- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

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The Eugene Register-Guard, July 26, on PERS reform

Give Gov. Kate Brown credit for 1) acknowledging that something has to be done about the enormous financial burden on Oregon that the Public Employees Retirement System has become and 2) convening an advisory panel to come up with new ideas to reduce the unfunded PERS liability - which currently stands at $22 billion - by $5 billion.

Credit Brown also for telling the task force that their mandate includes looking at “uncomfortable” options such as selling state lands and privatizing state agencies.

All of this, however, is a drop in the seemingly bottomless PERS bucket. And it won’t solve the major structural issues that have created the large, and ever-growing, financial threat PERS poses to the state.

At the heart of this issue are benefits for Tier 1 PERS beneficiaries that far surpass anything in the private sector, and most, if not all, public employee retirement systems in the country.

PERS was designed, approved, modified, expanded and adjudicated by public employees - in other words, the people who benefit from the system. This is not to impugn their actions, or motives, or to imply unethical behavior, but to point out that checks, balances and critical thinking have been sorely lacking throughout much of PERS’ history. It is also to point out that it is highly unusual that most of the development and control of a program as large as this - particularly one funded by taxpayer money - be vested in people who, as beneficiaries, have an inherent conflict of interest.

Had some more outsiders with a critical eye been involved in decision making at the start of PERS, or as alterations were made to the system, some proposals probably would have died in their infancy. This would include the requirement that taxpayers pony up additional funds if the return on PERS investments is below the unrealistic levels set for the system, but no counter-balancing mechanism if returns are higher than expected.

Some previous attempts at meaningful PERS reform have resulted in public employee unions promptly filing suit, arguing that a contract is a contract. The unions have generally won these lawsuits.

This - plus the political clout wielded by unions and their members - has had a chilling effect on talk of further attempts at PERS reform.

This is not to say there have been no attempts. A bill introduced in the last legislative session would have required public employees to contribute a tiny amount of their salaries - starting at 1 percent next year - to the pension fund, as is done in most states.

Senate Bill 1068 died in committee, but it was a tiny step in the right direction. Most importantly, it didn’t prompt threats of lawsuits from public employee unions.

Unrealistic burdens placed on the state by unrealistic PERS benefits are hurting everyone. Even when tax revenues grow, money that would have gone for uses such as education instead is sucked into PERS. It’s time for all the parties - unions, lawmakers and taxpayers - to come to the table and start working on meaningful reforms that everyone can live with. The PERS can has been kicked down the road for far too long.

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The Bend Bulletin, July 25, on U.S. Forest Service needing ability to make emergency decisions

Chief Justice Thomas O. Rice of the federal Eastern Washington judicial district recently ruled that the U.S. Forest Service did not break the law by making an emergency decision to create a firebreak to stop a wildfire “without environmental analysis or public participation.”

The ruling came in a lawsuit brought by the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. The group challenged the decision to build a 10-mile-long firebreak on 2015’s Wolverine Fire. The group wanted to stop the Forest Service from using a regulation that exempts emergency actions from a complicated and time-consuming National Environmental Policy Act analysis.

The Wolverine Fire was only one of several burning in Washington state that summer. It began after a lightning storm in late June and was watched but largely allowed to burn until late July, when it grew dramatically and rapidly. It was about 80 percent contained as of Sept. 19, according to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, which coordinates eight federal agencies when large fires are burning. By that time the lightning-caused fire had burned more than 65,000 acres.

While the fire never moved south as much as officials feared, they felt they had little choice but to clear the 10-mile, 300-foot swath of timber and brush that constituted the firebreak to protect the community of Plain. It was, officials believed, an emergency.

It’s hard to see what other choice they had. Time was of the essence; the NEPA analysis sought by the environmental group generally takes months, not hours, to complete. By then, Plain may have been destroyed.

Emergency decisions, like the one on the Wolverine Fire, must, by definition, be made quickly and under pressure. In this case, with lives at stake, the pressure was no doubt particularly intense. As the judge wrote, it would be “contrary to common sense” to accept the plaintiff’s argument that individual forest fires are predictable enough not to be emergencies.

