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Sequester gets even sillier


We thought the nonsense related to the federal budget cuts known as the sequester had reached its apex with the pulling of college tuition assistance for about 201,000 National Guard soldiers (a blunder which Congress, to its credit, fixed last week).

Well, no.

The latest lunacy is that the feds, no longer content to close national parks and deprive children of vaccinations, are in effect calling for counties, including Baker County, to bail them out.

The target is the federal program officially known as Secure Rural Schools, but more commonly referred to as county payments.

The program, which dates back more than a decade, sends hundreds of millions of dollars annually from the coffers in Washington, D.C., to counties with public lands — and in particular forested land — within their borders.

The basic idea is to make up for some of the money these counties used to receive from the sale of timber logged on federal forests. That source of revenue has plummeted since the early 1990s, when the amount of logging on federal land dropped dramatically.

The federal government wants counties to repay $17.9 million. Of that, $3.6 would come from Oregon counties, and an estimated $40,000 from Baker County.

U.S. Rep. Doc Hastings, a Republican from Washington state, called the idea an “obvious attempt” to make the sequester seem to the public as harmful as possible.

We don’t go in much for conspiracy theories, but the congressman’s allegation is hardly farfetched.

Notwithstanding the heavy-handed nature of the government’s gesture, asking counties to repay the money doesn’t make sense in relation to the sequester. That’s because the payments are based on 2012 revenues, which supposedly makes them exempt to the across-the-board cuts that started in early March after President Obama and Congress failed to make a deal on the budget.

(“Cuts” in this case being something of a misnomer, by the way, since in many cases — defense being one major exception — they don’t mean the government is spending less money than last year, but rather increasing spending by a smaller amount than was planned.)

Many other lawmakers have joined Hastings in criticizing federal officials for trying to pilfer county coffers, among them Oregon’s senators, Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley, and Rep. Greg Walden, whose district includes Baker County.

Given the widespread disgust among legislators, we think it’s likely that counties, in the end, will still get the money.

Even so, this episode will forever remain an appalling example of how the federal government, though its expertise in spending tax dollars is formidable indeed, seems incapable of tempering its profligacy with anything resembling sober thought.

There’s nothing reasonable about implying, as the feds have done in this matter, that somehow Baker County is partially responsible for the budget woes in Washington, D.C.

 

Curious spending priorities


Architecturally speaking, the David J. Wheeler Federal Building in Baker City will never be mistaken for the work of Frank Lloyd Wright or I.M. Pei.

But whatever it lacks in beauty and style, the three-story structure continues to fulfill the prosaic purpose for which it was built in 1967: Office space for federal employees.

We find it curious, then, that the federal government, which just this month deemed it necessary, among many other things, to revoke tuition aid to National Guard soldiers, shut down many airport control towers and close some national parks, managed to scrape up the cash to remodel the second and third floors of the Wheeler building.

Now we understand that, from a strict accounting standpoint, the building’s interior renovations and the sequester cuts are not related.

Except that they share the most important trait: They’re all part of the trillions of dollars Americans contribute each year to the federal coffers.

We’re not so naive as to expect that each of those dollars will be spend in the most efficient way possible.

Yet neither are we content with the explanation that remodeling federal buildings while vastly more vital services go wanting is an inevitable result of the complexity of the federal budget.

We’re certain our local public forests are more in need of money than our local public buildings are.

 

Prisons aren’t the problem


Baker County District Attorney Matt Shirtcliff told county commissioners last week that he’s worried about legislation in Salem which could severely weaken the voter-approved law that requires mandatory minimum prison sentences for people convicted of certain violent crimes.

We share Shirtcliff’s concern.

House Bill 3194, whose proponents include Gov. John Kitzhaber, would get rid of mandatory minimum sentences for three felonies: first-degree sex abuse (current minimum of 6 years, 3 months) second-degree robbery (5 years, 10 months) and second-degree assault (5 years, 10 months).

Judges would have the discretion to give convicted criminals shorter sentences.

HB 3194 in effect eviscerates Ballot Measure 11, which Oregon voters approved in 1994.

The three crimes listed above account for about 42 percent of convictions that carry mandatory minimum prison sentences.

