"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." - Thomas Jefferson (appears in the Jefferson Memorial)

The current number of bills introduced in the Idaho House so far this session is 50; we can remember when more than that were introduced before the session even commenced. The number in the Senate is 45. These seem like unusually small numbers.

When we inquired of the legislature’s bill-writing staff, we were told the numbers aren’t radically smaller: “There are six fewer bills introduced this year than last at this time. Typically the first session has a lower bill volume than the second. The only thing I can think that might be a bit of a curb at this point is the Capitol Restoration.”

That’s one way to look at it. There’s also this, from the bottom of an Associated Press piece on the Statehouse project: “Lawmakers say the focus on the wing standoff has sucked the oxygen out of the 2007 Legislature. Amid the distraction, the total number of bills drafted this year is at a five year low.”

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Aquick stat: This from a David Postman blog post on Washington House Speaker Frank Chopp’s press conference today. Can hardly imagine the ingenuity it took to accomplish what Postman notes:

“Of 62 Democrats, 58 are either committee chairs, vice chairs or hold a leadership position. I don’t know who the four are that aren’t leaders, but I’m sure they get plenty of direction from the 58 that are.”

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Aizona U.S. Representative Jeff Flake, a Republican, evidently is going to war (now) on congressional earmarks – those specified pieces of federal spending which members place to benefit their home turf. He has, for one thing, introduced legislation (HR 631) to combat them: “A bill to prohibit Federal agencies from obligating funds for earmarks included only in congressional reports, and for other purposes; to the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.” His co-sponsors include one member of th Northwest delegation, new Idaho Representative Bill Sali, whose district includes northern Idaho.

Maybe of more moment (and somewhat like long-ago Senator William Proxmire), Flake is taking to highlighting an earmark of the week: Such declarations can sometimes pick up considerable national attention. His most recent such, as it turns out, is aimed at Idaho, specifically northern Idaho:

“This week’s egregious earmark: $150,000 to Lewiston, Idaho for completion of the Lewis and Clark Bicentennial Project. ‘Any more earmarks like this and not even Sacagawea will be able to lead us out of this fiscal wilderness,’ said Flake.”

[And a hat tip to the correspondent who alerted us.]

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You may recall our December piece about the Wal-Mart conflict in Chelan, about the store built in contravention of city ordinances and rules, where the construction of the store and hiring of employees continued unabated while the lawsuit challenging the building continued. And continued unabated even after a judge had issued rulings against Wal-Mart.

It may be the first time a Wal-Mart store has actually been built, only to be stopped from opening. There is even a chance it will be torn down (which is more than a lot of empty Wal-Marts have been) – its critics say they will be seeking as much.

The basis for the stoppage sounds more picky than it is. The project started not a a Wal-Mart development (apparently at least) but as something called the Apple Blossom Center, for which the city signed off on a “planned development district” with specific terms. Those terms included a variety of commercial developments, with a maximum size limit of 50,000 square feet on any one. That limit, as the judge notes, was never changed by the city, which last fall stood by and watched Wal-Mart and its developer, Pacland, build a stand-issue 162,000-square-foot Wal-Mart store.

“Here,” Judge Lesley Allan concluded, “this court is left with the definite and firm conviction that the city erred in granting the two permits at issue.” That meant the court voided the city’s building and grading permits.

The store was supposed to open yesterday, at 7 a.m. And so it did – notwithstanding that Wal-Mart had and has no valid building permit for the store, notwithstanding a judge’s order issued only last week. Anyone else – even someone building their own home – would not be allowed to use or occupy the building under such conditions.

Wal-Mart, apparently, is beyond all that. Its stance seems effectively to be: Try and stop us. Permission? We need no permission; nor, for that matter, do we really need forgiveness . . .

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Always helps to have someone looking over the should of anyone who has discretion over money. Might have kept Farhad “Fred” Monem, once one of the smart guys who kept costs down (was he one of the “smartest guys in the room”?) at the Oregon Department of Corrections.

