One trend of 2005 that stand to go away is the drumbeat on the part of newspaper journalists against bloggers – notably, political bloggers. As a long-time former newspaper reporter and editor, I find it unbecoming. And uninsightful – increasing amonts of genuine journalism are getting committed on the blogosphere.

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer weighed in the last day of this year in its lists of five people and things it would like to remember and like to forget about 2005. Among the latter: “Stefan Sharkansky and David Goldstein. The right-wing Shark and left-wing Goldy have dominated the local political blogosphere, which during the governor’s race controversy sounded like a schoolyard shouting match.”

Let Goldy have the last word [12/31]: “I’m guessing that if the JOA goes the way we all expect it to go, it will be Stefan and I who will be forgetting the P-I in a couple of years.”

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Washington

And so 2005 comes to a close … with a lot of rain.

rain on an Oregon highwayMetaphors aside, that’s a good thing, however tired some of us may be getting at the steady rainfall and periodic light flooding. The flooding, we can at least console ourselves, hasn’t done much damage or overflowed many critical waterways. And as for the rainfall … well, we just need to take care as we go out to celebrate tonight.

And there is something in this to celebrate.

According to the national snowpack recordkeepers, the region is more or less on track for a good, solid snowpack this year, something we haven’t been able to say for quite a few seasons.

As see below. (The standalone numbers refer to percentage of norm, which loosely means that 100% means an average and adequate snow supply.)


IDAHO 
  PANHANDLE REGION ....................... 13 of 17      64        83
  CLEARWATER BASIN ............................. 14 of 15      77        93
  SALMON BASIN ................................. 22 of 22     118       117
  WEISER BASIN .................................  3 of  4     113       130
  PAYETTE BASIN ................................  9 of 11     122       124
  BOISE BASIN .................................. 10 of 11     129       133
  BIG WOOD BASIN ...............................  9 of  9     137       132
  LITTLE WOOD BASIN ............................  4 of  5     135       137
  BIG LOST BASIN ...............................  4 of  5     134       126
  LITTLE LOST, BIRCH BASINS ....................  4 of  4     101       100
  MEDICINE LODGE, BEAVER, CAMAS BASINS .........  6 of  6     111       122
  HENRYS FORK, TETON BASINS ....................  9 of  9     115       123
  SNAKE BASIN ABOVE PALISADES .................. 17 of 18     110       113
  WILLOW, BLACKFOOT, PORTNEUF BASINS ...........  5 of  5     101       115
  OAKLEY BASIN .................................  3 of  3     143       145
  SALMON FALLS BASIN ...........................  5 of  5     128       126
  BRUNEAU BASIN ................................  5 of  5     127       122
  OWYHEE BASIN .................................  7 of  8      98       120
  BEAR RIVER BASIN ............................. 14 of 15     116       112
OREGON
  OWYHEE .......................................  7 of  7      98       120
  MALHEUR ......................................  2 of  3     168       140
  GRAND RONDE, POWDER, BURNT, IMNAHA ........... 13 of 14     102       105
  UMATILLA, WALLA WALLA, WILLOW ................  6 of  9      84        94
  JOHN DAY .....................................  9 of 10     140       118
  DESCHUTES, CROOKED ........................... 11 of 11     127       117
  LOWER COLUMBIA, HOOD RIVER ...................  6 of  7      86       100
  COAST RANGE ..................................  1 of  2      80        97
  WILLAMETTE ................................... 17 of 18      86       107
  ROGUE, UMPQUA ................................  7 of 10      96       146
  KLAMATH ......................................  9 of 14     148       151
  LAKE COUNTY, GOOSE LAKE ......................  5 of  9     134       158
  HARNEY .......................................  6 of  7     139       133
WASHINGTON
  PRIEST, COEUR D'ALENE, ST. 
     JOE, SPOKANE, PALOUSE BASINS .............. 12 of 13      61        82
  COLUMBIA ABOVE METHOW ........................  3 of  5      79        88
  CHELAN, ENTIAT, WENATCHEE ....................  8 of  8      80        85
  UPPER YAKIMA .................................  5 of  5      84        81
  LOWER YAKIMA .................................  7 of  7     102        99
  WALLA WALLA, TOUCHET .........................  2 of  4      83        93
  LEWIS, COWLITZ ...............................  7 of 10      83        91
  WHITE, GREEN, PUYALLUP .......................  5 of  8      84        86
  CEDAR, SNOQUALMIE, SKYKOMISH, TOLT ...........  9 of  9      73        78

