Monday, June 21, 2004

Idaho Democracy - R.I.P.

From the Idaho Falls Post Register - by Marty Trillhaase

Idaho's democracy: 1890-2004

Idaho's democracy, born with such promise on July 3, 1890, passed away on May 11. It was just shy of its 114th birthday and had been in failing health for most of the past 10 years.

An autopsy revealed the following:

* Idaho's once-robust electorate had atrophied. Only half of the voters bothered to show up. Last month's primary had one of the lowest turnouts in recent years.

Voters were also less informed. They didn't read newspapers as much. Weakened by well-meaning reforms, political parties engaged in less voter education. Money took over and much of it came in big chunks from special interests. In Idaho's last election, for example, just 73 contributors provided 20 percent of the $7.85 million spent on campaigns.

* Competition disappeared. The supply of sacrificial lambs and millionaires willing to spend their own money to create the illusion of campaign contests ran out.

Sen. Mike Crapo, R-Idaho, became the first Idaho incumbent re-elected by default since the 17th Amendment to the Constitution set up direct election of senators in 1913. Democrats failed to come up with an opponent by the May 11 deadline.

For the moment, 1st District Congressman Butch Otter, R-Idaho, also has no opponent. Democrat Naomi Preston intends to withdraw. If that stands, it would be the first time since Idaho got its two congressional districts in 1918 that an incumbent won without a fight. Democrats plan to name a replacement in a couple of weeks.

And the campaign for Idaho's Legislature is all but over. Of Idaho's 70 House seats, 34 are already decided - for lack of serious opposition. Of the 35 Senate seats, 15 are essentially uncontested.

* Politicians started giving Idaho voters the brush-off. Last week, Crapo and his fellow Republican Sen. Larry Craig voted against Idaho's interests, their own governor and their fellow Idaho Republicans in the House to back the Department of Energy's ploy to leave some high-level radioactive wastes - and thereby save money - in South Carolina. It's a precedent Gov. Dirk Kempthorne said could hurt Idaho's ability to get its wastes cleaned up and removed from the INEEL.

State Senate Majority Leader Bart Davis, R-Idaho Falls, and Senate Pro Tem Bob Geddes, R-Soda Springs, pushed the state to cough up an estimated $50,000 to $60,000 to overturn the voter-passed tribal gaming initiative. Davis did so even though his own constituents supported the gaming pact.

When Kempthorne appointed his former chief of staff and Republican Ÿber lobbyist Phil Reberger to the council responsible for nominating and policing judges, nobody stopped him.

And nobody seemed all that upset about high-level appointees trading on their political connections. Kempthorne's natural resource adviser, Scott Turlington, went to work for Tamarack Resort near the Cascade Reservoir. The resort needed and got a 49-year lease of state lands during the time Turlington advised the governor.

The State Board of Education's chief academic officer, Randy Thompson, signed up as vice president for marketing and business development for the American Board for Certification of Teacher Excellence. Before that, he helped the outfit get State Board approval so it could sell computerized tests to certify Idaho's public school teachers.

Idahoans aren't condemned to this fate. They could allow parties to fill ballot vacancies more easily. And public financing of campaigns would yield a dividend of real choice at the ballot box.

But without that, this corpse is headed to the morgue.

May our late democracy rest in peace.

Marty Trillhaase

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