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Trust the voters

It was a bit surprising to read an opinion piece that Representative Lance Clow (R-Twin Falls) has circulated to media outlets around the state, warning Idahoans against signing the Open Primaries Initiative. He accused the supporters of the initiative of having “ulterior motives” with the goal “to give the Idaho Democratic Party an increased opportunity.” If that is the goal, one might be left to wonder why Butch and Lori Otter, former Senator Denton Darrington, former House Speaker Bruce Newcomb, former JFAC co-chair Maxine Bell and a host of other Republicans from across the state have come together to urge approval of the initiative.

It is instructive to consider this legislator’s view of the initiative process because it tells us much about what has happened in our Legislature since the closed GOP primary came into being in 2012. Following the defeat of the three Luna education laws by citizen referendums that year, the Legislature enacted a law in its 2013 session, making it much more difficult to get an initiative or referendum on the ballot. It was Clow’s first legislative session and he, who has often been considered a moderate, stood up for the people’s initiative rights, being one of very few Republicans who voted against the law.

Just 8 years later, after Idaho voters resoundingly approved Reclaim Idaho’s initiative to expand our Medicaid program, Clow joined most of his GOP colleagues in approving a law making it virtually impossible to pass another initiative or referendum. The Idaho Supreme Court struck the law down for depriving Idahoans of their constitutional right to make laws with the initiative and use the referendum to veto legislative enactments.

In 2022, Clow opposed an initiative to increase K-12 funding by about $330 million per year. But, when the Governor called a special session to nip the initiative in the bud and raise funding slightly more than the initiative, Clow voted for that legislation. He now opposes the Open Primaries Initiative. What happened between 2013 and the present?

I would submit that the closed GOP primary, aided and abetted by the malign influence of the Idaho Freedom Foundation (IFF) and its dark money allies, has created a toxic atmosphere in the Legislature, making it difficult for well-meaning legislators like Clow to do their jobs. Republicans who exercise independent judgment and fail to heed IFF’s “guidance” on culture war issues end up with low ratings on IFF’s various rating indexes. They are vilified by IFF’s gigantic propaganda media machine. They are labled as “moderates” or RINOs–Republicans in Name Only. They are primaried in the low-turnout GOP primary by IFF-approved, extreme-right candidates.

And if there is anything the Freedom Foundation hates, it is the right of Idahoans to get around an IFF-dominated Legislature by running initiatives and referendums. The IFF has made every effort to nullify that sacred right. They wield considerable influence over the laws produced by the Legislature, which they largely control, but they have much less ability to control the outcome of initiative and referendum elections.

Clow is not a puppet of the IFF, as many legislators are, but with the increasingly extreme Legislatures that have resulted since the closing of the GOP primary in 2012, he could be excused for casting a few votes in favor of IFF’s priorities. The way to free up legislators to vote reasonably and pragmatically on substantive issues–those that will improve the lives of Idahoans–is to eliminate the closed GOP primary and allow all Idaho voters to take part in selecting those who will hold important elective offices.

Clow ends his opinion implying that voters, unlike legislators, do not have the ability to carefully and responsibly make laws. In truth and fact, Idaho voters have always sparingly and responsibly exercised their initiative rights. They don’t blindly sign initiative petitions. If they have concerns about what a measure may do, they have the brains to ask questions before signing. When compared with Idaho’s recent legislative sessions, which have been so utterly dysfunctional and non-productive, Idaho’s initiative sponsors and voters have a remarkable track record.

Idahoans are enthusiastically embracing the Open Primaries Initiative and it is virtually certain to be on the 2024 general election ballot. Its approval next year will restore reasonable, responsible and responsive governing in the Gem State.


Flavors of freedom

In Idaho politics the word “freedom” continues to be batted around a lot by people who seldom bother to explain what they mean by it.

Your definition and someone else’s may vary.

One of the most impactful political organizations in Idaho is the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which purports to base its work around expanding “freedom”; but their conception of the idea is, to be generous, highly selective. Freedom for one person to do something can mean less freedom for someone else, if you aren’t careful … which ideologues often aren’t.

