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Posts published in December 2005

Retirement blues

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.

Berendt’s legacy

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.

Inquest

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.

Oregon bloggers, blue and red

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.

Very rural bus

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?

Recalled

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.

The case against Cantwell

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. (more…)

Idaho meds

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. (more…)

Bremerton clout

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.

Literacy, urban

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. (more…)