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Posts published in February 2009

The contractors

As governments look at cutbacks this year, only a part of those cutback will be in the form of direct employees and line items. A lot of government work is contracted out, and it will get a close look too.

So consider the story out of Tacoma about that city's contract with The Orion Partnership of Issaquah. This week the city council evidently is taking a second look at the deal with Orion, for an amount of around $300,000, about half of the overall business it is doing with the firm.

What does Orion do? According to the Tacoma News Tribune, "George Orr III and Kathleen Ryan, the Orion consultants, have helped city officials design and facilitate meetings with large and small groups that are aimed at making city government more efficient. For example, they helped city officials organize the huge two-day meeting of city employees that led to the Safe and Clean initiative, a program aimed at cutting crime in half in 14 months and generally sprucing up the city. City officials cannot pull off such large-scale events without outside help, [city manager's analyst Mary] Morrison said."

Hmm. Without offering any kind of view of Orion (we have no reason to think it doesn't do solid work), we would suggest that hard-pressed Tacoma taxpayers may be a little concerned - under the current circumstances - about experienced city officials, executives and managers unable to "design and facilitate meetings with large and small groups" on their own.

Multnomah’s Republicans

Just by way of bookmarking this story out of the Oregonian, about those forgotten political people - the Republicans of Multnomah County. Yes, they're there, and actually in considerable numbers, about 75,000 registered as such.

It's just that they're so heavily outnumbered (more than 3-1, with the gap growing rapidly in recent years).

The story's a good read, for the historic perspective and the viewpoint of a group too seldom acknowledged.

Tamarack’s closure

It was the first substantial new ski resort development built in the United States in 23 years. There may have been reasons no one else tried to do what Tamarack Resort tried to do. Certainly, though word now of its impeding closure stands to be buried in the avalanche of rotten economic news, the resort's troubles came well in advance of the nation's economic troubles. The causes may be related, but the problems at Tamarack were specific, too, unto itself.

We should be clear here: The closure, slated to March 5, may or may not be permanent. But it seems the decision came not from the Douglas Wilson Company, which has run the operation for some months, but rather that of a judge. So no one knows what may happen next, other than that the results are likely to have a lot to do with however much debt is involved.

It always looked a little problematic; the concept seemed to revolve around Bogus Basin crowds paying Sun Valley rates, a formula that never seemed (here anyway) very promising, however pretty the landscape may be (and that it surely is). The Idaho Statesman reports, "As of mid-February, skier visits were at 27,000, leaving the resort with an operating deficit of $304,000 as of Jan. 23, more than the $133,555 deficit anticipated two months ago by Douglas Wilson." Yeah, some of that is recession-based, but still. Once you sell off the real estate - that being the easy part, and even that not easy any more - how does it pencil out?

A lot of people will be puzzling over that for some time to come.

Closing the courts

Among the latest economic impacts: In Oregon, shutting down the courts, one day a week.

Oregon Chief Justice Paul J. De Muniz today announced that all state courts will be closed on Fridays beginning on Friday, March 13, 2009. The closures will remain in effect at least through June 30, 2009. Future closures depend on budget decisions the legislature will make later in its session.

“These budget reductions are a huge blow to Oregon’s courts and the people we serve and will affect public safety, the welfare of children, and everyone who needs their day in court,” Chief Justice De Muniz said. “Oregonians will have the unfortunate opportunity to learn how justice delayed means justice denied.”

Not to criticize the courts for the decision - which may be the best of several unpalatable options - but we should note that courts are among the lubricants in our economic system, part of what allows things like the credit system (which is at the heart of our current troubles) to function properly.

The business base

One of the key economic points we try to pay attention to is the matter of a local economy's base - the core of service or production that serves as the center of the economic engine. In times past, for example, you might have a group of farmers who raise crops; that production forms a center of economic production, which spreads outward toward crop storing and transportation, toward business and legal and medical services, toward needed retail, and so on and on. Usually such an economic base, its central engine, is manufacturing or production of some sort, or at least something generating value. If there's not a strong core generating value, then much of what happens in an area is simply the shifting around of money, and that can become a declining circle as everyone takes out their piece. A value, a wealth, enhancer needs to be somewhere central in the system, and best if the association is tight with one of the largest employers in the area.

So the throwaway line in the stories about Micron Technology's diminished employment in the Boise area - by August, estimated to be about 5,000 - have significance even beyond the considerable and very important direct loss of jobs. Micron, which for a decade or more has been the largest private employer in Idaho, also adds a lot of wealth as a manufacturer of high-tech materials, has been a wealth/value-creator, which has made it a very useful central economic engine.

What does it say about the structure of Idaho's economy that the pending biggest private employers in the state come August will be a hospital network - St. Luke's (about 7,600 jobs) - and a big-box retailer - Wal-Mart (about 6,900)? What sort of an an economic base do they form? Maybe even more than the raw loss of jobs, Idaho policy makers need to start considering seriously how the state's economy is structured.

The mayor’s rap

You reach people where they are. So maybe rapping is an upcoming skill for politicians. Spokane Mayor Mary Verner seems to have worked that out, in rapping on stage and developing a YouTube video, which is getting substantial views, on the homelessness and poverty in her city.

The piece is called "Coming Together," and co-delivered with a university student, Josh Ogle (Gasmasq). Sample: "I'm Mary, I'm the mayor of the city, but the road here hasn't always been pretty/I've had money in my pockets but food stamps too, I've been looked up and down but somehow made it through."

