From Governor John Kitzhaber’s combination inaugural and state of the state address.

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A time lapse video in Portland.

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There’s a call among Democrats – some Democrats at least – to go bold in the 2015 legislative session. Part of the argument comes to this: Democrats in Oregon advanced even under the worst national conditions (or, in the case of Governor John Kitzhaber the worst thinkable PR conditions), which suggests they should be solid for 2016.

Or, as Kari Chisholm suggested on Blue Oregon, “In 2016, we can expect Democrats to expand those majorities even further. After all, it will be a presidential year, and Oregon Democrats almost always gain legislative seats in presidential years.”

Further expansion in 2016 is a debatable proposition: There don’t seem to be a lot of legislative seats left that are held by Republicans where Democrats ought to have an edge. Still, Democrats have little reason for great worry, as matters sit, looking ahead to 2016 in the legislative arena.

So what might be done in the coming session? Chisholm, and some commenters, have a string of ideas, from increasing the minimum wage (now second highest in the nation), doing something on gun safety (maybe with an eye to developments in Washington state), moving ahead on GMO labeling (there’d be a big legislative fight), add more funding for schools and infrastructure, dealing with immigration, work on insurance and health care (adding more provisions intended to protect consumers), and reform tax policy (a phrase that could face in any number of different directions).

Being activist isn’t necessarily the same as using political capital. Some of these subjects won’t necessarily yield much controversy, or put Democrats serious on the spot. One of their tasks between here and the session’s start in another month, inevitably, will involving sorting the one groups of initiatives from the other.

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The headline on the March 5 (this year) press release from the U.S. Department of Interior, about the just-worked-out Klamath water agreement, was, “Historic Agreement Reached on Upper Klamath Basin Water.”

The release continued, “The Klamath Tribes, the U.S. Department of the Interior, Oregon Governor John Kitzhaber, Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley, and Upper Klamath Basin irrigators announced today that they have completed negotiations on the Upper Klamath Basin Comprehensive Agreement.”

You might think that would be enough to seal the deal. And as it was, the deal was not wildly sweeping; it seems as much as anything else a level to keep the lid on things a while. Its leading elements were: “A Water Use Program that will increase stream flows in the tributaries above Upper Klamath Lake – adding at least 30,000 acre feet annually to inflows to the lake, while creating a stable, predictable setting for agriculture to continue in the Upper Klamath Basin; A Riparian Program that will improve and protect riparian conditions in order to help restore fisheries; and an Economic Development Program for the Klamath Tribes.”

But this is Klamath Falls, and the subject is water, and under those conditions it’s unwise to ever consider anything settled even if for just a little while.

Last month, the Klamath County Commission went on record against the congressional legislation intended to implement the agreement. Last month the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee okayed it, but since then odds of passage appear to have been diminished.

That doesn’t mean all the other participants, from the Klamath Tribes (which do have some bones to pick) to the Klamath Falls city council, have worked away.

The Medford Mail Tribune, editorializing, argued that “It’s vitally important to the Basin’s future that the agreements are approved, and that the best chance of doing it is in the lame-duck session of the current congress rather than waiting for a new congress, including new members unfamiliar with the Basin’s water issues.”

But the paper also noted that, for the near term at least, time may be running out. And it may.

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One of the key arguments against alternative and (often) renewable energy sources is whether they can matter economically: Whether they can produce enough power to provide for a major part of a region’s needs, and whether they can be produced at low enough cost to provide a financially practical alternative.

In the last few years the answer to those questions has gone from being a big quetion mark to a generally qualified ‘yes.’ Wind turbine power production has become large-scale in the Northwest (and a number of other places too), and solar is gaining, and the results are coming in: In the area of cost, wind is competitive with more traditional electricity sources, and the costs of solar are dropping enough that they will be competitive in the near future. The economic change in these power sources is underlined by the rapidly growing number of deals large power companies in the region have been making with many of those producers.

One of the big remaining questions, however, has been one of reliability: Whether, given changes in sunlight and weather, wind and solar power production is consistent enough for a region to depend upon.

A new study by Oregon State University (and others), and published in The Electricity Journal, is showing that it can, at least if done in the right way. A hybrid way.

An OSU report explains: “For instance, the wind often blows more strongly at night in some regions, Kelly said, and solar technology can only produce energy during the day. By making more sophisticated use of that basic concept in a connected grid, and pairing it with more advanced forms of energy storage, the door could be opened for a much wider use of renewable energy systems, scientists say.”

This is becoming more practical for another reason: “Advanced energy storage could be another huge key to making renewable energy more functional, and one example is just being developed in several cooperating states in the West. Electricity is being produced by efficient wind farms in Wyoming; transmitted to Utah where it’s being stored via compressed air in certain rock formations; and ultimately used to help power Los Angeles.”

