Cover Oregon fiasco top Oregon news story in 2013

Written by The Associated Press December 31, 2013 07:44 am

The Legislature tried to take control of medical marijuana by allowing sales to patients through dispensaries, and joined with the governor to make historic cuts to state employee pensions.

Timber counties struggled to provide basic services, such as law enforcement, because federal subsidies were dwindling and taxpayers refused to fill the gap.

But as significant as these news stories were in 2013, they were eclipsed by the travails of Cover Oregon. Once considered a national health care leader, Oregon produced the worst rollout in the nation of the new national health insurance program. While the crippled federal website eventually got up and walked, Oregon'sremained comatose, unable to enroll a single person online. The state had to resort to hiring 400 people to process paper applications.

Officials lay much of the blame on the primary information technology contractor, Oracle Corp., and withheld some $20 million in payments. But state officials' own actions played a role, too. In the face of disaster, they insisted on doing things The Oregon Way, clinging to a grandiose vision of creating a grand health IT system that would not only enroll new people in the national health insurance program, but also provide other vital services. In the midst of the finger-pointing, executive director Rocky King went on indefinite medical leave, and chief information officer Carolyn Lawson resigned.

The Cover Oregon fiasco was voted The Associated Press Oregon news story of the year by newspaper editors across the state.

While Cover Oregon staggered in the dark, lawmakers tried to shine a light into the shadows of medical marijuana, hoping to wipe out the black market in pot grown under the cover of providing medicine. The Legislature authorized licensed medical marijuana dispensaries to sell to cardholders. Some cities objected, enacting prohibitions. Meanwhile, Washington and Colorado went even further, authorizing the sale of marijuana to anyone old enough to buy a drink, purely for recreational use.

Washington lawmakers refused to go along with Oregon's idea of a new bridge across the Columbia River that would include light rail trains to carry commuters between Vancouver and Portland.

After sealing a deal with Democrats and Republicans alike, Gov. John Kitzhaber called a special session of the Legislature that adopted sweeping changes to cut costs at the state public employee pension system, known as PERS, and to increase state revenues by boosting cigarette taxes, increasing some corporate taxes, and limiting deductions for seniors' medical expenses

Most timber counties continued to struggle. A federal subsidy to make up for logging cutbacks on national forests appeared gone forever. Lane County, the biggest single recipient, managed to win voter approval of a tax increase to stop the revolving door at the jail. But voters in Curry and Josephine counties would not.

Then Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., pulled another rabbit out of a hat, and Congress approved a one-year extension of the subsidy known as the Secure Rural Schools Act. Curry County voters turned down a tax hike for a second time. For a longer-range fix, Wyden and Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., produced competing bills to increase logging on a checkerboard of federal lands that were once a gold mine for timber counties. But the projected revenues are years away even if the bills become law, and the money is a far cry from what counties need to restore services. Meanwhile, the last sawmill in Josephine County closed, and the Legislature approved a plan to help the state come to the rescue of counties that go broke.

While timber counties dreamed of a return to the good old days of logging, vast swaths of timber were going up in smoke in southwestern Oregon, where forests left tinder-dry by drought were touched off by lightning storms. The fires were eventually doused by rainstorms, but not before producing the most expensive wildfire season ever for the Oregon Department of Forestry. Some lawmakers acknowledged that as climate change makes drought and storms more likely, the state will have to budget more to fight wildfires.

The drought also forced cattle ranchers in the upper Klamath Basin to the bargaining table with the Klamath Tribes over sharing scarce water. After a 30-year struggle, the tribes won recognition of their ancient water rights on former reservation lands, which covered key tributaries running into Upper Klamath Lake. To protect fish sacred to the tribes, the tribes invoked water rights dating to time immemorial. That sent watermasters into the irrigated pastures to tell ranchers to pull their pumps from the rivers. Ranchers who had been fighting to overturn the tribes' water rights agreed to limit water withdrawals in return for a promise of federal payments. That gave Wyden the agreement he wanted to try to break a partisan logjam on bills to remove dams from the Klamath River to help salmon, restore environmental damage from a century of agricultural development, and give farmers on a federal irrigation project greater assurances of water in times of drought.

Agriculture was the source of another top news story — the discovery of a patch of genetically modified wheat in a farmer's field in Eastern Oregon. The source of the seed resistant to weed killers remains a mystery.

Meanwhile, lawmakers left the door open for genetically modified food crops by barring local governments from adopting prohibitions.

The Capitol also saw the Legislature follow 12 other states to approve driver's licenses for immigrants who can't show they are in the country legally. Despite support for the drivers' licenses from police chiefs, business groups and Latino groups, opponents easily gathered enough signatures for a repeal measure to go on the ballot next year. Kitzhaber vetoed a bill to prohibit schools from having Native American mascots.

Despite evidence that Cover Oregon was a disaster, Kitzhaber, a former emergency room physician, announced he would run for a fourth term.

In sports, Oregon football coach Chip Kelly broke the hearts of Duck fans when he signed with the NFL Eagles just 10 days after word leaked he was staying in Eugene. Oregon shot out to a No. 2 ranking, but faded at the end, nearly falling to rival Oregon State in the Civil War. The Ducks went on probation for recruiting violations under Kelly, and unveiled a new football operations center at Autzen Stadium that prompted comparisons with the Star Wars Death Star. Duck quarterback Marcus Mariota's dreams of a Heisman Trophy crumbled. But Beavers wide receiver Brandin Cooks won the Biletnikoff Award.

Other stories worth remembering:

• The Obama administration approved an experiment to see if shooting invasive barred owls would help the threatened spotted owl pull out of a spiral toward extinction. The shooting has begun in Northern California.

• The Oregon Supreme Court ruled that Kitzhaber could deny a plea for execution from death-row inmate Gary Haugen.

• Somali immigrant Mohamed Mohamud was found guilty of trying to detonate what he thought was a bomb at Portland's Christmas tree lighting ceremony in 2010. The bomb was a fake provided to Mohamud by undercover FBI agents.

• Rebecca Rubin ended seven years on the run to plead guilty to federal charges she was part of an eco-terrorist cell based in Eugene that set fires around the West in hopes of protecting Canadian lynx habitat from ski resort development, freeing wild horses from federal corrals, and stopping lumber production.

• Conservation groups filed a lawsuit that forced Oregon to require ranchers take non-lethal steps to protect herds before the state can step in to kill wolves that prey on livestock.

• State investigators joined with local police in Klamath County to round up dozens of people on charges they were part of a massive rural drug ring.

• Authorities arrested a 17-year-old boy on charges he was plotting to bomb his high school in Albany.

In LaGrande, the tragic story of suicide by a 15-year-old boy bullied at school for being gay gave way to an uplifting story of his father's love, manifested in a trek across the country. Jadin Bell was found hanging from playground equipment and died two weeks later. His father, Joe Bell, set off on a walk to New York City in his son's memory. Along the way he shared his son's story with anyone who would listen. The Bell family could not escape even more tragedy. In Colorado, Bell was hit from behind by a tractor-trailer truck and killed. His death prompted volunteers to pledge to raise $1 million in Jadin's memory and continue Joe Bell's trek.