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Sempra’s out

In a month of substantial Idaho news, this ranks close to the top: Announcement this morning that Sempra Inc. will abandon its plans to build a massive coal-fired plant near Jerome.

Sempra logoSempra was departing, clearly, because its plans have caused an uproar. We've heard from Magic Valley people that the public sentiment there is "nearly unanimous" against it. It must be, if you consider the atittude of the legislature, which was on the verge of passing a two-year moratorium against construction of the plant. That Democratic state Senator Clint Stennett of Ketchum would jump early out in front on this wasn't a great shock, and his position developed as increasingly "anti" over time.

But Republicans in the Idaho Legislature hardly ever adopt something that would be construed as an anti-business stance, and for quite a while many of them seemed reluctant to do that even in this case. But the pressure from back home must have ben fierce. House Speaker Bruce Newcomb led a push on one major Sempra-limiting proposal, and the House passed it, and so did a Senate committee, and the Senate was on the verge of agreeing . . . when Sempra backed out today.

That might not have been the end of the situation. Sempra has strong political pull nationally. The Senate vote was not completely foregone. And then there was the matter of Govenror Dirk Kempthorne, nominated as secretary of the Interior in the Bush Administration, which looks kindly on projects like the one Sempra has proposed. More than that: Sempra and the Bush Administration turn out to be close buddies on a number of matters, from energy development in Mexico (one report notes "A Department of Energy report said Sempra Energy International is the only U.S.-based company with significant involvement in Mexico's natural gas infrastructure") to California energy politics. Would a Kempthorne veto be out of the question?

It's a foregone question now, and the main reason may be this: Sempra is holding a major alanyst conference today, and probably wants to start focusing more on positive news rather than the growing populist revolt up in Idaho. Which they well be sick of by this point.

There may be a larger point in Sempra President Michael Niggli's statement that this development may "seriously compromise the willingness of investors to develop energy projects at a time when the state most needs to plan and attrach investment in energy infrastructure to meet Idaho's future needs." We suspect that to the extent those energy projects would have the kind of impact this one might have had, quite a few Idahoans are likely to respond, "just as well."

Breakaway point

Adate to conjure with on Oregon's calendar: April 3 has been set as the day Portland General Electric formally becomes an independent company once again, and splits off from Enron.

A good thing, most Oregonians will agree, whatever comes next.

April 3 is apt to change the tenor of the debate. It's one thing when you're blasting away at a corrupt and faraway Enron, rather a different when it's your own homegrown utility. More or less.

Demonstrating viability

Credit the Ben Westlund people with getting their message right out there. Running an independent campaign for governor of Oregon isn't an easy proposition, but they're doing a number of things right so far.

Alongside the promotion [in their e-mail newsletter; no permalink available] for opening their campaign headquarters (on Wednesday) in Bend (okay, but they really do need a branch office in the Willamette somewhere), the Westlund campaign casually tossed in a reference to Friday as the close of the next campaign reporting period.

They can still fundraise the rest of this week but they note, "Already 385 people and businesses have contributed or pledged nearly $300,000 to our campaign."

Not bad. Will be intersting to do the comparisons with other campaigns (especially once we see what the others have left after their primaries, a concern Westlund can bypass).

Traffic tickets

On the short list of political liabilities Democratic Senator Maria Cantwell has to deal with this year - and one happily noted by conservatives at Sound Politics and elsewhere - has been the Senate candidacy of Aaron Dixon.

Aaron DixonDixon is a former Black Panther who is seeking the Green Party nomination, evidently after a number of Greens asked him to run. He is coming at Cantwell from the left, blasting her (as his website shows) for her initial support of the Iraq war and for her vote to reauthorize the Patroit Act, and for refusing to filibuster the Supreme Court appointment of Samuel Alito. Overall, it's a message with some resonance in Seattle and some other places in the state, and whatever votes Dixon would get with it presumably would come out of the hide of Cantwell, rather than her Republican challenger, Mike McGavick.

