From the state fire marshal’s office:
Projected dry conditions will lead to above normal significant fire potential in areas of Eastern Washington this summer. “Due to the heightened fire danger, it is important for homeowners to start preparing for fire season now,” says State Fire Marshal Mike Matlick. Homeowners living in wildland areas should understand the basics of wildfire and be prepared for when a wildfire occurs. Fuels, weather, and terrain can significantly influence the path and spread of a wildfire. Homeowners should concentrate on reducing the exposure and flammability of their home by clearing debris from under decks, keeping their roof and rain gutters free of pine needles and other flammable material, and storing firewood away from the house.
It is also important to reduce and manage the fuels in the Home Ignition Zone:
Within 30 feet of the home – Plant fire-resistant vegetation and water plants and trees regularly to ensure that they are healthy and green, mow the lawn regularly. Prune shrubs and cut back tree branches, the lowest branches should be at least 6-10 feet high and should not overhang any part of your home.
Within 30 to 100 feet from the home – Any trees should be spaced 20-30 feet between crowns to prevent fire spread. Plant in small, irregular clusters or islands. Separate shrubs by at least 2 times their mature height. Create fuel breaks, such as driveways, gravel walkways and lawns.
Beyond 100 feet – Prune and thin trees and brush. Break up the fire ladder leading from brush up into trees. Thin dense tree groups so canopies are not touching to slow the spread of fire. Remove heavy accumulation of woody debris, such as piles of stem wood or branches.
The state legislative ethics board has dismissed an ethics complaint against freshman Rep. Shelly Short, saying that Short was wrong to post her legislative contact information on a campaign website, but that the matter is minor and was immediately corrected.
Short’s 2008 campaign website allowed visitors to send her emails. She was elected in November, and took office in early January. But people continued to send her emails through the campaign website until earlier this year.
State law bans the use of contact information on campaign websites. That’s because lawmakers cannot use public resources (like a state-paid email account) for campaigning. But lawmakers, to allow people to contact them, are allowed to provide a single link from their campaign website to their official legislative website.
In this case, board chairman David Draper said, there’s reasonable cause to believe that Short violated the no-emails rule.
“However, the violation was inadvertent, minor, and has been cured,” he wrote. “After consideration of all the circumstances, any further proceedings would not serve the purposes of the Ethics Act.”
The board dismissed the complaint.
The state Legislative Ethics Board has dimissed a complaint by a foster mother that state Sen. Pam Roach released confidential information — the foster mom’s identity — and abused her legislative power in a custody case.
Still, the board concluded that Roach and a legislative aide apparently hired at state expense solely to work on this single issue “resorted to questionable tactics” in dealing with the foster mom. A website by the legislative aide, giving contact information for the mother “could have resulted in a dangerous situation for the foster mother and the child.” If the website had been publicly paid for, the board would have concluded that Roach broke state ethics laws. But the legislative aide apparently did it on his own, the board said.
Starting last summer, Roach began posting information on her personal blog about a custody battle involving a young girl. The girl had been placed in foster care, and her grandparents feared that they’d lose contact with her, felt state officials were ignoring a law that says that children should be placed with relatives when possible, and they felt the girl wouldn’t be well cared for by the foster mother.
From here, I’ll let board attorney Mike O’Connell take over:
Initiative promoter Tim Eyman said today that his property tax measure, Initiative 1033, is close to having enough signatures to ensure that it’s on the November ballot.
“We’ve hit 270,000 signatures for I-1033,” Eyman emailed to supporters this morning. I-1033 would cap the growth of state, city and county general-fund taxes, with any dollars over the cap devoted to reducing property taxes.
To get a measure on the ballot, organizers need signatures from 241,153 registered voters. Since some people sign twice, or make up names, or aren’t registered to vote, etc., state election officials recommend a cushion of about 25 percent extra names.
Eyman says that his group’s validity rate is higher than average, at about 83 percent, meaning that 83 out of 100 signatures are deemed valid when the state runs a spot-check of the signatures to protect against fraud. So Eyman’s aiming for 292,000 signatures this year.
