SALEM — The snowflake decorations may still be on the light posts outside the state Capitol, but the holiday season is definitely over. The calendar barely flipped to 2018 before the already busy politics and government scene ratcheted up a few notches.

On top of the expected items — the special election on the Measure 101 health provider tax and the governor’s race — have come unexpected, head-snapping issues.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions is ratcheting up the rhetoric on potential marijuana prosecutions, Secretary of State Dennis Richardson is changing the rules on ballot measures, and nearly enough candidates are running against the congressman representing Central and Eastern Oregon to field a baseball team.

Seems as if Planet Salem is spinning ever faster in its orbit around Washington, D.C., these days.

Some highlights:

Eight against Walden

The new year brought two more candidates filing to run for the 2nd U.S. House District seat held by U.S. Rep. Greg Walden, R-Hood River. Jennifer Neahring, a palliative care physician who lives in Bend, filed as a Democrat, as did Raz E. Mason, a teacher from The Dalles.

There are now eight candidates running against Walden — six more than in 2016. The current crop of hopefuls consist of six Democrats, an Independent and a Republican. Still yet to file: Walden himself. But the congressman has watched and waited before. He was the last candidate to file in 2016, waiting until Feb. 22, about two weeks before the deadline. This year, the filing deadline is March 6.

The numbers game

Since the current Legislative district boundaries were first used in 2012, Democrats have expanded their plurality over Republicans in Bend.

But the big story — and the most likely reason Republicans have held on to the seat — is the sharp growth in the number of non-affiliated voters. How long that trend can hold up is one reason that no one in the GOP has been eager, so far, to raise their hand to run in the 54th House District.

If the members of each party overwhelmingly back their candidates, Republicans need to win a significant majority of non-affiliated voters to make up the 5,400-vote advantage Democrats hold in the district. That is the seat of Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, who announced in August that he is giving up the seat to run for governor.

In the five months since then, no Republicans have announced their candidacy for the House seat. Bend City Councilor Nathan Boddie, a Democrat, is the only candidate so far. Here are the numbers of total voters and the breakdown on the three largest groups:

54th House District (statistics from Deschutes County Clerk):

Dec. 31, 2017

Total registered voters: 51,760

Democrat: 18,495

Republican: 12,959

Not affiliated: 15,890

Dec. 31, 2012

Total registered voters: 39,873

Democrat: 14,210

Republican: 12,366

Not affiliated: 9,667

War over words

A labor-backed advocacy group has gone to court to block new rules on gathering ballot measure petitions announced by Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson. The group, Our Oregon, filed the complaint in Marion County Circuit Court, the area that includes the state capital of Salem. They argue Richardson went beyond his legal authority by unilaterally declaring that, effective Jan. 1, activists can begin circulating petitions for signatures before a ballot title has been finalized.

The ballot title is supposed to be an unbiased distillation of a measure, but battles in the past have ended up before the Oregon Supreme Court as sides argued that one or the other were trying to influence voters with the definition. Critics of the previous process said that the ballot title fight would often delay circulation of petitions in a way that suppressed the ability of citizens to get issues on the ballot.

Our Oregon argues that Richardson’s actions “serve to undermine the people’s power to initiate and refer measures.” They argue that without a certified ballot title, those being asked to sign petitions can’t be certain what it is they are being asked to endorse for the ballot.

New state Senator

He’s now officially Sen. Cliff Bentz, R-Ontario. The veteran House member was sworn into the senior chamber on Monday by Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Thomas A. Balmer. Bentz was appointed by county commissioners in the 30th Senate District to replace Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, who resigned to take a position on the Northwest Power & Conservation Council.

The sprawling district — the largest in the state — includes northern portions of Deschutes County and all of Jefferson County. An attorney and rancher, Bentz has specialized in economic development for Eastern Oregon and was a major force in drawing up the $5.3 billion transportation bill approved by the Legislature last summer.

During the ceremony, Bentz lauded the idea of public service, saying state government is “a smorgasbord of opportunity.” Bentz’s old House seat, which does not include the Central Oregon portion of the Senate district, will be filled by an appointee by the time the Legislature reconvenes Feb. 5.

Uncle Sam vs. Mary Jane

What happens next in the world of legal marijuana is the $62 million question for Oregon. That’s how much the state makes by taxing legal marijuana sales.

Now, in what many Democratic Party activists are calling “Reefer Madness,” after the anti-cannabis cult film, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week weakened the live-and-let-live stasis on marijuana between states like Oregon (it’s legal, regulated and taxed) and the federal government (it’s illegal, dangerous and targeted for criminal prosecution). Squads of Drug Enforcement Agency officers did not pour into the state to raid dispensaries after Sessions’ announcement, but dispensaries suddenly find themselves on shakier legal turf.

For better or worse, Sessions has left it to the local U.S. attorney to decide how to implement his directive. Billy Williams, the U.S. attorney in Oregon, made a preliminary indication that he will keep things as they are — for now. But the Associated Press, in analyzing the attitudes of U.S. attorneys in states that have legalized marijuana, wrote:

“In an interview last year, Williams complained that marijuana was being illegally exported to states where it’s not legal. He invited representatives from the state to explain what was being done to curtail marijuana ‘diversion.’ The state officials told him the state’s regulated marijuana market, in which pot is tracked from seed to store, was stamping out smuggling. They also described enhanced enforcement efforts.

“In the interview, Williams insisted there was insufficient enforcement to prevent diversion and urged state officials to cooperate with his team of drug prosecutors.”

— Reporter: 541-525-5280, gwarner@bendbulletin.com

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