Pandemic no time for Republican rule

Remember when, just over a month ago, we dreamt that the current pandemic would be under control by August?  

People looked forward to school resuming in August. Sponsors were cancelling or postponing June and July events, but the Eastern and Western Idaho state fairs, scheduled for late August and early September, seemed safe.

New reports of coronavirus cases in Idaho numbered over 30 on only one day from April 21 to May 21. Last week they numbered over 200 on three days as the U.S. total hit 44,000 Friday.         

Bars in Boise have had to close for a second time, but not those in neighboring counties, leaving a lot of people wondering which counties will set new records next.  

Schools are striving to find ways to get Internet access into thousands of students’ homes this fall.

The Idaho State Democratic Party is polling members to see if they want to revise the platform during face-to-face or virtual meetings–or simply re-endorse the 2018 document.  

And Republicans seem out to prove they shouldn’t be responsible for the general good.   

To start off, the Trump Administration filed an 82-page brief asking the Supreme Court to invalidate the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare. In the midst of this pandemic, the nation’s top Republicans are attempting to take away subsidies for insurance or benefits from Medicaid expansion from 23 million Americans previously covered plus millions more who are losing employment-based insurance. 

Apparently, the lives at stake are less important to the current administration than wiping out every vestige of the Obama Administration.  

In his defense, President Trump dragged out his tired claim that Republicans have a much better plan. In truth, the Republican members of Congress remain deeply divided over whether a government plan should exist.  

Here in Idaho, Governor Little chose to defy a direct order by a Federal judge to give Reclaim Idaho a chance to complete signature gathering stopped by the State’s stay-home order in March. The stalled initiative would have funded an additional $170 million for Idaho’s education by increasing taxes on corporations and high-income individuals. 

Judge B. Lynn Winmill said that, after allowing various applications of electronic signature gathering for 20 years, the state was wrong not to allow Reclaim Idaho to do so.

Idaho replied that following the court’s order would inflict “significant, irreparable injury” and “impinge on the state’s power to control its elections.”   

Obviously, Gov. Little has enough Republicans angry at him over the stay-home orders without dealing fairly with an initiative. And if Republican legislators wanted to improve education funding by taxing the rich, they would have done so by now. (Spokane’s top teacher salary is now about $25,000 a year more than Boise’s.) 

And then delegates at the Idaho Republican Convention in Nampa over the weekend made it pretty obvious that they do not represent Idaho people or their values. 

More attention was given to supporting Israel than to education, jobs, and health combined.     

Republicans elected as their chair Tom Luna, author of the ‘Luna Laws’ which stripped teachers of rights to negotiate for students and which Idaho voters rejected by up to 67%. There’s no sign that Luna has changed. On the contrary, his nomination included praise of those laws.

For another, delegates gave serious attention to defying the Supreme Court’s one-man, one-vote rule and giving every county just one state senator. That is, the 1,100 inhabitants of Camas County would have the same strength in the Idaho Senate as the 480,000 in Ada County or the 230,000 in Canyon County.  

I’m fairly certain this isn’t the best of all possible worlds.

Make America polluted again?

During the current pandemic President Trump has resisted safety precautions like distancing and wearing face masks. His reaction to the first 100,000 deaths was to congratulate his administration because it wasn’t worse. And he insisted on having an indoor rally Saturday night in a 19,000-seat stadium in Tulsa, two days after Oklahoma hit a record number of new cases–450.

Unfortunately, the President’s cavalier attitude toward death doesn’t begin and end with this coronavirus. While the public has been preoccupied with the pandemic, the Environmental Protection Agency has been working to rescind protections. 

The New York Times recently credited the Trump Administration with rolling back 66 environmental rules, including eight since March, and working on 34 more. 

Three important recent changes ended restrictions on mercury and perchlorate pollution, and wreaked havoc on the Clean Water Act.

