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Not a boon for OR Democrats, though

The Oregon Supreme Court decision barring 10 Republican state senators from another term after the current one was quickly assailed by Republicans, as you’d expect.

Republican Sen. Suzanne Weber of Tillamook responded, “I’m disappointed, but can’t say I’m surprised that a court of judges appointed solely by Gov. (Kate) Brown and Gov. (Tina) Kotek would rule in favor of political rhetoric rather than their own precedent. The only winners in this case are Democrat politicians and their union backers.”

That’s not quite right. Democrats and their backers aren’t likely to gain much out of it, though in a couple of years Weber’s district could be an exception.

The court decision grew out of a dare and a long-shot bluff. After a series of extended walkouts during legislative sessions by enough Republican legislators to bring statehouse business to a halt, voters in 2022 passed a constitutional amendment providing that any legislator with 10 or more unexcused absences in a session could be barred from serving a subsequent term. Republicans challenged it on grounds that the ban could be read to refer to a future term after a walkout happens; the secretary of state and high court said that interpretation was contrary to voter expectations.

In the 2023 session, 10 Republican senators absented themselves regardless: Minority Leader Tim Knopp of Bend, Weber of Tillamook, Kim Thatcher of Keizer, Lynn Findley of Vale, Dennis Linthicum of Klamath Falls, Art Robinson of Cave Junction, Bill Hansell of Athena, Daniel Bonham of The Dalles, Brian Boquist of Dallas and Cedric Hayden of Fall Creek.

That might sound like a huge boon for Democrats, since legislative seats usually are easier to flip if they’re open than if an incumbent is defending them. But it’s not that simple.

Of the 10, six senators are serving terms that expire after this year’s election. But two of those, Findley and Hansell, had announced their plans to retire from the Legislature anyway. (Their districts are very strongly Republican and highly unlikely to switch parties.)  Two more appeared to be paving the way for successors, with Robinson’s son and Linthicum’s wife filing to take their seats.

That leaves only two seats specifically impacted this year. Knopp represents a Bend-area district which has developed a significant Democratic voter registration edge, and whether he or someone else is the Republican nominee, they’d probably face an uphill climb to keep the seat. Last month, Knopp – possibly anticipating what was coming from the Supreme Court – said he would back Downtown Bend Business Association Executive Director Shannon Monihan, who filed about the same time, for his seat.

That leaves only Boquist, a four-term senator who quit the Republican Party but recently rejoined it. He represents a district centered on Yamhill and Polk counties which overall is strongly Republican; his weakest Senate vote, in 2020, has been 58.3%. Democrats would need an unusual candidate or environment, and more than a little luck, to flip his seat this year.

With a March 12 filing deadline fast approaching, Democrats would have a hard time developing competitive campaigns for most of these seats in this election cycle.

That does leave the question of the four other impacted senators whose terms won’t be up until after the 2026 election: Weber, Bonham, Hayden and Thatcher. They still have a couple of years left in the chamber, and any of them could simply decide to retire, or maybe run for another non-legislative office at the next election.

As election results and voting registration numbers suggest now, at least one of those seats – Hayden’s in rural eastern Lane and Douglas counties – is very likely to stay Republican.

The other three are a little less certain. Bonham, Thatcher and Weber personally all have won by solid margins, but all three represent areas that are among the most politically marginal in Oregon, places where a strong candidate from either party cannot be discounted. Their departure from the Senate will throw a real challenge at Republicans to hold on to those seats in another couple of years.

The Supreme Court decision didn’t – at least immediately – change the partisan outlook for the Oregon Senate much, at least for this year, and it could spur senators who will barred from a subsequent term to walk out over an issue they care about, like reinstituting criminal penalties under Measure 110. Knopp voiced a veiled threat about that on Wednesday.

Nevertheless, the Supreme Court decision reinforced the blunt message voters sent in 2022: Extended legislative walkouts in future will have consequences, even if those most directly hit individuals rather than parties.

This column first appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.

Cast a wide net on homelessness

Oregon’s leading political issue in recent years, homelessness, is also one of the most difficult to solve.

