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Posts published in March 2009

Transparency they all could do

The more recent wave of talk about congressional earmarks - following the wave of disgust with them last year - is that they aren't inherently bad things, that members of Congress probably ought to have a role in spending issues, but that more public visibility of the process is needed.

That's where Idaho Representative Mike Simpson came down, and he has put his money (requests) where his talk is. Today he released an explanatory statement about earmarks and his involvement with them, and his proposals of them in the current budget cycle. Then he also posted the list of what he has proposed in Congress.

Simpson: "I also want to be clear that the projects I am requesting represent only a portion of those submitted to me this year. Many did not make the cut. The projects I have submitted are focused largely on growing the Idaho National Laboratory and the jobs it provides for eastern Idaho, expanding course offerings at Idaho’s colleges and universities, improving Idaho’s water and transportation infrastructure, preserving and conserving Idaho’s native species and public lands, and growing jobs and opportunities in Idaho’s high-tech and health-related economies."

We'd suggest as well that requests from public entities be released too. But Simpson's effort is solid, clear and highly visible.

Semi-fusion voting

If the Oregon Senate follows the track of the Oregon House (which in this case voted 52-8 in favor), Oregon may make one of the more interesting changes in Northwest election laws in years, but which once was commonplace: Something resembling fusion voting.

A century and more ago, many parts of the country (and the Northwest was prominent in this) had two major and a number of minor parties which often would split support of various candidates. Seldom would a candidate get both the Democratic and Republican nominations, but they might also pick up support of one or more smaller parties, and these levels of support could be enough to make a difference. (The Idaho governor who got the largest-ever voting percentage, in 1896, was a Democrat - but he got it with the support of a batch of splinters as well.)

Some states (New York, for one) still do remnants of this kind of voting but the Northwest has not for a long time. But Oregon, for one, has always allowed candidates to pick up the nominations of more than one party in a single election. It just hasn't placed more than one party's support on the ballot - you have to choose.

Now that seems likely to change, if House Bill 2414 passes - "will allow candidates for partisan office the option of listing the names of more than one nominating party on the general election ballot (i.e., Ben Westlund Democratic, Independent or Vicki Berger Republican, Independent)."

You may have picked up a trend line there; the new Oregon Independent Party did quite a bit of cross-nomination last cycle and probably will again, and the joint listing on the ballot could substantially increase the value of the joint nominations. (Some other smaller parties have done likewise; the Independent's press release on the subject today notes that bill co-sponsor Representative Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, in 2008 got both the Democratic and the Working Families nominations.)

There's a good chance, by the way, that the Senate will go along: Nearly half of the members of the Senate already have put down their names in support.

A demarcation line

Huffington Post has out a list of the members of the congressional Blue Dog - conservative - Democrats, who have their own organization and evidently a concrete membership list.

Although a fifth of the House Democrats overall are Blue Dogs, just one of the 11 Northwest House Democrats is a member. No surprise: Walt Minnick of Idaho's 1st district.

Swan Falls: A smashup averted

A few quick thoughts on the Thursday announcement of an agreement between Idaho Power Company and various others, including the state of Idaho, about water rights linked to the Swan Falls Dam on the Snake River.

Swan Falls has a big place in Idaho water law, most critically because of the state Supreme Court decision from 1982 which said that Idaho Power had the rights to more water upstream of the dam (which is more or less south of Kuna) than almost anyone had previously suspected. That decision unleashed a couple of years of political and economic chaos until state and Idaho Power officials reached the agreement they more or less had to, which still gave Idaho Power the water it needed but didn't suck dry the desert land east of Boise, where many thousands of water users were on the verge of losing their water. The deal also launched the Snake River Basin Adjudication.

The deal was the one that had to be struck because if Idaho Power actually grabbed all the water which it might have been able to, a massive part of its rate base - the irrigation-based farm structure, some key industries and more - might have collapsed. The decision was the one that had to be reached. Over the years, though, Idaho Power inevitably took renewed looks at the agreement, and a couple of years ago challenged (in SRBA Court) some of its key terms.

The new agreement essentially puts that challenge to rest. (Okay: That's oversimplified, since it does have some substantive effects, but in the case of the larger issues it's nonetheless mostly true.)