To put it another way, if this bill becomes law, an unknown number of people who sexually abused, assaulted or robbed someone in Oregon will be free rather than in prison.

It seems to us that you’d need an awfully compelling reason to justify such a thing.

We’ve yet to see one that comes even close.

Kitzhaber contends that by continuing the status quo Oregon would, in effect, “be choosing prisons over schools.”

The numbers don’t bolster the governor’s position.

Oregon’s prison population did rise substantially in the decade after voters approved Measure 11 — an 85 percent increase from 1995-2005.

But that trend ended long ago.

From 2005 to 2012 the inmate population rose by just 9 percent.

Moreover, we’re locking up most of the people who pose the greatest risk to society.

In 2010 Oregon was best in the nation at incarcerating people convicted of violent crimes, with a rate of 67.2 percent (the average, among the 33 states the kept track of this, was 53 percent).

Those are statistics to celebrate, not lament.

Ultimately, the governor’s “prisons versus schools” is nothing but a canard.

As he himself knows well, Oregon’s most pressing financial problem is not housing violent criminals. We recently applauded Kitzhaber for focusing on a fiscal anchor that’s pulling down not only the state, but also cities, counties and school districts: Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System (PERS).

If anything is “unsustainable,” to borrow the word Kitzhaber used to describe the state prison system, it’s PERS.

The retirement system’s burden on public employers statewide grew by $1.1 billion in the current biennium, a figure that makes Kitzhaber’s goal of paring $60 million annually from the prison budget over the next decade seem positively paltry.

Oregon’s budget woes can’t be cured by going easier on violent criminals. Prescriptions such as HB 3194 can, though, make the state less safe.

 

Why the rush on legal pot?


We didn’t expect the proponents of legalizing marijuana would surrender after their defeat at the Oregon ballot box last November.

But we didn’t figure on the Legislature taking up their cause so soon.

The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to discuss, during a public hearing April 1, House Bill 3371. It would allow people 21 and older to keep as many as six mature marijuana plants and up to 24 ounces of marijuana. The Oregon Health Authority would license pot producers, processors, wholesalers and sellers, and the Oregon Liquor Control Commission would collect a tax of $35 per ounce from growers. The state would dole out the tax revenue by this formula: 40 percent to schools, and 20 percent each to the State Police, state general fund and services for mental health, alcoholism and drugs.

The main effect of this bill, were it to become law — besides, of course, giving OLCC the sort of intoxicating power the likes of Al Capone could scarcely have dreamed of — is to disenfranchise the 923,000 Oregonians who voted “no” last November on Ballot Measure 80.

That measure, like House Bill 3371, would have legalized marijuana use for adults.

Measure 80 failed, with 53.2 percent of voters opposed (the margin was much greater in Baker County, with 64.4-percent opposition).

The measure gained a majority of “yes” votes in just four of the state’s 36 counties — Benton, Lane, Lincoln and Multnomah.

Yet less than five months later, lawmakers are thinking about thwarting nearly a million of their constituents.

We don’t understand why this is a priority — nor, it seems, do legislators, as, according to a story in The Oregonian, nobody in Salem is copping to being House Bill 3371’s sponsor.

Separate groups intend to bring the issue back to voters in November 2014 or November 2016. The voters have had their say, and the Legislature should allow them the chance to do so again.

 

River bill’s overreach


Oregon state Sen. Alan Bates says one of the main reasons he introduced a bill this year that would add sections of more than two dozen rivers to the state’s Scenic Waterways Program, including two in Baker County, is to protect salmon and steelhead from suction dredge mining.

Fair enough.

Except the two Baker County streams included in Bates’ Senate Bill 401 — the North Fork of Burnt River and Eagle Creek — harbor neither salmon nor steelhead.

We presume Bates, a Democrat from Ashland, is aware of the absence of those fish in the two waterways.

Yet the two rivers remain in the bill.

Nor is that the only aspect of SB 401 that troubles us.

The reach of Eagle Creek proposed for inclusion in the Scenic Waterways Program is already protected under the federal Wild and Scenic Rivers Act.

Congress did that in 1988, designating 4.5 miles of Eagle Creek as “wild,” 6 miles as “recreational” and 18.4 miles as “recreational.”