Instead, court documents say he he was caught with $450,000 in kickback money and other goodies from businesses he’d been dealing with.

The spotlight in the Portland news coverage on this has been on Monem (who, we should remind, has been accused, not convicted). But an equally bright light ought to shine on the food wholesalers who were the other part of the equation. It might even give a moment’s reflection to the backers of extensive privatizing; Monem’s role as a state executive may have made the situation easier to catch.

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On Saturday, a mass of Boiseans, maybe 20,000 or so, marched in the streets of downtown Boise to demonstrate their peak priority – celebrating the Boise State University football team. (The Idaho Statesman says “We’ve got video of all the excitement.”) A few hours earlier, there was another march, attracting about 500 people, organized by Right to Life of Idaho.

It got little attention. But it generated a ferocious negative review, and not from the left, either: This comes from Dennis Mansfield, whose anti-abortion record in Idaho is quite clear. His post on the rally is a must-read on current Idaho politics.

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Along with the majority comes more attention, more visibility, more chances to drop the “F-bomb.” As Oregon Democratic Representative Peter DeFazio just did on the Lars Larson show at Portland.

The discussion at the time concerned DeFazio’s legislation to require congressional approval for major military action against Iran. During it, he discussed how the Bush Administration messed up – well, that was the way he put it the second time. The less elegant first time was dropped out.

Larson said at least one other elected official had let loose the forbidden word on his program (former legislator Jeff Kropf), but DeFazio was the first Democrat.

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Diane Tebelius
Diane Tebelius

The Washington Republican Party hasn’t had a really good state issue for a while to go after the state’s ruling Democrats – an issue, that is, that a wide range of people (not jut conservatives) can seize on to and join with. They may have one now, and state Chair Diane Tebelius – internally embattled though she may be – is laying solid groundwork on it.

There is no hotter issue in Seattle right now than the Alaskan Way viaduct limited highway along downtown – whether to destroy it and go to street level (no one seems to like that idea much), rebuilt it as an elevated highway, or dig a tunnel and route the traffic there. There is no happy answer, because the price tag for any option (save the first) is enormous – estimated now (sure to rise later) at about $4.3 billion for a six-lane tunnel or $3.4 billion for a four-lane, or $2.8 billion for a rebuild. The project most essentially is a city of Seattle deal, but since the state would be a massive contributor to it – maybe more than half of the total – the responsibility and leverage associated with it is spread around. As a matter of politics, just about everyone involved in the decision-making in this is a Democrat.

Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and a majority of the city council favor the tunnel approach; they were staunch six-laners until reaction over the huge tab led to a more recent retrenchment to four. On Friday they decided to place the issue on a March 13 ballot, including also the idea of replacing the elevated road: A voter can vote up or down on one of them, on both, or on neither. (What happens if voters approve or reject both is anyone’s guess.)

An hour south in Olympia (well, two or three during rush), Governor Chris Gregoire and House Speaker Frank Chopp (whose district is in the heart of northern Seattle) have been weighing in. They dislike the tunnel idea – big time – and favor the elevated. Chopp went so far as to call the tunnel plan “dead.” And Gregoire, after saying in December that she favored letting Seattle voters make the decision, in January sounded a note similar to Chopp’s – no tunnel, the state money would go to either a rebuilt of the relevated, or to work on the Highway 520 bridge east of Seattle (which also badly needs repair). At least up to today, when she issued another statement saying that, of course, she’d respect the will of the voters of Seattle.

Voters in Seattle and western Washington generally have some good reason to think that matters viaduct are coming a little unglued. The great good will all these parties, and others, developed a couple of years ago in pulling together a big state transportation funding package (part of which was supposed to deal with the Alaskan Way) appears to be frittering away as voters get the sense that everyone’s fighting and no one is getting things done.

Enter Tebelius.

