- Associated Press - Monday, December 7, 2015

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers.

The Oregonian, Dec. 3, on pesticide testing of medical marijuana

Earlier this year, Noelle Crombie of The Oregonian/OregonLive found that lab-tested medical marijuana for sale on dispensary shelves was tainted with pesticides at higher than allowable concentrations, posing unknown but potentially elevated risk to users. And now the Oregon Health Authority, which oversees the medical marijuana program, correctly moves ahead with vastly expanded regulations that will, in June of next year, ensure verifiable testing for nearly 60 pesticides. Oregon will at that time have the most stringent program in the U.S. ensuring product safety.

The problem is the in-between time. That’s why the suggestion of a Portland scientist and entrepreneur to close the gap on pesticide testing deserves full consideration by a panel advising the OHA on its regulations.

Crombie reported this week that Mowgli Holmes, a panel member who co-founded a Portland-based company performing genetic research on cannabis, suggested to his colleagues that the deficient pesticide testing practices now in place in Oregon be tossed in favor of testing for up to a dozen commonly used pesticides. In an interview with The Oregonian’s editorial board, Holmes called the dozen the known “bad actors” among pesticides but noted a dual challenge: Growers of medical marijuana would be pushed to “wean themselves” quickly from their longstanding practices of pesticide use, and the Oregon Health Authority presently lacks direct enforcement authority over laboratories to ensure reliable testing results. (Variation in laboratories and their findings signal an entirely separate problem that complicates things further.)

Nobody knows precisely how much exposure to a chemical constituent of a pesticide is needed before a bad health outcome presents itself. But it stands to reason that estimated ranges of safe use be honored, even during an interim period - this to signal to Oregon’s 70,000-plus medical marijuana users that every effort is being made to ensure off-the-shelf products that not only alleviate health conditions but avoid creating them.

A way around the temporary enforcement problem could be that the OHA, in its oversight of the grower-to-dispensary transaction, condition its approvals on prescribed testing. It wouldn’t be air-tight. But it would be a speedy improvement. As Holmes noted, “It doesn’t have to be perfect. Can we do something creative and easy?”

Nothing in the weed business is, particularly. That’s especially true for large government bureaucracies for whom seven months is the blink of an eye but during which time a medical marijuana user could consume a lot of tainted product. The OHA has this year been nothing if not ambitious in setting standards for the production and sale of medical marijuana. But it will need to be downright adroit in quickly closing the gap between current testing failures and helping to ensure the reasonable expectation of product safety before June arrives.

The right reflexes are being shown, however, on the part of state officials. Michael Tynan, a policy officer with the OHA, asked Holmes to write his suggestions for consideration by the panel and the OHA - something Holmes says he will do in time for the panel’s next meeting, on Monday.

As the state presses ahead in configuring its rules for medical marijuana dispensaries, grow sites and product labeling, it would be utterly appropriate for it to build a temporary bridge from now to then that helps keep folks safe.

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The (Salem) Statesman-Journal, Dec. 5 on funding for road and highway improvements

Political miracles do happen. Congress and President Barack Obama agreed last week on a five-year transportation plan and quickly turned it into law.

The agreement is good for America, and especially for Oregon.

For that, we have Oregon’s congressional delegation to thank, especially 4th District Rep. Peter DeFazio. He helped write the House version of the transportation-funding bill. Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden helped negotiate the final version. Sen. Jeff Merkley is a member of the Senate committee that will share jurisdiction over the projects.

It had been 10 years since Congress passed a major transportation bill. As a result, DeFazio told the Statesman Journal last week, “States all across the country were reluctant to do long-term projects.”

America’s decaying infrastructure finally forced a bipartisan solution, the Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act, or FAST Act.

Oregon benefits from DeFazio’s past work in writing the federal formula for allocating highway money. In bureaucratic terms, “Oregon will continue to receive a favorable percentage of Highway Trust Fund dollars,” according to the Oregon Department of Transportation. In the first year of FAST, Oregon will gain a 5 percent increase in its federal funding - $507 million, up from the current $482 million.

The law contains other provisions that will help the state, including:

-The Newberg-Dundee bypass and Interstate 205 in Oregon are designated as high-priority corridors, increasing their chances for receiving federal funding.

-The Salem River Crossing could be eligible for special funding if proponents can demonstrate that it is crucial for freight transportation.

That should be a no-brainer, as truck traffic it is a key reason the Salem area needs a third travel bridge across the Willamette River.

