This is where people get really upset about regulation, and you can understand why . . .

Baker City is out there by its own self, quite a distance from other communities. I-84 runs through it, but the 10,000 people of Baker are a distinct community – about 40 minutes from La Grande, the nearest community of similar size, and well over an hour from Ontario. You drive over substantial mountains to get to anywhere else, and those roads – this includes the freeway – get tricky at various points in the winter.

Baker City, and Baker County for that matter, has one movie theatre, the Eltrym Theatre, and you just know that’s an important fixture in town. A lot of small-town theatres like it have closed over the years, but the Eltrym has stayed afloat. And now the big movie season, summer, is just about to begin . . .

Maybe. The theatre apparently hasn’t met fire safety water sprinkler codes, hasn’t for some years, and now the Baker City Council has given its owner until June 30 to at least come up with a plan to meet the requirements. (We’re not belittling that; yes, we know about the fires that have taken lives in firetrap buildings.) If the requirements are strictly adhered to, there’s a good chance that the owner might just walk away, and the theatre may close.

You get the feeling that a lot of people in Baker are going to be very unhappy if there’s not a serious attempt to find some ground everyone can live with . . .

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This is where people get really upset about regulation, and you can understand why . . .

Baker City is out there by its own self, quite a distance from other communities. I-84 runs through it, but the 10,000 people of Baker are a distinct community – about 40 minutes from La Grande, the nearest community of similar size, and well over an hour from Ontario. You drive over substantial mountains to get to anywhere else, and those roads – this includes the freeway – get tricky at various points in the winter.

Baker City, and Baker County for that matter, has one movie theatre, the Eltrym Theatre, and you just know that’s an important fixture in town. A lot of small-town theatres like it have closed over the years, but the Eltrym has stayed afloat. And now the big movie season, summer, is just about to begin . . .

Maybe. The theatre apparently hasn’t met fire safety water sprinkler codes, hasn’t for some years, and now the Baker City Council has given its owner until June 30 to at least come up with a plan to meet the requirements. (We’re not belittling that; yes, we know about the fires that have taken lives in firetrap buildings.) If the requirements are strictly adhered to, there’s a good chance that the owner might just walk away, and the theatre may close.

You get the feeling that a lot of people in Baker are going to be very unhappy if there’s not a serious attempt to find some ground everyone can live with . . .

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Maria Cantwell at an Exxon stationWhat seems undisputed in the contentious world of oil and gas is that we’re running out. The exact moment of peak and decline seems yet to be the subject of some dispute, but evidently by the time we hit two decades or so hence, the United States, and the world, we will have a whole lot less oil to burn.

This leads to an obvious conclusion: Unless we want to de-evolve our society (as most of us do not), we should be getting about the business of developing new technology, so that our cars can run and houses be heated from sources other than petroleum. This is neither a stretch nor unrealistic, and any number of specialists have said that the economic pressure for it happen will occur once gas reaches a certain price point; $5 a gallon is often banied about. That, of course, suggests we have no free will or insight or initaitive to act before then, and simply develop the tech because we can see what’s coming in the future of oil.

That, we’d suggest, is the logical backdrop to the rising political dispute over our spiking gas prices, those being the immediate sympton of a bigger problem. Watch for the rare politician who looks further ahead than this month’s crisis: You may need to go on an expedition to find one.

That doesn’t necessarily invalidate the short-range stuff; it instead puts it in its place. While to one extent or another, the rise in gas prices over the last generation was going to happen and is going to continue, the immediate details are not necessarily irrelevant.

Oil and gas spiked unexpectedly and interestingly in an Oregon Republican gubernatorial debate, and that may be worth revisiting. But nowhere in the Northwest has oil and gas become so central to politics as in the still-emerging Senate race in Washington.

A richly detailed report on this appears in today’s Tacoma News Tribune. In more abbreviated form, a few thoughts . . .

Maria CantwellMaria Cantwell is playing it hard, and for good political reason: Even those Democrats still furious with her about her Iraq war and Alito votes will cheer her on whem it comes to oil company investigations. She can say, accurately, this is not just some election-year issue for her: She was pounding on oil companies last year and earlier. And for the immediate picture, she has a compelling argument that hits home in the Puget Sound.

