Willamette Week

Political Poker Game Underway on Taxes, PERS and Cap and Trade

Willamette Week’s Nigel Jaquiss reports there is a high-stakes political poker game underway in Salem and Senator Betsy Johnson, who represents the 18th vote for a Senate supermajority, holds the most important cards. [Photo Credit: Willamette Week]

Willamette Week’s Nigel Jaquiss reports there is a high-stakes political poker game underway in Salem and Senator Betsy Johnson, who represents the 18th vote for a Senate supermajority, holds the most important cards. [Photo Credit: Willamette Week]

A billion-dollar boost for education, a new tax on large businesses and a cap-and-trade scheme may all boil down to how one Oregon senator votes, according to Willamette Week’s Nigel Jaquiss.

“Senator Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) holds almost all the cards” in a big-stakes political poker game that could determine the fate of the three highest-profile legislative measures in the 2019 Oregon legislative session, Jaquiss writes this week.

A keen-eyed, long-time legislative observer, Jaquiss says Johnson’s position as the critical 18th Democratic vote in the Senate gives her a lot of leverage. A three-fifths supermajority is required to pass tax-raising measures. Johnson also is one of two Senate co-chairs of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, which okays state spending authority. 

Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, may be the key vote that determines the 2019 legislative future for the Student Success Act, PERS funding reforms and cap and trade.

Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, may be the key vote that determines the 2019 legislative future for the Student Success Act, PERS funding reforms and cap and trade.

In Jaquiss’ telling, Johnson, whom he describes as a “business-friendly Democrat,” is reluctant to bolster education funding with a commercial activities tax without “significant PERS cost cuts.” This roughly parallels the view of Senate Republicans who staged a walkout this week, denying the Senate a quorum to take floor votes, including the vote on education funding bill. The 12 Senate Republicans feel left out of the final compromise on the tax measure, which has already passed the House, and want to slow it down to allow more time to negotiate an agreement on PERS.

Jaquiss says Johnson also isn’t keen on the Clean Energy Jobs bill that sets up a cap-and-trade system, apparently agreeing with opponents that it will result in higher costs for Oregon consumers. It’s little surprise – and probably not a coincidence – that the state’s leading business advocacy group, Oregon Business & Industry, just gave Johnson its first Jobs Champion Award.

As the crucial Senate floor vote for the Student Success package, Johnson could use her leverage on a PERS deal or to scuttle cap and trade, but probably not both, Jaquiss claims. Her decision may be informed by which option has the strongest political legs. 

In his article, Jaquiss says the other power player in this legislative poker game is House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland. She has a comfortable supermajority in the House (the Student Success Act passed by a 37-23 vote) – and gubernatorial aspirations. Wading into a contentious fight over PERS isn’t on the priority list, but she may not be able to avoid it. Kotek may have to do what it takes to smooth the way for Johnson’s vote on education funding. 

The idea floating around Capitol hallways to deal with the large and growing PERS unfunded liability is to require teachers and possibly all public employees to begin contributing to their own retirement funds. Governor Brown, who is term-limited and under pressure to address PERS funding, could accept that, Jaquiss says, but it would be a tougher draw for Kotek who enjoys high level of trust from Oregon unions. 

Keeping with the poker motif, Jaquiss says Senate Republicans see a delay on the education funding bill as a way to call the bluff of Democrats, forcing backstairs conversations into the open and either gain PERS concessions or a death blow to cap and trade.

Senate Republicans can’t hide out forever, so a deal or no-deal should emerge soon. The Student Success Act is a safe bet to pass. Everything else is 50-50.

 

John Oliver Makes a Case for Cash-Strapped Local Newspapers

Last Week Tonight host John Oliver has stirred up a national conversation about the importance of the declining local newspaper industry in food chain of journalism. Much of his segment focused on major changes at The Oregonian.

Last Week Tonight host John Oliver has stirred up a national conversation about the importance of the declining local newspaper industry in food chain of journalism. Much of his segment focused on major changes at The Oregonian.

Late night comedy star John Oliver delved into the decline of local newspapers in his latest episode of HBO’s Last Week Tonight, bringing the struggles of Oregon’s largest publication under an enormous microscope.

For anyone familiar with the stories of The Oregonian’s shrinking staff and scaled-down delivery amid its painful transition to a digital-first model over the past few years, Oliver’s 19-minute segment was nothing particularly new. Nonetheless, he used the example (along with several other stories of an industry stuck in an existential crisis) to make a bold statement about the importance of local newspapers.  

