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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.’

Get serious in Salem

The effort to prevent mass shootings in the U.S. is about as serious as a matter of public policy can get.

We’re disappointed, then, by some of the recent maneuvers at the state Capitol, where the Legislature has been in session for almost a month and, ostensibly, also takes the issue seriously.

Although we don’t question the sincerity of any lawmakers we do wonder, in some cases, about their judgment and whether they’re efficiently representing their constituents.

Consider House Bill 3200, which was introduced on Feb. 22.

This legislation, promoted by Ceasefire Oregon, is, and we’re being charitable, constitutionally suspect.

The bill, besides prohibiting Oregonians from owning more than one so-called “assault weapon” and more than three magazines that hold more than 10 rounds of ammunition, would require owners of such guns and magazines to “allow an inspector from the (State Police) to inspect the storage” of the guns and magazines.

The word “warrant” is conspicuously absent.

We’re pretty sure there are plenty of civil rights lawyers who would eagerly take on as a client someone aggrieved by that clause in HB 3200.

The truly insipid aspect of the legislation, though, is that even its chief sponsor, Rep. Mitch Greenlick, a Democrat from Portland, disavows portions of it, including that outlandish requirement for involuntary inspections of private property.

“In its current form, it’s a pretty flawed bill,” Greenlick told The Oregonian.

Yet that current form is the same form that Greenlick put his name on, along with seven other representatives and seven state senators who are listed as sponsors.

Greenlick further confuses the situation by going on to say, regarding HB 3200: “It’s not where they (most legislators) want to go and it’s not where I think we’re going to go. But it’s where we should be going.”

In other words, Greenlick likes the bill, except for that pesky “pretty flawed” part.

Introducing a bill such as HB 3200 accomplishes nothing except to inflame people who fear that even potentially reasonable legislation, such as mandatory background checks, is merely the first step toward government confiscation of all guns.

We welcome a robust debate about guns, both in Oregon and nationwide. Greenlick said that’s what he wants, too, and we take him at his word.

But we, and he, will likely continue to be frustrated if the public discourse is distracted by patently hopeless legislation such as HB 3200.

Honor, with no resentment

We applaud the Baker City Airport Commission for making a difficult decision.

And, more importantly, the right decision.

Last week commissioners withdrew their recent request to the City Council to rename the city-owned airport from Heilner Field to Mabry J. Anders Field, to honor the 21-year-old Baker City soldier who was killed last August in Afghanistan.

The commission changed course after several local residents, including some city councilors, suggested that renaming the airport for Anders would either diminish the legacy of the late Joseph Heilner, for whom the airport was named, or would leave out the many other residents who, like Anders, sacrificed everything in the service of his country.

We’re certain the commissioners never intended to do either.

And indeed we believe that it’s possible to commemorate Anders without demeaning anyone else who is equally deserving.

But we also recognize that the commission’s proposal was certain to provoke emotional responses.

The airport has borne Heilner’s name for many decades, for one thing.

And for another, the issue of honoring members of the military killed in action is an intensely personal matter, so the likelihood is high that feelings will be hurt when a single soldier is slated for a particular honor, even when, as in Anders’ case, no such slight was intended.

The airport commission’s proposal to rename the airport for Anders was reasonable.

But of course that isn’t the only way to pay tribute to the man. We wholeheartedly support the new plan, which is to build a memorial to Anders at the airport through donations.

We urge the City Council to work with the commission and other supporters of the project to find a suitable place on the property for the memorial.

Ultimately, we hope this situation, rather than sowing a single seed of resentment, instead reminds us that we should never forget Anders and all those who died while trying to protect us.

Impaired drivers are all a danger

So who’s the bigger road hazard, the driver who just guzzled a six-pack of beer, or the driver who’s high on legal, synthetic “bath salts?”

The answer, of course, is neither.

Or, rather, both.

Oregon’s goal should be to keep all intoxicated people from driving; the substance that causes the intoxication isn’t relevant.

