- Associated Press - Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

The Bend Bulletin, Feb. 18, on legislation aimed at curbing opioid abuse:

Oregon has an opioid abuse problem. In that, it’s not alone. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and states across the country are fighting it vigorously.

So, too, might the Oregon Legislature. But two proposed bills are not the answer.

House Bill 2114 and Senate Bill 270 would require physicians to prescribe only seven days’ worth of opiates to new patients, though there are exceptions to the rule. In addition, physicians would be required to keep a new set of records regarding prescriptions for more than seven days. Failure to do so could result in a felony conviction.

Even in a state with a serious illicit and prescription drug abuse problem, that’s a mighty severe punishment to impose upon a busy physician.

Still, it’s the prescription limit itself that is the worst part of the two bills.

Doctors should be deciding the proper treatments for their patients, not the Legislature.

The Senate’s Committee on Health Care heard just that message repeatedly Tuesday from representatives of the Oregon Medical Association and the Oregon chapter of the American College of Emergency Physicians. Only a representative of the Oregon attorney general’s office spoke in favor of the measure.

Oregon has an opioid problem that must be brought under control. This isn’t the way to do it, however. Limiting doctors’ ability to do what they’re trained to do - treat disease and injury - is not going to solve the problem. It could make things worse for some patients.

The American Medical Association offers a different, multi-pronged approach that’s more likely to succeed, including making addiction treatment more readily available, education and use of the state’s prescription drug monitoring program. If there are holes in Oregon’s methods, they should be plugged without tying physicians’ hands.

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The (Eugene) Register-Guard, Feb. 20, on whether to increase salaries for Oregon judges:

Even if members of Oregon’s judiciary have absorbed all the skills in argumentation that they see in their courtrooms they are unlikely to persuade the Legislature to give them salary increases ranging from 12.7 percent to 14.2 percent over the next four years. The judges have a good case to make - but they’re making it to lawmakers who are confronting a $1.8 billion budget shortfall. Oregon should consider adopting a different method of setting judicial salaries.

Judges in Oregon’s circuit courts are paid $135,776 a year. That’s a comfortable living, but most other states pay more - the salary Oregon pays its judges in its courts of general jurisdiction ranks 38th in the nation, according to the National Center for State Courts. Adjusted for differences in the various states’ cost of living, Oregon’s circuit court salaries rank 48th. Judges on the Oregon Court of Appeals rank slightly better, while Oregon Supreme Court justices rank slightly worse.

The rankings are not quite as bad as they look, because Oregon judges qualify for generous pension benefits under the Public Employees Retirement System. For each of their first 16 years of service, judges are credited with 3.75 percent of their final salary in pension benefits. The usual rate is 1.5 percent a year, or 2.5 percent for public-safety personnel. The accelerated crediting means that a judge who retires after 16 years on the bench gets a pension equal to 60 percent of his or her final salary, or currently $81,466 a year.

That’s a sweet deal, but given Oregon’s relatively low judicial salaries, it needs to be. Judges usually come to the bench after establishing themselves in private legal practice or as prosecutors. For many, judicial service entails a cut in pay at a point in their careers when their earnings potential is highest. A judge who is seeking election or appointment because of the paycheck doesn’t belong on the bench.

The PERS factor complicates the problem of ranking judicial compensation in Oregon, but the salaries should be high enough to attract talented people to judicial positions. Oregon judges at all levels must stand for election every six years, but most vacancies are initially filled by a gubernatorial appointment, and the subsequent races are seldom contested. That’s partly because it’s hard to dislodge an incumbent - but it may also be because the positions aren’t attractive enough to make the risk of a losing campaign worthwhile.

The adequacy of judicial salaries is difficult for legislators to evaluate, even in the absence of a fiscal crisis. Oregon should consider doing what eight other states have done: Create a judicial salary commission whose decisions can be over-ridden only by a vote of the Legislature. Washington state goes one step further: Its judicial salary commission’s decisions are final unless they are over-ridden by a vote of the people.

A commission empowered in this way could weigh the interplay between salaries and pension benefits, and arrive at salary figures adequate to ensure a competent judiciary at all levels. Oregon’s judges could then save their argumentation skills for their opinions.

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The (Albany) Democrat-Herald, Feb. 17, on business taxes:

It’s just a couple of weeks into the legislative session, and it’s becoming clear that at least some legislators are drawing a bead on Oregon businesses to help fill at least some of the looming budget shortfall.

Earlier this week, for example, members of the House Revenue Committee heard a report about a study from the Council on State Taxation, the State Tax Research Institute and the accounting firm Ernst & Young. The conclusion of the report: Oregon is one of the few states in which businesses receive more in state services than they pay in taxes. The report concluded that for every dollar in state services businesses receive, they pay just 80 cents in taxes. (The study assumes that 50 percent of a state’s education spending benefits businesses.)

The implication of the study was clear: Oregon businesses aren’t paying their fair share of taxes. It’s the same argument that drove the debate over Measure 97, the proposed tax on the gross receipts of some state corporations. You might recall how voters dealt with that particular argument in November.

And it’s an argument that doesn’t tell the whole story: While it is true that Oregon rates relatively low in terms of business taxes, that’s because the state doesn’t have a sales tax. If sales taxes were removed from the picture, Oregon moves up to the 26th-lowest rate of business taxation in the nation, right about in the middle of the pack.