All of which means that Idaho is running just slightly ahead of the norm, Oregon is just about at the norm (with variations from basin to basin) and Washington just a little behind, but not by a lot.

It’s not all over yet, of course. Another four months or so, and we’ll see just how well off we are next summer.

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Okay, so it’s not as though no one else has ever said this.

But Associated Press reporters watch the state legislators at least as closely as anyone, and they are ordinarily sworn to high journalistic rectitude: Keep your opinions, in public, generally to yourself.

Charles Beggs has retired from the AP after covering the Oregon Legislature for longer than he probably would like to think about. And so, here’s what he told the Willamette Week about what really pissed him off in 2006:

“The Legislature. It was very aggravating to see them taking seven months to do four months of work—and even then, they didn’t accomplish much. There’s an intransigence on both sides that’s fueled by the desire to stake out positions that will satisfy interests that will give them money to get re-elected.”

And who can argue?

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The old Tammany politico George Washington Plunkitt, one of the great cynics of public affairs, liked to say that “reformers are only mornin’ glories” – they never last. Plunkitt wasn’t all right – some reformers have gone on to do good for an extended stretch. But he wasn’t all wrong either: It’s a tough job to keep that reforming ethic intact; so many things, sometimes little things, whittle away at it.

Agie the cat Consider the cat – an easy-going, eight-year-old calico named Agie, as of now the most famous cat in Oregon – that has the city of Willamina in the biggest uproar of its recent history.

Agie was a stray kitten when she fell into the hands of Melissa Hansen, the librarian at the Oregon timber town; she named the feline for Agatha Christie. Feeling that cats and things literary go together (cat blogging, anyone?), she moved the cat into the library, with official city permission. It has been there since, developing fans around town and especially among the children at the library. The chldren also have become enamored of two other library residents, hamsters named Hamlet and Othello.

The cat (as we observed this evening) is friendly but not overbearing, and clearly in good health. She has been declawed, and has no history of biting or other violence. The hamsters were asleep, but they were shielded consistently from children and others by placement of their terrarium inside a book case – visible but not touchable.

That was the situation the Willamina City Council voted, at its meeting of December 8, to upend by banning animals from city buildings.

Hamlet and Othello the hamsters, in their cage A generalized word here about Willamina city. It is one of the many Northwest towns that used to rely, more than it can now, on timber and other industry; while full of assets and a fine location, it has consequent economic and social problems. Its city government has some history of conflict and turmoil, and at tonight’s meeting some in the audience recalled days of council members standing up and yelling at each other. Problems accumulated. In the last few years, council members and a new mayor (though veteran in city activities) came on the scene, determined to work together civilly (as they apparently have) and to solve some of the problems. By varied accounts, they have worked hard and have solved some a number of problems. People spoke of all that, too, at this evening’s council meeting.

But as councilors and constituents ruefully noted, the crowd that filled the city hall meeting room to standing room only was not there to discuss “parks or paving or budgets.”

They were there to proteest on behalf of a cat. And a couple of hamsters.

What apparently happened on December 8 – according to public and unrebutted statements by two non-councilors who attended the meeting – is that most business was undertaken over the course of a couple of hours; the small audience stepped out for a few minutes; and by the time it returned, the council, with strong backing from the mayor, had approved a motion banning animals from city buildings. Meaning, Agie, Hamlet and Othello.

Evidently – according to statements from audience members which were unrebutted – no earlier notice had been given, and no public reasons (then) were offered. The library staff was taken completely unawares, as was the rest of the city.

