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Posts published in February 2011

Disconnects in place

The 20th Public Policy Survey from Boise State University has produced a number of results that don't easily match up - pieces that don't seem to make sense together. Blogger Chuck Malloy has written about that on his blog, and concluded that "the survey is a bunch of bull."

A prime piece of evidence, Malloy writes, concerns the finding that fewer Idahoans (49%) think the state is going in the right direction, than have so thought since the polling started. Malloy: "By reading those results, you’d think that Republicans and Democrats would have about equal numbers in the Legislature, and maybe a few Democrats in state offices and the congressional delegation. ... But that is not the case. For the most part, Idahoans voted for the same people who they supposedly were unhappy with, then added a few more Republicans in the Legislature for good measure."

There's a significant point in this, because unhappiness with general direction and political results often match up. They don't in this Idaho survey and haven't for some time.

That doesn't invalidate the survey, however; rather, it says something significant about Idaho (and other places too).

There's a prevailing sense that budget cuts have had major negative effects. "Budget cuts have affected the quality of children’s education" - 75% agree. "The State is investing enough in higher education in Idaho" - 59% disagree. But: "Idaho should raise the sales tax by $0.01 to help close the budget gap" - 56% disagree.

Or this. "Idaho should be able to opt out of the 2010 health care bill" - 58% agree. While: "Public funds should be used to help provide health insurance to people who cannot afford it" - 63% agree.

Or this. "Idaho should pass a law concerning illegal immigrants similar to the law Arizona recently passed" - 58% agree. While: "A program should be created that would allow illegal immigrants to stay in this country permanently" - 73% agree.

Polling in other states and nationally have found similar kinds of results - contradictory all over the place - though some of the Idaho results, considering the elective officials in place, may be especially noteworthy. The point is that many people do not put the pieces together. They want the services they count on, but don't like to pay for them. And so on. What do the people want from their elected officials? Who can say? "The people" don't seem to have figured it out. Will they be happier if the Idaho Legislature slashes programs than if it raised taxes? Odds are, they wouldn't be happy either way. In which case, what difference does it make who you vote for?

The polling suggests an underlying problem: A disconnect between causes and effects, between money and "policy" on one hand and real world impacts on the other. Those connections are real. But a lot of people seem not to have linked those pieces together.

Definitions of insanity

A highly useful read today in the Oregonian following up on what happens after the criminally accused take an insanity defense - as in guilty except for - and what happens afterward.

Not always, it turns out, what they or many other people think.

For one thing, a good many of the people who are detained and hospitalized are held for a very long time - in a number of cases, a good deal longer than a full prison term might have run. Some of the reasons involve delays in paperwork processing.

And the cost is very high.

The article notes that "At the same time Oregon taxpayers are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into treating a few hundred criminally insane patients in the state hospital, thousands more sit in prison with limited mental health treatment, and thousands more live on the street with no treatment at all."

And: "More than half the inmates in Oregon prisons have some kind of mental health diagnosis, and nearly one-quarter have high to severe treatment needs, according to the Department of Corrections."

Again leading to the thought that if more treatment were available earlier in the process, some the high expenses that come later could be averted.

OR: Video games for politicals

gerrymander

In Virginia, where state elections are held in odd-numbered years and so pressure is on right now for reapportionment, one of things that's happening is a college game. A competition among teams of students from 13 schools (two of them fielding two teams): Who can take the newly emerging census data and craft the best Virginia congressional and state legislative districts?

Those maps, of course, may not be the basis for whatever Virginia finally adopts. But the process may be watched closely for what it says about some important aspects of reapportionment 2011: public involvement, and mapping software.

Twenty years ago reapportionment mapping software hardly existed in any form; a decade ago it was cumbersome and hard to use. But now, as George Mason University Professor Michael McDonald of the Public Mapping Project told the Oregon legislature's reapportionment committees (meeting jointly today), these things are changing. The public involvement side, where Oregon long has been strong anyway, has been growing (from 37 states holding public hearings in 1991 to 42 a decade later). And the mapping software, as you might expect, has taken off.

Calling in from Virginia, he was able to offer a demonstration of one such, called DistrictBuilder and broadly available around the country. It allows for drag-n-drop rapportionment: You can start with a blank state or with existing districts, and move counties or census tracts around from one congressional or legislative district to the other - visually, with relevant numbers attached. You can see the population of the resulting districts, along with minority population estimates, a statistical estimate of just how compact the district is, whether it meets legal requirements, and so on. (You can play around with it to some extent as a guest.) A video game for the political junkie.

