• 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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Members of the United States House of Representatives like to point to a distinction particular to their chamber: They are the only federal entity, and one of the few anywhere in government, whose members have gotten there exclusively by election. Not a single one, in all these more than 200 years, in any other way.

The vast majority of these representatives has been elected in regular even-year elections, but some got there in special elections when a member resigned or died. Several of these elections are planned around the country (one in Montana, for example) this year on occasion of the representative quitting to take a job in the Trump Administration, a common reason for a vacancy.

Idaho has never had a special election for a U.S. representative. (I refuse the word “congressman.” As a high school teacher of mine, a one-time Capitol Hill staffer, pointed out, there is no such job title.) No House member from Idaho ever has resigned during a term. Just one – ironically, a Democrat named Thomas Coffin, in 1934 – died in office; his seat remained unfilled until the next general election a few months later.

There is a procedure for a special House election in Idaho, however, and a bill aimed at adjusting it has drawn a rare veto from Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter. It also happened to be a bill opposed on the legislative floor only by Democrats, and this is not a coincidence.

The rule has been that special elections for House members were exempt from the general limitations on the number of elections during a year: A governor could call one by proclamation. The new bill would change that to limit the special election to one of the four standard election days during the year, and split it into two elections, a primary and a general. As it is now, the election is a “jungle” election, with the overall top vote-getter prevailing and winning the seat.

Neither approach is particularly sacred; various states handle it in each way. But there are implications, political and otherwise, to these decisions.

Otter (a former U.S. House member himself) said in his veto statement that “while I appreciate the desire to establish an orderly process for conducting a special election for filling a vacancy in one of Idaho’s seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, this legislation unnecessarily sacrifices timeliness for structure. … The governor now has discretion to set such elections, which should be conducted as soon as reasonably possible to ensure that Idaho’s congressional representation is not diminished for any longer than necessary. H197 could leave the state without a way of filling a U.S. House vacancy for six months or longer. That is simply unacceptable.” That’s a reasonable objection.

The current law also has another potential effect that some legislators may have considered, and not liked. Holding a primary election first, to settle on party nominees before sending them to the general election, is a way of resolving things within the party, of making the results somewhat more predictable. With Idaho’s current, single, winner-take-all election a “jungle” contest, things get unpredictable quickly. Imagine an election featuring five Republican candidates and one Democrat: even in Idaho, the Democrat would win. Or you might wind up with a Republican candidate who might not survive later for long. (Remember what happened the last time Idaho had a really big Republican primary for the U.S. House, in 2006, won by one-term Representative Bill Sali.)

Structure makes for political results, too.

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I stopped in for a check-up this week at my doctor’s office and, as I stood in the waiting area, I surveyed the patients and wondered which of them – which of us – will be able to afford a visit a year from now. When I talked with the doctor later, he seemed to wonder too.

In the last few years the portion of uninsured Americans slid to record lows, another way of saying that health care has become available to more of us – many more than a decade ago. The system is not perfect or cheap, but insured care is more affordable. The new bill being wrangled over in the U.S. House, planned for a vote this last week, would put insurance – health care – out of reach for tens of millions of Americans, and weaken or make more expensive coverage for tens of millions more.

This has gotten lots of attention around the country, but less, it seems, in debates and discussions in Congress. How are Idaho’s two House members – participants in the battle underway (as this was written Thursday evening) – framing the talk about it?

In different ways.

Raul Labrador released this (lightly edited here) as his position statement on March 8:

“Six years ago, I promised the people of Idaho that I would do everything I could to fully repeal and replace Obamacare with a healthcare system that focused on people, not programs. One built around successful health outcomes, not the bottom line of insurance companies. … I have spent the last two days studying the American Health Care Act, and unfortunately, it is not that bill. Upon its release, President Trump signaled his willingness to negotiate. I’m eager to take him up on this offer. All good legislative solutions must go through rigorous debate, and I’m willing to work with the leadership in the House, and the President, to find a solution to this critical problem. What I won’t do is break the pledge I made to the people of Idaho who sent me here to fix this. I am hopeful we can have an open and honest debate on this issue. We owe it to the people of Idaho and the nation to get it right.”

What does “get it right” mean? Right for who? What insurance would people have when they get sick? No specifics are on offer.

As of Thursday evening, Labrador said he remained opposed to the new bill, as well as the ACA. What he would rather have is unclear. Others in the “Freedom Caucus” (of which he’s a member) seem to want a simple ACA repeal, or something close to it: a return to 2009 which would, like the current bill, throw tens of millions off insurance, end coverage guarantees and return to higher increases in premiums. Would Labrador go along with that?

