30 Dec

Oregon has a whale of a Christmas tradition

There are places, of course, where the holiday animal traditions run to reindeer, and others featuring cuddly bears. There is the typical farmyard menagerie of a manger, and holiday cards featuring dogs in sweaters that leave even the dogs looking embarrassed.

Around here, we think bigger.

This weekend marks the beginning of whale watching week on the Oregon coast, which annually takes place right after Christmas, as though the whales were trying to get to a New Year’s Eve party in California. Over several months, about 20,000 grey whales, and maybe some cetacean fellow travelers, journey from Alaska to Mexico. This week, Oregonians will trek out to the coast to catch a glimpse from the shore or get a closer look from a bobbing boat.

Last year, reports Oregon park ranger Evan Sobel at the Whale Center at Depoe Bay (whalespoken.org), more than 10,000 watchers showed up at 24 sites from Ecola State Park to Brookings. There’s another whale watching week at the end of March, when the whales are coming back north and the weather is better, but more people show up in stormy December.

Oregonians.

The goal is to pick out a grey whale in a grey sea, or a spout of water in an endless ocean, and catch sight of a parade that’s been going on longer than anything with floats or marching bands. For the whale, it’s a several weeks nonstop (including sleep) cruise; from a boat or even from the shore, it can be unsettling to the stomach – especially in December – but exhilarating to the spirit.

“It’s an opportunity to see an animal the size of a school bus,” says William Hanshumaker, Oregon Sea Grant chief scientist at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport. “It’s hard not to be impressed by seeing something that large.”

People have felt that impact for a long time. The symbol of America may be an eagle, but the great American novel is about a whale.

Grey whales, like a lot of other legends prominent around this time, are a renewal story. The Atlantic grey whale population is essentially extinct; the western Pacific population has been reduced to a small band working its way up and down the coasts of Siberia and Korea. For a while, it looked like the eastern Pacific population would join them.

“These animals are back from the brink of extinction,” says Sobel. “Thirty or forty years ago, they were nearly extinct.”

Unlike, say, killer whales, grey whales don’t generally endure in captivity. They’re too large, and too uncooperative.

They were protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972, but Hanshumaker points out that before that, crucially, the Mexican government protected the whales in their winter quarters. In 1995, the grey whale came off the endangered list.

Now, thousands of them annually swim by the Oregon coast, keeping close to shore, although probably not consciously posing for pictures. Heading south at the end and the very beginning of the year, with a heavy layer of blubber that keeps them from stopping too often to feed, they’re swimming in mixed groups, on the way to give birth in warmer waters. On the way back north in spring, the males go first, with the females working to keep the new calves between themselves and the shore.

As with any group passing by, there are some who just decide to stay around Oregon permanently, and have been identified by the people who study them. “It seems to be the same individuals,” says Hanshumaker about the Oregon coast’s year-round whale population. “They recognize they can make a living here.”

The roaring fire inside is less a December definition around here than in some other places; Oregonians tend to venture outside through various climatic conditions, heading east for snow or west for water at times when others might be content with dry couches and holiday TV specials. And they feel, it seems, a special pull from a prehistoric creature proceeding placidly down one of the world’s longest maritime migration routes, coming back from the threat of extinction to claim their (very large) place in the world.

Especially for a place that likes to think of itself as deeply connected to the natural space around it, whale watching seems a particularly fitting December holiday tradition: With wobbly stomach and constant uncertainty, you scan an endless horizon trying to catch a sudden glimpse of something wondrous, something bigger than yourself.

As holiday customs go, it’s way better than a dog in a sweater.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 12/28/14.

26 Dec

Santa, keep the sleigh out of the bike lanes

Dear Santa,

The question of whether we’ve been a naughty or nice place over the past year is complicated. We do claim to be carefully planned.

First of all, we’re sorry about all those TV ads suggesting that people give each other Oregon Lottery scratch-off tickets for Christmas, something we know your elves don’t produce. We’re not trying to put you out of business; we just really need the money.

But if you’re looking to take a break from your rounds tonight, we have many hospitable video poker machines. Most of the locations have parking, even for sleighs.

