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Asking the Right Questions

NOTE: A version of this blog, written by CFM Senior Partner Dave Fiskum, first ran in this space two years ago. As legislators return to the Capitol early next month for the 2015 session, it is appropriate to run it again. 

If state government is going to operate more effectively and efficiently, then there are three questions policymakers should ask as they review individual pieces of legislation.

1.  Is there an appropriate role for government to play?

This is a question seldom asked, at least on the record. Many policymakers simply assume that, if there is a problem, then there should be a state response to it.  The evidence is found in the 3,500 to 5,000 bills introduced every legislative session.

If the question was asked routinely, the answer would not automatically be "yes" or "no," but would depend on the specific situation. Often, the simple act of asking the question and considering the answer would be a step in the direction of aligning state government programs to available resources.

Policymakers should reserve the right to say there is no appropriate role for state government in, for example, a battle between two business groups.

A "yes" answer, by contrast, could apply to a question about organizing health care for indigent Oregonians or offer financial and/or parenting support for single parents and their children.

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State Taxes, Volatility and the Kicker

Oregon's tax revenue system is slightly more volatile than the all-state average, but less than some critics think based on a new study by Pew Research. One volatile element not included in the Pew assessment is the personal income tax kicker, a unique and quirky procedure that rebates to taxpayers money that exceeds projected revenues by two percent or more.

According to Pew, Oregon's state tax regime volatility rating is 6.4 percent, compared to an all-state average of 5 percent. The most volatile state tax regimes are ones heavily dependent on severance or extraction taxes. Alaska has the most volatile state tax system at 34 percent.

Oregon depends heavily on personal and corporate income tax revenues, which rise and fall in concert with broader economic trends. When times are good, Oregon's income tax system generates a growing pot of money.

If times are too good, Oregon's personal income tax kicker is triggered, requiring a chunk of incremental revenue to go back to taxpayers.

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The Process of Regulating Pot

With voter approval of marijuana use comes the challenge of regulating it. Liquor regulation provides important precedents, but may not go far enough.

There will be similarities in regulating where marijuana can be sold, requiring accurate labels and preventing sales to minors.

But marijuana poses other challenges that have been highlighted by people knee-deep in developing original regulation in Colorado and elsewhere. For example, the amount of alcohol and its effect on individual adults can be roughly calculated arithmetically. That may be less true of the potency of different types of marijuana.

Marijuana edibles represent a significant challenge. Candy is sold with small amounts of liquor, but they convey far less of a potential jolt than a marijuana cookie, which is designed to transport the buzz offered by marijuana.

Another unique challenge is how to integrate the cultivation and sale of medical marijuana with recreational marijuana .

Rachel O'Bryan, cofounder of Smart Colorado, a nonprofit formed to weigh in on marijuana regulation, wrote in an op-ed in The Sunday Oregonian that someone who represents public health concerns, especially for youth, must be at the table writing rules for Oregon.

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Kitzhaber Wins Re-election, But by Narrow Margin

Democrats retained and even strengthened their grip on control of the state house and legislature as Oregonians said yes to legal weed and no to labeling of genetically modified foods and the much touted top-two primary. The story wasn't so good for Democrats nationally as they saw their majority in the U.S. Senate evaporate, giving Republicans control of both houses of Congress.

The story of the night was the relatively narrow victory by Governor John Kitzhaber, who claimed an unprecedented fourth term without a majority. On a series of critical news reports about First Lady Cylvia Hayes, including charges she may have leveraged her influence with the governor for personal gain, Kitzhaber's double-digit lead in the polls shrunk to a 5 percentage point victory.

The tighter-than-expected race appears to be more a reflection on Kitzhaber than his GOP opponent Dennis Richardson and raises questions about how the governor will fare going forward, especially if the Hayes scandals continue to dog his administration.

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Quirky Attracts College Educated Young Adults

"Portlandia" has added anecdotes to flesh out Portland's quirky reputation, but what may not be so quirky is the city's attraction of young, college-educated adults.

In an article in The Washington Post, local economist Joe Cortright says data disputes the "Portlandia"-perpetuated view that young adults come to Portland to retire. Cortright says the unemployment rate for 25-to-34-year-olds with college degrees in Portland is 4.8 percent, which he claims is lower than comparable rates in Chicago, Los Angeles, Atlanta or New York.

