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Thursday, April 30, 2009

Justice Souter to retire, NPR says

National Public Radio is reporting that Justice David Souter plans to retire at the end of the United States Supreme Court's current term, giving President Obama the opportunity to nominate a new Supreme Court justice.

According to NPR: "Souter is expected to remain on the bench until a successor has been chosen and confirmed, which may or may not be accomplished before the court reconvenes in October."

Souter, sixty nine, has served as an Associate Justice of the Court since he succeeded William J. Brennan in 1990. He was appointed by President George H.W. Bush and is one of the four more progressive justices on the Court.

UPDATE (Friday morning): The text of Justice Souter's resignation letter...
Dear Mr. President:

When the Supreme Court rises for the summer recess this year, I intend to retire from regular active service as a Justice, under the provisions of 28 US.C 371(b)(1), having attained the age and met the service requirements of subsection(c) of that section. I mean to continue to render substantial judicial service as an Associate Justice.

Yours respectfully,

David Souter
The speculation is already ramping up... who will President Barack Obama nominate to fill the vacancy on the Court?

World plays "Hot Potato" with Guantanamo prisoners

President Obama’s decision to close the Guantanamo Bay prison camp wasn’t made in order to earn political points at home (since Americans' opinion on the release is very divided), but it's also not earning him many gold stars from our friends overseas either.

According to a Rasmussen poll reporting in early April:
Just 36% [of Americans] now agree with the president’s decision to close the prison camp for suspected terrorists at the Guantanamo Naval Base in Cuba. Forty-six percent (46%) oppose closing the prison camp, and 18% are undecided.
Americans are united on one thing. Seventy five percent of them don’t want Gitmo inmates on American soil. To be fair, the Rasmussen poll asked respondents if they “wanted Guantanamo inmates released in this country,” a very vague statement, implying that they might move into the foreclosed house next door. Such can be the ambiguous nature of polling.

The world that was appalled by Guantanamo, is now just as appalled at the thought of housing its inmates within its own hallowed borders. U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder has spent the past week imploring European leaders to help relocate detainees that the United States would like to set free. Global leaders initially warmed to the idea of assisting the new American president, but are now fully thinking through the prospect of potential extremists living within their societies.

As one unidentified European official told the New York Times:
We understand, you have a big problem. And we appreciate what President Obama has said about closing Guantánamo. But that doesn’t automatically mean putting all the remaining inmates on a plane and sending them to Europe.
Many prisoners can’t be returned to their own countries because they could be persecuted there, or because their home countries can’t be trusted to keep tight enough surveillance on their activities, making Europe a good alternative choice for detainee resettlement.

Europeans would be more easily convinced to take detainees if Americans in turn, were willing to take some responsibility for their own prisoners of “war.” Homegrown terrorist Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, was held in prisons in Oklahoma, Colorado and Indiana. As despicable as he was, we didn’t send him off to a foreign country.

Prisoners could be released from Guantanamo with one of many different statuses: complete freedom, supervised freedom or continued incarceration, and Europe wants to know just what kind of former detainees it could get. Some foreign ministers turn the Obama administration’s argument that the detainees would present no security risk on its head by asking, why in that case, can’t they stay in the United States?

Oddly, one town in Montana would like to take “the worst of the worst,” George W. Bush's exaggerated description of detainees. In a plan to rev up its economy, Hardin, Montana recently built a state-of-the-art jail, hoping to provide employment for 100 local residents. When prison business didn’t materialize, the town set its sights on hosting Guantanamo prisoners in their fresh, new prison cells. To Hardin's dismay, their Congressional delegation didn’t agree with their plan.

The Obama administration needs to decide just how much responsibility it will take for restarting the lives it put on hold when it confined terror suspects in Guantanamo. If some detainees present a security risk, wouldn't it be better to have those individuals close by where we can be sure they are under the watchful eye of our own intelligence agencies?

Then the government can focus its wire-tapping efforts on those guys and leave the rest of us alone.

Government, care providers shouldn't rely on proprietary technology to safeguard lives

While browsing the Net yesterday, I came across a couple of different articles that got me thinking about the dangers of relying upon proprietary technology to protect the common good and safeguard lives.

The first was a story by the Seattle Times' Brier Dudley, who was previewing a new social networking service that Microsoft is testing called Vine.

Vine is basically a desktop widget that provides visual information about the people and places a person cares about. It's meant to be an aggregator, capable of pulling information from services like Facebook and Twitter. (To me it looks and sounds a bit similar to TweetDeck, a personal social browser for the desktop.)

Microsoft has been marketing and hyping Vine to local authorities, hoping to drum up interest in the product as a way for officials to communicate information when severe weather or disaster strikes.

Emergency management personnel in several Puget Sound cities are intrigued by Vine but justifiably wary about using and investing in a proprietary system controlled by the world's biggest software company.

For example, Microsoft could charge local, state, and regional governments a fee for the ability to broadcast information through Vine.
"They've been talking about a few dollars per user ID for a period of time, maybe a month or a year,'' said Seattle's chief technology officer, Bill Schrier. "That doesn't sound like much but if you spread it out across 300,000 premises, that's a fair chunk of change."
And of course, Microsoft has not bothered to make Vine compatible with other operating systems besides its own.

The beta only runs on Windows Vista and Windows XP, which means it's useless to users of Mac, Linux, or even Windows 2000. And people must register on Microsoft's website ( in order to be able to use it.

(TweetDeck, incidentally, which I mentioned above, works beautifully on Windows, Mac, and Linux, via Adobe Air).

All of these issues - which fall under the larger issue of vendor lock-in - make Vine unsuitable as a reliable and highly useful tool for reaching people during an emergency. Vine exists to make money for Microsoft, whilst our government exists to serve and protect everyone. Those are two fundamentally different objectives.

The issues surrounding use of Vine for relaying information during an emergency pale in comparison, however, to the problems that healthcare providers have experienced trying to implement proprietary technology to manage their records.

Those problems are the focus of the second story I read yesterday - a devastating article by BusinessWeek entitled, "The Dubious Promise of Digital Medicine."
In Washington, where partisan bickering over how to revive the economy flares on several fronts, sweet consensus reigns on health-tech spending. Congressional Republicans sound just as enthusiastic as the White House. Encouraged by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, now an influential industry consultant, lawmakers cheer electronic records as a business-based remedy for much that ails medical care.

That rare agreement, however, is obscuring the checkered history of computerized medical files and drowning out legitimate questions about their effectiveness. Cerner, based in Kansas City, Mo., and other industry leaders are pushing expensive systems with serious shortcomings, some doctors say. The high cost and questionable quality of products currently on the market are important reasons why barely 1 in 50 hospitals has a comprehensive electronic records system, according to a study published in March in the New England Journal of Medicine. Only 17% of physicians use any type of electronic records.
A big reason why electronic health systems are being touted as a panacea that can make healthcare much more efficient is that the companies that manufacture them stand to make a lot of money if all of the nation's care providers go digital, installing their proprietary hardware and software throughout their facilities.
Info tech companies want to sell mass-produced software. But officials at large hospitals say such systems, once installed, require time-consuming and costly customization. The alterations often make it difficult for different hospitals and medical offices to share data—a key goal. Meantime, the health IT industry has successfully lobbied against government oversight.

"Most big health IT projects have been clear disasters," says Dr. David Kibbe, senior technology adviser to the American Academy of Family Physicians. "This [digital push] is a microcosm for health-care reform....Will the narrow special interests win out over the public good?"
Let's hope not. Fortunately, there are people out there who are trying to prevent just such a scenario from happening.
In 2005 [University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine sociologist Ross Koppel] published a study in The Journal of the American Medical Association that examined an Eclipsys system at the university's academic hospital. He found that use of computers introduced 22 new types of medication errors. His goal was to discover why young medical interns make so many errors. He hypothesized that long hours were to blame. To his surprise, the problems stemmed mostly from software installed to prevent mistakes.
Imagine that.
When health technology fails for one medical provider, there is no central mechanism for reporting problems to others who use it. The federal government collects and disseminates this kind of information on drugs and medical devices. But tech contracts routinely bar medical providers from disclosing systemic flaws. Koppel contends this is unethical and risky: "We need to collect what we know and head off [any potential] tragedy."

Companies counter that confidentiality agreements protect their proprietary technology and that privacy laws prevent disclosure of patient and physician information without consent.
Emphasis mine. I can't recommend this article enough... in my opinion, it's some of the finest journalism BusinessWeek has ever published. It's fairly long, but that's the whole point. It's a terrific in-depth piece.

The fact that existing systems sold by Cerner, Allscripts, Epic, McKesson, and others to date have exacerbated problems they were supposed to solve is compelling evidence that proprietary technology simply can't be relied upon to safeguard lives. And lives do depend on the hardware and software working flawlessly once installed. As the article shows, that has not been the case.

Since the source code of proprietary software is not accessible, it can't easily be audited or inspected by third parties, as opposed to free software, which can be. And proprietary software is also often not engineered to be interoperable.

That's a big problem, because if one piece of software can't interface properly with another, errors will result. (The BusinessWeek article has examples of this).

In the open source world, software is designed to be interoperable; that's how everything fits and works together. If care providers are to go digital, the hardware and software they use will have to be wholly interoperable.

Care providers could push the industry to embrace free software by refusing to buy proprietary systems and urging Congress to toughen oversight of the "health tech" industry. (Free software, by the way, does not mean free in terms of price. It means free as in freedom. Think free speech, not free beer).

They could also look into adopting GNU/Linux to meet their needs. The Roger Maris Cancer Center in Fargo, North Dakota successfully runs GNU/Linux:
The proper care of our cancer patients would not be what it is today without [GNU/]Linux... The tools that we have been able to deploy from free software channels have enabled us to write and develop innovative applications which... do not exist through commercial avenues.

- Dr. G.W. Wettstein
Hospitals and doctor's offices that lack the human resources to deploy free software are better off sticking with paper records for now, at least until greater progress has been made towards improving user interfaces, interoperability, and reliability.

More "newspaper quality" journalism

Leave it to the Seattle Times to bring you more of that "newspaper quality" journalism that you've come to expect. It seems that somehow, State Representative Ross Hunter has become a state Senator.

At NPI, we were unaware that our Senator, Rodney Tom, had resigned and that the King County Council had appointed Ross Hunter as his replacement. As usual, the Seattle Times is right on top of things.

Below is a screenshot of the article, since we don't expect it to be online in its present form for long.

UPDATE (Andrew): The error also appears in the first line of the print edition, although it's not in the headline:
Medina lawmaker to run for Sims' post
Most wide open race for the office in years
City vs. suburban power will be tested, some say

State Sen. Ross Hunter's plunge into the race for King County executive...
I was as surprised as Ken to see that Representative Hunter apparently got a promotion. Is there something we don't know about?

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

World Health Organization warns of imminent flu pandemic

Earlier today, the Secretary-General of the World Health Organization raised the level of the pandemic flu alert from level 4 to level 5, warning that the spread of swine flu (H1N1) could lead to widespread human infection.

This is not a time to panic. We should all be getting educated and becoming aware of what public health authorities are saying in our communities. Phase 5 is characterized by the WHO as follows:
Phase 5 is characterized by human-to-human spread of the virus into at least two countries in one WHO region. While most countries will not be affected at this stage, the declaration of Phase 5 is a strong signal that a pandemic is imminent and that the time to finalize the organization, communication, and implementation of the planned mitigation measures is short.
If you live in Washington State, the Department of Health website is your best resource for information, in addition to local public health authorities. Washington has no reported cases of swine flue as of today.

If you live in Oregon, visit the Oregon Public Health Division website. No cases of swine flu have been reported in Oregon.

Idaho residents should go to the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare website, which is reporting:
The Idaho State Laboratory has tested 26 samples from people for swine flu infections, with all testing negative. The State and District Health Departments are investigating 12 additional reports of flu-like illnesses in Idaho.
In Alaska, please go to the Alaska Division of Public Health for information in your area. There are no reported cases of swine flu in Alaska, as of today.

And if you're in British Columbia, swine flu has been confirmed in your area and you can go to the Ministry of Health Services website for more information. Cases are reported to have been mild.

Here are the symptoms associated with swine flu:
Symptoms are similar to seasonal flu and include fever, cough, sore throat, body aches, headache, chills and fatigue, with some reports of diarrhea and vomiting.
It is important to note again that you cannot contract this strain of the flu by eating pork or pork products.

While there is not yet a vaccine for this strain of the flu, you can take these common-sense measures to protect yourself and your family.
  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. Throw the tissue in the trash after you use it.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, especially after you cough or sneeze. Alcohol-based hands cleaners are also effective.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose or mouth. Germs spread that way.
  • Try to avoid close contact with sick people.
  • Influenza is thought to spread mainly person-to-person through coughing or sneezing of infected people.
If you get sick, it is recommended that you stay home from work or school and limit contact with others to keep from infecting them.

We'll continue to monitor this public health threat and bring you the latest information from the experts as the situation warrants.

Once again, we highly recommend that you visit your state/province's public health authority website and get educated.

UPDATE, 9:35 PM: Six probable cases of swine flu have been reported in King County.
Three cases were reported from the Seattle area -- a high school student, a 27-year-old male and a 33-year-old woman who is a primary care physician.

The other cases are in Snohomish County, where a 6-year-old male and a 34-year-old female were reported infected, and in Spokane, where an adult male was reported stricken.

Officials said samples have been sent to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for formal confirmation.
We'll post further updates if we hear anything more tonight.

Bank of America shareholders dismiss Kenneth Lewis from position as Chairman

You don't see this every day...
Bank of America Corp. said shareholders voted to split the duties of Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Kenneth Lewis after investors criticized management’s handling of the Merrill Lynch & Co. takeover.

Walter E. Massey was named the new chairman, while Lewis will be president and CEO, according to a statement, which expressed "unanimous support" for Lewis to continue. The shareholder resolution was approved at today’s annual meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina, where Bank of America is based. All 18 directors were re-elected by a “comfortable margin,” spokesman James Mahoney said earlier today.
Wow. Bank of America shareholders just effectively fired Kenneth Lewis as Chairman of the company. He's still the CEO, but he's lost power as a result of this vote. Maybe he'll go the way of Michael Eisner and leave the company soon.

The meeting lasted some four hours long and featured a slew of worthy resolutions from concerned and disgusted shareholders seeking to reform the company's business practices. The response to most of them was a cavalier sentence delivered by Lewis: "The board recommends a vote against this proposal."

Typical corporate arrogance. We know better than you because we run this company. Yeah... into the ground!

You can read all about the proceedings over at SEIU's site - they did a fantastic job liveblogging the shareholder meeting.

Widowed from our food chain

Swine Flu. Smithfield Farms. CAFOs. H1N1. Senator Collins.

This is the vocabulary of this week's latest international calamity, which you can hardly have escaped hearing about if you've been awake any time in the past three days. Yet another macabre mashup between corporate environmental vandalism and our food supply, with the cost measured in bodies.

Today it's pork. Last time it was peanut butter. Before that, tomatoes, except not really because that one turned out to be tainted jalapenos and too bad for the poor tomato farmers who suddenly couldn't sell their highly perishable crops. Before that it was the fresh-bagged spinach.

Remember that? I wonder what it will be tomorrow.

Last night I was reading Barbara Kingsolver's Prodigal Summer, when I came across this terribly, terribly apt passage. In it, recently-widowed farm wife Lusa is palling around on her farm with her 10-year-old niece Crystal, looking at obsolete old farm equipment stashed away in the barn:
"Everybody around here used to grow their own wheat and corn for bread, plus what they needed for their animals. Now they buy feed at Southern States and go to Kroger's for a loaf of god-awful bread that was baked in another state."


"Because they can't afford to grow grain anymore. It's cheaper to buy bad stuff from a big farm than to grow good stuff on a little farm."


"Boy, that's hard to answer. Because people want too much stuff, I guess, and won't pay for quality. And also, farmers have to follow rules that automatically favor whoever already has the most. You know how when you play marbles, as soon as somebody starts getting most of the marbles then they're going to win everything?"



"I don't play with marbles."

"What do you play with?"

"Game Boy." Cris had drifted away and was putting her hands on things, drawing circles in the dust, looking under tables. "What's'is?"

"A bee smoker."

The child laughed. "For smoking bees? Do you get high off 'em?"

Lusa wondered what this child knew about getting high but decided again not to react. "No. Smoke comes out of there, and it drugs the bees, as a matter of fact. It makes them dopey and lazy so they won't sting you when you take the top off their hive and steal their honey."

"Oh. That's where honey comes from? People steal it?"

Lusa was surprised at the extent of the girl's ignorance—her generation's ignorance, probably. "People raise bees, for honey. Everybody around here used to, I'm sure. You see old broken-down bee boxes everywhere."

"Now it just comes in a jar."

"Yep," Lusa agreed. "From Argentina or someplace. That's what I mean about big farms far away taking the place of little farms right here. It's sad. It's not fair, and it stinks. Nobody cares, though. I used to live in a city, and I'll tell you, city people do not think this is their problem. They think food comes from the supermarket, period, and always will."

"My mama works at Kroger's. She hates it."

"I know." Lusa looked around at the dim boneyard of obsolete equipment and felt despair for all the things people used to grow and make for themselves before they were widowed from their own food chain.
(Edited for brevity, with my apologies to Ms. Kingsolver)

She's right.

Between raising our kids and ourselves on a steady diet of television, mobile phones, Internet, and game consoles - plus other electronic gizmos and gadgets - we really have become widowed from our own food chain.

And the results of this self-induced ignorance, masquerading as bliss, are seen in disease outbreaks like the one we're facing now.

When nobody's paying attention to where their food comes from, corporations like Smithfield - whether or not they turn out to have actually been responsible for this swine flu outbreak - can get away with manufacturing billions of pounds of meat per year in the most filthy, shocking, and abominable of conditions.

Prodigal Summer was published in 2000, before the start of what seems like a slow but steady parade of disease outbreaks and deaths linked to our overly-industrialized food system.

I get the feeling that if she wrote that book today, she'd have to change that poetically tragic turn of phrase to "widowed by our food chain."

In this context, the first-family's efforts to put in an organic garden at the White House stand out as singularly prescient and well-timed. The message there could not be clearer or more appropriate: Know what you're eating. Know where it comes from. Local, organic food is the best.

Don't think about the swine flu outbreak as just another news story.

Think about it as another ring of the alarm bells that have been going off for some time now: our food system is in crisis.

And as with everything else, it's up to us to fix it. You - yes, you - can and should do three things to help:

First, get some seeds and grow something. May is nearly upon us, but it is by no means too late to start a garden.

My favorite source for seeds is the Territorial Seed Company, which has tons of varieties adapted to the Northwest climate.

And don't tell me you can't because you don't have any room in your yard or because you live in an apartment or condo.

If you have a yard, you can garden. Dig up some of your grass for something more useful. If the best you have is a windowsill, get a planter box and at least grow some herbs. Wherever you live, you can always grow something.

Second, shop regularly at the local farmers' markets. There are literally dozens of farmers' markets scattered around the greater Seattle and Puget Sound region, dozens more in the Portland/Vancouver area, and really, wherever you care to look. It's local food, from local farmers, and most of it is organic.

Third, visit a farm and take your kids. Tell the farmers at the market you're interested in really knowing where your food comes from.

Chances are they'll be pleased you asked. Some of them even give farm tours now and then during the summer. If they don't, encourage them to do so. Take your kids out to the farm. Let them see for themselves where food comes from.

Let ours be the last generation that holds its collective hand up to the side of its face to hide from the ugliness that is industrial farming, be it CAFOs or million-acre monoculture corn fields in the Midwest.

In fact, let's all just stop shielding our eyes right now, and maybe we can make this swine flu outbreak be the beginning of the end of these sorts of tragedies, rather than just another alarm bell on our way to the eventual killer pandemic.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

What you need to know about swine flu

Health officials have confirmed today that the number of confirmed cases of swine flu in the U.S. has reached sixty eight, and public health officials are recommending Americans not travel to Mexico unless necessary.

The CDC said the country has 68 confirmed cases across six states, with 45 in New York, 13 in California, six in Texas, two in Kansas and one each in Indiana and Ohio, according to the CDC and states. Of the seven hospitalized, two are in New York, three are in California and two are in Texas.

It's important to note for our readers that no known cases of swine flu exist in Washington. Governor Gregoire has requested federal resources (antibiotics anti-viral medication) on standby, should they be necessary, but Washington is not currently experiencing an outbreak.

