Writings and observations

This afternoon’s U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Oregon’s Death with Dignity law may bring that subject up again for national debate, but it seems more likely to ease it in Oregon.

Supreme CourtOregonians have, after all, faced the law on the ballot twice (it was first passed in 1994), and approved it twice. And for all the concerns, there’s been no evidence of actual abuse in the one state where physician-assisted death is legal: Just about 30 cases or s0 per year (a total over nearly a decade of around 200), in a state of more than three and a half million people. Those few, though, have some powerful stories to tell about the freedom they have in Oregon, but nowhere else in the nation.

In theory, this should have been a case supported by a states-rights-oriented Bush Administration: The Supreme Court’s specific rationale was that “The CSA does not allow the Attorney General to prohibit doctors from prescribing regulated drugs for use in physician-assisted suicide under state law permitting the procedure.”

It also was conservative in another sense, arguing that you can’t (or in this case, John Ashcroft couldn’t) locate things in federal law that aren’t explicitly put there. The controlled substances law was designed to bar some substances from public consumption altogether, and to regulate the medical flow of some others; it didn’t define proper medical practices. In this case, the majority said, “The idea that Congress gave the Attorney General such broad and unusual authority through an implicit delegation in the CSA’s registration provision is not sustainable. ‘Congress, we have held, does not alter the fundamental details of a regulatory scheme in vague terms or ancillary provisions – it does not, one might say, hide elephants in mouseholes.’”

And extending that point (and pointing out the even larger significance of this decision): “Under the [federal] Government’s theory, moreover, the medical judgments the Attorney General could make are not limited to physician-assisted suicide. Were this argument accepted, he could decide whether any particular drug may be used for any particular purpose, or indeed whether a physician who administers any controversial treatment could be deregistered. This would occur, under the Government’s view, despite the statute’s express limitation of the Attorney General’s authority to registration and control, with attendant restrictions on each of those functions, and despite the statutory purposes to combat drug abuse and prevent illicit drug trafficking.”

Chew on that cud for a bit.

(The 6-3 Court breakdown, by the way: majority was Kennedy (author), Stevens, O’Connor, Souter, Ginsberg, Beyer; minority was Roberts, Scalia, Thomas.)

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Just got around to actually reading former Governor John Kitzhaber’s statement on his decision not to run for governor this year, but press his call for health care reform in other ways.

The whole thing is worth your attention, but these two paragraphs called out for a repost:

… our politics today have become largely transactional – “lower my taxes and I will vote for you;” “give me prescription drug coverage and I will vote for you.” And it works the other way around as well – “vote for me and I will cut your taxes;” “vote for me and I will fund schools first.” The problem is that these transactions are all about “me” – and have nothing to do with “us.” They are all about what I can get, not what I can give. They neither foster a sense of the larger public interest; nor do they do advance the common good.

And the fact is that we cannot solve the crisis in our health care system – or in our school system or in our economy or our environment – through this kind of transactional politics because they erode any sense of common purpose and foster the belief that if we can just elect a new governor; a different legislature or a different congress – all our problems will be taken care of. And that is simply not true.

A really re-activated Kitzhaber could have an effect on Oregon policy and politics beyond health care; the points he makes reach there, but also much further.

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Easy advice for a politician who can see disaster lying in wait just a mile or two down the road: Go public, and put your own spin on it, before the train wreck happens. Some of the leading lights in downtown Portland are on the verge of missing that advice before it’s too late. They’ve been given a bit of a chance, though, thanks to the blogosphere.

OSHU tram, downtown viewThe subject concerns one of the more ambitious ideas proposed recently for central Portland, the Tram. Portland’s downtown is located close to the Willamette River waterfront. Its medical university and central health care center, the Oregon Health & Science University, is located not far southwest of downtown, but steeply uphill, centered on Marquam Hill (aka Pill Hill). That has long meant a disconnect between OHSU and the general downtown area, a frustration to a number of civic players.

The current solution in mind, greenlighted jointly by the city of Portland and OHSU, is the Tram, an aerial carrier that would – like a ski lift gondola – link the campus with South Waterfront, a gentrifying area (with, importantly, semi-decent parking and Tri-Met bus connections) immediately south of downtown. South Waterfront has seen investments of about $2 billion in recent years, much of it connected, if sometimes loosely, to concurrent development at OHSU. We are talking Major Money involvement here, and strong support from the Portland Establishment; the external signal there has been the enthusiasm on the Oregonian‘s editorial page.