A solution to the problem is unlikely to consist of a single silver bullet. It may be more of a targeted cocktail of solutions that attack the problem piecemeal – not the sort of thing well-suited to a political campaign’s talking points.

That means the efforts highlighted by Oregon government and Gov. Tina Kotek in the last year, and for the year to come, ought to be considered the first steps in a much more broadly ranging effort.

In the 2022 gubernatorial contest, all three major candidates agreed the problem was serious and called for a declaration of emergency – though they didn’t talk much about what the declaration might do. The focus does have reason: Oregon for years has had one of the highest rates of homelessness nationwide.

Kotek signed an executive order a year ago which declared homelessness an emergency and this month extended it, partly with the intent of keeping some homeless shelters open. And she’s signed more, including Executive Order 24-03 to “refresh the state’s Interagency Council on Homelessness and direct them to develop plans for the governor’s consideration in response to the analysis” which was required in another executive order.

Beyond that, she recently pointed to other actions taken during her first year in office to diminish homelessness. The state has poured money into new affordable rental options, especially in rural areas around the state. The homeless shelter capacity has been increased by an estimated 1,032 beds, and the state reported finding housing for nearly 1,300 families that might otherwise have become homeless. The Oregon Housing and Community Service agency said it has awarded $7.5 million “towards developing housing for those who are experiencing homelessness or are at risk of homelessness” in rural locations.

Has all that activity lessened homelessness in the state?

Many Oregonians probably would be doubtful. Homeless people still are widely visible, not only in Portland but in many communities around the state.

Oregon doesn’t have a definitive number of homeless people, but we may know more when the closest we have to solid numbers – the annual “Point in Time” count – is conducted at the end of this month. Last year’s count for Oregon totalled 20,142, probably many more than the recent initiatives could have reached. The number has been rising rapidly: In 2020, the estimate was 14,655. The 2021 count reported far fewer people, but the count was likely skewed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Beyond that, the relatively generic effort to build new residential apartments – a necessary first step in a state and nation with inadequate supplies of housing – covers only part of the problem.

Homelessness is a common end result of a large array of causes, including high housing costs, but also substance abuse, domestic abuse, mental illness and more.

The unhoused are distinct in many ways, their stories individual. Some are individuals, some are in family groups. Some need medical or social services, others don’t. Some are only briefly without a home, others for much longer. Some are camped on sidewalks, while others find limited shelter in vehicles, abandoned buildings or elsewhere. Some would reject assistance or support systems if made available; others would use them enthusiastically.  And problems vary by geographic location.

That means a lot of ideas will have to be floated, and a wide range of solutions – many of them targeted – will be needed.

The advocacy group Friends of the Unsheltered has compiled a number of ideas. That group said, “as evidenced by many failed plans, it makes sense to pay particular attention to those efforts that have really solved the problem within local jurisdictions.” It cited successful localized efforts in Gresham and Eugene.

Portland City Council candidate and former councilor Steve Novick – who has said, “We won’t truly solve the homelessness crisis until we solve the affordable housing crisis” – outlined a couple of examples of different ways of thinking about solutions in a Jan. 4 email, growing out of a discussion with “someone at the city” involved with homeless issues.

Discussing the Clinton Triangle alternative housing site in southeast Portland, he said the costs have been high, but the “pods in the site, the little structures which actually have a door to close so people have privacy and safety, cost $25,000 apiece. That may sound like a lot, but as he pointed out, the city  could buy 7,000 of them for the amount the Metro homeless services tax generates in six months.”

One of the problems with shelter, Novick said, is simply finding a place for them. His contact at the city noted that Washington County, and implicitly Clackamas as well, might have better topography for locating shelter sites.

Casting a wide net to solve the homeless problem will be the next step – for the state and community.

This column originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.


The meaning of recreation

If you take your dog for a walk from your home, walking some distance to a local park and then back, you’re engaging in recreation.

But does your recreation begin when you leave your house, start en route to the park or only after you get there, or does it start after you’ve reached some designated part of the park?

Determination of that issue may decide whether a bunch of Oregon cities will be closing part or all of their park areas to recreation in the months ahead. But that could be averted if the Oregon Legislature changes a vague section of a law that puts courts, local governments and recreating citizens in a bind.

