Egan, Idaho Politics

Mike Mitchell

mitchellOne of the Good Guys

When I became chief of staff to the Governor of Idaho in 1991 it was a case of good news and bad news. It was an honor and responsibility and therefore good news to have that job and title. The bad news was I had to follow Mike Mitchell.

There is a dinner in Lewiston tonight honoring the long-time state legislator, state transportation board member, former candidate for Lt. Governor and chief of staff to Cecil Andrus. Mike Mitchell deserves to take some bows and enjoy the limelight. He has it coming. Those of us lucky enough to have worked with and enjoyed the friendship and company of the “little giant,” know Mitchell simply as a state government expert. The guy has forgotten more about how things work in state government than most legislators ever learn.

During my time covering the Idaho Legislature and later working for Andrus, I saw Mike master the state budget process as a member of the legislature’s most powerful and important committee – Joint Finance and Appropriations. He knew the ins and outs of the correction system, he served with real distinction on the Transportation Board, he knew public school funding and where the higher education system worked and didn’t. Few legislators or executive branch officials worked harder to master the details, that is to understand why things work well or need to be fixed, than Mike Mitchell.

Mitchell is a committed Democrat with friends all over the political spectrum in part, I think, because he was scrupulously fair and honest in his dealings with everyone – even reporters with half-baked notions – and he has a sense of humor.

A favorite story: Mike once placed an expensive cigar on a chair side table near a swimming pool and, while dozing in the sun, the cigar rolled off onto the deck near his chair. Waking from the nap, and anticipating re-lighting the cigar, he inadvertently stepped on the stogie while standing up. There was a very noticeable crunch and the frugal and funny Mitchell immediately quipped, “I sure hope that was my watch…”

It is an easy talking point for politicians to criticize government. We all have our pet peeves. But a guy like Mike Mitchell proves the truth of the old notion that public service, in all of its manifestations, can be, and with good people on the job truly is, a noble calling.

A lot of the hard and essential work Mike Mitchell performed for Idaho for the last several decades won’t ever get recorded in the history books. Too bad. But he can know as he takes a bow in Lewiston tonight that it made a big difference to thousands and thousands of people. Mike Mitchell gets the title he most deserves – he is one of the good guys who has made a real difference in Idaho.

Egan, Idaho Politics

Cowboy-in-Chief

16670_artist_in_tent_270Charlie Russell for Governor

The great western artist Charlie Russell – that’s him in a tent with a paint brush – never, as far as I know, contemplated a political life. Considering that he spent many early years as a cowboy in the tough country of central Montana, he would have been a shoo-in. Russell, a great artist, was by all accounts also a great story teller and he could ride a horse. Russell was a legit cowboy. That might just have been good enough to win high public office.

Russell is remembered today for his iconic paintings of cowboys, Native Americans and, perhaps his masterpiece, Lewis and Clark meeting the Flatheads at Ross’s Hole. The huge painting – 25 by 12 feet – hangs in the Montana State Capitol in Helena. Go see it if you get close.

But back to cowboys and politics. Amid all the position papers, TV commercials and editorial endorsements, a political race always comes down to two people and a choice. That choice can be influenced by a lot of factors. Who do you most agree with? Do you desire to punish someone for something and, as a result, “vote the SOB’s out?” Maybe you make your election choice, as I think many do, on the basis of who seems the most likable, the most easy to identify with.

Running for public office is not an IQ test. The smartest guy seldom wins. Think President Bill Bradley. And, while experience counts, maybe it counts less this year than it has before. Running for public office often comes down to defining your brand. Who is this person? Do I trust him or her? Are they authentic? Can they ride a horse, like say, Charlie Russell?

Speaking of that, the cowboy factor has become a factor in the Idaho gubernatorial campaign. As the Associated Press’s John Miller reported recently, incumbent Butch Otter (a team roper) and challenger Keith Allred (a successful cutting horse competitor) seem at times to be contending for the Cowboy-in-Chief label.

Call me crazy, but the Miller story provides about as much nuance and insight into the two competitors as we’ve seen so far from the reporting of this race that has been dominated by taxes and education spending. Otter favors Stetson, Allred is a Resistol man.