The Tram would prospectively pick up people every five minutes and unload them three minutes later at the other end, up to an estimated 980 people an hour on two 79-passenger train cars. It sounds like a neat idea, though it has its skeptics.Planners still say they want it up and running by this fall, though that seems unlikely.

One reason is the cost, a figure that has gotten ever more slippery; numbers like $15 million were floated at one time, while figures like $60 million waft around now. The Tram web site does say that most of it the money will come from OHSU development funds and other partners, and little from the taxpayers: “At the present tram budget of $45 million, OHSU and its development partners pay all but $3.5 million of it. The $3.5 million of public funds (which is about 8 percent of the total project cost) does not come from general fund money that could be used to pay for police or city services. Instead, it will be collected over time from the rising property values spurred by the redevelopment of the South Waterfront.”

Those assurances aren’t convincing everyone.

The Oregonian‘s maverick and gutsy columnist Steve Duin has raised questions. But most of the questioning has happened in the neighborhood organizations and in the non-establishment blogosphere, notably in places like Jack Blog’s Blog.

Meanwhile, Oregonian editorials have been strictly stay-the-course, stick-with-the-deal. There was this, for example, on Sunday: “All who suspected the number was faulty should have spoken up, repeatedly if necessary, and ensured that a more accurate number was put before the public. The problem, unfortunately, is that people wanted to believe this estimate.” (Well, some people did – but not the critics who have been raising questions for some time now.)

Jack Bog’s resposte: “So there, you see, Lair Hill neighbors and others who fought this monstrosity? It’s really your fault. You didn’t speak up loudly and repeatedly enough. Portland is truly living up to its name as The City That Works You Over. You bitterly oppose a project — spend weeks of your life fighting it. Then after you’re overruled by the West Hills moneybags, and you turn out to have been right that it’s a horrible mistake, it’s your fault.”

All of that has been brewing for some time. Here’s the kicker, known to any number of downtown people but probably not widely as yet: The new OHSU director of news and publications, Lora Cuykendall, is formerly an editor at the Oregonian – but (and this is what’s getting the attention) still the spouse of Oregonian Editorial Page Editor Robert Caldwell.

“You talk about your conflicts of interest,” writes Bojack. And Oregon Media Insiders has been weighing in on this as well.

More to come, explosively, if the air isn’t let out of the balloon soon. Gently.

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Among the issues standing foremost among the hardy perennials of time, immigration just about stands alone – as a never-ending source of discord, and as a topic that never goes away, anywhere. People have been moving around since people have been on the planet. In this country alone, immigration has been a hot topic since English settlers in the mid-Atlantic complained about all those damned Germans moving into Pennsylvania. (We don’t know what compaints the native Americans had a century before that, but they had the biggest cause of legitimate complaint: The first European newcomers were the only ones who really did bring massive death, disease and destruction.)

There are two ways of looking at immigration: Mindsets, really. One is the fearful, the xenophonic, the alarm about the alien “then” – formerly southern Europeans or the Irish, most recently people from south of our borders. The panic-attack mindset sees these people as as a threat, or worse, as an invasion, putting us real Americans in peril.

Not a few people think that way, but most Americans probably take a calmer view. Immigration, after all, has been happening in this country since before it was a country, and while not everyone arriving here has necessarily been a model citizen, these arrivals have helped keep our nation vital, energetic and on our toes; they help us avoid complacence. This larger attitude isn’t a “throw open the doors” mentality; most Americans want non-porous borders. But most Americans probably take the view that immigration is a matter of approach, that it should be managed, rather than a slam-shut final answer which would (presumably) aim at closing the borders. People should be allowed to come in, but to the point and in such a way that the country receives more benefits than problems.

All of which is a long way around to the debate between two of the Republican candidates for Idaho’s 1st House district seat, Robert Vasquez and Sheila Sorensen.

