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Editorials from around Oregon

June 12, 2019

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:


Mail Tribune, June 11, on Public Employee Retirement System reform:

The Democratic-controlled Legislature finally stood up to the public employee unions, and the unions are furious. They shouldn’t be.

Lawmakers last week passed Senate Bill 1049, a package of reforms to the under-funded Public Employee Retirement System that include requiring employees to contribute a small amount toward the pension system itself rather than to their personal retirement accounts. From the howls of outrage, you would think the Legislature had canceled public pensions entirely. Far from it.

The Oregon Supreme Court has ruled that pension payments to those already retired cannot be touched. Neither can pension benefits already earned by those still working.

Here’s what SB 1049 did:

Going forward, employees will contribute to the pension fund a portion of the 6% of income they currently pay into their 401(k)-style personal retirement accounts, ranging from 0.75% of pay for workers hired after August 2003 to 2.5% for those hired before.

As a result, employees will see their personal retirement accounts — separate from their pensions — grow a bit more slowly. Ending balances in employees’ personal accounts will be smaller, reducing a 30-year employee’s overall retirement benefit by 1 to 2% of pay. That’s hardly catastrophic. And the contributions diverted to the pension fund will help reduce the premiums employers such as school districts, cities and counties must pay every year. That frees up money that can be used for other things — such as hiring more teachers, or increasing pay.

Also under SB 1049, the outrageously large pensions earned by a few extremely well-paid state employees such as former University of Oregon football coach Mike Bellotti will be a thing of the past; SB 1049 caps ending salaries eligible for pensions at $195,000 going forward. That’s more symbolic than substantive, because so few state employees earn more than that. But it should help with public perception of PERS.

Finally, the bill lengthens the repayment schedule by eight years, reducing the amount that must be paid against the PERS deficit each year. That accounts for about three-quarters of the savings of $1.2 billion to $1.8 billion per biennium, and critics are saying it’s kicking the can down the road. That’s true enough, but it’s not much different from a distressed homeowner refinancing from a 15-year mortgage to a 30-year note to lower payments.

Oregon is one of only two states that does not require employees to contribute to their own pension benefits. Even the 6% contribution to the personal accounts is picked up by many public employers under the terms of union contracts, so the diversion of money into the pension fund won’t affect those workers’ monthly income.

It’s difficult for the public at large to feel much sympathy for public employees being asked to contribute a small amount to their pensions — a benefit few private-sector workers have.

Public employees are treated well in Oregon, and it’s not unreasonable that they are asked to help in a small way to stabilize the pension system that benefits them.


The Bulletin, June 10, on Oregon lawmakers challenging nonprofit hospitals:

Apparently with nothing better to do, a group of Oregon lawmakers has decided to take on the state’s nonprofit hospitals. The hospitals, they contend, don’t behave the way good charities should, and the state should step in and correct the situation.

Their motivation may be admirable. Hospital bills can and do drive some Oregonians into bankruptcy, and if hospitals were more generous with patient charity that number might be reduced.

Nor do nonprofit hospitals make their own case particularly well. Executive salaries are published on every tax return nonprofit hospitals file, and St. Charles Health System, for example, pays Joe Sluka, its chief executive, roughly $1 million per year. Board members collectively make another $300,000 or so for attending board meetings. That makes cries of poverty sound a bit hollow in a community where median household income is about $52,400 annually.

That said, St. Charles and other nonprofit hospitals in the state do all sorts of good works in addition to hospital-bill charity. St. Charles, for example, lists donations on its 2017 tax return to Bethlehem Inn, Morningstar Relief Nursery and United Way of Deschutes County, among others.

The lawmakers behind House Bill 3076 apparently either don’t think hospitals give away enough money or, and this is more likely, they don’t think those gifts are going to the right places. Yet in St. Charles’ case and, no doubt, in the case of most Oregon hospitals, money that doesn’t go directly to patient care is spent helping agencies that can keep people out of the hospital in the first place.

Nonprofit hospitals, like other nonprofit agencies, must meet strict standards set by the Internal Revenue Service to maintain their status. They cannot get involved in politics nor spend much time on things not related to the sort of charity they are. They can’t make much income from unrelated activities, either.

