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Posts published in “Stapilus”

In the absence of perfection

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A few years back, when Idaho legislators debated whether to establish a state insurance exchange program under the Affordable Care Act, I criticized most of them for an obsession, not with the health of uninsured Idahoans, but with the perceived evils of the federal government.

Today, the exchange in Idaho is established, popular, heavily used and without doubt saving lives and improving health. Debate has nonetheless continued over what to do about the 78,000 Idahoans who earn too little to qualify for participation in the exchange and get payment help for health care – if at all – through a state and local government catastrophic health program, which pays hospitals for some emergency care no one else will compensate. The answer adopted by 31 states, and proposed by many in Idaho, is to allow expansion of Medicaid to cover the 78,000.

After four years of that debate, some progress: At least now, they’re talking to a significant degree about health care. Progress should be noted where it happens.

But don’t consider the progress, even after four years with a good, working example right in front of them, too spectacular.

The most recent discussion of Medicaid expansion came in an interim legislative committee on August 29. The pro side included savings of many millions of dollars (now paid out in expensive emergency medical care costs) to state and local governments, clear help for the health of many Idahoans and overwhelmingly positive public comments to legislative and others panels over four years. And on the other side?

Senator Steve Thayn said he doubts federal rules on food stamps or Medicaid encourages people to become productive. “If we’re really, truly looking at an Idaho solution, we need to look at what we can do with Idaho money, Idaho rules, and what we can do to change the cost of medical care.”

What is that exactly – we’d all love to know – and if there are such options why has no one found them in the last four years?

Representative Judy Boyle of Midvale: “I think we’ve heard of some other [non-Medicaid] options. … I think we can come up with a really good solution that fits Idaho.”

What sort of options? There’s a non-profit from Seattle that arranges for free care for some low-income people. And a lone (apparently) Idaho Falls physician who takes no insurance payments, just charges very low rates and keeps his overhead down. Interesting instances both, but if you ask why they’re not more widespread – nothing in the Affordable Care Act or other law is stopping them – you’ve halfway answered your question. Or just ask your local hospital or physician why they’re not doing it this way. Their responses would run much longer than this column, but probably point out the many costs, services and risks left addressed by operating essentially as a pure charity.

Limiting costs is a great thing to do, would be smart to bear in mind, and must be part of where health care planning goes in the years to come, but it won’t be easy. Finding ways to do it everywhere in the health care system would be useful work for lawmakers and others for years to come.

In the meantime, 78,000 Idahoans are stuck in a holding pattern of being without health care coverage except the most expensive kind (in crisis condition in hospital emergency rooms) which when paid for at all is paid by local taxpayers or by hospitals who pass on the costs to everyone else. It is a nonsensical system, both in terms of finance and health. The most positive spin for not improving it seems to be that some people insist on finding perfectly satisfying answers, in opposition to merely fostering public health and saving lives.

It’s on for 2018, already

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“We narrowly lost that race but our message of empowerment, advancement and citizen-led state control over federal dependency resonated loudly. I’m pleased to communicate that I will be continuing that mission as a candidate for governor in 2018.”

The speaker was former state Senator Russ Fulcher, a Meridian Republican who ran in the Republican primary for governor in 2014 – losing to incumbent C.L. “Butch” Otter – announcing last week, in mid-2016, about his upcoming return to the governor’s race in 2018.

The news came on a slickly-produced 1:44 video that almost could have doubled as a campaign ad except that this was just the announcement of a forthcoming campaign.

There really is no break in this anymore, is there?

That’s not meant as a slap at Fulcher. As you’ll probably recall, he’s the second major candidate for governor in 2018, the first being Lieutenant Governor Brad Little, an Otter appointee who has been widely considered the governor-in-waiting for about seven years now. Because much of the support base for Fulcher overlaps with that of Representative Raul Labrador, who has also often been mentioned as a 2018 gubernatorial prospect, this may be an indicator Labrador won’t be running for that office. At least, in 2018.

