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Posts published in January 2014

Janus years

idaho RANDY
STAPILUS
 
Idaho

Reviewing the top Idaho news stories of 2013, the Associated Press settled on the big fires of the fall, the monsters that burned and smoked so much of southern and central Idaho, as the biggest. It's a reasonable choice.

The AP may do a repeat at the end of this year. One of the most important factors driving fire ferocity is how much water is on the ground, which depends heavily on how much snowpack developed the previous winter. As 2012 ended (three month's into the standard “water year”), Idaho seemed not to be in bad shape. All but one of its 22 main river basins were running above, mostly well above, the normal precipitation for that time of year – the Salmon River at 126%, for example, the Little Wood at 147%, Henry's Fork at 111%.

At the end of this year, every Idaho basin was running below average, below 100%. The Salmon was at 65%, the Little Wood at 47%, Henry's Fork at 84%. Those are spooky numbers.

The precipitation could still turn around – and Idahoans had better hope it does. If not, Idaho could face not only more really bad fires, maybe a round of fires worse than last year's, but significant drought as well come this summer.

As with water, so with much else: Many of the big stories of last year will have counterparts in 2014. Even the Boise State University football coach transition; from the fans' perspective, definite eras ended last year and will commence next season. And the closing out of the Corrections Corporation of America management of a prison at Boise, which took a turn last year (as the state seemed to move away from private management of the prison it has operated) and is likely to reach its destination this next.

The area of Obamacare and health insurance exchanges will see a real mirror image, since up to this new year, everything was in the realm of preparation and transition, and that was a big story in the last few months. Now the practical effects of the new system come home, and that will have its own distinctive effects, on people's lives and on politics.

And then there's politics, where 2013 was in large part a prep for 2014.

More major candidates than usual announced full-throated campaigns well before 2013 was done, to the point that the shape of many of the major races next year in the state already are startlingly clear. The Tea Party and allied activists used 2013 as a major development period, and the battle for the Idaho Republican Party, between that group and what might be considered mainstream conservatives, is well set in place. At year's end we're set for significant Republican primary contests for a whole range of offices, from at least one congressional seat to governor, secretary of state and likely a good many more. Idaho Democrats too have a number of major candidates lined up.

We can't yet know for sure how this will play out. In recent weeks I've repeatedly asked the question of which side likely will prevail on primary election day May 20 (and we certainly will get an answer then if not before). The overwhelming response I heard was that the Tea forces would fall well short of the mainstreeters, and some pointed to the November election results in Coeur d'Alene and Post Falls as evidence.

They may be right, but there's often a disconnect between downtown Boise and activists outside. We still have months to go between here and there.

Let the tale of 2014 start to spin.

Stories of two wages

oregon
RANDY STAPILUS / Washington

Two directions as to worker benefits were among the top stories of the last couple of weeks in Washington.

One was the SeaTac $15 minimum wage story, which has gone through lots of twists since the ballots were turned in a couple of months ago. It was a close race, finally narrowly passing after close review, and then facing a series of legal challenges. The last challenge resulted in a judge concluding that the SeaTac municipality could not (by virtue of an act of the Washington legislature) dictate much to the area covered by the SeaTac airport, which is where most of the city's workers work. Still, the measure has survived at least in principle, covering some people, and making the declaration that full-time pay ought to equate to a decent standard of living.

Then there's the Boeing machinists agreement, which is a rather different part of the territory.

The workers involved in that dispute and eventual agreement tend to make a lot more than the minimum wage; some reach into six figures. There is this, though: The union members supporting the deal seem to have done so because of concern that had they not, Boeing might have carried through on its not very subtle threat and moved a lot of highly-paid 777 activity out of the Northwest. They were not negotiating in an arms-length fashion, in other words; they were knuckling under to pressure. But only barely, with just 51% in support.

The principle of substantial work wages and benefits may be as strong around the Puget Sound as anywhere in the United States, and these two care are part of the edgy battleground.

Do not expect that as 2014 unfolds, this battleground will remain unvisited. This is some of the most sensitive policy territory people in this country will be considering over the next few years, and Washington seems to be right in the heart of it.

Benefits

oregon
RANDY STAPILUS / Oregon

The idea of a benefits company seems at first like little more than a feel-good deal, except that if emphasis really is eventually put in its terms, and if strong incentives start to develop for their designation, something important could emerge.

The state report on them describes the concept this way: “Benefit Companies enjoy legal protection to create value for society, not just shareholders, while meeting higher standards of accountability and transparency.”

Imagine for a moment that a large portion of the businesses, let's say a lot of the major ones, started to operate under those kind of terms? Suppose they were given strong incentive to pay attention to and operate within the interests of the communities where they do business? Suppose that they way they treat employees, other businesses, customers and the general citizenry has to factor in the interests of those parties – not just the owners of the central business?

Given the way so many national and multinational companies operate today, that sounds like something from a discarded verse of John Lennon's “Imagine.” But it doesn't have to be fantasy. Corporations, in this state and country and in the rest of the world, operate according to rules set up at governmental levels. Suppose strong incentives were brought to bear to require they behave in these ways? How different would our society be?

The new Oregon law on benefits companies is only a micro step in that direction. But it does dare to ask the question.

New Year’s on the beach

140101pacificcity

New Year's was temperate, sunny and not even very windy on the Oregon coast - perfect incentive to draw people from inland out to the water.

Here, people are enjoying a campfire at Pacific City on the night of New Year's, as the holiday season comes toward an end. (photo/Randy Stapilus)

A new minimum?

ridenbaugh Northwest
Reading

Idaho front-page headlines on Day 1 of the new year took note (Idaho Statesman, Idaho Press Tribune, Idaho State Journal) of the group trying to raise the Idaho minimum wage to $9.80 an hour. The deadline for getting petition signatures is April 30.

The Raise Idaho backers, who include Anne Nesse of Coeur d'Alene, point out that Idaho has the most minimum-wage jobs, per capita, of any state.

There will be heavy pushback on this. Although the initiative process operates outside the legislative, look for a legislative reaction - one that's not, of course, in favor of the initiative.