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Posts published in “Stapilus”

Reality betting

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Here’s a really old-fashioned political battle - one centered around the idea of betting on horse races - that raises some questions for the future, about what is real and what is electronically simulated, and also about Idaho’s constitution.

It comes in the form of a new proposed ballot initiative, the Save Horse Racing in Idaho Act.

The background runs this way.

Idaho’s constitution contains a stringent no-no on the subject of gambling, which a few generations back was used to shut down a briefly thriving slot machine business in the state. It still explicitly bans “slot machines” and specifically “any electronic or electromechanical imitation or simulation of any form of casino gambling.”

But gambling does have a way of poking its way back in. Voters chose to amend the constitution in 1986, for example, to allow for a state lottery, which still exists. The constitution now allows bingo-type games associated with charities. And it allows “Pari-mutuel betting if conducted in conformity with enabling legislation.”

The trick here is in the definitions. What exactly, for example, does “pari-mutuel betting” mean?

Strictly, it doesn’t mean what either the constitution or most people probably contemplate. It comes from a French term for “mutual betting” in which “a betting pool in which those who bet on competitors finishing in the first three places share the total amount bet minus a percentage for the management.” In effect, those bettors are to some extent betting against each other. Because that approach is common in betting on horse races (you bet on win, place or show), it’s loosely become a term of art for betting on horse races. You can see the language already is a little slippery here.

So we’re getting to: betting on horse races is okay under the constitution if done in compliance with state laws. And a ballot initiative, if passed, puts a state law in place.

But in its review of the initiative, the Idaho Attorney General’s office suggests this one may run afoul of the constitution anyway. And it has good reason to think so.

The initiative aims to legalize betting terminals, which are a lot like slot machines (depends, again, on how you define “slot machine”) which let gamblers place bets on random actual horse races from the past; it’s called “historical horse racing.” The legislature has at various times voted both to approve and disallow it. This would be betting undertaken by individuals, essentially against the machine (or the house), not against other bettors. At least not other actually, physical, live bettors, only theoretical ones, which turns the “pari-mutuel” element of this into a new kind of proposition.

The new initiative tries to elide some of this by proclaiming - defining - that the new terminals would be pari-mutuel gaming. But courts might look askance if they decide this is just an attempt to re-define a word. The point has come up in other states. In Wyoming, the Supreme Court said of something similar that, “we are not dealing with a new technology here, we are dealing with a slot machine that attempts to mimic traditional pari-mutuel wagering. Although it may be a good try, we are not so easily beguiled.”

Still, there is some new technology involved: This is something new.
And awaiting a clear settlement.
 

Legislative sunshine and shielding

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About a year ago, my wife was sworn in as a member of the planning and zoning commission of our small city (population 2,000). Before she could become a member, this being in the state of Oregon, she had to fill out a financial disclosure statement outlining any prospective conflicts of interest.

The point behind that, as state law says, is to "prohibit public officials from using office for financial gain, and require public disclosure of economic conflict of interest." There's reason for that; people who come before the commission have property and dollars at stake, and with the disclosures on record they can have some assurance that the people making the decisions aren't doing it just to benefit themselves. The level of detail required in the forms comes up for discussion occasionally, but the overall point doesn't.

Most states have requirements somewhat like this, and they tend to become more specific as you move upward in the reach of governmental authority. In the case of legislatures, 48 of the 50 states require financial disclosures. One exception is Michigan. The other is Idaho.

Idaho at least will have to wait a little longer. In November, an interim legislative committee voted to suggest such a law in Idaho, and the committee's chair, seven-term Representative Tom Loertscher, said he would carry it. It wouldn't be one of the most rigorous disclosure laws in the country (it's much like Utah's) but it would set a system in place giving Idahoans a little more confidence in why all of their legislators do what they do.

Today, Loertscher, who also chairs the House State Affairs Committee (which handles such matters as rules for public officials) brought in the measure for introduction. He voted for it, as did the committee's two Democrats. All the other members, all Republicans, voted against. (One of those Republicans, temporarily chairing the committee, did not vote but said he would have been in favor of introducing.) So it stayed un-introduced.

The arguments against? Really, much the same as veterans around the Idaho Legislature have heard for decades. Rep. Steven Harris, R-Meridian: "I think this thing is a huge damper to those who want to challenge us.” Rep. Vito Barbieri, R-Dalton Gardens: “I just don’t agree that the Idaho public thinks that this body is full of dishonest individuals. I just don’t buy that.” Rep. Christy Zito, R-Hammett: “I feel like we’re on the edge of a George Orwell book with thought police here, asking people to disclose what they think, down the road, may be a conflict of interest.”

