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Posts published in April 2011

More like a business

This got a lot of attention in Washington state:

A general new policy at the University of Washington to accept many more out of state students - those who pay higher tuition and fees - than those from in state, locking out many in-state students with good grades and other advantages. A lot of Washington kids won't be able to go to their leading state institution.

Why is that? Well, the out-of-staters pay more. They help the university's bottom line more. The university is operating more, in other words, like a prosperous health insurance company.

Danny Westneat in the Seattle Times put it succinctly: "For decades now we've heard the demand that government needs to be more like business. Can't it be more self-sufficient, more attuned to the bottom line? Well, yes it can. This is what it looks like."

Pretty, ain't it?

Carlson: Beware your friends

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

One of many political verities in politics is that it is always your friends who get you in trouble. Jimmy Carter had his Bert Lance, Bill Clinton his Webb Hubbell and George W. Bush his Karl Rove.

From one’s enemies a public officeholder expects animosity and treachery. From one’s friends, though, there is an assumption of loyalty and that loyalty should preclude stupidity and/or treachery. More often than not, however, when controversy arises, an officeholder has let his or her reverse loyalty blind them to the folly a friend is exhibiting. And when the smoke has cleared, it is the friend that has been the cause of the downfall.

The Idaho Statesman’s political editor, Dan Popkey, prompted this reflection after reading his excellent March 22 column regarding Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter’s recent pattern of dodging the press and minimizing contact now that he no longer has to face re-election. After 28 years in the public eye, Butch apparently will be taking off the spurs and not be on the ballot in 2014.

Popkey ends his column deploring this turn of events and the attitude that undergirds it by pointing out that the Governor, while not available for the media, can and does make time for his lobbyist friends. He references the photo that appeared recently on their business website.

The picture is worth the proverbial thousand words, and one need look no further than that to know the Governor has received only encouragement from those three to diss the media and disregard their existence. If the idea did not originate with one of those three, it certainly has been reinforced by them.

Of the three, Phil Reberger, an ex-officer in the military and the former chief of staff to Gov. Dirk Kempthorne and Sen. Steve Symms, is a likely candidate for either originating or encouraging the idea of cutting off the media’s access to the Governor. After all, that’s pretty much what he did when his horse was governor.

Not even Kempthorne, though, was foolish enough to bypass the annual invitation to address the “Headliner” luncheon of the Idaho Press Club. After all, the media is both an interest group and a power center. Like all “influentials” it expects to be courted, considered and respected.

Popkey correctly recalls the traditional annual appearances by a Governor started with then-Gov. Cecil D. Andrus in the early 1970’s. To be more precise, it was 1973 and Andrus addressed an issue near and dear to the hearts of the media: whether Idaho needed a “Shield Law” to provide further protection for the media from law enforcement demands that in some instances sources had to be revealed and notebooks turned over.

There were strong and conflicting views within the media on this subject, with some reporters and editors holding the view that the Constitutional guarantee under the free speech amendment was sufficient protection. Showing his deft touch for sticky wickets, Andrus took the position that the media should answer the question and give him a consensus view. If they wanted it, he would sign it. If they didn’t either he would work to see that it didn’t come before him or veto it as unnecessary if it did. (more…)

Washington goes all vote-by-mail

Not a huge practical change for most voters, since nearly all have been voting by mail anyway in the last few elections.

But the vote-by-mail system hasn't been uniform across the state until now. Today, that changes, and Washington joins Oregon in that (we believe more advanced) system.

From a statement by Secretary of State Sam Reed:

Gov. Chris Gregoire on Tuesday signed Senate Bill 5124, requiring all counties to use the popular vote-by-mail system. As a practical matter, it won’t be a change for most voters, since 98 percent of the statewide vote is now conducted by mail. It will, however, mean that Pierce County, the lone holdout, will need to end use of polling places.

Vote-by-mail gained traction incrementally in Washington. In 1993, the Legislature authorized voters to sign up for permanent absentee voting, meaning a ballot would be sent out automatically for each election. Well over half of the electorate eventually signed up. That same year, a new law authorized nonpartisan primary elections to be handled by mail.

In 2005, six years ago, counties were allowed to decide whether to switch to all vote-by-mail, with the decision to be made by the County Auditor and the County Commission or Council. Counties soon signed up, with some also holding public advisory votes. King, representing 1 voter in 3, was the last major county to switch. That left Pierce as the lone outlier; the County Executive and Auditor supported the change, the County Council did not.

For several sessions, the Legislature declined to mandate that Pierce join the rest of the state, citing the state’s tradition of local control. As more and more Pierce voters themselves switched and as the participation rate for pollsite voters lagged and the price tag rose, Secretary of State Sam Reed, Auditor Julie Anderson, Executive Pat McCarthy, County Auditors and others again turned to Olympia for help. Sen. Scott White, D-Seattle, sponsored the bill and it passed both chambers.

Budget chat

As is so often the case, the questions in cases like this - a public online chat with a legislator - is at least as interesting as the answers.

The legislator is on a hot seat this week - Washington state Representative Ross Hunter, D-Medina, chair of the House Ways and Means Committee, which with its Senate counterpart writes the state budget. Its proposal, just released, addresses the $5 billion gap between existing revenue sources and maintaining what the state now does. Doing that is the rub; it uses cuts in services, shifts of revenue use and other devices, including privatizing part of the state liquor system. It is leaving some unhappiness in its wake.

But also generating lots of fuzzy thinking.

One chatter complained, "every year we have run a deficit in this state." Hunter pointed out that the state (like most states) has to balance its budget every year.

Justin asked why the legislature continued taxes paying for various sports arenas, including the long-demolished Kingdome. Hunter replied that "we haven't decided to do that."

