Writings and observations

Butch Otter

Butch Otter

Last year, the first state of the state speech by new Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter included a roster of odds and ends, but some of the big stuff – from running sideways with the Statehouse renovation to wiping out the Department of Administration – wasn’t explicitly laid out; those things emerged later as people read the fine print in the budget address.

We may not know for a while yet whether that bit of history will recur, but Otter’s second SOS speech does seem a little more notable than the first. Although at times a little more ideological than the first – he made sure to get those quotes in from the Federalist Papers and from Ronald Reagan – what jumps out is some of the particularly practical stuff he included.

And atop that list is something that you’d think more administrators (especially conservative ones) would support but few have proposed: Zero-based budgeting, something we’ve long endorsed and rarely seen.

Otter skimmed through it quickly enough in his speech (his whole talk was relatively brief, under 40 minutes) that listeners unfamiliar with the idea may have missed it entirely. At present, most governments including state governments budget mostly on “base-plus” – that is, with rare exceptions, starting the budget process with existing spending, and then tack on additions from there. Existing spending doesn’t usually get a thorough look in the budgeting process, so that waste, overspending or even underspending rarely get properly addressed. “Zero-based budgeting” requires an item-by-item look at the whole budget, checking for need, efficiency and appropriate spending levels for everything. Because it is such a larg-scale effort, the idea usually is to break up something as large as a state government into pieces; Otter would divide state spending into six pieces, and rotate them over a six-year cycle. He would start the process with the 2010 fiscal year, which would mean the budget adopted by the 2009 legislative session. That would give budget planners the upcoming year to start to ramp up.

In arguing for ZBB over the years with various political and governmental people, we’ve encountered a lot of skepticism – it’s too massive, just not practical. It has been tried before in Idaho at least once, by Democratic Governor John Evans in the 70s, but it quickly bogged down as state agencies seemed if anything hostile to the idea, and the legislature showed little interest.

That could happen again. There are strong arguments for ZBB from assorted philosophical viewpoints: For people like Otter and like many legislators, it would be a tool to generate more efficiency and reduce waste; while for those across the spectrum, it could result in an affirmation that the post-ZBB government actually is sound, efficient and mostly waste-free. Part of the problem with getting ZBB passed, we’ve suspected, has been that both sides may be more afraid of the other side getting something useful to them, than of even achieving their own goals.

Otter showed signs in his speech of moving past some of that. While reinforcing his libertarian framework, he went out of his way to talk about a state government that’s providing better service, that is finding new ways to foster cooperation. He spoke favorably of a collection of new and expended government programs (mostly small in size, but significant anyway coming from him). He offered support for a local option tax proposal (significant too, even if it dies as usual in the tax committees). And he spoke near the launch of the speech of how “my thanks go to all those hardworking and dedicated [state] employees” – and the word “bureaucrat” never showed up once.

He made the point near the end that he and the legislators have just been getting to know each other, and he almost (it wasn’t explicit) seemed to acknowledge making some mistakes in dealing with them last year. He seems here to be charting a slightly different path from his traditional, and a path a little different than most of Idaho’s legislators are accustomed to. Otter will need all his skills on deck if he’s to pull them along with him.

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Two quick notes today relating to the presidential contest, by way of notes of advice and prescience.

bullet That double-header presidential debate last night was a fine piece of popcorn television, and told quite a bit about who’s what and where in the standings. The element of advice, though, has to do with debate planners in the Northwest, as candidate debates start to emerge for primary and general: Do it generally the way ABC/Facebook did it last night. Which is to say: Get out of the way of the candidates speaking for themselves and conversing with each other. There were some good insights and real perspective into the candidates you couldn’t have gotten with the traditional press conference-style “debate” which usually leads only to canned answers to canned questions. Last night, the candidates got a chance to mix it up and speak at length on specific ideas. It wasn’t perfect, but it was one of the best debate models we’ve seen for a while. May more presidential meetups, and down into the state levels, operate that way.

bullet The other, thanks to a note in The Slog today, is a referent to a column written back in September, about the startling insurgence in Washington state of a candidate with uncertain prospects, named Barack Obama. Looked iffy then; looks remarkably prescient today.

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You could argue that the new Idaho Democratic Party chair in another in a line of attorneys who ran unsuccessfully for major office. That much is true.

Keith Roark, an attorney from Hailey, and the party’s nominee in 2002 for attorney general, is the new Idaho Democratic chair, just chosen on Friday. We’d suggest only at this point that, having watching him in action during that campaign and on some other occasions, that he’s a strong choice. Roark has a powerful presence and there’s a good chance he will become a highly visible Idaho figure in a way few other Democratic chairs have.