The council and mayor probably were taken unawares by the depth and breadth of the reaction. Agie became the talk of the town. Petitions were drafted and circulated even in local businesses; one blasting the decision and supporting the cat drew about 200 signatures (this in a city with a population of around 1,800) and was delivered to the council. The story, which broke in the Sheridan Sun, spread to the McMinnville News Register, the Salem Statesman Journal and the Portland Oregonian. Portland television stations were running stories (one of them called an assistant library on her cell phone at the council meeting). The meeting room was standing room only – the first time, all seemed to agree, in anything like recent times.

The explanations for the council decision varied. The mayor focused on legal liability should the cat, say, bite someone, and held up a letter from the city’s insurer saying the cat was not insured. (She admitted she hasn’t inquired about the cost of insuring a cat with no bad history, and gave no indication of interest in finding out.) Another council member worried about residents who might be allergic to cats. Another said that three people – all anonymous – had complained about the cat. However much validity there was in any of these reasons (which had a way of shifting around in importance during the meeting), they suggested an air less of underlying cause than of after-the-fact justification.

By the time the cat part of the meeting had ended, there was a sense that little of this was really about the cat – that something else, some other issue or person or faction or problem or emotion – was buried underneath. The explosive lay elsewhere; the cat was merely the match.

That seems evident because when you consider what would have happened in front of a real “reform” council and mayor. In that scenario, when someone brought forth an issue with the cat – be it liability, health or something else – the “good government” response would be, “Fine. Come to the next council meeting, we’ll put it on the agenda, invite the library people to answer questions, and talk about what options we might consider.” None of that happened. The decision seemed to arrive ahead of much of the justification, and certainly ahead of public involvement. And that, as much as anything else, seems to have aggravated so many of the people at the council meeting this evening.

The council at first seemed determined to stay the course. Mayor Rita Baller said she thought the only thing the council would decide at this meeting was the date by which the animals must leave the library. A proposal to take the centrist course sought by the city’s library board, to grandfather in the existing animals before imposing a ban, couldn’t find a second. But faced with a crowd of city residents testifying almost in unison to the contrary, and evidence that most of the city was opposed, none of the council members seemed eager to be the one who set that date. They deferred further action till their next meeting, next month.

That may have signalled a late awareness of a better approach – or was it a less-packed council meeting room? Council members, and the mayor, bemoaned that the public never gets as interested or involved in the workaday business of the city – budgets, streets, police, parks. But when city leaders make midnight decisions and suggest that the will of a clear and determined constituency will be rolled over, they shouldn’t be surprised at the result:

“Why bother? Why get involved? They won’t listen anyway. It’s just the same old story …”

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Some people are never satisfied. That’s actually one of the realities of legislative reapportionment: No matter how you reshape and rearrange, you can’t please everyone. That doesn’t give the displeased grounds for a lawsuit.

Idaho legislative districtsOur view on the current districting map for Idaho has been that it’s not ideal but not bad either – allowing for some problematic areas. One of those is a district connecting a small group of people near Idaho Falls with a population base located around 80 miles away near the Utah border, with no useful direct road contact between (unless you want to rev up your four wheel drive, you have to veer outside the state or district to get from one to the other). It’s an unfortunate district, no doubt. There’s another running from Homedale to Twin Falls almost as bad. Such things happen to someone in every reapportionment.

But a number of eastern Idahoans, some of them legislators or former legislators, are aggrieved, and they have taken the reapportionment back to the Idaho Supreme Court. It has been there before, during the original reapportionment process in 2002. Further challenges led to more intense inquiry but, in the Idaho Supreme Court decision released Wednesday, the result was much the same.

