What follows is a column (previously appearing in the St. Maries Gazette-Record) by Chris Carlson, now living at Medimont, Idaho. He was one of the founders of the Gallatin Group and was from 1989 until last year its representative based at Spokane. His Gallatin bio also notes that he was “a former press secretary to Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus, Chris directed the U.S. Department of the Interior Office of Public Affairs during the governor’s four-year term as Secretary of the Interior under President Jimmy Carter. Following his position in Washington, D.C., Chris was appointed to the Northwest Power Planning Council by Idaho Governor John V. Evans. In 1984, he became regional vice president of public affairs for Kaiser Aluminum in Spokane.” And he was a journalist before all that. He’ll be contributing occasional columns in this space.


carlson
Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles


We’re all familiar with zealots, true believers who go to extraordinary lengths to attract media attention for their cause, hoping the coverage will generate new interest and fresh contributions.

In Idaho most of the zealotry we experience relates to differing visions regarding future use of natural resources and the wildlife on public lands. Thus, we sometimes see civil disobedience activities by the Alliance for the Wild Rockies or Defenders of Wildlife, protesting wolf hunts, timber sales or mining projects.

While at the Interior department serving as the director of the office of public affairs (1987-1991) I had my epiphany, my revelation about how best to handle the zealots that constantly besieged the agency. The key was to deny them the media coverage they seek.

Shortly after this insight, opportunity to apply it arrived in the form of Mitch Snyder, a self-styled social activist who had taken on the plight of the homeless people in our nation’s capital as his cause. He decided the best way to draw attention to the cause was to stage a sit-in of homeless people in D.C.’s stately Union Station.

Having just arrived home one evening, I received a call from an Interior assistant secretary, who said the Park Service police were reporting that Snyder had led 50 homeless people into Union Station and were conducting a sit-in until arrested and forcibly removed.

He wanted to know what I thought should be done. Once I ascertained they were not blocking the passage of commuters and customers to trains, I told him to direct the Park Police to do nothing until midnight.

Why midnight, he asked. Because, I explained, it was the news media picture of police carrying the homeless to paddy wagons that Snyder wanted and we weren’t going to let him have it.

At midnight, after the late evening news is over, I instructed, have the Park Police “gently” pick up demonstrators and carry them out of the station. No arrests. End of story. And that’s what happened.

Shortly after midnight, however, the assistant secretary called again to say the homeless had promptly lain down in the street in front of the station. The Park Police wanted to know what they should do now.

I said they should do nothing more. The street was the responsibility of the District’s city police, not Interior’s, and it was the city’s problem. Within minutes he was back on the phone saying the Situation Commander for the D.C. police on the scene was asking if we had any advice.

I said they ought to block off the street and leave the homeless there. It was below freezing that night and once they realized they would not be arrested they would leave before the sun rises. And that’s what happened.

Nothing ever appeared in the news media on this incident and there was no bad publicity for the Interior Department.

Fast forward a few years to the first part of this decade. Another opportunity arose for display of the principle in action when the public affairs firm I founded was retained by the president of Pacific Lumber Company (PALCO) to devise a strategy to counter tree-sitters occupying some of the spectacular Redwoods it owned.

Vexed by the long sit-in held the previous year by “Julia Butterfly,” he was determined not to be held hostage again. He asked for a counter-strategy. Our company’s game plan worked perfectly.

First, we had the client recruit and train several folks who could quickly scramble up the trees, surprise the tree-sitter, truss them up and bring them down n with removal activity happening after midnight long after reporters had gone home. We had each tree-climber wear a helmet with a small mini-camera affixed to it to record the removal and rebut any false claims (which there were) of “brutality.”

Secondly, tree-sitters were informed that by climbing a Redwood they were signing the tree’s death warrant rather than saving the tree. Any tree they scaled and perched in would immediately have a band cut around its base, much as a porcupine does, starting its demise.

The company only had to do it once and the tree-sittings were discontinued.

The key is denying zealots the attention they crave. Without it, they often wither and retreat.

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Carlson Northwest

Last week, the new (and former) California Governor Jerry Brown said he had learned that the state was paying for 96,000 cell phones for state employees. He issued a statement saying that “It is difficult for me to believe that 40 percent of all state employees must be equipped with taxpayer-funded cell phones,” and ordered half of them to be turned in by June 1.

Which led to the question: How many state cell phones do Washington, Oregon and Idaho have?

