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Last year was both an eventful one for Oregon and, politically, a bitter one. It began with a governor in crisis, featured a particularly contentious legislative session and concluded with a militant, anti-government group gathering in Burns. Along the way, Oregonians gained limited access to recreational marijuana, the state’s public schools remained mired in mediocrity, its rural areas continued to struggle economically and its largest city rode its popularity into a full-blown crisis in housing affordability. Oh, and Portland’s mayor figured it was a good idea to kill a $ 500 million industrial project that would have supported decent blue-collar jobs … just months after he’d gushed about it.
This year might be even more eventful, albeit without a gubernatorial self-immolation. There will be a short legislative session and a big election during which Oregonians will vote for an army of state officials, including dozens of legislators and a governor. And then there are the potential ballot measures, including one backed by public employee unions that would boost business taxes by $ 2.5 billion per year. Speaking of ballot measures, this year also may – cross fingers – see the full implementation of a 2014 measure legalizing the recreational use of marijuana.
Policymakers, meanwhile, will continue to look for ways to improve public education, and Portlanders will continue to look for the leadership required to meet big-city challenges.
From a public policy and leadership standpoint, then, this year will look a lot like last year with a few notable differences. So, too, does the Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board’s annual agenda. This year’s list does not specifically address the needs of small business or rural Oregon, though we certainly will write about these subjects as opportunities arise during the year. It features a couple of new items and an old one, devoted to personal freedom, making a return.
Our agenda, now in its fourth year, reflects our focus on issues that can be addressed most meaningfully by state and local officials. Full editorials on the following agenda items will appear during the next two weeks.
Get Oregon centered
In 2015, the state’s dominant Democratic Party used its strengthened legislative majorities to ram through a number of controversial bills. In doing so, legislative leaders sacrificed an opportunity to pass a transportation-funding package for which there was bipartisan support. That same legislative session, however, also produced notable examples of bipartisanship in which Republicans and Democrats (from urban and rural areas) cooperated in pursuit of centrist policy. Oregon could use less of the former and a lot more of the latter. What will happen when the Legislature convenes this year?
Better leadership in education
Leadership is a quality lacking on too many fronts, it seems. But when it comes to Oregon’s barely mediocre educational system, the urgency for vision and follow-through couldn’t be clearer.
The state registered the fourth-worst graduation rate in the country – and that marks an improvement over the previous year. The “achievement gap” between poor students and those from higher-income families was tallied as the second-worst in the country in a recent Education Week study. Thousands of students are chronically absent from schools that do too little to keep or re-engage them. And the stakes are getting higher now that the federal government is ceding to Oregon and other states the responsibility for holding schools accountable for students’ progress.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to know who’s helming the ship. Gov. Kate Brown has done little to shape education beyond announcing a plan to hire an education innovation officer, details of which have yet to be fleshed out. Whether state and local officials sufficiently prioritize students’ needs and develop data-based strategies for improving student performance will be key for guiding Oregon’s educational system to better – or worse – outcomes.
Make Portland a city that works
Portland has a lot going for it, including a mild climate, a dramatic natural setting, a great food scene and a large population of creative people. Not surprisingly, it’s a popular destination for visitors and permanent residents. Such popularity brings challenges, however, most notably high housing costs. In such an environment, Portland’s elected leaders should look for common-sense ways to keep housing affordable for everyone – including middle-income people – while supporting the creation of decent jobs across the income spectrum. They haven’t. Three of the city’s five commission seats are up for election this year, and one of them – the mayor’s – is certain to have a new occupant. Meanwhile, Portlanders are likely to vote on a local gas tax to repair roads compromised, in part, by the city’s own spending decisions. Is this the year Portland gets some of the adult leadership it so badly needs?
Build Oregon prosperity
People value living in Oregon because of many things, none more than opportunity and beauty. But each has its price. Each requires a functioning economy that supports jobs, housing, education and growth. That’s where things get tricky.
Oregon’s job base depends largely upon taxes and fees: upon individuals, surely, but especially upon businesses small and large. A tiny startup in Portland needs to avoid a regulatory thicket that could bleed it dry, while something so mammoth as the proposed Jordan Cove LNG project, on the coast at Coos Bay, needs state, local and federal clearance as well as the right set of incentives. This is to say nothing of the need for improved transportation infrastructure, which fosters growth, and efforts by lawmakers to seed the right businesses in struggling southern and eastern Oregon counties.
The beauty part and public education follow. Their support depend upon revenues associated with an employed citizenry.
Protect and expand personal freedom
This item, part of our 2013 and 2014 agendas, took a year off in 2015 following the legalization of recreational marijuana and, more significantly, the invalidation of Oregon’s ban on same-sex marriage by U.S. District Judge Michael McShane. Personal liberty requires protection in low-profile matters as well as big ones, however, as events in 2015 demonstrated. The state Legislature last year prohibited consenting adults from smoking and vaping marijuana in the company of other consenting adults in lounges and clubs. This is an overreach that merits correction. More seriously, Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian overruled an administrative law judge and trampled the free-speech rights of the owners of Sweet Cakes by Melissa. The bakery became famous for refusing – wrongly – to bake a wedding cake for a lesbian couple. But this wrong does not justify the wrong done by Avakian, a state official who now seeks to become Oregon’s secretary of state.
Get pot right
Last year was preamble. This year makes weed real. Oregonians will see a profusion of first-time recreational pot shops – and communities deciding whether the experiment is worth it.
Cultural transition? It’s underway. The implementation of Measure 91, passed by a majority of Oregonians to make recreational pot legal, morphed throughout 2015. Lawmakers created an easy opt-out provision, and much of eastern Oregon decided it would be better off with neither recreational nor medical pot stores at all. Still, hundreds of emporiums are expected to open this year in the state’s more urban areas.
Success will mean Oregon matches or exceeds Washington state and Colorado in creating and regulating a profitable agricultural sector. Closely watched will be the efficacy of a seed-to-sale marijuana tracking system, created by the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to ensure product reliability while choking off the black market, and whether measures to protect the under-21 crowd from easy access to pot prove to be effective.