• 100 Influential Idahoans 2015
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Political question of the week in Boise seems to be: Will Raul Labrador run for governor?

There’s been a lot of presumption, even as Labrador has held off declaring one way or the other, that he will. He has expressed interest, and since the seat will be open, 2018 would be a time to move.

He may run for it; the decision, of course, is his exclusively. If he does, he’d certainly be a strong contender. But I sense a majority opinion now of political observers who would be less surprised if he passes than if he runs.

Here’s what I might say if I were offering friendly career political advice.

First, Labrador is relatively young (he’s 49) for positioning for the higher offices; not too young, of course, but young enough that he can and should consider more than just the next election cycle or two.

If he runs for governor, he might lose. Large-population primary contests in low-turnout elections can be highly unpredictable, and he would face a candidate with strong establishment support (Lieutenant Governor Brad Little), one who has been campaigning and developing support since 2013 (Russ Fulcher) and a wild card businessman (Tommy Ahlquist) who already has put a good deal of money into name-I.D. direct mail campaigns. I wouldn’t risk any betting money on a race like this. And you never know: Labrador has shown himself to be a smooth and competent campaigner, but people do make mistakes. Labrador got into the House in large part because a 2010 primary opponent made so many of them. And a loss in a gubernatorial race would cut into his political strength.

Labrador also could win; he would bring a significant base of support, and credibly could take the lead in the primary with it. He might serve as governor four years, or eight (12 is of course possible, as the incumbent shows, but unusual). He’d still have time to do something else in politics after that, but what? If you’re a retired governor in Idaho, your options – if you’re not ready to retire – may not seem that attractive after where you’ve been and what you’ve done. And of course, as governor, Labrador would get nowhere near the national attention he’s gotten up to now as a member of Congress.

Or.

He could be on a glide path to the top rung in politics short of the presidency. Odds are he could stay in the House and be re-elected easily for the next several terms. Word is that Senator Jim Risch is unlikely to run for a third term when his current one is up in 2020, and Senator Mike Crapo may not want to serve much longer. Idaho’s other House member, Mike Simpson, has passed on Senate options before. Labrador could slide right in from the U.S. House to the U.S. Senate, a position of larger impact and of elections only every six years.

Besides which, Labrador has not shown much of an interest in running things. The governorship is an executive job, and it might be a less comfortable fit with the kind of legislative mindset Labrador has developed. He wouldn’t be the first legislator-turned-executive to find that the two are quite different.

None of this is to say conclusively that Labrador won’t run for governor. He alone will decide that, and if that’s what he really wants, if nothing else will do, then he can go for it.

But the long pause in signalling his intentions does seem suggestive of second thoughts.

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Credit Raul Labrador with holding a town hall meeting, and for not hot-footing in and out. The three hours he spent there must have been an endurance challenge; most town halls I have attended over the years have been substantially shorter, usually half as long.

In other respects, compared to other recent town halls around the country, it was not terribly different: Republican representative appears and is jeered by hundreds of people in normally friendly locations. Across the state line in the adjacent eastern Oregon congressional district, Representative Greg Walden encountered much the same in Hood River (his small home town), Bend and elsewhere: A Republican routinely re-elected by supermajorities over two decades faced unusually large and stunningly hostile crowds. It must have been unlike anything he’d seen before.

And in Idaho? Would anyone other than Labrador’s loyal chorus show up?

They did; and, true, some Labrador (and Donald Trump) backers did too. But the fact that this event was held in the Republican heartland of Meridian, and lines formed hours in advance, did not discourage the opposition from showing up and getting loud. The crowd was reported as numbering around 800, an unusually big number for this sort of thing. At town halls, organizers usually have to search out prospective questioners; this time, questioners lined up by the dozens at the available mics.

All that was secondary to the electricity in the air (evident even if you watched the video), and the reason was clear: This was one of the relatively few occasions when the inside and the outside of Idaho politics came face to face.

