- Associated Press - Monday, March 14, 2016

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers.

Albany Democrat-Herald, March 11, on a lawsuit regarding the management of state forest lands

Linn County officials took a few hours longer than expected on Thursday to file their $1.4 billion lawsuit against the state over management of state forest land, but that’s OK: It’s not as if this business is headed for any kind of speedy resolution.

No, this is a story that will take many years to play out. The filing of the lawsuit (which finally occurred on Thursday afternoon in Linn County Circuit Court, after attorneys and other officials did a final edit) brings to an end the first chapter in this legal saga, but many more chapters remain to be written.

It promises to be fascinating.

This case is bound to get more and more convoluted as it works its tortuous way through Oregon courts (and since this is a civil case, you can be sure that it will take its time to do that).

But, at its heart, the Linn County case is fairly simple. Here’s the argument the county is making, in a nutshell: When these lands were conveyed to the state, mostly in the 1930s, the promise was that the land would be managed for the “greatest permanent value.” The question of how you define “greatest permanent value” - and who gets to define it - likely will be a key issue as the case moves forward.

In any event, Linn County argues in the lawsuit that “greatest permanent value” means the lands were to be managed for the economic benefit of the counties. In the years since the lands were conveyed, the state has moved toward a broader definition of “greatest permanent value,” emphasizing other uses of the land in addition to logging.

But that move has cost counties millions of dollars in lost revenue from timber. And so, the lawsuit argues, the failure to manage the land for maximum revenue amounts to a breach of contract between the state and the counties.

That’s basically the heart of the lawsuit, but you can see why it’s already gathered attention from environmental groups who insist that “greatest permanent value” must be defined in a broader sense, with benefits to all Oregon residents, not just the general funds of the 15 counties that include some state forest trust lands. (Environmentalists also worry that the lawsuit will complicate, if not entirely halt, efforts by the state Board of Forestry to rethink how state forests are managed.)

Linn County officials are hoping that a judge eventually will certify this as a class-action lawsuit, with all the taxing entities that have been affected by the decline in timber revenues joining the class. That likely will be one of the first questions to be resolved in the case. Linn County commissioners say they have widespread support among officials in the 14 other affected counties, but those counties will have the opportunity to opt out, and it will be interesting to see how many decide to do so. But the Linn County commissioners have said they will pursue this suit on their own even if every other county drops out.

That seems unlikely to happen. The story of this lawsuit will take years to play out, but this legal action is the culmination of decades of mounting frustration in these counties, not just about how state lands are managed but federal lands as well. Those county officials have watched as their budgets have been stretched tighter and tighter. So you can bet that even those officials whose counties aren’t listed as plaintiffs will be watching this case as it plays out over the long run.

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The (Eugene) Register-Guard, March 12, on gun legislation

Two gun control bills were introduced in the state Legislature during this year’s short session. One, which would temporarily bar some people from purchasing a gun, was pretty much dead on arrival. The other, which would require a background check be completed before the sale or transfer of a gun, was narrowly approved by the House, but stalled in the Senate.

Bills related to gun ownership are invariably among the most controversial. Trying to get them through in a short session is not a good idea, serving only to stoke fears among some gun-rights advocates.

Senate Bill 1551 would have allowed state police to put a temporary hold on firearm purchases if they received a report from a mental health professional, educator or immediate family member that the buyer was a danger to him or herself or to others. The bill would have made it a crime to make a false report and also provided an appeals process for anyone faced with such a hold. The bill never made it out of committee.

House Bill 4147, which narrowly passed in the House but died in the Senate, would have prohibited the sale or transfer of firearms until state police complete criminal background checks on the recipients. Current law gives state police three days to complete background checks before guns are sold. If the background check isn’t completed within that period, the transfer can take place.

This measure is in step with how most Americans feel about firearms. A majority of people surveyed by Gallup favor the right to own guns, but also favor strong background checks.

More than 140 people signed up to testify for or against the bill.

