"I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions. But laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors." - Thomas Jefferson (appears in the Jefferson Memorial)

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.

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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.”

I pondered all this while traveling to Fort Peck Dam and Glasgow, Montana, recently to attend a conference on the future cost of water sponsored by Montana State University’s Wheeler Institute. Along the way the highway ran beside and at times crossed the Milk River, the very river the subject of litigation that led to the so-called Winters Doctrine proclaimed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1908.

In the Winters case, lower courts ruled the law gave implied power to the federal government; “federally reserved water rights” was the key phrase which, among other things, establishes first in time rights to water even though most water is in a state’s purview. (Most states own the beds of rivers and navigable streams and sometimes their lakes, while the federal government regulates most activities especially interstate commerce upon those waters.).

Within the Interior Department various bureaus concluded that rights to water for Indian nations were established at the time tribes signed their first treaty with the U.S. government. In the Winters case, a group of ranchers and farmers who settled in and around the Milk River challenged the first in time, first in right designation for the Gros Ventre and Assinboine Indian tribes. To their stunning surprise, they lost not only in two lower courts but before the Supreme Court, 8 to 1.

Ironically, despite the Wheeler Conference’s proximity to the Milk River, no one mentioned the Winters Doctrine or its potential impact on water cost. The doctrine gives prior right and first right to all water arising on or passing through an Indian reservation.

State water departments try hard to have tribes quantify their needs so downstream allocations can then be made, especially in times of water shortages. Idaho, in fact, is going through a series of water basin adjudication processes, and in the case of the Snake River adjudication, the Nez Perce Tribe received a multi-million dollar settlement to quantify its rights.

On the Spokane-Coeur d’Alene River Basin adjudication, the Coeur d’Alene Tribe has thus far not filed its claim nor thrown out a negotiating number, but one can expect it will be hefty. As water grows scarcer in the West, bidding for unused water rights will grow astronomically. Water could turn out to be truly liquid gold for some tribes, and perhaps generate more dollars ultimately than gaming ventures.

Pessimists will look at that and conclude that history will repeat itself and the majority culture will once again figure out a legal way to extinguish an Indian right. Anyone want to make a wager and put it in a time capsule?

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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.

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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.

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Oregon Washington


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.

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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.”

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Oregon Washington

Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

For readers who have been entertained or, hopefully, intellectually stimulated by my musings for more than a year, I have some news: Idaho’s oldest publishing house, Caxton Press of Caldwell, will be publishing a book by me.

Entitled “Cecil Andrus: Idaho’s Greatest Governor,” the book recounts an insider’s view of events that happened in the 10 years I worked for the “good, great former governor.” Elected to four terms covering 14 years with a 10-year break between the first six years and the second eight years, Andrus is without question the longest serving, most influential political practitioner to ever hold Idaho’s reins.

He is the standard against which all previous and subsequent governors will be measured. His total tenure will never be exceeded, nor will his margin of victory in the 1974 election (73 percent) ever be topped. He is considered by many to be one of the five best persons to ever serve as Secretary of the Interior.

The book describes the governor’s early years on the family farm outside Hood River, Oregon, where he was born on August 25, 1931. It also describes his teenage years, early marriage (he was 18), and service in the Navy on board a P2V Neptune patrol bomber and intel gathering aircraft during the Korean War. Few know, for example, he survived a potentially disastrous air crash.

His years as a gypo logger in northern Idaho and his election in 1960 to the Idaho State Senate from Clearwater County at the age of 29 (then the youngest person elected to the Legislature) and his years serving in the Senate also are recounted. Little has been written about these formative years and experiences.

Throughout the book I recount anecdotes from our years working together when he was governor and then Interior secretary, as well as during our business relationship at the Gallatin Group in his post-political office years. I try to help the reader understand how such an extraordinary politician emerged from such ordinary circumstances.

When a reader is finished with this book, I can only hope those that know him will say “Yup, that’s Cece.” Those that don’t at least will feel they have met and gotten better acquainted with him. Even 16 years after leaving office, according to almost all polls, Andrus remains the most popular and best known hunter/ fisherman in the state. Many believe he could easily win the governor’s chair again.

During the course of writing I had two fine editors who helped improve the manuscript. The “dean” was James E. “Jay” Shelledy, former editor of The Salt Lake Tribune and before that publisher of the Moscow-Pullman Daily News. Some readers may even recall Shelledy was a teacher and a coach at Kootenai High School from 1967 to 1971.

Another editor was my former business partner and friend, Marc Johnson, the Boise office managing partner at The Gallatin Group, the public affairs firm I founded in 1989. Marc edited for historical accuracy as well as style, spelling and punctuation.

Shelledy and I were not in sync on one issue. He correctly points out there is scarcely a critical word in these pages. He suggested readers will award more credibility to my observations if I detail Andrus’ few warts. While he, too, believes Andrus was a great governor, he insists that he also was human, that my credibility as an observer would be enhanced n along with the governor’s reputation, — by portraying him more plausibly as a mortal, meaning occasionally flawed.

Andrus would be the first to say he was not perfect. He saw politics as hardball and could throw a high, hard inside pitch when necessary. Shelledy has his point, but this is not an objective biography or history book. It is my recollections, anecdotes and stories as I saw them, as one who wishes to help others come to know Andrus and understand what makes him exceptional.

To me the point is he was an intelligent, compassionate, far-seeing, disciplined, crafty, competitive politician and individual, one with incredible leadership and mentoring skills. Overall, his behavior and conduct was honorable, responsible and ethical. He was proud to serve the people of Idaho and grateful for the opportunity.

He would have died before letting the people of Idaho down or betraying the love and trust of family and friends. When I told him about the book he responded “Who do you think is going to read it, Chris? There’s no sex, fraud, cheating or stealing to reveal. There’s little that was controversial, especially in the light of the passage of time.”

