Writings and observations

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Who would have guessed that the biggest turnout for an Idaho legislative hearing this year would come on the subject of climate change?

It was all the more surprising because there’s no active Idaho legislation specifically on the subject this year — nothing moving through the system.

The closest came last month when legislators voted to pull references to climate change from classroom standards in Idaho schools. At a Senate committee meeting on the subject about two dozen members of the public spoke on the standards rule, all but one in favor of retaining the references to climate change; on a party line vote, the reference was stricken. (The Senate seemed somewhat open to compromise, but the House was firm that the climate change reference must go.)

The Republican leadership and committee chairs aren’t supportive of it as a legislative initiative, so it’s just not a subject of much discussion.

At least, not until last Wednesday’s hearing at the Statehouse.

What happened then wasn’t even a hearing, exactly, not even a formal proceeding of a legislative committee. Instead, after Dell Raybould, the House Environment, Energy and Technology Committee chairman, turned down a request by Democratic Representative Ilana Rubel for a committee informational event, he agreed to allow a special meeting which was not connected to the committee, to be held in the Statehouse’s auditorium. Though no supporter of her position on the issue, he personally showed and stayed through the event. Not much of the rest of the committee seems to have appeared.

So this was an event without any official standing, untied to legislation or even any committee or even any specific proposal, and without the opportunity to speak to any governing group of legislators.

Despite all that it drew, by several reporters’ estimates, around 650 people, enough to fill the auditorium and cause building managers to open overflow rooms. It was the biggest crowd for any event in this year’s legislative session. It was among the biggest crowds any Idaho legislative event ever has drawn.

Rubel, who hosted the meeting, was quoted as saying, “This issue is not just about rising ocean levels and polar bears – it’s about crops and jobs in Idaho. Idaho’s leaders must assess the risk ahead and take steps to address it, not hide their heads in the sand.”

The crowd seemed to be mostly unified in its stand, too. To judge at least from the testimony, the push was strong for at least acknowledging the fact of climate change (you won’t find much of that kind of acknowledgement in the Idaho Legislature) and the need to plan ahead for changes that may be coming.

On one hand, the presence of a large turnout hasn’t proven especially persuasive to the Idaho Legislature up to now. As I wrote a few weeks back, large turnout on one side of an issue often has resulted in . . . exactly the opposite reaction from legislators. The “Add the Words” campaign, which has drawn large crowds, is just one example.

But the ability to draw such significant numbers for a single meeting does suggest some untapped political energy out there. Campaigns in legislative races, and ballot initiatives, could be accomplished with smaller numbers and force than that single meeting generated.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus

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The Idaho House has changed a subtle piece of its procedure, with – as usually is the case – mixed effects. The good are a little more obvious; the bad brings to mind legislators, one in particular, from years past.

The change is something many people probably wouldn’t notice. (Hat tip to writer Wayne Hoffman for pointing it out.) It has to do with the way votes are tallied when members of the Idaho House choose “yea” or “nay” on the floor.

When a bill (or something else to be voted upon) comes up, House members hit a button indicating a yes or no vote. The result of that is shown on an electronic board, visible to all, showing how each legislator voted, green for yes and red for no. The totals for each also are shown. This much hasn’t changed.

What has is this: Until recently, the greens and reds showed up immediately when the legislator punched the button. They could then look at the board, see who was voting how, and whether the vote was passing or failing, and if they chose, could change their vote before the speaker announced he was “locking” the vote in place. Partway through this session, however, those votes began not to show up on the board until after the “locking” had taken place. Any legislator wanting to change a vote might still be able to, but only as a part of the record and only with permission.

Is this an improvement?

On balance, it probably is. As a reporter watching House vote tallies, I used to enjoy figuring out who was voting in response to who – who was voting for something because someone else supported it, or opposing for that same reason. Some votes might be cast one way if it was clear the measure was going to pass, or fail, by a big margin – so that an individual vote might change nothing – but another way if the vote was really needed in a close call. Doing away with some of that real time information might be beneficial; it puts some onus on each legislator to prepare a bit more in advance and not rely on signals from other legislators.

