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Posts published in “Stapilus”

Too eager

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You can’t read thoughts, but you do have to wonder if someone at Alta Mesa is thinking this:

We didn’t think they’d respond this way, because on the front end they gave us no reason to think they would.

Cast your memory back to early in this millennium and the enthusiastic response from many people in Idaho, and so many state officials, to the prospect of serious oil and gas production in Idaho.

For decades oil and gas development in Idaho was slight, and even now it’s not enormous; modest in size and largely limited to one corner of the state. But it got serious in 2005 when a private firm began leasing mineral rights in the Payette County and the nearby area, and started exploration wells, which showed enough promise to warrant continued research.

The big player has been Alta Mesa Company, a Texas-based organization whose spokesman in 2014 referred to Idaho’s “very friendly climate and environment for doing the work.” That same year Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter called the prospect of more drilling “very exciting.” During a tour of the facilities he also said, “This is a long-term investment that will not only benefit the companies doing it but also the state of Idaho.” (The next year Otter was rated at a perfect 100 percent by the Independent Petroleum Association of America.)

With all that in mind, Idaho’s laws on oil and gas drilling were changed several times in the last decade, and the commission governing oil and gas spun off from its old role as an alter ego of the state land board and into a free-standing commission. The Idaho severance tax rate is especially low, and the royalty rate is the same as oil-friendly Alaska’s. What’s not for an oil or gas company to like?

Moving forward to late 2018, the picture surrounding Idaho gas and oil extraction looks a little different.

In late November, Idaho regulators settled with Alta Mesa, which now has hundreds of oil and gas leases in southwestern Idaho, on a variety of issues.

A few samples show the tenor. In September the state required Alta Mesa to pay overdue royalties and provide other required information. It followed up weeks later with another warning that if the materials weren’t provided by late January, the state “may terminate the leases and begin eviction proceedings.” In October the state sent a violation notice to Alta Mesa for failing to get state approval for working on a well. Also that month, the state subpoenaed the company for other records.

This is the same state government that only a few years earlier went out of its way to encourage the development.

These issues seemed to reach a settlement by the end of November. But the state is far from alone in its concerns about the development.

Back in August a federal district judge held that, as one news story put it, “Idaho officials violated the U.S. Constitution by forcing several landowners to sell their natural gas and oil to a Texas company without giving them a meaningful way to fight the state’s decision.”

And yes, there have been landowner protests which have begun to change the political climate surrounding their activities.

Economic developments no less than political are Newtonian: For every action, an equal and opposite reaction. Sometimes they take awhile to develop, but eventually develop they do.
 

Speed

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Every so often, I have need to travel across Oregon, and that's a long way.

The Portland to Ontario stretch of Interstate 84, alone, is about 375 miles. At 65 miles an hour, that's a drive of five and three-quarter hours (at speed limit, non-stop). At 70 miles an hour, you can shave a half-hour off that. Not massive, but it adds enough. It can make a difference.

For decades speed limits on Oregon roads famously were lower than almost anywhere in the west; cross the border into California or Nevada or Idaho or Washington, and you could instantly speed up. That also means plenty of drivers passing through those states probably speed right through Oregon, too.

More recently speeds have risen, not by a lot but somewhat. Beginning in March 2016 most interstate speeds east of the Cascades went from 65 to 70 miles an hour, and some highways in very lightly populated area - much of Highway 97, for example - went from 55 to 65.

The increases were resisted for a long time by safety advocates concerned that higher speeds could lead to more fatalities.

Maybe they have. The Eastern Oregonian at Pendleton reported this week that in the months after the speed increase in 2016, fatalities along the affected roads did increase, noticeably. (The story then went into some of the grisly details, of course.)

However, it also noted that the fatalities dropped in 2017, while inching up again this year.

So what do we draw from this?

First, the numbers of fatalities were still not large, and amounted to a small sample size. They added up to 11 crashes on those hundreds of miles of affected roads, including massive stretches of busy interstates. The numbers were small enough that drawing serious conclusions about the effect of the change in speed limits - just five miles an hour on the freeways - would be problematic.

