By Cameron Rasmusson and Lyndsie Kiebert
Beyond the expected electoral contests this year, high-stakes ballot issues defined North Idaho elections. Two votes, one measuring support of the proposed Scotchman Peaks Wilderness bill and the other clearing Idaho for Medicaid expansion, proved influential for public policy on a state and federal level.
Bonner County voters started in May by voting down the Scotchman Peaks Wilderness advisory vote. An issue long simmering in county politics, the push for wilderness declaration in the Idaho Scotchman Peaks came to a head in December 2016 when Idaho Sen. Jim Risch announced he would introduce a bill to that effect. But in the following years, a backlash to the proposal grew, culminating in a May advisory vote that saw local voters reject the proposal. Prior to the vote, Risch said he would respect whatever outcome Bonner County voters determined, and true to his word, he withdrew support after the result was announced.
In November, Idaho voters took matters into their own hands in creating a solution for Idahoans without health insurance options. Around 60 percent of voters approved Medicaid expansion in Idaho, which will cover residents who make too little to qualify for subsided insurance plans. The expanded Medicaid system should be in place by 2020, officials say. It’s now up to the Idaho Legislature to enact Medicaid expansion when the legislative session begins in January.
Racist robocall campaign linked to Sandpoint
In the heated midterm elections this year, residents of Florida, Georgia and elsewhere were shocked to receive offensive and racist robocalls about black candidates in those states. The calls were eventually linked by reporters to the alleged activities of a Sandpoint resident, Scott Rhodes. Many of those reports cited previous reporting by the Sandpoint Reader, the first publication to report on police investigations into those alleged activities.
Incidentally, Reader publisher Ben Olson and the Reader itself were also targeted by robocalls throughout the North Idaho region this year. Later, a video portraying hundreds of Reader papers being set on fire circulated online. If the people responsible for the robocall intended to intimidate the community, they instead provoked widespread support for the paper that continues to this day.
University of Idaho extension
The fate of the University of Idaho extension property on North Boyer remains unclear after the academic institution announced its plans to sell it. Following the announcement, Sandpoint officials said they would work with the university in the hopes of finding a public use for it.
The end of the year finds the project in limbo. One idea was for the city to purchase a portion of the property and work with a partner like the YMCA to build a community recreation center. But when the YMCA announced its acquisition of the Sandpoint West Athletic Club instead, a door closed on that potential partnership.
It remains to be seen what the University of Idaho will do with its property, and city officials say they’ll continue to work with the school until they reach a conclusion.
It’s been over a year since representatives from Canadian company HiTest Sand visited Newport to share their plans for a proposed silicon smelter, and the buzz surrounding the project has only increased. Concerns surrounding air quality, damage to infrastructure and the validity of the company’s land purchase have created a constant conversation, attracting opposition from the Kalispel Tribe of Indians, Rep. Heather Scott and many more. A discussion panel in Sandpoint in March left attendees with more questions than answers. In early summer, two citizen groups — Citizens Against the Newport Silicon Smelter and Responsible Growth*Northeast Washington — filed a lawsuit regarding the sale of land from Pend Oreille County and the Pend Oreille Public Utility District to PacWest (HiTest’s subsidiary company), claiming a Washington State statute requires an election to be held when a PUD seeks to sell non-surplus land. A hearing for that case is scheduled for Jan. 11. The smelter is sure to continue to make headlines in 2019, as The Washington Department of Ecology will release a draft Environmental Impact Statement on the project and give the public an opportunity to provide feedback. The end of 2019 should bring a final EIS.
The second rail bridge
BNSF Railway may have announced the proposed second rail bridge across Lake Pend Oreille in 2017, but 2018 brought permit applications, an approval and plenty of conversation regarding environmental impacts, emergency response and the key word that seems to keep coming up: “bottleneck.” Though BNSF has compared the project to “adding a lane on a highway,” questions surrounding risk versus reward arose. Spokespersons for organizations like Idaho Conservation League and Lake Pend Oreille Waterkeeper argue that the increased rail traffic boosts the likelihood of a derailment of hazardous materials into or near the lake. Public officials like Bonner County Commissioner Glen Bailey argue a second rail bridge is needed to ease traffic congestion and boost trade. Of the many permits BNSF must obtain to move forward with the project, only the Idaho Department of Lands — responsible for enforcing the Idaho Lake Protection Act — has approved the bridge. Wild Idaho Rising Tide, an environmental activist organization, has filed an appeal challenging the IDL permit.
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