04 Mar

For kids. a home away from homelessness

The word of the week is “Grit.”

It’s proclaimed in the middle of the school hallway, with definition and examples. (Grit is not saying “I can’t do it;” grit is saying “I can’t do it yet.”) Fridays, there’s a school assembly where teachers praise students who have demonstrated the word of the week; winners get an I Can award, a can of soda.

Of course, at Community Transitional School, grit could be the word of every week.

Last November, the Oregon Department of Education reported more than 22,000 homeless students in the state’s public schools – 1,500 in Portland Public Schools, 10 percent of the student population of the Reynolds district. On a remote corner of Northeast Portland, in a building with four classrooms, Community Transitional School sends its four school buses to downtown shelters and out to Gresham, to make a difference for about 100 kids at a time.

CTS gets a little money from Multnomah County and from the feds’ Title IX program, but after 28 years it’s supported by a wide range of donors and foundations, of grants and volunteers. Pacific University sends volunteers to work with learning problems, and for a Vision Van that comes around twice a year for vision problems and glasses. (There’s also a Tooth Taxi for dental issues.)

People from the Nike employee shop come out to lead phys ed – with a requirement of completed homework – and students from Oregon Episcopal School and the Riverdale district run cereal drives, because homeless kids tend to get hungry.

Explains principal Cheryl Bickle, “It’s just a private school where kids don’t pay tuition,” and which accepts just about everyone who shows up.

Of course, there are differences. Most private schools don’t put together family packages for Christmas, or send home food for spring break. And at CTS, the students, whose home situation tends to change frequently, may attend for a couple of years or a couple of months. The school buses may pick up and drop off a student at changing addresses – at shelters, at relatives’ houses, maybe near a tent where the family lives.

Teachers can’t assign term projects; the enrollment is likely to be different by the end of a term. And because, as Bickle says, “Nobody wants to be the new kid,” with nobody to sit with at lunch, lunchtime seating is assigned.

Still, in whatever time CTS has with a student, it works to make an impression. “You want to empower this group of kids,” says Bickle. “They don’t have to be the victims of bad decisions by other people.”

Specifically, “They need a place where people have real expectations for them.” Homework is a tricky issue for homeless kids, due to logistics as well as the contradiction in terms, but Bickle is firm: “Homework? That’s a life skill. You better figure out how to do it.”

Right after giving her middle school class a writing assignment on whether they admire cleverness or kindness – one girl’s hand shot up to ask, what if she admired both? – Bickle emphasized how much eventual success for her students seemed to hang on kindness and social skills. It’s not just a matter of ease with people; it’s that after inevitable mistakes, people with social skills are more likely to be forgiven and given another chance.

The kids pick up the theme.

“This school is friendly,” says a 12-year-old boy, recently arrived from out of town. “The other schools are all full of bullies.”

Explains an 11-year-old girl about CTS, “It is kind. The kids here, they think about others.” She jumps up to point to her drawing in a wall display of student Valentines; in a parade rank of candy-box hearts, hers stands out, carefully rimmed in flower petals.

When a student leaves Community Transitional School, hopefully for more stable housing, the school’s parting message is clear.

“Don’t forget all the things you learned about yourself,” says Bickle. “And if you find yourself homeless again, call us. We’ll come and get you.”

In our society, we lose kids in so many ways: to homelessness, to hunger, to drugs, to guns, to nobody even noticing that the kid is slipping away.

But sometimes a lot of people come together, and a kid is caught.

Bickle remembers one student, who attended twice, in different stretches of homelessness. The second time, she remembers, he came back a little harder, a little tougher, but he came back.

And some years later, he returned to the school again, married, with a job.
“I just came back,” he explained to Bickle, “because I wanted to tell you I turned out all right.”

That grit can be powerful stuff.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 3/4/18.

04 Feb

Trump immigration offer not exactly a Dream

As their guests for last week’s first State of the Union speech by Donald Trump, the Oregon Democrats in Congress invited Dreamers, undocumented immigrants brought here as children whose legal status now ends March 8.