“It’s pretty obvious without newspapers around to cite, TV news would just be Wolf Blitzer endlessly batting a ball of yarn around,” Oliver said. “The media is a food chain which would fall apart without local newspapers.”

Oliver went on to detail a story his show ran two years ago that heavily drew upon former Oregonian political reporter Harry Esteve’s coverage of the Oregon Lottery. Later, Oliver flashed back to a clip from 20 years earlier of former Oregonian editor Bill Hilliard speaking to the City Club about a steady stream of growth in staffing and salaries at the paper every year he’d been there. That kind of confidence was almost tempting fate, Oliver said.

In 2013, Harry Esteve was at The Oregonian during a round of cuts that wiped out about 22 percent of the staff. Then, a few months down the road in early 2014, Willamette Week broke the news that Oregonian reporters would be required to meet a new quota to publish at least three blog posts a day. The rule has loosened up since, but the general pressure to produce more snippets of content stands. Esteve is also no longer with the paper. He resigned after taking a job with Portland State University, where he works today.

“If journalists are constantly required to write, edit, shoot videos and tweet, mistakes are going to get made,” he said, lamenting the decline in standards and depth that tends to come with shrinking staffs.

Of course, Oliver is right. If you watch TV news, stop and consider how often anchors and reporters attribute facts or even their entire stories to the local newspapers that broke that news to begin with? Happens all the time.

Takeaways from the Pew Research Center's 2016 Newspaper Fact Sheet

  • Weekday circulation fell 7 percent, and Sunday circulation dropped 4 percent in 2015.
  • The cash flow for digital advertising fell about 2 percent last year.
  • In 2015, newspapers saw their biggest drop in advertising since 2009. 

Now consider the financial picture at the macro level. Between 2004 and 2014, newspapers gained $2 billion in online advertising revenue. But in that same time frame, the industry also lost $30 billion in print ad revenue, Oliver highlighted.

“No one seems to have a perfect plan to keep newspapers afloat,” Oliver said. “And the truth is a big part of the blame for this industry’s dire straights is on us and our unwillingness to pay for the work journalists produce. We’ve just grown accustomed to getting our news for free.”

And Oliver may also be right about that last bleak point. Unless print journalism establishes a stable revenue stream, we could be entering an unprecedented era of growth in government corruption as media watchdogs become harder and harder to find, he said.

Newspapers have been closing and laying off staff for years now. Sometimes the Harry Esteves of local newsrooms are replaced, but not often enough to fill in the most critical coverage gaps.

For instance, the number of full time statehouse reporters at more than 200 papers across the nation declined by 35 percent from 2003 to 2014, according to Pew Research Center study cited in Oliver’s segment.

Some major online startup publications, like BuzzFeed, Vox and The Huffington Post, have expanded their national political coverage over the past several years. Even so, today’s online media market still fails to fill the gaps left by the shrinking print journalism industry.

“Those places are often just repackaging the work of newspapers,” Oliver said. “And it is not just news outlets. Stupid shows like ours lean heavily on local newspapers.”

Time will tell whether Oliver’s plea for people to buy print ads and subscribe to newspapers will resonate deep enough to spur any change for the industry. He may be a rockstar on social media, but perhaps the problems of the news business are too far gone to solve at this point. Maybe that’s not the solution anyway, though. But in any case, Oliver’s segment is getting people talking, and it’s big picture conversations like this that often later prove to be the spark for game-changing ideas. 

Justin Runquist is CFM’s communications counsel. He is a former reporter for The Oregonian, The Columbian and The Spokesman-Review. Away from the office, he’s a baseball fanatic with foolhardy hopes that the Mariners will go to the World Series someday. You can reach Justin at justinr@cfmpdx.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @_JustinRunquist

Oregon Liquor Privatization Shaken, Not Stirred Again

For the second election cycle in a row, a grocer coalition has backed away from an initiative to privatize Oregon liquor sales. Grocers say they will focus on defeating a gross receipts ballot measure, but opponents say they ditched their initiative because polling showed it would fail.

For the second election cycle in a row, a grocer coalition has backed away from an initiative to privatize Oregon liquor sales. Grocers say they will focus on defeating a gross receipts ballot measure, but opponents say they ditched their initiative because polling showed it would fail.

The grocer coalition, pushing for liquor privatization in Oregon, has withdrawn its initiative and says it will focus instead on defeating a labor-backed initiative to impose a gross receipts tax on corporations with large revenues. 

Opponents of the liquor privatization measure say the real reason Initiative Petition 71 was pulled is because it didn’t poll well enough to win in this November’s general election.

