26 Jul

Lots of suggested minimum wage numbers, but Oregon’s $9.25 isn’t high enough

Pick a number, any number.

The federal minimum wage is $7.25, which for a 40-hour week – which not many minimum wage workers can count on – comes to $290 a week, or about $15,000 a year. It hasn’t been raised since 2007, back when Democrats controlled both houses of Congress.

House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has said he’d rather kill himself than vote to raise it, although that may not be an either-or proposition.

The Oregon minimum wage is $9.25, or $390 a week, or around $20,000 a year. Indexed to rise annually, following a measure passed by voters in 2002, it’s the second-highest state rate in the country; Washington’s is $9.47.

Twenty-nine states have raised their minimum wage rates above $7.25. Recently, a $15 minimum wage was adopted by Seattle (by 2017), San Francisco (2018) and last week by Los Angeles County (2020) and New York (2018 in New York City, 2021 for the rest of the state). Chicago’s minimum is now $10, rising to $13 in 2019.

Along with any number, pick any date.

Advocates came to this year’s session of the Oregon legislature also seeking a $15 minimum, without success. A few weeks before the end of the session, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, proposed a $13 minimum, with cities having the power to raise it higher. Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, wasn’t interested. Supporters declared they would collect signatures to put $15 on the 2016 ballot.

Last week, an alliance of Oregon labor unions and liberal groups announced a signature drive to also propose $13.50 for 2016, which is likely to have a very busy ballot.

Before then, Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., hopes to force a vote on her bill for a $12 federal minimum wage, sponsored by 36 senators (including Oregon’s Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley), although none of them is a Republican. The Obama administration has supported a $10.10 federal minimum, although not terribly energetically.

Asked how she arrived at $12, Murray said Thursday, “I looked at what we could do for working families,” while sympathetic to the higher numbers coming out of her home state: “I support the efforts brought at the local level, but I think we need a minimum wage floor.”

She thinks that the higher minimum wages, and successful economies, of the Northwest argue for the benefits of raising the minimum: “I think our state is proving that when workers do well, businesses do well,” that when a family can afford to go out for pizza, that money goes into a local cash register.

In fact, she says of her effort to raise the federal minimum, “We’re bringing Washington state to Washington, D.C.”
The question, of course, is whether it can get there, considering Republican control of both houses of Congress and opposition to any increase, an attitude Murray traces to continuing Republican belief in “trickle-down economics.” It seems more likely that the issue will come up in the 2016 election than for a vote in the current Congress.

“I want to hear what the Republican presidential candidates have to say about this as well,” Murray said when introducing her bill in May.

“I am confident that a Democratic woman running for president knows the importance of this issue. I am not at all confident there is one Republican candidate who will say the same.”

Murray has gotten her wish, and heard plenty from the GOP candidates. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul all oppose raising the minimum wage, with Paul warning it would hurt young workers. (Most minimum earners are not teenagers at the malt shop, but over 20, many supporting other people as well.) Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker question whether there should be a federal minimum wage at all.

Current GOP frontrunner Donald Trump supports different minimums for adults and youth, although he hasn’t specified what they should be.

Among Democrats, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley back a federal $15 minimum, while Hillary Clinton supports a raise but hasn’t given a number.

On next year’s ballot, the federal debate is likely to join one or more Oregon initiatives on the subject. Last November, voters in Republicans in four Republican states raised their minimums, although none above $10. A $15 measure in Oregon might not be a slam dunk; in 2002, Oregon voters raised the minimum from $6.50 to $6.90 by only 51 percent.
Pick a number, any number.

But it should be well above $9.25.

Not to mention over $7.25.

NOTE: This column appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 7/26/15.

26 Jul

Warming may be global, but some of the answers are local

A planetary problem needs a planetary conversation. And when Charlie Hales is one of 60 mayors from around the world invited to discuss global warming and human trafficking with Pope Francis in Rome, he probably should go.
It’s got to be more productive than talking to this Congress.

The pope, after all, has said that global warming poses a grave danger to all of us, which is more than the folks running Congress would ever say.

It may be going too far to claim, as Hales has, that Francis is “the Portland pope,” because his statements on global warming and social justice match up with Portland’s attitudes. After all, the pope has said nothing about brunch.

But there’s an advantage for Portland in anything that raises the profile of the global warming issue, as an event with the pope and the mayors of New York and Paris, among dozens of others, clearly does. And as cities look for their own ways to address t he crisis, mayors have to learn from each other.

