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Posts published in May 2009

A lower target?

The crucial revenue estimate for Oregon came out on schedule this morning, and while not-good, it wasn't as bad as legislators were preparing themselves for. The new numbers pin the revenue shortfall at about $3.5 billion - an enormous deal, but still maybe a billion better than had been expected.

An interesting point is the reviving talk about tax options, something that had been mentioned only peripherally before. There's talk now about an upper-income bracket increase, to raise taxes on those reporting a quarter-million or more. (In Washington a related thought - different in that it would have meant creation of an income tax where there currently is none - was raised but withdrawn.)

And now Jeff Mapes at the Oregonian notes that talk of revenue increases is centering around the figure of a billion dollars or so.

Some of this may be in the form of trial ideas, tests to see how they fly when legislators talk with the folks back home. That may have some impact on how they fare over the next few weeks, as the budget picture begins to take hold.

Take that, or not

richard Sanders

Richard Sanders

A highly unusual Washington Supreme Court decision today in which no members of the Supreme Court participated, for the reason that one of them was the subject of the case. And that one got nailed.

Richard Sanders v. Washington relates back to a tour Sanders took of the McNeil Island Corrections Center in January 2003; during it, he was alleged to have talked with inmates who had cases before the Supreme Court. Ethics charges eventually were brought. In their course, Sanders asked for legal representation from the state attorney general's office, saying he had been acting in an official capacity; the AG turned him down. he then hired his own attorney. The Commission on Judicial Conduct eventually admonished Sanders, who remained and still is on the court. The current case comes from Sanders' contention that the state should pay for his attorney costs in the case.

Here's what the pro tem justices concluded:

Justice Sanders was charged in the complaint before the Commission with ethical violations involving acts that are outside the scope of a judge's official duties. His acts involved contact with offenders who had cases pending in his court. Representation of a judge being disciplined for ethical violations is beyond the purpose of RCW 43.10.040. Its purpose is to provide defense to an official when engaged in official acts. Justice Sanders knew or should have known that his conduct was unethical; therefore, he is not entitled to representation.

Justice Sanders argues that denying representation could leave a judge vulnerable to improper or unfounded charges of ethics violations. If a judge is wrongly charged, however, there are adequate safeguards within the Commission's procedures. Before a case may proceed to hearing, there must be a screening, a preliminary investigation, and a finding of probable cause.

Justice Sanders also argues that since he prevailed on the more serious charges, he should be entitled to recover a pro rata share of his attorney fees. In our view, if a judge is found to have violated any of the canons of the Code of Judicial Conduct, there is no right to representation or reimbursement. Such is the case here.

Slowdown in Interior nominees

Not much noted amid the headlines about other Obama Administration nominees - some sliding through, some held up - is the story of David Hayes, formerly of the World Wildlife Fund and chairman of the board of American Rivers and once an Interior official in the Clinton Administration. Not an especially controversial guy, evidently, but not to the liking of certain interests. Turns out that Utah Senator Bob Bennett has put a hold in his nomination, which could freeze it in place for some time.

Ray Ring of the High Country News has posted a piece on this, including some review of what underlies Bennett's actions, that's well worth review. Ring concludes: "No doubt there are other Senate Republicans who think Hayes is OK ... but they're also gunshy of the rightwingers they would face in their primaries. Another reason the rightwingers fight this round so fiercely: They're gearing up for the upcoming battles over Obama's call for raising taxes on the oil and gas industry."

The key players aren't specifically Northwestern, but the impact surely is.

The bipartisan WA legislature?

By the numbers, the Washington legislature is a very partisan organization - overwhelmingly Democratic, dominated by one party a little more than the legislature in Oregon, though a little less than the legislature in Idaho.

But Representative Larry Seaquist, D-Gig Harbor, makes an interesting case today in the online Seattle Post-Intelligencer that the Washington legislature is more bipartisan in practice than many people think.

"I enjoy watching the criss-cross traffic on the Floor of the House as Reps from one side walk over to consult with a colleague of the party opposite.
The votes tell the same story. The House had 857 recorded votes in the 105 day session just ended. I've not recounted, but my guess is that about 800 of those Yea or Nay questions gathered 90 or more of the 98 Representatives to the same conclusion," he writes.

Of course, most votes in most legislatures are pro forma, acceptable to pretty much everybody, and the measure really comes in those tougher calls when the caucuses tend to break apart. And it's probably easier for someone in the majority party to make this sort of an argument. Still, his take on this is worth the read.

