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Editorials from around Oregon

Posted November 29

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

The Bend Bulletin, Nov. 25, on the state's pension system

Gov. Kate Brown and the Democratic legislative leadership have been looking the other way while others have fashioned proposals to address the state's public pension crisis.

It was never a wise position. But now that Measure 97's disastrous tax proposal has been soundly defeated, Brown and other leaders need to face reality, even if doing so means upsetting their union supporters.

Sens. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, and Tim Knopp, R-Bend, have offered a series of options to reduce the Public Employees Retirement System's $22 billion shortfall. Before the election, Brown told us she hadn't even read them, because her experts said no significant reforms would survive legal challenge.

Meanwhile, Johnson and Knopp got a positive nod from the nonpartisan Office of Legislative Counsel, which said their proposals had a good chance of court approval.

The state is facing an estimated $1.35 billion shortfall for the upcoming biennium. Local governments are facing increases in their PERS payments of as much as 20 percent. The Bend-La Pine school district has said 20 percent could mean 60 fewer teaching positions.

It's no time for the state's leadership to look the other way.

The Johnson-Knopp proposals would change several factors that determine the amount of a PERS pension, including not allowing unused sick leave and vacation time to be included, capping the final average salary used in the calculations, using market rates to calculate annuities and creating a defined contribution plan for new employees.

Private sector workers who pay their own share into their pension plans might be surprised to know that many PERS employees don't pay their own 6 percent, and restrictions limit some aspects of negotiations on the issue in contract talks. The Johnson-Knopp plan would loosen those restrictions, as well as redirect the funds in a way that would reduce the shortfall.

These and other items on the Johnson-Knopp proposal are a starting point for a bipartisan effort to cope with the state's pension obligations. Other ideas will likely come out of a concerted effort with leadership from the top. Knopp was at the forefront of an earlier reform in 2003, without which the situation would be far worse today. The mostly failed 2013 effort must not be used as an excuse to give up now.

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The Albany Democrat-Herald, Nov. 27, on helping Oregon students pay for college

We understand that legislators will be under some severe financial constraints when they gather for the 2017 session.

But here's hoping that they can find the funds, and the time, to fine-tune the Oregon Promise program, which is intended to help state students pay for the costs of attending community colleges.

The program originally was touted as a free ticket to community college for qualifying students. It hasn't worked out that way, for a variety of reasons, even though students who receive grant money through the Oregon Promise presumably still are grateful for the help.

That's one area that legislators will want to review during the 2017 session, even though it's likely that some potential changes (such as eliminating the 12-credit ceiling for the program and taking into account the difference in tuition fees among the state's community colleges) would add to the program's costs.

There is another broad area that would be worth legislative scrutiny: Is there any way to adjust or add to the Oregon Promise program so that it consistently includes the type of support to students that came with the so-called fifth-year programs offered by mid-valley K-12 school districts?

Until last year, many districts in Linn and Benton counties offered these programs, which allowed students to put off receiving their high school diplomas and continue as fifth-year students, taking community college courses that were paid for by their school districts because they hadn't officially left.

Supporters said the programs were invaluable, especially for students who didn't come from families with a college background or who needed extra support for their first year of higher education. Students remained connected with counselors who guided them through registration, helped them plan their courses and checked up on them. And, in fact, evidence suggested that students who had that additional help stayed on track with their college work at a higher rate than did students who enrolled on their own.

But the use of state funds for an extra year in high school raised legitimate questions with some Oregon lawmakers who felt it wasn't fair to take money from K-12 programs.

So, a compromise bill from state Sen. Sara Gelser established a "postgraduate scholar" program. Students can become postgraduate scholars only if they have all their credits for a diploma; have filled out the federal financial aid form known as a FAFSA; have applied for and accepted all the grant-based aid for which they are eligible, such as a Pell Grant; and have applied for the new Oregon Promise community college grant.

Part of the idea pushing the compromise bill is that it would put sideboards on the fifth-year programs, and it certainly has done that: In the mid-valley, the number of students enrolled as postgraduate scholars is considerably less than the number of students who were in the fifth-year programs.

But the requirements to qualify for Oregon Promise grants seem almost certain to keep community college out of reach for certain students, especially those who would be the first members of their family to attend college.