My response was and is that it is precisely the rarity of people like him in high office that captured and continues to fascinate people about Cecil D. Andrus.

I hope you will find the book well worth your time, interest and the modest investment of $18. It can be pre-ordered through Caxton’s store at www.caxtonprinters.com. There will be a book signing at The Paperhouse sometime in the fall.

A native of Kellogg, a former teacher at Kootenai, and a former journalist, Chris served as press secretary to former Idaho Governor Cecil D. Andrus for ten years. He is the founding partner of the Gallatin Group, is now retired and he and his wife, Marcia, reside at Medimont.

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Big, sweeping changes are never simple – one reason why legislation that is of large import is so often so large. Consider the education overhaul bills in Idaho this year; the bills themselves offered only an outline, and many of the details have yet to be filled in.

A Dan Popkey piece in this morning’s Idaho Statesman made the point. He talked to Alan Dunn, superintendent of the Sugar-Salem School District in eastern Idaho, who saw in the new law, among other things, the requirement that school provide new distance learning for their classes, through the Idaho Education Network. He got together with several other superintendents in the area to put together some regional distance learning programs. That, he figured, would satisfy the requirements.

Then he had a conversation with an aide to Superintendent of Public Insutruction Tom Luna, who said that no, it didn’t meet the terms of the law. Dunn came away with: “That wasn’t our understanding as we went through this. That may change the things we were planning to do.”

This could become … complex.

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Ron Sims, the former King County executive who has spent the last couple of years as a top executive at the Obama Administration’s Department of Housing and Urban Development, says he’s leaving to return to the Puget Sound.

Specifics were few, though he said he is “retiring from public service.” What exactly that translates to, we’ll see.

Certainly Sims is one of the more charismatic candidates – strong campaigning skills – in the area, and he’ll be watched as a potential candidate for something. Evidently, though, not right away.

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Tonight, the Idaho’s Citizen Commission for Reapportionment gets started on its public hearings around the state. The first is at Rexburg (evidently not streamed, though we’re told that plans are for at least some of the others – maybe half of them – to be streamed).

The others will be at Idaho Falls (June 15), Pocatello (June 15). Soda Springs (June 16), Coeur d’Alene (June 22), Sandpoint (June 22), Lewiston (June 23), Moscow (June 23), Burley (June 28), Twin Falls (June 29) and Hailey/Ketchum (June 30). Two in Boise and Caldwell already have been held. The commission’s schedule for July evidently hasn’t been worked out or set yet, and may not be until the hearings are done.

There’s always some virtue to hearing from the public, and this mass of meetings should provide more than if the commissioners just stayed in Boise.

At the same time, we’ll be curious to know what the turnout is. Oregon completed its redistricting hearings not so long ago, and turnout ranged from moderate to low. Only a handful of spots led to actual large audiences, over 100 of, say, actual local participants and witnesses. Most of the smaller cities drew far fewer – mainly county commissioners and mayors saying their official piece.

What they have to say in Idaho will be worth watching.

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So far, the recent widespread predictions about the Washington governor’s race 2012 – Republican Rob McKenna in, incumbent Democrat Chris Gregoire out, Democrat Jay Inslee in – are holding up, two for three. And indications are that the third will materialize as well within a few days.

They’re linked. McKenna’s announcement put immediate pressure on Gregoire to clarify her intentions – if she wasn’t running, she had to clear the decks for another Democrat to gear up. That could have come any time in the next few weeks, but maybe the seriousness of McKenna’s candidacy prompted the speed – her announcement today that she will not seek a third term following on his by less than a week.

Don’t expect to be kept long waiting for Inslee, either.

Will there be others? Maybe … but the widespread presumption that this will be the core of the field seems to be having a pretty solid track record so far.

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Jeff Merkley

A couple of months ago Senator Jeff Merkley met with a group of political-writing bloggers (this writer among them) to talk about various subjects. Merkley had one specific topic, though, that he wanted to address: Mortgage reform.

He outlined a half-dozen proposals on mortgage practices, most of which sounded as if they would be good business for banks and other lenders. (His most recent amendment was proposed on Thursday.) Some of them made you wonder, why don’t the banks just do some of those things, absent a law? They can’t benefit, can they, by the fact that houses by the millions are being foreclosed upon, driving down the value of their own assets?

The housing market may not; homeowners may not; but yes, it turns out that many of the lenders can. How?

Read today’s Steve Duin column in the Oregonian, focused on a foreclosure case in which a soldier based in Iraq may return to Bend on leave to … somewhere other than his family’s house, which may have been foreclosed on by then. His father (the owner) has been making payments and thought he was on a loan modification path until he abruptly learned, after paying for months and years in good faith, like so many others, that he wasn’t.

Merkley, has gotten involved in the case: “It has parallel elements to hundreds of stories we’ve heard. Families think they’re involved in modification, then suddenly discover they’re on the path to foreclosure. … This is not an accident.”

How so? Duin: “Many of the worst mortgages are pooled in trusts. The banks are selling securities that bet against those trusts. All too often, everyone but the homeowner gains “if the mortgage is dysfunctional.””

In other words: Your banker may be betting that your loan will fail, and make money if it does; and if it can mislead you, jack you around, withhold or deliver false information so that you lose your home – the bank wins. In the short term. Big picture, of course, the economy and homeowners, and the country, lose.

Merkley has been, from the evidence, pursuing the mortgage legislation steadily, but encountering plenty of resistance. A suggestion here: He (or, more practically, a staffer) should start a daily blog, detailing exactly what is happening with the legislative and from where, exactly, the resistance is coming. This whole area could use a much brighter spotlight, and Merkley would be well positioned to provide it.

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