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Editorials from around Oregon

January 2, 2019

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

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The Bend Bulletin, Jan. 1, on transparency not being valued by many Oregon district attorneys:

Oregonians like to pride themselves on being leaders in such things as protecting beaches and imposing deposit fees on a variety of bottles. When it comes to transparency of government, however, we have nothing to brag about. Just ask a group of journalism students at the University of Oregon.

Earlier this year the students asked district attorneys in all 36 Oregon counties for copies of public records appeals filed with their offices. The DAs are the first stop in an appeals process that includes the Oregon Attorney General and, ultimately, the courts. Students also wanted copies of the DAs’ responses to those records and asked to have fees waived. That information, they argued, would give the public an insight into how well district attorneys carry out their duties under the state’s public records laws.

The district attorneys’ responses were surprising, though perhaps they shouldn’t have been. While Deschutes County’s John Hummel had no problem with accommodating the students, more than a few denied the requests, arguing they did not meet the public-interest test. Even more, while they agreed to send the records, failed to meet the deadline written into Oregon law in 2017: Agencies are supposed to acknowledge public records requests within five business days and, generally, respond to them within another 10.

As for what does and does not meet the standard of what’s in the public interest, there is no “public-interest test” in Oregon beyond the DAs’ own judgment on the matter. In these cases, the DAs were being asked to judge their own refusal, a situation that seems odd, at best. At the same time, some DAs proposed charging students upwards of $1,000 for the records, though some reduced or waived the charges as discussions progressed.

Moreover, your chances of getting a public record upon appeal can depend on where you live. District attorneys in Multnomah County, and now Deschutes County, post their orders regarding public records on their websites. Hummel said he did so because the students’ request made him more sensitive to the notion of transparency in his office.

Things are different in Lane County. There, District Attorney Patty Perlow orders agencies to release records only about a quarter of the time, though that figure does not reflect cases that are resolved before a denial is issued.

Oregonians’ ability to see how their government, no matter at what level, operates, should not be limited by the county in which they live. Records in Lane County should be every bit as accessible as those in Multnomah or Deschutes, no matter what a district attorney’s view of the law is.

Lawmakers should be able to fix most of these problems easily, if they’re of a mind to. They can make it clear that Oregonians expect their district attorneys to understand and uphold the public records law, deadlines and all. They should recognize that some agencies set fees high as a way of discouraging requests, and deal with the problem.

Doing those things would not solve all the law’s problems, but it would surely help.

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Corvallis Gazette-Times, Jan. 1, on state trends helping to drive 2018′s news:

It’s no secret why newspaper journalists spend so much time working on year-end retrospective stories: These stories fill space in their publications during the last week of the year, when news can be hard to find.

With that said, though, it can be interesting to take a deeper look at 2018′s biggest Oregon news stories — and how, in many cases, those stories are new chapters of trends that long have been at play in the state and, for that matter, across the western United States.

Let’s take, for our starting point today, the list of top Oregon stories for 2018 from The Associated Press.

Now, you can quibble with the list that AP’s writers and editors compiled (for example, the No. 2 and No. 9 stories on the list are different developments in the same story), but many of the stories tie in nicely to state and regional trends that in some cases have stretched back now for more than a century.

Let’s start with those two related stories, No. 2 (President Donald Trump’s pardon of ranchers Dwight and Steven Hammond) and No. 9 (the acquittal of FBI agent W. Joseph Astarita, charged with making false statements and obstruction of justice regarding his actions at the shooting that killed Robert “LaVoy” Finicum, one of the leaders of the January 2016 takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge).

The Hammonds were convicted of intentionally setting fires on public land. After a judge refused to give the men the mandatory minimum sentences, the government appealed, resulting in longer sentences for both. The Hammonds reported to jail to serve out the remainder of their terms, an event that sparked protests from Ammon Bundy and others and led to the refuge takeover.

Finicum died about three weeks after the start of the takeover at a roadblock authorities set up outside the refuge.

Both of these stories are new chapters in a long-running saga in the West: the debate over federally owned lands. That story goes back more than a century and isn’t nearly finished yet.

You could make a case that the No. 4 story, the wildfires in southern Oregon, also are related to the federal land issue, in that these fires often are burning on national forests that haven’t been properly maintained for generations and are clogged with fuel. Will congressional action to safeguard money for forest maintenance and cooperative efforts to allow thinning and controlled burns begin to make a difference this year? We’ll see.

