Writings and observations

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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Does anyone have the Big Mo in the Oregon Republican governor’s race? Doesn’t feel like it . . . Though if anyone should, Ron Saxton should be the guy. He’s been watching persistent stories about how Jason Atkinson hasn’t been gaining big-time traction and almost no endorsements from major entities, and about a string of financial problems, including persistent debt and fast and odd financial shifts, surfacing in the Oregonian (on clockwork, as noted here and elsewhere a few weeks ago). And yet.

The well-connected Republican I Am Coyote (a strong Atkinson backer, it should be noted) at the NW Republican blog, is adamant that Saxton is stalling. Key rationale:

1) Saxton is not releasing any poll numbers. Well except for the all important Dorchester straw poll and the Portland Business Journal online poll. If a candidate has a poll that says they are winning, they release it.

2) Saxton is calling in the chits with The Oregonian. It has been a full on assault on Kevin Mannix by the “O.” With two “hard” news stories, an editorial against Mannix, a nauseating endorsement and TWO hits by Uncle Dave [Reichert, conservative editorial page columnist]? If you have ever wanted to see what political mouth to mouth resuscitation looks like, well, this is it.

3) The Grand Ronde Tribe is beginning to act hysterical in their support. Hysterical in that you can almost hear them yelling “DON’T YOU PEOPLE KNOW THAT WE REALLY REALLY MEAN IT?! Really.”

The conclusion is not that Saxton necessarily is losing, just that the primary is undecided as yet. Watch the Monday night debate, and you get that sense: A feeling that this race is very much yet to be won or lost.

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No conclusive winners in the Monday forum for Republican gubernatorial candidates, the most widely-viewed event (on Portland’s KGW TV) for these three during the primary. Comparing to their appearance at Dorchester in early March, Jason Atkinson was maybe a shade less polished and Ron Saxton maybe a little more forceful and distinct as a personality, but neither they nor their competitor, Kevin Mannix, really staked out much new ground.

They took great care not to lob direct shots at each other, but the pressure on all three must be wearing: The subtle, indirect hits were all over the place. More common than that, however, were the shots at Democratic incumbent Ted Kulongoski, who one of the three most likely will face in the fall.

Some shots hit home, as in the heavy turnover in some parts of the Kulongoski Administration. In other places, they were less sucessful; all three, for example, called for a declaration of state emergency for salmon-fishing areas of the coast impacted by a new salmon fishing ban, while failing to note that Kulongoski had earlier the day issue just that declaration.

In other places, you have to wonder about the implications. Asked about Kulongoski’s stance on Iraq, for example, Saxton praised him for attending the funerals of Oregon National Guard troops killed in Iraq, then seemed to blast him for changing his view on the war from supportive at first to critical now. An Oregon governor, he suggested, must support not only the troops but also the policy – or was he suggesting that Oregonians generally should stifle their views on the war? His answer was a muddle, and something a skillful reporter might return to (much to Saxton’s possible discomfort in a state which seems now to be generally anti-war).

No one ran the tables or glitched himself to death. But the odds and ends of this debate could provide some useful news stories between here and ballot mailing time.

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Via the British Broadcasting Corporation, a fascinating comparison: Oregon’s Mount Hood in late summer, 1985 and 2002.

Mount Hood, BBC images

Yes, different years will have somewhat different climates. But this difference is more than that. The climate of the world really is changing, and so is that of the Pacific Northwest. People who have climbed Mount Hood have been saying for some time they see change. That’s anecdotal; this is big-picture.

[The images were taken by photographer Gary Braasch. See the BBC report on “In pictures: how the world is changing.]

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In times of drought, city people are often encouraged to limit their water use: Wash cars less often, water lawns less regularly. Nothing wrong with that, but such advice tends to cloak the really heavy users 0f water in the non-coastal west: agricultural irrigators. In most states west of the 100th meridian, excepting the Pacific coastal area, anywhere from 80% to 90% of water used by people is used by farmers.

In places like Idaho, where water is monitored closely, the people much involved with water – notably the policy makers and water users – tend to be well aware of that, and it’s lodged into practical thinking on the subject. Time may be coming, though, when thinking on the subject is due for a shift. Urban growth in places like Phoenix and Las Vegas has started to crimp water use in the southwest. And now come early signs some of the same could be happening in the Snake River basin in Idaho.

The trigger for some rethinking was the battle, over the last few months, between Idaho Power Company on one side and the state government and many water users on the other. Iddaho Power maintained that it is feeling increasing pressure as it tries to keep its power rates low in a time of growth; its traditional means of doing that is through its hydropower dams, which provide some of the least expensive juice. Its demands for water rank head first into the needs of many southern Idaho irrigators, among others.