You can find information about swine flu and how to take precautions to avoid it on the Department of Health's website. Most importantly:

Although this new virus is called “swine flu,” it is not transmitted from pigs to humans, or from eating pork products. Like other respiratory diseases, it is spread from person to person through coughs and sneezes. When people cough or sneeze, they spread germs through the air or onto surfaces that other people may touch. [emphasis mine]

The CDC also has a more detailed fact sheet about swine flu and prevention measures that can be taken.

Ross Hunter officially announces run for King County Executive

Representative Ross Hunter (D-48th District), the Chair of the State House Finance Committee, just showed up at the King County Democratic Central Committee's April meeting to formally announce what many insiders have already known for some time: He's running for King County Executive.

Hunter's official entry makes him the fourth elected Democrat to throw his hat into the ring for Ron Sims' job. Hunter's competition includes County Council Chair Dow Constantine, County Councilmember Larry Phillips, and State Senator Fred Jarrett, all of whom entered the race weeks ago.

In his remarks to Democrats gathered here at the Renton Carpenters' Hall, Hunter emphasized that he "gets things done". He talked about three issues in particular: education, affordable housing, and transportation.

We anticipate he'll be rolling out his new campaign website soon.

Hunter will also be participating in next week's Executive candidate forum, sponsored by the King County Democrats, which will include the other three Democrats I mentioned above. I was asked to moderate, and I've happily accepted.

I'm really looking forward to facilitating a substantive conversation about the race and where King County needs to go in the next four years.

If you're free on Cinco de Mayo, I strongly encourage you to come and get to know the candidates better, especially if you're undecided about who to support.

King County Executive Candidate Forum
Renton Carpenters Hall (231 Burnett Avenue N, Renton, WA, 98057)
May 5th, 2009, 7:30 PM (social hour begins at 6:30 PM)
Sponsored by the King County Democrats Central Committee
The event is open to the media and the public. Readers are encouraged to come.

Specter bails out of the Republican Party

National blogs (and national media outlets) are having a field day with the news that Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania has decided to bolt from the Republican Party and become a Democrat. It's been long rumored that Specter might make such a move, especially with former Club for Greed president Pat Toomey preparing to run against him for a second time in the Republican primary.

Well, as of today, he's jumped ship:
Since my election in 1980, as part of the Reagan Big Tent, the Republican Party has moved far to the right. Last year, more than 200,000 Republicans in Pennsylvania changed their registration to become Democrats. I now find my political philosophy more in line with Democrats than Republicans.

When I supported the stimulus package, I knew that it would not be popular with the Republican Party. But, I saw the stimulus as necessary to lessen the risk of a far more serious recession than we are now experiencing.

Since then, I have traveled the State, talked to Republican leaders and office-holders and my supporters and I have carefully examined public opinion. It has become clear to me that the stimulus vote caused a schism which makes our differences irreconcilable. On this state of the record, I am unwilling to have my twenty-nine year Senate record judged by the Pennsylvania Republican primary electorate. I have not represented the Republican Party. I have represented the people of Pennsylvania.

I have decided to run for re-election in 2010 in the Democratic primary.
This doesn't, however, mean that Specter will support the Employee Free Choice Act; in fact, he explicitly said that his position on it won't change.

That will disappoint labor.

The D.C. and Pennsylvania Democratic establishment have all reportedly promised to line up behind Specter for the 2010 primary.

In our view, though, he shouldn't get a free pass.

He wants to be a Democrat? Fine. He doesn't deserve to just be handed the nomination. He should have to fight for it and earn it. It looks like he already has some serious competition in Joe Torsella, who has raised over half a million dollars for his candidacy and is vowing to stay in the race. Good for him.

There shouldn't be a coronation. Specter needs to realize that Democrats want to be represented by somebody who believes in Democratic values.

Republicans in the Senate, meanwhile, are upset, because they didn't see this coming. And the Club for Greed is speechless.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Democrats don't deliver: ESB 5519 abandoned by the House

Here's another entry for the great bills that didn't turn into useful new laws file: Engrossed Senate Bill 5519, which would have decreased the unnecessary time that mentally ill persons charged with crime spend in jail, fell victim to the final cutoff of the 2009 legislative session. (I was going to blog about this earlier, but wanted to wait and see if any elements of the bill made it into the budget, which the Legislature was working on up until this weekend. More on that shortly).

ESB 5519 had the potential to save municipal governments a lot of money, because keeping people locked up isn't cheap. (If you don't believe me about the cost aspect, take a look at the fiscal note and see for yourself).

We'd like to applaud Senators James Hargrove, Debbie Regala and Val Stevens, who sponsored the bill in the Senate, where it ultimately passed (the vote ws forty four to one). Kudos also to Representative Mary Lou Dickerson (D-36th District) who pushed hard for the bill in the House.

If you're not familiar with ESB 5519, here's a bit of backstory to explain what the legislation was and why it was important.

ESB 5519 was a proposal that was thirty months in the making. It was crafted by a collection of stakeholders numbering greater than forty.

The product of their work was introduced by legislators in the form of Senate Bill 6311, which did not make it out of committee during last year's short session.

This year's more polished version, ESB 5519, appeared headed towards passage, but ran into trouble because some stakeholders either did not understand - or refused to try to understand - simple mathematics.

There was also a perception that this was a "Seattle thing" - in other words, that there was no statewide support for this much needed reform. Those of us working to get the bill to the governor felt as if we were offering a cool drink of water to a person dying of thirst in the desert, only to be rebuffed and rejected.

But let's back up a bit and look at this problem in greater detail. The following is a summation that describes the present situation and what ESB 5519 would have done to fix or alleviate it, in list style.
  1. All persons charged with a crime have the right to be mentally competent in order to stand trial.
  2. When competency is raised as an issue for a mentally ill defendant, the court orders a competency evaluation. The overwhelming majority of those evaluations occur either in local jails or in hospitals.
  3. Eastern State and Western State Hospitals are the two state psychiatric hospitals for adults who suffer from serious mental illness. Not surprisingly, hospital beds are scarce.
  4. A defendant who is committed to Eastern or Western for a competency evaluation is there for observation and diagnosis, not for treatment.
  5. The more beds that are used for competency evaluations, the fewer that are available for actual treatment.
  6. Because bed space is so scarce, there is a long waiting list for defendants to be admitted to the hospital for evaluation.
  7. A defendant will wait longer just to be transported to the hospital for a competency evaluation than he or she would wait in jail for the evaluation and hearing.
  8. In other words, a defendant who is committed to a state psychiatric hospital for a competency evaluation will stay in jail far longer than is necessary.
  9. Currently, the law contains no time frame in which an in jail evaluation is to be completed, though most are done within 14 days.
  10. Clearly a time frame is desirable. ESB 5519 would have set time limits - phased in to a final maximum time of sixteen days for in jail evaluations.
  11. The law sets describes the required contents of a competency evaluation. Some of those requirements were inefficient and unnecessary from the get-go; others have become so based on case law and the passage of time. Those inefficiencies were addressed in ESB 5519, without any diminution of public safety.
  12. There were other valuable provisions in the bill that would have sped up the process further, while still protecting public safety.
While ESB 5519 is dead for now, one its provisions (found in Section 110) did make its way into the budget. That language requires the Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) to track data about wait times for in-jail, in-hospital and community-based evaluations. It also requires DSHS to track data on the effectiveness of competency restoration treatment for those defendants who are mentally incompetent to stand trial.

That is good news.

Obtaining established data showing the benefits that could be reaped from a reincarnation of 5519 will go a long way toward making that a reality.

This is not the end of the road - at least as far as we at NPI are concerned. We will continue to work the issue with a goal of producing meaningful legislation to address this issue in 2010 and possibly 2011 if necessary.

United Auto Workers, taxpayers to own most of General Motors?

Taxpayers and the members of America's most storied unions could soon own up to ninety percent of the nation's largest company under a plan introduced today by its CEO to keep the company afloat as it tries to restructure itself:
G.M. said it could eliminate $44 billion in debt by exchanging stock for its bonds and by converting debts owed to the Treasury Department and to a retiree health care fund for the United Automobile Workers union into stock. The Treasury and the U.A.W. would own up to 89 percent of the company’s outstanding shares, while bondholders would hold 10 percent.

The Treasury would own more than half of G.M. on its own and therefore have control over the election of its board and other matters requiring the approval of shareholders.
General Motors will also stop offering its Pontiac brand in addition to shuttering Hummer (thank goodness), Saturn, and Saab, which had already been planned.

The company warns that if the exchange idea doesn't work out, it'll head into bankruptcy court, which would not be ideal for bondholders.
In the event that GM does not receive prior to June 1, 2009 enough tenders of notes to consummate the exchange offers, GM currently expects to seek relief under the U.S. Bankruptcy Code. GM is considering its alternatives in seeking bankruptcy relief in consultation with the U.S. Treasury, GM's largest lender. If GM seeks bankruptcy relief, noteholders may receive consideration that is less than what is being offered in the exchange offers and it is possible that such holders may receive no consideration at all for their notes.
After the exchange (if it goes through) current shareholders would own a mere one percent of the company. Imagine that - the world's biggest car company owned primarily by taxpayers and union members.

It sure would give new meaning to the phrase "publicly owned".

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Washington State House, Senate ready to adjourn... but not quite done yet?

Sine Die time. Almost.

The House of Representatives and the Senate have pretty much wrapped up the 2009 legislative session in Olympia. Bills that didn't make it out of the statehouse are now dead, although technically, they aren't really dead, because an unsuccessful bill may be revived during the next session.

UPDATED, AS OF 12:30 AM APRIL 27TH: According to Senator Chris Marr, who says he just got word, there's going to be a special session.

Some of the unfinished business concerns the Evergreen Point Floating Bridge replacement, NPI understands. So all of you who were betting the Legislature would finish on time have apparently lost your bets.

ALSO, AS OF 12:30 AM: The Governor has issued a statement suggesting she's calling a special session. There's speculation around the statehouse it would be probably be later this week, as opposed to tomorrow. Maybe that's so agreements can be worked out on the unfinished business.

UPDATE II, 1:00 AM: The 2009 regular session is adjourned. Sine Die. Exhausted and weary legislators are milling around the legislative chambers.

One of the bills that got sent back to the Senate Rules Committee before 12:00 AM when the Senate floor was cleared by resolution is SB 6116, which would have authorized "the extension of local taxes for the arts, affordable housing, KeyArena renovations and other community projects".

Cosponsors Ed Murray and Jeanne Kohl-Welles released a statement shortly after midnight regarding the bill's failure. Here's what they had to say:
Widely misperceived as ‘the Stadium Bill,’ SB 6116 would have authorized King County to provide support to a variety of programs that would benefit our communities, such as low-income housing, arts, heritage and cultural programs, and tourism promotion. These funds could have helped programs throughout King County.

In addition, this bill would have authorized the continuation of two existing taxes that are currently in place which could have helped in renovating KeyArena. These include the restaurant and car rental taxes that are raised only within the City of Seattle.

SB 6116 would have met the terms of the agreement set last year between the City of Seattle and the Oklahoma Ownership group that took the Sonics to Oklahoma City.

We are very disappointed that we were not able to move forward legislation that would force Clay Bennett to pay the $30 million in 2013 as put forth in the settlement agreement. We offered several amendments that met the qualifications of the terms but were unable to get the necessary number of votes to bring the bill to the Senate floor for a vote.

It is unfortunate that confusion about the purpose of a pre-existing tax killed a bill that would have strengthened our community.

The Legislature has granted authorization for use of local sales tax for such purposes to jurisdictions across our state, but the political will did not exist to grant it for Seattle and King County.

If the Legislature goes into a special session sometime during this year, we will continue conversations around SB 6116. We will work with the opponents of this bill and try to reach an agreement.
The Legislature's failure to send a revenue package to voters that would have staunched the bleeding created by its irresponsible budget is pretty disappointing. That blown opportunity is undoubtedly what'll remember the most about this unpleasant session, which would well be described as lackluster.

House, Senate still working late into the night

As I type this post, the State House of Representatives and Senate are still busy working on bills. They've been on the floor all day and will undoubtedly remain on the floor until midnight at the earliest.

The Senate yesterday nodded off on the awful operating budget that the statehouse's Democratic leadership had agreed on, sans revenue package.

Ken Jacobsen was the only progressive senator to vote "no".

The Legislature did accomplish one laudable objective tonight: It approved a bill that will allow King County to more flexibly tackle its own revenue crisis.

Among the bill's provisions (this is from the bill report):
King County is authorized to impose additional property tax at a rate not to exceed 7.5 cents per $1,000 of assessed value. The first 1 cent is dedicated to expanding transit capacity along state route 520. The remainder of money is dedicated to transit oriented expenditures.
This provision basically gives the King County Council the authority to raise more money for Metro, which is facing a revenue shortfall at a time when demand for transit is high. It'll go a long way towards staving off cuts.

2SSB 5433 also allows some local transit agencies to seek for voter approval for additional revenue to expand service and reduce congestion in the form of a vehicle fee. The fee could not be more than twenty dollars. Agencies would have to specifically describe the improvements that would be funded by the fee.

It's interesting to note that the State Senate deadlocked on 2SSB 5433 because Senator Don Benton was excused (I'm guessing he probably would have voted no), allowing Lieutenant Governor Brad Owen to cast a tiebreaking vote in favor. The final vote was thus twenty five to twenty four.

Democratic senators voting against were Mary Margaret Haugen, Tracey Eide, Rosa Franklin, Steve Hobbs, Derek Kilmer, Claudia Kauffman, and Chris Marr. (As usual, we're not counting Tim Sheldon as real Democrat.) Republican Senator Dan Swecker crossed the aisle to join the other Democrats in voting yes.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Progressive senators could stop "all cuts" budget in its tracks if they wanted to

Last night, the Washington's House of Representatives passed EHB 1244, the 2009-2011 operating budget (PDF) that has been widely panned across the state as a failure of leadership. The House appears to have no plans to allow voters to opt to mitigate the pain of its budget by sending the people a revenue package; instead, jobs will be slashed, tuition hiked for students, aid to the vulnerable gutted, and seniors left to fend for themselves.

The House passed HB 1244 by a vote of fifty four to forty two. Democratic representatives casting a protest vote against the budget were Representatives Brendan Williams (D-22nd District), Bob Hasegawa (D-11th District), and Geoff Simpson (D-47th District). Cheers to the three of them for their courage.

There were also three Democrats who sided with the Republican caucus in voting against the budget for other reasons (Driscoll, Grant-Herriot, and Miloscia).

The budget now moves to the State Senate, where it is expected to be opposed by the entire Republican caucus, plus Senator Tim Sheldon.

And herein lies an opportunity for the chamber's progressive senators to stop this awful budget in its tracks.

If six progressive Democrats stood up together and told leadership they would not vote for the budget until the House and Senate agreed to send a revenue package to the people for a vote, they could tie up the whole process.

Such a bloc of senators could also potentially force House and Senate budget writers to allocate some of that $830 million they're "saving for later" to lessen the pain in the awful budget that's been proposed. Brendan Williams suggested doing so last night, but his Amendment 903 was voted down on a voice vote.

(Williams remarked this morning that he's "ready to vote NO on the slew of budget 'trailer' bills required to dismantle our social safety net per the no-new-taxes, all-cuts Republicrat budget that passed last night.")

Are there six senators willing to stick their necks out and do something courageous, just for the sake of the goodness of the State of Washington?

Perhaps not, but we do know that at least a couple of senators have gone on the record as saying their consciences do not sit well with the idea of passing a predictable, unconscionable all-cuts" budget. Take Senator Kohl-Welles:
When our budget is released, it likely will be an all-cuts budget. This is something I cannot support. But I will work with leadership to present a tax package to the voters who can decide for themselves if they are willing to pay a small amount more in targeted taxes to maintain crucial programs.

I strongly believe that it would be counterproductive, resulting in "unintended consequences," to do otherwise.
(Emphasis mine). Or Senator Adam Kline, who has concisely explained that passing an "all cuts" budget isn't just immoral, it makes no economic sense:
If we cut the state’s Basic Health Plan by 40% – as has been proposed – 40,000 individuals in our communities would no longer have a viable option to receiving needed medical care. That’s a crowd large enough to sell out Safeco Field.

It’s a mistake to think that the accounting savings realized from cutting this program will translate into actual savings.

After all, it’s not as if these 40,000 of our neighbors will suddenly no longer get sick or need medical attention. Many will simply wait until their situation becomes an emergency to get the care they need from hospitals – maximizing the toll taken on their health and the costs to our overall system.
Again, emphasis mine.

In the unlikely event that six Democratic senators are seriously contemplating putting the brakes on this budget (we're looking at you, Senators Kohl-Welles, Kline, Franklin, Jacobsen, Oemig, and McDermott) they can rest assured of one thing: We'd have their backs in a heartbeat.

This has been a dreadful session, marked repeatedly by Democratic spinelessness. It would be nice to see a few Democrats take a stand, bring this Sadnessville-bound train to a grinding halt, and throw the entire statehouse off balance.

At least then the session might end on an upbeat note. Even if such a move didn't win any major concessions, we'd at least be able to cheer on some Democrats for doing something courageous and sticking to their principles.

Yeah, Governor Gregoire wouldn't be pleased, but that would be a good thing: She actually thinks this budget is "responsible".

And no, I'm not kidding. She used the words "responsible budget" last night when she "congratulated" the House for passing EHB 1244.

I'm not sure what happened to the governor I knew and loved that did so much good for our state back in the good old days of 2005 and 2006.

But that governor, if she were still around today, would not accept this budget. That governor would refuse to sign off on a budget that shreds some of our most critical public services - let alone propose such a budget.

But that governor is gone. Where she went, we don't know. We at NPI would love to have her back. Washington needs her at this dire hour.

Apparently, courageous leadership at both the state and federal levels is too much to ask for. It's been missing in our nation's capitol for years. Now we finally have a President who is governing progressively. But we've lost our progressive governor and we certainly don't have a progressive Legislature.

We have a Legislature that only knows how to spend money.

That's not a criticism of where the Legislature has invested our common wealth. Last biennium, Democratic leadership bettered our state immensely by putting money into public services and infrastructure.

But now we're in a crisis and our Legislature doesn't have the guts or the wherewithal to raise money. Tax reform seems to be considered a taboo subject. A few Democrats - Senator Kohl Welles and Senator Brown - have gallantly spoken about the wisdom of switching to an income tax.

Bravo to them for starting that conversation.

And Representative Eric Pettigrew came up with a plan to stave off some of the budget cuts by raising the sales tax slightly, and offsetting that increase for working families. Unfortunately, that plan doesn't seem to be going anywhere.

In part, that's because polling has shown fairly lukewarm support for a revenue package. That's not surprising, because not everyone yet understands the magnitude of the cuts. Legislators are more familiar with the problem than their constituents, and yet it's like they're expecting voters to lead them.

Come again? That's not real leadership. Real leadership means fighting for what you believe in, adhering to your values. Not letting polls and focus groups determine your course of action. That's following.

Especially at this moment, we need leaders to be in charge. Not followers.

I was listening to Representative Kathy Haigh on the floor sometime this past week, expressing hope that the economy would recover by the 2011 legislative session (and with it, state revenues) so that the cuts made as a result of this budget can be reversed. All I could do was shake my head and sigh.

That's it? The Legislature has resorted to hoping that the economy will just get better so it won't have to pass another irresponsible budget?

I'm sorry, but that attitude reeks.

Are we not in control of our own destiny? Do legislators not realize that they have the awesome power to make laws? The duty to protect our quality of life? The authority to manage our common wealth?

The Legislature (and the Governor) ought to be acting as stewards, safeguarding the people of Washington State from the economic turmoil wrought by years of Wall Street greed and the failed right wing agenda of the Bush administration.

That would be leadership.

Instead, we've got a bunch of people mindlessly and wearily parked at their desks inside the Capitol's grand marble halls, throwing up their hands - and throwing in the towel. Democratic legislators happily accepted the federal aid that Democrats in Congress sent their way, but they've done practically nothing on their end to protect our common wealth at a time when we desperately need it to be there for us. Instead, they're going to let it deteriorate on purpose.

That's a mistake, because our common wealth is the bedrock of our economy.

There's axiom that illustrates this truth that I like (by Anne Herbert) which hangs in one of the meeting rooms of the Redmond Regional Library.

It goes: Libraries will get you through times of no money better than money will get you through times of no libraries.

If legislators truly took this to heart, perhaps they'd understand the pointlessness of passing a penny wise, pound foolish budget.

This approach is not cost effective.

People aren't going to stop getting sick. Students aren't going to teach themselves. Our environment won't magically start ridding itself of all the carbon dioxide, methane, and other climate pollution we're pumping into it.

One way or another, we're going to pay.

