28 Jun

In Oregon or Greece, public pensions are the last line of defense

Last week, Oregon did not seem that far from Greece.

Not physically, of course; to get from Portland to Athens still takes hard flying of about 16 hours, or about what it would take to drive back and forth across the state. And not even financially; despite warnings, the fiscal problems of Oregon, or even the federal government, are as far from the economic shipwreck that is Greece as a speed bump from a land mine.

But if Oregon has a different financial statement, it has a similar bottom line: Government’s basic credibility is about pensions.

Last week, after months of fevered speculation about Europe foreclosing on Greece, or making it the first country to be expelled from using the euro – sending it back either to the drachma or a donkeys-for-bread barter economy – there was a hint of a deal with Greece’s northern European creditors. Greece promised to try to do a better job collecting taxes – another way it’s different from Oregon, which is actually pretty good at that – but resisted another demand, that it cut back on pensions it was paying retirees.

After the Greeks and the European Union announced a breakthrough early last week, pension cuts seemed to be the key element preventing a deal, the issue causing crowds march through Athens and stirring graffiti reading, “Free Greece from European prison.” Greece had already agreed to cut pensions to future retirees, but it was cuts to those already retired that were largely blocking a deal, raising questions of the future of the entire European Union.

Oregon knows the feeling, or at least the principle.

Ever since the Grand Bargain of the 2013 special session of the legislature – what looked like John Kitzhaber’s legacy, until something else turned out to be – Oregon had been tensely awaiting the state Supreme Court’s ruling on cutting cost-of-living benefits for current retirees.

Like Greece, Oregon had been here before, with previous pension cuts by the 2003 legislature, stirring an uproar that ended the political careers of some legislators who backed the changes. Some of the changes were upheld and some rejected by the state Supreme Court, an overall political and judicial experience that nobody in Oregon politics wanted to go through again.

But partly driven by the economic collapse of 2008 – which also had something to do with Greece’s problems – the 2013 Legislature tried another shot at pension costs, as part of an elaborate deal that included some additional tax revenue, not to mention limitations on local government regulation of genetically modified farming.

Without stirring the riots – and the fall of the government – set off in Greece, the changes were politically explosive. Union leadership immediately went to court, and even the Republican legislative leadership committees quietly funded campaign mailings against some legislative Democrats, charging they had violated pension promises.

This spring, the Oregon Supreme Court reached the same conclusion, ruling on the cuts in the cost-of-living formula, “These provisions have remained largely unchanged for 40 years. They were part of the compensation that public employees—many of whom are now retired — were promised in exchange for the work that they already have performed.”

Considering the legislative upheaval two years ago, the backlash to the decision seemed muted – which may have been partly because the real financial impacts won’t hit for two years.

But there’s a reason, besides the massive numbers, why pension issues are at the hurricane center of government money crises from Salonika to Salem. It’s not even about heart-tugging footage of grandparents, but about the value and credibility of government commitments and obligations.

Last month, the Illinois Supreme Court ruled on pension reductions passed by its state legislature, in a state with a financial situation that looks a lot more like Greece than Oregon’s outlook does. Like the Oregon Supreme Court, its decision was unanimous, and like the Oregon Supreme Court, the Illinois judges upheld the state obligations.

“The financial challenges facing state and local governments in Illinois are well known and significant,” declared the opinion.

“… Crisis is not an excuse to abandon the rule of law. It is a summons to defend it. How we respond is the measure of our commitment to the principles of justice we are sworn to uphold.”

No state is at risk of being banned from using the dollar, and not even Illinois has Greece’s record of fiscal shiftiness. But a government is supposed to mean what it says, and live with it.

That would be true even if court decisions were written in Greek.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 6/28/15.

28 Jun

Setting up a marijuana market, Oregon better provide some

The state of Oregon hasn’t quite worked out its new identity as a dope dealer.
So here’s a hint: It’s all about hooking your customers up.

Possessing marijuana becomes legal in Oregon at the start of next month. But the state won’t have its recreational retail outlets in operation until sometime next year.
And the legislature is uncertain about allowing its current legal sellers, medical marijuana dispensaries, to sell to recreational users until then.