But there’s another side to it, too, brought to mind by the death of one of the best legislators I call recall at the Idaho Statehouse.

He was Mike Mitchell, a Democrat from Lewiston, a beer distributor who may have had a higher profile from his run for lieutenant governor, or work as a governor’s chief of staff, or work with various state agencies. But I recall him as one of those lawmakers whose skill set was almost perfectly matched to work in the legislature.

He was unusually well prepared, especially on the more technical work; he served on the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, and despite being in the minority he had as much impact on the budget as the leading Republicans did. That extended to other areas too. He had extra help from college interns, who in contrast to many interns over the years got to work intensively on the details and politics of getting legislation passed. Not only Democrats but a lot of Republicans too paid Mitchell close attention when he had something to say. He was, as several people remarked after his death a week ago, a “legislator’s legislator.”

Some legislators are blowhards. Some throw their weight around. Some exploit personal connections. But some legislators, of both parties and various philosophical persuasions, are worth watching: Their vote for or against something may actually be a signal that there’s a layer to the issue at hand that isn’t immediately obvious, and maybe ought to be heeded.

Mike Mitchell reminded me of that when I heard of his passing. There is a personal level to what happens at a legislature, and sometimes that’s not all bad.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus

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Can it be that this far in advance, the main components of the 2018 governor’s race already are coming into view?

Last week gave us some additional clarity, and at least a preliminary picture, enough to hang some thoughts around, is emerging.

So this seems like time to take stock.

Last week, after all, was when three-term Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter confirmed he would not seek another term and would instead support his long-time lieutenant, Brad Little, for the job. That’s no surprise, of course. The probability has been against another run by Otter ever since his last one, and especially since Little announced for the office: Little would never challenge Otter in a primary. Little’s early announcement mirrored Otter’s own early-in approach, soaking up support and building organization that would be denied to other contenders. It’s sound strategy.

In some states, and at times in Idaho, all that might seem like nearly the end of the story. But Otter’s three terms has kept bottled growing pressures in the Republican party, resulting in several more serious primary prospects.

Two of those already are announced. Developer Tommy Ahlquist, who has been centrally involved in downtown Boise’s recent redevelopment but has never run for office before, said last week he will file for candidate status, and will launch a statewide tour. (That followed a complaint, from a source unknown, that he had been campaigning at Republican events while not registered as a candidate.) Business leaders without political experience have not tended to do well in top-line Idaho elections; you’ll find a string of earlier lower office elections and other political dues-paying on the resumes of nearly all of Idaho’s recent top elected officials (Otter being a good example). But every election is its own animal, precedents are made to be broken, and maybe Ahlquist stands out in a crowded field.

There’s also a former candidate for governor in the field: Russell Fulcher, the former legislator from Meridian who challenged Otter in the 2014 gubernatorial primary. He fell short then, with 44 percent of the vote, but that was in what amounted to a two-way race. If he could retain his support or even most of it, might that be enough to prevail in a three- or four-way contest? We know this much: He has been pulling together support for a second run for a long time now.

Last but surely not least: Raul Labrador, the four-term member of the U.S. House who has won with strong votes each time out, and has a firm base of support. He has not confirmed a run for governor, and could still decide otherwise, but the indicators keep pointing in that direction. (A recent one: His pushing of a congressional term limits measure, which might start to look embarrassing for a member of Congress much beyond four or five terms.) He does not seem deterred by the presence of any of the other contenders, or prospects. The probabilities at present favor his entry.

How does Little stack up here? He is broadly well-regarded (though not by everyone in the Republican Party), and will likely pick up much of the support Otter has had. But how does he fare in a strongly-contested four-way race?

Two-candidate races tend to be a lot easier to call than those in which a bunch of candidates are jostling; the number of random factors that could throw a race in one direction or another will multiply. You could make a credible case for any of these four contenders to win a Republican primary.

And for all we know, there may be more. After all, we’re more than a year away, still, from the candidate filing deadline.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus

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Last May, I wrote about a report from the Wilderness Society contending that since statehood, 41 percent of the “endowment” lands Idaho originally received from the federal government had been sold.