The question is not if, but when... and how much. Is there anyone out there who wants to make the argument that forcing people to go to emergency rooms when they're ill and dying is cheaper than investing in preventative care?

The right wing, of course, couldn't care less that we're abandoning people. In fact, jackals like Tim Eyman have had the gall to accuse legislators like Eric Pettigrew of trying to use the vulnerable as human props.

Just what we need: more shameless trash from our state's prime peddler of stupid, thoughtless right wing initiatives.

The whole point of having government, of having public services, is to do, as Abraham Lincoln said, for ourselves what we can't do individually.

We can't all afford to hire our own police force or firefighting squad, so government provides those things. Health services, which are being walloped by this budget, are no different. They're absolutely essential to our well being.

Republicans should be able to understand this.

The other day, Representative Mike Armstrong - a Republican - was on his way to the governor's mansion for a reception.

On his way up some steps, he suddenly had a heart attack. Fortunately, state troopers were nearby and they came to his aid.

They summoned paramedics, who took Representative Armstrong to Providence St. Peter's Hospital, where he is recovering.

Representative DeBolt, the Republican minority leader, later issued a statement saying Republicans were relieved that troopers and the paramedics had come to Armstrong's side immediately and given him the medical attention he needed.

It's a good thing we have public employees who have devoted their lives to selflessly serving the people of Washington.

Grievously, the people of Washington seem to be represented right now primarily by men and women who are more preoccupied about what the opposition might say about them in the next election than doing their jobs. Furthermore, the influence of big money induces their political posture rather than the public interest.

The funny thing about the Legislature - which is supposed to be an institution where majority rule prevails - is how easy it is for a small minority to throw sand in the gears of its machinery. All the Republicans are lined up, ready to oppose the budget that the Governor, Speaker Chopp and Majority Leader Brown have agreed on.

It would, again, take merely six disgusted Democratic senators to force everyone back to the table to come up with a better budget. There's no way all the cuts can be avoided. But damage could be minimized.

Does the scenario I've outlined have much of a chance of happening?

Probably not. But if it did happen... if six Democrats teamed together and splashed some cold water around the Capitol... it would sure would brighten the spirits of untold numbers of discouraged Washingtonians who are wondering: Where has the party of working families vanished to?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Ubuntu 9.04 "Jaunty Jackalope" now available for your enjoyment

The world's most popular desktop Linux distribution has just gotten better.

Canonical Ltd., the United Kingdom based commercial sponsor of Ubuntu, announced this week the release of Ubuntu 9.04, code named "Jaunty Jackalope".

There's nothing earth shattering in the new version, but there are certainly a number of welcome improvements that collectively reinforce an important truism about Ubuntu: It's getting better all the time.

Among them:
Shorter boot speeds, some as short as 25 seconds, ensure faster access to a full computing environment on most desktop, laptop and netbook models. Enhanced suspend-and-resume features also give users more time between charges along with immediate access after hibernation. Intelligent switching between Wi-Fi and 3G environments has been broadened to support more wireless devices and 3G cards, resulting in a smoother experience for most users.
Ubuntu 9.04 features 3.0. This gives users a complete office suite that is entirely compatible with Microsoft Office. This free office software provides an immediate saving of at least $200 for users who need to create presentations, write documents or manage spreadsheets at work or at home.
I've found OpenOffice to actually be superior to Microsoft Office Word in a number of ways. Having OpenOffice included with Ubuntu is great because it means there's nothing more to set up once you've installed the operating system.

But wait, there's more...
A new integrated notification system appears in Ubuntu 9.04 for the first time. This system combines the notification methods of various applications and presents that information in a simple, unobtrusive manner. New icons and artwork also appear in this release, part of the continual improvement of the Ubuntu user experience.
For those not familiar with free software, Linux is a "Unix-like" operating system, based on the Linux kernel written by Linus Torvalds (who currently resides in the heart of the Pacific Northwest - Portland, Oregon).

A Linux distribution, or distro, is basically a collection of software that runs on top of the Linux kernel. Typically most or all of that software is free and open source, much of it licensed under the GNU General Public License (GPL).

Ubuntu, which is based on the community-driven Debian, is the most common desktop Linux distribution, as well as my favorite. Ubuntu is blazing fast, contains no bloatware, and has built in support for a wide array of hardware, including printers, scanners, and cameras. With Ubuntu, plug and play isn't a misnomer.

Not to mention many of my favorite applications come with Ubuntu - OpenOffice, as previously mentioned, but also Mozilla Firefox and Pidgin. Additionally, Ubuntu has native support for open source file formats, such as Vorbis.

All of these things, in my view, make Ubuntu superior to both Windows and Mac OS, which are both proprietary.

But by far the thing I like best about Ubuntu is the ease of installing new applications. If I want something - let's say accounting software, like GnuCash - I simply grab it out of the repository (repo for short) and I've got it.

All it takes is a simple one line command. I give the okay for the installation to proceed, with my password - and it's done.

I don't have to search the Internet, figure out where to download the installer, then spend several minutes in a wizard saying yes to a clickwrap agreement and hitting "Next" repeatedly with my mouse, as I would on Windows.

If you've never tried Ubuntu or even Linux before, I urge you to take Jaunty Jackalope for a spin. You can actually try out Ubuntu without making any changes to your Windows based computer by using a Live CD (a disc with Ubuntu on it).

Ubuntu may also be installed to a flash drive for easy, portable use, although you won't be able to boot from the flash drive unless you have a recently manufactured motherboard with USB boot support.

You can even install Ubuntu as an application in Windows and try it out without rebooting your computer thanks to the magic of Wubi. The choice is yours.

To get started with Jaunty Jackalope, head on over to the Ubuntu site. You can download directly from one of the mirrors or use BitTorrent (which can be faster). After downloading, be sure to verify the integrity of the ISO disc image if you are making a Live CD.

Once you've done that, you're ready to burn to disc.

The Live CD will let you try out Ubuntu without any change to your computer as well as allow you to install Ubuntu to a hard drive.

Have fun!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Has Boeing management finally learned that outsourcing doesn't pay?

There's a new article out in Conde Nast Portfolio for its May issue about the trouble Boeing's been having getting its new Dreamliner off the ground.

Entitled "Bumpy Ride", the article explains how Boeing management's thoughtless decision to outsource pretty much everything has repeatedly cost the company oodles of precious time and money (not to mention the strain it's created between executives and workers, who have become justifiably concerned about the possibility that the company might eliminate their jobs).

In fact, the cost of the Dreamliner delays looks like it could be more than the projected budget shortfall that state legislators are currently grappling with.
The Dreamliner’s delays are expected to cost Boeing as much as $10 billion in canceled orders and compensation to airlines. The fiasco has become an object lesson for manufacturers in how not to do global outsourcing and has eroded Boeing’s reputation for efficiency and innovation.

Now, on the eve of its big launch, the Dreamliner carries the company’s hopes of recapturing lost revenue and repairing the damage to its image. If the plane passes the rigorous yearlong series of flight tests that begin this spring, it could lead Boeing out of the financial crisis. But if the Dreamliner fails, Boeing could become the General Motors of the skies, with enormous repercussions for the U.S. economy and the U.S. manufacturing base.
Yikes, that's not a very rosy picture, is it? Hopefully the Dreamliner will be successful - Boeing's future is riding on it - but in this economy, there's certainly no guarantee of that. People aren't traveling as much, and airlines are canceling orders as a result.

Boeing could have probably had the 787 flying years ago, but...
...the plane fell victim to infighting between Boeing’s bean counters and engineers, who had to gamble on a low-cost—but unrealistic—manufacturing strategy. "We may have gone a little too far, too fast" with the technology and materials and in outsourcing production, Boeing chief executive James McNerney told Condé Nast Portfolio. "The program was more than we could handle."
A little too far? How about a lot?

Incidentally, the Dreamliner isn't the only instance where management's decision to outsource has led to major headaches.
Boeing also stumbled by adopting a Dreamliner-like outsourcing strategy on a $20 million Homeland Security contract to create a 28-mile “virtual fence” along the Mexican border, with infrared cameras, ground sensors, radar, unmanned planes, and databanks to guard against illegal immigration. When Boeing delivered the equipment in 2007, hardly any of the pieces, bought from dozens of subcontractors, fit together. After much trial and error, a scaled-down version was switched on this year.
Boeing’s slide can be traced to the company’s ill-fated $13 billion purchase of McDonnell Douglas Corp. Under chairman John McDonnell and chief executive Harry Stonecipher, McDonnell Douglas starved its design and engineering operations and became little more than a sales organization, barely surviving on offshoots of its aging DC-9 and DC-10 models. The 1997 acquisition infected Boeing’s forward-thinking culture, emphasizing cost-cutting at the expense of innovation.
With the cost cutters in charge, Boeing ended up settling into a glide towards the end of the nineties and into the 2000s. While Airbus pumped money into its research and development budget, Boeing did just the opposite, fattening its bottom line slightly and surrendering its competitive edge as a result.

A couple years into the new millennium, Boeing Commercial Airplanes chief Alan Mulally (who now heads Ford) realized Boeing needed a new innovative airplane that would carry the company into the next era of aviation. Unfortunately, his vision had a price tag that was too big for management to swallow.
Conceptual drawings showed that the Dreamliner’s cost would at least match the $10 billion-plus price tag of the 777. After becoming chief executive in 2003, Stonecipher said he intended to seek board approval for the Dreamliner. However, the unspoken message was “but not at the current price,” says Jon Ostrower, an aviation insider who writes for Mulally was told that the plane’s projected development costs would have to be 50 percent or more below the 777’s.

To meet this demand, Mulally came up with a wildly unorthodox plan: He would farm out the design, engineering, and manufacturing of the 787 — virtually everything except final assembly — to suppliers that would shoulder more than $9 billion of the project’s $13 billion cost, in exchange for lucrative, multiyear guaranteed contracts and a slice of the plane’s sales. These outside companies would coordinate with one another to produce whole sections of the plane, stuffed with assembled components, systems, ducting, insulation, and wiring. Boeing workers in Everett would merely have to connect the major parts of the aircraft.
And we now know how that all worked out...
No large manufacturer had ever before so audaciously turned over control of the entire process — from concept to shipment — to outside firms. In a critical oversight, no provision was made for monitoring the suppliers. Mike Denton, vice president of engineering for Boeing’s commercial-airplanes division, recalls that the vision for the Dreamliner was “not to encumber the partners with the Boeing way of doing everything. So we erred on the side of giving them more free rein than in retrospect we should have.”
Apparently Harry and Friends never paused and stopped to ask themselves this question: What is the reason for our existence if we are simply going to let "partners" decide how to build our own products?

Did they simply forget, at some point, everything they learned in business school? That it costs money to develop new products? That companies that don't innovate will eventually collapse and die?

Evidently they did forget. They were so preoccupied with dollars and cents that they saw Boeing's manufacturing prowess as a liability rather than a huge asset. Even though that is what Boeing does - manufacture airplanes, not just sell them. What did they think Boeing's business was?

They were blinded by greed.

By insisting that the Dreamliner be built as cheaply as possible at the expense of all other objectives, they gambled and experimented with Boeing's future.

Fortunately, Harry Stonecipher is no longer the chief executive officer of Boeing, and the company has been taking corrective action to save the Dreamliner program, sending hundreds of employees to monitor its suppliers and insisting that things be done "the Boeing way". Management has hopefully learned a hard lesson about the perils of outsourcing. Hopefully, for its next airplane, Boeing will go back to relying on its own talent and know-how to get the job done.

Funding education in hard times

Last night I did some interesting math. It was mostly word problems, involved a lot of variables, and the final number was always depressing. Here’s an example: how many after school athletic programs, plus school secretaries, plus school nurses equals 44.7 teachers?

The answer: we need a better way to fund our schools!

44.7 is the number of kindergarten and first grade teachers my school district, Lake Washington, serving Redmond, Sammamish and Kirkland, is proposing to layoff in order to fix a $7.7 million projected budget shortfall. This is the district’s share of the around $900 million Washington is likely to cut from its own K-12 education expenditures. It is 3.5 percent of an already shoe-string school district budget.

I was able to pore over these ugly numbers at a meeting I attended in a jam-packed high school cafeteria last night for the purpose of guiding the district in their mission to balance their books while causing the least pain to students and families as possible.

Enough numbers. What parents like me learned last night is what the numbers are connected to: “safety net” classes for kids who have trouble in math or learning to read, more teachers to keep class sizes small in the lower grades where it helps learning the most, pre-school for at-risk children and buses.

It was pretty hard to select anything from that list that I wanted to eliminate. The alternatives were pretty shocking too: charge families $300 per child to ride the bus to school? How about paying $500 so your daughter can run track or play the flute in the band?

Washington’s unprecedented state budget deficit is causing financial crisises like this one in school districts all over state, and is mostly due to the national economic meltdown, but if the state were equipped with a more stable tax structure, our budget problem would not be so severe.

Washington needs more money for schools and it needs a stable source of revenue so that we don’t slash programs and staff in our bad years and then have to restart them again in the good years.

I hear people in my community discussing ways to create a more fair, more stable tax system and more and more of these people are sharing their support for a state income tax. Only six other states in the country don’t have a state income tax. Interestingly, Washington ranks forty fourth in the nation in per-pupil funding, way down at the bottom of the list, along with most of the other states without a state income tax.

Any way you look at it, the math ain’t pretty.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Earth Day: It's not just a symbol

Every April since 1970, people and organizations around the United States have celebrated or commemorated "Earth Day" on the twenty second of the month.

While the occassion has always helped promote public awareness of the need for sustainability, conservation, and environmental protection, it has also, especially in recent years, increased the practice of greenwashing.

Greenwashing could be simply defined as talking a good game about being environmentally responsible, but not walking the walk. Or, backing up talk with action for only one day - conveniently flipping on a "green switch" (so to speak), and then flipping it off twenty four hours later.

That's not what Earth Day is about.

But that's what a lot of corporations do on April 22nd. Logos turn shades of green, new environmental initiatives are often announced, press releases tout ways a corporation is supposedly reducing, reusing, or recycling.

And then there are the cute stunts - media events or unusual exercises that are meant to demonstrate concern for the environment, but only last one day.

Then it's back to business as usual.

Again, that's not what Earth Day is about. Earth Day is an opportunity to have a conversation about something we should be doing year round: making a serious effort to protect our planet.

If Earth Day is used as an occasion to unveil new environmental initiatives, those initiatives ought to have a lasting impact.

Anyone can use Earth Day as a chance to change their behavior, and embrace progressive values. But follow-through makes all of the difference. The Earth doesn't benefit if we simply go back to our old habits.

Truth is, any day is a good day to decide to start being more environmentally responsible. We at the Northwest Progressive Institute made several such changes during the course of the last year. For instance, we began using Harbor/100 exclusively for all regular printing jobs.

(Harbor/100, made locally by Grays Harbor Paper, is made from one hundred percent post-consumer content using one hundred percent certified renewable energy. It's acid free and processed without chlorine compounds).

Among some of the other things NPI staff are doing: harnessing the power of solar energy for home heating, using LED and compact flourescent bulbs for indoor lighting, taking canvas bags to the store when shopping, riding Sound Transit Express more often, and taking advantage of food waste recycling.

These are all things that are pretty easy to do.

But it takes perserverance: it's also easy to forget to do them, in part because our culture is needlessly wasteful.

I experience this every time I'm in the checkout line and I'm only buying one or two things that I can easily carry. I almost always have to refuse the plastic bag that the clerk inevitably tries to put my purchased items into.

Just think: if everybody refused plastic bags when they didn't need them, clerks might start asking if customers want a bag rather than simply assuming they will.

Another non-Earth Day innovation that comes to mind from the past year is's Frustration Free packaging initiative. Launched back in November, the initiative is primarily meant to make it easier for customers to open their purchases. But it also reduces waste by eliminating hard plastic clamshell casings, plastic bindings, wire ties, and other junk.

Amazon's goal is to eventually offer Frustration Free packaging with its entire catalog, a laudable objective.

If you're looking for more ways to make every day an Earth Day, you'll find a number of great suggestions in our August 2006 podcast, Tips for Living Green.

Here's to a more sunstainable future.

Make Obama do it

Since the release of the torture memos last week, there has been a considerable amount of outcry regarding the administration's (present) position of not prosecuting the operatives who carried out the torture.

This is a good thing. The outcry, I mean.

At some point, either shortly after taking office or during the transition period after the election (I can't exactly remember), Obama made reference to something FDR said in 1940, to a group of people who came to him pleading for help on a cause they deeply believed in. Purportedly, Roosevelt said:
I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.
Reading between the lines, here, this is what I think Obama is telling us. Piece by piece, information about the torture program has been coming to light for some years now. America has been slowly waking up, with each disturbing and revolting revelation, to what has been done in our name.

Only, the country is not yet sufficiently on-board with the idea of prosecuting the Bush Six, or anybody else, for justice to move from a legal possibility to a practical, political reality.

If the experience of the past week is any indication, that trickle of information is becoming a flood, and as it does so America's moral alarm clock can only ring louder and louder. Obama knows this.

Don't, for a minute, think that Obama doesn't understand the law or the constitution. Remember, he was a constitutional law professor before entering politics. Don't, for a minute, think that he doesn't understand that torture is something that should be prosecuted, up to the highest levels.

On the campaign trail, he said:
Now, if I found out that there were high officials who knowingly, consciously broke existing laws, engaged in coverups of those crimes with knowledge forefront, then I think a basic principle of our Constitution is nobody above the law - and I think that's roughly how I would look at it.
He knows all of this. But he can't fix the problem all on his own.

As someone else once said, in a quote that has become re-used to the point of becoming an anonymous part of our language:
When the people lead, the leaders will follow.
That's what I think is going on with the torture memos, the subsequent discussion about the "SERE" program referenced in the Bybee memo, the newest revelation (which surprises no one) that torture may have been green-lighted in a desperate attempt to discover the (non-existent) links between Sadaam Hussein and Al Qaeda.

Obama is telling us to be outraged. To be morally incensed at the injustice done in our names. He's telling us that if America really wants to clear its name and take back its moral standing in the world community, if we really want to be able to tell our children that in America everyone has to follow the law, then We The People need to lead.

So stay angry. Stay outraged. Don't stop writing Letters to the Editor. Don't stop talking about it with your friends, neighbors, and co-workers.

Don't stop blogging about it. Don't stop calling your senators and representatives to demand justice. Never, never stop.

If we want to see the torturers prosecuted, we need to make Obama do it.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

President Obama signs expansion of national service legislation

Earlier today, President Barack Obama signed the Edward M. Kennedy Serve America Act into law, tripling the size of AmeriCorps and providing new service opportunities for Americans.

As a community organizer, President Obama understands the value of service to the community. By signing this bill, he honors a man, Senator Ted Kennedy, who has devoted his entire life to public service. Originating with the traditions of various religions, and a part of the American way of life, public service is valued as among the highest of callings. And so today, President Obama has called each of us to service.

Highlights of the bill include:
Puts young people onto a path of national service by establishing a Summer of Service program to provide $500 education awards for rising 6th-12th graders, a Semester of Service program for high school students to engage in service-learning, and Youth Empowerment Zones for secondary students and out-of-school youth.

Dramatically increases intensive service opportunities by setting AmeriCorps on a path from 75,000 positions annually to 250,000 by 2017, and focusing that service on education, health, clean energy, veterans, economic opportunity and other national priorities. Ties the Segal AmeriCorps Education Award to the maximum Pell Grant level (now $5,350, but set to increase over time).

Creates a Social Innovation Fund to expand proven initiatives and provide seed funding for experimental initiatives, leveraging Federal dollars to identify and grow ideas that are addressing our most intractable community problems.

Establishes a Volunteer Generation Fund to award grants to states and nonprofits to recruit, manage, and support volunteers and strengthen the nation’s volunteer infrastructure.

Merges funding streams, expands the use of simplified, fixed amount grants, and gives the Corporation flexibility to consolidate application and reporting requirements. Increases support for State Commissions on national and community service. Bolsters the capacity and duties of the Corporation’s Board of Directors.

Ensures that programs receiving assistance under national service laws are continuously evaluated for effectiveness in achieving performance and cost goals.
In times of need people come together to help their neighbors. Whether it is filling sandbags to repel rising flood waters, helping to shovel snow out of a neighbor's driveway, giving blood, or donating to the local food bank during the holiday season, we can count on each other during the hard times.

Now, we are being asked to fulfill the American promise to all of our citizens; to give to our communities. Whether you are a person of great means or more modest means, it doesn't matter. Each of us has talents that we can share with our communities to make our world a better place to live.

