• 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.
 

stapiluslogo1

Right now, before the Idaho Legislature gets too deep into working through what will be considered, passed or rejected this session, time seems right for a review of the policy preferences of the people of Idaho.

When we do, we’ll have a benchmark for the end of the session: How closely did the Legislature’s decisions, and the subjects it addressed, match the views of Idahoans?

Strictly, of course, the people of Idaho collectively don’t get to deliver a State of the State address, or something similar. But you can derive a rough equivalent, in priorities and preferences, from the Idaho Public Policy Survey.

This is the annual poll of 1,000 Idaho adults conducted toward the end of each year. (The whole thing can be found at sps.boisestate.edu/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Official-2017-State-Survey-Report.pdf.) Polls aren’t perfect, of course, but Boise State University has deep experience in running these, and the results tend to match from year to year. It seems at least roughly realistic.

The top agenda item for Idahoans, according to the poll, was the same as in Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter’s State of the State: Public schools.

“For the second consecutive year, Idahoans identify education as the most important issue facing the state, with 26.5% saying that it is the most pressing issue (compared to 28.2% in 2016),” the report said. No great surprise there, though there was also this about a related area often ignored by the legislature: “Another source of educational opportunities – the state’s public libraries – received high marks, however. 82.8% agree that the libraries in their communities create educational opportunities for people of all ages, while 81.7% consider the library in their community a good resource for access to information and other technological resources. These figures are consistent across all groups, with respondents in northern Idaho the most favorably disposed toward public libraries.”

The second biggest concern, well ahead of anything else: “The results … indicate that the issue area with greatest increase in public concern is health care policy. 70.5% of Idahoans scored health care at least an 8 when asked how important it was, on a scale of 1-10, for the state legislature to address, an 11.2% increase from last year. The number of respondents giving health care a 10 (i,e., the highest level of importance possible) increased by 12.7% from 2016, further underscoring the fact that the public views health care as an area deserving of the state legislature’s attention.”

In recent years, the legislature’s biggest health concern seems to have been an obsession with not doing anything proposed by the federal government. We’ll see if its interest expands at all this session.

Transportation has been a topic of contention in several recent sessions. The public’s take? “Transportation also saw some change as there was a slight increase (+3.7%) in those who felt addressing transportation issues was moderately important (i.e., 4-7) and a significant decrease (-7.9%) in those stating addressing transportation was not very important.”

On another subject of much discussion, the poll asked Idahoans what they thought of resettling refugees in Idaho. The result: “Idahoans are divided in their support of resettling refugees in Idaho; a slim majority (51.1%) favor this program, while a sizeable minority (43.8%) of citizens oppose it. However, although more citizens of Idaho favor this program, those who oppose refugee resettlement appear to feel very strongly about the matter.”

The Legislature won’t necessarily take much action on refugees, but if it does, who will it listen to?

And beyond that, how closely will the Legislature match the views of Idahoans? Watch and see.

columns

stapiluslogo1

The allegations by Idaho state Representative Heather Scott that female legislators get ahead at the Statehouse by exchange of sexual favors has continued to go viral. Last week, the speed may have slowed with her apology to the House.

Scott in any event was wrong: Her contention has never been the path to advancement for female legislators in Idaho, or I suspect many other legislatures. I’ve never heard evidence of a specific Idaho case or even a rumor of one. Affairs between legislators? That’s nothing new (though the headlines about it are a new wrinkle). Back in the 70s the reporter corps would occasionally snicker at lawmaker couples who thought they were undiscovered but weren’t. But those activities usually have held legislators back more than advanced them.

There’s also been talk that the pulling of committee assignments from Scott had to do with her ideology.

Nonsense. Ideology hasn’t been a blocking point for legislators past, or present.

Asked about moving on up, Representative Stephen Hartgen said, “I’ve been here almost 10 years. People get ahead here on the basis of merit, in my humble opinion. I’ve never seen anything that would cause me to question that premise.”

Well … Sometimes legislators do become influential on specific subjects (say, the budget, or health care, or water law) when they have a strong expertise in it. But influence at the legislature usually comes down to other things. In this cynical era, when the darkest possible explanation often is the most easily believed, a quick look at what does yield Idaho legislative influence seems in order.

Seniority, probably foremost. Most committee chairs (which generally are important posts) usually go to the senior member of the majority party who doesn’t already have another chairmanship or leadership post, or (sometimes) isn’t on the budget committee. Seniority weighs heavily on the committees.

Personality does matter, and so do personal relationships. The legislature is a little “in-a-bubble” society. Legislators learn who they can trust and who they can’t, who will come through in a tough spot and who might cave, and who is essentially decent and fair-minded and who could use a little more of those qualities. There are plenty of personal friendships in the legislature, and that can affect a lot of votes. Legislators who develop strong friendships easily can be important in the legislature, whatever their other qualities. A vote for someone to lead the caucus often comes down to those kind of personality factors: Who am I comfortable with, and who can I trust?

Sometimes the flip side can apply as well: Committee spots and other goodies sometimes have been said to be horse-traded in return for leadership votes. So a skillful deal-maker can advance as well.

What kind of group are you in? Is it large enough to have decisive influence? Democratic legislators are, in their two caucuses, part of small groups, and so often have little influence. If the majority Republicans are split, however, the Democrats’ unified caucuses can matter. The same goes for the various factions within the Republican caucuses, some of them based on personalities or backgrounds (veteran watchers still recall “Sirloin row” in the Senate) and some based around issues or ideology.

Many a veteran legislator has remarked on how the legislature is a study in people. If someone rises toward the top, or is slapped down, look there first for the explanation.

columns

stapiluslogo1

Not often, but sometimes, the old line “if you build it, they will come,” actually does pan out.

