Writings and observations

Ted KulongoskiNo stunning surprises in the Oregon opening ceremonies this morning: The subjects on deck were and are pretty much the same: School funding, health care, alternative energy and financial restructuring including a reserve fund.

In his second term inaugural, Governor Ted Kulongoski spoke generally, broadly – the vision thing was there. “This is a great moment of opportunity for Oregon,” he said near the beginning, and keyed off that through the remainder of his talk. (Even the poet laureate preceding him used that as a keynote.)

“Opportunity is the sunlight and water,” he said. Ambition was in the air.

The test for Kulongoski and the Oregon legislature is whether they can deliver on substantive, important matters. Kulongoski set out a framework for that; now comes the turn of the legislators.

Senate President Peter Courtney, in his address before the governors, said he thought the courts and executive are doing their jobs under the constitution “but I believe the legislature no longer is.” He noted that the Oregon Legislature has not substantially changed its way off doing business since 1872.

Put in a pitch for annual sessions, which may be pushed through by way of momentum. (New House Speaker Jeff Merkley said he’s in support too and is having a similar measure introduced there right away.)

Now we all get to see what they do with their opportunity.

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Oregon

All three Northwest state legislatures – in Washington, Oregon and Idaho – get underway tomorrow. Very shortly thereafter, governors of the three states will throw the last of their cards on the table with their state of state addresses.

And then the assessments can begin.

Up to now, there’s been basis for nothing more than speculation or proposing – “they ought to do this.” Some of it has taken on a tone of praise or opprobrium, but there’s really been no call for any of it. Yet.

Attitudes toward expectations are strikingly different in the three states.

In Idaho, where there have been a few changes but where slightly more doctrinaire Republicans are taking over from slightly more pragmatic Republicans – emphasis on the slightly – the overall take seems to be: Don’t expect a lot of anything new. New Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter has made a career in politics as a limited-government guy, and the overall word seems to be: Don’t expect anything ambitious, or any big surprises, either. Certainly none were foreshadowed in Otter’s inaugural speech, which reads as correct, pleasing and proper but largely content-free.

Oregon is quite different.

There, the governor – Democrat Ted Kulongoski – is the same as a year ago, but the legslature s dramatically different, now united under Democratic control. (The House had been Republican, since 1990.) That sets up a big set of new expectations. A number of initiatives which failed wholly or partly because of split control are now expected to do much better – but again, emphasis expected. Health care, Measure 37, rehabilitation of higher education, tax reform, ethics reform, state police rampup and much more are not just expected to be addressed but expected to be solved, at least to some extent, this session. Flailing will not be considered excusable.

Politically, this is the session in which Democrats get to demonstrate whether, entrusted with full power, they can govern effectively and well (those two not being identical). Kulongoski clearly grasps the ambitious spirit of the day, outlining a big and pricy legislative program in his state budget and elsewhere. We already have some indications of what he will try to do, and House and Senate leadership has released some indications too, especially on the subject of legislative ethics.

Bu of course, intentions are one thing, and not until the action begins can we really judge if those hopes are matched by actions.

The test Oregon Democrats face this session is similar to the test Washington Democrats faced two years ago in their own fairly new unified government. There too a policy backlog had built up, and in Washington’s case, that legislature and governor, Chris Gregoire, largely passed. The evidence of “passage” came in three pieces: Clearance and signage of big and important pieces of legislation (on transportation, health, education and more); direct voter approval of the biggest single piece, which involved tax hikes; and, finally, big wins in 2006 on the legislative level by the majority party.

Pressure’s off, to a great degree, in Washington, and you get the sense that Gregoire and the lawmakers have a little more balancing to do this time. They have work to do and want to be seen as productive, but a repetition of the last term probably wouldn’t be too fine an idea. That term saw some big spending runups, and Gregoire has outlined more of these for this term; as the Tacoma News Tribune‘s Peter Callaghan points out today, there’s risk involved in not putting away enough bucks into a savings account. The Democrats proved last term they can act; now the test will come in showing they can govern broadly.

Three different states, three different tests.

