and we live in a diverse society with other individuals and groups. UF 200 courses help students investigate how we practice our ethics together as engaged citizens creating an inclusive community.” That sounds not far off from the kind of university ethics courses higher education students have encountered for hundreds of years.

The various courses cover such topics as hospitality, community, “refugee immigrant,” moral courage, technology, film/literature, social inequality, and moral issues that crop up in specific places (such as a course looking at morality in the Harry Potter books). The idea, in a well-taught course (and some may be better-taught than others), is to open students’ minds to a range of ideas and perspectives they might not otherwise have encountered. Could this be the legislator’s real problem with the whole enterprise - by which I mean higher education?

Some course elements - a few among the many options - do get into contentious terrain. The course on intersectionality, for example, is described this way: “we first delve into intersectionality, a lens coined by Dr. Kimberlé Crenshaw. We then begin to explore how power and privilege impact the way we live our lives and what we have and don’t have access to (i.e. healthcare). Once we have a solid understanding of identity, power, and privilege, we explore different families of ethics: the ethics of the person, the ethics of happiness, the ethics of virtue, and the ethics of relationship.”

The key to something like this, as with many university courses, is in the specific approach: Offering exposure to new ideas and challenging minds to critical thinking, as opposed to insisting upon the rightness of those ideas.

The fact that there’s a public controversy about this proves the need for it.
 

Evidence the pandemic isn’t over

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We’re all looking ahead eagerly to pocketing those masks and getting back to social lives and places, and we ought to be able to do most of that as we get toward mid-year.

In the “ought to” lies a catch, which is this: We need to put in the effort to get it done.

It isn’t done yet. In Idaho, as this is written, of the 176,802 Covid-19 cases reported so far, most happened last year - but 14,120 of those have been reported just since January, a rate not far short of the virus explosion last spring, with significant recent spread around Idaho Falls and Boise.

The arrival and use of vaccines and effective tactics like masking give us the opportunity to arrest that growth in the season ahead.

But it’s just an opportunity. We can blow it. Even now, we can see new superspreader events spreading cases once again.

Just look at the Idaho Legislature, which seems more interested in stopping anything that might end the pandemic than it does in, well, ending it.

Last week as I tended to tasks around central Boise, I remarked to a few people that I would be avoiding virus hot spot locations like the Statehouse. It was only a half-joke then. It’s not a joke at all now.

The Idaho Statehouse really is high-risk: Seriously, you shouldn’t go there if you don’t have to.

The last week saw a string of Idaho House members catching the bug (the Senate has not been immune in recent months either). As this is written, four House members are staying away from the Statehouse (as they should) because of positive Covid-19 tests.

The Associated Press reported, “All four lawmakers out with the illness are Republicans who rarely or never wear masks.” To judge from streaming video, that assessment could apply to most Idaho legislators, who gather and talk in close quarters with many people, inside and outside the Statehouse, and then travel to and from their districts across the state on, frequently, a weekly basis.

That quote came before the report on Thursday about two more House members testing positive. One of them, the usually-masked James Ruchti, remarked, "It feels like it's getting out of control here. Which I guess is the definition of a pandemic, huh?"

This is a legislature where, as the AP also notes, “A major goal of GOP lawmakers in the Legislature this session has been curbing the emergency powers of the Republican governor to respond to things like pandemics.”

This is not how you get a pandemic under control; in fact, a better superspreader could hardly be devised. Legislative leaders would be wise to insist on Covid-19 testing of all members on a regular basis; while four House members are reported as ill, many more could be asymptomatic carriers. At least one of those four House members almost didn’t take a test, after a physician initially had diagnosed her coughing as resulting from seasonal allergies.

House leaders appear to have opened the possibility of calling a pause in the session; probably they’re hoping the session will end on its regular schedule without having to do that. It’s a high-stakes gamble.

Another question that ought to be put to Idaho’s legislators - all of them - is: Have you taken or scheduled your vaccination yet? They all should do so, immediately, because the risk to themselves and to others is significant, and they should be encouraging, in strong terms, their constituents to do the same thing. (Disclosure: I’ve taken my first shot and my second is scheduled.)

The sooner we do what we must get the pandemic past us, the sooner it in fact will be past us. The people most eager to pretend we don’t need to do that, are the people who will slow us down.

Remember that the next time you see your friendly local legislator, and be sure to ask whether they personally are part of the solution or part of the problem.
 

Degrees of loyalty

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Putting aside the Covid-19 relief bill and Dr. Suess, the big news in Washington this week - among close watchers of politics - was the surprise announcement that Republican Missouri Senator Roy Blunt, who had been expected to seek re-election next year, will instead retire from Congress.

