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Edging back

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Whatever will Idaho do for viral quotes next legislative session? The most reliable providers won’t be back, and neither will a number of their allies. Or newcomers to the task.

The Republican primary election on Tuesday yielded a persistent theme in its results among challenged races. The more extreme insurgent candidates, whether incumbent or challenger, tended to lose to the more establishment conservative alternative.

You can find no better case study than in Coeur d’Alene’s District 4, where the House seats were held by one from the insurgent group – Kathleen Sims – and one from the establishment conservative group, Luke Malek. (The Senate seat, held by Mary Souza, was unchallenged.) Malek, challenged by an insurgent, won his primary with 58.4%. Sims, challenge by an establishment conservative, lost hers at 48.4%

There’s Sheryl Nuxoll, the three-term senator from Cottonwood whose statements have gone as viral as anyone’s. Remember the Holocaust/health insurance exchange comparison, the “false faith with false gods” of Hinduism, and so many other greatest hits? This time she lost (48.8%), a result probably not widely expected. Likewise the bigger loss in the same district by Shannon McMillan (38.7%), known for her frequent votes against spending on education without explaining why.

The theme was repeated up and down the state, not in every instance but in enough to make the trend line clear.

Up along the Canadian border the new co-chair of the legislature’s budget committee, Shawn Keough, has faced insurgent challenges for several cycles, and the margins have been getting closer. Still, in possibly the highest-profile legislative primary this year, she again survived (with 55.7%) another determined effort this year.

Runner up among top primaries may have been in west Boise’s district 15, where relatively new establishment conservative Representative Patrick McDonald was challenged by Rod Beck, who has been active in Republican politics for a long time (more than a quarter-century ago, he was state Senate majority leader) but is allied with the insurgents on the right. McDonald won, decisively (57.9%).

Other serious insurgent challenges fell short too, to Representatives Kelley Packer in Bannock County (she had blasted the Idaho Freedom Foundation’s legislative index), to Maxine Bell (Keough’s House budget chair counterpart) and Stephen Hartgen of Twin Falls.

Here’s another useful measure. Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter, more or less Idaho’s lead “establishment conservative” (with his own primary challenge two years ago to show for it), recently took the unusual step of endorsing a dozen Republican legislative candidates contested in the primary, some incumbents and some challengers, but all (obviously) on his side of the fence.

Of that dozen, which included three challengers and nine seriously challenged incumbents, eight won, and one of the others lost only by a hair. Election night wasn’t bad for Otter on the legislative front.

If the 2014 primary election was something close to an overall holding action in the internal battle among Idaho Republicans, this year’s election marked some definite ground gained by the establishment.

Does that make Idaho an outlier in the national Republican picture? More thoughts on this to come.

Tuesday numbers

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From the point of view of Oregon and Idaho, the numbers Tuesday told a mostly consistent message: Some backing off on the right, in the case of some of the further-out candidates, and on the other side of the primary a bit of movement left.

Though that's not an absolute and some qualification is needed.

The whole left-right thing (mostly on the left) was a little more subtle in Oregon, though there was a good example of it at the top of the ballot and some other good case studies further down.

Bernie Sanders was the substantial winner in Oregon, keeping his streak of election-day wins alive (while thinly losing Kentucky). It was an across-the-board win, too; he seems to have won all but two (Deschutes and Gilliam) of the state's 36 counties.

A little further down, the hottest primary contest in Oregon may have been the Democrats for secretary of state, won by Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian. Realistically, there's no big philosophical divide between him and his opponents (Val Hoyle and Richard Devlin), all being relatively liberal Democrats. But Avakian seized onto a string of liberal causes, some only barely related to the SecState job, in building his case. Some Bernie-Brad linkage may have been at work.

Locally, there was the Hood River vote over whether to allow Nestle to bottle water at Cascade Locks. It was a hot issue in the area but it turns out lopsided: By two to one, voters sought to deny Nestle the water.

