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Frivolous lawsuit in bus crash

No one ought to be surprised that the legal aftermath of the awful bus crash on Interstate 84 that killed nine people on Dec. 30, 2012, now includes a lawsuit naming the state of Oregon, and the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT), as defendants.

But everyone should be disappointed by this latest ploy, which seeks at least $10 million in punitive damages.

The allegations against the state and ODOT made by attorneys for the estates of three crash victims, and one survivor who sustained severe injuries, are not so much without merit as they are ridiculous.

Misguided in Salem

Certain Oregon lawmakers seem more concerned about the health of state workers than the state’s economy, which isn’t exactly in marathon-ready shape these days.

It’s not that we don’t want public workers to be in fine fettle.

But we’re confident that they know what’s good for them and what’s not.

Yet Rep. Jim Thompson, a Republican from Dallas, has introduced a bill (HB 2767) calling for the state’s Public Employees Benefits Board to buy at least 10 desks which are equipped with a treadmill. The idea is that workers can get a cardio workout while they’re dealing with their paperwork. The bill also would require the state to study, over two years, whether the employees who have treadmill desks are healthier.

Meanwhile, Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer, a Democrat from Portland, is sponsoring House Bill 3403, which would restrict the items in vending machines in public buildings based on such factors as total calories and percentage of calories from fat.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with either idea.

Nothing, that is, except that neither has anything to do with what should be the Legislature’s main concern, which is making sure the state can pay its bills.

Police mugshots are public records

Depending as we do on access to public information, we tend to bristle when anyone tries to restrict such access.

And so we oppose a bill, pending in the Oregon Legislature, which would make it more difficult for the public — and, potentially, the media — to get mugshots of criminal defendants from county jails.

House Bill 3467, which is sponsored by two Democratic representatives from Portland, Mitch Greenlick and Jennifer Williamson, has one strike against it from the start.

It wasn’t written by either of those lawmakers, but rather by Ryan Anfuso, a criminal defense attorney from Portland. We’ve nothing against defense lawyers, but in defending their clients they’re often more inclined to conceal information from the public rather than make it readily available.

The claimed purpose of HB 3467 isn’t so terrible. Anfuso said his goal is to thwart websites which use software to automatically search the Internet for mugshots, then post the photos online and, in some cases, charge people a fee if they want to have the mugshot removed.

That’s not an especially compelling use of public information.

But that’s also not the point.

Mugshots are public records, and the government should be striving to make such records more readily available, not less.

Which is where HB 3467 fails miserably.

The bill not only would prohibit police agencies from posting mugshots online, it would require that anyone who wants a copy of a mugshot to go to the agency, submit a written request, and then pay a fee (no amount is listed in the bill).

This is an awfully heavy-handed way to deal with those predatory websites that Anfuso is worried about.

And although Williamson said she is open to changing the proposed bill to make exceptions for the news media, that wouldn’t alleviate our concerns.

Mugshots are public records. That a handful of website operators take advantage of that in no way justifies punishing the vast majority of the public that merely wants access to information to which each of us is legally entitled. 

On cougars, bears: Let locals choose

Attempts have been made to change, or even eliminate, Oregon’s ban on using dogs to hunt cougars and bears, and using bait to attract bears, since voters approved Measure 18 in 1994.

The latest proposal strikes us as a reasonable compromise between the current situation and an outright reversal of those restrictions.

It’s House Bill 2624. The House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee had a public hearing on the bill Tuesday.

We like the legislation because it would give voters a chance to decide whether the limits on cougar and bear hunting should continue.

But here’s the best part of the bill, which was introduced by Rep. Brian Clem, a Democrat from Salem: It would let voters in each of the state’s 36 counties decide how to manage cougar and bear hunting in their countioes.

Measure 18, by contrast, was a statewide vote.

Although 52 percent of voters were in favor of the hunting restrictions, the measure was opposed by a majority of voters in most counties. In Baker County, 72 percent of voters cast a “no” vote on the measure.

Measure 18, then, was a classic example of how voters in the state’s most populous county — Multnomah, which includes Portland — can, in effect, overrule their fellow Oregonians.

That’s always a possibility in our electoral system, of course, and we’re not suggesting it should be changed.

But neither is it undemocratic to have elections at the county level.

We don’t, after all, let voters in Portland or Eugene or Astoria decide who serves on the Baker School Board or the Baker City Council.

Managing cougars and bears isn’t quite equivalent — like other game animals, they are legally considered the property of the state, which is to say all Oregonians.

Except the effects cougars and bears can have hardly apply equally across the state.

That Oregon’s cougar population has doubled since voters approved Measure 18 — from about 3,000 to 6,000 — is of little consequence to urbanites.

But for ranchers, such a significant increase in the populations of predators such as cougars and bears can directly, and negatively, affect their business.

Fortunately, Oregon is not at a crossroads where we must choose either to slaughter our bears and cougars or spare them.

Bears were plentiful even before Measure 18, and cougar populations were already rising — though the rate increased sharply after 1994.

HB 2624 would in no way imperil either species.

Although we’re confident that voters in many counties, including Baker, would choose to overturn Measure 18, the current annual limits would remain on the number of cougars that can be killed in the six regions of the state (the annual quota for the Blue Mountains is 245 cougars, and in 2012 a total of 161 cougars were killed: 99 by hunters, 62 for damage complaints or other causes).

The bottom line is that HB 2624 would give residents across Oregon a voice in an important local issue, without threatening the state’s thriving cougar and bear populations.

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?


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.

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