We posed the question to the three states. The one responding so far is Oregon, where a Department of Administrative Services spokesman advises us via email, “that number is 17,142.”

Which on a basis of per-capita population in the states, means Oregon state government has considerably more. Could be interesting to hear if there’s a good reason for that.

We’ll check in again with Washington and Idaho too.

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Oregon

Take note that Idaho state Senator Dean Cameron, R-Rupert, is a conservative in good standing, and as a long-time co-chair of the state’s Joint Finance-Appropriations Committee, no free spender.

Listening to discussion today from Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna today, though, he had a question that economist Paul Krugman might have posed.

Luna has proposed a large-scale effort to change public education in Idaho, and one piece of that involves doing away with hundreds of teaching jobs in the public schools. The plan is being proposed, in part, as beneficial to the Idaho economy.

Cameron’s question: “You indicated that the economy demands this type of change. I have to wonder in my mind why a thousand less people working helps the economy.”

His point seems totally clear: A thousand fewer paychecks, many of them in rural areas, would seem to mean less money circulating in local businesses and more people on the unemployment line. Among other non-beneficial factors.

Luna’s response, according to reporter Betsy Russell: “Understand that through attrition, most if not all of these positions can be absorbed.”

Did he get the question?

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Idaho

The megaloads will roll up U.S. 12, from Lewiston to the Lolo Pass (and then beyond), on Monday.

To no great surprise, Idaho Transportation Department Director Brian Ness went along with his hearing officer’s report and signed off on the shipments. From the department’s press release:

“I am convinced the record showed the loads can be moved safely, without damage to the roads and bridges and with minimal disruption to traffic and emergency services,” Ness said. “Every argument has been heard and considered. We can no longer delay this process.”

Ness said he based his decision on four key factors:

– Administrative process was properly followed

– All sides received a fair opportunity to present their case

– An independent hearing officer recommended the permits be issued

– No compelling reasons were found in the interveners’ appeal to overturn the hearing officer’s recommendation

Two permits will be issued today to transport two loads beginning Monday, Jan. 24, if weather conditions allow. The permits can be extended if weather does not allow the transport.

“I will not comment further on this case because litigation is possible and because of the similarities of the pending request from Imperial Oil/ExxonMobil to transport oversized loads on U.S. 12,” Ness said.

Litigation is certainly likely, as are the shipments from other oil companies – hundreds of them, eventually.

Procedurally, that puts an end to the matter. Now, political and other efforts may come into play.

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Idaho

This site has a feature (we’ll probably be taking it down in a bit) noting where Idaho journalists go when they leave the news media but not the state. The Center for Responsive Politics now has up something similar for members of Congress: Where do they go when they leave office?

They don’t always leave Congress, exactly: Some of them go to work as lobbyists. Others in private businesses, academia or elsewhere.

No listing yet on the Northwest’s most recent ex-members of Congress, Democrats Brian Baird of Washington and Walt Minnick of Idaho. But we’ll be checking back in for what’s reported there.

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Northwest

Periodically around the national capitol, lists of legislative clout make the rounds – lists derived in large part from what leadership or committee chairmanship positions, or ranking-member committee seniority, positions one holds. Helps if you’re in the majority, which gets to give out the goodies of chairmanships and such, if you want to rise on such a list.

The situation would get complex in the Oregon House, which is evenly divided between the two parties. The chamber has co-speakers and co-speakers pro tem. But unlike the state of Washington House, which was in a similar position around a decade ago, the chamber also has co-practically everything else. Both parties have co-chairs of all the committees, for example. (In Washington, they split the committee chair spots between the parties, that being the subject of some tense negotiations.)

How well this will work will depend, of course, on how well the people get along. (Early indications are hopeful.) But this also means that, between party leadership and committee chair positions, there are a lot of plums to go around. Almost everybody in both caucuses gets to run, or co-run, something.

Everybody, it turns out, save one.

Just one Oregon House member has no such title. According to the Capitol Currents (public radio) news blog: “Only Yamhill County Republican Jim Weidner came up short. He’ll serve the 2011 legislative session as the sole state representative who can’t claim a Co-Chair or Co-Vice Chair spot. Weidner downplayed that distinction when I asked him about it today. He said he didn’t mind not having a leadership position, as that would allow him to spend more time with his family instead of at the capitol.”

