20 Aug

In 2017, a solar eclipse in a new atmosphere

In Oregon, we don’t typically have major events focused around the sun; too frequently the guest of honor won’t show up, finding that he has another appointment behind some hospitable clouds. But right now, an estimated million people are expected to be streaming into the state, drawn just by the prospect of the sun being blocked.

Clearly, when it comes to obscuring the sun, the moon has a much better public relations person than clouds do.

Monday morning, huge numbers of visitors will be in a belt across the middle of Oregon called the Path of Totality, which we previously thought was a new marijuana shop. While some states will have the darkness just cutting across a border or a turnpike exit, the total eclipse will be traveling the entire width of the state of Oregon, like a Republican primary candidate.

After it leaves Oregon, the eclipse will be traveling almost entirely over red states, which might give the sun and moon a somewhat distorted impression. For the first time in American history, the total eclipse will be visible only in the United States, for which Donald Trump will shortly be claiming credit.

Any time now, President Trump will be asked his thoughts on the eclipse, and will explain that he’s considering all options, including military action.

Or he might say that between the sun and moon, there are faults on both sides, and we need to take a balanced view.

In Oregon, the state is forecasting major gridlock on stretches of Interstate 5, although there are already parts of I-5 that have been motionless since around 2007. The Oregon Department of Transportation is forecasting the greatest traffic event in the history of Oregon, another example of technological capacity not available for earlier eclipses. Traffic problems actually began Wednesday, meaning that by Monday morning, the entire state may be motionless.

Already, Kate Brown is the first governor of Oregon to have an eclipse policy.

Once, total eclipses created concerns about God being angry and the possible end of the world. Today, we’re worried about cell phone overload and insufficient Port-a-Potties.

Progress is always a struggle.

Motel rooms and Airbnb locations are reportedly costing $500 a night, which would be a monthly rate of $15,000, or just slightly more than the price of a Portland two-bedroom apartment. State campgrounds went for prices not seen since the last time Bigfoot held a cookout.

Fortuitously located Oregon wineries are holding large eclipse events, answering the question of whether a massive cosmic phenomenon goes with red or white. (Since we’re talking 10 o’clock in the morning, maybe the answer is beer, although it’s hard to match a mega-event with a microbrew.) The benefit of a winery-based eclipse event – another resource not available before modern astronomy – is that even if western Oregon’s skies are cloudy, the occasion won’t be a total loss.

This being Oregon, we have a number of questions about the eclipse. When will it happen again? Is the eclipse a good preparation for the massive Cascadia earthquake? Do the glasses make us look cool?

And most important, where are we going to eat after it

This is not an insignificant concern. Unlike the rest of the country, we’ve scheduled totality between nine and 11 a.m., so as not to interfere with lunch.

One more bit of advice, to the expected hundreds of thousands of people, from California and around the world, expected to visit Oregon for the eclipse:

Don’t try moving in while it’s dark.

We know everyone who lives here.

Besides, your moving truck will never make it up I-5.

Oregon last saw a total eclipse in 1979, when it was a much more limited occasion. For one thing, it was raining in Portland – being February in Portland – and the whole thing was a matter of the sky going from gray to grayer, which won’t get you on the network news. (Although getting on the network news was a much bigger thing in 1979, before cable TV. This time, the eclipse will get coast-to-coast live coverage and have its own news logo, just like a medium-strength hurricane or a celebrity divorce trial.)

But another difference was that in 1979, the eclipse just involved a few thousand people moving around the country, not millions elbowing each other for camping sites and lining up to take selfies with the sun. (Astrophysicists’ tip: Have a really long selfie stick.) Back then, a cosmic realignment hadn’t yet risen to the level of a media occasion.

Now, experienced eclipse chasers tell us that seeing a total eclipse will change your life, and maybe it will. But it’s another sign of how this time is different.

Once, we thought change and enlightenment came by focusing light on reality.

It’s a sign of where we are now that this time we’re trying darkness.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 8/20/17.