Second, the decrease in the number of fatalities in the second year suggests that maybe there wasn't much of an effect or, if there was, that people were adjusting to it.

It's something worth continuing to watch. But there's not enough here to draw many conclusions.
 

Red, blue and purple

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What’s a red state, or county, or city for that matter? What qualifies as blue? What’s purple?

The lines are not as perfectly clear as we sometimes like to think. The point came back to me with an email from a Democrat in Valley County, who took issue with a characterization I made of his county.

Noting that Valley voters backed Proposition 2 (Medicaid expansion) 67.3 percent, I went on to describe the place as “strongly Republican.” My correspondent countered that Valley is not “very red” and “I would say is a purple county.” In support of that, he cited a Democrat elected to the three-member county commission, and that Democratic gubernatorial candidate Paulette Jordan received 46.97 percent of the vote in the general election. These might be indications Valley is gradually moving toward a less-red hue.

But consider a few other factors.

Democrat Dave Bingaman did win a commission seat, with 46.2 percent of the vote (an independent got some of the rest, denying anyone a majority). But Bingaman was the only county-level Democrat on the ballot. Assessor, clerk, treasurer, coroner and another commission seat all went to Republicans without a contest. That’s not an indicator of a purple county.

Republican congressional candidate Russ Fulcher won Valley 51.2 percent to 41.7 percent, and with one exception (superintendent of public instruction) Republicans won there for all the statewide offices. And for all three state legislative seats (though in one of them the Republican margin in Valley was held to a thin 52.5 percent). Two years ago in 2016, Republicans won all the county and legislative races, most of them uncontested by Democrats. Donald Trump won Valley County with 54.3 percent of the vote - not a close call.

So, with all respect, I’ll stick with the characterization of Valley as a Republican county.

But, a qualification is called for, even in Valley County’s case.

At what point might we say a county is blue or red turf? I’ll suggest: When it routinely and ordinarily (not necessarily always) votes for candidates of one party. It shades purple when these outcomes get hard to predict regularly.

By that standard, there’s one blue Idaho county: Blaine, because of the deep blue vote based in the Wood River Valley.

A few others are more competitive. Consider Teton County, purplish tingeing toward blue. Trump won there in 2016, but by all of eight votes; Republicans won that year for U.S. Senate and U.S. House as well. This year, however, Democrats swept Teton, winning for all of the contested statewide and most of the county offices. Teton has elected local officials from both parties in contested races in recent years; no one should take it for granted. That’s purple.

What about Ada County? While Boise City is blue - look at the legislative delegation there, and the vote percentages Democrats have been getting there - the rest of the county has been red enough routinely to tip Ada Republican. In 2016 Trump won decisively in Ada, as did three Republicans for congressional offices. The 2018 results were far more competitive: Democrats won for governor, lieutenant governor, superintendent of public instruction and lost for secretary of state and attorney general. They won two county commission seats and coroner, lost for clerk and treasurer. The county’s legislative seats split 13 Republican (pending one recount) and 14 Democratic. The two congressional districts in the county went in opposite directions. On the basis of 2018 Ada looks purple. What will 2020 show?

So, Valley County? The growing parts of the county (like McCall) seem to be moving in a purple direction. Possibly one reason Democrats haven’t fared better there is that they have fielded so few candidates locally. Put up a few more, and that purplish tinge might in fact start to grow. Let’s see what it looks like in another couple of years.
 

Why how you do it matters

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For all the many ways Oregon has organized itself governmentally in better and more advanced ways - mail voting, for example - ahead of lots of other states, it remains behind the curve in one important respect: Redistricting.

Legislative and congressional reapportionment is still done in Oregon by the state legislature - the old-fashioned, partisan and messy way. Three of the states around Oregon - California, Idaho and Washington - offloaded the job to redistricting commissions, set up to give the parties balance and avoid the prospect of a gerrymandered map being shoved down the throat of a minority, something that has happened (as we know) in a number of states.

