Writings and observations

Just how phony and how minor is this invented controversy over the lack of recoginition of Christmas (as opposed to “Season’s Greetings”, “Happy Holidays” or “Xmas”?)

This phony: The top elected officials of our states, the governors, aren’t playing into it. Given an an easy, no-lose opportunity to play into the popular side of a controversy (if there really were one), they have punted in the easiest place possible: Their official Christmas cards.

We know this because the news organization stateline.org collected all 50 of the messages on those cards, minus the few guvs who don’t do cards. Only a few even used to C-word; none reallyplayed it up. From the Northwest:

Idaho: Governor Dirk Kempthorne: “May the spirit of this holiday season fill your heart with love, peace and serenity. Wishing you many blessings for the New Year.”

Oregon: Governor Ted Kulongoski: “PEACE – Paz, Paix, Pace, Frieden, Mir, Shalom, Heiwa, Salam, Heping”

Washington: Governor Christine Gregoire: “Happy Holidays from the Gregoires – Mike, Chris, Courtney and Michelle”

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I was discussing earlier today with a Boise journalist the nature of the upcoming Idaho legislative session. Along the topics hashed was that the idea that, in some contrast to last session, this session might be a little less business-oriented – business dominated.

AlbertsonsThe prompt for that thought was the pressure for change in the property tax, a push coming mainly from residential property owners who have argued (accurately) that they have been paying an ever-larger chunk of the property tax bill – an ever-larger chunk of the tax bill, period. (Last week, this subject came up over coffee with a business advocate, who said he hoped this wouldn’t lead to a shift of property taxes on to businesses. To my inquiry about the steady shift, over the last generation, of property taxes away from business and on to residential taxpayers, and whether that might be redressed or corrected, he had no answer.)

Another piece of news, however, might underscore some of this session too: The impending news of the sale of Albertsons.

Go back to the beginning of this year, to Governor Dirk Kempthorne’s state of the state address, when he proposed the Corporate Headqwuaters Incentive Act. He proclaimed:

Tonight, I’m proposing another innovative strategy to attract new corporations and bring high-paying jobs to the state of Idaho. And, more importantly, this strategy will help us retain our base.

Idaho is home to a number of Fortune 500 companies, but in a time of corporate mergers and consolidations, we can never take that for granted. How do you nurture your existing base and attract new corporations? Here’s how:

I have spent the past several months developing a progressive tax incentive package designed to retain and attract corporate headquarters in Idaho. I’m asking for your support of an incentive package that will grab the attention of Fortune 500 companies around the country.

Kempthorne said the proposal was intended broadly, but within hours word swept the Statehouse that it was aimed squarely at Albertsons, with the intent of keeping the supermarket giant’s headquarters planted in its home town of Boise. Within a few days, Dan Popkey of the Idaho Statesman would write – and no serious contradiction to hispoint ever emerged:

“What company is at the head of the queue to bring 500 high-paying jobs to Idaho in exchange for sweeping concessions on sales, income and property taxes? The answer: Albertsons. Kempthorne and other leaders are determined to kill rumors the grocery-and-drug chain might leave Boise for Chicago or some other metropolis closer to major markets. Kempthorne dangled a skeletal proposal before lawmakers Monday. When details emerge, look for meat on those bones allowing retroactive credit to Albertsons for recent job shifts.”

Certainly the Kempthorne-Albertsons-HB306 circle is close enough: Albertsons, which contributed to Kempthorne’s political funds long after he opted out of a 2006 run for governor ($3,750 on April 14 this year), lobbied hard for HB306, and Kempthorne issued a rare scalding press release saying a committee decision “defnied logic” when legislators initially rejected the idea – which they eventually accepted.

So, on one side of the ledger, Albertsons was able to benefit from a tax break. And on the other side?