Here’s a lesson from where the bud market meets business school: If you don’t supply customers, someone else will.

Reluctant legislators may be holding too closely to the model of the state-controlled liquor business. But if the state figures that Sunday night is a bad time to sell bourbon, it’s not like there’s a guy on the street corner to sell you a bottle of Jim Beam.

There is, of course, what you might call a thriving private market in marijuana. It’s not clear how successful the state will ever be in replacing that; after Washington state’s legalization, the Seattle private market seems as strong as ever, and state outlets seem to sell largely to tourists.

But if a state legalizes pot, it better be ready to sell some.

In a marijuana market, the key word isn’t marijuana; it’s market.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 6/27/15.

28 Jun

Opening day of another Portland no-baseball season

In late scores from the Pacific Coast League,

Las Vegas 6, Sacramento 3.

Tacoma 4, Colorado Springs 1.

Portland, nowhere.

Long after just about any other large or even medium-sized city, baseball season opens in Portland Tuesday.

Not actually in Portland, of course. We’re not that big a city.

But at least in what the feds call our Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area, and baseball is all about statistics.

Tuesday, the Hillsboro Hops – representing both the metro area and the Metro area – open their home season against the Salem-Keizer Volcanoes. The only professional baseball team named after a plant used to make beer – unless someone discovers the Burlington Barleys – the Hops are likely to have a highly successful season, just like their previous two.

In both years since arriving from Yakima, the short-season Class A team – the lowest professional level, just above the Alaska summer league – drew more than 100,000 contented baseball consumers. They came to a stadium seating 4,710, offering Vietnamese banh mi sandwiches and Oregon pinot noir (as well as its official beer, BridgePort Long Ball Ale), built by a city bond issue of $15.5 million.

Portland, of course, had no room for such a stadium.

Or any baseball stadium.

That’s how you get to be the largest city in the country without baseball at any level.
Portland was, of course, one of the founding cities of the AAA Pacific Coast League in 1903, and with a couple of brief interruptions, was in the league until 2010. (You can still see Portland Beavers caps around, often in taverns that still have Blitz signs.) The Beavers were then chased out of then-PGE Park for the Major League Soccer Timbers, with the pledge that the city would find someplace else for the Beavers to play. With the pledge abandoned, the Beavers are now the El Paso (Tex.) Chihuahuas.

After a century in Portland, the team has literally gone to the dogs.

Many of Portland’s former PCL colleagues – Seattle, San Francisco, Oakland, Los Angeles, San Diego, Phoenix – are now in the major leagues. If Portland were still in the PCL, it would be the largest metropolitan area represented.

Instead, we’re in Major League Soccer. Most MLS cities also have major league baseball, and the exceptions are illuminating.

Salt Lake City is similar to Portland – MLS team, NBA team – except much smaller. The last time the Beavers left Portland, in 1994, they became the Salt Lake Bees, who in 2014 drew 470,565. In another MLS city, the Columbus Clippers AAA baseball team drew 628,590, although everyone in Columbus spends summer waiting for Ohio State football to start,
(In Oregon, we wait for Ohio State football to finish.)

Orlando, like Portland, has the NBA and the MLS and no baseball at all – but it does have Disney World.

Think of that as the Pittsburgh Pirates of the Caribbean.

Then there’s the MLS city Montreal, which in 2005 lost its major league Expos to Washington, D.C. – with a feint toward Portland to try to raise the price – and has been trying to get back into the game ever since, with sold-out exhibition games with major-league teams.

“With a metropolitan area population of nearly 4 million people, Montreal is currently the largest North American city without a baseball franchise,” declares the website of the Montreal Baseball Project, led by former Expo Warren Cromartie, based on a study from Ernst & Young financed by the Montreal business community.

“Montreal Baseball Project seeks to build upon the recent groundswell of demand for baseball in Montreal and deliver a team back to the community.”

And that’s in a city where it’s illegal to speak English.

Or something like that.

Being Portland, our response has been more, well, measured.

“There continues to be conversations with the Oregon Sports Authority, with advocates, etc, and those conversations go back to the days when the City made a play for the Expos, and will continue until we do one day have a team here, if that ever happens,” recently explained Josh Alpert, Mayor Charlie Hales’ director of strategic initiatives.