We have an extensive range of food carts, many of them open quite late, even on Christmas Eve. Some of them must offer cuisine of the North Pole. I think there’s a cart on Northeast Sandy called Seal of Approval.

With a bunch of the carts now offering alcohol, there’s got to some offering egg nog. They do stop serving alcohol at 10 p.m., but that’s 1 a.m. Eastern time; by then, after completing most of your deliveries, you should be ready for a break.

And we do specialize in late-night donuts.

We should also mention that since you’ve been here last, we’ve voted to legalize marijuana. It’s not technically in effect yet, but still, if you notice some smoke, it may not be from the chimney, if you get our drift.

Some households might even leave you a little something for your pipe.

But be careful. If you get into an accident, our Cover Oregon health insurance program still isn’t working quite the way we’d hoped. Maybe it’ll be ready next Christmas, or maybe you could deliver us some functioning software.

Or maybe you could drop off something that could be useful in our lawsuit against Oracle. Some yellow legal pads, or maybe some incriminating emails.

Something else we’ve got on our list is a place to put our new county courthouse, hopefully before the current one falls down. (When we all try to be very quiet to hear you coming, we can hear the building creak.) If you could find a location for us, we’d hail you as Seismic Santa, or maybe the Safety Claus.

We haven’t really had a chance to do our own naughty/nice list, but the secretary of state does have an easily available list of 2014 campaign contributions. It won’t be an exact list of who’s been good or bad this past year, but it will give you a sense of who’s already gotten everything they wanted.

Whatever you were thinking of giving Monsanto, they’ve probably already bought.

We do have to say Portland’s not the easiest place to get around; in fact, flying reindeer may be the most practical way. The condition of our streets may be recognizable to you from flying over the Yukon; we’ve been looking hard for a way to pay for fixing them, and if you could leave the answer under the tree in Pioneer Courthouse Square, it would be just what we’ve been asking for.

(I know you were wondering why the City Council was sitting on your lap at Macy’s; they’d pretty much exhausted all other ways of looking for a solution.)

If you do try to make your way through our streets Christmas Eve, the key rule is to stay out of the bike lanes. We have very specific laws covering nonmotorized vehicles on our rights of way, and besides, the city is full of drivers ready to make a left turn right between Donder and Blitzen.

(Unlike some other places, Portland is not an ideal landing area for a sleigh with snow runners in December; maybe you could attach some pontoons. Also, right now is about the time when roofs around here start to leak, so we’d appreciate it if you’d keep an eye on the reindeer.)

We’d like to say that Portland offers reliable mass transit alternatives to single-occupancy vehicles such as your sleigh. But we’ve learned recently that there are some problems with the streetcar keeping to its schedule, and you might not get your deliveries done until February. If St. Nicholas is tailgating St. Valentine, the entire greeting card industry melts down.

We thought for a while we might be able to help you out with a big new bridge to the north, but you probably shouldn’t count on that any time soon.

One other tip: If you’re having trouble getting around Portland tonight, don’t call Uber.

We’ll explain why later.

Merry Christmas,

The City That Works

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 12/24/14.
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22 Dec

Cover Oregon seeks a high-tech helping hand in … Kentucky

A computer system is an array of tiny distances, of countless operations happening in a space the size of a nail clipping, a miracle of microtechnology.
And to make Oregon’s health care computer system work, we only had to travel 2,500 miles.

Think of it as macrotechnology.

This month, the Oregon state government announced that 14 months after our computer insurance sign-up system was supposed to be working, we’d finally found a way to make it work:

We’re going to get usable software from Kentucky.

You know, the legendary home of Silicon Holler.

After more than a year of system fails, of more crashes than a bumper car ride, after endless assurances that we were just one tweak away from an on-line system that would make Amazon curdle in envy, Oregon ran up the white flag of permanent sign-off, seeking a solution from a state better known for bourbon than tech support.

A computer or software system that has become totally useless is described as “fried.”

This month, it became clear that the Oregon health care computer system is Kentucky fried.

