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Tuesday, March 31, 2009

State Senate keeps Homeowner's Bill of Rights alive by amending HB 1393

Yesterday, March 30th, was the fourth cutoff of the 2009 Washington legislative session. Bills that were not reported out of committee as of last night with a do pass recommendation are now dead. (Technically, any bill can be revived if legislative leaders really want to consider it, but it rarely happens).

Last week, the House Judiciary Committee decided to kill Senate Bill 5895, the safe homes guarantee legislation sponsored by Senator Rodney Tom, which we call the Homeowner's Bill of Rights. House Judiciary Chair Jamie Pedersen (D-43rd District) confirmed to NPI last Wednesday when I met with him that his committee wouldn't even be giving SB 5895 the courtesy of a hearing.

Pedersen justified the decision by noting that his committee had held a hearing early in the session devoted exclusively to similar legislation, and that he felt giving SB 5895 a hearing would make it difficult for his committee to work on other priority bills sent over by the Senate.

(Judiciary is evidently the landing place for bills from several different Senate committees, according to Pedersen).

He also indicated that he and House Speaker Frank Chopp want HB 1393 to be the vehicle that passes the Legislature addressing the issue of home construction defects. HB 1393 is prime sponsored by Larry Springer (D-45th District).

The first incarnation of HB 1393 looked promising, and by the time the bill made it to the floor, Springer had offered a striking amendment (PDF) put together by House Democratic caucus staff that would have made it even better.

Unfortunately, Springer withdrew that amendment, and offered a second striking amendment (PDF) which we safe homes advocates have been told was largely crafted by the Building Industry Association of Washington.

This striking amendment was adopted, and it constituted the final version that passed the House, by a vote of fifty two to forty five.

Engrossed Second Substitute House Bill 1393 was duly transmitted to the Senate and referred to the Labor, Commerce & Consumer Protection Committee, where it received a public hearing on March 23rd along with several other bills.

I testified at that hearing in opposition, explaining that HB 1393 was fatally flawed, as did my colleague Blair Anundson of WashPIRG. Also testifying in opposition were representatives of the BIAW, who oppose it, even though it's their handiwork (because they'd prefer the Legislature do nothing at all).

The most awful part of HB 1393 was Section 14, similar to New Jersey's existing law, which stipulates that home builders are required to provide a warranty with new homes. The builder, however, gets to decide what warranty is offered, not the homeowner. The builder can choose to offer a private, express warranty from companies like the Residential Warranty Corporation (RWC).

These express private warranties are worse than worthless because they provide false comfort - the misplaced assurance that everything will be taken care of. In reality, the warranties are explicitly designed to shield irresponsible builders and thwart any attempt by a homeowner to collect damages for an improperly built home. Exclusions allow the builder to claim the warranty doesn't apply, and even where both parties agree it indisputably does, the warranty requires homeowners to seek redress through an industry sponsored arbitration process.

Enacting HB 1393 with Section 14 would thus have made a bad situation worse.

Fortunately, the Labor, Commerce & Consumer Protection Committee, chaired by Senator Jeanne Kohl Welles (D-36th District) listened carefully to our feedback.

This morning, they struck the language that the House passed, replacing it with new, strong language (PDF) that would protect homeowners and help builders improve their reputation.

Gone are the express warranties. Instead, there's a solid statutory warranty (which was at the heart of Senator Tom's SB 5895) that can't be waived, modified, or disclaimed. It's a guarantee of safe home construction that homeowners and builders alike will be able to bank on for years to come.

The new 1393 language, among other things, also requires wood moisture inspections for all new homes, which could help prevent problems down the line for many homeowners. And it establishes certification requirements for contractors working on roofing, siding, framing, foundations, doors, and windows.

In short, it's a really strong bill.

We commend Senators Kohl-Welles, Kline, Keiser, and Franklin for listening to our concerns and addressing them in such a complete fashion.

We are pleased to once again support HB 1393, and we look forward to working with lawmakers in both the House and the Senate to get this legislation all the way through the statehouse to the desk of Governor Chris Gregoire.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Retro reform moves ahead in State House

Last Friday, the House Commerce & Labor Committee reported out an important bill that would reform the state's retrospective ratings system - a program created by the Legislature many years ago to help out companies that are required to purchase industrial insurance from the State Department of Labor & Industries, but demonstrate their commitment to worker safety.

Commonly known as retro, the program, which provides refunds to companies or groups of companies that have a safe year, has long been abused by the Building Industry Association of Washington.

For years, the BIAW has been withholding a portion of its members' refunds to use on electioneering, to bolster Republican candidates, slime Democrats, and fund dangerous right wing initiatives that hurt our quality of life.

SB 6035, which passed the State Senate earlier this month, would require organizations that manage group plans (such as the BIAW) to obtain their members' consent before withholding funds for non-administrative purposes.

In other words, it ensures that business owners get to make the decision about what happens to their refund, instead of permitting plan administrators to unilaterally do whatever they want with the money.

We've been concerned that the House might not take up SB 6035, and that it could die in committee, but we're very pleased to see that it's moving ahead and has survived today's bill cutoff. Retro reform is one of the Northwest Progressive Institute's top legislative priorities.

SB 6035's next stop is likely the House Rules Committee, which is responsible for determining what goes onto the House floor. We hope within the next few weeks the House will act on this bill and send it to the governor so we can reform the retro program and put business owners in control of what happens to their refunds.

New York's wealthy to invest more in their state

As Washington’s legislature unveils its proposed budget for the 2010-2011 biennium, 47 other states are also grappling with their own budget shortfalls. One such state is New York which made a deal this weekend to temporarily raise taxes on the very rich in order to help balance its $16 billion budget deficit.

New York wasn't afraid to do what was necessary in order to maintain important state services, and they also made their tax code more fair and progressive in the bargain:
Saturday night's budget deal overhauls the state's income tax rates to get $4 billion from wealthier residents who have been paying about the same rate as a family making $40,000 a year. The agreement will increase the current top rate of 6.85 percent. Residents making more than $300,000 but less than $500,000 would face an income tax rate of 7.85 percent. Those making more than $500,000 would see a rate of 8.97 percent.
Raising taxes on those who can afford to pay them when so many citizens are in deep financial straits is the fair thing to do. N.P.I. applauds New York for having the political chutzpah to enact fair tax policy. A new Democratic majority in the New York state legislature this fall, plus a Democratic governor made this change possible.

What prevents Washington with its similar Democratic controlled state government from enacting a more progressive tax code as well? If a state income tax can’t be enacted with this disastrous budget looming over us, then what chance does it have in less necessary times?

The sad answer is that state government lacks the political will for change and there is also a lack of citizen leadership within the state to press the issue. It will take a combined effort of citizens, business, academic and media influences to make our tax code more fair and less subject to the changing winds of the economy.

How do we start the discussion on tax reform? A good place to start is by talking to our neighbors and friends. We can also write letters to the local newspaper and our legislators advocating for a more progressive tax system, including a state income tax.

With over half of our state revenue coming from sales tax, it’s time to stop funding state services on the backs of those who must spend their entire paychecks on necessities, and find a way to better balance the load.

Democratic leaders in State Senate release horrendous all-cuts budget proposal

State Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, Ways & Means Chair Margarita Prentice, and Ways & Means Vice Chair Rodney Tom are currently holding a press conference in Olympia to discuss some of the lowlights of the awful budget proposal they're releasing. Among those hit the hardest will he Washington's institutions of higher education and the state's mentally ill population.

Rich Roesler from the Spokesman-Review has already combed through the document, which he says is like the size of a phone book:
It calls for closing the state prison on McNeil Island, doing away with hundreds of millions of dollars in cost-of-living increases for state workers, college staffers and teachers, and cutting nearly half a billion from higher education. Drug- and alcohol treatment would be cut, and 3,000 people judged unemployable — often due to mental illness — would be cut from a $339 monthly stipend and health care.

The plan is largely a no-new-taxes plan, although it would include a voluntary $5 annual fee per vehicle to stave off the closure of dozens of state parks. It also does away with a real-estate tax exemption for foreclosed homes sold by banks. It includes far more in tax breaks, including a $2.1 million tax break for newspapers.
In addition, funding for the voter approved Initiative 728 (class size reduction) and Initiative 732 (cost of living increases for teachers) would be pretty much wiped out, according to Senator Rodney Tom.

That would yield "savings" of over $800 million.

The cuts to state colleges and universities are even more awful. Tuition would be hiked by seven percent everywhere, and every university would be forced to make brutal cuts. Eastern Washington University's budget, for example, would be cut by a fifth, leading to the layoffs of over one hundred employees.

About ten thousand slots for students would also be cut at the state's public universities and colleges.

"This really isn't about numbers, it's about people," Tom noted at the press conference, emphasizing that the cuts would be extremely painful.

"There isn't anyone in this room... who isn't finding things they care about. This is truly devastating... for all of us," Senator Margarita Prentice added.

A total of roughly eight thousand state employees would be laid off, damaging our state's prospects for a quicker economic recovery and putting more Washingtonians out of work.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Happy fifth birthday, NPI Advocate!

Today is Blogoversary Day at the Northwest Progressive Institute.

Five years ago, as John Kerry was coasting victorious out of an unpredictable nominating season, we launched what has become one of our most important projects and a valuable communication tool: this blog, The NPI Advocate.

At the time of its founding, The Advocate was known as the Northwest Progressive Institute Official Blog, so named because we meant for it to be our primary means of publishing announcements about completed projects or endeavors in progress.

Although the Official Blog became popular, the name never caught on, because it was confusing and uninspiring. Readers didn't like it and neither did we. (In fact, during the blog's early years, the masthead didn't even display the full name. It simply read, Northwest Progressive Institute.)

Eventually, we decided to remedy this, and so, a year ago, during the blog's fourth blogoversary, we launched a naming contest to give the Official Blog a proper name. From among the final entries submitted by readers, we chose The Advocate to be the blog's new name, and unveiled it in July of 2008.

The name change was easily the most important thing that happened to this blog in its fifth year, but there were other memorable moments too. Here's a quick look back at some of the highlights from the last three hundred and sixty five days.

Liveblogging: The Advocate offered continuous coverage of Netroots Nation in Austin, the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, and the inauguration of Barack Obama in Washington, D.C.

Notable Announcements: Readers of The Advocate were the first to learn that Ret. General Paul Eaton would be the featured speaker at our 2008 Spring Fundraising Gala, that we were kicking off The Downballot Project to cover campaigns receiving little attention from the traditional media, and that we were bringing back In Brief as our new microblog.

Guest Posts: Every now and then, we publish guest posts by distinguished special contributors. Our three favorite guest posts from the last twelve months were Michelle Gregoire's Election Day message about turning out friends and family to vote on November 2nd, Gael Tarleton's post on restoring trust at the Port of Seattle, and Steve Zemke's update on efforts to save a valuable grove of trees at Seattle's Ingraham High School.

Most Popular: Readers really liked my review of OpenOffice.org Writer, Ken's post on Republican attempts to obstruct Eric Holder's nomination, and my recap of developments in the Minnesota Senate recount from last December.

Today marks the end of a fun and exciting fifth year, and the beginning of the Advocate's sixth year. We're still going strong, and we hope you'll stick with us as we continue to chronicle our perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

LIVE from the Seattle Green Festival 2009: What a show!

It may be a dreary Saturday across Western Washington, with rain in the forecast all the way through the evening, but fortunately, the Green Festival is in town this weekend. Hundreds of exhibitors have set up shop in the Washington Convention and Trade Center, showcasing their wares, their work, or both.

I'm blogging live from the media lounge, after having walked through practically the entire festival (which took some time because of the crowds). This year's event looks extremely well attended, with almost no vendor in want of an audience.

There are electric cars on display, organic wine and beer tasting, a children's activity center, a green home pavilion, the Fair Trade Cafe, a natural food dining area, and recycling stations every few meters.

Children at the Seattle Green Festival
Children at the Seattle Green Festival

Some of the more interesting products I've seen today include All-Ett Billfolds (the world's thinnest wallet, recyclable and made with biodegradable products), Konjacu (a one hundred percent handmade veggie fiber skincare sponge) and Natural Sense organic mattresses (which are amazingly soft).

Those hoping to get some good leads for an environmentally friendly home renovation project won't be disappointed. There are about two dozen contractors and/or green building firms here, offering everything from installation of a solar roof to building performance testing for heat loss.

There are also vendors selling nontoxic toys, organic pet food, and eco-friendly countertops. And there are six firms here offering information about or assistance with socially responsible investing.

One of my favorite exhibitors, which I discovered last year, is the Better World Club - the nation's only environmentally friendly automobile association.

Unlike the AAA (American Automobile Association), which long ago became an important part of the big highway lobby, Better World Club doesn't use its member fees to advocate the construction of wider urban asphalt and concrete canyons.

The coolest thing about Better World Club is that they don't merely offer roadside services for motorists. They're the only auto club I've ever heard of that provides emergency assistance for bicyclists.

Rates are reasonable and you get a whole host of benefits with membership.

If anything I've just described intrigues you, I urge you to make an effort to come down to the Green Festival this weekend.

The event is open until 7 PM both today and tomorrow. Sunday's speakers include Amy Goodman (noon) and Lawrence Lessig (2 PM).

You'll be glad you went.

Friday, March 27, 2009

No credit? No problem... if you're a bank director or a chief executive officer

President Barack Obama has said on a number of ocassions that his administration believes that getting credit flowing to small businesses again is vital to jumpstarting our economy. It turns out that the nation's largest banks, which are holding on to their capital pretty tightly, are eager to lend... to their own executives and directors. A recent article from McClatchy revealed that banks hold some $41 billion in insider loans to their own leaders.
At Charlotte-based Bank of America, those loans more than doubled last year, to $624.2 million — the biggest dollar jump in the country. The largest of them likely went to three directors or their companies. The surge came during the third quarter as credit markets froze, the government prepared to infuse banks with billions in tax dollars and the board approved the purchase of troubled Merrill Lynch.

Bank of America ranked fourth on the list of biggest insider lenders. At the top was JPMorgan of New York, which held $1.48 billion in insider loans, mostly by directors or their companies.

At No. 2, Charlotte-based Wachovia, which was sold to Wells Fargo of San Francisco at the end of 2008, finished the year with $747 million in insider loans. All of the loans were held by the bank's directors or their companies, with just five holding the largest.
What's to be done about the practice of insider lending?

It may not be illegal, but it certainly seems unfair that banks are lending to their own while many small businesses are struggling to get credit.

Many of the big banks mentioned in McClatchy's article have been recipients of Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP) money. The Obama administration could impose new rules on banks to require banks to lend fairly.

Alternatively, we could listen to the libertarians, abandon the bailout approach, and let the banks compete. The ones that fail would probably take people and businesses down with them, but that's just something we'd have to live with.

What about individual consumers? What can we do if we're tired of waiting for our government to force these banks to clean up their act? Is there any way we can vote with our dollars for change (no pun intended)?

It turns out there is. Democratic financial institutions are out there - and they're happy to welcome new members. They're commonly known as credit unions.

At a credit union, all of the depositors are also shareholders. (In credit union parlance, they're member-owners.)

Credit unions don't exist to make money. The purpose of a credit union is to help its members, primarily by extending loans to members who want to buy a house, acquire a new car, or start a business. Credit unions offer many of the same services as banks, including checking and savings accounts that are federally insured by NCUA, the National Credit Union Administration (which is the equivalent of the FDIC, but for credit unions).

We can watch our elected leaders discuss policy. But when was the last time any of us watched a bank board meeting or went to an annual shareholder meeting?

Credit unions, in contrast, hold annual meetings open to all members. All depositors are shareholders, and all it takes to become a depositor at some credit unions is a visit to the credit union, with proof of residency.

If you're fed up with the way banks operate and you want to do something about it, make the switch. Move your money out of banks and into a local credit union.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Spokane media makes a big deal about 'sexting'

Earlier this week KXLY 5, one of the local TV stations in Spokane, ran a story about "sexting", a term that refers to underaged teenagers taking nude pictures of themselves and using multimedia messaging to exchange the photos on their mobile phones. KXLY describes sexting this way:
...it is the latest fad which could put your child at risk or possibly behind bars, as nude photos of anyone under the age of 18 are technically considered to be child pornography.
Sexting isn't new, and although I have seen no instances of it, it is certainly happening. Ironically, the behavior itself is not as troubling as how American society has responded to it so far.

For example, prosecutors using child pornography laws to prosecute those who have exchanged pictures of their genitalia. That's not going to stop sexting, and it's a misuse of the laws against child pornography.

Teenagers have been charged for child pornography, a felony, in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Florida, and Illinois, just to name a few places, for exchanging explicit images. In one absurd case, a New Jersey teen is being charged with child pornography because she "exploited" herself. If convicted, those teenagers would have to register as sex offender for engaging in victimless behavior.

Sexting is usually done between consenting teenagers, and no one is harmed by it. The assertion that it could be used for harmful purposes is untrue, for if used for malicious means or the subject is not consenting there are other laws to deal with the problem. Prosecuting teenagers for exploring their sexuality is a waste of time and money.