If you're interested in serving your community, here is one place you can go to find opportunities.

JPMorgan Chase CEO: Mistakes of the Bush error helped cause economic collapse

I have to admit, I didn't see this coming:
JPMorgan Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon, in a letter to shareholders, touched on a theme that critics of the Iraq war were highlighting more than a year ago: That spending on the war was damaging to the economy.

Dimon cited "an expensive war in Iraq" as one of the possible triggers of the economic collapse. Spending on the war ballooned the deficit and crowded out investment in domestic priorities. Meanwhile, the trade deficit soared...

Dimon also cites the 2008 energy crisis as a shock to the economy that played a part in bringing it down. The energy crisis may still have occurred without the instability in the Middle East caused by the U.S. invasion, but with Iraq's oil supply knocked off-line for years, it didn't help.
It's not every day you see a powerful Wall Street executive citing the Bush administration's disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq as one of the mistakes that brought about our current economic woes.

It's worth noting that there's an added layer of irresponsibility as far as Iraq is concerned. That is, not only was the rationale for attacking Iraq bogus (and fabricated, as a matter of fact) but the Bush administration was cutting taxes for the wealthiest Americans at the same time - with the enthusiastic support of the Republican-controlled Congress, we might add.

As a consequence, revenue went down while deficits and needless military spending increased. How much has Iraq cost us, again? Oh yeah.... well over half a trillion dollars. And that's just what we've spent up till this point. It doesn't include future spending, nor does it include the cost of healthcare for veterans of our armed forces who honorably served their country in Iraq.

Good thing we elected a Democratic president last November. Had John McCain won, we would not be committed to responsibly exiting Iraq, nor would our government be in competent hands (remember, the fundamentals of our economy are strong?)

Education bill on its way to the governor

The biggest education bill to come out of Olympia in a very long time, ESHB 2261 passed the House yesterday on a concurrence vote. The bill was heavily amended in the Senate, so getting the House to approve the amendments and pass it on to the governor was a dicey business. Education advocates were out in force, pressing lawmakers to commit to the future of Washington's one million public school students.

From Chris Korsmo, executive director of the League of Education Voters:
ESHB 2261 is an acknowledgement that our state is not living up to its paramount duty [to educate all of Washington's children], and that our teachers deserve the support and resources they need to provide a high quality education for every child. The legislation provides a roadmap for the future to build a stronger and more amply funded education system that will be protected from devastating budget cuts. And, it positions our state to compete for $5 billion in federal funds dedicated to innovation in our public schools.
We passed the plan, but now the really hard work begins: finding the revenue to put the plan into action. That will be a continuing work in progress.

The results of the role call were very interesting. The final vote was 67 yeas to 31 nays, but the interesting part was the party line breakdown: Democrats, 51 for the bill and 12 against, and Republicans, 16 for and 19 against.

The final bill was a weakened version of the original, but still an enormous victory for public education. Virtually all members of the education community supported it, with only the teachers union opposed. These facts make it hard to understand why twelve Democrats bowed to the pressure of the Washington Education Association (the state teachers union) and voted against the bill.

The WEA lobbied hard against the bill, going so far as to say that those who support it are:
...vested interests masquerading as concerned citizens who care for children. They’re denigrating and dismissing those of us who actually educate our state’s children!
To align yourself with a firebrand like that seems like a foolish move. Democratic and Republican legislators who voted against this milestone should have a good explanation for disappointed constituents back home.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Are we still torturing prisoners at Guantanamo?

Last week I was startled and dismayed to hear a radio report from Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman that not only has torture not subsided at Guantanamo since Obama took office, it has gotten worse.
Another Guantanamo Bay prisoner has come forward to back accounts of worsening torture since President Obama took office. In a letter to his attorney, Adnan Farhan Abdul Latif said, “I have seen death so many times. Everything is over. Life is going to hell in my situation. America, what has happened to you?” A Yemeni national, Abdul Latif has been imprisoned since 2001.
Wait a minute. Didn’t Obama renounce torture when he pledged to close Guantanamo?

He sure did. President Obama’s first executive orders as president required Defense Secretary Robert Gates to ensure within thirty days that the conditions for prisoners at the Guantánamo Bay prison conformed to the Geneva Conventions. Among other things, the Conventions ban "cruel treatment" and "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment," in other words, things like beatings and force feedings.

That thirty day deadline came and went two months ago, so why are conditions getting worse?

In mid-March, Amnesty International was still receiving numerous accounts from Guantanamo prisoners and their lawyers of beatings and force feedings. These reports are inconsistent with the findings of the Obama administration’s team reviewing prisoner conditions.

The Pentagon’s Guantanamo review, delivered to the White House in February, approved of the detainee treatment, but with contradictory facts coming out, I don’t think that report should be the last word on the subject.

Since the situation at Guantanamo is essentially the Pentagon's baby, they are the wrong group to be charged with evaluating it, which is why the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union declared the report "a farce."
The reported Pentagon review of Guantánamo appears to be nothing more than a whitewash of the Bush practices of abusive treatment and illegal detention. How Admiral Walsh could have completed a thorough review of the conditions of confinement and treatment of prisoners over the past seven years in the lightning speed of seventeen days belies logic and underscores what a farce this process appears to be.
Guantanamo needs regular observation from objective, independent organizations in order to ensure that Obama’s intentions to fully comply with the Geneva Conventions are carried out. We shouldn't take the Pentagon's word for it and neither should Obama.

Report card on U.S. mental healthcare: We have nothing to be proud of (Part I)

Editor's Note: This is part one of a two part series that examines the lack of support we provide to Americans who suffer from mental illness, especially those who lack insurance or other funding to pay for treatment.

Part I discusses the issues in broad terms, while Part II will discuss possible solutions, some of which have already been tried.

We often pride ourselves on being a caring, inclusive society, looking after those among us who are especially vulnerable. Some of our most vulnerable are easily recognizable: the very elderly and the very young are two examples.

But there are also those who are extremely vulnerable but are frequently ignored: adults with a serious mental illness.

On what do I base this last statement? I base it on a report card on America's mental healthcare system. It is called Grading the States 2009: A Report on America's Health Care System for Adults with Serious Mental Illness, and it is published by the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI.

The results are appalling. Collectively, America grades out with a 1.25 GPA, or approximately a D+. This grade is based on a series of criteria spread over four general categories, with our nation's grades in parenthesis:
  1. Health Promotion and Measurement (D
  2. Financing & Core Treatment/Recovery Services (C)
  3. Consumer & Family Empowerment (D)
  4. Community Integration & Social Inclusion (D)
And what of the states by themselves?

By far, the most common grade was a "D": twenty two states received that ignoble distinction. Even worse, six states received an "F". Not a single state in the union, nor the District of Columbia, received an "A".

And only six states received a "B".

In case you are wondering how the Pacific Northwest did, Oregon and Washington led the way with C's. Alaska, Idaho, and Montana all came in with D's.

I don't know about you, but I cannot accept a 1.25 grade point average when the stakes are human lives. If this country were on an academic scholarship in a "humanities" program, it would get kicked out of school. The current state of affairs is an unacceptable lack of response to a population that is vulnerable, often misunderstood, more often overlooked, and even more often stigmatized.

How did we get here?

In the "old days", which I define as the period prior to the early 1960s, people were institutionalized in state psychiatric hospitals.

Conditions in some hospitals were abysmal at best. Bryce Hospital, the state hospital in Alabama, serves as a perfect example:
It failed to provide: (1) a humane psychological and physical environment, (2) qualified staff in numbers sufficient to administer adequate treatment and (3) individualized treatment plans. More specifically, the Court found that many conditions, such as nontherapeutic, uncompensated work assignments, and the absence of any semblance of privacy, constituted dehumanizing factors contributing to the degeneration of the patients' self-esteem. The physical facilities at Bryce were overcrowded and plagued by fire and other emergency hazards. The Court found also that most staff members were poorly trained and that staffing ratios were so inadequate as to render the administration of effective treatment impossible. The Court concluded, therefore, that whatever treatment was provided at Bryce was grossly deficient and failed to satisfy minimum medical and constitutional standards.
The hospital was the subject of a class action suit by family members of several patients at the hospital. The Federal Court ordered Alabama to rectify the situation. The hospital did not comply, at which point the Federal Court took over the task, appointing a "special master" to oversee the changes.

(For more, see Wyatt v. Stickney, 344 F.Supp. 373 (D.C.Ala., 1972).

The changes implemented seem like the most obvious basic building blocks of human dignity, yet it took a federal lawsuit to put those blocks in place. We take for granted that patients at a psychiatric hospital will have privacy, even if limited, personal space, and available mental health treatment, to say the least.

The state argued that it lacked money to hire staff to provide the basic necessities of human dignity. The Federal Court rejected that argument, explaining that lack of money does not excuse a lack proper facilities.

What has changed since those days?

Based in no small part on the abysmal conditions at state psychiatric hospitals, the government began "de-institutionalizing" mental health treatment locations in the community. That worked quite well until the government began cutting funding for mental health outpatient facilities.

The result is what we have now: persons with mental illness with nowhere to go on the streets, and nowhere to go for treatment.

It doesn't have to be this way.

In a follow-up post, I'll explore potential solutions that would fix our broken system and put us on the path to building a true safety net for the mentally ill that doesn't let anyone fall through the cracks.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Jobs and Transportation Act would help Oregon do its part to tackle climate crisis

Oregon has had an unbalanced, automobile-centric transportation system for too long. The vast majority of funding has long gone to highways and we haven't made much progress towards erasing our dependency on the automobile, which is contributing to the climate crisis, a decline in air quality, and as less vibrant culture.

And this is a problem. A big problem. Oregon’s transportation system contributes to forty percent of the Beaver State’s climate pollution, higher than the national average of thirty three percent.

If we are to make headway in reducing emissions, we must provide transportation options for Oregonians. We must invest in rapid transit, create bike paths and bike facilities to encourage biking, and build walkable neighborhoods so people don't have to drive everywhere. If we do all of these things, we'll not only have cleaner air and a cooler planet, but we'll create jobs.

Walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods will also be more friendly and accessible for seniors as well as the disabled. They'll make it easier to get to school, run errands, shop for groceries, or find recreational opportunities.

But walkable, transit-oriented neighborhoods won't build themselves. If we want to escape our dependency on the automobile, we need to take action. Fortunately, there's a bill in the Oregon Legislature that would provide a good start: the Governor’s Jobs and Transportation Act.

The proposal (PDF) has a long list of positive elements. It would give communities tools to combat the climate crisis, allocate all flexible federal funding for non-highway transportation projects, and appropriate $150 million in ConnectOregon funds towards mass transit and multimodal initiatives.

The governor's proposal would also provide more local authority for transit, require more resources to be invested into bike lanes and sidewalks, increase funding for Amtrak Cascades, require environmental stewardship practices in highway construction projects, and allow medium speed vehicles on the roads.

All of these are good, but I want to talk about three in particular: giving communites tools to combat the climate crisis, putting federal flex dollars to work for good, and the transit district payroll tax.

First, climate friendly civic planning doesn't work very well if it only happens at the state level, because so many decisions about transportation and land use are made at the municipal level. HB 2120 will especially help give Oregon's six metropolitan planning organizations new tools for combating the climate crisis.

(Each organization has jurisdiction over a major urban area. The six are: Portland, Salem, Corvallis, Eugene, Medford, and Bend).

Examples of steps the metro planning organizations can take to reduce climate pollution include:
  • Zoning for transit-oriented development
  • Increasing mass transit service (and especially rapid transit)
  • Encouraging ride-sharing, biking, and walking;
  • Incentivizing no and low carbon fuels for automobiles
Metro (the Portland MPO), is already working on this. Once Metro decides on a course of action, the other metro councils will likely follow in its footsteps. That's a major reason why turning this proposal into law is so important. The state needs to be doing what it can to encourage the other five to follow Portland's lead.

Second, allocating all federal flex funds to non-highway construction will demonstrate that we're finally shifting our transportation priorities to where they need to be. Of the money the state receives from the Federal Highway Trust Fund, only a small percentage can be used for things other than highways.

That percentage amounts to approximately $44 million.

Currently Oregon allocates less than half that amount to non-highway projects. It’s time to shift the balance for good.

Third, allowing local transit districts to levy a higher payroll tax would help address budget shortfalls that many districts are currently facing. For example, TriMet is planning to substantially cut service at a time when ridership is at an all time high.

The cap on the payroll tax should be eased from 0.7% to 0.8%, the implementation rate should be doubled, and the requirement for voter approval should be removed.

Oregon has a fine opportunity to shift toward a more balanced transportation systemthat will reduce pollution, create more jobs, save families money, and create healthier communities. Let’s hope the Legislature actually takes advantage of it and passes something meaningful and comprehensive that we can all be proud of.

Friday, April 17, 2009

At BIAW's behest, Senate kills Homeowner's Bill of Rights; House scuttles retro reform

Earlier today, two important Northwest Progressive Institute legislative priorities fell victim to today's legislative cutoff: E2SHB 1393 (the Homeowner's Bill of Rights) and ESSB 6035 (retro reform). The Building Industry Association of Washington lobbied hard to kill both bills, and they have proved once again that their influence in Olympia is unparalleled, even among Democrats.

Despite having the support of Governor Gregoire, Senate Democratic leadership couldn't find the votes to get E2SHB 1393 out of the Senate.

That's because the Building Industry Association of Washington teamed up with Senator Mary Margaret Haugen, who offered a striking amendment that would have gutted the whole bill, and quietly recruited a number of previously supportive Democrats to back the striker (or poision pill).

(Haugen, readers may recall, has previously sponsored and embraced legislation to do away with Sound Transit. We're left wondering if maybe she should switch parties and become a Republican. She doesn't act like a Democrat).

Ultimately, Senate leadership ran out of time and bandwidth to round up the necessary twenty five votes to pass E2SHB 1393. So the Homeowner's Bill of Rights is dead. Again. This is the third year in a row this has happened, although it's the first time the House can say, "Not our fault!"

NPI and WashPIRG sent out a joint press release this afternoon in response to the bill's demise. Obviously, we're not pleased that the bill was blocked and then abandoned, but we're not giving up. We're going to hammer out an even better bill (think stronger, more comprehensive) and build public support for decisive action in the 2010 legislative session in the months ahead.

Meanwhile, over in the House, Engrossed Substitute Senate Bill 6035 - which would have addressed abuse of the retrospective ratings system and reemphasized that the point of the program is to reward safety in the workplace - was left to die in the House Rules Committee.

(Funny, that's what happened to the Homeowner's Bill of Rights last year... it went into House Rules and never came out).

We're a little puzzled about the scuttling of SB 6035. If Speaker Frank Chopp didn't intend to move it to the floor, why was time and energy expended to move it through the committee process? Surely the Speaker could have found the votes to buck the BIAW if he had really wanted to; after all, he has an even bigger caucus than Senator Brown does (as a percentage of the chamber, of course - there are half as many senators in Washington State as there are representatives).

Or maybe he wanted to bring 6035 to the floor (BIAW did take out at least two of his members last autumn, and helped propel Republicans to capture open seats) but has been too preoccupied with the budget, which has dominated the session.

All we can do is speculate, because it's hard to know what really goes on behind closed doors on the Capitol Campus.

One thing we do know: the Building Industry Association of Washington has no trouble making friends with Democrats, who should be loathe to even speak to its lobbyists, let alone take its money. But there are Democrats who do both.

We recognize that there are principled progressives in the statehouse - and we're grateful for their service - but it seems like the rest of the House and Senate Democratic caucuses are for sale.

That's the only theory we can think of that explains why Democrats - despite having big majorities in Olympia - keep caving to the BIAW. We don't want to believe it, and we wish it weren't so. Yet it appears that that's the sad reality.

Eyman gets big check from Dunmire, Permanent Defense preparing to fight I-1033

Remember at the beginning of the year when Tim Eyman announced he was launching a new anti-jobs, anti-community, anti-prosperity initiative - a proposal specially designed to bleed Washington's public services to death?

Well, the signature drive for that initiative (1-1033) remains underway, thanks in no small part to a massive donation from Eyman's financier, Michael Dunmire. Dunmire wrote Eyman a hefty $300,000 check last month, which was immediately plowed into the bank account of Roy Ruffino's "Citizen Solutions".

(That's the name of the operation that hires the mercenary petitioners who collect the signatures for Eyman's initiatives).

With the exception of Dunmire, Eyman's fundraising so far this year has been rather anemic, which isn't surprising, considering it's been that way for years. Since Tim's failed partnership with Great Canadian and other casino owners in 2004, it's only been Dunmire's money that has really kept Eyman going.

Eyman actually started off the campaign by taking out a second loan against his house, which he claimed was necessary to get the initiative rolling despite the fact that he hasn't paid off the first loan he took out last year for I-985.

But with Dunmire's big money behind him, Eyman will probably succeed in qualifying this year's scheme, which is perhaps the most dangerous and destructive measure that he has tried to qualify since 2004's Initiative 864.

"Horrific" is a word we'd use to describe the impact Initiative 1033 would have on our quality of life - and that's probably putting it mildly. It's been purposefully timed to cause widespread havoc in the midst of a crisis.

Washington State, and our many municipal governments, are already struggling just to keep our common wealth intact and our public services operating.

Initiative 1033 would deal our elected leaders and public servants a crippling blow, causing intense pain to all Washingtonians and devastating our economy, along with any hope of a quick recovery. But it is cleverly disguised as something else - a way for all of us to grab a free lunch.

Initiative 1033's backers - Tim Eyman, Michel Dunmire, Jack Fagan, Mike Fagan, and their comrades - want you to believe that government does no good and simply exists to take your money. That is what they say.

You'll never hear them acknowledge all the good things that government does. You'll never hear them agree that our tax dollars are used almost exclusively to pay for wonderful, necessary things: schools, colleges, roads, trails, transit, libraries, parks, pools, firefighters, police, emergency medical response, help for the unemployed, assistance for the elderly, care for the mentally ill, and basic infrastructure like storm drains or sewer systems.

You'll never hear them admit that our common wealth has value because they don't want you to think about the return we get from our tax dollars.

They desperately want the people of Washington to selfishly think only about themselves. They know their scheme will fail if voters make the connection between their tax dollars and the essential services they rely upon on a daily basis.

So they're trying to pull a fast one. They're trying to fool voters. And at the same time they are accusing state legislators like Representative Eric Pettigrew of deception for having the courage to talk about raising revenue and having an honest conversation about our state's budget shortfall. Ironic, but true.

Well, to Tim Eyman his cohorts, we say: We are not fooled. We're here and we're not going away. You won't succeed in tricking the people of Washington State to vote for this shortsighted nonsense if we can help it.

We have fought you before, and we've won - and we intend to prevail over you and your failed conservative dogma again this year.

To our supporters and friends: Know that we remain committed to stopping this vile scheme. We are retooling Permanent Defense and gearing up for the fight ahead. An unprecedented effort may be needed to educate voters. We'll have more news to share very soon about our work.

With your help, we will once again put a stop to a terrible right wing initiative and prevent its backers from wrecking the State of Washington.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Strong education reform bill passes Washington State Senate

At many points it didn't look like the Legislature was going to deliver on its promise to pass meaningful education reform this year.

But at last, it did! My faith in the system is restored.

This afternoon, ESHB 2261, a bill which puts Washington on track to building a stronger public school system that prepares all children for their future, passed the Senate on a 26-23 vote.

Roll call:
Yeas: 26 | Nays: 23

Voting Yea: Senators Berkey, Brown, Eide, Fairley, Franklin, Fraser, Hargrove, Hatfield, Haugen, Hobbs, Jarrett, Kastama, Keiser, Kline, Kohl-Welles, McAuliffe, McDermott, Murray, Oemig, Prentice, Ranker, Regala, Roach, Rockefeller, Shin, and Tom

Voting Nay: Senators Becker, Benton, Brandland, Carrell, Delvin, Hewitt, Holmquist, Honeyford, Jacobsen, Kauffman, Kilmer, King, Marr, McCaslin, Morton, Parlette, Pflug, Pridemore, Schoesler, Sheldon, Stevens, Swecker, and Zarelli
I am disappointed to report that six Democrats voted against the bill. Democrats are the party of education, the party that invests in people.

This bill was our senators' biggest opportunity in thirty years to make a difference in how Washington educates its children. The cynical among the group couldn't support the bill's "false promises," and expressed concerns about how the state would pay for better education.

In fact, the real issue is how can we afford not to?

Finding the money is definitely a big issue (huge, in fact), therefore the next step in this ongoing process is to find new funding sources. The bill sets out a work group to identify these. If we thought this first step was hard, the next one will be excruciating, but getting this sensible framework in place first is important so that citizens know what they are being asked to fund.

