Writings and observations

We’ll be getting much more into wildfire-related posts later on, but beforehand a little review of where we are and how we got here – the real-world as opposed to the political versions – would be in order.

With that in mind, some recommended reading: A new post by Idaho Statesman reporter Rocky Barker, which provides one of the most useful short-form sumups we’ve seen anywhere recently. A good baseline for the discussion ahead.

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Not to drop in on every poll that comes along, but this one feels a little notable. Could be an outlier (the possibility that warns us against too many poll notices), but – given some other recent trends – could also realistically be a marker of something new.

This is a Rasmussen poll of the Oregon Senate race, and what’s new here is that it shows Democratic challenger Jeff Merkley leading Republican incumbent Gordon Smith – the first poll to do so. It’s a marginal thing, since it gives Merkley 43% and Smith 41%, and if soft supporters are added in, they tie at 46%. But every poll up to this point has given Smith a fairly clear lead (last month’s Rasmussen put Smith ahead 47%-38%), so this is something new.

Now we watch to see if it’s the first of more like it, or not. If it indicates a change, that together with Merkley’s newly-displayed fundraising prowess could change the dynamic of the race.

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Gets easy to forget exactly what some of those federal health programs do; in light of two key congressional votes today, let’s review on Medicare. Medicare is a big program, which specifically “is a federal health insurance program for people 65 years or older and for people with certain disabilities or kidney failure. It covers about 39 million Americans.” In Idaho 162,984 people (or 13.3% of the population) use it. In Oregon, the number is 492,890 (15%). And in Washington, 737,168 (13%). About as many people as live, in all, in the state of Idaho.

Today’ event was an unusual veto override by Congress, on a bill (HR 6331) which directly concerns how Medicare financially will be continued over the next year at least. The bill has multiple elements (as will any about such a large program) but the core of the thing is simple enough. Because of various financial triggers already in place, Medicare has been scheduled to cut pay for doctors by about 11%. As anyone familiar with Medicare payments knows, a lot of docs around the country already refuse to take Medicare patients precisely because payment already is so low; an additional 11% cut would drive away so many as to make health care inaccessible for many of the people who rely on Medicare. The bill passed by Congress and vetoed by President Bush would avert the 11% cut by, as one news story noted, “cutting payments to big insurers, such as UnitedHealth Group Inc. and Aetna Inc., which have contracts with the Medicare program.” That, in other words, is whose ox gets gored by the bill.

The vetoed bill returned to Congress today for override votes, and both chambers did vote to override, so the bill will become law. A number of organizations (AARP, for example) are sure to highlight the override votes, but we thought a look at the Northwest pattern was merited here.

The Senate voted 70-26 to override. In the Northwest delegation, two of the Northwest’s six senators voted against override – Idaho’s Larry Craig and Mike Crapo, neither facing re-election this year. Oregon Republican Gordon Smith, facing a rough re-election fight (noted in passing, not as mind-reading), broke to vote in favor of the override. The region’s three Democrats all voted to override.

The House voted more lopsidedly, 383-41, to override. As you might expect, all of the region’s Democrats voted to override. But so, it turns out, did five of the six Northwest Republicans – all from Washington and Oregon along with Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho.

The lone Northwest House member to vote for the veto, for the 11% cut in payments to doctors: Idaho Representative Bill Sali.

Sali has addressed the legislation, and his take on it is available on his website. It speaks for itself generally, though we should note that Sali’s concern seemed focused on the 1.7 million or so participants in one subsidiary program, Medicare Advantage, rather than the 39 million who would be affected by the cuts in Medicare generally.

Politically, we’re in the position of having yet to see much evidence of a partisan sea change in Idaho, of the sort trumpeted by the Wall Street Journal today. But in Sali’s case, a vote like this, which has good reason to infuriate (and even frighten) somewhere close to 100,000 Medicare participants, plus friends and family, in his district alone, could provide some real raw material.

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On the home page of the Coos Bay/North Bend airport web site, there’s a neat UTube showing the three and a half minutes or so leading up to land at the airport, showing the landscape around, the sea, the roads – it’s a little hypnotic. There’s a theme song, too, Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone.”

Which has some applicability at this point, since a danger zone is what the community seems to be moving into.

