Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:
The Register-Guard, Sept 12, on candidates executing plans on homelessness:
Gov. Kate Brown and challenger Knute Buehler have both unveiled plans to reduce homelessness in Oregon. They deserve credit for elevating homelessness to a top issue in the governor’s race. Their solutions, if implemented, will resonate throughout Oregon, including Lane County. One study said the county had one of the nation’s highest rates of homelessness. But the Boston-based Technical Assistance Collaborative, which is analyzing the county’s homelessness and need for shelter beds, said the county also has “a remarkable level of community engagement in the issue of homelessness. This is a unique asset.”
In Brown’s homelessness plan, she uses Lane County as a positive example. Indeed, the Statesman Journal newspaper in Salem editorialized this summer that Eugene was doing far more on homelessness than the state capital was. But much more must be done… in Eugene, Springfield and elsewhere. And while it is tempting to compare the candidates’ competing proposals, such comparisons would be inaccurate, irrelevant and ultimately inconclusive. The reasons are managerial, political and economic.
The governor as CEO
State action on homelessness hinges on the central issue in the governor’s race. Would Democratic Gov. Kate Brown or Republican Rep. Knute Buehler be the more effective leader? The governor’s most important role arguably is as CEO of state government. That requires the wisdom to hire effective staff, including agency directors; the leadership to get state agencies working in the same direction; and the tenacity to keep atop that work instead of jumping from priority to priority. Candidates always campaign on their vision for the state. The electorate must assess whether they have the skills, expertise and experience to convert that vision into reality, whether on homelessness or any other issue.
The political scene
Regardless of what the governor proposes, the Legislature controls the purse strings and passes the laws that govern state policy. The governor must negotiate with the Legislature, the members of which have their own priorities. Lawmakers could agree with the governor. Or, as often happens, they could revise or even ignore the governor’s priorities. The strength of the governor’s leadership, along with the political composition of the Legislature, will greatly affect whether a governor’s homeless plan becomes reality.
Oregon’s housing crisis
Homelessness can involve a number of issues, from mental illness and substance abuse to a lack of family-wage jobs and affordable housing. Both Brown and Buehler seem to be taking an enlightened approach, recognizing the value of getting the homeless into supportive housing instead of first expecting them to “clean up their act.” Both also stress the need for affordable housing.
As Register-Guard reporter Christian Hill explored (Rough time for renters in Eugene-Springfield, Sept. 5), many residents have difficulty finding rental homes or apartments they can afford. That is backed up by a study that found Lane County residents had the fourth-highest housing cost burden in Oregon. The median household income in the county also trails the state median income. The lack of affordable housing is a serious problem throughout Oregon, whether urban or rural.
Buehler has called for a state summit on homelessness, but the aspect of affordable housing deserves a summit of its own. Society, including government, must make it worthwhile for builders and financiers to invest in affordable and middle-income housing. Gubernatorial and legislative candidates, as well as incumbent politicians, must ask whether state and local tax, building and land-use regulations encourage or discourage such development.
Factors throughout society contribute to the problem. For example, consider the weight that student loans place on current and former students, which prevents them from buying houses. If there were less need for student loans, more people could afford house payments. That in turn would open more rental space, potentially serving some people who lacked shelter.
That is a small example, and certainly not a finite answer to homelessness. But it illustrates how the challenges of homelessness and housing have ramifications far beyond the proposals laid down by Brown and Buehler.
The Bend Bulletin, Sept. 11, on Gov. Brown needing to show more transparency, release records:
For all the talk from Gov. Kate Brown of supporting government openness and transparency, she seems to hope to be addressed as Gov. Openness. Yet, there’s another example of her failing to live up to her talk.
Brown is denying the public access to legislation state agencies plan for the 2019 session until after the November election is over. The records should be made public now.
State agencies send proposed legislation to the governor’s office every year before the legislative session. The state has what are called legislative concept approval forms. The forms require agencies to identify a problem and explain how a change in the law would fix it. The governor’s office reviews them and can turn them down.
Such forms were submitted in the past to change the age of compulsory education from age 7 to age 5. There was one to change health insurance for inmates. There was another to limit information to the public in some state databases.
That’s important public business that the public has a right to know. And in the past, they have been provided to members of the public.
This year, with Brown up for election, the policy for releasing such records has changed. There are new instructions sent to agencies about the forms: “Although it is expected that agencies will have discussed legislative concept ideas with stakeholders, agencies are directed to treat this document as confidential and privileged and, accordingly, not to share the text of this form outside of state government before legislation is drafted and finalized.”
That will be after the election is over. Does that make any sense at all except to hide what the government is doing from the public?
