- Associated Press - Monday, July 27, 2015

The (Medford) Mail Tribune, July 21, on supporting the use of electric vehicles:

Official statistics indicate state-installed fast-charging stations for electric vehicles have recorded 30,000 uses in three years. That might sound impressive, but a closer look reveals traffic on the West Coast Electric Highway is a far cry from bumper-to-bumper. Still, the charging network was installed to encourage more use, not in response to existing demand. Patience is called for.

The 30,000-charge figure looks less imposing when you realize that there are 44 charging stations scattered around the state, and only about 6,000 electric vehicles registered in Oregon so far. Over three years, that’s 10,000 charges a year, so those 6,000 vehicles used a state charging station less than twice a year on average.

Of course, some stations saw more use than others. The top station, in Portland, saw nearly 3,000 uses. The station in Ashland recorded 917, the most of any station in this region and 11th of the 44 statewide.

Electric vehicles offer emission-free travel at a fraction of the cost of gasoline, although the purchase price is higher than gas-powered cars. Range is also a concern that may keep sales down. Most electric vehicles can travel only about 100 miles between charges, and take 20 to 30 minutes to recharge at the quick-charge stations. Home charging models can take up to 12 hours for a full charge.

So driving an electric car at this point means being willing to put up with a certain amount of inconvenience - rather like owners of the first automobiles, who had to carefully plan trips to be sure of finding fuel when they needed it. Still, cars improved steadily, and it wasn’t long before filling stations sprouted nearly everywhere.

Critics will decry the expense - about $100,000 per charging station - as a waste of taxpayers’ dollars to benefit an elite few. But if there are no charging stations, electric vehicles will never become a viable alternative to the internal combustion engine. And the private sector is pitching in, too, installing charging stations separate from the state network.

Electric cars may be few in number now, but that number is growing rapidly, more than doubling from July 2013 to July 2014. Improvements in technology should extend the range of these vehicles, and sticker prices will come down as used vehicles become available.

Meanwhile, investing now in the infrastructure to support alternative fueled vehicles makes sense.

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The Bend Bulletin, July 22, on funding for affordable housing:

Gov. Kate Brown pushed a landmark request in the Oregon Legislature: $100 million for affordable housing.

It didn’t happen.

The amount approved by the Legislature was $42.5 million - or $62.5 million if you include $20 million in housing for people with mental illness.

That $42 million plus could still help thousands of families. But there should be real concern about the state’s ability to put the money to work and how fairly the money will be allocated.

Both Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, and Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, raised questions about how well the state has been using the money it already has. The state created a document recording fee in 2009. It generated about $59 million for affordable housing.

But the state has only spent over half that. The rest of the money for affordable housing was not doing anybody any good.

Margaret Van Vliet, director of the state agency in charge - Oregon Housing and Community Services, has pledged to do better at, you know, building affordable housing. And it would also be good if there were a way to reduce its administrative costs. Even Van Vliet said she thought the program’s 10 percent administrative costs are high.

The Legislature is going to have to continue to keep a close eye on the agency. Some legislators tried to pass a bill, House Bill 2198, requiring the agency to do more regular reporting about what it’s doing and ensure that it distributes money according to relative need. The bill failed in the last days of the Legislature.

That could be an additional concern for Central Oregon. For instance, Deschutes County had contributed about $4 million to the fund. And in return, it has received only about $700,000 in projects financed.

Brown told KATU in Portland that the additional money for affordable housing is “an incredible success. That’s a historic level of funding for Oregon and for the nation.” We wouldn’t call it an incredible success, yet. The state needs to prove it can do much better than it has in using the money effectively.

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The Oregonian, July 23, on mental health housing:

One of the big wins coming out of the legislative session this year is one that has received only modest notice: authorization for $20 million in lottery bond proceeds to be spent on mental health housing.

Mental health is one of those needs that can absorb millions of dollars like a sponge without showing any sign of saturation. But the commitment is a significant infusion of cash that addresses one of the critical missing links identified by many health advocates: Housing equals stability - the key ingredient for people with mental health issues to be able to manage their illnesses and lead productive lives.