A deal, for now, was reached on that situation several weeks ago; it calls for irrigators to pay a substantial part of the increased cost that higher power demands have imposed on Idaho Power. But a disquieting note appears in comments from Lynn Tominaga, a former state senator and now executive director of the Idaho Irrigation Pumpers Association.

Irrigators have been held to account for many of Idaho Power’s increased costs and pressures. But Tominaga makes a solid point: “Do you see new irrigated land coming into production?”

He’s right: It hasn’t. And while a singe house uses relatively little water, the great mass of houses doing up especially around southwest Idaho – estimated at upwards of 10,000 a year over the last decade – has really added to the pressure on water supplies.

Rural legislators slowly are losing their traditional clout in the Idaho Legislature. But they may see the structuring of Idaho’s water, electricity and rate system as a point to center in on when they reconvene in 2007.

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What exactly is one state legislator in Washington doing interfering in the communications of another with his constituents?

In essence, that’s happening in Washington, through the intermediary of legislative staff.

All this grows out of a principle, enshrined in rules in various ways in many states, that legislators should refrain from personal attacks on each other. That makes some sense; start down that road and cooperative legislating soon becomes impossible. The imperative is to stick to the issues.

But that principle usually applies to speech and statements in official proceedings, on the floor and in committee. And ordinarily, it doesn’t serve to limit lawmakers from saying what they want about substantive matters, or characterizing them as they will. Especially to constituents.

Glenn AndersonEnter a Washington legislative rule from 1998, which had bipartisan support, which said that attacks by legislators on other legislators should not be supported with state money, in whatever means. Here it starts to get tricky, because you wind up with bad cases like the one Representative Glenn Anderson, a Republican from Falls City, is contending with.

Like many other legislators, he sends his constituents newsletters. The House clerk’s office has taken to editing these, to the point of insisting of what he can and cannot say about issues – because some of what he says about some issues could be taken as criticism of majority Democrats.

A piece in the Tacoma News Tribune notes Anderson’s newsletter referred to “Enron-type accounting schemes”, for example, in descriving the budget passed largely by Democrats. That is, of course, a criticism. But to remove every comment like that truly amounts to censorship of communication between legislator and constituent – and political communication, as the Supreme Court is wont to note, has to be as open and protected as possible. Even if someone’s feelings get hurt. Which they should not in this case: The attack was on policy, not on personality. And let’s get real here: This is politics. It is about disagreement and different ways of looking at things. That is supposed to be true in a legislature above all public places.

The Tacoma paper reported that Anderson has taken to writing lines to his constituents such as, “The use of [*censored*] accounting and [*censored*] in Olympia continues to be business as usual.” It makes his point, poignantly.

Anderson is not alone in all this; Republican press released have been bowdlerized as well. (The phrase “shell game,” used to descibe the budget process, was similar excised.)

If Democrats retain control of the Washington legislature next session, they could do worse than to quit editing their opposition’s public communications. That kind of activity has led to some bad stuff already, and left unchecked it’s bound to get worse.

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Emotion spilled all over the floor of the Oregon Senate toward the end of Thursday’s brief special session. That will happen when the subject is child sex abuse.

The emotion came in part from Senator Bruce Starr, a Hillsoboro Republican, who had pushed a very similar measure in the 2005 session. “Jessica’s Law” – another of those measures named for a victim of a horrific crime – is relatively narrow, and easily gets widespread support. It applies to adults who sexually molest children under 12, and requires both a 25-year sentence and lifetime monitoring, since so many such offenders are compulsive re-offenders.

House Bill 3507 passed the House in 2005 and quickly got the support of most senators, but became snared in the Senate-House cross-battles over legislation, and died at session’s end. Hardly anyone felt good about that, and when Governor Ted Kulongoski ordered up a special session, Senate President Peter Courtney pushed through inclusion of Jessica’s.

In the meantime, it had become the subject of a major initiative campaign which seemed likely to get it on the ballot and to pass it; Starr was much involved with that as well. And he talked at length Thursday, sometimes in circular fashion. But he sounded a grateful note Thursday – he might have understandably felt undercut at this point – as the proposal approached its final passage (30-0) in the Senate.

Vicki WalkerA rather different note came from another bill supporter, Eugene Democrat Vicki Walker.

Her story was personal. She started out withthe blunt statement, “I was raped when I was five years old,” and went on from there through experiences that went on more than a decade. She warned that most child sex abusers are family, neighbors or friends of the family, and cited personal experience to back that up.

You could see the senators squirming as they listened (she acknowledged the discomfort in the room as she was speaking), but the unease came not only from her personal story, harrowing as it was, but also from her legislative point: That crafting legislation which reaches into families, which aims at holding families together while also protecting children, is a tough thing to do. She and other senators are at work on it, she noted, and noted as well that the effort has drawn concern from a range of quarters. And that battle, she suggested, hasn’t even properly begun.