What's missing from the program is the type of consistent support system that helped to keep students on track during that first critical year of taking college courses. With community colleges increasingly focused on getting students to graduation (not to mention the state's own educational goals), this is a critical piece.

Can the piece consistently be replicated in the Oregon Promise program? Despite the tight budgets they will face next year, legislators would do well to ask that question and to search for answers.

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The (Eugene) Register-Guard, Nov. 23, on UO bonds

Oregon Gov. Kate Brown won't find much room for new initiatives in the budget she is preparing to release this week for the 2017-19 biennium. But she must find room for at least one: $100 million in bonds as the state's contribution toward a billion-dollar science complex at the University of Oregon, a project half underwritten by an unprecedented gift of $500 million from Phil and Penny Knight.

Actually, there is a precedent of sorts — one that Brown and the Legislature cannot ignore. The Knights' gift to the UO is the largest single amount ever given to a four-year university in the United States. But in 2013 the Knights also gave $500 million to Oregon Health & Science University in Portland for a cancer research institute. That gift was dependent upon OHSU raising an additional $500 million from other sources, including $200 million from the state of Oregon.

The 2014 Legislature approved bonds for the requested amount, allowing OHSU to meet the Knights' fund-raising challenge. That appropriation was easily justified as an investment in Oregon's emergence as a world leader in the field of cancer research. Investing half as much in the UO's Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact is twice as easy to justify — for every dollar the state spends, the Knights and other donors will contribute nine more, resulting in educational and economic benefits that will be felt statewide.

The UO's request for matching funds, however, comes at a difficult time for the state. The latest forecast from the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis projects a $1.7 billion budget shortfall for the 2017-19 biennium. The gap has widened since the last forecast in August, suggesting the possibility that it could widen still further. On Nov. 8 voters rejected a corporate gross receipts tax that would have provided a significant new source of revenue. The costs of the state's public pension system are rising, while federal financial support for the state's Medicaid program was set to decline even before Americans elected a president who has promised to dismantle the Affordable Care Act.

These pressures will make it hard for Brown and the Legislature to make a new commitment to the UO — but they also make such a commitment more urgent. The Knight Campus for Accelerating Scientific Impact will help create a high-wage economy, which is what Oregon needs to relieve pressure on public finances at all levels. UO President Michael Schill predicts the completed campus will create 1,200 jobs, and $80 million to $100 million in economic activity each year — not counting spinoff effects that could in the long term be even greater.

Eighteen Oregon legislators sent a letter to Brown on Nov. 7 urging her to include funds in her budget for capital construction on state university campuses, specifically including the Knight campus at the UO. The signers included not just House and Senate members from the Eugene area, but also lawmakers representing Bend, Coos Bay, Portland and Salem — evidence of the statewide impact that is expected from the campus.

Quinn Haaga, president of the Associated Students of the University of Oregon, pointed out in a separate letter that on a per-resident-student basis, the UO receives less state support for capital construction than any of the state's other public universities.

The state's bonding capacity can readily accommodate $100 million in debt for the state's share. Approval of the bonds would send a clear signal that the importance of the Knights' gift is understood and appreciated. The fact that the UO is asking for only half as much in state support as was given to OHSU is evidence of the university's confidence in other donors' recognition of the project's potential. Brown should put the weight of the governor's office behind the Knight campus from the start.

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The (Medford) Mail-Tribune, Nov. 25, on food insecurity in Oregon

As we recover from a day of feasting, let's pause and consider this news: During the three-year period of 2013-15, Oregon led the nation in the increase in food insecurity, with nearly one in six households not certain it would be able to put food on the table.

While metro Oregon has seen a great recovery from the Great Recession, that's not necessarily true in rural Oregon. According to a report from the Oregon Center for Public Policy (www.ocpp.org), food insecurity rose 18.4 percent in Oregon by 2015, compared with the early years of the recovery (2010-12). Nationally, food insecurity declined by 6.8 percent over the same period.

According to the report, that increase pushed Oregon to the dubious rankings of sixth-worst nationally for food insecurity and eighth-worst for hunger. The number of Oregonians considered food insecure totaled 605,000, more than the entire population of Portland (602,000). The number of children in those ranks totaled 210,000.