Because the development of both state systems was essentially paid for by the feds, using the Bluegrass system won’t cost Oregon much – although we may be assigning them the rights to the catchy Cover Oregon TV commercials that recruited enrollees before we found there was nothing to recruit them to.

With just a little Computer Generated Imagery – and Kentucky seems to be good at computers – someone could change the theme song from “Live Long in Oregon” to “Get Lucky in Kentucky.”

Except it seems Kentucky is already doing fine.

The Cover Oregon system, just to bring up a warm memory, was going to be a national model, seamlessly giving applicants a wide range of options and connections to multiple other programs. Even while various people working for the state kept pointing out that the software was beyond soft, Cover Oregon kept issuing confident statements, until the day before it was supposed to launch, when Cover Oregon announced that on second thought, forget it.

Months and months later, Oregon was the only state unable to enroll applicants entirely on line. Instead, the state hired hundreds of temporary workers to use the technologically sophisticated enrollment system of pen and paper.

At least we weren’t chiseling applicants’ medical information onto stone tablets.

Kentucky, by contrast, started with a simple, basic system, and soon enrolled hundreds of thousands of people in a state where the computer system, if I understand this right, is coal-fired. The system actually became quite popular, to the point where Kentucky Sen. Mitch McConnell, running for re-election on a pledge to completely repeal Obamacare, felt the need to assure his constituents that after Obamacare was gone, they could still keep the website.

Of course, that would have left Kentucky with a website but no connecting health insurance program – as opposed to Oregon, which had an insurance program but no website.

Oregon wasn’t, we all know, the only state that had system problems. Maryland, for example, was also caught in a permanent alt-control-delete cycle, and ended up getting software that had worked in Connecticut.

Kevin Counihan, chief executive of Access Health CT, told The Washington Post that the state’s strategy was simple: “We wanted to build a Ford Focus — something that will get you to the grocery store and back, and not much more. We figured that later we could add the power windows and automatic locks. This is not a Cadillac.”

Oregon, on the other hand, built a Lamborghini, except without tires.

Maryland, recognizing its situation, began turning toward Connecticut in March. The Oregon trail only ended up in Kentucky this month.

Explains Mitch Greenlick, chairman of the Oregon House health committee, “You know it’s very hard to give up when you’ve got a couple of hundred million dollars invested.”

Greenlick also wants us to remember that, one way or another, we’ve gone from 17 percent uninsured in 2002 to about 5 percent uninsured now.

In fact, Oregon didn’t finally turn to Kentucky until the state decided it would rather sue Oracle, builder of the site, than try to work with it any more. Oracle’s defense is that Oregon didn’t hire a systems integrator, so it was our fault because we didn’t watch them.

As Daniel Boone concluded a while ago, we’re better off with Kentucky.

Still, as we continue on our lengthy process to make the system work, maybe Kentucky could also send along some bourbon.

And for future dealings with Oracle, a Louisville Slugger.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 12/21/14.

22 Dec

Portland uber Uber, but we all still need a ride

No company selling transportation, including Uber, should be breaking local laws. The appeal of riding with outlaws pretty much went away with Billy the Kid.

But if you find yourself in downtown Portland of a Saturday night, too impaired to drive home – not that I’m speaking from personal experience – and try to call a cab, you’ll probably be waiting long enough to sober up and drive yourself home.

That’s the appeal of Uber, in a city short on reliable pick-up-and-deliver you transportation. It’s why Seattle, which also had some legal issues with Uber, found a way to make things work out.

Certainly this shouldn’t be beyond the capacity of the City That Works. There are issues, such as insurance protection and access for disabled riders, that really should and could be resolved.

These are not insignificant issues. There are reasons why, last week, the district attorneys in Los Angeles and San Francisco filed suit against Uber. Cities and states are entitled to be concerned about the safety and security of their citizens.

But this should be fixable. We really want to avoid a situation with movie-style police car chases of suspected Uber drivers.

Maybe, as part of the deal, we could get Uber drivers paying part of the street fee.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 12/20/14.

