Egan, FDR, Idaho Politics, Public Television

Killing Off Big Bird…

big birdIt Has Been Tried Before

Idaho Governor Butch Otter proposed in his State of the State speech this week a four year phase out of state support for Idaho Public Television. Otter’s proposal would eventually eliminate the $1.7 million the system now receives and uses primarily to support its services statewide.

Combined with other holdbacks, the reduction will be more like 33% in the first year.

Otter’s idea has received extensive media attention and, in an irony too rich not to mention, the governor’s speech containing the proposal was carried statewide only on, you got it, Idaho Public Television. Here’s guessing the public pushback is just beginning.

In an editorial, the Times-News made a practical political point that legislators may really want to ponder: “There are few more respected institutions in Idaho than IPTV. It’s beloved by every Idaho parent with a 4-year-old – even if those 4-year-olds have long since grown up.”

The governor and his advisers have said that public TV should hustle up private and corporate support to keep going, but that seems very unlikely given two hard facts.

One, the folks who run Idaho Public Television have mastered the art of looking under ever rock in Idaho for support. They run a lean, mean operation that makes the absolutely most of the checks they collect from Idahoans. In fact, compared to peer operations – states with state licensed systems – Idaho already out performs in the private fundraising arena.

Two, the worst hard times in anyone’s memory hardly seem like a realistic time to tell a state operation that has been around for 40 years to rattle the tin cup more loudly. Every non-profit I know, even the most popular – and public TV is popular – is hurting in this economic environment.

[Full disclosure: I worked for Idaho public television for about eight years back in the 1970’s and 1980’s, I recently joined the Friends of Public TV Board and I have many long-time friends in the operation. I am not an unbiased observer.]

I do know, from having the weird experience of reporting on the decision, that public television funding was eliminated back in 1981. That, too, was a time of severe budget constraint and legislators were looking under rocks. Part of the discussion then, as now, was also ideological. Some lawmakers, including then-Senator Dave Little of Emmett, the chair of the Senate Finance Committee and father of the current Lt. Governor, simply didn’t think the state belonged in the “government TV” business.

Legislators came to rethink – and some, perhaps to regret – the “unfunding” and state support was partially restored a year later. Also in 1982, the legislature mandated a statewide merger of services that created the streamlined, efficient system that exists today.

Personal opinion: I don’t believe Idaho Public TV can survive in anything like its current form, covering virtually every corner of the state, with the kind of Idaho-specific programming and reach without state support. It simply won’t happen.

This discussion is really about whether statewide public television service and programming will continue – period. Removing state funding will also serve to squander the substantial investment Idaho taxpayers have already made in a more-or-less state of the art delivery system. As a very practical matter, translators will sit unused on many mountain tops.

The state is big enough – no statewide newspaper, two time zones, diverse political and social culture – that public TV here, in more than any state I know, pulls the population together. It’s been a bargain for 40 years and will be a bargain this year and next and beyond, even at twice the price.

Economy, Egan, Idaho Politics, Otter

Changing the Fabric of Idaho

smylieLegislatures and Lasting Legacies…

When Idaho Governor Robert E. Smylie cut a deal with the wealthy Harriman family in 1965 to take title to the family’s fabulous Railroad Ranch in eastern Idaho, the agreement included a provision that Idaho would create a professional parks department in exchange for the land.

That deal – and, yes, many of Smylie’s fellow Republicans disliked it – created the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation and the department has become a lasting legacy of Smylie’s three terms as a progressive Republican governor.

The Idaho Statesman’s Rocky Barker correctly describes what might happen to Idaho’s parks now that – 45 years on from Smylie’s historic deal – Governor Butch Otter has proposed folding the department into the state Department of Lands, effectively eliminating the agency.

Too no small degree, Otter’s legacy is going to be shaped by how the budget debate that began on Monday, and will involve parks, schools and other state functions, unfolds over the next few weeks.

Make no mistake, times are tough in Idaho, nevertheless, what Otter has suggested – and he has proposed elimination of several small agencies, including the 40-year-old Idaho Human Rights Commission – is more about philosophy than budgets. Otter has suggested, by virtue of his budget proposals, that parks, the Human Rights Commission, public television, and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission, among others, are not legitimate functions of government. The governor has also proposed an unprecedented second year of real cuts in public school, community college and higher education support.

