Thursday, March 30, 2017

Idaho Lawmakers Say 'Sine Die'

Now It's Up To Otter

Idaho’s 80-day legislative session was gavelled to a close at midday Wednesday, March 29, with last-minute Senate approval to spend $320 million for highway and bridge maintenance and repeal of the 6 percent sales tax on groceries. Gov. Butch Otter has 10 days to sign the bills into law, veto them, or allow them to become law without his signature. Otter weighed in on the grocery tax elimination before it was adopted, suggesting he may veto it. Eliminating the tax would reduce state tax revenue by an estimated $80 million.
The session went three days past majority leadership’s March 24 target for conclusion. Deliberations were marked from the start by political infighting within the Republican-dominated body, led by Reps. Heather Scott (R-1A-Blanchard), and Ron Nate (R 34A-Rexburg). Early in the session, Scott was temporarily stripped of her committee assignments after she contended female House members only advance into leadership posts if they “spread their legs.” She got her committee assignments back after she retracted the comment and apologized. Far-right freshmen members of the House announced formation of a “Freedom Caucus” near the close of the session. The Democrats, with a smaller presence than a year ago, applied what they termed a "moderate middle" approach to legislation and to addressing majority proposals.
There was also uncertainty over the policies of the incoming Donald Trump administration in Washington and their impact on Idaho priorities, especially regarding the fate of the federal Affordable Care Act. That was a primary excuse given for again leaving an estimated 78,000 Idahoans without health insurance coverage, even after Congress failed in two bids to repeal and replace the federal program that includes support for state initiatives to expand Medicaid protection for people in the earnings “gap.”
Idaho lawmakers did, however, approve a previously agreed-upon 6.3 percent increase in K-12 public school funding, totaling about $1.7 billion, including $62 million in pay raises for teachers, in the third year of a five-year plan Otter had championed at the start of the session. Because of the Senate’s surprise initiative to eliminate the grocery sales tax, a last-minute bid to cut $28 million in personal and corporate income taxes failed in a 29-5 Senate vote.
Legislators paid scant attention to rights issues in this year’s session, beyond repealing, as part of a court settlement, an unconstitutional ban on prescription of abortion-inducing drugs via telemedicine. The decade-long effort to include gender identity and sexual orientation to the state’s Human Rights law went nowhere again this year. This denial of protection for LGBT people in Idaho means people can be fired from their jobs or evicted from their homes solely because they’re gay. There was similarly no action on raising the state’s minimum wage, officially stuck at the federal level of $7.25 since 2009.
Lawmakers did, however, reject a resolution to add Idaho to the list of states advocating a constitutional convention, and killed a bill that would have limited timing of early voting statewide to one week before an election, from the three weeks currently authorized. A proposal to prohibit “sanctuary cities” that could protect undocumented immigrants died in committee. Idaho has no such cities anyway.

The Statesman’s summation of the 2017 legislative session is here.
The Spokesman-Review roundup of the session is here.
Kevin Richert’s session review for Idaho Education News is here.
The Associated Press report on Senate approval of the grocery sales tax repeal bill is here.
The Post-Register’s report on formation of a “Freedom Caucus” among ultra-conservative freshman representatives is here.
The complete list of legislation and resolutions and what became of them in the 2017 session is here.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Connecting the Trump-Putin Dots

Congress Pressed to Pursue Suggestions of Collusion

Jeff Sessions Sergey Kislyak Mike Flynn

Donald Trump Jared Kushner Vladimir Putin

Highlights from the Jeff Sessions Senate confirmation hearing.

The Guardian

Exchange between Sen. Jeff Sessions and Sen. Al Franken on whether Sessions, as attorney general, would pursue an investigation of Russian involvement in the U.S. presidential election process if warranted. Note Sessions didn’t answer the question.