20 Aug

Two Northwest backgrounds unite to defend food stamps

Two stories about growing up in the Pacific Northwest:

When Oregon’s U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley was student body president at David Douglas High School in east Portland, he ran a food drive. Collecting in a low-income neighborhood, he found that every door he knocked on produced a can of something, or a box of spaghetti. Moving his efforts to a more prosperous area, his expectations were high.

But in the new area, “I collected very little food,” Merkley remembers. “People didn’t believe that hard-working families were out there struggling.”
Jen Hamilton, a new volunteer coordinator at the Oregon Food Bank, was a child in a small Eastern Washington town. “When I was little, I understood what hunger was,” she remembers. “Sometimes my mother would say, ‘For the next few weeks, we’ll be eating out of the pantry,’” because there was no money to buy any more food.

Now, the two stories run together.

Hamilton, with a new graduate degree from Oregon Health Sciences University as a dietitian, was just hired by OFB after spending nine months drawing food stamps, which for an able-bodied adult without children carries a work requirement – an obligation she met by volunteering for 20 hours a week at the food bank. She salvaged usable food, packed cherries and helped teach a “Cooking Matters” class – and the food stamps she drew, less than $200 a month, helped her get by.

Now, like many food stamp clients, she’s employed and no longer drawing benefits, but appreciates the help she received at a tough time.
Jen’s story now runs into the daily efforts of Jeff Merkley, who’s trying to defend food stamps against a massive assault coming from several directions. Both the proposed budget from the Trump administration and the document from the House Budget Committee call for deep cuts in the program, and for years a particular target for slashing has been its assistance for able-bodied adults, no matter how hard they’re trying to find work.

“That’s where Republicans have gone for the money,” says Merkley. “The Budget Committee proposal would take 171 million meals from the most vulnerable Oregonians.”

Food stamps also have a direct effect on the local economy; hungry people don’t stockpile them. They tend to spend them at the supermarket immediately, turning them into tuna and macaroni, sending the money along.

Any cuts in food stamps – now known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP – particularly hits Oregon. For years, the state has made major outreach efforts to get eligible Oregonians signed up for the program, and now has one of the highest participation rates in the country.

Over those years, Oregon’s hunger rate, as calculated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has not coincidentally declined. The program helps
support unemployed able-bodied adults – generally on a short-term basis – as well as the children, elderly and disabled Americans who draw most of the SNAP benefits.

During the Great Recession, when millions of Americans were teetering on the edge of desperation, SNAP covered more people, just the way it was intended. As the economy has recovered in recent years, SNAP’s case load has declined, just the way it was intended.
But not fast enough for the House of Representatives.
That’s where Jeff Merkley’s story comes in. A member of the Senate Budget Committee, like his senior colleague Ron Wyden, Merkley is also the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Agriculture subcommittee, which approves the money for SNAP. Efforts to slash food stamps have come up before, and as Merkley says, “We protected the program on the Senate side.”

This isn’t entirely a Democratic effort; Republican senators from agricultural states often see the benefits of SNAP from the supply side.

Then, especially in the House, there are those who don’t. That’s when Merkley remembers the wealthier neighborhood that yielded less than the poorer neighborhood.

“I think that many Republicans,” says Merkley, “don’t think that there is hunger.”

And Jen Hamilton remember something about a child being hungry in a small Eastern Washington town:

People would help each other.

NOTE: This column appeared on the Oregon Food Bank website, August 2017.

08 Aug

One more dead end for revenue reform suggests a different route

It took 10 years of legislative effort, Mark Hass points out, to get Oregon to a policy of full-day kindergarten.

So, the Beaverton state senator insists, to have another legislative session slip by without revenue reform is no cause for despair.

Still, like a kindergartener who keeps eating the crayons, it’s not exactly encouraging.
For decades, one of the rituals of the opening of the Oregon legislature, along with electing leaders and assigning parking spaces, has been the announcement of the difference between what the state expects to collect and what it would cost to keep doing what it’s been doing. The egislature then has six months, calling on luck, imagination and occasionally skill, to make up the difference – although over the years of the legislature’s maneuvers, Oregon schools have also seen a widening difference between the school programs and class sizes the state used to have and what it manages to finance now.

