Writings and observations

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.

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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.

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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.

Therein lies the tricky part: The portion of this deal most King Countians will see is the sales tax increase, at least initially. Public transit doesn’t have a great rep around King, and the investment needed to make it work will be hard to come by, amid a populace accustomed for years to words and phrases like “monorail” and “Sound Transit.”

Much of that civic outrage has been focused on light rail. But the suspicion is that the real target is mass transit generally – anything other than servicing individual passenger vehicles. Goldy at Horse’s Ass suggested, “I’ve always suspected that the vocal support of bus service by opponents of light rail was little more than a rhetorical device… that when push came to shove, they wouldn’t support any tax increase for any transit project that didn’t put more cars on the road.”

So make what you will of Stefan Sharkansky’s take on Sims’ proposal at Sound Politics: “I’m actually with Ron Sims on the part about enhancing the bus system. Frequent, flexible, efficient bus service makes more sense than most other forms of public transportation. In other cities I’ve lived in, buses are an attractive alternative to driving and parking in a congested downtown. Buses could work better here too. But that doesn’t mean we need to raise the overall amount of taxes we pay for public transportation. The biggest problem with transporation in this region is that too much is being wasted on extremely expensive, inflexible fixed rail systems that do/will carry an insignificant number of riders.”

There will be opposition, all right. To paraphrase the commercial: In the road of life, there are drivers, and there are passengers. And in King County, the former outnumber the latter.

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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.

Sheila Sorensen, with $246,133 raised ($101,055 from the candidate), is now playing in the same financial league – which she needs to. The figures do suggest that if Sali winds up unable to mobilize his hard corps in sufficient numbers, Sorensen could be the most likely of the other candidates to pick up a plurality. (The idea of any of these candidates winning a majority seems remote.) She too is reliant on a specific piece of the electorate, and turnout will be critical for her too. Will she try to use some of the money remaining to ensure it?

The big change in the list is the third-place money man, Canyon County Commissioner Robert Vasquez, who didn’t raise a lot in 2005 but has zoomed up this year, especially as his key issue – immigration and illegal aliens – has moved to the front of the state’s, and nation’s, discourse. With $178,106 raised, his budget puts him just shy of the Sali and Sorensen level, but nto far from it – enough t0 run competitively if he spends wisely.

Attorney Norm Semanko comes in fourth with $154,967, again enough to run a serious campaign though on a somewhat smaller scale than Sali and Sorensen. Arguably, since he isn’t well-known around the district (and Vasquez has gotten piles of headlines), Semanko needs to paid media more than the others do. He’s hoping his organization, evidently strong and still growing, will see him through.

State Controller Keith Johnson, having raised $103,981, is on a distinctly lower level, but his fundraising picked up strikingly in the first quarter of 2006 – an indication of some momentum. He’s not at the front of the pack, but sometimes the candidate who’s really coming on just election day approaches takes some special advantages from the energy in the atmosphere. He’s not done yet, and his cash on hand is second only to Sali’s.

Finally, state Senator Skip Brandt, raiser of $64,499 (more than half of it from himself), seems stuck at sea without a breeze to move him along. He isn’t getting heavy contributions, can’t play in a big way in the media, hasn’t been getting headlines (not to match those of most of the others) and hasn’t got the organization several others can boast of. He’s in a tough spot.

For the moment, with the primary election about a month away, that ranking of money raised also serves roughly as a reasonably ranking of probability for election day. But it’s an uneasy ranking: Little distance separates the candidates from the top from those near the bottom. This race remains fluid.

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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?

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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?

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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.

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No opposition here to the idea, offered Wednesday by the (Oregon) Public Commission on the Legislature, that Oregon’s lawmakers start meeting every year instead of every other year. Oregon is overdue for that change.

Oregon House chambersIt did a nice job too in suggesting the next term as a period of experimentation, allowing for trying out the idea before recommending to the voters that it be locked in place via constitutional amendment.

One of its ideas would put Oregon’s legislature on a vastly different track than most others, which around the country almost all begin annually in January or February. The commission’s proposal would call for a start in early April. Which might not be a bad idea, but certainly needs some review.

As the commission and legislature run down this road, it may want to consider the pluses and minuses of the annual legislature experience in two neighboring states, Washington and Idaho.

Though much the smallest of the three states (in population), Idaho often has the most extensive legislative sessions. Its lawmakers meet every year, starting in early January. At one time the lawmakers had constititional pressures to adjourn after 60 days, a tenet often violated, but currently there is no limit; in theory, they could go on meeting all year long, though there’s no semitment for that. Typically in recent decades, legislators have met for about three months each year.

Add an asterick to that: The length of sessions has been rising. Early in the state’s history, legislators seemed to have little trouble with the 60-day requirement. By the 60s, they were exceeding it by a few days each year, and in the next decade they routinely bumped past 70. Irregularly, the number has been growing. In 2003, Idaho legislators held their longest session ever, at 118 days. This year, they held their third-longest ever, 93 days. Absent some incentive, the sessions seem likely to grow with time.

