Jayson Jacoby
The Baker City Herald

Baker County District Attorney Matt Shirtcliff said last week he's worried about the possibility that Oregon State Police will close its Pendleton crime lab, the only such lab in Eastern Oregon.

We're worried, too.

To that reaction we add another: disgust.

OSP officials said they have made no decision about the Pendleton lab.

The potential problem, they said, is money.

Specifically, there might not be enough of it for the state's 2015-17 biennium to avoid cuts in State Police.

This problem has a simple solution.

The Legislature, which controls the state's purse strings, can and should protect the Pendleton crime lab. The amount of money involved, as a percentage of the state's budget, is minuscule.

For the current biennium the budget for forensic services is $35.9 million. That's 9.5 percent more than the previous biennium.

The issue here isn't that Oregonians aren't paying enough in taxes (most of the forensics budget, $33.5 million, comes from the state's tax-supported general fund).

The state has squandered 10 times that much money the past few years on such blunders as the Columbia River Crossing bridge project and the Cover Oregon website.

But even setting aside those financial debacles, there's no excuse for the Legislature and the governor to allow the State Police to be among the first agencies to be strapped to the budget-chopping block.

The state, to cite just one example, is spending $5.8 million this biennium to oversee off-track betting on horse racing, a function that's not nearly as important as processing crime scenes and gathering the evidence that ensures murders and rapists are convicted.

Yet that's precisely what's at stake with the potential closure of the Pendleton crime lab.

When a major crime happens in Baker County, local police rely on forensic experts from the lab to collect the evidence that Shirtcliff will need to make his case in court. Indeed, there is no other option.

Processing a crime scene is not a job that can be postponed. Crucial evidence can be lost forever in a matter of hours - the difference, perhaps, between driving 95 miles from Pendleton, and 300 miles from Clackamas or 250 miles from Bend.

Baker County law enforcement has already been shortchanged - OSP closed its crime lab in Ontario several years ago, another victim, ostensibly, of budget cuts.

Yet since then the Legislature has managed to boost the forensics budget by more than $4 million per biennium.

No legislator would agree that convicting murderers and rapists is less important in Eastern Oregon than elsewhere in the state. But what matters now is not words but action. Protecting the Pendleton crime lab needs to be a priority in Salem.