Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from Idaho newspapers:
What if all your polling places are destroyed? New Idaho law says, ‘Too bad’
One of the more disturbing stories to come out of this year’s still-developing wildfire season was the near-total destruction of the small farming town of Malden in eastern Washington state on Monday.
Almost every structure in Malden, population 200, was destroyed by a fast-moving wildfire as high winds created what officials described as a firestorm, according to NPR.
The Whitman County Sheriff’s Office reported that 80% of the town’s structures were destroyed. Malden, just 25 miles from the Idaho state line, lost its fire station, post office, City Hall, library and most of its homes, the sheriff said.
When I saw that story, I thought about a new election law that the Idaho Legislature passed in last month’s special session.
You may recall that the Legislature passed a bill mandating that Idaho always provide an in-person voting option. There’s little question that it was passed in response to what happened during the May primary in Idaho, in which Gov. Brad Little included all-mail voting as part of his emergency orders during the coronavirus pandemic.
There was no in-person voting in May, and many legislators bristled that the governor, with the stroke of a pen, was able to completely wipe out in-person voting.
So during the session, legislators nearly unanimously passed a bill requiring in-person voting.
Only Democratic Sens. Cherie Buckner-Webb and Maryanne Jordan voted against it. The vote was unanimous in the House.
The governor signed it into law on Sept. 1.
“Every elector shall always be provided the opportunity to vote in person in an election, notwithstanding any declaration of emergency, extreme emergency, or disaster emergency by the governor,” according to the language that was added into Idaho Code.
On its face, it seems pretty straightforward, and the message pretty clear: Even if the governor declares an emergency, every voter shall be provided an opportunity to vote in person.
But here’s the problem: What if you have an “extreme emergency” that wipes out every place you have to hold an election, such as your library, your city hall and your fire station?
That’s what happened in Malden. Fortunately, Washington has all-mail-in voting, so the good residents of Malden don’t have to worry about not having a polling place.
Idaho is in its own wildfire season, and Malden is so close to Idaho, it’s possible you could have a similar scenario in Idaho.
If White Bird is completely on fire, where would the polling place be? If you want to think of another natural disaster, many Idahoans recall the Teton Dam’s catastrophic failure in 1976.
“What if Lucky Peak (dam) failed?” Sen. Maryanne Jordan told me in a phone interview Tuesday. “That was one of the first thoughts I had (during the special session debate on the bill). What if Lucky Peak failed? If you’ve ever looked at those flood maps, it will wake you up in the middle of the night.”
If Lucky Peak Dam were to break on, say, Nov. 2, would Ada County Clerk Phil McGrane need to have a party barge at the ready as a mobile voting unit?
“To prescribe that people have to have a vote-in-person option after a devastating emergency, regardless of what the emergency is, seems to go beyond perhaps what the intent of the legislation might have been,” Jordan said. “I just thought it was too much.”
Legislators were making a statement, trying to prevent the governor from instituting all-mail voting through an emergency declaration, but in passing this legislation, they swung the pendulum a little too far.
Online: Idaho Statesman
The supermajority requirement could stop the vote
In matters of municipal debt, the state of Idaho has built a castle with impenetrable walls - and a wide-open gate on the side.
Normally, large projects that can’t be paid for out-of-pocket are financed by issuing bonds. A city sells IOUs to investors with the promise that it will pay them back with interest over the next few decades. Since a city takes on debt in this arrangement, the Idaho Constitution requires that two-thirds of voters give approval.
But municipal bond investors have innovated their way around these requirements through a mechanism called “certificates of participation.” Investors agree to fund a project, with the understanding that a city will pay them back through a few decades of lease payments, after which investors will give over ownership to the city. These do not require a vote.
This is the option the Idaho Falls City Council has indicated it will opt for to build a $30 million police station, which will cost about $50 million when debt service is included.
As a technical, legal matter, certificates of participation are not debt, as the Idaho Supreme Court has ruled. But, in all the ways that count, they are.
Certificates of participation are so similar to bonds that agencies like Moody’s issue bond ratings for them. They’re so similar, in fact, that the annual payment and lifetime cost projections of the two options were essentially identical.
Bonds are essentially commitments of future tax revenue, constraints on what the city can do in the future. And that’s what certificates of participation do. The only difference is the vote.
There is a kernel of wisdom in the Idaho Constitution’s requirement that bonds get two-thirds support: Voters should be the ones who broadly guide the future of the political systems that derive their authority from them. The problem isn’t in the vote. It’s in the supermajority requirement, tied for the highest in the nation.
The voters should have a say in an investment this large, particularly because it involves more than just the financing of a building but a longlasting commitment in the direction of city policy.
And it isn’t without risk.
Councilman John Radford was right to raise the issue of political risk, in particular. Idaho’s conservative Legislature is likely to look askance at certificates of participation as they become more widespread.
For the same reason that certificates of participation aren’t counted as debt - the Council is allowed to stop making lease payments at any time, and if they do the investors own the building taxpayers have financed - they’re also exposed to greater political risk than bonds. If the Legislature decides to put constraints on or penalize the certificate of participation process, the city is more exposed because of the discretionary nature of its commitment.
There are many factors pushing the Council to use the certificates of participation mechanism. Construction costs are rising rapidly, so any delays would make the project even more expensive. And a system that allows a third of voters to override the overwhelming majority is profoundly flawed.
There should be a better process for voters to have effective input on major investments like these. But the Idaho Constitution has enshrined a system where the options are often either sure failure or strolling through the side door. It should be amended to fulfill Idaho’s founding idea: “All political power is inherent in the people” - not “one-third of the people.”
Because as long as the incentives are as badly warped as the Idaho Constitution has made them, someone will always find a side door.
Online: Post Register
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