As Miller notes in his story, by the way it was picked up far and wide from the L.A. Times to Salon, the cowboy thing has often worked in western politics. Montana’s Brian Schweitzer did commercials on horse back and often wears a bolo tie when he’s not wearing a plaid shirt. New Mexico’s Bill Richardson fancies cowboy duds. No wingtips for former Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber, who is working on a comeback. Kitzhaber is a jeans and boots kinda guy.

“They have castrated thousands of calves,” Miller wrote of the Idaho contenders. “They spend free time riding the range on horseback or hunting with shotguns slung over their shoulders. Cowboy hats, oversized belt buckles and scuffed-up boots are standard attire.”

Each of the Idaho candidates has photos on their websites of them totin’ a gun and riding a horse. One picture each in a blue suit.

As Steve Crump pointed out in a Times-News editorial, the cowboy thing is harder for a Democrat to pull of. After all, the ultimate cowboy politician was the Great Communicator, a Republican.

“Like Ronald Reagan, Allred gets it about cowboys. Reagan would never have tried to brand a calf, but he always looked like the Marlboro man whenever he mounted his Arabian gelding El Alamein. And the president forever wore his Stetson askew, tilted to the left, like Alan Ladd in Shane.”

The normally reliable Crump – a good student of Idaho history – did get one thing wrong in his editorial last Sunday. After analyzing the cowboy cred of the two political cow punchers running for governor, he brought another guy who sits a horse pretty well into the analysis, former Gov. Cecil D. Andrus.

“Hell’s bells,” Crump wrote with regard to the Otter-Allred race, “nothing like this dust-up has happened in Idaho since a mule owned by then-Lt. Gov. Otter kicked then-Gov. Cecil Andrus, a Democrat, on a camping trip.”

Say what?

First, that wasn’t a camping trip. Real Idahoans don’t call an elk hunt a camping trip and that mule that did the kicking in Andrus’s elk camp wasn’t owned by Butch, but by Cecil. To paraphrase Lloyd Bentsen in his 1988 debate with Dan Qualye: I knew Ruthie the mule. Ruthie was, well sort of, a friend of mine and Butch Otter didn’t own Ruthie.

I note this both for the historical record and in order that I can posit what I consider the real test of political viability in Idaho.

Which of the two cowboy candidates actually did what real Idahoans do in the fall – head for the hills, set up the elk camp and hunt the mighty Wapati? I am awaiting an answer on that.

Both these guys – Otter and Allred – look good in a hat on a horse, but can they make camp coffee? Now, there’s a question for their next debate. Charlie Russell shoulda run for something. You gotta know that guy knew his way around an elk camp.

Idaho Politics, Public Lands

Forecasting the Future

Interior ReportA View of Public Land Policy…50 Years Ago

“In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.” – Dwight D. Eisenhower

Fifty years ago last Friday – August 27, 1960 – near the end of the Eisenhower Administration, then-Secretary of the Interior Fred Seaton wrote to the President to transmit a report entitled Project Twenty-Twelve. The report was an effort by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to look at its programs fifty years into the future – 2012.

Perhaps Eisenhower conjured up his famous quote about plans and planning when Seaton presented the document; a government report by an agency that had only been around officially since 1946 and was struggling to define its identity.

More likely, I suspect, Ike slipped out the back door of the Oval Office, putter in hand, to visit his private putting green and didn’t give the BLM document a second thought. Then again, one likes to think that the former Supreme Allied Commander in Europe, known to be handy with a fly rod, would have taken at least a passing interest in predictions about the future of America’s natural landscape.

In any event, Project Twenty-Twelve, like so many government reports, found a home on a shelf gathering dust. Still the impressive effort at forecasting what the future might hold did lay the foundation for the relatively young agency. BLM was created by the great Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes who combined Interior’s General Land Office with the department’s Grazing Service.

Given the 50th anniversary of the official release of the report, its worth revisiting what they saw in the land management crystal ball as they tried to envisioned the early 21st Century. Credit for unearthing the old report goes to a group of Idaho BLM retirees who, while sitting around at lunch a while back remembered the effort and the document was recently unearthed in BLM archives in Phoenix.

