• 100 Influential Idahoans 2015
You can find it all here in the Pacific Northwest - much of the nation's most beautiful places, some appallingly trashed-out areas; politics running from just about as far left to just about as far right as anywhere in the country; economies of all sorts from the highly prosperous to the dying. It's all here.
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

You can catch a few themes in this.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I remain surprised at the massive turnout for a legislative hearing on climate change (the March 17 column): “Who would have guessed that the biggest turnout for an Idaho legislative hearing this year would come on the subject of climate change? It was all the more surprising because there’s no active Idaho legislation specifically on the subject this year — nothing moving through the system.” Will it repeat in 2018? And – a point prompted by a January 6 column: Whatever happened to the ballot petition aimed at treating abortion as murder?

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

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The U.S. Senate election in Alabama on Tuesday settled not only the identity of that state’s new senator but also some open-ended questions about polls.

There’s Idaho resonance in that, since polling results lately have become a topic of discussion in the Gem state as they are elsewhere.

Several writers, including me, have been contacted about the results of a recent poll on the Republican nomination contest for Idaho governor. That poll showed the three-way race fairly close, with a high level of undecideds. (The latter point was the main focus of my column.)

The poll has been criticized since by one of the campaigns. I’ll not get into the weeds on that here (and circle around as to why), but it is good reason to talk a little about political polls . . . since we’ll surely be hearing more rather than less about them, locally and beyond, in the coming year.

Polls can be highly useful political tools, a good way to tell any candidate where they are and, especially, what they need to do, mainly in the case of well-run and highly detailed polls. Those pollsters who keep you on the phone for a longer time with more questions are likely to produce polls of more value to somebody.

But there are all kinds of somebodies, and of pollsters, and differentiating between them isn’t always easy. My website has a simple one-question opt-in poll which is fun to watch, but I make no pretensions about its scientific accuracy. When I worked for the newspaper in Pocatello, it used an informal supermarket poll – people who came by the store could “vote a ballot” – and we’d report the results. For local elections, it often proved remarkably accurate, though it would have passed no tests for professional standards.

Mainly, what you see are independent and candidate polls. Independent polls often are run by news media (though much less often than they once were) and sometimes other organizations, including interest groups. Candidate polls are, as you might expect, run for the use of candidates, who sometimes figure they have reason to release them, or release part of them, to the public.

Both kinds of polls can have issues. Usually, I tend to pay more attention to independent polls for two reasons. The more obvious is that campaigns tend to release results that are beneficial to themselves, and only those. The less obvious is that some pollsters will provide feel-good results to candidates whose business they would like to have; it’s not a common-place marketing tactic and many professional pollsters are careful not to do it, but it does happen: I’ve seen it. Independent polls can be subject to their own problems. Since money often is an object, some independent polls (not all) can wind up with cost-cutting that reduces their accuracy.

And any of these polls can vary by the way they’re conducted. Do they rely on telephone contacts or opt-in online surveys? Do they account for the change to cells phones, and if so, how? These elements and many more matter a lot.

Those are some of the reasons one independent poll in the Alabama race showed one candidate ahead by about nine points in one poll, and another poll showed the other ahead by 10. Many polls also weigh their results to match demographic (gender, race and other elements) of a population. One pollster showed how, in that Alabama race, you could shift those assumptions, each time in a plausible way, and drastically shift the poll’s bottom line outcome. It took the same polling data and applied a different filter to give of the two Senate candidates a big lead, depending on which assumptions were adopted.

So what to do? Best thing to do is to balance or average out the results from a bunch of polls, and recent history shows this tends to yield closely accurate results.

The catch in Idaho, of course, is that polling is sparse. There are neither a lot of polls nor a lot of providers. That creates a problem in depending on them. It’s why I was willing to use just one poll in writing that earlier column: There’s not a lot else available. But I’d be a lot more comfortable talking about Idaho poll results if there were.
 

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When we talk about how to make our communities grow – and the state, and the nation – we often get fuzzy. Ideology tends to take over, and it seldom teaches us much.

