‘98: The Year Ahead Courts To Steer Course For N. Idaho News Predictions

SUNDAY, DEC. 28, 1997

It will be a year of living litigiously.

Struggles over schools, Sanders Beach, gambling on Idaho’s Indian reservations and the fate of Schweitzer Mountain Resort all are likely to see court action in 1998.

The headlines also will carry everything from Idaho’s dramatic welfare reform, to the head-on collision between burgeoning prisons and paltry state coffers.

And just when the pain of the last campaign season has eased, a hard-edged fight between Tony Paquin and Helen Chenoweth promises to come tumbling out into Idaho’s First Congressional District.

A detailed look at the top 10 issues coming to North Idaho in 1998 includes:

State lawmakers, led by Gov. Phil Batt, will start looking for a means of fixing the overcrowded criminal justice system in 1998. Part of the crunch is Idaho’s proclivity for locking up even minor criminals, including people who write bad checks, repeatedly drive without a license, possess even traces of drugs, and repeatedly drive drunk.

Public opinion polls show state taxpayers don’t want to pay for more prisons. Simultaneously, they prefer to see criminals handed serious punishment. Legislators, already afraid to appear soft on crime, may not do much more than debate the issue this session.

The Idaho Legislature will consider increasing the cost of hunting to raise $1.75 million for the financially beleaguered Idaho Department of Fish and Game. It would be the first fee increase since 1982.

But don’t expect such a lengthy respite from future increases. If Idaho mimics a national trend of declining hunter numbers, the financial pressure will worsen.

The dismal finances of the agency, funded solely by hunting and fishing license revenues, means hunters and fishermen probably will see more fee hikes in the near term.

Most sportsmen tentatively support some increase in the price of elk and deer tags and general hunting licenses.

In the face of a 65 percent price increase, some hunters and fishermen also are beginning to argue that Fish and Game no longer can afford to manage any birds and beasts that are not fair game for sportsmen.

Expect Post Falls to become the statewide poster child for the escalating debate over how Idaho pays for school construction.

Idaho is one of 10 states that don’t help with school construction.

Critics of that financial rebuff will speak of the tragedy of Nick Scherling in 1998 as they try to change that formula.

Scherling was killed by an allegedly drunken driver in Post Falls while walking home from school in the dark.

Critics say Scherling was walking home in the dark because of double shifting at a jam-packed middle school. And double-shifting has become necessary in this, the third-fastest growing city in Idaho, because voters have rejected the past four bond issues.

Post Falls will offer voters a fifth chance at a bond issue this spring and no doubt proponents will invoke Scherling’s memory.

If voters fail to approve between $18 million and $20 million for new Post Falls facilities, it will provide ammunition for those pushing to change the constitutional language that requires a 66 percent majority in order to pass a bond issue.

If the law required only a 60 percent majority - the rule in Washington - Post Falls would have its new schools.

Meanwhile, 17 school districts likely will ask the Idaho Supreme Court to overturn a District Court ruling that the Idaho Constitution doesn’t require state school construction money.

The results will be especially poignant in Priest Lake, Bonners Ferry and Sandpoint, all of which lost school buildings to heavy snowfall last winter.

The Idaho attorney general, meanwhile, may negotiate the repair of a few of the worst buildings to try to lessen state liability for schools operating in violation of fire and safety codes.

Idaho’s much-touted welfare reform efforts will undergo rigorous road tests throughout 1998.

The most serious parts of the reform effort took effect in July 1997, when benefits were limited to two years and recipients were required to work. Idaho’s rules, among the strictest in the nation, took people off welfare rolls faster than anywhere in the country. In 1998 the issue is: Are people getting jobs and making the transition from entitlements to independence, or is the new system simply cutting them loose and sending into deeper poverty?

Idaho’s success also will be tested by how well people succeed on their own if the state economy turns tepid.

Schweitzer Mountain Resort is expected to emerge from the snarls of bankruptcy to be acquired by Harbor Properties Inc., of Seattle.

But a lengthy legal battle will play out in 1998 as the courts try to resolve the attempt by some members of the Brown family to remain in control of the ski hill.

Settling the dispute should add stability to Sandpoint’s wintertime economy and may mean Harbor Properties makes millions of dollars in improvements to the ski resort.

The Bonner County School District, pushed by Citizens For Quality Education, will start giving CPR to the area’s troubled schools.

The first step - hiring a new administrator to replace Superintendent Max Harrell who was asked to resign shortly before Christmas.

