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Posts published in March 2009

A bull market in hate?

Hard times lead to hard feelings, and worse. The Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks hate and related groups around the country, reports finding 926 such groups around the country, "up more than 4 percent from the 888 groups in 2007 and far above the 602 groups documented in 2000."

It goes on: "As in recent years, hate groups were animated by fears of Latino immigration. This rise in hate groups has coincided with a 40 percent growth in hate crimes against Latinos between 2003 and 2007, according to FBI statistics. Two new factors were introduced to the volatile hate movement in 2008: the faltering economy and the Obama campaign."

Some caution is called for, though, in evaluating all this. One of the newcomers to the list is the Eugene-based Pacifica Forum, which seems to fall into a gray area. Pacifica has given a platform to anti-semitic speakers in recent years, and the SPLC seems to have concluded that the relationship is closer than simply offering a soapbox. The Eugene Register Guard, which has watched it in action for years at close range, offers this interpretation:

"If the Pacifica Forum represents any kind of threat, it’s a small-bore threat indeed. The number of people who are actively involved can be counted on two hands, and among them are a high quotient of people guilty of nothing worse than being stubborn fools. Listing the forum as a hate group will serve mainly to pump up its sense of importance, and bolster its self-image as a martyred defender of free speech. The forum began, and functioned for years, as a platform for controversial political and historical analysis of every ideological stripe. Among its speakers were sharp critics of U.S. support for Israel, and some of these stepped over the line into outright anti-Semitism. When the forum was called out on this, its organizers mistook public criticism for intimidation. They remained blind to the difference between speakers who expressed strong views on matters of public policy and those who demonized entire groups of people. They confused their bad judgment with open-mindedness."

So some caution and acceptance of gray areas is called for. And numbers of a given category can rise and fall depending on how you define the category.

The SPLC points to 26 groups around the Northwest, 12 in Washington and seven each in Oregon and Idaho. In the national context, these aren't massive numbers. States in the south and border-south have many more per capita. It's a part of the landscape up here, certainly. But might this be an indicator that the Northwest is not a specific breeder of this kind of activity? (more…)

A tale of two bonds

spokane schools

From the Spokane School District 81 website

Those into parsing the details of election returns will want to turn toward a post on the Spokane Spokesman-Review Spin Control blog, which gets into the distinctive results of two March 10 public bonding votes in Spokane. One (the larger) passed, the other failed. The votes weren't close.

In fact, the one that passed, a $288 million school bond, was estimated at 15 times larger than the city of Spokane bond, which failed.

Why that result? Reporter Jim Camden points to a much larger campaign budget for the school bond than for the city's - $145,000 to $6,600 - and more sophistication on the part of the school campaign. But there was also this: "the city bond issue was for a fairly amorphous set of projects, such as an evidence warehouse, some new courtrooms, an expansion of an animal shelter. The District 81 bond issue was for specific schools, and the approval margin is significantly higher in the neighborhoods around those schools, presumably because parents who live there know what needs to be done to their kids’ classrooms."

Paying its way

Jeff Kropf

There are indicators that the idea of legalizing marijuana, or at least moves in that direction, are starting to take hold. Oregon may be one of the latest, best indicators, because there's now a bill in the Oregon House to create a state-run process for producing and distributing (medical) pot - and reaping state tax money from it as well. It would be a variation on the state's liquor control operation.

Here's the formal description of House Bill 3274:

Directs Department of Human Services to establish and operate marijuana production facility and distribute marijuana to pharmacies for dispensing to medical marijuana cardholders and designated primary caregivers.
Allows pharmacists to dispense marijuana to medical marijuana cardholders and designated primarycaregivers.
Disallows private marijuana grow sites.
Imposes tax of $98 per ounce on marijuana dispensed by pharmacies. Establishes Marijuana Production Facility Fund. Continuously appropriates moneys from fund to department for operation of production facility.

The list of sponsors here is highly interesting. The senators are Ginny Burdick (liberal Portland Democrat), Jeff Kruse (conservative rural Roseburg Republican) and Rick Metsger (rural/Portland area Democrat, considered moderate, and a former and probably future candidate for statewide office). That alone should give an indication that this is no personal windmill, or that the idea seems to be some sort of political third rail. That's even more true of the many House sponsors - 22 of them, approaching half the chamber, running the full gamut, including a bunch of conventional conservative Republicans Dennis Richardson, Ron Maurer, Jim Weidner, minority leader Bruce Hanna), the more moderate members of the caucus (Scott Bruun, Vicki Berger), relatively conservative Democrats (Mike Schaufler), along with caucus-centrist Democrats (Mitch Greenlick, Tina Kotak, Carolyn Tomei). This is a genuinely bipartisan, cross-ideological deal.