Oregon, which as the one legislative-remap state in the region, seems likely to be the first of the three Northwest states to jump into the reapportionment pools, seems likely to make a good deal of use of some of these tools. Many of them will be available on line, and the opportunity will be there for Oregonians to craft their own and - depending on the rules adopted - send them in to the legislature. With detailed statistical analysis to back them up.

And the impetus may be there, since the reapportionment committee (or committees - there's no solid determination yet of how closely the House and Senate panels will work together) is planning to take the subject on the road around the state. Some scheduling is expected to be announced "soon."

By the way: One person at Friday's meeting noted that February 12 marks 199 years since the infamous "gerrymander" map was signed into law by Elbridge Gerry. Get out a glass of something and prepare to draw.

Wi-Fi to go

One of the single most logical moves these days for transport operations - whether private like Greyhound buses or sort of public like Amtrak, is to provide free wi-fi service. Now, in many instances, both of them do.

Amtrak now reports, of its Vancouver-Eugene northwest run: "Amtrak Cascades® now connects you to more than your destination. Our customers asked for Wi-Fi service, and we answered by equipping every Amtrak Cascades train from Vancouver, B.C. to Eugene, Oregon with FREE wireless Internet service. Now you can stay connected to the office, e-mail, entertainment, and anywhere else the Internet takes you along your route. Just remember to pack your laptop, smartphone, and other portable Wi-Fi-enabled devices the next time you travel. "

Linda this week took the Greyhound bus south from Salem to northern California, to visit family. After boarding she discovered the bus had free wi-fi, and electric outlets for her computer. She stayed in touch with the world at large the whole trip, and sent messages along the way.

Which providers will be next? Would make sense that they all will be, eventually.

Birther humor

But he might have been wiser to make sure up front that this crowd knew that Puerto Rico is part of the United States. The guess here is that not all of them knew.

Diseducation?

The web site 24/7 Wall St. notes in a current post that "Regions with better-educated people tend to find it easier to draw and retain businesses. These regions are also likely to be more competitive in contrast to nations around the world like China, which has posted sharp increases in the level of educational attainment among its citizens."

Okay, seems clear enough. And the significance of an analysis the site did of the 50 states, working out: "National Assessment of Educational Progress scores for math and reading in 2003 and 2009. We also looked at the percentage of people in each state with bachelor’s degrees, and their increases compared to the increases in the total populations in their states. We analysed the Bureau of Labor Statistics data on the portion of each state’s population which has white collar jobs. To supplement the figures which we used in the final analysis, 24/7 also reviewed numbers for high school and graduate school education."

Fie on them for not noting the rankings of all 50 states, just the lowest 10. Consequently, Washington and Oregon aren't noted here.

But Idaho is - at fourth from the bottom. It said: "In 2000, 84.7% of adults in Idaho had completed high school. By 2009, the number had dropped to 83.3%. This decrease of 1.71% is the third worst rate in the country. Idaho had the eighth worst percent difference in residents with bachelor’s degrees from 2000 to 2009, and the sixth worst percent difference in residents with advanced degrees."

Other western states in the top (er, bottom) 10: Colorado (1), Oklahoma (3), Alaska (5), Arizona (6), Wyoming (7), Texas (9), Utah (10). Most of the Rocky Mountain west, in other words.

Lines of attack

Always the temptation in public policy to do everything at once, and do it unilaterally. Increasingly, while education funding in Idaho is likely to take a hit this year in any event, the folly of the quick and overwhelming revolution proposed in the new plan by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna is likely to undo some of the useful ideas contained within.

Several effective lines of attack seem to be developing at once.

One is the loss of teachers and the larger class size. That may not be a problem area for Luna and his allies, but it is for a lot of other people, including a lot of people linked to schools (parents included) around the state.

Another is the newness of the effort, and its lack of review. It was a totally unknown quantity until literally less than a month ago, and less than three months before the Idaho Legislature would be asked to pass it. There's also a criticism that this plan isn't what Luna ran on for re-election last fall: Not only didn't he mention it, he ran counter to some of its underlying principles.