Mike Simpson, by profession a dentist before joining Congress, is not clearer. He like Labrador has repeatedly voted to repeal the Affordable Care Act, but as to the specifics of what should follow … He’s not released a general statement on the new proposal by House Speaker Paul Ryan as Labrador has, though a spokesman said, “it is impossible to say ‘yes’ or ‘no’ because changes are currently being made and we haven’t seen the final bill.” True; the terms of the bill seem continually up for grabs, and a House vote may happen before many of them even are analyzed. But as with Labrador, we haven’t heard much about specifics.

Simpson, who has been close to House leadership for some years, also was quoted by National Public Radio: “One of the reasons I don’t want this bill to fail is I don’t want Paul to fail.”

I doubt that the people in physician waiting rooms in Idaho Falls and Nampa next year will much care about Paul Ryan’s political stature. They’re more likely to be concerned about whether, or not, they can afford the health care they need.

That may be the subject of a lot of questions, for both Labrador and Simpson, in months to come.

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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.

The closest came last month when legislators voted to pull references to climate change from classroom standards in Idaho schools. At a Senate committee meeting on the subject about two dozen members of the public spoke on the standards rule, all but one in favor of retaining the references to climate change; on a party line vote, the reference was stricken. (The Senate seemed somewhat open to compromise, but the House was firm that the climate change reference must go.)

The Republican leadership and committee chairs aren’t supportive of it as a legislative initiative, so it’s just not a subject of much discussion.

At least, not until last Wednesday’s hearing at the Statehouse.

What happened then wasn’t even a hearing, exactly, not even a formal proceeding of a legislative committee. Instead, after Dell Raybould, the House Environment, Energy and Technology Committee chairman, turned down a request by Democratic Representative Ilana Rubel for a committee informational event, he agreed to allow a special meeting which was not connected to the committee, to be held in the Statehouse’s auditorium. Though no supporter of her position on the issue, he personally showed and stayed through the event. Not much of the rest of the committee seems to have appeared.

So this was an event without any official standing, untied to legislation or even any committee or even any specific proposal, and without the opportunity to speak to any governing group of legislators.

Despite all that it drew, by several reporters’ estimates, around 650 people, enough to fill the auditorium and cause building managers to open overflow rooms. It was the biggest crowd for any event in this year’s legislative session. It was among the biggest crowds any Idaho legislative event ever has drawn.

Rubel, who hosted the meeting, was quoted as saying, “This issue is not just about rising ocean levels and polar bears – it’s about crops and jobs in Idaho. Idaho’s leaders must assess the risk ahead and take steps to address it, not hide their heads in the sand.”

The crowd seemed to be mostly unified in its stand, too. To judge at least from the testimony, the push was strong for at least acknowledging the fact of climate change (you won’t find much of that kind of acknowledgement in the Idaho Legislature) and the need to plan ahead for changes that may be coming.

On one hand, the presence of a large turnout hasn’t proven especially persuasive to the Idaho Legislature up to now. As I wrote a few weeks back, large turnout on one side of an issue often has resulted in . . . exactly the opposite reaction from legislators. The “Add the Words” campaign, which has drawn large crowds, is just one example.

But the ability to draw such significant numbers for a single meeting does suggest some untapped political energy out there. Campaigns in legislative races, and ballot initiatives, could be accomplished with smaller numbers and force than that single meeting generated.

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The Idaho House has changed a subtle piece of its procedure, with – as usually is the case – mixed effects. The good are a little more obvious; the bad brings to mind legislators, one in particular, from years past.

The change is something many people probably wouldn’t notice. (Hat tip to writer Wayne Hoffman for pointing it out.) It has to do with the way votes are tallied when members of the Idaho House choose “yea” or “nay” on the floor.

When a bill (or something else to be voted upon) comes up, House members hit a button indicating a yes or no vote. The result of that is shown on an electronic board, visible to all, showing how each legislator voted, green for yes and red for no. The totals for each also are shown. This much hasn’t changed.

What has is this: Until recently, the greens and reds showed up immediately when the legislator punched the button. They could then look at the board, see who was voting how, and whether the vote was passing or failing, and if they chose, could change their vote before the speaker announced he was “locking” the vote in place. Partway through this session, however, those votes began not to show up on the board until after the “locking” had taken place. Any legislator wanting to change a vote might still be able to, but only as a part of the record and only with permission.

