- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

The (Salem) Statesman Journal, March 18, on filling in the gaps on the Oregon Coast Trail:

Just do it.

We’re invoking the Nike slogan, sans swoosh, because that’s how we want the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department to handle the Oregon Coast Trail.

Finish it already.

The OPRD tells us the easy work already has been completed on the 367-mile trail that hugs the oceanfront from Astoria to the California state line along Highway 101.

The trail offers unparalleled scenic vistas. The problem: 33 gaps in the trail that force hikers to scramble from a foot path onto the highway and then try to avoid being hit by fast-moving and unforgiving traffic. The gaps account for between 40 and 50 miles, and can keep hikers off the path for miles at a time.

The OPRD says filling these gaps would require federal approval, significant alterations to Highway 101, and securing private property (read using eminent domain or the taking of private property for public use). In ordinary speak, this means it will cost more money.

But this is an agency that gets 47 percent of its revenue from the Oregon Lottery, another 47 percent from visitor and recreational-vehicle fees and 6 percent from federal grants. It is the same department that from 2004 to 2013 added nine new park properties to its 256-member state park property rolls.

It’s time to refocus on existing properties. Bridging the gaps in the Oregon Coast Trail will make it a gem on the West Coast. It has the potential to become a destination for hikers and day tourists alike.

Imagine the possibilities if folks could walk from end to end without highway traffic. Village-to-village hiking is popular in Europe, and the towns have become worldwide destinations. Think Cinque Terre in Italy or between fishing villages along the Mediterranean Sea in Spain. Having a complete trail would definitely put the Oregon Coast on the map and in many guidebooks.

In other words, the Oregon Coast Trail has the potential to become world famous.

Advocates of a completed trail envision hikers walking between towns and staying overnight in hotels, motels and campgrounds along the way. These walkers would likely eat in different towns and boost the economies of local coastal communities. Visitors would walk, shop and buy ice cream. OK, maybe that’s wishful thinking, but not many hikers would need persuading if they were ambling along the trail and came across the Tillamook Ice Creamery.

House Bill 3149, which would require developing a plan for the trail, will get a hearing Tuesday. With 10 House and Senate members from both parties supporting it, it’s hoped the Legislature can get behind this economic stimulus plan for the coast.

But we need more than a plan. We need a commitment from the state and a deadline for making this happen. Its time is long overdue.


The (Medford) Mail Tribune, March 16, on a new business tax proposal to benefit Oregon schools:

After voters resoundingly defeated Ballot Measure 97, a $6 billion proposed tax increase on large corporations, the measure’s backers came up with a revised tax plan they hoped could gain traction in Salem. But judging from a new poll of Oregon voters released last week, the public wants to see spending cuts, too.

The new survey, commissioned by the Oregon School Boards Association, found 62 percent of Oregonians think the state has a spending problem, and 54 percent say lawmakers should close the budget gap either entirely with spending cuts or primarily with cuts and some tax increases.

That doesn’t bode well for backers of another massive tax bill targeting big corporations, even if it is written to be fairer and more broadly based than Measure 97. A smaller tax plan, however, might fly.

Union and business leaders are meeting privately to try to hammer out an agreement on a plan to boost some business taxes. Business leaders said after Measure 97’s defeat that they would consider taxing corporations more if public employee unions agreed to further reforms of the state’s pension fund.

The state budget faces a $1.6 billion shortfall, partly as a result of rising health care expenses and partly because of Public Employee Retirement System costs.

The new survey showed a large majority of voters - 73 percent - would support higher taxes on corporations if the money was used to prevent teacher layoffs and larger class sizes, and 61 percent would support ending the “kicker” income tax rebate if the money went into a rainy-day fund for schools.

But respondents clearly favored taxing corporate profits rather than gross receipts, which Measure 97 would have done, and they wanted the proceeds of any tax increase to be guaranteed to go to schools.

While business and labor groups hash out their differences, lawmakers are working on a new business tax proposal as well as spending controls.

No matter what emerges from all of that sausage-making, it’s clear there will be no magic bullet that solves the entire budget problem without spending cuts or PERS changes. There will be pain. The question is how much and where.


The Daily Astorian, March 20, on accountability within the state transportation department:

Oregon legislators charged with crafting a transportation package worth hundreds of millions of dollars are doing the right thing by seeking more accountability within the state Department of Transportation.

