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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After Idaho Senator Larry Craig’s trouble with his previous proposed nomination to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals – the failed proposal for attorney William Myers III, whose ties to industry and agriculture proved too strong for the comfort of some senators – there are some indicators that the new nominee, Randy Smith, will fare better. (The two have been proposed for different seats.)

But these are complex waters.

On the plus side is Smith himself. He has a political enough background, serving as state Republican party chair in the early 90s (he was a good one, and not especially more partisan than the position would dictate). But he has gotten good reviews from a wide spectrum of reviewers in his role as judge, including strong comments from current state Democratic Chair Richard Stallings. He does not have Myers’ lobbying liabilities, has proven himself as a capable judge, and is likely to arouse no angry howl in Idaho, even from Democrats.

There is another issue, though: Is the seat “Idaho’s” – and should Craig be the senator nominating for it?

Technically, there are no representative state seats on the 9th (or any other) circuit. But to ensure some broad base of representation, the seats have traditionally been treated that way, and Idaho – on basis of population – should have one. Here’s the oddity: Senior Judge Stephen Trott, whose spot Smith would occupy, was a Californian when he was appointed, and later moved to Idaho. Leading Idaho to sorta “claim” the seat.

Which California, specifically its senators, want back. Senator Dianne Feinstein remarked:

“I would object to naming a judge from Idaho to a 9th Circuit seat that has been held traditionally by a Californian,” she wrote in a Nov. 22 e-mail to The Recorder. “There are plenty of very suitable people from our state and [President Bush] should choose a nominee from California.”

Judge Smith may want to relax a bit. The wait could be long – no fault of his own.

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The minimum wage, in theory, was set up to provide a floor income allowing anyone who worked (again, in theory) to earn enough to survive on a 40-hour per week job. At a federal rate of $5.15 an hour that has, of course, been something of a lie for quite a while now.

But the report released this week from the National Low Income Housing Coalition puts concrete numbers to what most of us assume. Natonally it notes, “more than 80% of all renter households live in jurisdictions where the minimum wage is less than half of the Housing Wage. In other words, the vast majority of renter households find themselves in localities in which decent housing is unaffordable unless their combined income exceeds that of two wage earners working full-time, with no vacation or sick days, at the minimum wage.” In other words, out of reach of even a couple both of whom work full time, at minimum wage.

And in the Northwest?

Here are the state summaries from the report:

For Idaho:

In Idaho, the Fair Market Rent (FMR) for a two-bedroom apartment is $603. In order to afford this level of rent and utilities, without paying more than 30% of income on housing, a household must earn $2,011 monthly or $24,137 annually. Assuming a 40-hour work week, 52 weeks per year, this level of income translates into a Housing Wage of $11.60.

In Idaho, a minimum wage worker earns an hourly wage of $5.15. In order to afford the FMR for a two-bedroom apartment, a minimum wage earner must work 90 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. Or, a household must include 2.3 minimum wage earner(s) working 40 hours per week year-round in order to make the two bedroom FMR affordable.

In Idaho, the estimated mean (average) wage for a renter is $8.61 an hour. In order to afford the FMR for a two-bedroom apartment at this wage, a renter must work 54 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. Or, working 40 hours per week year-round, a household must include 1.3 worker(s) earning the mean renter wage in order to make the two-bedroom FMR affordable.

Monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments for an individual are $579 in Idaho. If SSI represents an individual’s sole source of income, $174 in monthly rent is affordable, while the FMR for a one-bedroom is $496.

For Oregon:

In Oregon, the Fair Market Rent (FMR) for a two-bedroom apartment is $682. In order to afford this level of rent and utilities, without paying more than 30% of income on housing, a household must earn $2,275 monthly or $27,298 annually. Assuming a 40-hour work week, 52 weeks per year, this level of income translates into a Housing Wage of $13.12.

In Oregon, a minimum wage worker earns an hourly wage of $7.25. In order to afford the FMR for a two-bedroom apartment, a minimum wage earner must work 72 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. Or, a household must include 1.8 minimum wage earner(s) working 40 hours per week year-round in order to make the two bedroom FMR affordable.

In Oregon, the estimated mean (average) wage for a renter is $11.07 an hour. In order to afford the FMR for a two-bedroom apartment at this wage, a renter must work 47 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. Or, working 40 hours per week year-round, a household must include 1.2 worker(s) earning the mean renter wage in order to make the two-bedroom FMR affordable.

Monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments for an individual are $579 in Oregon. If SSI represents an individual’s sole source of income, $174 in monthly rent is affordable, while the FMR for a one-bedroom is $570.

In Washington:

In Washington, the Fair Market Rent (FMR) for a two-bedroom apartment is $757. In order to afford this level of rent and utilities, without paying more than 30% of income on housing, a household must earn $2,522 monthly or $30,268 annually. Assuming a 40-hour work week, 52 weeks per year, this level of income translates into a Housing Wage of $14.55.

In Washington, a minimum wage worker earns an hourly wage of $7.35. In order to afford the FMR for a two-bedroom apartment, a minimum wage earner must work 79 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. Or, a household must include 2.0 minimum wage earner(s) working 40 hours per week year-round in order to make the two bedroom FMR affordable.

In Washington, the estimated mean (average) wage for a renter is $12.08 an hour. In order to afford the FMR for a two-bedroom apartment at this wage, a renter must work 48 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. Or, working 40 hours per week year-round, a household must include 1.2 worker(s) earning the mean renter wage in order to make the two-bedroom FMR affordable.

Monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments for an individual are $579 in Washington. If SSI represents an individual’s sole source of income, $174 in monthly rent is affordable, while the FMR for a one-bedroom is $617.

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The closest 2004 state House contest in Oregon was in District 10, which takes in much of the north-central coast (centering on Lincoln County). The Republican incumbent was Alan Brown, who just barely beat back a strong challenge from locally active Democrat Jean Cowan.

Alan BrownCowan announced a few months back she would try again. And now Brown, who acknowledges his district is tougher for him than it used to be, says he will run again as well, seeking a 4th term.

These are two good and impressive candidates, who ran a highly civil campaign last round. Given the history of the candidates, it probably will be highly civil again. But it stands to become one of the three or four most-watched races statewide in this cycle.

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The pieces on this site and in our various Ridenbaugh Press publications are written with an audience in mind: What we used to think of as a mainstream American audience, generally reachable through the kind of voice you find in most American daily newspapers.

The notion that words and concepts mean somwhat the same to us all, though, is becoming increasingly questionable. A great case in point: Today’s column by Danny Westneat of the Seattle Times.

Last week, as he noted, he wrote a facestious, sarcastic “open letter” to the Reverend Jerry Falwell, who has claimed that Merry Christmas is being swept underfoot of Seasons Greetings and Happy Holidays. “This is a war. You’re either for Christmas, or you’re against it,” he wrote. “After we [Christians] are persecuted from the malls, how are we supposed to observe the birth of the Lord? “What’s left for us? Just church? The family hearth?”

Westneat was not wrong in assuming that his readers – the mainstream American readership of decades past – should take that as satire, whether they agreed with his point or not. But significant (and, we will argue here, growing) portions of the citizenry simply don’t see things through the same lens.

I returned this week to find more than 200 e-mailers and 25 phone callers extolling me as a key bulwark against an atheist plot to steal Christmas.

One person thanked me for being one of the few journalists in the city to express a sentiment many feel deeply about. “I am so sick of ‘Happy Holidays’ as a greeting I could scream,” the reader wrote.

“You are right on target about how Christmas is being taken from us,” wrote another.

“God bless you,” wrote another. “It’s true we are at war, and we Christians better take a stand and be salt and light.”

“Obviously these people don’t speak for all Christians. But it’s still sad that so many seem to feel Christmas joy depends on words in Macy’s store ads. And telling that it’s more about a public contest than personal observance,” Westneat concluded. “To be crystal clear, what I meant was this: Forget about shopping, Christians. Even the Grinch figured out that Christmas doesn’t come from a store.”

Half a century ago, Dr. Seuss could write about the Grinch and make a few points, some of them satiric, that most of us would get. Westneat’s experience shows he might not be able to confidently do the same today.

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If the logic that Oregon voters elect their top officials from the political middle holds true, then Pete Sorenson may be doing his rival for the Democratic nomination for governor, incumbent Ted Kulongoski, a favor.

Kulongoski historically has worn the liberal label without much modification, but a good many liberal Democrats in Oregon are upset that he hasn’t more acted the part in his three years so far as governor.

Pete SorensonAnd, entering the race for governor, that is Sorenson’s point specifically: “People across Oregon ask me who I am and why I’m running for governor. My answer is straightforward: I am a child of Oregon. Our great state is suffering. Our people are battling deepening economic adversity without any help. Oregon’s defining quality over the past half-century – the hope for a better tomorrow – is rapidly evaporating.”

