- Associated Press - Monday, March 7, 2016

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers.

Albany Democrat-Herald, March 7, on short legislative sessions

We were believers from the start in the idea that Oregon’s Legislature should meet every year, and we were particularly enamored with the elegant compromise that eventually carried the day with the state’s voters.

Under the terms of the compromise that paved the way for annual sessions, the Legislature meets for 160 calendar days in odd-numbered years and then for shorter 35-day sessions in even-numbered years, such as the session that adjourned last week. These shorter sessions were billed mostly as gatherings to adjust the state’s budget and to tie up unexpected loose ends from the longer sessions.

The reason why Oregon voters didn’t opt for lengthy sessions each year is pretty simple: We tend to agree with that famous quotation from Gideon J. Tucker, a newspaper editor and politician from New York, who wrote in 1866 that “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session.” (The quotation - and this is true of so many other notable quotes -often is attributed to Mark Twain, as if Twain needs any additional polish on his resume.)

Voters also understood, however, that governing Oregon, a state of 4 million people, has become a matter of such complexity that it requires annual legislative oversight. That’s why the 2010 constitutional amendment clearing the way for annual sessions passed by a 2-to-1 margin.

However, the session that just wrapped up last week sorely tested our faith in the idea of annual sessions. One of the big problems with the shorter session is that 35 days is just not enough time for big policy measures to be adequately vetted - and for the public to have a meaningful chance to participate in legislative decisions. But this session saw at least two major policy measures pass - the increase in the state’s minimum wage and a bill that will make Oregon the first state to phase out coal from its energy supply. It’s worth noting that both of those measures were initially hammered out in closed-door meetings to which the public was not invited. (To be fair, though, both measures were altered significantly during the course of the session.)

Regardless of what you think of those measures, you cannot argue that the public had any meaningful opportunity to weigh in; in fact, many legislators admitted that they didn’t completely understand the coal bill.

The argument we heard from legislators about why they needed to attack those big measures in the short session - that the Legislature needed to act to pre-empt ballot measures on those issues - seemed increasingly thin as the session wore on. Minimum-wage foes, for example, thought they would be able to defeat a ballot measure, and it would have made for an interesting campaign.

But after a weekend of reflection, we’re not prepared to throw in the towel on annual sessions, and here’s the primary reason why: Annual sessions allow the legislative branch a greater measure of oversight over the state’s executive branch. And at a time when at least two vital state departments - Human Services and Environmental Quality - are trying to answer serious questions about their performance in recent years, the need for that legislative oversight seems greater than ever.

None of which is to suggest that legislative leaders shouldn’t do a better job at setting and enforcing boundaries during the short sessions. But entirely eliminating the shorter sessions would be a step backward, and one that Oregon residents likely would come to regret

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The (Eugene) Register-Guard, March 7, on sexual-assault legislation

While much of the just-ended session of the Legislature was focused on some high-profile issues such as raising the minimum wage and whether to shield the identity of law enforcement officers in certain circumstances, two long-overdue pieces of legislation quietly passed by near-unanimous votes.

Senate Bill 1571 requires that sexual assault kits be tested in a timely manner, instead of languishing in storage.

Senate Bill 1600 removes the 12-year statute of limitations for first-degree sex crimes if new evidence becomes available. This could include, for example, physical evidence such as emails or texts, corroborating testimony by someone other than the victim, reports from additional victims, or a confession by the defendant.

Law enforcement officials who testified in favor of SB 1571 said the backlog of untested Sexual Assault Forensic Evidence Kits (SAFE) is a national problem.

An inventory done by Oregon State Police last September concluded there were more than 5,600 untested kits in Oregon.

Portland’s police chief testified that his department found nearly 2,000 untested kits, going back to 1985, when it did an internal review in 2014. Some of the reasons given were that the suspect’s identity might have been in question, the investigator had discretion on whether to have the kits tested, and the victim chose not to participate in the investigation.

Portland’s police department now believes that all kits should be tested, Chief Lawrence O’Dea said.

The Legislature also appropriated $1.5 million to help state police speed up testing.

Senate Bill 1600 was the product of a work group chaired by state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene. Prozanski came under fire in 2015 from victim advocates who blamed him for blocking a proposed extension of the statute of limitations for rape charges from six years - the second lowest in the country - to 20 years. Instead, the Legislature extended it to 12 years, with Prozanski saying he wanted more time to thoroughly study the issue.

Sexual assaults are among the most traumatic crimes, carrying with them burdens of shame and guilt.

Leaving thousands of evidence kits untested for years, even decades, is unconscionable. The Legislature was right to take decisive action to end this.

Lifting the statute of limitations, under carefully delineated circumstances, means that Oregon will go from one of the shortest spans in the country for filing charges to being in line with the bulk of other states.

The legislators’ actions on these two bills did much to restore victims’ trust in law enforcement, and lawmakers, and increase the chances that dangerous predators will be caught.

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The (La Grande) Observer, March 4, on the new minimum wage law

Earlier this week Gov. Kate Brown signed into law a new minimum wage hike for the state, effectively signaling the beginning of a new, grand experiment.

Regardless of the partisan rhetoric and the numerous political deals cut to ensure the bill evolved into law, the new minimum wage hike is, and will be for some time, a test for the rural areas of the state.