A couple of weeks later, the Department of Lands wrote to take issue with the Society’s numbers, especially with the 41 percent figure – the correct figure would have been about a third. Since the reply was widely disseminated in news stories at the time, and since the numbers differ largely on the relatively technical basis of what you choose to include or not, I didn’t return to it in a later column because whether the amount was 41 percent or 33 percent, it still was a lot. The Society’s basic point, that a lot of land had been sold off, appeared to remain, though no fine point was put on its implications.

Last week, another shoe dropped, this one less about the numbers than about the meaning of the transactions. This came in the form of new research from the Society and the Idaho Conservation League that, in their words, “reveal what appear to be widespread violations of the Idaho constitutional limit on how much land the State Land Board can sell to private parties. The new findings further deflate claims by public land takeover advocates that Idaho citizens won’t be locked out of their forests and recreation lands if they are given to the state. The sales in question span nearly a century, from statehood in 1890 until sales in the 1980s.”

That makes them pertinent indeed. As the groups also pointed out, “The Idaho Legislature is also considering a measure (Senate Bill 1065) from Senator Steve Vick (R-Dalton Gardens) that requires all state agencies to prioritize privatization of state lands.”

And the response this time from the Department of Lands was a little different. Director Tom Schultz released a statement saying, “At this time I am not prepared to concur with or dispute the conclusions reached by the Wilderness Society. Even though no discrepancies have been identified over the past 30 years, I intend to hire an independent auditor to review IDL’s records and advise the Land Board on its findings. I understand that the analysis by the Wilderness Society may raise concerns about land sales, and want to assure Idahoans that there are measures in place today to ensure that individuals and businesses do not purchase lands exceeding constitutional limitations.”

(The department did point out that there appear to have been no instances of such sales in at least the last 30 years or so.)

Because it had to fulfill detailed information requests from the environmental groups some time ago, the department has been aware for a while this question has been pursued. If it had an easy response to the allegation, it would have offered it. By assigning the case to an independent auditor, the declaration of problematic sales (assuming the groups’ research is on track) would come from a non-state employee, which would be a little easier for everyone on the state side to swallow.

What this suggests is that the allegation, of regular extra-constitutional land sales to private parties across much of Idaho’s history, has a good chance of holding up.

What if anything will be done about it is another question, further down the road.

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Lest Donald Trump’s use of the phrase “enemy of the American people” – to describe the news media – be dismissed as just another rhetorical flights by an incoherent president, put it into some context.

The phrase has a long and deeply chilling history.

First, what he said on Friday, was wrapped in a criticism (vague and unspecific, which is not unusual) of the news media. Presidential complaints about news organizations is nothing new; that goes back all the way to Washington, with examples available from all or nearly all presidents since. Richard Nixon famously considered the press his “enemy.”

The phrase “enemy of the people” is something different, and far more toxic. And if there’s one “enemy of the people” out there, other similar designations won’t be far behind.

The phrase was used in ancient Rome, though there it tended to be applied to one person, and to one person in power (in the best documented case, by the Roman Senate of Nero).

The French Revolution made significant use of the phrase, this time to apply to categories of people, as in this 1793 quote from Maximilien Robespierre: “The revolutionary government owes to the good citizen all the protection of the nation; it owes nothing to the Enemies of the People but death”.

Vladimir Lenin adopted the usage during and after the Russian Revolution. From Wikipedia: “The Soviet Union made extensive use of the term (Russian language: враг народа, “vrag naroda”), as it fit well with the idea that the people were in control. The term was used by Vladimir Lenin after coming to power, as early as in the decree of 28 November 1917: ‘all leaders of the Constitutional Democratic Party, a party filled with enemies of the people, are hereby to be considered outlaws, and are to be arrested immediately and brought before the revolutionary court.’ … An enemy of the people could be imprisoned, expelled or executed, and lose their property to confiscation. Close relatives of enemies of the people were labeled as ‘traitor of Motherland family members’ and prosecuted.”

