Editorials from Oregon newspapers
The Albany Democrat-Herald, Dec. 24, on pulling the plug on Cover Oregon ads
There's a bit of silver lining in the continuing woes of Cover Oregon, the state's health insurance exchange, whose online portal has worked so poorly that potential applicants are being urged to download and fill out a paper application instead.
The bright spot is that Cover Oregon officials say they're backing away from their advertising campaign — "Long Live Oregonians," indeed — after spending more than $8 million during 2013 for advertisements on radio, TV, newspapers and billboards. (The billboards likely will linger a little longer, because they've already been paid for. Of course, the billboards don't make much sense without the context provided by a broader media campaign, but what the heck.)
So no more faux hipster jingles to go along with brightly colored animated spots. No more singers trying to sound like Bob Dylan on mysterious radio spots. No more Cover Oregon sponsorships on injury timeouts during college football radio broadcasts, even though we thought that was sort of ironic: "Jim, there's another injured player who won't be able to enroll online for health insurance through Cover Oregon!"
We understand that the idea was to grab the attention of media-savvy young people, because those are the relatively healthy folks who need to sign up for health insurance so that this reform pencils out financially.
But those also are the same people who have little patience for technology that doesn't work. Are they going to be willing to fill out a paper enrollment form? Will they be willing to give Cover Oregon a second shot once the state finally irons out its technology issues? (And officials better be absolutely certain that site works like a charm when it gets rolled out again.)
These are important questions — and we'll start to see the answers next year. With any luck, some of those answers will start to come into focus at about the same time that legislators start to dig deep into this mess during their 2014 session.
In the meantime, with the advertising campaign over for the time being, Cover Oregon officials say they'll focus on enrolling those Oregonians who applied for coverage effective Jan. 1. That's the right decision.
But even that process has hit a bump: On Friday, Cover Oregon started robocalling applicants to warn them that if they haven't received enrollment confirmation by Monday, they should seek coverage elsewhere for Jan. 1.
"If you haven't heard from us by Dec. 23, it is unlikely your application will be processed for Jan. 1 insurance coverage," the prerecorded call says. "If you want to be sure you have insurance coverage starting Jan. 1, you have other options."
That sounds like a pretty harsh call to receive. If Cover Oregon officials need a little background music to ease the blow, we have some suggestions.
The (Bend) Bulletin, Dec. 26, on legislative help for rural Oregon
When Nike decided last year it needed tax stability to justify expansion in Oregon, it quickly got the governor's attention and the Legislature's approval.
But some legislators complained that their district's small businesses were left out in the Nike deal. Why did the big company get a break that small ones didn't? Why did one part of the state benefit and the rest didn't?
It's time for the state to focus on the needs of rural Oregon, but that doesn't mean giving small business the same deal Nike got, because the needs are different. The focus should be on effectiveness, not a simplistic concept of fairness to small vs. big business or rural vs. urban regions.
Nike sought and received a 30-year commitment that it won't be affected by possible changes in the so-called single sales factor in state tax law. It means the company will continue to be taxed only on sales within Oregon. In exchange, Nike promised to create 500 new jobs and invest $150 million in the state.
The state's rural areas are in trouble, with high unemployment and stagnant economies. State economist Mark McMullen recently warned the problems could worsen if young people give up and move away. The answer doesn't depend simply on a single type of tax structure.
Solutions involve traditional issues such as logging, tourism and agriculture, as well as broadening the economic base with new types of business.
One issue, though, is the same everywhere: A thriving economy depends on business development, which in turn depends on predictable taxes and regulations. A business-friendly environment is a stable one that allows companies to plan effectively.
Nike's focus was a particular narrow piece of tax law that may be less important to smaller companies. The key to effective legislative action at this point is determining how to create conditions that will allow private investment to invigorate rural Oregon.
The Eugene Register-Guard, Dec. 26, on teens and pot
A new federal report showing that the percentage of U.S. high school students who smoke marijuana is rising, while the use of alcohol and most other drugs is falling, should get the full attention of Oregon lawmakers who are considering a law that would allow state residents to use marijuana for recreational purposes.
The report, released last week by the National Institute of Drug Abuse, raises concerns that the relaxation of restrictions on marijuana, which can now be sold legally for medical purposes in 20 states and the District of Columbia, is encouraging use of the drug among teens. As the institute's director, Dr. Nora Volkow, told The New York Times, "The acceptance of medical marijuana in multiple states leads to the sense that if it's used for medicinal purposes, then it can't be harmful."
