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Posts published in March 2012

Whimper

A week ago, maybe a bit more, the Idaho Legislature was poised on the brink of ending its session this year with one of the most explosive legislative debates it has ever seen. It didn't do that. The bill that might have provoked the response, a measure mandating an ultrasound procedure in the case of abortions, was shelved just as opposition to it was ramping up on a national level.

Instead, maybe the most most striking thing that happened as legislators prepared to split town was a photo op, of all the legislators who would not be back - because of their own decision to opt out - next session. (At least, not to the same chamber; some at least are highly likely to return to the other one.) And the number of out-opters is unusually large this year. There will be a lot of new legislators next time regardless how the elections go.

For many people this may have given the sense and feel of transition, of a major change between the legislature that has been and the one that is to come. It is likely an over-estimable feeling. The larger probability is that next session will be a lot like this one, maybe a little more so.

Those Republican legislators who pulled the ultrasound bill back from what would have been likely passage in the House made a smart decision on the politics. Has it gone forward, the eruption that just had begun in the days before would have built to truly major levels, which would have roared through whatever period the governor took to decide whether to sign or veto. Instead, a relative quiet reigned, and the large-scale organizing that might have happened will be, however much it amounts to, smaller than it would have been.

Democrats have positioned themselves this year better, with a larger roster of candidates, for legislative contests than in a long time. They will be running in a presidential year, though, which doesn't help them in Idaho. Will they make gains? Maybe; as matters sit at the moment, you might even say probably. But unless conditions change, they're unlikely to make truly major changes in the legislature.

What's a little easier to predict is this: The Republican caucuses which will arrive at the Statehouse in December, which are nearly certain to be back in control, will be more unilaterally hard-core conservative than those leaving the building this week. A long string of moderates - most of whom would have been described by themselves and others as "conservative" not long ago - are among the opt-outs. And the Senate, which has been an occasional block against the more hard-core legislation from the House, is likely next session to look a lot more like their colleagues on the other side of the rotunda.

This session is likely, in other words, to be a preface for the session of 2013. It will be another step in the pattern that has recurred for a decade or so now, edging ever further, bit by bit, toward the horizon ...

Ruckelshaus remembers

Anyone who continues to wallow in - or even remembers - Watergate, will be fascinated to read a piece just up on Crosscut, a short memoir (adaptation of a speech) by William Ruckelshaus, the first director of the Enmvironmental Protection Agency under Richard Nixon, and briefly a central figure in the Watergate scandal. Ruckelshaus, though, was one of the small number involved in it to emerge with his reputation intact. He may be best known today for his decision to quit a high position in the federal government rather than take an action he believe was wrong; he fair mark of actual integrity.

Ruckelshaus has lived and practiced law in Seattle since the mid-70s.

The article is a little long but well worth the read.

Rebrewing tea in Clackamas

Clackamas County, Oregon's third largest and politically overall fairly centrist, wouldn't seem to be a likely prospect for heavy duty Tea Party action at this point in this cycle - after the group seems to have been devolving for more than a year, and in a state where it got less traction than in many.

But, there's this e-mail from Dave Hunt, the state legislator running for chair of the Clackamas County commissioner:

"One Tea Party-esque PAC (the so-called Oregon Transformation PAC led by anti-schools activist Rob Kremer) has dumped over $39,000 into my primary opponent's campaign to try to buy this election! Please stand with me in sending the message that Clackamas County is not for sale!"

Noted, of course, that this is tea-"esque," and that it's included in a fundraising email.

In February, the Oregonian noted that "The Oregon Transformation Project PAC -- a group financed largely by Stimson Lumber Company -- just contributed $25,000 to the chairmanship campaign of John Ludlow, the former Wilsonville mayor." So this isn't strictly new, and it's only a part of what the group has raised - $175,000 so far. If the agenda isn't some brew of tea, what is it?

Carlson: ACA is here to stay

carlson
Chris Carlson
Carlson Chronicles

Let me tell you a story that illustrates why, even with its unconstitutional mandate that everyone participate, the health reform act is here to stay regardless of who becomes president.

In the fall of 2006, I was laying on my gurney at Salt Lake City’s University of Utah Hospital adjacent to the Huntsman Cancer Center where I was being treated for late Stage IV neuroendocrine carcinoid cancer. Having been diagnosed in November of 2005, I already had survived longer than the six months I’d been given.

I was getting ready to undergo my fifth chemo procedure wherein the interventional radiologist enters one’s femoral artery with a thin flexible device and guides it to one’s liver where the chemicals are placed on the lesions.

