Press "Enter" to skip to content

Posts published in January 2010

Bright on top


Idaho Senate, 2010/Stapilus

The Idaho Statehouse almost looks like a newborn, even has that "new house" scent to it. If you're used to the old version, before the rehabilitation which has taken the last couple of years, it looks better - brighter, more open, roomier (and not just in the new underground add-ons). It rates a clear thumbs up.

Walk onto the old ground floor and it feels clean but barren: No artwork or much else down there. Yet. It may be coming.

The third and fourth floors, the main legislative area with the chamber floors, has been changed most dramatically. The hallway around the four-floor overlook of the House chamber now is glassed-in, instead of dark-walled off; the effect is one of openness and light. (And maybe fewer dark corners for lobbyists and legislators to do their thing.) The new curtains in the Senate, reminiscent of those from many years ago, look classy. The new elements of the design strike a fine balance between traditional and modern.


Committee room/Stapilus

The biggest specific asset to the public is the new meeting rooms, for committees and other activities, on under underground level. You had to have seen the old statehouse to appreciate how large an improvement this is. Those old meeting rooms were tiny, cramming in too many people and not allowing many in at all. The new rooms have space for large audiences and are audio- and video-wired as well. They compare respectably with the facilities in Washington and Oregon. And a good deed by omission: The designers seem not to have closed off public access to areas of the statehouse, something they probably got some pressure to do.

There are of course downsides. Legislators have individual offices now, scattered all over the building; your favorite (or least) lawmaker will be harder to find now. (One reporter I bumped into this morning bemoaned exactly this.) Keep on the floor, at their desks right there, where we can keep an eye on 'em.

But the few criticisms feel like niggling. This is being taken by the habitues as a fine improvement, and for good reason. The cost was high (well over the $100 million this scribe was once excoriated for predicting), but the end result will be a site Idahoans have good reason to be happy with.

Fluidity in the Idaho 1st?

Our basic sense in the Idaho 1st - Republican primary side - has been that the solid frontrunner is and has been for a while Vaughn Ward, the first-time candidate who has some strong connections via the McCain campaign forces, work around the Dirk Kempthorne camp, and elsewhere. He started out campaigning, organizing and fundraising hard, with money moving ever deeper into six figures.

His opponent, state Representative Raul Labrador, R-Eagle, has longstanding connections and alliances in Idaho Republican politics, but he started months later, only after another Ward opponent (and another state representative, Ken Roberts) dropped out. Surface reading continues to suggest an advantage to Ward.

But for those watching this race, this post on the Idaho Conservative Blogger ought not to go unseen. In running a poll, the same sort that months ago gave Ward a big advantage over Roberts, different results:

Labrador wins with 641 votes and 59%, Ward 430 Votes and 39%, the rest either vote other or undecided.

Again this is in no way a scientific poll. I don’t track the voters and do not know the demographics, I again can’t even guarantee the voters are all from the 1st congressional district, (sounds a little like holding an open primary but, that’s a topic for another day) Why would Ward win with 90% of the vote in September against Roberts and loose to Labrador today with 39% of the vote?

ICB thinks there are many factors in play. If memory serves me right the total votes in the September poll were under 200. In this latest poll there was 1,080. It only makes sense, ICB was a new web page and readership has grown. Could be that the Labrador camp got the word out about the poll to more of their supporters than the Ward camp?

And if they did, what might that say about organization?

Maybe not a big deal. But worth tossing into the kit bag for consideration.

Merkley’s Q & A

Jeff Merkley

Jeff Merkley at Dallas town hall/Stapilus

U.S. senators are under pressure - that's part of the job - and Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, a year into the role, felt it from at least two directions in the last 24 hours, as this is written. From the left, Friday night; from the right, midday at Dallas. As hot as the economy is, topic A seems to be, still, health care and the legislation in Congress.

