Writings and observations

And they’re already anticipating what a 9.0 quake, or higher, might do to Seattle.

This article runs through it in some detail, with the eventual recommendation to be prepared to live three days alone, without food or water.

From their report of a 2008 study: “In that study engineers looked at 575 buildings from the outside and further that estimated 850 to 1,000 old brick buildings that date back to the 1930s would be at risk if a 6.7-magnitude earthquake occurred on the Seattle fault, which runs through the center of Seattle and Bellevue. The Seattle fault is widely considered the most dangerous quake threat to Seattle. Scientists have predicted that a significant earthquake on this fault could cause widespread devastation and at least 1,000 deaths in the city because of collapsed buildings, fires and other infrastructure failures.”

Share on Facebook

Washington

The headlines tend no to be so large when unemployment drops as when it rises, so noted here: Unemployment in Washington and Oregon is dropping. Not enormously, but dropping.

Oregon added 9,800 jobs in February, more than in any month since the economy was riding high in 1996. The unemployment rate dropped only a little, from 10.4% to 10.2%, but the decline has been steady, and the outlook now is that Oregon may finally slip below that dreaded 10% mark in the next month or two.

Especially interesting was the addition of 1,200 construction jobs; the seasonal norm in February is the loss of several hundred jobs in that area.

Washington’s job gains, meanwhile, were smaller in size – just 800 – but that contributed to dropping the unemployment rate from 9.2% to 9.1%. (Washington may soon drop below the 9% level.) And there too, construction seemed to be one of the significant drivers behind the improved outlook.

Share on Facebook

Oregon Washington

Pelz
Dwight Pelz

All kinds of bloody red meat was dispensed, according to a piece in Publicola, by Washington Democratic Chair Dwight Pelz – to the extent of calling for the ouster of one of President Obama’s cabinet members (Education Secretary Arne Duncan).

Some really rough rhetoric – over the top stuff – on Republicans (“they’re evil. These guys are fascists.”).

There was also this well-crafted bit: ““There was a joke 20 years ago, when [then-Russian president Boris] Yeltsin was in power: ‘What did capitalism do in Russia in five years that communism couldn’t do in 50 years? The answer was, make communism look good. What is it that the Republicans can do that Democrats can’t do? Make Democrats look good.”

Share on Facebook

Washington

Brookings
Tsunami damage at Brookings harbor. (image/Office of Governor John Kitzhaber)

The Friday tsunami did not do the damage in the Northwest it did in Japan, but there was some damage – most notably in Brookings, where an emergency situation persists.

Idaho saw passage through the legislature of two major education overhaul bills, likely to be signed early this week. Legislative and economic news were key elements in this week’s Digests.

Some of the larger stories in the Washington edition:

bullet Locke nominated as ambassador to China
bullet Emissions agreement hits home in Centralia
bullet Vehicle emission changes proposed
bullet CMLK would-be bomb suspect arrested
bullet Death with Dignity update

In the Oregon edition:

bullet Tsunami hits South Oregon coast
bullet Job openings increasing in Oregon
bullet Wyden co-sponsored wireless tax bill
bullet Workplace deaths decline

In the Idaho edition:

bullet Luna school plan passes legislature

bullet Activists plan Luna recall

bullet Census releases new numbers on Idaho

bullet Idaho Power irrigation plan approved

Share on Facebook

Digests

Toward the bottom of an Idaho Press-Tribune profile article about Wayne Hoffman and the Idaho Freedom Foundation, which he heads, a quote of considerable note. Especially to Idaho state employees, local government workers, and retirees.

The article’s main point was how influential the group has become in the Idaho Legislature, and it surely is. One person quoted suggested it was now more influential than the long-running most-influential lobby organization, the Idaho Association of Commerce & Industry. It may be, and if it is, that’s probably in considerable part because its views – libertarian, generally anti-government – are in alignment with those of a lot of Idaho legislators.

Which makes the quote of note. The article noted that Hoffman’s group has “plans to propose changes” to the Public Employee Retirement System of Idaho, which handles retirement payments for state employees and many other public workers in the state.

Of PERSI, Hoffman was quoted as saying: “It’s a bad system, it should go away.”

Take it as an indicator. Among the most-conservative of Idaho legislators, the Idaho Education Association isn’t the only organization with a target on its back.