We learn a good deal from hard, concrete data, and in Idaho’s case there’s a load of it in a new multi-volume history book project just out from the Association of Idaho Cities, edited and partly written by former legislator Hal Bunderson. (Disclosure: I am the publisher.) The books in the series called Idaho’s 200 Cities – one each for the north, swouthwest and east regions of the state, plus three books of trivia questions and answers – include about 1,600 pages of fine grain detail about the founding and development of each of Idaho’s cities, from Boise to barely-there Warm River.

The sections that most grabbed my attention were those in each city’s chapter called “turning points.” In these, each city outlined what development, for good or ill, most contributed to developing the city in the direction it ultimately went, especially those that founded it and set it on its course. These sections were contributed by the cities themselves.

The most influential simple development by far, to judge from the number of times it was listed as the top or second turning point, was the arrival or departure of the railroad. We look at railroads now and tend not to see them as especially basic elements of most communities. But they once were.

Some Idaho communities are well known even today as railroad towns, such as Nampa, Pocatello and Shoshone. We don’t often associate any more most small and rural communities with an important rail presence. But places like Spencer and Leadore, Donnelly, Arimo, Parma,Troy, New Meadows, Ferdinand, Homedale, Kooskia, Glenns Ferry, Fruitland, Stites, Acequia, Cambridge, Tensed, Oldtown, Moyie Springs, Midvale, Mountain Home, Huetter, Bliss, Rathdrum all said the railroad’s arrival was central to their existence. Blackfoot “owes its origins to the Utah and Northern Railroad.” Clark Fork “had its origins as a railroad town.” Caldwell “had its origins as a railroad town.” And on and on.

Sun Valley too, and not just because of the Harriman family connection in founding the resort there.

Even in places like Moscow, where the University of Idaho was soon to be a major shifting point, railroad was listed as the initial turning point,

What was in a distant second place after the railroad? Acts of Congress, mainly the Desert Land Act, the Homestead Act, the Dawes Severalty Act and (especially in the Magic Valley and the Carey Act, for expanding irrigation. Many of the Magic Valley and southwestern Idaho communities called these pivotal, even above the railroads.

State laws relating to alcohol and gambling were the specific reasons a number of cities, including Chubbuck, Garden City and Island Park, were created. Forts were the main reason Boise and Coeur d’Alene grew where they did. For the 43 cities which are county seats (little Murphy in Owyhee County is unincorporated), those government offices were highly important too.

Developing resource industries were critical components too, of course. Mining was the pivot for a number of mainly mountain communities (Salmon, Bellevue, Hailey, Pierce, Idaho City and the Silver Valley communities among them). And similarly, sawmills were the seed for a number of others, such as McCall, Elk River, East Hope, Winchester and Cascade.

But most of Idaho’s cities, like many cities elsewhere, were planted or designated by outside forces, a national railroad or federal government, as much or more as they were by local people. An uneasy reality, but worth pondering as Idahoans plan for their communities in the generations to come.
 

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If I were managing the campaign of one of the Republican gubernatorial candidates – or of those in the first congressional district – I’d be heavily concerned about what the polls aren’t showing.

Which is to say, the people who haven’t yet decided.

Start with how long these campaigns have been going on already: A long time.

Lieutenant Governor Brad Little announced a year and a half ago, in June 2016. Developer Tommy Ahlquist announced in February of this year – about 10 months ago. Representative Raul Labrador announced in May, about half a year ago, but he was widely thought likely to run well before that, and long considered kind of a candidate-in-waiting alongside the others.

Over most of this year, the candidates have been campaigning as if election day were two weeks away. Between town meetings, candidate forums, advertising and more, this is a lot like the kind of campaigning you’d expect to see just before the season is winding up (instead of still half a year yet to go). And not only that: They have had the field to themselves. These candidates haven’t had to compete with attention for candidates for president or Congress. All the political oxygen has gone to them.

Point being, these candidates have had an ideal opportunity to soak up as much support as possible in these last few months. If politically-interested Idahoans haven’t made up their minds about them by now … well, just what are they waiting for?

