Political Tragedy

boggsAir Disasters Shaped Idaho and Alaska Politics

The Washington Post had a fascinating and yet difficult to read story a few days ago about how an airplane accident shaped the modern political landscape of Alaska. In 1972, then-House Majority Leader Hale Boggs (left) and then-Alaska Congressman Nick Begich, both Democrats, died in a famous Alaska crash. The plane and its passengers were never found.

Boggs was a huge D.C. player at the time, but it was Begich’s death that carved the modern contours of the politics of the Last Frontier. Begich’s son, Mark, is now the state’s junior senator.

In addition to Mark Begich, current Rep. Don Young and former Senator and Governor Frank Murkowski figure in the political evolution that began with the Boggs-Begich tragedy. Young, in Congress since 1972, said of Nick Begich: “He passed on, and I got to be congressman.”

Idaho politics since the 1960′s has been framed, as well, by air tragedy.

Both former Congressman and Senator Jim McClure and Gov. Cecil Andrus can trace the pivot points of their remarkable careers to 1966 and the tragic deaths of rivals in Idaho plane crashes.

McClure was not considered the favorite in a tight GOP primary race in 1966 when John Mattmiller of Kellogg, who had run unsuccessfully in 1964 and was running hard early in the primary season, crashed his small plane into a powerline while trying to approach the fog-bound Kellogg airport. McClure went on to win the primary and defeat incumbent Democratic Rep. Compton I. White, Jr. The rest is history. McClure served three House terms and three more terms in the Senate before retirement in 1990.

Andrus had narrowly lost the 1966 Democratic gubernatorial nomination to Salmon attorney Charles Herndon. Herndon polled 1,277 more votes than the future governor in the primary but, when Herndon’s plane went down on September 14 during a campaign flight from Twin Falls to Coeur d’Alene, Idaho Democrats had to scramble to nominate a replacement. Andrus emerged from a contentious state central committee process to capture the nomination by a whopping two votes.

The party was badly divided after Herndon’s death, but leaders like then-Sen. Frank Church and Rep. White threw in with Andrus. The then-Orofino state senator lost the general election – he still jokes about being the only candidate in America to lose the governorship twice in the same year – but was well positioned to capture the nomination and the big office in the Statehouse when he ran again against incumbent Don Samuelson in 1970.

Andrus went on to become the longest serving governor in Idaho history and arguably one of the most popular and successful.

One other truly promising Idaho political career cut short by an airplane accident was that of State Sen. Terry Reilly of Nampa. Reilly, a big, strapping, handsome, well-spoken Irishman was also the rarest of Idaho Democrats – a Canyon County Democrat. Reilly was seen as a credible statewide candidate for Lt. Governor in 1986, when a plane he was a passenger in went down on a flight from northern Idaho to Idaho Falls in April of that election year. The pilot of that plane was another Democratic wanabee Pete Busch who had lost to McClure in the 1984 Senate race and in ’86 was seeking the 1st District Congressional seat.

I have a distinct memory of getting the news that the Busch-Reilly flight was badly overdue at the traditional Truman Day dinner in Idaho Falls. The dinner is a must-appearance for a statewide candidate and both men had been scheduled to speak. I still remember the gasp in the crowd when it was announced that the plane was overdue and missing.

Then-State Treasurer Marjorie Ruth Moon, a well-known fixture in Idaho politics for years, eventually carried the Democratic standard in the ’86 Lieutenant Governor contest. Moon narrowly lost that year to a fellow named C.L. “Butch” Otter who went on to serve Idaho’s longest tenure in the No. 2 job, win three terms in Congress and the governorship in 2006.

Otter is seeking re-election in November and its is pure, blind conjecture to speculate how his, or the state’s, political history might have been different had Reilly lived, won the Democratic primary 24 years ago and taken the now-governor on in the general election. Had that match-up occurred it would have featured two engaging, charming, talented retail politicians each with a base in the state’s second largest county.

A legacy of Terry Reilly’s too young life taken way too soon lives on in Terry Reilly Health Services, a network of non-profit medical clinics for low income Idahoans. Reilly started the well-respected clinics after his early days teaching English to Hispanic kids had convinced him that often the youngsters needed health and nutrition help side-by-side with language skills.

