Inside Opinion

What's on the minds of Tacoma News Tribune editorial writers

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Archives: Oct. 2011


Harbor tax hurts Port of Tacoma every which way

This editorial will appear in Tuesday’s print edition.

The Port of Tacoma faces some tough challenges, the biggest of which – the global economy – is beyond anyone’s control.

But one of its problems could be fixed relatively easily by Congress. A perverse federal harbor fee puts both Seattle and Tacoma at a disadvantage compared to the ports of Vancouver and Prince Rupert in British Columbia. U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert, R-Auburn, has been looking at a legislative solution; we hope he’ll act soon.

The fee in question is the Harbor Maintenance Tax, .125 percent of the value of cargo imported through U.S. ports. Port of Tacoma officials estimate that it adds an average of at least $150 to the cost of every container unloaded in Puget Sound. Canada imposes no such tax, and the $150 or more that shippers save by going through British Columbia amounts to a big penalty against Tacoma and Seattle. Read more »


For U.S. troops in Iraq, mission accomplished

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

So that’s that. As of the end of the year, the Obama administration will have withdrawn all U.S. troops from Iraq, with the exception of a small contingent of presumably nervous embassy guards.

Obama’s recent announcement that the war was over was mere formality. For America, the serious fighting in Iraq ended a couple years ago, when Iraqi security forces took full responsibility for Iraqi security.

What’s driving the final withdrawal – a legal dispute – seems ridiculously anticlimactic. Some Iraqi leaders would as soon have U.S. forces on hand to keep training their troops, and the Obama administration would as soon keep them there.

The deal-breaker was the U.S. insistence on criminal immunity for American troops in the face of the Iraqi parliament’s refusal to grant that immunity. No triumphal parades, no helicopters fleeing from rooftops, just a breakdown in back-room negotiations. A whimper, not a bang.

The whimper, though, says much about the achievements of American troops in Iraq.
Read more »


Ken Miller: What Tacoma has to sell

Ken Miller, a commissioner of the Tacoma Housing Authority, is one of the city’s most thoughtful guys. He’s written this analysis of Tacoma’s prospects; a shorter version appears in tomorrow’s print edition.

By Ken Miller

We hear a lot about whether Tacoma is “open for business” and the strategy for growing our economy.

It’s an important but puzzling conversation. I decided to study up.

Just the Facts

My first step was to find out whether Tacoma is actually losing business, and if so, at what rate. I contacted the city’s Tax and License office, where business licenses are issued and cancelled. If you sell goods or services, you need a license. It’s the best way to get a business headcount.

At the beginning of 2011, Tacoma had 22,243 active business licenses, ranging from Greyhound Bus to doggie day care. Through September – nine months later – 435 businesses closed. This is bad. But 1,883 businesses opened, which is good. Even better than 2010, when Tacoma added a net total of 1,345 new businesses.

A Little Theory

It’s not that simple, though; otherwise everyone in the business community would be happy, right? So I turned to a couple of theorists for help.
First I considered the late Jane Jacobs. In The Wealth of Cities she distinguished between a business that re-circulates local money and a business that exports value. This is the difference between the corner candy store and Brown and Haley.

Jacobs asserts the only way to grow the local economy is to be a net exporter of value. It’s the only way to put more money – new money – into the local economy.

This is the distinction underlying the downtown-vs- neighborhoods debate, or the choice between clean water enterprise zones versus tree-lined streets full of shoppers. It’s the difference between Go Local and “think globally, act locally.”

Next I looked at Michael Porter’s Competitive Strategy. After all, we’re working on a competition problem: how can Tacoma attract or keep businesses, rather than losing them to South Carolina or Federal Way? Tom Pierson, President and CEO of the Tacoma Chamber, made this point in his recent op/ed in the News Tribune. He described two recent out of state “raids” on local businesses.
Read more »


The real costs of a no-new-revenue state budget

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Enter a magical world where big problems simply disappear because there’s no money to fix them.

A glimpse of that make-believe world can be found in the state budget released Thursday by Gov. Chris Gregoire. Gregoire doesn’t believe in magic herself, but enough Washingtonians do that her budget had to play along.