More locally for us, in Yamhill County a rare defeat of an incumbent county commission, Allan Springer, who has been one of three extremely conservative commissioners. His replacement, McMinnville Mayor Rick Olson, is expected to be considerably more moderate.

Over in Idaho, where the Democratic philosophical divides tend to be less clear than the Republican, the backing off from the edges of the right seemed fairly evident.

A bunch of legislative races featured contests between relatively establishment (but, it should be noted, almost all quite conservative) candidates, and farther-right insurgents. In nearly all of these cases, the latter lost. Challenged incumbents like Shawn Keough, Luke Malek, Patti Anne Lodge, Patrick McDonald (opposed by the well-known Rod Beck), Stephen Hartgen, Maxine Bell and Kelley Packer all pulled through. But that doesn't mean this was a solid election for incumbents. A bunch of incumbents associated with the insurgent hard right went down: Kathleen Sims, Sheryl Nuxoll, Shannon McMillan and Pete Nielsen.

More on this in the weekend column.

But one other Idaho note should be made. In the four-way Supreme Court two of the candidates - Clive Strong and Sergio Gutierrez - got the lion's share of the newspaper endorsements and community leader support. That was the right assessment: Those two were clearly, even obviously, the most qualified for the high court. They were also, the voters decided, the two who came in third and fourth, and will not advance to the runoff in November. Are partisan primary elections the right time to make this kind of choice? This election was a good argument against.

How well paid?

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The state of Washington has a agency called the Citizens’ Commission on Salaries for Elected Officials, whose job is what its name implies. It has a catchy slogan: “We evaluate the position - Voters evaluate the performance.”

Might be interesting to establish a statewide commission for Idaho to compare and evaluate state pay more broadly. In the Gem State, pay for state elected officials is set by the legislature, and pay for many other types of employees are set in all kinds of ways.

The lack of a single set of standards across the board becomes evident when you scroll down the list of the highest state employees’ salaries in Idaho, provided on May 11 by the state controller’s office (at transparent.idaho.gov). The simplest of several lists here to read covers state employees who are paid more than the state’s chief executive officer, the governor, whose pay is set at $122,597.

In truth, that gubernatorial pay seems low in today’s marketplace for the top leader of a large, complex organization. But according to the report, 332 state employees are paid more; probably a greater number than ever has been the case (and certainly more such employees than any time in the last decade). And that’s factoring in a pay raise for the governor this year.

Who gets paid the most? Of the top 10 highest-salaried employees, seven work for Boise State University. One of those is the president, Robert Kustra (ranks at number three); his counterparts at the University of Idaho and Idaho State University, who are close behind, account for two of the others in the top ten. All but one of those 10 are university employees.

So what are the other high-level BSU spots that lead the state employee list? You probably don’t need me to tell you: They’re in the athletics wing of the institution. The only state employee paid a salary of more than a million dollars is football coach Bryan Harsin. BSU athletics employees are well represented among the top 100 or so state employees. Top pay at the athletics jobs at the other universities generally is considerably less.

Colleges and universities absolutely dominate the ranks of the highest-paid. Of the 100 highest paid employees in Idaho state government, I count all but about a tenth as located in higher education. The chief investment officer for the state retirement fund ranks high (not unexpected given the nature of the job and private sector counterparts).

Several physicians in the Department of Health and Welfare rank within the 100 too, and a few others are scattered there, including top executives at the State Insurance Fund. In line with pay outside of government, top medical officials often are among the better-paid state employees. Still, they account for only a few toward the top of Idaho’s list.

Attorneys with substantial responsibility and experience often are paid well on the private side, but attorney positions generally pay less well in state government. The top attorneys in the Attorney General’s office overall rank well below the top 100, not a lot more than the governor is paid.

None of this is meant as an argument that any of these jobs, taken alone, are over- or under-paid. (On the list overall, I’m more inclined to place more jobs in the second category than in the first.)

But a scan down the list, and some reflection on the responsibilities of the jobs – an evaluation of the position, not the performance – may lead you to wonder about some of the priorities, and numbers.