The atmosphere turned out to be less than hospitable.

In fact, the last time guests were treated like this was in “Game of Thrones.”

Trump spent much of the speech warning of the dangers of immigration, referring to undocumented immigrants in terms of MS-13, the Salvadoran drug gang.

After boasting repeatedly of his love for Dreamers – “He had a real chance to reach out,” commented Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley. “He said he had a big heart for them”— the president moved instead to what Merkley calls an election strategy of “ginning up the fear factor, and becoming the MS-13 president.”

And now the fate of 800,000 Dreamers – including 11,000 Oregonians – who grew up in the United States and typically know no other country, seems increasingly murky.
The president’s refusal to reach a deal to protect the Dreamers – despite their overwhelming support in public opinion polls, including among Republicans – had recently led to a funding cliff that briefly shut the government down. Last month, Merkley was among the leaders of the 18 Senate Democrats who voted against a continuing resolution reopening the government for another three weeks – which, in a time of complete budget collapse, is how we now fund the functioning of the United States.

Merkley explained that since negotiations never take place until a few days before the funding runs out, he saw no reason to renew funding for more than a few days, and start negotiations immediately. The renewed funding for the government runs out again this Thursday, and Merkley says he’ll again try for a very short renewal – although he admits another shutdown is unlikely.

Part of the deal that ended the shutdown was a promise by Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to allow a Senate vote on a Dreamer protection bill, including chances for amendments from both parties. Merkley notes that McConnell has made promises before – including about the Dreamers – and that his promises are not exactly negotiable currency.

(In fact, it seems that a McConnell promise and $1,000 will get you into a fund-raising dinner.)

“We’ll see if that happens,” says Merkley about the vote. In any event, “I’m skeptical we can get 60 votes.”

Not because there isn’t an immigration deal that could get 60 votes; one actually exists, devised by a bipartisan group of senators, which the president first pledged to support and then rejected. Merkley also cites a warning from House Speaker Paul Ryan to McConnell not to pass a funding bill with Dreamer protection attached.

(Ryan has to worry about hard-line anti-immigration Republican House members who make Trump look like the Statue of Liberty. One of them, Paul Gosar of Arizona, responded to Democrats’ inviting Dreamers to the speech by calling for any undocumented immigrant entering the Capitol to be arrested and deported.)

Tuesday night, Trump stressed the dangers of immigration, linking protection for the Dreamers to $25 billion for a southern border wall, and to ending two other immigration programs: the visa lottery and family reunification, which he calls “chain migration.” Trump charged that “under the current broken system, a single immigrant can bring in virtually unlimited numbers of distant relatives” – a statement that was not only hostile but, like his praise of “beautiful clean coal,” transparently untrue.

Speaking for the Democratic senators, Merkley warns, “I don’t think those two things get through without a fight,” pointing out that family reunification “has been part of our immigration policy forever.” He would support “a significant expansion in border security,” although noting that spending happens in annual votes, not in a 15-year, $25 billion “slush fund.”

Since the speech, Trump has repeated his hostile line on immigration, as both the next government funding vote and the March 8 deadline on Dreamers come closer – and the prospect of a deal gets further away.

“Last night was a turning point for me,” Merkley mused bleakly Wednesday afternoon. “I was more optimistic before.

“It was painful for us thinking of everything,” he recalled about the Oregon Democrats listening to the speech. “It was painful thinking of our guests in the balcony.”

Among a blizzard of discouraging messages Tuesday evening, Oregon Democrats got another one:

When Donald Trump is the attraction, be careful who you invite.

Trying for an uplifting note in the evening, the president declared, “Americans are dreamers, too.”

But maybe Dreamers can’t be Americans.

NOTE: This column appeared in the Sunday Oregonian, 2/4/17.

24 Jan

D.C. attack on higher education felt in Oregon

It’s clear, as we mark the one-year mark of the Donald Trump show, that the Official Dislike list includes immigrants, many of the countries they come from, corporate taxes and reporters who ask annoying questions.

