As of today, about 69% of census forms have been returned, or places accounted for, nationwide. (We contributed to that number with ours, although it meant we had to go hunt for it – a result of getting mail not at our street address but at PO box.)

So where would you guess, in the Northwest, the highest return rate would be?

It isn’t what we might have guessed.

The Census has listed the top 50 places with estimated populations of 50,000 or more by their returns. They’re disproportionately around the upper midwest and Great Lakes areas, and the Northwest doesn’t show up until number 28: Meridian, Idaho, with 81% returns. And it’s the only one in the top 50.

Overall, Idaho is at 72%, Oregon 70% and Washington right at the national average at 69%.

In Idaho, the highest county participate rate is Jefferson County’s 81%, and the lowest is Valley County’s 30%.

Oregon’s highest returns are out of Benton County (75%), and the lowest is lightly-populated Gilliam County (54%).

In Washington, the highest-return county is also Jefferson (77%) and the lowest is on the other side of the state, Pend Oreille County (48%).

Would like to find some common thread to draw out of the data, but any commonalities are pretty elusive.

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Tea Partiers in McMinnville, Oregon/Stapilus

National hype notwithstanding, our observation of local Tea Party events over the last year has been not a rise but rather a gradual slippage. This isn’t a national survey, of course, but local observation seems to bear that out.

Last summer, when Representative David Wu held a town hall meeting in McMinnville, Oregon, hundreds of Tea Party people jammed a city center and made themselves furiously heard. About the same time, in larger communities often reached the thousands. Each event we’ve seen since then, though, has been a little smaller, and a little more sedate.

Today was a beautifully sunny and temperate spring day – perfect for an outdoor event – and it was of course Income Tax Day, and the Yamhill County Tea Party group had set up at 4:30 p.m., just in time to catch the maximum number of people for the upcoming event to participate or observe, in front of the city library.

They drew about 50 people, maybe 60 depending on how far from the main group you go, along a city block. About half held signs.

Apart from the numbers, what else was missing was the sheer fury of last year. There were no Hitlerized pictures of President Obama this time (the only specific reference to him was a sign saying, “Impeach Obama for Treason”). There wasn’t anything violence-tinged, and there wasn’t any conspiracy-theory stuff. Were they concerned about the Tea Party “infiltrators” – had a message gone out to tone things down a bit? Or were they just toning down naturally? Or, had some of the more extreme folks drifted away?

The signs were almost all simple and generic: “One nation under God,” “Save Our Constitution,” “Invest in America – Buy Congressmen,” “Free markets not free loaders,” “Tea Party patriot.” There were a few signs for Republican candidates, mainly for local office, and a few blasting Democrats (“Wyden consider this your going away party”). Few had much issue orientation; one urged “Not another 1 cent for bailouts,” but there was nothing about health care – a remarkable shift from a few months ago.

Just wasn’t last year’s tea party.

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Close elections seem to bring out the desperation especially, in some cases, in those on the wrong end of them. Maybe here’s one way of thinking about close calls: When a race turns out to be really close, ask whether anyone else on the ballot – someone not in a close race – is making a strenuous argument that something in the election process went seriously wrong. If not . . . that probably tells you something.

In the Coeur d’Alene city council election of last November, incumbent Mike Kennedy was challenged by Jim Brannon (though only lightly mentioned in most accounts, there is a partisan subtext: Kennedy is a Democrat and Brannon a Republican). The result was extremely close, giving Kennedy a lead of five votes. There’s a legal avenue for doublechecking such small margins: The recount, which would have been entirely appropriate in a case like this.

Except that Brannon concluded that “The recount would run the same ballots through the same machines by the same people,” and so went on a hunt for other glitches in the system which might reverse the result.