What Lenin did, his successor Josef Stalin did more. During his long reign in the Soviet Union, “enemy of the people” designations got a massive workout, covering dozens of categories of people – anyone, really, Stalin didn’t like, whether or not they were a threat to him. And as University of Pennsylvania professor Mitchell Orenstein notes, “What it basically meant was a death sentence. … The formula ‘enemy of the people’ was specifically introduced for the purpose of physically annihilating such individuals.”

Mao Zedong picked the lesson for China too. There, as Chinese writer Li Yuan pointed out, “every dissenting voice was ‘the enemy of the people’ under Mao.” People so designated got under Mao about the same as their counterparts in the Soviet Union under Stalin.

Trump surely is no great student of history, but some of the people around him have looked into some these precedential areas enough to understand the meaning of the phrase. (Top presidential advisor Steve Bannon was quoted as saying in 2013, “I’m a Leninist.” Some context for the phrase “enemy of the people” would undoubtedly be familiar to him.)

Watergate reporter Carl Bernstein tweeted after the Trump statement: “The most dangerous ‘enemy of the people’ is presidential lying – always. Attacks on press by Donald Trump more treacherous than Nixon’s.” Unlike Nixon’s, which were dismissed widely as personal animus, this new attack by a president easily could lead to murders to journalists, even aside from direct state action. (In mirror image to the scene in Russia under its latest autocrat, another Vladimir.)

One addition to that is merited: What a president, or other national leader, does can be even more dangerous than what they say.

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After describing in a recent column annoying cell phone service gaps in the Idaho Statehouse, the Lewiston Tribune’s William Spence remarked how that serves as a metaphor for this:

“I can’t count the number of hearings I’ve attended where the testimony is skewed entirely one way or the other and the committee votes the opposite way.”

In my days covering the legislature years ago, that happened seldom. If the testimony was strongly weighted in one direction, that ordinarily was how the committee would vote. Apparently not so much these days.

I crowdsourced the question of whether Spence was right. The crowd told me that he was.

The legislative examples cited most were guns on campus, Medicaid expansion and “add the words.” Large crowds showed in support of the the latter two and against the first; few people countered; the committees involved wasted little time siding with the few. (They did at least, it should be said, hear out the public first.)

Holli Woodings, a former state representative, offered: “Guns on campus. I listened to an entire day of testimony against it, and still was in the committee minority voting nay. There were two, maybe three folks who testified in favor, and dozens against, including law enforcement, educators, students, administration, and others who actually had a stake.” The proposal won approval.

Activist Donna Yule: “Happens all the time in the Idaho statehouse. It’s extremely frustrating to all the people who take the time to testify. I’ve come to the conclusion that most of the GOP Chairs of the committees already have their minds made up, and they care more about their base voters than the people of Idaho. But I still think the testimony matters. Even though they ignore the people testifying, it still makes them uncomfortable, and maybe eventually the people will get angry enough to rise up against them and vote in some new people who WILL listen.”

Do your representatives listen? Actually listen, or just sit there with minds made up?

Idaho’s United States senators have been barraged with comments and protesters in recent weeks, but there’s been little response from them.

After Senator Mike Crapo’s office rebuffed media requests to find out how Idahoans calling in on Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos stood, a staffer let slip to the Payette County commissioners: “DeVos is the one we’re hearing the most about … and I think 95 percent are against her.” Crapo, and fellow Idaho Senator Jim Risch, voted for DeVos’ confirmation, and said little or nothing about what they were hearing from back home.

Okay. It’s possible not every protesting call or visit came from a constituent (though I’d bet the great bulk of them did). It isn’t the job of a representative to vote in the popular direction every time. Yes, it’s those in opposition who usually are most motivated to step up, more than those in support. Sometimes the majority is wrong; it happens.

But when this kind of dissonance happens as often as it seems to (and yes, Idaho is not alone in this), something is wrong.

In saying this, I’m looking most directly at the voters. Are you not being listened to? Are your concerns not being met? Are your representatives not doing what you want them to do?

If you think so, then: Are you getting organized and out to the polls? That’s the message that will be heard without a doubt.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus

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A century ago, Idaho was a legislative leader in passing a law that would be adopted not long after by almost half the states: The criminal syndicalism act. It’s a slice of history worth reviewing.