For now, we can be pleased that we have come this far. Since amendments were made to the bill, ESHB 2261 must go back to the House for a vote. It is so similar to the original bill, that it might be able to pass on a simple yes-no vote.

Here are a few of the bill's much-needed provisions:
  • Increased instructional hours for high school, from 1000 to 1080 per year
  • The opportunity for high school students to take 24 credits (up from 19 currently)
  • Phase-in all day kindergarten
  • Include early learning for at-risk children in the definition of basic education
  • Include highly capable education in the definition of basic education

A sincere thank you... to Republicans

The Oregon Republican Party must be mistaken. They seem to think that it's Thanksgiving, even though November happens to be half a year away. In the spirit of that holiday, they're rolling out new ads thanking themselves for being defenders of the common good and protectors of the common wealth.

Who knew?

And, no this isn't an April Fool's joke. Read the ads they've scripted (and are apparently preparing to film) for yourself, in which the GOP pats itself on the back for a series of major progressive accomplishments in American history.

Since they're in the mood for gratitude, we at the Northwest Progressive Institute would like to thank the Republican Party ourselves.

Thank you for making sure our children and grandchildren have to pay down the debt you created. What have future generations ever done for us, anyway?

Thank you for all of the fearmongering about people who are different than us. You've managed to recruit more terrorists than Osama bin Laden.

Thank you for shredding the Constitution, torture, eroding our civil liberties and listening to our phone calls. Who needs habeas corpus anyway?

Thanks for going after the oil in Iraq. Without you, Halliburton might have had an average year.

Since we're on the topic of Iraq, thank you for bringing peace and democracy there. Looks like it's working out well.

Thank you for deregulation. Without it, CEOs might have lived in poverty and working people don't need pensions anyway.

Thanks also for the K Street Project. You could have gotten millions more if you put "For Sale" signs up in front of the White House and the U.S. Capitol.

Thank you for giving Wall Street the thumbs-up while they closed down our factories and reassembled them overseas.

And finally, thanks for trade policy without environmental or labor protections. Because we certainly don't need fresh air to breathe, clean water to drink, the use of all of our limbs, or even the restfulness of a good night's sleep.

Yes, education advocates can!

Proof that repeating your mantra can cause others to believe it (see Bush’s “We're fighting them there so we don’t have to fight them here”) was on hand in Olympia yesterday as Mary Jean Ryan, chair of the state school board, repeated education advocates' current talking point to the press, “The legislature must pass the strongest education reform possible.”
"The prudent course to take legally is for the governor and the Legislature to pass the strongest legislation possible," Ryan said.
Could Ryan be repeating what an endless series of callers are telling her and their legislators every time she picks up her phone?

Evidence that activists’ tireless work calling, emailing and driving to Olympia is making a difference is satisfying. On the other hand, there’s also evidence that a lawsuit facing the state over its funding of education (or lack of it), plus the incentive of federal stimulus money contingent on reform are making big impressions as well.

Governor Gregoire's new warmth for the bill can be traced to the allure of federal money and worry about lawsuits over ed funding.

Ryan and new state schools chief Randy Dorn (endorsed by NPI) led a huge showing of education advocacy groups at an Olympia press conference yesterday in support of ESHB 2261, which redefines public education and how it is financed.

In an article about the press conference, the Tacoma News Tribune noted that “everyone” was pushing for the education bill, except for the state teachers union. Here is proof of the effectiveness of another advocacy tool, coalition building.

After seeing their long-awaited reform bill die in the Legislature, be resurrected in another form, and get hammered by the Washington Education Association, education advocacy groups finally pulled together by combining their messaging and message delivery, and it seems to be paying off.

What yesterday’s press conference showed was a united front of organizations supporting strong education reform legislation: the PTA, the League of Education Voters, the Public School Employees Union, the Service Employees International Union Local 925, Stand for Children, the Urban League, Partnership 4 Education and the Washington Technology Industry Alliance, plus one notably absent group, the Washington Education Association.

What can't the WEA see that the other groups can?

I am sure education advocates are aware of another advocacy principle: it’s not over until it’s over. With ten days left in the legislative session, there’s still plenty of work to do, although it is nice to see that the hard work is paying off.

Hopefully the big reward will follow.

Obama administration: Pacific NW a finalist for high speed passenger rail money

It sure feels good to have a Democratic president in the White House, doesn't it?

Today President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden announced a major new federal initiative to invest in high speed passenger rail across the United States of America. (Hurrah!) The goals of the strategic plan released today are to reduce dependence on the automobile, ease traffic, give Americans more transportation options, and protect our environment.

Obama High Speed Rail Map

Here's how it's going to work, according to the White House:
The plan identifies $8 billion provided in the ARRA [American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or the stimulus] and $1 billion a year for five years requested in the federal budget as a down payment to jump-start a potential world-class passenger rail system and sets the direction of transportation policy for the future.

The strategic plan will be followed by detailed guidance for state and local applicants. By late summer, the Federal Railroad Administration will begin awarding the first round of grants.
Cool, huh? There are only ten major corridors that made the cut and were identified as potential recipients for this initial round of funding. Two of them are on the Left Coast - in California and in the Pacific Northwest.

The Pacific Northwest's corridor is defined as the stretch between Eugene and Vancouver, B.C. which is currently served by Amtrak Cascades.

Washington and Oregon will need to work cooperatively together to pursue that grant money, because the Obama administration wants to move quickly:
The President, Vice President and Secretary of Transportation are urging states and local communities to put together plans for a network of 100 mile to 600 mile corridors, which will compete for the federal dollars. The merit-driven process will result in federal grants as soon as late summer 2009.

President Obama's vision for high-speed rail mirrors that of President Eisenhower, the father of the Interstate highway system, which revolutionized the way Americans traveled.
At last, America has a president who believes in rail - how exciting and refreshing! But let's hear from the man himself. Here's what the President had to say about the unveiling of today's strategic plan.
My high-speed rail proposal will lead to innovations that change the way we travel in America. We must start developing clean, energy-efficient transportation that will define our regions for centuries to come.

A major new high-speed rail line will generate many thousands of construction jobs over several years, as well as permanent jobs for rail employees and increased economic activity in the destinations these trains serve. High-speed rail is long-overdue, and this plan lets American travelers know that they are not doomed to a future of long lines at the airports or jammed cars on the highways
Amen, amen, and amen. That's all I can say in response to that.

Two types of projects will be funded by this new federal initiative. The first type would make existing service "incrementally faster". The other type would create new high speed rail lines in select corridors which would be more like the fast trains that Europe and Japan have already wisely invested in.

Readers will be pleased to hear that Governors Gregoire and Kulongoski didn't waste any time responding to President Obama's announcement. Said Gregoire:
Today Gov. Kulongoski and I sent the Obama administration a letter applauding their bold rail vision and supporting critical infrastructure investments that will improve mobility, create and preserve jobs, and benefit air quality across our country.

Our states, along with British Columbia , have a committed partnership with BNSF [Burlington Northern Santa Fe] and Amtrak. Together, we welcome federal ARRA funds – and the jobs that we’ll create with those funds – to help advance our service and improve our infrastructure.
Said Kulungoski:
To be competitive in a 21st Century economy, we need a balanced transportation system that allows us to move people, goods and commerce quickly and efficiently – and that reduces the number of cars on our roads.

I’m pleased to partner with Governor Gregoire to advance the vision for high speed rail in the Pacific Northwest.
Our governors can be proud that the States of Washington and Oregon have put money into Amtrak Cascades. Last year, Cascades had its highest ridership ever, reaching nearly 775,000 passengers. That represents growth of eighty two percent in just the last ten years!

The Pacific Northwest sent a capable advocate, WSDOT's State Rail and Marine Program Director Scott Witt, to testify on behalf of the region and showcase the possibilities for greater investment in high speed rail here.

As he observed:
Through this funding, we have a great opportunity to advance a proven corridor with a long and mid-range plan to enhance service, [and] create jobs. This corridor will provide options in congested areas such as the Interstate 5 area while addressing climate change and environmental issues.
The letter that Governor Gregoire mentioned in her remarks above is available at her website as a PDF, if you're interested in reading it.

Bravo to the Obama administration for today's announcement! It's a good start. This is exactly the kind of leadership we want to see from our President.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Enough with the manufactured outrage

Earlier today, right wing think tanks, the Republican Noise Machine, and well funded conservative groups tried their best to orchestrate a grand show of force against traditional American ideals and a number of progressive policy directions in selected cities across the United States.

The "tea parties", as they're known (I still haven't been able to figure out why the right wing decided to call them that - and apparently I'm not the only one) have been billed for days and weeks as a collective conservative grassroots uprising, but in reality, as progressive organizations like Media Matters for America have documented, they've been anything but.

The "tea parties" are actually nothing more than a bunch of top down protests that have been heavily advertised by deep pocketed right wing interests.

Among the instigators of the "tea parties"? Fox Noise Channel (which aired at least twenty segments and seventy three promos of the events in merely eight days), Newt Gingrich's "American Solutions", and Dick Armey's FreedomWorks. Local instigators include the Evergreen Freedom Foundation and perennial Jim McDermott challenger Steve Beren, plus the cast and crew of KVI AM.

Our favorite nemesis Tim Eyman also sent out an email hyping the events to the media and his small band of supporters.

Northwest Progressive Institute Outreach & Advocacy Director Rick Hegdahl went to one of the "tea parties" today and found conservatives standing on the steps of Bellevue City Hall holding signs that read "No Socialism", "Return to Reagannomics" (with two n's!) and "Stop Terrorists - Vote Them Out."

(You can see some of his photos on In Brief).

Predictably, the Associated Press joined the Republican Noise Machine in giving the "tea parties" heavy coverage (guess they didn't have anything better to do on Tax Day) and of course right wing bloggers like Michelle Malkin have simply been besides themselves for the last twenty four hours.

Amusingly, although the protests were backed by moneyed right wing interests, they inevitably ended up attracting an eclectic sampling of the extreme right wing fringe - because those are the only folks who really agree with the divisive rhetoric Republican leaders and conservative talking heads are spouting these days.

And that fringe had a hard time sticking to one message. The tea parties thus turned into an anti-Obama, anti-tax, anti-stimulus, anti-Employee Free Choice Act, anti-cap and trade, anti-representative democracy, anti-you name it, we're using these events to hate on it protest.

In Olympia, even the Lyndon LaRouche gang showed up, much to the dismay of some of the conservatives who came to listen to speeches from a hotheaded Janea Holmquist, Tim Eyman, and the CEO of the Evergreen Freedom Foundation.

We'll admit the "tea parties" have been mildly entertaining, but we're so used to hearing the far right wing rail against President Obama and the progressive direction America is heading in these days that that today's "tea parties" sounded more like a wild cacophony of screeching and whining than a coherent protest.

Enough with the manufactured outrage. Enough with the baseless attacks on President Obama's patriotism and on the majority of Americans who elected him. Our country doesn't benefit from the toxic venom that righties are spewing.

Unlike our criticisms of George W. Bush, there's nothing legitimate about the incredibly awful things they are saying about President Obama.

Sure, they've got every right to say it, but that doesn't mean their hate speech needs to be given so much attention. Exposure's not a bad thing, but this nonsense shouldn't be dominating our airwaves.

You pretty much have to pity some of these people. Like the one who was asked by a CNN anchor why he thinks President Obama is a fascist. All the guy could do was repeat himself. He didn't have an answer. He, like other righties, has simply convinced himself that Barack Obama is a tyrannical evil mastermind without even the specter of an argument to back up that ridiculous accusation.

If these vocal righties truly despise our government and our tradition of majority rule with minority rights this much - if they truly believe what they're saying - then why don't they just pack up and leave? No one is forcing them to live here.

If they feel like Barack Obama is some personal threat to them, they can renounce their U.S. citizenship and go somewhere else. The world's a big place.

Or they can stay here and benefit from Barack Obama's policies.

It's their choice.

But if they stay in the United States, they're going to have to accept that America has, is, and will be a country with a mixed economy - a hybrid combining the best aspects of socialism and capitalism. That's because democracy cannot flourish under either economic system on its own.

Progressives have long appreciated that. It would really be something if conservatives woke up and realized it too. But we're not holding our breath.

How to stop Monsanto, for good

Tuesday, NPR's Marketplace program reported that Germany has moved to ban Monsanto's "MON-810" strain of genetically modified corn. This is a significant win for the sustainable agriculture movement, and a significant loss for one of the most environmentally reprehensible companies on the planet, Monsanto.

MON-810 is, purportedly, resistant to the corn-borer worm. This product was supposed to be Monsanto's wedge to crack open the European Union, which has to date fiercely resisted allowing genetically modified (GM) crops to be grown there.

It's a big bummer for Monsanto, because now they don't get to charge farmers an arm and a leg for GM seed corn that, in all probability, won't yield any better than the corn they've been growing since corn came to Europe hundreds of years ago.

We applaud Germany's move, here, and hope that the rest of the European Union nations quickly follow suit. Monsanto needs to be told, in no uncertain terms, that it's business model is fundamentally broken.

Why? Because Monsanto's business model is built upon a strategy of lies, exploitation, and strong-arm tactics when it doesn't get what it wants.

You don't have to look very hard in your favorite search engine to dig up dirt on how Monsanto's practices have savaged the livelihoods (and even the lives) of farmers all over the world.

In India, for example, Monsanto peddles GM cotton seed, which they say yields more bushels of cotton per acre than the indigenous cotton varieties that Indian subsistence farmers have been growing for literally thousands of years.

Except, what they don't say, is that to actually get those yields the farmers will need to coddle those mighty Monsanto seeds with huge quantities of petrochemical fertilizers and much higher levels of irrigation than farmers in those areas are accustomed to - or even able to - provide.

Sustainability? Not, apparently, a concept Monsanto gives a damn about.

The end result is that these farmers get tricked into spending what little money they have on Monsanto seeds that, when the chips are down, end up producing less cotton than the traditional crops.

And little wonder: those indigenous varieties have had thousands of generations of human-aided selective breeding to become attuned to the natural soil composition and irrigation levels in the places where they are grown.

The farmers end up with failed crops, economic ruin, and end up committing suicide in vast numbers.

Evil? Not, apparently, something Monsanto has a problem with.

That's Monsanto's business model: Spend lots of money developing special seeds that you can only get from them, which supposedly have some miracle property like blight resistance or high yields or whatever, then force-market the seeds on unsuspecting farmers who have no real means to find out that they're being duped.

At least not before it's too late. And when the farmers resist, Monsanto's lobbying arm goes into action, buying laws and regulations that make it ever more difficult for farmers anywhere to go organic.

If a few small-scale farmers go bankrupt or kill themselves, what does Monsanto care? That land will probably end up being sold to a larger farming corporation that, because of its economies of scale and need to perform industrial agriculture (as opposed to sustainable agriculture), will be willing to take Monsanto's seed, spray it with pesticides, drown it with fertilizers, and soak it with more water per acre than Noah's flood.

It's a business model that is diametrically opposed to the very ideas of sustainable living that will enable humanity to survive the next 100 years. Monsanto's business practices are, quite literally, making it harder for my children and their (future) children to live on this planet.

They're lowering the chances that our species will live to see the year 2100.

That's not okay.

But what, as individuals, can we do about it? After all, odds are nobody reading this post is on Monsanto's board of directors.

But we could be.

Monsanto's stock (NYSE: "MON") closed today at $82.31 per share, with a market capitalization of 44 billion dollars, and 545,749,000 shares outstanding.

That's a lot of shares, and that's a lot of money.

But if we imagine that there are maybe 100 million people in the United States who care about sustainability (probably a conservative estimate), and another 50 million or so in Europe who care, then for $300 per person we could literally buy enough of Monsanto's stock to control the company.

In reality, it wouldn't even take that much. If some group were to come into existence to lead this effort, if they were to do it publicly, loudly, and in the open, it would probably cause a precipitous drop in Monsanto's share price.

After all, the people holding Monsanto stock now are the ones betting on that evil business model. If we come along and say "we're going to force that model to change," then their bet becomes a bad bet and they'll dump the stock.

If nothing else, it signals long term uncertainty about Monsanto's profit margins, which achieves the same effect.

When we take over, we can re-organize Monsanto into a non-for-profit sustainability company, working to preserve seed diversity worldwide and subsidize seed acquisition for subsistence farmers in underdeveloped nations.

What a beautiful dream: turn the world's worst enemy of sustainable agriculture into its biggest supporter.

All it would take is the collective power of the masses to put their money where their mouths are, before Monsanto ends up doing to the worldwide food production system what the mortgage bankers and other greedy financial types did to the worldwide financial system.

State House sends domestic partnership expansion legislation to Governor Gregoire

Moments ago, the Washington State House of Representatives voted sixty two to thirty five to send Engrossed Second Substitute Senate Bill 5688 to the desk of Governor Chris Gregoire, marking another major step forward towards the ultimate goal of equality under the law for all couples in Washington State.

UPDATE - Roll call:
E2SSB 5688
Registered domestic partners
House vote on Final Passage

Yeas: 62 Nays: 35 Absent: 0 Excused: 1

Voting Yea: Representatives Appleton, Blake, Carlyle, Chase, Clibborn, Cody, Conway, Darneille, Dickerson, Driscoll, Dunshee, Eddy, Ericks, Finn, Goodman, Grant-Herriot, Green, Haigh, Hasegawa, Hudgins, Hunt, Hunter, Hurst, Jacks, Johnson, Kagi, Kelley, Kenney, Kessler, Kirby, Liias, Linville, Maxwell, McCoy, Moeller, Morrell, Morris, Nelson, O'Brien, Ormsby, Orwall, Pedersen, Pettigrew, Probst, Quall, Roberts, Rolfes, Santos, Seaquist, Sells, Simpson, Springer, Sullivan, Takko, Upthegrove, Van De Wege, Wallace, Walsh, White, Williams, Wood, and Mr. Speaker

Voting Nay: Representatives Alexander, Anderson, Angel, Armstrong, Bailey, Campbell, Chandler, Condotta, Cox, Crouse, Dammeier, DeBolt, Ericksen, Haler, Herrera, Hinkle, Hope, Klippert, Kretz, Kristiansen, McCune, Miloscia, Orcutt, Parker, Pearson, Priest, Roach, Rodne, Ross, Schmick, Shea, Short, Smith, Taylor, and Warnick

Excused: Representative Flannigan
Pretty much a party line vote.

Among those speaking in favor of the bill were Representatives Jamie Pedersen, Fred Finn, and Lynn Kessler (the Majority Leader). Among those speaking against were Representatives Shelly Short, Jay Rodne, and Ed Orcutt.

The House defeated several Republican efforts to attach bad amendments to the bill. Among the harmful changes that were rejected were Representative Rodne's attempt to turn the bill into a referendum (PDF) and Representative Ross' attempt to insert language (PDF) that would force schools to instruct students that marriage is only for heterosexual couples.

The bill expands the rights and responsibilities of state registered domestic partners, allowing them to be treated the same as married spouses. Here's an excerpt from Section 1 of the bill:
Any privilege, immunity, right, benefit, or responsibility granted or imposed by statute, administrative or court rule, policy, common law or any other law to an individual because the individual is or was a spouse, or because the individual is or was an in-law in a specified way to another individual, is granted on equivalent terms, substantive and procedural, to an individual because the individual is or was in a state registered domestic partnership or because the individual is or was, based on a state registered domestic partnership, related in a specified way to another individual.
E2SSB 5688 has already passed the State Senate by a vote of thirty to eighteen. Since the House has passed it without amendment, it now heads to the desk of Governor Chris Gregoire for her signature.

Congratulations to the folks at Equal Rights Washington, who led the way in pushing this legislation through the statehouse.

This is an important civil rights victory that moves us closer towards full marriage equality for all Washington couples.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

P-I alumni launch new online media venture

Earlier today, a team of ex-Hearst employees unveiled the Seattle Post-Globe, a new online media venture that hopes to chronicle the happenings of Seattle. As former P-I reporter Kery Murakami explained, the goal is to create a new kind of news organization, mixing approaches for distributing information and relying on partnerships to successfully attract and grow an audience.
Today, we - former P-I journalists - are embarking on a new stage in our careers, hoping to fulfill our life's mission in a different way. We want to keep letting you know what's really going on in this city.

At first, we're doing this as volunteers. But what you'll find on this Web site is a story much larger than ours.