That Portland is a young person's mecca is borne out by statistics showing the city added 34,545 young college graduates since 2000, which as a percentage of growth outstrips New York, Los Angeles and Washington, DC.

It appears to be true, Cortright says, that young people move to Portland without a job. That's because, he explains, they are coming here to create a future life in a place with the attributes they like — a compact downtown, cultural amenities, public transit options, proximity to nature and good food.

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Legal Money Transfers May Lead to Legal Weed

The money supporting legalizing marijuana through Oregon’s Measure 91 is messy. You need a timeline and map to follow all the moving money. However, with strict campaign reporting laws enforced by the Secretary of State, it’s easier to track this kind of green than the illegal kind.

There are three Political Actions Committees (PACs) in support of Measure 91 – Yes on 91, New Approach Oregon and Drug Policy Action of Oregon. A large portion of the money raised has been transferred from one of the other PACs, in a shuffle that resembles a street hustler moving a pea around under shells.

Drug Policy Action of Oregon PAC is the simplest to track, which isn’t saying much. The PAC  is on record donating $240,000 –—$90,000 to Yes on 91 PAC and $150,000 to the New Approach Oregon PAC.

But Drug Policy Action actually has contributed an estimated $1.4 million, using variations on the name including Drug Policy Alliance and Drug Policy Action Fund for Oregon.

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Oregon's History with Ballot Slogans

In a story that proves, among other things, that concise, clear writing was always in style, The Washington Post examines the history of ballot slogans in Oregon. It was a bit like Twitter without the computer.

Called “campaign capsules” by The Oregonian in 1946, ballot slogans were 12 words that candidates could have printed on official ballots, right next to the their name.

Campaign slogans ranged from pithy to pitiful. Some simply wanted you to know they were “Not a lawyer.” Others broke out the Thesaurus to let you know alliteratively they were for “Proper places for people, not pachyderm palaces.”

Quoting past presidents and political leaders was as popular then as now, though I haven’t heard anyone quote FDR lately. But maybe that’s because Eleanor Roosevelt asked them to stop. 

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First Lady Faces Conflict of Interest Charge

Willamette Week delivered a pre-election wallop to Governor John Kitzhaber's re-election campaign this week with an investigative report suggesting First Lady Cylvia Hayes may have benefitted financially from her special relationship with the governor. 

Rep. Dennis Richardson, Kitzhaber's underdog Republican challenger, seized on the story and said via a statement, "The latest scandal shows once again that the State of Oregon is being run more like a mafia than a public entity. The governor and first lady are not above the law."

Kitzhaber denies any wrongdoing by himself and Hayes. He said Hayes' contracts were reviewed carefully for any conflict of interest. "We were very proactive," Kitzhaber told The Associated Press. "Very rigorous and very transparent." AP reported Hayes declared three conflicts of interest in August 2013. Kitzhaber said Hayes has no current contracts that touch on state government.

The conflict of interest charge against Kitzhaber and Hayes comes amid a continuing controversy involving GOP Senate challenger Monica Wehby, whom Buzzfeed has accused of plagiarizing health care policy talking points from Karl Rove and her Republican primary challenger, Rep. Jason Conger.  

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Behind the Scenes of a Gubernatorial Debate

Hosting a live political debate starts with convincing candidates to attend and extends through coordinating the format and posing provocative questions. Over the past few weeks, CFM had the opportunity to assist the Oregon Association of Broadcasters (OAB) organize and stage the September 26 gubernatorial debate in Sunriver. 

There were numerous conference calls and lots of personal persuasion that resulted in the debate, which sparked sharp exchanges and defined significant differences between Governor John Kitzhaber, seeking an unprecedented fourth term, and his GOP challenger Dennis Richardson, a state legislator from Central Point.

CFM staff researched previous political debates to discover what formats worked best and made recommendations to OAB and the Kitzhaber and Richardson campaigns. They worked closely to ensure everyone involved was comfortable with the process and the program to avoid any awkward last-minute back-outs.

Special attention was given to what questions were asked. CFM staffers took the view that questions should reflect what Oregonians want to know from candidates. They aided OAB in canvassing broadcasters statewide for the most pertinent and sharp-edged questions. Working with debate moderator Matt McDonald of KTVZ, they winnowed more than 90 questions submitted by broadcasters to the ones actually asked of the candidates.

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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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