Twenty percent of teenagers surveyed have admitted to engaging in sexting. Teenagers who want to exchange explicit images with each other are going to keep on doing so. Prosecutors may think exacting punishment will serve as a deterrent, but the reality is nothing will change, because teenagers will instead find another medium to exert the same behavior.

This truth seems lost on local authorities.
[Spokane County Sheriff Detective] Skogen says he’d like to see the offense reduced from a felony and would also want prosecutors to be able to consider the age difference between victim and offender. This would still allow child pornography offenders to be prosecuted while allowing less harsh penalties for children who are sexting.
They just don't get it, do they?

Law enforcement should be focused on stopping people from harming each other, instead of cracking down on youth for expressing their sexuality.

Dragging minors through the court system for taking an explicit pictures of themselves and sending those images to friends benefits no one.

The best thing administrators, police, and concerned citizens can do to help young people make responsible decisions is to support comprehensive, medically accurate sex education in our schools, and encourage parents to talk to their kids about these issues on a regular basis.

Business failures not caused by unions

A recent report released by the Economic Policy Institute has concluded that workers joining a union do not cause businesses to fail. So you can add that myth to the list of discredited right-wing talking points.
In short, the biggest fear voiced by employer groups regarding unionization— that it will inevitably drive them out of business—has no evidentiary basis.

[...]

Figure C confirms the central conclusion of this brief—there is no “jump” and the right of workers to bargain collectively has no causal effect on firm survival. Firms just to the right of 50% vote share have failure rates that are almost identical to firms just to the left. This means, therefore, that firms that become unionized are no more likely to fail than firms that remain nonunion.
So if a unionized workplace has no bearing on whether a firm survives or not, why do Big Business and its corporate lackeys in the Republican party constantly lie about it? Because without unions, workers could be treated like a commodity, exploited to work long hours with little pay or benefits. Keep the overhead down, and the bottom line is padded, or so the thinking of the union-busters goes. More corporate profits equals more happy shareholders who are willing to allow even greater bonuses for the executives who brought them those profits. It's reminiscent of Gordon Gecko. Greed is good in their world.

Don't expect that just because the facts show that unions aren't the cause of failed businesses that the union-busters will pack up and go home. Besides since when did the facts matter to them?

Sensible gun and drug laws would benefit two countries

There's a sad international trade taking place on our southern border these days and it involves guns and drugs. Mexico supplies the drugs which pay for the guns. The United States supplies the guns. Both countries supply the victims.

The War on Drugs has become almost a real war in Mexico. Well over seven thousand people comprised mostly of police officers, drug gang members, and a few innocent bystanders, have died horrific deaths in that country since January 2008, and American guns are providing the killers the means to kill.

Why do Mexicans drug lords rely on the U.S. for guns? From New American Media:
Mexico has strong gun control laws. In a country of 110 million people there are fewer than 6,000 legally-registered guns…Making matters worse is the refusal of American officials to be on the same page.
Mexican drug lords prefer the military-style weapons that were banned in the U.S. until 2004, when Congress let the Federal Assault Weapons Ban expire. But rather than reinstating the ban and infuriating the National Rifle Association, congressmen are spouting inanities like:
"I don't think the solution to Mexico's problems is to limit Second Amendment gun rights in this country," said Senator John Cornyn, a Texas Republican.
No, it is far better for the federal government to spend millions of dollars trying ineffectively to control gun smuggling at the U.S. - Mexican border than to sensibly regulate the killing machines nationwide like Mexico does successfully.

The money to buy the guns comes from the high price Mexican drugs can demand inside the United States. Visiting Mexico yesterday, Secretary of State Hilary Clinton put it bluntly, “Our insatiable demand for illegal drugs fuels the drug trade.”

Unfortunately, this demand also puts a large number of Americans in jail. Over half of the federal prison population is locked up on drug-related charges.

So, do I have this right? Our strict drug laws result in crowded prisons but nonetheless, Americans still consume more than half of the world’s illegal drugs. We have weak gun regulation and we are also the most armed country in the world. Mexico exploits both of these problems to its own detriment.

Considering these sad facts, I think it is past time to take another look at how we control two of our most deadly substances, drugs and guns. We are failing miserably at both and the U.S. and its southern neighbor are both paying a huge price.

DelBene team already coming together

Suzan DelBene, the first declared Democratic candidate for Washington's eighth congressional district (WA-08), announced yesterday in an email to supporters that she is hiring several people to fill key positions in her campaign.

DelBene's campaign manager will be Kelly Evans, who successfully led Chris Gregoire's reelection effort last year and served as the campaign manager in the fights against both Initiative 912 (2005) and Initiative 933 (2006).

DelBene's media consultant will be Dan Kully, of Laguens Kully Klose. Like Evans, Kully was part of the teams that helped defeat Initiatives 912 and 933. He put together Darcy Burner's media last cycle, and was responsible for the widely praised ads that helped propel Jon Tester to victory in Montana in 2006.

DelBene's finance director will be Tracy Newman, another veteran of last year's gubernatorial rematch between Chris Gregoire and Dino Rossi. Assisting Tracy with fundraising will be Chris Farrell, who journeyed around the United States on behalf of Barack Obama's presidential campaign.

Finally, Krystal Wood has been tapped as the campaign coordinator. DelBene describes her as "the contact for almost anything!"

DelBene's quick start shows how serious she is about defeating Dave Reichert in 2010. Launching a campaign for Congress is a big undertaking. Candidates hoping to knock out entrenched incumbents have to get moving early if they hope to be successful. Suzan clearly gets this - and she will have an advantage over other contenders mulling a run against Dave Reichert as a result.

In addition to announcing her campaign team, Suzan has also launched a redesigned website providing more information about her background and her candidacy.

It's really great to see that she's pulled together such a strong team so quickly. This will be a fun campaign to watch.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

U.S. House votes to preserve public lands, Hastings prefers exploitation

Earlier today the U.S. House of Representatives voted 285-140 to approve the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009, which passed the Senate last week. The bill approves over one hundred public lands projects and preserves 2 million acres of federal wilderness, including adding land to the Mount Hood Wilderness Area, creating a Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail from Washington to Montana, and preserving canyonlands along the Owyhee River in Idaho. It's a great victory for preserving the quality of life that we in the West enjoy.

The sweeping Omnibus Public Lands Package passed the U.S. Senate on a 77-21 vote last week, and was approved 285-140 by the House on Wednesday. It goes to the White House where President Obama is expected to sign it.

The bill includes designation of a Pacific Northwest National Scenic Trail, beginning on the Olympic Coast and stretching east to the Continental Divide in Montana's Glacier National Park.

Its biggest designation is 517,000 acres of wilderness in the high-desert uplands and canyonlands of the Owyhee River in Idaho. It would also give Wild and Scenic River designation to 316 miles of rivers in the Owyhee, Bruneau and Jarbridge river systems of the Gem State.

Congressman Earl Blumenauer, a longtime proponent of protecting the land around Mt. Hood released the following statement:

“Today’s passage marks the culmination of seven years of work that I’ve been involved with to preserve some of our nation’s most treasured places, including those on Mt. Hood. It is a great day for the state of Oregon. Oregonians have been waiting a long time for the passage of new wilderness and I am overjoyed that today we will finally send this measure to the President’s desk. Our state boasts some of the nations most beautiful natural wonders and Oregonians should not have to wait another 20 years to protect its natural beauty and our children’s environmental legacy.“

The trail was long and the battle hard, but today, by working together across the aisle we have preserved an important piece of Oregon’s natural history for generations to come. I am grateful to my colleagues in Oregon’s congressional delegation and the hundreds of constituents, numerous organizations and agencies, local governments and Tribal leaders who have all worked tirelessly to pass these wilderness provisions. I look forward to celebrating with all Oregonians the signing into law of new Oregon wilderness by President Obama.”

Of course, not all members of Congress from the Northwest are happy. Congressman Doc Hastings (R-WA) laments that his oil baron friends won't be able to rape the land and continue the Dick Cheney energy policy.

The legislation will result in "bureaucrats putting up 'do not enter' and 'keep out' signs across America's public lands," Hastings argued. He talked about "locking away" billions of barrels of oil and trillions of cubic feet of natural gas.

That's right Doc. Do not enter and keep out. If you want to drill for oil, please consider moving to Alaska where a certain Governor has been a cheerleader for oil exploration. The word on the street in Wasilla is that you can see Russia from there.

But it wasn't just not being able to destroy public lands that caused Congressman Hastings to oppose the bill. More importantly, Hastings voted against the bill because a provision that would have allowed people to carry loaded firearms in national parks (presumably because crime rates in are so high in parks that one needs protection) was left out and it failed to get the NRA's seal of approval.

The full roll call vote for the Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 can be found here.

Bread and circuses

I get it. We're all infuriated about the AIG bonuses. Our moral indignation has never been higher. But here's a memo for everyone, progressive, conservative, or biconceptual: you're getting played.

Back in the Roman Empire, the emperors knew that all they really needed to do to keep the people happy - and thus, to keep themselves well supplied with peeled grapes and concubines - was to make sure the people had food and amusement: Bread and circuses. If the people weren't overly hungry, and had something to distract them, the emperors knew they could get away with really anything they wanted for as long as they wanted.

For instance, they could get their veni, vidi, vici on across all the way up to Hadrian's Wall, regardless of whether there was any real need or point to doing so. And if such shenanigans had any unintended consequences, such as overextending Rome's power to the point of bringing down the entire empire, well, the next fellow would have to clean up the mess.

If that sounds familiar, it should. It's every Republican administration since, let's see, at least Nixon.

So this bonus thing, while hugely offensive, is a big distraction. It's a circus. Don't fall for it. Ironically, it's a circus about "bread" in the colloquial sense of the word. It's just the latest. Since January 20th, we've had the whole mess with Rod Blagojevich, Geithner's tax problems, a litany of trumped up Republican ire over this or that trivial aspect of each of Obama's cabinet appointments' pasts. What, I wonder, will be next?

Honestly, who cares? I just can bring myself to give a crap about the AIG bonuses or any of the rest of it. It's all just circuses, circuses, circuses. Not even good ones, at that. There are much more important things to be worried about right now.

Like whether anyone will start lending again soon enough to keep millions of American small businesses from failing. Whether the education system is going to modernize and improve fast enough so that America doesn't fall irrevocably behind fast-rising China and India. Whether we'll actually shift the makeup of America's energy sources away from oil and coal fast enough to keep from killing the planet. Whether we'll get meaningful changes in our tax system in time to stabilize federal budgets and social programs for the next few generations.

If you ask me, those things are all just an eensy bit more important than whether some craven thieves took one last chance to stuff another 165 million dollars into their pockets. Of course they did. Don't pretend you're not surprised, but don't forget it's just a circus.

Don't let it distract you from what's really important.

Thankfully, our president doesn't seem to keep his TV tuned to the Circus News Network 24x7. He seems to have a little bit better focus than the rest of us.

We've had our little history lesson about Rome, and with all the comparisons being made between Obama's first 100 days and Franklin Delano Roosevelt's first 100 days, another short lesson is in order. After all, the comparisons are hard to avoid: FDR brought us out of a depression, Obama seeks to keep us from falling into one. FDR gave us the New Deal, and Obama is being pushed to give us a "New New Deal."

FDR's first 100 days were characterized by 15 major pieces of "New Deal" legislation. These ranged all over the map, but included banking reforms such as the creation of the FDIC, the existence of which has surely kept people from making panicked runs on the banks these last six months and taking down even more banks. It included several major infrastructure projects such as the Tennessee Valley Authority, which despite the environmental down-side of the many dams that the TVA constructed, did lift residents of the Tennessee Valley region out of third-world living conditions.

FDR's first 100 days also stretched into the production side of the economy, with significant legislation that re-negotiated the relationship between business and labor around the ideas that workers had the right to organize and that wages should increase in step with prices, culminating in passage of the National Industrial Recovery Act and the National Labor Relations Act, which kicked off the labor movement and led to the rise of the middle class.

The New Deal was how the Roosevelt administration restructured nearly every aspect of American life to take America back from the greedy bankers and industrial robber barons who were stealing it from the people. Robin Hood must surely have been proud - and no doubt astonished - to see such sweeping populist reshaping of the political landscape happen at the point of a pen, rather than at the point of an arrow.

Ok. Back to the present. People look at FDR's record, compare it to Obama's, and grumble "all Obama has done is pass the stimulus package, which probably isn't enough to save the economy anyway."

They're right, to a point. We'll almost certainly need more stimulus later. But look deeper, into the line items. The stimulus package is also the biggest education bill in U.S. history. It's the biggest energy bill in U.S. history. And - although it would surely make Republicans' heads explode to admit it - it's also the biggest tax cut in U.S. history.

Hm. Education. Energy. Tax reform. Three of those things that are almost axiomatically more important than the AIG bonuses. Certainly, the education, energy, and tax line items in the stimulus package aren't going to be the end of the story on those issues or many, many others. But they're good starts. They're meaningful steps towards a better future.

In fact, if we're comparing against FDR's yardstick of 15, there's so much stuff in the stimulus package that it ought to count for about 5 FDR's pieces of New Deal legislation. And Obama's only a little more than half way through his first 100 days.

It would appear that President Obama can indeed, as he asserted in the campaign, do more than one thing at a time. He does it, in part, by ignoring the circuses.

I suggest we all do the same.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Verizon violates its customers' privacy

Once again showing that some corporations have no shame when it comes to how they deal with customers, Verizon has decided that you need to opt-out of their program to share your personal information. You see, in Verizon's eyes, it's their information, not yours.
David Weinberger, co-author of The Cluetrain Manifesto and the more recent Everything is Miscellaneous received a letter today from Verizon. A "legalistic pamphlet" that informed him he has 45 days to opt out of 'agreeing' to let Verizon share his personal information.

[...]

This information includes "services purchased (including specific calls you make and receive), billing info, technical info and location info. They promise to only share this with 'affiliates, agents and parent companies.' It will definitely not be shared with 'unrelated third parties' ... unless, perhaps that third party pays Verizon to become an affiliate, whatever the heck 'affiliate' means," Wienberger wrote.
Weinberger isn't sure what "affiliate" means under these terms. I'm not sure what "agent" means. Is that CIA, FBI, Secret Service or DEA?

Has the Bush/Cheney/Rove mindset of spying on Americans for their own protection from those evil terrorists finally come to fruition in the private sector?

Memo to Verizon: You don't start from a point of automatically selling or giving away the customer's personal information, unless they've sifted through your fine print. The starting point is to ask the customer to opt-in if they would like their information to be shared. Otherwise you risk anger, backlash, and loss of customers. It's basic customer service: Treat your customers with respect. Unfortunately, Verizon is failing miserably in that department.

Hey Verizon, can you hear me now?

Former Governor Gary Locke confirmed as new Secretary of Commerce

Congratulations to Governor Locke!
The U.S. Senate voted on Tuesday to approve the nomination of former Washington state Governor Gary Locke to be U.S. commerce secretary, putting a Chinese-American in the job for the first time.

Locke, President Barack Obama's third nominee for the post, has promised to focus on "creating the jobs of the future" and enforcing U.S. laws to counter unfair foreign trade practices.
Locke was confirmed on a unanimous voice vote, so there is no roll call to share. He joins Dr. Jane Lubchenco (NOAA Administrator) as the second high profile Northwesterner as the Department of Commerce.

In a news release, Locke said he was "honored to take on this challenge and will work every day to make the Commerce Department an engine for improving our competitiveness, encouraging innovation and creating jobs."

He is the United States' first Chinese American Commerce Secretary and its thirty sixth overall. (The Department of Commerce, originally the Department of Commerce & Labor, celebrated its centennial six years ago).

The biography included with the Department of Commerce's news release notes that Locke has led a number of trade missions to countries on three different continents, and that Washington gained 280,000 jobs while he was governor.

I'll update this post with reaction from Governor Chris Gregoire, Senator Murray, and Senator Cantwell once their offices release statements.

Monday, March 23, 2009

"Express warranties" required under House Bill 1393 wouldn't protect homeowners

Editor's Note: Earlier today the Senate Labor, Commerce & Consumer Protection held a public hearing on HB 1393, a bill passed by the House which is intended to help prevent builder negligence and provide homeowners with a recourse when a builder is at fault. As currently written, HB 1393 sadly does more harm than good. Although we're hoping the bill can be improved, we oppose it in its present form.

The following is a polished version of my notes, which served as the basis for my comments. I testified in opposition on NPI's behalf.


Madam Chair, Members of the Committee:

Good morning. For the record, my name is Andrew Villeneuve. I’m the Executive Director for the Northwest Progressive Institute, a regional strategy center based in Redmond that works to advance the common good through ideas and action.

I am here today to voice our opposition to House Bill 1393. Regrettably, the legislation that the House has sent to the Senate in an effort to protect homeowners from construction defects is itself defective.

In fact, our research indicates it’s worse than defective.