18 Dec

Oregon primary rules make voting an exclusive club

This fall, when Oregon’s Democratic and Republican parties were united in horror against Measure 90, it seemed that there was bipartisan enthusiasm – an unusual phrase these days – for our current election system. The parties’ joint opposition to letting everyone vote in the May primary, and putting the top two finishers from any party in the November general election ballot, came in such deep red and blue colors that it seemed our current system was as deeply rooted in Oregon as a Douglas fir.

But as the campaign pounded away in October, Greg Leo, former executive director of the Oregon Republican Party and an active figure against Measure 90, commented, “If it does fail, we’re still going to sit down and think about how we can improve the system. What do you do about non-affiliated voters?”
Last week, Rep. Val Hoyle, D-Eugene, the newly re-elected House majority leader and prominent campaigner against Measure 90, declared, “I see the value and benefit in allowing non-affiliated voters to vote in spring primaries. A third of our voters are locked out of our system, and I think that’s wrong.”

Possibly in the new legislature that begins next month, we might be able to find a bipartisan position on opening the system besides “No.”

After two sweeping defeats by the voters, “Top Two” is likely headed for the bottom. Most Oregonians seem to prefer voting by party, and it might also have been hard to find two top candidates when the great majority of our legislative races seem to have only one real contender.

But if that’s not the solution, it doesn’t mean there’s no problem. On a practical basis, Oregon still has most of its election contests decided in the May party primaries, and it’s one of just a dozen states that allow only registered party members to vote in those primaries. And while Oregon clings to that kind of partisan identity politics, the percentage of Oregonians willing to declare – or admit to – Democratic or Republican party membership is dropping relentlessly, from 98 percent in 1960 to less than 70 percent this year.

The challenge is to keep Oregonians’ loss of interest in parties from turning into a loss of interest in politics. That probably only matters if you think representative government is supposed to be representative.

“People say, Measure 90 was voted down, why do we have to do anything?” says Hoyle. “I think we do have to do something.”

Looking at 38 other states, the legislature would seem to have a wide range of somethings to choose from. After the burial of Measure 90, Oregon isn’t about to drop registration by party, as some states have. But some states allow any voters to pick the primary they want to vote in, some allow a one-time primary day party declaration, and some allow unaffiliated voters to vote in any primary.

Hoyle says the last option is “intriguing,” and that she’s working with her staff and the Legislative Counsel to devise a new approach, saying the state constitution doesn’t let the legislature tell parties who can vote in their primaries.

Oregonians who don’t vote in the primaries are likely to show up in November to find the election already decided. In more than a third of Oregon House races in last month’s general election, and 40 percent of state Senate races, there was only one major party candidate, and only a handful of November legislative races could be called actually competitive.

Not having a party shouldn’t mean you don’t have a voice.

“Growing up on the East Coast, political parties had a lot of meaning,” recalls Hoyle. “Many people here don’t feel like political parties represent them.”
That’s true, she thinks, even for some Oregonians who regularly vote for their parties in November. For example, Hoyle suggests, pro-choice Republicans and pro-life Democrats may support their parties but be reluctant to identify with them.

And surveys show us that younger Oregonians – even the minority who actually vote – are reluctant to register as party members. As voting increasing becomes an elderly activity, like blood pressure tests or watching network news, we should be prepared to avoid discouraging the younger vote even further.
Oregonians may have less and less interested in labelling themselves Democrats or Republicans. But we shouldn’t let the entire system go down with the partisanship.

“We need in some fashion to address the non-affiliated voters and see how they can get involved in politics,” argued Greg Leo in October.

“The system needs to evolve.”

Because it seems the voters already have.

NOTE: This column appeares in The Oregonian, 12/17/14.

15 Dec

Ron Wyden traveled a long path to the torture report — and it’s not over

Last week, going from Senate floor to national media interview to very close to the center of the firestorm on the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA and torture, Ron Wyden considered how we all got here.

“This is something that literally runs a full decade in an effort to get this information out,” said the Oregon senator.

“This has been a battle every step of the way.”

Tuesday morning, the committee finally released its report, actually a 500-page “Greatest Hits” summary of a full 6,000-page, 38,000-footnote account concluding, among other things, that CIA interrogators had tortured detainees, that the agency had deceived Bush administration leaders and congressional committees about its actions and that – as many experts had persistently warned – what people tell you under torture isn’t usually worth that much.