What do you want to bet it passes?

And what's the national context?

We posed the question to Allen St. Pierre, the executive director of NORML (the National Organization for Reform of Marijuana Laws), and here's his reply.

To date, no state has formally adopted any taxation scheme for the distribution of medical cannabis.

NM...realizing the likely conflict with federal laws, opted for a ‘self-preservation’ medical cannabis model. The RI legislature is currently re-visiting their 2-year old medical cannabis laws to create a state-authorized distribution system (which, again, raises numerous state/federal issues), but no $ amounts have been discussed re any levied taxes or fees.

In CA...the only state with quasi-retail access to medical cannabis, in some parts of the state, their board of tax equalization has weighed in on possible revenue from medical cannabis; CA’s tax revenue bureacracies (city/county/state), whether they know it or not, have been collecting ‘taxes’ from some of the cannabis sales outlets—often in the form of the state’s junk food tax masking as cannabis tax.

Richard Lee, proprietor of two of Oakland’s five licensed medical cannabis dispensaries told CNBC that his stores paid over $900,000 last year to city, county and state agencies.

Oregon would be breaking ground.

Examining the pieces

A definition of dismantle: "1: to take to pieces ; also : to destroy the integrity or functioning of; 2: to strip of dress or covering : divest; 3: to strip of furniture and equipment."

Used in a sentence, in an editorial in today's Idaho Statesman: "Gov. Butch Otter wants to preside over a dismantling of Idaho public schools. There is no subtle way to say it. And there is no way Idahoans should accept it. Otter's K-12 plan - using the word loosely - calls for cutting 5 percent from the schools' budget for teachers and staff. This will mean fewer class days, fewer teachers in the schools, and more children crammed into classes."

Is that a dismantling, though, and does Otter want to preside over it? Does a 5% budget cut - serious as it is, and it is serious - amount to a deconstruction of the system? We'd probably suggest a little more generosity than the Statesman has, recognizing the difficulty of the financial situation and Otter's limited options.

And they are more limited than many people may realize. From Otter's rebuttal to the editorial (and other critiques): "The reality is that I have some discretion – with legislative concurrence – over the use of less than $45 million of the $1.2 billion that is available to Idaho. That amounts to about 3.6 percent of the total. Given those limitations, all I am proposing to do is what people on Main Streets and in families all over Idaho are doing – tightening their belts. The people we serve are doing it; state government must not be exempt."

That last gives us a sharp spin of its own, though. This year's economic crisis has to do more with a lack of spending - a freezing up of money that usually flows through the economy - than it does with profligacy; over-indebtedness may have gotten us into much of this mess, but the problem now is that people aren't spending. There's never an excuse for waste, but "belt-tightening", whether governmental or otherwise, isn't the recipe for renewal at the moment.

This whole debate, which has been going on (in Boise as elsewhere) more quietly for some time but seems to have erupted today (in Boise), with the editorial, the governor's rebuttal, and other commentary. In Idaho, the key debate seems to revolve around the honeypot: The state's rainy day fund, which Otter is loathe to use (recognizing that the economic downturn may last into another budget cycle) and others are suggesting be used to at least some greater extent. The idea of finding new revenue to help bridge the gap appears to be off the table. (more…)

Teaching to the pizza

What's next when it comes to underfunding schools (see post to follow shortly)? The future of the really underfunded schools may be showing up in Pocatello . . .

Where, according to news reports, high school history and economics teacher Jeb Harrison is selling advertising - ads his students are obliged to look at. They are so obliged because the ads (for a 14-inch pizza for $5!) appears on tests and workbooks.

Before you blame the teacher, note that Harrison is not pocketing the money: The $315 so raised is being spent by the pizza shop owner on supplies for the classroom. The motivations of teacher and business owner seem more or less honorable enough. (The three commenters on the news story linked above all though this a wonderful idea.)

