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Editorials from around Oregon

Posted August 30

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

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The Eugene Register-Guard, Aug. 30, on dubious PERS bailouts

The Public Employees Retirement System's $24.5 billion unfunded liability is a pair of cement overshoes on Oregon's future. Keeping the state's pension promises to public employees will require higher taxes, reduced public services or both for a generation. Reducing that liability is an urgent assignment — otherwise, resources for essential projects such as improving Oregon's schools will be lacking. Sound ideas for tackling that assignment, however, are hard to find, as can be seen in recommendations from a task force appointed by Gov. Kate Brown.

Brown asked the task force to find ways to reduce the unfunded liability by $5 billion, which would be a good start. The task force offered a list of options for consideration Monday, ranging from consolidating Oregon's four smaller universities to squeezing more profits from state-controlled liquor sales. These ideas shed light on the magnitude of the problem the state faces: The question isn't whether consolidation would improve higher education in Oregon, or whether the benefits of a public monopoly on liquor sales are being maximized, but whether money for PERS can be shaken from those pockets.

A couple of the task force's ideas are politically or legally questionable. It has its eyes on a $1.6 billion reserve maintained by the State Accident Insurance Fund, Oregon's state-chartered workers' compensation insurance company. The reserve was built up by premiums paid by Oregon employers, who have a moral, and perhaps legal, argument that if the money is not needed to cover future claims, it should be returned to them in the form of reduced premiums or dividend payments.

SAIF has been targeted before. In 1982, Gov. Vic Atiyeh and the state Legislature closed a budget shortfall in part with $81 million taken from SAIF. The courts eventually ordered that the money be repaid, with interest. Brown would want to be certain of being on solid legal ground before proposing another such raid on SAIF, and also that the financial strength of Oregon's workers' compensation system would not be impaired. Even then, the fairness of tapping this source of funds would need a persuasive defense.

The task force also suggests paying down the PERS liability with between $100 million and $500 million from the state's own reserve funds. About $1 billion has accumulated in these funds. The money has been set aside to provide a cushion against budget cuts during the next economic downturn. Oregon should be building these funds up, not draining them at the crest of an economic cycle. The money they contain today is the result of financial discipline that might be hard to find in the future if reserves become pipelines to PERS.

These objections illustrate the difficulty of reducing the PERS burden. What will be required is a broad consensus that the unfunded liability is a burden to be borne by everyone — a consensus that has not yet formed.

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The Oregonian/OregonLive, Aug. 28, on reduced drug sentences working with savings put toward treatment

In the final days of the Legislature, lawmakers took an important step to help communities across Oregon address the crippling effects of drug addiction.

The new law reduces sentences for people convicted of possessing small amounts of six drugs. It also reclassifies the crime from a felony to a misdemeanor.

It's a forward-thinking concept that rightly treats drug addiction as a public health issue. Yet its few critics have sought to paint the change as scary and irresponsible. It doesn't have to be.

Eighteen states, including neighbors California and Idaho, have already made similar changes to ease clogged courts, corrections and parole programs. Several Oregon counties also have reduced sentences paired with addiction treatment for some low-level drug offenders. In some cases, there's the potential for charges to be dismissed when treatment is completed, similar to diversion programs offered to people facing their first drunk-driving offense.

This new law more fairly offers these programs to all Oregonians, not just those who live in well-off counties with more resources.

But for these programs to work, state and local officials must commit to treatment options to be offered equally across the state. Money that would have gone to criminal prosecutions and jail time should be shifted to drug treatment and other support programs as has been done in California, where a similar law was passed in 2014.

It's unclear how much Oregon will save. It took California three years to figure that out. Early analyses predicted as much as $250 million in annual savings, according to a recent report by the Los Angeles Times. So far, it's closer to $43 million, in part because of the costs for more parolees.

California officials estimates about 3,300 fewer people end up in prison each year. In county jails, the daily average population is down by about 8,000 people.

To be sure the savings are funneled to the best programs, Oregon leaders should consider California's plan to set aside 65 percent of the cost savings to help released inmates find jobs and housing. Officials announced this spring they'll distribute $103 million in grants over the next three years to help public agencies deliver those services.

In Oregon, as in other states, the new strategy doesn't mean reduced sentences for drug dealers. People with past felony crimes are out of luck, as well as those with more than two misdemeanor possession convictions.

