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Posts published in January 2011

Re-elect, and shift

There was a contest yesterday among Washington state Democrats for the position of state chair. More or less a contest, anyway.

The incumbent (since 2006), Dwight Pelz, was re-elected 145-14 over Natalie McClendon, who chairs the Whatcom County Democrats.

Recall that only a short time ago, Washington Republicans ousted their chair, Luke Esser, who served during a similar time span, by a vote of about two to one (in favor of talk show host Kirby Wilbur), though there was little by way of suggesting that Esser had done a bad job.

Seems to reflect a difference in attitude.

The shape of the schools debate to come?

The developing Idaho battle over the sweeping school proposal by state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna (with Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter) continues running fierce. It has merited some further developent, and maybe a Sunday Idaho Statesman newspaper ad (right, an ad; consequently, no link we could find) will help give it that kick.

The plan puts together a number of pieces: Larger class sizes, more electronic and online courses, notebook computers for 9th graders, hundreds of fewer teachers in the state, a merit pay system (with larger pay for many teachers) and no tenure for those who remain. Whatever you think of it, it would amount to a huge shift in public education in the state and change its direction in major ways.

Since it was released the first week of the session, there's been fierce blowback, focusing largely on the larger classroom sizes, the diminished numbers of teachers, the increasing reliance on electronic education, and criticism of the swap (in effect) of teachers for computers. Luna spent much of last week, evidently, on the defensive.

Two full-page ads in the Sunday paper give the debate another twist. One of those, not by much: The ad from the Idaho Falls manufacturer Melaleuca boiled down to a bash of the Idaho Education Association. The other, from the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation, which likewise backed the Luna/Otter plan, was also limited but much more provocative.

The foundation has standing to comment in an informed way: It has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into public schools around Idaho on a wide range of projects - its core mission. It said:

We don't take this stand in support of the Governor and the State Department's education plan lightly. As a friend and supporter of education, we wade into this issue circumspectly, but we wade in nonetheless. The reform efforts we've funded have not worked, have had limited limited impact, or were never systemically adopted. At all levels and repeatedly, we've met with political indecision, territorialism, and a lack of political will. The historical focus on barriers, challenges, excuses and maintaining the status quo permeates our education system and stakeholder groups.

Our founder, Joe Albertson, was a visionary and a pioneer. He took risks and tried new things, but he also wasn't afraid to change paths if it wasn't working, and that required courage. Nothing can be improved without addressing the systemic issues confronting us, and Superintendent Luna and Governor Otter have shown the courage to tackle what will be a challenging process. ...

We can either choose to support education reform, or the choice will be made for us when we no longer supply innovators or a workforce capable of fueling a vibrant, innovative and globally-focused Idaho economy.

Beyond that, the ad makes two other points. It notes that Idaho education is falling behind, including relative to other states, and isn't educating students for high-end thinking a work ("In the future, most jobs will be either for highly skilled workers or the low-skilled working poor. Our system prepares students for the latter.") And it notes that technology is useful in education (in a variety of ways), that "educator effectiveness and accountability are critical" and that simple measures of money spent are not the same thing as getting good results.

As far as they go, these points are unassailable. Your scribe was peripherally involved once (back in the early 90s) in a school reform effort different from this one, or from Albertson's, but which also ran into the same kind of roadblocks this ad described. Those blocks to change are real and they have been intractable, for a very long time. And that's not a good thing.

Here's where we come up short: The diagnosis is on target, but is the prescription? Are we sure?

What the Albertson ad doesn't say is why the Luna/Otter plan, in its specific details, is the only option to actual reform. Are there no others? The frustration of working around a hidebound school system must be very real, so is this a case of jumping at the first alternative (one with major political push) that presents itself? Why this plan, unaltered? The ad doesn't really go there.

And are you really sure that, just because it's never been tried before, that it will work? Wait a minute, there must be a problem with that concept ...

There's some very useful potential lurking around in all this, if Idaho legislators take the Luna/Otter plan and absorb the points made in the Albertson ad, and mesh that with the real and legitimate concerns (many from parents, who are a stakeholder group too) to develop an agenda for something innovative and system-altering, while lessening the education risk. Call this a real challenge of the legislative process. But that's a good kind of challenge.

Forgiveness, not permission

The old saying goes: It's easier to get forgiveness than permission. Are the Washington pot dispensers buying in?