It doesn’t happen a lot. Mostly in Idaho (with variations happening as well in other states), there’s the Republican infrastructure and its supporters over here, and what’s been dubbing itself the Resistance (Democrats and others in opposition) over there, usually in their highly separated bubbles. Theoretically, actual contact could happen more often at the Idaho Legislature, where it should happen, and it does in a limited way on specific issues. The town hall, though, was a chance to raise ideas and frame them independently. The outsiders here were able to face off directly with their opposition, and hear back in kind.

Along the way Labrador may have heard some things from constituents he might not have heard from them before, or at least not in force, things politicians don’t hear often – and that many Idahoans don’t often hear from each other.

When he said, “I don’t think there’s anything in the law that requires the president to provide his tax returns,” he got boos. Whatever else, this marked a clear expression of different world views bumping against each other.

When he said, “I do not believe that healthcare is a basic right,” much of the crowd roared its disapproval. (Question: What other rights are meaningful without health, or while you’re crushed underneath medical bills?) Labrador did say he thought people should have access to health care. One woman responded, “I have access to buy a Mercedes. The only problem is, I can’t afford a Mercedes. Many people can’t afford decent health care if it is not provided by the government.”

Mostly and traditionally, Idahoans have been polite and gentle-spoken around their elected officials. Contrariness usually isn’t a big part of the picture; the ideas “espoused” by most elected officials (in Idaho, Republicans basically) rarely draw much direct blowback. But on Wednesday in Meridian, they did. Some of it wasn’t polite, as Labrador noted ironically (“I’m super popular tonight”). But he certainly was hearing from more than the hallelujah chorus. And remember: The yelling often comes from pent-up frustration at not being listened to, as it did in the days of Tea.

A side of Idaho that doesn’t usually make itself very visible is doing that now.

In Idaho’s other House district, Representative Mike Simpson has been quoted as saying, “I’ve never been really active in doing town halls. Town hall meetings I have found, generally, disintegrate into yelling efforts.”

Meridian was a demonstration that even if they do, something awfully useful can happen there. Simpson might be well advised to reconsider.

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The question is, who is taxed?

We’ll circle back around to that, as we review the last hot topic of the Idaho legislative session, the grocery tax.

Or, to be more precise, the sales tax as it applies to groceries, which in Idaho it does. In nearly all of the 45 states that impose a statewide sales tax, groceries are exempt from the tax, or in some cases their sales carry a reduced rate. Idaho’s in the minority on this one.

The idea of exempting groceries from the Idaho tax has been around for decades, and it has had backers from both political parties. (Shall we mention that Idaho’s current sales tax was pushed through half a century ago by a Republican governor and legislature?) In an era of tax cutting among anti-tax legislators, the grocery sales tax cut hasn’t engendered really strong support for a long time. But backing for it energized this year, picking up support from various wings of the Republican legislative caucuses and among Democrats as well. The vote margins were strong enough that a veto likely would have been overridden if the legislature were still in session.

All that said, the veto by Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter, who proudly has pointed to many tax cuts in recent years, but also criticized the repealer bill, did not come as a shock.

This section of his veto message did, though: “The advice from Utah was simple and straightforward: Don’t do it. The ramifications of lifting the sales tax from food had made budgeting much more difficult with the loss of what indisputably was their most stable and consistent source of revenue for essential government operations. Taxpayers benefited almost imperceptibly while lawmakers found themselves dealing with the peaks and valleys of income tax and other financial supports that are far more susceptible to economic fluctuations. Everyone benefits from some kind of government service. Everyone eats.”

There’s a real logic to this, a reasonable case. What’s a little shocking is that Otter, he of such libertarian background and inclinations, would be the one making it. You could make similar arguments for any number of the tax cuts enacted over his governorship, which have been estimated at a billion dollars worth, but Otter never did before this. Otter making the case for a veto that a benefit to taxpayers would be “imperceptible” while legislators would have to struggle? Imagine what he might say if a Democratic governor ever had the temerity to use that line of logic.