If legal usage of pot for medicinal purposes has helped to increase marijuana usage among teens, then it seems likely that legalization for recreational purposes could do the same, perhaps to a much greater degree.
Starting early next year, recreational marijuana use will be legal in Colorado and Washington, and other states are not far behind.
Oregon legislators voted to legalize and regulate medical marijuana dispensaries earlier this year and are considering whether to refer an up-or-down vote to Oregonians next year on whether the state should permit the recreational use of marijuana. Under a strategy favored by state Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, a "yes" vote on the 2014 measure would authorize the Legislature to draft legislation that would regulate the growth, processing, sale, taxation and use of recreational marijuana.
If state lawmakers don't put a legalization measure on next year's ballot, pro-marijuana activists have said they may do so on their own. Last year Oregon voters defeated a deeply flawed ballot measure that would have allowed anyone but minors to grow and possess unlimited amounts of marijuana for personal use. While ballot Measure 80 failed, 46 percent of voters supported the initiative, a percentage that has prompted many to predict that passage of a legalization measure is inevitable.
If that prediction is accurate, then the new survey on teen usage makes a compelling argument for state lawmakers, not marijuana advocates, to take the lead role on legalization and for the Legislature to ensure that any new marijuana laws include strong protections for underage Oregonians.
Some legalization advocates might point to a Measure 80 provision that would have required the state to fund "accurate" drug education in schools. But their version of "accurate" would probably conflict with the views of health experts who cite a growing body of evidence that adolescent brains, which are not fully developed, are susceptible to changes in cognitive function and performance caused by marijuana usage.
Citing the latest federal statistics, the institute's annual survey says more than 12 percent of eighth graders and 36 percent of seniors at public and private schools around the country said they had smoked marijuana in the past year. Sixty percent of high school seniors said they do not regard routine marijuana usage as harmful — a 5 percent increase over the previous year's survey.
Given the likelihood that recreational usage of marijuana will be approved in Oregon, state lawmakers are right to lay the groundwork for a balanced, practical measure, one that provides effective protections for vulnerable young people.
The Dalles Chronicle, encouraging bicycles is good for the city
Portland may have already won the crown of Bike City, U.S.A., but The Dalles wants to tag "bike-friendly" onto its moniker, too.
Mayor Steve Lawrence is working with local cycling enthusiasts to look at ways to improve facilities for cyclists and encourage more two-wheeled tourists to visit our fair city.
However, making that happen in a car and truck town requires more than just the mayor's say-so. It requires planning, strategy and, ultimately, at least some new infrastructure.
Not very long ago at all, in The Dalles (and most other towns) cyclists were expected to share the road with motorists — and follow the rules of the road. If traffic got a little dicey, they could dodge onto the sidewalks and share with pedestrians.
As the number of bikes on the road continues to grow, that became a less appealing option and conflicts between motorists and cyclists began to grow.
The public administration solution to that conflict was to separate the two by marking bike lanes along major thoroughfares.
In The Dalles, with the exception of the Riverfront Trail, these lanes have seen minimal use. They're often covered in gravel or lead into intersections that can be treacherous. And on busy West Sixth Street, they're often blocked by parked trucks, RVs or other impediments.
But in urban communities, even small urban communities like The Dalles, it's important to remember that bicycling offers a solution, more than it does a problem.
Replace five solo drivers in five cars with five individuals on bicycles, multiply that scenario a dozen times over and pretty soon you don't need to expand roadways. And city air quality starts to see improvement.
Sure, the Boardman coal plant is our biggest fixed source of pollution during those throat-grating The Dalles winters, but automobile traffic is a big contributor. If more people left their gas-burners at home most of the time, we'd have fewer unhealthy emissions. We'd also save a bunch of money on gas and have a healthier populace in the bargain.
A portion of federal gas tax money comes back to states every year for alternative transportation. It does so, not out of some hazy altruistic aim, but because it can save cities and states cold, hard dollars and cents.
The Dalles leaders are smart to be looking at ways to make the town more friendly toward bicycles.
With completion of the Historic Columbia River Highway restoration on the horizon, with portions dedicated solely to non-motorized traffic, some of those Portland cyclists might be looking to The Dalles as a destination city.
But the city should also be looking at more ways to encourage local bicycle traffic. From one end to the other, The Dalles is a ridable city. Its flat areas are broader and hills gentler than a lot of our nearby neighbors.
