Our Klamath Basin Water Crisis
Upholding rural Americans' rights to grow food,
own property, and caretake our wildlife and natural resources.
Oregon Senator Doug
Whitsett, District 28 Update, 9/29/05
Gail and I have been busy since the end of session. In fact we have attended nearly forty events or meetings since the 73rd Legislature adjourned August 7th. It is our intent to get an e-mail news letter out to you about every two or three weeks during the remainder of the interim to discuss our efforts to represent District 28. We consider your continuing input essential to our ability to represent your interests. Please keep the
e-mails and calls coming!
While this news letter consists mostly of opinion and policy issues, we plan to discuss our ongoing activities in future issues.
The following commentary by Senator Whitsett regarding hurricane Katrina and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans appeared in the September 19th Herald and News.
"In my opinion the environmental movement which has developed in the US since the early 1960ís is directly responsible for the disaster condition in which the country now finds itself.
Untold billions or even trillions of dollars have been, and are continuing to be diverted to the environmental movement away from the development and maintenance of the basic infrastructure of our nation. Monies which should have been used by the Army Corps of Engineers over the last 40 years to engineer, fortify, and rebuild our bridges, highways, levees, dams, and tsunami warning systems have been allocated to other state and federal bureaucracies and special interest organizations under the guise of implementing the Endangered Species Act and to the "restoration" of "ecosystems" to prehistoric conditions.
The breaching of levees along the Sacramento River was a harbinger of the current disaster. The Army Corp of Engineers was prevented from repairing and fortifying these aging levees in order to preserve the habitat for the allegedly endangered Elderberry Beetle. Funds were allocated for beetle preservation rather than levee restoration. Predictably, the aging levees were breached resulting in several deaths and significant property damage.
Hurricane Katrina exemplifies the extent to which a combined regional natural and man-made disaster can and will affect the entire nation. The levees surrounding New Orleans should have been fortified many years ago. They were not because the federal budget to the Corps of Engineers was repeatedly cut preventing completion of this project. The more than $50 billion which is being initially allocated for disaster relief could have been used for the levee fortification which would have prevented or mitigated the breaching and subsequent flooding of the city. The predicted result of the breached levees is the death of thousands, the untold agony of the millions of affected and displaced poor, incredible property damage, and the near total destruction of the existing ecosystem. It is all too obvious that this tragedy could have been averted had the funds been made available to enhance the levees.
On the national scale the interruption of the supply of refined oil and gas commodities to our nationís industries and citizens is already evident with a 30% reduction in availability at the present time. The unemployment inherent in the destruction of an entire city is already weighing down our economy and the hundreds of billions of dollars required for disaster relief and reconstruction will cost us all for a generation. The true cost of this disaster in lives lost, lives disrupted, property, infrastructure and ecosystem destruction, and national economic stress has not begun to be imagined.
The systematic destruction of our infrastructure through depletion and diversion of state and federal revenues to fund environmental causes for fish, wildlife and ecosystem restoration is now evident. It will continue to increase as our cities, transportation systems and flood control systems age. This nation will never, and should never, be returned to a pre-civilization state. We have built a great civilization, a civilization to be proud of, and we are all in this life experience together.
Above all, we must continue to provide for the components of human safety and the infrastructure integrity of our society first. Humans are, and will always be, an integral part of our nationís ecosystems. We must recognize that human needs must be prioritized and addressed first and foremost with our tax dollars. Rather than being obliterated by the force of a huge storm, New Orleans was largely destroyed by flooding caused by breached levees. This disaster could have been prevented had the revenue diverted by our federal and state governments for programs like salmon restoration and the ongoing ill fated Canadian Wolf reintroduction been properly used for infrastructure maintenance such as reinforcement of the aging and inadequate levees. Funding for the protection and enhancement of fish and wildlife, as well as the restoration of their ecosystems, must be rightfully prioritized behind the basic needs and safety of our citizens."
This Legislature recognized that the legislative process in Oregon is functioning poorly. In fact, some legislators, and much of the public, consider the process broken. The Public Commission on the Oregon Legislature was created by the 73rd Legislature to study and make recommendations to the 74th Legislature on how to improve the legislative process in Oregon. The Commission is co-chaired by Judge Laura Pryor and Gary Wilhelms the former chief of staff to Speaker of the House Karen Minnis.
In a recent letter to the co-chairs Senator Whitsett suggested the following ten points that he believes the commission should address this interim.
Legislators are assigned to various interim committees primarily to study issues of importance that were not resolved in the past sessions and to make recommendations to the next legislature. In response to a request from Senate President Peter Courtney, Senator Whitsett suggested the following issues that he believes should guide our interim committee work in order of his perceived importance.
WAYS AND MEANS:
Oregon faces a structural budget deficit of gargantuan proportions that must be addressed in a non-political non-partisan effort by committee members who understand and acknowledge the issue. From a business perspective our projected expenses (more than 70% in public employee compensation) greatly exceed our projected earnings (revenue stream from taxes, licenses, permits, and fees) by an ever widening margin. Oregonís bonded debt has more than doubled since 2002 with, incredibly, more than $400 million allocated for operations. When the legislative authorized OTIA, Connect Oregon, Oregon University System, and Community College capitol construction bonds are sold our debt will have tripled. Neither our projected expenses nor our projected debt service costs are sustainable. This deficit clearly cannot be corrected by a modest reduction in expenses, a modest increase in revenue, or a combination of both. From the business perspective, without significant immediate reorganization, Oregon is bankrupt.
