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Posts published in June 2011

Umatilla: Shut ‘er down

Grazing at the Umatilla depot/U.S. Army Chemical Materials Agency

How often do you hear this: A call from a local congressional delegation to shut down a local military installation? usually, the money and jobs outweigh such an idea.

In this case, that of the Umatilla Chemical Depot near Hermiston, the shutdown idea has enough local and regional push that both U.S. senators, Democrats Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and the area's House member, Greg Walden, are behind it. An unusual case.

Here's the press release explaining further: (more…)

Doing away with an elective job

There's long been the view in the northwest that you get rid of elective jobs - and make them appointment instead, or end them altogether - at your political peril. After all, the reasoning goes, voters like to make their own choices.

So not many electoral jobs have been done away with in the Northwest for a long time, including a bunch of local ones for which that would seem to make great sense.

There doesn't seem to be a lot of uproar, though, about the current doing-away in Oregon with the elective job of superintendent of public instruction. Senate Bill 552, which does that, has cleared both chambers and is sure to be signed by Governor John Kitzhaber.

One interesting thing about it: The job - which technically is nonpartisan - is held by a Democrat, Susan Castillo.

Another: Both parties were split in their votes on the bill. In the Senate, where 23 members voted in favor and seven against, the parties split: Democrats 13 yes, 3 no; Republicans 10 yes, 4 no. In the House: Democrats 20 yes, 10 no; Republicans 18 yes, 12 no. This was not a partisan split.

Farm to school

Oregon House
Oregon House on Wednesday/Stapilus

Oregon has a pretty strong culture of buying locally, especially food. But not, apparently, when it comes to schools. Schools are limited in their choices, have to work through a complex and often costly state bureaucracy, and in many cases actually haven't been allowed to buy locally.

That may be more than a little astonishing to most people who have lived in the state a while.

It may also be changing. The Oregon House Wednesday unanimously passed House Bill 2800, who provides directions and money - funds set aside - for the state Department of Education to help local districts buy locally.

The bill, sponsored by Representatives Brian Clem, D-Salem, and Tina Kotek, D-Portland, had no opposition.

What's happening there suggests there are a bunch of ways state and local governments can be gotten to operate more effectively linking to the local economy and services. All that's really needed is a different mindset.

Labrador and immigration


Raul Labrador

We've remarked before that a subject that caused new Representative Raul Labrador some heartburn during his campaign for the job - that of illegal immigration - could be a subject on which he could make a major mark in Congress. Now the site Politico is asking, "Is Raul Labrador GOP immigration key?"

Whether he turns out to be probably depends mostly on how other Republicans respond to him - and whether they're willing to take what amounts to a centrist approach. The possibility is there. Politico reports that Labrador is "meeting with Republicans and conservative opinion-makers to try to build a “conservative consensus” to the seemingly intractable problem that defied a national reform effort nearly four years ago and still roils the political landscape on a state level."

Labrador, who was born in Puerto Rico, is an attorney who for years practiced immigration law; he addresses the subject knowledgeably. And his basic approach is similar to that proposed by both a lot of Democrats and a lot of Republicans: strengthen the borders, go after employers who hire illegally but also develop a guest worker program, and generally deal realistically rather than in fantasy with the reality of the situation (i.e., the idea of magically deporting millions of people).

He seems to be engaged in a long-term search for an approach that could gain support across much of the Republican Party, still a formidable challenge. But he may be one of the few people in Congress with the potential of actually pulling it off.

Carlson: It’s the water, stupid

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

With apologies to political consultant James Carville, who famously coined the expression “it’s all about the economy, stupid,” the future in the west is all about water, its allocation, cost and rapid depletion.

Scientists, naturalists, writers, farmers, ranchers, and politicians are all too aware of its scarcity beyond the 100th Meridian, as duly noted and popularized in the late 19th century by John Wesley Powell, famed explorer of the Grand Canyon and Colorado River and first head of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Lay on the issue of global warming and many scientists believe the arid west will become hotter and drier, accelerating the desertification process. Cities that had neither right nor common sense in their expansion, such as Phoenix and Las Vegas, are requiring ever increasing amounts of water. They willingly pay farmers and ranchers princely sums to surrender their water rights to pipelines hundreds of miles in length to slake their thirst.

