The Idaho special session on property taxes is apparently on: Governor James Risch plans to make the announcement tomorrow.

He’s hoping for a one-day session – and for good reason. If they don’t do it in one day, they’re apt to have a political mess on their hands. Is the outcome of the session a locked-down, done deal – as it would have to be to get it done in a day? Good, relevant question.

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One of the great and spectacular trips in the Northwest is the ferry ride from Washington over to Victoria, British Columbia. It’s not, however, quite as super, natural as British Columbia might like, for this reason: For years, Victoria has been dump raw, untreated sewage into the water, in the Straight of Juan de Fuca.

This seems a surprisingly third-worldish thing to do, for a country so self-consciously green in many ways. But there is, and might have continued for a long time. But it appears to be headed toward a welcome conclusion in another year or two, due largely to an external influence: The coming arrival, in 2010, of the Olympics games at Vancouver, activities of which will be spread around southwest British Columbia.

Joel Connelly’s column today in the Seattle P-I lays out some of this. “Bluntly put, green games could not coexist with the brown reality of “Victoria’s Secret” — the daily discharge of 31 million gallons of untreated sewage into a waterway shared by the U.S., Canada, salmon runs and endangered marine mammals,” he wrote. “The province’s touristy capital dumps a volume of effluent into the strait that would fill 40,000 Olympic-size swimming pools each year.”

This may be the single most valuable thing the games do for the Northwest.

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As Jim west did not leave his post as mayor of Spokane without having accomplished some worthy things, so with Dave Skramstad.

No scandal hit him; he was far less well known around the region. But he was an impactful figure in Olympia, where among other things he played a central role in changing the city’s form of government.

But there was also much more. As the Olympian noted in its editorial, “When you attend a symphony presentation at the Washington Center for the Performing Arts, you have Dave Skramstad to thank for the marvelous venue. When you walk along the Percival Landing boardwalk on a summer evening, you can thank Dave Skramstad for the spectacular facility. When you spend an afternoon enjoying the Olympia Farmers Market, thank Dave Skramstad.”

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James WestWe can none of us choose what our last scene will be – what will be the last thing we do that people remember us for, before we go. Those of us, at least, who keep pushing for that next scene to come.

That comes to mind with the death this weekend of James West, 55, veteran Washington legislator and recent mayor of Spokane.

He had a long record of public service, and he won a good deal of praise for much of it. In his last public office, the mayoralty, he seemed for his first year and more to be raising his reputation to higher levels, running the city effectively and solving problems that had eluded solution for years.

Then came the scandal, as reported in the Spokane Spokesman-Review, the hidden life, the use of the office for personal ends, and more. He was recalled from office, and then dropped from sight.

Before all that, before he became mayor, he was physically ill, and this weekend it caught up with him. But suppose that it hadn’t, at least not yet – not for a while. You can imagine, without too much strain, a James West writing another act to his life’s story, picking up pieces and doing something else useful in whatever time was left to him.

His time ran too short. And his obituaries will read more sadly than, with a little more time, we suspect they might have.

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One of the unheralded pillars of Republican Senate nominee Mike McGavick’s campaign is his take on Social Security, a subject until not so long ago traditionally avoided by campaigning Republicans.

Mike McGavickIt became less avoidable (and we don’t mean to imply that McGavick would have wanted to skirt it) in this race with a confluence of two elements: President Bush’s highly unpopular Social Security proposal from last year, which put the issue squarely on the table, coupled with McGavick’s background as CEO of a large insurance company (SafeCo). After all, as McGavick routinely points out, Social Security is a sort of insurance, and it makes sense he’d have something to say about it.

That doesn’t mean what he has to say gets said without risk – or countering.

Here’s how it went at his Open Mike event in Colville.

He distances himself, first, from Bush’s plan, saying he doesn’t support it. And McGavick’s does look different – to a point. His first point is to suggest “voluntary means testing” for Social Security – in other words, encouraging those who don’t need the money to give some or all of it back. If they want to. “I think those who have the means will be very generous if called upon,” he remarked; but you get the sense not many people are taking this one to the bank with high expectations.