Credit also to the University of Michigan Library which digitized the report in December 2009 and made the full work available on line.

With thanks to my friend and former Andrus Administration colleague, Andy Brunelle, who has a both fine eye for history and an encyclopedic understanding of public lands issues, for both pointing out the existance of the report and helping form some observations that both look back and forward 50 years.

Compared to a modern day Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) the 2012 report was mercifully brief. It includes a nice, short section on the history of the public domain lands and recounts how the federal government gave away lands for 150 years before turning away from that policy in the mid-20th Century. The 1976 passage of
Federal Land Policy and Management Act (FLPMA) finally brought the public land disposal era to an end.

The second chapter of the forecast provided a broad look at the future. The United States, according to those looking forward a half century, was projected to double in population to 360 million by 2012. We have actually grown a little more slowly, with the current population standing at about 310 million.

The BLM forecasters said in 1960 that the nation would use more than 30 billion cubic feet of wood annually. We are a little over 20 billion now.

While guessing too high on those measures, the report also included a Bureau of Mines projection that the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in 2012 would stand at $2.4 trillion. The GDP stood at about $500 billion in 1959. Today’s GDP is somewhere around $15 trillion, but in inflation-adjusted terms, and when compared to 1959, the 50 year old guess is actually quite close to what was predicted – $2.4 trillion.

Visits to National Parks, National Forests, BLM lands and state parks were projected to grow from 400 million visits in 1960 to 1.7 billion visits by 2010. It is impossible to compare those guesses to current numbers because the way the agencies monitor visits has changed. This much can be said, however. The percentage of population engaged in outdoor recreation has doubled since 1965 and the amount of time people engage in outdoor recreation has also doubled.

So with population increasing in that period from 180 million to 310 million, Americans are spending twice as much time engaged in outdoor recreation as they were nearly 50 years ago. No wonder its difficult to find a good campsite.

The BLM forecasters also predicted dramatic scientific and technological advances from research and development that would have special impact on BLM programs and operations.

In 1960, the agency forecast widespread application of mechanization and automation in industries dependent on minerals, wood and other raw materials from public lands administered by BLM. This prediction seems spot on since, particularly in the 1980’s, Idaho and other resource states witnessed widespread sawmill modernization that, while making the wood products industry much more productive, also had the unfortunate side effect of the loss of thousands of jobs that were the backbone of many rural communities in the West.

The report forecast water treatment of saline and brackish waters for agriculture and domestic use. This prediction is certainly true as it relates to the vast increase over 50 years in sophisticated community waste water treatment, much of it driven by the Clean Water Act. The prediction has proven to be less valid when agriculture polluted run-off is involved. And, the ocean has not become a major water source, but stay tuned.

BLM forecast fifty years ago the development of transportation systems and facilities for rapid movement of large numbers of people from urban areas to and from rural recreation sites. The Interstate Highway System we now take for granted has helped this prediction to be realized, but we also bought into urban sprawl, exurbs and, in recent years, a welcome trend for some to move back into central cities in places like Portland, Salt Lake City and, to some degree, Boise. I’m betting, as the report forecast, that we see more and more “car free” National Parks in the future with visitors arriving by the shuttles that now move people at Zion and Yosemite.

The agency also forecast improved techniques and facilities for protecting public lands and resources from damaged due to fire, insects, diseases, or other hazards.

Certainly fire protection programs have been greatly improved since the authors of the BLM report thought about the future, but Mother Nature has also responded by producing larger, more intense wildfires. This is the “paradox of success” defined at a 2004 Andrus Center for Public Policy conference on the history and future of the Forest Service.

Critics of the BLM have often referred to the agency at the Bureau of Livestock and Mining – much more true in 1960 than today – and the 1960 report does devote a great deal of attention to the condition of grazing lands as well as an assessment of the mineral estate at that time. Much less attention was focused on forest resources or recreation.

