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Now or later

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We see examples of this all over, in our personal lives as well as public. Fix a small leak in your house’s roof today, or wait and let it become a much more expensive problem in a year or two.

Or a minor pothole in the road that turns into a major repair project after several months of neglect.

There’s a common phrase for it: “Pay me now, or pay me later.” With the “later” usually being a lot more pricey.

Last week came another good example, and we’ll be interested to see how the Idaho Legislature responds.

This comes in a request by the state Department of Health and Welfare – there’s one strike, since hardly anyone in official Idaho really likes funding those guys – for new funding (how are you going to manage tax cuts if you go adding more spending?), to the tune of $11.2 million. At least the amount is modest in the context of state budgeting. What would it be going for? Drug and mental health treatment? You can almost feel the lack of legislator ardor.

You might say the proposal doesn’t enter the process on a glide path to passage.

Here’s the background.

In Idaho, about 15,000 people are “in the system” of state probation and parole. Officials have been breaking them out into categories, based on risk of having to return or send them to prison. Around 2,000 are considered low-risk, so the parole and probation people have begun to keep them on a looser leash.

The higher-risk probationers and parolees are another matter. In a great many cases, half or more, these are people who have drug abuse and mental health problems.

Those factors have a lot to do with how much time and effort our “system” spends on them. I’ve seen this personally recently, watching not far from where I live a household with people snarled in drug and mental issues turn into a problem for the area, with local law enforcement, jails, probation and parole spending endless hours over a period of years trying to deal with it. You probably can easily find similar examples in your community. (If you can’t, just ask your local police.)

So: The $11.2 million DHW is seeking would go toward providing drug rehabilitation and treatment and mental health services directed toward the significant number of parolees who would benefit from them.

Getting back to the matter of paying now or later: A study last year by the Western Intermountain Commission on Higher Education estimated the average cost for this kind of drug/mental help would amount to about $1,514 per offender.

The state now spends about $30,400 per offender to manage these people through conventional probation and parole. More than a third of felon offenders typically have returned to prison, where the cost for housing them is upwards of $20,000 a year – but that’s just the beginning, if they’re then paroled out again (or even serve their terms and then return to the streets unprepared). They will again, one way and another, eat up many our dollars, tax dollars and otherwise.

We could pay all that, or ... a much smaller amount on the front end, and maybe even get a productive citizen out of the deal.

We’ll see what the Idaho Legislature does.

Pot osmosis

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One of the less-heralded effects of this month’s election was to nearly surround Idaho with states different from it in a significant policy decision:

Almost all of Idaho’s border states now have legalized marijuana, in one way or another. And that’s going to put more pressure on Idaho on the subject.

Washington and one-state-over Colorado legalized in 2012. Oregon and one-state-over Alaska followed in 2014. This year, you can add California and Nevada to the list. (Arizona came close.) All of those allow “recreational” marijuana sales; Montana allows medicinal sales. Don’t be surprised if New Mexico follows suit in 2018.

In Wyoming, an initiative proposal this year didn’t make the ballot. But polling (from the University of Wyoming’s Survey and Analysis Center) has shown growing support there toward legalization, for medicinal pot at least. (It showed support for medicinal legalization at 81% and rising, and recreational at 41% and rising.) Ballot efforts are likely to continue there, and as California and Oregon showed, past failures don’t preclude eventual success.

So how will Idaho, whose officials at least, have been rigorously opposed to anything resembling legalization, respond to all this?

On the near-term level, and at least officially, there’s no reason to think there’ll be any change soon.

Police probably will be keeping a closer watch on vehicles from out of state. The Twin Falls Times News reported that police tracking the Highway 93 stretch from Twin Falls to Jackpot, Nevada, will not be deploying any new specific monitoring force at the border, but they will be watchful for any erratic driving they see in the area. That may be the general approach in Idaho’s border areas.

But what about the effects of a outright ban in one state of what is legal in another?

Might there be some tendency on the part of out of staters to avoid Idaho – even those not carrying marijuana, but simply concerned about the potential hassle factor? (Even if the risk of that actually isn’t very high, a reputation for it could have a big effect.) Might it be a negative in case of people considering moving? Might it, over time, start to have an economic impact? A whole lot of travel around Idaho, after all, is generated from states which have now, in whole or part, legalized.

What subtle effects might there be about the idea of a resident of those states crossing the line into Idaho?