Friday night was an event organized by Merkley staff for a meet-up with bloggers; eight or nine bloggers (your scribe for one, a few from Blue Oregon, a frequent writer for the Huffington Post and others) met at Madison's in southeast Portland to . . . converse, really, informally. It was an on-the-record session, but informal enough as to not resemble a press conference with formal statements. Blue Oregon blogger T.A. Barnhart has delivered a good rundown on what was said and the overall tenor. (A good event, and we'd hope it becomes the first of many.)

The key subject, out of a wide range discussed, remains health care, and where the current legislation goes from here. The bloggers generally were dissatisfied with what has been done in Congress, with the watering-downs and scale-backs in the bill, and some were convinced the bill was better off dead. Merkley generally agreed with them on the policy questions, but argued that enough good remains, and the effect of a defeat would be so paralyzing, that pressing forward was the way to go.

Cut to the civic center at Dallas, for Merkley's Polk County town hall meeting. (Like fellow Senator Ron Wyden, Merkley has committed to a town hall in every county, every year, and so far is on track.) There, he had to pivot a bit in managing the audience - maybe a little over a third of it was strongly against the bills, ready to believe the worst about it from any scrap of information and quick to denounce it as a government takeover of health care (though just about anything that could amount to such has been long since stripped out). His stance on the issues was unchanged, though, from the night before.

A year ago, Merkley still sounded a little wonkish in talking about legislation, but he's since gotten the knack of handling a town hall, explaining and proposing in plain and simple language. He broke down the health bills as including mainly what amounts to a patient's bill of rights, and a plan to foster competition among and access to a range of insurers.

Asked about special deals for specific states demanded by individual senators (Ben Nelson for Nebraska, for example), Merkley denounced the practice, and also said he agreed that the process should be more open. He actually drew some applause from some of the health care critics for some of those statements - "The idea of special deals for one state is wrong," for example. (more…)

No, Virginia

The last post made a reference to the forces opposed to Oregon's measures 66 and 67 as proposing "a few too many specious arguments." On example was given there; another really should be noted here. As, also, a case study in the wisdom of double-checking potentially unclear facts before speaking.

Like other states, Oregon annually issues an annual financial report, and on page 14 of the most recent one you can find this statement: "As of June 30, the State's government funds reported combined ending fund balances of 44.4 billion. Of this amount, approximately 25.1 percent was reserved for nonspendable items, such as inventories and permanent fund principal, or specific purposes, such as debt service. The remainder was classified as unreserved, undesignated fund balance and was available for spending, subject to statutory and constitutional spending constraints."

Reading it cold, you could reasonably think: Wow! So Oregon doesn't really have a revenue shortfall at all: In fact, it has a big pile of money ready for spending. What do we need Measures 66 or 67 for with all this money available?

That was the essence of what Senators Chris Telfer, R-Bend, and Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, suggested a few days ago, just as the ballot-casting on the measures were getting underway.

Given that these two senators were enmeshed in the budget-setting through the first half of last year, you might think they'd wonder where this massive pile of money, invisible to them and everyone else then, suddenly came from.

Turns out, as you probably expect by now, it doesn't exist.

The Oregonian checked in with Kathryn Ross, who drafts the reports, which like many other accounting reports the world over is full of what you might call "terms of art." It is written as it is to comply with national standards for such reports (Washington and Idaho do about the same), and that means it has to be read carefully - many things aren't always what they initially seem. Ross: "I'm always amazed that people could think there's a pot of gold here that no one knew about except the state controller's division."

Ballots away


Our ballots arrived, have been filled out, and sent, in the first election in the Northwest in the new decade. And a fairly significant one, as it turns out (the so-far sluggishness of ballot returns notwithstanding). Ballots are due January 26. Watch the news that day.

The stakes in the specific outcome of the election are substantial enough. Measures 66 and 67 are public votes on tax increases passed last session by the Oregon Legislature, one on individuals - applying to income over $125,000 per person (or double that per two-taxpayer family) - and one on a subset of corporations. Both amount to relatively modest increases in most cases, somewhat larger in a small number. They were imposed because of to state revenue shortfalls; after a series of cuts were imposed, these were passed to fill the rest of the gap. They are expected to bring in around three-quarters of billion dollars. If the voters reject them, the gap would have to be made up another way, either through further and fairly massive cuts (which is what legislators project is what would happen) or, possibly, some other form of tax increase. Which in turn might be subject to another referendum.

