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Eye On Olympia

Archive for December 2008

Roundup:

Trying to get a weekend story done, so I’ll let others do the talking:

-Joe Turner, on why big tuition hikes at Washington’s state colleges may be in the works,

-Rich Nafziger, on why that would be a bad, bad idea,

-Jim Camden, on how Peter Goldmark is the first Eastern Washingtonian to win statewide office in “…well, a really long time,”

-Jim Camden again, on the looming applets and cotlets battle in Olympia,

-Brad Shannon, on lawmakers who’ve battled cancer,

and, last but not least, Randy Stapilus, declaring that the most influential Washingtonian of 2008 was…Dino Rossi. (Hat tip to Adam Wilson.)

Marshburn takes the helm, for now at least, at DSHS

Stan Marshburn, a longtime state official, has been named interim head of the state Department of Social and Health Services. Marshburn takes over Jan. 5, when the agency’s current chief, Robin Arnold-Williams, switches hats to become the new director of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s stable of policy experts. Gregoire, who appointed Marshburn, said that “his 30 years of state service, including the Office of Financial Management, the state House of Representatives and 11 years at DSHS will serve him well. I look forward to working with him until a permanent replacement is identified.”

Washington’s minimum wage, the nation’s highest, rising to $8.55 in January…

It will be a happier new year, at least for some Washington workers.

Tomorrow, Washington’s minimum wage will rise to $8.55 an hour from $8.07, a full $2 an hour higher than in neighboring Idaho.

“Washington’s is still the highest, followed by Oregon, California and Massachusetts,” said Elaine Fischer, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Labor and Industries.

In Idaho, the minimum wage is the federal $6.55 an hour. That’s slated to rise to $7.25 in July.

Some Washington employers aren’t happy about the 48-cent-an-hour increase. The state’s restaurant association would prefer a lower training wage for 16-year-old workers, or a cap on minimum-wage increases during bad economic times.

“We want to pay fair wages, but we’re facing an industry crisis here,” said spokeswoman Camille St. Onge. Gov. Chris Gregoire and her supporters hammered Republican gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi earlier this year for saying he would support a lower minimum wage for young employees.

Higher wages, St. Onge said, will put a greater squeeze on restaurants already struggling with thin profit margins as worried consumers eat out less. Consumers will likely see higher menu prices, she said.

Washington voters have repeatedly approved a higher state minimum wage, most recently with Initiative 688 in 1998. At the time, the state’s minimum wage was $4.90 an hour.

I-688 passed overwhelmingly, 66 percent to 34 percent. It linked the wage to the federal consumer price index for urban and clerical workers. The index is meant to measure the cost of goods and services needed for day-to-day living, Fischer said. The industries with the highest percentage of minimum-wage workers are food services, retail and agriculture.

Last year, Washington’s minimum wage rose 14 cents, or less than 2 percent. This year’s 48-cent increase is nearly 6 percent.

“As a 63-year-old, that sounds like a lot of money,” said Richard Reed, a retired flooring installer in Chattaroy. “But I know that the disparity between those at the bottom of the income ladder and those at the top has only gotten greater over the years in this country. So in that light, I think that they need it and deserve it.”

In Spokane, advocates for low-income workers are trying to set a local “living wage” for employees of large retailers in the city. The wage would be 130 percent of the state minimum wage, which would work out to about $11.12 an hour in January.

“We’re trying to do a little bit to end the cycle of poverty here,” said Shane Russell, with Spokane’s Peace and Justice Action League. Big-box retailers can afford to pay more, he said, and the impact on consumers would likely be small.

Proponents tried in 2007 to submit enough signatures to put the living-wage plan on a city ballot, but didn’t have enough valid signatures. They’ll try again in 2009, Russell said.

State Rep. Steve Hailey dead at 63

Rep. Steve Hailey, R-Mesa, died Sunday, about a year after he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He would have turned 64 next month.

A farmer and rancher from the Franklin County town of Mesa, Hailey was elected on his second try in 2006, narrowly beating fellow Republican Joe Schmick in the Republican primary. (Schmick, R-Colfax was subsequently appointed to fill a vacant legislative seat, and both men recently won re-election.)

Hailey represented the 9th district, a sprawling triangle that encompasses the Palouse and much of southeastern Washington. The former Vietnam War helicopter pilot made public the cancer diagnosis last January, then went back to his ranch to try to keep working on legislative tasks in between chemotherapy doses.

“This is one of the toughest challenges of my life, but I feel strongly that I have an obligation to be candid about what I’m dealing with and what’s ahead,” Hailey said at the time. He vowed to battle through the disease.

Last spring, he sounded upbeat and energetic, optimistic that the chemotherapy had worked. He was working on the ranch again. He ran for re-election, winning easily. Then, a few weeks after the election, Hailey announced that he’d be resigning Jan. 11th, a day before the legislative session starts. He no longer had the strength, he said at the time, to keep up with a state lawmaker’s workload.

“When Steve announced his resignation earlier this month, we knew it was time for him to focus on his family and his battle against cancer,” said House Minority Leader Richard DeBolt.

Funeral services are slated for 2 p.m. Saturday in Connell, at the Connell Community Center. Republican party officials from the district’s half-dozen counties will nominate appointees for the seat, with the county commissioners making the final decision.

In lieu of flowers, people can make contributions in Hailey’s name to the Tri-Cities Cancer Center Foundation, the American Cancer Society, and the Washington Cattlemen’s Association Endowmen Trust Fund.

Governor, citing winter storms, declares state of emergency…

Gov. Chris Gregoire has declared a state of emergency in Washington due to winter storms.

“Snowfall has reached record or near-record level in 30 of the state’s 39 counties,” Gregoire said in a written statement released Christmas Eve.” With Eastern Washington and other parts of the state still expecting more snow, she said, the proclamation allows the state to respond quickly to local requests for help.

The emergency proclamation covers the cities of Spokane, Spokane Valley and Gig Harbor, as well as the Makah Tribe and King-, Pierce-, Snohomish- and Thurston counties.

Among the things affected: the proclamation temporarily lifts limits on truckers’ hours for hauling milk from dairies. The dairy industry otherwise would have lost nearly $1 million a day from milk that would have been discarded because it was hauled longer than the normal rules allow.

