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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.

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.

Accomplishment

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The bitterness was already there on the side of the anti-government Oath Keepers group, but it started to grow last week as well on the part of . . . the anti-Oath Keepers.
The scene was Grants Pass and Medford, at the Sugar Pine Mine near Merlin, where the Bureau of Land Management has been held at bay from enforcing its normal rules (requiring the filing of a plan of operations) by armed people associated with the Oath Keepers. On Thursday, the Medford BLM office closed out of concern about confrontations with employees.

The Medford Mail Tribune on April 24 reported that “Grants Pass sporting-goods salesman Dave Strahan was one of several protesters who said the sudden appearance of dozens of armed outsiders was fostering a reputation many community members have worked hard to avoid.”

Hard work indeed. Josephine County has been one of the counties in southwest Oregon hit by the loss of federal timber funds, and responded by refusing to increase local taxes to compensate – even though that has meant extreme cuts in law enforcement (layoffs of most of the sheriff’s department, for example) among other things.

Strahan remarked that “Over the last few years, I've gotten more and more questions from my customers about the safety of coming to Josephine County to recreate.”
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Hardly any law enforcement . . . groups of angry and heavily armed ex-military wandering around . . . what could go wrong here?

Business in Josephine County may have to do some more belt-tightening of its own.

The highway difference

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Oregon

Road trips, and the amount of time they take, may mark the single area of great difference between the Oregon east of the Cascades and the Oregon to the west.

West of the Cascades, there’s little interest in raising speed limits, and for good reason. Traffic is heavier, especially in the metro areas but to a sometimes surprising degree away from them as well. Roads have lots of points of entry and exit. Many roads are fairly narrow and twisty. Even Highway 101, the great coastal highway located well away from the metro areas, is often packed with traffic, and even where it’s not it is hilly, winds around – little of it seems to run in a straight line – and has lots of roads branching out, since it is only major route through the region. Driving times often are determined less by the number of miles involved, than by the number of vehicles and turns.

Eastern Oregon is like a whole different road system. Some of it runs through mountains, true, but even most of those roads are far less twisty than across the Cascades. Traffic is relatively light (even, in relative terms, on I-84 east of The Dalles). Most highways are remarkably straight, and most are wide, well built-out roads, and many of them have limited access.
Driving east of the Cascades is not like driving to the west.

A couple of pieces of legislation, offered by lawmakers from eastern Oregon (Ontario and Cove), show some awareness of that. The states all around Oregon have higher speed limits on their freeways, and on many rural highways as well. While you can make a solid case for lower limits in the Willamette Valley and environs, it’s a different story in the long runs between, say, John Day and Lakeview, or Arlington and Pendleton. There, the greater danger in keeping things slow would seem to be road weariness from drives extending too many hours.

The Oregon legislature has a pretty good track record of taking road trips in bringing issues to far reaches of the state. Before dismissing these two new bills, as so many others have been over the years, western lawmakers might do well to roll a few miles on those long-long stretches.

And reconsider.

Rural funding

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Oregon

A somewhat more receptive House last week went along with (and this was partly because it was lumped in with other must-pass measures) a rural school funding measure backed by the Oregon House delegation. Ultimate passage is now a matter for the Senate, but initial appearances were that the biggest hurdle had been cleared with the House action.
The House work was led by Republican Greg Walden of the 2nd district, working the Republican leadership side, and Democrat Peter DeFazio, working with his caucus. Walden is well-positioned within the leadership structure, and DeFazio has lots of seniority, but the House has been a high nut to crack over the last number of years, and passage of something to replace federal timber money, which Congress increasingly has been disinclined to renew, has become harder and harder. It will not get easier any time soon.
The stakes are high for the many Oregon counties, especially those in the southwest (Curry, Coos, Douglas, Josephine and others) especially accustomed to getting the money in hand. Walden’s release on the payments includes a number of examples of the impacts, such as: “According to the Josephine County Sheriff’s Office, they would be forced to eliminate their remaining patrol deputies and 911 dispatchers by July without this funding. The Department faces worse patrol shortages than nearly two years ago when a 911 dispatcher asked a woman if she could just ask a man assaulting her to go away because there were no deputies to send on weekends.”
Up to now, the Oregon delegation has been playing a frantic game of catchup, trying to help these rural areas by keeping the traditional run of money coming.
But the time seems to be arriving when some new approach is needed. The contours of this revenue box are going to have to be re-examined, because the counties’ future will be tenuous indeed if they’re having to rely on annual strokes of good fortune such as this year’s seems to be.