The strange real world

Legislating can be difficult, but Idaho Representative Stephen Hartgen, R-Twin Falls, who in a former life as a newspaper publisher once managed a large web site operation, ought to have been able to see this one coming from a couple of mile off.

The basic concept behind House Bill 82 seems clear enough: "Current Idaho Code 18­6710 prohibits the use of the telephone to harass or annoy another person. RS 18369C1 would extend this prohibition to harassment via emails, text messaging, internet posts or personal blogs. Communications would be covered by the current penalties of a misdemeanor in the first offense and as a felony in the second or subsequent offense. RS 18369C1 provides examples of internet sites to be covered, and definoriginates in or is received in the state of Idaho".

If telephony and the Internet were the same thing, that might work. But the members of the House Judiciary Committee, where you might not ordinarily expect lots of high-tech expertise, spotted the flaws pretty quickly. From reporter Betsy Russell's blog:

Rep. Bill Killen, an attorney, asked Hartgen if the bill would cover his accessing a blog from Indiana that proved to contain material he found offensive. Hartgen said, “I think that would be a matter for the prosecutor to decide.” Rep. Raul Labrador, also an attorney, then said, “If it depends, I’m voting no. … If it depends, I have a real problem with this statute.” Hartgen said, “I think it would depend on what the prosecutor’s interpretation is. … That doesn’t really change, whether it’s Internet or telephone.” Responded Labrador, “But there is a huge difference, because the telephone message is directed at me,” while the blog is just posted in cyberspace.

Rep. Phil Hart, R-Athol, posed a hypothetical about a 17-year-old girl and a 19-year-old boy who have consensual sex, take explicit photos, then break up, and then one sends the other the photos. “In this committee we deal with the real world, and the real world can be strange,” Hart said. “Where’s the line between a crime and consensual behavior?” Hart also asked how many people would end up in Idaho’s prison system if Hartgen’s bill became law. Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, an attorney, asked Hartgen for a definition of profane language.

Is the use of the Internet "to annoy, terrify, threaten, intimidate, harass or offend" a real problem? Yes. It is. But this kind of problem grows out of a new kind of technology, new uses and approaches. And legal responses to it will probably have to grow similarly, out of new ideas and approaches.

Wyden at Atlantic

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has participated in an Atlantic magazine discussion about efforts to fund consensus on health care policy; it's an discussion worth watching.

Others participating include geneticist Craig Venter and former FDA commissioner Andrew von Eschenbach. The full podcast is available.

Micron’s shift out

micron

Micron

It was going to happen sooner or later; the foreshadowing has been here and elsewhere for a long time. But the cuts announced today at Micron Technology at Boise - about 2,000 Boise-area jobs to be gone by August or so - are still a stunner in the community. A lot of area businesses, real estate sales people and legislators as well may b gasping for air this morning.

"Micron Technology Responds to Continued Decreases in Demand," runs the press release, which may be true, but also is reflective of a long-term shift for not only Micron but aso most others in high tech; among other things, a shift overseas. Core sentence for local purposes: "This action will reduce employment at Micron’s Idaho sites by approximately 500 employees in the near term and as many as 2,000 positions by the end of the company’s fiscal year."

The outward swirl from the change will hit at least a couple of thousand other jobs, depress real estate prices and maye shutter a few businesses. Not a happy prospect at the moment.

The Idaho Statesman calculates that the move will take Micron job levels back to the early 90s, when it was in aggressive expansion mode, and make it not the first but second largest employer in the state. A major, major development; one of the top Idaho stories of the year.

Locke to Commerce, between the lines

Locke

Gary Locke

Assuming that today's news reports are right and former Washington Governor Gary Locke will be President Barack Obama's third choice - does he break the jinx? - for commerce secretary, what lessons might come out of that? What would it mean that Locke, out of active politics for more than four years and never a major national figure, is the nominee for a cabinet seat in the middle of economic catastrophe? And does it indicate anything about Washington, or the Northwest?

Those answers may appear somewhat through evolution. But a few ideas suggest themselves.

Locke was administrator of King County, an elective job, and twice elected governor of Washington, popular enough that he was expected to run for an win a third term, which in 2004 he declined to do. Those successes came in times less propitious for Democrats than they are now, and they point to both some political dexterity and to a core centrism. Locke's politics and approach seemed to be within the Democratic mainstream, taken as a whole. But he also aggravated Democrats at times, and during rough budget times earlier this decade, agreeing to substantial cuts and resisting calls for tax increases.

More specifically on point, he was active in economic development, both by way of frequent and extensive trade missions to Asia and in working with (some thought surrendering too much to) Boeing, in an effort to keep major construction projects in the Puget Sound (an effort mostly but not wholly successful). His law practice since involves general governmental relations but also some emphasis on trade relations with China. That happens to a point of some interest to the Obama Administration, considering where newly-minted Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has gone on her first trip as such overseas.

Putting it together: A Commerce secretary able to go out and sell programs in a broad way, with some instinct toward the political center, and with strong interest in Asian relations and trade (and capable of building some strong interest in that area owing to his ancestry). There's a certain logic to it.

And, oh yeah, he'd be the third Northwesterner appointed to a major administration spot. The area might not be quite so underrepresented.