Delaying decisions about firebreaks only increase the chance that lives and property will be lost.

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The Oregonian/OregonLive, July 25, on deleting “Lynch” from area schools’ names

Credit the Centennial School Board for embracing the change and challenges that come with serving an increasingly diverse student population. While some districts might put the burden on new students to figure out how to fit into Centennial, the school board is instead looking at how to stretch and grow into a district that is more responsive to students, no matter their race, ethnicity or national origin. It’s a forward-looking attitude, especially notable in the east Multnomah County district that has scarce dollars for funding new programs or adaptations.

But in their eagerness to back up their good intentions, school board members are poised to ditch their good sense. The board is considering a proposal to drop “Lynch” from the names of three elementary schools named for a pioneer family - not because the family had any actual connection to the abhorrent practice of lynching, but out of concern that the name can conjure up those associations. School board members should reject the proposal, recognize the damaging message such a move unwittingly sends, and step up to the responsibility of educating students using facts and context, not assumption and bias.

As The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Janaki Chadha reported, the three elementary schools, Lynch Wood, Lynch View and Lynch Meadows, were named in honor of the family who donated land for a community school more than a century ago. But the Centennial superintendent said an increasing number of questions and complaints are coming from families of color who are wary of the word.

This is where teaching should play a role. It’s not just the obvious lesson that words have multiple meanings or that people bring different perspectives to the same issue. There’s the lesson of who the Lynches were - a family headed by Patrick and Catherine Lynch who came to the United States in 1867 from Ireland, according to census documents. They were immigrants, just like many of those joining the student body at Centennial and other school districts throughout the area. While it’s unclear what drove the Lynches’ decision to leave Ireland, many Irish immigrants in the mid-19th Century left due to famine and political unrest, themes that resonate today. The Lynches and their donation in 1900 to support education exemplifies the kind of significant contributions immigrants have and will continue to make to the local community.

Instead of telling that compelling story, the school board would rather hit the delete button, in some patronizing misinterpretation of what it means to champion equity. Equity, however, isn’t about curating an alternate reality to protect students from any discomfort. Equity is about equipping students with the support, curriculum, guidance and resources that help them navigate the complicated reality that we live in and assists them to achieve their potential.

The proposal in front of the school board also insinuates that a person’s name can be so shameful or disturbing, that it should be changed or suppressed. While the motivations may be different, it’s that kind of stunted thinking that led opponents of former President Barack Obama to highlight his middle name, Hussein, in a disgusting effort to discredit him through xenophobic innuendo.

Explaining the Lynch name in the three schools is easy compared to teaching about Oregon’s exclusionary history and its continuing effects. If the Centennial School Board thinks this is too big a challenge for them to handle, then families in the district have far more to worry about than what to call their neighborhood school.

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The Corvallis Gazette-Times, July 24, on voting commission being a sham

The Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity held its first official meeting last week, so this is a good time to remind you about what appears to be the commission’s true agenda.

First, a reminder about the commission: This is the group installed in the wake of unproven claims from President Donald Trump that millions of votes in the November election were illegally cast - and that Trump would have won the popular vote were it not for those votes.

Trump himself stopped by the commission’s initial gathering, at which he took the opportunity to attack state officials (presumably including Republican Secretary of State Dennis Richardson of Oregon) who have declined, and properly so, to release the voter registration information that the commission has requested.

“If any state does not want to share this information, one has to wonder what they’re worried about,” Trump said. The New York Times and other media outlets have noted the irony of this statement, coming from a president who steadfastly has refused to release his tax records, so we need not dwell on this.

But let’s reflect some more on that request for voter information that the commission issued a few weeks ago, only to have it immediately spurned by election officials in more than 20 states.

The commission’s vice chairman, Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (a longtime advocate for tighter voting regulations) asked state election officials to turn over the voter registration data as part of the commission’s efforts to search for evidence of election fraud. In addition to election information such as voters’ names and party affiliations, the commission sought a variety of personal information, including birth dates, felony conviction records, voting histories for the past decade and the last four digits of all voters’ Social Security numbers.

