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Posts published in December 2015

Radiation’s cost

A December guest opinion from Tami Thatcher, a former nuclear safety analyst at the Idaho National Laboratory and a nuclear safety consultant.

The headline that “Radiation, chemicals likely killed 396 INL workers” by Rocky Barker at the Idaho Statesman last December understates the historical occupational health issues at the Idaho National Laboratory. As of last November, 5,397 INL workers had applied for radiation or chemical illness compensation under the Energy Employee compensation act. Only 636 radiation claims and 926 chemical claims have so far been approved.

There are now two petitions for radiation exposure cohorts being investigated by the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health: one for INL and one for ANL-W. So far, one cohort for the Chem Plant from 1963 to 1974 has been recommended largely because of inadequate plutonium contamination monitoring.

The INL including ANL-W has conducted a tremendous variety of nuclear operations over the years at various facilities. While radiation monitoring practices and nuclear operations have changed over the years, here’s one thing that hasn’t changed: the deliberate understatement and omitting of important facts by the Department of Energy concerning contamination and exposures at these facilities.

Congressional testimony when the Energy worker act was created documented how the DOE deliberately withheld information it considered might erode public confidence, increase its liability, or prompt workers to demand hazard pay.

As I review recent reports by the DOE which still deceptively minimize historical radiological releases to southeast Idaho, it is clear that not much has changed. A DOE report published in 2014 depicts public offsite radiation doses all being below 10 mrem/yr, yet its cited source shows annual doses three times that amount. And various releases have been found by NIOSH to have been underestimated. Add to these low-balled INL releases the Department of Energy weapons testing releases that continued from underground testing after the above-ground weapons test ban in 1963.

I stumbled across serious errors in annual reporting of radionuclide emissions for 2013 at the INL that no one at DOE, INL or IDEQ had noticed, it is clear that the illusion of environmental monitoring is far more important that the actual monitoring, evaluation of results or looking for ways to reduce emissions. Emissions are often estimated without verification and then downplayed. The State of Idaho should care about the accurate current and historical reporting of contamination of air and water.

While other federal agencies such as the US Nuclear Regulatory Commission post public comment as received whether or not the proposed action is pursued. The DOE has yet to post public comment regarding the Two Proposed Shipments to INL citing the reason that it has altered its original plan. DOE has long eluded having to post or respond to solicited public comment this way.

A recent large epidemiology study combining France, the UK and the US has provided more evidence that it is cumulative dose that matters and doses below radiation protection standards yield increased cancer risk. You can count of the Department of Energy to make only muffled responses and it is unlikely that radiation worker training will discuss these results. The DOE has yet to reconcile radiation health findings from 2006 that found children were 7 times more vulnerable to radiation exposure, and women twice as vulnerable as men or the INL worker epidemiology showing elevated risk of brain tumors and blood cancers for INL workers, whether or not the workers were radiation workers.

NIOSH conducts radiation dose reconstruction with available dose reports. And it has yet to come to grips with serious americium-241 shallow perched water contamination at the ATR complex. The secrecy caused an absence of record keeping of the quantities of americium and other long-lived radionuclides flushed down the drains to open-air pecolation ponds.

And the US Geological survey which wrote a report specifically about shallow and deep perched water failed to monitor either americium or gross alpha levels. Even tiny community wells must monitor gross alpha levels. The USGS gave as an excuse that they do not read CERCLA reports that reported the americium levels at 100 times the maximum contaminant levels. The DOE has for years avoided mentioning long-lived radionuclide contamination at INL because it knows that the truth could erode public confidence.

NIOSH has continually been misled by the DOE about the adequacy of radiation controls at INL. NIOSH interviews are conducted but current workers cannot discuss problems without risk of retribution. Former workers need to step up and assist NIOSH in understanding past and current issues at INL that may have led to inadequate monitoring of radiation exposure as NIOSH investigates the petitions.

First take/’bye ’15

As we tick away the hours left in 2015, maybe a reflection or two on this year when some new things happened.

