"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)

Oregon House Aveteran and highly skillful lobbyist of our acquaintance often said of legislative lobbying that nothing is over until adjournment. And the look in his eye added the punchline: . . . even then.

So we were a little less than shocked and bewildered when the party leaders in the Oregon House found a way to come together on the corporate-kicker-to-rainy-day-fund issue that has become so central to this year’s session. Everyone had something to lose; the ability to claim a win here was a little better for everyone.

It may have been a little more important for the Democrats. Governor Ted Kulongoski had staked much of his renewed energy and momentum this year on its passage, and a lot of the prestige of the new House Democratic leadership was riding on it too. A referral to a popular vote might succeed in getting them a win, but at the expense of looking incapable in the Statehouse. A lot of Oregonians would, after all, like to see their legislature succeed at doing their job.

Republicans had reason for concern here, too. If this thing went to a public vote, their side would probably have lost and looked bad – a bad setup as they try to figure out how to regain a House majority next time. As it is, they got some concessions on the estate tax and on a small-business aspect to the corporate kicker: Concessions important for their side, but not so sweeping that they gut the core proposal. Everybody gave up something: The essence of legislative negotiation.

Senate President Peter Courtney remarked later at a press conference, “In my career as a negotiator, I don’t ever recall an agreement of this magnitude being put together in such a short amount of time. In these negotiations each of us knew we had to find a way and reach out to each other in a very difficult time.”

Otherwise known as legislating; which at times is the art of conceding a little while not giving up.

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Another quick reminder that our weekly Wednesday chat, our third, is on for tonight at 6 pm Pacific, 7 pm Mountain, accessible off this page. (Scroll down to the right to the “nickname” box, enter your name, click the button, and you’re in.) It lasts about an hour; feel free to jump in or out any time.

The last two were enjoyable discussions. Greg Smith, a co-founder, was under the the weather and had to miss the last one, but he should be back tonight. Along with, well, who knows who. We draw some eclectic chatters.

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Sonics proposed area
Sonics proposed arena, ground view/Professional Basketball Club LLC

The Renton arena, or most any Seattle Sonics arena proposal, seems to have just sunk from dead on arrival to – six feet under? The only missing component of the last rites was the emotional, and now Seattle has that. Which means, about half a year hence, Oklahoma City seems likely to get its basketball team.

This grows out of the purchase of the Sonics a while back from a group of Seattle investors by the Professional Basketball Club, LLC, whose participants (another group of investors) hail mostly from Oklahoma City. The purchase terms said that the group had to make an effort to keep the team in Seattle through October of this year. The group said that a key to this would include construction of a massive new arena (the picked site is in Renton, and drawings of the proposed arena were released Monday). And they said most of the cost would have to be underwritten by taxpayers.

Which was probably a lost cause to begin with. (The cultural origins of this tale being, after all, Southern.) Not the idea of professional basketball in Seattle, of course – in a metro area of three million (bigger than OKC) it’s a logical thing. Nor the idea of a new arena, either. But we are after all talking about an entertainment enterprise being operated by a private company which is asking for a massive taxpayer handout – way beyond simple cooperation – instead of operating within the free market system. Oklahomans ought to understand the difficulty of that.

Washington legislators (who, admittedly, didn’t shine in their handling of the comparable NASCAR debate) seemed to catch the point early on. They were being asked for $300 million in taxpayer funds (or maybe more – some details remain unclear) for what in effect would be the subsidy of a private enterprise.

Legislators who had in mind other places for the money – public services, for example – were cool to the idea. So, polling seems to indicate, is the public.

So that was probably what. Before the news about the investors in the Professional Basketball Club hit, and made it even more so.

The core of it in a Seattle Post-Intelligencer piece today: “The millionaires who’ve turned to this state’s left-leaning Legislature to authorize a $300 million tax subsidy for a new basketball arena have been playing right-wing politics. Two members of the new Sonics ownership group are heavyweight financiers of a national political group dedicated to banning gay marriage. Together, co-owners Tom Ward and Aubrey McClendon donated more than $1.1 million to Americans United to Preserve Marriage, a conservative Christian group that opposes gay marriage.”

There is, of course, no direct connection between those political donations and the arena proposal, a point arena backers were quick to make.

The point is that it doesn’t make a lot of people in the immediate Seattle area feel much better about the biggest beneficiaries of the largesse they’re being asked to hand over. Rather, it does in a reverse way what state House members Frank Chopp and Larry Seaquist did in the last few days in running down a famous NASCAR driver (Richard Petty) and NASCAR fans: Drove a wedge between the dominant culture in Seattle and that of the South. This is, in other words, heavy cultural politics.