The law is not new but the issue erupted last year with the case of Nicole Fields v. City of Newport, decided by the Oregon Court of Appeals in July, with some questions returned for consideration to a lower court. (The state Supreme Court has declined to review it.)

Fields was walking her dogs, with a friend, along the ocean to Agate Beach at Newport. When she reached a wooden bridge on the trail, she slipped and fell, and her leg was broken. The slipperiness of the bridge seems clear, because a rescue team who came to get her, and even one of their vehicles, also slid around the bridge.

The city of Newport manages the area, and Fields sued it for damages. The city’s defense was “recreational immunity,” which is described in state law: “It is the public policy of the state of Oregon to encourage owners of land to make their land available to the public for recreational purposes … by limiting their liability toward persons entering thereon for such purposes.”

A little more specifically, the law says, “The limitation on liability provided by this section applies if the principal purpose for entry upon the land is for recreational purposes … and is not affected if the injury … occurs while the person entering land is engaging in activities other than the use of the land for recreational purpose.”

The shield against liability, then, applies if you’re using the property for “recreational purposes” – as Newport argued that Field was – but not if you’re using it for some other purpose. Field’s argument was that she was using the bridge simply to get to Agate Beach, and her intent was to recreate, with her dogs and friend, there. Oregon law lists some activities that can specifically be considered as recreation, but others could be included as well.

All of this put the courts in the position of deciding what “recreation” is and isn’t, and because of a specific provision in the immunity statute, deciding whether a specific spot was an “unimproved, nonrecreational” trail. The Court of Appeals weighed in on Field’s side, but its decision seemed to struggle with the vagueness in the statute.

A trial on some of the facts, ordered as a followup by the Court of Appeals, is expected this year.

Does this matter outside of Newport?

At least one plaintiff’s attorney suggests the impact is not likely to be large, that the facts are specific enough to the Newport case; the fact that the trail was adjacent to the ocean also has a specific connection to the state’s law on liability.

Property owners, including local governments, are less sure. CIS Insurance Services, which insures many Oregon local governments, warned that the Court of Appeals decision effectively ended recreational immunity for improved trails: “Public and private landowners of improved trails are no longer protected from lawsuits,” a CIS lawyer said.

CIS even advised local governments to close improved trails used to access a recreational areas: “This especially includes trails, walkways and stairs used to access bodies of water, such as the ocean, lakes, rivers, streams and reservoirs.”

That warning has been heard. The cities of Waldport and Oceanside and the Port of Garibaldi have shut down trails near the ocean, and other trail plans have been put on hold. Other cities, including many far from the coast, are weighing their options, which may include shutting down park access.

The uncertainty over immunity grows out of the peculiar phrasing of the state’s recreational immunity law, which was crafted at the Oregon Legislature and could be revised there to creaste greater clarity. The issue is likely to come up at the February short session, which usually takes up only a limited number of non-financial issues.

If lawmakers don’t act, and lots of constituents this spring and summer find their access to local parks curtailed, they may wish they had.



The public school system in Shaker Heights, a suburban city southeast of Cleveland, is something of a model for Oregon. It has one of the most racially integrated, as well as well-funded and thoughtfully organized, public school systems in the nation.

It was renowned for breaking racial barriers early in the ’60s and has continued to push new and innovative efforts since.  It is not a problem-free district, and in some ways is plagued by issues that are also found in Oregon.

The book Dream Town: Shaker Heights and the Quest for Racial Equity by Laura Meckler, details the many issues still bedeviling students, teachers, administrators and parents. Gaps among various groups in achievement and attitude stay stubbornly pervasive and in too many cases, Meckler remarks, “Teachers no longer teach; students no longer learn.”

Her quest to learn why this is happening has unearthed many prospective answers, but one is prominent and bookended her account: Too many students don’t feel as if they really belong in their school.

Or, as she said in an interview, “One of my takeaways was that a lot of this comes back to a sense of belonging, and whether we are creating spaces where students and parents really feel like it is their place, their space.”

That takes us to the new Oregon Statewide Report Card on schools, released Nov. 30.