There may also be an osmosis effect as Idahoans see their next-door neighbors sprouting new businesses and tax revenue, and without serious negative effects. This hasn’t been the subject of a lot of news stories, since we’re talking here about the absence of something, but it has been informally noted among the residents. And there have been some reports from the front. A Forbes article in August, for example, said “Two consequences that pot prohibitionists attribute to marijuana legalization - more underage consumption and more traffic fatalities - so far do not seem to be materializing in Colorado, which has allowed medical use since 2001 and recreational use since the end of 2012.”

Official Idaho isn’t likely to take much cognizance of any of that any time soon. But Idahoans around the state likely will, and that will have an effect over time.

In Idaho, more of the same

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For the last generation of general election days, in Idaho, if it’s breathing and Republican, it gets piles of votes.

This year even more than usual. By some measures, this was the most Republican general election in Idaho since 2000. And that’s saying a lot.
Donald Trump did very well, obviously, nationally, but his just-short-of-landslide in Idaho (59.3%) was striking. Considering how decisively he lost the Republican primary a few months ago, and how much significant parts of Idaho society (notably many members of the LDS Church) disliked him, he exceeded expectations. Evan McMullin, who only a few weeks ago seemed to be exciting a lot of interest in eastern Idaho and talked a lot more like traditional Republicans (Mitt Romney, say) do, could manage only 6.7%. His problems may have been various, but crucially he didn’t have the R behind his name.

The legislature, already one of the most Republican in the nation, moved further in that direction, which barely seemed possible. The long-time House Democratic leader, John Rusche of Lewiston, lost (it wasn’t even close, a margin of more than 3,000 votes) – should Lewiston now be accounted as a Republican city, period? - along with one of the few Democratic state senators, Dan Schmidt of Moscow.

That means in the whole of Idaho north of Boise, just one Democratic legislator is left. She is Paulette Jordan, representing the Moscow-based district, and she won this time by fewer than 300 votes. She’ll be targeted next cycle.

Among Republican legislators, the most controversial probably was Heather Scott, known for her alt-right leanings, whose followers were said to have engaged in harassment of her political opposition. Scott won with 62.5%, just a little shy of the average for Republican legislative candidates throughout the north in “contested” races.

A couple of strong campaigns by Democrats to break through in Twin Falls were smacked down, rolled under Republican landslides.

The picture differed in only a few places.

The city of Boise remained Democratic-leaning, its Democratic legislators re-elected easily. But the west Boise district 15, which has been on the edge between the two parties, remained just out of Democratic reach. It’s still distinctly purple territory (the Republican legislators won there with just 56.3%, 50.8% and 56.2%), but tinged on the red side.

And District 26, the central Idaho district anchored by Sun Valley and Ketchum but surrounded by more conservative farming areas, remained the most competitive region in Idaho. It is one of the few legislative districts split by parties (two Democrats, one Republican), all three of whom won with less than 60% of the vote.

The district centered on the city of Pocatello, district 29 (Idaho State University is located there), traditionally has been the lone Democratic stronghold in eastern Idaho. It’s a stronghold no more; Democrat Mark Nye, running for the Senate, was held to 48.1%, and he might have lost but for the incursion of a Libertarian in the race. The other House seat, which Nye had held, went to Republican Dustin Manwaring. The other Democratic representative there, veteran Elaine Smith, was unchallenged this year, but don’t expect that to repeat next time. This district shows the signs of flipping Republican.

Actual competitive politics in Idaho has boiled down to one or maybe two legislative districts, out of 35.

Talk about species on the verge of extinction.

Vote!

As this is written, it's still not too late to vote.

Vote!

I'll be back in a few hours once the polls close ... - rs

What Idaho should watch for

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It’s been a couple of years in the buildup, and Tuesday night gives us the payoff – for good or ill. Here’s some of what I’ll be watching for on election night from an Idaho perspective.

1. On the presidential level, Idaho will probably slip easily into the Donald Trump column. What I’ll be watching more closely is the vote percentage Evan McMullin, the independent from Utah, gets. He has been running strong in Utah, and might do well in eastern Idaho. His numbers will be worth parsing.

2. The ballot issue HJR 5 (on legislative review of executive branch regulations) has split Idaho’s governing community, with legislators (mostly) and Lieutenant Governor Brad Little in favor, and Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter and Attorney General Lawrence Wasden opposed. Voters rejected a similar proposal two years ago, and the guess here is that they will do so again. But the lines of support and opposition will be something to see.

3. Idaho has only a few competitive legislative races this year, but several of those which do look to be close will merit close inspection.