Portland business lawyer Greg Chaimov is suing the state to compel the state to release the records. We should disclose that Chaimov is an attorney with Davis Wright Tremaine, which has represented The Bulletin. The issue, though, is not about who is suing. It is about when the government should make records public.
The state is claiming that release of the records now violates attorney-client privilege. That decision was upheld by Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum. Is that so? State agencies are forming critical policies to change state law. In many cases, as the state admits, it has publicly discussed its legislative concepts. And now, when an agency proposes an idea to the governor, it suddenly becomes top secret?
Knowing what proposed legislation a governor rejects and what he or she allows to proceed tells Oregonians important information about the governor.
Gov. Openness should not be trying to delay disclosure. She should be expediting it. Release the records. Now.
The Oregonian/OregonLive, Sept. 9, on failed sawmill deal warranting criminal inquiry:
Rough & Ready Lumber was the last operating sawmill in Josephine County when it was shuttered in 2013, ending a 90-year legacy and eliminating 85 much-needed jobs.
So it’s understandable that folks were thrilled by a proposal to provide millions through a tax-credit deal to reopen the lumberyard - folks who lived in the mill’s hometown of Cave Junction, officials at Business Oregon who oversaw the tax credits, even then-Gov. John Kitzhaber.
Some were too thrilled, it seems, to see glaring problems with the plan and complete the due diligence to be sure it was sound. As The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Gordon Friedman has reported, it wasn’t. The proposal was trumped up, included a curious “one-day loan” and taxpayers lost about $7 million in forgone tax revenue.
Oregonians are familiar with how tax-credit programs can go wrong. And when they go bad, such deals sully the programs’ aim to pour investment into struggling communities or emerging industries. Not to mention, they waste tax income that other legitimate programs greatly need.
Such red flags in a similar program prompted Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum to act in the past. She launched successful criminal probes and prosecutions into the state’s Business Energy Tax Credit program after reporting by The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Ted Sickinger.
Yet so far, Rosenblum has fallen short on the deal by a corporate subsidiary of Portland-based Ecotrust.
Justice department spokeswoman Kristina Edmunson told The Oregonian/OregonLive in March that Rosenblum’s prosecutors considered launching a civil or criminal investigation into the sawmill deal, but later decided against either one. That was a bad call.
Rosenblum should investigate Ecotrust’s use of the New Markets Tax Credit program to determine whether its practices rise beyond sloppiness to criminal malfeasance.
Rosenblum knows more now, considering that Business Oregon officials have spent the past six months scrutinizing Ecotrust CDE’s deal. In mid-August, officials reported their findings to the Oregon Department of Revenue. Among numerous accusations, the memo claimed that Ecotrust “omitted material information,” ”failed to accurately describe the sources and uses of proceeds” and “failed to disclose the intentions” of the one-day loan.
The memo relates that Ecotrust had to show the project had $8 million in qualifying expenses to land $3.1 million in tax credits. To reach that threshold, the memo asserts, Ecotrust inflated the project’s expenses using a “one-day” loan. Mill owners Jennifer and Link Phillippi used a $4.8 million from Chase Bank to essentially buy the mill from themselves and then paid off the loan the next day. Yes, you read that right.
As The Oregonian/OregonLive’s Friedman and Hillary Borrud have reported, there were other red flags. One was a hand-written budget that was incomplete and listed costs that were ineligible under the program. It also turned out to be wildly off.
Friedman and Borrud’s reporting also show the problems weren’t only with Ecotrust.
Administrative rules allowed Business Oregon to request more documentation and require solid answers before approving the deal: “The applicant will submit any information requested by the department for purposes of evaluating the application.”
Business Oregon officials told The Oregonian/OregonLive that they didn’t have enough information to detect these problems. Yet it appears they could have. Hopefully, the agency and other state officials will make such requests in the future.
Business Oregon officials gave Ecotrust a “second chance,” allowing it to wipe the slate clean by investing $3.5 million in another deal to create jobs in a low-income community. Yet Ecotrust missed the deadline to qualify.
To use a tired phrase on this increasingly exhausting problem, the state shouldn’t throw good money after bad.
Taxpayers are the only people in this deal who haven’t benefited. Ecotrust earned about $500,000 from managing the failed deal and has continued to broker other tax credit programs worth millions. Chase Bank also got a great deal, paying 60 cents on the dollar for the tax credits. It’s unclear how much - or whether - the Phillippis gained after the mill, equipment and property were sold.
It’s time to stop the bleed.
Business Oregon shouldn’t continue to extend the deadline that would provide Ecotrust a second chance. Instead, the state should seek to recoup the tax credits that this deal never should have received. And, Rosenblum should aggressively investigate what went wrong and who was responsible.