“We engage in those conversations when they come to us because the mayor does believe in the power of sports to galvanize a community.”

Possibly Portland, in the midst of a national baseball attendance boom – and the impressive success of the Hillsboro Hops – is immune. Possibly we’re just waiting on a money man to appear, and the city would respond.

But meanwhile, we’re in another summer of being the biggest U.S. city without baseball.

And who’d ever expect to miss Chihuahuas?

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 6/21/15.

28 Jun

Its address isn’t where Jason Lee School is coming from

Through the bouncy castles and the water balloon slingshot, through the nine-year-olds tightly clutching stretches of food tickets, walked the two teen-age girls, one African American, one with hair a shade of blue that you suspected might not be natural.
Susan Kosmala was delighted to see them.

“Alumni,” the assistant principal of Jason Lee School observed happily. “Notice how many high school students are here.

“This is a community event, not a school event.”

What it was literally was the Jason Lee Carnival, out at Northeast 92nd and Halsey, in a part of Portland that can often seem as municipal afterthought. In this K-8 school’s community, deep-blue hair can seem the least diverse aspect; the school’s enrollment is a mix of Hispanic, black, Vietnamese and white, 30 percent English learners, 11 percent immigrant, including some recent refugees from Africa who might have Post Traumatic Stress Disorder issues.

It’s a Title I school, a heavily low-income school, with all the accompanying problems of achievement levels and of trying to reach kids who might move to a different school next year.

But on this warm July evening, Jason Lee has drawn hundreds and hundreds of locals spread across its field and parking lot, with toddler care provided in the gym, a crowd with the demographic diversity of a census spreadsheet. To the PTA people who put it all together, it’s not just a school carnival, it’s a statement – a statement about determination in a challenging place.

“We’re about 80 percent free and reduced-price lunch,” says parent April Epperson, looking around at the crowd with satisfaction. “When you look at that, and look at this…”

The demographic requires other commitments. A Friday afternoon backpack program, assisted by City Bible Church, provides weekend food for 32 kids identified by teachers, and there’s a waiting list; for next year the school hopes to get to 40. Monday, a summer lunch program open to the community starts, to run to mid-August. At the end of that month, a back-to-school barbecue will issue each student a backpack of school supplies, provided by Moda.

Still, there’s a sense that downtown can be a long ways away.

“Portland is the city that works for the old trolley town,” says Michael Botter, who has two kids and a great deal of skin in Jason Lee. “The trolley tracks ended at 60th. East of 60th, the city doesn’t have any idea what to do with us.”

To Botter, it’s reflected in situations like Northeast 92nd, a sizable street where the sidewalks give out not very far along the walk home, a situation he calls “a death trap.
“Kudos for Commissioner (Steve) Novick, he came out here,” recalled Botter, “but he said, ‘Guys, I don’t have $7 million for you.’”

Len Reed, the first-year principal at Jason Lee, missed part of the carnival; it took her a while to dry out after 20 minutes in the dunk tank. Then again, it may have been no tougher than the time earlier this year when, to help move a food drive, she let students duct-tape her to a wall.

Coming back to the Northwest after teaching in Southern California, Reed’s image of Portland didn’t extend to the checkerboard ethnicity she’s found at Jason Lee. She sees it as one of the strengths of the place, along with the community connections that run out over the schoolyard boundaries.

It all creates a particular experience. There are certainly shortfalls she finds at Jason Lee – as an old K-5 school anointed to K-8 level, it’s still closer to K-5 levels in playground and library, and it’s short on arts support – but there are other elements.

“We focus not only on whether the kids are happy and willing to meet the challenge,” she says, “but on what we call grit.”

It’s an ingredient native to the neighborhood. And with its high degree of diversity, says her assistant principal Susan Kosmala, “Our kids are prepared to go out into the world the way it looks.”

Precisely at 7 p.m. on the evening of the carnival, coming through the entrance to the field is a 10-person marching drum corps – arranged through a friend of a friend – twirling sticks and banging skins with a stone-faced intensity suggesting it was marching not through a field next to an overcrowded K-8 but in the next day’s Grand Floral Parade. The drummers expressed all the spirit of the rest of the carnival, plus uniforms.