In District 1, in the northern Panhandle, watch to see whether constituents will back Republican Heather Scott, aptly described by columnist Chuck Malloy as “one of the stars of the Redoubt movement”, or challenging Democrat Kate McAlister. Some of Scott’s supporters have been accused of harassing the opposition. (She has disavowed any knowledge.) Scott has become a statewide figure, and her win or loss will be widely noted, rightly so because it will say a lot about the character of the northern Idaho panhandle.

In District 6, House Democratic leader Jon Rusche of Lewiston, whose win two years ago was by a hairline, is being hard-pressed by Republican Mike Kingsley; billboards linking Rusche and Hillary Clinton have popped up around town. For a couple of decades Lewiston has been a closely competitive ground between the parties; a Rusche loss could indicate it is moving into a clear Republican tilt.

In west Boise’s District 15, Democrat Steve Berch is on the verge of defeating veteran Republican Representative Lynn Luker. This is Berch’s fourth election in a row running in the west/west-of Boise area. He took 32.2% of the vote in 2010, then 46.9% in 2012 and in 2014 he got 48.4%. Does he cross the line this year? If he does, he may open the door for Democrats not just within Boise city, but in some of its suburbs.

And in Twin Falls’ District 24, two hot races are said to be unusually close, as Republican Senator Lee Heider is pressed by Democrat Deborah Silver and Republican Representative Steve Hartgen by Catherine Talkington. A Democratic win in either race would be a breakthrough for Democrats who haven’t elected one of their own to the legislature here in decades. Democrats for a couple of decades have been offering the idea of winning elections in central Twin Falls; will this be the year?

4. The contested Supreme Court features two candidates with distinctly different backgrounds and approaches, though both have Republican backgrounds. State Senator Curt McKenzie has backing from a number of fellow legislators and lobbies, and he seems the more ideologically-oriented of the two. Attorney Robyn Brody got much higher markers in a state bar survey and has broadly scattered support. The race is considered competitive.

A lot of attention will go to the national maps on Tuesday, but don’t neglect those in Idaho. They’ll have plenty to say about the state, too.

Close splits

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If Idaho does not vote for Donald Trump in the general election days from now, that would mean the Democratic sweep would be so massive only Oklahoma and West Virginia, maybe, would stay Republican red.

That’s not likely to happen, of course – as this is written a national win by Hillary Clinton for president looks probable but not that sweeping. And yet there is more to say about the Idaho presidential, owing in large part to Evan McMullin.

McMullin, who is on the ballot of only about a dozen states, was hardly known outside his family and co-workers only a few months ago, but now he has upended politics in Utah, and in part – not all – of Idaho. His professional career has run in national security (CIA), financial (he was an investment banker) and to a limited degree political (he was a House Republican staffer) mostly in the Washington, D.C. area. But what’s also critical to know is that he was born in Provo, Utah and has sterling Utah/Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saint connections. If you liked Mitt Romney, you can listen to Evan McMullin and like what you hear from him too.

In this time of Trump, when many Mormons are appalled by the Republican nominee, McMullin has some real appeal.

He is the center of ferocious arguments among other Republicans, though, recognizing that conservative votes may be split between McMullin and Trump. Recent polls have showed Utah voters almost evenly split between Trump, McMullin and Clinton – raising the astonishing possibility that Clinton could win Utah with no larger share of the vote than she normally would get (which isn’t much).

Pundit Sean Hannity has gone apoplectic (“All this garbage from you Never Trumper jerks out there,” he shouted on one radio show. “November 9th, I have a lot to say about all of you.” And Fox’s Lou Dobbs said in a tweet, “Look Deeper, He’s [McMullin] nothing but a globalist, Romney and Mormon Mafia Tool.” That probably won’t go over very well back in Utah, the one state where McMullin may be on the cusp of winning.

But it could impact Idaho as well. Touring around southern Idaho this week I heard the phrase “the I-15 strategy” in reference to McMullin’s game plan, and it’s understandable and in concert with what he’s been doing so far. Many of the population centers where the LDS population is most concentrated are close by I-15, from St. George in the south to St. Anthony in the north, and McMullin stands to make a splash by working it hard.

Political people I talked to last week thought he probably will not pick up a big percentage in northern Idaho, and no more than sizable chunk from the Magic Valley on west. That means Idaho overall is not likely to tip away from the Trump column.

Polling last week that differentiated between the first congressional district (toward west) and the second (to the east) made exactly the same point, underlining it with this: In the second district, by itself, the vote for president could look a lot like Utah’s – with the possibility that either McMullin or even Clinton could win there. (Only, that is, in the second district, not in the whole state.)

If so, that could mean some important fractures surviving after the election in Republican politics in Idaho, fractures unlike anything the state’s party has seen before.

