- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers.

Albany Democrat-Herald, Jan. 12, on the Malheur wildlife refuge occupation

In the cascade of ironies that continues to tumble out of the standoff at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, here’s one that might have been easy to overlook:

The standoff seems likely to renew a debate over the idea of minimum sentences, in both federal and state cases.

In fact, during his town meetings in the mid-valley on Saturday. U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon said he intended to take a close look at “mandatory minimums that can sometimes produce more injustice than justice.”



One of the issues in the standoff in Harney County is the case of rancher Dwight Hammond Jr., and one of his sons, Steve. The two men were indicted in 2010 on federal arson charges, regarding a pair of fires that the men set that ended up involving land managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.

When the Hammonds were indicted, they faced sentencing under the federal Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996, even though prosecutors have said they had no intention of treating the ranchers as terrorists.

But the arson charge, under that particular law, mandated five-year minimum sentences. The federal judge in the case, Michael Hogan, said during the Hammonds’ sentencing in 2012 that such a sentence in this case would “shock the conscience” and would be as unconstitutional as cruel and unusual punishment. The judge sentenced Dwight Hammond to a three-month term and Steve Hammond to one year.

The Hammonds served their time and were released from federal custody. And if the story had ended there, we wouldn’t be shaking our heads over the increasingly ludicrous standoff at the refuge.

Instead, here’s what happened: Amanda Marshall, then the U.S. attorney for Oregon, recommended that the government challenge Hogan’s sentence. And, when the court of appeals heard the case, it agreed with the feds: The longer sentences might in fact shock the conscience, the appeals court held, but the law is the law, and the law mandates the minimum sentence.

The Hammonds returned to federal prison last week. In the meantime, the events at the refuge got underway, even though, to be clear, the Hammonds have disavowed the occupation.

These minimum sentences aren’t just an issue in federal court; judges in Oregon working with Measure 11 crimes often find their hands are tied by laws mandating certain sentences for certain crimes. Part of the idea is to ensure uniformity in sentencing, but the not-so-unspoken implication is that minimum sentences serve as a check on too-lenient judges.

But part of the reason why we have judges in the first place is so that they can review all the facts in a case and make decisions accordingly. By tying their hands in making these vital decisions about sentencing - by reducing these decisions to the cold black-and-white diagram of a matrix - we essentially say that, well, every criminal case is about the same as the next case. In Oregon, the minimum sentences for Measure 11 crimes have helped to fuel the explosive growth in state prison populations, a growth that we’re just now starting to get under control.

Merkley’s call for a review of these rules on the federal level is welcome. State officials might want to consider the merits of a similar review.

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Baker City Herald, Jan. 8, on the Malheur wildlife refuge occupation

The illegal occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, which has put Harney County in the harsh spotlight of the international media, a position the county’s residents neither wanted nor deserve, could end not just peacefully, but positively.

But this ideal outcome requires compromise.

We’d like President Obama to announce publicly that he will consider granting clemency to Dwight Hammond and his son, Steven.

Attorneys for the two ranchers, who are in a California prison serving the remainder of their five-year sentences for their arson convictions, said they will ask the president to do so.

It’s a reasonable thing for Mr. Obama to do.

The Hammonds committed arson, and they deserved to be punished. Before they were resentenced in October, Dwight had served three months in prison, and Steven one year.

But the belief, which we share, that the five-year terms mandated by the 1996 federal law under which the Hammonds were convicted are excessive, is hardly limited to a radical fringe. U.S. District Judge Michael Hogan also deemed the punishment improper, which is why he sentenced the pair to shorter terms in 2012.

But freeing the Hammonds is only one part of the compromise.

We also hope Ammon Bundy and the others who barged into the Wildlife Refuge on Saturday will leave. They say they’re supporting the Hammonds, but their claim lost all validity the moment they made the Wildlife Refuge inaccessible to the public, whose tax dollars help to operate the place.

The occupiers say they’ll leave only when the government agrees to give the Refuge’s 187,000 acres to the county and, eventually, to private owners.

There is no justification for that request, legal or otherwise.

Moreover, this demand has nothing to do with the Hammonds’ current plight. The Hammonds and other nearby ranchers have no more legitimate claim to the Refuge than anyone else.