Actually, that’s an ouch. As noted on Blue Oregon: “Clearly the GOP caucus doesn’t think much of Weidner. It’s up to his caucus and leadership to decide who gets committee co-chair and vice co-chair assignments–and the fact that they can’t muster up even one job for him is pretty pathetic.”

Last session, he was also the sole legislator to be given no more than a single committee assignment. This is developing into a pattern. Will his constituents (your scribe being one of them) take notice next election?

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Oregon

The town hall meeting at Yamhill County by Senator Ron Wyden was generally ordinary and unexceptional, itself a bit of news after what happened to another member of Congress speaking to constituents a week ago in Tucson. Wyden said at the outset that continuing these events – he does one every year in every county – is important especially after that. “We’re just going to have some democracy,” he said.

And so it went for the 100-plus people in Melrose Hall at Linfield College in McMinnville, a somewhat smaller group than the year before. Part of the reason may have been the rainy weather. Another may have been the absence of anything resembling the Tea Party. The questions and comments were serious and sometimes intense, covering a broad field (widely through domestic matters though not touching on foreign policy), but it was mostly all practical. Ideology and theories of the constitution, and conspiracy theory accusations, didn’t make an appearance.

Practical, specific talk did, though. The first question came from the mayor of McMinnville, who wanted to know about the future of the long-awaited Dundee bypass (creating an alternate route for Highway 99 in eastern Yamhill County, a stretch that often turns into a parking lot.) Wyden held out some hope for the funding, and said it was top priority for transportation funding in the state.

Health care came up a few times, and Wyden said he would put much of his efforts into the bill he has co-sponsored with Massachusetts Republican Scott Brown, to give states quicker and broader ability to develop their own health care proposals. (That may have special pertinence in Oregon.)

Jobs, or lack of them, and illegal immigration were linked together a few times, and Wyden spoke of legislation he supports on both subjects. He spoke too about campaign finance, and the “the malevolent influence of money in America,” with criticism of the Supreme Court for its Citizens United decision. (Typical of his county town halls, though, there was no partisan talk.)

It was a town hall a lot like Oregonians saw before last year.

(A note: Please excuse the video quality: This was a first experimental video via Ipod Touch.)

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Oregon

Just watched the first episode of the IFC channel program Portlandia. If you have any interest in the city at all, watch. Or even if you don’t – the jokes are pretty good even if you’re not much familiar with the city.

If you are, you get the point: The image of Portland as a haven for techy and culturally outlandish sacker. A parody, pointed enough to generate some real laughs, but not mean-spirited.

Best bits: The Portland song at the beginning, and the discussion in a restaurant about exactly organic this chicken on the menu is. (And its name, and a portrait photo.)

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Oregon

On November 6, according to a formal complaint, a nurse from the Boise-area Planned Parenthood called a Nampa Walgreen’s drug store to inquire about filling a prescription drug order for a patient, for a drug called methergine. The drug is “used to prevent or treat bleeding from the uterus that can happen after childbirth or an abortion.” The pharmacist asked whether the patient had just had an abortion. The nurse, pointing out patient confidentiality laws, said she couldn’t answer that question.

Then, said Kristen Glundberg-Prosser of the Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest, “The pharmacist said, ‘Well, if you’re not going to tell me that and she had an abortion, I’m not going to fill this prescription.’ And then our practitioner said, ‘Why don’t you tell me another pharmacy that I can call or another pharmacist that can dispense this medication for my patient?’ And the pharmacist hung up on her.”

The formal complaint went to the Idaho Board of Pharmacy, and an informal complaint went as well to Walgreen’s corporate offices. (Some followup action was said to have been taken, though the nature of it hasn’t become public.) The patient did obtain the medicine through another provider.

Idaho has a “conscience clause,” which “The law states that a health care worker may refuse to provide care related to abortion, emergency contraception or end-of-life care if it violates his or her conscience.” Did this case – the pharmacist’s actions – fall within it? Not clear. In a case like this, the pharmacist didn’t know whether an abortion was involved or not; was it enough to suspect so? Even if so, why should that have run afoul of conscience? After all, the operation at that point would have been over; the only effect of the denial would be retribution toward the patient, not salvation of the unborn, so what sort of personal conscience would that imply? (None I’d want to entrust my health to.)

The ending was apparently fortunate enough in this case, but what about the next one? Here we had a medical professional whose job it is to help secure people’s health and lives but instead made clear that if this woman died, that would be just fine.

