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The lone farmer and the ponderosa

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This column first appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle on January 14..

Here’s a recipe for concentrated depression:

The embattled and seriously troubled Klamath Basin, a center of social and environmental pathologies for two decades and more, facing a future, three decades hence, where climate change could make conditions far worse.

You could spin a dystopian novel from that. Or you could tell a more optimistic story. In a project the Klamath Falls newspaper, the Herald and News, released last week, it did both, in the form of a pair of short stories. (It was funded in part by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Environmental Solutions Initiative.)

It did more than tell stories. It also suggested ways out of the area’s bitter water and environmental conflicts while painting a specific picture of what a climate changed future actually may look like. The report showed that how people respond to the coming changes could make a vast difference.

Much of what we hear about climate change sounds theoretical: A temperature change of a couple of degrees (doesn’t sound like a lot) or an iceberg cleaved off in Antarctica. What about where I live?

The Klamath report got specific about that, about wildfires - of which last summer’s immense Bootleg Fire, just east of the Klamath area, was only a foretaste - major weather swings, frequent severe drought years, and hotter summers.

The Klamath River Basin seems ill-prepared for any of this. The drought year 2001 was a turning point, when the Basin’s water supplies dropped enough that conflicts involving irrigators, environmental interests, nearby tribes and others exploded, and the area has been on edge for years since with little relief in sight. It has attracted outside attention which often has added to the area’s troubles.

So what might happen in the next two to three decades?

The newspaper project outlined the current situation and then, out of many plausible possibilities, sketched out a couple of fictional but fact-infused scenarios.

One was “lone farmer.”

It begins in an upcoming drought year (maybe this one), as water is shut off or severely limited to many users, and anger rises to a flashpoint. Agitators - apparently connected to out-of-area provocateurs like Idahoan Ammon Bundy - seize the Klamath system headgates and open the water to the irrigation canal. But there’s little water, and the incident is the last straw for the feds, who cut off environmental and assistance for the area. Diminished water both on the surface and in local aquifers leaves fish dying, vast acreages of crops unwatered and houses by the hundreds without running water. Many of the endangered species in the area become extinct. Local farmers become endangered too, nearly all selling out to an international corporation which takes over almost all the area’s farm land. Only the local tribes remain, a significant political or legal factor, though after ongoing environmental hardship and the loss of fish runs, many tribal members move out of the area. Wildfires like the massive Bootleg Fire recur. The area's population falls by a third or more, as farm families move out of the area or to a corporate-built residential community.

The second story, “lodgepole and ponderosa,” led with this: “Young people are hard at work restoring and protecting the Klamath Basin’s wetlands, forests and waterways. Despite intensifying climate change impacts, a 30-year effort has put the basin on a path toward resilience."

The climate change assumed in both stories is the same. But in this one, a different trajectory is sketched for the next decade on the local and federal levels. Nationally, “The Interior Department establishes a climate corps program for each watershed in the Western U.S., inspired by the Civilian Conservation Corps created a century earlier." Locally, a new cooperative agreement between the various interests in the area - agricultural, tribal, residential, environmental and others - evolves a series of compromises on water and land use. The local group acquires some water from the federal government under an agreement on how it will be used, and water use in many places changes.

The end result is happier than in “lone farmer”: More local control, more prosperity at least for local businesses, and more local people, albeit with close discipline needed on everyone’s part.

The report suggested that, “The Klamath still has the ingredients of a successful watershed: Land, water, plants, birds, fish and people who care deeply about their homes and communities. But those things must be intricately connected in order to survive.”

The two scenarios seem to suggest as much.
 

What to watch for

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This column first appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle on December 29.

In 2022 many of Oregon's biggest stories will be political: A new governor, two new members of Congress (the first change there in a decade) and more.

What those changes look like, whether simply of personality or of wholesale direction, may flow from some of the other developments we see in the months ahead.

Where is Covid-19 headed, for example?

The clock struck 2022 on an ominous pandemic note, with a new variant faster-spreading than any before it. Covid-19 is marching on with no obvious end in sight.