She has been issuing a string of press releases likely to get a bunch of west Washingtonians to nodding their heads.

Republicans probably have been over-using the “flip-flop” verbiage the last few years, but it sticks this time: “After Governor Christine Gregoire tossed her decision back to voters on how to replace the Alaskan Way Viaduct . . . [she made] a major ‘flip-flop’ by saying ‘no tunnel’ choice for Seattle voters.”

“The governor’s indecision has created this current political fiasco, and meanwhile it is the voters that must endure the failed outcomes of this political battle . . . The governor created this political fiasco because she wouldn’t lead and make the tough choice. Weekly ‘flips’ from the governor on the viaduct is costing taxpayer dollars,” said Tebelius. “Lawmakers are concerned about the cost of added delays to important transportation projects around the state. We now have a dramatic 31 percent increase in transportation costs in the Puget Sound Region, a $1 billion shortfall in the transportation budget despite recent tax hikes, and after six years of debate over the viaduct, the best voters get is a different ultimatum every week.”

That was last Thursday. Today, this: “After watching the governor flip-flop on the viaduct for a month, I doubt the voters in Seattle really believe their vote counts for anything anyway.”

Gregoire, Chopp, Nickels and others on their team haven’t reached the end of this story: They can still pull together an intelligible resolution. At least in theory. But if voters start to get the idea that an Alaskan Way resolution is cratering, they may want to take out their frustration on someone. And Tebelius is sparing to effort to remind them who that is.

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The Northwest has been out of the picture for so long as a national player in the primaries that we’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to have a say in the winnowing process – before our major choices are limited to two. Washington thought in 2004 it might be a significant factor in the Democratic primaries (there was no contest on the Republican side then), but it didn’t really turn out that way.

Oregon and Idaho haven’t been players for quite a few cycles now, largely because their primary elections are set in May. (Washington’s main primaries have been in September, which required a breakoff of the presidential activities for early in the year.)

Was not always this way.

Through much of the 20th century, Oregon was a significant stop on Primary Way, periodically a turning point. In 1912 the Oregon primary gave then-insurgent candidate Theodore Roosevelt an important boost with a landslide vote over incumbent President (and Roosevelt protege) William Howard Taft. Oregon was a substantial stomping ground for John Kennedy in 1960 and Richard Nixon in 1968 – the state got an extensive look at both those years, pre-nomination. (The semi-legendary Democratic politician Monroe Sweetland wrote a piece for the Oregon Historical Quarterly in 2000 on “The Underestimated Oregon Presidential Primary of 1960.”) It gave Senator Frank Church an important head of steam (albeit temporary) in 1976. All of which seems fitting, in the state where the primary got its big start.

Maybe some of that history will help the new push to break off the presidential primary in Oregon, and set it for February 5 – the fifth election date in primary season, and early enough that it may matter.

The idea got a blogosphere push last week when two founders of Blue Oregon, Kari Chisholm and Jesse Cornett, floated the idea. It’s now moved to another level, with the chairs of both major parties backing the idea.

“People tend to forget about Oregon in the primaries, and that’s wrong,” says Oregon GOP Chairman Vance Day.

Oregon Democratic Chairman Jim Edmunson concurs, saying that Oregon’s late primary “is largely meaningless.”

The major objection, presumably, would be cost. So the question is: How much is participation in selection of the next president worth? Considering the stakes, it should be worth quite a bit.

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Idaho statehouse interiorThe space crunch at the Idaho Statehouse that state legislators talk about, as they discuss the need for two underground floors of legislative space, is real. The public encounters it most specifically in the small committee meeting rooms, which designed for another era and often jam packed with legislators, staff, lobbyists, reporters and others. Arrive on time for an Idaho legislative committee meeting and, even on uncontroversial days, your chances of finding even standing room are not good.

