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Posts published in March 2010

Health care challenges


Rob McKenna

A bunch of states - the final number may not be clear for a while though at least 11 have joined out of the chute - have filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the newly-passed federal health care law.

Putting aside the merits, the political effect could vary according to state.

Oregon Attorney General John Kroger (the one Democrat among the three northwest attorneys general) has not given any indication he will join the multi-state suit. Like he won't.

On the other hand, joiner by Idaho Attorney General Lawrence Wasden probably was close to foregone. The Idaho Legislature had already specifically said that it wanted to challenge the federal law, and Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter signed a law to that effect. Left to act independently, Wasden's moves might not have been especially predictable. But adding his name and Idaho's to an already-existing case was probably too easy to do to resist. In Idaho, there'll be no political negatives coming out of the action.

Wasden's statement on rationale: “Our complaint alleges the new law infringes upon the constitutional rights of Idahoans and residents of the other states by mandating all citizens and legal residents have qualifying health care coverage or pay a tax penalty. The law exceeds the powers of the United States under Article I of the Constitution and violates the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution. Additionally, the tax penalty required under the law constitutes an unlawful direct tax in violation of Article I, sections 2 and 9 of the Constitution."

Washington state has a different political calculus, though, and when Attorney General Rob McKenna joined the case, he was immediately set upon by Democrats starting with Governor Chris Gregoire.

She came out roaring: "I’m disappointed that the Attorney General would participate in a lawsuit to repeal a law that would help 1.5 million Washingtonians get access to affordable, quality health care. I completely disagree with the Attorney General’s decision and he does not represent me. He doesn’t represent the people of Washington who would get assistance so they could afford quality health insurance. He doesn’t represent the thousands of small businesses that would benefit from tax credits to provide coverage for their employees. He doesn’t represent the thousands who will no longer be denied coverage because of a pre-existing condition. He doesn’t represent the half million young people in our state who would be covered under their parents plan until they are 26. He doesn’t represent our state’s Medicare recipients. He doesn’t represent the taxpayers of Washington."

Note the language McKenna uses as his reason: “I’m concerned that the measure unconstitutionally requires all Washingtonians to purchase health insurance and places an extraordinary burden on our state budget by requiring Washington to expand its Medicaid eligibility standards in violation of our state’s rights guaranteed under the10th amendment.”

It sounds a lot less combative than Wasden's, and for reason. McKenna has not come across as a particularly partisan Republican, and that seems to be key to his substantial appeal, a part of the reason he is such a strong prospective gubernatorial candidate for 2012. Keep watch on this and see how well he is able to maintain that stance in the hurricane of this issue.

Top-two for everyone?

Former Oregon Secretary of State Phil Keisling is going national, in the New York Times, with a proposal to do what Washington state and a few others now do: Provide for an open top-two election at the primary level, and a runoff in November.

There's a real logic to this, on two levels.

First, the traditional primary system (as used in Oregon and Idaho), which is used by the political parties to choose nominees, turns the primary election into partisan events. But a lot of activity gets done in those elections apart from intra-party selections: local government elections, ballot issues, judicial choices. In Oregon, at least one nonpartisan statewide office (superintendent) will be filled in the primary, since there are just two candidates - in an election billed as essentially a partisan event.

Second, this approach would allow all voters to participate throughout the process. Since no party nominees are being chosen, all voters can vote in all races in the top-two. This has the effect of weakening party structures, somewhat. But in current conditions, that may not be a bad thing.

[Belatedly, a hat tip to Jack Bogdanski.]

The health bill: NW votes

And how did the Northwest delegation vote on the health care bill? Well, it was party-line, with one exception.

The yes votes:

Washington: Inslee, Larsen, Baird, Dicks, McDermott, Smith.

Oregon: Wu, Bluemenauer, DeFazio, Schrader.

The no votes:

Washington: Hastings, McMorris Rodgers, Reichert.

