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Posts published in July 2009

Merkley on health options

Following up on yesterday's post on the lightly-mentioned state-run insurance funds - which do provide some health insurance for employees - it turns out that a mention of them was made yesterday by Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley. (And, his staff says, not for the first time.)

Appearing on Fox news, Merkley made a number of useful points. (The insurance fund reference, toward the end, was relatively brief but hit a mark.) The trillion-dollar cost of one current proposal gets batted around a lot, but seldom in the context - which Merkley provided - of overall projected health spending during that time of $40 trillion. And the highly useful point that many of the fiscal benefits of the proposal, especially in the area of preventive care, haven't been "scored" by federal budget analysts because no firm numbers for them exist - although there's little doubt those benefits would be substantial.

Not a long interview (and cut off by the Fox interviewers with a slice of unwarranted snark at the end) but a useful listen,

Well, we have state insurance funds . . .

The widely-expressed fear of a federal health insurance fund - a federal health insurer of last resort - doesn't just seem but is simply weird. If nothing of the sort had been tried before, that, might be another matter; if we had to look solely to other countries for counterparts, that might give some understandable pause too. But there are already a number of more limited programs long in existence. The point that Medicare has done a similar job (it's been underfunded, but still does remarkably well with great efficiency) has been made often enough. But there are other examples too.

Odd that the state insurance funds have been so little mentioned in all of this. A lot of people in the country, and everyone in the Northwest, has been living comfortably with those for years, even if relatively few people pay a lot of attention to them.

A bit of history. About a century ago, a movement developed to provide health protection for workers and compensation (formerly workmen's, now worker's) for injuries and other health issues growing out of the workplace; the gain to employers was some immunity from lawsuits. Wisconsin passed a worker comp law in 1911, and all other states had done the same by 1948; about 98% of workers around the country are estimated to be covered. Among other things, this meant that employers had to provide some sort of insurance for their workers.

Nationally, much of this insurance was and remains private - conventional private insurers writing policies. But a dozen states, responding to concerns (we're talking about the 1910s and 1920s here) by businesses that they couldn't easily afford the premiums, decided to set up their own worker comp insurance funds, not to take over the market as a monopoly, but to provide an alternative to private insurance coverage that had become unaffordable. (Does this situation suggest any parallels to today?) The states doing this included Oregon, Washington and Idaho.

In Oregon, this is the State Accident Insurance Fund (SAIF), set up as a state agency in 1914, and in 1980 re-designated as a state-chartered corporation; but its board of directors is appointed by the governor. It writes about half of the worker comp policies in the state, covering somewhat over a half-million people. There has been some controversy surrounding it, including some legislative complaints about public disclosure. But when another insurer led a ballot initiative effort in 2004 to abolish SAIF and move to an all-private insurance system, 61% of the voters backed SAIF.

Idaho created the State Insurance Fund in 1917, as it site says "for the purpose of providing a reliable source of workers compensation insurance for Idaho employers and to provide security for the payment of benefits to covered workers. The law provides for the State Insurance Fund to be self-supporting from premium and investment earnings. The State Insurance Fund is not tax-supported and the State of Idaho is not liable for any indebtedness incurred by the Fund." There've been a few small dustups concerning the SIF over the years, but nothing massive. It too historically has insured around half of the worker comp cases in the state, with private insurers splitting up the other half.

Washington runs a worker comp insurance program through its Department of Labor and Industries, a direct state agency as opposed to the slight remove in Oregon and Idaho. In its description, "The agency manages claims and pays benefits out of an insurance pool called the Washington State Fund. The fund is financed by premiums paid by employers and employees." That's in line with the Oregon and Idaho programs.

In all three cases, private employers have the option of where to get their worker comp insurance, and not everyone goes for the state option. But the state option numbers do seem stable. One reason may find reflection in an incident in 2002 involving the Association of Washington Business, when the insurance fund there announced a 41% rate increase. Post-outcry, that increase was lowered to 29%, still large and of concern to the business community. But if you follow the link to the AWB's press release, notice the tone: There's a sense that these rates and conditions can be negotiable. They may have recognized that similar negotiations with a private insurer, where no political leverage is to be had, would be a more difficult proposition.