The deal has been described as a major turning point. It is important, certainly, but mainly by way of averting a twist in Idaho history: A serious upending the 1984 Swan Falls agreement could have had massive unforeseen effects. It would have thrown a major curve into Idaho history. As matters stand, this is a deal that allows the big picture of Idaho development and history . . . more or less to proceed.

And still more troubled banks

We're not done with the troubled-bank story yet. A Seattle Times analysis today by Drew DeSilver says that "At least a dozen of the 52 Washington-based banks examined are carrying heavy loads of past-due loans, defaults and foreclosed properties relative to their financial resources. Many of these banks have set aside relatively little cash to cover problem loans, the analysis shows."

The banks cited include Anchor Mutual Savings Bank at Aberdeen, Horizon Bank at Bellingham, Evergreen Bank at Seattle, and Venture Bank at Lacey. But there are others too. (Interesting that the overlap with the list of federal stabilizing funds recipients doesn't seem to overlap much.)

There's also an interactive chart showing where the banks sit according to a number of measures of stability. With the caveat that no single set of numbers are solid indicators, the eye naturally goes nonetheless to the comprehensive risk ratio, which (roughly) indicates how bad assets stack up against good ones. You see there why some of the aforementioned banks get some of the attention they do. Westsound of Bremerton has the highest CRR at 282.5%; Venture at Lacey is at 172%; City Bank at Lynnwood at 171%; Frontier Bank at Everett at 126%; Shoreline Bank at Shoreline at 120%; Seattle Savings Bank at 117%; Horizon Bank at Bellingham at 110%; North County Bank at Arliington at 103%.

None of this is totally current; most of the information seems to be as-of the end of last year. But it gives you an idea of what headlines might be emerging in the months ahead.

A dairy decline

One of the biggest economic stories in Idaho over the last couple of decades has been the tremendous - you might say wild - growth in dairies, especially megadairies, mostly in the Magic Valley but partly also in southwest Idaho as well. These factory operations have become a key part of the state's economy, even as they present a series of environmental and other issues faster than those issues can be dealt with. Abruptly, dairies became the biggest, most important sector of the Idaho farm economy, accounting for about a third of money produced.

The overall troubled economy, though, has put a pause in the dairy growth, and even in places reversed it.

A new Associated Press piece cites massive cutbacks in some dairy operations, and says one industry figure reports "The dairy drop has cost the state's economy roughly $200 million in taxes and lost revenue since the beginning of the year."

While much of the economy drawdown attention has focused on construction and tech, other sectors are scaling down too, and some of them - like dairy - have about as much impact on the state.

OR5: A possible contest?

Kari Chisholm has a forward-looking Blue Oregon piece on prospects in the Oregon 5th House district, one of two in the region (the Idaho 1st is the other) where a freshman will be doing defense.

5th district

As Chisholm notes, political wisdom is that the first run for re-elect is the best shot at taking out an incumbent; after that, it tends to get difficult. (A first-term takeout is how the Idaho 1st just changed hands.) So new Democratic Representative Kurt Schrader, who won by a substantial but not overwhelming 54.5%, is likely to be mid-level on the Republicans' target list.

He's logically on it partly because of his freshman status, because because White House parties tend to lose House seats in the mid-terms (as 2010 will be), and because the 5th district has plenty of Republicans and no lack of ambitious prospects. Some of them don't make a lot of sense, notably Mike Erickson, the businessman who has lost twice and imploded last year amid scandal-type headlines. Chisholm lists such other Republicans as a former failed congressional candidate (Jim Zupancic) and a slew of legislators (Vic Gilliam, Scott Bruun, Vicki Berger, Fred Girod) and one who has done both - former congressional candidate and current state Senator (mid-term in 2010) Brian Boquist, who just might be the overall politically strongest of the group. (We'll get into defending that evaluation later if it seems to have relevance.) But most of these people, and some others, could be credible congressional contenders. Schrader himself was a legislator too, a year ago.

Our sense is that Schrader will not be an easy target, though. The 5th district has a historically Republican cast, since its main population centers - Marion and Clackamas counties - have voted generally Republican in most elections for decades, up to the last few cycles. In the last two cycles, Clackamas seems to have moved clearly into the Democratic camp, and for a year now Marion has had a Democratic voter registration edge, a remarkable flip there. And while the the 5th voted for George W. Bush, it turned in 2008 to Barack Obama, whose percentage here almost exactly matched Schrader's.