The meanings of some of the many flavors of freedom comes clear in a recent release of the libertarian Cato Institute, called “Freedom in the 50 States: An index of personal and economic freedom.” It is as flawed and cherry-picked as most such surveys, but a combination of two elements make it worth some pause and consideration.

First, it breaks down types of freedom in 25 varied categories which do cover a lot of ground, under the umbrella categories of “personal” and “economic” freedom. There’s plenty of weighing going on within and among the various subcategories (Cato being what it is, the group’s heart seems to be more on the economic side), but a look at the variations is worthwhile.

That’s because, second, the survey also breaks down the various types of “freedom” by state.

Overall, Idaho ranks 14th in the survey, out of 50. It follows New Hampshire, Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, Georgia and Texas, among others.

It does best on “economic freedom,” which you could translate to “freedom to transact business activities unencumbered by regulation or taxes,” coming in seventh.

On “personal freedom,” Idaho’s ranking was not so hot: 49th, ahead only of Texas.

The Cato survey gives Idaho some rankings you might not expect. On state taxation, Idaho ranks 38th, worse than Oregon (36th: it does not have a sales tax) and Washington (19th: it does not have an income tax). Idaho ranks 4th best in the country on local taxation, a suggestion that local governments really are being squeezed by the state as much as they say. It also ranks second highest in the nation in government debt, though the highly technical approach used in measuring it may be hard to translate to practical impacts.

Idaho ranked first in the nation on “health insurance freedom,” though the criteria are a little vague and certainly idiosyncratic. The key rational sentence seems to be, “Community rating and the individual mandate get the highest weights because they represent a large transfer of wealth from the healthy to the unhealthy of approximately $10 billion a year.” Try applying that to your personal “freedom” when it comes to obtaining and using health insurance.

On the “personal freedom” side, where Nevada ranks on top in the nation (Arizona is second), Idaho scores less well.

It ranks 46th on incarceration and arrests, 44th on gambling, 28th on marriage freedom (“driven mostly by cousin marriage, which is more important in our rankings than covenant marriage and vastly more important than blood tests and waiting periods”), 39th on cannabis and salvia, 49th on alcohol.

And it comes in 24th on travel freedom. Much of that measure last relates to “the use and retention of automated license plate reader data and the availability of driver’s licenses to those without Social Security numbers (such as undocumented workers).” You wonder how the ranking might have been affected if recent abortion laws had been considered.

Abortion, generally, didn’t appear to figure in the rankings, at least not substantially.

Idaho does rank third highest, however, on “gun freedom.” That should come as no shock.

So who’s free? To do what? What’s important to you?



Higher ed in the community

The dividing line used to be clear between community colleges as one thing, and four-year colleges and universities as another.

Community colleges were two-year institutions. People sometimes used them to take lower-level collegiate courses, and then transfer to a four-year college or university, sometimes getting an associate degree in the process. Or they might take technical and vocational courses and training there, or do other preparatory work.

The four-year institutions, in this frame, would be where you find “higher education,” courses specifically leading to undergraduate or graduate degrees (“college degrees” in the usual sense).

The lines seem, of late, to be blurring.

It’s a national development, but it’s becoming increasingly visible in Idaho, and lately has erupted into some controversy. You can expect talk around the subject to grow.

Part of it has to do with community colleges beginning to offer bachelor’s degrees, which traditionally are the province of four-year institutions. The College of Southern Idaho at Twin Falls offers an Operations Management BAS Degree, which is a bachelor’s (intended for people who already have completed qualifications for an associate degree), but has been an outlier.

On November 9 the board of the College of Western Idaho (Meridian-Nampa, founded in 2007) voted to provide a business administration bachelor’s at the community college - now Idaho’s largest college by overall enrollment, and its fastest-growing. The decision would be effective only if the state Board of Education agrees.

The addition was in a sense market-driven. The Idaho Ed News reported that, “trustees pointed to a workforce demand. Within the past year, employers within 100 miles of CWI’s Nampa campus posted 18,000 listings for business-related jobs requiring a bachelor’s degree.” Idaho higher education isn’t meeting nearly those numbers.

