Editorials from Oregon newspapers
The (Eugene) Register-Guard, Dec. 9, on Oregon's unemployment tax
Unemployment rates are viewed with a degree of suspicion because the statistics don't include people who have stopped looking for work. While Oregon's unemployment rate fell to 7.7 percent in October from a peak of 11.6 percent in May and June of 2009, people who dropped out of the labor force probably accounted for part of the decline. But another figure reinforces confidence that improvements in the job market are real: In 2014 the state will cut the tax for unemployment insurance for the first time in three years.
Benefits for workers eligible to claim unemployment compensation are paid from a fund that is fed by federal and state taxes on employers' payrolls. The federal tax is relatively small, amounting to $42 a year per employee in most cases. The state taxes are much heavier, in some cases exceeding 10 percent of wages up to a certain threshold.
All states, including Oregon, tax employers at different rates depending on their employees' claims experience. Oregon employers with a history of few layoffs, such as many in the health care industry, pay the lowest rate of 2.2 percent. Next year the minimum rate will fall to 1.8 percent. In cyclical industries with a history of frequent layoffs, such as some construction businesses, Oregon's rate can be as high as 5.4 percent. The maximum rate will stay the same next year, the state Employment Department announced recently.
Oregon aims to maintain the unemployment trust fund at a level sufficient to carry the state through an 18-month recession. The reduction in tax rates consequently reflects an improving economy — including the addition of 8,400 jobs since August.
On average, unemployment insurance taxes will decline to 2.76 percent from 3 percent, reflecting a drop in the number of claims for jobless benefits and a reduction in the duration of the period for which they're paid. The effect will be an aggregate $100-million tax cut for Oregon employers. The reduction could have the effect of increasing employment still further, because the cost of putting a worker on the payroll will decline by an average of $85.
At 1.8 percent, Oregon will still have a relatively high minimum unemployment tax rate— in many states it's less than 1 percent. But Oregon's maximum tax of 5.4 percent is relatively low, with 42 states levying a higher top rate. Oregon collects the unemployment payroll tax on the first $34,100 of income, a higher threshold than all but three states.
The structure of Oregon's unemployment tax should be examined from time to time to ensure that it's fair and promotes hiring. But regardless of the structure of the tax, a reduction is a good sign for employers and workers alike.
Albany Democrat-Herald, Dec. 7, on medical pot dispensaries
Because the legislative session that starts in February is a relatively short one, it's not the best time to bring up contentious issues — but legislators nevertheless may need to wade into the state's looming controversies on marijuana on a couple of fronts.
First, it may well be that the law regarding dispensaries for medical marijuana will need clarification.
And it's not out of the question that legislators will make a run at referring a legislative initiative to voters — in part to possibly head off a citizen-written measure that could appear on the ballot as early as November.
Deadlines are tighter with the dispensary issue, especially since applications from people who want to open the establishments will start to flow to the state beginning March 3.
At issue is the implementation of House Bill 3460, passed earlier by the Legislature in an effort to solve a problem with the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program. Under the rules of the program, medical marijuana patients must either grow their own or find someone to grow it for them.
The new dispensary law creates a third-party system for matching patients with a reliable supply of cannabis.
The law directs the Oregon Health Authority to create a registry of state-approved dispensaries and develop regulations for their operation. An advisory committee has been meeting to hammer out rules for licensing and running dispensaries.
In the meantime, though, mid-valley entrepreneurs are pursuing plans to open dispensaries in both Albany and Corvallis. And officials in both cities are pondering the possibility of trying to block the establishments, in part because of concerns from law enforcement.
It's not clear, however, what legal mechanism governments could use to block the dispensaries. The League of Oregon Cities and Towns has told its members that they have broad latitude to ban them, but the state's legislative counsel responded with an opinion that cities can't prevent or restrict the operation of the facilities.
No wonder that prudent city attorneys, like Albany's Jim Delapoer, would prefer to see some other city serve as the expensive test case in the courts.
Or the Legislature could try to clarify the issue while at least a little time remains before that March 3 deadline.
In the meantime, the question of legalization seems almost certain to make the Oregon ballot at some point. Advocates of legalization in the past have urged the Legislature to take the lead and draft a carefully written proposal for voters to consider rather than roll the dice with a potentially haphazard measure written by proponents themselves.
That still is the best course of action. It might take a little longer — and it might not be something that the February session will have time to deal with. But a delay could give us a chance to watch developments in Washington state and Colorado, states which have legalized the recreational use of marijuana. And it could result in better public policy.
The (Bend) Bulletin, Dec. 8, on banning e-cigarettes
This one should be easy. No legislative bickering, no political posturing, no partisan gridlock.
When it meets in February, Oregon's Legislature should ban the sale of electronic cigarettes to minors. Legislators need to do it quickly, make it unanimous and add an emergency clause so the ban can take effect quickly.
Other issues about taxation and regulation of e-cigarettes for adults may require more research and debate. They must be kept separate from this legislation, which Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany, plans to introduce. Even tobacco companies are on board, according to The Oregonian.