Oregon is one of the best states for suppressing per capita infections, and hospitalizations have dropped in recent months even with the new omicron surge. That has happened partly because masking and vaccination regimes go on, surely into the primary election season and maybe into the general election as well, even if sweeping lockdowns do not. The anger on one side about any restrictions, and the anger on the other side about those protesters, is likely to continue and maybe grow. How will people react to this on their ballots?

The early months of this year may see a U.S. Supreme Court decision dramatically changing the rules on abortion, and most states probably will see a legislative - and maybe ballot issue - response to that. Oregon’s response may end up being little change in the current state laws, but the debate likely to erupt this spring may spin off many side effects.

The last couple of years have been challenging in other ways. As many people - around the country, and many around the state - view their largest city, Portland has become not just weird but ungovernable, hazardous, even (some will say) a burned-out, razed-to-the-ground shell. Last January an economist from Lake Oswego, Bill Conerly, wrote in Forbes magazine, that in Portland “continued violence and vandalism have combined with high housing costs, homelessness and poor community leadership to raise the question: how long before this city dies?” Some reality: Portland is not dying, and it doesn’t resemble the caricature its critics are so quick to employ. But image and perception are important. What will Portland’s leaders do in coming months to change that - and ease back some of the city’s real problems, in public safety, housing and elsewhere? It will be an election subtext.

So might the Greater Idaho movement, which plays off antipathy to PDX. An actual state boundary change isn’t in the cards - the barriers are too high - but the movement does provide a visible (and maybe substantive) counterbalance to the Portland metro sensibility. If the secessionists are able to achieve some visibility in the coming legislative session, what effect might that have on the elections ahead?

The legislature too, albeit operating in a short session, could affect the campaign seasons ahead. It may have done some of that already in its quick December session, passing emergency rental assistance and drought and law enforcement assistance as well, a package balanced between metro and rural areas. If the upcoming session continues along that balanced line - if it does - a cooling effect could be felt in Oregon politics.

There are some other reasons a cooling off could happen. Oregon’s economy, for one example, has been faring well.

The new congressional and legislative maps for the next decade are set now, but there’s a chance here too for decompression: Another run at the proposal that this state do what most of its neighbors have in creating a bipartisan redistricting commission. This year - shortly after the old plan is done and well ahead of the next one - would be the ideal time for action on it, and the best chance for its advocates.

This still leaves the question of how Oregon politics will develop in its most pivotal year for more than a decade.

The answers are not obvious.

As the year begins, the probability is that the governor’s office once again (as it has every time since 1982) will go to the Democratic nominee. But there are plausible scenarios to the contrary, and you can develop reasonable arguments for any of at least three Democratic contenders winning the nomination. (Sounds like a future column …)

The holders of Oregon’s fifth and sixth district U.S. House seats are a far from settled question as well.

Whoever they are, they’ll have to run against the backdrop of Oregon, a place perceived as mired in frustrating times or making its way toward sunnier days. The battle between those perspectives will likely tell us what kind of headlines we see in 2022.
 

Jordan Cove and the snap decision

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This column first appeared in the Oregon Capital Chronicle on December 29.

Snap decisions, so often prized, are not always the best. Sometimes the inefficiencies of government and regulation can lead to the right result.

Consider the recently defunct - after half a year of suspended animation, and a dozen years of regulatory limbo - the Jordan Cove Energy Project.

Go back a generation or slightly more and you’ll encounter a lot of discussion about the energy crisis in the Northwest, how our accelerating use of energy is outstripping our production of it. News stories were full of plans for development of nuclear plants (with attendant financial catastrophe) and coal-fired production operations. A new federal agency, the Northwest Power Planning Council, was set up (based at Portland) to develop strategies for coping with the power gap and developing more.

Times change. There’s a good case now for scrapping the council (now called the Northwest Power and Conservation Council ans which, okay, just got a new member from Oregon, long-time legislator Ginny Burdick). And the region is floating along quite well with existing power sources.

We don’t need to do, in other words, what we once thought we needed to.

In 2007 two Canadian groups, Jordan Cove Energy Project and the Pacific Connector Gas Pipeline, started regulatory applications to import natural gas, which was then in short supply, from Asia. (The controlling partner most recently has been the firm Pembina.) The plan was to ship compressed gas across the Pacific Ocean to a terminal at Coos Bay, and then send it by pipeline to points east. Natural gas prices then were high enough that the business model appeared to work.