The four-year institutions apparently do not approve. All four of Idaho’s four-years offer comparable (not exactly the same) business administration degrees, and three of them (Boise State University, the University of Idaho and Lewis-Clark State College) specifically asked the Board of Education to deny the request. (Idaho State University seems not to have weighed in.) BSU said that some of CWI’s arguments for the expansion were “inaccurate, unsupported and frankly outright misleading.”

This has turned into a squabble, with the institutions starting to throw shade at each other over graduation rates and other data points. (The objection from the University of Idaho, given its proposed affiliation with the mostly online University of Phoenix, is of special interest.)

Whatever happens in this specific issue, social and economic pressure is likely to move toward the community colleges in expanding their offerings, and this pressure point may become an education and political flash point in years ahead.

One reason is money. Community colleges almost always are far less costly for students to attend than are four-year institutions, and that seems to be true (speaking generally) in Idaho as elsewhere. CWI has reported that its estimated tuition cost for a student to obtain the bachelor’s would be about $20,000, well below the four-year institutions.

Writ large - imagine this proposal for a bachelor’s degree expanding into a number of others over time - this could start to have a serious effect on the older Idaho colleges and universities, with overall ripple effects unclear. But one of them is likely to be money, if students begin drifting away toward the less-expensive and more convenient community colleges. If you can get many of the same results at the less costly community level, why not?

The state Board of Education is expected to consider, and probably decide, on the College of Western Idaho proposal at its December meeting. There are some indications it’s favorably inclined, but some of those indicators came before the other institutions began weighing in.

But this could mark the start of a reshaping of Idaho higher education. In the shape of college to come, the lines between different institutions, and different kinds of institutions, may become less clear.


Max Black

Max Black, who was an Idaho state representative from 1992 to 2006, and who died at Boise on November 10, was a good state legislator.

I knew at the time, as I watched him at the Statehouse, that  he was a good legislator, but only years after he served did I piece together some of the important reasons why, and those reasons had nothing to do with the legislature as such.

Max was cheerful, enthusiastic, seldom critical or downbeat (in my observation), and unlike many elected officials did not seem to be a great self-promoter. He was a well-regarded legislator, though, across the chamber and among people (such as lobbyists and reporters) around it. His reputation was made on the basis of careful work and maintaining good personal relationships. Throwing shade or red meat was nowhere near his style.

So what drove Max, if not the usually expected personal aggrandizement?

I got my first clue of that one day in 2012, years after his days in elected office, when my cell phone rang while I happened to be walking through the Idaho Statehouse. It was an out of the blue call from Max, who I hadn’t seen for some years. His reason for the call: Knowing that I published books, he wanted to talk about a book proposal he had.

(A disclaimer: I am the publisher of the book I’m about to describe.)

I’ve fielded a number of such book pitch calls over the years, but this one was different from most. After leaving the legislature, Max became deeply interested in regional history, to the point of taking extensive efforts to research it from original people and materials. He became captivated by the well-known southern Idaho murder case, from the late 19th century, of “Diamondfield” Jack Davis, who was convicted and nearly (and more than once) hanged for the killing of two sheepmen.

Books had been written before about Davis (I had even read one), and their writers included ample speculation but also lots of blank area when it came to important facts of the case and Davis’ life. I asked Max why he wanted to write a new one.

His answer was stunning. He had investigated the case from scratch, walking the desert landscape and visiting people in the region to find obscure clues. His persistence led him to the point of locating the firearm and one of the bullets involved in the murder case, and unlike anyone previously he had pieced together the evidence that Davis not only did not but could not have committed the crime - and he had developed nearly conclusive evidence about who did. He even unearthed new information about what became of Davis in his later years, and scotched a number of spurious stories.

He convinced me.

We brought the book, called “Diamondfield: Finding the Real Jack Davis,” into publication the next year, and from that year to this Max has been a tireless promoter of it: His enthusiasm for the work he does has been as great as anyone I’ve known.

He also has been doing ongoing research into other obscure corners of western history, and he often has shared unexpected tales from the old, and sometimes not so old, intermountain west.

