Editorials from around Oregon
By The Associated Press
Jul. 17, 2017
Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:
The Daily Astorian, July 17, on achieving a new tax plan
This is how to put Oregon schools and state government on a path to stable, sustainable funding: Stick Ontario Republican Cliff Bentz and Beaverton Democrat Mark Hass in a room and give them the task of developing a fair tax plan for the state.
That is the idea of state House Republican Leader Mike McLane, who suggested he would accept whatever the two legislators came up with up. He also mentioned a few other Republican and Democratic lawmakers who could be added to the mix.
The point is that a new tax plan can only be achieved by people who are pragmatic and collaborative, who entertain new ideas and who put the good of the state above self-interests.
That didn't happen in the Legislature this year, despite the best attempts of Sen. Hass, Rep. Bentz and others. Labor was stinging from the defeat of the massive corporate tax hike contained in Measure 97 last fall, and constantly refought the battle in the Legislature. Business was divided on what to do next, instead of being conciliatory and collaborative after victory over Measure 97.
If there is good news from the legislative session that ended July 7, it is that lawmakers finally were talking about realistic revenue reform. It also is that lawmakers, especially in the state Senate, set a good example through bipartisan compromise on several contentious issues, including fair pay and predictable work schedules in the workplace.
Yet on revenue reform, the interest groups of business and labor could not achieve that same pragmatism. They stuck with their "all-or-nothing" approaches.
Most people agree that Oregon has an unstable tax system, especially for funding schools. Some consider a sales tax as the answer, but political history shows little chance of one being enacted in our lifetimes.
Hass and others, especially Democrats, advocate a type of sales tax to be paid by businesses — a commercial activity tax modeled after one in Ohio. Senate Republicans stood firm against that tax this year, especially after modeling showed threefold tax increases for some businesses.
And pension reform, which Republicans and the business community rightfully demanded in return for corporate tax increases, fell by the wayside.
Gov. Kate Brown is among those who say revenue reform will not happen until the 2019 Legislature. That would be unfortunate, leaving the tax debate to another set of divisive ballot measures next fall.
Rep. McLane might have the solution. Give the task to Bentz, Hass and a few other like-minded political pragmatists, since interest groups on either side have shown little ability to negotiate for the good of the state. We would suggest adding Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, and Sens. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, Bill Hansell, R-Athena, and Jackie Winters, R-Salem. All have shown the ability to work across party lines to solve complex issues.
Genuine tax reform should include these principles:
. A plan for ground-level examination of agency-by-agency spending, instead of building each budget based on what agencies and schools spent during the previous cycle. The concept of "roll forward" budgets should be eliminated in favor of "zero-based" budgeting that starts with where the dollars will do the most good.
. A holistic look at corporate, individual and other taxes and fees. Lawmakers and the public need an unbiased understanding of how much each sector pays for government, instead of relying on partisan-based studies.
. Appropriately matching expenses with revenue, while providing stability in both areas.
. Reform of the Public Employees Retirement System and of public employee health care premiums — two of the highest costs for governments and schools. All options must be on the table, especially for PERS, so they can be finally settled in court instead of being an ongoing battle in each legislative session.
Such an approach would benefit public employees, public agencies and the public. That work must start now.
The Albany Democrat-Herald, July 17, on a glimmer of hope in opioid battle
New federal statistics released this month show, at long last, a glimmer of hope in the nation's battle against opioid addiction. But this latest news, while welcome, does not change the fact that we still face a long battle with the addiction adversary.
A new analysis by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the amount of opioid painkillers prescribed in the United States peaked in 2010 and fell by 18 percent from 2010 to 2015.
In about three-quarters of the nation's counties, the amount of opioids prescribed has declined since 2010.
But that still leaves 23 percent of counties where the amount of opioids prescribed increased in that same time period.
Oregon followed the national numbers: The amount of opioid prescriptions dropped in most of the state's counties. But four counties, in rural areas of the state, posted increases in the prescriptions: Malheur, Morrow, Union and Wallowa.
For purposes of comparison, the CDC analysis looked at what it called per capita morphine milligram equivalents. Using that figure allows researchers to make meaningful comparisons that take stronger opioids into account. For example, hydrocodone is rated at a 1-to-1 ratio because it's about as potent as morphine. But stronger opioids such as oxycodone and methadone are rated at a higher ratio.
Not surprisingly, the Oregon counties with the highest amounts of opioid prescriptions tended to be in the state's more rural areas, which highlights one of the toughest issues in battling the addictions: They take a disproportionate toll in areas that often have the fewest resources for treatment. (And it's not a coincidence that many of these counties have economies that still are struggling, even as Oregon enjoys an robust economic recovery. In fact, across the nation, counties with higher rates of opioid prescribing tend to have a higher percentage of white residents and more people who are uninsured, unemployed or disabled.)
