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Editorials from around Oregon

Posted May 15

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

The (Medford) Mail Tribune, May 13, on a transportation package:

Lawmakers hashing out the details of a massive transportation package are divided over how large it should be, and whether voters would accept the tax increases necessary to pay for it. Taxes are never an easy sell, but if shippers, business interests and motorists can be brought on board and legislators agree to campaign for it, we believe Oregonians will go along.

Oregon lawmakers haven't passed a major transportation package since 2009, and nearly everyone agrees the state is overdue for another one. Bridges are crumbling, public transit districts need help, and freeway congestion in the Portland area costs shippers across the state time and money. But time is running out in this session, and bipartisan support is needed to enact the tax portions without referral to the voters.

Lawmakers had a deal in the 2015 session, but Republicans pulled their support over a clean fuels bill they said would increase gas prices on top of the gas-tax hike in the transportation bill. A last-minute, closed-door negotiation by the so-called "gang of eight" failed to craft a compromise. Democrats should be prepared to give ground on the fuel standards issue if they want this package to pass.

After the 2015 failure, lawmakers responded with a joint, bipartisan committee that has worked for more than a year, traveling the state to hear from voters and interest groups and holding hearings. The result, which has yet to be drafted into bill form, calls for $8.2 billion in projects over 20 years, paid for over 10.

Major elements of the plan include three big projects in the Portland area, fixing bottlenecks on Interstate 5, Interstate 205 and Oregon 217, paid for in part by tolls. Portland-area residents would pay more in taxes than other Oregonians.

The I-5 corridor to the California border and the aging bridges on Highway 101 on the coast would get most of the rest of the work.

As currently envisioned, the package would be paid for with increases in the gas tax, phased in over 10 years. The first year would see a 6-cent increase, reaching 14 cents by the end of 10 years. The tax currently stands at 30 cents, and has increased only once in 20 years. In addition, every worker in Oregon would pay a 0.1 percent payroll tax, which would go to mass transit throughout the state. The Rogue Valley Transportation District badly needs the help to add routes it can't afford to add now.

Oregonians also would see a 1 percent excise tax on new cars, a 4 percent tax on bicycles (excluding children's bikes) and higher auto registration fees.

Proceeds from the taxes would be shared, with the state taking half, counties getting 30 percent and cities 20 percent.

Supporters want to pass those increases with the required 60 percent majority so the measure won't need voter approval. Of course, opponents may try to place a referendum on the ballot to overturn the new taxes — a possibility skeptical lawmakers have raised as the measure is being discussed.

If lawmakers continually shy away from passing needed legislation for fear of voter backlash, nothing of substance will ever pass. And if legislators convince the major interest groups of the need for this package, and then go out and campaign for it in their own districts, explaining why it's vitally important for the state to invest in its infrastructure, a referendum might be avoided.

Taking a piecemeal approach, as some lawmakers have suggested, might be easier to pass this year, but there is no guarantee future legislatures will stay the course. A 20-year package also allows local governments to plan their own improvements.

Oregon cannot afford to wait any longer to begin addressing its transportation needs.

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The East Oregonian, May 12, recession in rural Oregon:

The Great Recession was a decade ago, yet many rural areas of Oregon are still feeling the sting.

And even worse, demographics and a changing global economy may mean that things will get worse before they get better.

These are at least two takeaways from the "Employment Landscape of Rural Oregon" study released this month by the Oregon Employment Department.

The report points out that 17 of Oregon's 23 rural counties have fewer jobs now than before the recession hit in 2008. And most of the jobs that have returned pay lower wages than those that left.

All the while, rural Oregon populations continue to age, with the number of rural youths in the midst of decades of decline. And this at the same time that the Portland metro area and much of the Willamette Valley have grown by leaps and bounds, its economy humming and expanding with abandon.

The difference between urban and rural economies is just another example of the country being pulled in different directions, with succeeding factions barreling ahead while others fall farther behind.

Still we don't want to thump you with only bad news, because the report certainly wasn't full of just that.

Our swath of Eastern Oregon is doing much better than in more rural locales around the state like Grant, Gilliam, Lake, Malheur and Wallowa counties.

And Morrow County is outright exploding, with job growth there outpacing nearly every county in the state — even the urban ones. The Port of Morrow is leading that growth, with good paying jobs that are helping prop up the Boardman and Hermiston economies, from retail to housing developments. It's the kind of economic engine that gives all rural areas something to aspire to, though few are blessed to be on a rail line and surrounded by an interstate and gigantic navigable river.