And for the moment it may play well enough in Seattle. But the whole deal may leave a sour taste in the mouths of all those people who would like to see professional basketball and NASCAR in the Seattle area. If they reflect on all the circumstances, those people may find enough blame to go around, cross-culturally.

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We have suspected that the idea of putting a cigarette tax increase (the money going toward a statewide child health program) on the Oregon ballot probably would be a winner. Apparently, that’s better than a mere suspicion.

Loaded Orygun has a detailed post on polling that covers just this subject; it is highly recommended reading. With some caveats noted, the bottom line seems to be: Support for such a measure seems to outweigh opposition by about two to one.

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There hasn’t been much notice of the substance because the bill in question sounds so boring, but we’ll note here that Idaho Governor Butch Otter has issued a veto. (The fact of the veto has gotten some attention; the substance, little.) It’s just one veto (so far) to the 33 or so bills he has thus far signed into law, and it doesn’t portend any great political conflict. But as it offers an indicator of priorities, let’s pause for a moment.

The measure in question is House Bill 8, and the short legislative description of it is that it “Amends existing law to provide that a notice of levy and distraint be sent by regular first class mail instead of certified mail when collecting state taxes.” (Please don’t fall asleep; this gets a little more interesting.) It generated no major debate; it passed the Idaho House 64-2 and the Senate 35-0.

It was a small-government, or cut-government-cost, measure, proposed by the State Tax Commission (whose members are appointed by the governor). Here is its statement of purpose: “Current law requires the Tax Commission to send a notice of levy to taxpayers by certified mail. This costs about $28,000 annually to send more than 10,000 notices. Almost half are returned as refused or unclaimed. Changing the certified mail requirement to first class mail will likely result in more taxpayers actually receiving the notice more cost effectively.”

So . . . what’s the rationale outweighing this?

Here’s the core of Otter’s veto statement, explaining:

House Bill 008 proposes a single change to Idaho Code section 63-3061A as it relates to the notice a taxpayer receives when property is seized to satisfy debt for past taxes, interest, and penalties. The change would allow the Idaho State Tax Commission to provide notice to a property owner by first class mail, instead of certified mail.

It is anticipated that the Idaho State Tax Commission could save up to $25,000 in operation costs under this proposed change. I strongly encourage saving tax dollars and achieving cost savings within state government; however, this specific cost savings is minimal and inappropriate compared with the potential costs to property owners across Idaho.

Idaho has a long tradition of protecting and promoting private property rights. The Idaho Constitution sets forth the inalienable right to acquire, possess and protect property. This right is paramount to a free and prosperous society. To that end, there are many processes established under state law to protect property and an owner’s interests in it.

Title 63, section 3061A of the Idaho Code is no exception. Two years ago, the Idaho Legislature created a formal process for notifying property owners when their property was to be seized for tax debts. Notice in these situations is critical for property owners to defend any rights or interests in their property, and using certified mail provides greater assurance that notice is actually received.

Although some may argue that the additional cost of using certified mail is unnecessary, it is an appropriate safeguard that we owe property owners. For these reasons, I cannot support diminishing the process established under title 63, section 3061A of the Idaho Code as proposed by House Bill 008.

So what trumps government savings? Private property rights.

Not to argue here that Otter is necessarily wrong; he makes a fair point here. But this first veto message does offer some insight into the new governor’s order of priorities.

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Those interested in our post from two weeks ago on the explosive growth of dairy operations in Idaho’s Magic Valley, and especially around Gooding and Twin Falls counties, will find the lead piece in today’s Twin Falls Times News of note as well.

It points out how Gooding County, which is by far the most concentrated dairy county in the Northwest (a quarter of Idaho’s dairy cattle are there) is working on restricting dairy activity locally, and the support and opposition the effort has brought. Opposition groups have persuaded the county commission to impose a moratorium on new dairies, and it still is in effect.

The next public review of a new governance proposal will occur Wednesday at 7 p.m.

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Michael Murphy
Michael Murphy

There’s some special deference given in the law to “deathbed statements,” the idea being that motivation for lying, or for shading the truth, is taken to be diminished as we reach the end. Maybe the same is true for officeholders too: With announcements of retirement, we sometimes hear blunt words not always audible previously.