That’s the leadup to the new poll from Idaho Politics Weekly (of Zions Bank) which shows Little getting 21 percent support, Labrador 17 percent and Ahlquist 14 percent. Those numbers taken by themselves simply indicate a competitive race. But all three are far behind the top-runner: Don’t Know, which pulls 36 percent support.

If I were campaign manager for any of these candidates, I’d be devoting a lot of thought to answering the question of what exactly these people need to know to let loose of their support.

The situation in the first congressional district, where Labrador is leaving an open seat and room for a pile of candidates, is a little different but similar enough to draw some related conclusions.

There, former Lieutenant Governor David Leroy announced in May (about as soon as Labrador shifted to the governor’s race), and former legislator Russell Fulcher entered the next month, but after having spent the months since August 2016 running for governor. Legislator Luke Malek joined the contest in August, and others have been in for a while too. Idahoans certainly have had plenty of opportunity by now, in December, to figure out who these guys are.

In a mid-October poll (also from Idaho Politics Weekly), though, few had. The number broke at 17 percent for Leroy, nine percent for Fulcher and seven percent for Malek – but that meant more than two-thirds were undecided. (Could that have influenced the recent entry of Canyon County legislator Christy Perry?)

What does this mass of undecideds translate to? Might it be as simple as: “Ain’t time yet to vote, so don’t bother me”? Unexcitement about the candidates? Actual lack of needed information?

That last doesn’t seem likely. But figuring out the answer to who wins the primary may co0me out of figuring out the right cause of all those undecideds.

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On his Facebook stream, first district congressional candidate Russ Fulcher, of Meridian, has posted an item noting he has always lived in that district. And: “Fun Fact: Russ Fulcher’s family has lived in what is now Idaho’s first Congressional District since 1886, four years before Idaho became a state.”

He is making more than a biographical point. His chief opponent, former attorney general and lieutenant governor David Leroy, currently lives outside the district. Leroy is not far from it; he lives in Boise, just not the portion now carved into the first. He has lived in the first before, and has said he plans to maintain a residence inside the first.

But from Fulcher’s implicit point – I’m a resident of the district, and he isn’t – two ideas emerge.

The first is, you don’t have to live in the CD to represent it. You do have to live in the same state. The U.S. Constitution, which sets only a few requirements for serving in the House (at least 25 years old and a United States citizen for seven years) does require a person to “be an Inhabitant of that State in which he shall be chosen.” State yes, but being in the same district, no.

The issue came up this spring in the high-profile House race for an open seat in Georgia, where Democrat Jon Ossoff famously lived several miles outside his suburban Atlanta district. No one charged he couldn’t legally serve, but the point about his living elsewhere was hammered around persistently through the campaign.

Several months ago, the Washington Post researched congressional residences and found 20 incumbent members of Congress who live outside their districts. In some cases a member originally elected from a district where he was a resident, saw the district boundaries shifting away, and opted not to run in the district which now included his house. In some cases it becomes no big issue, and in others candidates have lost races at least partly because of it. Specifics matter.

The newest member of the House from Washington state, Pramila Jayapal, lived about two miles outside the district she was running to represent when she was elected; it wasn’t a big issue there. Then there was Oregon’s Delia Lopez, a resident of the small rural community of Oakland, about 150 miles south of Portland. She was running to represent Oregon’s third district, which mostly is central urban Portland, about two hours by freeway from her house. She lost overwhelmingly, though the fact that she was a Republican in a district even more Democratic than Idaho is Republican, also had a lot to do with it.

Lopez’ case was like, in Idaho terms, someone living in Arco running for the first district, which runs along the west side of the state from Canada to Nevada. There’s not much connection.

Leroy’s case is a little different. Boise, in whole or in part, has been within the Idaho first congressional district for half a century. Boiseans are legally divided between the districts but as a more practical matter they have a foot in each of them. Leroy’s first district credentials are in reasonable order: He grew up in Lewiston, attended the University of Idaho at Moscow and has lived in the 1st at various points through his decades of residence in Boise. And he ran for the 1st district seat once before, in 1994 (when he lost the Republican nomination to Helen Chenoweth).

