- Associated Press - Monday, April 4, 2016

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers.

Albany Democrat-Herald, March 28, on what Kitzhaber is up to

If you’ve been scratching your head over former Gov. John Kitzhaber’s sort-of return to the public eye in the last few weeks, well, join the club.

Kitzhaber, who resigned as governor in February 2015 amidst allegations that his fiancé, Cylvia Hayes, was using her position as first lady to land consulting work, recently started a Facebook page and posted on it an intriguing little three-minute video in which he noted that “politics can be a rough neighborhood” but was nevertheless confident that he eventually would be cleared of any wrongdoing.

“When the truth is known, and the current investigation is complete,” he says on the video, “the public will know that I was not involved in any wrongdoing.”

Kitzhaber, who just turned 69, also sat for an interview with Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Jeff Mapes, who’s covered the former governor for years. That interview covered pretty much the same ground as the video.

On the video, Kitzhaber also lambastes media coverage of the allegations that led to his resignation: “I can’t sit any longer and allow my career and my reputation to be defined by a media narrative that from the start has been long on speculation and short on facts.”

But, you know, this kind of media bashing is almost de rigueur these days for politicians; it seems to be working OK for Donald Trump, so why not Kitzhaber?

It all has the feel of a carefully orchestrated campaign to slip back into the public eye. And it could well be exactly what Kitzhaber says: He’s looking for paying work. In the interview with OPB’s Mapes, he did say that he had no plans to run for public office, but is looking for other opportunities to lead.

“Obviously, you know, I am looking for a way to contribute,” he told Mapes. “I’m also trying to figure out what my career path from a financial standpoint is going to be. And, as I said, I do think that will involve some consulting. And if you’re going to do some consulting, people need to know you’re alive and well.”

It would help as well if people knew that he wasn’t under the shadow of a federal investigation and then, in theory, a state ethics inquiry that could resume as soon as the federal probe is resolved. To be fair, the federal investigation appears to be taking its time - and Kitzhaber told Mapes that he still hadn’t been interviewed by federal agents, a disclosure which leaves us with two questions: First, what’s taking so long with the investigation? And second, wouldn’t it be better for Kitzhaber to wait for his public re-emergence until he was sure that he wasn’t going to face federal charges?

In any event, Kitzhaber’s career already has slipped the lie to that well-worn F. Scott Fitzgerald bromide about how there are no second acts in American lives. (Of course, that’s not exactly what Fitzgerald meant, but never mind.) Nowadays, apparently, third (and fourth) acts of American lives get started via social media - videos posted on Facebook pages, interviews granted to selected journalists, a Tweet here and there.

“I still have some fuel in the tank and some runway ahead,” Kitzhaber says in the video.

But only time (and a handful of federal investigators) will tell if Kitzhaber’s foray back into Oregon’s public life will blossom into a yet another act in the career of one of Oregon’s most fascinating public figures - or is destined to crash on takeoff.


The (Medford) Mail-Tribune, April 1, on a proposed solar form

A proposed solar farm north of Medford may be a first for the Rogue Valley, but it’s not a first for Oregon and it certainly won’t be the last. Renewable energy is the wave of the future.

The photovoltaic array proposed for a 68-acre property between Highway 62 and Foothill Road north of Vilas Road will include solar panels on 44 acres, designed to track the sun, generating almost 10 megawatts, enough to power 1,975 homes.

While residential solar panels are common here, thanks to the abundant sunshine, this would be the first commercial installation. That’s a trend that will continue and probably accelerate as solar generation becomes more competitive with traditional fossil-fuel technologies.

On average, solar power cost $200 per megawatt-hour last year, according to the International Energy Agency based in Paris. That was still double the cost of natural gas, coal and nuclear generating plants - but it was down from $500 per megawatt-hour just five years before. And solar costs are continuing to fall. An IEA study released last year predicted commercial solar generation would be less than $100 per megawatt-hour by 2025.

At the same time, the cost of fossil-fuel generation is rising, a trend that is expected to continue. Coal, especially, will increase in cost as plants are required to capture carbon emissions - raising prices by perhaps as much as 70 percent.

Given that reality, the legislation enacted this session in Salem requiring Oregon’s two largest utilities to end their reliance on coal power makes sense.

Solar generation isn’t just better for the environment; it means jobs for Oregonians. The Solar Energy Industries Association, a trade group, says 150 companies are operating in various parts of the solar industry in Oregon, employing 3,000 people in manufacturing, contracting, project development and installation.