The OCPP study comes as the state continues to report declining unemployment and many businesses report difficulty in filling vacancies. That is not the incongruity it would appear, but rather a reflection of a rural workforce that never found its footing after blue-collar, natural resource dependent jobs largely dried up.

What exists now is a mismatch of people in need of decent-paying jobs and decent-paying jobs in need of people. The missing connectors are adequate skill levels, training and a Portland-centric state government that has largely looked the other way as the gap between urban and rural Oregon continues to grow.

When rural Oregonians said, "We need a reasonably reliable supply of timber to keep our mills running," Salem responded with plans to expand high-speed internet to rural communities. That's great, if you have the skills and are able to hire, and keep, skilled employees in small farming communities. For the most part, it's simply not a good fit.

Parts of Central and Southern Oregon have benefited from tourism, but the service-oriented jobs that come with that industry do little to help the standard of living. The Rogue Valley, with its mild climate, is a retiree magnet, boosting another sector of the economy mostly associated with low-paying jobs.

The Oregon Legislature will convene in a couple of months and no doubt will promptly take up a looming funding crisis as its first priority. Rather than trying to fill that revenue-spending gap entirely with increased taxes, perhaps our leaders could instead look about the state — all of the state — and see what they can do to fill part of that gap by helping rural areas rebuild their employment base with jobs that match the workforce. That would put revenue in the state coffers — and food on the tables.

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The (Corvallis) Gazette-Times, Nov. 22, on the election

As we continue to sort through the results from the Nov. 8 election, some curious trends have emerged.

You know already that about 2.02 million ballots were returned in Oregon during the election, marking the first time that more than 2 million ballots have been returned in the state.

But that number comes with an asterisk: The overall turnout percentage in Oregon fell below 80 percent for the first time in at least four presidential elections.

Although the numbers aren't official yet, the Oregon Secretary of State's office was reporting on Monday that state turnout was 78.72 percent. Turnout in the last three presidential elections before this — in 2012, 2008 and 2004 — was above 80 percent. (The turnout in 2004 was a remarkable 86.48 percent, and the number has been slipping downward since then.)

To be fair, Oregon's voter turnout traditionally ranks among the best in the nation, and this year was no different. In part, that's because the state makes it incredibly easy to register to vote (as it should be), and the state's vote-by-mail process is easy to use and mercifully free of the problems that have plagued the voting process in other states.

Oregon turnout also likely gets a boost from the fact that the statewide ballot typically includes hot issues above and beyond the presidential race: This year's ballot, for example, included the controversial Measure 97 tax issue.

A closer look at some of the state registration data might offer a clue or two to what pushed state turnout below 80 percent in this year's election.

This was the first general election in which the Oregon electorate included voters who had been registered in the state's "motor-voter" program, which has been in place only since the start of the year. This program, in essence, automatically registers people to vote when they get or renew an Oregon driver's license.

It's been an open question since the program started whether the voters it's added to the rolls would have much of an impact on the election results. That question remains open, but now we know this much: About 230,000 voters registered through the program. The Secretary of State's office says 97,184 of them returned a ballot in November, for a turnout of about 42.73 percent.

That number, however, also comes with an asterisk: Motor voters who affiliated with a political party (Democratic, Republican, Independent, etc.) were almost twice as likely to return a ballot as their nonaffiliated counterparts. In fact, motor voters who registered as Democrats or Republicans notched a turnout of better than 84 percent, better than the overall state average. It remains to enterprising political scientists to chart out what this all means for the state's politics, but our hunch is that the motor voter program generally would appear to give a slight edge to Democrats, if only because Oregon has more registered Democrats than Republicans.

The relatively low rate at which motor voters who were unaffiliated with a political party returned ballots likely is one of the factors that tended to depress the Oregon turnout this November. As of now, we only can hazard guesses about what other factors might have been in play: Had a certain election malaise set in by the time ballots arrived? Had we fallen prey to the nasty fiction that our votes don't matter, even in local races?

In the meantime, these unaffiliated motor voters in Oregon have the potential to change the course of the state's politics — if only a candidate or issue can figure out how to connect with them.

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