The region would get new jobs, as always much appreciated at Coos Bay. The downsides were partly environmental and partly the result of running the pipeline through private as well as public lands: Property owners were hit with the prospect of eminent domain proceedings seizing land and houses.

All of that might have happened if regulation had been super-efficient. It was not.

Initial federal approval did come in 2009, and the wheels started to turn, but opposition grew and proceedings thickened. During that time, natural gas production in the United States picked up, and prices fell.

The market changed so much that not only did the original business model no longer work, but the backers of the project in 2013 asked for permission not to import but rather export natural gas. The energy needs of Americans were no longer a driving consideration, and fewer jobs probably would have been opened.

The project refused to die until the wheels came off this year. After the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission gave its permission to go ahead, subject to Oregon state approval, Oregon turned thumbs down. Last month, when FERC asked whether the company still planned to pursue the pipeline, the Jordan Cove consortium threw in the towel and said it would withdraw its application.

Jordan Cove has advocates. Scott Lauermann of the American Petroleum Institute said the withdrawal was “yet another unfortunate example of a much needed U.S. energy infrastructure project being terminated due to unnecessary regulatory delays.”

A commonplace line of argument these days - and yet. Imagine that, back in 2007, the project had been hurriedly approved. What would have been the end result?

We wouldn’t have any more natural gas, not in the United States, since by the time construction was done the market would have forced export of the product (the direction Pembina turned toward anyway).

But we would have had more environmental damage and, a number of people (including Representative Peter DeFazio) said, it would have been one of the biggest carbon emitters in Oregon, putting more pressure on everyone else to meet carbon goals.

Others have pointed out additional environmental problems: “Dozens of animals and plants listed under the Endangered Species Act are threatened by this proposal, including iconic coho salmon. The pipeline would have to cross steep mountainous terrain that poses excessive landslide risks, while the terminal is proposed in an area at-risk of severe earthquake and tsunami damage.”

Property owners in and near the planned pipeline routes haven’t easily been able to sell or improve their property. Close to a third of homeowners in the planned pipeline area refused entreaties to an agreement to sell, a strong protest. Today, those owners are in better shape.

Sometimes when we move too fast we can jump too far ahead of our needs, and be bitten by the solutions we adopt.
 

The fightin’ 6th

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When Stephen Colbert hosted his satiric political talk show some years back he often profiled a congressional district somewhere around the country, describing its particular characteristics and enthusiastically declaring it the “Fighting 17th!”. Or whatever it was.

Built into the gag was the idea, often valid, that a given congressional district actually has specific and unique character apart from the red-blue political. It would be a place where people have something in common, and maybe have a shared history.

That would be difficult to find anywhere a brand new congressional district is being formed, as one will be this the coming year in Oregon.

That new district, owing to population growth reflected in the 2020 census, will be the 6th. (As for the politics, in 2020 the new 6th’s precincts voted about 55.2% for Joe Biden and 42.1% for Donald Trump.)

Some of Oregon’s districts - referring here to those just created for the next decade - do have a nature that allows for an easy shorthand description. The 2nd district is easy: the vast wide open and mostly arid spaces of eastern and part of southwestern Oregon, primarily agricultural economically. (Geographically, it is one of the largest congressional districts in the country.) The 3rd is almost as easy: A central Portland urban area with some Columbia River frontage to the east. The 1st is more split between central city and suburbia (in Washington County) and more rural river and Pacific Ocean frontage. The 4th includes the smaller Eugene and Corvallis urban areas together with more thinly populated areas southwest to the ocean. The first is heavily Republican, the other three clearly Democratic.

The remaining two districts are more complicated, and they will be at least in theory the most politically competitive (which makes them unusual nationwide).

The revised 5th district, which has run from south Portland to below Salem with an arm reaching west to the Pacific, will include most of its old core area but lose Salem and the coast and swing its arm instead across the Cascades to pick up the Bend area.

