Read a Pacific Northwest, liberal perspective on world, national, and local politics. From majestic Redmond, Washington - the Northwest Progressive Institute Advocate.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Troubled Spokane parking garage project could come back to haunt Michael Ormsby

Last Saturday, the Spokesman-Review, Spokane's daily newspaper of record, reported that Washington's U.S. Senators have recommended Michael Ormsby, the brother of State Representative Timm Ormsby (D-3rd District), for the position of U.S. Attorney for Eastern Washington:
The office of U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., confirmed Friday that Ormsby’s name had been formally forwarded to the White House, where President Barack Obama would make the appointment.

After review by the Office of White House Counsel, Ormsby would undergo an FBI background investigation and the nomination would be subject to confirmation by the Senate.

If confirmed, he would be the chief federal law enforcement officer for Eastern Washington – one of 90 such U.S. attorney positions that the president will fill.
Ormsby's recommendation has drawn fire from watchdogs critical of his involvement in the River Park Square controversy, the Spokesman notes.
Tim Connor, a former investigative journalist and longtime critic of the mall project, said Ormsby was a “central figure in the fraudulent RPS garage transaction” and was cited in an IRS report detailing tax-exempt securities violations.
River Park Square, for those unfamiliar with Spokane, is a downtown mall that originally opened in 1999. Its development was highly controversial; legal wrangling over the project cost the City of Spokane millions of dollars.

The River Park Square fiasco is relevant to Ormsby's recommendation because he was the Bond Counsel for the Spokane Downtown Foundation. The foundation was established by Betsy Cowles to finance the expansion of the mall's parking garage. (Cowles' family, by the way, owns the Spokesman-Review, the Inland Empire Paper Company, and has a hand in much of the commerce that goes on in Spokane).

The Spokane Downtown Foundation decided to sell bonds, backed by parking revenues, to purchase the parking garage (but not the land it sits on) after the garage had been renovated and expanded. That's where Ormsby comes in:
His firm sent a letter to investors saying the bonds qualified for certain tax breaks when, in fact, they didn't.

The firm, then known as Preston Gates and Ellis, paid $1.4 million in penalties and taxes assessed by the Internal Revenue Service. The agency's Office of Professional Responsibility investigated whether Ormsby and another attorney performed due diligence. In a December 2007 settlement, described by the IRS as "groundbreaking," Ormsby admitted no wrongdoing but agreed that for the next 18 months he would not issue any opinions on certain financing issues without approval from the head of the firm's public finance group.
The December 2007 settlement came three and a half years after the Internal Revenue Service decided (PDF) that the foundation wasn't in compliance with section 501(c)(3) of U.S. tax law, which requires that tax-exempt organizes be organized and operated exclusively for charitable purposes:
The Spokane Downtown Foundation is not a qualified 501(c)(3) organization and is not exempt from taxation under the Code. The bonds are not qualified private activity bonds under IRC §145. This is addressed solely because the organizing documents purport that this corporation is essentially described in 501(c)(3) of the Code. It is not. The Bonds are taxable private activity bonds.
But that's not the end of the story. There's another twist, as explained by the last few paragraphs of the original Spokesman story I linked to:
After the garage was expanded but before it was purchased by the downtown foundation, a dispute arose between the Cowles development companies that owned the mall and one of its key tenants, AMC Theatres. The development companies are subsidiaries or affiliates of the parent company of The Spokesman-Review.

When the theater chain threatened to pull out, Ormsby suggested the development companies lower the sale price of the garage. Instead, the developers offered to cover any lost revenue if the chain didn’t open, but only if the foundation and the public board that would operate the garage would keep that offer secret.

The foundation and the board agreed, AMC eventually reached an agreement with Cowles development companies and the garage was purchased for $26 million. Critics have said Ormsby should have told the foundation it should not buy the garage at a price they contend was inflated by an unusual form of appraisal and instead demanded the price come down or the deal be dropped.
By the way, the reason AMC got upset (which isn't cited in the excerpt above) is that they discovered that their patrons would not receive free parking.

So, to review, Betsy Cowles set up this foundation, ostensibly a charity, but really just a vehicle for selling tax-exempt bonds which were later found to be taxable. She and people who work for her then approached Michael Ormsby, asking him to be the Foundation's Bond Counsel. Ormsby agreed.

Ormsby wrote the letter which assured investors that the bonds would be qualified private activity bonds issued to finance a facility owned and operated by a 501(c)(3) organization. This letter was used to entice investors to buy the bonds. Later, when the whole scheme started falling apart, Ormsby failed to advise the Spokane Downtown Foundation that it needed to renegotiate the terms of the deal to buy the parking garage.

Ormsby and other players in the River Park Square fiasco have escaped potential prosecution, critics contend, because the current U.S. Attorney for Eastern Washington, James McDevitt (who was appointed by Dubya) was himself involved in the garage transaction. McDevitt did not recuse himself from the investigation until 2007, which apparently made it difficult for the Assistant U.S. Attorneys who were handling the case to get to the bottom of everything.

McDevitt has been in office since his confirmation in 2001.

Now our two United States Senators have recommended another lawyer who was involved in the River Park Square controversy and investigated by the Internal Revenue Service for allegedly failing to exercise due diligence. We have to ask: Is this the person we really want as U.S. Attorney for Eastern Washington?

We urge the Obama administration to carefully review the River Park Square fiasco and determine the extent of Michael Ormsby's involvement in that messy business as part of what we hope will be a thorough vetting process.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Legislation to allow cities to recoup criminal justice costs falls victim to first session cutoff

Earlier this week, the first cutoff deadline of the 2009 legislative session came and went, leaving behind a lot of dead bills in its wake. One of those bills was HB 1823, which would have allowed a city to recover the costs of prosecuting cases that meet the statutory definition of felony in certain circumstances.

HB 1283 was sponsored by Representatives Larry Springer and Roger Goodman, among others. I mention Larry and Roger specifically, as they happen to be my Representatives from NPI's home district (the 45th) and I want them to get the credit they deserve for bringing the idea to the table.

[Disclaimer: I work for the City of Seattle in my professional life. I drafted the language in HB 1823 at the request of the Association of Washington Cities in my professional capacity. I am writing this post in my private capacity, and as a resident of an Eastside city. It reflects my own personal views, and not those of the City of Seattle, any agency or department within the City of Seattle, or any elected official of the City of Seattle.]

Hopefully this bill will be reintroduced next legislative session. In the meantime, I'd like to explain why it's good legislation.

First, here's a bit of general background and historical context.

County prosecutors prosecute all felony cases within the county, and all misdemeanor and gross misdemeanor cases within unincorporated county areas.

They prosecute in the name of the state, and, with some technical exceptions, bring charges under state law, which is codified in the Revised Code of Washington.

(Felonies are punishable by more than one year in prison; misdemeanors are punishable by up to 90 days in jail; gross misdemeanors are punishable by at least 91 and no more than 365 days in jail. For purposes of this post, I'll use the term "misdemeanors" to refer to both misdemeanors and gross misdemeanors.)

City prosecutors prosecute misdemeanors occurring with the city. They prosecute in the name of the city, and bring charges under city codes.

For the most part, city criminal codes define misdemeanor crimes that are similar to their state counterparts.

In the early to mid 1990s, some cities hit upon what to them seemed a great cost-cutting idea. They either refused to adopt criminal codes at all, or they adopted some less costly criminal codes but left out the difficult or expensive ones, such as domestic violence. That left the counties to prosecute what were essentially city misdemeanors, at county expense.

The counties finally woke up to the fact that some cities were shifting prosecution costs to the county. The counties went to the Legislature, which passed RCW 39.34.180(1), which essentially makes cities and counties responsible for their respective criminal prosecution costs.

Consequently, a city that decides not to adopt a criminal code or to prosecute misdemeanors occurring within city limits has two choices: pay the county for doing the work, or do the work themselves.

That provision made, and continues to make, good sense. It is not fair for cities to pass off their criminal justice costs to the county.

For the next twelve years or so, everything seemed to work okay. But the budget-generated massive cuts in county programs have shaken things up a bit. Some counties, such as King County, have suffered huge deficits, and have cut funding for the County Prosecutor's office. The King County Prosecutor has had to lay off prosecutors and change its charging practices.

The changes affect the prosecution of theft, malicious mischief (think property damage), forgery and certain types of similar crimes involving property in which the value of the property is $1,000 or less are now being referred directly by law enforcement to municipal or district courts as misdemeanor offenses.

The law currently provides that any of these crimes involving more than $250 is a felony. The practice for years had been to refer these property crimes to municipalities if the value was $500 or less.

(As an editorial aside, Seattle is required by statute to have its own municipal court and to prosecute all misdemeanors occurring within its city limits. Consequently, Seattle did not pass along its costs to the county.)

That policy essentially reduces to misdemeanors crimes the legislature has determined are serious enough to be felonies.

That poses some huge questions about how counties use resources.

But from a purely economic standpoint, the counties are doing to cities precisely what the cities were doing to the counties in the 1990s - passing along criminal justice costs to another entity by inaction. It was improper for cities to do that in the 1990s and it is improper for counties to to that today.

HB 1823 would require counties to reimburse cities for handling county "declines" that are based on budgetary filing guidelines rather than proof issues.

(A "decline" is a decision by a prosecuting entity, whether county or city, not to file charges. Cases can be declined for many reasons, but usually it involves proof problems of one sort or another.)

In other words, if a county declines to file a felony theft and instead refers it to the city, the county would have to reimburse the city if the declination is based on the county's filing standards rather than on a proof problem (such as difficulty proving that the value of stolen property exceeded the felony amount). In the alternative, the county could contract with the city to handle such cases.

Counties are understandably concerned about unintended consequences or disagreements in the interpretation of 1823’s language. But those concerns can be addressed by amending the bill with counties and cities at the table.

PTA tells legislature, "Kids can't wait!"

"It's basic. Our children can't wait. Yes we can!"

Those were the chants of approximately four hundred PTA members, parents, grandparents and students from the steps of the Capitol building in Olympia on Thursday. Senator Rosemary McAuliffe (D-1st District) called the gathering the largest rally that she had ever seen at the Capitol, and with sixteen years in the Senate, that's saying something.

I counted at least fifteen legislators and government officials shivering in the 35 degree winter shade, waiting to speak to the crowd or just lending visual support to the main issue of the group, education finance and reform.

Like many other public interest groups, the Washington State PTA converges on the Capitol Campus on one day during every legislative session to lobby lawmakers, but not every year includes a rally like this one. This year called for extra effort because of possibility of a serious overhaul of the state's public education system for the first time in over thirty years.

Shockingly, the formulas that determine how much the state sends to school districts were created three decades ago.

According to Funding Washington Schools:
The old 1978 basic ed. formulas don’t consider the cost of what we now consider to be essentials: computers and other forms of technology, security, telephone lines, foreign language, Advanced Placement, remediation for the growing population of disadvantaged children, and the WASL. Additionally, just the cost of educational resources have increased significantly since 1978.
Many Washington schools can't afford librarians and buses (the basics) let alone new technology and foreign language classes.

The state just hasn't kept up with changes in education and it's now paying the price in low test scores and high drop out rates.

Senate education leaders, McAuliffe and Eric Oemig (D-45th District) expect some form of education reform to survive the session. That's good news to PTA members, but they still hope that their legislators are listening to their stories about overcrowded classrooms and canceled school lunch programs and bus transportation, and will make real improvements that they can actually seein the classrooms and not just hollow promises.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Chris Matthews schools Darrell Issa on Hardball: It's the Democratic Party, genius

Earlier this evening on Hardball, Chris Matthews had Democratic Congressman Barney Frank and Republican Congressman Darrell Issa on his show as guests talking about President Obama's budget and the deficit. To Matthews' annoyance, Issa referred to the Democratic Party as the "Democrat Party" in the middle of a derisive attack on Speaker Pelosi and her colleagues.

As soon as Issa had stopped talking, Matthews took him to task.
MATTHEWS (to Issa): Well... I think the Democratic Party calls itself the Democratic Party, not the Democrat Party.

Do we have to do this every night? Why do people talk like this? Is this just fighting words, to get the name wrong?

ISSA: No, this isn't intended to be fighting words...

MATTHEWS (interrupts Issa): They call themselves the Democratic Party. Let's just call people what they call themselves and stop the Mickey Mouse, here... Save that for the stump. Seriously.

ISSA: Chris, Chris... Chris....

MATTHEWS: Now let's get to the issue here. Seriously. We've got a fiscal challenge.... I want to get back to Congressman Frank and to some English here.
The whole exchange is hilariously entertaining, and may be viewed at MSNBC's website. While we have no qualms about using "Graveyard of Progress" as a metonym for the Republican Party (they continually profess their hatred and disgust for progressive values, after all) we generally refer to Republicans as Republicans, and try to avoid derogatory language as much as possible, because petty insults and name calling typically end up turning into distractions.

Representative Darrell Issa would do well to learn that lesson - and Chris Matthews, who has a history of denigrating other people, would do well to follow his own advice regularly and consistently.

Snow again visits Western Washington

What a snowy winter this has been.

Many Western Washingtonians woke up this morning to find snow flurries coming down outside pretty thickly between 4 AM and 6 AM this morning. In some areas (including Redmond) the snow is still falling, but temperatures are expected to rise to forty degrees Farenheit by 5 PM tonight, which should make roadways drivable for the evening commute and cause much of the snow to melt.

The National Weather Service says:



The fast melt is welcome news, because few have forgotten the prolonged Arctic blast that made getting around miserably difficult in December.

The snow and ice is causing a number of Metro delays and reroutes. The agency has a fairly complete list of what's affected at their website.

SDOT released this update an hour and a half ago:
Crews were dedicated specifically to the West Seattle Bridge and the Alaskan Way Viaduct, and salt was applied to make sure they remained in good condition. Roadway Structures crews inspected bridges and overpasses to make sure walkways were passable and snow was not presenting a problem for opening and closing the moveable bridges. Trucks with plows and sanders were also directed to trouble spots in West Seattle and Southeast Seattle, called in by Seattle Police and King County Metro Transit.

By 7 a.m. air temperatures were rising and snow was turning to slush on many streets. Crews will continue plowing and sanding as long as they are needed.
Numerous highways, including SR 520 and I-405, are parking lots this morning, with spinouts and collisions causing big backups. Many Puget Sound area school districts have decided to go with a two hour delayed start as opposed to closing all day, although a few districts (like Bellevue) have decided to shut down.

If you're going out this morning, take it easy and be careful.

Contemplating Washington schools

My daughters' elementary school of about 500 kids in Texas had two school counselors, a full-time nurse, two P.E. teachers, an art teacher and a vice principal. Ditto for the schools they attended in Massachusetts.

The elementary school one of my daughters attends now in Redmond doesn’t have most of those professionals. It also has about 500 students, but no art teacher; instead, parent volunteers lead monthly art lessons. There’s no vice principal--I guess the kids never misbehave. There’s only one P.E. teacher, not two, one part-time counselor, not two, and a third of a nurse. The nurse is actually a whole person but we only get her a third of the time. The problem is, accidents and illness don't happen every third day and parent volunteers in the "health room" aren't qualified to treat a broken leg or a severe allergic reaction.

This, to me, is a tragic accident or lawsuit waiting to happen.

Despite this, our schools are better than many in Washington. Imagine my friend’s school in North Bend with 42 students stuffed into a 7th grade algebra class. Forty two! That's no way to learn.

Today I’ll be joining a group of about 500 PTA parents from across the state to make a statement in Olympia. Our noon rally in front of the Capitol building will be for one thing—to ask the legislature to make this the year of education reform. Our kids deserve better, and they keep growing while leaders keep stalling on doing what’s right.

Schools need more money. More money equals more teachers, nurses and counselors and it means that kids can go to school a little longer each day like my kids did when we lived in Texas and Massachusetts.

But more money is just the start. This winter, the legislature’s Basic Education Finance Joint Task Force came up with a lot of smart ideas about how to improve the current system, but stakeholder disagreement sacked their proposals. Fortunately, legislators aren’t giving up and are betting on a new set of bills, House Bill 2261 and Senate Bill 6048, to forge a meaningful compromise.