Gregoire’s move also allows her to call out the Washington National Guard to help with storm response, she said.

 

Best wishes for all of us…

Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, a festive Festivus, wonderful Winter Solstice, etc. to all of us.

And may it be a happy new year.

Proposed for the chopping block: the state’s only women’s prison east of the Cascades….

From tomorrow’s paper:

Citing the state’s budget woes, prison officials want to close Pine Lodge Corrections Center for Women, Washington’s only women’s prison east of the Cascade Mountains.


As early as next summer, the state would start transferring roughly 350 inmates to a prison near Vancouver. About 140 workers would have to shift to jobs elsewhere or be laid off.

“It was pretty clear that based on the fiscal constraints we’re going to be facing, that we need to close a facility,” said Dick Morgan, director of the state Department of Corrections’ prisons division.

Pine Lodge, located in Medical Lake, includes some aging buildings that need costly renovations, he said, “so it became the most likely candidate.”

The state would save about $14 million over the next two years, he said.

Although state lawmakers will have the final say, Gov. Chris Gregoire has proposed billions of dollars in reduced spending over the next two years, forcing state agencies to find ways to wring that money from their budgets.

Pine Lodge superintendent Walker Morton said he’s urging staff at the minimum custody prison to try not to worry, that it’s just a proposal. If the prison closes, he said, he’s been told it wouldn’t take place until February of 2010.

“We just have to keep our eyes and ears open until the legislators do their thing,” he said.

Morton met with the prison’s inmates Tuesday and told them the news. Most were understanding, he said.

Closing Pine Lodge is only one facet of Gregoire’s proposed $125 million in savings at the Department of Corrections. And the agency isn’t alone; the Department of Social and Health Services is trying to figure out how to cut spending by nearly $1.3 billion; the Department of Health by $75 million.

Morgan said prison officials would be happy to consider money-saving alternatives to closing Pine Lodge. But the state is facing 1,000 fewer inmates than expected, Morgan said, and in the face of a massive budget shortfall, its hard to justify keeping all the prisons open.

News of the proposal, which initially trickled out in phone calls and emails, stunned workers.
“Some people can’t believe this,”said Dawnel Southwick, a secretary supervisor at the prison for the past 9 years. “This facility is not the run-down, broken-down, not-going-to-survive-until-next-week facility that they’re making it out to be.”

“These are good, family-wage jobs,” said Matthew Pederson, executive director of the West Plains chamber of commerce.

The state has two prisons with female inmates in Western Washington. The Washington State Corrections Center for Women is near Gig Harbor, and Mission Creek is near Shelton.

“I’ve never heard of them closing a prison,” said Marye Jorgenson, who works in Pine Lodge’s records department. “You keep up hope that if people fight hard and long enough, we can hang on, hopefully through this recession.”

The Washington Federation of State Employees, which represents most of the workers, said that the state should instead be looking at ways to bring more money into the state treasury.

“I don’t think we can cut our way out of this huge deficit,” said union spokesman Tim Welch. One obvious place to look, he said, are the “huge tax loopholes” for businesses.

For inmates from Eastern Washington, the transfer to Larch Corrections Center would mean being hundreds of miles away from loved ones.

“It’s going to devastate families, and most women in prison have children,” said Nora Callahan, executive director of the November Coalition, a sentencing-reform group based in Colville. “If you move them to where you can’t see them in a day and get home, most people won’t be able to afford to visit.”

Morgan concedes that the move could be tough on Eastern Washington families. But he said most inmates – like most Washingtonians – are from the western side of the state.

State employees’ union files suit over Gregoire’s refusal to include raises in her budget…

The largest state-workers’ union, the Washington Federation of State Employees, filed a lawsuit today against Gov. Chris Gregoire for not including workers’ cost-of-living increases in her budget proposal.

This fall, Gregoire’s office negotiated cost-of-living increases averaging about 2 percent a year for workers over the next two years. But she didn’t include that in her budget plan, released last Thursday.

Gregoire’s budget director, Victor Moore, says that the raises need to be part of the governor’s budget request only if he certifies the contract as “feasible financially” for the state. If Moore says it’s not feasible, he maintains, the governor “is prohibited from submitting a request for funds to the Legislature.” (Here’s a link to a  copy of the letter, in this blog post by the Tacoma News-Tribune’s Joe Turner.)

Moore says that the contracts, finalized in August and September, “were concluded prior to the global financial market crisis we all witnessed in October.” The state’s November revenue forecast, which predicted $1.9 billion less in revenues than projected just two months earlier, hurt the state’s financial plans dramatically. Paying for the raises, Moore writes, would mean even deeper cuts to the social safety net.

The lawsuit asks a Thurston County judge to “compel” the governor to submit the pay raises and the other economic parts of five negotiated contracts to state lawmakers. The agreements cover 30,000 government employees and another 10,000 at a dozen community colleges and some four-year schools.

“Both parties agreed to the terms of that agreement, with the express or implied understanding that by this agreement, the director of OFM was committing to certify that the contractual commitments were financially feasible for the state,” the lawsuit says.


Seattle’s no-salt ideal for roads: hard-packed snow and ice?

“Compact snow and ice” is a familiar cautionary refrain to winter drivers, but in Seattle, it’s apparently what city road crews are striving for.

The Seattle Times has a story about this today, quoting a city transportation official as saying that the goal in hilly Seattle is “a hard-packed surface” of snow and ice. From the story:

The icy streets are the result of Seattle’s refusal to use salt, an effective ice-buster used by the state Department of Transportation and cities accustomed to dealing with heavy winter snows.

“If we were using salt, you’d see patches of bare road because salt is very effective,” Wiggins said. “We decided not to utilize salt because it’s not a healthy addition to Puget Sound.”

No word on whether auto-body shops are viewing this as an economic stimulus plan.

Several state offices closed due to yesterday’s snow, ice…

Several state offices have shut down today, as the Olympia area is blanketed with dense wet snow from yesterday and several previous days. Of the four capitol reporters who made it in to my office this morning, three got their cars stuck in the parking lot. (The fourth is a sturdy native Idahoan at the wheel of an old four-wheel-drive Nissan.) The weather has hampered staffing at state offices since the middle of last week. On Thursday, the Employment Security Department temporarily closed its two call centers that field requests for unemployment insurance claims, saying that snow and ice made it too hazardous for employees to get there to man the phones. (Most workers can also file a claim online at www.esd.wa.gov.)