Washington Treasurer Michael Murphy said last week he will not run again when his office is up for election next year (setting up a watchable contest among the ambitious). He has made some points on earlier occasions similar to those he made last week, but they somehow didn’t stick in the mind quite so well.

He has delivered useful commentary, for instance, on the financing of capital projects: ““Lack of transparency and public oversight of capital projects creates an environment where public tax dollars can too easily be squandered and insider deal-making can proliferate. Good public policy mandates that state agencies use both the lowest cost financing method and the lowest cost capital project delivery method, while following the policy directives that are embodied in the public works laws, such as competition and transparency.”

Compare that to this, from last week: “My experience with public-private partnerships is that the private party gets rich and the public gets screwed.”

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Sort of, and it isn’t ours, though the rationale is credible enough.

This year will bring the mayoral (and councilmanic) election in Boise, with a November runoff if no one takes a clear majority. Mayor David Bieter is expected to run for another term, and there’s been, for at least two years, a widespread presumption about who his opponent (chief opponent, at least) will be. The Boise Guardian (David Frazier) is predicting that presumption will materialize, in the person of Council member Jim Tibbs.

Jim Tibbs
Jim Tibbs

They have history. Not long after taking office as mayor – he had just barely won a clear majority in 2003 – Bieter had to select a new police chief. Tibbs, who had served in the Boise force for a third of a century and was at that point interim chief, had substantial support, but didn’t get Bieter’s nod. Talk emerged almost immediately that Tibbs would run for council in 2005 and, if he won, would challenge Bieter in 2007. In fact he did run and win in 2005. So, now: Will he run?

Evidently there’s been nothing definite, but the Frazier suggests that he’s seen enough indicators to call it. And maybe he will. As Frazier points out, Tibbs is in mid-term; if he loses for mayor, he still stays on the council.

Still, we’ll hold off any predictions for now.

David Bieter
David Bieter

You’ll find plenty of people in Boise who say the opposite. Former Ada County Commissioner Sharon Ullman says in a Guardian comment that “The only question about the Tibbs/Bieter mayoral race is whether Chuck Winder will jump in too. Either way, I predict Tibbs will win, hands down.” Another: “I have to agree, Tibbs will wallop Bieter at the polls, I would not waste the money if I were him.” Another: “All Jim Tibbs has to do to be mayor is run.” (Be it noted here, that none of those comments reflect Frazier’s own post.)

Our take remains that Bieter is well positioned. When he won in 2003 his background as a Democrat (he served as such in the Idaho House) would hurt his chances of even clearing the runoff; instead, he won outright. Since then, all political indicators have suggested that his partisan background may be of more advantage than not, to the extent it matters.

And to the extent it doesn’t, he’s still not badly positioned. Bieter has developed a roster of critics, of course (and we’re not arguing here his record is flawless). But his opposition seems to consist of small and widely scattered groups. In a larger sense, there’s no real brief against Bieter – some sense that he’s doing something wrong, enough to rise up and fire him. There’s no major issue that most of the city is worked up about to use against him as a lever (or hammer). Nor does he have a major personal issue. He may not be a super policy wonk or a brilliant orator, but he’s a likable guy, and that makes up for a lot. Arguers for his political weakness seem to have difficulty coming up with specific reasons why.

There’s also this as an indicator: If Tibbs doesn’t run, there’s no immediate indication of any top-tier opponent for Bieter at all. There’s no long line of prospects.

It may be a race. Much can happen between here and there.

AMENDMENT This post has been edited to reflect the election date in November, rather than in May, as originally posted (and thanks to the commenter for drawing attention to that point).

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Something about the web – maybe the solitary nature of posting to it – seems to suggest the idea of private communication. It isn’t. It’s more public and out there in the world than any newspaper or television station, no matter that you may not have intended it that way. That’s a lesson for myspace teenagers and facebook college students. Not to mention politicians.

Many commenters on political sites, this one included, regularly use pseudonyms. (This site, like many, prefers real names but allows pseudonyms.) Commenters probably think this means they’re anonymous; but not always. The lesson being, don’t post what you aren’t comfortable standing behind.

Story in point is recounted on David Postman’s blog. It stems from a discussion on Sound Politics, where blogger Stefan Sharkansky was writing about the rules concerning petition signature gathering for initiatives. (The details are another issue.) Comments to his post included at least three snarky takes from “PDC expert,” saying “Stefan – your ignorance is stunning,” “[Tim] Eyman is a liar and the sheep on this blog will believe any lie he tells them,” and so forth.