There is an Idaho connection here. Bear with me.

Blunt has been a Capitol Hill mainstay, a two-term senator (first elected in 2010) and seven-term House member (first elected in 1996). He has been a leading figure in the Republican caucuses in both chambers, more or less toward the philosophical center of each. His 2010 and 2016 elections were relatively close, but Blunt has had a strong electoral record in a state which has been trending toward his party, and was widely favored to win next year.

Is there some political reason he might want to opt out - some reason why he is not the first but rather the fifth Republican senator to opt out for 2022, a mid-term year in which candidates of the party not holding the White House usually do well?

Could be. Blunt has not been one of the members of Congress known for criticism of Donald Trump and voted for him twice in impeachment cases, but he has offered a few tart comments here and there. He is maybe a 96 percenter, not a 100 percenter, not a full-throated all-the-time and every-hour lay-down-my-life defender of the former president and all the various conspiracy theories and cultural battles associated with him; he has tried, in other words, to take the job of senator seriously. You could also say that he is in no sense an outsider; he is very much a part of the Washington establishment, and - here’s the point - in some places that’s a significant negative mark.

In today’s environment that may be enough to generate a primary challenge from the hard core.

Now: Does the description of Blunt remind you of anyone in the Senate from, oh, Idaho?

Senator Mike Crapo, who is up for re-election next year, and has given some indications that he will run again, matches up with Blunt in a number of ways. He too served first in the House (first elected there in 1992) and has been in the Senate for a while (first elected in 1998); 2022 will mark three full decades in Congress for Crapo. He is part of the establishment; he cannot plausibly be regarded as an outsider insurgent. Much of what you could say about Blunt (like him or not) you could also say about Crapo, and for that matter about the other four senators announced for retirement: Richard Burr of North Carolina, Rob Portman of Ohio, Richard Shelby of Alabama and Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania. One news story remarked, “Each is the kind of legislator out of fashion in the party today.”

So, assuming Crapo runs (which for now looks to be the case), might he draw a challenge from within the party?

He hasn’t done anything to go out of his way to draw one, but in today’s environment Republican loyalty isn’t a matter of checking off the boxes: It’s also a matter of culture and intensity.

That’s what’s been bouncing against Governor Brad Little, who seems highly likely to draw a challenger from the activist wing of the party, someone like Lieutenant Governor Janice McGeachin or former Representative Raul Labrador or maybe someone else. The atmosphere will almost guarantee significant support - maybe enough to win, maybe not - for any serious challenger to the governor, and he may not be the only office holder so targeted. (Attorney General Lawrence Wasden comes to mind too.)

Might Crapo draw someone like that as well?

That’s not a prediction such a challenge would necessarily succeed. A de facto slate of activists ran for a bunch of major offices in Idaho in 2014, and hit a wall. That may happen again.

Or maybe the environment will be different.

One year from now, the 2022 primary election will be deeply underway. We’ll know in a few months what the current political environment in Idaho generates for that round. But it may be more worthy of close watching than is now apparent on the surface.
 

Turning point

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Not so many years ago, House Bill 226 probably would have passed with a unanimous vote and likely no contrary debate at all in the Idaho House.

The reason - and the reason comes down mostly to just one - it failed, can be pinpointed. The debate on the main floor vote, lasting roughly an hour, is well worth watching, and you can see it for yourself.

The bill was floor sponsored by Representative Paul Amador, R-Coeur d’Alene. (In fact all of the main floor debate featured only Republicans.) The bill involved renewal of about $6 million in pass-through funding, a continuation of a program the state has participated in (without controversy), in the form of a federal grant - from the outgoing Trump Administration - with favorable comments from Idaho’s two Republican senators. The money would be under control of the state Board of Education.

The $6 million would go to local organizations, many of them in Idaho’s smaller and rural communities, to “provide education resources for children ages birth through five - in multiple formats - and support locally-controlled, high-quality, and family-focused programs and educators that support the optimal growth and development of young children.” The local programs would be designed and run by local committees made up of local people. An in-state non-profit organization called Idaho Association for the Education of Young Children would, under the state board’s oversight, distribute the money and provide assistance to the locals. The program had plenty of support from parents and educators around the state, and a number of state representatives had been personally involved and vouched for it.

Amador delivered a clear, airtight case for the bill.

But its chances of passage fell apart as soon as he finished his debate and Representative Priscilla Giddings, R-White Bird, stood up.