Where do we go from here - what's up for sale next? Is this the kind of sad, sold-out future - where absolutely everything is nothing more or less than another blank slate for another ad - we're headed toward? It is if we take the attitude toward school funding that - well, we'll come back to that in a moment.

Steele’s rousing . . . uh . . .

Adding to the growing list of quotables from new Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele - quotables especially by Democrats - comes this one at his fundraising stopover in Portland today:

"At this moment, we have to acknowledge that their team has a better game plan, their team has the better players and their team has the winning way. What is important for us to do as a party is to adapt to the new realities that the Democrats have created very successfully."

That's the ra-ra spirit! You can just see those devoted Republicans pulling out the checkbooks after hearing that message . . .

Not that there isn't some truth to it. But then there was some truth in what he said about Rush Limbaugh too. At first: Before backing off and apologizing. Brace yourself for something similar, on this latest one, soon.

The outlier

When it comes to voting in Washington state, the peculiar county is not oft-maligned King, but rather Pierce County - the only one of 39 where voting at physical polls can still be done. (Mail voting is optional.) All others vote, as Oregon does, by mail.

The Washington House has now passed - on a close vote, 54-43 - House Bill 1572, which would convert Washington to an all-mail-vote state, and do two other things: "Changes precinct sizes to not more than 2,000 active registered voters effective 2012. Allows the appointment of four precinct committee officers in precincts that have 2,000 or more active registered voters."

The Pierce County delegation was split, by the way. And the Tacoma News Tribune has an amusing sidelight: "George Walk, Pierce County lobbyist, told me that earlier this session he had to testify both for and against the bill when it was in committee. County Executive Pat McCarthy was in favor of all-mail voting (she’s the former election chief for the county) but the County Council was against it."

It's in the Senate Government Operations & Elections Committee now, awaiting action there.

Spending it

Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter has released his proposal on what to do with the federal stimulus money. There's nothing especially stunning in it - even the convergence with Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna's proposed school cuts seems of a piece.

He takes it to the legislature tomorrow, at which point lawmakers may (may) start cranking back up to speed.

What you get most out of the proposal is how little discretion the states really have in spending the money. The billions requested by state agencies, local governments and others - the non-state requests alone ran to $5.6 billion - were so far beyond what could be gotten as to be, maybe, a little sad. Guess you can't blame them for asking, but . . .

A stadium that crosses the line


Lents Field visualization

There's a longish list of public-backed sports arena proposals around the Northwest we've thought might be fine ideas as private facilities, not so good as business ventures essentially backed by the taxpayers. So the first reaction here, when Merritt Paulson (owner of the Portland Beavers and Timbers and - should this be a red flag? - the son of former Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson) proposed a partnership with the city to turn downtown Portland's PGE park into a major league soccer field, was skepticism.

We'd have to say at this point it remains a difficult call, and the hard time that three of the five Portland council members had with it seems entirely reasonable. The 3-2 vote was indicative of how close a call this could be.

Mayor Sam Adams and Council member Randy Leonard, and others around town not least including the Oregonian, have been on a hard push for the project. (Of the three other council members, only Dan Saltzman joined Leonard and the mayor to push it through.) The O's editorial arguing in favor pointed out that Seattle and Vancouver (B.C.) appear likely to have major league soccer teams, as part of a sport that seems to be expanding, and Portland could benefit from being part of that - "If the Portland city commissioners say goodbye to this deal, in effect, they'll be consigning Portland, nationally, to the nosebleed seats."

Such arguments sound wonderful if there's enough private support in town for the entertainment facility, but why should non-soccer fans be on the hook? Well, the advocates make a better-than-usual case for that. Some of that relates to an infusion of money and jobs at a time those things are much needed. The area around the PGE field could use a little rehab, and a fresh major league operation might do that; there is some urban development and geographic logic to this. (Paulson also has agreed to fork over directly a substantial chunk of the implementation costs; much of the rest would be made up through ticket and other fees.) But it also centers around the city's very limited liability: "In the unlikely event that Major League Soccer foundered, Paulson and his family company would make payments on the city's loans. Not only are they willing to backstop the deal, they're willing to absorb a hefty dose of cost overruns," says the Oregonian. Sounds almost as if what the city is really being asked to do is not a lot more than acting as a low-risk co-signer.