The easterners have argued, most essentially, that northern Idaho has gotten too much representation – too many districts for its population – while eastern Idaho has gotten too few. But what do the regions consist of? From the court decision:

Petitioners’ definition of “north” Idaho includes districts that stretch from the State’s northern border (District 1) to as far south as Payette and Fruitland (District 9), Caldwell (District 10), and Emmett and Middleton (District 11). We know of no official delineation of Idaho’s regions and we are certainly not the state’s
geography experts, but we are familiar enough with the map of our state to find it
something of a stretch to categorize Payette, Fruitland, Caldwell, Emmett, and Middleton as part of “north” Idaho. Even operating under the geographic definition Petitioners have given us, we are unable to conclude they have demonstrated that the “regional deviation” creates constitutional problems for Plan L97.

However:

In this case, the individuals in the “northern” districts constitute 30.4 percent of
Idaho’s total population, and they are represented by eleven districts. Based on their population, they are entitled to 10.64 districts. On the other side of this coin, individuals outside the “northern” region comprise 69.6 percent of the population, and they are represented by twenty-four districts. Based on their population, non-“northern” residents are entitled to 24.36 districts. Indeed, under Plan L97, the number of districts in any region corresponds quite closely to the number of people therein. Put differently, if the total amount of underpopulation in the “northern” region is spread evenly among each “northern” district, each of the “northern” districts deviates –3.27 percent from the ideal. If the total amount of overpopulation of the non-“northern” region is spread evenly among each of the non-“northern” districts, each deviates 1.5 percent from the ideal. If the state is divided into the two regions (“north” and not-“north”), the maximum population deviation between any “northern” district and any non-“northern” district is 4.77 percent.

They can try again in another five years. But bear in mind that the fastest-growing parts of Idaho are in the southwest and the north, not in the east.

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The formal description reads: “F&M Holding Company, the parent company of Farmers & Merchants State Bank, is the largest independent bank holding company headquartered in Boise, Idaho. Farmers and Merchants State Bank, is a community banking organization established in 1967. FMSB’s business mix is both retail and commercial, with a strategic focus on business banking. Farmers & Merchants State Bank also offers trust, investments and private banking services. The Company, with $582 million in assets, has 11 full-service branches located throughout the Boise and Treasure valley area.”

Make that, “was the largest independent bank holding company headquartered in Boise, Idaho.”

Cascade Bancorp, which is based in Bend an runs the rapidly-growing Bank of the Cascades, just bought it – greatly extending its reach to the east, and making it a much larger regional player in banking. To date, Cascade has 21 branches, all in Oregon, most in central Oregon.

It now seems positioned for a larger regional growth. Speculation: Watch for entry into Washington state before long.

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Time has come for all the year-end lists (we here too are making some lists, checking them twice), but some are more striking than others.

Consider for example the Seattle Times list of 20 stories on its web site which were most-read (or at least most-viewed) during 2005.

Number 1 on the list: “Enumclaw-area animal-sex case investigated.” Number 3: “Trespassing charged in horse-sex case.” Number 6: “Videotapes show bestiality, Enumclaw police say.” Number 14: “Details we can’t quite comprehend” (a Nicole Brodeur column about the Enumclaw case). Number 19: “Charge filed in connection with man who died having horse sex.”

That’s five out of 20: Far outweighing any other topic.

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The Dignity Village encampment in Northeast Portland has long been an unusual development, and it may become even more unusual – one of the most provocative places associated with the homeless anywhere in the country.

Dignity Village, photo by portland ground

Five years and 11 days ago a group of homeless people set up camp at the location, called Camp Dignity at first, later Dignity Village. (The photos here are from the portland ground website.)

The group’s website (!) leads with a credo: “We came out of the doorways of Portland’s streets, out from under the bridges, from under the bushes of public parks, we came openly with nothing and no longer a need to hide as Portland’s inhumane and Draconian camping ban had just been overturned on two constitutional grounds. We came armed with a vision of a better future for ourselves and for all of Portland, a vision of a green, sustainable urban village where we can live in peace and improve not only the condition of our own lives but the quality of life in Portland in general. We came in from the cold of a December day and we refuse to go back to the way things were.”

To be homeless may often be equated with being helpless. But not in this case.