The nature of the “enhanced interrogation” is hard to argue about; any detainee treatment that begins with “rectal” is probably not something you’ll be talking about on the Fourth of July. The committee – or more specifically, its Democratic members – looked at 20 episodes when the CIA said “enhanced interrogation” provided crucial information, and concluded that in each case the information was either untrue or provided before the interrogation was “enhanced.” From a distance, that’s a harder call to make.

To Wyden, the report makes one point that’s unquestionable.

“There are statements made by the CIA to the American people, to Congress, about their interrogation, in writing,” he says of documents in the report. “Then there are statements CIA officials made to each other. There is a big gap.”

Wyden has his own sense of the gap involved.

“I’ve heard a lot of officials say the senators on the Intelligence Committee knew about all this,” that the CIA kept the senators fully informed.

“I read about it in The Washington Post in 2005.”

Since then, Wyden has gone from being a lonely voice on the committee, to becoming part of an angry (and occasionally bipartisan) majority, to returning next month to outnumbered minority status. Five years ago, the committee began assembling the report issued this week, and for years it was unclear when – or if – the material it was gathering would ever be made public. The committee chairman, Dianne Feinstein of California, was considerably more cautious, and considerably more sympathetic to the intelligence agencies, than Wyden.

Feinstein’s attitude seemed to shift last spring, after the CIA claimed that committee staff had stolen CIA documents, and Feinstein charged that the CIA had hacked into the committee’s computer system. CIA Director John Brennan ridiculed the idea, saying, “We wouldn’t do that. I mean that’s just beyond the scope of reason,” but by the end of July he was admitting it and apologizing.

“I was very concerned about the CIA doing that,” recalls Wyden, “and the charges against committee staff who had done nothing wrong.”

After the committee’s Democratic majority voted to release the report, after it was edited for security reasons. The process went on and on; the report was originally scheduled for release last summer. Committee Republicans were opposed to any publication, and the Obama administration didn’t seem enthusiastic either. Last week, Secretary of State John Kerry, a longtime Senate colleague, warned about the report and the dangers of the international situation.

“People ask me about the eleventh-hour objections,” said Wyden. “There were objections at every hour. To me, it just underlined the importance of getting this out.”

Time was vanishing. If the report was to get out at all, it had to happen before Republicans took over the Senate and the committee in January. There was talk of Colorado’s Mark Udall, Wyden’s closest ally on the committee who had been defeated for re-election, making the report public himself by entering it into the Congressional Record.

“I was just determined,” said Wyden, “I wasn’t going to go home before it got out.”

Now there’s the question of next.

Wednesday, Udall declared, “The CIA has lied to its overseers and the public, destroyed and tried to hold back evidence, spied on the Senate, made false charges about our staff, and lied about torture and the results of torture. And no one has been held to account.”

To Wyden, who has avoided questions about individuals, “I’m not a prosecutor, but I do hope the Justice Department takes a look at this. I have real questions with regard to criminal issues,” including the hacking of committee files and the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act.

It’s taken a long time for Wyden, the intelligence committee and the report to get to this point.

And the story isn’t over yet.

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

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15 Dec

Portland uber Uber, but we should work this out

No company selling transportation, including Uber, should be breaking local laws. The appeal of riding with outlaws pretty much went away with Billy the Kid.
But if you find yourself in downtown Portland of a Saturday night, too impaired to drive home – not that I’m speaking from personal experience – and try to call a cab, you’ll probably be waiting long enough to sober up and drive yourself home.

That’s the appeal of Uber, in a city short on reliable pick-up-and-deliver you transportation. It’s why Seattle, which also had some legal issues with Uber, found a way to make things work out.

Certainly this shouldn’t be beyond the capacity of the City That Works. There are issues, such as insurance protection and access for disabled riders, that really should and could be resolved.

These are not insignificant issues. There are reasons why, last week, the district attorneys in Los Angeles and San Francisco filed suit against Uber. Cities and states are entitled to be concerned about the safety and security of their citizens.

