- Associated Press - Monday, June 8, 2015

The (Corvallis) Gazette-Times, June 4, on a state bill affecting cats and dogs

In the early days of a legislative session, you might hear legislators talk about “cats and dogs,” and it’s not a reference to animals.

Rather, the phrase refers to a certain type of bill that flourishes in the first half of a session. A “cat and dog” bill tends to be on a specific and narrow topic that often is close to the heart of a particular legislator. Each session tends to generate a lot of these bills - hence the phrase “cats and dogs.” Many of them are silly. Some of them generate some press coverage because they often tend to cover unusual topics.

And most of them die in the first few weeks of a session - a useful reminder that one of the important functions of a Legislature is to kill bills.

So it was surprising to learn this week that a “cat and dog” bill still is very much alive in this session - and that the bill deals with actual cats and dogs.

House Bill 3494, which passed the House of Representatives last month, would ban the declawing of cats. The bill also would ban devocalizing both cats and dogs. (A Senate panel is scheduled to consider the bill on Thursday.)

If the bill passes, Oregon would become the first state to ban declawing of cats, although a bill that would make declawing a crime is pending in the New York Legislature, according to a story in The Oregonian newspaper.

Let us get right to the point, so to speak: We generally do not believe cats should be declawed, except under very rare circumstances. (The bill allows three exceptions: if the cat’s life is at risk, if the cat’s clawing poses a risk to the cat or its owner and if other efforts to curb a cat’s destructiveness have failed.) We have similar reservations about devocalizing animals, both cats and dogs.

But we also don’t think the Legislature should be in the business of mandating this issue on behalf of pet owners.

Although House Bill 3494 has attracted support from organizations such as the Oregon Humane Society, not all like-minded organizations think the bill is a good idea.

In fact, The Oregonian noted that a group called The Paw Project (a group that’s devoted to ending declawing) is against the bill. The group worries that the bill as currently written offers too many exceptions.

It’s also possible that one unintended result of the bill might be an increase in the number of cats relinquished to shelters because of destructive clawing; it would be ironic if a bill designed to protect feline welfare ended up generating a spike in the number of cats put to death.

Finally, though, we don’t see the compelling reason why legislators should get involved in the issue. At this point in the session, these “cat and dog” bills can serve as a real distraction from bigger issues. That’s why these bills, as cute as they may be, are best settled in the early days of the session, not when the clock is ticking toward adjournment.


The (Coos Bay) World, June 4, on the Public Employees Retirement System fund

State Treasurer Ted Wheeler is a frustrated man these days.

Investing funds for the Public Employees Retirement System is one of his numerous responsibilities. Last month’s state Supreme Court decision overturned the majority of PERS cuts that the Legislature passed in 2013, meaning pension liabilities will increase by about $5 billion.

That money will have to come from local government and school district coffers, meaning less money for city and school needs.

And here’s where Wheeler’s frustration comes in. He has less than optimal control over how PERS investments are made to make the fund grow.

For the third year in a row, Wheeler has tried to sell legislators his “Investment Modernization Act.” The act would allow the treasury to pay fewer Wall Street investment managers and instead perform many management functions more cheaply in-house.

But the Legislature doesn’t like the idea. Lawmakers are still bristling over the Cover Oregon fiasco last year. Gov. John Kitzhaber’s administration allowed the health insurance project to fail spectacularly, and lawmakers aren’t eager to cede any additional oversight authority.

That’s too bad. Outside audits prepared for the Treasury over the last three years show potential savings of $80 million to $90 million a year in costs to the fund. Reinvested over time those savings would accrue to about $2.8 billion over 20 years.

According to Wheeler’s spokesman, Michael Cox, if the Investment Modernization Act were passed, “we are confident we could achieve immediate savings of $22 million per year, which would accrue to nearly $1 billion over 20 years.”

What Wheeler is asking for is the autonomy and flexibility to act on investment markets similar to that exercised by the $50 billion Alaska Permanent Fund Corp., the entity that generates that famous $1,000 average annual dividend to each and every Alaska resident. The state-owned corporation is run by a six-member board of trustees and a staff of about 35 managers, all of whom operate independently from the legislature. All lawmakers do is sit back and watch the fund earn on average of 10 percent annually.