It also sets up a near rerun of the contest from 2014, when Fulcher’s run against Otter was prompted in large part because of Otter’s support for the state health insurance exchange. Fulcher’s 2014 web site said, “Federal policies in the areas of healthcare, education, and the environment are stripping freedoms from Idahoans and placing them in the hands of government bureaucrats. This became glaringly evident in 2013, when the Idaho Legislature, led by Governor Butch Otter, voluntarily embraced Obamacare, thereby placing Idaho as a partner of the federal government in implementing a healthcare law that Idahoans do not want and cannot afford.”

If Otter won’t be on the ballot, Little, who has been as loyal a lieutenant as a governor could ask for, will be a good stand in.

But some other things have changed and will change between 2014 and 2018. Here are a couple.

The so-controversial health insurance marketplace is part of the health and financial environment now, and about 100,000 Idahoans receive health insurance coverage in whole or part because of it. Campaigning against federal intrusion is never a loser in Idaho, but campaigning to kick 100,000 people off health insurance almost surely would be. The subjects and approach of a Fulcher campaign would almost have to change somewhat from 2014, or face a revolt. Or a loss to Little.

The other change is harder to estimate: It has to do with the effect of Donald Trump on politics going forward from 2016. Otter has joined Trump’s campaign as an honorary chair, but most other major Republican leaders in the state have kept a lower profile. How will Trump and his advocates be viewed a year, or two years, from now? In some parts of the state – substantial parts of southern Idaho, to start with – Trump is not very popular at all, and a touchy subject for many Republicans to address.

But the future of the Republican Party will be very much up for grabs after this year’s campaign is over, and that contest will be active in Idaho as it will be elsewhere. Where will Little and Fulcher come down on it?

The campaign is beginning, even now.

Digging in

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The Idaho state Republicans have opened several local field offices, evidently for the duration of the campaign season, in Lewiston, Moscow and Hailey, and according to reports, another is planned in west Boise.

The latter is only a few miles away from state party headquarters in downtown Boise. These new offices do have something in common: They are located in most of those few places in Idaho where competitive legislative races are underway. (The Democrats may be setting up shop a little more informally.)

Not much of Idaho is really up for grabs in this year’s election, partly because most districts in Idaho are too partisan-lopsided to allow for close races; but there are a few. It's also possible some other races could start to spark. Only about 80 days are left, but even in Idaho the unpredictable can happen.

Closest thing to ground zero for serious competition right now, again in this cycle as before, is district 15, where the two House Republican incumbents, Lynn Luker and Patrick McDonald, are being challenged heavily by Democrats Steve Berch – his third hard-charging run in this district – and Jake Ellis, both raising and spending money comparable to the incumbents. Up to now, Republicans have won every time out in this west Boise district, but the margins have shrunk, and the outcome of these races is hard to predict.

The districts based around Moscow and Lewiston have been among the most competitive in recent years, and two years ago the House Democratic leader, John Rusche, won re-election at Lewiston by 50 votes. No one is taking any votes for granted in these places – Districts 5 and 6. While the Senate seats here do look set for incumbent re-elections, the four House races all show signs of being competitive.

The unusual spot for a Republican local office is Hailey, the Blaine County seat which is almost as solidly Democratic as any community in Idaho – and taken together with Ketchum, maybe more than any. The legislative delegation from this area has been mostly Democratic for a generation.

But while the district includes the Democratic Wood River Valley it also includes more Republican territory reaching out to Shoshone, Fairfield, Gooding and Wendell, and the Democratic advantage is not enormous. One of the House seats is now occupied by Republican Steve Miller, and the other, held for a dozen years by Democrat Donna Pence, is now (with her retirement) open. Democrat Sally Toone of Gooding seems reasonably well positioned to keep the seat blue (Pence is her campaign manager), but Republicans seem to be taking seriously the opportunity an open seat is giving them, and Alex Sutter, a businessman at Richfield, may be a strong prospect.