Not to say fewer crayons.

This past session, Hass, chairman of the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee, and the leadership across the building in the House set out to make revenue reform happen. There were large Democratic majorities, if not quite supermajorities; unhappy memories on all sides of last fall’s multi-multi-million-dollar initiative battle over the business receipts tax Measure 97; and, as usual, a budget shortfall, this time estimated at $1.6 billion.

And, as usual, revenue reform didn’t happen.

There are limited places that more state revenue could come from. Oregon’s personal income tax is already at nosebleed levels, paying for virtually all the state budget – with the help of a vital, let’s-not-talk-about-it pipeline from the state’s jingling video poker machines.

Initiative measures of the 1990s constitutionally cut property taxes without replacing the money, giving Oregon shortfalls ever since.

Sales tax? Wash your mouth out with soap.

That leaves a business tax – and businesses, Hass points out, have gone from covering 18 percent of the state budget in the 1990s to paying 6 percent today.

During the Measure 97 battle last fall, there were hints that if voters defeated its sizable gross receipts tax, there might be interest in a more moderate version. Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, of the House Revenue Committee, points out that in Ohio, a similar tax – at a considerably lower rate than Measure 97 – was enacted by a Republican legislature and a Republican governor.

But when the legislature gathered, all that anyone remembered was the bitterness of the initiative fight, and who won.

“The reason we had so much opposition,” says Hass, “was the hangover from Measure 97.”

Of course, the winter was a time of other weirdness. Smith Warner recalls, “The Trump election threw everything into disarray,” and in the legislature it doesn’t take much to achieve that.

And the legislature did have other things on its mind. It passed a provider tax to bolster the Oregon Health Plan (and keep the federal dollars flowing), and an $8 billion transportation tax and investment package – something that the legislature has been trying to do for years, or even longer than it takes to get across the Interstate Bridge. Crucially, the package managed to get the necessary Republican support.

And the legislature once again managed to close up the budget gap and get out of the building, a tactic involving some cuts, some rearrangements, and a better-than-expected revenue forecast, the legislature’s version of Batman’s utility belt. So the state’s fiscal problem is resolved – until the shortfall forecast before the next legislature.

At the end of the session last month, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, declared, “We fought like hell to get to a long-term budget deal so we could finally stabilize our finances and make meaningful investments in Oregon’s schools. We couldn’t get it done, but we did lay the groundwork for success in 2019” – but it’s not clear just why the prospects would look better then.

Still, the 2017 legislature did manage the major transportation package, which could be an inspiration – and maybe a model.

“In 2015, the legislature fumbled the bill over a transportation tax. So we started a process, a task force holding hearings around the state,” points out Hass.

We could do that again. I’m happy to do it that way.”

That approach still might not work. Revenue reform has a long tradition of not working in Oregon, and there’s a good chance of more initiative measures next November, to redraw the angry lines and pump money into the cash registers of television stations.

But the early launching of an effort seems a minimal requirement for a reform drive that might succeed. Because one thing we’ve learned over a quarter-century is that this problem can’t be solved in the last weeks of a legislative session.

You end up with a strategy written in crayon.

NOTE: This columnn appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 8/2/17.

08 Aug

Oregon dismay at GOP health care bill loud enough to hear in D.C.

BEAVERTON – In a giant jammed gymnasium, stuffed full of Oregonians drawn to a town hall by the prospect of Congress dismantling health care, questioners rarely asked about the actual bill, the one that seemed to be slowly decomposing over the July 4 break.

Opposition was so complete it barely needed to be mentioned.

Of course, questioners would thank Sen. Ron Wyden and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici for their opposition to the bill, before asking them about something like outdoor policy. And Wyden and Bonamici themselves would bring the subject back to topics like pre-existing conditions, or sections redirecting Medicaid toward a cliff.