They should take the next step by including language in their transportation bill to give the Oregon Transportation Commission greater management oversight of ODOT’s performance.

Several disconnects between ODOT and the Transportation Commission were detailed in a report by our Capital Bureau last week when four past Transportation Commission chairmen spoke with a subgroup of the Legislature’s Joint Committee on Transportation Preservation and Modernization, which is charged with creating a passable package. The meeting’s focus was to help legislators get additional insights on ODOT accountability.

According to the state’s website, the commission establishes Oregon transportation policy and guides the planning, development and management of our transportation network. It meets monthly to oversee and evaluate the Department of Transportation’s activities to carry out those policies.

Cry for oversight

A cry for more ODOT oversight arose in January when a $1 million independent audit portrayed the agency as lacking in dissent and accountability, wasting money and needing greater oversight and guidance.

Two weeks prior to the audit’s release current Transportation Commission Chairwoman Tammy Baney had complained to Gov. Kate Brown that the commission, whose all-volunteer members are gubernatorial appointees, needs more oversight authority of ODOT’s director, who reports to the governor rather than to the commission.

In Baney’s letter to the governor, she asked that Brown include the commission in evaluating ODOT Director Matt Garrett’s performance.

However, according to Garrett’ office as detailed in our report last week, Garrett has not received a performance evaluation since he began his tenure in 2005.

Until 1999, the ODOT director reported directly to the commission rather than to the governor, former Commission Chairman Stuart Foster told legislators. But the Legislature, after years of pressure from then-Gov. John Kitzhaber, took that authority away from the commission and placed it in the Governor’s Office, Foster said. Minutes from the 1999 legislative meetings on the bill don’t contain indications of the reasoning for the change.

Like a private board

In the meeting with the legislative subgroup, former Commission Chairman Mike Holleran, who served from 1987 through 1993, compared the commission to a private company’s board of directors.

“You’re running the place, and you are responsible to the shareholders, and then all of a sudden, someone else is appointing the director,” he said.

Foster, who served as the commission’s chairman from 2003 to 2007, went even further, calling the removal of the oversight of the director’s position a “huge mistake.”

Holleran and Foster are right, and legislators need to correct that mistake by altering the leadership structure in the transportation bill they submit.

What well-run, private-sector company doesn’t evaluate its chief executive at any point during a 12-year tenure, and how would any CEO know if they were managing and leading successfully without performance reviews?

Embarrassingly, Garrett’s tenure also includes the two years of Brown’s governorship, so while she has publicly called for more accountability - including ordering the independent audit that was released in January with the negative findings - her leadership actions since haven’t fully matched her words.

The commission is much closer to the action than the governor, and its members are qualified and in place to use the expertise they bring to those positions.

They should be allowed to do just that, and legislators should change ODOT’s chain of command structure. For additional accountability in state government, they should also demand a list of any other agency heads who report to the governor who haven’t been evaluated and should consider changing those leadership structures, too.


The (Corvallis) Gazette-Times, March 20, on Oregon snowpack:

The good news (so far) is that snowpack in the mid-valley is holding its own as we finally make the turn from winter to spring.

But that news, welcome as it is, comes with a pair of big asterisks:

First, even above-average snowpack levels can melt away in a hurry, given warm weather conditions. What you want to see is snowpack lingering well into spring to help keep stream flows steady and strong well into summer.

But all the indications so far this year are solid: As of Sunday, the Willamette drainage was sitting at 128 percent of average. The statewide numbers are even better: Across all Oregon drainages, snowpack was sitting at 138 percent of normal.

In part, this is a big deal because it’s the first time in nearly a decade that statewide snowpack has been well above normal on March 1. (In 2008, the statewide snowpack on March 1 was 157 percent. Last year, by contrast, the snowpack was at 94 percent of normal.)

That wet and chilly February we endured was good news for the state’s snowpack: In previous years, warmer than usual Februaries have wreaked havoc with snowpack.

It all translates into slightly better-than-average stream flows in the region for April through September, according to the March report from the Natural Resources Conservation Service, a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. (President Trump’s proposed budget, by the way, seeks a 21 percent cut in the Department of Agriculture, but enough about that for now.)

In the words of the March stream flow forecast: “Water supplies in the basin are likely to be near normal to well above normal this summer.”