Elections systems are not perfect, no more than any other human endeavor, but Idaho’s generally and Kootenai County’s specifically for many years have not been the scene of any significant allegations of election fraud, and the other results in the Coeur d’Alene elections of last fall have not been challenged. Brannon hired an attorney (Starr Kelso) and even a private investigator to find out if someone may have cast an improper vote. A few scraps have emerged, but nothing systemic, and there’s no indication how the election might have been affected if at all. It’s nowhere close to the “Coeur d’Alene Watergate” one blogger would like to conflate it to. (The case Republicans made after the 2004 Washington gubernatorial contest, probably even closer than this one statistically, was likely stronger than this, but still pretty weak and ultimately dismissed in court.) The case has gone to court, has gone through a series of judges each recusing from the case (the count now seems to be at judge four), and the legal bills are piling up. You have to sympathize with Kennedy on that: “I regret the process in which a person can be sued personally just for winning an election.”

Therein is a risk, and a reason for people outside of Coeur d’Alene to take note: In the case of close elections, deeper pockets (whether those of the candidate or the candidate’s allies) can keep the legal cases coming, with the very real risk of eventually driving out of the process those with less money to spend. The election process itself looks at this point not perfect but essentially clean, but the challenge to it is raising some dark issues.

Brannon has also called for re-doing the election, an option that he should know is no option at all: There’s no provision for it, no legal way to do that. (Just as there wasn’t nationally in 2000, when a lot of Democrats would have like that presidential election re-run.) You run an election, you count the numbers, and that’s that.

On a (self-selecting) web poll, the Spokesman-Review asked, “Why is Jim Brannon pursuing his election lawsuit against Mike Kennedy?” “Sour grapes” pulled 78% (74 votes), and “Wants to correct election problems” 22% (21 votes). Brannon’s plea that “I’m not a sore loser” seems to be getting less traction.

After close to half a year of this, that’s not hard to understand.

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In Oregon and Idaho we’re approaching the mark of one month before the May primary election, so time has arrived for heavy-duty video cycles.

Herewith, a few quick thoughts on some of the ads emerging. Overall impression: You might have expected more overt negativity in this season, but these are basically run-positive ads. Of course, that may be in part because they’re introductory.

(Embeds and comments below the fold – to help with speedier loading of this page . . .)

First, a couple from Oregon Republican gubernatorial candidate Allen Alley. (h/t to Blue Oregon)

They are aimed at doing basically the same thing, emphasizing Alley’s business background. Both hammer it in well enough, but we’d suggest the first is much the stronger of the two, combining an Alley personal appearance with a batch of enthusiastic testimonials. Basic and almost a little rough-edged, but it should catch some eyes and ears.

Better than the new ad by his prime opponent, Chris Dudley.

It’s so soft and friendly it almost slips out of your attention; Dudley shows up and seems friendly enough, but mouths nothing but platitudes. The ad mentions his “outsider” status but doesn’t play it up, or offer any attitude to go with it. (This nice guy is going to lead the revolution?)

On in Idaho, Republican U.S. House candidate Vaughn Ward has his first ad (“Truck”) up.

The rural truck imagery and hits on national Democrats fit enough; generally, this was an easy-going introductory ad. Notable the bit at the end, when Ward describes himself as “I’m a pro-life Republican” – nothing unusual in the self-description, but the fact that he tossed it in there was a little attention-getting.

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Just this from a lead paragraph on an Astorian story, datelined Long Beach, but quite a breath-taker:

“A Peninsula hotel manager offered Pacific County an ultimatum Tuesday night: If he didn’t get his way on preventing pesticide spraying at his property he would sell it to the Aryan Nations for a new Northwest headquarters.”

UPDATE More on this from the Longview Daily News. The dispute actually has to do with, oddly enough, herbicide spraying on oyster beds.

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Here’s a striking quote: “Washington Mutual built a conveyor belt that dumped toxic mortgage assets into the financial system like a polluter dumping poison into a river.”

That comes from Michigan Senator Carl Levin, chair of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, and it suggests pretty clearly what will emerge from the Senate banking scandal hearings starting today, which will be focusing on Washington Mutual.

But before absorbing the usual well-coached responses from the lineup of banking execs, give some thought to what was going on here. The press release announcing the hearing is so clear in its smackdown that we really need little else . . . other than some way of ensuring this sort of thing isn’t allowed to happen again . . .