That’s because no one really can say with any kind of clarity what type of impact the new minimum wage law will have on rural areas like Eastern Oregon.

Right now, the law provides for significant pay raises for minimum wage workers in Oregon. Under its tiered format, Portland will see a $14.75 an hour minimum wage hike by 2022 while other counties in the state will boast a basic wage of $13.50. In Eastern Oregon by 2022, the minimum wage will cap out at $12.50 an hour.

Clearly in places such as Portland the minimum wage hike is a prudent move. The same cannot be said for a region like Eastern Oregon. While Republican lawmakers decried the measure and notified voters the minimum wage hike in Eastern Oregon will kill business, the truth is no one is sure what will happen.

That is where the rub comes in on this particular legislative mandate. While political experiments carry worth in some places and at certain times, this is clearly not one of those epochs for Eastern Oregon. While it can be argued that the minimum wage bill will help Eastern Oregon, it can also be argued the other way. In short, this legislative experiment is really a gamble, and the stakes are the lives and prosperity of Eastern Oregon.

That simple concept doesn’t hold much water at the Legislature or, apparently with this current governor. Part of that, it appears now more than ever, revolves around the unspoken notion that perhaps voters in Eastern Oregon just don’t matter to the Democratic majority currently in charge of the state.

Gov. Brown hailed the bill as a testament to compromise between specific special interest groups - including business and labor - but from the distance of Eastern Oregon there doesn’t seem to have been much cooperation between Republican and Democratic lawmakers. Instead, what trails behind the bill is a flotsam of negative perceptions that involve special interest groups flexing political muscle to get what they want.

Which, in the big scheme of things, is a routine part of American politics. Still, when you are a small business in Eastern Oregon, barely staying above water as it is, the minimum wage bill carries the potential to create a whole new set of problems.

The minimum wage bill personifies a special kind of tacit attitude, an implicit philosophy that when it comes to key political issues, the wants and needs of Eastern Oregon just don’t matter to those who currently hold the reins of political power.

And that is the most depressing conclusion of all.

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The (Bend) Bulletin, March 4, on the legislative session

Democrats were determined this legislative session to make fewer Oregonians poor, make a dent in the state’s affordable housing problem and make power coal-free.

All we can say is we’re glad the session is over. Through enormous effort, they have managed to get so much wrong.

Oregon will get the highest minimum wage in the nation. It will get tiers for different parts of the state.

Is that really going to be a victory for the poor? Some workers will be better off. Other workers could very well lose their jobs.

We had sincere hopes that the Legislature would be able to do something meaningful on affordable housing. The most significant achievement is likely not due to any bill. The Oregon Housing and Community Services has finally moved ahead with more projects for affordable housing.

The clean energy bill was bursting with green-tinctured good intentions. It gives the state a firm shove toward more renewable energy, which could be good. It is also predicted to increase rates, which is not so good.

What’s less clear is what it actually does to reduce coal-based production of electricity. It could very well achieve nothing new.

Perhaps what’s most disappointing was the way that bill was handled. Supporters and utilities got together and agreed on something for the Legislature to consider.

But who did the governor’s office want kept quiet? Oregon’s Public Utility Commission. You know, the very people who are supposed to look after the public’s interest and know these utility issues. They had concerns about rates, shifting more burden to ratepayers and the ineffectiveness of the proposal to reduce coal-generated power.

The governor’s apologists for this inexcusable muzzling have been out in force claiming a muzzling is not a muzzling and trying to sell snake oil about how the PUC’s oversight has now been reinstated.

Just wait. Next year, expect more of the same.

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The Oregonian, March 4, on a lodging tax to support the World Track and Field Championships in Eugene

No one will ever mistake the just-concluded legislative session for a triumph of bipartisan comity. But Republicans and Democrats in the Senate did manage to strike a deal this week under which the minority party agreed to stop standing on chamber’s garden hose. The ensuing gush of legislation included a bill that could raise millions of dollars to support the 2021 World Track and Field Championships in Eugene. House Bill 4146 then passed by the smallest of margins and no time to spare.

But, hey, a victory’s a victory.

As introduced, the bill would have doubled the state’s 1 percent lodging tax, which is used primarily for tourism promotion. Revenue, paid largely by people visiting from out of state, would have grown accordingly to about $34 million per year. Organizers of the world track championships intended to ask the Oregon Tourism Commission for a total of $25 million spread out over several years.

Not everyone considers tourism-promotion revenue an appropriate source of support for a sporting event. But this isn’t your average sporting event. World track championships - especially outdoor championships - generate significant international exposure. A championship staged in Oregon will promote both the state and some things the state does very well. Among them: Producing fast runners, supporting active outdoor recreation and growing photogenic cities. The marathon will run through Portland.

The bill that emerged from the legislative process is not exactly the same one that entered. Among other things, it will generate less additional money. Assuming the governor signs it, the bill now will boost the lodging tax to 1.8 percent for four years, starting this summer. After that, the rate will drop to 1.5 percent. Track championship promoters still intend to ask for $25 million.

The decision to grant the funds will be made by the tourism commission, and nothing is certain. But the opportunity to ask was created by lawmakers this month, who showed that compromise can still happen even during the most contentious of sessions.

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