Falling revenue forecasts have blown a $2 billion crater into the skeletal, hard times budget the Legislature approved in May. On Thursday, Gregoire announced a special late-November legislative session to fill the crater and offered her scenario – as legally required – for doing it without any additional tax money.

Even anti-tax absolutists might cringe a little at the human implications of a no-new-revenue budget.

In the real world, kids get beaten up, thrown out, sexually violated and otherwise brutalized by the adults who ought to be caring for them. When their grandparents, aunts, uncles, etc., are also incompetent or irresponsible, they need homes and help.

Gregoire’s plan offloads a lot of their anguish – where? to whom? – by spending less money on it. Funding for child welfare workers would drop by $8.2 million, support for affected children by $7.3 million, and payments to group homes and placement agencies by $13 million.

Good for budget. Bad for hurting, scared children, whose plight seems invisible to some Washingtonians.
Read more »


Public sector, meet private sector economic reality

Update: The raises recommended for Tacoma Fire Chief Ronald Stephens and Police Chief Don Ramsdell have been withdrawn in light of Tacoma’s budget shortfall, according to city spokesman Rob McNair-Huff.

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Onward and upward goes the compensation of some government employees, even during the deepest economic distress in generations.

The latest bit of government largess – 5 percent pay increases – has gone to Tacoma Fire Chief Ronald Stephens and Police Chief Don Ramsdell. Their salaries will now be, respectively, $181,534 and $180,551.

That may or may not be too much in a city the size of Tacoma. What’s interesting is the thinking behind the raise: These two had to be paid more because they were in danger of being overtaken by their subordinates.

Without the increase, the city’s deputy fire chiefs and assistant police chiefs – all unionized, despite their high-management status – stood to make more money than their bosses.

Government compensation is rife with that kind of logic: Someone else gets more, so our guys ought to get even more than them. What clobbers taxpayers are the constant rounds of leap-frogging between one jurisdiction’s pay schedule and the pay schedules of “comparable” jurisdictions.

Public officials have a quaint notion of “market” pay. In the private sector, “market” is roughly defined as what you have to pay good employees to make them want to stick around. Otherwise, they complain with their feet.

In government, market pay is generally defined as what someone in a similar position in another government makes – regardless of whether attrition is a threat.

The City of Tacoma recently passed out millions of dollars worth of raises to its employees on the basis of such market comparisons, even as a $26 million hole has opened in its current biennial budget. The raises reflect the city council’s expensive policy of paying workers at least 70 percent of the highest pay given to their counterparts in similar cities.
Read more »


Orton Junction: A development deal done right

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

Sumner’s plan to carve a major development – Orton Junction – out of adjacent agricultural land has been a moving target for months. Its supporters kept on refining it, and its preservationists kept on opposing it.

Last week, after the crucial intervention of the Cascade Land Conservancy, Orton Junction finally became a clear win for rural protection.

At first glance, that seems impossible. Despite the tinkering, Sumner will still be swallowing 182 acres of protected rural countryside – including 125 acres of prime farmland – on the city’s southern border.

Any paving-over of topsoil harks back to the bad old days when the Pierce County Council was the girl who couldn’t say no. Developers who came along whistling tunes about jobs, money and affordable housing could pretty much have their way with the countryside.

Orton Junction’s opponents have feared that the project would set a precedent for renewed rural depredation. But what it’s evolved into is a precedent for protection.
Read more »


Public charter schools should be an option in Washington, too

This editorial will appear in tomorrow’s print edition.

The state PTA has gotten tired of waiting for Superman.

Last week, it mounted a new and welcome push to persuade the state to reconsider public charter schools, an educational option common in most other states but forbidden – stupidly forbidden – in Washington.

The history is not promising. Washingtonians have twice defeated proposals for public charter schools at the polls, and the Legislature has repeatedly refused to allow them.

As the PTA recognizes, this makes no sense whatsoever. Virtually all serious education reform movements in this country advocate charter schools as

Read more »