The situation in Oregon has not been quite that unhappy, yet. In 2011 the legislature completed a redistricting map which passed with a strong bipartisan vote. That happened in large part because the districts were drawn so that incumbents of both parties would be relatively protected, so few lawmakers had much basis for personal grievance. It worked, politically, but the map was far from optimal on any basis other than incumbent protection. And it probably was an improvement over a decade earlier when the legislature did not get a map passed into law and the map was drawn by a court.

The commission approach, simply, is better. But how a commission works is important.

One approach, a proposed statewide ballot issue, is being floated by Kevin Mannix, a Republican and a former legislator and candidate for governor. It would set up a redistricting commission made up of 11 members. Fine so far, but there's a catch: The members would be chosen by county commissioners, who would get to fill seats based in part on whether the local commission is partisan or not - and that varies among the counties.

It also would have two other effects. It would give tremendous clout, well in excess of their actual population, to the rural counties, which much outnumber the urban. It also would have a clear effective partisan effect: There are a lot more Republican counties in Oregon than urban; in most elections elections, Democrats win because they sweep a relative handful of the largest counties. The Mannix proposal would turn that situation on its head. (It also would affect only legislative, not congressional, remapping.)

You probably can figure his proposal won't fare well at the polls.

There's another proposal out there too, backed by the League of Women Voters. The one - which the group plans to submit to the legislature for action there - would try creating a relatively neutral commission selection process. They would be, as one news story said, "applicants would be screened for conflicts of interest and randomly selected," and be chosen from a pool of politically uninvolved people.

Hmm. While the idea of redistricting sheltered from political self-dealing has some appeal, so does the idea of redistricting done by a group of people who know what they're doing. Anyone who really has no opinion about how such a map should look may be someone who doesn't know much about the state or state politics, and that's probably not a great place to start either.

Most state redistricting commissions start with the presumption that maps will favor this side or that in various places, but also with the assumption that the advantages can be balanced out if you have a balance of power, a commission split deeply enough between the parties, and maybe with some outside interests thrown in, that the overall result will be roughly fair. That approach has more or less worked in Washington, Idaho and California, which have had experienced political hands from both parties involved in the process but also, under the rules, forced to more or less compromise.

It's not perfect, and can be a little messy and argumentative at times, but it does get the job done in a sensible way that doesn;t put too many people at too much disadvantage.

And that may just be good enough.
 

More jobs, but more pay?

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Basic economic supply and demand theory suggests this: When supply of something (potatoes, say) is large, prices per item tend to fall, and when supply is low, demand for the scarcer goods will tend to drive up prices.

That economic theory ought to have the effect, in recent times, of driving wages high in Idaho.

Unemployment is low. A normal level of “full employment” where just about everyone who wants a job can get one, allowing for people in between jobs or who need to reduce their hours for some reason, is at about four percent “unemployment.” (I use the quotes because the word is something of a term of art.) Idaho’s unemployment, or jobless, rate, has crashed through the floor and is down in the cellar. For 14 consecutive months, it has been at or below three percent. Ostensibly this is a good thing. However...

I’m not sure we even understand exactly what that means. We know that Idaho’s work force has not been increasing much (the reasons for that might be interesting to explore further, since so many jobs are available in the state), and there’s some stress among a number of employers in finding enough employees.

Theoretically, that should put workers in a terrific bargaining position, much better than normal. Economic theory says pay should be going up considerably, and since Idaho is one of the leading states for low jobless rates, that ought to be happening a lot in the Gem State.

It isn’t. Here’s a summary from a new report by the Idaho Center for Fiscal Policy: “While the average American has seen their inflation-adjusted wages increase by more than 21 percent over the last four decades, Idaho wages have gone up only 1.6 percent – representing a potential inflation-adjusted earnings difference of nearly $408,000 over the course of a career. In 1977 the difference between the average American wage and the average wage in Idaho was $4,950 annually and in 2017 the difference was $14,018 - an increase of 283 percent.”

Overall, Idaho does have a lower cost of living than many other states. But it’s unevenly distributed. If you live in a small town well away from any of the urban areas, your cost of, for example, housing may be relatively low. But the often high cost of living in Boise is not so different, in many ways, than the cost of living in many other metro areas around the country.

