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Posts published in “Oregon column”

What the storms may do

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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.

An initiative session?

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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.

Impressions of the field: GOP, Corvallis

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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.

Playing politics, flipping sides

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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?

Passage on the CRC?

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RANDY STAPILUS / Oregon

The hot political ticket this week may be Tuesday's legislative hearing on the Columbia River Crossing bridge proposal – not that it is likely to put the issue to rest.

At this point, it seems, hardly anything is likely to.
The CRC, just as a reminder, is the label for a new and improved bridge on Interstate 5 between Portland and Vancouver, to upgrade from the often traffic-stressed road it is now. The key here is that two states necessarily are involved, Oregon and Washington.

The overall CRC story goes back a long way, but the trajectory for this part of it comes from last winter when, after Oregon's legislature and other public officials flipped the green light for committing to their part of the deal, Washington's legislators couldn't (in large part because part of the Clark County delegation was opposed) gather enough to pass their counter-measure in Olympia. Without both states signing on, federal funding seemed unlikely, and there the matter seemed to stand – stuck for the foreseeable future.

A number of Oregon officials, however, and these included Governor John Kitzhaber, refused to let it go. New, less-costly plans were developed, alternative approaches were worked out to make sure Washington (or its drivers) eventually coughed up enough of the cost, and a new funding formula was worked out. But would it work? And would Oregon be too much on the hook if it didn't?

There are not yet any totally clear answers to those questions, and the waters have gotten muddier. Murmurs from Olympia have grown a bit louder with the coming of legislators there, but some of those voices are of the “try again” variety while others ensure the approval will go no further this year.

Reports on the Oregon side have gotten murkier too. A new study out on January 10 says that the main effect of tolling on the I-5 bridge would be push drivers over to I-205, to the east Portland and east Vancouver bridge, to the point that bridge's capacities would be severely stretched. Political people in Clackamas County, through which I-205 runs on the Oregon side, are concerned about the prospects. (more…)

Benefits

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RANDY STAPILUS / Oregon

The idea of a benefits company seems at first like little more than a feel-good deal, except that if emphasis really is eventually put in its terms, and if strong incentives start to develop for their designation, something important could emerge.

The state report on them describes the concept this way: “Benefit Companies enjoy legal protection to create value for society, not just shareholders, while meeting higher standards of accountability and transparency.”

Imagine for a moment that a large portion of the businesses, let's say a lot of the major ones, started to operate under those kind of terms? Suppose they were given strong incentive to pay attention to and operate within the interests of the communities where they do business? Suppose that they way they treat employees, other businesses, customers and the general citizenry has to factor in the interests of those parties – not just the owners of the central business?

Given the way so many national and multinational companies operate today, that sounds like something from a discarded verse of John Lennon's “Imagine.” But it doesn't have to be fantasy. Corporations, in this state and country and in the rest of the world, operate according to rules set up at governmental levels. Suppose strong incentives were brought to bear to require they behave in these ways? How different would our society be?

The new Oregon law on benefits companies is only a micro step in that direction. But it does dare to ask the question.

Settlement in Klamath

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RANDY STAPILUS / Oregon

The announcement of a major water basin deal-in-principle out of Klamath Falls (see the environment section), which drew the presence of the governor and both senators, was positive enough (they would not have shown, surely, if it had not been).
But don't mistake that for finality.
For one thing, the water situation at the Klamath, as elsewhere, is ever-changing, so that a deal that works now may not work only a few years down the line. There's not much getting away from that.
And that's apart from the fact that although a deal was structure, not everyone is thrilled with it.
The deal means that many agricultural water users will have to make do with a lot less. Tens of millions of dollars may bleed out of the area's farm economy in the near term as a result. (Some of the alternatives, to be sure, would have bled a lot more.)
The website Counterpunch offered a contrary view even to that: “As the legal trustee for federal tribes, the federal government is supposed to protect and advance the tribes’ interests. However, examination of dozens of western water deals shows that the Feds have not acted in good faith as the tribes’ trustee. Instead the feds have encouraged tribes to accept government funding in exchange for giving up – or agreeing not to exercise – tribal water rights.
“Those water rights are the only hope for really restoring our rivers and – in the case of western salmon rivers – our salmon runs; that hope is evaporating as more tribes settle for government funding rather than sticking to the right to restoration flows. The idea that government funded restoration projects can substitute for restoration flows is a chimera; tribes, environmental and fishing groups that have bought into that myth are sadly misguided.”
The deal is, apart from all of that, just a deal-in-principle. The parties involved may have quite a challenge ahead keeping even that much from flying apart.

