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Posts published in March 2010

For Oregon Treasurer

A sense of whiplash today, so soon after the sad and shocking news of Oregon Treasurer Ben Westlund's death yesterday: An immediate, hard, fast for a job no one had expected to be on the ballot this year: Oregon state treasurer.

There are two races right now, in fact: One for appointment to the position, which could happen very quickly, and the other for election to the (partisan) job. That second will play out from here to November, of course, but the participants will have very little time to decide whether to enter. While candidate filing has been open since last September in Oregon, it ends tomorrow. The space of about 48 hours, the office will have come open for election, and the field of candidates for it will be closed. A weird state of events. And the key participants will mostly be people who counted Westlund as a good friend, and really would rather not be contemplating all this just now.

There is also this to consider: When Governor Ted Kulongoski appoints a new treasurer, that person is likely to be given an inside track on election to the job. If, that is, that person is a candidate. No immediate word on a choice from the governor's office, but the timing puts unusual pressure on his decisionmaking, since running for the office as an incumbent could be a huge advantage.

The first in was state Senator Rick Metsger, D-Welches, who ran for secretary of state in 2008 and is leaving his Senate seat this year (that is, not running for re-election to it). A strong, appealing candidate who came across pretty well in the sec-state race, said he's running for the office whether appointed to it or not.

At Blue Oregon, Carla Axtman spins out several other prospects too, including Greg Macpherson, the former state representative from Lake Oswego, Senate Majority Leader Richard Devlin, activist (and 2008 Senate candidate) Steve Novick, and Multnomah County Commission Chair Ted Wheeler. Any could be solid candidates for the job. Macpherson and Novick have experience running statewide.

But that doesn't necessarily exhaust the field. We picked up talk this afternoon about another prospect as well, a highly-regarded officeholder, said to have a strong shot at the governor's appointment. Of course, many such rumors could be circulating at this point.

MIA so far: Serious prospects for treasurer on the Republican side. But there's no doubt some scrambling to get that ballot line, for an open office, filled quickly.

All of it is happening quickly. Feels as if, too quickly.

Ben Westlund

Westlund

Ben Westlund

Ben Westlund, 60, the Oregon state treasurer who died today of cancer, had a cancer outbreak years ago. Part of his response to it was to bear down on developing a serious statewide Oregon medical care program. He was a state senator, and with another senator, Alan Bates, they toured statewide, developed it over a period of time and got it through the Oregon Legislature - an almost astonishing achievement.

Westlund was among the most immediately impressive legislators we spotted when moving to Oregon some years ago, on a range of fronts. He stood out for party, for one thing - he was a Republican, an independent and a Democrat in the legislature. He ran for governor as an independent, and was elected in 2008 as treasurer as a Democrat.

His subject area knowledge was strong enough that you could call him wonkish, but for his manner and approach - energetic, direct and even charismatic. He was a natural to run for a higher office, had he lived longer.

Westlund's switch to the Democratic legislative caucus prompted a witty comeback from the Republican Senate Leader, Ted Ferrioli, to the effect of: I hope the Democrats get all the joy from him that we did - a reference to how he wasn't always among the most loyal of troops. But you can read the comment in more than one way. As it stands, Oregon got a good deal from Westlund during the too-short time he was here.

Another power source

As energy providers look around for new sources of electric power - wind gaining special popularity in the Northwest - here's one that could be highly useful and available all over the region:

Tapping into methane gas found at landfills, and converting it into energy.

The Kootenai Electric Cooperative, based at Hayden, is planning to use methane gas emerging from the Fighting Creek landfill. The Spokesman Review quotes its marketing manager as saying, “We have a unique situation here, which makes this a wonderful project. We have fuel in close proximity to the power lines. Basically what we’re doing is putting a generator in between the two. So it’s very economical. The power will go right to the power lines.”

That may be a better-than-average situation, but it probably could be managed at many other locations as well. There's a neat efficiency to the concept, and useful environmental cleanup alongside.

The available candidates

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A Dudley greeter at Dorchester, early on/Stapilus

There was a tea party and Sarah Palin presence of sorts (the latter being a cardboard cut-out) at this weekend's Republican Dorchester Conference. But they weren't in the Necanicum Room, where most of the candidates, organizers and vendors could be found; they were toward the end of a hallway off to the side.

The tea accoutrements weren't especially visible elsewhere either, at least on Friday, at the Oregon Republican (unofficial but highly established) event, held again this year at Seaside. They didn't have their kind of candidates much in evidence, either.