41%

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Because the land sales happened over a long stretch of time, and there were so many of them, and so many involved tracts of land moderate in size, they tended not to attract a lot of attention, and their accumulated amount largely escaped notice.

That end result should and may, though, stick in the memory of more than a few Idahoans, because it’s reducible to one startling number: 41%.

That’s the portion of the 4.2 million acres of land the state of Idaho had at statehood, granted from the federal government, which has been sold off since – 1.8 million acres.

That number was the result of research and mathematics undertaken by The Wilderness Society, a conservation group which researched land sales through the state’s history.

The research was prompted by efforts in recent years to press for transfer to state control (read “ownership”), of the lands managed by federal agencies. (The nation has seen more of that discussion prompted by this year’s debate and standoff around Burns, Oregon.) The feds' control of lands that amount to most of the land area of Idaho can seem, and sometimes be, remote and bureaucratic. Their policy decisions are always subject for debate, especially among ranchers, timber and mining concerns, and anyone involved in outdoor recreation.

Occasionally small pieces of federal lands are traded out or sold, and in the homesteading era significant portions were. But the federal lands dispensed with over more recent years have been small, and the holdings stable. Federal land ownership in Idaho in 1990, which amounted to 32.6 million acres, actually grew very slightly, by two-tenths of one percent, as of 2013 (the most recent report I could find). The wisdom of that can be debated too.

But the Wilderness Society’s report offers some serious cautions about the consequences of state takeover.

The argument for state control is that more local people could manage the lands with greater awareness of local conditions, and with more flexibility. But the awareness involved sometimes reaches mostly to the people and interests most politically connected, and the flexibility can have negative consequences as well as positive.

The Society’s report said that Idaho state government has sold on average 13,500 acres annually, and “often put state lands in the hands of an elite few and Idaho’s biggest industries: the Simplot Corp., Potlatch, Boise-Cascade, cattle companies and law firms. Under these private ownerships, the new owners can lock out the public altogether or charge a trespass fee.”

It called out several specific cases:

“Bunker Hill Mining, the mining company with a long history and lead pollution legacy in the Silver Valley, purchased 715 acres of state land. The Bunker Hill mine area has been a Superfund cleanup site since 1983, when toxic levels of lead were discovered, including on school playgrounds. . . .

“The Flat Rock Club, a private fly fishing club that sits on 150 acres of beautiful forested land in Macks, Idaho, along the banks of the Henry’s Fork of the Snake River, purchased 41 acres of state land, denying public access to fishermen. . . .

“Potlatch Corp., purchased 17, 889 acres of state land between 1986 and 1997. To use this land now, recreationists must pay an annual fee, and access can be shut-off at any time by Potlatch Corp.”

41% sold so far. How much more, and for what purposes? And if federal lands are eventually moved over to state management, will their ownership follow similar patterns?

Presumptive only

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So is that really it? Is Donald Trump now the presumptive presidential nominee of the Republican Party?

Seems so - and yet, don't oversell it. His train could slip the rails yet.

With the Tuesday Indiana vote in place, Trump seems to have collected 1,047 delegate votes. That puts him just 190 short of the 1,237 needed to win on the first ballot on the floor of the Republican convention.

With the departure of Texas Senator Ted Cruz from the race, Trump is well positioned to take to take nearly all of the 445 delegates still up for grabs in the nine states remaining. Even with Cruz still in the race, Trump was likely to win the bulk of the delegates to come (West Virginia, Oregon, Washington, New Jersey and California all were likely to go his way). Now, with only the barely-financed and slightly-organized John Kasich campaign standing in his way, he will probably emerge with all but a few dozen of those delegates. Maybe more than that.

And that would seem to be that, and it could be. If Republican organization honchos decide, as they may, that they'd be better off just letting the Trump train run through the rest of the nomination process and then hope for the best, he might in fact get the nomination without too much squabble.