“We had an absolutely killer week last week,” he wrote. “Signatures really poured into our P.O. box in Spokane.” That’s where his colleagues, Jack and Mike Fagan, help administer the effort. Mike Fagan is also one of a crowded field of people running for Spokane City Council this year.
There hasn’t been much public opposition to the initiative yet, but opponents typically hold their fire until after a measure actually qualifies for the ballot, because most don’t.
NOTE: The description of I-1033 above was rewritten to more accurately describe it. RR
-Former Nirvana bassist Krist Novoselic, who created a stir earlier this month by declaring himself a candidate for county clerk in tiny Wakhiakum County, has pulled out of the race.
“My protest is over,” he wrote recently in a column on the Seattle Weekly’s blog. He said his very-brief candidacy was a stunt to draw attention to what he sees as a grievous wrong about Washington’s new “Top Two” primary elections. Under the new system, which allows people to specify virtually any “party preference,” political parties have no control over who runs under their name. To demonstrate this, Novoselic filed as preferring the non-existent “Grange Party.” Writes Novoselic:
Looking back, perhaps I should have chosen an organization which would have been more willing to protect its trademark? How about the Prefers Starbucks Party? Maybe Microsoft? The best would be the Prefers Walt Disney Party—because claiming Disney would further demonstrate what a Mickey-Mouse system this is.
We undoubtedly haven’t heard the last of the topic from Novoselic, though. He’s the guest speaker at a lecture at the capitol July 2nd. TVW will tape it to play on the public affairs network statewide and on their website.
-Politico’s “lighter side of politics” column has the tale of a bizarre overreaction when Elizabeth Becton, the scheduler/office manager for Congressman Jim McDermott, was addressed as “Liz” in a quick email from someone wanting an appointment with the congressman.
Becton’s emailed responses — all seven of them — to this perceived slight start with an icy “Who is Liz?” and quickly move on to browbeating the woman:
“If I wanted you to call me by any other name, I would have offered that to you…Now, please do not ever call me by a nickname again…Sounds like you got played by someone who KNOWS I hate that name and that it’s a fast way to TICK me off. Who told you that I go by that name? They are not your friend.”
The executive assistant trying to set up the appointment apologized. Over and over. Six times, in fact. Becton was not mollified.
“In the future, you should be VERY careful about such things…Quit apologizing and never call me anything but Elizabeth again. Also, make sure you correct anyone who attempts to call me by any other name but Elizabeth. Are we clear on this?”
etc. etc. The story has generated hundreds of comments on Politico’s website, many suggesting a very different nickname for Becton. But I think the first one sums it up best:
“Settle down Liz. You sound like a sack full of crazy.”
-The Olympian’s Brad Shannon points out that the governor’s guidance on more budget cuts also calls for a hiring preference for state employees. From Gregoire’s memo:
If agencies need to hire, I want to reiterate my direction that agencies should not hire from outside state government until efforts to consider qualified candidates from among those affected by layoffs are exhausted. We cannot underestimate the value of trained and experienced state employees.
Multiple hat tips: Dave Ammons.
June 18, 2009
TO: Statewide Elected Officials
Presidents of Higher Education Institutions
State Boards and Commissions
FROM: Christine O. Gregoire, Governor
SUBJECT: Additional Budget Savings
On June 18th, the Washington State Economic and Revenue Forecast Council announced an additional reduction to the General Fund State revenue forecast. Although there are encouraging signs in the national and state economy, the size of the revenue reduction necessitates quick action to curb spending in the 2009-11 biennial budget. Therefore, I am imposing a hiring cap on executive agencies equal to a 2 percent reduction in their 2009-11 General Fund, budgeted, full time equivalent (FTE) levels and I ask agencies to take additional spending reductions. Implementation instructions will be communicated by the Office of Financial Management before July 1.
I recognize that the 2009-11 biennial budget challenges all of us to deliver services with reduced resources. I have asked cabinet agencies to confront this challenge with bold action. This is an opportunity for executive agencies to reform the way it conducts business to make our government more nimble and effective. This will require great creativity and resourcefulness on the part of executive agencies, and therefore, you need flexibility to manage within your agency’s budget.