Why is the Idaho wage lower than those in most states? The ICFP report suggests this: “Idaho’s trailing wages are likely driven by the increasing difference between Idaho’s postsecondary degree attainment and the nation’s. In 1940, the share of Idahoans over 25 years old with a bachelor’s degree was 4.5 percent, compared to 4.6 percent nationally. Last year, the share of Idahoans over 25 with a bachelor’s degree was 26.8 percent, compared to 32 percent nationally.”

Idaho state government has for years had a goal of 60 percent of Idaho young adults (age 25 to 34) holding a college degree, but recent reports have pegged the actual number, for three years in a row, at 42 percent - unchanging.

This does sound like one reasonable suspect, though maybe explaining more the kind of jobs that grow in Idaho than their overall number or wage rate. Probably the reasons behind the slower wage rate increase in Idaho are numerous and complex.

But as Idaho’s next crop of elected officials prepare to take office, they probably should spend a little time considering them.
 

Prognosis Idaho

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The just-ended North Idaho Chamber of Commerce tour for legislators is a biennial tradition, but the word emanating from the first gathering of incoming lawmakers is about an unusual subject as a primary topic.

Taxes and budgets are a little more to the norm. This time something else got a lot of attention, not least in the incoming governor’s address: Health care.

It makes perfect sense, what with the passage of the Medicaid expansion - Proposition 2 - ballot measure only days ago.

Some legislators will be inclined, or even committed, to oppose it and try to kill it. They’ve had the numbers to do that in legislative sessions reaching back almost a decade; hence the arrival of the ballot issue.

But will they try to bury it again in 2019?

Legislators have reversed ballot issues before. They heavily modified at least (some would say gutted) the One Percent initiative of 1978. They outright reversed a term limits issue in the early 90s.

Still, before too eagerly taking the knives to Medicaid expansion, legislators may want to pause a bit. I’ll leave to others to discuss the impacts on the health of actual Idaho citizens, important as that is. Here, I’ll just toss out for consideration a few political facts.

Expansion did not pass by a little. It passed by a lot: 60.6 percent - a landslide.

And it was widespread. Because of the requirement (legislature-imposed) that ballot issues must demonstrate substantial support in legislative districts all over the state, there was in fact support for Prop 2 all over the state.

The top three counties in levels of support - Blaine, Teton and Latah - could be explained away by critics as places that do have significant Democratic bases. And that’s true. But Valley County, which to date is strongly Republican, supported it 67.3 percent. Twin Falls County backed it 58.2 percent, Bonneville 57.4 percent, Canyon 56.8 percent, Payette 56.6 percent. If Idaho has a localized beating heart of movement conservatism you could probably best place it at Kootenai County, and even there it passed, albeit narrowly, at 50.4 percent.

Of Idaho’s 44 counties, just nine opposed Prop 2, but none overwhelmingly: Its weakest county was Jefferson, and there it received about 41 percent support.

I skipped the most significant county. From a standpoint of raw politics, the most important was Ada County, where Prop 2 passed with 69.7% - and that’s county-wide, not the city of Boise, but Meridian, Kuna, Eagle and Star as well. All but four precincts out of more than 140 approved it.

Ada is important not just because it is the largest county, accounting for more than a third of the Idaho general election vote. And not just because it is growing rapidly, while most of the lower-support counties are growing slower.

It is also important because Ada County west of Boise is where Republican dominance is most critically being challenged, where in this year’s election breaches were found, on the Ada County Commission (two seats flipping to Democrats) and in legislative District 15 (two seats at least flipped there). Maybe the Democratic push goes no further. But know this: It can progress in 2020 if its candidates have good ammunition in hand, and legislative reversal of Prop 2 would be some of the strongest ammunition they could have.

The national evidence this year is that health care is a big issue; many of the newly-arriving Democrats to the U.S. House campaigned more heavily on that than on anything else. There’s no reason it can’t be potent in Idaho next time around as well.

Republican legislators might be able to round up the votes to reverse or gut Medicaid expansion at the Statehouse. But they would be well advised to consider all the consequences, political included, if they do.
 