That this would fall under the radar isn’t that surprising, however, considering the attitudes that Senate President Peter Courtney sees on a regular basis. While people readily agree that mental health care should be a priority, it’s much harder to get anyone to do anything, Courtney, D-Salem, told The Oregonian/OregonLive editorial board.

“People will talk about cancer and all these other diseases but they don’t like to talk about if their child has mental illness or their aunt or their cousin or brother or sister,” he said. “If we dealt with mental illness as aggressively as we deal with our physical illnesses, the effect on the workplace, the effect on domestic relationships, and on every day lives would be unbelievable.”

Credit Courtney for championing the effort and for the necessary horse trading to make it happen. The effort, also backed by Gov. Kate Brown, is “unprecedented” and reflects the state’s willingness to use bonds for housing in the communities where people live - not just for building central institutions like the Oregon State Hospital, said Chris Bouneff, the executive director for the Oregon office of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Now comes the hard part - figuring out how to use the money in communities throughout the state in the most effective ways. Here are a few guiding principles as the state and mental health advocates prepare to work out the details:

Make “one size does not fit all” the mantra: “Housing” must be defined broadly and with flexibility to serve the specific needs of a community. For example, in Roseburg, the community might best use the money to build “respite” housing for those experiencing a mental health crisis instead of parking them in jail. The idea here is that someone could benefit from a very short-term housing placement that allows them to regain some stability. Meanwhile, Portland advocates may see a bigger need in building more long-term housing developments that dedicate a certain percentage to those who have been referred by a mental health provider.

Track the progress of newly funded mental-health housing developments: The Legislature in 2014 authorized $5 million from tobacco settlement money to be used for mental-health housing. The money administered by Oregon Health Authority funded both long-term housing and rent assistance and several projects are underway around the state, according to Bouneff. The projects paired public dollars with private investment to stretch the pot of money, which is necessary when you’re talking about units costing as much as $100,000 apiece to build, notes Kevin McChesney, the regional operations director for Telecare Corp. and president of the Oregon Residential Provider Association.

Don’t try to rush development if the expertise or capacity just isn’t there: While Courtney emphatically said that “it better get done,” the bill summary’s language smartly allows leftover money not spent during the biennium to potentially be available in the next. While the need throughout the state is high, communities should ensure that they are spending funds smartly, not just quickly.

Let expertise, not egos, shape strategy: Oregon Housing and Community Services is the lead agency, but the Legislature is directing it to work with Oregon Health Authority and mental health groups in funding housing projects. While OHCA has the expertise on housing, it needs to give mental health experts a strong hand in steering the effort. All of those involved need to work to avoid the “turf wars” that Courtney said have been problems in the past.

Build in clear ways to measure success: The $20 million is a significant investment, but the state will need to do more in the future to really start meeting the enormous demand. Planners need to select and attach metrics to projects that can show in concrete terms how the investment is filling the need and helping those with mental health illnesses. That success will be the best argument for future investments.

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The (Albany) Democrat-Herald, July 27, on employers’ reaction to the legalization of marijuana:

One of the bigger questions surrounding the legalization of marijuana in Oregon was how employers would react to the possibility that workers would, you know, actually smoke the stuff now that it was legal.

Well, it’s fair to say that there’s still plenty of confusion surrounding the issue, which is why three sessions recently sponsored by The Corvallis Clinic regarding marijuana in the workplace drew standing-room-only crowds.

It’s also fair to say that employers with strong anti-drug policies aren’t showing much inclination to waver.

Which potentially is a problem for employees curious about legal marijuana, especially considering that tetrahydrocannabinol (you know it better as THC, the active ingredient in pot), can linger in the body for weeks. In that regard, it’s not like alcohol, which the body metabolizes in a matter of hours.

So consider the case of Cyd Maurer, the former weekend news anchor at Eugene’s KEZI television station, who got herself fired after testing positive for marijuana.

Maurer said she got into a minor accident while on assignment for KEZI on May 22 and was ordered to undergo a drug test, as required by corporate policy. She says she had consumed cannabis within a week of the accident, but was not under the influence when she went to work. (There’s no reason to doubt her on this point; remember that, even though a marijuana test will detect if someone has used pot in the recent past, it won’t offer any indications as to whether someone is impaired.)