The Oregonian on Sunday ran a useful perspective on how smaller regional airports are rapidly losing their commercial flights. The focus was on the long-standing Pendleton-Portland run, which looks to be going away; and this does mark a sea change. But at least, Pendletonians, who are in decent driving distance from Walla Walla or (a bit further) the Tri-Cities, won’t be totally cut off; flights to Walla Walla apparently will continue, possibly as well as elsewher.

Consider though the Coos Bay/North Bend area, a couple of hours by car from any community much larger than itself and separated from almost all by mountains. This small coastal metro really is almost as remote as you get for a community of its size in the Northwest. But it has had a solid commercial airport, the only one on the Oregon Coast.

Its airline, its only airline at present, is Horizon Air/Alaskan, which has had regular flights to Portland – an important link. As of October 11, that flight will go away (the same day, Klamath Falls-Portland, to another community nearly as remote, will end). The reasons given by the airline, which seem understandable, involve the cost of fuel and the need to run more efficient (larger) planes which won’t come close to filling seats at the smaller airports. The logic is there; the decision is not irrational.

The other truth, of course, is that this news is horrendous for the community, for businesses, for individuals, for a wide range of interests. Try growing your businesses in a remote community without commercial air service; you won’t find it easy. Business leaders were quick to try to find a way to retain the flight (and meet with the airline), but how, really, could they persuade?

In the absence of answers, the suffering begins. We will be seeing more of it before long.

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In our system of governance, the government is a device we – as citizens – set up to do certain things, and which is supposed to be under the control and direction of us, though such mechanisms as elections. The government is our public thing; its employees are our (public) employees. So far, this doesn’t seem a far reach. Most Americans would more or less accept that logic.

When comes to attorneys who are public employees or paid by the public, however, something peculiar happens: Much of what they do is abruptly considered “privileged,” not available for examination by the boss – the public. Exemptions for “attorney-client” communications are written into lots of governmental law; peculiarly, though, the client involved is a board or agency or executive or commission – never the public.

All of this is the subject of a recent hearing at Olympia on public records and the “attorney-client” exemption from public disclosure. If an agency staffer or executive develops (as part of their public work) notes and files on a given matter, that often can be obtained under public records requests, since their work product on the public’s dime is considered to be public. Not so “attorney work product.”

(This is not a minor point. There have been cases, notably one recently in Klamath Falls, where documents were taken and stuffed into the records of an attorney so a wall would go up in any attempt shine sunlight on them. “Attorney work product” has exquisite opportunity for abuse.)

We’d grant the need for some exceptions, like some of those in public records laws generally already – some employee dispute issues, some public safety matters, and others. But the question here generally looms larger: Do these publicly-paid attorneys work for the public or not? (Boards and agencies are not the public; they are only the hired help.) If not, there’s something significant going on here.

We caught up with this hearing (the outcome of which sounds unclear) via a post on Sound Politics which uncharacteristically took after a Republican legislator, Jay Rodne of North Bend. Rodne (who happens to be attorney for the Snoqualmie Valley Hospital, a public agency) said the attorney-client privilege was valid and if there are problems, voters can act: “Local governments ignore and resist transparency at their own peril.”

What he left unsaid, as Sound Politics suggested, is how voters are supposed to find out about the problems in the first place is so many public records are shielded from disclosure . . .

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It’s about time someone put together a real profile of the Idaho Senate candidate – formerly Marvin Richardson – who now, legally, goes by the name “Pro-Life.”

Nathaniel Hoffman at the Boise Weekly has crafted a well-balanced sketch, sympathetic in some ways but leading through the embarrassing stuff as well, about the strawberry farmer who lives near Emmett. (On the fallout from divorce from his first wife: “She had a psychiatrist who said because I didn’t trust the water system, the school system, the government, I was paranoid. I had a psychiatrist who said her psychiatrist was stupid.”)

Mainly, though, he emerges as no one’s stereotype, rather as someone who almost defiantly does his own thinking, no matter the unusual path that may take him. (He is a vegetarian, and left the Mormon church largely over differences on that specific subject.) The phrase “Idaho conservative” often can stand in for a whole lot of people who seem to march in lockstep and engage in little serious individualized thought, but after reading this profile you won’t say that about Pro-Life.

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Recommended read today about a meeting in Idaho – a town hall bill set by 1st District Representative Bill Sali.

