Editorials from Oregon newspapers
Here are selected editorials from Oregon newspapers published during the past week.
Albany Democrat-Herald, July 21
Newspaper's headline: "Klamath Falls case underscores need for food stamp reform"
A recent story in The Oregonian about a long-running (and extremely slow-moving) investigation into food stamp fraud in Klamath Falls should prompt renewed calls for reforms to strengthen the ability of caseworkers and others to ferret out fraud in the program.
Don't misunderstand: The program is essential — and, in fact, as we've noted before, better than one in every four residents in Linn County is using the program to some extent. But the reforms under consideration wouldn't do anything to take assistance away from anyone who needed the benefits.
In the Klamath Falls case, 65 people have been charged with trafficking in food stamp benefits. As The Oregonian's Les Zaitz reported, most of the charges accuse defendants of illegally taking cash instead of food by selling their Oregon Trail cards to a Klamath Falls meat market for 50 cents on the dollar. (The cards are issued to participants in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, the official name for the food stamp program. The federal government funds the program.)
When the charges were filed, the director of the Oregon Department of Human Services sent an email to Oregon legislators boasting about her department's role in cracking the case.
Among the legislators who received that email was Albany Rep. Andy Olson, who's been part of a group that's been examining ways to cut back on fraud and waste in the program. He presumably was interested in the case — but probably wasn't much surprised by The Oregonian's story, which found that, in fact, state workers had watched the fraud continue for more than two years before arrests were made. In 2013, an investigator warned the fraud was growing at an "alarming rate." Arrests followed — 17 months later.
To be fair, state officials were severely limited by rules restricting how fraud can be treated. And federal investigators, who declined comment, were very slow to respond to the early reports of fraud. But, overall, this is not a particularly shining example of a smooth-running system efficiently sniffing out fraud.
However, it should serve as a reminder that relatively simple changes in laws and procedures can make a big difference. For example, Olson has said in the past that printing recipients' names on the Oregon Trail card would help reduce fraud, and would cost only about $1.3 million. Tightening procedures when cards are reported lost or missing — an issue in the Klamath Falls case — could help as well.
Olson also advocates changes in federal law to strengthen the hands of the investigators probing possible abuse.
The state estimates fraud in the program at half of 1 percent, and we have no reason to doubt that. On the other hand: Last year, the state paid out $1.2 billion in benefits. Half of 1 percent adds up to about $6 million. That's a lot of money that could be going to people who really need it.
The (Eugene) Register-Guard, July 15
Newspaper's headline: "Wolves hang in balance; DeFazio says species still needs federal protections"
It's a curious disconnect: At the same time federal officials are celebrating the recovery of gray wolves as one of the great victories of the Endangered Species Act and are preparing to remove protections for Canis lupus in the lower 48 states, the population of the species in the strategically important Yellowstone National Park region has declined in recent years because of hunting.
It's also curious that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proceeding with plans to eliminate protections, insisting that the wolf has sufficiently recovered after being hunted to near extinction more than a half century ago. Yet many wildlife biologists warn that the species' numbers have not reached sustainable levels and that the gray wolf has only begun to re-establish itself in historic ranges such as California and Oregon.
As the ranking minority member of the House Natural Resources Committee, Rep. Peter DeFazio, D-Ore., has kept close watch on the recovery of gray wolves, which he rightly understands are an integral part of a natural, healthy ecosystem. Last week, DeFazio sent a letter to Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell proposing the creation of buffer zones to protect wolves in areas surrounding Yellowstone and other national parks.
If the federal government persists with its premature de-listing plan, the protection of wolves outside park borders is an essential adjustment. While killing the animals would still be prohibited inside Yellowstone and other parks if de-listing occurs, DeFazio notes the wide-roaming wolves are now being shot and killed outside park borders thanks to state regulations that allow hunters to kill wolves, in some cases on sight and without limit.
The Yellowstone region has played a pivotal role in wolf recovery. Wolves were once abundant in the West before white settlers arrived, but they were hunted nearly to extinction — and were wiped out entirely in Oregon — before federal wildlife agencies reintroduced wolves in Yellowstone in the mid-1990s. Under federal protection, the animals thrived and began what eventually can be — but is not yet — a full recovery.
Because of court rulings, wolves are already under state rather than federal control in several states, including Idaho, Wyoming and Montana. Wolf management in those states has been strongly influenced by hunting and livestock interests and threatens to reverse what until recently was a conservation success story in the making. More than 2,800 wolves have been slaughtered since the partial delisting occurred in 2011.
