Abuse of Power: Gov. Kate Brown’s PERS Payoff

Kate Brown

Why is Gov. Kate Brown laughing?

Co-conspirators Gov. Kate Brown (D), Sen. Richard Devlin (D-Tualatin) and Sen. Ted Ferrioli (R-John Day) have concocted a bipartisan scheme to enrich the legislators and fleece the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS).

This while a task force appointed by Gov. Brown has been trying to determine the best ways to slash the the crushing PERS debt by $5 billion. The task Force’s report is expected to be submitted on Nov. 1. The PERS Board has predicted that if solutions aren’t found, PERS costs could rise from 17 percent of state and local government annual payrolls to 34 percent in 2021. That would be likely to force worker layoffs.

And you thought Oregon was a corruption-free state.

On Oct. 23, Brown nominated Devlin and Ferrioli to the Northwest Power & Conservation Council, a federally funded panel that provides policy and planning leadership on regional power, fish and wildlife issues. The Senate Rules Committee is scheduled to consider the nominations on Nov. 13.

Neither legislator will bring any expertise in regional power, fish and wildlife issues to the Council. Devlin, 65, is a retired corrections officer and private investigator. Ferrioli, 66, is a retired public relations executive.

But their lack of expertise is not the most egregious issue. It’s their exploitation of the public purse.

First, the council positions come with a $120,000 annual salary, substantially more than Devlin and Ferrioli have been making from their legislative salaries.

Second, as The Oregonian’s Ted Sickinger reported this past week, both men will be raiding PERS for big payouts.

The jobs “…will allow both legislators to double dip, turbocharge their public pensions, or both,” Sickinger reported.

This is how Sickinger put it:

“Ferrioli already draws a $33,083 annual pension from the Public Employees Retirement System. That benefit stems from 6½ years working for the Oregon Department of Veterans Affairs in the late ’70s and early ’80s…And because he is already at retirement age, he is allowed to double dip, continuing to collect it while working full time at the council.

Meanwhile, Ferrioli is eligible for a separate pension for his 20 years of legislative service. And if his Senate colleagues confirm him to the new position, that pension will be calculated using his new higher salary and the extra years of service he earns at the power council, according to PERS.

It’s unclear how much service credit Ferrioli earned during his years at the Legislature, given the part-time work. But assuming he sticks with the job for the first three-year term, the new salary could quintuple his legislative pension, which could translate to hundreds of thousands of dollars in extra benefits over the course of his retirement (emphasis mine). And he could start drawing that while continuing to work at the council.

Devlin, too, could see a similar multiplier in his legislative pension if confirmed. He, too, has 20 years of legislative service and is eligible to start drawing his pension. But if he holds off, the new salary and service at the power council would balloon those benefits after three years.”

This brazen attempt to exploit PERS, which Brown, Devlin and Ferrioli know is already in deep trouble, needs to be cut off at the pass.

If they want to maintain their reputations as public servants, Devlin and Ferrioli should either decline the Council appointments or they should refuse any additional PERS benefits that may arise because of them.

Gov. Brown needs to stop taking Oregonians for rubes. It’s time to put a stop to this abuse of the system.

 

 

 

 

 

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Port of Morrow’s State-Subsidized SAGE Center tourist attraction facing challenges.

 

By Bill MacKenzie*

the-sage-centermainphoto

The SAGE Center, Boardman, OR

It’s hard to tell a captivating, triumphant story about industrial agriculture in Eastern Oregon. But the Port of Morrow wanted to try.

Baker County already had the National Historic Oregon Trail Interpretive Center, Wallowa County had the Josephy Center for Arts and Culture and Umatilla County had the Tamástslikt Cultural Institute.

The Port decided to build a high profile state-subsidized Sustainable Agriculture and Energy (SAGE) Center along I84 in Boardman that would draw thousands of visitors and highlight the businesses that sustain the county. If you’ve driven I84 out that way, you’ve probably seen the Center.

But the dream hasn’t worked out as planned, offering lessons for others contemplating tourist attractions.

The idea for the SAGE Center emerged when Tillamook Cheese, stretched to the limit at its Tillamook facilities, opened a second cheese-making facility in Boardman in 2001. But it lacked the tourist attraction of a hoped for Tillamook Cheese Factory tour.

Port of Morrow Manager, Gary Neal, got to thinking about other industries in the county that had a hard time showing how they operate their facilities to make a wide variety of products.

garyneal

Gary Neal                        Port of Morrow Manager

“…maybe we could showcase the natural resource based economy we have at the Port of Morrow,” Neal thought. “Our technology in the plants as well in the fields growing crops is second to none in the world…The prudent use of our natural resources, multiple energy in the region, the Columbia River and the fact it is the lifeblood of what our region is about all needed a place for that message to be shared.”

