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Posts published in “Stapilus”

Hells shoe

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Circle October 11 on your calendar. It may be a critical date in Idaho’s economic future, because that is when Idaho Power Company’s Hells Canyon Dam relicensure settlement conference is scheduled at the Idaho Public Utilities Commission.

It may not seem notably critical at first. The three Idaho Power dams on the Idaho-Oregon border, in Hells Canyon, have been operating and supplying an immense amount of power for a very long time, almost unnoticed (out of sight, out of mind) for many Idahoans. They were the subject of fierce controversy back in the 50s, but since have been recognized as one of the big drivers of Idaho Power’s tremendous growth in the mid-twentieth century, and through it a lot of the explosive growth of the Boise area. The dams have kept electric power reliable and cheap, no small factor in business development over the years.

When the dams were first built they were constructed under a 50-year license, which expired a dozen years ago. Today they’re running on what amounts to extensions of extensions (no one wants to shut the dams down), and work on formal relicensure continues.

That’s not a comfortable position for Idaho Power or for a lot of regional power users. But this is a matter as much of dilemma as of frustration. Idaho Power remains an independent local power company, based in Boise (albeit that its stock is publicly traded). It long has provided some of the lowest power rates in the country.

While lots of other utilities in recent decades have been gobbled by bigger corporate fish, Idaho Power has not. And evidently, one of the big reasons is that renewal of the licenses has remained unsettled. Much could change in southern Idaho if Idaho Power is bought. Usually in such cases low power rates tend to be jacked up after a purchase - sometimes jacked up a great deal.

There’s not one single reason the relicensure has stalled, but one seems to be a disagreement between the states of Idaho and Oregon, both of which have to sign off for major dam activity, over fish runs in the area.

An Associated Press story on the situation summarized, “Oregon officials are refusing to agree to the re-licensing until salmon and steelhead can access four Oregon tributaries that feed into the Hells Canyon Complex, as required by Oregon law for the re-licensing. But Idaho lawmakers have prohibited moving federally protected salmon and steelhead upstream of the dams, which could force restoration work on Idaho’s environmentally degraded middle section of the Snake River.”

This seems to be the primary relicensure hangup right now.

If Oregon’s requests are agreed to, significant changes could be required, and ratepayers might be stuck with paying another $220 million for the work. On top of other possible increases. On top of, if the company were taken over, higher rates otherwise down the road.

When I’ve been asked what economic risks Idaho faces in upcoming years, I’ve generally mentioned the Hells Canyon dams situation as one of two or three to watch out for.

On October 11, the Idaho Public Utilities Commission will hold a conference on what do next. What it does could be among the most important decisions the PUC has made in a generation.

Rebuilding the right way

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The hurricane disaster in Puerto Rico, leaving most of the island with wreckage all over and electricity and running water in too few places, is an unqualified catastrophe.

That still doesn't mean something useful can't come from it.

One of the questions sure to arise there, as happened in New Orleans after the Katrina storm (and more recently in Houston and elsewhere) is: Why rebuild? The recent storm was surely not the last. Why reconstruct what will surely be knocked down sometime to come?

Somehow or another, of course, we have to rebuild. In the case of Puerto Rico, for example, what's the alternative: To tell three and a half million people to go,leave, for somewhere, and leave home behind? There have to be some better answers.

And there probably are. One of them comes courtesy of Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, who is suggesting (among other things) using renewable energy technology to work around the hazards of tropical storms.

The framework he outlines is this: “America’s energy grid is in need of an upgrade. These bills will promote a more flexible electricity grid that can respond to power disruptions from natural disasters and ensure reliable, low-cost electricity for consumers now and in the future. They will lower costs for energy storage technologies that make renewable energy more reliable and cost-effective, boost funding for cutting-edge research and reward state and private sector innovations.”

To that end he suggested a batch of bills, backed by a number of utility industry organizations. One of them would "create competitive, cost-share grant programs for new small-scale, grid-connected projects such as rooftop solar panels, hot water heaters, electric vehicles and modernized utility pricing technologies."

Another would "provide funding to the Department of Energy to research and develop ways to lower the cost of energy storage technologies, which make it possible for renewable energy to be used on a more reliable and affordable basis." And a third would help shift job training toward renewable energy methods.