Signed by Charlene Williams, who officially became director of the Oregon Department of Education in September, it recounts the usual list of serious problems and some that seem to be more concerns than issues, such as declining numbers of students in many places.

She said, “At the same time, Oregon school districts lean into ways to improve the learning conditions for students, they have faced enormous challenges from declining enrollment to chronic absenteeism as well as social and political tensions. In addition, leadership turnover continues to occur as many of Oregon’s 197 school districts have new superintendents.”

In one key paragraph, Williams said: “Moving forward I’m focused on three areas that are central to student success: early literacy, sense of belonging, accountability.”

The middle one jumps out. After all, while accountability is important, it can – and often has – descend swiftly into a routine of teaching to the test, and at best highlights but does not solve problems. Early literacy is obviously critical, but the question of addressing it remains.

The sense of belonging underlies some of the key items in the rest of the report.

Some of this is reflected in the most basic of school measurements: Student attendance. Average daily attendance in Oregon is “the annual average of daily student attendance for students residing within the district. It is collected by the federal government and is used as the basis for funding in some states, but not in Oregon.”

Still, the numbers developed by the state are starkly meaningful. In the 2018-19 school year attendance was 573,705, while in 2022-23 it fell to 546,477. Other measures of students, such as raw registration numbers and figures parsed in various ways, showed a similar decline.

The pandemic and emphasis on distance learning may have affected some of this, as it almost certainly did in the case of high school dropouts. The report said that student dropout rates “were impacted by the pandemic and the shift to distance learning for all in the spring of 2020.”

Exact numbers of dropouts have become hard to measure over time since the criteria for measuring has changed. The report said, “In 2019-20 and 2020-21… districts were instructed not to drop students from enrollment without confirmation of a transfer to a different educational setting. This reduced the number of dropouts reported for the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years. Many students who otherwise would have been reported as dropouts in these years were reported when districts were allowed to drop students from their enrollment in 2021-22. As a result, data from 2019-20 and 2020-21 reflect an undercount in dropouts, and data from 2021-22 reflect an over count.”

Another way of putting it: There’s been a recent loss of consistency of determining when schools and students have lost connection.

Other measures suggest that subsets of students who may not feel a sense of belonging to the school may be experiencing diminished results there.

The report noted in the area of discipline, for example, that “during the 2022-23 school year, 6.8 percent of Oregon students experienced disciplinary incidents. Across race/ethnicity, students from historically underserved groups were disciplined more often than other students, with Black/African American students and American Indian/Alaska Native students disciplined most often, 13.2% and 11.2%, respectively). Students in Special Education and students federally identified as economically disadvantaged were also disciplined more often than other groups.”

Diminished results were found too among students who experienced residential insecurity or outright homelessness. The study said the four-year graduation rate for all students in 2022-23 was 81.3%, but for those described as houseless, it was 58.6%.

The problems of schools often seem a many headed hydra, encouraging us to keep looking for answers all over the place.

Not all of the answers will come from dollars, statistical analysis and abstract policies, though. Some may be more personal. They may come from giving more students the sense that they have a welcoming place in their school.


Oregon quiet

Across much of the nation, as much of the nation prepares to buckle in for a rough ride in what may be a ferocious presidential election year, Oregon will be watching a lot of the action from balcony.

It just doesn't have the look of a powerhouse election year in the Beaver State.

Certainly not at the presidential level. As has been true for some decades (remember when Oregon was actually closely watched in 1968 and 1976?), Oregon won't be pivotal in the presidential nomination process because its primary elections are toward the back end of the cycle; both parties are almost sure to have nailed down their presidential nominees well before then. If either of them hasn't, it'll be an even wilder election year than most of us think.

And as for the presidential election, there's little room to doubt that the Democrat - Joe Biden, presumably - will get the state's electoral votes. That's been the result every time out since 1984, when Ronald Reagan was the last Republican to score there.

Oregon has no U.S. Senate races in 2024. The last few have been so noncompetitive as to be almost unnoticeable, but even that bit of notoriety will be absent.