This new focus on business taxes isn’t an unexpected development, especially as legislators try to find ways to plug that budget shortfall. But it does come with some political risks, especially for Democrats, who need at least some votes from Republicans to approve any increase in taxes. If the partisan lines become too divisive, the session runs the risk of stalemating the way it did in 2015, when the lack of a single Republican vote doomed prospects for a transportation package. (At the time, Republicans said they could not support an increase in the gasoline tax to pay for the transportation package because they believed the state’s Clean Fuels Program would increase the price of gas; it amounted to hitting Oregon citizens twice at the pump, Republicans argued. When Democrats weren’t willing to budge on the Clean Fuels Program, Republicans declined to budge on the gas tax.)

In this session thus far, business leaders and Republicans consistently have suggested that they might be willing to come to the table and discuss business taxes, but they’ve put a couple of conditions on that: First, Republicans have said, they want to see progress toward reform of the state’s public pension system, which is struggling under the weight of an estimated $22 billion unfunded liability and which increasingly is strangling local governments as they scramble to find ways to cover the cost of rising premiums.

And Republicans have said they want the Legislature to take big steps toward crafting a transportation package to help pay for needed work on the state’s roads, bridges and other infrastructure.

Neither of those tasks will come easily, as we saw in 2015. But the Legislature, to its credit, has started work on the public pension issue. And a joint transportation committee is continuing its work. So, on both those fronts, the Legislature appears to be ahead of where it was in 2015. That doesn’t guarantee anything, but it’s a promising start.

At the end of this week’s presentation, Phil Barnhart, the chair of the Revenue Committee, told attendees that the conversation on revenue reform would continue throughout the session. It would seem to go without saying that the conversation should include Republicans and business leaders as well, but we’ll see.

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The (Yamhill Valley) News-Register, Feb. 17, on education funding:

Oregon’s dominant Democrats have been sounding the alarm about the future of K-12 school funding since Nov. 8.

On that day, their widely ballyhooed revenue plan died at the hands of voters, who saw it for what it was - an attempt to pick consumer pockets by slapping a thinly disguised sales tax on Oregon’s largest and most successful enterprises. They had no Plan B, and the rebuff left them with a nearly $2 billion deficit to fill.

But what of K-12’s elder stepchild, Oregon’s chronically underfunded state college system? Hardly a whimper, even from ground zero in Portland, Eugene and Corvallis.

It’s not hard to discern the reason. The union representing K-12 teachers provides the money and manpower that propels Democrats into office, but it has no counterpart at the collegiate level.

Unfortunately, it’s not hard to discern the result either.

The University of Oregon responded earlier this week by announcing a 10.6 percent tuition hike, serving to add $965 to the annual tab, and other state schools have little choice but to follow suit. What’s more, incoming freshmen face the prospect of having to absorb similar hikes every year of a four- or five-year tenure, on top of soaring costs for room, board, books, transportation and other necessities.

We are thus serving to saddle an entire generation with almost insurmountable student loan burdens. An infusion of new state funding is desperately needed, but so far this century, we have been heading inexorably the other direction.

Adjusted for inflation, the decline now exceeds 50 percent. And taking up the slack falls largely to tuition, which has risen a compensating 43 percent.

Tuition now accounts for 66.9 percent of state system support, compared to 21.4 percent for legislative funding and 11.7 for gifts, grants and other sources. If the disparity grows much larger, we’ll have erased the only meaningful distinction between private and public institutions.

State bond support for campus construction has also become increasingly restrictive, to the point it is severely hampering development of a branch campus to serve fast-growing Central Oregon. We have not been able to provide the K-12 system with everything we would like, but it’s gotten Cadillac treatment compared to its college counterpart, which is equally vital to preparing the next generation for successful entry into an increasingly demanding workforce.

The seven campuses are seeking a $100 million boost in the backsliding allocation recommended by Gov. Kate Brown, and that seems eminently reasonable from here.

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The (Medford) Mail Tribune, Feb. 17, on filing deadlines for those running for state office:

Democrats and Republicans in the Oregon Legislature frequently disagree on any number of issues. But when it comes to the integrity of the Legislature itself, they should be on the same page.

A bill introduced Thursday with bipartisan support seeks to prevent a repeat of the unseemly practice of lawmakers hand-picking their successors by manipulating the candidate filing process. It should pass.

The measure, sponsored by House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, is a direct response to what happened in Senate District 28 and House District 56 last March. The incumbents in those seats at the time, Sen. Doug Whitsett and his wife, Rep. Gail Whitsett, both Klamath Falls Republicans, had filed for re-election in fall 2015. In March 2016, minutes before the filing deadline, two Republican candidates filed, one for each seat. The next day, the Whitsetts announced they were retiring from the Legislature and withdrawing from the race, leaving those two candidates unopposed.

One of the people who would have been interested in running for the Senate District 28 seat was McLane, who was as surprised as anyone to learn the Whitsetts were withdrawing.

McLane’s bill, HB 2945, would require that if an incumbent withdraws from a race within three days of the filing deadline, the filing deadline will be extended so three full days are available for new candidates to file. If an incumbent withdraws after the filing deadline, a special three-day filing period will automatically open.

The bill is co-sponsored by House Democratic Leader Jennifer Williamson, Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli and Senate Democratic Leader Ginny Burdick. It should pass, so future elections are open to all interested candidates, not just a chosen few.


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