The background is this: In the teens the activist and relatively radical edge of the labor movement was the Industrial Workers of the World (members were called “wobblies”). Its success and scope was actually limited, but it was well known regionally and nationally: Anti-union forces talked them up a great deal in fearful tones. In Idaho they mostly were active in the northern lumber camps, and organizers appeared in southern Idaho farms. Their main tool was the strike (in some places, mostly outside Idaho, things sometimes went further), though they were accused of much more. Their demands were for such workers’ protections as an eight-hour day and more worker safety, but their rhetoric was strident enough that they conflicted with other union groups as much as they did businesses.

There was a genuine radical connection, and some IWW leaders really were close to then-emergent Communist Party organizations. As World War I approached, the organization was also accused of being in league with the kaiser. (You know, whoever was handy.) Most of the people in the field were simply active union members, but across much of the state, panic of the unknown and fear of the group was exploding. One academic study of the period noted that “the economic and social problem became an … IWW problem and led to an attack on unpopular doctrines and groups.”

With memories of Silver Valley mine worker violence then not quite a generation in the past, Idaho’s leaders were quick to line up against the wobblies. And in March 1917 the legislature passed a law intended to get at them. This was the syndicalism act, which sought to ban “the doctrine which advocates crime, sabotage, violence, or other unlawful methods of terrorism as a means of accomplishing industrial or political reform.”

You’ll notice how un-specific the language is. That was considered a feature, not a bug, because the broad-brush accusations could easily be thrown around, and were. The point here is that purpose of the law had little to do with concerns about overthrowing the government (which already was covered by laws against treason, sedition and the like); that was the fig leaf. The real point was in suppressing the IWW. (The organization, much smaller and less active than it once was, still exists and is based in Chicago.)

The cover came off a few years later when Idaho legislators passed anti-union legislation criminalizing such acts as “work done in an improper manner, slack work, waste of property, and loitering at work.” And the anti-syndicalism law was eventually weakened by court decisions and later legislation. But in 1917 the measure passed because a relatively small group that actually affected Idaho at the edges was blown up into a terrible threat to decent society. It was made to seem so terrible that freedom of speech took a battering. (That battering would get much worse on a national level at the nation went to war.) For its part, the IWW declined in the twenties for its own organizational reasons, and never recovered.

Doesn’t take much for us to react badly; people are more easily manipulated than they would ever like to believe.

That’s no less true today than it was a century ago. It’s as simple as this: When someone points a finger and blames “them” for our problems, ask first what agendas are really involved. In the politics of today no less than back then, it’s a critical piece of intelligent self-government.

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It may come as a shock to Idaho (and many other state) legislators, but their purview is limited to the borders carved out at statehood. They have a great deal of authority inside, and very little out.

You can pick up the nature of some of these limits, and the narrow ways they can be expanded, in two new House bills, 59 and 65.

HB 65, from Representative Paul Shepherd, R-Riggins, got the bigger headline splash, because its reach would be so broad if it passes (wouldn’t bet against it) and survives a legal challenge (extremely unlikely).

Here’s the key language: “The Idaho Legislature hereby declares that the state of Idaho, on behalf of its citizens, is the final arbiter of whether an act of Congress, a federal regulation or a court decision is unconstitutional and may declare that the federal laws, regulations or court decisions are not authorized by the Constitution of the United States and violate its meaning and intent, and further, are null, void and of no effect regarding any Idaho citizen residing within the borders of the state of Idaho.”

The shorthand for this is “nullification” – a unilateral declaration by the state that if we here (well, actually, if the legislature here) don’t like it, it doesn’t apply to us. That’s just a half-step away from secession from the union, a question pretty much resolved a century and a half ago.

A brand new legislator, Representative Randy Armstrong, R-Inkom, inquired in the meeting where the bill was presented: “Do we have that right as legislators or as citizens, to be able to declare something unconstitutional? Isn’t that the area judges are supposed to rule on? How do we earn the position to declare something constitutional or unconstitutional?” Well, there you are. We do have courts whose job it is to rule on constitutionality; that’s a court function, not legislative. The courts also get to parse when federal rulings apply to the states (mostly, but not always). A legislature can declare it has super-powers, but they won’t last long in a real challenge.