If you're sitting almost anywhere but in a legislator's chair, none of this is likely to instill a lot of confidence. Quite the contrary.

Loertscher warned the committee members, “Financial disclosure of elected officials is in your future, because this will happen at some point." He is surely right.

But not today. And not, perhaps, until a few legislators pay a political price for their shielding.
 

Higher education unification

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For decades, through the generations Idaho has had more than one university, there’s been the argument that they should be more closely managed as a single system rather than letting them run relatively independently. The idea is that efficiencies can be had, and money saved, without necessarily diminishing services.

In his last state of the state speech at the launch of this year’s Idaho legislative session, Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter gave renewed voice to that idea. But will it go any further than it has in the past?
Quite a few states have roughly unified higher education systems; loosely, this is called the “chancellor” system after frequent title of the top official in charge. Typically, the institutions each also continue to have “presidents” although sometimes, confusingly, in some places the top executive is the president and the institution heads are chancellors.

These broader state systems work in a variety of ways, and most states have some version of them. Montana and Nevada, for example, have systems including universities with distinctive names. California has two university systems with institutions sharing names but otherwise quite distinct.

The argument of efficiency through coordination isn’t held everywhere, though. Some places have gone in the other direction. In Oregon, the Oregon University System which for decades oversaw seven separate universities around the state (such as the University of Oregon and Oregon State University) was in 2015 abandoned in favor of closer local control by the institutions. (The trigger for that was the firing of a UO president, which led to a local uprising.) Part of the argument in favor of local control was contention that overriding statewide rules made things more costly - that institutions could run more efficiently and at lower cost if they were more independent. Some of them would tell you that’s been the case since they “declared independence.”

All of Idaho’s universities report to the same board (though for constitutional reasons it’s called the Board of Regents in the case of the University of Idaho), but as Otter pointed out, the board is spread too thin to closely manage each of them. Idaho’s system tips the scale a bit on the side of independence for each.

In his speech, Otter noted that his task force on increasing the percentage of high school students going on to state college “will never achieve the 60-percent goal the way higher education in Idaho is structured today.” So: “...my budget request includes funding for the State Board of Education to hire an executive officer to coordinate the work of all our higher education institutions. The executive officer also will manage a system-wide consolidation of higher education support operations and the board’s continuing policy functions. There’s no doubt these changes will upend the status quo. They will mean less working from isolated silos and more rowing in the same direction.”

He discouraged calling this a chancellor system: “What we’re talking about here is not a chancellor system with schools becoming campuses of a single university. I agree with the task force finding that such a change would be overly disruptive. But there is no doubt about the advantages and the necessity of adopting an executive officer model if we are serious about making and keeping Idaho economically competitive.”

His timing may be good, considering that two of Idaho’s university presidents are retiring this year and a third was reported applying for work elsewhere last year. And if it’s structured right, maybe some efficiencies will result.

This might be as reasonable a time as any to change the system, in one direction or another.
 

Careful parsing in the ag-gag decision

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Idaho's Interference with Agricultural Production law - aka "ag-gag" - was signed into law in 2014 in response to an investigative report (by a group called Mercy for Animals) at a dairy, which involved secret filming there.

There's been a lot of talk about it since, some of it semi-apocalyptic on both sides. What it really called for was a careful parsing of its provisions, some of which were sensible and others . . . not. What's needed here, in the legislative sphere, a little more cautious drafting.

(I'd say the same about a number of federal laws. The Patriot Act is one that comes to mind.)

The law had four basic provisions on banned activity, if a person:

(a) Is not employed by an agricultural production facility and enters an agricultural facility by force, threat, misrepresentation or trespass;
(b) Obtains records of an agricultural production facility by force, threat, misrepresentation or trespass;
(c) Obtains employment with an agricultural facility by force, threat, or misrepresentation with the intent to cause economic or other injury to the facility’s operations, livestock, crops, owners, personnel, equipment, buildings, premises, business interests or customers; [or]
(d) Enters an agricultural production facility that is not open to the public and, without the facility owner’s express consent or pursuant to judicial process or statutory authorization, makes audio or video recordings of the conduct of an agricultural production facility’s operations.

