Writings and observations

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RANDY STAPILUS / Oregon

The timing turns out to be fascinating. Could this be the court decision over Oregon law that has more political effect in the state to the east?

That’s on the timing and political side of things, as regards the Monday federal court ruling throwing out Oregon’s constitutional ban on same-sex marriage. There are of course many other effects, such as those on the people who actually got married in Oregon on Monday, and in the days and years ahead.

The decision was in no way a surprise. The opposition had expected it. The state, whose attorney general ordinarily is obliged to defend the constitutional provision in court, considered the case against it – in the light of recent Supreme Court decisions – such a slam dunk that it refused to mount any kind of defense. There was no legal opposition to an immediate launch to effects of the measure. Had the case not been brought, or moved more slowly, the issue was destined for a ballot issue in November, and seemingly no one – including its strongest critics – seemed to have any thought that it would fail.

A remarkable turnaround from 2004, when voters passed the same-sex marriage ban into the constitution. But then, much in politics is timing, and perceptions about the way things get done. Had not Multnomah County jumped the gun on the issue the way it did, the explosive force that passed the measure might not have succeeded.

And, simply, Oregon has changed some since then too.

The Monday decision does, as in places like Utah and Idaho, run in crosscut against the wishes of the state’s majority; in Oregon’s case, it is surely in line. So it may have little political impact in Oregon. Especially since, in this primary election, most people already had voted by midday Monday.

In Idaho, dealing at almost the same moment with similar legal issues, it may have some political effect on today’s election: Those deeply concerned about the issue may react to it.

We’ll know more about that in a few hours.

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RANDY STAPILUS / Oregon

These stretches of the two to three weeks before “election day” – actually, the deadline day for completing voting – are a strange time.

The ballots for this year’s primary election in Oregon have already gone out, and a good many of them have been marked and cast. (Those in my household are among those already returned to the county clerk.) But not all of them, not by a long shot, are gone, and the more sophisticated campaigns are keeping a close watch to try to ensure that the ballots they would like to see returned, are.

So there’s that frantic nature of the work underground, and a bad case of nerves on the part of some candidates and their supporters. They’d be better off, on a personal level, if they had more practical work to do the way candidates in polling-place voting states do, right up to the last day before the mass of balloting occurs.

In places like Oregon and Washington the candidates, simply, have less to do. They still can wander out and shake hands, but most of the intensive work of the campaigns is done already, timed to hit before the ballots go out. Anything major happening from this point out will hit a lot of people who already have voted, and what would be the point of that?

They do, of course, have to keep themselves on a leash: The possibility of saying something foolish or worse remains there, and enough votes come in even on the last day to do prospective damage.

But most, for now, there’s not much else.

It’s mostly a matter of watch and wait.

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RANDY STAPILUS / Oregon

The embarrassing decision this week about Cover Oregon – that its website operations in Oregon, under contract through Oracle Corporation, have filed so completely that the state will resort to going online via the federal website – most certainly calls for more answers than have been received so far. Heads have rolled already, and possibly more should as well.

We are after all talking about a couple of hundred million dollars that didn’t deliver what they were supposed to. That’s not a small deal.

But:

The uproar over the website should not obscure the larger picture, which is a lot brighter. The web site had to do with providing one option – not the only option – for people to sign up for health insurance policies. It was never intended as the only route to get that done. The website was not, many reports t the contrary, a complete failure: It did succeed in providing a good deal of information about what policies, at what costs, were available, and helped people locate assistance for finding human help to get covered. Personal testimonial: In our household, it worked in exactly that way. We got online, found relevant information and where to go for help, and got covered in the space of an hour and a half or so.

That one-time transitional element of the health insurance picture is a tiny slice of the overall, which is the expansion of health care coverage to hundreds of thousands of Oregonians who had not had it. That expansion, which is the point of the effort, has in fact happened, delivering results more or less as predicted.

A good deal more reporting attention ought to be focused on how well the new insurance regime is working. Our impression is that for the most part, it’s working not badly, but more inquiry in that area could be useful. Oregon’s health care picture is changing in big ways, and very little of that has much to do with the blinkered website.

