- Associated Press - Monday, January 23, 2017

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

The (Corvallis) Gazette-Times, Jan. 18, on public records and transparency:

One of the interesting sidelights in this year’s legislative session will be the fate of a proposal to create a public records ombudsman. The idea is that the ombudsman’s office would help mediate disputes between state agencies and members of the public requesting public records.

Now, your first question might well be this: Why would such an office be necessary? Don’t public records belong to, well, members of the public? Shouldn’t state agencies consistently be bending over backward to help citizens access those records?

To be fair, there are agencies where that occurs on a regular basis. But the overall picture is not as bright as it should be - and the number of instances in which a government bureaucracy has blocked legitimate requests for records or has charged unrealistic fees is on the rise, and has been for years.

The idea for the ombudsman is the work of a public task force that has been laboring for more than a year on overhauling the state’s records laws. It’s been challenging work; the task force had hoped, for example, to examine the 500 or so exemptions to the public records law that have cropped up in the decades since 1973, when Oregon enacted a law that was at the time considered among the best in the nation.

That’s no longer the case, a realization that helped pave the way for Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to create the task force in the first place. But it became clear to task force members that the work of cataloging and examining the exemptions will take some time.

So, in the meantime, the task force has recommended some smaller steps, including the idea of creating the ombudsman. A bill pending before the 2017 Legislature, Senate Bill 106, does just that, creating a position that will be called the “public records advocate.”

Let’s be clear: This isn’t the huge breakthrough in access to public records that Oregon citizens deserve. For starters, the advocate position would not have the authority to compel release of records, but it potentially would have the ability to work with citizens to mediate solutions to records disputes.

But it is a step forward, unless the position is created in such a way to undercut its legitimacy from the start. That’s part of the reason why former Secretary of State Jeanne Atkins recommended setting up the advocate’s position as an independent office in state government. But the state’s budget shortfall makes that a long shot, and Atkins understands that.

After initially proposing that the office be housed in the office of the secretary of state, Gov. Kate Brown recently suggested that the office be placed in the Department of Administrative Services. There’s a critical problem with that: The director of that department reports to the governor.

Why would Brown, a Democrat, change her tune about where the advocate should be located? The November elections may offer a clue: Voters chose Republican Dennis Richardson as the state’s new secretary of state.

But Brown, who has talked about the need to increase public confidence in state government, needs to shrug off whatever political concerns she might have and stick with the original plan. There is a promising sign on that front: A spokesman for the governor recently said that she’s less concerned with where the position might be housed and more focused on making sure it’s effective.

Let’s be blunt: It’s more effective if the governor doesn’t have direct authority over the position. In a legislative session that increasingly seems defined by hard partisan lines, it will be interesting to watch this issue play out.

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The Bend Bulletin, Jan. 19, on minimum wage and teenage employment:

Less than a year ago, Oregon’s Democratic leadership forced a big hike in the state’s minimum wage through the Legislature. Now lawmakers want taxpayers to pick up the tab to address one of its known disadvantages - a disproportionate impact on teen employment.

Oregon Senate Bill 290 asks taxpayers to pay part of the wages of young workers.

The proposal would allow employers of workers ages 16-25 to claim a credit for a portion of taxes owed to the state, thus lessening the employer’s cost in hiring a younger person.

Young people are uniquely disadvantaged by minimum wage laws, because the rules force employers to pay the same minimum wage for a beginner as for an experienced adult.

SB 290 would lessen that negative impact, but taxpayers would be picking up at least part of the cost, as much as 3 percent of the wages of a 16-year-old. It’s not a good approach.

Oregon already had one of the highest minimum wages in the nation when the 2016 increase was approved. The law created a three-tiered system that recognizes the different costs of living across the state. It phases in over several years after starting in July 2016, and by 2022 will raise Central Oregon’s minimum wage to $12.50 in Crook and Jefferson counties, and to $13.50 in Deschutes.

The disproportionate impact on teens was well-known when lawmakers debated the increase, which Republicans staunchly opposed. Research shows younger workers are severely affected, and that the youngest lose the most.

The new proposal was requested by the Senate Interim Committee on Workforce. It gives the biggest boost to hiring the youngest workers, with diminishing benefits after age 18 and again after age 21. Agricultural work in planting, cultivating or harvesting seasonal crops is not included.

If approved, the new law would take effect in January 2018, leaving time for the Department of Revenue to write rules and procedures to implement it. Those rules would cost time and money for government to manage and for businesses to understand and satisfy.

The bill implicitly acknowledges a critical problem that needs attention. The societal benefits of young people having jobs are many, including income and training, which helps build healthy citizens and healthy communities.

A far better approach would be scaling back minimum wage requirements and including provisions for a lower minimum wage for younger workers.

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The Oregonian/OregonLive, Jan. 22, on making up for lost school days:

After snow storms and poor road conditions forced school districts to cancel school day after school day this winter, it’s understandable that districts haven’t yet calculated how to make up the time to students.

