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The winter coast

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Truth is, I wouldn't choose to live on the Oregon coast in the winter.

But that's only as a matter of calculation, not immediate impressions. I sure am glad to live close by (an hour or less, traffic willing, in my case).

The Oregonian has posted a good reminder of reasons why the coast has such appeal in the winter.

This can seem counter-intuitive. In the winter, the coast is typically not terribly icy or snowy, but the mountains that abut it often are, and roadways inland can become a little tricky. Goods and services are sometimes limited on the coast - people I've known have remarked about the number of times they've had to go to larger cities over the mountains for what they need - despite the large number and broad variety of retailers there. The wind is almost always always a reality, and often roars. The skies usually are overcast. The beaches can be treacherous; the waves often run high.

You don't spend a lot of time out of doors, as a rule, in the winter out on the coast.

But it can be a delightful place. We've often headed there for two or three days (many a New Year's holiday) to hang out at some oceanfront spot. The atmosphere is wonderful.

And that's what the Oregonian piece focuses on. When the weather is relatively good, walks and hikes are available in all sorts of places, minus the crowds of summer. There are rainforests in easy reach (where "a drizzly day on the coast can be magical"). The rainy months can be great for exploring many of the area's waterfalls. Many tourist draws, like aquariums, are as good in the winter. Chowder seems especially tasty in the winter.

And you get to beat the crowds, which are the biggest problem with going there in summer. The tourist town of Seaside, for example, draws the reaction, "come winter, the town is practically empty, allowing for peaceful walks on the promenade, quiet evenings in the local restaurants and less competition at the Fascination tables."

Seems like time to cross the mountains again . . .

ALSO Columnist Barrett Rainey, who until recently did live on the Oregon coast, argues that I insufficiently pointed out the downsides of doing so: "You, Sir, have not lived full time on the Oregon Coast. It may be wonderful to come over for a day or two of storms. But try it daily for a year. Or three. Not so much fun. Your planting areas washed out. Your trees uprooted. Repainting the South and West walls every 2-3 years. Asphalt shingles to replace - maybe annually - maybe monthly. The bridge on 101 between you and the next town disappears. Near daily reminders that the "big one" is coming. Bear and cougar pop up in the damndest places - like your backyard."
 

The fork already taken

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This column originally appeared in the News-Register of McMinnville, Oregon, on February 2.

This year’s Oregon legislative session, which begins today, took its biggest fork in the road well before it even convened, on January 23.

That was when voters across the state passed, by a landslide, Measure 101, upholding the taxes approved last year which helped underwrite a big chunk of Oregon Medicaid costs. The measure was a tax increase, of .7 percent on large hospitals and 1.5 percent on most health insurance policies. This plan was supported by the health industry in the state, which recognized that the income from matching federal payments would amount to more than would be paid in taxes (much of which could be passed on to consumers).

If the measure had lost, a huge revenue gap would have opened, along with the risk of health insurance loss for hundreds of thousands of Oregonians, and dealing with that immediately would have become the major and almost only topic for the short session. As it is, an opening for more subjects has appeared. [[referred portions of the law account for between $210 million and $320 million in state revenue, the loss of which could have resulted in possible reduction of federal funds by between $630 million and $960 million. ]]

Not that the cost of health care will vanish from the lawmaking scene. Complaints about last year’s Medicaid funding bill focused more on the tax structure than the need to pay, so adjustments to the formula might still be proposed. Voters almost surely were expressing more a desire to keep the insurance system alive than they were the specific tax plan.

And House Minority Leader Mike McLane said in a statement after the vote, “We must now shift our focus to improving efficiencies within the Oregon Health Authority and in the administration of the Oregon Health Plan. I hope legislators on both sides of the aisle will make it a priority to safeguard and protect the investment in our state government that Oregon taxpayers have affirmed.” That will likely become a subject for discussion.

As will the next Medicaid-related shortfall, which is expected in another couple of years, and many legislators may want to begin planning for that this year.

Short sessions usually have a lot to do with budget numbers, and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, was quoted as saying, “Our budget focus must now shift to the February forecast and the effects federal tax changes will have on state revenue.”