The account, by Bubblehead on the Stupid Shall be Punished blog, is a little longish, but the detail is telling. Bubblehead isn’t a Sali fan, but he sounds willing to give him a fair hearing and his account of the give and take says quite a lot about Sali, and more about a lot of his constituents.

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There’s an agreeable enough idea in this, and you could imagine other candidates doing something similar. Up to a point.

Rick Dancer, the Republican nominee for secretary of state, is a former Eugene television news anchor. Makes some sense, then, that he’d be running out some video and shape it around the look and feel of a light TV news spot. He’s posted one such on his site, about his participation in a parade at Hillsboro, his home town.

It’s agreeable enough and you can see some of the professional skill in it. Dancer comes off as a pleasant personality. The downside is that it is almost entirely content-free: The closest Dancer comes to anything having to do with the office he’s running for is explaining to a child at the parade what it is a secretary of state does. (There’s more video on the web site, similarly well-produced but limited in content.)

Can he use video for something other than a light featureish approach – to dig into substance? (Why do the links between Dancer and TV news seem so strong here . . .)

[Hat tip to the Eugene Register-Guard‘s Capitol Notebook.]

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They’ve been mostly at a distance, though Northern Californians would have a few words about just how fierce this fire season has been already – and we’re not quite to the middle of July yet.

large fires

July 12 NIFC map

That bunch in northern California is remarkable – it’s as though they’re all being held back by the Siskiyou Pass. But Washington state, in its north central region, was hit hard this week. More will be a matter of time. With the arrival of summer in the last few weeks, and the seeming (abrupt) end of rain, the area is drying out.

Taking care has become a critical thing. And will be for the rest of the season.

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If you’re a major party candidate and you want to debate your opponent, and your opponent seems less than eager to show up – all of which probably means you’re behind and he’s ahead – you’re mostly out of luck. You can do the old traditional “debate the empty chair” – show up and do your pitch, basically – but that seldom has any significant impact.

What’s happening in the Idaho U.S. Senate race is a little more interesting, for the reason that a third candidate is entering the equation.

The poll leader in the Idaho race is Republican nominee (and current Lieutenant Governor) Jim Risch, whose history in general election campaigns (in which he’d always been a front runner) has included the logical strategic move of limiting joint appearances with the opposition. (A note here: This is no absolute; Risch has appeared in debates in the past, including three in 2002 when your writer did work for an opposing campaign). Democratic nominee Larry La Rocco, who would like to debate Risch early and often, seems likely to get the bare minimum out of him (which seems to be an unusual pre-recorded appearance).

Enter one of the non-major-party candidates in the race, independent Rex Rammell (earlier on, a Republican). It was Rammell, evidently, who came up with the shrewd idea that a series of debates didn’t necessarily have to include Risch – he and La Rocco could engage in debates all by themselves. Today he and La Rocco held a joint press conference to announce their plans to do just that, a group of about 10 debates around the state in October. Risch would be invited to participate, though the other two candidates indicated they weren’t holding their breaths.

This is a smart move. The political/philosophical differences between La Rocco and Rammell are as great (we’d guess greater) than between La Rocco and Risch, which means that a debate between the two would offer a real contrast. Partly because of that, it’s highly likely to draw media and other visibility.

Could it have an effect on the outcome? This is more problematic, since debates rarely do have much effect. But let’s throw out a scenario . . . Nationally, a Democratic wave builds, and Idaho (with a newly strong Obama organization working internally, in tandem with the La Rocco campaign) pulls out a bunch of new voters. This, with La Rocco’s highly energetic campaign (which it has been for more than a year now), raises La Rocco’s vote a few points above the norm. Risch, who throughout his long career has been the utterly, totally loyal party man, hits some gravel as some of the independents-who-vote-Republican have second thoughts, and maybe pay attention to Rammell, who seems to be the ideologically-committed conservative guy who’s seriously engaging the Democratic candidate. Risch’s vote slips down a bit partly from Republican turnoff and partly because Rammell takes some of it away. Add in the crew of remaining candidates in the general election, most of which pull sliver-votes from the rights, and the outcome could move seriously into doubt . . .

No, that’s not necessarily a prediction. But who knows? But Risch, smart strategist that he is, probably will be keeping a close watch on the La Rocco-Rammell show. You never know how the bank shots might go.

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