- Associated Press - Monday, June 12, 2017

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

Corvallis Gazette-Times, June 12, on Gov. Brown making transportation plan a priority

Two years ago, Gov. Kate Brown served notice on the Legislature, then nearing the end of the 2015 session, that lawmakers would not leave Salem until they had approved a transportation proposal to pump billions of dollars into the state’s crumbling infrastructure.

Then, the Legislature did two things: It failed to approve the transportation package. And it left Salem.

That failure was more than just an embarrassment for Brown: It was the major blot on the 2015 session.

We won’t spend time today examining the reasons why the transportation package stumbled in 2015, mainly because we’ve written about them in considerable detail in previous editorials.

But when Brown last week listed the transportation package currently before the Legislature (House Bill 2017) as one of the three things the session had to accomplish in its remaining month, it caught our eye - and it reminded us of her pledge two years ago.

The last two years have seen a bipartisan effort, driven primarily by an interim legislative committee, to craft a transportation deal that could pass in the 2017 session. House Bill 2017 is the result of that work, which found legislators (including Rep. Andy Olson, a Republican from Albany) touring the state to get firsthand experience with transportation issues throughout Oregon.

As a result of that two-year effort, our hunch is that House Bill 2017 has a pretty good shot at passing the Legislature, even though it will require at least a measure of bipartisan support to gain approval of the tax increases required to pay for it.

But this being the Oregon Legislature, there still are many opportunities for the transportation package to go off the rails, so to speak.

So it was interesting to hear something else that the governor said last week regarding the transportation bill.

Brown had critical words for a political threat from the Service Employees International Union Local 503, Oregon’s largest public employee union. Union leaders have been pushing for legislators to approve increased taxes on Oregon corporations. Last week, an official with the union said that it was considering launching a ballot issue to scuttle the transportation bill if it didn’t go hand-in-hand with a corporate tax increase.

It’s not an unusual strategy: In fact, it was something similar that led to the failure of the transportation package in 2015, as Republicans opposed any increase in gasoline taxes over worries regarding the Oregon Clean Fuels Program.

But Brown publicly chastised the union for the threat. “I do not support those tactics,” she said, according to a report in The Oregonian.

Brown told reporters last week that it’s not unusual for legislators and interest groups to attempt to hold other pieces of legislation hostage in an attempt to push forward their proposals. But, Brown added, “I do not support those tactics” and described it as “cutting off your nose to spite your face.”

This likely is the rare issue in which Brown is in agreement with Republican Sen. Brian Boquist, but Boquist was blunter in his language, accusing union officials of trying to engage in “political blackmail.”

Boquist, who also serves on the committee that has been working on the transportation package, also told a union official at a hearing last week: “If you want to generate ‘no’ votes across the board you can continue this crap, do you understand me?”

Again, this sort of linkage isn’t an unusual political strategy. What is unusual in this case is the reaction - and it was especially interesting to see the comments from Brown, who enjoys wide union support.

It would be a signature embarrassment for the transportation plan to stumble for the second straight session. We expect that legislators from both parties and the governor have little appetite for such an outcome.


The Oregonian/OregonLive, June 10, on Senate Bill 1068

SB 1068, a bill aimed at easing public employers’ crippling pension costs, accomplishes the rare feat of being measly and consequential at the same time. Measly, in that the proposed changes would barely move the needle in addressing the escalating contributions that government agencies and school districts will be making to the underfunded pension system for years to come. But consequential for what the bill reveals: Legislators who have long insisted that there was nothing they could do to legally and meaningfully address Oregon’s mounting pension problem finally appear willing to try.

In the abstract, SB 1068 seems a promising way to help the government absorb rising Public Employees Retirement System costs. The bill, sponsored by Sen. President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, and Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, would require public employees to contribute to their own pensions, just as almost all other public employees across the country do. The idea is for workers - who already contribute 6 percent of their salary to “supplemental” retirement accounts - to divert a portion of that to the main pension fund, which owes $22 billion more in benefits than it has on hand. Those payments would help offset the skyrocketing contributions that public employers are required to make to chip away at the pension funding gap and allow them to reserve more money to provide the schooling, health care and other public services that Oregonians are paying for.