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Ron Wyden

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden‘s last county town hall at Yamhill County at McMinnville – at events where the topics come from the audience – covered a broad range of topics. Tonight’s at Newberg included a variety of subjects but the focus was clear: Iraq.

That wasn’t for any lack of clarity on Wyden’s part. Asked about the recent Bush Administration talk of a “surge” in troop levels around Bagdad, Wyden replied that “I cannot conceive of any rationale that would justify an escalation.” And he showed no qualms about calling it an “escalation.” (Wyden is in the minority of senators who needn’t exert himself too much with calibrations on Iraq; he was in the opposition from the beginning.)

Mostly, people wanted to talk about Iraq. Newberg is a conservative Republican city, and that only a few people in the audience seemed to support the war – or, more precisely, not so much that as simply criticize the critics – may have been an indicator; in the group seemed clearly anti-war. Some wondered why more effective anti-terrorism measures aren’t taken in-country, while $400 billion has been spent in Iraq; others noted that a single serious illness could wipe out his health-uninsured life as a fast as any terrorist could.

The crowd was divided, but Wyden seemed to hold the majority of it. That also seemed true on the second-most mentioned subject, immigration; and here too, there were fewer final, definitive positions than there were concerned and general principles.

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The announcement that Karl Dreher, who has run Idaho’s water resource department for a decade, will not last into the Butch Otter administration, sent a shock and a chill around much of Idaho’s water community. Dreher had done a sound job and was broadly respected; at a time when so many key water decisions are hanging, who could say what would happen now?

Dave Tuthill
Dave Tuthill

With the announcement by Otter of Dave Tuthill as interim – and maybe permanent – director, a good many of those concerns should be set to rest.

We say that with some confidence because, over most of the last decade, we’ve watched Tuthill at close range. Among our publications is the Snake River Basin Adjudication Digest, and Tuthill for most of the last decade – until his promotion a year or so ago – was the water department administrator most directly responsible for overseeing its work in moving the adjudication forward.

And has done so remarkably. Not just him, certainly (Dreher was doubtless more than a small factor). But a department of water resources that had previously butted heads repeatedly with the courts turned closely cooperative. Thousands of tangled battles over water right claims, and differences between state analyses and local expectations, were worked out smoothly under Tuthill’s watch. More than a hundred thousand water right claims in a state prickly about water have been moved most of the way through the system, and only rarely with a flareup.

Tuthill is a skilled organizer and a diplomat as well. Monthly, for a good many years, he delivered update reports on the status of the SRBA to the court and other interested watchers (often including us). These presentations (the PowerPoints are available on line at the IDWR site) were often delivered in travelling road shows, sometimes before skeptical locals uneasy about what the state bureaucrats from Boise were going to do to their water. Tuthill made sure they were listened to.

The Otter announcement noted this about Tuthill: “Tuthill currently is administrator of the Idaho Department of Water Resources’ Water Management Division. He also has been chief of the agency’s Adjudication Bureau, and manager of its Western Region office. With a Ph.D. in civil engineering from the University of Idaho, Tuthill retired in 2004 as a colonel from the U.S. Army Reserve Corps of Engineers after 30 years of military service.” All useful and relevant; but his most pertinent skills aren’t the kind that translate so easily on paper.

The appointment is interim, and a search for a permanent director is expected to get underway soon. But Otter may find, in the weeks ahead, he already has who he needs.

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Chelan downtown

Two weeks from Monday, another new Wal-Mart, this one in Chelan, Washington, was set to open. Was, until December 29, when a Washington district judge ruled that the business didn’t have a proper building permit. That might have seemed almost beside the point by then, since the building was already constructed – it was even being stocked with merchandise. But as matters stand, there’s a real chance it may not open at all.

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-sqaure-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.

Might they still be reissued? Maybe. But evidently, no one knows exactly what will happen next. Wal-Mart has not yet appealed Allan’s decision, but it probably will. That ruling, though, seems to us tightly and logically crafted; Wal-Mart may have a fight on its hands to overturn it.