Except it is, under current state law.

Oregon is one of five states that limits the substances that can be considered in a case when a driver is suspected of driving while intoxicated.

House Bill 2115, which the Legislature is considering this session, would broaden the current definitions, which include alcohol, controlled substances and inhalants, to include any drug, including prescriptions, “that adversely affects a person’s physical or mental faculties to a noticeable or perceptible degree.”

We urge lawmakers to pass the bill, and to join the 45 states which recognize that a variety of substances can render a person unfit to drive a motor vehicle.

Critics contend the bill is too broadly written.

But the legislation does allow drivers accused of being intoxicated to claim, as a defense, that they properly used a medication and that it caused a reaction that “could not reasonably be contemplated.”

The bottom line for us is that when an impaired driver veers across the dotted line and collides with another car, it’s of no consequence whether the driver at fault was drunk, or groggy from cold medicine.

The purpose of the law should be to discourage people in either condition from getting behind the wheel.

Don’t let Lanza have last laugh

Editorial from The (La Grande) Observer:

From hell somewhere, Adam Lanza is having the last grotesque laugh.

Lanza, as everybody knows, was the craven individual who used an assault rifle in December to kill 20 children and six teachers at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., all after he shot and killed his own mother. 

Going in, he had his mind made up to take as many lives as he could, then die by his own hand. Though sane people may never completely understand why a person like him thinks an act like that is worth it, he thought it was. He set a goal, no matter how evil, and achieved it. For him, it was mission accomplished.

But Lanza’s victory, if victory it can be called, is larger than that. It extends far beyond the city limits of Newtown, or the borders of Connecticut. It’s doubtful he thought much about it when he was planning his deed, but in addition to the carnage he caused he has managed to polarize the nation. It’s easy to imagine him laughing out loud in the afterlife.

Fanning flames of gun control debate

We’ve seen debate and controversy over gun control before, but never quite like this. In Washington, D.C., there is talk about a ban on assault rifles and high capacity magazines. Some people, most especially those affected by gun violence, agree. In many other places, including Union County, hot-blooded patriots are crying out that a ban is a trampling of our right to keep and bear arms. 

Lanza has inspired fear and distrust and anger among us. He has turned us against each other and made a bad situation infinitely worse. The moment the gun control debate ignited, there was a general stampede to gun stores by people convinced that sometime soon they will not be permitted to buy weapons, magazines or ammunition. 

We’re that much more armed than before, and at the same time, many of us are viewing our government — and our neighbors who think differently from us — with hostility.

As the debate continues, we need to remember that Sandy Hook is no one’s fault but Adam Lanza’s. We need to adhere to our own beliefs whatever they are, and speak out accordingly so democracy can take its course. But we also need to remember that law-abiding people, in government and out, gun control advocates and gun control opponents, involved in the debate care deeply about the future of the country and are indeed our fellow Americans.

Unlike Adam Lanza and his kind, they’re not out to get us. Each in their own way is searching for something that will make our country a better, safer place to live.

The less angry our talk and the more carefully we listen to one another, the better chance we have to come to solutions that work. And if someday we solve the problem of blind hatred and evil in our society, we and not Adam Lanza have the last laugh.

Hearts go out to Binghams

In the early hours of Thursday at the Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital in Palo Alto, Calif., Dr. Katz Meada did something that, even in this era of miraculous medical procedures, we scarcely can believe is possible.

Just a few hours after he was photographed with his arm around 9-year-old Lindsey Bingham’s shoulders, the surgeon reached into Lindsey’s chest, extracted the diseased heart the Baker County girl was born with, and replaced it with a healthy heart.

That Lindsey’s life was saved on Valentine’s Day, the holiday most directly associated with hearts, is of course a mere coincidence, though indeed quite a happy one.