The Lane County commissioner starts the race little known (though his name has been out there as a prospective candidate for months) and facing long odds – polling puts him in single digits against the incumbent governor. Assuming for the moment that indicators are correct and Kulongoski emerges as the Democratic nominee, how doesa this contest position him for the fall?

Primaries can cut two ways. Some are bitter battles damaging everyone involved. Others, however, serve to redefine and even strengthen the winner. In this case, that could mean Kulongoski positioned in the public mind, as he heads into the general election, as a (primary) winner and as the moderate in the race. Not a bad place to be.

But all of that is far ahead. Next question: Will Kitzhaber defy expectations (including ours) and jump in? If he does, the preceding logic undergoes an alteration.

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The headlines about the possibility of a Measure 37-style land use initiative heading north from Oregon to Washington have so far obscured another large shared interest: Paying for public employee retirement.

Oregon has had problems with its massive PERS funds for years, largely because of massively over-average benefits guaranteed from the beginning – a case study that should have served as a warning to any number of other states.

Now Washington is dealing with its own, as a spate of recent news stories have outlined.

As one Associated Press piece noted, “In recent years, lawmakers have financed pensions on the cheap, skipping payments and relying on Wall Street investments to keep the system relatively healthy. It was a painless, if imprudent, way to help balance state and local budgets during the post-Sept. 11 recession that hammered Washington state.”

The problem is not as extreme as Oregon’s has been, but it may prove equally tough to resolve.

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Most of the time, you can’t easily attribute to state party leaders a great deal of what goes on in their tenure. Party chairs get praised and damned for much more than they have control over.

You have to pause then at the case of Paul Berendt, the Washington state Democratic chair who today said he will retire next month. Berendt has not been outstandingly visible a chair – less so, surely, than his Republican counterpart Chris Vance – and with probably average clout. But what happened on his watch is so one-sided he surely should be credited with a piece of the result.

Berendt, the longest-serving state Democratic chair in the country, took over early in 1995, a year of Democratic wipeout, when the party lost most of its U.S. house seats, lost a Senate election (to Republican Slade Gorton), lost the legislature, lost local races and clearly would have lost the governorship too if that had been on the block. As he leaves in January, Democrats will have regained that Senate seat, most of those House seats, and the state legislature. Nor was any of that a foregone conclusion: The party margins in Washington are too close.

Whoerver replaces Berendt – and the prospect probably looks a lot more attractive now than it did in 1995 – probably ought to keep the man on speed-dial.

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The real issue in the legal case that has been preoccupying Boise for the last three months or so – the justification, or lack or it, for a police shooting, of a teenager named Matthew Jones – drills down to this: How confident are Boiseans that their local elected officials are making straight decisions on police shootings?

Erwin Sonnenberg, who has been Ada County coroner almost forever, is central here. The concern raised is that he’s too close to the Boise police, close enough that he will see things their way in evaluating a police shooting rather than taking a strictly neutral view. Back in the 90s when the Boise police had a larger rash of shooting incidents, similar concerns were also raised, though with less visibility than this time.

Much of that, whether valid or not, is personal to Sonnenberg. Which doesn’t weaken the valid contention by Ada County Prosecutor Greg Bower that the system for handling especially sensitive determinations of death – by inquest – is outmoded. The Idaho Statesman article today on this notes:

Bower on Wednesday called the current inquest system “archaic” and said his staff is investigating alternatives. The point of an inquest is to “promote public confidence” in the investigations of shootings, Bower said. But inquests may be having the opposite effect by unnecessarily delaying the release of information, he said.

An inquest also can create unneeded grief for the officers and families of the deceased by requiring them to relive highly emotional events when prosecutors already have a clear idea of whether criminal charges will be filed, Bower said.

Changes in this area would have to be addressed in state law. Expect the subject to arrive at the Statehouse in January.

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A good move that nakes for good symmetry: a red blog to match the blue one in Oregon.

Blue Oregon, which has been telling the liberal/Demcratic side for more than a year, has been a solid group blog, one of the best in the Northwest. It has cried out for a counterpart on the Republican right, and now it has one.

Oregon Catalyst bills itself as updating daily (weekdays, at least) and as “Oregon’s idea brain trust,” has got off to an active start, with entries on government budgeting, education, the Measure 37 ruling and other topics.

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