Nationally, it was a time for insurgents to take center stage in politics. It was most obvious on the Republican side, where the backers of Donald Trump and Ben Carson and to a point Ted Cruz were backing people at war with the establishment. People like Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio and even Rand Paul (running as, maybe, a kinder, gentler libertarian?), who at year's beginning seemed to be lapping the field, were being ground down near the end. Well, maybe not Rubio, if the other establishment guys all quit the race first. But the race, for most of 2015 and now as 2016 begins, is with Trump types. A month from now, when the actual voting begins, that may change, but for now that's the status.

Less dramatically there's some of this on the Democratic side too. the tone and feel and substance of the Bernie Sanders campaign is a lot different from Trump's, but it has the same sense of insurgency and lack of identification with the establishment. Sanders for now seems to be hitting his head against a too-low ceiling, and Hillary Clinton has the odds, but Sanders' campaign still generates the excitement.

Oregon was most notable this year for two big news stories: A new governor (Kate Brown) and legal pot. Both were bigger stories before than after the fact. The governor change happened after a stunning cascade of very personal scandal on the part of John Kitzhaber, who should have known better, didn't, and wound up having to resign. Brown has not been so major a newsmaker in the nearly year she's been in office, which is just as well, but she has gotten (with one major recent exception relating to public records) good marks, and is well positioned for election next year. In the case of marijuana, the big headlines were mostly in the runup to legalization. Without arguing that there's been a pot utopia since, it's been remarkable how few headlines it has generated in the months since legalization, how few serious problems have arisen or been noted. What's the downside to the decision? See if, in another year, we find any then.

Idaho was a more subtle case, but there too a new office holder made for something of a sea change. Under the former superintendent of public instruction, Idaho public schools were an ideological battleground, with lots of ugly messes over money, contracts and - a year ago at this time - a serious problem concerning broadband in the schools. The new superintendent, Sheri Ybarra, who came in with no serious administrative or political experience and might have been expected to make a bad situation worse, instead listened to the people on the ground, got the broadband problem resolved (through local solutions) and turned the battleground into productive turf again. That may have been the most remarkable change of the year in Idaho, the less noted maybe because it involved a reduction rather than an increase of political battling. But note also the arrival of Idaho's new wilderness area, the climax of a long-running battle, the sort of political achievement that many people have come to expect is no longer possible. Representative Mike Simpson showed that it is. - rs

Wacky politics


This past year may well go down in political history as one of the more wacky and weird ever. The emergence of Donald Trump as a genuine possible Republican nominee for president has clearly surprised the “chattering class” of journalists, commentators, the “inside the beltway” crowd, the self-styled political cognoscenti.

Trump has tapped into that vein of anger with the way things are, the shrinking middle class beset by too many obligations and too few resources, overwhelmed by a sense of unfairness, totally distrustful of a federal government that has earned the distrust through a series of lies to the American public, a government made up of folks who don’t realize the growing burden of oppressive rules and regulations.

Trump’s ability to dominate the race through seemingly outrageous and politically incorrect statements, his ability to generate television ratings, and to use the media he in part is campaigning against to deliver his messsage has been stunning.

So what will 2016 bring? Here are some even wackier predictions on both the national and state level that while admittedly unlikely might, never the less provoke thought on a reader’s part.

On a national level: Trump arrives at the Republican Convention with the most pledged delegates but not enough to win the nomination. Republican pooh-bahs still see disaster if he is the nominee and must deny him the nomination without having him leave and form a third party. What’s the solution?

RNC meets with House and Senate Republican caucuses and propose Speaker Paul Ryan resign to be replaced by Donald Trump. That’s correct, folks. The Constitution permits Congress to name anyone to the Speakership. Trump seizes the deal reognizing he still has a major platform, that after the Vice President he is next in line, and he does not run the risk of rejection at the polls or spending some of his billions.

What’s in it for Ryan, you ask? Paul Ryan becomes the Republican nominee for president.