But there is also a clear dislike, and multiple moves against, the nation’s higher education institutions, part of what The Atlantic calls “The Republican War on College.”

This regime is deeply suspicious of people who think they know something.

Michael Schill, president of the University of Oregon, calls the situation “alarming,” noting that “We are getting a message from some members of Congress and the president that’s hostile to higher education.”

The effects are reaching toward Oregon colleges and universities, creating what Wim Wiewel, former president of Portland State University and current president of Lewis & Clark College, calls “a bit of a sense of a wholesale assault.”

Efforts undermining higher ed include the new tax bill, the approaching Higher Education Reauthorization act, the administration’s proposals for sharp cuts in research funding and official attitudes making the United States about as inviting to foreign students as mandatory gym. After a long tradition of government considering higher education as an asset – it produces medicines, weapons and taxpayers – higher ed largely serves the current administration as a target.

The new tax bill, among other things, limits the deductibility of interest on student loans, and for the first time taxes the income of the largest college endowments. (The tax doesn’t bring in much, but it sends a message.) The House version would have taken a small nick out of the Reed College budget; the Senate raised the threshold enough to exclude all Oregon colleges – for now.

The Senate also blocked the House’s effort to turn tuition waivers, given to graduate student and college employees, into taxable income, which could have given a number of students the gift of a tax bill larger than their income.

(The tax bill, with its limit on state tax deductibility, also squeezes high income tax states like Oregon, and decades have shown that state squeezes are felt first in the higher ed budget.)

The next blast comes in the impending Higher Education Reauthorization , recently pushed through the House education committee on a party-line vote after the Democrats first saw the bill just before a 14-hour markup session. “In the end,” says Oregon Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, a senior Democrat on the committee, “it will make it harder for low-income students.”

Elements include charging student loan interest earlier, from the time of borrowing instead of graduation; eliminating programs of student loan forgiveness after years spent in certain professions; and eliminating graduate students from federal work-study programs – as well as dropping the funding from a 3-1 federal match to 50-50.

But the proposed bill does follow Trump administration policy of eliminating the Obama administration’s limitation for-profit colleges, established because the for-profits too often left students with no useful degrees and sizable debt – to be largely covered by the feds. Curbing that outcome is now considered an interference with school choice.

For next year’s budget, the Trump administration is proposing cutting federal research spending in half. (As noted, the administration is suspicious of people who know things, or want to learn them.) This would be a major hit to universities around the country; in Oregon, it could land heavily on Oregon State, where a major oceanography research grant just raised the university’s annual research funding to $441 million. Oregon State president Ed Ray says he’s worried about it “very much,” and that universities might depend more on non-federal research funding, such as corporations and foundations.

Bonamici says that Congress looks more favorably on research, and “Fortunately, it’s the legislative branch that makes appropriations.” But as the events of the last week have shown, the D.C. budget process is now a roller coaster with very weak guard rails.

Currently, Washington undermines higher ed in another way unrelated to budget. Increasingly, American universities have been drawing international students, who pay out-of-state tuition and build global reputations. Now, says Schill, “Students are wondering whether this is a congenial place to go to school,” and the U of O’s international applications are down, part of a national trend.

The roots of the hostility are not hard to see. Stephen Moore, an economist and journalist who advised the Trump campaign, reflected considerable conservative opinion by calling universities “playpens of the left,” and a recent Pew poll found 58 percent of Republicans believing that “colleges and universities have a negative effect on the way things are going in this country.”

It’s certainly true, as Ed Ray notes, that higher ed has always been criticized, and that its current critics are still generally enrolling their children. But American higher education has been strengthened by a general understanding that the system is an economic asset and a route for social mobility – and dismissing that awareness will lead to major losses.

It’s a problem if our model of higher education is Trump University.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian 1/21/18.

06 Jan

Healthcare community riding together on 101

Measure 101, the subject of the ballots that dropped into Oregon mailboxes last week, stands almost alone among the vast bushels of Oregon tax measures.

