Oregon’s Running Start on Affordable College

Free college education has become a campaign slogan in the 2016 presidential election, but Oregon has gotten a running start with the first class of high school seniors facing a deadline next week to apply for the Oregon Promise.

Free college education has become a campaign slogan in the 2016 presidential election, but Oregon has gotten a running start with the first class of high school seniors facing a deadline next week to apply for the Oregon Promise.

Oregon has gotten a head start on the challenge of free college education, with a deadline next week for high school seniors to apply for the new Oregon Promise program, which guarantees a “free” two-year education at a state community college.

According to state financial aid officials, more than 12,000 Oregon high school students have signed up, with the total expected to go higher by next Tuesday. That’s when students must have filled out their online application, submitted high school transcripts to show they have a 2.5 grade point average or better and completed a financial aid application. 

In the first year of the program, an estimated 7,000 Oregon Promise applicants are expected to enroll, which would push up the percentage of high school graduates who move on to college in the state. 

Senator Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, won legislative approval for the program because of its market appeal to students from lower income households and its relatively small cost. As The Oregonian’s Betsy Hammond has pointed out, many Oregon Promise applicants already would have qualified for financial aid that covered virtually all of the cost of tuition at a community college.

Even so, Hass says the program entices students to apply who might otherwise have not even bothered. Going to community college allows most students to stay at home and continue jobs they had in high school.

Eligible Oregon Promise students will be required to take a full course load and maintain a good grade level. They can take courses needed to move on to a four-year degree-granting institution or to earn an industry certificate. Hass modeled his program after one in Tennessee, which he says has increased enrollment at both community colleges and four-year colleges and universities.

The Oregon College Savings Plan allows for student accounts that can accept contributions from parents, grandparents or other relatives and realize tax-free earnings when they use the money for college tuition.

The Oregon College Savings Plan allows for student accounts that can accept contributions from parents, grandparents or other relatives and realize tax-free earnings when they use the money for college tuition.

Another Oregon program is helping college students hold down debt. The Oregon College Savings Plan, which began in 2001, now has more than $1.2 billion in assets spread over 86,000 student accounts. More than $170 million was contributed to Oregon College Savings Plan accounts last year.

Students are able to draw on their account to pay for tuition and other qualifying educational expenses when attending college or an accredited technical school. Oregon offers a tax deduction for contributions up to $4,600 for married taxpayers filing jointly or $2,300 for single filers, but tax-free earnings are the real advantage when the funds are withdrawn for qualifying college expenses.

Not every household has the cash to contribute to the plan. However, student accounts can accept contributions from more than parents. Oregon College Savings Plan officials point out that whatever money can be tucked away for a student is money they won’t have to borrow in the future when they attend college.

Assets in the plan are subject to investment cycles, so there is an element of risk. Many savings plan account holders saw their nest eggs shrink when the housing bubble burst in 2006-2007 and the subsequent financial industry meltdown. Oregon officials replaced the plan’s financial partner and overhauled the program to provide greater protection for student account holdings.

It’s worth noting that 36,000 Oregon college students received $57.3 million in need-based Oregon Opportunity Grants in the 2014-2015 academic year. Another $69 million in student aid will be distributed to qualifying Oregon students this year. Grants of $2,100 are available for full-time, full-year students at eligible Oregon postsecondary institutions.

Oregon has lagged other states in providing need-based student aid, but in recent legislative sessions has stepped up expenditures. The 2015 legislature authorized $140.9 million for Oregon Opportunity Grants, which was almost a 24 percent increase over the previous biennium.

What Matters Most to You in 2016?

As we head into a new year, CFM wants to know what policy priorities are most important to Oregonians for 2016. Lawmakers will convene a new legislative session in February, but they will only have 35 days to get their work done .

As we head into a new year, CFM wants to know what policy priorities are most important to Oregonians for 2016. Lawmakers will convene a new legislative session in February, but they will only have 35 days to get their work done.

From tackling Portland’s housing crisis to negotiating a plan for an unprecedented minimum wage hike, Oregon lawmakers have their work cut out for them in 2016.  

Education, health care, transportation, human services, consumer protection, environmental preservation, criminal justice, taxation: Those are just some of the priority areas calling for swift action and firm leadership in Salem as we look ahead to the next year. 