At a time of minimal congressional interest in slowing the rise in global temperature and keeping sea levels from getting above our waists, we’re going to need a serious effort at the local level.

And, of course, at a much higher level.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 7/25/15.

23 Jul

Congress gets another chance to take a bite out of child hunger

HILLSBORO – Wearing their green smocks for finger-painting, the eight toddlers sat around the table, like a committee called to order.

To Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., the scene must have looked at least a little familiar.

Bonamici’s visit to Heaven Sent infants and toddler care last week was a small part – OK, eight small parts – of a very large process. Working its way through her House Education Committee is the five-year reauthorization of all federal child nutrition programs, including school lunches (and breakfasts and snacks) for tens of millions of kids; the Women, Infants and Children program for pregnant women and preschool children; summer food efforts; and the Child and Adult Care Food Program, which helps put food on the low-lying table after the smocks come off and 80 fingers are carefully washed.

The federal government feeds more kids than the entire fast-food business, and actually uses vegetables. For millions of kids, the meals they get in school – or in child care, or in a summer lunch program – are likely to be the most nutritious ones they get all day.

There’s a particular interest to this year’s reauthorization, because in 2008, Barack Obama pledged to end child hunger in America by 2015. We don’t seem to have made it.

“Progress has been moderate,” assesses James Weill, president of the D.C.-based Food Research and Action Center, but he says he understands why the pledge had problems: “At the time they made it, they had no concept of the economic nightmare that was about to befall them.” The annual Annie E. Casey Foundation “Kids Count” report released Tuesday found that children had not recovered from the Great Recession, and that a higher percentage of Oregon kids were living in high-poverty areas than in 2007.

Still, there has been some progress; more kids are eating breakfast in school, there’s been some growth in the summer food programs, and we’ve raised the nutritional levels of school food and WIC. But the most recent three-year surveys from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, released last August, found 15 million American kids classed as “food insecure,” meaning they don’t always know where their next meal is coming from.

In Oregon, what we consider as progress is that we no longer lead the nation in child hunger. In the USDA’s latest numbers, 25.9 percent of Oregon kids, or more than 223,000, are classified as “food-insecure,” putting us in 13th place nationally, mostly behind states where the staff of life is grits. The Oregon Food Bank reports that 92,000 Oregon kids a month are fed in food pantries.

The five-year reauthorization is a chance to do something about this, although House Education Committee chairman John Kline, R-Minn., has declared that no more money is going into the programs.

This round, hunger advocates are looking to expand food efforts in summer, when the schools that feed tens of millions of kids lunch, and increasingly breakfast, are closed. Twenty-two million kids qualify for free or reduced-price lunch during the year, and only 4 million get summer food.

“Summer,” says Lucy Melcher, director of advocacy for Share Our Strength and No Kid Hungry, “is still the hungriest time.”
Advocates have several strategies to nourish the season. The summer food program can be streamlined. It also requires kids to come to a specific place for food, a problem for rural kids. Oregon’s highest child food insecurity rates are in rural counties, which have limited options; Lake County, for example, doesn’t have a single summer lunch location.

There are proposals to allow parents to pick up food for their kids once a week. There’s also a plan to provide assisted-lunch kids with $150 in food stamps over the summer, an approach successfully pilot-tested in Oregon and five other states last year. Bonamici is co-sponsoring a bill to expand the program.

Heaven Sent infant and toddler care is religiously based, with worship in the afternoon. And because this is Portlandia, it’s also vegetarian organic – “That’s a big selling point for my families,” explains owner Christina Folsom – feeding its kids lentil Sloppy Joes and tofu hot dogs.

There isn’t a huge federal investment in nutrition here – for kids who don’t qualify as low income, the feds put up (with a lot of paperwork) 20 cents for the afternoon snack – but the question of how millions of kids preparing for school are being fed seems a reasonable point of national interest.

“That’s why I’m looking at this,” said Bonamici, “because nobody else is.”

Because feeding kids is a pretty good investment.

That’s clear even in finger paint.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian 7/22/15.

19 Jul

One good legislative session for higher ed; many more needed

Even for a year that started with the Ducks getting drilled in the national championship game, 2015 has signs of a good year for Oregon higher education.

With the overall 2015-17 state budget up by 11 percent, state support for its universities went up by more than 27 percent, and for community colleges by 18 percent, both numbers unseen for at least two decades. The legislature also considerably increased funding for the state Opportunity Grants scholarship program, and sizably funded higher ed construction. It’s a major investment in Oregon’s colleges and universities, the first actual cash-based support for the state’s proclaimed 40-40-20 goal, a significant effort to slow our tuition levels from shooting upward like illegal fireworks.