There will be at least one very hot U.S. House race, and maybe more. The clear competitive spot will be District 5, where Republican Representative Lori Chavez-DeRemer will be playing defense in a tough district - which leans sightly Democratic - in a year when the top of the ticket is unlikely to give her much help. (The management of the U.S. House this year, and maybe next, likely won't help much either.) District 6, held by Democrat Andrea Salinas, probably won't be quite as hotly contested, but this too is a competitive district and the potential is there if Republicans organize well and produce the right nominee.

The legislature, notably the state Senate, is likely to be less up for grabs than it was two years ago. All of the House seats are up, but early indications seem to suggest not a lot of change there. And in the Senate, Republicans had their best shot at a majority last time. This cycle's batch of Senate seats (they serve four-year terms, with different districts alternating on the ballot) are more likely to favor Democrats, and Republicans will have to scramble to hold on to their present margin, with odds that they may lose a seat or two. (That may be true whatever happens with the current lawsuit over whether the walkout Republicans may, against the intended reading of a new constitutional amendment, will be allowed to serve another term.)

The governor's office won't be up, but other major state offices - attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer - will be. The most interesting of these so far (and probably the most interesting contest in the state apart from the 5th congressional district) looks to be secretary of state, where incumbent Treasurer Tobias Read (who ran for governor in 2022) faces off against state Senate James Manning of Eugene. It doesn't look like an easily predictable race, and both candidate bring some real strengths to the contest.

When a primary contest for secretary of state may be the most interesting Oregon political contest of the year ... well, that may tell you something. Oregon just isn't looking like a hotbed of political excitement for 2024.

Barring the unexpected. So stay tuned.


A year in bullet points

This year about to end happened to be the first year in office for Oregon's governor, Tina Kotek. Last week she delivered a somewhat self-congratulatory mail about accomplishments during the year, which allows for something of a frame for thinking about the year as a whole. You can say this about her comments: She touched on many of the top concerns Oregonians often list as top of mind.

Here, her comments and some additional thoughts.

Declaring a homelessness state of emergency on my first full day in office, and two months later signing the Affordable Housing and Emergency Homelessness Response Package into law.

Homelessness surely remains top of mind for many Oregonians, for the coming year as for the last. Calling a state emergency was something all three major governor candidates in 2022 proposed; now that it's been done, impact doesn't seem to have, well, amounted to much. The legislation, which seemed aimed primarily at increasing housing supply, was just a first step but maybe a useful first step. We'll know more about that when we see what sort of followup happens this year.

Signing seven new education initiatives into law aimed at increasing literacy, growing the teacher workforce, and improving student equity.

The most significant piece of this could be the new $50 million fund aimed at providing infrastructure for child care; that could have a direct positive impact for families stressed by child care unavailability and cost. The other items are more limited. Will something more ambitious appear this year?

Traveling to every corner of the state as part of the One Oregon Listening Tour — meeting directly with community leaders to hear their concerns and learn about their issues firsthand.

Again, you can call this a good first start - which she should continue each year to come. And expand in a significant way: These visits mostly involved meeting with specific people and organizations and reviewing projects, all of which is fine as far as it goes; but open town halls and similar events, along the lines of what Oregon's senators do, allowing in all comers, would be a welcome addition.

Joining 20 of my fellow Governors to form the Reproductive Freedom Alliance in response to the nationwide attacks on abortion access. Our coalition is dedicated to protecting and expanding reproductive rights across the country.

Oregon may be stressed increasingly in the next year as one of the region's ongoing abortion provider states. This election year may make it a top subject even within the state. If Kotek is keeping a close watch on the situation, she's right to do that.

Announcing a $1 million investment to expand trash cleanup efforts across the City of Portland. We're going to have a cleaner city while supporting individuals exiting homelessness.

My only question is how far $1 million will go across the whole city of Portland. But the idea is a good one. The sheer looks of the city may, if spruced up a bit, improve people's attitudes.

Cracking down on fentanyl in our state, by ramping up targeted law enforcement efforts to go after dealers, increasing intervention programs, and implementing more prevention efforts to combat risky behavior among Oregon's youth.

Intervention and prevention seem to be the strong suit here, but we'll have to wait into 2024 to see what sort of responses emerge.