This tees up the kind of debate that some folks in Idaho have long relished – what is the legitimate role of government in good times and bad? It will be fascinating to watch.

In 1965, Bob Smylie had to push and prod the Idaho Legislature to not only create a professional parks department, but to also put in place the elements of the modern Idaho tax structure, including a sales tax. By common belief, the ’65 session produced more of lasting value for Idaho than any legislature before or since.

In 2010, the Idaho Legislature may find itself pushing back against a governor who seeks a different kind of legacy; a legacy that truly will change the fabric of life in Idaho. Idaho will be a different place without an emphasis on parks, a statewide public television system or an state agency devoted to sorting out employment disputes between workers and employers. Suggesting that there are other sources of funding for such services is mostly political rhetoric, not realistic policy.

Bob Smylie always contended that his “successes” during the1965 session sealed his political demise a year later when he lost in the Republican primary after alienating many fellow Republicans. Legacies do have consequences.

Tomorrow: More on the Idaho Legislature.

Egan, Fathers Day, Idaho Politics, Idaho Statehouse

The People’s House

statehouseThe Renovation is Spectacular, But…

To state the obvious: the two and a half year, $120 million renovation/expansion of the Idaho State Capitol Building has been accomplished in spectacular fashion. The workmanship, the meticulous attention to detail, indeed the elegance – even opulence – is nothing short of awe inspiring.

Thousands of Idahoans toured the building this weekend as it officially re-opened on the eve of what may prove to be the most difficult, most draconian legislative session since, well, maybe since 1933. The governor and legislative leaders have promised more deep cuts in education spending and even that distasteful strategy will almost certainly require additional deep cuts or proposed elimination of many other current state services. Stay tuned. We may well see a very different kind of state government come mid-April. Don’t buy the predictions of a quick and dirty session. Dirty yes, not quick.

Governor Butch Otter, who initially opposed much of the Capitol rehabilitation project, particularly the new underground “wings” which will house individual offices for each legislator and expansive new hearing rooms, was asked about the irony of moving into the spiffy “new” Statehouse in the midst of such a troubled economy. The governor acknowledged “there is some unease there.” But, frankly not much. Republicans and Democrats alike resist any real acknowledgement of the enormous cost of the project and what it just might say about the state’s priorities.

The public ceremony and press coverage have centered on the magnificence of the restoration and new construction – and it is magnificent – as well as on what may turn out to be the great myth of the Statehouse story – that the building will continue to be “the people’s house.”

Perhaps the best thing that can be said about the Statehouse project is that it has served to undo the often shoddy, make do amendments to the building that took place in a generally haphazard manner over the years.

Gone is the opportunity like that seized by the late journalist, author and occasional politician Dwight Jensen to move his cot and hot plate into the old fourth floor press center and set up housekeeping. Gone is the dumpy snack bar on the first floor that mostly served the permanent workers in the building. It gave way to an expansive cafeteria where it remains to be seen whether lawmakers will want to break bread together.

I like the new gift shop and visitor center, something the “old” building lacked and needed and the displays recounting Idaho history on the “garden level” are very well done. Still and all, I will miss a certain intimacy and informality that existed before.

What will be vastly different, I think, in the new building is a sense of openness and accessibility. Hearing rooms will be larger, to be sure, providing a seat for observers. Often in the past crowds would gather in hearing room doorways to catch a glimpse of the action inside. Still you were close to the action, almost intimate with the players. Attending a hearing in the new digs will make one feel like a spectator sitting in a courtroom listening in while important people make decisions.

It will now be possible – and because it will be so convenient, I suspect it will happen routinely – for many legislators to move from their private offices down a non-public hallway and into a hearing room. From the new “garden level” offices lawmakers will utilize private elevators to go directly to the third floor where House and Senate chambers are located. In other words, legislators can do the vast majority of their work without ever setting foot in the public parts of the building. This is very different in both practice and symbolism from what has existed for nearly 100 years.

Years ago, as a reporter, I was sitting just behind the Republican chairman of the House State Affairs Committee during a particularly tense hearing. In the middle of the hearing, in walked Senator Art Murphy, a Democrat and one of the legendary lawmakers from northern Idaho’s Silver Valley. Not only was Murphy not a member of the committee, he was a Senate interloper from the other side of the building.

