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Posts published in June 2015

A More Perfect Union

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Recent events and the upcoming 4th of July holiday should cause those following current events to focus attention on the word “union.” The United States Supreme Court, by an historic and precedent setting 5-4 decision, has now ruled that “union” in the context of state recognized marriage includes a “union” of same-sex couples who pledge fidelity and love to each other is legally on par with heterosexual couples pledging the same.

This virtually guarantees that the matter will be a major topic during the 2016 presidential cycle.

The other event creating debate centered, whether one recognizes it or not, on the concept of “union” is the debate around the display of the Confederate “Stars and Bars” flag and has come back to the forefront of the news because of the awful racially-motivated murder of nine Americans at an historic Black church in Charleston, South Carolina.

America’s incredibly bloody Civil War was not just about eliminating slavery and emancipating African-Americans, it was also about preserving the “union” of states. It is no accident that northern forces were most often referred to as “union” troops. Abraham Lincoln is considered the greatest of our presidents because he both preserved the union and emancipated the slaves.

Display of the Confederate flag is covered by “free speech” guaranteed in the Constitution but that does not make it any less offensive to millions of Americans who rightly also see it as a symbol of state’s rights, and the concepts of secession and nullification.

For whatever reason the state of South Carolina and South Carolinians have historically been the greatest proponents of the belief that state’s rights trump federal law. Its no coincidence that it was the first state to try to secede and that the Civil War began with South Carolinians bombarding the union fort in Charleston harbor.

As Americans approach the great national holiday celebrating independence it might behoove all to recall the great words of Massachusetts Senator Daniel Webster in 1830, who rose on the Senate floor to reply to South Carolina Senator Robert Haynes, who previously had advanced the notion that a state could nullify a federal law it did not agree with.

In closing his historic speech Webster turned to the notion of “union,” reminding his listeners that the Constitution’s first words were “We the people, not “we the states,” in order to form a more perfect UNION, hold these truths to be self-evident. . . that all are created EQUAL (the 14th amendment springs from this notion).

Our forefathers chose their words deliberately and carefully. In doing so they formed the most viable democracy the world has ever seen. It has survived because its founding principles and its founding statements radiate vitality in all times and ages, that they are in fact dynamic, on-going living documents. Our democracy should always be a work in progress as we strive for a more perfect union and more perfect unions.

Let Senator Webster’s words speak for themselves and please ponder while having a safe and happy 4th of July. On January 26, 1830, Webster closed his rebuttal to Senator Haynes with these words:

“When my eyes shall be turned for the last time on the meridian sun, I hope I may see him shining brightly upon my united, free and happy Country. I hope I shall not live to see his beams falling upon the dispersed fragments of the structure of this once glorious Union. I hope I may not see the flag of my Country, with its stars separated or obliterated, torn by commotion, smoking with the blood of civil war. I hope I may not see the standard raised of separate states rights, star against star and stripe against stripe; but that the flag of the Union may keep its stars and its stripes corded and bound together in indisoluble ties. I hope I shall not see written, as its motto, first liberty and then Union. I hope I shall see no such delusion, and deluded motto on the flag of that Country. I hope to see spread all over it, blazoned in letters of light, and proudly floating over Land and Sea that other sentiment, dear to my heart, “Union and Liberty, now and forever, one and inseparable.” Amen, Senator.

First Take

The Los Angeles Times today runs a fine scene-setting story from inside the National Interagency Fire Center at Boise, as tension slowly rises and staff look closely at the development of wildfires around the west. It reports: "On this morning, the picture isn't pretty. It's ominous in a hold-on-to-your-seat way that casts a pall over two dozen fire analysts, meteorologists and forest experts. They see a growing scourge of fierce yellow and red dots, each representing a new fire, and they furrow their brows." At the moment, most of the fires are in Alaska and California. But that will change. (photo/BLM, as used in the LA Times)

Eugene has spent a long time working on a replacement for its old and somewhat revered Civic Stadium - it has routinely provided front page headlines for months. Now, yesterday, it burned down, a total loss. The stadium had been run by Eugene city and the local school district; a private local alliance planned to renovate it. Eugene is in shock.

The week that was

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In one week. The Affordable Care Act is upheld by the nation’s highest court - in the process assuring more frantic right wing attacks to end its life-saving existence. The same court then cast aside unconstitutional - and poorly argued - barriers to universal marriage. And the Confederate flag - long regarded as a defining symbol for 13 states in our nation - is suddenly being swept into the dust bin of history as an icon of slavery.