In all, its a time to get ready. 2024 could be a rough ride for us all.


Smaller parties still matter

In March, a new organization was added to the list of small political parties qualified to appear on the Oregon ballot: the No Labels Party. Oregon was the third state nationally to accept its application, after Colorado and Arizona.

Whether next year a No Labels’ candidate will actually appear on the ballot – or make much difference – remains an open question. The group is aimed solely at presidential politics and doesn’t need an in-state organization. As of November, the Oregon Secretary of State’s office reported that it had about 1,500 registered voters in the state.

Other smaller parties have more. In Oregon, the Constitution, the Independent, the Libertarian, the Pacific Green (affiliated with the Green Party of the United States), the Progressive and Working Families parties all have thousands of registrants.

The Independent Party of Oregon is distinct from the others, not as a matter of law but simply size: It has far more registered members than all the other smaller parties put together, and has been legally classified as a major party. It’s not really a “small” party.

America’s politics, and Oregon’s, is highly polarized. In the 2020 presidential election, more than 2,374,320 votes were cast in the state for president; all but 75,490 (3.2%) went to either Democrat Joe Biden or Republican Donald Trump.

In 2022, when Betsy Johnson’s well-organized and strongly-financed campaign emerged for governor, she wound up in a very distant third place.

In addition to these organized groups, there are also “other” registrants, which are not among the “nonaffiliated” – which is a separate category – but presumably members of other parties which don’t have ballot status in Oregon. State records do not break down who these somewhat mysterious people are. Their numbers have declined a little in recent years but are substantial; at about 15,690, they account for more voters than any of the small parties but the Libertarians.

Still, by themselves Oregon’s small parties do generate support, sometimes shifting levels of support, and they can matter in who among large-party candidates prevails and by how much.

Oregon is among the states allowing cross-party endorsement voting, in which more than one party can nominate a candidate – and the smaller parties often do. (The process is related to, but distinctive from the true “fusion” system used in New York state.)

The results show up in many places on Oregon voter guides where partisan offices appear. In 2022, for example, Ron Wyden was nominated for the Senate by not only his own Democratic Party but also in the Independent Party of Oregon. The Republican nominee, Jo Rae Perkins, also was nominated by the Constitution Party. The Pacific Green and Progressive parties, meantime, offered their own nominees.

There have been five consistent small parties in Oregon – aside from the Independent Party of Oregon which has grown larger over the years – which are the  Constitution, Libertarian, Pacific Green, Progressive and Working Families parties.

It would be fair to group the latter three  – as left of the Democratic Party. In 2023, they accounted for 19,795 voters.

The Constitution Party has been situated to the right, or near the right flank, of the Republican Party; it’s the only small party clearly on the right and has about 3,830 registered voters.

The Libertarian Party may help boost the small-party registration on the right. It takes some elements from both ideological sides – it famously calls for less government and disagrees with a number of policies of both major policies – but in recent decades has seemed to draw more from the right than from the left. Its party registration in October was 20,484.

Taken together, the right may be losing a few more voters to small parties than are the Democrats, though the gap isn’t large.

Of the three left-leaning parties, the Pacific Green and the Working Families parties are the larger, with 8,000 or more registrants each in recent years, while the Progressive Party has been much smaller. But the trend lines have favored the Progressives. In 2019 it had about 2,380 registrants but four years later increased their number, by about half, to 3,635.

During that same time, both the Pacific Green’s and the Working Families’ numbers fell. The PGs declined from 8,700 in 2019 to 7,850 (in 2023), and the WFs from 9,720 in 2019 to 8,310 in 2023. That may reflect some movement from those parties to the Progressives, for reasons that are unclear.

Does all of this, taken together, much influence the outcome of partisan elections statewide? Probably not in most cases, unless the race becomes very close, coming down to a few thousand votes, and then decisions about cross-endorsing as opposed to running a separate candidacy could matter.

Don’t say it doesn’t matter, though, nor No Labels either even if it lacks registrants. In 2022, two congressional seats were decided by a couple of percentage points. At that level, what the small parties do can make a difference.