Dignity Village, photo by portland groundDignity Village has been a community flashpoint for a while, but in considerable part because of its very existence – a specific physical location (unlike any other in the Northwest) where the problem of homelessness resides. But it has turned into something else: A community, which has actually set about starting to solve some of its own problems.

Thus the headline in today’s Oregonian, reporting that leaders of Dignity Village have reached a negotiated agreement with the city of Portland for a formal status for their settlement, and terms and conditions under which it will operate. From the story: “The proposed agreement would essentially allow the village to manage the site with city oversight that would include regular visits from the police and fire bureaus, as well as detailed records regarding who lives there. The village also would have to be financially self-sufficient, with the help of private fundraising.”

Is this a workable – or for that matter desirable – model for the homeless in other cities? Is this kind of organized community possibly a way out for the homeless? Or is the launch of a new kind of ghetto, with a new kind of segregation?

Thoughts and ideas on this one are very much welcome …

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Call it a demographic trend, this one led, slightly, by Idaho.

For a long time Idaho, Washington and Oregon have had some population characteristics in common: a large central city (Boise, Seattle, Portland) with the pair of next largest cities spread out a little bit (Pocatello and Idaho Falls; Tacoma and Spokane; Eugene and Salem) and closely matched in population and sometimes exchanging ranking, well below the level of the lead city. These patterns have held for decades.

We’re now seeing some adjustment – new trends.

In the 2000 census we saw it first in Idaho, when the city of Nampa, lesss than20 miles from Boise, boomed and vaulted high over Pocatlelo and Idaho Falls to become the second-largest city in the state. If present trends continue, it could have double the population of either Pocatello or Idaho Falls by 2010. And also by that year, the city in between Boise and Nampa – Meridian – probably also will have surpassed Pocatello and Idaho Falls, which are far afield to the east.

Oregon’s pattern has had Portland in a distant lead among cities, with Eugene and Salem, substantial distances to the south, closely matched for second place. But much of 2005 saw headlines about the expansion efforts of the city of Beaverton, just over the hills west of Portland, to annex some of the large population of unincorporated residents nearby. That effort has aroused much controversy, but at least some of it eventually is likely to happen – many of these people live in effectively urban areas that really should be served by a city. When that does happen, Beaverton is a clear shot to become the second largest city in Oregon. (If growing Gresham, east of Portland, and now fourth-largest in the state, doens’t get there first.)

The development in Washington may be least expected statewide, though it shouldn’t be: Growth in Clark County, across the river from Portland in southwest Washington (and part of the Portland metro area), has for many years been the fastest in Washington. Meanwhile, growth in Spokane and Tacoma has been modest, and even Bellevue – fourth place in the state until Vancouver overtook it in this decade – has fallen short of boom-level.

Vancouver city (yellow) and urban area (gray)

Spokane and Tacoma each have populations just under 200,000; Vancouver’s now is 154,800 (compared to Bellevue’s 115,500). North of Vancouver lies a big territory of heavily developed unincorporated territory. As is the case with many prospective Beaverton annexees (and southwest of Boise too, among other places) many of the residents want to stay outside of city limits. But that will not last forever.

And maybe not for long. News reports today note that the Vancouver city is moving ahead with a massive annexation plan which would bring in as many as 65,000 new residents, and push Vancouver to second place among Washington cities. A series of informational meetings on the subject have been scheduled for January.

This effort may have many effects. One of the larger, and felt far afield from Clark County, may be the way Washington state re-perceives itsefl. And the way Tacoma and Spokane do.

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The Idaho headline today – that Albertsons will not sell itself off and will remain a company, headquartered in Boise – will no doubt be cheered widely. And for good reason, considering the alternative: Albertsons staying in Boise is undoubtedly a good thing for Idaho.

Still, Boiseans would be wise not to invest too much emotion in the pronouncement from CEO Larry Johnston. They should remember that the corporation came to the brink of selling itself, pulling back only at the last moments. Whatever pressures led the firm’s leaders to consider the selloff over a period of months have not gone away; in fact, Albertsons stock dropped hard after word that the sell deal had failed.

