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Posts published in April 2006

The gang that could get something done

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." (more…)

A protest and its impacts

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."

Liquor shifts

Among notable social indicators, the consumption of booze is right up there as a benchmark of all sorts of things. So this caught our eye out of the Yakima Herald-Republic:

"The state Liquor Control Board plans to close its Yakima enforcement office this summer, citing low usage and the movement of business to the Internet. One of two existing Yakima-based enforcement officers will work from home, or a small office. The other will be based in the existing Kennewick office, according to Bob Burdick, Olympia-based spokesman for the agency."

We haven't seen similar notices for other areas, and no very visible word on this from the liquor board itself.

Is it that people aren't drinking so much anymore in the Yakima country?

Not really: Tell it to the list of applicants for a liquor license in just the city of Yakima: 13 in that community alone.

But it could be indicative of changes in business patterns - the way liquor moves around, always an interesting topic. We will revisit.

Significant pain

We're at about one year ahead of the opening of the new Tacoma Narrows Bridge (or couplet, as it might almost better be called), and this bit of information probably was best delivered well in advance. A lot of Pierce Countians will need some time to digest it.

Toll paying proposalThat is the price of the toll people will be expected to pay to travel on the bridge: $3, evidently in both directions. But not to worry: The state has a new program, called Good to Go, which lets drivers prepay their tolls, in amounts of $30 and up. The state's description:

"If you are a Good To Go! customer, stay in the Good To Go! express lanes (1) and drive through the toll zone without stopping. The overhead antenna (2) reads your Good To Go! account information and automatically debits the correct toll from your prepaid account. Violators who use the express lanes without paying will be fined - a camera (3) takes a picture of the license plate and a citation is mailed. Cash Customer - If you decide to pay your tolls with cash, you must use the 'Cash Only' lanes (4) and stop at the toll plaza. Pay the toll to one of our friendly toll attendants with cash or a credit card (5). When you see the green light (6) you may proceed."

And the state really hopes people get into the prepay mode, as the Tacoma News-Tribune noted: "The new $849 million bridge will increase Highway 16’s capacity, but unless enough people participate in the electronic system, traffic engineers say, cars will back up behind the tollbooths as people fumble for change."

One of the glories of this country long has been the free or very low-cost access to roads - to travel freely. Yes, of course, the bridge was both necessary and awfully expensive (now estimated at $849 million). But that $3 fee seems like a real bar to transportation, and you wonder whether there won't be some revolt, maybe in the form of diminished traffic, against it.

You suspect there are a lot of people in Gig Harbor and Port Orchard who will become abruptly less likely to take a spontaneous shopping trip over to Tacoma or Seattle. it might do some some good for public transit, though - this could be a real incentive for many people to move in that direction. As for daily driving commuters (no break is expected for them): it's about to get more costly.

More bus?

Ron Sims at Transit Now press conference, King county photoWhen King County Executive Ron Sims announced his proposal for a tax increase to ramp up the volume on public transit, he remarked that "Transit Now [his proposal] will give people what they are asking for: more bus service more frequently." That poses a question: Which people were doing the asking?

This space has long contended that one of the key reasons public transit systems fail, or fail to reach anything resembling their potential, is weak service: There are too few routes, they are operated too erratically, you have to wait forever to get a bus or train, and you likely will need to engage in a complicated series of switches if you make everything else work. The key to solving this is frequency, intensiveness of routes, and reliability. That, of course, is costly, but probably the only way to make such a system work. (It is a key, for example, to the Portland area's excellent Tri-Met system.)

The people who actually ride public transit tend to know all this, and they most likely were the core of the group Sims was referring to. From the county's description of the plan:

Transit Now will expand Metro service by up to 20 percent systemwide over the next 10 years, and get more commuters on the bus and off the road now by launching the expansion within months of a final decision, not years. As much as 700,000 new annual service hours – or about 200 additional buses – will be on the road by 2015. More than a half million people will be within walking distance of the new service.

The initiative will bring Bus Rapid Transit service to five of the most congested travel corridors in King County with buses at 10-minute intervals. Regular service on existing high-ridership routes will also be expanded to 15-minute intervals all day cutting the wait time for thousands of passengers, plus new service will be added to serve residents in rapidly growing neighborhoods.

It would be paid for by adding a tenth of a cent to the county's sales tax - raising about $50 million, costing - Sims estimated - the average household about $25 a year. (more…)

Idaho 1st: new numbers

All the campaigns in Idaho's 1st congressional district contest have reported new numbers, and the net result is to make the contest look less scrutable than ever.

