- Associated Press - Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

The (Salem) Statesman Journal, June 26, on rail safety in Oregon:

Broken bolts in the railroad track caused the frightening oil train derailment in the Columbia River Gorge. Better brakes and other improvements would have made the train derailment less severe.

Those are among the Federal Railroad Administration’s preliminary findings into the June 3 derailment, in which a Union Pacific train spilled oil and caught fire near the town of Mosier.

Union Pacific, which is to blame for the derailment, now seems overly eager to resume sending oil trains through the Gorge.

But people have it wrong when they cite the Gorge’s unique environment as a rationale to make it permanently off-limits to oil trains, such as this one with 94 cars carrying Bakken crude oil from New Town, North Dakota, to Tacoma, Washington.

Scary, hazardous materials travel every day on trains and trucks along the interstate 84 and 5 corridors. Many such trains go through Salem’s core, past Willamette University and the Capitol Mall area. Certainly the protection of urban residents and property is as important as protection of the rural environment and the rural residents.

The greater issue is that Oregon and especially the federal government must insist on much higher standards for:

-Track maintenance.

-Structural improvements in rail cars carrying oil or other hazardous materials.

-Training and equipping of emergency responders.

If people dislike oil trains, consider the alternatives: pipelines or multiple shipments by truck. In much of America, well-built and -operated pipelines are the best solution. But given the lack of sufficient pipelines in the Pacific Northwest, trains are the best alternative.

As for ending the world’s reliance on oil, and thus the need to ship oil, that is a worthy goal but one that will not happen soon. Even then, companies and governments will continue shipping other hazardous materials.

Safe, secure shipping always will be needed, regardless of the route or cargo. The government must ensure that safety.

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The Bend Bulletin, June 25, on GMOs in rural Oregon:

While genetically modified organisms are not the frankenplants their opponents would like you to think, they can have problems. Roundup Ready creeping bentgrass offers a case in point.

Scotts and Monsanto developed GMO creeping bentgrass in the early 2000s and tested it in Jefferson County. One anticipated market would be the grass for golf courses.

All went well until 2004, when nine plants were discovered outside the 11,000-acre growing area north of Madras, according to The Bulletin’s archives.

Today, the grass can be found along ditches in both Jefferson and Malheur counties, and that’s got some farmers and the state Department of Agriculture worried.

They’re worried for several reasons. So far, efforts to control it have been unsuccessful. In Malheur County, creeping bentgrass is considered a Class A weed, meaning those who find it on their land are required by law to eradicate it. The weed also thrives along irrigation ditches, clogging them if the infestation is heavy. Too, if traces of the crop end up on such things as alfalfa hay or hybrid carrot seed, farmers may not be able to sell their crops in countries that ban GMO crops.

So far, Scotts has been a leader in the effort to eradicate or contain GMO bentgrass. While it assures farmers that will continue, many remain unconvinced. Its agreement with the U.S. Department of Agriculture would allow it to take a smaller role in the effort in just a few years. That’s got both farmers and ODA worried, so much so that Katy Coba, who heads ODA, wrote the bureaucratic equivalent of a blistering letter to the USDA.

She, farmers and the Oregon congressional delegation should keep the heat on both Scotts and USDA. Agriculture is by far the biggest industry east of the Cascades, and much of what is grown here finds its way overseas. Contamination could change that, hurting rural Oregon in the process.

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The Yamhill Valley News-Register, June 24, on a per-mile tax for drivers:

Drivers should probably get used to the idea of a per-mile tax to one day replace the gas tax. But there’s much to debate regarding the effectiveness of such a plan in the short term.

Often a pioneer in forward-thinking legislation, Oregon was the first state in the nation to launch a pilot program to test a per-mile tax. (The state enacted the nation’s first gas tax in 1919.) The experiment, named OreGO that started last summer, has lacked enthusiasm from the general public. The Oregon Department of Transportation has attracted about one-fifth of the 5,000 participants it originally hoped for. Those who did sign up are being charged 1.5 cents for every mile driven.

This summer, California is starting a similar program, and Washington is said to not be far behind. Meanwhile, an Illinois legislator has proposed a per-mile tax in his state. And there is word that Oregon legislators are debating the idea around as they prepare a 2017 transportation package.

The first hurdle of a per-mile tax is the public perception of a government tracking every vehicle on the road. Those concerns will likely take a back seat as organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union ensure drivers’ privacy and rights are not violated. While debating Oregon’s pilot program, the ACLU of Oregon was told a GPS-based device provides information to law enforcement only with a warrant, and that if a per-mile tax ever becomes mandatory, taxpayers would have an alternative to a GPS device.

“We were able to get to a place where the ACLU did feel good about the program,” Becky Straus, legislative director for the ACLU of Oregon, said at the time.

At face value, the per-mile tax makes sense given the downward trend of gas tax revenues as vehicles become more fuel efficient. Our infrastructure continues to decline without sufficient funds for repairs. Wear and tear on roads is created from a 2016 Prius just as much as a 1996 Corrolla. The current system, it’s obvious, eventually needs to adapt to the 21st century.

