- Associated Press - Monday, March 28, 2016

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers.

The (Coos Bay) World, March 22, on counties suing the state

We’re pretty sure Oregon lawmakers didn’t intend to start a war with Oregon counties during the short legislative session, but when it comes to budgets, a legislative body can make a lot of waves in just a month.

The recent minimum wage increase and sick leave requirements passed into law last month have some county leaders thinking now of suing the state, claiming the new laws result in unfunded mandates.

Since 1996, the state constitution has said the Legislature must provide funding to cities or counties if it requires new programs or services that have price tags attached to them. And, of course, just about any legislative action costs something. But, according to an Associated Press story, it’s apparently unclear whether the constitution applies to labor policies.

It’s also unclear right now what the additional burden specifically would add up to for cities and counties; most civic workers already earn wages higher than the minimum and already have sick days. But the new policies will still impact low-level part-time and seasonal workers. And local governments are making the same argument that minimum wage opponents did originally, that a higher minimum wage will also drive up wages all the way up the pay scale.

This push back is already occurring through an effort by Linn County officials, who earlier this month filed their $1.4 billion lawsuit against the state over management of state forest land. The core issue is, once again, centered around timber revenues versus a philosophical shift by the state away from logging.

Linn County is promising to bring along all counties impacted by the issue, including Coos County. The hope is that a judge will grant the suit class-action status. Our commissioners are already on board.

This bureaucratic revolt is interesting to watch in the abstract; cities and counties lashing back against the state capital is pretty much insured to be a crowd pleaser with the electorate. Then again, so was talk by our county commissioners last year resurrecting the idea of suing the federal government over federal timber lands.

The problem is that all this talk about lawsuits isn’t raising revenues, and won’t for the foreseeable future. We all should be asking - in Coos, Linn and all the other counties - what do we do in the meantime, commissioners?


The (Medford) Mail-Tribune, March 27, on changes to recreation permitting on federal land

The case of the misguided occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge will drag on for some time as the charges against the occupiers work their way through the federal courts, not to mention the additional charges stemming from a 2014 standoff over cattle grazing in Nevada. Just cleaning up the mess the Malheur occupiers left behind will take until early summer, officials say, at a cost of $4 million.

Meanwhile, Oregon Sen. Ron Wyden has proposed changes in recreation permitting on federal land that could go a long way toward reminding the public that these lands really do belong to them.

The occupiers - Ammon and Ryan Bundy and their supporters - espouse a twisted interpretation of the Constitution that they believe makes government control of vast stretches of land illegal. They are mistaken in that belief, but it is undeniable that federal bureaucracy contributes to frustration among many in the West. Anything that makes navigating that bureaucracy easier will go a long way toward reinforcing the notion that public land belongs to the public, and the government merely manages it on our behalf.

Wyden’s proposal has to do with recreational uses such as permits for river guides who lead raft trips on the Rogue and other rivers, but it goes much farther than that.

The legislation, co-sponsored by Oregon Rep. Earl Blumenauer, requires the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to make recreation a priority when making land-use and regulatory decisions, and directs federal land management agencies to extend recreation seasons over more of the year wherever possible. The bill also would simplify the process of seeking permits for commercial guides as well as the general public who want access to public lands.

The legislation grew out of a tour Wyden and Blumenauer undertook last year to visit Oregon’s “Seven Wonders” and what they heard in listening sessions they conducted along the way. The resulting proposals have the support of many outdoor recreation and tourism groups.

All of this means money for the Oregon economy, and that of Southern Oregon specifically. Visitors spent more than half a billion dollars in Jackson County in 2014, and our spectacular public lands are a big reason many come here. That translates into jobs in the local economy.

Making it easier for guides and outfitters to serve those visitors as well as encouraging tourists to use public lands on their own will help the outdoor industry thrive and grow, and that’s good for everyone.


The Daily Astorian, March 28, on funding the U.S. Coast Guard

Last week’s intense action for the U.S. Coast Guard in the Columbia estuary and elsewhere on the Oregon Coast - including searching for a missing airplane off Astoria - highlights the agency’s significance and justifies our nation’s major ongoing reinvestment in it.

Proud as our area is of the Coast Guard, some of its key assets are at or near the end of their useful lives. This is particularly the case for high-visibility vessels like the medium endurance cutters Alert and Steadfast, which are on the cusp of replacement. Bigger and smaller vessels here on the north Pacific and elsewhere in the nation will also be traded out, as U.S. taxpayers fund the Coast Guard’s largest acquisition budget in history.

With many of the Coast Guard’s watercraft at or near the half-century mark, Congress recognized the need to play catch-up in maintaining the capacities of a fleet that is larger than the United Kingdom’s entire navy.

The largest new Coast Guard vessels include an updated icebreaker for use in America’s extensive Arctic waters and as many as 10 national security cutters at a cost of $695 million per ship. Five of the cutters are already in service, with additional ones joining the fleet this year, in 2018 and 2019. Congress just funded a ninth, which the Coast Guard didn’t request, and may add one more. They replace 12 Hamilton class high endurance cutters.

Our region will have more to do with new offshore patrol cutters. Twenty-five of these - at $421 million each - will replace the Coast Guard’s 29 current cutters like Alert and Steadfast.