Robert VasquezVasquez has made immigration – especially of the illegal kind – his primary issue. (It was long before he entered the race for Congress.) In his view of the matter, words like “invasion” and “disaster” and even “treason” have gotten tossed around. He and another Canyon County commissioner have pressed a RICO racketeering case against local businesses they maintain may have employed illegal aliens. The front page of his website concludes, “America’s very existence hangs in the balance of illegal immigration overwhelming our social and economic resources.”

Our history, of course, suggests otherwise; the nation has been more resilient than that in absorbing wave after wave of warned-about “invasions.” But Vasquez’ appeal is to emotion, which in politics usually trumps reason. That probably is why so few of the other candidates for the congressional seat have specifically countered Vasquez, which until recently had the effect of letting his argument stand.

Sheila SorensenOne candidate has gone visible with a direct counter-argument: Sheila Sorensen. From the standpoint of strategic politics, this may not be the wisest move; in a large candidate field, most fire should (theoretically) be aimed at the front runner, which Vasquez is not. (Conventional wisdom at least is that Vasquez is among the candidates least likely to prevail.) But Sorensen’s take may have other, larger, effects.

Her view on immigration is closer to the mainstream view: An approach, not an absolute.

First, she goes after the RICO cases (which have been thrown out, then appealed, in federal court): “Slapping employers with lawsuits, as Canyon County Commissioners have done, will not solve the problem. The commissioners are setting themselves up to drive businesses and jobs away from Canyon County and cripple the economy.” She seems to be suggesting too that using loaded language isn’t helping.

Second, she suggests some alterations in the law she would support, some of which already have backing from the Bush Administration and elsewhere:

Give employers, including farm-labor contractors, the tools they need to ensure every one they hire is eligible to work in the United States.

Give enforcement agencies — including border patrol and workplace enforcement — the tools, technology and manpower they need.

Expand the temporary worker VISA program so businesses can be assured that legal workers are hired and guest workers that overstay their welcome are deported.

Expand and enhance detention and deportation systems, so those who have entered America illegally or have overstayed Visa permits — are quickly and effectively deported.

Oppose any legislation which grants amnesty to illegal immigrants.

This is hardly a give-the-store-away approach. It also is no guarantee of solving the issue “once and for all” – clearly it wouldn’t do that. But something along these lines could help bring more rationality to a system now evidently broken; much more than that is beyond realistic expectation. Most Americans probably have intuitively known that immigration is more an ongoing circusmtance than it is a crisis demanding immediate and final resolution.

Sorensen’s approach doesn’t have that satisfying emotional appeal some people take from Vasquez’. But, if Sorensen continues to address the subject in such a calm way, other congressional candidates ma be tempted to follow suit. And that could change the tenor of the immigration debate in Idaho for some time to come.

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The most trenchant part of Dan Popkey’s Idaho Statesman column today was the lead: “Idaho Democrats fill ballrooms every two years to shout, ‘This is our year!’ The balloon bursts on election day.”

Sure has, for election after election since the early 90s. The year will come, at some point, when Idaho Democrats quit playing Charlie Brown’s football game with Lucy: No political status remains quo forever. So, is this the year? In today’s column, Popkey maps out a case in the affirmative. Wisely, he makes no flat predictions. But he does note that Idaho Democrats are getting a little more aggressive (which, by degrees, they are). And he says, noting a new Idaho Association of Realtors poll, the issues seem to be lining up more favorably toward Democrats than toward Republicans, and this gives the Democrats a major opening.

That last is the debatable point.

Not that the Realtors’ poll seems to be off, or that its results (which suggest strong support of education, willingness to look at new tax sources, and more) should not logically line up well with the messages of Idaho Democrats. That’s all true.

The problem is that it’s not new. It’s been true for a long time, an odd little Idaho semi-secret, and for a decade and more poll results like this one haven’t helped Idaho Democrats except at the very marginal fringes. We’ve seen, over the last decade (and longer), a variety of both public and private polls assessing the attitudes of Idahoans toward public policy, and the results again and again – over the last couple of decades – have matched reasonably closely with the Realtors poll. For something public, look to the Boise State University annual polls on Idaho attitudes toward politics and policy: You’ll find the same thing, year after year.

The gap between what people in Idaho say they want when the pollster calls, and who ultimately they choose to elect, has yawned wide for a decade and more. If Idahoans matched votes to what they say they want, Idaho’s political culture would look a lot different.