Jeff Sessions, as attorney general, recuses himself from investigation of administration and Trump campaign ties to Russia.
The Guardian

Anyone old enough to remember the demise of Richard M. Nixon, the nation’s 37th president, over a “third-rate burglary” of the Democratic Party’s national headquarters at the Watergate condo complex June 17, 1972, might be forgiven for wondering at the far more stunning developments surrounding Donald J. Trump, the nation’s 45th president, and ties he, his relatives, and his administration and election campaign inner circle may have with Russia.
In tandem with the widely nonpartisan concerns Americans have over the future of their health insurance coverage under the Affordable Care Act and what, if anything, may replace it, the prospect of some more-than-casual relationship between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin is, grossly understated, troubling.
As though being a 21st Century version of the evolution of the Nixon Era Watergate scandal, what began with reports of outside (proven to be Russian) interference with the 2016 presidential election, specifically to hinder the Democratic Party’s candidate, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, are rapidly becoming something potentially far more serious. This time, too, pursuit of questions such as what Russia expects from its efforts and what, if anything, the Trump administration is prepared to give, is, a matter of “follow the money,” as it was decades ago regarding Nixon and officials and why they felt a burglary was so important as to risk toppling the presidency. Among troubling reports since Trump has been in office are accounts of his extensive financial involvement and business relations in Russia, in addition to evidence he lied about his own contacts with Putin.
On Jan. 6, American intelligence agencies released the declassified version of a report that determined with "high confidence" that Russia's interference -- consisting of hacking Democratic groups and individuals and releasing that information via third-party Web sites, including WikiLeaks -- helped President-elect Donald Trump win the election.”
In the midst of Senate confirmation hearings on Trump Cabinet appointees, including Sessions, Mike Flynn, national security adviser to Trump, was forced to resign after it was revealed he had lied to Vice President Mike Pence about his direct contact with Putin, his ties to Russia, and his work for Russian and other foreign interests. Flynn’s high-profile departure after just 24 days on the job, was unprecedented in U.S. history, but was the first of what has become a steady stream of increasingly troubling Russian links to the Trump administration. Among them was a December meeting between Russia’s Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Trump’s son-in-law (his daughter Ivanka’s husband) Jared Kushner, how a "senior adviser" to the president.
Trump himself, and various Trump representatives, have issued at least 20 denials of contacts with Russian officials since last summer. On the same day Sessions issued his recusal statement, Trump stood by his new attorney-general, former Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, supporting Sessions’ denial of such contacts. Trump said he did not believe Sessions needed to recuse himself from any investigation of Russian election espionage activity. In fact, as the Washington Post confirmed, Sessions had met at least twice with Kislyak during the presidential campaign (a third contact was reported separately later)
Trump further sought to deflect allegations of possible collusion with Russian interests by issuing an early morning tweet accusing former President Barack Obama of wiretapping Trump Tower. Trump’s own advisers were unable to explain or offer any evidence to support the claim, and House Intelligence Committee Chairman Devin Nunes, who has ordered an investigation into the Russia connections, said he had seen nothing to support Trump’s charge.
The question remains as to whether Sessions, whose role as attorney-general includes oversight of the Justice Department and the FBI, would be willing to authorize independent investigation of the Trump-Russia connections and pursue possible criminal prosecution if warranted. On March 10, Trump abruptly ordered the dismissal of 46 high-level Obama-appointed federal prosecutors, leaving their deputies, who are not political appointees, to fill in as replacements. Among the surprise dismissals was Preet Bharara, the U.S. attorney for the District of Manhattan, which includes Trump Tower, the president’s New York home and business headquarters. Bharara, who has a reputation for prosecuting public corruption and insider trading, was personally invited by Trump and Sessions last November to stay on. Bharara initially refused to resign, and was summarily fired on March 11, according to a tweet from his Twitter account.
The sequence of events, especially in light of a historically unprecedented stream of nearly constant lies by Trump and disambiguation by various administration representatives, makes it difficult for average citizens to tell what should receive most attention. The dubious “qualifications” of Trump’s Cabinet and other top-tier administration appointments alone was cause for nationwide protest demonstrations and a deluge of voter complaints to members of Congress. Even without the later revelations of Sessions’ Russia contacts, concern about his qualifications to be attorney-general was among the most serious among the Trump nominees, given his civil rights and anti-gay stands taken as Alabama’s state attorney-general, and his subsequent time in the Senate.
Considering the willingness of Republican members of Congress to spend more than $7 million over two years on seven dead-end investigations of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s handling of the fatal 2012 terrorist attack on the U.S. consular compound at Benghazi, Libya, the fact many of those same congressmen have so far refused to create a nonpartisan select committee to look into the Trump-Putin connections and demand an outside independent prosecutor be named to pursue the investigation as possible criminal espionage is difficult to justify. New revelations almost daily add weight to the pressure for action outside the scope of political influence.
As David Leonhardt pointed out in a Feb. 21 New York Times Op-Ed column, “The United States has never had a situation quite like this. Other countries have tried to intervene in our affairs before, sometimes with modest success. Britain and Nazi Germany, for example, tried to influence the 1940 presidential election, financing bogus polls and efforts to sway the nominating conventions. But never has a president had such murky ties to a foreign government as hostile as Putin’s.”
The questions continue. Various contacts by close Trump associates with Russia’s Kislyak – also a Russian spy, continue to surface. The ex-security chief Flynn has, after the fact, registered himself as an agent representing the government of Turkey. At the same time, as reported March 10, Putin hailed the close military ties between Russia and Turkey ties as he held talks on Syria with Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The first House Intelligence Committee hearing into the relationship is set to begin March 20. As was the case with the Nixon-Watergate embroglio, which took just over two years from the June 1972 burglary to its historically ignominious conclusion in August 1974, the Trump-Putin connection seems likely to be a work in progress.