A recurring vote pattern

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Anyone following the results from the razor's-edge Arizona Senate race over the last week could hardly miss the regular line of complaints:

They're stealing the election! Martha McSally was ahead on election night! She won, dammit! Now it's being stolen! Where did all these votes come from days after the election? Looks mighty suspicious ...

A lot of people were saying such things over the last week; comment sections on websites reporting on the race were loaded with them.

These people were mostly betraying their lack of understanding of how elections in many states, Arizona recently among them, work.

If they'd lived in Oregon, they would have found nothing unusual at all. They would instead have found a familiar pattern.

It goes like this.

In states where many votes are cast outside polling places, part of the verification regimen - to make sure the votes are legitimate - involves checking the ballots one by one and often verifying that the signatures are as they should be.

Oregon is a good example of the way this works. In this state, voters have cast their ballots by mail - or by posting them in a ballot box that looks like a street-corner mail box - in the couple of weeks between receiving the ballot in the mail, and the election day deadline. Before sending it in, the voter has to sign an outside envelope. That signature is compared with one on file, as a security device. It sounds a little funky, but it has worked.

On election night in Oregon, results from many of the votes cast are released in a small flood shortly after 8 pm. These are the votes from earlier days in the return process, and early on election day. But the voters still pouring in will still be tabulated on Tuesday evening, and if there are enough of them the process of verification and counting may continue into and through Tuesday and beyond. And because a ballot submitted to a ballot box anywhere in the state by 8 p.m. on Tuesday may take a day or two to make its way from one end of the state to the other, the last of a county's votes may not come in until Thursday or Friday of election week.

Consider one more aspect to this process: Not all counties handle all this the same. Specifically, small counties generally are able to work through their ballots fairly quickly, and nearly all usually are done well before midnight in Oregon. On the other hand, the biggest counties - especially Multnomah (Portland) - take longer, and usually as a normal matter don't finish reporting until well into Wednesday.

The larger counties in Oregon, as is the case with most of the larger counties around the western states, tend Democratic. (Multnomah is an almost extreme example.) The smaller and more rural counties tend to be more Republican. What that means in practice, for people watching the vote come in on election week, is that Tuesday night generally shows a relatively strong Republican vote, but it edges down as the count goes on over the coming day or two. It's not especially unusual for a Republican to seem to be winning on Tuesday and losing on Wednesday. The 2008 Senate race between incumbent Republican Gordon Smith and Democratic challenger Jeff Merkley was a precise example of this; close election watchers around the state cautioned not to draw too many conclusions from Smith's modest lead on Tuesday night, because it would likely diminish the day after. As it did.

The same patterns are developing in many western states. Washington has seen them for some years; so have Colorado, Nevada, Utah ... and Arizona, all states where one or two large metro areas, which are trending Democratic, deliver many of their votes after many of the rural counties have already checked in.

And so it was this week in Arizona, albeit a little more drawn out than usual, in part because the race was so close.

But the pattern should not surprise anyone. It probably surprised no one in Oregon.
 

Persistence

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Back during the campaign season of 2010, I sat down for coffee with a candidate who had no better than a very long shot of winning. And he didn’t win.

Steve Berch, who was a long-time manager at the Hewlett-Packard plant in west Boise, was running for an Idaho House seat in what was then District 14, in the Eagle/West Boise part of Ada County. He was doing so as a Democrat, in an area that was and is blood red Republican. Only once in the previous decade had any Republican candidate for any of its three seats failed to top 65 percent of the vote (and even that one exception candidate was easily elected). Berch had set himself an extraordinarily difficult task.

He mapped it all out with the microscopic attention to detail you’d expect of an experienced H-P planner, and backed that with exhaustive work, raising plenty of money and building an organization, but centered around his personal door-knocking and hand-shaking. In all it was an effort that must have matched or exceeded the campaign work of any other candidate in the state.

His reward was 32 percent of the vote. About the same as if he’d put his name on the ballot and then done nothing.

That experience would have been enough for most candidates. But then one day Berch called to tell me he was running again. He wasn’t able to run in the same district, because of the shifting lines of reapportionment: Now he lived and would run in the new district 15, and he outlined his plan for doubling down, doing even more, planning and executing even more intensively.

