Editorials from around Oregon

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Selected editorials from Oregon newspapers.

The (Eugene) Register-Guard, Nov. 18, on Oregon's growing population

Earlier this year, someone became the 4 millionth Oregonian. The odds are 4 in 5 that the person who pushed Oregon's head count to that milestone arrived from another state, probably California or Washington.

If Oregonian No. 4 million was a newborn baby, he or she is most likely to be a native of Multnomah County who will see Oregon's population pass the 5 million mark before graduating from high school.

The announcement that Oregon's population has exceeded 4 million came from Portland State University's Center for Population Research, which prepares annual reports based on census data, hospital records, driver's license applications, housing surveys and other information.

The prediction that Oregon's population will surpass 5 million in about the year 2035 comes from long-range forecasts for the state and its counties prepared by the state Office of Economic Analysis.

One year after Oregon was admitted to the union in 1859, the U.S. Census Bureau counted 52,000 people in the state — white people, that is. Native Americans were not included. It took until 1940 for the state's population to pass the 1 million mark.

The second million was added by 1968, and the third by 1993. The intervals at which each million was added are 28 years, 25 years and 22 years.

According to the projection by the Office of Economic Analysis, the next 1 million increase in population will take only 20 years. If the addition of each million people takes about two years fewer than the one before, Oregon will be adding 1 million people a year to a population of 15 million within about a century.

A near-quadrupling of Oregon's population seems inconceivable, even nightmarish, today. But a quadrupling already has occurred within the lifetime of any Oregonian older than 75. The state can feel crowded to longtime residents, especially when they're driving on Interstate 5 or trying to find a campsite, but Oregon's population density remains less than half the national average. With a population of 15 million sometime not long after the year 2100, the number of people per square mile in Oregon would be about the same as in South Carolina or Tennessee today.

There's no guarantee that population growth will continue at either its current or its historic pace. Global population growth rates have slowed dramatically in all but a few regions. Eighty percent of Oregon's recent population increase has come as a result of people moving to the state from elsewhere.

The rate of in-migration hinges on the condition of the economy and, perhaps increasingly in the future, the environment. Oregon actually lost population during a few years in the 1980s because it was hit harder than most states by a deep and lasting recession. That could happen again.

Still, the line on the graph has a consistent upward slope, and the Office of Economic Analysis expects that to continue. It projects that Lane County will be home to 465,000 people in 2050, up from the current 361,000. Multnomah County will remain the state's most populous county with 916,000 people, up from 768,000 this year, but Washington County, where the population will grow to 915,000 from 571,000, will not be far behind. Wheeler County will retain its status as Oregon's least populous, shrinking to 1,250 people in 2050 from the current 1,407.

And the 4 millionth Oregonian is here, probably settling in after moving from another state. While the prospect of additional millions gives rise to apprehensions, all Oregonians — most of whom also came from somewhere else — should make the new arrival feel welcome.

The (Corvallis) Gazette-Times, Nov. 17 on fighting sexually transmitted diseases

Citing explosive growth in the number of cases of syphilis throughout Oregon, the state Health Department has launched a campaign to battle the disease.

State health officials said the number of syphilis cases in Oregon has boomed from fewer than 30 in 2007 to 450 so far this year, a growth rate of about 1,500 percent. Oregon now ranks fifth in the nation for syphilis cases per capita.

Those numbers might have surprised you. They did not surprise local health officials, who have been sounding a warning for years about the growing number of sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) in Oregon and across the United States.

For example: Benton County always does well in those national studies that purport to identify the healthiest county in each state. But if you dig a little deeper in those rankings, you'll find that Benton County consistently has more reported cases of another sexually transmitted disease, chlamydia, than the national average.

"Chlamydia just continues to be a huge problem," said Charlie Fautin of the Benton County Health Department.

And those aren't the only sexually transmitted diseases that have Fautin worried these days: For example, he's keeping tabs on a new drug-resistant strain of gonorrhea that recently surfaced in Portland. It's just a matter of time before that shows up in Benton County, he noted.

Ironically, it's our success in battling HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, that has helped fuel this resurgence in sexually transmitted diseases. Dr. Sean Schafer, a medical epidemiologist with the Oregon Health Authority, said that "people with HIV know that their medicines are effective at reducing the risk of transmission to others, so they're less careful about using condoms."