In a week!

It would be hard to find a single period in the last 100 or so years in which so much of the basic societal tapestry of this country was so drastically altered. In one week!

Then the inspirational coda: America’s first Black president, in the pulpit of a Black church that had been tragically assaulted, summing up those days - and that deadly assault - in 35-minutes of classic oratory, climaxed by his breaking into song and leading the congregation - and much of the nation - in the classic hymn “Amazing Grace.”

Others, with a better grasp of the English language than mine, are struggling to recap the historic political, legal, social and racial meaning(s) of all this. I wish them well. The after-effects will linger for a long, long time as they reflect and attempt to define.

One of the facets of all this capturing my attention has been watching reactions to both those whose causes have been vindicated or upheld and those who’ve seen their opposition to all this overridden legally and morally.

In a general sense, the vindicated have been happy, ecstatic, joyful, prayerful and - above all - gracious. Those in the first person, who’ve had their lives and social conditions changed for the better, have generally not been angry or expressed vindictiveness or scorn for either the process or for those who forced them into our courts for relief.

The same cannot be said for many of those who found little support for their views in our highest court. Among our Republican presidential aspirants, for example, Bush and Rubio came closest to a civilized response, expressing anger and disappointment while admitting laws of the land had been changed in proper and accepted ways; the nation needs to adjust and move on.

But Mike Huckabee - the only ordained minister and “man of God” among the GOP presidential contenders - spoke for many of his supporters and those of other candidates in a totally unfounded way regarding the gay marriage ruling. Said the “pastor:” “This flawed, failed decision is an out-of-control act of unconstitutional judicial tyranny.” Vindictive. Angry. Scorn-filled. Wrong.

Time was, you took your issue to the courts, argued your best case, presented your best evidence and placed that issue in the hands of a judge or judges. The outcome, whatever it was, was the outcome. You either accepted it and went on your way or you regrouped and began your judicial journey again, hoping for a different verdict. You did not reject the decision and you did not insult those who decided it. Now, we have elected officials urging people to “ignore” or “pick-and-chose” which laws/decisions to obey and which to disregard. Wrong headed. Dangerous. No nation - no society - can exist when laws become “suggestions” or are ignored because someone doesn’t agree.

In a most basic way, the U.S. Supreme Court exists for a single purpose: to measure issues before it to the justices’ interpretation of the U.S. Constitution. Justices aren’t tyrants. They aren’t “out-of-control.” Their decisions - whether you agree or not - are not failures despite whether your argument prevailed or lost. Those decisions are deemed to be the legal application of the Constitution by the court and are not “unconstitutional” unless subsequently proven so in another case.

Huckabee is not the problem. But he certainly is symptomatic of the way things political have been conducted in this country for too long. One group - usually Democrat - trying to do something which the other group - usually Republican - has attempted to stop the issue under discussion. In the case of the Affordable Care Act - most of which has been upheld twice now by SCOTUS and victorious over more than 50 failed legislative challenges - Republicans have not offered a version of their own. Not one. But Speaker Boehner says the efforts to eradicate ACA laws will continue. So much for acceptance.

As for the gay marriage decision, many GOP governors are telling state officials to either ignore the SCOTUS finding or not honor it by not issuing licenses until new state laws (doomed to ultimately fail) can be written and enacted. One governor even says he’ll introduce legislation to stop ALL marriages in his state. Acceptance? Gracious? Scorn!

Republicans nationally are slipping into a posture of irrelevance in politics. The courts - the demographics - the country - are changing. Foot dragging, obstinance, unrestrained opposition, angry epithets, unsubstantiated challenges to our legal system, futile efforts to swim against the tide of public opinion of reasonable gun laws, immigration and other issues will assure reduced GOP influence on this country’s direction. All of that is confirmed by overwhelming evidence.

Quietly looking back, that presidential coda to the week’s nation-changing events seemed to have even more relevance far beyond the walls of a South Carolina church than a local eulogy for a local pastor. In an often plain-spoken way - in an often soaring use of the English language - the President tied all these events of joy, anger, sorrow and tragedy into a tapestry of acceptance and hope this country has rarely seen.