On the Democratic side things become equally weird. Keep in mind the Obamas’ have never been close to the Clintons’ and that President Obama privately is not happy at the prospect of Hillary as his successor. Thus, when his Justice Department recommends he appoint a “Special Counsel” to oversee a review of the investigation of Hillary’s inexcusable use of an unsecured server for discussion of some critical official secrets, as well as other “unspecified” activities, Hillary reads the tea leaves corretly and with draws from the race in order to defend her good name.

The Democratic National Convention then by acclimation names Vice President Joe Biden as the party’s presidential nominee, in part because the the major unions pledge $1 billion to underwrite Biden’s campaign. Obama immediatedly endorses Biden, obviously more pleased with Joe as his successor. In November, Ryan wins.

On the state level, things get wackier also. First Disrrict congressman Raul Labrador, at the last possible moment, stuns Idahoans and senior U.S. Senator Mike Crapo by entering the Republican primary aganst Crapo. His declaration of candidacy nails Crapo as a faux conservtive, cites his 2012 drinking incident as inexcusable conduct, and charges Crapo with violating his Grover Norquist pledge never to support a tax increase.

Labrador, despite an ego growing like topsy ever since claiming to have forced Speaker John Boehner to leave office, and his alienation of many voters in eastern Idaho due to a perception of non-support for the Idaho National Lab, nonethe less defeats Crapo and coasts into the Senate.

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter’s ranch, there has been a whole lot of scheming. Otter in November began quietly raising money for his personal PSC, ostensibly to support good Republican candidates for the Legislature.

The truth however is Butch has acquiesed to his wife Lori’s desire to be governor. Torn between his wife and loyalty to his long-time loyal lieutenant governor, Brad Little, Otter opts for his wife. Little immediately declares his canidacy for governor even though the election is 2 years away.

With Labrador going for the Senate rather than governor, as many had expected, former State Senator Russ Fulcher declares his candidacy and works to sew up the Tea Party vote. Crapo, still hearing the call for public service and angry with a right-wing he had tilted towards to no avail, seeks revewnge by also entering the 2018 governor’s race. Thus, the GOP primary in May, 2018, sees a free-for-all between Lori Otter, Brad Little, Russ Fulcher and Mike Crapo. Little wins.

In the 2016 race to succeed Labrador in the House, Coeur d’Alene Mayor Steve Widmeyer is a surprise winner for the GOP nomination, defeating State Senators Bob Nonini and Mary Souza, as well as Rep. Luke Malek. Widmeyer defeats Democratic State Rep. Paulette Jordan in the general election.

And the Democratic candidate for governor in 2018 is Boise Mayor Dave Bieter who turns back a surprisingly strong challenge in the primary from Moscow State Senator Dr. Dan Schmidt. Little still wins in November 2018.

Admittedly my crystal ball is cloudy. These are all far-fetched speculation, but when politics gets this wacky, anything is possible. This coming year should be interesting. Happy New Year!

First take/swat


Take a look at the Washington Post article - this is just the latest of many this year - on how a local SWAT team terrorized a family, on "suspicion" that a marijuana grow might be happening there. Never mind that this was a well-established middle class family with children, both of whose adults were retired CIA employees. And that the sole reason for suspicion, all they had, was that the mother likes to the drink tea, and the father took one of the kids on a trip to a gardening store.

This is the kind of stuff that people worried about government really ought to be worried about, because it's not fantasy - it really does happen all over the country. We have funded and supplied SWAT corps that, most of the time, have too little to do. So they find something to do: Terrorizing us.

Over at Facebook, I made the point that this is another example of why marijuana ought to be legalized, just because the "war" on it has become far more dangerous to all of us than the substance ever was to anyone. And the legal morass around criminalizing pot is the biggest single reason it should be legalized nationally. But these SWAT teams are another issue beyond that. They were created for a reason, and occasions happen - like the mass shootings, which themselves are getting too frequent - when it's a good thing we have them available. But simply having them around, with pressure on (as it always will be) for regular demonstrated reports about how busy they are, means that these kinds of nightmares will go on and on, on whatever pretext. This militarization has to be reversed and scaled back.