I'd like to draw your attention to Section 14 of HB 1393. The first part reads:
Every contract for the sale or construction of new residential real property shall provide for written express warranties to the purchaser or owner of the residential real property.
Section 14 is similiar to New Jersey's existing law, which stipulates that home builders are required to provide a warranty with new homes. The builder, however, gets to decide what warranty is offered, not the homeowner.

The builder can choose to offer a private, express warranty from companies like the Residential Warranty Corporation (RWC).

In reality, the RWC "warranty" and similar products offer no protection to homeowners. Here is how one New Jersey Superior Court judge described the express warranties sold in New Jersey, which are just like the express warranties that House Bill 1393 requires builders to offer. This is a quote from the decision in Cesard v. D.R. Horton. Emphasis is mine.
As I have indicated during the course of oral argument, the homeowner warranty is required by law, but as I used to do when I was practicing, I used to tell my clients in the strongest terms possible, that this is a useless piece of paper. And I truly believe that. Having gone through the process in private practice, with the few clients that wouldn’t listen to me, and did go through with this homeowner warranty and arbitration, it is an utter waste of time if you are a homeowner. The only remedy you actually get is if your house literally falls down on your head, then you will get compensation in satisfaction. Other than that it is just a feel good thing that when people walk away from a closing table, they think they have some kind of a security blanket. They don't.

- Cesard v. D.R. Horton, Docket No. MON-L-3147, Monmouth County, Law Division, Civil Part, Transcript of Decision December 1, 2006.
A useless piece of paper.

Madam Chair, Members of the Committee – House Bill 1393 is not a Homeowner’s Bill of Rights. It does not protect homeowners.

It does not provide justice or economic security.

The bill that passed the House actually makes things worse because it confuses homeowners into thinking they have a safety net when they don’t.

People who have purchased homes with RWC warranties can tell you without reservation that they are entirely worthless.

In 2002, Thurston County Superior Court Judge Richard Strophy heard a case that concerned these private warranties - Bartlet et. ux., et. al. v. Genimi Homes, Inc., et al. (Superior Court No. 02-2-906-6). The case was brought by homeowners who had discovered defects with their homes.

The defendant, Gemini, tried to have the lawsuit dismissed because the warranties required arbitration to be the only legal recourse.

The homeowners argued that the warranties were so awful that they were unconscionable. Judge Strophy agreed, finding the warranties to be unenforceable. The following is an excerpt from his ruling, made on November 1st, 2002.
The terms and provisions considered as a whole, in addition to the process required, are significantly one-sided and overly harsh and give the plaintiff buyers little or no effective remedy in many situations. Whether or not any remedy is warranted goes to the merits, and that's not the issue before me at this time. Having given significant consideration the process and the elements of what is and isn't covered and how the plaintiffs would be required to have that determined and responded to in the warranty abritration process with the pre-condition of mediation, all of that, in my view, is substantively unconscionable in light of the entire circumstances, and accordingly, I will on that basis, deny the motion to compel arbitration at this point.
(Again, emphasis is mine).

To close, we need a statutory warranty to protect homeowners – like the warranty proposed in SB 5895, which the Senate approved several weeks ago.

We urge you to reject this bill, or to amend it to incorporate a real warranty that’s there for Washington families in the event of a catastrophe.

Thank you for your time.

Are state leaders truly committed to tackling education reform?

I feel misled.

I heard it over and over from the fall through the winter: Education is the number one priority of the 2009 Washington legislature.

Doesn’t a priority deserve some commitment?

Democratic leaders who preached the value of education and the need for improvements to our struggling state system are now balking at keeping that commitment. They don’t want to make any “false promises” that they can't pay for, but they've already made citizens a promise to reform education this session and they should have known then that reform had a price tag.

Chair of the Senate Education Committee Rosemary McAuliffe (D-Bothell) and Governor Gregoire are both stepping back from support for a better system this year. Neither will support a redefinition of basic education without the money to pay for it. The thing is, when the new system is fully phased in, we’re talking about spending an extra $2 billion dollars a year on education. These leaders knew that even in a robust year the money for reform wouldn't be there immediately. They knew that it will take changes in the way the state captures revenue to fully pay for a better system and that it will take time.

Obviously we can’t pump more money into the school system this year or probably not even next year, but why let that stop us from improving the system's framework right now? Revenue will pick up. Even with our volatile, regressive tax system, in the near future there will be more money in the budget for schools.

What do we want to do with it when the money becomes available, and how do we ensure that the extra money will even go to schools? If we give more money to schools, how do we know it is being spent so that it does the most good? The answers to those questions are addressed in House Bill 2261.

HB 2261 puts programs that are shown to work like pre-kindergarten for low-income children and more instructional hours for high school students squarely on the state’s shoulders by including them in the definition of basic education that the state is mandated to pay for. The bill would also allocate funds in a uniform, more transparent way, so citizens can better track what is being paid for.

The bill would be phased-in over six years, beginning in the 2011-2012 school year. That’s two and a half years away. Only a real pessimist would believe that we could not find and invest any more money in public education, our number one priority, in two and a half years. Is that too hard to commit to?

It’s not a “false promise” to pass legislation that creates a fairer, smarter and more up-to-date public education system with challenging, yet possible funding goals. The framework for the future should be ready when the money becomes available.

It is a false promise to back down from your commitment to improve your (and my) number one priority. Don't disappoint us. Make it work.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Meet the hypocrites: Governor Sarah Palin

Back when she was a candidate for Vice President, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin was a staunch supporter of special needs children. After all, she has one herself.

And children with special needs inspire a special love.

To the families of special-needs children all across this country, I have a message: For years, you sought to make America a more welcoming place for your sons and daughters.

I pledge to you that if we are elected, you will have a friend and advocate in the White House. Todd is a story all by himself.

Now that she's not Vice President, apparently Governor Palin doesn't place such a high priority on special needs children, who are among our most vulnerable citizens. Palin, ever the ideologue like her colleague Governor Sanford in South Carolina (who also might be running for President on the Republican ticket in 2012), has decided to reject more than thirty percent of federal stimulus money coming to Alaska. The biggest part of that funding would go to programs for special needs kids.

The biggest single chunk of money that Palin is turning down is about $170 million for education, including money that would go for programs to help economically disadvantaged and special needs students. [emphasis mine]

We already knew that Republicans hate when government aids economically disadvantaged people, but you have to wonder about the heart and mind of a mother, Palin, who won't accept federal funding for children much like her own. Doesn't she want the best for her son? I know I would, if it was me.

Then again, Governor Palin's decision is a prime example of the Republican party's pro-birth mantra. They're not pro-life, they're pro-birth. After birth, you're on your own.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Washington Mutual files suit against FDIC, alleges deal with Chase violated its rights

The WaMu saga isn't over yet, folks:
Washington Mutual Inc, the failed U.S. savings and loan, has sued the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp for well over $13 billion in connection with the loss of its banking operations, which was acquired by JPMorgan Chase & Co.

In a complaint filed with the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, the thrift's former parent accused the FDIC of having on January 23 made a "cryptic disallowance" of its claims, prompting the lawsuit.

It also accused the FDIC of agreeing to an unreasonably low price in arranging the a $1.9 billion sale of the banking business to JPMorgan on September 25, when regulators seized Washington Mutual and appointed the FDIC as receiver.
We've always thought that the WaMu seizure and sale to JPMorgan Chase seemed unusual, especially considering the ridiculously low price that Chase paid.

The people running what's left of Washington Mutual (the holding company) clearly feel that they've been ripped off. They're demanding a jury trial to weigh their allegations against the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

The complaint's Prayer for Relief (in other words, what Washington Mutual is asking the District Court to do) is as follows:
WHEREFORE, Plaintiffs respectfully request the Court to grant the following relief:
  1. An order declaring Plaintiffs' Claims to be valid and proven against the Receivership;
  2. An order directing FDIC-Receiver to pay the Claims from the assets of the Receivership in accordance with 12 U.S.C. 1821(d)11);
  3. An order directing FDIC-Receiver to provide Plaintiffs with an accounting of all property transferred from Plaintiffs in connection with the Receivership,
  4. An order directing FDIC-Receiver to provide Plaintiffs with an accounting of the disposition of the assets of the Receivership if any Claim is not satisfied in full;
  5. Enter a judgment against FDIC-Corporate and FDIC-Receiver for damages, in an amount to be determined, equal to the amount of money Plaintiffs would have received in a straight liquidation of WMB's [Washington Mutual Bank's] assets and liabilities less any amounts actually received from the Receivership;
  6. Enter a judgment against FDIC-Corporate and FDIC-Receiver for damages, in an amount to be determined, equal to the values of Plaintiffs' property converted by the FDIC;
  7. An order declaring that the FDIC's January 23, 2009 disallowance to be void, and that the parties should proceed as if such disallowance never occured;
  8. Award Plaintiffs costs and attorneys fees as may be permitted by law; and
  9. Award Plaintiffs such other relief as may be just.
The entire complaint is available from our document vault.

My favorite part of the complaint is Count III: Taking of Plaintiffs' Property Without Just Compensation, which reads:
91. Plaintiffs incorporate the allegations and averments contained in paragraphs 5 through 90 as if set forth fully herein.

92. The FDIC's wasting of WMB's [Washington Mutual Bank's] assets and failure to compensate Plaintiffs for their claims against WMB equivalent to what Plaintiffs would have received for such claims in a straight liquidation of WMB's assets constitutes a taking of Plaintiffs' property without just compensation in violation of the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution.
It'll be interesting to see what happens to this lawsuit. We'll try to keep you posted on any further developments. The case is Washington Mutual Inc v. Federal Deposit Insurance Corp, No. 09-00533, District Court for the District of Columbia.

Education reform and state budget the focus of 48th District town hall meeting

Last weekend, a number of Democratic state representatives and senators returned home from Olympia to hold mid-session town hall meetings with the public.

I went to Chinook Middle School to observe the meeting hosted by Senator Rodney Tom and Representatives Ross Hunter and Deb Eddy, who represent the 48th Legislative District, where I live. (The 48th encompasses northern Bellevue, southern Kirkland, much of Redmond, Medina, Clyde Hill, and Hunts Point).

The 48th's delegation does a good job of making meetings fun, no matter how gloomy the public mood may be. We have two very verbose representatives in Rodney Tom and Ross Hunter, who are very witty. They blend sarcasm with sincerity to relieve some of the anxiety surrounding many of these tough issues.

I arrived early and met several SEIU organizers who were handing out fliers and stickers to support funding healthcare in the budget.

As they were setting up the meeting and I was talking with a person from SEIU, Hunter approached them and issued a stern warning. He prefaced it by thanking SEIU for coming out and then declared "This is my meeting". He asked SEIU not to interrupt, noting that he expected many other organized groups to show up at the meeting. SEIU's organizers assured him they weren't there to cause any trouble.

The 48th's delegation began the meeting by distributing packets which included a copy of the 2009 transportation budget, a citizen's guide to the Washington State budget, and a "know your government" pamphlet.

One of the main topics that was discussed at the meeting was the education reform bill that Kathleen has frequently written about for us.

Hunter said the bill (intended to redefine public education) remains incomplete, but the Legislature is two thirds of the way towards the finish line.

The objective is to provide a structural overhaul - the bill doesn't strengthen funding for public services because (as everyone knows) the state is grappling with a massive budget shortfall this biennium.

When it was his turn to speak, Senator Tom explained the framework for education within the budget. First, he talked about class sizes, nothing that the optimal class is comprised of no more than sixteen or seventeen students.

Of course, reducing class sizes is extremely expensive, so it's going to have to be a long term goal. The state also needs to obtain more data, Tom said. (For example, we don't know the average or median class size within the state).

He also brought up CORE 24, a set of graduation requirements that the Washington State Board of Education says is intended to prepare students intentionally for whatever option they choose after high school.

Representative Eddy followed Tom. She served as the meeting's timekeeper, calling on people to take questions. (Eddy, by the way, is the only one of the three who went unchallenged in the last election, although none of the three races were close).

Hunter took the lead in answering questions, which ranged from the WASL (he described it as a test with a purpose) to charter schools (they're off the table, at least for the immediate future).

One of the participants, a thirty one year veteran teacher, commended the Legislature for tacking education reform during a tough session (the toughest in recent memory) and urged Eddy, Tom, and Hunter not to give up.

Senator Tom said the Legislature will come up with an "all cuts" budget that will depict the grim and widespread devastation that would be inflicted upon Washington State's public services without new revenue. The Legislature may elect to give the people of Washington a choice between a destructive budget that undercuts our ability to bounce back economically, or a sounder budget that incorporates additional revenue to preserve our quality of life.

People weren't happy to hear that lawmakers are preparing to lop off entire limbs of state government. Someone even asked how Governor Gregoire's budget is any different than the one Dino Rossi would have proposed.

The discontent with the budget was clearly discernible in the room.

Naturally, the idea of tax reform came up during the discussion about the budget. Senator Tom is for tax reform (gradually moving towards an income tax instead of a sales tax, for example) while Representative Hunter is against it.

Hunter agreed the sales tax is volatile, but he doesn't believe voters will go for an income tax. He's not interested in replacing the sales tax or the business and occupation tax with a fairer, more progressive system.

That's a shame, because we're not going to fix our broken tax structure until our leaders are willing to embrace new ideas and creative thinking. Hunter would do well to remember the job of leaders is to lead, not to follow.

Senator Tom, however, believes that we will eventually adopt a corporate and a personal income tax. It seems ironic that he's the most open minded and progressive voice of the three, considering that he used to be a Republican. (He is notably the sponsor of the Homeowner's Bill of Rights, a top NPI legislative priority).

The budget won't make anybody happy, but at least, in Senator Tom, we have one budget writer who will do all he can to minimize harm. Sadly, without more funding, that's pretty much an impossible challenge at this point.

We at NPI hope the Legislature finds the courage to do the responsible thing and pass a budget that utilizes new revenue to offset damage to our common wealth. If that means going to the voters to ask for more money, then so be it. The people of Washington deserve the opportunity to decide that an "all cuts" budget is not cost effective nor consistent with our values.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Lubchenco confirmed as NOAA administrator

Yesterday, the Pacific Northwest's own Dr. Jane Lubchenco, a renowned professor of marine biology and zoology at Oregon State University, was finally confirmed by the United States Senate to serve as the new Administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the largest agency within the Department of Commerce. Her nomination was agreed to by unanimous consent of the Senate.

Dr. Jane Lubchenco(Photo courtesy of NOAA)

Lubchenco is the first woman to become Under Secretary of Commerce for Oceans and Atmosphere (the formal job title of NOAA Administrator).

She is also the first marine ecologist to lead NOAA.

Her confirmation is exciting news, not only because she hails from the Pacific Northwest, but because she is one of our country's best and brightest environmental scientists.

She's the real deal.

Her responsibilities will be great: NOAA has a $4 billion budget and nearly thirteen thousand employees working in every state, as well as other locations around the world. NOAA's many divisions include the National Weather Service, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service, Office of Oceanic and Atmospheric Research, and National Geodetic Survey (the government's primary surveying outfit), among others.

In a statement announcing her confirmation, Dr. Lubchenco remarked:
I am truly honored and humbled to be part of the NOAA team. With hard work and the best science as our guide, NOAA can spur the creation of new jobs and industries, revive our fisheries and the economies and communities they support, improve weather forecasting and disaster warnings, provide credible information about climate change to Americans, and protect and restore our coastal ecosystems.
In a video message to NOAA employees, she added:
I've met recently with Governor Locke and I can tell you that he is an enthusiastic supporter of NOAA and our mission. As soon as he is confirmed, he will be a terrific Secretary.
Locke, Washington State's twenty first governor and our nation's first Chinese American governor, was tapped by Barack Obama to serve as Secretary of Commerce last month. He is likely to be confirmed soon.

Like Lubchenco, he comes from the Pacific Northwest, giving the region a strong presence at the Department of Commerce.

The Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin has authored a rather good profile of Lubchenco for tomorrow morning's newspaper. Here's an excerpt:
Lubchenco (pronounced LOOB-chin-ko) takes the helm of NOAA at a time when the agency is poised to play a more prominent role as the Obama administration tackles the issue of climate change. The agency's fiscal 2009 budget stands at nearly $4.4 billion, but under this month's stimulus allocation, NOAA will receive a nearly 20 percent boost -- an additional $830 million. The legislation includes $170 million for climate change research as well as $230 million for habitat restoration, navigation projects and vessel maintenance, along with another $430 million for the construction and repair of NOAA facilities, ships and equipment, improvements in weather forecasting and satellite development.

In recent years, Lubchenco - who has conducted scientific studies of how global warming has affected the ocean - has made it clear that she sees climate change as a problem and thinks the federal government should do more to curb human-generated greenhouse gases. In October, she questioned the past administration's approach to the issue, telling the Associated Press, "The Bush administration has not been respectful of the science. But I think that's not true of Republicans in general. I know it's not."
The article also mentions that Lubchenco wants to create a National Climate Service as one of her first projects at NOAA. It would be "loosely modeled" on the National Weather Service. (We'll have to make an effort to follow what happens with that idea, it sounds promising).