Recommended Reading
Swalwell’s diagram of Trump-Putin connections

Congressman Eric Swalwell, who represents California’s 15th District, has sought to connect the dots between Donald Trump, key members of his administration, and his election campaign and staff, and Russia’s President Vladimir Putin. Swalwell, a Democrat, is a member of the House Intelligence Committee. He has created a Web page – in progress – that sets out the various people and actions that are part of the thus far unclear Trump-Russia connection.
As Rep. Swalwell explains, “Throughout the 2016 presidential election, President Trump not only refused to criticize Russian President Vladimir Putin, but was even friendly and accommodating in his remarks. In his own words, President Trump called President Putin “highly respected." More recently, President Trump put the U.S. on equal moral footing with Russia when responding to Bill O’Reilly’s question about Putin being a "killer," saying "We've got a lot of killers... you think our country's so innocent?" This is absolutely false moral equivalence, and unheard of for the President of the United States to insult and demean the country he leads.
Read the rest here.

The Washington Post’s chronology of the Richard M. Nixon presidency and the Watergate scandal that forced him to resign from office to avoid impeachment is here.
The New York Times story on Trump Administration’s abrupt dismissal of 46 high-level federal prosecutors is here.
The House Intelligence Committee’s plans to begin hearings on Trump Administration ties to Russia and Russia’s role in the 2016 presidential election are reported by CNBC here. The CBS News timeline of congressional hearings and investigations of the Benghazi attack is here.
Grudging agreement by Republican congressional leaders to look into Trump administration Russia ties is outlined in a Vox report here.
New York Times Op-Ed Columnist David Leonhardt’s column on “Trump’s Russia Motives” is here.
CNN’s report of key intelligence community findings of Russian interference with the 2016 presidential election is here.
Newsweek investigative reporter Kurt Eichenwald‘s excellent account of Russia’s American election espionage is here.
USA Today’s account of at least 20 attempts since July 2016 by Trump representatives to deny contacts with Russia is here.
Lack of any evidence to support Trump’s tweeted allegation former President Obama had ordered wiretaps on Trump Tower is reported by ABC News here.
Donald Trump’s astounding record of lies, with links to fact-checking them, is here.
The Washington Post confirmation of at least two meetings between Jeff Sessions and Russia’s U.S. Ambassador Sergey Kislyak is here.
The full 2013 interview between Donald Trump and NBC’s Thomas Roberts in Moscow on his relationship with Vladimir Putin and bringing the Miss Universe Pageant, which Trump then owned, to Russia, is here.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

