28 Oct

Richardson’s proposed road across southern Oregon is a fantasy freeway

Get a map of the state of Oregon.

Draw a line across from Coos Bay on the south coast to Ontario on the Idaho border.

Say it would be nice if the line were a freeway.

It seems you’ve just followed all the steps of Dennis Richardson’s transportation thinking.

A headline on the Republican candidate for governor’s campaign web site declares, “Richardson Proposing East-West Freeway.” It’s a core of his economic development thinking, and in debates, Richardson has repeatedly and enthusiastically championed the idea, including a stop for the highway at Burns.

Such a freeway would, after all, provide badly needed shipping access to the south coast. And the feds do build interstate freeways.

You can almost see the truck stops and the mini-A&Ws.

But get out that map again. There could be some complications.

A freeway from Coos Bay to Ontario would run across the Cascades, the Coast Range, the Umpqua National Forest, the Willamette National Forest, the Deschutes National Forest and possibly a bit of the Ochoco and Wallowa National Forests. It might just be easier to build two international airports.
There are, of course, routes that could be taken around some of the national forest land – although as people in covered wagons discovered a long time ago, it’s hard to get around the Cascades. But every adjustment would lengthen what would already be a historically long construction project.

The distance between Coos Bay and Ontario is 365.6 miles – and that’s if you’re a crow, not a Corolla. If you want to make a point of going through Burns, that gets things up to 389.3 miles.
Even before including any roadside adjustments, this starts to get expensive. Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., the second-ranking Democrat on the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, points out that based on recent Oregon projects, freeway construction runs around $50 million a mile.

He estimates a starting price on Richardson’s proposed freeway at around $10 billion, which by counting-on-fingers arithmetic actually sounds low. Four hundred miles – because after all, you can’t go directly through, say, lakes – times $50 million actually comes to $20 billion.

Even $10 billion is, of course, already three times the gasp-inducing price of the Columbia River Crossing, which would have required tolls and $1 billion from the feds for light rail – which would presumably not be included on the Coos Bay-Ontario Freeway.

As for getting multi billions from the feds for the project, says DeFazio – who represents Coos Bay, and strongly supports better transportation access for the south coast – “I did really well for Oregon in the last (five-year) transportation package, and I brought in $470 million.”

Lately, of course, Congress has been unable to pass any transportation package at all.

Still, the feds do fund freeways sometimes, right?

DeFazio, noting this would be a “greenfield” project, not on an existing right of way, says, “I’ve been on the Transportation Committee for 28 years, and can’t recall any greenfield project of this scope.”

Not even one connecting a city with a population of 15,946 (Coos Bay) with a city of 11,091 (Ontario), and designed to run through a city of 2,728 (Burns).

Dave Thompson, spokesman for the Oregon Department of Transportation, kept saying “very complex” about such a project, and noted the length of time that would be involved just in getting local input about need, and in satisfying the National Environmental Protection Act. Thompson pointed out that the four-mile Dundee Bypass in Yamhill County was under consideration for about 20 years before actually breaking ground this year.

And the bypass doesn’t even run through the Cascades, or through federal land featuring endangered species.

Or have a bill running into 11 figures.

Earlier this year, the Richardson campaign suggested it would provide more details on the proposed road. But we haven’t heard anything, and the campaign didn’t return calls on the subject.

It’s been an unsettling race for governor, even if you’re not named Cylvia Hayes – or engaged to her.

Dennis Richardson is actually running an ad that praises him as someone who will uphold a woman’s right to choose, which takes us as far down the rabbit hole as any tunnel under the Cascades.

Richardson doesn’t talk about a time line for his proposed freeway; he calls it a long-term project.

But it might be possible to make a rough estimate of the construction schedule of a $10 billion-plus, 400-mile highway between a city of 16,000 and a city of 11,000, over two mountain ranges and through national forests and protected habitat.

Offhand, we’ll build the Coos Bay-Ontario Freeway right after we run light rail to the moon.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian 10/26/14.

28 Oct

Undocumented immigrants are driving in Oregon. Do we notice?

The strongest advocates of giving undocumented Oregonians legal driver’s cards aren’t even immigrants.

They’re Oregon’s agriculture and nursery businesses, who depend on their undocumented workers to stay in business. It’s another piece of evidence that Oregon’s 150,000 undocumented residents, about two-thirds of them employed in our economy, are deep in the fabric of Oregon life, and aren’t going anywhere.

And that we should try to manage their presence.

Nobody really thinks that those people are leaving, that they’re going to self-deport. And nobody really thinks they’re going to stop driving – and their employers don’t want them to stop.