Dorchester felt like a contrary mix. More optimism than four years ago, and on surface impression a bigger turnout. (A positive indicator for Republicans - House Minority Leader Bruce Hanna, R-Roseburg, said at the Dorchester opening that candidates for 58 of the 60 House seats were present; an impressive display.)

But not some other things.

The nominees for governor (speaking at Dorchester) are Allen Alley, businessman and former staffer for Democratic governor Ted Kulongoski, legislator (Senate and House) John Lim and former NBA basketball player Chris Dudley. Their approaches, and the distinctions among them in the crowd, were clear enough.

Dudley got the loud response - a snap response for him personally. He had a visual advantage, physically towering over the other two. (In his opening statement he added to it by standing in front of the podiums, poised there tieless and coatless in white shirt, the image of Jimmy Stewart. It was a strong image. (more…)

The semi-remembered past

I was involved once with a political campaign in which the candidate had a long history of newspaper columns. One of the first jobs out of the launch: Review them all. Who knew what ticking time bombs might await? In that case, as it happened, there weren't any big ones; or at least, his campaign (and the opposition, which must have been doing some due diligence too) never came up with any shocking.

Already, though, Oregon U.S. Senate candidate Jim Huffman, who looks like the probable Republican nominee against Democrat Ron Wyden, seems to have some issues with writings from the past.

Word that Huffman might run has been circulating for a while, and no sooner had the deal been done than Democrats pounced. They posted a page called "Meet Jim Huffman," with some strong opening shots:

"When the Wall Street and bank executives who caused the financial meltdown started taking billions in taxpayer-funded bonuses, Huffman defended them in an April 2009 Oregonian essay titled "Outraged at Those Bonuses? Get Over It." . . . Huffman signed a FreedomWorks petition supporting President Bush’s risky scheme to gamble Americans’ retirement money on Wall Street – a plan that would have given investment firms an additional $240 billion in management fees. . . . Huffman believes the only way to reduce health care costs is to restrict patients’ access to care, stating in an Oregonian essay that the 'rationing of health care is unavoidable.' . . . Huffman joined a 2007 FreedomWorks letter arguing that federal action to avert the mortgage meltdown was unnecessary because 'market corrections have already begun.'”

And so on. When the Oregonian's Jeff Mapes interviewed him, he was described as "disheartened" about the early shot and said, "I've got such a vast amount of stuff I've written, much of which, frankly, I don't remember."

He or someone on his campaign probably had better, quickly. Wyden is a very strong favorite for re-election anyway, but shots like this threaten to wipe out Huffman before he even gains a beach head.

Why they died

Washington state has released its first annual report on the death with dignity" law that took effect a year ago tomorrow. What it says reflects closely what the law's advocates have argued.

As the report defines it, the law (passed by initiative) "allows terminally ill adults seeking to end their lives in a humane and dignified manner to request lethal doses of medication from medical and osteopathic physicians. These terminally ill patients must be Washington residents who have six months (180 days) or less to live."

Concerns about mass abuse were unfounded, as they were in Oregon. From March 5 through the end of last year, fatal doses were prescribed to 63 people, a number roughly mirroring (allowing for population differences) Oregon's. Of those, 36 people died after taking the medication; of the others, some died without ever taking it, and some haven't taken it so far. About four of five of the 63 had cancer; 89% were insured. Only one indicated that financial concerns played a role in asking for the medication.

So what was the motivation? Of the 44 who responded to that question, all replied, "losing autonomy." 40 of them: "Less able to engage in activities making life enjoyable." And 36 of them: "Loss of dignity."

"Death with dignity" may be a catchphrase chosen for political acceptability, but it actually does seem to mirror the attitudes for the people who use the law.

Priorities

Money decisions are where your priorities hit the road. Talk is cheap; when you decide how money is allocated, you're putting something closer to your true self out there.

That seems to be hitting home with Idaho state Senator Nicole LeFavour, D-Boise, who is a member of the legislative budget committee but not part of its operative majority. Watching the committee slice away at the state Department of Health & Welfare, she responded with a blog post unusual (among legislative blog posts) for its pungency.

Unlike with education budgets yesterday, none of the affected parties were brought in. No stakeholder meetings were held with the disability community, with people with chronic illnesses or with the hospitals, clinics, doctors and nurses to see if this would work out. No, we have handed down a fly by the seat of your pants budget full of intent language acknowledging that it may fall apart by January. And if it does it seems that's ok because January is after the elections.

Fred Wood, maker of the motion, leader of the heartless, had the lack of sensitivity to mention going home as he wove his committee debate this morning there under the grand columns and the domed, cream colored ceiling. This is about going home. Passing this fly by the seat of our pants budget is about going home, not about us as law makers governing or leading or taking seriously our duty to do more than just make the numbers pan out.

