Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:
The Oregonian/OregonLive, Dec. 31, on the work that's been done, the work that remains ahead:
The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board's agenda helps us track developments in key public policy realms, always with the hope of keeping Portland and Oregon on the path toward the best possible outcomes.
We identified several priorities and throughout the year, pushed for our state and local leaders to make bold moves to address Oregon's unstable budget, our growing unfunded pension liability, the state's disgraceful high school graduation rates and homelessness.
Some solid work was done, but unfortunately, much is left to do.
Boost student success
Considering how many elected leaders claim that education is a top priority, Oregonians should be more than a little alarmed at how that prioritization has failed to move the needle. Oregon's high-school graduation rate remains the third worst in the country. Thousands of teens drop out of high school every year. And standardized test scores show that the percentage of Oregon students meeting educational benchmarks adopted by several states has declined in the past year.
If that weren't enough, a recent audit by the Oregon Secretary of State's office revealed the many ways that the state education department is falling short in its job of helping school districts educate and prepare students. The audit highlighted numerous recommendations to start turning the tide, such as using data to identify student groups most in need of support and communicating effective strategies to school districts. While it's surprising that the department doesn't already employ some of these common-sense tactics, Director Colt Gill has committed to adopting the recommendations.
Legislators approved an 11 percent increase in the K-12 education budget for the 2017-2019 biennium. While that should be a welcome boost, some districts still had layoffs and other cuts due to the rising cost of employee benefits and pension contributions. And while the Legislature allocated millions toward voter-approved ballot measures for career and technical education and outdoor school, the amounts were far short of what voters had called for.
Still, 2017 included some good news, particularly for Portland Public Schools, Oregon's largest school district. Portland voters overwhelmingly approved a $790 million bond to rebuild or modernize three high schools and a middle school, a desperately needed investment in the district's aging buildings. With three new school board members, including a new chair, the district has landed a new superintendent, hired an outside team to investigate the district's lackadaisical handling of repeated complaints of sexual misconduct by a former educator and adopted new policies designed to increase transparency.
While Superintendent Guadalupe Guerrero has yet to prove himself amid some high-profile stumbles, the district appears to be breaking down the culture of dysfunction and lack of accountability that marked the last several years.
Get Oregon's financial house in order
The $1.8 billion deficit facing lawmakers last January as they sought to build the 2017-2019 budget should have prompted some deep soul-searching by state leaders. How could Oregon, swimming in more money than ever before, need severe reductions in education, health care and social services to balance its budget?
Unfortunately, any soul searching didn't last long. Increasing revenue projections driven by the state's red-hot economy helped shrink the budget gap and rescue lawmakers from making more difficult decisions. Legislators also passed a package of taxes to fund health care — portions of which may or may not survive a 2018 referendum. And even though some school districts had to lay off staff and make other cuts, the K-12 schools budget was still comfortably large enough to let elected officials avoid confronting Oregon's unsustainable spending habit.
2017 should have been the year to pass pension reforms and new corporate taxes. Instead, Gov. Kate Brown, Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney abandoned efforts on both fronts in June and put off any significant action for 2019 — when employee benefits and pension contributions are poised to suck hundreds of millions more out of public employers' coffers.
Oregonians are the ones who pay for their lack of political will, as fewer tax dollars go to programs and services and more tax dollars go to pension contributions. Oregonians also pay for leaders' inaction in the form of inequitable taxes, such as those highlighted in Ballot Measure 101, which target health plans purchased by school districts and small businesses while exempting those for employees at Nike, Intel and other self-insured companies.
Oregon's shaky financial footing becomes even more concerning with the unknown hit that the Republicans' tax bill will have on both the state's income and its residents. Oregonians bear the greatest share of the state's general fund responsibilities due to Oregon's heavy reliance on personal income taxes instead of corporate taxes. The state's future depends on leaders making changes immediately. Unfortunately, ignoring glaring problems until they hit crisis proportions is what passed for leadership in 2017.
Help our homeless
Few issues have divided our city and frayed citizens' collective nerves than the housing emergency that is pricing out residents old and new, and leaving many without any home at all.
The homeless crisis isn't just a big city issue, citizens in rural counties and small towns across the state are also struggling to make the mortgage or rent and end up living in tents or their cars. It's a miserable existence, which is often likely to put homeless citizens at higher risk of becoming a victim of crime or poor health.
Those more fortunate are increasingly taking sides. Some neighbors and business owners are calling for increased police patrols to make their neighborhoods more safe and livable. Others are asking police to back off and seeking ways to help, such as the Kenton community that voted in early 2017 to build a tiny-home village there for women without housing.
