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Posts published in January 2006

Idaho SoS: small

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.

Idaho SoS: large

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. (more…)

Tech three

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.

Tri-Cities or not

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.

Drop ins

Drop-in time on some Saturdays at Boise City Hall is a new thing from Boise Mayor Dave Beiter, a casual and informal slot in his office time when Boise citizens can walk in and have a few words with the mayor. It's good politics - who knows how many seedling problems were snuffed with a little face time? (we know of a few) - and also good governance.

There's a limit, as you go higher up the political chain, to how far you can push this (though, once upon a time, even presidents used to do something similar). A straight equivalent for Bieter's drop bys may not be entirely practical for Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels. But maybe, easy re-election last year or no, he should consider trying it.

The thought might even occur to some mayoral staff after reading a blistering Seattle Times piece on access to the mayor's office, on the nightmare story of one Seattle resident who just wanted to be treated with a little respect: "To the lifelong teacher it cuts to the core of what citizenship is all about. First people are discouraged from participation by phone mazes, forms, handoffs and unanswered messages. Then they're marginalized as irrational, he says, just for continuing to knock on the door."

Such stories often pass under media radar, since visibility in newspapers and broadcast outlets is sought after even by the Nickels of the world; Seattle Times reporters usually get a callback from city hall. But tales of lack of access, and of bureaucratic indifference, add up and eat like termites into the strongest of political superstructures.

Adamson: Picking the lock?

Was 22 years ago that Dan Adamson last crossed Idaho's public path, taking a flyer on beating a hard-to-beat politician, and came close to being elected to Congress.

Now he's hoping history sorta repeats, with a little added burp. (more…)

Town hall

There's some civic interest out there: It didn't all melt away after the 2004 elections.

Ron WydenWe saw it today at one of the town hall meetings Oregon Senator Ron Wyden was hosting, this one in McMinnville. (Others on Saturday were at Dallas and Salem; he seems to be making the run of the state in about a week or so.) On a rainy, blustery day, about 50 people showed up - a pretty good turnout, especially considering it was a lightly promoted meeting.

More remarkable about it was its practical, workaday feel. Senators hold these kind of meetings all the time around their states, but most of they turn largely into partisan cheering sessions. That wasn't the case here; while some identifiable Democrats were in view, most of the audience seemed to consist of civic activists and local elected or appointed officials - a range of people of scattered views (more center to left than not though, evidently) there for practical information and ideas. And Wyden specifically said at the start that while he enjoys getting into partisan talk as much as the next politician, this session was a work meeting, and partisanship - as opposed to opinions on issues - should be checked at the door.

And so it was. Anyone who came to this Democratic senator's meeting expecting a Bush Administration torture session was disappointed. Wyden disagreed with any numbers of Bush policies, but he took on the policies, not the administration. He did some thinking on his feet. He outlined a few ideas in progress - a revised approach to medical insurance, for example - that he said was in early thought stage, and then asked the audience - what do you think? (The audience was split.)

One got the sense of problems being grappled with, rather than rhetoric thrown. Quite a few politicians could earn a lot more respect if they troubled themselves to do something so simple.

Cash back

So we have Peter DeFazio returning the bucks, while Patty Murray says she's keeping hers. Everyone seems to have a different reaction to the tribal money.

That is a distinction worth making: Tribal money, as opposed to Jack Abramoff money.

The ever-growing scandal surrounding corrupt lobbyist Abramoff has not hit the Northwest congressional delegation especially hard, as yet. For the most part - qualifiers are needed - he seems not to have been especially close to most of this region's congressional players, a fact for which most of them are doubtless massively relieved about now.

The members of Congress who stand in the hottest water are those who had direct dealings with Abramoff, and whose names are likely to come up repeatedly as the former power broker sings for federal attorneys. Are any northwest members of Congress in this group? (more…)

WA: Almost all-mail?

A certain civic romance remains in the idea of the polling place: You take the effort to bestir yourself to leave your dwelling and commingle among other citizens, make your decision, and exercise your civic responsibility. In public. It has understandable appeal.

