AP NEWS

Editorials from around Oregon

May 22, 2019

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

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The Corvallis Gazette-Times, May 22, on letting voters decide on capital punishment:

A bill before the state Legislature that would dramatically curtail the cases in which the death penalty could be applied passed the state Senate on Tuesday and now heads for the House.

But in the House, the bill might well run into a major roadblock: Speaker of the House Tina Kotek has said in the past she believes such a major revision in Oregon capital punishment laws should go before the state’s voters. She said this week that she would need to read the latest version of the measure, Senate Bill 1013, before making a final decision — but it certainly is true that the speaker has the power to stop a bill from advancing in the Legislature.

Here’s a case where Kotek is right: This is something that the state’s citizens deserve a chance to consider.

To be fair, Senate Bill 1013 is a well-crafted and clever bit of legislation. The bill redefines the crime of aggravated murder (the only crime in Oregon statutes that can be punished by death), so that it includes acts of terror that kill two or more people. The bill has been revised so that it includes two other instances in which a defendant could be sentenced to death: cases in which the victim was under the age of 14 or in which a defendant killed another inmate while serving time for a murder conviction.

Other offenses that currently qualify as aggravated murder under state law, such as killing someone during the course of a rape or robbery, would be reclassified as another type of murder, and the maximum punishment for those would be life in prison without the possibility of parole.

The proposed legislation also would change one of the four questions juries must decide when considering whether to impose a death sentence. Oregon jurors now must determine whether a person guilty of aggravated murder is at risk of being a danger in the future. The bill would remove that question, which is fine: It’s an unfair and unscientific duty to ask jurors to tackle.

The bill passed the Senate on Tuesday on a largely party-line 18-9 vote. Among mid-valley legislators, Sen. Sara Gelser, a Democrat, voted in favor of the measure; Sen. Fred Girod, a Republican, voted against it.

For a bill that has drawn a measure of attention this session, the floor debate in the Senate on Tuesday was remarkably restrained: Only Sen. Floyd Prozanski, the influential Eugene Democrat who’s led the charge on the bill, spoke.

The main argument opponents have raised against the bill — and the very point that Kotek is pondering — is that such a major change to state law on capital punishment should be referred to voters.

And that’s what the Legislature should do.

The verdict of Oregon voters over the last century on capital punishment has been mixed: Capital punishment was outlawed by voters in 1914 and then reenacted in 1978. Three years later, the state Supreme Court ruled that the death penalty was unconstitutional, paving the way for a 1984 initiative in which voters reaffirmed capital punishment.

Since then, though, the topic has been rarely revisited in Oregon. After then-Gov. John Kitzhaber imposed a moratorium on capital punishment in 2011, he made a halfhearted effort to goad the Legislature into action, but the proposal didn’t gain any traction. Gov. Kate Brown has said that she plans to continue the moratorium, but hasn’t taken much of an active role on the issue.

Oregon hasn’t executed a prisoner since May 1997; the state has 32 men and one woman on death row.

It’s very possible that the opinions of Oregonians have changed since that 1984 initiative, as the national debate over the death penalty has taken intriguing twists and turns in the 35 years since then. But there’s only one way to find out for sure. The Legislature should let voters decide.

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Ashland Daily Tidings, May 22, on increasing state funding for universities:

Oregon lawmakers find themselves in the unusual position of deciding what to do with an unexpected windfall of tax revenue. We have a suggestion. On second thought, make that a demand.

Oregon has neglected its system of colleges and universities for too long, gradually disinvesting in higher education and shifting the burden of rising costs onto tuition-paying students. It’s past time to start reversing that trend.

Three decades ago, the state paid two-thirds of the higher education budget, and tuition made up the rest. Today, that ratio is reversed.

Last week, Southern Oregon University announced a tuition increase next fall of $15 to $23 per resident undergraduate credit hour, raising the cost of 15 credit hours by $675 (8.5 to $1,035 (13.5%). The increase makes an SOU education that much more expensive.

The increase is prompted by rising costs, including pension and health insurance benefits. SOU officials have done what they can to spread the pain, including more than $1 million in spending cuts by university departments in the past year.

Even if the Legislature appropriates the same amount for higher education as in the last budget, the rising costs would mean $120 million less for colleges and universities statewide. There is hope for more: Lawmakers are considering funding higher education as much as $80 million beyond current levels. That wouldn’t eliminate the SOU tuition hike, but it would keep it toward the low end.

Higher education is vital to the state’s future. Oregon must step up and meet that obligation.