Though symbolic at this point, one of the year's more hopeful moves was a commitment by city and county leaders to add 2,000 units of housing over the next decade for those considered chronically homeless. These are the people who have spent at least a year without permanent housing. Often, these are the people who will need of an array of services to keep them off Portland's streets.
Hopefully, the coming year with bring more solid plans for how to pay for this more effective but costly solution. So-called "permanent supportive housing" are apartments or shared spaces that also provides tenants with health care, addiction treatment, job coaching and other services.
Without these long-term services, some of the city's most vulnerable will continue to die. In both 2015 and in 2016, the annual number of homeless people who died on the street was 80. Prior to that, the annual count had been closer to 55.
To sustain citizens' support and financial viability, our leaders must remain laser focused on what they've identified as a "housing emergency" for the third year running. City policies that may have seemed appropriate when they were first passed may now stand in the way of potential housing solutions. Take a city tree policy that levies significant fees for removing yard trees, a potential barrier for homeowners who would otherwise add an accessory dwelling unit for homeless families. There's also the city's potential "McMansion ban" that would cap construction of new homes at 2,500 square feet on the typical single-family lot. A city-commissioned report found such a cap could discourage builders and mean fewer new units built.
Honor our diverse values
Many Oregonians rang in 2017 concerned about the polarization taking hold across the country following the presidential campaign. It hasn't gotten any better. The year was marked by fear for many, especially for those Oregonians of color, as the reports of hate crimes have continued to flow in across the state. By March, it had been reported that Oregon led the nation in the number of reported bias and hate crimes.
And despite the fact many city and state leaders continued to embrace Oregon's 35-year-old sanctuary law, reports of federal immigration arrests have also been on the rise. Oregonians have complained that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents have confronted them without uniforms or badges or without sharing their names. In one particularly disturbing case, agents mistook a longtime Washington County employee for an immigrant living in the country illegally just as protests of such arrests played out at the nearby courthouse in Hillsboro.
Members of Oregon's congressional delegation rightly called for an apology, which federal officials have refused on two occasions.
Oregonians remain unclear how changes to the federal tax code will affect them or just how the Trump administration plans to redraw the boundaries of the Cascade Siskiyou National. At the very least, Oregonians may be able to celebrate the fact that the administration included the Portland Harbor Superfund site on the short list of toxic sites that need "immediate and intense" attention. We'll hope that announcement is a good thing and that the project moves forward as planned by the local stakeholders who have invested in the nearly 20-year cleanup project.
Make Portland a city that works
The frequent outbursts by agitators at Portland City Council meetings last year seem an apt metaphor for how the city conducts business these days. Too often, loud voices pushing their own agenda have successfully bullied the city into shortsighted policies that aren't necessarily in Portland's best interests.
That's a key factor in Portland's approach to its never-ending housing emergency. The progressive city with a booming economy, top-notch craft beer and thriving restaurant scene is increasingly crowded with newcomers wanting to live and work in Oregon's largest city. Unfortunately, in a bid to appease existing residents, whether they be renters or homeowners, the City Council has adopted policies that attempt to cement the status quo rather than plan adequately for the area's relentless growth.
The city in February passed a law requiring landlords to give thousands of dollars in "relocation" payments to renters forced to move out after their leases have expired and is considering proposals to bar construction of homes greater than 2,500 square feet. While these may help some existing residents, the policies also threaten to discourage the private development necessary to build homes and rentals to accommodate far more people.
Coping with the housing crunch hasn't been the only challenge. The divisive politics that marked the victory of Donald Trump in 2016 continue to play out with protesters clashing in rallies that have, at times, turned violent. The brutal stabbings of three men aboard a MAX light-rail train last summer after they stood up to a man spewing epithets at two teen girls, one of them wearing a hijab, exposed the hate and bias even in progressive Portland. City Council has struggled to maintain order in its own chambers as some frequent attendees of meetings yell out insults, boo, interrupt or otherwise seek to disrupt meetings.
Like the state as a whole, Portland's spending is outpacing its record revenue. The city and Mayor Ted Wheeler will need to identify and stick to priorities. Let's hope 2018 proves them better at that than 2017.
Expand access to public records
After the controversies leading to Gov. John Kitzhaber's resignation and lawmakers' ensuing calls for increased government transparency, the editorial board chose last year to highlight the many issues with Oregon's anemic public records laws.
Public agencies across the state regularly forget the law's requirement to err on the side of releasing information. Instead, officials tell citizens and the media that records don't exist — or they charge thousands upfront to see if they do. There's a culture of stalling, seemingly in hopes the request will be abandoned or forgotten. Sometimes each of these tactics is used, and unfortunately, sometimes it works.
