25 Jan

Portland street fee goes down many dead ends

Now that the Portland street tax has been sent back to the garage, like a bus that breaks down even after all the passengers have gotten off, it’s possible to try to trace its uncompleted route. Somehow, over the course of a year, things have gotten way off the tracks.

A discouraging situation for a city so heavily based on rail.

A worse situation for a city trying to pass a road test.

Last spring, Mayor Charlie Hales and transportation commissioner Steve Novick commenced an effort to bring in additional revenue to fix the city’s streets, which might generously be described as “unimproved.” It would be worth additional investment to have fewer potholes that could swallow a transmission – or a semi-trailer – and some more sidewalks so fewer kids have to dodge SUVs on the way to third grade.

And arguing that we’d be better off if different decisions had been made in 1994 is actually less helpful than you might think.

So Hales and Novick proposed a street fee – not a tax, a fee. This may have been the first wrong turn. A fee is a payment for doing something; if you don’t want to pay a camp site fee or an elk license fee, you can avoid it by not camping or hunting elk, which are not difficult choices to make. If you’re paying a fee for living in Portland, It sounds more like a tax.

The first street fee proposal was complicated, as was the second one. A device for calculating payment on one of them is still up on line, a historical memento like an application form to run a livery stable.

Neither could find a third vote on the five-member council, especially since Hales and Novick were determined not to send the fee/tax to the voters – although its direct path to the ballot was clearly marked out in fluoride.

Toward the end of last year came another proposal, and Novick explained that if people didn’t like that one, he had a Plan B: a progressive income tax to appear on the November 2016 ballot. Novick explained cheerfully, “If the voters are really mad at us, we’re both up for reelection in 2016 and they can throw us out,” although the mayor was less audibly enthusiastic about that prospect.

At least one of the proposals would kinda, sorta sunset after six years. This at least provided a certain classic resonance: A street fee named Expire.

The residence fee/tax would be accompanied by a fee/tax on businesses. On a local web site, fee opponent Robert McCullough, getting some of the city’s data by threatening a lawsuit, claimed that it showed the city’s largest employer to be All’s Well that Ends Well, performing colon hydrotherapy in Northeast Portland, with 32,000 employees instead of the three the shop reported.

The city said that wasn’t its real data base, and everything would work out in the end – which is also the motto of the shop.

But before things got to that point, the city had another idea: Portland’s first advisory ballot, to be voted on next May, offering voters a range of funding options. That idea resolved one problem: Advice is generally free, and widely available.

But it also seemed unlikely to produce an enthusiastic voter endorsement of any fee/tax. Reportedly ,Gov. John Kitzhaber and House Speaker Tina Kotek didn’t want it on the ballot at a time when they hoped the Legislature would produce an increase in the gas tax. After some telephone pressure, undermining the advisory vote’s chances of getting three votes on the council, the city has now shelved everything until after the legislative session.

What the city will do after that is now anybody’s guess, although it has now gathered extensive information on approaches that probably won’t work.

“I can’t think of another exercise in the last six years where all the current flaws in how the building operates are on display,” says city Commissioner Nick Fish, who has supported the council putting any revenue measure on the ballot.

Saying the process has illustrated City Hall shortcomings in transparency, collegiality and collaboration, Fish concludes, “This has not been our finest hour.”

Or, considering how long it has taken to go nowhere, the city’s finest year.

When the city does next take up transportation funding, this summer of later, it might be useful to seek the support of the voters, and more than three members of the council.

A core transportation principle is that it’s good to have lots of people on board.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 1/25/15,

25 Jan

Obama lays down State of the Union, and a marker

For much of Barack Obama’s first term, when one of his proposals was dismissed by Republicans, he would make another one.
Republicans wouldn’t like that one, either.

This process is known as “negotiating with yourself,” and somehow, you never win.

Tuesday night, in the State of the Union, Obama took a different approach. Calling for an upper-income tax increase to pay for child care and college tuition benefits, he knew he was proposing ideas that the Republican Congress would consider, basically, never. But he laid down a marker, which is better than just laying down.

Everybody in Washington, D.C., is a big fan of tax reform, but nobody means the same thing by it. Most Republicans would rather reduce upper-income tax rates, insist the strategy would bring in more revenue, and when it doesn’t, cut government services for everyone else.