Idaho Taxpayers Stuck With Another Legal Tab

Reminder: Stop Enacting Bad Law

Yet again, Idaho taxpayers are stuck with the tab for legal fees and costs defending laws that should never have been enacted. Idaho’s Constitutional Defense Council voted unanimously March 8 to pay $151,209.88 in attorney fees and court costs rather than continue trying to defend against Planned Parenthood challenges to two 2015 laws against use of prescription abortion-inducing medication via telemedicine.
The Idaho House of Representatives earlier voted 52-18 to repeal the two laws at issue in the suit as part of the legal settlement in the cases. Unless the full Legislature repeals the laws, a federal judge will declare them unconstitutional. Gov. Butch Otter, who chairs the council, called for the vote, and Senate President Pro-Tem Brent Hill, (R-34, Rexburg), joined in to make it unanimous. “The ayes have it, and we’ll go pay the bill,” Otter said.
The money will come from Idaho’s Constitutional Defense Fund, which lawmakers originally set up to pay legal fees associated with court defense of state sovereignty and the state Constitution. Much of the money has been used to pay for public relations campaigns supporting the state’s position on issues in litigation. The only legal battle the state has fought and won since the fund was established was a 1996 settlement in which the state challenged the federal government on the cost of cleaning up stored nuclear waste. Since then, Idaho has not won a court challenge to laws found to be unconstitutional.
Last year, the fund was nearly depleted by the legal bill for nearly $900,000 to fight three suits. All the cases were lost on constitutional grounds; one involved same-sex marriage, one overturned an unconstitutional abortion restriction, and one sought to limit demonstrations and public presence around the state Capitol. At that time, Gov. Otter sought and won appropriation of as much as $2 million to top up the fund, disingenuously claiming, “We get sued by so many people we can’t keep track.”
In reality, as the record of payouts from the fund show, the governor and legislators have been reminded regularly about the prospect of having laws challenged in court and most likely declared invalid on constitutional grounds. Most of the laws that have failed were declared unconstitutional in cases brought by ACLU Idaho and Planned Parenthood. The cases at issue in the most recent payout authorization are the first in which legislators have sought to strike offending laws from the books.

Betsy Russel’s “Eye on Boise” report of the March 8 decision to pay legal fees on bad law is here.
The 2015 Associated Press report on Idaho’s two-decade losing battle defending bad law is here.
The Statesman’s report on the March 8 decision is here.
The letter from Idaho Attorney-General Lawrence G. Wasden advising against enactment of the state’s “ag-gag” law, later declared invalid on constitutional grounds is here. The NPR review of the history of Idaho’s failed battle against same-sex marriage is here.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Rally Backs Keeping Public Lands Public

Demonstrators rallied at the Capitol, both inside and out, on Saturday, March 4, to show support for keeping public lands in public hands. Organizers said the crowd, estimated at about 3,000, far exceeded expectations, and was among the largest for this cause so far in the Northwest.