The large numbers of marijuana dispensers in California (and to a lesser degree Colorado) got the law on their side before setting up. The situation in Washington state is, more than in Oregon, ambiguous: Are they legally allowed, or not? The law has a gray area here.

The Seattle Times today: "In the past seven months, dispensaries have sprouted across the state, exploiting a loophole in the state medical-marijuana law that neither explicitly allows nor prohibits them. State tax officials estimate at least 120 are open, mostly in the Puget Sound area. Dozens more likely remain underground. The options are dizzying. Pot in many connoisseur strains or cannabis-infused food, from lollipops to pasta primavera? Home delivery or strip-mall storefronts aspiring for a pharmacy look?"

There's some speculation now that this could jump-start the legalize-regulate-tax regime that has so far hit a brick wall in Washington. Or at least rev up the impatient engines.

Legislature is already out there. (A quick search of Washington legislation on the subject brings up six:

5073 Relating to medical use of cannabis
1100 Relating to medical use of cannabis
1550 Relating to regulating the production, distribution, and sale of cannabis
5598 Relating to regulating the production, distribution, and sale of cannabis
1285 Relating to regulating synthetic cannabinoids
5101 Relating to placing certain synthetic cannabinoids into schedule I of the uniform controlled substances act

Expect that now, it will get a more serious listen.

A big squawk

So often it's this way.

One of the biggest civic controversies this year in Oregon's second-largest city and a largish metro center - Salem - has been chickens. Specifically, whether people living in city limits could keep them.

Yeah, I know - if that's all they've got to worry about ... but there's another point to be had.

Traditionally, keeping chickens in Salem generally was illegal under city code, not that it was completely unknown. A fairly modest loosening of the code was proposed last fall, and the hearings and headline writers both have been well-occupied since.

So. Since the turn of the year, it's OK top keep a few chickens in your back yard in Salem. And how many chicken permits in this city of 140,000 or so have gone out?

According to the Statesman-Journal: Five.

Amusing bill of the day

Oregon House Bill 2785, by Representative Kim Thatcher, R-Salem. Excerpts follow.

SECTION 1. (1)(a) Every elected official or public employee who is required to swear or affirm to support the United States Constitution or the Oregon Constitution as a condition of office or employment shall take a constitutional competency examination within six months of taking office every election cycle for the position in which they have been elected or within six months of having been employed in the position that requires an oath or affirmation as a condition of employment.

(2) The constitutional competency examination required under subsection (1) of this section shall be developed and managed by the State Court Administrator. (more…)

A nullity

In Idaho as in many places, a lot of conservative Republicans make a great sound about adhering to and upholding the constitution - as self-described "constitutionalists." So how does that work out in practice?

The House State Affairs Committee this morning introduced a measure (bill number yet to be assigned), by Republican Representatives Judy Boyle, Midvale, and Vito Barbieri, Dalton Gardens, which says (in Barbieri's paraphrase): "The federal health care laws recently passed by the U.S. Congress have invaded the traditional sovereign powers of the state. This bill declares that this intrusion by the federal government is … null and void.” The vote to introduce was party-line, all Republicans in favor.

Democrats had a variety of issues to raise, though those evidently had little pull. After Barbieri offered an estimate of savings to the state of $228 million if the federal law were nullified (here's a good one for PolitiFact to check out), Representative Phylis King, D-Boise, had a more immediate query. She "said the state Department of Insurance already has received $2 million from the federal government to start setting up health care exchanges. “This is the law of the land. So are we going to give it back? Are those folks working on this, are they going to be fired?” she asked. Barbieri said, “It’s inestimable, and that’s the difficulty.”"

Some difficulty.

Not all indicated they will necessarily support the measure later. At least one, Representative Lynn Luker of Boise, pointed out that as a legislator he swore to uphold the constitution of the United States, and this bill ... well, might run afoul of that.

Luker's concern is much more than just speculative. A state attorney general's opinion delivered on January 21 was conclusive: While federal laws can be challenged for constitutionality in the courts (and Idaho is among the state lawsuit challengers to the health care care law), state legislature have no authority to overrule a federal law.