There are a lot of kids’ futures riding on these bills and the PTA is not going to let lawmakers forget it.

I love living in Washington and I don’t want to regret moving here. We also love our schools but we know what we are missing--our kids are getting short-changed.

Another bridge, another government council: More sprawl & climate pollution?

In Seattle, the Alaskan Way Viaduct and Evergreen Point Bridge replacement projects get all the hot press. But there is another project of comparable size in Washington State. Or rather, connecting Washington to Oregon. And progressive Washingtonians should be taking notice of it.

The Columbia River Crossing (CRC) will connect Portland, Oregon, with Vancouver, Washington. It will either be built alongside the existing Interstate 5 bridge or replace it outright. The crossing's size could range from six to twelve lanes with light rail and bike lanes - and maybe even wind turbines.

The CRC is an undertaking of many state and local government entities and stakeholder groups. On Wednesday, the City of Portland passed (4-1) a resolution supporting the construction of the full twelve lanes with light rail, a "Columbia River Crossing Mobility Council" that will recommend an annual Mobility Operations Plan, and 13 performance standards to serve as a "performance warranty."

Passage of the resolution was a rare success for Mayor Sam Adams early in his tenure - and hopefully the start of many good things to come.

However, not all that is good for Portland's progressive mayor is good for the environment and progressives. Every environmental group that has weighed in during the process has expressed dismay at the bridge's likely potential to cause sprawl and contribute mightily to climate pollution.

And given the history of Clark County's allowance for sprawl and farmland loss, we should all be very concerned about the increased traffic that would a twelve lane bridge would bring, which could spark the conversion of more farmland and forest into subdivisions filled with McMansions.

The Sightline Institute recently released its annual Cascadia Scorecard highlighting the sharp contrast between Multnomah County's and Clark County's protection of farmland. All the purple dots north of the Columbia River make Clark County look like an LED billboard.

The Columbia River Crossing project managers published a Draft Environmental Impact Statement suggesting bridge expansion would reduce congestion and amazingly not lead to sprawl.

Many local progressives (admittedly, mostly Portland progressives) have argued the DEIS paints an overly rosy picture. Research from other local think tanks suggests we need a more realistic assessment of the consequences.

(See Todd Litman's Smart Transportation Investments series and Clark Williams-Derry's analysis at Sightline's website).

Progressive Washingtonians should lead the charge to ensure the crossing will not negatively impact working farms, healthy forests, and livable communities.

So where to begin? At this point, a twelve lane bridge seems likely, so arguing for a smaller bridge may seem pointless. The finances also stack in favor of a twelve lane bridge. (The estimated cost of an eight lane bridge is $3.77 billion while a twelve lane bridge is $4 billion, so full build-out is merely six percent more - and probably within the standard deviation for the estimated cost).

Meanwhile, building twelve lanes instead of eight lanes provides fifty percent more travel capacity - but therein lies the problem. Bigger, wider urban canyons contribute to greater sprawl. They encourage people to drive more and live further away from where they work. That's not what we want.

So how do we convince decision makers to make the bridge smaller?

The current leverage seems to be through the City of Portland-endorsed "performance warranty." Here's the 13 standards:
  • Financial Responsibility
  • Construction Funding
  • Affordability
  • Safety
  • Health
  • Freight Speed & Reliability
  • Transit/HOB/Mode Split
  • Mobility
  • Diversion
  • Economic Growth Incentives (Transit-Oriented Development)
  • Vehicle Miles Travled / Greenhouse Gase Emissions
  • Land Use
  • Regional Mobility
So there's a possibility we can get our foot in the door. Unfortunately, the door may be cracked too little to exert much influence.

There are two problems I can see.

First, the members of the Columbia River Crossing Mobility Council (there's a mouthful) have no direct representation to local constituents.

Its members will be from: the Oregon and Washington Departments of Transportation, City of Portland, City of Vancouver, Tri-Met, Metro, Southwest Washington Regional Transportation Council, Port of Portland, Port of Vancouver, Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, and Washington Department of Ecology (it is troubling to me that Clark County is not included).

Granted, their annual Mobility Operations Plan will have to be approved or considered by both the Cities of Portland and Vancouver, but this approval or consideration process is not will understood.

Second, the performance standards are ill-defined with no procedure for accountability. It is not clear whether these will be minimum standards or serve merely as an annual score for the crossing's success (or lack thereof).

And although "Attachment B" to the City of Portland's resolution indicates the bridge must also meet both Oregon's and Washington's vehicle miles traveled and global warming pollution reduction goals, it is unclear whether the project will be required to purchase offset credits or take other actions.

And there is no indication how the "land use" performance standard will be used to prevent the otherwise likely sprawl in Clark County. All the document says regarding the land use standards is that it is "being developed."

Hopefully the eventual land use element is innovative enough to permanently stop sprawl in Clark County.

Here's my solution: Clark County enters a Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with the Columbia River Crossing Mobility Council that it will not expand its urban growth areas (UGAs), or upzone its rural, agricultural, or forest lands.

If Clark County fails to live up to its Memorandum of Understanding, then bridge tolls for passenger vehicles should automatically increase and the revenue be invested in new light rail and bike improvements. It's one option - an option I hope the Crossing Mobility Council seriously considers.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Obama denies terror suspects right to trial

At some point, the honeymoon has to be over. The low point during the Clinton administration, to me, came when Clinton and his deputies joined with Republicans and tried to enact what they called "welfare reform".

What worries us is the prospect of the new administration following the same harmful "triangulation" tack. Is President Obama going to be backtracking on any of the progressive ideals that he says are the points on his moral compass?

It's still too early too tell, but The Independent is reporting that basic due process rights are still being denied to alleged "enemy combatants".
Less than a month after signing an executive order to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp, President Barack Obama has quietly agreed to keep denying the right to trial to hundreds more terror suspects held at a makeshift camp in Afghanistan that human rights lawyers have dubbed "Obama's Guantanamo".

The air base is about to undergo a $60m (£42m) expansion that will double its size, meaning it can house five times as many prisoners as remain at Guantanamo.

Apart from staff at the International Red Cross, human rights groups and journalists have been barred from Bagram, where former prisoners say they were tortured by being shackled to the ceiling of isolation cells and deprived of sleep..
While we at the Northwest Progressive Institute are generally supportive of Barack Obama, we'd rather we be the administration's conscience than the administration's cheerleaders. We cannot continue to imprison people under the wrongful presumption "guilty until proven innocent." Our new President should know better.

A bitter economic pill

So this is what it feels like to be "collateral damage."

My story is surely nothing short of commonplace these days. In October my company laid off 40 people as a direct consequence of the financial system meltdown. That’s no small thing for a company that was only about 100 people.

I work at a technology startup. When the banks stopped lending money, Wall Street freaked out and the bottom fell out of the stock market.

When that happened, the venture capital firms freaked out and they suddenly got really skittish about making further investments.

It's those investments that allow technology startups to grow and flourish. But when investments that had been promised in the summer were yanked away in the fall, our upper management had no choice but to gnaw off one of the company's legs, as it were, to survive.

I was lucky. I kept my job, but at reduced hours. Everyone who's still here has taken an indefinite pay cut. We miss the friends we no longer see in the halls, people we no longer have lunch with.

But, we're counting our blessings. We're still employed. We have health care. There's plenty of parking spaces to go around, now.

I know that this same scenario and others very much like it must be playing out at tens of thousands of small companies all across America.

We are the collateral damage. We are the unintended consequences of Wall Street bigwigs playing with fire.

One thought I just cannot shake is the gross injustice of it all.

Those who played with fire, got bailed out by the government. Those companies who had grown too big to exist, got help.

Those of us who were doing our level best to behave responsibly and working so hard to create innovation and real economic growth, got burned.

Across America, people are wondering how they're going to pay the bills on reduced wages. Wondering what's going to happen if their barely-surviving companies can't make it. Whether their unemployment benefits will last until they find a job. Whether they'll even be able to find another job.

Wondering if there is enough time, yet, to recover from all this before retirement or before the kids have to go to college.

I know. I'm one of them. You probably are too. Our numbers are legion, making daily trade offs on whether to pay this bill or that bill, whether to buy shoes for our daughters' growing feet, or whether to pay for a prescription.

It leaves a very bitter taste. All of us, watching our financial positions erode like a sandy bluff in a hurricane. It's bad enough for me; I might have to go look for another job if my company doesn't make it. But I've got it easy.

I think about my company's founders, who have poured their lives into this business. They're a lot older than me. This is their shot. Their big chance to make it. And they may well see everything they have built, destroyed.

Washed into the stormy sea, because of a situation they had no hand in creating and that has absolutely nothing to do with the merits of the technology they've worked so hard to contribute to the world.

Now that, is a bitter pill.

And when I stop to consider that the bigwigs who did the playing with fire were already tremendously wealthy men who didn't even need to be playing with fire--when I consider that the amount of money my company would have needed so as not to have to tell those 40 people "hey, don't come to work tomorrow" is basically loose change compared to those bigwigs' personal fortunes.

It's not just a pill. It's the whole damn bottle.

So, Congress and President Obama, when you get around to doing what the reputable economists are saying and bump the stimulus package up to the trillion and a half or so that's probably realistic for pulling out of this national tailspin, let me offer a word of advice:

Figure out a way to help all the small companies like mine who were doing fine before, but who, since we've become collateral damage, need some bailouts of our own.

You've got this thing called the Small Business Administration. Give them a half a trillion dollars to lend to us on favorable terms.

I promise, we'll turn it into real innovation and economic growth. Not into corporate jets and lavish executive retreats.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Liveblogging Obama's address to Congress

President Barack Obama has just walked into the House chamber to deliver his first official address to Congress. He's shaking hands now as he approaches the podium.

Here we go!

6:18 PM: Obama did a beautiful job of explaining how we got into the mess we're in, laying out the mistakes and missed opportunities of the Bush error and the last few decades in stark detail. He thanked Congress for passing the American Reinvestment and Recovery Act, and promised that the hundreds of billions that Congress appropriated would be spent transparently and wisely.

6:26 PM: "Nobody messes with Joe" ... great line!

6:28 PM: The flow of credit is the lifeblood of our economy, Obama notes. We need to restart lending, or economic recovery is going to be choked off. Oh, and Wall Street bankers... the Obama administration is watching you!

6:36 PM: Good to hear Obama calling for sacrifice and a new way of looking at our budget - as a blueprint for the future of America. And it's wonderful to hear him talking about our common wealth as a foundation for economic prosperity. As he said, government doesn't supplant private enterprise when it invests, it acts as a catalyst to help businesses everywhere.

6:40 PM: Obama just asked Congress to send him legislation that would put a cap on carbon emissions and set up a market for polluters to trade carbon credits. And he called for greater investment in renewable energy.

6:42 PM: The time for healthcare reform is now! Obama notes that in the last month, Congress passed legislation to expand healthcare coverage for children. He declared that every American ought to have quality, affordable healthcare. We agree: healthcare must be a right. It's not a privilege.

6:48 PM: Agreed - we need to strengthen our schools. The President is asking all of us to do our part, to step up to the plate.
And so tonight, I ask every American to commit to at least one year or more of higher education or career training. This can be community college or a four-year school; vocational training or an apprenticeship.

But whatever the training may be, every American will need to get more than a high school diploma. And dropping out of high school is no longer an option. It's not just quitting on yourself, it's quitting on your country - and this country needs and values the talents of every American.
6:54 PM: An end to tax breaks for companies that ship our jobs overseas - it's about time!

6:56 PM: We're going back to honest budgeting practices:
That is why this budget looks ahead ten years and accounts for spending that was left out under the old rules - and for the first time, that includes the full cost of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan. For seven years, we have been a nation at war. No longer will we hide its price.
And we're going to pursue a responsible end to the occupation of Iraq.

7:01 PM: Obama uses a great phrase to describe our symbiotic relationship with the other nations of the world:
In words and deeds, we are showing the world that a new era of engagement has begun.

For we know that America cannot meet the threats of this century alone, but the world cannot meet them without America.
7:09 PM: The speech just ended, with a couple of heartening stories and inspiring rhetorical flourishes. It was forceful, yet unifying at the same time.

President Obama to emphasize America's can-do spirit in tonight's speech

In a little over an hour, Barack Obama will deliver his first official Address to Congress as President of the United States. It's not being called a "State of the Union", but for all practical purposes, that's what it is.

The White House has released an excerpt from Obama's prepared remarks to highlight what the President plans to emphasize tonight. It's a pretty stirring message, and it'll probably sound even better than it reads when Obama says it.
But while our economy may be weakened and our confidence shaken; though we are living through difficult and uncertain times, tonight I want every American to know this: We will rebuild, we will recover, and the United States of America will emerge stronger than before.

The weight of this crisis will not determine the destiny of this nation. The answers to our problems don’t lie beyond our reach.

They exist in our laboratories and universities; in our fields and our factories; in the imaginations of our entrepreneurs and the pride of the hardest-working people on Earth. Those qualities that have made America the greatest force of progress and prosperity in human history we still possess in ample measure.

What is required now is for this country to pull together, confront boldly the challenges we face, and take responsibility for our future once more.
Amen to that. We've bounced back from tough times before - there's no reason why we can't do so again.

Decades ago, as he assumed office during the Great Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt offered many of the same reassuring observations President Obama plans to make tonight when he spoke these words in his first Inaugural Address:
Yet our distress comes from no failure of substance. We are stricken by no plague of locusts. Compared with the perils which our forefathers conquered because they believed and were not afraid, we have still much to be thankful for. Nature still offers her bounty and human efforts have multiplied it.

Plenty is at our doorstep, but a generous use of it languishes in the very sight of the supply. Primarily this is because the rulers of the exchange of mankind’s goods have failed, through their own stubbornness and their own incompetence, have admitted their failure, and abdicated.

Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men.
For eight years America has been governed - or not governed - by an administration that didn't seem to want to acknowledge that economic security was deteriorating, let alone do anything about it.

Now we have a leader who cares - and it shows.

The President's address is scheduled to begin at 6 PM Pacific Time.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Suzan DelBene launching bid for Congress in Washington's 8th District

Last week at the Washington State Democrats' Crab Feed, I had the opportunity to briefly say hello to the first declared Democratic challenger to Dave Reichert in 2010: Suzan DelBene, who was introduced to the crowd by Chairman Dwight Pelz.

Like Darcy Burner, the Democratic standard bearer in 2006 and 2008, DelBene has a background at Microsoft, where she was Corporate Vice President for Mobile Communications from 2004 through 2007. (She also worked at Microsoft from 1989 through 1998 before leaving to join Nimble Technology).

More recently, DelBene has served as a strategic advisor for Global Partnerships, a nonprofit organization that invests in micro-finance institutions in Latin America. And just last month she was appointed to the Board of Directors of ElectroRent.

DelBene has posted a short letter on her website introducing herself and briefly describing her plans to run for Congress.
Dear Neighbor,

Here in Washington's 8th District, we live in one of the most beautiful and prosperous areas in the country. I know that we must work hard to protect our quality of life.

I am a successful businesswoman -- I have been the CEO of a start up and a Microsoft Vice President. I have worked around the globe in business and in lifting people out of poverty. I am a Trustee of Reed College, helping to increase access to higher education. I have worked in medical research and have seen firsthand the power of new treatments. I firmly believe that each challenge we face can be used to create opportunities and get our economy moving again.

I am not a career politician -- my focus has always been on creating opportunity. I have incredible faith in what we can do as a community. I want to listen to you and move us forward by representing the great 8th district in the United States Congress. Tell me more about what's important to you. Contact me at info (at) delbeneforcongress (dot) com.

Suzan DelBene
Candidate for Congress, Washington State, 8th Congressional District
DelBene is getting a pretty early start, but that's actually a good thing. It takes a long time to put together a winning campaign for federal office. Starting early is especially important for candidates who haven't already built up a network of political contacts running for local office.

We've heard nothing but good things about Suzan to date. We look forward to learning more about her and seeing her campaign take shape in the months ahead.