This fifth procedure, unlike the first four, was considered “experimental” but had been approved by my insurance carrier. Radioactive pellets of Yrtrium-90 were that day being flown in from Australia to be placed on the remnants of the shattered lesions in the hope the pellets, with a half life of a couple of weeks, would kill the remaining cancer cells. The procedure cost about $80,000 and for two weeks I would literally be one hot dude.

Fortunately, the flight home to Spokane was only 90 minutes for I was not supposed to sit close to anyone for more than two hours, could not hold children or pets for two weeks, and had to sleep in a separate room from my spouse.

We had a few moments before they administered the sedative that would keep me semi-conscious through the five-hour procedure and we started talking about the procedure.

The doctor casually mentioned how fortunate I was my insurance company had approved the procedure. He had another patient who would benefit from this same procedure, but her insurance carrier would not approve it. She was a young mother in her early 30’s with four children. But for the cancer, she had many years of life ahead of her.

Here I was entering my 60s, much of my productive life behind me, and our four children self-sufficient adults long gone from the home. Life is not fair, but that’s not a good answer. For me, the experimental procedure obviously played a significant role in rendering my cancer dormant for an extended period. One is never cured -- ultimately it returns and is always fatal -- but life also is a terminal condition.

It’s all relative, though, and I often have thought of that faceless young mother who I suspect long ago died. Why I was a lucky one and she wasn’t? If there had been any sort of “death panel” as Sarah Palin infamously and falsely charged about the health reform act, objective criteria would have placed the young mother in line ahead of me.

“Obamacare,” as it is infamously called by its critics, is not about rationing an ever more costly health care system. At its core lay two key concepts: Insurance companies cannot refuse coverage for pre-existing conditions and access to money is not going to determine who lives or dies -- everyone has access to care and everyone pays something. (more…)

Mendiola: Tough times in construction

This is a report by Mark Mendiola, a Pocatello journalist, taking a look at what the drop in eastern Idaho home sales has meant in that area.

Dave Fredrickson and his son Shane, 28, have barely survived a slump in home sales and a sharp downturn in new housing construction in Bannock County that have forced droves of Pocatello-area real estate agents and building contractors out of business since 2008.

New home sales in Bannock County have steadily declined the past six years, dropping from 129 in 2005 to 27 in 2011. “That’s the lowest in more than seven years,” Dave Fredrickson says.

Total single family home sales during that period fell from 1,199 to 684, according to statistics compiled by Greg Johnston of Home Specialists Real Estate Company.

Most of the new home construction has been in Chubbuck, Fredrickson says, but that has declined from 282 in 2006 to 22 in 2011. So far in 2012, five new houses have been built in Chubbuck, next to Pocatello.

Frederickson
Dave Fredrickson, left, and his son Shane recently completed construction work on five houses on the south end of Pocatello. (photo/Mark Mendiola)

The Fredricksons, partners in “Memory Builders” since 2009, recently completed constructing five new houses for a Jason Street residential development on Pocatello’s south end, which included curb, gutter, sidewalks, all utilities and a storm water drain system.

Memory Builders was general contractor and project manager on the Kahni Newe’ housing community project for Northwestern Shoshones – a U.S. Housing and Urban Development (HUD) 184 project that took 10 months to complete, starting in September 2010.

“We’ve been six months waiting for our full payout,” Dave Fredrickson says, blaming the delay on bureaucrats failing to authorize Zions Bank to make the payment despite the submission of full documentation.

He says a government requirement for the project’s storm water drain system unnecessarily added more than $25,000 to the project’s cost or about $5,000 per house when the same could have been accomplished for less expense.

Fredrickson says enactment of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act unduly restricts the ability of banks and other financial institutions to make loans, dashing hopes among housing contractors that financing for construction would loosen up.

“Until Dodd-Frank is repealed, it’s going to be a struggle to get construction back to where it should be,” he says, noting there is a large pent-up demand for new houses to be constructed in Bannock County, but lending requirements are much too strict.

The president of a large bank reportedly said his company had to hire 100 lawyers to ensure it was not violating Dodd-Frank, “but what do small banks do?” he asks.

Shane Fredrickson adds: “They can’t seem to find a happy medium. It’s either too loose or too tight. The banks should be smart about it in the first place and not have to worry about the federal government interfering.”

Kim Weber, vice president and manager of the local D.L. Evans Bank, says his bank has been more receptive the past six months to lending on presold or owner-built projects. It also would consider a “spec” project (built to specifications) for the right builder.