Johnston’s comment was that “It is business as usual.” Okay. And good.

For now.

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Back in 2001 one of the most striking legal decisions of the year came from 4th District Judge Deborah Bail when she bluntly – even fiercly – blasted the Idaho Legislature for what she said was its failure to properly fund the state’s public schools.

schoolThe case was old even then, rolling back and forth through the court system for more than a decade already; and more than four more years has passed since then, before a state supreme court ruling. The question of whether the state has properly funded public schools has been the state’s high court five times now – a stunning unwillingness, up to now, to make a clear decision.

Today, though, it made that decision, and it was the same one Bail made years ago. (She was explicitly upheld.) It was a clear decision: Four of the five voting members were in full agreement, and the one partial dissenter – Justice Jim Jones – disagreed with only a few parts of the majority finding.

That decision will set the Idaho Legislature, arriving for the 2006 session in less than three weeks, on its ear – and likely evolving into a corps of angry wasps.

The decision was awfully long in coming, but it is abundantly clear now.

The case was filed in June 1990 by a group of school districts under the banner of Idaho Schools for Equal Educational Opportunity; the most consistent visible figure through all these years has been its attorney, former Justice Robert Huntley. They noted the Idaho Constitution says “it shall be the duty of the Legislature of Idaho, to
establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free
common schools.” And they said the legislature had failed to do that.

In some ways, this is a policy matter: What does it mean to say that the state’s school are “uniform and thorough”? But interpreting the senses of constitutions is something courts do – so far, at least – and the court has taken on the task. Consider this passage:

While the State quibbles with some of the evidence used to support the 2001 Findings, the State has failed to show how the disputed findings were material to the overall conclusion the Legislature has failed in its constitutional duty to provide a thorough public education system. The record in this case involves a transcript of more than 3,500 pages, thousands of pages of prefiled testimony and thousands of pages of exhibits. The record also includes uncontradicted testimony from numerous school administrators and superintendents outlining facility problems and the barriers to correcting them. The State’s pedantic focus on such details as whether it would cost $7 million to build a new school as opposed to the district court’s finding of $10 million distracts from the overwhelming evidence in the record documenting serious facility and funding problems in the state’s public education system. Among such evidence is the State of Idaho’s own 1993 Statewide School Facilities Needs Assessment, which documented facility deficiencies and concluded 57% of all Idaho school buildings had “serious” safety concerns. A 1999 update to that report noted 53 of the buildings needing serious and immediate attention in 1993 had deteriorated even further.

It spelled out details in specific districts, too.

In addition, the district court found that a 1999 inspection of the Wendell middle school, built in 1915, revealed crumbling concrete, which led to the condemnation of the school. The abandonment of the school resulted in “double shifting” with the high school, meaning middle school students attended the high school part of the week while the high school students attended the rest of the week and on Saturdays. Another example illustrating both the safety concerns and the difficulties of funding remedies is the American Falls High School. In 1997, a seismic analysis concluded the high school would likely collapse should a “probable seismic event” occur. Repairs were made in 2000 to lessen the danger, but the American Falls School District decided it needed a new high school. It took three unsuccessful attempts before the district was finally able to gain voter approval of a bond to construct a new high school with a scheduled completion date of 2002. In its 2001 Findings, the district court somberly observed, “It will be five years from the time that the danger was discovered until a new structure is built. It took three years to take measures to lessen the danger to the students.” Similarly, it took over five years from the date of an initial safety inspection report that the Troy Junior Senior High School was unsafe for occupancy to complete a more intensive review, which also recommended the building no longer be used. A superintendent testified that the surrounding community had supported the district to the best of its ability but could not afford any more levies. As of 2001, the building was still in use.
The district court explored the funding problems in great detail, and concluded the
“glaring gap” in the funding system was the “lack of any mechanism to deal quickly with major, costly, potentially catastrophic conditions by districts which are low in population, have a low tax base and are in economically depressed areas.