For this one, some of the folks who would pay it are its strongest supporters.
It’s like homeowners demanding to pay more property taxes.

Measure 101 puts a small tax on health care providers, and yet just about everybody in the Oregon health care community – doctors, nurses, hospitals, insurance providers, disease advocates, mothers who want their children to be doctors – supports it. In the medical community’s thinking on Measure 101, it’s not easy to find a second opinion.

The money raised by the tax would bring in a much larger amount from the federal government, protecting the health insurance of hundreds of thousands of Oregonians recently added to Medicaid. The strategy has already worked for Oregon and its health care community, and for some other states and their health care communities – which may be why so many providers are in such unusual agreement on a tax, even if they’re paying it.

“It’s very important that the majority of healthcare in Oregon is working behind 101,” agrees Kevin Ewanchyna, a Corvallis family physician and Oregon Medical Association board member. “My colleagues and I all have stories about lives saved because people came in for primary care when they had coverage.”

Over two years, the tax would collect between $210 million and $320 million from the Oregon healthcare community. But as matching funds, it would bring in $630 million to $960 million from the federal government, covering the 350,000 Oregonians added to Medicaid by the Affordable Care Act, and supporting the reforms Oregon has made to its healthcare system in recent years.

Folks in healthcare aren’t always in total agreement; doctors complain about insurance providers, hospitals complain about doctors. There are always conflicts, admits Jessica Adamson, director of government affairs for Oregon at Providence Health and Services, “But on this one we agree. We believe it’s important to stand together to defend this package.”

Oregon – as well as other states – has done this before. In 2009, the legislature adopted a similar strategy to maximize the state’s use of the Children’s Health Insurance Program. That tax has lapsed now, after helping cut the proportion of uninsured Oregon children from 12 percent to 2 percent.

Everybody in Oregon healthcare also agrees that doing that was a good idea.

On the other hand, risking the federal support for insuring 350,000 Oregonians is a problem for everybody. Uninsured people endanger their own health, hurting themselves and the economy. But as we learned over decades, lack of insurance, preventing primary care, causes expensive emergency room appearances and late-stage treatment, costs landing on the entire system.

“When people lack access to affordable care,” points out Janet Bauer of the Oregon Center for Public Policy, “everybody else’s costs go up.”

This would be especially true of defeating Measure 101, which includes a reinsurance plan protecting insurers against extreme individual expenses, otherwise spread over everyone’s premiums – raising them by an estimated $300 a year.

The Voting Pamphlet arguments against Measure 101, mostly from individuals, argue against any taxes, against providing health coverage for undocumented children, against abortion, against state college tuition levels and against Nike (it’s a long story). They also object to the cost and quality of health care in Oregon, although it’s not clear how risking billions in federal money helps that.

But, state Rep. Cedric Hayden insists, “There’s NO RISK 350,000 low-income Oregonians will lose healthcare if you vote NO on 101! Income tax revenue created by Oregon’s $5 BILLION DOLLAR healthcare industry exceeds the revenue we need to fund Medicaid patients.”

The state’s just spending its money wrong, he explains, so all the legislature would have to do in its short session next month is redesign the state budget.

People in Oregon healthcare are less confident. Measure 101 “is the only guarantee we’ll be able to qualify for the Medicaid benefit,” says Adamson of Providence, currently the only statewide individual insurance provider. “Anything else is a gamble.

“There is no Plan B.”

Never a comforting medical opinion.

It took six months – and multiple trips through the number-crunching Legislative Fiscal Office – for the legislature to put together the program and the budget behind Measure 101, and to gather the overwhelming support of Oregon healthcare behind it.

“That’s why,” explains Kevin Ewanchyna, “the physicians of Oregon have to support the expansion of the Medicaid program, and Measure 101. From my perspective, it’s either Measure 101 or it’s not happening.”

To the people who provide health care in Oregon – who treat the patients and keep the facilities working – Measure 101 isn’t just a proposal.