Still, the port's successes have helped Morrow County become the strongest rural economy in the state.

We cannot say as much for elsewhere in the rural environs, from the forests of southwest Oregon to the rangelands of the southeast. The declining timber industry is one clear culprit, but so too is a lack of infrastructure, according to the report. As is the fact that many rural economies are heavily dependent on one industry — they are not diverse, leaving them vulnerable to economic shocks and recessions.

The clearest takeaway from the report is the need in rural Oregon for economic diversity — to continue to support our traditional industries while taking entrepreneurial risks and branching out into others. That diversity brings diverse people, who can help reverse the trend of an aging and declining rural population, restoring solid funding levels to rural schools in the process.

Still, we wouldn't want to live anywhere else.

Perhaps Portland is booming now, but we know every boom is followed eventually by a bust. Luckily rural Oregon isn't riding that roller coaster. Still, we need to get our economies on track with new investment and new ideas.

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The Oregonian, May 13, on the Elliott State Forest:

As recently as three months ago, the Elliott State Forest near Coos Bay was about to be sold off to a private logging company partnering with an Oregon tribe. But last week that changed sharply. The State Land Board, for years watching the forest's earnings for Oregon schools plummet, pulled a U-turn and followed Gov. Kate Brown's bald challenge to keep the 82,500-acre money loser in public ownership.

The action showed foresight and respects the will of a public increasingly weary of natural resource privatization, particularly of distinctive forested settings. The Elliott is such a place, replete with old growth trees and wild species, and prime hunting and recreational grounds. Its capacity for logging, however, is diminished by waterway and species protections.

Brown should take a bow. The action is a victory for her unflinching advocacy and leadership on the board, in which she is joined only by the state treasurer, Tobias Read, and secretary of state, Dennis Richardson. Her commitment was evident to all when she ignored her colleagues' wish in February to sell the Elliott and, before confused onlookers, ordered a state specialist to devise a public ownership plan anyway.

It worked. It didn't hurt that Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney would make clear the Legislature could be engaged for up to $100 million in bonding to support purchasing a significant portion of the Elliott. And it really made a difference in recent weeks as Read came back with a plan to engage Oregon State University as a potential owner of the Elliott once the state makes its first play of securing partial ownership.

Even though logging revenues have been down for years, the constitution still mandates that the Elliott and other lands held in trust generate adequate revenue for public schools. Selling the Elliott would have gotten the state out from under its legal burden by placing more than $200 million in sales proceeds into the Common School Fund. Properly invested, that money was projected to generate steady earnings for years ahead.

But doing so would have ignored rising sentiment from hunters, anglers, recreationalists and environment groups wishing to save the Elliott as a public asset that would only grow in value to all citizens as Oregon continues to develop. The forest's capacity to store carbon in a time of climate change, along with other "unseen" ecological values, have moved from the realm of speculations to real attributes worth real money. That is expected to continue.

OSU takes seriously the proposition by Read but not without caution. University President Ed Ray, in an interview with The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board last week, was blunt: "We have an obligation always to be willing to step up and hear about what Oregonians want. That's our land grant heritage. But we will not cut elsewhere at OSU to buy this thing."

Yet Ray, joined in the interview by OSU College of Forestry Dean Thomas Maness, was enticed that through a combination of revenue-raising logging in some portions of the Elliott, with yet-to-be-found paying partners, the university might find a way to own the Elliott as a premiere research site into ecosystem and wildlife management. He estimated it would take "four or five years of heavy lifting" to see whether it could work, a proposition he welcomed. "You don't back off or blink just because something looks hard," Ray said.

The next move belongs to the Oregon Legislature. By the end of the current session, it must approve the sale of $100 million in general obligation bonds, costing taxpayers far more than that once the debt is paid back. Brown has pledged support to make it happen. The money would be used to buy portions of the forest, decoupling it from the Common School Fund, while the Oregon Department of Forestry would then lead in the development of a habitat conservation plan to ensure a balanced approach to designating and managing multiple uses in the Elliott.

It's just the beginning of a process to transform the Elliott from a tool of education funding into a broad-spectrum public asset serving multiple purposes, some yet unseen. But the hardest part is now done: refusing to sell it off.

The land board's decision is wise and prescient. Present and future generations of Oregonians, among them so many school children, will be grateful.