So what must happen next? Here the court was more vague: “The appropriate remedy, however, must be fashioned by the Legislature and not this Court. Quite simply, Article IX of our constitution means what it says: “[I]t shall be the duty of the Legislature of Idaho, to establish and maintain a general, uniform and thorough system of public, free common schools.” Thus, it is the duty of the State, and not this Court or the local school districts, to meet this constitutional mandate.”

They threw a bone to the lawmakers in an expression of confidence that they could work out a means for resolving the issue. They also included a laundry list of ideas they noted had been used or proposed and might be explored in Idaho by way of satisfying the constitutuonal requirements:

… we observe that legislatures of other states grappling with this same issue have come up with a number of alternatives to assist school districts in providing a safe environment conducive to learning. These alternatives simply demonstrate that there are options available to assist school districts, and are no way intended as this Court’s direction to the Legislature on its further responsibilities. Reducing the majority necessary to pass a bond; allowing taxpayers to designate a portion of their income tax refund to cover repairs of school facilities (see Haw. Rev. Stat. § 235-102.5); funding school facilities out of the state general fund (see, e.g., Educational Facilities Construction and Financing Act, 2000 N.J. Laws, c.72 (July 18, 2000) (codified at N.J. Stat. Ann. §§ 18A:7G-1 to 18A:7G-44)); authorizing a study to determine the actual cost of providing a thorough education (see Kan. Stat. Ann. § 46-1225); establishing a school facilities fund supported by a percentage of corporate income tax revenue (see N.C. Gen. Stat. § 115C-546.1, 2(b)); or creating an emergency school building repair program to fund school districts’ urgent repair needs, are only a few of the possibilities. Of course, we do not, and cannot, today pass on the constitutionality of any or all of these options as they may apply to school funding in Idaho, as that question has not yet been presented to us. By listing these alternatives, we are in no way usurping the Legislature’s role; we leave the policy decisions to that separate branch of government, subject to our continuing responsibility to ensure Idaho’s constitutional provisions are satisfied.

We will doubtless hear more about this in, among other places, the governor’s stte of the state address. But the next move is the legislature’s.

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Oregon Senator Gordon Smith has an easy, relaxed manner, but if you watch his actions and especially his voting record, you get the sense of a careful careful man who picks his battles with pinpoint precision.

Gordon SmithHe has a difficult path to walk. At home, he has to remain acceptable to his Oregon audience, which in recent years has elected only him among Republican candidates to a statewide position. That is in large part because he presents the image of a moderate guy, definitely not a Democrat but – apparently at least – to the left of most of the Republican majority in the Senate. (Obviously his close ties to Democrat Ron Wyden, whose role is less complex, helps.) In Washington, there is that conservative majority to deal with: He could could lose all clout in the Senate if he veers too far from it. It’s a complex task, and Smith appears to have honed his calculus well.

So sometimes he splits the difference, but not randomly.

He disappointed a number of environmentalist Oregonians, for example, when he finally announced this week he would vote for a defense appropriation bill that included a provision allowing oil drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, after years of opposing the oil drilling. When the vote came, however, the oil drilling proposal failed in the Senate by four votes. Did Smith wait to announce his position until after he knew how the vote would come out, knowing his own would not be needed – and then be counted as standing with his caucus leaders?

He might deny it. But it wouldn’t be surprising. The man knows how to pick his battles.

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Just how phony and how minor is this invented controversy over the lack of recoginition of Christmas (as opposed to “Season’s Greetings”, “Happy Holidays” or “Xmas”?)

This phony: The top elected officials of our states, the governors, aren’t playing into it. Given an an easy, no-lose opportunity to play into the popular side of a controversy (if there really were one), they have punted in the easiest place possible: Their official Christmas cards.

We know this because the news organization stateline.org collected all 50 of the messages on those cards, minus the few guvs who don’t do cards. Only a few even used to C-word; none reallyplayed it up. From the Northwest:

Idaho: Governor Dirk Kempthorne: “May the spirit of this holiday season fill your heart with love, peace and serenity. Wishing you many blessings for the New Year.”