The Port, a municipal corporation, hired Public Affairs Research Consultants to create a Business Plan for an Agricultural Learning Center that would “…offer visitors a unique opportunity to learn about modern food processing and where it intersects with transportation, food production and energy.”

A draft Business Plan prepared by the consultants said there were multiple reasons to be confident about the ability of a 28,000 sq. ft. center with exhibit space, offices, a gift shop, conferencing and class space, and a kitchen to attract 40,000 or more visitors annually and to be self-supporting, running a surplus from the first year.

The Plan projected the center would take in $187,880 annually. Most wouldn’t be from earned income, such as entrance and rental fees, but from other sources including payments from the Boardman Chamber of Commerce 
for space in the Center, payments by companies with displays, food service, a gift shop, visitor donations and grants.

The Plan projected surpluses at the Center starting the first year and continuing thereafter.

Encouraged by the optimistic projections, the Oregon Legislature stepped up with $4 million in lottery funds to help build the SAGE Center, which held its grand opening on June 1, 2013.

The 23,000 sq. ft. Center boasts a movie theater seating 204 people, two conference rooms and an ever-changing exhibit hall. The hall currently features videos of 3rd and 4th graders interviewing local workers, such as farmers and dairy operators, as well as a tractor-like device children can drive to plant corn using GPS technology.

There’s also an interactive tour of Morrow County in a simulated hot air balloon, hands-on displays illustrating the magnitude of Morrow County’s agricultural operations and a mock french fry-making machine.

frenchfrymachine

A feature exhibit at the SAGE Center shows how a potato gets turned into french fries

The theater is used for movie showings, trainings for local businesses, large group presentations and local drama and music productions. A recent event featured a performance by acclaimed guitarist and songwriter Johnny A.

A job fair serving local industries is hosted at the Center annually as well as a Morrow County Harvest Festival, which is designed to showcase local artisans, produce growers and provide a free, family-friendly event.

sagecenterharvest

Educational tours are also provided where students receive a comprehensive and interactive experience. Students see, touch, and sometimes smell how food and energy are produced in Morrow County and delivered to consumers.

It all sounds great.

But things haven’t exactly gone as planned.

The consultants said there were potential barriers to success, such as the need to raise public awareness of the center and the development of competing visitor attractions in the area, but they were still optimistic.

“Based on the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats the proposed AIC is a reasonable risk and it is reasonable to conclude that it is a good investment,” the consultants said.

But the Center ended up costing much more than anticipated. The original estimate was about $6 million. The final cost was $8,305,845, requiring a $4.3 million investment by the Port on top of the $4 million state grant.

Then there were higher than expected operating costs.

The market feasibility study for the Center projected annual operating expenses of just $184,128.

To say the least, that was wildly off track.

The Center’s fiscal year ends on June 30. Actual fiscal year operating expenses have been: FY14: $497,940; FY15: $763,331; FY16: $913,014

The consultants projected annual replacement/maintenance/ground expenses would be $24,000. The reality? $115,210 in FY16.

The consultants projected the annual cost of a Director and hourly staff would be $105,241. The reality? With lower local volunteerism than expected and more responsibilities, such as staffing the Center’s gift store, full-time staff has grown to four and labor costs in FY16 totaled $300,091.

Similarly, the consultants projected the annual cost of marketing the Center would be $3000. The reality? Marketing costs in FY16 totaled $123,545.

Even the estimate for the minor item of supplies was way off. The consultants projected the annual cost of supplies would be $2,400. The reality? $19,205 in FY16.

The result?

The consultants projected an annual surplus starting with the first year. Instead, the SAGE Center is hemorrhaging money like a burst water main. It reported a deficit of $554,766 in its 1st year, $598,063 in its 2nd and $574,972 in its 3rd.

And the deficits were actually worse. That’s because the Port of Morrow injected $70,000 in the 2nd year and $180,000 in the 3rd year from its general fund to help keep things going. Without those infusions, the deficits would have been $668,063 the 2nd year and $754,972 the 3rd.

Port officials insist they’re not fazed by the ballooning costs and deficits. Joe Taylor, President of the Port of Morrow Commission and a local farmer, said changes to the Center’s design from original plans explain some of the cost increases, as did the Port’s desire for “…a first class venue to tell the story of our area’s agriculture and energy communities.” In any case, he said, the Port had sufficient funds in its budget to handle the expenses.

joetaylorportofmorrow

Joe Taylor President               Port of Morrow Commission

The number of visitors has not met expectations either, despite the consultant saying there were “many reasons to be confident” about the ability of the SAGE Center to attract them.

The Market Feasibility study projected 40,000 visitors a year, emphasizing that this was a “relatively conservative” estimate.

But it has proven hard to tell a rich and entertaining story about agriculture. There are high visitor days, such as during the Harvest Festival, which attracted about 1000 people in 2016, but on many days the expansive parking lot is largely desolate.