The Oregon legislature convenes February 1 for a brisk 35-day session. Soon after, statewide elected positions will be contested in the May primary and November general elections.

In the meantime, CFM wants to know what issues matter most to you. Is it finding more revenue for education and social services? Improving transportation infrastructure? Or maybe it’s something else entirely.

As we ponder the political battles ahead, CFM invites you to share what you believe demands the most attention from Oregon's elected leaders. Here’s what we’re looking for:

•  What are the top two policy priorities facing Oregon? 

•  For each of your two priorities, provide a short explanation of what you think should be done and how it should get done. Is legislation needed? Better enforcement? Bully pulpit leadership? Bipartisan support? Be as specific as you can.

•  In addition to your top two policy priorities, tell us what you expect in terms of leadership from Oregon's governor and from House and Senate leaders. What would you regard as real leadership? How can leadership be manifested so it produces positive results? What would you see as a lack of leadership?

Send us your submissions through Friday, January 8, and we’ll share them shortly after on our Oregon Insider blog.

This isn't a contest or a survey. Our intention is to reflect the range of thoughts and concerns that everyone shares with us. We will point out areas where a number of people's priorities overlap, but we also will include priorities that may generate only a single recommendation.

Please send your submissions to Justin Runquist, CFM’s communications counsel, at

We look forward to hearing your thoughts.

The Return of Monica Wehby

Monica Wehby resurfaced today on Oregon's political map by announcing a relaunch of her campaign website, which she says will be dedicate to electing Real Republicans  and holding all politicians accountable.

Monica Wehby resurfaced today on Oregon's political map by announcing a relaunch of her campaign website, which she says will be dedicate to electing Real Republicans  and holding all politicians accountable.

Unsuccessful U.S. Senate candidate Monica Wehby is returning to the political ring with a PAC, a legislative scorecard and data analytics that she says will hold politicians accountable.

Wehby disclaims any interest in running for office again. In an email to her previous supporters, she writes, "We are dedicated to bringing us back to the sort of fundamentals that define realistic Republicans who can win in Oregon and across the Pacific Northwest."

She elaborated on realistic Republicans, "We need the backing of fellow Real Republicans and other like-minded Americans dedicated to holding our representatives and government servants accountable to fiscally conservative principles, dedication to pro-business polices and private sector job growth, as well as the protection of individual freedom from government intrusion into our private lives."

The announcement of a relaunched Monica PAC seemed a nudge ahead of much new content. The website still has a lot of leftover material from Wehby's race to unseat Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley last year. Her email to past supporters mentions a legislative scorecard, but it doesn't appear on the website, either.

Nor does the name appear of the "lawmaker who doesn’t stand up for the principles central to our democracy and backs policies that undermine your individual liberty," which the email highlights. Speculation is this refers to Senator Chuck Riley, D-Hillsboro. A call to the Monica PAC office asking for a link to the legislative scorecard wasn't fruitful.

All in all, the announcement of Monica PAC didn't exactly have the feel of a complete sentence.

Wehby, who has returned to full-time work as a pediatric neurosurgeon, gave an interview to Jeff Mapes of The Oregonian in which she said she wasn't ready to drop out of politics, even if not running herself for office. " I may have lost my election fight, but I’m not giving up on my dedication to public service. It’s too important to the future of Oregon and our nation."

Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of Wehby's announcement was the use of analytics to ferret out the views of Oregonians. "Monica’s Scorecard will soon incorporate real-time data on what Oregonians really think – what they say to their friends, family, and others on the Internet and social media, not just to pollsters. We will make our elected officials and government bureaucrats understand what they don’t want to, what real voters actually need and want, not just what they are told by special interests."

Using the names Monica PAC and Monica's Scorecard are tells that Wehby may have other political ideas in mind. In a state with few high-profile Republicans, Wehby has some degree of name familiarity. She could argue that her failed Senate campaign was a trial run that helped her learn the ropes and become a more viable statewide candidate.

With just about every major statewide office in play, Republicans could use some candidates. The real message of Monica's PAC is that she is warming up for a future political role.

