- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

The Bend Bulletin, March 31 on a new business tax proposal:

Measure 97 went down in flames in November. Voters trounced the biggest tax increase in Oregon history, a proposed yearly $3 billion tax increase on the gross receipts of select businesses.

From those flames arises the son of 97, Senate Joint Resolution 41. It’s a bad tax strategy in many of the same ways. Maybe that’s why it’s an anonymous committee bill - no legislator dared put his or her name on it.

SJR 41 is a “business privilege tax,” according to the bill. Businesses are supposed to feel privileged to pay it?

The tax would apply to all forms of businesses entities, not just certain kinds of corporations as Measure 97 did. SJR 41 would apply a tax rate of up to 0.7 percent on sales.

The bill aims to target businesses with $5 million or more. Businesses with sales of less than $5 million would have to pay no more than $250 a year. Businesses with sales of less than $150,000 would pay nothing.

Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, chair of the Senate Revenue Committee, favors the tax to “modernize” the state’s tax code. Modernize is the wrong word. Gross receipts taxes used to be more common in states. They were gradually abandoned. So it’s not really a modernization; it’s a retreat. New Jersey, Kentucky, and Michigan tried out gross receipts taxes in the last 15 years and have all dropped them, because they caused too many issues. There is a legitimate motivation behind the interest in gross receipts taxes. Business taxes are generally based on taxing profits. And companies find ways to use the tax code so they do not have as much profit to tax.

How do they do that? Through tax breaks created by lawmakers.

Taxing gross receipts is one way to get around that problem. But it means that Oregon would be taxing not based on ability to pay. SJR 41 tax would tax businesses even if they aren’t making a profit. That is not right.

Gross receipts taxes also lead to taxes on taxes - what is called tax pyramiding. Before a product gets to the retail stage, it can go through several buyers and sellers. A gross receipts tax would run up the costs of some products as they were taxed at each sale.

The bill contains no exception for the food or health care industry. Do Oregonians want to pay more for food and medicine?

It’s also a hidden tax. The final consumer would not know what he or she was paying for the tax.

The son of Measure 97 should face the same fate as its father. Let SJR 41 die in the Legislature before it ever gets to voters.

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The East Oregonian, March 31, on Gov. Brown’s firing of three environmental commission members:

In a move that defies both logic and comprehension, Oregon Gov. Kate Brown abruptly fired three members of the Oregon Environmental Quality Commission.

This is the latest episode of the governor’s meddling in the business of a supposedly independent state commission.

Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, had it right when he said, “We cannot have the governor of our beautiful state firing Senate-confirmed volunteer members of a commission, simply because they don’t do what she wants them to do.”

Legally, a governor has the authority to fire political appointees, including commission members. But such actions should be exceedingly rare and must be fully explained. Oregonians deserve that, especially given Brown’s professed commitment to transparency.

Nothing about her action makes sense. That includes the press release issued by her office on Wednesday. It announced her appointment of three new members to the Environmental Quality Commission, thanked the three departing members, avoided saying they had been fired, and gave no clue to her reasoning - including why she kept two members.

But the political infighting seems to come down to the commission’s recent hiring of Richard Whitman to head the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality, an agency that has endured rough times. Whitman is a former aide to Brown and Gov. John Kitzhaber, and a former director of the state Department of Land Conservation and Development. He served as acting DEQ director so it is not surprising that the commission unanimously gave him the permanent job after conducting a national search.

Brown’s staff said she was dissatisfied with the selection process - that it took too long and was insufficiently “collaborative” with the governor’s office. Yet they said Brown had confidence in Whitman’s abilities.

The first part of the governor’s concern may highlight a flaw in the hiring process - that independent commissions and semi-autonomous agencies, which abound in state government, might lack the expertise and resources to adequately manage top-level hiring. That concern deserves a close look by the Legislature during the final three months of its 2017 session.

But the question of “collaboration” is deeply troubling. State law clearly says the governor shall appoint the commission members, the state Senate shall decide whether to confirm those appointments, and the commission shall appoint the DEQ director.

Given that Whitman is in place and Brown professes confidence in him, why now sack a majority of the commissioners?

The ousted commissioners say it’s because Brown did not want them to appoint Whitman. They also say that Brown was late in making her desires known.

Even if those allegations are only partially true, they raise serious questions about how much involvement a governor should have in a supposedly independent commission.

Brown has been at odds with the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission over gillnetting in the Columbia River. She also defied her fellow members of the State Land Board in ordering the Division of State Lands to create a plan for keeping the Elliott State Forest in public ownership. As in this latest instance, her rationale was not fully explained.