The brand new 6th district will run from southwest Portland with a slice of Washington County, south through Yamhill, and include the Salem area. The new 6th, then (somewhat like the 5th), will include three distinct pieces: The Portland metro piece (on the southwest side, including Tigard, Tualatin and Sherwood); Yamhill and Polk counties, which include rural areas and small and mid-sized cities, and the Salem area, a mid-sized urban area with an identity distinct from the other two.

Most of the land area will be in Yamhill and Polk counties, but more than two-thirds of the votes will come from urbanized Washington and Marion.

This is a geographically coherent area (Highway 99 runs like a string through the middle of most of it, except Salem) but most people here probably won’t think it fits together.

The northern reach near Portland, where almost half of the people live, think of themselves as Portland metro people and may be a little discomfited jostled in with those non-urbanites. This region will have a large chunk of the population, but less than half - not enough to control outcomes.

Salem and Keiser together have a little more than 200,000 people, and will make up a little less than a third of the new district - fewer than the Washington County area, but also enough to make a big difference.

And the Yamhill and Polk County areas (except for the piece of Salem within Polk) see themselves as separate from either Portland or Salem. Yamhill and Polk together have almost 200,000 people, but about 25,000 of those Polk people are in West Salem. Smaller-town Polk and Yamhill make up about a quarter of the new district.

These are three distinct constituencies, and all have enough people that a candidate will ignore any of them at their peril.

That can be a good thing. The new 6th isn’t likely to be a district encouraging or even allowing (in its representative) much extremism of any sort. The need to work with varied constituencies may lead to a respect for compromise.

If the 6th becomes a “fightin’ 6th,” that may be because it holds its low-level fights on an internal and low-key basis, and rewards representation that’s steady and stable. Maybe that’s an optimistic view, but it’s what the numbers and geography seem to say.
 

Betsy Johnson’s voters

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Most of the discussion around state Senator Betsy Johnson’s independent entry into the 2022 Oregon governor’s race concerns whether she might be a spoiler for the Democrats or maybe herself a winner of the race.

In evaluating that, the question to ask will be: How persuasive is she?

Start with the prospect that the Democratic state senator from Scappoose might win, which is not unreasonable. Neither major party is especially popular in Oregon; the number of Oregon voters registering neither red nor blue is unusually large. Oregon has chosen an independent governor before, in 1930: Julius Meier (of Meier and Frank fame). No Oregon indies since have come close, though one or two arguably were spoilers in battles of the major parties.

A few have won governorships, in recent times, in other states. In 2018 Bill Walker was elected governor of Alaska, though he was allied with Democratic forces that year. In 2010 Lincoln Chafee was elected governor of Rhode Island; he previously was a Republican U.S. senator. And in 1994 and 1998, Angus King was elected governor of Maine and since to the U.S. Senate there; the first time he won with 35.4 percent of the vote. (If you’re thinking about Jesse Ventura of Minnesota, remember that he was a Reform Party nominee.)

This article originally appeared on the Oregon Capital Chronicle, the first of a series of Stapilus columns on Oregon.

All these cases involved large dollops of luck and unusual circumstances.

Might those help Johnson?

Oregon’s big political wild card is the Independent Party of Oregon. Positioned as a home for disaffected Democrats and Republicans, it has in the past decade gained at times more than 100,000 members, scattered remarkably evenly around the state. So far it apparently has not been a major factor in top-ballot races. Could it be if - as may happen - it backs Johnson?

IPO members weigh in on endorsements - normally the party does not nominate its own candidates - and those choices have indicated more Republican support than Democratic. (Its one legislative member to date, Senator Brian Boquist, had been a Republican.) An IPO-backed Johnson campaign might draw from the Republican nominee (whoever that may be) as much if not more as from the Democratic. Much of Johnson’s fundraising and big-name support - such as 2018 governor candidate Knute Buehler, who endorsed her on December 7 - so far comes from Republicans.

Her positioning still is fuzzy: She has declared herself a centrist, but what does that mean? How would it apply in practice? What kind of people would she appoint? What would be her priorities? The answers that emerge could help or hurt her.

Johnson has a clear plus in fundraising, which has topped $2 million so far, more than any other candidate in the field so far. That’s proof of serious candidacy, but be wary of attaching too much importance to it; political battlefields large and small are littered with contenders who outspent their opposition and still got beat.

