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Posts published in April 2008

Room for mischief

We've never taken any particular conceptual issue with some of the hot developments in public education over the last decade, notably charter schools and virtual (or on-line) schools. Too much of public education is too bureaucratized; done right, some of these new developments could bring spring air into the system. If, of course, they're done right; and ho well they've been doing is a fair question.

The Twin Falls Times News gets into some of this with a valuable lead article today pointed out how little oversight - apparently, almost none - there is of the state's virtual schools, and of the state (taxpayer) money being spent on them.

Four online charter schools serving about 1 percent of the state's public school students received about $10.8 million in public money for the 2007-08 school year.

But the schools combined spent only about 58 percent of the money on administration, instruction and related expenses, according to records from the State Department of Education.

Unlike other schools, virtual charter schools are allowed to keep what they don't spend, which totaled about $4.58 million - and the State Department of Education isn't following the money trail.

"The state does not track how schools spend the funding if they choose not to spend it on staff," state Department of Education Spokeswoman Melissa McGrath told the Times-News.

All of which logically ought to be of great interest to Idaho taxpayers.

Under pressure

And the Democratic presidential battle to collect superdelegates continues unabated. Especially wherever a group of Democrats gets together.

As witness - by way of photographic evidence - this from the Stranger's Slog, collected from a meeting of the 43rd legislative district Democrats.

Arriving to capacity

The Clinton campaign did this earlier this week too in its visit to Oregon, when the speaker was former President Bill Clinton; They booked venues clearly too small for the event. At the events in Portland and Salem, a large chunk of the turned-out crowd was left waiting outside the main hall. And today when presidential candidate Hillary Clinton came to Hillsboro (in the Portland metro area) and booked a high school which would accommodate 2,600 people, they had to know they were underbooking. And, from appearances, in Eugene today too.

There's a rule in politics that you don't want a lot of empty seats visible when you show up at a place; it looks like the crowd you were expecting instead evaporated. And if the Clinton campaign thought they wouldn't be able to fill the arenas their opposition, Illinois Senator Barack Obama, has, then it makes sense to downsize a bit. But what sort of game is being played by undersizing so much?

And no, this morning's explanation in the Oregonian suggesting a Clinton preference for more intimate venues really didn't seem to wash. Do you really think she wouldn't in a heartbeat swap the crowd size Obama's been drawing for those she has?

Explanations to come

Let's see: You have a major administrator in a fair-sized city who's held the job for four months, then unexpectedly announces he will resign "to pursue new opportunities in the private sector."

That could mean any of several things, but it almost certainly means this: There is more to the story.

The story has to do with Spokane Mayor Mary Verner's chief of staff, Mark Early, who will quit effective the end of next week. No further explanation is being tendered, other than that "there's no performance issues," an indicator that he wasn't fired for lack of ability.

More of the story will eventually out. When it does, it may say something - we know not yet what - about the new Verner Administration.

The new ID D ED

Jim Hansen

Jim Hansen

If resume and background brought to the table has much to do with it, Jim Hansen could be just about the ideal choice for an Idaho Democratic Party executive director, which is what he will be as of April 15. Of course, past isn't always prologue. But take a moment here and consider the background, hold it in mind, and then return after two or three years; what emerges may tell quite a story.

The point is that Hansen has almost the perfect background for this particular job - you could hardly invent what looks at least on paper like a closer match.

He comes from a large and prominent family with deep Idaho roots, and married into another one. The extended family is bipartisan; Hansen's father is a former Republican U.S. representative (Orval Hansen, 1969-75). Professionally, Hansen has been lawyer with substantial connections into that community. He has been a state representative, showing the skills needed to win office as a Democrat (winning it in the presidential election year of 1988, ousting not just a Republican but the popular Republican House majority leader). He also has run, albeit unsuccessfully, for major office: (the U.S. House, second district, in 2006. So he's experienced Idaho's political realities and potentials both.

Maybe more relevant than any of that is his work as an organizer, in two directions. First, his own election to the House was preceded by his work as campaign manager for another Democrats who the cycle before won election to the state Senate; Hansen has significant background as a campaign manager. The other direction is in issues organizing. In the early 90s Hansen quit his job as a lawyer and went to work pulling together a collection of left-of-center organizations, all of them then small and largely voiceless, with the idea that they might gain strength if they worked together. You can argue that the organization, United Vision for Idaho, has been running into the political brick wall of Idaho Republican conservatism ever since, from the standpoint of policy objective achieved. But it's also true that Hansen built the organization from scratch, that it has grown, prospered and developed substantial visibility and has become something of a Statehouse player. Hansen is the central reason it exists - it wouldn't have without him - and a demonstration of genuine grassroots organizing ability.

About the only base not touched so far is deep involvement in the state Democratic party structure, which probably is also an asset: He's not had to deal with the petty wars that periodically fester there. But he's doubtless quite familiar with the party's internal workings; he certainly knows all the players. And he brings a personality that comes across as energetic but doesn't seem to foster conflict. (UVI would have blown up long ago if that weren't the case.)

This will be worth watching.

Oh, it adjourned?

Capital annexThe Idaho Legislature is out, sine die'd for the year, with no especially massive waves in its wake. As with so many legislative sessions (especially in Idaho) in recent years, you have to ask - how much difference did it really make? Some, sure. The state's budget was managed. Details were dealt with, and some smaller issues handled: Small businesses will be happy at the $100,000 exemption on the personal property tax, adopted at the very end; and they could point to a small (and it was small) advance on the grocery sales tax credit. But Idaho will not be much changed because these 105 legislators met. Which is what you'd expect.