But the recognition of the possible damage Trump could do to the Republican Party as its presidential nominee is not lost on the party leadership, or on the rank and file. And there remain tools available to send this whole thing off in a different direction.

The big one is credentials rules. It's been a few years since either of the parties had a good credentials fight, but it's happened before with far less provocation. The convention, through its rules, has the right to determine who can be seated there as an official delegate, and who can cast a vote. Looked at generally, there's nothing unusual or out of line about the way Trump collected his delegates, but if you want to scratch around for details suggestive of irregularities, you can come up with raw material here and there. (The most mentioned such case may be Trump's big cache of votes from South Carolina.) Knock out just enough delegates - and this would be done at the beginning of the convention, before the vote for president occurs - and you could knock out Trump.

Various other rules could be enforced rigidly, or new rules concocted. As you read this, Republican activists all over the country - probably including strategists on Trump's behalf, in defense - are considering all the many possibilities.

For now, it seems reasonably to say that Trump is the default nominee, the guy who will get the job unless something comes along to change that. And it will probably happen.

But nothing is 100% certain until after it happens. He's not the nominee until the convention votes have have been cast and counted. Until then, watch carefully.

Back to Big Sky

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Ever upward, we tend to think: Bigger is better, more is merrier.

But not always, and credit the University of Idaho for figuring that out.

When it has come to Idaho football, the example of Boise State University has loomed over all. BSU has moved to big time, though now in the Mountain West Conference after a 2011 flirtation with the Big East Conference.

The UI Vandal program has never quite reached those heights, even early on. Back in the mid-70s, looking for a college to attend and uninterested in one that would be football-obsessed, I found the UI amenable. From the end of World War II to the early 80s, the Vandals posted winning seasons in just three years, 1963, 1971 and 1976.

Still, a correspondent of mine (and a highly loyal Vandal) has suggested that “If an institution is going to have intercollegiate football, it should at least be competitive and enjoyable (preferably by winning), produce good memories for the associated social events, and be a common topic of interest for alumni: ‘How 'bout them Vandals?’"

From that perspective, UI did well for a stretch with the first year (1982) of Dennis Erickson as coach, through to 1995. The school may not have have become the national team BSU did, but it scored winning seasons consistently through that period. Athletics-based enthusiasm at the institution may have been higher then too.

Various factors no doubt contributed, a series of strong coaches among them. But the UI’s participation then in the Big Sky Conference, whose members overall were competitive with the UI, no doubt helped. The institution had long been a Big Sky member (and was a charter member in 1963) through its losing years too, but when other factors came together the more local conference may have helped. And local Idaho boosters could fairly easily make their way even to away games in places like Washington, Montana and Pocatello (Idaho State University).

As the Wikipedia account notes, “Idaho experienced its best years in football from 1985 to 1995, when it made the I-AA national playoffs in ten of eleven seasons with four different head coaches, reaching the semifinals twice. After 18 years in Division I-AA, Idaho returned to Division I-A competition (now called the FBS) in 1996 in the Big West.”

The collapse followed. In this new century, the Vandals have bounced around other affiliations including independent, and maybe not coincidentally saw its winning seasons turn to losers. This year, the Sun Belt Conference said that UI (and New Mexico State University) would be dropped from their group after 2017.

So on Thursday there may have been some air of resignation to word that UI was returning to Big Sky. President Chuck Staben said that “I understand the magnitude of this decision and the strong opinions that surround it, both for and against, but joining the Big Sky Conference is the best possible course for our athletics program and for our university. We have carefully weighed our options and concluded that competing as an independent with an extremely uncertain future conference affiliation would be irresponsible when we have the alternative of joining one of the most stable FCS conferences.”

Not exactly the words of hyperconfidence (and just as well), but as he suggests, this likely was the best move. It suggests retrenchment; it suggests a backing away from the big time. But that’s far better than more of the kind of seasons UI has been experiencing recent years.