As matters stand at this writing, Albertsons is on the verge of existing no more, at least not as Idaho has long known it. The Wall Street Journal and a clutch of other organizations are reporting that an investment group headed by Cerberus Capital, Kimco Realty and Supervalu are likely to buy out and dismantle one of Idaho’s venerable companies. More final details may be forthcomingin a few days. As the leaders of Albertsons have become enthusiastic sellers, so they appear to be enthusiastic buyers.

Rendered perhaps a shade more cheerful by a bottom line enhanced by Idaho’s governor and legislature earlier this year.

If the sale and dismemberment of Albertsons is the otherbig story in Idaho as the legislature convenes, it might be in a different kind of mood this session.

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What would you think of building a couple of big new gas-fired power plants on the east side of your town?

Hold that thought. The Idaho Statesman‘s online poll asks tht question of Boiseans. The results, as of our check this morning: By a 60%-40% margin, nearly 500 self-selected Boiseans favor the plants …

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After Idaho Senator Larry Craig’s trouble with his previous proposed nomination to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals – the failed proposal for attorney William Myers III, whose ties to industry and agriculture proved too strong for the comfort of some senators – there are some indicators that the new nominee, Randy Smith, will fare better. (The two have been proposed for different seats.)

But these are complex waters.

On the plus side is Smith himself. He has a political enough background, serving as state Republican party chair in the early 90s (he was a good one, and not especially more partisan than the position would dictate). But he has gotten good reviews from a wide spectrum of reviewers in his role as judge, including strong comments from current state Democratic Chair Richard Stallings. He does not have Myers’ lobbying liabilities, has proven himself as a capable judge, and is likely to arouse no angry howl in Idaho, even from Democrats.

There is another issue, though: Is the seat “Idaho’s” – and should Craig be the senator nominating for it?

Technically, there are no representative state seats on the 9th (or any other) circuit. But to ensure some broad base of representation, the seats have traditionally been treated that way, and Idaho – on basis of population – should have one. Here’s the oddity: Senior Judge Stephen Trott, whose spot Smith would occupy, was a Californian when he was appointed, and later moved to Idaho. Leading Idaho to sorta “claim” the seat.

Which California, specifically its senators, want back. Senator Dianne Feinstein remarked:

“I would object to naming a judge from Idaho to a 9th Circuit seat that has been held traditionally by a Californian,” she wrote in a Nov. 22 e-mail to The Recorder. “There are plenty of very suitable people from our state and [President Bush] should choose a nominee from California.”

Judge Smith may want to relax a bit. The wait could be long – no fault of his own.

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The minimum wage, in theory, was set up to provide a floor income allowing anyone who worked (again, in theory) to earn enough to survive on a 40-hour per week job. At a federal rate of $5.15 an hour that has, of course, been something of a lie for quite a while now.

But the report released this week from the National Low Income Housing Coalition puts concrete numbers to what most of us assume. Natonally it notes, “more than 80% of all renter households live in jurisdictions where the minimum wage is less than half of the Housing Wage. In other words, the vast majority of renter households find themselves in localities in which decent housing is unaffordable unless their combined income exceeds that of two wage earners working full-time, with no vacation or sick days, at the minimum wage.” In other words, out of reach of even a couple both of whom work full time, at minimum wage.

And in the Northwest?

Here are the state summaries from the report:

For Idaho:

In Idaho, the Fair Market Rent (FMR) for a two-bedroom apartment is $603. In order to afford this level of rent and utilities, without paying more than 30% of income on housing, a household must earn $2,011 monthly or $24,137 annually. Assuming a 40-hour work week, 52 weeks per year, this level of income translates into a Housing Wage of $11.60.

In Idaho, a minimum wage worker earns an hourly wage of $5.15. In order to afford the FMR for a two-bedroom apartment, a minimum wage earner must work 90 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. Or, a household must include 2.3 minimum wage earner(s) working 40 hours per week year-round in order to make the two bedroom FMR affordable.

In Idaho, the estimated mean (average) wage for a renter is $8.61 an hour. In order to afford the FMR for a two-bedroom apartment at this wage, a renter must work 54 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. Or, working 40 hours per week year-round, a household must include 1.3 worker(s) earning the mean renter wage in order to make the two-bedroom FMR affordable.

Monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments for an individual are $579 in Idaho. If SSI represents an individual’s sole source of income, $174 in monthly rent is affordable, while the FMR for a one-bedroom is $496.

For Oregon:

In Oregon, the Fair Market Rent (FMR) for a two-bedroom apartment is $682. In order to afford this level of rent and utilities, without paying more than 30% of income on housing, a household must earn $2,275 monthly or $27,298 annually. Assuming a 40-hour work week, 52 weeks per year, this level of income translates into a Housing Wage of $13.12.

In Oregon, a minimum wage worker earns an hourly wage of $7.25. In order to afford the FMR for a two-bedroom apartment, a minimum wage earner must work 72 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. Or, a household must include 1.8 minimum wage earner(s) working 40 hours per week year-round in order to make the two bedroom FMR affordable.

In Oregon, the estimated mean (average) wage for a renter is $11.07 an hour. In order to afford the FMR for a two-bedroom apartment at this wage, a renter must work 47 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. Or, working 40 hours per week year-round, a household must include 1.2 worker(s) earning the mean renter wage in order to make the two-bedroom FMR affordable.

Monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments for an individual are $579 in Oregon. If SSI represents an individual’s sole source of income, $174 in monthly rent is affordable, while the FMR for a one-bedroom is $570.

In Washington:

In Washington, the Fair Market Rent (FMR) for a two-bedroom apartment is $757. In order to afford this level of rent and utilities, without paying more than 30% of income on housing, a household must earn $2,522 monthly or $30,268 annually. Assuming a 40-hour work week, 52 weeks per year, this level of income translates into a Housing Wage of $14.55.

In Washington, a minimum wage worker earns an hourly wage of $7.35. In order to afford the FMR for a two-bedroom apartment, a minimum wage earner must work 79 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. Or, a household must include 2.0 minimum wage earner(s) working 40 hours per week year-round in order to make the two bedroom FMR affordable.

In Washington, the estimated mean (average) wage for a renter is $12.08 an hour. In order to afford the FMR for a two-bedroom apartment at this wage, a renter must work 48 hours per week, 52 weeks per year. Or, working 40 hours per week year-round, a household must include 1.2 worker(s) earning the mean renter wage in order to make the two-bedroom FMR affordable.

Monthly Supplemental Security Income (SSI) payments for an individual are $579 in Washington. If SSI represents an individual’s sole source of income, $174 in monthly rent is affordable, while the FMR for a one-bedroom is $617.

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The real issue in the legal case that has been preoccupying Boise for the last three months or so – the justification, or lack or it, for a police shooting, of a teenager named Matthew Jones – drills down to this: How confident are Boiseans that their local elected officials are making straight decisions on police shootings?

Erwin Sonnenberg, who has been Ada County coroner almost forever, is central here. The concern raised is that he’s too close to the Boise police, close enough that he will see things their way in evaluating a police shooting rather than taking a strictly neutral view. Back in the 90s when the Boise police had a larger rash of shooting incidents, similar concerns were also raised, though with less visibility than this time.

Much of that, whether valid or not, is personal to Sonnenberg. Which doesn’t weaken the valid contention by Ada County Prosecutor Greg Bower that the system for handling especially sensitive determinations of death – by inquest – is outmoded. The Idaho Statesman article today on this notes:

Bower on Wednesday called the current inquest system “archaic” and said his staff is investigating alternatives. The point of an inquest is to “promote public confidence” in the investigations of shootings, Bower said. But inquests may be having the opposite effect by unnecessarily delaying the release of information, he said.

An inquest also can create unneeded grief for the officers and families of the deceased by requiring them to relive highly emotional events when prosecutors already have a clear idea of whether criminal charges will be filed, Bower said.

Changes in this area would have to be addressed in state law. Expect the subject to arrive at the Statehouse in January.