And then, just emerging, there's the "follow the money" argument. Search for Luna's motivation in proposing the plan in the first place, and if you're a Luna critic you needn't look hard to find a money trail. A Public Education Association member (a teacher, a member of the union, in Bill's Pea Soup) connected those dots neatly in a recent blog post. From it:

Betsy Russell of the Spokesman Review reported October 20, 2010 that K-12 Incorporated, a for-profit education vendor based out of Virginia, “donated $25,000 to a Nampa-based political committee… which immediately spent $25,000 supporting the re-election of Tom Luna.” Mr. Luna must refuse these funds or face consequences about whose interests he is beholden to, K-12 Inc.’s shareholders or the parents and students of Idaho.

K-12 Inc. is an embattled company founded by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett. Bennett who, speaking of reducing crime in the U.S. said, “I do know that it’s true that if you wanted to reduce crime, you could, if that were your sole purpose, you could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down” (Education Week, 10/12/2005, ‘Bennett Quits K12 Inc. Under Fire’).
In 2004, The Pennsylvania School Boards Association sued the state over its contract with K-12 because, the school boards association said, K-12′s potential profit was too great (Arkansas Times, 2/13/2004).
As recently as 2008, K-12 Inc. has been criticized for outsourcing the grading of English papers to India (Education Week, 9/10/2008). Is this Mr. Luna’s platform for education in Idaho? If so, every voter in Idaho should be alarmed, and angry.

This is clear evidence that Mr. Luna has lost touch with those who have a real interest in Idaho’s educational future: parents, students and educators of this state. “I’m not surprised that a special interest organization, a for-profit educational vendor nonetheless, is contributing heavily to a group that is supporting Mr. Luna’s campaign,” Olson said. “This is just more proof that Idaho students are not priority number one for Tom, but rather special interest groups who need to turn a profit from our kids and their test scores. I suggest that he deny the use of these funds as this company has shown to be nothing more than one controversy after another, with no clear interest in Idaho’s school children, their educational quality or educational success and future.”

Failure to deny these funds might suggest Mr. Luna’s interests lie with corporate boards, shareholders, and for-profit education vendors. If this is the case, every taxpayer and parent should wonder, is public education in Idaho for sale?

One more thing, Apple computers was lobbying our representatives last week to pass Luna’s bill.

We remarked before that complex bills tend to - at least in the short run - accumulate enemies faster than they do friends. Luna is probably discovering just that for himself about now.

Carlson: Eye on the rabbit


carlson
Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles


There’s an old hunting expression, “keep your eye on the rabbit,” that former Gov. Cecil D. Andrus would invoke when a staff person would get “off message.”

In the current debate over Gov. Butch Otter effectively abrogating a key clause in Idaho’s heretofore ironclad agreement with the Federal government NOT to store even a minimal amount of commercial nuclear waste, even that used for research purpose, on an interim basis, it is Andrus who is keeping his eye on the rabbit.

The 1995 agreement was altered by Gov. Dirk Kempthorne in the early years of the first decade of this century to allow a minimal amount of commercial waste for research purposes. Gov. Andrus, who initiated the negotiations that led to the 1995 agreement finalized by Gov. Phil Batt, lent his support but suggested that once the research was completed the research waste had to be shipped right back to its point of origin.

The premise for all of this was that all waste would be removed by 2035 and stored at Yucca Mountain in Nevada. Years and billions of dollars later it is clear Yucca Mountain will never be opened let alone operational. Likewise, there’ll be no other high level repository anywhere in the nation.

One quickly concludes any waste brought to the INL site will not be leaving for generations to come. This conclusion is inescapable and warrants the warning flag Gov. Andrus has raised. Candidly, the orchestrated campaign by the defenders of the Department of Energy to minimize the Gov.’s warning (it’s been called exaggerated, simply not factual, etc.) confirms that the four-term governor hit the bull’s eye dead center.

Unfortunately, the fact the governor even had to raise the flag speaks to the sad but steady decline by the State in carrying out its oversight responsibility.

Gov. Andrus enjoys a high standing in the minds of Idaho voters astounding for one who has not held elective office for 16 years. Idahoans know, though, they can trust him to look out for the public interest, that he measures his words carefully and his intellect as well as political instincts remain razor sharp especially for one who will turn 80 years young in August.

