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Posts published in “Stapilus”

Lieutenant jumble

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Idaho may be a state where one party is overwhelmingly favored to win, but within that party, there’s a good deal of uncertainty.

Highly competitive races are afoot within the Republican Party for governor and the first district U.S. House seat. Those races, not especially predictable, have gotten the most attention.

The least predictable of the bunch might be the Republican contest for lieutenant governor.

That’s an office that actually gets a significant amount of attention when it does come open, as it was, sort of, in 2002. That year, the office was held by an incumbent (Jack Riggs) who was on the ballot, but he had just been appointed, and had no time to establish himself. A complex, multi-candidate primary, tightly competitive and hard to predict, ensued. (It was won by now-U.S. Senator Jim Risch.)

This year, incumbent Brad Little is trying to move up to governor, opening the post. Five serious contenders are in the field, and none qualifies as an obvious front-runner.

Over the last couple of weeks KIDO radio in Boise has run an online (and self-selecting) poll of the candidates. Here is how the candidates rated when I last checked -- in alphabetical order.

Marv Hagedorn, state senator from Meridian, 18.5%.

Janice McGeachin, former state representative from Idaho Falls, 32%.

Bob Nonini, state senator from Coeur d’Alene, 24.2%.

Kelley Packer, state representative from McCammon, 16.7%.

Steve Yates, of Idaho Falls, former state Republican chair, 8.5%.

I don’t mean to make much out of a self-selecting poll; candidates often encourage their backers to weigh in (and I saw a Facebook post from one of these candidates encouraging just that). My guess is that Yates’ percentage may be a little understated, because his contacts in the state party structure may be a little less visible now and come more into play later. All of the others, all current or former legislators, have built bases of support within the party, have (loosely) similar levels of political experience, and won election more than once in their home districts. If none of these candidates is an obvious front-runner, there are no clear also-rans either.

Their bases of support also would seem to overlap quite a bit. There could be some perception (not necessarily correct) that Yates and Packer hail a little more from the more establishment Republican side, and Hagedorn a little more from the activist-insurgent side, but even if true that’s not a point you could press very far. Listen to any of them, or check out their web sites, and while you might see somewhat varied emphases you won’t see a great deal of difference between the way they describe themselves. They aren’t describing themselves as champion of one wing or another of the party, or even of a specific group. Everybody is a “conservative” of course, but what else is new? (McGeachin’s site says, “Make Idaho conservative again.” The implication being that it’s a liberal place?)

So how will they differentiate - how will any one of these candidates say, in a compelling and gripping way, that you need to vote for me and not one of those other guys?

First one to figure that out might win.
 

A flock of subjects

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A few policy subjects that seem worth a quick review, and seem timely, as the Idaho Legislature kicks into full steam for this session.

States often pay little attention what goes on in the legislatures of even their close neighbors, but Idaho might want to reflect on a vote last week in Oregon that set in motion the course of this year’s legislative session there. The vote was on whether to accept or reject a tax increase passed by the last session; a ballot issue aimed at rejecting it was proposed by several Republican House members. In the vote last Tuesday, Oregon voters statewide approved the tax increase by a landslide 61.5 percent.

What was this tax? It was a levy on certain larger hospitals and on health insurance premiums - both industries were in favor of it - as a way of helping pay for the state’s expanded Medicaid program. Rejection of the tax would have blown a billion-dollar hole in the state budget; approval meant, more or less, status quo. Health insurance for several hundred thousand Oregonians was in the balance.

That Oregon would be more amenable than Idaho to such a proposal is no shock. But the big margin of the vote in a special election - this one question was the only thing on the ballot - and the voter turnout of about 40 percent should give some pause to Idahoans thinking about how to handle Medicaid and health insurance.

Item the second: The recent column about the proposed (by Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter) change in administration of Idaho state higher education, which would involve a state “CEO” overseeing the colleges and universities, drew this e-mail inquiry, requesting an answer:

“If Otter wants to really make a move toward a “Chancellor” system, why is he so timid about calling it what it is? If he doesn’t, why did he make this toothless proposal?”