We extend our congratulations to Administrator Lubchenco on her confirmation this week, and our sincere thanks to President Barack Obama for selecting one of our region's best scientists for this important position.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

ESB 5519: A new approach for evaluating competency to stand trial

The criminal justice system carries with it a certain fascination, due in no small part to television. But within the system, dealing with mental illness carries a certain discomfort, due in equal parts to television and to low awareness.

And within the topic of mental health law, the issue of competency to stand trial is largely overlooked.

There is little doubt that most people understand constitutional due process rights such as the right to be represented by an attorney in criminal matters. Thanks to court decisions, the system has built-in safeguards to ensure that every accused person has the assistance of counsel. But for some who face criminal charges, mental illness interferes with their right to counsel.

About forty years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court held in the case of Dusky v. United States that a person may not be brought to trial if he/she suffers from a mental disease or defect that renders him/her unable to understand the nature of the criminal proceedings or unable to reasonably assist his/her attorney with the trial.

There are two points that sometimes cause confusion even for judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys. First, competency to stand trial is not the same as being found not guilty by reason of insanity. (Insanity is a defense raised at trial; lack of competency precludes the trial from taking place.)

Second, a person is not competent to stand trial only if the mental illness or defect is what causes the inability to assist counsel.

In other words, lack of competency to stand trial is really a form of denial of the right to counsel, except that neither the government nor the defendant has done anything to deny that right.

The Legislature enacted a sweeping revision of the competency laws in 1997. Twelve years have passed since then, and with those twelve years have come many external changes. Judges, prosecutors and defense attorneys have become aware of competency issues, and gained expertise in the area. The federal and state appellate courts have rendered opinions not contemplated back in 1997. And public services available to the indigent mentally ill have declined dramatically.

All of these changes have combined to create major gaps in the competency statutes. Those gaps have, in turn, created serious bed space issues for the two state psychiatric hospitals — Eastern State Hospital and Western State Hospital.

They have also created serious capacity issues for local facilities who treat the mentally ill on a civil basis.

Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 5519 contains the first major revision of the competency to stand trial laws since 1997.

It is one of the more important bills on the table this year.

It passed in the Senate on March 12th, and was first referred to the Judiciary Committee, but was eventually sent to the Committee on Human Services (chaired by Representative Mary Lou Dickerson, D-36th District) instead.

If enacted, ESB 5519 would remove many of the inefficiencies in current law.

According the Fiscal Note accompanying the bill, those inefficiencies cost the state, counties and cities upward of $1.6 million per year. And those numbers may be on the conservative side, since they assume that the rate at which mentally ill defendants are referred for competency evaluations will remain steady; the statistical pattern suggests that those referrals will increase by at least 6.5%.

By reducing inefficiencies within the competency process, ESB 5519 will also decrease the amount of unnecessary time a mentally ill person spends in jail waiting for the competency process to reach its conclusion.

At the recent hearing on ESB 5519, there were some who expressed opposition to the bill. But they were in the minority, and the bill passed the Senate with forty four "yea" votes, one abstention, and two excused.

ESB 5519 is important on three levels. First, it brings competency laws in line with the changes that have occurred since 1997. Second, it will save money for state and local governments. And third, it is the right thing to do.

ESB 5519 is the culmination of more than eighteen months of hard work by a group of stakeholders called together by the State Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS). The first version of the bill, last year's SB 6611, did not make it out of committee in 2008, primarily because there were too many details to work out and not enough time in last year’s “short session”.

This year’s long session provided enough time to refine the bill, which must still be approve by the House of Representatives.

The House Committee on Human Services is holding a hearing on ESB 5519 this Monday, March 23rd, at 1:30 PM. If you're interested in the bill, feel free to submit written comments of support to committee members.

I'll report back next week on how the hearing went.

Disclaimer: I have a particular interest in ESB 5519. I was fortunate enough in my professional capacity to be a member of the DSHS-formed work group, and the subcommittee that created an early draft of last year’s SB 6611, which became this year’s ESB 5519. In my professional life, I am a supervising prosecutor for the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, specializing in mental health law.

I am also an adjunct professor of law at Seattle University School of Law, where I teach a course in Law, Policy & Mental Health.

I have authored this post as a private citizen, not in my professional capacity. Nothing in this post represents the viewpoint of the Seattle City Attorney’s Office, the City of Seattle, or any agency or department of the City of Seattle, or of Seattle University School of Law.

Vote today: King Conservation District

If you live in King County, please take time today to vote for good environmental stewardship and cast your ballot for Mark Sollitto.

Mark is running as a write-in candidate for a position on the board of the King Conservation District. He has been endorsed by Democratic King County council members Dow Constantine and Larry Phillips.

If you are used to receiving your mail-in ballot to remind you of an election, this one may come as a surprise since you must visit a polling place in order to participate (listed below).

The King Conservation District elects a board member every year at this time in order to fill one of three elected spots.

This agency guides and assists landowners in how to best manage their natural resources, therefore board members should have a strong conservation ethic.

From the KCD website:
All landowners within the District boundaries are entitled to free information and technical assistance [from the KCD] for water quality protection, wildlife habitat enhancement, farm management plans, soil and slope stability information, native plant products, manure exchange information, volunteer opportunities, stream restoration/enhancement assistance and many other natural resource topics.
Mark Sollitto has been strongly endorsed by fellow conservationist, King County Council Chair Dow Constantine. Dow has this to say about Mark:
Mark Sollitto has an excellent record of public service in our community and has long championed the conservation goals that I firmly believe in. While chairing the Snohomish Salmon Recovery Forum, Mark directed the development of a salmon recovery plan that has become a model for watersheds throughout Puget Sound.
King County Council Member Larry Phillips has also endorsed Mark:
My friend Mark Sollitto is running as a write-in candidate against an anti CAO, Cedar County property rights activist. Mark brings a proven record of over 30 years of consensus-based, conservation-minded results - he helped protect the 90,000 acre Snoqualmie Forest, Preston Mill, Rock Creek, East Sammamish Trail, Meadowbrook Farm and Cougar Mountain.
Due to a technical error, Mark is running as a write-in candidate, so jot down his name for future reference.

Registered voters who reside in King County are eligible to vote with the exception of a few cities not falling within the district’s boundaries: Federal Way, Enumclaw, Skykomish, Milton and Pacific.

In a little-publicized election like this one, a write-in candidate has a good chance of winning if his supporters turn out.

In the 2008 election for this position, only a hundred and ninety six people voted, which means a few people controlled the outcome of that race.

Let’s make sure a true conservationist wins this post this year.

Polling locations include:
  • Auburn: King County Library/Muckleshoot Branch - 39917 Auburn Enumclaw Road S.E., Auburn WA 98092 (Poll hours 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM)
  • Bellevue: King County Library/Bellevue Regional Branch - 1111 110th Avenue NE, Bellevue WA 98004 (Poll hours 9:00 AM to 9:00 PM)
  • Carnation: King County Library/Carnation Branch - 4804 Tolt Avenue, Carnation WA 98014 (Poll hours 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM_
  • Covington: King County Library/Covington Branch - 27100 164th Ave. S.E., Covington WA 98042 (Poll hours 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM)
  • Des Moines: King County Library/Des Moines Branch - 21620 11th Avenue S., Des Moines WA 98198 (Poll hours 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM)
  • Enumclaw: Enumclaw Public Library - 1700 First Street, Enumclaw WA 98022 (Poll hours 10:30 AM to 9:00 PM)
  • Issaquah: King County Library/Issaquah Branch - 10 W. Sunset Way, Issaquah WA 98027 (Poll hours 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM)
  • North Bend: King County Library/North Bend Branch - 115 E. 4th, North Bend WA 98045 (Poll hours 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM)
  • Redmond: King County Library/Redmond Regional Branch - 15990 N.E. 85th, Redmond WA (Poll hours 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM)
  • Renton: Renton Community Center - 1715 Maple valley Hwy., Renton WA 98057 (Poll hours 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM)
  • Seattle: Seattle Public Library (Downtown Main Branch) - 1000 Fourth Ave., Seattle WA 98104v (Poll hours 10:00 AM to 8:00 PM)
  • Shoreline: King County Library/Shoreline Branch - 345 NE 175th, Shoreline WA 98155 (Poll hours 10:00 AM to 9:00 PM)
  • Vashon: King County Library/Vashon Branch - 17210 Vashon Hwy. S.W., Vashon Island WA (Poll hours 10:00 AM to 8:30 PM)
You've got until nine o'clock tonight to vote at most locations.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Congressman Earl Blumenauer takes aim at outlandish executive bonuses

Kudos to Congressman Earl Blumenauer (D-OR) for standing up to corporations and protecting our interests. Congressman Blumenauer has introduced legislation to tax bonuses of corporate executives receiving federal TARP funds at 100 percent. Memo to AIG: the party is over.
Today, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.), a member of the House Ways and Means Committee announced his bill that will impose a 100% tax surcharge on bonuses received by highly-ranked employees at taxpayer subsidized financial institutions.

Specifically, Blumenauer’s states that any highly ranked employee of a subsidized financial institution who receives a bonus, including any amount of deferred compensation or other compensation, after the institution received funds authorized under the TARP program shall face a tax of 100% on the amount of that bonus effective as of December 1, 2008.

Up until now, AIG has been gluttonously gorging itself at the taxpayer trough and paying out bonuses to executives like a gambler hitting a Vegas jackpot. Just today we learned that AIG paid out bonuses of $1 million or more to 73 executives, claiming they were for the purpose of retaining qualified employees, despite 11 of the executives no longer working for the company. Without government oversight, there is no doubt that other companies would engage in the same tactics (if they aren't already), something fellow blogger and nationally syndicated columnist David Sirota has referred to as the kleptocracy.

What Blumenauer's bill does is bring the boat full of adults to the island William Golding described in Lord of the Flies. No more will the child savages and chaos rule the day. If a company is in bad enough shape that the American people have to bail it out, then executives don't get bonuses or are taxed at 100 percent. It's our money and our economy, and Congressman Blumenauer is providing the tool for us to take it back.

Tim Eyman cheers the end of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's print edition

What is Tim Eyman doing in a news story about the final print edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, the city's oldest business?
Initiative activist Tim Eyman said the P-I's last print edition is one of the "biggest nonevents I've seen in a long time."

Something will rise in the P-I's place, he said.

"It is richly ironic that all the liberal policies they've advocated all these years have come home to roost and contributed to them going out of business," Eyman said.
(Memo to the staff at the Everett Herald: Just because Tim Eyman sends out an email doesn't mean you have to quote from it.)

So let's get this straight. Tim Eyman thinks that the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's opposition to his beloved right wing agenda, and perhaps his initiatives, is partly to blame for Heart's decision to stop printing the paper.

That makes perfect sense. After all, it's not like the people of Seattle and King County, the primary market for the Post-Intelligencer, have consistently opposed Tim Eyman's schemes, voting them down in large numbers. It's not like they're liberal or have a habit of voting for Democrats.

Oh, wait... never mind. What's afflicting the newspaper industry has nothing to do with political ideology. Most conservatives know this, but for some reason many of them seem to derive satisfaction from living in their own fantasy world.

Perhaps they can explain to me why the King County Journal, owned by the conservative Horvitz family, was shut down a couple years ago.

That paper ran reactionary editorials all the time. It gave John Carlson column space. It was one of like two papers of significance to endorse Initiative 933 (the other, as I recall, was the Centralia Chronicle). Why isn't it still here?

People clearly think the end of the Post-Intelligencer as a newspaper is significant, or they wouldn't be snapping up today's final edition like crazy.

I surveyed a number of coffee shops, grocery stores, and other businesses in Redmond this afternoon, just to see if I could find a P-I. I couldn't. There wasn't one copy to found anywhere. There are still copies of the Seattle Times, USA Today, and New York Times, but there are no P-Is. People want that last edition because the Seattle Post-Intelligencer means something to them.

It is richly ironic that Tim Eyman is dismissing the end of the Seattle P-I's print edition as a big nonevent - not because most people in the region disagree with him, but because Eyman owes his success to institutions like the Seattle Post-Intelligencer that have given him press and run his columns.

Increasingly, there are fewer and fewer reporters left in Olympia for Tim to pelt with emails and phone calls, and to bother in person when he's at the state capital. There are less op-ed pages where he can send his recycled propaganda. There's less space in newspapers for stories about his latest ill-conceived idea.

All of this is simply a consequence of what is happening to the newspaper industry. The media landscape is changing as institutions that have dutifully decided and reported what's news close up shop or become shadows of their former selves. Journalists everywhere are losing their jobs. If Tim Eyman truly thinks that's good news for him or for any of us, he is sorely mistaken.

State Patrol: WSLC email wasn't illegal

Although the Worker Privacy Act is dead (no thanks to Olympia), the folks at the Washington State Labor Council can take some solace today in the news that the State Patrol has concluded they didn't break any laws.
An e-mail sent to legislative leaders last week from an employee of the Washington State Labor Council did not constitute criminal conduct, State Patrol detectives said after consulting with the Thurston County Prosecutor's Office.

The e-mail appeared to tie future campaign contributions to legislative and gubernatorial action on a particular bill.
The State Patrol's findings, which aren't surprising, don't make Democratic leaders look very good. They made a big show last week of washing their hands of the matter and asking the State Patrol to investigate. But once the contents of the email were disclosed, it began to look like they had cooked up an excuse to kill the Worker Privacy Act - organized labor's top legislative priority.

Rick Bender, WSLC's President, declared last week:
The Washington State Labor Council proudly stands behind our efforts to pass the Worker Privacy Act. Early Tuesday morning, an email communication related to the Privacy Act was inadvertently delivered to the offices of several Washington State legislators.

We regret that this unintentional communication has stalled consideration of this important legislation.
How many similar emails have been sent by business lobbyists to legislators over the years? We don't know, of course, but we'd wager it would be a fair number.

If Majority Leader Lisa Brown, Speaker Frank Chopp, and Governor Chris Gregoire think the WSLC email is the standard for calling in law enforcement, then the State Patrol better hire some extra detectives. They're going to need a special team just to investigate communications between lawmakers and political organizations that raise "serious legal and ethical questions."

Say hello to In Brief, NPI's new microblog

This afternoon we at the Northwest Progressive Institute are pleased to announce the launch of a new project: In Brief, our microblog.

Longtime readers will recall that In Brief used to be a feature on the NPI Advocate. It was our version of the news summary post found on many other blogs (Daily Kos has the Midday Open Thread, SLOG has the Morning News, etc.)

Putting together In Brief became a challenge, because one person had to take responsibility for compiling the links and writing the summaries in each post. Since we'd much rather publish commentary, analysis, and original reporting here on The Advocate, we stopped publishing In Brief.

But today, In Brief is back. Think of it as the NPI Advocate's younger sibling.

On In Brief you'll find links to articles and blog posts that we're reading, plus noteworthy quotations and other observations. We'll also use In Brief to quickly share breaking news, or post real time updates if we're covering an event.

The latest asides from In Brief will be prominently displayed to the right on the NPI Advocate's sidebar, so it'll be easy to follow. In Brief also has its own RSS feed, which we've added to the Infocenter.

If you want to see older asides, you can visit In Brief's homepage, where you'll find the latest fifteen entries and a link to the archive.

Putting the pieces of this new project together has been fun. We hope you'll enjoy reading it as much as we enjoy writing it.

To get started, just glance to your right.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Obama nominates Margaret Hamburg as head of Food & Drug Administration

In a move lauded by public health experts, President Obama has decided to nominate Dr. Margaret Hamburg, a former New York City health commissioner as head of the federal Food and Drug Administration.
Dr. Hamburg, who was appointed by Mayor David N. Dinkins as acting commissioner in 1991 and became commissioner the following year, was one of the few top officials asked to remain when Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani took office in 1994. She was best known for developing a tuberculosis control program that produced sharp declines in the incidences of the disease in New York. Under her tenure, child immunization rates rose in the city.

She left New York in 1997 to become assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the federal Department of Health and Human Services, where she created a bioterrorism initiative and led planning for pandemic flu response.
Here is what President Obama said in his weekly address about the nomination of Dr. Hamburg:
From her research on infectious disease at the National Institutes of Health to her work on public health at the Department of Health and Human Services to her leadership on biodefense at the Nuclear Threat Initiative, Dr. Hamburg brings to this vital position not only a reputation of integrity but a record of achievement in making Americans safer and more secure. Dr. Hamburg was one of the youngest people ever elected to the National Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Medicine. And her two children have a unique distinction of their own. Their birth certificates feature her name twice – once as their mother, and once as New York City Health Commissioner. In that role, Dr. Hamburg brought a new life to a demoralized agency, leading an internationally-recognized initiative that cut the tuberculosis rate by nearly half, and overseeing food safety in our nation’s largest city.
While Hamburg is neither the choice of industry nor the choice of consumer advocates, she represents the kind of change that Obama has come to embody: an independent leader beholden to none of the special interests. With Hamburg at the helm, we can hope that a new day has dawned at FDA and the barbarians at the gate will be kept at bay.