His persistence and ingenuity, and ability to find help and leverage information, was remarkable.

That’s not all there was to him, of course. An obituary said that, “He found joy in creating pens, trains, violins, boxes and really almost anything out of wood and giving his creations away or donating them for others to enjoy.” That too would fit with the Max Black I saw in the context of his book.

His enthusiasm, persistence and refusal to accept anything less than the best evidence before deciding on what the story really is: These are useful qualities for a state legislator, or anyone in a position of public responsibility.


Local election influences

Local elections, like those last week in Idaho cities and school districts, often are decided because of local considerations and concerns. A city mayor or school board member may be long-established and uncontroversial and thereby win another term, or may be the subject of hot debate (for good reason or not) and be dropped by the voters.

Some other patterns do turn up, though, and one this year in Idaho and other places involves candidates promoted by far-right groups or local Republican Party organizations. In last week’s elections in Idaho, quite a few of these candidates didn’t succeed.

These cases, all involving offices officially non-partisan, involve different kinds of stories.

The Boise mayoral contest, for example, had partisan overtones. The city has become increasingly blue over the last couple of decades, and the incumbent mayor, Lauren McLean, has long been identified as a Democrat. Her opponent, Mike Masterson, has said he formerly was a Republican but is no longer; nonetheless, an informal R seemed attached to his name as a D was to McLean’s.

All other factors aside - many concerns and issues were raised, and some may have affected a number of votes - the vote McLean received is not far off from what most credible Democratic candidates normally receive in the city. Seen in that way, Boise followed a partisan pattern.

Although the state’s second-largest city, Meridian, is a far more Republican place, the dynamic actually looked similar. Mayor Robert Simison, like McLean seeking a second term, has been relatively centrist and mostly uncontroversial. His chief opponent, Mike Hon, described himself: “I’m a conservative. And I think Meridian is mostly a conservative place. So that’s why we want to focus on family values.” Simison won with about  70% of the vote.

There aren’t many other large population centers around the state where the dynamic works that way. But an informal R label this election proved less useful for a number of candidates than it often did in recent years when, for example, candidates for the North Idaho College Board and the West Bonner School District board have ridden those endorsements to wins.

In the West Ada School District, two incumbents, Rene Ozuna and David Binetti, were challenged by well-funded challengers with strong local Republican connections. Both incumbents won, however.

The Idaho Ed News reported that the two highest profile contests for the Coeur d’Alene School Board resulted in losses for the two candidates supported by the Kootenai County Republican Central Committee; the two winners apparently (to judge from their fundraising and lists of supporters) appear to have gone into the contest with eyes open and strong organization.

The story was similar with the Coeur d'Alene city council election; one observer snarked, “Frankly, after this, maybe #idgop #KCRCC should persist in "rating and vetting" and producing lists of candidates to put in front of voters. It's the kiss of death.”

In Nampa, the connections to party organizations are thinner, but you can suss them out. In one faceoff, Stephanie Binns, an educator, took what would look like the Democratic side on hot issues, and contractor Jay Duffy took the Republican side; Binns won with 60% of the vote. In the other hot race in the district, the result went the other way, though the “informal R” got just 51%, in a very Republican community.

On the eastern side of the state, results in the Idaho Falls School District were strikingly similar.

In Caldwell, all three incumbents, facing challenges from the right, prevailed.

You can cite countervailing examples, but the number of centrist winners in this week’s contests were notable and may amount to a serious pattern.

There’s been talk over the last year of more centrist voters, groups and candidates pushing back against the strong campaigns from the right. Such efforts succeeded at the community college board level (in some places, not all). And they may have succeeded again this November.


The dam fight at thirty-something

When the Snake River Basin Adjudication was begun in 1987, no one expected it would be completed quickly. Water adjudications in western states often have taken decades, and the SRBA may have been the largest ever, covering six figures worth of water rights across almost nine-tenths of Idaho.

Nonetheless, it has been completed - at least in general terms - and it only took a remarkably brief 26 years.

