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Posts published in January 2011

A useful direction, cautiously

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private as well) schools mostly are taught in ways not so different from those used a century and more ago, with often-outdated textbooks and materials, in a day when information technology makes so much more possible.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. (more…)

Threats to the north

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.

OR remap: Early steps

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.

Gregoire’s approach

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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.

Stability and predictability

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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: (more…)

Outside the box

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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.

A House organized

Still plenty to do. But in listening this morning to the organizing of the Oregon House, you can pick up a reasonable sense of optimism.

The Oregon House is evenly divided, 30-30, between the parties, which can be a prescription for chaos. Since the general election when that result became clear, news has come slowly about how the parties plan to share the running of the chamber.

On this first day, at least, the indicators are positive. Cheerful words were said about both incomking co-speakers, Democrat Arnie Roblan and Republican Bruce Hanna. Not a note of discord anywhere. The votes for those two, and other officials elected by the chamber (through to the House clerk), went without a hitch, a negative vote or an objection. The sense was of actual cooperation. At least for now.

A difficult political marriage

Rainey
Barrett Rainey

A commentary by Barrett Rainey, who blogs at Ridenbaugh Press. He lives at Roseburg.

While legislatures in all states have their hands full this season wrestling with historic deficit problems and barrels of red ink, one of those anguished groups is going to be especially fun to watch: our boys and girls in Oregon’s House of Representatives.

That’s because voters sent 60 of them to Salem: 30 in each political party. Split right down the middle. If you just look at those numbers, you’d be tempted to say it will be a mess with little accomplished. And you might be right. But hearing Co-Speaker-in-Waiting Bruce Hanna (R-Roseburg) talk about preliminary work done so far, maybe not.

On most days, Hanna is upbeat. When he talks about organizational work already done for this historic situation, you get the feeling leadership in the House is going to give it its best shot. But there’s a lot of devil-in-the-details.

The plan is for Hanna and Arnie Roblan (D-Coos Bay) to be co-speakers, each operating out of separate party offices, sharing or duplicating such staff as necessary. All committee membership is to be evenly divided; chairmanships, too. The idea is to have mirror images of everything political. Oregon has no House precedent for this; most states don’t. So Hanna and Roblan have been researching, looking for ideas coast-to-coast.

As Hanna tells it, he and Roblan share a professional respect for each other, feeling their past relationship has shown they can work together on most things. But there’ll be some issues that will be truly partisan. Those will be the ones that test the power sharing and hand-holding.

While talk now is very positive from both men, there will be two major tests of this political bonding. One will be how to deal with a near-record shortfall in the coming budget. Typical Republican approach is to lower taxes and cut back spending. Democrats usually are open to maintaining or even small tax increases and will go further to fund what they believe are primary state responsibilities i.e. health care, education, social services, etc.

Hanna and Roblan have some years of legislative experience to help them deal with budgetary matters. Both seem open to hearing all ideas before trying to come up with a spending plan. Even from the new Governor who, thus far, has been supportive. And helpful. Maybe they can pull it off.

But it’s the second test that’ll pose the most problems: the bomb throwers. That’s my term, not theirs. These are the diehards and ideologues that sponsor futile bills on abortion, states rights, limiting federal interference and, this year, probably immigration. These folks show up every session like tulips in the Spring. Many believe “they are on a mission from God” and dissuading them from pursuing that “mission” is next to impossible.

How Hanna and Roblan keep the whip hand on those loose cannons will be the real test of bipartisanship. If one “cannon” … just one … refuses to cooperate with the joint cooperative efforts of leadership and starts a fracas, the whole House could come to a halt. Neither Speaker wants that, nor do most members who are going to Salem to give it their best shot in a very troubled year.

But ideologues and compromise are oil and water. You might tame a few. But if others are hellbent on making a show for the folks at home … and that seems to be the case from Congress on down this year … if that’s their attitude, Hanna and Roblan will be juggling hand grenades.

I wish them well in their task. And I’m thankful leadership of what will be a very troubled session is in their seemingly capable hands. The new Governor seems to have the same feelings and he has some years of experience to help along the way. So far, he’s on the “team.”

