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Posts published in July 2006

Spokane’s big box test

In Washington state - would be interesting to know where else this is the case - cities can impose their own minimum wage ordinances, as long as they at least meet state requirements. That much apparently is settled in state law. What's unsettled is to what extent cities can impose the requirements on just some employers.

Wal-MartSpokane seems about to turn into the test case. There, the Peace and Justice Action League of Spokane is pushing a local initiative to raise by about a third the minimum wages paid to employees in the city's big box retail stores - Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Fred Meyer and others. The group describes the ordinance's purpose as:

This ordinance would require all “big box” retailers in the City of Spokane whose business premises are at 95,000 square feet or more, to pay their employees who have been employed for three or more months 135% of Washington State minimum wage if they do not provide health benefits ($10.30 per hour) and 165% of Washington State minimum wage if they do not provide health benefits ($12.58). This ordinance does not negate collective bargaining agreements established by unions or their respective members.

You see where this is headed: To force the Wal-Marts to pay livable, sustaining wages rather than push a whole range of costs off on the rest of us. Understandable; but is that kind of size distinction between the big boxes and, say, the local hardware store the kind of distinction that can stand up in court? We don't yet know.

The big boxes will challenge it, of course, and obviously will fight in the upcoming campaign. Some have started threatening leaving the city - which seems unlikely unless they want to argue that the only way they want the city's business is on the cheap. (They will not have an easy PR case to make.)

Our offhand guess is that the initiative stands a pretty good chance of passage. If it does, it could touch off a wild political scramble that could reshape some important economic dynamics in the Northwest and beyond.

The perils of summer session

New Idaho Governor Jim Risch, a man of well-tuned political savvy, made a political mistake on the day of his public inauguration. The impression of his governorship he leaves with many Idahoans may ride on whether he's able, in the next few weeks, to overcome it.

Risch has had a superb run since his takeover of the office from Dirk Kempthorne - a string of rapid-fire decisions and appointments and high visibility all around the state, all of it executed with panache. His instincts have not let him down.

Except once.

Risch has accurately perceived widespread anger and disapproval over property taxes this year and, knowing as he does how Idaho government works, recognized that the legislature could improve the situation for many property taxpayers significantly before the real pain hits in the months ahead. Real pain as in, financial for the taxpayers and electoral for certain candidates for re-election. Decisive by character, Risch in his inaugural speech approached the whole thing head-on - he placed himself in a leadership position and concluded, "I will be happy to engage as is appropriate and necessary. My friends, we owe this to the people of Idaho – let’s get it done."

In doing all that, he was acting as governor logically should, with leadership and decision. He was accepting responsibility.

The catch: He had boxed himself in a corner. Until that moment, Idahoans were pointing fingers at legislators, demanding that they do something about property taxes, and legislators were feeling the heat. Now Risch took the PR weight off the shoulders of legislators who were disinclined to compromise a month ago, and may be less inclined now. Today, if a legislator faces an angry constituent, he can say: "Well sure, I would have been interested in doing something. The governor talked about calling a special session, but he never did. So what can I do?"

Problem goes away if Risch does call a special session (provided it succeeds), as he'd evidently like to. And it might happen - a lot of downtown Boise people certainly think it will. We're declining to predict either way.

The "won't" argument is this:

Risch has said that he won't call a session unless the votes to pass the needed legislation are lined up in advance, so the session will be a slam dunk. (Which is the completely appropriate standard; it worked well in Oregon earlier this year.) That means he presumably can't now just call one and hope for the best. But how much progress he's making with the legislators, getting them whipped into shape, is unclear. The special ssession talk has been going on for many weeks, well before Risch took over as governor. Since then, six weeks since Risch's bold inaugural statement, we've heard he's been pressing hard to get the deal done, but no visible indications of success have appeared. We're inclined to take his recent setting of August 25 as a prospective session date, in fact, as another attempt to pressure lawmakers to the table - an indication that they weren't rushing there on their own.

And if the legislators won't come to the table, who takes the fall?

Risch deserves credit for making the effort and taking the risk. How that plays out we should know before long (and, as noted, a session call is far from a dead letter). But Risch might have had more leverage had he kept the heat more squarely focused on the legislators.

Why it’s that way

Hot conversation underway over on Oregon Media Insiders about the content of local - not just Portland, but "local" all over the country - television news. The point raised by site runner Lynn is provocative:

Viewers want crime coverage and infotainment, presented as briefly and quickly as possible. No nuance, no in-depth, just the headlines, please, and as much meth news and missing pretty white girls as possible, thanks.

Conventional wisdom, no? Focus groups all say so. Fastest growing TV station in the market revels in it, notoriously so. Must be true.

And yet, what's the most popular-with-the-demo news outlet in the market, hands down, no debate?

OPB Radio, home of longform news and information.

Just a week ago we conversed with a Boise television reporter about this general subject. The problem is all over, and the solutions less than obvious. A suggestion: Read the rapidly-filling comments section for some useful insight into why things got this way, and how things could be better. There's all too little, sadly, on how to effect change; few people seem to have a handle on that ...

Scott watch, following up

Some weeks back we noted a story in Willamette Week about Oregon House Majority Leader Wayne Scott; the Portland weekly said that the legislator had been behind legislation which benefitted a business of which he was president, Western Fireworks.

There's been but limited explosions since, some of which seem aimed - to whatever extent properly so - at clearing Scott of questions about the incident.

We still have a few questions.