Unfortunately, while the concept is good, the details leave much to be desired. The bill, which was written with the guidance of the state’s largest public employees union, seems more like window dressing than serious reform at this point. Among the provisions: Employees would redirect only 1 percent of salary to the pension fund in the first year of contributions, 2 percent the following year and no increases until 2021 at the earliest. Given the mechanisms in the bill designed to limit further increases, it’s unclear if employee contributions would ever rise above 2 percent, much less to the bill’s 4 percent cap, which itself is far below the 6 percent that public employees in other states contribute to their pensions, as The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Ted Sickinger reported.

The bill also would not require any higher contributions from current employees at “Tier 1 and Tier 2,” whose retirement benefits are not only richer than newer workers’, but account for more of the unfunded liability. And the proposed contributions wouldn’t even begin until July 1, 2018, which, with the paltry 1 percent rate, would produce only $100 million in savings for the 2017-2019 biennium, with less than $50 million going to the state’s general fund.

While those savings projections improve modestly in later years, they’re still woefully inadequate in light of the pension funding tsunami that Oregon is facing. Employer contributions are poised to eat up about $900 million more in the next biennium, increase another $1 billion-plus in the biennium after that and take still more in the two-year-cycle after that. That’s money that would otherwise go to employing teachers, counselors and librarians in schools, providing quality child-welfare services and keeping basic health services for Oregon’s poorest residents.

Still, there’s hope. The involvement by both Courtney and the Service Employees International Union Local 503 is a sign that they recognize the need to at least start the discussion, even if SEIU doesn’t support the proposal. But Courtney and other leaders must show that this bill is a first step, not a done deal.

That means dialing back on the rhetoric. As Sickinger reported, Courtney declared that he would not move the bill forward without a significant revenue package with corporate tax increases to go with it. The fatal flaw in that ultimatum? Courtney thinks he’s holding a royal flush when all he’s got is a pair of twos. It’s hard to imagine businesses, Republicans and anyone racing to the table for fear of losing a bill that, as it stands, would do next to nothing.

Instead, Courtney and other leaders should be looking at how to incorporate some of the extensive and valuable work done this session on two other PERS reform bills, SB 559 and SB 560, sponsored by Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend. Those bills look at modestly limiting future pension benefits and redirecting a greater percentage of employee contributions to the pension fund. With only a few weeks left in the session, they should seek to put together a comprehensive slate of reforms that still provide a fair package to employees but helps reroute the devastating course we’re currently on.

It’s taken far longer than it should, but elected leaders are recognizing they can no longer claim that there’s nothing that they can do about PERS. Now it’s up to them to show they can deliver something more consequential than simply acknowledging the truth.


Roseburg News-Review, June 10, on PERS reform

When the Roseburg Public School District announces they’ll be reducing the number of teacher’s aides, but claims that with a little re-training of its teachers an even better educational system is on the horizon, it’s hard not to see that as the district putting a brave face on one more hit for our kids’ education.

A teacher’s aide is certainly not the equivalent of a well-trained teacher, but he or she can help free up the teacher for more one-on-one time with students than is possible once the aide is removed from the equation.

The fact is, we’ve known since the 1970s that one of the greatest predictors of educational success is the student/teacher ratio. As class sizes go down (optimally to fewer than 20 students per teacher), educational performance goes up. That’s especially true in the early years, kindergarten through third grade. We also know that the biggest cost in any organization’s budget is usually personnel, and the schools are no exception to that. More money, more teachers, better schools, smarter more successful kids. It’s really that simple.

Or it would be, except for one thing. The 800-pound gorilla in the room is that for years now, our teachers have been retiring with extraordinary benefit packages, negotiated for them by their unions, paid for by we the taxpayers. And indirectly, they’re also being paid for by the students. Every dollar we spend on a retired teacher’s Public Employee Retirement System benefit is a dollar that isn’t being spent on hiring new teachers at our schools. The same could be said for all public employees on PERS, since every dollar the state budgets for PERS is a dollar that doesn’t go toward the education budget. And that’s a problem.

The state legislature is making decisions on the educational budget right now. The Ways and Means committee last week approved a budget with an 11 percent increase in school spending, while protesters lined the Capitol halls to demand even more money be spent on schools.

They’re right, to a point. It matters how that money is spent. As Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, rightly noted last week our kids need us to bring in more teachers more than they need us to raise the salaries of those we have. Most of all, they need us to prioritize current teachers over past ones.