Living within your means…

As my son rejoices at the closure of school for the day, I am thinking about the people in the homeless shelters and using food banks, and the families who created the longest line ever for the Christmas Bureau sponsored annually by the Spokesman-Review. 

So begins a recent blog post by Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, who’s clearly worried about what the $5.7 billion (or more) budget shortfall will mean to struggling people and families.

Brown was muted in her criticism yesterday of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s all-cuts budget proposal for the next two years. Among those cuts: eliminating adult day health programs that help senior citizens and disabled adults remain in their homes, doing away with $339-a-month checks and health coverage of thousands of people deemed “unemployable” due to mental or physical problems, and a 42 percent cut in state-subsidized health coverage for the working poor.

But the former Senate budget writer also implies that a budget written by the Senate will look a lot different. Brown writes:

I respect the principle behind the Governor’s admonition to the legislature (prompted by press inquiries about alternatives to an all-cuts budget) that “we’ve got to live within our means”.  But something sticks in my throat when I think about the contrast between the high-flying corporate executives and the mentally and physically challenged people living one step up from the streets on GA-U. How do they live within their means if we completely eliminate them?

Governor’s budget: What initiative?

Gov. Chris Gregoire’s budget plan doesn’t include the money to pay for an initiative approved by voters just last month. I-1029 — like the governor herself — was heavily supported by members of the Service Employees International Union.

Here are the details, from the TNT’s Joe Turner.

State worker union head: “Don’t panic. Fight.”

Washington Federation of State Employees president Carol Dotlich had some words of advice for fellow union members at a recent banquet in Spokane:

“When you see that budget, I don’t want you to overreact to it,” she reportedly told the crowd. “I don’t want you to be panicked. I want you to be determined.”

The 40,000-member union is trying to stave off some of the cuts proposed yesterday by Gov. Chris Gregoire, including suspending all cost-of-living increases for state employees.

Some members are also heeding Gregoire’s call to not just say “don’t cut”, but to instead say “cut this other thing instead.”

For some members at the state Department of Ecology, that meant filing a public disclosure request for the salaries, bonuses and other pay given to the agency’s managers over the past 8 years. They found that rank-and-file workers got pay raises totalling about 28 percent, while managers’ totaled nearly 42 percent.

The union’s executive director, Greg Devereux, is calling for management bonuses to be eliminated.

Hat tip: The Olympian’s Adam Wilson.



Budget-crisis suggestions, from insiders and the hinterlands…

From the print paper:

Think back to the last time you renewed your driver’s license. Do you remember the shoes on the person behind the counter?

Of course not. But you probably paid for them. Taxpayers provide a $97-a-year “shoe allowance” for the 330 folks working at the state’s 60-plus driver licensing offices. You also pick up the tab for the employees’ shirts, pants, sweaters, jackets and hats, as well as a $27-a-month stipend for dry cleaning.

With Washington’s government facing a $5 billion to $6 billion budget shortfall over the next two years, residents are trying to find new ways to save. Doing away with the clothing allowance was among the nearly 2,000 ideas submitted over the past few weeks to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who recently release a budget proposal including deep spending cuts.

“We looked at all the suggestions and had them in mind as we were making decisions” on that proposal, said Glenn Kuper, a spokesman for the governor’s budget office. Many of the ideas, he said, could also be wrapped into a broader package of government reforms Gregoire plans to propose in January.

Who’s watching the store? Olympia press corps has shrunk by two-thirds since early 1990s…

As newspapers shrink staff, the number of reporters covering state government has shrunk dramatically, both across the nation and here in Olympia. We joke that soon the only one watching government will be the robotic cameras of TVW, the state’s public affairs network. And no one laughs very hard.

The Seattle Times’ Andrew Garber chronicled the growing emptiness at the press desks on the House and Senate floor.

In 1993, there were 34 journalists covering the Washington state Legislature. By 2007, there were 17. This year, there may be as few as 10 full-time journalists, mostly newspaper reporters.

and this:

The Associated Press office at the state Capitol keeps a printout with mugshots of reporters who recently covered the Legislature pinned to a wall. They mark off each reporter who leaves. Seven faces are now covered with smiley-face stickers.

The public-relations staff employed by state lawmakers and government agencies, many of whom are former journalists, vastly outnumber the reporters in Olympia who call them for information.

Some political bloggers are trying to fill that gap. Horse’s Ass blogger David Goldstein is thinking of dispatching one of his political writers, Josh Feit, to cover Olympia’s legislative session. Writes Goldstein:

The problem, of course, is the money.  It’ll cost HA about $15,000 in salary and expenses to pay Josh to cover this four month session… and that’s on top of the money I ultimately need to raise to support myself.  And I’d like to hear from you, my readers, whether you think it is worth it?

Gregoire’s budget plan: “the nightmare before Christmas” for the social safety net?

In Friday morning’s paper:

Before unveiling her budget plan Thursday, Gov. Chris Gregoire glanced around the crowded room.

“Before we begin,” she said, “I’d like to ask all of you to remove your shoes and take them outside. Particularly boots.”

That was the first and last joke of the somber 45-minute presentation, as Gregoire laid out a no-new-taxes proposal for deep state budget cuts to close an unprecedented $5.7 billion budget shortfall over the next two years.

“I hate it,” Gregoire said of her budget plan. “Nothing went untouched.”

Among the proposed cuts:

-halting nearly $700 million in planned cost-of-living raises for state workers and teachers for two years,

-cutting the Basic Health Plan, a state health insurance program for the working poor, by 42 percent,

-laying off more than 2,400 state workers,

-at least a 12 percent across-the-board budget cut at the state’s four-year colleges,

-a 6 percent cut for community colleges,

-cutting community mental health and chemical dependency services by $53 million,

-doing away with health care and small monthly checks for more than 20,000 people deemed unemployable, often due to mental health problems. At least 2,000 of those people are in Spokane.

-and cutting money for new affordable housing in half.

The depth of the cuts stunned social service advocates, labor leaders and others.

“Some of these programs really are the most extreme form of safety net,” said Nick Federici, a lobbyist for human services groups. “To us, this really is the nightmare before Christmas.”