Whatever your politics - whatever your personal beliefs - whatever your religion - whatever your ethnicity or race - if you haven’t heard the President’s words - all the President’s words - please search the I-net for the Pinckney eulogy. Set aside your worldly joys and concerns for 35 minutes. Watch. Listen.

The massive change our society has undergone in recent days is reason enough to take the time. Trying to understand what all this change means for the future makes it absolutely essential.

First Take

Try to wrap your mind around 20 million bees, and how you would deal with that if they were unleashed in your neighborhood. That happened over the last few days in two places in Idaho, far apart from each other, one at Coeur d'Alene and the other not far from Idaho Falls, when in each case a truck transporting massive numbers of bees tipped over. The operators said they were swerving the avoid another vehicle. (Kind of a remarkable coincidence, no?) The location for the release at Idaho Falls may have been almost optimal, at least as far as human interaction with the bees was concerned: It was out on the desert, at Idaho National Laboratory country, far from residential centers. The release at Coeur d'Alene was in a major residential area, leading authorities to urge people to stay indoors. People in these areas need some luck - but so do the bees, which have been seeing disappearing colonies in recent years (hence the reason for trucking them from place to place). Let's hope these don't become among the disappeared.

Disagree, don’t ignore

From a Facebook post by Duff McKee, a former 4th district judge in Idaho.

A court decision of significance will invariably disappoint some and delight others. Usually, the more delighted the winner is, the more upset the loser becomes. It is not uncommon for losers to blame the judge.

The marriage equality decision by our highest court demonstrates the phenomena. The teapots and extreme evangelicals are noisily rising up to complain, as expected. One theme of their rumble is that it’s all the courts’ fault; the courts have gone off on excursions of their own, changing laws at will, ignoring the will of people, tearing up valid legislation, etc. The noise is, by and large, hyperbolic, extreme, and historically wrong, but we have come to expect this from the more radical divisions within our society. It’s within the penumbra of tolerable free speech.

But there is also a line of critical remarks about the courts swirling around the marriage equality decision that is different from the normal rumble of losers’ gripes.

These are the comments to the effect that one should just ignore judicial decisions that one disagrees with, or that those in power are not obligated to follow a decision that they choose not to, or that states remain able to enact their own laws contrary to rulings of the high court. These remarks are not just disturbing, they are appalling – because these remarks are coming from men who are currently seeking to become President of the United States. It makes one shudder.

The inspired magnificence of our Constitution is in the balance it imposes upon the government. Integral to this balance is the existence of an independent judiciary with the right and the duty to examine the acts of government to ensure the actions are within the boundaries of the Constitution, properly express the will of the majority, and do not trample upon the rights of the minority. While we believe the will of the majority should, and does, overwhelmingly guide our affairs in almost every facet of our lives, we believe with equal fervor that the government should not trample upon the rights of the minority.

The guardian of all these concerns throughout history has been, and is, judicial review by an independent judiciary. This is the essence that has been part of our heritage since the very earliest days of our government. Marbury v Madison, decided in 1803, was not a startling new proposition, but was merely the first case of judicial review to reach the high court.

To complain that the high court in the marriage equality decision has just recently usurped unto itself the power to interfere, and that this somehow takes away from the inherent authority of the Congress or of the several states, is to display a fundamental lack of understanding of how our government works, but it is a just complaint. To even suggest that it would be appropriate for those in power to simply ignore such a decision of the high court is not only dangerously stupid, it is plain treachery.

First Take

When I moved to Oregon, some of my friends in Idaho said I'd soon get disgusted at the no-self-serve gas stations - the state law that bans self-serve. It's turned out not to be much of a nuisance at all. Never mind that it actually has been plenty popular in the state; voters repeatedly have rejected proposals to end the requirement, which Oregon shares only with New Jersey. Now, however, it will be eased back a bit, at least in rural areas at night. Here's a press release on it from Representative Cliff Bentz of Ontario, who as the legislator living furthest from Salem has surely had to deal with his share of nighttime fillups.

House Bill 3011, brought by Representative Cliff Bentz (R-Ontario), has passed the House, Senate, and was signed into law by Governor Kate Brown last week. The bill allows Oregonians to "self-serve" gasoline at rural gas stations between the hours of 6:00 p.m. and 6:00 a.m.

Rep. Bentz said: "This is a good day for those who find themselves low on gas in remote parts of Oregon late at night. No longer will they have to wait until the next day for a station to open. Instead, they will be able to serve themselves at those gas stations which choose to install self-serve pumps."