Other parts of the forecast provide a program-by-program discussion of current efforts and how over a fifty year time frame BLM programs will continue to work. This section of the report will likely only be of interest to a BLM alum or a wild land ecologist, but it is nonetheless important stuff.

Only one paragraph – one – is devoted to the topic of weed control, where mention is made that “depleted ranges contribute to the spread of noxious and poisonous weeds” and that an ongoing weed control program is anticipated to respond to this problem. “The long-range program provides for substantial weed control activity through 1980,” the report says, “after which time this work will be progressively reduced.”

What has actually happened is that after about 1980 the increasing spread of noxious weeds became much worse and the BLM continues a long, twilight struggle against these unglamourous, but awfully important pests. We now recognize the important work that must occur with invasive species, whether its weeds affecting habitat and forage, or whirling disease affecting important trout populations. The BLM has generally kept up with the problem and has steadily accelerated the battle.

In the 1960 discussion on forest management, which centers on the O and C lands in Oregon, a smooth path forward was predicted for a sustainable harvest of 1 to 1.2 billion board feet annually for the next fifty years. The projection was good for about half of that period. Twenty-five years in, by 1985, there was growing public discontent about the effects of clearcut logging on public lands, and the BLM’s O and C lands in Oregon were eventually swept into the larger Northwest forest wars symbolized by the environmental concerns over the northern spotted owl.

What the Project Twenty-Twelve planners missed – and what almost any long-range planning effort will struggle to understand – are changing societal values. The planners did not forecast the increasing public and political consensus about environmental protection. They did not – or perhaps could not – forecast that the 1950’s Congressional debates over wilderness would lead to the passage in 1964 of The Wilderness Act.

That fundamental piece of national public land policy was followed by much other legislation – the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act in 1968, the National Environmental Policy Act in 1969 and the Endangered Species Act in 1973, to name a few.

The Project Twenty-Twelve report, proves that the most difficult thing to predict in the pace and magnitude of change. It’s pretty easy to collect data and then use a straight line to project growth into the future, but being able to see where the line will curve, or break or take a new direction is much more difficult.

The great general was right. Plans are useless, but planning is essential. Perhaps this old, dusty BLM report can – fifty years after its release – help a new generation of public land managers and policy makers ask better questions about the assumptions we all make about the future.

We can always start with the question and think deeply about it: what is taking place now that won’t – or can’t – continue into the future?

My thanks again to Andy for bringing the Project Twenty-Twelve report – ancient history, but fascinating information – to my attention.

Egan, Idaho Politics

Debating Debates

20_Idaho_Governor_Debate_t210A Short History and a Few Suggestions

Let’s give credit to the two major candidates for governor of Idaho. They have debated early and apparently will debate often between now and November 2. That hasn’t always been the norm in Idaho.

In many past elections, incumbents have often deemed it in their best interest to sit on their lead, while going into the political equivalent of Coach Dean Smith’s four corner basketball slowdown offense. Coach Smith, the great North Carolina legend, wanted to control the game knowing that the opponent can’t score without the ball. This year in Idaho things look different. Otter and Allred seem ready to run the floor.

Allred seemed to generate the most headlines in the first encounter with his charge that Otter is a “career politician,” while Otter defended his handling of education budgets and quipped that the Democrat was the “first college professor” he’d ever run against. Otter zinged Allred for talking about a top-to-bottom review of the state’s myriad tax exemptions without offering specifics.

Long-time political observer Randy Stapilus pointed out that both candidates know their Constitutional history and “tossed in so many references to the ‘founding fathers’ that you began to wonder if either of them really understands that the year is 2010, not 1790. But then, this (was) an Idaho Falls audience.”

There will be more debates and that is all too the good.

I think there may be just a handful of debates in recent Idaho political history that had any real impact on an election. The two Frank Church – Steve Symms debates in 1980 may not have been decisive in that historic race, but I believe they helped Symms, a glib conservative with a reputation for the controversial, off-the-cuff remark, establish that he could hold his own with the Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who was one of the Senate’s best debaters and an eloquent speaker.