And that’s good news for people who depend on water, a list that includes just about all of us. It’s particularly good news for farmers and for people who enjoy fishing and boating and rafting and other outdoor recreation. It’s also a good sign for those of us who worry about the summer wildfire season, which seems to already be in full swing in other spots around the nation.

Now, the second asterisk: The low snowpack levels the region experienced in 2014 and 2015 might become increasingly common, according to a recent study from Oregon State University researchers.

The researchers, including Eric Sproles, who conducted much of the work as a doctoral student at OSU and has been working as a hydrologist in Chile, noted that both those years had adequate precipitation. The problem was that most of the moisture fell as rain instead of snow.

The study, which was supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Science Foundation, was recently published in the journal The Cryosphere.

Sproles and his fellow researchers focused on what happened in the Cascade Mountains at an elevation of around 4,000 feet, a level that frequently marks the boundary between rain and snow. In 2014, they found, winter precipitation was 96 percent of normal. But temperatures in the snow zone were 2.7 degrees Celsius warmer than average.

2015 was drier and even warmer, the researchers said, with 78 percent of normal precipitation and temperatures that were 3.3 degrees Celsius warmer than the average. The result: On March 1, 2015, nearly half of the snow-monitoring sites in the Willamette River basin registered zero “snow water equivalent” - the amount of water stored in snowpack.

In other words, the researchers warn, if temperatures continue to stay above average, the ample snowpack we have on hand this year might be increasingly uncommon, with real long-range repercussions for the mid-valley. And that’s a big shadow over what should be a sunny situation.


The (Eugene) Register-Guard, March 20, on how cuts to Medicaid would impact Oregon:

Oregonians aren’t concerned about proposed federal cuts to Medicaid, they should be.

Oregon would be the second hardest-hit state in the country - after Washington - if a Republican plan for cutting Medicaid goes through.

Nearly 1 million Oregonians are covered by the Oregon Health Plan, Oregon’s version of Medicaid. Two out of five are children. Sixty-six percent of the recipients who are not children, elderly or disabled have jobs, but these jobs do not provide health insurance, according to a report issued last month by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

If Lane County residents aren’t alarmed by the prospect of some of these people losing health care, they should consider the economic cost.

People fall ill or get injured whether or not they have health insurance. Having access to routine care can often prevent an illness or lessen its severity, which means lower health care bills and less chance of spreading a disease. It also means fewer expensive trips to an emergency room for a routine ailment that could be treated by the family doctor - if the family had access to a family doctor.

In Lane County, PeaceHealth presented a graphic example of what happens when people don’t have access to routine health care, turning to hospitals for charity care. Then-CEO Mel Pyne told The Register-Guard’s Sherri Buri McDonald in 2011 that PeaceHealth was being flooded by people who needed care but couldn’t pay, and that it was having an impact on the whole community.

“When we spend $104 million on uncompensated care a year, that money is not available to invest in hiring staff or building programs, and it also contributes to the rising cost of private health insurance premiums,” Pyne said.

Oregon is starting to see a repeat of that scenario already, with just the threat - not yet made reality - of large cuts to Medicaid funding in the state.

Dr. Joe Robertson, president of Oregon Health & Science University, for example, said earlier this year that OHSU had cut its hiring plans to “almost a freeze” as a result of uncertainty.

Others are sure to follow if Medicaid spending is slashed, with rural parts of the state being particularly challenged. These areas face a double whammy - higher percentages of low-income families and small populations unable to support hospitals or clinics if current Medicaid recipients are removed from the equation or see funding cuts.

One of the reasons that Oregon would be hit so hard by the proposed cuts to Medicaid is that the state has been successful in expanding coverage to more people. As a result, federal matching funds that were allocated in recent years to pay for this growth make up a larger part of the Medicaid budget in Oregon than in most other states.

Instead of slashing Oregon’s funding, opponents of the GOP proposal suggest, Congress should look at how Oregon has become more efficient in its use of Medicaid money by focusing on prevention, keeping people healthier and reducing trips to the ER.

This is a sensible suggestion, one that deserves a hearing from members of Congress. The alternative is to return to a system where an increasing number of people don’t have access to routine health care, emergency rooms are an expensive substitute for a family physician for many, costs continue to rise and the whole community pays, financially and otherwise.

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