In the last four years, Oregon’s most powerful industries have killed, weakened or stalled efforts to deal with climate change, disappearing bird habitat, cancer-causing diesel exhaust, industrial air pollution, oil spill planning and weed killers sprayed from helicopters. What changed Oregon? Money. Lots and lots of money. Reporter Rob Davis here to answer any questions you might have about our investigative series “Polluted By Money.”

Link to full coverage:

Short explainer video:


12:15 p.m. EDIT: Thanks for dropping by everyone, appreciated the thoughtful questions. I have to jam. But I'll circle back later this afternoon to answer any lingering questions.

Comments: 591 • Responses: 28  • Date: 

Jshuam514 karma

What, in your estimation, do you think is the best solution for preventing policy makers from being influenced by outside corporate cash?

oregonian867 karma

Three key issues I see that could be addressed:

  1. The flow of money. Oregon is one of five states without any limit. Lawmakers are working on a ballot referral to ask voters whether that should end. Sweeping majorities of voters in Portland and Multnomah County (upward of 88%) have supported efforts to get money out of politics in their jurisdictions.
  2. The way money is spent. Campaign money isn't just spent on getting elected. As we noted in the series, it paid for luxury hotel rooms in Canadian chateaus, weekly visits to the local sports bar and a variety of wearable Apple accessories. It paid for Salem lodging and meals that taxpayers already cover for legislative sessions, boosting lawmakers’ income. It even bought one departing lawmaker a year of Amazon Prime. Some states are far clearer: Campaign money can only be spent on campaigning.
  3. Oversight. The state's election watchdog is weak. They have subpoena authority; they don't use it. They instead write letters asking questions; more than once they dropped a case because no one wrote back. Fines are lower here. One election official told me he didn't want his agency to be a gotcha organization. But that's the job of a regulator. I think there's a reasonable question about why we're bothering to use taxpayer money to fund a watchdog that openly admits it doesn't want to keep watch.

samuelchasan140 karma

Can you speak more to number 3? Have you found regulators and those that they’re intended to regulate cozy? Any money flowing between them via campaign financing? I definitely agree that regulators need to regulate and not feel queasy about it ... what’s the point otherwise?

oregonian235 karma

California and Washington established commissions led by gubernatorial appointees. Oregon has a division that's part of the Secretary of State's office. That's a major difference. What I see in WA/CA are bigger fines and more authority to get the job done.

In WA/CA, if a newspaper writes a story about the local mayor spending campaign money on a Ferrari, that's all they need to see to start investigating. In Oregon, they want a signed, written complaint from a registered voter.

1337BaldEagle39 karma

I work in a mill located in Oregon without giving much identifiable info. And there are 2 sides. First, often times EPA and DEQ will push for registration without any understanding of impact and that puts companies on the defensive. This causes them to make changes that skirt the system or do something else that makes them "technically" compliant. One example is Cleaner Air Oregon.

Infact, major changes came to Oregon in the last couple years pertaining to HCHO emissions. EPA has zero understanding at how we operate and as a result the new "standard" is actually more lenient than what it was historically.

Corporate money is partially to blame but incompetent governing bodies are mostly to blame, least ways in my industry.

oregonian69 karma

We touched on this in Part 3 of our series.

Dave Einolf, a Portland consultant who advises businesses about environmental compliance, said the state’s fines — even for repeatedly ignoring the law — are so paltry that it’s cheaper for companies to pay them than it is to comply in the first place. It’s just a cost of doing business in Oregon.

The Department of Environmental Quality is so lacking in expertise, Einolf said, that “they do not have a proper basis for enforcement, let alone the technical ability to adequately enforce.”

1337BaldEagle7 karma

Sure, but enforcement isn't really what I was talking about. It's more how certain equipment operates, how we calculate it's impact and limits, and how much capital new regs force a company to work out. That's what's lacking.

The vast majority of EPA and DEQ enforcement is all company self reported.

oregonian14 karma

No, I hear you. It's the latter sentence: That the agency does not have the technical expertise to enforce the law. I looked at one water polluter that has dumped fish oil into Yaquina Bay in Newport year after year. DEQ sent an inspector, who found nothing amiss.

He showed up on a day the plant wasn't operating.

WildCoho111 karma

What role do you think Oregon's laughable $25k per year salary for state legislators plays in their desire to raise money from corporations?

oregonian147 karma

This only matters to the extent that the law allows them to put the money in their pockets to create what they perceive as a fair wage.

But let's unpack the salary first. It's $31,000 a year now -- they just got a raise. They also get about $22,000 in per-diem payments to cover meals and lodging during sessions. For many lawmakers who live close to the capitol, that's extra money. So for some, they're already at an average of ~$45K/year for a job that requires them to be in Salem 6-7 months every two years. They also get $450-750/month between sessions to cover expenses. (They also want another raise.)

Research I've seen has suggested that the more the jobs pay, the more that competition (and related fundraising) increases for them.

pterodactyl1284 karma

As a homesick Oregonian, what is your favorite thing about Oregon? I miss quiet nature and blazers games at a reasonable time the most.

oregonian214 karma

Nerdy answer: The engaged populace. People care about Oregon, they think it stands for something. Oregonians are invested in their state.