Public employee retirement benefits, health insurance premium benefits, and step salary increases must be adjusted to a sustainable amount. State services must be prioritized for essential need in order to identify and eliminate entire non- essential programs. We must work to contain our escalating debt service costs. Alternatively, privatization of all or part of many state programs will be required to close this huge budget gap. Regardless of the political fall out, this problem must be addressed by our interim committee now.
Our current government education system lacks structure, direction, accountability, and sanction for ongoing failure.
The K-12 budget is too opaque to be understood even by accountants employed by multinational corporations. Whether this opacity is by design or lack of competence is unclear. Regardless of the cause, the accounting system must be simplified, clarified, and made available to the public "on line" in a clear, concise, readable, useable format by the general public. This budget information must be made available at all levels from individual schools, to school districts, to the Oregon Education Department.
No one is assigned responsibility to account for where funds allocated by the distribution formula are actually spent, or what goods and services are actually obtained by those expenditures. Formula funds distributed to the school districts and education service districts for special education, English second language, poverty, pregnancy and parenting, etc., are not required to be used, and often are not used, for those purposes. In short, the school distribution formula is ignored, broken, and unaccountable.
Employee merit is determined by a combination of seniority and education certificates. No measure of individual employee performance is considered. No performance incentives exist. In fact, performance auditing is non-existent. No form of organization can be expected to function adequately under these existing parameters.
The Teachers Standards and Practices Commission have emerged as a major source of the problem rather than an agency working to address the problem. TSPC Commissioner Vicki Chamberlain testified before the Senate Subcommittee for Ways and Means that from their perspective they were producing excellent teachers, administrators, and curricula but the districts were failing to effectively use their product. In short, they are producing an excellent widget that no one appears able to use effectively but they choose not to change the widget "because it is an excellent widget".
Unfortunately, the K-12 education system in general does not appear to be concerned about, or willing to address these and other important issues. Rather, they appear to be satisfied with the unacceptable status quo.
Our interim committee should address how each of these identified issues could best be resolved to improve service delivery to Oregonís K-12 students.
The Oregon University System is largely constrained by public institutional gridlock. They lack focus on their consumer base that is primarily composed of students and the industries and institutions that will employ them.
Conversely, OHSU has evolved into a major economic development engine. The institution has evolved into one of Oregonís largest employers since becoming a quasi-private corporation just over ten years ago. This dichotomy should be studied by our interim committee using the success of OHSU as a template for improving the performance of her sister universities.
During the past legislative session Unemployment Insurance premiums were reduced and the source of funding for administrative cost of the Oregon Employment Department was changed to a portion of the Unemployment Insurance premium. This new source of funding is clearly inadequate to maintain the current level of FTEís at projected compensation costs for the 07-09 biennium. The entire structure, the function, and the costs of the OED need to be closely examined by a joint Commerce interim committee.
The more than 1400 employees of OED receive compensation from state, federal, county, and Community College Workforce sources. Overlapping funding sources and redundant work responsibilities appear ubiquitous. OEDís "partners" in the state employment effort generally appear to be at odds with OED management. Centralization and vertical integration of OED management appears to have minimized, or in some cases eliminated, local management and advisory capacity especially in Eastern and Southern Oregon. Achievement of agency performance measures are generally declining even as their workload decreases with fewer unemployment claims. Although the agency is actively competing with the private "for profit" job placement sector, it is unable to match that competition in either cost of services or job placement effectiveness. The agencies own data reports that of about 360,000 unemployed individuals that applied for job placement in 2003-2004 only about 41,000 (11.4%) were successfully employed as a result of the agencies effort.
This agency is the poster child for need of an intense performance audit.
No issue is more important to Oregonís economic vitality than tort liability reform. The integrity of our schools, medical delivery systems, small businesses and industries are dependent upon a balanced tort liability system. Although input from lawyers and insurance executives is essential, the committeeís focus should be dominated by education professionals, medical professionals, businessmen, and private citizens who understand how the current system is undermining our future. Areas to consider include non-injury liability award caps, limiting punitive damages and assignment of punitive damages to public benefits, limited contingency fees, joint a several liability limitations, controls for frivolous suits including sanctions for the lawyers and assignment of court costs for the plaintiffs as well as expanded mediation and arbitration opportunities.
Oregonís administrative law judge statutes need to be revisited. The current process rightfully minimizes the opportunity for a state agency to utilize "one of its own" to adjudicate and issue. Unfortunately, the pool approach to ALJ selection does not insure any competence on the issue to be adjudicated. Current statute allows an ALJ to be challenged for competence, but because most Oregon ALJís are public employees their work records are not open for public record. In most cases this results in any challenge being functionally useless. I have personally witnesses ALJís presiding over water adjudication and energy facility siting hearings that appeared to have no competence on the issue at hand.
Oregonís judiciary is understaffed and under funded. The committee needs to determine where essential help is required and establish a plan to prioritize those needs.
Oregonís district attorneys are under funded and understaffed. In fact, their budgets are an embarrassment in comparison to the indigent defense budget. Control of the pervasive methamphetamine epidemic requires prioritization of funding for this community safety service.
This is more than enough food for thought for one letter. Please keep in mind that if we do not stand up for rural issues no one will.
Page Updated: Thursday May 07, 2009 09:14 AM Pacific
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