Which might have been that, except that Sharkansky decided to track down the commenter. Using the comment’s home IP address, and traced it to the city of Kent. An information request tracked it directly back to state Representative Geoffrey Simpson, D-Covington, who acknowledged the comments were his.

He replied to Sharkansky in a subsequent comment: “Interesting that when Stefan doesn’t like something someone says (even when they are correct as I was in each of my posts) he investigates them and violates the personal privacy afforded to all the posters on this blog by the ability to post anonymously. Poor baby. Make sure you don’t disagree with Stefan or he’ll open an investigation on you too.”

None of which happened at Simpson’s peak moment. He’s lead sponsor of the NASCAR legislation (House Bill 2062) which appears set for crash and burn. That led another Sound Politics commenter to add, “I was down in Olympia trying to fight the NASCAR track that he is trying to force on my damn town of Bremerton. Good old Geoff Simpson wrote HB 2062. It is a freaking horrible piece of corporate pork and is a waste of our taxes and undermines a communities local control.” This latest uproar isn’t going to help his efforts to pass the bill.

Well. Point being that if you’re a public official, best to assume anything you say will find its way out. However you may try to cover it.

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Gordon Smith
Gordon Smith

When in December Senator Gordon Smith spoke on the floor of the Senate to break, for the first time, with the Bush Administration on Iraq, and position himself mostly with Democrats, that event was widely viewed as having significant political consequences for Oregon politics in 2008. And it may. It was widely seen as a reflection of Smith’s possible difficulties as he looks toward a re-election campaign in an increasingly blue Oregon.

But his decision Wednesday to support a locally significant but far less known Democratic position could have even larger political effects.

That position is in support of the proposal by Oregon’s Democratic Governor, Ted Kulongoski, to raise cigarette taxes by 84.5 cents per pack, and use the money to underwrite health care for uninsured children. On Wednesday, he appeared together with Kulongoski at the Statehouse to endorse the idea.

Let us count some of the many ways this simple endorsement shook Oregon politics.

bullet It greatly improves the odds that Kulongoski’s proposal ultimately will succeed. News stories about the proposal in the week or two preceding the announcement centered on the idea that it may fail in the House. Because it involves a tax increase, at least five Republicans would have to cross over to join unanimous Democrats to pass it there – a tough goal. Talk had centered around simply referring the issue to the ballot. Smith’s announcement gives partisan cover to any Republicans interested in supporting it, and that could mean enough shift to allow to for passage.

Even if it doesn’t, his announcement will provide more sweeping support and cover – and the lack of major office holders in opposition – if it goes to the statewide ballot. His announcement changed the dynamic. And remember, this is no small issue.

bullet It offered a fresh infusion of political power to Kulongoski. The governor started his second term with what felt like a burst of energy, but you can think of this in terms of a car – every so often it needs a fill-up at the station to keep chugging ahead. Kulongoski was not out of gas, but he may have been approaching the quarter-filled mark this month as the Healthy Kids plan, which as much as anything is central to his agenda this year, seemed to run into trouble. Now, standing with Smith, he re-emerges as a bipartisan leader of an important program. He’s re-filled up, with a tiger in the tank.

bullet It muddles Smith’s philosophical stance as a Republican. What does Smith – and do the Republicans – stand for? A little harder to say now, at least much harder to put on a bumper sticker, since Smith has emerged in favor of a Democratic tax increase. And other Republicans, who may be opposed (many are), could be stuck pulling their punches against the Democrats on taxes; will they now dare blast Democrats on that front, realizing their one statewide office holder could be tarred with the same?

If the idea was to present himself as a Republican acceptable to Democrats – a maverick stance – he could get some traction there. But the advantage may be severely limited. To avoid splitting too far with very many other Republicans, he may have to re-emphasize their areas of agreement, a move back to the right that could undo what he’s just done.

bullet It may energize a primary challenge to Smith from the right. Talk about a “more conservative” challenger to Smith has been floated for a while now; with what results are unclear. Smith’s shifting stance on Iraq, as notable as it was, may not produce such a challenge, though, the way this announcement does. This time, after all, Smith has come out for a Democratic tax increase. That’s cutting deep into the philosophical bone. Few stances more quickly generate Republican primaries than an incumbent who has backed a Democratic tax plan.

bullet Primary aside, it is splitting Republicans. Consider this from Republican blogger Ted Piccolo: “Some insiders are now saying that this could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. This is the first major vote that the Republicans were going to be taking the Democrats on and means so much to maintaining caucus control. Smith did not tell any caucus members about his betrayal until Tuesday night (last night) the night before his press conference.”