The big advantage of renewables, in a storm context, is that many of those resources can be protected in case of disasters, and a loss in one places doesn't necessarily mean a mass outage. Solar is a great example; an island reliant mainly on solar energy would see significant damage, but not nearly enough to bring the whole area to a standstill.

And if you used that kind of technology to help rebuild Puerto Rico, you could take the lessons learned (and the economies of scale developed) onto the mainland, with back advantages accruing back in the States. It would truly be an investment that could logically pay off in a big way.

In the current Congress, the proposal may not go far. But if the idea gets some attention, it could wind up doing a lot of good down the road. Not that Puerto Rico couldn't benefit from it ... right now.

Borah, Church and Risch?

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William Borah, Frank Church and Jim Risch?

As matters stand, Senator Risch of Idaho, who was in his early days in the Idaho legislature when Church became chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, may become the next head of that sometimes powerful panel.

That wasn’t a closely-considered proposition, at least not widely, until this last week. That was when the current chair, Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, declared himself out of the Senate when his current term ends after next year. (Washington Post headline: “The Most Interesting Part of Corker’s Retirement Isn’t What You Think It Is.”)

Chair successions are not automatic, but usually the next most senior committee member moves up, and - if Republicans still control the Senate after next year’s elections - that would be Risch.

Next up after Risch is a senator much better known nationally, Marco Rubio of Florida, and he surely would like that gavel, especially if he’s looking at a 2020 presidential run. But in the Senate, the process rules. Risch was quoted as saying about the chairmanship, “We have a long, clear history of how these things are resolved in the Senate. We will follow that route when we get there.” Sounds a little cryptic, but I translate this way: I’m next in line.

Whether or not Risch had advance warning for Corker’s departure, groundwork for it is in place.

In Risch’s first term he was a nearly invisible senator - in news and other media and even in press releases. In his second term that has changed. He has become a frequent talking head on news programs, and when there, seems to discuss foreign affairs more often than other subjects. While many senators avoid (as Corker did) talking about re-election prospects more than two years out, Risch has made his re-election plans for 2020 quite clear. Whether or not Risch had a sense of the chair opening, he does seem to have prepared for the possibility.

What he might do with it is another matter.

Idahoans Borah, who chaired it from 1924 to 1933, and Church, from 1978 to 1981, were among the most prominent political figures of their day, and not only because both ran for president. Both had strong commentaries on foreign affairs, both were willing to buck presidents - of both parties - and both were skeptical of involvement overseas, in Borah’s case to the point of isolationism. Their perspectives were clear and sometimes ran against the grain, but stood aside from political considerations. (Both probably paid a political price for their views on foreign policy.)

How would Risch compare? During the Obama Administration, Risch was active on the foreign relations committee but did not mark out very distinctive territory. He delivered one of the best analyses anywhere of the prospects for American involvement in Syria, but it was not a clear-cut stance (take that as praise), and his views on foreign relations overall seem hard to summarize easily.

During the Trump Administration, Risch has been a Trump loyalist; he has come to the president’s defense on several occasions. (The statistics web site “538” puts Risch at voting 91.8 percent in line with Trump.) There’s little reason to think he’d be leading a charge to review or investigate Trump relations with other countries.

But a change of chair is months away. In the meantime, watch Risch’s comments, which can sometimes run toward the cryptic, to see where he comes out - a Trump loyalist or someone more like a Borah or Church.

A new sideshow begins

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Following hard on news that congressional Republicans were really, finally, positively this time giving up on Obamacare repeal comes the news from Alabama, which ought to shake them up quite a bit more.

Or Moore.

Because Judge Roy is coming to town. Or maybe not. Either way, the news isn't good for Senate Republicans.

Roy Moore, the former chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, on Tuesday defeated the appointed Senate incumbent Luther Strange, in the Republican primary (by a substantial percentage, about 56% as this is written). The win is not a surprise - polling had closely reflected the outcome - and the result might have been of interest mainly in Alabama except for those pesky details.

The results, first of all, are a massive smack in the face at both President Donald Trump and Republican leadership in Congress, both of which went all out to support Strange and - no less than that - keep Moore away from Washington. A number of Trump supporters are trying to cast the vote as a win for Trump, but that's hard to support since the president was in state only days ago to plead with voters to elect Strange. The powers that be in DC contributed masses of money, and Strange outspent Moore and had more television ads on air by a factor of something like four to one. (This election should be yet another demonstration of the ongoing diminishment of TV ads as decision levers in political campaigns.)

