- Associated Press - Monday, May 18, 2015

The (Bend) Bulletin, May 15, on raising the speed limit

Oregon lawmakers are considering a measure, House Bill 3402, which would raise speed limits on Interstate 84 east of The Dalles and several other highways east of the Cascades. It should be approved.

The new limit would be 70 miles per hour for most vehicles on Interstate 84 and on U.S. Highway 95 from the Idaho border to the Nevada border. In this area, U.S. Highway 97 from its junction with U.S. 197 in Wasco County to Klamath Falls and U.S. 20 from Bend to Ontario would see speed limits raised to 65 miles per hour for most drivers.

Speed limits also would increase to 65 mph on highways from La Pine to southern Lake County, from Burns Junction in southern Malheur County northwest to Burns, from John Day to Burns and Riley to the California border, from Burns to Frenchglen and, finally, from John Day east to Vale.

The Oregon Department of Transportation does not support the bill, in part, it says, because it will make highways more dangerous. That may be true, but only if one assumes most motorists are obeying the current 55 mph speed limit.

We suspect they’re not. Personal experience leads us to believe that while most motorists in eastern Oregon try to keep their speed comfortably under 70, few actually spend much time at the designated 55 mph.

But there’s more to ODOT’s complaint than just safety. In written testimony submitted to the House Committee on Transportation and Economic Development, ODOT officials noted that they have statutory power to raise speed limits, had looked at the idea and decided not to. Nothing in the intervening 11 years has changed officials’ minds.

Again, however, there’s the reality of what is happening today. If most motorists are driving at 65, raising the speed limit and enforcing the higher limit would not make highways more dangerous in the future. That makes more sense than continuing to allow thousands of Oregonians to become lawbreakers every time they get behind the wheel of the family car.


Corvallis Gazette-Times, May 14, on fixing PERS

If Oregon government officials were looking for good news from the Supreme Court’s recent ruling rejecting most of the reforms legislators made to the state’s Public Employee Retirement System, it was hard to find.

Well, there was this sliver: The full budgetary impact of the decision won’t kick in until the start of the 2017 fiscal year.

But when the Legislature begins work on the 2017-19 budget, it will start some $319 million in the hole, according to a memo last year from the Legislative Fiscal Office. (The office was asked to assess budget implications should the Supreme Court overturn the PERS reforms.)

And that’s just for state agencies. The state’s school districts will be staring at a $358 million gap, the office concluded.

Overall, the court’s ruling wipes out most of the estimated $5 billion in system-wide accrued liabilities the reforms were expected to save. (The court ruled that it was unconstitutional to adjust cost-of-living adjustments for past service. The court said that it was OK to change those adjustments moving forward and allowed some other reforms to stand, but the ruling eliminates some 90 percent of the estimated savings.)

Considering that looming $600 million-plus budget hole, you would expect legislators to be looking hard at potential other PERS reforms to help toss at least a little dirt in the hole.

In fact, that 2014 memo from the Legislative Fiscal Office outlined some contingency options legislators could consider, including limiting some payroll costs, setting aside funding to mitigate the potential 2017-19 PERS rate increase and revisiting remaining statutory reform options.

Some of that may be taking place in Salem - work continues on the state budget, and it might be a good idea as that process goes on to earmark some additional dough for the state’s reserves.

But there appears to be no appetite in the Legislature to pursue any sort of major PERS reform.

Considering that, the least the Legislature could do would be to hope that the state’s economic recovery continues to gather steam - and to make sure that it doesn’t do anything to derail that recovery. But so far, the signs from the Legislature aren’t promising. The session already has renewed the state’s Clean Fuels Program, a decision that likely jettisoned chances for a transportation package - something that really could have boosted the economy.

Meanwhile, the Legislature continues to ponder measures that could stall the economic recovery, including minimum-wage increases and sick-leave proposals.

The Legislature’s first step toward filling this multimillion-dollar PERS hole should be to make sure that it’s not digging any deeper.