The proposal has been making its way through the system, drawing an endorsement from the state Board of Education. The guess here is that it might not have if it had used the word “chancellor” (which Otter specifically disavowed).

So what’s the difference between a CEO and a (in the usual sense) chancellor, as an overseer of the system? That’s much harder to say, and Otter didn’t really seem to clarify it. The point here may be that using the one term is politically and popularly acceptable, and the other isn’t. Go figure.

Finally, a return to last week’s column about “historical horse racing.” I raised a question about how well the bettor terminals in the planned system comply with constitutional pari-mutuel requirements, which drew an emphatic response from an HHR backer that yes, it did.

He noted that, “the HHR terminals are the same as approved by the Legislature in 2012 in respect to the workings of the pari-mutuel operation and system of betting.” And, “the terminals that are proposed to be operated in Idaho are distinguishable from those that were proposed to be used Nebraska and Maryland nearly a decade ago, and can be legally and constitutionally operated in the state of Idaho. I reference Nebraska and Maryland here because AG opinions in those states were cited in the recent Idaho AG’s Certificate of Review. Again, I point out that those opinions from those states are dated and do not comport with the changes that have taken place in the HHR industry. The statutes in those states also differ from Idaho, so it’s not a true apples-to-apples comparison.”

His points (these and others) are fair and reasonable, but there’s room to rebut them too. My overall sense is that this is a complex and even technical debate, and if the legislature goes there it should plan on spending a while in hearings to get the specifics right. Maybe as much as with health insurance.
 

Pro-Trump, annotated

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On the 17th, the New York Times did an excellent service, turning over its editorial page to backers of President Donald Trump. That offered a useful counterpoint to the Times' own views, which have run deeply in opposition to the president over the last year, and prior.

Those of us who have asked over the last year, "What can they be thinking?" when it comes to Trump support got some answers here, as a page-worth of letters to the editor pitched the Trump case. They offer up a clear picture of what their side of the argument looks like.

One noted, for example, "Some of the many positive results of his policies are a booming economy, low unemployment (record low for black Americans), soaring stock market, lower taxes, the repeal of mandatory health insurance coverage." You can read the whole thing at the Times site.

Those arguments can be broken down to 10 core, frequently-made points (and I'll throw in a peripheral, less-mentioned extra), noted here in no particular order. But each of them also cries out for an annotation, which is also here.

1. "The economy is up ... low unemployment (record low for black Americans), soaring stock market ..." The economy is in fact doing well - now. It is doing almost exactly the same as it did a year ago, in the last year of Barack Obama's administration, and in the years before that, which is to say that nothing much has changed. The point has been made that the stock market made better progress in the early Obama Administration (after a severe crash at the end of the Bush Administration), and the point could be made that a high stock market these days often has more to do with stock buybacks and employee layoffs than it does actual national productivity or prosperity. But the larger point is that many of the same conditions which led us to the 2008 crash are now - blindly - being brought back as policy choices. You say the economy is doing well today? Great. Stay tuned. We'll see how long it lasts.

2. "foreign tyrants are afraid ... putting real pressure on North Korea and Iran ... stronger plans to prevent North Korea and Iran from using nuclear weapons." Here we move into fantasy. Whatever else they are, the leaders of Iran and North Korea seem to be not in the slightest intimidated; they're seeing, to the contrary, a president who can be manipulated with astounding ease.

3. "has largely defeated ISIS in Iraq." The ISIS news out of Iraq is indeed excellent, but this is much like the situation with the economy: The military pattern from 2016 - which involved United States military backup, but not a primary combat role - was in general continued through 2017, with similar results; this was a matter simply of leaving a reasonable policy to run on autopilot. Almost any president likely would have done something similar. You can fairly credit Trump for not trashing it, but that's about as much credit as is reasonable to give.

4. "the repeal of mandatory health insurance coverage." Well thank God we're not required to get health insurance! Who knows what that might lead to? What this provision, slipped in at the last moment (without, God forbid, any hearings or study of impact) likely will do is destabilize the insurance marketplace for us all - which would mean higher prices and reduced coverage. The point of the mandate is to spread risk widely; spreading risk is the point of insurance, period. The ACA may be flawed, but many of its critics seem not to understand even in the most general terms what insurance is or how it works. They should educate themselves about that.