The activist

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Ken Robison was a public man, in many senses of the term. He was a journalist, one of the most visible in Idaho for a decade and more. He was a state legislator (and in between his many successful elections, a candidate) over a span even longer. He was a civic activist and, more recently, an author.

Even so, after his death at Boise last week, no public services were held – at his request. And that seems entirely in character.

Though Robison was a public man, he did not go public because he enjoyed publicity or acclaim, or because he was such a social person – he did not seem to reach out for any of those things. Robison was a public man because of the cause, or rather causes, he was captivated by and that he undertook, and dominated much of his life.

To do that meant moving out of his profession. Robison was a news reporter at Pocatello (for the Idaho State Journal), the Associated Press in Boise and Denver, and for the Idaho Statesman at Boise. He had been in the trade for only about a decade when he was named editorial page editor at the Statesman, relatively young for that job, and he might have moved upward in the news business.

Instead, he moved more and more toward wild lands and wildlife conservation, writing about Hells Canyon and the White Clouds, about protecting wildlife and designating wilderness. Much of what he wrote was several years ahead of the general public discussion, for which he received national attention for his editorials but which also led him increasingly away from the news business. He became active and involved in conservation efforts around the state.

He became interested in taxes, too, but not in the way many tax activists, fixated on tax cuts, are. True to his in-depth researching nature, he dug into the way taxes are structured, into who paid what and who seemed to be overpaying their share. He was one of the leaders behind the 1982 initiative for the 50 percent homeowner property tax exemption, which has reshaped Idaho tax law ever since.

Quiet and low-key, Robison didn’t present himself the way most gregarious politicians do, but having concluded he could make more progress as a public official, he decided to run for the legislature. Thorough as always, he threw himself into intensive campaigning. He lost his first race for the state Senate in 1978, won his second (in the Republican year of 1980), lost his third. Four years later he won election to the House in Boise’s north end district, and kept on representing it for the next 18 years.

The Idaho Legislature proved a tough crowd to convince, more so as the years went on, and Robison was often on the minority side of things.

But the causes never went away, and he never forgot them.

After leaving the legislature he intensively researched and wrote a book, Defending Idaho’s Natural Heritage, which was published in 2014. It consists of a series of stories about the battles over conserving Idaho’s wild places and creatures, and it was dedicated “to all those who spoke up for fish and wildlife habitat, for flowing rivers and for exceptional natural areas.”

When eventually someone writes a successor book to that one, they’ll have to include Ken Robison.

And not just because of the specific contributions he made toward those efforts, but also because of the way he provided a role model for civic activism.

Explain this

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Here is one of the ways this year’s presidential campaign is so unusual:

The elected officials from one of the two major parties are split on their nominee, but more than that, it is the in-party supporters to that nominee who will have a much harder time explaining themselves, down the road.

Presidential nominee Donald Trump has divided Republicans nationwide, and no less in the gem state. Of Idaho’s five major officials, there’s (as this is written) an even split, Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter (who has a position in the Trump campaign) and Representative Raul Labrador sticking with Trump, and Senator Mike Crapo and Representative Mike Simpson in opposition. Senator Jim Risch, reportedly was out of state and apparently not weighed in.

The kind of rejection of one’s party nominee Crapo and Simpson have made is rare coming from elected officials in either party, especially those in the upper rungs. I can’t recall any similar, after the party nominations were made official, in Idaho in the last half-century. Crapo and Simpson are not the kind, either, to lightly abandon their party; over the years they have been as loyal to the Republican brand as any party loyalist could ask. Something really powerful must have blown them loose. (Neither, I should note, has gone as far as endorsing Democrat Hillary Clinton.)

Crapo cited Trump’s “pattern of behavior .... His repeated actions and comments toward women have been disrespectful, profane and demeaning. I have spent more than two decades working on domestic violence prevention. Trump’s most recent excuse of ‘locker room talk’ is completely unacceptable and is inconsistent with protecting women from abusive, disparaging treatment.”

Simpson said he found “his recent comments about women deplorable. In my opinion, he has demonstrated that he is unfit to be President and I cannot support him.”

The large and fast-growing record of Trump statements and incidents concerning women offers plenty of backing for those statements. But you have to wonder. For these two to split from Trump, surely there was more than just a collection of statements and incidents, many of them years old.

If you listen to the ideas offered by Idaho’s congressional delegation, and its governor, over the years, you get little overlap with Trumpism. (Maybe Idaho’s Republican voters saw that in the primary contest, when the state went for Ted Cruz over Trump.)