She had been doing some “digging,” she said, and found the Idaho nonprofit was linked to a national organization, on whose website she found documents with some worrying language. “I don’t understand a lot of what is going on in our education system,” she said, but opined: “It is a world wide battle, it is so imperative that we fight for the hearts and minds of our little ones.”

Specifically, even watching the debate online, you could tell the atmosphere in the House changed when Giddings said she had spotted the phrase “social justice curriculum” and “critical race theory” and references to racial and gender equity. “I do not believe you are privileged based on your gender or your race,” she said - in an efficient but sharp turn into culture war - and adding, “So what is social justice and why are we teaching it to our children?”

“Please let’s not indoctrinate our kids,” she said. The state and local control over the structure and content in the actual Idaho program were all but forgotten the minute she waved the red flag words.

The red meat catchphrases - those with some juice this year, which will be different from those magic incantations next year - opened the door for the negative debate following.

Representative Ron Nate: “Can you see the forces lined up against Idaho choosing education for itself and for its preschoolers? Can you see the forces lined up against families and against communities? We think federal money is free. But it's not. It comes with controls. … the control is absolute, and the cost of freedoms lost is unaffordable. Say no to social justice being taught in Idaho preschools.”

Representative Barbara Ehardt spoke about a conference in New Orleans on early childhood education she attended, and said she perceived that motherhood was being denigrated there: “I don’t think for the most part these women and I shared very much in common, anyway I’m going to vote ‘no’.”

Representative Charlie Shepherd: “Any bill that makes it easier or more convenient for mothers to come out of the home and let somebody else raise their child – I just don’t think that’s a good direction for us to be going. I realize this bill is trying to help with early childhood care but are we really hurting the family unit in the process?” (After public uproar, he tried walking some of this back the next day.)

The bill failed 34-36; House Speaker Scott Bedke, by the way, voted in favor of it.

Going to show how you can use the magic culture war incantations, to defeat practically any bill at all.

Welcome to what passes for deliberative decision making in the Idaho Legislature in 2021.
 

The important people

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The theory is that public officials are supposed to stand up, and work on behalf of, the whole public - everyone in their area: The people of the United States for a president, the people of Idaho for a governor of Idaho, and so on. We all should be considered equally important to the officials we elect.

Of course, things aren’t quite that simple. Smaller groups of people can petition to their government for laws they think beneficial for them, too. Such laws are passed on a regular basis, and often create no real controversy. But what about a proposed law that pits a small minority against the clear, significant, definable interests of a much larger majority?

Then, apparently, it depends on who that minority is. And you can tell a lot about a Congress, or a legislature, when you observe who it caters to.

This brings us to Idaho House Bill 140.

Proposed by Representative Priscilla Giddings of White Bird, it would add a new chapter to Idaho law called the "Medical Consumer Protection Act." This sounds good, except that protecting medical consumers is quite a reach from what it does; very much the opposite, in fact.

Its core language is simple, and says this: “The state of Idaho and any political subdivision in the state may not enter into a contract with an employer or company that engages in discrimination against un-vaccinated persons. No employer or company having entered into a contract with the state or any political subdivision in the state may engage in discrimination against unvaccinated persons. An employer or company that violates this section is in breach of its contract with the state or respective political subdivision in the state.”

In other words, any company doing business with the state or any local government would run into legal trouble if it tried to require that employees, even those dealing with people who are at risk for serious illness, be vaccinated. The Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions related to it clearly are the trigger for the bill, though they aren’t mentioned and the bill would apply much more broadly.

Giddings said the bill “just takes taxpayer money out of the equation, so taxpayer money isn’t being used to endorse 100 percent compliance (with vaccine mandates).” Combatting life-threatening pandemics evidently is, then, something governments shouldn’t be in the business of doing. It would also, as Representative Fred Wood of Burley (a physician, and a no vote on the bill) said, create a new class of protected people under civil rights law . . . and not a very good choice for one.

Putting that aside, there are practical issues.

Representative Lauren Necochea of Boise, cited one of many: “Imagine a cancer treatment center, where everyone who comes in for care is immuno-compromised. That’s a place where you want to make sure employees are vaccinated during a bad flu outbreak.”

Or imagine an assisted-living or nursing center - the kind of places where Covid-19 gained such purchase - or even prisons.

Giddings’ bill is a response to the anti-vaxxer groups who, not content with putting their own lives at risk, want a legal guarantee that they can endanger the lives of anyone else they choose.

It pits one small group determined to make a point against the well-being and lives of lots of other people.

The Idaho House has passed this bill, 49-21, and it goes now to the Senate.

You will be able to learn a lot about the Idaho Senate, and maybe the governor as well, and about who and what they consider important, from what happens next.