One of the posers about Idaho tax auditor Stan Howland‘s report on tax commission practices – that it was in essence letting many large corporations get away without paying taxes they should be paying – has been this: Would it be ignored by the policymakers in Idaho government, or would it lead to a serious inquiry?

Some reporters asked that question, but the initial indicators were uneven. Reports today, though, suggest that a point man on this is emerging: State Senator Brent Hill, R-Rexburg, who is himself an accountant.

And a commission response is supposed to be out on Monday. When we see it, we’ll link to it.

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Today’s national “House line” on most competitive U.S. House seats – no, actually, seats most likely to turn over in party control – by the Washington Post‘s Chris Cillizza ranks the Washington state 8th district at number 17 nationally. Considering that the trend line is showing a likelihood of 20+ seats turning this year from Republican to Democratic, that puts Washington 8 on the edge.

We started this year figuring Republican incumbent Dave Reichert had an edge, albeit a small one, heading into the rematch with Democrat Darcy Burner – such rematches fall short more often than not. But we’ve seen little this year to ramp up Reichert’s odds and quite a bit (money, national mood, better reviews among them) to improve Burner’s. Last time Cillizza reviewed this race, he slotted it at number 19; now it’s up two.

Cillizza’s take: “Every Republican strategist we talk to insists on the one hand that Rep. Dave Reichert is the only GOPer who could possibly hold this Seattle-area seat but on the other acknowledges that Reichert’s time may be up. Barack Obama at the top of the national ticket is bad news for Reichert, as the Democrats’ presidential candidate will roll up the vote in metropolitan Seattle. Darcy Burner, who took 49 percent of the vote in 2006 against Reichert, is, by all accounts, an improved candidate. The political environment is everything in this district. If Obama wins big in the 8th, he is likely to carry Burner along with him.”

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Would your life be appreciably different if the Seattle Sonics were no longer in Seattle? (You’d think that would depend on whether you’re an active fan or not . . .)

The question has been asked by a pollster, the results emerged in legal action today, and here they are (for the Seattle metro area) for the question of whether you’re better or worse off if the Sonics leave: No difference 58%, 31% worse, 7% better, and 4% didn’t know.

The Sonics’ fan base again is . . .

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The General Accounting Office decision today recommending a revistation of the Air Force decision not to buy its fleet of air tankers from Boeing (but from Northrop Grumman instead) doesn’t end the battle; the tenor of initial coverage suggests that it does, but it doesn’t.

But it is enough, and more than enough, to change the political tenor of the situation. And not in a direction that will help Arizona Senator John McCain – a backer of the Northrop decision – nor those candidates running under his banner.

From the GAO:

The GAO decision should not be read to reflect a view as to the merits of the firms’ respective aircraft. Judgments about which offeror will most successfully meet governmental needs are largely reserved for the procuring agencies, subject only to such statutory and regulatory requirements as full and open competition and fairness to potential offerors. The GAO bid protest process examines whether procuring agencies have complied with those requirements.

Specifically, GAO sustained the protest for the following reasons:

1. The Air Force, in making the award decision, did not assess the relative merits of the proposals in accordance with the evaluation criteria identified in the solicitation, which provided for a relative order of importance for the various technical requirements. The agency also did not take into account the fact that Boeing offered to satisfy more non-mandatory technical “requirements” than Northrop Grumman, even though the solicitation expressly requested offerors to satisfy as many of these technical “requirements” as possible.

2. The Air Force’s use as a key discriminator that Northrop Grumman proposed to exceed a key performance parameter objective relating to aerial refueling to a greater degree than Boeing violated the solicitation’s evaluation provision that “no consideration will be provided for exceeding [key performance parameter]

3. The protest record did not demonstrate the reasonableness of the Air Force’s determination that Northrop Grumman’s proposed aerial refueling tanker could
refuel all current Air Force fixed-wing tanker-compatible receiver aircraft in
accordance with current Air Force procedures, as required by the solicitation.

4. The Air Force conducted misleading and unequal discussions with Boeing, by
informing Boeing that it had fully satisfied a key performance parameter objective relating to operational utility, but later determined that Boeing had only partially met this objective, without advising Boeing of this change in the agency’s assessment and while continuing to conduct discussions with Northrop Grumman relating to its satisfaction of the same key performance parameter objective.