The portions of the left who see Cantwell as imperfect but the only real option to a Republican takeover of the seat have not been idle. Joel Connelly of the Seattle Post Intelligencer last week warned about the dangers of a split on the left "Cantwell's vilification by the left bizarre").

And David Goldstein of the Horse's Ass blog has taken matters a step further. He and his readers have assembled a remarkable case against Dixon through a public records inquiry. As summed up in the Eat the State Blog (run by Seattle Weekly writer Geov Parrish):

1) Eighteen criminal charges in the last 17 years, most (but not all) for traffic violations and unpaid traffic fines.
2) Massive debts from dozens of unpaid fines in both Seattle Municipal Court and King County District Court. A number are for driving without insurance (and yes, he can afford it.)
3) Dixon claims on his web site that the woman he currently lives with (and who is his campaign media contact) is his wife. She isn’t, and she’d better not be. He’s still in the process of divorcing his last wife.
4) And he owes thousands in unpaid child support to yet another ex.
5) Not only has Dixon not voted since registering in 1998 (which was reported Thursday), but he’s never voted before that, either. In other words, he’s never voted in King County. Ever, over an adult life spanning nearly 40 years. And his inactive voter registration lists a now-invalid address.

A problematic start, at best, to a campaign. With the probability that another roadblock has been cleared from Cantwell's path.

Separation of everybody and state

We're not going to argue here that Oregon legislative services are logally in the wrong in their contention that state legislators' web sites should not - under legal and ethical guidelines - include links to non-governmental web areas.

There's some grayness to the top, but you could make a case that they're right. Legally. And that their decision to take down all individual legislator pages to strip them of non-government links was justifiable.

The larger question is, should that be the law?

There's not an absolute in this area. People would have good cause to object if, for example, the state treasurer's web site carried a link to a bank, or if the state forestry web site linked to their favorite restaurant, or some other to a church.

Surely, though, there's a reasonably distinction between that and the things legislators have routinely been linking to. (None of those links, apparently, was the subject of a complaint or a specific tripwire for the removal action.) They've been linking to community service organizations, non-profits, occasionally to a chanber of commerce, sometimes to news stories. Most of them fall either into the category of "here's where you can go to help your community" or "here's some more information." And legislators are, after all, in the business of trafficking in ideas and information - that's what their job is about. Surely there's nothing wrong with that kind of dissemination.

Today's Oregonian news article on this quoted freshman Representative Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, as suggesting that the system is self-correcting: If legislators post something inappropriate on their sites, they'll hear about it and likely correct it. She also said she may introduce legislation in the next session (if she returns) to allow non-governmental links.

Indeed: You can take the matter of purity a step or two too far.

Another M37 delimiter

We know that Measure 37 is live and on the Oregon books, but in so many ways we still don't know what that means. We don't yet know, for example, how the legal argument over transferring property will play out.

Courtesy of Rogue Pundit, another delimiter on Measure 37 is emerging: property taxes.

It cites an article in the Medford Mail-Tribune about Wayne Ralph, who owns five acres of farm land outside White City. Ralph, in common with a bunch of other Oregon landowners, filed a Measure 37 claim on his property, which he sought to turn into a subdivision. His claim was approved about a year ago, and not long after filed a subdivision plat.

Now the other shoe, in the Mail-Tribune's words: "The Jackson County Assessor’s Office sent him a bill recently for $6,000 in taxes for the past 10 years because the property now has a higher value."

Howls of outrage have followed, of course, but county officials have said the law is clear: As soon as someone does what Ralph did, he becomes liable for back taxes.

Just might give some claimants a moment's pause.

If it’s a close call

The Oregon governor's race won't necessarily be close. The default assumption here is that Democratic incumbent Ted Kulongoski will win it by a significant margin still far short of a landslide; and that much of the chatter against him generates more from activists on the left and right than from the large voting populace.