Schafer noted the problem with that: "Even if you don't transmit HIV, you can transmit syphilis and gonorrhea."

And in general, condom use has declined across the nation over the past 15 years — a trend that Fautin has noticed as well. Combine that with the growth of smartphone apps that make it easier to hook up with people, and what Fautin called "the sexualization of society," and conditions are prime for the spread of sexually transmitted diseases.

One of the frustrating things about this for health officials is the fact that the vast majority of these diseases can be prevented by using a condom. (Abstinence also is effective, of course, but whether that's a message young people today want to hear is another question entirely.)

Something else is frustrating about this for health officials: "If there was any other illness that had this kind of incidence, we'd go completely nuts," Fautin said. But yet few resources are available for educational efforts to battle sexually transmitted diseases — and government officials are not as good as they need to be in using social media to get the prevention message out to the younger audiences they need to reach.

The state's anti-syphilis effort will be based primarily in Portland, with ads on TriMet buses. Plans are to launch a website for the campaign, to be called Syph Aware. The state campaign would do well to take some cues from institutions that attract plenty of young people, like Oregon State University, which has done some effective work with students on this issue.

In the meantime, health officials stand ready to deal, once again, with the human damage caused by a preventable disease. Can you blame them for feeling frustrated?

The (Bend) Bulletin, Nov. 20, on crowded prisons

The state Department of Corrections should recalculate its assumptions about the state's need for prison space.

Just over two years ago, then-Gov. John Kitzhaber and the state Legislature made dramatic changes to the state's prison system. Lawmakers cut the sentences for some property crimes and drug crimes. They promised more money to local communities for efforts aimed at cutting recidivism.

And, lo and behold, the number of men and women being sent to Oregon's prisons dropped: In 2013, according to the Medford Mail Tribune, some 4,972 Oregonians went to prison, a number that fell to 4,784 last year.

But something else happened, as well. While the average sentence served in 2013 was 37.1 months, it's now some 44.1 months. The result is that the overall prison population in this state has dropped 13 bodies, not the 500 or so that was being predicted when the reforms became law.

The state is now faced with two choices. It can open the medium security wing of the Deer Ridge prison outside of Madras, a facility that never has been used. That would cost about $9.5 million, mostly in additional staffing, and would allow the state to house more prisoners. Or, it can tell counties to keep some of their criminals home, move Deer Ridge's current prisoners to the medium security wing at a cost of $2 million, and hope the Legislature comes up with the remaining $7.5 million needed to add prisoners to Deer Ridge.

It has chosen the latter.

The decision raises concerns, clearly. Among the biggest is the fear that in order to find money for Deer Ridge, lawmakers will dip into justice reinvestment funds, which go to local anti-recidivism programs. For money-shy counties, that possibility has ugly implications.

All this suggests it's time for the state to reconsider its assumptions about its prison population and prepare to deal with the problem. It cannot continue asking counties to keep bad guys at home at county expense.

The Oregonian, Nov. 22, on how Oregon's tax structure compares to other states

Oregon has the 11th best business tax climate in the nation, according to an annual report released this week by the Tax Foundation. If you care about such things, you might want to enjoy the moment. With a ballot fight over proposed new business taxes likely next year, the ranking might not last long.

The Tax Foundation, which examines five types of taxes paid by businesses in making its calculations, is just one of several groups that rank state tax structures. Oregon's marks are all over the map.

Other rankings concur with the Tax Foundation's assessment that Oregon has relatively low business taxes, in part because the state doesn't have a sales tax. Groups that emphasize fairness also tend to score Oregon well. WalletHub says Oregon has the second-fairest tax system; the Institute on Taxation and Economic Policy ranks it third. Broad rankings that include corporate and individual taxes tend to look less favorably at Oregon. A recent Forbes ranking placed Oregon as the 16th worst state. If you look only at corporate income taxes, Oregon has the 17th highest top bracket.

Such variety can be found in rankings because in reality there isn't a best way to measure taxation. As is the case in most states, Oregon's tax structure is good for some businesses - and individuals - and not so good for others. But if Oregon adopts a gross receipts tax, as proposed in Initiative Petition 28, the state will be less tax friendly by just about any measure. The envisioned ballot measure could generate more than $2 billion a year in new tax revenue, according to preliminary estimates. Those taxes would come from businesses with more than $25 million of annual sales in the form of a 2.5 percent tax on gross receipts above that threshold.