The American shopper in tough economic times: More thoughtful, more creative

In the United States, disposable products are a way of life. Nothing need be used twice. Just pitch it! An endless stream of products moves from store shelves through our hands and into landfills.

That’s so yesterday.

It took a deep recession to finally change wasteful consumer behavior to habits that environmentalists have been promoting for years: reduce, reuse, recycle and now, repair. These concepts are finding new life in a culture that can no longer afford its previous profligate ways.

From the Washington Post:
In an extravagantly wasteful society that typically puts 254 million tons of unwanted stuff at the curb to be thrown away each year, landfill managers say they knew something was amiss in the economy when they saw trash levels start steadily dropping last year. Now, some are reporting declines as sharp as 30 percent.
Reduce. Consumer spending has been on a downward slide for the past six months, broken by a only by a small uptick in January, and on top of that, the recent Christmas shopping season wasn’t very jolly for retailers. Americans are saving more of their incomes than they have for years, leaving less cash for necessary or just purely fun purchases.

Reuse. Why scrap that piece of paper when it has another, perfectly usable side? Washing dishes is preferable to forking out cash for single-use paper plates. Consumers aren’t buying clothes, but instead are updating what they already have with small touches like new buttons or scarves. It’s a very European concept, adapted here out of necessity.

Recyle. Because Americans aren’t buying new clothes, they aren’t donating their used ones either, and that’s a problem because sales at thrift shops such as Goodwill are up as much as 52% and these stores rely on donations for their merchandise. Donating unwanted belongings to charities is a fabulous way to recycle what you don't need and shoppers are finding out that shopping at these stores can turn up great bargains.

Sometimes, gently-used is good enough.

Bartering, or swapping, has become an increasingly popular method for acquisitive Americans to continue to get more stuff, and the Internet has made this exchange of goods and services exponentially more possible. Web-based U-exchange bills itself as the “largest free swap site that specializes in every type of trade” and it has seen its site traffic double in 2009 compared to a year earlier.

Freecycle, a swap non-profit based in Tucson, AZ, has been giving older items new life since 2003, and has seen interest in its group soar in the last few months. Started with the environment in mind, its founder hopes that the organization is “changing the way people think about what they buy, when they buy it, and what they do with it when they no longer need it.”

Repair. In better days, it was easier and only somewhat more costly to ditch a malfunctioning vacuum cleaner for a brand new model, or trade torn pants for a new pair. These days, appliance, computer and auto repair shops are seeing steady business as consumers opt to fix rather than replace. Reluctant sewers are taking up needle and thread in order to make their garments last longer.

But the big question this change in consumer habits raises is this: Can it last?

The cynic in me thinks that old habits die hard and that when again able, the average American will buy the maximum that they can afford and shop for convenience products to save precious time instead of money in their overly busy life.

The optimist in me thinks that many of us will experience a sense of satisfaction and self-reliance in being able to fix instead of spend our way out of a problem, and will enjoy the sense of community we get when we exchange a good or service with a stranger.

If anything, perhaps parents will recognize that that the frugal habits that they are now modeling for their children might be the best kind of lesson in personal finance that they could pass on to them.

Daniel Horowitz, a professor of American studies, probably has the most accurate prediction:
There is a tension at the heart of this, between saving and spending, between pleasure and restraint, and the balance between those historically shifts constantly.
Eventually, the pendulum will swing the other way.

Seattle P-I to cease publication of print edition tomorrow, will continue online

Tomorrow, March 17th, Saint Patrick's Day 2009, Seattle's oldest newspaper, the Post-Intelligencer - which has been continuously published for one hundred and forty six years - will hit newsstands, porches, and driveways one last time.

Hearst Corporation, the paper's owner, made the announcement this morning, adding that the Seattle P-I will continue on in digital form.

Publisher Roger Oglesby, speaking to staff in the newsroom this morning, said:
This is a hard day for all of us. We were fortunate to be part of a great newspaper with a great tradition, and we've been blessed to be part of a wonderful group of talented people. We all hate to see that end.

But we knew it was coming. Hearst fought for years to keep this place going, but time and these rotten economic conditions finally caught up with us.

But there's another part to the story, and I'm not going to let you forget it. It's the part that has to do with what will live on and who's responsible for it. Tomorrow, SeattlePI.com will be reborn, outside the JOA. It will continue, and it will thrive, and it will be a strong and vital voice of this city for years to come.

Some of you will part of that ongoing effort, and you have an exciting road ahead of you. But we should all remember that everybody at this paper helped to build SeattlePI.com and the foundation on which its future will rest. Every one of you, everyone at this paper, should take pride in that. I will, and you should, too.

As for the paper, tonight will be the final run. So let's do it right. This is a great newspaper and has been for a long time. Let's show the world it still is. Let's show them what we can do, one more time.
Most of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's staff will lose their jobs as the P-I newsroom is pared back, Hearst acknowledged. Several of the P-I's best political writers have already retired or left for other jobs, including Neil Modie and Chris McGann. However, the P-I's senior political columnist, Joel Connelly, is staying with the P-I, as is cartoonist David Horsey and sports columnist Art Thiel.

There will be many changes:
The site won't have specific reporters, editors or producers -- all staff are expected to write, edit, take photos, shoot video and produce multimedia, according to a statement from Michelle Nicolosi, who will lead the site as executive producer.

Readers should also expect an operation that depends almost as much on its own staff for content as on guest contributors and the employees of other news entities. There will be links to stories on competing Web sites. And prominent citizens will write guest columns.
At least the Seattle Post-Intelligencer will live on.

Tomorrow will be a very sad day for the Seattle. The P-I is one of the Emerald City's oldest institutions. As of tomorrow, it will no longer be a newspaper.

We at the Northwest Progressive Institute are saddened by this development. We had hoped that a buyer could be found, but alas, it was not to be. What really distresses us is not so much the loss of the P-I's printed edition, although that hurts, but the dismantling of the P-I's newsroom.

Seattle Times publisher Frank Blethen seems to think the end of the Joint Operating Agreement will benefit him. He's wrong. His Seattle Times Company is in deep, deep trouble. McClatchy, which owns a 49.5% stake in the company, recently divulged that it believes that stake is worthless.

The Times will be the only daily left, yes, but the disappearance of the P-I printed edition will not help Frank Blethen's company, which still clings to a business model that is dying. Note that I used the phrase business model. Print, as a medium, is far from dead, despite what some peddlers of electronic reading devices say. But the newspaper industry's business model, which relies on significant advertising revenue to support a big newsroom, hasn't much longer to live.

The Seattle Times doesn't seem to have plans in place to adapt and switch over to a new business model. Unless the Blethens can figure out such a plan, their flagship newspaper will likely meet its own end - and it will be sooner rather than later.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Pacific Northwest should require resort developers to be responsible

Oregon and Washington have the two strongest growth management laws in the country. As far as of designating areas for urban growth and protecting working farms and forests goes, nothing compares.

Unfortunately, there's a loophole in both laws which allows the development of big resorts outside of designated urban areas.

In Oregon, they’re called “Designation Resorts” (ORS 197.435-467). In Washington, they’re called “Master Planned Resorts” (RCW 36.70A.360). That the Washington loophole mirrors Oregon's is not surprising as Washington's Growth Management Act (passed by the Legislature in 1990 and 1991), was largely modeled after Oregon's law, adopted in 1973.

Both provisions are meant to provide vacationers with increased opportunities to connect with nature and to provide rural counties with economic development. But do they achieve either of these objectives?

Joseph Sax, the well known public trust law scholar, proposed a new wild lands management approach in his book Mountains Without Handrails.

His thesis was that land should be managed to maximize a visitor's chances of gaining a significant appreciation for nature. I think such an approach is how we must treat the siting of resorts and what amenities are offered.

While both the Oregon and Washington statutes require these resorts be located in rustic areas, developers rarely make an effort to actually place vacationers in a setting that can be described as natural.

The resorts almost always coddle their guests with indoor recreation and golf courses. For example, Suncadia, a master planned resort near Roslyn, Washington (located east of Snoqulamie Pass), offers two eighteen hole golf courses, indoor swimming pool, fitness center, and ice skating rink.

Semiahmoo, a master planned resort near Blaine, Washington, offers two eighteen hole golf courses, a spa, and five dining options. The Resort at Port Ludlow offers twenty seven holes of golf, “exceptional” dining, and a marina for luxury yachting.

In Oregon, the Running Y Ranch, a destination resort near Klamath Falls, Oregon, offers an Arnold Palmer designed eighteen hole golf course, an ice arena, sports and fitness center, and several dining and retail opportunities. Then there's Eagle Crest, a destination resort near Redmond, Oregon. It offers three eighteen hole golf courses, an indoor and outdoor pool with spray park and wading pool, eleven miles of paved trails, a fitness center, and several dining options.

The Pronghorn Club near Bend, Oregon, offers both Jack Nicklaus and Tom Fazio designed golf courses. The Brandon Dunes Golf Resort on the southern Oregon coast, offers four golf courses and not much else.

All these artificial amenities - which are pitched to vacationers before and during their trip - leave little time for enjoying our region's natural wonders or the scenic landscapes these resorts are purposefully set in.

What's to be done about this unfortunate situation?

A good first step would be to ensure that resorts actually connect their vacationers to nature. Activities should be geared toward the surrounding environment.

There are a few resorts that at least provide some opportunity to do more than play games in the midst of rustic countryside. The Brasada Ranch, a destination resort in Eastern Oregon, provides an equestrian center with 1,800 acres for roaming and stocked ponds and streams for fishing, although the developers couldn't resist also including a golf course.

The Running Y Ranch provides opportunities to experience Western life on horseback with trail rides, cattle round-ups, and barrel racing, as well as guided fly-fishing trips, scenic boat tours, kayaking, canoeing, whitewater rafting, cross country skiing, snowshoeing, bird watching, bird hunting, and geocaching.

And the Rosario Resort on Orcas Island offers essentially only sea-based adventures to explore the Puget Sound.

A second step would be to take preventative action to protect our environment from further destructive development.

Two proposed developments in and near the Metolius River Basin in Oregon provide a striking example of how resorts can harm ecosystems.

The Metolius River is a crystal clear river that magically appears from an aquifer in the eastern Cascades. Federally designated as a Wild and Scenic River, the river is home to one of the world’s finest bull trout populations – who grow up to thirty inches long! This great place, loved by generations of Oregonians, is threatened by two very different resorts.

One resort, the Ponderosa, isn’t actually within the upper basin of the river, but just over the ridge. However, the Ponderosa is meant to be a whopper of a resort, with two golf courses and residences for up to nine thousand vacationers. Its wells would draw two and a half million gallons of water.

How will that impact the Metolius River and those precious bull trout (which, by the way, are listed as a threatened species)?

The other resort, the Metolian, seems more benign as it is intended to be much smaller in size and will supposedly be built using the principles of Natural Step. However, even this resort adds six and hundred and thirty residences, which at least triples the existing development within the basin.

Thus, the Metolian essentially dumps a huge subdivision in the middle of Oregon’s equivalent of Tolkien’s Shire.

When and where are we going to draw the line? Can't we agree that urban development is just completely inappropriate for some places? Like the North Cascades, Zion, Yosemite, Mount Rainier, Olympics, Glacier, or Hells Canyon?

The Metolius is one of those places.

The development threat may be neutralized by the Oregon Legislature, administrative regulations, the Oregon Supreme Court, or private action through a land trust. Nevertheless, the proposed urban oases in the Metolius symbolize what is wrong with resort development today.

Too many modern resorts fail to connect vacationers with nature, deprive others of the ability to enjoy our environment, and harm ecosystems.

An important reason for allowing these islands of development outside of designated urban areas is the supposed economic boon they provide to local communities. Sadly, often resorts fail to pay their own way.

A county can receive some compensation through impact fees for the public services the county provides to the resort.

Unfortunately, a county can come under pressure from the developer to reduce impact fees so as to incentivize the construction of the resort, which the developer argues will bring general economic development to the region.

Counties may also be hampered by asymmetric information or uncertainties regarding costs, resulting in inadequate compensation.

Cities are in a worse position. Cities that are located near these resorts often see an increase demand for public services. More traffic rolls through town. More people use parks. The city's fire services may be needed in an emergency.

These cities have no way to recoup these costs through impact fees. Only the counties have the authority to collect the fees.

Again, what's to be done about this? Here are a few specific ideas:
  • Ensure resorts are not residential subdivisions, but are truly destinations for low impact tourism.
  • Make resorts pay their fair share for county and city public services, including emergency response. Grant cities the ability to charge an impact fee.
  • Ensure resorts do not interfere with commercial farm, ranch, or forestry operations on EFU or forestry lands.
  • Site resorts at least ten miles away from any wilderness and at least five miles from any Wild & Scenic River.
  • Resorts must have no net negative impact on water quantity or quality of in-stream flow.
  • Resorts must have a net-zero carbon impact, including estimated vehicles miles traveled to the resort by tourists, workers, and residents.
  • Keep resorts out of critical habitat for state and federally listed species and ensure resorts will have no net negative impact on listed species.
  • Ensure resorts have no net impact on big game habitat or migration patterns.
  • Require resorts, as a core mission of the enterprise, to provide educational programs for the engagement of visitors with either the surrounding ecosystem or an integrated agricultural enterprise.
  • Prohibit the construction of resorts within ten miles of another resort or urban growth boundary.
  • Prevent further development within five miles of the destination resort, as of the time the development permit is issued and in perpetuity, accomplished either through a TDR program, land trust, public-private partnership, or zoning.
  • Recreation not based on ecological experiences, such as golf courses, tennis courts, basketball courts, and swimming pools, must be limited to a certain number of acres.
The Pacific Northwest is one of the world's most majestic places. Protecting our natural wonders from thoughtless resort development needs to be a priority.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Meet with your state legislators at a town hall this Saturday

Has the bad economy got you down? What about slow progress on improving our schools or regulating climate pollution? Or does the prospect of massive cuts to social services and universities have you up in arms?

Take your concerns to your local community meeting place this weekend and share them with your legislators. Find your legislative district town hall meeting here (PDF).
Whether they like to or not, the people who represent us see lobbyists all the time, but the people they would really like to see more of are folks like you and me. We care about the future of Washington, and we have opinions.

We can't expect the Legislature to do what we want if we don't let them know exactly what that is, can we? Of course not.

A good way to let your legislator know that you're paying attention is to thank them for supporting an issue you care about. They are wrestling with unprecedented problems facing the state and will be glad to know that they did something that was appreciated by the people back home.

As my own Representatives Larry Springer and Roger Goodman recently said, "We are in extraordinary times." If you care about our future, it probably won't take you too long to think of an issue that matters to you.

The Legislature is making life-changing decisions this year and lawmakers need to hear how those changes could affect their constituents.

Let them know what's going on in your world.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Advocate feeds temporarily broken

A couple hours ago we became aware of a problem with Blogger that is preventing our RSS and Atom feeds from publishing correctly to our server. We've asked Blogger to fix the problem, but until they do, there isn't much that we can do beyond attempting to manually rebuild the feeds ourselves from scratch.

We apologize for any inconvenience.

I'll update this post when the problem has been fixed.

UPDATE, 8:44 PM: I am working on restoring the feeds manually.

UPDATE II, 9:32 PM: I have successfully restored the Atom feed and am moving on to the RSS feed.

Senate passes retro reform (SB 6035)

Moments ago the Washington State Senate acted on another of NPI's 2009 legislative priorities by passing a bill to reform the state's retrospective ratings system. The proposal, Senate Bill 6035, is prime sponsored by Senator Kohl-Welles.

The Senate decided to send SB 6035 to the House by a vote of twenty five to twenty four, a tally which mirrors yesterday's vote SB 5895.

Basically, what SB 6035 does is prevent groups like the Building Industry Association of Washington from keeping a portion of industrial insurance refunds for some non administrative purpose without their members' consent.

The retrospective ratings system, for those unfamiliar with it, is a program sponsored by the Department of Labor & Industries for businesses that are required to carry industrial insurance by law. The program allows businesses to save money if they had a safe year (they get some of their premiums back) - but participation in the program can also increase costs if a business has an unsafe year.

To mitigate risk, most businesses participate in group plans - like the one the Building Industry Association of Washington operates. The BIAW is thus an insurance broker, and freely admits that its retro pool is its number one recruiting tool. It's why many builders belong to BIAW, even if they don't like BIAW's politics.

For years, BIAW leaders - who are rigidly and unapologetically right wing - have been keeping a sizable portion of the refunds from their members and using said funds to build a huge campaign war chest, which is then used to aid Republican campaigns and launch independent expenditures against Democratic campaigns. For example, last year, the BIAW spent millions in an effort to get rid of Governor Chris Gregoire and install Dino Rossi as the state's chief executive.

BIAW leaders have gotten away with keeping a portion of the refunds because the law didn't say they couldn't. What SB 6035 does is improve the retrospective ratings system, so that now the BIAW must obtain its members' permission to keep part of their government-issued refunds for political use. The program is meant to help incentivize workplace safety. It was never intended to serve as a trough from which groups like the BIAW could amass funds for political use.