“I have done three to four presold construction projects in the last nine months. I have not seen any interest at all by builders to construct spec houses. Of course, the builder's financial strength would be key in our assessment of a spec home project,” Weber says. (more…)

In the Digests

In what might have been a quiet political week, some political uproar, in Washington and Oregon at least. In Washington, Representative Jay Inslee resigned to become (full time) gubernatorial candidate Inslee. The Washington legislature continued with its squabbles over the budget.

But those aroused less emotion than the squabbles in the Idaho Legislature over an abortion ultrasound bill, which the Senate passed and sent to the House, which at first seemed likely to pass it as well. Then a committee hearing on it was abruptly canceled, and the bill looked as if it might be held in committee. Meanwhile, the legislature moved toward adjournment, likely this week.

More in the Washington, Oregon and Idaho Briefings.

A whimper or a bang?

The Idaho Legislature seems likely to adjourn for the year this week, but under what circumstances remains a little unclear. The choice is the legislators', and in the heat that typically accompanies adjournment, they could go either way.

One way was suggested in an Idaho Statesman piece today by Dan Popkey, the web headline being "1990 battle easily eclipses 2012 ultrasound fracas." It makes some useful points, implicitly (not explicitly) including this one: Conditions surrounding the 1990 protests over the abortion bill passed that year by the Legislature, and then vetoed by Governor Cecil Andrus, aren't exactly the same as what has materialized so far over this year's abortion ultrasound bill.

Reading the story, though, there's the temptation to toss in a lot of qualifying concerns.

The big one is this: We don't yet know what the legislative outcome of this year's hot bill, Senate Bill 1387, will be. Popkey sounds fairly certain that 1387 is dead. (A House committee heading for the Senate-passed bill was scheduled and then swiftly cancelled last week.) Maybe; and if so, then legislative Republicans certainly will have cut what would have been larger losses that would have resulted from passing it. From this vantage, though, that bill (like so many others) will be considered dead only once the session is adjourned for the year. It undoubtedly has plenty of support in the Idaho House, and if it gets on the floor it has a decent chance of passage. Meanwhile, any number of serious Republican strategists right now probably are trying to figure out how to make adjournment (without a floor vote) happen as fast as possible. This is a case for holding your breath and seeing what happens.

The situation could get a lot more explosive, quickly, if the House does pass it. And if it did, what would Governor C.L. "Butch" Otter do? The protests at the Statehouse in 1990 many observers from that time (your scribe included) remember well, peaked as Andrus held the bill and waited to deliver his response to it. The same could happen in this case.

And this: If the bill passed and Otter signed it, the response could be truly explosive; remember that the 1990 abortion bill was vetoed and never actually went into effect.

When you read the story and think about the large crowds, generally larger than this year, of 1990, remember that abortion legislation then was developed over a period of weeks and months before well-advertised hearings and long-running news reports and commentary over a wide range of options and a whole shelf of bill proposals. It was very different from this year, when a single and relatively simple bill option was dumped in the hopper toward the end of this year's session, with far less public involvement than the 1990 abortion bill had.

Whatever happens to the bill this week, two other more general factors also are different from 1990.

One is the national environment. In 1990, Idaho was one of several states where abortion legislation was active, but that activity was on a far smaller scale than this year, and the social environment surrounding gender and women's health and related subject is a lot different. In 1990, abortion bill 625 was a relative stand-alone; in this year, 1387 fits into a narrative. (That it why it may not simply recede into the mists entirely even if it does die in House committee this week.)

The second is the technological environment. 1990 was only 22 years ago, but back then there was no popularized e-mail, or web, or social media. No Facebook. No Twitter. (One former legislator quoted in Popkey's article compared this year's protests as a "flash mob" next to 1990's; it seems telling that the concept of a flash mob didn't exist in 1990.) Structurally, communicatively, our politics are different now. So, likely, will be whatever fallout we see from this debate.

What that means for elections this year is another matter. It may not see much change at all. (The structure of Idaho politics has been remarkably resistant to major change for a couple of decades now.) But we'll wait a bit longer before drawing many more conclusions about that.

A WA view on the Affordable Care Act

While the legal battles go on, the second year mark after passage of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare?) is also only about halfway through the process of its rollout.

Washington Insurance Commissioner Mike Kriedler had this comment on it, worth running here at length:

The Affordable Care Act’s most controversial component – the mandate requiring everyone to have health insurance – is two years out. But two years after the law’s enactment, many Washington consumers are benefitting from less contentious reforms.

“The Affordable Care Act’s individual mandate gets most of the attention, but it shouldn’t overshadow the success stories of the early reforms,” said Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler. “By far the most popular benefit of health reform that we hear about is the ability for parents to keep their adult kids on their health plans – especially in today’s economy – and there are many more.”