It’s a prescription.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 1/7/18.

21 Dec

Same-sex weddings now baked in the cake

It’s the holiday season, and the air is full of baking. Magazines are thick with Christmas cookie recipes, the hot urban trend is the donut boutique, and Oregon’s booming marijuana tax revenues suggest that the whole state is getting baked.

And the Supreme Court is talking cake.

The court’s unusually layered proceedings earlier this month addressed the case of Masterpiece Cakeshop, a Colorado baker who cited his religious beliefs in refusing to create a cake for a gay wedding – an episode closely resembling Oregon’s own Sweet Cakes by Melissa case. The Oregon proprietors were fined $135,000 by labor commissioner Brad Avakian, and their appeal is now before the Oregon Court of Appeals. When the Supreme Court swings its own rolling pin on the issue, it could set the pastry precedent.

The Oregon argument has been largely about religious freedom, and whether you can be obliged to bake a cake for an event you would refuse to attend. The Supreme Court argument was largely about art.
You might rather have judges talking cake.

Religious freedom did feature in the Masterpiece case. But the Colorado baker argued strongly that the controversy was an issue of freedom of expression, that he was an artist who expressed himself in his cakes, and that the government could not tell him what to say, in print or in buttercream.

Masterpiece Cakeshop’s attorney, Kristen K. Waggoner, said her client was an artist who creates “a temporary sculpture” when he makes a wedding cake. Slicing the argument even thinner, she declared that her client would have no problem with a gay couple coming into his shop, buying a cake off the shelf and using it as a wedding cake; it was only creating a custom wedding cake that cut across his artistic freedom.

And while other legal cases have treated bakers’ concerns as similar to those of florists or photographers who might want to send regrets to a gay wedding, the Colorado claim saw the baker as distinct from the candlestick maker. While the baker has rights of expression, argued Waggoner, “the tailor is not engaged in speech, nor is the chef engaged in speech.”

Justice Elena Kagan gagged on the distinction. “Whoa,” she said. “The baker is engaged in speech, but the chef is not engaged in speech?”

Because if a wedding cake is covered under religious liberty, the next demand will be to free the finger sandwiches.

It was all too much for Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
“When have we ever,” she asked, “given protection to a food?”
The artistic expression argument might have particular force in Oregon, where the law takes an expansive view of expression and its protection – the reason Oregon has a planet-leading number of strip joints per capita. On the other hand, nobody’s suggested that a strip joint’s freedom of expression would let it refuse to book a same-sex wedding’s bachelor party.
Or deciding what to serve.

The constitutional cake controversy may raise a fundamental issue, or it might just be a marker of where we are in the same-sex marriage process.

During the debate over the 1964 civil rights act, and in some later debates, legislators agonized over “Mrs. Murphy’s boarding house,” and Mrs. Murphy having to accept boarders she didn’t like into her small, personal space. Fifty years later, we no longer hear much about Mrs. Murphy; maybe she’s retired to an Arizona gated community with a golf course. Now we just assume that discrimination in places of public accommodation is illegal, even to Donald Trump’s Justice Department.

The American public’s attitude toward gay marriage has changed faster than the public image of Bill Cosby. In 2004, George W. Bush ran for re-election in a crusade against gay marriage – it was better than running on the glory of the Iraq war – and a dozen states, including not-quite-as-cool-as-it-would-later-be Oregon, enacted constitutional amendments outlawing the idea. In 2016, with 42 Republican candidates for president, none of them stressed rolling back gay marriage, and several of them even seemed willing to serve as ring bearer.

In a season that’s largely about family gatherings – and, of course, baking—we have nationally reached the understanding that families come in lots of different shapes. Last week in Alabama – Alabama! – voters rejected a Senate candidate who declared that homosexual behavior was “heinous” and should be illegal. There were lots of other reasons Roy Moore lost, but a number of voters seemed to be telling reporters that, you know, someone in their family was gay, and should still be treated like a person.
In 2017, we have finished the argument over gay marriage. That ship has sailed, or you might say, that cake has been baked.