“Pops,” as Murphy was known to all, had a tightly rolled copy of the Kellogg Evening News in his hand. As he passed the head of the table where Chairman John Reardon sat, he was so close that he playfully, but firmly, thumped the rolled up newspaper on the back of Reardon’s head. Everyone who witnessed the moment gasped, then laughed out loud and the tension went out of the room. Nothing like that is likely to ever happen in the “new” building. A Pop Murphy, if there ever is another like him, couldn’t get close enough to the chairman or the action.

Also years ago, a former Associate Press Correspondent, Mark Wilson, who had worked for the wire service in Washington, D.C. and Austin, Texas, marveled at the enormous access Idahoans had to their elected officials. I remember Mark saying, in the short time since he had relocated to Idaho, that he had seen and talked to the governor, the speaker of the house, and state elected officials a hundred more times than he ever had in Austin. If not immediately, over time, such openness is likely to be a major casualty of the renovation/expansion.

Lobbyists – perhaps fittingly now relegated to an huge old walk-in vault – and reporters will figure out how to grab a quick conversation with a busy legislator, but you have to wonder what “beekeeper’s day at the legislature” will be like in the future. In the “old” Statehouse, an enterprising citizen could work the hallways for a couple of hours and button hole half the members of the legislature. Now, you’ll most likely need to make an appointment.

Frank Lloyd Wright or the brilliant men who designed and built the Idaho Capitol – Tourtellotte and Hummel – would tell us that form follows function. The vast majority of the building will sit unused for most of the year. [Look for sessions to grow even long and staff to grow even larger.] Beyond the 90 days or so that the legislature is in session, there will be little reason for the public to visit the building other than to admire the architecture. The Secretary of State’s licensing functions, for example, a reason for real people to visit the Statehouse, are no longer in the building. Outside of the legislative session, the magnificent “people’s house” will feel more and more like a quiet museum.

For nearly eight years, I had the singular honor – and pleasure – of occupying an office on the second floor in the west wing of the Idaho Statehouse. It still gives me pause to think about what it means to have the chance – and the responsibility – to work in such a place, while trying to attend to the public business. I do believe that great public buildings, in the very best way, have an ability to provide inspiration and encourage aspiration. One ought not to walk into the Idaho Capitol – or the U.S. Capitol, or the Supreme Court, or a thousand other great public buildings – without a sense that the grand brick and mortar as a foundation on which a great democracy is built. At their best, great public buildings should remind us that our mortal efforts too often fall short, while inspiring us to do better.

I suspect we will have many opportunities over the next few weeks to reflect, while public schools, higher education and other state budgets are more deeply slashed or eliminated, on whether “it was worth” it to spend scarce public dollars on such a project. I’d be the first to argue for preserving and restoring an incredible public building. But the renovation/expansion has also changed the essential nature of the building and, make no mistake, it will impact the lawmakers and the lawmaking. Time will tell whether Idahoans like what they have bought once the initial shine wears off.

Here is hoping we always benefit from an open, accessible legislature, not to mention an enlightened, forward looking public policy that comes close to matching the new surroundings.

Allred, Economy, Education, Egan, Idaho Politics, Otter

A Race for Idaho Governor – Part II

idaho state sealSix Things to Watch in Otter vs. Allred

As the New Year unfolds, Idaho voters may experience something they haven’t often witnessed lately – an interesting gubernatorial campaign.

After months of speculation that long-suffering Idaho Democrats might not field a serious candidate against incumbent Republican Butch Otter, a newcomer with interesting credentials jumped into the fray last week.

Yesterday’s post discussed the broad dynamics of the down and out Idaho Democrats and whether Keith Allred’s surprise candidacy can jump start their fortunes. Today: a half dozen things worth watching as this race unfolds.

1) How will the 2010 Idaho Legislature turn? The last two sessions have featured intra-party brawls between House and Senate Republicans and between Otter and GOP legislative leaders. The battles betray the fault lines between the more moderate elements in the party and the more conservative and have helped stall the governor’s legislative agenda, primarily transportation funding. It has been Otter’s fate to preside during a time of severe retrenchment and with the state’s economy still off in the ditch, the coming session promises more budget cutting and service reductions. Having been served this plate of political drama, Democrats haven’t been able to capitalize. So, watch how education funding fares – both K-12 and higher education – and whether continued deterioration in these areas really cause, or can be made to cause, consternation at the state’s kitchen tables.

