The (Albany) Democrat Herald, June 17, on genetically modified organisms ban

While we wait to see what the next front will be in the statewide battle over genetically modified organisms (it might be in neighboring Benton County, where proponents of a ban on GMO crops ponder their next move after an election defeat), it’s worth watching how a similar ban plays out in Jackson County.

The ban in that southern Oregon county, approved by voters more than a year ago, finally went into effect on Saturday, June 6, after a federal judge rejected a claim by farmers that the ordinance violated their rights under state law.

So that Saturday was the first day when people could tip off county officials about potential violations of the ban.

Here’s what happened on that red-letter day: Nothing.

And you can expect the same sort of action in Jackson County in the immediate future. According to a story in The Oregonian, Jackson County officials have no immediate plans to patrol the county searching for illegal GMO crops. And they may never get around to it.

Part of the reason is legal. Although the judge rejected the “right to farm” claim being pursued by lawyers for the farmers, an appeal remains a possibility.

And a separate legal issue still is pending: Whether the farmers should receive $4.2 million in compensation from the county. County officials agreed not to enforce the ban until that legal issue is settled.

(Voters in Josephine County passed a similar ban, but the measure there violates a state law that gave state officials the sole authority to regulate seeds. Because Jackson County’s measure already had qualified for the ballot at the time the Legislature acted on the state law, it was allowed to proceed.)

In Jackson County, it’s not clear at all how officials should enforce the ban, or even if they should. The ordinance doesn’t require the county to enforce it; it merely gives the county the authority to do so. And it seems relatively clear that that the county isn’t exactly eager to provide enforcement, in part because officials say the cost of enforcement could be as much as $200,000 each year.

Proponents of the ban say, in general, that’s OK. What’s really important, they say, is the message that the measure sends to farmers considering planting GMO crops. And, they say, the measure is important to help protect non-GMO crops.

Maybe. But that equanimity likely will be severely tested the first time someone files a complaint that someone else is planting GMO crops, and county officials need to figure out how to respond. You can’t tell if a crop is GMO just by looking it at; such a determination requires sophisticated testing.

One of the most unfortunate side effects of the Benton County debate over the proposed GMO ban there was the way it pitted farmers — in some cases, lifelong friends — against each other. Depending on what happens next in Jackson County (and across the state), that nastiness might turn out to be just a taste of what could come next.

The (Salem) Statesman Journal, June 17, on the state Capitol reconstruction

Here are a few facts about the successful reconstruction and seismic upgrade of the state Capitol, which cost around $260 million:

—6.5 million pounds of concrete reinforcing steel used.

—More than 4,700 construction workers involved.

—76 miles of audio visual wire and cable installed.

—Heating, cooling, plumbing and fire-safety systems updated.

—550 windows replaced with historic-looking, energy-efficient windows, some of them bulletproof.

—Rooms reconfigured and restored to their historical look

—More than 260 base isolators — a building’s version of shock absorbers — installed to let the Capitol move up to two feet in any direction during an earthquake.

—Granite walls strengthened and additional walls installed to guard against a collapse during a quake.

“But wait,” you say. “When did this happen? Aren’t some Oregon legislators getting cold feet about the Capitol renovation after soundly supporting it in the past?”

Oh, you so are right. The preceding facts are from the renovation of the Utah State Capitol, which was completed seven years ago.

“Interesting,” you say. “Utah is a Republican state, a fiscally conservative state.”

Yes, but it also is a quietly innovative state. Utahns add up the numbers and embrace ideas that present a prudent return on their investment. Buildings, even majestic ones, wear out over the decades and require upgrades.

Meanwhile, it is disconcerting that some Oregon legislators are balking at moving forward with the Capitol restoration, especially after previously supporting it.

Admittedly, the cost is scary — an estimated $337 million.

That is why the prudent approach would be to approve the estimated $163 million needed in state bonds for the next two years, while launching a fundraising campaign.

