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Posts published in February 2009

Boise’s 9 and 6

Hadn't spotted this before: There's an ongoing attempt to effectively merge (but presumably keeping separate signals) for two Boise-area TV stations, KIVI (Channel 6) and KNIN (Channel 9).

The theory under which that could happen is that KNIN is a "failing station" - failing economically, that is.

In our current environment, will we be seeing a lot more of this? [Hat tip to Idaho Radio News.]

Ada County’s creativity

Ada County

Ada County courthouse

One of the recurring themes of this decade, when the histories are writ, likely will be the hazards of "creative financing." We hear about it most often on the national level, but you can find it locally too. In her new blog, new/returning Ada County Commissioner Sharon Ullman reports on an example:

In the 1990’s, Ada County taxpayers were told that a public/private partnership would be a means of acquiring a new courthouse at a discounted price. One of the subsidies that was supposed to offset a portion of the cost of paying off the courthouse bonds was parking revenue from the project on an ongoing basis. Boise’s redevelopment agency, Capital City Development Corporation (CCDC), was intricately involved with the complex courthouse financing scheme. CCDC also owns and manages the majority of downtown parking facilities, including courthouse parking.

When the courthouse opened in early 2002, visitors were charged one dollar ($1) per hour for parking. Since then, CCDC has changed the fee structure for all of their parking facilities, including at the courthouse. They now provide the first hour of parking free, but have raised rates to $2.50 per hour.

Despite having increased their hourly parking rate a hundred and fifty percent since the courthouse opened, representatives of CCDC came to the Board last week to let my Commission colleagues and I know that revenues are lower than expected and they need more money to offset the cost of payments for the courthouse bond debt. CCDC wants either increased parking rates, or a payment each year from county taxpayers, to make up the deficit. When I asked the amount of the deficit, no one present at the meeting from CCDC was able to answer my question. What we do know, at this point, is that there is a deficit.

No matter how well intentioned at the time, no part of the much ballyhooed courthouse financing scheme worked as intended. The folks who fought against using “creative” financing (including former legislators Robert “Bob” Forrey, Jim Auld, Rachel Gilbert and Rod Beck) for a new Ada County courthouse were right. It didn’t work. Sadly, Ada County’s taxpayers are now paying the price.

Hat tip to the Boise Guardian, which adds that "Urban renewal opponents predicted for years that taxpayers would ultimately be left holding the bag, but urban renewal PROponents have always claimed that any default risk would be only on the bondholders and 'bond insurance' would protect them."

Stimulating Oregon

Will the national stimulus package - assuming it clears Congress in a form somewhere similar to originally intended - actually do the job? Economists seem torn every which direction about exactly what the nation's sagging economy really needs. Something, yes. But what exactly?

The prompt passage of localized stimulus efforts may give us some answers before long. Today's legislative passage of the Oregon stimulus - small by comparison with the national, but $176 million still ain't tiny - may offer some ideas.

The idea is that it would create 3,000 jobs, all of them private-sector. The projects involved are supposed to be ready to go, and should be underway by April 1. That should provide for an early laboratory.

A lot of what's happening economically is psychological - a downer feeling that keeps money in pockets and slows the economy. The idea is that an infusion of this amount of money and jobs might change the way people think.

Will it work? We may know soon.

So . . . Wyden at HHS?

Ron Wyden

Ron Wyden

The job for secretary of Health & Human Services is open. Former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, who seemed here to be the most logical northwesterner for it, isn't interested (though he says he's open to an advisory role). There's another Northwest name very much on the table, though: Oregon Senator Ron Wyden.

There's a case here too. (As Blue Oregon notes, in its posts on the arguments for both Wyden and Kitzhaber.)

There's some overlap between the two, but significant differences as well.

There is, for Democrats, a political downside to a Wyden pick: His Senate seat would be up for grabs. And, Democratic success in Oregon lately notwithstanding, you should assume that it would be. The rule in Oregon is that a Senate vacancy prompts a special election. The last time that happened, about a dozen years ago, the opening seat had been held for three decades by a Republican; the winner in that special election was a Democrat - Wyden. Only months later the other seat was up for election, and it was won by the Republican Wyden narrowly defeated: Gordon Smith. If Wyden's seat opened now, might Smith run for it? Couldn't rule it out. Might he win? Couldn't rule that out, either. In fact, he probably would start out as something of a frontrunner.