But there’s a significant difference between the federal act and the state law for scenic waterways: The state rules affect private property but the federal act, by and large, does not.

Critics of SB 401, and in particular miners, say the bill would greatly restrict the use of private property along streams. They make a good point.

The rules that govern streams in the Scenic Waterways System apply not only to the waterway itself, but also to the land, including private property, within one-quarter mile of either bank.

Placer mining, except for “recreational” mining, is prohibited in that zone. And private property owners must consult with the state before doing any of several things, including logging or constructing new buildings.

These restrictions could cause major problems for property owners, especially along the North Fork of Burnt River, which flows through several miles of privately owned pastures where cattle graze. The river also is the subject of an ongoing legal case about whether mining should be allowed on public land.

Additional protections for some reaches of Oregon rivers might well be appropriate. But neither the North Fork of Burnt River nor Eagle Creek qualifies, and both should be deleted from SB 401.

 

Are voters too well-informed?


Do you have the impression that one of the major problems plaguing Oregon elections is that voters are too well-informed about issues on their ballots?

No?

We don’t either.

In fact we feel confident in stating that by far the more common complaint among the electorate is that voters suffer from a shortage of data rather than a surplus.

We’re perplexed, then, by a bill that lawmakers are mulling in Salem.

House Bill 3113 would delete from a current state law the requirement that in elections which include a proposed property tax increase, the envelope that comes with the mail-in ballot must contain this phrase, printed clearly and boldly in red: “Contains vote on proposed tax increase.”

The Oregon Education Association, the state’s teachers union, instigated HB 3113 because the tax notice unfairly singles out proposed property tax hikes.

The solution to this minor problem, though, is not to get rid of the one notice that’s required now, and thus give voters less information.

Instead, the Legislature should give them more information by revising the current law to mandate a notice when any type of tax increase is on the ballot.

 

Tech foils a car thief

Baker City Herald Editorial Board

It’s a sad era for car thieves.

Which makes it a happier, and safer, one for the rest of us.

Were it not for OnStar, a General Motors technology, James Reedy, who’s accused of driving a new, $61,000 Chevrolet Camaro out of the Baker Garage showroom Wednesday morning, might have gotten away it.

OnStar, which is optional equipment on GM vehicles, is a GPS navigation system and more — drivers can also call an OnStar official, from their car, to get information about nearby restaurants, for instance.

One of its lesser-known abilities, though, was demonstrated as Reedy tried to elude police in the Camaro.

OnStar can also foil thieves by retarding the car’s engine. In the case of the Camaro, it wouldn’t exceed 30 mph, which not only prevented a high-speed chase that could have endangered lots of travelers on I-84, but also apparently convinced Reedy to pull over and give up.

Which is precisely how these situations should be resolved.

 

Grazing benefits


The coming of the spring brings, besides the buttercups and the north wind, the debate over privately owned livestock grazing on public lands.

This dispute is revived annually when the federal government announces the year’s grazing fee.

For 2013, as in the previous six years, that charge is $1.35 per AUM — animal unit month, the amount of forage a cow and her calf will eat in a month.

Critics pounced on this announcement, pointing out that $1.35 is the lowest fee the feds can legally charge.

“It represents another huge form of subsidy to public lands ranchers who are already massively subsidized by us all,” Katie Fite, of the Western Watersheds Project in Idaho, told The Associated Press.

Maligning the welfare rancher is, of course, a popular refrain among groups that don’t care for livestock grazing regardless of how much the government charges. That minimum fee is merely a convenient focus for their disdain.

But notwithstanding the exaggeration of the slur, the repetition of that “massively subsidized” line prompted us to consider what the citizens of the U.S., who own the land where cattle graze, are getting out of the deal.

Quite a lot, actually.

Beef cattle is a $50-million-a-year business in Baker County alone. And a majority of the county’s cattle spend part of the year on public land grazing allotments.

Those public lands, then, are integral to producing products — beef, of course, but a variety of other bovine byproducts — that America consumers want.

Grazing foes lament the negative effects livestock have, including dirtying streams and spreading noxious weeds.