It’s important to remember, however, that electric vehicles currently make up less than 1 percent of new vehicle sales in the U.S. And a per-mile tax results in drivers with more fuel-efficient cars paying more than under a gas tax, while the drive of a Hummer would be getting a break. There’s plenty of evidence to support a reform of gas tax and other user fees before going all in on a per-mile tax.

Significant amendments will be needed in how our cities, states and nation compensate up for the shortcomings in our infrastructure. The number of electric will likely grow, and autonomous vehicles are on the horizon, especially in urban areas where car manufacturers are partnering with ride-share businesses like Uber and Lyft.

But there are bridges in danger and roads crumbling now. The investment in a new tax system and growth in bureaucracy will create upfront costs. Oregon’s affinity for innovative legislation shouldn’t get in the way of providing solutions to the current needs.

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The Daily Astorian, June 23, on gun ownership:

Among the many sad ironies surrounding the U.S. cultural wars about firearms is the vast growth in gun numbers during the Obama administration, whose detractors routinely accuse of conspiring to end private gun ownership. Fear of this nonexistent threat has resulted in enough firearm sales to fight off an outer-space invasion.

Data on federal criminal background checks show a continuing surge in gun buying in Oregon and around the nation.

In the first five months of 2016, Oregonians bought at least 126,738 firearms, based on statistics from the National Instant Criminal Background Check System (NICS), nearly double the 66,665 sold in the same months in 2006. The NICS does not include sales between private individuals and certain other exceptions that may add tens of thousands of additional sales to the actual total.

Since Obama’s inauguration in January 2009, Oregonians have purchased nearly 1.8 million firearms covered by the NICS system. In 2016, there were only 1.5 million occupied homes in Oregon.

Do all these weapons make us safer? Far more Americans use our weapons to commit suicide than to commit murder. “In the U.S., more than 10,000 Americans will likely be killed in gun murders this year. Another 20,000 will likely be lost to gun suicide. The total number of gun deaths and violent injuries will be close to 100,000,” The Guardian newspaper reported this week. “In absolute terms, around 33,500 lives are lost each year. That’s roughly one every 15 minutes - about the same number of people as are killed on America’s roads.”

Leaving all the politics aside, the facts tell us we are safer not having firearms at home. If you are contemplating buying one, take Nancy Reagan’s famous advice to heart: Just say no.

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The (Portland) Oregonian/OregonLive, June 10, on Gov. Brown and her campaign:

There’s big news these days in the world of Harry Potter, the fictional wizard conjured up by J.K. Rowling. No, we’re not referring to the appearance of a new play, “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child.” What we’re talking about is much bigger: Potter’s invisibility cloak has been stolen. We know this because Oregon Gov. Kate Brown is wearing it.

Brown has decided not to show up July 22 for a debate sponsored by the Oregon Newspaper Publishers Association. The ONPA debate historically has kicked off the fall election, and defections like hers are rare. In her absence, Republican candidate Bud Pierce, a Salem-based doctor, will address those in attendance and answer questions.

Brown’s debate snub is only her most recent vanishing act. For months, she’s declined to take a position on a $3 billion annual tax hike that will appear on November’s ballot. Even so, the governor recently released a broad plan for using the money the tax hike would generate. It seems Brown wants to avoid the consequences of taking a position on the tax, but is more than happy to smooth its path. Playing political peekaboo in this fashion should be beneath someone who’d like voters to think of her as a leader, and even former Gov. John Kitzhaber, whose resignation last year thrust Brown into the state’s top office, called her out for ducking.

Brown surely has strategic reasons for remaining silent and invisible. As an incumbent, she has more to lose than gain from debating Pierce, who’s never held elective office. And if nothing else, refusing to take (or state) a position on Initiative Petition 28 deprives Pierce of a chance to criticize her for supporting a tax hike that will cost low-income Oregonians hundreds of dollars per year.

But this approach sends a worrisome message to Brown’s constituents, who still don’t know how their governor stands on the biggest ballot initiative in years, and who have never seen her participate in a general election debate for the office she now holds. The message is this: My need to win, and to do so with little effort, trumps your need to know what I really stand for.

There’s a word for this. It’s arrogance. That’s not particularly surprising given the fact that Brown is the chosen candidate of the dominant party in what has become a single-party state. Why engage any more than necessary in the political process if you’re sure to win anyway? Why act like a leader if you don’t need to?

As strange as it may be to see a candidate shut out the public during an election - especially a candidate who hasn’t been elected to the office she holds - there’s really nothing new here. Brown has been shutting out the public since she inherited the governor’s office last year.

Her office participated in a months-long effort to delay the release of public records while the Legislature considered - and passed - a bill exempting the records retroactively from public disclosure. Later, her office prohibited the members of the Public Utility Commission from sharing their concerns with a sweeping energy bill in a timely fashion. When it has suited her, Brown has tucked the workings of state government beneath the same invisibility cloak she now wears as a candidate.

Perhaps Brown will participate enthusiastically in the campaign at some point, agreeing to show up at more than a minimal number of debates, taking firm positions on important issues like IP28 and sharing with voters a vision for the governor’s office and where transparency and openness fit within it. We certainly hope so. But the longer she tries to remain invisible, the more uncomfortable it will be for her to answer the first question Pierce should ask when he finds himself beside her on the stage:

“When you were sworn in last year, you said you valued transparency and openness. How much of that did you really mean?”

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