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The GOP Race for a Senate Seat

In just a few weeks, Oregonians will begin to vote for candidates in the May primary. One of the most contentious races this cycle is the Republican primary for U.S. Senate. State Rep. Jason Conger (R-Bend) and Portland physician Monica Wehby are fighting it out for the opportunity to face incumbent Senator Jeff Merkley this fall.

The race has all kinds of drama for inside politicos — from the ongoing battle of a conservative vs. moderate candidate fight in Republican primaries to how the candidates are funded. Of particular interest of late is the Wehby/Andrew Miller of Stimson Lumber romantic relationship and the so-called lack of coordination between Wehby’s campaign and the pro-Wehby superpac funded, in part, by Stimson. All of this drama makes for interesting political gossip among the chattering class in Oregon.

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Did Clinton Kick Off Her Oregon Campaign?

Hillary Clinton kicked off this year's World Affairs Council of Oregon international speaker series Tuesday, but did she effectively kick off her 2016 presidential campaign in Oregon? Most of the 3,000 attendees at her speech thought or hoped so.

More than two years away from the next presidential election, polls show Clinton is the leading Democratic candidate and the odds-on favorite to succeed Barack Obama in the White House. She was in a similar frontrunner position in 2008 until her campaign ran into an Iowa caucus headwind.

While Clinton had an impressive political resume in her previous presidential run, she has enhanced it even more after a four-year stint at U.S. secretary of state. Not only is she on a first-name basis with many political and civic leaders in her country, she has a personal relationship with most of the world's leaders. She has experience and that other often overlooked quality of being a known quantity.

In her Portland speech, Clinton advanced what could become her central theme in a presidential campaign — the economic benefits of erasing gender inequality. She said in addition to being unfair and wrong, gender inequality is stupid economics. If women were allowed to flex their full productivity, there would be a significant gain in the nation's overall gross domestic product. In a political climate punctuated by "us versus them" arguments, her win-win strategy of gender equity has both a rational and emotional appeal.

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The Good and the Ugly Session

End-of-session reports by lawmakers to their constituents often leave a lot to be desired — and to the imagination. However, reports by House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and freshman Rep. John Davis, R-Wilsonville, offered lucid, contrasting views on how the short 2014 session went.

One of the biggest contrasting viewpoints was on the session itself.

"We now have annual legislative sessions because Oregonians shouldn't have to wait a year and a half to have urgent issues addressed," Kotek wrote in her newsletter.

In a piece appearing in the Wilsonville Spokesman and sent to his constituents, Davis said, "In 2010, when Oregon voters supported Measure 71 to amend our Constitution to add annual sessions, we were told these short, even-year meetings would focus on budget stability and transparency.... This year, unfortunately, Oregonians experienced 32 days of politics and one day of budget review."

"The complexity of the state budget," Kotek said, "requires annual updates to respond to changing revenue forecasts or emerging priorities." She said budget writers were able to increase the state's reserve funds while boosting assistance for seniors, low-income families and the mentally ill.

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The Legend of Mae Yih

Stories of the dimunitiuve, irrepressible former Senator Mae Yih abound with any long-of-tooth Oregon lobbyist.

Mae YihThe most oft-told story involves a Ways and Means hearing at which Yih was listening intently to a state bureaucrat defend a spending request. In his opening comments, the bureaucrat said the amount requested was $500,000, but later he referred to the amount as a half million dollars, prompting Yih to interrupt and demand to know, “Which is it, $500,000 or half a million?”

Maybe the funniest and most telling Mae Yih story dealt with her first attempt in 1977 at stumping for office in her semi-rural Mid-Willamette Valley district. Yih, wife of the CEO of Wah Chang, then a major employer in the area, reportedly went “door-to-door” with a driver in her Rolls Royce.

Friendly supporters tipped off Democratic campaign officials who faced the delicate task of explaining to Yih that it might raise voter eyebrows to see her driving around in a car fit for nobility. Yih, after all, was running as a Democrat.