Washington consumers benefitting from the Affordable Care Act’s early reforms include:

More than 2.4 million people who no longer face lifetime caps on their health benefits.
More than 52,000 young adults up to age 26 who have stayed on their parents’ health plans.
More than 1.2 million people who now have coverage for preventive care with no co-pays or deductibles.
More than 60,000 people in Medicare who have saved hundreds on their prescription drugs.
Other reforms in force thanks to federal funds available under the Affordable Care Act include:

Creating public access to health insurance rate requests.
Establishing a new marketplace in Washington state for health insurance in 2014 – called an exchange – where people can shop for health plans, compare their options and apply for subsidies.
“If the opponents of health reform succeed in overturning the new law, what will they say to the nearly one million people in Washington without health insurance who get up every day hoping they don’t have a medical emergency?” said Kreidler. “The Affordable Care Act is not perfect, but it moves us in the right direction and is the only meaningful health reform that’s passed in decades.”

Kreidler added that most people in our state – 85 percent – already have health insurance and won’t be impacted by the individual mandate. And of those who are uninsured, 85 percent will qualify for either Medicaid or subsidies to purchase coverage in the new health exchange.

Additional reforms taking effect later this year:

Beginning Aug. 1, all health plans must cover free well visits, contraceptives, and other preventive services for women.
After Sept. 23, all health plans must provide consumers with easy to understand description of their coverage including deductibles, co-pays, as well as costs for using in-network and out-of-network medical services.

It’s over when it’s over

One of the best lobbyists Idaho has ever seen was asked some years back for the secrets of his success, and one of them was this: Don't give up on a bill, don't consider it dead, until the session is done. And then, it's only dead for the session. An advisory worth remembering ...

Last night, Idaho House Republicans held a caucus to consider what to do about the ticking bomb tossed into their laps from the Senate - Senate Bill 1387, the abortion ultrasound bill that has abruptly become a national news topic. A hearing in the House State Affairs Committee was scheduled for the next morning. Out of the caucus meeting came this decision: The hearing was cancelled, off the agenda. Under usual circumstances, that might mean the bill had reached its end, since legislators are talking about adjourning the session next week.

This morning, as word of that spread, the bill's many critics, who have developed a political firestorm in Idaho and beyond over the last week, seemed to explode with joy: We won!

A word of caution: It's not dead till the session is adjourned, and then only until the next session.

Dennis Mansfield, who has some years in the trenches on abortion-related legislation at the Idaho Legislature, writes this today at his blog: "I may be in error, but the legislative response of halting the proposed House hearing on the bill, now being reported by the national press, may well be a tactical time-out rather than a strategic stop. The national press will go home. And the Idaho House of Representatives will also prepare to go home. But my call is that prior to the close of the session the House will quickly take up the matter, pass it and let the Dem's in the House and Senate bear the weight of this bill at the polls."

He may be right. A bill can be passed in minutes, even on the day of final adjournment, if the votes are there to pass it, and the desire among Republican members of the Idaho House is probably quite strong.

Assume nothing.

Theory brought to life

In Curry County, in Oregon's far southwestern corner, political rhetoric could soon spring into actual life.

Curry is a long way from the Portland area, geographically and philosophically. Coincident with its influx of retirees from California, it is one of Oregon's most anti-tax counties, and its property taxes are among the lowest in the state. For decades, the county budget has been pumped considerably by federal forest funds, the money alloted to counties in place of property taxes that the federal government doesn't pay on its properties, which are large in Curry (as in much of Oregon, and the Northwest).

But those funds have been faltering, and are likely to vanish entirely before long. The county budget has gotten tighter and tighter.

In political theory, some theory at least, this should be a plus. You hear about lower taxes being better, ever-smaller government being the goal, the less the better - there being no specific floor? In Curry County that rhetoric is more than just talk: It is playing out in real time.

From the Curry Coastal Pilot: "... officials are planning to continue operating at the current level through November, then shutting down at the end of November if additional funds are not found." When one county commissioner asked for which county departments they should seek state help - that would be the state that is also in a tight budget squeeze - the answer was: "All of them. “Who are we kidding? We don’t have enough money to run any of them.”

That could mean shutdown of the sheriff's office and jail, no taking of county records - no records of property transactions, among many other things.

Unless the county residents reverse traditional course and raise their taxes. (A number of options, even local sales tax, are on the table.)

But hey, the experiment might be interesting, although the people of Curry County would have to pay a steep price to learn some hard lessons about rhetoric and reality.