Detailing the cuts…

Gov. Chris Gregoire’s two-year budget plan, released Thursday, suggests closing a $5.7 billion budget shortfall with deep cuts.

Here’s a look at some of the biggest cuts, local cuts, and some new local spending:

Education:

-do away with cost-of-living raises for teachers and other school staffers for the next two years: $349 million.

-eliminate a variety of school pilot programs, including the reading corps, civics curriculum, and math helping corps: $23 million.

-”suspend” about a quarter of the money for class-size reduction: $178 million.

Higher Education:

-across-the-board cuts of up to 13 percent at four-year colleges and 6 percent at community and technical colleges. The colleges can decide what to cut, although effects may include cutting faculty, cutting support staff and offering fewer classes. Savings: $342 million.

-doing away with faculty and staff cost-of-living raises at community and technical colleges: $33.4 million.

Human services:

-do away with the Adult Day Health program, which serves about 1,900 elderly and developmentally disabled people: $20 million.

-reduce nursing home reimbursement rates by 5 percent: $46 million.

-shrink mental health funding for Regional Support Networks: $31 million.

-toughen accountability for welfare recipients and push them into jobs quicker: $30 million.

Health care:

-stop buying vaccines for children not covered by Medicaid: $50 million.

-cut the state’s Basic Health Plan for the working poor by 42 percent and shrink the things it will cover.

-halt plans to let parents buy state-subsidized health coverage if they’re between 250 percent and 300 percent of poverty level. For a family of 4, that’s $53,000 to $63,600 per year. Savings: $6 million.

-eliminate General Assistance for the Unemployable, which provides health care and issues checks of up to $339 a month to thousands of people. Savings: $251 million.

-cut hospital reimbursement rates by 4 percent: $47 million.

Natural resources:

-close 7 fish hatcheries: $7 million.

-close 13 state parks, plus other parks during off-peak seasons: $5 million.

Law enforcement:

-shortening probation and eliminating probation supervision for misdemeanors and low-risk felonies: $69 million.

-shrinking drug and alcohol treatment: $11 million.

What are the 13 state parks targeted for closure?

Here’s the list:

Lake Osoyoos

Brooks Memorial

Bogachiel

Tolmie

Fay Bainbridge

Fort Okanogan

Wenberg

Fort Ward

Joemma Beach

Kopachuck

Lake Sylvia

Old Fort Townsend

Squilchuck

Nolte

and the Camp Moran environmental learning program.

Lisa Brown: a moral responsibility to head off cuts to kids…

In the hubbub around Gov. Gregoire’s budget proposal today, one of the dissenters was from a lawmaker close to Gregoire: Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown.

Brown was unhappy that Gregoire’s budget assumes about $1 billion from the feds, calling the assumption a “glaring flaw” that the budget juggling look easier than it actually will be.

Brown said that while she, too, is hopeful that Congress and the Obama administration will help states, she doesn’t feel comfortable building that hope into a budget.

Gregoire said the assumption is based on her conversations with Obama, and that some additional federal money has already started coming to the state. If anything, Gregoire said, the $1 billion is probably underestimating the federal help.

Brown is especially focused on trying to preserve the social safety net. In a blog post recently, she talked about meeting with Spokane-area children’s advocates over breakfast recently. Among them: foster parents, social workers, nurses and teachers.

“Their concerns about the budget gap underscore a central truth about state government,” Brown wrote. “No matter how you add it up, state programs that serve children make up significantly more than half the state budget.”

Protecting those kids, she said, isn’t just an economic or political problem, it’s a moral one.

Lawmakers react: GOP likes Gregoire’s budget, Dems say wait and see…

From my snowbound colleague Jim Camden, helping out from Spokane:

Gov. Chris Gregoire’s proposal to close a projected budget deficit without raising taxes drew praise from Republicans and “wait and see” comments from fellow Democrats Thursday.

If it holds up through a process that will stretch at least into April – and possibly longer – it may be the first time in decades state leaders have balanced a budget in bad economic times without a tax increase. Gregoire campaigned for re-election with a pledge not to raise taxes, often with legislative Democrats on the platform next to her.

Rep. Alex Wood, D-Spokane, said that was before the projected deficit was as deep as it is now.

Also:

-2,400 fewer jobs -and a 13 percent across-the-board cut to the state’s four-year colleges and 6 percent for community and technical colleges.

No raises, sharp cuts in social services and higher education…

Among the cuts: -no cost of living increases for state workers or teachers. -a 24 percent cut to class-size reduction money in schools. -reducing nursing home reimbursement rates, mental health services. -doing away with state payments under the General Assistance-Unemployable program, which provides health care and small checks to people, often homeless people.

Budget cuts, by area…

Cuts, by area: K-12: 5.6 percent Public safety: 6.3 percent Early learning: 6.4 percent Higher education: 7.6 percent Health care and human services: 12.2 percent Natural resources: 12.2 percent

Combing through the stuffed suggestion box for budget-fixing ideas…

In Thursday morning’s paper:

Think back to the last time you renewed your driver’s license. Do you remember the shoes on the person behind the counter?

Of course not. But here’s a little known fact about those shoes: you probably paid for them.

Washington taxpayers provide a $97-a-year “shoe allowance” for the 330 folks working at more than 60 driver licensing offices across the state. You also pick up the tab for the state-logo-bearing shirts, pants, sweaters, jackets and hats worn by those employees, as well as a $27-a-month stipend for dry cleaning.

Now, with Washington’s government facing an unprecedented $5 billion to $6 billion budget shortfall over the next two years, people, including many state employees, are trying to find new ways to save.

Doing away with the clothing allowance was among the nearly 2,000 ideas submitted over the past few weeks to Gov. Chris Gregoire, who today will release a budget proposal expected to include deep spending cuts.

It’s not just Washington: atheist sign stolen from Illinois capitol, too…

Someone has made off with an atheist sign put up in the Illinois state capitol, according to the (Springfield, IL) State Journal-Register.

The same thing happened recently in Olympia early one morning, although the sign — apparently bent in half by the thief — was recovered by state troopers later that day. The signs were virtually identical, erected by Wisconsin’s Freedom from Religion Foundation.

From the Journal-Register’s story:

The sign was securely taped to an easel.

