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Editorials from around Oregon

January 9, 2019

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

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The Register-Guard, Jan. 7, on counting prisoners where they come from:

Oregonians who live in the southeastern part of the state have more voting power in state legislative races than residents of Lane County — about 5 percent more in House races. It’s all thanks to the Snake River Correctional Institution and the way governments count prisoners in the census. The Legislature has considered fixing that discrepancy in the past but has repeatedly failed to end prison-based gerrymandering. It can’t afford to wait another year.

When the Legislature draws congressional and state legislative districts every 10 years, it relies on data from the U.S. Census Bureau. The census counts prisoners as living where they are incarcerated, not where they came from. That leads to voting power differentials.

After the 2010 Census, each Oregon House district was supposed to have about 63,000 residents to ensure equal representation, that being the population of the state divided by 60, the number of House districts.

In District 60, which includes Baker, Grant, Harney, Malheur and parts of Lake counties, the Snake River prison’s 3,000 inmates pad the population figures. Those prisoners can’t vote. They can’t participate in local government. Rep. Lynn Findley has never held a town hall at the prison (though at least he understands the prison, having served an advisory role there in the past).

Those 3,000 “residents” are nothing of the sort, and 60,000 actual residents count the same as 63,000 in Eugene’s House District 13. Put another way, 95 residents of Baker County count the same as 100 residents of Lane County.

This situation isn’t unique to Oregon or to House District 60. It happens anywhere there are large prisons. Mostly rural areas wind up benefiting politically from having a prison in their backyard. A large portion of the prisoners might come from urban areas that tend to vote Democratic, but because of where they are incarcerated, they wind up bolstering conservative rural politicians.

Oregon’s other large prisons are in Wilsonville, Pendleton, Umatilla and Salem, and each of those places gets disproportionate representation.

The effect is even more extreme in local races. In Pendleton, prisoners were 28 percent of one city ward after the 2010 census.

This system breaks the principle of one-person, one-vote, and other states are fixing it. California, for example, will count prisoners where they came from after the 2020 census. A few other states simply disregard inmates when drawing political lines.

Oregon has considered ending prison-based gerrymandering in the past, but legislation failed to gain traction. A 2015 bill that included Springfield Sen. Lee Beyer among its bipartisan sponsors, died in committee. House Speaker Tina Kotek backed a bill in 2010.

With a Democratic supermajority in both chambers and strong urban representation, this should not be a heavy lift.

When lawmakers get to work in a couple of weeks, ending prison-based gerrymandering should be a priority. The next census and redistricting are right around the corner, and corrections officials will need time to develop and test a system that provides accurate data. If it doesn’t happen this year, Oregon will likely have to wait another decade.

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Mail Tribune, Jan. 7, on Capitol workplace culture needing to change:

Less than a month before the 2019 session convenes, a Bureau of Labor and Industries investigation has concluded the Oregon Legislature is a hostile workplace, and legislative leaders have done far too little to change it. Among the most alarming findings of the five-month investigation are charges that women in the most powerful leadership positions in the Capitol downplayed accusations of sexual harassment.

Many of the allegations involved former Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, who resigned last March. Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, told investigators that Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick suggested she was grandstanding by accusing Kruse, and then Senate Minority Leader Jackie Winters, R-Salem, told Gelser, “You just need to learn how to deal with this.” Gelser reported House Speaker Tina Kotek told her she was considered unlikable in the Capitol and had made the harassment complaint all about her. Kotek said in a statement that she disagreed with the report’s characterization of her conversations and vowed to continue to work to improve the Legislature’s culture.

Until the investigators’ report released Thursday, discussion of harassment had centered around Kruse, who may have sexually harassed as many as 15 women. But the report says harassment was not limited to Kruse and details incidents involving other lawmakers, including Senate President Peter Courtney, who allegedly told an office manager to either resign or be fired or demoted because he disapproved of her dating a House member. Courtney denies it.