Much of the land was never privately owned, and was set aside as a bird sanctuary in 1908. The government acquired the rest legally, by buying it from private owners.

Bundy’s bunch obviously has other grievances against the federal government. But depriving Harney County of one of its major tourist draws is a terrible way to bring attention to those complaints.

It’s no surprise that Harney County Sheriff David Ward, who has urged the occupiers to go home, drew the loudest and most sustained applause during a community meeting Wednesday in Burns.

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(Medford) Mail Tribune, Jan. 10, on the Malheur wildlife refuge occupation

The “standoff,” such as it is, at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge is drawing national attention, so it’s worth taking a moment to note that the subtext behind the headlines reflects a cultural clash that is not well understood by those who don’t live in the West, and particularly in the wide-open, sparsely populated rangelands of the rural West managed by federal agencies.

U.S. Rep Greg Walden, whose sprawling 2nd Congressional District includes Harney County, gave an impassioned speech on the House floor last week in which he criticized the resentencing of Dwight and Steve Hammond, calling them “longtime, responsible ranchers” he has known for 20 years. In the process, Walden skewered the “overzealous bureaucrats and agencies (that) go beyond the law and clamp down on people.”

It was the five-year prison sentences the Hammonds began serving last week under anti-terrorism statues for committing arson on public land that prompted out-of-state activists to stage an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge. The armed militants, led by Ammon Bundy, son of Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, demanded the government turn over federal land in the county for residents to manage on their own.

Walden made a point of saying the occupation of federal buildings was “inappropriate,” and the militants should go home. He’s right about that, and Harney County residents themselves agree: Locals have made it clear they do not support Bundy and his cohorts.

Walden and others are right, however, when they say federal managers of vast swaths of public land in the West too often have been arrogant toward the farmers and ranchers who have scratched out a living there for generations against stiff odds. Ranching is hard enough when you must cope with harsh weather, scarce water and unpredictable markets without adding a monolithic federal bureaucracy that does not respond quickly enough when needed or imposes new restrictions with little notice or willingness to compromise.

All is not black and white when it comes to Western land management. Public land should be managed for the benefit of all the public, not just ranchers, farmers and hunters. But those groups have legitimate concerns and deserve to be heard.

Examples exist of cooperative efforts involving federal agencies, industry and private landowners to protect wetlands, battle invasive species and conduct thinning operations that make forests more resistant to catastrophic wildfire. But those collaborations are still more the exception than the rule.

There is no valid argument to be made that federal ownership of public land is illegal in any way, and Bundy and his followers are simply wrong when they claim to be upholding the Constitution while essentially committing armed sedition. The misguided militants should leave Harney County, and they will, sooner or later.

But when they do, the people of Harney County will still be there, and they have concerns that deserve to be heard.

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The (Bend) Bulletin, Jan. 12, on the DOE’s small-scale energy loan program

We begin with a quiz: Can you guess the name of the state agency that has yet another program that will require a taxpayer bailout?

If you guessed the Oregon Department of Energy, congratulations.

State Treasurer Ted Wheeler has asked for an immediate stop to lending from the Oregon Department of Energy’s Small-Scale Energy Loan Program.

The program has an immediate deficit of $20 million. And starting in 2019, some $15.3 million in payments will be required to pay the service on the debt.

Of course, it could get worse, Wheeler’s office pointed out in its news release. With the Energy Department’s track record, what do you think will happen?

Here’s a hint: The Oregonian reported that “another 10 percent of the program’s $214 million in outstanding loans were on a credit watchlist, classified as serious credit risks or considered ‘doubtful’ to repay as of late last year.”

Wheeler has been warning about the program since 2012. Not enough people in state government listened. And now the problem is worse.

As The Oregonian points out, the program did work once - at least, in the sense it didn’t have taxpayers on the hook for millions. It was self-sustaining until about 2008 or 2009.

But then it made bigger loans. It made loans to companies in a green-energy craze. The companies tended to lack two important things: a proven track record and collateral.

To Gov. Kate Brown’s credit, she is going to take some of the department’s loan programs out of the department’s hands and give them to another state agency that presumably knows the importance of vetting and collateral.

The thing about the Energy Department is we don’t wonder any more if it has any more programs with problems. We wonder if it has any programs that run right.

