- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

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Corvallis Gazette-Times, April 2, on Oregon legislators killing bills:

The calendar suggests that plenty of time remains in this year’s legislative session, which is scheduled to run until the end of June, although lawmakers generally prefer to be out of Salem a few days early, if at all possible.

But we’re getting to that point in the session at which bills that fail to clear early hurdles will be considered dead - at least, as dead as you can get in an Oregon legislative session, which, like a zombie movie, is notorious for reanimating the corpses of bills left for dead weeks before. (And this says nothing about the aptly named “gut-and-stuff” legislative maneuver, in which the text of a bill is removed and replaced with something that supposedly has a connection, however tenuous, to the earlier bill.)



In any event, we’ve reached the point at which bills are beginning to fall by the wayside: In theory at least, bills that had not been scheduled for a work session in its chamber of origination by the end of the day last Friday likely are dead. Lawmakers are facing an April 9 deadline to move other measures out of those committees. It could be adios for bills that still linger in committee after that deadline.

Among the bills that have run out of gas along the way is one sponsored by Senate President Peter Courtney: His Senate Bill 7 would have lowered the blood alcohol content threshold for a drunken-driving conviction from .08 percent to .05. In a way, the bill was a sequel to an earlier Courtney effort: As a freshman legislator in 1983, he led the fight to lower the threshold from 0.10 to its current level.

As we noted in an earlier editorial, the proposal to move to an .05 threshold seems premature, especially since Utah just recently moved to the lower level; it would make sense to hold off and see what impact the rule change has there. Sen. Floyd Prozanski, the Eugene Democrat who heads the Senate Judiciary Committee, apparently agreed and told Courtney he wanted more work done on the idea outside the session.

Courtney said the bill was a big issue for him this session - but, as Senate president, he consistently has put a priority on keeping the Legislature focused on finishing on time. So he’s letting the bill die, for this session at least.

All of which serves as an important reminder about one important function of the Legislature - or, for that matter, any legislative body:

Sure, it’s important that legislators pass measures to help address important issues.

But it’s also important - maybe even more important - for legislatures to kill bills.

The entire legislative process is designed as a brutal gantlet to mercilessly expose weaknesses in proposed bills - and that’s the way it should be. This is why the legislative process offers so many spots at which a bill can die - and why it’s so hard for legislation to make its way to the governor’s desk (which is, naturally, another spot where a bill can be killed).

There’s another important reason why it’s so important for legislative bodies to be brutal in the early going: It allows legislators to focus their attention on the big-deal issues that still remain on the docket. This year’s session (somewhat surprisingly, considering the speed at which it occurred) already has pushed through a pair of big-ticket items, statewide rent control and part of the funding for the Oregon Health Plan.

But plenty of work remains on a number of other important (and contentious) items, such as the state’s budget, possible new taxes on businesses, a proposal for a carbon cap-and-trade system, gun control and zoning changes intended to help create more affordable housing. That’s a full dance card in and of itself; as we move into the second half of the session, legislators will do well to eliminate as many distractions as possible.

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The Register-Guard, April 1, on licensed drivers meaning safer roads:

Oregon voters made a mistake in 2014 when they overwhelmingly overturned a new state law allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver licenses.

Opponents of the law had blocked it from taking effect unless voters gave their consent. The opponents claimed the law would validate illegal immigration and thus encourage other unlawful behavior. In reality, it would have made our roads and streets safer for everyone.

A measure in the 2019 Legislature would rectify that situation. House Bill 2015 would allow residents of the state to obtain driver licenses without providing proof of citizenship so long as they met the other DMV requirements. The legislation makes sense on multiple fronts.

If people are driving, it is in society’s best interests to ensure they know, understand and heed Oregon’s rules of the road. Driving laws and customs vary widely around the world. For example, in the U.S., a left-turn signal indicates the driver intends to move into a left lane or turn to the left. In Mexico, that same signal sometimes is used to tell a driver behind you that it is safe to pass on the left.

Although some people are in the U.S. illegally, that does not mean they will ignore our driving laws. There is a tremendous difference between leaving one’s country in search of a better life - often because of poverty and violence - and heeding local traffic laws.

Driving legally allows people to participate in the community - going to school, work, church, medical appointments and other activities. That participation builds civic connections and community safety, instead of forcing people to live in the shadows where they victimize or become victims.

The proposed law also would benefit individuals who have lost their birth certificates or other documentation of citizenship.

Oregonians strongly resisted a ballot measure that would have overturned our status as a “sanctuary state.” That suggests residents are becoming more realistic about immigration issues, which are a federal problem that Oregon cannot solve regardless of our regulations on driving.

HB 2015’s supporters cover nearly half the Legislature, including a few Republicans, but it has not yet had a hearing in the Joint Committee on Transportation.

The bill would not apply to commercial licenses or learner permits, only to personal learner permits, driver licenses and ID cards. A person who lacks documentation of citizenship or legal immigration status could submit a written statement that he or she has not been assigned a Social Security number. The resulting permit or license would be valid for driving in Oregon but would not comply with the federal Real ID Act and thus could not be used as ID for going through security at airports or for entering federal buildings.