Now we’re arguing over crumbs.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 12/17/12.

04 Dec

Trump batters against West Coast blue wall

It might be, as Pink Floyd put it, just another brick in the wall.

But it’s quite a wall.

Last month, huge national attention – and $10 million from all over the country – went to one state Senate race on suburban Seattle. A Democratic victory there in November switched the majority in the Washington state Senate, giving Democrats complete control of state governments across Washington, Oregon and California – creating, in a suddenly ubiquitous phrase, a blue wall along the Pacific.

Just over a year ago, of course, Democrats also thought they had a blue wall from Pennsylvania to Wisconsin, which they counted on to hold firm whatever happened in Florida and North Carolina. That wishful wall’s collapse into off-blue rubble last November challenged the whole idea of load-bearing structures as a political metaphor.

But unlike that blue wall, the Pacific version is based on more than post-1992 presidential election returns – although the West Coast wall certainly qualifies for that, not casting an electoral vote for any Republican since the first George Bush. (Washington and Oregon haven’t provided one since Ronald Reagan.) Washington hasn’t elected a GOP governor since 1980 and Oregon since 1982, giving them the two longest streaks in the country. California hasn’t elected a Republican governor not named Arnold Schwarzenegger since 1994.

But this blue wall is as much about values as election returns. West Coast firmness is based on fundamental differences with Republican dogma on the natural world, the rights of individuals and attitudes toward immigrants.

The wall has stood against election campaigns. But its values are now under attack by a tax bill that cuts deductibility of state and local taxes and quietly moves against abortion rights, and government policies that prize fossil fuels and assault personal freedoms.

The week after the election, the governors of the three states attended a United Nations conference in Germany, on air quality, including a panel where they insisted that West Coast states would continue to limit greenhouse emissions despite national policy. (Washington Gov. Jay Inslee attended the official U.S. event there and denounced it as a “sideshow.”) Earlier this year, following the United States’ withdrawal from the Paris accord on global warming, the governors joined the mayors of Los Angeles, San Francisco, Oakland, Portland and Seattle reaffirming the regional commitment, declaring, “We won’t let the president’s misguided decision limit … our commitment to doing what’s right.”

The position extends a long-term emissions agreement among the three states and the province of British Columbia. The change in control of the Washington state senate could expand legislative options. Meanwhile, California Gov. Jerry Brown is planning to host his own international climate change conference in San Francisco next year.

The West Coast has a commitment to personal freedom standing firmly against an administration eagerly seeking ways to cut back abortion rights, and an attorney general who pronounces, “Good people don’t smoke marijuana.” The three states have some of the least constrictive abortion laws in the country, led by Oregon, which this year enacted a law requiring insurance companies to cover birth control and abortion without co-pays, with state funding covering immigrants who don’t qualify for Medicaid.

The coastal states have led the way in expanding personal rights. Washington, and Colorado, led the nation in legalizing recreational marijuana, followed shortly by Oregon and then California. Oregon was the first to legalize physician-assisted suicide, later joined by Washington and, as of last year, California.

It’s a region unwilling to take legal – or lifestyle – advice from Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

As the Trump administration moves to expand deportations and crack down on “sanctuary” states and cities, the West Coast states have stood like a multicolored – or multicultural – wall. In February, Washington Gov. Inslee signed an executive order banning state employees or resources from being used to enforce federal immigration law, declaring that Washington will be a “welcoming jurisdiction.” In October, California Gov. Brown signed a bill sharply limiting state and local cooperation with federal immigration officers, a law denounced by Sessions as “unconscionable.” This year, Oregon’s legislature bolstered the state’s already strong sanctuary position, banning state officials in most situations from asking about immigration status or sharing the information with federal agencies, causing the conservative Daily Caller to attack Oregon as “the foremost ‘sanctuary state.’”

Compared with the Rust Belt blue wall that crumbled last November, the West Coast blue wall is both bluer and more of a wall. It also stands in ever sharper contrast to the aggressive policies and pressures coming from Washington, D.C.