Now we will watch the waiting lists grow and we know already that slowly the process is bogging down. Already the Department of Health & Welfare (whose employees are often some of the lowest paid in the state) already they close down half a day every other Friday without pay. Now they will close a whole days, close whole field offices so people if they have a car must drive and wait and perhaps still not get served, still not make it to the front of the line for help for a child, for food or something to get them through now that unemployment has run out.

Representative Wood, the scowling man with the mustache and thick glasses glaring over his microphone said we HAD to cut this budget as we did. He knows as well as I do that a single change in the grocery tax credit would fix this... He knows well that we could vote for one year not to give $40 grocery tax credits to Idahoans earning more than $20,000 a year ($40,000 for married couples.) The whole committee knows that this one simple $35 million change could prevent us from losing $120 million in federal funds and could have completely prevented us from making all these cuts in the Health Assistance budget this year.

There are other options too, such as increasing the number of tax auditors. (The conservative hosts of the Monday Twin Falls radio program where I guest during sessions wonder why that hasn't been done, and it's a good question.) Or - God forbid - actually find a way to raise revenue.

But that's not the priority.

Chain of command

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Mike Gwartney (left) and Butch Otter at a check presentation/Office of the Governor

The hottest person of controversy in Idaho right now may be not the governor, C.L. "Butch" Otter, but the director of the Department of Administration, Mike Gwartney. Though many of Gwartney's critics evidently are missing the point: If Gwartney is rightfully controversial, then that controversy has to land at Otter's doorstep.

As director of administration, even if only for a dollar a year (as the reports say), Gwartney reports directly to Otter. Otter can overrule anything he does. He serves at "the pleasure of" the governor - the governor can fire him at any time, for any reason or none. Whatever he does, good or bad, isn't his own alone; the buck stops with Otter.

Witness here part of the problem that arises with hiring friends, even friends with good reputations. When your scribe started reporting on the Idaho Legislature in the mid-70s, Gwartney was among the members of the House (Otter had just left that chamber), and he was among the more highly-regarded of legislators. He often showed up in reporter lists of the better legislators.

He's been away from all that for quite a while, though. A speculation: In his years in business at Boise Boise Cascade and the Farmers and Merchants Bank, and no doubt through lots of talks with the libertarian Otter, he may have come to think that government could work better if it were run much as those businesses were. But government doesn't run like business, and that's a good thing. They're different animals. They function in different ways.

So you get quotes like one from Senator Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, as budget committee chair no stranger to dealing with many sorts of state executives, complaining about "the imperialistic attitude Mr. Gwartney brings to a lot of the projects he does."

You get a whole string of battles on a wide range of fronts, poor legislative relations and at least one major lawsuit, all in areas where Gwartney has been directly involved. And a Gwartney now seemingly holed up in his office while a clamor for his resignation has been starting to kick in outside.

That falls to Otter, Gwartney's boss as well as his friend, as the governor launches his bid for re-election. Damage to Otter is being done; however much some Republican office holders may want to point a finger at Gwartney, it has to come back around to Otter. What we will see soon is what Otter and Gwartney decide to do about it within the confines of friendship, and of politics. And of governing a state.

The scope of ethics

There is a small agency in Washington state government called the State Executive Ethics Board, with a budget of a little under a half-million dollars a year, a drop in the ocean of the Washington state budget. In light of the state's financial stress, state Representative Jeannie Darneille, D-Tacoma, has proposed eliminating it. (She was quoted as saying, a little oddly, ""The rules are known and people are expected to follow the rules." So of course they always do?) That proposal may or may not win approval.

The critics of this particular cut are mostly - interestingly - Republicans, maybe in part because the slice would come out of the budget of the budget of Attorney General Rob McKenna, who is Republican. On Sound Politics, in rebuttal to Darneille: "There you go! Problem solved!" Another, in comments: "By this Democrat's logic, let's just get rid of all law enforcement and courts too."

So how much of a problem is it? The work volume of the agency seems not to have been enormous: In 2008 it opened 67 cases and imposed penalties on 11 employees, and delivered one advisory opinion (on "May a state employee authorize a wellness organization to sell products during meetings, even in the meetings are held in accordance with the agency's wellness policy?") Is that enough for a full-fledged agency? Or is there more work out there that it should be addressing, but isn't?

No immediate answers here, but there do seem to be a bunch of questions worth exploring. A legislative hearing or two might be a good place to do that.