Earlier this year, DeFazio and 72 other members of Congress, both Democrats and Republicans, asked Jewell to abandon the de-listing plan. Among other findings, they cited an independent peer review showing that the Fish and Wildlife Service failed to use the "best available science" when it drafted the delisting proposal and warned that removal of protections would be premature.
The only possible explanation for why federal agencies have ignored the pleas of scientists and members of Congress is that the Obama administration is weary of protecting the wolves from hunters and ranchers and political interests that would be happy to see wolves disappear once again from the nation's wilds.
Jewell should keep in mind that the stated goal of the Endangered Species Act is to save species from extinction and to allow their full recovery by removing threats to their survival. That hasn't happened yet for the gray wolf.
The (Bend) Bulletin, July 20:
Newspaper's headline: "Don't give Oregonians more healthcare whiplash"
All of the health care changes have been enough to give Oregonians whiplash. And in Oregon there's another change coming.
This one could be very good for consumers — as long as it's done right. But of course, Cover Oregon could have been very good for consumers, if it had been done right.
The new problem targeted by the Oregon Insurance Division is this: Consumers can have a hard time figuring out just how good a health insurance network is when they are selecting health insurance.
How are consumers supposed to tell if there are enough providers in a network to serve patient needs? Even if a health insurer has a list available of all the doctors in its network, it's often unclear if those doctors are accepting new patients.
The Oregon Insurance Division — in consultation with providers and insurers — is tackling this issue of network adequacy and trying to come up with legislation to propose for the 2015 session.
The legislation is not finalized. But the draft language suggests Oregon may adopt rules for network adequacy that already exist, such as those for Medicare.
That's a good approach. Oregon is still reeling from trying to invent its own health care website. Let's keep things simple for network adequacy. If insurers, providers or consumers believe they need more flexibility than the national standard Oregon adopts, then there can be discussion about Oregon coming up with its own standards in addition to a national standard.
The state should also be careful about overly strict requirements. Smaller health care networks can hold down costs for consumers. Large group insurance policies sometimes consciously choose smaller provider networks for that reason. Oregon's rules should be careful not to interfere, more than is absolutely necessary.
More transparency for consumers in picking a health plan should be a good thing. The state's goal should be to achieve that with zero whiplash for consumers, providers and insurers.
The Oregonian, July 19
Newspaper's headline: "Putting Oregon's best economic foot forward"
The past week brought a series of economic reports with enough dour news to force some soul-searching for those concerned about Oregon's long-term economic prospects.
First, a report from the Oregon Employment Department showed that the state is falling farther behind the national average in personal income. Then, monthly employment statistics showed that Oregon shed jobs in June. And the Census Bureau released data showing that from 2000 to 2010 Oregon experienced one of the nation's biggest increases in people living in areas of concentrated poverty.
Let us stipulate that reasonable short-term explanations exist for many of the negative statistics, particularly the June jobs numbers. But taken together the reports should raise qualms about whether Oregon's economic strengths — a robust technology industry, a growing culture of entrepreneurship, and quality of life that enables companies to attract talented workers from elsewhere — are enough to offset its weaknesses.
We wouldn't trade places with Louisiana or West Virginia, which had the biggest decreases in the Census Bureau's poverty measure, regardless of what the rankings show. But the state must address lingering ailments if it wants a truly healthy economy.
Of the three reports, the one on income is most concerning. One bad employment report doesn't outweigh a months-long trend of improvement. And Oregon looked bad in the poverty report in part because it had low poverty in 2000 and thus had farther to fall in the rankings when the recession hit. In contrast, Oregon's descent in income rankings is a well-established trend. Plus, the best way to decrease poverty is to increase incomes.
The Employment Department noted several factors that contribute to Oregonians' below-average incomes, most of which are unlikely to change. In some cases it probably would do more harm than good to change them.
For example, Oregon's high rate of in-migration — many of the newcomers are young — tends to depress per capita personal income. But the ability to attract workers also is an economic plus, and who would want to decrease quality of life just to keep people from moving here? Similarly, Employment Department economists say the number of well-paid workers who live in Washington but work in Oregon negatively affects income measures. It's hard to control where people live, though a better tax structure might help.
There are two areas where state and local policy-makers should focus their attention. Oregon has more self-employed workers than the national average, but they make less money than small-business owners elsewhere. And, though it wasn't highlighted in the report, the struggles of rural Oregon depress statewide personal income statistics.
