Monday, February 28, 2011

First Redistricting Map Available, Sort Of

Now that the state has detailed census information in hand, the lawmakers on the House and Senate Redistricting committees can move on to the hard--and typically controversial--task of actually drawing up new political boundaries. You can be sure that the initial draft of the maps they produce will be pored over, analyzed, criticized and even dismissed outright.

We haven't seen those drafts yet, but the Legislative Redistricting office has produced at least one map so far: It depicts where the Redistricting committees will hold field hearings around the state. Some of the hearings are by video link, but it looks as though people can testify to a live set of legislators in at least a dozen different cities. Dates are set, but specific times are not. For a list of the hearings, click here. It's not clear yet whether the first draft of any redistricting maps will be ready in time for the first hearing, set for March 11 in Tillamook.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Salem Snow Mostly No-Show

With predictions of six or more inches of snow in the forecast, lawmakers yesterday received instructions on how to sign up for text messages that would alert them to weather-related legislative cancellations. This prompted one eastern Oregon lawmaker to jokingly inquire if there were earthquakes or hurricanes in the forecast. As lawmakers, lobbyists and regular folks alike woke up in Salem this morning...the weather outside was most definitely not frightful. So far, it's business as usual at the capitol.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Unions, Governor Begin Negotiations (UPDATED)

It will probably lack the drama of the current showdown between public employee unions and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, but today in Salem contract negotiations got underway between Governor John Kitzhaber and the unions that represent thousands of state employees. A spokeswoman for the governor confirmed that Kitzhaber made "an initial economic offer" today but said that "all parties have agreed to close negotiation sessions" as well as to not reveal any details. However, some items that may be discussed include a possible end to state contributions to employee retirement plans, as well as possible employee contributions to health insurance premiums, or perhaps another round of furlough days.  The state is facing a $3.6 billion budget shortfall.

UPDATE: Governor Kitzhaber's communications director, Tim Raphael, contacted me this evening to tell me I had received erroneous information from the governor's office earlier in the day. Specifically, while an agreement has been reached with the state's largest public employees union, the SEIU Local 503, to conduct negotiations in private, such an agreement had not been reached with AFSCME Council 75, which represents another significant chunk of state workers. Raphael told me that AFSCME arrived at an initial negotiating session today "with a reporter in tow" and you can read the result of that here. (I had placed a call to AFSCME earlier today but never heard back from them.)

As expected, Kitzhaber is asking the union to contribute to health insurance premiums and give up a state contribution to their pension fund. The union countered with a request for more pay and more vacation days. While this offer is specifically geared toward AFSCME, it's not a stretch to assume that the governor will ask for the same concessions from the SEIU. Raphael tells me the governor's office does not intend to conduct negotiations "through the media" but will instead release tomorrow a statement re-emphasizing Kitzhaber's goals as they relate to public employees.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Don't Lose Track Of Fluffy

If you leave your pet at a kennel and forget to pick it up...well, it could be lights-out for Lassie. A bill under consideration would allow kennels to euthanize pets that aren't retrieved in a timely manner. There are some safeguards against a simple miscommunication, however. The measure would require kennels to notify the pet's owner by certified mail. Owners would have 4 days from the day they receive the letter to contact the kennel to make arrangements for picking the animal up.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Kitzhaber's Industrial Plan Parallels Kulongoski's

Governor John Kitzhaber today offered up more details of his plan to open up more sites to industrial development. Speaking at a Portland shipyard, Kitzhaber outlined his vision of a special panel to identify potential industrial development sites, and review and expedite projects on those sites. If the idea of a newly sworn-in governor focusing on shovel-ready industrial projects sounds familiar, it's because Kitzhaber's predecessor, Ted Kulongoski, tried almost the exact same thing. In February of 2003, roughly a month after he took office (sound familiar?), Kulongoski signed an Executive Order that aimed to identify and spur development of industrial sites.

When asked today what made his proposal different, Kitzhaber said his Economic Recovery Review Council would not only identify so-called "shovel-ready" projects; the panel would also identify "a suite of other issues that are key to making those projects a reality." As an example, the governor cited two situations in Pendleton. In one, he said, a trailer-manufacturing plant wanted to add 200 jobs but there "was not an adequate supply of middle-income housing." Kitzhaber said another company wanted to come to Pendleton "but didn't have the power supply" necessary for its project.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Dodging A Bullet...But Not On The Radio

When I cover the four-times-a-year revenue forecast, I record the proceedings in my office but sit in the hearing room to collect materials and reaction. So while I can't actually monitor the recording, I do try to note the approximate time when especially notable things are said during the presentation. This helps me turn around an update for mid-day newscasts as quickly as possible so I can focus on preparing a longer, more detailed version of the story for later in the day.  This morning, I thought I had a winner with this comment from economist Tom Potiowsky:  "I think we are going to dodge the bullet of a double-dip recession. But because we've had a financial crisis out there, the recovery is going to be a little slower paced than we've seen past recoveries."

