Writings and observations

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.

Share on Facebook

Idaho

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.

Share on Facebook

Oregon

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”

Share on Facebook

Idaho Oregon Washington

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.

Share on Facebook

Idaho

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 …

Share on Facebook

Idaho

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.

Share on Facebook

Idaho

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.

Share on Facebook

Idaho Oregon Washington

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.

Share on Facebook

Oregon

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.

Share on Facebook

Washington

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.

Share on Facebook

Oregon