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Posts published in February 2007

Vote in the House, vote in the Senate

Should be noted that while the overall House vote on Concurrent Resolution 63 - opposing an increase in troop deployment in Iraq showed a number of Republicans from around the country voting in favor, none of them were from the Northwest. The Northwest's House delegation voted on strict party lines, Democrats in favor, Republicans against.

(An asterisk here: Washington Representative Brian Baird, Democrat from district 3, did not vote. But given his earlier statements, there's no reason to imagine that he was torn; he likely would have voted in favor. So that means all nine other Democrats voted in favor, and all six Republicans voted against.)

The resolution itself, by the way, is short, and reads:

(1) Congress and the American people will continue to support and protect the members of the United States Armed Forces who are serving or who have served bravely and honorably in Iraq; and

(2) Congress disapproves of the decision of President George W. Bush announced on January 10, 2007, to deploy more than 20,000 additional United States combat troops to Iraq.

There's the possibility that party split may be muddied over in the Senate. There, word has broken that Oregon Republican Senator Gordon Smith will vote for cloture, to block a possible filibuster of Senate consideration of the resolution.

A couple of weeks back, Smith took a lot of heat for opposing cloture on a Senate resolution on the same topic, developed in large part by fellow Republican John Warner.

On the border: We decide

Lewis Lukens
Lewis Lukens

Considering that Lewis Lukens is by occupation a diplomat - in his role as the U.S. consul-general now stationed at Vancouver, British Columbia - he used some words on Thursday that were remarkably guaranteed to outrage. They were provocative enough to almost seem intended to do so.

He was speaking on the United States side of the border at Bellingham, at the Western Washington University Border Policy Research Institute. The Institute's mission is to develop "research that informs policy-makers on matters related to the Canada-U.S. border," which is less than a half-hour away.

The subject of the moment is the "Western Hemisphere Travel Initiative" (WHTI), under which border crossings between the United States and neighboring countries will be tightened. In the case of U.S.-Canada crossings, that means among other things the impending requirement of a passport to cross. (At present, a valid driver's license is sufficient.)

Of the policy that has been in force for several generations, that of a relatively open border, Lukens' comment was that "We've been spoiled, there's no doubt about it." What exactly he means by suggesting that we've been "spoiled" by such good relations is unclear. How exactly should that change?

Not for him any further consideration of the matter: “Fighting WHTI is not going to help.”

Which sounds like this: Now, now, children. The decision's been made by the people who know best. Just sit down, keep quiet, get in line and don't question our wisdom. He may have some familiarity with the mindset; just prior to his posting at Vancouver, he was executive secretary at the U.S. embassy at Baghdad, where his job was "managing the office that served as the nexus between policy and management issues in Iraq.") Does he perhaps need a refresher course in where decisions ultimately are supposed to come from in a constitutional democracy - which is to say, not from the top?

The point here is not particularly arguing the border policy (is it necessarily irrational to require passports at any border? not necessarily) as it is to suggest that this is a reasonable topic of discussion, and that public servants have no business trying to shut down discussion of it by the people who pay their salaries.

And there is a reasonable argument here against WHTI.

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A judge, confirmed

Randy Smith
Randy Smith

In a way, you wouldn't think this would have to be so difficult: Nominate judges who carry no big controversial baggage, and reasonable senators will confirm them. It takes both sides; sometimes, too often, we seem to have had neither.

But both apparently have been on the job in the case of the nomination, and Senate confirmation today, of Randy Smith to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. He was the first circuit court nominee to make it through the system in the new Congress.

Smith, who is now an Idaho 6th district judge based at Pocatello, has drawn across the board praise. He is a former Idaho Republican Party chair who, as a judge, was described as fair and impartial by Democrats no less than Republicans.

If the eventual confirmation was something of an encouragement that the system can work, there is also this: He was first nominated to the court in December 2004. That nomination was held up because Californians wanted the circuit seat and maintained it was properly "theirs"; last month, he was re-nominated, this time for an undisputed "Idaho" seat.

Who eventually will fill the "other Idaho" seat is completely unknown, as is whether the needle can be threaded as well as in the case of Randy Smith.

Definition by the hire

Pat Kilkenny
Pat Kilkenny

Oregonian sports columnist John Canzano has a highly quotable line today, following up on the hiring of insurance company founder and major Ducks booster Pat Kilkenny as the University of Oregon's new athletic director:

"I suppose the upside here is that the university has finally abandoned any pretense about who is running the institution, and whether a public place of learning was for sale."

Kilkenny, who replaces 12-year director Bill Moos, who is a major donor to the institution and doubtless well connected among the sports boosters, has no personal experience running an athletics department. Canzano: "you're forgiven if your reaction was, 'Wow, a big fan with a bunch of money just became the AD.' Because that's pretty much what happened."

It does seem, though, the logical extension of what has gone before.

One distraction, or all of them

cell phoneYou really do need to read the fine print. To casually browse the Oregonian this morning, where the above-fold front page was dominated by a story on cell phone regulation, the impression you'd get would be fairly black/white: Cell advocates on one side, and the people who'd like to ban them altogether from the ranks of drivers on the other.