But they haven’t. The reasons why are the source of much speculation. (Maybe they’ve internalized the mihilistic campaign axioms – politics is pointless and government is an ineffectual evil at best – so many politicians use to efficient effect in Idaho.) But until those reasons are more concretely addressed, opinions about issues are unlikely to matter at the polling booth, and electoral outcomes are not likely to change much other than at the edges.

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The usually sharp Oregonian columnist David Sarasohn seemed a bit scattered in today’s post-Kitzhaber-announcement column. Could the reasons have to do just partly with the nature of Kitzhaber and more with the nature of politics?

Kitzhaber had for the last three months or so held out the possiblity of running for governor. He was considering it, he said, as a way of promoting his health care plan for Oregon, which he may turn into a ballot issue. Put over-simply, it appears to contemplate taking the billons Oregonians now pour into the health care and reshuffle its use in more efficient ways – an appealing prospect if politically a tough proposition.

One suspects Kitzhaber knew all along that a governor’s race would be a lousy way to do that, and dangled the possibility of a race to draw attention.

Sarasohn’s column (no link available yet) seemed to want to suggest Kitzhaber was rejecting politics as a means to his end. The columnist pointed out that after all, Kitzhaber was able to push the Oregon Health Plan ahead while he was a leader in the state Senate and while he was governor.

But Kitzhaber apparently never has said that the effort ahead would be apolitical, only that seeking political office doesn’t seem to be the best way to get this job done. Sarasohn edged toward suggesting that was wrongheaded, and a rejection of the political process. He stopped short, though, because saying that would raise a problem: The implication that the only meaningful participants in our political process are those with important-sounding titles in front of their names.

Ask a Washingtonian which single person in the last decade (or, hell, make it two) has had the biggest impact on policy in that state, and the likely poll winner would be Tim Eyman – a private citizen, never elected to anything, a pusher of initiatives: A man whose influence many decry as negative, but whose policy impact has been nonetheless enormous. Oregon has had its counterparts, and Kitzhaber may be displaying shrewd political sense if his thought is to marry his political cachet and charisma to the power than can come from playing the role of a populist outsider. Which he likely could do to Oscar caliber.

With the right issue, the right approach and the right support, you don’t even need to be a Kitzhaber to have political impact. That may be, in the end, what Kitzhaber has come to realize.

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[Maybe we’re just grumpy today. But what will follow is three posts on three separate opinion items in Northwest daily newspapers which merit a rejoinder. Was there something in the rainwater that just fallen around the region that loosened the thinking processes?]

What follows is not a slam at churches, and it also is not – in the main at least – any kind of slam at charitable giving. But today’s Oregonian piece “Give more, get more, Oregon,” by Ronald B. Davies, cries out for counter point.

The piece notes that Oregon’s richest man, Phil Knight (founder of Nike), is in the process of giving massively to Oregon charitable organizations – a fine act, beyond simply commendable. Davies (an econmics professor at the University of Oregon) then worries, “Is Oregon, not the richest of states, setting itself up for a fall when the last of Knight’s estate disappears?” He notes accurately that Oregon is home to fewer (per capita) very rich people than a number of other states, and a sidebar says that “the rich make up just 16% of our economy” compared to a national average of 22%. Who constitute “the rich” and how their specific impact on the state’s economy has been determined to within a percentage point is left unsaid; but that’s a lesser matter.

More important are two other points the piece makes, one specific and statistical, the other philosophical.

The concrete point, apparently meant to be tied to the percentage-of-rich factoid, is Oregon’s ranking of 14th in the percentage of income donated from private individuals. Actually, 14th out of 50 doesn’t seem so awful – in fact, it’s pretty good. Davies suggests that Oregon has to muster up a lot harder to keep up – but does it? Look at the states ranking higher than Oregon: Utah at position 1, Georgia at 2, South Carolina at 3, Alabama at 4. With the special-case exceptions of Maryland (with its loads of political and association givers in the D.C. beltway) and New York (with New York City, completely sui generis), every state in the top 10 is a Bible belt state where the dominant religion is big on tithing. (Idaho at number 8, with its big Mormon population, fits the bill.) Nothing wrong with donating to one’s church, of course, but the effect on community organizations and development is simply different than a contribution to a local charitable organization. It’s apples and oranges.