In 2018 the EPA asserted that mercury restrictions weren’t cost effective, i.e. the cost of removing mercury from burning coal was more than the cost of dealing with resulting health problems and deaths. This spring an agency study produced numbers supporting that assertion, and the EPA ended the restrictions.  

Some background. One, in a letter last summer, the power utilities and labor groups involved pointed out that mercury emissions had been reduced by nearly 90 percent since regulations began and asked that the current standards be kept. 

Two, the head of the EPA, Andrew Wheeler, was formerly a lobbyist representing coal magnate Edward Murray who’s been pushing a pro-coal action plan that includes getting out of the Paris Agreement and halving the EPA’s workforce.  

And three, mercury poisoning causes “neurological disorders, heart and lung problems, and compromised immune systems” (AP, Dec. 2019). It is especially dangerous to unborn babies and young children.  

So, it’s now government policy that preventing 11,000 ‘premature deaths’ is not worth the cost of running and maintaining scrubbers that are already installed.  

Last year the EPA proposed allowing perchlorate pollution–a compound which suppresses thyroid activity and can hurt brain function–at levels up tol three times higher than what is considered safe. 

A Federal court ordered the EPA to set a new standard by this month.

Last month the EPA basically said no; it will leave regulation up to state and local governments. 

Perchlorate poisoning can be reversed but the effects on brain development of fetuses, newborns, and children cannot.  

But Trump did promise to cut regulations, didn’t he? 

A third recent EPA ruling places the responsibility for regulating up to 60% of the country’s water up to state and local governments. The Federal Clean Water Act is now limited only to major waterways and adjacent wetlands.

That is, the Federal government is fine with most of America’s wetlands now fair game for real estate developers, and it will ignore most settling ponds and factory waste.   

Just how the EPA plans to keep the Snake and Clearwater rivers remotely healthy while having no control over discharges into the many streams and canals that flow into them is a mystery.  

Today many state and local governments are already incapable of keeping their drinking water free of chemical carcinogens and bacteria. The Center for Disease Control estimates illnesses caused by polluted public water systems at between four and 32 million each year. That big of a range indicates we aren’t keeping records.  

If you’re thinking that the Trump Administration supports state and local control, forget it. Trump ended California’s right to set its own auto emissions standards last November. 

No, this administration values industry profits over public health.  It’s aiming to bring back the smog, stinking rivers, and lower life expectancies of the 1950s and 1960s.    

Idahoans are proud to cope and desperate to return to normal  

Ever since I can remember, there’ve been certain constants on the calendar. Kids were in classrooms from September to May.  Graduations were in late May or early June. Swimming lessons started in June, and the 4th of July meant parades, booths, baseball, and fireworks. July ended with the carnival and county fair.  

These were traditions of our culture–appreciated, yes, but also taken for granted.

But this year, students quit going to school in March. Some kids got a few hours of on-line instruction each week, others more–and most less. Graduations were celebrated with driveby parades and on-line presentations.

Most public pools haven’t opened at all. And many town leaders–perhaps envisioning kids diving for candy thrown from floats and cars–are cancelling traditional Fourth of July parades. And carnivals are out–chances are 10,000 fingers would be grabbing those tilt-a-whirl rails between wipedowns. 

Kids and their animals may compete at fairs without cotton candy, rides, or crowds. Weddings, milestone birthdays, and funerals already seem muted with limited attendees and careful hugs.  

Idahoans are proud of their efforts to cope–and desperate to return to normal. 

 Since 2020 is a presidential year, some quadrennial traditions also need adapting. 

Fortunately, Idaho moved swiftly to an all-mail general primary.  

And, thanks to zoom, party committees have been able to conduct business without meeting physically. 

Last Saturday more than 250 Democratic delegates joined in a virtual meeting to elect Idaho’s 25 delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Plans for adopting resolutions and platform planks in August are still fluid. 

So far, I’ve heard nothing about changes in the traditional National Convention schedule.   Will the convention actually meet in person? Will  masks, distancing, and hand sanitizers be enough?   