E-cigarettes, also called personal vaporizers or electronic nicotine delivery systems, don't burn tobacco, and therefore don't fall under cigarette regulations. They can be helpful for smokers trying to cut back or quit, and they don't produce dangerous second-hand smoke.
On the flip side, though, most e-cigarettes vaporize nicotine and can lead to addiction, making them particularly dangerous to children. And they're being enhanced with bubble gum, chocolate and gummy-bear flavors that appeal to youngsters.
From 2011 to 2012, e-cigarette use nationwide by middle and high schoolers nearly doubled, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC said 1.78 million middle and high school students had tried e-cigarettes. In high schools, the percentage of users went from 5 percent to 10 percent in just one year. In Oregon, the 2013 Healthy Teens Survey showed 5.2 percent of 11th-graders and 1.8 percent of 8th-graders said they had used an e-cigarette in the previous 30 days, according to The Oregonian, up from 1.8 percent and 1.3 percent respectively in the 2011 survey.
Those numbers suggest there's no time to wait, as e-cigarette use by youngsters appears to be climbing fast.
At the national level, the Food and Drug Administration has been expected to release regulations, but serious questions remain. Experts say e-cigarettes have helped many people quit smoking, yet their health effects are not well understood. Lobbying by manufacturers and health officials has been intense.
For the Oregon Legislature, however, one decision is clear. Whatever the long-term decisions for taxation and sales to adults, sales to minors should be stopped now.
Yamhill Valley News-Register, Dec. 6, on demise of Evergreen International Airlines
The death throes of Evergreen International Airlines — and to a large extent, parent Evergreen International Aviation — have produced riveting but deeply saddening headlines in recent weeks. That has dampened the holiday season locally, as the for-profit company and its nonprofit counterpart across Highway 18 have long played an outsized role in local economic and civic life.
But, in truth, the company, which employed almost 500 here at its peak, has been destined to eventually disappear from McMinnville since March 18, 1995.
That day, 29-year-old Mark Smith of McMinnville, who had raced Indy cars professionally the two previous seasons, set out in a Saab 900 with brother Michael Smith, 27, and two friends in Northern Virginia. The Saab careened down an embankment and struck a power pole. Michael was killed.
In a very real sense, Evergreen's McMinnville incarnation also succumbed in that tragic accident. Founder Delbert "Del" Smith had brought both sons into the company, but Michael was heir apparent. The crash left Del Smith without a succession strategy.
Del's greatest dream was to fly for his country, but he was prevented by color blindness. He achieved that dream vicariously through Michael, who rose to the rank of captain while serving as an Air Force fighter pilot. To honor his son's memory, he created the museum and its accompanying Captain Michael King Smith Educational Institute on Captain Michael King Smith Way.
A risk-taker by nature, Del grew the privately held company by leasing, borrowing, leveraging. He always operated at the margin, ringing up hundreds of millions of dollars in debt. But for McMinnville, Evergreen's financial collapse has eliminated jobs that were destined to leave, anyway.
Even if Evergreen were healthy, not facing dismemberment and perhaps dissolution, we believe the company would be headed for sale. Evergreen has been based in McMinnville because Del Smith is based in McMinnville. A buyer like arch-rival Atlas Air would have little need for a presence in McMinnville, so the jobs would surely be headed elsewhere, regardless.
That being the case, civic leaders should turn their attention to two of the elements that remain — the magnificent Evergreen museum complex and the healthy helicopter arm, recently sold to Erickson Air-Crane for $249 million.
The museum side isn't directly affected. However, it is indirectly affected to the extent, if any, that it's carrying a significant construction debt load; its finances have been intermingled with that of its for-profit counterpart; its leading benefactor is no longer able to infuse millions in support; and it can't sustain ongoing operations with admission revenue. The museum faces a property tax battle with the county and state, and corporate creditors could go after the land it sits on, which is fragmented among a web of ownerships.
The risk with Evergreen Helicopters is that Erickson, which maintains a physical base in Central Point and corporate base in Portland, will opt to consolidate operations elsewhere — something suggested at the time of the transaction.
Timely attention by the community could pay dividends on both counts.
The (Roseburg) News-Review, Dec. 5, on Wyden's timber proposal and Oregon Wild
Not surprisingly, one of the state's most active conservation groups, Oregon Wild, strongly opposes U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden's Western Oregon timber plan.
While the senator was panned by a good share of the timber industry as too vague and too timid, Oregon Wild recoiled at Wyden agreeing that logging on federal forests should be increased.
In its railing, Oregon Wild ventured into a subject that it grasps with a shaky hand — economics.
"Logging is a relatively minor factor in the state's economic picture today, surpassed both in jobs and economic revenue by the thriving tourism and outdoor recreation industry," Oregon Wild stated in a press release.
Oregon Wild has hit this theme before: tree-huggers represent more wealth than tree-cutters.
There are enough trees to go around, but Oregon Wild is in no mood to share. The conservation group further noted that "structural changes" in Oregon's economy over the past 20 years has reduced the importance of logging. Oregon Wild didn't elaborate on what those "structural changes" have meant for Douglas County.