That bit of history prowled around the back of my mind this week when I saw the latest court developments in the legal action aimed at breaching the four lower Snake River dams, located in southeastern Washington state. The dams are the Lower Granite (closest to the Idaho border), the Little Goose, the Lower Monumental and the Ice Harbor (near the confluence with the Columbia River).

The news involves a delay in further developments, which is to say, another in a long list of delays of anything resembling final action. Specifically, the parties involved asked the court for another 45 days to negotiate, following up on an earlier delay of 60 days.

Those are a pittance. The legal action over the four dams started in 1993, which means attorneys have been kept busy on the subject for 30 years - three years longer than it took to adjudicate the highly complex and contentious water rights across most of Idaho.

It’s hard to conceive that there’s much new left to talk about.

The issues associated with the dams (and I’m not going to try to relitigate them all here) mainly concern preservation of declining salmon runs on one hand, and the electric power the dams generate, and concerns about impacts on commercial river traffic (you’ll hear this a lot at Lewiston) on the other. Environmental, tribal and some governments have been on one side, and a number of federal agencies, economic interests and others have filled the other. The region, and many of its top elected officials, have been split - and within the parties as well as between them.

One report from the University of Washington said “Despite research and knowledge of the effects of the LSRDs on salmon and steelhead populations, river ecology, and tribal sovereignty there remains resistance at the state and federal level. The barrier to remove the LSRDs for Governor [Jay] Inslee (D) of Washington is the fact that the dams produce renewable energy, recreational, and economic benefits. However, both Gov. Inslee and Senator [Patty Murray] have been open to exploring the possibility of removing the dams if the benefits and services the dams create can be replaced by alternatives.”

Yale School of the Environment noted that over the last three decades, “On at least five occasions, federal judges ordered the agencies to consider removing the lower Snake River dams, and each time the agencies responded with delay and diversions, once going so far as to call the dams immutable parts of the landscape⁠ and therefore not subject to the Endangered Species Act.”

Neither side seems inclined to quit.

Still, after 30 years, the context of the legal battle has changed, and the changes may suggest where this is heading.

First, in the last decade, the debate has taken place in the context of demolition of a number of other dams in the region.

Second, the dams need repairs if they're going to continue in service, and that will be costly.

Third, renewable energy, notably solar and wind,has taken off in a big way in the inland Northwest, and the argument that the dams are needed for their electric power generation has become less central in the debate.

It could be that if the parties come to accept some of the trend lines, and not just the starting and hoped-for ending points, the case could be resolved before another 30 years has passed.


Check these people out

You can find plenty of news stories about the ongoing and upcoming elections for local government - mainly city and school district elections. Call it a good thing that information still is out there, but voters need more.

In most places, the interest level, and discussion of serious candidate differences, seems low, and that may relate to too little detailed information.

We need more, because the consequences can be serious.

Consider the Wednesday editorial in the Coeur d’Alene Press, describing its contest for the Most Inept Board - elected public governing board, that is - in the region.

“Heading into the homestretch,” it said, “the trustee majorities at North Idaho College and the Community Library Network, both featuring Kootenai County Republican Central Committee-anointed ‘leaders’, are neck and neck for the Most Inept Board Award.” Whoever wins the MID, the editorial concluded, “The public will be declared the clear loser.”

They might have added for consideration the West Bonner School District board, which has two incumbent members trying to do their jobs but being blocked by a third member who has been skipping meetings and thereby denying the board a quorum. (This is the same board where two members, who were allied with the no-show guy, recently were recalled for their actions on the board.)

It can happen anywhere, and has happened in many places, and often does when many citizens get tired or discouraged tracking what’s happening, and figuring out which candidates will carry out their jobs responsibly and which won’t.

It requires some work.

One assist, which not nearly enough voters tend to use on their own, is checking campaign finance reports. Yes, you can easily find out who’s underwriting campaigns, and that can tell you a lot about what priorities really are at stake.

The Idaho Ed News reported this week, “Even in some of the state’s biggest school districts, Nov. 7’s trustee elections remain a mixed bag — a mishmash of spendy races and sleepy races, often within the same district. Three of Idaho’s largest and fastest growing school districts — West Ada, Kuna and Caldwell — illustrate the effect money is having, and isn’t having, on races for volunteer trustee seats.”

