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Lobbyists from all over

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The Blaine County School District split deeply – the board’s vote was 3-2 – when it came to deciding whether to hire a lobbyist to represent it at the next state legislative session in Boise.

The vote went in the “yea” direction, with the support of the superintendent, who noted that such vital matters as the school funding formula, which determines how state money will be apportioned to the districts, already have been under discussion. The person hired was Phil Homer, who has been a lobbyist before, working for the Idaho Association of School Administrators.

Blaine is so far the only individual school district to take this step, and there’s been some commentary about whether it should. (There are also questions about whether various other governmental organizations, local and state, should hire lobbyists. But it wouldn’t be a surprise to see other school districts consider it. A lot of lobbyists prowl the Statehouse in-season, more of them than there are legislators. And they represent some fairly unexpected interests and organizations.

You can see the most current list for yourself (dated November 16) on the secretary of state’s website at https://www.sos.idaho.gov/elect/lobbyist/2016/emplob.pdf. As you look at it, remind yourself that this is the Idaho Legislature, not Congress.

Plenty of local Idaho organizations are represented on the list, of course: The list includes the Associated General Contractors of Idaho and the Association of Idaho Cities, the Boise Chamber of Commerce and the Catholic Charities of Idaho (yes, charities hire lobbyists too), the College of Western Idaho, the Flying B Ranch, Idaho Power Company and the J.R. Simplot Company, the Fremont-Madison Irrigation District, Micron Technology and Melaleuca Inc., St. Luke’s Health System, the Idaho Farm Bureau and the Idaho Freedom Foundation. Nearly every organization of substantial size in the Gem State has someone at the Statehouse looking out for them.

But they’re not alone. Remember, a number of these and other organizations also are connected to national counterpart organizations. Some of them designate staffers as lobbyists, and others hire contract lobbyists; the mix changes periodically.

None of these should come as a surprise. But you may be interested in some of the national names that seem to find it worthwhile to spend money on Idaho lobbying.

There’s Wilks Ranch Idaho LLC, for instance, based out of Cisco, Texas, but recently a big landowner in Idaho.

There are many more, large and not so large. Wal-Mart has a designated lobbyist for Idaho. So does Verizon Wireless, T-Mobile, Nationwide Mutual Insurance Company, United Parcel Service, Uber Technologies (of San Francisco), Johnson & Johnson, Two Jinn Inc. (Aladdin Bail Bonds), Chevron USA, K12 (an education company), the Humane Society of the United States, Scion Dental, Pfizer Inc. (on of the world’s biggest pharma companies), MillerCoots LLC, Bayer Corporation and even the Bank of New York Mellon.

And many more.

What have they all to do with Idaho? What do they want, or not want, in or from the Gem State? And how might that relate to you?

Good questions, and not just for the Blaine County School District.

Lobbyists often get tagged as nefarious actors and that’s generally unfair. We all have a right to seek redress of grievances, whether directly or through someone paid to help us. And bear in mind that lobbyists are not a monolith; they often do battle with each other. Will their work benefit the rest of us, or not? The answer to that will depend on where you sit.

The next session begins in a couple of weeks.

No more Hall columns?

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Please pardon the reminiscing, but the time of year encourages it, as did a newspaper column I read a few days ago.

The column from last weekend was by Bill Hall, whose writing base for about six decades has been the Lewiston Tribune. Its message was, that column would be his last.

By the time I arrived at the University of Idaho back in 1974, Hall already was renowned around Idaho for his editorials and columns at the Tribune. Soon after that he departed, for about a year and a half, to work for Senator Frank Church, and there wasn’t a certainty he’d be coming back. But Church lost his presidential bid in 1976, Hall wrote a book about it (“Frank Church, D.C. and Me,” from Washington State University Press, a great read on all three topics) and soon returned to Lewiston.

His departure and his return was much noted and not just in Lewiston, where Hall’s blistering, biting and often funny editorials so often launched political conversation in the mornings. It was a big deal statewide, even in the far reaches of the state, and even in the pre-Internet era. Politically-interested people considered it necessary to get hold of what Hall was saying.

One of the Tribune writers who worked closely with Hall, Jay Shelledy (now a journalism professor at Louisiana State University), was quoted in one article about Hall, “There are not many papers in the United States where the best-read page is the editorial page. Without question, Hall is the best-known journalist in the state's history.”

He learned about Idaho in the three corners of the state, growing up in Canyon County, then attending college and starting his newspaper career in Pocatello. By the time in 1965 he left for Lewiston, he already was well-schooled in Idaho politics. When I arrived at the Idaho State Journal newspaper a decade-plus after he’d left, I often prowled through his writings about local and state politics, using them to fill in gaps in what I was learning elsewhere.

By then I knew where to look because of Hall’s editorials, which I’d read at college and afterward. They were a lethal combination: Well informed and witty, and up for taking on just about anyone. Even Idaho hunters, as he wrote when the idea arose of a wildlife council picking Fish & Game Commission members: “That could be a two-edged sword because it might tend to give a disproportionate voice to those chronic whiners who want to blame state biologists every time they get too drunk, inept, or unlucky to kill an elk.”

Many newspapers shrink from editorial heat, but the Tribune never has. Hall’s view as I heard it was that he was good business: People might yell at the newspaper but they sure kept reading it.

Part of what allowed this to work was the unusual atmosphere at the Tribune, which issued punchy editorials before Hall’s tenure and has continued to since, under the local control of the Alford family. But Hall’s humor has been a critical individual part of the mix. Since his mid-70s hiatus his columns have been humorous, personal, often gentle – different to an almost drastic degree from the sometimes fiery editorialist. But the two sides could never be separated entirely, and a serious sensibility underlies even many of his more recent columns, since he retired from editorial writing in 2002.

