Writings and observations

Just a quick heads-up on a fine summary of the development of Montana politics in the last few years – through the lens of electric power deregulation, which that state, about a decade ago, embraced.

The results have been calamitous, but are still defended in some quarters. Mike Dennison’s column for the Billings Gazette spells it out.

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As the governors talk about the wonderful economies in their states – and in their state of the state speeches, both the governors of Washington and Idaho talked about them – the relevant numbers were those of business and job creation.

Those are reasonable numbers, but they tell only a part of the story, and not the part of the story that most people in those states directly experience. For most people, a more relevant measure would be the growth, or not, of personal income, and how that compares to the national picture. And here, the tales of the states diverge.

According to the federal studies of per capita income, Washington state in 1990 ranked 15th highest for income ($19,268 per person, compared with a national $18,667). In 1995 it slipped a little, but still barely beat the national average ($23,878 per person to the national $23,562). By 2000, with the dot-com boom well under way, Washington rose to 12th place, and stayed there in 2004 – substantially beating the national average both times(in 2004: Washington $35,299, national $32,937). Over those 14 years, per capita income in Washington rose 83% – a very strong record. Taken as a whole, Washingtonians can be said to be prosperous – maybe the most useful measure of an economy’s results overall.

The state of the state speech by Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne emphasized the state’s economic growth even more than Christine Gregoire’s did in Washington. But Kempthorne had to be more selective in how he defined his prosperity. In a fact-check today, the Idaho Statesman noted, “Kempthorne said Idaho led the nation out of the recession earlier this decade. He noted that unemployment was at a record low of 3.4 percent and business growth and job growth were each ‘ahead of 46 other states.’ What he didn’t say was that income levels were ahead of only four other states.”

True: In fact, Idaho per capita wage rates have been a story of diminishment for a long time. Back in 1980 Idaho’s per capital income was 37th among the states. By 1990 it had fallen to 40th, stayed there in 1995, then dropped to 42nd in 2000 and 45th in 2004. (At this rate, is it headed to 49th by 2010?) By way of comparison with Washington’s wage growth: Idaho’s per capita in 1990 was $15,304, and in 2004 it was $27,098 – a growth of 77%, not enough to keep up with the national averages. The number of jobs in Idaho has been growing, all right, but the wages have not to a comparable degree.

The Statesman quoted economist John Church: “We are attracting jobs at a strong pace, and we are seen as a good place to start a business. But so far at least, we aren’t attracting enough of the high-paying jobs that would bring our per capita income ranking up.”

For most actual people, as opposed to statisticians, that’s probably the key measure.

Oregon, by the way, has had a middle path. Its per capita wage rankings among the states bounced from 27th in 1990 up to 23rd in 1995, slipped marginally in 2000 to 26th, then fell during the peak of the downturn in 2004 to 37th; it is probably on its way gently back up.

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They’re still coming. The map from United Van Lines’ study this year of states where people are mostly inbound or outbound shows Washington as neutral, but the text of the study says Washington is still basically inbound, and that the rate picked up more than 2% in 2005 over 2004.

United migration study

Oregon and Idaho, on the other hand, are more definitively inbound states – they’re still a-coming.

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The logical answer to a state budget surplus has not, historically, been to spend it all, even on one-time projects: It creates an unsustainable level. (A little one-time stuff may work.) Nor have the tax cut proposals worked out well: Cuts in taxes one year tend to lead to ugliness, and often tax increases, later on.

Christine GregoireRainy-day funds, at least up to a point, seldom go too far wrong. If stability in government finance is a good thing, then such funds are easy to defend. And usually not wildly hard to sell – if you practice the right kind of diplomacy.

That’s the challenge ahead for Washington Governor Christine Gregoire as she proposed putting the largest chunk of the state’s anticipated revenue surplus into a rainy-day account. Her proposal of it – a massive $900 million – is not a hard sell in the context of a state of the state speech, and the virtue of it is easy to intellectualize. But when it comes down to passing out the dollars, hands will be out. And the issue isn’t entirely clear-cut, because Gregoire has weighted her budget plans with a handful of spending proposals of her own.

Some of those, too, may be easy enough sells. (More security in transportation facilities; more battling of sex offenders; other odds and ends. Nothing too wild sounding here.) But legislators have ideas of their own, too, and for a considerable part of that surplus, the doors have been thrown open.

If last session Gregoire’s key challenge was to take control, this time her challenge will be to enforce discipline, among her own troops as much as among Republicans.

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The pivot county in Oregon p0litics, the place with the most true swing votes up for grabs – the kingmaker county of Oregon – is Washington County. But if there is a secondary key Oregon county, that would be Clackamas – and it may face a major local test of its loyalties soon.