Estella's Brilliant Bus

Estella Pyfrom brings computer technology to underprivileged students and underserved neighborhoods on the Brilliant Bus that she bought and equipped using her own public school teacher retirement savings.

Estella Pyfrom brings computer technology to underprivileged students and underserved neighborhoods on the Brilliant Bus that she bought and equipped using her own public school teacher retirement savings.

Super Bowl ads may be a strange place to look for great education reform ideas, but the one about Estella's Brilliant Bus may qualify.

Estella Pyfrom, who retired after 50 years as a Florida public school teacher and guidance counselor, is doing something about the digital divide in classrooms, which she says is real and getting worse. Her Brilliant Bus mobile learning center brings technology to under-served communities and underprivileged students.

Pyfrom's work has not gone unnoticed. She was named a CNN "Hero," but she didn't become a household word until Microsoft made her the center of a Super Bowl commercial. That exposure could lead to a rapid expansion of her program or clones just like it in other parts of the country.

After she retired in 2009, Pyfrom took money from her personal savings to buy and equip a bus with 17 computer stations and high-speed Internet access. Since then, she's plugged in thousands of kids without access to a computer at home or school and who would otherwise be unplugged to the opportunities for online learning.

The Brilliant Bus is all business. Students must log into their own accounts. Gum is a no-no, along with Facebook. What students will find is a busload of educational software linked to the educational curricula in public schools. Pyfrom and members of her team monitor student progress and only allow students to advance to the next level when they display 90 percent proficiency in a subject area. Older students can get help with GED or college preparatory material, as well as tune into anti-bullying classes.

By all indications, Pyfrom and her Brilliant Bus are making a difference in the academic success of the students they reach.

Parents learn about computers through the program, too, so they feel less embarrassed and can be more supportive of their students. The Brilliant Bus has been used to train up entire neighborhoods as well on things such as online banking, job searches and resume writing.

Nearing 80, Pyfrom shows no signs of slowing down or trimming her aspirations. She has become a symbol of human empowerment.

"I don't think about what I'm not able to do or not going to be able to do," Pyfrom told CNN. "I plan for the things that I think I'm going to do, need to do and want to do. And I think most of them are going to happen. We've got to keep rolling. We're going to keep taking the service to the neighborhoods, and we are going to keep making a difference."

Kitzhaber Wins Re-election, But by Narrow Margin

Governor John Kitzhaber claimed an unprecedented fourth term without a majority, and the measure that gained the widest national headlines was approval of Measure 91 to legalize the use, sale and production of marijuana.

Governor John Kitzhaber claimed an unprecedented fourth term without a majority, and the measure that gained the widest national headlines was approval of Measure 91 to legalize the use, sale and production of marijuana.

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.

The other race of interest and significance involved a rematch between former Rep. Chuck Riley and incumbent GOP Senator Bruce Starr. Riley led in early voting results, but Starr now hows a thin 123-vote lead in a race that may be headed for a recount. If Riley manages to upset Starr, it would give Senate Democrats an 18-vote majority, enough to pass funding measures without any Republican votes.

Democrats retained control of the Oregon House by a margin of 35-25, one vote shy of the three-fifths majority to move tax measures without help from across the political aisle.

All of Oregon's incumbent congressional delegation up for re-election, including Senator Jeff Merkley, won handily.

Senate President Peter Courtney, whom some thought might face a tough re-election battle, prevailed with more than 53 percent of the vote. On the flip side, Rep. Jim Weidner, a Republican representing McMinnville and one of the most Republican-leaning districts in the state, won by a surprisingly narrow 51 to 46 percent measure over Democratic challenger Ken Moore. Moore campaign vigorously, while Weidner didn't.

A lot of attention and money focused on ballot measures and none more than Measure 92, which would have required GMO labeling. This is the second time Oregonians have rejected a similar measure, but this time the margin was razor thin at 50.6 to 49.4 percent, or something like 17,000 votes out of more than 1.3 million cast. (Interestingly, a GMO moratorium in Maui, which also attracted deep-pocket opponents, narrowly passed.)

The biggest loser was Measure 90, the top-two primary, which went down to defeat 68 to 32 percent. Measure 88, a referendum to overturn legislation to allow driver cards for non-residents, was defeated almost as soundly at 67 to 33 percent.

