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Editorials from around Oregon

December 26, 2018

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

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Albany Democrat-Herald, Dec. 24, on state bungling rollout of equal-pay law:

There’s nothing wrong with the main idea behind the Oregon Equal Pay Act of 2017, which is driven by the concept that men and women should get roughly equal pay if they’re doing work of “comparable character.”

That just makes sense in terms of fairness, but we’re not there yet, considering recent studies indicating that Oregon women still earn 79 cents for every dollar a man earns. The act, passed by the 2017 Legislature and scheduled to go into effect at the start of the year, seeks to close that gap.

But there’s a problem: The state hasn’t done nearly all the hard work required to prepare for this major piece of legislation, which has far-ranging impacts for both employees and employers. A weekend story in The Oregonian suggests that the state’s Bureau of Labor and Industries, and its lame-duck head, Brad Avakian, have been sluggish in rolling out the rules necessary to implement the law (they weren’t published until two days before Thanksgiving) and haven’t done nearly what they should have to educate employers.

“The execution of this bill did not go the way I hoped it would,” Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Portland, told agency members at a recent hearing of the Senate Workforce Committee, which she chairs. “This has left a lot of people rather frustrated. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear any justifiable reason why it didn’t happen earlier.”

The Oregon Equal Pay Act of 2017 expands previous state law to prohibit wage discrimination for gender and adds a number of other protected classes, including race, color, religion, sexual orientation, marital status or age. The new law applies to all forms of compensation, including benefits. An exception in the law allows employers to pay employees different amounts for comparable work if the wage disparity is a “bona fide factor” that is related to the job — a seniority system, for example, or experience or education. The act prohibits employers from screening job applicants based on current or past compensation and also bars them from obtaining the salary history of applicants.

Under the terms of the law, amounts owed to employees due to unlawful pay disparities are considered unpaid wages. Penalties for violations include liability for unpaid wages, compensatory damages, punitive damages, attorneys’ fees and the like. But employees may be able to avoid having to pay compensatory and punitive damages if they complete an equal-pay analysis within three years before an employee files a complaint with BOLI or in court.

So you can see how employers in particular might be interested in learning more about how the law will affect them — and why they’re frustrated that BOLI took so long to lay out the rules implementing the law. And there’s still confusion about some of those rules — for example, BOLI has not provided guidance on what an equal-pay analysis must include to allow a business to claim that safe harbor against compensatory and punitive damages.

The incoming head of the bureau, Val Hoyle, said that, as a result of the delayed rollout, the agency will focus for the first six months of the year on outreach and education, with an emphasis on smaller businesses, which might not even be aware of the act and may have a challenging time complying with its provisions.

That’s the proper position for Hoyle to take, and that could give businesses a bit of a breather in dealing with equal-pay complaints that are filed with BOLI. And Hoyle is right to put the agency’s focus on small businesses, which don’t have the resources that larger businesses enjoy to sort through the complexities of legislation such as the Equal Pay Act.

Legislators and other state officials love to talk about the importance of small businesses to Oregon’s economy. Which is why it’s odd that the needs of small businesses so often get buried in the state’s haste to pass and implement major changes in policy.

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The Oregonian/OregonLive, Dec. 23, on a potential game changer for housing:

If only national media would stop writing about how great Oregon is. If only Californians would quit moving here. If only developers would stop demolishing older homes in Portland neighborhoods and putting up pricey monstrosities in their place. Then there wouldn’t be a housing crisis, right?

Or so goes the wishful thinking by those Oregonians who yearn for the way it was — or at least, their recollection of the way it was — before double-digit rent increases, bidding wars for starter homes and the sight of people living on the streets became so routine. Unfortunately, nostalgia, unrealistic solutions and misplaced blame won’t relieve the strain of an unrelenting population boom or reverse the years of underbuilding of new housing units. More than three years after Portland first declared a housing emergency and Oregon’s rental vacancy rate dipped to a nationwide low, the state as a whole remains woefully short of creating the housing it needs.

A proposal from House Speaker Tina Kotek to loosen single-family zoning restrictions just might be the game changer Oregon needs. The Portland Democrat plans to introduce a bill next month that requires towns and cities with more than 10,000 people to allow construction of duplexes, triplexes and four-plexes in neighborhoods currently zoned for single-family homes, as Willamette Week and The Oregonian/OregonLive reported. Communities would have 16 months to draw up their framework for such development or cede that responsibility to the state.

Kotek’s proposal is a smart and pragmatic approach to a housing problem that goes beyond the Portland metro area and crosses city and county lines. It recognizes that development is most efficient and environmentally responsible in neighborhoods with established networks of schools, parks and transportation. It leverages the economic reality that building two, three or four smaller units on a lot will translate into lower prices or more affordable rents to a broader range of buyers. And Kotek’s proposal sends the unmistakable message to communities, particularly those that have resisted affordable housing in their neighborhoods, that they cannot wall themselves off from the state’s shared responsibility to provide housing options for new or displaced residents.