Clackamas County lies southeast of Washington, and south of Multnomah (Portland); the three together are the core Portland metro area. But of the three, Clackamas (the smallest, but still the third most populous county in Oregon) probably still has the most rural feel, even if the bulk of its people now live in suburban subdivisions. There are plenty of still-rural communities here, like Canby and Mollala, in the gradual process of absorption into the metro.

Its development seems more truly suburban than high-tech driven, as it is in Washington County. But there are some other similarities.

Clackamas County map

Like Washington County, Clackamas’ overall history, up to a decade ago, is Republican. In votes for higher office, its preference was strongly Republican (very occasionally crossing over), and sending mostly Republicans (usually by a margin of two to one or more) in its delegation to Salem. Through the 90s the county seemed to trend Democratic, voting more for Democrats for higher office. But it went for Republican George W. Bush in 2000 and 2004, and for Republican Kevin Mannix for governor in 2002. It will be (or logically ought to be) ground zero, along with Washington County, in the gubernatorial race this year.

There was a quirk in all this: Clackamas started electing Democrats to its county commission much earlier. During the last decade, when legislative representation flipped (mainly around the 2000 election) from 2-1 Republican to 2-1 Democratic, the commission has stayed the same, two Democrats and one Republican, even while the personnel has changed.

Larry SowaThat commission margin finally has changed, though not by election. Larry Sowa, a veterinarian by profession, is a long-time Democrat; he served as such in the legislature for a dozen years starting in 1986, and then was elected as such to the county commissioner in 1998; his current term is up this year. During much of that time he has been a low-key figure, one of the more conservative Democrats in office in the area. But he attracted plenty of notice in September when he switched parties, making the Clackamas commission 2-1 Republican; and he has voted since to move the chair of the commission from Democrat Martha Schrader to Republican Bill Kennemer.

That has drawn some howls from Democratic circles, and some complaints from the Oregonian that the new Republican majority might be playing loose with the open meeting laws. For his part, Sowa has said that the Democratic establishment has been moving further and further from his kind of philosophy (which is probably true), and has been lining up a primary candidate to run against him. (In fact he already has one, in Democrat Lynn Peterson, a Lake Oswego city councilor.)

There is a political question here, too, though: How does Clackamas County feel about Sowa’s switch, and the change in direction the commission is taking?

This brings up the opportunity for the county to take a partisan stand. It will be a test of the attitude of the people toward the parties – and because it may influence voter attitudes it could be a test with ripple effects that reach, say, to the governor’s race and beyond.

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A stunner to match that of the announced resignation of Washington Democratic leader Paul Berendt:

Chris VanceNow Chris Vance, leader of Washington’s Republicans since 2001, says he will resign as of next month. He said he will move into a private-sector job.

Some provocative comments – on the minutiae and structure of party politics – were strewn in his resignation letter to the party:

I am most proud of two things we have achieved. The first is our renewed focus on grassroots politics. Through the use of cutting edge technology, and old fashioned hard work, we are giving our candidates the vital help they need in terms of voter identification and turnout. We are now matching and surpassing what our opponents are doing “on the ground.” In the last five days before the 2004 election we made over 500,000 volunteer voter contacts. We are already preparing the same type of effort for this year’s election.

The second is the progress we have made in the suburbs. The results of statewide elections in 2000 clearly showed that we were losing ground in the vital “suburban crescent.” We responded with the groundbreaking Crescent Conference through which we sharpened and refined our message among suburban voters. While we continued to experience some disappointing setbacks in suburban legislative races, our efforts have paid off. We comfortably elected Dave Reichert to Jennifer Dunn’s open suburban seat despite the Democrats’ spending well over $1 million. In addition, Sam Reed, Doug Sutherland, Rob McKenna and Dino Rossi all won pluralities in every single suburban Puget Sound legislative district. The suburbs are America’s political battleground and we have shown that we know how to compete and win.

Both parties, now, will be under the pressure of adapting to new leadership just as a relatively hot campaign season gets underway.

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Alongside an often ambitious and even impressive program in Dirk Kempthorne’s Monday State of the State speech, sits an odd and puny abdication, of what probably is the hottest subject in Idaho politics at the moment.

That is property taxes, which for many homeowners have been rising fast. The reasons don’t have to do with any sudden leaps in spending by local governments (which in Idaho are almost exclusively the recipient of property taxes); the aggregate amount of property taxes paid has been rising but not superfast. The increase in residential payment has more to do with the way the property taxes are – under state law, and the counties have scarcely any room for discretion – supposed to be assessed, and the way exemptions are doled out. Those have had the effect, in steadily increasing fashion over the last generation, of diminishing the share paid by business and other organizations, and increasing the share paid by the residential sector.

Kempthorne’s central comment on this: “If citizens believe they are paying too much in property taxes, that debate belongs in the county courthouses and the city halls.”

