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Editorials from around Oregon

November 14, 2018

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

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Corvallis Gazette-Times, Nov. 12, on fixing a flaw in Oregon’s jury system:

Louisiana voters last week decided to do away with that state’s oddball rule that allowed nonunanimous juries to decide criminal felony cases. That leaves just one state in which a jury can convict a defendant of a felony on a 10-2 vote. Can you guess what that state is?

That’s right. But there’s an excellent chance that Oregon voters will get a chance in 2020 to erase this stain on the state’s constitution — and legislators are kicking around a fix in the 2019 session that could cover the gap until that election.

Until last Tuesday night, Oregon and Louisiana were the only two states to allow a nonunanimous jury to decide a felony case, although Oregon does require unanimous juries in murder or aggravated murder cases. In last Tuesday’s election, though, 65 percent of Louisiana voters approved a constitutional amendment to do away with nonunanimous convictions; the amendment goes into effect on Jan. 1. The measure drew support from political players of every stripe, from the state’s Republican Party to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

In Louisiana, the nonunanimous jury rule dates back to 1898; scholars have argued that the measure was intended to limit the influence of African-American jurors.

Oregon’s nonunanimous jury practice also was born out of prejudice — but in this case, it was anti-immigrant fervor that paved the way.

The state amended its constitution in 1934 to allow juries to decide most felony cases on 10-2 votes. Legal scholars (most notably, Aliza Kaplan of Lewis & Clark Law School, who wrote an influential piece on this topic) point to a sensational Columbia County murder case that paved the way for the ill-considered amendment.

That 1933 case involved a Jewish suspect, Jake Silverman, on trial for murder. One juror held out against conviction, and the jury eventually reached a compromise guilty verdict on a lesser charge of manslaughter. A judge sentenced Silverman to three years in prison.

The backlash was considerable. The Morning Oregonian, for example, railed against the verdict on its editorial pages, in language that was — well, not even borderline racist, but you can be the judge. Consider this excerpt from a November 1933 editorial: “This newspaper’s opinion is that the increased urbanization of American life ... and the vast immigration into America from southern and eastern Europe, of people untrained in the jury system, have combined to make the jury of twelve increasingly unwieldy and unsatisfactory.” The newspaper previously had editorialized against so-called “mixed-blood” jurors. (To be fair, The Oregonian recently recanted its 1933 editorial position on this matter.)

The Legislature, responding to the outcry, voted to place a constitutional amendment on the May 1934 ballot to allow nonunanimous juries. The measure drew no organized opposition and was approved by 58 percent of voters.

Since then, a number of attempts have been made to amend the constitution on this point — including a recent effort by the Oregon District Attorneys Association — but none has managed to gain much traction. (The effort by the District Attorneys Association seemed to lose steam after a premature rollout of a website leaked critical details, but many Oregon prosecutors support eliminating nonunanimous verdicts.)

Since the effort requires amending the constitution, it would require a vote. Last week, Democratic House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson said she’ll sponsor two bills on the matter in the 2019 Legislature: One would refer the question to voters in the 2020 general election. The other, she said, would be a statutory fix that would seek to ensure we don’t have to wait until after the 2020 election to do away with nonunanimous juries.

Oregonians love to brag about the state’s independence, how we love to stand apart. But here’s a case where we need to fall into step with the rest of the nation, and the sooner we do that, the better.

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The Register-Guard, Nov. 10, on Gov. Brown needing to embody “The Oregon Way”:

Gov. Kate Brown has a unique opportunity to succeed where our national government has failed.

To prevail in last week’s election, Brown and her fellow Democrats put together a powerful coalition that not only re-elected her but also gained a supermajority in both the Oregon House and Senate.

Legislative Democrats will have the power next year to make policy, including raising taxes, without needing any Republican votes. Yet that would not be good governance. Neither would it be long-lasting governance, given how the political pendulums swing.

So for Brown, this becomes the moment to defy conventional political wisdom and rise above the partisanship that permeates our country.

Brown won with a grass-roots coalition that she said knocked on over 400,000 doors in 10 days. Imagine what could happen if Brown built a wider, deeper, bipartisan coalition to address the state’s many challenges. That collaboration could transform Oregon.

As for Brown, she would be not just a two-term governor but an innovative, insightful and potentially great governor.

To achieve that, Brown must reinvent herself and lead with courage and candor instead of caution. The election campaign was overly divisive, but it raised legitimate criticisms of Brown’s performance. Her focus has not been clear, her policies have been ill-defined and her administration’s commitment to transparency has been iffy.

In the aftermath of Tuesday’s election, Oregon’s priorities should be clear to all. They are intertwined.