This is a mixed bag. Some of it would not be challenged by almost anyone: Certainly, for example, no one should be able to enter an agricultural property - or your home, for that matter - or obtain records by force or threat.

When last week the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals reviewed the law (in Animal Legal Defense Fund v. Wasden), it upheld some parts of it. But it tossed other parts of it which clearly were intended to block reporting - to block, in other words, public awareness of what was happening in these operations.

This review of the legislative history in the court's decision was noteworthy:

Legislators discussed the bill as protecting against two types of perceived harm to agricultural producers. First, lawmakers expressed concern about physical and operational damage caused by animal rights activists who gain access to agricultural production facilities. For example, some legislators discussed concerns about farm security and privacy. Others voiced concerns about the intentional destruction of crops, breeding records, and farm structures.

Lawmakers also discussed damage caused by investigative reporting: “One of the things that bothers me a lot about the undercover investigation [at the dairy], and the fact that there’s videos, well, we’re being tried and persecuted and prosecuted in the press.” Other legislators used similar language demonstrating hostility toward the release of these videos, and one supporter of the legislation dubbed animal rights groups as “terrorists” who “use media and sensationalism to attempt to steal the integrity of the producer and their reputation.” One legislator stated that the dairy industry’s reason behind the legislation was “[t]hey could not allow fellow members of the industry to be persecuted in the court of public opinion.” Another described these videos as used to “publicly crucify a company” and “as a blackmail tool.” Finally, one legislator indicated that if the video had not been published, she did not “think this bill would ever have surfaced.”

The first set of concerns generally sounds fair and reasonable. The second? Sorry, but in this society we need to know about matters of public importance, and the conduct of these businesses certainly is that.

The court also pointed out just how broad these provisions are. When ag-gag has been discussed the context usually has been reporting on CAFOs (animal feeding facilities), but it actually runs much more broadly: "the subsection reaches misrepresentations not only in the context of a large-scale dairy facility or cattle feedlot, but also grocery stores, garden nurseries, restaurants that have an herb garden or grow their own produce, llama farms that produce wool for weaving, beekeepers, a chicken coop in the backyard, a field producing crops for ethanol, and hardware stores, to name a few."

If that doesn't grab you, consider this scenario the court set out: "Imagine a situation in which an Albertsons grocery store opens early to the first one hundred affinity cardholders to visit the new, spectacular food court. Given the expansive definition of “agricultural production,” the Albertsons store would be covered under the statute as a facility where agricultural products are “process[ed] and package[ed] . . . into food.” An enterprising person with no Albertsons card, but representing otherwise, or even someone using a friend’s Albertsons card, falls prey to the statute simply because he wants to see the food-court extravaganza. Under subsection (a), our protagonist would be guilty of a misdemeanor and could be punished by up to one year in prison, a fine not in excess of $5,000, or both—not to mention a potential restitution award."

Writing the laws is serious business. The court's review and partial tossing of Idaho's ag-gag makes that clear. Here's hoping the lesson sinks in as lawmakers in the Gem State, and other places, return to work to write new ones.
 

Sizing the snowpack

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Every day, the Natural Resource Conservation Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, gathers statistics about water levels and snowpack. These tell a great deal not only about what’s on the ground now but also about what to expect in months to come.

I’ve checked these numbers at least weekly for years (they’re posted online at https://wrcc.dri.edu/snotelanom/snotelbasin) and they’ve offered a fair indication, when you put them into context, for what’s coming by way of water supply in areas all over the western United States.

This year, Idaho is coming off a good water year, and that should help the state at least somewhat in maintaining an adequate water supply in months to come. The year before that, 2016, conditions were dryer, but in most places still better than in much of the west, where drought was prevalent. In a number of other recent past years, the state has seen drought.

So, three months or so into the new water year (annualized measurements start in October), what does 2018 look like?

The set of stats I check most closely are those showing the “percentage of normal accumulated precipitation,” which very roughly translates to: How good is the snowpack, at this point, compared to historical averages? Those numbers vary around the state, and they’re broken out by river basins, or in some cases other regions.

To get a sense of what they mean (get ready for some numbers), you can compare them with past years at the same time. Here’s how some of the basins look as of now.

• In the northern Panhandle, the current percentage is 103. Last year at this time it was 134, and in 2016 it was 120.

• The Salmon River basin now reports 90 percent. In 2017, it was 106; the year before, 115.