The trend is disturbing.

Oregonians have wanted stronger leadership from Gov. Brown. But her sacking of three EQC commissioners smacks of retribution, not leadership.

____

The (Albany) Democrat-Herald, April 2, on preparing for this summer’s total eclipse:

Throughout history, solar eclipses have been viewed as omens or portents, and you can see why: When the sky inexplicably darkens for a couple of minutes in the middle of the day, you might start to wonder why - and you certainly could be forgiven for thinking that, well, this can’t be good.

To name just one historical example, consider Louis the Pious, the third son of Charlemagne: After witnessing a solar eclipse in the year 840, Louis reportedly became convinced it was a sign that God planned to punish him. Louis died of fright shortly thereafter, plunging the kingdom into civil war.

Portents don’t always signal gloomy times: The Greek historian Herodotus tells of the Battle of Halys in 585 B.C. between two warring nations, the Lydians and the Medes. During the battle, a solar eclipse occurred. The warriors took it as a sign that the gods wanted the war to end. They laid down their arms and negotiated a cease-fire.

Going back for many centuries and across many cultures, astronomers have been trying to figure out the mysteries of these celestial events - and actually doing quite well at not just cracking the mysteries, but beginning to predict, with considerable accuracy, the next eclipse.

Nevertheless, celestial events of this magnitude always trigger fresh portents, and this summer’s total eclipse, coming on Monday, Aug. 21, won’t be any exception.

In fact, we’re now just coming to grips with the fact that the solar event is certain to draw at least tens of thousands of people (and, quite likely, more) to Oregon’s mid-valley. That’s because a big part of the mid-valley is smack dab in the middle of the so-called “path of totality.” Which is another way of saying that viewers in this area will experience a total eclipse, for up to two minutes.

Tourism experts and astronomy buffs, among others, have been pointing to Aug. 21 as a red-letter day for more than a year, and now the rest of us are starting to piece together what a huge deal this will be. Hotel rooms in the mid-valley have been booked for more than a year. (There have been reports that some hotels have canceled previous reservations and put those rooms up for rent for thousands of dollars a pop, a practice which has been called to the attention of the state attorney general.)

In the meantime, officials from agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Oregon Department of Transportation are working through some of the challenges inherent in dealing with thousands upon thousands of people descending upon the mid-valley.

For example, consider this potential transportation challenge: The eclipse makes landfall in the United States near Newport. You can imagine there might be an appeal to watching the event from the shores of the Pacific Ocean - but not so much if the day dawns foggy and cloudy on the coast.

Here’s what will happen then: Thousands of potentially disappointed eclipse fans will hop into their cars and head for some location with clear skies. The potential implication there: bumper-to-bumper traffic on Highway 20 from Newport to Corvallis.

Similarly, Marys Peak or other public lands would appear to be great places to view the eclipse - but we won’t all fit on Marys Peak. How to manage those crowds? For that matter, how do we make sure that our public lands don’t get trampled by the hordes?

Our guess now is that the opportunities afforded us by the eclipse will far outweigh any hassles. But we do well to prepare now for this event. And we look forward to that moment, just a few months from now, when we all look to the skies to witness a moment that has enraptured watchers through the millennia.

___

The (Medford) Mail-Tribune, April 2, on problems with the state’s child welfare system:

A newly released report indicating state child welfare workers failed to identify threats to the safety of children is just the latest in a long string of alarming findings about the state’s dysfunctional child welfare system. Legislators now meeting in Salem must get a handle on that system, and must give it the resources needed to adequately monitor at-risk children and keep them safe.

The Oregon Department of Human Services has been under scrutiny for years over its failure to protect children in its care and to adequately investigate situations that resulted in children being seriously injured or killed. Last month, nearly 10 years after a state law required it to do so, the agency finally adopted rules spelling out how those investigations should be done.

An internal state report made public last week found that state child welfare workers incorrectly determined children were safe in 47 out of 101 cases examined. In 27 percent of cases, workers didn’t look for safety threats, and identified the wrong threat in 20 percent.

Then-Gov. Ted Kulongoski created the department’s Critical Incident Response Teams in 2004. Teams consist of DHS staff members who examine cases of death or serious injury after the fact and recommend changes to prevent future incidents. In 2007, legislation put the CIRTs into state statute and required the agency to develop the rules that finally appeared last month.

Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, who sponsored the 2007 bill as a House member, has introduced new legislation this year to strengthen the CIRT system by adding members to the team from outside DHS, requiring investigators to interview people familiar with the case rather than relying on records, and requiring that the final report include timelines for corrective action and lists of people responsible for carrying out the investigators’ recommendation.