5. The Air Force unreasonably determined that Northrop Grumman’s refusal to
agree to a specific solicitation requirement that it plan and support the agency to
achieve initial organic depot-level maintenance within two years after delivery of the first full-rate production aircraft was an “administrative oversight,” and improperly made award, despite this clear exception to a material solicitation requirement.

6. The Air Force’s evaluation of military construction costs in calculating the
offerors’ most probable life cycle costs for their proposed aircraft was unreasonable, where the agency during the protest conceded that it made a number of errors in evaluation that, when corrected, result in Boeing displacing Northrop Grumman as the offeror with the lowest most probable life cycle cost; where the evaluation did not account for the offerors’ specific proposals; and where the calculation of military construction costs based on a notional (hypothetical) plan was not reasonably supported.

As noted, the GAO isn’t specifically recommending that Boeing get the award, and it can’t even force the Air Force to rerun the process. But it stands as an important statement that something went seriously wrong in the original Air Force selection process.

You can get the sense of where some of this is headed by checking out Washington Senator Patty Murray‘s statement today. In part: “It is Congress’ job to determine whether major defense purchases meet the needs of our warfighter and deserve taxpayer funding. The Pentagon must both justify its decision and address the flawed process that led to today’s ruling. We need answers before handing billions of American defense dollars to a subsidized, foreign company focused on dismantling the American aerospace industry.”

Expect revisitation of the statements by Boeing partisans about how McCain was directly involved in the decision, aftermath from his efforts against a 2004 Boeing contract and change in defense rules on bidding that were also opposed by Northrop.

McCain had helped block a contract with Boeing in 2004 and pressed the Pentagon in 2006 to change bidding rules opposed by Northrop Grumman and Airbus.

Of course, McCain was almost sure to lose Washington state (and Oregon) anyway. But this could have larger effects. Could it cause him serious trouble as well even in Kansas, where Boeing has mass operations at Wichita?

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The results are subtle enough that they don’t jump out in a casual look. But someone who knows stats at the site Interstices has worked it out: A strong relationship between support for the former Republican presidential candidate Ron Paul, and for Idaho state Senator Shirley McKague.

From Interstices: “The raw votes by precinct correlate more closely than the percent of vote. And given that total votes cast in each race were very close (about 120 more votes in the Legislative race than the Presidential Primary, which is counterintuitive), it seems fair to compare the raw vote totals head to head as in the above scatterplot. . . . Using that r-square can mean — in effect, without a big stretch — that three of every four Ron Paul voters also supported McKague.” (Visit their site for the charts.)

This feels implicitly about right. And without running the stats in a detailed way, you can see it generally in a review of the 14 precincts in legislative district 20, where McKague (appointed to the Senate in the last term, but a long-time House member) was challenged by Representative Mark Snodgrass. McKague is a hard-core anti-government ideologue, formerly of the John Birch Society; Snodgrass would be considered conservative by conventional Idaho definitions, but also amenable to working on such things as air quality and transportation and education needs.

Of the 14 precincts, Snodgrass won two (43 and 48) and tied in a third (135); John McCain beat Paul by about 3-1 in all three, somewhat better than he did in most of the district. The margins varied enough that a detailed statistical analysis was about the only way to tease out a clear connection.

Interstices: “There may be a chicken and egg question going on here, whether the Ron Paul vote can first and then the voters continued to work down the ballot and voted in the Legislative races, or was it the Legislative race that brought out voters and they happened to have a Ron Paul affinity, or perhaps do not care for McCain?” We’d suggest the answer is simpler: The voters who were there for one simply found elements to support in the other, not that one is responsible for the other.

And we’re tempted by this thought too: That, given the myriad differences between a Paul and a McKague, what you’re really seeing here is a reaction against “mainstream” Republicans at this point – be those like McCain or like centrist Idaho conservatives.

(Hat Tip to Kevin Reichert at the Idaho Statesman, who also posted on this.)