She is developing a large political network around the state, which may be more important than the money. So far much of that too seems to come from the Republican as from the Democratic side - which if true would mean a Democrat would still be well set. Whether she can draw heavily from less liberal Democrats may depend a lot on how those candidates campaign and who the nominee is.

I mention the partisan segments of support for this reason: In recent elections, Democratic candidates for governor have won an outright majority of the vote in most races (that was true in 2018 and 2016), which means that a non-Democrat would need to attract a lot of people who have been voting routinely for Democrats in recent elections.

That’s difficult. High political polarization is our lot today, and getting people to cross the line on the ballot is harder. Many voters, Democrats especially, are well aware of the Nader-Stein effect where a vote to a non-major candidate could throw an election to an unwanted winner. Few Oregon Democrats would want to toss this race to the Republican.

Johnson’s main hope must be that she catches fire - as a strong candidate on her own - and that either the Democratic nominee implodes, or that both major candidates do; that in other words she becomes perceived as a front runner; and that enough Democrats see her as an acceptable option. To win, Johnson has to peel off enough reliably Democratic voters to make a difference.

How convincing will she be? Her campaign probably rises or falls on that question.
 

How rare a contest?

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The contest for Oregon governor in the coming year has been described, often, as the most wide-open in a long time.

A riffle back through Oregon political history shows it’s true. Many campaign cycles for governor feature one or two major figures who seem to dominate the picture, and more often than not you could make a reasonable guess more than a year out who would be elected to the office.

Not so much this year.

It’s not that the field - which still is in its early stages of populating - is likely to consist of obscure or thinly qualified people. Oregon’s treasurer, labor commissioner, and House Speaker may be in the field, along with a former Republican nominee for the office, several experienced local government officials, and even, maybe, a New York Times columnist.

But none have the kind of dominant profile in statewide politics - out in the public - that suggests any of them as an obvious front runner.

If an incumbent governor, or a previous governor, is on the ballot, such a person almost always would have that status. That was the case in 2018, 2016, 2014, 2010 and 2006, and in each of those elections, the incumbent or former governors (Kate Brown, John Kitzhaber, and Ted Kulongoski) who were running won the election. That current-or-former governor situation also applied in many other historically recent years: 1998, 1982, 1970, and 1962.

That still leaves a scattering of elections where the title “governor” wasn’t pre-attached to a contender, but in many of those, top candidates were still strongly positioned. In 2002, for example, Ted Kulongoski was not an incumbent but he had been both an attorney general and a Supreme Court justice and had run for governor as a Democratic nominee once before. He was a well-known political figure in the state, and had been for years.

In 1994 John Kitzhaber had a high profile as state Senate president and was a strong enough political figure to openly and prominently challenge a governor of his own party, Barbara Roberts, in the Democratic primary. That bold move made him an even more formidable-looking figure, and when she ultimately decided not to run, Kitzhaber was positioned automatically as of gubernatorial stature.

The 1990 election may in some ways have been the most up-for-grabs governor’s race in recent decades in Oregon, but it wasn’t wide open because it featured not a multitude of even-matched contenders but just two major figures, Roberts (then secretary of state) and Republican Attorney General David B. Frohnmayer.

In 1986, Neil Goldschmidt had been Portland mayor and national secretary of transportation and was highly known statewide (albeit not favorably everywhere). When Republican Vic Atiyeh ran and won in 1978, he was building off a strong but failed gubernatorial campaign four years earlier when he defeated - in very high profile fashion - former Governor Tom McCall. Beating a former governor in their own primary is one way to build political status.

To reach an Oregon governor’s campaign with only relatively low-profile candidates on the ballot, you have to go back to the 1950s, or maybe 1948 - and even there the term “relative” is important. In 1956 when Democrat Robert Holmes defeated incumbent Republican Elmo Smith, Holmes was an only moderately-known legislator and Smith had just recently ascended to the governorship when his predecessor died in office; neither was really a major figure in the state at the time. In 1948 when James McKay was elected governor, he had been known strictly as a legislator and mayor of Salem, though he became a major figure later as secretary of the interior.

So how does all this compare with what seems to be emerging today?