The (Eugene) Register-Guard, May 17, on prison savings

One risk of success is being taken for granted. That’s a danger the Legislature must guard against as it prepares its corrections budget for the next two years. Oregon has saved hundreds of millions of dollars by halting a once-inexorable rise in its prison population, but now may starve counties of the money they need to support the programs that made success possible.

The county programs - Sponsors in Lane County is an example - lost their leading advocate when Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned amid allegations of influence peddling by his fiancee, Cylvia Hayes. As Kitzhaber began his third term four years ago, he looked at projections of state inmate populations and saw that the rising cost of building and running prisons was consuming an ever-larger portion of the budget, squeezing spending for schools, health care and other programs, including public safety.

Kitzhaber appointed a task force to examine the problem, and the result was House Bill 3194, approved by the 2013 Legislature. The most controversial elements of the bill, then and now, allowed shorter prison sentences or early releases for some inmates. The farthest-reaching provisions of HB 3194, however, paid for county efforts to combat recidivism and divert inmates into local programs that act as alternatives to prison.

It’s working. Before HB 3194, the state inmate population was projected to grow by 1,000 inmates over a four-year period, triggering the re-opening of a prison in Madras in 2014 and the opening of a new prison in Junction City in 2017. Instead, inmate populations have leveled off and are projected to decline slightly over the next few years. Oregon has avoided an estimated $600 million in additional corrections costs over a 10-year period, with half of that going to build prisons and half to operate them.

The state has pocketed the construction savings, but HB 3194 envisioned that the money from savings in operations would be funneled to the counties to pay for alternatives to prison incarceration and to break the cycle of crime that keeps some inmates returning to prison time and again. The bill also dedicates 10 percent of the county funds to services for crime victims and, in a particularly far-sighted stroke, pays for scientific studies of which programs actually work.

Kitzhaber’s proposed budget for 2015-17 included $58 million for these programs. The co-chairmen of the Legislature’s Joint Ways and Means Committee, however, initially proposed a $20 million appropriation, which would knock the legs out from under county efforts to reduce prison populations. The co-chairmen have backed away from that draconian figure, but still haven’t agreed to full funding. Gov. Kate Brown, perhaps because she was not a part of the process that produced HB 3194 and does not appreciate the magnitude of the costs it has avoided, hasn’t stepped forward to fight for full funding.

Lane County would suffer a double blow if HB 3194 funds were reduced. The 2013 legislation built upon a concept the Legislature embraced nearly 20 years earlier when it approved Senate Bill 1145, the Community Corrections Act. The act made the counties responsible for incarceration of inmates serving relatively short sentences, and gave them the money to pay for jail cells and alternative programs like those expanded by HB 3194.

Each county’s share of Community Corrections Act funds is determined by its number of criminal prosecutions. Lane County, to a greater extent than Oregon’s other populous counties, has chronic budget problems, one consequence of which is an underfunded district attorney’s office. Lane County received 10.4 percent of statewide Community Corrections Act funds in 2005-07, but its share is now projected to be 8.3 percent - not because of a decline in crime, but because of a lack of prosecutorial capacity. A reduction in HB 3194 funds would worsen that negative feedback loop.

Lane County’s special circumstances may win sympathy in Salem, but it is the statewide effects that should spur legislative action. If the Legislature abrogates the HB 3194 bargain with the counties and the counties scale back programs that are diverting inmates away from the state prison system, Oregon will find itself back on the trajectory it so recently escaped. Prison populations would resume their rise, new prisons would be needed and the corrections budget would crowd out other state programs - including other public-safety programs.

A reach for immediate savings threatens to result in much larger medium- and long-term costs. Brown and the Legislature should support the counties’ effective and less expensive alternatives to prison and reaffirm the state’s commitment to HB 3194.


Klamath Falls Herald and News, May 18, on self-serve gas in rural areas

People living in remote areas of Oregon or traveling through them will get a break in finding gas available if the State Senate follows the lead of the Legislature’s House of Representatives.