Yih said she was embarrassed by such a beginner’s mistake. From then on, she drove around the district on her own in a sleek Mercedes sports car. Nobody seemed to care.

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Legislature Ends Short Session of Modest Accomplishments

The 2014 “short” legislative session came to an orderly end Friday. At 33 days, the session nearly bumped up against the constitutional limit of 35 days for short sessions held in even-numbered years. The session will be remembered for modest achievements and a budget rebalance.

At the beginning of February, there were a number of big policy issues in play. Liquor privatization and marijuana legalization legislative referrals, gun control legislation and the Columbia River Crossing were high on the “to-do” list for legislative leaders. None of those issues passed the legislature.

The legislature also passed on issues that grew heat towards the end of the session: changes to class-action lawsuits to fund legal aid, modifying the ballot title for a driver’s license referendum and a bill to change the investment division of the State Treasurer.

There were some significant actions. The legislature authorized $198 million in bonds for the OHSU Knight Cancer Challenge, but only if OHSU raises the other $800 million first. A land-use “grand bargain” passed that codifies an out-of-court agreement among parties in Washington County. The legislature managed to find a way to tax pre-paid cell phones for 911 services.  And, most important, the legislature rebalanced the budget and found a way to fund a few new initiatives.

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Why Writing Ballot Titles Matter

Despite opportunities for a fair amount of ruckus, the 2014 legislative session has generally steered clear of controversial issues. One of the issues that has generated significant heat in the final days of the session is an effort to write a ballot title for a driver’s license issue on the ballot in November.

Oregon’s constitution provides three ways in which issues may be put before voters. The legislature may refer a measure to the voters (referral), citizens may develop their own ideas and petition for them to be in front of voters (initiative) and citizens may petition to put a measure passed by the legislature onto the ballot (referendum). Regardless of how an idea gets in front of the voters, it is called a ballot measure and assigned a ballot title.

Ballot titles are important because they are all too often the only words voters read about the measure. The way a measure is described in the ballot title, and subsequent effect of yes and no vote statements, is among the most important factors in terms of passage or failure of a measure.

In recent years, the legislature has taken a proactive role in writing ballot titles for referrals. This has resulted in a staggering passage rate of legislative referrals. Since the year 2000, the legislature has written ballot titles on 20 referrals and allowed the attorney general to write ballot titles on 21 others. Measures with ballot titles written by the legislature had an 85 percent passage rate, whereas the ones written by the attorney general had a passage rate of only 57 percent.

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Internet Voting and Cover Oregon

Oregon lawmakers are taking the first tiny steps to explore Internet voting in the shadow of the Cover Oregon website debacle. The two issues really don't deserve to be linked.

Voting via the Internet has gone on for business for years. Shareholders routinely cast ballots online for acquisitions, financial changes and corporate board members. Voting fraud is rarely an issue.

It is common for many Americans to purchase goods and conduct personal banking online, both of which require security measures.

People vote, buy and bank online because it is convenient.

No question that databases can be hacked, as apparently happened recently in the Oregon Secretary of State's office. That's a fair concern. Pointing to Cover Oregon's balky beginning online not so much.

Cover Oregon's struggle to get its web presence in order really has nothing to do with setting up an online voting system for registered voters. Yes, both may be complex, but not really comparable. Cover Oregon is an application portal that is supposed to walk people through various steps to evaluate various health insurance options and determine their eligibility for subsidies. A voting system allows people to cast their "ballot" online, with the only variability being the candidates and measures that are on their local "ballot."

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State, Local Revenues on the Rise

Legislators have a little more cash in the bank as the short 2014 session nears its mid-point, but maybe not enough to avert some spending cuts. Local school revenue derived from property taxes showed a healthy jump.

Oregon State Economist Mark McMullen delivered today the March economic forecast, which predicts another $14.8 million revenue. The forecast show revenues largely flat for this biennium and into future years, but is more optimistic on job growth than previous forecasts. In the near term, however, stronger job growth projections are offset by disappointing revenue collections.

