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Editorials from around Oregon

June 19, 2019

Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers:

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The Register-Guard, June 17, on the new law for handling public records requests:

Oregon has taken a small step toward enhancing public access to government records.

School districts, local governments and state agencies now face a potential $200 penalty if they ignore a request for public records or take too long to respond.

This year’s Legislature unanimously passed House Bill 2363, which became law when Gov. Kate Brown signed it on June 4. It toughens the 2017 law that established deadlines — usually 15 business days — for handling public records requests.

Rep. Karin Power, D-Milwaukie, said she introduced HB 2363, in collaboration with the Society of Professional Journalists, because “journalists and the public continue to see requests ignored or significantly delayed.”

Nick Budnick of SPJ’s Oregon Territory Chapter told lawmakers, “Agencies face zero consequence for violating the flexible timelines in Oregon’s law.”

Why does this matter? Power, a lawyer, gave real-life situations in her legislative testimony: “Delays in obtaining police reports, for example, can make it difficult for victims to obtain insurance payments, limit the damage of identity theft, pursue civil litigation, take precautions to protect their personal safety, or vindicate their rights in a variety of other venues.”

Journalists can provide countless examples of how examination of public records has revealed dubious actions by government — but also how officials stonewalled to keep secret their actions or inactions.

The Legislature deserves credit for recognizing the need for HB 2363.

A $200 penalty, paid to whoever requested the records, might not be a big deal for many government agencies. But it should encourage them to neither ignore nor drag their feet on public records requests.

The new law is not onerous; state law contains a “safety valve” provision for small or overworked jurisdictions.

The penalty is not mandatory. The law states that the attorney general, the district attorney or a court “may require” a penalty. The AG or DA also could reduce any processing fee charged to the requester instead of imposing a penalty.

Still, some governments — including the city of Eugene —questioned the legislation. A Eugene submission to legislators said, “Ultimately we are concerned about the underlying issue, which is that most local governments are underresourced for responding to public records requests, especially under the new state requirements and the demand keeps growing.”

Eugene receives more than 4,000 public records requests a year.

However, a foundational principle of American government is that the public has a right to know what’s going on. Prompt, accurate access to public records should be the norm, unless there is an overriding and lawful reason to withhold a record.

We recognize that cities and other government bodies worry about the time and staff training involved, as well as the costs of maintaining an up-to-date, readily searchable website and other resources.

But public records are a core responsibility of government, not a side chore. Elected officials and management have a duty to set that tone.

We would add that the public has a duty to be clear and specific in records requests and to couple persistence with politeness.

We hope HB 2363 is rarely needed. But it now is the law, just in case.

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Corvallis Gazette-Times, June 17, on hemp research facility at Oregon State University:

Oregon State University opened its Global Hemp Innovation Center last week, at its North Willamette Research and Extension Center just north of Aurora. The timing for the center, which aims in part to help growers with the growing market for hemp and hemp products, couldn’t be much better, considering the explosive growth in demand that experts expect to see for those products.

Truth be told, growers probably could have used the assistance a couple of years before, as Oregon farmers started experimenting with growing industrial hemp — which is similar to marijuana, but with much less THC, or tetrahydrocannabinol, the principal psychoactive ingredient in marijuana. (Industrial hemp contains less than 0.3% THC under U.S. government standards; no one is getting high by smoking this stuff.)

But you can understand why OSU was reluctant to act before diving deep into hemp research: Until the most recent version of the farm bill passed last year, hemp was illegal under federal law. In theory, getting too involved with hemp could have put the university’s substantial federal research grants at risk. (It’s another example of the federal government’s ludicrous record regarding marijuana; for another example, look at Congress’ inability to pass any kind of law regarding banks and other financial institutions that want to work with legal pot businesses.)

You also can see why OSU experts and the state’s farmers have been champing at the bit to start working with industrial hemp: Oregon has an ideal climate for growing the crop, and licensed hemp acreage in Oregon has increased sixfold since last year. Oregon is the No. 3 state for hemp cultivation after Montana and Colorado, according to Vote Hemp, a group that advocates for and tracks the industry in the United States. Across the nation, hemp cultivation is booming as well: Vote Hemp said the number of licensed acres of hemp jumped 204% from 2017 to 2018.

And the market for a hemp-derived extract called cannabidiol, or CBD, is expected to grow from $618 million in 2018 to $22 billion in 2022 as its popularity as a health aid skyrockets.

But CBD just scratches the surface of the potential industrial hemp offers, said Jay Noller, a professor of crop and soil science at OSU, and the new center’s director and lead researcher. “We want to understand how to efficiently and sustainably grow hemp for seeds, for hemp fiber materials that can be used in textiles and construction materials, including as an alternate to gravel in concrete, for hemp essential oils that have popular health and wellness uses, and for hemp grain for use in foods and feed,” he said. No wonder, he noted, that the global demand for hemp is less than 10% of the supply. That sort of mismatch is a virtual guarantee that farmers are going to take notice.