As I recall those encounters, and I moderated both of them, Symms was on the attack at every turn and Church, a four-term incumbent, was generally on the defensive and not just from Symms’ charges, but also from a massive national effort engineered by a conservative political action committee. The media coverage of those debates – usually the source of the greatest political consequence – tended to call the encounters a draw, but in many ways that equalled a win for the challenger Symms.

In 1986, the debates featuring Symms and then-Governor John Evans, who was challenging for the Senate seat, and Lt. Gov. David Leroy and then-former Gov. Cecil Andrus, who were seeking the governorship, were spirited and important.

Beyond those encounters, its hard to recall an Idaho debate that made much impact, which is not to say that they aren’t important – very important – to the democratic process.

Here’s a suggestion. Idaho needs a more formalized, standardized approach to political debates. The model is the Commission on Presidential Debates, the group that organizes the now standard debates featuring the Republican and Democratic candidates. The Commission determines the location for the face-offs and generally manages the logistics. At various times in Idaho, the Press Club, the League of Women Voters, Idaho Public Television and individual news organizations have organized – or tried to organize – debates. This week’s debate in eastern Idaho was organized by the Idaho Falls City Club and the format – clean, straightforward, presided over by a single moderator – seemed very well done.

Unlike Thursday’s Otter-Allred encounter in Idaho Falls, Idaho debates are typically held in Boise. But debates should be held around the state and public TV (and anyone else who wants to) should broadcast them.

The regional piece is really important. It’s hard to believe a gubernatorial debate anywhere other than eastern Idaho would have generated a question about the Areva uranium enrichment project near Idaho Falls. A debate in Lewiston this cycle would ensure that questions would be asked about the controversial plan to haul massive oil field equipment up Highway 12. Idaho is a state of regions and having the debate spread around would be good for the state, the candidates and regional issues.

So, how about an Idaho Commission on Gubernatorial Debates? Each major political party could appoint a representative to the Commission and they in turn could agree on a third member. The Commission could seek proposals from various cities or organizations, like the City Clubs in Idaho Falls and Boise, to sponsor debates and then conduct the negotiations about formats and other details with the various camps. The Commission could select the moderators and spend the time and effort needed to determine eligibility for third-party or independent candidates, most of whom never mount a serious campaign and should not get in the middle of a discussion between those who will win elections.

A Commission would have the added benefit of keeping the members of the Fourth Estate, the press, out of the debate organizing and sponsoring role. News organizations should cover debates, not determine formats and who participates. Media organizations have often found it impossible to say “no” to debate participation by fringe candidates and some of the formats for past television debates in Idaho, apparently in an effort to make the debate move faster or seem more interesting, have been so prescriptive with time limits and “lightening rounds” as to seem more like game shows than serious discussions of serious issues.

In past Idaho elections candidates have also, from time-to-time, played various media organizations against one another in order to position for maximum benefit to their own campaigns. Nothing really wrong from with that from the standpoint of political strategy except that it tends to make the negotiations difficult and prolonged. There have been occasions when debates sponsored by news organizations actually end up limiting coverage rather than enhancing it. A Commission would do away with this type of gamesmanship.

One final observation. Having seen debates from all sides as a moderator, organizer and aide to a candidate, I’ve come to understand that generally speaking campaigns and candidates hate the idea of debates. At best, they often consider a debate a necessary evil. They know they will catch flack of they dodge debating, but most candidates – the underdog being the notable exception – would rather make a trip to the dentist. Debates take time to prepare for, they can be high risk and low reward events and there is always the chance for the game changing gaffe or stumble.

All the more reason to standardize the events, raise the bar on expectations for gubernatorial debates and make these every four year political events a truly institutionalized part of Idaho campaigns.

Egan, Idaho Politics

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.

Egan, Idaho Politics

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.

 

2014 Election, Borah, Egan, Idaho Politics

Room for a Borah?

BorahToo Independent for Today’s GOP

Arguably William Edgar Borah – the Lion of Idaho – is the most famous and influential politician Idaho has ever produced. He served longer in the U.S. Senate than anyone from Idaho ever has, was a genuine international figure and regularly confounded what he called “the old guard” in the GOP because of his independence.