It has been said – and correctly so – that the great unknown in politics is timing. Fate and tragedy can certainly influence timing. That has clearly been the case when it comes to politicians and airplanes in Idaho and Alaska.

Some politicians, even very successful ones, develop over time a certain air of invincibility. They tend to think they can – indeed must – press ahead against the odds, even against nature sometimes. But it is only an illusion.

Andrus, who knows a thing or two about both flying and campaigning, has often said that no meeting – particularly a political meeting – is worth risking a flight when weather or other conditions dictate that I would be better to be late than to never show up.

Ted Stevens

StevensStories Of Uncle Ted

Alaska says “goodbye” today to the guy the state legislature once voted “the Alaskan of the Century.”

I’m betting the ceremony in the great north – Vice President Biden is scheduled to speak – will be sad and historic and will remind all there, as well as the rest of us, that we reflect too little, and often too late, on the greatness and the humanity of people who, in one way or another, have touched our lives.

A group of my Gallatin colleagues – Republicans and Democrats – had the good fortune over long years to have encounters both large and important and small and meaningful with Ted Stevens who will go down in the history books as the longest serving Senate Republican in history and one of the “old school” members of the Senate. Stevens’ life and career is indeed one for the history books.

There follows some of the recollections, too late for sure, but no less important for the lessons they carry.

Cecil D. Andrus, four-term Idaho Governor and Interior Secretary from 1977-1981

Senator Stevens, even before my arrival at Interior, had worked out a “deal” of some sort with the Appropriations Committee chairman, the late Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who also nominally chaired the Interior Appropriations subcommittee. I say nominally because Senator Byrd basically let Senator Stevens run the subcommittee.

It was a Democratic Congress and a Democratic Senate, yet I had to face Senator Stevens sitting in the chairman’s seat when testifying. Even the majority staff answered to Stevens.

Using this power, Stevens on one occasion summoned me to appear before “his” subcommittee to justify a slightly more than $1 million request for the budget of the Interior Department’s Office of Public Affairs. This would have been the fall of 1978.

Earlier that summer I had personally led a group of some 30 journalists from across the United States on a 10-day “resource inspection” tour of many of the areas my department was proposing be aside for lasting protection as part of the deal creating the Trans-Alaska pipeline and the settling of native land claims.

It was a glorious trip and it garnered gallons of free ink in major publications all across the country. And Senator Stevens was furious.

In his view, I was lobbying Congress with taxpayer money. In my book I was educating voters through the media as to what the stakes were and why every American should care about Alaska. Ted demanded to know the cost of everything, the manifests of who flew on what flights, the itinerary – all of which he pored over with a fine tooth comb. He subjected me to several hours of detailed questions about this ridiculously small office budget, when the entire Interior budget was about $4 billion.

Thankfully, I’d done my homework and was prepared, patiently answering the senator’s numerous questions designed to embarrass me.

Finally, Ted took off on a tangent. He asked if I had yet read John McPhee’s “Coming into the Country,” the fine book on Alaska and Alaskans that had just been published. Before I could answer he launched into a long soliloquy about what a great book it was and how it had captured the fierce independence of Alaskans and their “hands off me” and “no governmental interference” attitude.

It was not often one could best Senator Stevens, but that morning I was able to. I replied that not only had I read the book, Mr. McPhee was scheduled to have lunch with me that very day and unless the session adjourned very soon I would be late.

Clearly stunned that I had already read the book and surprised to hear the author and I would be visiting, the Senator had no choice but to stammer, “By all means, Mr. Secretary, keep your luncheon date. Meeting adjourned!”

Dan Lavey, Gallatin President and former Chief of Staff to Oregon Republican Sen. Gordon Smith

I met Senator Stevens briefly under very sad circumstances. We were both attending a memorial service for the son of a mutual friend. The back story, however, offers some insights into the man’s character and personality.