He said that workers nearing retirement should get what they’ve been promised. For younger workers, he said, Social Security should not be privatized and should remain government-run, but “the money should go into a specific account in that person’s name, so the government can’t monkey with it.” That, he said, would give younger workers a sense of confidence the money would be there for them. (How instilling the confidence in a system declared to be broken would solve the problem, is pretty much left unsaid.)

At this point, McGavick generally has asked younger people in the audience how many have confidence Social Security will be available for them down the line, and the results usually suggest pessimism. Of course, a population which hasn’t taken an economist’s eye view to the matter but was exposed last year to months of headlines suggesting the system was in crisis and at imminent risk of collapse – which hasn’t yet happened and isn’t imminent – is apt to be uneasy.

At this point in Colville, however, one woman remarked, “There’s many ways you can fix social security.” What about, she asked, the views of a number of economists that Social Security is essentially sound, for at least a couple of decades, if the rest of the federal government would quit raiding it?

“I’ll make it real clear – I appreciate your view,” McGavick said in reply. “You are the person – the one – in the whole state so far that’s agreed. Now, that’s doesn’t mean you’re wrong. But I will say that is not the common view of those 30 or younger.”

“Because you’ve scared them all so much,” she countered – drawing a mix of response in the crowd.

“No, I don’t think so,” McGavick said. “It’s okay we disagree – I don’t know why you accuse me of scaring people. … I believe it is going to go broke. I happen to be in the insurance business. I understand this business. I understand acturial projections. This system is in real trouble. It is a serious issue. And how to fix it is one of the most pressing problems facing America.”

It wouldn’t be remotely accurate or fair to call McGavick’s proposal a warmed-over version of the Bush privatization plan. But come this fall he may be leaving himself open for that: If the accusation arrives (say, via a TV buy), he may have a hard time arguing against it without leaving the impression his proposal – voluntary givebacks, personal accounts run much as they already are – is at best a vaporous jab at a serious problem. Candidates have known for a long time that Social Security is tough politics. McGavick may demonstration it’s as tough today as it ever was.

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Whoever wrote the Wikipedia entry on Idaho Republican congressional candidate Bill Sali did a notably straight-up job of it. If you want a relatively dispassionate take on the guy, it’s not a bad place to check out.

Take note, though, that the article is a stub, meaning that an expansion of the entry is sought. Keep watch on whether it gets expanded – and how.

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We of the blogosphere often take delight in the shortcomings of the mainstream print press (yes, true even of your scribe, who toiled among the printing presses for a decade and a half), bemoaning the too-frequent absence of really useful community journalism.

But it does happen, and it should be celebrated when it does. With that in mind, check out the recent story in our local paper, the McMinnville News Register, about the group called Thugz Off Drugz and the trouble it has had finding a place to operate in McMinnville.

We have a second agenda as well in pointing out this story.

In a time when so many people, so much money, such stringent enforcement and so many jail cells are devoted to dealing with the War on Drugs, how do our communities deal with efforts to actually solve the problem by ending addictions? Read this story, and then explain how serious about drug abuse we really are.

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Read the print edition of the Oregonian and you’ll usually find references to blogs attached to a negative descriptor of some kind. (This is still commonplace around the print newspaper world.) At the same time, the electronic side of the O is getting increasingly bloggy.

Oregon Media Insiders comments: “This is obviously a beta site or I’d make snarky remarks about the date/time and weather functions. Interesting to watch the print publications scramble to catch up on the blog front. We’ve got the Trib and the Merc hyperblogging, now here comes the O. Will WWeek enter the daily blog race?”

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Guess here is that U.S. Representative Mike Simpson’s Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act is on the bubble – on the cutting edge between passage or not, right now.

So we’re right on the edge between Idaho getting its first new wilderness area in nearly a generation, or not. The point is this: If it waits until next year, the odds may easily turn against.

CIEDRA sets designation for parts of the Boulders and White Clouds area. Itis not universally loved, but then it’s a compromise – getting signoff on a wilderness proposal these days isn’t easy, from Simpson has got it on his complex package of goodies. The Wilderness Society has okayed it, generally; so have a lot of local people. Simpson’s opponent this election, Democrat Jim Hansen, opposes it. But in the 1st district, where the seat is open, something unusual is happening: Republican Bill Sali is opposed, while Democrat Larry Grant is in favor.