This is the second consecutive election cycle that Oregon liquor privatization boosters have backed off initiatives after Washington voters approved a similar measure in 2011.

Meanwhile, the Oregon Liquor Control Commission has expanded its pilot program by allowing liquor sales in 14 additional Portland-area grocery stores. The OLCC said the 14 retail licenses it issued represent the largest liquor expansion in Oregon since Prohibition.

For those unfamiliar with liquor regulation, Oregon is considered a “control” state. The OLCC, which is a state agency, buys and distributes distilled spirits through state-licensed liquor stores. The arrangement dates back to post-Prohibition and is rooted in a policy mindset that liquor consumption can be moderated through limited access and higher prices. Those higher prices feed generous amounts of cash into the state General Fund and city and county budgets and fund mental health and substance abuse services. 

As you might imagine, liquor sales is big business. In the 2013-2015 biennium, distilled spirit sales in Oregon totaled $1.06 billion. After paying for inventory and compensating state liquor store agents, there were net revenues of $435 million. The lion’s share ($247 million) went to state coffers, $77 million went to cities and $39 million went to counties. More than $17 million went directly to community mental health and substance abuse service providers.

Those revenue numbers explain the reticence of public officials to surrender control of the liquor supply chain. They don’t explain why Oregonians are ambivalent about moving liquor sales in part or totally over to private enterprise.

Nigel Jaquiss of Willamette Week reports that Oregonians for Competition dropped IP 71 because after spending $1 million it still didn’t poll well enough to win in the fall election. Jaquiss obtained four relatively recent polls, all funded by opponents of liquor privatization, that showed support for privatization ranging between 32 and 41 percent. The most recent poll, which surveyed 800 Oregonians last month, showed 54 percent opposed IP 71, while only 41 percent favored it.

Dan Lavey, who is advising privatization opponents, said grocers should be concerned about the gross receipts tax, but added, “There are two reasons why people abandon or never start campaigns – lack of money or you don’t believe you have a path to victory. The grocers don’t lack for money.”

Pat McCormick, spokesman for the coalition that pushed for IP 71, said its polling showed “voters are ready to allow Oregonians to buy liquor in grocery stores, alongside beer and wine, like consumers in most states.”

Grocers can be expected to take another run at legislation in the 2017 session. But it does seem clear the landscape for privatizing liquor in Oregon is different than it was in Washington. First off, the Washington initiative passed – opponents would say rammed through – because of a $20 million contribution to the campaign from Seattle-based Costco. Second, privatization in the Evergreen State has been met with mixed reviews. Liquor is available in more places, but at higher prices.

Another factor is the flexibility being shown by OLCC, under the leadership of Chair Rob Partridge, to experiment with different approaches to enhance consumer convenience, including permitting the state’s craft distillers to operate tasting rooms.

“I don’t think Oregonians want a liquor store on every corner. I don’t think they want every gas station and convenience store to have bottles of liquor – that’s not what I hear from Oregonians,” Partridge told KATU News.

He said Walmart, which received four of the 14 new retail licenses, says it plans to offer a limited variety of liquor in its stores compared to what is available in state liquor stores. “Sometimes you buy things for convenience,” Partridge said. “Other times, you’re shopping for that great unique specialty product. So, there’s room in the market for both.”

First Lady Faces Conflict of Interest Charge

Governor Kitzhaber and First Lady Cylvia Hayes woke up this week reading a Willamette Week article accusing Hayes of conflict of interest, which the governor denies.

Governor Kitzhaber and First Lady Cylvia Hayes woke up this week reading a Willamette Week article accusing Hayes of conflict of interest, which the governor denies.

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. 

Neither charge may affect the outcome of the November election. Polls show Wehby trailing incumbent Senator Jeff Merkley by double digits and Kitzhaber's re-election has been assumed since he announced his bid for an unprecedented fourth term. However, the charges mark a significant turn in elections in Oregon, known as one of the most politically polite places in the country.

The piece about Kitzhaber, and its timing just before general election ballots arrive in voter mailboxes, is vintage Willamette Week. The lengthy story about Hayes' work was written by Nigel Jaquiss and carried the edgy headline: "First Lady Inc./Cylvia Hayes has two careers. She pursues both out of the governor’s office."

Jaquiss' piece details when Kitzhaber and Hayes became a couple and earlier brushes with conflict of interest that popped up before Kitzhaber was elected to his third term as governor. Neither Kitzhaber nor Hayes agreed to be interviewed by Jaquiss.