I’ve enjoyed a long-time relationship with former Senator Gordon Smith – serving has a political advisor and on his staff. When he ran for re-election in 2002, Smith pledged to oppose oiling drilling in ANWR – a long-time goal of Senator Stevens. Smith, who prided himself on building close relationships with his Senate colleagues on both sides of the aisle, struggled to maintain his friendship with Stevens over the course of several high profile votes against opening the Alaska wilderness for energy development. Stevens was none too happy with Smith and let me know on several occasions.

In September 2003, Senator Smith tragically lost his son Garrett to suicide. It was a heartbreaking situation for Gordon, his wife Sharon and their family. When the news became public of Garrett’s death, Smith’s Senate colleagues rallied to the family’s side – offering comfort and support. None more so than the Senior Senator from Alaska. Indeed, Stevens personally helped organize a delegation of Senators to travel to Oregon for the memorial service and, as Pro Tempore of the Senate, made the decision to put the Senate in recess for a day allowing Senators to attend the memorial and honor the memory of Garrett Smith.

I know how much this act of kindness touched Senator Smith and his family. Here was this gruff, self described “SOB” who was widely known to have been very disappointed with Smith’s votes against ANWR, putting a personal relationship ahead of politics and policy. Other than exchanging a brief handshake with the man, I did not know him. But this act of grace on behalf of my friend I will never forget.

Chris Carlson, Gallatin Founding Partner and Director of Public Affairs in the Andrus Interior Department. Chris covered Stevens and the Alaska delegation as a young Washington correspondent.

In spite of Stevens’ pugnacious, acerbic style, it was clear he cared deeply and respected the Senate and his colleagues. He was smart as a whip and did his homework. Beneath the gruff exterior, lay a heart of gold and, on occasion, a keen sense of humor. He also had a terrific temper and was demanding of his staff. Consequently, he went through staff and chiefs of staff quickly.

I also knew Stevens to be an honest man of his word. I had a hard time giving any credence to government charges that he accepted corporate favors and could easily see him paying bills for work on his modest summer retreat, not realizing they had been heavily discounted by the contractor. Stevens loved the Senate and his work too much to risk losing it over nickel and dime greed.

If he was guilty of anything, it was the insidious arrogance of power that few can stymie. Even “Uncle Ted” started to believe his own press clippings. He must have thought he was bullet proof and certainly believed he was indispensable in the voters’ minds.

He was a realist, though, and when President Carter, following the suggestion of his Interior Secretary (Cecil Andrus), my old boss, used the Antiquities Act in November of 1978 to put much of Alaska into National Monuments, he knew he would have to negotiate and get passed decent and fair legislation.

My own Stevens story involves a tribute piece I wrote for Montana Magazine after the death of the great Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield of Montana. I’d been told by a Mansfield staffer that one of the very best Mansfield stories involved Stevens. I called the Senator and, rather amazing to me, he called me back promptly to talk about Mansfield. He’s the story Stevens recounted:

Stevens was a rookie Republican Senator in 1970, appointed to fill an unexpired term. Last in seniority and more than a little unsure of himself, he was determined to offer his own amendment to a pending ocean fishery bill being debated on the Senate floor. To prepare, Stevens had talked to his next-door neighbor and the floor manager of the bill, Senator Ed Muskie of Maine, to make certain he would have the chance to get his amendment considered.

Stevens knew he would be involved in Senate committee work while the bill was being debated on the Senate floor. In response, Muskie said he would get the word to Stevens in time to facilitate floor discussion of his amendment.

The call never came. Stevens vividly remembers his feelings more than 30 years later.

“When I realized that the roll call was underway, I rushed from the committee room back on the Senate floor, and not being one to mince words, I said to Muskie, ‘You son of a bitch, I have an amendment to this bill, and you know how much it means to me to be able to offer it.’”

Standing in his customary spot, observing the roll call was Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. He heard the raised voices and the obscenity.

“Mike said to me, ‘Senator, we just don’t use that kind of language on the floor of the Senate,’” Stevens said. “I apologized, but told Mansfield I was so upset because I had an amendment to the bill being voted on, and Senator Muskie told me I could present it, then hadn’t given me the chance.”

With the vote on final passage of the bill continuing, Mansfield asked Muskie, a fellow Democrat, if Stevens’ story was true.