These ships, the Coast Guard says, “will feature increased range and endurance, powerful weapons, a larger flight deck, and improved command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance equipment. The offshore patrol cutters will accommodate aircraft and small boat operations in all weather.”

In addition, 58 new fast response cutters at about $65 million each will replace 1980s-era 110-foot Island class patrol boats that are approaching the end of service life. The Coast Guard is considering basing two of these vessels in Astoria or Newport, neither of which currently homeports an Island class boat.

All this is welcome national investment in Coast Guard, which exhibits consistent excellence.

A report Tuesday by the Congressional Research Office (tinyurl.com/CutterReport) raises a variety of important matters, especially with the new national security cutters, which have functional and expense issues that must be addressed.

Overall, however, this is an exciting time for the Coast Guard and its home communities


The (Bend) Bulletin, March 26, on labeling GMO products

Oregonians narrowly - by fewer than 1,000 votes - defeated a ballot measure in 2014 that would have required food manufacturers and retailers to label products that included genetically engineered ingredients.

In the end, however, the measure’s supporters appear on their way to getting what they want, thanks to lawmakers in one of the smallest states in the union.

Major food manufacturers, including Campbell Soup (soup, Pepperidge Farm), ConAgra (Hunts, Peter Pan) and General Mills (cereal, Old El Paso, Yoplait), all have announced recently that they have or will soon begin to include genetic engineering information on product labels.

They’re not doing so because genetic engineering somehow makes their products unsafe, however. It doesn’t, and there’s more than enough science to prove that point.

Some are doing so because lawmakers in Vermont, which has well under 1 million residents, approved a measure to require the labels in that state. It’s cheaper, the companies say, to make the labels universal for products sold in this country than to create and apply special labels for use in Vermont.

And, clearly, they hope Congress will step in and either ban state labeling laws or require them across the country.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Portland, thinks that the latter is a great idea. He and three other Senate Democrats recently introduced a bill that would require labeling nationwide.

Realistically, the bill doesn’t stand much chance. The U.S. House did approve a ban on such labeling last summer.

We don’t believe a law requiring GMO labeling is scientifically necessary. But it would be better for Congress to have a national law rather than requirements that only apply in some states.


The Oregonian, March 22, on the state’s “motor voter” program

The idea behind Oregon’s new “motor voter” program, signed into law last year by Gov. Kate Brown, was all about removing barriers to voting, real or imagined. By tapping Oregon’s Driver and Motor Vehicle Services database of people seeking driver’s licenses or ID cards, the state could automatically add to the voter rolls those eligible Oregonians who had not previously registered.

According to the Oregon secretary of state’s office, more than 24,500 new voters have been added since the program began less than three months ago - far outperforming the typical 2,000-voter-a-month pace of the past. It would seem that “motor voter” is doing what backers wanted it to do: Enfranchising many who might not otherwise have bothered to register.

Except, there’s one problem: Oregon’s experiment to eliminate barriers is about to meet the immovable object that is Oregon’s closed primary system.

More than 86 percent of the new voters added so far this year are registered as unaffiliated with any political party. That’s the default setting in “motor voter” for those who don’t return a mailer designating a party affiliation or indicating they want to be kept off voter rolls completely.

But under Oregon law, major political parties can restrict participation in their primaries to only those voters who are registered with their party. Both the state’s Democratic and Republican parties have opted to keep their primaries closed in this way to outsiders. Such exclusivity affects not just races for state legislative positions but carry over to the presidential race as well.

That means that a nonaffiliated voter who may want to cast a ballot for Bernie Sanders or Donald Trump in May’s primary may not do so, because both candidates will appear only on their respective parties’ ballots.

The irony that nearly all new registrants added under “motor voter” would be barred from voting in the most prominent races this May is not lost on those who run the program. Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins announced last week that elections officials are sending notices to all of the state’s nearly 540,000 nonaffiliated voters reminding them that they cannot vote in the Democratic or Republican primary unless they change their voter registration to designate the appropriate party as their political affiliation. The deadline to submit a change for the May primary is April 26.

The notice also informs nonaffiliated voters that they can participate in the Independent Party’s primary, which is not limited to declared Independents, without having to change their registration. However, they must request an Independent Party ballot from their county elections office.

As confusing as this all might be, at least Oregon makes changing registrations remarkably easy. Just go to www.oregonvotes.gov and click on “register to vote.” It takes just a minute or so to fill out.

The secretary of state’s announcement, however, does highlight a problem that officials will need to eventually address. Nonaffiliated voter registrations are surging nationally, not just in Oregon, and the state should recognize that closed primaries are cutting out hundreds of thousands of Oregonians who should not have to declare fealty to one party or another to simply cast their vote.

A previous effort to change the system tanked in 2014 when voters rejected Measure 90, which would have replaced the current primaries with a single nonpartisan primary that would send the top two candidates to the general election. Both the Democratic and Republican parties vehemently opposed the measure.

But if the state truly wants to give voters a voice, that means recognizing how the system is set up intentionally to keep them out. Cosmetic fixes like a failed legislative bill to prepay postage for ballots are nothing more than meaningless gestures. The real work requires the Democratic and Republican establishment to recognize that their rhetoric about eliminating barriers means nothing when they refuse to remake a system based on exclusion.

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