Writings and observations

Has to be said that, over the years, the Northwest congressional delegation has been ace at protecting the Bonneville Power Administration, the federal agency probably most responsible for the low electric power rates in the region.

How will it do now in a case where an action of the BPA may shoot up power rates across much of the region by about a tenth?

The region’s six senators, three from each party, today shipped a joint letter to BPA Administrator Steven Wright on the situation and (a little more vaguely) their suggestion.

On May 3rd, the U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled on a case regarding how utilities and their customers in our three states share in the economic benefits of the Federal Columbia River Power System (FCRPS) under the Northwest Power Act (NWPA). The court’s decision appears to cast a legal shadow on BPA’s authority to adopt the “Regional Dialogue” proposal and to enter into power supply contracts with its public agency customers next year as hoped. This week, seven Northwest investor-owned utilities announced residential ratepayers could see rate increases as much as 25 percent at a time when other energy costs, notably gasoline, are sky high.

We know BPA is trying to implement the court’s decision, and that it is difficult to navigate through these complex issues. However, everyone in the region has an interest in reaching a legally sustainable compromise that fulfills the public policy goals of the NWPA and allows BPA to enter into new power supply contracts with public agencies before the current contracts expire. This requires that all stakeholders – public and private utilities, BPA and consumers, states and public utility commissions – join together in good faith in an effort to negotiate a mutually agreeable and legally sustainable compromise. We believe that such a compromise is best forged in the region, and are pleased that BPA is committed to a regionally developed solution.

The point is reasonable; the specifics are less visible, at least in this letter. The evidence of success, or not, should be forthcoming soon.

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Washington Group InternationalAnother headquarters move making Boise the location of another division of a corporation: The purchase of Washington Group International (formerly, roughly, Morrison-Knudsen) by URS Corporation of San Francisco, for $2.6 billion.

URS describes itself as “the largest global engineering design firm and a leading U.S. federal government contractor”. It has said there’s little overlap between itself and Washington Group (URS is apparently much more heavily invested in Department of Defense and Department of Homeland Security projects), but presumably there’s not a lot of distance either between their operations. One statement said “there may be some duplication in corporate operations such as in the two companies information technology departments, but he said they company hasn’t yet identified where any additional duplication may be occurring.” Boiseans may want to watch that territory closely.

Washington Group’s CEO, Steve Hanks, was quoted as saying that “the sale isn’t expected to have much of an impact on the company’s Boise headquarters.” Maybe. Headquarters for what has been WGI are slated to remain in Boise, at least for now.

But so, Boiseans might bear in mind, are some of the central offices for what remains of Albertsons.

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The managing editor of the Spokane Spokesman-Review, Gary Graham, notes in his most recent blog post the issues and balancing act in deciding what to run, and how to play, news from two states when his newspaper circulates widely in both (Washington and Idaho).

The point struck a chord here, since we watch over a three-state area ourselves.

Graham: “For starters, we’ve been placing the coverage of the Moscow shootings on the front page each day in all of our Washington and Idaho editions. That’s been a no-brainer. Although the news happened in an Idaho community, it’s the kind of event that is certainly of interest and concern to people in Washington. Underscoring that point is the fact that the New York Times published staff-written coverage on the first two days, while CNN and the major broadcast news programs all carried brief coverage on Sunday.”

True; the Moscow shooting story was played substantially in many places, including southern Idaho and western Washington. (Less so, as it happens, in Oregon.)

Graham goes on: “However, there’s another story on the front page of all editions today that required a little more consideration in terms of its play. Our Idaho reporters have been covering a number of developments related to a big marina expansion in Bayview on Lake Pend Oreille. The developer’s actions have been very controversial and have raised a number of concerns by public officials, residents and environmentalists. At first blush, editors might wonder why our Washington readers would care about a development dispute in Idaho. But then all we have to do is remind ourselves that because the North Idaho is such a favorite home for recreation, it would be natural for folks in Washington to be interested in a development at a major lake.”

We’d agree with that news judgment. (And it draws our interest to the Bayview development, too.) But we’re more taken with the comment the post has drawn, one that sums up some of the rationale we have for our Northwest site:

“It’s unfortunate that for many years the S-R has been oblivious to the fact that the border between Idaho and Washington is strictly political. I always find it amusing that you publish stories that your editors believe are only of interest to Idaho readers in the Idaho edition and vice versa in Washington regional sections. Get a clue… This region is homogeneous. We recreate in North Idaho, Many of us work in Washington.. or Idaho. We all care about news in each area. Lose the devisive sections and you’ll save money on newsprint.”

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Today, as we pay special attention to those who died in our nation’s service, seems an appropriate time to note again the numbers from the Northwest of casualties in Iraq.

As of the end of last month (and yes, the actual numbers today are higher):

State wounded deaths
Idaho 230 26
Oregon 409 55
Washington 752 70

Fatalities in Afghanistan: none from Idaho, but nine from Oregon and nine from Washington.

