Why not single payer?

by Steve, March 29th, 2009

politicsI’ve been pretty hands-off on the new prez, at least publicly. But I keep asking myself a couple things. First, why they hell haven’t we nationalized the banking system yet? Second, why the hell isn’t Obama talking about single payer health care?

(Of course we knew ahead of time that Obama is something of a market fundamentalist, so we already know the answer to those questions.)

“Medicare for all” is the smartest thing we could do for the economy. It would eliminate the wasteful, burdensome, redundant and immoral private health insurance racket in one fell swoop, and eliminate the leading cause of personal bankruptcy in the US.

Even if Obama isn’t willing to consider it, circumstances may eventually force the issue. Meanwhile, a grassroots groundswell is building, with Laborer’s Local 483 among Portland unions to endorse passage of HR 676, the United States National Health Insurance Act.

I urge you to join with the laborer’s in calling your US Rep and encouraging them to support HR 676.

Portland’s urban renewal piggy bank gone bust?

by Steve, March 13th, 2009

politicsThis week’s celebrity slap-down between city commissioner Randy Leonard and county chair Ted Wheeler may signal the beginning of the end of an era in Portland development. (Warning: wonkishness ahead.)

First, let’s talk about how urban renewal, a.k.a. Tax Increment Financing (TIF), is supposed to work (and has, in fact, worked in some cases in Portland).

  • City leaders identify a part of the city that is “blighted” and draw a line around it. This is an Urban Renewal District (URD). Ideally (though state law is vague on this), “blighted” would mean that the property values within this area are stagnant of falling.
  • The city identifies infrastructure projects that would spur private investment to improve the property values in the URD, and borrows money (through the issuance of municipal bonds) to pay for these projects. For the life of the URD, property tax on incremental increases in the value of properties is diverted from the usual recipients (city, county and school district general funds) to pay off the bonds. So, for example, if a property within the URD increases in value from $100,000 to $125,000 in the first year, all of the property tax on the additional $25K in value goes to pay off the bonds.
  • When the bonds are retired, the URD can also retired, and the city, county and school district all receive higher revenue because of the increased value of the properties.

Now, that’s how things are supposed to work, but even in this best case there are plenty of critics. Minority communities have frequently been displaced, so urban renewal is broadly viewed as a tool of gentrification by those being “renewed” further to the fringes of society. But it gets even worse when the process is inverted as it was with the Major League Soccer deal.

Instead of identifying a blighted area, then determining infrastructure needs, city leaders identified a suposed need (renovation of a municipal stadium — whose recent renovation is still being paid off — to accommodate a private sports team investor), and then tried to create an urban renewal area to help fund it. Among other problems, the area around the stadium is distinctly not in danger of stagnant or falling property values. It is prime urban real estate, with a great deal of recent high-end commercial development.

This new urban renewal district (taken out of the deal by amendment before the deal was approved) would have directly deprived struggling county, school district and city general funds of millions of dollars over its life time.

It’s entirely disingenuous to claim the properties around PGE Park will not increase in value without another renovation to the stadium, and that we thusly wouldn’t be taking money from the county or schools.

Even Randy Leondard, while protesting that the debate has been uninformed, ultimately seemed to concede the point. Yes, we take the money, he seemed to say, but we’ve always been there for the county in times of need (“Good as we’ve been to you!”). And look at all we’ve build with it! It’s a very paternalistic attitude, and that was not lost on Ted Wheeler.

The reality, beneath the veneer of a bunch of euro-trash wannabe soccer fans rallying for a “major” league team, and urban renewal boosters’ insistence that building new stadiums for millionaires is the best kind of economic stimulus we can do, is that Merritt Paulson is in over his head with his baseball lease at PGE Park. His triple A Portland Beavers draw just over 25% of capacity. Paulson is paying not just current rent, but also back rent for the previous millionaire failure of a minor league sports team owner. That’s a gift to Portland’s civic leaders, who have egg on their face for that previous failure (not to mention the bonds they have yet to retire from the previous renovation).

Paulson’s lease is up in 2010, and if he takes his team to Tuscon, we’re stuck holding the bag on PGE Park’s last renovation with no tenant to pay for it.

Most of Portland’s glitzy development, including its tightly stretched bubble of a condo market, has been subsidized with urban renewal dollars. City leaders have taken advantage of vagaries in state law to use urban renewal as a piggy bank to subsidize Portland’s wealthiest land owners and create “iconic” projects for their own portfolios.