5. "our embassy will be moved to Jerusalem." There are arguments to be made, and some people have made them for decades, about why this might be a good idea; those seem to be heavily outnumbered by the arguments for why it seems more likely to exacerbate tension and conflict in the Middle East. But my point here goes to none of that. It is: How does the location of an embassy in another country benefit us Americans at all? What's the benefit for us? Why is this something for us to celebrate?

6. "tax reform is accomplished." This - the massive bill passed in December - is a fraud. It is not tax "reform"; to call it that is an abuse of the word. When passed, it was so haphazardly put together that even the legislators voting on it did not know what was in it, and there was no time for public exposure or comment. (If there had been, the bill surely would have died.) Beyond that, this comment from conservative commenter Jennifer Rubin: "A tax cut that grows the deficit and gives disproportionate benefits to the rich is a 'win' and 'conservative' because, because … why?" And those recent reports of worker bonuses and the like? Call it a diversionary tactic.

Update: The makers of Kleenex announce layoffs in late January of more than 5,000 nationally. And (in a tweet the next day): "Toys R Us closing 180 stores, Sears closing 63 stores, Kmart closing 45 stores, Macy's closing 68 stores, Sam's Club 63 stores closing, JP Morgan closing several branches." I don't blame any of that on Trump. But don't bother telling me about the job-creating wonders of this tax bill.

7. "has named a number of solid conservative judges." If you're philosophically conservative, I'll give you this one (which would have gone to any Republican elected president). But bear in mind that for a whole lot of Americans, this is a bug, not a feature. Whether this is good or bad depends solely on where you sit, and for a lot of Americans the verdict is not positive.

8. "has prioritized American citizens over illegal immigrants." In terms of rhetoric, Trump has done this, in his fashion. But his approach has had the larger effect of setting Americans against each other. Many Americans have views nothing like the hard-anti-immigrant attitude at much of the core of the Trump base. And much of what we're seeing from that core, egged on by Trump, is cruel and heartless. America has had, since before our nationhood, an ambivalent feeling about its immigrants, but never a president who has whipped up that feeling the way this one has. Actual changes in border crossings, actual practical on-the-ground effects (apart from instilling lots of fear among millions of people) have moved hardly at all in the last year. The emotional climate in the country has changed much more, and not for the better.

9. "has gotten us out of several bad international agreements ... getting out of biased United Nations organizations." Um, no, with the main exception of the Paris climate change accord (which imposed no hard requirements on the United States at all) and to some extent the Pacific trade agreement, he hasn't. We're still in the United Nations. And not much else by way of international trade has much changed. Foreign policy analyst Daniel Drezner points out, "In his first year, Trump can point to no new alliances, trade deals or favorable basing agreements. Trump obsesses (wrongly) about trade deficits, but they increased with both China and Mexico in 2017." And, "The United States is losing its global standing because the world hates Donald Trump. Anyone who tells you differently is selling you something."

10. "has removed a number of wasteful regulations." We hear a lot about "wasteful regulations" but remarkably little about which regulations, exactly, those are. Of course there are regulations that impose needless cost or imposition, and we ought to be targeting and getting rid of them. But that takes effort, time and expertise, none of which have been in evidence over the last year. What we seem to be seeing is a mindless meat-axe, the results of which will come home to roost when we start to discover why those regs were crafted in the first place. Rubin again: "It is not conservative to favor reversing everything President Barack Obama did without regard to changed circumstances or alternatives. That doesn’t make Obama’s political legacy wonderful; it makes those advocating blind destruction without reasoned alternatives anything but conservative."

A bonus argument: "and respect for the flag and the rule of law." Sigh. Respect for the rule of law? Does this really even require a response? Really?

A brief but useful comprehensive rebuttal to all this comes from TV host Joe Scarborough. It's worth a read.

Now as for the list of arguments against Trump, I'm afraid we'd need a list much longer than a top 10 . . .
 

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.