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Posts published in April 2009

A hidden budget?

You have to wonder what Seattle Times columnist, as opposed to Seattle Council member, Jean Godden would have written about this:

"A Seattle Times reporter was denied entrance to a budget briefing on Thursday afternoon. Tom Von Bronkhorst, a legislative aide to Councilmember Jean Godden, physically dragged the reporter away from it by the strap of her bag."

We're not so totally one-sided on the matter of public meetings as to argue that there are, from time to time, legitimate reasons for shutting the doors. But there are no very damn many, and they certainly don't include the fashioning of budgets - which are financial documents describing how the public's money is going to be spent for, one hopes, the public good.

Leave aside the matter of law, that shutting out the public from a budget session is almost certainly illegal. As well: How is it possibly defensible as a matter of public ethics? Maybe council member Godden could offer some enlightenment . . .

ANOTHER VIEW The Slog has a very different take on what was going on - primarily, that the meeting was informal and concerned budget cuts, not budget setting. Still doesn't especially convince us away from the main point.

An early clue

court

From the pages of Washington Supreme Court decisions today comes one that may not have tremendous precedential import (or, maybe it will within the field of family law) but makes up a pretty astonishing read.

In re Marriage of Bernard is the tale of a pre-nuptial agreement, and the wording is intentional: This is a story a small novel could be wrapped around, and maybe one will. It concerns a pre-nuptial agreement insisted on by a wealthy man prior to marriage; the high court tossed it out as procedurally and substantively unfair. The thread of fact and argument are best read there.

But you come away with the thought: If the pre-nup was this difficult, how did either of them ever think the marriage was going to work?

A red light

stop light

Red-light cameras, designed to catch drivers who run red lights, have been developing some value in the cities around the Northwest which have taken to using them. Red-light runners are menaces on the road, and these catchers have some safety utility. Problems arise when they're used not for safety but as ATMs.

This space has ranted no lack of times about the trouble inherent in letting a government agency - whether law enforcement or something else - build its budget off regulatory fines. We're also highly skeptical of any place in public law enforcement for private corporations: The temptation to hand people fines or to lock them up to boost the quarterly bottom line is just too great.

A measure in the Oregon Legislature, House Bill 2701, is aimed at exactly this point. Ashland Senator Alan Bates has been its prime sponsor in the Senate.

Medford, which is part of his district turf, has a red-light camera program, and Bates said that "I would not have sponsored HB 2701 if its passage would end Medford's photo red-light program, nor is that the purpose of the bill." He said he is backing it because:

First, the bill would prohibit cities that use red-light and photo-radar equipment from compensating manufacturers and vendors of red-light and photo-radar equipment based on the number of citations issued or on a percentage of monies collected from payment of fines. Six U.S. cities (Dallas and Lubbock, Texas; Union City, Calif.; Nashville and Chattanooga, Tenn.; and Springfield, Mo.) have been found guilty of shortening the yellow-light cycles on intersections equipped with cameras meant to catch red-light runners. According to the National Motorists Association, when Virginia officials added 1.5 seconds to the yellow light at an intersection with red light cameras, the number of violations went down 94 percent.

Second, the bill would prohibit any city that uses red-light and photo-radar equipment from collecting more than 5 percent of its annual budget from the citations issued using it. Tim George, deputy chief of the Medford Police Department, is quoted in the article as saying "We don't come anywhere close to generating 5 percent of our budget from the red-light cameras or the two speed vans." It is my understanding that the most recent statewide average for revenue generated from traffic citations is 3 percent; however, there is no cap in place. HB 2701 seeks to remedy this incentive: Public safety should be our goal, not generating revenue.

The bill isn't moving fast; it's still in House committee. But there's still plenty of time.

Another interest group blog, sort of

Writer Chad Dryden worked for the Idaho Statesman (or one of its subsidiaries) since moving to Boise in November 2005 until earlier this month, when he joined the crowd of the media laid-off. From that point, he has been generating a logical response to the situation: A journalist, he's writing about the new world he's entered.

This is in the blog Laid Off Loser, and there's some insightful and amusing material to be found there. From his description: "I started Laid Off Loser to fill the empty spaces, but also to pimp myself to prospective employers, keep my writing limber (it's like exercise yo), review some music, compile up-to-date unemployment/economy news and network with other Laid Off Losers in the hopes of helping one another find work during this awkward waltz known as the Great Recession."

Newly possibly-relevant question: "Are Costco stock boys allowed to wear iPods?"

Cutting off the backcountry

backcountry

The backcountry supply plane takes off/Linda Watkins (1984)

For about a dozen years, Linda lived and worked in Idaho's backcountry, at some of the guest ranches, some of them in what's now massive wilderness country, some of them nearby but still very, very remote.