“I’m sorry this offended some of your sensibilities,” she said near the end. That sounded almost like a warning: If she’s re-elected and back in the chamber in January, that offense may continue.

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The 2005 Oregon legislative session left a lot of Oregonians feeling sour on Salem. It failed to address a string of issues and failed to pass a clutch of ideas that had widespread support. And the governor, Ted Kulongoski, seemed to be painfully detached from the proceedings (a contrast to his Washington counterpart, Christine Gregoire, who brokered several big legislative deals that same year).

Oregon Senate adjourns sine dieOn Thursday, in just under six hours – one of the shortest if not the shortest special sessions on record in Oregon – both legislature and governor may have done a lot to repair their reputations.

Remember: This was no slam dunk. There were plenty of calls for Kulongoski to call the session, but doing it entailed risk. Special sessions have a way of either blowing up or of just behaving poorly. As this one ended, Senate President Peter Courtney reflected on how in his long legislative career he’d been through 16 (of the total 36) special sessions, and didn’t think well of most. One, he recalled, lasted 32 days. In general, he said, when he took over the job as president of the Senate, the thing he dreaded most was heading into a special session.

There are reasons for that. As he pointed out, legislators who go to a special are there for a few specific topics mostly not of their making. They have no committee meetings (or few of them) to go to, and little to do. They’re being asked to serve almost as rubber stamps. The usual circumstances are not propitious.

The preparation for this one was solid, however, and cooperation seemed to be close to universal. Having called the session, and in a year looking ever more perilous for him politically, Kulongoski involved himself quite directly in this one. Both Courtney and House Speaker Karen Minnis apparently got into it as thoroughly, both with agendas of their own, including the payday loan regulation on Minnis’ part and Jessica’s law on Courtney’s. for the space of one day, everyone seemed to take a deep breath and say, “okay, let’s do this.”

Oregon Senate adjourns sine dieIt did seem universal. Courtney: “Today is amazing . . . Every time I looked out over the chamber, there was a quorum . . . You responded to a person.” And: “This process worked the way it is supposed to work in a special session.” The atmosphere was much the same in the House.

Nor were the bills jammed through without discussion. Each one was discussed, maybe most notably some of the discussion on Jessica’s Law (which we’ll cover in a separate post). the feeling wasn’t rushed. It just didn’t dawdle, and it didn’t hang, because people wanted to get the work done. The agreement on the issues was sweeping.

Two factors may have helped. One is the shortened time span, and during a campaign season. Senators Ben Westlund and Jason Atkinson, both candidates for governor, seemed a little wound with energy, but both were active participants in the proceedings. The other is the absence of trading issues, which is what killed Jessica’s and other popular legislation during the regular.

Even so, these people showed they could get the job done – that the system isn’t hopelessly broken. Westlund, basing his campaign around the idea that the two parties are too dysfunctional to get work done anymore, may have been undercut significantly by the short session’s success. Others, including politicians as far-ranging as Kulongoski and Atkinson, may have been helped, in various ways.

To the extent a legislative success is remembered as much as legislative failure.

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Protests sometimes change minds in the direction intended; sometimes they backlash. The suddeness, the size and the intensity of the recent wave of immigration protests – structured so as to blur the line between legal and illegal immigrants – is certainly having effect, but much of it seems to be in the form of angry reaction.

Our speculation is that this accounts for much of the sudden jump in the campaign revenues of Idaho 1st District representative candidate Robert Vasquez, a Canyon County commissioner who has made immigration his pre-eminent issue (as it has been, for him, for many years). He is fiercly anti-immigrant, his own family’s history notwithstanding, and has spoken of an “invasion,” and has described Senator Larry Craig for his support of guest worker-type legislation. A few months ago, Vasquez was getting limited traction. Now, he seems to be building steam.

Over in Idaho Falls, far from Vasquez’ 1st district, resident Henry Morton writes today in the Post Register (no free link available), “What we do not need are the illegals who threaten us with economic terrorism if they do not continue to get the right to lie, steal, cheat and fraudulently acquire U.S. citizen benefits while paid-for bagmen like Craig stiff the U.S. citizen with more costs that leave their families with less. This is because the weak, incompetent, maligning politically correct types in Congress think everyone in the world comes before U.S. citizens.”

Mind: We’re not endorsing that viewpoint; there’s more than a kernel of simple-minded “blame the other tribe” in it. But if you’re looking for traction, you may find it there, alongside the idea of people like Larry Craig being abruptly thrown into the unholy category of the “politically correct.”

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