Were you able (and I don’t know statistically how you could) to segregate church giving from charitable giving per se, then secular Oregon looks to rank very close to the top among the 50 states – way above Washington, which ranks 34, and even above California, at 16, despite its Hollywood givers.

Oregon’s rate of charitable giving outside of churches, in fact, comes out pretty awe-inspiring.

There is an unsaid second philosophical point here, not meant as a criticism of those who give but aimed at those reliant on that giving:

Are we evolving from a society whose people takes care of themselves individually and as a group, into a society in which the increasingly moneyless masses are becoming increasingly dependant on the kindness and generosity of the moneyed nobility? The policy choices Davies suggests as inducement to charitable donation are not all bad, but policy makers might consider as well the need for society generally properly to pay for the things it needs rather than pray for handouts from a few. It’s a philosophical perspective not much yet discussed, but likely to move closer to the front burner as we together seem willing to take responsiblity for less and less.

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You have to be careful when you predict what a politician will do, so the wariness of Oregon’s prognosticators in figuring that former Governor John Kitzhaber wouldn’t enter the race for his old job this year is understandable. But probably few of Oregon’s prognosticators were actually surprised that he didn’t.

John KitzhaberKitzhaber’s passion, after all, is his health care plan, and running for governor would be a lousy way to promote it. He would be drawn, most of the time, onto other issues; he would lose focus. He could not very directly champion the health care ballot measure he wants to push. On top of that, odds were at least even (probably higher) he’d lose the primary and risk splitting his party in two, in a state where the parties are closely matched. And if he wanted to start a full-fledged gubernatorial campaign, mid-January is awfully late to get in the game, even if you are a former governor.

He certainly accomplished his mission so far, though: Health care options have moved from back burner at least halfway to front burner. He is getting people talking, and that’s a start.

Beyond Kitzhaber, what other impacts are likely from today’s announcement?

The winner was incumbent Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski, who now has a straight shot to the nomination. He has competition, of course, both existing in the former of Lane County Commissioner Pete Sorenson, and prospective in the form of state Senator Vicki Walker of Eugene. But Sorensen appears to have gained little traction, and Walker, who has some profile in the Willamette Valley at least, has been waiting on word from Kitzhaber before making an announcement – giving her a very late start. (She may yet reconsider.) Unless the discontent within the Democratic Party with Kulongoski runs a lot deeper than the activists who have been frustrated with him, the governor should ace his primary.

That would give him improved momentum for November. He’s no sure shot; Oregon is too closely divided for that.

But all in all, Friday was a good day for the governor. And maybe for the prospects of a serious heatlh care debate in Oregon.

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We probably were thought a little churlish when Albertsons last month announced it was calling off its attempt to sell itself off, and going back to business, with the implication of status quo for the foreseeable future. Our post headline was that that sale was off – for now.

So here we are, less than a month later: News reports both local and national are noting that Albertsons is resuming sales talks, after shareholders complained about the backoff from its near-sale last month. We said then that Boise had no cause for comfort; and, obviously, it doesn’t.

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This seems not to have gotten a whole lot of attention, but southwest Idahoans might want to take note of a large land sale being proposed by the Bureau of Land Management.

A posting in today’s Federal Register spells out the proposal, which concerns “approximately 2,056 acres of public land north of Star in Ada
County, around Pickles Butte and north of Lake Lowell in Canyon County,
east of Payette in Payette County, and within the city limits of
Cascade in Valley County. The purpose of a portion of the sales in
Canyon and Payette Counties is to provide land for purchase by the
respective counties for important public objectives including expansion
of the landfill at Pickles Butte, further development at Clay Peak
Motorcycle Park, and various other recreation and public use
opportunities. The other lands will be evaluated for sale as the tracts
are difficult and uneconomic to manage as part of the public lands,
some of which will serve to expand communities or provide economic
development opportunities.”

There’s not necessarily anything wrong with this. BLM lands are, historically, lands which were intended for dispersement to private parties, and which no one ever wanted. Does sound, though, as if the number and variety of uses these lands would get could change significant parts of rural southwest Idaho. The agency is open to comments.

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