I had this story in the morning paper:
OLYMPIA – State tax officials recently gave several Spokane-area churches an ultimatum: Stop running farmers markets in your parking lots or start paying tax on that land.
“We have no choice here. The law is really clear,” said Mike Gowrylow, a spokesman for the state Department of Revenue. “When you’ve got a commercial business – no matter how small or homegrown – operating on tax-exempt property, then it runs afoul of the law.”
Two of the farmers markets – one in Millwood and the one in downtown Spokane – will stay where they are, according to the Rev. Craig Goodwin, of Millwood Community Presbyterian Church.
He said his church will pay the $700 or so in taxes on its parking lot to enable the farmers market to continue.
“I’m familiar with the Bible passage ‘Pay unto Caesar what is Caesar’s,’ and we’re willing to do that,” he said. But he said the markets are a crucial community asset that should be exempt.
There was also some good news, however, in state revenue forecaster Arun Raha’s predictions Thursday.
“It increasingly appears that we are finally approaching the end of this `Great Recession,’” he said. The bottom of the recession seems near, he said, and the “freefall” declines in economic indicators are easing. Critically, he said, 10 large banks have been deemed healthy enough by federal regulators to begin paying back billions of taxpayer dollars.
“Things are beginning to move sideways rather than due south,” Raha said. “In today’s economy, sideways is good, because that is the start of a recovery.”
Still, he said, home prices in Washington will likely continue to drop until the end of the year. The state’s unemployment rate, now at 9.4 percent, is expected to rise to 10.6 percent by mid-2010. Construction jobs, in particular, are likely to decline throughout much of next year he said, and many of the building-boom jobs “have gone away for good.”
The good news: Boeing still has a long list of aircraft orders, and demand remains good for single-aisle jetliners. Microsoft’s balance sheet is healthy, Raha said, with “robust” product development in the works. And the state will likely get an “afterburner kick” to the economy in late 2011, as international trade rebounds. Exports have dropped by a third as other countries were hit harder by the recession.
One big unknown is consumer spending. People are still sitting on their wallets, with a savings rate of 5.7 percent. Although auto sales have stabilized nationally, Raha said, the trend in Washington is still downward. Light truck sales, in particular, remain down, presumably due to less buying for construction work.
Raha thinks that spending will rebound sharply. There’s a lot of pent-up consumer demand, he said, and the savings rate shows that people have money in the bank. Last year’s holiday shopping season was one of the worst on record for retailers, he said. This year’s, he says, could be much different.
“That’s the biggest wild card in our forecast,” he said.
Gov. Chris Gregoire is ordering state agencies to cut their payrolls by 2 percent more, after the state’s revenue forecaster this morning whacked revenue projections by nearly $500 million.
“We have been aware of the likelihood of a negative forecast and are prepared to take action,” Gregoire said.
The order applies to the agencies Gregoire oversees, but she’s also calling on colleges, community colleges and other state officials to make the same level of cuts. Agencies can hire critical staffers to continue their missions, the governor said, but must meet the cost-cutting goal.
Glenn Kuper, a spokesman for Gregoire’s budget office, said that could mean more layoffs and furloughs. And limits on out-of-state travel, equipment purchases and state contracts will continue.
After cutting nearly $4 billion from the state budget, lawmakers left hundreds of millions in savings as a cushion against further drops in state revenue. But the changed forecast would eat up virtually all of that money. Even if the state spent all of its hard-to-tap “rainy day fund” savings, it would have just $53 million left. That’s a tiny fraction of the state’s $35 billion budget, and could easily be erased by even a slight budget uptick, such as more students enrolling in school.
“Certainly, this is nowhere near what we’d like to have in an ending fund balance” during good times, said Sen. Joe Zarelli, R-Ridgefield.
Still, compared the $9 billion shortfall that lawmakers were wrestling with last winter, the decrease is relatively modest. If the state budget cuts required big swaths of bandages to stem the red ink,Rep. Ross Hunter, D-Medina, said, “now we’re looking at the band aid drawer.”