The top place to get to the governorship in Oregon, in recent decades, has been to start from there or to have been governor before. That won’t apply this time; the three living current or former governors won’t be on the ballot. Nor is anyone with past or current congressional experience likely to appear.

The next best starting point is the first office in line of succession (in that sense, Oregon’s equivalent to lieutenant governor), secretary of state. Roberts, McCall, and Hatfield all held that office when they were elected as governor. But the new secretary of state, Shemia Fagan, has taken herself out of contention for this election.

Goldschmidt was a mayor of Portland, the top public elected executive job in the state and in theory a post that could help propel a political candidate. In theory. In practice, the current Portland mayor, Ted Wheeler, has been enmeshed for several years in the tar pit of Portland politics and is in no position now to launch a gubernatorial campaign.

Historically, state treasurer has sometimes been a decent jumping off point as well; Robert Straub held that post when he was elected governor. But he also had run for governor before, building a strong statewide base that augmented his work in the usually low-headline office. Tobias Read, the current treasurer, seems interested in running and may be a strong contender, but his reach has yet to be put to the test. You could say that question of statewide support would also apply to Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum and House Speaker Tina Kotek.

That question of true reach is the question other significant officeholders also face. Yamhill County Commission Casey Kulla is among the few to directly enter the race so far, but a vault from a local government office directly to governor does seem a long shot. (That would also apply to the half-dozen or so other prospects whose background is in local, rather than state or federal, government.)

If New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof runs as he has expressed interest in doing, and if he does well, he definitely would be breaking a mold. Basketball player Chris Dudley did come close to beating Kitzhaber in 2010, but even closing close (and this isn’t horseshoes) was a highly unusual event.

There is, of course, one other factor: Every election is an opportunity to break a seemingly unbreakable rule of elections. Every presidential election for decades has been won but someone who, by the usual rules of thumb, should have lost instead. Old rules are re-adjusted regularly.

They may be again in the 2022 Oregon race for governor.

(This column originally appeared in the McMinnville, Oregon, News-Register. photo/Jon Roanhaus)
 

Oregon’s measure maps

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Those partisan maps we see after election day - showing who prevailed in which jurisdiction (usually state or county) - mesmerizing, and useful - to a point. But seeing several of them in sequence often tells us much more than a single one will.

For example, the map atop this column shows the Oregon results in the presidential race this year. You won't have to strain to quickly grasp that the gray counties were those won by Democrat Joe Biden, who took 56.5% of the vote, and the reddish counties went to Republican Donald Trump. There were no great shocks here and few even modest surprises (the pattern is very similar to recent elections), though someone unfamiliar with Oregon's population patterns might be struck by Biden winning the state decisively but just a quarter of the state's counties. The clued-in would know that the bulk of the state's population lives in those counties.

(Of particular note: The strong Biden vote in Deschutes County - Bend - which has a long-standing Republican tradition but has been shifting blue in recent cycles; it may be completing that transition.)

The pattern is very similar to that for Democratic Senator Jeff Merkley, who won a similar percentage of the vote but a few more counties. All of those county town halls may have given him a little stronger base in some smaller competitive counties.

But let's move over to the ballot issues, where things look a little different.

They look a lot different in the case of Measure 107, a constitutional amendment aimed at tightening Oregon's awfully loose rules on campaign finance contributions and reporting. It passed overwhelmingly, with 78.3% of the vote, but strikingly also classed in every Oregon county. Nowhere was the vote even close. Apparently we can agree on some things.

Three measures on the ballot concerned the legal status and tax revenues on controlled substances: 108 increased (considerably cigarette taxes and imposed restrictions on vaping; 109 allows medically supervised use of psilocybin ("magic mushrooms"); and 110 greatly reduced penalties for small-quantity possession of most still-illegal drugs (including heroin and meth) and redirection much of the marijuana tax revenue toward drug addiction treatment. All were appeared to be highly controversial and none seemed guaranteed of passage. But all of them did, by decisive margins (a landslide in the case of 108).

On a county level, the votes for the latter two drug measures tracked fairly closely the presidential vote; most of the Biden counties also voted for those measures. But some interesting additions also appeared. Curry County in the far southwest, now a Republican county which went for Trump, voted for all three of the ballot issues. And so did two politically marginal counties - Jackson (Medford) and Wasco (The Dalles) which this time voted narrowly for Trump. These are counties on the borderline.