Other forms of legislative space need not be in such precious demand. Go back 20 years and you would see an Idaho Legislature which in large measure did its work on the floor; leadership and committee chairs had offices, but most other members worked at their desks in the chambers, where they had phones and filing cabinets. Most especially, they were accessible to the public that way. Now, once floor sessions are over, most scurry off to out-of-the-way offices, out of view. (More than a few long-time legislature watchers think the push for individual offices and personal assistants will be coming next.) Washington and Oregon may have passed the point in population, interest groups and overall traffic where floor work is practical, but we don’t think Idaho has. More space probably is needed for legislative staff, but not necessarily an inordinate amount.

The overwhelming, bipartisan legislative answer to this is to add two floors to the Statehouse, underground, adding $40 million onto the building renovation price tag of $80.

The issue here seems to have been framed as “to dig or not to dig” – or, whether to expand legislative space or not. Some expansion is clearly needed; that’s not an issue. The question is whether to go underground and create the new $40 million space, or to use two buildings – the old Ada County courthouse and the Borah Post Office building – each located directly across the street from the Statehouse and each almost all empty, both of which the state already owns. One of which will be used for state executive and legislative offices for the next three years, as plans currently stand.

Both buildings have large and classy rooms for committee meetings – rooms used as courtrooms until recently. Remodeling need not be overwhelming.

That second option seems more or less to be what Governor Butch Otter wants, and it’s a powerful argument.

He’s not alone. The Idaho State Journal, for one, has editorialized, “Those legislators who have the bit in their teeth on plans to start renovating the Capitol would have us believe it is too late to stop work on the $130 million project now. Gov. Butch Otter disagrees, and he’s right.”

Of course, they’d be located in separate buildings. But ask legislators Washington about that: Most of the legislative offices there are located in two buildings across a parking lot from the Statehouse. And the buildings are older, and would have more limitations on office space (partly because the infrastructure would need some work).

There is, of course, another alternative too, as one of our correspondents reminds us. In Oregon, state senators represent about 120,000 people each; in Washington, legislative districts taking in on average about 135,000 people each. What would be wrong with cutting the Idaho Legislature back from its current 105 members to 90 – a number allowed by the state constitution? Legislators now represent around 40,000 Idahoans per district; such a change would move that to about 46,000 – not a big difference, and still a sliver of the load in the other two states.

Smaller government, lower budgets, fewer state employees. And an easier fit.

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The lines, they do get blurry. A weekend news anchor for KTVB Channel 7 in Boise, Andrea Dearden, also has a second job during the work week, that of a spokesman for the Ada County Sheriff’s Office. The relationship is not distant: As anyone who watches local TV news knows, local law enforcement agencies routinely get a lot of air time.

KTVB Manager Doug Armstrong told the Idaho Statesman he has no problem with the mix of jobs.

However, a station website profile of Dearden which (the Statesman reported) listed her as a crime reporter as well as anchor, is now (as of this writing at least) gone from the website.

There are a variety of ethical questions involved here, though we should note that the issue isn’t of long standing, since her hiring at the Sheriff’s Office is recent and she said she will work only a few more weeks for KTVB.

We bring it up mostly for this reason, an explanatory quote from Armstrong to the Statesman: “You can’t confuse reading the news with being a reporter.”

That is a provocative statement. Stop and think for a moment about all the promotion, on both the local and national level, of news anchors. We’re not suggesting Armstrong is wrong. But the question is obvious: If news anchors aren’t reporters, what are they?

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As a range of Washington and Oregon communities take a look at their port districts – there’s some nibbling around in Seattle about that – they may want to cast a glance to Astoria, where the local daily is running a strong series of articles about problems at the port district there.

Much of the Astorian is behind a subscriber wall but this piece, the leadoff in the series, was not. It points out, “The Port has been accused of taking unusual risks with public dollars, its executive director, Peter Gearin, is under legal scrutiny for his role in violating a federal dredge permit, Port commissioners have been fingered for profiting from their positions, and several Port employees have left their posts without much explanation.”

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