“It had to take an effort (to remove it),” (Annie Laurie) Gaylor said. “Atheists never engage in vandalism. We don’t go around stealing the Baby Jesus. They don’t follow their own commandments.”

Gaylor said the group hopes to have a replacement sign in place by today. “We’ll put a ‘Thou Shall Not Steal’ sign with it,” Gaylor said.

Snow paralyzes capitol…

I know this is hard to believe in places with things like snow plows and sanders, but 2 1/2 inches of snow overnight has left the capital city at a near-standstill, with a small number of cars and trucks creeping over snow that’s been compacted to make for some nice sledding indeed.

Attorney General: “Airborne” tablets don’t prevent colds…

Washington and Idaho are part of a $7 million, 32-state settlement with the makers of Airborne, a popular effervescent tablet invented by a California second-grade teacher tired of picking up colds in the classroom. The lawsuit said that the tablet’s touted cold-fighting properties “weren’t substantiated by reliable and competent scientific evidence.” The company has settled two other lawsuits totalling $30 million over similar claims. “Unfortunately, there is no cure for the common cold,” assistant attorney general Bob Lipson said in a statement announcing the settlement this week. “Not chicken soup. Not orange juice. Not fizzy tablets.” The ingredient list posted on Airborne’s website suggests that the pills are essentially a multivitamin combined with a proprietary herbal blend invented by that former teacher, Victoria Knight McDowell. The pills contain vitamins A, C and E, along with zinc, selenium, manganese, magnesium and amino acids. The herbal blend includes things like ginger, echinacea and forsythia. The lawsuit also alleged that the company failed to warn consumers about potential health risks to pregnant women and some other users from an earlier form of the pills, which contained 5,000 units of vitamin A. That’s been reduced to 2,000 units. Airborne Health Inc. says that the settlement will have no effect on the product, since the cold-remedy labeling had already been changed. The company says the key ingredients in Airborne “have been shown to help support the immune system.” “Airborne continues to be the number-one-selling product of its kind in America,” the company said, “and we appreciate the loyalty of our customers.”

Environmental regulators now carrying police-style ticket books…

Inspectors from the Washington state Department of Ecology have started carrying ticket books when they check for water pollution at construction sites, industrial operations or sand and gravel mines. The tickets carry fines of $500 to $3,000. On field visits, the agency says, it’s common to find oil spills, muddy runoff pouring out of construction sites and similar problems. Being able to write a ticket on the spot “will provide near-immediate consequences,” according to water quality program manager Kelly Susewind. Ecology doesn’t keep the money from the fines. It goes to local governments and tribes for water quality improvements and restoration work.

Roundup: Lisa Brown for governor? and bleak news about two state reps and a hardworking blog…

-In a discussion of the significance of an anti-Building-Industry-Association-of-Washington-button at a Democratic fundraiser, horsesass.org writer Josh Feit offhandedly mentions Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown and Congressman Jay Inslee as gubernatorial candidates in 2012. Writes Feit: “I was talking to a Democratic state Senator about the 2012 governor’s race. We were handicapping state Senator Lisa Brown’s (D-3, Spokane) chances vs. U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee’s chances, in what’s likely to be a bruising primary between the two anticipated candidates. And could either one beat GOP media darling, AG Rob McKenna?” -Rep. Steve Hailey, R-Mesa, is stepping down in January, citing weakness from cancer treatments. Elected in 2006, Hailey was just starting his second session this year when he was diagnosed with colon cancer. He spent most of the session at home, trying to keep up with legislative work in between chemotherapy. Hailey. 63, last week wrote to Gov. Chris Gregoire, saying “My health is such that I cannot represent the interests of my constituents in the fashion they deserve.” It’s increasingly difficult, the third-generation farmer and rancher said, to summon the physical strength to keep up with the demands of being a lawmaker. He said the treatment has been “tough but tolerable” and said he’s determined to beat the disease. “He leaves office with the same class and dignity in which he served,” said Rep. Joe Schmick, who also represents the mostly-Palouse 9th district. “I would ask that people keep Steve and his family in their thoughts and prayers.” -Politicker.wa has stopped updating its posts since last week and is apparently shutting down after a promising run as a one-stop, all-politics website. Olympian political editor Brad Shannon wrote: “Blogger Bryan Bissell at politickerwa.com just posted an item today, titled Goodbye, and Good Luck, saying he has lost his job. The Tacoma native said parent company politicker.com pulled the plug. The online news service was serving 20 states but is down to five, and the cuts came as a surprise, Bissell told me.” That farewell post has since disappeared from Politickerwa’s website. -Longtime Eastern Washington state Rep. Bill Grant, D-Walla Walla, has been diagnosed with a rare form of lung cancer. In an announcement to fellow lawmakers, Grant said that a lung biopsy in Seattle revealed the cancer and that he’d returned home to discuss treatment options. Note: We’re still working some of the kinks out of this new blogging platform, which is why the links in the above post aren’t showing up properly. Working on this…Also, I have no idea why Brown’s name is lower-cased in the tags. No slight intended. RR

Budget fight preview: told-you-so versus “nobody foresaw this”…

A Spokane business group, Greater Spokane Inc., hosted a legislative forum last week to preview the coming session and the massive budget shortfall the state now faces. It wasn’t exactly a display of sleeves-rolled-up bipartisanship. The Republicans on the panel were quick to point out that the Democrat-dominated legislature has ramped up spending faster than revenues in recent years. “We knew this was coming,” Rep. Bill Hinkle, R-Cle Elum, said, suggesting that Democrats should apologize. “Lord have mercy, at some point we have to own up to what we’ve done.” The last budget, he said, started out with a $1.8 billion state surplus. Democrats, he said, simply spent too much when they should have been saving more. “For years, we’ve governed by group interest,” said Hinkle. “People show up to Olympia, and everybody’s got something that they want.” Democrats’ response: Nobody foresaw this kind of economic meltdown. “No one can with a straight face tell you that they would have written a budget that would have prepared us for the situation we’re facing now,” said Senate Majority Leader Lisa Brown, D-Spokane. It’s a waste of time, she suggested, for the two sides to “play the blame game” over the financial woes of the state and nation. And it’s not like Republican lawmakers have much of a moral high ground on the budget, added Marty Brown, Gov. Chris Gregoire’s legislative liaison. “Maybe I could count on one hand the number of legislators who didn’t ask for something in that budget.” Hinkle wasn’t among those few, he added. Sen. Brown and other Democrats argue that the crisis gives lawmakers an opportunity to revisit ideas from both sides – and to work together. Senate Democrats, for example, adopted an idea that Republicans had been championing for years: setting up a state “rainy day fund” for tough budget years. Both sides teamed up with the governor to pressure reluctant House lawmakers to agree. Those hundreds of millions of surplus dollars are now a key lifeline for the budget. “It was just a good-government idea,” said Sen. Brown.