In Curry

8. Pistol River Beach 2011

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RANDY STAPILUS / Oregon

The big result in the limited elections in Oregon on Tuesday - there weren't many of major consequence - came in the far southwest corner of the state, in Curry County.

Curry can too easily be forgotten in the rest of the state, located well away from any metro centers, out on a lightly-populated reach of the coast. Most of its people are more than an hour from the largest city, Coos Bay (which is not exactly enormous) and over a mountain range from the Medford and Grants Pass area. Curry has more or less had to manage its own affairs.

For quite a while it did that without much difficulty. A formula developed. Declines in the timber industry were countered for a time with federal payments, and other elements of the economy could draw from the rising number of seniors who had sold more expensive homes elsewhere and moved to live in Brookings or Gold Beach. Then the federal money dwindled and the seniors who had insistently kept the county's property tax rate second-lowest in the state (a quarter of that in many other counties) were simply resisting an increase. Period. Even if the county government shut down.

The seniors really do seem to be the key. A ballot issue on whether to build a new hospital did pass - that one seemed to catch senior attention. But a three-year operating levy to help support a local law enforcement structure that's become as much theory as fact was opposed by close to 60% of the voters.

They may get their tax increase anyway, courtesy of a new state law that, under such circumstances, allows the governor and the county commission to unilaterally impose taxes needed to pay for basic county services - taxes Curry isn't raising at present.

It would be a rough vote for those commissioners, and it would take some real fortitude. This would be a true case of voting against the will of the electorate. They've also been left with little choice if they want to protect the basic safety of their constituents, who seem less than concerned about it.

Some real drama is on the way in Curry County.

Among the accumulants

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RANDY STAPILUS / Oregon

Not long ago the talk here was that hardly any names had surfaced – other than the incumbent's – for the 2014 U.S. Senate contest in Oregon. That incumbent, Democrat Jeff Merkley, is widely assumed to be planning a re-election campaign, though he hasn't formally announced.

Considering that Senate seat was held before Merkley's election in 2008 by Republicans (actually, two Republicans) going back to 1966, you might think on the surface that plenty of prominent names would rise up to run. Hasn't been the case.

There were no such contenders at all on the Republican side until mid-august, when Albany financial planner (and a former Republican chair in Linn county) Jo Rae Perkins said on Facebook that she plannned to run. Maybe that was a signal that experience getting elected to, well, anything, wasn't needed to run for the U.S. Senate. A neurosurgeon from Portland, Monica Wehby, sais she would enter too, last week. On October 7 a businessman from Bend named Sam Carpenter said he too may run.

There is, among the various prospects, one with actual elective experience who appears likely to announce soon, he being Republican state Representative Jason Conger of Bend. He is planning a series of announcements on October 15, at Bend and Oregon City, the sort of setup that usually indicates an actual announcement for major office. (It did for Merkley six years ago.)

Conger, who actually is an experienced candidate and has done such things as raise money, would seem to be the likely frontrunner among the Republicans at this point. His history doesn't suggest any special obstacles (or unusual advantages either) for the race. As he is no doubt aware, of course, he's running in an uphill situation, in a state which has been moving in a gentle but clear pattern favoring blue rather than red candidates.

But he may want to take care. If the gaggle of Republican candidates stays in, and some others of them get more attention – maybe not the helpful kind – than Conger gets, his nomination may not be assured. And if that attention is really not good, it could do his nomination some damage even assuming he gets it.

Table-clearing

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RANDY STAPILUS / Oregon

UPDATE: Reflecting on the difference between Congress and the Oregon Legislature - well, it's night and day. As for the Oregon Legislature, Governor John Kitzhaber said, "This is what working government and leadership look like, with people from across the state finding balanced solutions to real problems." Washington could learn from Salem. ...

Only a couple of days ago, this Oregon near-miracle was widely described as falling apart: A grand bargain including ideas (tax law changes) Democrats wanted, others (PERS adjustments substantially beyond last session's) sought by Republicans, and other pieces not terribly popular anywhere. Pieces in all, though, much sought after by many.