A good example is the pair of races in the West Ada School District - Idaho’s largest - in districts 4 and 5. The incumbents in those districts, David Binetti and Rene Ozuna, are both running, but they’re being significantly outspent by two allied challengers, Miguel De Luna and Tom Moore (respectively). Moore can afford to self-fund his campaign to a reported $50,000, and is helping fund De Luna's campaign as well.

Ozuna remarked the spending is “super concerning to me. I’m not sure why anybody would put that kind of money into that.”

As to the why, look to the joint Moore-De Luna web page under the label “conservatives for West Ada,” which lists goals mostly anodyne but with a few callouts to the base: “Supporting Idaho's Conservative Family Values, Advocating for Parental Rights to Participate in the Education Process.”

On the Ada County Republican Party web site (yes, they’re involved in this election too) Moore also included the intriguing comment, “The district must look at school security measures from physical attacks but also from the re-education and with help from you we can do this to protect all kids.” He didn’t explain what “the re-education” is.

In all, the tone sounds like an echo of the boards from the Idaho Panhandle, and if the money invested is as large as it is here, you tend to expect the results are intended to be outsized too.

A few admittedly vague comments and some larger-than-usual spending aren’t, of course, dispositive in the cases of Moore or De Luna or for that matter other candidates. But they are ample cause for a closer look.

Of course, cities are critical in this season’s elections as well, and Boise, Meridian and Nampa are among the cities with lively campaigns underway.

Take a little time to do your homework before marking those ballots. It could save some serious grief later.


Stronger motivations

The Idaho Republican Party has made a regular practice of taking shots at Republican members of the state’s congressional delegation, but now they’re firing at a delegation member whose gutsy actions have the effect of helping - or trying to - the Republican Party nationally.

To see that, though, you have to expand your field of vision a little beyond Idaho, to the places where Republicans are not so entrenched that “too extreme” actually is a political problem.

This last week Representative Mike Simpson voted, twice, to elevate Republican House Majority Leader Steve Scalise to speaker, the state party organization was outraged, all but writing him out of the party for not voting instead for the bomb-throwing Representative Jim Jordan, one of the most controversial politicians in the country.

From the party’s statement: “We urge our Congressman to reconsider his position and refocus his efforts on addressing the significant issues confronting our constituents — rather than waste his time engaging in protest votes and parliamentary delay tactics. The people of Idaho expect Mike Simpson to represent their concerns and prioritize their needs above political games and partisan divisions.”

Riotously rich, of course, since “protest votes and parliamentary delay tactics” - as for example Jordan’s efforts to block confirmation of the 2020 presidential election vote and his refusal to this day to accept those results - long have been Jordan's stock in trade, along with explosive red-meat rhetoric.

Simpson has been (as this is written on Thursday) one of about a score of Republican house members blocking Jordan's rise to the speakership. The group draws from various segments of the Republican caucus, and the no votes seem to have varied motivations.

Congressional veteran Simpson has become a highly effective legislator working closely for many years with House Republican leadership. He is an institutionalist who clearly loves the U.S. House of Representatives, and as such on the far end of the spectrum from Jordan. He is on the House Appropriations Committee, one of the powerful “cardinals,” who as a group are protective of the budgeting process and concerned about what Jordan might do to it. A number of House appropriators, including the committee chair, are in the anti-Jordan group.

In a tweet, Simpson said he thought Scalise was the right choice for  speaker, but added, “Intimidation and threatening tactics do not - and will not - work.” Others among the antis have made similar comments. A number of the anti-Jordan voters have been getting death threats, to themselves, their families and their staff.

Simpson’s stand will doubtless encourage another primary challenge from the right. Simpson’s tweet (and his votes) draw responses like this one: “Steve Scalise is not even running you RINO. You have made it clear that you don’t care about your constituents and the reason you were elected. You are a representative. Do your dam job and stop playing games. Enjoy your last term in Congress.”

But one additional element of motivation (decisions like this one usually have a whole matrix of factors) for Simpson, however, could be political in a sense beyond his personal interest.