A quote (via e-mail) from Roark: “I am a realist. The one party system is firmly entrenched in this state and will not be overcome in a single election year. The road ahead is long and hard. We are going to be patient, persistent, and tenacious. We are going to rebuild our party from the ground up. Seizing upon the winds of change that are clearly blowing across this nation, we will build momentum, not just over the coming months but over the coming years. We will build precinct by precinct, county by county, district by district, election by election. I am not naïve enough to believe that, ten years from now, the people of this state will say ‘2008 was the year Idaho Democrats made their comeback.’ But they will say that 2008 was the year the great comeback of the Idaho Democratic Party began.”

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Okay, in part yet another post about the downward spiral of newspapering – this one at the Yakima Herald-Republic, which is laying off newsroom people and shuttering its long-running bureau at Sunnyside and even axing a weekly supplement. That’s all part of the Seattle Times story too (where cuts are also coming), since the Times owns the Yakima paper.

The item here that really jumped out, though was this sentence (italics added): “It will revamp its Spanish-language weekly newspaper, El Sol de Yakima, partly by outsourcing some page production to Mexico.”

What other journalistic activity will be outsourced out of country down the road?

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Washington

Bill Fromhold

Bill Fromhold

Another Washington legislator out, but a Democrat this time. What might it mean in this year’s contest? A first look at this suggests it may not mean a great deal of change.

He is Bill Fromhold, from Vancouver: And Clark County is seriously contestable territory. Fromhold (should note here that he isn’t leaving under a scandal cloud, and hasn’t been an especially controversial elected official) will serve out his term but become executive director of a local nonprofit. Once considered a prospect for state superintendent of public instruction, he now seems to be headed to work in another education area (the Mentoring Advanced Placement Program).

District 49

District 49

District 49 is the most Democratic part of Clark County – its three legislators all are Democrats – and a look at the map dispels any mystery as to why: It is the urban, Vancouver city-centric, district, running west of I-205 and north of the Columbia but stopping to the north around Hazel Dell – generally, the more established and settled city area. It was nevertheless more accustomed, a decade ago, to voting for more Republicans than it has recently.

Fromhold has had routinely strong and slightly growing re-elect numbers: 61.2% in 2002, 62.3% in 2004 and 64.7% in 2006. The other House member here, Democrat Jim Moeller, scored over 60% in his last two elections. The senator, Craig Pridemore, is up for re-election this year, and won with just 50.7% in 2004. But, in that election he was the challenger (albeit that he was then a county commissioner) against Republican incumbent Don Carlson, a generally popular local figure who’d been elected to the legislature routinely since 1992. Pridemore looks generally solid for re-election at this point. This district seems to have moved leftward in the last two to three years.

Generally, an open seat is an improved opportunity for an opposition party. This one could be of just limited advantage.

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Briefly alluded to in the last post, but this really merits a second take: The possibility that the Iowa results could actually impact on Idaho politics. Most particularly, that Idaho Democrats may have particularized cause for smiling.

Two components to this.

First, on their own side of the fence, more than a few Idaho Democrats had to be concerned – terrified might be a stretch but not by a lot – at the prospect of Hillary Clinton atop their ticket this fall. The whole idea of Clinton redux took them into a nightmarish place few would even want to contemplate; so the rapid growth of a Barack Obama base in Idaho in recent months has been no shock. Those Idaho Obama corps has become large and active and energetic, and probably will deliver the state to their man at next month’s caucuses. And there’s basis for thinking that Obama could be the least-disliked Democratic presidential candidate in Idaho in decades. You might actually see the spectacle of Idaho Democrats running for office and mentioning their presidential candidate. A startling concept. (Disclaimer, of course: No one yet knows who will be the Democratic presidential candidate, or Republican either. Of course.)

Second, across the fence, the odds of an especially popular Republican nominee just dropped a bit. Idaho Republicans have locked in behind former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney – practically every notable Idaho Republican who has endorsed has signed up with him. And the religious linkage, the big overlap between Idaho’s Republican and Mormon community on one hand and Romney’s very public Mormon affiliation on the other, means that many Idahoans are unusually invested in how well Romney does. If the Iowa results turn out to be predictive of Republicans elsewhere around the country, that may mean, “not well” – and how will all those Idaho Mormon Republicans take that?

Of course, things can run in many different directions in the months ahead; if the Iowa results conclusively mean anything, it’s that the races in both parties are far from over. But Iowa certainly does open some lines of thought.