The biggest winner was Measure 89, the equal rights amendment, which passed by 63 to 37 percent.

The measure that gained the widest national headlines was approval of Measure 91 to legalize the use, sale and production of marijuana. Alaska also approved a similar measure and the District of Columbia passed a somewhat more restricted legalization. They join Washington and Colorado, which already have passed and implemented marijuana legalization schemes. Oregon's regulatory challenge will fall to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which announced it will move forward a policy that reflects the "Oregon way."

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."

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. 

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."

Oregon Finds Itself in Dunce Chair

Oregon finds itself sitting on the unusual and embarrassing dunce chair for shortcomings in healthcare and education reforms.

At times, Oregon under Governor John Kitzhaber has seemed like the prize pupil of the Obama administration. But recent events have plopped Oregon on the dunce chair.

Oregon may be dead last in enrolling zero people online for health insurance under its health exchange, Cover Oregon. And now the U.S. Department of Education is threatening to withdraw the state's waiver from complying with the No Child Left Behind education requirements. 

Neither represents a policy divergence between Oregon's Democratic government and the Obama team. They reflect a bad poker hand.

Like the federal health care website, Oregon's electronic health insurance portal hasn't performed.  Oregon has pushed to enroll people using paper applications. And the state has added significant numbers of Oregonians to the Oregon Health Plan.

Kitzhaber said the state is too far downstream to change computer consultants, but promises a full accounting when the Cover Oregon website is up and running as intended. The governor has enlisted former Providence CEO Greg Van Pelt and Oregon Health Authority Director Bruce Goldberg to lend their management and medical expertise to unsnarling the IT logjam.

Change from Within

Recent appointments of Nancy Golden as Chief Education Officer and Ben Cannon as Executive Director of the Higher Education Coordinating Commission are a reminder of a unique Oregon truism — change comes from within.

Governor Kitzhaber took office in 2011 with a distinct interest in reforming major sectors of Oregon government. He pushed for significant reforms in health care, early learning and education. Kitzhaber has seen success in all of those within the walls of the Capitol, but true change happens at the agency level and among stakeholders who implement those changes every day.

The healthcare industry came to the table to craft a transformation plan that didn’t just pass the legislature, but became part of the DNA of the key public and private leaders in the healthcare industry in Oregon. Kitzhaber’s early learning initiatives were crafted by Oregon practitioners who understood the pitfalls of the current system, including its lack of outcome-based accountability.  

Education, however, took a much different road. Trusted advisors and key stakeholders familiar with Oregon’s political landscape drew the outline of a newly aligned K-20 education system. But unlike with other major initiatives, Kitzhaber turned the reins of implementation over to a distinct outsider — so-called change agent Rudy Crew.

Despite his reformer reputation, Crew didn’t make a dent in the mountain of change he was supposed to effect during his time in Oregon. Granted, he spent a great deal of time traveling the country on other pursuits, but the bigger issue, for him or any other reformer, was a fundamental lack of ability to see and understand the Oregon political landscape.

The education community — not unlike healthcare or corrections or any other major sector — is widely varied. Agreement is hard to come by, even among similarly interested parties. Interest groups include elected officials, business leaders, on-the-ground practitioners and parents — all of whom claim to be experts because, at a minimum, each individual went to school.

Kitzhaber, Courtney Legacies Grow

The successful five-bill, three-day Oregon special legislative session will enhance John Kitzhaber's legacy as governor. It also signals a constructive working relationship between House Speaker Tina Kotek and GOP Leader Mike McLane. And the session provided campaign platforms for Reps. Dennis Richardson and Jules Bailey.

Almost lost in the shuffle was Senator Peter Courtney's win in establishing a dedicated funding source for expanded community mental health programs, which was his top priority before the start of the 2013 regular legislative session.

News coverage of the conclusion of the special session Wednesday showed a beaming Kitzhaber. For good reason. He took the tatters of a budget deal left on the cutting room floor in the waning hours of the regular session and wove them into a complicated deal that will result in more money going to K-12 schools and higher education. 