• The Payette basin is coming in at 82 percent. A year ago, it reported 99 percent; in 2016, it was 115.

• The Boise now shows 79 percent. Last year this time: 104 percent; the year prior, 120.

• The Big Wood is clocking in at 79 percent too. In 2017: 124 percent. In 2016: 118 percent.

• The Bear River now is at 76 percent. Last year it showed 137 percent; the year before, 86 percent.

• The Snake River above Palisades Dam is at 97 percent of the norm. In 2017, it was 155 percent; in 2016, 92 percent.

You can catch a few themes in this.

One is that a really good water year (in a particular place) can help tide over an area receiving less the next. (The Bear River area would be an example.)

But you also can see how the accumulation levels this year overall are a good deal shallower than they were last year, or the year before. They’re also, on balance, a little lower than in 2015. (And note too: They’re lower still to Idaho’s southwest and south.)

The last year they were lower - and then they were significantly lower - was in 2014, though in that year the state happened to pick up enough snow and rain in late winter to help out, and the snowpack returned to roughly normal levels. But you could consider that a late save.

Get ready for some careful water usage and conservation, and extra caution in the wildfire department, in the months to come.
 

Slowing the draw

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Do you drink the bottled Arrowhead Spring Water, sold by Nestle?

There may be a little less of it available, depending on how several water rights-related legal tests pan out.

On December 20, the California State Water Resources Control Board told Nestle that it doesn’t have the rights to drew water – or at least, the amount it’s drawing now – from the San Bernardino National Forest.

This situation dates to at least April 2015, when the state began to receive complaints about the company: “The complaint allegations included diversion of water without a valid basis of right, unreasonable use of water, injury to public trust resources, and incorrect or missing reporting, all regarding Nestlé’s diversion of water from springs at the headwaters of Strawberry Creek in the San Bernardino National Forest for bottling under the Arrowhead label. Many of the complainants emphasized their concerns about the impacts of Nestlé’s diversions during California’s recent historic drought.”

To be clear, Nestle did not just walk onto the forest lands and start pumping; it does have a legal argument. It has reported its groundwater diversions to the state, saying they comport with state requirements. It claims a right, for example, that dates back to 1865, and makes use of a 1912 basis for a right that specifically refers to water bottling.

But the amounts have been large: “Over the period from 1947 to 2015, Nestlé’s reported extractions from the springs in the SBNF have averaged 192 acre-feet, or 62.6 million gallons, per year [emphasis added]. Nestlé claims several bases of right for the diversion and use of water from the Strawberry Creek Watershed.”

The legal problem seems to relate to the idea that water bottling on a really large scale is relatively new thing.

For example, the state found that the 1865 water right Nestle says it is using does exist, but it “is limited to riparian uses and is not valid for Nestle’s current appropriative diversion and use of water.”

And although some rights have been reasonably (or at least realistically) used for some diversions, “a significant portion of the water currently diverted by Nestle appears to be diverted without valid basis of right.”

And, there isn’t enough solid information to be able to tell whether the public trust is being harmed by the large-scale diversions.

This is the latest turndown of a major diversion by Nestle (another large rejection, at the Columbia River basin in Oregon, came only weeks earlier) in recent months.

Might this be an indicator that a tide is turning, as it were, on the question of how much water we’re willing to pull out of the ground to fill containers of bottled water?

Could be.
 

2018, through a dark glass

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As was the case a year ago, this space won’t (mostly) predict what will happen next year. But it will ask some questions.

The end of 2017 was marked by a census report that Idaho’s population in the last measured year has grown faster - in percentage - than any other state. Will that continue?

Odds are the growth will keep on, assuming the national economy holds up (not something to take for granted). A thought for 2020: Almost certainly, Idaho will not pick up a third congressional district, though - a thought for 2030 - it likely will a decade hence.

But plenty of other questions for the year ahead are more open-ended.

Will this be another good water year - 2017 was one of the best in a long time - or do early indications follow through with less precipitation? Will a sequence of wet and dry years lead to a rougher wildfire year, after a relatively fortunate 2017?

2017 was a good year for new agribusiness in southern Idaho, especially in the Magic Valley. Is it topping out - because of resources, workforce supply, or other considerations - or will that growth continue for a while longer? The guess here is that it’s not quite done, but about due for a slowdown in growth. We’ll see.

The questions get no more easily predictable in the political arena.