As a result, the Center has averaged just 22,000 visitors a year, with no year-to-year increases, according to Kalie Davis, the SAGE Center’s Manager.

sagelotempty

The usual scene at the SAGE Center parking lot.

About 14,500 of the SAGE Center’s 22,000 annual visitors are U.S. and international tourists. Another 4000 are groups of schoolchildren, most from Eastern and Central Oregon. “Not a lot from the Portland area, “ Davis said. “That’s an area we’re working on.” Events, such as job fairs and movies (the center’s theater is the only one in Morrow County), bring in the rest of the visitors.

In comparison, the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center in Baker City attracted 36,871 visitors in 2015 and the Columbia Gorge Discovery Center & Museum hosted 38,130.

Davis minimized the difference between projected and actual visitor counts. The 40,000 SAGE Center visitor projection by the consultants was simply unrealistic from the beginning for a rural facility far from major population centers when most tour operators focus on the I5 corridor and the Oregon coast, Davis said. ‘It’s not as easy as if you build it they will come,” she observed.

The Port would clearly like to see an increase in the visitor numbers, “…but we are not concerned about what we have seen this far,” Taylor said. “The SAGE Center is located in a county of 12,000 people and along a very straight stretch of freeway.  Trying to get those folks to pull off and come in is a big challenge and we are learning and getting better at it all the time.”

The hope, Davis said, is that media coverage, such as being featured on KGW-TV’s “Grant’s Getaways”, growing interest in the farm-to-table movement and enthusiasm for tracking where food comes from will draw more visitors to the Center. She sees 30,000 visitors annually as a reasonable goal.

Embracing optimism, Davis expects it will take a little while to raise public awareness of the relatively new Center and build visitor count, but it will happen. “Nobody knew what OMSI was, I’m sure, when they started off,” she said.

As for the construction cost overrun and operating deficits, officials with the Port and the SAGE Center dismiss suggestions that these have been a shock or are reason for concern.

Davis said the substantial increase in the construction cost of the Center is because the original design in the early stage of planning was essentially a box, with no custom elements. The design changed later when a community committee argued a more appealing design was necessary to attract visitors. “The cost did go up quite a bit, but the Port knew that going into it,” said Davis.

Taylor added that the Port is aware of the substantial difference between projected and actual operating expenses, but “…is not overly concerned.”

Taylor and Davis said the failure of the Center to generate surpluses isn’t a problem either.

“The Port knew that the SAGE Center would not be a money maker right away,” Taylor said. “This is a long term program to educate people on where their food and energy comes from.”

Furthermore, Taylor said, the Center represents just 5% of the Port’s operating budget and less than .008% of its overall annual budget. “Over time the benefit the SAGE Center brings to our region will pay off bigger than the deficits we see now,” he said.

Neal reinforced Taylor’s observations. “This is not about generating revenues to offset the expenses,” Neal said. “This is about sharing with as many people we can (information) about the use of natural resources and that our food doesn’t just come from the grocery store, our electricity doesn’t just come from a light switch, and so on.”

“The only reason this facility even charges admission is to show value in the experience,” Davis added.

The Center, she said, was built more as a marketing tool for the Port and an educational and community facility for Boardman. In addition, it was intended as a catalyst for local growth, a magnet for new residents and workers in an economically healthy area struggling to attract a qualified workforce.

In many respects, the SAGE Center seems to have a precarious future, given its ballooning costs and grim deficits. Its survival, however, may depend more on the Port’s willingness and ability to continue bearing the financial burden than on whether the escalating costs can be reined in.

Neal said the Port has no intention of throttling back in its support of the Center. “We have the resources to support this facility and the mission for the long term,” he said. “This is a long term investment.”

*Bill MacKenzie has worked as the Communications Manager of a major technology company in Oregon, a newspaper reporter on business and politics and as a staff member on a committee of the U.S. House of Representatives. He writes on public policy issues at:  thinkingoregon.org

 

The SAGE Center At A Glance

Location: Visible from Interstate 84; at 101 Olson Road, Boardman, Ore., 97818 (A small map showing the location might be helpful)

 Directions: Take Exit 164, turn north toward the river, then turn right on Front Street. Follow it 1/2-mile to the SAGE Center.

General Admission 5.00
Students and Seniors (62 and older) 3.00
Under 5 Free
Family 20.00 max

 

Website: http://www.visitsage.com

The minimum wage mess: what hath we wrought?

brownminimumwage

Governor Kate Brown signs the bill to raise Oregon’s minimum wage, March 2, 2016

If you listen just to Democrats in the Oregon Legislature, the just-signed law upping the minimum wage is an unalloyed victory for all.

Tell that to Oregon universities that are faced with big pay increases and to the students who aren’t going to get a job because their school can’t afford to pay them.