From the AG's opinion: "Once Idaho was admitted as a State it acquired all of the privileges and immunities held by each of the other States, but as reflected above, the right of nullification, the right of secession, and the compact theory had all been rejected by the United States by the time of statehood. The framers of the Idaho Constitution were acutely aware of that fact. Article I, § 3 of our Constitution states: 'State inseparable part of Union.-The State of Idaho is an inseparable part of the American Union, and the Constitution of the United States is the supreme law of the land.' The framers therefore expressly recognized Idaho's status as a part of the United States and the supremacy of the United States Constitution. Consistent with this recognition, every legislator is required to affirm "that I will support the constitution of the United States and the constitution of the State of Idaho." Legislators and other state officials, in other words, pledge to carry out their duties in a fashion that directly conflicts with the second form of the nullification theory. The alpha and omega of the nullification theory, in sum, rest upon rejecting the principle that the United States Constitution as the supreme law of the land."

And here we thought Barbieri and Boyle, and many of the Republicans on the State Affairs Committee, were among the corps of self-described "constitutionalists." Or if they are, what could the term possibly mean?

UPDATE Noting reports about a book being delivered en masse to legislators, Nullification by Thomas Woods, a book cuirculated nationally among the networks of the right. (National Public Radio reports: "As a college student in 1994, Woods helped found the League of the South, an Alabama group the Southern Poverty Law Center says has become a "neo-Confederate group" seeking a second Southern secession. Woods told the AP last week he thinks states have a right of secession, but he doesn't support the Confederacy's return. He's no longer a member.")

A suggestion: Read Garry Wills' excellent A Necessary Evil: A History of American Distrust of Government, a fine overview of the subject, with some concise but clear and ample discussion of the problem of nullification.

Carlson: Good stewardship?

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

On January 7, before the High Noon formal and ceremonial swearing-in to a second term as Governor of Idaho, C. L. “Butch” Otter and his wife Lori had a Mass of Thanksgiving at Boise’s St. John’s Cathedral.

The Gospel reading was taken from the New Testament Book of Matthew, chapter 25, verses 14 through 29, the well-known “Parable of the Talents.” The homilist did a marvelous job of relating the reading to the trust being placed in the governor’s hands and Butch’s obligation to be a good steward of the state he will lead for another four years.

The homilist, however, had no idea how appropriate his homily was, nor how much this listener felt Governor Otter already had stumbled badly in his stewardship right out of the starting gate of his second term.

Unbeknownst to the homilist, indeed, unbeknownst to hardly anyone, with little fan fare and no public process, the day before Governor Otter signed an agreement with the U.S. Department of Energy that will be the crack in the door which quite possibly will swing wide open and turn Idaho into the nation’s new Yucca Mountain, bringing tons of nuclear commercial waste into this state for the first time ever.

With one stroke of his pen Butch turned away from a bi-partisan policy followed by every governor since Cecil Andrus negotiated a commitment from the Federal government to remove all of the poorly stored transuranic waste sitting above Idaho’s sole-source aquifer and ship it to a site in New Mexico’s salt caverns for repackaging and storage.

And since the early 70’s the thousands of canisters containing this waste has been shipped out of the state away from the precious Snake Plain Aquifer. Now, Idaho will start to take in commercial nuclear waste, allegedly for utilization in various research projects.

Calculate the math on how much will start heading this way and one quickly concludes it is far more than is reasonably needed for research. Not to worry say the Feds and the governor. The Department of Energy says it still intends to honor the section of the 1995 agreement started by Andrus and finished by Phil Batt which says ALL nuclear waste will be removed from Idaho by 2035.

Sadly for Idaho, Governor Batt broke ranks with Governor Andrus and chose party over principle, questionable promises from the Feds over real-life experience, and his friendship with Otter over his friendship with Andrus.

Somehow that promise rings pretty hollow and the logic of saying what’s being brought in will be removed, just “trust us,” is mind-boggling and stupefying.

So surely Governor Otter got something for Idaho out of this Faustian bargain? More jobs? More money for the National Engineering and Laboratory site west of Idaho Falls? Nope, my friends. Nada, nothing. No new jobs will be generated and no new appropriations are promised.

Even loyal supporters of the newly-sworn in governor are going to be hard-pressed to defend this indefensible, incomprehensible action.

There has been absolutely zero transparency. There are hundreds of questions begging for answers. Where will this waste be stored? How will it be stored? How can the public be assured that there’ll be no leakages down into the aquifer that provides the water for many southern Idaho crops not the least of which are potatoes?

How will it be transported? What are the security arrangements? Why was the public kept in the dark? What did our Congressional delegation know and when did they know it?