“You cross 82nd Avenue, and there’s a stereotype of this neighborhood,” said Kosmala.

“But that’s not the people who live here.”

Note: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 6/14/15.

28 Jun

Long-awaited limits on NSA surveillance have Oregon label

When Congress finally voted recently, after the kind of setbacks and roadblocks known only to video games and the U.S. Senate, to put some limits on what the government is entitled to know about its citizens, national media knew the poster boy: Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky.

It helps to be running for president.

The stories could easily have been about Ted Cruz.

But as Congress finally declared that the government couldn’t keep records on whom you telephoned, when and for how long – “bulk collection” – while insisting that its justification is none of your business, the moving force seemed less a Louisville slugger than something made in Oregon.

With a little help from a National Security Agency leaker who now hangs out in Moscow.

Both Oregon senators, more than the representatives of any other state, have actively challenged the government’s insistence that it’s entitled to know whatever it wants, and that citizens really don’t need to know anything about it. Sen. Ron Wyden, for more than a decade, and Sen. Jeff Merkley, since his arrival in the Senate in 2009, have been waging an outnumbered struggle against practices they often couldn’t even publicly describe.

“In December 2012, I put forth a ‘No Secret Law’ proviso,” objecting to broad but classified rulings by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance court, recalls Merkley. “I couldn’t explain why, because (the extent of government surveillance) had not yet been revealed by Snowden.” Wyden, from his legally constrained position on the Senate intelligence committee, could only keep warning that when the truth came out, “I think the American people are going to be profoundly disturbed.”

Or at least, some congressmen might be.

Remembered Wyden last week, “When we started, when there were just a handful of us going up against surveillance and secret hearings, it was hard.”

Then, with the aid of massive revelations by Edward Snowden, profound disturbance among many congressional Republicans – including former House Judiciary Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, who largely wrote the Patriot Act – and a Court of Appeals decision that the government’s surveillance practices were illegal, the House overwhelmingly passed the USA Freedom Act, dealing with some concerns expressed by both Wyden and Merkley.

Standing against the new bill was Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who wanted to renew the Patriot Act intact. As Merkley points out, that might also have cancelled the Court of Appeals ruling, by declaring that it was indeed “the intent of Congress to authorize bulk collection.”

Without a clear statement on that, the government had been relying on secret opinions and interpretations from the Foreign Intellligence Surveillance court, which the senators knew about but couldn’t challenge – or even mention – publicly. The “secret law” process had been a longtime concern of both Wyden and Merkley.

But when the new law’s supporters finally forced McConnell to allow the Senate to vote – and it passed overwhelmingly – it changed the situation
“The USA Freedom Act,” notes Merkley, “now requires declassification of a FISA opinion that will make a significant reinterpretation of the rule of law, or a declassified summary.”

So we might even know what our government thinks it can do.

And instead of the court hearing only from the Justice Department – national security, you know – some outside voices will be allowed to submit arguments.

Moreover, government bulk collection of telephone metadata – who called who, when and for how long – is to stop. The phone companies, not the government, will hold the data, and if the government wants something in particular, it can get a warrant.

“From the standpoint of privacy,” said Wyden, “this is the most significant privacy reform in a decade,” which is about how long he’s been fighting bulk collection.

Still, the focus of the issue’s coverage was on Rand Paul, especially his 11-hour filibuster on the issue – which did mean that Paul drew all the accusations of leaving the country defenseless by any weakening of what the government had been casually accustomed to do.

Media also focused on several additional amendments on government practices that McConnell prevented Paul from offering – although, as Wyden noted, “I was the co-sponsor of almost all of them.”

The further reform agenda includes attacking the “backdoor search loophole,” allowing the government, without warrant, to look through the emails and communications of Americans if agents think the search could produce information on suspicious foreigners overseas.

That issue will likely emerge in 2017, when the FISA Act needs renewal, when the Oregon senators will be watching.

And when, one way or another, the 2016 presidential campaign will be over.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 6/10/15.