It was the great white whale of the regular legislation session this year. For months, legislative leaders met with Governor John Kitzhaber, who had proposed something resembling (though not exactly the same as) this in his state of the state address, and it was a revolving exercise in frustration. Repeatedly, the details of a deal that would collect enough votes in both chamber seemed to be just about there; just as repeatedly, it kept falling short.

Kitzhaber did not give up, however, and took his case for a grand bargain on state finances around the state, and into ongoing legislative negotiations. Calling the session was no done deal, and even after it was called reports kept leaking out that it might fall short enough votes, Last weekend, after initial hearings on the pieces (on "legislative concepts") things seemed about to fall apart again.

That they did not this time is remarkable, and it may have some significant political effects down the road.

One involves Kitzhaber, who was the favorite for a fourth term - if he wants it - from the beginning. But success on this special session was thought likely to be a nudge toward another term, and could make him all but impregnable. This PERS/tax deal is - recognizing that the work on taxes and retirement isn't done yet - something sought after for more than a decade, and many people had wondered if it was even possible. Turns out it is. Kitzhaber's third term has been an astonishingly productive gubernatorial term, and the reality of that should not be a hard sell.

Linked to that are two other elements: The removal from the table, as hot political issues, two matters which looked to be big deals on the legislative stump.

Those are the PERS structuring and tax increases that afford more money to the public schools. Republicans were set to go to war on the first, and Democrats on the second. This special session does not remove those topics from discussion, but it takes the heat, and the air, out of them. PERS now has been substantially revised, not as much as many Republicans would like but probably to a point most Oregonians overall would find reasonable. Similarly, attempts to raise taxes on the Democratic side should at least be paused; the largest needs (if not, to be sure, all of them) now are addressed.

Oregon is a politically different place than it was a couple of days ago. And 2014 is likely to be different, too, as a result.

Perspective in the woods

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RANDY STAPILUS / Oregon

Roseburg, Oregon, called by one Ridenbaugh Press writer (who lives there) “our little village in the woods,” would seem to be an unlikely locus for a regional financial powerhouse.

And yet here we are. Umpqua Bank, which (surely with some amusement) calls its “The World's Greatest Bank,” is becoming one of the Northwest's largest. It already is the largest bank based in Oregon, and with the acquisition of Sterling Bank of Spokane is poised to become the largest or second-largest locally-owned bank in the Northwest.

It may do well to remember how it got there.

If it sloganeers its greatness, it seems to have remembered in recent years that it stayed standing, and prospered, while others faltered, in large part because it stuck to the knitting. By many accounts, including a number of regional best-of lists, it is widely considered one of the best places to bank and even one of the best places to work. (A note: We have no connection to Umpqua.)

Umpqua has grown steadily over the years, and now seems to be taking major leaps. It recently opened a store in downtown San Francisco – was that a purely business-based decision or was there some ego in it? – and now prepares to absorb Sterling, which has many branches, many in small towns, around the Northwest. The combination will include some but not massive overlap; the end result will great extend Umpqua's reach.

Already a substantial regional player, it is about to get much bigger and move onto a new level. Now a new challenge will emerge: Will it be able to hand on to the positive qualities that got it to this point? It's a point at which many businesses stumble.

Perhaps Umpqua can learn from their lessons. It can be calm and contemplative in Roseburg.

Complexity in the resignation

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RANDY STAPILUS / Oregon

There's something about Multnomah County's process of replacing members of its commission that, it would seem, could use some work.

The county's top office holder is its commission chair, a position specifically elected by the public and not chosen from among the commission members or rotated around. (In that, there's some similarity with Portland's mayoral job.) But what happens when that person leaves?
For most elective positions, the idea would be that other elective office holders would make the decision about filling it until the voters do. In many instances, in many states, governors do a lot of that sort of thing, and Oregon does it in some cases (most often, judges). But not in this case.

In the case of Jeff Cogen, the chair leaving under heavily embattled conditions (people in Portland know about the infamous affair with a county employee), the replacement will be – his chief of staff, a person unknown to most people in the county and not named by anyone external.

Then the job will be filled in two steps. An elected replacement will be picked after the primary election next May (yes, that's the better part of a year away). But that will be for a temporary term. Coinciding with that, campaigns and elections will go on to fill the job for a regular four-year term; the election to settle that will be held in November 2014. So there could be four county chairs (starting with Cogen) over the next year and four months.

You'd think there'd be a more logical system than this. But then, Portland Multnomah County do like their peculiar systems in governmental organization.