Voters also are expected to approve splitting the huge countywide district into two smaller parcels.

That would mean Sandpoint and Priest River are served by separate governing boards, lessening disputes over dividing the dollars.

The Coeur d’Alene Tribe will make news in several arenas in 1998. The tribe is expected to push ahead with its $10 million casino expansion despite Gov. Phil Batt’s equivocation on video gambling machines.

Simultaneously, it seems unlikely the tribe will go along with Batt’s request that the Coeur d’Alenes ask a federal judge if the machines are legal.

The tribe is sore at Batt’s decision to disregard the advice of a commission he appointed to study the question. That commission narrowly voted for allowing the machines.

Considering the role of the casino in the tribe’s economy - adding $4 million in profits in 1996 alone - the Coeur d’Alenes will fight to keep video gaming.

Federal judges will play prominently in the tribe’s future anyway. Early in 1998, U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge is expected to decide whether the Coeur d’Alene Tribe owns the southern portion of Lake Coeur d’Alene.

If Lodge rules in favor of the tribe, it will be a historic decision with uncertain ramifications. And the ultimate arbiter likely will be the U.S. Supreme Court.

Coeur d’Alene city government promises to emerge from four low-profile years - under the direction of Mayor Al Hassell - to become a leader among newsmakers.

City workers are squirming, knowing that incoming Mayor Steve Judy supported a study suggesting cutting city worker benefits during his recent tenure as executive director of Concerned Businesses of North Idaho.

The city suggested trimming sick leave and vacation pay in 1997, setting a sour note for negotiations between the City Council and police officers.

Although the city dropped attempts to go after those benefits, police and the city are at an impasse. The two sides probably will end up in court early in 1998, where police will try to argue that a fact-finding commission’s recommendation for a two-year contract is binding. Police also may post informational pickets in January.

If nothing else, this will revive the debate among Kootenai County sheriff’s deputies, who picketed a few years ago over pay and benefits.

Judy, meanwhile, will continue to downplay his links to the area’s most powerful business lobby and his 18 months at its helm.

Several issues, including whether downtown revitalization means dramatic changes to McEuen Field, will put Judy - and one of the most pro-business city councils in history - under considerable citizen scrutiny.

The McEuen Preservation Association also will surface frequently, reminding the City Council of its commitment not to let commercialization displace green space.

As a growing population finds itself elbow to shinbone on Lake Coeur d’Alene’s scarce public beaches, the fight for places like Sanders Beach will intensify.

The city may ask the courts whether Jack Simpson had the right to build a fence on his little slice of the East Lakeshore Drive beach. The city issued a stop work order against the project this month.

And Joe Chapman, who was blocked while building a home south of the street in violation of a 1928 city ordinance, also has hinted he may sue the city for what he estimates as $235,000 in losses.

The Sanders Beach Preservation Association brought his building project to a halt with a suit against the city for issuing a building permit.

The city decided not to appeal a judge’s ruling in the association’s favor. That leaves the ball in Chapman’s court.

Neighbors who remember their families using the beach for generations also will press City Council and mayoral candidates to make good on their promises to buy the beach or a public easement during the coming year.

Judy and other council members have talked about finding grant money to buy public rights to the strip of sand. Then the issue will become convincing all of the property owners to sell.

Idaho’s high-profile Republican leadership will swap seats and may open the door for the Democrats to gain a second statewide office.

U.S. Sen. Dirk Kempthorne is expected to easily win the governor’s race. U.S. Rep. Mike Crapo should have no great difficulty replacing Kempthorne in the Senate.

Former U.S. Rep. Richard Stallings, a Democrat, may be able to reclaim his old southern Idaho district as a flock of Republicans squabble over who should succeed Crapo.

If Democrat J.D. Williams manages to stay on as auditor, the Democrats will have doubled their hold on Idaho politics.

North Idaho politics will be far more interesting. Businessman Tony Paquin, backed by well-heeled Hayden Lake area Republicans, is taking on two-term Congresswoman Helen Chenoweth in the spring primary.

Although Chenoweth has the incumbent’s advantage, her coffers have never been ample and her win over Dan Williams in 1996 was slim.

Paquin already has campaigned for nearly a year and has peppered the airwaves with statements that prove that the software developer won’t be pulling punches.

Because Chenoweth is so outspoken, this promises to be the heavyweight championship of mudslinging contests as well as one of the hottest congressional races in memory.

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Color photo

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