The top Oregon county for prescribing opioids in 2015 was Curry, with 1,800 morphine milligram equivalents (MME) per person. Falling just outside the top five, landing at No. 6, was Lincoln County, with 1,539.5 MME per capita. That has an impact in the mid-valley, because Lincoln County is one of the three counties served by the InterCommunity Health Network Coordinated Care Organization, which delivers health services to patients served by the Oregon Health Plan.
Benton and Linn counties fell outside the top 10 in terms of opioid prescriptions in Oregon in 2015: Benton County posted a 430.5 MME mark, and Linn County was at 1,038 MMEs. (The national average in 2015 was 640 MME.)
Even though the overall news from the CDC was good, it still comes with some important asterisks: For starters, even though the rate of opioid prescriptions has been declining since 2010, it still remains three times as high as it was in 1999, when the addiction problem was just starting to gain traction.
But even in those areas, the numbers may still have a bit of a silver lining: Since the CDC analysis didn't go beyond 2015, it does not take into account the most recent guidelines from the agency on prescribing the drugs for chronic pain and new limits from states and insurers alike about how many pills doctors can prescribe. In other words, it's likely the decline documented in this analysis will continue in years to come.
Still, we're a long way from declaring victory over opioid addiction. As we noted in a recent editorial, most experts who have been following the horrifying human death toll from opioid overdoses expect that number to keep rising for at least a few more years.
But the CDC's analysis suggests that we're making progress against this drug scourge. Now is not the time to back away from this fight.
The Bend Bulletin, July 16, on signing petition to put taxes on ballot
Among the budget-balancing efforts approved by the 2017 Oregon Legislature and signed by the governor is House Bill 2391, which raises some $605 million to keep the Oregon Health Plan (Medicaid) whole while balancing the state budget.
The law, nearly universally panned by the Legislature's Republicans, closes the health care financial gap by raising taxes. Thus, most hospitals will pay a 0.7 percent tax on revenues, coordinated care organizations must cut their cost of doing business by 1.5 percent, and some people's premiums will be charged a 1.5 percent tax.
At least that's what the law says. In reality, hospital bills almost certainly will rise, as will health insurance premiums, as insurers and hospitals raise rates to cover the increased cost of doing business.
Three Republican lawmakers — Rep. Julie Parrish, West Linn; Rep. Cedric Hayden, Roseburg; and Rep. Sal Esquivel, Medford — hope to refer sections of the new law to voters, and the Legislature's Democrats have said that if they do, the referendum must be in January.
In some ways, the early vote date is a blessing. If sections of the law are overturned, it will happen relatively early in the biennium. That, in turn, should give lawmakers time to come up with a more acceptable Plan B.
Whether you favor the proposed changes or believe lawmakers should find a better way, the discussion is worth having. Among the questions are these:
Does it make sense to tax revenues without considering the cost of creating them? Some Oregon hospitals, including those in the St. Charles system, have revenues that come dangerously close to being outstripped by expenses.
Is a tax on health insurance premiums, which are expensive and likely to get more so, the best way to finance health care? And what about CCOs? They are required to hold individual cost increases to a figure below the rate of medical inflation, according to testimony on HB 2391; this will reduce that increase further.
If you believe it's time to talk about Oregon's health care system and the way it is financed, the proposed referendum gives you the chance. All you have to do is sign a petition to put the law on the ballot.
The Oregonian/Oregonlive.com, July 15, on Oregon lawmakers inching toward win
While the 79th Oregon Legislative session left much to be desired, lawmakers should be commended for their work to complete a difficult transportation package that has the potential to improve Oregonians' lives and livelihoods in every corner of the state.
The work was done right from the beginning. Democrats and Republicans toured Oregon together for several months, experiencing for themselves the state's failing infrastructure and hearing from Oregonians affected daily by the long-deferred work.
That commitment helped bind the bipartisan bill as it faced pushback late in the game from various interest groups protesting increased taxes. It also helped that Democrats pulled back slightly from some elements of the contentious clean fuel standard, which led to the demise of an earlier transportation package in 2015.
This $5.3 billion package provides new taxes and fees that fairly distributes the burden, from a broad gas tax to the option of tolls focused on drivers of specific freeways. Potentially, even, a toll for drivers who venture out at particular times. There's also a noteworthy, while relatively minor fee on the sale of new bicycles. That serves as a good reminder that we all share responsibility for the roads on which we commute, if only on two wheels.
The package aims to deliver on many much-needed fronts, most notably tackling three massive metro-area chokepoints on Interstate 5, Interstate 84 and Oregon 217. But equally necessary is the money aimed for transit in underserved communities across the state.