The Office of Economic Analysis is optimistic about the future. Profitable businesses have been sitting on cash, waiting and building confidence to invest and expand. The state is beginning to see industries get close to production capacity. When combined with lower energy costs, brought on by expanded US oil and gas production, businesses are poised to begin expansion efforts. Labor force expansion follows business expansion creating opportunities for workers who are sitting on sidelines of the economy.

No personal income or corporate kicker is currently predicted for 2015, but the state is edging ever closer to hitting the target. McMullen reported the state is just $100 million away from a personal income kicker. April’s tax returns should give a better indication of the size of capital gains, providing a clearer picture as to whether the kicker will actually kick.

The outlook remains stable and there is evidence that economic recovery is spreading across regions in Oregon. The net changes over time suggest the growth trend will continue at a steady pace around 10 precent.

As lawmakers begin to push to close the short session, they will have a few more resources to dole out to agencies and pay for the costs associated with the passage of new policy bills. The amount is just enough to give budget writers some breathing room without giving other lawmakers a false sense of plenty — thus creating a rush of funding requests that cannot be met.

Even with new resources, the state will struggle to maintain a substantial ending fund balance as the costs associated with budget rebalances, devastating fire seasons and unexpected emergencies create risk for the remainder of the biennium. Lawmakers also face potentially large budget gaps in corrections and human services that will be major challenges in 2015.

A separate forecast showed a $98 million increase in revenue available to Oregon K-12 school districts. While most of the increase is the result of larger property tax collections statewide, the amount also reflects a temporary extension of federal timber payments and proceeds from state lands.

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Tackling High College Tuition

We may be witnessing the start of a movement to address the rising cost of college. The Oregon Senate approved a bill this week to study giving all Oregon high school graduates free tuition for two years at an Oregon community college.

Earlier this week, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, a Republican, made the centerpiece of his State of the State Address a call for legislation to give all high school graduates in his state free access to community colleges and technical colleges. 

Policy analysts praised Haslam's proposal, which mirrors the study bill put forward by Oregon Senator Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, saying it is "big step toward a better educated work force."

In Oregon, free community college tuition for two years would appear to be a major boost to achieve the ambitious goal of 40 percent of Oregon adults having at least two years of college or technical training. The 40-40-20 plan also calls for 40 percent of the adult population to possess at least a 4-year degree and all Oregonians to achieve a high school diploma or its equivalent.

The burst of bipartisan support for free community college tuition may deflate after an analysis of the cost, as well as a comparison with the relative benefits and costs of an alternative — pumping more money into need-based student financial aid. 

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The Weed, Guns and Booze Session

Legislator e-letters to constituents are signaling the 2014 session will take up legislation relating to gun control, pot legalization and liquor privatization. Those issues may make the headlines, but the real work of the session is to refine biennial budgets — yet again, with fewer resources than budget writers expected at the end of the last session. 

The arcane process of state budgeting is hardly the stuff of eye catching headlines — in the paper or in constituent newsletters. Still, it’s true that even-year legislative sessions have inescapably become the second-chance opportunity for legislation that didn’t quite make it through the hoops at the longer, odd-year regular session. It also becomes the last chance to do something legislatively before a major issue shows up on a November general election ballot. And the short session offers an opportunity to pass a bill on a topic that has captured the moment.

Gun background check legislation falls into the second-chance category, while pot legalization and liquor privatization belong to the last-chance category. Faced with the prospect of potentially popular initiatives, lawmakers are considering pot and liquor bills that offer an alternative.

Catch-up legislation to the Cover Oregon website debacle heads the opportunity category.

The Columbia River Crossing commands its own special category — the last-ditch, Hail Mary category. After the Washington legislature failed to approve funding for an I-5 bridge replacement at its regular session last year and is unlikely to do so in its session currently underway in Olympia, Oregon is left with a choice of whether or not to step out on its own. Opponents have stoked fears of the risk to Oregon taxpayers and those trepidations seem to be hitting the nerve in a number of former legislative supporters, including Senate President Peter Courtney. One Capitol wag said the project isn't dead, but is a "walking zombie."

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