Her contention is not that a group of oil executives gather in an underground garage at midnight to fix prices. But she does suggest the big companies are leveraging their clout to manipulate the markets, jagging prices higher – artifically – than unavoidable market pressures would make necessary. The argument has some sophistication. It is not that prices logically ought not be high, but rather that they are higher than they need be. She comes up with two external pieces of evidence for this. One is that oil company profits have, in recent months, hit all time record highs, have gone through the roof; if the companies were simply bouncing along with market pressures, passing along external costs, that would not be the case. The other point is that we’ve seen this kind of corporate market menipulation before, and most excruciatingly on the west coast. That happenened in 2000 to 2001 when consumers were told the sudden skyward blast in electric power prices was the result of a systemic shortage, when it turned out to be nothing more than an (Enron-centered) shell game specifically designed to inflate prices. And profits.

The limiting factor in this, of course, is that while it speaks to payback (which would be merited if Cantwell’s suspicions are correct) and some short-term relief in prices, it doesn’t address the overall problem. Gas prices of $4 and $5 and higher are coming, even absent corporate foul play; the only issue is when.

Cantwell is doing the hard-sell on all this; the News-Tribune wire headline is, “Cantwell vs. Big Oil: Photo ops or truth?” But then, the two are not necessarily mutally exclusive.

Mike McGavickHer Republican opponent, Mike McGavick, takes an opposing view, and has a harder case to make. Touring western Washington business groups last week, this was his comment on the petro situation:

“At a very basic level, in the short term, this is a simple supply and demand issue. While we are dependent on oil, we must increase supply, and we must do it domestically. In the past five years, our state has seen no progress at the pump. Investigating possible price gouging by the oil companies is definitely something that should be done, but it certainly isn’t a strategy for increasing supply or bringing down cost in the near future. Unfortunately, this very real issue continues to be treated as a political tool back East. Pointing fingers is not a strategy for solving this problem. Instead, our leaders in D.C. need to focus on making as much progress domestically as possible.”

There’s more than a measure of truth in this; ultimately, the one thing, gas prices are a matter of supply and demand, and they should be treated as something more serious than as this season’s trendy political football.

But taken as a whole McGavick’s view suggests that we can produce our way out of the problem, that we can solve the problem if only we can drill for oil anywhere and everywhere. That’s a problem, because it’s a willful look away from the big delimiter – the ultimate end to our oil supply – which still is out there, and not so far away. Tearing up our public lands in a search for more oil won’t solve the problem in the short term (you need years to get a year substantial supply running from underground through the system and to the pump). But more than that, it won’t solve the problem in the long term either, only buy us two or three more years to feed our petro fix at hyper-prices. What good, really, is that?

But the campaign season is early. We can hope that our debate on oil, a subject that really deserves more thoughtfulness, will evolve as it progresses.

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Strange that the wonders of the Internet have been so lightly tapped, so far, for sending political messages. Anyone with some imagination, some desktop video production skill (granted, it helps to be under voting age in this category) and a net connection can, with a little effort, produce an on-line message that can be circulated far and wide. All those joke and video spots you get in email from friends? Why aren’t politicians using the same approach for their campaigns? It would cost them next to nothing.

The key ingredient is the water-cooler quality of the thing, the spiciness that makes you want to share with friends. Most political spots are too boring and predictable for that. But every so often, someone rediscovers the potential.

One of the best such of this cycle is a new video spot by Idaho 1st House District candidate Keith Johnson, posted on his web site, and probably to be redistributed broadly. In common with most good net video features, it is simple and targeted. Against a black background, and over a bed of light bluegrass music, you see this message:

“I am Keith Johnson and I am running for Congress. I have never . . . relied on out of state donors to bankroll my campaign . . . shut down the legislature for a publicity stunt . . . attended a liberal Democratic fundraiser in New York City. My opponents have. Enough said.”

Bang. It will get Johnson talked about, which is what his campaign needs at the moment.

Meanwhile, the targets of his jabs have an opportunity to consider their replies . . .

