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Posts published in “Stapilus”

What the land’s for

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The criticism was on target this spring when word got out that trustees for the College of Western Idaho had bought a large chunk of land near downtown Boise (largely an empty lot at present) with the idea of expanding operations on to it. The critics pointed out that no proper appraisal of the land’s value was done, and the college seems to have greatly overpaid for it.

The board’s chair, Mary Niland, argued afterward that the college didn’t overpay but, “If I had it to do all over again, I would have looked at the tax assessment and would have asked for the appraisal,” the Idaho Statesman quoted her as saying. “All I can tell you is we didn’t think about it. It was a mistake, and we are accountable for that.”

The lack of appraisal was a legitimate complaint, one the institution apparently will have a chance to correct next time around. That may be near-term, since last week came reports the college is planning to buy 32.5 acres north of its campus at Nampa, for $815,000. The deal was supposed to be done by early July.

Prices and process aside, these two land purchases – and the developments apparently slated to follow – suggest something significant that hasn’t gotten a tremendous amount of attention yet: The explosive growth of the College of Western Idaho.

For many years, the Boise metro area was either the largest or one of the largest metro areas in the nation without a general-purpose community college. That absence wasn’t discussed a whole lot, and for a long time there was little push to create one. That’s bearing in mind that what’s now Boise State University effective was a community college for many years before it became a university in 1974. Not for another 30 years would a serious effort (based partly around a push by BSU President Robert Kustra) be made to set up a new community college in Idaho’s population center.

In 2007 voters in Ada and Canyon counties passed a ballot measure setting up a community college district in the area. Probably underestimating the effort involved in establishing a new college, the plan was made to open it just two years later. The first CWI president who oversaw that effort, Dennis Griffin, wrote about it in a book called From Scratch, who told about just how difficult it was to get it up and running in time. Disclosure: I published that book through Ridenbaugh Press.

On opening, the college was expected to enroll 1,700 students. It got 1,208, which led to the inevitable headlines about how it missed its target.

A few years after that, while talking to Griffin (he had retired as president by then), he threw out the idea that CWI might one day have as many as 50,000 students. A third person drinking coffee with us laughed and said he doubted it. I said that I didn’t.

I’ll hold to that view. In the fall of 2013, CWI's enrollment was 19,861 with 9,204 credit students and 10,657 students taking non-credit courses.

The fall 2014 enrollment rose to 20,697, almost evenly divided between credit and non-credit students, about two-thirds part-time. It awarded 1,260 degrees.

These are large and fast-growing numbers and, it turns out, indicative of how much Boise really did need a community college. An enrollment of 50,000 doesn’t seem so far off for one day, considering the rate of growth.

And while the trustees should be adhering to take care and watch the dollars when they buy land and construct buildings, it demonstrates clearing the need to keep doing those things.

Unwinding the unwinding

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This summer in Idaho is featuring some unfortunate health headlines ranging from the plague among rodents to e. coli on the beach (at Lucky Peak park near Boise).

But the really messy story is neither of these: It concerns the Saltzer Medical Group and its relationship with St. Luke’s hospitals, and the slippery state of how modern medicine deals with big money.

The story goes back a few years and iterations. Saltzer is a consortium of physicians at Nampa – the state’s second-largest city, remember – which had a large base of customers who regularly needed hospital facilities. St. Luke’s Health System, the largest hospital organization in Idaho and based at Boise – with major facilities scattered around the metro area – bought Saltzer in 2012, in a friendly takeover. Part of the justification was that if the organizations worked more tightly together, they might be able to hold down costs.

Attorney General Lawrence Wasden warned that the deal might be illegal, violating federal anti-competitiveness laws. St. Luke’s and Saltzer said the merger could be readily “unwound” if need be. That’s now being put to the test. Two levels of federal courts ordered the merger reversed, agreeing with the state (and several St. Luke’s competitors) that the mashup was anti-competitive. Now, in speaking of the un-wind, St. Luke’s attorneys were quoted as saying that what “seemed like a simple, straightforward process ... has proven not to be so.”