Former Governor Gary Locke said to be Obama's pick for Secretary of Commerce

To those who had been complaining that the Pacific Northwest was underrepresented in the new administration, we offer the following as proof of the timeless expression good things come to those who wait:
President Barack Obama's likely third pick for Commerce secretary is former Washington Gov. Gary Locke, a senior administration official said Monday.

Locke was the nation's first Chinese-American governor when he served two terms, ending in 2005.

Obama's expected choice of Locke arose less than two weeks after his most recent pick, Republican Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, backed out. Just over a week after Obama named him and he accepted, Gregg cited "irresolvable conflicts" with the policies of the Democratic president.
If Locke is indeed the new Commerce nominee, kudos to President Obama for a solid choice. Although his overall record as governor wasn't all that stellar, he did a great job strengthening our relationship with key trading partners and promoting Washington State exports. He certainly has the needed background for the job.

One of the best things he did as governor was to use his line item veto to sign into law our state's open primary in the spring of 2004. Later that year, the Grange succeeded in duping voters into replacing the open primary with "Top Two", but two successive federal courts found the Grange initiative to be unconstitutional. Unfortunately, last year, the U.S. Supreme Court unwisely decided to overturn those rulings, so for now we're stuck with "Top Two", which restricts voter choice and tramples all over political parties' First Amendment rights.

Since leaving office at the beginning of 2005, Locke has been with Seattle's Davis Wright Tremaine as a partner.

He has remained active in Washington politics; for instance, he hosted a fundraising event for Darcy Burner early in her first bid for Congress. He also served as a co-chair for Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign in the Evergreen State.

Locke would be the third Asian American in Obama's cabinet (Retired General Eric Shinsheki became the new Secretary of Veterans' Affairs last month, and Steven Chu became the new Secretary of Energy).

At Commerce one of Locke's top deputies would be a fellow Northwesterner, Oregon State University's Jane Lubchenco, who was tapped by President Obama to take over NOAA. Lubchenco's confirmation hearing was February 12th.

Also slated to represent the region in the upper echelons of the Obama administration are Ron Sims, who has been nominated as Deputy Secretary for the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and Seattle police chief Gil Kerlikowke, who is supposedly Obama's choice for Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a Cabinet level position.

Are we ready to open the door to Cuba?

With Bush now out of office, it looks like our relations with Cuba could finally get some attention. Cuba, which sits ninety miles off the coast of Florida, is one of the world’s last communist strongholds.

Sadly, George W. Bush did nothing in eight years to improve our relations with Cuba or the lives of its people. Fortunately, there is bipartisan recognition in Congress of the failure of our current approach, and it appears that even Republicans are ready to make changes.

In a report issued Monday, minority members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee stated that the U.S. needs a new approach in its dealings with the island. From the report’s highest ranking committee member, Senator Dick Lugar (R-IN):
After 47 years, however, the unilateral embargo on Cuba has failed to achieve its stated purpose of 'bringing democracy to the Cuban people’...we must recognize the ineffectiveness of our current policy, and deal with the Cuban regime in a way that enhances U.S. interests.
Recommendations in the report line up with President Obama’s campaign promises to ease family travel and remittance restrictions, but stop short of proposing lifting the trade embargo - which must be a goal on the way to improved international relations.

In his book The J Curve, political scientist Ian Bremmer theorizes that in order to democratize nations, we must open them to new things and ideas: the energies of globalization open up the least politically and economically developed areas of the world, as the citizens of closed states learn more about life beyond their borders and discover that they don't have to live as they do, tyrants must expend more and more effort to isolate their societies.
Bremmer believes that repressive governments don’t dislike but actually want and need policies such as our Cuban trade embargo in order to keep their populations hungry and dependent on them.

People in closed societies don’t know what they are missing and are more likely to accept the status quo (think North Korea).

Trading with Cuba has the potential to expose Cubans to new products and ideas: sporting goods, women's rights, and helpfully, new auto parts.

(Imagine how much free time a Cuban would have if they could just buy a new belt for their '57 Chevy instead of having to fashion it themselves.)

With autocratic Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez cozying up to both Cuban President Raul Castro, and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, it's time for the United States to show it's ready to leave behind the failed policies of the past.

Relaxing travel and remittance restrictions is a good start. Dialogue and trade between the two nations could put Cuba on a path to greater openness and democratic freedoms. If Republicans are ready to start down this path, Obama can surely step in line beside them or better yet, move ahead and lead the way.

SB 5292 would reform the "three strikes" law

I imagine I would be safe in assuming that anyone reading The Advocate is familiar with the "Three Strikes" law, but just in case, I'll give a quick summary.

There are certain crimes that are considered so serious that, when someone has been convicted of any three of them, the third conviction requires a life sentence. Crimes that fall within this category are called "Strike" offenses.

SB 5292 ("5292") would remove the crime of Second Degree Robbery ("Rob 2") from the list of "Strike" offenses. That may sound like a bad idea - John Carlson's recent special column in the Seattle Times certainly takes that position - it makes sense if you actually analyze the true impact.

Let me make one thing clear: I am in favor or the Three Strikes law. I believe that there are certain crimes that should carry life in prison for the third time around. I would even go so far as to say that I think there are crimes I'd like to see carry life in prison on the second or even first strike.

In other words, I am a staunch law and order type.

That being said, I favor removing Rob 2 from the list of strike offenses. I take this position based on the definition of Rob 2 and the belief that there are ways to alleviate the concerns of those who believe 5292 would lead to all manner of horrible consequences. In the world of criminal trials, this is referred to as the proverbial "parade of horribles."

I prefer to be guided by notions of justice and punishment that fits the crime. The following quote from Terence (I don't know who Terence is, but you can find his quote in Harper's Book of Quotations):

"The strictest justice is sometimes the greatest injustice."

I do not mean to cast aspersions at those who oppose 5292. But I do mean to educate them so that they can at least form their opinions with full information. John Carlson's article provides a good vehicle for looking at the issue.

He raises three basic concerns. He asserts that Rob 2 is a sufficiently serious crime to be considered a Strike offense.

He also expresses concern that serious Rob 1 charges that currently are pleaded to the lesser Rob 2 charge will no longer count as Strike offenses.

Finally, he then identifies a couple of rather violent defendants who would be released under 5292. I will take each argument in turn.

How is Rob 2 defined?

All state criminal statutes are contained in the "Revised Code of Washington", or the RCWs. (You can look up any RCW chapter and section at the Legislature's website. Just click on "Revised Code of Washington").

RCW 9A.56.190 defines robbery in general, and RCW 9A.56.200-9A.56.210 define Rob 1 and Rob 2. Rob 2 occurs when a person:
"unlawfully takes personal property from the person of another ... against his will by the use of threatened use of immediate force, violence, or fear of injury to that person or his property .... Such force or fear must be used to obtain or retain possession of the property, or to prevent or overcome resistance to the taking; in either of which cases the degree of force is immaterial."
Rob 1 occurs when the perpetrator is armed with a deadly weapon (or what appears to be a firearm or other deadly weapon) or inflicts bodily injury.

I emphasized the phrase "the degree of force is immaterial" for a very specific reason: Rob 2 can be committed in ways that are in no way serious enough to count as a Strike offense. A person who is caught shoplifting and pushes the store security person in the chest has committed Rob 2.

That is not to say the person will be charged with Rob 2 - most likely he/she will be charged with one count of 3rd Degree Theft and one count of 4th Degree Assault, each of which are gross misdemeanors carrying a maximum sentence of one year in jail. But that is not to say the person won't be charged with Rob 2.

Charging standards differ from county to county, and depend to a great extent on the culture of the particular county prosecutors and the counties themselves.

The bottom line is this: Rob 2, while serious in and of itself, does not rise to the level of being Strike-worthy. When dealing with a potential life sentence, it is simply unjust to include a crime that sweeps so broadly.

Rob 2 as a Plea Negotiation Tool

It is the nature of the beast that some criminal charges are pleaded down to less serious charges, or charges that carry a more lenient penalty.

Sentencing in felony cases is governed by the Sentencing Reform Act, or SRA. Unless there are extraordinary circumstances in a particular case, judges are required to sentence within a "standard range" as calculated pursuant to the SRA.

The standard range is determined from a table that is based on the crime and the defendant's criminal history.

Because the SRA leaves little room for judicial discretion in sentencing felons, the only real wiggle room for negotiating is to find a crime that carries a lower standard range. Thus, someone charged with Rob 1 would be more willing to plead guilty to Rob 2, which carries a lower standard range. But prosecutors do not reduce Rob 1 charges willy-nilly; they generally offer reductions only when there are legitimate proof issues with the more serious charge.

That explains why a defendant might plead to Rob 2 rather than Rob 1. But if a defendant already has a prior Strike offense, he/she runs a serious risk by pleading to another Strike offense such as Rob 2.

Guilty pleas under that scenario would be on the rare side. If a defendant has two prior Strike offenses, it would be malpractice for a defense attorney to advise a guilty plea to a third Strike offense.

So what does that all mean? It means that reductions from Rob 1 to Rob 2 are likely to be accepted by those with no prior Strike offenses.

It also means that those charged with Rob 2 have less incentive to plead as charged; they would be better served going to trial even in the example described above involving a shoplift and a shove.

If Rob 2 were removed from the Strike offenses, many of the cases involving less threatening behavior could and would be resolved by guilty pleas as charged.

The Parade of Horribles

Under 5292, any defendant sentenced to life in prison based on one or more Rob 2 convictions as Strike offenses would be entitled to be re-sentenced based on the SRA as if Rob 2 were not a Strike offense.

The Rob 2 conviction(s) would still count in determining the standard sentencing range, just not as a Strike offense.

In the world of criminal trials, a relatively common tactic is to point to a "parade of horribles" that would flow from the other side's arguments. (The parade of horribles is an equal opportunity argument - both prosecutors and defense attorneys have resorted to that argument.)

Carlson supports his argument by citing three examples of serious felons who would be released under 5292. But for every serious felon who would be released because one or more of their Strike offenses was a Rob 2, one could undoubtedly find examples of felons who would remain in prison for life based on Rob 2 convictions that do not justify such a sentence.

More to the point, 5292 would not eliminate the impact of Rob 2 convictions on sentencing ranges, nor would it preclude the legislature from increasing the impact of Rob 2 convictions on a defendant's sentencing range.

And those defendants who would be released would only be released because they had served the sentence prescribed by the SRA.

The Punishment Must Fit the Crime

Our criminal justice system is based on the concept that the punishment must fit the crime. Stated another way, the sentence imposed for a particular crime should be proportional to the circumstances of the crime.

SB 5292 recognizes the unfairness that can result when Strike crimes are defined too broadly; it helps maintain "justice" within our criminal justice system.

The words of Felix Frankfurther, one of the greatest U.S. Supreme Court Justices, still resonate today:

"It is a wise man who said that there is no greater inequality than the equal treatment of unequals."

Sunday, February 22, 2009

81st Academy Awards: Different look and feel - but still the same spectacle

If you're watching the Oscars tonight, like I am, you've probably noticed the producers of this year's Awards have tried pretty hard to shake up the format as much as they possibly can, hoping for a boost in ratings.

The stage and interior design looks significantly different than it has in years past, presenters are staying on stage to announce multiple awards, and host Hugh Jackman opened the ceremony with a musical number rather than a monologue.

The stylistic changes don't really do much for me - I typically watch regardless of who is hosting or how the ceremony is put together - but I really can't see how the different look and feel is much more than window dressing for the undecided. The Oscars have been and always will be a awards ceremony.

And awards ceremonies are pretty predictable televised spectacles - there's only so much that can be tweaked or changed to make them new and exciting.

In fact, this year, the awards are worse in one noticeable respect - the sound isn't very good, particularly the audience applause, which doesn't sound like it's being faithfully transmitted to my television's speakers.

Anyway, here's a tally of the winners so far...

  • Achievement in Costume Design: Michael O'Connor, for The Duchess
  • Best Animated Feature Film: Wall-E
  • Achievement in Makeup: Greg Cannom, for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Achievement in Visual Effects: Eric Barba, Steve Preeg, Burt Dalton and Craig Barron, for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Achievement in Art Direction: Donald Graham Burt (set decoration: Victor J. Zolfo) for The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
  • Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, The Dark Knight
  • Best Animated Short Film: La Maison en Petits Cubes
  • Best Live Action Short Film: Spielzeugland
  • Best Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, for Vicky Cristina Barcelona
  • Best Adapted Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, for Slumdog Millionaire
  • Achievement in Sound Editing: Richard King for The Dark Knight
  • Achievement in Sound Mixing: Ian Tapp, Richard Pryke and Resul Pookutty, for Slumdog Millionaire
  • Achievement in Film Editing: Chris Dickens, for Slumdog Millionaire
  • Best Foriegn Language Film: Departures (from Japan)
  • Achievement In Music Written For Motion Pictures (Original Song): "Jai Ho" from Slumdog Millionaire, music by A.R. Rahman, lyrics by Gulzar
  • Achievement In Cinematography: Anthony Dod Mantle, for Slumdog Millionaire
  • Achievement In Music Written For Motion Pictures (Original Score): A.R. Rahman, for Slumdog Millionaire
  • Best Documentary Short: Smile Pinki
  • Best Documentary Feature: Man on Wire
  • Best Original Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black, for Milk
  • Achievement In Directing: Danny Boyle, for Slumdog Millionaire
  • Best Actress (Leading Role): Kate Winslet, for The Reader
  • Best Actor (Leading Role): Sean Penn, for Milk
  • Best Picture: Slumdog Millionaire
There weren't too many surprises this year. Slumdog Millionaire did really well, Heath Ledger was posthumuosly honored for his role in The Dark Knight, and the Curious Case of Benjamin Button received a plethora of honors, including achivement in makeup and visual effects.

It was nice to have brief scenes of upcoming films play over the credits. Hopefully they'll continue that tradition in future years.

Meet the hypocrites: Congressman Greg Walden

Once again, another politician from the Northwest, Republican Congressman Greg Walden (OR-02) voted against the stimulus package passed by Congress, but changed his tune when facing the folks at home. Walden's district spans all of the eastern part of Oregon and most of the south.
"I figure my job is to try and do whatever I can to clear the hurdles and get the projects going and the people back to work using these funds."

"They are going to be spent somewhere," he added. "I hope they are spent mostly in this region."


The region should get as much of those funds as possible because of the backlog of work in the forests, the history of wildfires in the region, a ready and talented workforce and high unemployment, he said.
The "backlog of work in the forests" that Congressman Walden notes in his remarks has to be a reference to his role as a co-sponsor of the Bush Administration's Healthy Forests Restoration Act, which is more accurately referred to as Leave No Tree Standing. As long as Walden's district has trees, then there must be a backlog of work, in his mind.

Congressman Walden's claims that the 2nd District boasts a "ready and talented workforce and high unemployment" don't strike me as something unique to his district that warrant special consideration when funds get disbursed across the state. Given the opportunity most members of Congress would make the same statement about their districts.

It is highly doubtful that most of the stimulus funds for Oregon will be spent in Congressman Walden's district. He represents the most rural areas of Oregon, and while those areas need assistance too, simple math shows that there are just more people living in other areas of the state.

Why spend the most money on the smallest amount of people?

And why would the Obama Administration or Governor Kulongoski reward Congressman Walden by sending his district the greatest portion of the money, after he failed to support the funding in the first place?

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Meet the hypocrites: Senator Mike Crapo

Now that the Senate is wrapping up a week-long hiatus to talk to the folks at home, Senator Mike Crapo (R-ID) is doing his best to support President Obama's stimulus package. There's nothing like having to face your constituents, for a politician to start doing what they can to meet those needs. The problem here is, Mike Crapo didn't vote for the stimulus package. But you wouldn't know it based on his comments this week.
"Approximately $400 million plus, maybe as much as $465 million will come to INL right here in Idaho for hundreds of new jobs and a significantly expedited clean up activity," enthused Crapo.
Sorry, Mike. We have to call you on the load of manure you're spreading across the fields of Idaho. You don't get to oppose the President's plan, vote lock-step with your leadership and then take credit for the good it does. It doesn't work that way.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Poll shows Senator Patty Murray in strong position for 2010

Earlier today the results of a Research 2000 poll commissioned by Daily Kos were released, showing Senator Patty Murray in a strong position for re-election in 2010. The poll put Senator Murray head to head against Congressman Dave Reichert and Attorney General Rob McKenna.