Nationally, 2018 is widely predicted (based in part on recent election results around the country) to run strongly toward Democratic candidates. Even if there’s a national wave, of course, it would have to crest extremely high to sweep over Idaho, or even make a significant difference, and that seems unlikely. Still, in a season when Alabamans can elect a Democrat to the U.S. Senate, should we shut the door on Democratic prospects in Idaho? And even if major offices prove elusive, might Democrats see substantial gains in the legislature or in the courthouses?

In the last few weeks more Democratic candidates for Idaho offices have been surfacing. (Take note, for example, of Paulette Jordan, the legislator from Plummer who now is set to give that party, alongside the Republicans, a competitive primary.) How well will Democrats do in filling their side of the ballot this year? Nationally, the party has been packing ‘em in; what will happen in the Gem State?

Answers to the partisan balance question will come in November. Half a year earlier, in May, we’ll get some resolution to two Republican primary contests, for governor and for the first district U.S. House seat, that already have been running for half a year or so, otherwise known as the place where many people expect the state’s next leaders to be chosen.

These contests have some parallels between them. There are candidates from the establishment Republican world (Brad Little for governor and David Leroy for Congress), and from the outside-activist wing (Raul Labrador and Russell Fulcher, respectively), and candidates a little harder to easily classify. Will we see a consistent thread running between them? Will this year’s Republican primary turn into a battle between slates of candidates the way 2014 did? Will it lead to bitter conflicts the way that one did, or settle out more easily?

2018 stands to be a lively political year. In one way or another, Idaho looks to be a part of that. That much should stand as a reasonable prediction.
 

Distraction

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In Idaho, there was the Melaleuca response: Bonuses for employees, starting at $500 and rising based on longevity, on occasion of the congressional passage of the Republican tax bill.

Nationally, there were others. Per USA Today: "AT&T and Comcast said they would award one-time $1,000 bonuses to a total of more than 300,000 non-management employees. Wells Fargo and Fifth Third Bancorp said they’ll raise their base pay to $15 an hour. Wells Fargo also is setting aside $400 million for charitable donations next year and 2% of its after-tax profit for philanthropy in 2019, while Fifth Third is tossing in a $1,000 bonus for workers. Boeing is moving ahead with $300 million in investments, including $100 million in corporate giving."

It's nice to see a little spreading-the-wealth, on the part of large corporations that can easily afford it. But this is a shiny object only - a gimmick to celebrate the passage of a bill lining their pockets. These bonuses and talk - just talk, for now - of other spending has nothing to do with the substance of the tax bill. It is intended to make people feel good about the bill, hoping there's no real practical connection between the two.

The bill, to begin with, won't take effect for quite some time.

Bill Kristol, a veteran conservative spokesman, on Twitter: "Don’t the $1000 bonuses suggest the big corporations didn’t really need a tax cut for capital investment? If they’re so flush with cash perhaps they didn’t need a tax cut at all? And if we just want to borrow from the future to give out money today, why the corporate middle man?"

He's right that they are flush already. Samuel Bernstein responded, "Corporate profits and liquid assets have never been higher in the United States. And interest rates are near record lows. No shortage of capital. Full stop."

George Ledyard added in the same thread, "We live in a consumer driven economy. Our economic strength was never greater than when the middle class was thriving. That coincided with high Union membership and good wages. ... The middle class has not regained the buying power they had back in 2008 when the crash happened. In fact that the have experienced a several decades long decline. Corporation haven't invested because there isn't enough demand."

 

2017, reflected

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Time has come to reflect on the year that was: A strange and startling year nationally, less eventful overall in the Gem State.

In Gem State’s 2017 I think first of the departure of the most prominent Idaho political figure of the last half-century, Governor and Interior Secretary Cecil Andrus. None quite like him are on the horizon today.

But through the year we saw some pointers to what’s ahead.

The closest I came to experimental columns this year was the two-pack about gubernatorial candidate Tommy Ahlquist, one projecting why he might come in first in the Republican primary (ahead of both Lieutenant Governor Brad Little and Representative Raul Labrador), and the other why he might come in third (behind them). Comment came partly from people who read the one column and hadn’t yet absorbed the other. And from the Ahlquist campaign, which indicated I understated the candidate’s tenure and activity in Idaho, as in hindsight I probably did. But so far as I can see, the outcome of that race remains as cloudy today as I thought it was then.