Some participants in the session may try to take another crack at long-running budget issues. Mark Johnson, until last year a state representative and now the new president of the Oregon Business and Industry group, noted in one commentary that, “the costs associated with funding the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) will continue to consume ever-larger chunks of the state budget until action is taken, and that means less money for classrooms and vital services.” He indicated that may be a focus for his group, though it has proven a stubborn issue for years on end, including in longer sessions.

More than budgeting will come up this session.

A good bet for the top non-budget issue, which already has lots of lobbying to back it up, is talk about a state “cap and trade” (or “cap and invest”) system.

Two bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, already have been prepared and released as “legislative concepts”. The whole of the system is complex, but the core of it would involve a limit on greenhouse gas emissions with mandates that large producers buy “allowances” - in a sense, a kind of greenhouse gas marketplace. Payments would be involved, and those would be used to cover efficiencies, help with consumer costs and shore up communities hit by global warming. The hope is that over the years, emissions would be reduced gradually through a system of incentives.

The concept at least has backing from Governor Kate Brown and House Speaker Tina Kotek.

A good deal of money could be at stake, so the basis for intense lobbying is clear. And strongly-worded arguments on both sides already are shaping the debate.

There will be more. Affordable housing has become an increasingly heated subject, especially in the Portland area but elsewhere too, and some effort to deal with it may come up.

In education several legislators (including Democratic Representatives Brian Clem of Salem and Margaret Doherty of Tigard) are suggesting requiring that class sizes be included in labor contract negotiations.

One lobbyist noted that as coordinated care organizations (for regional health care) look ahead to negotiating new service contracts, they may look to the legislature for adjustments in how they are financed.

The recent federal action on solar panel tariffs could lead to some state response on that subject, in a state where solar energy has become increasingly important.

All of this will be happening in a context of something institutionalized - by calendar - and something unusual:

The normal and unavoidable part is that the 2018 session will happen quickly - it will last only about a month - and in an election year. That normally is a prescription for dealing with necessities and emergencies, mainly of a financial nature, and not a lot else.

And there’s an unusual factor: the large number of new people involved, or people who have been around the statehouse but are moving to new positions. An especially large number of legislative personnel changes happened in recent months, including a new Senate minority leader and a new Senate chair on budget.

On top of that, the legislature’s revenue officer, who has held the job for two decades, retired last year.

Sometimes those personnel shifts kick loose legislation that doesn’t ordinarily see the light of day. The odds are this will be a mostly quiet session, with one or two big policy subjects. But then, 2018 may be an unusual political year.
 

Oregon voter status quo?

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“Phase one” of Motor Voter, which registered just the people who had new DMV contact starting January 1, 2016, showed that of those who chose to join a party a majority opted for the Democratic Party. It was thought by some that Motor Voter would be a boon to the Democrats and the data foretold a coming Democratic super majority.

Then “phase two” of motor voter started. In phase two, the Secretary of State went back to 2014 DMV contacts and registered those people as well. Phase two statistics came out this week and they showed that the Republican Party outpaced the Democrats in new motor voter membership.

Of course, only 18,230 of the 206,554 new motor voters (or 8.8%) joined a party anyway, but assuming those that didn’t join a party are either not going to vote, or are fairly represented politically with those that did affiliate with a political party, will motor voter make fundamental changes in Oregon’s political landscape? The answer is no. At least not as between the Democratic and Republican balance (or imbalance) of power.

There is evidence that more voters are opting for the Independent Party or minor political parties. But it’s not a groundswell yet. And there’s no way of knowing if there is an actual groundswell of voters who are going to opt out of party membership, or if the number of non affiliated voters is simply a function of motor voter having separated the act of registration from the act of selecting a political party.

The raw data doesn’t tell us a lot about trends, since it only includes voters who registered with a party under motor voter. And because of the way motor voter works, many more voters remain NAV. Clearly using the pre motor voter and post motor voter NAV numbers is very misleading.

So, In order to normalize the percentages, I went back to pre motor voter registration records and found that the “average” percentage of voters under our old system who chose to remain NAV was 23.4%. Therefore I included an additional 23.4% as NAV’s to accurately reflect that historical average. And here is what we find.