The AP’s No. 1 story, the re-election of Gov. Kate Brown, continues a trend in Oregon politics that’s been at play now for at least a generation: The state’s emergence as a solidly blue state. Brown bested a well-funded and prepared GOP candidate, Knute Buehler, as the Democrats also claimed narrow supermajorities in the Legislature. Those supermajorities, if Democratic leaders keep them in line, will allow Democrats to raise taxes without a Republican vote. How Brown chooses to spend her political capital and how the legislative session develops surely will be among the top state stories of 2019.

The AP’s No. 10 story, the January vote to impose a tax on hospitals and health insurers to help temporarily pay for the state’s Medicaid expansion, also is linked to the state’s political climate: To a large extent, the state’s continuing budget deficit is because of that Medicaid expansion. (It was surprising that the continuing financial woes of the state Public Employees Retirement System didn’t make the AP list. That unfunded liability didn’t make much news during the year; it just grew larger.)

Daily journalism, by its nature, sometimes is in too much of a hurry to place these stories in a broader context. But it’s important to take the time every so often to see how many of these stories, as compelling as they are on their own terms, essentially are new wrinkles in broader sagas.

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The Oregonian/OregonLive, Dec. 30, on Oregon’s progress — or not — on key issues:

From its start, 2018 was a year of playing defense in Oregon. From the January referendum on a Medicaid funding package to the November ballot measure seeking to strip Oregon of its sanctuary state status, leaders focused on shoring up support for maintaining Oregon policies more than breaking new ground.

Still Oregon made some incremental progress in addressing its most urgent problems in education, homelessness, revenue and PERS reform and disaster preparedness. And with Gov. Kate Brown’s re-election and Democratic supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature, next year promises to be a whole new ballgame.

Below are recaps of notable successes or failures in the areas we highlighted for our 2018 editorial agenda — the issues we consider the most critical for Oregon leaders to address.

Press for a student-focused education system

Arguing that the state needs to develop a “student-focused” education system seems redundant. After all, isn’t an education system all about students to begin with?

In theory, sure. In Oregon, however, the answer is a bit more complicated.

Too often it seems, leaders have put the interests of students behind those of adults. For example, elected officials are well aware that a growing share of education dollars is going to employee benefits as opposed to in-the-classroom investments, but they have shown little appetite to change that.

Nowhere, however, was the students-last mentality more obvious than the decision by the state board of education to roll back rules requiring school districts to schedule most high school students for full class loads. The board adopted those rules a few years ago after parents’ complaints of “part-time” high school. But under pressure from school boards and administrators wanting more budget flexibility, the state board of education voted to allow broad exemptions to the instructional time requirements. Never mind that graduates of Oregon’s K-12 system get a year’s less schooling than their counterparts in Washington or that many have to repeat classes before taking college-credit courses. Fortunately, Gov. Brown, who has said she wants to increase the school year, has since directed the board to seek data from schools about their use of exemptions and review its decision in coming months.

On the flip side, the creation and work of the “student success” committee is an ambitious and dedicated effort to put students’ needs first. A bipartisan group of legislators spent the year traveling around the state to hear from community members about what’s working for schools, what’s not and what they want Oregon’s educational system to provide. The committee, the brainchild of Senate President Peter Courtney, developed a host of policy recommendations. It is now paring down the long list into a package of strategic investments, designed to give Oregon’s K-12 system the tools needed to improve student outcomes.

Another plus: The gubernatorial campaign between Brown and Republican challenger Knute Buehler directed new energy and attention into the problems afflicting the K-12 educational system. While Brown emerged the winner, Buehler’s detailed vision for education prodded Brown to release her own platform. While the student success committee’s recommendations will certainly shape how Oregon moves forward, Brown is already championing the need for a $2 billion investment of new money into education. Her buy-in and leadership will be critical to get even half of that revenue.

Focus attention on the root causes of homelessness

With the state’s hot-button homelessness issue, there’s much speculation and finger-pointing as to why we can’t seem to get 4,000 of our fellow Oregonians under shelter. Some are sure it’s a breakdown of our mental health and addiction services. Others insist it’s our lack of affordable housing. Some simply blame Portland Mayor Ted Wheeler — even though he partners with Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury in leadership of the Joint Office of Homeless Services.

A compelling report by the local economic consulting firm EcoNorthwest this year clarified how our lack of housing has significantly exacerbated the problem for the majority of homeless individuals. The firm found high-rent areas, including Portland, Seattle, Los Angeles and San Francisco lead the country in homelessness. Yet homelessness rates are significantly lower across Appalachia, a region that struggles with drug addiction and other disabilities — suggesting that addiction isn’t the key driver.

This year brought some progress. Oregonians passed Measure 102, a tweak to the state constitution that will allow municipalities to leverage public funding to go farther and work more closely with third parties who may have more experience in building and operating various types of housing. Voters also approved the Metro housing bond, which will bring needed units dedicated for the lowest-income families.