The comparisons are noteworthy. And then we can get into the precincts ...
 

A simple choice

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NOTE: This piece is about a subject of specific interest in our hometown, with little application in many other places. Residents of Carlton, however, are asked to take heed.

On March 17 the Carlton City Council will have an important choice to make. Important, but not complicated, and not difficult.

It has been made to seem more complicated and even chaotic by the steady accretion of bright, shiny objects strewn around the core issue, which is: Whether to advise the Oregon Department of Transportation to reroute Highway 47 through town along Pine Street north to Monroe (thence to Yamhill Street, and north), or keep it on its current route, along Main Street through the center of downtown. ODOT has said specifically that it will do the work on the Main Street blocks, which will involve massive reconstruction over two years and possibly three or (realistically) four, unless it gets the word that Carlton prefers the reroute, in which case it would expect to take that path.

The discussion of this topic has become crowded with talk about fantasies on one hand and future-tense specifics on the other.

The fantasies are speculations of things that might happen but won’t, certainly not soon and maybe not ever. These include running the truck route along bypasses well to the west or east of the city, or along the old rail line; no planning for such work has been done and there is no money for it, and if it ever happens it could not happen for more than a decade, or more likely two. And there are other fantasies, such as a hotel which some people envision for a spot (why this particular spot is the only possibility is never clarified) along the reroute path, a project which no one has actually proposed, much less made any filing for or put forth any money for. There are fantasies too about how regional businesses might kick in to help downtown Carlton businesses survive during the coming lean years; no one has actually shown anyone that angel money yet, nor are they ever likely to.

Then there are real specific questions about the road work that genuinely must be asked and worked out, but which are secondary to the main routing issue. These include location and type of crosswalks, a new traffic signal, speed of traffic (which as elsewhere can be controlled in a variety of ways), parking elimination (some parking almost certainly will be lost whatever happens) and similar specifics. These are all important subjects, but they’re not what the Carlton City Council will be voting on March 17, which will be limited to the Main Street vs. reroute issue. The people of Carlton and their officials and the affected businesses all should be involved as these specific road construction questions are dealt with, but all of these come after the threshold question is decided. They’re premature now.

Here’s the question on the table:

Should the road work be done on the current highway route through downtown, or on the reroute path? That’s it. Anything else is a distraction, smoke and mirrors of one sort or another.

Any disruption caused by the Pine/Monroe reroute - and some would happen - would affect relatively few people and could easily be mitigated if the project is designed reasonably well. ODOT specialists already have developed mitigation for most of the concerns by businesses along the re-route.

However. If the road work through downtown Main Street proceeds, the city’s center will be ripped up for an absolute minimum of two years, according to ODOT, with a high probability that it will take much longer. Most of us who have watched highway projects elsewhere know these things hardly ever get done faster than scheduled, and often taken longer than expected, especially if something unexpected pops up (such as unexpected things buried under the roadway). We also know from experience in other places that businesses will be lost: About 40 percent of them, according to the rule of thumb, which would be enough to blow up Carlton’s recent prosperous flourishing as a wine-tourist destination spot. Many more businesses face Main Street than face the affected areas of Pine/Monroe, and they are much more sensitive to street traffic. The impact of a massive, multi-year ripup of Main is a serious and obvious enough impact that it gave pause to the state transportation department, which rarely suggests such an alternative to a city. That long-term destruction of Main Street would have the same effect as strewing a dozen sticks of dynamite through Carlton’s downtown and setting them off. Carlton, now a lively and prosperous town, would be at risk of becoming just another declining rural town with a weak economic sector. Recovery would take at least a decade, maybe two.

If that’s what the Carlton City Council chooses to support on March 17, I wouldn’t envy them looking their fellow Carltonians in the face a couple of years from now when the Great Little Town carefully crafted over the last few decades has been wrecked because of what they did.

Or, they can make the right decision.
 

A supermajority session

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One decade ago, following the 2008 general election, something unusual happened at the Oregon Legislative Assembly: One party controlled both chambers with supermajority numbers.