But also: The untamed corners of the coast. The smell of pine needles in the summer heat on riverside trails in Central Oregon. And bike lanes.

BeardedSentience63 karma

I work in the environmental field, trying to shift from field work to policy or advocacy. I've been so disheartened by how often it feels like one step forward, two steps back, even in places like Oregon where it seems like environmental policy is supported by the voters.

So my question is: what is the best thing that we, as laypeople and voters and everyday citizens, can do to combat this? Where should we target to make the greatest change? What solutions do you see, especially ones that are practical and pragmatic and achievable? Thanks for doing this.

oregonian84 karma

This perhaps isn't as specific as you'd like but it applies to all public policy: Show up and be relentless. That creates the pressure to change the status quo -- if not today, then tomorrow, or the next day or the next.

The chairman of Oregon's Global Warming Commission shared this thought with me, which I'll pass along: "Whenever I’m asked what’s the single most important change we could make to address climate change, that’s my answer — campaign finance reform."

And subscribe to a newspaper :)

lastaccountgotlocked63 karma

How does one become an investigative journalist? As in, how do you find the stories? Being a journalist is one thing, but uncovering things...

And every video I watch on ‘how to be an investigative journalist’ begins with a whistleblower. They all assume someone comes to you with the story - do you ever stumble upon anything yourself?

oregonian121 karma

Great question. This story arose simply from my beat coverage. I kept writing about environmental issues that Oregon trailed Washington and California on. We'd write about it, a lawmaker would propose a bill, then it would die. I wanted to know why that was. And I suspected that the answer would also explain why the state's environmental watchdog was so timid.

I have written stories that came from whistleblowers, but they're fewer and farther between than you might expect. In part because being a whistleblower is just totally grueling.

My last major investigation began when a National Guard armory closed about 30 minutes from Portland. A beat reporter who covered the area started asking questions about why. And the answers we got from the military were conflicting and clearly appeared to be part of an effort to sweep the problem under the rug (quite literally as it turned out -- it was a story about dust).

How do you become an investigative journalist? Start with a question and be tenacious enough that you won't quit until you get the answer.

14Three857 karma

Do you know of any corporations that are actively fighting against this?

oregonian98 karma

Actively fighting against donation limits? No.

The effort to defeat them the last time they were on the ballot in Oregon in 2006 was led by liberal groups including the ACLU, Planned Parenthood & unions. They argued that limits would empower the rich. Then Phil Knight started writing million-dollar checks to a Republican.

Braken11126 karma

They argued that limits would empower the rich.

Just... What? Where's the logic there?

oregonian74 karma

I presume the argument is that the wealthy would then self-fund their own campaigns. It's actually the opposite of the argument that preceded the first controls on campaign spending, which Oregon voters adopted in 1908.

But let's be clear: They saw limits as a threat to their own power.

jaywhoo5 karma

Campaign finance laws are tough to get right. Often times, contribution limits don't prevent the uber-wealthy from exerting outsized influence on campaigns but have the opposite effect of incentivizing what's known as bundling. This allows the uber-wealthy to utilize their connections to gain additional money for campaigns in ways that the regular rich can. Additionally, the richer you are, the better attorneys you can hire, which often dictates how well you can legally skirt contribution limits.

In a sense, campaign finance laws don't prevent the top .01% from putting their thumbs on the scales; it prevents the top .02-.1% from doing so. That may be worth it to some, but to others the worry is the consolidation in power in the hands of those at the very very top.

I don't quite agree with that argument entirely, but it does get at the need for smarter campaign finance laws than brute forcing contribution limits. I'm a little disappointed that /u/oregonian isn't be knowledgeable enough about the subject on which he's writing to give you a better answer.

oregonian6 karma

This is an argument I hear: That there's no point to limits because of Citizens United. Or something else. This is a new one.

Take a look at this slideshow. It shows what happened to donations in Oregon when voters instituted limits (later overturned in court) for one election cycle. They plummeted.

Setting a limit isn't rocket science. States establish a dollar limit and say who it applies to. They decide whether corporations and labor unions can donate outright or not. It's that easy.

And many have elections that cost far less than Oregon's as a result.

byerss28 karma

As an Oregonian I absolutely hate the bottle deposit law, which recently increased to $0.10 per container.

I also recently learned that any unclaimed deposits are kept by the beverage producers (Coke, Pepsi, Nestle, etc.).

As someone with curbside recycling who still consciously decides to "give away" the deposit at the curb, why is there still a desire to create an unnecessary secondary waste stream and go through all the hassle the bottle deposit creates?

Is there any push to have the unclaimed deposits go towards a public service instead (roads, parks, etc.)?

oregonian40 karma

This is an interesting subject. See this excellent WW story about what's happened to the bottle deposit money.

We talked to a state senator in Connecticut who said one of the first pieces of legislation they passed after sharply limiting campaign money reclaimed the bottle deposit for the benefit of the state. They no longer had to ask for lobbyists' permission, he told us.

oregonian25 karma

Thanks for dropping by everyone, appreciated the thoughtful questions. I have to jam. But I'll circle back later this afternoon to answer any lingering questions.

