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Wheeler Urges Steps to Boost Savings

A failure of many Oregonians to save enough for retirement could pose a financial threat to the state, Treasurer Ted Wheeler warned today in testimony to Oregon lawmakers. 

Calling the lack of savings a "generational crisis that threatens to plunge seniors into poverty, disrupt entire families and impact our overall economy,​" Wheeler said more than half of Oregon adults have less than $25,000 set aside for their retirement and one quarter have $1,000 or less in reserve.

One reason people don't save more, Wheeler said, is the shrinking number of employer-sponsored retirement plans and easy payroll access to a retirement saving vehicle. 

Wheeler's comments came in the form of recommendations from the Retirement Security Task Force, which he has chaired for the last eight months. One of the biggest recommendations was for the state to step in and provide a retirement savings plan that anyone could use.

In a press statement, Wheeler included a quote from Jose Gonzalez, who runs a Salem real estate agency: “As a small business owner I want to do the right thing and offer my employees strong retirement savings options. The Task Force recommendations released today give me hope that Oregon can come up with a way to make it easy for my employees to save without burdening small business owners with additional administrative hassle.” 

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Perils of Driving and Texting

One way to make your point is to turn it into a video game. AT&T is using a simulator to show the dangers of driving while texting.

The Salem Statesman Journal staged a competition between Senate President Peter Courtney and political reporter Anna Staver to see who could drive the safest on the simulator while texting. Both crashed. Courtney crashed several times.

The PR stunt served to underline the point that more than 3,300 people were killed and 420,000 injured in the United States in distracted-driving crashes, according to a 2012 report from The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.​ Yet texting while driving is on the rise.

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Loss of Wine a Reality Shake-up

A magnitude 6.0 temblor in the wine nirvana of Napa Valley may shake West Coast residents into realizing they need to prepare for earthquakes, including the inevitable Big One.

Many Napa wineries saw bottles and barrels of wine strewn in warehouses and cellars. Some placed damage estimates at as much as $1 billion, as insurance brokers reported many Napa and Sonoma wineries opted against supplemental earthquake coverage because of its relatively high cost.

Oregon wineries and other small businesses may be in the same boat. You know the threat is real, yet the price for insurance is prohibitive. The price of basic preparation, however, is within reach if people can be shaken into a realization it is smart and necessary.

Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney is again pushing for a major bonding campaign to retrofit Oregon schools.

Geologists and volcanologists in Oregon cite evidence that this area has experienced a major quake every 500 years or so. The last "Big One" was 314 years ago.

Natural disasters on this scale produce gallows humor. But officials stress that preparedness is not really a laughing matter. They note a major earthquake could level buildings, knock out bridges and disrupt basic utilities such as electricity, natural gas and water. Your house may still be standing, but the lifelines you normally depend on may be destroyed.

There are three faults running under Portland. Another major fault is just off the Oregon Coast. There are more in the Willamette Valley. The 1700 Cascadia earthquake occurred along the subduction zone running from northern California to British Columbia. Evidence shows it produced a giant tsunami that belted Japan. The Big One before that was in 1310, a span of only 390 years.

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Different Issues May Dog Education ​

Education is always the big-dog issue in the legislature, but this year it may be dogged by animals of a different stripe.

Budgets for K-12 schools and public colleges and universities are the dominant issues because they command so much of the state budget. But in the 2015 legislative session, education advocates may be on the hot seat explaining why so few Oregon high school graduates can pass college-level writing and math classes and so many young women are subject to sexual abuse on campus.

The Oregonian's Betsy Hammond reported that only 30 percent of 2014 Oregon public high school students who took the ACT scored as college-ready in language, reading, math and science. Hammond said that low percentage could undermine Oregon's goal of having 80 percent of its adult population earning a college degree or credential.

The data were worse for minority students, Hammond wrote. "Fewer than 20 percent of Oregon's African-American, American Indian, Hispanic and Pacific Islander students who took the ACT scored college-ready in at least three of the four areas tested."

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Dog Days of Politics

Rep. John Davis, R-Wilsonville, rode down the elevator this week in the Portland office building where he works as a real estate attorney and encountered a business executive dressed in a suit who engaged Davis in a conversation about politics.

"When do you have to run again?" the executive asked Davis. 

"Every two years and the election is in November," the state representative politely responded.

"Oh, I'm a Republican and would like to help," the executive said. "When is the primary?" 

"Well, it was in May," Davis answered gingerly.

By then, the elevator had reached the ground floor and Davis and the executive got off and exchanged greetings. For the business executive, it was at worst an awkward moment on an elevator. For Davis, and every other political candidate, it is a way of life. 

Campaigning for office, Davis told the executive on the elevator, "never stops." Including in the dog days of August.​

The part of the campaign that occurs in August is the part most people never see. It involves intense phone calling for campaign cash to pay for staff, brochures, press releases and maybe paid media. Asking for contributions is easily the toughest aspect of being a political candidate. You have to ask family members, friends, lobbyists and, often, total strangers.

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Seeking Pots of Gold from Pot

Oregon voters won't decide on legalizing marijuana until November, but Portland and Ashland — and perhaps, before long, more cities — are exploring whether they can tax it if becomes legal. 