That should be good enough for lawmakers, and not just where hospitals are concerned. No single charity is likely to make everyone happy, and it’s not up to the Legislature to attempt to tailor them to fulfill its own vision of what a charity should be.


The Astorian, June 8, on Oregon’s cap-and-trade proposal:

We’ve taken a wait-and-see attitude towards Oregon’s carbon cap-and-trade proposal, which has been winding its way through the state Legislature this session.

The so-called Clean Energy Jobs Bill (House Bill 2020) would set a 52 million metric ton cap on greenhouse gas emissions. Companies that produce at least 25,000 metric tons of emissions per year would have to pay for every ton they emit by buying allowances through an auction. The proceeds from those sales would go to highway projects, climate mitigation projects, rural and minority communities, and other programs.

We’ve listened to detailed arguments on both sides — those who say the bill would create more clean energy jobs and fight climate change, and those who say it will cost good-paying local jobs and do nothing to prevent climate change.

After careful consideration, we believe this legislation would be disastrous — both for Oregon as a whole and Clatsop County in particular.

Working-class Oregonians would be particularly hard hit. That message seems to be falling on deaf ears in Salem.

State Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, agrees.

“Any bill with upwards of 90 amendments sends a clear signal that the complicated concepts are not fully developed,” Johnson said. “This bill will not, in and of itself, deliver a clean climate. It could, however, create a real disruption to our economy and the displacement of many established jobs.”

Imperceptible impact

We aren’t a bunch of climate deniers here at The Astorian. We believe climate change is real and America — indeed, the world — needs to take action to combat it.

This legislation, however, is not the answer. Even its proponents acknowledge it will have an imperceptible impact on global warming.

To have a perceptible impact on global warming, the entire nation must take action. A unified national approach would prevent industrial employers from simply moving their operations and jobs across state borders to less-restrictive areas.

That would require wholesale changes in the White House and Congress, of course, but the fight against climate change requires thinking big, not small.

If this passes, Oregon would join California as the only U.S. states to implement cap-and-trade systems. Unilateral, symbolic actions are not the answer to the climate threat.

Jobs in jeopardy

The proposed carbon fees will cost jobs in this state, because they will put our industries at major competitive disadvantages with other states.

It’s not hyperbole to say that this bill directly threatens 750 well-paying jobs at the Wauna Mill.

The mill’s operator, Georgia- Pacific (owned by Koch Industries), has shown no compunction in the past about closing down operations to improve its bottom line. It shut down most of its plant in Camas, Washington, last year, resulting in hundreds of layoffs. And it recently announced it will close its Coos Bay lumber mill entirely, laying off all 111 workers.

Closure of the Wauna Mill would create an asteroid-sized hole in the county’s economy. It pays an average hourly wage of $26, or $54,000 per year. It spends more than $375 million on labor, goods and services, as well as more than $2.6 million annually in Clatsop County property taxes.

Bill Kerr, president of United Steelworkers Local Union 1097 and a mill employee, said no pulping mills operate in California since enactment of that state’s cap-and-trade legislation.

“We applauded the leadership of state Sen. Betsy Johnson and state Rep. Brad Witt to protect our jobs and oppose the cap-and-trade proposal,” Kerr wrote in a recent guest column in The Astorian. “We urge Gov. Kate Brown and Rep. Tiffiny Mitchell, as well as the 87 others representing communities across Oregon, to follow their lead. As you finalize cap-and-trade legislation, do what’s right and protect our environment and protect local jobs.”

Consumers will pay

The bill’s proponents expect working-class Oregonians to eat the costs of the legislation for the greater good.

Carbon emitters will pass on the proposed fees to consumers, driving up gas and utility bills. There has been heated debate over exactly how much, but anyone who thinks they won’t go up is delusional.

The bill’s proponents chose not to go the cap-and-dividend route, which would have mitigated the economic impact by returning the fees to taxpayers, perhaps via the “kicker” tax rebate. They have the typical Oregon government mindset — they think they have better ideas about what to do with our money than we do.

Given those costs, and the lack of a perceptible climate benefit, this bill just doesn’t make sense.

No on HB 2020.

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