But more than all that is the nature of the winner. Roy Moore, if sworn in to the Senate (as seems likely), will in some ways be the equivalent there to Trump in the White House - an aimless whirlwind wreaking destruction wherever possible and damaging not least his own erstwhile allies in, you know, the Republican caucus. He will be a living, breathing encouragement for any Republican in-party tornadoes out there who want to take on incumbent Republican senators in next year's elections. And quite a few of them are waiting and ready, and after today's results likely will go pounce.

And not least next to all that, is that Moore is apt to become a face of the Republican Party second only to Trump. He does have a gift for grabbing attention, and the attention he grabs will thrill his base and appall much of the rest of the country, which is to say, the majority. A few sample headlines from a backgrounder piece on Moore: "Getting fired from the Supreme Court over a 10 commandments statue ... Likening the Koran to Mein Kampf and saying a Muslim shouldn’t be allowed to serve in Congress ... Being suspended for defying the Supreme Court’s gay marriage ruling ... Believing Obama wasn’t born in the US as late as Dec. 2016 ... Implying 9/11 happened because America was becoming “godless” ... Saying America might be the “focus of evil in the modern world” ..." and so on ...

Alabama being as Republican-dominated as it is, Moore starts the general election campaign - that election is in December - with a clear advantage over the Democrat, former federal prosecutor Doug Jones. But don't rule Jones out. Moore seems to have no limits or barriers; his self-righteousness is boundless, and even in Alabama there may be some pushback if he guns the gas pedal too hard. So don't consider the race a foregone conclusion just yet.

Either way, Senate Republicans and President Trump will have quite a time dealing with what's coming next.

Reflections on the local ballot

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In this time of hyper-hot politics, are the lower-rung non-partisan levels of the Idaho ballot in the upcoming Idaho city elections much exception?

Not to press points too far, there are a few indicators of reflections from the national roar. Even if you wouldn’t want to make the case too hard.

For example. Coeur d’Alene has a long tradition, going back generations, of heated city elections. Only recently that tradition ascended new peaks, as a ferociously-contested set of recall elections, sandwiched in between hot regular elections, racked the city.

But not this year. For the first time in many, many elections (decades back at least), every post on the ballot in Coeur d’Alene, including that of the mayor (Steve Widmyer, who’s seeking a second term), is unopposed, with only the incumbents running for each. (There is still the possibility of a write-in or two surfacing.)

That’s a striking turnaround from recent elections, with activist conservatives pushing hard in election after election. The lack of filings this time may have to do with the more moderate candidates winning consistently in the last few city elections, a contrast to elections taking in other boundary lines in the Panhandle. Or it could be campaign fatigue. But it could be a soft echo of national politics. One suggestive point is that Coeur d’Alene is not alone in lacking city election contests. Most other cities in Kootenai County reported the same, and fewer than usual candidates turned up in many other cities around the region.

In southern Idaho candidate filings, a different dynamic emerged.

In Boise (where the mayor is in mid-term and not on the ballot this year), the three council contests drew at least four candidates each. From that list jumped out three prominent Democrats: one council incumbent, TJ Thomson, and for the other seats Frank Walker, a former Ada County commissioner, and Holli Woodings, a former legislator and candidate for secretary of state. Those three may be the most locally prominent of the 13 council candidates, and well-positioned for their races. Together with Mayor David Bieter, who occupies a non-partisan office but personally is a Democrat, the city may become a Democratic redoubt in the next election.

By contrast, Meridian drew seven candidates for its three council seats, Nampa nine for its three, and Caldwell 10 for the four council seats up there. All three of those cities have mayors up for election, which often results in a larger collection of candidates to the field.

Not everywhere are we seeing these kinds of effects.

In many cities, the candidate filing patterns are running true to form. Idaho Falls and Pocatello, where mayors are up, have normal rosters of candidates, and all three council seats in Twin Falls have races pitting incumbents against challengers. Both Pocatello and Idaho Falls mayoral races may be competitive - legislator Jeff Thompson is seeking the job in Idaho Falls - so they may say something about those cities’ directions.

City elections do help set directions for a city, sometimes taking it where it might not otherwise go. Sometimes you can hear the distant rumblings of larger-picture politics in that. Sometimes, it generates a change or a confirmation of its course internally, on its own.