2) By late summer or early fall will there be any discrenible improvement in the economy? Every incumbent would like a crystal ball on this question. At Christmas week, the state’s unemployment rate stands at a shade over 9%. If we could predict where that rate will stand on Labor Day and whether jobs and economic issues become a centerpiece of the coming campaign, we would have a better idea of whether an Otter-Allred match up will feature a real election or merely the run-up to a second term Otter coronation.

3) Can Allred gather the resources to run a credible race? The last two gubernatorial elections showed there is probably a million dollars available for any Idaho Democrat who works hard and seems credible. Still, carrying the fight to a well-financed incumbent is always an expensive proposition, particularly when one has to buy name recognition.

4) Will 2010 be a “throw the bums out election?” And, if it becomes an anti-incumbent year generally, will the notion of change gain steam across the political spectrum and in Idaho? Change was a powerful winning factor in national and state elections in 2008 and all the polling at the moment indicates folks are mad as hell and not anxious to take much more. Next year’s politics could be about change all over again, particularly if challengers, regardless of party, are able to make the case that the folks in office are part of the problem. That is, historically speaking, a tough sell for a Democrat in Idaho, but there is a populist wave building in the country and the smart candidates my try to ride it until November.

5) Does Allred’s personal story help him connect? The new candidate hails from Twin Falls, has a ranching background, a Harvard education, has served as an LDS Church leader and, until his announcement, could claim strong, non-partisan policy expertise. Does all that give him a chance to make his case in areas of Idaho – the Magic Valley in south central Idaho and the Upper Snake River Valley in the east, for instance – where Democrats are seldom heard and even less frequently considered worthy of a vote? While southern and eastern Idaho may seem a tempting target for a Democrat like Allred, historically the party’s successful candidates have had to play well north of the Salmon River and there the personal story will be dissected and debated for its relevance to many voters who still think in terms of timber and silver, salmon and wheat. I’ve always thought an acid test for an Idaho Democrat was being able to campaign at the gate of the Bear Lake County Fair in Montpelier and at the Border Days Rodeo in Grangeville, while not looking out of place in either locale. No Democrat since Cece Andrus have been able to pull that off.

6) And, can Keith Allred write a fundamentally new Democratic narrative in Idaho? And, will his adopted Democratic Party let him? He will need to fashion an updated, compelling 21st Century message, build a new electoral coalition, craft a new statewide organizing principle and, oh yes, there is that money. Democrats in Idaho also always need a major dose of luck – self-made generally.

A young John Kennedy warned tired and dispirited national Democrats in 1956 – with himself no doubt in mind – that the party needed “new ideas, new policies and new faces.”

Kennedy could have been talking about Idaho Democrats over the last 15 years. And while the political math for Democrats remains extremely difficult, a definition of “a new idea” would be nominating for governor a southern Idaho ranch kid turned Harvard professor, who is an LDS Bishop, sits a horse well and just happens to be a state government policy wonk.

Will a new face like that play in Grangeville? And will Allred’s consensus approach to policy catch on Bear Lake County? Stay tuned.

Allred, Economy, Education, Egan, Idaho Politics, Otter

A Race for Governor in Idaho

allredCowboy Wonk Vs. Cowboy Governor

Since 1994, the Idaho Democratic Party has been living the truth of the old saying about insanity. The definition of insanity, it is said, is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. Four times in a row, Idaho Democrats have run essentially the same campaign for governor and four times in a row they have lost, badly.

The next Idaho gubernatorial election may – too early to tell for sure – may offer a different narrative. Twin Falls native Keith Allred threw in with the Democrats last week and barring some big surprise will be the party’s candidate against incumbent Republican Butch Otter. I say “threw in” because until his announcement, most who have known him since he moved back to Idaho five years ago would have been hard pressed to divine his partisan leanings.

After establishing a name for himself in political and media circles as a scrupulously non-partisan policy analyst and founder of a non-profit group – The Common Interest – Allred has decided to try and apply his notions about what he calls “collaborative polling” to a run for the state’s highest office.