Although neither SB 1551 nor HB 4147 made it through the Legislature, lawmakers did approve a special funding request of $6 million for Umpqua Community College. The money will go to replace Snyder Hall - where a gunman murdered a teacher and eight students last October and injured seven more - and for more security at the school.

The initial budget request was for $17.6 million, to pay for more security at all of Oregon’s community colleges. Lawmakers told the other 16 schools to try again next year.

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The Oregonian, March 12, on the impact of a minimum wage hike

Taking a stand for financial stewardship, Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, asked her fellow legislators last month to delay a vote on a bill so that it could be reviewed first by the Joint Committee on Ways and Means.

The bill, which would create two short-term positions to develop public-records processes consistent across state agencies, posed a minimal cost. But Smith Warner noted that because House Bill 4135 carried a fiscal impact, it should be properly vetted by Ways and Means, the legislative appropriations committee that determines budget priorities. After several minutes of discussion that underscored the routine nature of sending such bills to the committee, legislators approved the referral.

If only that moment of fiscal responsibility could have lasted. No such luck. Just one week later, the same Democratic legislators who supported HB 4135’s trip to Ways and Means opposed a similar route for Senate Bill 1532, which would phase in the highest statewide minimum wage in the country. It marks at least the third time in the short legislative session that Republicans’ call to consider the financial consequences of this bill fell on deaf ears.

Now that the bill has become law, however, the public is listening as universities are warning of the “tough choices” ahead, as The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Andrew Theen reported. Public universities are expected to pay millions more in the coming years to cover the higher wages of minimum-wage workers - primarily students. That could translate into fewer student employees, fewer hours for students or higher tuition and fees, Theen reported.

The higher expenses and potential downsides shouldn’t be a surprise to legislators, considering the figures were among the few calculations provided by a barebones fiscal impact statement drafted for the bill. The analysis also noted that the direct cost of the increase for state employees is less than $100,000 for the 2015-2017 biennium. And the statement warned that the bill potentially poses an unfunded mandate for local governments, whose expected costs were “indeterminate.”

With universities alone facing more than $11.5 million in extra costs in the current and 2017-2019 budget cycles, Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, asked House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, to refer the bill to the Ways and Means Committee. “To consider this bill without the appropriate level of budget scrutiny would be a disservice to the people we are elected to represent and would represent a failure of our fiduciary duty as guardians of the state budget,” McLane wrote in a Feb. 12 letter to Kotek.

Kotek disagreed. The fiscal impact statement, she noted, forecast an “insignificant” cost to the state for the current budget. She added that she did not believe referring the bill to Ways and Means would change the “indeterminate” estimate of the bill’s potential costs. A referral, she wrote in her Feb. 16 response, “would only result in delayed action on the bill and would not change the predicted fiscal impact on the budget.” And when you need to ram through major policy in a short, one-month-long legislative session, expeditiousness takes precedence over transparency.

The argument raises another concern. Legislators repeatedly pointed to the fiscal impact statement’s assertion that the wage hike’s costs are “indeterminate” to dismiss calls for more scrutiny. It’s as if they believe that the inability to precisely calculate a future liability is a legitimate excuse to ignore it.

Kotek certainly wasn’t alone in refusing to route the bill to Ways and Means. Sen. Peter Courtney also could have, and did not, refer the bill to the joint committee as it made its way through the Senate. Democrats in the Senate rejected Republicans’ motion to refer the bill there. And before voting for the bill, Ways and Means Committee Co-Chairman Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, defended the non-referral. Despite the budget implications, the bill does not require additional general fund dollars in the current budget, he said, ignoring the fact that some of the universities and other public employers facing higher costs could very well seek more money as the hike goes in effect.

Legislators can try to parse the decision to skip Ways and Means review any way they like. But their excuses don’t obscure the inescapable truth that leaders sought to limit public discussion over the financial hit that this wage hike will have on the entities that the public funds. Unfortunately, it will once again be the public that pays.

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The (Bend) Bulletin, March 13, on funding to increase security at community colleges

We all have to hope that the decision by Oregon lawmakers not to spend some $17.6 million on beefed-up security for the state’s community colleges this year will not be the wrong one.