State officials put their foot down on any more holiday displays at the capitol…

There will be no Festivus pole at the state Capitol this year, no banner reading “Lion of David,” and certainly no poem claiming that Santa Claus will send us all to hell. So sayeth Washington state officials, who after two contentious weeks have imposed a moratorium on any further holiday displays inside the state Capitol. “It was more than we anticipated,” said Steve Valandra, a spokesman for the state department of General Administration. The handful of displays that are already there, he said, can stay. Prodded by requests and a lawsuit, the state in the past few years has allowed holiday displays inside the echoing marble Capitol, which has long featured an evergreen “Holiday Tree” in the rotunda every December. There was a menorah-lighting by Orthodox rabbis, a Nativity scene from an Olympia real estate agent, and then, this year, a sign from a Wisconsin atheist group declaring that there are no gods and that religion is just myths and superstition. That fired up Christians, who promptly added signs critical of atheism and last Sunday held a demonstration on the Capitol steps. One demonstrator assembled a Nativity scene on the spot out of balloons. Fox News commentator Bill O’Reilly highlighted the controversy nightly, blasting Gov. Chris Gregoire for allowing the atheist sign. Early one morning, someone stole the sign. State troopers later recovered it. “It certainly stirred people up,” Valandra said of the publicity. “The phone calls, the e-mails, it all started the day after.” Since then, one group after another has sought permission to add displays. A Catholic nun living in a Mexican prison asked to put up a sign wishing atheists well. Someone else wanted to put up a display for the Japanese holiday Bodhi Day, celebrating the enlightenment of the Buddha. An Olympia man wanted to celebrate Festivus. A group from Kansas City sought to honor the Flying Spaghetti Monster. And a gay-hating Kansas group sought to erect its sign proclaiming that the recession is evidence of God’s wrath and that Santa is a child molester. All of which is a bit much, General Administration officials decided, for a small nook now roped off and guarded by a state trooper on the third floor of the Capitol. “We were just anticipating even more, and the area we designated just can’t accommodate them anymore,” Valandra said. If people try to add displays without a permit, he said, troopers will ask them to remove them. Valandra said the department will try to figure out how to handle things next year. So far, he said, nobody’s suggested banning displays entirely. “Everything went fine last year,” he said.

Did you misplace that $1000 bill?

Next Thursday and Friday in Kenmore, Murphy Auctions will sell to the highest bidder a long list of stuff found in abandoned bank safe deposit boxes.

After at least five years of no payment and no contact with the owners, banks and credit unions can turn the items over to the state Department of Revenue, which can keep it for a maximum of 5 more years, then periodically auctions it off. The state holds the money, which it will turn over if the rightful owner ever steps forward. (Keep reading to see where you can easily find out if the state’s holding an old paycheck, utility refund or other money owed to you.)

“We’ve had some success in reuniting rightful owners with their personal valuables, but many items have gone unclaimed despite our best efforts,” said DOR head Cindi Holmstrom. She said people can make claims “right up to the start of the auction.”

Much of it is what you’d expect: pocket watches, stamps, baseball cards, lots of old coins, silver bars, old newspapers, gold nuggets, photos, silver baby spoons and so on. There’s also this real one thousand dollar bill.

Among the unusual items: Animal teeth, 3 sets of (vintage) false teeth, a bottle of cheap champagne, and some battered brass knuckles.

It gets even stranger. Several people apparently kept their cell phones in safe deposit boxes, and one person kept his/her nail clippers safe. Someone stored a clip for a .45 automatic and some hex wrenches. And the newly revealed treasures include both a “Hits of the Eagles” karaoke CD and, incredibly, a karaoke machine to play that CD on.

Washington state holds $650 million in unclaimed property belonging to about 3 million people. The vast majority of it is cash, resulting from abandoned bank accounts, stocks, bonds, uncashed payroll checks and other abandoned property. Some of the property dates back the 1950s.

New property is constantly being turned in, but a big push by the Department of Revenue to find the owners of this stuff has resulted in more than $112 million going back to 240,000 owners in the last three years.

If any of the above items sound familiar, or if you remember that you never got that final paycheck years ago, etc., you can check the Washington Department of Revenue’s searchable website for unclaimed property. Just type in your name or business name, and it will tell you if the state’s holding some money for you.

Catching up:

I was in Spokane for a few days earlier this week; am now back in Olympia, trying to catch this blog up with events.

A new campaign finance violation complaint against the state Realtors’ association, as well as GOP gubernatorial candidate Dino Rossi and Attorney General Rob McKenna.

Religious display requests include one for The Flying Spaghetti Monster…

After a bizarre week — a stolen atheist sign, a nativity scene constructed on the spot out of dozens of long balloons, the “Santa will take you to hell” sign — applications for additional holiday displays at the statehouse continue to roll in.

A Kansas group, the KC Free Thinkers, now wants permission to put up a display celebrating a tongue-in-cheek deity named The Flying Spaghetti Monster.

In a similar vein, an Olympia man wants to erect a celebratory pole to honor the holiday Festivus, which was invented as part of a Seinfeld TV show episode in the late 1990s.

More serious is the application from a Bellevue mother named Mary Bernard. She’s a longtime friend of a Catholic nun, Mother Antonia Brenner, who runs a prison ministry in Tijuana, Mexico.

Brenner heard of the controversy over the atheist sign – which declares that there are no gods, devils or angels – and asked Bernard to put up a “goodwill message.”

“To the Atheist Community,” the 30-inch by 40-inch sign would read. “May all be blessed with Joy and Happiness. We share with you our Peace and Love and Kindness. The Christian Community.”

Bernard said she hopes that common sense will prevail in the growing tussle among holiday displays.