For years the BIAW has exploited this loophole and now, at last, the State Legislature is taking action to curb the outrageous abuse. We at the Northwest Progressive Institute wish to express our thanks to the twenty five Democratic senators who had the courage to vote yes and pass this important reform.

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Six Democratic senators go on record opposing Homeowner's Bill of Rights

Earlier today, as NPI reported, the Washington State Senate passed SB 5895, the 2009 version of the Homeowner's Bill of Rights. While the victory is significant - and everyone who helped lobby for the legislation should be proud of their efforts - the margin of victory for this year's bill was as narrow as it could have been.

Twenty five senators voted in favor of the bill. Twenty four senators voted against. The Senate is comprised of only forty nine senators. Pretty simple math.

Joining the entire Republican caucus (always happy to oblige the BIAW) in opposing this critical consumer protection bill were six Democrats: Senators Sheldon, Haugen, Kilmer, Jarrett, Ranker, and Shin.

Longtime readers of the NPI Advocate are probably familiar with Senator Tim Sheldon, who is considered by many Democrats to be a Democrat in Name Only because he espouses so few Democratic values, and because he publicly backs Republican candidates (he supported Dino Rossi and George W. Bush in 2004).

So Sheldon's no vote was no surprise. We already know that he reliably votes with the Republican caucus and shares their ideological beliefs.

We also expected to lose Senators Kilmer and Haugen, who refused to vote for the Homeowner's Bill of Rights last year. We've heard reports that Haugen claimed that she voted no then because she didn't want to anger the BIAW, which later sent her an eight hundred dollar check. And this year, we know she is upset at former Homeowner's Bill of Rights sponsor Brian Weinstein, and wanted to exact retaliation by torching SB 5895 - even though Weinstein's not involved with it.

It's unclear to us why Senator Kilmer opposes the Homeowner's Bill of Rights, as we've never received an explanation from him, but we'd love to hear the rationale for his no vote. His constituents probably would, too.

That brings us to the other three Democratic senators who defected.

Senator Fred Jarrett, who is Brian Weinstein's successor in the Senate, has made no secret of his opposition to the Homeowner's Bill of Rights, and has been sending this prepared response to his constituents outlining his concerns. He says:
I will not be voting in support of this particular bill when it comes before me on the Floor of the Senate. My vote will be intended to motivate the process of bringing forth and passing a new bill that will include the best of both the House and Senate versions.

A good aspect of SB 5895 is the inspection process. We need it to deal with water penetration. Current inspections only deal with structure and fire, which may have been adequate in 1920, but technology has moved on and our regulation needs to as well.

Problematic in the bill is the warranty language. We do need warrantees [sic] - they are essential to making accountability work. However, the warrantee [sic] language must be fair to both the buyer and the seller. It must be enforceable, efficient and insurable. This bill does not cover these needs.
What we'd like to know is what's unfair about asking behind builders to stand behind their work for the same amount of time that we already require condo builders to stand behind theirs. Senator Jarrett has not specified what kind of a warranty he thinks would be better. All we know is he doesn't like the proposal that his Eastside colleague Rodney Tom put together.

Like Mary Margaet Haugen, Fred Jarrett is the recipient of BIAW money; he was quoted by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer in August of 2008 as saying he didn't think there was anything wrong with accepting a check from the state's meanest, nastiest right wing lobby, even though he agreed that the BIAW's anti-Gregoire ads were "unconscionable", as the P-I phrased it.

At the time, responding to that article, I wrote:
The BIAW, like other business interests, does not donate to a candidate for no reason. They expect to get something in return. Like lawmakers agreeing to use their influence to kill the Homeowner's Bill of Rights. That's the whole point of their campaign contributions. Money buys influence.

Politicians who deny that are kidding themselves.
If money didn't buy influence, there would be no reason for organizations like Washington Public Campaigns to exist.

Senator Jarrett can say that BIAW's support of his campaign didn't influence this vote, and doesn't influence his votes at all, but even if that's true, the problem is that the connection exists. BIAW donated money to his campaign, and he accepted it... even though he found BIAW's political tactics reprehensible.

And now that he's in office, he's voted against an important bill that the BIAW freely admitted it wanted to kill and stamp out. People watching and listening can't help but wonder if that's not a coincidence.

The other two Democratic senators who joined the Republican "no" chorus surprised us. Senator Kevin Ranker, who is fairly progressive, voted against SB 5895, as did Senator Paull Shin, who, when asked last year if he would back the Homeowner's Bill of Rights, he cheerily replied: Of course... Under Hammurabi's code, if the builder builds a bad house, you can kill him.

(That's not an exact quote, but it sums up what he said.)

So Senator Shin's "no" vote is also puzzling, considering that he voted for the Homeowner's Bill of Rights in 2008.

We plan to follow up with them and ask them to present their concerns, as well as their justification for siding with the Republicans in today's vote. We'd like to give them an opportunity to explain what they were thinking.

We'll be sure to report what we find out.

Victory! Washington State Senate passes Homeowner's Bill of Rights

Moments ago, the Washington State Senate passed SB 5895, the 2009 version of the Homeowner's Bill of Rights. The vote was 25 to 24, mostly split along party lines. A number of Democratic Senators defected to join the Republican caucus in voting against. But the bill passed.

We'll have the roll call up shortly.

UPDATE: Roll call:
E2SSB 5895
Residential real property
Senate vote on 3rd Reading & Final Passage
3/11/2009

Yeas: 25 Nays: 24 Absent: 0 Excused: 0

Voting Yea: Senators Berkey, Brown, Eide, Fairley, Franklin, Fraser, Hargrove, Hatfield, Hobbs, Jacobsen, Kastama, Kauffman, Keiser, Kline, Kohl-Welles, Marr, McAuliffe, McDermott, Murray, Oemig, Prentice, Pridemore, Regala, Rockefeller, and Tom

Voting Nay: Senators Becker, Benton, Brandland, Carrell, Delvin, Haugen, Hewitt, Holmquist, Honeyford, Jarrett, Kilmer, King, McCaslin, Morton, Parlette, Pflug, Ranker, Roach, Schoesler, Sheldon, Shin, Stevens, Swecker, and Zarelli
The Northwest Progressive Institute commends the State Senate for passing this important legislation, and we extend our sincere thanks to Senator Rodney Tom, the prime sponsor, for safely sheparding SB 5895 through the chamber to the House of Representatives. Every vote counted in the end.

Here we go, at last: Senate floor debate begins on Homeowner's Bill of Rights

After failing to take up SB 5895 (the 2009 version of the Homeowner's Bill of Rights) last night, the Senate is now finally considering the legislation, which made it to the floor a few minutes ago. Hurrah!

As I type, the Senate is debating a striking amendment that's been proposed by Republican Senator Janea Holmquist (R-13th District) - one of three striking amendments she's offered. All of her striking amendments would gut the warranty that is at the heart of SB 5895.

UPDATE, 12:27 PM: The Senate is voting on the first of Holmquist's amendments. The Republicans have requested a roll call vote.

UPDATE, 12:29 PM: Holmquist's amendment fails, 28-21. Apparently they're not going to consider her other strikers.

UPDATE, 12:35 PM: The Senate has just adopted Senator Honeyford's amendment to Senator Hargrove's striking amendment.

UPDATE, 12:36 PM: Senate has adopted Senator Hargrove's striker.

UPDATE, 12:38 PM: Senator Tom is now advocating final passage of the bill, noting that it's been before the Legislature for years, but has never received the support of both houses. "We looked at this very much in a comprehensive way," Tom said of this year's version.

UPDATE, 12:40 PM: Republican Senator Don Benton is now speaking scornfully against the bill. He just called it "a jobs killer" and "the most outrageous piece of legislation..." What nonsense. This bill would have just the opposite effect. It would give Washingtonian families the confidence that the law would be on their side if a serious defect was discovered with their home. Builders actually benefit from this legislation because the unscrupulous among them will be held accountable. Which means the industry's reputation will be strengthened.

UPDATE, 12:44 PM: Senator Fraser just spoke in favor, saying the Homeowner's Bill of Rights is needed consumer protection. Senator Carrell followed, speaking against, but not as harshly as Don Benton, who was quite animated in his denunciation of the bill, no doubt wanting to impress his friends at BIAW.

UPDATE, 12:47 PM: Senator Kohl-Welles, one of SB 5895's cosponsors, is now speaking in favor. "When people cannot have a guarantee of any construction done on their home, where's the fairness in that?" she asked.

"We need to deal with this."

UPDATE, 12:51 PM: Senators King and Schoesler (the latter the Republican floor leader) just spoke against. Senator Honeyford is now speaking against.

UPDATE, 12:54 PM: Now Val Stevens is speaking against. Gee, every single Republican seems to trying to do the BIAW proud by standing up and trotting out all the tired old talking points they've been using for years. The doom-and-gloom argument (if we pass this legislation, we'll kill the industry) has lost all credibility. Republicans say it's not a good time to pass the Homeowner's Bill of Rights. Well, it never is, so what's the difference?

UPDATE, 12:59 PM: Oh, how lovely... Senator Roach is regaling us with a story about her childhood... now she's complaining about the press vilifying the BIAW... yadda, yadda, yadda. Spare us, Senator Roach. The BIAW does more vilifying than any other group of people in this state. They've called Governor Chris Gregoire "a power hungry she wolf who would eat her own to get ahead". So who's really doing the vilification, Senator Roach?

UPDATE, 1:02 PM: Senator Tom is now defending the Homeowner's Bill of Rights - and responding to the Republican attacks. "I find it interesting that this bill is responsible for our economic woes," Tom said, a hint of sarcasm in his voice. "We haven't even voted on it yet." Nice rebuttal!

UPDATE, 1:07 PM: Senator Holmquist is speaking again... also, Senator Rosa Franklin is now presiding over the Senate. Apparently the Lieutenant Governor is taking a break - he's got a speaking engagement to get to.

UPDATE, 1:10 PM: Debate is over. The Senate is now voting on final passage.

An alternate solution to the credit crisis

The credit crisis is really starting to bite the economy in the behind.

Anyone who hasn't been in a coma the past three months cannot have avoided hearing something about it. The basic issue is that banks are less willing (in many cases, barely willing) to lend money, because the banks got burned so bad on their own balance sheets by the bursting of the housing bubble and all the "Troubled asset" problems relating to Mortgage Backed Equity, Collateralized Debt Obligations, Credit Default Swaps, and all the other fancy financial terms attached to that mode of wantonly reckless speculation.

So what's the big deal? People shouldn't be borrowing money to live outside their means anyway, right? Well, that's true.

But that's not why the credit crisis matters.

The credit crisis matters, and threatens to do unimaginable harm to the nation's economy, because small businesses cannot survive without credit.

Cashflow is the problem, and nearly every business regardless of what sector of the economy it is in, has it.

In short, expenses are constant. Income is irregular.

If I'm a small business owner, I have to do work for my clients today, I have to pay my employees today, but I probably won't get paid by my clients for at least two to three months after the work is finished. How am I supposed to make payroll and keep the lights on until then?

Since I don't have billions of dollars in the bank like Microsoft does, I rely on short-term loans from banks to cover my operating expenses until my clients pay up. That is, I live on credit.

But with banks freaking out like they are right now, and not loaning anything to anybody, businesses are having a really tough time right now making ends meet. A lot of them are in dire positions, on the brink of failure.

Not because their business model is bad, or their product/service is bad. Not because they're a bad company or poorly run.

But rather, because the banking system is having a collective seizure and is withholding the credit that lubricates the economy.

Ponder the following for a second, and you'll see the incredible risk posed by the credit crisis.
  • Small businesses represent over 99 percent of all employers in America.
  • Small businesses are in real danger of getting killed because banks aren't lending.
The Obama administration needs to act NOW, in the strongest and most decisive terms, to re-establish credit. Hence, the calls for nationalization.

Nationalizing banks means that those banks could begin to lend again (or be forced to) without fear because they'd be backed by the federal government. It seems to be the going idea in financial circles these days as the way to fix the credit crisis.

Nobel Prize winning economist Jospeh Stiglitz wrote, in the Guardian last Friday:
"Socialising losses while privatising gains is more worrisome than the consequences of nationalising banks."
Even Alan Greenspan, the father of "Free Market Uber Alles" thinking, has said that we might just need to do this.

And frankly, I think there's a lot of merit to the idea.

But, the Obama administration seems, to date, reluctant to do this.

I don't really understand why, but I gather his reluctance has something to do with keeping Wall Street bankers happy. Although why anyone should care about what they want anymore is beyond me.

Still, if Obama doesn't want to nationalize, there's something else he could do: He could ask the Congress to pass an emergency piece of legislation allowing the treasury itself to lend directly to small businesses.

If the banks won't give credit, let the treasury do it. And preferably on terms favorable to small businesses.

After all, private banks have a profit motive to satisfy. The treasury does not. Private banks have no stated obligation to fix the economy. The government does. So, hey, how about 0% business lines of credit for any business that needs one!

You want to stimulate the heck out of the economy in a real hurry? That would do it. That would give businesses the green light to pay their bills, knowing they won't have to drain their bank balances down to zero.

And, since most businesses owe money to other businesses, their ability to pay their own bills helps out their creditors' cashflow situations too, which has the pleasant effect of reducing the overall need for lines of credit.

It would help turn the vicious cycle that is the credit crisis into a virtuous cycle of a well functioning economy. Neat, eh?

If banks won't do what banks are supposed to do, then I think President Obama ought to put Timothy Geithner into the business of lending. Maybe that would wake the bankers up to the fact that their own fear is making them irrelevant to the economy at large, and impel them to start doing their job.

If so, great. But if not, at least the nation's small business owners won't be left twisting in the wind.

Democratic leaders in Olympia say the Worker Privacy Act is dead

The Worker Privacy Act - organized labor's biggest priority for the 2009 legislative session - is dead, according to Governor Chris Gregoire, Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, and House Speaker Frank Chopp, who issued the following statement this morning:
We are no longer considering action on House Bill 1528 and Senate Bill 5446, also known as the Worker Privacy Act.

Immediately upon becoming aware of an email linking potential action on the bill to campaign contributions, bringing the bill forward was no longer an option.

The email raises serious legal and ethical questions.

The matter has been referred to the Washington State Patrol for investigation.
Something is clearly amiss.

No further details were provided about this email, but the decision to refer the matter to the State Patrol was probably not made lightly. Although we don't know the details yet, we commend the Governor, Speaker, and Majority Leader for disclosing this development (rather than quietly killing the bill and keeping that a secret). We'll reserve further judgment until we know more.

UPDATE: The State Labor Council is taking responsibility - they've released the following statement fromk President Rick Bender:
We regret the incident. It was a result of frustration with the Legislature’s failure to protect workers' rights in the workplace. Our job is to always protect workers' rights.

We do not believe that any law has been violated and we have no additional comments until we know where this will go.
We still don't really know what the "incident" was, but we do know the consequences: The Worker Privacy Act is history. Business lobbyists all over Olympia are undoubtedly having a good chuckle about its demise today.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Washington State Senate poised to pass Homeowner's Bill of Rights?

We've just received word that Senate Bill 5895, the 2009 version of the Homeowner's Bill of Rights, is likely to be considered by the full Senate tonight.

At the heart of SB 5895 is a warranty that requires builders to stand behind their work for several years, giving buyers of new single family homes the assurance that if a defect is discovered, the builder will be coming back to fix it.

It may sound incredible, but courts have ruled that Washington law doesn't permit homeowners to recover damages if something goes wrong with their home, which allows unscrupulous builders to completely escape accountability.

As I explained in my Reporter Newspapers column, published last Saturday:
State law currently affords a family greater protection against a defective car or toaster it does for a new home. It sounds outrageous. And to those families whose savings have been wiped out, to those parents who have lost the ability to pay for their kids to go to college, and to those children whose safety has been at risk because they were living in unsafe homes, it is outrageous.
SB 5895 is prime sponsored by Senator Rodney Tom (D-48th District) and is one of the Northwest Progressive Institute's legislative priorities.

Over the last few days, we've been concerned that the Senate wasn't going to vote on SB 5895, which made it to the floor last Wednesday.

The bill was tabled late last week after some Democratic Senators became angry with last year's sponsor, Brian Weinstein, for criticing their stance on an unrelated bill in full page ads placed in newspapers across the state.

(Weinstein retired from the Senate at the end of last year and hasn't been involved in efforts to pass this year's version of the Homeowner's Bill of Rights.)

Fortunately, it appears the bill is now back on track.

Readers, now's a great time to get in touch with your Senator and urge them to vote in favor of the Homeowner's Bill of Rights.

To email a Senator, just type their last name and first name into the To field in any client, separated by a dot, then add @leg.wa.gov to the end. So:

lastname.firstname@leg.wa.gov

You may also call the Legislative Hotline at 1-800-562-6000 or look up the office contact information for any Senator at the Legislature's website.

UPDATE, 10:14 PM: The Senate has recessed for the night without considering SB 5895. Please contact your senator and urge their support of the bill.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Facebook vs. face to face: Preserving the integrity of open meetings in the Net era

Earlier today, I saw an article in the Seattle Times about elected officials utilizing Facebook to keep in touch with constituents and disseminate information, and I got to wondering about how use of technology might conflict with long established rules providing for open and accessible meetings.