Is everyone properly shocked . . . ?

For one thing, Saltzer isn’t now what it was: A group of what was 50 or so doctors is down in number by about a quarter, some of those departing evidently wary of getting snared in legal issues. Several specialties important to the overall group now have no practitioners. The group reached an agreement with St. Luke’s to provide those services, which has made things even more complex.

And there have been efforts afoot to sell off part or all of Saltzer to some other party.

How does all of that comport with the court’s order to, more or less, return St. Luke’s and Saltzer to where they were before their merger?

No one really knows.

There’s some talk about a court-appointed master who would have some direct authority over the situation. This might work, in theory, somewhat comparably to a trustee in a bankruptcy case. But this may be a lot more difficult for such an official to handle than would be a bankrupcty; in this case, the businesses are alive and fully functioning. Part of what has happened involved physicians quitting one employer and moving to another, or setting up independent shop. How could a master force someone to, say, continue working at Saltzer if they didn’t want to? (Not that such an effort would likely be made anyway.) Both Saltzer and St. Luke’s are active – in St. Luke’s case, you might almost say hyperactive – businesses, doing many things and making many decisions every day. Planting a special master in the middle of that could be nightmarish for everyone involved, prospectively including patients.

The legal-financial complex U.S. medicine is in may be headed for a series of smashups. Look at St Luke's and Saltzer as a harbinger of things to come.

New chair

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A miracle of sorts is developing among Idaho’s Democrats: A three-way contest for the position of party chair.

Call that a small but real mark in the plus column for the Democrats, along with the fact that, unlike the last state Republican chair contest, this one has foregone bitterness or battles. But then, this isn’t a job most people would want. It doesn’t pay, but it can be time consuming and intensely absorbing. The end results of those efforts are likely to be – however adept and hard-working the chair may be – crushing defeat and blame, generally undeserved.

The Idaho Democratic chair has attracted some highly skilled political people over the years, but it has limited authority and is commonly thought to be something much closer to “powerful” than it actually is. (Same goes for the Republicans.)

Still, the chair can influence politics in the state to a degree. This is written before the vote electing the new chair, so I don’t know who it will be, but the advice that follows would apply to any.

Party chairs (any party) have two basic useful functions: Building and strengthening the organization, and serving as its spokesman to the public. (They sometimes play a role too in candidate recruitment, which Democrats in recent cycles have done relatively well.) With that in mind, three ideas suggest themselves for the incoming Democratic leader.

1. The top organizational priority should be filling precinct spots. Form a special task force and chair it, with the specific goal of filling as many of those precinct vacancies as possible around the state. And then give those precinct people some specific and visible work to do.

With focused attention, more can be done in this area than most Idaho political people think. In the 2014 election the Republican candidate for governor, C.L. “Butch” Otter, won by a big margin. Care to guess in how many out of about 1,000 precincts his Democratic opponent, A.J. Balukoff, got no votes at all? I counted only three. There were lonely Democrats casting their defiant votes in very nearly every precinct and in every county in Idaho. The chair should be setting out finding those scattered seeds, carefully planting and watering them.

2. Use such bully pulpit as you have first and foremost to describe what the Democrats are about. Not, that is, about what this or that individual Democrat is proposing: Your job should involve defining the party and what it wants, as distinct from the Republicans, and spreading the word. A whole lot of Idahoans have been given to think Democrats are the spawn of Satan, and that’s not much exaggerated. Democrats in Idaho will continue to lose until this starts to change.

3. Use your position to talk about the Republican Party and what (in your view) it’s all about. Not just the latest bum headline, not just this office holder or that one, but the party itself. And not the fact that it controls all the political levers in Idaho – that just sounds whiny. And certainly not that “we need two parties.” (That offers no help about why anyone should choose yours.) Talk about why you think Democrats are right and Republicans are wrong. And you should be just that blunt.

Whoever you, the next chair, turns out to be, you’ll probably get more blame than you deserve whatever you do. But there is some potential for at least making the job count.