This Congress and this president are not much of a mood to approve many new wilderness areas, and there’s another in the Northwest on an even faster track: the Mount Hood wilderness plan, backed by Oregon Representatives Greg Walden (Republican) and Earl Blumenauer (Democrat). Walden has some sneiority and is perfectly positioned in the House to push his proposal through, and it’s making progress.

The point, then: If Congress remains Republican next year, and Sali is elected, then the Idaho delegation will be split on CIEDRA – and that could be enough to stop it cold. Could be that it’s either right now, or not for a while.

CIEDRA has made progress through the House, and looks well positioned to pass that chamber next week. And the measure has picked up some good support in the other chamber, with Senator Mike Crapo volunteering to push it through the Senate.

The future of CIEDRA may soon be in his hands.

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In case you were wondering what conservative Oregon spokesman like Lars Larson have to say about conservative gubernatorial candidate Mary Starrett, wonder no more. Just click over to Larson’s web site and hear for youself – in his interview with Starrett.

The gubernatorial race presents a tug for Oregon conservatives. They could vote for the most conservative candidate of the group, Constitution Party nominee Starrett. Or, they could vote for a (presumably) more centrust Ron Saxton, the Republican Party nominee, who stands a far better chance of actually winning.

Most Republicans seem to be breaking Saxton’s way (as, post-primary, most Oregonians left of center broke for Democratic nominee incumbent Ted Kulongoski). But where would someone like Larson, with his big radio audience, go?

Larson appears clearly in the Saxton camp. You can tell from the audio clips on Saxton’s site, which center on the Oregon National Guard and its deployment or prospective deployment to Iraq and on immigration issues. On these subjects, Starrett’s view is distinctly anti-Bush Administration: She would rather the guard not leave Oregon at all, an unconventional view across most of the spectrum. Larson’s lead-in line on the site: “Hear what Mary Starrett says about Iraq and the Oregon National Guard. You might not believe your ears.”

It’s still July. The intensity is yet to come.

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We’re only about a week off from the last candidate filing deadline in the Northwest, Washington’s, while will put some closure to the shape of races to come.

Some candidates already have had to find their way, or not, to the ballot: those would be the minor party candidates. Secretary of State Sam Reed lists them this way:

U.S. Senator:
Bruce Guthrie – Libertarian Party
Aaron Dixon – Green Party
Robin Adair – Independent Candidate

U.S. Representative, 7th District:
Linnea Noreen – Independent Candidate

U.S. Representative, 8th District:
Bruce White – Libertarian Party

Due to insufficient signatures the following two candidates did not qualify:
Jonathan Wright – Libertarian Party Candidate for Senator, 30th Legislative District
Douglas Revelle – Green Party Candidate for U.S. Representative, 2nd District

Might there be some signifiance in the filings for Senate and 8th district, the two major races where a close race seems a not-unreasonable prospect? Could be. Has been, sometimes, in the past. (We’ll return to this later.)

Too bad Reed, in his roster of candidates, didn’t note comparisons with years past. Our sense is that there are fewer from the minor parties in Washington than in most years.

The major parties have until the end of next week (meaning Friday) – in theory at least. For the most part, a candidate for a substantial office who hasn’t surfaced by now is probably just a placeholder, keeping the alternative in place in case the probable winner somehow blows up.

But people do surface, or drop out, at the end. Next week will nonetheless be a time of some drama for the parties, as everyone watches the score cards fill.

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In this season of campaigns and initiatives and increasing housing prices, property taxes make a convenient target. Nobody likes them – well, nobody likes taxes generally, but especially not property taxes – and of a sudden everyone seems to have their pet approach for solving the property tax problem.

Which is a problem. But in trying to throw money at it – with the idea of swapping out sales tax money for property tax money – the various advocates may have a case of bad aim.

The impetus isn’t hard to understand. It grows out of all those stories, dripping out one by one, about people whose houses, new or used, have gained a whole lot of value in the last few years, and who are seeing their property taxes shooting through the roof. Butch Otter, the Republican nominee for governor, is among them, having just lost an appeal of the increase that will cost him tens of thousands of dollars. Prop tax fury is rampaging, especially in the Panhandle and parts of southwest Idaho.