By setting out his own goals, President Obama couldn’t set the agenda for a Republican House and Senate, but he could set the terms of the debate. He could remind the country that our problem isn’t that the top one percent are too heavily taxed, but that the gap between them and everyone else is getting impossibly vast.

President Obama was negotiating the future of the country. That’s better than negotiating with yourself.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 1/24/15

22 Jan

As 2016 White House race starts, Oregon can take it easy

It’s only 13 months until the Iowa caucuses – admit it, you’ve been counting the days – and it’s been a huge few weeks for the 2016 presidential campaign, especially on the Republican side.

Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush expressed his interest in going into the family business and running for president. The 2016 nominee Mitt Romney remembered that he still wanted to be president, or maybe that he had nothing else to do. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee resigned from Fox News and published “God, Guns, Grits and Gravy,” which is either a campaign book or his brunch plans. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham announced he was thinking of running, bringing the number interested Republicans to a round two dozen.

And from all of Oregon the cry went up:

It’s not our problem.

This isn’t because Oregon last voted for a Republican presidential candidate in 1984, back when Joe Biden had only been in the Senate for 12 years. Crucial nomination support from states the candidate won’t even bother to visit in the fall is a long tradition, especially important to Barack Obama in 2008.

With its mid-May primary, Oregon hasn’t really played a significant role in either party’s nomination process since at least 1976, when Joe Biden had only been in the Senate for four years. As states have leapfrogged each other to get earlier and earlier in the process – New Hampshire, defending its First in the Nation primary status, has made clear its readiness to vote on Christmas if not Thanksgiving – Oregon has flatly refused to hold its primary before the Blazers are eliminated from the playoffs.

You have to have priorities.

In 2012, with lots of GOP candidates to keep the race going, the Oregon Republican Party had big plans for the state to play a role, and even hold one of the 21 scheduled Republican candidates’ debates. But right before the Oregon debate, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum dropped out, Texas Rep. Ron Paul announced he’d run out of money and would stop actively campaigning, and surviving candidate Romney said he wouldn’t come to the debate.

The only figure expected was Newt Gingrich. Understandably, Oregon Republicans cancelled the debate.

At least Oregon won’t face that kind of awkwardness next year. Last week, the Republican National Committee, suspecting that 2012’s debate-a-week schedule did not help its ultimate candidate, announced that the 2016 nomination contest would feature only nine debates, none of them here.

Romney won the Oregon primary by 60 points without ever showing up, although he did appear here briefly for a fund-raising event after the primary.

For 2016, primary time is even less on our side. The Republicans have moved their schedule forward, moving their convention from late August to mid-July, in Cleveland. (Democrats, of course, are somewhat less organized, not yet knowing where or when, although this week ABC News reported they’re closing in on a decision.) This would leave Oregon, on May 17, at the very end of the process, when the media have stopped counting delegates and started speculating on vice-presidential nominees.
(Oregon hasn’t had one of those since 1940, and that’s not likely to change any time soon, either.)

At times, remembering the Oregon primary’s long-past glory – Thomas E. Dewey! Nelson Rockefeller! Jerry Brown! – Oregon has tried to readjust its position. There has been talk of joining with Washington in a Northwest primary, and in 1996 Oregon actually held a separate presidential primary in March – which answered the question, what happens if you hold a primary and no one shows up.

Any change for 2016 would have to be made by the legislature that meets next week, and it doesn’t seem to be high on the to-do list.

And actually, that’s fine.

If you’re Iowa or New Hampshire, maybe the primary season does mean going down to the coffee shop and running into Jeb Bush. But for just about every other state, the massive money now streaming into primaries only means two weeks when voters can’t turn on their TV sets without seeing nonstop bursts of 30-second attacks on opposing candidates – and since most of them are paid for by independent expenditure groups, you don’t even get to hear a candidate say with false certainty, “I approved this message.”

Even though maybe, quietly, he did.

So maybe it’s not the worst thing to be in a state whose current attitude to the primary season is “Wake us when it’s over.”

And we’ll still get to hear about the long-range plans of Joe Biden.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 1/21/15.

19 Jan

On street tax, there’s no way around going to the voters

For months, the Portland City Council has been considering how to ask citizens for more tax revenue.

Now, it’s decided instead to ask for advice.

At least advice is always free.

After months of unsuccessful efforts to devise a tax for street improvements that could get three votes to pass the Council and not go to the voters, the Council decided to hold – for the first time in Portland history – an advisory vote. Next May, Portland voters will be asked their advice on several potential taxes to produce the money.