In that country, Ray Arnold, who flies planes out of Cascade, was a central figure. A lot of the people in that area were isolated - really isolated - and cut off from the outside world, other than by radio communications. Arnold was, and is, a pilot, and he would make regular weekly runs through stops around the backcountry. (In the summer weekly, and in the winter monthly.) He was the central source of supplies and information, and mail. If people needed a ride from place to place, or back to town, he often helped out. He was the one reliable outside figure across a vast region. For the people who wintered in the backcountry, Arnold might be the only non-resident person you saw for four or five months. In the winter, he was the source of some of the food. Christmas packages came by way of Ray Arnold. His visits were a very big deal.

Such trips are not cheap, and part of what has helped underwrite them has been the postal run - Arnold was the mailman for the area, dropping off mail once a week or month. That federal contract (not enormous - the amount has been $46,000) didn't pay for the travel, either, but as a part of the package, it's helped Arnold keep flying through the area, and the backcountry keep in touch with the outside world, for decades.

Evidently now, some of that is at risk - and some will be going away. Pete Zimowsky of the Idaho Statesman is reporting that the Postal Service is canceling Arnold's contract and ending mail delivery to the backcountry; his is the last air mail route to backcountry in the lower 48 states.

Zimowsky writes, "The U.S. Postal Service doesn't have a clue about the vastness of Idaho and the West. It doesn't have a clue about the backcountry folks living in the central Idaho wilderness. Many of the ranches are more than 60 miles from the nearest road. In the winter, Arnold flies in on his Cessna 185 outfitted with skis."

The Post Office's response evidently is: Let 'em come to town. Except, of course, that might mean they get their mail once a year.

This is going to be a bitter pill for a big area. Sounds like a job for a congressional delegation . . .

How Washington is income tax-less

A good summation of Washington's troubled relationship with the income tax in today's Peter Callaghan column in the Tacoma News Tribune.

And why Washington still operates, essentially, on a tax system developed in the middle of the Great Depression.

The idea of a limited income tax - on only those with $500,000-a-year and up income - still seems to be gaining some traction this year. But the obstacles it faces turn up neatly in this anecdote from Callaghan:

"Take the case of Glenn Pascall, a very smart guy who was then-Gov. John Spellman’s Department of Revenue director. It was the first week of the 1982 session and the state was considering how to get out of yet-another deep budget hole. Pascall told a legislative committee that everything was on the table and that the income tax is no longer 'an idea which is doomed to fail. It is one unpopular option in a range of unpopular options.' The next day, Spellman convened a press conference:'I have not considered an income tax. We are not considering an income tax. And Mr. Pascall has resigned.'”

The public involvement way

Idaho Power Company has taken a whole lot of heat locally in communities in far eastern Oregon and southwestern Idaho - over its plan to string a high-power transmission line roughly between Boardman, Oregon, and Murphy, Idaho.

You wouldn't think such a line would generate that kind of conflict, since there's so much wide open space in that country, and a tremendous amount of public land where the line presumably could go. Instead, significant pieces of the siting have been located near communities, and a number of them have been protesting.

Now, apparently, Idaho Power has backed off, at least in part. One of the hotly protesting cities has been Parma, and a state senator from there, Melinda Smyser, is quoted as saying that Idaho Power will relocated its line proposal for that stretch, and will bring in public involvement.

That seems a likely model for where this may be going. The opposition hasn't been to a long-run transmission line in the area, but only to where it specifically is being located. This looks like an issue amenable to a negotiated solution, albeit one that may take a little longer to develop.

Trends continuing

By way of followup tracking, here's where Oregon has gone since the November election in the area of voter and party registration . . .

The grand total in registered voters has hardly budged, as of the end of February stats: 2,154,384 - up 491, hardly a blip.

But there were some changes. The biggest is the increase in numbers for the Independent Party - up 2,328 to 45,358, a bigger increase than anyone else got in that period. (Non-affiliateds increased by exactly 100.)

Both Democrats and Republicans dropped in registered voters. While Democrats dropped 669, Republicans fell by 1,979 - extending the registration gap between the parties by more than 1,000, to 238,039.

Avimor on the block?

avimor

Entrance to Avimor, at Highway 55/Stapilus

We've been following the Avimor saga for a while now, for the reason that in the Boise area it's a big deal: It amounts to creating a whole city off the highway between Eagle (just west of Boise) and Horseshoe Bend. It is the biggest of the large planned developments in the Boise foothills, it has progressed substantially, and it could have a big effect (actually various big effects) on development in the area. Its plans contain, we should note, a number of attractive features; there are also a number of drawbacks.

It has not, however, been progressing very rapidly. In February 2006, Avimore's parent, SunCor Development of Arizona, projected that within five years the project would be completed with 684 housing units, a resident population of 1,952, some commercial development and various amenities. In January of this year, three years in, reports surfaced that just six properties apparently had been sold and two families were resident.