No more Hall columns. Hardly seems like Idaho.

Navigating the unexpected

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Orval Hansen recalled that when one of his sons was born, he was celebrating with a friend in Idaho Falls who, like him, was active in politics. This was in the late 1950s, and Hansen then was one of the members of a state House Republican caucus in close contest for control with the Democrats.

Hansen said he was sorry about one thing: His son was born exactly one day too early, one day short of turning 21, to vote in the still-distant 1980 general election. The friend advised him not to worry: Who knows? He may turn out to be a Democrat.

Jim Hansen did become a Democrat, at one point leading the staff of the state Democratic party, served in the Idaho House as his father had, and even ran for the 2nd District U.S. House seat his father had held – as a Republican – for six years.

Orval Hansen’s own concern, by contrast, didn’t materialize, and partly because of his own actions. As a lawmaker, Hansen helped push through the change that allowed 18-year-olds to vote.

Call it a case of being shaped in part by unavoidable external conditions, and in part by active reshaping of the world. All of that is the core of his new memoir, Climbing the Mountain, which Hansen has just self-published.

In some ways, earlier on, Hansen was more often swimming with the tide than against it. He was a Mormon Republican in a substantial family in the Idaho Falls area. (One of his brothers, Reed Hansen, would go on to serve in the Idaho Legislature years after Orval Hansen did.) He seems not to have had great difficulty winning election to the legislature, and soon joined the ranks of leadership there. Though he lost his first bid for the U.S. House, he won his second. He became a well-established local attorney, and he wasn’t an outsider rebel, either by personal history or temperament.

But leaving it at that would distort the story. His years in the Navy gave him, apparently more than most, a perspective well beyond home. When he attended law school in Washington, D.C., he also worked as a congressional staffer. He distinguished himself from early legislative days by a willingness to vote his conscience when that cost him politically.

He lost his U.S. House seat in the 1974 Republican primary election to the similarly-named (but very different in other ways) George Hansen. That was an unexpected turn; a lot of people, including Orval Hansen, had figured him for a fourth term. After that, with his family and other connections ensconced at Washington, he decided to stay there. (Not long ago, he moved back to Idaho, and now lives in Boise.)

But here again, in that unexpected twist he made his own distinctive contribution. For many former congressmen, leaving congress would be a prescription for a lobbying career, and he did a bit of that as a practicing lawyer. But more of his attention went to the Columbia Institute for Political Research, a research and seminar development group aimed at expanding and fostering knowledge on a wide range of issues. He also worked with a wide range of nonprofits. There are easier paths for former members of Congress situated in Washington, and some of Idaho’s other former members have taken them. Orval Hansen took a harder and more public-spirited route.

He’s set some measures against which you can fairly measure other office holders. You can find the story in Climbing the Mountain.

3 concerns in a time capsule

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Sydney Duncombe, a professor at the University of Idaho, spent an extremely influential quarter-century teaching young Idahoans about government and politics, not just the theory but also the practice. That mattered to Idaho because so many of his students, like former Governor and Senator Dirk Kempthorne and former Senator Larry Craig, went on to leadership positions in Idaho.

Over the years he wrote a few newspaper columns and a kind of practical guide to Idaho government, but his larger-scale view of Idaho – where it was going, what concerns he had – were a little obscure. What did he take away from so many decades of intensive study about the state?

Some of his ideas now are on display in three little-seen and little-known novels he wrote near the end of his life, between 1999 and 2002, which now are being republished. (Disclosure: I’m the publisher.)

These are fictional stories, cast as thrillers – you could safely call them entertaining page-turners – but they are set in Idaho and clearly draw on Duncombe’s understanding of the state.

In the first, The Unlikely Candidate, the hero is a retired state budget director. (Duncombe himself held that position in 1971.) It’s a murder mystery and a thriller about a massive scandal in Idaho government, but it moves through a wide range of people and interests around the state. As a professor, Duncombe’s trademark tactic was to impersonate (while wearing any of a number of hats) people from a range of interest groups, and point up how they interact, cooperate or conflict with each other. Much of this forms the narrative bed of The Unlikely Candidate. Idaho, in other words, is complex, and more complex than it seems on the surface. A more subtle point is a reminder that bureaucrats too can be heroes; he would not have disagreed with such a sentiment.

The second, Blizzard in August, is the story is about several groups of people hiking in the White Clouds (a place Duncombe also frequented); all stranded by a sudden and early snowstorm. Duncombe knew the area and the circumstances well enough to describe them carefully; he was once caught by a freak early blizzard in that region himself. But the story centers more on questions of personal responsibility, and the responsibilities we have to other people, including to people we do not know. It lightly touched on politics, but the greater implications were directed more toward all of us; not just governmental officials.

Last of the three was Freedom County, also a thriller but one that approaches dystopian fiction. In it, a central Idaho county (presumably Custer from the description, though no real name is given) is taken over by extremist and racist militia, and then its leaders launch a plot to reshape Idaho government along their preferred lines. A cautionary tale, then, and while Duncombe’s telling rolls right along as a good thriller should, his meaning and message is clear: This is bad news, there are worrisome signs pointing in this direction, and don’t let it happen here.

I felt a slight chill when reading it.

Duncombe died in 2004, and maybe if he’d lived longer he would have written more novels on Idaho. These three, in any event, are the three messages he most basically leaves behind.

All three could not be more pertinent a decade and a half later.

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.