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.

04 Oct

Science committee makes a science of ignoring science

After a summer of planetary upheaval, nobody can say the U.S. House Committee on Science, Space and Technology is ignoring the messages sent out by the quivering natural world.

After all, the committee scheduled a hearing on what we could learn from the solar eclipse.

It seems a fitting agenda for a committee that often seems to be operating in the dark.

“When we came back to the Capitol after (Hurricanes) Harvey and Irma,” explains Rep. Suzanne Bonamici, D-Ore., who’s spent years on the committee, “I suggested to the chairman that we should be having a conversation about climate change, and he said, they’re not caused by climate change.”

To go with the special glasses used to watch the eclipse, the committee leaders may be using special glasses to watch the climate.

The science committee chairman, Lamar Smith of Texas, warns against “so-called self-professed climate scientists,” and argues, “the benefits of a changing climate are often ignored and under-researched.” Plants respond well to warmer weather and more carbon in the atmosphere, he declares, and melting Arctic ice will open up more shipping lanes. Smith has used the committee to attack and subpoena climate scientists – and darned if there aren’t a lot of them – who warn of the dangers of rising global temperatures and sea levels.

And a summer that saw his state’s largest city – along with Puerto Rico and much of Florida – virtually drowned, as Houston was hit by its third 500-year storm in three years, hasn’t changed his mind.

A long way from the Gulf of Mexico, Bonamici also had reason to wonder about the summer’s atmospherics. “While they’ve had floods and hurricanes in the Southeast,” she notes, “the Northwest was burning up,” with massive forest fires in southern and central Oregon and the Columbia Gorge.

It’s not that climate change causes hurricanes or forest fires, but it does seem to fuel them. Warmer weather and warmer ocean water strengthens hurricanes, creating the 40 and 50 inches of rain that Harvey brought Houston and the unprecedented one-two punch of Iris and Maria in the Caribbean. And while no climate condition can affect teenagers’ drive to be stupid, Bonamici notes, “We had a very hot, very dry July and August, so when the 15-year-old threw the firecracker, it was a tinderbox.”

The science committee works along with an administration that’s not very interested in the summer’s developments, either. The president, who’s said that climate change is a Chinese-driven hoax, sniffed after the hurricanes, “We’ve had bigger storms than this.” Scott Pruitt, the Environmental Protection Agency head who seems to be working to dismantle the Environmental Protection Agency, piously declared about any connections to climate change, “To use time and effort to address it at this point is very, very insensitive to the people in Florida.”

This sounds like the kind of insight the science committee might want to ask him about, except that Pruitt has never appeared before the committee – despite suggestions from Bonamici, ranking minority member on the subcommittee on the environment, that it might be a good idea to call him in. This might be part of why Donald Beyer, a Democratic member of the committee from Virginia, thinks it’s time to return science to the science committee.
But actually, the committee’s influence – if not its interests – seems to be expanding. One member, Jim Bridenstine of Oklahoma, has been named by the president to be head of the National Aeronautics and Space Agency. (The job typically goes to a scientist, but apparently being a member of the House science committee is just as good.) Besides space travel and watching out for asteroids, NASA has been a major force in climate studies; James Hansen, former head of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies, has been warning and testifying about climate change since the 1980s.

As a freshman congressman, Bridenstine demanded on the House floor that President Obama apologize for spending money researching climate change. He has declared, wrongly, that temperatures stopped rising a decade ago, and warned against “climate change alarmists.” Earlier this year, Bridenstine suggested that earth sciences studies might be happier in some other agency outside NASA.

With the smoke still rising from Northwest forest fires, Bonamici seeks to be optimistic.

“Recently,” she said hopefully, “Mr. Bridenstine has told me that he thinks that humans are contributing to carbon dioxide, and it’s affecting climate change.”

So possibly prospects for actually addressing the new weather aren’t totally eclipsed.

And, Bonamici suggests, there are other avenues. There is now a 58-member House Climate Solutions Caucus, with equal numbers from both parties.
“It took a while for me to join,” she recalls.