This time, running against a different Republican, he pulled 46.9 percent of the vote. More than respectable for a still-Republican district, but nonetheless a clear loss.

Undeterred, unbowed, Berch (who in 2013 did win a nonpartisan election to the Boise Auditorium District board) came back for 2014, running in the same district but for the other House seat, one held by Republican Lynn Luker. He once again organized his effort intensively, figuring this time he could do a little better.

He did, a little: 48.4 percent of the vote.

Still, after three losing races for the same office in the same area, nearly all candidates I know would have thrown in the towel. Not Berch. He buckled down and steeled himself in 2016 for a rematch with Luker. He did it all over again.

The result: 49.2 percent of the vote.

The fates, or God, or something, seemed almost to be toying with him. Four losing races, albeit that there was a little progress each time, but . . . would you have tried again? Would I? Probably not.

But there was Berch yet again this year, back on the ballot, facing Luker for a third time, campaigning at least as ferociously as he had four times before.

The result this week?

He won, with 54.5 percent of the vote, on his fifth try.

You could put Berch’s picture next to “persistence” in the dictionary and not be far wrong. But in winning this year, in a hitherto impregnable Republican area, he did more. Not coincidentally, the other Democratic House candidate in the district, Jake Ellis, also won (by a smaller margin), and the candidate for Senate came so close to winning (by six votes) that his election results will go to a recount. Now, this suburban Boise district, a key to Democratic hopes for expanding their voter base, may be flipping.

That kind of change doesn’t happen in a day, or with a single race. It doesn’t always take five straight elections, each one run at full speed, to break through. But sometimes it does take persistence.
 

And in Oregon . . .

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The big Oregon political news on a really hyperlocal level on Tuesday was the election of Linda Watkins of Ridenbaugh Press to the Carlton (Oregon) City Council. It wasn't totally unexpected, since she was one of three candidates for three positions, but it was local landmark nonetheless.

Beyond that, looking out across the expanse of America's ninth largest (geographically) state, there weren't exactly a lot of landmarks.

I could point to this: The expansion of Democratic control of the state legislature to the point of passing the three-fifths mark.

That's significant, because passage of several types of financial measures, taxes mostly, require a three-fifths majority. And up to now, Democrats, who have controlled the legislature at least mostly for a generation, have been short of that, requiring at least some cooperation with the Republicans.

So far as I can tell (someone please correct me if I'm wrong) Democrats have hot hit that high level in both chambers since 1983. Regardless, it's been many years.

That puts more onus of responsibility on the Democrats, so a cautionary note is warranted: Don't get too eager. Overreach is often the mother of blowback elections a couple of years hence. And remember that Oregon has not had a more productive session in a generation than it did in 2010, the last time power was split between the parties (they were tied in the House).

That said, and assuming the Democrats keep their head, the 2018 election did seem to solidify ever more the blueness of the state. The new legislative peaks do not seem to represent a ceiling: They could go still higher. In the single biggest unforced political error of the year in the state, Democrats threw away a probable win in the Deschutes County area with a seriously flawed candidate; that same seat probably could be in 2020 with a better one.

This cycle saw a genuinely serious race for governor; the Republican challenger was the strongest the party has fielded in a long time, and probably the best available, period. He did respectably, keeping the race reasonably close, but still not well enough.

The federal races all wound up, as expected, with incumbents winning easily. But note this: While all the Democratic incumbents won with normal numbers, 2nd District Representative Greg Walden, a Republican in a deep red district, was down to 56.5% of the vote. That was enough for a decisive win, but compare it to his earlier percentages: 71.9% in 2016, 70.6% in 2014, 68.7% in 2012, and 74.1% in 2010. That's a steep drop, and Republicans in the district would be remiss not to look into it. (So would Democrats.)

Not so long ago, Oregon was a closely competitive state where both parties had a shot at election, and the margins were found toward the middle. No longer. More Idaho races are moving into the same kind of competitiveness the Carlton City Council saw this week.