Read this piece in the Post, put yourself in the place of this family, and try to come up with an argument for how this could be right . . . - rs

This has to stop


We here on the central Oregon coast have been concerned about rain - or the lack of it - for the last several years. Rain is not usually seen as a nuisance in these parts. It’s our life blood. For many reasons. But we’re catching up. And I’m more than ready for some blue sky. Damn, it’s wet!

Since 2012, rivers have been too low for many of the Salmon to reach their spawning grounds. That’s adversely impacted both commercial and sport fishing industries. What river flows there have been are reaching the ocean too warm for several fish and animal species. Starfish are almost gone. Sea anemones are disappearing. Many sea lions and otters have been forced further North to find colder waters. Lobster and crab seasons have been less than record-setting. All because of a stretch of unusually low rainfall.

But we’ve had some recent relief. We’re wet. Boy, are we wet! The last couple of months we’ve been so soaked the animals are walking in twos. I’ve been to the dictionary three times to check the length of a cubit. We are - to put it dryly - soaked.

“How wet is it,” you ask?

Well, let’s take our own little coastal puddle as an example. First 22 days of December, we had just over 22 inches. Average an inch a day. Rained every damned day! Double normal December rainfall. A good number of folks from Waldport to Tillamook have been flooded out. In one Newport neighborhood, an elderly lady just made it out the front door before her house split right down the middle and half of it slid 70 feet into a ravine. Highway 101 - our asphalt link to each other - has several places where guardrail posts are hanging exposed over open space left when slides took out the earth underneath. Other places where pavement has shifted, lifted or sunk.

Between Roseburg on I-5 and the coast, Highway 42 is the main route. It’s closed by a slide that won’t quit moving. Transportation folks say it could be several months before there’s even one-way traffic. You can stand there and hear the trees crack as the ground keeps moving downhill under them.

But, let’s put all this wet excess in perspective. The whole State of Oregon gets about 42 inches of rain a year. Pretty dry over on the Eastern side so the average statewide is higher West of the Cascades. Coastal average is over 70 inches. Still, it’s pretty liveable. Most of the time. On average.

But we do have our special occasions - to put it mildly. The day after Christmas, 1926, the stretch from Newport to Lincoln city got hit with - are you ready for this - 10.98 inches in 24 hours. In 24 hours! Imagine what that would do in your own neighborhood. Pictures taken in the aftermath of that 1926 soaking show nearly all roads impassable - hardly a building left undamaged. In some places, hardly a building left all, in fact.

So, with those numbers and images in mind, our inch-a-day so far this month seems liveable. But it’s going to take several years of more-than-average rainfall to mend the fishery and habitat damages we’ve already seen. Local fishermen say they have to go many miles further away from the shoreline to find the usual schools of fish. Also, most of ‘em are using heavier weights to get nets to sink lower where the colder water is.

Oh, lodging and restaurant businesses have been cutting a fat hog during our extended dry spell. Tourist traffic - and the resulting tourist room taxes - have set records. To the joy of local governments. Just one happy headline after another. But, those are just short term benefits of more than the usual amount of sunshine. The downside - and their certainly is one - is logging, fishing, crabbing and other outdoor industries have quietly lost ground without the usual rainfall. We’ll need an awful lot of wetness to make up for our long dry spell. It’ll take years.

So, as usual, Mother Nature seems to delight in feeding the needs of some of the population at a some cost to the rest. Whichever way it goes, somebody makes a buck and somebody else loses one.

But, consider this. With the resultant widespread coastal damages we’ve seen with our less-than-record rainfall of the past several years - not to mention that 1926 gully-washer - how do you suppose we’ll fare when that “big one” hits? When the ocean is pushed onshore 50-90 feet high at 75-100 miles an hour? Given what we know about what’s been - and it ain’t been nearly anything like that - what will be left around here? Who will be left around here?