“It’s true,” Muskie said, “but the amendment wouldn’t have passed. It’s just not necessary, Mike.”

Stevens then remembers that Mansfield turned to him and did something that was at the same time both simple and extraordinary. He asked for a copy of Stevens’ amendment. Stevens said what happened next has never happened again in the United States Senate.

Mansfield interrupted the roll call and asked unanimous consent to reverse course on the Senate calendar to the proper place where amendments could be offered. Stevens remembers dead silence in the chamber. The unanimous consent was granted and the Majority Leader was recognized.

“On behalf of the Senator from Alaska, I offer an amendment,” Mansfield said. “Does any Senator care to debate the amendment with the Senator from Alaska?” No Senator did.

Mansfield then turned to Stevens and asked if he cared to make a comment. Stevens still laughs at the thought that by opening his mouth he might have derailed the unprecedented action that was unfolding to his benefit on the Senate floor. He didn’t say a word.

In fact, no one, including Muskie, said a word. On the strength of Mike Mansfield’s sense of fairness – his character, really – the Stevens amendment passed that day without debate and remains the law today.

“When all this was over, Mike came over to me and said, ‘We are all equal on this floor, and a Senator must keep his word,’” Stevens says. “That was very meaningful to a new Senator and I have never forgotten it. Mike and I became wonderful friends and it began right there. He treated everyone alike without regard to politics or seniority.”

Stevens told me that his Democratic friend, Mike Mansfield, was “the best leader we ever had” in the Senate.

Ted Stevens will be remembered for a long time and for many things. A tough, demanding partisan; a fierce advocate for Alaska, but also a practical guy, a complex human like all of us. The kind of person you feel fortunate to have had a moment with. This is a day to remember – and celebrate – his life and accomplishments and all he touched.

Recapturing the Narrative

obamaOK, Now What…

There is a great line in the 1972 film The Candidate starring the young Robert Redford. In the film, Redford’s character is an aspiring politico named Bill McKay who takes on the seemingly hopeless task of running for the U.S. Senate against an older, wiser and completely entrenched incumbent. Through many fits and turns and much learning on the campaign trail, the younger man pulls off the improbable upset.

As the reality of winning begins to sink in, McKay turns to an aide and, displaying genuine wonder, asks: “What do we do now?” He never gets an answer as the film ends.

That scene is art imitating life. No successful candidate – at least those completely honest with themselves – would not ask themselves “now what” as the flush of victory gives way to the reality of governing.

Campaigns have a beginning, middle and an end and are about organization, style, poetry and luck. Governing – real governing – requires a different skill set and, very often, different personalities. Governing is day-by-day, hour-by-hour and, more and more, thanks to the never ending news cycle, minute-by-minute.

I’ve always thought that every newly elected candidate ought to be handed, along with a certificate of election, a card printed with an old and almost always true political axiom – the people who help you get elected are often not the people to help you govern. The Obama campaign crew – as good as they were at getting him elected – may just have run out of steam when the political hill climb is becoming the toughest.

Admittedly everything in Washington is an echo chamber and, while the intensity of the political game is greater inside the Beltway, the political reality is that more than a year and half into his term Obama – and his team – have ceased to be able to drive the national narrative.

A Republican friend, genuinely amazed by Obama’s legislative accomplishments and astounded by the White House inability to shape the national dialogue, said it well. The White House hasn’t had a week on message in weeks.

From the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico to the ham handed firing of an African-American women in the Department of Agriculture to the Muslim cultural center in New York the White House seems always to be reacting to events and even then can’t get a coherent message out. Fellow Democrats aren’t helping. The ethics scandal surrounding Charley Rangel, and now Maxine Waters, seems sure to dominate the political narrative for weeks to come.

Add on the polls. According to Gallup, Obama, at 46% or so approval, is in the pre-mid-term range with Bill Clinton in 1994, Lyndon Johnson in 1966 and Reagan in 1982. Democrats lost 53 seats in ’94 and 47 seats in ’66. Republicans dropped 28 seats with the Gipper in the White House in ’82.

