Cover Oregon fiasco top Oregon news story in 2013

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

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’s remained 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.

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.

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, 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.

While timber counties dreamed of a return to the good old days of logging, vast swathes 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.

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