In another six weeks or so, Idaho cities’ voters will get to weigh in on all that.

High cost of jail housing

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Back when I was covering police and courts for Nampa-Caldwell newspapers, we liked to call it - in honor of a former county sheriff - the Dale Haile Jail. Technically, it was the Dale Haile Detention Center, which it still is.

What it also was then, and still is, is too small.

At least, for the demands being placed on it.

On Thursday, according to the online jail roster, it held 431 inmates, just short of the 477 beds it has. (Weekends tend to be busier.) The situation actually is more complicated because, as one staffer told a reporter, “I can’t put a female in with a male. I can’t put a sex offender in with a murderer. You’ve got to be able to separate all these people out.” And there are people who might have been put in jail if there was as place to put them.

And there’s a lot of traffic in and out. The site noted that, “In 2011, Courts and Transport Deputies drove 65,000 miles in transport vehicles, screened over 400,000 individuals entering the two Canyon County courthouses and escorted nearly 11,000 inmates to court appearances from the detention center.”

Overall, one review after another for many years has maintained that more jail space and overall capability is needed. The Canyon County commissioners recently ordered another review from the DLR Group, a large national building design firm, and it found that Canyon needs a jail able to handle at least 1,000 inmates - double the capacity it currently has.

And that’s just to get the county through the next decade.

The pressure is considerable, because building this thing would cost a lot of money (the county hasn’t released an exact number, but it will be big). The county’s voters have, three times in a row, turned down bond proposals for jail construction.

This is worth pondering even if you don’t live in Canyon County because the jail problems it faces are not so radically different from those faced by many other counties.

Ada County, for example, has space for about 1,200 inmates. Since its population is a little more than double Canyon’s (which has capacity for 477), that sounds about right … except that Canyon is really needing capacity for more than 1,000. Which means Ada County probably should be looking at capacity for 2,500 or so.

Yes, this is expensive.

And there are only so many alternatives.

One might be cheap housing, down to and including tents - a popular idea in some quarters. But aside from temporary and limited use, it won’t work in solving the larger-scale issues of security and safety.

You could simply decide to quit jailing people when the beds are full. That may mean jailing low-risk minor offenders and letting the violent and dangerous go free.

Or, you could suck it up and raise taxes to pay for new jail buildings and staff. It would solve the problem of what to do with the inmates, though it wouldn’t make taxpayers happy (as in Canyon at least it hasn’t).

Or, we might try reconsidering what we choose to jail people for, and maybe try to find other ways of dealing with some of the offenders.

Just a thought.

Even in Idaho, religion’s changing

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The meshing of religion and politics is as clear today as it ever has been: To a remarkable degree, poll after poll has found, you can tell how someone votes if you know where (or if) they go to worship.

And this picture is changing fast, maybe faster nationally than it ever has. Idaho is changing, too, and in some ways not at all obvious.

The latest source material for this is a massive report, released last week (at www.prri.org/research/american-religious-landscape-christian-religiously-unaffiliated/), by the Public Religion Research Institute, a “nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to conducting independent research at the intersection of religion, culture, and public policy.” It draws on a survey of more than 100,000 Americans, a huge sample, with detailed results at the state level.

One of its major takeaways is this: “White Christians, once the dominant religious group in the U.S., now account for fewer than half of all adults living in the country. Today, fewer than half of all states are majority white Christian. As recently as 2007, 39 states had majority white Christian populations.”

Idaho, as you may expect, is still one of those majority white Christian states. But the margin is shrinking. When it did a similar survey in 2007, PRRI found that Idaho was 67 percent white Christian (Latino and black Christians were categorized separately). Today, that figure stands at 56 percent.

The trend line is comparable all over. Utah dropped from 68 percent to 61 percent. Less-churched Oregon went from 57 percent to 43 percent. Washington state fell from 55 percent to 42 percent.

Further, an age gap is widening (part of the reason for the change). Many Christian groups are seeing much smaller percentages of affiliation within younger age groups. The report noted, “Only slightly more than one in ten white evangelical Protestants (11%), white Catholics (11%), and white mainline Protestants (14%) are under the age of 30. Approximately six in ten white evangelical Protestants (62%), white Catholics (62%), and white mainline Protestants (59%) are at least 50 years old.” Among evangelicals, this marks a downturn after a generation of steady, sometimes explosive, growth.

