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Posts published in December 2006

Languages on offer

Among the many leading cultural indicators, add this one: Which ad how many non-English languages are on offer for teaching in local high schools?

Check the Seattle Times story today about schools in Snohomish County, where advanced Mandarin Chinese and advanced Japanese are available even in rural schools. Quoth one parent: "How many people speak German? French is supposed to be romantic, but the reality is, we need some Asian languages. That's where the future is."

Otter’s potential

Walking down a Statehouse sidewalk a few minutes ago with John Watts, newly hired as lobbyist for a collection of Idaho chambers of commerce, we spotted a familiar face running toward in the Statehouse in our direction: C.L. "Butch" Otter, the governor-elect.

It was a quick round of smiling and laughing - a standard Otter run-in. He turned to Watts and said, "Thanks for those nice comments you wrote to me." Then to us: "And thanks for those nice comments you're gonna write about me." And on our way.

Another person might not have put it over, or it might even have sounded a bit ominous; but there was none of that here. Otter is pure charm. He has the gift of instant likability to a degree most politicians will only ever wish for.

By way of those comments on this site about what he's doing, we'll all have to wait. Our standard is to give incoming officeholders a break between election and inaugural, and not pre-judge. We'll see how Otter, and his counterparts in other offices, do after they're sworn in.

But maybe a few comments about Otter's potential are warranted. Our take is that, even bearing in mind his flawed campaign in running for the job, he has the raw materials to fashion a strong governorship.


Choosing the cleanser

We can most of us agree that the federal tax code should be cleaned - that it creates too many inequities, that it is overcomplicated and a mess. But were we to each have at whacking out the bad parts, would we all choose the same targets?

Or maybe we're churlish to jump ahead to that point, when two very different U.S. senators, Democrat Ron Wyden of Oregon and Republican Larry Craig of Idaho, each join an effort to "cleanse the code," launched in part by the National Taxpayers Union but also including a wide range of other groups. (A teleconference and media event for this is planned for tomorrow at 12:30 p.m. eastern time.)

What do U.S. Senators Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Larry Craig (R-ID), along with 14 citizen groups and think tanks on every point of the political spectrum, have in common with each other? Normally not much, which makes the new Cleanse the Code statement, to be unveiled Thursday, all the more remarkable. Both Senators, and a sampling of representatives from the groups involved, will offer comments via media teleconference on how this effort came together – and why it offers hope for progress on reforming the nation’s tax system.

Both Wyden and Craig have had interest in the code before, with varied types of reform proposals. If they can get past the big picture into the details, which in this case really is the summer residence of the devil, they may be on to something.

Urban/rural: Things we must not say

There was a sharp connect - but only of sorts - between one of the key panels at this year's Associated Taxpayers of Idaho conference, and the race, to be decided probably tonight, for speaker of the Idaho House. It has to do with the interaction of - and we're grossly generalizing here, but not without reason - Idaho's booming urban areas and its often more troubled rural places.

Associated Taxpayers of Idaho

The conference panel was called "Urban/Rural Dynamics," moderated by state Senator Brad Little of Emmett (a small-town rancher, and also one of the state's most sophisticated policymakers - too bad he didn't speak). The three panelist delivered useful talks, but what was telling was this: They came from two of Idaho's top urban boom places (Nampa and Kootenai County) and a top regional growth spot (Twin Falls/Jerome). The rurals weren't much there.

And yet it fits, because talk of Idaho's economy increasingly centers around the urban growth areas. You don't hear even much discussion, anymore, about the natural resource economy, which often seems to be dismissed. (Another irony, since the ATI conference was held in the Boise convention center alongside big meetings of the Idaho Farm Bureau and the Simplot company.) Increasingly, it seems to be "that which we don't talk about."

Which brings us to the House speaker race, the one real leadership battle (apparently) in the Idaho Legislature this year, between Republican Representatives Bill Deal of Nampa, the chair of the State Affairs Committee, and Majority Leader Lawerence Denney of Midvale. The race is presumed to be close, but conventional wisdom is that Denney (who has had a smooth run in that position) picked up the edge after five relatively moderate Republican House members at Boise were defeated for re-election. Deal is sometimes pegged as a moderate, but more practically he is a centrist member of the House Republican caucus, as is Denney; most safely, you can say that neither is on the fringe of that caucus. The big difference between this is this: Deal is an urban guy from Idaho's second-largest city in the population center of the state, an insurance agent, and Denney is a farmer, a rural small-town guy, in an area struggling to maintain population. Those realities probably inform their disparate world views more than any external ideology.