Fite describes this as the “exploitation” of public lands, a word with a nasty connotation that would be valid only if land once grazed was unsuitable for any purpose. This clearly is not the case, as grazing allotments support not only livestock but an array of flora and fauna, and recreation ranging from hunting to bird-watching.

Although grazing can have more noticeable effects on the land than, say, hiking, it also produces a much greater economic benefit. That’s not exploitation — it’s wise use of a resource that belongs to all of us.

 

Exaggerated fiscal ‘crisis’


The aspect of the sequester debate that annoys us most is that the dollar amounts involved are so much smaller than the level of anxiety implies.

Non-defense domestic agencies have to get by with 5 percent less.

Plenty of American businesses and households have had much larger chunks plucked from their income over the past five years yet they managed to continue operating without drastic effects.

Millions of Americans had their paychecks shrink by 2 percent since the start of the year when the payroll tax “vacation” ended.

Yet there’s no evidence of economic Armageddon.

But the government’s different, right?

Not really, no. For most affected agencies, just as with most businesses, the biggest bill is paying the people who do the work.

We find it difficult to believe that the federal government can’t maintain its current level of service if each worker has to miss an extra day per month, or if agencies have to close a half-hour earlier than they do now, either of which would achieve the 5-percent goal.

That’s no crisis. It shouldn’t be, anyway.

We’re not so naive to believe that the sequester won’t have economic consequences, but for every minor effect — fewer air show performances by military stunt pilots, for instance — there are woeful tales of kids being sent home from Head Start, or babies deprived of formula.

That the sequester plan includes at least as many of the latter as the former suggests to us that these cuts were poorly planned from the start. Rather than deal with its budget issues in a sober, responsible way, as most Americans have done, their government relies on hyperbole and fear-mongering.

 

Let voters decide on executions


We’re no more impressed today by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber’s change of heart regarding capital punishment than we were when he announced it in November 2011.

But we do agree with the governor on one point: Let the state’s voters decide whether executions should continue to be a possible punishment.

The Legislature is considering a bill — House Joint Resolution 1 — that would take that question to voters in the November 2014 election.

Even supporters concede, though, that the legislation faces long odds.

Voters reinstated the death penalty in Oregon in 1984 by a margin of 55 percent to 45 percent. That was three years after the state Supreme Court had ruled capital punishment unconstitutional.

Thirty years is a goodly stretch of time, and with a matter as important as the death penalty we think society, through elections, should reconsider its beliefs occasionally.

We hope, and expect, that Oregonians would reaffirm the death penalty as the proper punishment in a small number of murder convictions.

Although Kitzhaber’s criticisms of the state’s death penalty system would no doubt influence some voters, we’re confident a majority would recognize the flimsiness of his case.

In a recent letter supporting House Joint Resolution 1, Kitzhaber reiterated the charge he leveled in 2011 — that the death penalty in Oregon “is neither fair nor just; neither swift nor certain.” The governor also writes that capital punishment “is not applied equally to all.”

Yet one of the governor’s main complaints — that the only two murderers who have been executed since voters reinstated the death penalty are men, whom he calls “volunteers,” who waived appeals — seems to us a poor reason to oppose capital punishment.

After all, most people would interpret Kitzhaber’s accusation that the death penalty is “neither fair nor just” as meaning minorities are executed at a disproportionate rate, or that there exists some other demonstrable inequity in how executions are carried out in this state.

But it’s hard to see how it’s either unfair or unjust that two out of the 39 inmates on Oregon’s death row — both of them were white men — chose not to continue their appeals (beyond those that are legally required), while all the other inmates accept the full measure of legal protections afforded them.

The evidence in fact shows that Oregon is more circumspect in how it enforces capital punishment than states such as Texas and Florida, where in some years more than a dozen inmates have been executed.

Ultimately, we hope we can trust Kitzhaber to keep his word regarding the voters’ intentions. In his recent letter he wrote that he respects voters’ will; yet in 2011 he thwarted them by blocking the execution of double-murderer Gary Haugen, who wanted to waive his voluntary appeals.

If the issue goes back to voters in 2014, and they reaffirm the death penalty, the exercise will be a futile one if Kitzhaber, or any of his successors, decides the governor’s opinion supersedes his constituents.’

 
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