And, from a followup post, this: “I have been on the phone with various party operatives over the past few hours and they are stunned, stunned at the turn of events over the past 24 hours. Some are afraid that the elected Republicans still don’t get the losses the public handed out last November and fear a trek deeper into the wilderness.”

bullet It stands to solidify Democratic control of the House and provide its first big win there. Piccolo again: “Let me give kudos to Speaker [Jeff] Merkley. The guy knows how to win. I only wish that our leadership would have figured this out about ten years ago. Republicans can learn something from the Speaker. Oh and I am sure the Smith people enjoy the praise they are receiving from the Democrats.” The Republican votes needed for passage remain uncertain, they’re nearer than they were.

The Democrats, as you might imagine, sound giddy.

bullet Smith may be stuck with state issues now. Traditionally, candidates for the U.S. Senate, incumbents included, can avoid wading into contentious state government issues if they choose, saying their race is about federal matters. As Kari Chisholm points out in Blue Oregon, “That excuse is no longer available to you. You’ve put your marker down on Healthy Kids – and thank you, by the way – but you’re now open for business. Reporters, bloggers, legislators, everyone gets to ask now: What’s your position on House Bill X? Senate Bill Y? Ballot Measure Z?”

Quite a bit of prospective impact for a simple little endorsement.

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The old description of editorial writers as the people who ride onto a battlefield after the fighting is done, to shoot the wounded, may fit neatly today’s Seattle Times editorial on the proposed expansion of NASCAR into Kitsap County.

The NASCAR proposal, which would set a region-scale track operation in a location with inadequate transportation capacity (meaning, the crowds of track-goers would swamp local highways and ferries) and incur massive public subsidies for the privilege, certainly has seen some skepticism in this spot for some months. (We see no problem with a NASCAR facility located in a more logical place, and which pays its own way.)

Over the last third or so of last year, public opposition to it, especially locally in Kitsap, seems to have solidified. By the time the legislature – which was being asked for legislation to allow it local and for money for its private backers – convened in January, it seemed to have been politically adjudged DOA. Nothing that’s happened since seems to have changed that, as a string of newspaper headlines has made clear.

So the editorial about the current NASCAR legislation might have been great six months ago (before legislative introduction, true, but when its contours were known) rather than very good now. It still has some real muscle. The bill, it said, is “is a slick piece of work that is tougher to stomach with every turn of its 57 pages. . . . The outrageous number of exceptions and tax breaks should also give legislators pause. . . .” And it makes sound points about the hash it would make of important provisions of local planning law.

Sometimes the wounded do merit shooting.

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Mount HoodWe don’t maintain to have perfect insight into the minds of extreme sport enthusiasts. Part of the thought process does seem clear enough, though: Society has become so safe, so boring, so un-challenging, that somewhere there ought to be a place where you can still test yourself against the elements, against the wild.

Mountain climbers have sought such a place on Mount Hood, where the peaks rise higher than 10,000 feet (it rises to 11,237 feet) and the risks can be real. In the last few months, people have died on that trek. But just last week, three climbers were rescued, efficiently, because they carried and activated electronic location devices. The timing was remarkable: Just then, a bill in the Oregon Legislature, proposed by Representative John Lim, to require that climbers moving above 10,000 feet carry such locators, was moving through the legislature.

The mountain-climbing community was outraged. “Self-reliance and knowledge are what’s going to keep you alive on the mountain,” said one at a hearing. Such locators may give climbers a false sense of security give them an easy out instead of exerting themselves to get themselves out of risk. Underlying seemed to be this: You’re civilizing one of the few ways we have to get away from societys safety nets, to be truly self-reliant.

Part of the problem with leaving it at that, though, is that when people on the mountain go missing, searches are ordinarily launched. Such searches can be highly expensive, meaning that – apart from whatever responsibility other people in society feel toward the climbers – these searches can cost a great deal, and can put the searchers themselves at some risk.

So how about this as a compromise . . .

Amend the bill to say that if climbers don’t want to carry locators, they have two other choices. They can agree, in writing, to pay all costs of any search for them, and maybe a liability fee beyond that. Or, they can state in writing that no search for them should be launched, and emergency organizations won’t be required or encouraged to.

That would certainly take care of the societal safety net.

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