Election officials in more than 20 states said that wasn’t going to happen. In Oregon, Richardson said the commission could get the same information as anybody else - assuming it would be willing to pay the same $500 fee that everyone else seeking the information has to pay. But Richardson said additional information would not be forthcoming, because state law dictates that Social Security numbers, driver’s license numbers and other data requested by the commission is confidential.

In a letter to Kobach, Richardson added that there is “very little evidence of voter fraud or voter registration fraud in Oregon.” And he suggested that other states follow Oregon’s lead and set up a vote-by-mail system - good advice in part because a vote-by-mail system would be very difficult to hack and leaves behind a paper trail.

Richardson isn’t alone among state election officials and experts in his assessment of the extent of voting fraud in the United States: The consensus is that it is not at all as widespread as Trump and his backers have said it is. It is certain, however, that part of why this is a big deal for Trump is continued resentment that he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton.

It is almost as certain where the work of the commission is headed: toward efforts to make it more difficult to register and vote. It’s the wrong answer to the wrong question: We should be working to modernize voting machines and safeguarding election systems against hacking.

And any national effort to make it harder to register and vote runs counter to Oregon’s longstanding efforts to clear away obstacles to the franchise. It’s a shame that we’ll spend any time at all trying to restrict something so fundamental to our democracy.

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The Baker City Herald, July 24, on boosting cost of lifetime passes to national parks

The National Park Service turned 100 last year, and the venerable agency has not aged particularly well.

Park Service officials estimate that the backlog of deferred maintenance at the 417 sites they manage would cost about $11.6 billion.

That’s close to four times more money than Congress gives the agency each year.

Critics say President Trump’s proposed budget would worsen the Park Service’s fiscal woes but in one important sense that’s not accurate.

Although Trump does propose an overall cut in the agency’s budget for the fiscal year that starts Oct. 1, the president’s proposal actually calls for the government to spend $33.3 million more for construction, planning and deferred maintenance in national parks.

And yet, starting Aug. 28, the federal government will boost the cost from $10 to $80 for the lifetime pass people age 62 or older can buy to gain free admission to national parks as well as other recreation sites managed by federal agencies such as the Forest Service and BLM.

We understand that the government hasn’t increased the cost of the senior pass since 1994.

And we appreciate that people who either fail to lock in their $10 bargain before Aug. 28, or who don’t turn 62 until after that date, can buy annual passes for $20 for each of the next four years, and then convert the pass to a lifetime pass for no extra cost.

But $70 is still $70.

And we’re skeptical that the benefits the Park Service will realize from the 7-fold price hike will even come close to offsetting the financial penalty it imposes on people, some of whom have fixed incomes.

Certainly Social Security payments aren’t rising 700 percent.

And it happens that the first $10 million the Park Service collects each year from senior pass sales is deposited in an endowment that might, or might not, be used to actually improve national parks. According to the agency itself, that money must be spent “on projects and activities approved by the Secretary of Interior to further the mission and purpose of the National Park Service.” That’s generic enough a description to include activities other than fixing trails or building new restrooms, to be sure.

Nor is there any guarantee that the rest of the money from senior pass sales, beyond that initial $10 million annually, will do tangible work in national parks. Every dollar in excess of $10 million goes to the National Park Centennial Challenge Fund, which can also be used for a variety of projects but also, crucially, require at least a one-to-one match by non-federal donations.

Federal officials estimate the new, more expensive passes will generate $35 million to $40 million annually.

The bottom line here is that the people who will have to shell out $70 more for a federal pass might never benefit directly from those additional dollars.

The situation is potentially different locally, however.

Although there are no national parks in Baker County, both the BLM and the Forest Service also sell senior passes. The key difference is that when those agencies sell passes locally - at, say, the BLM’s Oregon Trail Interpretive Center - at least 80 percent of the money is spent on projects at the site where the pass was sold.

Nonetheless, we can’t imagine how the $70 increase in the senior pass fee can reasonably be deemed a bargain for anybody who buys one. At least people who buy one at the Interpretive Center are more likely to see an actual effect than if they plunk down their dollars at, say, Yosemite or Yellowstone.

In the meantime, we urge anybody who will turn 62 before Aug. 28 to buy their $10 lifetime pass as soon as possible.

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