If there is a trend, it’s that the Democratic party is still slightly weakened, and the Independent Party is growing in strength. As a percentage motor voter shows a 30% growth in affiliation for the Independent Party (from 4.9% to 6.4%). However, that rate of growth isn’t reflected in the statewide statistics, since so many motor voters are being registered NAV it will dilute all parties market shares. And the Democratic weakness in new motor voters is likely being offset by the influx of voters who wanted to participate in the historic May Democratic Primary and the November general elections.

Here are the main impacts motor voter will have on voting

More people will be able to vote. We’ll see how many of the phase two motor voters will actually vote in November, but few would argue that having more people vote is a bad thing.
Membership in political parties will plummet over time. Because motor voter divorces the act of registration from the act of selecting party membership, after this historic election, it seems pretty clear that all political parties will shrink in size.
The Independent Party is likely to revert to minor party status after 2020 and some minor parties may be dissolved by State action. Minor and major party status is based in whole or in part on what percentage of total voters a political party represents. With motor voter causing 90% of voters to register as NAV, largely due to separating registration from party selection, we’re going to see total voters spike, and party membership plummet. With 200,000 new motor voters, the IPO would have had to gain 10,000 new members to retain it’s 5% share and major party status. Over the past two months, the IPO has gained less than 1,000 new members. Even though as you can see in the tables above, it’s actually growing at a faster rate as a share of total party voters than the Democratic and Republican Parties.
But here’s the biggest problem. Motor voter will cause a crisis in Oregon Democracy.

Many voters already feel that the political elite don’t listen to them. Now with motor voter reducing the Democratic and Republican membership to their more vocal and active partisans, Oregon’s closed primary system, and safe Democratic and Republican districts, we’re going to have fewer and fewer voters actually deciding our legislative races. And those that remain in the major parties and vote in the partisan primaries are going to more and more consist of the Party’s financial base and the most politically orthodox.

While such a system works in favor of insiders, the financial base, and those already elected to office, it doesn’t lead to faith in our election system.

A Northwestern veep?

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Take none of what follows as a prediction, but I will say this: The Northwest is home to the single most logical vice presidential pick in the country, in either party.

I eliminate the Donald Trump-Republican side here, because I have no idea who the most logical vice presidential nominee there might be. (For a host of reasons, not Senator Mike Crapo, who made a list of prospects by columnist Ann Coulter.)

On the Hillary Clinton-Democratic side, the calculus is easier, and by combining assets and liabilities Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley rises toward the top. He is not among the most-mentioned names, but all of those better-knowns come with problems attached. The choice of Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren would thrill some people but would stir new controversy (the two-woman ticket) while putting her Senate seat at partisan risk at a time when Democrats have hopes of retaking the Senate. That same Senate problem applies to Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown and New Jersey Senator Cory Booker. Virginia Senator Tim Kaine, who’s close to the Clintons, has financial and other issues and would aggravate the Bernie Sanders contingent. Sanders himself is a non-starter, as Clinton has made clear, not least because he has not worked in the party vineyards. Other prospects have little or no serious experience as a candidate for high office.

Merkley was the only senator to endorse Sanders, which made him beloved within that contingent, but he did that without trashing Clinton, who he has since endorsed. Picking Merkley would be a signal from Clinton that she can overcome her issues of insularity, and expand her enthusiasm quotient on the left. (Of coursse, if she’s as insular as reputed, Merkley’s Sanders link would be a disqualifer.) The risks would be small. Merkley is a loyal Democrat, has run as such since his first election to the Oregon House in 1998, and has helped other Democratic campaigns.

In demeanor, he has a low-key, “aw-shucks” manner (in person he comes across more like Crapo than an of the others in the Idaho delegation) which would neatly balance Clinton’s presentation, but he’s also a skilled speaker and debater. He rose quickly into Oregon House of Representatives leadership, and showed political chops by leading the campaign effort that switched control of the chamber from Republican to Democratic ad made him speaker. Like Oregon’s other senator, Ron Wyden, he’s held town halls in every county in the state each year he’s been in the Senate (he’s now in his second term). His background, as he routinely reminds Oregonians, is as the son of a Myrtle Creek mill worker, and his interest in practical economics grows out of that.