Aw, maybe we can live with an inch of rain a day. But I’ll still cuss every time I take the dog out.

First take/Bing

Here's an unlikely bright spot for Microsoft: Bing, the search engine that seemed not many years ago like almost an ego toy for the execs at Redmond, something to wave at Google while never really threatening it.

There's a little more threat now.

The analyst company comScore says that while Google is still way out ahead with about 64% of the overall search market, Bing is growing, to 21% - enough that a substantial number of people are becoming familiar with it. (Over here, I lean toward Google but give Bing a try here and there, and find it delivers about as well.)

The increase, says the Puget Sound Business Journal, is "a significant step forward for Microsoft’s search engine, which back in 2011 bled more than $1 billion per quarter. Bing was such a pariah among investors that only a few years ago some were suggesting Microsoft sell off or kill the business."

The most recent quarter was Bing's first as a profit-making venture. It likely won't be the last.

The generally favorable response, and movement generally into the marketplace of Windows 10, may be a significant part of the reason.

That may somewhat over-represent Bing's place in the market, since some mobile and other devices still show it as maintaining only a very low level of activity.

But it does seem to be picking up. Google may be getting some competition, and that's not a bad thing. -rs (image/Ivan Walsh)

Unintended consequences


The true heart of the Affordable Care Act, sometimes referred to as “Obamacare” but termed here as simply the ACA, is the structure it provides for the maintenance of adequate, portable, comprehensive and reliable private health insurance to all of us and our families.

For most of us the impact of this law and the changes it wrought have been invisible. For the healthy among us, who were happy to remain in the same employment with already adequate insurance, who did not encounter disastrous illness or injury, and who were without disabled children, the advent of the ACA brought nary a ripple.

One sizable bunch did see an immediate benefit. The self-employed, such as small-firm professionals and the like, who might have been paying for health coverage at very high individual private insurance rates, and the part time or low wage employee who did not receive insurance from their employment and could not otherwise afford private policies, both suddenly found adequate health insurance available through state exchanges at rates equivalent to that charged large employers and groups, and with significant federal subsidies for the lower rungs of qualified individuals.

While there were many process problems getting the bugs worked out of the exchange machinery, there have been few complaints over the products that popped out, or to the ultimate cost of it to the qualified participants. These participants have joined the majority in enjoying adequate, non-cancellable, portable, comprehensive and reliable private health insurance at an affordable cost.

Not so much is heard of any of the essential changes brought about by the new law, for the simple reason that they appear to be working exactly as designed. For the first time ever, most of us no longer worry about a catastrophic illness or injury blowing through the ceiling of our health insurance, or having a company cancel coverage in the middle of difficult times, or of being chained to ill-fitting employment because of the risk of being trapped by a preexisting condition clause, or of having a recommended treatment denied by bureaucratic action with no recourse to have the matter reviewed or reconsidered, or of keeping adequate coverage for a child all the way through college.

These matters do not affect most of us, but for the millions and millions who have been affected by any one of these elements in their lives or the lives of their loved ones dependent upon them, the saving provisions of the ACA have provided immeasurable relief and peace of mind.

The only foghorn clamoring away, usually from the right, has been connected to the fact that premiums have gone up. But the ACA doesn’t touch premiums; it is based on private insurance, which requires private payment of premiums, which is connected to actual costs. From the beginning it was made clear that health care costs would be going up, and premiums were going to rise. The major omission the critics make is in failing mention that premiums have not increased as fast or far as was predicted without the adoption of the ACA. The rate of growth of health care costs has flattened, and the increases that are coming are not as great as once feared.

All of this means that for most of us, we have grown complacent; the ACA is working just fine, thank you, and we would not like to see any of it lost. The few of us who are complaining about the cost would complain anyway – with or without the ACA. Notwithstanding the campaign rhetoric coming from the parade of Republican beseechers, we all know there is no realistic political chance that the country is going to reverse course on health care now. Too many of the core provisions are proving to be too valuable and too popular for anyone to seriously suggest a complete repeal. Even the wannabees, when pressed on details, hide behind promises to save the best provisions of the act which, when one tracks down and adds up all the promises, turns out to include it all.