Is the legislature completely confined to state boundaries in its impact? Not necessarily.

House Bill 59, proposed by Representatives Ilana Rubel and John McCrostie, both D-Boise, would have Idaho join an interstate compact in which – if all 50 joined – each state would commit that their electoral college representatives would vote for whoever won the national popular vote. Such a proposal coming in this season after last year’s presidential carries a partisan tinge, but the idea has been around for many years, has been adopted by some states and others are considering it this year. (You can see more about it at http://www.nationalpopularvote.com/). Both red and blue states have entered into it.

The odds for passage in Idaho are not good, and we can’t completely be sure what a court will make of the idea. But there’s a good case for why it may be upheld. The federal constitution (in Article II) says “Each state shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof shall direct, a number of Electors,” and generally leaves the process in the hands of the legislatures. It would effect a change in an area where states seem to have full discretion to act.

For both bills, as a movie star once suggested, it’s a matter of knowing your limits.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus

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When President Trump went on one of his periodic anti-media tirades last week, he let out a phrase (well, actually, a lot of them but I’ll focus on one here) that merits a closer look.

The quote was, “Much of the media — not all of it — is very, very dishonest. Honestly, it’s fake news. Fake. They make things up.”

Coming from someone who personally makes up a whole lot of things, that merits some consideration. A lot of people probably wonder who and what they can trust in the ever-expanding media universe.

“Much of the media – not all of it.” There are a lot of media, and many elements of it often are in conflict. Well, which is which?

Let me offer one simple way to consider this. There are others too but this seems a good place to start.

The “media,” like “the government” (or almost any other large component of our society) consists of a whole lot of pieces and players. It consists not only of news publications but many other kinds as well – entertainment operations, trade magazines, academic journals, many more. But all of these can be divided roughly into two categories, “mass market” and “niche.”

This is not just a matter of size, though that’s important. The more critical component is in who they are trying to reach.

Newspaper history offers an example, since the standard mass-market daily newspaper has at different times operated in both spheres. In the 19th century, most newspapers were in effect niche publications. Cities of any size tended to have several newspapers; big cities might have a dozen or more. These newspapers did not try to write for everybody; they were trying to appeal to specific segments of their local markets, and many of them were overtly political. Newspapers typically identified themselves on their front page as the Republican paper, or the Democratic, or Independent, or maybe something else. People who wanted a broad picture often subscribed to several of them.

That was when newspapers were funded mainly through subscriptions. Somewhat over a century ago there was a strong move toward another business model, much more based around advertising, and it swept the industry. When it did, newspaper publishers and editors found that advertisers wanted to reach a whole community, not just a piece of it.

Here are two things that happened in response. A lot of newspapers consolidated: The number of newspapers in the United States dropped sharply in the early 20th century. The other thing that happened was that, to appeal to not just a segment of a city or region but rather the whole thing, the entire presentation of news had to change. And it did, into something many people probably thought was blander but also something that presented information in a more even handed, and less partisan, way. Editorial pages remained as opinionated as ever, but news columns became more centrist, aimed at reaching everyone. An institutional standard for this was developed, partly by the wire services (the Associated Press and several others over the decades). These services had to feed news reports to many hundreds of newspapers, whose owners and editors had all kinds of different opinions, so they developed a news language and reporting standards that would work broadly. That’s the news language and reporting approach we still have today at most daily and many weekly newspapers. It grew out of economic necessity. And while journalists are as fallible as anyone else, it also meant the news reports were mostly, generally, reliable.

That’s the dynamic mass media have to work with. They’re trying to reach a broad general audience, so the making a practice of slanting reports ideologically works poorly. Mass media will give you, most of the time and allowing for slippage here or there, reliable news, with relatively little slant. They’re not perfect, they mess up sometimes, but slantless news is what they aim for.

