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Posts published in April 2006

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.

Going annual

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. (more…)

Hot, hot, hot

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. (more…)

Taking it personal

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 . . .

The garage that wasn’t an emergency

Boise air terminalCall it a win for an open public process, and a blow at the backdoor rubberstamping of important public decisions. The Idaho Supreme Court decision out today in City of Boise v. David Frazier has some important implications for the cozy approach to financing many governments - not just in Boise and not just in Idaho, by any means - have been adopting in recent years.

The constitutional principle was that the people should only be asked for spent a large chunk of money, or be obligated to debt, if they give a very strong approval; that is why bonds often carry a two-thirds voter approval requirement. Whether those limits are at the appropriate settings is a matter for reasonable discussion. But many public officials, feeling they are too onerous, are certainly not right in finding back doors and alternative approaches. Which is what they have been doing. (more…)

Sales tax Ted

Ted KulongoskiWhen in his Monday night debate with his Democratic challengers Governor Ted Kulongoski made reference to the state looking toward a "consumption tax" of some sort to help stabilize the state's tax system, a couple of reads on his meaning were possible.

One, which initially we were inclined to accept, relies on the formal view of the term "consumption tax." In its proper sense, a consumption tax is not the same thing as a sales tax; it is a larger category which can include the sales tax but also many other options. A reasonably definition from an economics web site:

A consumption tax—also known as an expenditures tax, consumed-income tax, or cash-flow tax—is a tax on what people spend instead of what they earn. A VAT does that in the same way that a sales tax does. But a true consumption-tax system would entail something much different from simply layering a VAT on top of the current income tax. One way to think of a consumption-tax system is simply as an income tax that allows unlimited deductions for savings and that taxes all withdrawals from savings, much like independent retirement accounts (IRAs) . . .

The theoretical case for a consumption tax actually is a case against the income tax. Champions of a consumption tax argue that the income tax does enormous long-term damage to the economy because it penalizes thrift by taxing away part of the return to saving. This tax wedge results in less saving, less investment, less innovation, and lower living standards than we would enjoy without a tax on saving. In other words, the income tax creates a bias in favor of current consumption at the expense of saving and future consumption.

There are value-added taxes. There are taxes on specific products. There are service taxes. All sorts of options, those and many more, in addition to the conventional sales tax, lie within the sphere of consumption taxes.

So what did Kulongoski mean? (more…)

A burst at the end

Call it a surprise burp, this conclusion to this year's Idaho legislative session. For most of this session, the legislature's mode seemed to run toward indecision or rejection; not a lot of really key stuff passed all the way througth the system. And a lot of important items (community colleges, for one) which got an initial hearing didn't get far. Though that's not necessarily an unusual thing; some subjects take a few years before a comfort level is reached.

Still. This session, which rolled to within two days of becoming the second-longest ever, greatly improved its productivity quotient at the very end. It finally did pass a residential property tax easer, an important component; the help it will provide is limited, but it will constitute help. Early phases of Medicaid rearrangement and of a reduced Connecting Idaho program cleared, though their real future is likely to be determined more in the next couple of sessions. A power plant moratorium bill was passed and signed. Public employees got something of a raise, for the first time in a while. Just off the legislative floor, a deal was struck between the state and Idaho Power Company on Snake River Plain aquifer recharge; that was no small item.

Quite a lot also was passed by; probably few sessions have seen so many ideas (some good, some bad) thumped in rapid sucession. The next session, with a new governor and a new speaker at the least, and some new key committee chairs, may see some fresh approaches.

Who owns the west, and why?

Afew weeks back we noted reports about how many vast stretches of Northwest timber lands have been moving from the hands of public corporations to privately-held businesses, a function in part of those lands providing solid returns over the long haul but modest returns quarter-by-quarter, which is the measure for the publics of life and death.

One implication of that is that the future of these lands may become a great deal more flexible, which could be a good thing or not. Such a question underlies the significant story today in the Idaho Statesman about Tim Blixseth and the huge sections of Idaho that he has owned since last year.

Those areas run about 180,000 acres, much of it tree-growing land bought from Boise Cascade, including the core of what was the firm's tree farm running roughly from Weiser to Idaho City, and other pieces from other landowners, mainly further north. Blixseth may be little known in Idaho yet, but he's of a sudden a major player. Reviews have been mixed; some of his neighbors are less than enamored, while others like the fact that he's opened large portions of his lands to general public access, something he wasn't obliged to do.

He's done land swaps before - that and dealing in timber companies being the wellspring of his billionaire status - one of which led to construction of a lodge near Yellowstone National Park (described in the New York Times as "an opulent time-share program for the richest of the world's rich"). He's now in the middle of proposing another big swap, exchanging a string of pieces of his property - which on their face look to be more interesting as cultural or tourism spots than as timber-production locales. (He is well positioned politically: Blixseth has been a big-time contributor to Republicans in Montana and California, and to an extent nationally and in Oregon.) He hasn't dropped the other shoe: What he wants in exchange. So we don't yet know how to evaluate the deal, other than that the first part, at least, sounds interesting. It probably will be complex.

The main point here is that the Blixseth deal may be on a leading edge. As these lands move into increasingly private hands, they may in some respects drop off the radar. But they may re-emerge as they are more actively and carefully parsed, and the highest value of some of them may involve bringing pieces of them into public hands. In exchange, of course, for something else.

Three web pluses, noted

Jim Hansen web siteThree likeable things jump out from the campaign web page of Jim Hansen, now the sole Democratic candidate for the House in Idaho's 2nd congressional district.

One of them is the clear statement, up near the top right, saying: "Jim Hansen - an Idaho Democrat." There: He said it. He's a Democrat. A lot of other Idaho Democrats seem to do whatever they can to play it down. Hansen plays it up, and that's good politics: You should always wear what you have as a badge of honor. That may mean being despised by your own party's leadership (in the case of Republican Bill Sali) or may mean any number of other things. In Hansen's case, he's doing something a little audacious and wise, defining himself as an example of the species Idahoa Democraticus. He has something to live up there, since other Democrats will be tagged with him. But if he carries himself well, his whole party benefits. This kind of approach done in mass can do a lot to define who a party is, through who its people are.

Second thing is down toward the bottom of the page. There, he includes links not only to the web site of his recently-departed primary opponent, Craig Cooper, but also to his Republican opponent, incumbent Mike Simpson. Subtle, but something you don't see often - and another smart move. It's an open invitation to contrast and compare, with the implicit message: I'm not afraid of what you'll think about me after you check us all out. It puts him out there and above it all at the same time. (more…)

A proper show, but little more

Not a whole lot of inspiration coming out of the Oregon Democratic gubernatorial debate - the only widely-seen one betwen the three contenders - on KGW-TV tonight.

Probably none of the three - incumbent Ted Kulongoski and challengers Jim Hill and Pete Sorensen - lost any backers. But they probably didn't pick up many, either. None seemed to have the ability to consistently drive home a point, or get seriously into the implications of their messages.

On presentation points, Kulongoski fared best - he should have and had to, being the incumbent. He came across as smart, informed, connected and practical, and some real passion for his work showed through as well. He took good advantage of the viewer question of why someone would want this job: Kulongoski said he loves the jobs, loves being in the thick of things and making things happen. You could sense he meant it. It was a good response: Why would you want to elect someone with a dour attitude toward the job? (Both of the other two came across are much more dour.) (more…)