Trumpism has attracted and closely allied itself with white supremacists and hard core nationalists of the kind Idaho, and many of its top officials, have been trying to shake off for years. Trump’s Florida speech Thursday would have gone over well at the old Aryan Nations compound.

Trumpism has no consistent policy. Those Republicans worried about who Hillary Clinton might appoint to the Supreme Court should reflect that no one (likely including Trump) has any idea who the orange whirlwind actually would appoint. Trump on any substantial topic is a spinning wheel; I can point you to 18 distinct changes of position on his hallmark issue – immigration – alone. Conservative? Liberal? Those concepts don’t seem to be understood by, and are unimportant to, Trump. Forget about any certainty.

Except this: A strong predisposition to authoritarianism, or more bluntly, an American dictatorship. Republicans no less than Democrats have raised this concern. Congress? The Supreme Court? Unimportant, along with participation by the American people. (He seems no more interested in the states, or in the 10th amendment.) Trump’s answer to all problems and issues, devoid of explanation, is what he said at the Republican National Convention and repeated since: “I alone can fix it.” He alone – no one else. You think the federal government has been too powerful? Wait 'til you get a load of this guy.

This is a Republican who doesn’t talk about freedom or liberty or opportunity, but about “safety” and “winning” and “getting tough.” His is the speech of a dictator, not an American politician.

Trump runs directly counter to nearly everything leading Idaho Republicans have said, over generations, that they support. The next time Otter or Labrador tell you how much they love freedom, state’s rights and the reputation of Idaho, ask them why they supported Trump. You may find Crapo and Simpson won’t have nearly as much trouble with the question.

Kinds of qualifications

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In the May primary election, candidates for an open state Supreme Court seat included two of the most deeply qualified candidates for the high bench in the state’s history. The voters didn’t choose either of them.

But then, qualifications can come in many flavors. They differ considerably between the two remaining candidates, Robyn Brody and Curt McKenzie, competing for the seat now held by Chief Justice Jim Jones.

Jones had an extensive history in partisan politics, running unsuccessfully in a Republican primary for Congress (against an incumbent) in 1978 and 1980, then successfully as a Republican for attorney general in 1982 and 1986, finally losing a Republican primary for the U.S. Senate in 1990 to Larry Craig.

Quite a few Idaho justices have had background in the give and take of partisan politics, and that can be an asset on the bench. We tend to forget it now but many federal Supreme Court justices through our history had extensive political histories too, and we probably are not well served by limiting the roster of justices to veteran judges and law professors. People who come from other perspectives and especially from politics, where they typically have to work with a variety of real-world situations and viewpoints, could contribute a great deal.

So the idea, which seems to have spread widely, that McKenzie’s legislative background ought to be a black mark against him, doesn’t really work. As a resume point, it seems more a plus than a minus.

There are other kinds of background that would be useful on the court.

Most recent Idaho Supreme Court justices have come from either lower benches or from the top law firms in the state, mainly in Boise. Jones is the near-exception in the current group (the attorney general’s office can be considered the state’s biggest law firm); Daniel Eismann, Roger Burdick and Joel Horton all were district judges, and Warren Jones was a top litigator with one of the leading private firms in Boise, Eberle Berlin.

Compare that with this from a description (in the Spokane Spokesman-Review) of attorney Brody: “Robyn Brody’s law office in downtown Rupert is right next door to the police station and not far from the courthouse and City Hall. ‘I get a lot of walk-in traffic,’ she said. It could be someone needing help appealing their unemployment decision, or seeking information on how to get a marriage license. Her law practice includes that work, plus water law, an array of business clients, major real estate transactions, and representing a local hospital, several community health centers and two school districts.”

An attorney doesn’t get much more grounded than that. A small-town attorney taking in such a wide range of law work may not develop super-deep specialized expertise, but probably will have a strong sense of how those decisions emanating from Boise hit home in the far reaches of the state. It’s not glamorous or especially prestigious, but it sure is real. And, while several of the current justices (Eismann, Burdick, Jones) do have some small-town law practice experience, that’s awhile back in their pasts, mediated through years on the bench. (Candidate McKenzie practices in the Boise, and his experience would be mediated through statehouse legislative experience.) Brody’s background would bring something to the court that isn’t there now.

Brody also brings more to the table. She has worked for a larger firm (Hepworth Lezamiz & Hohnhorst in Twin Falls), and has background in Idaho (and as far away as Russia) to broaden her horizons. She evidently has a good reputation with her peers, serving in leadership in the regional bar association, usually a positive indicator for a prospective judge.

Without party labels (either explicit or implicit) as guidance, Idaho voters will need to look deeper to make their choices for the Supreme Court.