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Posts published in January 2008

Hospital wars v. downtown wars

Ajournalist of our acquaintance expresses some skepticism about the usefulness of those "top 10 stories of the year" lists you see at the end of each year. We argued in their favor, mainly on grounds that they offer some distance and perspective, a look at what's going on aside from the daily and weekly ins and outs.

In offering evidence of that, note today's piece in the Eugene Register-Guard about the reader votes on the top story of the year locally: Was it the ongoing development wars between PeaceHealth and McKenzie-Willamette Medical Center (two hospitals), or downtown redevelopment?

Which sounds awfully insiderish and even self-promotional. But: The discussion of what and why certainly helps put those long-running stories in some perspective for us.

Modest expectations

This is the season of elections and management of expectations: In politics, you're usually better off setting the bar a little low, then doing better. The Oregon legislative Democrats, hoping (along with a good many Republicans) to make the case for locking in annual Oregon legislative sessions, have a slightly more complex job. They need to set the bar low enough that they won't fail to jump it, but high enough that this session seems worth doing, and doing again two years from now.

The Democratic Senate and House agendas for the session starting next month generally seem to have about hit that midpoint. Nothing on either sheet is wildly ambitious or extravagant, and not much of it looks controversial or ideological (much less so than going into the 2007 session). Still, acting on the housing debacle seems a reasonably current topic for discussion, and one premature a year ago. Expanded agency oversight will seem a ministerial thing, but worth doing. And other items on the list too sound, if unexciting, then hard to argue with, in most cases on either side of the aisle.

That may have been as intended.

An initiative election, of sorts

Okay, it's only an election for club members - not any kind of reasonable public sampling - but we'll still be interested come January 11 when the members of the Portland City Club have their say about the initiative process in Oregon.

Our guess is that a lot of Oregonians are conflicted about it. On one hand, initiatives and the other associated direct democracy measures marking their centennials in the state around these times are proud reminders of how the people in the state really can and do take charge at times when their elected officials can't or won't. But many of them doubtless get tired of the crud (and we'll acknowledge that opinions vary as to which measures so qualify) they make their way through on the ballots. We also suspect a lot of Oregonians would come up with a short list when asked how many and which initiatives have actually had a seriously beneficial effect for the state.

The new report and proposal out of a Portland City Club study group doesn't propose anything wildly drastic; it doesn't reach for the third rail of, say, ending initiatives. But it would rein them in somewhat. And it points out that the concerns are not new: It cited a 1996 report calling for procedural changes, almost none of which materialized.

The ideas in the new one are generally modest. At least one seems like a no-brainer. In many states, an amendment to the state's core document - the constitution - requires assent from both legislature and the voters. A simple majority of voters can do that in Oregon, making it easier (as we saw last year) to raise a tax through constitutional amendment than through the legislature - an outcome almost everyone should see as perverse. The new report suggests that at least 60% of voters should have to agree to a constitutional amendment. (We'd argue it should be higher than that, but the direction seems right.)

Whether any of this goes any further than it did in 1996 isn't clear. But public concern about the ballot process probably is higher now than it was then, and the City Club's vote on endorsing the report on January 11 might amount to a larger push. The environment may be a changing, just a bit.

Stopping you for no reason

When Washington Governor Chris Gregoire was explaining on Monday her rationale behind her new security checkpoint program, she pointed out that we already have security stops and checks at courthouses and airports. In many of those places, we do; and the proposed expansion of governmental stops and checks of citizens who are minding their own business and violating no law is one of the exact reasons we disapprove of them so much. Where will the quest for "safety" and "security" lead us next? How much more thoroughly will the Fourth Amendment be eviscerated in the name of keeping people safe?

Not that intoxicated driving, the intended target here, is a small thing; it is a substantial killer. But the heightened penalties and law enforcement watches for drunken drivers, and improved public awareness, have had positive effect: There's been a general decline in DUI over the last couple of decades. Much of what's been done has worked, and a variety of non-intrusive options not much use so far should be. Technology, from ignition locks to portable breathalyzers and beyond, not to mention improved efforts against alcoholism, can help further. When she said that "The fact of the matter is it's a different day than it was 20 years ago," she's right: The problem is less extreme than it was then, and we have much better options now than we did then.

The freedom to travel from place to place without being stopped by government authorities - absent some specific reason why you should be - is core and central to freedom in America. Every one of these generalized stops and checkpoints of people undermines that, a point courts generally have upheld over the years, including courts in Washington when this kind of idea was proposed in the last decade.


Statesman insiders?

We're regular and interested readers of inside-the-media blogs; having been there, local media gossip usually seems interesting. (Here anyway.) Oregon, for example, has the fine Oregon Media Insiders, which often delivers as promised. But apart from the specialized Idaho Radio News, there's been not much by way of blogging Idaho's other media, newspapers and TV.

So we're automatically paying some attention to workingpresstoo, a new blog apparently focusing most directly on the Boise Idaho Statesman. One immediate concern is its anonymity, so far at least. Another (related) is agenda; a commenter on the Spokesman-Review's Huckleberries offered, "Let me spell it out. This site was created as a pushback for Larry Craig against the media who yanked him squealing out of his restroom closet. Probably one of his staffers or ex staffers or an angry GOP operative."

Based on the early posts, that seems to be about right. (One of them includes a truly odd conspiracy theory about how the Statesman somehow set up the Larry Craig restroom sting in Minneapolis, so that it could break a gay-Craig story in such a way that it would be beaten on its own story. Huh?) But it seems to be in very preliminary shape, so we'll hold out some hope and check back. A serious blog on Idaho newspapering would be a welcome addition - and if this isn't it, maybe someone else will pick up on the idea.

ID: Zero base

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.


Debate, and an early view

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.

Roark’s election

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.”

Downsized, outsourced

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?