He might be thinking about another one of the score of antis, the one whose district is geographically closest to his if far removed politically: Representative Lori Chavez-DeRemer, a freshman Republican from Oregon, representing a district south of Portland, and one of the four or five most vulnerable Republican House members.

Her district has a slight Democratic tilt, in spite of which she narrowly won election in 2022. Since then she has been making the right moves toward winning a second term. She is facing a strong Democratic challenge (three first-rank contenders, one of whom beat Chavez-DeRemer twice previously in state legislative races) and she can afford no missteps. But her national party has been providing plenty of those, and Democrats in Oregon have been beyond eager to pounce.

You can multiply DeRemer’s case by a couple of dozen seats nationally.

The Idaho Republican Party may be disinterested in whether Republicans nationally fare well in next year’s elections, but it might just be that Simpson is bearing it in mind.

One more thing that should be said as a matter of motivation: The hard core doesn’t get to call Simpson a “squish” any more. He’s one of those showing some actual backbone.


Once a forgotten valley

Some decades ago, several of Idaho’s lightly-populated places were tucked away in valleys out of sight, and often out of mind, of the state’s larger population centers. For a long time, on the eastern edge of Idaho, the Teton Valley - which is approximately the same thing as Teton County - was one of them.

It hasn’t been for a while. And before long, it may become one of Idaho’s better-known places.

Half a century ago, around the time I first saw it, the valley and its three small communities - Driggs, Victor and Tetonia - looked like they were on a downward slump. They were farming and ranching places almost cut off from the rest of the world, with little additional economic base. Their link to the rest of the state was an obscure state highway; a long-running passenger train that once provided a range of communication, transportation and economic advantages to the valley was long gone.

Part of the reason for the isolation was and is highly visible on the western skyline: The craggy Teton Mountains. They’re also the reason things have changed, and may be changing a lot more.

In 1970, after decades of stagnant or declining population, the county’s census figure stood at 2,351. Then it exploded, especially in this new century, and in 2020 was reported at 11,630, one of Idaho’s few small counties to see such large population gains.

The reason is clear enough, and its future prospects evident, on the other side of the Teton Mountains over in Teton County, Wyoming, home of Jackson. (The two counties now form a single micropolitan demographic district).

That Wyoming city’s population (not counting the areas around it) has tracked almost exactly with Teton County, Idaho, for the last half-century. (Jackon’s population in 2020 was 10,760). Jackson has become a major national resort and vacation center, home of a leading national ski resort at Grand Targhee (plus other local skiing opportunities), a place frequented by celebrities (one of the central national economic conferences each year is held there). It also has become an expensive place and strained by the growth.

And the growth - not just in the recent past but also in the near future - knows where it wants to go: 24 miles on Highways 22 and 33 over the mountains to Victor and Driggs, which have been growing fast.

What makes this pertinent now is new reports about expansions at Jackson and at Grand Targhee.

The website The Manual reports that “Grand Targhee resort’s expansion — just twelve miles from the town — intends to add an extra 30% to its current skiing and snowboarding terrain. Building work has already begun on Tributary, a luxury home community complete with a 1500-acre golf course, with 92 houses already built and another 20-30 planned each year. On top of this, there is talk of a three-year plan to open a 120-room Marriot Element hotel on Driggs’ main street.”

The growth in Idaho’s Teton Valley does not seem to be over. Idaho’s side of the Tetons has for decades now been closely reflecting activity on the Wyoming side, and there’s no reason to expect that to stop.

If residents are sometimes concerned about how that may affect their small community, they have reason. The cost of living, and property, has shot through the roof.

A quick word about politics in this area: It is quite different from politics generally in Idaho or Wyoming. In Idaho’s Teton, Democrat Joe Biden won for president with 52.3 percent of the vote, and while Republican Donald Trump won there in 2016, he prevailed by only eight votes. (Biden and, in 2016, Hillary Clinton won by large margins on the Wyoming side.) In an ocean of political red, the two Tetons are an island of bluish purple.

It’s still a small slice of Idaho overall, of course. But as one of the fastest-growing, and maybe about to grow even faster, it merits some attention.