This growing need for potable water has fueled the drive for more impoundments to store winter run-off and rain. The coming conflict between agricultural use versus culinary and human use is clear. Determining highest and best use will be the marketplace, not board rooms of large corporations nor the committee meeting rooms of state legislatures.

Nor does it take rocket science to predict two major aspects regarding water and the future:

1) Those that have an abundance of water, ground water or a sizable underground aquifer, are going to prosper and those that don’t are going to flounder. Thus, 100 years from now Spokane, with the vast and so far unmapped and unplumbed Rathdrum Prairie Aquifer, will be a thriving city with manufacturing transplanted from California. And Las Vegas may be a mere shadow of its glory days.

2) Congress will repeal the so-called Winters Doctrine of 1908. Why? Because Congress will conclude the Supreme Court vested too much power in indigenous Native American tribes by placing their water rights “first in time” and therefore “first in right.” (more…)

Taking out the stovepipes

This Oregon legislative session, conducted amid tightly-split chambers, may go down as one of the more productive of the last decade, partly on the basis of maybe a half-dozen pieces of legislation that change significantly how a number of things operate. The health insurance exchange legislation, passed and signed earlier, is one example; Senate Bill 242 is another.

If it passes. At least check, though it passed the Senate 28-2 (last week), it has yet to hit the House floor for a vote. So we'll see.

In some ways, there's no bill philosophical issue with this one: It deals with restructuring as much as anything else. (It doesn't add funds, much as those are needed.) But the restructuring is important. In Oregon, the universities operate in a world separate from, say, the community colleges, and well away from public schools. The various pieces of education have little to do with each other, except for this: Many of them (not the public schools) are considered to be so integral within the state government system that getting things done, or even operating efficiently, has become very difficult. Simply removing some of the entanglements could help a system that has been badly underfunded, and in other ways legislatively undernourished, in recent years.

(Washington's system is stovepiped comparably to Oregon's; Idaho's is somewhat more unified, though efforts persist to split some of it apart.)

A closing debate last week by Senator Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, describes clearly the usefulness and point of the bill - and some of the problems it is intended to help solve.

With the legislature coming close to adjournment, possibly (so it's said) this week, House passage of this bill may be one of the determinants of just how productive this session ultimately is taken to be.

Costly speculation

Gas speculation report

Several Northwest senators, Washington's Maria Cantwell and Oregon's Jeff Merkley among them, have for months been calling repeatedly for imposing stronger regulations on financial speculation in oil - in oil trading. They have been arguing that the speculation has been adding to the cost of gasoline at the pump.

Those claims might, to skeptics, sound a little airy. But they should no longer, with a new report just out from the Political Economy Research Institute of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Its title is very specific: "How Wall Street Speculation is Driving Up Gasoline Prices Today." And it has a very specific number for how much it is doing so: 83 cents per gallon.

From the report:

... we estimate that, without the influence of large-scale speculative trading on oil in the commodities futures market, the average price of gasoline at the pump in May would have been $3.13 rather than $3.96. This means that the average U.S. consumer paid a 83-cent-per-gallon premium in May for their gasoline purchases due to the huge rise in the speculative futures market for oil. Considering the U.S. economy as a whole, this translates into a speculation premium of over $1 billion for May alone. If the May price were to hold for a year, that would mean that the speculative premium would total $12 billion.

For the average U.S. auto owner, the speculative premium amounted to about $41 in May. This means speculative premium for the average two-car family was about $82 in May. That is, each such family spent $82 more in May than necessary for gasoline, and most of this $82 will have made its way into the pockets of large-scale speculators in the oil commodities futures market. (We present details on our data sources, statistical methods, calculations, as well as references to the relevant professional literature in the Appendix to this document).

So if you hit the pump and put 20 gallons of gas in your car, and pay about $79.20, then $16.60 of that amount is going not to the local gas dealership, not to the oil company, not to a distributor, not to anyone who actually develops or helps provide the product. It goes to money shifters on Wall Street. (Another piece of evidence that Wall Street is turning into an active enemy of this nation's economy by so frequently betting against its best interests.)

