Writings and observations

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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Most of us tend to think of bus systems as highly urban creatures; if you live outside an urban area, the only bus you’re likely to see is a Greyhound (and fewer of those). Not many small communities have real bus systems; hardly any really rural areas do.

Warm Springs reservation mapNow it appears the Warm Springs Indian reservation in west-central Oregon, located many miles from the nearest city (Bend – which doesn’t have a bus system), may get one.

Their reason for moving this way may seem counterintuitive at first, but – it should be obvious – applies to a lot of rural areas around the country. From a news story on the development: “Tribal leaders have been working on the plan for the past two years, spurred by a transit study which found that more than 17 percent of unemployed reservation residents cited lack of transportation as the main reason they couldn’t find work. It was the second leading reason given for unemployment, after ‘unknown reasons’.”

So they’ll run it around from point to point: “From 6 a.m. to 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. to 6 p.m., riders could pay a small fee to schedule daily or weekly transportation door-to-door. For the rest of the day, the service would switch to a ‘checkpoint’ system.”

Question: Could it work in other rural areas, even absent a grant?

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It’s no surprise, and predicted here (and of course, not just here) for many months: Jim West has been recalled as mayor of Spokane.

Jim WestNot all the ballots have been counted yet, or will be (under Washington’s odd system of allowing mailed-in ballots to count even days after the election) for a while. But the 76%-35% decision to recall is much too decisive to be reversed.

For Spokane, the real question of the day is, what now?

Dennis HessionMost immediately, the next event is on December 16, when Council President Dennis Hession, an attorney with Richter-Wimberley, will become the mayor pro tem, an interim position only. Indications are that this translates in ideology to a move from the right toward the center, though what that would mean for the city directly is unclear. Also unclear is whether Hession will want to keep the job, whether it’s his if he wants it, and who might be the city council’s alternative to serve the last couple of years of the mayoral term if not him.

That’s the narrower question. The broader one is, what are the takeaway lessons for Spokane from all this?

By voting for recall the voters have taken the West scandal off the front pages and airwaves, mostly at least. But there’s no pretending that it didn’t happen, or that it didn’t shoot a fierce spotlight onto parts of the city most people would rather not think about. In a way, the people, and the leaders, of Spokane have a bigger choice ahead of them: Do they sweep “all this” under the rug, or – even while rebuilding their civic image – find a way to acknowledge and deal with it?

If that sounds a little vague … more will be coming in the days ahead.

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Maria Cantwell seems moderately well-positioned for re-election in 2006: Not a lock, but playing a stronger hand than her probable Republican opponent, Mike McGavick. One reason for that has to do with the case each has to be making.

Maria CantwellCantwell can position herself as a defender of Washington’s consumers (against Enron and others) and environment (against the latest Puget Sound tanker proposal). Her narrative is easily mapped out, and there’s no very obvious reason it won’t work.

There are plenty of people out there who really don’t like Cantwell, and they have their reasons. They tend not to have been clearly explicated in Washington, and there may be good reasons for that.

The best and clearest explication of them written so far may be in a column for the business web site Tech Central Station, by James Glassman, called “The Senator from Windfall.” Itmay or may not reflect McGavick’s take on his opponent, and he may or may not use some of the points in it, but it certainly explains where some of the anti-Cantwell animus comes from.

Its mainspring is what many on the right must see as a delicious irony, tagging Cantwell with a sin – hypocrisy – more often spouted from the left. Glassman notes that Cantwell, until her loss of a U.S. House seat in 1994 in the Republican tide of that year, had worked on campaigns and for governments. Then she was recruited to the new Real Networks high-tech business, received extensive stockoptions which took off on the 90s dot-com boom and made her independently wealthy. She used that money to finance her run for the Senate – becoming, he notes, “truly the Senator From Windfall.”

In office, she has campaigned against a range of business proposals and windfalls – a high of hypocrisy, Glassman suggests. His largest focus is on Cantwell’s talk about oil company profits coming as Americans paid record-high proces for gas: “Are such profits a windfall? Of course not. They are the result of serious investment and research and development. But Senators like Cantwell and [New Hampshire Senator Judd] Gregg — and others who should know better — continue to try to exact special tribute from the same companies that are trying to boost America’s energy supply.”

Those poor companies. They’re only trying to save our country, for God’s sake …

He does go on to make policy arguments against the tax and regulatory approaches Cantwell has proposed (most notably related to oil). Glassman’s column is intelligently thought out and would represent a cogent approach in undertaking the first public task McGavick has before him: Explaining why the voters should dump Cantwell. It certainly explains why some people think they should.

But this world view, pitted against the alternative Cantwell is likely to let loose in the months ahead, seems at this point unlikely to win much sympathy from Washingtonians concerned more about such matters as the price of electricity and gas, and the state of the environment, than about corporate profits.

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Maybe it had to be an interim president of Idaho State University to bring up the idea of creating a full-fledged medical school at Idaho State University. The last president, Richard Bowen, never broached the idea – publicly at least – and if anyone ever has, it’s gone unremarked. Which would seem unlikely.

Idaho State UniversityInterim President Michael Gallagher has nothing to lose by floating the idea, which on the surface and over the long haul seems not unreasonable. Of Idaho’s higher ed institutions, ISU is the one most closely allied with medical training.