Reiteration of a related point. One blog (this story has gone fully national) has this:

There are consequences to conscience clauses – and when your job is to provide medical or pharmaceutical services – there are literally lives on the line.

There’s no conscience clause protection for vegetarians (including those who are vegetarian for religious reasons), for police officers who disagree with the laws they are enforcing, for judges who are asked to marry couples (or city clerks who have to give marriage certificates to couples) they don’t believe should be married (inter-religious marriages, gay marriages, or interracial marriages – and I’m sure there are some bigoted judges out there). As I have said before, if you can’t morally do the job you’re being asked to do, get a new job. There are millions of Americans out of work right now, I’m sure there are some qualified unemployed people who would have no problem fully performing the job this pharmacist was hired to perform.

So a suggestion for anyone interested in some extremely useful civic activism: How about an organized effort to convass pharmacies, inquiring of each: Are there legal medications you would be unwilling to dispense? And then post the results in a database online.

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Idaho

A few thoughts about the new public schools proposal in Idaho by Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter and Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, why Washington and Oregon may want to give serious consideration to parts of it, and why Idahoans might be cautious about some other parts.

Much of the base of it, and much of the best of it, actually track with a theme of returning Oregon Governor John Kithaber: To think in terms not of the existing structure, but in terms of what ought to be accomplished. Students in public (and generally in private as well) schools mostly are taught in ways not so different from those used a century and more ago, with often-outdated textbooks and materials, in a day when information technology makes so much more possible. So if you forget about the way the job has been done and instead think in terms of educated students, and how they might best be educated, you may come up with something a lot different.

Here’s the centerpiece of the Otter/Luna (mainly Luna, with Otter support) proposal.

– The 21 st Century Classroom: The 21 st Century Classroom is not limited by walls, bell schedules, school calendars or geography. In a 21 st Century Classroom, every student has access to a highly effective teacher, the necessary technology, and high academic standards comparable with any in the world.

To create the 21 st Century Classroom, the state will invest $50 million over the next two years in both hardware and software for every Idaho classroom. Every 9th grader will be given a laptop, and high school students will be required to take online courses to graduate. Idaho will raise the bar by implementing college- and career-ready academic standards that are comparable with any country in the world. If a student meets graduation requirements early, the state will pay for dual credit courses in the student’s senior year.

– Great Teachers & Leaders: Students will have a highly effective teacher every year and a highly effective principal at the helm of every school.

The current way the State of Idaho pays teachers, based on experience and education only, is archaic. To recruit and retain a great teacher and leader in every classroom and school building, the state will fully restore the instructional salary grid, raise the minimum pay for new teachers to $30,000, and implement a pay-for-performance plan that builds on base salaries to reward excellence. The state will continue to empower great teachers and leaders by ensuring all professional development if focused and meaningful. The state will phase out tenure in Idaho schools by offering every new teacher and administrator a two-year rolling contract. School districts will no longer be able to use seniority as the only criteria in determining teacher layoffs. Districts must tie at least a portion of teacher and administrator performance evaluations to student academic growth.

Transparent Accountability: Parents, taxpayers, and policymakers have current, accurate information on all student achievement results and financial matters in their schools and districts.

The state must ensure school district leaders are held accountable for student achievement results and taxpayer dollars at the local level. To do this, the state will empower parents by giving them input on teacher evaluations and access to understandable fiscal report cards for each district. Locally elected leaders now will have more flexibility to manage from year to year by streamlining collective bargaining practices. In addition, the state will work with every local district to ensure they take full advantage of statewide purchasing contracts, and will require that all taxpayer dollars follow the student.

More advanced use of technology for education – especially at the ever-diminshing cost levels for communications tech – seems like a no-brainer, albeit not one that’s been actually used much, and it’s emphasized here. (Useful new laptops aren’t all that expensive anymore; the idea of outfitting students with them generally, while some issues attach, doesn’t sound unrealistic.)

Education “not limited by walls, bell schedules, school calendars or geography” likewise seems not just right but overdue; it suggests the kind of reaqch and flexibility that ought to be integral to the idea of creative learning. Online course, nothing new in other contexts, have great potential for public schools. The sorts of rigid bureaucracies our schools have had seem more limiting than helpful, unless you’re a system administrator. The idea of more flexibility, too, in building a solid teacher corps, and a substantial base level of pay for newcomers, seem sound too. Washington and Oregon, which spend more on schools and more as well on top-heavy administrations, might do well to give some of this a good hearing. In these cash-strapped times, maybe they will.

