Editorials from Oregon newspapers
The Daily Astorian, Jan. 21: No one was in charge
The depth of incompetence in the development of Cover Oregon is breathtaking. We know that because of a Sunday investigative article in The Oregonian. Its headline "Plenty of warnings, none heeded" nailed the culture of amateurism that has plagued state government in its development of an online health insurance site.
This is not inside baseball. At stake is the health of Oregonians and especially the low income.
It is also not a fluke. The Cover Oregon debacle is only the latest phenomenally expensive computer technology bungling in state government.
Even though he was warned, Gov. John Kitzhaber appears to have been clueless as Cover Oregon's website lumbered toward oblivion.
Ironically, it was state Rep. Dennis Richardson who warned Kitzhaber that the Cover Oregon project "is now in jeopardy of becoming the next state IT fiasco." Richardson is Kitzhaber's only announced opponent for re-election to a fourth term.
The Oregonian's report noted that the Cover Oregon board, appointed by Kitzhaber "has no IT or project management experience."
For those of us who are not state bureaucrats or dependent on the political favor of John Kitzhaber, Sunday's alarming report carries at least three warnings.
. The Oregon Legislature is implicitly culpable. A measure of redemption will come if Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek ask the operative question: "Isn't it time for Oregon to become professional in computer technology?
. If the Democratic legislative leadership won't hold the governor responsible, the Republican leadership should ask the question: What did Kitzhaber know and when did he know it? (Hint: Kitzhaber would not be interviewed for The Oregonian's investigative report.)
. How can Kitzhaber hold himself out as a candidate for another term with a cow pie like this in his pocket? Isn't health care reform Kitzhaber's signature value? What are we electing? Four more years of administrative neglect?
. How can the Legislature approve the Columbia River Crossing in the wake of this revelation? How can lawmakers trust the governor's information? Shall we supplement one deeply flawed money pit with another? The very idea gives new meaning to that old warning: "If you believe that, I've got a bridge for sale."
Baker City Herald, Jan. 21: Consider open primaries
A Union County group thinks all voters in that county should be able to choose among county commission candidates in primary elections.
This is an idea worth considering in Baker County as well.
Both Baker and Union counties are among a minority of Oregon counties — 16 of 36 — where county commissioners are partisan offices.
We don't mind that, per se.
But here's the problem: Oregon also has a "closed" primary system. That means only registered Republicans are allowed to vote for Republican candidates in primaries, and the same with Democrats. Non-affiliated voters, or those registered as independents or with other parties, don't vote at all.
Although the deadline to register as a candidate isn't until early March for the two Baker County commissioner positions up for election this year, all four current candidates, two for each position, are Republicans.
Although there are more registered Republicans in the county than any other party or affiliation, even the GOP lacks a majority, at 46 percent of the county's 10,023 voters.
Unless something changes, in effect fewer than half of the county's voters will decide, in the May 20 primary, who wins those two races (there will still be a general election in November, but unless a Democrat registers, the May primary will be the de facto general election.)
Nothing's preventing Democratic candidates from competing, of course.
But we don't believe county offices need to be partisan races. So long as they remain so, and Oregon retains its closed primary status, then Baker County will continue to have its top county officials chosen by a minority of the electorate.
By making the county commission seats nonpartisan, Baker County not only would increase voter turnout for primary elections, but candidates would have to lay out their qualifications for all voters, not only those registered with a particular party.
Union County voters probably will decide this May whether to make their county races nonpartisan, starting in 2016. Baker County would benefit from making the same change.
The (Bend) Bulletin, Jan. 26: Await governors task force before acting on GMO issues
The debate about labeling genetically modified foods is full of fear and suspicion while it's short on facts.
Efforts to put the issue on the November ballot in Oregon should be halted to await the results of Gov. John Kitzhaber's task force, which he said will lead to proposed legislation in the 2015 session.
If the issue does land on the 2014 ballot, voters should just say no until more is known.
The question about labeling food is difficult enough, but the complexities grow significantly when the related issue of crop contamination is added.
Rep. Paul Hovey, D-Eugene, said recently he would introduce a bill to send the labeling question to voters. A group working on a pair of ballot initiatives to require labeling said it would halt its efforts if Hovey's bill succeeded in referring the issue to voters in November.
At the federal level, Reuters news service reported, four U.S. lawmakers, including Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., have asked President Barack Obama to require that foods with genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, be labeled, saying the "FDA has a duty to act when the absence of labeling would leave consumers confused about the foods they buy."
While studies can be found to support a variety of positions, there's little scientific consensus. As The Washington Post reported in October, people tend to believe the studies that support their own leanings.
Labeling supporters say they have a right to know what's in their food. Opponents say costs would rise and labels would unfairly suggest problems that haven't been demonstrated.
The related issue about crops involves complaints from organic farmers that their crops have been contaminated by nearby GMO crops, endangering their businesses. It's a fair point that deserves serious study.
Both our neighboring states to the north and south have rejected labeling initiatives in the last two years. Oregon voters should do the same, at least until it can consider the results of the governor's task force.
