West Views: The late Gov. John V. Evans did Idaho proud

July 14, 2014 

By the time he died Tuesday at age 89, former Idaho Gov. John V. Evans had become a distant figure, having been out of the public eye almost three decades.

The people who moved into Idaho or grew up since he left office have virtually no memory of him.

That's a shame.

Much of the Idaho you inherited, Evans struggled mightily to preserve or to build.

But Evans remains Idaho's obscure, unsung governor.

In part, that's because he was sandwiched by fellow Democrat Cecil Andrus. Serving as lieutenant governor, Evans was elevated to the top job in 1977, when President Jimmy Carter appointed Andrus his Interior secretary.

Evans was elected in his own right in 1978 and 1982. These were not fluke elections. His first opponent was Speaker of the House Alan Larsen, R-Blackfoot. And the second contest against then-Lt. Gov. Phil Batt was so close that one television network declared Batt the winner.

After Andrus succeeded him in 1986, Evans returned to his family bank, which at the time had only a couple of branch offices. He helped transform it into a regional institution spread out across Southern Idaho. It now holds Idaho's seventh-largest share of deposits.

His was that rarest of accomplishments - a genuine second act. Were it not for Gov. Evans, Idaho might have missed its second wind.

Evans was barely in office when he was confronted with a ruinous drought.

The tax revolt flowered on his watch, producing passage of the botched 1 Percent Initiative to limit property taxes. It fell to Evans and the Legislature to conjure up something that answered the public's mandate for tax relief without gutting local governments and public schools.

In an ironic twist, it was this Mormon banker who defended Idaho's labor unions against a right-to-work movement that prevailed only in the last months of his tenure.

Devastated first by inflation and then high interest rates, the state's traditional natural resource economy collapsed, producing a decadelong downturn that rivaled the Great Depression of the 1930s and would not be eclipsed until the Great Recession.

After exhausting every other option, including reducing hours for state workers, Evans faced a dilemma: Begin cannibalizing Idaho's public schools or raise taxes in the midst of a recession.

Oh, and convince a Republican-dominated Legislature - led by conservatives such as House Speaker Tom Stivers, R-Twin Falls, and Senate President Pro Tem Jim Risch - to go along with him.

He cobbled together Democrats and moderate Republicans into what became known as the "steelhead caucus." They incrementally increased the sales tax from 3 cents to 5 cents.

When the economy rebounded - on Andrus' watch - the state was poised to seize its opportunities. For the next two decades, Idaho's economy outperformed the nation's.

Unfortunately for Evans, the rising tide came in too late. He narrowly lost a U.S. Senate bid against Republican Steve Symms in 1986 and retired from politics.

But the contrast between Evans' approach and today's political environment could not be starker. Republicans responded to the current economic crisis with a steady string of tax cuts that left Idaho with the worst-funded schools in the country and incomes that rank next to last.

More than a year ago, political historian Randy Stapilus and former University of Idaho lobbyist Marty Peterson - who served as Evans' budget director - ranked the 100 people who had the most to do with creating Idaho as we now know it.

Evans came in at 77 in "The Idaho 100."

You can look it up.

In fact, you should.

On his watch, you'll find no scandals, no political pizzazz and no soaring rhetoric. Evans was not flashy. He was so understated that the door to his inner office remained open to anyone.

Evans was a workhorse in a profession that reserves its affections for show ponies.

Only political junkies were destined to remember him.

How true.

How terribly unfair.

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