Allred is a very smart guy, well spoken and engaging. He is also a first time candidate matched against a guy who has been on the ballot continuously since 1986. Allred is also, and I say this with genuine regard, a policy wonk. If an Idaho election could be decided on the basis of who knows the most about the gasoline tax, Allred would be a shoo-in, and, of course, if smart, wonkish guys always won elections, we’d be remembering the tenure of President Bill Bradley. Politics rarely works that way.

Elections more often turn on other factors – human factors – such as likability, toughness, passion, organizational ability and innovation. Still a deep and wide knowledge of issues sure can’t hurt a first time candidate and it is better to start informed in detail about issues than to have to learn it all during the job interview.

The political and media classes know Allred by virtue of his very solid analytical work on issues like education funding and property taxes. While relationships with the chattering classes helps with early credibility, Allred is far from a household name. To state the obvious, he has a lot of ground to cover to make himself as well know as Otter who has served at Lt. Governor, Congressman and Governor for more than two decades. As the Idaho Statesman’s Rocky Barker correctly noted recently, Otter remains one of the best retail politicians Idahoans have ever seen and retail politics still matter in Idaho.

But, back to the need for a different narrative. The Democratic Party in Idaho, never a real statewide organization, has long lacked an effective plan – including a consistent and compelling message and the leadership to push a message – that might allow it to regain the relevance it lost when Phil Batt came from behind to grab the governorship in 1994. That watershed election ended 24 straight years of Democratic dominance in the big office on the second floor of the Statehouse and Democrats have been struggling ever since.

In the four elections beginning in 1994, no Democratic candidate for governor has captured more than 44% of the vote. The party and its gubernatorial candidate cry out for new approaches, for some innovation and for effective outreach to a new Idaho; the Idaho of young immigrants, Hispanics and high tech entrepreneurs. Having said that, it is admittedly easier to diagnose the problem than to prescribe the precise remedy.

For starters, the state has changed dramatically since 1986 when my old boss, four-term Governor Cecil D. Andrus won a very close election based on his ability to target and carry 13 of the state’s 44 counties. Many of those once reliably Democratic areas have long since ceased to be friendly territory for a Democrat. Organized labor, once a pillar of Democratic strength, is now, thanks in part to right to work legislation passed in 1986, much less a pillar. And the party’s legislative ranks have not proven to be any kind of a farm team of gubernatorial or other statewide talent.

It has been a long time since Democrats have had a successful younger candidate for major office – Andrus was 39 when he was first elected, Frank Church was 32 when he went to the Senate – who could present a new face for the party. One of the brightest potentials of the 45-year old Allred’s campaign is what it might mean in terms of a youth movement for aging Idaho Democrats.

The one thing that may remain relevant from the last successful Democratic gubernatorial campaign is the Andrus message: good schools, a good economy and a good place to live. That basic message, updated for a new century, may be more telling than ever in 2010, but, of course, every good message needs a good messenger.

Meanwhile, with the exceptions of the city limits of Boise and the Sun Valley area, Republicans can, and do, contest and win elections everywhere in Idaho. The GOP does have a farm team and very importantly, as the state’s population has grown over the last two decades, Otter’s home county – Canyon – has become even more critical in a statewide race.

Here is a telling statistic and remember the state’s population growth as you consider this: In losing to Otter in 2006, Democratic candidate Jerry Brady gathered in only 5,400 more votes than Andrus did in winning the governorship 20 years earlier in that very close race against Republican David Leroy. By contrast, Otter won in 2006 with 46,000 more votes than Leroy polled against Andrus two decades ago. Those numbers – growing Republican voting strength and relatively flat Democrat numbers – represent a structural deficit for a Democrat that presents a huge challenge for anyone running statewide.

Nevertheless, at first blush, the Allred candidacy has at least two things going for it: a fresh face backed by Idaho sensibilities and the potential to write a new Democratic game plan. It was no small surprise that respected former Republican State Senator Laird Noh of Kimberly endorsed Allred right out of the box and praised his bi-partisan consensus building skills. Not a bad start, but only a start.

Woody Allen famously said that 90% of life is simply showing up. Ninety percent of politics may be showing up at the right time. Is the timing right in Idaho for a new kind of Democrat? Or, do tough times like the present argue for continuing the politics and personalities that Idahoans have grown comfortable with for 15 years? Such questions make politics winter’s best spectator sport.

Tomorrow: A half dozen things to watch as an Otter-Allred race unfolds