Writings and observations

The Northwest blogging world is starting to see entries from state legislators – something new in the region. There have, of course, been public officials who have blogged for some time now, notably Portland council member Randy Leonard, who’s been prominent on Blue Oregon since its inception. Now we’re seeing elected officials with their own independent blogs, and with some attitude.

It may be that legislators who find themselves on the losing side of things have much more interesting posts to blog.

Washington Representative Dave Upthegrove, D-Des Moines, may have the most remarkably detailed job-related blogging of any public official in the region. (You get a remarkably detailed insight into the daily routine of a legislator from reading it.) Some of the best reading there comes when Upthegrove is in the minority, which is not usually since Democrats overwhelmingly control the Washington House.

But it happens, as in this case: “There was one bill today where I was the only legislator to vote no…the vote was 97-1. I know there were other legislators who opposed the bill, but they just wussed out. It was a bill to ban the sale or use of devices that vaporize alcohol. Apparently, some people like to get drunk faster by putting their booze in a humidifier-like thing and inhaling it. It sounds like a stupid & awful thing to do, but there have been no incidents of problems with this in Washington. And, fundamentally, adults in a free society should be allowed to make stupid decisions about what they choose to put into their bodies. Crack down on drunk driving? Yes. Take steps to keep this kind of stuff away from kids? Absolutely. Make it illegal for adults to use a particular device to consume a legal product?…..two words for you: nanny state.”

Then there’s the new blog by one of the newly-elected Democrats in the Idaho House, Branden Durst, of Boise, which may be starting to include debate by other means . . . not a bad use of a blog.

He became a center of attention on the House floor last week when, trying to get reduced from two-thirds to 60% the voting percentage needed to fund a community college district, he tried to amend a bill touching on that subject by adding in provisions from a bill already shot down in the House Revenue & Taxation Committee. That earned him one hand-slapping (and a vote down on the House floor). Then all hell broke loose when, responding to a comment about upholding the committee system, he replied that the legislator “said we had a committee system that works. I would say that’s false.” Which, on a couple of grounds, probably was a violation of House rules on debate.

Blogging, Burst wrote: “I have found in my life those in control never like the idea of change. That doesn’t mean it is not worth seeking out, however. To that end, I honestly don’t believe I was voted in to office to maintain the status quo. The residents of District 18 that I met, regardless of party affiliation (or lack thereof), demanded a fresh start. I am giving them that.”

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Idaho Washington

old printing pressOf all of the Northwest’s newspapers, the Spokane Spokesman-Review seems to be doing the most thorough rethink of who they are and what they’re about. Last year it developed a provocative “Newsroom of the Future” report.

In a post this month, one of the paper’s blogs contains this sentence: “The Spokesman-Review is no longer a newspaper, but an information company that publishes news and information whenever and however people want it.”

The specific prompt for it was a newsroom development called the “Breaking News initiative,” which seems to be a variation on wire service instant publishing (the old motto there has been, “a deadline every second”) with the variation of using a range of outlets for the material.

But redefining the newsroom doubtless will go on for quite some time.

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The gaming deal Washington Governor Chris Gregoire signed with the Spokane Tribe of Indians on Friday got only so-so attention on the west side, but it may be one of the biggest events of recent years in regional gaming. Which makes it of interest regionally.

The tribe’s stand on it sounds almost nondescript: “This proposed Compact promises to benefit not only our Tribe but the entire region as well, creating needed jobs and boosting the local economy. The proposed Compact also ensures that Spokane Indian Gaming stays limited and well regulated.”

There are counter-views. State Senator Jim Honeyford, R-Sunnyside, wrote in an op-ed that “If anyone thinks that this deal is a one-time expansion of gambling, think again. The compact secures the tribe’s right to expand gambling well into the future. Bottom line: The governor has a strong voice in this matter, and her voice should echo what the public has to say. In 2004, voters overwhelmingly rejected I-892, an initiative to expand gambling. A compact that would add more gambling machines, encourage gambling expansion by other tribes, reward illegal operations and pave the way for off-reservation gaming takes us in the wrong direction. It’s a sweet deal for the Spokane Tribe, but for families across the state, it’s simply an escalation in gambling.”

The deal allows the tribe to build five casinos and put in place 4,700 gaming machines (not all at once; there’s a phase-in). That’s larger than we’ve seen before, but hardly overwhelming.

But there is another factor to consider.

A group called the Citizens Equal Rights Alliance (which is, it should be noted, in opposition to a number of tribal and reservation claims of rights) points out that Washington state policy – not formally law but adhered to enough that it could not be lightly discarded – calls for treating all tribes in the state the same. CERA Chair Elaine Willman speculates on the possible implications:

With this compact, all 29 tribes in Washington State just hit the lifetime lottery wherein all basic needs and life-essentials are federally funded by taxpayers and Governor Gregoire has guaranteed many more millions every year just to play around with. The “Favored Nations” policy forecasts and assures a similar picture now for all other interested tribes in Washington State.

So how does this impact the State? It is important to understand the basics about the State of Washington in order to fully comprehend the horrific economic impact of a potential of 145 future Class III casinos that the Governor has just penned. There are 39 counties, only 11 of which have more than 100,000 citizens. Out of 280 cities, only five cities (Bellevue, Seattle, Spokane, Tacoma and Vancouver) have over 100,000 residents. Over 75% of the cities in our State, 209 cities, have less than 10,000 persons and equivalently small local economies.