We would add another requirement: Make each report public as soon as it is completed, with provisions for protecting the identities of the children involved.

DHS’ blemished history of failing to protect the state’s most vulnerable children must be a matter of public record so the taxpayers who support the agency can see how their money is being spent.

None of this is intended to disparage the challenges facing child welfare caseworkers. The problem of child abuse and neglect is enormous. In 2015 alone, the Statesman Journal reported, DHS received nearly 70,000 reports of suspected abuse or neglect, and completed more than 27,000 investigations while overseeing 28,247 children in foster care, family services or in cases being investigated.

DHS officials say the agency has never had enough staff to handle the workload. Given state budget realities, it may never have enough. But protecting children must be a top priority for budget writers.

Beyond staffing levels, DHS must do a better job of assessing risks to children in its care. Aggressively investigating the cases that end in tragedy, implementing improved procedures and making reports public to ensure accountability will go a long way toward achieving that goal.

___

The Oregonian, April 1, on keeping the Elliott State Forest in public ownership and funding Oregon schools:

The newfound willingness by Oregon Treasurer Tobias Read to help find a way to keep the Elliott State Forest in public ownership carries enormous promise for present and future generations of Oregonians.

What was to have been a sell-off of the forest to raise cash for Oregon schools now becomes a money puzzle for the Legislature, however, soon to debate buying most or all of the forest and ensuring payment to the state’s Common School Fund for the loss of Elliott’s dwindling logging revenues.

Read’s turnabout has history. In 2015, as a member of the Legislature, Read introduced a bill that would have allowed lands such as the Elliott to be purchased by the Legislature and placed under the management of a state agency to avoid sell-offs to private parties. It went nowhere. It would have been a deft way around the Oregon Constitution, in places moldy from age and requiring that lands such as the Elliott be held for the exclusive purpose of generating revenue for public schools. But late last year, as Oregon’s new treasurer, he could find no defense for further delays and argued that selling was the way to go.

The use of the Elliott as an engine of the Common School Fund was smart many decades ago, when Oregon had a lot of trees to cut and sell. But things have changed dramatically. Oregon has expanded in population and development, wildlife species and waterway protections have been mandated, and logging has declined sharply. Recreational use of Oregon’s forests, meanwhile, has surged, and newfound environmental values, among them the natural storage of carbon in a time of climate change, have emerged.

Along the way the Elliott’s logging revenues nose-dived, sinking too low in recent years to meet constitutional obligations. The overseeing State Land Board - Read is one of three members to decide the Elliott’s fate - saw little option but to sell it off and said as much late last year, with Gov. Kate Brown the lone holdout. Selling the Elliott would place more than $200 million in proceeds in an investment account, generating stable earnings for schools. And selling would allow the Land Board to narrowly acquit its constitutional obligation. But it would do so by offloading public lands granted to Oregonians long ago by the federal government.

Angus Duncan chairs the Oregon Global Warming Commission, runs the Bonneville Environmental Foundation and has advised several Oregon governors. He is among those who talked in recent weeks with Read about forest values, among them carbon storage in a time of climate change and the rising need for the public to hold on to a dwindling resource: forest lands. “We can make more dollars, but it’s much harder to make more forests,” Duncan told The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board last week. “The Elliott presents a situation in which there’s a hold of the past and present upon the future.”

Only months ago, Read acknowledged his 2015 initiative but said he saw no other option for the Elliott than to sell it, albeit with several conditions to protect the public’s interests. Last week, however, following his announcement that he’d returned to an old stance, he explained to the editorial board that he senses “momentum in the Legislature” to possibly create a land-transfer mechanism, in which the state would purchase some or all of the Elliott and assign its management to another state agency, thereby keeping valuable forestland in state ownership.

Good. In joining Brown as one of two keep-the-Elliott votes on the land board, he makes probable the best of all outcomes: The Elliott State Forest will remain in public hands. In reversing himself, he not only throws the matter back to the Legislature but re-enters the graces of Oregon’s conservation community, which mobilized mightily for the Elliott. Separately but pertinently, the election of Donald Trump as president, and the fear he’d broadly diminish protections of public lands, only deepened the fight to protect the Elliott.

The deal’s not done. That will take action by the Legislature, now considering Senate Bill 847, wisely sponsored by Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, a neighbor to the Elliott. Roblan’s bill maps the kind of land transfer that could allow the protection of the Elliott and other state lands, provided the Legislature finds the bonding to pay for it.

Lawmakers should look ahead, rather than behind, as the value of the Elliott is gauged for present and future generations. The forest is just too valuable not to keep.


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