A revised, simplified Columbia River Crossing clearly would be eligible for freight-oriented funding. The Interstate Bridges linking Portland and Vancouver remain the worst transportation choke point on Interstate 5.

-Federal highway money can be spent improving roads in national scenic areas, including the Columbia River Gorge. Oregon Rep. Greg Walden was among those who pushed to include that language.

-The Salem-Keizer Transit District will receive $34 million over five years to buy buses.

Don’t be surprised if area residents ask the district to invest in smaller, neighborhood-friendly, fuel-efficient buses.

-Beekeepers received special treatment for when they can transport their hives on interstates. The bill also allows highway right-of-ways to be planted with plants that attract pollinators - such as bees and Monarch butterflies - instead of just grass. These provisions will benefit agricultural areas, including the Willamette Valley.

DeFazio also included provisions to improve safety, including the transport of hazardous materials by rail.

The new transportation finance law is not perfect. It plays political games, such as eliminating bicycle and pedestrian projects in one section - so their opponents can claim victory - while reinserting them elsewhere. And the overall law will be financed partially through accounting gimmicks, because the federal gas tax has not kept pace with the need.

But an imperfect transportation bill is better that none. The Oregon Legislature should take note.

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The (Eugene) Register-Guard, Dec. 4, on keeping college campuses safe

Both the University of Oregon and Oregon State University are changing their admissions procedures with the goal of maintaining safe campuses.

But the two universities, both of which have dealt with high-profile sexual assault cases recently, are taking very different approaches.

OSU now requires transfer applicants to disclose whether they’ve been kicked out of another school, and barred from re-enrolling, in the past seven years for sexual assault or other serious misconduct. If they have, OSU won’t admit them.

The UO is asking both freshmen and transfer applicants if any school since ninth grade has taken disciplinary action against them for academic or behavioral misconduct; if they’ve had a protective, restraining or stalking order against them, and if they’ve ever pleaded no contest or been found guilty of a misdemeanor or crime.

UO Director of Admissions Jim Rawlins says the new questions aren’t meant to keep anyone out of UO. Answers, which will be kept confidential, won’t disqualify an applicant on the spot. Rather the goal is to help both applicants and the university, he said. The UO might, for example, encourage or require a student to go through some form of counseling before arriving on campus.

Only about 3 percent of the 10,000 people who have applied to the UO since the admission forms were changed in August have answered yes to one of the questions, Rawlins said. None was turned down as a result.

OSU is taking a more hardline approach. Its previous policy was to reject transfers if it happened to find out that they had been barred from re-enrolling after being expelled or suspended by their previous school. In reality, this seldom happened.

It’s easier, however, to refrain from volunteering information than to lie outright, OSU vice president Steve Clark said, which is what applicants would now have to do. Applicants also are likely to understand the university has a mechanism in place for following up on these questions, he said.

And OSU is requiring students to state whether they were barred from re-enrolling not just at their last school, but at any school they attended in the past seven years.

By going from a passive to an active approach, requiring applicants to make disclosures, OSU intends to send a clear message: It will not tolerate sexual assault or other serious misconduct, including racist attacks.

OSU isn’t expecting to reject a lot of transfer students because of the new policy. But transfer students make up roughly 20 to 30 percent of OSU’s enrollment, the university calculates, and if another school never wants to see that student again, OSU doesn’t either.

OSU will offer an appeals process for any students who feel they’ve been unfairly denied admission under the new policy. OSU officials said they don’t know of any other schools that have implemented a policy as broad based as theirs.

On a more limited basis, Southeastern Conference presidents and chancellors earlier this barred their member schools from accepting student-athletes facing discipline at another SEC school for domestic violence or sexual assault. The goal was to prevent students from escaping discipline by transferring.

But since OSU announced its new policy on Monday, the university has heard from heads of several other Pac-12 schools, some thanking OSU for taking a stand aimed at combatting sexual assault, others asking for more information.

And the Pac-12 board of directors, which consists of the presidents of all Pac-12 universities, plans to put OSU’s policy on its agenda, Clark said.

Both UO’s and OSU’s new policies are steps in the right direction when it comes to tackling the problem of sexual assaults and other serious offenses on campus. When universities accept students, they also accept the responsibility of taking reasonable precautions to keep them safe - a standard that has not always been met in the past.