There is an urgency to the municipal inquiries because the legalization ballot initiative specifically reserves the right to tax marijuana to the State of Oregon. However, if cities impose a sales tax before legalization becomes effective, the tax might stick.

The perceived bonanza to government tax coffers from legalizing marijuana took a body blow when ECONorthwest estimated first-year sales would net $16 million in tax revenue, not the $38.5 million touted by the measure's supporters. 

Key variables cited by ECONorthwest would be the number of licensed pot shops to open up — and the willingness of pot smokers to shift to legal, but more expensive marijuana sold in state-licensed stores. The economists predicted 60 percent of pot users would continue to shop in the black market.

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Cities as Labs for Climate Change Policies

Action on climate change may be stalled in Congress, but it is picking up at the local level in places such as Eugene and Corvallis. The trend may reflect much more than college towns appeasing liberal constituencies.

The Eugene City Council approved an ordinance this week that requires the home of the University of Oregon to be carbon neutral by 2020 and a community-wide 50 percent cut in fossil fuel use by 2030.

During his visit to Oregon last week, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack designated Corvallis as one of seven "climate hubs" that will serve as "repositories for data" to assist researchers and government officials in developing science-based climate change strategies. 

Neither action is a game-changer, but reflects a groundswell of support for steps to address climate change. Admittedly, the action centers in cities with large universities and more plugged-in constituencies, but that is often how movements get started.

The climate hub designation in Corvallis may signal a significant break in the partisan gridlock over climate change action. The hubs, many located in swing presidential states, are positioned to work closely with rural agricultural interests. Farmers, who tend to side with political conservatives on most issues, are feeling the effects of climate change and are asking for help to adjust to changing conditions.

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The Passing of an Oregon Hero

The passing of former Oregon Governor Victor Atiyeh earlier this week has prompted an outpouring of positive comments about the last Republican governor in Oregon, both for his accomplishments as well as for the positive way he conducted himself while he held the state's top political job.

Memories abound for me because I had the privilege of serving in the Atiyeh Administration and did a stint as the Governor's press secretary. 

Senator Peter Courtney captured the man well in his tribute:  "Governor Vic Atiyeh was a kind and gentle man. He had a great smile and a great way of dealing with people. He was the ultimate public servant in the truest sense of the word. There was no greater role model.  He led our state during the most difficult of times. He found a way to make things work when everything was going against us. He brought out the best in people by appealing to the best in each and every person. He never focused on the negative. Oregon is saying goodbye to one of its greatest statesmen and one of its most remarkable citizens."

Here is a quick collection of my own memories:

Coming back to Oregon:  After working in Washington, D.C., for Democratic Congressman Les AuCoin, I returned to Oregon and joined the Republican Atiyeh administration.  Like AuCoin before him, Victor — as we sometimes called the Governor — never asked me or any other staff member about political affiliation.  The only question was whether I could do the job. (AuCoin didn't ask about my political affiliation, either, in what was in the 1980s a far different political moment.)

The governor's favorite sayings:  His staff heard certain phrases repeatedly, so much so that they stick in my mind today, 30 years later. He liked to say, "Well, that's just part of the great pageant of life."  Or:  "There never are any problems — just opportunities." Or, as The Oregonian paraphrased this week, "You can do a lot if you don't care who gets the credit." 

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Knopp's Political Star on the Rise

Senator Tim Knopp may be moving to the front of the pack of up-and-coming Republicans in Oregon, as his colleagues in the Oregon Senate GOP caucus added the freshman senator from Bend this week to its leadership team.

Knopp isn't really a freshman. He served three terms in the Oregon House, the last as majority leader, before leaving the legislature in 2005. He returned to the legislature after successfully challenging incumbent GOP Senator Chris Telfer in 2012 and easily gliding to victory in the general election in a GOP-leaning district.

In his race against Telfer, Knopp positioned himself to her political right and challenged her record on job creation. At the time, Knopp worked for the Central Oregon Builders Association and was a member of the Bend Chamber of Commerce board.

Knopp can come across as neo-conservative, but his reputation inside the Capitol would be better described as a business conservative. His manner is direct and his approach to issues leans more toward getting something done than toeing an ideological line. 

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Political ID-ology

While the political bases on the far right and far left seem to be hardening, there is a growing group of voters who find themselves alienated from both major political parties — and even the political process itself.

Signs of polarization are everywhere. A recent Pew Research survey showed there is a growing gap between dyed-in-the-wool Democrats and Republicans on a wide array of issues. There is evidence people are voting with their feet, preferring to live in either a blue or red state, depending on their own political viewpoint.

One contributing factor to partisanship — a byproduct of polarization — is how congressional and legislative districts are drawn. Increasingly, district boundaries have been contoured to make congressional and legislative seats politically "safe" for Democrats or Republicans.

An excellent example of the impact of partisan redistricting is the U.S. House, where many GOP members represent safe districts, often with relatively few Hispanic voters. They don't worry about Republicans winning the White House; they fear being challenged by a more conservative opponent in the next primary, as happened to several Oregon legislators in the May primary.

Which brings us

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