Oregon: Governor Ted Kulongoski: “PEACE – Paz, Paix, Pace, Frieden, Mir, Shalom, Heiwa, Salam, Heping”

Washington: Governor Christine Gregoire: “Happy Holidays from the Gregoires – Mike, Chris, Courtney and Michelle”

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I was discussing earlier today with a Boise journalist the nature of the upcoming Idaho legislative session. Along the topics hashed was that the idea that, in some contrast to last session, this session might be a little less business-oriented – business dominated.

AlbertsonsThe prompt for that thought was the pressure for change in the property tax, a push coming mainly from residential property owners who have argued (accurately) that they have been paying an ever-larger chunk of the property tax bill – an ever-larger chunk of the tax bill, period. (Last week, this subject came up over coffee with a business advocate, who said he hoped this wouldn’t lead to a shift of property taxes on to businesses. To my inquiry about the steady shift, over the last generation, of property taxes away from business and on to residential taxpayers, and whether that might be redressed or corrected, he had no answer.)

Another piece of news, however, might underscore some of this session too: The impending news of the sale of Albertsons.

Go back to the beginning of this year, to Governor Dirk Kempthorne’s state of the state address, when he proposed the Corporate Headqwuaters Incentive Act. He proclaimed:

Tonight, I’m proposing another innovative strategy to attract new corporations and bring high-paying jobs to the state of Idaho. And, more importantly, this strategy will help us retain our base.

Idaho is home to a number of Fortune 500 companies, but in a time of corporate mergers and consolidations, we can never take that for granted. How do you nurture your existing base and attract new corporations? Here’s how:

I have spent the past several months developing a progressive tax incentive package designed to retain and attract corporate headquarters in Idaho. I’m asking for your support of an incentive package that will grab the attention of Fortune 500 companies around the country.

Kempthorne said the proposal was intended broadly, but within hours word swept the Statehouse that it was aimed squarely at Albertsons, with the intent of keeping the supermarket giant’s headquarters planted in its home town of Boise. Within a few days, Dan Popkey of the Idaho Statesman would write – and no serious contradiction to hispoint ever emerged:

“What company is at the head of the queue to bring 500 high-paying jobs to Idaho in exchange for sweeping concessions on sales, income and property taxes? The answer: Albertsons. Kempthorne and other leaders are determined to kill rumors the grocery-and-drug chain might leave Boise for Chicago or some other metropolis closer to major markets. Kempthorne dangled a skeletal proposal before lawmakers Monday. When details emerge, look for meat on those bones allowing retroactive credit to Albertsons for recent job shifts.”

Certainly the Kempthorne-Albertsons-HB306 circle is close enough: Albertsons, which contributed to Kempthorne’s political funds long after he opted out of a 2006 run for governor ($3,750 on April 14 this year), lobbied hard for HB306, and Kempthorne issued a rare scalding press release saying a committee decision “defnied logic” when legislators initially rejected the idea – which they eventually accepted.

So, on one side of the ledger, Albertsons was able to benefit from a tax break. And on the other side?

As matters stand at this writing, Albertsons is on the verge of existing no more, at least not as Idaho has long known it. The Wall Street Journal and a clutch of other organizations are reporting that an investment group headed by Cerberus Capital, Kimco Realty and Supervalu are likely to buy out and dismantle one of Idaho’s venerable companies. More final details may be forthcomingin a few days. As the leaders of Albertsons have become enthusiastic sellers, so they appear to be enthusiastic buyers.

Rendered perhaps a shade more cheerful by a bottom line enhanced by Idaho’s governor and legislature earlier this year.

If the sale and dismemberment of Albertsons is the otherbig story in Idaho as the legislature convenes, it might be in a different kind of mood this session.

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What would you think of building a couple of big new gas-fired power plants on the east side of your town?

Hold that thought. The Idaho Statesman‘s online poll asks tht question of Boiseans. The results, as of our check this morning: By a 60%-40% margin, nearly 500 self-selected Boiseans favor the plants …

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