According to the poll, Murray beats Reichert 53% to 40%. Against McKenna, Murray wins 55% to 39%.While those results are certainly impressive, they're not particularly helpful for the 2010 race. What is telling in the poll is that Murray's favorables are higher than Reichert, McKenna and even President Obama (though in the category of "very favorable" she is below Obama). In addition, this poll put Senator Murray up against the most popular Republican in the state (McKenna) and it's clear that he's not up to the task.

Dave Reichert isn't likely to give up his seat, which he's narrowly won twice. Incumbency does have its advantages, and Reichert would be foolish to run against Murray, who is arguably the most popular elected official in the state. In Reichert's world, he'd be better off running as an incumbent and narrowly winning victory, than getting trounced by Murray.

And Rob McKenna isn't running for Senate. Anyone who has paid attention to Olympia for the past four years knows that Rob McKenna has designs on the Governor's office. Expect him to the be Republican nominee in 2012.

It's more likely the Republicans will do their usual dance with some independently wealthy white male like John Stanton, and then settle on some poor sod along the lines of chairman Luke Esser, who will then get trounced by Murray.

Projected deficit has grown by $2 billion, according to new interim revenue forecast

At the request of state lawmakers, the Economic and Revenue Forecast Council has released an interim forecast today ahead of its regular report in March.

The news is grim. Here's Governor Gregoire:
Today’s preliminary revenue forecast reflects the severe effect the national recession is having on the state’s budget.

In the budget period that ends June 30, we now face the loss of an additional $721 million, which does not include caseload projections that will be released next month.

The drastic drop in state revenue, brought on by the deepening recession, will require us to take decisive action. My budget office and I have been expecting and preparing for this shortfall, and we are working now with legislative leaders to address the shortfall through the end of this biennium.

The forecast for the next biennium is not much brighter, with a projected additional $1.6 billion drop in revenue resulting in an approximate $6.8 billion shortfall for 2009–11.

This number represents about 20 percent of the state budget, the largest shortfall in state history.

To put this number in perspective, every dollar we now invest in higher education, our corrections system and children’s health care services would not be enough to cover the shortfall. Washington and 45 other states now face budget shortfalls of an estimated $350 billion.
It is becoming plainly evident that new revenue is needed to prevent Washington State from collapsing into unrecognizable, dire poverty.

As Governor Gregoire points out, we could wipe out all funds for major public services like universities and jails - and that still wouldn't be enough to close the projected gap. We can't afford the devastation that cuts alone would bring - we have to find ways to raise new revenue, or we'll all suffer the consequences when our quality of life drops off a cliff.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

A big welcome home for Ken Griffey, Jr.

Nothing like a bit of sweet news from the world of sports to provide a temporary distraction from all of the massive problems we're grappling with as a state:
PEORIA, Ariz. - Seattle Mariners Executive Vice President & General Manager of Baseball Operations Jack Zduriencik tonight announced that the Mariners have signed outfielder Ken Griffey Jr. to a 2009 contract. It is not yet known when he will report to Peoria, but he took a team physical on February 15.

"This is a great day for the Mariners", Zduriencik said. "It is rare in this game when you get an opportunity to reunite a player and a team in a move that works for both. We spent a lot of time this winter doing our due-diligence on what the best baseball move for this franchise on-the-field was. By last week, we were confident the best fit for this club, on the field, was Ken Griffey Jr. After Don and I sat down with Ken and talked with him about our goals for the 2009 team and this franchise, it was even more clear that he would be a fit with us."
It's hard for any loyal Mariners fan not to smile at the thought of Ken Griffey Junior wearing a Seattle uniform again. Watching he and Ichiro play together will be a real treat, and the Mariners clubhouse will surely benefit from his presence. Junior is a legend - besides Edgar Martinez, perhaps the person most synonymous with Mariners baseball throughout the history of the franchise. He is beloved by Mariners fans across the Pacific Northwest, from Alaska to Idaho.

Remember the old 1995 slogan, Refuse to Lose? I can still picture seeing that sign in an RV window on my way into the Kingdome with my family to see a Mariners game back in '95. And I can remember Junior blasting a home run into the upper decks at that game. Those were the days!

The value of having Junior as part of the Mariners again can't be measured in numbers. The team has been in a funk ever since the magical one hundred and sixteen win season in 2001. Sometimes they've been good but not good enough, other times they've been mediocre, and, too often, they've been terrible.

The Mariners need somebody who can lift them out of their slump. They need a guy that everyone can look up to and respect. A bridge builder. A leader.

I can't think of anyone more suited for the job than Ken Griffey, Junior. He has the confidence of practically an entire city, state, and region - the support and faith of Mariners fans everywhere. Plus, doctors have pronounced him healthy and ready to play. Our lineup has long needed a slugger who can complement Ichiro's contributions, and Griffey can be that slugger.

Welcome home, Junior! And readers - see you at The Safe this summer!

Math and art in education

I cannot remember a time when people were not decrying the state of mathematics education in America. Or a time when there weren't occasional stories in the newspaper or on television about how American kids are falling behind their peers in Japan, Europe, and recently China in math education.

I cannot remember a time when school districts across the nation were not cutting back on their arts curricula, because shrinking school budgets and increasing focus on standardized testing were forcing them to focus only on "core subjects."

Lately I have been thinking that these phenomena are related by more than just money and America's bizarre lack of focus on school funding. With the stimulus bill now signed into law and the Obama administration promising to bring our schools into the twenty-first century, this has been on my mind lately.

We tend to view students in two very broad categories: "artistic" kids and "intellectual" kids. This is a crass generalization, but it's true. Society, by and large, expects people to be one or the other. Rarely both.

Which is to say that there is not an expectation that an artistic kid will be any good at math, science, or engineering. Nor is there any expectation that intellectual kids should have any interest in or aptitude for art.

Frankly, I think that's crap. I think that every kid has a creative side regardless of their skills in the sciences. And I think that every kid has an analytic side, regardless of their skills in the arts.

And I know, because I've lived it myself, that math and art can reinforce one another. Math can be used to teach art and strengthen one's creative side. The desire to make art can be used as a springboard from which to teach math.

Waikiki Beach and Diamond Head, Oahu

I suspect that my school experience as regards math and art was pretty typical. We didn't have any art classes after about the fourth grade. And math class was, well, dull. The typical kid argument, "I don't see how I'm ever going to need this in my life," resonated with me just as strongly as anyone else.

This was back in the Dark Ages, when I had the free time of a high school student and my computer's speed was measured in kilohertz rather than gigahertz (think about that for a second).

But after school, the situation was entirely different. I was a latch-key kid, so when I would come home at the end of the school day the choice was mine for how to spend my time. I could watch daytime TV, or play around on my computer. I don't know about you, but there were only so many Magnum, P.I. reruns I could take.

For fun, I did a lot of messing around with plotting math formulas.

Sounds geeky, but there wasn't much else you could fit into the computer in those days. I plotted all kinds of functions, just to see how they behaved and what cool patterns I could put onto the screen.

In algebra class, we learned that irrational numbers were the square roots of negative numbers. We learned that recursion was primarily a trick for generating Fibonnacci numbers. Ooh, yippee. I couldn't have cared less. But when the great fractal craze of the late '80s and early '90s hit, it led me back to irrational numbers and recursion as a means to draw cool stuff on the screen.

In trigonometry, they drilled into us the definition of sines, cosines, and tangents as the ratios of the sides of right triangles. Drier than the Sahara, that. But at home, trigonometry functions became endlessly fertile ground for creating swirly patterns ranging from spirographs to models of planetary motion.

In pre-calculus, we learned about derivatives as the slopes of mathematical formulas, and how to relate the slope of a curve to the direction perpendicular to that, it's "normal" direction. You have no idea how full the margins of my notebooks were with aimless doodles during those lectures.

But when the concept of ray tracing hit the scene, suddenly derivatives, slopes, and surface normals were good for something - they are indispensable in realistic ray tracing.

Every one of those subjects was dull as dirt in the classroom, but interesting at home. And the visual results of each were beautiful in their own ways, even rendered in the shockingly crude graphics of the day.

It was all math in service of pretty pictures.

I learned more trig, algebra, and even calculus from my trusty old Radio Shack "trash-80" computer than I ever did from a classroom.

In hindsight, the reasons are obvious. Because it was fun. Because it was undirected, free exploration without rules or boundaries. Because it engaged both the creative and the intellectual sides of my brain at the same time.

I learned the math because I needed to learn it to solve problems that were exciting to me, for my own reasons, and on my own terms.

My experience was certainly atypical for that era. At the time, few people had computers at all, let alone ones with any graphics capabilities. I was lucky. But today that's just not true.

Today, computers that would kick the transistors out of my clunky old TRS-80 are increasingly ubiquitous in schools. Today, there is a wealth of free software available that serves this particular intersection of math and art, Processing being my latest favorite new toy in that respect.

The march of technology has made it possible now to replicate in the classroom the experience I had from playing around with my computer in high school.

And to do it for cheap.

So while we're busy spending some of that stimulus money - and hopefully a lot more to come in the near future - to rebuild aging school buildings, let's not lose sight of the fact that we need innovative, 21st century curricula and teaching methods as much as we need those 21st century school.

My own experience tells me that we could do a lot worse than to start with some type of integrated math-and-art program. We have the computers. The software is free. We just have to do it.

For me, this has been a life-long process. The joy and satisfaction of using math to make art has never left me. These days, it's easier than ever to indulge. Wikipedia is an awesome resource for re-learning concepts and formulas that I was exposed to in school but which never had any appeal until I find that I need them in order to play around with one creative idea or another.

The image I used above to illustrate this post is the result of just such an exploration, this time into matrix math and least-squares estimation.

Not because I wanted to geek out over the math, but because the math is a tool to answer the creative question "what do you get if you draw lots of short, random little lines over the interesting features of an image, and color the lines the same as the underlying image?"

And yeah, they supposedly taught me matrices and least-squares in the U.W. College of Engineering. But it wasn't any fun back then.

If we can use modern tools to give every kid the chance to discover the joy in math, and thereby give them a life-long zeal for learning, we will be miles - no, make that kilometers - farther along in our goal to raise our kids' education up to the levels they'll need to compete in today's global economy.

Obama preparing to work around Republican obstructionism, aides say

Yesterday, as Barack Obama signed the stimulus package, the San Francisco Chronicle reflected on how the debate over the recovery plan has impacted the President's legislative strategy and willingness to offer concessions to Republicans:
Obama campaigned on a promise to change Washington and spent his first weeks in office hosting GOP lawmakers for cocktail parties and one-on-one meetings. But his efforts yielded no House Republican votes for the bill and just three GOP votes in the Senate. Most Republicans saw the debate as a chance to take a stand against the Democratic Congress and the new president.

White House aides now are shifting tactics, dialing back their expectations of big bipartisan majorities for future bills. They plan to capitalize on Obama's high public approval ratings and use public events, like Tuesday's bill signing at a science museum in Denver, to rally public support and put pressure on Congress
Thank goodness.

Democrats have tried to work with Republicans, tried to negotiate in good faith to achieve a bipartisan consensus, and all we have received is scorn.

The Republicans feel differently, of course.
Republicans complained that, in the name of bipartisanship, they were being browbeaten into supporting a massive federal spending program that supported liberal policy goals.

"Does bipartisanship mean we all have to hold hands on the road to socialism?" said Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala. "If this isn't worthy of a political debate, what is?
Apart from Senator Sessions' use of a fallacious argument (quite a slippery slope there), he seems to have forgotten that tax cuts comprise the largest portion of the recovery plan. That's money that would be better spent if it were invested in infrastructure or sent to states and cities (PDF).

The Congressional Research Service agrees as well, as Mother Jones reports.
Early this week, thousands of reports from the Congressional Research Service, which exists to provide unbiased answers and info to curious lawmakers, were leaked on the website One such report from January 23 of this year called "Economic Stimulus: Issues and Policies" makes it clear that the GOP's talking points place ideology over good economics. "Economists generally agree that spending proposals are somewhat more stimulative than tax cuts since part of a tax cut may be saved by the recipients," says the report. "The primary way to achieve the most bang for the buck is by choosing policies that result in spending, not saving. Direct government spending on goods and services would therefore lead to the most bang for the buck since none of it would be saved."
Do the Republicans want to be known as the Party of Obstructionism? Do they want to be known as the party that is too set in its ways to change?

Considering that their alternatives consisted of tax cuts or do nothing, they evidently did not learn much from the decline and fall of the right wing regime that was the Bush administration. That's their Achilles' heel: They continue to believe that conservatism can't fail. It can only be failed.

The rest of America knows better.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Time Magazine is overrated

Perhaps in an effort to save money and establish prestige, editors of newsweeklies like Time Magazine have begun to increasingly and incessantly publish irrelevant lists of anything and everything they can think of.

This week Time has produced its latest ranking, the "Best Blogs of 2009", which is accompanied by a second worthless list - the Most Overrated Blogs. Among them:
Markos Moulitsas — alias "Kos" — created Daily Kos in 2002, a time he describes as "dark days when an oppressive and war-crazed administration suppressed all dissent as unpatriotic and treasonous." Be careful what you wish for. With the Bush years now just a memory, Kos's blog has lost its mission, and its increasingly rudderless posts read like talking points from the Democratic National Committee.
Increasingly rudderless posts? Newsflash to Time: People have been making these kinds of baseless criticisms about Markos (and his contributors, too) ever since Daily Kos was first created. You're several years late to the party.

You also seem to have failed to notice that Daily Kos is a partisan blog, primarily focused on Democratic campaigns for federal office.

Where's the evidence that Daily Kos has "lost its mission"? You didn't provide any, because there isn't any. Daily Kos, like the broader netroots community, continues to be vibrant and active. The implication that Daily Kos is somehow no longer needed or valuable because the Bush error is over is absurd.

Barack Obama's inauguration did not magically solve any of the massive problems facing our country. It merely marked the moment in time when someone who is actually interested in fixing them was put in charge.

The work of remaking America is not complete. And it never will be. There will always be a need for progressive activism.

Daily Kos was not the only blog to be honored with Time Magazine's scorn. Also declared irrelevant were TechCrunch and Ars Technica, two blogs that I frequently read for insights into the intersection of technology and business.

I find Ars and TechCrunch way more useful than Time Magazine - which I hardly read anymore because it's filled with the same bland Beltway groupthink that can be found in dozens of other publications with equally conceited editors.

I used to get Time Magazine delivered, but I canceled my subscription years ago. That hasn't stopped Time Magazine from regularly pelting an email address I rarely check anymore with messages like this:

Congratulations, as a former TIME subscriber you're invited to re-discover TIME through this special "WELCOME BACK" offer.

Get TIME for $20.00!

Discover world changing news and events – and witness important cultural changes as they happen. With this special low rate, you save 92% off the cover price!

Subscribe now to lock in this special rate of 56 issues at $20.00 – plus receive the Ultronic Touch Screen Organizer FREE with your paid subscription. Don't delay!!

Click here to subscribe NOW!


Gene Foca
VP of Consumer Marketing
TIME Magazine

Click here to order a hard cover Barak Obama Commemorative Book!
Wow... somebody's desperate to get me signed up again as a customer. (And they misspelled the President's name. It's Barack Obama).

Sorry, Gene, but I'm not interested. Maybe when Time Magazine stops publishing garbage like this attack on Daily Kos, I'll reconsider, but at the moment, I have zero interest in shelling out money for a stack of glossy paper that's more useful as birdcage liner than as a source of information.

While I'm on the subject, I should point out that Time isn't the only newsweekly that is guilty of incessantly filling its pages with lists. The McGraw Hill Companies' BusinessWeek does the same thing (although, unlike Time, much of the rest of BusinessWeek's content is actually worth reading).