If Denney wins, the House retains its rural feel, which it had to some extent under former Speaker Bruce Newcomb (a Burley farmer). But it may in any event. The defeat of the five Boise Republicans makes the dominant Republican caucus more rural and less moderate it was before, in any event. If it sometimes seemed unshakably conservative before, it is likely to seem more so now.

Especially if Denney wins. And in spite of what often is said about the direction the state is headed.

Tougher odds next time

Time is almost up on Idaho Representative Mike Simpson's wilderness proposal, and it seems time now to reiterate a few things said in past months, in passing.

The core point is that what was Idaho's best chance in two decades to add to its wilderness system probably will shortly evaporate, not to return for years to come.

None of this is to fault Simpson, whose work on the Central Idaho Economic Development and Recreation Act, which would set up wilderness in the Boulder-White Clouds area, has been remarkable, truly skilled legislative work. (You could consider it a political version of fine craftsmanship.) The current edition of the Idaho Law Review is devoted largely to the settlement of the Nez Perce Tribe water right claims; in their various chapters, authors remark about how complex and carefully balanced the end proposal had to be in order to work. That work was te product of scores of professionals; in developing CIEDRA, Simpson was the focal figure personally putting all the pieces together - sometimes adding something, getting an agreement there, dropping out something here. The end product still didn't satisfy everyone, but that's the way with compromises.

No Idaho wilderness bill has gotten past the earliest stages of congressional process since well back into the 80s. Illustrious figures like Cecil Andrus and James McClure bashed up against that rock wall. Simpson managed to build wide support for his plan and get it through a U.S. House where wilderness skeptics are legion, and into Senate hearings.

There it got held up, as Idaho Senator Larry Craig pushed for additions. Now Congress is about to adjourn for the year, likely at the end of this week, and if the Senate quits without acting on CIEDRA, as seems likely, it will have to start over again next year.

Given the support CIEDRA picked up in the last couple of years, one might think it could pass then. And Simpson may try. But he may have additional hurdles he didn't face this year. First, he will be operating in a Democratic Congress, one inclined to give a lot more weight to environmental groups than the last one was. Simpson may find the careful political calculus he evolved has to be rejiggered, and that alone could bust the deal.

There's also potential change on the home front, as new Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter may be a sketic of whatever emerges next time. And Otter's replacement as 1st district congressman, Bill Sali, has a no-wilderness approach in mind.

Getting this done was always extremely tough. If the bill doesn't pass in the next three days, it'll get a lot tougher.

Lessening open source?

Taken as a whole, open-source computer software activities (many though not all centered around the Linux operating system) are much too large worldwide to be easily jolted. The Oregon component of it, though, may be jolted a bit by news that the Open Source Development Labs at Beaverton will slice away a third of its staff and will go CEO-less for "the foreseeable future."

penguinThat's not a particularly good sign at least locally, since the labs have been a center of development activity in the area.

It shouldn't be overstated. Open source is important in Oregon in a whole bunch of organizations, from a major repository and development center at Oregon State University at Corvallis to the Free Geek shop in the Portland industrial district. And symbolically, Linux founder Linus Torvalds, who has made his home i nthe Lake Oswego area, shows no sign of moving.

But some fresh signals of expansion would probably be an encouraging thing for open source fans, at a time when Microsoft is releasing a new operating system and Apple is seeing fresh resurgence with iPODs and computers alike.

The Driscoll watch, and beyond

The protest didn't amount to much, but that hardly mattered. The point, in the case of Pastor Mark Driscoll of Mars Hill Church, was made and it won't be let go.

Driscoll's church (he founded it a decade ago) is one of the largest in Seattle, with a congregation of about 5,000 at three campuses at Ballard, Shoreline and West Seattle - a megachurch. He is a speaker of national influence, and locally has been highly visible as a religion columnist in the Seattle Times. Combine that with the increasingly direct role religious organizations and leaders play in our culture and politics, and you have a figure highly influential in public affairs. What he says has effect beyond the religious instruction of a congregation; it ripples through the larger society.