On Tuesday, the U.S. Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, under Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Ranking Member Tom Coburn, R-Okla., will launch a series of four hearings in April examining some of the causes and consequences of the 2008 financial crisis.

The first hearing will focus on the role of high risk mortgages, and feature Washington Mutual Bank, which was the nation’s largest thrift with more than $300 billion in assets, $188 billion in deposits, and 43,000 employees. Washington Mutual specialized in mortgage lending until it was seized by the government and sold to JPMorgan Chase in 2008. It was the largest bank failure in U.S. history. The Subcommittee investigation found that the bank contributed to the financial crisis by making hundreds of billions of dollars in shoddy, high risk mortgage loans, packaging them, and selling them to investors as mortgage backed securities.

“Washington Mutual built a conveyor belt that dumped toxic mortgage assets into the financial system like a polluter dumping poison into a river,” said Levin. “Using a toxic mix of high risk lending, lax controls, and destructive compensation policies, Washington Mutual flooded the market with shoddy loans and securities that went bad. Examining how Washington Mutual operated, and what its insiders were saying to each other, begins to open a window into the troubling mortgage lending and securitization practices that took our economy over a cliff. As the debate on financial reform begins, it is critical to acknowledge that the financial crisis was not a natural disaster, it was a man-made economic assault. Our hearings on the financial crisis will help provide a public record of what went wrong, who should be held accountable, and the ongoing need to protect Main Street from the excesses of Wall Street.”

The Subcommittee began its bipartisan investigation into the financial crisis in November 2008. Since then, Senate investigators have gathered millions of pages of documents, conducted more than 100 interviews and depositions, and consulted with dozens of experts. Future hearings will examine the role of regulators, credit rating agencies, investment banks, and the use of complex financial instruments.

The Washington Mutual case study examines how the bank’s search for profits led to the origination and securitization of shoddy mortgages that infected the entire financial system. The documents show that, in the mid-2000s, the bank made a conscious decision to focus on high risk mortgages, because higher risk loans offered greater profits. Washington Mutual increased its securitization of subprime loans sixfold, primarily through its subprime lender, Long Beach Mortgage Corporation. Over a four year period, Washington Mutual and Long Beach increased their securitizations of subprime mortgages from about $4.5 billion in 2003 to $29 billion in 2006. Altogether, from 2000 to 2007, they securitized at least $77 billion in subprime loans.

Washington Mutual also increased its origination of other high-risk loans, which it treated as prime loans, including its flagship product known as the Option ARM. Option ARMs allowed borrowers to pay an initial low “teaser rate,” before a higher variable interest rate was triggered. Once the higher rate took effect, borrowers were given the option of paying one of four amounts, with the lowest a “minimum payment” that did not cover the full amount of the interest and principal owed each month. The unpaid amount was then added to the unpaid loan principal, resulting in a negatively amortizing loan in which the total amount owed increased rather than decreased over time until a cap was reached and the loan “recast.” At that point, the required loan payments increased, and many borrowers defaulted. Washington Mutual sold at least $115 billion in Option ARM loans to investors.

From 2003 to 2008, documents were unearthed showing that these high-risk loans were problem-plagued. Internal reports show that Long Beach and Washington Mutual loans did not comply with the bank’s own credit requirements, contained fraudulent or erroneous borrower information, and suffered from large numbers of early payment defaults on the part of borrowers. One FDIC review of 4,000 Long Beach loans in 2003, found that less than a quarter could be properly sold to investors. A 2005 review of loans from two of Washington Mutual’s top producing retail loan officers found fraud in 58% of the loans coming from one loan officer’ s operations and 83% from the other. Yet those two loan officers continued working for the bank for three years, receiving prizes for their loan production. A 2008 review found that staff in another top loan producer’s office had been literally manufacturing borrower information to speed up production.

Documents obtained by the Subcommittee also show that, at a critical time, Washington Mutual selected loans for its securities because they were likely to default, and failed to disclose that fact to investors. It also included loans that had been identified as containing fraudulent borrower information, again without alerting investors when the fraud was discovered. An internal 2008 report found that lax controls had allowed loans that had been identified as fraudulent to be sold to investors.