For example:
BusinessWeek 50
BusinessWeek's Most Innovative Companies
BusinessWeek's World’s Most Influential Companies
BusinessWeek's List of 20 Best Business Leaders of 2007
BusinessWeek's 50 Best Places to Raise Your Kids
BusinessWeek's Most Influential People in the Sports Business
BusinessWeek's Hot Growth 50: Best Small Companies
BusinessWeek's The Best Places To Launch A Career
BusinessWeek's Best Values in Private Universities
BusinessWeek's Best Undergrad B-Schools
BusinessWeek's Customer Service Champs (25 Client Pleasing Brands)
BusinessWeek's Asia's Best Entrepreneurs Under 25
BusinessWeek's The Best Business Books
BusinessWeek's Best & Worst Products
BusinessWeek's The Worst Predictions About 2008
I could go on, but you get the idea. BusinessWeek touts some annual list or even a new one they've invented on the cover of almost every other issue. It gets old - real fast. I wouldn't mind one annual ranking of companies with subcategories at the end of the year, but the lists are being published constantly.

Time, of course, has the "Time 100", which has become their most notorious list. Hilariously, they don't even write the blurbs about the celebrities they feature - they get other famous people to write them. Then they throw a party to celebrate the special, elite club they've christened. But Time produces other rankings as well - so many, in fact, that to remember them all you'd need a List of (Worthless) Lists to keep track of all the self-proclaimed bests and worsts.

As far as we're concerned, it's Time Magazine that's overrated. Blogs and forums allow for a two way conversation between people, creating the feeling of a town square, but online. So if you disagree with what someone is saying, or you have a different perspective to offer, there's an opportunity for you to have your say.

Time Magazine - or at least the print version of it - features just a couple of pages of reader comments. That's it.

The value of one way media is heading down, partly because what corporate executives are trying to sell is not what people want to consume.

(There are people out there, conservatives especially, who claim that political bias - "liberal bias" - is the reason for declining newspaper descriptions and so on. That's complete nonsense. Most major newspapers actually have conservative owners and are anything but liberal.)

Time Magazine isn't currently publishing anything that would compel me to want to read it, let alone subscribe to the print edition. Yet people like Gene Foca keep suggesting that they somehow know what I want.

Clearly, they don't.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Goodbye, good luck, but not good riddance

I come not to bury Gil Kerlikowske, but to praise him.

As you have no doubt read by now, Seattle Police Chief Gil Kerlikowske has been tapped for a high level position in the Obama Administration.

One does not ordinarily associate progressive politics with mainstream law enforcement, but I would be remiss if I didn't mention some great, progressive work that the Seattle Police Department has done during Chief Kerlikowske's tenure.

(Disclaimer: I am a prosecutor and have worked with Chief Kerlikowske. That gives me an especially good opportunity to comment on his tenure, but I leave it to the reader to determine the extent to which that may impact my views here).

When I think about the legacy Chief Kerlikowske is leaving behind, the first thing that comes to mind is the Crisis Intervention Team, or CIT. It's a small, three person unit inside the Seattle Police Department (SPD).

It is one of the most respected CIT units in the country, and for good reason. It is a unit that has thrived during Chief Kerlikowske's time with SPD.

CIT is comprised of a sergeant and two officers who are specially trained in mental health issues and interacting with the transient, destitute, and often-chemically dependent severely mentally ill who live on the streets of Seattle.

"Interacting" in this context means recognizing the symptoms of severe mental illness and responding to the mentally ill in a caring, non-threatening manner.

This often involves getting them help from the civil mental health system rather than booking them into jail. The CIT officers know many of the mentally ill in the streets, and have developed a great instinct for telling the difference between someone who is dangerous and someone who needs a helping hand.

The CIT officers also participate as members of Seattle Municipal Court's Mental Health Court. They are the only CIT unit in the country that does this.

As an aside, Mental Health Courts are criminal courts that practice "therapeutic justice", which means their objective is to help mentally ill who are charged with crimes, ensuring that they receive housing and treatment rather than being thrown in jail and enduring further misery.

The CIT officers train other SPD officers in the same techniques.

So far, about two hundred SPD oficers have received specialized training, and there are plans to train even more.

Then there's the community prosecution project, also referred to as the Precinct Liaison program, which was designed to head off problems before they result in criminal charges. This idea was developed and launched jointly by the Seattle City Attorney's Office and the SPD.

How does it work?

A Seattle city prosecutor is stationed at each of the five SPD precincts. The prosecutors and the police work together and with the community as a whole to understand the communities' concerns, and to develop creative, proactive solutions that do not require traditional prosecution.

This is another of Seattle's cutting-edge services that is rarely mentioned.

Like any large, urban police force, SPD has its "issues". And like any chief of a large, urban police force, Chief Kerlikowske has his critics.

For example, he has been accused of being too lenient on officers who are subject to discipline by Seattle's Office of Public Accountability. But from the perspective of someone who lived and worked (and prosecuted) in Los Angeles, SPD is, by and large, an excellent and citizen-friendly force.

This post may not earn me many points with progressive activists fighting to make the Seattle more responsive to their concerns, but I think we have to recognize what is working at City Hall, not just what's broken.

Seattle has been lucky to have Gil Kerlikkowske as its Police Chief, and President Barack Obama will be luck to have Gil Kerlikowske as part of his administration.

Good luck, Chief - you will be missed.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

You are what you eat

With the recent revelations that the Peanut Corporation of America knowingly shipped salmonella-laden peanut butter to consumers, which has led to 600+ sick, at least nine dead and thousands of recalled products, one of the first things the Obama Administration needs to do is regulate the food industry. I say regulate, because as we've seen with the financial services industry, it seems the lunatics have been running the asylum.

E-mails and other documents released by the House Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations indicate the company and its executives knew their products contained salmonella and shipped them out anyway to keep the money flowing.

• In one e-mail, Lightsey wrote Parnell and discussed positive salmonella tests on one batch of its products. Parnell gave instructions to nonetheless “turn them loose” after getting a negative test result from another testing company.


Even in the heat of the nationwide outbreak, Parnell seemed more worried about his company’s profits than with food safety, according to regulators and congressional investigators.

On Jan. 19, Parnell sent an e-mail to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, pleading with the agency to let it continue its business. He wrote that company executives “desperately at least need to turn the raw peanuts on our floor into money.”

It wasn't just the raw peanuts on the floor being turned into money. The Peanut Corporation of America, as we have learned had some special ingredients in the peanut products, which bring to mind a certain book by Upton Sinclair.

The Texas Department of State Health Services on Thursday ordered the recall of all products ever shipped from the Peanut Corporation of America's plant in Plainview, Texas, after discovering dead rodents, rodent excrement and bird feathers in the plant.

Can this really be happening in America in this day and age? Profit before public health? It can and it is. But it's not just lack of inspections of plants that is endangering public health. How about a side of antibiotics with your meal?

It's well known by now that livestock in feedlots across the Midwest are fed a steady diet of corn (not the animals' natural diet, which is grass) and antibiotics (to keep them as healthy as possible in abysmal living conditions), to fatten them up to get the highest and best price when they are slaughtered. Those antibiotics are in the meat that we consume daily. But did you know the antibiotics are also in the crops you're eating, even the ones labeled organic?

“Around 90 percent of these drugs that are administered to animals end up being excreted either as urine or manure,” said Holly Dolliver, a member of the Minnesota research team and now a professor of crop and soil sciences at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls. “A vast majority of that manure is then used as an important input for 9.2 million hectares of (U.S.) agricultural land.”

Manure, widely used as a substitute for chemical fertilizer, adds nutrients that help plants grow. It is often used in organic farming.


Tainted manure can impact more than just the soil. Once applied to the land, antibiotics can infiltrate water supplies as it seeps through the soil into aquifers or spills into surface water due to runoff, explained Dolliver.

So the soil additives (read: antibiotic-laced livestock manure) being used to increase the yield of farmers' crops is adding to the problem in the rise of drug-resistant bacteria.

But wait, there's more. While the FDA has a ban on feeding the remains of cattle to other cattle at the feedlot (because of conclusive evidence linking the practice to mad cow disease), some of the other ingredients in the feed are troubling. In his book The Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan writes:

Feather meal and chicken litter (that is, bedding, feces and discarded bits of feed) are accepted cattle feeds, as are chicken, fish and pig meal. Some public health experts worry that since the bovine meat and bonemeal that cows used to eat is now being fed to chickens, pigs and fish. infectious prions could find their way back into cattle when they're fed the protein of the animals that have been eating them.

Would you eat ground up bones, feathers and feces of another animal? Does it sound like an appealing dinner option to you? So why then is it not common sense that we shouldn't be pumping our food supply full of these same things? My guess is that once again, profit trumps public health. Why feed the animals their natural diet, when its much cheaper to feed them processed corn and the ground up remains of other animals and their waste products?

If we are what we eat, why would any of us want to eat anything I've described above? And why would any of us permit our government to allow this to happen?

Bellevue high school shows it's possible to incorporate sustainability into student life

Last Monday, students and faculty at Bellevue's Interlake High School launched an event called "Green Week" to celebrate and practice the values of sustainability and environmental protection. The event, intended to go beyond just raising awareness, encompassed a wide range of fun and informative activities.

On Monday, students watched an informational video in class which highlighted all of the planned activities. On Tuesday, students wore green clothes to emphasize their commitment to leaving a lighter impact on the Earth. And on Saturday, students gathered to plant trees on school grounds.

But the highlight of Green Week was a two day trial period which aimed to reinvent waste management at Interlake.

The Environmental Club received a grant to use compostable plates and utensils in the cafeteria instead of using styrofoam. Additionally, a compost bin was installed so that students could take advantage of food waste recycling.

Student body president Stephen Bronskill (also the founder of both Interlake's Environmental Club and Interlake for Obama) said of the event:
This is a major step forward for our school and the entire Bellevue School District. Interlake High School uses over six hundred styrofoam trays a day. That is 108,000 trays a year and over one million trays district-wide every year. Styrofoam takes over a million years to degrade. Do we want that to be our legacy?
Stephen is absolutely asking the correct question: What should our legacy be - or, in other words, what do we want to leave behind? A carcinogenic hazard like styrofoam rotting in a landfill that future generations will have to deal with?

There's a better way. And as Stephen says, getting people to change their habits starts with leading by example.
The school board is watching this program. We received a grant to do this initial trial, but there is talk that when we prove that high school students care about the environment, the program may be expanded district-wide next year.
An administrator from the Bellevue School District came to Interlake High School during Green Week to survey the pilot project. She noted that the district's primary objective is to save money.

Because the compostable trays result in less garbage and more recycling, it's cost beneficial for the district to do the environmentally responsible thing (proving once again that neither of those goals is mutually exclusive).

As long as students remember to utilize food waste recycling, it's a win-win situation. The Bellevue School District saves money by reducing trash and relying more upon recycling. (It's cheaper for Allied Waste to haul away recycled materials versus garbage, which doesn't end up getting reused).

Compostable trays cost more money than styrofoam trays, so permanently switching away from styrofoam may not happen immediately. The District may instead elect to implement food waste recycling only at first.

For the time being, that's a good start. The compostable trays are not widely accepted by the student body yet anyway. The general consensus among students is that the compostable plates are bad because they melt with mashed potatoes on them. Until the plates can meet the school mashed potato test, it may not be the right time to switch over to them.

Interlake High is getting closer to becoming a more environmentally friendly school. Students have demonstrated that they care about the Earth and believe in that timeless saying that serves as inspiration to progressive activists everywhere: "We are the ones we have been waiting for."

Friday, February 13, 2009

U.S. Senate passes final version of stimulus plan, sending it to President Obama's desk

All the votes are finally in... the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act is heading out of the Capitol and to President Obama's desk for his signature.

Sixty senators voted "aye", thirty eight (all Republicans) voted "nay".

Senator Ted Kennedy, who is undergoing treatment for a malignant brain tumor in Florida, was not present. Neither was Al Franken, who has not yet been sworn in as the junior senator from Minnesota.

Senator Sherrod Brown of Ohio, who had returned home to be with family following the death of his mother, had to fly back to the District of Columbia to provide Vote Number Sixty. (Thanks, Republicans).

Meanwhile, former Republican presidential nominee John McCain jeered at his colleagues Olympia Snowe, Arlen Specter, and Susan Collins for voting "aye":
"Only three," Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, said as he described the program as anything but bipartisan. He called it a thing of "unprecedented and historical proportions" that would saddle future taxpayers with debt.
Gee, John, for a second there we thought you were talking about the Iraq occupation. Or the Bush tax cuts. You almost had us. But then we remembered that your mavericky goodness is all just a sad illusion.

Anyway, as expected, the Pacific Northwest's senators were again split down party lines, with Democrats enthusiastically supporting H.R. 1 and Republicans opposed. The wrangling and the negotiating is finally over - the stimulus plan is ready to become law. Let's get the aid flowing and put our common wealth to work.

U.S. House passes final version of stimulus plan without a single Republican vote

The United States House just voted 246-183 to pass the final version of H.R. 1, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. Not surprisingly, the legislation was again opposed by the entire House Republican caucus.

So, Dave Reichert, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Doc Hastings, Greg Walden, Mike Simpson, Dong Young, Denny Rehberg ... we'd love to hear your answer to this question: Why do you hate America?

To be fair, there are seven Democrats who also apparently don't care if our nation's economy falls off a cliff and smashes into smithereens. Among those seven are Idaho's Walt Minnick and Oregon's Peter DeFazio, who deserve the same scorn as the Republicans. The courageous thing to do would have been to vote yes.

Republicans are hypocrites. Just months ago they were falling over themselves to approve Dubya's requests for money. They were for the funding of the occupation of Iraq. They were for the big bank bailout.

But now? They're against investing in America's common wealth. Against desperately needed public works projects. Against aid to states.

Against helping people.

Republican leader John Boehner doesn't have a problem spending billions upon billions of dollars - as long it's for Iraq. As he said back in June of 2008:
"The cost of this bill, frankly, is high, but it's a price for freedom. And I don't think you can put a price on freedom and security in our country."

- John Boehner (June 15th, 2008)
Oh really?
"They're moving on this path along the flawed notion that we can borrow and spend our way back to prosperity."

- John Boehner (January 15th, 2009)
What a difference seven months makes.

Now that President Obama is in charge, Republicans have turned on a dime and are preaching the virtues of fiscal restraint again, even though fiscal restraint was the last thing they were concerned about during the Bush error.

Republicans wasted and squandered America's treasury for eight years. But now that Democrats are proposing that we spend money wisely creating jobs and building up our economy, House Republicans are opposed. Unanimously opposed.

Let the record show that in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression decades ago, Republicans voted against investing in America's future. All Republicans seem to care about is themselves.

No "separate but equal" for marriage equality

It has been over 50 years since the U.S. Supreme Court struck down racist laws that consigned African American children to attending separate, but supposedly equal, schools.

The court's ruling held, essentially, that the underlying notion of "separate but equal" school facilities was itself unconstitutional.

Today no one questions that decision, and no one would (at least not publically) suggest that we ought to go back to the segregated world of the 1940s and before.

Yet, many of the same people who understand that it is wrong to give children different educational experiences because of the color of their skin, still hold that it is acceptable to give couples in committed, loving relationships different legal rights on the basis of the shape of their genitalia.

Civil Rights is a long, and ongoing battle. This is its latest front.

The latest salvo in that battle, fired by State Representative Jamie Pedersen, is to submit a bill to the legislature that would expressly give people in domestic partnerships the full range of legal rights as people in state-recognized marriages.

The bill's sponsor, himself one of five openly gay members of the state legislature, refers to the bill as "everything but marriage." It is an apt description. The bill extends literally hundreds of legal benefits that accrue to married couples, from obvious stuff like the right to have custody disputes resolved by a judge, all the way to really narrow items like the right to bequeath a sea urchin fishing license to your survivors. Everything except the word "marriage" itself.

And therein is the problem.

It is right and proper for the legislature to give all these rights to same-sex couples. They deserve them. But "equal in the eyes of the law" is not at all the same thing as "equal in the eyes of society."