So instead of pretending that the undocumented drivers don’t exist, and aren’t on our roads, we could give them driving tests, and keep track of them, and encourage them to get insurance.

The people behind this measure include the Oregon nurserymen, the Oregon winegrowers and the Oregon Restaurant and Lodging Association. As Jeff Stone, executive director of the nurserymen, said last week, “We’re just trying to make Oregon a safer place.”

If we defeat Measure 88, and keep Oregon from issuing driver’s cards, nothing is really going to change for the people involved, even if we want to pretend it will.

But nothing will change for the rest of us, either.

NOTE: This commentary first appeared on KGW-TV, 10/25/14

22 Oct

Imagine a political campaign that actually was about children

Elections, we’re always told, are about the future.

They’re just not usually about the people who are going to live there.

The advocacy group Children First for Oregon wants to change that. This year, and for election years in the future, it’s trying to raise the profile of children in Oregon elections, and make it clear to candidates that people with play dates ought to be political players.

“The political system responds to pressure,” says Tonia Hunt, executive director of Children First. “We don’t ask kids to our candidates’ forums. We need to ask questions for the kids who can’t be there.”

And Children First has some suggestions on what to ask.

Its website features an Oregon Children’s Election Center, including questions ranging from “What do you consider the primary pathways out of poverty for a family with children?” to a request for candidates’ ideas on Oregon’s hemorrhaging foster care issues.

Hunt concedes that a children’s agenda, and the people who’d like to push one, could use a little more focus. “There are 120 groups working on children’s issues,” she counts. “We’ve ended up differing on ways and confusing our message.”

To go with the new effort, Children First has some new numbers, from this month’s 2014 Oregon County Data Book. In addition to some familiar depressing statistics – a majority of Oregon schoolchildren now qualify for free or reduced-price school lunch, and 27 percent of Oregon children are food-insecure – the report points out persistent gaps in educational achievement at all levels between white children and Oregon’s rising percentage of minority children. And although a full 20 percent of Oregon minority kids live in Multnomah County, the opportunity gap there is among the widest in the state.

The statistics in the report are very predictable given Oregon’s lethal combination of institutional incompetence and institutional racism,” says Ron Herndon, head of Albina Head Start. “It is routine for highest level staff in state and local government decision making bodies to have had no successful professional experience in ameliorating the conditions of Oregon’s most vulnerable and worst served children: Black, Native American and Hispanic.”

But this year, as part of its election effort, Children First serves up some statistics prepared a different way, arranged by House and Senate district. These numbers are a reminder that as daunting as Oregon’s statewide children’s numbers are, it has areas where things are considerably worse – something Hunt thinks might make for interesting discussions at campaign events.

Statewide, Oregon’s child poverty rate is a scary-enough 22 percent, with 31 percent of kids getting some form of state assistance. In House Speaker Tina Kotek’s North Portland district, 30 percent of kids live in poverty, with 42 percent getting some help.

Explains Kotek, “That’s parents not sending their kids to camp, not being able to have them in sports, not sure they won’t need a food box to feed them.”

Knowing that the state won’t be able to support every kid – but trying to make sure that minority and at-risk kids get their share – Kotek hopes to find $250 million next session. That’s $150 million for statewide full-day kindergarten – which a previous legislature has already promised – and $100 million for employment-related day care and early intervention.

House Republican leader Mike McLane’s district, stretching southwest from Prineville in the geographic center of the state, there’s a 25 percent rate of child poverty, and 39 percent of kids get some help.

Kotek and McLane should have a lot to talk about.

Hunt, of course, thinks it’s something for all candidates to talk about – especially during election campaigns.

In politics, “It comes down to money or work,” she points out. “I don’t have a way to collect a part of every child’s allowance, so we have to go to the voters willing to stand up on these issues.”

Over time, Hunt hopes to set up a more focused political children’s advocacy movement, the kind that would make endorsements and maybe even apply some cash. In a state with an above-average child poverty rate, recently rated by Feeding America as the state with the hungriest children, with a bleak four-year high school graduation rate, there should be a lot to talk about.

Elections, we’re always told, are about the future. But it seems a long time – before the Great Recession, before 9/11, before the tech bubble popped, before Measure 5, before the timber collapse – since Oregon could really think about more than survival.

But the future always shows up.

And as the people who are going to be living there might put it, ready or not.

NOTE: This column appeared in the Sunday Oregonian 10/19/14.

22 Oct

Legalizing pot better than current fiasco

The issue on Measure 91 isn’t whether you think people should be smoking marijuana.