Its legal arguments in the case, at least as summarized by the judge, sounded notably weak. Most of them center around the idea that the opposition is filing its protests too late. The response – you can hear a clear version of it on a KOZI radio interview taped and posted Thursday – is that local activists filed their response as soon as the building permit was granted, before any concrete was poured or any local people hired. (Scores have been hired, and some of them left stable jobs to hire on at Wal-Mart.) Part of their complaint: Wal-Mart persisted in grading, building, stocking and filling 200 jobs with local people even while their legal ability to build at all was in court. (A case of easier to get forgiveness than permission?)

bullet In September we toured through the Chelan country, from Wenatchee north to Omak, and took the side trip off Highway 2 to Chelan. As that suggests, it’s a fairly remote small town, about 3,600 people, about 40 minutes from Wenatchee to the south, the nearest substantial center. Omak and Okanogan are about as far away, to the north.) One activist compared Wal-Mart to a hunter who ventered onto no-hunting land, shot a deer, got caught, and then complained that he may as well keep it – the deer was dead already anyway.

It has a look of modest prosperity. The downtown’s store spaces are almost all full, and the businesses seemed a thriving group. They have a special advantage. Chelan’s location is spectacular, on the edge of Lake Chelan – look straight down the downtown main street and you’ll it end at the lake. That location has not gone unnoticed. Dozens of new houses, most McMansions, have been built or are planned overlooking the lake, most outside of town but not far from it. A lot of these are second homes, vacation homes, by Seattleites, some of whom have funded the anti-box effort. Chelan seems poised for resort-town development – if it can keep its still-charming downtown intact long enough.

Defenders of Small Town Chelan (and an earlier groups called the Lake Chelan Valley Citizens Alliance), the local opposition group, is focusing more on the zoning process, and suggesting rules for the future, such as a possible 40,000-square foot cap on store size. But it points out some of the impacts a Wal-Mart likely would have, impacts quite a few people seem not to have to worked through. A good Seattle Times overview today includes this quote from a Chelan gift shop owner (who almost certainly would be shuttering her doors two or three years after Wal-Mart’s opening): “Is it going to hurt us? Yes, it will, businesswise. If I didn’t think so, I’d be crazy. On the other hand, I think we could use a Wal-Mart.”

Wal-Mart at Omak
The new Wal-Mart at Omak, where the impact is starting to be felt in the Omak and Okanogan downtowns

Exactly why they could use it is harder to say, on examination. Jobs at the one new store would be offset by losses of dozens or scores of jobs at local business – and by the loss of the local businesses themselves. Money which once circulated around town from business to business, to civic groups and through networks of volunteers, would dry up in favor of a small occasional handout from the big buy. Considerable business-to-business commerce will dry up (megacorporations do not buy their services locally). Tax money from the new store would be offeset by the loss of tax money from an emptying-out downtown and commerce and jobs lost there, and the cost of expensive additional infrastructure supporting the new store. Probably few at Chelan understand the use of pricing signposts and blinds at Wal-Mart and other boxes; many probably think they’re getting better deals than they are. And so on.

Chelan will at least, now, have the opportunity to consider those kind of issues.

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Washington

The Bill Sali congressional web site is up. There’s not much on it yet – it went live as more or less a blank slate – but until it is, it gives you a look at what a vanilla congressional web site looks like before efforts are made to personalize it.

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Peter DeFazioAs a prospect against Republican Senator Gordon Smith next year, that is. This isn’t remotely a surprise, exactly for the reasons he spells out to The Hill in an article today: “I had my run at the Senate. [Now] I’m holding a gavel for the first time in my 20-year career. I’m not looking to do anything else — become the junior senator from Oregon with no seniority and not chairing a committee.”

Still, that DeFazio didn’t take himself out of consideration sooner indicates that maybe he was just intrigued enough to have some reluctance in kissing it off entirely. Smith is vulnerable, he iis quoted elsewhere as saying, and had “very weak opponents” in his last two races.

The field narrows.

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Oregon ChannelThe standards have to be a little lighter at first: Not that the bear dances well, but that it dances at all. The fine tuning can come later.

And we’ll have fine turning to suggest to the new Oregon Channel, announced today, including its reach, its choices and grasp of media and its coverage. But enough for the moment to offer a pleased welcome.