No amount of domestic partnership legislation can give members of same-sex couples the same social status as a married couple.

When a person with a new job goes to lunch with his or her new co-workers, and they ask "so, are you married," a heterosexual person can say "yes." A gay or lesbian person cannot. No amount of legislation can, when that person says "no, but I'm in a domestic partnership," cause those co-workers to have the same reaction as a straightforward "yes."

And the same applies in an infinite variety of other social settings.

The right to be treated with dignity and respect may not be legally enforceable--or even legally defined--rights. But they are human rights just the same. And for same-sex couples, the key to getting their full measure of human dignity and respect is access to that one simple word:


The reason "marriage equality" is the right name for this issue is because only true marriage is, in fact, equal.

Domestic partnerships are a step in the direction. Representative Pedersen's bill will help Washington's same-sex couples. But make no mistake. Believing that domestic partnership rights are enough is no different than accepting the racist "separate but equal" legislation of our shameful and intolerant past.

Interestingly, prior to Brown v. Board of Education, Washington was one of a comparatively few states in the union that expressely forbade segregation in public education.

I don't blame Representative Pedersen from pursuing the rights he is due. But given our leading stance on education 50 years ago, how ironic that we are now about to repeat the same mistake here in the 21st century as was done in the Jim Crow south back in the first half of the 20th.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Bill would lift travel restrictions to Cuba

After forty six years of heavily restricted travel to one of our nearest neighbors, the United States might finally be getting closer to lifting travel restrictions to Cuba, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel reports.
The Freedom to Travel to Cuba Act introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives on Feb. 4 would allow American citizens unrestricted travel to Cuba for the first time since 1963. The bill by Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass., and eight co-sponsors would also lift limits on travel by Cuban exiles living in the United States. The president would not be able to regulate travel to the island unless an armed conflict or armed danger arises.
Getting rid of travel restrictions to Cuba would be welcome.

But what about our trade embargo?

Over the last seventeen years, the United Nations General Assembly has repeatedly approved resolutions calling for the end of trade embargoes on Cuba. A resolution last year was adopted by a vote of 185-3, with only two nations abstaining.

The Cuban trade embargo is a pointless relic of the Cold War. It hasn't accomplished anything other than keeping Americans and American goods out of Cuba, and vice versa. What is the point of continuing the embargo? Because we don't want to trade with a nation ruled by a Communist oligarchy?

We already do - China is one of our biggest trading partners. And increasingly, we are doing more business with Vietnam.

The embargo hasn't brought about any positive change in Cuba and it isn't about to. It's a failed policy that needs to be repealed. The United States should extend a helping hand to Cuba, not strangle it by banning trade and travel.

Ending the embargo is also a chance for Congress to show that it too is willing to admit the mistakes of the past and change course.

After we ditch the embargo, the next should be normalizing diplomatic relations with Cuba. By reopening dialogue with our Caribbean neighbor, we can extend a hand of friendship and work to build a better future together.

State Senate to hold hearing on Homeowner's Bill of Rights a week from today

Yesterday evening, the Labor, Commerce & Consumer Protection Committee released its agenda for next week's Thursday committee meeting.

Among the bills that have been scheduled for a hearing is SB 5895, prime sponsored by Senator Rodney Tom. SB 5895 is the 2009 Senate version of the Homeowner's Bill of Rights, one of our top legislative priorities.

Although much of the important work in Olympia gets done behind the scenes, having a strong showing at a hearing always helps. Here are the details:

Public Hearing on Senate Bill 5895
Labor, Commerce & Consumer Protection Committee
Thursday, February 19th, 2009 at 3:30 PM
Senate Hearing Room 4, J.A. Cherberg Building
Capitol Campus, Olympia, Washington

We urge you to make the trip to Olympia if you possibly can. This is important legislation. For those who can't, TVW will offer a webcast of the hearing. Comments may be submitted in writing, either in advance or at the time of the hearing.

We'll be at the hearing next week and also likely covering it live as well.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

D.C. Politicians out of touch with their citizens

Recently I stumbled upon the following and rather amazing infographic from graphic designer Luca Masud, by way of my favorite data visualization blog, FlowingData.

(Oh, yes, as it happens I am a geek. Why do you ask?)

What this graphic shows is poverty rates in four different age ranges, correlated against per-capita GDP for each state and the District of Columbia. Click to see the big version; it's worth it.

It's hard to read much detail out of the big blobby part in the middle, but detail isn't the story here. All the big blob means is that, by and large, poverty rates across America are reasonably consistent from state to state. As well, you can tell that children (the red blobs) generally have it worse off than adults (green), who are worse off than the elderly (purple).

It's the plight of children in this graphic that is the most telling, and the most emotionally compelling.

Most data analysis techniques either ignore outliers--data points that are well outside of the range of the majority of the data--or use techniques for minimizing the influence of those points on the overall analysis. Yet, it's the outliers which are the story here. And as is immediately obvious, there are two outliers having to do with children.

The vertical red lines connect the two worst instances of child poverty to their respective locations. The horizontal red line shows that these two spots are about equally bad.

Follow the vertical lines down to the map and you'll see that the worst children's poverty rates anywhere in America are in Mississippi and Washington D.C. In each location, more than one out of every three children lives in poverty, a rate that is nearly 150% worse than the national average.

The lowest per-capita GDP in the nation is in Mississippi, so perhaps we should not be surprised to find lot of poor children there. But the highest per-capita GDP in the nation is in Washington D.C.

Let that sink in for a minute. The nation's wealthiest city has the same rate of poor children as the nation's least wealthy state.

That, my friends, is messed up.

I can't begin to explain the underlying forces leading to this striking and shameful situation, but I can offer an observation.

Washington D.C. exists to be a gathering place, a workplace, for the nation's leaders. Men and women who, by and large, are considerably more wealthy than the average citizen. These are the people who make the policies and laws that govern our lives.

Article One, Section Eight of the United States Constitution gives the U.S. Congress ultimate authority over Washington D.C. In particular, Congress is responsible for D.C.'s budget.

The members of Congress are, with few exceptions, very rich people who live and work amid the most shameful collection of poor people in our nation, and are themselves the only ones with Constitutional authority to do anything about it.

If you want a numerical measure of the degree to which politicians are out of touch with the citizenry, I think you need look no further than the rich and powerful living and working amid the poorest of the poor, and doing nothing about it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Liars, sexual deviants, pedophiles and frauds, oh my!

It isn't enough for Fox News reporters to regurgitate right-wing talking points and try to pass them off as original reporting, which they do on a regular basis.

No, the network needs to balance lying with other endeavors. In 2004 they had Bill O'Reilly, his loofa, some falafel and the sexual harassment of a former producer.

Today, they have Aaron Bruns, Fox News producer and alleged kiddie pornmonger extraordinaire.
A Fox News Channel producer has been arrested and arraigned on child pornography charges in a federal courthouse in Washington.

Aaron Bruns appeared Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Washington. According to charging documents, investigators say Bruns had been sharing pornography on a social networking Web site.
And let's not forget Ann Coulter, who is under investigation for voter fraud.
The New York Daily News reports that Ann Coulter is under investigation by the Connecticut Elections Enforcement Commission for allegedly voting in that state while registered to vote in New York City.
Fox News has more freaks than a circus sideshow.

It can't be called journalism when it strongly resembles that bad VH-1 reality show, The Surreal Life. Next thing you know they'll have Omarosa, Jose Canseco and Vern Troyer (Mini Me) hosting Fox News (or Fixed News) Sunday contemplating the juvenile connotations of the phrase "stimulus package".

Stimulus package - Washington and Oregon summary

As Andrew noted, earlier today the U.S. Senate passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. The bill now goes to conference committee to iron out the differences between the versions passed by the House and Senate.

But what's in it for Washington state? Senator Patty Murray gives us the lowdown.

Below are some of the critical investment in Washington state Senator Murray worked to make in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009:

TAX CUTS: Includes income tax cut of up to $1,000 for Washington workers and their families.

HIGHWAYS: Includes more than $495 million to improve Washington state roads, highways, and bridges and create jobs. Also includes $5.5 billion for nationwide competitive grant program for projects of major national or regional importance.

TRANSIT: Includes over $200 million in new transit funding for Washington state to keep residents moving and create jobs.

FERRIES: The bill includes a $60 million nationwide grant program to fund ferry and ferry terminal upgrades.

STATE SUPPORT (State Stabilization Fund): Will provide Washington with $648 million to help with education and other services in the face of deep budget deficits. The state can use this funding for a number of different purposes including funding higher education tuition assistance and a variety of K-12 services.

UNEMPLOYMENT INSURANCE: Will give another $100 per month in unemployment insurance benefits to 404,000 workers in Washington, Will provide extended unemployment benefits to an additional 44,000 laid-off workers.

WORKER TRAINING: Includes over $64 million to train unemployed Washington state workers and get them the skills needed to embark on new careers.

This is only a partial list of the items included in the stimulus package that relate to Washington. For Senator Murray's complete list, go visit her website.

As for Oregon, Senator Ron Wyden has a summary of what was included in the package.
Building on the Wyden-authored Build America Bonds program which provides state and local governments with a new tax credit bond to stimulate investment in infrastructure projects;

Creating thousands of new jobs and restoring the health of the state’s choked forests by providing $500 million for fire management including the reduction of fuels in the forest that endanger communities with increased risk of fire;

Increasing broadband access in underserved areas through a $7 billion investment in the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, 50 percent of which will be focused on rural communities;

Expanding on “mini-COBRA” programs that exist in Oregon and other states by helping many people who have lost their jobs in small businesses keep the coverage they had—or something similar to it;
For a more complete list of what is in the bill for Oregon, please visit Senator Wyden's website.

Gil Kerlikowske may leave Seattle Police Department for Obama administration

The Seattle Post-Intelligencer reports that another Seattleite may soon be heading to Washington, D.C. to accept a high level post in the Obama administration:
Seattle police Chief Gil Kerlikowske has been appointed to a law enforcement post within the Obama administration, which would return him to Washington, D.C., after almost a decade as Seattle's top cop.

A administrator in the Seattle Police Department said Tuesday that Kerlikowske notified commanders that he would be appointed as director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, a cabinet-level post often referenced as the White House "drug czar."

The position oversees an agency that sets the nation's drug control strategy and spending priorities for it. Kerlikowske informed his command staff during a meeting late last week, the source said.
Kerlikowske would succeed John P. Walters, who held the post from December 7th, 2001 through January 20th of last month. The Office of National Drug Control Policy is a Cabinet level component of the Executive Office of the President, with a staff of one hundred and eleven and a budget of tens of millions.

The office has a controversial history of sponsoring anti-drug messages in television shows. Additionally, Walters (Bush's appointee) has been accused of not disclosing his involvement in opposition to several medical marijuana ballot measures in different Western states, including Oregon.

Just In: U.S. Senate passes stimulus plan

The vote was 61-37. (New Hampshire and Minnesota are each missing a Senator, otherwise the tally would have added up to one hundred).

The vote was strictly along party lines except for three Northeast Republican senators who sided with the Democrats (Maine's Susan Collins, Olympia Snowe, and Pennsylvania's Arlen Specter).

That means senators from the greater Pacific Northwest were also split along party lines. Democrats Patty Murray, Maria Cantwell, Ron Wyden, Jeff Merkley, Jon Tester, Max Baucus, and Mark Begich voted "aye".

Republicans Jim Risch, Lisa Murkowski, and Mark Crapo voted "nay".

The stimulus plan (H.R. 1) now heads to conference committee, where the House and Senate will (hopefully) reconcile their differences. Each chamber will then have to pass the revised legislation for it to make it to President Obama's desk.

UPDATE: Senator Maria Cantwell on the passage of H.R. 1:
More than 200,000 job cuts have been announced this year, and in Washington State, the unemployment rate has skyrocketed to 7.1 percent. We still have a long way to go to get our economy back on track. However, with this federal support, Washington State will be able to make investments in infrastructure projects and improvements, create jobs, provide training and education, provide the neediest among us with health care, and invest in areas critical to the development of clean, renewable energy technologies.
Cantwell's office estimates that the stimulus will create or save 79,700 jobs over the next two years across the Evergreen State. Additionally, an estimated $1.8 billion could be used for clean up at Hanford.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Fiscal responsibility and the GOP

President Obama at his press conference today:
"When it comes to how we approach the issue of fiscal responsibility, again, it's a little hard for me to take criticism from folks about this recovery package after they've presided over a doubling of the national debt. I'm not sure they have a lot of credibility when it comes to fiscal responsibility."
Where were the fiscal conservatives when President Bush and his enablers in Congress were throwing money at defense contractors (no-bid contracts, anyone), Wall Street and their corporate cronies? They spent money for eight years like the proverbial sailor at a brothel. Even Monty Brewster would have been put to shame by Republican spending habits.

Just like Democrats were painted as soft on defense for a generation, the GOP no longer has any claim to fiscal responsibility, especially after guiding the economy into as dark and deep a place as has ever been seen. As Georgia10 stated on Daily Kos:
"Republican policies cannot give rise to bipartisan solutions. When the core philosophy of a party is that government cannot work and should do as little as possible, that philosophy benefits only those who have the resources necessary to sustain themselves regardless of whether the government is massive or whether it's so small you can drown it in a bathtub. From the chant of tax cuts at any cost to the fanatical focus on depriving the neediest of resources under the banner of "entitlement reform," Republican governance is aimed simply at helping those who need help the least."
The people voted for change in November and it's time that Republicans looked at the scoreboard. After eight years of failed policies, change has finally come.

President Obama holds first primetime news conference at the White House

A few minutes ago, Barack Obama wrapped up his first primetime press conference as President in the East Room of the White House.

The President began by speaking for a few minutes about his trip today to Elkhart, Indiana (where he held an economic security town hall) and then about the status of the stimulus package that is before Congress.

(The Senate voted to end debate earlier today, 61-36, and move to a vote on final passage. Absent from the Senate was one John Cornyn, who was in New York speaking at a right wing media and business conclave called the Monday Meeting).

The President then took thirteen questions from major television networks, newspapers, and... The Huffington Post.

I watched almost the whole thing and came away thinking, after eight years of Bush, that was a bit surreal. It's so refreshing to have a leader who provides substantive answers to challenging questions. It's important for Americans to be able to see their President thinking, and I believe that's what we saw tonight. Someone who is calm, composed, and in command, working diligently to solve our nation's problems as quickly as possible. Someone who takes the time to pause while giving an answer and chooses words carefully.

During his address and response to questions, the President ably dismantled several arguments that Republicans have been using to attack the stimulus.

Like the argument that the stimulus should only consist of tax cuts:
[A]s we've learned very clearly and conclusively over the last eight years, tax cuts alone can't solve all of our economic problems - especially tax cuts that are targeted to the wealthiest few Americans.

We have tried that strategy, time and time again. And it's only helped lead us to the crisis we face right now.

And that's why we have come together, around a plan that combines hundreds of billions in tax cuts for the middle class with direct investment in areas like health care, energy, education and infrastructure, investments that will save jobs, create new jobs and new businesses and help our economy grow again, now and in the future.
Or the argument that government has no role to play in revitalizing the economy:
[T]the question I think that the American people are asking is, do you just want government to do nothing, or do you want it to do something? If you want it to do something, then we can have a conversation. But doing nothing - that's not an option from my perspective.
Or the argument that the public works and infrastructure rebuilding projects in the stimulus are "wasteful spending":
When people suggest that what a waste of money to make federal buildings more energy-efficient - why would that be a waste of money? We're creating jobs immediately by retrofitting these buildings or weatherizing 2 million Americans' homes, as was called for in the package. So that right there creates economic stimulus, and we are saving taxpayers, when it comes to federal buildings, potentially $2 billion. In the case of homeowners, they will see more money in their pockets. And we're reducing our dependence on foreign oil in the Middle East. Why wouldn't we want to make that kind of investment?
Meanwhile, it's still Amateur Hour over at the Republican National Committee, where Michael Steele is now on the record as having said a government job is not a job.
Michael Steele: You've got to look at what's going to create sustainable jobs. What this administration is talking about is making work. It is creating work.