It’s disappointing, however, that the state is jumping in so quickly to make the math easier. The Oregon Board of Education will consider next week a proposal that lets districts count as much as 14 hours of lost school time toward the total number of instructional hours that they owe students by state law, as The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Betsy Hammond reported. Districts simply need to secure support from their school boards and submit a written request to state schools chief Salam Noor for his approval. If districts still can’t find ways to make up enough missed hours to meet state minimums for instructional time, they may seek a waiver.

To be sure, the state must be flexible with school districts, some of which faced unprecedented weather conditions or inadequate plowing by transportation crews that kept them closed for nine or more days this winter. Making up lost time is more complicated than simply declaring a new ending date. It requires not only resources but agreement by teachers and administrators.

But the state’s default message should be that districts are expected to meet the minimum. That’s inherently what the word “minimum” is supposed to convey. Rather than automatically provide a relief valve, the state should put the burden on districts to show why they can’t meet it.

Oregon already has one of the shortest school years in the country. It mandates 900 hours of instruction for students from full-day kindergarten through 8th grade; 990 hours for 9th grade through 11th grade; and 966 hours for high school seniors. According to the Education Commission of the States, most states range from 900 hours on the low end to 1,080 on the high end. Losing any time puts students even farther behind.

The 14-hour proposal also backpedals on the message that the state issued just two years ago. In 2015, the state board of education said it would phase out its practice of allowing districts to count some of the hours lost to school closures toward the instructional time minimum. That makes sense, obviously, as schools aren’t providing instruction when they’re closed. But the current proposal sends a new message that the state is still wishy washy on what “instructional time” actually means.

No doubt there are legitimate arguments that districts can and should make for seeking a waiver. But they need to first do the work of trying to meet these very bare minimums and then make their case to the state for why they cannot.

Consider that both Portland Public Schools and Beaverton School District are mapping out strategies to avoid seeking a waiver from the district, spokespeople for both districts said. They have flexibility in part because they originally scheduled students for well over the minimums. While the winter isn’t over yet, it’s a promising sign of their commitment. It’s also proof that the state shouldn’t automatically look to lower the bar.

Too many times, it seems that when districts are faced with tough situations, they negotiate compromises that place the needs of administrators, teachers and staff above those of students. The state shouldn’t feed into that by allowing a definition of instructional time that is instructional only in showing the frailty of the state’s expectations.

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The East Oregonian, Jan. 18, on building what could become Oregon’s second largest dairy:

A lot of big changes are coming to a small piece of the Columbia Basin.

The tree farm alongside Interstate 84 that long hypnotized travelers is in the process of being removed and roughly one-third of it renovated into what could become Oregon’s second-largest dairy. Hale Farms, one of the biggest employers in the region, has sold to a conglomerate out of the Tri-Cities. The region, poised to pounce on new water from the Columbia River, is getting an infusion of new investment. That brings out the deep pockets, venture capitalists and the construction crews.

One such investment project is the proposed mega-dairy, currently being developed by Lost Valley Ranch. We’ve reported often on the plan to build a 30,000-cow facility near a 70,000-cow dairy that is already in operation. And we will continue to report in the future. Thousands of public comments have flooded into the state organizations (Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Agriculture) that are handling the siting and permitting process. The dairy’s future is certainly not a certainty.

But even without all the required operation permits in hand, the company has decided to start building. It has likely spent millions of dollars already on construction, design and dirt work. California developer Greg Te Velde told this newspaper they have already erected milk barns and stalls.

A number of environmental groups have cried foul, saying the company is getting ahead of regulators and attempting to circumvent the permitting process. The company contends it is just getting its ducks in a row, working in advance of an interminably long process and trying to be ready to operate as soon as they get the go ahead.

In our mind, the company is taking a risk by doing permitted building before they have an operations permit. To some of us, that might seem like an unnecessary risk. To others, it might be perfectly reasonable when considering the amount of money at stake. As long as the company stays within the law, we see no problem with building in advance of an operations permit.

Yet the environmental groups, and individuals from the area, are right to keep an eye on the company and the state. It may seem like it is tied up in a bureaucratic purgatory, with drawn out public comment periods and state offices conferring with other state offices. But actions taken at this time matter.

And one thing we are sure of: Any pre-manufacturing work by Lost Valley must have no impact in the state process. That work is done at the company’s risk, it cannot be used as leverage to allow them to jump through future hoops.

And hoops there will be.

The dairy has the ability to dramatically benefit the area - provide millions in tax dollars, lots of jobs and yes, milk and cheese. But it has the ability to negatively impact it as well. Cows produce more than milk, and the effect that 30,000 more of them will have on local water and air is something the state must consider.

Everything must be up for discussion, and a company that gets too far ahead of the process does so at its own risk.

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