From across the way

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Democrat Branden Durst represented the southeast Boise area in the Idaho House for two terms after his elections in 2006 and 2008, and then for about a year in the Idaho Senate after his election in 2012. In November 2013, having half-moved to Washington state, he resigned.

This year, situated full-time in southern Pierce County (county seat: Tacoma), he’s running again, now for a House seat in Washington’s 29th district.

In the early days of most of our western states there was nothing unusual about running for office, sequentially, in multiple states; many of Idaho’s early lawmakers did, spreading expertise gathered in sundry statehouses. In more recent decades, political people in most states have found more electoral strength in emphasizing local roots over job experience. Among recent Idaho legislators, only Senator Steve Vick, R-Hayden, comes to mind as having been elected to another state’s legislature (the Montana House). If anyone knows of another in recent years, let me know. Nationally, it’s not unknown, but rare.

The similarities and differences of running in different states surely offer some insights single-state candidates don’t see. I asked Durst last week about some of those.

He is running in District 29, a mostly suburban area reaching south of Tacoma, including such communities as Lakewood and Parkland. That area actually is a lot like Durst’s old southeast Boise district, including its at-present Democratic lean. Durst is challenging an incumbent Democratic representative, David Sawyer of Parkland. There’s also a Republican, Rick Thomas, in the race.

For all that Washington is classed as a Democratic “blue” state in the presidential election, its legislature is split closely between the two parties, with a Republican Senate and Democratic House.

A number of legislative issues track across state lines. Public school financing is a hot topic in Washington. There as in Idaho the state supreme court has said the legislature has not adequately addressed that funding, but in Washington, the court has gone further and held the legislature in contempt, and imposed fines. It’s a subject of widespread discussion.

One obvious campaign difference from Idaho is the “top two” element. Durst and both other candidates in the August primary election each are seeking to do better than come in third; whichever two do progress on to November, even if they’re of the same party. November becomes a runoff. Mostly around the state this still means a Democrat and a Republican running against each other in November, but not always.

Another difference, which pops up in the practicalities of running, is that outsiders have a harder time there gaining traction than they do in Idaho. In Idaho, candidates can (and often should) do a good deal of work before formally filing for office in March, but they don’t have to. In Washington, most of the campaign finance, organization and other work is long since done by the time a candidate formally files in May. Major endorsing organizations too have made their donation or other support decisions far in advance of May, Durst said, and “if you’re new to the political process you’d have almost no chance of being successful.”

They need more resources too than in Idaho. A legislative district in Washington has several times as many people as those in Idaho, and campaign budgets and organizations typically are several times as large. In 2014, Representative Sawyer and his main opponent each spent more than $90,000, but that’s on the low side; many competitive campaigns in Washington have quarter-million dollar budgets. That’s far more than the norm in Idaho.

“In Idaho, individual candidates have a little more control over their individual destiny,” Durst said.

And he said that in Washington, “there’s much more transparency in finance here,” with state agencies that require extensive filing of campaign and personal finances. The downside is that this can rapidly become complex and difficult: “people are expected to pay for a consultant, and consultants aren't cheap ... That would be unheard of in Idaho.”

Still, he said, the basics are the basics. Knocking on doors and shaking hands is not so different in any state.

“The fundamentals are the same, wherever you live.”

Redirected role

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As unexpectedly skillful as Bernie Sanders turned out to be as a presidential candidate, he may be positioned now to be even better in another capacity: Movement leader.

The Vermont senator has done a terrific job getting as far as he has in the presidential primary. Starting with almost nothing in the presidential run against presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton, he battled very nearly to a draw. Up until the New York primary, he retained a plausible route to the nomination, scoring some overwhelming wins along the way.

New York turned a page. To win the nomination, he would have to take a majority of the pledged delegates nationally, and after yesterday that means he would need overwhelming wins almost everywhere still on the calendar. Wins he probably will get (Oregon, likely, for one), but not on that scale. That's not going to happen.