The test came back positive. That violated the company’s anti-drug policy. She was fired. End of story.

The case involving Maurer took place in May, before the July 1 date when recreational use of marijuana in Oregon became legal. But here’s how that story would have played out if it had occurred after July 1:

The test came back positive. That violated the company’s anti-drug policy. She was fired. End of story.

Well, except for the hundreds of times a similar story will play out in Oregon over the next couple of years.

Here’s the takeaway for employees in Oregon: You have the legal right to consume marijuana. But, if marijuana use is banned by your company, the company can fire you if you test positive. That means if you work for one of those companies, you’re going to want to check to see exactly what your company’s drug policy says. (If you’re an employer, this would be a good time to review your drug policy.)

Don’t expect the courts to drive much change in this area: Judges in a number of states consistently have sided with employers.

Granted, this all could change, especially if efforts to legalize pot at the federal level ever gain much ground. (That seems inevitable, but not in the immediate future.) So for now at least, the early lines drawn by businesses toward marijuana use seem clear.

In the meantime, Maurer says she’s interested in pursuing a career as a marijuana activist. That seems like it might work out: After all, the signs suggest that marijuana in Oregon is a growth industry.

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The (Eugene) Register-Guard, July 27, on mandatory GMO labeling:

After the narrow defeat of Oregon Ballot Measure 92 last year, it seemed a foregone conclusion that the initiative’s supporters would return with another proposal to require the labeling of foods containing genetically modified organisms, or GMOs.

Despite a record $20 million spent by agribusiness giants, the measure lost by 837 votes - 49.97 percent yes, 50.03 percent no. It was the closest vote on a statewide ballot measure in more than half a century.

Measure 92’s defeat came after voters in Washington state and California narrowly rejected GMO labeling measures in 2013 and 2012. (Mandatory labeling laws have passed in Vermont, Connecticut and Maine.) With polls showing the vast majority of Americans favor the idea of GMO labeling, proponents were gearing up to return in Oregon and other states with new measures based on the premise that people should be given the information they need to make their own decisions about GMOs.

That may not happen if Congress passes a bill that would block state and local laws requiring food labels to disclose genetically engineered ingredients. The Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2015 (House Resolution 1599) also would create a federal standard for the voluntary labeling of foods. The bill, which the House approved by a 250-175 vote on Thursday, has bipartisan support, and now moves on to the Senate.

The legislation could affect more than mandatory labeling. The House Agriculture Committee approved changes that would also pre-empt local and state governments from regulating any new technologies related to production of GMO crops. Critics say that language could pre-empt voter-approved bans on GMO crops and local laws that require buffers between GMO fields and non-GMO fields, as well as schools and hospitals.

Oregon’s Jackson County approved a measure banning GMO crops in 2013, a move that prompted the state Legislature to bar other counties from adopting similar bans. Supporters of H.R. 1599 deny the bill would apply to anything other than labeling.

The debate over GMOs is hardly a new one. GMOs have had a growing presence in the nation’s food supply for two decades. About 90 percent of the corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the United States is genetically engineered to require less water or to be less vulnerable to pests.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Medical Association, the World Health Organization - and the U.S. government - have all declared that the GMOs currently on the market are safe for human consumption.

But such assurances haven’t stopped many consumers from wanting to know what they’re eating, and they have every right to demand greater transparency by the food industry about what’s in their food, whether it’s hormones or antibiotics or trans fats - or GMOs.

Critics question the validity of safety studies conducted on GMOs. They are also cautious about what directions genetic engineers will take in the future, as new and more exotic genes are inserted into foods to increase growth rates, enhance disease and drought resistance, boost nutritional content, add flavor and provide other characteristics.

Sixty-four countries already require GMO information on food labels, and Congress should not bar states and communities in this country from doing the same.

The Senate should reject H.R. 1599. And if they pass this bill, President Obama should veto it and make good on his pledge on the campaign trail in 2007 when he promised “We’ll let folks know whether their food has been genetically modified.”


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