“I know it’s real volatile,” she said. “When it comes to their faith, people are real passionate about it.”

She said Brenner’s message attempts to skirt that tension.

“She knows it’s not about demonstrating or taking any kind of side,” Bernard said. “It’s just to say we wish you joy and peace and kindness.”

Bonus round: One of the most interesting turns of phrase to emerge in this debate has been Sen. Pam Roach’s Old-Testament-sounding description of the atheist sign: the placard of unbelievers.

Another agency head heads into the sunset…

Another member of Gov. Chris Gregoire’s cabinet is departing.

Juli Wilkerson, head of the state Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development, is leaving Jan. 9.

In a statement, Wilkerson said she’s proud of what the agency’s achieved under Gregoire, but “I am unable to commit for an additional four years and it is time for me to retire and be with my family.”

A Gonzaga University law school graduate, Wilkerson was appointed to the job in 2003 by then-Gov. Gary Locke.

Senate chairs and leadership…

From the Senate Democrats:

Agriculture & Rural Economic Development
Chair: Sen. Brian Hatfield, D-Raymond
Vice chair: Sen.-elect Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Island

Government Operations & Elections
Chair: Sen. Darlene Fairley, D-Lake Forest Park
Vice chair: Sen. Eric Oemig, D-Kirkland

Human Services & Corrections
Chair: Sen. Jim Hargrove, D-Hoquiam
Vice chair: Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma

Labor, Commerce & Consumer Protection
(formerly Labor, Commerce, Research & Development)
Chair: Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles, D-Seattle
Vice chair: Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent

Early Learning & K-12 Education
Chair: Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe, D-Bothell
Vice chair of Early Learning: Sen. Claudia Kauffman, D-Kent
Vice chair of K-12: Sen. Eric Oemig, D-Kirkland

Economic Development, Trade & Innovation
(formerly Economic Development, Trade & Management)
Chair: Sen. Jim Kastama, D-Puyallup
Vice chair: Sen. Paull Shin, D-Edmonds

International Relations Subcommittee (new)
Chair: Sen. Paull Shin, D-Edmonds

Health & Long-Term Care
Chair: Sen. Karen Keiser, D-Kent
Vice chair: Sen. Rosa Franklin, D-Tacoma

Natural Resources, Ocean & Recreation
Chair: Sen. Ken Jacobsen, D-Seattle
Vice chair: Sen.-elect Kevin Ranker, D-San Juan Island

Financial Institutions, Housing & Insurance
(formerly Financial Institutions & Insurance)
Chair: Sen. Jean Berkey, D-Everett
Vice chair: Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens

Higher Education & Workforce Development
(formerly Higher Education)
Chair: Sen. Derek Kilmer, D-Gig Harbor
Vice chair: Sen.-elect Fred Jarrett, D-Mercer Island

Judiciary
Chair: Sen. Adam Kline, D-Seattle
Vice chair: Sen. Joe McDermott, D-West Seattle

Environment, Water & Energy
(formerly Water, Energy & Telecommunications)
Chair: Sen. Phil Rockefeller, D-Kitsap County
Vice chair: Sen. Craig Pridemore, D-Vancouver

Transportation
Chair: Sen. Mary Margaret Haugen, D-Camano Island
Vice chair: Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane

Ways & Means
Chair: Sen. Margarita Prentice, D-Renton
Vice chair of operating budget: Sen. Rodney Tom, D-Medina
Vice chair of capital budget: Sen. Karen Fraser, D-Olympia

Gone is the Consumer Protection & Housing Committee, most of whose responsibilities will be absorbed by the newly configured Labor, Commerce & Consumer Protection Committee and the Financial Institutions, Housing & Insurance Committee.

“Our committee structure allows us to be lean and nimble in addressing the current budget situation facing our state,” said Sen. Lisa Brown, D-Spokane, the Senate majority leader.

Senate Democrats also rounded out the remainder of their leadership team, after retaining Brown as majority leader, electing Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, as caucus chair, and retaining Sen. Tracey Eide, D-Federal Way, as majority floor leader last month.

Whip: Sen. Chris Marr, D-Spokane, who replaces Sen. Debbie Regala, D-Tacoma. Regala becomes caucus vice-chair, replacing Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle.

Assistant floor leader: Sen. Joe McDermott, D-West Seattle, replacing Marr.
Assistant whip: Sen. Claudia Kauffman, D-Kent, replacing Sen. Steve Hobbs, D-Lake Stevens.

Troopers recover atheist sign; it’s en route back to state capitol…

Washington State Patrol Sgt. Ted DeHart says that a detective stopped by KMPS, the radio station where the sign was dropped off, and recovered it.

“We’ve retrieved the document. It will be back up today,” said DeHart.

The Patrol is continuing the search for the thief, he said.

“It is a crime. It is theft,” said DeHart. “Someone took something that did not belong to them.”

Troopers were strolling the capitol halls near the empty sign easel this morning, and DeHart said that capitol cameras have now been pointed toward the sign and other displays nearby.


Dear God…

Five days after a Wisconsin atheist group erected a small sign in Washington’s state capitol declaring that there is no God, someone has stolen the sign.

“We just heard that someone ran off with our sign,” Freedom From Religion Foundation co-president Dan Barker said by phone this morning. “The capitol police are mortified. They’re just as upset as we are. It’s a theft, a crime committed under their noses.”

The sign was in response to a nativity scene erected by an Olympia-area real estate agent on the third floor of the capitol after a lawsuit. The capitol also features a 30-foot-tall “holiday tree,” and last year, orthodox rabbis held a menorah-lighting ceremony in the rotunda.

The atheist sign, however, has stirred the most criticism, with conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly blasting it — and Gov. Chris Gregoire — nightly. The governor’s office and the foundation have both been deluged with phone calls, which are now being routed to an answering machine. Gregoire and Attorney General Rob McKenna issued a joint statement Thursday saying that after a federal lawsuit last year, the state decided to allow such displays “regardless of that individual’s or group’s views.”

“The U.S. Supreme Court has been consistent and clear that, under the Constitution’s First Amendment, once government admits one religious display or viewpoint onto public property, it may not discriminate against the content of other displays, including the viewpoints of non-believers,” the statement read.