If elected as vice president, Oregonians would choose his replacement in a special election. Given Oregon’s politics, Democrats probably would not have to worry about losing the seat.

His easy manner led many Oregon Democrats to figure him for an unambitious centrist, and he has cooperated with a variety on other senators on sundry issues, including Idaho’s Republicans on regional topics like wildfire prevention. He also, however, has been a liberal activist on economic and other issues (his highest national profile probably has been on the subject of filibuster reform) which is why the Sanders backers would approve of him.

What few Oregonians probably know, and Merkley seldom mentions, is that he has a strong foreign relations and defense background as well. After a stretch in the office of (Republican) Senator Mark Hatfield, Merkley worked for a variety of international non-profit and other organizations around the world, spending time in Ghana, Mexico, Italy, India and elsewhere. After that he became a presidential management fellow at the Department of Defense, working in Caspar Weinberger’s administrative offices on defense process and strategy. And after that, at the Congressional Budget Office as a nuclear arms analyst. He discusses defense and foreign relations policy with ease.

Merkley’s name, as a veep prospect, has come up so far only on the periphery, and to reiterate, I make no predictions here. But the case for hism is strong enough that you shouldn’t be shocked if you hear it again.

Corporate taxes down?

From a report by the Oregon Center for Public Policy.

As Oregonians mull raising taxes on large corporations this November, a new study finds that Oregon corporate taxes -- both income and property taxes -- have fallen dramatically over recent decades. The report released today by the Oregon Center for Public Policy attributes the decline to the various ways corporations have "gamed the tax system."

"Thriving communities depend on having well-funded schools and other public services that benefit everyone, not just the few," said Tyler Mac Innis, policy analyst at the Center. "Paying for those services becomes harder when corporations rig the tax system to shirk tax responsibilities."

In terms of income taxes, the corporate contribution has declined as a share of the Oregon economy, the report said. By that measure, the corporate income tax has sunk by more than half since the late 1970s.

The sharp decline is also evident when considering the share of all income taxes collected by Oregon that corporations pay, versus the share paid by individuals and families. The corporate share has fallen from 18.5 percent in the mid-1970s to 6.7 percent today.

"The decline in corporate income taxes has been no accident, but rather the result of corporations gaming the system," said Mac Innis. By "gaming," he referred to corporations lobbying for and winning tax subsidies and loopholes, pursuing aggressive tax sheltering strategies and utilizing new corporate forms largely exempt from corporate income taxes.

Along with the decline in income taxes, corporations have also enjoyed a reduction in their property taxes, the report found. Not only have they won tax subsidies that reduce their property tax obligations, corporations also benefitted greatly from seismic changes to Oregon's property tax system in the 1990s.

First came Measure 5, which slashed property taxes, including property taxes paid by corporations. Then came Measure 50, which locked in property taxes at a time when commercial property was inexpensive relative to residential property, according to the report.

"It's no surprise that Oregon ranks dead last -- the lowest business taxes among all states -- given how far corporate income and property taxes have fallen over the years," said Mac Innis. "We must increase corporate taxes if Oregon is to have the great schools and other public services that make our communities thrive."

In November, Oregon voters will decide whether to raise corporate income taxes. A measure on the ballot would establish a 2.5 percent tax based on the Oregon sales of C-corporations with sales that exceed $25 million. According to Oregon's Legislative Revenue Office, the measure would raise more than $6 billion each budget period, mainly from large, multi-state corporations headquartered outside Oregon.

The Oregon Center for Public Policy (www.ocpp.org) is a non-partisan, non-profit institute that does in-depth research and analysis on budget, tax and economic issues. The Center's goal is to improve decision making and generate more opportunities for all Oregonians. (image/DonkeyHotey)

Oregon’s richest

From a June 9 report by the Oregon Center for Public Policy.

The economy has rarely been better, if you belong to Oregon's richest of the rich. The latest figures show that the average income of Oregon's top one-tenth of 1 percent of earners stands just below its all-time high, according to a new study by the Oregon Center for Public Policy.