Somewhat of a cliche, yes. But it still summed up his forecast pretty well, I thought. But when I got back to my office and reviewed the recording, I soon discovered that this particular remark was not suitable for the radio. Take a listen and I think you'll figure out why:

The thing about committee hearings is that there are potentially a dozen or more people with an "open mic." While this means that sometimes a recording picks up an amusing side comment that one lawmaker makes to another, it generally means that listeners tuning in electronically, either live or via the archives, are treated to a whole lot of paper-shuffling, throat clearing, and out-and-out hacking. Often it's possible to edit these out of a sound clip meant for broadcast, but in this case the offending cough was just too intrusive. So while a print reporter could easily have quoted Potiowsky in this situation, I could not. In the end, I used a comment by Potiowsky's colleague, Mark McMullen, in the short newscast report I prepared.

Of course, the McMullen sound bite, which includes references to "turning the corner" and "bottoming out," was also full of cliches. But as a way of quickly explaining the economists' view, it sufficed. Interestingly, Potiowsky seems to be fond of the bullet-dodging metaphor. In November 2008, on the eve of the current recession, Potiowsky said "We don't dodge this recession bullet." In February of 2006, when the Oregon economy was booming, Potiowsky said "We've been able to dodge a lot of bullets." And in 2003, as Oregon was coming out of the last major economic downturn, Potiowsky told an audience in Bend that "you can't dodge the bullet" of balancing the state budget.

Revenue Department Director Resigns (UPDATED)

The long-time head of the Oregon Department of Revenue has announced her resignation, effective March 17. It's not immediately clear if Elizabeth Harchenko's decision is related to Governor John Kitzhaber's evaluation of agency directors. In December, then governor-elect Kitzhaber requested the resignations of 24 agency heads, including Harchenko, to allow him to evaluate their place in his administration. Last week, Kitzhaber implied that not every one of those agency heads would be getting re-hired. A statement from the governor's office said the Democrat would be announcing his agency directors this week, but no additional details have been revealed.

In a memo written to Department of Revenue employees, the 59-year-old Harchenko cited her age and the desire to spend more time with family as being key reasons for her retirement. Harchenko also said that Kitzhaber "needs to have people with a lot of energy on his leadership team, as he works to transform state government and the way we deliver public services. I do not have the energy to perform at that level."

Kitzhaber spokesman Tim Raphael did not immediately return a call seeking comment. But it was Kitzhaber who initially appointed Harchenko to her post at the Department of Revenue during his first term in office.

UPDATE: The governor's office has released the list of agency directors that Kitzhaber is retaining. There are relatively few surprises. Other than the Department of Revenue, only one other agency is in for an immediate switch: the Department of Housing and Community Services. There, director Victor Merced appears to be out, with Deputy Director Richard Crager taking his place on an "acting" basis. Another change, of sorts, is that Bruce Goldberg has been designated the head of the newly created Oregon Health Authority. That's the agency that was spun off from the Department of Human Services, where Goldberg has previously been director. In Goldberg's place at DHS, on an acting basis, is Erinn Kelley-Siel. The transition from the "old" DHS to the new DHS/OHA has been underway for more than a year, so it's not a huge surprise to see Goldberg assigned to a new post.

There are several other agencies with acting directors, but in each case those people were already in place. The governor's office says that "those who are designated as acting directors will be considered in director searches that are underway."

Revenue Outlook: Down, Slightly

The latest hotly-anticipated revenue forecast does not appear to be a game changer. Anticipated revenues are down slightly in both the current 2-year budget cycle ('09-'11) and the next budget cycle ('11-'13). For '09-'11, combined general fund/lottery fund revenue is off by about $1.5 million from the previous forecast. That means lawmakers won't have much more to do to shore up the current spending plan beyond what they've already planned to do.  (Of course, they still have to do what they planned to do, if you follow me...)

