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  • Writer's pictureMarc Johnson

Changing the Fabric of Idaho


Legislatures and Lasting Legacies…

When Idaho Governor Robert E. Smylie cut a deal with the wealthy Harriman family in 1965 to take title to the family’s fabulous Railroad Ranch in eastern Idaho, the agreement included a provision that Idaho would create a professional parks department in exchange for the land.

That deal – and, yes, many of Smylie’s fellow Republicans disliked it – created the Idaho Department of Parks and Recreation and the department has become a lasting legacy of Smylie’s three terms as a progressive Republican governor.

The Idaho Statesman’s Rocky Barker correctly describes what might happen to Idaho’s parks now that – 45 years on from Smylie’s historic deal – Governor Butch Otter has proposed folding the department into the state Department of Lands, effectively eliminating the agency.

Too no small degree, Otter’s legacy is going to be shaped by how the budget debate that began on Monday, and will involve parks, schools and other state functions, unfolds over the next few weeks.

Make no mistake, times are tough in Idaho, nevertheless, what Otter has suggested – and he has proposed elimination of several small agencies, including the 40-year-old Idaho Human Rights Commission – is more about philosophy than budgets. Otter has suggested, by virtue of his budget proposals, that parks, the Human Rights Commission, public television, and the Deaf and Hard of Hearing Commission, among others, are not legitimate functions of government. The governor has also proposed an unprecedented second year of real cuts in public school, community college and higher education support.

This tees up the kind of debate that some folks in Idaho have long relished – what is the legitimate role of government in good times and bad? It will be fascinating to watch.

In 1965, Bob Smylie had to push and prod the Idaho Legislature to not only create a professional parks department, but to also put in place the elements of the modern Idaho tax structure, including a sales tax. By common belief, the ’65 session produced more of lasting value for Idaho than any legislature before or since.

In 2010, the Idaho Legislature may find itself pushing back against a governor who seeks a different kind of legacy; a legacy that truly will change the fabric of life in Idaho. Idaho will be a different place without an emphasis on parks, a statewide public television system or an state agency devoted to sorting out employment disputes between workers and employers. Suggesting that there are other sources of funding for such services is mostly political rhetoric, not realistic policy.

Bob Smylie always contended that his “successes” during the1965 session sealed his political demise a year later when he lost in the Republican primary after alienating many fellow Republicans. Legacies do have consequences.

Tomorrow: More on the Idaho Legislature.

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