There are two indispensable qualities most politicians need and many lack – self deprecation and self awareness. The impression has settled in that Obama is cold and aloof. Where some see smart and thoughtful, many others see above the fray, out of touch, elitist or, worst perhaps, someone so sure of himself as to be too sure of himself.

It is a deadly combination this aloofness and sureness, if it sticks.

Todd Purdum, the former New York Times White House correspondent, has a
great political junkie piece in the current Vanity Fair. Purdum, after interviewing most of the top Obama brain trust, comes away thinking that the President is going to keep on keeping on. He’s made a calculated decision to try and play the Washington game differently. As Purdum concludes:

“Obama’s gamble is that, if you look after the doing of the presidency, the selling of the presidency will look after itself. The short-term price may come in stalled poll numbers, electoral setbacks, and endless contradictory advice from the kibitzers. The payoff, if there is one, lies out on some future horizon. Obama may be right about this strategy, or he may be wrong. But it is the strategy he is following nonetheless.”

It is a gamble and I think the President could help himself and those of us who at least don’t wish him to fail if he let us inside the thinking that shapes his gamble. He could also learn from others who held the office and ended up successful in history and on policy.

John Kennedy had the remarkable ability to poke fun at himself at news conferences and to be genuinely self deprecating. He once quipped, as Jackie was received like a Princess on a trip to France, that he was merely the guy who accompanied his attractive wife to Paris.

Ronald Reagan had an actor’s timing and sense of humor and both qualities never failed to serve him well.

When Franklin Roosevelt, the truest patrician to ever occupy the White House, died in 1945 a distraught mourner was asked if he had personally known the president. No, the man answered, but he knew me. Good quality for a successful president.

Obama needs to remind Americans why so many of them found him an appealing candidate in the first place. His exuberance. His ability to get off a good line, often at his own expense. His candor about race and his sense of reality about how tough the problems really are. A case in point. Rather than ignore the ridiculous charge from some in the Tea Party crowd that he is a “socialist,” Obama would be better off to find a funny and engaging way to point out just how nonsensical the notion really is.

He also needs to resurrect the prime time news conference from the East Room. Take the questions. Bat aside the silly ones. Call on FOX News and join the dance. Above all educate the country about our hard choices. The guy got elected, after all, in no small part because he made a lot more sense most of the time than an angry, snarling John McCain.

The headline on Purdum’s Vanity Fair article is Washington, We Have a Problem. We do.

If Barack Obama really hopes to change Washington, and have a second term to do it, he has to adapt a good deal more than he has or than he appears inclined to do.

It may be time – or past time – to ask those smart guys who helped get him elected: Now what?

Whatever Happened To…

fischerBryan Fischer…

I confess that I hadn’t been following all that closely the controversy in New York City over the proposed construction of a Muslim cultural center not far from the site of the September 11 attack. Until, that is, I saw an item featuring the former Idaho fire brand, Bryan Fischer, suggesting that the country ought not allow the construction of another Mosque, ever, anywhere, at anytime.

Fischer, who used to run the Idaho Values Alliance (and is still listed on the group’s website) and served as the Idaho Senate chaplain, is cutting a wide swath these days. Fischer writes an on-line column, hosts a radio show and regularly offers up even more incendiary rhetoric that he did when he was defending a display of the Ten Commandments in a Boise park or objecting to books in the Nampa public library.

It was his latest column that grabbed my attention. Here’s the first graph:

“Permits should not be granted to build even one more mosque in the United States of America, let alone the monstrosity planned for Ground Zero. This is for one simple reason: each Islamic mosque is dedicated to the overthrow of the American government.”

Ok, then.

Other recent Fischer commentary has focused on his claim that new Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan is “a dangerous judicial activist.” He also questioned the new Justice’s sexual orientation. Fischer jumped on the bandwagon with Texas Rep. Joe Barton, who he said was right to call President Obama’s ability to secure a pledge of $20 billion in Gulf Coast clean-up dollars from BP “a shakedown.” And – this one got a lot of air in the blogosphere – Fischer made the charge that Hitler was a homosexual and that some how that “fact” leads to a connection between Nazism and gays in the American military.

Read it for yourself. You can’t make this stuff up, unless you’re Bryan Fischer.

