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Posts published in “Washington”

Nonpayment, of course

One wouldn't have thought that there would have been any question at this point that organizations which engaged in contracts with Enron Corporation - contracts for purchases executed at times when Enron's activities were outright unethical at best - would be held to payments to the corrupt company.

But just that has been hanging over the head of the Snohomish County Public Utility District, which has been on the hook for more than $120 million to Enron.

No longer. The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission ruled, in one of a long string of Enron-related cases this week (one of them covered some of the fallout from the Portland General Electric spinoff) that Enron could not collect.

What lessons exactly we may draw from this, however, are less clear.

Gregoiristan?

Single-line quotes are so apt to be taken out of context that you have to be careful with them. But this one by Washington Governor Chris Gregoire was startling: "Washington is more like a small nation than a state."

Governor Chris GregoireThe context was the recent spate of visits to the state by foreign leaders: Hu of China, Fox of Mexico and (she was announcing) Rasmussen of Denmark, and the comment was a reference to the latter's visit.

Also, allowing Stefan Sharkansky's easy snark, "Yes, but which small nation?
Cuba? Turkmenistan? Honduras?"

But, more substantively, it provides backdrop for the governor's more recent statements on national security.

She said (to be sure, much as California's Arnold Schwartznegger has done) that should not send Washington national guard troops to the Mexican border - that Washingtonians need the security help at home.

Then there was the concern expressed over the reports about North Korean rockets, powerful enough to reach the American west coast. That triggered an unusual call for getting out of Iraq.

And then, the Seattle Times David Postman quotes her as saying this:

"I'm disturbed by what we're hearing. It is not the news that I think any of us should have to hear from North Korea and I want Washingtonians to understand the security risks to the nation and to us, but to understand that we've got to remain ever diligent and I ask every Washingtonian to be smart about their own personal security, and again any time they see something that raises a concern they get to law enforcement right away."

Has all this been just an odd confluence of statements, or are we seeing some new direction in the Gregoire Administration?

Small but not forgotten

Pretty much all daily newspapers across the United States, and some sub-dailies - some twice- or thrice-weekly or larger weekly papers - along with most news-providing broadcasters are members of the Associated Press, which supplies all those stories with the (AP) tag 0n them. The AP has has its own large newsgathering staff, but most of those stories come from the member newspapers. That creates an enormous reservoir of potential news items, but there's still a large gap: What about all those stories in weekly or other newspapers, stories coming from the smaller communities which aren't picked up?

Small Town Papers News Service, founded (ironically?) in Seattle, aims to remediate that, spreading news from smaller communities.

It's a national service, but Washington seems to be one of its strong points. Its list of participating titles there includes the Edmonds Beacon, the Mattawa Area News, the Mukilteo Beacon, the Bonney Lake & Lake Tapps Courier-Herald at Enumclaw, the Boomerang at Palouse, the Enumclaw Courier Herald and the South County Sun at Royal City.

Oregon papers are the McKenzie River Reflections at McKenzie Bridge, the Clatskanie Chief and the Elgin Times. In Idaho there's the Latah Eagle at Moscow, the Aberdeen Times and the Power County Press at American Falls.

Don’t take it to the bank

When a committee of experienced financiers this fall examines the financial options available for rebuilding or replacing the Alaskan Way Viaduct in Seattle, it probalby will slow down a groan a bit when it gets the proposal offered today by Mayor Greg Nickles.

Not because it's irrational or unfeasible. But there's an uncomfortable amount of betting on the come involved in it, and for that reason we suspect the search for a winning formula probably will go on.

To back up: The Viaduct is a roadway roughly paralleling the shoreline of Elliot Bay in Puget Sound, between the water and the downtown hillside. the roadway is raised and limited-access. For some , it is a visual abomination; for us (and we fit mainly into this camp). It's a great piece of transportation workmanship, because it actually allows drivers to swiftly (most of the time) cross from one side of downtown to the other. The problem is that it is unstable. A single serious geologic jolt could bring it crashing down.

Dealing with it somehow is going to be expensive, and there's no way around that. Maybe the least expensive way would be eliminating it and throwing traffic onto the surface streets, but in this already traffic-clogged city, few have the stomach for that. The other options: Rebuild it more sturdily more or less where it is, or build a tunnel underneath. The former now has an estimated price tag of up to $2.4 billion, the latter about $3.6 billion. You can reasonably expect both numbers to rise with time. (more…)

Fire time

Our first thought about this year's fire season was that it should be a little lighter than most of those in recent years. After all, there's more water up in the hills, more water moving around, even a little flooding in spots. And so far it hasn't been an especially hot or dry summer.

But all that water is generating a lot more plants. (Our garden is doing much better this year than last, thanks.) And those plants seem to be generating a lot more fires.

Here's the national fire picture, from the National Interagency Fire Center at Boise, year to date, comparing the last few years.

2006 (1/1/06 - 6/22/06) Fires: 53,563 Acres: 3,187,940
2005 (1/1/05 - 6/22/05) Fires: 27,906 Acres: 745,959
2004 (1/1/04 - 6/22/04) Fires: 35,889 Acres: 790,941
2003 (1/1/03 - 6/22/03) Fires: 25,338 Acres: 520,384
2002 (1/1/02 - 6/22/02) Fires: 42,846 Acres: 2,283,493
2001 (1/1/01 - 6/22/01) Fires: 38,742 Acres: 861,714

The average through that period is 38,914 to this point in the year; you'll notice we're considerably exceeding it this year. In fact, on the averages so far, this is shaping up as possibly the worst fire year for a long time.