One wonders what Bill Borah would have thought of some planks in the Idaho GOP platform adopted last weekend in Idaho Falls? I wonder how many of the delegates know, or care, that Borah fought hard for, indeed was the floor sponsor of, the Constitutional amendment – the 17th Amendment – that changed the way U.S. Senators are elected. Idaho Republicans are now on record favoring repeal of Borah’s handiwork and returning to the pre-1913 days when state legislators elected Senators.

Borah was never a party regular. A reporter made the observation in the early 1930’s that there were four distinct political factions in the United States – Republicans, Democrats, Progressives and William E. Borah.

While Borah never broke openly with the national party, he did refuse to endorse William Howard Taft in 1912 – Borah was close to Theodore Roosevelt – and he couldn’t bring himself to back Alfred Landon in 1936. Pressed by GOP leaders to make a series of radio talks to help Landon, the Kansas governor, in his uphill fight against Franklin Roosevelt, Borah refused. His biographer, Marian McKenna, wrote that “he warned Republican leaders that if they force him to take a stand publicly…he would let it be known that he preferred Roosevelt.”

Borah might have trouble with the “loyalty oath” Idaho Republicans now say will be required of GOP candidates. I doubt he would have approved of the party’s effort to encourage long-time GOP local official Vern Bisterfeldt to withdraw as the party’s candidate for Ada County Commissioner because of his past support for some Democratic candidates. In 1912 Borah challenged state GOP leaders to read him out of the party if they could. They couldn’t.

As to the 17th Amendment – the direct election of U.S. Senators – I think it not an overstatement to say that Idaho’s most famous Republican would have been appalled that modern day GOP adherents would openly call for its repeal.

McKenna wrote in her 1961 biography about Borah’s leadership on the issue: “It was an excellent public service, but few know or remember Borah’s part in it. The fight had been long, cutting across party lines and pitting conservatives against progressives. Borah found this groping of the electorate toward a truer and more efficient democracy most heartening.”

Asked years later if the change in how Senators are elected had improved the Senate, Borah had no doubt. He trusted the popular will. “What judgment is so swift, so sure and so remorseless,” he said, “as the judgment of the American people?”

There were two principle reasons Borah favored the election reform, one very personal another moral. He knew that his Senate career would likely be a short one if he couldn’t appeal directly to the voters and he was genuinely disgusted by the corruption involved when legislators elected Senators.

One of the most celebrated corruption cases involved William Andrews Clark of Montana, but Borah was more familiar with a corrupt 1909 Illinois election involving William Lorimer. As exposed by the Chicago Tribune, Lorimer won his Senate seat thanks to a $100,000 slush fund gathered by Illinois business interests who used the cash to bribe state legislators. The Senate eventually declared Lorimer’s election invalid and Borah used the case to press for his reform.

In the 1930’s, Borah remained fiercely independent and above his party. He supported much of Roosevelt’s New Deal, made common cause with Democrats – Montana’s Burton K. Wheeler, a Progressive Democrat, was a close friend and collaborator – and lamented the GOP drift to the right. In his one rather half-hearted run for the White House in 1936, Borah told a campaign crowd: “If those now in control [of the Republican Party] would wake up some morning and find that I had been nominated for President they would groan, roll over and die.”

McKenna summed up his individualism this way: “He was really an independent with a mystic loyalty to the party which never seemed to live up to the ideals he conceived for it. He was a Republican by inheritance and a Democrat by inclination. He tried to stand for the best in the two parties and was inevitably accused of straddling…it took courage for him to wage an unending battle against the old guard in the party which he really loved.”

Mark Twain once said that, “in religion and politics, people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second hand, and without examination.”

Perhaps political party platforms should be seen in the same light, and, of course, Democrats come up with crazy notions and put them in their platforms, too. Still, some of the positions Idaho Republicans now endorse ignore some of the the country’s history, not to mention the history of the most famous Republican Idaho ever produced.

Egan, Idaho Politics

Sorting Out the Idaho Primary – Part II

sarah palin vaughn wardThe Palin Effect and More

If there is a single journalist with a national audience who regularly keeps an eye on Idaho it would be Tim Egan, the former Spokane kid, who now writes a weekly, online column for the New York Times.