Fischer summarized his Hitler/homosexual/gays in the military column with this:

“Homosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and six million dead Jews. Gays in the military is an experiment that has been tried and found disastrously and tragically wanting. Maybe it’s time for Congress to learn a lesson from history.” Some history.

Fischer bases this view on a 2001 Hitler biography by a German historian Lothar Machtan. A New York Times reviewer, a former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said of the book and its scholarship:

“Machtan employs innuendo and insinuation. He asks rhetorical questions designed to lead the reader to answer them in a manner that supports his argument, even when alternative explanations are at least as plausible. He introduces possibilities that are then assumed to be probabilities and, indeed, certitudes. By the use of quotation marks, he highlights what are probably innocuous comments so that they seem loaded with homoerotic meaning. In short, he has written a tendentious book that is more a brief for the prosecution than a work of balanced history.”

Sounds a lot like a Bryan Fischer column.

Just for the record, and leave it to Jon Stewart and The Daily Show to drive this point, no serious historian of Hitler and Nazis makes an absolute claim that Hitler was homosexual. One suspects it would be news to Eva Braun. Fischer and his “sources” also conveniently ignore the incontrovertible historical record that the Nazis rounded up and sent to the camps homosexuals, along with Jews, the disabled, gypsies and other “undesirables.”

And, even if the record was less clear, conflating the tragedy of Nazi German with homosexuality is the worst kind of, let’s say it, intolerance and hate speech.

Fischer’s latest contention involving the proposed New York Muslim center hangs on just as thin a thread. Fischer wrote on August 11:

“The imam who is heading this project, Feisel Abdul Rauf, has ties to terrorist organizations himself, and said in a ’60 Minutes’ interview shortly after 9/11 that ‘United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened.’”

Truth be told, Rauf has long had a close relationship with the U.S. State Department and Bush-era State Department official Karen Hughes enlisted his help and shared the stage with him when that administration was attempting to enhance its public diplomacy activities in the Muslim world. For what its worth, on Wednesday the Times had a bit more nuanced take on the New York controversy.

Or, put another way, not only is Fischer guilty of demonizing another religion he hasn’t got his facts straight. Even his throw away statement that the Muslim center is planned “for Ground Zero” is wrong. As this map shows the two sites are at least two long city blocks apart. It is sort of like saying that Boise High School is on the Statehouse grounds. It just isn’t true.

Here is my historical point: America has always had its share of Bryan Fischers. They live now, as in the past, on the hot oxygen of hate masquerading as political speech or true religion and they thrive because the media let’s them get away with it.

In the 1930′s Father Charles Coughlin built a mass following with his radio program and newspaper. Coughlin preached a populist economic message, flavored with anti-Semitism. He raged against the Federal Reserve, Franklin Roosevelt, Communism and in favor of a return to what he considered the true meaning of the Constitution.

Another preacher-turned-politician Gerald L.K. Smith started out as a Huey Long disciple, but after Long’s death he attempted to pick up the Kingfish’s mantle in Louisiana and beyond. He built a sizable following in the 1930′s and 1940′s. You can find YouTube videos of Smith that sound strikingly like contemporary cable television coverage of a Tea Party rally. In one 1936 speech, Smith frothed against “corrupt, thieving politicians” and predicted that “the baby havin’, stump grubbin’, sod bustin’, go to meetin’, God fearin’” Americans were finally going to take over the country.

Before long both Coughlin and Smith flamed out. Smith couldn’t get any candidate for president in 1948 to accept his endorsement and, in fact, he was widely repudiated. Coughlin’s own Bishop eventually silenced his radio demagoguery. Both men lived into the 1970′s, mostly forgotten and remembered only, as recounted in Alan Brinkley’s fine book, as Voices of Protest.

Bryan Fischer is of the same ilk and I suspect he will eventually secure the same fate. The pity is that such folks gain credibility at all and that it lasts for any length of time.

I reserve a spoonful of blame for the Idaho media who gave Fischer a launching pad for what is now a national megaphone and hardly ever held him accountable. While he was riling things up in Idaho there was precious little reporting on who financed him, where he really came from and whether his ideas and accusations could withstand serious review.