Those numbers should increase steadily as solar farms proliferate. Expect to see more of them here in one of the sunnier parts of the state.


The (Bend) Bulletin, April 2, on managing national forests in Oregon

The state of Oregon signed a new agreement this week that should bring more cooperation between the state and the federal government in managing national forests.

Every summer as the wildfires race through the national forests and the air in Bend gets smoky, it’s tempting to throw up your hands and think the federal government is never going to get forest management right.

But this agreement - officiously named Oregon Good Neighbor Authority Master Agreement - could make a bit of difference. The state and the federal government already work together on projects in Oregon. This will enable them to do more.

What kinds of things do they do? Here are a few examples:

Oregon has committed $7.9 million to help the federal government do projects on federal lands in the state.

The Oregon Department of Forestry is planning to use seasonal firefighters and contractors to do forest thinning on 200 acres outside of Lakeview on the Fremont-Winema National Forest. Federal timber sales money will help cover the costs.

In the watershed of the John Day River, national forest staff members are going to be getting help from the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife and others to protect fish. They’ll be doing things like installing screens on irrigation diversions to keep fish from getting sucked in.

But hold it.

Doesn’t this mean that the federal government isn’t doing enough to manage federal land?

Yes, it does.

But if Oregon doesn’t do something about it, it means more wildfire risk, it means more challenges with endangered species, it means less revenue for what could be a thriving sustainable industry in wood products.

There is still going to be wildfire, smoke in the air and wasted resources. This is another step, though, toward making things a bit better.


The Oregonian, April 1, on the right to work

Prior to Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia’s death, it was easy for Oregonians to overlook a “right to work” ballot measure proposed by Portland-area attorney Jill Gibson. The court appeared ready during oral arguments in January to prohibit public sector unions from imposing fees on nonmembers, as Gibson seeks to do. A slim majority of justices, in fact, all but invited this challenge to coerced contributions in their resolution of a related case two years earlier. Given the long approach of a seemingly inevitable outcome, Gibson’s initiative appeared to be little more than an insurance policy against the unexpected.

The unexpected happened in Texas a month and a half ago, and the consequences are unfolding. The eight remaining justices announced Tuesday that they’d deadlocked on the right to work case argued in January, leaving public sector unions free in many states to continue extracting money from workers who don’t want to join. Public employees in Oregon who object to such coercion will now have to look to the ballot box rather than the court for relief.

The right to work fight is largely a debate about the lesser of two evils. One is mooching, and the other is the violation of employees’ First Amendment protections. In many states, including Oregon, public sector unions may collect money from non-members who hold jobs covered by collective bargaining - think public school teachers. Employees in such positions don’t have to belong to the union itself, but they must pay fees in lieu of dues. Such fees are appropriate, the thinking goes, because even nonmembers in covered positions benefit from the bargaining and representation of the union they are compelled to support. The alternative would be to allow free-ridership, in which nonmembers enjoy the benefits of bargaining and representation without paying any of the costs.

On the other hand, compelling nonmembers to contribute money to public sector unions creates significant First Amendment problems. The California teachers who brought the challenge upon which the Supreme Court deadlocked argued that bargaining with a government body is an inherently political act given the issues involved and the effects on finite public dollars. Justice Anthony Kennedy echoed this sentiment, arguing that, “When you are dealing with a governmental agency, many critical points are matters of public concern. And is it not true that many teachers strongly, strongly disagree with the union position on teacher tenure, on merit pay, on merit promotion, on classroom size?”

The union, Kennedy argued, “basically is making these teachers ‘compelled riders’ for issues on which they strongly disagree.”

Compelling people to support positions with which they disagree is a greater affront than allowing for the possibility of free-ridership. Not only does the former run up against the Constitution’s free speech protections, but the latter does nothing more than require unions to make a case for the contributions they now may compel. Public sector employees are plenty smart enough to understand the consequences attached to their pocketbook decisions. And giving them that choice is not, as some like to claim, “anti-worker.” It’s just the opposite.

Nonetheless, the possibility of allowing free-ridership can be a serious problem for anyone seeking reform via the ballot. It’s far easier, and perhaps more effective, for opponents to yell “moochers” repeatedly than it is to explain the First Amendment problems with forced union contributions. For that reason, Gibson’s initiative seeks to eliminate the possibility of free-ridership. Independent employees - those who wished neither to join a public sector union nor contribute to one - would be treated as if they did not belong to a bargaining unit, and their pay and benefits would not be determined by union contracts. They wouldn’t have to make forced contributions to public sector unions, and they wouldn’t benefit from the work unions do.