Gallagher’s specific language was a little more diplomatic than that: “ISU is charged as the lead institution in health and support sciences,” he said. “We are willing to work with the board and the Idaho Medical Association, plus other institutions including the Legislature, to help define what the future of health and medical education should look like in Idaho.” But his meaning was clear enough.

There is a little glitch: Idaho has been funding its colleges and universities thinner and thinner in recent years, and the colleges and universities have been in general paying more attention to what programs might go away, than to massive new expansions. (State Senator Gary Schroeder, whose district includes the University of Idaho, estimated more than a decade ago that if the decline in share of state funding going to higher education continues, it will reach zero in the 2030s – and the state is still on that track.) .

You can also take apart the argument about Idaho’s relative lack of physicians. Idahoans who want medical training can currently get it through a state program, an alliance with Washington, Alaska and Montana called WAMI, which sets aside seats from the smaller states at the medical school at the University of Washington. The program has worked pretty well and has delivered new physicians over the years back to Idaho.

In Idaho, Boise and the other larger population centers do not notably lack for medical practitioners; the gaps are in the smaller communities and rural areas, owing to the economics of rural areas. A new medical school will not fix that.

Leaving that aside, the idea of an Idaho medical school sounds like something the state should pursue at some point. Pocatello does have two hospitals, and one of them (probably the one located next to the ISU campus) could probably be developed into a teaching hospital.

But be warned: It ain’t cheap. Solid medical training these days is astoundingly specialized – no such things as just training a corps of gp’s – and that means a lot of staff, expensive teachers and even more expensive equipment.

How expensive? Let’s pull a few numbers out from other institutions.

Consider the Brown Medical School in Rhode Island (which has a population comparable to Idaho’s). It’s not entirely a fair comparison, since Brown is Ivy League. But the total medical school enrollment of 326 doesn’t seem stratospheric: You can’t run a medical school for a couple of dozen students. Now, how many faculty members are needed to teach them? The Brown number – 2,105 in grand total – is probably misleading, because most of them are volunteer or adjunct or work in the hospital. But do you need more teachers than students? Apparently.

The Brown med school budget is $54.3 million. It does have a $167 million endowment fund (not currently present in Idaho) to help out, but clearly the school is not an inexpensive proposition.

Idaho’s – when the day eventually comes, as it may, that the state does set up its own med school – probably won’t be on an Ivy League level. But the cost is apt to run into the tens of millions anyway (especially since it would include startup costs). The bottom line is that Idaho is probably going to have to grow a lot more before this dream becomes a reality.

No harm though, in someone like Gallagher starting to dream, and triggering others to do it too.

How many

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Peter Callaghan’s ever-fun Q&A column has pungent bit today on the idea of taxpayers picking up $166 million of the tab for a NASCAR speedway near Bremerton.

We here have never backed the idea of public funding of private sports facilities, these being among those cases where the free market should operate (if a business proposition doesn’t make economic sense without artifical public help, then it probably doesn’t have enough merit anyway). Callaghan raises a noteworthy political issue in this case, though …

Q: You raise an interesting point, and I’m glad I could be here to witness such a rare event. What’s the difference between giving tax money for a NASCAR track and giving tax money for professional baseball and football?

A: There’s a big difference that can be summarized in two words: Bremerton and Seattle. The sports stadiums are in Seattle and were lobbied by the state’s most powerful business, political and social leaders. These people enjoy team sports, as long as they can watch them in suites that keep them a safe distance from the people known as “fans.” Auto racing seems awfully red-state to them. And most didn’t realize Bremerton was an actual place. They thought it was a ferry.

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Seattle is no doubt happy to bask in its latest ranking as the most literate major city in the country, out of 69 top centers. (Portland did well too, ranking at 11. Boise and Spokane were not among the cities ranked.) And it says something.

literacy studyThese kind of ratings are usually of limited value, and there’s no intent here to puff this one up beyond what it should be. But this study, “America’s Most Literate Cities,” by Central Connecticut State University President John Miller, does perform the useful service of pointing out some of the factors that lead to a literate community.

The basics are about what you might expect: “Previous editions of this study focused on five key indicators of literacy: newspaper circulation, number of bookstores, library resources, periodical publishing resources, and educational attainment. The 2005 study introduces a new factor—the Internet—to gauge the expansion of literacy to online media.” But the interplay among these factors is what’s especially interesting.

Miller notes, for example, a number of sometimes odd connections and dislocations among these factors.

The presence of retail book stores is positively associated with quality of libraries. So, it is not a question of whether people buy books or check them out: they do both or neither.

Newspaper circulation variables correlate with nothing other than themselves. There is virtually no relationship between number of papers circulated per person and any of the other literacy factors including reading a newspaper on the internet.

The number of public library staff per capita, number of retail bookstores per capita, and magazines published per capita are significantly related to more other literary factors than any of the other variables.

There are strong relationships between three of the four internet literacy variables including wireless internet access, purchasing books on the internet, and reading newspapers on the internet, but availability of wireless terminals in public libraries is not related to any of these three variables.

Portlanders would have a hard time believing it, but Seattle ranks second (behind San Francisco) in number of book store per 100,000 people, while Portland shares a seventh-place ranking. (Doesn’t account for the massive traffic drawn by the Powell’s mother ship; in fairness, that alone should boost Portland a few notches.) Match that up against newspaper penetration, where Seattle ranks 16 and Portland 20.

Interesting study, worth some attention.

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