There is this nagging problem. Through the willful act of several of the states, including Idaho, the ACA is not being permitted to fully engage the entirety of the health insurance coverage that was expected. The individuals left at risk are among the very poor and helpless – those without clout or means, and who are now being ignored for the very worst of reasons – spiteful politics.

Under the ACA, everyone who is gainfully employed or occupied is supposed to be guaranteed access to affordable health coverage, either through their employer or through a state exchange. The exchange is available to anyone who is employed but does not receive insurance through employment or who is self-employed. The coverage is still private coverage by private insurers, although the premiums may be subsidized for qualified individuals. The purpose of the exchange is two-fold: (1) to make insurance available at what amounts to group rates, rather than individual rates, and (2) to establish subsidies where needed. To make this work, it is required by the act that a participating individual have some level of income, measured at a percentage of the poverty level established for the state, in order to qualify for private health insurance through the exchange.

The requirement for a floor level of income to participate through an exchange meant that those individuals who earned less than the required percentage to qualify for insurance through the exchange, but who, for any of a variety of reasons, might not qualify for standard Medicaid – would remain uninsured. In Idaho, for example, this gap consists of approximately 78,000 individuals, all uninsured.

The solution under the ACA was to provide that the states would increase the eligibility level of Medicaid to include by definition all individuals in this gap. This expansion of Medicaid is fully funded under the ACA, with all revenue measures in place. There will be no cost to the states at all for the first 10 years of the ACA; after that, the federal government will pay 90% of the increased benefit cost, with the states paying 10%.

No one anticipated what actually happened. The Supreme Court struck the mandatory provision for expansion of Medicaid. And, despite the fact that it is integral to providing seamless coverage to the poorest, despite the fact that it is fully funded for ten years so comes at no cost to the states, and despite the fact that by not buying into the Medicaid expansion, the states gives up hundreds of millions of dollars in federal grants – 26 states declined to expand, and continue to decline to expand their Medicaid programs.

One of those states is Idaho. The governor and the legislature refuse to even consider the expansion bill. A bill for the expansion has been introduced every year, but has yet to be mentioned by the Governor in his state of the state message, or to see the floor of either house for a vote.

If Medicaid were so extended, the ACA would provide a seamless blanket of coverage available to essentially everyone. In Idaho, the expansion of Medicaid could replace almost the entirety of several state and county programs for indigent care and catastrophic care, currently running state and counties approximately $63 million per year. The benefits, which might have been paid to medical providers in Idaho on behalf of this group for the current years, have been estimated to be in the range of $73 million per year. If one adds these resources together, Idaho has already watched close to $272 million slip through its fingers by not expanding Medicaid originally, and the state is losing somewhere in the range of an additional $136 million per year for every year it does not act.

This is not all. We, or at least some of us, are paying those specific federal taxes created within the ACA for funding the expansion of Medicaid nationwide. No credit exists or refunds for those states that have not gone along. Our money derived from these tax sources within Idaho is not being returned to our state, and must be added to the losses sustained by Idaho for not approving the expansion.

As Idaho heads into the third legislative session since the rollout of the ACA, the subject will come up again. Every single outside interest group that has looked into this has recommended expansion. Other alternatives to expansion are woefully inadequate and there is no valid, logical reason for continuing to withhold. Perhaps the wisest of the group who will be assembling here next week will see at last that there is no U-turn on the horizon for the ACA and that money is money is money.

Pry the thing out of committee and pass the damn bill.

First take/cable news

When opportunity has arisen, I have offered some advice about news consumption that, it appears, is something President Obama already does. And that, of course, since everything he does or doesn't do is subject to criticism from someone, he's been blasted for it.