Until we get a handle on PERS, our kids will continue to struggle. It won’t be easy. For those who’ve already retired, the Oregon Supreme Court has ruled their PERS benefits amount to a contract that the state can’t back out of. For future retirees, though, we need to make significant changes, starting with asking teachers (and all government employees) to start putting more of their own money toward retirement and asking the taxpayers for less.


Yamhill Valley News-Register, June 9, on state care facility reporting

Nursing homes are pretty much all the same, right? How much difference could it make, really?

Well, consider this: In the last 10 years, the 37-bed Brookdale McMinnville Westside has received 125 complaints substantiated through official state investigation. The 22-bed Rock of Ages Mennonite Home has had just one, inadvertent administration of a wrong medication dosage in 2009.

Unfortunately, trying to objectively assess the pros and cons of competing nursing home and assisted living care providers is a daunting task. And state government failings have made it more so in Oregon.

Two credible rating services can be accessed online, the private CalQualityCare and Medicaid’s NursingHomeCompare. But, as the names suggest, one is limited to California, the other to nursing homes - a designation excluding 12 of the 16 facilities serving McMinnville.

When U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley launched his political career in the Oregon House in 1998, he set about establishing a statewide database comparing staffing, complaints and other statistics on Oregon care facilities. He finally succeeded in 2008, after ascending to the powerful speakership.

But it took us until earlier this year to learn, via investigation conducted on the initiative of The Oregonian, how the state had excluded 60 percent of all substantiated complaints from the data. While investigators have substantiated more than 13,000 complaints over the last 10 years, the state only has a little over 5,000 posted for public inspection online, and can offer no clear rationale for the exclusions.

While expressing regret, the state, with tens of thousands of employees at its disposal, said it would take years to develop and post a complete keyword-searchable database. But The Oregonian, whose shrinking employment amounts to a tiny fraction of that number, managed to establish one up in a matter of months.

The sheer volume of validated complaints is, of course, only one measure.

Complaints that are more serious, recent or repetitive, deserve heavier weighting. The consumer also needs to factor in administrative qualifications and tenure, staffing credentials and ratios, the culture and feel of the facility, evaluations from current residents, available levels of care, the number of services and activities, cleanliness and sanitation, medical service levels, costs and fees, and the extent to which residents are allowed to retain their dignity, individuality and role in decision making.

The Oregonian recommends taking at least two tours during different times of the day, sharing at least one meal with residents, quizzing residents and line staffers as well as sales personnel and top administrators, and reviewing copies of all relevant policy, procedure and inspection documents.

That’s good advice, because choosing a long-term place to live for yourself or a loved one isn’t to be taken lightly. The endeavor promises to be life changing, if not lifesaving.

State government is currently operating on a biennial general fund budget of $18 billion. Given that level of resources, you’d think it could do an adequate job of compiling and posting complete, accurate care facility records for public inspection.

All too often, the state seems long on good intentions and short on meaningful follow through. Its constituents have every right to expect better.


Baker City Herald, June 9, on sage grouse protection

We have mixed feelings about Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s decision to require federal agencies to review two-year-old plans to protect sage grouse across the West, including in Baker County and other parts of Eastern Oregon.

On the one hand, we don’t object to taking a fresh look at plans that affect a variety of activities on public land, including livestock grazing, a vital part of Baker County’s economy. It’s hardly implausible to believe that the conservation plans can be improved.

But on the other hand, we wonder whether that possibility is worth upsetting the status quo. The current situation might not be ideal from the perspective of some ranchers. But we don’t believe any would dispute that the 2015 conservation plans, which were approved in lieu of the sage grouse being listed as a threatened or endangered species, were a preferable option.

Our ambivalence reflects the reactions of two members of Oregon’s congressional delegation.

Rep. Greg Walden, a Republican, applauded Zinke’s decision, saying the Interior Secretary “wants to involve and listen to local input.”

But Democrat Sen. Ron Wyden contends Zinke is “ignoring the input of local stakeholders who spent years working to avoid a damaging Endangered Species Act listing.”

Our chief concern is that the review could lead to changes in conservation plans that conservation groups and others who think sage grouse need federal protection can use to bolster their legal case.

Which is to say that this decision could backfire, and make an ESA listing more likely rather than less. And in Baker County, where the sage grouse population has declined by about 73 percent over the past decade, that’s a frightening prospect indeed.

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