Washington Mutual pay policies contributed to the problems. Loan officers and processors were paid based on volume, not the quality of their loans, and were paid more for issuing higher risk loans. Loan officers and mortgage brokers were also paid more when they got borrowers to pay higher interest rates, even if the borrower qualified for a lower rate – a practice that enriched WaMu in the short-term, but made defaults more likely down the road. These skewed compensation practices went right to the top. In 2008, when he was asked to leave the failing bank, CEO Kerry Killinger was paid $25 million.

Based upon the Subcommittee investigation, Senators Levin and Coburn made the following findings relative to the Washington Mutual case history.

(1) High Risk Lending Strategy. Washington Mutual (“WaMu”) executives embarked upon a high risk lending strategy and increased sales of high risk home loans to Wall Street, because they projected that high risk home loans, which generally charged higher rates of interest, would be more profitable for the bank than low risk home loans.

(2) Shoddy Lending Practices. WaMu and its affiliate, Long Beach Mortgage Company (“Long Beach”), used shoddy lending practices riddled with credit, compliance, and operational deficiencies to make tens of thousands of high risk home loans that too often contained excessive risk, fraudulent information, or errors.

(3) Steering Borrowers to High Risk Loans. WaMu and Long Beach too often steered borrowers into home loans they could not afford, allowing and encouraging them to make low initial payments that would be followed by much higher payments, and presumed that rising home prices would enable those borrowers to refinance their loans or sell their homes before the payments shot up.

(4) Polluting the Financial System. WaMu and Long Beach securitized over $77 billion in subprime home loans and billions more in other high risk home loans, used Wall Street firms to sell the securities to investors worldwide, and polluted the financial system with mortgage backed securities which later incurred high rates of delinquency and loss.

(5) Securitizing Delinquency-Prone and Fraudulent Loans. At times, WaMu selected and securitized loans that it had identified as likely to go delinquent, without disclosing its analysis to investors who bought the securities, and also securitized loans tainted by fraudulent information, without notifying purchasers of the fraud that was discovered.

(6) Destructive Compensation. WaMu’s compensation system rewarded loan officers and loan processors for originating large volumes of high risk loans, paid extra to loan officers who overcharged borrowers or added stiff prepayment penalties, and gave executives millions of dollars even when its high risk lending strategy placed the bank in financial jeopardy.

The April 13 hearing will take testimony from former WaMu executives, including former WaMu Chief Risk Officers James Vanasek and Ronald Cathcart; former General Auditor Randy Melby; former WaMu Home Loans President David Schneider; former head of Capital Markets David Beck; former President and Chief Operating Officer Stephen Rotella; and former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Kerry Killinger.

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Seems that the man leading an effort to damage the Tea Parties (notably, presumably, those coming up in a couple of days) is from Oregon: Jason Levin runs a tech consulting company at Portland.

The damage would be a matter of PR – a kind of message monkey=-wrenching. A description in Talking Points Memo:

Levin’s group of protesters plan to get in the heads of tea partiers at the Tax Day Tea Parties nationwide Thursday and manipulate them right out of relevance. They’ll dress like tea partiers, talk like tea partiers and carry signs like tea partiers. In fact, according to Levin they’ll be completely indistinguishable from tea partiers, except for one thing — they won’t be out-crazied by anyone.

“Our goal is that whenever a tea partier says ‘Barack Obama was not born in America,’ we’re going be right right there next to them saying, ‘yeah, in fact he wasn’t born on Earth! He’s an alien!” Levin explained. He said that by making the tea parties sound like a gathering of crazy people — his group’s goal — the movement will lose its power.

Levin said he got the idea from a counter-protest to the infamous Westboro Baptist Church group held outside Twitter headquarters in January. Levin said the Westboro group broke up after counter-protesters showed up holding signs “even crazier” than the ones held by the Westboro group. “They realized they couldn’t get their message out, so they just left” Levin said.

