- Associated Press - Monday, July 13, 2015

The (Corvallis) Gazette-Times, July 9, on fifth-year student programs

State Sen. Sara Gelser did good work in this legislative session in wrangling a one-year reprieve for mid-valley fifth-year college programs, but the truth is that it will be an uphill battle to preserve these worthy programs for the long run.

These fifth-year programs give students who would otherwise be able to graduate from high school the option of putting their diploma on hold for a year and taking classes at local community colleges. These programs are particularly useful for minority students or those who are the first members of their families to attend college, because they give the students the support and direction they might otherwise miss.

For all intents and purposes, these programs have been pioneered in the mid-valley: Corvallis, Albany, Central Linn, Lebanon, Scio and Sweet Home all have fifth-year programs in partnerships with Linn-Benton Community College. Philomath had just begun signing up students to start a program this fall.

There’s a financial catch, though, and that’s why these programs were targeted this past session by some lawmakers: Districts with fifth-year programs use state K-12 funds for pay for books and tuition. Some lawmakers argued it’s not fair to use money that had been allocated for K-12 schools to help pay for a 13th year of school for some students. In addition, they argued that there’s not enough money available to expand the program statewide, especially in more populous areas. (There’s a reason why much of the opposition to the programs came from legislators who represent the state’s more urban areas: Hello, Portland!)

Truthfully, though, the financial questions surrounding the programs need to be answered.

Enter Gelser’s Senate Bill 898, which holds all these programs at their current levels as of June 1 for one year. That gives time for a work group Gelser is convening to spend the next few months working with school districts on defining fifth-year programs, getting a definitive handle on what they cost and suggesting ways to fund them. School superintendents in Corvallis and Lebanon will be part of the group, which will present its findings to the February 2016 legislative session.

If this legislative session is any judge, the work of Gelser’s group will be greeted next year by a bevy of influential legislators who stand ready to kill the programs.

In part, that may be because some of those legislators believe that mid-valley school administrators pulled a fast one in getting these programs off the ground in the first place, that schools found a loophole and slid right through it.

That’s not the case at all. What happened here is that school officials found a way to launch programs that they genuinely believed would benefit students. And the early results from the programs are promising, although members of the work group will have to be diligent in collecting additional data.

Lawmakers need to find ways to finance exactly this type of experiment to make our underperforming schools work better for students. For starters, that means keeping their minds open about these fifth-year sessions when they gather in 2016.


The Statesman Journal, July 11, on three important issues for Oregon

Three issues may well determine Oregonians’ future prosperity: transportation, career-technical education, and campaign-finance reform.

The 2015 Legislature, which adjourned Monday, failed on transportation and campaign-finance reform. And though the Legislature made a much-needed investment in Oregon’s public universities, the state should also put a greater emphasis on career-technical education.

It is not too early for legislators and Gov. Kate Brown to turn their focus to those overriding issues. All must be priorities for the 2016 Legislature.


Oregon has a manufacturing economy in a transportation-dependent state. To improve Oregonians’ standard of living, companies must export more goods domestically and abroad, thereby bringing more money into the state and creating more family-wage jobs.

Those goods travel by truck: some until they get to a railroad or port; some for their entire journey. Yet Oregon’s transportation system is falling apart.

Labor unrest doomed most container shipping through the Port of Portland, as well as cutting barge traffic along the Willamette River to Eastern Oregon. Due to geography and insufficient tracks, rail does not move expeditiously between Oregon and the ports of Seattle and Tacoma. Portland International Airport is a first-rate airport, but airfreight is expensive, and getting to the airport can be slow.

Traffic congestion is so bad in metropolitan Portland that trucks can wait for hours to enter Interstate 5, especially if they are headed across the outdated Interstate Bridge into Washington.

Such delays create significant costs for businesses. A growing number of Oregon businesses have started trucking their shipments south to California’s Port of Oakland. The distance is farther but the overall time is shorter and consistent.

Traffic congestion also affects tourists, commuters, emergency responders and other motorists, but the greatest economic effect is on shippers.

The 2015 Legislature plunked a few million dollars into safety projects around the state. Those are needed. But lawmakers could not agree on the larger issue: paying for the extensive transportation improvements needed on the state’s high-travel corridors.

The Oregon Legislature is not alone. Congress has dillydallied on infrastructure financing, despite the best efforts of Oregon Rep. Peter DeFazio, as have many state legislatures.

In Oregon, employers and public officials speak passionately about the need for a transportation package. But they have never come together to establish a unified, detailed and strategic case for specific improvements and how to finance them.