Other elements of the Idaho plan raise some red flags. In speaking to legislators Luna seems to diss the idea that larger classrooms are more difficult to teach, and yield weaker results, than smaller classrooms; that runs afoul of a lot of experience over a lot of years. The Idaho Education Association (no supporter of the new proposal) estimated that 500 teaching jobs would be cut in Idaho, as part of the way to pay for other elements of it. You get the sense that Otter and Luna think they’ve found a way to cut school budgets (education on the cheap?) without hurting outcomes; but it’s unlikely to be that simple. A cut of hundreds of teaching jobs, and heavily expanded class sizes, seem highly likely to weaken education in Idaho.

One question we’ve posed to the Department of Education is where the new on-line courses would come from. Doubtless there are excellent providers out there, and they could be a real asset. The department replied to us that “it will be up to each local school district to determine, but we believe the majority of online courses will be delivered via Idaho Digital Learning Academy and the Idaho Education Network, which connects every high school and college and university in the state. The State Department of Education will ensure all courses meet Idaho content standards.” Which generally sounds reasonable. But keep watch; there’s potential for mischief in the wrong hands. Luna’s campaigns have taken money from would-be vendors, and some of them have agendas. Would the required courses tell Idaho students about the world according to Bill Bennett – or Glenn Beck? Maybe not. But as elsewhere, details are important.

And while Otter and Luna doubtless would see undercutting the IEA as a perfectly acceptable (even fortutious) side-effect of their new effort, another reality is this: Good teachers, and a sufficient number of them, remain an essential component of good education. If teachers get the word that Idaho considers them a lot more dispenable than do other states, then Idaho isn’t likely to get its share of the best professionals.

Some good material here. Some with question marks attached. But definitely worth pondering, not ony for these rough economic times but also for what lies beyond.

UPDATE A response to the Otter/Luna proposal from the Idaho House Democrats:

During his campaign for re-election, Superintendent Tom Luna assured Idaho voters that our system of public schools was strong and that student achievement was on par with or exceeded that of almost any other state. Just two months after his re-election, Mr. Luna has announced to the Idaho Legislature that our public school system is broken, unsustainable, and unable to meet the needs of our students. This shocking assessment raises two important questions. First, what happened in these last two months to cause Idaho’s system of public schools to go from “excellent” to “broken”? Secondly, if after four years of his leadership, our public school system is “broken”, why should any parent, student or voter put the slightest faith in any idea proffered by the architect of such failure?

Mr. Luna mistakenly feels that computers can replace teachers and that taking all semblance of job security away from new teachers will attract the best and the brightest young teaching talent to our state. He asserts that software pedaled by those who contributed heavily to his campaign fund is superior to curriculum adopted by individual local school boards.

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Idaho

Food for thought as the shootings in Tucson reverberate: The Northwest has had its share of political violence-tinged activity in the last couple of years, most notably in Washington. (Remember the death threats and imagery of hanging aimed last year at Senator Patty Murray?)

Add another today. The FBI has charged and arrested Charles Turner Habermann for threatening a federal official, specifically Representative Jim McDemott of Seattle. Threaten hardly begins to cover what the charges cover, though. Here’s a sample from two paragraphs that don’t even address McDermott (some of that is worse, and the language sinking well below what we try to maintain here), but rather a state legislator in California:

11. On March 23, 2010, a California Assembly Member received two voicemail threat messages from HABERMANN. In the first voicemail message, HABERMANN threatened to kill the assembly member. The second voicemail message started out with HABERMANN saying he wasn’t going to kill anyone. HABERMANN went on to say that the Assembly Member should “watch his back.” HABERMANN also said that the founding fathers, if they were alive today, would kill President Obama and other officials. The State of California, Department of California Highway Patrol, Dignitary Protection Section was notified of the threats.

12. CHP learned that HABERMANN came into the Assembly Member’s office on March 18, 2010, to discuss the current health care bill. During the meeting HABERMANN began ranting about the current federal health care bill and how HABERMANN was “very well off” and did not want to support immigrants and Latinos. HABERMANN was described as agitated, paranoid, uneasy and couldn’t keep still …

As for the voice mail about McDermott, Habermann was quoted – after rants about the Federalist Papers and John Locke – as saying, “And I’ll tell you something right now, I’ll f— hunt that guy down and I’ll f— get rid of him. Do you understand that? I’ll get the f— rid of him. I’ll pay people. I’ll pay my friends.” In another message, he said that if “Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, or George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, if any of them had ever met, uh, Jim McDermott, they would all blow his brains out. They’d shoot him in the head.”