Yep, it’s gonna be interesting to watch. Elephants and donkeys pushing a single peanut up a very steep hill. I hope they pull it off.

The schedule today

Lots of political launches and ceremonies in the Northwest - legislative, inaugural and such - in the next couple of days. Our cheat sheet for the moment:

7 am Oregon House opening receptions

8 am Oregon House convenes

9:30 Oregon Senate convenes

10:45 Oregon Joint session for Governor's Inaugural address

11 am Idaho legislature convenes

12 noon - Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter state of state

12 noon - Washington Senate opening ceremonies

1:30 Washington House committees begin work

6:30 Washington legislative review on TVW

Tue

12 Washington Governor Chris Gregoire state of the state, Republican response (see on TVW)

Who gets appointed, and larger complexion

Probably the largest single power a state governor has is the power of appointment, and most of the time it's not much reviewed. In Oregon, as Governor Ted Kulognoski takes his departure (tomorrow), a review of one set of his appointments from Clatsop County District Attorney Josh Marquis:

Governor Ted Kulongoski, one-time Attorney General and one-time friend of many in Oregon law enforcement, has been making it very clear since early in his second term that he has stopped listening to many of us who helped get him elected. He is instead listening to the criminal defense zealots who think that whenever virtually anyone is locked up our system has failed.

Almost without exception, Governor Kulongoski has appointed criminal defense lawyers to judicial positions and has failed to take the counsel of the 72 elected sheriffs and DAs, many of whom helped him get elected in both 2002 and 2006.

No particular comment here on whether Marquis' argument is right. But it's something that ought to be tracked. Ridenbaugh Press' three Public Affairs Digest weekly publications (the next ones come out early tomorrow) note appointment of judges, and usually a bit about their background, but we haven't been tracking whether there's an overabundance of one type of background - a significant point that Marquis gets at. We'll start doing that.

Post 3,001, and still counting

The last post was, it turned out (hadn't noticed until after it was posted) number 3,000 for this blog. That is, since we went to Wordpress in October 2005; this blog was around for years before that too, back in the days when we hand-crafted the HTML. And it's still running, and will be for the foreseeable future.

Can't say about the rest of the country, but in the Northwest that makes us part of an ever-smaller group. Back around the middle of the last decade the region was loaded with political blogs, a batch in all three Northwest states. Today, not so much. There are a lot more blogs operated by mass media (just about all of the larger regional papers have political-related blogs, and they're generally of high quality). But far fewer independents than there used to be.

The cause for noting this is not just our own landmark but also the note of the passing, at least in likely considerable part, of the Horse's Ass blog at Seattle. Highly partisan (Democratic) it also has been a top source of information on politics in Seattle and Washington, and has forged a nice sparring partnership with the Republican-oriented Sound Politics; each has undoubtedly become better because the other is there.

What's happening, HA founder David Goldstein reports, is that he's joining the alternative weekly The Stranger (where in recent months he's been a regular contributor) as a full-time staffer, and as a result after February 2, "I simply won’t be writing here much anymore, if at all." Goldstein is not the only HA writer, but he's the core. So HA's future is in question.

We see regular eulogies for newspapers (and it'll be coming for broadcasters too, just watch), and there's good reason. But we may before long need some recognition too for some of the blogs that have made a real contribution. As Horse's Ass has.

A key Otter line

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Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter takes the oath of office for a second term from U.S. District Judge Edward Lodge in a private ceremony in the State Capitol/photo
.

Key line from the relatively brief second inaugural speech by Idaho Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter:

You all have seen it happen – tolerance for mission creep spawns an attitude of passive acceptance that government’s needs come before those of the people. The divide is increasingly drawn between those who work for a living, and those who vote for a living.

Ladies and gentlemen, that day is gone.

Frugality in the public sector should not be seen as cruel or careless, but rather as necessary to maintaining our economic and personal liberties.

As a statement of opinion, clear enough - it certainly marks the dividing line. (When life-critical services are curtailed by the state over the next year, as they likely will be, he is cautioning, that should not be seen as "cruel or careless".)

A question about this line, though: "The divide is increasingly drawn between those who work for a living, and those who vote for a living."

Who are these people who vote for a living? How many of them are there? Can names be put to them? Does it pay by the hour or by the vote?