"At the very top of Oregon's income ladder it looks as if the Great Recession never happened," said Center analyst Tyler Mac Innis. "The typical Oregonian, however, remains stuck in the recession."

Since the official end to the recession in 2009, the average income of the top one-tenth of 1 percent -- a group consisting of only 1,680 households -- has climbed by more than one million dollars, according the Center. In 2014, the year with the most recently available data, the average member of this group of top earners pulled in $3.9 million.

The story is rather different for the typical Oregonian. By 2014, the state's median income had risen by just $21 since the beginning of the recovery, the study showed.

Looking over the long term, Oregon's median income of $33,484 in 2014 was just $270 higher than in 1980, when adjusted for inflation. Over that same time, the income of the top one-tenth of one percent quadrupled.

While this tiny group at the very top has largely fueled the rise of the top 1 percent as a whole, the rest of the top 1 percent has also done quite well over the years, Mac Innis noted. The average, inflation-adjusted income of the rest of Oregon's top 1 percent more than double between 1980 and 2014.

"Income inequality is the greatest economic challenge facing our state," Mac Innis said. "Stagnant incomes for Oregonians in the middle makes it hard for them to keep up with the rising costs of housing, child care and other essentials. Worse still, there's growing evidence that inequality hampers Oregon's economic growth."

The study called on Oregon lawmakers to confront inequality by ramping up investments in the education, job skills and health of all Oregonians, as well as in infrastructure. The Center said the state should pay for those investments by taxing the wealthy and corporations.

The Oregon Center for Public Policy (www.ocpp.org) is a non-partisan, non-profit institute that does in-depth research and analysis on budget, tax and economic issues. The Center's goal is to improve decision making and generate more opportunities for all Oregonians.

Portrait of Kitzhaber’s legacy

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The official portrait of former Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber continues to hang in the hall of the state capitol in Salem. It’s still there, alongside those of his predecessors like Ted Kulongoski and Vic Atiyeh, and right next to the office he occupied for longer than most of the people who have ever held it.

Kitzhaber’s portrait was particularly popular among tourists to the building in February 2015, in the days surrounding his resignation amid federal investigations and allegations of corruption and influence-peddling. Groups of people and individuals would pose for pictures with his portrait, taking selfies in the anticipation that the scandals and controversy would ultimately result in it being taken down.

Not much has been said publicly about the man in recent months, as the Federal Bureau of Investigation tends to be tight-lipped about its work. Kitzhaber and his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, occasionally break their silence with recorded video statements, social media posts and interviews in which they disclose very little while loudly proclaiming their innocence. Hayes even took a job with a startup magazine in Bend, an unusual career choice for someone with literally no background in journalism and who has blamed the news media and its members for her very public downfall.

The latest reminder that the trials and tribulations of John and Cylvia are nowhere near over hit this week like a one-two punch. First came the call from Republican members of the U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Governmental Reform for a criminal investigation into the disastrous $305 million Cover Oregon debacle, in which federal dollars were spent developing a website that never functioned or signed a single person in the state up for health insurance coverage.

Cover Oregon was supposed to be one of Kitzhaber’s crowning achievements and accomplishments, as he and others in the state’s political leadership were eager to have the state be the first in the nation to fully implement the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act. Instead, Oregon taxpayers get the privilege of paying for attorney fees years later as the state and software giant Oracle fight it out in multiple court cases and venues and point the finger at each other in an attempt to assign blame for the fantastic failure that followed.

The fact that the state didn’t have to build a website from scratch is often lost upon many during discussions on this issue. I had actually reported in December 2012 in an Estacada News article that former State Representative Patrick Sheehan grilled Cover Oregon officials about that decision during a committee meeting. Patrick, who has a background in website development, had received live product demonstrations from a company that could have licensed existing software to the state for $6 million and customized it for another $6 million. His concerns about the state wasting money were met with seeming derision by officials who were later fired or resigned in disgrace. They flippantly told Sheehan that they weren’t worried about wasting money, because if the state ran out, it could simply ask the federal government for more.