The actual legislative debate turns out to be a good deal more nuanced. And, in our view, more realistic.

A bunch of proposed pieces of legislation have been drafted, but the Oregon Senate Judiciary Committee seems to have boiled down the live prospects to two. It held a hearing on them this afternoon.

The less interesting of the two is Senate Bill 293, which disallows drivers (while driving, of course) from using a hand-held cell phone, though "hands free" use (with a headset or the equivalent) would still be allowed. It's similar to an effort now underway in Washington. This has the fell of a compromise position, and maybe it is, though the committee was told about several series of studies that show no better driving skills for users of hands-free compared to hand-held. (Did any of those studies compare concentration impairment from cell phone conversations against in-car passenger conversations? We'd be fascinated to see any such results, but we've heard of none; implicitly, we suspect one kind of conversation is about as distracting as the other. If so, do we see a proposal to ban car-pooling next?)

The other bill, which is the one backed by the Oregon State Police, seems more interesting, and also more subtle.

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The mystery or the money

There's a useful comparison in the Horse's Ass blog today about how the Seattle Times and the Post-Intelligencer" each handle, in their news stories, the testimony of the owner of the Seattle Sonics before the Washington legislature, as he pitches the case for a new sports arena.

bullet The lead in the Times: "Sonics owner Clay Bennett ended a long-running mystery Tuesday when he told state lawmakers he prefers Renton over Bellevue for a new $500 million basketball arena." Emphasis: the choice of Renton as a location.

bullet The lead in the P-I: "The Seattle Sonics want the public to pay for most of a new $500 million multipurpose arena in Renton, they want most of the proceeds from that facility and they want the money without a public vote, owner Clay Bennett told lawmakers Tuesday." Emphasis: public payment for an arena.

Both stories did point out that actually getting the public money will not be easy.

But it does suggest, again, how one event can be seen differently through different eyes, even if accurately both times.

Chat this evening

Just a 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.

What’re they doing here?

One of our correspondents wrote about this: "More news from a legislature and governor trapped in the 1950's." Noteworthy, in other words, that it comes not from the general public, but from within the legislature.

An item from today's Idaho Statesman: "Senate Education Committee Chairman John Goedde, R-Coeur d'Alene, said Monday that panel member Sen. Monty Pearce, R-New Plymouth, had told him he was concerned that BSU was spending state money on liberal speakers. 'I'm only aware of the couple of very liberal speakers they've had recently,' said Goedde, referring to Gore and Jackson. 'On a long-term scale, I can't say whether there is balance or not.'''

While the Statesman obligingly referred to "a recent string of left-leaning speakers," there have been in practice only two of major note, former Vice President Al Gore and the Reverend Jesse Jackson. And the article did go on to note recent conservative speakers at Boise State as well, including last fall the leader of the national Cato Institute and upcoming talk from Utah Senator Orrin Hatch. BSU spokesmen said no tax money has underwritten any of these appearances.

The line of rhetoric notwithstanding, the "concern" clearly isn't over balance (it certainly wasn't prompted by Hatch's upcoming event), it's over the appearance - speaking at a state institution, a state institution under control of conservative Republicans - of people who help populate conservative Republicans' worst nightmares. And who, horrors, drew large local crowds.

On that level, at least, you can understand the concern.

Danger zone

Eastern State Hospital
Eastern State Hospital, at Medical Lake/DSHS

State mental hospitals always have been somewhat dangerous places, to some extent a naturally inherent quality of places for treating the mentally troubled. But there are matters of degree, and Washington state's seems a little more so than most.

In the Washington House, 24 members have just introduced House Bill 2187, now lodged in the Health Care & Wellness Committee, aimed principally at increasing the nursing staff, and taking other safety measures, in the state hospitals. The bill makes explicit the reasons: "The legislature finds that the continuing number of assaults in state hospitals have made conditions for both patients and staff unacceptable. The legislature further finds that appropriate nurse staffing levels will result in improved patient and staff safety and a reduction in the number of workplace injuries. Therefore, to improve safety conditions in the state hospitals, the legislature intends that minimum patient assignment limits and nurse staffing ratios and other safety measures be implemented as an urgent public policy priority."

The strength of the language about the "continuing number of assaults" suggests a major problem. And so there is.

Ten years ago, the state Department of Health developed a study about workplace injuries at the state hospitals. Here's the abstract:

In order to estimate rates and identify risk factors for assaults on employees of a state psychiatric hospital, we examined workers' compensation claims, hospital-recorded incident reports, and data collected in a survey of ward staff. Results revealed 13.8 workers' compensation claims due to assault per 100 employees per year. Assaults were responsible for 60% of total claims. Incident reports revealed 35 injuries due to assault per 100 employees per year. Survey data revealed 415 injuries due to assault per 100 employees per year. Of the respondents, 73% reported at least a minor injury during the past year. Assault management training in the past year was associated with less severe injuries. Working in isolation, the occupation of mental health technician, and working on the geriatric-medical hospital unit were associated with more severe injuries during the past year. Assaults on staff in psychiatric hospitals represent a significant and underrecognized occupational hazard.