JFAC stability

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The co-leadership of Idaho’s JFAC is closely watched in the statehouse and little noticed elsewhere, partly because it gets fewer headlines than its role would warrant.

One reason for that is that it has been a relative rock of stability: It hasn’t turned over a great deal. Now, this year, it will turn over, partly, though overall it probably will stay stable.

JFAC is the Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, the 20-member (as it long has been) panel that drafts the state budget. It uses data provides by the governor, the agencies and sometimes others, and its decisions aren’t final until they’re passed (ratified, really) by the floors of the House and Senate, and signed by the governor. But the budgets written in JFAC are only rarely altered afterward.

It is led by two people, co-chairs, one each for the House and Senate, who almost always have risen through the ranks by seniority. These leadership spots are as important as any in the legislature, including floor leaders, and an active co-chair (and sometimes, the vice-chairs as well) does a lot to shape the way the state spends its money. When I wrote a book some months ago about the most influential people in the state, both co-chairs were in the group.

Since 2001, the same two people have led JFAC – Senator Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, and Representative Maxine Bell, R-Jerome. For a decade they represented the same Magic Valley district, too, though in this new decade. Spend that much time on the budget panel and you tend become something of a budget expert, and – it happens to most – temperamentally an advocate for stability.

Last week came the announcement that Cameron will resign from the legislature to lead the state Department of Insurance. (Cameron is an insurance agent in private life.) By seniority, his successor as JFAC Senate co-chair should be vice-chair Shawn Keough, R-Sandpoint, who has been closely aligned with Camerons’s work on the committee. Her likely move up (the decision will be made by Senate Republican leaders) would place two women at the top of JFAC, for the first time.

The general continuation of stability – Keough has been a vice-chair since 2005, which is a couple of years before C.L. “Butch” Otter first became governor) – may be the more significant point. And that would be a continuation of the way JFAC has long been run.

Cameron’s predecessor on the Senate side was Atwell Parry, R-Melba, from 1987 to 2000, another long stretch. Bell’s House predecessor, Robert Geddes, was in the chair just four years, though he spent 24 years in the Idaho House. But before him, Representative Kathleen “Kitty” Gurnsey, R-Boise, was the House budget leader for eight terms, from 1981 to 1996. This is known as slow turnover.

Gurnsey died last week at Boise, well remembered by people who spent time around the legislature in her years there, which prompted a number of thoughts about the changes, and non-changes at the committee over the years. She was the first woman to co-chair the budget panel, but her strong hand on the budget process was most memorable. She served across from three Senate co-chairs, and was at least as decisive as any of them in directing the committee. (The relationships between the two co-chairs generally has been amicable, but there’s no requirement that it has to be.)

She was also something of a political centrist among the Senate Republicans of the time, at least of the time when she became chair. As the Idaho Legislature, and JFAC with it, moved toward the right over the years to come, their chairs did as well. During the short period when Gurnsey and Cameron overlapped on JFAC, she would generally have been considered the more moderate of the two. Today, Cameron is one of the more centrist Republican in the Senate caucus.

So we wait for word on the chair succession, and see if the long tendency on this important committee will continue a few more years.

‘Sovereignty’ in 1890

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As the seemingly endless chatter about how “sovereign” Idaho is continues, and another anniversary of statehood approaches, let’s look back on how it looked leading up to the moment of statehood.

You could say that Territorial Delegate Fred T. Dubois’ wire back to Boise, upon approval, to “Turn the Eagle loose!”, was more emblematic of his emotions than of what he had experienced along the way.

Idaho territory had already gone through, and narrowly evaded, a number of proposals to break it up and combine it with other jurisdictions. Idaho activists wanted to establish some legitimacy for their request, so they called for a constitutional convention to write a state constitution – which met, and drafted the constitution (albeit amended) Idaho still has. The convention had no legal authority to meet,not only because - unlike the four previous states to be admitted – Congress had not approved any such convention but also because the territorial legislature hadn’t done so either.