It also doesn't mean that the low-level offenders won't be punished at all. People found with small amounts of drugs face a maximum penalty of one year in prison, a $6,250 fine, or both. What's different is they'll have a better shot at a future once they've paid their dues.

In the past, offenders faced more prison time and often, they didn't have access to treatment while incarcerated. Coming out with a felony hurt their chances at a good job and affordable housing, making it that much harder to rebuild their lives. And so the revolving door spun.

That's why both the Oregon Association Chiefs of Police and the State Sheriffs' Association supported the change. But these law enforcement groups also stress that treatment options must be easily accessible and the results of these programs must be carefully tracked.

"We have been clear that we believe this policy will only produce positive results if additional drug treatment resources accompany this change in policy," wrote Kevin Campbell, executive director of the police chiefs' group, in testimony supporting House Bill 2355. "Reducing penalties without aggressively addressing underlying addiction is unlikely to help those who need it most and may result in other negative impacts to property crime rates and community livability."

Sentencing reductions could provide a life-changing opportunity for all Oregonians who struggle with drug abuse. Yet it's a particularly necessary change to begin righting the decades of wrongs that have led to a massive disparity in the population in Oregon's prisons and jails.

Recent studies have found that although minorities make up a small fraction of Oregon's population, they're more likely to be arrested than whites. And when they are, minorities are also more likely to see their cases referred to district attorneys' offices for prosecution.

This law is a good start. But lawmakers at both the state and local levels must commit to successfully making this societal shift by funding the programs to help Oregonians struggling with addiction.

Without that commitment, any goodwill in our communities will soon be lost as they watch same old, destructive patterns play out.

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The La Grande Observer, Aug. 28, on taxpayers deserving answers

A joint work session between the La Grande City Council, the Union County Commissioners and the Union County Economic Development Corporation needs to happen sooner rather than later because local taxpayers deserve some answers.

Many may recall from recent articles in The Observer that the economic development corporation was at the epicenter of an embezzlement scandal last year, an incident that was not divulged to the public. Because this economic development organization draws money — at least half of its budget — from taxpayers, a relevant question is: Why wasn't the embezzlement public knowledge?

The embezzlement was known to many officials. They just didn't bother to share or were sworn not to be transparent about it.

Last week, Union County Commissioners Steve McClure and Jack Howard voted to hand over more than $8,000 to the economic development organization to keep it operating for a short period of time. Commissioner Donna Beverage, a member of the Union County Commissioners and the Union County Economic Development Corporation board, voted against the move.

McClure said during the meeting that it was time to have a discussion regarding the economic development firm's responsibilities. That was a good — though obvious — point.

Union County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Bob Kavanaugh — who is also a member of the board of directors for the economic development corporation — said during the meeting he was "struggling with this organization."

Howard said during the meeting the public's opinion on the situation wasn't "fully informed." Howard said the embezzlement case should not — by itself — determine whether the economic development board is critical for the community.

Howard should be lauded for trying to bring a sense of proportion to this case, but his arguments fail to meet the transparency threshold.

Even if taxpayers decided to ignore the ramifications of an embezzlement case that was kept in the dark, another big question lingers: What has the UCEDC done for Union County lately?

Taxpayers' money is paying for what? A meeting between the commission, the La Grande City Council and representatives from the economic development board needs to happen as soon as possible. Taxpayers need some answers to this entire episode.

No one is questioning motives or implying anything wrong occurred among elected leaders who knew about the embezzlement. No, the public just wants to know how UCEDC is spending its money, and whey they weren't told of the embezzlement. Citing non-disclosure agreements isn't an answer.

Let's get the meeting between the key organizations pushed up on the schedule so that we can all get a sense of closure on this subject.

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The Medford Mail Tribune, Aug. 27, on courts having final say on national monument

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has sent to President Donald Trump his recommendations on the future of 27 national monuments, including the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument, but the details of those recommendations remain a mystery.

Neither the Interior Department nor the White House has seen fit to release to the public the recommendations regarding the public land protected by those monuments.

Thanks to reporting by The Washington Post, citing sources who have seen Zinke's recommendations, we know that the Interior secretary is recommending reductions in the Cascade-Siskiyou in Southern Oregon and Northern California and at least two others — Bear's Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante in Utah. We don't know how extensive those reductions might be.