Another one-off crazy loner.

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Washington

At the Oregon state Senate committee on reapportionment this morning, members convening for the first time were asked to talk a bit about their districts. (Chair Suzanne Bonamici said that when the committee on judiciary organized earlier, members did the same thing – often while eying her closely.) The comments were educational, from people who know those pieces of turf in fine grain.

Senator Jason Atkinson said much of his district, around the Grants Pass and Medford area, could be seen as “a string of small towns connected by some of the most famous rivers on the coast,” the Rogue and Illinois among them. Senator Chris Telfer spoke of moving to her Bend-centered district, which includes most of Deschutes County, and seeing it transition from a timber community then to one without a timber mill but with a fast-growing tourism sector. She and Bonamici, who represents a slice of west Portland and eastern Washington County, spoke of the fast growth of those places; Bonamici noted that one of the two House districts within her Senate district now by itself has more people than the Senate district represented by President Peter Courtney.

They’ll all have to learn some new turf after the committee’s work is done and, as Bonamici said, “most people will not be happy.” The immediate hammer hanging overhead is this: Most of the time, since such reapportionments started half a century ago, the legislature hasn’t succeeded in pulling together a plan that works, and the final maps have come from courts or from the secretary of state. The members were vowing that this time, they will get it done. It will be a challenge.

The process will be intensive. There will be no more meetings until after February 1, when the legislature returns, but the Senate and House committees likely will meet together a lot after that. “We want to work together with the House,” Bonamici said. (The House panel didn’t hold its organizational this week; a planned meeting was dropped.) Bonamici said that a decade ago, the reapportionment panel held 17 hearings around the state, somehow managing to make none of them overnight trips. The first couple of meetings this year will consist of orientation and backgrounding.

After that, the committee will be tested. And no one will be grading on the curve.

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Oregon

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Chris Gregoire

Somewhere in between the more overtly visionary speech by Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber (shorter with few details, befitting an inaugural rather than a state of the state) and the more specific and mostly stay-the-course (with some exceptions) approach of Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch Otter, sits the SoS delivered today by Washington Governor Chris Gregoire.

Like Kitzhaber, she spoke of larger trajectories; like Otter, there was some specificity to approaches. And a large section keyed to the premise, “Now is the time to challenge the status quo.”

Here’s a key sample:

This session is not just about getting us through this crisis.

It’s also about setting our state on a trajectory that ensures a strong financial foundation for our kids and grandkids. This is a budget and agenda that build the platform for better service and recovery in the years to come.

We need to use this economic crisis to get control of spending in two critical areas — pensions and health care costs.

In the past decade our health care costs doubled to more than $5 billion. In the next biennium alone our pension costs will double.

Every dollar we spend on health care and pensions means we have one fewer dollar to educate our children.

I am proposing we repeal a 1995 law that gave automatic benefit increases to retirees in the old PERS 1 and TRS 1 pension plans.

The pension law was well intended but it carries a staggering price tag and we simply cannot afford to continue it.

Pension reform will save $2 billion over the next four years and more than $11 billion during the next 25 years.

I am proposing we partner with the Center of Innovation at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to provide real health care reform as a state. We should set a goal: Keep inflation at 4 percent over the next 10 years. We can save $26 billion while increasing the quality of care.

We must get a grip on these two budget busters. Unless and until we do, we cannot invest like we must in the education of our children.

I have looked at every state program and asked if it can be provided by others, if users should pay for it or if there are better ways to deliver the service.

That hard look at what the state is doing, whether in a number of cases it should continue to, sounds quite real. She has some specifics, for example, in approaching that last point: “Why, for instance, do we assume all taxpayers should pay for programs that benefit a few? Should a small business owner in Spokane pay the cost of processing a water right for a landowner in the Yakima Valley? Should a Bellingham family with young kids help pay for the license of an adult family home in Vancouver? And what about our great state parks system. Should those who use the parks pay for their operation and maintenance? Let’s adopt a user pays policy so that when only a few benefit from the service, they pay for it.”

Think carefully before you answer, though. The question is sound, but the answers might be more difficult than you think at first. Does business in Spokane have a relationship to regional water rights, even if that business has none? You can easily argue that they do. The Bellingham family with kids probably also has parents who may be headed for adult care. And should those of us who already pay taxes for the upkeep, and claim joint ownership, of public parks, be discouraged from their use by having to pay again when we do?