So what if I were to tell you that, over the past seven years, the total amount of money collected from property taxes has risen by about a third – averaged out, about 5% growth a year, or less – no spectacular growth at all? And that it would be considerably less if you took out all the new growth, especially around the Boise and Coeur d’Alene regions, that have added so heavily to the increase?

That’s right. Taken as a broad whole, property taxes in Idaho haven’t been shooting through the stratosphere. Such are the statistics as compiled by the state, through the Tax Commission, and by the Associated Taxpayers of Idaho. (Many thanks to Randy Nelson of ATI for his help in deciphering some of this, though any errors of interpretation are mine; and I don’t mean to suggest he necessarily endorses any of this analysis.)

Want more evidence? Look at the budgets of most local governments around Idaho. Property taxes in Idaho go to schools and local governments; if they were bringing in drastically larger amounts of money, it would show up in those budgets. But for the most part, it doesn’t; local governments have been keeping up with inflation, but few of them have any sudden and fat pots of money to spend.

So what’s going on?

In theory, property taxes are a zero-sum game. Let’s assume a group of local governments receiving property tax money from a group of property owners. Let’s say those governments decided to limit their budgets for next year to the exact amount it is this year. (Stay with me; this is just a hypothetical.) Now let’s say that property values in that area take off, and everyone’s property is worth twice in the second year what it was in the first. Given all this, what would happen? The governments would cut the tax rates by half, meaning that the value would be taxed only half as much. That would mean everyone would pay exactly the same taxes the second year as the first.

Back to the real world, where government budgets do rise annually, generally for inflation and also for some other things – insurance costs, a staff increase, a pay raise, whatever. In Idaho most local governments are limited to about 3% a year. Schools can go up a little more.

The increases in property tax revenue in Idaho has been more than that, but not drastically more. Some of the difference has gone into school bonds. Some of it has gone into the growth places; Meridian, for example, has increased its budget almost ten-fold in the last decade, but then its population has increased about five-fold during that time too. Paint the property tax picture with a very broad brush, and nothing very startling seems tobe going on.

That doesn’t mean these protesting taxpayers are liars, though, becaues not everyone is affected the same way.

The fast-growth communities in places like Ada, Canyon and Kootenai counties certainly have been increasing their budgets, too keep up with the growth, and that has meant that as property value has increased, they have tended to charge the ever-more-valuable properties ever more in taxes.

Not all property has been increasing in value the same way, either. Many of the low-growth areas around Idaho haven’t seen near the value increase that higher-growth areas have. Different types of real property have appreciated, or not, in different ways. Those homeowners who are seeing their property taxes go up by a half might look at all the properties of various sorts that aren’t increasing in value much at all.

A third factor is the change in property tax laws over the last few years, especially the changes allowing for exemptions of various types – but not, usually, for owners of residential property. (The tax advantages have been going to those who hire some of the best lobbyist help at the Statehouse, and the list of such players doesn’t include homeowners.) These law changes have tended to shift more of the tax collections onto homeowners, and away from others (this being a trend of generation-long standing). True, homeowners got an increase in the homeowner exemption this year from the legislature. But that smallist exemption increase will do little good for the owners of all those new quarter mill-and-up houses blanketing suburban Ada and Kootenai.

Making changes in these areas is tedious and difficult. But Idahoans who are looking for realistic solutions to their property tax problems might look in these directions, rather than toward one-time fixes that will simply bring the real issues around in another year or two.

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You’ve gotta love the naivete of this comment on the Seattle Times sports forum, about the sale of the Seattle SuperSonics and the WNBA’s Seattle Storm basketball teams:

“I can’t believe anyone would take away the Sonics. How dare they!! How can someone do that to people. And how dare Schultz. The Key was built 10 years ago! You don’t become team owners to make a profit, you do it for the love of the game. I call for an immediate boycott of Starbucks.”

The love of the game. That’s why people play pickup basketball games, or maybe why they play in neighborhood leagues. Pro ball is money, a lot of it. Did you catch the sale price, in the announcement of the Basketball Club of Seattle (led by Starbucks Chairman Howard Schultz, hence the coffee-house reference) transfer to the Professional Basketball Club LLC of Oklahoma? It was $350 million. This is big business. Love of the game may have lured (probably did) some of these business people into the arena, but it is hardly the key factor.