Oregon: Walden.

Idaho: Minnick, Simpson. Minnick was the one Northwest Democrat to vote in opposition; all Republicans from the region did so.

A Washington difference

The Oregon Legislature last year passed tax increases proposed by majority Democrats, two measures of which were placed on the ballot and upheld by voters in January. The political upshot of all that seems likely to lend some political support to the legislature's Democrats; they seem unlikely, as matters stand, to lose many seats in November.

Will that hold true in Washington state this cycle (as it did there too in 2006)? Jim Camden of the Spokane Spokesman-Review has a useful observation on that:

"They’re going to raise taxes, which ranks high on the list of things that get a politician removed from office. They may be right that they have almost no choice in the matter, but the way that they’ve gone about it – holding a quixotic hearing on an income tax, requiring repeated votes on bills tailor-made to wind up in GOP commercials, suspending rules – does little to mitigate the expected damage. Then there’s the $18,300 per day special session – at least that was the cost before a rush to refuse legislative per diems – that was supposed to be done in seven days."

A few differences. Washington Democrats may be doing themselves some damage for later in the year.

A health pretzel

The extent to which thinking about health policy has gotten twisted, on this day when a sweeping bill might be passed in the House, can be inferred from this quote from Representative Dave Reichert of Washington's 8th, like all other congressional Republicans a no vote:

"As an old Sheriff I know that if you arrest someone, they get free health care. So once we arrest these people, they'll have free health care. And then we'd have to release them because they'd be in compliance with the law. And then we'd have to rearrest them again. So this law makes no sense whatsoever."

There are all kinds of problems with this. But in his column today, the Seattle Times' Danny Westneat offered this one: "Good grief. What you get in jail is a doctor, not what is required by this bill, which is insurance. So his critique is what makes no sense whatsoever."

The Idaho rundown

No great shockers in the final closeout of candidate filings in Idaho - which ended at 5 p.m. today.

The closest thing to actual news on the last filing day probably was the announcement from former 1st District U.S. Representative Bill Sali, who had not enturely ruled out running for another term, that he will not, and will instead endorse state Representative Raul Labrador for the position. As indicated, no big surprise there, but that endorsement does clarify a bit further which portions of the Republican Party that Labrador and front-runner Vaughn Ward are appealing to.

The other U.S. House seat, which had lacked for a Democratic candidate, has gotten one in the form of Mountain Home resident Mike Crawford. All three congressional seats do have at least one Democrat filed for the office.

And Republican incumbent Mike Simpson will face not just two but three challengers (which statistically should advantage Simpson). In the 1st District, Democrat Walt Minnick has no primary opposition, for all that he has irritated many of the party faithful.

There are 11 candidates for governor. That's a lot.

There are no Democrats running for lieutenant governor, state treasurer or attorney general.

In Idaho's 105 legislative seats . . .

Republican incumbents (there are now 80) are seeking re-election in 77 seats. (Senate 28 - all of the incumbents are seeking re-election, House 49 of 52). Incumbent legislators, Republicans especially, have had a strong track in Idaho in the last couple of decades.

Democratic incumbents (there are now 25) are seeking re-election in 18 seats. (Senate 5 - incumbents Kate Kelley and Clint Stennett are opting out, House 13 - incumbents George Saylor, Anne Pasley-Stuart, James Ruchti and Donna Boe are retiring, and Brandon Durst is running for the Senate). Put it this way: Republicans have more than four times as many legislative seats as Democrats do, but more than twice as many Democrats (in raw numbers) are not running for re-election. What does that suggest about Democratic gains in the legislature this year?

Republicans have filed for 102 of the 105 seats - they are conceding three seats (those held by John Rusche of Lewiston, Wendy Jaquet of Ketchum and Elaine Smith of Pocatello). Even by recent-cycle standards, that's a strong showing.

Democrats have filed for 59 of the 105 seats - conceding 46 of them.