The effort has gone national – reportedly, at least 66 local organizations have been formed – and its website is quite active, not least after “bombings” from (evidently) actual tea partiers.

The Oregon Tea Party has taken note. (It has posted on its Facebook site a statement opposing release of Levin’s contact information.) What effect will all this have? We may see in a couple of days.

We’re entering the second summer after the first Tea Beg summer. The TB opposition was caught flat-footed last time, but this is one indicator it won’t be again.

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Did you hear that, following up on the recent move by Wal-Mart of its Lewiston, Idaho store across the river to Clarkston, Washington, there’s another move under way?

This one involves the transfer of about 200 employees from its Moscow, Idaho, store to a new supercenter about eight miles west in Pullman, Washington.

This announced on the day the Washington legislature was preparing to raise a string of taxes, including on a number of items Wal-Mart sells.

So once again, how’s that mighty tax-driven business stampede from Washington and Oregon to Idaho turning out?

ANOTHER COMMENT Couldn’t resist adding this one to the mix. The writer is Idaho conservative blogger Adam Graham, who posted this:

“It seems strange. Idaho hasn’t elected a Democratic Governor in 20 years. Washington hasn’t elected a Republican Governor in 30. Yet, it’s Washington that has a pro-growth tax code that makes it a better place to do business. This is because, it’s policy and not partisanship that matters. And Idaho’s tax policy is leftover from the progressive area and not befitting a state that expects to grow in the 21st Century. The fact is that even Oregon is beating us in business tax environment and has a lower tax burden and that’s after its tax increase last year.”

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With time about to run out on the special session and the governor saying she wouldn’t re-up, and no one wanting to increase the sales tax and with an income tax way off the table . . . the Washington House has passed a tax increase. (Goes now to the Senate, where passage looks more likely than not but isn’t assured.)

Sort of. More or less. Kind of a grab bag of taxes, aimed at raising $794.1 million.

What’s in it? Well, you kinda need a spreadsheet (six pages worth, to be exact) to work it out. Will you have to pay more taxes under it? Pretty much the same answer.

There’s a beer tax increase, a cigarette tax increase, a business & occupation tax increase (although it’s a decrease for some), and a bunch more.

The House Democrats, who passed the package essentially in-caucus, had this comment as well:

Three of the provisions are temporary and expire in 2013 – the B&O surcharge on most service businesses, the beer tax increase and the pop tax increase.
To protect really small service businesses, the B&O surcharge includes a doubling of the small business tax credit. The small business credit protects the first $46,600 in gross receipts for small businesses from any B&O tax. Service businesses that generate up to $80,000 in annual service income would have a smaller B&O tax bill under this proposal than they do today.
None of Washington’s breweries are expected to be impacted by the beer tax increase.
A B&O tax credit for jobs at Washington’s candy manufacturers will buffer them from any negative impact of the candy sales tax.
The first $10 million in volume of soda is exempt.

The idea being that small-scale taxpayers would be hit least, or not at all. A good deal of it sunsets in a few cycles. Parsed, it actually looks like not-bad stuff.

But it’s loaded with political ammo.

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Ben Jacklet, managing editor of Oregon Business magazine, wrote a web column on March 24 taking a few shots at (mostly unnamed) people worrying about the prospective loss of jobs in Oregon after the January passage of two tax measures, 66 and 67.

Apparently it stung: A week later he reported that the response “set new standards for vitriol. Some readers went so far as to suggest that the job I should watch out for is my own.”

He then wrote: “I have to point out that for all of the great and not-so-great responses last week’s column elicited, I still am lacking the name of a single job-creating investor or executive who is in fact leaving Oregon because of Measures 66 and 67.” (emphasis added)

And then proceeded to name the recent string of companies which this year have announced they are setting up major operations in Oregon, including Genetech, Facebook and Ferrotech, and others expanding theirs.

Worth noting as the states monitor their various business-development strategies.

H/T to Steve Novick, Blue Oregon.

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Tom Forbes at Red County makes what sounds like a good point in evaluating the relative rankings of the Republicans interested in taking on Democratic Senator Patty Murray.