But there's new hope. Several bills were thankfully passed during the 2017 legislative session aiming to address some of these issues by setting deadlines for governments to respond to requests and by creating a "sunshine committee" to review the need for the 500 exemptions laid out in the records law.
Thanks to other legislation, Oregon's newly created public records advocate will also work to resolve disputes between record seekers and various agencies and cities. Whoever is named to the position in coming months will have their work cut out for them.
Earlier last month, The Oregonian/OregonLive series, "Fired, but fit for duty," detailed a two-year - and unfortunately quite typical — battle with the Oregon Department of Public Safety Standards and Training over public records. For two databases, describing decertification cases and officer training histories, the agency first trotted out a combined $17,000 price tag. For a different set of paper documents, the price was $29,282, which was later discounted to $14,641.
In response to one of the reporters' several appeals, Oregon's deputy attorney general wrote, "given the authority that is entrusted to police officers, there is a significant public interest in monitoring the investigations that DPSST undertakes to determine whether a police officer's certification should be suspended or revoked." Indeed.
Then came one of the more creative avoidance tactics by an agency, in this case, the one that oversees the ethical and moral standards of law enforcement officers. A DPSST director offered to send a staffer to read Portland Police disciplinary records in person instead of taking possession of a paper copy. The thought seemed to be that the agency couldn't be forced to provide records it didn't have.
Of course, the official said that wasn't the case. It was simply a move to limit the agency's files to only the more relevant ones. Uh huh.
Hopefully, the public records advocate will be able to provide the information and start the conversation necessary for both sides to return to a place of trust and respect that's needed to make these transactions go more smoothly. It's work that will be necessary across many fronts here and across the country this year.
The (Eugene) Register-Guard, Dec. 31, on myths getting in the way of solutions for homelessness:
Homelessness is a complicated subject, one made even more complicated by the myths that have grown up around it. These myths can make homelessness more difficult to understand, and impede work to find solutions for the problems and issues that have led to people being homeless in Lane County.
Some of the most common myths, according to those working with homeless people, include:
1) Other cities are sending their homeless people to Eugene.
The reality: Similar views are found in cities across the country. But people who work with Lane County's fluid homeless population say the vast majority are local or have local ties — they grew up in Lane County, for example, or have relatives in the area.
The Rev. Dan Bryant, minister at First Christian Church in downtown Eugene, says he has met people who came to Lane County from elsewhere and ended up homeless — but not by choice. "They typically came here because they had a family member here, had a good lead on a job, or the prospect of job," Bryant says. "The job didn't come through, or they lost the job in the first year after they got here, and then they ended up on the streets due to a lack of adequate resources. They got stranded."
2) Eugene has become a mecca for homeless people because of all the free services and accommodations for them.
The reality: Oregon has a poor record of sheltering homeless people. It had the second highest rate of unsheltered homeless people in the country — 61 percent, in the 2016 U.S. Housing and Urban Development survey. It had the highest rate of families with children who were unsheltered, and was one of seven states where more than 75 percent of chronically homeless people were unsheltered.
The shelter that is available in Eugene — and there are often waiting lists — is far from luxurious. It includes two dormitories at the Eugene Mission, the Dusk to Dawn tent city operated by St. Vincent de Paul and sites where families and individuals can sleep in their cars.
3) People who are homeless just need to get a job.
The reality: Many people who are homeless have jobs, but the jobs don't pay enough to cover the cost of housing. The Oregon Housing Alliance calculates that a household must earn at least $36,360 per year to afford a two-bedroom apartment at fair market value in Lane County. A full-time minimum-wage job pays $19,240 per year. Someone working at the mean wage in Lane County of $11.27 an hour would have to work 76 hours a week to afford that two-bedroom apartment.
4) People who are homeless could be housed if they wanted to be, or if they made better decisions.
The reality: An increasing number of the people who are homeless are elderly or children. Some of the others are dealing with mental, emotional or physical disabilities.
The biggest common denominator for homelessness is poverty, combined with a critical shortage of affordable housing in Lane County. For every 100 families with extremely low incomes, 14 affordable units are available, according to the Oregon Housing Alliance. Waiting lists for public and affordable housing complexes are one to four years long and are frequently closed due to excessive wait times.
5) Homelessness is a long-term condition, and there's really nothing we can do about it.
The reality: Susan Ban, executive director of ShelterCare, says it is only in the past few decades that the wealth gap has grown so wide that many lower-income households are vulnerable to losing housing.