That Driscoll would comment after the recent scandal involving fellow pastor Ted Haggard - who has ackowledged buying illegal drugs from a male prostitute - would be expected. His exact comments, posted in a blog but not delivered, apparently, in a sermon, set teeth on edge: "It is not uncommon to meet pastors' wives who really let themselves go . . . A wife who lets herself go and is not sexually available to her husband ... is not responsible for her husband's sin, but she may not be helping him either." (You wonder what Driscoll's wife thought of that. )

(The roles of the sexes seem to bring out the controversial in Driscoll; in another blog, he remarked (after Episcopal church leaders chose a woman as bishop), "If Christian males do not man up soon, the Episcopalians may vote a fluffy baby bunny rabbit as their next bishop to lead God's men.")

In response, a protest was brought on Sunday by the group People Against Fundamentalism, which blasted him. Driscoll's quick response was an apology, a smart move letting air out of the balloon: “But I also learned that as my platform has grown, so has my responsibility to speak about my convictions in a way that invites other people to experience charity from me, which means inflammatory language and such need to be scaled back.” Also by then, the Times had decided to end Driscoll's religion column (the recent controversy not being the reason why, editors said).

All of which suggests a lower profile for Driscoll in the months ahead.

Maybe. The basic principles and ideas under dispute and debate here are the kind of kindling that need only a small match.

OR: The budget ahead

Government budget planners have a tough job this season. Across the Northwest, and for the most part nationally, they're coming off a couple of years of good revenues that exceeded their earlier expectations. There'll be a temptation to run with that, to say that the good times will continue to roll in the next couple of years and that such questions as "where will the money come from?" won't be especially relevant in the near term.

Oregon governor's budget booksWe're more pessimistic: Read the bond market (often a good indicator of long-term trends) and the housing market (the undergirding for the current money flow) and you get a clear sense that 2007 will be a tough patch, and maybe 2008 as well. Which gives us some basis for an early assessment of the state budget proposals from the governors of the northwest, one today from Oregon, one later this month from Washington and the last early in January from Idaho.

Early on in his press conference today about his budget proposal (technically released on Friday to meet state code requirements, but delivered in practice today), Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski was asked about and acknowledged the concerns about a slowdown. His answer suggested that the concerns have been factored in. Maybe; but some associated details paint a more ambiguous picture.


Vacant bench

No doubt you can find similar cases elsewhere, but here's something striking about politics in Idaho's counties these days: That is, the absence of it.

unopposed county offices
Dark green - all partisan offices unopposed; light green - just one partisan office contest

By which we mean: So many seats to be held by partisan elected officials, and so many unopposed candidates for them.

This year, counties typically had six seats up for election: two for the commission, plus clerk, treasurer, assessor and coroner. (Local vacancies or appointments vary the number slightly in some places, but generally Idaho's 44 counties had about partisan 264 seats, all of them (at least on initial read-through) won by either of a Republican or a Democrat. But in 14 counties, only one person filed for each of those seats - about a third of all Idaho counties. (We're excluding last-minute write-ins.) And in another 12 counties, of the six or sometimes seven partisan races, only one was contested.

That means only a little over a third of Idaho counties had a genuinely contested set of elections for courthouse offices this year (in many cases, just two or three seats contested).

There are a lot of implications for this. Here's one: That's not a way for parties to build their "bench," their farm team of candidates who will one day run for higher offices. Here's another" No one has a real motivation to provide serious oversight at all those courthouses.

Kitz out, apparently

The Ben Westlund Senate scenario we just posted abruptly looks a little more plausible. Former Governor John Kitzhaber seems to have taken himself out of consideration for the Senate in 2008.

Kitzhaber is a guest on the KWBP interview program Outlook Portland with Nick Fish, to air Sunday morning at 6:30. A clip from it has been posted on the Willamette Week site. It shows what looks like the closing seconds of the program, when Fish asks Kitzhaber, "If the Archimedes Movement is successful and there's something to be done at the federal level, would you consider running for the Senate?"

A smiling Kitzhaber replied, "No."

You could parse the question and maybe find a trap door or two, but the speed and abruptness with which the former governor answered seemed to say it all.

On to other prospects.