There are, we should note, procedures (such as primary election write-in) which could allow the parties to fill some of those vacancies. And likely some will be filled that way; it happens. But these numbers should give you a pretty good picture of how this election year is shaping up in Idaho.

A bashee of poor choice

Among other considerations: What can possibly be the political benefit from bashing an 11-year-old boy who has just lost his mother because of the high cost of, and her inability to buy into, the health care system.

The case of Marcellas Owens of Seattle is sad no matter the details - his mother's death of an unusual but treatable illness isn't disputed. He has become a case instance for the backers of health reform legislation.

Probably smarter for the health reform critics to just move on to other aspects of the debate. But no (and maybe this is an indication of intelligence level): They (the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Michelle Malkin) have to bash on the kid.

Which may be just as well. Not only does the Owens story get that much more attention, but the Limbaugh/Beck/Owens crowd get that much more attention for the kind of people they are.

The magic of private prisons

dark cell

Back in August 2007, Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter held forth on the idea of coping with rising demand in the state for prison space, by using the wizardry of the marketplace, so business “can go out in the marketplace and kind of work their magic.” And Corrections Director Bent Reinke was quoted in the Spokane Spokesman-Review as saying, “There’s a desire by both the board of correction and the governor’s office to have Idaho’s next prison be privatized.”

Ridenbaugh Press long has been skeptical of the usefulness of private prisons. It's been a recurring theme here since before the Idaho Correctional Center opened near Kuna in July 2000; our prediction then was that a private prison in Idaho would be (we remarked on this before a contractor was named) a scandal waiting to happen.

Ten years later, at the ICC managed by the Corrections Corporation of America, here's the opening shot in the American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit:

ICC is an extraordinarily violent prison. It is known in Idaho as "Gladiator School" for a reason. More violence occurs at ICC than at Idaho's eight other prisons combined, and the unnecessary carnage and suffering that has resulted is shameful and inexcusable. ICC not only condones prisoner violence, the entrenched culture of ICC promotes, facilitates, and encourages it. Indeed, ICC staff cruelly use prisoner violence as a management tool.

Violence is epidemic at ICC for a host of reasons, including the fact that the Defendants turn a blind-eye to it; they fail to adequately investigate assaults and therefore are unable to fashion effective remedial measures to prevent assaults from recurring; they refuse to discipline the guards whose malfeasance precipitated prisoner violence; they frequently place vulnerable prisoners with predators; they fail to protect prisoners who request and need protection from assault; and ICC is understaffed, inadequately supervised, and guards are inadequately trained.

The Eighth Amendment to the Constitution prohibits the imposition of "cruel and unusual punishments." This means, the Supreme Court has recognized, that prison officials have a duty "to protect prisoners from violence at the hands of other prisoners." Farmer v. Brennan, 511 U.S. 825, 833 (1994). In other words, people are sent to prison as punishment, not for punishment. "Being violently assaulted in prison is simply not part of the penalty that criminal offenders pay for their offenses against society." Government officials "are not free to let the state of nature take its course" in America's prisons. The administrators of ICC are ignoring this constitutional duty, resulting in wholesale fear, intimidation, and violence within the prisoner population.

ICC is owned by the State of Idaho, was built with tax funds, and is located on public land. However, ICC is operated (for a profit) by Corrections Corporation of America pursuant to a contract with the Idaho Department of Corrections (IDOC). Plaintiffs request, among other things, that IDOC be ordered by this Court to set strict deadlines by which ICC must develop adequate policies, and hire and train a sufficient number of guards, to reasonably safeguard prisoners from assault, and that if ICC continues to ignore its duties under the Eighth Amendment, the Court should order IDOC to remove all Idaho prisoners from this excessively violent and inhumane facility.