Doing the viaduct: Resolved

Third message up on Washington Governor Chris Gregoire's brand new Twitter account: "The tunnel bill is signed! Thanks to mayor, county exec, port and lege for support. New jobs, waterfront, and transpo capacity coming soon."

Good timing; she had something of substance to report.

There will be no end of ongoing talk about the Alaskan Way viaduct, for as long as there is such a thing, but today marks a turning point: Law is signed setting in motion a reconstruction effort to reroute traffic through Seattle. It's a pretty big day.

Getting this new project - a tunnel approach, already estimated to be the most expensive realistic option on the table - done and within budget will be a challenge.

Off limits, follo

Updating the item below, on the matter of trespassing at the governor's office during office hours:

Evidently Ada County Magistrate Kevin Swain had a reaction somewhat along the lines of many others'. At the sentencing of Christopher Pentico, he said the man had in fact technically violated the law. But he must not have thought much of the law or its application in this case, because he decided against jailing Pentico, fining him or even barring him from the places where state police had ordered he not go.

Openness in government isn't always a comfortable thing, for public officials included - or especially. But that's the way it is.

A side note. We just returned from a city council meeting in our town, and during it a resident stood to complain (courteously but firmly) about the size and structure of his water and sewer bill. He probably didn't comfort the mayor and council in the process. But, after explaining (along with a couple of council members) the city's rationale for what it was doing, the mayor told him: Thank you for coming here and talking with us about this. Much better that we have this open conversation about this, aired in public with actual facts discussed on both sides, than the alternative.

A point for public officials high and low, all over.

Off limits

We've been hesitant to get into the strange criminal case of Christopher Pentico just because there's always the possibility in cases like this that some other as-yet-unreported fact could change its coloration significantly. If there is such, please let us know; but most of the gray areas do seem filled in by way of today's Wayne Hoffman column in the Idaho Statesman.

Pentico, a Republican precinct committeeman, has had an interest in funding of student clubs at Boise State University with student fees (his concern evidently having to do with disparities in funding for religious clubs). He appears to have questioned whether the state level would be looking impartially at the question because of marriage ties between an Board of Education attorney and a dean at BSU. Pursuing his point further, he stopped by the legislature, and later (on something like five or six occasions) by the office of the governor.

Of concern here is not the merits of his concern, but what happened to him when he tried bringing his concerns to state officials. After his visit to the interim legislative offices in March 2008, a state trooper approached him and told him he had made some legislators "uncomfortable" and to stay away from the building. Then, Hoffman writes, "On March 25, 2008, two Capitol security officers blocked Pentico's entry to the Legislative Annex and told Pentico not to enter the annex, the third and fourth floors of the Borah Post Office (the temporary home of the governor's suite of offices), and the state Department of Education." These are, of course, all public buildings - the public ordinarily has free access to them. Pentico had been accused of no crime or other wrongdoing (other than, apparently, making some legislators "uncomfortable"). There is some dispute about whether he was told by the officer he was formally banned from these areas (apparently by order of the state police), or whether he was simply unwelcome; nothing on the subject was preserved on paper from that time.

The non-legislative offices seem to have been added to the off-limits list because Pentico had been persistently visiting them. Hoffman quotes Otter staffer Clete Edmunson as saying, "He just kept coming back to us." Asked if he was belligerent, Edmunson said, "I wouldn't say belligerent. Obstinate might be the right word for it."

He has not, evidently, threatened or harmed anyone.

On April 2, 2008, Pentico swung by the governor's office to drop off a written complaint about how state troopers had told him not to venture into the forbidden public buildings. On the way out of the building - the visit was without incident - he was arrested by state police for trespassing. Last month he was convicted of the charge; this week he is to be sentenced. (more…)

The long death of local radio news

Via Oregon Media Insiders, a report on what's happening to news reporting at Portland's radio stations . . . except, of course, that all of those terms need some redefinition, since there won't be any local news reporting out of Clear Channel's Portland stations. Or Spokane's. Or various others, either.

From the site All Access: "In the plan distributed to stations this month, the local Operations Manager is considered the "owner" managing local news for the market, communicating with the hub "anchor markets" on quality control and providing feedback as well as alerting the anchor markets to breaking news. Local OMs will also have to provide the hubs with local pronunciation guides and develop partnerships with local TV stations and newspapers to gather sound for news reports. The plan advises local OMs to train existing staff, including producers and board operators, to provide content and notify the hubs of key stories, and to do additional newscasts outside hours handled by the anchor markets."

In other words, it'll all come from San Francisco.

The death spiral continues . . .

So, taxes in Oregon?

They wouldn't do it in Idaho - no surprise there.

They wouldn't do it in Washington either, which did take some people by surprise.

