Editorials from Oregon newspapers
Albany Democrat-Herald, March 31: A bright idea to help save private forests
It's a brave new idea — and it's one that could offer a measure of help to the private owners of small tracts of forest land.
Western Oregon is filled with these small tracts, timber lots that date back to the earliest days of Oregon homesteaders. These are family forests that have been inherited by people who use the land for all intents and purposes as their savings accounts or possibly their retirement plans.
The problem is that, increasingly, these private owners have been forced to sell their land to timber companies or other developers, a one-time payout that these owners, not infrequently, use for medical bills.
Now, landowners may be able to take advantage of another option: Instead of getting money so someone could chop down their trees, they might get paid to leave them up. It's part of an initiative to preserve the land so that the trees can help absorb greenhouse gases.
The initiative, called Forest Health-Human Health, is the brainchild of the mid-valley's Catherine Mater, working with the Pinchot Institute. Mater and other researchers have spent years talking to the owners of these smaller forest parcels, and one theme emerged in those discussions with striking regularity: The landowners were worried about the prospect that medical bills would force them to give up their land.
If the initiative takes off, landowners could get money for keeping their land — and allowing their trees to stand as so-called "carbon sinks," which suck carbon dioxide out of the air and into their root systems.
The carbon sinks — the trees — provide one half of a voluntary carbon market. On the other end are companies that pollute or use a lot of power — for example, the health care industry. Those companies seek to offset their carbon emissions by buying the carbon-absorbing capacity of forested land.
Landowners would collect money based on the 20-year carbon-absorbing capacity of their trees. For some landowners, it could amount to a $5,000 initial payment and up to $1,000 each year.
That kind of money could offer a measure of protection against health care costs. And it could allow landowners to hang onto their property, keeping family forests in the family.
The idea of linking these carbon credits to family forests is making headway elsewhere. The Pinchot Institute researchers are being somewhat cautious about rolling out the idea here, in part because carbon-credit scams have been sadly common, in some cases even involving nonexistent forests offshore.
But here in western Oregon, this initiative involves real forests — and real people who have fretted about how to keep those lands in their families. This Forest Health-Human Health initiative could offer a powerful tool to preserve those lands.
The (Bend) Bulletin, April 3: Unreasonable ruling on wine growlers
It should not be too much to ask that the federal government's rules be roughly reasonable and approximately right. But the Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau has shown a lack of sense.
The bureau declared in a March 11 ruling that filling growlers with wine and taking the growler off the premises "may be conducted lawfully only by a qualified taxpaid wine bottling house."
What that bureaucratese means is that Oregon's new wine growler law is in trouble.
Beer growlers are OK. Wine growlers are somehow very bad in the bureau's eyes and must be subject to many layers of new regulation and fees.
Oregon's congressional delegation didn't just accept this nonsense in stupid good faith. All the members of the delegation — senators and representatives — joined together to fire off a letter to tell the bureau to reconsider.
Is the additional regulatory burden really worth it?
Does the federal government really want to stifle these sales?
Are beer growlers causing some sort of vast untold problem jeopardizing the public safety or failing to pay proper taxes?
We'd guess the answers are: no, no and no.
The bureau presents no such evidence to the contrary in its ruling. The bureau appears just to be doing its bureaucratic duty and faithfully attempting to apply its rules for wine to Oregon's wine growlers.
The bureau should stop enforcing this ruling unless it can prove it is necessary. The rules should be reasonable or the rules must change.
Corvallis Gazette-Times: Redistricting paves way for intriguing races
A recent news story from The Associated Press reminded us again of one of the more remarkable achievements of the 2011 Legislature, and raised some intriguing questions for the 2014 elections.
You'll recall how the 2010 elections ended with a state House of Representatives that was evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats. Democrats held the narrowest of edges in the Senate, a 16-14 majority.
As it turned out, that was the Legislature that was charged with adopting new congressional and legislative maps, the process known as redistricting. It had not gone well in the past. In general, if lawmakers can't come up with a plan — an outcome that occurs with wearying regularity — the secretary of state draws new legislative maps. A federal judge draws the duty of rejiggering congressional boundaries, with the general idea of creating districts that are more or less equal in population.
The tie in the House of Representatives in 2011, however, meant that lawmakers had little choice but to roll up their sleeves and work together on redistricting. And they succeeded. It was the smoothest redistricting process in a century.
What we're left with in the new congressional districts are a pair of districts that might turn out to be somewhat more competitive for Republicans — assuming that the GOP has been able to recruit some strong candidates.