Public input is always a good thing, especially in Portland, which cherishes process over pavement. But we might wonder whether the Council is asking the wrong question.

The right question might be not what kind of tax Portlanders prefer, but why one tax isn’t presented to voters for final approval. Reluctance to do that, it seems, is what kept the council from finding three votes.

It’s unlikely that an advisory vote will tell the Council that voters are overwhelmingly thrilled with one particular tax.

With luck, one might be least unpopular.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 1/17/15.

If the Council finds that out, it should still go back to the voters for a final vote, before a petition refers it.
The Council can have that advice right now.

19 Jan

Washington state problems make Oregon look like Northwest ideal

Last week’s opening of the Oregon Legislature seemed a relatively cheerful occasion, despite the new innovation of keeping three officials away from the Capitol in case of disaster. There was no threat of shutting down schools, there hadn’t been a special session in more than a year, and it was still six hours before Oregon played Ohio State.

And this time, everybody could be glad they weren’t the Washington Legislature.

Oregon’s legislators, as always, face winds of change and uncertain seas. For Washington’s budget, it’s more like the perfect storm.

And in all directions, there are numbers going overboard.

Last September, the Washington Supreme Court threatened to hold the legislature in contempt – insert your joke here – because it had “not complied with its Article IX, section 1 duty to make ample provision for the education of all children in Washington.” Similar lawsuits trying to make the Oregon legislature increase education funding have failed, possibly because the Oregon constitution doesn’t call education the state’s “paramount” duty.

The justices ruled that the legislature had not been keeping on track with a 2012 ruling ordering that school funding meet the constitutional requirement by 2018, requiring additional funding of $3.5 billion to $7 billion. In September, the court ordered, “On the date following adjournment of the 2015 session, if the State has not complied with the court’s order, the State shall file in the court a memorandum explaining why sanctions or other remedial measures should not be imposed…”

This prospect has provoked considerable anticipation, although nobody is entirely sure what sanctions or other remedial measures the court can impose on the legislature.

Still, it’s stirred considerable resentment. The Legislature cancelled the chief justice’s annual speech, and when the nine Supreme Court justices walked into the Washington House for the governor’s State of the State speech, Rep. Matt Manweller, R-Ellensburg, refused to stand.

At least when the Oregon’s seven justices walked into our House chamber Monday, everyone nodded approvingly.

But wait, there’s more.

Catching up with the court’s schedule would require the legislature to come up with at least $750 million. But last November, Washington voters passed Measure 1351, requiring smaller classes. If the Legislature doesn’t block it, that would take another $2 billion.

But finding any more money is likely to be a particular challenge. Although Gov. Jay Inslee asked for another $1.4 billion, Senate Republicans, who have just won control, have changed the Senate rules to require that any tax increase have two-thirds support to get a vote.

Oregon Democrats complain about needing a three-fifths supermajority on taxes, and they comfortably control both houses.
Last week brought another complication for Washington’s tax situation, as the annual report of the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy, in the other Washington, found that once again Washington has the most regressive tax structure in the country. Since Washington is so heavily dependent on the sales tax, the poorest fifth of Washingtonians pay 16.8 percent of their income in state and local taxes, dramatically more than the 12.9 percent the same group paid in the second-most regressive state, Florida.

To change the balance a bit, and also to bring in some more revenue, Inslee has asked the Legislature for a capital gains tax. He shouldn’t count on progress toward either goal.

The institute found that Oregon, almost entirely dependent on the income tax, has one of the nation’s least regressive systems. Oregon’s tax structure may be unstable, but it’s not particularly unequal. This is especially striking considering that, as Chuck Sheketoff of the Oregon Center for Public Policy noted about the survey, ”Income inequality is the defining challenge of our time.”

As Washington’s legislature opens, assesses John Burbank, executive director of the Economic Opportunity Institute in Seattle, its situation is “dismal.”

Also really unclear.

“We don’t know what the Supreme Court will do,” Burbank notes. “Are they going to put legislators in jail for contempt? They have the moral authority, but you’re dealing with a co-equal branch of government.

“I think it’s going to be very muddy for the next four or five years, at least.”

As to the Institute on Taxation report, “I think it adds fuel to the fire, but it’s pretty much, we knew that already.”

So there were all kinds of reasons why Monday’s inauguration day in Salem had a fairly amiable feel. The state budget is more or less balanced, the three branches of government are on speaking terms with each other, and Oregon did solidly win the Pac-12 championship.

