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.

07 Oct

On GMOs, openness is easiest to swallow

Right now, there’s no reason to think genetically modified organisms in food are dangerous to consumers.

But there’s always a reason to let Oregon consumers make that decision for themselves.

Measure 92, on the Oregon ballot in November, would require notification on most foods grown or prepared with GMOs. Similar ballot efforts were narrowly defeated in California, after opponents
led by the chemical industry, spent $45 million, and in Washington, where they spent $22 million.

Opponents say labeling is too complicated, but the world is full of countries that have figured it out.

It’s hard to argue that Oregonians aren’t concerned about GMOs. In this year’s May primary, voters in Jackson and Josephine counties, not exactly hipster hangouts, voted overwhelmingly not for disclosure but to ban GMOs – again despite heavy industry spending.

We shouldn’t ban GMOs. There’s no evidence that they’re harmful, and they seem useful in producing the kind of harvests needed to feed the world. But Oregonians are entitled to know what’s in their food, and to make their own choices.

And a measure to require information is much better than a measure to ban GMOs outright.

There may be no reason to vote against GMOs in our food.

But there’s never a reason to vote against transparency in our decisions.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 10/4/14

07 Oct

The new Oregon trail: Crowded with climate migrants

Time to go into the garage and get out those old “Visit, But Don’t Stay” lawn signs.

Just don’t put them up anywhere near a water fountain.

The image might be too alluring.

Last week, New York Times reporter Jennifer A. Kingson asked where global warming might direct migrants, and Ben Strauss, vice president for climate impact at the research collaboration Climate Central, explained, “The answer is the Pacific Northwest, and probably especially west of the Cascades.” Noted Strauss, “You see a lot less extreme heat; it’s the one place in the West where there’s no real expectation of major water stress…”

Kingson quoted Clifford E. Mass, professor of atmospheric science at the University of Washington, predicting that the Pacific Northwest will be “a potential climate refuge,” with “climate change migrants” streaming to the Seattle and Portland areas.
“Water is important,” points out Mass, “and we will have it.”

The first Oregon Trail was marked by prairie schooners and bleached buffalo bones. This time, it will be overheated Pontiacs and abandoned iguanas.

For years, it has seemed clear that the remorselessly irrigated golf courses of Arizona and Nevada were on a collision course with a climate drying like a tomato in the sun. But this year, with most of California baking like an Alaska, the pressures became more immediate, and the attraction of a region where rain seems, um, reliable is even more fertile.

Three years ago, in a report on “Environmental Migrants and the Future of the Willamette Valley,” Professor Ethan Seltzer’s Urban Planning class at Portland State forecast, “The expected in-migration of climate refugees
from across the United States and around the globe in the next several decades will place additional burdens on existing social structures and public services.”

And that was before this summer, when in much of California watering your lawn became a misdemeanor.

This May, a new National Climate Advisory, issued by a federal commission, reported that in the Southwest, “Increased heat, drought, and insect outbreaks, all linked to climate change, have increased wildfires. Declining water supplies, reduced agricultural yields, health impacts in cities due to heat, and flooding and erosion in coastal areas are additional concerns.”

In the Pacific Northwest, writes Knute Berger in the regional blog Crosscut, “The good news, according to the climate models, is that things are likely to be much worse elsewhere…”

So the forecasts favor, once again, an increase in new Northwesterners, this time seeking not livability but just liquid. Last month, the Seattle World Affairs Council, with some other groups, put on a community simulation game to deal with the impact of climate migration – an event, the announcement pointed out, “with drinks,” which pretty much underscored the regional climate differences.

The greatest impact, calculates Seltzer, will be not over the next five years but over the next 20 to 50 years – although another summer like the past one and we might see a surfer’s wave of California license plates cresting at the Oregon DMV.

With statewide land use planning and regional government, he points out, Oregon is in position to devise ways to absorb new arrivals. The question he asks is, “How will their values affect the place?”

Local priorities have been reinforced recently by newly arriving young people who came here because Portland is cool. There might be a different effect from people who move here because Phoenix is getting too hot.

Two years ago, recalls Seltzer, he spoke with two out-of-state Toyota executives who warned that Oregon was in line for a large wave of new arrivals, and needed to build lots of highways and cul de sacs to welcome them. When Seltzer suggested that Oregon might not want lots more highways and cul de sacs, they seemed perplexed.

Over recent decades, Oregon has faced – and agonized over – several waves of settlement, but each of them receded, due to economic change or the word getting out that we might be closing our schools in April. A planetary reprogramming, with some regions grilling and others submerging, might be more difficult to turn back.

We’re also getting notice of change from other signals. In wildfires this year, through September, Oregon lost 57,493 acres, against an average over the last 10 years of 22, 515 acres. In September, just over our southern border – right where we might be tempted to set up the barricades – the summer heat melted glacier ice on Mount Shasta, sending a flood of water and mud cascading through the forest.

In a warming world, Oregon may be a refuge.

But we’re hardly a haven.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 10/1/14.