Such a magical marketplace. The suit points out the difference between privately-run and state-run prison facilities: "Until recently, ICC housed approximately the same number of prisoners as does the Idaho State Correctional Institution (ISCI), nearly 1,500 men. Yet, during 2008 and 2009, three times as many prisoner-on-prisoner assaults occurred at ICC as at ISCI. Recently, new housing units were opened at ICC, and ICC now houses approximately 2000 prisoners." And: "The number of assaults actually occurring at ICC is considerably higher than reported, perhaps three times as high. For one thing, ICC deliberately fails to document many assaults. For another, many victims of prisoner assault choose to conceal the incident out of fear of reprisal by prisoners for being a "snitch." (more…)

Resume man, issues man

Denny Heck

Denny Heck

Craig Pridemore

Craig Pridemore

Democratic activists around the country have been about as worked up, in both directions, about their own representatives in Congress as they were about Republicans (in one unilateral direction) before 2009. Are they on board with health care reform (and, notably, a public option) or not? Are they in favor of major financial regulation reform, or not? And so on. More than a few question how helpful many of the congressional Blue Dogs, for example, really are in pushing a governing agenda.

This dynamic (the Republicans have a different variation, partly because they're out of power) may have an effect on the November election. But its force, major or minor, is first most likely to be felt in Democratic primaries around the country. And of those, there may be not many better examples than in the Washington 3rd - southwest Washington.

The House seat has been held by Democrat Brian Baird, who likely could have been easily re-elected this year but opted out instead. On the scale of activist faves, Baird scores weak, with his break from many Democrats over Iraq a few years ago, and his recent reluctance to back his caucus' health care legislation. (Presumption here is that he will vote in favor, ultimately, but that's not nailed down in his public statements.)

The two main Democratic candidates - the nominee will very likely be one or the other - are former legislator and businessman Denny Heck from Olympia, and current state Senator Craig Pridemore of Vancouver. The in-party contrast between them will make for an interesting study, one that national observers ought to pay some attention to.

Heck has gotten Baird's endorsement, and his background offers rationale for that. He is a former state legislator (a decade's worth), a former gubernatorial chief of staff (for Democratic Governor Booth Gardner), a co-founder of the fine C-SPAN-like TVW network (and a visible presence for some years on it), and a participant in a number of businesses, enough to make him fairly wealthy and allow him to partly underwrite his campaign. He underlines all of this in his campaign announcements and statements, which tend to lead off with a discussion about the need to improve the area's jobs picture. He seems clearly intelligent and informed.

That last - a statement that economic development is very important - is about as far as he seems to go toward issues, though. Scan his web site, watch his video, read the news stories about him, and there's very little to say about what he actually would do as a member of Congress. In the current context: Would he be a backer of health reform legislation, and if so, what kind? Where is he on finance reform? The answers to such questions seem awfully elusive.

Pridemore is a different case. A state senator and a Clark County commissioner before that, he too has an impressive resume (if maybe a little less striking than Heck's). The key difference is pointed up by the first thing Pridemore says in his new video: "When you listen to me talk, when you listen to me explain my feelings about the issue, I think you know I'm telling you what I truly believe." (Pridemore's web site has a page on "issues," but intriguingly, Heck's does not.)

Pridemore's stances on those key current issues (pro-reform bills, in health and finance, among other things) has been made totally clear. And, while running in the primary, he has used lines (in his campaign web site's video no less) like this: "I was disappointed in Democrats. I was disappointed that we didn't have people there willing to stand up and tell the insurance companies and tell the health care industry that this program is not about them."

The importance of job creation is major and real, of course, but nobody thinks otherwise - it's a commonplace.

So figure Pridemore along the lines of the center, possibly center-left, of the House Democratic caucus, and Heck more likely to the center-right (on balance), around where Baird is. As best we can tell. In the context of the Democratic primary 2010, that's where their relative handling of the issues would suggest they would be.

This will be a tough and maybe close race. Heck will have more money and may get more support from a number of party leaders. Pridemore will get the activists. And we'll see what happens this summer.