The typical response to this kind of situation is to "suspend" the campaign - call a halt, keeping the organization technical alive for a while to allow for additional fundraising to pay off the bills.

Sanders' response may be a little different, and in the interest of his cause probably should be.

He still has money and enthusiasm, and he can leverage them. He could stay active through the rest of the primary season, into June and California, winning as many delegates as he can. The object would not be to defeat Clinton, whose eventual nomination is close to a lock now. The point rather would be to form a large and powerful bloc at the convention, and beyond. It would not constitute a nominating majority, but it would be so large a portion of the overall delegation that it could not be safely ignored. It could make demands. And it could apply pressure, as it has for most of a year now, on Hillary Clinton.

When Barack Obama won the presidency in 2008 he did it with a massive organization organized extremely well. Had he kept it operative as an active grass roots effort supporting his administration's efforts, a great deal of the history since - notably the off-year elections of 2010 and 2014 - might have turned out quite a bit differently. At this point, even while falling short of the nomination, Sanders has an organization as large and enthusiastic, and capable of financing itself, as Obama had, and maybe more so. If Hillary Clinton is elected president, she might well run into the same kind of Republican brick wall - even if Democrats retake the Senate - that Obama has. A Sanders-led grass roots organization could both serve as a counterweight to that brick wall, and push Clinton into more ambitious efforts than she might attempt otherwise.

There's an old story about Franklin Roosevelt that tells of one of his political allies urging the president to undertake some program. Roosevelt was not opposed, but he saw the political obstacles, and the possible overall political cost to his administration, if he tried launching it on his own. His response to the ally: "Make me do it."

In other words, pressure me into doing it, in such a way that the political forces in favor of passage amount to not just me, but also much more.

You could consider it a sort of value-added shadow presidency, that Sanders could pursue if he keeps his organization intact and active beyond November. What could happen as a result might be no small thing.

Judicial architects

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Idaho may soon fill a critical job vacancy that opened when Edward Lodge announced in September 2014 his intent to “assume senior status” - more or less, semi-retire – the following July.

That would allow a deep breath of relief on the underpopulated Idaho federal bench, which long has sought more judicial help. The Obama White House and Idaho’s two Republican senators, Mike Crapo and Jim Risch (both lawyers by profession), have agreed on David Nye of Pocatello, a 6th district judge, to fill the job. Kudos all around.

Pause a moment on the 6th judicial district aspect. The 6th, which is on the state not federal level, is based in Pocatello and includes counties to its south and east. It is one of the smaller Idaho judicial districts, but it has outsized federal impact. One former judge from the 6th (from 1987 to 1995) is Lynn Winmill, who now is the chief federal district judge in Idaho. Another (from 1995-2007) is Randy Smith, now a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals, who maintains an office in Pocatello.

Winmill and Smith have in common a political background running political party organizations. Winmill once chaired the Bannock County Democrats, and Smith once chaired the Idaho Republican Party. Still, you’d probably find most attorneys in Idaho agree that those backgrounds seem not to have interfered with their judicial work. As with Lodge, their reputation is of being good, fair judges.

The new federal nominee, Nye, worked for the same law firm, Merrill and Merrill, that Smith did before his move to the bench. He has far less visible political background than the two other judges, which may help in his selection now. And he’s gotten good marks for his judicial work. Crapo and Risch are asking the Senate to push his confirmation through.

Last week, Idaho Democratic Chair Bert Marley pointed out that the senators have at the same time refused even to consider another court appointment by the president, Merrick Garland for the U.S. Supreme Court. Garland, somewhat like Nye, seems to have not a lot in the way of political involvement in past years, and there’s been little to no argument against his merits. So, Marley asked, what gives?

Risch told McClatchy News the difference was between a lower-level judge and one on the high court. The district judge is “not involved in being an architect of the culture of our country, which is what a U.S. Supreme Court judge does. The U.S. Supreme Court is very, very political, just like Congress is, just like the president of the United States. People wring their hands and say, ‘Oh, that’s terrible, you shouldn’t bring politics into it.’ How do you not bring politics into it?”