As in Denver, where the journalists of the now-defunct Rocky Mountain News also are starting their own news site, we're forging on because we believe newspaper-quality journalism needs to continue even as newspapers close.
While we welcome our new colleagues into the online realm, and wish them the best, they would do well to understand that just because writers for blogs like ours may not have degrees from prestigious J-schools doesn't mean we can't produce "newspaper quality journalism". Ironically, that phrase basically implies that real journalists only work for newspapers.

Obviously, Kery and his colleagues don't believe that themselves, or they'd be busy working on acquiring printing presses and leasing office space so they could start anew with their own newspaper, not launching a website.

Just as anyone can learn to be a political activist, anyone can learn to be a journalist. Progressive blogs have been blending political activism and journalism for years out of necessity - because corporate media outlets have not been doing a very good job of serving the public.

That's not to say the Seattle Post-Intelligencer was a bad publication (to the contrary) but like all corporate media, it had its shortcomings. As Markos Moulitsas and Jerome Armstrong wrote in their book Crashing the Gate:
Both of us started our blogs because wanted a voice in our nation's politics. We had hundreds, then thousands, of readers as we somehow tapped into a greater need for strong progressive voices - voices that had been shut out of the corporate media outlets. And the online medium allowed a level of participation nonexistent in traditional media. It wasn't us talking down to our readers. It was all of us collectively having a conversation.
While our friends have languished under the veto pen of editors for years, we have the freedom to pursue any angle to bring the unvarnished truth to our readers with complete editorial freedom.

Like many other online publications, we don't strive for objectivity, but that doesn't mean we are incapable of being journalists.

In the blogosphere, all things are possible.

Credibility online comes from engaging with readers and putting together a quality product. And with the instantaneous nature of comments and e-mail, it's easy to know immediately if you're not living up to the expectations of your audience.

Again, we wish the team at the Seattle Post-Globe the best, and we hope they'll realize that we and other pioneers of citizen and activist powered media are always here to provide friendly advice. We know the online world well; after all, we've been broadcasting our thoughts in it for the better part of the last decade.

Neighbors starting to help those who occupy foreclosed homes

What happens when there's a lot of need for something, a lot of that something available, and yet a lot of that something not being used?

People get frustrated and take matters into their own hands.

The New York Times is reporting
that homeless activists across the country are doing exactly that. Various homeless organizations and advocates are helping the homeless move into foreclosed homes or supporting residents when they refuse to be evicted. (The Times isn't the first to report on this movement of course - earlier in February, there was a similar report in the Twin Cities Daily Planet.)
“It’s a beautiful castle, and it’s temporary for me,” she said, “and if I can be here 24 hours, I’m thankful.” In the meantime, she said, she has instructed her adult son not to make noise, to be a good neighbor.

Other groups, including Women in Transition in Louisville, Ky., are looking for properties to occupy, especially as they become frustrated with the lack of affordable housing and the oversupply of empty homes.

Ms. Honkala, who was a squatter in the 1980s, said the biggest difference now was that the neighbors were often more supportive. “People who used to say, ‘That’s breaking the law,’ now that they’re living on a block with three or four empty houses, they’re very interested in helping out, bringing over mattresses or food for the families,” she said.

Most of the houses are in poor neighborhoods, where the neighbors are less likely to object.
These occupations have implications beyond mere homeless advocacy, however. During economic depression, we have a similar scenario with respect to labor, raw materials, and equipment.

A depression causes a large percentage of the economy's labor, raw materials, and equipment to fall idle. There ends up being a need for the goods that those people and materials could potentially produce, yet the people and materials remain idle. Some would call that stupid. But others see it as an opportunity.

King County Democrats to hold forum with county executive hopefuls on May 5th

Interested in getting to know some of the people who are running for King County Executive a little better? Well, here's your chance.

In just three weeks, the King County Dermocrats will be holding a forum with at least three of the confirmed candidates for county executive: Dow Constantine, Larry Phillips, and Fred Jarrett. The candidates will speak briefly about why they're running, take audience questions, and then give concluding remarks.

The event is free and open to the public, and will be moderated by yours truly. I'm looking forward to it, and I hope to have the pleasure of seeing many NPI Advocate readers and NPI supporters there.

I'm not sure if Republican Susan Hutchinson (the fourth declared candidate) plans to show up, but I would guess she's welcome to. If I were her, I'd relish a chance to square off against three Democrats in a hall full of Democrats. Why? Because learning how to be an effective leader means not passing up opportunities to show up in front of hostile crowds as well as friendly ones.

King County Executive Candidate Forum
Renton Carpenters Hall (231 Burnett Avenue N, Renton, WA, 98057)
May 5th, 2009, 7:30 PM (social hour begins at 6:30 PM)
Sponsored by the King County Democrats Central Committee
The event is open to the media and the public. Readers are encouraged to come.

Monday, April 13, 2009

ESB 5519 scheduled for a vote in the State House of Representatives

I've written a couple of times here on The Advocate about ESB 5519, a bill that would improve the statutes governing a mentally ill defendant's competency to stand trial. If you're not familiar with the bill, its main benefit is that it greatly reduces much of the inefficiency we have today, decreasing the amount of time mentally ill defendants must spend in jail while waiting to be evaluated.

ESB 5519 easily passed the Senate last month by a vote of forty four to one.

Things seemed to be proceeding smoothly as the bill moved to the House Human Services Committee a few weeks ago.

It came as quite a shock, at least to me, that a number of groups strongly opposed the bill. At one point during the hearing (at which I testified) Chair Mary Lou Dickerson asked those testifying against if their concerns could be addressed through amendment. The answer at the time was "no".

Several people (including me) submitted written follow-up comments. The committee ended up reporting out the bill with a "do pass" recommendation, and the proponents and opponents of the bill got together to try to work out an acceptable alternative in those areas of disagreement. A compromise has been hammered out, with all involved doing their best to reach common ground.

I should mention that all parties involved, whether they testified in favor of or against the bill, share the same goal: to reverse the trend of housing the mentally ill in jail instead of in treatment facilities or in community-based outpatient treatment. Everyone's heart is in the right place on this one; the disagreement was over whether the bill would do what it is supposed to.

One of the key components of the bill is a requirement that the state Department of Social and Human Services, or DSHS, track data by county, region, and state hospital. That leaves open the possibility in the future of evaluating the effectiveness of the legislation, and of fine tuning those provisions that can be improved or eliminating those provisions that prove ineffective.

I feel optimistic, but not as optimistic as I'd like. I believe that the proposed modifications to the bill are workable, meet the concerns of those involved, and will not detract from the bill's purpose.

We at NPI urge you to contact your representatives in support of ESB 5519.

As of Friday, ESB 5519 had been cleared to go onto the House Floor Calendar by the Rules Committee. It must pass the House by April 17th.

If you have questions about the bill or would like more information, leave a comment for me and I'll try to provide some answers.

DelBene raises nearly a third of a million dollars in first quarter for WA-08 campaign

Suzan DelBene's effort to knock out Dave Reichert in Washington's eighth congressional district next year is off to a strong start.

The campaign released first quarter fundraising results a few minutes ago, and the numbers are fairly impressive. DelBene has only been in the race officially for six weeks, and already she has raised a grand total of $314,723.86.

Granted, $200,000 of that is her own money. But raising over a hundred grand from other donors in just a few weeks is no small feat.

The question is, can DelBene keep it going?

If she can, she'll be in great shape financially, and she'll have an easier time scaring potential Democratic competition out of the race.

Of the three hundred thousand plus she raised, DelBene managed to keep more than ninety percent in the bank, spending only a small fraction of the money. She had $293,923.75 in cash on hand as of the end of last month.

Her campaign says her cash on hand and total raised figures are right up there with the nation's other top congressional challengers.

DelBene's contributions for the first quarter of 2009 easily eclipse what Dave Reichert and Darcy Burner pulled in at the beginning of the 2008 cycle ($184,722, and $17,368 in the first quarter, 2007, respectively).

Again, we're counting DelBene's $200,000 in seed money - which is a big percentage of the total raised - but the candidate makes a fair point about that: "I felt it was important that I show my own commitment to putting together a winning campaign before I asked others to support me."

DelBene has already assembled an experienced campaign team and has begun traveling the district to talk with voters who are looking for more effective representation in Congress. Reichert, she argues (who is now serving his third term) has no major accomplishments as a legislator and doesn't seem interested in putting in the hard work it takes to move good ideas through Congress.

We agree, but convincing voters to fire Dave Reichert will be tough. Darcy Burner has already tried twice and come up short. Determination counts for a lot, though, and Suzan clearly has that. Her first quarter fundraising proves it.

Goodbye WASL

If you sent kids off to school today, you probably saw them drag their feet on their way out the door even more than usual this morning. The reason: today is the first day of over two weeks of WASL testing in public schools across Washington. For the uninitiated, the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) is the state’s annual exam used for No Child Left Behind reporting and fulfilling high school graduation requirements. It is almost universally disliked from students to parents to teachers.

When your kids get home today tell them the good news: these are the last WASL exams they will ever take! After the rejoicing stops, you can share the bad news (at least to them.) Next year, instead of the WASL, they will be taking either the Measurements of Student Progress (MSP), for children in grades three through eight, or the High School Proficiency Exams (HSPE), for high school students.

Your kids might be pleased to know that the exams will be much shorter, involve less writing and that by 2012, will be taken solely on computers, most students’ favorite way of working.

The revamped tests are the direct result of new state school superintendent Randy Dorn’s campaign promise: to replace the WASL with a shorter, cheaper test that can be graded quickly. These two new tests will be less onerous to teachers who really miss the instructional time lost during testing, and to the state who could really use the cost savings garnered by using a computer administered and graded exam.

A big advantage that I see with the new exams is that the elementary school tests will be administered both in the fall and in the spring (supposedly taking less time than administering the current WASL) instead of the current, spring-only schedule, and teachers will receive the results in two weeks, much, much quicker than they do now. This gives teachers the opportunity to see what areas their students need more instruction in early in the school year, and gives parents the ability to see where their child needs more work before it's too late to do anything about it during the school year. The lack of this diagnostic capability was a problem with the WASL.

One WASL problem that the new tests don’t fix is its inability to directly compare Washington students with their peers nationwide. Our students are the only ones in the country who take the WASL. If they took the same test that students throughout the country took, it would enable us to see exactly how our state matches up with others.

On the other hand, with the proposed deep cuts to state education funding (about $800 million over two years), maybe we don’t want to know how Washington kids compare with others. Our grade might not be too pretty.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter 2009

Christ the Lord is ris'n! Christ the Lord is ris'n! Jesu.
Christ the Lord is ris'n! Christ the Lord is ris'n! Jesu.
He has conquered death! He has conquered death! Jesu.
Sin has done its worst! Sin has done its worst! Jesu.

- Lyrics from Christ the Lord is Risen (Music: Ghanaian folk song; adapt. by Tom Colvin; arr. by Kevin R. Hacker, © 1969 Hope Publishing).

The Resurrection of Jesus
In the end of the sabbath, as it began to dawn toward the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre. And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for the angel of the Lord descended from heaven, and came and rolled back the stone from the door, and sat upon it.

His countenance was like lightning, and his raiment white as snow: And for fear of him the keepers did shake, and became as dead men.

And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye: for I know that ye seek Jesus, which was crucified. He is not here: for he is risen, as he said. Come, see the place where the Lord lay.

And go quickly, and tell his disciples that he is risen from the dead; and, behold, he goeth before you into Galilee; there shall ye see him: lo, I have told you.
- Matthew 28:1-7; King James Version

Today Western Christians everywhere are celebrating Jesus' triumphant resurrection from the dead. Although it's wet and rainy here in Puget Sound (for the second year in a row) it's still Easter. A little precipitation can't stop an Easter egg hunt or lessen the fullness of a hearty meal.

If you're observing the holiday - perhaps spending time in the company of family and friends on this most glorious of Sundays - please accept best wishes from all of us at the Northwest Progressive Institute.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Same old song and dance from the GOP

Did the Republican Party and its rabid conservative leaders learn anything after getting pummeled in last November's elections?

Apparently not.

Nearly three months into Barack Obama's presidency, the party and its noise machine are keeping themselves busy trying to find something to howl about every single day. You might think by now the Republicans would have realized that the American people are sick and tired of the GOP's attempts to impugn others by questioning their patriotism. And you might also think that Republicans would have realized that they could strengthen their own popularity by working in good faith with Democrats to bolster our nation's economy.

Unfortunately, you'd be wrong on both counts.

Republicans continue to demonstrate they have nothing to offer the American people. No new ideas, no fresh thinking, no change in attitude. It's just the same old song and dance that we've heard for years from the Graveyard of Progress.

Consider the following examples.

Exhibit A: McCarthyism has returned.

Only these days the enemy isn't "communists", it's "socialists".
Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.) puts the number of socialists in the House at 17.

"Some of the men and women I work with in Congress are socialists," Bachus told local government leaders on Thursday, according to the Birmingham News.

Bachus gave the specific number of House socialists when pressed later by a reporter.
Keeping a list of perceived enemies is a sure sign of Nixonian Cold War-era paranoia. Next Bachus will be demanding that Speaker Nancy Pelosi revive the House Committee on Un-American Activities, and name Dick Cheney its Honorary Chairman, with Scooter Libby as Secretary.

Exhibit B: We're all familiar with the discredited lie that President Obama is a Muslim who wasn't born in America. Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) refuses to believe that the President is an American.
"Well his father was Kenyan and they said he was born in Hawaii, but I haven’t seen any birth certificate," Shelby said. “You have to be born in America to be president."
Speaking of birth certificates, Senator Shelby, we've never seen yours. How do we know for sure you were born in the United States?

Exhibit C: Folks, it's time for another edition of Gods, Guns, and Gays! Your host for this episode is Congressman Steve King, who abhors the idea that two men or two women who love each other should be able to marry.

Not only did he recently manage to unleash a predictable attack on marriage equality, but he slipped in a reference to Islam, utilizing the name a holy Muslim city in Saudi Arabia where pilgrims come annually as a metaphor for Iowa.

Translation: gays coming to Iowa to marry will ruin Steve King's life.
Along with a constitutional amendment, the legislature must also enact marriage license residency requirements so that Iowa does not become the gay marriage Mecca due to the Supreme Court's latest experiment in social engineering.
Beware the gays... beware the Muslims... beware the gay Muslims?

And now for the second half of our episode. If you're a gun owner and you believe Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, President Obama is stopping by tomorrow to confiscate your guns.
The Obama Administration has revealed its intention to reinstate the so-called "assault" gun ban - Step One of their plan to repeal the 2nd Amendment. [emphasis by Steele]
Haven't we heard this all before, somewhere?

Oh yeah... the last twenty five years of Republican "oratory"!

Republicans don't even have one positive message or idea to offer. Even their proposed budget, if you could call it that, was nothing more than repackaged version of the same bankrupt thinking that got us into the big mess we're in.

If the technology existed, interested observers would be able to teleport back in time and see that the right wing's song and dance remain the same.

Times may have changed but the Republican Party remains parked (by choice!) in the Graveyard of Progress - and there, it seems, they will stay.

Friday, April 10, 2009

House restores funding for two way transit lanes on I-90; keeps East Link on track

Legislators in the State House have finally come to their senses.

After originally following the Senate in offering a transportation budget that didn't include funding for the two way transit and HOV improvements that are a prerequisite for Sound Transit’s East Link light rail line, the House today reversed course and put money back into the project.

A pair of amendments, one sponsored by Representative Judy Clibborn (D-41st District) and one sponsored by Geoff Simpson (D-47th District) appropriated $10.6 million for the project and struck language that would have imposed useless procedural hurdles to block progress.

We're relieved that these changes have been made, and thankful for the efforts by our friends at Seattle Transit Blog and Futurewise, who pushed Democrats in Olympia to respect the will of the people of Puget Sound. We also want to recognize King County Councilmembers Larry Phillips and Dow Constantine (who are both running for county executive) for raising this issue on the campaign trail.

Dow's campaign has just issued a news release commending the House's action, and praising the folks who made it happen:
I credit above all the grassroots advocacy of transit supporters and activists who contacted their legislators to demand that the voters’ decision to extend light rail to Mercer Island , Bellevue and Redmond be honored.
Agreed. Kudos to everyone who called or sent a message to their legislator.

We haven't received a statement from Larry Phillips' campaign about this, but if we do, I'll update this post with an excerpt.

UPDATE: From Phillips' statement:
The public came forward and told legislators to let East Link move forward, and legislators listened. Voters were loud and clear last fall in saying that they want to build more light rail. This is the time for the state and region to unite behind that vision and make it happen, so we can get commuters out of traffic and our economy back on track
We're hopeful that these changes mark a shift away from Olympia's traditional hostility towards Sound Transit. Our region desperately needs a strong rail backbone to foster mobility. For that backbone to be built, the State of Washington must honor the obligations and commitments it made years ago.

Olympia should be helping in any way it can to support the construction of the Link light rail system - not obstructing the system from getting off the ground.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Haugen and BIAW trying to kill Homeowner's Bill of Rights on Senate floor?

Late last night, we at NPI received some disturbing news which we now feel obliged to share with supporters: E2SHB 1393, the safe homes guarantee legislation that is the latest incarnation of the Homeowner's Bill of Rights, is potentially in danger of being scuttled and gutted by Republicans and a group of Democrats friendly to the Building Industry Association of Washington.

The group is reportedly led by Senator Mary Margaret Haugen (D-10th District). Haugen's plan is to introduce a striking amendment, drafted by BIAW's lawyers, that would destroy of all the strong elements in the bill.

According to Senator Rodney Tom, the Senate's top advocate for safe homes, Haugen apparently has the votes to get her striking amendment passed. That would mean at least one of the twenty five Democrats who previously voted for SB 5895 has defected and is prepared to support Haugen.

This is obviously a distressing development, but I want to stress that, as far as we know, HB 1393 has not actually been amended yet, and remains intact in its strong form. Josh Feit, at Publicola, has reported that Haugen's language has already made it into the bill. We believe that's inaccurate. Haugen's striker doesn't appear to have been introduced yet. (You can see this for yourself on the Legislature's website. The last time the bill was amended was in Ways & Means).

UPDATE: We can confirm that the Haugen striker has been introduced. I've scanned through the text of it and it is indeed awful. It's not on the bill page for E2SHB 1393 yet, but we have the text of it (PDF). However, while the striking amendment has been introduced, I want to re-emphasize that we don't believe there has been a vote on it yet. I'm making inquiries to see if we can learn more.

UPDATE II: Haugen's striker is now on the bill page.

It's unclear whether Senate leadership will even place E2SHB 1393 on the Order of Consideration without the requisite twenty five votes to pass it in its current form. And if it doesn't make it onto the Order of Consideration, it wouldn't come up for debate, and thus wouldn't be amended or acted upon in any way.

In other words, to summarize this post... the Homeowner's Bill of Rights is threatened, but not weakened and not dead - yet. It can still be saved. The Building Industry Association of Washington hasn't won yet. And they won't if we can find twenty five votes to support this bill as it stands now.

Stressful times can lead to violence

I don’t like opening my newspaper anymore. And it’s not just because I am stuck reading the Seattle Times now that the P-I has switched to an online format. (I like my paper to be made of paper.) Or maybe that is the problem.

Following Sunday’s front page Graham slaying piece, the Times has continued to focus on a battery of violent crime. Are the state and country getting more violent or does my new newspaper play up the grisly? Maybe it’s a little bit of both.

In seven pages of yesterday’s local news section, I counted ten articles on violent crimes, most of them murders. Ten! Is this all that’s going on in Seattle? I feel like I am back at home in San Antonio where the daily murder roundup obscures the real news.

Then again, with seven mass murders nationwide in the last month alone, it appears that there is really something going on with the national psyche. Perhaps the crime wave in Washington is a reflection of deep uneasiness across the nation.

Job losses, home foreclosures and ugly headlines are frazzling people’s nerves. Since 24% of American households owns a handgun, it’s easy for people seething with stress to act on their worst impulses.

Using a gun to satisfy heated emotions is a quintessential American characteristic. I am reminded of a Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence poster with these mortifying statistics:
In 2004, guns murdered 5 people in New Zealand
37 in Sweden
56 in Australia
73 in England and Wales
184 in Canada
And 11,344 in the United States
God bless America.
Yes, we’re bigger than those other countries, but not 62 times bigger, the difference between the number of American and Canadian deaths, the second largest number listed.

While most of us know that using a gun to work out our problems is a bad idea, we still might need help dealing with our own economic anxieties. Besides bailing out banks and car companies, the federal government is offering Americans “practical advice on how to deal with the effects financial difficulties can have on your physical and mental health.”

The government’s “Getting Through Tough Economic Times” website is a good place to start looking for help. Most importantly, it can connect you to support services in your area.

