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Pull plug on water rights fee

The state of Oregon’s insatiable appetite for new sources of money might soon extend to charging a fee for documents which date, in some cases, to the Civil War.

Although “thirst” is more appropriate than “appetite” in the case of Senate Bill 217.

The bill, introduced by Gov. John Kitzhaber on behalf of the Oregon Water Resources Department, would impose a $100 yearly fee on each of the 85,000 water rights in the state. Each permit would be subject to the fee, although individual farms and ranches, many of whom have more than a dozen separate water rights, would pay a maximum of $1,000 per year.

According to the Water Resources Department, the new fee is needed because the department’s share of the state’s general fund has dropped.

The clear implication is that water rights holders should be paying more to the agency that oversees the distribution of water in Oregon.

Which sounds fair in a theoretical sense.

Except the actual connection between the state agency’s budget, and the administration of the approximately 3,700 water rights permits in Baker County, is in fact quite tenuous.

Revamp sidewalk program

Baker City’s sidewalk fee has made meaningful progress toward fixing the city’s dilapidated walkways, and at a modest price.

The fee, instituted in 2008, collects $1 per month from households, and $2 per month from businesses. This amounts to about $50,000 per year.

The city makes 75 percent of the money available to property owners to pay a portion of the cost to repair or replace sidewalks.


Secrecy from Salem

The terms “public record” and “public meeting” sound pretty straightforward.

And they should be.

Except that some members of the Oregon Legislature think the public — which is to say, all of us — have too much access to information about what our government is doing.

Oregon’s laws regarding public records and laws are decent, by American standards.

Yet the list of reasons why members of the public can be kept out of a public meeting, or denied access to a public record, takes up several pages.

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.

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