But the followups are certainly worthy of notice. (more…)

Picking up pace

Some weeks ago we dinged on the independent Ben Westlund campaign for its case of the slows in doing the single most essential thing it must do right now: Gather enough valid petition signatures to win a spot on the November general election ballot.

It wasn't doing that, at least not nearly enough, for quite a while. Now, apparently, it is.

Back on June 12 we posted this:

On one (key) level, it’s a matter of math. The ballot status requirement is 18,364 valid (”perfected”) petition signatures delivered by August 29 to the secretary of state’s office. 119 days have passed since Westlund’s announcement, and the campaign’s Stacey Dycus wrote us today that 4,585 signatures have been collected. 78 days are left to collect the remaining 13,779 valid signatures - assuming every signature collected to date is valid (never, of course, a safe assumption).

Put it this way: The Westlund campaign has collected about 39 signatures a day since its launch announcement; it will have to increase that to 177 a day, every day, from here to the end of August - again, assuming every signature is valid - to make the ballot. It will have to more than quadruple its pace, as we head into the summer doldrums and interest in politics tends to slip.

That constituted a problem as we and the folks over at Loaded Orygun were noticing. Now, the campaign in fact seems to be picking up pace. (more…)

To the streets

Tacoma streetcarTacoma has become one of the most interesting cities in the Northwest for urban redevelopment and creative initiatives. It's not that all of them work, and it's not that the results so far are necessarily impeccable. (Touring around central Tacoma is an exercise in mixed realities, jowl by cheek.) But the efforts the city is making are noteworthy all over the place.

Like the streetcar effort.

Other cities have streetcars - Portland, for one, with a small network operational and possibly headed for expansion. Seattle, Yakima and even Astoria have systems of generally small size - they're interesting and maybe fun for visitors, but not major cogs in the system.

Tacoma seems to be looking toward something a bit grander. Like some of the other systems, it would be intended to link up with existing mass transit. Unlike them, it would apparently become an extensive and intensive network of routes, one that would serve the city in ways other than as a transportation curio or a museum piece.

One public meeting, billed as a grassroots effort (not explicitly linked to a city initiative), was hels early in June at the city library. More may be coming. (more…)

Senate race in rebalance

The contest for the Senate in Washington has gone through three distinct phases so far. The key question political Washingtonians must now ask themselves is this: Will there be a fourth?

Maria CantwellMaria Cantwell, the Democratic incumbent, has to hope so. And there are some indications it could be happening. But the jury's out, and at the moment the Evergreen State's junior Senate seat hangs gently in the balance.

Mike McGavickA year ago, pre-McGavick, there was some sense that things might not go smoothly for Cantwell. While it was true that her Democratic colleague Patty Murray had just decisively beat back a strong Republican challenger, Cantwell's polling numbers had consistently trailed Murray's. While she was able in 2000 to self-fund her campaign, she'd have to raise her own money this time after the dot-com bubble burst carried away much of her stash. A lot of Washingtonians had at that point sympathy for Republicans who had so closely lost the race for governor. And so on.

But - and here the second phase set in - conditions turned. After early prospects bailed, Republicans actually collected a candidate in McGavick, but McGavick seemed unable to pick up significant personal traction, and his fundraising was weak, a big surprise given his background as a corporate CEO. At the same time, Cantwell turned into a fundraising machine, drastically outraising him (and the most current reports still say she has outraised McGavick by a factor of three to four). President George W. Bush and the Republican-led Congress tanked in the polls nationally and even worse in Washington. Cantwell made headlines with a string of wins popular back home, on subjects including Enron corruption and oil tanker protection. She was on a roll.

Then - phase three - the roll seemed to slow, and stop. (more…)

Lobbying realities

Greater transparency wasn't something Jim Risch was often known for as a leader in the Idaho Senate - caucuses among the senators were rightfully closed, he would note, since what was discussed in them was our business. Others would take issue with just whose business it was.

Jim RischBut this post is by way of praise: In one of his early acts as governor, he has taken an action which serves to expand openness in his own office, and in such a way that it highlights as well the way influencers ply their trade.

The people whose job it is to work with government on behalf of organizations - associations, businesses, labor, other governments, whoever - sometimes find it necessary to deal directly with elected officials. It often happens that way in the case, say, of the Idaho Legislature, where lawmakers ordinarily have no staff people and have to handle all their own business themselves. More often, though, in the bigger picture, those government relations pros are dealing with staff. In Congress, most lobbyists only seldom talk to The Senator; most of their work is done with The Senator's staff. Even in state agencies that's often true, and often as well in states (such as Washington and Oregon) where legislators do have staff. And so with governors as well; most of the time, most people who have business with the governor do most of that business with the people who work for the governor. (more…)

The LG succession curse

Acurious little factoid crops up in a chart on Wikipedia concerning Idaho lieutenant governors appointed to follow in the stead of those who move up to governor, resign or die in office:

They don't seem to be able to win election on their own.

It began with Idaho's second lieutenant govenror, John Gray, appointed in December 1890 to succeed N.B. Willey, who moved on up to governor when George Shoup quit to become a U.S. senator. Gray had so little support, though, he wasn't even on the general election ballot in 1892. (Terms were two years long then.)

The last two appointed LGs in recent times, Democrat Bill Murphy in 1977 and Jack Riggs in 2001, ran for election to the office, but neither one: Murphy lost in the 1978 general election, Riggs in the 2002 primary.

The newly-appointed Idaho LG, Mark Ricks, doesn't have so much to worry about, since he's not running for the job this year anyway - the man who appointed him, new Governor Jim Risch, is seeking re-election to it. Given the history, maybe just as well.