The Oregonian, Dec. 29, on the value of PERS reform
In theaters from Klamath Falls to Portland, thousands of Oregonians have been following the story of Walter Mitty, a more or less regular guy known for his vivid fantasy life. In related news, a state panel estimates that K-12 funding for the current biennium is only — only! — $1.9 billion short of the sum needed to satisfy Oregon's Quality Education Model, which is a formal exercise in Mitty-worthy daydreaming.
While the QEM has, at best, modest value as an educational policy tool, the "good" news involving this biennium's $1.9 billion shortfall does contain information taxpayers and voters should keep in mind. The imaginary shortfall is a lot more modest than it otherwise would be - and smaller than in any biennium since 2008-09 - because lawmakers this year did something about the cost of the Public Employees Retirement System.
The QEM is a tool used by the Quality Education Commission to estimate the cost of providing educational services sufficient to meet aspirational student-performance outcomes, which include test scores, on-time graduation and so on. It's a formalized process that regularly prescribes just what you'd expect: More classroom teachers, more specialists in art and other areas, more support staff, more professional development time, more instructional time, and so on.
And all of this boils down to one thing: more money. So much more money, in fact, that the exercise seems a little pointless — unless the point is ritual self-flagellation. The amount actually allocated for K-12 education has never come close to full QEM levels, and during the 2011-13 biennium the gap topped $3 billion. Even with a huge increase in state funding for schools this biennium — more than $800 million — and a marathon effort to trim PERS costs, the gap is still almost $2 billion.
It's difficult to take a process so divorced from fiscal reality seriously, but the change from last biennium to this one does illustrate the value of PERS reform. The gap narrowed both because lawmakers increased spending on schools and because they cut pension costs. As a result, hiring the teachers, counselors and other staff necessary to provide what the state considers a high-quality education became less expensive.
In this regard, what is true in educational fantasy land is also true in reality. Dollars that aren't hoovered up by steeply escalating retirement costs can be used to hire more teachers, lengthen the school day or pay for whatever else local school officials consider educationally beneficial. QEM-level schools may be impossibly aspirational, but PERS reform will bring public education closer to that level - which was, after all, the point.
They will, at least, if the Legislature's changes survive. In its recent report on educational funding and the QEM, the Quality Education Commission points out that this year's PERS reforms "are currently the subject of litigation before the Oregon Supreme Court." If the court throws them out, the gap between Oregon's reality and its aspirations will grow once again.
Corvallis Gazette-Times, Dec. 30, Legislature should ban E-cigarettes for minors
One of the easier questions to come before the Legislature's February 2014 session is whether the state of Oregon should ban the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors.
That's the subject of a bill from Albany Rep. Andy Olson, and it's a no-brainer: Simply put, these devices should not be available to minors. We expect an easy passage for Olson's bill, although you never can be sure with the Legislature.
E-cigarettes are battery-powered devices that allow users to inhale a vapor mix consisting of nicotine, flavor additives and other chemicals. They do not contain tobacco. In Oregon, they are not subject to age restrictions or cigarette taxes.
In the meantime, although the companies marketing these e-cigarettes might argue this point, there's little doubt that some minors might find them attractive, especially since some of them come in flavors such as bubble gum, strawberry and chocolate.
And, in fact, there's little doubt that e-cigarettes are gaining some traction with youth: The 2013 Oregon Healthy Teens Survey reported that 5.2 percent of 11th-graders in 2013 said they had used e-cigarettes sometime during the last 30 days, a considerable jump from the 1.8 percent reported in the 2011 study.
For the record, Olson's bill has garnered support from at least some tobacco-company officials: He's talked to a pair of Salem lobbyists who represent Reynolds American, and both have said their company supports the measure. It seems unlikely that the bill will generate much opposition from tobacco companies.
E-cigarette advocates claim the products can be useful to help people quit smoking, but little evidence exists to support the claim, according to the Oregon Health Authority. And, while the industry says that the vapor produced by e-cigarettes is mainly water vapor, other studies have questioned that claim, reporting that there is evidence the vapor contains carcinogens and other toxic chemicals.
But even if there turns out to be merit in the claim that the devices help wean addicted smokers away from cigarettes, that would have little bearing on the question of whether minors should be able to buy e-cigarettes. In fact, if there's any public-health issue at play here, it should be trying to prevent minors from picking up the smoking habit in the first place — and the truth of the matter is that e-cigarettes may well offer a tempting first step down the road to addiction.
The right call here is to ban minors from using e-cigarettes. Olson's bill does that. Even in the rushed environment of the Legislature's February session, the bill appears to be a good bet to quickly win bipartisan approval.