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Some indications that Tim Eyman, Washington’s king of the initiative, may be falling short in his effort to put a measure on the ballot to reverse this year’s legislative passage of a gay rights bill.

If so, that would be a remarkable failure – up there with the voter rejection of the transportation package initiative last year. But if the numbers released so far are accurate, the proposal seems headed for the reject pile rather than the ballot. A rundown of the stats can be found at the Horse’s Ass blog.

Eyman, it should be noted as well, seems more focused on his I-917 measure on the state car tabs rate.

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Qualifies as a political stunner, the announcement Friday by Washington state Senator Bill Finkbeiner that he will not run for re-election this year.

Bill FinkbeinerThe implications are large, but of a piece with developments already underway.

The surprise comes in part from the way Finkbeiner, a Republican who has voted conservative enough to become his party’s floor leader, seemed this year to tailor his legislative record to his district, on gay rights and other matters. His district, he seemed to suggest, was moving, was less and less conservative, and he had to respond. Usually you don’t do that if you’re planning to retire anyway.

Republican Representative Toby Nixon, plans to run for Finkbeiner’s seat, and Finkbeiner quickly endorsed him.

But the announcement was treated as a big deal – former state Republican Chair Chris Vance called it “That’s terrible, terrible news for the Republicans” – and there’s something to that view. You get a hint of it in Finkbeiner’s quote: “It’s always better to go out at the top of your game, and that’s where I am now.”

There’s some suggestion in that he was considering if a fall was coming. A decade ago, Finkbeiner’s 45th district, on the east side of King County, was solidly Republican – Democrats virtually need not apply. Finkbeiner himself was umopposed in 2002, and in 1998 he won over a Democrat with a solid 58.9%. But the all-GOP nature of the district has changed; in recent cycles its House delegation has been split between the parties, and Nixon had a close call in 2002. And other districts in the area have been shifting too, as indicated by the part switch of Republican Representative Rodney Tom – now a Democrat – last month.

District 45

Finkbeiner was a strong bet, though, to hold his Senate seat. Nixon, while well established in the district, has a tougher campaign ahead of him. The district could realistically go either way; it was close split in 2004 in the presidential race.

By the way, Finkbeiner is scheduled to be in Walla Walla on Monday to deliver Whitman College’s annual Matthew Shepard Lecture. Finkbeiner is a graduate of Whitman. He plans to speak on the topic, “In Search of a Philosophical Majority” at Maxey Auditorium.

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How does something like this happen? Just consider the lead sentence from this Associated Press story: “The administrator of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission resigned Thursday, five days after being arrested and charged with drunken and reckless driving.”

Police said that when the administrator, Teresa Kaiser, was stopped at Portland, she showed a blood alcohol level twice the legal limit.

And she not only worked for but headed the state liquor commission?

Someone, somewhere, ought to be doing some hard thinking about this one . . .

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There’s a remarkable subtext to the Thursday decision by Seattle Judge Greg Canova in the case of the warring Seattle dailies: That not only the owners of those newspapers have a legitimate stake in the outcome.

This is not the norm in business litigation, when one business sues another and a court has to decide. The usual theory is that, unless a public (governmental) organization is involved in the case, the matter is fundamentally simply between the two parties. The workings of the court and the documents submitted to it ordinarily are public, but that’s mainly because a public entity – the court – is involved as decision-maker. If amazon.com were to sue Microsoft, where would be the public’s seat at the table? Probably nowhere.

But would that be right? Millions of people have a major stake in both corporations’ activities. Maybe the public, or some version of it, should be at the table too.

Judge Canova might or might not streatch the point that far. But something similar seemed to underlie his decision.

The situation is that Seattle’s two daily newspapers, the Times and the Post-Intelligencer, are locked in a joint operating agreement; the owners of the Times want to end the agreement, while the owners of the P-I say that if it is ended, their newspaper might die. The battle, stretching over years already, has been intense. A month ago they announced they had agreed to submit the case to an arbitrator who would make a decision in a year or so, and that they would abide by it. (The proceedings leading up to the decision would be closed, though the decision itself and its rationale would be released.) They asked Canova to put the legal case on ice until the arbitrator acts.