These are not the only significant legislative races in Idaho this year, of course. Sometimes political explosions come out of nowhere, as in last week’s instance of state Senator Jim Guthrie, R-Inkom, and Representative Christy Perry, R-Nampa, after news media reports that the two married legislators had an affair. Both are on the ballot in November and, partly because both live in solidly Republican districts, seemed to be headed toward re-election. Now their races have become harder to measure.

This doesn’t look like an especially competitive year, and the roster of Idaho legislative candidates hasn’t produced a large list of fascinating candidates. But sometimes races take on interest when something new happens, and candidates look more interesting in hindsight, when you see what they’ve accomplished.

We’re heading into the home stretch.

(Less than) 3 months to go

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One of the online places political junkies get their fix – it’s really hard to stay away for long – is the fivethirtyeight.com web site and especially its election forecast section.

There are other polling analysis sites around the web, but 538, led by the remarkable statistician Nate Silver, is the most sophisticated. Most prominently it has a section showing, based on current information, how the candidates for president are doing. It updates the information whenever a new data point becomes available, which may be several times in a day, or even several times in an hour. Every time I check back in, it seems to have changed. And there’s more: The site offers three rounds of current estimates, the “now cast,” which estimates who probably would win and by how much if the election were held now; the “poll only,” which analyzes polls and nothing else; and the “polls-plus,” which adds in economic, historic and other factors.

As I write this, 538 estimates Democrat Hillary Clinton has an 86.3% chance of beating Republican Donald Trump, according to “polls only.” The number will change, up or down, by the time you read this.

538 also breaks down the probability estimates by state. As I write this, the odds Trump will win Idaho have been calculated – polls-only – at 96.3%. It is the third highest probability of a Trump win in the country, behind only West Virginia and (in first place) Oklahoma (at 98.7%). The polls-plus probability of a Trump win in in Idaho in November hit 99.1%, which is almost as close to a certainty as 538 gets, while the now-cast (if the election were held today) is at 98.2%. The now-cast estimates that in Idaho, Trump would get 54.6% of the vote, Clinton 35.7% and Libertarian Gary Johnson 7.8%.

You can see a consistent pattern here.

Some states, especially many of the battlegrounds, are polled frequently, but Idaho isn’t, which creates an obstacle for analysts like 538. They’re relying in large part on three polls from Dan Jones & Associates.

Polling analysts put a lot of attention into not so much the snapshots that individual polls can generate, but the trend lines – are numbers rising or falling over time – and comparisons between pollsters, when those are available. In Idaho, those numbers have been mostly stable all year.

Idaho’s neighboring states have been a little more variable, swinging around significantly during July (the month of conventions) in blue Washington and Oregon, red Utah and Montana (though not red Wyoming, which stayed stable) and purple Nevada. In the first couple of weeks of August, however, all have begun to settle into familiar patterns.

The most interesting of the neighbors – in the possibility it might break from familiar patterns – is Utah. Utah actually has been polled with some regularity this year, and by several pollsters. Trump is given an 80% probability (polls only) of winning it, but that’s far less than Idaho or Wyoming. At 80% probability, you have an operating assumption that Trump will take the state, but the chance of an upset is not completely off the charts. Put another way, the chance Trump may lose Utah is greater than the chance that he wins the November election. If he did lose Utah, might that affect the Idaho percentages in reflection of how the large LDS vote might turn?

Utah is one of several western states of interest, in having polling numbers that force both parties to keep a wary eye on them. Nevada and Arizona are near-battlegrounds, Colorado is in the gray area for battleground status, and party activists might be wise to keep an eye on Montana, where Trump has a probability of winning now sitting at 76%, which is less than secure.

For the time being, though, after all the post-convention talk about changes in the races, Idaho still looks pretty well locked down.

Staying in state

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The state Department of Labor last week released a statistic that policy makers might want to wrap their minds around, as a significant broad-brush indicator about Idaho and a question to ponder as they consider what sort of state Idaho should be.

