- Associated Press - Monday, January 9, 2017

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

The Oregonian, Jan. 6, on conflicts of interest in the governor’s office:

Two of Gov. Kate Brown’s top staffers stepped down last week following news reports that employment they held outside of her office could compromise their work for the government.

The governor’s spokespeople argued the assertions were baseless as the story played out. And since the resignations were confirmed, they haven’t acknowledged what might have been learned. What’s so dismaying is how familiar it feels.

Willamette Week had raised potential conflict-of-interest questions about Kristen Leonard, Brown’s chief of staff, and Abby Tibbs, her deputy chief of staff. A main issue for Leonard, who had served in the role since late 2015, centered on a software company she owns with her husband that has a $214,000 contract with the state to provide agencies with a tool to track legislative bills.

Tibbs, who joined the office full-time in December, had been overseeing budget work for Brown since October while on leave from her job as a lobbyist for Oregon Health and Science University.

Both Leonard and Tibbs resigned this week and Brown’s spokesman has said the departures weren’t related to the recent press reports.

Let’s recall the point at which many Oregonians are starting from. It’s not a smooth place of confidence and faith in their state government. For many, it’s a deep chasm of distrust.

To be clear, unlike her predecessor, Brown has required that all of her policy advisers submit financial disclosure statements to the Oregon Government Ethics Commission outlining any substantial income they receive. The disclosures also apply to members of their household. She also passed legislation so that future governors must make the same requirement.

That’s a fine step in the right direction.

The “statement of economic impact” forms are typically only required of public officials. They are public documents that are relatively easy to track down on the ethics agency’s website. But those forms don’t paint a full ethical picture. They’re not filed in real time and are often vague.

For instance, Leonard’s report on her 2016 financial information won’t be filed until mid-April. Her 2015 form names the company that she and her husband own. It states that Leonard’s household receives a salary from the company, Election Solutions, and provides a brief description of the company: “Software contract - BillTracker.”

The form doesn’t require Leonard to disclose that the company holds a six-figure contract with the state agency that Brown oversees. That requires more digging than should be expected of members of the public who Brown and her staff serve.

Oregonians need that map, but they also deserve the “X” that marks the spot. That’s where conflict of interest disclosures come in. Those disclosures cover specific issues that may allow a state employee to potentially gain personally from their government work.

To continue her work in restoring Oregonians’ trust in government, Brown should also require her employees complete those more detailed forms when her office becomes aware of a potential conflict.

It’s true state law doesn’t require the conflict disclosure unless a state employee is making an official decision on the specific issue. But what’s legal isn’t always the best politics. That’s especially true for Brown, just two years after Gov. John Kitzhaber resigned over questions about ethics.

Disclosing conflicts can be easier for lawmakers, council members or commissioners, who can stand before a public meeting, announce their potential conflict and recuse themselves from a vote.

But the public isn’t invited into the types of meetings where Leonard and Tibbs do much of their work.

Chris Pair, Brown’s spokesman, told The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board that as a part of the hiring process, the governor’s legal counsel is typically made aware of such potential conflicts. In other words, these recent revelations about Brown’s chief of staff and her deputy probably weren’t surprises.

And they shouldn’t have been to Oregonians.

Brown should take this chance to make another solid step down the path of transparency and post information from conflict of interest forms online, as the ethic commission does with financial disclosures. That would allow the public to find the information more easily and pave the way for such disclosures in other state agencies and local government.

If it’s legitimate, light it up for all to see.


The East Oregonian, Jan. 2, on clemency for Dwight and Stephen Hammond

At the end of their terms presidents typically grant pardons or clemency to a host of federal inmates whose cases are too politically controversial for all but a lame duck to handle.

It’s time that President Obama grant Dwight and Stephen Hammond clemency and allow them to return to their Oregon ranch.

Ranchers in Oregon’s Harney County, father and son have a long history of disputes with the Bureau of Land Management over grazing allotments. Dwight Hammond was convicted of one count related to a fire that burned 139 acres of BLM land in 2006. Stephen Hammond was convicted of one count related to the 2006 fire, and a separate count related to a fire in 2001.

The Hammonds received a fair trial and were found guilty. Many believe they had just cause to start the fires and deserved no punishment even if they had technically broken the law. The jury found otherwise, and the original trial court handed down fair, and lenient, sentences.