We think Oregon lawmakers should follow suit. Give the treasurer some broken-field running room. We think they could learn to enjoy sitting back and simply watching a home-managed fund grow impressively, year after year. We know taxpayers would prefer that. So would PERS recipients.


The (Bend) Bulletin, June 7, on state mileage taxes

Oregon’s highways need help. So, too, do city streets and county roads. All are funded, at least in part, by money from the state Highway Fund, and it’s taking in less than it used to.

It’s no wonder, then, that the Oregon Department of Transportation is looking for alternatives to the state fuel taxes motorists pay every time they fill their gas tanks.

The most likely option under discussion is a 1.5-cent mileage tax, which will be tested by some 5,000 motorists this summer. Assuming the test goes well, the state then faces perhaps its largest hurdle: It must sell the tax to a majority of taxpayers or face the possibility of losing a potential referendum vote on it.

So far, polling on the likely change has shown decidedly mixed results.

There are good reasons, however, for Oregonians to favor the switch, assuming testing goes well. Chief among them: The state simply does not have the money to keep its roadways in shape.

The highway fund, which supplies about 60 percent of money for road maintenance and improvement in Oregon, comes largely from fuel taxes on cars and light trucks and from weight/mile taxes paid by large carriers. It also receives title and registration fees and those paid on drivers licenses.

But by the end of this year, state fuel tax revenue will have fallen by 7 percent in the last five years, and that trend is expected to continue.

Even today’s gas guzzlers are more efficient than their ancestors, and the growing use of hybrid and all-electric vehicles have combined to drive fuel tax revenue down. Federal fuel taxes are dropping for similar reasons.

The mileage tax offers what appears to be the best way to make up for lost revenue, and Oregon has worked with the ACLU to lessen privacy concerns about tracking mileage.

Oregon drivers - and voters - need to know that. They need to know, too, that a mileage tax will not simply become a new way to extract money from reluctant taxpayers.

And they need to be taught just how bad highways will become if State Highway Fund revenue continues to drop.


The Oregonian, June 7, on renovation tax credit for historic buildings

When it comes to money, the message from Salem these days could not be more clear: We ain’t got enough! The Legislature’s K-12 education budget pleased no one, and the state’s universities and community colleges have argued for greater generosity, too. Meanwhile, Rep. Tobias Read, D-Beaverton, has introduced a bill to grab income tax “kicker” rebates projected to top $470 million. And then, of course, there’s the looming budget hammer of the state’s public pension system, which will drop painfully during the 2017-19 biennium and beyond.

Given present and future budgetary pressures, lawmakers this session must take particular pains to distinguish between wants and needs when dipping into the public’s wallet, especially when it comes to new programs. The same level of scrutiny should apply regardless of the number of zeros on a program’s price tag or the good intentions of its backers.

That’s a long way of saying Senate Bill 565 should die in the Joint Committee on Tax Credits, where the Senate Committee on Finance and Revenue sent it March 24 by a unanimous vote.

The bill, promoted ardently by the nonprofit Restore Oregon, would establish a fund to subsidize the restoration of historic properties. The state would fill the fund by auctioning off tax credits to individuals and businesses, and property owners would be able to apply for up to 25 percent of the cost of eligible renovation projects. Eligible properties would be those listed or deemed suitable for listing on the National Register of Historic Places, but would not include buildings used primarily for single-family housing. Total tax credits would be capped at $24 million per biennium, and no single project could receive more than $2 million.

A state-level subsidy is necessary, backers argue, because seismic vulnerability and modern code requirements make old buildings expensive to renovate. The costs make many projects too expensive to pursue even with existing subsidies, including a federal historic tax credit that covers up to 20 percent of eligible renovation costs. Turbocharging the subsidy pool, backers argue, would create jobs and revitalize neighborhoods while preserving structures with both historic and aesthetic value. Everybody wins!

Except, of course, for those who lose. That $24 million per biennium would be pulled from public services supported by income taxes, the most prominent of which is public education - which, everyone seems to agree, didn’t get enough this session even though plenty of tax revenue is rolling into state coffers to trigger the kicker.

Some may argue that diverting several million dollars per year from public schools to historic buildings is fine because the education budget is so big. What’s a few million here and there, right? Well, a few million here and there is still a few million, and supporters of the diversion ought to make the same case as those seeking to divert, say, $100 million: Why is this a higher and better use of public funds than the things the money otherwise would support? As much as we and others may like old buildings, that’s a very difficult case to make.