9845oi47hg916 karma

How much of an effect do public transportation diesel buses (like Trimet) have on the public, and their employees? What can be done about this?

oregonian32 karma

TriMet is the largest user of diesel fuel in Oregon. They have a half-baked plan to transition to electric buses by 2042. Cities in China have already transitioned entire fleets to electric.

mrs_hawood14 karma

I was born in central Oregon and still have a lot of family there. My family members are rural Oregonians and have conservative political views. They use the spotted owl as their environmental oversight bogeyman. When you encounter these arguments or people with political ideals which demonize government reform and favor a free-market to make decisions, what information do you want them to know?

oregonian19 karma

Polls show that Oregonians favor protecting the environment even at the risk of affecting the economy. Here's one -- see question 27. This sentiment spans the purported urban-rural divide.

scribbling_women11 karma

In part 2 of your series, you focused on the impact on The Dalles. Were there other specific areas impacted as severely that you would have liked to focus on, or will perhaps focus on more in future stories?

oregonian17 karma

We conducted a non-scientific survey via our Facebook page to get a sense of where pollution was forcing Oregonians to move or change their routines. This really solidified attention on The Dalles above any other specific community.

Oddly enough, The Dalles was also a focus when former Gov. Tom McCall, then a journalist for KGW, conducted a similar investigation of environmental degradation in 1962. Here's that video.

beckmanj14 karma

Since we can ask anything.. have you tried growing your beard out? I’ve got a similar looking beard and grew it for 5 months but couldn’t tame the beast. Recently hacked it down with a 1 inch guard but trying to plan my next move.

oregonian3 karma

I did while traveling in 2013 and it was a mess. For those asking, I trimmed it this morning, post-proof pic. It looks gorgeous.

grantspdx3 karma

After the Bullseye Glass environmental mess in SE rep. Rob Nosse promised (at a Cleveland high school hosted community gathering) he would champion tighter environmental laws in Oregon. Did representative Nosse ever pass any new legislation?

oregonian5 karma

An effort that he backed did pass. Here's an analysis I wrote about it.

samuelchasan3 karma

How can we curtail corporate influence?

oregonian2 karma

Addressed above.

Muthafuckaaaaa3 karma


oregonian10 karma


gwhh3 karma

If they are so powerful? How come they can’t silence you and there news outlet?

oregonian9 karma

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

AMightierPen3 karma

What advice would you give to a student, or a young person in general, who wants to be a journalist?

oregonian4 karma

Read a lot. Write a lot. Be persistent. You don't have to go to a prestigious school or study journalism. And if you have questions down the road, hit me on Twitter.

hardwarestore3 karma

Do you have an opinion on how increasing environmental regulation could impact the economy of the state in areas outside of Willamette valley/pdx? There are a lot of towns on the coast range that struggle with the idea of cities legislating on their behalf. I see a lot of the practices you mention on a daily basis, and while I do agree some things need to be changed, dramatic regulation changes will necessarily cause the closure of smaller timber companies and mills, leaving only large companies with more financial power to operate in the state, not to mention the increased wildfire potential of unmanaged forests. Do you see this as an overall good for the state?

oregonian11 karma

When the Clean Air Act was adopted, industry screamed that it would kill business. Same with the Clean Water Act. Same with a long list of environmental regulations that have made our rivers cleaner, our air safer.

The jobs issue is far too often used as a red herring. It doesn't mean that it isn't sometimes real, but industry cries wolf again and again.

The timber industry (which donates more to state lawmakers in Oregon than any other state in the nation) has successfully protested bills as untenable -- when they would have advanced rules similar to what some of the same companies already face in Washington.

hardwarestore7 karma

I'd encourage you to visit Powers, Coos Bay, or Mapleton to see how economic downturn impacted the areas since regulation in the 70s. Obviously regulation was needed then, but to describe the jobs issue as red herring seems disingenuous.

I'd also point to the increase in large timber companies operating at economies of scale, while smaller, more community oriented operations have declined, being unable to operate as regulations increased (and 300 mills have closed in the state). There's a reason Weyerhaeuser owns over 12 million acres of forestland, and I question how much they care about their communities compared to a family company.

oregonian6 karma

Totally hear you. I'm not saying that environmental regulation magically left Oregon unscathed. But the jobs-killing argument is used on nearly every measure I cover. It makes it difficult for the public to parse when we're hearing some version of the truth vs. the same old schtick from someone who doesn't want to spend what would otherwise be profit to avoid polluting our shared air and water. The jobs vs environment construction is often a false dichotomy that ignores very real but harder-to-quantify externalities -- public health benefits measured in avoided costs of cancer cases, asthma attacks, ER visits, etc.

Have pointed to it elsewhere here, but would also steer you to polls that have asked Oregonians how they feel about this. And majorities in nearly every corner of the state have responded that protecting the environment should be given priority even at the risk of slowing economic growth. Here is one. See Q27.