It’s enough to haul out the pompoms left from the championship game, and give three cheers for the legislature.

Well, maybe two cheers.

The increase is impressive and welcome, but we need to remember where our higher ed budgets started. It was “a very good session,” agrees Ben Cannon, executive director of the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, but “the context includes cuts of equal magnitude, and a long trend of disinvestment.”

The budget is a major step forward, but it gets Oregon from being one of the bottom five states in higher ed support to somewhere in the bottom 10.

Still, we have changed direction.

“I’m very pleased,” said Portland State University president Wim Wievel, who called the funding increase “huge.”

Wiewel also credited a change of direction that wasn’t entirely financial.

“There was no way in hell we would have gotten the money if we were still under the state board of higher education,” he explained. “When we were a state agency, there was no lobbying after the governor’s budget came out.”

Since the last budget session, the state board has been dissolved, the seven state universities have gotten their own governor-appointed boards, and the universities and community colleges have been put under the new HECC.

In lobbying the legislature, said Cannon, “We saw a high degree of coordination between the universities and the community colleges,” and the members of HECC and the boards of the three major universities – the first to be appointed – produced “40 or 50 private citizens deeply interested in the future of Oregon higher education.”

Plus, Wiewel noted, higher ed worked with the Oregon Student Association and business and labor groups. With a different arrangement, higher ed advanced in both the Ways and Means co-chairs’ budget and the final numbers.

Once a decade, a legislative session remembers that Oregon has a higher education system. But after the previous such sessions – 1999 and 2007 – the economy shifted and Oregon’s higher ed funding went backward further than it had advanced.

And over the last five years, 2009-14, Oregon cut its support for its university students by one of the sharpest rates in the country, by 24.6 percent compared with a national average of 13.3 percent.

So although the new budget dramatically increases state support per university full-time-equivalent student from $5,194 to $6,455, that’s still less, adjusted for inflation, than the state’s was providing in 1999-2001. The state’s support for its universities rose to $700 million, but the university presidents calculated that just getting back to pre-recession level would take $755 million.

Hoping to get closer, says Wiewel, “We’re going to be coming back to the legislature in February, guns blazing.”

Still, Oregon’s college students clearly had their best legislative session in memory – part of a national trend of legislatures seeking to reinvest in higher education.

In Washington state, the legislative session that ended this month produced “a better year for higher education than we’ve seen in some time,” explained Chris Thompson, a senior legislative analyst for the House Democratic majority, last week.

Improvements included $106 million for pay increases in the system and – to counteract recession-driven tuition increases –$158 million to cut tuition by 5 percent next year, with an eventual tuition reduction of 15 percent at the University of Washington and Washington State, and 20 percent at the state’s regional universities.

“A lot of my members,” said Thompson, “were disappointed we couldn’t do more.”

Nobody thinks Oregon could do anything like that, or soon approach the internationally ranked University of Washington. But Washington’s moves should remind us that we’re competing not only with our bleak past on higher ed, but with lots of other states making their own investments.

And as the Oregon football team showed us, it takes lots of good years to get back in the game.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian. 7/19/15.

19 Jul

In the Republican presidential race, it’s the Donald Trump show

There’s lots of ways to calculate who will actually be the Republican nominee for president next year. But if the question is who, among 15 different candidates, so far stands out, the answer is obvious:

Donald Trump, you’re hired.

By jumping up and down on the hot-button issue of immigration, by loudly declaring his superiority to other candidates, by declaring that to a man of his vast capacities the country’s problems are laughably simple, Trump is sucking up the oxygen in the race.

Also, as he’s always ready to tell you, he’s really rich.

That gets him headlines and attention, and he’s been shooting up in the polls.

Not a lot of people can imagine Trump as the Republican nominee; this is someone whose idea of a running mate is Oprah. It’s also not easy to imagine Trump putting out a series of detailed position papers on infrastructure or entitlements.

His greatest interest seems to be Trump.

But with 15 people running, there’s a lot to be said for just standing out.

And if Trump doesn’t exactly know the issues, he knows how to get attention, which may be the key skill of a presidential candidate.

Maybe Trump will get stale; maybe he’ll get bored. Maybe his sneering dismissal of John McCain’s military service will be fatal.

But right now, the GOP is getting Trumped.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 7/18/15.