All of the constant calls for somebody, somewhere, to investigate what happened during Kitzhaber’s tenure as the state’s chief executive officer have grown into a chorus. Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has, not surprisingly, never seemed to be very eager to investigate the man who appointed her to her position. But those of us who have been screaming for it all this time have become quite hoarse, in the hopes of eventually being heard.

At the end of that same news cycle came a story from The Oregonian newspaper that Hayes has been ordered by a judge to pay $128,000 in attorney fees to that publication after her failed attempts to keep her e-mails from being disclosed. That dollar figure is nearly the same amount that her consulting business supposedly made in a single year not all that long ago during her stint as First Lady. It’s also a full six figures higher than the amount she apparently disclosed to the Internal Revenue Service for that same year. As a former longtime reporter, I’m sure that it’s substantially more than she’s bringing home through her current occupation.

As these events unfolded, members of the Legislature convened at the capitol for a week of interim committee meetings. They include the Department of Energy Oversight Committee, which was formed in the hopes of figuring out what happened with that agency’s Business Energy Tax Credit boondoggle during Kitzhaber’s administration. Several state agencies have faced turnover at the director level in recent months and colossal budgetary shortfalls loom on the horizon for the Oregon Health Authority, Department of Human Services, Oregon Department of Transportation and the Public Employees Retirement System.

That’s a stark contrast to the legacy that I’m sure Kitzhaber was hoping to leave behind. In the meantime, though, his official portrait remains in its current location, much in the same way that former governor Neil Goldschmidt’s did until its removal.

I suppose the possibility exists that Kitzhaber’s may still someday be taken down. And maybe it will be placed alongside Goldschmidt’s so the two of them can hang together. Such a scenario might be the most fitting end for it once this whole situation has finally been resolved.

Tuesday numbers

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From the point of view of Oregon and Idaho, the numbers Tuesday told a mostly consistent message: Some backing off on the right, in the case of some of the further-out candidates, and on the other side of the primary a bit of movement left.

Though that's not an absolute and some qualification is needed.

The whole left-right thing (mostly on the left) was a little more subtle in Oregon, though there was a good example of it at the top of the ballot and some other good case studies further down.

Bernie Sanders was the substantial winner in Oregon, keeping his streak of election-day wins alive (while thinly losing Kentucky). It was an across-the-board win, too; he seems to have won all but two (Deschutes and Gilliam) of the state's 36 counties.

A little further down, the hottest primary contest in Oregon may have been the Democrats for secretary of state, won by Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian. Realistically, there's no big philosophical divide between him and his opponents (Val Hoyle and Richard Devlin), all being relatively liberal Democrats. But Avakian seized onto a string of liberal causes, some only barely related to the SecState job, in building his case. Some Bernie-Brad linkage may have been at work.

Locally, there was the Hood River vote over whether to allow Nestle to bottle water at Cascade Locks. It was a hot issue in the area but it turns out lopsided: By two to one, voters sought to deny Nestle the water.

More locally for us, in Yamhill County a rare defeat of an incumbent county commission, Allan Springer, who has been one of three extremely conservative commissioners. His replacement, McMinnville Mayor Rick Olson, is expected to be considerably more moderate.

Over in Idaho, where the Democratic philosophical divides tend to be less clear than the Republican, the backing off from the edges of the right seemed fairly evident.

A bunch of legislative races featured contests between relatively establishment (but, it should be noted, almost all quite conservative) candidates, and farther-right insurgents. In nearly all of these cases, the latter lost. Challenged incumbents like Shawn Keough, Luke Malek, Patti Anne Lodge, Patrick McDonald (opposed by the well-known Rod Beck), Stephen Hartgen, Maxine Bell and Kelley Packer all pulled through. But that doesn't mean this was a solid election for incumbents. A bunch of incumbents associated with the insurgent hard right went down: Kathleen Sims, Sheryl Nuxoll, Shannon McMillan and Pete Nielsen.

More on this in the weekend column.