In the end, it’s about civic priorities. If we draw URDs around areas where property values are not stagnant, we directly impact city, county and school district general funds that pay for basic social services, schools, and infrastructure for the rest of the city. Maybe that’s what we truly want as a city. But let’s be clear about it when we do so.

A lot of this TIF mania can be traced to members of the old Neil Goldschmidt gang and the local commercial real estate mafia that has been their patrons. With our first publicly financed city commissioner (Amanda Fritz) leading the loyal opposition to this latest boondoggle, and with emboldened county chair Wheeler and school board co-chair Trudy Sargent at her back, maybe we’re seeing the beginning of the end of this kind of irresponsible finance scheme.

Well, a guy can dream, can’t he?

MLS in Portland: yes and no

by Steve, March 11th, 2009

Portland City Council is approving the MLS deal today without $15 million in urban renewal funding, but not without some first-class fireworks between commissioner Randy Leonard and county chair Ted Wheeler. Dan Saltzman introduced the amendment removing the $15 million, then voted yes on the amended measure, along with Randy Leonard and Sam Adams. Amanda Fritz and Nick Fish voted no.

If the $15 million hole is not patched by September, the deal is off.

A little Bollywood for you

by Steve, March 6th, 2009

I eat lunch most every day at an Indian grocery near my office. Since they’ve got B4U Music on the big screen, I can’t help but associate Bollywood and cholle.

And let me tell you, nothing tastes better than some good Indian food after a vigorous game of pick-up hockey. (What… you think that’s weird?)

I love the Latin-rock influence in this one. And Sneha Ullal is kinda cute, too. Okay, pulled Lucky Lips; was told it was eh, maybe not appropriate. How about some Tenu Leke from Salaam-E-Ishq (2007), a movie I had the pleasure of viewing while hopped up Percocet after a wisdom tooth extraction:

More harmony for Terry

by Steve, March 3rd, 2009

Per Terry’s request, more harmony (Lion Song by Jay Harden):

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As for “more bass”, maybe it’s your computer speakers. The recording engineer thought we mixed the bass too high!

Obama and the Leafs

by Steve, March 2nd, 2009

From the Left Coast Sports Babe, with a tip of the hat to Greg Drinnan’s Kamloops, B.C. based Taking Notes:

Barack Obama took his first foreign trip to Canada this past week. He said in a speech there that he expected to fix the U.S. economy, bring the troops home from Iraq, and solve global warming. Realistically, however, he said there was nothing he could do about the Maple Leafs.

Twenty years ago

by Steve, March 1st, 2009

musicJust before I moved to Oregon from the broad American prairie, I was playing bass in a band called Totem Soul. We earned enough money playing in college bars to pay for three days in a professional recording studio (this was before the age of serious DIY recording, so it was a big deal), and recorded an LP’s worth of material.

Here’s Lear’s Shadow, by one of our three singer song-writers, Jay Harden:

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Then we took the rest of our money, loaded all our gear into the back of my 1963 Chevy Stepvan (a.k.a. “the pig”), and headed west. The Chevy made it, but the band didn’t last. We worked a little in Eugene and Portland, then broke up a few months later, frustrated by the lack of venues for our peculiar sound and the intricacies of running a four-piece band with three frontmen. Our LP was never pressed, and the recordings sat in the can for nearly two decades before POD Web publishing made it generally available.

So, why the sappy nostalgia? Because I just figured out how to embed audio on my blog.

And after two decades in Oregon, it seems like an interesting time to look back. Portland looked a lot different in 1989. I was “creative class” when that meant a struggling musician could rent a room for $150 bucks in a big shared house in inner Southeast, bike commuting meant riding a one-speed to part-time, low-wage employment at a natural food store, and livability meant you could sleep in your van down by the Sunflower recycling yard when you were between houses.

The Pearl was a derelict rail yard (the title sequence of Drugstore Cowboy, released that year, was filmed there), MAX ran only from Gresham to downtown, and there was a temporary ice rink on Pioneer Court House Square between Thanksgiving and Christmas. Old town was awash in cheap heroin and prostitutes, and timber was still the dominant industry in Oregon. TriMet was still running buses built in the 70s, and the night club scene was dominated by white blues.

Northwest 23rd Ave. was already long gone by then, but Hawthorne was still lined with junk shops and dive bars, and the Bagdad Theater was a second-run house, with a porn screen in back. Who remembers the Ol’ Milwauke or the Tu-Be?

Okay, enough of that shit. Fast forward twenty years. It’s been quite a ride.