Now - will the Oregon Legislature raise taxes to cop with their state's huge revenue shortfall?

The exact situation will come into focus this week, when the May revenue estimate is delivered - the last major one this session is likely to get. Big cuts are almost certainly going to happen in any event. But will taxes, in some form or other, be raised to fill the gaps?

There doesn't seem to be much affirmative discussion of the idea at Salem, at least publicly. The Eugene Register-Guard's piece today on the matter may provide some clarity: "No detailed tax package has emerged so far this session, but behind-the-scenes discussions suggest that the Democratic majority in Salem wants to concentrate its pursuit of higher taxes on wealthy Oregonians and profitable corporations."

Consider that maybe an early indicator.

Sine die, Idaho

The 2009 Idaho Legislature is done, barely in time - one day ahead of tying the all-time record for longest legislative session, a record no one there wanted to reach.

They did it by reaching agreement, of sorts, on transportation funding, that being the big issue that has kept the session alive the last few weeks. The "of sorts" part is significant.

Last this space said the session will continue until "you get either a compromise out of the governor and the House (the governor has offered such in recent days), or a cave from one of them." So what happened in this case? The spin will run all over the place, but after looking at the packages and comparing to what was demanded, a reasonable conclusion seems to be: A little compromise from the Idaho House, a much larger given from Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter - more a cave on his side than theirs.

Otter partisans can point out that he did in fact get something for additional transportation funding. Here is how Otter's press release puts it:

“If an admittedly stop-gap measure can provide a level of certainty and predictability, this is it,” Governor Otter said. “Our work is just beginning, but this will enable us to meet our most immediate needs – including the interest payments on GARVEE – while planning how best to pay for the maintenance, repair and improvement projects that our $16 billion highway system so badly needs.”

The agreement provides $28 million a year in new revenue in the budget year that begins July 1 by increasing DMV administrative fees and removing the ethanol tax exemption. It provides another $29 million a year in additional new revenue beginning on July 1, 2010, by diverting the state fuel tax allocations now going to the Idaho State Police and the Department of Parks and Recreation.

Bear in mind that a good deal of this $57 million or so is a shift from other budgets. And compare that with what Otter proposed originally in his state of the state speech this year: "My overall plan ultimately will raise more than $174 million a year in new revenue for transportation after five years. Now, I know that’s not the $240 million a year that we all have been talking about. But these are difficult times for many Idahoans. And as I said earlier, it is important that we find ways to do our jobs within their means."

The majority of the majority caucus in the House, we'd suspect, ended this session happier than Otter did.

Air backcountry rescued

Not typically would you get people from the Idaho backcountry actively cheering something that people in Congress do, but they're no doubt cheering today.

Some months back, the U.S. Postal Service said it would end air mail delivery (generally weekly, less often in the winter) to the scattered people in Idaho's remote backcountry. If you've not been there or know what life in like in that part of the world, you probably wouldn't know what a massive smack this was. Regular air trips from McCall or Cascade into the remote places are underwritten in part by the post deliveries, which for 34 years have been done by pilot Ray Arnold (and people working with him), and those flights often bring in food, medical and other supplies as well as the mail. Life without those deliveries would become much, much harder.

When word of the cutback got out, the Idaho congressional delegation got on the case. Representative Walt Minnick seems to have been first up (the territory in question is generally in Idaho's first, not second, congressional district), but both Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch jumped on as well.

Yesterday, they were able to deliver a joint press release saying "Mail delivery will continue for residents of Idaho’s Frank Church River of No Return Wilderness . . . U.S. Postmaster General John Potter, in separate letters today to Senators Mike Crapo and Jim Risch and Representative Walt Minnick, reversed an earlier decision to cancel the contract for backcountry mail delivery. Potter indicated that acceptable service to backcountry customers could not be achieved in any other fashion other than continuing an air mail contract with Arnold Aviation to deliver the mail."

Done is done

Looks like they're not coming back to Olympia after all.

Special sessions can work. A model, maybe, may be the April 20, 2006 session - yes, it lasted only one day ("The gang that could get something done") - in Oregon, and under conditions when control of the legislature was split between the parties (Senate Democratic, House Republican). But both sides wanted to get certain things done, and they were able to reach agreements. They cleared them all, even though some were strenuously debated, in just a few hours. But the key was the advance agreements (and with the governor as well); without those, the thing would have devolved into a mess.

So the legislative leaders seem to have concluded in Olympia, where those agreements weren't available. That, and the conclusion that the three remaining bills left hanging at the end of the regular session weren't so critical that they couldn't wait until next year.