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Maybe it had to be an interim president of Idaho State University to bring up the idea of creating a full-fledged medical school at Idaho State University. The last president, Richard Bowen, never broached the idea – publicly at least – and if anyone ever has, it’s gone unremarked. Which would seem unlikely.

Idaho State UniversityInterim President Michael Gallagher has nothing to lose by floating the idea, which on the surface and over the long haul seems not unreasonable. Of Idaho’s higher ed institutions, ISU is the one most closely allied with medical training.

Gallagher’s specific language was a little more diplomatic than that: “ISU is charged as the lead institution in health and support sciences,” he said. “We are willing to work with the board and the Idaho Medical Association, plus other institutions including the Legislature, to help define what the future of health and medical education should look like in Idaho.” But his meaning was clear enough.

There is a little glitch: Idaho has been funding its colleges and universities thinner and thinner in recent years, and the colleges and universities have been in general paying more attention to what programs might go away, than to massive new expansions. (State Senator Gary Schroeder, whose district includes the University of Idaho, estimated more than a decade ago that if the decline in share of state funding going to higher education continues, it will reach zero in the 2030s – and the state is still on that track.) .

You can also take apart the argument about Idaho’s relative lack of physicians. Idahoans who want medical training can currently get it through a state program, an alliance with Washington, Alaska and Montana called WAMI, which sets aside seats from the smaller states at the medical school at the University of Washington. The program has worked pretty well and has delivered new physicians over the years back to Idaho.

In Idaho, Boise and the other larger population centers do not notably lack for medical practitioners; the gaps are in the smaller communities and rural areas, owing to the economics of rural areas. A new medical school will not fix that.

Leaving that aside, the idea of an Idaho medical school sounds like something the state should pursue at some point. Pocatello does have two hospitals, and one of them (probably the one located next to the ISU campus) could probably be developed into a teaching hospital.

But be warned: It ain’t cheap. Solid medical training these days is astoundingly specialized – no such things as just training a corps of gp’s – and that means a lot of staff, expensive teachers and even more expensive equipment.

How expensive? Let’s pull a few numbers out from other institutions.

Consider the Brown Medical School in Rhode Island (which has a population comparable to Idaho’s). It’s not entirely a fair comparison, since Brown is Ivy League. But the total medical school enrollment of 326 doesn’t seem stratospheric: You can’t run a medical school for a couple of dozen students. Now, how many faculty members are needed to teach them? The Brown number – 2,105 in grand total – is probably misleading, because most of them are volunteer or adjunct or work in the hospital. But do you need more teachers than students? Apparently.

The Brown med school budget is $54.3 million. It does have a $167 million endowment fund (not currently present in Idaho) to help out, but clearly the school is not an inexpensive proposition.

Idaho’s – when the day eventually comes, as it may, that the state does set up its own med school – probably won’t be on an Ivy League level. But the cost is apt to run into the tens of millions anyway (especially since it would include startup costs). The bottom line is that Idaho is probably going to have to grow a lot more before this dream becomes a reality.

No harm though, in someone like Gallagher starting to dream, and triggering others to do it too.

How many

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The old adage has it that the toughest budgets – in public organizations, if not private – are those where expected revenues exceed expected expenses. That extra money is just so tempting.

The northwest states are facing some of this. Oregon has no legislative session next year, so the pressure is less immediate in the Beaver State. But already the talk has arisen about eliminating the corporate kicker. What’s notable about this talk, as showed up in the Oregonian today, is that even the corporate lobby isn’t trying to defend it. The fact that two-thirds of the rebate would head directly out of state provides a real shift to the argument.

Washington appears headed, this next session, for a $1.4 billion surplus, which takes any discussion of tax increases off the table. Democrats in the legislature (or some of them) will see this as an invitation to spend a little extra, and Republicans (some of them) will similarly agitate for a tax cut.