Democrats taking control of the Washington state Senate may be just another brick in the wall.

But this wall actually stands for something.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 12/3/17.

22 Nov

Oregon chefs stir up action against hunger

Every year, Oregon food fans have more reason to be thankful.

The Oregon food scene, not only in Portland but also in areas from Bend to wine country, gets ever livelier, with more restaurants and chefs getting national recognition and the state growing more wine labels than trees. Each September, the Portland Feast is a national food event – described by Forbes magazine this year as “one of the nation’s hottest food festivals” – and Oregon is now a prominent presence in the kind of food magazines where once it was seen only in state tourism ads.

It’s enough to make you raise a drumstick to Oregon’s food situation.

Assuming, of course, you have a drumstick.

In another signpost of the Oregon food situation, in September the U.S. Department of Agriculture issued its catchily named volume, “Household Food Security in the United States, 2016,” which found that Oregon was still above the national average in food insecurity. The survey found that while 13 percent of Americans weren’t sure where their next meal was coming from, the Oregon number was 14.6 percent – and that the great number of other states in that category were well south of here. Moreover, while both California and Washington had significantly improved their numbers since the last survey, Oregon hadn’t.

This year’s “Map the Meal Gap” survey, from the food bank alliance Feeding America, calculated that 22.5 percent of Oregon kids lived in food-insecure households, a number that’s also more like the Confederacy than the Coast. In some Eastern and Southern Oregon counties, the number towers much higher, like a fir tree.

On hunger levels, Oregon may not be where it was in its chart-topping 1990s, but we’re still a fleet of food carts away from where we should be. For a high-profile food state, we have some considerable gaps in our menu.

Some of the people most involved with Oregon’s high food profile are also concerned about our high hunger profile. Oregon chefs, the ones currently on the phone with national food writers or putting the last touches on their Thanksgiving menus, tend to take hunger very personally.

Gregory Gourdet, chef at Departure on the top floor of The Nines hotel, notes that working downtown and living on the other side of the Burnside Bridge – and commuting by bicycle – he gets a view of what Portland street life is like. And working with Urban Gleaners, which collects surplus food for distribution to schools and other locations, “I see the neighborhoods they go into.”

Like a lot of Portland chefs, Gourdet – a 2015 finalist in Bravo’s Top Chef competition – cooks at the Feast, which since 2012 has raised $300,000 for child hunger programs, this year for Partners for a Hunger-Free Oregon. Producing dazzling meals for hundreds of people a night, he thinks of the gap between that diet and the one facing so many Oregonians.

It’s why Jose Chesa, chef of Ataula, prepared the annual fund-raising event for Partners this year, and looks for other ways to help. He explains, “You see the extent of consumerism, and the experiences around the holidays, it’s a time to think that there’s a lot of hunger.”

It’s why a dozen Portland chefs, including John Gorham of Toro Bravo and Matt Christianson of Urban Farmer, rode bicycles in Chef Cycle for three days in May to raise money for No Kid Hungry. It’s why two Portland catering chefs, Allison Lew and Camille Bell, have volunteered hundreds of hours for the Oregon Food Bank.

As Gourdet, who says he’ll be looking for a shelter to help on Thanksgiving, explains, “There is a power in what we do.”

Or as Jose Andres, superstar Washington, D.C., chef, said last year, “Hunger is not a problem for us to solve. It is an opportunity for us to seize.”

Which is also not a bad way to approach Thanksgiving.

This year, Andres – a Spanish immigrant who canceled a deal at the Trump International D.C. Hotel after Donald Trump’s statements on immigration – found an opportunity to seize. After Hurricane Maria levelled Puerto Rico, he flew down and used his resources – including a massive paella plan that can feed hundreds – to set up a feeding operation that became the largest on the island. Last week, Andres announced that he would continue the effort through Christmas.

Which is why Lily Rose just wrote in the Los Angeles Times, “Jose Andres is totally the hero we need right now.”