Kitzhaber's unwavering confidence he could find common ground among skeptical House Democrats and legislative Republicans stands in sharp contrast to his defeatist views expressed at the end of his second term of governor. His third term has been an unbroken string of negotiating successes that prove Oregon can be governed after all. And he gets much of the credit.

The Oregonian's Friday edition challenged Kitzhaber now to turn his attention and political capital to comprehensive tax reform, a goal that has eluded him as well as many of his predecessors. Hopefully, The Oregonian will forgive Kitzhaber if he takes the weekend off before starting his new quest.

The Kotek-McLane tandem held together well and under extreme political pressure. To make the multiple-bill compromise work, all five bills had to pass for any to survive. Kotek and McLane knew it would take different cross-sections of lawmakers from both party caucuses to pass the most controversial measures dealing with taxation, PERS cuts and a local pre-emption on genetically modified crops.

Only 22 out of 90 lawmakers voted for all five measures. Kotek and McLane were two of them. More important, they showed they could deliver key votes when it counted. The tax measure, a combination of increases and cuts, began in the House and came up three votes short. Kotek delayed declaring the final vote until she mustered three votes — all from her Democratic caucus.

All for One, One for All

One of the under-reported features of the Grand Bargain is the "everything must pass or nothing passes" part of the agreement.

That was always the implicit understanding when the grand bargain involved public employee retirement reductions and tax increases to generate more money for K-12 schools. 

But the deal has expanded to include small business tax cuts and a local pre-emption on genetically modified crops. That expansion has altered the political math. 

First, a quick lesson about Oregon legislative procedure, which doesn't allow multi-subject omnibus bills. Congress can stuff Brussels sprouts and brownies into the same legislative stew so there is something to like for almost everybody. In Oregon, lawmakers pretty much have to vote on each major provision separately.

Now back to the grand bargain. It appears to require five bills — two to trim PERS benefits, one to raise taxes and provide for a small business tax cut, one for the GMO pre-emption and one to appropriate money for K-12 schools, other educational institutions and community mental health. 

For legislative Republicans, all of those are sweet votes. For legislative Democrats, three of the five cut against key constituencies — public employees and environmental groups opposed to pre-empting local bans on GMO crops. 

Much has already been written about the give-and-take on PERS cuts and tax hikes. A deal was close during the 2013 regular session, but didn't quite make it over the finish line, in part because it failed to include small business tax cuts pushed by GOP Senators Larry George and Brian Boquist.

Sausage-Making in Full View

Watching a special legislative session is unavoidably like watching sausage being made, with all the ingredients spilled on the political table in full view.As the saying goes, it may be best not to see either laws or sausages being made. But that is hard to avoid when contemplating a legislative special session.

Governor Kitzhaber has hosted Oregon legislative leaders at Mahonia Hall this week to barter a deal to make deeper cuts in public employee retirement spending and raise taxes on large corporations and wealthier Oregonians to pump more money into K-12 education, higher education and mental health care. 

The so-called grand bargain Kitzhaber seeks isn't new. It was debated in the regular legislative session but never quite got enough political traction. 

Gaining political traction often requires introducing new components into the policy machinery. Senate Republicans, for example, want to include a tax cut for businesses that file as S corporations. The idea goes in the opposite direction of raising money, but at least it involves taxation.

Middle Ground in 'Grand Bargain' Debate

Politics versus policy.

That age-old debate surfaced again earlier this month concerning the motivations of Democrats and Republicans as they assess  the so-called "Grand Bargain" pushed by Governor Kitzhaber to make deeper cuts in the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) to boost school funding, while reducing some business taxes.

A proposal along those lines failed in the 2013 legislative session, but some supporters have not given up on the idea. The governor will decide by August 26 whether to call legislators back into special session to try to do what they failed to do in the regular session. The key to getting the necessary Republican votes in the House and Senate may revolve around some form of business tax cut.

Media coverage has suggested some Republicans who want to regain control of the House and Senate may take a pass at further PERS cuts, so they can campaign against Democrats in the next election for failing to control PERS.

Democrats appear open to supporting the Grand Bargain if it puts more money into K-12 schools and avoids teacher or school year cuts, which they view as a winning election theme in 2014. 