Of Oregon's five congressional districts, four are held by Democrats. Republican Rep. Greg Walden, of the 2nd District, is the Republican and odds-on favorite for re-election, although he faces what could be a spirited primary challenge from Klamath County Commissioner Dennis Linthicum and, potentially, Democratic candidate Aelea Christofferson.
In the mid-valley's 4th District, Democrat Peter DeFazio is the incumbent and likely is a strong favorite over the chairman of the state Republican Party, Art Robinson, who's mounting his third race against DeFazio.
Earl Blumenauer, who represents the Portland-centric 3rd District, has to rate as the favorite to defeat Republican James Buchel. And even though the 1st District, now represented by Suzanne Bonamici, lost some Democratic voters in redistricting, Bonamici would seem a safe bet for re-election, although one of her potential GOP opponents is Delinda Morgan, a vineyard owner who ran a spirited race in 2014.
That leaves potentially the most interesting Oregon congressional district, the 5th, now represented by Democrat Kurt Schrader. It's long been considered Oregon's most competitive district — and redistricting might have made it even more so, considering that the district lost parts of reliably Democratic Corvallis and Portland.
Schrader has the advantage of incumbency. But one of his potential Republican foes, Clackamas County Commissioner Tootie Smith, could prove to be a formidable opponent, considering that the 5th District now includes a chunk of Clackamas County. Another Republican, former congressional aide Ben Pollock, also is in the race.
Oregon voters would be well-served by competitive congressional elections. And if those come to pass in 2014, voters can offer thanks in part to the bipartisan redistricting efforts of the 2011 Oregon Legislature.
The (Eugene) Register-Guard, April 4: The rise of the robots
A story in Thursday's Register-Guard told of an odd event in Oregon's wine country: A French inventor demonstrated a machine that can prune grape vines. The camera-guided robot moved up and down the rows of a vineyard, extending a clipper claw to trim dead wood and encourage grape production. The machine looks like a novelty, a toy. But it's a glimpse of things to come: Robots are becoming capable of a widening variety of increasingly complex tasks, with far-reaching consequences for industry, agriculture, domestic life and the labor market.
Christophe Millot's Wall-Ye-France pruning robot costs $30,000, but the cost will come down. Even at the current price, it wouldn't take long for a vineyard owner to recover the investment if the machine can replace a laborer. An experienced worker probably does a better job of pruning than the robot, but the robot's skills will become sharper with each upgrade in processing, imaging and locomotion. Already, Wall-Ye-France is programmed to remember every cut on every vine. And a robot that can replace one laborer today will replace two or a dozen tomorrow as speed and precision improve.
Robots have already made sizeable inroads in manufacturing, where they have taken over a variety of tasks involving repetitive motions. The Economist newsmagazine, in a special report on robots, says 1.2 million to 1.5 million of the machines are in use on factory floors around the world. The United States had 150 robots per 10,000 manufacturing employees in 2012; the rates in South Korea, Japan and Germany are much higher. Anyone who drives a late-model car is using a product partly assembled by robots.
The advent of industrial robots is partly responsible for a resurgence in American manufacturing — like other forms of automation, robots erase the wage differential that has caused many jobs to migrate to countries with cheap labor. But robots make the global wage gap less relevant by making human labor a smaller component of manufacturing costs. The industries that return to the United States because of robotics will have far fewer jobs than they did when they left, though the jobs that do come back will require more skills and will be better paid.
The demonstration in the vineyard is a signal that robots are beginning to spread beyond big, capital-intensive industries. As their costs fall and their capabilities expand, robots will become increasingly common in smaller business, on farms and in homes. Entrepreneurs like Millot will adapt robots to niches — he's already sold 30 of his pruners in France. And if a robot can prune grape vines, robots can be adapted to a widening number of other jobs, ranging from package delivery to food preparation, as their programming, sensing capabilities and mobility grow more sophisticated.
Oregon vintners say that what they really need is a grape harvesting robot, because the harvest is a big job that has to be done during a short period when the fruit is at its peak. They'll be able to buy harvester robots soon, machines that can treat grapes with care that at first approaches, then matches and finally exceeds human capabilities. And if grapes can be tended and harvested by robots, so can other crops.
Farm workers got a peek into the future when Wall-Ye-France moved along the rows of vines. So did many other workers. For individuals, learning to program and repair robots might be a good idea. For society, learning to adapt to a world of robot labor will be a necessity.
(Medford) Mail Tribune, April 1: The secret life of an oversight committee
With the Cover Oregon website still not fully functional six months after it was supposed to allow the public to purchase health insurance online, it's hard to believe the troubled state agency could embarrass itself any further. But it managed that last week, when news reports revealed a legislative oversight committee had been meeting for nearly two years behind closed doors.