And at least we’re not Washington.

NOTE: This column appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 1/18/15.

16 Jan

A hunger runs through Kitzhaber’s fourth inauguration

SALEM — Right after the joke he made about Oregon playing Ohio State for the national championship in a few hours – very similar to the joke he made about Oregon playing Auburn for the national championship that night in 2011; it seems the way for Oregon to get to the national championship game, if not win it, is to inaugurate John Kitzhaber – and right before his memories of his first day as a legislator, the phrase came bursting out, as though it couldn’t wait for him to get to his printed text:

“Childhood hunger.”

The issue appeared several times in John Kitzhaber’s fourth inaugural address itself, nosing its way through the paragraphs the way it keeps showing up in Department of Agriculture surveys. It surfaced in his speech to the Oregon Leadership Summit last week, in the budget he just sent to the Legislature, and on city streets and especially rural hillsides around the state.

Anybody inaugurated as governor for the fourth time – and it’s a pretty exclusive group – is entitled to look back, and Kitzhaber did: to his father’s service in World War II, to his first leadership appearance as Senate president, and especially to the Robert Kennedy campaign for president in 1968: “From the moment he died in Los Angeles, I wanted to commit myself to public service.”

And as Kitzhaber recalled, Robert Kennedy’s race always brings up one searing vision: “It was a campaign about unrepresented farm workers in California; about poverty and hunger and children starving to death in the Mississippi Delta and on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.”

Which brought up a question about 21st century Oregon: “Why are one in five Oregon children still living in poverty? Why do over 30 percent of Oregon children face food insecurity on a daily basis?”

In fact, the governor noted, it was hard even to talk about economic recovery, “because I am certain that this term does not have much meaning for hundreds of thousands of people in our state.”

Including a lot of them too young to vote.

The theme seemed to resonate through the state House chamber. House Speaker Tina Kotek, installed for a second term, talked about messages from a focus group of Oregon Food Bank clients, and called for a time when “Oregonians will know that it’s become a little easier to make ends meet; to feed their children; to turn a big idea into a thriving business.”
To feed their children.

“Childhood hunger is the canary in the mine-shaft,” Patti Whitney-Wise, executive director of Partnership for a Hunger-Free Oregon, said after the governor’s speech. “It’s a sign of the problems families have to meet their daily needs.”
In Oregon, as surveys from the food bank alliance Feeding America keep finding, it’s a very loud canary. It’s been particularly loud in rural areas such as Crook County – part of why its representative, Minority Leader Mike McLane, has shown an interest in hunger and poverty praised by Kotek in her remarks Monday.

Whitney-Wise pointed to several specific measures facing the Legislature, including one that would buy out the reduced-price school lunch, extending free lunch to kids from families that may not be on the edge, but are close enough to feel the breeze. Jon Stubenvoll of the Oregon Food Bank estimates the change will open access to about 30,000 more kids, and the $3 million to pay for it is in the governor’s budget.

Stubenvoll is concerned about keeping what we have: “SNAP (food stamps) is the nation’s #1 defense against hunger. We suspect there will be a push to limit Oregon’s participation,” such as a change in the process or the documentation required. Oregon, through active outreach, has a high proportion of its eligible population drawing food stamps, which some people think is a problem rather than an achievement.

The governor’s budget, Whitney-Wise notes, includes several other efforts to address the gap – and the hunger – walling off a rising number of Oregonians. She cites some additional money for emergency housing, and for extending the transitional time for people receiving Temporary Assistance for Needy Families help.

“I think he’s focusing on some things,” she says, “to make a real difference for the state of Oregon.”

This time, in his fourth inaugural address, Kitzhaber didn’t talk about the environment, traditionally an issue of high concern for him. This time, he talked about “the increasingly desperate plight of hundreds of thousands of our fellow Oregonians.”

It’s a vital subject.

Maybe we should all get something to eat and discuss it.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 1/14/15.

11 Jan

House Blue Dogs out in the cold — as are other Democrats

When Kurt Schrader was first sworn into the House of Representatives, in 2009, there were 255 Democrats, against 188 when he began his fourth term last week. The membership of the Blue Dogs, a caucus of moderate, fiscally conservative Democrats that Schrader now co-chairs, has shriveled from 54 to 14.

Still, the Oregon Democrat sees the possibility of having an impact, on a principle he picked up before getting to Washington.