Of course, in a thinly divided and closely contested contest, as this one is shaping up to be, every issue matters. Including the matter of ten or fifteen minutes travel time.

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A few years ago when I put together a list of the 100 most influential Idahoans, Boise State University President Robert Kustra ranked at number eight. Some people thought that was a little high; but others might have edged him higher yet.

University of Idaho President Chuck Staben and Idaho State University President Arthur Vailas made the list too, and some other higher ed leaders (like Tony Fernandez at Lewis-Clark State College) were contenders.

Why are they such critical figures in the state, and so influential? That has partly to do with them as individuals (especially in Kustra’s case) but more the impact of these institutions, not just involving the thousands of people they employ and who are students there, but the sweeping outreach they have across the state. The University of Idaho, for example, has programs and activities all over Idaho, not just in Moscow (or Boise). The others are far-flung too, and so are the state’s community colleges. The leader of one of these organizations can create major ripple effects, of one sort or another, all over the state.

That’s worth some reflection now, with the news that BSU’s Kustra has announced his retirement next summer, after 15 years in charge.

He has been a big factor in Idaho. Part of the reason is Boise State as such, since it is an urban university in a rapidly-growing area, with a fast-expanding student base.

But some of it is personal. He has deep political skills and experience (he is a former lieutenant governor of Illinois) and a strong sense of public relations and community visibility, together with ambition for his institution: It has grown explosively, and the Kustra years will be remembered too as glory years for Bronco football. The growth of BSU in recent years surely is attributable to some degree to Kustra. The specifics surrounding a university president can matter.

So it matters that this is a time of transition in that regard. Kustra is not the only one on the move.

ISU’s Vailas said in August that he will retire next year (within a few days, it turns out, of Kustra’s departure). The UI’s Staben, the newcomer of the three with his arrival in 2014, caused a stir a few weeks ago when word came that he was a finalist for president of the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. (It didn’t pan out.) The stir was all the louder because Stabem had said when he arrived at Moscow that he hoped to spend 10 to 15 years there, and appeared to view it as his last career stop. (UI had five presidents in the 10 years before Staben’s hiring.)

And at LCSC, Fernandez is retiring next year too, on the same day as Vailas.

Idaho’s higher education may be going through some changes in the next few years. (Remember, it’ll soon be dealing with a new governor as well.)

I’ve argued for some years that the extensive recruitment process and the levels of compensation for university presidents both are overdone. (More institutions could probably gain more of the stability they look for, and all the competence they need, by promoting from within.)

But that doesn’t mean a change in university presidents doesn’t matter. Someone like Kustra, to name just one, can show easily how significant the choice can be.

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The Tuesday elections nationally were a wonderland for analysts trying to draw Large Conclusions and Sweeping Messages. (And some of them even may have been warranted, alongside the proper notes that every election is its own specific kind of animal.)

In Idaho, there wasn’t a lot to see apart from local concerns. In this off-year election, dominated by municipal contests, all politics really was local, and not a lot of larger conclusions really are available.

It helps in saying that to point out nothing partisan was on the ballot in Idaho: “Republican” and “Democratic” labels were nowhere to be seen on the ballot. City elections in Idaho are nonpartisan – though, as news watchers know, that isn’t the case in every state, and thought in a few places (Boise most notably) there was a partisan underlay to the campaigns.

For the most part, voters made their decisions based mainly on people as individuals, conditions in local communities and the merits of various ballot issues, mainly financial. And they reached widely varying conclusions, mostly undramatic.

For the most part, for example, Idaho incumbents did okay. Pocatello’s mayor was easily re-elected, and so were Caldwell’s and Moscow’s; none of those were surprises, though the Moscow contest was lively. Similarly expected: The snoozefest at Coeur d’Alene, with lots of unopposed incumbents (a true rarity in the Lake City) including the mayor, all of whom stayed undisturbed on election day. The one council incumbent on the ballot in Boise won easily, and the other two seats went to well-established community leaders (one of them a former legislator). Only one of those Boise seats featured a reasonably close contest.