Gibson knows of no precedent for such an arrangement to prevent free-ridership, but believes it would work just fine. Not all public employees in Oregon are represented by a union, she says, including those who work for the state Supreme Court, which has yet to rule on a number of challenges to the initiative’s ballot title. (The same goes, in fact, for the rest of the Oregon Judicial Department, which includes the Court of Appeals and circuit courts.) If the measure passes, says Gibson, the compensation of employees who are now compelled to pay fair share dues would be based on merit rather than a contract bargained by a union.

Antonin Scalia’s death may have stalled the right to work debate in Washington, D.C., but that makes initiatives like Gibson’s even more crucial. Most people can agree that protecting the rights of public employees is a good thing, as is empowering them to make decisions about the use of their money. If these goals can be accomplished without contributing to free-ridership, so much the better.


The (Eugene) Register-Guard, April 3, on financial aid for college students

Oregon’s decision to change the way it awards the Oregon Opportunity Grant to college students - shifting from a first-come, first-served basis to one that favors students with the greatest need - was the right one, in line with the intent of the grants.

The program, originally called the Oregon Need Grant, was set up by the state Legislature in 1971 to help needy students attend community colleges and public and private four-year colleges within Oregon.

It is Oregon’s largest state-funded, need-based grant program for college students. In the 2014-15 academic year, it awarded a total of $57.3 million to more than 36,000 students.

But, under the first-come method of awarding grants, there was no guarantee that the money would indeed go to the neediest students. In fact, the neediest students were less likely to get help because they tended to apply later, after the money had run out, higher education officials found.

Eligibility for the Opportunity Grant is based on financial need, as determined by family income and household size. Students from families with up to $70,000 in adjusted gross income per year - meaning income after specific deductions have been taken - are eligible to apply.

Until now, the deck was stacked in favor of students from families with the financial savvy and ability to apply early, before the money ran out.

One of the hurdles facing students applying for the Opportunity Grant, for example, is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, or FAFSA. That form requires, among other things, the most recent tax information from the student’s family. But employers have until Jan. 31 to provide W-2 forms to employees for the previous year. If students were to have a shot at getting any of the grant money under the first-come system, they needed to apply by early February.

Families with financial know-how - or who employed an accountant - could estimate with some degree of accuracy the numbers needed for the FAFSA, even if they didn’t have a W-2 form, and file an amended form later - allowing them to file early and jump to the head of the grant line.

Oregon is among the 10 states with the largest expenditures on need-based grants (and no merit requirements) for college students, according to a study done in 2014 for the Washington State Legislature.

But Oregon received an F on its report card for college affordability a few years ago from the nonprofit National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education, because there wasn’t enough help for needy students.

“Financial aid to low-income students is low,” the center wrote. “For every dollar in (federal) Pell Grant aid to students, the state spends only 24 cents. Poor and working-class families must devote 44 percent of their income, even after aid, to pay for costs at two-year colleges.”

Oregon’s definition of needy when it comes to financial aid is a fairly generous one. The unadjusted median household income for the state was $51,075 in 2014, according to the most recent Census figures. Families with incomes up to almost 140 percent of the state’s median income are eligible to apply for Oregon’s need-based grant program.

Washington state’s comparable program, the State Need Grant, for example, is weighted toward students from the poorest families. Students from families where incomes are less than half of the median adjusted gross income for the state are eligible for the full grants offered by the program. Those with family incomes that are 50 to 70 percent of the state’s median family income are eligible for partial grants.

An analysis of the impact of the State Need Grant, done in 2014 at the request of the Washington Legislature, confirmed that the model gave the state the most bang for the buck, in terms of both enrollment and graduation rates for students who might not otherwise earn college degrees.

The Oregon Legislature’s decision to change the method used to award the Opportunity Grant may be a difficult one to swallow for middle class families feeling squeezed between the wealthy, who don’t need financial help, and low-income families, who are now first in line for grants.

But the Legislature also increased funding for the Opportunity Grant in the 2015-17 biennium by almost 24 percent, dedicating $140.9 million to the program. It estimates that it will allow another 16,000 people to receive grants as a result, which may soften the blow for some families relegated to a lower position on the priority list. And the University of Oregon has said that it wants to make sure that students currently receiving the grants aren’t left without aid as a result of the change - a key issue.

In the end, the Legislature made the right move, ensuring that the grants will go to the neediest students, as was intended when the program was created.

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