Put a close-monitored system of wind, hydro and solar power together (and maybe, on the coast, tidal as well?), and the impact on the regional power economy could be enormous. Over time, it could even be cost-cutting, and made more reliable than what we have right now.

The OSU report concluded, “The long-term goal, the report concluded, is to identify technologies that can work in a hybrid system that offers consistency, dependability and doesn’t rely on fossil fuels. With careful matching of systems, improved transmission abilities and some new technological advances, that goal may be closer than realized.”

A generation from now, the power picture in the Northwest – and beyond – may look a lot different than it traditionally has.

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The unemployment stats in Washington and Oregon are a study in popular confidence as measured against the realistic basis for that confidence.

In Washington, for example, the state unemployment rate rose (in the stats released this week) to 6.0%, even though about 5,600 jobs were added to the job market – and filled.

No one was in error here; you just have to know what the unemployment stats reflect. As an article in this issue notes, Washington “State labor economist Paul Turek said the increase in the unemployment rate is not necessarily bad news because it is directly related to an increase in the state’s labor force, which rose by 12,200 in October.

And he said: “These numbers demonstrate increased confidence by job seekers entering or re-entering the marketplace. Job growth continues to gain momentum—with the state adding roughly 7,000 jobs a month—but for this month, the increase in the number of new job seekers entering into the labor market’s civilian workforce was greater than the number of new jobs added. That explains the increase in the unemployment rate.”

That was even more dramatically true in Oregon, which added even more jobs – 9,900 – than twice-as-big Washington state. Oregon’s was in fact the largest one-month addition of jobs in 20 years. But its unemployment rate stubbornly stayed put at 7.0%, which sounds worse than it is. It did that because workers have been pouring back into the work force (and, probably, a number of workers have been arriving from out of state as well).

For decades, we’ve focused hard on the unemployment rates (and note them here regularly). But have we reached a point where the more logical measure is of the balance between jobs opening up and those closing? Maybe something measuring, over the haul, the growth/retraction in jobs compared with the overall working-age population?

Certainly, we need some better metrics. The old ones just aren’t as useful as they once were.

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Only one side gets to win in an election, and that’s the side with the most votes – even if the loser got almost as many.
As the old saying goes, second-place matters only in horseshoes.

Sometimes in politics, though, it can mean a little more than that. Measure 92, the statewide Oregon ballot issue intended to require labeling of certain GMO food products, lost at this election. But three elements of that loss may almost ensure it comes back around again, with maybe a better shot next time.
One aspect is the sheer closeness of the vote. Fairly close on election night, it got tighter and tighter and by the end of last week, just 4,539 votes – out of nearly 1,5 million cast – separated the two sides. That was in a low-turnout election in which the population probably skewed more against the measure than a larger, presidential-year, electorate probably would.

Simply for that reason, you have to suspect that if this same campaign had been run two years hence, the measure would have passed.

Second was the massive money influx – mainly on the “no” side. Watch Portland television in the last month before the election and (this isn’t an exaggerations) every other commercial during many time blocks on station after station was anti-92. It was a stunning deluge of TV spots, vastly outweighing everything else (all other political campaigns combined). (The spending for the antis was reported in several places as topping $16 million, and that may have been an incomplete figure.) That message may have been well enough crafted to achieve the short-term result, but quite a few Oregonians may, in hindsight, wonder if that issue wasn’t simply bought.

The third aspect of it was the nature of the negative message. I’ll not here get into the matter of how accurate its contentions were. But they were sharply challenged, and a campaign of dishonesty was alleged. Whether right or wrong, that’s not a situation likely to simply be allowed to sit.

You can expect this one to return. Oregonians are perfectly willing to reconsider their voting choices, as their decisive vote to legalize marijuana this year demonstrated.
Will they do the same on GMOs in 2016 or beyond?

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National news will be locked in on whatever happens with control of the U.S. Senate, while Washington has not so much as a U.S. Senate or governor’s race to draw a lot of attention this year.

But there’s plenty to watch, and plenty of interest.
First, what about turnout? Ballot returns so far have indicated substantial turnout. But the numbers are still unclear.

Oregon has a U.S. Senate race this year, the only one in the Northwest, but probably not a lot of people are really wondering how it’s going to turn out; all that’s likely to be of interest here is the margin. (Polling has been pretty uniformly showing Democrat Jeff Merkley more than 10 points ahead of Republican Monica Wehby.)

The governor’s race is a lot more interesting, which is something of a surprise from, say, a year ago, when the Senate contest would logically have gotten more attention. Just enough baggage has piled on Governor John Kitzhaber, and enough of it just as ballots were heading out in the mail, to throw some question marks over his contest with Republican Dennis Richardson. Enough that Richardson might win? Not many analysts have gone that far, but some nerves doubtless are on edge in both parties over this one.