Idahoans Out in Force to ‘Keep Public Lands in Public Hands’

As many as 3,000 people turned out at the Capitol in Boise on Saturday in one of the largest such events so far in the Northwest, to urge politicians to “keep public lands in public hands.” The rally, both in turnout and messaging, represented a departure from previous demonstrations on the issue fueled by uncertainty of policy intentions of the Donald Trump administration in Washington, with appointment of notoriously anti-environmentalist Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency, and to a lesser extent, Ryan Zinke as Secretary of the Interior.
The federal government is responsible for 500 million acres of United States land, including the country’s 59 national park, as well as millions of acres rich in coal, oil, timber, and natural gas, and managing lands of 567 Native tribes.
Public lands are a significant economic force in Idaho, where outdoor recreation generates about $6.3 billion in economic activity, of which about $2.2 billion is direct sales and services that generate 37,000 jobs. Sixty-two percent of the state’s area is federally managed, including lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service. Another 32 million acres are state endowment lands. Together, those lands generate nearly 5 percent of gross state product, according to a report compiled by the National Wildlife Federation. Outdoor recreation contributes $6.3 billion worth of economic activity in Idaho annually, with $2.2 billion of that direct sales and services. Idaho has 37,000 jobs tied to outdoor recreation.
Proponents of selling off or granting exploitation rights to those resources have said states and private interests can manage them more efficiently and make better use of them than the federal government. That is the position held by Idaho First District Rep. Raul Labrador, who claims selling public lands is one of the issues he feels “passionately” about.
But the rally on the Capitol steps, and the passion of about 1,000 of the demonstrators who carried their message inside the rotunda, showed how the mood has changed. Recent polls show a majority Idahoans who favored a state takeover of federal lands changed their minds when they learned how much that would cost. Second District Rep. Mike Simpson, whose position has shifted somewhat recently, estimates that the process of transferring and managing the land would cost the state a half-billion dollars annually, if it should be sold. Indeed, more than 100,000 acres of state-owned has been sold to private interests since 2000, according to public records.
A catalyst for the attitude change came last year, when two Texas billionaire brothers bought 172,000 acres of forest land long open to the public in southern and central Idaho and barred access to loggers, hunters, and other recreation users. “Unfortunately, many state-owned lands have been sold into private ownership and are posted ‘No trespassing,” said Jonathan Oppenheimer, government relations director for the Idaho Conservation League. “Whether you’re a mountain-biker, an angler, a snowmobiler or a hiker, those lands are gone forever. We need to work together to ensure that we don’t see our public lands sold off to the highest bidder.”
“Public lands are what defines our state. We have freedom and access,” Brad Brooks, public lands director for the Wilderness Society, said. “We are incredibly fortunate. We are the luckiest people in America. We have a massive playground in our backyard. It’s where I take my daughter camping, I take her fishing on public lands. If we didn’t have our public lands, Idaho would look much different and our lifestyle would look much different.”
Shoshone-Bannock Tribes member Yvette Tuell said the tribe is in accord with other Idahoans on maintaining public access to public lands. “As the Shoshone-Bannock people, we seek to protect those resources, just as you are,” Tuell told the rally crowd. She cited the Treaty of 1868, which included making the public lands accessible to the tribe. “It’s not a new fight,” she said.
Rob Thornberry of Idahoans for Public Lands said the “Idaho Day” rally exceeded expectations of organizers. “It went excellent,” Thornberry said of the event overall. “I think we proved that there’s a broad constituency that wants public lands, that adores public lands. I think it was a hit. I’m jacked.”

The Statesman’s report on the rally is here.
The Statesman report on research last year from the Wilderness Society, based upon a Freedom of Information Act records search, is here.
First District Rep. Raul Labrador claims to “care passionately” about selling public lands for exploitation in this op-ed piece.
Second District Rep. Mike Simpson, who had supported easing controls on private use of federal lands, more recently came out in favor of securing public access to the properties in a press release, here.
The KTVB segment reporting on the rally is here. The Idaho State Journal report on the rally is here.
The New York Times story of confirmation of Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Agency is here.
Challenges faced by new Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke are outlined in a report by Julie Turkewitz for the Alaska Dispatch News, here.
The full May 2016 Wilderness Society report on public lands, in PDF format, is here.
The Wilderness Society report on federal policy on public lands is here.