Whether you view logging, and by extension wood-products manufacturing, as minor or major may depend on where you live.
Forest-sector jobs make up 5 percent of Multnomah County's economic base, according to the Oregon Forest Resources Institute. In Clackamas County, it's 4 percent. In Washington County, it's 2 percent.
Elsewhere, forest-sector jobs aren't such a "minor factor." Forests are the source of 21 percent of Douglas County's economic base. It's even higher in Clatsop County, at 29 percent. Both counties boast recreation and tourist attractions, yet the forest-sector remains important to both.
Wyden touted his plan as "first and foremost a jobs bill." How many jobs is debatable. The Oregon Forest Resources Institute estimates 11 jobs are created for every 1 million board feet harvested. The Oregon Employment Department calculates that about seven jobs are generated. However many jobs there are, the pay is likely to compare favorably with service-sector jobs supported in part by tourists.
According to a recent wage report by the state, logging equipment operators in Douglas County earn an average of $41,968 a year. Log graders and scalers earn $43,182, while those categorized as "logging workers, all others" earn $36,771.
Meanwhile, hotel, motel and resort desk clerks average hourly wages that would total $21,525 in a year. The employment department notes that this occupation has a large share of part-time workers.
In Douglas County mills, production supervisors earn an average of $49,273 a year, according to the employment department. Pay among skilled woodworkers varies, but generally hover around $40,000. The catchall category of "woodworkers, all other" average $38,975.
After a pleasant day fishing or hiking, tourists can enjoy a restaurant meal, where chefs average $21,687 if they work full-time year-round, or have a drink, served by a bartender making $21,303 a year.
Of course, Oregon Wild can look to the future and hope for more structural changes. It argues that employment in recreation-related industries will far surpass growth in the wood-products industry.
If Oregon Wild's arguments prevail, they will be right. And that will be a major factor in Douglas County's demise.
The Oregonian, Dec. 6, on Wyden's timber proposal
You can see why the Oregon timber counties would be disappointed in Sen. Ron Wyden's new plan for cutting some more timber on the federal government's checkerboard Oregon & California Railroad land holdings. Wyden's plan won't produce as much timber, or as much county revenue, as the language that passed the House, and county officials say they're less confident that it could avoid getting bogged down in litigation.
Douglas County Commissioner Doug Robertson, president of the Association of O&C Counties, declared "I have to admit disappointment," saying the Wyden proposal comes up short for the association's three bedrock principles: sharply reduced litigation, increased timber cut and increased financial support for local counties. By Wyden's estimation, his bill would approximately double the timber cut in the lands, to 300 million to 350 million board feet, and raise support to county governments.
For Southwest Oregon counties near the edge of disintegration, with public safety resources far below any definition of safety, Wyden's plan must indeed seem inadequate. The O&C language that passed the House allowed for a cut that might reach 500 million board feet, which could provide considerably larger revenue stream to the counties.
The problem is that with opposition by both the Senate and the White House, there is no chance of the House language becoming law. The best, most promising approach is to pass something through the Senate and get it to a conference committee with the House, creating the prospect of something that might actually become law and provide some assistance to the counties.
Even that possibility is far from certain, considering the barren recent record of congressional conference committees. It would be a long shot to expect the current arrangement in Washington to produce anything substantive. But considering the desperate condition of the counties, where in places ordinary law enforcement has vanished as a daily fact of life, the effort is vital.
Both bills increase the logging cut while putting a considerable amount of the 3 million O&C acres beyond logging forever. They both try to limit unending litigation, although the Association of O&C Counties expresses doubt about Wyden's version. With these similarities of direction and goals, it seems that something workable might be made from the two of them.
What's unlikely to survive are two particular aspects of the House bill that are essentially deal-killers to the Senate and President Obama. After dividing up the O&C lands into two different trusts, the House bill places extensive federal lands under state management, an arrangement certain to draw resistance. It also lacks the protections against clear-cutting in the Wyden bill, which offers an approach of "ecological forestry" that may indeed be more expensive and inconvenient, but is also more publicly acceptable.
There are limitations to what any Congress might produce on this issue. The cut is never going back to the billion-board-foot boom times of the late '70s. Even if it somehow did, with all the mechanization of the past decades, that would not recreate the historic levels of jobs. For the counties, whatever comes out of this process — if anything comes out of this process — won't be a full solution, but only part of a pathway to one.
The O&C counties aren't the only groups critical of Wyden's proposal. Some Oregon environmental groups, such as Oregon Wild, have their own objections to its litigation rules, and some would simply oppose any increased cut on federal lands.
To refuse to advance with the process now would be a long-odds bet on dealing with a more friendly president and Senate in 2017. Considering the current emergency conditions of many of the counties, it would be a long time to wait, for an outcome that may not arise — and years of full Republican control of Washington in the last decade didn't exactly resolve the problem, either.
Despite the counties' deepest hopes, 1978 is not coming again. What the counties, and all of Oregon, needs is to begin finding a path to 2020, and the years beyond.