But the crop faces growing pains, in no small part because of the just-ended federal prohibition. And that means there’s a lot of work ahead for researchers at the OSU facility and at similar university-backed centers around the country.

For example, nascent hemp farmers will want to be sure that they’re buying seeds that won’t yield a crop with too-high levels of THC; such “hot” crops have to be destroyed, and farmers often can’t tell for sure until months after they’ve planted the seeds. A program to certify seeds would be a big step forward. (On a similar note, we expect that a small fortune awaits the company that develops an effective portable system to test shipments of industrial hemp for THC levels; such a system would go a long ways toward easing some of the cross-state transportation headaches that have plagued the industry.)

These sorts of bumps in the road are to be expected, especially in this unique case in which a commodity’s status switched from prohibited to legal overnight. We expect OSU’s hemp facility will play a big role in smoothing out those bumps — and will give a boost to farmers who believe that hemp could bring them some big paydays.

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The Oregonian/OregonLive, June 16, on proposed rules for gathering initiative signatures:

Politics is rarely pure and simple. Senate Bill 761, however, is an exception. It is purely and simply an attempt to hobble Oregon’s vaunted initiative process.

The bill — which has no legislator listed as its chief sponsor — would restrict a common method through which Oregonians can collect the minimum number of voter signatures to support putting an initiative or referendum on the ballot. Under the bill, initiative supporters could no longer hand out copies of electronic signature sheets to Oregonians to sign and submit. Instead, voters would have to print their own forms or personally ask someone to print one for them. And each signature sheet must include the complete text of the proposed measure — a requirement that could add dozens of printed pages and related costs to a simple signature submission.

The end result? By discouraging voters from participating, it will become harder for Oregonians to enact their own legislation or overturn bills passed by elected officials. Legislators would keep tight control over what becomes law — and what remains law. And the bill would deeply undercut Oregon’s cherished reputation for encouraging direct democracy.

That’s not how supporters describe it, of course. Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, told The Oregonian/OregonLive Editorial Board that the bill is about “quality control.” E-sheets were originally meant to let people in rural areas submit signatures in support of qualifying an initiative for the ballot, since they would be less likely to encounter a signature gatherer in person.

But advocates may be distributing the sheets without making a copy of the actual measure available, she said, leading to people submitting signature sheets without knowing what the proposed initiative is about. Requiring voters to personally download and print a signature sheet with the full measure will ensure they know what they are doing, she contends. Although the bill has received near unanimous opposition from the public, the Senate Rules Committee, which Burdick chairs, passed the bill on a 3-2 party line vote.

The words “quality control,” particularly in the context of new requirements for voter participation, should immediately raise concerns. While communities fare better when people are engaged and well-informed, legislators must have a clear, compelling reason before setting up any kind of obstacle for people to engage in basic acts of democracy. This, however, isn’t the case. Instead, SB 761 smacks of the same voter suppression tactics that Republican legislators in other states have pursued.

There’s no actual, documented problem to begin with. In recent reviews, the validity rate of signatures submitted on e-sheets is higher than the rate of those collected by signature gatherers in person, according to the Oregon Secretary of State’s office. And Burdick and the caucus administrator collectively cited two anecdotal examples in which someone may have been distributing e-sheets without providing a copy of the measure. Neither have resulted in a formal complaint.

This “theoretical fraud concern,” as the League of Women Voters of Oregon put it, is no reason to impose a new requirement that is “reminiscent of poll taxes.” Some Oregonians don’t have easy access to printing a signature sheet and it’s not without costs, the organization’s president, Norman Turrill noted in a May letter to legislators.

Especially considering that some measures can be many pages long, campaign finance reform and Measure 47 architect Dan Meek pointed out. Measure 47, which not only qualified for the ballot but passed in 2007, spans 19 pages. How many Oregonians would have willingly printed out and sent a 19-page measure plus signature page?

The urgency for this initiative suppressant may well be a local business group’s ongoing efforts to refer the newly passed corporate taxes in the Student Success Act to voters. While legislators are understandably protective of the law, which finally delivers a stable funding source to Oregon’s struggling K-12 schools, this isn’t the way to do it.

Rather than rig the system, legislators and leaders can — and must — make the case to voters that this tax is fair, necessary and justified. They can show how this money is vital for providing the educational investments and mental health supports for students that Oregonians across the state have called for. And they can explain that failing to take this step will only translate into a grimmer future for all.

But if legislators instead abuse their power to manipulate the system and cut out voters, it will only increase people’s mistrust of the political establishment. Senate Democrats, don’t mistake your supermajority for a coronation. Join Republicans in voting this down and show your faith in the people who put you there.

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