But put all that aside and consider the idea of Wyden as HHS secretary, and in effect as one of the primary leaders of the health care reform effort. (more…)

Still not enough

Sherril Huff

Sherril Huff

You have to wonder what the Republicans were thinking about the elective office of King County elections chief. Were they thinking they'd somehow easily win it and thereby gain the keys to the kingdom (as it were)?

State Senator Pam Roach, R-Auburn, who ran for the job, seemed to have thought so. Her reaction to the candidacy - and Republican Party endorsement - of another Republican, former King County Councilmember David Irons, was: "It's almost like they have a death wish," and called him a "spoiler." (Which seems ironic, since it was Irons who came in second place, substantially ahead of Roach.)

The fact that King County is majority Democratic certainly helped the appointed elections director - and winner of the election on Tuesday, Sherril Huff. She was appointed in 2007 by Executive Ron Sims, a Democrat, and got support from the county's Democratic organization. The guess here, though, is that this was less important than her incumbency and her background in elections, at Kitsap County as well as King. Voters tend not to oust incumbents unless they have a strong reason to; the Seattle Times concluded, "Huff is credited with cleaning up the operation and dramatically improving organizational and cultural climate in elections. The proof was in the latest election. King County produced a much smoother election in 2008 than it did in 2004 and Huff gets a lot of credit."

If you assume a Huff v. single Republican result, that wouldn't have done the job; Huff took 44.0% (not shabby for a marginally-known first-time candidate in a six-way race), while Irons and Roach together took 36%. the rest went to three minor candidates.

It's hard not to look on this result as a referendum on whether King County elections are being run decently. The voters, at least the 15% of registrants who voted Tuesday, seem to have concluded they are.

The case for Kitzhaber

John Kitzhaber

John Kitzhaber

UPDATE Kitzhaber is quoted as saying he wouldn't be interested in a cabinet-level job, though he might be willing to serve as a health policy advisor in some other capacity.

Among the many names circulating to replace Tom Daschle in the key Health & Human Services/health care reform position, many are well-known (from Newt Gingrich and Mitt Romney to Howard Dean and Kathleen Sebelius). One of the lesser-known to the national audience, but mentioned repeatedly as a prospect, is former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber.

Every candidate mentioned so far has a set of assets and liabilities. Does Kitzhaber make sense for HHS?

He might make excellent sense, if a number of conditions - some applying to him, some to the situation in D.C. - hold true. So, the case for Kitzhaber:

First, on the D.C. side. Part of the appeal (for Barack Obama at least) of Daschle is that the South Dakotan has been tight with the new president: They could work closely together. Another asset is Daschle's experience in Washington, as a majority leader in the Senate: He knows how Washington works from deep inside, and presumably would be a power player in moving health policy. If those points are requirements for the position, then Kitzhaber isn't a fit.

But Obama could look at it another way. His administration already has plenty of D.C. insiders. His party has solid control of the Congress - legislation could be rammed through, if need be, if it has broad support. Building that support would be at least as important, and probably more important, outside Capitol Hill than it would be on. And while having a close friend in this key spot would be a nice thing, it shouldn't be necessary. Being president means developing a lot of relationships with a lot of people. And one other thing: Obama seems much more intent on the broad goals of health policy - such as getting everyone or nearly everyone insured - than on the details, which seem to be more negotiable. He might find it helpful to have in place someone who has worked through the implications of what's happening, and can make effective judgements on policy from a solid knowledge base.

And: There are members of Congress who have health care ideas of their own, and probably no one is more centrally based to push them than Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, who already actually has bipartisan support for a large bill that actually would do quite a lot on health care.

Looked at that way, how might Kitzhaber fit? (more…)

Anti-indoctrination, anti-free speech?

Some ideas are just awfully hard to legislate. Consider the case of Washington Senate Bill 5446, the Worker Privacy Act, which as it turns out is one of the hottest pieces of legislation in the Northwest this year.