He looks at the recent polling of the race by Rasmussen and notably the comparison over time, especially in a prospective matchup pitting Murray against former gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi:

“Rossi has slipped a bit from previous polls. Instead of leading Murray by 2-3 points, he is now trailing by a similar margin. Rasmussen attributes this to the Democrat’s attacks, but I think that’s more likely due to impatience among Republicans, who want a horse to get behind sooner rather than later.”

Maybe the attacks mattered, and maybe too the threats on Murray (which might or might not have been reflected in the polling). But Forbes is likely right: Washington Republicans want a horse to back, and time’s a-wastin’. Realistically, trying to mount a major Senate campaign from a minority position in a state as large as Washington (or even Wyoming, for that matter) starting in April of election year is . . . well, a tough shot. It gets tougher every day.

Wrote Forbes: “No one is a bigger supporter of the Tea Party than me. But there will be no replay of the Scott Brown Miracle in Washington. Voters are definitely more inclined to look to the GOP this year for real solutions and alternatives, but they will want more than poster slogans and talk radio tropes.” And that will take longer to sell . . .

ALSO Forbes also suggests that the Rasmussen numbers are suggesting that, absent Rossi, Vancouver state Senator Don Benton is emerging as the Republican front runner. That sounds about right.

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The natural tendency by the Idaho Democratic gubernatorial candidate Keith Allred of mediating toward compromise is finding some expression in his new missive on health care. It’s also a demonstration of how difficult, in these times, mediated compromise turns out to be on our hot-button issues.

It emerges in part as kind of response to the incumbent Republican Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter, who recently happily signed legislation directly challenging the new federal health care law and backed a lawsuit against it. A typical stance: Otter against the feds. Or, Idaho Republican (fill in the name) against the feds.

Allred’s statement on the issue seeks to place himself in the middle, more or less: “In recent weeks, both our federal and state governments have passed new laws regarding health care. Neither of them address our health care problems effectively. Today, I want to tell the people of Idaho that a more promising direction is still available to us.”

One that is non-federal law, and non-state law, presumably. Ah, not exactly:

“I prefer finding solutions. Governor Otter’s focus on lawsuits overlooks an important provision in the federal legislation. States can get a waiver from the federal requirements if they establish alternative programs that control costs and increase access better than the federal legislation itself (see Sec. 1321 and Sec. 1332). I’m here today to tell you that when I’m elected governor, I’ll work to do just that.”

The provision is real. It was pushed by Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, and likely is better known in Oregon than in most states. In Oregon, various political people (including legislators) have been talking for some weeks about how the state might use it both to fill in some of the blanks in the current federal law, and to put a more individual state stamp on the effort. One, for example, might (and this appears in a Wyden paper) “Set up a state-run public option that would compete with private insurance companies and hold them accountable. The state could use the total federal dollars it gets to subsidize coverage for low-income folks in the public option as well as in private plans.” There’s a range of possibilities, as long as you meet overall federal guidelines – something like what states have done for years in managing water pollution themselves, but within federally-set limitations.

But we ought to be clear here. What those Oregon political people are talking about doing, like what Allred is talking about doing, is not an opt-out of the federal bill: It is a fulfillment of it. The Wyden provisions amount to a recognition by good number of members of Congress and others in DC that (contrary to their reputation) they do see that good ideas can come from the states, and left them to devise answers to some of the blank spots and to find better ways to do some of the things that were prescribed. Allred’s approach, like Wyden’s, would be an acceptance and a carrying-out of the federal bill.

Allred’s specifics and policies might be, probably would be, different from Wyden’s and Oregon’s. We don’t know exactly what they would be, because his campaign indicated that he would like to develop them through the Common Interest model: to develop a policy brief and then “invite thousands of Idahoans randomly chosen from the registered voter list to review the document and give us their opinion.”

Till then, we have one Idaho gubernatorial candidate (Otter) taking shots at the new law, and another (Allred) who says he will develop policy inside its terms. Politically, this sounds like a framework we recognize.

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