Republicans are planning an in-person convention with all the precautions North Carolina requires. They won’t rewrite the platform though or see President Trump in person.

The President plans to accept his nomination in a well-packed stadium of 15,500 in Jacksonville, FL, the following Saturday. Some say the purpose of the change is to show a dense crowd to television audiences; others say, to gain more support in an important swing state. 

The fear of a second wave clouds every plan. Twelve states–including Utah, Oregon, and California–have seen increased hospitalizations for coronavirus this month. And many are blaming that increase for the stock market dropping 6.9%–1,862 points–last Thursday.  

But possibilities of a vaccine dance just out of reach and keep us moving forward.  According to a recent Associated Press article, Oxford University has developed a vaccine and, though it still awaits approval, the distributor has signed agreements to deliver the first of millions of doses to eight countries, including the U.S., by the end of the year.  

 And leading pathologists with five research agencies published an article in Science (June 12) stating that the live oral poliovirus vaccine (OPV) developed in the mid 1950s may combat coronavirus by heightening general immunity. OPV is no longer used in the United States, but it is credited with cutting infant mortality greatly in African regions.  

Deep in this article, the pathologists state that the measles vaccination, though not as effective as OPV, has a similar effect. Could that be the reason no Idahoans under 50 have died from COVID-19–and why many school children don’t show symptoms?

Meanwhile, schools are preparing for fall by trying to increase the spaces between desks–six feet isn’t possible, but maybe two?–and searching for ways to protect at-risk teachers.   

And hopes are that voting at the polls will be an option in November.  

A vaccine is coming, folks. Hang on. 

Idaho’s cost of living doesn’t make up for its wages  

Lately I’ve been asking people to talk about political issues that concern them.

Wages and housing costs get a lot of mentions.

Idahoans tend to think of our cost of living as low compared to other states. Yet, I’ve talked to newcomers from California who were surprised that our food costs here weren’t  lower. Others found our property taxes to be an unwelcome surprise. (California bases property taxes on the purchase price; people who’ve lived in a home for 20 or 30 years pay relatively little.) 

Idahoans, however, tend to complain about house prices. In March 2019 Zillow Research Data reported that the price of Idaho homes had increased over 17% during the previous year. The national average was 7%.

Idaho’s cost of living isn’t low.   

The World Population Review for 2020 ranks 18 states as cheaper to live in than Idaho. It figures Idaho’s cost of living as 92.3% of the national average. That study is based on what people are actually spending. Housing costs are low–87.1%–because homes were cheap not long ago. A 3-bedroom home in Caldwell worth $115,000 in 2006 dropped to $55,000 in value during the Great Recession.    

Sperling’s Best Places, a ranking for those who’re considering moving, estimates the cost of setting up a new household. It claims Idaho housing costs are 114% of the national average. That home worth $115,000 in 2006 now has an estimated cost of $220,000. With Boise’s higher prices averaged in, Sperling cites a median value for an Idaho home at $263,900.

Sperling’s figures place Idaho’s cost of living at 97.7% of the national average. 

Idaho’s median household income would need to be $57,167 to be 92.7% of the national median and $60,512 to be 97.7%. It is actually $55,583.  

So Idaho’s cost of living is high in comparison to incomes here–but it has been worse.  

In 2015 the Idaho Department of Labor published a study entitled “Idaho Wages–An Historical Perspective.”  The second paragraph ends this way: “Even with a cost-of-living adjusted, Idaho wages ranked last in the country in 2012.” 

In the early 1980s, Idaho’s median wage ranked 35th in the nation; it sank to 47th by 1990, rose to 40th by 2000–and then declined steadily. Fortunately, 2012 was the low point.  By 2018 we had risen to 43rd place.  

Unfortunately, studies which might explain these ups and downs don’t exist. Have the 20-years of tax cuts succeeded in their purpose? Has right-to-work lowered wages and/or led to a loss of skilled workers? What seems to improve the success rate of small businesses?  