Sean Robbins, who assumed leadership of the state's economic development department in June, last week took an important step in the right direction. He visited Klamath Falls, Medford and Grants Pass on the first of 11 trips he plans to take to different regions of the state. Business Oregon spokesman Nathan Buehler said the purpose of the trips is to meet with businesses and community leaders to determine what type of help communities need from the state economic development office to succeed.
That sounds basic, but it reflects an important realization. There is no one strategy — not even increased logging from federal forests — that will revive rural Oregon. Efforts must be targeted to accommodate both the strengths and weaknesses of different regions.
Focusing on small business is one way to help rural and metro areas at the same time. Oregon's culture of entrepreneurship has become an economic strength. But, as the Employment Department report showed, the state's entrepreneurs are better at starting businesses than making money. Among the multiple reasons that proprietors in Oregon only earn 72 percent of the national average, the easiest to address is start-up costs.
If Oregon is going to continue to attract young entrepreneurs, cities and counties need to remove barriers that make it harder for them to succeed by reducing regulations and initial fees. Similarly, Oregon has lost too many businesses just as they grew to the point that they could generate the amount of income, create the type of jobs and pay the level of taxes that can make an economic difference.
"We want them to stay here when they make real money," Portland Mayor Charlie Hales told The Oregonian editorial board last week. He cited the City Council's decision last year to increase the amount businesses can deduct before paying the city's business license fee as one move to help small businesses. But the benefits of that cut could soon be offset for some small businesses by the proposed street fee.
That's a good metaphor for the Oregon economy: one step forward, one step backward. Ending that dance requires a commitment to listening to businesses' concerns and helping them succeed.
The Roseburg News-Review, July 20:
Newspaper's headline: "Feds effectively limit Oregon's timber industry"
The Oregon Department of Forestry's annual report on timber production shows the need to increase logging on federal lands.
The report contains good news and restates a troubling trend. On the plus side, timber harvests in 2013 topped 4 billion board feet for the first time since 2006. Oregon produced enough timber to build 419,920 houses.
Recovery from the Great Recession continued, and demand for timber has room to grow. Housing starts nationally were still only about two-thirds the historical average.
The troubling trend is Oregon's overreliance on private timberlands to the detriment of the environment and economy.
Privately owned forests make up 34 percent of Oregon's timberlands and produced 77 percent of the timber.
The federal government manages 60 percent of the timberlands and yielded 13 percent of the harvest.
It's an old story. The federal government sells a fraction of the timber that grows each year on the lands it manages, putting pressure on private lands to meet demand.
Annual harvests on private timberlands are sustainable for now. But they might not be if construction fully recovers and overseas demand for raw logs stays high or picks up.
Gov. John Kitzhaber's task force on Oregon & California Railroad lands concluded in early 2013 that Oregon's private timberlands would be insufficient in flush times.
"Timber from public land is likely necessary to allow Oregon's mills to respond to a prolonged surge in demand," the report stated.
Harvests on private and federal lands were once roughly proportional. Federal timberlands accounted for 57 percent of the harvest in 1988, two years before the spotted owl was listed as a threatened species.
Since then, federal timber harvests have fallen by roughly 90 percent.
Meanwhile, private timber harvests have fluctuated, depending on demand. The yield peaked in recent years at 3.6 billion board feet in 2004 and hit bottom at 2.1 million in 2009.
In contrast, federal forest management defies economics. In the high-demand year of 2004, the Bureau of Land Management sold 96 million board feet. In the recession year of 2009, it sold 147 million board feet.
Private timberland owners have cut more in each of the past four years to meet the gradual increase in demand. Private lands, however, can only produce so much.
The Department of Forestry estimates that 3.8 billion board feet grow each year on private timberlands. The yield last year was 3.2 billion board feet.
Private forests still have untapped capacity and may be able to meet demand. Still, communities surrounded by federal forests won't benefit as much as they should from the good times. Mills that depend on federal logs will miss out, too.
Also, private timber can be exported as raw logs, diminishing the number of jobs created.
The timber is there for the federal government to cut. The BLM estimates 1.2 billion board feet grow annually on O&C lands alone in Western Oregon. The annual harvest since 1995 has been about 150 million board feet.
Yes, the timber industry is bounding back. Right now, though, the federal government has a ceiling over how high the rebound can be.