Washington state has an excellent institution – private, nonprofit, informal but with high standards – called TVW, which in a loose sense is a Washington state C-SPAN, offering cable TV and online viewing of numerous official state happenings – major speeches, legislative hearings, court proceedings – and also much more, including a book program and roundtable interviews. It is an ongoing, 24/7, graduate course in Washington state public affairs. (We find it endlessly useful.) It was one of the first of its kind, and now a number of states, Oregon included, seem to be treading its path.

TVW did not happen overnight, and we would not expect that of the Oregon Channel either. (Does the difference in the kind of names suggest something of the different characters of the two states?) The OC says it will offer “Floor Sessions/Committees, State Supreme Court hearings, State agency hearings, Boards/Commission hearings, Capitol news conferences and special events” and “Other public affairs, civic and cultural programming, provided by partner organizations.” Many of these things have for some time been captured by internal cameras at the Statehouse (where most major meeting rooms are equipped with them) and elsewhere, and many of these sessions have been streamed on line for a few years. But this is a considerable elevation in spreading the signal, and the content of important sessions.

Those organizations are state organizations, including Oregon Public Broadcasting, Southern Oregon Public Television, the Oregon Legislature, the Oregon University System: This isn’t emerging as an independent nonprofit as TVW (or C-SPAN) did. These partners may, as part of their review process, want to give careful thought to how it will be governed.

Again, matters for another day. Meantime, the OC stands to bring a big state closer to Salem.

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Washington was forced through this at the beginning of the decade after the Nisqually quake did its number on the state campus at Olympia. The end result, viewed now, is quite respectable, but it meant moving most of the top of state government for two years, holding legislative sessions in temporary quarters (and crimping public access somewhat), and costing more than $118 million, far above original estimates.

The Idaho statehouse is scheduled to undergo major renovation as well, starting this spring and lasting for a couple of years. There’s been no earthquake, but substantial work on it has been needed for at least a decade and probably much more. Cost estimates some years ago ran to the $30-40 million area, but now are running much higher – well over $100 million. But much of that owes not to repairs and renovation as such, but to plans to add two underground levels of office and meeting space to the building – a controversial plan opposed by, among others, new Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter.

Oregon statehouseNow Oregon . . . whose statehouse is considerable younger than the other two (it replaced one burned in 1935), but also probably needs substantial repairs. Ironically, the worst problems seem to have developed not in the central part of building, including the rotunda and governor’s office, but in the legislative wings which were built only about 30 years ago. An Associated Press report on this notes, “The sprinkler system doesn’t meet code. The 1938 building falls short of state earthquake-protection standards. Overuse has caused the wiring system to overheat. Pipes have corroded, and much of the furniture does not meet ergonomic standards. The battery-operated emergency lighting system may not work if it is needed.”

These are not small items, not cheap to repair, and not unimportant either. The price tag currently is estimated at

This year’s legislative session may start to make moves toward a comprehensive renovation effort. There is some talk of floating a bond as early as this March, with work to commence – when? – perhaps a couple of years off?

A suggestion first: Cast a reviewing eye at the experiences Washington and Idaho have had, and the debates and options they have considered. Some lessons learned might be usefully applied.

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Here’s a useful local blog idea – useful right to the ground level, and suggestive of blogging other people might usefully do.

Julie Fanselow, who blogged the Larry Grant campaign last fall and on politics apart from that, has started The Boise Bus Blog on Blogspot. She is a regular bus rider and plans to try to ride more, and to make a systematic effort to report her experiences and observations. She is a public transit backer, but recognizes that bus service in Boise has severe limitations, and she would like to see it become “more viable.”

This kind of tightly-focused blogging could have some highly useful effects; this one could become a place where critics and advocates hash out the realities of Boise’s transit situation.

Dave Frazier at Boise Guardian, which has posted on Fanselow’s effort, argued that “Hopefully her blog will shine some light on the shortcomings—as well as the good points—of the bus system. At this point the GUARDIAN would never trust these local politicos to use public money for something as far fetched as ‘light rail’ when they can’t even run a bus system.” And those of us more enamored than Frazier of light rail – as it has been executed in some places, at least – nevertheless would generally accept his point, making bus blogging potentially all the more pertinent.

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