Our sense that there are flaws in these measures. In one place, gross rather than net income for corporations would a basis for taxation, which would unduly hit businesses with a large money pass-through (car dealerships, say) but a small profit margin, or even no profits. There's some fair issue too, a smaller one, with an element of retroactivity that would apply in some cases. On the other hand, the cuts in services would stand to be enormous. A legislative session begins in February, and will deal with whatever the fallout is. After all the talk of massive cuts if these measures fail, legislators may be hard pressed to do anything else.

This is an Oregon-specific issue, of course. But the implications are worth watching beyond the state's boundaries. After all the talk about government spending, taxes, and all the rest in recent times, here we have something that functions as a voter decision on these things. In Oregon the battle has been high-profile and hard-fought; TV is becoming swamped by commercials on them (on both sides), and in rural areas signs about "job killing taxes" are all over. Both the Yes campaign and the No campaign are well-funded and very active.

Some conclusions probably can be drawn, with some legitimacy, from the numbers we see when these vote-by-mail ballots are counted.

Our take is that the No side has used a few too many specious arguments, from its contention that tens of thousands of jobs will be lost (said to be developed by economists, but the analysis is full of holes) to this commercial . . .

Set in an clearly-marked Paula's Bake Shop, it turns out that it actually was set in Paula's Bake Shop . . . in Auburn, California. (The eagle eye catching it was Kari Chisholm of Blue Oregon.)

For the Idahoans for whom a tax increase is something simply not to be put on the table, period, ever ever ever . . . or the Washingtonians trying to craft some sort of revenue increase in their short session this year, the Oregon vote will be worth watching.

Brooks of Boise, and Kansas City

A federal appointment in the midwest, of some note here.

Karl Brooks was a state senator in Boise back in the 80s, one of the Democrats gaining some clout at the time in the legislature. (His original campaign manager was Jim Hansen, now the state Democratic executive director.) He was highly enough respected to earn strong marks from conservative Republicans like Denton Darrington, who is still there, and who doesn't pass out those kind of kudos lightly.

An attorney then, he has since moved on to become a professor of history at the University of Kansas. (He has written a fine book on Hells Canyon, reviewed here a while back.) Today, he was appointed as Region 7 administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, based in Kansas City, and covering Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, and nine tribal nations.

The Northwest's own Region 10 administrator was appointed today too: Dennis J. McLerran, who has been executive director of the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, and before that a city attorney.

A cut and tax mix in Washington

The core message of Washington Governor Chris Gregoire in her state of the state (today) is probably about that of most other governors: "For all these struggling families, we have a duty this session to rebuild the economic future of Washington." (Just shift out the state.)

She did not have to deliver a full budget statement (as for example in Idaho) since she did that last month. But she did have some things to say about it, and she did offer up a revision which she said - in contrast to last month's - she could support.

She spoke of a number of government streamlinings or eliminations, including that of 73 boards and commissions she ended by executive order last months. On a larger scale: "I propose to close, or partially close, five correctional facilities. By more efficiently using the beds we have, we can save $65 million over four years, and not release a single offender prior to his or her earned release date. Further, I am requesting that we close two of our residential centers and provide the residents better care in our communities. In the 1970s, we had six state institutions serving 4,000 people. Today, with only one fewer, we serve 900. And finally I’m asking us to reduce the size of three juvenile institutions. The last time the state closed an institution was in the 1970s. Now is the time — this session — for us to demonstrate, as difficult as it is, that Washington state government makes good business decisions, not political ones."

Should make for some interesting stories.

But there was also this, bold-faced in the text: "We cannot just cut or just tax our way out of this immediate budget shortfall." The new budget: "It counts on new revenue of about $750 million and cuts of almost $1 billion. The revenue will come from new federal dollars, new taxes or both." Schools and critical social needs shouldn't be cut, she said; that would simply drive up costs (of various sorts) later on.