Not, in other words, with the legislators who write the property tax law. Consider not (then) how the tax is assessed, or whether various taxpayers are paying their fair share, only whether another meatax can be swung at it.

That was not all he had to say about it; for the aged and disabled he offered another government assistance program. And he didn’t warn of a veto if lawmakers choose to revise the law.

But his message evidently was: If you’re taking on the property tax, you’re going to do it on your own.

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There is a certain temptation to read a long-range mindset into this evening’s Idaho State of the State, Governor Dirk Kempthorne’s last. It starts with one fairly well established bit of information, that Kempthorne wanted to be governor of Idaho a long time before he reached that office. And it goes on like this.

Dirk KempthorneThat Kempthorne wanted the job not just for the title and ceremony of it but because he had ambitions, big ambitions, ways he’d like to see the state progress, and ways, he doubtless thought, a governor could push through. He had the idea of becoming one of those governors who were much more than mere caretakers or tinkerers. He wanted to make a difference.

All of that is speculative, may or may not be true. But it would make sense of the arc of the Kempthorne governorship, which would lend some poignant drama to the three months that lie ahead.

When Kempthorne became governor, he did it within a narrow contruct: As a conservative Republican pledged to smaller government and lower taxes. And the people who helped him get there, and his logical political allies, were all of that frame of mind. Suppose, for a moment, that Kempthorne’s ambitions were there, were big ambitions, and he wanted the state to do big things? How coul he make it happen?

There was little hint of any larger ambition in his first term: With a few small-scale exceptions here and there, Kempthorne in those four years looked very much like a caretaker. (The one major exception that comes to mind is a large-scale college and university building plan he proposed, and saw enacted, in 2001.) But then came the much more forceful and dramatic second term. In 2003, rather than see the massive cuts in state government that a legislative majority clearly wanted, Kempthorne forced a record-length session for raising the sales tax (temporarily). A year ago, Kempthorne proposed a road-building program of breathtaking scope, close to $2 billion in cost (it’ll doubtless pass that eventually); when legislators seemed about to kill it, Kempthorne started a round of arm-twisting vetoes to force it through – an unusual press of executive power.

Now this year, a whole raft of new programs. A massive renewal program for the state parks – the investment of a generation, as he described it. An energy assistance program that could cost more than $60 milion. An ambitious community education program. Adding 700 beds (some for rehabilitation) in the corrections system. And more.

It’s as if, getting to the end of his tenure as governor, Kempthorne realized: If I’m ever going to do with this office what I originally wanted to do with it, it’s now or never. And ideology be damned.

What follows isn’t intended as a blanket endorsement of all of those proposals (though many of them, at least, do sound like good ideas). But:

In practical government that attempts to match action to need, reality has to trump ideology. And in the case of the Kempthorne Administration, whatever the underlying motivation may have been, apparently it has.

The response of the ideologues should be noteworthy.

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The top high-tech state in the country is California; that should come as no surprise, since it was home of the initial boom and still home to more top firms in the field than any other state. Second place goes to Washington, home of the biggest single tech company (Microsoft) and so many more.

For a number of years, third place may come as something of a surprise: Arizona, home to large semiconductor operations and other activities (the Silicon Desert). But the turndown early in this decade hurt some of these operations, and now third place goes to the home of the Silicon Forest – Oregon.

A good backgrounder on the shift has turned up in the Phoenix Arizona Republic.

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People who visit the Tri-cities from outside the area commonly know they’re visiting the Tri-Cities, as such, and except when looking for a specific address typically concern themselves little with whether they’re in Kennewick, Pasco or Richland (or baby sibling West Richland). They’re all bunched together; and what, really, is the difference anyway?

Tri Cities areaIt’s the story of the fleas: He knowns if it’s a he or she, and so does she. People who live in the cities can wax eloquent on the variations between the cities, and even some of us from outside that area can draw some distinctions. (Richland is a little more tech-oriented; Pasco more ag-oriented and has a stronger Hispanic presence, and so on.) But the Tri-Cities identity is strong, too.

Which will make noteworthy, locally anyway, the argument by former presidents of the Greater Pasco Area Chamber of Commerce that the organization must not merge with the Richland chamber – yes, they each have separate chambers and the chamber in Kennewick, which is called the Tri-City Area Chamber of Commerce. The merger proposal is being sought by the three chambers, and depends on a membership vote on Thursday; two-thirds in favor is required for approval.

There’s a little bit of a European Union kind of thing here: To what extent should we give up our local distinctions in then interest of more clout in larger size? The proponents say there won’t be any loss in local services, and all the local events – an ag event in Pasco and a desert even in Richland, for example – will continue on. But there will be a change in mindset, a little more sense of Tri-City and a little less of three separate ones. If it passes. The results will be notable.

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