Niche media is everything else. A niche is something like the old newspapers were: Aimed at one kind of audience and only one, and therefore devoted to pleasing that audience. This leads to all kinds of results. On the positive side, it can yield insights and specialized reporting the mass media never get around to; there are good niche news providers out there. The down side is that the eagerness to produce appealing stuff can mean a slippage of standards, and quite a few niche organizations let go standards of accuracy and fairness in the interest of exciting the base – or simply telling the base what it wants to hear.

I think especially of ideologically-based news organizations. There are, for one example, “market-based” news outlets whose editorial stance is critical of government and taxes and cheers on the free market. Stories that fit within that framework abound, and they may even contain good information and may even be fair and accurate. But don’t expect to see much there that undercuts the party line.

This doesn’t mean all niche media should be disregarded. I don’t by any means intend that they all be lumped in as “fake”; many report with rigor. but it does mean the care and caution given to its pronouncements needs to be higher than for the mass media. It has, simply, fewer incentives to stick to accuracy and fairness.

Who can you trust? No, it’s quite as simple as this. But I’ve found the mass/niche dividing line a useful tool for navigating an ever murkier environment. What probably isn’t what the president had in mind.

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Right now, before the Idaho Legislature gets too deep into working through what will be considered, passed or rejected this session, time seems right for a review of the policy preferences of the people of Idaho.

When we do, we’ll have a benchmark for the end of the session: How closely did the Legislature’s decisions, and the subjects it addressed, match the views of Idahoans?

Strictly, of course, the people of Idaho collectively don’t get to deliver a State of the State address, or something similar. But you can derive a rough equivalent, in priorities and preferences, from the Idaho Public Policy Survey.

This is the annual poll of 1,000 Idaho adults conducted toward the end of each year. (The whole thing can be found at sps.boisestate.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Official-2017-State-Survey-Report.pdf.) Polls aren’t perfect, of course, but Boise State University has deep experience in running these, and the results tend to match from year to year. It seems at least roughly realistic.

The top agenda item for Idahoans, according to the poll, was the same as in Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter’s State of the State: Public schools.

“For the second consecutive year, Idahoans identify education as the most important issue facing the state, with 26.5% saying that it is the most pressing issue (compared to 28.2% in 2016),” the report said. No great surprise there, though there was also this about a related area often ignored by the legislature: “Another source of educational opportunities – the state’s public libraries – received high marks, however. 82.8% agree that the libraries in their communities create educational opportunities for people of all ages, while 81.7% consider the library in their community a good resource for access to information and other technological resources. These figures are consistent across all groups, with respondents in northern Idaho the most favorably disposed toward public libraries.”

The second biggest concern, well ahead of anything else: “The results … indicate that the issue area with greatest increase in public concern is health care policy. 70.5% of Idahoans scored health care at least an 8 when asked how important it was, on a scale of 1-10, for the state legislature to address, an 11.2% increase from last year. The number of respondents giving health care a 10 (i,e., the highest level of importance possible) increased by 12.7% from 2016, further underscoring the fact that the public views health care as an area deserving of the state legislature’s attention.”

In recent years, the legislature’s biggest health concern seems to have been an obsession with not doing anything proposed by the federal government. We’ll see if its interest expands at all this session.

Transportation has been a topic of contention in several recent sessions. The public’s take? “Transportation also saw some change as there was a slight increase (+3.7%) in those who felt addressing transportation issues was moderately important (i.e., 4-7) and a significant decrease (-7.9%) in those stating addressing transportation was not very important.”

On another subject of much discussion, the poll asked Idahoans what they thought of resettling refugees in Idaho. The result: “Idahoans are divided in their support of resettling refugees in Idaho; a slim majority (51.1%) favor this program, while a sizeable minority (43.8%) of citizens oppose it. However, although more citizens of Idaho favor this program, those who oppose refugee resettlement appear to feel very strongly about the matter.”

The Legislature won’t necessarily take much action on refugees, but if it does, who will it listen to?

And beyond that, how closely will the Legislature match the views of Idahoans? Watch and see.

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Idaho Idaho column Stapilus