The role of “architect of the culture” is a piece of Supreme Court job description I’ve never seen before (you won’t find it in the Constitution) and, as Marley said, seems to run directly into the critique of many Republicans who decry activist judges, most especially on the Supreme Court.

It also downplays the powerhouse role federal district judges often play. Supreme Courts, after all, hear a fraction of the cases they’re asked to review. District or circuit judges in effect decide a whole lot of law. Reviewing Winmill’s impact on Idaho in a book a last year, I wrote: “He ordered a delay in megaload shipments over Highway 12 and said the Forest Service had to take some responsibility for them. He killed state laws related to abortion on constitutional grounds. He ordered dissolution of the St. Luke’s acquisition of the Nampa-based Saltzer Medical Group, citing anti-trust laws (creating major implications for more medical mergers in the area; that case is still on appeal). He said the federal government has to reconsider if it has acted as thoroughly as it can to protect sage grouse before declaring the species endangered. He delivered a split decision on the protesting rights of Occupy Boise. He approved a state Republican Party push to “close” its primary election to registered Republicans only.”

How do you not bring politics into any of these things? The answer is, the best we can do at any level of court is to hire fair judges. Would Nye and Merrick be fair judges? That seems to be the relevant question.

Better water

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Water is critical everywhere, but Idaho notices more than most when the water levels are off.

And things go better when they’re not.

Idahoans see it in the stream levels, and in so much else of what they do. In the populous areas of southern Idaho, when water levels are low, people go for each other’s throats – not in a physically literal sense anymore (although there is some history of that), but in the courts, and in business. Low water levels determine whether a farm or an industrial business gets the water to survive, to stay in business. Courts, and the state government, determine who gets water and who goes parched.

The effects ripple. A good water year can mean overall prosperity and a sense of community. Poor water years can tear at the social fabric.

So if, in some ways, Idaho has a little more upbeat feel this year than last, you can find some of the reason as I do in reviewing the water levels.

I check them every week, starting with a web page updated daily by the National Resources Conservation Service, called “Snotel narrative.” (You can see it at their site.) The data are technical, and the lines I follow are described this way: “The Accumulated Precipitation Percent of Average represents the total precipitation (beginning October 1st) found at selected SNOTEL sites in or near the basin compared to the Average value for those sites on this day.”

It gives you a feel for how the snowpack, which as the year goes on will dictate much of the water flow, is developing compared to the historical norms, in all the basins in Idaho. A reading of 100 is normal; higher is more water, lower is less. Great variations can mean flood or drought.

Five years ago, for example, the Northern Panhandle area was at 106 – just a bit above normal. The Salmon basin was at 98, the Boise at 106, the Little Wood 103, the Henry’s Fork 96, the Bear River 78 – the lowest in the state. So in 2011, the state overall was running just about average.

Last year at this point, here were the figures for those same basins: the Northern Panhandle 97, the Salmon basin 87, the Boise at 89, the Little Wood 70, the Henry’s Fork 76, the Bear River 71. The lowest last year at this time was the Medicine Lodge and Camas Creek area (in eastern Idaho) at just 61 – a sign of a very tough water year to come. In fact, the whole state was running short of water, and the legal battles and economic tensions were running high.

This year, things have changed.

A week ago, here is what the comparable reading show: the Northern Panhandle 121, the Salmon basin 112, the Boise at 114, the Little Wood 105, the Henry’s Fork 97 (tied for lowest in the state, with the Snake River above the Palisades Dam), the Bear River 100.

Quite an improvement.

The U.S. Geological Survey last week released a series of drought area maps covering the period up through March. Idaho’s – which last year was piled in with eerie shares of yellow, orange and even dark red markers of strong drought warnings – this year is producing only a few widely-scattered dabs of lightest-level drought warnings.

Don’t be surprised if some of the tensions around the state don’t ease off just a little as the months ahead progress. Plentiful water makes for some happy civic medicine.