Consider the people who graduate from Idaho colleges and universities, one year after graduation. (The study was conducted of graduates from 2010 to 2014.)

Of those former students who were in-state residents, about 77 percent stayed in the state, “working in Idaho jobs.” The report said “The other 23 percent of in-state graduates either left to work in another state, took a federal government job, joined the military or worked in some other kind of self-employment category. In some cases, they may still be looking for work in their field, continuing on to graduate school or to another educational program.”

Five years later, about 67 percent still were in the state.

Of those who were out of state students, just 39 percent stayed in the state after one year, and just 28 percent five years later. (“Out of state” students were those considered non-residents at the time they entered the college of university, whether or not they became Idaho residents during the time of their studies.)

That’s a big gap, about two to one. What would account for it?

As an out of stater when I first came to the University of Idaho, but who stayed in Idaho long afterward, the question and the results hit home.

The department speculated that family or other ties may be part of what keeps many of those in-state students in place. That may be about right. The study added, “Other factors include types of degrees and programs offered. Some degrees and programs are highly marketable all over the country and the world, making those students more mobile and attractive to employers outside Idaho. Geographic location of the institution is another factor. Some colleges and universities are located in college towns, closer to bordering states where students are more likely to take their degrees to other more economically viable cities outside of the state. And, some postsecondary institutions are already located in thriving and growing economic urban hubs, creating local and immediate job opportunities for graduates eager to enter the workforce.”

The fact that Eastern Idaho Technical College and the College of Southern Idaho, both located in areas relatively far from metro areas and where the student population may be especially based from the local area, tends to back up that idea.

What the institutions aren’t doing as much, which probably is happening in other places and might be useful in Idaho, is not only drawing in but retaining talented students from other states. The students are coming – lower costs at the Idaho institutions may be one reason – but they’re not staying.

Why isn’t Idaho keeping those students? Is it a lack of jobs, or is there some other major consideration?

That might usefully be the subject of a future DOL report: For that large majority of students who come but don’t stay in Idaho, why aren’t they sticking around?

Idaho might benefit from the answer to that question.

Watching the conventions

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I can't remember whether I watched the 1964 national party conventions - I was eight at the time - but probably I saw pieces of them. In 1968, I watched most of both of them; I specifically recall sitting down with big bowls of popcorn to watch, and both were rewarding entertainment.

Every four years since, I have made a point of watching at least most of the two conventions, including the acceptance speeches and the keynote.

I watch them on C-SPAN, so I can get them clean, no talking heads informing me minute by minute what I should think about what I'm seeing.

Probably most people don't find these things entertaining (but then, reality shows are the depths of boredom for me). I still do, to some extent. But the main reason I watch them, and I'd urge other people to watch them, is this: The conventions are the place where each party, without interference, gets to make its best case for why you should vote for them and not the other guys.

Too many people contain themselves in little media bubbles, absorbing views and messages and information from one side or the other. Watch both conventions, and the debates in the fall (I like to watch debates from around the country on C-SPAN too), and you can fairly say you've heard from both sides, that you're not just listening to one.

This year, some Republicans might complain about that. Donald Trump took over that party and its convention, and many long-time Republicans, elected officials and others, were not part of the mix. Their voices weren't much heard (the main sort of exception being Ted Cruz). That's true. But it's also true that Trump has taken control of the Republican Party, for the next few months at least. And what emerged from the GOP convention was what he and his people wanted to say and wanted Americans to know about them. watch the convention, and you've heard their case.

The same is true on the Democratic. If you know someone who maintains that the Democrats want this, or oppose that, tell them to watch the convention, and that will give you a fair idea of what they and their presidential nominee do and don't support. Not all of it will match up with the bubble on the right, just as not all of Trump's convention matches up with the bubble on the left.