Canova refused. He pointed out that the litigation also had a third party, the Committee for a Two-Newspaper Town (a group of newspaper employees), and that it had an interest in the case too. It too had a right to litigate, he suggested. His reasoning suggested that interests beyond those of the business owners are at stake.

An opinion to review, and consider.

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Noteworthy followup story in the Seattle Times on intelligent design, and more specifically on Seattle’s Discovery Institute, which has been its leading national proponent.

The article’s basic point is that the campaign for ID was dealt a serious blow in last year’s federal court decision in Dover, Pennsylvania, holding that the teaching was essentially religion, not science – as the Institute has proclaimed.

Most striking quote in the story, from no less than Rush Limbaugh: “The people pushing intelligent design believe in the biblical version of creation. Intelligent design is a way, I think, to sneak it into the curriculum and make it less offensive to the liberals.” Which, as he seems to suggest, didn’t work.

Regionally, what does that suggest for the Discovery Institute itself? Spokesmen note that the Institute didn’t suggest the Dover officials teach intelligent design, only “the controversy” surrounding it – but that seems a thin distinction.

This might suggest the large institute, which has a wide range of research territory far afield from creation, might reorient itself. And yet that might be difficult too. The Times again: “Discovery Institute funders, including the Maclellan Foundation in Chattanooga, Tenn., have open religious agendas. Another donor, the Stewardship Foundation of Tacoma, says it ‘provides resources to Christ-centered organizations whose mission is to share their faith in Jesus Christ.’ Its founder, the late David Weyerhaeuser, was also interested in science, Meyer said.”

Its researchers seem to know what they want to find.

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Imagine a few years hence an Internet that looks a whole lot like cable TV. That your main local provider – who has gotten from federal law the muscle to shove aside the little guys – is able to limit your choices in where you can go on the web, blocking sites at will (including those it simply doesn’t like, or that conflicts with corporate imperatives), or charges web providers fees (which it can set at will) for access . . . or maybe for access at anything other than verrry slow speed. Imagine an Internet no longer wide open, “net neutral,” the way we’ve come to know it.

Sound improbable? That’s exactly what the “Communications Opportunity, Promotion and Enhancement Act of 2006” (opportunity, promotion and enhancement of the telcos, that is – not for the rest of us) would do. A description (accurate in our opinion, of the measure’s end goals) from the anti-COPE group Save the Internet:

The nation’s largest telephone and cable companies — including AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner — want to be Internet gatekeepers, deciding which Web sites go fast or slow and which won’t load at all.

They want to tax content providers to guarantee speedy delivery of their data. They want to discriminate in favor of their own search engines, Internet phone services, and streaming video — while slowing down or blocking their competitors.

These companies have a new vision for the Internet. Instead of an even playing field, they want to reserve express lanes for their own content and services — or those from big corporations that can afford the steep tolls — and leave the rest of us on a winding dirt road.

This site is about the Northwest, and our point here is to note that three Northwest House members who voted Wednesday on COPE in the House Energy & Commerce Committee, which passed it 34-22 to the House floor: Jay Inslee of Washington, Greg Walden of Oregon and C.L. “Butch” Otter of Idaho. Two of them have some explaining to do.

Democrat Inslee voted for “net neutrality” and against COPE, while Republicans Walden and Otter voted the other way. Should be noted here, though, that the issue is not party-line; the leading advocates for the measure include a number of Democrats.

Whoever they are, the advocates of COPE – backers of a law that would allow one industry to censor communications for all the rest of us, one of the worst abominations of a Congress guilty of more than its share of foulness – should be ashamed of themselves. There is, simply, no defense of this legislation as being in the public interest; it is solely and purely a greedy reach by one industry to enrich and empower itself. It is indefensible. It is a dagger at the heart of our freedoms: Our ability freely to communicate with each other.

In the most recent election cycle, Otter’s federal campaign reports say he has taken in so far $12,500 from the communications industry, the second largest business sector in his roster. In his campaign for governor, he more than doubled that amount in 2005 alone; we don’t yet know what the telecom industry has paid this year. Those amounts are not extraordinary; presumably, he was lobbied hard.