17 Jul

Drone explosion points the way to a traffic jam in the sky

BEAVERTON – Right between the bagel shop and the conveyor-belt sushi place is the future. It’s a narrow storefront from right to left, but upward is a different story.

In fact, the sky is literally the limit.

Drones Plus, the local outpost of a swiftly expanding national chain, has been here for a couple of months, a flash of high tech in a shopping mall otherwise marked by spices, kebabs and dietary supplements. It’s a polished steel window into a time when the skies might be as crowded as the parking lot out front.
The store displays drones – from a baseball-sized $30 version, a kind of kite with batteries, to multi-thousand-dollar versions that look like miniature alien landing ships, with connections underneath for movie cameras that would cost a lot more. Customers include people you might expect to see in the sky, and some you might not: fire and rescue departments, real estate agents, roof inspectors, photographers – as well as buyers who just want to play with the 60 mph racing drones.

“We’re doing very well,” says store manager James Older, who’s been working with drones for four years. “They’re very popular. Every day, the skies are getting more crowded.”

Considering that a century after Henry Ford, we still haven’t quite worked out the details of traffic on the ground, this could be a little unsettling. But it seems inescapable that the newest transportation land rush isn’t on land at all.

Oregon has three FAA-approved drone testing sites, in Warm Springs, Tillamook and Pendleton. It also has a burst of drone start-up companies, especially for agricultural uses. The last Oregon Leadership Summit offered burbling suggestions that drones could be the economic engine for Oregon that aerospace was for Southern California – although the course of that industry has been one more demonstration that what goes up must come down – and Gov. Kate Brown, announcing a state economic development investment in Pendleton in March, declared, “We hope to be the hub of the future.”

Not all of this Oregon activity, of course, comes out of this small store in Beaverton. But the Las Vegas-based company, calling itself “the largest drone retailer in all of North America,” also has stores in Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Toronto, suburban Seattle and suburban New Orleans, and this year plans to open in Honolulu, Orlando, Phoenix, Albuquerque, San Francisco, Dallas, Chicago, Vancouver and other locations.

This comes out to a lot of people, and a lot of hardware, up in the air. Downtown July 4, using a drone to film fireworks, Older noticed three others flying around the vicinity.

To use drones commercially, to charge for filming roofs or real estate or ryegrass, operators are supposed to get a commercial pilot’s license. Hobbyists have no requirements; as Older says, “Technically, a 10-year-old kid could come in and buy what we have here.”
There are some limits in the air; drones aren’t supposed to go higher than 400 feet, and to stay away from airports. Practically, most of Drone Plus’s offerings have a range limited to a mile or a mile and a half.

But the limits don’t always hold. Last week, a plane coming into Charlotte (N.C) international airport had a near-miss with a drone at 2,100 feet, one of an estimated 200 close encounters of the drone kind in the past year. At Seattle’s gay pride parade at the end of June, a drone crashed and injured a woman, and this year a drone operated by three South Korean tourists crashed into the cathedral in Milan, Italy.

It’s unnerving to imagine that the watchword of the new era of aeronautics might be “Duck.”

Then there’s the prospect of your neighbor sending a drone over your property to look around, something that Older wants to make clear that he absolutely does not recommend.

Still, if you see something moving slowly over your house, maybe, just to be neighborly, you should wave.

The Oregon legislative session that ended last week took a couple of pokes at drones, ending any 400-foot altitude limit on liability and banning hunting or trapping (or interfering with hunting and trapping) with drones, which should at least ease the concerns of elk. The legislature also voted that drones should now be known as “unmanned aircraft systems.” A legislative interim work group will consider the issue further before the next session.

“Don’t be scared of it,” insists James Older of Drones Plus. “There’s nothing to be scared of.”

Maybe not.

But as things get more crowded, we may need some traffic signals in the sky.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 7/15/15.

14 Jul

Aldridge departure puts Blazers’ glorious future in the past

Over just a few days, most of the Trail Blazers hit the trail.

When LaMarcus Aldridge, in the least surprising Portland development since rain in November, left for the San Antonio Spurs and the chance of a ring, four out of last season’s five starters had left the building, not to say the metropolitan area. Suddenly, most of the souvenir jerseys worn at the Rose Garden last year are as outdated as the term “Gov. Kitzhaber.”

Except, of course, for the diehards whose shirts read “Drexler.”

But wishing Aldridge farewell – and thanks – brings back feelings that go deeper than last February. Stirring as it was to see him pounding down the court last season with his three fellow departees, it’s not hard to call up the vision of Aldridge in other company.