"While there is part of the homeless population that is 'chronically' homeless, a far more common condition is 'situational homelessness' where an individual or household is homeless for a short period of time, for day, not years," Ban says. As the housing market tightens, and landlords raise rents, this will only get worse .
6) Most homeless people are young, healthy men who should be working.
The reality: Some of the people flying signs at intersections have disabilities that make work hard to find. These people, while highly visible, represent a tiny percentage of the thousand or more people facing homelessness at any given time. Chances are, most people regularly encounter someone who is homeless without knowing it.
"There are as many categories as there are homeless individuals and families," says Pat Walsh, chairman of the Poverty and Homelessness Board. "Young or old, most have some things in common that can include: mental health issues, drug abuse, domestic violence, generational poverty, etc. Let's face it, few kids run away from home because it is a good situation. Few people would chose to raise a family in a car, a shelter, etc. Few people want to live on the streets or would if they were healthy. Homelessness is a symptom of an unbalanced economy — jobs, pay, insurance and housing — a generational parenting/family crisis, an education system in need of overhaul, and an unhealthy citizenry with limited access to physical and mental health care."
Brenton Gicker, a nurse and EMT who works with CAHOOTS (Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets), sees a disconnect between what people in the community have identified as priorities and the way people who are homeless are often seen and treated.
"There is this sort of confusing message society gets that we are supposed to care about veterans, or children, etc., yet the same groups touting that often vilify the homeless, overlooking that a substantial portion of the homeless population are veterans, and a growing number of the homeless population are children," he says.
"There are countless homeless people that come from really traumatic backgrounds; who suffer from serious, disabling mental illness or addiction. There are people who are victims of bad circumstances. I also think it is important not to romanticize homeless people; they are not all loser criminals but they are not all innocent victims either. It is a mistake to vilify or romanticize them."
The face of homelessness for many people seems to be that man holding a sign at an intersection, or the travelers who congregate in downtown Eugene in warm weather and disappear in cold.
The reality is that homelessness is the waitress pouring your coffee, the janitor in your office, the little girl in your son's classroom or even the teacher, says Ela Kubok, the public relations manager for Housing and Community Services of Lane County.
"The biggest myth is we don't want to believe that people who are homeless are just people, like us," Kubok says, "somebody's father, somebody's son, somebody's uncle."
Baker City Herald, Jan. 1, on far from Oregon's best shot:
Oregonians act in a curiously inconsistent way when it comes to healthy living.
We work out more often than people in most other states.
Oregon ranked third in that category in a recent report from the United Health Foundation, which has compiled its America's Health Rankings study for each of the past 28 years.
But Oregon's performance in another vital area — vaccinations against preventable diseases — is pathetic.
The state ranked last in the immunization rate for children 35 months and younger. And we're in the bottom 10 for adolescent vaccination rates and immunizations against tetanus, diphtheria, whooping cough and meningococcal disease.
Although it's gratifying that Oregonians, as a general rule, are diligent about their personal cardiovascular health, it's distressing that so many of us refuse to avail ourselves — and more to the point, our children — of inoculations that could save not only our own lives, but those of people we'll never meet.
The efficacy and safety of vaccines is not a matter of debate.
They're not perfect, of course. Vaccines don't work 100 percent of the time, and in exceedingly rare cases they cause serious harm, including death.
But when it comes to public health, the modern immunization system is about as close to perfection as we're likely to achieve.
Oregon has a well-earned reputation for defying convention in such things as sales taxes and self-service gasoline.
But being an iconoclast when it comes to preventing terrible diseases is a point of shame for the state, not pride.
The Legislature should revive the effort, which failed a few years ago, to stop allowing Oregonians to avoid vaccinating public school students based on a "philosophical" objection rather than a legitimate medical need.
Corvallis Gazette-Times, on Jan. 1, on Larry Mullins leaving behind a mid-valley legacy:
Say what you will about Larry Mullins, who stepped down at the end of last year as the president and CEO of Samaritan Health Services (and people over the years have had many things to say), but there's no doubt that without his work, the mid-valley's health care picture would look very different than it does today.
Mullins, who was originally trained as a registered nurse but who kept gravitating toward management roles, arrived in the mid-valley 25 years ago to start work at what was then Good Samaritan Hospital. At the time, hospitals in Corvallis, Albany, Lebanon and along the Pacific Coast all were independent operations. Mullins had a sense of how the economics of health care were putting the squeeze on smaller hospitals and medical facilities.
As Mullins put it in a Sunday story by the Democrat-Herald's Alex Paul: "Our trade model was extremely challenged."