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One of the biggest political nights of the year, prospectively a major turning point of the presidential political cycle, and the Northwest is . . . watching. But watching with interest. You doubtless know from elsewhere that on the Democratic side, Barack Obama won decisively and John Edwards narrowly edged Hillary Clinton for second; and on the Republican, Mike Huckabee won very decisively over second-place Mitt Romney, with Fred Thompson and John McCain trailing distantly.

bullet A shrewd quick comment from one of the quickest political wits in the area, Oregon Democratic Senate candidate Steve Novick: “The voters of Iowa, both Democrats and Republicans, have sent the same message I have been hearing from Oregon voters: people want change and they want authenticity. It’s not about money. It’s not about endorsements. It’s not about so-called ‘inevitability.’ People aren’t going to take their instructions from Washington insiders. They’re tired of politics as usual. In the last few weeks the three leading Democrats have been seen as expressing three different themes. Obama’s about hope. Edwards is about anger. Clinton’s about hard work, or ‘perspiration’ – but some see her as the candidate of calculation. What we’re going to prove in this campaign is that be hopeful without being naïve. You can be angry without being bitter. And if you work hard enough, you can win by saying what you believe.”

bullet The candidates with the heaviest rosters of Northwest “names” backing them (see our list) were Democrat Clinton (in Oregon and Washington, not in Idaho) and Republican Romney (in Idaho and Oregon, not Washington). Rough night for all those guys – their candidates, while not wiped out, are in an abruptly tougher spot than they were just a short time ago. (That includes Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski, the only one of the Northwest governors to endorse at this stage, and among the in-Iowa campaigners the Clinton campaign brought in.) But also: What will all those Idaho Republicans think about this result, unless Romney finds a way to recover? To what extent was the Iowa GOP vote religion-based, and to what extent will Idaho Republicans think it was?

bullet On the other hand, while Huckabee seems to have little visible organization in the region, Obama has a strong local-based organization, strikingly so in Idaho, very substantial in Oregon and Washington.

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Get this, on the subject of apparent anti-Mormon push polling in New Hampshire . . . mysterious push polling, in that no one seems to know who’s behind it, though the subject obviously is former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney, the only presidential candidate who happens to be Mormon. News today includes word that the New Hampshire state attorney general is looking into the situation.

The Northwest connection? From the Talking Points Memo earlier today: “So we’ve got a little more to chew on on that old favorite, the mystery anti-Mormon push polls and who did them. The new info is that the next firm up the food chain is called Moore-Information, based out of Portland, Oregon. They’re fighting the New Hampshire AG’s subpoenas. And they turn out to have at least some ties back to Romney. Back in 2006, when Romney was head of the Republican Governors Association, the great majority of FEC-reported disbursements to Moore came from contracts from the RGA. Remember, other company already in the news, the one Moore-Information hired, Western Wats also had ties to Romney.”

More on this when we see it.

UPDATE A volume of excellent background and perspective on this from Coyote at NW Republican.

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What looks like a core national view on the Washington governor’s race, this from Lou Jacobson at Stateline.org (via e-mail, so no link). He lists the race among three deemed “vulnerable,” explaining thus:

“The big development in Washington state is that Republican Dino Rossi, after a long period of indecision, is now officially challenging Gov. Christine Gregoire (D), who beat him after two recounts by 133 votes in 2004. Rossi has come out of the gate quickly, raising well over $1 million in the weeks following his announcement. That’s still several million short of Gregoire’s cash account, but Rossi will be able to add to his haul early in 2008, whereas Gregoire will be barred from fundraising when the legislature is in session. Rossi’s message has been to blast cumbersome state government — using Gregoire, a career government official, as exhibit A — and 23 consecutive years of Democratic governors.”

For the moment, we’d add only that money is unlikely to be the decisive factor here: Both candidates are likely to have enough to put on a solid campaign.

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John Ladenburg

John Ladenburg

This is sounding relatively definitive: Pierce County Executive John Ladenburg seems to be positioning himself for a run for attorney general.

The Tacoma News Tribune‘s political blog is reporting that Ladenburg has been meeting with state Democrats, and will decide within a month if he will enter the race. A county spokesman said “he’s seriously considering running for attorney general.”

Pierce County is an excellent launching pad for state office – it’s a large and pivotal county. And there appear to be no other publicly interested Democrats for the job. Against that, Republican AG Rob McKenna is not likely to be an easy target; he seems increasingly dig in where he is, and his campaign has been underway for a couple of months or so.

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