The convention did take care to say, in the third section of the first article, that “The state of Idaho is an inseparable part of the American Union, and the Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the land.”

The legitimacy of the convention was only a minor problem in Congress, where a resolution approving statehood had to pass both the House and Senate. Democrats, though in the minority, were not eager to admit Idaho, since that would mean yet another Republican state (as everyone knew Idaho would be), especially after recently admitting the Republican Dakotas, Montana and Washington (as it was then).

The Idaho bills – more than one of them – reached consideration point early in 1890, at a critical juncture. Congress’ action was sure to turn on a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, Davis v. Beason. Samuel Davis was a Mormon who had voted after taking the “test oath” - a territorial law requirement that the voter not adhere to certain principles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints – and was charged and convicted of perjury. Davis’ case before the Supreme Court was based on the idea that the test oath was unconstitutional.

Dubois, the Idaho territorial delegation who spearheaded the statehood effort, wrote to an ally in Idaho that “If their decision is adverse, of course we are done . . . I shall not ask for statehood unless we can keep the Mormons out of our politics.”

When the Supreme Court ruled against Davis, in favor of the Test Oath, the bills began to move through Congress, but amid raucous debate, a lot of it having to do with Mormons. Then a fierce debate erupted over “free silver” (a coinage question that would become much more intense in the coming decade). After anti-climactic floor votes, the admission bill was signed by President Benjamin Harrison on July 3.

Conditions were attached. For example, 3.5 million acres of the new state specifically were set aside to be used as an education endowment, and the use of them was closely regulated. The subject of how to use those Idaho lands has been back in Congress from time to time, notably in 1998 when then-Representative Mike Crapo proposed a loosening of the rules.

If it’s an immaculate sovereign conception anyone is looking for, Idaho’s isn’t it.

Season of discontent

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Try drawing a straight line through the results in the school-related election results from this week, and where it seems to land is on a season of education discontent in Idaho.

You might run into trouble trying to get a lot more specific than that – the discontent appears to bounce in several directions. But indicators of discontent were all over in last Tuesday’s elections.

As usual this time of year, a bunch of levy and bond issues were on the ballot, and as usual a good many (a lot of those supplemental levies that just maintain existing operations) passed.

But voter turnout was low (it seemed generally lower than last year) and overall support for incumbent positions seemed down. Even, for that matter, some proposals for money-saving improvements.

This year the biggest proposal, a $56.1 million bond at Idaho Falls failed, though barely. That amount alone was triple the total amount of all the school issues that passed.

A batch of school board elections wound up with striking sometimes unconventional results. In the largest school district in Idaho, West Ada, two of the three seats up for election went to outsiders. Julie Madsen, a physician, took out a board member who had served 13 years. And maybe the most interesting winner of the night was the other newcomer there, Russell Joki, a former Nampa school superintendent (and failed 2013 Meridian City Council candidate) who for years pursued a legal case against school districts charging fees to students. “School districts should not be charging fees for any part of the locally approved, endorsed, or sanctioned educational experience offered to students,” he wrote in a 2013 opinion piece. What will he do about that now as a board member?

In Caldwell, where all three board seats were decided by extremely small margins, a local tempest developed when a challenger, former Democratic legislative candidate Travis Manning, defeated an incumbent. Some area conservatives argued he should be disqualified: He’s a teacher in a neighboring school district, and associated with the teacher’s union. But Manning’s politics may have a lot to do with it too, and the dynamics of the Caldwell board may change a bit with his arrival.

Then there was the case in southeast Idaho of two small districts, North Gem and Grace (in Caribou County), which were proposed for consolidation. It would seem to make perfect sense. The districts have small populations and school attendance and a limited tax base. On top of that building renovations (especially a century-old school at Bancroft) and other costs have been pressuring taxpayers, something a merger might ease. But the voters, after seeing a good deal of local divisiveness on the question, rejected it, which means they’ll soon be faced with several difficult and expensive bond issues.