Odds are that both chambers of the legislature remain under narrow Democratic control, and the House doesn’t seem to be up for grabs. If it changes hands, you can call that a true upset. The Senate, with its one-vote margin allowing for Democratic control, is a closer call; only a few tight races could significantly change things there. The Corvallis-Albany seat held by Republican Betsy Close seems thinly likely to change hands, but too the Medford-area seat held by Democrat Alan Bates is being fought down to the wire. (Bates is being outspent, and he has been quoted as saying that fewer than 1,000 votes probably will decide it.)

And then the ballot issues, several of which – polling suggests – are close enough as to be up for grabs. Pot legalization seems thinly likely to pass, but if it does not by much. GMO labeling could go either way. Among the hot buttons, only the drivers license rule change seems to have a clear outcome (it appeared headed toward defeat).

Even without a hot Senate race, Oregon can take its place among the states with a lot to watch this week.

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Political managers spent a good deal of time reviewing polls, but they don’t spent a lot of time with the “top line” figures – how, say, two candidates stack up against each other in a race. That can be useful information (notably when put in the context of other polls and for trend lines), but the most helpful material often has to do with the other questions and the answer breakdowns.
Oregon Public Broadcasting and Fox-12 (through DHM Research) polled Oregon from 8-11 on candidates and ballot races. The top lines were not much different from what we’ve seen elsewhere: Governor, John Kitzhaber (D) over Dennis Richardson (R) by 50%-29, Senate, Jeff Merkley (D) over Monica Wehby (R) by 47%-26%. No terrific shocks there.
But here’s some of the rest of what it shows.
Is Oregon on the right or wrong track? As a political matters, that’s good for figuring out how incumbents will do. “Right track” is gaining, for the first time in a while; in the new poll, 50% responded that way (37% said “wrong track”), compared to 48% in September and 43% in April. Optimism looks to be gaining on Oregon.
They’re not super familiar with the candidates, though. Just 62% identified Kitzhaber as the Democratic nominee for governor, not great for a three-term governor, but Richardson’s number was even less impressive; 34% knew he was the Republican nominee. (43% thought the Republican in the race was someone else.)
On the Senate side, just 46% identified Merkley, a six-year incumbent, as the Democratic nominee, and 42% named Wehby as the Republican nominee. That’s better than Richardson, but apparently a lot of those people didn’t like what they heard about her (there have been a bunch of bad headlines0, since the poll showed her getting a smaller percentage than Richardson.
Back to top lines, the ballot issues were a mix of results, and in all don’t add up to a strong philosophical direction. Marijuana legalization seems to be doing pretty well but is no slam dunk (52%-41% in favor), while expanding drivers licenses without proof of legal residents looks to fail big time (about 2-1). the “top two” ballot approach is almost a wash with plenty of undecided (which suggests failure); and the GMO labeling proposal has a slight edge but really is too close to call.
Draw some conclusions from all that if you can.

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Political parties draw their strength from organization. Political parties that win are those able to generate numbers on the ballots, and they don’t do that by osmosis.

They do it on ground level, through people working in their counties and neighborhoods, and representing their party too – putting a human face on them. These things may sound old-fashioned but they’re not: Just ask the hyperlocal Obama campaign of 2012, probably the best-organized political campaign ever.

That makes a headline from last week in the Pendleton East Oregonian, about a small meeting in a rural house out in small Morrow County, of some larger interest and maybe importance.

Morrow County is, politically, what you might expect. It is a small-population and rural county well east of the Cascades, with little tie to many of the interests that help staff and underwrite Democratic organizations in places like Portland. It is solidly Republican. In recent years Republican voter registration has run around 41% and Democratic has fluctuated around 28-31%. It routinely votes strongly for Republican candidates for major office and for the legislature.

That doesn’t mean morrow doesn’t have Democrats, but Republicans here have tended to do better than registration might suggest. One reason may be that Democrats here simply haven’t been organized. That isn’t a swipe at anyone; the East Oregonian said there’s not been a Morrow County Democratic organization for 22 years.

The news was that Greg Hall, a relatively new resident new Boardman, decided to do something about it. A former North Carolinian, accustomed to a Democratic party sometimes outvoted but never nonexistent, he filed on September 5 to form one. Then he called for an organization meeting at his rural house early this month.

The article held a focus on Hall as he waited for people to arrive, and began to wonder if anyone would.

They did, no great crowd but a substantial number.
From the East Oregonian: “Every person who arrived was Hispanic. Because Morrow County is 36% Hispanic, according to the 2012 census, Hall hopes to find unregistered Hispanic voters to gain ground in an established Republican stronghold.”

They start, of course, from an underdog position; they’re not going to outnumber Republicans in this county any time soon. Nor is this going to change the social sea water in this county.

But activity like this is where it starts: With county officers and precinct leaders, who in turn can bring into play people who hadn’t been involved in politics before. From one voice in the county, you move to two; from non-competitive you may move, over time, to competitive.