“When I was in the legislature,” Schrader recalls, “(Senate President) Peter Courtney would say, if a bill is 60 to 70 percent good, try to find a way to vote for it.”

The question is how often, even for a Democrat trying to work with the Republicans, that question will come up.

Last week, Speaker John Boehner made a point of sounding conciliatory, and the question of whether he might sometime need some Democrats hung open. A record 25 Republicans voted against Boehner as insufficiently conservative – although there are now so many Republicans in the House that he was elected anyway – and Republicans actually lost the session’s first House vote, coming up short of the two-thirds needed.

And by Schrader’s count, the 14 Blue Dogs can be bolstered by the 40-member New Democrat caucus. The group, says
Schrader, is “a balance to the Elizabeth Warrens of the world,” referring to the Massachusetts senator who’s become the idol of the other end of the party. In the House, it’s “a way to show we’re not all like Nancy (Pelosi, the minority leader).”

On the other hand, if this Congress turns into a partisan battle between the Republican leadership of the two houses and President Obama, “We’ll sustain most of the president’s vetoes.”

But Schrader, whose hopes are fed by a new slot on the powerful Energy and Commerce Committee (joining Oregon’s sole congressional Republican, Greg Walden), thinks something more productive could happen.

“My feel from back home in Oregon is they’re tired of gridlock, and want us to work together,” he says. “If it’s reasonable, we’ll support it.”

As an example of an opportunity, he cites tax reform, pointing out that both the president and the Republican leadership – along with Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee – have said it’s a priority.

Of course, everybody’s interested in tax reform – but everybody means something different by it.

Schrader sees a particular opportunity for one of his Oregon priorities, the proposal he developed with Walden and Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio to increase logging on the federal O&C lands, dividing the huge, scattered area into sections that would be permanently protected and sections to be managed by the state for timber production. Last year, the proposal passed the House but was declared dead on arrival in the Democratic Senate, on the grounds that federal land should not be put under state control.

Schrader hopes for a “much friendlier environment” for the idea in the new Republican Senate. Moreover, he insists, the land would still be “controlled by the federal government, but managed by a consortium named by the state.”

Even with Senate Republican support, there’s still the option of a Democratic filibuster, and perhaps more likely a presidential veto.

Every congressional session lately begins with solemn pledges of bipartisan productivity, just as every campaign begins with commitments to stay positive, and in both cases things then get very nasty very quickly. By Thursday, Boehner was promising a full-on attack through the budget process on President Obama’s executive orders on immigration, an approach likely to unite virtually all surviving congressional Democrats, even those most eager to craft a separate identity.

It’s hard to imagine any Democrats from Oregon, or from anywhere on the West Coast, joining an assault on the president on immigration.

But Schrader’s efforts to find a role distinct from the House Democratic leadership has a point beyond legislative output, or the more likely lack of much. Back in his freshman term, when there were 54 members of the Blue Dog caucus, it not only meant a somewhat different balance to the House Democrats, it meant that they had a majority. The deep Democratic losses of 2010, and the additional losses of 2014, came largely in swing districts (now somewhat less swingy after the 2011 reapportionment) largely represented by Blue Dogs.

“The path to the majority for Democrats,” points out Schrader, “is electing more moderate members.”

At the start of a new session, it’s good to have a new seat on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

It’s better to be in the majority.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oreegonian, 1/11/15.

11 Jan

Congress is in gridlock, but traffic shouldn’t be

I don’t have great expectations for this Congress, with Republicans controlling both houses, a Democratic president and the 2016 presidential campaign starting last week. It would be nice to have a working budget process, with Congress passing each departmental budget on time and not throwing everything together at the last minute just to keep the government open.

Of course, it would also be nice for Congress to make heating oil out of Diet Coke.

But there’s something that Congress should be able to do, and really ought to do.

Every five years, Congress is supposed to pass a transportation package, covering roads, bridges and transit, trying to keep the country up-to-date in an area where we’re falling wildly behind. China and Europe spend way more on their systems than we do, and we’re trying to move a 21st century economy on a 20th century transportation grid.

In 2012, Congress gave up on passing a five-year bill, and passed a two-year measure, which runs out May 31. If it’s not replaced, we could lose the entire summer construction season. The President and Congress won’t agree on everything, but they should agree on something.

Democrats and Republicans may disagree on where we’re going, but wherever it is, we need to be able to get there.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 1/10/15.