ABC's George Stephanopoulous: But that's a job.

Michael Steele: No, it's not a job. A job is something that - that a business owner creates. It's going to be long term. What he's creating...

ABC's George Stephanopoulous: So a job doesn't count if it's a government job?
As usual, Steele and the Republicans have it backwards.

The public sector is actually responsible, ultimately, for all job creation - because no business can succeed and thrive without the resources and services that our tax dollars provide. Think about it.

How could businesses enforce agreements and contracts without the nine tenths of the courts that handle corporate law? They couldn't.

How could businesses distribute goods without the interstate highway system, our public airports, and public seaports? They couldn't.

How could businesses find skilled employees without our public schools system, which educates and trains the workers of tomorrow? They couldn't.

And how could businesses use computers to communicate and complete transactions without the Internet? They couldn't.

Quite simply, our common wealth is the very foundation that supports American businesses and the American economy.

President Obama gets this. That's why his first major priority as president is to get a recovery plan through Congress that will create new jobs and save existing jobs from disappearing. Obama has already said he is not interested in rehashing old debates, and he made a point of emphasizing that again tonight:
Some of the criticisms really are with the basic idea that government should intervene at all in this moment of crisis. You have some people, very sincere, who philosophically just think the government has no business interfering in the marketplace.

And in fact there are several who have suggested that FDR was wrong to intervene back in the New Deal. They're fighting battles that I thought were resolved a pretty long time ago.
Unfortunately, the Beltway media seems obsessed with talking about political theater rather than fostering a meaningful dialogue about the stimulus bill. That's a big part of why the President went to Indiana today to hold a town hall. As Obama's senior adviser David Axelrod told NBC's Rachel Maddow tonight, "We wanted to take the folks in the news media on a field trip."

They sure needed one. And this country still needs Congress to send the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to the President's desk.

Ponzi scheme exposed in Bellevue

Since the day that the massive Ponzi scheme that Bernie Madoff orchestrated was uncovered, the former NASDAQ chairman has been the focus of wave after wave after news stories. But Madoff isn't the only one has been caught ripping people off - several greedy schemers are being prosecuted here for the same crime:
A federal grand jury has indicted three men, including one from Bellevue, in a $65 million Ponzi scheme involving oil and gas developments in Asia.

The U.S. Attorney's Office in Seattle says 48-year-old Robert Miracle was arrested at his Bellevue home Thursday on a 23-count indictment alleging conspiracy, mail fraud, wire fraud, money laundering and tax evasion.
Miracle and his pals claimed to be investing money in Malaysian energy companies, but in reality, they were just defrauding people.

These kind of scams could be prevented if investors were more vigilant and regulators were serious about launching investigations at the first sign of trouble. If the returns seem unreal - maybe they are.

It's okay to invest, but it's not a good idea to invest blindly. Ask questions. Do the necessary homework. For those who have the money, now is a good time to buy stocks. The market is down from historical highs and while it may be volatile for a while, today's conditions present opportunities for patient investors.

Just be careful - and quadruple check anything that sounds too good to be true.

Sunday, February 8, 2009

House okays higher unemployment benefits

On Friday, the State House passed a bill to give workers higher unemployment benefits. Soon, the Senate is expected to follow suit:
Those temporary increases would take effect in May, the earliest the state Employment Security Department can implement, said Rep. Steve Conway, D-Tacoma, chairman of the House Commerce and Labor Committee and prime sponsor of House Bill 1906. They would remain in place until Jan. 3, 2010, then drop back down to the regular range.
Although the higher benefits are just temporary, it is good to see the state government stepping up to help its people in these harsh economic times, trying to salvage our deteriorating economic security.

U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has released a chart which clearly shows that the job losses in the current recession are far serious than previous recessions:

Job Losses in Recent Recessions
This crisis is simply far more serious, as the Speaker's office says:
Over the last 13 months, our economy has lost a total of 3.6 million jobs – and continuing job losses in the next few months are predicted.

By comparison, we lost a total of 1.6 million jobs in the 1990-1991 recession, before the economy began turning around and jobs began increasing; and we lost a total of 2.7 million jobs in the 2001 recession, before the economy began turning around and jobs began increasing.
All the more reason why we need to pass a stimulus package that rebuilds decaying public infrastructure and creates jobs. Higher unemployment benefits are helpful, but they're just a bandage. To revitalize our economy, we need to invest our common wealth in the common good.

Homeowner's Bill of Rights introduced in Senate by 48th District's Rodney Tom

Last Wednesday, as our Executive Director reported, the House Judiciary Committee held a public hearing on HB 1045, a reshaped Homeowner's Bill of Rights proposal sponsored by Representative Brendan Williams. HB 1045 unfortunately seems doomed to remain stuck in committee, but there is good news from the Senate side: Senator Rodney Tom has introduced his own revised version of the Homeowner's Bill of Rights: SB 5895, which is cosponsored by Senators Kohl-Welles, McDermott, and Fraser.

The bill's rather long description reads:
Addressing residential real property construction improvements through consumer education, warranty protections, legal remedies, municipal liability, third-party inspections, contractor registration requirements, worker certification standards, and bonding requirements.
The bill runs thirty nine pages; there's a lot of good ideas in there. It's unlikely that all of them will make it into any final version of the bill - we'll probably see some amendments to make it simpler.

No doubt SB 5895 will be vehemently opposed by the BIAW, who will surely claim that homebuyers and homeowners just don't deserve protection under the law.

The BIAW's opposition is so fierce that it leads us to wonder whether they know something nefarious that we don't. Are builders simply not striving to build quality houses these days? Is it difficult to comply with building codes?

Aren't the standards prescribed in the Homeowner's Bill of Rights quality assurance objectives the industry is supposed to be meeting to begin with?

If a house has significant defects, shouldn't the people who built it be obliged to help out the poor homeowner who is otherwise saddled with the cost of the repairs? Homeowners can't bank on goodwill. There has to be a warranty provided by law.

People ought to be able to buy a home with the expectation that it is well built and in compliance with building codes. Regulations provide such economic security, if they are properly enforced. As Representative Williams said::
"I think particularly with the economy in decline, if we're going to try to get folks to buy new homes and obligate themselves to 30-year mortgages, there should be some assurance as to the quality of what they are purchasing."
There should be no excuse for shoddy construction.

We need a Homeowner's Bill of Rights to ensure peace of mind for every Washington family who invests their hard earned money into a new dwelling.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Beware the bogeyman

Sarah Palin just doesn't get it.

In recent media appearances, she's still setting up strawmen and blaming anonymous bloggers for the failures of the McCain/Palin campaign.
Former Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin is still mad at media coverage of her candidacy, particularly "anonymous, pathetic bloggers" who she says spread falsehoods about her.
The truth is, this isn't about bloggers. Nothing a blogger wrote doomed the McCain/Palin candidacy. They did it themselves. Our candidate offered hope, they offered fear. While Barack Obama brought forward change, they offered the status quo or even antiquated policies. They brought the lies, distortions and bigotry. Obama brought the truth.

There is a reason why we at NPI refer to the G.O.P. as the graveyard of progress. John McCain and Sarah Palin offered nothing new, and the American people said, "No thanks."

President Obama said it best, yesterday, when he said:
In the last few days, we've seen proposals arise from some in Congress that you may not have read but you'd be very familiar with because you've been hearing them for the last 10 years, maybe longer. They're rooted in the idea that tax cuts alone can solve all our problems; that government doesn't have a role to play; that half-measures and tinkering are somehow enough; that we can afford to ignore our most fundamental economic challenges -- the crushing cost of health care, the inadequate state of so many of our schools, our dangerous dependence on foreign oil.

So let me be clear: Those ideas have been tested, and they have failed. They've taken us from surpluses to an annual deficit of over a trillion dollars, and they've brought our economy to a halt. And that's precisely what the election we just had was all about. The American people have rendered their judgment. And now is the time to move forward, not back.

McCain/Palin didn't lose because of some nameless, faceless, "pajama-clad" bogeyman who, according to them, lives in the basement of his/her parents. They lost because their ideas have been tried and failed.

We, the People have reclaimed our government. And as the film character V once said, "People should not be afraid of their governments. Governments should be afraid of their people."

NPI urges Legislature to take a step towards automatic voter registration

Editor's Note: Earlier this week the Senate Government Operations & Elections Committee held a hearing on SB 5270, prime sponsored by Senator Joe McDermott, which, among other things, would direct county auditors to automatically update voter registrations when a voter moves to a new address. I testified in support of the legislation on Tuesday on NPI's behalf.

The following is a polished version of my notes from that hearing, which served as the basis for my comments.

Madam Chair and Members of the Committee:

Good afternoon.

For the record, my name is Andrew Villeneuve. I'm the Executive Director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, a netroots powered strategy center based in Redmond working to advance the common good through ideas and action.

I'm pleased to be here today to support SB 5270, and I thank Senator McDermott for prime sponsoring it.

I'd like to first make a comment suggesting a way the bill can be improved and then make some more general comments about voter registration in our state.

First, I'd like to draw your attention to Section 29 of SB 5270, which allows county auditors to transfer voter registrations if they receive notice from the Postal Service of an address change.

This is a much needed reform that will ensure cleaner, neater voter rolls. We applaud this provision. But we'd like to see it strengthened further.

We don't see any reason to place a voter on "inactive status" merely because they have moved to a new address. The Legislature should be doing its utmost to make it easier to vote and register to vote.

Washingtonians lead busy lives. We're always lamenting low turnout in elections and low interest in our democratic process. We can't expect this situation to improve if voters are required to jump through hoops in order to register to vote.

If a voter is already registered to vote in our state then they should be in the database - we have their information. If they move anywhere within the state, their registration should remain active.

We would encourage amending this bill to direct auditors to keep transferred voter registrations active.

Second, I want to outline an idea that is not in this bill. When people obtain their state ID or driver's license, they are currently offered the opportunity to register to vote. Let's make that automatic so it's part of getting an ID card.

If someone would rather not register, they could opt out, as opposed to the situation today, where they must explicitly opt in.

Let's simplify the voter registration process. The state is already collecting the necessary information. It would save time and money to implement this reform.

Third, I want to ask the Committee to look into why we have these very early cutoff dates for voter registration. Currently the cutoff to register by mail or over the Internet is several weeks before Election Day.

This cutoff is an impediment to people who decide to participate in an election close to Election Day, only to learn that they can't.

If people are registering over the Internet, it shouldn't take twenty eight days to process their registration. Electronic communication should be instantaneous.

A person who becomes sufficiently interested in participating in an election the day of should be able to register to vote.

If you try to explain to people why this isn't possible today they have trouble understanding. They can't fathom why we need all these limitations and restrictions. If our objective is to increase civic participation we need to make it easier to register to vote and to vote. That's the direction the country is heading and that's also where Washington State should be going.

Thank you. I'd be happy to answer questions about the ideas I mentioned.

President Obama on a hit parade

I don't know for how many weeks I'll keep doing this, but for now it's just such a breath of fresh air to have the Office of the President doing good things for America that I just can't resist.

This week's accomplishments by the Executive Branch include:
Oh, and for reminding Republicans that he, you know, won the election, and that counts for something.

Way to go, Mr. President.

I know some folks aren't happy about the second half of the TARP money going to these banks who have done basically nothing with the first half, but don't sweat it. Those of us who are paying attention understand that, galling as it most assuredly is, it's an important and necessary step to keep the banking sector (and everything else) from utterly collapsing.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Representative Flannigan blasts BIAW for opposing Homeowner's Bill of Rights

Yesterday, the House Judiciary Committee met in House Hearing Room C of the John L O'Brien Building in Olympia to hold public hearings on two bills that would change Washington State law to protect homebuyers and homeowners.

The first bill, HB 1045, is sponsored by Representative Brendan Williams and is based on Homeowner's Bill of Rights legislation from years past.

The second bill, HB 1393, is sponsored by Representative Larry Springer (D-45th District), and is supposedly the product of a task force Springer led at the request of House Speaker Frank Chopp. (We don't know much about what the task force did or when it met; we were never actually invited to participate in it).

Both bills contain a provision establishing a statutory warranty for most new homes, but HB 1045's warranty is more comprehensive than HB 1393's.

Testimony was heard for both bills at the same time. Several victimized homeowners testified first, sharing their stories with the committee.

(The stories were similiar to those featured in our special series Why we need a Homeowner's Bill of Rights from last March).

The Building Industry Association of Washington, the state's most nefarious right wing lobby, also showed up, to (surprise!) oppose both bills.

Appearing before the Judiciary Committee were BIAW General Counsel Timothy Harris and past BIAW President Daimon Doyle.

They trotted out various hyperbolic talking points. Doyle even cited a statistic from a report produced two years ago by the right wing Washington Policy Center claiming that the percentage of contractors who've had claims filed against them was only "less than one and half percent."

Hilariously, Doyle cited the report as an "independent study".

When they had finished rattling off their prepared propoganda, Committee Chair Jamie Pedersen (D-43rd District) asked if any of his fellow legislators had questions for the pair, at which point Representative Dennis Flannigan switched on his microphone and proceeded to say the following.

I'm offended.

I don't hear you telling anything to these people who've been - probably at least one of them - screwed. If lawyers only had one and half percent of them that are crooks, we have laws about them.

If physicians manage to kill your parents, you're probably going to be pissed. People are pissed; I'm pissed.

I've watched this law come up every year in one way or the other, the industry - Master Builders - [has showed up to oppose it]. I would say "Master" is the wrong word used here.

I understand that you two are brilliant and kind and just. I didn't hear a single remedy from you about what the needs are of people who can't afford the lawyers that you cavalierly tell them to run to. If one and a half percent of the time you went to a physician, you died, what would you be trying to do right now?

One and a half percent is those who can afford to come see you for a lawyer. Those are people who have three hundred thousand or four hundred thousand dollars worth of tragedy. Not ten thousand dollars; not when the guy didn't put flashing on my roof.

So I would like to know what you will do. Not what you tell us not to do.
I was in the room when Representative Flannigan delivered these impromptu remarks, and I have to say... watching BIAW's big guns have to sit there and silently listen to this rebuke was immensely satisfying.

The commitee did not take action on either HB 1045 or HB 1393 yesterday. HB 1393 (Springer's bill) is scheduled for executive session a week from today. HB 1045 sadly appears destined to die in committee, but that's to be expected: Speaker Frank Chopp wants Springer's bill to be the vehicle that passes the House.

The State Senate, however, is the chamber where the more polished version of the Homeowner's Bill of Rights has originated in years past. We hope that's the case this session. We'll keep you posted on HB 1393 and any Homeowner's Bill of Rights proposal that gets introduced on the Senate side.

It may be time to buy those solar panels

Nothing changes behavior like the almighty dollar, especially these days when Americans are watching every dime that leaves their wallets. Happily, when Congress finally gets Obama's stimulus package out the door, homeowners will be encouraged to make home improvements that satisfy their conscience as well as their bank account.

Like the recent $.61 increase in the federal cigarette tax, designed to decrease our smoking habits, the economic stimulus plan includes tax breaks to compel Americans to choose home improvements that increase both energy efficiency and financial security.
Both the House-passed stimulus package and the Senate version include $4.3 billion in tax breaks for residential energy-efficiency improvements including the purchase of more-efficient furnaces, heat pumps and air conditioners as well as for energy-tight windows and more insulation.

There's another $300 million to go to states as matching grants to promote utility-sponsored rebates for the purchase of more energy-efficient appliances, and tax breaks for people wanting to install solar panels to power water heaters.
This is one tax credit too good to waste. Not only will buying energy efficient products help curb greenhouse gas emissions, and decrease the need to mine or drill for fuel or ship it from overseas, the energy savings will give homeowners a budget savings as well.

Smart tax policy rewards behavior that positively affects the individual and the community. When all possible, policy should be crafted that has beneficial effects that reach beyond the immediate and obvious financial effect. Policy can't be created in a vacuum. It is too powerful for that.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Let's enhance our Northwest coastal radar

In ancient Greece, you learned of the future by visiting the Oracle at Delphi. Purported to be a seer of great vision, the priestess would inhale the volcanic vapors emerging from a crack in the Earth in or around the temple of Apollo, get a little stoned, and start speaking prophesies.