It was fitting, too, that the most jubilant response was from Lindsey herself, who, on learning that her 239-day ordeal of depending on a mechanical device to keep her alive was ending, screamed her joy in a moment her dad, Jason, captured on video (you can watch the video, and get updates on the Bingham family, on their blog, www.jasonandstacybingham.blogspot.com).

But for the Bingham family, this landmark event is neither the first of its kind, nor, sadly, is is guaranteed to be the last.

Lindsey suffers from the same malady, dilated cardiomyopathy, that afflicted her older sister, Sierra.

Sierra, now 13, who is the eldest of the Binghams’ five children, received her new heart in 2006.

Each of the three other children — Gage, 4, Hunter, 6, and Megan, 11 — has been diagnosed with potential heart problems, although it’s not known whether any will need a transplant.

Gage had a pacemaker installed last summer.

Sierra continues to do well with her “new” heart.

And of course we hope for an equally happy outcome for Lindsey.

But we also hope this is the last time one of the Binghams has to celebrate the arrival of a new, healthy heart.

BHS plan benefits 8th-graders

We were initially leery about the prospect of having eighth-graders, many of whom are 13 years old, attending Baker High School with students as much as six years older.

But after looking over the details of a proposal by the Baker School District, we believe the benefits of allowing a relatively small number of eighth-graders take some, but not all, of their classes at BHS are worth pursuing, as long as the parents and administrators work to minimize the risks.

Our conclusion is based largely on the limited nature of the proposal, which the Baker School Board continues to study.

The district won’t be turning BHS into a five-year school. Eighth-graders won’t have lockers just down the hall from seniors. Middle schoolers won’t be riding with 18-year-olds to McDonald’s for lunch.

Superintendent Walt Wegener said the district would achieve one of its goals — creating classroom space at Baker Middle School — if as few as 30 eighth-graders, with their parents’ permission, traveled to BHS for a few classes each day.

This would not be an entirely new program, by the way.

A handful of eighth-graders are taking either math or language arts classes at BHS this year.

The advantages are significant — eighth-graders can get an early start on their high school requirements, allowing them to begin accumulating college credits, or even to obtain an associate’s degree, before graduating from BHS.

The savings can be considerable not only in time but in money — Wegener estimates students could pare as much as $50,000 from their college expenses by earning an associate’s degree while in high school.

All well and good.

But what about the concerns expressed by Baker County District Attorney Matt Shirtcliff, Circuit Court Judge Greg Baxter, and local attorney Robert Moon in a recent letter to the editor?

They fear that allowing eighth-graders to share classrooms and hallways with older students would increase the risk of sexual relationships development.

And these legal experts point out that a student from the ages of 16 to 19 who has a sex with a 13-year-old could be convicted of a crime that, under Oregon law, requires a mandatory minimum prison sentence of 75 months.

This is a valid concern.

But of course it’s valid regardless of how the 13-year-old and the, say, 18-year-old become acquainted.

Teenagers, after all, don’t restrict their socializing to when they’re at school.

There’s no evidence that the current situation, with five eighth-graders taking a class or two at the high school, has resulted in inappropriate, and felonious, relationships between students.

And we don’t believe that adding a couple dozen more eighth-graders to that roster would result in an appreciable increase in the risk.

To be clear, we don’t intend to diminish the concerns that Shirtcliff, Baxter and Moon expressed in their letter.

We applaud them, in fact, for raising awareness about an important topic.

We encourage students and their parents to heed the warnings and to recognize that the ramifications of inappropriate sexual relationships can be legal as well as emotional and physical — whether those relationships occur inside a school or elsewhere.

Cake flap won’t gain legal rights

There is at first glance a certain gastronomic symmetry between Oregon’s recent flap over a gay couple who wanted to buy a wedding cake, and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s.

One of the great symbols of the latter was, of course, the lunch counter — specifically, the prevalence of “whites only” restaurant sections in the Deep South.

But given anything more than a cursory look, the validity of this comparison withers.

For one thing, the segregated lunch counter, and other restricted public accommodations, were the norm in those days, whereas we know of only one Oregon bakery whose owners won’t bake wedding cakes for same-sex couples.