President Bill Clinton established the Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument to protect the unique biodiversity found where three mountain ranges intersect. Early this year, President Barack Obama expanded the monument boundaries in response to concerns from scientists that the original boundaries were not large enough to preserve the connectivity between species habitats.

What Trump will do with the recommendations also remains unknown. What is certain is that any action to shrink monuments will be challenged and ultimately decided in the courts.

Presidents have the power under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create national monuments. In a limited number of cases, none of them in recent years, presidents have altered the boundaries of existing monuments, but none of those actions were challenged in court. Congress clearly has the power to change public land uses and alter monuments, but legal experts disagree on whether a president has the power to undo a designation implemented by a predecessor.

Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum already has said the state will challenge any attempt to reduce the Cascade-Siskiyou monument. Supporters of the Utah monuments are likely to challenge any changes to those as well.

The Cascade-Siskiyou already faces a court challenge to the expansion decreed by President Obama in January.

Timber industry representatives and Oregon counties that historically have received a share of timber revenue from former Oregon & California railroad lands have sued, claiming the Antiquities Act cannot supersede the O&C Act, in which Congress ordered that O&C lands managed for timber production.

Both the original monument and the expansion include some O&C land.

The monument enjoys widespread support from Oregon's two U.S. senators, the governor and many state residents. U.S. Rep. Greg Walden and local county commissioners opposed its creation and expansion, and ranchers, hunters and timber industry supporters argue the monument limits public use of the land.

Opponents have said the monument was expanded without adequate public involvement. But Zinke's refusal to release his recommendations prevents the public from evaluating them.

If Zinke believes the monument designation didn't serve the public interest, he should be willing to have a public discussion about that. And he and President Trump should prepare for a lengthy court battle, because that is where the future of the monument ultimately will be decided.

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Yamhill Valley News-Register, Aug. 25, on lodging tax for roads being worth a look, if legal

No prudent office-holder plunges blindly forward with a new tax proposal. But Yamhill County Commissioners Stan Primozich and Rick Olson seem well justified in their desire to place a transient lodging tax on an upcoming ballot for voter consideration.

Where the justification is lacking is in Commissioner Mary Starrett's refusal to consider any new tax at any time for any reason. Her kind of absolutism and intransigence does nothing to further the good-faith brokering democracy demands.

In this case, however, Starrett's unwavering objections may not be the only hurdle.

Primozich and Olson are looking for ways a rural county can address road maintenance and patrol demands imposed by a burgeoning wine industry.

Increasingly, vineyards, wineries and tasting rooms are coming to dot hilltops virtually everywhere. And increasingly, state and local regulations are allowing them to use food, music and lodging as lures to draw affluent out-of-town visitors.

That's all well and good, but the influx taxes rural roads not intended to handle a steady stream of tourist traffic.

It seems only logical to turn to a source designed to tap the very people creating the problem with a transient lodging tax. That serves with even greater precision than a sales tax to shift the burden from locals to visitors.

The rules regulating Oregon's transient room tax use may take issue with that.

In a 2008 opinion by then-Attorney General Hardy Myers, responding to a question from a Oregon Tourism Commission executive officer, Hardy stated: "The legislature most likely did not intend "tourism-related facilities" to encompass roads and other infrastructure simply because they are used, even heavily, by tourists as well as locals."

Comments to the county board by Tillamook County Commissioner Bill Baertlein suggest that his county and others have acted without regard to the form AG's opinion. In our view, any Yamhill County rural road that leads to a vineyard or winery that attracts tourists should be fair game on which to use transient tax dollars. Using that money for police enforcement, however, is probably an unlawful stretch of the "tourist related activities" definition.

Either way, there seems to be bureaucratic gray areas to clear up before any ballot measure is sent to voters.

Baertlein also encourages the board to resist pressure to pass a lodging tax to fund a county-based marketing and advertising firm. We agree. Tourism promotions are handled sufficiently by the entities created from city taxes, like Visit McMinnville.

We think the two supportive commissioners are sensible in proposing to allocate the resulting revenue to concrete facility and service needs rather than still another layer of marketing.

Every corner of the country is already charging such a tax. So constituents of a county without one are not only carrying the burden at home, but also on the road, as they're picking up a tourist services bill just about everywhere they go.

Let the consideration continue. The electorate deserves to be heard if a proper proposal is put on its ballot.

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