The bill addresses the all too common occurrence in Eastern Oregon, where hundreds of miles can separate gas stations, many of which do not stay open 24-hours per day. Travelers driving across the vast spaces of Eastern Oregon who are unfamiliar with long distances between stations and the fact that gas is not available 24/7 in many of Eastern Oregon's small towns, can become stranded, having to wait until a station opens in the morning.

"Gas station owners, and sometimes ranchers and farmers, are awakened by stranded travellers pounding on their doors in the middle of the night to come out and pump gas," said Rep. Bentz.

The bill applies to only those counties with a population of less than 40,000 people.

I doubt there'll be much blowback from the voters. - rs

What the land’s for

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The criticism was on target this spring when word got out that trustees for the College of Western Idaho had bought a large chunk of land near downtown Boise (largely an empty lot at present) with the idea of expanding operations on to it. The critics pointed out that no proper appraisal of the land’s value was done, and the college seems to have greatly overpaid for it.

The board’s chair, Mary Niland, argued afterward that the college didn’t overpay but, “If I had it to do all over again, I would have looked at the tax assessment and would have asked for the appraisal,” the Idaho Statesman quoted her as saying. “All I can tell you is we didn’t think about it. It was a mistake, and we are accountable for that.”

The lack of appraisal was a legitimate complaint, one the institution apparently will have a chance to correct next time around. That may be near-term, since last week came reports the college is planning to buy 32.5 acres north of its campus at Nampa, for $815,000. The deal was supposed to be done by early July.

Prices and process aside, these two land purchases – and the developments apparently slated to follow – suggest something significant that hasn’t gotten a tremendous amount of attention yet: The explosive growth of the College of Western Idaho.

For many years, the Boise metro area was either the largest or one of the largest metro areas in the nation without a general-purpose community college. That absence wasn’t discussed a whole lot, and for a long time there was little push to create one. That’s bearing in mind that what’s now Boise State University effective was a community college for many years before it became a university in 1974. Not for another 30 years would a serious effort (based partly around a push by BSU President Robert Kustra) be made to set up a new community college in Idaho’s population center.

In 2007 voters in Ada and Canyon counties passed a ballot measure setting up a community college district in the area. Probably underestimating the effort involved in establishing a new college, the plan was made to open it just two years later. The first CWI president who oversaw that effort, Dennis Griffin, wrote about it in a book called From Scratch, who told about just how difficult it was to get it up and running in time. Disclosure: I published that book through Ridenbaugh Press.

On opening, the college was expected to enroll 1,700 students. It got 1,208, which led to the inevitable headlines about how it missed its target.

A few years after that, while talking to Griffin (he had retired as president by then), he threw out the idea that CWI might one day have as many as 50,000 students. A third person drinking coffee with us laughed and said he doubted it. I said that I didn’t.

I’ll hold to that view. In the fall of 2013, CWI's enrollment was 19,861 with 9,204 credit students and 10,657 students taking non-credit courses.

The fall 2014 enrollment rose to 20,697, almost evenly divided between credit and non-credit students, about two-thirds part-time. It awarded 1,260 degrees.

These are large and fast-growing numbers and, it turns out, indicative of how much Boise really did need a community college. An enrollment of 50,000 doesn’t seem so far off for one day, considering the rate of growth.

And while the trustees should be adhering to take care and watch the dollars when they buy land and construct buildings, it demonstrates clearing the need to keep doing those things.

First Take

Probably the most immediate and necessary task for the Oregon Legislature this year, aside from the regular work on budget and finance, has been developing state law to fill in gaps from last year's passage of the initiative legalizing marijuana (under state law). Opinions varied widely about how to deal with it - some wanted the voters' decision overturned as much as possible, others would have wanted it loosened further - but now the legislature seems to have settled on its approach. (It is not all the way through the legislature, but it has passed the key committee designing the measure, and seems to broad support.)

And it seems to be, overall, a mid-level proposal, broadly in concert with what the 2014 initiative contemplated. Some sections were changed not at all, such as the provision allowing people to grow up to four plants at their residences. It sets some commercial limits on grows, and some other limitations. Recognizing the differences in attitude toward pot around the state, it varied the rules on allowing commercial pot activity different for places that supported or opposed (by more than 55% negative vote) legalization. It seems designed, really, to minimize very strong opposition to the new regime.