There wasn't a lot of easy agreement, apparently. Legislators butted heads repeatedly with Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter, and often with each other. Transportation was a no-brainer issue, or so it would have seemed; but the once-light and increasingly serious traffic jams in western Ada County are due to get a lot worse soon. Any proposal that suggested the state or local governments do much of anything that isn't already on their plates started life with a major handicap - which is something of an issue itself, since that's at best a problematic way to deal with the kind of growth and other changes Southwest Idaho has been experiencing.

The best immediate food for thought on some of this is a column out today by the Idaho Statesman's Dan Popkey. It gets into a "whatever happened to" question, in this case - whatever happened to that prospectively serious primary challenge to House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, R-Star, from former Eagle Mayor Nancy Merrill? And then, after she pulled out, former highway commissioner Chuck Winder? (He is now opposed only by Democrats, which in his district means virtually re-elected.)

Moyle is one of the central leaders in the Idaho Legislature; whether you like what this legislature does or don't like it, he's as good a single spot as any to point to and say, well, there you are. Merrill and Winder are Republicans, but unlike Moyle - whose sensibility seems more closely akin to the vast eastern Idaho plains than to the fast-growing Eagle area he represents - they are in favor of infrastructure development, mass transit and other needs of a growing metro region. Moyle stands in opposition, and a good many Republicans (as well as others) aren't happy with him. A significant number would like to see him gone and replaced by someone like a Merrill or Winder.

Both apparently considered the race seriously (Merrill even envisioned the billboards: "You'd put his face on I-84 and the billboard would say, 'Sitting in traffic? Emissions terrible? Can't breathe? Blame him!") and both wound up passing. Popkey on Merrill's reasons: "Merrill said the folks she expected to help, including other elected officials and lobbyists, said they couldn't publicly back her because Moyle is simply too powerful." Winder's reasons were apparently related.

This rings entirely true. The "connected" people in Idaho have gotten increasingly gutless in recent years, ever fewer of them willing to stuck their heads up or necks out to challenge people and decisions they disagree with; and this is a huge and little-acknowledged factor in why Idaho politics has remained so frozen in place for so many years. (This description obviously excludes the Democrats, a number of whom do try, but who aren't among the connected.) You can't really blame the Merrills and Winders for declining to run a race which likely wouldn't succeed without serious visible help. But you can't really sympathize either with the Idahoans who could get up on their hind legs and work for what they think is right, rather than cave, as so many do, over and over.

Done with the '08 session. Yawn. Wait out the calendar, and '09 will be another just like it . . . and the one after that . . .

The new book

Outlaw TalesAmoment here to draw a little attention to the book just added on the right-hand column of this page: Outlaw Tales of Idaho, written by your scribe and published by the Globe-Pequot Press. The precise date of "publication" isn't entirely clear, but the actual sample books have arrived by UPS and the book is up on the G-P site as well as on

It consists of stories about some of the dirty deeds (mostly though not entirely non-political) in Idaho history, up to about Prohibition. The stories were fun to put together - a variety of topics ranging from death in the wilderness by bushwhacker, to a Civil War-era political argument that got way out of hand, to the state's foremost mass murderer (of the kind known as black widows). The good people at the Idaho Historical Society, and others who had worked there or frequented the place, were greatly helpful in collecting data and pictures.

So, it'll be over there on the right-hand column for a while to come. Just in case you were wondering.

Merkley and the Beltway

Jeff Merkley

Senate candidate Jeff Merkley with staffer Carla Axtman, at campaign office/Stapilus

One of the first real issues engagements in the Oregon Senate race has emerged on an unlikely subject - the decision of who will build new tanker aircraft.

There is some Oregon backdrop to this, since Boeing - which didn't get the contract, a point of heated dispute - does some work in Oregon. And since Arizona Senator John McCain, a close ally of Republican Oregon Senator Gordon Smith, has been crosswise with Boeing for some time. That generated a shot from state House Speaker Jeff Merkley, one of the Democrats running to oppose Smith in the general election. (His primary opponents are Steve Novick of Portland, Candy Neville of Eugene, David Loera of Salem, Pavel Goberman of Portland and Roger Obrist of Damascus.) After some quick back-and-forth, the Smith force withdrew, possibly recognizing they were giving Merkley a higher in-primary standing by engaging with him directly.

There was implicit in some of what Smith had to say a couple of cross-currents, one questioning Merkley's expertise but another pointing to a New York Times op-ed from 1989 which Merkley - then still most of a decade away from entry into elective politics - had written urging cancellation of work on the stealth bomber. The idea of Merkley as a national defense expert pulling space on the Times' op-ed (albeit that the Paper of Record managed to misspell his name) almost two decades ago may come as a little surprising; why he would have written the article at all may seem a little puzzling.

It requires some explanation.

Merkley is best known in Oregon now (to the extent is well known) as a state House speaker, identified with local and state issues and politics. What's less well known is his background in international relations and defense policy, a subject almost glossed over on his campaign's own website. We sat down with Merkley last week to hear a little more about that background, which - especially if he becomes the Democratic nominee and winds up battling with Smith over iraq and other subjects this fall - could be highly pertinent.

Here's how Merkley outlines his background on foreign relations - in all a good deal more extensive, it should be said, than we'd realized. (Warning: This is a long post.) (more…)