Some lawmakers also pointed out that there’s plenty of time to find the savings between now and mid-2011. And further revenue forecasts _ the next one’s due in September _ may be brighter. If the governor feels she can manage for now, Hunter said, it would be a mistake for lawmakers to rush to Olympia for a kneejerk reaction.
Gov. Chris Gregoire is ordering cabinet-level state agencies to cut their employee costs by 2 percent more than budgeted.
“Agencies can hire employees where needed to accomplish their core business and enact the reforms I am asking for, but they cannot exceed the cap I am instituting today,” she said.
She’s also asking higher education and state officials that oversee other agencies to also cut back.
“Initial claims for unemployment insurance appear to have peaked and monthly job losses are diminishing.”
That’s the word from economist Arun Raha, the state’s revenue forecaster.
The trough of the recession, however, will be lower than he and the state’s economic and revenue forecast council expected in March. And if plotted on a graph, he said, the recession will look more like a drawn-out U than a quick-recovery V.
That complicates things for the state, which now faces revenue $185 million lower than predicted in March for the 2007-2009 biennium, and $297 million less than expected for the 2009-2011 biennium.
The upshot: the June revenue forecast shows general-fund revenue down a combined $482 million from what was expected just a few months ago.
(Tech note: sorry, a glitch earlier cut off part of the end of this post. RR)
My story in the print paper this a.m. had more details about the suspension of Spokane attorney (and former Spokane city councilman, and current candidate for same) Steve Eugster:
OLYMPIA _ After a long-running battle over his handling of an elderly widow’s case, Spokane attorney Steve Eugster has narrowly avoided disbarment.
The state Supreme Court ruled 5-4 Thursday that Eugster should instead be suspended from practicing law for 18 months. He will also have to pay $13,500 to the now-deceased woman’s estate.
“Eugster breached his duty to maintain his client’s confidences, used confidences to take action directly contrary to his client’s interests, and created a nightmare for his client who had to spend $13,500 defending a petition to declare her incompetent,” Justice Tom Chambers wrote for the majority. “However, Eugster’s misconduct was the first in a long career.”
The four-justice minority called for a harsher penalty.
“The only conclusion that can be drawn … is that Eugster should be disbarred,” Justice Mary Fairhurst wrote.
Shawn Newman, an Olympia attorney representing Eugster, characterized the ruling as a win. “Once the bar unanimously recommends disbarment, it is almost unprecedented to get that turned around,” he said.
Eugster declined comment on the ruling. But the former Spokane city councilman, who’s running again for a seat on the council, said he has no intention of dropping out of the race. “Why would I?” he said.
Washington’s highest court has ordered that Spokane attorney Steve Eugster be suspended from practicing law for 18 months.
But a divided state Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that Eugster, a former city councilman who’s again running for a seat, should not be disbarred.
“We conclude that Eugster’s misconduct does not merit disbarment but suspend him for 18 months and impose additional conditions,” Justice Tom Chambers wrote for the majority.
Four of the justices said that the penalty should be harsher.
“The only conclusion that can be drawn from our well-settled sanction analysis and precedent is that Eugster should be disbarred,” wrote Justice Mary Fairhurst.
The state bar association had sought to have Eugster disbarred because of the way he handled the case of Marion Stead, an 87-year-old Colville widow who hired him in 2004.
Stead was upset and suspicious of how her only child, Roger Samuels, was handling her financial affairs. But Eugster said she also badly wanted to see her son and wanted to include Samuels’ daughter in her will.
Eugster, a longtime acquaintance, concluded that nothing was amiss. But when he tried to reconcile the family, his relationship with Stead soured. She hired another attorney, Andrew Braff.
By then, Eugster says, he felt she couldn’t handle her own affairs. Trying to protect Stead, he says, he asked a court to appoint someone as guardian.
Stead was furious. The bar association says she spent $13,500 successfully staving off Eugster’s effort to have her found incompetent. Friends, health care workers, her investment broker and others all said she didn’t need a court-appointed guardian. She died in November 2006, two days after signing a new will. It left most of Stead’s $273,342 estate to her son’s ex-wife and an animal shelter. Braff, according to Eugster’s attorney Shawn Newman, filed a complaint with the state bar association.