We don’t much have to guess, since the response from other Republicans has been mostly angry. On Facebook, legislator Marv Hagedorn (a contender for lieutenant governor) declared himself “Very disappointed. This repeal would not have affected the next year’s budget, so we would have had next year’s session to tweak it as needed. There is no way to know how much sales taxes come in for food alone as the state has no method of garnering that information, nor do we know how much sales taxes are being lost due to Idahoans shopping across state lines where there are no taxes on food.”

Lieutenant Governor Brad Little, one of Otter’s closest allies, took the unusual step before the announcement of publicly urging Otter not to veto, setting himself up to take the contrary point of view in the race for governor. In that developing and crowded race, he won’t be alone; at least two of his fellow candidates also favor repeal.

What constituents might be pressing for, at least as much in the coming debate though, is an answer to another question.

In a legislature so eager to cut taxes, why has this one – one of the most regressive taxes on the books – had so much more trouble making a way to passage over the course of so many years, than so many other tax cuts? Not only Governor Otter should be the recipient of that question.

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Surely, candidates for lieutenant governor of Idaho have never, ever, materialized this early.

Rarely have there been so many of them. And there could be more. Probably will be.

And there are larger, structural, even physics reasons.

The last time the office was seriously competitive was in 2002, not long after state Senator Jack Riggs had been appointed to it (upon the departure of a predecessor named C.L. “Butch Otter, who had gone off to the U.S. House). There were competitive primaries in both parties, but the Republican was notably crowded, including not only the incumbent but two state senators, Celia Gould and Jim Risch, and former gubernatorial candidate Larry Eastland, plus two other little-knowns. The contest was unpredictable enough that the winner, Risch (getting his effective start here toward the Senate), won with just 34.6 percent of the vote.

Before that, although you could point to several reasonably competitive general elections back in the 70s and 80s, you have to go back generations to find the last really competitive primary for the job, or a really large field of contestants.

But so far this year – with the filing deadline close to a year away – we’ve seen entries (apparently at least) into the race from state Senator Marv Hagedorn of Meridian and state Representative Kelley Packer of McCammon and former legislator Janice McGeachin of Idaho Falls. State Republican Party chair Steve Yates may also be in.

Why all the heavy interest?

The big reason is that “light guv” is an open seat this time, since incumbent Brad Little is running for governor (in another multi-contender battle). Incumbents are notoriously hard to take out – few have in recent decades in Idaho – open positions offer the best path upward.

And there’s another reason for the interest: Ambitions (and I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense) get bottled up in places like Idaho, where one party dominates the offices and the office-holders decide to stay around for long periods of time. In Congress, Senator Mike Crapo has been there since 1998, Senator Risch since 2008, Representative Mike Simpson since 1998 and youngster Raul Labrador since 2010. Governor Otter is wrapping up 12 years in the job; by the time of the 2018 election, Little will have been at his post for just under a decade.

If you’re looking to move up, where do you go? Mostly, you wait for the rare opportunity of an opening.

Then too, the track record for upward mobility among lieutenants governor has been improving. Until the last couple of decades, most LGs topped out in that office (the main exception being John Evans, who succeeded to the governorship; Phil Batt went on to election as governor but only years after departing as lieutenant.) More recently the picture has changed. Incumbent Little is now a strong contender for governor. His predecessor, Risch, wound up in both the governor’s office and the Senate. The last LG before him, Otter, wound up in the U.S. House and the governorship.

Looking ahead to the contest, columnist Chuck Malloy was inclined to suggest, “With Yates in, it’s game over. He wins.” Personally, I wouldn’t throw any betting money down just yet. Multi-candidate races can get awfully unpredictable, especially over the course of long campaigns. And the high pressure surrounding those few open seats can add to the number of open questions.

Never underestimate the power of bottled energy when just enough heat is applied.

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