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Posts published in April 2006

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…)

Not as I do

Jury duty - perhaps the most undervalued, certainly the most underpaid and poorly treated of our civic responsibilities - isn't popular when it comes to oneself. Few people want to take the time to exercise some of the most powerful decision-making any of us are called on in the public sphere, and that's in part because prospective jurors are not treated like public officials with an important responsibility - they should given the courtesy and deference of at least, say, a state legislator - but more like prisoners being shuffled through the system.

So consider the case of Kasia Quillinan, a former city councilwoman and now a candidate for muncipal judge there, at least partly through the perspective of an alarm bell. This is after all a person who, if the candidacy is successful (maybe a little more doubtful today than it was last week?) , soon will have to be insisting on people showing up for jury duty when they're called, and even punishing them if they don't. (She is opposed, it should be noted, by two other Salem attorneys, Jane Aiken and Lynda Olsen.)

Quillinan received a jury summons in March, doubtless an inconvenient time. What she did next, according to an Associated Press report and apparently unrebutted, was the real problem: "Quillinan used her electronic key card to access a back office, which is off-limits to the public. Once inside, Quillinan approached Judge Terry Leggert to see if she could be excused from jury duty." She used, in other words, her special pass - given to some but not all attorneys - to privately lobby a judge for a favor. You could use some ugly words to describe that sort of thing.

It certainly raises the question - as a secondary but potent campaign issue - of what she would tell a potential juror, asking publicly in open court, to be dismissed from jury obligations.

Contest to none

Maybe this is one of those occasions when it might have been as well if the competition hadn't gone away.

The case in point is the congressional contest in Idaho's 2nd district, where two Democrats - Craig Cooper and Jim Hansen - filed to run against Republican incumbent Mike Simpson, who is unopposed in his own primary.

This has been a friendly race, like the contest among the Democrats in Oregon's 2nd. The two candidates have gotten along well, have traveled to events together and haven't torn each other down. There's a distinct plus to this as well: Because there's a contest, there's something for voters and prospective voters to pay attention to. There are debates and televised appearances, giving them more visibility than would have been the case without a contest.

The contest is going away. Craig Cooper, a Idaho National Laboratory scientist who opted in early, said this weekend he was dropping out in favor of Hansen. (See the details on The Political Game blog.)

From his standpoint, you can understand it. The viewpoints of the two appear to be generally aligned, and Hansen, a former state legislator whose life work for more than a decade has been in organizing social causes, is better known and positioned. And probably would have won the contest. (Cooper's website, by the way, does not yet note the withdrawal.)

He did Hansen a considerable service, though, staying in as long as he did. A run for Congress these days by a Democrat in Idaho's 2nd is awfully tough, but this kind of contest probably lightened the load a bit.

Toward a Republican majority, in court

Washington's state executive branch offices aren't up this year, and Democrats seem likely to retain control of the state legislature. But Republicans are taking serious aim at the third branch: The top of the state judiciary.

Those seats are legally nonpartisan, of course. And one appointed or elected, judges and justices tend to wander in unpredictable ways; something about the atmosphere of a judicial chamber may have an effect on thought processes.

Regardless, Republicans clearly are aiming for what would be in effect - at least the intent - of a close split or a slight majority in practical terms on the Washington Supreme Court. They might not get it, but the effort clearly is there. It would be a move from generally nonpartisan at present to a distinct shift to the right. After the decisions on the governor's race and other matters, bearing in mind the heat likely soon to erupt over the Defense of Marriage Act, and general in-party agitation against the courts, you can see where the impulse would come from.

Taking this from the top . . . (more…)

A testimonial of character, with annotation

Herewith (thanks again to the Betsy Russell Boise blog), a commentary by the Speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives, Bruce Newcomb, whose ascension to that position eight years ago and retention since has owed much to his his easy-going personality and broad friendships; providing testimonial upon the character of his fellow Republican state representative, Bill Sali, currently the front-runner for the Republican nomination for the U.S. House in District 1:

"That idiot is just an absolute idiot…He doesn’t have one ounce of empathy in his whole frickin’ body, and you can put that in the paper.”

Annotation:

No, that certainly didn't just materialize out of nowhere.

Yes, the irony is that it constitutes catnip for the Sali campaign.

Useful additional reading may be found in today's Dan Popkey column in the Idaho Statesman.