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The Oregonian, Jan. 10, on Oregon’s single—party problem

We’ll admit this at the outset: The principle at the heart of our first agenda item this year - finding the political center - can be almost as squishy as a month-old banana. A policy position that seems moderate to one person can seem very different to someone else. Meanwhile, the typical manifestation of moderation - bipartisanship - is no guarantee that a policy is good. Back in the 1990s, for instance, the Defense of Marriage Act, which defined marriage for federal purposes as an arrangement between a man and a woman, enjoyed strong bipartisan support in Congress. Oops.

So, yes, we know. As an editorial agenda item, “Get Oregon Centered” is a little messy.

But we also know several other things.

First, Oregon’s state government is dominated by a single political party. Democrats hold the governor’s office and all other statewide elective offices. The party also enjoys wide majorities in the state Senate and House. The opportunities for the party in power to steamroll opponents rather than listening to them are, thus, abundant. The same thing, of course, would be true if Republicans and Democrats reversed roles. Single-party dominance is problematic regardless of the party in power.

Second, we know that the party that controls state government accounts for only 38 percent of Oregon’s registered voters. That’s still a lot more than the Republican Party, at about 30 percent, but it’s worth remembering that 62 percent of Oregon voters are something other than Democrats. Meanwhile, the Democratic Party is the dominant party in only 12 of Oregon’s 36 counties. You can see the problems, including profound resentment, that come with the repeated exercise of partisan political force.

Third, we know hyper-partisanship - the antithesis of moderation - when we see it, and it was conspicuously in evidence at times during the 2015 legislative session. There was, for instance, the Legislature’s passage of a “motor voter” bill whose most notable effect will be the weakening of the Independent Party, currently Oregon’s third major party. It passed on the strength of Democratic votes alone. There was, too, the Legislature’s rescue of the controversial low-carbon fuel standard, which also occurred without support from a single Republican and despite the opposition of a handful of Democrats. This flexing of the majority party’s muscle also killed any hope to pass a transportation-funding package in 2015, for which there was bipartisan support.

Fourth, we also recognize the centrist impulse when we see it. This, too, was on display during the 2015 session, perhaps most notably in the function of the joint marijuana committee. Plenty of people had reason to grumble about elements of its work, including supporters of the legalization initiative the committee worked to implement. Such is the nature of compromise, however, and this committee worked well to balance the interests of the urban and rural areas represented by its bipartisan membership. The committee’s work will continue in the 2016 session, and co-chair Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, says she would like to maintain the spirit of cooperation. Good on her.

Another signature centrist victory in 2015 was a piece of legislation sponsored by Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, that expands access to contraception. Democratic legislative leaders worked with Buehler to make this happen, and the bill passed with bipartisan support.

Such is the backdrop for 2016, when several things will happen. The Legislature, again with commanding Democratic majorities, will convene for a short session that will focus on such red-hot political matters as housing and the minimum wage. Gov. Kate Brown and dozens of lawmakers will run for election, as will candidates for attorney general, treasurer and secretary of state.

The coming session, in particular, will offer opportunities for both moderation and for corrosive partisanship. Will lawmakers send a minimum-wage hike to the ballot, and if so how will it address the needs of rural areas of the state, where many employers can’t afford to pay as much as those in the Portland area? In addressing the cost of housing, will lawmakers merely go heavy on costly mandates, or will they also consider the interests of builders and middle-class renters and home-buyers, who ultimately would pay the cost of such mandates and feel the pinch?

Voters should pay close attention to the ways in which lawmakers handle these and other policy matters this year. Will the moderate impulse that characterized some of the Legislature’s best work last year prevail, or will the Legislature’s dominant party simply impose its will, as it did at times in 2015? And if the latter happens, will the governor, again, meekly sign whatever lawmakers send her way, or will she live up to the responsibility she inherited last year when her predecessor resigned?

We acknowledge, again, the messiness of this agenda item, and for all we know a highly partisan piece of legislation will emerge in 2016 that we’ll support. But Oregon has a single-party problem, and it has become more pronounced as Democratic legislative majorities have grown large enough to marginalize even the party’s own moderates (for instance, Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose). Oregonians should be talking about this, and to that end we intend to recognize both the bad and the good in 2016.

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