The issue is whether you think our current marijuana laws work.

And if you think that, you might be smoking something.

Millions of Americans, and hundreds of thousands of Oregonians, use marijuana. In Oregon, and many other states, we’ve even made it easier, with medical marijuana regulations that can amount to a series of winks. When we do enforce our laws, the effect is arbitrary, with a strong racial component.

Meanwhile, we also know there are counties in Southern Oregon and Northern California where marijuana is the chief cash crop.

We need to go a different way. We need to recognize that marijuana is widely used, to regulate and tax it, and to stop wrecking people’s lives at random. Seven percent of Oregon arrests are still for simple pot possession, and police have better things to do.

Use by minors, and sale to minors, would still be banned, and it’s hard to see how legalization will make their access any easier. The law can be adjusted by the Legislature, perhaps to avoid some of Colorado’s problems with edibles, or Washington’s issues with tax rates.

Measure 91 only has to be better than a system that’s clearly failed.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV 10/18/14

14 Oct

It’s a different Democratic Party from 1972, but Joe Biden can adapt

In 1972, when Joe Biden was first elected to the U.S. Senate – at the barely legal age of 30, and to general surprise – it seemed the Democratic Party was about to break in half between its blue-collar and tie-dyed wings. At the Miami Beach convention that nominated George McGovern for president, there seemed to be open warfare between the social issue forces on the one side, eager to talk about drug laws, abortion and women’s liberation, and the actively unhappy party core of organized labor.

Last week, when Vice President Biden – the only member of that 1973 Senate still pounding the campaign trail – came to Portland to stump for Sen. Jeff Merkley, the Convention Center crowd gave equally loud roars to Biden’s testimonial, “One thing I like about Jeff, he and I both know how to pronounce the word ‘union,’” and to Rep. Earl Blumenauer’s call to end “the failed prohibition of marijuana.”

The lesson may be that if you’re in politics as long as Biden – or Blumenauer, who was elected to the Oregon state House in 1972 – you will eventually see everything. But there may be another explanation for the apparently seamless merger of Democrats’ economic and social agendas, an explanation as clear as the giant poster on the wall behind the podium: “Jeff Merkley: Fighting for the Middle Class.”

In 1972, the middle class was considered the establishment, a bulwark of the values the young social protesters were attacking. These days, “middle class” is a code for economically embattled, and everybody speaking at the Convention Center Wednesday used the phrase at a rate that could send calculators spinning.

Biden stressed the country’s economic progress in returning from the Great Recession, and the need to “finish what Barack and I started in 2008.” (Only Joe Biden, and possibly Michelle Obama, refers in public to someone called “Barack.”) But, he stressed, “The middle class is still hurtin’… The middle class has not recovered.”

Middle class identity has always been the core of Biden’s rhetoric; his roots in Scranton, Pa., came up as often during the course of the afternoon as Merkley’s origins as the son of a millworker. Merkley further embraced his identity by wearing Kitzhaberian jeans with his jacket and tie.

(When the governor wore jeans to welcome Obama, there was some muttering about dressing that way for the president, but nobody seemed to consider it inappropriate style to greet Biden.)

But just because language is expected doesn’t deprive it of power. When Biden delivered his account – standard in his speeches – about the longest walk in a parent’s life being up the stairs to a child’s room to say that he’s lost his job and the family has to move, the convention center got very quiet.

There’s always something to say for the classics.

But there were also messages that wouldn’t have come from the early Joe Biden, deep incursions into the social agenda. He forcefully declared his pride in writing the Violence Against Women Act, and thundered that domestic violence “is never, never, never the woman’s fault! Never!”

The audience liked that part, too.

And the Joe Biden of the earlier years was never preceded by a House member, like Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, endorsing contraceptive equity, LGBT rights, abortion rights and “our great senator who really believes in the rights of women, Jeff Merkley.”

So now Democratic rallies are about both transgendered rights and an increased minimum wage, mingling marijuana legalization and support for organized labor, in a way that would have astonished all sides of the party back when Joe Biden and Earl Blumenauer were getting started in politics.

Maybe the young rebels of that day have just grown up and taken over the party, especially since all the white Southerners have left. Maybe it’s that union members, like other middle class Americans, are feeling embattled, and seeking allies more than fights over social issues.

In Elizabeth Warren’s book, “Fighting Chance,” she recalls talking to the head of the firefighters’ union about their decision to endorse her in the 2012 Senate race. He began by of noting that the Harvard Law professor wasn’t really the firefighters’ kind of person, and that he’s rather have a beer with her Republican opponent.