“I had to find a Republican.”

NOTE: This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 10/1/17.

25 Sep

This Dreamer can only be considered an Oregonian

Mariana likes “being busy. I like being organized. I’m good at time management.” She graduated from Portland State in June with a 3.7 GPA. After several internships, she now works for Portland city commissioner Nick Fish.

But when Donald Trump was elected president pledging to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals she found, “I would be doing my homework, and suddenly everything would go scattered. I got headaches. I would have nightmares.”

This is not how we should treat our kids.

Mariana Garcia Medina was brought here when she was three, and has lived nowhere else since then. Now she says, “I’m really proud of being from Tigard,” and nobody eager to proclaim that should be casually cast away.

She remembers being excited when President George W. Bush tried to achieve immigration reform, and then for years couldn’t watch news on the subject at all. When President Barack Obama created DACA in 2012, it meant she could get a driver’s license – a shorter-term driver’s license – and a work permit, meaning she could provide her family a steady income, along with being full-time at Portland State.

And when her grandmother and aunt had a medical emergency in Mexico, Garcia Medina was the only one who could go, under the program Advance Parole (now suspended). She wasn’t entirely certain she’d be allowed back into the United States, but she had faith in her lawyer, and besides, somebody had to go.

In Mexico for the first time since she was three, she quickly discovered something.

“I’ve never felt so foreign in a place,” she remembers. “I was considered a foreigner there, and it was true. I was a foreigner.”

Because she’s an Oregonian, one of more than 11,000 Oregon kids and young adults covered by the DACA program that President Trump just announced he would end in six months. Not all of them are quite like Garcia Medina, but by and large they now fit in Oregon more than in Oaxaca.

Like many proposals out of the Trump administration, the cancelling of DACA was both ringingly dramatic and completely incoherent. Nobody, including its most enthusiastic supporters, has any idea what it means.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions, announcing the change, endorsed “proper enforcement of the immigration laws,” presumably meaning that DACA people will no longer be protected from deportation and can no longer get work permits. He also supports the administration proposal to cut legal immigration in half.

President Trump, saying he “loves” and “has a big heart” for the DACA population, later said that it was all a plan to get Congress to protect them, and that if Congress didn’t he would return to the issue himself. Of course, relying on Congress to save you is a little like counting on the Great Pumpkin. Last Wednesday evening, Trump and Democratic congressional leaders said they’d reached an agreement for Congress to protect those covered by DACA, but it wasn’t clear what the agreement might be.

And Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, explained that Congress didn’t have to do anything, because DACA people could just continue to do what they’ve always done: “live in the shadows.”

You can imagine the reassurance.

“It feels like they’re playing us like a football,” says Garcia Medina, “that we’re just being tossed around. There’s always that uncertainty, that fear at the back of your head.”

Other Americans shouldn’t feel reassured either. Immigrants, especially young, working immigrants, are essential ingredients in more than the melting pot.

Americans are living longer and having fewer children, being too busy playing video games and posting to Facebook. In 2005, calculates the Social Security Administration, 12 percent of Americans were over 65; in 2040, the number will be 20 percent. In 2005, there were 3.3 working Americans for every one collecting Social Security; in 2040, there will be only 2.1 workers per check receiver.

Unless each of those workers will be working 50 percent harder, this will be a problem. And just one things keeps it from being even worse.

“Because immigrants tend to be younger and have higher fertility rates than the general population, immigration mitigates the aging of the population,” projects the SSA. “Without immigration the aging trend would be more pronounced.”

In an American population already demographically top-heavy, rapidly turning grayer than cigar ash, to consider throwing out 800,000 young adults, and all the others who might be on an exit list, is not only wrong but massively – and mathematically – self-destructive.

Mariana Garcia Medina is not only an American kid – and an Oregon kid – with a glowing future who knows no other country and has done nothing wrong.

I’m also counting on her to pay for my Social Security.

NOTE:This column appeared in The Sunday Oregonian, 9/17/17.

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.