He began monitoring the activities at the site in the early-70’s and quickly recognized the potential danger posed by poorly stored transuranic (mid level) nuclear wastes. Almost single-handedly he forced the old Atomic Energy Commission and its successor agency, the Department of Energy, to commit to a schedule for removal of this poorly stored waste from above Idaho’s Snake River plain aquifer and repackaging for storage at properly constructed salt caverns in New Mexico.

When the AEC put out a document that was a preliminary effort to find and identify a storage site for accumulating commercial nuclear waste, he appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission of distinguished Idahoans to study the matter, hold hearings and respond. The response was overwhelmingly against Idaho becoming a waste repository for any nuclear waste especially that generated by nuclear power plants.

After returning to the governorship in 1987, he ordered the Idaho State Police in 1988 to place a squad car across railroad tracks just inside the state line with a burly state trooper standing in front with folded arms. The subsequent picture ran in newspapers nationwide, delivering the message to DoE that Idaho was not about to accept any waste from Rocky Flats. DoE got the message and dropped its plans.

Things are different now say the defenders of DoE. Yes, to a degree because of the agreement Andrus started negotiating with the federal agency and Batt finished negotiating in 1995. When Andrus says he fears that agreement has been effectively abrogated by a legal precedent opening the door even a crack to importing more commercial waste allegedly only for interim purposes, Idahoans should sit up and listen.

Since Gov. Kempthorne’s amending of the agreement, the Idaho National Laboratory folks have taken a couple of subtle steps designed to get the state to lower its guard. This includes hiring Gov. Kempthorne’s former press secretary as the site’s communications director and the lead contractor at the site also hired as its chief Boise lobbyist Gov. Kempthorne’s former chief of staff. Those are not coincidences, my friends.

It’s a far cry from 1988 and a sad commentary on how easily some people do not let history be a guide. Andrus, though, knows otherwise. Ten years ago he concluded a chapter on nuclear waste in his book “Politics, Western Style” saying:

“But I still reserve the right to raise hell. My role is that of a kind of human monitoring station on the Department of Energy’s performance. I will be back on the hustings if the federal government welshes on any of the work it has committed to perform.”

With the connivance of the state’s current Gov., the DoE has committed a calculated breach and Gov. Andrus, stepping into the breach, is keeping his eye on the rabbit n which could start to glow much sooner than any one realizes.

The birds

geese
Geese at the Idaho Statehouse/Randy Stapilus

Probably a metaphor for something. Feel free to invent your own.

A bipartisan budget?

Something remarkable seems to be happening in the Washington legislature: Bipartisan budgeting.

There's an increasingly likely - if surprising - trend in both Washington and Oregon in this direction. In Oregon, there's some necessity to it: The exact half of the Oregon House that is Republican could block anything the Democrats otherwise in control might want to do. So far, the split Oregon House seems to be working reasonably well.

Democrats still control the Washington Senate and House, though with smaller numbers than last year, so they could ram budgets through. But evidently they're not. Both the state House and Senate have passed supplemental budgets, separately, with some significant input from both parties.

Notably in the Senate, which passed its budget 38-9.

Senator Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield, often a Republican hawk on the budgets, sounded a generally positive note about this one: "This sets the stage to get some air behind us ... and consider how we shape and reform state government." He said he considers this budget a collaborative approach, and while "there are things I dislike a lot, there are things we didn't do, but we're moving."

Senator Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam, said that "the budget has always been a partisan statement ... To move to a bipartisan process on the budget, the way we're working it, is radical ... It's important for us to step toward the middle and trust the other side."

Radical indeed. (More about this on the Capitol Record's Legislative Review program.)

Elect a superintendent, or not?

All three northwest states - Washington, Oregon, Idaho - have elective officials called the superintendent of public instruction, who manage departments that oversee public schools in their states. The superintendents in Washington and Oregon are elected as nonpartisan, while Idaho's is partisan.

So do these states need an elected superintendent?

There's been talk, at various points, in all three, about the idea of making the job appointive - probably by the governor - so as to provide that a well-prepared education professional will run it. Randy Dorn in Washington was a school teacher and principal, though neither Oregon's Susan Castillo nor Idaho's Tom Luna is an educator by profession. In last year's election, a state legislator (with a doctorate in education) nearly ousted Castillo, though a challenge to Luna by a just-retired local school superintendent fell far short.

It does come down, though, to whether the position should be held by a professional - which comes down to what it should do. If it's essentially a policy-making job, then voters probably ought to retain control of it, and there's no strong reason an education professional needs to occupy it. If it's more in the line of a technical management job, then appointive might be the more logical way to go. As it is, the job in each state seems caught somewhere in the gray area in between.

