Tom Banse | KNKX

Tom Banse

Regional Correspondent

Tom Banse covers national news, business, science, public policy, Olympic sports and human interest stories from across the Northwest. He reports from well known and out–of–the–way places in the region where important, amusing, touching, or outrageous events are unfolding. Tom's stories can be found online and heard on-air during "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered" on NPR stations in Washington, Oregon, and Idaho.

Before taking his current beat, Tom covered state government and the Washington Legislature for 12 years.  He got his start in radio at WCAL–FM, a public station in southern Minnesota. Reared in Seattle, Tom graduated from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota with a degree in American Studies.

When not sifting through press releases, listening to lobbyists, or driving lonely highways, Tom enjoys exploring the Olympic Peninsula backcountry and cooking dinner with his wife and friends. Tom's secret ambition is to take six months off work and travel to a faraway place beyond the reach of email.

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The space agency NASA has chosen a small Tillamook-based aerospace company to design and test robotic balloons for future scientific exploration of Venus. Near Space Corporation is working on the Venus project with some of the same NASA team members currently managing an historic helicopter drone flight on Mars.

The Pacific Northwest might seem like an unlikely place for mermaids and mermaid culture to catch on given the cold water here. Yet, putting on an eye-catching tail and pretending to be a mythical sea being is a thing across the Northwest. There's even a brand new mermaid museum near Aberdeen, Washington.

More folks from Pacific Northwest government and industry are jumping on the hydrogen bandwagon to test if the alternative fuel could be a viable and green replacement for diesel and gasoline in some situations. The potential converts include more than half a dozen transit agencies from Everett to Eugene, state legislators and Boeing's drone subsidiary in the Columbia River Gorge.

Small ship cruise lines are pressing ahead with plans to restart overnight cruises on the Columbia and Snake rivers, around Puget Sound and in Alaska. They aim to cast off in April and May while the big cruise ships remain laid up by a red light from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

With March Madness getting into full swing this weekend, it's a safe bet that some area fans want to wager on their favored teams in the NCAA basketball tournament. Placing a legal bet on college basketball is virtually impossible in the Pacific Northwest for the time being, though there are changes afoot.

This coming Sunday, March 21, will mark one year since the U.S. and Canada closed their shared border to nonessential crossings due to the pandemic. It's anybody's guess when the border might reopen for discretionary trips. In the meantime, every weekend rain or shine, Peace Arch State Park in Blaine, Washington, becomes a happening meetup point for couples and families separated by the northern border.

Residents of the Pacific Northwest will have to set their clocks ahead by an hour this weekend to move onto daylight saving time. The Oregon and Washington legislatures voted nearly two years ago to stay on daylight time year-round -- joined later by Idaho and British Columbia -- but still the biannual time change ritual and associated grumbling persists.

A public utility in North Central Washington broke ground Monday for a hydrogen production facility. It's one of several related actions in the Pacific Northwest that reflect renewed interest in hydrogen as a clean alternative fuel.

Like many Americans, people behind bars are waiting to see if they will be getting checks from the federal government as part of the new stimulus bill -- provided it passes Congress this month as expected. The majority of incarcerated people in Washington and Oregon were likely eligible for the first two rounds of relief money.

Advocates for prisoners say the all too common refrain of "What happened to my check?" shows the system for the incarcerated needs to be improved. This comes after a federal judge reversed an initial attempt by the Internal Revenue Service to disqualify inmates from receiving stimulus payments.

Smartphone users who opted in to a test of the West Coast earthquake early warning system got an early taste on Thursday of what is to come. Mobile phones from Seattle to Olympia blared with an alarm for imaginary incoming shaking. The earthquake warning system -- already operational in California -- will launch for the general public in Oregon on March 11 and statewide in Washington in May.

Washington state senators have teed up a mileage-based tax for electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles as the first step toward changing how the state pays for road maintenance and other transportation needs. Policymakers expect gas tax revenue to decline long term. Oregon has been experimenting with a per-mile charge for years.

Fishing and hunting license sales jumped in 2020 across the Pacific Northwest as more people flocked to outdoor activities during the COVID-19 pandemic. Total license purchases rose even though part of last spring was crimped by stay-home orders and in some states by the suspension of non-resident permits.

Rescheduled fall sports seasons for high school athletes are kicking off this month in large parts of Washington state and Oregon. The general happiness this brought came with a dose of consternation among some coaches and families over strict COVID-19 safety guidelines set down by state health authorities.