For the '11-'13 biennium, lawmakers are predicted to have about $109 million less in revenue than the last forecast indicated. That means that $3.5 billion budget shortfall we keep hearing about is now roughly $3.6 billion. Again, not a game-changer but it doesn't make anyone's work easier, either. State economist Tom Potiowsky told the House Revenue Committee this morning that Oregon appears to be dodging a "double-dip" recession but things aren't warming up all that fast, either. Jobs and housing numbers are still dismal.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Lawmakers Take On Illegal Clocks And Obnoxious Grass

Your clock is about to break the law. If you observe Daylight Savings Time and you live in Oregon, when you turn your clocks ahead one hour on March 13 you'll technically be in violation of Oregon Revised Statute 187.110, which reads (bolding mine):

The standard of time for the State of Oregon shall be the United States standard of time as established by the Congress of the United States for any particular area of the state under the Act of March 19, 1918, (15 U.S.C. 261) except that from 2 a.m. on the first Sunday in April until 2 a.m. on the last Sunday in October the standard of time for any area of this state shall be one hour in advance of the standard established for that particular area...

The problem, of course, is that Congress decided that starting in 2007, Daylight Savings Time would begin on the second Sunday of March and end on the first Sunday of November. So for several weeks each year, most Oregon clocks comply with federal law but are breaking state law. Fortunately, the Oregon Legislature is stepping in to set our timepieces back on the straight and narrow. The Oregon Senate is scheduled to vote tomorrow on a massive measure that, among other things, puts Oregon's law pertaining to time back in lockstep with the federal standard.

The bill purports to make "nonsubstantive and technical changes in Oregon law," which is code for "nothing to see here." Indeed, it's not terribly unusual for lawmakers to vote on a bill that makes minor corrections to existing laws. This bill simply lumps a few dozen together in one go. Many of the changes involve extraneous commas, references to no-longer-existing boards or commissions, or adds a conjunction or two for the sake of easier reading.

And then there's ORS 540.440, which pertains to the responsibilities of people who own water ditches. Current law requires such people to keep those ditches "clean and free from wild oats, mustard, thistles, or any weeds or obnoxious grasses." If SB 353 is approved, water ditch owners will no longer have to worry themselves about "obnoxious grasses" and instead concern themselves with "noxious grasses."

Friday, February 11, 2011

One Of The Costs Of Co-Governance

Never before in the history of the Oregon legislature has there been a need for a sign that says "Co-Vice Chair." With the Oregon House evenly split at 30 Democrats and 30 Republicans, party leaders settled on a co-governance model that splits power right down the middle. One of the aspects of the co-governance plan is that each committee has two Co-Chairs (one Democrat and one Republican). And, each committee has two Co-Vice Chairs. The position of "Co-Chair" has been a mainstay at the capitol for years--joint House/Senate committees such as Ways and Means have them--but "Co-Vice Chair" is a new species.

So as preparations were being made for the 2011 session, an order was placed for "Co-Vice Chair" nameplates. There are 23 different committees with Co-Vice Chairs, for a theoretical total of 46 possible Co-Vice Chairs at any given time. But since there's never a time when every committee is meeting at once, legislative officials figured they could get by with about two dozen of the nameplates. Total cost, according to Legislative Administrator Scott Burgess, was about $200.

(When the Oregon Senate was split 15-15 in 2003, the two parties worked out a power-sharing plan that did not result in shared committee leadership.)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Sometimes, There's Just No Suspense

When a bill is co-sponsored by a majority of the members of a committee, there's generally little doubt that it will advance to the next stage in the legislative process. And so Senator Lee Beyer, chair of the Senate Business, Transportation and Economic Development Committee, advised the bevy of homebrewers lined up to testify in favor of SB 444 that they didn't need to dwell too much on the topic.  "I would note that we have four other bills on our schedule today. I think this bill is heading for a yes so don't talk it into a no," Beyer said.

Beyer's prognostication was correct. The bill passed without opposition and now heads to the Senate floor.

Kitzhaber Hints At Agency Head Changes

Governor John Kitzhaber has said on several occasions that he'd decide by today, February 10, whether to keep or sack the heads of some two dozen state agencies. This afternoon, the governor's office issued a statement saying that while he's made up his mind, the public won't be notified until next week, until after "personnel and transition matters" are completed. That suggests that at least some of the agency directors won't make the cut.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Observers Pack Sack Hearing

Nothing packs them in like a discussion about grocery bags. This afternoon's hearing on SB 536, which would ban so-called single-use plastic checkout bags, was a popular draw. Not only was Hearing Room C packed, so was neighboring Hearing Room B, where observers watched a video feed. And in the capitol Galleria, lobbyists and others gathered around a television screen.