Front-runner status in money and, probably, organization as well remains Bill Sali, whose late-session Statehouse blowups probably did him no harm with the core of the 1st district electorate. That said, the new fundraising total, $290,202, ranks as less impressive than some of the heavy leads he had been racking up: His fundraising in the first quarter of this year was a lot less striking than it was in 2005. Is that a signal of impending weakness? Or just as a sense that in his sort of campaign, he's already raised enough: Either it's enough to win, or raising more wouldn't have been enough to help. Sali isn't really a broadband candidate anyway; he's narrowcasting to a specific crowd. He still has more cash on hand than anyone else in the race.

But others are coming on, to a greater degree, as well. (more…)

An undisclosed Washington location

There is a certain phrase that may forever be associated with Vice President Dick Cheney, that writers about him cannot void. The Everett Herald's reporter did not resist on occasion of the vice presidential visit to Snohomish County:

"Vice President Dick Cheney arrived Sunday evening at Paine Field, where he was greeted by area Republican leaders before stepping into a limousine and heading to an undisclosed location for the rest of his Easter."

Yes, his location was largely undisclosed during much of his visit to Washington last weekend. But there's a point in that.

Cheney came to raise money for 2nd U.S. House candidate Republican Doug Roulstone, opposing Democrat Rick Larsen. Mission accomplished: He raised the money, which will no doubt be highly appreciated by Roulstone's uphill campaign. But the fundraising was just about all. For a vice presidential visit, it was a sturdily low-key matter.

This wasn't a matter of parading around in public, at least any more than necessary, as a means of boosting the local Republican candidates - or support for the Bush Administration. This was a case of recignition that while Cheney may be a strong draw as a fundraiser, that his popularity overall is so weak that greater visibility might be a serious detriment.

At least, what part of his visit proved that proposition wrong?

Who can afford it?

houseAn important column by Danny Westneat of the Seattle Times today, on the wildly increasing prices of houses in the Seattle area. If the column's implications were only about Seattle, it would be of somewhat less importance; but you could substitute "Portland" or many other communities around the region and across the country and come to the same thing. He asked many of the important questions, but we're addressing this here because he left one out.

His point is that housing in Seattle has become super-expensive. He recounts how, barely a decade ago, he bought his first home, a "fixer" but a decently-sized place, for $93,000, toward the upper limit of what he could then afford as a reporter for the Seattle Times (which pays pretty well, for the newspaper industry; its reporters are solidly paid professionals). He notes that buying something even remotely similar now would run at least $200,000, more likely at least $250,000. A decently modern and spacious house in the Seattle area - not just city limits, but for quite a few miles around - starts at upwards of $300,000. The average home sale now is closer to $400,000.

Westneat's immediate point is that the Seattle area is rapidly pricing its working class out of home ownership - even out of residency. No doubt he's right. And that has many implications.

The puzzler we wonder about on top of that, however, is: Where are all these people coming from who can afford $400,000 homes? Wages haven't risen anywhere near those levels in recent years; the number of wealthy in our society is hardly so great that a city the size of Seattle can populate itself entirely with the rich. From where is all this money coming from? Or - ominously - can these people really afford it at all? And if they can't, what will that mean a few years down the line?

Taxing business

Asurprising reality check in the Portland Oregonian noting that a piece of conventional wisdom - that Oregon has some of the highest taxes on business in the west - is simply wrong.

From the story: "Despite election-year rhetoric that businesses are overtaxed, no state asks businesses to pay a lighter share of its state budget than Oregon does, according to the Council on State Taxation, which represents big business," the paper noted. It went on well beyond organizational anlayses to do its own, noting that individual Oregon taxpayers may several times as much per taxable dollar as do businesses.

As to the Council on State Taxation . . . let's pause a moment. It describes itself as "a nonprofit trade association consisting of approximately 570 multistate corporations engaged in interstate and international business." Its credentials as a reasonable judge of which entities charge business comparatively more or less seem solid. In one study, it compares the corporate income tax rates of the states. Oregon's is 6.6% (just over two-thirds the rate for individuals); in super pro-business Idaho the rate is 7.6%, in California 8.8%, in super-fast growing Arizona, 7%. (Washington, of course, lacks an income tax but does have a business tax which makes up for it.)

The Oregonian piece amply deserves to throw twist in a run of fast-charging political rhetoric this year. And not only in Oregon.