Career-technical education

America has over-emphasized the importance of four-year college degrees and under-emphasized the importance of technical certifications. Throughout the country, skilled-trade and related jobs are among the hardest for employers to fill, because there are too few trained applicants.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics:

-Only about one-third of current jobs require a bachelor’s degree.

-The fastest-growing sector of jobs through 2022 will be ones that require a master’s degree. But the largest number of new jobs will be in fields that need only a high school diploma; most of those will involve on-the-job training, such as apprenticeships.

For example: Mid-Valley manufacturers report having difficulty attracting trained, drug-free machinists. The construction industry has rebounded and needs skilled workers. There is a widespread shortage of truckers. Forty-five percent of Portland General Electric’s line workers will be eligible for retirement within the next 10 years.

A key advantage of those jobs is that most cannot be outsourced overseas. And they pay well.

Seeking to fill vacancies last year in the Mid-Valley and Northwest Oregon, manufacturers offered an average hourly wage of $23.89, or about $50,000 annually, according to the Oregon Employment Department. Only the information sector, including software and print publishing, offered an average higher wage.

The Salem-Keizer School District understands the need and opportunity, and has a partnership with the Mountain West Career Technical Institute. The district’s Career Technical Education Center will open this fall with programs in residential construction and commercial manufacturing, and eventually may expand to a dozen programs. The center will complement the district’s existing career and technical programs.

Campaign finance

Big-money donations speak loudly in politics, drowning out the interests of everyday Oregonians. That could explain why so many legislators refused to make the compromises needed to pass a transportation package.

Oregon is among the few states that have no limits on campaign contributions to state and local candidates. Enacting such limits would require voters to amend the state constitution. A bill to put such a measure on the 2016 general election ballot died in the Legislature.

“It scares people,” Senate President Peter Courtney said. “Everybody wants campaign finance reform … just not now.”

Courtney said he expects the 2016 Legislature to take up campaign finance reform: “If we’re going to do this thing, let’s get it right.”

That holds true as well for improving Oregon’s transportation system and its career and technical education programs. These are complex issues. There is no time to waste.


The Bend Bulletin, July 12, on police body cameras

The Legislature’s new law on body cameras has Bend and Prineville police thinking they may have to give them up. It’s a reasonable decision.

Bend police don’t use body cameras now, though the department has been experimenting with them and considering adding them. Prineville police have been using them.

The new law adds requirements. Police must turn on the cameras when encountering any suspect. The recordings must be stored. When recordings are released to the public, the faces of individuals must be digitally scrambled.

There are arguments to be made for all those requirements. For instance, police should not be able to pick and choose when cameras are turned on. It makes them vulnerable to claims that they were purposefully left off to conceal what happened.

But those new requirements could be expensive for departments to manage. Bend Police Chief Jim Porter told us during the legislative session he was worried about how many hours it would take to redact all the faces involved in a recording. He’d likely have to add a staff member along with the expense of the equipment. He wasn’t sure that expense made sense.

Body cameras can provide valuable information about incidents. They may encourage better behavior from suspects and police. And they can show a perspective of an incident that will almost instantly clear up some questions.

But we don’t seem them as absolutely necessary in Bend, Prineville or elsewhere in Central Oregon. Their value must be weighed against their cost. It would of course be helpful to know how much it would cost taxpayers in Bend or Prineville to have the cameras and comply with the law. We haven’t seen estimates of those additional costs.

Does it make sense to add the cameras and the staff person in Bend to blur faces, or would it make sense to add another patrol officer dedicated to the downtown?

If there were incident after incident in Central Oregon in which there were serious questions raised about the behavior of police and suspects, that’s a much different decision than law enforcement and the public face now.


The (Eugene) Register-Guard, July 13, on Fair Shot Coalition’s winning bills

A lobbying group that wins enactment of 80 percent of its agenda can congratulate itself for having had a highly productive legislative session. Oregon’s Fair Shot Coalition will celebrate that level of success today, when Gov. Kate Brown is scheduled to sign four of the five bills the group promoted in Salem. The coalition found a winning formula by combining constituencies and causes that in the past have been separate or parallel, creating a potent new political force.

Brown will sign Senate Bill 454, mandating paid sick leave for most employees; House Bill 3025, which makes it illegal for employers to include questions about applicants’ criminal histories on job applications; House Bill 2002, which will establish a system for collecting data about racial profiling by police, and House Bill 2960, which takes the first steps toward creating an employee-funded workplace-based retirement savings system for workers without access to a savings plan.