But this should be fixable. We really want to avoid a situation with movie-style police car chases of suspected Uber drivers.

Maybe, as part of the deal, we could get Uber drivers paying part of the street fee.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 12/13/14.

13 Dec

It’s not a real medical insurance problem, it’s just kids

As the new Congress imagines endless imaginative new ways to gut the Affordable Care Act, there’s another major federal health care program that everybody likes, that’s been particularly important to Oregon, and that hangs on a funding stream that runs out next year.

Congress, of course, seems in no hurry to get to it.

Oregon prides itself on its Healthy Kids Act, enacted in 2009, which cut its level of uninsured kids in half completely outside the argument over whether Obamacare was the end of civilization as we know it. But the Healthy Kids Act was mostly just Oregon finally taking up the feds’ offer, in the 1997 Children’s Health Insurance Program, to pay most of the costs for states insuring more low-income children
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Currently, CHIP covers 78,000 Oregon kids, and over the course of a year about 120,000 kids are in the program at some point. CHIP is authorized to run through 2019, but its funding runs out next October and needs to be renewed.

Responding to a letter sent out to governors this fall, Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber wrote the leaders of the relevant congressional committees, “Oregon has seen a dramatic decline in the numbers of uninsured children by more than 6 percentage points since implementing the State’s Healthy Kids program in 2009 and has a rate of uninsured children 1.5 lower than the national average.” With CHIP kids left to find coverage elsewhere, on parents’ programs or the government exchange, Kitzhaber warned, “as many as half of our CHIP kids may lose coverage, which would erase much of our coverage gains for children over the past five years.”

Moreover, a study appearing Monday in the December issue of “Health Affairs” found that children’s coverage under CHIP is considerably more comprehensive than many of the policies offered under the Affordable Care Act.

Devised by Ted Kennedy and Utah’s Orrin Hatch, CHIP was a bipartisan piece of legislation at a time when such things still existed, and while covering millions of kids has remained widely popular. In a House Health subcommittee hearing on funding last week, nobody – including Republican congressmen – had a bad word to say about CHIP.

But there was no hurry to act, either. Subcommittee chairman Joe Pitts, R-Pa., praised the program and said action would be “thoughtful and data-driven” – congressional code for “We’ll get to it when we get to it.”

By next October, Congress probably will; lots of Republican governors are counting on the money, too. But state legislatures, including Oregon’s, begin writing their budgets next month, and no sane state legislator would base a budget on a congressional promise to be “thoughtful and data-driven.”
Even assuming that the program’s funding is extended, no state can be confident that Congress won’t take another look at benefit levels, such as the pediatric dentistry that CHIP covers and some ACA plans don’t. Currently, Oregon is one of just 18 states that uses CHIP to cover pregnant women; hopefully that option survives.

Sean Kolmar, health policy advisor to Gov. Kitzhaber, noted in an interview Monday that the governor’s budget is based on the current CHIP funding level, and that “The closer we get to a deadline, the more dicey it gets.” The governor’s office, he says, has been in close touch with Oregon’s senators, encouraging action.

For another few days, the Senate Finance Committee, with jurisdiction over CHIP, is chaired by Oregon’s Ron Wyden, who has declared extending funding a priority. But that changes next month, and earlier this fall Bruce Lesley, president of First Focus Campaign for Children, a D.C. advocacy group, worried, “If Senator Wyden is no longer chairing the Finance Committee, I would assume our chances are no longer so good.”

The new chairman will be Orrin Hatch, the program’s original co-sponsor. But that was a long time ago, in a different Congress, and while Hatch has been saying positive things about CHIP, it could face a hard trek through a House cutting to the right like a wide receiver.

It would have benefited a lot of states, not to mention a lot of children, to have gotten the funding issue resolved this year. Now, it passes to next year and the next Congress, which will be finding its way through a thicket of issues and possibly not getting productive until the cherry blossoms bloom in spring.
“I hope they take it up fast,” said Kolmar, “and I hope it’s the bipartisan issue it always has been.”

And hoping that these days, it’s possible for anything to be.

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