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Another sign of circling the drain? The main indicator of trouble times for newspapers has been stagnant (or declining) circulation and declines in advertising, both critical. But maybe we should look too at the printing plants.

Traditionally, daily newspapers have run their own printing presses; those in joint operating agreements (like the dailies in Seattle) have shared that part of their operation, but they have been the exception. Even most small dailies have had their own presses. But that has begun to change. In Idaho, it changed in-corporation a few years ago when the papers at Pocatello and at Logan, Utah (which are about an hour and a half away from each other) quit their local printing and shared a joint press midway or so between them, at Preston. But those dailies were both owned by the same newspaper group.

Now something different is happening: Competing newspapers (which Pocatello and Logan were not) owned by different corporations are sharing printing plants. Today came word that the largest Idaho newspaper, the Statesman at Boise (owned by McClatchy Newspapers), will no longer have its own printing press, and will not even print in its home town, but will share operations with the Nampa Idaho Press-Tribune (owned by Pioneer Newspapers). Kinda changes the nature of the competition – a little less pure than it was. The same sort of thing has been approved as well in Washington, between the McClatchy Bellingham paper which will be printed at (Pioneer’s) Mount Vernon operation.

Secondarily, there’s another hidden question. Many publications depend on the newspaper presses for their printing, including most weekly newspapers. With this consolidation, will they continue to be able to get their papers printed locally, or even in arms length? And what might that do to journalism as it ripples along?

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Idaho Washington

The TVW network, which is more or less Washington’s very own C-Span (what a great service it is, and an idea co-optable elsewhere), is now living in the age of UTube, and not too comfortably. It has gotten great access to all sorts of governmental, policy and political activities over the years partly with the idea that although the public could see it all, the raw materials couldn’t be transformed into attack ads.

Except that in the age of UTube, that’s becoming an increasingly difficult proposition.

The battle over what can and can’t be excerpted from TVW (which copyrights its material) has been ongoing for a while, and the Horse’s Ass blog has been in the middle of it for a while. Some compromise seems to have been reached. Point here i to draw attention to a useful overview by Richard Roesler at the Spokesman Review, on his blog. Which also provides a useful video link . . .

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The non-establishment and the establishment split the votes at the Idaho Republican convention at Sandpoint. The establishment won more votes, but the outsiders won the big one, for state party chair.

That was where the line seemed drawn most clearly, between the grassroots, represented for purposes of this election by former congressional candidate Norm Semanko, and the downtown establishment crowd, represented by Kirk Sullivan.

From the Spokesman-Review‘s blog: Semanko is “currenlty telling the delegation that they must uphold conservative Republican principles and elect Republicans and get seats back to the U.S. House. Semanko thanked Kirk Sullivan for his years of service and added that he ‘likes Kirk’ and it was about rallying and building a relationship with the grassroots Republicans, not just the establishment.”

At the same time, the establishment won a key vote on open v. closed party primaries, getting the convention floor to stick with open primaries. (What the central committee, the final policy maker for the party, will have to say about that is unclear.) And National Committeeman Blake Hall, challenged by former state Senator Rod Beck (who had been the challenger to Sullivan before Semanko entered that contest), survived, but apparently narrowly.

More evidence at this convention of splintering among Idaho Republicans than since 1990. Not that this is a prescription for 1990-type results (that being the best year Idaho Democrats have seen since 1958), but it does give pause.

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The proposal for Idaho’s police office training organization to contract with Blackwater International (see our earlier post) is apparently on hold at least, and possibly derailed.

This week’s meeting of the Idaho POST (Police Officers Standards and Training) Council led to a tabling of the proposed agreement. There were anti-Blackwater protesters outside the meeting, but more decisive may have been expressions of concern from area law enforcement leaders. Take note of the end of the Spokane Spokesman-Review story on this:

Kootenai County Sheriff Rocky Watson said that was his understanding after speaking to Blackwater representatives. Watson said he was told the center would be built on 300-plus acres between Coeur d’Alene and Worley and the first phase of construction would cost more than $20 million.

The representative “made it very clear it was a military training facility,” Watson said. He suggested Blackwater was trying to attach itself to local law enforcement in an attempt to make it easier to locate in North Idaho.