As was reported in a Register-Guard story last week, 12 states and the District of Columbia already issue similar driver licenses and more are considering taking that route.

HB 2015 is common sense. If it becomes law, the sun will still rise every morning, the world will not implode and our state’s streets and roads will be friendlier and safer.

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The Oregonian/OregonLive, March 31, on $2 billion schools investment also requiring pension reforms:

When it comes to advocating for their children’s schools, Oregon families are a force of nature. They organize bake sales, car washes and auctions for a fundraising cycle that never ends. They give up national holidays to rally at the state Capitol for more education dollars. And from local school board meetings to legislative hearings, they testify about overcrowded classrooms, understaffed libraries and bottom-tier graduation rates that show just how poorly Oregon is serving its students.

Their effort and energy may finally pay off. Lawmakers and business interests are studying corporate tax proposals to raise as much as $2 billion more per budget cycle to buy Oregon students a longer school year, more mental health counselors, special education instructors and other investments. With tax-friendly Democratic supermajorities in the Legislature, education advocates are hopeful that such an infusion of cash could finally help Oregon’s schools turn the corner on mediocrity.

But if they want such investments to stick, parents should consider focusing their advocacy work on the spending side of the equation - particularly, the need for reforms to the Public Employees Retirement System. With a $27 billion unfunded liability in the PERS fund, public employers face steep increases in how much they will have to contribute for the next several budget cycles.

And even $2 billion in new money on top of record revenue in Oregon’s red-hot economy won’t be enough to save school districts from the massive public pension debt crushing them and other public employers.

In fact, in the 2019-2021 budget cycle, schools’ required pension contributions will claim a quarter of the new revenue that the Legislature is looking to dedicate, The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Mike Rogoway reported. By 2023, that goes up to 40 percent - and will continue to rise through the decade if the state fails to adopt significant steps to reform the system and curb employers’ contributions. That doesn’t even factor in the PERS costs for higher education institutions, state agencies or other public employers which will be taking a heavy toll on those budgets as well.

And while Gov. Kate Brown is searching for a way to protect those new dollars from being sucked up by the pension debt, she’s yet to unveil any viable plan that achieves that.

So much for the grand vision of what Oregon schools can be.

Broaching pension reform is no easy task when the most promising solutions require cutting future benefits for teachers and other public employees. And certainly, the governor and legislative leaders, who are expected to lead in crises of this magnitude, have shown little appetite to seek those changes from public employee unions, who rank among their largest and most loyal donors.

But that’s why education advocates, PTAs and families whose primary concern is students - not donors - must take up the mantle, sort fact from fiction and push for change. They should resist the simplistic falsehood that being pro PERS reform is the same as being anti-teacher. They should recognize that the promise of additional revenue means little when only pennies on the dollar will make it into the classroom. And they should recognize that the only way out of Oregon’s pension mess is for everyone - businesses, taxpayers and public employees - to share in the pain so that students, low-income Oregonians and the state’s most vulnerable can be protected as much as possible.

It’s worth clarifying a few common misconceptions many have about PERS. Fact: While Oregon must honor promises made to employees and retirees for work they’ve already completed, they can change benefit levels for work going forward, as both the Oregon Supreme Court and legislative lawyers have made clear. That leaves a lot of possibilities for legislators to make changes, including a slate of reforms offered by advocates.

Fact: While newer employees receive a more modest retirement package than earlier employees, they still receive a generous retirement package that includes both a guaranteed monthly pension as well as a 401 (k) type plan. That’s a combination that only 13 percent of employees in the private sector get, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Rather, private-sector workers typically get only a 401 (k).

Fact: Oregon teachers and other public employees do not contribute their own money to the pension fund - unlike public employees in other states. While many employees pay 6 percent of their salary to their 401(k)-type account, that does not go to the pension fund. That’s a key distinction. One proposal pushed by PERS reform advocates would redirect that 6 percent into the pension fund - easing the contribution that employers have to make and leaving more dollars for the services and programs that Oregonians and Oregon students deserve.

Fact: As required PERS contributions increase - taking an additional $10 billion of tax money over current levels from public employers’ budgets over the next eight years - school districts will have little choice but to cut school days, lay off teachers and other staff or a combination of both. While newer employees can rightfully say they aren’t the cause of the unfunded liability, no one will escape the fallout of decades’ worth of poor policymaking. Even if teachers successfully resist any retirement changes, they will be paying for it in the form of layoffs, larger class sizes or less support staff.

Portland Public Schools families are already seeing what runaway PERS and other costs mean for schools. Despite expecting $35 million more than it received this year, the district announced it is facing a shortfall for the coming year. The plan? Dip into reserves, cut school days, reallocate teachers and increase class sizes, as The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Eder Campuzano reported.

Predictably, the news shifted parents’ fundraising efforts into hyperdrive as school communities - or at least those who can afford to - attempt to drum up the cash to ward off staffing changes. But this fractured approach to funding education is neither sustainable nor fair to communities that lack the resources of higher-income neighborhoods.

Those are the schools that most need lawmakers to come through with both new revenue and a PERS fix that keeps those investments secure. Families should do what they do best and work together for that common goal.

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