Guys like Coughlin and Smith rose the same way. They were media sensations in their day, always available to comment on anything and masters of gaining media attention with flamboyant rhetoric and flimsy facts.

This famous quote is attributed to, among others, Mark Twain: “A lie can run around the world six times while the truth is still trying to put on its pants.”

Google “Bryan Fischer” and see how slowly the truth is catching up with him. It’s time the former Idahoan to get some of the scrutiny he lavishes on others and should have gotten when he was dishing out his brand of demagoguery in Idaho.

To paraphrase Bryan Fischer, the monstrosities contained in this man’s hateful rhetoric are dedicated to overthrowing common sense and fundamental human decency. No one should take him seriously. Some obviously do and that, too, is a monstrosity.


Big Sky Tax Cheats

montanaMontana Figures It Out

For as long as I can remember Idaho has had a running debate about whether to really invest in a robust program of tax compliance in the interest of finding those individuals and businesses who, through villainy or ignorance, don’t do what the vast majority of us do – pay our taxes.

Historically the Idaho response has been to not make it a public or budgetary priority to go after the tax scofflaws. A modest investment was made in the Idaho compliance effort this year, but what was done also suggests there will be a modest payoff. Montana does it differently.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer made national headlines last week when he announced that tax audits and other compliance efforts in Montana have produced $80 million in new revenue this year – much of it from out-of-state individuals and businesses – that has helped keep the state budget balanced. Schweitzer added, for full political and practical effect, that this is money the state is owed and doesn’t cause Montanans who actually follow the law to pay any more.

In an editorial the Billings Gazette noted that 96% of working Montanans file a tax return annually, but out-of-staters are much less likely to comply with the law. In lauding Schweitzer’s initiative, the newspaper said, “Let’s keep making the tax cheats pay. Get that money for Montana, governor!”

Schweitzer, colorful and quotable as ever, compared the tax collection effort to the guy at the circus gate who makes sure everyone “pays their fair share.”

As noted, Idaho did invest a modest amount of money this year in its enforcement efforts but, according to the Tax Commission’s most recent annual report, audit efforts addressing all state tax categories collected about $44 million in Fiscal Year 2009. Included in that total is almost $11 million collected from those not in compliance with sales tax requirements. Compare that to the $80 million collected in Montana and don’t forget there is no sales tax in Montana. Idaho also has 600,000 more residents than Montana and, presumably, a substantially greater number of taxpayers.

All this suggests that Idaho is leaving a lot of money – money that could be spent on education and other priorities – under some mattress somewhere.

Two points to ponder, one practical and immediate the other practical and longer-term:

  • At a time when Idaho has slashed spending across the board and actually reduced, for the first time ever, year-over-year funding for public education, wouldn’t a tougher approach to tax compliance make sense both as a budgetary necessity and as a simple matter of fairness to the thousands of diligent Idaho taxpayers? For every dollar Montana spends on audits it collects $8 in taxes that legally should be paid. Anyway you slice it, that is a pretty sound – and conservative – return on investment.

  • Idaho’s revenue department, with due respect to the four full-time and politically appointed commissioners who run the agency, is an inefficient, 1944 approach to collecting the state’s revenue. (The Tax Commission was created by Constitutional amendment in 1944 with part-time commissioners, the full-time commissioners were put in place in 1967.) Idaho needs – and this has been long debated – an appointed director of revenue who, as in Montana and most states, is directly accountable for running the department and collecting taxes. Such a move would save money, could likely provide greater efficiency and, as witnessed by recent allegations of political favoritism, remove “politics” from tax collecting. It is a reform long overdue and, frankly, both major party candidates for governor should embrace such an initiative.

Add to these practical realities the fact that in politics – and tax policy is politics – perception is reality. And the perception is clear – from whistle blowers to an on-going ethics probe of a tax-protesting state legislator – that something is not altogether right with Idaho’s approach to collecting taxes.

Three long-time, former Tax Commission employees recently came forward alleging there is truth in the claim made in a pending lawsuit that certain well-connected Idahoans have benefited from “sweetheart” tax deals engineered at the Tax Commission. It has been suggested that a lawsuit may not be the best way to fix whatever is wrong. Probably true. A top-to-bottom independent review, followed by serious legislative work on reform, makes a lot more sense.