“As sheriff, I don’t want my officers going to that facility just because of public perception,” Watson said. “Our reputation is important to us. I don’t know if Blackwater did everything that was reported in the media. They’ve now obtained the reputation.”

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Is it something about Oregon Senator Gordon Smith‘s speech patterns that simply make him hard to follow? We had a tough time trying to make sense late last year of his big Iraq speech on the Senate floor, and the new video circulating today is no easier.

On one level, the Q-and-A here is transparent enough. The question was, “Do you support a much broader extension of partnership rights through, for example in our home state, the recent domestic partnership bill that has passed? And secondly how do you reconcile your position on partnership benefits with your support of the federal marriage amendment and the marriage protection act?”

Smith disposed of the first part easily and clearly: “I am fine with what the legislature did. I think it is a good accommodation of very legitimate demands by gays and lesbians.”

The second question, though, seemed to send him backwards, forwards and sideways. His reply – you’d best listen to it yourself – seemed to revolve around concerns about defining marriage and especially federal as opposed to state determinations about it. But when he brought in the whole subject of polygamy, he vanished into verbal quicksand; you suddenly couldn’t tell what he was in favor of.

Gotta love his conclusion, though: “And I hope you understand.”

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Chris Cillizza, the Washington Post political blogger, has been something of a skeptic about the Jeff Merkley campaign in the Oregon Senate race against Republican incumbent Gordon Smith. His take for some time has been that Merkley hasn’t “caught fire.”

That sense seems to have changed (and we get the sense that it has in places elsewhere too) in his rundown today of the Senate Line, wherein he lists the U.S. Senate seats most likely to switch party control in November. Smith/Merkley has been on the list consistently, but over the months most often moving dwn the rankings. This week it moved up, from No. 8 to No. 6 (behind, in order, Virginia, New Mexico, Colorado, New Hampshire and Alaska). Cillizza’s take:

Regular Fix readers know that we have long been skeptical about state House Speaker Jeff Merkley (D). But to his credit, Merkley managed to win the Democratic primary last month over activist Steve Novick and now stands as something close to an even-money bet against Sen. Gordon Smith (R). Why? Obama is a heavy favorite over John McCain in the state this fall, and Merkley will surely benefit from a huge turnout in the Portland-area for the party’s nominee. Merkley also caught a break recently when John Frohnmayer, a well known name in the state expected to take votes from the Democratic nominee, dropped his third party bid. Smith is paying attention and doing everything he can to win reelection, but he faces an extremely difficult environment.

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Walkscore in Seattle

Into our ongoing lookout for indicators that may suggest partisan leanings by geographic location, strolls a promising entry: Walkscore.

This is a ratings tool, in this case rating neighborhoods by how “walkable” they are – meaning, among other things, how many business and service resources are available in walking distance. This relates, of course, to how urban an area is (and with rare exceptions, in recent years urban areas have trended strongly Democratic) but also to other factors, such as (often) the number of children in a neighborhood and the number of local vs. chain businesses.

The site has ratings out for Seattle’s neighborhoods, and a map (a piece of it reproduced here) showing where the most and least walkable areas in the city are.

Seattle overall is, of course, highly Democratic. In relative terms, though, a quick eyeballing gives the suspicion that the more “walkable” neighborhoods (indicated here in green) are also the more strongly Democratic. Thoughts? Does this look like a rough correlation, or not?

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The smoking ban in Washington state covering bars and a bunch of other businesses, which went into effect in December 2005, was long fought as an economic nightmare, a killer that would savage a whole range of rtail businesses.

Except, apparently, that just the reverse happened: A new state Department of Revenue report says that business has jagged sharply upward ever since the ban went into effect.

We won’t press the point too far; there are lots of reasons, not just one, that a business may do better or worse. The department is careful to say that it “asserts no cause and effect relationship between I-901 [the anti-smoking initiative] and industry revenues.”

Still. For Washington bars and taverns, annual revenue growth in the three years pre-901 averaged 2.1% a year; in the two years after, the average growth was 9.7%. The total of food service and drinking places statewide (many of which were non-smoking beforehand) showed no significant change, from 6.8% average growth to 6.9%.