Is this an improvement?

On balance, it probably is. As a reporter watching House vote tallies, I used to enjoy figuring out who was voting in response to who – who was voting for something because someone else supported it, or opposing for that same reason. Some votes might be cast one way if it was clear the measure was going to pass, or fail, by a big margin – so that an individual vote might change nothing – but another way if the vote was really needed in a close call. Doing away with some of that real time information might be beneficial; it puts some onus on each legislator to prepare a bit more in advance and not rely on signals from other legislators.

But there’s another side to it, too, brought to mind by the death of one of the best legislators I call recall at the Idaho Statehouse.

He was Mike Mitchell, a Democrat from Lewiston, a beer distributor who may have had a higher profile from his run for lieutenant governor, or work as a governor’s chief of staff, or work with various state agencies. But I recall him as one of those lawmakers whose skill set was almost perfectly matched to work in the legislature.

He was unusually well prepared, especially on the more technical work; he served on the budget-writing Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, and despite being in the minority he had as much impact on the budget as the leading Republicans did. That extended to other areas too. He had extra help from college interns, who in contrast to many interns over the years got to work intensively on the details and politics of getting legislation passed. Not only Democrats but a lot of Republicans too paid Mitchell close attention when he had something to say. He was, as several people remarked after his death a week ago, a “legislator’s legislator.”

Some legislators are blowhards. Some throw their weight around. Some exploit personal connections. But some legislators, of both parties and various philosophical persuasions, are worth watching: Their vote for or against something may actually be a signal that there’s a layer to the issue at hand that isn’t immediately obvious, and maybe ought to be heeded.

Mike Mitchell reminded me of that when I heard of his passing. There is a personal level to what happens at a legislature, and sometimes that’s not all bad.

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Can it be that this far in advance, the main components of the 2018 governor’s race already are coming into view?

Last week gave us some additional clarity, and at least a preliminary picture, enough to hang some thoughts around, is emerging.

So this seems like time to take stock.

Last week, after all, was when three-term Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter confirmed he would not seek another term and would instead support his long-time lieutenant, Brad Little, for the job. That’s no surprise, of course. The probability has been against another run by Otter ever since his last one, and especially since Little announced for the office: Little would never challenge Otter in a primary. Little’s early announcement mirrored Otter’s own early-in approach, soaking up support and building organization that would be denied to other contenders. It’s sound strategy.

In some states, and at times in Idaho, all that might seem like nearly the end of the story. But Otter’s three terms has kept bottled growing pressures in the Republican party, resulting in several more serious primary prospects.

Two of those already are announced. Developer Tommy Ahlquist, who has been centrally involved in downtown Boise’s recent redevelopment but has never run for office before, said last week he will file for candidate status, and will launch a statewide tour. (That followed a complaint, from a source unknown, that he had been campaigning at Republican events while not registered as a candidate.) Business leaders without political experience have not tended to do well in top-line Idaho elections; you’ll find a string of earlier lower office elections and other political dues-paying on the resumes of nearly all of Idaho’s recent top elected officials (Otter being a good example). But every election is its own animal, precedents are made to be broken, and maybe Ahlquist stands out in a crowded field.

There’s also a former candidate for governor in the field: Russell Fulcher, the former legislator from Meridian who challenged Otter in the 2014 gubernatorial primary. He fell short then, with 44 percent of the vote, but that was in what amounted to a two-way race. If he could retain his support or even most of it, might that be enough to prevail in a three- or four-way contest? We know this much: He has been pulling together support for a second run for a long time now.

Last but surely not least: Raul Labrador, the four-term member of the U.S. House who has won with strong votes each time out, and has a firm base of support. He has not confirmed a run for governor, and could still decide otherwise, but the indicators keep pointing in that direction. (A recent one: His pushing of a congressional term limits measure, which might start to look embarrassing for a member of Congress much beyond four or five terms.) He does not seem deterred by the presence of any of the other contenders, or prospects. The probabilities at present favor his entry.

How does Little stack up here? He is broadly well-regarded (though not by everyone in the Republican Party), and will likely pick up much of the support Otter has had. But how does he fare in a strongly-contested four-way race?

Two-candidate races tend to be a lot easier to call than those in which a bunch of candidates are jostling; the number of random factors that could throw a race in one direction or another will multiply. You could make a credible case for any of these four contenders to win a Republican primary.

And for all we know, there may be more. After all, we’re more than a year away, still, from the candidate filing deadline.

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