The Oregon House unanimously approved a bill that would legalize self-service gas “stations,” which actually amounts to a pump available for use on a self-pay basis when no attendants are at the station, say in the middle of the night. It was common sense to do so and the State Senate should approve it, too, and send it on to Gov. Kate Brown. It would apply to counties with less than 40,000 population, such as Lake County (population 7,838, but not in Klamath County (population 64,455).

There are a lot of wide open spaces in Eastern Oregon. People can find themselves in trouble if not familiar with how unlikely it is for that dot 50 or 60 miles down the thin blue line on the road map to have a gas station open after 7 p.m. or, in many cases, any other time.

We doubt if the move is a significant step toward self-service gasoline in Oregon, though, and that’s too bad. We’re in favor of any way, including self-service, to sell gasoline that is safe and makes it readily available to those who need it, including those who are physically limited.

Not only would this bill benefit people passing through isolated areas, it would help farmers and ranchers and others living there even more. The State Senate should approve it.


Statesman Journal, May 18, on renovating the state Capitol

Would you spend $337 million to redo a cake that has a bowling trophy on top?

That description of the Oregon State Capitol might well send some legislators into apoplexy. But face it: The Capitol design always has been controversial. It doesn’t resemble most state capitols.

Its future could be equally controversial. A bipartisan, public committee has recommended rebuilding the Capitol so it won’t disintegrate when The Big One hits. The projected price tag: $337,043,793.

Despite the worth of the project, that price stuns many people, including the Statesman Journal Editorial Board, so we went looking for answers.

They were not hard to find. The project leaders have been upfront about the plans and the prices.

Is the Capitol in sad shape?

Yes. During spring break in 1993, a moderate earthquake shook the Mid-Valley, shaking items off shelves but generally causing little damage in central Salem. At the Capitol, however, the Rotunda cracked, the building bulged and the Golden Pioneer statue shifted.

The state invested several million dollars in repairs, but the majority of the Capitol remains seismically unsafe. Although its marble exterior presents an illusion of strength, the failure of any structural element could cause the entire building to collapse.

“Given what we know, we should close the Capitol down today. At least we should protect kids from coming in,” Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, told the Editorial Board.

The Capitol hosts 235,000 visitors each year, including 20,000 schoolchildren, along with serving the Legislature, governor, secretary of state, state treasurer and several hundred other employees.

A safer Capitol would help ensure that government still functions during a natural disaster or other crisis.

Why not just build a new capitol?

The argument for a new capitol starts with the contention that most Oregonians hold less awe for a Capitol than their politicians do.

The Capitol is less than 80 years old, which hardly counts as historic. Its art deco, dome-less design has been derided as a squirrel cage, a paint can or a cake adorned by a bowling trophy.

Although the 1930s building is among America’s newer state capitols, this would be an opportunity to design a unique contemporary capitol - and presumably at a smaller price tag.

A 2013 report to the Legislature said a “comparably-sized and seismically-safe new legislative office building could be built for between $127 (million) and $145 million, excluding land costs, site work and other expenses.”

The question would be what to do with the Capitol as it now stands. Close it and fence it off? Maintain it as a museum, block some areas from access and hope for the best?

That 2013 report from the Capitol Master Plan Review Committee estimates that rebuilding a comparable capitol, if the current one were destroyed by earthquake or fire, would cost $300 million to $475 million.

Why rebuild it?

Some buildings hold historic and practical significance. The state recently spent $600 million rebuilding the Oregon State Hospital in Salem, including preserving some historic features.

The Oregon Capitol has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1988, and this year it was ranked among the nation’s most impressive state capitols. It is arguably the best-known building in Oregon, especially beloved to schoolchildren, who in 1984 raised the money to re-gild the Golden Pioneer.

Is there a precedent?

Utah recently did a seismic retrofit of its 1916 Capitol. Oregon’s approach would be similar, putting shock absorber-style structures beneath the Capitol and making other seismic improvements. Mechanical, fire-suppression and related systems would be upgraded, as would security, since workers would be tearing through walls and ceilings anyway.

While the work is done, the Legislature and other officials would have to vacate the Capitol, probably starting after the 2016 session. The renovated PUC building - the old Sears building - would serve as a temporary Capitol.

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