If the state wants to turn over rocks looking for legitimate tax revenue that is not being collected, Montana has the right structure, attitude and road map. Continuing the approach Idaho has taken is a recipe for more budget cuts, continued unfairness to those Idahoans who try hard to play by the rules, and a further deterioration of public confidence in the system.

You don’t have to be a $500 an hour tax lawyer to see that there is an election year issue – and potentially a big scandal – in there somewhere.


The Senator From Alaska

StevensRemembering Ted Stevens

I wanted to feature this photo of former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens for one reason. Stevens is smiling, something he seemed rarely to do – at least in public. A more common Stevens image captured him as a scowling, angry guy, given to instant fits that displayed his legendary temper. A D.C. magazine once voted him the “hottest” senator and not for his chiseled good looks.

Stevens, the longest serving Republican senator in the country’s history, died Monday night in a back country plane crash in Alaska, the state he represented in the Senate for 40 years. Stevens was 86 and scandal and controversy and temper aside he deserves to be remembered as one of the most influential senators of the second half of the 20th Century.

I can’t say I really knew the man, but did interview him on two occasions and both were memorable. In 1980, Republicans captured control of the Senate for the first time in memory in the election that saw a slew of western senators, Stevens included, elevated to committee chairmanships. Stevens went on to run the Appropriations and Commerce Committees with a loud voice and a fast gavel and, of course, with a slab of bacon for the Last Frontier always first in his mind.

I was producing public television programs in 1980 and some how was able to convince the boss to send me and a photographer (current Idaho Public Television General Manager Peter Morrill) to Washington to do an hour-long special on the newly powerful GOP. Stevens graciously sat for an interview and gave the yokels from Idaho plenty of his time.

Years later I was working on a piece for Montana Magazine on the late, great Montana Senator and Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. I’d been told by a former Mansfield aide that I really needed to get to Stevens who, the aide assured me, would tell me a great story about his relationship with the famous Montanan.

Thanks for my old boss, Cecil Andrus, who had clashed many a time with Stevens over Alaska issues, but who nevertheless maintained a healthy respect for the senator, which Stevens reciprocated, I was able to connect with Stevens on the phone.

He told me a remarkable story of how, as a freshman senator, Mansfield has shown him an unprecedented degree of respect and courtesy and imbued Stevens with the notion that every single member of the Senate has a right to be taken seriously on every single issue. He ended by saying, in words I’ll never forget coming from a Republican about a Democrat, “Mike was the best leader the Senate has ever seen.”

Ted Stevens was tough on environmentalists and those who dared to cross him. He was a champion of the earmark back before speaking ill of federal appropriations became a litmus test for every politician. By one count, Stevens had a hand in nearly 1,500 earmarks over his Senate career worth more than $3.4 billion. Like his friend the late Robert Byrd, Stevens came to the Senate to take care of his state and that meant appropriating money for projects back home.

He was, as has been said of lesser men, not always right, but seldom in doubt. Stevens once proclaimed, while chairing the Appropriations Committee, “I’m a mean, miserable S.O.B.”

On another occasion, he said: “I didn’t lose my temper. I know right where it is.”

Ted Stevens was also part of a vanishing breed, a throw back to the Senate of Mansfield and Jackson, Church and Baker, Long and Dole. Theirs was a Senate were, once in a while, serious legislation got considered and past without the incredible partisanship displayed today by both parties.

Much will be made of the fact that Stevens’ death came in a plane crash, the same awful circumstance that claimed his first wife and nearly killed him in 1978. Considering his eventful life, including flying Army Air Force transports over “The Hump” in the Himalayas ferrying supplies from India to China in World War II, it seems like a eerily fateful ending to more than eight decades.

In his Senate farewell, Stevens summed up his career: “To hell with politics, just do what’s right for Alaska.” That’s pretty much how he’ll be remembered, I suspect.

With Byrd’s death earlier this year, we’ve now seen the passing of two old and tough Senate bulls, a type not around any more. They’ll both be remembered for a long time – and should be.