09 Feb

Kitzhaber press conference gets him in deeper

Sometime around the middle of Gov. John Kitzhaber’s Friday press conference on Cylvia Hayes’ mounting troubles, Oregon achieved what might be the most ironic explanation in the history of political scandal.

The governor explained that Hayes was not available to answer questions about potential conflict of interest in her roles as private consultant and governor’s policy advisor, ab
out income that did not appear on her required public disclosure forms, and about six figures of income that may not have appeared on her federal tax returns, because she was attending an international conference on happiness.

That better be quite a conference.

At Kitzhaber’s questioning, happiness was as scarce as clarity.

During his last term, the governor explained, Hayes operated in “a gray area,” working out of his office yet taking private clients, filling what he called “this undefined role as first lady.” Yes, some of the issues that she was paid to advance overlapped with issues that concerned him as governor, but Kitzhaber insisted he and Hayes carefully tried to draw lines.

Meanwhile, uncertainty abounded. The governor said he wasn’t sure that the first lady was part of his legal household, although it seems they do have the same legal counsel – which is not, he said firmly, criminal counsel.

During the closing days of his campaign for re-election last fall, Kitzhaber dealt with the emerging issue of Hayes’ private consulting by saying that in his next term she would have no private business. Friday, he said that in this term she would have no public role.

If both these pledges hold – unless one cancels the other – Hayes could have a long and boring four years.

Right now, of course, boredom is the least of her problems. The news last week, from EO Media Group and Pamplin Media Group, of an unannounced $118,000 in payments from the Clean Economy Development Center in Washington, D.C., appeared to raise the stakes dramatically. The money was not mentioned on her federal tax returns released to the public.

This raises the possibility of problems for Hayes far beyond the capacity of the Oregon Ethics Commission, the focus up to now. The Internal Revenue Service has very little sense of humor about large amounts of unreported income, and the power to involve people with black robes and gavels.

An alternative explanation might be different tax returns going to the IRS and the public, a development that would carry its own complications.

To a question about it, Kitzhaber said, “Clearly those are very serious allegations and apply specifically to her tax returns,” adding, “I have nothing to say on the issue of Cylvia’s taxes.”

Although Kitzhaber and Hayes have the same lawyers, maybe they don’t have the same accountant.
Five minutes into the press conference, Kitzhaber was asked if he was considering resigning – never a good question to be asked, even if your answer is no. He was also asked if there was any difference between him and former Virginia Gov. Jim McDonnell, who with his own first lady was recently convicted on multiple counts of corruption and sentenced to two years.

That question was considerably easier to answer. McDonnell received a Rolex, a Cape Cod vacation, catering at his daughter’s wedding, golf trips and $2,500 in Louis XIII cognac, and in exchange he hosted events for the businessman involved at the governor’s mansion and sent helpful notes to state officials. There’s no sign of Kitzhaber doing any of that.

And at last Friday’s press conference, there was no sign of Kitzhaber ever having that good a time.

But if the press conference was all about uncertainty and questions – and gray areas – it provided few signposts to answers, or realization that Oregon still deserved some.

By the end, Kitzhaber was saying that only Hayes could answer the questions he was getting, but refused to say that she would.

She was, after all, “an independent woman. She doesn’t work for the state of Oregon. If Cylvia Hayes wants to talk to the press, she’ll get in touch with you.”

In a press conference that provided few answers, this rare answer was wrong.

Even if Hayes wasn’t on the state payroll, she was working out of the governor’s office and using the title of first lady. As Hayes herself showed in her tearful October press conference about her sham marriage, someone in her position needs to show up and explain things in public.
We’re a long way from decisions based on what anybody wants.

About as far as we are from happiness.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 2/4/15.

01 Feb

On gay weddings, cake wars are rising

Long after the gay marriage tide has turned at a tsunami level, long after we seemed to be safely into the post-wedding reception phase, the battle is still going on.

“Save the Date” alerts could turn into “Save the Decade.”