Here is the lead on Tim’s column today:

“In the midst of one of the most precipitous political crashes in the Mountain West, Sarah Palin made a mad dash into Boise on Friday, urging the election of a man who had plagiarized his campaign speech from Barack Obama, had been rebuked by the military for misusing the Marine uniform and had called the American territory of Puerto Rico a separate country.”

Read on for Egan’s take on the Palin brand and some insight into why her obvious popularity doesn’t seem to transfer to the folks she endorses, including Vaughn Ward.

Meanwhile, if its possible, the Idaho Legislature next year is shaping up to be even more conservative. One sure take away from Tuesday’s election in Idaho: the most conservative elements in the state GOP continue to be on the rise and they turned out this week.

The Associated Press’ John Miller notes in his summary story on the defeat of four GOP incumbent state senators: “Sens. Chuck Coiner of Twin Falls, Mike Jorgenson of Hayden Lake, Gary Schroeder of Moscow, and Lee Heinrich of Cascade lost to rivals who are either tea party adherents or courted voters espousing the movement’s limited-government, states-rights philosophy.”

Still, I’m reminded – from an historical perspective- that there is nothing new in the fact that given a choice, Idaho GOP primary voters often reward the most conservative candidates in a given race. That’s why Helen Chenoweth beat David Leroy in 1994 in a GOP First District primary and why Bill Sali won a six way race in the same district in 2006.

In the more distant past, then-House Speaker Allen Larsen won a six way primary for governor in 1978, in part, on the strength of his very conservative standing. In hotly contested GOP primaries, all things being equal, the most conservative candidate tends to win.

None of this history diminishes the obvious intensity of the “tea party” movement. Idahoans and people across the country are fuming about a lot of things and they are taking it out on incumbents or those seen as representing “the establishment.” As a result, one-time GOP moderates like John McCain in Arizona, fearing the anger, are running to the right, while the middle of American – and Idaho – politics becomes more and more a no candidate land.

November may tell us the power of anger as a political platform. Historically, optimism and practical solutions have proven to be a better path to power, but we’re in a new zone and Tuesday’s outcomes in Idaho will serve to reinforce the notion that being against something feels better to most candidates in this climate than being for something.

Egan, Idaho Politics

Sorting Out the Idaho Primary

labradorMoney, Endorsements Lose to Gaffes and Guts

Raul Labrador, the new GOP candidate for Congress in Idaho’s First District, is political proof of Woody Allen’s famous phrase – “Eighty percent of life is showing up.”

Back in the gloomy cold of winter, with the Idaho Republican establishment in line with the guy Labrador decked on Tuesday, you wouldn’t have found many political watchers in Idaho – this one included – who would have given the very conservative state legislator even a five percent chance to win the GOP primary. You gotta hand it to Labrador. He had the guts to show up and win he did. All politics require measures of luck and timing and courage and Labrador got just enough of each.

Labrador will now face first-term Democrat Walt Minnick in a race that could well turn on whether Republicans nationally have a genuine chance to recapture control of the U.S. House of Representatives this fall.

Minnick will hope to make the election about his effectiveness and his conservative Democratic credentials. In other words, localize the contest. Labrador will try, as he began to do on election night, to make the contest part of a national referendum on Nancy Pelosi. Minnick has a war chest, while Labrador must have awakened this morning looking for money.

The one-time anointed GOP candidate in the First District, Vaughn Ward – now dubbed the worst candidate ever – saw his front runner status dissolve over the last month in what will go down in Idaho political history as the most astounding series of, as Randy Stapilus says, “goofs and gaffes” that anyone can remember.

Ward’s demise drew significant national attention because he had been so completely embraced by the national and state GOP establishment and because Sarah Palin’s last minute appearance on his behalf seemed to do nothing to help his cause.

At the end of his line, Ward’s big name endorsers, including two former governors, were no were to be found. Sen. Mike Crapo admonished him in the campaign’s 11th hour for misusing a quote and a YouTube video of Ward stealing – of all things – Barack Obama’s words went absolutely viral. Shakespeare couldn’t have written this ending.