The (Eugene) Register-Guard, Jan. 22: Hatchery changes coming
A federal judge's ruling in a lawsuit over fisheries management on the Sandy River has direct bearing on similar litigation filed last month seeking greater protection for wild chinook salmon on the McKenzie River. In a decision last week, U.S. District Judge Ancer Haggerty said the National Marine Fisheries Service must do more to keep hatchery operations from harming wild fish in the Sandy, which flows into the Columbia River east of Portland. The McKenzie suit deals with the same concern, pointing toward big changes in how the salmon hatchery near Leaburg is run.
The McKenzie River is home to the last population of wild chinook in the upper Willamette River basin, but the yearly returns have dwindled to 1,000 last year from an average of 5,000 a decade ago. The chinook has been listed as an endangered species since 1999, imposing upon state and federal agencies a legal obligation to avoid actions that result in a further decline. If upper Willamette chinook populations ever recover, the McKenzie stock will be the basis of their rebound, amplifying the importance of arresting and reversing the current decline.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife, with funding from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, operates a salmon hatchery on the McKenzie, releasing 800,000 juvenile fish each year. The hatchery is intended to offset the effect of dams that have closed upper reaches of the McKenzie to fish migration. The hatchery helps support a sport fishery on the river and a commercial fishery at sea — and for decades, hatchery fish were regarded as an acceptable supplement to, or even a replacement for, wild salmon.
Fish biologists now know better. Hatchery salmon — hand-fed and protected from predators when young — have lower rates of survival than wild fish in the natural environment. Wild salmon are more disease-resistant and adaptable. The long-term survival of salmon depends on wild populations. But when wild and hatchery fish interbreed, their offspring tend to inherit the weaknesses of their hatchery-born forebears.
That's what's happening on the McKenzie River, where introgression — the crossbreeding of wild and hatchery chinook — reached a rate of 60 percent in 2012. The rate is high partly because nothing prevents hatchery salmon from straying into wild fish habitat upstream from the hatchery near Leaburg. To reduce the rate, the lawsuit — filed by the Western Environmental Law Center on behalf of the McKenzie Flyfishers and the Steamboaters — demands that the number of juvenile salmon released from the hatchery be reduced to 100,000 a year.
The issues involved in the Sandy River suit were closely parallel. The plaintiffs argued that hatchery-raised fish were pushing wild salmon to extinction. Judge Haggerty agreed, and ordered the National Marine Fisheries Service, which oversees hatchery plans, to either reach a settlement with the plaintiffs or bring him a plan for his approval before this spring's salmon runs begin.
Haggerty's ruling is handwriting on the wall for the McKenzie hatchery. The alarming downward trend in the river's wild chinook population, along with the high rates of introgression, made it appear from the start that the plaintiffs had a strong case. Haggerty's decision reinforces the message that a fundamental changes in the McKenzie hatchery's operations are on the way.
(Salem) Statesman Journal, Jan. 22: Homeless people deserve better
The underpass tells the story of homelessness in Salem. Waste thrown away by humans and waste excreted by humans line the passageways that supposedly are for use by pedestrians and bicyclists along Portland Road NE.
The railroad underpass in the 2800 block is an indictment: of the homeless who use it as a toilet but, more to the point, of a community that has refused to make homelessness a priority.
If someone is homeless, where is he or she supposed to go to the bathroom?
And if a civic site is being used as a human toilet or waste dump, who will clean it up?
Credit the North Gateway Redevelopment Advisory Board, which is trying to find a solution, as Michael Rose reported in a Jan. 14 Statesman Journal story.
Anyone who's ever had a child proclaim "I've got to go now!" knows how difficult it can be to find a public restroom on a moment's notice. Consider what is like for a person without a vehicle, without a residence and possibly with mannerisms and dress that may scare some people.
Salem is trying to cut down on panhandling and steer the homeless toward existing services. Good. But there are too few temporary shelters and very few permanent solutions — housing, ongoing treatment for addictions, personal-health programs, job assistance and the like.
Other cities have found solutions, none of them perfect but better than nothing. A congregation in Washington state's capital, Olympia, created one-room cottages where homeless residents can live in a village setting with communal kitchen and restroom facilities. Other examples abound around the country.
But not in Salem, the capital of Oregon.
It is not going too far to say that a community's character is measured by how it treats its homeless population. They are people. They should be treated with dignity. They deserve our acknowledgment and our assistance.
The Oregonian, Jan. 25: Oregon's dropout rate demands focus on diplomas, not GEDs
The new GED is better. Smarter. Tougher. After a major makeover for 2014, it's purported to be a more reliable measure of college and career readiness than the old GED, the General Educational Development test used as an alternative diploma.
But the GED is still shorthand for "nope, didn't make it through high school." It's still no substitute for earning a real diploma. Oregon should double down on lifting the state's graduation rate, and not get too sidetracked by initiatives to promote the new GED.