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If Idaho Supreme Court Justice Linda Copple Trout was looking for confirmation that she would have been targeted with another attack campaign, she need wait no longer: It showed up clearly on the Idaho Values Alliance blog in a post by its executive director, Bryan Fischer.

Trout, who has served 15 years on the bench, is opting out this summer in part because, she said, she doesn’t want to go through another ugly campaign for re-election; her court seat is up for election next year. In discussing that, she said that elections probably are not the best way to choose judges. She reasoned: “I think the public feels frustrated because they don’t know how to judge a judge. All of the standard things that people usually use as a measure when they go to the ballot box are not there for judges, because judges don’t take stands and aren’t for something unless it’s something like justice, or timely justice, or something like that. That’s really hard for the public, to judge whether or not somebody really would do a good job.”

Our view is (and has been) that judges should be elected, at least on a retention basis, because they are officials whose job centers around making independent judgments, and that’s the criterion we ordinarily use in considering whether a job ought to be elective or appointive. That said, we agree with Trout’s point: Few voters have a good, clear basis for deciding whether a judge is doing their job well, or whether a non-incumbent would do it well. The major actions of a governor or of a major, or even of many legislators, county commissioners, members of Congress or city council members tend to be more visible and easily grasped than are the actions – collectively – of judges. Too often, one or two actions or decisions becomes the basis for assessing a whole career. A good many thoughtful voters we’ve talked with over the years (and by no means just in Idaho) see the problem. What’s needed, we would argue, is an improved system for tracking the work and decisions judges produce: Better oversight. Idahoans should be encouraged, too, to read Supreme Court decisions for themselves – they’re not written in Latin, and most are actually quite easily understood. With that can come the education voters need to make informed choices.

Probably we shouldn’t be surprised at the headline on Fischer’s commentary today: “Justice Trout: Idahoans are too stupid to pick their own judges.”

She said, of course, nothing of the kind.

But how much does Fischer think Idaho voters actually know about the work of their judges and justices – beyond the smattering of bumper-sticker slogans and two or three high-profile issues? How well-informed does he think the electorate really is?

Part of Fischer’s complaint here apparently has to do with the shutout among the 19 applicants for an opening on the Supreme Court (not Trout’s, but also-retiring Justice Gerald Schroeder) in responding to a Values Alliance questionnaire. Fischer writes, “we want candidates who will let the public know whether or not they agree with Idaho’s state constitution.” Does he realize the eventual successful applicant will be required, before taking office, to swear to uphold that document?

Another part evidently has to do with Trout’s reluctance to serve as a punching bag for the right next year. He quotes David Ripley as saying, “Now Justice Trout confirms that there is, in fact, a conspiracy within the state’s judiciary to effectively ignore the Constitution. These elites have decided to simply amend the Constitution without so much as a public court opinion or legislative act.”

Hardly: The appointive process goes way back (the first two Idaho Supreme Court justices to be appointed were chosen in 1914), and if a conspiracy it’s a big one. Of the current five justices, three originally were appointees. Of the 25 justices who hav served since 1950, eight reached the court by election, 17 by appointment. The appointments go through an extensive and fairly public process. People close to the courts we’ve spoken with over the years say they see little difference in quality between elected and appointed judges and justices. And the low voter rejection at the end of terms – Trout’s replacement will, after all, be up for election next year – suggests that the public tends not to be dissatisfied with most of the judges they get.

There was more; see also Kevin Richert’s blog for a useful take on the questionnaire.

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Linda Copple Trout

Linda Copple Trout

There was a point in the 90s when all the members of the Idaho Supreme Court were appointees of Democratic Governor Cecil Andrus. Of the other four, three were appointed by Republican governors and the other elected, unopposed, to the seat.

Now the last of them will be leaving the court. The Spokane Spokesman-Review‘s Betsy Russell reports today that Linda Copple Trout, who also is the only woman on the high court, will resign from the court effective in August, partly so that she won’t go through election to the seat, which would occur next year.

You can understand that. There were fierce elections in 2000 and 2002 over the judicial seats, in which Andrus appointees were targeted; Trout prevailed but another justice (Cathy Silak) did not. A quote from Trout: “The fear really is from soft money. It’s from third parties, which is something I never considered until it happened to her and then it happened in a big way to me. I truly thought I would run on my record and my merits and my opponent would as well, and people would judge as best they could on that basis. I never dreamed that I would see ‘Liberal Linda Trout’ on TV.”

The Idaho Supreme Court, back in the 90s and since, never has seemed especially liberal, or strikingly conservative for that matter. Through the years, there have been (as she noted) a lot of unanimous or near-unanimous votes, even on hot issues. Still, a certain kind of perspective may go missing when Trout leaves the bench this summer.

AHEAD Look for the prospect of a second supreme court justice being in effect picked from the group applying now for the Schroeder vacancy.