Across the state, Oregonians could use the help that sound economic investment can provide. But the investment needs to be real and long-lasting, with money going reliably home in their paychecks - not out the mill door through management fees.
Medford Mail Tribune, Sept. 9, on firefighters, their health and safety:
When the Mail Tribune invited readers to submit photos of friends and loved ones on the fire lines as a thank you for their hard work and dedication, the tributes poured in from far and wide.
Many are young, in their 20s and 30s, but by no means all. Others are in their 40s and 50s, with decades of experience under their belts. The photos, many reproduced in today’s newspaper, show soot-covered, smiling firefighters clad in the familiar yellow fire shirts, their heads protected by hard hats.
They are men and women from the Rogue Valley, from elsewhere in Oregon and from other states as well. They are assigned to fires called Klondike, Hugo, Taylor Creek, Ramsey Canyon, Mendocino, Delta. They are among 19,000 firefighters battling more than 40 wildfires.
There is plenty of work to go around this summer. And there likely will be more before this long, hot fire season is finally over.
The family members, friends and fire public information officers who submitted the photos are justifiably proud of the work these firefighters are doing, as are we. We join in thanking them for the hard, back-breaking work they do - literally, in some cases. One Grayback Forestry employee suffered a broken neck nearly 30 years ago, and is still, in the words of a relative, “kicking ash.”
Injuries are inevitable in an occupation that asks its workers to hike long distances, clear fire lines with hand tools and operate chainsaws and other dangerous equipment. So far this year, 14 firefighters in the U.S. have lost their lives.
State and federal forestry agencies and private contractors that employ firefighters do focus on safety, but when fires are raging, there is little time to examine the toll firefighting takes on the bodies of those who do it. Enter Randy Brooks, a professor in the University of Idaho’s College of Natural Resources.
Prompted by his son, a firefighter who narrowly escaped a wall of flames that killed three colleagues in eastern Washington in 2015, Brooks launched an online survey that turned up some troubling responses.
Some 400 firefighters reported mental and physical fatigue as the most common cause of injuries. Brooks then began a health study using wrist-worn motion monitors and body-composition measurements. The research turned up health declines and slowing reaction times as the fire season dragged on.
Firefighters often didn’t get enough sleep, the research showed. They lost muscle mass and gained body fat for reasons that are still unclear.
The first year of the study involved only nine firefighters; this year’s, just 18 - all smokejumpers. Brooks says he hopes to include 100 firefighters next year, including specially trained hotshot crews. He wants to pay special attention to the nutrition firefighters get.
The Forest Service has devoted significant effort to developing nutrition guidelines for firefighters, even taking blood samples to track glucose levels. Forest Service officials didn’t comment on Brooks’ research, but they should welcome any new data that can keep firefighters safer and healthier in what is undeniably a risky, exhausting endeavor. And Congress should make sure the agencies have enough resources to maintain health and safety on the fire lines.
Thanks again to all the firefighters, supervisors and others who spend their summers in harm’s way. May they all come home safe at the end of the season.
The Daily Astorian, Sept. 5, on big gifts possibly being game changers:
Museums are like universities. Their level of excellence depends on funding.
Since its founding in 1962, the Columbia River Maritime Museum has been a blue-chip organization. The museum’s progenitor, Rolf Klep, laid that foundation. To build the nest egg for the budding collection of maritime objects, Klep pursued and haunted Portland’s monied class.
Even within the context of such a well-funded institution, Peter Brix’s recent $1.5 million gift is a game changer. Executive Director Sam Johnson called the Brix donation “truly transformative.”
Brix’s gift contains two directives. One is to create exhibits of regional, national and international significance. These exhibits will use renowned exhibit designers. And he directs that such exhibits occur every two to four years. Johnson says we can expect exhibits on shipwrecks - here and globally - and on river commerce. This directive will also dedicate one of the museum’s large galleries to the culture of the indigenous peoples of our region.
The second directive is to complete the digitization of the museum’s library and its collections records. This will allow the museum’s holdings to be searched online.
“This is like getting a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities,” Johnson said.
When the Clatsop County Historical Society received an unexpected $1 million gift from the estate of Ed Parker in 2000, the society gained an improved institutional life. When the Astoria City Council in 1999 made a $1.3 million urban renewal grant for purchase of the Liberty Theatre, that decaying property was placed into local, nonprofit ownership.
Like those magnificent donations, the Brix gift will change the cultural landscape of Astoria and the lower Columbia.
While Brix was not part of Rolf Klep’s founding board of directors, he has served for more than 35 years. Moreover, he plays the role of being the museum’s muse. He’s turned a portion of the wealth from his Columbia River maritime business into the intellectual and historical exploration of the storied world Astoria inhabits.
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