- Associated Press - Monday, February 29, 2016

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers.

The (Eugene) Register-Guard, Feb. 24, on changing the gray wolf’s endangered listing

Some state legislators are attempting an end run around a legal challenge to the removal of the gray wolf from Oregon’s endangered species list.

Late last year, the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife Commission removed the gray wolf from Oregon’s endangered species list, threatening the recovery of a species that had been hunted to extinction here in the early 1900s.

Three environmental groups promptly sued, saying it was premature to remove the wolf from the protection afforded by the list. But House Bill 4040, being carried in the Legislature by Rep. Greg Barreto, R-La Grande, would make the commission’s decision to de-list the wolf a law, effectively cutting off judicial review.

The bill - which was drafted before the legislative session began - passed the House by a vote of 33 to 23, with 10 Democrats and 23 Republicans voting in favor and 23 Democrats opposed. (Two Democrats and two Republicans did not vote.)

Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio has sent a blistering letter to his fellow Democrats in the state Senate, urging them to vote against the bill.

DeFazio said it is undermining his fight to keep protections for the gray wolf in place at the federal level. He described it as an attempt to block a judicial review of the decision to de-list the wolf and called it “an extreme precedent-setting measure that should not be taken lightly… or used as a political bargaining chip.”

There are currently about 100 gray wolves in Oregon, or about 7 percent of what studies show the state could support. The species’ still-fragile recovery has occurred while wolves were under both state and federal protection.

But wolves in Eastern Oregon are now off the federal endangered species list - they were removed four years ago - and federal officials are proposing that wolves in Western Oregon also be removed. In addition, Oregon’s wolf plan is coming up for review soon, which could mean the removal of additional protections.

The main proponents for removing protection for wolves, including taking them off endangered species lists, are ranchers, especially in Eastern Oregon.

Despite ranchers’ antipathy, wolves account for very few livestock deaths, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics. In Oregon, by far the largest cause of cattle deaths is illness, including respiratory and digestive ailments, according to the USDA. The USDA suggested that, if ranchers want to reduce losses, they should prevent the introduction and spread of disease; improve preventive health and nutrition, and provide timely assistance to cows during calving season.

Of the 3 percent of cattle that were lost to predators, the main culprit was coyotes, according to the USDA. Wolves are coyotes’ natural enemies.

In areas where wolf populations have flourished under government protection, including the northern Rocky Mountains, there has not been a corresponding increase in cattle deaths, according to studies by the International Wolf Center, which notes that wolves prefer natural prey such as deer and elk.

The bill now making its way through the Legislature is an ill-advised attempt to circumvent judicial review of an equally ill-advised decision to dismantle protection for an animal that is an integral part of the Oregon ecosystem.

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The (Albany) Democrat-Herald, Feb. 26, on fifth-year programs for students

You might be thinking that there’s little chance that this short and bitter legislative session will produce anything else of substance in its final days, especially with minority Republicans doing everything they can (and not without justification) to gum up the works.

And it’s true that prospects seem bleak at this point for bills that have attracted some measure of controversy.

But bills that have benefited from ample work well before the short session began and which enjoy relatively wide support still have a shot at passing - and it’s worth remembering that just because these measures are not particularly controversial doesn’t mean they won’t make a real difference.

In that light, we were delighted to hear that a bill from Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, preserving at least some parts of the so-called fifth-year programs in place at many mid-valley high schools, passed the Senate on a 28-0 vote and now is headed to the House. (It helped that the bill’s short length - it’s only four pages long - made for relatively short reading, especially since Republicans are insisting that every bill be read aloud before any vote is taken; that requirement is in the state Constitution, but it’s usually waived by both the Senate and the House. Not so this year.)

