15 Oct

Without new revenue, Oregon’s schools and situation will never get any better

ASHLAND – To anyone looking at the growing Oregon economy and figuring we’re just about to reinvest in schools, higher education and early childhood, Peter Buckley has a deflating message:

“This is as good as it gets.”

And there’s no guarantee it stays this good.

Have a nice day – and don’t expect too much from the school year.

As co-chair of the Joint Ways and Means Committee since 2009, the Ashland Democrat has overseen the last four state budgets, so he’s assembled spending plans much more painful than the one in effect now. But without additional revenue, he doesn’t expect the state’s financial outlook to get any better – which is a small part of the reason he’s decided four budgets are enough, and isn’t running again.

If the state comes up with some additional money, he figures, the budget will be manageable. If it doesn’t, well, he’s assembled a cuts budget before, and wouldn’t look forward to doing it again.

In the 2017 session, the legislature will face considerable new costs from the expansion of the Oregon Health Plan and the Supreme Court’s rejection of most of the PERS reform plan. At the same time, Oregon’s close to the limit of its revenue stream.

“There are no more major shifts to make in the state budget,” explains Buckley. “The economy is performing as well as it has in decades,” meaning there are no likely revenue surges from faster growth.

Following the sharp revenue changes from the passage of Measure 5, “We never solved the problem. We got through, but we never solved it.”

Buckley explained the state’s fiscal realities at the end of last month to a gathering of United for Kids, a coalition of children’s advocacy groups eagerly looking for the next advances in state funding. He explained it further last week in Ashland, during the kind of Southern Oregon autumn afternoon that can make you wonder why anybody would leave it for a Salem committee room, even if the numbers were a lot more encouraging.

Right now, he noted, “There are just so many people stressed to have a decent life,” and the state is just about at the limit of its capacity to do anything about it.

The hope for additional revenue is an issue likely to appear on next November’s ballot, which could feature a burst of measures from all sides, some previously blocked by former Gov. John Kitzhaber’s negotiations with business and labor groups. Buckley expressed interest in a measure to increase corporate taxes proposed by the group A Better Oregon, which this month is beginning to collect signatures. The measure would seek to reverse the steady decline in the proportion of state government costs paid by Oregon businesses, which by some calculations carry the lowest state tax burden in the country.

Many Oregon Democrats, including those who would welcome the money, have been hesitant about such an effort ever since the traumatic 2010 votes on Measures 66 and 67. Their passage saw the state budget through the Great Recession but tore open a painful rift with the business community.

The memory doesn’t scare off Buckley.

“Measures 66 and 67 were absolutely essential,“ he says. “If we hadn’t passed them, I can’t imagine what our system would look like now.”

To some surprise, both Measures 66 and 67 passed relatively comfortably, in a more conservative (and non-presidential) year than 2016 seems likely to be. And, Buckley notes, the predicted massive flight of companies and upper income taxpayers out of the state never happened. Some time later, The Wall Street Journal reported breathlessly that Oregon had many fewer high-income taxpayers, but the cause seemed to be less exodus than what the financial collapse did to incomes.

In Buckley’s view, a significant change in the state’s post-Measure 5 revenue structure could change funding possibilities across the board.

“It’s a game-changer for K-12, for early child care, for mental health, for higher education,” Buckley says after eight years’ immersion in the looming shadows of the state’s budget numbers. “We could imagine a generation of Oregonians graduating from college without debt.”

So is there a possibility of the state’s voters actually bagging what has been, ever since 1990, the great white whale of Oregon public policy: replacement revenue for the Measure 5 cuts?

“I think,” says Buckley, “people get to a point when they say, enough.”

As a title for a romantic comedy, “As Good As It Gets” is fine.

It’s less encouraging as the highest hopes of a state.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 10/11/15.

15 Oct

You can bet that this fall’s TV is all about gambling

We no longer have TV commercials for cigarettes. We concluded that smoking was dangerous to people, could have a bad effect on lives and wasn’t something we wanted to encourage between situation comedies.

Besides, this now leaves more TV space for advertising gambling.

On local television at the moment, gambling ads seem more pervasive than payday loan commercials. Bolstered by this year’s burst of advertising for the on-line sports fantasy betting sites DraftKings and FanDuel – according to CNN Money, more than $200 million so far in 2015 – fall TV is now all about gambling.

The fantasy spots join frequent ads from Northwest tribal casinos, now among the biggest tourist draws in the region. Those ads feature lots of young, attractive people, all of whom seem to be winning.

Then there are the Oregon and Washington state lotteries, bursting onto the local TV screens. The Oregon lottery, now a billion-dollar player in the state budget, currently offers not only its seasonal scratch-off ads but its own country-Western anthem to the state, “I Left My Heart in Oregon.”

Tony Bennett repeatedly leaves his heart in San Francisco, but that doesn’t seem to involve video poker.

Then there are the rollicking ads for Big Fish Casino, an in-line site with (following current U.S. law) no actual money at stake – although players can buy aps to help them play the games. (On-line gambling is legal in Nevada, New Jersey and Delaware, but only for bettors inside the state.) Big Fish is owned by Churchill Downs, owners of the Kentucky Derby racetrack and others. They might be speculating in gambling futures, positioning themselves for a time when, as in the United Kingdom, all Americans can gamble on their laptops, tablets and iPhones.

At that point, there may be no space on television for advertising anything else.

This year’s big explosion has been in spots for fantasy gambling, betting on the performance of bettor-assembled lineups.

“DraftKings and FanDuel have quickly become among the biggest advertisers on TV and the Internet,” Neil Irwin wrote recently in The New York Times, “with scenes of fantasy players celebrating their winnings.” In Oregon and most other states, it would be illegal (and this season, possibly unwise) to go on line and bet on the Blazers to win. But in Oregon and most other states (although not Washington) you can go on line and bet (again, perhaps unwisely) on a fantasy team composed of Blazers to outscore other fantasy teams.

Right now, of course, the customers are betting their National Football League fantasy teams, and the ads show them testifying to their huge winnings and beaming about how much more exciting Sundays are than back when they were just rooting for actual teams. As the company’s Facebook location boasts, “DraftKings is changing the way people experience sports.”

The bettors featured on the fantasy team ads are generally T-shirted young men, the folks likely to believe that they can guess which running back will have the best Sunday. In that way, the fantasy ads are different that way from the casino ads, which show carousing groups of festively dressed young men and women, sometimes with hints of the delights to follow when the couples finally depart the gambling floor for the night.

(Oregon Lottery ads don’t typically show people actually betting, although the public service spots piously urging you not to bet too heavily do.)

Fantasy football leagues used to be run by your friend who had too much time on his hands, but things have gotten far more corporate. According to Travis Houm on the Motley Fool website, DraftKings’ investors include Fox Sports, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League and Major League Soccer, while FanDuel is backed by the National Basketball Association, NBC Sports Ventures, Comcast Ventures and Time Warner/Turner Sports, as well as various NFL and NBA team owners. It seems lots of folks in the sports business are now doubling as bookies, although a few years ago the NBA got very self-righteous about an Oregon Lottery sports betting game.

Last week, after The New York Times revealed that a DraftKings employee, with access to activation statistics – the house always has an edge – had won $350,000 on FanDuel, the attorneys general of New York and Massachusetts announced they would investigate. But since both states are, like Oregon, dependent on their own lotteries, they may just be going after a competitor.

Because these days, all over TV and the economy, everybody’s into gambling.

It’s enough to make you want a cigarette.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 10/14/15.