I see no reason to greatly rethink the April 28 column about Labrador, with the suggestion he might be unwise to gamble on a run for governor, as opposed to keeping his sure-shot House seat. On the other hand, the prospects of the U.S. House shifting into Democratic hands after the 2018 election have been growing, so maybe this is not a bad time to move on.

After an October 27 column reviewing an article about the Kootenai County Republican Party organization, and its chair Brent Regan, I thought I might hear some response from the Lake City. I was expecting it the more because not long before, on August 4, I went after them for their blast at Idaho’s two - ahem - Republican senators for their support of sanctions against Russia. I did get a couple of critical emails about that August piece, from North Idahoans who apparently were Russia enthusiasts, but nothing from the Kootenai GOP.

Occasional columns through the year focused on various statistical changes around the state. (If I weren’t doing a year-end review, this column might be about Idaho’s reported first-in-the-national growth rate; I may yet circle around to that.) The most intriguing of these subjects to me, one for which I’ve seen more supporting data since, was the September 8 piece on the changing religious composition of Idaho, and diminishing rates of religiosity. What that may mean for Idaho’s future is something we’ll have to revisit.

A pair of election results on the same subject -- but on votes several weeks apart -- seemed the most interesting Idaho ballot items during the year. On May 26 I noted the approval by Bonneville County voters of creation of the district to govern the new College of Eastern Idaho in Idaho Falls. That was a followup to a January 13 column about how strong the enrollment has been at its Ada-Canyon community college counterpart, the College of Western Idaho. But if I thought it was a major social indicator, it was a soft one, since weeks later Bingham County rejected joining that new eastern Idaho district.

I remain surprised at the massive turnout for a legislative hearing on climate change (the March 17 column): "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." Will it repeat in 2018? And - a point prompted by a January 6 column: Whatever happened to the ballot petition aimed at treating abortion as murder?

Many questions await 2018 for answers. We’ll get to a few of those next week.
 

The last of Star Wars, almost

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I can just remember walking into a movie theater in the summertime in Boise 40 years ago, having waited a couple of weeks or so until the lines went down, to see this new hot movie called Star Wars. Who would have guessed - I sure didn't - what it wrought?

The new movie and the eighth in the series, The Last Jedi, is one of the better entries in the field, and seems to set up well the upcoming finale. It is better focused than most, without losing the scope or epic feel of the earlier movies. It seems less obsessed with battle scenes, in space or with light sabers, than most of the films (though those scenes are by no means forgotten).

But it also seems a little more thoughtful than any of the others, and repeatedly returned to the subject of the past - and the need to let go of it. That would seem to be necessity after the last movie, The Force Awakens, which was enjoyable also a little over-slavish in its carbon-copying of the structure of the first movie.

And the subject of releasing the past has a more immediate point with this movie, since the three key actors who starred in the first and appeared in the last (Force) will be gone for episode IX. Harrison Ford's Han Solo was killed off last time, Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker comes to an end in this one, and Carrie Fisher, whose character seemed well positioned for another movie, personally passed on. The last movie will be carried on entirely by the new generation, which got a good workout in this new movie.

There is another aspect to this passing of a the torch and the transmission through generations that I liked.

Part of the mythology developed through the early movies, and continued on in the prequels, was that of blood ties - of the state importance of destiny and the "strength of the force" and such running through family connections. The point was emphasized repeatedly, and was the subject of some of the most dramatic points in the series. (One of the dramatic peaks of the early movies was the moment when Darth Vader declared to Luke Skywalker, "I am your father!")

This movie, while tossing away a number of other things as well, several during some excellent Hamill scenes in which he puts paid to a lot of uneasy questions about the whole jedi culture, seems to diminish the importance of that. The titular last jedi (spoiler ahead) is not Luke Skywalker - who we probably were expected to anticipate it would be - but one of the new generation. And one of the dramatic highlights in this movie was the revelation, after toying earlier with the question, of the parentage of that character: "nobody," meaning no one with personalized importance to the story, and meaning that this new character is important for herself, for her own capabilities and actions, and not because she was part of some Royalty of the Force.

This is a break with the Star Wars mythology, and a good break. It always seemed a little too reliant on Middle Ages mythmaking, and too little on the kind of forward-thinking storytelling you might expect in solid science fiction. (Of course we can argue about whether this is more about sci-fi or fantasy, but that's another subject.)

That new toss may be a key to where the series winds up in its final episode, a couple of years from now.

(image/Lucasfilms)