No less a great Republican president than Ronald Reagan once said “Trust, but verify!” How will Idahoans be able to obtain verification, especially when this was conceived in secrecy, born in the dark, and sprung on Idaho’s public shortly before the media’s attention was totally focused on Butch’s swearing-in?

I sincerely hope Governor Otter started pondering the real meaning of the homily on stewardship because in this observer’s opinion he quite possibly has so marred his legacy that prospects for his hearing the words “well done thou good and faithful servant” are just about the same as those of the Feds removing what they will be bringing to this state that will bear all the risk and have gained nothing for it. - Chris Carlson

Economic roadblock

Chuck Malloy
Malloy from the Inside

A cross-post from the Malloy from the Inside blog, written by Chuck Malloy.

Clark Krause, the new executive director of the Boise Valley Economic Partnership, had an interesting piece in the Idaho Statesman today. He talked about attracting new jobs as a team effort. It’s going to take a serious team effort to help turn around this economy.

Gov. Otter, Commerce Director Don Dietrich and Department of Labor Director Roger Madsen are prominent members of that team. The Idaho Legislature is not – even though many candidates running for those seats talk about “jobs, jobs, jobs.”

The sad truth in the Idaho Legislature is that the weakest committee chairs in the House and Senate are on the commerce or business committees. The Senate doesn’t even have a business committee.

Don’t get me wrong, the chairmen and vice-chairmen are solid people, some of the friendliest and most sincere people in the Idaho Legislature. But they are not movers and shakers – the kind of people who offer innovative thinking at a time when Idaho cries out for creativity. Idaho has lost many jobs over the years, particularly with the demise of mining and agriculture, and the state’s economy still suffers as a result. Creating jobs should be one of the highest priorities in the Idaho Legislature. Unfortunately, it is about the lowest priority.

The House Business Committee is led by 74-year-old Max Black of Boise, who is in his 10th term. Black, one of the moderate holdouts in the unabashedly conservative House of Representatives, is where leadership feels he can do the least amount of damage. The vice-chairman is Frank Henderson of Coeur d’Alene, who in December celebrated his 88th birthday.

The chair of the Commerce & Human Resources committee is Sharon Block of Twin Falls, who was a kindergarten teacher in her professional life.

Leading the Commerce & Human Resources Committee in the Senate is 81-year-old John Andreason of Boise, who like Black is in his 10th term. Andreason, a former director of the Legislative Budget Office for 23 years, once was one of the sharpest minds in the Legislature. To put it mildly, he’s no longer in his prime. The vice-chairman of the committee is Shirley McKague of Meridian, one of the truly nicest people in the Legislature. I will say no more.

Krause, who spent six years leading the New Mexico Partnership, knows the good things that can happen with teamwork in economic development. The New Mexico Partnership is “an organization responsible for the sales and marketing efforts that attracted 46 companies and over 14,000 jobs to communities across New Mexico,” said Krause.

That’s a nice resume to bring here. It looks like there’s a pretty good team in place for Krause to enjoy similar success in Idaho – just not in the Idaho Legislature.

Seating arrangements

In many state legislatures, Idaho for example, a congressional-style seating pattern applies: All the members of one party sit on one side of the chamber, and all the others on the other side. As need arises (as a majority increases), one side may slop over to the other side. (In Idaho, given the massive Republican majorities in Senate and House both, Republicans occupy not only one side of the chamber but also most of the other.)

This is a kind of party separation that probably does have a subtle effect on the way members think of themselves - as people apart.

Oregon doesn't do it that way. Although the floor leaders from each party have designated seats on either side of the chamber, in the back, the other members of the caucuses are scattered around. Liberal Democrats sit next to conservative Republicans, which doesn't happen as much on Idaho, or congressional, floors.

So the interest in the idea that's been floated in D.C. about shuffling Republicans and Democrats in with each other, at least for this evening's state of the union. There's been an informal set of discussions in which members double or even triple up, leading to calling it "date night."

The Hill newspaper has pulled together a partial list.

Oregon Senator Ron Wyden (D) will be seated with Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley (R). Washington's Maria Cantwell (D) will be in a triple, with Maine Senator Susan Collins (R) and Arkansas Senator Mark Pryor (D). Representative Jay Inslee (D) of Washington's 1st district, will sit with Representative Charles Bass (R) of New Hampshire.

Not many senators and House members sitting together, though. Some standards just won't be dropped ...