It did at the College of Western Idaho. CWI became a reality over the objections of a significant number of skeptics.

Boise was, before then, either the largest or at least one of the largest metro areas in the United States without a community college. But then, people asked, why did it need one? It already had Boise State University, which had been growing at weed levels for a quarter-century. On the private side, the College of Idaho and Northwest Nazarene College (now University) were nearby.

What was missed was the large number of people who wanted a community college, who would attend if one were available. BSU and the private colleges have needed roles, but they are relatively expensive and, for people looking for occupational training rather than a full liberal arts education, a little forbidding. There’s a big chunk of the Idaho population that hasn’t and won’t make the direct transition from high school to college.

These people had no strong political voice; they weren’t much heard from in the halls of the Statehouse. But over time the business people who lacked a force of trained workers were heard. For decades the idea of a community college floated, bobbed along, but never reached shore.

About a decade ago sufficient gravitational mass in favor of it – financial, organizational, political – pushed it ahead. (The campaign in favor featured pictures of prospective students and used the advertising tag line, “Give us a chance.”) The vote to create a new taxing district to support the college needed a two-thirds vote, and it barely passed, even with help from influential people in the area including Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter.

Back then, the thinking was that CWI would be a small institution, serving maybe a few thousand students. If it didn’t flop. Initial enrollment in 2009 was 1,100. Last year, seven years later, it hit 24,265. Don’t be surprised if that figure eventually doubles.

Okay, that’s the past. Cast your eyes now to Idaho Falls.

That eastern Idaho city does already have a college, Eastern Idaho Technical College. It’s a useful institution too, with low costs, but limited in its size and scope. Its enrollment is fewer now than CWI’s was when it opened. It needs the breadth a community college, like CWI or North Idaho College or the College of Southern Idaho, all of which have much larger enrollments (and in the latter two cases, in smaller cities), could bring.

The push to transition EITC to a community college (the College of Eastern Idaho, to round out the compass points) has been underway for a while. But now it may have gotten that added bit of momentum.

A governor’s statement that something ought to happen is by no means always enough, as any governor could tell you. But in this case it could be important. In his state of the state address last week, Otter linked the CWI experience to the push for an eastern community college in what could be a strong kickstart.

The legislature already threw in $5 million in seed money (which it did in advance of CWI, too).

Then Otter added, “Now the people of Bonneville County must decide at the polls in May whether to invest in their own future by advancing plans to provide better opportunities for students and families, for those looking to improve their career readiness, and for businesses looking to locate or expand. After seeing the difference that the College of Western Idaho has made here in the Treasure Valley, after seeing how quickly CWI has grown to meet pent-up demand for new educational opportunities, and after seeing the overwhelmingly positive response from employers, the College of Eastern Idaho campaign has my full and enthusiastic support.”

That may help push some wary voters over the line.

columns

stapiluslogo1

A new ballot petition being circulated around Idaho would put directly a question many people uneasily dance around:

Is abortion murder?

It comes from a group called Abolish Abortion Idaho (website http://www.abolishabortionid.com), based at Hayden. It calls for not repealing the 1973 Supreme Court decision Roe v. Wade, but defying it. There’s the possibility coming changes at the court could lead to a repeal anyway, but the effort here is no gray-area endeavor. It’s a frontal challenge based around the group’s core principles and, it has to be said, those of a lot of Idaho’s elected officials.

The web site argues: “Idaho Code already says that abortion is murder but that it may not be prosecuted. [This appears to be accurate.] This petition will establish equal justice for the preborn by prosecuting all who would murder them. The initiative is about equal protection under the law for preborn babies, and it eliminates the ability of a special class of people to commit a serious crime without the fear of prosecution.”

To that end the proposal would set state policy that abortion, any abortion at any stage of development, be prosecuted the same as any heinous serial killer murder you can recall. The proponents add, “There will be no exceptions for rape and incest, since the baby should never pay for the crimes of the fathers. The traditional exceptions for abortion when the life or health of the mother are threatened have been eliminated as well.”

AAI is rigorously consistent here. If you do believe abortion is murder, as so many Idaho political figures have said so clearly for so many years, then why should each provable case not be prosecuted as such? No crime, after all, is ordinarily more rigorously prosecuted than murder.

To be clear: I’m not, in this column, arguing the merits of that determination of abortion as murder. But in Idaho and around the country many politicians who have made the “abortion is murder” argument, have spent decades tinkering with the laws (to make abortion more difficult, inconvenient and expensive), while knowing that Roe v. Wade means their beliefs will never be put to the test.

The nature of the test is alluded to by AAI, but in a way you might generously call over-optimistic: “The goal of the initiative is not to punish mothers, but it is to abolish abortion. Once abortion is illegal with a severe associated penalty, we expect that very few women will ever be prosecuted under this new law.”

There are two ways to take this. If the group means to suggest little prosecution because prosecutors would rarely bring the cases, that suggests the change in law would have no teeth, and be pointless.

But if they’re suggesting the law’s intended punishment – ranging from a very long prison sentence to the death penalty – would be an effective deterrent, they’re fooling themselves. Murders of the type prosecuted now haven’t stopped, and won’t, because deep penalties are attached to them. Neither do many other heavily-punished crimes.

And if the goal “is not to punish mothers,” why not, if they’ve committed murder? You could go after doctors and nurses too (as some anti-abortion activists have in other ways). But if the law drove abortion activity away from doctors’ offices and toward other means, including self-performed abortions, how can you be rigorously in favor of legally stopping abortion without going after mothers?

This ballot issue would put the core of the question right out there. If it gets on the ballot we’ll get a chance to see what Idahoans really think about abortion – and about the consequences of following through on what has been to now mostly rhetoric.

columns