Now, the vetting of Labrador really begins. Ward, as the front runner and generally regarded as the toughest opponent for Minnick, collapsed under the scrutiny and because of his own verbal gaffes. Now Labrador, who went virtually unchallenged during the primary, get his turn in the barrel.

The rest of the primary soup in Idaho was pretty thin. Incumbent Gov. C.L. “Butch” Otter won renomination, but a squad of challengers held him under 55 percent. Still Otter, a decades-long fixture in Idaho politics, seems well positioned for the fall. He will face first-time candidate Keith Allred, who had little opposition in the Democratic primary. Incumbent Republicans Crapo and Idaho’s other Congressman Mike Simpson seem on a sure glide path to re-election.

More tomorrow.

Egan, Idaho Politics

Now…That Was a Primary

glen taylorGlen Taylor…an Idaho Original

For the last few weeks, many Idahoans – particularly those who enjoy a good political tale – have been fascinated by the congressional primary between Raul Labrador and Vaughn Ward that will be decided today. The Ward-Labrador GOP primary has been a fascinating race, but can’t hold a candle to a long ago Democratic primary.

Fifty-four years ago, Idaho witnessed one of the most contentious primary elections ever and the guy who lost that epic battle – Glen Taylor – went to his grave believing the victor – Frank Church -had stolen his chance to return to the U.S. Senate. That 1956 primary launched Church’s distinguished 24 year career.

Idaho has produced its share of political characters – Big George Hansen, Steve Symms, C. Ben Ross, to name but three – but few could hold a candle to Glen Taylor, the Singing Cowboy. Taylor ran for the Senate six times, but won only once, in 1944, when he beat incumbent D. Worth Clark in the Democratic primary.

In his earlier attempts at elective office, Taylor traveled Idaho with a sound truck, his wife Dora and the GlenDora Singers. As Taylor’s biographer, F. Ross Peterson, has colorfully detailed in his excellent book on Taylor – Prophet Without Honor: Glen Taylor and the Fight for American Liberalism – the Taylor clan would ride into town, set up on a street corner and start belting out country-western tunes. After a crowd gathered, Taylor would climb up on the roof of the truck and deliver his political stump speech. It must have been quite the show.

Taylor ran and won in 1944 as an unabashed liberal, an advocate of what became the United Nations and a supporter of civil rights. His left-leaning politics eventually propelled Taylor onto the 1948 Progressive Party national ticket where he ran as former Vice President Henry Wallace’s running mate. They two liberals lost badly – Wallace and Taylor polled fewer than 5,000 votes in Idaho – and the stench of socialist or communist influence in the Progressive Party never completely left Taylor. He lost the 1950 Idaho Democratic primary to the guy he’d beaten in 1950 – former Sen. Worth Clark. Clark, in turn, lost to one-term Sen. Herman Welker.

Taylor tried again for the Senate in 1954 and lost again. He made one final try two years later against the 32-year old Church. Church ran a vigorous campaign and by the morning after primary election day he held a less-than-commanding 170 vote lead over Taylor.

Taylor alleged irregularities in the vote count in Elmore County, but Church was declared the winner and went on to defeat Welker in the fall. A subsequent Senate review of the election – lead by Tennessee Sen. Albert Gore, Sr. – confirmed that Church had indeed won, but Taylor never believed it.

In his 1979 memoir – The Way it Was With Me – Taylor wouldn’t let the long-ago election die. I remember interviewing Taylor at the time and he remained, at age 80, feisty, opinionated and outspoken. Taylor died in 1984, a one-time senator from Idaho and a many time candidate. One of the true Idaho originals.

After running out his string in politics, Taylor made a fortune as the inventor of the Taylor Topper and he operated the extremely successful toupee business for many years. The ex-senator was a walking advertisement for his hairy product.

In 1963, TIME did a piece – pardon the pun – on the male hair piece and quoted the general manager of the Taylor Topper company as saying: “The Senator is always saying that the only thing that will stop hair from falling is the floor.”

Don’t forget to vote today.