In addition to lengthy probation, Dwight Hammond received six months in prison, his son one year. The original prison sentences were served.

But those sentences ignored the minimum mandatory five-year sentence prescribed by the federal arson statute. The government appealed, the sentences were overturned and the trial court ordered the Hammonds to serve out the remainder of new five-year sentences.

They have been in federal prison for a year.

That’s enough.

When the crack cocaine trade was destroying minority communities, Congress was pressed to set a strong deterrent. It used its constitutional authority to remove judicial discretion in sentencing. It was deemed to have worked so well on inner city drug offenders that the concept was applied to a wide range of federal crimes.

That is the law. To quote Dickens, the law is an ass.

We understand the appeal of mandatory sentencing. It’s easy, and it demonstrates that criminality won’t be tolerated. But the purpose of prosecution is to serve justice. It’s not supposed to be easy. Removing judicial discretion to weigh the circumstances does not serve justice, even if in some cases judges err and are too lenient. Sometimes, the cause of justice is served by leniency.

President Obama must think so, too. He’s spent the last couple of years speaking out against mandatory sentencing. To punctuate the point, he has granted clemency to drug offenders whose mandatory sentences he has judged unjust and overly punitive given the circumstances of their crimes.

By coincidence, the original judge in the Hammonds’ case found a mandatory five-year sentence overly punitive given the circumstances of their crimes.

The Hammonds have served enough time, justice has been served. The president should commute their sentences to time served and send them home.


The (Eugene) Register-Guard, Jan. 5, on finding a home in Oregon

Would-be home buyers in Oregon got two pieces of bad news recently.

First, mortgage rates last week rose to their highest level in more than two years - 4.32 percent for a 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage.

This was the ninth week in a row that mortgage rates have risen; as recently as October, 30-year mortgage rates were averaging 3.47 percent.

What this means for a home buyer is a bigger bite out of each month’s paycheck - an additional $100 per month on a $200,000, 30-year mortgage, for example, compared to just two months ago - or, potentially, more difficulty finding a home or qualifying for a mortgage if this trend continues as expected.

The other piece of bad news for home buyers, particularly first-time ones, is that home prices also are rising. The average price of a single-family home in Lane County in the first 11 months of 2016 was 8.1 percent higher than in the first 11 months of 2015.

The combination of rising home prices and rising interest rates puts young first-time buyers, in particular, in a squeeze. This has economic implications at all levels.

While much attention has been focused - rightly - on the urgent issue of homelessness, it’s important to keep an eye on the entire continuum of housing, from emergency shelters on through rentals and home buying.

Cities and counties that don’t want to become retirement communities for the well-heeled, that want to remain vibrant, with a diverse mix of ages and income levels, need to be planning strategies for creating and maintaining affordable - including owner-occupied - housing.

Oregon lawmakers last year began to tackle the issue of housing in earnest, passing a series of bills aimed at reducing homelessness and increasing the supply of affordable housing.

Non-profits also have been tackling the issue. St. Vincent de Paul of Lane County, for example, has been scooping up mobile home parks - one of the cheapest options for home ownership - to protect them from being demolished.

These are all good steps, but they only start to deal with the large and complex problem of housing.

There are abundant examples of desirable places to live that have become enclaves only for the wealthy, the Aspens, the Santa Barbaras and the San Franciscos.

Oregon needs to pay attention to this and work on a statewide approach to housing that looks at the whole spectrum - from those in urgent need of emergency shelter to renters seeking decent housing to young families and others unable to buy a home. This approach needs to include consumers, government agencies, non-profits, and state, local and national elected officials.

The discussion should include related factors, such as slow wage growth, and also approaches that are working elsewhere that might be adaptable to Oregon. Santa Barbara County in California, for example, created a multi-pronged approach running the gamut from the Homelessness Prevention and Rapid Re-Housing Assistance program to affordable housing for first-time buyers. Housing is one of humans’ most basic needs - and ownership one of the strongest desires for many. It is time for Oregon to begin mapping out a comprehensive approach to it.


The Bend Bulletin, Jan. 7, on rules governing ranchers’ use of antibiotics

Starting Jan. 1, the federal Food and Drug Administration tightened the rules about using antibiotics on feed animals. When the Oregon Legislature convenes Feb. 1, it will consider a state measure that would further tighten rules governing antibiotic use.