Importantly, in terms of the physical change to neighborhoods, Kotek’s proposal is mindful of residents’ concerns. Her plan doesn’t call for the eradication of single-family homes nor for building megaplexes on every corner. The goal is to offer a broader mix of housing options that can be blended into single-family neighborhoods — think town homes or houses divided into four apartments — giving potential buyers and renters more options at lower prices.

It is, of course, not without controversy. Even in Portland, where residents wring their hands over homeless students hopscotching from one school to another and the throngs of people living on the street, there’s strong opposition to a city-led proposal to allow more development of duplexes, triplexes and four-plexes in neighborhoods zoned for single family housing. Residents eye the Residential Infill Project as a potential giveaway for developers who will destroy “neighborhood character” as opposed to recognizing the cold, hard math of too few housing units for too many people.

But that proposed plan, which has been in the works for years, only adds support for relaxing zoning on a statewide level. Oregon senior economist Josh Lehner wrote about the potential for the Portland proposal on the blog for the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis, even before hearing of Kotek’s proposal. He highlighted the findings in a report by a city-hired economist that allowing such modest multi-unit developments in single-family neighborhoods would yield a net increase of 1,800 housing units per year for the next 20 years — a result that should not be underappreciated. “By simply allowing for — not requiring — town homes and triplexes to be built on existing lands in the City of Portland, the policy can accommodate one out of every seven new Portland area households in the coming decade,” Lehner wrote. “That is a big finding.”

Increasing density in established neighborhoods with schools, parks and regular public transportation isn’t just about providing housing. It’s about providing opportunity. Groundbreaking research led by Harvard economist Raj Chetty, who spoke earlier this month at the Oregon Leadership Summit, shows significant differences in outcomes for adults based on the neighborhoods where they grew up as children, even tracking the effects after a child moves to a new neighborhood.

In Portland, not surprisingly, the data maps the greatest economic opportunity in wealthy neighborhoods like Laurelhurst and Alameda with far less economic opportunity associated with childhoods in lower-income neighborhoods. Kotek’s proposal offers a relatively painless way to boost such economic opportunity for families who couldn’t otherwise get a foothold in such neighborhoods.

Certainly, Kotek’s proposal is a starting point that will need refinements. Communities, particularly those just clearing the 10,000-resident threshold, may balk at the state elbowing in on decisions that have traditionally been left to them. Cities may seek to block development through other excessive regulations or fees. And as Kotek herself pointed out, increasing supply is only one front of many on the battle for affordability. But the state can and should step in to lead on this pressing statewide problem on which local jurisdictions have failed.

“We need big ideas if we’re going to continue to make some kind of progress on our housing crisis,” Kotek told The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board, acknowledging that the heavy lift of such legislation. But it boils down to this: “If people care about the housing crisis and they care about the availability of residential units,” Kotek said, “then we have to allow more construction in residential areas.”

If only.

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Medford Mail Tribune, Dec. 23, on oil train safety vs. number-crunchers:

How much is a human life worth? That may sound like a cold calculation, but it is relevant to a dispute over safety standards for trains that carry highly flammable crude oil and ethanol across the United States, including down the Columbia Gorge.

In September, the Trump administration scrapped an Obama-era rule that would have required new-generation electronic brakes on trains carrying flammable fuels, saying the cost of complying with the new rule would be higher than the benefit.

Last week, the Associated Press determined that the government’s analysis of the new rule left out $117 million in estimated future damages from train derailments that could be prevented by installing the electronic braking systems.

Not to worry, Transportation Department officials said. They will publish a correction in the federal register, but the decision to scrap the rule stands.

Why? Because even with the additional savings, the cost of better brakes still exceeds the benefit of fewer crashes.

This is just the latest example of train and oil industry resistance to safety improvements aimed at oil trains that pose the risk of catastrophic explosions and fires. In 2015, the Obama administration adopted a package of new safety requirements after dozens of accidents involving trains carrying hundreds of tank cars full of volatile crude oil from tar sands in Canada. The worst such accident happened in 2013 in Quebec, when an unattended oil train derailed in Lac-Megantic, killing 47 people and obliterating much of the town in a huge fireball.

In 2016, a Union Pacific train derailed near Mosier, Oregon, in the Columbia Gorge. No one was killed, and the resulting fire did no major damage, but the accident could have been much worse.

The new braking systems apply brakes simultaneously on all cars in a train rather that sequentially, as conventional air brake systems do. This allows trains to stop faster and reduces the number of cars that derail.

Safety advocates are calling for reconsidering the rule and recalculating the benefits of the new brakes.

The modern technology is not cheap; the Obama Transportation Department estimated upgrading braking systems would cost $664 million over 20 years, but would save $470 million to $1.1 billion from avoiding accidents. The Trump administration reduced that benefit to between $131 million and $374 million, based largely on a drop in the number of oil train shipments to 200,000 carloads.

While fewer shipments might mean statistically fewer accidents, all it takes is one to destroy property and claim lives. Transportation officials should recalculate the benefit of preventing those deaths before they happen, not after.

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