At the same time, these state programs haven't driven private insurers out of the market. A bunch of companies do this, either as a major part of their business or as a smaller stream. Options are out there.

Other states, California being one of them, have similar programs. None are perfect. Most seem to work at least reasonably well.

Well enough, in fact, that the thought has occurred here: Why not extend these worker comp programs to provide health insurance generally?

The evolution of reputation

What sort of a mayor, what sort of political personality, is Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels? Some call him Daleyesque . . . and thereby hangs a tale.

The Seattle Weekly has a fascinating runthrough about how and why that reputation, which in some loose sense has taken hold and may help account for his weak popularity, gained force. And some reflections on jut how large or small the kernel of truth underlying it may be. (Shorter version: There's some truth, but it's more kernel than the whole plant.)

The tax issue ballot fight, and beyond

The new group Oregonians Against Job-Killing Taxes, just launched with the purpose of overturning two tax measures passed in the last legislative session, actually has a point running a little beyond. It says says so explicitly and formally in its campaign filing with the state: In the Nature of Committee section, it says, "To support or oppose one or more cadidates that may support or oppose job-killing taxes. To oppose one or more job-killling tax measures."

It is, by the way, pulling in strong money at a fast clip, $198,500 so far. Contributors include the Oregon Association of Realtors, Norm Poole Oil, Tyree Oil, Colvin Oil, Stein Oil, Byrnes Oil - lots of oil companies - the Portland Metropolitan Association of Building Owners and Managers, Morgan Distributing - the bucks are flowing in from the business community.

The two tax measures in question were more limited in scope than voters are likely to be led to believe. One provides only a small, incremental increase on income in the six-figure-per-year range and beyond; the other sets a generally modest increase on corporate taxes that in real dollars are far lower than they were a decade, or two, or three ago. Realistically, neither looks much like a job killer. But they were indisputably tax increases, and now two questions are on deck, the same two questions suggested in the OAJKT mission statement.

Will Oregonians, who have a generally consistent history of voting against tax increases no matter who, why or how much, vote to throw out this one?

And, will Oregonians punish the legislators who passed them?

The second question almost certainly grows out of the first. That means more will be at stake this year in the upcoming ballot issue fight. If the voters sustain the taxes, the second question likely will be moot; a lot of the fight may even go out of the tax critics. But if the anti-tax group is successful, the shape and future of Oregon government will be up for grabs.

The OAJKT, and its backers, clearly are taking this fight seriously. A great deal may weigh on how seriously the taxes' supporters take it as well.

The non-contest

Joel Connelly's review (in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer) of the progress of the Seattle mayor contest is . . . there isn't much. The polling seems to be pretty consistent: The voters don't really think much of two-term incumbent Greg Nickels, but then they don't have a lot of use for any of his challengers, either. All their numbers are low, and no one has budged.

From the Survey USA polling summary (conducted last Thursday):

Today, Nickels takes 26% of the vote, up 2 points from an identical SurveyUSA poll released three weeks ago.
City Council member Jan Drago takes 15%, down 1 point.
Former Seattle Sonic James Donaldson takes 11% today, down from 14%.
Businessman Joe Mallahan takes 8%, up 1 point.
Community organizer Mike McGinn also takes 8%, unchanged from the previous poll.
Three other candidates combine to take 6% of the vote. 1 of 4 likely voters are undecided today, 13 days before ballots begin to be mailed in the all-mail primary.

So it looks like the predictable, Nickels v. Drago, predictable since a sole incumbent council member ordinarily will have an edge toward making the runoff (er, general).

All of which, in general, may give some comfort to Nickels, in that things are playing out conventionally, and none of his opposition really seems to have much traction. On the other hand, elections are mostly about incumbents more than they are challengers, and an incumbent falling far short of 50% in a multi-candidate gang run - if that turns out to be the case - could be in big trouble in November.