But the situation is fluid enough that it could easily turn out otherwise. A reminder of that came with the opening of the gubernatorial campaign of Joe Keating - of the Pacific Green Party.

Republicans have been touting this one. They point that, after all, four years ago the Greens declined to run a candidate (former Democratic U.S. Representative Jim Weaver had been mentioned) because they didn't want to risk a Republican winning the office. And they point out that the Libertarians, who had no such compunction about the election of a Democrat, ran and may have siphoned off enough Republican votes to elect Kulongoski. (Doubtful, in our opinion, but possible.) and the Libertarian candidate of 2002 has become a support this year of Republican candidate Kevin Mannix.

For Keating's part, news reports have quoted him as being unconcerned about whether his entry hurts Kulongoski's chances: He's among the disaffected.

However, as an AP story out today soundly notes, there's more to the picture.

The Libertarians won't have the same nominee but say they will be back in the race. And the right will also have the presence of the Constitution Party. That group absented itself from the governor's race in 2002 at the request of some Republicans, just as the Greens did at the request of Democrats.

The big new factor this year is likely to be the entry of Independent Ben Westlund of Tumalo. But it's anyone's guess - and there are good arguments both ways - whether he will draw more from the Democratic or Republican side of the fence. Maybe he'll draw more or less evenly.

Score so far on the fringe party wars: No discerniable change.

A liquor comparative

Liquor legislation - that is, the law setting out who can consume, buy, sell and transport liquor, and to and from where and when, and probably more besides - is always a tricky matter in the Idaho Legislature.

liquor imageOne reason for that may be religious. Many members of the Idaho Legislature, at least a third and probably more, belong to religious groups that ban or discourage any drinking of alcohol. There's also that constitutional provision encouraging temperance, though the implementation of it is open to multiple interpretations.

None of this has stopped House Bill 673, which has cleared both House and Senate. Since it was amended in the Senate (though not, evidently, in fundamental ways), another House vote is needed, but the odds strongly favor passage (and signature by the governor). This measure explicitly expands the number of places in the state where liquor can be sold, which often is a hard sell at the statehouse.

But this wasn't just anyone calling. This was the new Tamarack Resort, a place with plenty of political pull, and the person bringing the bill was its lobbyist, Scott Turlington, who previously was a staffer for Governor Dirk Kempthorne. Introduced on February 13, it has marched steadily through the process. There were significant numbers of nay votes, 17 in the House and 12 in the Senate, but not enough to put it at risk.

To be clear: We see nothing at all wrong with a major resort like the Tamarack serving liquor. It's a normal part of that business, and no significant downside to it is apparent. And the terms of the current bill seem, in the context of Idaho liquor law, reasonable.

But contrast the legislature's response in this case to that of another - a bill that would not expand use of alcohol but simply ensure an existing business can continue to operate in the same trouble-free way it has for a generation. (more…)

The other meth crisis

The Willamette Week, like most alternative weeklies, usually takes only potshots at the community's dominant medium - the long, in-depth pieces usually take off in their own independent directions. As perhaps they should.

This week, they did something different, pointing an extremely barbed arrow at the editorial heart of the Portland Oregonian. For no single story has been closer to the heart of that paper than the abuse of methamphetamine. And much of the paper's reportage on that story, the Week says, has been badly flawed.

To back up for a moment: The O's coverage of this subject, led by reporter Steve Suo, has in many ways been remarkable. It has included some superb research - large portions of it reached a peak of journalism any newspaper would aspire to. And it has had substantial legislative effect, not only in Salem but also in Washington. For just one example, people won't be getting their cold medicines the same way, because of these stories.

But we have for some months pointed to flaws in this coverage as well: Its conception of the meth story, as insular and central to a much broader social pathology, has been distortive. Its sense of causes is weak, and its direct argument for solutions fails under slight pressure.

The Willamette Week, which decided to fact-check and critically consider the paper's meth coverage, covers some of those points and more besides. Consider its summary: (more…)