If you are experiencing any of these stress warning signs, consider learning some coping techniques or getting additional help.
  • Persistent Sadness/Crying
  • Excessive Anxiety
  • Lack of Sleep/Constant Fatigue
  • Excessive Irritability/Anger
  • Increased drinking
Even when things in your life are going well, stress is inevitable. Learning how to deal with it is an important key to a lifetime of good health.

Maybe a key to my own stress reduction is putting down the Seattle Times and logging on to a good progressive website instead.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Happy Passover פֶּסַח

This evening marks the beginning of the 2009 festival of Passover.

To our Jewish readers, we at NPI wish you a Happy Passover and a festive Seder with friends and relatives. Let your children find the affikomen, and may Elijah come to your door tonight. As you celebrate the Exodus from Egypt please remember progressive ideals and place an orange on your Seder plate.

Please fill a Miriam's cup. And pray and drink that fifth cup of wine at the end of the Seder for peace in the land of Israel; may next year be in Jerusalem.

For our readers who are not Jewish, this is a fine opportunity to learn about the holiday. Learning, education, and questioning are all very Jewish concepts.

Here's a quick run-through of a Seder (the ritual meal for Passover).

There are many different ways to run a Seder, but they all involve a haggadah, which tells the story and directs the ritual, and a dinner.

There are different types of haggadot depending on the focus of the Seder. My family uses A Family Haggadah and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants a more progressive haggadah.

During the Seder, a plate is laid out in the middle of table. Placed on the plate are a roasted egg to signify rebirth in spring, karpas (parsley) to signify the springtime, a roasted lamb shank to signify the paschal sacrifice that Jews used to offer in the ancient Temple, maror (a bitter herb, such as horseradish) to signify the bitterness of slavery, and Chazeret, a second bitter herb to represent the bitterness.

Before the Seder, we light the holiday candles and give a blessing.

In Hebrew, we say:
We praise, You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe Who has kept us alive and well so that we can celebrate this special time
The Seder has an order. The word Seder itself, in Hebrew, actually means order.

After the Seder begins, we first say kiddush (the prayer for wine) and drink the first cup of wine. The kiddush signifies freedom and the ability to drink and be merry. Throughout the Seder there are traditionally four cups of wine.

Then we wash our hands to signify the purity of the holiday and get ready for the Seder. It is an act of purification.

After that we dip parsley into salt water to remind us of the tears shed when the Jewish people were slaves in Egypt.

The parsley signifies the greenery of the season and spring.

Then we break the middle matzah and hide the larger half, the Afikomen. This signifies that redemption is incomplete for the Jewish people. There is still war in the world, still hate, still slavery, and therefore we break the middle matzah as a reminder of that. Further, it is hidden which gives time for the children at the Seder to find it and ransom it off for a prize.

In a modern sense, this gives adults time to talk without the children around and to let the kids run wild for a little bit, depending on how well the afikomaen is hidden. Some favorite hiding places for my family are in books, under tables, and taped on the ceiling.

Then we tell the story of Passover - the Exodus from Egypt. This is done every year to make sure we remember the history.

During this portion of the Seder, the youngest child recites the Four Questions. The Four Questions represent the four differences from Passover and a normal day. Why do we exclusively eat matzah instead of bread? Why do we eat marror instead of all vegetables? Why do we dip vegetables twice [in salt water]? Why do we lean on pillows sitting at the table?

This shows the difference between a normal day and a Passover Seder.

The story of Passover is incredibly interesting and I encourage you to read a haggadah - especially this one - and read the story and commentary.

Following the recital of the Four Questions, we drink our second cup of wine and say a blessing over matzah. (Matzah, for those unfamiliar, is an unleavened bread which reminds Jews of the Exodus, which began so quickly that there was not enough time to allow bread to rise.)

Then we bless bitter herbs and charoset and eat a sandwich of it with matzah. This signifies the bitterness of slavery and the mortar used by Jews to create the pyramids for Pharaoh.

Next, we begin the meal - the Passover feast. We eat food like matzah ball soup, brisket, and gefilte fish. Afterwords, we eat the afikoman as desert to signify the start of the second half of the Seder.

Then we drink a third cup of wine and welcome Elijiah. We welcome Elijiah because he is a prophet who brings peace to the world – Jewish tradition teaches that Elijah will announce the arrival of the Messiah.

We hope that this time of peace will come this year.

Then we sing songs of praise and drink a fourth cup of wine. The songs signify freedom and the happiness perceived through singing.

If you get a chance, ask your Jewish friends if you can come to a Seder. It is a great experience, and my family usually has non-Jewish guests.

Many Jews participate in two Seders. Tonight is the night of first Seder, and tomorrow night is Second Seder.

Through the eight days of Passover, Jews may not eat any leavened food so we eat matzah. Besides remembering the Exodus, the festival of Passover is a great time to promote social justice and awareness.

I wish all of our Jewish readers Chag Sameach (happy holiday in Hebrew). And I would also like to thank my rabbi for helping me put together this post.

If you have any family traditions for Passover please describe them below in the comments so we have an opportunity to trade rituals and better our observances.

Again, Chag Sameach and have a peaceful Passover.

Washington left behind on marriage equality

Last week Iowa's Supreme Court ruled that Iowa's state constitution prohibits discrimination against same-sex couples with respect to the institution of marriage. Iowa! In the middle of the heartland!

Yesterday, Vermont's legislature overrode governor Jim Douglas's veto of a marriage equality bill. Vermont thus joins Iowa, Massachusetts, and Connecticut as the fourth state to fully recognize legal marriage for same-sex couples. (Note, though, that Iowa's court ruling won't take effect for a few weeks yet). Washington D.C. followed up with a city council ruling that recognizes same-sex marriages sanctioned in other states.

California's supreme court, last spring, made world-wide headlines when it found that marriage is a fundamental civil right that and may not be statutorally prohibited. There followed a shining period of a few months when tens of thousands of gay and lesbian couples, like celebs like Ellen DeGeneres and Portia de Rossi, wed each other before the Mormon- and Catholic-backed Proposition 8 took that right away again. That issue is now pending in the California courts again, where the state supreme court seems likely to overturn it.

Monday, there were three states with full marriage equality for all. Today, there are four. Internationally, the list of pro-love jurisdictions also includes Canada, Spain, South Africa, the Netherlands, and Belgium.

I applaud the open-minded, compassionate hearts and minds in all those places who recognize that love is love, no matter the genders involved.

It is wonderful progress.

But with every step, Washington State is left further and further behind.

We're already behind these leading lights elsewhere in the world. South Africa, which just as recently as the 1980s didn't even have basic racial equality, now has marriage equality while our own legislature is only now working on a civil unions bill! Civil unions are a step in the right direction, but they are at best a "separate-but-equal" half measure that will appease some, displease others, but will make no one truly happy or truly equal.

Our state's laws also lag behind its citizens' values. Nate Silver, over at, recently posted a very interesting analysis of same-sex marriage bans nationwide.

Nate, whose predicitons and numbers in the presidential race last year were better than anybody else's (by far), finds that Washingtonians would probably reject a same-sex marriage ban if one were put on the ballot this year.

I love my state. I choose to live here for a lot of reasons, many of which I know our gay and lesbian brothers, sisters, sons, and daughters share.

I hope they stay in the Evergreen State. But boy, if I were a gay or lesbian Washingtonian, it would be hard not to be thinking about moving to a state with truly equal civil rights for me.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Day Two of the National Smart Grid Conference: Mapping a path forwards

"Above all, it is for the common good."

These words were spoken by Father Spitzer, the president of Gonzaga University, at the end of the opening address he delivered to kick off the second and final day of the National Smart Grid Conference. Attendees seemed energized by his remarks (it was either that or the coffee, I'm not sure), and ready for the work ahead.

Before I get to the highlights of Day Two, I should mention that I've received a few emails from people who read my recap of Day One wondering that the term "smart grid" means. According to the Department of Energy, a smart grid is a means of delivering electric power that can:
  1. Enable active participation by consumers
  2. Accommodate all generation and storage options
  3. Enable new products, services, and markets
  4. Provide power quality for the range of needs in a digital economy
  5. Optimize asset utilization and operating efficiency
  6. Anticipate and respond to system disturbances in a self-healing manner
  7. Operate resiliently against physical and cyber-attacks, and natural disasters
Those are the principles that appear to comprise the definition that the industry is now using - or at least those companies in the industry based here in the Pacific Northwest, which are well represented at the conference.

Today's events were organized into panels, comprised of representatives from research, utility, and regulatory organizations. Some of the topics that were discussed included consumer engagement and privacy, software integration, and updating the building codes for the present and future - so that green buildings can take advantage of smart grid technology.

After the panel discussions, which incorporated audience participation in the form of questions and comments (all of which were recorded for use in creating the report to be presented to federal and regional governments), they were distilled down into a few points that were agreed upon by virtually everybody. Those were:

First, the need for a clear national and regional energy policy. Other countries have such policies, and without one, the United States is flailing in the dark as what to do, and everybody is doing their own thing which is counterproductive to implementing the smart grid. By having a clear policy, each of the players who have a hand in the program can see how what they are doing affects that policy and how their action contributes to it as a whole.

Second, the need for industry and the government to engage consumers in a meaningful way. One of the important elements of a smart grid is consumer participation, and plans need to be developed on how to enable such participation, ultimately giving consumers greater ability to control their energy usage.

Third, the need to integrate advances in technology so as to prevent future breakthroughs from disrupting implementation. In other words, the system needs to be adaptable to future energy needs. For example, it seems likely that more American families will own plug in hybrid and electric cars in the years ahead, which could put a strain on the grid if it wasn't designed for the future.

Fourth, the need to deploy workforce development programs to equip people with the skills needed to understand and operate new technology, creating new jobs along the way, and providing new career opportunities for the unemployed.

Other recommendations included changing our tax code to offer incentives for smart technology, retooling our regulatory framework to encourage innovation, and increasing research & development spending.

Senator Cantwell, not surprisingly, praised the recommendations, saying, that "we in the United States could become the leaders in the technology".

The finished report will be composed by a committee which will discuss the various ideas presented at the conference and will decide which ones will make it in to the final recommendations.

The report is supposed to be finished within ten working days. We'll be sure to post the link to it on In Brief when it is published.

The conference ended on a hopeful note. People are excited about the possibility of strengthening economic security and protecting our environment at the same time.

And they should be.

With a smart grid, it's possible for us to make progress towards both.

Members of Congress detail appropriation requests

Under new House rules, members posted their 2010 Fiscal Year Appropriations, or earmarks, on their websites over the weekend. According to the Tacoma News-Tribune, the Washington delegation submitted nearly 380 requests for a total of approximately $1.1 billion.
House members from Washington are seeking nearly $1.1 billion in earmarks in the coming fiscal year for everything from a statewide anti-meth initiative to a new children’s museum in Olympia and from sewer, water, road and dredging projects to a program promoting participation by women in Afghan politics.

Under new House rules, members had to post on their Web sites over the weekend detailed information on their earmark requests to the House Appropriations Committee. Senators will have to start posting their requests next month. Also known as “congressionally directed spending,” earmarking is the controversial practice in which lawmakers request funding for specific projects outside the normal budget process.

To find find out which projects your U.S. Representative requested funding for, just click on his/her name below:

WA-01 Jay Inslee
WA-02 Rick Larsen
WA-03 Brian Baird
WA-04 Doc Hastings (link not currently available)
WA-05 Cathy McMorris Rodgers
WA-06 Norm Dicks
WA-07 Jim McDermott
WA-08 Dave Reichert
WA-09 Adam Smith

ID-01 Walt Minnick (link not currently available)
ID-02 Mike Simpson

OR-01 David Wu
OR-02 Greg Walden
OR-03 Earl Blumenauer
OR-04 Peter DeFazio
OR-05 Kurt Schrader (link not currently available)

AK-01 Don Young (link not currently available)

In some cases this information was difficult to find on the member's website. For those members where the link is not available, it is because I couldn't find the information on the member's website despite using the site's search feature in cases where the member's website was that technologically advanced.

Revised safe homes guarantee bill moves to Senate floor, now awaiting vote

This afternoon we're pleased to report that one of our top legislative priorities, the Homeowner's Bill of Rights, or Safe Homes Guarantee, is still moving forward and has survived the most recent legislative cutoff.

As of yesterday afternoon, the bill, E2SHB 1393 (originally prime sponsored by Larry Springer, D-45th District) was voted out of Ways & Means with a do pass recommendation, after having been modified by a new striking amendment (PDF).

The latest amendment did not alter the statutory warranty that is at the heart of the bill; rather, the Committee simply made a few adjustments to polish up the bill. The new language clarifies that municipal building inspectors are not liable under the law, and makes the Attorney General (or its designee) responsible for the consumer education for home construction account that 1393 would create.

Following Ways & Mean's executive action, the bill was handed off to the Senate Rules Committee, which quickly placed it on the Senate's floor calendar.

E2SHB 1393 now awaits its turn to be debated on the Senate floor.

Republicans such as Janea Holmquist are likely to offer floor amendments to gut the bill, but such changes are equally likely to be rejected.

Readers, now is a great time to call your Senators and urge them to support E2SHB 1393, especially those Denocrats who voted against SB 5895.

I bolded the word call because legislators are currently deluged with email (we're approaching the end of session) and your message might not get read. Better to call and leave a phone message for your senator if he or she is unavailable.

To obtain the telephone number for your senator, navigate over to the Senate Democratic and Republican caucus webpages. Click a member's name to find the phone number for his or her district office. (It'll have a 360 area code).

Monday, April 6, 2009

Day One of the National Smart Grid Conference: It's time to repower America

Editor's Note: NPI contributing writer Patrick Stickney is covering the National Smart Grid Conference in Spokane today and tomorrow. Stay tuned for additional reporting of what's happening in the Lilac City here on The Adovcate.

Earlier today, the City of Spokane served as the launchpad for an exciting event that's bringing together many of the folks who are going to play a leading role in the effort to repower America: the National Smart Grid Conference.

I have the pleasure of covering the conference for the Northwest Progressive Institute, and I must admit, so far it's been a quite an experience. I'm hardly a veteran of the press corps, and combined with the fact that it seemed I was the youngest person in the room, I felt out of place - at least when I first arrived.

The conference began almost promptly at 8:00 AM. Spokane Mayor Verner opened with a welcoming address, followed by statements from State Senate Majority Leader Brown and U.S. Senator Cantwell. All were excited about the conference being held in the Northwest. Senator Cantwell noted that the region has a "key role" to play in the coming revolution that will reshape electricity generation in America.

As she put it, the potential transformation of our grid constitutes the "largest economic opportunity in the twenty-first century."

Senator Cantwell then ceded the stage to Federal Energy Regulatory Commissioner Phil Moeller. Moeller, a native of Spokane, talked about topics such as intersystem communication standards and cybersecurity.

Cybersecurity is actually one of the big issues here at the conference, because a smart grid would rely on digital networks. (And unfortunately, such networks can be hacked). Moeller warned that a serious hack could potentially shut off more than a million meters at once, thus making cybersecurity a top priority.

New technologies - like a smart electric grid for America - may carry new risks, but they also offer great promise. Our current electric system, though complex, is inefficient, and an outage to one part of the system can easily disrupt other parts hundreds of miles away (as was the case in the Ohio blackout of 2003, which many speakers cited as an example that demonstrates the need to build a smart grid).

Another reason to switch is increasing demand. We're still using the same system that was designed decades ago, before the technological explosion of the last half century. It's now typical for an American family to own a huge array of gadgets, from multiple computers and phones and televisions in the home to printers, surround sound systems, and digital video recorders.

All those devices sip energy, putting strains on our dated infrastructure and contributing to frequent, disruptive power problems.

A smart grid is also needed to harness the potential of renewable energy. The two most widely available sources of renewable power are the sun and the wind, and power from those can't be generated consistently, because the wind isn't always blowing at the same speed, and the sun isn't always shining.

The old system wasn't designed with renewable energy sources in mind, so the power generated by a wind farm or solar plant can't quickly be sent to where it's needed, and simply storing that energy for later use is extremely difficult.

With a smart grid, energy could be transferred on demand - in other words, shifted to the places that need it at the time. And if a particular wind farm or solar plant wasn't producing enough energy, the grid could tap other sources to compensate.

Many speakers also talked about mini-grids - basically, a network of on-site power systems. Imagine solar or small wind generators connected to houses that could be turned on if large amounts of power were being used elsewhere. The hope is to eventually build a more decentralized system that is safer and more reliable.

Deploying a smart grid will be essential to the success of the environmental revolution - a coming social and generational transformation that will reshape our country. The environmental revolution will ultimately occur out of necessity (even though it will also be good for our planet) because so much of our nation's infrastructure is falling apart.

LeRoy Nosbaum (CEO of Itron) explained: "By waiting too long [to convert to smart technology] the effect on us will be discomforting. The effect on our grandchildren will be dramatic."

Tim Thompson of Thompson Smitch Consulting Group echoed that sentiment near the end of today's session, noting: "We really are doing this development for our grandchildren... and they will judge us for how we implement it."

Even Republican Representative Cathy McMorris-Rodgers showed up to tout the benefits of building a smart grid. I found her joy about the conference and the potential of the technology largely ironic - for had Congress voted the same way she did, the conference might not have happened, considering that the stimulus is a big impetus behind much of the innovation that's going to make this all possible.

Following the morning's high profile speakers, the conference split up into three breakout sessions going on simultaneously.

I attended the first one, which was titled Building a National and Local Pacific Northwest Smart Grid - Research, Development and Technological Needs and the Role of Renewables (whew, what a mouthful).

Topics of discussion included transmission systems and new software for handling data. Perhaps, though, the most important point agreed upon by the panelists was that the infrastructure (sensors, smart thermostats, etc.) needs to be put in place before we can take advantage of power management innovations.

Logically, that makes sense. Without that infrastructure, we can't do all of the cool things a smart grid would allow us to do - like informing consumers of current electric rates or allocating energy to where it's needed.

Refreshingly, the companies that will comprise the forthcoming smart grid industry don't view government as the enemy. Maybe that something has to do with the fact that $4.5 billion stimulus dollars are being channeled towards developing a smart grid, but, beyond that, government is seen as a catalyst that will provide the standards and the interoperability needed for the smart grid to work.

There are also problems threatening the stability of the current dilipidated system that need to be solved, with government playing an essential role.

Government is seen as an integral and necessary part of the public private partnership creating a smart grid - not the evil bogeyman that conservatives claim it is. What's exciting is that deploying a smart grid has the potential to both strengthen our common wealth and create new jobs in the private sector.

Tomorrow the recommendations that were offered today in the breakout sessions will be refined, so they they can be presented to Congress.

I'll be there to watch and observe, and I look forward to sharing that experience following the conference's conclusion tomorrow.

Mariners win Opening Day on the road

Seattle Mariners fans, rejoice!

The 2009 season got off to a great start earlier tonight with the Mariners' six to one trouncing of the Minnesota Twins at the Metrodome in Minneapolis.

The game not only marked the eighteenth Opening Day victory in Mariners history, but it was Don Wakamatsu's first as a major league manager.

Returning hero Ken Griffey Jr. homered in the middle of the game to give Seattle a 2-0 lead, and Franklin Gutierrez later widened it when he blasted a two run homer out of the park. The dual home runs and great hitting indicate that Seattle's retooled offense could be very potent this year - even without Ichiro.

Felix Hernandez, meanwhile, pitched a solid game, going eight innings and throwing ninety seven pitches. Except for a couple of jams, he was masterful throughout, allowing only one run. Notably, the Mariners were able to convert their hits into runs - something they've had a lot of trouble doing in recent years.

Thanks, M's, for brightening the Seattle sports scene with a superb 2009 start.

Spokane hosts conference focused on developing the nation's smart grid

Proving that the west side of the state doesn’t have a monopoly on hot, new technology, experts on smart grid design are gathering in Spokane today and tomorrow for the National Smart Grid Conference, held at the Spokane Convention Center.

"Grid” refers to the infrastructure that brings energy from power sources like hydroelectric dams, gas-fired power plants and wind farms, through distribution centers and on to users like you and me. Right now, the United States has an overburdened, frayed system that is increasingly prone to blackouts costing Americans at least $150 billion a year. Compared to that figure, the $4.5 billion in federal stimulus money that the Obama administration has recently pledged to smart grid projects looks like peanuts.

Part of the Obama’s administration’s vision of a clean energy future is an investment in America’s power grid. Smart grid engineers envision a future where locally produced energy flows at just the right time to just the right customer, saving money on both ends and providing reliable, gentle-to-the-Earth power.