What's helped - and the main reason you've not been hearing about it much yet - is that most of these fires so far in 2006 have been small and unspectacular, and some have been controlled burns. At the moment no fires are reported in Washington or Oregon, and just one (near Wendell, but good sized at 8,700 acres) in Idaho. But the way the year is progressing, things may not stay that way. Keep a watch.

Where not to live

Aquick bit of amusement: Dave Oliveria asks his northern Idaho/eastern Washington readers which towns in either state they would not want to live in. Of course, "Besides Athol?"

The pile of responses are sometimes funny and sometimes surprisingly enlightening.

Popularity contest

Who's the most popular senator in the Northwest (and elsewhere)? SurveyUSA has the answers.

The polling company, which polls state by state in coordination with local organizations (TV stations, in the Northwest), has been doing regular popularity numbers on top elected officials. As of June, here are the numbers for the region's Senate delegation:

Senator State Favorable % Unfavorable % Margin
Mike Crapo/R Idaho 59% 31% 28%
Ron Wyden/D Oregon 56% 33% 23%
Larry Craig/R Idaho 58% 35% 23%
Patty Murray/D Washington 51% 40% 11%
Gordon Smith/R Oregon 47% 41% 6%
Maria Cantwell/D Washington 48% 43% 5%

None of them were super-high; Crapo, who ranked highest, was 27th among the 100 senators. Cantwell ranked at 80; poor luck for her that the lowest-ranking of the senators is also the only one in the region up for election this year.

In 2008, however, Idaho's Craig and Oregon's Smith return to the ballot (assuming they're running again - neither has announced). Neither have overwhelming numbers, according to SUSA, and Smith's in particular seem a little weak. If Democrats fare well in November in Oregon, the partisan knives will be out for Smith before long. An approval rating at 47% isn't where you want it to be if you're heading up to an election.

Tighter, tighter

It flies in the face of conventional Washington politics, of campaign finance numbers, of the political atmospherics and more. but the polling numbers look consistent: The Washington Senate race keeps getting tighter and tigher.

Maria CantwellThe latest Rasmussen Reports Poll on the race shows a lead by Democratic incumbent Senator Maria Cantwell over her Republican challenger, insurance company executive Mike McGavick, of 44%-40% - just about at the margin of error.

Maria CantwellApart from the closeness, two aspects here ought to give the Cantwell people big worries. One is that her lead has been diminishing, steadily, since January, from 15% then, to 13% in March, to 8% in April and 5% in May. About the only consolation is that the race may not be tightening quite as fast as it was.

The other, maybe bigger, issue is that since March or so she has fallen below the 50% mark, and an incumbent held to below 50% is an incumbent in high risk. Again, a minor consolation: McGavick's numbers are up only 3% since the polling started last fall, so he hasn't been gaining a lot, either. (The counter to that would be that McGavick is still introducing himself to voters, while Cantwell already is well known.)

These results aren't unqie; they fit generally with other recent polling results as well. Consider this from Survey USA, which polled only favorable/unfavorable about incumbent senators: Cantwell polled 48% favorable and 43% unfavorable - again, not good for an incumbent.

One thing this suggests is that Washington residents, so far, arent' falling in love with either one of them.

Up for investment

The next newspaper up for sale in the Seattle area is - no, not the Post Intelligencer, but rather the suburban daily to the east across the water, the King County Journal.

King County JournalIt never seems to have had an easy history. It started with great, bright promise: two small east King newspapers, the Eastside Journal and the Bellevue American, were sold to a new publishing group which turned them into the daily Bellevue Journal-American. We remember visiting their offices in the late 70s (in a beautiful woodsy setting); the place was full of ambition and seemed ready to vault ahead. And the timing would seem to have been perfect, since the Eastside then was just on the edge of the fierce growth that continues today. We would have guessed then, if we'd known how Bellevue, Renton, and the other communities in the area were about to grow, that the J-A would become an extremely successful paper, its circulation well over 100,000.

The King County Journal, which is its renamed successor today (and consisting as well of merged local papers), is well short of that. Not a bad newspaper for its area, and something like the 7th-largest daily in the state, it does seem to have a limited ambition, operating in the shadows of the behemoths across the water. Its owner, in recent years Horvitz Newspapers (led by Peter Horvitz), has put money into it - a big $20 million plant project just a few years ago - and tried various combination and approaches, but the papers never quite seem to have found their niche.

Usually newspaper companies describe the reasons for putting papers on the block in terms of corporate strategic planning - "this paper didn't mesh with our long-term corporate plan." Horvitz, who in the past has been quoted as saying the papers never have been as profitable as he would like, was more blunt in his announcement.

The paper said "Horvitz said he and his board of directors decided to sell because the company doesn’t have the resources to achieve the paper’s potential." That's a remarkable statement. And more: He was quoted directly as saying, "We’re proud of the significant progress these newspapers have made over many years, especially in a very difficult economic and competitive environment, and we believe that much progress can be made in future years if King County Journal Newspapers is owned by a company that can continue to make the necessary investments in the newspapers."

In other words: Don't buy these papers with the idea you can make any quick bucks, and expect to pour money in before you get much out. If that's not the most conventional commentary an owner might offer before sale, Horvitz' statement does have an uncommon ring of painful and precise truth.