“But,” he concluded, “(predictable obscenity), we gotta raise our families.”

It was Joe Biden’s kind of conversation.

It was also Biden’s style to dive into the crowd after his speech Wednesday, to bask there for long minutes while people swarmed around him seeking keepsakes.

Not autographs, of course.

Selfies.

They weren’t around in 1972, either.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 10/12/14.

14 Oct

Oregon primaries should stop being an exclusive club

For most Oregon elections, the November vote is a formality. Since no Republicans will be elected in Northeast Portland, and no Democrats should plan to go to the Legislature from Northeast Oregon, the election ends with the primary in May.

Which would be fine, except we don’t let a lot of people vote in our primaries.

Oregon is one of only a dozen states with closed primaries, allowing only registered party members to vote in their party’s primary. That was one thing 50 years ago, when 98 percent of Oregon voters were registered as either Democrats or Republicans. Now the number is closer to 70 percent, and dropping every two years.

Young people who don’t want to register with a party should not be deprived of any voice in their
representation, and discouraged from voting at all.

The system could also be opened up by letting everybody, or at least unaffiliated voters, vote in primaries. But the Democratic and Republican parties are against that, just like they’re against Measure 90 and the top-two primary. But Measure 90 could make the November choice mean something, even if it’s a choice between two Republicans or two Democrats.

It’s awkward enough being Republican in Portland. They shouldn’t be entirely excluded from meaningful voting.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 10/11/14.

10 Oct

Five years after ‘death panels,’ Earl Blumenauer still wants to talk about death

These days, we see politicians offering all kinds of explanations, from explaining that overheard statements were taken out of context to insisting that the shadowy figure seen on the videotape was a niece.

But hardly anyone has offered a clarification like the one Earl Blumenauer put forth on The New York Times op-ed page in 2009:

“I didn’t mean to kill Grandma.”

It sounded like the start of a press conference by the Big Bad Wolf.

The actual situation seemed to be equally out of a fairy tale. In the multi-month course of Congress’s working on health care reform in 2009, Blumenauer had proposed, and gotten included in the House bill, a provision allowing Medicare and Medicaid to pay for conversations with doctors about end-of-life treatment. It seemed a plausible way to support planning widely encouraged by the medical community.

Then the roof fell in.

“The America I know and love is not one in which my parents or my baby with Down Syndrome will have to stand in front of Obama’s ‘death panel’ so his bureaucrats can decide, based on a subjective judgment of their ‘productivity in society,’ whether they are worthy of health care,” throbbed Sarah Palin. “Such a system is downright evil.”

It was a passionate denunciation of a non-existent policy.

Politifact crowned it the 2009 “Lie of the Year” – an impressive distinction, considering the competition – saying, “We agree with Palin that such a system would be evil. But it’s definitely not what President Barack Obama or any other Democrat has proposed.”

But in the super-heated politics of 2009-10, the charge of “death panels” spread like a runny nose in preschool.

“It fit into the Tea Party medium of crazy talk,” remembered Blumenauer last week. “It was part of an onslaught, a time of outright lies that were treated as acceptable language.”

Did he see it coming? “Not remotely,” he recalled. The idea had gotten through the Ways and Means Committee without complaint from either side.

In fact, he points out the language stayed in the bill the House passed, and just expired in the Senate. But the proposal hasn’t resurfaced since, during four years when the House wasn’t interested in passing anything about health care reform except complete repeal, which it supported about 50 times – becoming itself a death panel, if an ineffectual one.

But Blumenauer persists. “This is my sixth year on the subject,” he diagnoses. “I’m not discouraged.”

At the end of September, he sent the Obama administration a letter, signed by 32 other House members, seeking support for a bill to allow such payments. “Patients who wish to make clear their goals, values and wishes through discussions with their trusted providers,” the letter insisted, “should have the opportunity to do so.”

And the drive has picked up other voices. The American Medical Association statement on elements of final treatment begins with, “The opportunity to discuss and plan for end-of-life care.” Last month, the Institute of Medicine, in a report on “Dying in America,” declared, “advance care planning is critically important to ensure that patients’ goals and needs are met,” and “the advance care planning process can begin at any age or state of health and should center on frequent conversations with family members and care providers.”