Here is how Rick Bender of the Washington State Labor Council set it up at a Senate Labor Commerce & Consumer Protection Committee hearing on it today: currently, employers can require employees to go to meetings or listen to harangues or get into discussions about such things as politics and religion and what charities they will give to, or not. Bender: "When an employer can force you to listen to or participate in non-job performance related speech, on pain of discharge, discipline or threat, this reality creates a powerful and illegitimate form of compulsion. What worker can afford to risk losing their job? . . . So instead, workers are forced to forego their first amendment rights, and forced to listen to speech on matters of individual conscience."

Another witness: "Under current law, employers can and do hold mandatory meetings in which they make it clear that certain ways of voting are preferrred or better. This is not about the freedom of an employer to make his or her political beliefs known. It's about requiring an employee to listen to that political belief." (There have been plenty of reports of this sort of thing happening; a Wall Street Journal article has outlined numerous cases at Wal-Mart.)

So, SB5446, which generally makes that kind of thing - discussions on matters like that, as opposed to discussions that relate to the work or workplace - illegal. There seems to be some logic to the point. But getting it to practical legislation is a difficult matter.

Senator Janea Holmqust, R-Moses Lake, noted that the language of the bill refers to "communications" - very broad, prospectively raising questions about even casual hallway conversations. (more…)

Sims and housing

Ron Sims

Ron Sims

Ron Sims, executive of King County for now into his third term, is a highly skilled politician - one of the best speakers in the Northwest, among other things - has been something of a political lightning rod for years. Enough that there's been some talk that an attempt at a fourth term would be problematic. As recently as December 17, the Seattle Times was reporting, "If Ron Sims runs for a fourth term as King County executive, it will be against the advice of State Democratic Party Chairman Dwight Pelz, who has joined other former Sims political allies in pushing for him to step aside after next year." Even some of his friends said they were "dreading the prospect of a campaign for a fourth term."

Over on Sound Politics, you'll find a hit from within a few hours of the nomination of Sims as Deputy Secretary at the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development:

Oops. On the day that Ron Sims gets nominated to a senior position in the Obama administration, he reveals more ethical shortcomings by committing a serious PDC violation, earning himself a formal complaint. See the Twitter box in the upper right corner of the King County Executive web page. Since about 6pm Sunday it's had a link to a P-I editorial promoting Sims' preferred candidate for Elections Director.

That may not be all that comes to the Senate's attention, but the guess here is that Sims won't have much trouble with Senate confirmation. He does have support, to begin with, from both of his state's senators, and the governor.

Although this is the number 2 slot at HUD, the agency's press release says he "will be charged with managing HUD's day-to-day operations, a nearly $39 billion annual operating budget and the agency's 8,500 employees." And, presumably, getting into housing policy to some extent.

Sims becomes, then, the top Northwest figure in the Obama Administration, in a position of some note since housing happens to be unusually central right now.

In thinking about his work at King County, "Sims" and "housing" don't necessarily go smack-up together. That said, he is a strong and effective figure. Today's Joni Balter column in the Times sums up the case for him.

Olympia catblogging

Jeff Kropf

Bob the Cat

Now, if this cat could talk . . . well it does, sort of. It blogs . . .

Bob the Cat has been a fixture around the Washington statehouse territory, notably around the Blue House where the statehouse reporters are based. Bob became popular among the ink-stained wretches, who proceeded to do two things. First, they ascertained whether he had a home (by attaching a note to his collar; and yes, he did, nearby). Second, writers that they are, they set him up with a blog.

If you have a couple extra minutes, you might see what's on Bob's mind . . .

The primary split

The decision yesterday by the Idaho Republican Party - and you can say that that's what it was, since the state central committee is its governing group - to hang in there with its close-the-primary lawsuit, prompts a couple of quick thoughts.

One is that, well, there are a lot of people who would like to see the law resolved on this, and they're getting close, within a couple of weeks and change, of maybe getting that answer. Having pressed matters this far, why not see what comes of it legally? (Of course, some people may want to be careful what they ask for . . .)

Beyond that, the vote shows something interesting about the Idaho Republican party structure. The larger party group - the delegates at the state convention - voted last summer not to pursue the closed primary idea. (A closed primary would be much like what Oregon has: Only registered members of a political party get to vote for that party's nominees. Idaho law now allows voters to pick any party's primary slate, or go independent if they choose.) Which means there's a real difference between the central committee on the one side, and the larger picture of delegates (and most elected officials too) on the other.

We'll revisit this.