And change is made.

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Federal agencies heavily involved in regulation and rule making aggravate enough people in the normal and proper course of their work that the last thing they need is to go out of their way, in an incompetent fashion at that, to aggravate even more.

Meet the U.S. Forest Service, and its rules on photography in wilderness areas.

The Forest Services regulates wilderness areas around the country – many of them in the Northwest – and are supposed to do that with the purpose of wilderness in mind: Preservation of lands in a natural state, where people can visit but not stay and not leave behind traces of their visits. That means no human goods left behind, and no damage done to the areas.

The USFS has managed this job in many ways, some sound and some questionable. But restricting photography – the taking of still or video pictures with the use of hand-held camera equipment – in those areas wouldn’t realistically occur to most people as damaging to the wild character of wilderness.

Last week reports – based mainly in the Northwest but spread rapidly around the country – noted that an obscure forest rule required permits for photography in wilderness areas. Well, some photography. Under some conditions. The gray area here is vast. The weirdly vague rule is up for possible permanent adoption later this year.

An initial Forest Service email described it this way: “All organizations … including private citizens planning to use produced material to raise funds, sell a product, or otherwise realize compensation in any form (including salary during the production) are subject to review.”

Including vacationers, and news reporters, apparently.
After the media explosion, Service Chief Tom Tidwell replied, “To be clear, provisions in the draft directive do not apply to news gathering or activities. . . . Generally, professional and amateur photographers will not need a permit unless they use models, actors or props.”

Except that, in Idaho and Oregon at least, it turns out that news organizations (notably public television stations) have been either stopped from filming in wilderness areas or threatened with penalties if they did.

Salem Statesman Journal reporter Zach Urness, writing this weekend, noted that interpretations of the rule seemed to vary widely among Forest Service officials at various local and national levels. It does seem to open photography in the case of “breaking news,” though the definition attached to that term is also vaporous and open to abuse.

But the rule clearly gives local Forest Service officials latitude in deciding whether to allow the photography, and to base much of the decision not on whether wilderness areas would be harmed by the activity, but on whether the news report would be one that the Forest Service liked. A directive suggests a green light if the planned news report (and the news organization would have to disclose in advance what the report is intended to say) “Has a primary objective of dissemination of information about the use and enjoyment of wilderness or its ecological, geological, or other features of scientific, educational, scenic, or historical value.”

In other words, the Forest Service would insert itself into the newsroom to decide which stories get reported and which don’t.

Could amateur photographers be caught up in this too? Possibly. The rules make reference to “commercial” photography, but the definitions there too are slippery.

If anyone but the Forest Service is on the Forest Service’s side in this, they haven’t made it clear. Members of Congress from both left and right, Republicans and Democrats both, have jumped all over the Forest Service for this. News media have too of course, but you can expect an angry reaction as well from many wilderness supporters, many of whom love to take pictures when they hike the backcountry.

This rule is the most obvious and real “kick me” sign any federal agency has posted on itself in quite a while. And that’s saying something.

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The problem – or is it an asset? – that the advocates of a top-two primary in Oregon have may be in part that the advocates are hard to easily define.

The opposition is clear enough, and it starts with both major political parties. It’s easy to understand why: The current closed primary system in Oregon gives both parties a great deal of internal control over the system and effectively shuts out people who don’t declare a membership within either. Primary election ballots for non-D and non-R voters is awfully thin.

Of course, this also has had a gradual effect of pushing each party away from each other, and of hearing less (and having to respond less) toward the large number of people in the middle, or simply on the sidelines. Add the number of people who either register as a member of no party or with the Independent Party of Oregon, and you have a third major party (in number, albeit unorganized) whose impact on state politics could be vast.

The Oregonian reported on September 12 that the backers of a top-two system received a lot of money from business-supportive people and groups, which suggests one set of possible outcomes (a broader-appealing set of Republican candidates) that some backers might like. Some of them may be looking across the state line to Washington’s 4th congressional district.

That state has a top-two system (as does California) and in the 4th, the two candidates who advance to the general election are Clint Didier, a Tea Party hard liner, and Dan Newhouse, a more centrist conservative (who was endorsed by the district’s current Republican representative, Doc Hastings). In the primary, Didier came in first, and had the parties simply selected their nominees at that point, he would have become the Republican nominee running in the fall against a Democrat; in this very Republican district, he would have won easily. Under the new system, two Republicans – Didier and Newhouse – will be running, and Newhouse has the odds since he is likely to pick up most of the non-Republican, as well as many of the Republican, votes.

Democrats may not have been thrilled about having no candidate in the 4th come November; and if Didier loses the Tea Party won’t be thrilled either. But the people in between in the 4th may be happier with their choices.

Points worth reflecting as Oregon considers in a few weeks how to structure its own primaries.

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