Accountability is proper in a case like this. But one relatively small piece of the puzzle shouldn’t be so overwhelmingly preoccupying.

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RANDY STAPILUS / Oregon

Linus Torvalds, the originator of the Linux computer operating system (on which this publication is produced), doesn’t get out a lot, at least not to speak to groups.

Written into his employment contract is a provision saying he can’t be required to speak to groups. Although he has lived in the Portland area for about a decade, he has appeared at the local (and highly active) Linux users group, which just celebrated its 20-year anniversary, only twice. The most recent occasion was Thursday night.

Mostly, he said, he works at his computer, overseeing the “kernel” of the operating system named for him; “the kernel is my real life’s work.” His employer is an open-source foundation which is based in the area. A native of Finland but a United States resident for 17 years, Torvalds speaks with only a trace of his native land and with great clarity.

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Torvalds at Portland (photo/Randy Stapilus)

 

As the people who have felt the sting of his barbs could attest. (“C++ is a horrible [programming] language,” he said at point, and dismissing executives at one corporation as “horrible people” at another.)

“You never see my happier outbursts,” he said.
He spoke as well with a good deal of humor as well, reflecting on the progress 0f Linux and open source software – which he said are doing well and are far ahead of where they were just a few years ago – and technology as well.

While some tech corporations have been resistant to working with open source (including Linux) projects, Torvalds said that most have been highly cooperative, and are becoming more so.

Gaming – in which he said he has little personal interest – is important for Linux growth into the future, he suggested. It has been an area where Windows has been notably strong.

In his work, he said, he often finds “bugs” in the code as new upgrades evolve. The plus side is that they’re usually swiftly discovered and corrected. He acknowledged making periodic mistakes himself, but they’re almost never seen by the world because they’re caught before they get that far. Open source software is developed by large numbers of volunteer software coders who regularly review and correct new and existing code.

That concept of broad correction returned in some other ways as well. “You’d think banks are secure,” he said, but: “No, they’re not.” But he added that wasn’t a big problem, because banks have proven highly capable of fixing and correcting problems once they do happen, which is nearly as good.

Torvalds suggested focusing attention on computer privacy and security where it matters most (such as in financial areas), not as a broad subject for concern in all areas. The reach of information gathering, he said, “is not the end of the world. You want to care about some things, and not so much about others.”

Many people use Linux programming without know it, though “If you’re a user, you really really shouldn’t care.” Android smart phones, for example, use a Linux-based operating system, and many computer servers and embedded computers use it as well, because it is so inexpensive (free in many cases) and its coding is so efficient.

These areas interest Torvalds less, however: “For me, the main target is the desktop, and always has been.” That he suggested, is where the broad range of what a computer and an operating system can do really comes into play.

He acknowledged that a decade ago, Linux was not able to fully hold its own as a desktop operating system, but said that has changed. It has been picking up some steam in the United States, but growing faster in some other places, such as much of Europe and – for reasons unclear – South America.

The large open-source community in the Portland area only occasionally gets some visibility. But it gets some real encouragement from the fact that the founder and still final arbiter of one of the globe’s leading operating systems lives close by. And, now and again, shows up at a users meeting.

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RANDY STAPILUS / Oregon

It was only a short session, and if not a lot got done outside the budget basics, you can more or less understand that. The idea of these shorter even-year sessions – of which this was the second – wasn’t to address the whole smorgasbord, but rather just do some touch-up and adjustment on items that needed to be handled right away, or on an emergency basis.

Fine Having reached that understanding, legislators would do well to remember it in 2015 … as they didn’t remember it in 2013, when a string of items including a number that some legislators just didn’t really want to deal with (from pot to guns to the Columbia River bridge) were pushed to the side, occasionally with the remark that they could hold another year.

The idea of a 2014 ballot issue on liquor privatization or pot legalization, both of which probably could have been handled better within a legislative context than through the writing of ballot issues, were among the items legislators didn’t really want to deal with in 2013. Part of the argument? It doesn’t have to be handled now, because the ballot issue wouldn’t come up until more than a year away anyhow.