The thread that ties these bills together is that each is aimed at improving the lives of people at the bottom of either the social or the economic pyramid. The Fair Shot Coalition emerged from a recognition that the two groups heavily overlap. The coalition is made up of labor organizations such as the Service Employees International Union and the Oregon AFL-CIO, and social justice organizations such as the Urban League of Portland and Basic Rights Oregon.

The fifth legislative goal on the coalition’s agenda, and the only one that did not win approval, was a minimum wage increase. An increase would directly benefit employees, a primary aim of unions. It would also benefit disproportionate numbers women and members of minority groups, whose welfare is of concern to social-justice groups. Labor and civil rights groups have a long history of finding common cause, but the Fair Shot Coalition sees its members’ interests as different sides of the same coin.

HB 3025, the job applicants’ criminal history bill, is a case in point. Most jail or prison inmates are low-income people, members of minority groups or both. When these people are released, their best chance of avoiding a return to incarceration is to find a job. But many employers automatically exclude job-seekers who indicate on their applications that they have been convicted of a crime. The “ban the box” bill doesn’t stop employers from asking about an applicant’s criminal history later in the hiring process, or prohibit hiring decisions from being made on the basis, but it will get some people past the first hurdle, giving them a chance to show their qualifications and explain their histories. The Fair Shot Coalition sees this as an issue of both economics and fairness.

Similarly, about half of Oregon workers lack access to a workplace retirement savings plan - and most of those are in lower-wage occupations where large numbers of women and minorities are found. HB 2960, the retirement savings bill, is a start toward giving those workers a more convenient opportunity to begin saving and investing their own money so they can avoid poverty in old age. It’s an issue that blurs the lines between labor and social justice - and with the backing of groups committed to both, the bill won legislative approval.

The Fair Shot Coalition can be regarded as being concerned with the quality of life, without making distinctions between whether efforts to improve it are economic, such as mandating paid leave, or in terms of public policy, such as tracking racial profiling by police. The combination addresses both the social and financial struggles of people in Oregon and elsewhere - and bringing those issues under a single umbrella creates a coalition potent enough to promise that today’s bill-signing ceremony will be repeated after future legislative sessions.


The (Albany) Democrat-Herald, July 13, on food stamp reform

As citizens and lawmakers alike continue to take stock of the 2015 legislative session, which ended last week, it’s not unusual to run across legislation that didn’t attract much controversy or news coverage at the time but likely still represents a step forward.

Into that broad category add House Bill 2392. Albany Rep. Andy Olson was one of the primary sponsors of the bill, which involves the Oregon Trail EBT cards used mostly to provide food benefits through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program - food stamps, in other words.

The amended version of the bill, which passed both houses of the Legislature by wide margins and now awaits the signature of Gov. Kate Brown, comes into play any time an Oregon Trail recipient reports that a card has been lost or stolen. Under the terms of the amended bill, any replacement card issued must display the name of the individual to whom the card is issued.

This seems like a small bit of business, and in fact, the bill that passed the Legislature is watered down somewhat from the original intent, which was to require printed names on all Oregon Trial cards.

But even the watered-down version seems likely to have a real impact on cutting down on Oregon Trail card fraud and abuse.

The vast majority of Oregon Trail card users, of course, follow state laws and regulations to the letter. And the services provided are obviously essential: In fact, as we have noted before, better than one in four residents of Linn County uses these services to some extent.

The state has estimated in the past that fraud in the program amounts to just about half of 1 percent, so cutting back on fraud may not seem like a big deal. That is, until you realize that the state pays out roughly $1.2 billion a year in benefits. (The program is administered by the state, but the federal government provides the money.) The math suggests that fraud could amount to $5 million to $6 million each year in Oregon.

At least some of the fraud involves trafficking in food stamp benefits. A recent case in Klamath Falls resulted in charges being filed against 65 people. Most of the charges accused defendants of illegally taking cash instead of food by selling their Oregon Trail cards to a Klamath Falls meat market for 50 cents on the dollar. Defendants presumably were able to sell cards more than once because every time they reported a card missing, a replacement card would be issued.

Under the terms of House Bill 2392, the replacement cards now will include the name of the recipient - which will make the cards much less attractive to anyone interested in committing fraud. It’s a common-sense type of reform, as evidenced by the big margins by which the bill passed the Legislature. This wasn’t the sort of bill that got hung up in the partisan squabbling that dominated the headlines during the course of the session.

And, best of all, House Bill 2392 won’t take even one dollar of benefits away from anyone who legitimately needs a bit of help to feed their families.

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