There are glitches. Senator Floyd Prozanski, an attorney from Eugene, cautioned that “We’re setting up a system where we’ll have a three-month period ... with illegal sales to people who can legally posses recreational” marijuana. More glitches probably will be found, and have to be fixed.

Still, probably not a bad place to start.

A contamination history

A guest opinion from Tami Thatcher, who has written frequently in recent years about the Idaho National Laboratory and related nuclear industry issues. She said that she "was a nuclear safety analyst at INL for several years. . ..and then “graduated” in 2005. It’s a long story. Since 2005, I have provided contractor work for the INL, Keep Yellowstone Nuclear Free, and Environmental Defense Institute of tiny Troy Idaho where many of my articles are posted."

I have been trying to piece together the history of radionuclide and chemical contamination of drinking water at the Idaho National Laboratory. US Geological Survey reports and data fill in much of the history of what was monitored since 1949.

State regulation of drinking water laws began to permeate INL in the late 1980s. INL contractors now perform the INL drinking water monitoring.

I visited the Idaho Department of Environmental Quality to see the data. What I discovered was that IDEQ does not collect or post online the radionuclide data for INL drinking water, only the chemical data.

In 1995, the IDEQ granted the DOE’s request to no longer provide radionuclide drinking water results.

Few people know that the radionuclide results for INL drinking water are not available at IDEQ or the site annual environmental monitoring reports.

The DOE’s own lax limits were 100 times more permissive than current federal drinking water limits. DOE and USGS reports that did disclose highlights of the contamination often emphasized that more permissive federal limits would soon be enacted. But they weren’t.

IDEQ ceased oversight of radionuclides in INL drinking water at a time when radionuclide levels remained at or near the federal limit. A legal loophole for non-community wells means the radionuclide contaminants are not regulated by the state.

A comprehensive review of chronically contaminated historical INL drinking water does not exist. The contamination has yet to be acknowledged in National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health’s (NIOSH) energy worker compensation dose reconstruction or epidemiology studies. The energy worker compensation law enacted in 2000 has paid out about $200 million in INL claims, but NIOSH does not disclose when or which facilities exposed the workers.

Brain tumors, leukemia and lymphatic cancers were found to be elevated in INL workers regardless of their recorded dose and whether or not they were radiation workers.

In the past, workers at INL’s Central Facilities Area were drinking up to five times the federal drinking water limit for tritium, 70 percent of the limit for iodine-129, and a host of other contaminants for decades. Drinking water wells at other INL facilities were also contaminated.

The full extent of Snake River Plain aquifer contamination from reactor operation, fuel tests, nuclear fuel reprocessing and waste burial remains obscured behind overly simplistic presentations that promote the idea that as long as current contamination levels don’t exceed federal limits, there’s no reason for concern.

There are serious radioactive omissions when it comes to describing current and historical drinking water contaminants at the Idaho National Laboratory.

Piecing together the full picture of all historical INL drinking water contaminants would require filling in those not monitored but later discovered to have been present.

Former workers (and their children) may wonder what they were exposed to. When weighing the benefits of future operations at INL, the public needs access to the full story of INL’s past and current contaminated drinking water.

First Take

And that's that. The practical legal questions around same-gender marriage are now pretty much done; the Supreme Court has ruled flatly that the terms of the Constitution simply provide that, under the law, sexual orientation isn't a bar to marriage.

That was probably going to happen regardless; the trendline was moving steadily in that direction. A clear majority of the population of the United States is now in favor, as is a very strong majority of younger voters. many of the states that now have same-sex marriage owing to court decisions - Oregon is one of them - would without doubt have changed its still-on-books ban provisions quickly in the even the Supreme Court had ruled otherwise. And the pressure on the remaining states soon might have looked a lot like the pressure related to official entities flying the Confederate flag.

As it is, the only legal recourse to opponents would be a constitutional amendment. That may materialize in some places - might we see that in the next session of the Idaho Legislature - but it wouldn't go far. The real question now is how rapidly reconciliation goes.

Meantime, the core of Justice Anthony Kennedy's decision express quite well what advocates for extending marriage rights have been saying, and it will be hard to counter: "No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice, and family. In forming a marital union, two people become something greater than once they were. It would misunderstand these men and women to say they disrespect the idea of marriage. Their plea is that they do respect it, respect it so deeply that they seek to find its fulfillment for themselves. … They ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right."

(photo/Joshua Hoover)