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would rule in June on surviving state bans. Last weekend, a gathering of potential Republican presidential candidates in Iowa made it clear they don’t plan to end their resistance, at least not during primary season. Several Southern states are digging in for a gay marriage Gettysburg.

And in Oregon, we’re fighting the issue out over cake.

Dessert has always been important here.

The Supreme Court has agreed to hear an appeal from residents of states where federal courts have refused to overturn state laws against gay marriage. Since the court refused in 2013 to hear an appeal from states where federal courts had thrown out state laws – such as Oregon – observers think they know the likely outcome.

(Who, planning a same-sex wedding in one of the 14 states where it’s still illegal, ever expected to have nine more guests?)

But on this issue, it seems not everybody considers the Supreme Court supreme.

“There’s no such thing in the Constitution as judicial supremacy,” former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee told an Iowa audition for GOP presidential candidates last weekend, “where the courts make a ruling and it becomes quote ‘the law of the land.’” (Unquote.) Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal declared he wasn’t changing his position against gay marriage, and a prominent Iowa activist warned that any Republican candidate waffling on the issue could forget Iowa.

In Alabama, where a federal judge just threw out the state’s law, Chief Justice Roy Moore declared he wasn’t bound by the ruling, writing the governor, “As you know, nothing in the United States Constitution grants the federal government the authority to redefine the institution of marriage.” Making an even more striking constitutional point, last week an Alabama Democratic lesbian state senator – presumably the only one – warned that if her colleagues kept talking of family values, she would tell the world of their extramarital activities.

(So much for the claim that what happens in Montgomery stays in Montgomery.)

Meanwhile, Texas state Rep. Cecil Bell has introduced a bill to block the salary of any state or local official who recognizes a same-sex marriage, with similar bills introduced in South Carolina and Oklahoma. Wednesday, Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., no doubt chortling over his cleverness, asked attorney general nominee Loretta Lynch the constitutional difference between gay marriage and polygamy.

Much of the country is still pretty frosted.

And in Oregon, we’re dealing with frosting.

Two years after Sweet Cakes by Melissa, in Gresham, refused to produce a wedding cake for two women, the case is due for a hearing before an administrative law judge in March. The issue has risen like a national angel food cake in a hot oven.

If this doesn’t seem quite on the level of the rights battle still being waged elsewhere, we’re not entirely alone. Colorado – sometimes called the Oregon of the Rocky Mountains – is currently having not one but two gay rights bakery battles.

Jack Phillips of Masterpiece Bakery in Lakewood, Colo., who refused to produce a wedding cake for two men, has been ordered by a court to do so, and has so far responded by getting out of the wedding cake business.

In January, we also learned that Azucar Bakery in Denver is the subject of a civil rights investigation for refusing to make an anti-gay rights cake bearing four biblical quotations, including “Homosexuality is a detestable sin—Leviticus 18:22.”

You’d think the bakery could just say it wasn’t quite that skilled with icing.

Instead, the proprietor offered to bake a cake in the requested
Bible shape, give the customer the frosting and let him write what he wanted, following the Constitution’s freedom of cake clause. The state of Colorado is now considering the issue.

These wedding cake fights could go on for a long time, a kind of Thirty Tiers War.

The Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry is pursuing the Sweet Cakes case. Last week, Charlie Burr, spokesman for labor commissioner Brad Avakian, explained, “We have a duty to enforce the Oregon Equality Act,” and legally he may well be right.

But with an angry human rights argument still going on, from the Supreme Court to Alabama, we don’t want to get lost on a trail of crumbs.

Culture wars are crucial.

Cake wars belong on the Food Network.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 2/1/15.

01 Feb

Oregon transportation policy is one big pothole

The legislature that’s just about to meet has some basic duties. It has to balance the budget, it should redeem a promise to pay for full-day kindergarten, and it should remember that Oregon has seven universities to support.

But there’s one particular major assignment that the legislature should take up, an assignment that the members should remember every time they drive home from Salem.