Fixing, not repealing, 110

In November 2020, a near-landslide of Oregon voters – 58.5% – approved Measure 110, which generally decriminalized small-scale possession of illicit drugs. That passage was a call to change the state’s core policy.

Kassandra Frederique, executive director of the pro-110 Drug Policy Alliance, said, “This confirms a substantial shift in public support in favor of treating drug use with health services rather than with criminalization.”

That was the core idea: rejection of the long-standing general policy of criminal enforcement, the half-century “war on drugs” widely declared as a failure.

State Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, remarked, “We need to look at things outside of the traditional war on drugs approach. That’s been going on for 50 years. And I ask everyone, so what do we have to show for this? And it’s 50 years and how many billions, if not trillions, of dollars have been spent?”

The approach relied strongly on law enforcement, prison and the criminal justice system. Critics noted that relatively few people really kicked their problems in prison, and once out their lives were so constricted – with few practical choices about where to live or work – that they often relapsed.

Those concerns, aired widely in 2020, have faded from public view – though not from validity – amid arguments that Measure 110 hasn’t worked.

A number of county governments have called for 110’s repeal. An August Emerson poll suggested a majority of Oregonians felt the same, but there’s reason for skepticism. The poll was backed by the Foundation for Drug Policy Solutions, whose spokesman, Kavin Sabet, has blasted decriminalization, calling it “part of a very well thought out multi-decade plan by those who want to legalize drugs and the billionaires who are behind it.”

“I do think that if Oregon repeals or replaces Measure 110 or continues to have that buyer’s remorse, which is certainly where the momentum is, this could stop the legalization movement in its tracks because this really puts a dent in those plans of legalization advocates,” Sabet said.

For all the talk about repealing Measure 110, most legislative activity now seems to involve additions and fixes for its problems rather than changing the core direction, which is what approval of Measure 110 by voters signals the public wants. However, the will of voters can and should be met with changes on how to execute that new direction. The largest failure with Measure 110, so far, has been implementation: Prevention and treatment efforts have been slow, along with measures to ban activity, such as the public use of drugs, to mirror state law on alcohol and marijuana.

Measure 110 has suffered from its timeline – changing enforceable drug laws in just 13 weeks between the election and the law change and long before treatment and other efforts could be set up – along with several gaps in the law.

Many early complaints about the measure concerned the slow expansion of treatment efforts. More recently, however, those projects have expanded. The 2021 Senate Bill 755 set up Behavioral Health Resource Networks, described as “an entity or group of entities working together to provide comprehensive, community-based services and supports to people with substance use disorders or harmful substance use.” This took time. The state set up a network in each county and tribal area before using grant funds to cover the cost of services to individuals.

The measure probably was overly comprehensive and uniform: Different drugs may call for different responses. Approaches to dealing with opioids (many of which are legal in some cases) is a different proposition than going after methamphetamines or cocaine. Legislation could address the differences.

Even more important is the absence in 110 of serious leverage to pressure – even force – drug users away from bad behavior and into treatment or some other consequence. What might that leverage look like? One option might involve building on the drug courts, active in Oregon as in many other states for many years by giving public officials – and maybe judges – broad authority to compel people to comply with recovery efforts.

Policymakers can consider as well that much of Oregon’s law relating to drugs, establishing crimes and penalties relating to manufacture and trafficking, remains in force and continues to be a powerful tool.

In October a large Oregon delegation visited Portugal, which two decades ago moved from a crimalized-based to a health service approach to drug use, to pick up lessons from the experience. Portugal seems to have little interest in reversing its course.

One of the participants, Janie Gullickson, the executive director of the Portland-based Mental Health and Addiction Association, remarked that, “It took Portugal eight years to see results they were hoping to see from their drastic change from a criminal approach to addiction to a health care approach. So it’s going to take time, innovation and collaboration. We’re year three, right?”

Elected officials seldom are wise simply to smack down a clearly expressed will of the voters. Voters do tend to appreciate, though, efforts to make their will work better.

(This column originally appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle.)


A union forges its own path

Is Oregon’s largest private-sector union going its own way politically?

It’s too early to say conclusively, but as it’s said in journalism, three instances make a trend, and a string of instances this year suggest the organization is already there.