The report did also note “the Mormon exception”: “Although Mormons are a predominantly white Christian religious tradition, there is little evidence to suggest that they are experiencing similar declines. Currently, 1.9% of the public identifies as Mormon, a number identical to findings from a 2011 study of Mormons in the U.S. Mormons are also much younger than other white Christian religious traditions.”

That’s significant in Idaho, where Mormons are the largest religious group (at 20 percent of the population) in the state, ahead of evangelical Protestants, who make up 15 percent.

What may surprise a lot of people, though, is that the largest religious-based segment of the population in Idaho, larger than either of those two, is the unaffiliated, at 27 percent. Idaho’s rate is actually higher than the national percentage, which is 24 percent - three times what it was a quarter-century ago. Idaho is one of the 20 states where unaffiliateds are the biggest part of the population. That contrasts with 12 states where evangelicals are the largest group, or 11 where Catholics are, or the one (Utah) where Mormons hold the largest share. Idaho’s share of unaffiliates ranks just ahead of Wyoming and Nebraska - which would be understandable company - but also immediately behind California and Nevada.

These statistics mark some big changes. The effects aren’t likely to manifest immediately, or in the next two or three years. But religion eventually does have a big impact on politics, the economy and much else. Watch for it.

Uprisings, except for Idaho

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Across the country, so many Democrats are getting into runs for Congress that some party leaders are worried about getting swamped with competitive primary contests.

In one suburban Chicago district, nine Democrats have filed to run against a Republican U.S. House incumbent. As of the end of June, the number of Democratic House challengers nationally who had raised at least $5,000 by then - indicating at least some level of seriousness in campaigning - was 209. That’s an abnormally large number. In this century, the previous comparable record for a challenging party was held by the Republicans in 2009, just ahead of their 2010 sweep - and in that year, Republicans had 78 comparable candidates.

We’re more than a year away from the November 2018 election, and many conditions can change between here and there. But at the moment, Democrats nationally are looking very much the way they did in 2006, the way Republicans did in 2010 and 2014.

Just west of the Idaho state line, the massive Oregon second House district, where veteran Republican Representative Greg Walden has usually won with numbers like those of his Idaho counterparts, has drawn four Democratic challengers so far, at least a couple of whom look to be serious contenders. In Washington’s fifth district (centered on Spokane), where the seat is held by Republican Cathy McMorris Rodgers, a string of Democratic candidates has emerged, topped this week by veteran former state Senator Majority Leader Lisa Brown.

In Idaho … not so much.

There’s one structural element to this. Idaho won’t have a Senate election next year - Jim Risch is up in 2020 (and says he’s running again) and Mike Crapo in 2022. That diminishes, a little, interest in Idaho congressional races. But both U.S. House seats will have an election, and one of them will be open, meaning no incumbent will be on the ballot.

Republicans are in the field. Incumbent Mike Simpson in the second district (with maybe another primary challenge, though there’s not yet an FEC trace of one). In the first, where the seat is open owing to incumbent Raul Labrador’s run for governor, at least three prospects are at work.

So far, as best I could determine, there’s no significant activity toward a Democratic candidacy in the second district. A candidate from that party eventually may file and be on the ballot next year, but for now you have to suspect he or she will be a placeholder, there mainly to preserve options in the unlikely event Simpson lost a Republican primary.

The Federal Election Commission does have a filing in the first district for Democrat Michael William Smith of Post Falls, but no financial activity is reported. Smith has a Facebook web page, but not much is reported there by way of campaign activity.

Democrats may wind up with more than a placeholder in the first. A leader in the Indivisible group (which is untested but looks to be highly energetic and active in some places) in Ada County is said to be interested. And a few other names have been batted around, including a couple from Idaho’s panhandle, which hasn’t produced a member of Congress in a very long time.

Former state Senator Dan Schmidt of Moscow has been mentioned (by fellow columnist Chris Carlson, among others) as a prospect for governor; the first district spot might be a more logical fit.

But candidates are not bursting through the woodwork (one Democrat suggested to me that there is no woodwork). And as early in the cycle is this still is - unusually early for most candidates to jump in, by normal schedules in the past - that right now makes Idaho an outlier in the national political picture.