The political calculations over the Grand Bargain, while not surprising, do raise questions about whether there is middle ground in this debate.

In “The Mindsets of Political Compromise,” political science professors Amy Gutmann from the University of Pennsylvania and Dennis Thompson from Harvard University suggest that compromise is more difficult in the United States today because of "permanent campaigns."

"The increasing incursion of campaigning into governing in American democracy — the permanent campaign — encourages political attitudes and arguments that make compromise more difficult," they wrote. "The resistance to compromise is a problem for any democracy because it stands in the way of change that nearly everyone agrees is necessary, and thereby biases the political process in favor of the status quo."

Legislature Adjourns, Post-Mortems Commence

Before you could say Sine Die, emails started flying describing the 2013 Oregon legislative session successes and disappointments.

Some rued the lack of a "Grand Bargain" on increased tax revenue and deeper cuts in the Public Employees Retirement System. Others pointed out individual successes, such as Rep. Brent Barton, D-Clackamas, who touted legislative approval of a $5 million investment for the Willamette Falls redevelopment "located at the heart of my district." A few deplored specific bills, such as Senator Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, who bewailed a bill dealing with tenants using Section 8 housing vouchers.

Oregon Pubic Broadcasting's Chris Lehman posted a story about a session of "missed opportunities." Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli was blunter, saying the 2013 session held promise for historic decision-making that didn't pan out. Treasurer Ted Wheeler applauded the legislature for sending his Opportunity Initiative to generate more money for college student aid to the November 2014 election ballot. 

Pretty much everybody, except Senator Chris Edwards, D-Eugene, took bows for increasing K-12 school funding by a $1 billion. Edwards thought it should have been more to avoid teacher layoffs and shrunken school schedules that will still face some districts around the state.

And there was something for almost everybody in the $1 billion lottery bonding measure, affectionately known around the Capitol as the Christmas tree bill. It contained $79.4 million for a new state hospital in Junction City, $15 million for Multnomah County Courthouse improvements, $10 million for the proposed convention center hotel and $618 million in assorted investments at public universities and community colleges. 

Lawmakers approved $34.5 million to undertake a major remodeling and seismic upgrade for the Oregon Capitol, which will involve a temporary home for the legislature while the building is jacked up and put on huge springs.

Budget Stalemates in Olympia and Salem

Lawmakers in Washington and Oregon haven't found the answer to balancing their states’ budgets with more funding for K-12 schools. Now time is running out.The economy is improving and tax revenues are up, which should make it relatively easy to balance the budget. But Oregon and Washington lawmakers are finding it anything but easy.

The Oregon legislature, which planned to adjourn by the end of June, is bracing to grind on until July. The Washington legislature just completed its first special session, which The Columbian summarized in a tweet as "30 days, 0 bills, $77,000 in per diems."

Lawmakers in both states are hung up on how to get more money for K-12 schools. 

In Olympia, lawmakers face a court mandate to increase K-12 school funding, but can't agree how to do it.

In Salem, Democrats and Republicans have failed to reach agreement on deep enough cuts to the Public Employees Retirement System and new revenue. The Oregon Senate, which Democrats control by a slim 16-14 margin, is stymied because Senator Chris Edwards, D-Springfield, has balked at passing a large enough K-12 school budget to avoid more teacher layoffs and school day reductions.

The Governor as Prop

Governor Kitzhaber will be sitting in First Lady Michelle Obama's box tonight as the President delivers his State of the Union Address. Kitzhaber's presence will be highlighted on national television when Obama talks about health care and Medicaid reform.

While in the role of a prop tonight, Kitzhaber has been anything but inert in pushing for health care transformation. His energy for health care reform, early adoption of the health insurance exchange and his push for changes in the health care delivery system have thrust Oregon to the forefront. His ideas for change have won widespread support among health care providers and insurers, business leaders and legislators on both sides of the political aisle.

Perhaps the most fundamental change Kitzhaber is pushing is a system of coordinated care organizations through the state that are charged with improving patient outcomes while reducing costs. Early efforts are aimed at problems such as treatment of complex, chronic diseases to avoid unnecessary hospitalization or prescription drugs.