Which is a nice way of saying that, standing alone, the hospitals in the mid-valley were economically vulnerable. They could have been bought, as so many other smaller facilities have been, by out-of-state medical conglomerates. Worse, these facilities simply could have been forced to close their doors, aggravating the already tenuous health care situation facing residents in small-town and rural America.
Although he didn't act alone, Mullins was the point person for the long effort to convince these hospitals to band together to create Samaritan Health Services.
That wasn't easy work. Over the years, it's fair to say, a measure of distrust had built up among the region's medical facilities. It required long hours of tough negotiations and diplomacy to overcome that. But in June 1997, Lebanon Community Hospital became the first to merge with Good Samaritan. Albany General Hospital came on board in 1999. By 2002, the hospitals on the coast had joined as well.
At the time of its merger, the Lebanon hospital was financially stable. But Bob Adams, a retired pharmacist who has served on the hospital's board since 1969, says a merger of some sort was inevitable: "Health care was getting too complicated and too complex for Lebanon to survive," he said. "We would not have been able to keep up with the industry." Without Samaritan, that picture would have played out again and again in the mid-valley.
Mullins also played a key role in convincing the Western University of Health Sciences to place a new medical school in Lebanon; part of his goal was to see if training prospective doctors in the mid-valley would convince them to stay in the mid-valley. The campus has become a magnet for other mid-valley projects, such as the Edward C. Allworth Veterans Home and a new health sciences complex for Linn-Benton Community College. Samaritan is a key player in the coordinated care organization that serves the mid-valley.
Mullins has been relentless about pursuing alternative revenue streams for Samaritan Health Services (he buys into the health care adage about how without a margin, there's no mission) and these have occasionally generated controversy. To list just two examples, Samaritan developed a housing complex for students on the site of its old hospital in Corvallis and launched a successful series of fitness centers. But one glance at the chaotic state of health care across the nation shows you why a health care administrator would want to find other sources of revenue to keep the operation afloat.
Health care across the nation still is in the midst of considerable change, to put it mildly. So one can hardly blame Mullins for stepping down and handing the keys to Doug Boysen, who has been serving as Samaritan's executive vice president and chief administrative officer. Boysen will have plenty of challenges to occupy his time. But Boysen (and the entire mid-valley) are in a much better position to deal with those challenges thanks to the work of Larry Mullins.
East Oregonian, Jan. 2, on fair trials and federal tricks:
It should be obvious: When the U.S. government goes after anti-government protesters, it must follow the highest legal, ethical and operational standards. To do otherwise is to reinforce the protesters' notion of an unfair, untrustworthy and undisciplined government.
Yet in the court case against Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy — whose 2014 ranching protests helped inspire the 2016 armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon — federal agents and prosecutors veered off that high road and onto the low. Because the government withheld evidence that might have aided the defense, federal Judge Gloria Navarro declared a mistrial last month, stating "a fair trial at this point is impossible."
Bundy, sons Ammon and Ryan, and sympathizer Ryan Payne faced multiple charges, including conspiracy, from the Bundys' 2014 armed standoff against federal agents in Nevada. Navarro has scheduled a hearing for Jan. 8 to determine whether the case against them should be thrown out. On Friday, the federal prosecutors asked for a new trial, contending their failure to share all their evidence with the defense was unintentional.
Let there be no doubt: Cliven Bundy was wrong when he kept using public land for his cattle after choosing not to renew his federal grazing permit and not pay the grazing fees. The Bundys and their supporters were wrong to take up arms against federal agents who planned to seize the Bundy cattle over the unpaid fees and ensuing fines.
Ammon Bundy and his cohorts were wrong to bring their armed campaign into Oregon and ultimately seize the Malheur refuge.
However, documents and testimony reveal that at various stages, it was as if some federal agents had a vendetta against the Bundys and their supporters. As one example, a federal threat assessment had found the Bundys were not the violent threat that the government claimed. Yet the government expectation of a violent response from the Bundys almost guaranteed violence. The government had positioned snipers and other surveillance, and gun-toting Bundy supporters had shown up to protect the cattle ranch.
The similarities to the Malheur refuge occurrence are eerie. The U.S. Justice Department's heavy-handed pursuit of two Harney County ranchers — Dwight Hammond Jr. and son Steven Hammond — led to excessive prison sentences in their arson case. In response, Ammon Bundy and his fellow anti-government sympathizers descended on the community of Burns and eventually invaded the wildlife refuge.
Nothing justifies those extremist actions of Ammon Bundy and his followers, or those of Cliven Bundy. But remember: Our nation's founders envisioned a fair, just and accountable government. When federal prosecutors and law enforcement agents subvert these principles, they undermine the very government they claim to uphold.