Our high school graduation rate is too low, our school year too short, our student attendance too erratic. Legislators examining our educational system said last week that they were stunned at the impact of mental health issues and family upheaval on the classroom.

Homelessness is pervasive, touching students, families and single individuals. The lack of affordable housing touches every corner of the state. Concerns about access to high-quality, affordable health care are widespread.

Schools and local governments, burdened by Oregon’s public pension system, increasingly struggle to provide basic services. The state budget is headed there too, unless Brown and lawmakers put together PERS reforms, other cost savings and revenue increases that can pass muster throughout the state, as the 2017 Legislature’s transportation package did.

Child protection and foster care remain significant challenges. Untreated substance abuse and mental illness disrupt families, cost jobs and clog the criminal justice system.

The economy is humming but not everywhere. And the urban-rural divide, which this election seemed to widen nationally, persists in Oregon.

It will be several weeks before the election tallies are official. As of last week, Brown won nearly 78 percent of the vote in Multnomah County and 55 percent in Lane County. However, she must be cognizant that statewide, her vote was hovering around only 50 percent. Although that was a substantial margin over Republican Knute Buehler’s 46 percent, in some counties Brown did not draw even 20 percent of the vote.

Brown has visited much of the state — dealing with wildfires and other issues — since succeeding Gov. John Kitzhaber in 2015. Yet the perception persists that she is Portland-focused.

To become a great governor, she must demolish that perception. That means getting out of the Portland-Salem area and getting to know the small towns throughout Oregon as well as the population centers like Eugene-Springfield. Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley hold town halls in all 36 counties every year. Why can’t the governor?

Those personal interactions are Brown’s strength. When people meet her, they like her. Legislators of all political stripes say she is accessible. Yet she often has been described as listening but not really hearing. She has been deaf to valid criticisms of her administration, proclaiming her good work instead of understanding where she fell down. She has stood up to the Trump administration on national issues but been cautious within Oregon on state issues.

Having won her second and final consecutive term as governor, Brown should dare to lead. Her supporters count on her to carry their progressive ideas through the Oregon Capitol. Brown must make room for views representative of the entire state to join her in refining those goals. Again, such a diverse coalition — in politics, geography and other ways — could best meet Oregon’s challenges and also serve as a national model.

Public officials frequently talk about “The Oregon Way,” by which they mean true collaboration where each side believes it has an opportunity to shape the outcome, and the final result is more than the individual parts. That is the epitome of leadership.

That is the opportunity for Kate Brown.

That is the hope for Oregon.

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The Bend Bulletin, Nov. 8, on preparing for the Legislature’s taxing superpowers:

If you don’t like taxes, Nov. 7 was a rough morning in Oregon. Final results are still out, but Democrats now apparently hold a supermajority in the Legislature.

All those tax bills thwarted in the past by Republicans? Democratic supermajorities could even now have an eye on your wallet.

Oregon Democrats used to have to pretend that massive tax hikes, such as a proposed annual $700 million state carbon tax, weren’t taxes at all. That enabled them to slouch past the state constitutional requirement for a supermajority.

In an outrageous bit of trickery, legislators insisted the new carbon taxes were not taxes because — they wrote that they were not in the bill. Now they won’t even have to pretend.

Plans for a $1 billion or more gross receipts tax will surely come back off the shelves. Democrats put plans for such a tax on hold after the failure of Measure 97, waiting for the outcome of the 2018 election. With a supermajority, expect it to be back.

In the Democratic Temple of Taxation, gross receipts taxes are among the holiest of holies. They tax business sales, usually don’t allow deductions and businesses basically have to pay no matter what — even if they are not making a profit.

But they have serious flaws. Why tax a business that isn’t managing to make a profit? Do Democrats really want to encourage more businesses to fail?

Gross receipts taxes also tax all transactions between businesses, including when businesses buy supplies and equipment to build their products. That means that gross receipts taxes pyramid. Businesses end up paying taxes on taxes on taxes.

We know Oregonians don’t like sales taxes, but they are much fairer than charging taxes on taxes on taxes. And as the Oregon Legislative Revenue Office pointed out, tax pyramiding almost inevitably means higher prices for consumers.

The Legislature has also considered in the past bills that would cut mortgage interest deductions for homeowners. More than half a million Oregonians could lose that tax break for their state taxes. With the Legislature loaded with Democrats, start saying your goodbyes now to that deduction.

The only solace is that in Oregon voters still hold a check on the power of the Legislature to tax with or without a supermajority.

Taxes can be challenged at the ballot box — except of course, Democrats may resort to their old trick of insisting taxes are really not taxes at all.

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