So the Freedom from Religion Foundation was granted permission to display its sign from Monday to Dec. 29, which is the same period that the nativity scene will be in the capitol. The sign says there are no gods, no angels, no devils, and that “religion is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

The criticism continues. Outgoing state Rep. John Ahern, R-Spokane, who in 2005 objected to the “holiday tree” not being called a Christmas tree, blasted the sign yesterday.

“It’s absolutely disgusting,” Ahern said. “If I was governor, the first thing I would do, I would order that taken out. And I would contact the Wisconsin group, even the ACLU, any other groups, and I would simply say ‘Sue me.’”

For years, the atheist foundation has quietly posted a similar sign in the Wisconsin state capitol, where Barker said the biggest problem has been people turning the sign around or carting it off to a nearby hallway. The foundation finally took to taping a small “thou shalt not steal” sign on it, which he said seemed to take care of the problem.

“Here is Wisconsin, it’s become something of a tourist attraction,” said Barker, describing busloads of Indiana tourists posing for photos next to the controversial sign. “Maybe that’s a Wisconsin thing.”

The display has prompted counter-demonstrations. Yesterday, a 30-year-old insurance agent named Jeff Schumacher spent most of the day standing in the rotunda with a sign saying that Jesus was real, and that he knew because he saw Jesus during a near-drowning as a four-year-old in Yakima.

“I always speak out when there’s doubts about the existence of God, and this is a good time,” Schumacher told me yesterday.

Today, the Rev. Ken Hutcherson is planning a press conference in the rotunda at 11 a.m. to place his own sign, declaring that “There is one God. There is one Devil. There are angels,” and that “Atheism is but myth and superstition that hardens hearts and enslaves minds.”

And so it goes. Steve Valandra, at the state Department of General Administration, says that his office has now received 7 more requests for various displays in the capitol. (Not sure who they are yet; I should have copies soon.)

Meanwhile, in Wisconsin, the controversy over the display has been a recruiting boon for the foundation.

“Whoever stole the sign did us a big favor,” Barker said. “Not only in the exposure, but in the sympathy. People read about this and they are motivated to say `You can’t do that, you can’t stop free speech.’ Jackie downstairs is just registering new members all over the place. If you persecute a movement, it makes it grow.”

Still, he said, the metal sign that was stolen cost hundreds of dollars.

“In kind of a backhanded way, I guess we should thank that person,” he said, “although I wish they would pay us back.”

It’s official: state Rep. John Driscoll, D-Spokane…

After a hand recount in a razor-thin race, Spokane election officials say that challenger John Driscoll, a Spokane Democrat, has successfully ousted state Rep. John Ahern, R-Spokane.

Driscoll will represent the largely suburban 6th district, a crescent wrapped around western Spokane.

Both men are in Olympia today for committee days. Ahern has also been doing interviews about a controversial atheist sign posted alongside a nativity scene this week in the capitol.

Driscoll’s squeaker of a win means that the Ds and Rs fought to a draw in the 6th. The Democrats lost state Rep. Don Barlow’s seat to Republican Kevin Parker, but the Democrats ousted Ahern.

Counting Democratic state Sen. Chris Marr (who wasn’t up for election this year), that means that Democrats are 2-1 against Republicans in the district, which until two years ago was a longtime Republican stronghold.

WSU Cougars feel the love: “fools”, “provincial”, and “you should be ashamed”…

Can’t go home for the night without noting a story by Jim Brunner in today’s Seattle Times.

Brunner went to a legislative task force hearing Monday on the University of Washington’s controversial proposal to tap $150 million in local taxes to help pay for part of a major overhaul of Husky Stadium.

Cougar fans, not surprisingly, are unenthusiastic about this idea. Here’s a story I wrote in September about their efforts to derail the proposal, which one critic described as “just a brazen money grab.”

Fast-forward to Monday. From Brunner’s story:

During a break in the hearing, (Huskies booster Ron) Crockett bluntly told Bernard, “You guys are fools,” adding for good measure that the WSU alums’ arguments were “ludicrous” and “insane.”

Sen. Ed Murray, D-Seattle, publicly berated the WSU alumni for their testimony.

“I think you are launching a provincial and parochial war,” said Murray, whose district includes Husky Stadium. “You should be ashamed.”

Murray warned the men they would be “setting off a bomb” if backers of UW and WSU started fighting against one another’s projects.

(WSU alumnus Mike) Bernard responded that UW was to blame for that because of its unprecedented stadium-funding grab.

“The one who dropped the bomb is the UW, not WSU,” he said.

Over at the UW’s state blog, meanwhile, college president Mark Emmert dismissed the objections as “some dust getting thrown up.”

In an open letter to the school’s faculty senate, Emmert points out that boosters, high-end seats and other sources would pay for half the $300 million project. And in a weak economy, he suggests, the sensible thing to do is to spend the $150 million in local taxes on Husky Stadium.

From Emmert’s letter: “What we have is a public works project to renovate the state’s largest football stadium — creating thousands of jobs at a time when the construction industry badly needs the work — and the public dollars to help pay for the project are still years away.”

Stay tuned.

Hat tip: April Coggins at Red County.

The departures continue among state agency brass..

State Fish and Wildlife head Jeff Koening’s resigned under pressure last night, apparently a victim of the tug-of-war between commercial fisherman and sport anglers. See The Olympian’s story here.

That was followed this morning by news of the impending departure of Jone Bosworth, the head of the new state Department of Early Learning. Bosworth, appointed by Gov. Gregoire in 2006, will leave early next month.

Next up: Cheryl Stephani, the high-profile assistant secretary of the Department of Social and Health Services’ Children’s Administration. Stephani said today that she’ll leave the agency by the end of the year. Other than taking some time off, she said she has no immediate plans.

“I am proud to have been part of Children’s Administration, and although there is never a good time to leave, now seems to be the time to make a change,” she said.

Update: State Sen. Pam Roach, who is probably the Legislature’s sharpest critic of DSHS, has some advice for DSHS head Robin Arnold-Williams re: replacing Stephani:

“Robin…let’s get it right. No more promotions from your institutions. Let’s get new blood into this department. Let’s get some citizen over-sight. My God…It is Christmas after all.”

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Richard Roesler covers Washington state news from The Spokesman-Review's bureau in Olympia.

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