The talk about a conversion to appointive seems strongest at the moment in Washington, where Governor Chris Gregoire has raised the idea. Here's what she said last week about education reorganization:

“Washington state does not have an education system but multiple agencies and plans that deal with education,” said Gregoire. “If students are going to succeed as they progress from early learning through higher education, then every level of education must work together from pre-school on up. We must reduce the gaps in math and science education as students progress from early learning to K-12 to higher education, so every student arrives ready to excel on the first day of class.”

A Secretary of Education would lead the department’s work to develop education policy, provide system-wide accountability and guide implementation of innovative student-centered services and practices. A single strategic plan will guide these efforts as the department works to unify early learning, K-12 and higher education.

The Superintendent of Public Instruction would collaborate and cooperate within the department unless the Legislature and voters approve a constitutional amendment to eliminate the statewide elected office. Gregoire’s bill contains provisions to create the department with or without an elected Superintendent. If the Legislature and public approve the amendment, the Superintendent’s duties would transfer to the department.

“The Legislature and voters will make decisions regarding the election of a state Superintendent, and I will support whatever option they choose,” said Gregoire. “Whatever choice is made, a unified Department of Education will better prepare students to succeed in school and life.”

She seems to have built in the idea that voters ordinarily are loathe to give up their prerogative to elect officials.

The idea of streamlining, though, could be a fairly strong sell. Oregon and Washington could well have a close look at this debate as it progresses.

Holding back the inevitable

Much as we love newspapers and worry about their ongoing sources of revenue, Ryan Blethen's industry-pitch piece in the Seattle Times today - defending the newspaper role in publishing legal notices - doesn't hold up.

Didn't, really, a decade and a half or so ago when Ridenbaugh Press met from time to time with weekly newspaper editors and publishers and warned that the legal notices which long have been a key piece of income for them (less so, as a major slice of income, for dailies) eventually would go away. The web would make the newspaper component unnecessary and irrelevant, and that has real financial consequences for many newspapers (a reality certainly not relished here).

If it was true then, it's a lot more true now, when so many newspapers see their web presence far outstripping print, and when so many people are accessing their information - of all sorts - on line primarily.

Blethen was concerned about Washington House Bill 1818 (from Representatives Ross Hunter, D-Medina, Zach Hudgins, D-Tukwila, and David Frockt, D-Seattle), which "Requires the department of information services to establish and maintain an online database for the purpose of publishing county legal or official notices required by law, or by an order of a judge or court." That would open the door to maintaining a central, government-operated, online place where public notices - of ordinances, sheriff's sales, regulations, zoning actions, bankruptcies, judicial orders, the run of government regulation - would be housed and made accessible.

Newspaper owners and their association are, of course, strongly opposed.

Blethen's argument: "If newspapers are cut out of the process, government will control the public-notification process. The public deserves a middleman that ensures the message is delivered. Governments cannot be trusted to handle the entire process. Another flaw with Hunter's bill is that it ignores reality. If everybody in the state had Internet access, there could be an argument made. But that is not the case, especially in rural and poor areas. Newspapers are still the easiest way to reach the most people. Take The Seattle Times, for instance. We reach about 70 percent of adults in King and Snohomish counties. No way government websites have, or ever will have, that kind of reach. How often is a person going to check out a state-run website packed with legal notices from every county in the state? Not often."

Who's out of touch here? If government agencies were going to mess around with the notification process, they could do it right now before delivery to newspapers - newspapers have no particular means to check on what ought to be posted as an ad. Internet access is broadly available, through libraries if nothing else, and the portion of population reading (print) newspapers has been falling hard - the lines probably crossed some time ago. How can anyone seriously argue that in 2011, print newspapers are more easily accessible to more people than the Internet? As to the concern about a state website becoming so large as to make the noticing unwieldy - oh please. How many people read carefully those long columns of agate in the papers like the Times running page after page of them? If they could be searched and divided as a good database would allow, though, they might be far more useful. And not just in one newspaper's local circulation area, but world-wide.

Budget crunches of the moment may be part of the immediate prompt for this direction, but this is the way legal ads will be disseminated in the future. It will probably happen as soon as the newspaper lobby no longer is quite strong enough to hold back the inevitable.