Split

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Oregon

Two years in a row this has happened: Oregon Republicans meeting informally, in two places, in recognition of two distinct views of what their party is about.

One of these is a long-standing Oregon tradition: The Dorchester Conference, founded in part by former Senator Robert Packwood, held each year (for many years) at Seaside. It is an informal event in that it isn’t a state Republican Party event; it is rather a gathering of Republicans who come together to talk about the future of their party, and the state. It dates back decades, and regularly has featured the state’s top Republican candidates and office holders. It typically attracts around 500 people, sometimes a little more.

The other event, held deliberately at the same time, is in only its second year: A “Freedom Rally” held in the Portland metro area (this year in Portland). It seems to be attracting more people – an estimated 1,500 this year – but its message is more narrow on the political band: Social conservatism on order, what’s often shorthanded as God, guns and gays. They are a specific reaction to Dorchester, where the attending majority has been moving in more socially moderate directions; abortion rights and same-sex marriage have found support there. And the group was more than just issue activists. The state’s one Republican in higher office, Representative Greg Walden, spoke there, and about 10 Republican legislators showed up as well.

(Since the two events were just about an hour and a half apart by road, some people likely tried to hit both of them.)

Read the news reports on the two events and you’ll get two very different perspectives on what the Republican Party is about, and why this party in Oregon’s minority is having such a difficult time. A number of speakers at Dorchester underlined it: As long as the Republicans in Oregon are more deeply split than the Democrats are (and they are), they’re going to have a hard time winning much.
And if you hear the same thing at the two events in 2016, they’ll likely prove prescient.

Vaccine in Oregon

 
The bill to eliminate some vaccination exemptions failed this week. Here's a video on the subject.

Looking both ways

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Oregon

A governor (or president, or other elected executive) who comes in by way of election can readily either embrace or dismiss the immediate past, depending on circumstances. A newcomer to the post who gets there not by voter approval but by succession – properly, legally and according to process as it may be – has a more subtle task. Some parts of that voter-approved past have to be acknowledged and portions should be stuck with. Other parts, bearing in mind the circumstances leading to the transition, need to be jettisoned.

Taking over as governor of Oregon last week from the scandal-plagued John Kitzhaber, new governor Kate Brown appeared to recognize that dual reality. Her sensitivity to it should be no surprise, given her nearly quarter-century of immersion in Oregon politics. But it’s a fair case study of how to thread the needle.

The ethical cloud of the old administration had to be acknowledged and responded to, and she did. The phrasing may have been a little awkward, but in her inaugural speech she pledged not to do what her predecessor did, and spoke strongly about the need to improve public transparency and ethics law – and somewhat sternly said that the legislature should not think about leaving town until those things ere done.

On the other hand, there was Kitzhaber policy, which was not part of the reason for the resignation. There, she has so far stuck generally to Kitzhaber’s path, maybe most clearly by continuing his moratorium on executions in the state. But she drew a distinction there, a fork in the road: She would allow no more executions until the state had undertaken a full and strong discussion of what to do about the death penalty. That last was a move Kitzhaber had briefly referenced but never pushed, and she gave some hint (albeit not much more than that) that her moratorium was conditional on a good faith effort to seriously grapple with the subject.

Moving ahead in a similar direction, with occasional forks in the road that provide distinction, may be a useful route for the new administration.