08 Jul

Bring The Donald to the Rose City

It’s far too much to hope for that Donald Trump might ever bring his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination to Oregon. We would be a great location for the Donald to express his views on immigration and trade, and given a moment, he could no doubt come up with some thoughts on bicycle lanes and salmon.

Really, after already being blitzed by six months of full campaign coverage six months before anybody votes, Oregon should get something out of the deal.

So far, of course, Trump has had limited direct presence in or positions on Oregon, although he did tell The Wall Street Journal in 2010 about the epic, world-class, absolutely incredible dunes at the golf course he was building in Scotland, “They put the dunes at Bandon Dunes to shame.” And Oregon, of course, has had competitors in Trump’s Miss USA and Miss Teen USA contests – in fact, Oregon has had more Miss Teen USAs than any other state – although they now won’t be appearing on Univision or NBC.

It doesn’t sound like enough to bring the presidential candidate here any time soon, although Oregon would be a great place if he wanted to build a Trump Brewpub.

In fact, it seems as if the entire presidential campaign has felt distant from us. Nine of the 15 Republican hopefuls are from Kentucky and points south, including four from Florida and two from Texas. The rest run from Wisconsin to New York; the only entry from the West Coast, or the West at all, is the longer-than-longshot Carly Fiorina from California.

As a former high-tech person, Fiorina might be thought to have a link to Oregon; but after presiding over 30,000 layoffs at Hewlett-Packard, she probably shouldn’t expect to carry Corvallis

(The Democratic field clings tightly to the East, with candidates from New York, Vermont, Maryland and Virginia – although the leading candidate can claim to be also from Illinois and Arkansas.)

We also suffer – if that’s the word – from the primary schedule, with candidates shuttling among Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Even for candidates who make it past those states – and we’re talking next February – that would still leave three months until the schedule gets to Oregon.

So it’s hard to imagine Donald Trump staying afloat long enough – almost a year – to explain immigration at Pioneer Courthouse Square. It’s just something else we miss out on, like NBA free agents.

But our feeling of disconnection from a race happening thousands of miles from here is not just a matter of geography or of scheduling, or even that Oregon hasn’t voted for a Republican candidate for president since Ronald Reagan. It’s that this campaign – even with Donald Trump – isn’t talking about issues that resonate around here.

Oregon’s had a bumpy road to same-sex marriage, but nobody thinks we’re going back. But on the Republican campaign trail, it’s a lively subject, with candidates talking about ignoring the Supreme Court and constitutional amendments – hopefully not counting Oregon among the 38 states required to ratify one.

We have some questions about health care reform, but we’ve been trying hard to make it work, and nobody wants to go through anything like Cover Oregon again. Yet among GOP candidates, health care reform is on the brink of total repeal and replacement – although it’s not quite clear what would replace it.

Oregon has immigration controversies, and voters just rejected driver’s cards for undocumented immigrants. But in a state where the 2010 census showed the Hispanic population rising to 12 percent, and the foreign-born population up to 10 percent, it doesn’t seem that labelling immigrants as criminals sent here by other countries is the ideal political strategy.

Not that it wouldn’t be fun to watch Donald Trump do it at the City Club.

What Oregon, and most of the rest of the West, is actually talking about right now is a lot less exciting: water. Lots of people think global warming has something to do with the long-term drought pulverizing much of the West, and 2016 Republican candidates are more open to admitting it exists than 2012 Republicans. But the hostility to any climate policy is so strong that when the pope called for worldwide action on climate, the GOP candidates – including several Catholics – basically told Francis to butt out.

Even in Oregon, reportedly the least religious state in the country, this could get complicated.

But there is an exciting way religion could enter the race.

Monday, Donald Trump declared he would be “the best jobs president God ever created.”

Please let him say it here.

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

06 Jul

In 21st century, Oregon can achieve multilevel transportation funding failure

This spring, after months of false starts, hairpin turns and sudden teeth-jarring stops, Portland’s leaders announced they would suspend their transportation finance efforts to see what the legislature would do.

So much for that plan.

With the Legislature’s giving up on any investment effort, Portland has now seen transportation failure at two levels of government. And when Congress comes back in session Tuesday, it’s likely to extend its own inability to produce what used to be regular multi-year transportation packages.

Local, state, federal – for transportation projects, there is now no on-ra
Instead, we now have a triple-decker club sandwich of congestion. We could put up signs proclaiming, “Combined city, state and federal efforts have built this pothole.”

It’s not that we don’t know we need to do something. “To get our streets into the condition we want them to be in,” Portland transportation commissioner Steve Novick said this spring, “we would need to spend $118 million every year for 10 years.”

Not that anyone imagines anything like that, of course. Basically, we’d just hope to avoid losing ground, or at least not losing pavement. Novick calculates that the various city tax proposals floating around would manage to keep the city’s level of unsafe streets at 12 percent, instead of rising to 19 percent.

Still, none of the transportation tax ideas could find a third City Council vote, nor clear business support. Novick and Mayor Charlie Hales rushed down the exit route of announcing they would wait on the legislature – with, says Novick, some legislative encouragement.

The legislature, unfortunately, steered itself immediately into gridlock. Democrats passed an extension of the low-carbon fuel sunset, and Republicans then said the extension made any new transportation revenues impossible.

Gov. Kate Brown declared a transportation package to be her legislative bottom line, and people starting talking about repealing or adjusting the extension, and the possibility of a deal. But neither side moved very quickly, and then 19 House Democrats – a majority of the majority – came out against any change.

The state legislature is going home without any action on transportation – although, given the condition of Oregon’s roads, it could be a bumpy trip.

