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Posts published in February 2011

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

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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.

Carlson: “A thing that money could buy”


carlson
Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles


Some readers may recognize that line from an old Peter, Paul and Mary song that continues, “the rich would live and the poor would die.” Unfortunately, there’s too much truth to it: Wealth does allow the rich to live longer than those who do not have sufficient money, not to mention what’s left of the increasingly squeezed middle class.

“Income inequality” is a phrase news media and politicians alike want to avoid. They duck phrases deploring language that elicits thoughts of “class warfare.” The stark fact is income disparity, the difference between the super rich and the average worker, is at its greatest chasm in history (with the possible exception of 1928).

Yes, many of the wealthy (households with combined annual gross incomes more than $250,000) pay taxes. And, in a society that long ago institutionalized graduated tax rates, they usually pay more than those who earn less. But many of the super rich, the top two-tenths of one percent, don’t pay any taxes.

I once heard a member of the super rich say flat out “only stupid people pay taxes.” They retain attorneys and accountants to find shelters and write-offs to ensure they don’t pay a cent.

Yet they gladly take the protection of the American military in an unsafe world as an entitlement. They still expect their social security check when they “retire.” It makes me more than a little angry.

I mention this because, for all the rhetoric being tossed around regarding the need to repeal the historic passage of Health Care Reform because of problems and unintended consequences, the fundamentals of more government involvement in this gargantuan consumer of much of America’s wealth will remain in place.

Why? Because it is viewed as an equalizer that provides the poor and the stressed middle class more accessibility to more affordable health care and more protection against catastrophic illness that can financially ruin a household in a heartbeat. (more…)

The opening stance

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At the Idaho House; lunch approaches/Randy Stapilus

There is a fee of $10 charged to some people convicted of crimes in Idaho, which is directed toward the law enforcement system. House Bill 26, which was up on the House floor late Tuesday morning, proposed to raise that amount (paid by lawbreakers) by $1.50, the added amounted to be used for law enforcement training. Carried by a Republican, the bill drew support on the floor and sounded routine and uncontroversial.

It failed, on a 31-34 vote - a vote which seems emblematic of where the Idaho legislature possibly, and the Idaho House likely, stands on the matter of taxes, fees and budgets: This is a session for cutting, period. Cutting, slicing, slashing. Anything, however minor and however appealing, that adds income in any way, is verboten. Anyt other response could send a message that revenue raisers might be considered, and what looks like a majority in the House doesn't want that anywhere near the table.

That's the thread linking HB 26 with several bigger measures in the last couple of week - a cigarette tax bill and an interstate sales tax bill - which were killed off (at least for now) by leadership in the House. Not that this is necessarily a dictate from House Republican leadership; a lot of the House Republican caucus clearly feels the same way.

The big public turnout for two budget committee hearings, on education and on health and welfare issues, undoubtedly had some impact on legislators, and may have given some program advocates encouragement that their side of the picture will be heard. But as HB 26 suggests, don't count on it. At least not yet, and maybe not this session.

If the budget and tax picture aren't largely slam dunked by early April (and opinions are mixed about whether they will be), there could be some re-thinking. But the mod right now is: Cut, cut and cut.

A different kind of response

More later on the Oregon budget proposal from Governor John Kitzhaber. Worth noting for a moment is a couple of paragraphs at the very end of the Oregonian's piece on the budget proposal: About the Republican response.

It said this: "Reaction from legislative leaders from both parties was generally favorable. Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, one of the most conservative members of the Legislature, called Kitzhaber's recommendations a "refreshing development." He especially liked the governor's focus on outcomes, rather than budget numbers. "It's not just about how much money," Richardson said, "it's what you get for that money.""

That's refreshing, too. So often, people in both parties seem to be mesmerized by the numbers, to the exclusion of content. It's just a reframing, maybe, but in this case that means thinking about what you're doing in a whole different way.

Where the money comes from, where it goes

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Glenn Anderson's chart

This may be a broadly-applicable rule of government and politics: The people who (and this refers to people in geographic areas which) complain the most that their tax money is being sucked up to benefit those other people, over there, almost certainly have it backward. Idaho, for example, is one of the states that long has received more federal money than it pays in, in contrast to states like New York where the opposite tends to apply.

Skip to Washington state, and the parts of the state - mainly east of the Cascades counties - where such complaints run loudest: Our hard-earned tax money being scooped by those liberal to spend on Seattle utopian projects.

Republican Representative Glenn Anderson of Fall City put together and distributed a map (see above) showing which counties are net contributors of state taxes, and which are net recipients. And guess what?

Insult to injury: Anderson came up with the map as part of a proposal (House Joint Resolution 4214, with two Democrats, Hans Dunshee and Reuven Carlyle) "to dissolve and reorganize" counties that receive a lot more than they contribute. Those would be the small (with one exception) counties of Adams, Asotin, Ferry, Stevens, Lincoln, Garfield, Yakima and Wahkiakum, and all (with one exception conservative counties east of the Cascades).

"Oh please," says the Seattle Times.

Which prompted a more extensive dissertation on the Slog. One pointed instance from it: "But it might help if we, working together as one state, actually understood the underlying facts. I mean, if Ferry County taxpayers truly understood that they receive back more from the state in DSHS spending alone than the total revenues they send to Olympia, their representatives might not be so eager to slash DSHS spending."

In fact, read it all.