The United Food and Commercial Workers Local 555 represents more than 30,000 workers, the core working at grocery stores but many in other businesses as well. Over the years, its political activities usually have aligned with those of most other Northwest union organizations in generally supporting Democratic candidates. It has been going through some changes, including by expanding.. It has long covered Oregon and southwest Washington, but in 2021 it merged with the local in southern Idaho, so that it now reaches from the Pacific to Jackson, Wyoming.

It also has sought to expand into the legal cannabis business sector. Since Oregon’s legalization, the local has tried to organize its workers and has pressed legislation to mandate cannabis businesses sign “labor peace agreements” as a condition of licensure.

When the local took the idea to the Oregon Legislature as House Bill 3183 (Cannabis Workers Rights), it drew questions about whether it would survive a court challenge. Rep. Paul Holvey, who chaired the House Committee on Business and Labor where the measure was assigned, shared that concern and, with time running out in the session, diverted the rules committee, where it died.

That result came amidst what probably felt to the local like a reversal of fortunes. As one labor newspaper noted, “from 2015 to 2017, Local 555 was a big player in a string of wins in the Oregon Legislature, including the 2015 paid sick leave law, the 2016 minimum wage law and the 2017 fair scheduling law. But in the last few years, Local 555 has had a tough time getting its proposed legislation passed.”

After the cannabis measure failed, Local 555 officials struck back. They targeted Holvey, a Eugene Democrat long close to the strong labor organizations in his district, for recall. Local 555 cited “a long list of Holvey’s anti-worker actions and questionable conduct that warrant his removal, including Holvey’s dishonest framing of his opposition to pro-worker legislation, his long-standing double standard advantaging big business interests over those of working people, a chronic lack of engagement and other instances of poor conduct.”

But they got no real support among other labor organizations. While umbrella groups like the state AFL-CIO stayed out of the fight, 14 other labor organizations in the area – including the Ironworkers Local 29, Lane Professional Fire Fighters (IAFF Local 851), Oregon AFSCME, Oregon and Southern Idaho District Council of Laborers, Oregon Building Trades Council, Oregon Coalition of Police and Sheriffs and the Oregon Nurses Association – sided with Holvey.

With the help of paid signature gatherers, Local 555 did get the recall on the ballot. But the voters supported Holvey by a stunning margin: About 90% voted not to recall him, a number far larger than that in most contested races.

But even before that election the local was back into ballot issues, saying on June 23 it would try to reverse the recently passed House Bill 2426, which opened the door to self-serve gasoline dispensing across the state.

Oregon was known for many years as one of two states – the other is New Jersey – requiring that attendants pump gas, a rule imposed in 1951 and long thought to be immutable. It has been eroded steadily in recent years, however, first with exemptions for rural areas and then broader pandemic-era allowances. Polling showed steadily growing support for self-serve gas.

HB 2426, passed and enacted this year, did away with the self-serve ban statewide, though it still requires businesses generally to provide a staff-service option. That latter provision may keep some service positions intact. Advocates also point out that Oregon has been experiencing a labor shortage in recent years.

Local 555 does have an interest in this issue, since it said it represents “nearly 800 workers at 63 grocery store fuel stations in Oregon,” though there’s little clear information on how many jobs have been lost through the law change, and in its statement on the initiative the local didn’t offer an estimate.

Local 555 spokesman Miles Eshaia said, “We have fuel stations within some of our bargaining units and we have seen not necessarily layoffs, but job loss to attrition so people who quit, they just don’t replace them because they don’t necessarily need to, because the new law allows for half of what they had before.”

Local 555 would need to collect about 117,000 signatures by next July to get a proposed reversal on the ballot. If it succeeds at that,  the odds of passage are not good, especially considering that other organizations haven’t jumped on board. While it probably would get more than 10% support, the measure seems to be trying to swim upstream.

The local also is taking on the statehouse with a series of other ballot proposals, which aim to revamp the ethics commission, end some closed door meetings, require some financial transparency for hospitals and pass into law a measure along the lines of the cannabis worker bill that failed in the last session.

Local 555 appears to be going its own way. Will others join in?