By the way, on a per capita basis Oregon would spend less for its capitol renovation than Utah did. Also, Utah rebuilt its capitol to withstand a 7.3 magnitude quake; Oregon must achieve a higher standard.

“But what about our kids?” you say. “Shouldn’t we fix our public schools first, so they will survive The Big One?”

This is not an either-or issue. The issue is whether the Oregon Legislature is willing to inconvenience itself by moving from its quarters, as the Utah Legislature did, for a couple of years so the Capitol can be rebuilt.

After all, it should seem obvious that Oregon will need a functional center of government, regardless of when The Big One or another disaster hits. And there seems to be little interest among legislators, or Oregonians at large, in starting over by constructing a brand-new, state-of-the-art capitol, even if that might be less expensive.

Oregon has allocated millions of dollars for seismic upgrades to schools and likely will do more this year. However, the state has failed to appreciate that certain schools and other institutions must be moved and rebuilt outside tsunami zones. The Legislature must broaden the use of those monies, and school districts must act faster to make the upgrades.

In the meantime, the Oregon Capitol renovation not only is ready to go, but some work has started under the Legislature’s previous authorizations. It would be a waste of money — a shortsighted one and a potentially dangerous one — to stop now.

The Oregonian, June 20, on minimum wage and cost of living

The push for a higher minimum wage enjoyed a high profile for the past two years, fueled by marches, rallies, presidential support and success in some cities and states. But whatever level you think is right for the minimum wage, it addresses only half of the equation that makes many families struggle to pay for the essentials of life. The other variable is cost of living, and it is not receiving nearly as much political discussion. Why?

There are several answers to that question. First, inflation has been relatively low since the housing and financial markets collapsed in 2008, and it hasn’t been above 4 percent in the United States since 1991. Also, it is harder for elected officials to influence prices than for them to raise the minimum wage. Controlling inflation is the Federal Reserve Board’s job, or at least one of its jobs. And the political payoff from saying, “I got you a pay raise,” is bigger than boasting, “I kept inflation in check.”

But even some advocates of a $15 minimum wage have acknowledged in legislative testimony that certain costs, primarily housing and child care, are as big a problem for low-income families as wages. In fact, in places like Portland those expenses probably pose a bigger challenge. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, cited concern about Portland costs as one reason she wants to rescind the preemption statute that prevents cities and counties from setting their own minimum wages. But another approach would be to look for ways to reduce those costs.

Any discussion about cost of living starts with housing, which comprises more than 40 percent of the Consumer Price Index. Several speakers during legislative minimum wage hearings testified to the difficulty of finding housing in Portland that fits within their budgets. The problem is hardly unique to Portland. In fact, Portland housing, though more expensive than the national average, is significantly cheaper than in the larger West Coast cities of Seattle, San Francisco, Los Angeles and San Diego. But rental costs are increasing faster in Portland than in all but four U.S. cities, according to real estate research company Zillow. And most low-wage workers are renters.

To be fair, this problem has received some attention – particularly at the local level. But the potential solutions are complex, difficult to execute and in some cases contradictory to other civic goals such as increased density. Richard Florida, one of the leaders of the New Urbanism movement, acknowledged in a New York Times guest column earlier this year that “red states, like Texas, Georgia and Utah, have done a better job overall of offering a higher standard of living relative to housing costs.”

The blue-state model is at a cost-of-living disadvantage, Florida concedes, in part because certain aspects of large, dense urban areas are extremely expensive to operate. Building new housing is more expensive in dense environments. Expanding mass transit requires huge financial investments. And even if you can find ways to add housing and transit options, many people still prefer to live in traditional stand-alone homes. Plus, owning your home typically is cheaper than renting and gives occupants more control over their finances.

As economists Tim Duy and Josh Lehner point out in a guest column for The Oregonian/OregonLive, housing prices ultimately are set primarily by supply and demand. For prices to drop, housing construction needs to exceed the increase in demand created by population growth. That doesn’t automatically mean Oregon’s land-use policies have to change drastically. But it does mean there needs to be increased discussion about how to build more houses and apartments at as low a cost as possible.