In January, a bar association board unanimously recommended disbarment. It said Eugster failed to abide by his client’s wishes, used her secrets against her and filed the court case without asking experts about her mental capacity.
Eugster “put his own financial interests above that of a sick, elderly client to gain access to her money,” the bar association wrote to the high court. “He betrayed his client by exploiting the difficult relationship she had with her son, leaving her and her estate isolated from family oversight, and manipulated the judicial system for his own benefit.”
Eugster’s attorneys argued that he did not seek to gain financially over the deal. Eugster says he was just trying to protect a client whom he though was losing her mental faculties and vulnerable.
“They want to typecast Eugster as this stereotypical greedy attorney out to rip off this poor widow,” one of Eugster’s attorneys, Shawn Newman said last year. But Eugster reduced his fee for Stead, withdrew as a trustee of her estate and didn’t want to be appointed guardian, Newman said.
Lawyers have continuing obligations to clients and special responsibilities to take protective action on behalf of vulnerable adults and others,” Eugster’s attorneys wrote to the court. “…To sanction Eugster would chill other attorneys who may feel their client or former client is being taken advantage of.”
The high court ruled Thursday that “Eugster acted knowingly and with intent with respect to the
consequences when he refused to turn over his client’s files and important papers as requested and when he filed a guardianship petition to have his client or former client declared incompetent.”
“In so doing he violated seven ethical duties causing actual and potential harm to his client and the profession for which he is suspended from the practice of law for 18 months and ordered to pay restitution to the estate of Mrs. Stead in the sum of $13,500.”
My colleague John Craig has the story: State Sen. Bob McCaslin, 83, has filed for a seat on the Spokane Valley City Council.
McCaslin, who last November was re-elected to his senate seat, could hold both posts. The challenge would be trying to balance simultaneous duties in Olympia and Spokane Valley. Writes Craig:
The question is whether McCaslin would run afoul of a state law that says council positions “shall become vacant” if a member misses three regular meetings in a row without being excused by the rest of the council. McCaslin said he would hope to be excused from council meetings while the Legislature is in session, but would drive home for an important council vote.
This story, from this morning’s New York Times, about the causes of the nation’s fast-mushrooming deficit:
There are two basic truths about the enormous deficits that the federal government will run in the coming years. The first is that President Obama’s agenda, ambitious as it may be, is responsible for only a sliver of the deficits, despite what many of his Republican critics are saying. The second is that Mr. Obama does not have a realistic plan for eliminating the deficit, despite what his advisers have suggested.
reporter David Leonhardt’s story begins. From there, it divides the deficit up like a pie, assigning blame proportionately for the problem:
-37 percent from loss of taxes from this recession and the one in 2001,
-33 percent from legislation signed by President Bush,
-20 percent from Bush policies that are being extended by President Obama,
-7 percent from the February stimulus bill,
-and 3 percent from Obama’s proposals for energy, health care, etc.
The story goes into much more detail, including the likely fallout for the coming years, and this sobering conclusion:
The solution, though, is no mystery. It will involve some combination of tax increases and spending cuts. And it won’t be limited to pay-as-you-go rules, tax increases on somebody else, or a crackdown on waste, fraud and abuse. Your taxes will probably go up, and some government programs you favor will become less generous.
It’s well worth the read.
As a reporter, I get upwards of 100 emails a day. But some just jump out at you.
“More than 6,500 scientists and doctors will convene at SLEEP 2009,” one recent one began.
It turns out that a group called the “Associated Professional Sleep Societies” hosts an annual scientific conference about, yes, sleeping.
They’ve been holding these conferences for 23 years.
The group also publishes a monthly journal entitled — you guessed it — SLEEP.
The trend won’t be a surprise, but the numbers are pretty startling: state Insurance Commissioner Mike Kreidler said this week that the number of Washingtonians with no health insurance has shot up to a record 876,000.
That’s 1 in 5 people between the ages of 19 and 64. And that number doesn’t include people whose employers have stopped offering insurance, or workers who can’t afford their employer’s health plan.