Against that background, consider this report from yesterday's Arizona Republic newspaper:

"Pinnacle West Capital Corp.'s real-estate subsidiary, SunCor Development Co., will attempt to sell $400 million in housing developments and golf courses - most of them in Arizona - to reduce debt and focus on commercial building, the company announced Thursday. Arizona Public Service Co. is Pinnacle's main subsidiary, but the smaller SunCor business has been a drag on earnings recently. In the fourth quarter of 2008, SunCor impairment charges of $32.5 million helped push the parent company to a quarterly loss, so the SunCor board of directors voted to sell nearly all of its assets, spokesman Alan Bunnell said."

There's no reference yet to the selloff on the SunCor web site on on Pinnacle's. Possible Avimor isn't on the block. But it looks likely.

And what will happen to it then?

Parochial issues

Ketchum

Here is a good example of why people seeking redress at the state legislative level need to get their local disputes taken care of and in order first: Idaho Senate Bill 1157.

It sounds simple enough, having to do with the naming of a city. State law sets the rules if two cities decide (by voter election) to merge, as some have in Idaho over the years. One of those rules is that when two cities merge, the new city takes the name of the larger one. SB 1157 would alternatively allow to be used a name "mutually agreed upon," the decision being made by the voters at the consolidation election.

This is arising, as you might suspect, because of a specific local circumstance. There's been a lot of talk in Ketchum and Sun Valley, which is an incorporated city as well as a well-known resort, of merging the two cities. Ketchum, with about 3,000 people, is about three times the size of Sun Valley, and so logically would become the new city name. SB 1157 was sponsored by Senator Jon Thorson, D-Sun Valley, who is filling in for Clint Stennett; Thorson would like consolidation to happen.

That has infuriated any number of people at Sun Valley, and a local feud over the subject has erupted. And it has spilled over into the legislature. Wally Huffman, the long-time general manager, warned of "a disaster for my company" if the merger happens. In fact, the Sun Valley contingent seems deeply, and bitterly, split over what should be done.

(And as for the name of the city: It's not terribly important, except for the numbers of people who would have to be changing their addresses and stationary. What possible effect it could have on the resort at Sun Valley is unclear: It has a very well-known brand because of the resort itself, and the mountains nearby, and not because of the small obscure muncipality in the area. Most people who "go to Sun Valley" and don't stay at the resort itself stay, not in the city of Sun Valley, but at one of the many lodges in Ketchum.)

Imagine yourself as a legislator dealing with this: The prospect getting into the middle of a local war.

The response was the only obvious thing to do: Kill the bill. Veteran Senator Denton Darrington, R-Declo, made the point cleanly: "The perception is crystal-clear that this injects the Legislature in the middle of a huge local feud.” Where, in other words, it would have had no business being . . .

The silly bills

Are these the silliest bills in Salem? Your chance to weigh in.

But how can you not vote for the one, House Bill 3146, described by its own sponsor (Representative Chip Shields, D-Portland) as "a stupid bill." (Go to the link and look at the list; that's where you'll kinda get the point.)

Now: How about Washington and Idaho?

A non-starter, or a game-changer

KohlWelles

Jeanne Kohl-Welles

Everybody has their legislative non-starters - among those issues a lot of people talk about with some seriousness. In Oregon, the sale tax. In Washington, the income tax.

Or . . . suppose you structured the tax so it would apply only to a small minority, but still raise a bunch of money? Is there a calculus under which (especially in hard times) the unthinkable becomes thinkable?

So now, introduced as of today, we have in Washington a proposal for an income tax, usually considered a poisonous third-rail subject. Democrats are proposing Senate Bill 6147, and Republicans are going to pounce (actually, take the future tense out of that).

Here's the twist: It would only apply about 1% of Washingtonians (those earning a half-million dollars a year or more for individuals, with the bar higher in some other cases) and would be set at a relatively low level - 1%. Easy to grasp.

It has backing from majority Democrats; the key sponsor is Senator Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle, along with six others. Majority leadership doesn't seem to be dousing the idea. It carries a trap door: Legislators wouldn't give themselves a final sayt; the idea would go to the voters for an up or down.

The specific statement of intent in the bill says, "It is the intent of the legislature in adopting this title to provide the necessary revenues for the support of vital state services on a more stable and equitable basis." But that's not its real political engine. What could make this possible is the specific populist environment of the moment: Go ahead and tax the rich. As matters sit, in this case, a number of Washingtonians usually unwilling to budge on the income tax might be tempted. Republicans will argue this is an entre to something larger, and they could be right. But for the moment, the ballot issue is what it is. (If it ultimately is.)

There's something much broader going on here than a typical question of tax policy. This will bear close watching.