The changes could help combat the growing problem of antibiotic-resistant bugs, but there are legitimate concerns from ranchers.

The FDA rules prohibit the use of “medically important antibiotics” except under limited conditions. They do so in part by eliminating the right of retailers to sell over the counter to ranchers some antibiotics that would require prescriptions for human use. Now, ranchers, feed-lot operators and others may use those drugs only under the supervision of a veterinarian. That may be an expensive proposition for backyard farmers with only a handful of cattle or for an operator whose ranch is far from the nearest veterinarian.

The state law would not change that requirement. It would specifically limit nontherapeutic use (an animal is not yet sick) to times when the risk of disease is present - during times of high stress, for example. In addition, the proposal says such drugs must be given to the fewest animals possible and for the shortest period of time necessary to prevent the spread of disease.

The House Committee on Health Care’s Legislative Concept 2410 - the precursor of a bill - also includes a state reporting requirement that would apply only to ranchers and others who operate confined animal feeding operations (CAFOs), generally those with larger numbers of animals. Those reports would become a matter of public record under the proposal. Lawmakers should think long and hard about asking for the specific number of animals thus treated, which could give unnecessary insight into a producer’s finances.

The regulatory changes will require some producers to alter their ways, clearly, though with major fast-food companies’ newfound love of antibiotic-free meat, they may have done so anyway. Even without a push from retailers, however, both the FDA rules and the Oregon law make sense. Antibiotic-resistant bugs are an increasingly dangerous health problem.


The (Albany) Democrat-Herald, Jan. 8, on pay raises for Oregon legislators

A pair of legislators from central Oregon recently made a bit of news when they said they would not accept the pay raises for legislators that were included in Gov. Kate Brown’s proposed budget.

The legislators, Rep. Knute Buehler and Sen. Tim Knopp, said it sent the wrong message to accept the pay raises at a time when the state is facing a budget deficit that’s closing in on $2 billion for the next two-year budget cycle. They said the law doesn’t allow them to actually decline the raises, so they planned to donate the extra money (the 2.75 percent increase works out to about $648) to charities.

OK, that’s fair enough. We have considerable respect for the work that Buehler and Knopp are doing in the Legislature, and they’re free to do what they like with their money.

Still, this raises a couple of points that are worth additional discussion.

First, although it’s tempting to take a political slap at Gov. Brown, she included the increase for legislative pay because that’s what was in state statutes; the governor doesn’t decide unilaterally what legislators should be paid. (Although it would make for interesting news stories if the governor did get to make that call, say at the end of each session.)

If Buehler and Knopp want to make an issue of how much legislators get paid, they should launch an effort to change the law. (To be completely fair, the two have said they plan to do that in the 2017 session.)

Legislative salaries are computed using the state’s Management Service Compensation Plan. Effective Dec. 1, the plan was increased by 2.75 percent for a cost of living adjustment. Before the adjustment, a legislator pulled down $1,964 a month. Now, beginning with their Jan. 1 checks, they’re being paid $2,018 a month. The total annual salary is $24,216.

The total added cost to the state works out to $58,320 a year. Now, we don’t claim any particular skills at math, but a quick run with a calculator says that amount works out to be about 0.003 percent of the state budget shortfall. It’ll take a lot more than that to fill this particular hole.

And let’s run a little mental calculation of our own. The Legislature this year is scheduled to meet for 160 days, about 22 weeks. Let’s assume for the sake of argument that a typical legislator works 60 hours a week while in session (we suspect that this is way low). That’s 1,320 hours. Let’s assume that legislators work 10 hours a week on state business even when the Legislature isn’t in session (again, this likely is way low). That adds another 300 hours to the total. If you divide 1,620 hours by what we pay them, it works out to $14.95 an hour, and that rate is almost certainly high.

Oregonians pride themselves on having a citizen Legislature; by 2022, after the last few increases in Oregon’s minimum wage, we’ll have something very close to a minimum-wage Legislature.

We understand where Knopp and Buehler are coming from; the timing of this particular raise, as small as it is, is unfortunate at best. But there’s a larger issue here: Considering what we ask from them and the complexity of the issues that they must grapple with, you can make a strong case that we don’t pay our legislators nearly enough - especially if we want to attract younger legislators who must also juggle families and other jobs. This probably isn’t the session to address this issue. But that doesn’t mean the problem is going away.

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