Day one of the Democratic convention went, from the viewpoint of a remote watcher, generally better than most media reports seemed to indicate. Bernie Sanders backers, understandably infuriated by what the DNC leadership has been up to in trying to undermine their campaign, made their views and occasional displeasure known at the beginning of the day, and after Sarah Silverman's challenge to them in the evening. (That wasn't such a wise move.) But the speeches mostly moved fast, strong, and varied. Michelle Obama, Elizabeth Warren and Sanders finished the day effectively, and my guess would be that after the vote today, the convention calms down.

Most do.

And then, both conclaves under our belts, we can go on and absorb the next 100 or so day, and vote.

Quiet but not inactive

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Six months ago, and six months from now, the Idaho Legislature was and will be getting into gear, reviewing budgets and rule and bill proposals.

And while that will look like the busy season, a lot of what they do actually has its origins in work being done now, in the quiet time, in the middle of summer. When our political attention is drawn mostly to the national party conventions. When it would seem, to judge from most headlines, that little governmental action is really ongoing.

In fact, a stroll around the Capitol Mall about now probably would give you the impression that the times in state government are fairly sleepy.

But not really. A good deal of legislative prep work is underway, for example, in legislative interim committees. The Public School Funding Committee (discussing one of the biggest topics in almost any legislative session) met on July 12, the committee on health care alternatives (as hot a topic as any) met July 21, the panel on state employee benefits will meet August 3 and the children at risk committee meets August 4.

These committees and a bunch of others will shape some of the key legislation in the 2017 session. A lot of interim legislative activities are held in the summer (they’re being set up in the spring, and fall meeting dates are often a problem in campaign season).

July 1 is an important state government date. It is the default date for new laws to take effect, which means switching over and evaluation in a number of areas. It also is the dividing line between fiscal years, the point when the books are closed on the old year, and revenue analysis has to begin for the new one.

Partly for that same reason, budget work starts to get underway in midsummer. State agencies are supposed to receive a budget manual in July, and submit their requests either this month or in August. You won’t see the results, not publicly, until after the new year, but the groundwork is beginning to be laid even now.

You’ll hear more about state administrative rules when the legislature reviews them in January, but a lot of the crunch work is underway now – in the period well after the legislature adjourns, but well before (allowing for publication and other schedules) the legislature returns. Because of the legislature’s intensive review of the rules, the window for actually developing and reviewing them is relatively short, at the other end of the year.

And many state boards and commissions hold summer meetings, which in some cases are among the most critical meetings of the annual cycles; partly because of those budget and rulemaking considerations. The Fish & Game Commission met July 6, the Idaho Workforce Development Council on July 14, the state Land Board and Board of Corrections on July 19, and the Water Resource Board and Oil and Gas Commission on July 21 – just to cite a few examples from so far this month.

Of course, regional and local governments continue on through the year as well, and they too have budgeting and other considerations that keep them busy over the summer.

It may be vacation season for many people, but that doesn’t mean nothing’s happening. Quite the contrary.

Day one

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Day one of the Republican National - that is, Trump - Convention went about as well as it realistically might have. Put otherwise: Not so well.

It started with the largest, most passionate floor conflict I've watched since at least the Democrats in 1980, maybe further back than that. It wound up the way these outside challenges almost always do. The Donald Trump forces were quick to quash the opposition (some of it seemingly led from Utah), and maybe too quick: There was some fury in the crowd. Delegations from two states, Iowa and Colorado, walked out.

On the wide shots, there seemed to be an awful lot of empty seats. That may be wrong for some reason or other, but the convention looked underpopulated compared to other conventions I've watched.

Watching via television is a tricky thing when evaluating audience response, but it seemed to me that the energy of the crowd seemed drained after that. Only a few speakers seemed to really draw it out.

Rudy Giuliani, the former New York mayor, is a strong speaker and seemed to get the crowd stirred, but he was just about alone in doing that. The others were an unusual mix of military people, entertainers (a couple of little-known actors with less presence), a long stretch about Benghazi that was hard to follow and seemed by now beside the point. And a too-long speech by Trump's wife. (Speeches by spouses generally should be kept brief: A note for the Democratic convention to come.) Later in the day, audience responses and applause seemed, on TV at least, to be sparse and slight.