Washington state has such an incentive, a constitutional restriction on session length. In odd-numbered years (just after the members are elected) it meets 105 days. The idea is that this is the “big session” when most of the policy work gets done. Then on even-numbered years, ahead of elections, the legislature convenes 60 days (from mid-January to mid-March), the idea being that budgets and emergency items, and a limited range of topics of high current interest are taken up.

This doesn’t always work perfectly. In some recent years both limits have been circumvented when legislators didn’t get their work done in the allocated time. The end of a session would be quickly followed by a special session for wrapup, and sometimes another after that, and another after that.

But the hard deadline, and the recognition that most topics must be addressed in one and not both years, has tended to be a good system. This current term, for example, the Washington legislators wound up their work on time in 2005 and 2006 both (and in two of the most productive sessions in years). It seems a good formula.

Of course, no timetable is going to make a legislature productive: That has to do with the people who serve and the atmosphere in which they work. But Washington’s experience does suggest that putting some constraints on the process does, like the prospect of a hanging (as the old saying went), tend to concentrate the mind.

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And sometimes a news story doesn’t really carry any larger freight, but it becomes so overwhelming that some sort of commentary becomes necessary anyway. The scandal surrounding Portland’s former police chief, Derrick Foxworth, has little intrinsic importance: It looks like another case of an overenergetic executive doing something stupid, and getting caught at it, and proobably paying the price. (He’s technically still on paid leave, but the pretense probably will not last long.)

Derrick FoxworthThe basics, for those outside the Portland metro area (practially all those inside already know), mainly concern Foxworth’s relationship with Angela Oswalt, a civilian employed in the Portland Police Bureau and at times under Foxworth’s supervision, and which now has led to a lawsuit filed by her against the city. The two agree they had an “intense” relationship a few years before he was named chief; they disagree about a number of details. She has produced a volume of e-mails and recounted other conversations with Foxworth, in fine-grain technicolor. Much of this has made the rounds around Portland, especially in its cop shops. The e-mail (whose provenance evidently hasn’t been nailed yet) in which Foxworth writes about his “hot chocolate body” apparently has been a favorite. Odwalt also has said that she has felt threatened by Foxworth.

That, and the fallout (Foxworth is on leave, but his “interim” replacement started her first day acting like a permanent replacement), is basically the whole story. Except for the meta-story.

To say that this has been the big deal in Portland media for the last couple of weeks is terrific understatement. Probably no story since the last big sex scandal – Neil Goldschmidt’s – has gotten so much attention. And that one didn’t have the e-mails.

The story is so hot that Peter Ames Carlin, the Oregonian television columnist, broke from his usual practice of writing solely about national TV to deliver the sense of local TV news’ take on the Foxworth affair:

Let’s say, in fact, that the e-mails sent to Portland Police Bureau desk clerk Angela Oswalt are so extremely graphic — so full of vivid sexual proposals and descriptions, at least one of which comes punctuated with a smiley face icon, for heaven’s sake — that you can barely stand to think about them in mixed company.

Well, then you lead with them.

But subtly, of course.

And once those begin to lose their sting, after a day or two, you can always dig up a neighbor willing to go on TV and make an accusation that includes both nudity and prancing.

Did I just say nudity and prancing?

All that, of course, is on top of the Oregonian‘s own exhaustive (if expurgated) reports – full page after full page.

And then there’s the weekly war, in which the Portland Mercury considers the allegation from Oswalt that the Willamette Week knew about the story around the time it was happening, but for some reason agreed to cover it up. The WW responded that it didn’t, that it had vague information that Foxworth was having an affair, but no specifics.

And there’s the daily rehash on radio. And (as one of the local TV stations pointed out) the chatter on the net has gotten to the point that Mayor Tom Potter’s comment blog has been packed with opinions about Foxworth – and hardly a thing about such larger issues as payment for the trouble tram project. But then, it’s a more compulsively readable subject.

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This appears not to have hit the wires yet in Oregon, though it has in Arizona: The Associated Press is reporting that Republican State Representative Jeff Kropf
(rural Marion and Linn Counties) isn’t just taking a policy position on immigration.

Jeff KropfHe’s aiming to do some enforcing – according to the report, “flying his own plane on patrols along the border.”

The report said that “Kropf, a grass seed farmer and host of a weekend radio talk show in Portland, arrived in Arizona on Monday. He says he didn’t time his trip as a counterprotest to the demonstrations against tougher immigration policies. He says he’s just passionate about immigration because of the impact on jobs, national security, drug policy and disease control.”

His campaign website doesn’t make mention of his Arizona trip (where a variety of topics were opinionated on, but immigration didn’t seem to show up). Nor was there anything evident on the KXL web site. As they say, developing . . .

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