Gelser’s bill, Senate Bill 1537, carves out a path forward for the fifth-year programs that have been pioneered by mid-valley schools. Under these programs, students who have met all the requirements for graduation opt to remain enrolled in their school districts for a fifth year while attending community college; using state school fund money, those districts cover all or some of their tuition and fees. The programs have scored some early success, particularly in helping those students (in many cases, often the first members of their families to attend college) get a head start on their postsecondary education.

Other lawmakers called foul, arguing that it was unfair to use money intended for K-12 education to help pay for a 13th year for some students. And they said the program financially wasn’t sustainable, especially if it were to be adopted statewide.

Gelser’s bill essentially attaches sideboards to the fifth-year programs, which now are dubbed “Post-Graduate Scholar Programs.” Under terms of the bill, districts that want to set up the programs must designate staff members to help support students and have must have policies and strategies in place to improve graduation rates.

To qualify for the programs, students must first apply for the Oregon Promise tuition assistance program, which helps high school graduates and GED recipients pay for community college. They must also complete the federal form known as FAFSA, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

The idea is to control the costs of the programs and, in fact, state school money received by the districts with the programs will be reduced over the next few years. The bill calls for the state to report back on participation rates and costs of the programs and says that the 2019 Legislature will take another look at the programs.

As we’ve noted before, the bill isn’t perfect - for example, the Post-Graduate Scholar Programs won’t necessarily offer the same level of help to participating students that the fifth-year programs often offered - but it’s a considerably better deal than we thought Gelser would be able to wrest from her skeptical colleagues. And it’s worth noting that many mid-valley educators assisted Gelser in making the case to the Legislature. It’s a case that senators obviously found persuasive; let’s hope the House of Representatives feels the same way

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The (Bend) Bulletin, Feb. 27, on PERS payments

Welcome to Oregon, where public employee retirement benefits are guaranteed to be insulated from the economy.

Here in Oregon, it doesn’t matter how the earnings on the Public Employees Retirement System were doing. The fund only earned 2.1 percent in 2015 and the assumed rate of return was 7.75 percent.

Taxpayers must pick up the tab. Here in Deschutes County, we’re going to feel the impact.

Deschutes County has saved up $11 million. It is going to spend that on public safety, roads or public health? No, no, no.

The county has been saving that money for a decade because people have known for at least that long that PERS is a sinkhole. Remember how county Finance Director Wayne Lowry put it recently: Paying for PERS obligations “could be the greatest fiscal challenge that an organization like ours has faced.”

Schools are going to feel it, too. The Bend-La Pine Schools anticipates the increasing costs of PERS are going to cost the district $39.5 million between 2008 and 2021.

City governments get hit. The city of Bend set aside $2.7 million to deal with rising PERS costs. That’s about the same amount of money the city is hoping to raise in a year with a fuel tax on the March ballot.

And what did the Legislature do about PERS this session? It sent the only significant bill aimed at tackling the PERS costs - which was sponsored by state Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend - into oblivion. It did send along a bill aimed at expanding the people eligible to join PERS.

Public employees certainly deserve a good retirement plan. But the unfunded liability of the system is hitting $20 billion.

Welcome to Oregon, where political reform is passing on billions in liabilities to the next generation.

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The (Medford) Mail-Tribune, Feb. 25, on increasing the state lodging tax

A bill to increase the state’s lodging tax to help Eugene host a world track championship in five years has passed the House after it was scaled back a bit. In general it seems a reasonable move that will benefit the entire state, but it should be scaled back further.

TrackTown USA, a nonprofit corporation formed to bid on and host the 2021 world event, asked the state for $25 million to help cover costs. The University of Oregon and Nike have advocated for state support for some time.

The benefits to Oregon are considerable. The world championship event will bring thousands of international visitors to Oregon, which can only benefit Oregon’s tourism industry in the long run.

The original bill called for doubling the state hotel/motel tax from 1 percent to 2 percent - the state tax on a $100-a-night room would go from $1 to $2. That’s an amount travelers likely would barely notice, but it would generate $27.4 million in the next biennium.