But just enough exceptions cropped up to disturb the narrative.

Idaho Falls Mayor Rebecca Casper easily out-distanced state legislator Jeff Thompson, who for a while had the look of a close contender, but she wound up short of an outright win, and now faces a runoff against another candidate. Voters in Burley chose a new mayor by the lopsided vote of 616 to 155.

Then there were the ballot issues.

The two premier ballot questions on Tuesday were based geographically close to each other, a massive $110 million school bond issue (for high school renovation) at Idaho Falls, and a proposal in Bingham County that it join the new eastern Idaho community college district. Both failed decisively. (The Idaho Falls district likely will see a trailer ballot measure coming up in a few months.) The Bingham rejection was a little unexpected; a good deal of community support to join the community college district, just created next door by a big voter margin, seemed substantial. But not substantial enough.

The concerns about those seemed to revolve, respectively, around the school renovation plans more than the money, and about the prospects for a tax increase. IdahoEdNews suggested, “District officials said the plan grew out of months of meetings with patrons, and would give the taxpayers the best value for their money. Critics said they didn’t want to see the district gut Idaho Falls high — which sits in the heart of an older section of the city — and said the district misled voters by saying the bond issue would not trigger a tax increase.”

But the whole dynamic in each case will have to be sorted out in weeks to come.

On the other side of southern Idaho, however, a number of school issues did pass — and statewide, according to IdahoEdNews, $92.7 million in school finance issues won sufficient voter approval. Those included big levies in Caldwell and Nampa.

So in all, not a lot of takeaways here for the next round of elections … a whole year away.

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I happen to live in a small town, population about 2,000; one which is not gentrifying – in the way a Ketchum or a Driggs has – but is prospering.

That puts it in a minority position.

A century ago, about three out of five Americans lived in rural places; now about one of five does. Agriculture that provided work for about half of Americans back then now employs around one in fifty. Back then, basic service businesses from drug stores and hardware shops to movie theaters were out of reach if they were 10 miles away; now they’re a short or moderate drive at two or three times that distance. And economies of scale allow for lower prices and faster and more specialized service in larger rather than smaller population centers.

The state Department of Labor population report from May found that 30 of Idaho’s 200 cities lost population in the last decade and 20 more were unchanged. These communities are relatively small and rural.

Anyone who’s been around a small town in Idaho probably can recall when businesses like those I just described, and a bunch of others, were right there on Main Street. Now, in many small towns, not a lot is left beyond a small grocery, a service station and a few other service businesses.

No one really wants it that way. But is there an alternative?

A great article just out from High Country News (at http://www.hcn.org/articles/state-of-change-why-save-the-small-town) tackles that question, focusing on the rural town of Questa, New Mexico, where nearly all the mining jobs that once sustained the town are gone, and nothing seems to be moving in to replace them. The question becoming: What’s next for Questa, a future as a ghost town … or something else?

The article quoted Bruce Weber, director of the Rural Studies Program at Oregon State University, as saying, “Some of the smaller towns will disappear, because they aren’t needed anymore. Cities will continue to grow faster than rural places because there are economic advantages to being in places that are densely populated.”

But the situation is not hopeless.

The HCN article also points out, for example, “Simply put, the argument goes like this: This country will always need food and energy. As long as rural places supply the land where food grows and energy is produced, communities will need to exist to support the people working there. In other words, even if some agricultural or energy communities shrink, they can’t all go away.”

There’s that, but other options may be available too. Those enhanced communications and transportation capabilities that pulled economic life blood out of many small towns could replenish them. Affordable housing is another small-town advantage; cities like Boise increasingly are reporting a serious lack of housing for lower income levels. My little town has internet links as good a those of most metro areas, which means I need not be in the middle of a metro to stay in touch. (The work I do every day now could not have been done in this town a generation ago.)

Those improved transportation links can also cut in both directions: People in rural areas don’t have to be far away, in a meaningful sense, from top-level goods and services.

Solutions sometimes can be found on the flip side of a problem. So it may be for small communities.

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