An angle on recent Idaho politics


Blake Hall

Anyone who wants to add another piece to the mosaic of recent Idaho politics will want to check out the detailed piece in the Idaho Statesman today about Blake Hall. That's a name already familiar to anyone conversant with Idaho politics of the last couple of decades or so. But there's some new material here to add some dimension.

An advisory here: This is something of a historical piece, albeit recent history. As its headline says, Hall has been "dialing back" his heavy involvement in Idaho government and politics (though he has certainly not left the building entirely). Hall left his most significant state post, on the Board of Education, a couple of years ago, and for various reasons his impact now isn't what it was. (In 2002, the last time we ranked Idaho's most influential 100 people, Hall was listed at number 18, and the year before at number 24.)

But the article, by reporter Dan Popkey, does slice through a number of useful areas of significance and influence in Idaho. Read it, and you're likely to come away with some added layers to your picture of how Idaho operates.

A rail day

rail transit

Seattle light rail kicks off/Sound Transit FlickR

SoundTransit has a big day today that, not so long ago, would have gotten its coverage via a ribbon-cutting ceremony and some video on local TV news. Well, okay, there's that too. If anyone notices.

The shot above comes from SoundTransit's comprehensive slideshow on Flickr. And there's much more, including a large collection of Tweets on (of course) Twitter.

It is a pretty big deal, the opening of light rail passenger service across a large large around Seattle - the most comprehensive light rail in the Northwest other than Portland's. And slated for further expansion.

The wheel of death


Pam Lowe

We've not followed the administration of the Idaho Transportation Department closely enough to know first-hand how well its just-departed director, Pam Lowe, managed the place. We do know that the Board of Transportation, to which she reported, gave her only positive reviews in her performance evaluations. Up until the latest evaluation; work on that one was interrupted by her firing, which was done for reasons not made public.

While we may not have the information we need to evaluate Lowe's performance, we do have enough to evaluate the board's: Either the performance evaluations or the firing, or maybe both, must have been badly flawed.

One indicator at least points to the firing being the problem, with some blame to go around to the legislators. In the Spokesman-Review Betsy Russell blog is this from state Senator (and long-time ITB member and for many years chair) Chuck Winder, from an interview this spring: "They [transportation directors] are a lightning rod. They’ve [legislators] whipped up on the last two or three . . . Some of ‘em are valid, some of ‘em are political, and some are just ways to try not to address the funding for ITD.”

Oh, well. Time to launch another six-figure nationwide search for a new scapegoat - ah, director - to toss into the pit . . .

A suggestion. There's good reason for keeping a lid on personnel evaluations of most public employees. But those of chief executives of agencies should be open and public.

Closing the Upper Yakima

Upper Kittitas

Kittitas development images/CELP

The Washington Department of Ecology on July 16 issued an emergency rule shutting down the upper Kittitas Valley groundwater basin - east of the Cascade Mountains roughly east of Seattle - to new wells, including wells exempt from ordinary filing requirements.

The decision marks something of a turnaround for Ecology, which had been more supportive of at least exempt well drilling in the area.

The Center for Environmental Law & Policy, which together with the local group Aqua Permanente had sought restrictions, praised the decision.

CELP and Aqua outlined the background for the case as, "Currently more than 7,000 permit-exempt wells are being drilled EACH YEAR in Washington state. Exempt wells are fueling rural sprawl, and used in unlimited quantities for feedlots and dairies. Because these wells are not subject to regulation, there is no control over when and where they are drilled. There is also no control over the impact of these wells on other water users and on hydraulically connected streams. Counties have the power to determine that water is not available for new subdivisions and building permits. But they are generally unwilling (with a few exceptions) to exercise this authority. Thus, rampant new development is being built on exempt wells without oversight or consideration of public interests."

The state Department of Ecology reported its rule-making decision this way: (more…)