Writings and observations

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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Idaho

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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Oregon

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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Oregon

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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Washington

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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Idaho