After this session, that kind of argument never should be heard again at Salem in the odd-numbered years.

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RANDY STAPILUS / Oregon

So what emerged out of the Medford teacher strike, the labor uproar that dominated news in southern Oregon virtually all of the first part of this year?

Medford Superintendent Phil Long said the settlement means “moving forward, putting our schools back together and repairing relationships with people.”

You might think they could have gotten that far without a strike.

In fairness, the details of the terms weren’t supposed to be released publicly until the teachers had a chance to see them and vote. That is the way these things usually go.

But you might think too a little more transparency would help.

It might have in Portland too, where teachers and administration came very close to what would have been the district’s first strike ever. (For some reason, the leadup to strike got a lot more media and local attention in Medford than in Portland.)

Portland is a fairly union-friendly city, but many people there may have felt a little confused: What was the dispute really about, at base? What was each side asking for, what did it insist on? The district’s patrons and taxpayers might have been better able to decide who to root for if they had known.

There wasn’t much such information last week. Spokesmen for negotiators seemed to characterize the outcome as a compromise, which might at least make the patrons feel better. But, a compromise between what?

The main indicator at Medford seemed to be that the issue related to “the financials” – but exactly what that translated to was less than clear.

Strikes, and near-strikes, often leave hard feelings behind. Best way to resolve that, to move forward and maybe avoid conflict to this level next time around, might be opening the process to a little more public airing.

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RANDY STAPILUS / Oregon

The latter half of last week was dominated by weather, some serious weather. Snow dumped hard on western Oregon, and across much of the Cascades and parts of eastern Oregon too.

The storms weren’t fierce (the snow wasn’t accompanied by much wind), but the sheer volume of snow was greater than the region had seen in five years. It was enough to shut down the Legislature, along with all sorts of other organizations – schools, universities, some businesses and a lot of what didn’t really have to be open.

As Oregon moves past that unexpected mass of weather this week, what will be most notable to watch will be … statistics.

Thing is, Oregon (and most of the west) has badly needed a lot more precipitation this winter than it has been getting. Look at this week’s snowpack chart (in the environment section), and you’ll find that while most all the basins around the state last year at this point were running about normal in terms of available water, this year they tend to be running about half as much – low enough that if the trends up to the last week or so maintains, Oregon could hit some serious drought this summer.

That conclusion isn’t foregone, though. There are meteorologists who think Oregon could have a wet spring, and that surely would help avert a bad case of the dries. So would some good snowfall now.
So watch the numbers on the chart this week, and then again next week. They could be something of a forecast of the months ahead.

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RANDY STAPILUS / Oregon

The core thought about this year’s regular legislative session – the month-long “short” session – is that aspirations for it should be kept modest.

The idea behind it, originally, was that it would allow legislators time to make course corrections in between the odd-numbered longer sessions. Budget and revenue adjustments would be part of that. If other external emergencies or new conditions arise, those might be considered too. But in general: Let’s not try to do anything too sweeping.

A segment of legislation more or less falls in between, though: Dealing with matters that might land on the November 2014 ballot, whether by legislative intent or by outside activism. And those subjects may provide some of the most interesting action in the session.

If, for example, the state is going to take a crack at carefully and professionally crafting statutes to cover a legalized marijuana regime, this would be the time to do it. The subject surely will be coming up in November, one way or another. The drafting is likely to be better coming out of the legislature than out of an activist group, a number of legislators realize that, so the subject of pot legalization may get legislative action of a sort it has not yet gotten in any other state, even Washington and Oregon. In a short session.

We may see action related guns, gay marriage, liquor privatization and other topics, with similar thoughts in mind: They’re going to be out there for voter consideration, there’s a good chance a number of these proposals will actually pass, and the legislature might be better off dealing with the structure and details up front, rather than chasing glitches after the election.

Not all legislators are going to be anxious to do this, and on some (guns, maybe gay marriage) there may not be as much point in getting ahead of whatever the voters do.

But the initiative process seems fairly likely to provide some of the more memorable scenes from this session not many people seem to have high expectations for.