OSU in particular has come up with an approach that may work well to stem the problem of students who have a history of sexual assault simply moving to another school for a repeat performance when they are kicked out of one school.

But if only OSU is willing to put up such a barrier, the tide of repeat offenders will simply flow to other schools. The interest being shown by other schools in the Pac-12 conference is encouraging. But a zero tolerance approach to sexual predators will work only if colleges and universities take this seriously, and adopt a united front.

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The (Medford) Mail Tribune, Dec. 6, on budget shortfalls and the state’s pension system

Lawmakers are upbeat about last week’s revenue forecast, which predicts the state’s income will increase slightly, because the Legislature won’t have to back away from spending increases approved during this year’s session. But while the current two-year budget is sound, the state is facing a massive hole when legislators start work on the next budget in 2017.

That’s because the Oregon Supreme Court struck down significant portions of Public Employee Retirement System reforms enacted in 2013. The result of that ruling, as The Oregonian reported last week, is that the pension system’s unfunded liability has nearly doubled, and is likely to exceed $20 billion by the end of this year.

The bills don’t start coming due until 2017, but they are coming, and the result will not be pretty.

The state’s public employers combined will need to come up with $800 million in pension contributions in the next biennium starting in 2017, $860 million in 2019 and $930 million in 2021, The Oregonian reported.

That means, among other things, that school districts won’t have as much to spend on teachers, school days and reducing class sizes, cities and counties will have less for police officers and firefighters, and state agencies will have to lay off staff or leave positions unfilled.

But we’re not hearing much discussion of addressing this reality starting in the 2016 legislative session, because the PERS bill won’t come due until the following year. Lawmakers are not fond of facing budget shortfalls until they absolutely have to, which is one reason the state tends to lurch from crisis to crisis with periods of calm in between.

Local governments and school districts are being warned to prepare themselves for the hit to their budgets starting in 2017. Lawmakers, too, should prepare, by resisting the urge to spend that increased state revenue in 2016 and instead bank it for the following year, when there will be less to work with.

An initiative petition backed by unions and others intended for the November 2016 ballot would increase taxes on large corporations, raising an estimated $2.5 billion a year - enough to cover the increase in PERS costs and still provide more money for schools and other public services. Whether that is a good idea is a topic for another day; signatures are still being collected.

But regardless of whether new revenue is raised, Oregon’s pension system still has years of increasing costs ahead of it, and state leaders should prepare for that now rather than later.

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The (Bend) Bulletin, Dec. 6, on the effects of the Cadillac health tax

Oregonians could be on the hook to pay a penalty of as much as $11.7 million to the federal government in 2018 because of the rich health care benefits teachers get.

That’s an estimate from the Oregon Educators Benefit Board, which provides the plans. The board and school districts have failed Oregonians because they haven’t gotten around to revising plans to avoid the penalty.

With health care costs going up, the Affordable Care Act didn’t live up to “affordable” for many Oregonians. But it did try in some ways.

One of the problems in health care is that the insured can be insulated from the actual health care costs. If an employer offers a plan with rich benefits and the insured hardly have to pay anything, the insured lack much incentive to be careful about the health care they use.

Enter the Cadillac tax.

Health care plans that are deemed too rich have to pay a 40 percent tax to the federal government beginning in 2018. The intent was to create an incentive for plans and customers to save money.

Cadillac plans are basically defined as those whose cost exceeds $10,200 for an individual or $27,500 for a family. That’s much richer than the average plan for most Americans. The Kaiser Family Foundation said that in 2014 a typical individual plan cost $6,025 and a typical family plan was $16,834.

As you have likely heard, the Cadillac tax is hated by unions, some Democrats and some Republicans. They want it scrapped.

That’s not the right approach. Rich plans create perverse incentives to overuse health care. They should be penalized.

That said, the Cadillac tax needs some fixes. The cost limits in it are not indexed to inflation. That means even reasonable increases in health care costs are going to make more and more health plans Cadillacs over time.

There also should be some consideration for how a health care policy is structured. High-cost plans that have low deductibles or no co-pays are treated the same under the law as high-cost plans with high deductibles and big co-pays. That’s not right.

At this point, estimates of how the Cadillac tax will affect Oregon are just estimates. The federal government hasn’t put out final guidelines about how the tax will be implemented.

But OEBB, school districts and unions have known they were likely to face penalties, no matter what the final guidelines will be. They have been more interested in keeping Cadillac health plans than reform. Oregonians end up paying.

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