See also the item in the Slog (“Wasn’t the smoking ban going to destroy bars?“) about this.

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Back around the fall of ’05 we were hearing talk that the field of Republican candidates for the 1st U.S. House district in Idaho might include one Bill Sali, a state legislator not much liked by Republican leadership (among others). We heard that from a few people whose take on Republican field organization has been good. We did not hear it from any of the downtown Boise Republican inside crowd; those we heard from among the downtown crowd, in fact, were dismissive of the very concept, and initially convinced there was no way Sali could get anywhere. We thought otherwise, and didn’t really seem to convince anyone until the primary election results gave the nomination to Sali.

This comes to mind in the rapidly-changing battle over the chairmanship of the Idaho Republican Party, which has been held by Kirk Sullivan, a well-respected downtown guy who is very much a part of the downtown Republican crowd, close to the lobbyist community, the congressional staffs, the legislators, the staffs of the statewide elected officials (and their principals, of course) and so on. He has personal support from most of them, from Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter on down. He’s not a lightning rod kind of guy, much more the diplomatic than confrontational type, which makes the recent fierce struggle to oust him seem all the stranger. But then, it would seem, it’s not really a matter of Sullivan personally.

The man who has been challenging him directly, former state Senator Rod Beck, is much more the lightning rod type. But the idea that Beck’s candidacy for the chair is about something other than Beck now has got some support, with Beck’s withdrawal from the contest in favor of attorney Norm Semanko (better known till now as a failed congressional candidate in 2006, as head of the Idaho Water Users Association, and as a new city council member in Eagle).

Beck told the Idaho Statesman that “I was convinced I had 55 (percent) to 60 percent of the vote. I think with Norm throwing in, he could get as much as 70 percent.”

(Beck’s new target is another Republican establishment guy, Idaho Falls attorney and former state chair – now national committeeman – Blake Hall.)

Without guessing at the percentages, our sense that Beck isn’t far wrong in his analysis. The indicators we’ve seen are that while most of the downtowners remain happy with Sullivan, the grassroots activists are agitating for a change – and odds are they have the numbers. Two key indicators of that are two people close to those grassroots, Sali himself, and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, who say they are backing Semanko. The point is not that these two may sway a lot of people; but they are markers, indicators of where a substantial portion of the Republican organization is going.

Semanko, who himself has a strong diplomatic streak, will be put to a serious test if he wins – pulled in two directions. This could be one of those occasions where the effect of winning is to offer a demonstration of just how good a politician you really are, because he would sitting astride a serious split, and an increasingly emotional one.

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In a package of stories today on rising gas prices, the Oregonian included a McClatchy piece (bylined Kevin G. Hall) listing three moves regulators could take (endorsed to date, it notes, not by Bush, McCain or Obama) that could choke off some of the price increases. One is strengthening the dollar, which could have a wide range of other effects as well. A second is dipping into the strategic oil reserve, which probably makes sense but has some issues too.

The third seems a no-brainer: “Perhaps the quickest action, the experts said, would be ordering curbs on financial speculation. Financial industry heavyweights have acknowledged before Congress that such speculation is driving oil prices higher. Pension funds, endowments and other big institutional investors are pumping big money into index funds linked to commodities, including oil, driving up demand – and prices.” Such restrictions could be enacted by a simple presidential order, or congressional action.

We’ve been watching for a while for a candidate for federal office, anywhere, to address this – it would seem one of the easiest and most useful steps available in the short term. Today, we ran across the first we’ve seen (if you’ve seen others, let us know), from Oregon Senate candidate Jeff Merkley.

In a release on gas price policy, he offered support for the Consumer-First Energy Act (S. 3044) which among other things, he wrote, will “Stop Wall Street speculation by preventing U.S. contracts to be traded on foreign exchanges and closing the “Enron Loophole,” which allows energy commodities to be traded on markets exempt from any federal, state, or local oversight. The Farm Bill included language that was intended to close the Enron Loophole, but the CFTC has said that it will not treat crude oil contracts as covered by the amendment.”

This would seem an obvious political hammer. And to useful purpose, too.

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