Housing isn’t the only budget-busting expense in Portland. Health care and transportation also are above national averages. Health care is in transition nationwide and there’s at least some hope that costs eventually could fall in Oregon. However, the Legislature is moving in the opposite direction on transportation. The low-carbon fuel standard is projected to eventually add up to 19 cents to the cost of a gallon of gas in Oregon, a state already with some of the nation’s highest gas prices. Child-care expenses also are high here, and a higher minimum wage likely would push prices even higher.

Lowering the cost of living is a difficult task. No one expects quick solutions. But it would be nice if the problem at least got more attention.

The (Medford) Mail Tribune, June 21, on marijuana restrictions

Not sure what to expect when recreational marijuana becomes legal July 1? You’re not alone. A four-day series of stories starting in today’s paper is an attempt to clear some of the haze from the subject. We would add this piece of advice to those who are apprehensive: Relax.

Take a few deep breaths — laced with pot smoke or not. It’s your choice as of July 1. It’s a free country, after all, one that is about to get a little more free in that respect.

One important thing to keep in mind is that marijuana becomes legal for adults to possess and use on July 1, but only in private. If you see people strolling down the street puffing a joint, they will be breaking the law and risking a citation. So there won’t likely be much visible evidence that the law has changed.

Retail sales won’t begin until at least the fall, and then only if lawmakers decide to let medical dispensaries sell recreational marijuana as well. If they don’t, retail outlets probably won’t appear until fall of 2016.

The important thing to remember about legal marijuana is that it’s not that big a change from the way things already are. Medical marijuana has been legal in Oregon for years, and the pervasive presence of high-quality cannabis in excess of the amount needed by patients is one of the issues lawmakers are still wrestling with as they try to create a functioning retail market for what previously was a black-market commodity.

Local governments, meanwhile, are wrestling with their own issues: whether to allow medical marijuana dispensaries, whether to ban retail sales of recreational marijuana and whether to restrict outdoor growing for personal use, which is specifically permitted under Ballot Measure 91.

That last question has the Medford City Council poised to ban all backyard pot gardens without waiting to see if they cause a problem. Councilors should take a few of those aforementioned deep breaths first.

Some medical marijuana growers with dozens of plants in residential back yards have drawn complaints from neighbors about the strong odor the plants give off at harvest time. Some medical growers can grow for multiple patients, and the odor can be pungent.

But recreational growing is limited to four plants per household. That’s unlikely to even be noticeable to neighbors. Do the Medford councilors know differently, or are they about to cast their votes based on a supposition?

If larger-scale medical gardens are causing a problem, by all means restrict them in residential neighborhoods. The same goes for growing commercial quantities of recreational marijuana. That’s no more appropriate in a city neighborhood than raising pigs or running cattle in your backyard.

Medford councilors should follow the example set by their colleagues in Jacksonville. Presented with a proposed ordinance, the Jacksonville council chose to take no action, relying on existing nuisance ordinances for the time being.

“I think we should just wait and see what happens and respond accordingly,” Councilor Ken Gregg said.

Rather than rushing to produce a solution in search of a problem, Medford councilors should do the same.

The (Bend) Bulletin, June 21, on disclosing campaign contributions

In the week before the November 2014 election, Gov. John Kitzhaber received some $392,500 in campaign contributions that were not made public until Nov. 5, the day after the election. That will change if the amended version of House Bill 2178 becomes law.

The bill, introduced at the behest of then-Secretary of State Kate Brown, tightens up Oregon’s campaign finance reporting in important ways. Critically, it requires that all last-minute large contributions to campaigns be reported within 48 hours, rather than the current seven days.

The bill defines large contributions as those of $2,500 or more, and the reporting requirement applies not only to contributions but to expenses, as well. The requirements kick in 14 days before election day.