Share on Facebook

Idaho

We’ve long thought that the people who dismiss the idea of nuclear power as a realistic energy source are being too dismissive. If you can resolve reasonable safety issues, ensure that the operation is price effective (not an obscene cost per kilowatt-hour) and get clear-eyed about the waste issues, it should be a realistic option, at least in some places and circumstances. And advances in technology suggest those issues shouldn’t be insurmountable. The political could be harder.

Maybe much harder after Friday’s tsunami. News of partial and possibly further meltdown of a nuclear operation in Japan, resulting from an earthquake the likes of which the Northwest could see somewhere in the future, is likely to shake up the nuclear debate in big ways.

Headlines like “200,000 evacuated as N-crisis escalates” in the Seattle Times won’t make the pro-nuclear advocates’ job much easier.

Share on Facebook

Northwest

Idaho census

Some changes of note in the Idaho Census returns released this week. Nothing of great shock, but some real indicators about how Idaho is changing.

Idaho’s overall population change is significant, but not stunning – 21.1%, to just over a million and a half people, about what had been widely estimated for a while now. But in some places, the population change was torrid. It will remake a lot of Idaho, and is affecting (one way or another) its politics.

Ada and Canyon counties together, for example, in 2000 together had about 430,000 people, or almost exactly a third (33.4%) of Idaho’s total population. In 2010, they together fell just short of 600,000 people, making up 37.1% – a significant increase. In 2010, more than half (52.6%) of Idahoans live in just four counties – Ada, Canyon, Kootenai and Bonneville (the latter joining the ranks of the 100,000+ group for the first time). Ten years ago you needed five counties (adding in Bannock) to get to half.

Idaho is becoming more urban and suburban. Suburban especially.

Third largest city in Idaho now is officially Meridian (75,092), only a tiny dairy town little more than a generation ago. It is growing so fast that it’s on track to overtake second-place Nampa during this decade. And Caldwell (46,237), which at this point can almost be called the farthest west of the Boise suburbs, jumped from ninth to sixth place on the list. The most striking jump among Idaho’s larger cities may be Kuna (15,210), which went from Idaho’s 27th largest city to its fourteenth. Of Idaho’s 20 largest cities, seven – more than a third – are in Ada and Canyon counties. Boise’s growth, at 10.7%, was healthy but unspectacular – this was a boom of the suburbs. Kootenai County accounted for three. That leaves 10 of the 20 largest cities for 42 of Idaho’s 44 counties.

Leading to this: eights counties (Shoshone, Clearwater, Elmore, Minidoka, Butte, Clark, Caribou and Bear Lake) among the 44 lost population. Aside from Minidoka, these are among Idaho’s smaller-population counties, among its more rural.

More suburb, less cowboy. That’s the emerging Idaho.

Share on Facebook

Idaho

The tsunami hitting the Oregon coast this morning has claimed at least one victim, though without major harm done – the first of the state reapportionment road committee meetings, which was slated this morning for Tillamook.

On one hand, the Tillamook college where the meeting was to be held is more than a dozen miles inland. On the other, and this would be reasonably decisive, the meeting was supposed to attract plenty of people from the north coast area, and those people are likely preoccupied with tsunami-related matters this morning.

Hopefully, no omens involved.

Share on Facebook

Oregon

The megaload shipments across northern Idaho on Highway 12 are going to be a never-ending source of conflict (even after they’re over, the prospect of more will persist). Some of those could punch out in unexpected directions. So this new U.S. District Court filing, today, will be interesting.

The plaintiff is Idaho Rivers United, which is not surprising, but the defendant is a little unexpected: The U.S. Forest Service.

From the complaint (evidently not yet available online), here’s the core issue:

“Specifically, IRU challenges the U.S. Forest Service’s determination that, because the Forest Service previously granted an easement to the Idaho Transportation Department to maintain and operate U.S. Highway 12 across the Clearwater National Forest, it lacks jurisdiction or authority to enforce federal laws within the corridor, as set forth in a September 2010 final decision by the Clearwater National Forest Supervisor. IRU also challenges the Forest Service’s refusal to enforce the terms of the easement and other federal laws to prevent expanding the uses of Highway 12 to include the transport of “mega-loads” beginning in 2011 and continuing into the future. Contrary to the Forest Service’s position, the agency not only retains jurisdiction and authority over the Highway 12 right-of-way, but also has a mandatory duty to enforce applicable federal laws and regulations — including the Highway Easement Deed, the Forest Service’s regulations, and the Clearwater Forest Plan — in order to “protect and enhance” the outstandingly remarkable values of the Middle Fork Clearwater/Lochsa Wild and Scenic River corridor.”