A political convention is where among other things the two parties get to critique each other. Certainly there was no lack of blasts from the GOP at the Democrats (no doubt to be returned next week), but what was missing was a lack of coherence about what the problem was. The Obama Administration was accused of being a failure all over the place, all over the world, generally, but the specifics were largely missing, or misrepresented. What exactly was it that the administration did that hurt the country's prospects so much? There were no real through themes, no takeaways.

And I can't wait for the fact checking to weigh in today's speeches. Iowa Senator Joni Ernest remarked during one of the many fear-fear-fear segments, "Terrorists from ISIS are in every one of our 50 states." Really? How could she know that? Does she know who they are?

That was only a shadow of what the retired general, Michael Flynn, had to say, warning us that we are imminent risk of national destruction from ISIS.

Something I think I have never heard from a political convention before: Demands - repeated demands - that the presidential nominee of the other party be imprisoned, even though convicted of no offenses at all. I'm fairly sure I never heard that from the Democrats in 2004. But I heard it repeatedly among the Republicans on Monday. And not, I suspect, for the last time.

And finally, the song they played upon adjournment: "Sweet Caroline." Really? Do they know who the song is about?

Three more days to go.

Patent pending

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Did it come as something of a shock to the executives at Micron Technology when one of the leading research universities in the world, Harvard, decided to file suit against it?

The question is a little generic, since the suit filed on June 24 apparently came after Harvard had sent letters and other communications. But the more non-specific answer – which Micron hasn’t given; it has not said much about the case – may tell something about the larger issue of patents and their sometimes sweeping impact.

The case arose after Micron and another company, GlobalFoundries (which also is in Harvard’s legal sights) began using a new technology which allows for placing extremely thin metal films on other substances, which can expand the reach of computing possibilities. We don’t yet know whether Micron or GF would argue they independently came up with the process, or whether they would contend it is different from others. But Harvard said that it is the same as one developed by a team led by one of its professors, Roy G. Gordon, in the late 1990s and early in the next decade.

On becoming aware Micron was using what it thought was the same approach, Harvard said it “reached out to each of the companies outside of the context of litigation and invited them to engage in good faith licensing discussions. The companies have refused to engage and have, so far, continued their infringement without licensing rights to use the patented technology.”

Patent law, or the use of it, has been changing in the last few decades, and concerns about it have been growing as well. The popular conception of patents probably relates to the classic entrepreneurial inventor in the home basement who’s come up with a brilliant new mousetrap, and wants to make sure someone else doesn’t steal his great idea. Or, at least, that he can benefit from it. The idea is to encourage invention, and also to encourage the use of the invention to benefit society. Many patents are now held by large organizations, developed by people who work for them.

Harvard’s statement on the new lawsuit said it “recognizes that the public’s interest may be best served in some circumstances by the application of legal protection to the innovations of Harvard inventors so that these technologies may be developed into useful products.” If reading that makes you feel like you’ve looped around the curves of a pretzel, you may not be alone.

Also this: “The Gordon laboratory’s research was supported in part by the National Science Foundation. The Bayh-Dole Act of 1980, a federal law, enables universities to hold patents on federally funded research and to participate in technology transfer activities that help ensure inventions become useful products that benefit society. Harvard invests significant resources into research infrastructure and activities, technology development, and the cost of filing and maintaining patents.”

A question may be coming to mind, which Harvard also usefully posed in its statement: “If Harvard intends groundbreaking technologies to make an impact in the world, why file suit against companies that are making use of the technology?” The answer was that unlicensed use of the technology “can devalue the contributions and efforts of researchers who have often devoted their careers to solving important technological challenges.”

In a purely financial way, maybe. But that seems to be the limits of what much of patent law is about these days. The forthcoming legal replies from Micron will be worth watching.