Leaders of seven Pacific Northwest tribes testified this week in favor of replacing a statue of Oregon Trail pioneer and missionary Marcus Whitman in the U.S. Capitol. A proposal pending in the Washington Legislature would install a statue of the late Native rights activist Billy Frank Jr. in Whitman's place of honor.

You may be used to hearing a pushy car salesperson ask the timeless question, "What can I do to get you in this car?" But one big thing could be different in Washington state a decade from now. Proposals introduced this winter in the Washington Legislature would end sales of new gasoline-powered cars in the state by 2030.

The Democrat-backed proposals face opposition from Republicans, the oil industry and auto manufacturers. A prior version failed to advance out of committee in Olympia last session and the inside politics do not appear to have changed substantially since. However, the concept is catching on in a few other states and in countries overseas.

It was kind of like the fair — only not. 

On Monday the Benton County Fairgrounds in Kennewick, Wash., were full of port-a-potties, event tents, people in bright vests directing traffic and hundreds of cars. But it’s bitter winter, not summer. There’s no cotton candy. And the smiles of patrons are briefer, with a solemn edge.

A long goodbye to natural gas furnaces and water heating -- and possibly other gas appliances -- could begin with action by the Washington Legislature this winter. Separately, the Seattle City Council this week begins consideration of a similar proposal to eliminate fossil fuel-based heating in new commercial buildings.

Hundreds of elderly drivers put their cars in line way before dawn for the opening day of a first come, first serve drive-thru COVID vaccination clinic in Sequim, Washington. The scene provided a dramatic illustration of eagerness among many seniors to get the coveted shots. Hospitals in other medium-sized and smaller Washington communities that have opened vaccination appointment lines to all seniors in recent days report being swamped as well.

People age 70 and older as well as some people living with an elder will be next in line for the COVID-19 vaccine in Washington. The state Department of Health on Wednesday provided awaited details for whose turn comes when to get the precious and scarce shots.

Bringing back sea otters to the Oregon Coast just got a high-level endorsement. The federal budget for this new year, which President Trump signed after some unrelated last minute drama, includes a directive to study sea otter reintroduction.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a recurring theme as Washington state lawmakers prepare to convene their 2021 legislative session. Some legislators are raring to get started and have already drafted and filed the proposals they plan to formally introduce once the opening gavel falls on January 11.

Besides the coronavirus, other high-profile topics teed up for 2021 lawmaking have to do with voting, climate goals and racial equity.

Sure, you're a good Pacific Northwesterner because you recycle your beer cans, cardboard boxes and plastic milk jugs. But what about that dust-collecting piano you have long wanted to unload? It doesn't fit into the recycling bin. Creative upcycling might be the answer.

The initial deliveries of COVID-19 vaccines to Oregon, Washington state and Idaho are spoken for — at least well into next month. High-risk health care workers, EMT/paramedics and nursing homes have top priority to get the vaccine jab. But then who?

Three years ago on December 18, a speeding Amtrak Cascades train bound for Portland derailed near DuPont, Washington, and tumbled onto Interstate 5. The crash killed three passengers and injured scores of others. An Olympia woman marked the anniversary Friday by going back to her local blood donation center to achieve a related, but happier milestone.

It stands to reason that all the stress, anxiety and isolation of the pandemic could lead more people to take their own lives. But newly obtained data for Oregon and Washington show this is one bad thing that 2020 has not delivered.

Since early in the pandemic, rapid contact tracing has been considered one of the keys to controlling the spread of the coronavirus. But in recent weeks, an overwhelming surge in new cases has let thousands of COVID-positive people and their close contacts fall through the cracks.

A new government report on high speed rail in the Pacific Northwest recommends that Oregon, Washington and British Columbia formalize their interest in a Cascadia bullet train by creating an independent body to plan and eventually build it. But a critic associated with a conservative think tank responded that the region should take heed of California's high speed rail woes and put a spike in the Cascadia bullet train ambitions.

An online survey conducted out of Whitman College found more than half of Washingtonians say they have delayed medical visits this year. The findings underscore widespread concerns about disruptions to health care during the pandemic.

You can add a new term to your lexicon: "Zoom towns." These are scenic places experiencing a surge of house hunters. Booming demand comes from workers freed by the pandemic to work from home long term.

Washington state on Monday launched a coronavirus exposure alert tool for smartphone users statewide. Washington joined more than a dozen other states further east using an automated, anonymous notification system to aid in the fight against virus spread. Oregon and California are expected to roll out similar smartphone-enabled exposure alerts statewide soon, too.

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