Big, last-minute contributions are not particularly uncommon, meanwhile. That last week before the November 2014 election saw nearly $600,000 dumped into just two contests — $433,000 to Kitzhaber and his opponent, Republican Dennis Richardson, and another $162,500 for the Yes on Measure 92 (GMO labeling) campaign.

More recently, a Portland school board candidate, Amy Kohnstamm, received $5,000 from Kitzhaber just two days before the May election, which she won by less than 2,000 votes. She was not required to report the contribution until five days after the election was held.

It may well be that the last-minute donations had little effect on the outcome of the contests in question; we’ll never know for sure. What we do know is that voters had no opportunity to weigh the contributions and their sources before they cast ballots.

They should have.

While we may deplore the amounts some people are willing to spend on elections, we don’t believe that limiting their ability to do so will be effective. Cut off one path to contributing, and they’ll simply find another.

That makes quick and thorough disclosure of those contributions critical. Information about who is giving what to whom tells voters something about the issues and people in question, and plenty of information is vital to making good voting decisions.

House Bill 2178 would increase the information available to voters in the last days before an election. It should be approved.

The (Eugene) Register-Guard, June 22, on fire spending bill

The cost of fighting megafires in Oregon and other western states has skyrocketed in recent years, devouring funds that the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management need for wildfire prevention — including vitally important programs that treat forests to make them less vulnerable to fires.

U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, Rep. Peter DeFazio and other members of the Northwest’s congressional delegation have tried without success for years to end a self-destructive budgeting practice, known in bureaucratic parlance as “fire borrowing.” Now, there is reason to hope that Congress will finally end this vicious cycle and recognize that megafires are natural disasters that put forests, property and human life at serious risk.

Last Thursday, the U.S. Senate Appropriations Committee passed a bill, sponsored by Merkley, that seeks to preserve money for fire prevention and other vital programs by detaching them from spending to fight fires.

Under the legislation, wildfires would be treated like natural disasters, such as river flooding, hurricanes and tornadoes. Any firefighting costs above an annual level of funding based on a 10-year average of wildfire suppression would be funded through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA.

Congress should waste no time passing this legislation, which comes amid predictions of a catastrophic fire season. Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently warned that wildfire-fighting costs could run hundreds of millions over budget.

It’s hardly a new situation. With drought-stricken forests burning in devastating wildfires in Western states nearly every year, the costs of fighting fires have decimated Forest Service and BLM budgets. The nonsensical practice of “fire borrowing” has forced the agencies to shift money to firefighting from vital programs such as road maintenance, timber sales, recreation and, most significantly, fire prevention.

In 2013, the Forest Service had to redirect more than $600 million from other agency programs to cover the cost of fighting fires. While last year’s fire season was not as severe as anticipated, experts warn that the intensity, frequency and size of wildfires will continue to increase in coming years as a result of chronic drought conditions and climate change.

Merkley’s bill is similar to legislation introduced in previous sessions by Wyden, a fellow Democrat, and Sen. Michael Crapo, R-Idaho. Those bills would have freed more than $400 million annually for fire-prevention projects.

Under Merkley’s proposal, the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management would receive an annual appropriation equal to the 10-year average spent on fighting wildfires. If a fire season is worse than anticipated, FEMA would be required to cover the remaining cost. In case of a mild fire season, any surplus funding would be returned to the U.S. Treasury.

Thursday’s committee vote inserted Merkley’s measure in a $30.1 billion bill that appropriates money to the Department of the Interior and the Environmental Protection Agency. Ironically, Merkley voted against the larger bill because it contains a number of what he called “unrelated, extreme anti-environmental policy riders.” Hopefully, Merkley’s amendment, which has bipartisan support, will not fall prey to partisan politics as it winds its way through Congress.

It’s time for the federal government to finally change a perverse budgeting system that forces agencies to spend money on fighting fires that’s needed for making federal forests less vulnerable to costly wildfires. Congress should approve Merkley’s proposal as soon as possible.

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