Regardless of the specific details of who said what to whom, it appears clear from the report’s conclusions that the culture of harassment pervades the Capitol, involving lobbyists, staffers and lawmakers alike. The Oregonian reported that a legislative employee’s notes about one woman’s complaint described an atmosphere where long workdays and alcohol fueled inappropriate behavior.

The investigation was launched in response to a complaint by Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, who accused the entire Legislature, along with its human resources chief, its lawyer and the Department of Administrative Services, of failing to adequately address the problems. Avakian is leaving office, and his successor, Val Hoyle, will decide how to proceed.

Hoyle, like Avakian, is a former legislator, who should know as well as anyone what the Capitol culture is like. The hostile environment the BOLI investigators describe is unacceptable and cannot be tolerated. The Legislature is a unique environment with complicated power dynamics, but it is still a workplace. Hoyle should use the power of her office to make it a safer one.

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Albany Democrat-Herald, Jan. 7, on report showing sluggish rates for recycling:

A recent report from the state Department of Environmental Quality about Oregon’s goals for recycling included bad news: The state is likely to fall short of its goals for recycling more than half of the waste generated in the state.

For calendar year 2017, the state found, Oregonians recovered or recycled a little more than 2.3 million tons of waste. That works out to be about 42.8 percent of the roughly 5.4 million tons of waste generated in the state.

The problem is that the state’s Legislature has set a goal of 52 percent recovery by 2020. (The goal for 2025 is 55 percent.)

Officials told the Statesman-Journal newspaper, which reported about the survey, that the 2020 goal now seems out of reach. (A copy of the state report is attached to the online version of this editorial.)

Looking at the trends, it certainly appears as if Oregon is moving in the wrong direction: The recovery rate for the state peaked at 49.7 percent in 2012 and has been sliding since then.

To be fair, the 2017 rate of 42.8 percent was a little better than the 2016 rate, 42.2 percent. And that 42.8 percent rate for 2017 represents about 2.3 million tons of recovered material. That’s all stuff that doesn’t need to be dumped at a landfill.

And the state report noted some unexpected developments that depressed the state rate. If you’ve been following developments in the world of recycling, you know about one of them: China’s decision near the end of 2017 to ban imports of unsorted paper and post-consumer plastics.

But a bigger factor, the state said, was the unexpected 2015 closure of a paper mill in Newberg that was the state’s largest user of post-consumer wood waste as a fuel. Other mills stopped using wood waste because of federal air-quality rules, a state official told the Statesman-Journal.

That suggests one important lesson about recycling: Even the best intentions don’t matter much unless there are markets for that recycled material.

If you need more evidence about the connection between markets and recycling, consider what happened with bottles and cans in 2017: In April of that year, the deposit for those containers doubled, from 5 to 10 cents. Not unexpectedly, 2017 saw a substantial increase in the recycling of those containers.

Here’s another example: Scrap metal prices increased in 2017, and so did the amount of metals recovered, which jumped by some 14 percent.

Another hopeful trend involves manufacturers using lightweight packaging instead of heavier materials. The upside, the state said, is that the lighter materials tend to be easier on the environment. The downside is that increasing use of these materials could depress the state’s recovery rate, which is based on weight.

The state report contains a wealth of additional information, and some of it is surprising.

The report breaks the state into 35 separate “wastesheds,” which Oregon law defines as an area that shares a common solid waste disposal system. Even though they don’t exactly correspond to county lines, it’s still interesting to take a look at the 2017 numbers for the Benton and Linn wastesheds.

The first surprise: Both wastesheds for Linn and Benton were below the state average.

Another surprise: The Linn wasteshed had a higher recovery rate (37.4 percent) than did the Benton wasteshed (34.5 percent). Both wastesheds were below the 2025 goals set by the state Legislature (45 percent for Linn and 44 percent for Benton).

To be fair, only six wastesheds currently are running ahead of that 2025 goal. The best mark in the state, 52.8 percent, came in Lane County, but that county still trails its 2025 goal of 63 percent.

Hitting the state’s ambitious goals will require the development of robust (and stable) markets for recycled material. But here’s one more number to think about: Maybe we all could do something to reduce that 5 million tons of stuff we throw away every year.

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