The condition of Oregon’s transportation infrastructure is dreadful, full of potholed roads and bridges that make you hold your breath every time you cross. It’s a problem for the state’s job situation. A goal of Oregon Transportation Options is, “Supporting the economy by reducing congestion, thereby improving the movement of freight locally and across the state.”

The proportion of Oregon’s income spent on transportation infrastructure has dropped steadily since the 1960s. We haven’t raised the state gas for more than 20 years.

The governor, and the legislative leaders, say this is the time to do something about it. The Oregon Business Association urges the legislature to increase the gas tax and the vehicle registration fee, and start thinking about how to pay for roads as drivers use less and less gas.

Legislators can think about it on their way home. They’re likely to have lots of time.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 1/31/15.

01 Feb

In Oregon, college costs a bigger barrier than the SAT

Nobody could say that Oregon doesn’t value higher education.

We’re so fond of it we have a state policy declaring that some time in the future – maybe around the time I-5 is replaced by a Disney people mover – 40 percent of Oregon adults will have at least a four-year college degree and another 40 percent will have a two-year degree.
We’re just not big on paying for it.

The multiyear national trend of states cutting college spending and increasing tuition and student debt levels is the rare area where we’ve been a higher education leader, starting from an especially low point and then dropping faster – to where we’re 47th in higher ed funding in the country. A below-average per capita income makes our tuition levels even harder for students and families to reach. A proposal by state Treasurer Ted Wheeler to issue bonds to set up a state scholarship fund got clobbered by voters last November.

Everyone in Salem now says that higher education needs to be a higher priority. It got a bit of a boost in the governor’s proposed budget, and last week’s Ways and Means co-chairs’ budget added another $15 million for universities and a similar amount for community colleges.

House co-chair Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, says the K-12 budget is now more or less where it was before the Great Recession, and the goal is to get higher education to that point. But according to Oregon State University President Edward Ray, the seven university presidents have calculated that given inflation and enrollment increases, getting back to the 2007 level would mean another $100 million, a figure nobody in state government could even make out in the distance.

The legislative session that starts next week will consider several ideas to make college costs less daunting, and ease the sticker shock that high school students get looking at tuition, and college students get looking at their debt load.

State Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, has a new version of his bill to make community college free – or almost – for recent Oregon high school graduates. Free community college is an idea so engaging that President Obama included it in last week’s State of the Union proposals – and Hass’s plan may have a better chance than Obama’s. The Legislature will also look at a report it requested last session about setting up a “Pay It Forward” program, letting students pay for college with a percentage of their post-college earnings.

The same workforce logic that made high school free in the 20th century might argue for making community college free in the 21st. Hass’s plan would charge graduates $50 for courses in the two or three years after graduating high school, without dealing with books or living costs, additions that could blow the sticker price beyond state reach.

Rep. Tobias Read, new chairman of the mouth-filling House Higher Education, Innovation and Workforce Development Committee, is concerned that the plan might spend state dollars on students who don’t need the help. He also thinks that the legislature might pick between the community college plan or “Pay It Forward” but not try out both.

A recent report for the Illinois legislature found 24 states had moved to look into the “Pay it Forward,” but none had yet set a system up. The report concluded that the main roadblocks are the considerable opening investment needed to get started, and the calculation that it would take 20 years, or maybe 30, for the cash flow to turn positive. There’s also the question of whether students planning high-income careers would sign up for it.

Still, Buckley, a sponsor of the “Pay it Forward” bill, says “I don’t think it’s either/or” on his bill or free community college, and that Oregon could set up a “Pay it Forward” pilot program for $6 million to $8 million.

Read has another intriguing idea. Since most plans urge students to maximize their federal financial aid first, the state might pay a small bounty to high schools for each student who files the feared FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form. (John Wasik just wrote on Forbes.com that completing the FAFSA “wasn’t quite as bad as going to the dentist.”)

The new legislature has a range of options for making the system stronger and the path to it wider – along with, of course, just increasing funding.

Because we know that our current direction doesn’t lead to 40-40-20.

It may not, in fact, even lead to the 21st century.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 1/28/15.