Fortunately, a legislative session is just where such questions ought to be discussed. Session open.

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Washington

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Butch Otter

Consider this sentence from the middle of Idaho Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter‘s just-concluded state of the state speech:

“Along with responsibly balancing our budget, there is no task before us more important than improving Idaho’s economy. That does not mean government spending. It means stability. It means predictability.”

In the governor himself, not least. If in 1980 you’d offered the prediction of Otter, then as now a small-L libertarian, as governor in 2010, and asked what his state of the state speech might be like … the prediction probably wouldn’t have missed the reality by a lot.

So, lots of talk about no tax increases (keeping money in the pockets of the people), about government austerity, about the evils that the east-coast Washington is raining down on, among other places, common-sense Idaho. Fed-bashing was at least as large a part of this speech as any of Otter’s other state of the states.

The speech, which was a budget speech as well as state of the state (though lighter on the budget material than some of its predecessors have been), was studded through with various ideas for change and even innovation. But they felt like necessary add ons; the larger point seemed to be (and was expressed by Otter) as a desire to drive on steadily, with the largest changes being just how much acceleration to put in. That, he suggested, is what the voters of Idaho endorsed in November.

Higher education (a central engine in economic development) was one example. Here’s Otter on colleges an universities, an area already severely slashed in recent years:

One area of our State budget where there are private‐sector options to partially offset our need for greater public austerity is higher education.

I understand the arguments. I’ve heard them wherever I go – “We should be investing in our future.” … “We’re being penny wise and pound foolish.” …  “We’re shortchanging our own economic development opportunities.”  
I’m sure all of us would like to put more money into our colleges and universities.  

I appreciate your commitment to maintaining our Opportunity Scholarship Fund’s corpus.

And I look forward to the time when we can resume building on that account to ensure money is never a barrier to qualified students going on after high school. 
 
With that in mind, I also want to thank the Albertson Foundation for its continuing generosity in supporting Idaho education programs, and advocating for our students to broaden their educational horizons.

Still, the fact is that tough choices – and changes – have to be made.
And higher education does have some built‐in constituencies that can provide alternatives to a higher level of General Fund support.  

Which translates to: Universities, hit the beggar trail.

A couple of relatively fresh themes emerged. Gone from a previous speech was the long list of wonderful corporate CEOs who made things happen; that was replaced with “the energy and the enthusiasm of folks in Twin Falls” (and elsewhere). And a sub-theme of community was woven in; Otter may have picked up on the campaign discussion that his brand of libertarianism doesn’t always look much toward the idea of community.

The tension was pointed up in this remarkable bit: “It’s time to become family again. It’s time we accept one of the greatest burdens and greatest opportunities that our Creator gave us, and that is personal responsibility. It all begins with us – the individual – and how we decide to fulfill the role of being our brother’s keeper.”

There’s material here to wrestle with. But it wasn’t developed. And it wasn’t the core theme of the speech: “It means stability. It means predictability.”

This is not an Idaho Legislature likely to dissent much from that.

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Idaho

Kitzhaber
John Kitzhaber

New Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber‘s speech was an inaugural, not a state of the state, so logically shorter, with fewer specifics and a larger view.

But it was his first major address on returning to the office, and delivered to the legislature – and it may be very consequential. Most of what was in it had been basic speech material during the campaign, but this context made it different.

He started it with a cute line – “So I guess none of you could get tickets to the game either” – but the rest was actually thought-provoking. If he succeeds, he will be pressing for a different way of approaching state budgeting and lawmaking.

The traditional way, he pointed out, is by addressing budget and taxes. He urged a change of focus – a focus on where Oregon should be, and turn mapping out routes to get there, changing the structure and funding wherever need be.

His central point along these lines was drawing a distinction between two major ways government money is spent, for “investment in people” (helping with education, health and so on) as opposed to solving problems (corrections and other parts of health, for example). The problems need solution, he said, but the state should be oriented to putting investment in the front end so that the problem side can be scaled back.

How you do this in a time of extreme budget trouble – which he also acknowledged – will make for an interesting puzzle. But Kitzhaber set up an unusual shift of framework here, something that has the real potential to alter the way the legislature deals with resetting state government. It’s not over long, and worth reading in full.

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Oregon