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The Oregonian/OregonLive, May 19, on the resignation agreement for the Portland State University president:

Here’s the lesson that Portland State University students are learning from those at the very top of their institution: Credible allegations of bullying, complaints of unethical behavior and signs of dishonesty will be amply rewarded with a fat check and a promise to help thwart scrutiny.

It’s difficult to view the generous resignation agreement negotiated between PSU’s Board of Trustees and President Rahmat Shoureshi with any less cynicism. Members of PSU’s Board of Trustees have known since last fall of complaints against Shoureshi so severe that the chairwoman warned the president he could be fired. Despite putting him on an improvement plan, concerns persisted — particularly after The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Jeff Manning made public the allegations against Shoureshi — prompting the board to commission investigations into his financial management and employee relations. By May, the trustees wanted Shoureshi gone, as the terms of the once-confidential resignation agreement make clear.

But never mind the board’s authority to fire him. The trustees, a volunteer group of business executives, PSU community members and other gubernatorial appointees, instead put a happy face on Shoureshi’s departure after only 21 months in the role. Not only did they issue a statement lauding his tenure, but they agreed to pay him a package worth more than $850,000, including health insurance into 2021 and $35,000 to cover his legal fees. And to top it off, the trustees have agreed to mislead the public and future potential employers of Shoureshi by not discussing the circumstances surrounding his resignation. Rather, they promised to stick to the tenor of PSU’s public statement and keep confidential the investigative reports and resignation agreement unless legally forced to release them.

It’s quite the soft landing for a president who was accused by the board chair six months earlier of deceiving trustees with his request for a raise, treating staff unprofessionally and putting his own financial self-interest ahead of the university’s. Gale Castillo, who chairs the board of trustees, defended the agreement in an email to The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board, noting that negotiating a “fair settlement” is standard. “PSU’s ethical and legal responsibility is to reach the best terms possible for the university, students and Oregon taxpayers,” she wrote. While the generous payout for Shoureshi is not what’s driving the 11% tuition increase approved by trustees last week, many students bearing the increase may question the trustees’ definition of “fair.” It remains to be seen whether the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, which must approve PSU’s tuition hike, will also signal any doubts.

Arguably, this may ultimately be the best solution to a bad situation. A resignation settlement helps achieve the trustees’ goal of getting Shoureshi immediately off campus without the costs or uncertainty of a protracted, expensive legal fight. And certainly, there’s some value to that.

But it’s important to remember that the trustees are the ones who brought him on campus in the first place and who were responsible for overseeing him. And conveniently, PSU’s confidentiality pledge helps shield not only Shoureshi but the trustees themselves. Because while Manning’s reporting has described Shoureshi’s ethically questionable decisions and management deficiencies, questions remain about whether the trustees acted promptly, responsibly and accountably.

Unfortunately, the board has said very little about what, if anything, it would do different. Yet there’s much they should answer for. How rigorous was the hiring process? Did they overlook any red flags? When did they first hear of concerns regarding his leadership? How closely did they monitor him in the months after putting him on an improvement plan? Why did they wait until after allegations were publicized in The Oregonian/OregonLive to launch investigations? What were the results of those investigations? Why not fire Shoureshi outright? And why promise confidentiality over and over when the trustees’ duty is to students and the public? Transparency should be a guiding principle from which trustees and other public officials never waver. Instead, they treat it as a bargaining chip to be traded away at the drop of a hat — as if the public interest in reports paid for with public dollars is up to them to determine. And while golden parachutes may be common in the corporate world, public institutions must consider more than just legal risk in their calculus of what’s best.

The Oregon Government Ethics Commission is to decide this month whether to investigate Shoureshi’s actions as president. It should do so with a wide-ranging look at not only Shoureshi but also at what types of controls did or did not come into play. While the board is not the target of such an inquiry, the ethics commission can help shed light on whether there are gaps or flaws in PSU’s processes for preventing, catching and correcting unethical behavior.

And to the board’s credit, Castillo acknowledged that it may be time for the board to “engage in a deep assessment and training process” regarding trustees’ roles and responsibilities. She noted that it’s been five years since PSU — and Oregon’s other public universities — began operating under their own independent boards, which were intended to help provide some business expertise in university administration. The Shoureshi debacle is as good a time as any for them to reacquaint themselves with the basic principles of governance, the transparency and prudence necessary for a public institution and the central mission of a university. To educate ethical and courageous leaders of tomorrow, they need to be ethical and courageous leaders today.

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