More later about the revenue increases . . .

Vote by movie

Some analyst ought to be able to make something out of this.

The New York Times has linked a zip code database to the database for rental popularity at Netflix - allowing you to see how popular various movies on the company's most-popular list fared by zip code. The variations are often larger than you might think.

Most of the maps provided are outside the region, but the Seattle-area map is sure worth a look.

The first positive variance

Budget people in Washington state have become accustomed to delivering and receiving bad news about the state's economy, and not only that - accustomed to it being worse than they'd originally predicted.

Now, possibly, a turnaround.

Arun Raha, the state economist long nicknamed "Dr. Doom" for his bad news, today told the Senate Economic Development, Trade and Innovation Committee that his new numbers are "the first time we have a positive variance since I have been chasing the numbers down for a year and a half."

His new report includes a variety of new nuggets backing that up. Such as:

"Holiday sales between Thanksgiving and Christmas grew a higher than expected 3.6% over last year‟s dismal numbers . . . Now that growth in output has returned, the attention is increasingly on when we
can expect job growth to resume. Over the last month the evidence has continued to mount that a turning point in jobs is near. . . . Following the national trend, the number of new car and truck registrations in Washington rebounded to 15,600 (SAAR) in December from 12,100 in November. Excluding the months that were boosted by cash for clunkers, this is the highest sales rate for cars and trucks since October 2008. . . . The National Association of Purchasing Managers Western Washington Index has now been above 50 for the last five months. Values above 50 indicate expansion while values below 50 indicate contraction. This suggests that the state’s manufacturing sector is turning around. . . . [State] Revenue from the December 11, 2009 – January 10, 2010 period surprised on the upside, with positive variances in both Revenue Act and non-Revenue Act revenue."

Employment is still lousy, and none of this takes Washington state finances very far out of the hole. But it does suggest some light in the darkness.

Otter’s page, and the Legislature’s

Here was a heartfelt statement: Idaho House Speaker Lawerence Denney, saying to Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter just before his state of the state speech - "Hopefully, we can all be on the same page when you leave this place today."

The fact that, on a few key matters, they weren't on the same page last year resulted in an unusually long and difficult session.

The matters ahead of this session are not simple, and Otter said of that his state of the state's this one was longest. But Otter and the legislators may be more closely on the same page this time.

"Number one: We must not raise taxes." That was core point number one in the speech. There were words about protecting education, health and safety, but "no taxes" came first. The operating majority in the legislature is unlikely to see it differently.

In fact, the speech taken as a whole was a conservative red-meat speech, starting with the tax talk and going on from there. Without reaching over any improper bounds, it could have functioned as Otter's re-election campaign opener: A statement of philosophical principles and an argument for why he wants to continue to do the job.

It included a celebration of business, anchored by a long, long list of business leaders - far more of them than any other group of Idahoans. (As the speech structured it, the business owners or executives were the focus of the celebration, not so much the employees or the business per se.) Many were there at the statehouse, and Otter asked them to "please stand and let us thank you."

The speech was very philosophical on government - lots of lines abut small government, local government, the federal government doing bad things, about government getting out of the way. (A lot of this could have been lifted from an Otter gubernatorial campaign speech in 1978.)

"Idahoans don't believe good government means more government or bigger government," he said, rather it means a government that understands its limitations - what it shouldn't do. (Which logically raises the question of why it should not be got rid of altogether, if it's so useless.) After which, state employees got a quick note of thanks as well.

He proposed a number of specific changes, including cuts of 400 state jobs (375 of those, he said, currently are vacant) and a cut in public school spending.

The closest thing to a social program was a further small increase in the grocery tax credit - a tax cut, while costing the state funds, is an easier sell than something actively spending money.

There's little here that the majority of Idaho legislators are likely to disagree with. This certainly could be the short session the governor and legislative leaders say they want.