The crowd didn't have to wait long for some fireworks. Mark Daniels of plastic bag manufacturer Hilex Poly made the case for continuing to allow plastic bags. In doing so, he referred to the five cent charge that the bill would require stores to levy on people who opt for paper bags (as opposed to bringing their own reusable bag) as a tax. That prompted Senator Mark Hass, one of the bill's sponsors, to object to the term. Take a listen:

Daniels then changed his term to a "fine" as opposed to a "tax." Later, grocery industry lobbyist Joe Gilliam testified that the nickel fine/fee/tax/whathaveyou would "not be a profit center" and that five cents would roughly cover the cost to the retailer.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Possibly The Worst Time To Talk About Beer

Last summer a new interpretation by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission put the brakes on homemade beer competitions. The ruling caused an uproar in the homebrew community. Democratic Representative Mike Schaufler proposed a bill that would seek to address some of those issues. And that bill, HB 2642, was scheduled for a perhaps the worst possible time to rally the beer-loving faithful:  8 a.m. on the morning after the Super Bowl.

But it was not to be. The bill was yanked from the schedule of the House Business and Labor Committee with no new date announced. In truth, it probably has less to do with the unfortunate timing of the hearing than it does with the apparent coalescing in the homebrew community around a competing measure, Senate Bill 444. That bill is tentatively scheduled for a hearing on February 10th in the Senate Business, Transportation
and Economic Development Committee.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Cigarette Butt Ban Back

The effort to crack down on wayward cigarette butts is back on the table in Salem. A bill that would have created a $90 fine for tossing a cigar or cigarette butt on the ground (as opposed to an ashtray) passed the House two years ago but was never taken up in the Senate. The citizen activist behind that effort is trying again. This year's version of the bill was introduced in the Senate today.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Impeachment Effort Underway, Sort Of

Oregon is the only state that does not include provisions for impeachment of elected officials in its state constitution. While Oregon does allow voters to recall its politicians, there have been relatively few successful efforts to do so--and most of those have been on the local level. (I could find reference to just 3 state lawmakers that have been recalled--none since the 1980's.) But as far as impeachment--that is, when lawmakers themselves remove a fellow politician from office--that's not possible in Oregon.

Enter House Joint Resolution 22, which was given a first reading today on the House floor. Sponsored by Representative Kim Thatcher (R-Keizer) on behalf of a constituent, the legislation would establish a process by which state lawmakers could impeach and remove from office most statewide elected officials. (Curiously, the office of Superintendent of Public Instruction appears to be exempt from the impeachment threat.) But while lawmakers themselves would not be subject to impeachment, state agency heads that are appointed by the governor would be.

Impeachment would require a simple majority of votes in the House. A subsequent conviction and removal from office would require a two-thirds vote in the Senate. But don't expect to see this happen anytime soon. For HJR-22 to take effect, lawmakers would have to send it to the ballot and voters would have to approve it. That's because it requires a change in the Oregon Constitution.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

More Info On Proposed Oregon Health Plan Cuts

Governor John Kitzhaber said today that he "doesn't want to balance the budget by throwing people under the bus." In other words, he doesn't want to simply cut large numbers of people off of social service programs. But his budget does include reductions to the level of benefits provided by some of those services, including the Oregon Health Plan, or OHP, which provides health care coverage to roughly 380,000 low-income Oregonians.

The OHP famously uses a prioritized list of services to determine, based on current funding, what medical benefits to provide. On the current list, there are 679 possible medical conditions, ranging from "Pregnancy" (most important) to "Gastrointestinal conditions with no or minimally effective treatments or no treatment necessary" (least important). Of the items on the list, currently only the top 502 are treated. So if you suffer from #502, Cysts of Bartholin's Gland, you're covered. But if Lichen Planus is what's ailing you, you're out of luck. That's #503 and it's currently below a literal line that separates the "will treat" from the "will not treat."

Under the governor's proposed budget, the line would move about 40 positions northward. This would eliminate coverage of a host of conditions such as acute bronchitis (#475), obsessive-compulsive disorders (#478), and rectal prolapse (#493), which you can read about here if you wish. The reduction of benefits to Oregon Health Plan patients is estimated to save about $29 million in the two-year budget cycle. Of course, lists like this are subject to change, and lawmakers may have their own ideas about how to trim the budget.

Governor's Budget Proposal

If you like 395 page pdf documents, you'll love the Governor Kitzhaber's budget proposal. Read it here.