That's not quite all, of course. Willamette Week has a series of countering points, noting for example that many of the financial projections for the project come from Paulson's court - not from an independent city review - and that several other cities have dropped out of the race for major league soccer. Several of those are points worth more serious address.

This will take a while to get done, if something else doesn't slow or stop the process. It bears a close look. Albeit, a hopeful one.

One day at a time

How sad is this headline from KIRO-TV on the Seattle Post-Intelligencer: "Staff at the newspaper have been told that Wednesday's paper won't be the last one."

We're now past 60 days from the point on January 9 when Hearst, owner of the P-I, said it would keep the paper printing for 60 more days pending either a sale of the paper (which never looked likely) or conversion to online-only.

There will be a Wednesday print edition. Will Thursday print? Hearst isn't saying. So it's a day to day matter now.

So, apparently, is the digital conversion. The new Publicola site, which seems to have the best reportage on the situation, is suggesting that Hearst wants to try the digital approach and has been approaching 20 or so staffers to gauge interest. However, the pay and benefits package apparently has been mediocre, and evidently few of the paper's people have agreed to sign on. And that drama goes on.

After the next day or two, that drama may in fact be what keeps the P-I in print, for however much longer that may be.

Wide open spaces


Seattle office central

The Slog's headline - a sorta invitation for Wal-Mart to shack up in Seattle - was just snark, but the post's content was worth some attention: Abruptly, there's a whole lot of empty office space in Seattle.

The Slog: "As the [Daily Journal of Commerce] reports today, owners of the 12-story 1st and Stewart Building are placing the property up for sale at the same time two new downtown office buildings are staking real-estate signs. In addition, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer Building and Seattle Tower were recently put on the market. Meanwhile, other office buildings, like the WaMu Center, are clearing out their tenants. Companies that had planned to expand into new downtown spaces, including Microsoft and Starbucks, are retreating to their headquarters. And more lanky office towers are in the works downtown. In short, the inventory of commercial office space grossly exceeds the demand for offices. We’ve probably got 10 years of inventory that will sit empty."

A cautionary note: There are some apples and oranges here; some of these buildings (like the 1st and Stewart) are pretty well leased up, and sale of the building won't change that. Still, the vacancies in many large-scale office spaces are becoming massive.

Where is all that likely to lead? On its face, it seems to suggest some whole new direction for the downtown Seattle area, which has upscaled and gentrified almost to the point (in some places) of unrecognizability in recent years. How can that continue when the area is floating in "For Lease" signs all over the place?

The effort will be made. Or will Seattle return, a bit, to elements of its grungier past?

140 characters, and more

Highly amusing post on the Portland Mercury blog about Twitter, and its holdouts. Sample (responding to several recent pieces in the Oregonian): "I love articles which amount to a middle-aged person shaking their head in bemusement, making jokes straight out of Zits comic strip, as they look over some young person's shoulder and glimpse their confusing new lifestyle."

At 140 characters per tweet, Twitter obviously has its limitations. But as a means for basic linkage, it has unusual advantages. One big one may be its capacity for hot links, which allows bloggers, news media and others to post a lot more than what they had for lunch. Use it right, and you can develop an excellent, rapid-fire news wire through a Twitter account. A lot of people seem to be doing that already.

Examples? For our purposes, there are useful follows - instant updates - from a large collection of Northwest news organizations such as the Seattle Times, Oregon Public Broadcasting, the Spokane Spokesman-Review, KIRO-TV (Seattle), the Yakima Herald Republic, KTVB-TV (Boise), TVW (Washington), the Oregonian (several feeds), the Portland Mercury, KGW-TV (Portland), the Tacoma News Tribune, the Boise Idaho Statesman, Idaho Public Broadcasting, the Idaho Business Review and the Boise Weekly. Even the New York Times - we run through all of those and more. And from quite a few individuals at those organizations (such varied feeds as Rocky Barker at the Idaho Statesman and Jenni Hogan at KIRO-TV. Official feeds from the White House and Supreme Court down through a batch of local governments (even a feed offering regular updates on the amount of the national debt). And various political people, elected (see our recent post on that) and otherwise, and people with al kinds of perspectives, some of them pretty well informed. A whole lot of these posts, of course, come with links offering more information elsewhere.

Sneer if you must. But if you can parse through the options with some care, Twitter actually makes for a pretty good intermediary news source.