In other words, the argument is that the Forest Service is abrogating its responsibility by not taking a role in the mega-load situation.

The outcome of this could have implications far afield from the megaload issue.

Share on Facebook

Idaho

This is from an email (received a while back; this post is a bit belated) from the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group, which tracks and contends with a range of consumer and other interests in Oregon. One of those is the ballooning increase in medical insurance rates – and here OSPIRG scored a win last month, helping get a proposed massive rate increase significantly scaled back.

The email is worth quoting at some length.

Last December, we submitted comments to the Department of Consumer and Business Services (DCBS) Oregon Insurance Division, questioning the underpinnings of United HealthCare’s proposal to raise policyholders’ rates by 16.8%.

On Thursday, DCBS announced that they approved a lower increase of 10%, which according to their analysis will save consumers $4 million a year.

You can read the rate decision and the DCBS response to OSPIRG’s comments here: http://tinyurl.com/4fvqccx

For more about the original rate hike proposal and OSPIRG’s comments on the OSPIRG website at: http://tinyurl.com/4al4v9l

The reduction was due to two factors. First, United HealthCare provided updated data that suggested that their medical costs were lower than their initial filing had anticipated. Second, we had raised questions about United’s administrative costs, including the insurer’s practice of paying brokers a commission based on a percentage of enrollees’ premiums. Since premiums increase much faster than general inflation or wages, this practice can artificially inflate administrative costs.

DCBS agreed with us that theses costs were too high, and in response, United HealthCare will now pay its brokers a commission based on the number of members they sign up, rather than paying them a flat percentage of enrollees’ premiums. This change will create significant savings for consumers.

DCBS also provided a response to our comments, which gave more detail on how they analyze rate increases.

In a few areas, their response was clearly responsive to consumers’ needs. For example, as I mentioned, we’re glad that they agreed with us that the administrative costs were too high, and pushed United to lower them.

DCBS was also appreciative of our analysis of how affordable United’s insurance coverage would be for a variety of businesses and their employees, but DCBS noted that this affordability analysis has to be weighed against the need for the premium to be adequate enough to maintain an insurers’ solvency. Finally, DCBS announced that they’re conducting a study to determine the best ways of using the rate review process to reduce medical costs, which is a positive step for consumers.

There are a few areas where DCBS has more information than we do. For this set of comments, that fact limited our ability to assess the reasonableness of the filing. For example, we found that United HealthCare did not provide enough information for us to evaluate whether their estimate of the rise in their medical costs was reasonable. The insurer provided historical data for how much their claims have increased over time, but did not provide further detail on their numbers. DCBS responded that, in assessing the reasonableness of medical trend calculations, they also look at internal data about overall medical trends in Oregon. We plan to ask DCBS to share this information with us, so that we can make more informed comments.

Similarly, we found it difficult to assess whether the overall benefits being offered were a fair value for the premium charged. This is because rate filings contain detailed information only on particular changes in benefits, not each product’s overall benefits. Helpfully, DCBS has offered to share with us information on products’ baseline benefits, which will help us conducted more detailed analysis.

There are a few places where we would urge DCBS to be more aggressive in questioning insurers’ filings. For example, DCBS accepts at face value United HealthCare’s claim that their proposed 16.8% premium increase would not affect enrollment, but while this was stated in the actuarial memorandum accompanying the filing, the claim was not substantiated by any data. In the future, we would urge DCBS to require supporting calculations before accepting as justified an insurers’ enrollment expected estimates.

Along the same lines, United HealthCare’s filing said that their quality improvement and cost containment efforts would lead to per member per month savings of $9.40. We noted that it was unclear where these savings would go, since they did not appear to be directly included in the calculation of expected medical costs; there was no information about whether they were being passed along to consumers, or if a portion was pocketed by the insurer. DCBS appears to have assumed that the entire $9.60 would go directly to premium savings for consumers. While it is entirely appropriate for insurers to share in the benefit when they successfully lower costs while maintaining quality, the interests of transparency are best served when it’s clear exactly how those savings are being divided.

All in all, we’re glad that DCBS is engaging with our comments, and in this case delivered lower costs for consumers. These $4 million in savings will help make health care more affordable for thousands of Oregonians, at a time when businesses and families are often struggling. We’ll be continuing our Rate Watch project, and I look forward to updating you on future successes.

Share on Facebook

Oregon