But one other Idaho note should be made. In the four-way Supreme Court two of the candidates - Clive Strong and Sergio Gutierrez - got the lion's share of the newspaper endorsements and community leader support. That was the right assessment: Those two were clearly, even obviously, the most qualified for the high court. They were also, the voters decided, the two who came in third and fourth, and will not advance to the runoff in November. Are partisan primary elections the right time to make this kind of choice? This election was a good argument against.

Open public records?

From a statement by the audits division of the Oregon Secretary of State's office, about a look into just how open the state's public records are.

While Oregon agencies follow the public records law for most public records requests, more needs to be done to address the complex, non-routine requests that agencies receive, according to an audit released today by the Secretary of State’s office.

Auditors examined nine state agencies of varying sizes and missions to determine how agencies are both responding to public records requests and retaining their public records. Their findings are outlined in the audit report released today, entitled: “State Agencies Respond Well to Routine Public Records Requests, but Struggle with Complex Requests and Emerging Technologies.”

The audit found that most public records requests agencies receive are simple and can be fulfilled within just a couple weeks, often at little or no cost. But agencies struggle to respond to the occasional complex request, leading at times to delays, high fees, and the perception that agencies are using these tactics to block the release of public information.

The audit recommends that policymakers consider creating a neutral third party, such as an ombudsman position, to serve as an intermediary between the public and state agencies on complex records requests. Third-party mediation services between agencies and requesters have been employed successfully in other states to help protect confidential information and ensure public access to state information.

“The public and the press have a right to see how their government operates to serve Oregonians,” said Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins. “This audit demonstrates that state agencies need to improve consistency and develop strategies to better respond to public records requests of all sizes. We must improve the public’s trust in Oregon government.”

Agencies are also struggling to keep up with the latest communication technologies, such as social media, text and instant messages, and the use of personal devices or personal email accounts. Very few agencies examined have policies in place to specifically dictate how these technologies should be used in the context of public records, and how to retain the data.

Some of these issues stem back to how agencies retain their public records. The audit found that agencies are keeping too many records past the required retention schedule, resulting in a significant volume of public records that are difficult for agencies to efficiently manage.

“Public employees want to be good stewards of state information,” said Secretary Atkins. “Given the rapidly changing ways we use technology to conduct state business, it is clear we have work to do to maintain transparency and accountability to Oregonians.”

The audit also found variation among agencies in the fees charged for public records requests and the timeline in responding to them. The audit has recommended that the Department of Administrative Services take the lead in establishing guidance regarding fees and rates for the cost of public records requests. Auditors further recommended agencies establish timeliness goals for responding to records requests, and hold themselves accountable to those goals.

Audit findings further touched on a number of related issues, including exemptions in the law and how agencies can benefit from technology to be more transparent and accountable.

The audit released today was in response to Senate Bill 9 from the 2015 Session, legislation requested by Governor Kate Brown. Read the full audit on the Secretary of State website or an executive summary on the Audits Division blog.

Oregon and the EITC

From a report from the Oregon Center for Public Policy.

Oregon is in last place nationally when it comes to the share of families qualifying for the federal Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) who claim it. That is costing the state's economy about $124 million a year in foregone federal dollars, according to the Oregon Center for Public Policy.

About a quarter of eligible Oregon working families do not claim the federal EITC, said the Center in a paper that analyzed the most recently available data, dating from 2012. This tax credit helps low-income households make ends meet, and enjoys bi-partisan support as an effective anti-poverty tool.

"Working families missing out on these federal work-support dollars have a harder time getting by," said Tyler Mac Innis, a policy analyst with the Center. "It also means fewer federal dollars ultimately flowing into businesses in communities throughout Oregon."

Oregon's poor performance in 2012 was not unusual. In the five years of available data (2008 through 2012) Oregon ranked no better than 48th among all states and the District of Columbia in terms of its EITC participation rate.

While the precise reasons why Oregon ranks so poorly are not altogether clear, research has shown that certain categories of working families are less likely to claim the credit, Mac Innis said. They include families who live in rural areas, are self-employed, do not have a qualifying child or are not proficient in English.

"It should be a priority of Oregon policymakers to make a state agency responsible for promoting the credit," Mac Innis said. "This is costing the state's economy millions in federal dollars and needlessly making life more difficult for families who are already hurting."