The Oregon State Public Interest Research Group, which spread word about the report today, remarked in one report that "We could cut gas prices right now – at no cost to the government or taxpayers – just by restricting speculation in the oil futures markets. And in fact, the Wall Street Reform Act required the Commodity Futures Trading Commission to impose strict limits on the amount of oil that Wall Street speculators could trade in the energy futures market by January of 2011. But in part because of lobbying from big financial firms, that authority has not been used to date."

Might be helpful to talk to you senators, and representatives, about that.

The strangeness factor


John McGee

When former Representative Anthony Weiner of New York became a household name, for all the reasons he'd rather not have, the immediate trigger was an e-sent image (later more) and sexting - not an affair as such. An affair might have been relatively ordinary; the guess here is that he might have survived that. But the Twitter and sexting ... that had an element of the unusual, the exotic. There was something to talk about and pick apart. Over and over.

To this weekend's case of Idaho state Senator John McGee, R-Caldwell, who has been on the often-mentioned short list, for several years now, for higher office, such as Congress or governor. (In hindsight, if he had run for the 1st district congressional seat last year he was so often mentioned for, he might well have won it.) So what to make of his adventures this weekend?

The Ada County Sheriff's Office said that on Saturday night McGee had drinks at a golf course clubhouse, and late at night departed. He initially made a sort of wise decision, to walk rather than try to drive. But along the way he must have changed his mind, because he eventually found a Ford Excursion with the keys inside, and a travel trailer attached behind. He drove it for a bit (evidently not a long distance), eventually into a residential driveway in a try to turn it around. Unable to manage the trailer turnaround, he appears to have given up and fallen asleep in the Excursion. Children nearby, after watching him from a distance, called police, who arrested him after finding a .15 blood alcohol content level. McGee reportedly said that he was planning to go to Jackpot, Nevada.

Driving under the influence is a serious offense, but it isn't so rare or unusual as to draw really heavy spotlights. Elected officials have go on from such cases to keep their offices.

What's a little different here is the rest of it: The commandeering of the Excursion (which generated a grand theft charge from Ada County) and the plan to head off to Jackpot. People will be talking about this for quite a while - in Idaho at least, and very possibly well beyond.

This one will not be over for a while.

The hazards of AG

Attorney general would seem to be a good state office from which to move up to higher office - a good title, a record of defending and advocating for the public, limited need to wade into major controversy. And a number of former attorneys general in the Northwest have moved on to governor or senator (Washington's current governor, for one).

But there are hazards, showing up in recent reports on Oregon and Washington.

In Oregon, Democrat John Kroger, who won the office in part on the strength of a reputation as an aggressive New York federal prosecutor, has begun taking regular hits for being too hard-charging in Oregon. Today's lead Oregonian story was about the resignation of Sean Riddell, the chief criminal division lawyer for Kroger, whose approach has been described as severely bullying and intimidating. Cases he was involved in, including a purchasing issue at the Department of Energy and problems with the Umatilla County district attorney, grew out of real or at least questionable issues, but ballooned into vastly oversized prosecutorial monoliths. These were high profile efforts, cases Kroger too must have been watching closely.

Protecting the public interest, yes; but at what price? It's fair to say the question is circulating around Oregon, and is likely to when Kroger is up for election next year.

More mundane issues can come back to bite, too. Washington's Republican AG, Rob McKenna, who has just announced for governor, has a smoother and generally moderate reputation, but a number of discrete issues have surfaced over the months, and more will.

A post on the Stranger Slog yesterday notes this: "According to data obtained from the AGO, the number of Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) positions in the office grew from 1,274.9 in 2005, at the time McKenna took over, to 1,316.8 in fiscal year 2010. That's an increase of 3.3 percent. But during that same period, total state General Fund FTEs actually shrank from 41,970 in 2005 to 40,389 in 2010, a reduction of 3.8 percent. And at the same time he was growing his staff while state government as a whole was contracting, McKenna paid more in bonuses to his employees than any other state agency, almost $600,000 in 2009 alone."