For another, the activists who defied the lunch counter segregation had as their ultimate goal guaranteeing for themselves fundamental rights, chief among them suffrage and access to public universities, which are not denied to Americans based on their sexual orientation.

Aaron Klein, who owns Sweet Cakes bakery in Gresham with his wife, Melissa, said he refused to make a cake for Laurel Bowman and her fiancée because he’s a Christian and he doesn’t think gay couples should be able to legally marry. Klein said this wasn’t the first time he has declined to make a wedding cake for a same-sex couple.

Bowman’s decision to file a formal complaint against Klein with the Oregon Attorney General over a wedding cake, a product readily available at dozens of businesses in the Portland area, seems to us a clumsy attempt to achieve the worthwhile goal of securing for gay couples the same legal rights, such as hospital visitations, afforded to heterosexual couples who are married.

The dispute over the wedding cake does, though, raise an interesting question about what seems to us a conflict between Oregon’s Constitution and one of its laws.

Here’s what the Constitution says: “No law shall in any case whatever control the free exercise, and enjoyment of religious opinions, or interfere with the rights of conscience.”

But then there’s a law passed in 2007, ORS 659A.403: “all persons within the jurisdiction of this state are entitled to the full and equal accommodations, advantages, facilities and privileges of any place of public accommodation, without any distinction, discrimination or restriction on account of race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status....”

The law’s definition of public accommodations includes private businesses.

The Constitution seems to us intended to protect Klein’s right to express his religious opinions by, for instance, not making a wedding cake for a same-sex marriage.

Yet the law makes it clear that if he bakes wedding cakes for heterosexual couples — which he does — then he can’t refuse to do the same for a gay couple because they’re gay.

The ideal solution to this apparent legal conundrum is not to be found in a courtroom or in the Attorney General’s office, however.

What’s needed is a dollop of tolerance.

Bowman and her fiancée should tolerate Klein’s constitutional right to adhere to his religious views.

And by doing so, of course, Klein loses not only the couple hundred dollars the couple would have spent on a cake, but an unknown amount of money from other potential customers who no doubt will patronize a different bakery because they don’t agree with Klein’s stance on gay marriage.

Ultimately, we think gay couples will be more likely to gain the legal rights they want, and deserve, by focusing their efforts on legislative and electoral remedies rather than worrying about one bakery.

Dealing with bullies

We’ll never know, with absolute certainty, why Jadin Bell, a 15-year-old sophomore at La Grande High School, decided to end his life.

But we know that he had not hidden that he was gay.

More importantly, we know he complained that he had been bullied recently at school.

That bullying can play a role in pushing teenagers to attempt suicide is beyond dispute.

The risk is considerably greater for young men, who are six times more likely to die by suicide than young women are.

As we assess the terrible equation that sometimes results in a teen’s death, some elements will likely forever remain beyond our grasp.

But bullying we can do something about.

Which is not to say we can eliminate it.

That some people enjoy humiliating and intimidating others — in particular those who are “different” in some way — is a sad fact of human nature.

Yet we must not ignore bullies or even trivialize them, either of which response is tantamount to condoning their actions.

We must instead subject bullies to the same harsh light of unwanted attention which they cast on their victims.

We must punish bullies, both by disciplinary measures at school and through legal means if they commit crimes.

We must make them understand, as best we can, that what they think of as innocuous heckling can in fact have dire consequences.

Indeed, sometimes fatal ones.

And that, even if you ultimately decide you need to deliver a heartfelt apology to the person you demeaned, you might never get the chance.

And finally, we must recognize that bullies’ bravado often is bluster, an attempt by a person who feels powerless to exert control over others.

Multiple studies show that many bullies suffer from the same problems that make their targets vulnerable, chief among these being low self-esteem. 

Reducing the incidence of bullying by helping bullies see the error of their ways, in addition to punishing them, would be the ideal result.

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