State leaders set an audacious goal for all adult Oregonians to hold a high school diploma, or its equivalent, by 2025. That means no one can just drop out and stay out: Everyone will need to earn a diploma in four years, finish their credits soon after, or find some sort of official alternative. This goal creates a huge incentive for the state to suddenly fall in love with the GED, since it's easier to earn than a diploma and offers an expedient way for the state to look better on paper.
In fact, a new report authored by a City Club of Portland committee and set for a full-club adoption this month suggests the state should go deeper into the business of coordinating, promoting and funding GED-support programs. The report characterized 2014 as an opportunity for Oregon to give the GED — and by extension, dropouts — a second chance.
To be clear, the City Club still treats the high school diploma as the far superior credential, and it minces few words about the GED's historically poor reputation among employers. Yet it suggests the state should throw its weight behind the new GED by taking steps such as: doing a public outreach program about its improvements; subsidizing the cost of taking the test; and having the chief education officer lead a strategy to link GED-prep programs with wraparound services and soft-skills development programs.
That's quite an endorsement for a test with a mixed track record.
The City Club is right that the state needs to better track its GED-related spending. The lack of tracking, the report says, "creates an environment in which accountability is virtually impossible and success remains elusive." The report also provides a useful reminder that earning a GED can be a big step forward for some adult dropouts, even if it's more of a prerequisite to success than an indicator of one.
However, the state should studiously avoid endorsing or promoting the new GED as a brighter, shinier alternative diploma. It should be treated more as remedial workforce development for adults than as a desirable education option for at-risk young people. Otherwise, the state risks misleading another generation of Oregon teenagers into thinking that a GED is good enough.
Here's why: Promoting the GED to at-risk teenagers and boosting their access to it can actually reduce their motivation to earn a traditional diploma, as Portland Public Schools' experience suggests. In fact, the Nobel Prize-winning economist James Heckman used Oregon to make that point in an essay published in The Seattle Times last week:
"(T)he GED induces students to drop out of high school," he and two co-authors wrote. "According to data from the National Center for Education Statistics, about 40 percent of GED recipients earned the certificate in part because it was easier than finishing high school. And increased access to the GED has increased dropout rates. The GED Option Program places test preparation centers inside high schools. When they were introduced into Oregon school districts, dropout rates increased by about 4 percentage points."
Oregon will release new graduation data early next month. But for now, Oregon ranks near the bottom of the national heap for on-time graduation rates, and worst in the nation for white students. Incredibly, only 68 percent of Oregon students graduate on time and only 75 percent graduate in five years. The rest either earn a GED or drift away. Either way, the projected lifetime earnings for GED earners and high school dropouts are similarly poor.
Boosting the graduation rate should be Oregon's top priority. Replicating the strategies of high schools that graduate at least 85 percent of their low-income and minority students should be Oregon's guiding focus. The new GED is part of the state's safety net, but it's still a lousy substitute for a high school diploma. Everything about the state's approach to GEDs — every dollar, every billboard — should reflect that fact.
(Medford) Mail Tribune, Jan. 24: Ashland sets example, lifts language that could bar legal marijuana dispensaries
In the case of medical marijuana dispensaries, the Ashland City Council has set an example other Rogue Valley cities might do well to emulate.
Oregon state law allows medical marijuana dispensaries. Federal law still considers marijuana illegal. Ashland's municipal code stated the city would not grant a business license to an enterprise engaged in "unlawful activity."
Faced with this contradiction, the Ashland council kept it simple. It removed the "unlawful activity" language.
That doesn't mean dispensaries will be handing out pot on every Ashland street corner. In fact, restrictions already included in state law — dispensaries may not operate within 1,000 feet of a school or another dispensary and are permitted only in agricultural, industrial, commercial or mixed-use zones — mean only a very small number could be established in Ashland anyway.
The council was wisely taking the position that it is not the business of city government to overrule state law by declaring a state-sanctioned business illegal.
Meanwhile, Phoenix city leaders are wrestling with the question of a dispensary already operating in town. Council members are leery of granting a business license to The Greenery before the Oregon Health Authority issues final regulations under dispensary legislation passed last year.
They won't have long to wait; the OHA says it will issue those rules by the end of next week.
Oregon voters have approved the use of marijuana for medical purposes, and lawmakers wisely decided to establish a state licensing procedure for dispensaries, which were a gray area in the law, to try to prevent unscrupulous operators from using the medical marijuana system as a smoke screen for black-market pot sales.
There is no reason for city officials to hyperventilate over the idea of dispensaries in their communities, although some have done so anyway. The Medford City Council voted in October to ban dispensaries outright, despite legal opinions saying the city cannot overrule state law.
Federal law still considers marijuana an illegal substance with no medical value. But 20 states and the District of Columbia allow medical marijuana, and medical pot laws are pending in six more. Colorado and Washington have legalized recreational use of the drug.
The U.S. Justice Department has said it will not interfere with marijuana businesses that comply with state laws and meet certain criteria. The Ashland City Council has taken essentially the same position, saying businesses permitted under state law should be granted licenses.