From the Department of Energy’s smart grid guide (large download size):
The electric industry is poised to make the transformation from a centralized, producer-controlled network to one that is less centralized and more consumer-interactive.
What a relief it is to see the federal government again taking a lead in supporting scientific research and development. We wasted the last eight years by not making a serious national push to develop truly groundbreaking technologies and bring them to market. The feds have enormous resources to put great American minds to work solving our big problems.

Smart institutions in Washington are jumping into the smart grid game. According to Senator Maria Cantwell, co-host of the Spokane conference:
Already companies across Eastern Washington are implementing these technologies and creating thousands of jobs. Researchers and inventors at places like Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, Washington State University and Gonzaga University are already pushing the envelope and running pilot projects and studies that are shaping the way the world deals with the electricity grid.
In much the same way that the Internet revolutionized the way we use information today, ten years from now the smart grid will revolutionize the way we receive and use energy. We may even change from being just consumers of energy to being both consumers and producers. And we might even get paid for doing it.

For a fascinating and in depth look at the nation’s smart grid plan, check out the Department of Energy’s guide to the smart grid (PDF).

Editor's note: NPI contributing writer Patrick Stickney is covering the conference in Spokane today and tomorrow. Stay tuned for additional reporting of what's happening in the Lilac City here on The Adovcate.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Bill that lays groundwork for automatic voter registration is continuing onwards

Although we're heading towards the end of the toughest and most challenging legislative sessions in recent memory - one that has seen already seen the unfortunate demise of many good bills - our top legislative priorities are surprisingly still alive, having survived the most recent cutoff.

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

I testified in favor of SB 5270 in early February, suggesting that the bill be amended to nullify the part that puts a voter's registration on inactive status - which doesn't make a lot of sense. If a voter moves within the state of Washington, why should they have to ask officials to "reactivate" their registration?

Why have barriers to participation in our democratic process?

While the amendment we sought regrettably wasn't made, we still support SB 5270, which takes us one step forward towards the ultimate objective of automatic voter registration and greater suffrage for all Washingtonians.

SB 5270 passed the State Senate a month ago by a vote of thirty two to sixteen (with only some Republicans voting no). Upon being received by the House, it was handed to the State Government & Tribal Affairs Committee, which made a very slight adjustment to clarify one sentence in the bill, and then reported out with a do pass recommendation to General Government Appropriations.

On Friday, General Government Appopriations followed suit, thereby ensuring SB 5270 will survive this Monday's cutoff. Presumably, the bill now goes to Rules, where it will be scheduled to go onto the floor.

The House must vote on it by April 17th, which is the next cutoff.

Assuming the Senate agrees with the small change that has been made, as well as any forthcoming changes, the bill could then go to Governor Gregoire's desk for her signature. We'll continue to track the bill's progress in the days ahead and let you know of additional developments.

Friday, April 3, 2009

Meet the hypocrites: Governor Sarah Palin, back for another round

Not content to be profiled as a hypocrite just once by this esteemed publication, Governor Sarah Palin has come back for a second round of shame, by joining the Alaska Republican Party in calling for a special election for the U.S. Senate seat currently held by Democratic Senator Mark Begich.

You see, since the Justice Department isn't pursuing continued legal action against former Senator Ted Stevens, the Republicans and Governor Palin think he ought to have his seat back. The problem for them is that Begich was legally elected and hasn't (and won't) resign the seat.
Gov. Sarah Palin and the head of the Alaska Republican Party said Thursday that Sen. Mark Begich should give his Senate seat up to a special election now that prosecutors have abandoned their case against Ted Stevens.

"Alaskans deserve to have a fair election not tainted by some announcement that one of the candidates was convicted fairly of seven felonies, when in fact it wasn't a fair conviction," Palin said in a Thursday interview with the Daily News.
But that's not what Governor Palin said last October.
"After being found guilty on seven felony counts, I had hoped Senator Stevens would take the opportunity to do the statesman-like thing and erase the cloud that is covering his Senate seat," Palin said in a written statement. "He has not done so. Alaskans are grateful for his decades of public service but the time has come for him to step aside.
Putting Ted Stevens in and then putting Ted Stevens out isn't a dance you do to serve your political interests. This ain't the hokey pokey, Sarah.

But it sure reeks of hypocrisy.

BREAKING: Maria Cantwell wins Seattle Times' endorsement for 2012 reelection!

Okay, not really. But she's got it in the bag after this vote:
Sens. Jon Kyl (R-AZ) and Blanche Lincoln (D-AR) recently introduced a $250 billion amendment to slash estate taxes for the heirs of multimillion-dollar estates. Yesterday, the Senate narrowly passed the bill by a 51-48 vote. Joining Republicans in approving the bill were ten Senate Democrats:
Baucus (D-MT), Bayh (D-IN), Cantwell (D-WA), Landrieu (D-LA), Lincoln (D-AR), Murray (D-WA), Nelson (D-FL), Nelson (D-NE), Pryor (D-AR), Tester (D-MT)
This is incredibly disappointing... no, make that shameful.

Four Northwest Democratic senators voted for a tax break for millionaires? What were you thinking, Senators?

On second thought, scratch that. You obviously weren't thinking when you took that vote. Especially you, Senators Cantwell and Murray. Have you forgotten that in 2006, Washingtonians overwhelmingly rejected a right wing initiative (I-920) to repeal our state's estate tax?

Your constituents believe that asking our wealthiest citizens to pay their fair share in taxes is appropriate and just. Why don't you?

Thankfully, Oregon's delegation to the U.S. Senate haven't forgotten that they represent three million people instead of three hundred millionaires. Senators Merkley and Wyden voted against this nonsense, and for that, we thank them.

We call on the U.S. House to nix this terrible budget amendment.

Starbucks still trying to stop employees from organizing - at any cost

The suits who run Starbucks, the world's biggest coffee chain, continue to show that they'll stop at almost nothing to prevent their employees from organizing. A recent report from the Industrial Workers of the World chronicles in detail some of the dirty tactics the company is using to block unionization:
The New York branch of the IWW Starbucks Workers Union held an energetic eight-hour picket outside two separate Starbucks locations. Originally planned as a “loose informal picket” outside the Union Square East Starbucks location, managerial stupidity and increased union-busting activity on the part of Starbucks turned it into a media circus and all night protest. Between the time when the picket was planned and when it actually took place, Starbucks decided to fire yet another union barista, Sharon Bell, from the 17th and Broadway location, conveniently located across the park from Union Square East.

The picket was called to protest the recent wave of Starbucks layoffs and draw attention to the refusal of Starbucks to pay severance, in spite of claiming in several press releases to the media that they will be providing severance pay to all laid off workers. The message was expanded to include the demand for the reinstatement of Sharon Bell and an immediate end to the illegal, unethical, nationally coordinated union-busting operations of Starbucks Coffee.

An hour before the picket was to take place, union organizer and barista at Union Square East, Liberte Locke started receiving phone calls from members of the press inquiring as to whether or not the picket was still happening.

Apparently when photographers and camera people showed up early to scout the location they were greeted by someone with a clipboard claiming to represent the union and they were told the picket was canceled.
According the IWW, the actual picket became very tense when cops from the New York Police Department showed up and began intimidating the protesting workers. Fortunately, the picket didn't end with an ugly scene, but there might have been one... if reporters hadn't been present.

That raises an important question: what would have happened with no press watching? Would workers have needlessly been harassed and arrested?

It's not like it hasn't happened before.

If we cannot hold big corporations accountable democratically through our representatives, what alternatives do we have?

Do we have to encourage everyone to carry their own video cameras everywhere and record everything? Is that enough?

Iowa couples: don't visit Washington!

Wonderful breaking news just in on this Friday morning: the Iowa Supreme Court has unanimously upheld the right of gay and lesbian couples to marry. (And if you go read the second article, don't forget to weigh in on the poll at the end.)

That's real, legal marriage, with the word "marriage" attached. Not a "separate but equal," second-class citizen half-measure like being floated in our Legislature (which, admittedly, is meant to be a gradual step towards full marriage equality).

But I implore Iowa's soon-to-be-newlywed gay and lesbian couples, don't come visit Washington on your honeymoon, because your marriage won't be recognized here.

Most people think that states have to recognize legal marriages from other states. But that's not true. In most cases, they do, but they don't have to. And in RCW 26.04.020 Prohibited Marriages,the Revised Code of Washington makes an explicit point of discriminating against gay and lesbian couples:
  1. Marriages in the following cases are prohibited:
    1. When either party thereto has a wife or husband living at the time of such marriage;

    2. When the husband and wife are nearer of kin to each other than second cousins, whether of the whole or half blood computing by the rules of the civil law; or

    3. When the parties are persons other than a male and a female.

  2. It is unlawful for any man to marry his father's sister, mother's sister, daughter, sister, son's daughter, daughter's daughter, brother's daughter or sister's daughter; it is unlawful for any woman to marry her father's brother, mother's brother, son, brother, son's son, daughter's son, brother's son or sister's son.

  3. A marriage between two persons that is recognized as valid in another jurisdiction is valid in this state only if the marriage is not prohibited or made unlawful under subsection (1)(a), (1)(c), or (2) of this section.
Take note of rules 1-c and 3. Rule 1-c bars gay and lesbian marriages. Rule 3 says that Washington doesn't care if Iowa recognizes a same-sex marriage, because we still won't grant those couples their proper civil rights.

If I were a gay person in Iowa, about to get married to my partner, I'd sure think twice about honeymooning in the Evergreen State. Because, what if something happened? What we got in an accident in our rental car, and my partner ended up in critical care in the hospital? I wouldn't be allowed to make any medical decisions on his behalf. If he recovered and was, somehow, judged to be criminally liable in the accident, I could be compelled to testify against him in court.

Sure, those are worst-case scenarios.

But they - and many more travesties of justice and common sense besides - are entirely within the realm of what Washington's antiquarian legal code allows.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Afghan law legalizes rape

Somebody explain to me why we're investing so many American lives in Afghanistan, a country that refuses to treat women as equal citizens and has passed a law legalizing marital rape.
"As long as the husband is not traveling, he has the right to have sexual intercourse with his wife every fourth night," Article 132 of the law says. "Unless the wife is ill or has any kind of illness that intercourse could aggravate, the wife is bound to give a positive response to the sexual desires of her husband."
We helped chase the Taliban off for this government? Now, I realize there are cultural differences between Afghanistan and the United States of America, but a human being is a human being regardless of where they're from, and no woman ever deserves to be raped and especially not with the government dictating the legality of such an act. And the United States should not stand idly by and provide comfort and assistance to those who promote such policies. Otherwise, our government and theirs are no better than the rapists themselves.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Ed Schultz joins MSNBC's primetime lineup

It's official - MSNBC is adding another progressive to its primetime lineup:
Veteran talk radio host Ed Schultz joins MSNBC as host of "The Ed Show," premiering on Monday, April 6. "The Ed Show" will air weekdays, 6-7 PM ET. The announcement was made today by Phil Griffin, President, MSNBC.

"I am thrilled to have Ed kicking off our primetime lineup," said Griffin. "Ed's proven that he can connect with Americans and will be a perfect compliment to Chris, Keith, and Rachel. He's already made his mark on radio and I'm excited to see what he'll do with the 6 p.m. hour."

"I'm excited to have this opportunity with MSNBC," said Schultz. "I look forward to having a day to day discussion with fellow Americans on issues that really matter to all of us."
The show will air in mid afternoon on the Left Coast, preceding Hardball with Chris Matthews, which begins at 4 PM.

So as of next Monday, MSNBC's schedule will look like this:

Noon: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue with David Schuster
3 PM: The Ed Show (with Ed Schultz!)
4 PM: Hardball with Chris Matthews
5 PM: Countdown with Keith Olbermann
6 PM: The Rachel Maddow Show

MSNBC's competitors, in the same timeslots:

Noon: The CNN Newsroom with Rick Sanchez, Studio B
1 PM: The Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer, Your World with Neil Cavuto
2 PM: Glenn Beck (on Fox Noise)
3 PM: Special Report with Bret Baier (on Fox Noise)
4 PM: Lou Dobbs Tonight; Fox Report (hosted by Shepard Smith)
5 PM: Campbell Brown's No Bias, No Bull; The O'Reilly Factor
6 PM: Larry King Live; Hannity (hosted by Sean Hannity)

Starting next Monday, the quality of MSNBC's programming will really trounce both CNN and the Fox Noise Channel. We can hardly wait to watch Ed's cable debut!

Keeping our state parks open for all to enjoy: A question of common wealth

Would you pay five dollars to keep state parks open?

The state's budget woes are threatening closure of as many as four dozen state parks across Washington. The latest proposal to keep them open involves a five dollar fee added to vehicle license renewals.

And that's no April Fool's joke.

Although this idea is sure to give Tim Eyman fits, it isn't a tax because, as proposed, there would be a box on the renewal form that you could check to opt-out of the fee. That strikes me as kind of a weird way to do it, but there you go. This, Washingtonians, is what you get for letting former watch-salesman (and present snake-oil salesman) Tim Eyman hoodwink you into cutting vehicle fees and strangling public services that are critical to our quality of life.

I find something deeply sad in seeing our state reduced to pursuing an "opt-out" fee in order to raise the money it needs to conduct its legitimate function of maintaining our wonderful parks system.

It isn't the way parks should be funded specifically, and it isn't the way the state should have to raise funds generally. Also, the opt-out nature of the fee practically invites some obvious criticisms.

Indeed, State Rep. Gary Alexander (R-Olympia) got the ball rolling by trotting out that ever-oppressed group, fixed-income elderly folks, who he says will be tricked into paying $5 for parks they don't use.

I guess Tim Eyman must have been out collecting signatures in the rain or something, because otherwise I'm sure he would have said as much.

Without getting sidetracked into shooting down the canard that only people who directly benefit from the spending should pay the fees, let me just ask Rep. Alexander this: if he's such a staunch opponent of tricky paperwork maneuvers, when can we expect to see his bill on comprehensive health insurance disclosure reform so consumers stop being tricked into buying junk insurance that takes their premiums but never delivers coverage?

Because he must surely be working on such a thing, right?

Ahem. Back to the topic at hand.

Blowhards on the right will predictably decry this as an example of big government at its worst. I won't be surprised if Mr. Micromanage himself comes out against it, or threatens to put yet another anti-revenue initiative on the ballot.

My guess, a mandate to put labels in thirty six point type on any such optional fee check-boxes stating "Warning! If you do not opt out of this fee, State Treasurer James McIntire will take your money, break into your house, raid your 'fridge, leave beer can rings all over your coffee table, and rack up thousands of dollars in 1-900 phone sex charges! For the love of all that is conservative, CHECK THE BOX!"

What, not Eymanesque enough for you? It certainly passes the Tim's "probably not constitutional, but what the heck let's file it anyway" test...

This isn't a question of "big" vs. "small" government. It's a question of the state's legitimate role in establishing, preserving, and promoting our common wealth. One of the greatest daggers plunged into America's collective breast by the Reagan administration was to frame government's legitimate role in creating and preserving the common wealth as a "problem of big government."

Government has an easily described and critically important role in our society: the legitimate function of government is to provide the services and infrastructure that private citizens can't afford to provide for themselves, that corporations won't provide, and that yield benefits to society at large that are in excess of what they cost. Government's job is to build the common wealth.

This is why it is such an insidious evil to promote the "big government" framing. This misguided philosophy seeks, under the sheep's-clothing of "savings" and "economy", the impoverishment of our communities and local environments. It implies that government should be small, which in turn implies that any attempts to build the common wealth are inherently wrong.

Which they're not. We need public infrastructure and services that only government can provide. They are essential.

When government can do something like that - for example, building an interstate highway system that turbo-charged interstate commerce and enabled Americans with easy travel all around the nation - it should.

Nobody else can do it, and the benefits can be enormous. Would anybody, even the most shrill of right wing anti-government Reaganite talking heads, claim for one second that it was a bad idea for the federal government to have built the highway system? Or that we haven't gotten our money's worth?

Just ask UPS, or Federal Express, or any of the hundreds of thousands of long-haul truckers who keep goods moving in this country; their very business models depend on the highway system. Even the gleeful phrase "Road trip!", with all the freedom, enjoyment, tourist spending, and economic stimulus it implies, didn't exist before the highway system.

The federal government can - and should - do really big things like upgrading our nation's electricity grid so we can more efficiently distribute power, suffer fewer blackouts, and enable better distributed generation to support new renewable power sources. States can - and should - do smaller things, like creating and maintaining their parks, which offer inexpensive opportunities for recreation.

Private citizens can't do it: I don't, for example, personally have the authority to declare some prime plot of dirt as a state park, nor the resources to develop it into an accessible and useful public resource.

Private corporations won't do it, because if they owned the land they'd find ways to extract larger profits from it, faster. Probably by building a golf course or condominiums or something.

Only the state government - which is, after all, the embodiment of the voice of the people - can say "Hey, this area here is perfect for a state park, and if we develop it as such we can preserve it for future generations as well as creating a tourist destination that will stimulate the local economy."

That is the role of government: not to be big or small or any particular size, but to do the things nobody else can but that help us all. That includes state parks.

Collectively, how much economic activity do you think our state's one hundred and forty parks generate? I don't know, but I'm sure it's considerable.

Bridle Trails state park, a lovely preserve of green in the middle of southeast Kirkland, has spurred tons of economic activity (read: private sector benefit) in the form of construction in the surrounding areas of upscale homes with horse stabling facilities.

Down by Issaquah, Squak Mountain park is a local favorite hiking and paragliding spot, bringing tens of thousands of visitors annually. I'm guessing that no small amount of those recreational users end up eating lunch or dinner in Issaquah before they drive home, to the benefit of that community's small businesses.

That's just two. No doubt similar benefits accrue from many of the other 138 parks. Surely the anti-government types wouldn't dispute that those effects are good things, would they? Providing a market opportunity for upscale home developers and providing customers for small businesses are supposed to be good, pro-capitalist activities, right?

Yes. Yes they are. And I haven't even posed the question of how many people use the parks themselves, for personal enjoyment, annually. I can't afford to own a chunk of wilderness to go hiking or camping in. And if I did, it would represent a huge investment for something I could only use a few times a year.

But if I pay a little bit to the state - and everyone else does too - everyone can have access to 140 state parks that, collectively, we can use year round.

What a deal!

Collectively, are these uses and benefits worth $5 per vehicle license across the state? It would be difficult to argue that they do not.

So would you pay five dollars to keep our state parks open? I sure would. I don't use them much myself, but even so I don't want them to go away.

Goodness knows our state's economy doesn't need to be nickel-and-dimed to death with penny-wise but pound-foolish measures like closing state parks. Yeah, it would save a few bucks today, but it would also make it just that much harder for the local economies around those state parks to survive.

And that - regardless of what Tim Eyman or anybody else may tell you - is not something Washington State needs right now.

Charges against Ted Stevens to be dropped

The Justice Department is moving to dismiss charges of corruption against former Senator Ted Stevens (R-AK), which cost him his seat last November.
"After careful review, I have concluded that certain information should have been provided to the defense for use at trial," Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement released this morning. "In light of this conclusion, and in consideration of the totality of the circumstances of this particular case, I have determined that it is in the interest of justice to dismiss the indictment and not proceed with a new trial."
Unfortunately, this decision will continue to fuel the "us against the world" attitude of certain Alaskan politicians (Governor Palin, Congressman Don Young, Ted Stevens), giving credibility to the idea that out in the snowy frontier they're on their own and can't count on anyone but themselves. To some, this decision may signal that the Obama Administration is unwilling to prosecute any of the misdeeds of the Bush Administration and other officials in the era of corporate/personal greed and excess.

What is curious about Attorney General Holder's statement is this:

Holder said that the Justice Department's Office of Professional Responsibility "will conduct a thorough review of the prosecution of this matter."

"This does not mean or imply that any determination has been made about the conduct of those attorneys who handled the investigation and trial of this case," he said. “The Department of Justice must always ensure that any case in which it is involved is handled fairly and consistent with its commitment to justice. Under oftentimes trying conditions, the attorneys who serve in this Department live up to those principles on a daily basis. I am proud of them and of the work they do for the American people."

Certainly the review is in order, but shouldn't it be completed to determine if there was misconduct prior to letting Ted Stevens off the hook? And if the results of that review show that prosecutors acted appropriately, then shouldn't Ted Stevens have a cell reserved at a federal prison?

Holder seemingly contradicts himself, first by saying things weren't given to the defense during the trial, and then saying he'll conduct a review to determine if the attorneys acted appropriately. And in the process, he's absolving a man who may or may not be guilty.