Doing the math, 29 tribes times a permissible 5 Class III casinos is 145 potential new tax-exempt, Indian casinos coming to your counties and communities. That is a potential for one casino in every other town in the entire State, factoring in the Governor’s blessing for off-reservation casinos.

That probably sounds unrealistic and it probably is.

But it does prompt a question about casino growth. A little over a generation ago, most of the legal, substantial gambling in this country was confined to Las Vegas and Atlantic City. Supposedly, the move to state lottos would eat into their market and damage them economically. Never happened. Nor did it happen with riverfront gaming, with the tribal casinos and all the rest – the market just kept growing. Is there a limit to the size of the gambling market, or will it keep on growing as long as new venues for wagering open up?

Washington may start to figure out some of that.

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Looks like the hotly debated proposed expansion of the Wal-Mart at Cottage Grove will be disallowed by the city. The final vote by the city’s planning commission comes Wednesday, but it already has acted to set up the vote for denial.

Wal-Mart wanted to change city zoning ordinances to allow it to grow its current store into a supercenter – essentially, adding a grocery store within. The rules passed when the store was originally built don’t allow for that.

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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.

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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.

Start with the history: For all that the U.S.-Canada border has been all but wide open for a very long time – many decades – the number of problems have been few. To the argument that some problems have emerged, we would suggest that the the they are balanced – likely heavily overweighed – by many advantages. It only begins with the travel, tourism, trade and commerce; it continues to the strong ties and friendship the countries, and many of the people in them, have had.

These are not small consideration. At the same Border Policy conference where Lukens spoke, Peter Lloyd, the Consul General of Canada, referred to a “thickening” of the border that increased requirements could create. That could do economic and business harm to both countries, he suggested. And more: “The consequences of not getting it right will be severe for both countries … Our shared history and friendship is not something that can be taken for granted.”

He did not sound as if he was getting in line with the new order.

Neither have significant numbers of citizens, in each country. In Bellingham and other northern border areas, there’s been a persistant drumbeat against the new requirements, a key part of the reason Lukens was there to speak t the issue. The Bellingham Herald noted this bit of local reaction: “Bellingham immigration attorney Greg Boos challenged Lukens’ assertion that border communities won’t get relief in Congress. He observed that U.S. Rep. Louise Slaughter, D-NY, has received bipartisan backing for legislation that would force Homeland Security to slow down on imposing passport requirements. Lukens replied that Slaughter was one of many border area Congress members who voted for the original WHTI legislation.”

(But isn’t it more significant that she’s changed her position since then?)

We’d bet this issue isn’t over yet, mainly because the boss – us – hasn’t yet finished weighing in.

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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.

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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.

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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.

Andy Olson
Representative Andy Olson

That is Senate Bill 521, sponsored by state Representative Andy Olson, R-Albany, who was a career Oregon State Police officer. The OSP organization also backs it. Its big plus is that it puts the focus on the key point: Bad driving.

Here is the key language from that bill:

A person commits the offense of distracted driving if the person operates a motor vehicle on a highway while engaging in a distracting activity that interferes with the person’s ability to operate the motor vehicle.
(2) For purposes of this section:
(a) “Distracting activity” includes, but is not limited to, reading, writing, performing personal grooming, interacting with pets or unsecured cargo, using a mobile communication device and engaging in any activity that diverts a person’s attention from the operation of a motor vehicle.

Note the phrase, “that diverts a person’s attention from the operation of a motor vehicle;” if the activity in the car isn’t impairing the driving, then there’s no violation. (That, at least, is Olson’s and the OSP’s interpretation. We would favor a slight amending touch-up to clarify the point.)

The problem, he suggested, isn’t cell phones per se, but distraction. Not always are cell phones a problem, though clearly they sometimes are. It’s an attempt – a valiant one – to legislate against obliviousness. Proper enforcement using it would require careful judgement on the part of the patrols, but maybe there’s no legal substitute for that.

Olson told a cop story from when he was patrolling on I-5 and spotted a woman in a Mercedes speeding, drastically. He caught up with her and ticketed her for speeding. But another factor made him think something more was needed: Through the whole incident, from speeding to being pulled over, to dealing with Olson, to being ticketed, to driving off – she never quit her cell phone conversation, with her mother about wedding plans.

His testimony about SB521:

It does not restrict the use of cellular phones while driving. It focuses on driving behavior rather than restricting the act. It identifies a number of activities that could cause a driver to divert his attention, but is not limited to those activities alone. It allows an officer to take action based upon prima facie evidence. It simply says you can use your cell phone while operating a motor vehicle as long as it does not interfere with safe driving behavior [emphasis added]. One may ask, don’t we have enough laws on the books that address different issues right now while one is driving. Yes, we do. We do have failure to maintain a single lane of travel, we do have failure to drive to the right. We do have careless and reckless driving, and a host of other laws. But we do not have a statute that addresses driving behavior due to the activity of this nature.

So your kids are in the back seat making a ruckus, and you’re trying to deal with it, and you’re doing a little swerving as a result? Yep, that would put you in violation. And why not? If you’re not in control of your vehicle, lives are at risk, whether the cause is screaming kids or a cell phone conversation.

One of the veteran OSP officers at the meeting told of what he described as the single worst traffic accident he’d ever seen: Caused by a mother who turned around to shush her kids, then rolled into the oncoming lane and smashed into a truck.

It’s not just cell phones (culpable though their users sometimes are, and we can all tell stories) out there. The OSP troopers would tell you that.

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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.

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