And as we’re particularly reminded this time of year, so is anyone who feeds hungry people.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 11/19/17.

05 Nov

Haphazard tax bill a hazard to Oregon

So Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden, as ranking Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, went down to the White House recently to talk to the president about the tax overhaul process, accompanied by other Democrats on the committee.

One by one, the other Democrats explained to the president their predictable priorities on the bill: helping the middle class, protecting Social Security and Medicare, not exploding the deficit. And as he often does, Donald Trump told the people talking to him that he agreed with them entirely.

The conversation then came around to Wyden, speaking last, who pointed out to Trump that those were not the positions taken by the administration officials working on the bill.

Trump looked around at Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and told them to fix it.

And later in the week, Trump jovially declared that if a tax bill didn’t work out, it would be all Mnuchin’s and Cohn’s fault.

Commented Wyden afterward, sounding just a bit dazed by the experience and the week, “You can’t make this stuff up.”

After all, he noted, “We’re only talking about remaking the entire American economy.”

Whether Washington can make up, let alone enact, a major tax overhaul remains murky. Thursday, after many delays and postponements, House Ways and Means Committee chairman Kevin Brady, R-Texas, finally rolled out a bill – cobbled together over the last minutes and scheduled for committee action next week without the annoyances of public hearings.

Cutting taxes, of course, is not hard. By all accounts, including observation of the early Reagan and George W. Bush administrations, it can be rather delightful. What’s hard is paying for it, especially if the goal is to avoid a filibuster by qualifying under the Senate’s reconciliation rules.

Especially if, by Wyden’s (and other people’s) calculations, Republicans have promised, over the next decade, $4 trillion in tax cuts. Even charging $1.5 trillion to the national debt, it means they have to come up with a lot of new tax revenue to balance the cuts, and several of the strategies involved are aimed directly at Oregon.

The original plan was to save some money by repealing the Affordable Care Act, which would have sharply hit the finances of Oregon, perhaps more invested in Obamacare than any other state. (It also would have hit hard at Oregon hospitals and at several hundred thousand Oregonians who’d gained health coverage.)

Last week, Trump suggested finding some money by using the tax bill to take another hack at health care, but congressional Republicans had apparently had enough of wrestling with that issue.

Instead, Brady had another last-minute idea, cutting the 401(k) deduction – a curious strategy at a time when private company pensions are collapsing – but that vanished after Trump tweeted against it.

So to achieve the declared Republican goals – including cutting the corporate tax rate nearly in half and entirely eliminating the inheritance tax that starts at a couple’s estate of $11.9 million – the next idea was to end the deductibility of state and local taxes, thought to be a good joke on high-tax states, considered mostly Democratic. According to a study by the Government Finance Officers Association, Oregon has the sixth-highest dependence on the deduction, with 36 percent of Oregon filers claiming it.

But after the home-building industry exploded against the idea, Brady proposed tweaking the idea, allowing deductions of property taxes but not state income or sales taxes. (Texas has high property taxes but no state income tax.) This plan could still be a political problem for GOP congressmen from high-tax states, who might some day want to go home.

The plan released Thursday indeed ends the deductibility of state income and sales taxes, and limits mortgage interest deductibility to the first $500,000 of mortgages – a limit running directly against the trend in Portland metro real estate prices. A headline on Bloomberg News Thursday explained, “Oregon, New York Top List of States Hit by Ending Tax Deductions.”

Well, it’s always nice to be on top.

In a press conference Thursday afternoon, Wyden declared, “The final price tag for this Republican bill is still a question mark… But what’s not going to change is the fact that this plan is massively skewed toward those at the top.”

In mid-October, riding between La Grande and Pendleton, Wyden observed about Republican tax designers, “It’s not at all clear what they’re going to do. They make it up as they go along.”

Last week, as time ran out, the tax bill process still looked like a practice exercise at an improv theatre company.

You can’t make this stuff up.

And looking at it from Oregon, there seems no reason why you would want to.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 11/5/17.