Another asked why tax breaks for banks and for cosmetic surgery are left alone while money for schools is being cut. Hunter said that increases in taxes requires a two-thirds vote, which can't be gotten.

Someone who voted against liquor privatization because of possible expansion of sales outlets last fall complained about the effort in the legislature now. Hunter said that (and this would be in contrast to the ballot measures) the new proposal would affect only warehousing, not the number of outlets.

And so on. An educational tour of the process and some of the substance. May it be done more often.

Politics as such barely entered in. The main exception was when a chatter asked what useful lessons Hunter would draw from the budgeting issues in Wisconsin. Hunter: "Extreme positions that create political theater might be fun to do, but don't advance the state. His economic proposals are dominated in public by his theater. Our cuts to employee benefits and compensation are deeper than the ones he proposed in Wisconsin, but we negotiated ours."

This week in the Digests

Shearing sheep in a late Oregon winter. (photo/Linda Watkins)

Washington and Idaho legislative sessions moved toward final budget decisions as March moved into April, while Oregon's legislators began rolling out their major initial proposals - though final action there may be several months away.

Economic indicators in Oregon and Washington continued cautiously upward, though on a slow trajectory.

Some of the larger stories in the Washington edition:

bullet CenturyLink-Qwest merger completed

bullet Still little consensus over Alaskan Way

bullet Highway spending report

bullet Efficiency projects launched at UW

In the Oregon edition:

bullet Budget committee chairs release proposal

bullet CenturyLink-Qwest merger completed

bullet Not all Portland utility money goes to utilities

bullet New biodiesel fuel requirement

In the Idaho edition:

bullet Third bill in Luna proposal passes

bullet CenturyLink-Qwest merger completed

bullet PUC rejects conservation fund proposal

bullet A child abuse proclamation

Higher virtues

Most times, most places, efficiency is a virtue, even a pretty high one. But there are times and places where higher virtues should rule. Legislatures, for example.

Legislators (in many states) tend to place a lot of stock in getting things done swiftly and keeping legislative sessions brief. Or, in Washington's case - since the regular session is strictly limited by the constitution - avoiding a trailer special session, which could still happen this year. As an expression of avoiding wasted time or money, that's reasonable enough. But running through carefully-crafted legislation that has been vetted by the public would seem to be a stronger priority.

This comes to mind with the increasing use this year of "title only" (or "ghost") bills - measures in which only the legal framework and none of the content is moved through the legislature, with the critical content being added at the last minute. It's about to be happening a lot, apparently, with budget bills.

Representative Ross Hunter, D-Medina, reportedly said "that staff members told him it must be done in order make sure lawmakers don't get stuck at the end of the session without the ability to pass a budget."

In other words, if the numbers come out earlier, there might be protests, blowups and loads of proposed amendments. In fact, there probably would be.

But how would those people react if the harsh reality is simply dumped on them as legislators scram out of town? Would that really be better?

Washington's legislators could be on the verge of finding out.

OR remap: Southern views

Some takeaway thoughts after watching (the stream) of the Medford-based hearing today of the Oregon Legislature's reapportionment committees ...

Everyone wants their city or town kept unified in legislative (and congressional) districts. Well, join the club. The people here do have some concerns, though. Grants Pass, for example, is basically included in U.S. House district 2 (which mostly runs east of the Cascades), but almost all of the rest of its county (Josephine) is in district 4. The former has been voting for Republican representatives for many years, the latter Democratic. Some whipsaw going on in Josephine; an issue to fix, if possible.

The prevailing view seems to be that a real community of interest runs along state Highway 140, from Medford through the White City/Eagle Point area north of it, east to Klamath Falls, and continuing east to Lakeview. As opposed to running north-south; the people in Klamath Falls said they feel a lot closer to the Medford area than to Bend (which is a straight shot north on U.S. 97) though the distances are comparable. Why? 140 was described as an easier road to run in the winter; commerce runs much more east-west than north-south; media links Klamath (and Lakeview) with Medford but not with Bend; school and service connections run that way; even a commuter bus line connects on the east-west route. The testimony on this point was consistent.

So too, though, was the view that the Chiloquin area, about 40 miles north of Klamath Falls but still in Klamath County, ought to be united with K-Falls in a House district (they're presently in the same Senate but different House districts).

There was little testimony to the effect of unity between Medford and Grants Pass, though they're geographically nearby and along a short run on I-5.

There were some odd cases - geographical oddities, that is. The Applegate Valley, for instance. The valley hammocks from Grants Pass to Medford, south of I-5, and separated from the freeway by a mountain range - the valley is its own distinct community. But it is split between Jackson and Josephine counties, and between legislative and congressional districts as well. What the reapportioners can do to help them out is anyone's guess.

OR: An eastern exercise

senate map or

Just another redistricting exercise, this one showing the wide spread of Oregon legislative districts across of the east-of-Cascades region.

Oregon's 2010 population is such that each of its 30 Senate districts needs about (approximations will do, to a point) 127,702 people each. Question: How many eastern Oregon counties (if you keep them intact in a legislative district) do you need to reach that many?

Well, starting east and south of the Pendleton/Hermiston area, you get close if you add all these counties together: Wallowa, Union, Baker, Malheur, Harney, Grant, Lake, Crook and Wheeler. (Still falls about 2,000 short, but that's probably close enough.) That massive area has just about enough for one Senate district out of 30.

And then if you start at Umatilla County and work west, you can go to The Dalles (Wasco County) and still fall about 11,000 short of what you need. You could then add part, but not all, of the population of either Jefferson County to the south, or Hood River County to the west (the two are of closely similar size), but only about half of either.

These two districts alone would occupy half or more of the land mass of Oregon.