____

The Albany Democrat-Herald, May 11, on the Department of Human Services:

Is there a tougher, more frustrating job in all of Oregon state government than serving as the head of the Department of Human Services?

If so, we're not sure we want to hear about it, considering the uphill battle that faced Clyde Saiki, who last week announced plans to retire in September. The same uphill battle awaits the man Gov. Kate Brown has tapped to replace him, Fariborz Pakseresht.

Saiki's plans to retire weren't much of a secret around Salem; when he took over the department in 2015, it was generally assumed that his first charge would be to stop the department's free fall and get it stabilized to the point where it could be handed over to another administrator.

One of his first big moves came in March 2016, when he fired top two officials in the department.

Saiki also worked hard to regain the trust of legislators, who were increasingly critical (and usually with justification) of the agency's performance in a number of areas.

One of the harshest critics of the department was mid-valley state Sen. Sara Gelser. But she has praised Saiki for the work he's done to steady what appeared to be a sinking ship.

But this is the same Gelser who, just a few weeks ago, said that the Department of Human Services is in "a state of chaos and disrepair." She was responding to an internal department report that found Oregon's child-welfare workers regularly miss or ignore threats to the safety of children.

That report suggests the sheer scope of the work that remains for Pakseresht. And, since it seems unlikely that legislators will be reducing their scrutiny of the department any time soon, he'll have to do it under a spotlight.

The Department of Human Services is the state's biggest, with about 8,000 employees and a biennial budget of more than $10 billion. Its duties, boiled down to the essentials, include protecting the state's most vulnerable citizens, including children in foster care. Department employees are charged with making the toughest of decisions in very tough situations — should a child be removed from a potentially dangerous situation? What constitutes a potentially dangerous situation? And where will children who are removed from their families go in a state that suffers from a chronic statewide shortage of foster care?

As Gelser herself has taken pains to document, the department has not always done a good job covering these basics. But she also would add that the vast majority of the department's employees are working long hours with limited resources in extremely difficult circumstances.

Pakseresht, who plans to assume the reins at the Department of Human Services in September, now heads the Oregon Youth Authority; legislators who have watched that agency, which deals with juvenile offenders, say he's done good work there. With Saiki planning to stay at Human Services until September, there should be plenty of time to ensure a relatively smooth transition.

Among Pakseresht's key tasks in his new role: continuing the work that Saiki has started to overhaul the agency's culture and stabilize its workforce. Among other key issues, the morale of employees in the agency is not what it should be.

And, of course, Pakseresht will have to make the case to his boss and legislators that the agency requires additional resources to follow through on the changes already underway. If those additional resources aren't forthcoming, then department employees (and the people they're supposed to be protecting) will be left with the sneaking suspicion that all this talk of reform likely will amount in the end to little more than lip service.

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The Bend Bulletin, May 13, on drug rebate bill:

It's easy to bash drug companies. When the consumer list price of something like Mylan's EpiPen rises to $609 from $94 in just seven years, bashing comes easily.

But one solution proposed to the Oregon House of Representatives seems almost guaranteed to make the problem worse, the sponsors' good intentions notwithstanding. While having government decide what's a reasonable price for a drug might sound like a good idea, it's one more likely to go wrong than not.

Prescription drugs make up about 9.8 percent of what the nation spent on drugs as of 2014, just as they did in 1960, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control.

If House Bill 2387 is approved, the state will set up something called the Oregon Premium Protection Program, which would require manufacturers of expensive drugs or those with rapidly rising prices to justify their prices. Then, the state would demand rebates based on what prices were paid in a select group of other countries. Rebates would go to the insurers, and the bill would bar the benefits boards of public employee unions from collecting any out-of-pocket costs from workers for drugs deemed to be too expensive.

Oregon makes up only about 1.2 percent of the U.S. population, making it easy for a manufacturer to refuse to sell here. The group of nations against which Oregon prices would be measured do pay less for drugs than we do. But each one bargains for the country as a whole, and no one in the U.S., much less Oregon, does that. Locally, there's this: Central Oregon has a growing bioscience sector that could hurt by the punitive nature of the measure.

Testimony at a public hearing on the bill made all those points, and while unions and insurance companies favored it, family doctors, ordinary citizens, AIDS activists and representatives of an ovarian cancer foundation, among others, all said the bill would do more harm than good. There's too much at stake not to take opponents' fears seriously. HB 2387 should be defeated.

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