The law that established Cover Oregon also created the committee, directing that four legislators — two Democrats and two Republicans — be appointed to meet with Cover Oregon staff and provide "advice to and legislative oversight of the corporation during the implementation of the corporation and the exchange."
The lawmakers were duly appointed, and the committee proceeded to meet monthly starting in May 2012. In all, the committee has met at least 23 times, the Statesman Journal reported, but no public notices were issued, no minutes were kept and news reporters were not invited.
Last week, when reporters who had learned of the meetings tried to attend, Cover Oregon staff refused to allow one reporter to enter the meeting room and physically removed another.
Cover Oregon officials said the sessions were staff meetings, which can be private under state public meetings laws, and the legislators were merely invited to attend. A spokesman for the Senate Democrats said the committee did not answer to the Legislature, and it was up to Cover Oregon whether to make the meetings public.
That's exactly backwards. Oregon's public meetings law says meetings of government bodies — such as advisory committees — are presumed to be open to the public unless they fall under one of several specific exemptions. It is the responsibility of the entity conducting the meeting to justify why it should not be public — not to simply close the doors.
The public image of Cover Oregon as a collection of incompetent buffoons could hardly get any worse.
The state has spent more than $134 million in federal money for a website that still does not allow a user to complete the sign-up process for health insurance in one sitting. Two weeks ago, a scathing outside review of Cover Oregon revealed poor communication, personality conflicts and slipshod management of the state's insurance exchange dating back to May 2012 — the same time the "oversight committee" began meeting.
It's clear, in retrospect, that the committee performed no oversight. Lawmakers appointed to it were under the impression the committee's role was just to receive briefings. In fact, status reports that might have alerted the lawmakers to problems with the development of the website were never given to them.
If news reporters were notified of the meetings and attended them from the beginning, is it possible they might have asked why the committee wasn't receiving quality assurance reports, prompting the legislators to demand more accountability from Cover Oregon?
It's impossible to know for sure. But one thing we do know: Oversight is much easier to accomplish in the light of day.
The Oregonian, April 6: Changing face of Oregon schools requires parent groups to change, too
The Oregon PTA reached a peak of popularity as a white, middle-class organization fueled mostly by homemakers. Staying that way isn't an option, if local parent-teacher associations want to stay credible, relevant and helpful.
This is the challenge facing parent groups statewide, as Oregon's student population grows more ethnically and culturally diverse, parent work schedules become more complicated and family finances continue to be stretched thin: You have to adapt as an organization, even if you're not quite sure where to start.
"If we are going to be who we say we are, we need to bring all parents to the table," says Susan Hamann, Oregon PTA president. "It's disingenuous of us to say we represent the parents of Oregon if we represent only some of them. . And just from a business and organizational perspective, if we're not more inclusive, then we might as well close our doors and go home."
The Oregon PTA, which hosted its annual gathering over the weekend, is working on ways to step out of its traditional comfort zone and engage a more diverse parent community. Many local chapters have already found success: The Lowrie Primary PTA in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District, for example, reports building a thriving multicultural chapter by taking a dozen steps to make parents welcome. Holding evening meetings with child care and a Spanish-speaking translator has helped. So has emphasizing school support and advocacy over fundraising, along with keeping many events free or low-cost.
A board member who acts as a liaison to Spanish-speaking parents helps keep the work going. Other volunteers give updates via social media. As a result of this try-everything approach, more parents have gotten involved. ("It's not the same five people," says Lowrie PTA president Chelsea Martin.)
The PTA is hardly the first education group to realize it needs to change with the times. The Oregon chapter of Stand for Children went through a similar process several years ago and has since gotten more deliberate about outreach. The organization formed partnerships with more diverse groups to work on education policy and build relationships. It hired a more diverse staff, too. And it spent a lot of time talking to parents, one on one, about what they want for their children.
Since then, Stand's focus has expanded beyond state funding to include better opportunities for English language learners and closing the achievement gap.
"The whole 'more funding' message doesn't resonate with parents who don't feel they're getting much from the existing funding," explains Kimberly Melton, Stand director for the Portland metro area. "We have to make sure to engage parents where they are."
Latino students now make up one-quarter of Oregon's first-grade population. The state now has eight majority-Latino school districts, including Woodburn and Milton-Freewater, as The Oregonian's Betsy Hammond reported earlier this year. Meanwhile, the majority of parents with school-age children work outside the home.
The PTA, Stand and many other parent organizations deserve credit for working on broadening their horizons. Such diversity efforts can be started clumsily, written about clumsily, and derided by outsiders as politically correct. They're worth tackling anyway:
One of the best predictors of students' success is the involvement of their parents in their education.