Back in 1971, the Legislature enacted a law called the Open Public Meetings Act or OPMA. It applies to just about every state, county or city agency, department, subagency, or any other entity that makes decisions or adopts rules relating to public matters. (The Legislature conveniently exempted itself from the OPMA, but that is a topic for another day.)

Basically, the OPMA requires that all "deliberations, discussions, reviews, evaluations," etc., be handled at a public meeting. In other words, we don't want to have decisions made by a Star Chamber, but rather in full public view.

So what does that have to do with Facebook or other similar web applications? Well, technology has enabled our society to do any number of things remotely. We can access email and the World Wide Web from our phones, we can use webcams built into our laptops to meet up virtually wherever we are, and we can share information instantly with others in a chat room or instant message session.

In other words, there is more than one way to meet. And therein lies the pitfall. Suppose a city council has seven members, and that it is considering three candidates for City Manager. Under the OPMA, the Council cannot make a decision except at a public meeting.

So what is the problem? Suppose the first councilmember mentions on his Facebook page that it would be nice to get people's opinions about the candidates. Suppose further that three other councilmembers happen to be friends with the first, along with two hundreds other members of the public.

Would it violate the OPMA for four councilmembers to participate in the same exchange of opinion, along with two hundred other members of the public?

What if none of the other councilmembers are even aware that their colleagues are participating in a discussion online?

[By the way, this post shouldn't be construed as legal advice. I leave it to you to form your own conclusions about all of this.]

You can see where I am going with this. Similar issues arose with the advent of e-mail and e-mail listservs.

Does that mean it is a bad thing for elected officials to use a tool such as Facebook to keep in touch with constituents? No, quite the opposite. To the extent that such services enable our elected officials to keep in touch with the community they serve, such services are a very good thing.

Elected leaders just need to exercise caution when interacting online, and remember: when in doubt, consult a city attorney, deputy county prosecutor, or assistant attorney general for guidance.

NEWS Coalition working to tackle education reform on all fronts

The wheels of justice turn slowly, but those in Washington who care about education hope that they are at least rolling in the right direction.

A lawsuit filed over two years ago by a coalition of nearly seventy organizations which are “committed to improving the quality of education in our state” is set to finally go to trial in King County Superior Court this spring.

The plaintiff, the Network for Excellence in Washington Schools (NEWS), includes twenty seven state school districts (a varied group including the Seattle, Spokane and Yakima school districts), the state’s largest teachers union, the Washington State PTA, and the Washington League of Women Voters.

The timing of the trial could defy Murphy’s Law and work out perfectly. According to NEWS, the lawsuit:
...asks the courts to order the state of Washington to live up to its paramount constitutional duty to make ample provision for the education of all Washington children.
Right now, the state's definition of education is antiquated and deficient, but as you read this, the Washington Legislature is working hard to redefine what a basic education looks like in the 21st century.

If finished by the end of the legislative session in April, the new definition would modernize our current system, which is performing poorly.

A court ruling stating that Washington State must fulfill its Constitutional obligation and pay for the education of all of its children will hopefully compel elected leaders to properly fund an improved schools system.

Education advocates have worked tirelessly to get the Legislature to redefine public education, but history shows that working through the court system can be more effective than the legislative process:
Around the country, 45 states have experienced similar lawsuits. In most cases filed since the 1980s, the plaintiffs won, and the state government was forced by court order to do something about education.
That fact isn't lost upon Washingtonians. The Federal Way School District has netted $4.6 million over four years from two lawsuits it waged against the state over unfair funding. That school district has benefited from its cases, but since they are now stuck in appeals court they haven’t benefited the state at large.

Creak, creak go the wheels of justice. The Legislature, which often seems to move at a glacial pace, is not much faster. How many kids will go through Washington’s public schools before improvements are made?

Maybe we should start measuring progress in geologic time.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

Review: The Man Who Owns the News

Rupert Murdoch is the narcissistic and evil bogeyman of the right wing media machine. He is a symbol of big, bad, Republican corporate conservatism.

Or is he?

Throughout The Man Who Owns the News, Michael Wolff explores the modus operandi of Rupert Murdoch and shows that Murdoch's true desire is not to further the goals of conservatism, but to own newspapers, especially prestigious and well read newspapers. For Murdoch, newspapers are a source of pride and power.

Wolff begins the book with a prologue introducing the reader to Murdoch. Wolff's account of Murdoch's development of his media empire is interwoven with the more recent story of Murdoch's clever and dogged pursuit of the Dow Jones Company and the Wall Street Journal, its flagship publication.

The Man Who Owns The News offers a compelling overview of Rupert's family tree, from his father Keith Murdoch (who owned a newspaper in Australia), to his own sons and daughters. As Wolff relates Murdoch's history, he attempts to answer the question: What makes Rupert Murdoch tick?, offering the observation that Rupert Murdoch is a man of contradictions.
[Murdoch] began as an insider, became an outsider because people didn't understand him as an insider. He is so successful as an outsider that he becomes an insider.
That, in a couple short sentences, is the abridged history of Rupert Murdoch, who first planted the seeds of his media empire in Australia before moving to London and then the United States to conquer new frontiers.

Murdoch's cunning ability to take advantage of people who underestimate him is depicted over and over again - so many times that it's easy to be left wondering why so many people refused to take him seriously.

Murdoch, Wolff contends, is not primarily interested in building a media empire to advance conservative ideology. Wolff observes that the target market of Murdoch's primary newspapers aren't businessmen or the well-to-do, but working people who crave tabloid gossip. Murdoch's publications make money by being trashy, much to the consternation of London's elite.

In pursuing the Wall Street Journal, Murdoch had to overcome objections from members of the Bancroft family (the owners of Dow Jones) - many of whom feared that the paper would lose its independence, its reputation, and its voice.

Murdoch coveted the Journal so much, however, that he was willing to patiently wait out the disunified Bancrofts (who are carefully profiled by Wolff) after he got Dow Jones to actually consider his offer.

Liberals, Wolff argues, aren't the people who Rupert reserves his ire for - rather, it's any group of people Murdoch perceives as elitist. He despises London, New York's elite, and absolutely loathes Hollywood.

Amusingly, Wolff suggests that Murdoch might be becoming more liberal. (His third wife, Wendi, is a liberal, and an acquaintance of the First Family. Murdoch also donated $2,300 to Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign ).

Still, Murdoch lacks a moral compass, for as Wolff shows, he plays on people's fears and practices certain types of yellow journalism. That is reason enough to dislike him. Still, it's hard not to identify with Murdoch at various points in the book - or even feel sorry for him.

Progressive readers are unlikely to have an improved opinion of Murdoch after reading The Man Who Owns The News cover to cover. But it's difficult not to have a different opinion of him after getting through the book.

To many readers, the most surprising revelation won't be that Murdoch cares more for power than ideology, or profit at the expense of integrity, but that newspapers mean everything to him. Twenty First Century Fox, MySpace, DirecTV (which Murdoch sold to help clear the way for his pursuit of the Wall Street Journal) were and are the means to Murdoch's objective of owning still more newspapers.

The conclusion of The Man Who Owns The News leaves something to desired, but that's to be expected. This is a story with an unwritten ending. The media landscape is changing rapidly. Newspapers are losing value, losing advertisers, losing subscribers, and even shutting down.

And yet Rupert Murdoch still desires to own them. What's more, he continues to be at the center of controversy - the New York Post recently ran a racist cartoon which caused an uproar. Murdoch eventually issued a non-apology. However the people responsible for the cartoon have not been fired or reprimanded publicly. That's not surprising, considering Murdoch's self-centered view of the world.

Murdoch will also soon be without his trusted deputy Peter Chernin, who has kept News Corpoation's West Coast business humming in Hollywood for many years. Chernin is a key figure in Wolff's biography of Murdoch, and his departure is arguably a serious blow for the company, which cannot expect to rely on its newspapers to be a profit engine in the years ahead.

The end of the Murdoch story may thus be unwritten, but for those who have never heard the beginning and want to understand how big media has managed to get so big, The Man Who Owns The News ought to be considered a must-read.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Congratulations Washington Huskies!

Moments ago, the Washington Huskies cemented a great season by defeating the Washington State Cougars, 67-60, at Hec Ed to become the undisputed Pac-10 Champions for the first time since 1953. With Seattle sports teams having been in the doldrums for what seems like an eternity, this is a nice achievement.

The Apple Cup victory is a fitting end to a great season. Led by Jon Brockman, the Huskies won twenty four games and lost only seven, with fourteen conference wins. They're currently ranked sixteen in the Associated Press poll and thirteen in the coaches' poll. And now, they have some bragging rights:
Picked to finish fifth in the league's preseason poll, the UW finished a game ahead of three-time defending champion UCLA and will head to next week's Pac-10 tournament as the No. 1 seed.

When the final buzzer sounded, Jon Brockman and Quincy Pondexter embraced and Venoy Overton tossed the ball into the air. TV cameras rushed the floor, with happy, purple-shirted students not far behind them. Isaiah Thomas was lifted up amid a wild celebration at midcourt. Someone held up a sign that read, "Kings of the Pac-10." Matthew Bryan-Amaning wore a cardboard gold crown. The league championship trophy was presented among the sea of happy people.
Congratulations, Huskies. You've earned this.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Can your boss tell you what to think?

Free speech is a cherished right, and rightly so, but free speech stops being free when Americans are forced to listen to it. Especially in the workplace.

Two bills waiting for a vote in the Legislature, HB 1528 and SB 5446, would give Washington employees a right that should go hand in hand with free speech - the right to ignore their employers' personal views.

This right would be protected under the proposed Worker Privacy Act. President of the Washington State Labor Council Rick Bender explains what this is all about:
In a simple and straightforward manner the Worker Privacy Act extends workers’ first amendment rights to the workplace. Specifically it allows workers the right to choose not to listen to or participate in unwanted communication with their employer on issues of individual conscience – including politics, religion, union organizing, and charitable giving.
Supermarket worker Dan Joy could have used these protections when his boss held daily Bible readings at his store and pressed Joy to attend his church. This past summer, Wal-Mart harassed thousands of its employees at mandatory meetings denouncing Barak Obama’s presidential campaign.

Did Democrats feel that they had the right to refuse to attend such meetings? Probably not, given Wal-Mart’s anti-labor reputation.

This proposal has stirred up some opposition from an obvious quarter. Businesses are leveling bogus complaints about the bills, claiming that the First Amendment and the National Labor Relations Act already protect employees from being forced to listen to unwanted communications, and that passing the bill would force businesses to relocate to other states.

They are just blowing smoke. Those two provisions don’t protect workers. Currently in our state, workers can be forced to listen to unwanted personal speech and can be fired or disciplined if they refuse to do so.

This act would not change an employer’s right to free speech, but only protect the employee from retaliation if they choose to ignore said speech. Violations of the act would be addressed in civil court.

The free exchange of ideas is a cornerstone of democracy and this must be protected, but when people in positions of power are able to retaliate against those who disagree with them, the freedom to turn away from speech should be bestowed.

There's just one thing I wonder about. Would this apply to an employer who has the radio constantly tuned to Rush Limbaugh, or is that too much to ask for?

BREAKING: Supreme Court refuses to rule on constitutionality of Initiative 960

Minutes ago, the State Supreme Court finally released a ruling in Brown v. Owen, the lawsuit filed a around a year ago by Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown to invalidate Tim Eyman's Initiative 960.

Initiative 960, which narrowly passed in 2007, requires a two thirds vote of each house of the Legislature to raise new revenue. Brown had argued (and we agree) that Initiative 960 violates Article II, Section 22 of the State Constitution, which stipulates that bills shall pass by majority vote.

The ruling is basically a dismissal of Brown's suit on a technicality. The Supreme Court did not find Initiative 960 to be constitutional; rather, the court declined to address that issue, declaring:
This original action is improperly before this court on application for a writ of mandamus and is a nonjusticiable political question. Intervention of this court into an intrahouse dispute over a parliamentary ruling to compel the president of the senate to perform a discretionary duty would be a grave violation of separation of powers.

We dismiss the action.
The Supreme Court seems to be suggesting that it can't get involved in deciding Initiative 960's constitutionality until the Legislature defies Initiative 960 and passes a bill raising revenue by simple majority vote. Governor Gregoire would then presumably have to sign it as well.

But at that point, Initiative 960 would become effectively nullified anyway by act of cooperative civil disobedience by the state's elected leaders.

Under this scenario, the issue could still theoretically land before the Supreme Court, if Tim Eyman or any of his followers sued.

Is there another pathway for Initiative 960 to be challenged? I can think of one possibility (although - disclaimer here - since I'm not a lawyer, I don't know if this is really feasible). That is: The Legislature could attempt to pass a revenue increase by simple majority. After that fails, a group of citizens could sue the state and argue that Initiative 960 is unconstitutional.

If there is no further litigation against Initiative 960, the earliest it could be rescinded in whole or in part would be next session, when it will become possible for the Legislature to amend Initiative 960 by simple majority vote.

(The State Constitution provides that initiatives, once passed, may not be amended for two years, except by supermajority vote).

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Homeowner's Bill of Rights (SB 5895) advances to floor of State Senate

Exciting news to share tonight: The Senate Rules Committee has moved SB 5895 - the 2009 version of the Homeowner's Bill of Rights - onto the Senate floor calendar. This virtually guarantees that it will come before the full Senate for a vote.

If SB 5895 passes, it will be the third consecutive year that the State Senate has passed legislation to protect Washington homeowners from negligent construction.

At the heart of SB 5895 is a warranty that requires builders to stand behind their work for several years, giving buyers of new single family homes the assurance that if a defect is discovered, the builder will be coming back to fix it.

It may sound incredible, but courts have ruled that Washington law doesn't permit homeowners to recover damages if something goes wrong with their home, which allows unscrupulous builders to completely escape accountability.

The House is considering similar legislation (HB 1393) which isn't as comprehensive as SB 5895. HB 1393 was just approved by the House Rules Committee to go on the floor of the House, so it, too, is likely to go to a vote soon. What happens after each chamber sends the other its bill isn't yet clear, but we'll be carefully monitoring all developments. In the meantime, now's an excellent time to write to your Senator and ask them to support SB 5895.

To email a Senator, just type their last name and first name into the To field in any client, separated by a dot, then add @leg.wa.gov to the end. So:

lastname.firstname@leg.wa.gov

You may also call the Legislative Hotline at 1-800-562-6000 or look up the office contact information for any Senator at the Legislature's website.

Profit-driven health insurance is immoral

Having served up a heaping helping of economic stimulus, we're now told that next up on the Obama administration's agenda is healthcare.

Or at least, the start of a health care reform process. Yesterday, I got an e-mail from MoveOn.org asking me to go sign a petition asking Obama to pick a progressive health care reform advocate to run this process. I gather that MoveOn.org felt this was necessary because, at an early meeting of health care wonks, there were no advocates of single-payer systems on the list of invitees.

Now, I'm as much of a capitalist as anybody. I work for a private company. I have my own startup business on the side. I have always envisioned someday making it big on my own, just like the classic American dream portrays.

So don't get me wrong. Markets have a very valid place in a free society. We don't favor broad nationalization of the economy. The Soviet Union tried it, with dismal results. We ought not go there.

But a fair market is not, and should not be, unregulated.

Therein lies the difference between our view of capitalism and the view that seems to be espoused by the insurance industry.

We believe that a free society cannot tolerate an unregulated market if that market has no moral center - that is, if the market's participants do not have an appropriate regard for the legitimate needs of their fellow citizens.

Markets and a free society can work very well together, if the market is constructed for the broadest possible prosperity. But an unregulated market can only lead to a society with no rules and no moral compass, as private interests work to undermine the nation's foundation of laws to advance their own narrow interests.

Despite the romantic notions of Hollywood, America's nearest historical example of a anything goes society - the lawless "Wild West," with its gun-toting outlaws, rustlers, claim jumpers, cattle- and railroad robber-barons, crooked marshals and all the rest - is certainly not something any of us wants to return to.

So markets must also be moral. However, we believe there are some segments of a moral economy which are fundamentally incompatible with the desire for profit. Segments which should, on moral grounds, be off limits to capitalism. Healthcare is one of them.

The profit motive has its place in the world.

But when profit governs healthcare, the greed of private corporations and their boards of directors inevitably leads to the intolerable circumstance of murder by spreadsheet, in which the legitimate health care needs of Americans are not met because profit-driven insurance companies refuse to pay for them.

As Eve put it the other day, the insurance industry's motto seems to be "take your money, deny your claim."

It's a great soulless business model. But it sure isn't moral.

The private insurance industry has had decades now to figure out what they want to be. To figure out how they want to operate.

To determine the principles which govern their actions.

They have uniformly shown us that what they want to be is greedy. That how they want to operate is, not to mince words, fraudulently. That the principles they have selected to govern their actions place profit above people.

They've had their chance. They have failed. Their time is past.