Oregonians may - and will - debate renovation subsidies even without a statewide tax credit. But such debates should be local. If elected leaders in Portland, Astoria or Pendleton consider the redevelopment of certain historic buildings important enough to nudge along, they should make the case to their constituents for the appropriate incentives. By contrast, the so-called Revitalize Main Street Act operates on the assumption that renovations in Portland, Astoria, Pendleton - wherever - are so important to those communities that schools across the state should pay for them. Really?


The (Eugene) Register-Guard, June 7, on limiting campaign contributions

Oregonians have voted in favor of campaign contribution limits three times, with the earliest measure winning approval in 1908. Each attempt was eventually spiked by the state Supreme Court on grounds that the Oregon Constitution provides bullet-proof protection for free speech, including the kind in which money does the talking. Campaign contribution limits pass constitutional muster in 44 states and at the federal level, but not in Oregon. Voters deserve a chance to say whether that should be changed.

Senate Joint Resolution 5 would provide that opportunity. It would place on the November 2016 ballot a proposal to add a simple amendment to the state Constitution: “The Legislative Assembly, or the people through the initiative process, may enact laws limiting or prohibiting contributions made in connection with political campaigns.”

That’s it. SJR 5 does not ask legislators to establish specific limits on campaign contributions. It doesn’t require that they endorse limits of any kind. Approval of SJR 5 would mean nothing more than that the Legislature believes the voters ought to decide whether to remove the constitutional impediment that blocks contribution limits.

A separate piece of legislation, Senate Bill 75, would set specific limits that would take effect if SJR 5 is approved. The proposed limits are equal to those in federal law: Individual donors could give up to $2,600 to candidates, and political action committees could give up to $5,000.

Those limits sound about right, but Gov. Kate Brown has a better idea: On Wednesday she asked the Legislature to create a task force to recommend appropriate contribution limits.

Brown, at whose behest SJR 5 was introduced while she was secretary of state, called for the task force after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, in a May 26 ruling, tossed out Montana’s contribution limits on grounds that they were too low - a maximum of $170, for instance, for individual donations to legislative candidates. Because no limits could take effect until after the voters laid the constitutional groundwork late next year, Oregon has plenty of time to consider what the appropriate limits would be.

But the task force would have a deadline. Oregon’s last attempt to limit campaign contributions came in 2006, when voters faced a pair of initiatives - a constitutional amendment to allow limits, and a statutory proposal establishing specific limits. The first measure failed and the second passed, leaving Oregon with a statutory set of contribution limits that has no constitutional authority. The statute would take effect if SJR 5 were approved, which means Brown’s task force would have to bring its recommendations to the 2016 Legislature if changes in the 2006 limits are needed.

The split 2006 vote is evidence of Oregonians’ healthy wariness of proposals that might weaken the free-speech protections their constitution provides. But SJR 5 would not place an asterisk alongside the ironclad guarantees in Article I, Oregon’s Bill of Rights. It would amend Article II, which deals with elections.

There’s also reason to scale back hopes that SJR 5 would reduce the amount of money in politics. Contribution limits are no panacea; if one door is closed, money will find its way into the political system through another. The U.S. Supreme Court, with its 2010 Citizens United decision, threw one door wide open by prohibiting limits on political spending by independent groups whose activities are supposedly not associated with candidates’ campaigns - even when it’s clear that candidates and independent groups are moving with the unspoken coordination of a synchronized swimming team.

But while there’s reason to doubt that SJR 5 would restore Oregon politics to some imagined golden age of political purity, there is strong evidence that the lack of limits on campaign donations has unwanted effects. According to The (Portland) Oregonian, legislative campaigns in Oregon are the second most costly in the nation on a per-capita basis, trailing only New Jersey. The National Institute on Money in State Politics lists Oregon as having the 12th-highest spending on legislative races in 2010. All 11 states with higher spending had larger populations than Oregon.

Expensive campaigns are good for no one but big donors. Candidates who are forced to raise large amounts of money to mount competitive races find themselves beholden to a few powerful groups and wealthy individuals. The voices of those who contribute only a little or nothing are drowned out. The Legislature should give Oregonians a chance to decide whether ensure that more voices are heard in campaigns, and approve SJR 5.

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