Housing supply aside, we can’t ignore the impact of our failing mental health system across the state. Less populated counties across much of Oregon lack providers. Yet in Portland, a two-year-old crisis facility that many saw as a major part of the solution is now under investigation after allegations of abusewere made by a whistleblower who was ignored. At the same time, a recent investigation by The Oregonian/OregonLive found that the state has been working to push some of the most vulnerable Oregonians suffering extreme mental illness out of specialized care facilities - with tragic consequences.

State and local leaders face an unprecedented storm of crises, between these failed systems and building backlogs. Yet they must continue to search for creative ways to fund solutions, keep a close eye on those programs in place and shy from establishing policies that only make addressing these breakdowns more difficult.

Defuse Oregon’s ticking time bombs

This agenda item packed a lot of topics under one roof, in part because Oregon has a number of issues threatening to hurl the state into crisis. We focused on two — the fiscal and the physical — with the need for revenue and pension reform and the need for preparing Oregon for a massive earthquake.

Improving Oregon’s financial stability: Despite record-breaking revenue, Oregon never seems to have enough money. That concern — and fears over how leaders look to fill that hole — drove some of the biggest questions asked of Oregonians in the past year.

Voters, so far, have answered with confidence in leadership. Oregonians overwhelmingly endorsed Measure 101, a referendum on new health care taxes to fund Oregon’s Medicaid expansion. While imperfect — small businesses, individuals and K-12 districts pay a new health-care premium tax while many large corporations don’t — voters approved the two-year fix, buying time for state leaders to look into a more equitable solution. In November, voters again sided with leadership by rejecting two ballot measures that would have made it more difficult for lawmakers to change the tax system or raise revenue.

It has certainly helped that Oregon’s economy has continued to grow, even if the rate of growth has slowed. But concerns over a possible recession in coming years, the call for billions more in education funding and the need to pass another Medicaid-funding bill are setting the Legislature up for a heavy lift for the long legislative session next year.

The challenge of raising money becomes only more difficult when you add in the rising costs of pension benefits to state agencies, school districts, city governments and other public employers. Required contributions to feed the unfunded liability of the Public Employees Retirement System are expected to surge for the next several budget cycles with agencies paying $4 billion collectively for 2019-2021.

The lackluster stock-market returns so far this year also aren’t helping matters, with the potential to push the system’s unfunded liability of $22 billion a few billion higher, according to Milliman, Inc.

But Brown, who counts labor unions among her biggest backers, has shied away from pension reform proposals that change employees’ compensation or cap future payouts. While she has led the way on a couple key initiatives — the establishment of a matching fund to incentivize public employers to pay down their agencies’ pension debt and the creation of a tool that helps public employers look up their expected contributions in coming years to the pension system — she has failed to take up the challenge of pension reform.

Getting Oregon better prepared: Nearly a year ago, Oregonians learned that the state agency tasked with preparing for and responding to natural disasters was, well, totally not prepared. Even the building where first responders were supposed to gather after a massive Cascadia quake wasn’t properly reinforced to survive such an earthquake.

A scathing Secretary of State audit of the Oregon Emergency Management Department also found the agency was understaffed, lacked comprehensive planning across state agencies and needed better standards to measure progress.

While much work remains, the agency recently delivered a more detailed and decisive manual that lays out how the state will address specific tasks at pre-determined times following a natural disaster. In the past, the information was formatted more as a to-do list.

Also, in her recently released budget, Brown set aside $12 million to create an earthquake early warning system. For years, countries around the globe have used such alerts, which could provide Oregonians valuable time to seek shelter, escape unsafe buildings or drive away from bridges and overpasses.

Unfortunately, the system won’t be operational until 2023 — at best. Legislators must still vote on the proposal, which would be funded through bonds. Hopefully lawmakers will push quickly to get this needed system in place.

The City of Portland also took a small step forward year, passing legislation that requires that signs be posted on the 1,600 brick buildings that are more likely to collapse in an earthquake. The idea is warn those who regularly walk by, but also provide information to business or tenants who rent space in older, unreinforced masonry buildings that have been found to collapse more quickly. Some owners have already sued, hoping to block the legislation.

The intent behind the signs is good, especially for renters who didn’t always know about the added risks of these brick buildings. Yet signs are a far cry from the retrofits the buildings need. Concerned about the cost on business owners, city commissioners put off that requirement — called for by a citizen’s committee — for another 20 years. It’s easier for citizens to put off preparedness when local leaders sidestep real fixes. At best, work will continue during the upcoming session to find ways to help business owners pay for the improvements these buildings truly need.

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