With all due respect to the culture of ancient Greece, without which our own culture would doubtless be unrecognizably different, these days we do things a little more scientifically.

And there is one area of modern life that benefits most from scientific visions of the near future: weather prediction.

Although it is still imperfect, weather prediction has gotten a lot better in the past few decades, for two main reasons.

First, computers simulations of weather phenomena have gotten pretty good. Give them good data, and they produce pretty good results 24 to 48 hours into the future. It's not the same as being able to schedule your wedding day six months into the future with confidence that you won't get rained on, but it's not bad.

The second reason is implicit in the first. Nationally, we actually have a lot of good data to put into those simulations.

Mainly this data comes from improvements in real-time measurements via weather radars, weather satellites, and a growing network of weather stations.

Except, not here in the Northwest.

The Puget Sound region is fortunate to have within it our own Weather Oracle, in the form of U.W. Atmospheric Scientist Cliff Mass.

Cliff has a regular segment on the Friday episodes of KUOW's Weekday program. He has written an excellent book on local weather phenomena.

And he writes a very up-to-the-minute weather blog. His blog is particularly fabulous. It gives you the forecast, plus the factors behind it. I like to call it "weather forecasts for smart people."

Cliff Mass is a great weatherman, but he can only do so much because our local weather infrastructure is, not to put too fine a point on it, broken. The Pacific Northwest lacks anything even close to adequate coastal radar coverage. Check out this map of radar coverage up and down the West Coast. The red parts are where the weather radars can't see:

Look at that 200+ mile stretch of red, from near the top corner of Washington down to about Corvallis in Oregon. That's the radar shadow of the Olympic mountains, and what it means is that when weather systems approach from offshore, Cliff Mass and his team of powerful computer simulations don't have the good data they need to produce accurate forecasts.

Our Oracle is blind.

And in the finest tradition of Greek tragedy, the ironic part is that it doesn't have to be this way. We could have coastal radar coverage just as good as the rest of the nation for an incredibly low cost.

Well, low by the standards of public infrastructure. A lot of money for you or me, but "loose change under the couch cushions" money compared to the typical costs of other important pieces of the common wealth's infrastructure.

Certainly a lot less than the pieces of infrastructure that get all the press: roads, rails, tunnels, bridges.

Cliff Mass estimates that this problem could be fixed for about 3 to 4 million dollars. Or in comparative terms, half as much as the U.W. proposed spending to renovate its golf driving range.

As budget decisions go, this should really be a no-brainer.

We need look no further than last December's snow fiasco in the middle of Christmas shopping season to see the financial impact that weather events have on our region. Spending a few million dollars on a coastal radar system has got to be a great investment.

It won't let us change the weather, but it will let us be prepared for it. And if anything, the way that our region was caught flat-footed by the Great Blizzard of '08 ought to teach us a lesson. If Seattle and the surrounding suburbs had been given another 24 or 48 hours notice that the snow was coming, and they knew that the forecast was reliable, don't you think they could have done a better job?

Ok, yeah, they might have still screwed it up. But you can bet that after the mountains of complaints that Seattle Mayor Greg Nickels and the Seattle City Council received in the wake of the snow, they are now highly motivated to do better next time. As are the city governments of Redmond, Woodinville, Renton, et cetera.

A coastal radar will give them the forecasts they need to do better next time, so next time there will be no such excuses.

In the middle of this economic crisis, when the Obama administration is trying its best to spend money hand-over-fist on "shovel ready" infrastructure projects and green energy, we encourage the administration not to overlook projects like coastal weather radars. Sure, this project may not be as sexy as a cool new wind farm or putting solar panels on top of millions of government buildings, but it is "shovel ready" right now and in the long run is just as important a part of the nation's overall infrastructure.

We call on Governor Gregoire and every mayor and city council member in Western Washington to ask the Obama administration to fund this important local project.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Huff trouncing Irons, Roach and others in early returns for Director of Elections

Whew, what a relief!

David Irons (33,173 votes) - 19.22%
Sherril Huff (75,937) - 44.00% *
Julie Kempf (12,068) - 6.99%
Bill Anderson (14,772) 8.56%
Christopher Clifford (6,851) - 3.97%
Pam Roach (28,888) - 16.74%
Write-in (895) - 0.52%

With 173,519 votes counted, King County's current appointed Elections Director Sherril Huff is easy crushing her five opponents in her bid to keep her job. Huff has 44% of the vote, with Republicans David Irons and Pam Roach trailing at 19% and 16% respectively. Even if Irons or Roach had the other's support, Huff would still be winning by nine points right now. That's a comforting, refreshing thought.

We think it's pretty safe to project that Huff is the victor in this race. Congratulations to Erin Schultz, who ran Huff's campaign, and all the people who worked to get the word out about Sherril's candidacy. Job well done!

Don't forget to vote for Sherril Huff today

Today is Special Election Day in King County. We the people of King County decided, in our infinite wisdom, to hold today's special election when we approved Charter Amendment 1 last November. Charter Amendment 1 (which NPI opposed) created the position of elected director of elections.

In my column this weekend for Reporter Newspapers, I explained why incumbent Sherril Huff is by far the best choice for this position, which is changing from appointed to elected thanks to Charter Amendment 1:
Her resume is strong – highlights include her service as President on the Bremerton City Council, as executive director for the Kitsap Regional Coordinating Council, and as Kitsap County Auditor (for two terms).

She joined King County Elections in 2005, bringing her extensive expertise to a department in need of reform. Since becoming the chief administrator there, she has implemented hundreds of recommended reforms to strengthen transparency and responsibility, and she is in favor of changing state law to allow for even more comprehensive audits of the department.

Under her leadership, King County Elections has finished moving into a new central facility in Renton, improved ballot security, and is in the process of transitioning to vote by mail only for future elections. In fact, this February special election will be the first vote by mail only election to be conducted countywide. Ballots have already been sent out to poll voters through the United States Postal Service.

None of the other candidates have both Huff’s experience as an elected official and her experience administering elections.
My entire column is available online at the Reporter's website.

This is a vote by mail election only. Remember, ballots must be postmarked today. You may also drop off your ballot at one of these locations.

Finally, if you have a disability, you can cast a vote using accessible machines at one of these locations:
  • Bellevue City Hall, 450 110th Ave NE, Room 121, Bellevue, 98009
  • King County Elections, 919 SW Grady Way, Renton, 98057
  • Union Station, 401 S. Jackson St, Seattle, 98104
If you have any questions about today's election, please call 206-296-VOTE (8683).

No Money, More Problems

"There's no money." That's what millions of Californians are waking up to today. The eighth largest economy in the world is now broke. And if that doesn't worry you, even just a little, I'm not sure what will.
"People are going to be hurt starting today," said Hallye Jordan, speaking on behalf of the state Controller. "There's no money."

Since state legislators failed to meet an end of January deadline on an agreement to make up for California's $40 billion budget gap, residents won't be getting their state tax rebates, scholarships to Cal Grant college will go unpaid, vendors invoices will remain uncollected and county social services will cease.
Californians who paid too much in income taxes last year won't be getting refunds. Some students who rely on their Cal Grants to pay for college may have to decide to postpone their education until the economy improves and they can afford to pay for it. Vendors will go unpaid, lowering their revenue, possibly forcing more people out of work as revenue might not be enough to take care of overhead and make payroll.

But in a state of over 38 million people, where the unemployment rate currently hovers near 10%, perhaps the largest casualty is the social services. At a time when people need social services the most, the state of California won't be able to guarantee them.
Meanwhile, the demand for assistance has risen. The number of Californians receiving food stamp benefits increased by 13.8% for the year ending September 2008, while the number of families receiving cash assistance from the CalWORKs welfare program rose by 5.9%, according to the California Budget Project.
And while some of California's problems are unique to that state, that the largest state in the union by population, is on life support and fading is cause for concern for all of us.

Monday, February 2, 2009

The second word most feared by Republicans

When objecting to President Obama’s economic stimulus package recently, House Republican leader John Boehner was crafty to use a word guaranteed to cause Republicans to recoil in horror, “contraceptives.”
How you can spend hundreds of millions of dollars on contraceptives – how does that stimulate the economy?
What Boehner was really saying was: How could a dutiful Republican, snicker, support legislation that has the remotest connection with, dare I say the word…sex?

Well, for one thing, the section of the stimulus bill that Boehner is referring to is about health care, not sex. The measure, stricken from the bill the following week, would have made it easier for states to fund family planning services such as, Pap smears, breast exams and HIV testing, under Medicaid, therefore lowering states' health services costs.

In fact, the stimulus package still contains $87 billion in Medicaid assistance and a bi-partisan group of governors is petitioning Congress to quickly move the money out to their states:
This past week the bipartisan National Governors Association called on Congress to quickly pass the [economic stimulus] plan.

"States are facing fiscal conditions not seen since the Great Depression — anticipated budget shortfalls are expected in excess of $200 billion," the NGA statement said. "Governors ... support several key elements of the bill critical to states [including] increased federal support for Medicaid…"
Why didn’t Boehner pick on money that goes to treat diabetes or to provide vaccinations? Because contraceptives are an easy target. Republicans think contraceptives are all about permitting sex and not about reducing pregnancy. I think we all know that people are going to have sex whether contraceptives are available or not. Wouldn’t it be better to prevent an unwanted pregnancy to a low-income mother and to prevent having two people on Medicaid where before you only had one? Family planning saves money, period.

Too bad Republican thinking stops when they hear the word “condom.”

Here in Washington state, a plan is under way to save money by directing the state’s federal family planning funds to areas that have been proven to do the most good. Two bills (House Bill 1612/ Senate Bill 5629) have been introduced to the legislature that allow the state to focus its money into medically accurate sex education which includes information about both abstinence and contraception, and to discontinue their applications for federal Title V abstinence-only-until-marriage program funding because those programs have been proven not to work.

Not including contraceptives in your funding plans and your sex ed programs adds up to failure. So much for family planning Republican style!

President Obama nominates Ron Sims to be Deputy Secretary of HUD

For weeks, we've been hearing rumors that Ron Sims was getting ready to head to Washington, D.C. to take a job with the Department of Housing and Urban Development. To date, we've refrained from speculating ourselves (this blog is not supposed to be a rumor mill) but today Ron Sims held a press conference to make the news official: He's leaving for the other Washington.

UPDATE: We've posted Sims' complete statement from this morning (PDF).

As Deputy Secretary, Ron Sims will be the No. 2 man at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, working for Secretary Shaun Donovan. Sims will be in charge of HUD's day to day operations. The Department's annual budget is about $39 billion and it has 8,500 employees.

According to Sims, Obama formally offered him the job last Thursday. He can't assume his new responsibilities until he is confirmed by the United States Senate. He says he won't resign as King County Executive until that happens.

Sim's confirmation will come as a big relief to Democrats and progressives across King County. Sims had been planning to run for a fourth term as Executive this year, a campaign that some of his own supporters had been dreading.

Obama has done us all a big favor by giving Ron Sims a fresh challenge and a change of scenery. Sims is a big picture guy - being Deputy Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development should be a good fit for him.

At his press conference this morning, Sims made it clear that he wants a caretaker to be appointed as his immediate successor as Executive, as opposed to Councilmember Larry Phillips, who announced last week he's running for Sims' job.

It is unclear exactly how Sims' successor will be chosen. The Washington State Constitution has this to say about filling vacancies:
SECTION 15. VACANCIES IN LEGISLATURE AND IN PARTISAN COUNTY ELECTIVE OFFICE. Such vacancies as may occur in either house of the legislature or in any partisan county elective office shall be filled by appointment by the county legislative authority of the county in which the vacancy occurs: Provided, That the person appointed to fill the vacancy must be from the same legislative district, county, or county commissioner or council district and the same political party as the legislator or partisan county elective officer whose office has been vacated, and shall be one of three persons who shall be nominated by the county central committee of that party, and in case a majority of the members of the county legislative authority do not agree upon the appointment within sixty days after the vacancy occurs, the governor shall within thirty days thereafter, and from the list of nominees provided for herein, appoint a person who shall be from the same legislative district, county, or county commissioner or council district and of the same political party as the legislator or partisan county elective officer whose office has been vacated, and the person so appointed shall hold office until his or her successor is elected at the next general election, and has qualified: Provided, That in case of a vacancy occurring after the general election in a year that the office appears on the ballot and before the start of the next term, the term of the successor who is of the same party as the incumbent may commence once he or she has qualified and shall continue through the term for which he or she was elected: Provided, That in case of a vacancy occurring in the office of joint senator, or joint representative, the vacancy shall be filled from a list of three nominees selected by the state central committee, by appointment by the joint action of the boards of county legislative authorities of the counties composing the joint senatorial or joint representative district, the person appointed to fill the vacancy must be from the same legislative district and of the same political party as the legislator whose office has been vacated, and in case a majority of the members of the county legislative authority do not agree upon the appointment within sixty days after the vacancy occurs, the governor shall within thirty days thereafter, and from the list of nominees provided for herein, appoint a person who shall be from the same legislative district and of the same political party as the legislator whose office has been vacated.
The Constitution is silent on the process of filling a vacancy in an elected office that is nonpartisan. That's covered by general elections law.

Because King County voters approved Charter Amendment 8 last November, the County Council seems to think that the office of King County Executive has ostensibly become nonpartisan (although when exactly the charter amendment goes into effect is unclear - we've asked the county for clarification).

However, Ron Sims was elected as a Democrat. It remains to be seen whether the King County Democrats will insist that they still have the power to choose a list of nominees for the County Council as provided above in Article II, Section 15.

King County Council Chair Dow Constantine has already released a statement saying the Council will take charge of filling the vacancy. Constantine's statement suggests the Council won't be taking any cues from the King County Democrats.
I will sit down immediately with my colleagues to create a non-partisan process to choose an interim replacement to serve the remainder of Executive Sims’ term.

An ideal appointee would possess the necessary policy experience, political skills, and management ability to help guide King County through the next several months. We need an appointed executive who can devote his or her full attention and talents to the unprecedented financial challenges facing King County.

It is the voters of King County — not this Council — who this November will select an Executive to serve them for the next four years.
The King County Democrats could always go to court to assert that they have the right to pick a list of Sims' successors.

UPDATE: I just talked to the Chair of the King County Democrats, Suzie Sheary. She says the party will have no role in choosing Sims' successor; it's all in the County Council's hands. The party has already researched county election law and concluded that Article II, Section 15 doesn't apply.

Sunday, February 1, 2009

It's Super Bowl Sunday: Enjoy the game

It's Super Bowl Sunday 2009, and the big game is underway, with Pittsburgh holding a ten to seven lead over Arizona as I write this.

The Associated Press has a great article today about what the Super Bowl used to be like, before it turned into a big extravaganza:
In all ways, the Super Bowl has morphed from a curiosity to a behemoth.

A ticket cost $6 when Bart Starr, Vince Lombardi and the Green Bay Packers beat Kansas City 35-10 in that first game. The top ticket for this weekend's matchup between the Pittsburgh Steelers and Arizona Cardinals goes for $1,000.

Now, the game is by far the biggest sporting event in America, a semi-national holiday. But back then, before the original National Football League and upstart American Football League merged, many fans weren't sure how to view it. Or watch it, really, since CBS and NBC both televised the first one.

In fact, it was officially the AFL-NFL World Championship Game in the 1960s. Commissioner Pete Rozelle preferred "The Big One" but that got nixed. The late Lamar Hunt, among the AFL's founders, suggested "Super Bowl" as a temporary fix. He got the name idea after seeing his daughter bounce a SuperBall.
From the halftime show to the commercials to the obsessive advance coverage, pretty much every aspect of the Super Bowl seems overglorified these days.

It's supposed to be a football game. But somehow, it's evolved into a televised concert and a religious service for Madison Avenue.

Maybe one of these years, the NFL can at least go back to using college bands for the halftime show. For now, for those who want to take a break during halftime from all the hoopla, there's the Mute button.