The Senate Republican bill, warned Bonamici, would take health coverage from 511,000 Oregonians, a statement that drew a roar of dismay and an urgent waving of green cards given out by the group Indivisible to encourage listeners to show support for the speakers. The same outcry, audible and visible, greeted Wyden’s warning that the bill would throw out Obamacare’s rules on what insurance had to cover.

Since arriving in the Senate two decades ago, Wyden has followed a policy of holding one town hall every year in each of Oregon’s 36 counties. But on this Thursday in early July, he was already holding his 51st town hall of the year, with two more to come before he returned to D.C. at the end of the recess.

And, he insisted in an interview after the rally, the message from town halls in Republican territory like Redmond and Newberg wasn’t greatly different from the message in steadily bluer Beaverton. “I’ve never seen a situation,” Wyden declared, “when the urban and rural parts of Oregon reacted the same way.”

(A part of the feeling may be the calculation that Oregon’s deep-red, mostly east of the Cascades 2nd district, represented by House Republican leadership member Greg Walden, is one of the top districts in the country for insurance gains under Obamacare, with an estimated 64,000 locals gaining coverage. Rural hospitals and health clinics are being particularly kept afloat by the legislation, which may not produce Beaverton-level roars but can make a small-town hall welcoming to Wyden – and somewhat obstreperous for Walden.)

The responses made it hard to remember the summer of 2009, when it seemed Bonamici’s predecessor, Rep. David Wu, would barely escape alive from town halls where he defended his support of Obamacare, and local police were needed to keep irate audiences in their seats. Either global warming has changed Oregonians’ summer attitudes, or after several years in operation, the program has actually gotten more popular.)

It’s a long way from even the most crowded and boisterous Oregon rally to the U.S. Capitol, but Wyden insisted to the crowd that they covered the distance. “Without this outcry,” he told the Beaverton audience, “sometime last month, around two or three in the morning, the Senate would have passed (Majority Leader) Mitch McConnell’s bill.”

It still might happen. Last week, McConnell declared that to try and pass a bill, he would keep the Senate in session two weeks past its scheduled August recess date. That will no doubt mess up Wyden’s town hall schedule, but it was unclear whether it would let McConnell nail down the 50 out of 52 Republican senators he needed.

Last Thursday, hours after McConnell unveiled the newest version of his bill – and right after Wyden joined Minority Leader Charles Schumer and Washington Sen. Patty Murray in a press conference to declare that Democratic opposition was unchanged – the Oregon senator calculated that the situation hadn’t changed.

“The recess,” he reported, “was not kind to Mitch McConnell.”

The message had gotten back, Wyden explained, even though, “I don’t think there was a large number of Republican senators holding open-to-all town meetings.”

McConnell’s new version did not change the sharp cutbacks on Medicaid – a particular problem for Oregon, which has seized expanded Medicaid opportunities – and he added Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s plan to let insurance companies offer plans with minimal coverage, which Wyden assessed would “blow a hole in the system.”

By Thursday afternoon, GOP senators Rand Paul on the right and Susan Collins in the middle had declared they were still not happy, two other Republican senators had proposed their own plan, and Wyden noted that North Dakota’s John Hoeven and Kansas’s Jerry Moran had expressed doubts: “These are not senators who have gone out of their way to break from their party.”

The thing to watch, Wyden warns, is the “$100 billion taxpayer-paid slush fund” in the bill, resources that he says McConnell is brandishing in his talks with senators.

Still, the tide may be going the wrong way. Last week, hospital groups, insurance groups, disease advocacy organizations and elderly advocates became even louder in attacks on the bill. And, although unrelated to health care, Wyden noted that the week’s burst of Russian stories “didn’t bring a lot of authority to the brand.”

Even with the expanded schedule, he concludes, “Two weeks in August is not going to fix this deeply flawed bill.”

And it will still leave time for some more town halls.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 7/16/17.