Gotta say, though, that mail-in balloting works. In the state that pioneered it statewide, Oregon, it has worked beuatifully and it is immensely popular. Convenience, which is often touted as a big plus, is actually its slightest virtue. More importantly, it allows voters an extended time to think about what's on the ballot, to discuss and to research. (Can't remember what's the deal with those state treasurer candidates? Fine. Put down the ballot on the kitchen table and go Google them.) It allows for better and more relaxed and more informed voting. (Note that's no guarantee of results, just of opportunity.) It has been shown to be secure (at least the way Oregon does it); no problems of any significance reported in a decade of practice. It may be the way of the future.

It looks to be the way of Washington's future, since this week's decision in Snohomish County to adopt mail-in voting county wide. That makes it number 34 of 39 counties statewide to go mail. (more…)

Otter’s recantation

Dare we call it a flip-flop? That might be a cheap shot - and beside the point. The question at the heart of it is this: What is the reason Representative C.L. "Butch" Otter abruptly has this to say today about his till-now firm support for the bill calling for mass sellout of federal lands to pay Hurricane Katrina costs:

“I was wrong. It wasn’t the first time, and it won’t be the last.” And his sponsorship is withdrawn ... "for now."

Part of what Otter is best known for in Idaho is his philosophical stance - clarity, rigidity, thinness, relative purity, define it as you will. He long has been a small-l libertarian, a "limited government" guy, which makes sense of his stand on the Patriot Act and also his stand on the lands legislation; ask him - go ahead - if he thinks there should be more or fewer public lands in Idaho. He has had personal clashes with the feds over land use and environmental laws.

So his backing of the Katrina legislation should come as no shock; it's of a piece.

The criticism of it is no shock, either. Most Idahoans like to grumble about the Forest Service or the BLM, but many of them also enjoy being able to use the public lands - in alternative to being fenced out. That point may be getting ever more pertinent as parts of Idaho are getting ever more crowded.

There are no newly-apparent facts on the table about all this. So when Otter says "I was wrong," what exactly does that mean? What was it precisely that he was wrong about? The legislation specifically? (If so, what did he suddenly come to realize about its flaws?) The way he has thought about public lands, and how they should be treated? Has he had a philosophical reawakening? Did he get scared about a loss of votes and decide to pander? What changed?

That's an important question, because without knowing the answer, we have no way of knowing whether his pullback of sponsorship - "for now" - means, "until the uproar in Idaho dies down," or or whether it is predicated on something else. And without knowing the answer, we have a chasm in our evolving understanding of who Butch Otter is.

Politically, Otter's mea culpa clearly was meant to put the cork in the conversation. What it should do now is uncork that conversation.

Immigration ahead

The direction of the immigration issue is one of the puzzlements of politics 2006 - potentially important, but hard to chart a path to the front burner.

We were discussing the '06 race for the 1st district Idaho House seat, and reflecting on that. One of the sorps of candidates in that race, Robert Vasquez (see the list of 25 influential Idahoans) has made immigration his issue cornerstone. If it flares into a truly big deal, in the minds of voters, around primary election day, then his chances expand; if not, his chances look smaller. Other candidates too, looking for a rocket toride, could seize on this one.

So the new Washington Post-ABC News poll on the subject may be of interest.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken in mid-December found Americans alarmed by the federal government's failure to do more to block the flow of illegal immigration and critical of the impact of illegal immigration on the country. But it also found them receptive to the aspirations of illegal immigrants living and working in the United States. ...

Immigration still ranks below the war in Iraq, terrorism, health care and the economy on the public's list of priorities. But in many parts of the country — not just those areas near the U.S.-Mexico border — it has become an issue of pressing significance because of its economic, social and, more recently, national-security implications.

Keep watching.

The 2005 NW Influencers

Ridenbaugh Press has been publishing lists of influential people for close to a decade now, and our latest list - three lsts of 25 influencers of change in their states - are now available here.

Be sure to note, though, how we use the term "influence" for purposes of these lists. That may help save you some puzzlement as you come across the names of people whose impact may be a little subtle.

And be sure to make your way back here, and leave all the comments you like. (Trust me - if you're interested in the Northwest at all, you'll have comments.)