Walden, running for re-election this year, has reported $53,900 in receipts from the communications/electronics sector so far this cycle. Those include one of his biggest contributions overall, $10,000 from the National Cable & Telecommunications Association – but there’s much more. But one presumes the lobbying of Walden was intense as well.

Otter and Walden, who are known for peppering their speeches with references to freedom and liberty, have opened themselves up for serious questions about whose freedom and liberty they’re really interested in supporting.

Unless, of course, they reverse their tack when the COPE bill comes up for a vote on the House floor.

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Probably no decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in recent years has energized people across so wide a spectrum as its decision in Kelo v. City of New London (No. 04-108), holding that local governments could condemn property solely for the purpose of upgrading its economic value. Most Americans have understood that property can be condemned (provided fair payment is given) for an important public purpose. Last year’s Kelo decision put property ownership at the mercy of private developers as well. In sum, this time, everyone’s property is at imminent risk. (Our view is that this was one of the worst Supreme Court decisions in recent years.)

Around the country and in congress, lawmakers have been at work to keep local governments which haven’t been doing this sort of thing (in a number of areas it’s been common practice for some time) from starting. The Idaho Legislature was not inactive in this area: Eminent domain was a big topic of discussion last session. Lawmakers produced and passed, without a single dissenting vote, House Bill 555, which blocked Idaho local governments from doing much of what the Supreme Court had suggested they otherwise could. It set out, effectively, “to provide limitations on eminent domain for private parties, urban renewal or economic development purposes.”

That seems not to have stopped, however, the backers of the Private Property Rights Protection Initiative, which is still (the days grow short: People now are being paid to circulate the petitions) gathering petition signatures to stave off the effects of the Supreme Court decision. Which would seem to have been effectively staved off already by the legislature. Or is that it’s real intent?

The name most associated with the initiative is Laird Maxwell, for some years an anti-tax and anti-regulatory activist at Boise, visible through Idahoans for Tax Reform, although the underwriters of him and it are less public. In 2003 Maxwell was the unseen “John Doe” who ordered and financed a mass of phone calls attacking Boise mayoral candidate Chuck Winder, a Republican, from the right, as being insufficiently “conservative.” But who Maxwell was working for and collecting money from, in that case (he has said he was a lone wolf, but that seems unlikely) as in this, remains unknown.

The first part of this year’s intiative, as billed, seeks to limit eminent domain (much as the legislature already has). But the second part, less publicized, would try to graft on to Idaho law a rough equivalent to Oregon’s recently-passed Measure 37, which tries to exempt from application any land use ordinances passed after a given piece of property was purchased.

That Oregon measure, drafted to deal with a land use regulatory situation light years away from Idaho’s, is still poorly understood, and few Oregonians yet know how it will play out. (Probably no one does.) What reason the Idaho measure’s backers have for attaching it to an eminent domain initiative is left mostly unstated, other than that it all falls under the rubric of “property rights.”

But therein lies the other problem. A court is hardly likely to conclude that this initiative is just one legal subject, however they might be united in rhetoric: Eminent domain and land use planning are different legal topics. If this initiative gets on the ballot (uncertain), and if it passes (likely if it reaches the ballot), it will almost certainly be thrown out by the courts, because it clearly violates the multiple-topic restriction.

Thereby encouraging, right on schedule, the latest whine about activist courts. Activist initiative backers tend to draw fewer howls.

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Nope, somehow we just didn’t think there’d be any press releases on the Hanford site about this one. And there aren’t.

But the story in the Tri-City Herald is clear enough.

In the middle of the last century, Hanford was conducting an array of tests not only on generating nuclear power but also on the effects of radiation. Apparently, a lot of those tests were conducted on animals. The animals, which eventually did not survive, were buried out in the plains near the Hanford site. The radiation was low-level (mostly at least, one assumes), but now they’re going to have to be dug up and re-buried in more secure surroundings.

How many animals is unclear. But the amount of waste (which includes a considerable amount of dirt) is estimated at 35,000 pounds. The project appears to be getting the nickname, “the Big Stink.”

The metaphor in all this presumably needs no elaboration.

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