Democrats held 18 of the 30 seats in the Senate, and 36 of the 60 seats in the House of Representatives. The numbers were significant, because since 1996 the Oregon Legislature has been required by the state constitution to obtain three-fifths of each chamber to approve "bills for passing revenue." Until 2009, neither party had controlled enough seats in both chambers to meet that requirement.

The 2009 session was ambitious for the Democrats. Its results included the Healthy Kids Act (for children's health care), major transportation projects (including the Newberg-Dundee bypass) - and significant tax increases to pay for it all, changing income and other tax levels.

In the 2010 election, Democrats lost their supermajority control. In the House, they lost enough seats to result in an even split - meaning joint control - with Republicans.

Now, a decade after all that, Democrats again have supermajorities in both chambers - just barely. They control 38 of the 60 House seats, and 18 of the 30 Senate seats. (One of the Democratic senators has been known to split from the caucus on certain votes from time to time.) A question for legislators this session is: How cautious might they be, considering recent history?

Some early indicators say: Not very. Governor Kate Brown, fresh off a campaign in which her opponent argued that schools have been underfunded, has proposed a $2 billion tax increase, intended mainly to boost public school funding.

One of the critical questions surrounding that will call for quick consideration: Exactly where should expanded funding go? Brown's proposal is aimed mainly at public schools. But higher education advocates point to persistent underfunding of the state's colleges and universities. Several organizations, including the Oregon Student Association (which includes college and university students) are pushing for as much as $2 billion more for higher education.

School funding may be getting a brighter spotlight this session than usual, but it is a perennial issue, and other perennials will sprout as well.

The high cost of the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) will come in for another examination, as in many past sessions. The scaling down of costs urged by its critics won't necessarily get a lot farther than it usually does (which is not very), but some new ideas are being broached. Among them, coming from at least one Democrat: Developing a new system of retirement planning for new public employees along the lines of a 401K system.

Greenhouse gas control, which was a hot topic in the last couple of sessions but did not get far, will be back. A planned "cap and invest" bill has been in development for weeks, and may be one of the hottest debate topics early in the session. Brown's proposed budget could provide some added impetus this year on the subject, since she is proposing creating a new Oregon Climate Authority which would help govern a state carbon marketplace.

The coming months will also, however, see a large collection of new, or at least newer, legislative proposals.

Affordable housing, the subject of the only constitutional amendment approved by voters on last year's general election ballot, will be the focus of several bills. What form the proposals may take is not clear yet, but an evident voter concern about the issue is likely to result in a strong push. One option mentioned by many legislators (and pushed by a group called the Community Alliance of Tenants): A statewide plan to set limits on rent prices.

Other hot-button topics may generate bills which have a rougher ride. Guns will be back for discussion with a proposal to increase penalties for owners who fail to secure their weapons. One bill summary suggests the new law could impose fines of $500 for a simple offense and up to four times as much if a child gains improper access to the gun. Senate President Peter Courtney of Salem is proposing Oregon toughen its driving under the influence legal limit, dropping the allowable level from a blood alcohol level of .08 now to .05. Only Utah has a limit that low.

Senator Floyd Prozanski, who in 2017 proposed an unsucessful measure which might lead to interstate commerce in cannabis, has said he may be back with a similar idea this session. A business group called the Craft Cannabis Alliance is proposing to do something similar. (The trade would apply only, of course, to states which like Oregon have legalized marijuana.)

How to pay for all the many ideas circulating? That's where much of the heat - and the critical nature of a Democratic supermajority - come into play. Plenty of tax proposals have surfaced, ranging from increases in minimum business taxes, to changes in kicker tax rebates, to changes in how property assessments (for tax purposes) are calculated. In most recent years passing these tax plans has been, if not impossible, then very difficult. They may be easier with supermajority Democratic control.

At least up to a point. Some Democrats may hit the caution button along the line, recognizing that Oregonian tolerance for tax increases, especially very many at any one time, is distinctly limited. The latter weeks and months of this year's session may hinge on that calculus of the desire to make improvements and advance services around the state, against the cost of paying for them.

The formal session begins in January 22, and runs to mid-summer. A short organizational session will run from January 14 to 17 and include formal swearing in, committee organization and bill introductions.