In bannered images much larger than life-size – but seemingly no more than appropriate – Aldridge once loomed over the Rose Quarter in company with Brandon Roy, Greg Oden and the confident invitation, “Rise with us.”

And it seemed we all would. After all, they were the complete package: the dominant big man, the driving power forward, the sharp-shooting guard. Obviously we were entitled to think about a dynasty, about finally an end to celebrating the anniversaries of 1977, about the Blazers powerfully contending for a title years before we reached, say, 2015.

Instead, our future was literally cut off at the knees – first Oden’s, then Roy’s.

Being Portland, we continued to hope and believe, faithfully. Closets throughout Oregon still contain crumpled t-shirts reading “Oden ’08: Worth The Wait,” worn in the firm belief that Oden’s losing his rookie year to injury was just a passing blip in our glorious destiny. The Boston basketball writer Bill Simmons once wrote about Blazer fans’ response when Oden did play: “The best way to describe the crowd’s support for Oden: It’s like watching 15,000 parents rooting for their kid, only all 15,000 parents fathered the same kid.”

But as people keep discovering in other contexts, love is not always enough. Shortly afterwards, we discovered, agonizingly, that Brandon Roy – R-O-Y, Rookie Of the Year, All-Star, played his college ball just up the road in Seattle – had knees held together mostly by force of habit.

It turned out we would not be rising together.

Of course, being Portland, we diligently worked to love and believe in the new sets of Trail Blazers. Aldridge tried, too, until time started to run out.

Even around here, time runs differently for different people, in different ways of life. By legend, Oregon time runs slower than say New York or Los Angeles time, rolling gently forward like the Interstate Bridge at rush hour.

Last week, Phil Knight said he would retire as chairman of Nike, a position he’s held for about four decades, and even now he doesn’t seem to be actually going anywhere. Ron Wyden has represented Oregon in Congress since 1981, and likely will for the foreseeable future. Peter Courtney, looking like the permanent president of the Oregon Senate, first entered the legislature the same year, just before Ronald Reagan became president.

An athlete’s time runs much faster. In athlete’s time, 2008, when the rising of Oden, Roy and Aldridge was promised, was a thousand years ago. Oden and Roy have faded from our conversation – although Oden will come up as long as we’re discussing the Blazers’ unfortunate history with big men. By athletic actuarial tables, even Aldridge is now probably closer to the end of his career than to the shining, Portland-promising beginning of it.

Being Portland, we’re saddened by his leaving. When LeBron James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for Miami, when Robinson Cano left the New York Yankees for Seattle, local fans were furious. Here, it’s more like our feelings were hurt.

Portland doesn’t just want to cheer for the Blazers, it wants to love them, to have them love us back, to bring them home to dinner, to have them retire here and live happily ever after. It’s why the whole Jail Blazers period was so painful; it wasn’t just embarrassing, it was family members getting in with the wrong crowd.

Aldridge’s leaving, following the departures of Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews and Robin Lopez, definitively ends the most recent Trail Blazers episode. But it also blows away the last wisps of an earlier time, when Portland had a future built on three certain superstars, and the path just rose upward.

Aldridge’s decision ends a year, but it also brings back a moment.

Even though the moment never actually happened.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 7/12/15.

14 Jul

A decent legislature, but somehow it never arrived at transportation

This legislature figured out, relatively peacefully, how to spend more than $16 billion, despite a sudden replacement of the governor in the middle of the process. It wasn’t a small achievement, but every dollar has to be justified by the will of Oregon voters.

Which is why the 2015 legislature’s most significant .achievement may be increasing the number of registered voters by 300,000. Motor Voter now means that anyone with a driver’s license can vote.

Most Oregonians now don’t have to worry about registration procedures, or our ludicrous Rajneeshee-inspired 20-days-before-election registration cutoff. Now, if the state knows who you are – and trust me, the Department of Motor Vehicles knows who you are – you can vote.

That’s better than the legislature did on another driving issue. In their biggest failure, legislators could not assemble a transportation package, couldn’t find new resources to strengthen Oregon’s swiftly deteriorating infrastructure.

Gov. Kate Brown declared it her priority, but the legislature got hung up on carbon-cutting legislation, and the Department of Transportation’s failed to produce a credible proposal.

Everything came apart, although it seems there was a deal to be found, but neither party looked hard enough or early enough.

Both parties need to keep looking. At least Oregon traffic should give them lots of time.

NOTE: This commentary appeared in KGW-TV, 7/11/15.