A quote made its way into news reports, from a supposedly off the record session (and he probably should have known that nothing is ever entirely off the record these days), that Obama said something the effect that he “doesn't watch TV” or “doesn’t watch cable news”. We know he "watches TV" at least to some extent - he's spoken of watching sports events and various TV series - but the reference seems to refer to the cable news channels.

Journalist James Fallows, who was there, tried without getting too specific to suggest the context for the statement: "Obama’s no-TV comment might be part of a larger argument about how permanent-emergency coverage affects a society’s ability to figure out what to be afraid of, and how afraid to be."

Probably that's about right, and if it is, Obama and Fallows are spot on.

When 24/7 cable TV news started back in the 80s I thought it might be a highly beneficial way of better informing the public. Foolish me. Serious journalism is expensive; filling in time and pixels with talking heads and graphic shrieks that pound home the never-ending constant emergency is a lot cheaper and, it turns out, brings in some numbers.

They seem to be doing that a little less successfully now than they once did, since some of the numbers of this garbage of the airwaves seems to be dropping. One can only hope.

One more word from a reader, which Fallows highlighted in his piece:

"I never watch “cable news”. Never. Never. Never. That includes CNN, MSNBC and Fox. The whole idea of “cable news" is toxic in my mind. The first thing that I do when I get a new TV provider is to delete those channels from the list that I cycle thru when I do any channel surfing."

Advice for the day, the week, the decade: Do likewise. Those channels have become civic poison. - rs

Shuffling responsibility


Who is it that’s responsible, in the end, for ensuring that people who cannot afford an attorney to defend them in court, get one?

The state says it’s the counties.

The counties say it’s the state.

The responsibility for someone in the government – that is to say, and have no doubt about it, it is our responsibility – is clear. The United States constitution says as much, according to uncontroverted rulings of the United States Supreme Court. Because most criminal cases are based in state rather than federal law, most public defenders operate in systems governed by the states.

Complicating that a bit, courts and clerks are funded mostly on the local level, county by county, and you can make a good argument that public defenders are too, or should be.

Speaking in the latest case – generated by the American Civil Liberties Union – before 4th District Judge Sam Hoagland, Deputy Attorney General Michael Gilmore said that public defender standards and operations are a local matter, not state. And, he seemed to suggest, even if “the state” were considered responsible, there’s no specific office in state government that has the power and budget item to handle public defense.

That really ought to make sense – it really should. The fact that in practice, if not in theory, it doesn’t, owes a lot to the way Idaho operates.

Idaho’s policymakers, meaning its legislators and statewide officials, often talk about how governmental control should be devolved down to the lowest practical level; but that mostly seems to mean federal-state relations rather than state-local. “Home rule” is not strong in Idaho, as the record of legislative session after session has demonstrated. This next session may see the scaleback or even elimination of city urban renewal authority, for one example. But cities have relatively broad freedom to act compared, in most cases, with counties. Practically everything a county does is circumscribed, down to the inch, by state law and regulation. And to a great extent that includes the amount of revenue it can raise, and how it can be spent.

Little wonder the counties, more or less hogtied by the state, are feeling some frustration here.

Dan Chadwick, the longtime executive director of the Idaho Association of Counties, pointed out that at least one county (Canyon) already faced an individual lawsuit over public defense before the ACLU action. Chadwick: “Quite frankly it's a big frustration for us, and we're talking about a state responsibility. The only reason it's a county responsibility is that the state has chosen to delegate that to the counties ... no matter what we do and how hard we try to fix it, we end up in court anyway.”

An interim legislative committee has been looking into the situation – it has been recognized by legislators as a serious problem – but seems unlikely to come up with any concrete solutions before the next session convenes.

No comprehensive answers, in any event, could come from expecting each of the 44 counties to individually come up with answers on public defense. That could happen only on the state level, and only if the state figures out some way to pay for it, whether through an ostensibly local tax or through direct state funding.

Either way, the place to look for answers will be the state. And specifically, the third floor of the Statehouse starting next month.