Of course, all that can flip again, depending on how the news runs over the next year-plus. But at the moment, Republican prospects are reliant more on changing the dynamic than hoping to ride it. And that may influence the nature of the candidates ultimately interested in the race.

Them that got

A few quick observations on the just-released county and metro area census figures . . .

One is that, since the estimation period ended in July of last year, that happened before the economic crash really started to hit. What changes might happen when the next round comes out, the estimate closing in July of this year?

Another is that, for the most part, growth has continued in larger jurisdictions, and population declines seem centered in smaller and more remote areas. The estimate is that as of mid-2008, King County (the big kahuna in the region) added another 25,000 or so people, which is a little more than it added in the year before. Pierce County added about 12,000 (though Snohomish considerably less). Multnomah County grew about 15,000 and Washington County (Oregon) close to 10,000. Ada County added almost 8,000.

But: Some of the largest percentage growth in the region was in the somewhat smaller urban areas. The hottest metro in the Northwest, by far, was the Tri-Cities which went from 227,905 to 235,841. Next largest in percentage was the Idaho Falls area, which went from 119,133 to 122,995 (largely accounted for via suburban growth in Jefferson County just north of town). Is there a nuclear generator for population going on here?

Bend, Olympia and Coeur d'Alene had the next largest percentage growth.

All of that shouldn't totally obscure the places that have been showing clear population declines. Among those counties: Bear Lake, Caribou and Clearwater in Idaho and Gilliam, Grant, Harney and Sherman in Oregon. (None in Washington.)

Note also some counties we've been thinking of as resort growth counties, which turn out generally to have stabilized in population the last few years: Blaine, Teton and Valley in Idaho, Hood River and Lincoln in Oregon.

Passage of the omnibus

It took a long time, but to get a sense of how big the omnibus lands bill - just today passed the House, following Senate action - actually is, visit the HR 146 text page and scroll down it. (It does include a few non-lands measures as well.) You may be scrolling for a while. (There seems to be no doubt that President Barack Obama will sign it.)

Most of the Northwest's delegation voted in favor, excepting only two Washington House Republicans, Doc Hastings and Cathy McMorris-Rodgers. The Oregon and Idaho unity stemmed from the inclusion of significant projects in both of those states.

The big one in Oregon will be the Mount Hood wilderness status, which most of the delegation has been pushing on for years, and in Idaho the Owyhee Canyonlands, where Senator Mike Crapo took the lead. But there are also a bunch of others; Oregon's alone includes updated versions of what once were seven separate lands bills Senator Ron Wyden had introduced over the years. This is a big development, and surely one of the major pieces of legislation to pass this year.

Inability to testify = no crime

gelser

Sara Gelser

How about this for a perverse structuring of the law: Commit an awful crime against someone who - maybe because of very young or old age or physical disability - cannot testify, and you can't be touched by law enforcement even if you confess.

Call it a loophole in the law, currently on the books in Oregon. The House has, though, just unanimously passed House Bill 2441, which aims to fix it.

It stems from a normally-reasonable standard, that a person cannot be convicted solely on the basis of confession. In the case of most offenses, that's not ordinarily a big issue. But it can be the cases of assault, especially sexual assaults, against some disabled people. Representative Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, has cited a pair of recent state Supreme Court cases where the problem emerged:

In 2007, the Supreme Court overturned Michael Simons' convictions of rape, sodomy, unlawful sexual penetration, and sexual abuse against three elderly patients in a memory care facility despite the Simons' confession to the crimes. (Oregon v. Simons)

In 2008, the Supreme Court overturned a conviction for first-degree sodomy and first degree sexual abuse against a toddler, despite the defendant’s confession (Oregon v. Delp). In the Delp case, the Supreme Court opinion read, in part: “This issue requires us to confront. . . the difficult problem that arises ... when the victim of a confessed crime is incapable of recounting—or perhaps even perceiving—the injury or harm to himself or herself, and the record does not contain physical evidence of such an injury or harm.”

Care has to be taken in these kind of cases that the confessions be cleanly obtained, and the bill looks cautiously drawn, as it should. (It requires, for example, that a court "Whether there is evidence demonstrating the truthfulness of portions of the confession; Whether the defendant had the opportunity to commit the crime; The method of interrogation used to solicit the confession.") But these kind of offenses need to be prosecuted, which you can only do meaningfully if there's a realistic way to convict.