The Idaho Legislature’s actions on schools this year may have been a side factor in some of this. The legislature funded schools a little more amply than in most recent years, and that could have affected some attitudes locally.

But the common thread, in so many places, of boat-rocking is hard to miss. A fair number of voters seems to have decided they’re not happy; what they haven’t yet concluded, evidently, is what to do about it.

An unknown, sure winner

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Now that the presidential contest has begun to fill out, some of the probabilities for Idaho’s role are filling in, though one big element remains a vast mystery.

Least mysterious is the end result next year: No matter who the Republican or Democratic party nominate for president, Idaho’s four electoral votes are a near slam dunk to go to the Republican. That much is about as certain as anything can be in Idaho politics.

The next highest probability is that Idaho’s Democrats will wind up supporting Hillary Clinton for their party’s nomination. That shouldn’t necessarily seem like a given if you recall what happened in 2008: A weak Clinton organization in Idaho was swamped by a thoroughly-organized Barack Obama crew which drew huge numbers to party caucuses and around 14,000 people to hear their candidate campaign at Boise.

One of Clinton’s big mistakes in 2008 was bypassing the smaller, and mostly Republican, states along the way to the nomination. These states contribute delegates too, and states like Idaho allowed Obama to rack up delegate totals ahead of Clinton’s, allowing him to win the nomination nationally not by knockout but by steady accretion. Several news reports indicate the Clinton campaign has learned from that experience and will not be ignoring the Idahos around the country. Clinton forces already are on the ground, and you can expect her to have most of the Idaho organization – all she needs to secure Idaho’s delegates, at least – locked down and in place by Labor Day. By the time any other contenders (Bernie Sanders or Martin O’Malley, for example) arrive, they may find not many resources left for them.

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So much for the readily foreseeable. Now the harder question: Who will Idaho Republicans like for president?

In most past years, the answer was easy. Idaho Republicans absolutely loved Ronald Reagan, and in the last two contests their clear preference was for Mitt Romney. A laundry list of reasons for those preferences was obvious then and now. While the Republican nominee, whoever it is, will almost certainly get the state’s support in November, it’s less clear who they will prefer within this large and still-growing Republican field.

Last week, the Idaho Politics Weekly poll asked this question (it was unclear whether Republicans only were polled), and no one topped 13%. That percentage was held by the two prospects with family ties to previous Republican presidential candidates who did well in Idaho: Jeb Bush, brother of George W. and son of George H.W., and Rand Paul, son of Ron, who picked up a lot of northern Idaho support in 2012 and 2008. Scott Walker, nationally the hot Republican flavor this month, was third with eight percent, and others including Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, Chris Cristie and Ben Carson were well below that. Note too that the Bush and Paul early advantage doubtless comes in part because of the historical connections; they have yet to solidify such limited Idaho backing as they have on their own.

Where will Idaho’s preferences go? My guess at the moment would center on Rand Paul, partly because of the affection in many quarters for his father, and partly because there’s a certain type of rebellious streak in him that evokes the sense of an anti-establishment candidate like those who often appeal to Idaho Republican voters. But that sort of aura is fragile, and it could fade in the months to come. A second possibility, if he catches on enough nationally, might be Mike Huckabee. Marco Rubio will get to make a pitch when he speaks to a state Republican event this summer.

But really, Idaho’s Republican voters may be very much up for grabs.

Republican candidates did not ignore Idaho voters, in the fight for the nomination, in 2012; most of the major contenders campaigned in the Gem State. Don’t be surprised if that happens again.

Elections: Some quick impressions

stapilus RANDY
STAPILUS

 
The View
from Here

Just a few thoughts this evening - more tomorrow - in looking at the Northwest results. (As is our wont, we'll leave most of the national commentary to other places.)

Talking to a caller early today, I remarked that I didn't see many surprises and didn't expect a lot of change in Northwest politics. With most of the results in, I see no need to change that. While control of the U.S. Senate will change some pictures for the Senate delegation, the in-Northwest political scene changed remarkably little.

Every incumbent member of Congress in the Northwest was re-elected, and not only that, re-elected easily, mostly in landslides, Democrats and Republicans alike.