That leaves the federal government, where funding for the highway transportation trust fund runs out of money at the end of this month. As Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., ranking Democrat on the House Transportation Committee, pointed out last week, that could end federal compensation to the states and any new projects.

Typically, the feds spend $50 billion a year on transportation, arranged in six-year packages. But the federal gas tax, which has not been raised since 1993, now brings in only about $34 billion a year, and there’s no strategy to cover the difference – and no strategy for a new six-year package.

Last week, President Obama said hopefully that transportation would be a priority for the rest of his term. But House Ways and Means Committee chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wis., has said there will be no tax increases – although he is working out a proposal.

“It’s the same with (Senate Finance Committee chairman) Orrin Hatch (R-Utah),” said DeFazio. “They both have secret plans.”
One plan, DeFazio suggests, might be to connect a transportation package to a major tax reform bill, which with “dynamic scoring” would cut taxes and calculate it would cause revenues to increase.

That would be fine with DeFazio: “I said to Ryan, ‘It’s OK with me if you want to pretend the money will come in, because I’m willing to borrow to do this.’”

On the other hand, any legislative plans based on passage of a major tax reform could be considered highly hypothetical.
Various rank-and-file House Republicans, DeFazio points out, are trying to work something out. And numerous states, including bright-red ones like Utah, are raising their own gas taxes; last Thursday, Michigan’s Republican state Senate voted to raise its gas tax by 15 cents over three years.

This leaves Oregon, motionless in the roadside ditch at all government levels.

“I have unquestioning sympathy for the legislature,” says Novick, who still hopes that legislators might come back in a special session this fall to deal with transportation. He points out that the city has assigned a large amount of this year’s general fund surplus to road maintenance and safety, and he hopes that will stir other support

Of course, Portland has a one-year surplus, and a multiple-year transportation problem.

And at least for now, Oregon has no reason to look for help from Salem or Washington.

It could be hard to build any more Oregon trails.

Note: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 7/5/15.

03 Jul

Oregon waited on a long line for same-sex marriage

The line ran out of the Multnomah County office building on Southeast Hawthorne Boulevard, down the block and around the corner along Martin Luther King Boulevard. People at the end knew they would be waiting several hours just to register and get a form from a government office.

But unlike those waiting on similar lines – see: DMV – the people on this line seemed happy.

In the spring of 2004, a majority of Multnomah County commissioners, in a burst of well-meaning ineptitude, held a sudden vote to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. The year turned into a national burst of backlash, with the Bush re-election campaign riding gay marriage constitutional bans in 11 states, including Oregon. It’s almost impossible to imagine how that line outside the county office building would, in just over a decade, snake around to last week’s gay marriage endorsement by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The line was long, but turned out to be shorter than anyone expected.

In 2004, same-sex marriage suddenly leaped to the front of American politics when the highest court in Massachusetts declared it legal in that state. The impact moved local officials in San Francisco and Multnomah County to issue licenses without judicial support – and in the case of Multnomah, without public hearings.

But not without a huge response, and a long line.

On the line, middle-aged men in jeans and work jackets explained they wanted the license in case a work accident put one of them in the hospital and only family members could visit. Mothers had flown in to help their daughters hold places in line. Hopefuls in line cheerfully accepted business cards from wedding suppliers working the crowd.

All for a marriage license suspected – accurately – to be legally fragile.

But, for conservative opponents, politically potent. Following the Massachusetts court decision, Bush political mastermind Karl Rove worked with local groups to get the amendments onto state ballots, part of a strategy to increase turnout by conservative religious voters. The Republican national convention in New York featured denunciations of gay marriage, and a platform supporting a constitutional amendment banning it – a position now limited to the furthest fringe of 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls. The theme ran strong through the Bush campaign that fall, and seems to have been particularly helpful to Bush in the decisive state of Ohio.

(Six years later, Bush’s 2004 campaign manager, Ken Mehlman, declared publicly that he was gay, and had not been pleased with the campaign theme. Two years ago, Mehlman helped gather friendly legal briefs on same-sex marriage for the Supreme Court case, and last week praised the decision as “historic.” Of everything about the issue that looks startling from the perspective of 2004, that may be the most stunning.)

In Oregon, the Oregon Family Council assembled an alliance of 1,500 churches and collected more than 244,000 signatures to put Measure 36 on the ballot. It was a painful autumn, partly because activist groups had been keeping Oregon voting on anti-gay rights measures regularly since 1988. Opponents of the measure put forward gay couples raising children, who wondered why the rest of Oregon wanted to vote on whether their household qualified as a family.

Because, the website supporting Measure 36 warned darkly, “The goal of most influential gay leaders who are spearheading this movement is not to broaden the benefits of marriage, but to strip it of any meaning. They see redefining marriage in this way as the first step toward abolishing marriage and the family altogether, thus eliminating the benefits of marriage for anyone.”
These days, that wouldn’t even be argued by Mike Huckabee – let alone Ken Mehlman.

By election day, same-sex marriage had long been stopped in Oregon, shut down by a court pointing out that whatever your position, the Multnomah County Commission didn’t get to make the decision by itself. Still, Measure 36 passed, although by a smaller majority than in any other state – 43.4 percent of Oregon voters refused to buy it. In 2014, a federal court threw it out.

From the perspective of 2004, from the lines outside the county building to the living rooms of alarmed gay families, it’s been a stunning journey to 2015 – and Oregon’s path had a particular bumpiness.

Late in the spring of 2004, before a meeting at The Oregonian, a staff member mentioned that the county commission, despite a stern warning from the state attorney general, had voted to continue issuing licenses. Another staff member immediately stood up and left the meeting, explaining she had something to do.

Just eleven years later, the U.S. Supreme Court followed her.

NOTE:This column appeared in The Oregonian, 7/1/15.