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Here are the points against which to measure tonight’s community college vote in Ada and Canyon counties:

The need for the college is fairly clear. No money was being asked for (in this vote – that would come later); this vote concerned only creation of a two-county community college district. It had strong bipartisan support from a lengthy string of leaders, including most of the mayors in the counties and Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter. It had strong corporate support. Substantial money was raised for its passage, and substantial organizations were put together for its passage. By all accounts and evidence we’ve seen, the campaigns were intelligently and energetically run, in part using some sophisticated mail ballot approaches. (The mail ballots appear to have done their job very well, drawing in somewhere around 90% favorable votes.) No organized opposition appeared to exist; only a few people spoke out publicly against the proposal.

With all those advantages, the college (the College of Western Idaho) looks as if it just – just – cleared the bar, the two-thirds vote needed to create it. The district fell short in Canyon County (62.2%) but did better in Ada County (70.5%). (Returns from Ada were very slow coming in.) It appears to have gotten about 68% or maybe a hair less overall, just enough to pass.

Next challenge comes when the new board has to ask for money.

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If any doubt remained that Mitt Romney is sweeping the Idaho Republican Party, be it noted that to the previous list including Senator Larry Craig and Representative Mike Simpson add (among others):

Lieutenant Governor Jim Risch, state Controller Donna Jones, Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Luna, Senate President pro tem Robert Geddes, House Speaker Lawerence Denney, Senate majority leader Bart Davis, House Majority Leader Mike Moyle, and a long string of other state legislators as well. (They’re noted on our presidential support page.)

The only major gets remaining are Governor C.L. “Butch” Otter (governors usually stay out until nominations have been decided), Senator Mike Crapo, Representative Bill Sali and three other statewide public officials. Romney’s roster of endorsements in Idaho would be dominant even if everyone else went for another candidate.

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Aquarter-century or so ago in another life, your scribe was writing editorials for the Pocatello Idaho State Journal, and on one occasion blasted – sarcastically – at the then-sheriff of Bingham County, who was trying to persuade county officials of his need for a collection of Uzis. For security. Doubtless needed, we suggested, to battle back against all those counter-insurgent forces at Firth.

Still, small and rural community law enforcement isn’t always a simple matter, and it can become as violent as the urban variety, as the shooting spree at Moscow last weekend demonstrated.

And certainly we were struck by the report delivered last week by Rupert police officer Sam Kuoha to his city council, of gang activity around Burley and Rupert. From the South Idaho Press: “Though he said he was not at liberty to name specific gangs, Kuoha said those in area gangs fall into five basic categories: southern California, northern California and Chicago Hispanic gangs; motorcycle gangs; and miscellaneous groups that have not been designated as gangs but are cause for concern, such as white supremacist and eco-terrorist groups. Kuoha said activities commonly associated with each group vary somewhat. For example, he said, Hispanic gangs are known for vandalism and burglary while motorcycle gangs take part in prostitution and murder for hire.”

Five categories . . .

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Swan Falls Dam

Swan Falls Dam/BLM

The last time Idaho Power Company butted heads with the state of Idaho over water rights at the Swan Falls Dam – this was in the first half of the 80s – the results rocked the state. Many of the results have worked out reasonably well; the Snake River Basin Adjudication, which was a direct result of that last conflict, probably will be a long-term benefit for southern Idaho.

The new lawsuit filed by Idaho Power Company, filed now as then in protection of 1905-dated water rights at the Swan Falls Dam on the Snake River roughly south of Boise, has a more dangerous edge. Back then, Idaho Power, in protection of its water rights (which it uses to generate cheap electric juice), did serve notice to thousands of southern Idaho water users that their water might be cut off. But at the same time, the utility was negotiating, trying to find a way to protect its rights while avoiding damaging and alienating its customer base. And, more or less, they and state and federal officials made it work. They guaranteed a minimum water flow for Idaho Power in return for state control and distribution of water flowing through the Snake above that minimum.

But water has been getting tighter in recent years, and now Idaho Power maintains there isn’t any more beyond their guaranteed minimum and that, to meet its rights, many water users (mainly of ground water) will have to be shut off. In contrast to the 80s, the room or inclination to negotiate seems considerably less.

The room has to do with the physical realities of the situation, which could upend large parts of southern Idaho agriculture.

The inclination could come from somewhere else. Our suspicion for some years has been that once work on relicensing the three Hells Canyon dams to Idaho Power was complete, that corporate vultures would swiftly circle and dive-bomb at Idaho Power, which so far has been Idaho-based – but might not be for a lot longer. The new Swan Falls lawsuit feeds into that scenario.

Here’s how, deep inside an Idaho Statesman analysis by Rocky Barker of the legal action: “Idaho Power provides irrigation customers lower, subsidized power rates to run their pumps. Putting those customers out of business would give Idaho Power more low-cost power to sell to customers who pay higher rates. Critics say this is Idaho Power’s real intention and would make the company a more attractive buyout target.”

A buyout was a lesser consideration a quarter-century ago. Today, it seems more a matter of time, and an Idaho Power based not in Boise but across the country might be a very different animal. Southern Idaho irrigators might be wise to give that careful consideration as they plot their next moves.

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