“These are not just statistics,” Kreidler said. “They are people you know — family, friends, neighbors, colleagues. Maybe even you.”
This year alone, he said, 150,000 Washingtonians will lose their health coverage, mostly because of being laid off.
Kreidler is pushing for universal health coverage that’s not linked to a job.
“If we fail to act,” he said, “we will see one million people living without health insurance in our state.”
From my weekly print column:
Getting a breather from the tax man:
Struggling to pay your property taxes? Some low- and middle-income homeowners can delay paying those taxes.
Here’s who qualifies:
-You must have had a household income of $57,000 or less last year,
-You must have owned the home for at least 5 years,
-You must have significant equity built up,
-and it must be your primary residence.
Here’s the catch: the taxes are only deferred, not eliminated. When you sell or move out of the home, those taxes must be paid, with interest. (The interest rate this year is 5 percent.)
To find out more, contact the state Department of Revenue at 360-570-5900.
-Next place to see unpaid furloughs: the statehouse
Like many of their private-sector colleagues, some state workers are being told to take unpaid time off in order to save their co-workers’ jobs.
“As you know, the Legislature did not exempt itself from the reductions that were made across the rest of state government,” Secretary of the Senate Tom Hoemann recently wrote to staffers.
The Senate’s cutting eight jobs; the House of Representatives is cutting 10. Workers in both must also take five days off, unpaid, this year and next year.
On top of that, House Chief Clerk Barbara Baker said, House employees volunteered to take a total of more than 4,300 more hours off without pay. That saves an extra $420,000, she said, and saves four jobs.
Elsewhere in state government, state agencies and worker unions have so far been reluctant to institute furloughs, although it’s been talked about. (A key difference: the people who work for the House and Senate aren’t union members.)
Interestingly, there’s one group whose pay cannot be cut: state lawmakers. The salaries _ which range from $42,000 to $50,000 a year _ are set by a citizen’s commission. And the state constitution bans the commission from reducing elected officials’ pay.
Legislators’ salaries can, however, be frozen, and that’s what the commission has ordered for the next two years.
If you’re approached by a Referendum 71 signature-gatherer and want to read the petition before you sign it, you’d better bring a magnifying glass, a chair and a cool drink.
As required by law, R-71 authors managed to squeeze the entire 114-page bill onto a single sheet of paper. A very big sheet of paper. Dave Ammons, with the Secretary of State’s office, reports that:
“The whole petition, when unfolded, is map-sized, nearly 2 feet by 3 feet, front and back.”
(Ammons is the guy holding up the petition in the photo.)
One of the budget items that gave lawmakers heartburn this year was the decision to trim the state’s Basic Health Plan — state-subsidized health insurance for the working poor — by 43 percent.
With the program covering nearly 100,000 Washingtonians, that would likely mean cutting about 43 percent off them off their health coverage. In the middle of a recession. But how to decide who got whacked? Would the state cut pregnant women off health care? People with cancer? Would it hold a lottery (this idea was actually floated) to decide who loses health care? Do you cut off everybody but the poorest people? Or cut off those who’ve been on the insurance the longest?
Now, Washington’s Health Care Authority says it’s come up with a way to avoid cutting people off coverage.
The state will increase the rates that covered people pay, rather than forcing anyone off the program. Today, an average person pays $36 a month. Taxpayers pay the remaining $209 that the coverage costs.
Health Care Authority administrator Steve Hill says that the new plan calls for the average enrollee to pay about $62 a month next year. Also, the $150-a-year deductible will increase to $250 in January.
“We are fully aware that this decision will impact many people in the program,” Hill said in a statement announcing the decision. “Even a $17 a month increase can be tough for a family struggling to get by.” But the rate increase was preferable, he said, to “arbitrarily” removing people from coverage.
The plan also calls for shifting as many people as possible — up to 8,000 of those now covered — onto Medicaid. The Health Care Authority will also increase audits to ensure that people are actually eligible.
“With a more stringent assets test and normal attrition, Hill thinks the program will be able to meet its budget challenge without forcing off any people who are qualified to remain with Basic Health,” the agency said.