Bad enough, but since then, things have gotten a good deal worse.

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Filibusted

Oregon Senators Ron Wyden and Gordon Smith gave it a shot on Monday, but they didn't have the Senate-wide support needed to filibuster - a tactic they were trying to force Senate consideration of federal timber funding for 700 counties in 39 states, including, perhaps most critically, a string of counties in Oregon.

This is the funding cut we described on Saturday, that is wreaking severe damage all over, maybe most obviously in such counties as Coos and Curry. But many others, too. Senators from the Northwest seems to be spearheading the effort to recover the funding, but they're apparently not getting enough traction yet.

Wyden said he has hopes the funding will still be restored. Maybe so. But if so, not easily.

Going underground

This - Washington Senate Bill 5926 - could go some truly interesting places and kick over some significant rocks, in the area of illegal immigration.

Informal reports in the last couple of years have begun to suggest that the construction industry, not crop agriculture as in the past, is the largest attractor of workers who have no permission to be in this country. One report from the Pew Hispanic Center last March estimated 24% of all workers were working in agriculture, 17% in cleaning, 14% in construction and 12% in food preparation. Of these categories, construction has been the boom and - if the national construction frenzy maintains for a while - it may soon surpass agriculture.

Hence this statement of intent on the newly-introduced SB5926:

The legislature finds that some current estimates place the percentage of unreported employment in Washington state's construction industry at between twenty percent and fifty percent, although solid data on this phenomenon is not readily available in Washington. The legislature also finds that unreported construction employment may result in the loss of a worker's employment rights and protections, including workers' compensation and unemployment insurance compensation. The legislature further finds that unreported construction employment also could deny the state the revenues it is due, including sales taxes, business and occupation taxes, and other business fees paid to the state. The legislature declares that the underground economy in this state may permit unfair conditions to exist against persons working in the construction industry who do follow the employment laws and appropriately pay taxes. It is the legislature's intent to determine the extent and potential costs to the state of the underground economy in the construction industry.

It would do that, to begin with, by setting up a legislative task force. Such creatures usually merit the yawning reactions they generally get, but this one - because of its explicitly investigative mission - could matter quite a bit even if it never develops any legislation. The information it uncovers, if it has any aggressiveness at all, could make a difference. (By the way, see also the item on this on the Seattle Stranger's Slog.)

Nationally, we can hire all the border guards and erect all the fences we want, but illegals will keep coming as long as (a) conditions back home are deeply unsatisfying and (b) as long as they can get satisfaction from the economy here. Genuine solutions to the porous border problem clearly will have to do mostly with one or both of those issues. We have limited ability to address the first, but we can address the second, at least to some extent. For all the harrumphing going on elsewhere, the Washington legislature is now navigating closer to the heart of the issue than most.

(Lead sponsor is Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, joined by Senators Clements, Kastama, Weinstein, Fairley, Keiser, Marr, Tom, Murray, Oemig, Sheldon and Kline, all Democrats.)

Cattle kingdom: from growth to split

cows
More cows than people in the Magic Valley/morguefile

Besides the talk about the urban growth in parts of Idaho, there ought to be another round of discussion about the fastest-growing population in the state. Not of people: Of milk cows.

And that growth is finally have an effect on the people who work with them.

Over the last 20 years, the population of milk cows in the state has increased about two and a half times, from 174,000 to 473,000. As with people, the increase in milk cows (which is to say, the number and size of dairies), as with people, has not been evenly spread. Some places, like Franklin County, that had substantial or even major dairy activity in the mid-80s have declined (in Franklin's case, from 14,000 to 11,500 head).

The growth has been concentrated in the Magic Valley, and to a lesser degree in southwest Idaho, in a band from Owyhee, Ada, Canyon and Payette counties. (Today, Ada has 22,000 head and Canyon 30,000 head, in each case not quite double where they were 20 years - all alongside the massive new human development in those counties.)

The Magic Valley had 75,000 milk cows in 1986, well under half the state's total. Today it has more than four and a half times as many, 341,000, well over three-fourths of the state total. And within the Magic Valley, they're concentrated. Few are in Blaine, Camas or Minidoka counties; Gooding, Twin Falls, Jerome and Cassia, and a fair population in Lincoln, account for the largest portion.

Nor is that all. If a set of applications now on file in the eastern valley, in Cassia and Minidoka, are approved, another 100,000 dairy cows could call the area home.

Gooding County has more than 139,000 - more than twice any other county, well over a fourth of all the dairy cows in the state, and far more dairy cows (which do not account for all of the cattle by any means) in that county than there are people in any Idaho city but Boise. That's 190 cows per square mile in Gooding County.

It is also more than in the entire state of Oregon - 121,000; the biggest dairy county there is Tillamook, with 28,600 head. Washington has 237,000 head in all; geographically large Yakima County with 70,000 head and coastal Whatcom County with 52,000 account for much of it. Neither Oregon nor Washington has a regional dairy concentration resembling the Magic Valley.

You would think this would cause some stress and conflict. You would be right.

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