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Republican candidates speak out at a forum sponsored by Oregon State Republicans, at Corvallis. (photo/Randy Stapilus)

 

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RANDY STAPILUS / Oregon

Most of this year’s Republican candidates for governor and senator turned up at the Corvallis – Oregon State University Republicans – forum this evening, enough of them to bring some contours to those nomination contests.

It was notable event, and clearly Republican – ticket for a gun raffle were on offer.

The major missing candidate was Monica Wehby of Portland, one of the Senate candidates and notably interesting for her fast raising of $500,000 for her campaign.

But four other Senate candidates, Representative Jason Conger of Bend, IT consultant Mark Callahan, former Linn County Republican Chair Jo Rae Perkins and Portland attorney Tim Crawley, were there. And three Republican candidates for governor: Representative Dennis Richardson, rancher Jon Justeson and real estate broker Bruce Cuff from Salem.

Overall impression: The two legislators, Conger and Richardson, overall seemed most likely to emerge with the nomination. Their talk, from opening and closing statements through a range of questions, seemed most general-campaign-ready, with a greater consideration of the counter arguments that would be thrown back at them on subjects from Obamacare to same-sex marriage.

Their approaches were arresting. Some of Richardson’s takes were quite centrist, almost moderate, or at times answering from the side. On education, he described Oregon K-12 as “the laughingstock of the nation,” but didn’t specify what he would do differently. On same-sex marriage, he took the striking (in the context) stance that Oregon probably would pass a same-sex marriage measure this year, and if he’s elected governor he’ll have to implement it – and left it at that.

Conger was the most polished of the candidates, a skilled speaker, but with a few exceptions – such as a flat call for repeal of Obamacare (which most of the other candidates also urged) – his answers were mostly vague. (On the minimum wage, he cautioned that wading in on that was playing “on the Democrats’ turf.”) He’ll need to sharpen them as the campaign goes on.

That may be especially true if Callahan, who also was a strong presence and clear speaker, takes hold in the Republican primary base. He might; more than any of the other candidates, he served up red meat, and did it effectively. “Our government is basically telling us they need to take care of us,” he said. “Common Core is socialist and it needs to be eliminated,” he said at another. On same-sex marriage, he made clear that he was opposed to the amendment, that “marriage is a religious institution.”

There were other statements of interest. On education and government action connected with it, Crawley said “We’re trying to create a Nazi Germany were everyone is uniform and all walking in line. We need to stop that.”

Maybe most startling, while the minimum wage drew mostly negative reactions, Justeson broke from the group to say that not only should the minimum wage be raised, but possibly it ought to be doubled. (The audience seemed taken aback.)

The candidates got a positive reaction overall from the audience of about 100. We’ll see how the field looks a few months out.

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RANDY STAPILUS / Oregon

Last week’s discussion among legislators about bringing back legislation moving toward background checks for gun buyers seemed a little oddly-positioned. It was legislation that failed – decisively, not reach floor votes – last year; nothing much has happened since to change many attitudes toward it; and this short session is intended mainly for tightly-focused items that need resolution right away. Background checks might seem more logically revisited after the net election, which could rejigger the political calculus.

Republicans quickly jumped to the argument that the revival of this legislation in the election year session might be specifically politically oriented – even down to specific seats.

Of all seats Oregon Senate Democrats see as top targets, two jump out: the Hillsboro-area seat held by Republican Bruce Starr, and the Corvallis/Albany seat held by Republican Betsy Close. In both cases, Democrats have a registration advantage, and probably have already an advantage for taking over one of those seats (Close’s; no Democrat has filed for the Hillsoboro seat, yet). The thinking is that putting Starr and Close on the spot on the backgrounding bill will give Democrats an advantageous issue heading toward November.

If so (we won’t prejudge the motivations here), there’s a significant side-comment here. The presumption has been that outside of central urban areas, gun legislation was mostly a political winner on the anti-legislation side. These two districts at stake are not central urban districts. Hillsboro is the substantial community in the Portland metro area farthest from Portland and until now most receptive to Republicans and conservatives. The Albany/Corvallis district has two midsized cities but is located out in the farm country.

Does the politics of this suggest that the politics of guns is changing a bit?

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