The request for the money came in the wake of the October shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg that killed 10 and injured another seven. Both the community college association and the president of the Oregon Community College Student Association asked that money be included in the Legislature’s capital construction bill, which allocates money for a wide variety of projects.

The request would have been divided among 16 of the state’s 17 community colleges for a variety of projects aimed at enhancing campus safety. (Umpqua was given $6 million for improvements to the building where the shooting took place in a different legislative action.)

At Central Oregon Community College, for example, money would have gone to equip interior doors with locks, to install an emergency notification system and to acquire a duress alarm system, among other things.

Yet even without the new money, several COCC projects will go forward this year. The school can pay to have locks put on interior doors, says Matt McCoy, COCC’s vice president of administration. And, it has found a bit of technology, complete with GPS, that can be installed on cellphones and computers that will call either 911 or campus security if need be.

Some things will go undone, however, at least for now. A school-wide public address system that would have allowed for notification in cases of emergency will have to wait. And, aging security vehicles will be replaced more slowly.

In reality, it’s unlikely anything will happen that will make the Legislature regret its decision to delay spending on safety for a time. Despite the horror of such incidents, mass public shootings are still far from common. Meanwhile, extra time will give community colleges the opportunity to assess their needs and decide which can be done with current resources and which need help from the Legislature.

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Albany Democrat-Herald, March 7, on annual legislative sessions

We were believers from the start in the idea that Oregon’s Legislature should meet every year, and we were particularly enamored with the elegant compromise that eventually carried the day with the state’s voters.

Under the terms of the compromise that paved the way for annual sessions, the Legislature meets for 160 calendar days in odd-numbered years and then for shorter 35-day sessions in even-numbered years, such as the session that adjourned last week. These shorter sessions were billed mostly as gatherings to adjust the state’s budget and to tie up unexpected loose ends from the longer sessions.

The reason why Oregon voters didn’t opt for lengthy sessions each year is pretty simple: We tend to agree with that famous quotation from Gideon J. Tucker, a newspaper editor and politician from New York, who wrote in 1866 that “No man’s life, liberty or property are safe while the Legislature is in session.” (The quotation - and this is true of so many other notable quotes - often is attributed to Mark Twain, as if Twain needs any additional polish on his resume.)

Voters also understood, however, that governing Oregon, a state of 4 million people, has become a matter of such complexity that it requires annual legislative oversight. That’s why the 2010 constitutional amendment clearing the way for annual sessions passed by a 2-to-1 margin.

However, the session that just wrapped up last week sorely tested our faith in the idea of annual sessions. One of the big problems with the shorter session is that 35 days is just not enough time for big policy measures to be adequately vetted - and for the public to have a meaningful chance to participate in legislative decisions. But this session saw at least two major policy measures pass - the increase in the state’s minimum wage and a bill that will make Oregon the first state to phase out coal from its energy supply. It’s worth noting that both of those measures were initially hammered out in closed-door meetings to which the public was not invited. (To be fair, though, both measures were altered significantly during the course of the session.)

Regardless of what you think of those measures, you cannot argue that the public had any meaningful opportunity to weigh in; in fact, many legislators admitted that they didn’t completely understand the coal bill.

The argument we heard from legislators about why they needed to attack those big measures in the short session - that the Legislature needed to act to pre-empt ballot measures on those issues - seemed increasingly thin as the session wore on. Minimum-wage foes, for example, thought they would be able to defeat a ballot measure, and it would have made for an interesting campaign.

But after a weekend of reflection, we’re not prepared to throw in the towel on annual sessions, and here’s the primary reason why: Annual sessions allow the legislative branch a greater measure of oversight over the state’s executive branch. And at a time when at least two vital state departments - Human Services and Environmental Quality - are trying to answer serious questions about their performance in recent years, the need for that legislative oversight seems greater than ever.

None of which is to suggest that legislative leaders shouldn’t do a better job at setting and enforcing boundaries during the short sessions. But entirely eliminating the shorter sessions would be a step backward, and one that Oregon residents likely would come to regret.


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