The sales terms apparently provide that the Sonics and Storm will stay at Seattle for a year under present conditions. During that time, negotiations will presumably be undertaken for financing of a new arena. If those efforts fall through, the new owners will be at liberty to move the team to Oklahoma. (The official site did, however, indicate an intention to maintain present agreements until 2010.)

All this will, of course, throw the heat back on state and local officials: How many hundreds of millions of public money will they be willing to throw the way of the new owners to keep the teams at Seattle?

On this point, an AP story in the Sporting News said: “Until then, Seattle, come support your teams!” Easy for them to say – it’s not their tax bucks on the line.

The sale may cut both ways. On one hand, the new owners probably have no particular incentive other than financial to keep the teams in the Northwest, so their presumptive threats of a move would hardly be empty. On the other hand – these guys have no native loyalty to Seattle anyway.

Business properties change hands regularly these days. Anyone who invests too much in a really long-term dependance on a business relationship is running a fool’s errand, and that is most likely the conclusion we’ll all reach a year from now. That and an answer to this question: Can a pro basketball team make money based out of Seattle? If the answer to that business question is yes – as we suspect it is – then Seattle probably will have a pro basketball team around, whether it’s called the SuperSonics and owned by a pack of Sooner dudes, or not.

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Tje general take on the general election for all major offices in Oregon save governor – in other words, the U.S. House races – has been that the incumbents are likely to easily win re-election to all five.

The campaign finance reports just out, covering the period up through the end of June, do nothing to shake that view.

One set of numbers is respectably close, and it may signal the most interesting of the five races. In District 4, where Democrat Peter DeFazio has been entrenched for a couple of decades, the money ballot is just close enough that you can’t say – as it stands – that money will be reason the race unfolds as it does. To DeFazio’s $507,886 total raised so far and his $367,754 cash on hand, Republican James Feldkammp, running a rematch this cycle, has raised $322,787 and has $240,170 still available. That’s enough to run a respectable race. It’s probably not enough to unseat an incumbent who has accumulated no new big problems in his latest term and has been winning solidly election after election, including easily defeating Feldkamp last time.

From there, things get really boring. Portland Democrat Earl Blumenauer has no meaningful opposition at all. Democrat David Wu in the 1st district has outraised his Republican opponent, state Representative Derrick Kitts, by nearly 10-1 ($1,149,770 to $116,662); it’s a race with low buzz so far. In district 5, Darlene Hooley outpaces her Republican opponent, Mike Erickson, nearly 3-1 ($855,276 to $311,817).

The lone Republican in the delegation, the 2nd district’s Greg Walden, has raised $923,193 to Democrat Carol Voisin’s $8,923. She’s widely described as a quality candidate, but the financial fall ain’t there.

You don’t have to outraise your opponent to win. But it sure helps if his financial resources aren’t completely swamping yours.

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Notable numbers in the FEC reports just filed by Idaho congressional candidates – those competing in the May primary and still still headed to November.

Here’s the number that most aggressively jumps out: $552,612. That’s the amount Bill Sali, winner of the Republican nomination for the 1st congressional district, raised so far in this cycle. That’s an almost astonishing amount for a primary contest, which almost all of it was raised for. And Sali didn’t just sit on it: He spent $464,124, leaving him with (as of the end of last month) a modest $91,790 on hand. Our guess: He was told, “Spend it on the primary, that’s likely your real battle” – with the promise that more will be coming for the general if needed.

The only one of his competitors to spend in that same ballpark was Sheila Sorensen, who raised and spent just shy of $400,000. But more than half of what she raised – $210,500 – was in the form of a loan from the candidate. She raised well less than half what Sali did, and less than Canyon C0unty Commissioner Robert Vasquez, who raised $302,975 (and apparently put in not a dime of his own).

On the Democratic side, nominee Larry Grant raised a respectable $216,515, had spent about two-thirds of it by the end of last month, and has $73,982 left over. In theory, that puts Grant and Sali on a similar playing field as they begin the general. In practice, Sali can return to some awfully deep pockets for another round, and he probably will. And Grant has more grueling fundraising ahead.

Over the second district, things are a little more modest, as Republican Representative Mike Simpson has spent only $229,569 (smallish for an incumbent), and his Democratic challenger Jim Hansen $50,658.

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