For decades we’ve used promises of a cheap labor force and a low cost of living  to attract business growth. As recently as 2011, legislators were purposely driving qualified teachers out of our state. 

Now we’re putting real efforts into encouraging young people to become better trained and educated without getting the results we need. Taxpayer money is trying to revive apprenticeship programs that unions finance elsewhere. But Western Idaho College couldn’t get funding for a building to make offering more technology programs possible.  And no way are we about to train someone for openings like Micron’s recent call for an ‘emerging memory process integration engineer.’

Moreover, we can only guess at the effect of our mixed reception for minority and LGBT persons on corporate decisions.  

Idaho has too many legislators who talk up our low cost of living, make mountains out of wedge issues that affect few lives, and parrot, “Tax cut, good.”  

We need more pragmatists tackling real problems.      

Do Dems have the drive to win more seats in November?

 Finally, we have come to the last day of the wackiest Idaho primary election ever. 2020 will be legendary for Idaho county clerks from this day forth–envelope shortages, mis-mailed ballots, crashing online sites, unsigned envelopes, court orders and all. 

The time for mailing ballots is past.  Still, hundreds of ballots may be slipped into slots at election offices today. Clerks will be busy checking signatures, opening envelopes, working creases out of the sheets, and running stacks through the counting machine. 

We might have results tonight–but some races may be so tight we’ll have to wait until every ballot is processed.    

Many voters were disappointed to see few contested races on their ballots.  Unless there was a local levy, Independents voted only for judges. Democrats had two contested races–House and Senate–at the top of their ticket, but only Boise Democrats saw contested legislative races.

There were Republican against Republican challenges in 28 of Idaho’s 35 districts.  

Democrats filed for only one-third of the county offices up for election and less than one-half of the legislative seats. Essentially, nearly 100 Republicans will be elected today.

Chances are that most were supported by only 15% of those eligible to vote in November.   

That might sound like business as usual, but Stephen Hartgen, a former five-term Republican legislator, noted that we are seeing a “sharp drop in Democratic Party competition statewide…some 20 percent fewer [legislative candidates] than in 2018.” 

A quick check found that Hartgen was right. 

In 2016 Democrats filed for 64 of 105 legislative seats; in 2018, 72; and this year, 56.

One might think that Idaho’s blue wave rippled and died, but it’s the vote in November that will count. 

Democrats now hold 20 legislative seats, up from 16 two years ago. 

Fifty-six candidates still give them lots of possibilities for gain.  

And if voters have been paying attention, Democrats will gain.  

For the Medicaid Expansion initiative to pass by 60% in 2018, one-third of Republican voters had to support it. Many Republican legislators didn’t care that the majority of their constituents supported expansion. They knew that the majority of those that voted for them hadn’t. They flaunted their opposition, passing a number of waivers to limit participation and complaining about paying 10% of the cost to insure thousands.  

They also passed a bill–later vetoed by Gov. Brad Little–to require future initiative petitions to get more signatures in more counties in half the time. 

In addition, they voted to prevent use of the millions in revenue from the new sales tax on online purchases for education or healthcare or infrastructure. They dedicated the money to tax relief–then failed to cut the sales tax on groceries or increase the homeowner’s exemption for property taxes.  

Certainly, some voters will remember in November. Will it be enough to make a difference?

That may depend on why Democrats have fewer candidates. 

If the number dropped because fewer activists were willing to invest time and effort, Democrats are in trouble. 

But it’s a different story if fewer Democratic candidates stepped forward because activists saw initiative petitions as offering more significant returns. We’d need to replace 20 or more incumbents to get the legislature to consider bills that would raise the minimum wage, improve school funding, or legalize medical mariuana. 

Successful bipartisan initiatives could bring those changes in little more than a year.

And might have–if the coronavirus shutdown hadn’t killed the petition drives. 

Now, I doubt these activists will choose to sit on their hands during this election–and they could make a huge difference in spreading candidates’ messages. 

We’ll see.