Unfortunately, legislators' performance on other items on Oregonians' "must do" list was a mixed bag.
At the beginning of the session, lawmakers faced a daunting $1.8 billion deficit for the 2017-2019 budget. That shortfall - when the state is expecting record revenue in the coming biennium - should have been a wake-up call for legislators to curb the state's soaring spending. But it wasn't for Democrats. They resisted Republican and business community pleas to bring health and public employee pension benefits more in line with other states to free up more tax dollars for education and other public services.
Instead, legislators made few changes to limit health benefits and blocked efforts to reform the Public Employees Retirement System, even though employers' required contributions will increase for the next several years due to a $22 billion unfunded liability. Proposals to ease the burden on public employers' budgets by having employees contribute to their own pensions never even came to a vote.
Democratic leaders even abandoned their supposed priority of raising new corporate tax money. They snubbed a proposal from businesses that could have generated as much as $500 million. And instead, nearly three weeks before the session's ending deadline, Gov. Kate Brown, Sen. President Peter Courtney House Speaker Tina Kotek announced that any fixes to corporate taxes or PERS would have to wait. Until 2019.
Legislators did successfully plug one hole: identifying funds to cover the cost of the state's Medicaid program whose expansion was seeded by federal dollars. But it remains to be seen whether that package of taxes on hospitals and health insurance plans will survive. Opponents who object to a tax that will hit college students, small businesses and K-12 districts are seeking to refer those portions to voters.
Legislators were able to leave with a balanced budget, thanks to better than expected revenue, the controversial hospital and health-insurance tax and a host of Band-Aids. But their inaction on PERS, spending and revenue means those problems will continue to grow, unchecked.
The best possible outcome for Oregon now is that lawmakers take the lessons they learned in creating and shepherding the transportation package this session and duplicate them in the next session - as opposed to waiting until 2019 - for the work they left undone. In a short session, our elected leaders might be able to commit to working until the end this time.
The East Oregonian, July 14, on state legislature leaving unfinished business
The Legislature closed its 2017 session a few days ahead of schedule, and there has already been plenty of political posturing about the successes, missed opportunities and issues that need to be revisited.
Many veteran lawmakers say the session was one of the toughest they've participated in and they closed it with a feeling of unfinished business. As state Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said in a statement afterward, "We had some satisfying wins. At best, our successes are tempered by disappointment."
On the plus side, lawmakers were able to balance a $21 billion operating budget that began with a $1.4 billion shortfall even though the state experienced record revenue leading up to the session. Along the way, they managed to approve:
. A long-term, $5.3 billion transportation improvement package.
. A $600 million tax on insurers and providers that preserves health care for about 350,000 Oregonians who gained Medicaid coverage under the expanded federal Affordable Care Act.
. Record funding for K-12 public schools, up 11 percent from the current biennium. For most of the state's 200 or so school districts, lawmakers say it's enough money to keep current services going.
. A controversial $10 million reproductive health bill expanding funding for no-cost abortions, family planning services and postpartum care. Oregon's bill is unique to other states in that patients would have access to the procedure for virtually any reason, at any time, including sex-selective and late-term abortions.
. A plan to reduce state spending over the next two years by $200 million.
Lawmakers also approved the state becoming REAL ID compliant, which will allow residents to upgrade their driver's licenses or identification cards to federal standards in the future.
Oregon will now also be joining a handful of other states that give judges the power to take guns away from suicidal or dangerous people.
The state also became the third in the nation to raise the tobacco sales age to 21, although tobacco possession isn't affected.
With successes, though, there were certainly failures. Lawmakers couldn't agree on revenue reforms that included a corporate income taxing structure that would stabilize and provide long-term school funding, and they declined to tackle the elephant of the session, the spiraling costs of the Public Employees Retirement System and instead kicked that $22 billion problem down the road. Gov. Kate Brown has vowed to get all parties to the table to work out solutions to both of the major issues, but her lack of leadership was evident throughout the session, so the jury is out on whether she can follow through.
It also remains to be seen what the session's impact will have in our region. Lawmakers drastically cut funding from Measure 98, which voters had approved, that would have provided money to help schools raise graduation rates and provide more vocational and technical education, something that would be very helpful in rural areas of Eastern Oregon. Community colleges also didn't get as much funding that they need, which can hurt Blue Mountain Community College.
It's also uncertain what the taxing impacts will be on our region, especially combined with local city, county and school taxes, and what benefits the transportation package will provide our area.
What is certain, though, is that there is unfinished business. Democrats and Republicans alike should start thinking about how to address those issues, and about who among them is up to providing bipartisan leadership that all Oregonians can look up to.