The two governors up for elections, Democrat John Kitzhaber of Oregon and Republican Butch Otter of Idaho, both under heavily assault in this campaign, won re-election, to a fourth and third term respectively.

The most interesting of the congressional races, in Washington's 4th district, pitted two Republicans against each other, Tea Party activist Clint Didier against the more mainstream former legislator Dan Newhouse. Newhouse, who had the endorsement of the incumbent (Doc Hastings), won, narrowly, tempering the tone of the state's House delegation a smidge.

Washington's legislature looks likely to be split again in the term ahead - the key indicators being the Tim Sheldon and Mark Miloscia - but at least one ballot issue showed no turn away from left-activism by the electorate: The decisive win in favor of expanding background checks for gun purchases. And you can match that up against Oregon's vote in fabor of joining Washington (and Colorado) in the crop of states seeking to legalize marijuana, keeping the issue from remaining a two-state experiment.

A surprising number of Idaho Democrats pulled together scenarios for possible Democratic wins, up to and including the governorship. My take, on radio and elsewhere, was that Democrats had a small edge to win the superintendent of public instruction job, weren't favored but could come close for secretary of state, and would be unlikely to win elsewhere among major offices. Some horn tooting, then: Democrat Jana Jones may have won for superintendent (just as this is written, the vote is a dead heat - we'll know more later), Democrat Holli Woodings has a decent percentage but still is losing for secretary, and no other Democrats were coming close.

My call, though, for most significant Idaho election of the night - assuming that later returns uphold the early - is in a House seat in District 15, a west-Boise district held easily for decades by Republicans, but essential to a breakthrough into the suburbs if Democrats are ever going to gain significantly in Idaho. Those early results showed Democrat Steve Berch, who has run for the House twice before (two years ago in this district) defeating well-established incumbent Republican Lynn Luker. The other two incumbent Republicans in 15 also were on the razor's edge, and could go either way tomorrow. A decade from now, these votes in District 15 may be seen as the most significant event - as regards change - in this election year in Idaho. [UPDATE: Late results did change the totals significantly in the District 15 races, giving the three Republicans there wins; so this year was not the year it turned. But the district still is showing itself as closely competitive, and a Democratic win there in an upcoming cycle clearly is not out of reach.]

But in the main, and for the next couple of years . . . for all the discontent that seems to be out there, people in the Northwest mostly voted for more of the same.

Not taking the bait

stapilus RANDY
STAPILUS

 
The View
from Here

While such factors as immigration and Democratic crossover may have slightly padded the stunning Tuesday primary loss by House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, some of the most careful analysis of the loss seems to point to something else: The feeling that Cantor had lost touch with his district.

There was the sense that he wasn't back home much, that he was always on the tube or in DC, and that when he did show up he was surrounded by a heavily armed security detail. How would an average citizen get a word with him?

Compare that to standard practice in, say, Oregon, where elected officials routinely visit back home and are quite accessible when they do.

But then, the idea of rising a little too high in Washington and losing that local connection is not a strange concept in the Northwest. Decades ago, Oregon Representative Al Ullman had risen to a position of real power in the House only to be taken out back home when people saw he wasn't getting back to the district very often. In 1994, people in eastern Washington had some of the same view - probably with less justification - about Tom Foley, then the House speaker. And he too lost.

As it happens, the current Republican representatives in each of those same districts, Cathy McMorris Rodgers in Washington and Greg Walden in Oregon, are in House leadership right now, albeit at a lower and less visible level than Foley - or Cantor. Either of them might be a plausible contender for Cantor's leadership post, from which he is planning to resign this summer.

Indications are that they aren't going for it. Walden hasn't had a lot to say about the situation, and McMorris Rodgers seems to have swept aside the idea of what's now looking like a crowded race for the number two job in the House.

They may be wise to take that attitude. Both have what look like secure seats at conditions stand. But sometimes the risk increases as you fly closer to the sun, and they may be well aware of that.