Everyone knows this. Everyone who has ever worried over the possibility of losing their house and life's savings should catastrophic illness or injury strike, knows this. Everyone to whom this has already happened, surely knows this.

So stick a fork in 'em, they're done.

America desperately needs a moral alternative to the ruthlessly amoral murder-by-spreadsheet insurance industry.

That alternative is clear. It's a single-payer system, wherein the government guarantees payments for medical services, and where everyone chips in their fair share for coverage. It's a system where doctors and patients determine the best courses of medical treatment, and bean-counters don't get to say no.

Everyone knows this, too.

Of course the private insurance industry will object.

They will go kicking and screaming to their graves rather than willingly allow a single-payer system to come into being.

This should surprise no one, because it is tantamount to telling those corporations that their immoral business model has no proper place in our free society.

And it doesn't. Their tactics are quite literally killing us.

We urge the Obama administration, in the strongest possible terms, to move America as quickly as possible to the single payer model that so many of the world's civilized nations already use to great effect.

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Bush administration considered First Amendment expendable

Remember learning about the Constitution and the basic principles of American democracy in grade school?

Well, imagine throwing all of that into a wastebasket. That's what the Bush Administration did in the aftermath of the attacks of September 11, 2001.

According to an October 23, 2001 memo from the Department of Justice's Office of Legal Counsel, freedom of speech is merely a guideline, a concept that can be suspended at the will of the King President.
First amendment speech and press rights may also be subordinated to the overriding need to wage war successfully. [emphasis mine]
Not being patriotic enough by giving your full-throated support to the President's glorious imperialist aims? Then kiss your right to speak in opposition of his policies goodbye.

Fail to report the latest Presidential talking points as anything other than the gospel truth? Congratulations, your newspaper or media outlet has just had its credentials revoked and is no longer allowed to publish. Post facts on your blog that contradict the falsehoods and rhetorical illusions created by the Administration, and you might just find yourself in prison being held incommunicado as an enemy combatant.

And as we've seen over the past several years, especially with the "Mission Accomplished" fiasco, the term "waging war successfully" can be defined any way those in power see fit.

This isn't Stalin's Soviet Union, Tiananmen Square in 1989, the military junta of Burma, the Third Reich, or Mussolini's Italy. This isn't George Orwell's 1984. This is the United States of America. But you wouldn't know it by the creative liberties taken with our laws and the principles of democracy by the Bush Administration. And it's memos like this that remind us why a thorough investigation of possible abuses of power and broken laws by the Bush Adminstration must be undertaken.

Otherwise, if we turn a blind eye to flagrant disregard for the rule of law, what good is the law?

The symbol of the American recovery

This morning President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden joined Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood to disclose the release of nearly $30 billion in recovery funds to state and local Departments of Transportation for the repair and construction of highways, roads, and bridges.

The Obama administration also rolled out the new emblem that projects funded by ARRA (American Recovery and Reinvestment Act) will bear. Take a look:

ARRA Emblem
It's not quite as groundbreaking and recognizable as the Obama campaign logo, but it'll do the job. It's a nice representation of two important and connected priorities: environmental protection and economic security for all.

The President stressed in his remarks this morning that federal employees have an important job in scrutinizing how funds are spent:
Having inherited a trillion-dollar deficit that we're working to cut in half, we also need to ensure that tax dollars aren't wasted on projects that don't deliver results. And that's why, as part of his duty, Joe will keep an eye on how precious tax dollars are being spent. To you, he's Mr. Vice President, but around the White House, we call him the Sheriff - (laughter) - because if you're misusing taxpayer money, you'll have to answer to him.

And to help him, I've appointed a proven and aggressive Inspector General to root out waste and fraud. And I'm also deputizing every single American to visit a new website called recovery.gov so you can see where your tax dollars are going and hold us accountable for results.
By the way, Recovery.gov is being continuously enhanced, so don't hesitate to stop by often and check out some of the new visuals that the White House communications team is uploading.

The Obama administration's web team is a lot more adept at putting together a functional, usable website than Bush's people were.

Monday, March 2, 2009

Unregulated markets lead to greed, greed leads to carelessness, carelessness leads to collapse

Newspapers are running big headlines on their websites this afternoon about the precipitous drop of the Dow Jones Industrial Average, which has fallen below 7,000 points for the first time since 1997.

The breathless coverage of investor angst on Wall Street ceased to be fascinating to us a long time ago. Every week, it's the same story: Some big company is laying off a lot of people, going out of business, or reporting a huge drop in earnings, while profits have vanished and many large financial firms continue to bleed money.

We continue to be told that "what happens on Wall Street affects Main Street" (Wall Street/Main Street, by the way, is a Banished Phrase for 2009) but the federal government continues to throw bucketfuls of money at massive conglomerates like AIG, hoping to prop up companies that are deemed "too big to fail", while small businesses - the real engine of our economy - are left out in the cold.

Now, it's true that the Obama administration has only been in charge for a few weeks. The stimulus/rescue plan should save jobs, and the budget that the President has rolled out looks good. The House of Representatives last week passed an omnibus appropriations bill that increases funding for many important priorities, like renewable energy and scientific research.

So we're starting to get back on track.

But we are still suffering the consequences of fealty to an ideology that proclaims the unregulated market is king. The Washington Policy Center, a local right wing think tank founded by John Carlson, continues to use the slogan "Improving lives through market solutions". Apparently, it hasn't yet become obvious to them that markets are currently destroying lives, not improving them.

The linguist George Lakoff has observed many times in his written works that all markets are constructed for somebody's benefit. And the somebodies that have historically benefited from the big markets are a small number of people, not most American families, as Daily Kos diarist kubla000 ranted today:
I just got to thinking...

The Dow has never helped the middle class get healthcare... instead the continuous drive for "profit" created death by spreadsheet.

The Dow didn't give me or you or my mom a raise... instead the continuous drive for "profit" capped the income of the working class

The Dow didn't create my job... instead it caused my neighbor to lose his job as it was shipped to India in the [pursuit] of "profit"

The Dow won't save my job... instead it may kill it...
Kubla adds:
The Dow created a false sense of security, a false hope of riches, a fools chance of getting ahead.

We were asked to join the party and send them our small dollars, and we always end up being the last fool at the table. The last one to sell... the one to take the biggest loss.
The Dow - which is an index of major United States stocks - is no barometer of American prosperity. The Dow doesn't measure how many families have healthcare, how many kids are getting a college education, how many people are impoverished, or how many workers have good paying jobs.

And those are the measurements that count.

During the Bush error, the rich got richer (thanks to outrageous tax cuts), we Americans were encouraged to spend money they didn't have on things we couldn't afford, and executives at major U.S. companies were given a free hand to blindly put profit ahead of people and the planet.

Unregulated markets lead to greed, greed leads to carelessness, and carelessness leads to collapse. Economies all over the world are falling apart because of irresponsibility and tunnel vision. Safeguards that could have potentially staved off catastrophe were removed years ago by conservatives who argued that government should not interfere with the private sector.

And even now that it is clear that things are not peachy, conservatives don't want to change course. They don't want to regulate markets. They don't want to impose rules to make companies responsible and accountable.

They don't want to invest in infrastructure, they don't want to invest in scientific research, they don't want government to help people (which is why government exists in the first place - to do, as Abraham Lincoln said, the things which we cannot do for ourselves individually).

Conservatives don't want our common wealth to be used for the common good.

Rather than constructively participating in efforts to bring about economic recovery, conservatives are currently spending almost all their energy attacking progressives and needling public servants.

Take the Washington Policy Center, whose employees have recently kept themselves busy by questioning economists' credentials, blasting away at Sound Transit, and urging Chris Gregoire to not accept any federal stimulus money (what a helpful suggestion!)

Or Congressional Republicans, who continue to decry the idea that America's budget should be a moral document reflecting America's progressive values. We've been told repeatedly that this is not the time for us to be investing our tax dollars in our future. Well, sorry, but this is exactly when we need to be putting our money where our mouths are. At times during the past eight years, Bush and the Republicans gave lip service to progressive ideals - sometimes in Orwellian language - but now that Democrats are in charge, we're finally walking the talk.

And Republicans are upset about this. They're saying openly that they hope President Obama fails, that they hope his economic recovery plan won't work. They're basically saying that they are going to rejoice and cheer if we have another Great Depression because they believe they can somehow profit from it.

They are delusional.

Their agenda has failed, their cherished myth of the "free market" is being further discredited with each passing day, and yet they remain stubbornly opposed to trying anything different. Well, we can't wait for them to come to their senses, because that may never happen. We just have to move on and tackle the challenges that face us to the best of our ability.

Transit Oriented Communitites are desirable places to live

Last weekend over dinner, friends of mine bemoaned leaving their walkable Wallingford neighborhood in Seattle for the isolation of the suburb that we both live in. They traded the convenience and stimulation of the city in exchange for a lot more home square footage that they could afford.

What if this family didn’t have to leave Seattle to find more affordable space? Or, what if they could find the vibrant atmosphere of an urban area in the suburbs at a price they could handle?

A bill that is coasting through the legislature is offering a solution. House Bill 1490, the Transit Oriented Communities bill, aims to create more compact communities with affordable homes and convenient transportation across the state. From the Environmental Priorities Coalition:
Transit-Oriented Communities would revise the state’s transportation and land-use planning framework to assist local jurisdictions to plan for growth in a sustainable and climate-friendly way. The bill will provide incentives for cities and developers to create affordable, livable, transit-oriented development, increasing transportation choices.
Light rail naysayers in Charlotte, North Carolina, happily ate their words when the city's controversial light rail line, LYNX, was a smashing success. LYNX ridership is expected to reach forecasted 2025 levels after only two years of service and locals praise its convenience. Restaurants, shops and affordable housing units sprang up along the planned train route, generating a flood of tax revenue for the city and giving locals a reason to ride.

Charlotte’s sensible development wasn’t random, but the result of local planning policies that supported transit-oriented development. Environmentally and socially-conscious Washingtonians should be even more eager to embrace TOD as a solution to many of today’s problems.

Neighborhoods like Wallingford are expensive for a reason. Mixed-use development, with a blend of homes and businesses, offers convenience and character, thus demand for the urban environment is high. If we can increase its supply by building more compact neighborhoods around public transportation centers, in areas outside of Seattle, and include affordable housing in the mix, more people can afford the amenities they want.

To survive the economic readjustment that the country is going through, Washington must plan ahead and create desirable communities that will attract talented people. If we do, businesses will want to call us home and my super-talented friends (are you reading this?) will not consider leaving the region for a more affordable and attractive out-of-state location.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Help move the Homeowner's Bill of Rights forward: Ask Senators to support SB 5895

A few days ago, the Senate Ways & Means Committee held a hearing on Senate Bill 5895, this year's version of the Homeowner's Bill of Rights, prime sponsored by Senator Rodney Tom (D-48th District).

SB 5895, as we've explained before, adds a warranty to new homes that would protect buyers from getting stuck with the repair bill and losing their life's savings if something goes wrong with their home.

We have a lemon law for cars and we have laws that guard against defective appliances. Why is it that Washington homeowners have no recourse if they discover a latent defect with their home? That's the question to be asking lawmakers, who for years have considered legislation similar to SB 5895 but haven't sent anything to Governor Gregoire's desk for her signature.

Last year's bill got through the Senate and through House Judiciary, but was unfortunately killed in House Rules by Speaker Frank Chopp.

However, to his credit, Chopp and House leadership agree that the Legislature needs to do something. They've been working on HB 1393, which is prime sponsored by Majority Caucus Liaison Larry Springer, who represents the 45th District. As of Friday, HB 1393 had successfully made it out of the House Ways & Means Committee, where it had arrived after leaving the House Judiciary Committee with some very minor changes on February 19th.

The Senate Labor, Commerce, & Consumer Protection Committee, meanwhile, handed SB 5895 off to the Senate Ways & Means Committee before the bill cutoff last Wednesday. SB 5895 now needs to pass out of Senate Ways & Means.

The bills are both built around the idea of a statutory warranty, but diverge in their specific language. SB 5895's warranty is more comprehensive and transferable to subsequent buyers, which makes it the stronger bill. However, the State Senate needs to act on SB 5895 soon, or it could fall victim to the next legislative cutoff, which is less than two weeks from today.

Please join us in contacting Senators on the Ways & Means Committee and urging them to pass SB 5895. Senators on the Ways & Means Committee are:
  • Margarita Prentice (D) Chair
  • Karen Fraser (D) Vice Chair (cosponsor of SB 5895)
  • Rodney Tom (D) Vice Chair (prime sponsor of SB 5895)
  • Joseph Zarelli (R)
  • Dale Brandland (R)
  • Mike Carrell (R)
  • Darlene Fairley (D)
  • Mike Hewitt (R)
  • Steve Hobbs (D)
  • Jim Honeyford (R)
  • Karen Keiser (D)
  • Adam Kline (D)
  • Jeanne Kohl-Welles (D) (cosponsor of SB 5895)
  • Joe McDermott (D)
  • Ed Murray (D)
  • Eric Oemig (D)
  • Linda Evans Parlette (R)
  • Cheryl Pflug (R)
  • Craig Pridemore (D)
  • Debbie Regala (D)
  • Phil Rockefeller (D)
  • Mark Schoesler (R)
To email a Senator, just type their last name and first name into the To field in any client, separated by a dot, then add @leg.wa.gov to the end. So:

lastname.firstname@leg.wa.gov

You may also call the Legislative Hotline at 1-800-562-6000 or look up the office contact information for any Senator on Ways & Means at the Legislature's website.

State Senate likely to vote on bill that lays groundwork for automatic voter registration

There's some good news to report regarding SB 5270, a bill modifying voter registration laws that we strongly support: the Senate Rules Committee has signed off on the legislation and placed it on the Senate's floor calendar for consideration by the full Senate. It's possible that it will be voted out of the chamber sometime during the next few days, but we'll see.

SB 5270 contains a key provision directing county auditors to transfer voter registrations if they receive notice from the Postal Service of an address change. Basically, what this means is that if you move and you notify the Post Office of your change of address, your voter registration will move with you - although it will be changed to "inactive" status,

In my testimony on SB 5270, I asked the Senate Government Operations & Elections Committee to get rid of "inactive" part, so that a registration would remain active after it was transferred, but regrettably, that change wasn't made.

However, it still can be in the future. We'll take slow progress towards automatic voter registration over no progress at all.

We'll be watching SB 5270's status over the next few days and will post an update when and if the Senate moves to a vote on it.

Meet the hypocrites: Governor Bobby Jindal

Only eleven days ago, Governor Bobby Jindal (R-LA) signaled that he wouldn't be taking federal stimulus money allocated to his state, if it didn't meet his criteria of being beneficial to the state. Then Jindal rejected over $90 million in funding that would have benefited nearly 25,000 people in Louisiana. Apparently, Governor Jindal believes that helping the unemployed doesn't benefit Louisiana and he would prefer a higher unemployment rate.

Last week, Governor Jindal continued his rant against stimulus spending when he gave the Republican response to President Obama's address to Congress. In that speech, Jindal said the following:
While some of the projects in the bill make sense, their legislation is larded with wasteful spending. It includes $300 million to buy new cars for the government, $8 billion for high-speed rail projects, such as a "magnetic levitation" line from Las Vegas to Disneyland...
While trying to be cute and smug and making high-speed passenger rail service between Los Angeles and Las Vegas sound like an expensive amusement park ride, Jindal actually showed his ignorance about what magnetic levitation is and how it works. Magnetic levitation isn't the latest Criss Angel illusion, but a successful technology already in operation in other parts of the world.
That proposed project would be powered by magnetic levitation, a technology in which opposing magnetic fields along the track and in the train's undercarriage levitate the train a quarter-inch and propel it forward. "Maglev" trains, currently in use in China and Japan, are frictionless and fast. Proponents say the proposed Anaheim-to-Vegas train would reach 310 miles per hour, zipping passengers between the cities in 80.5 minutes.
But, oh the times they are a changin'. Governor Jindal's transportation department is now looking to build high speed rail service between New Orleans and Louisiana, using the very same federal stimulus funding that the Governor already called wasteful (see above).
Louisiana's transportation department plans to request federal dollars for a New Orleans to Baton Rouge passenger rail service from the same pot of railroad money in the president's economic stimulus package that Gov. Bobby Jindal criticized as unnecessary pork on national television Tuesday night.

The high-speed rail line, a topic of discussion for years, would require $110 million to upgrade existing freight lines and terminals to handle a passenger train operation, said Mark Lambert, spokesman for the Louisiana Department of Transportation and Development.

[...]

Jindal oversees the state transportation department and appointed its secretary.
Republicans need to make up their minds. Is stimulus funding wasteful and should be rejected? Or is it beneficial and should be accepted? They can't have it both ways, though as with our previous hypocrites they keep trying.

Maintenance time

Spring won't arrive for another three weeks, but it's never too early to do some spring cleaning. We're straightening some things up around here, and as a result, older posts have temporarily disappeared from the main page.

But don't worry, they're still in the archives. You can read back through everything posted in the last few weeks by heading over to the February archive.