Governor Christine Gregoire shows indications of trumping both views by emphasizing the temporary nature of the surplus. Talking with a Seattle Post-Intelligencer reporter, she said that by the time the 2007 budget cycle rolls around, there will be no surplus – in fact, she said, “There’s no scenario after we fund the mandates that doesn’t result in us having a deficit going into the next [2007] biennial budget.” Sounds like a line in the sand for a rainy-day fund, which could be the logical centrist approach. Her challenge will be holding the center together.

Idaho is looking at a similarly substantial surplus, and its Republican legislators will be tempted to go the same route they did when a big surplus appeared in 2001, and they sliced state income tax rates. That earlier cut came back to bite them, hard, in 2003 when the state’s economy took a dip, and a – horrors – tax increase was required (by Governor Dirk Kempthorne) in response. Will that lesson have been learned? There will be pressure too for doing something about increasing property taxes. Will the state surplus provide a handy, albeit tricky, solution for some of them?

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We will try to keep track here of campaigns which use blogging (regular, daily, consistent blogging, not just a dead page posted week after week) as part of their campaign efforts.

To that end, attention is directed to Grassroots for Grant, a blog from the campaign of the Democrat running in Idaho’s 1st congressional district. Say this: There’s already plenty of material on it.

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Spokane Mayor Jim West probablywould like to swap places with David Young right about now.

Young has been the target of a planned recall, but yesterday the Canyon County residents who were behind it acknowledged they were falling short, failed to get the required number of petition signatures by their November 30 deadline, and settled for saying that, well, at least they got a discussion of Young’s record out there. But there were less labor-intensive ways to do that.

The collapse of that effort comes as no surprise. Young has been central to the occasional legal storm – a substantial one now in federal court finds the survivors of a murder victim are suing Young for his office’s role in the release from jail of a violent man later convicted of killing his ex-wife. That case was a key point in the recall effort.

Young has acknowledged it wasn’t perfectly handled, but also pointed out that the criminal justice system is a complicated thing. he could also point out that errors could be found through hindsight in any prosecutor’s office (or most any other kind of office, for that matter).

The recall proponents had framed their gripe with Young as a criticism of the way he managed the office – of how well it was being run. That issue is legitimate for a regular election (we make no assessment here whether their contentions are valid), but to recall an official, you should need much more. For purposes of a recall, you should ask such questions as: Is the offense so great that the person cannot be trusted with the office even another week? Is the problem so great that this person can no longer do the job – or is the damage to the community so great it just cant be allowed to continue through the rest of the term? The Young recallers obviously came nowhere near that kind of standard.

A day’s drive to the north puts that in perspective. There, recall activists did put Spokane Mayor West on a recall election ballot, and voters are finishing their balloting now; the deadline, and the counting, occurs on Tuesday. Almost certainly, West will be recalled.

The Spokesman-Review reports today that a new opinion survey shows West has gained a little ground from previous polls; evidently, the previously undecided are breaking mostly for West. (There weren’t many undecideds, and the pro-recallers still lead 58% to 38%.) You can understand that. There’s been a kind of piling on (the Spokesman has run more than 150 stories on the West scandal) and West seems a tragic figure, much more than a doer of bad deeds. On one level, his offenses are not massive. While his case has been a spectacle because of the outing of a conservative Republican as gay or bisexual, his offenses – which at most concern the use of a city computer and appointment of people with whom he was socially involved – are not especially horrific.

But there is another consideration. West was elected in 2003, and if not recalled (he has made abundantly clear he will not resign) he will stay in office into early 2008. As long as he is mayor, West and the city cannot escape the cloud over them both. However many good things West has done (and in many respects he has been a good mayor) or would do, he will be forever handicapped by the scandal. The city will not really have a mayor who can do what a mayor needs to do – which includes representing the city in a positive light. In fundamental ways, however unfair it may be, West realistically can’t do the job any more. And so the election: Can Spokane do with only a half-mayor more the next two-plus years?

It probably can’t, not easily. And so while the late surge of sympathy for the embattled mayor is understandable, so too will be the vote on Tuesday ousting him from office.

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