As amended, House Bill 4146 would increase the tax to 1.8 percent rather than 2 percent.

Lodging taxes are the best of all possible revenue sources: other people’s money. More than three-quarters of the proceeds come from out-of-state visitors, hence the temptation to see an increase as benign.

That’s part of the reason HB 4146 makes the increase permanent rather than temporary. The other reason is, the bill would generate more than the TrackTown request, meaning more money for tourism programs across the state. Under the measure, the state would parcel out money to regional tourism agencies, which could use it for any purpose benefiting tourism, including events and facilities. That’s a change from existing state law, which says 80 percent of the tax money must be spent on marketing.

The bill is not universally popular around the state. In particular, officials in Portland are concerned an increase could hurt that city’s ability to compete for conventions because state and local lodging taxes already add up to 13.5 percent, the highest rate in the state. We don’t have a great deal of sympathy, considering Portland officials are the ones who approved those local add-ons.

It’s not clear why the proposed increase must be permanent; the TrackTown request is a one-time expenditure, after which the tax could return to its previous level. We understand the need to attract the necessary three-fifths majority vote in the Legislature by offering money to all parts of the state, but we also know Oregon residents will see this for what it is: another one-time investment that becomes a permanent revenue source.

The bill moves to the Senate, where additional tweaking may occur. The bill deserves to pass - if contains a sunset clause.

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The (Corvallis) Gazette-Times, Feb. 24, on the minimum wage

Allow us to return at least one more time to the topic of the Oregon minimum wage and the various legislative machinations that still are in play around it, because there’s an important point to be made.

This whole business, which includes new developments in Salem this week, offers yet another example of why complex measures like this just aren’t good fits in legislative short sessions.

It’s possible that you haven’t been tracking the new developments, so let us summarize: A bipartisan group of lawmakers on Tuesday announced a plan that would have overhauled the minimum wage increase that carried the Legislature last week and now awaits Gov. Kate Brown’s signature.

As Republican Rep. Cliff Bentz of Ontario outlined the plan, it would have set a floor of $13.50 an hour for the Portland area, but would have given local officials there the ability to set the wage higher. The plan would have raised wages in rural Oregon to $12.50 - the same level as in the bill the Legislature passed last week. (The plan would have kept wages in so-called urban counties such as Benton at $13.50, the same level as in the bill passed last week.)

But the alternative plan would have given sizable tax breaks to farmers, loggers and other industries, in the form of tax credits to nonprofits, businesses with fewer than 50 employers and certain manufacturers.

“It’s dramatically better” than the bill the Legislature approved last week, Bentz said. “It protects my area from economic devastation.”

But by the end of Wednesday, lawmakers already had dropped their plans to fine-tune the Portland-area minimum wage, and were concentrating instead on the tax breaks for businesses. Brown said she’d be willing to take a hard look at the tax breaks if they passed the Legislature and suggested that such breaks had been part and parcel of the negotiations she held before the session to help craft her wage proposal. We know what happened to that proposal after she submitted it to legislators: it got ripped into pieces and refashioned into the three-tiered system the Legislature passed last week.

The tax breaks and the revised minimum wage for the Portland area are ideas worthy of greater exploration. And they would have received that exploration in a longer session, in which ideas have the time and space to jostle and compete and bounce off each other - and where all the parties to legislation, including the public, can examine them. Instead, we’ve seen this session pushing through at least two pieces of major legislation, using the reasoning that the Legislature needed to act now to forestall dangerous ballot measures. In other words: We legislators need to push through bad policy in a hurried, rushed manner in order to stop even worse policy from being enacted by the voters at the ballot. That is not an argument designed to encourage confidence in voters.

We still think Oregon is too big and complex for the Legislature to manage in every-other-year sessions. But surely there is a better alternative than a session that almost assuredly ensures bad decisions will be made under the tightest of time constraints, with limited opportunities for public review.


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