Oregonians are too often reflected nationally by the shenanigans of Tonya Harding or the caricatures of the televised comedy, Portlandia. We may not know how to act when Oregon is singled out for praise in such a high-profile moment.

Kitzhaber will be joined in the First Lady's box by a teacher from Sandy Hook Elementary, a police officer who responded to the massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and the parents of a girl killed by gunfire in Chicago, just days after she participated in Obama's inauguration. They will be reminders of the collateral damage of gun violence in America and symbols of why Obama is asking Congress to act on gun control.

Wheeler Plan to Boost Student Aid

Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler proposes to issue state bonds to create a fund to bolster college student financial aid as tuitions, fees and student debt all rise and average Oregon income lags.To combat rising college tuition and student debt, Oregon Treasurer Ted Wheeler is proposing to issue $500 million in general obligation bonds to increase available student aid. Voters would have to ratify a constitutional amendment to create the Student Opportunity Fund.

Wheeler unveiled details of what he calls the Opportunity Initiative the day after Governor Kitzhaber delivered his annual State of the State address. The governor proposed public employee retirement system and prison sentencing reforms to squeeze out savings to boost K-12 school funding.

Kitzhaber also reiterated support for higher education investment to help Oregon achieve an ambitious goal of 80 percent of its adult population having a postsecondary degree or certificate to ensure a competitive Oregon workforce in the Information Age. That's where Wheeler's idea joins the conversation. 

Wheeler says Oregon's commitment to student assistance has lagged the national average by 20 percent, while Oregon students attending state universities or community colleges have faced tuition and fees exceeding the national average by 18 percent. 

Kitzhaber Emphasizes Education Investment

Saying Oregon cannot settle for an "uneven, unequal and hesitant recovery," Governor Kitzhaber, wearing his trademark jeans, called for investment in education from pre-school through college by easing "serious fiscal constraints" that keep money from classrooms.

Entering his 11th year as governor, Kitzhaber's State of the State address centered on "difficult choices" that include "reducing the cost of health care and corrections, reducing the cost drivers that are diverting resources from the classroom and undertaking serious review of Oregon tax expenditures."

The former emergency room physician said a new "high-quality, low-cost" care model developed by Coordinated Care Organizations could restrain Medicaid inflation to 3.4 percent in the second year of the coming biennium, saving the state's general fund $100 million. Kitzhaber said shifting public employees, including K-12 teachers, to a similar private health care model could result in a game-changing $5 billion savings over the next decade. 

Stemming the state's rising prison inmate population, the governor said, can avoid spending $30,000 per year per prisoner, compared to the $10,000 per year the state spends on K-12 students.

Kitzhaber repeated his call for changes in the Public Employees Retirement System, which he said is the cause of half of the projected  $1,000 per student increase in the K-12 budget.

Explaining his proposed changes, Kitzhaber said, "This is not about the value of our teachers. It is also not about a major overhaul of the retirement system that continues to be one of the best funded in the nation. It is simply about trying to have a conversation that allows us to strike a balance between the cost of our retirement system and our ability to put dollars in the classroom today to ensure that our students are successful tomorrow."

7 Things to Watch for in the 2013 Legislature

Oregon lawmakers are trekking to Salem for the start of the 2013 legislative session next week, which will feature heavy-duty issues such as education funding, higher education restructuring, health care transformation, prison sentencing, PERS reform, gun control and funding for a new I-5 bridge over the Columbia River.

Here are seven things to look for as the new session unfolds:

1. Leadership – New versus old 

The three key leaders in the House — Speaker-Elect Tina Kotek, Majority Leader Val Hoyle and Minority Leader Mike McLane — are all new to their posts. They worked together during the historic 2011-2012 power-sharing sessions, but how they relate to each other in this new environment with Democrats in control will be worth watching — and may very well determine whether some big issues will move or stall.

Across the building, Senator Peter Courtney will be sworn in for a historic 6th term as Senate President. Joined by Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum and Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, this team has worked together and knows how to negotiate in the tight corners of narrow Democratic control. 

2. Pace of the Session 

The budget has always set the pace of legislative sessions in Oregon. With one of the most experienced Joint Ways and Means co-chair teams in decades, the budget-writing committee possesses the know-how to make early decisions and move the session along quickly.