Jared Walczak, a Tax Foundation analyst who co-wrote the organization's 2015 report, said adoption of the tax would push Oregon down in future tax rankings. That's fairly obvious; $2 billion is a lot of money. But the size of the ask isn't the only problem with IP28. Walczak said the Tax Foundation "is not a big fan of gross receipts taxes." That's in part because the tax ends up being rolled into the cost of products - sometimes multiple times. For example, a manufacturer of a piece of equipment used to brew beer raises its price to offset the tax. Then the brewer raises its price, and so on throughout the product cycle.

Walczak said the Tax Foundation, which is nonpartisan but generally pro-business, favors tax structures that are neutral and don't attempt to pick winners and losers. Of course, it's hard - if not impossible - to construct a tax system that treats everyone equally. That's why it's important for elected leaders to closely examine the operating environment they have created for different types of businesses.

Walczak said a handful of states have taken steps to modernize their tax structures to reflect changes in their economic foundation. For example, North Carolina has made a host of tax changes in recent years - including lowering personal and corporate income taxes while increasing the sales tax and raising some fees. Whatever you think of the specific changes - there are pros and cons - North Carolina legislators at least attempted to craft a tax structure suited for a modern economy anchored by the high-tech and banking industries to replace a system designed when textiles and tobacco were the state's economic powerhouses.

Oregon has seen a similar transition from natural resources - timber and agriculture - to high-tech and sports apparel. Can it do a better job than North Carolina in designing a modern tax structure? At the least, the Legislature should try rather than leaving the task to a ballot measure. Right now, Oregon's tax system favors large corporations that sell most of their products out of state. If the future is an economy based more on businesses with a smaller footprint, as many in the state advocate, changes need to be made. And though the gross receipts tax targets large businesses, it does so in a counterproductive way that would pass many of the costs on to consumers.

Ultimately, rankings have limited value. New York and California consistently perform poorly in tax comparisons. Both states have scores of large international businesses that record handsome profits despite the amount of money they have to pay the state. The high-tax model works because those states are a global home base to thriving, important industries -- finance, entertainment and high technology to name three.

But Oregon lacks the historical advantages of California and New York - or even Washington. Relatively few large businesses are based in Oregon, and the number shrinks almost weekly as the ones that are here move or sell to out-of-state owners. If that trend doesn't change, no tax system will produce enough revenue to pay for necessary services.

The (Medford) Mail Tribune, Nov. 21, on public records requests

Gov. Kate Brown's pledge to pursue public records reform is welcome news, if it leads to real improvement in government agencies' response to records requests. But those improvements should focus on the agencies themselves, not on creating a new state bureaucracy.

After Gov. John Kitzhaber's resignation, the 2015 Legislature considered a number of bills aimed at improving government transparency and responsiveness, especially in light of Kitzhaber's reluctance to turn over records from his troubled administration. Few of those bills passed; one that did requested an audit of state agencies' responses to public records requests.

The audit report, released Tuesday, examined nine state agencies. Auditors found that "routine" requests for records — about 90 percent of them — were fulfilled in two weeks or less. But more complex requests could take many months, and agencies charged high and sometimes inconsistent fees.

Brown said she would use her executive powers to direct agencies to standardize fees and timelines. A bill proposed by Republicans during the 2015 session would have set strict time and fee limits, but it did not pass. It remains to be seen whether Brown's executive orders will have as much effect.

The audit recommended creating a new ombudsman position to mediate disputes between the public and state agencies over records requests, help the public file requests and help agencies comply with them. Brown said she would introduce legislation in 2016 to do that, but the details remain unclear.

An entity to represent the public could be a positive step, but it should not be allowed to grow into a new state agency complete with its own staff. If state law sets clear limits on fees and response times, it shouldn't take a separate entity to "help" agencies do their jobs.

Equally important is dealing with the more than 400 exemptions that have been added to public records laws over the years — far more than in other states. Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has convened a working group to tackle that issue and propose legislation in 2017. A similar attempt by Attorney General John Kroger in 2011 foundered in the face of opposition from local governments. Brown and Rosenblum need to start now to build support for that effort, or it will suffer the same fate.

The public has a right to know what their government is doing, and state laws should vigorously enforce that right.

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