Last Sunday in The New York Times, the doctor and journalist Atul Gawande wrote, “First, in medicine and society, we have failed to recognize that people have priorities that they need us to serve besides just living longer. Second, the best way to learn those priorities is to ask about them. Hence the wide expert agreement that payment systems should enable health professionals to take sufficient time to have such discussions and tune care accordingly

None of this means, of course, that there will be actual activity on end-of-life policy, in 2015 or 2016, from a Congress that seems comatose beyond recovery. Whether or not Republicans narrowly gain or narrowly miss control of the Senate this year, they will have a stronger presence in both houses.

Bipartisan progress on controversial bills might have a dim prognosis.

Blumenauer offers a second opinion.

Republicans “are facing a tidal wave in 2016,” he forecasts. “They’re not going to want to have a zero level of accomplishment.”

And, after all, there’s always 2017.

Blumenauer has seen too many strange, unexpected developments on this issue to advise Medicare and Medicaid patients to make doctor’s appointments for end-of-life conversations any time soon.

But maybe when you’ve spent years working on planning for death, you believe some things are inevitable.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 10/8/14

07 Oct

State bonds are for investments — such as Oregon college students

The truly discouraging thing may not be that a large proportion of Oregon college graduates have knee-buckling levels of debt, narrowing their life options, limiting their ability to fuel the economy, buy a house or even get married and have children.

The truly discouraging thing is that they may be the lucky ones.

The situation can be even worse for young people scared by sticker shock away from even imagining higher education, or for the growing number in the worst-of-both-worlds situation of taking on debt, but with their resources giving out before they actually get a degree.

Or for the people trying to build an economic future for Oregon with a clogged pipeline of young Oregonians educated for the 21st century.

These problems are, of course, national. But they’re particularly tough around here, because Oregon’s long tradition of not investing in its colleges is matched by its not investing in its college students.
“The absence of financial aid compared to other states is a huge problem,” says Portland State President Wim Wievel. “We need to make it possible for Oregonians to attend our public institutions.”

Oregon State President Ed Ray points out that Oregon, 47th in the country in higher education support, is also 43rd in the country in financial aid for its students.

By state Treasurer Ted Wheeler’s calculation, Oregon gives out one-seventh the financial aid per capita as South Carolina.

South. Carolina.

In the past decade, the state’s major achievement has been Oregon Opportunity Grants. Capped at $2,000 a year, the grants go to just one-fifth of the applicants who qualify – and if you get one for your freshman year, there’s no guarantee of any other year.

The understanding of the depth of our hole is widespread. In its capital drive, Oregon State has raised $182 million for a scholarship fund. Asked by Gov. John Kitzhaber how it would spend additional money, the Higher Education Coordinating Commission made financial aid its first priority, seeking another $66 million from the next legislature.

But after decades of dropping back, Oregon needs more than a couple of good legislative sessions.

That’s why Wheeler is on the ballot this fall with Measure 86, which would let Oregon sell bonds to create an endowment to expand access to higher education. If it passes, the Legislature would need to decide just how to get it started.

“We’re trying to disrupt decades of bad choices on higher education,” say Wheeler. “We should prioritize it in funding, but the fact is we don’t. It will always be short-changed in a resource-constrained state.”

Of course, the evidence for that only goes back about half a century.

Setting up an endowment for higher education, as a number of other states have done, would invoke what Wheeler calls the most powerful force in the world: compound earnings. By his calculation, if Oregon had set up a $100 million fund 30 years ago, it would now have a fund of $471 million, after paying out $173 million in debt service and spinning off $351 million in financial aid – not a revolutionary amount over 30 years, but an advance.

Right now, Wheeler points out, is a particularly good time to do sell bonds for the endowment, with interest rates low and the economy advancing. Neither of these situations will go on forever; rates will go up, and when the economy slows again, higher education will take the first hits.

Again, there’s about half a century’s evidence for that.

Setting up the endowment would also provide a way to attract private philanthropic contributions, and bolster access to vocational and technical education, which has shriveled into an Oregon afterthought. That’s part of the reason Measure 86 has drawn support from groups like the Oregon Business Alliance and the Portland Business Alliance, which declared, “It is imperative that we address the increasing cost of higher education and alleviate the cost burden facing many students who, without financial aid, are not able to pursue post-secondary education.”

That number is swelling. Reports Ray, a kid from a family with an income under $30,000 has one chance in 17 of finishing college, and “It’s not getting better. It’s getting worse.”

Around here it’s not getting to where we need.

“We know we’re doing a terrible job as a state,” says Wheeler, “providing access to middle- and low-income students. It will come back to haunt us all.”

Or – in a place that says 40 percent of Oregonians should have a four-year degree, and another 40 percent at least a two-year degree – we could try to mean what we say.

NOTE: This column appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 10/5/14.