Editorials from Oregon newspapers
The Salem Statesman-Journal, Feb. 26, on a new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River
Almost every day, traffic clogs the Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River between Portland and Vancouver, Wash. For many drivers, the delays simply are frustrating. But to businesses whose shipments or crews are caught in the snarled traffic, those delays are costly — a significant drain on the Northwest economy.
That is why the Oregon Legislature's support for a new pair of bridges, called the Columbia River Crossing, is critical. The Oregon House overwhelmingly approved House Bill 2800 on Monday. The Oregon Senate should do the same.
"By investing in a safe and effective transportation system for Oregon, we are providing a safer and less congested trip for freight and commuters. It is time that we build this bridge," Gov. John Kitzhaber said in a statement Monday from our nation's capital, where he was meeting with federal officials and other governors.
HB 2800 passed the House 45-11. Voting yes were Mid-Valley Reps. Vicki Berger, R-Salem; Kevin Cameron, R-Salem; Brian Clem, D-Salem; and Betty Komp, D-Woodburn. Voting no were Reps. Vic Gilliam, R-Silverton; Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio; and Jim Thompson, R-Dallas. Excused were Reps. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, and Jim Weidner, R-McMinnville.
The Columbia River Crossing would encompass two double-decker bridges. One would have five lanes of northbound traffic on the top deck and a pedestrian/bicycle path on the lower deck. The other would carry five lanes of southbound traffic on the top deck and light rail on the lower deck.
Unlike the current structures, these would not be drawbridges. Those bridges were built in 1917 and 1958.
The bridge replacement project, which harkens back to at least the 1990s, has been beset with shortcomings and well-deserved criticism, such as a design that was not high enough to meet the Coast Guard's navigation requirements. But the project is coming together, and Oregon's expected $450 million contribution is a good investment.
Critics remain. Some oppose the inclusion of light rail, a view that is confounding in light of the demonstrated success of MAX. Some dislike the massive footprint required for the bridges. Some predict that tolls won't produce as much revenue as projected. Some simply consider the $3.4 billion project a boondoggle. And there remain legitimate concerns about whether the bridge height would be sufficient to meet the shipping needs of Portland-area companies that manufacture huge pieces of infrastructure for oil rigs, dams and other massive projects.
However, the trials and tribulations of the project have produced a sensible plan, although final details must be worked out. Oregon legislators added triggers to ensure funding from Washington state and the federal government, as well as updated financial analysis, before construction can start.
There should be no question that the new bridge is needed, and that it has Oregon's full support.
Medford Mail Tribune, Feb. 26, on school funding and the kicker
For the first time in recent years, Oregon lawmakers are talking seriously about putting some money back into public education. That's good news, but don't get too excited just yet.
A great many pieces must come together to make it possible to reinvest in Oregon's beleaguered school system. And the wild card that could bring the whole house crashing down is — the kicker.
Yes, Oregon's unique system of giving lawfully collected tax revenue back to taxpayers in relatively small amounts when it could be used to benefit the state as a whole is threatening to emerge from hibernation.
State economists earlier this month announced state revenues were higher than expected because federal tax increases on wealthy individuals caused many to sell assets so they could be taxed at 2012 rates this year. That caused a spike in state tax collections.
The good news: the economists predict lawmakers will have about $87 million more to work with for the 2013-15 budget. The bad news: If collections rise enough between now and April 15, they could trigger the kicker. That happens when revenues exceed the projection by more than 2 percent. If they do, the entire amount above the forecast is returned to taxpayers.
Education backers in the Legislature — and every lawmaker there will claim to be one — would love to restore some of the funding schools have lost in recent years. That money could restore lost instruction days, hire back teachers to reduce class sizes, even revive enriching electives such as music and art that fell to the budget ax.
Where to find the extra money will be the battle in Salem. A slight uptick in state revenue won't do it all.
Republicans, led in the House this session by 55th District Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, vow to enact Public Employee Retirement System reforms and put the savings back into the classroom. State employee unions are ready to fight PERS reductions, and many of their Democratic allies are cool to the idea as well.
Democrats and some Republicans want to see sentencing reform to save money on state prisons — a move some conservatives will oppose.
No matter how committed lawmakers are to restoring school funding, there are plenty of other state services that have absorbed reductions, too. Oregon State Police coverage is spread thin. Services to the elderly and disabled could use more help.
All of these programs have their constituencies, and they will all be clamoring for attention as the budget comes together.
But if the kicker kicks — which is more than a remote possibility — lawmakers could see $200 million to $290 million go back to taxpayers, according to Senate Ways and Means Co-chairman Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin.
Never mind the fact that the state could use that money. The kicker — the only law of its kind in the country — is enshrined in the Oregon Constitution because the voters put it there, and only the voters can take it out.
The East Oregonian, Feb. 26, on health exchanges and expanding Medicaid
A unified national health exchange in which all Americans could buy insurance was one of the possibilities most reviled by opponents of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), now more often called Obamacare. So it is richly ironic and surprisingly helpful that states led by Republicans are largely defaulting to just such a unified system.
These exchanges will allow individuals and small businesses to shop for privately run insurance policies that make the most sense for them. The main existing example is in Massachusetts. An official there describes it: "We're a little bit like Travelocity for health insurance. It's an electronic, automated store for insurance." There it typically takes people 20 to 30 minutes to evaluate their options, decide which plan to purchase, push a button and they're enrolled, according to the Washington Post.
New federal and state-run systems will offer similar choices, matching coverage options with willingness to pay.
Oregon, Washington and all our near neighbors in the West are setting up our own health exchanges. This means greater flexibility and local control of this pivotal new system that will transform the lives of the currently uninsured, starting next year. Gov. John Kitzhaber's leadership on Oregon's healthcare initiatives won him a seat in the first lady's box at the State of the Union speech.
Seventeen states and the District of Columbia signed up to run exchanges before the Feb. 15 deadline. Several others will partner with the federal government. But the feds will themselves run 26 of the state health exchanges.
This certainly is in part because of a political-legal miscalculation. A large block of states from Montana to Florida incorrectly assumed a conservative Supreme Court would toss out the ACA or that President Romney would move to repeal it. Reality moved in other directions.
In other cases, the reasoning was "on their heads be it" — if Congress and the president want universal health care, let them also deal with the hassle and expense. ACA supporters in some of the dissenting states say they prefer federal management to a homegrown system that might be designed to fail.
The politics of all this will fade to insignificance soon as far fewer people are forced to defer vital health decisions because they lack insurance. Already, a rule was finalized this week that eliminates long-standing discrimination against mental health coverage in insurance policies. Additional fair, humane reforms are in the pipeline.
For low-income residents, expansion of Medicaid coverage alone will offer health care to an additional 325,000 people in Washington over the next few years, starting in January. Oregon still is only leaning toward Medicaid expansion, which would extend benefits to an additional 252,000 individuals. It should do so.
It is true that we must keep a close eye on the costs associated with all this. But nothing is more expensive to a nation than needlessly sacrificing our own citizens because of lack of routine modern medical care.
If paying for such care means we can no longer afford entanglement in optional foreign wars, so be it.