According to The Oregonian, Oregon’s new minimum is likely to lead to cutbacks in student hiring or in the number of hours they’re allowed to work, and possibly higher tuition to cover added costs.

At the University of Oregon, the annual wage increases will translate into an estimated $2.3 million in additional wages

In the 2017-19 biennium, $3.4 million in the next funding cycle and $6.1 million by the 2021-23 biennium.

With similar impacts expected at Oregon State University, the school could be looking at reducing the number of student jobs by 650 to 700 positions by FY2019 to cut costs, said OSU spokesman, Steve Clark.

Small businesses across the state are agonizing over the minimum wage increases, too. They’re not going to be talking about ‘What do we do to expand? What do we do to hire more people?’,” said Anthony K. Smith, Oregon state director for the National Federation of Independent Business.

“They’re going to be making some very difficult decisions, none of which are going to help them grow. They have to decide whether to reduce hours for employees, raise prices on customers, make a reduction in their workforce, relocate their business, or maybe even close their doors.

Then, of course, Oregon’s minimum wage changes will contribute to the increased hodgepodge of pay rates in the Pacific Northwest.

If you are an employer in the Pacific Northwest, the minimum wage you will have to pay your employees early next year could, depending on the type and specific location of your business, the age of the employee, and other factors, be any one of the following: $8.05, $9.25, $9.47, $10.15, $10.50, $12.00, $12.50, $13.00, $15.24, $10.35, $11.15, $14.50, $15.00, or $15.24.

If you have to pay prevailing wage rates, your minimum wage rate will be even more expansive. In Oregon, for example, if an employer chooses to include the fringe rate with the basic hourly rate, the minimum hourly wage will be $57.26 for a boilermaker, $52.36 for a dredger and $34.31 for a Highway & Parking Striper.

Clearly, the plethora of minimum wages is going to generate maximum confusion for employers and employees alike. What a mess.

Want to know the whole bewildering picture? See below.

FEDERAL

2016 Federal hourly minimum wage: $7.25 an hour

Federal (sub) Contractors hourly minimum wage

Rate: $10.15. Calculated annually based upon cost of living and rounded to the nearest multiple of $0.05

WASHINGTON

2016 Washington hourly minimum wage outside Seattle, SeaTac and Tacoma: $9.47

  • 14- and 15-year-olds may be paid 85% of the minimum wage ($8.05).
  • Businesses may not use tips as credit toward minimum wages owed to a worker.
  • Under Initiative 688, approved by Washington voters in 1998, the state makes a cost-of-living adjustment to its minimum wage each year based on the federal Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W) (www.ssa.gov). The state’s minimum wage is recalculated each year in September. Th4 new wage takes effect the following year on January 1.

2016 Seattle hourly minimum wage

A wage includes salary, hourly pay, commissions, piece-rate, and non-discretionary bonuses. Wages do not include tips or payments towards medical benefits. However, payment toward medical benefits can reduce employers’ minimum wage requirements temporarily until 2018.

Small Employers – 500 or fewer employees

 To calculate employer size, count the employer’s total number of individual employees worldwide. For franchises, count all employees in the franchise network.

All small employers are required to pay minimum compensation. Small employers can meet this requirement in two ways:

  • Pay hourly minimum compensation rate; or
  • Pay hourly minimum wage and make up the balance with employee tips reported to the IRS and/or payments toward an employee’s medical benefits plan. For an employee’s medical benefits to qualify toward the minimum wage, the plan must be the equivalent of a “silver” level or higher as defined in the federal Affordable Care Act. An employer cannot pay a reduced minimum wage if the employee declines medical benefits or is not eligible for medical benefits.
  1. Hourly Rate

Small employers pay hourly minimum compensation rate based on the following schedule:

  Minimum Compensation
2016 (January 1) $12.00/hour
2017 (January 1) $13.00/hour
2018 (January 1) $14.00/hour
2019 (January 1) $15.00/hour
  1. Tips and/or Medical Benefits

Small employers pay an hourly minimum wage and reach the minimum compensation rate through employee tips reported to the IRS and/or payments toward an employee’s medical benefits plan. If the tips and/or payments toward medical benefits do not add-up to the minimum compensation rate, the small employer makes up the difference.

  Minimum Compensation Minimum Wage
2016 (January 1) $12.00/hour $10.50/hour
2017 (January 1) $13.00/hour $11.00/hour
2018 (January 1) $14.00/hour $11.50/hour
2019 (January 1) $15.00/hour $12.00/hour
2020 (January 1) $15.75 $13.50/hour
2021 (January 1) $16.49 $15.00/hour

In 2025, small employers will pay the same minimum wage rate as large employers and will no longer count employee tips and/or payments toward an employee’s medical benefit plan toward minimum compensation. The City of Seattle will calculate percentage changes to the minimum wage based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

Large Employers: 501 or more employees

To calculate employer size, count the employer’s total number of individual employees worldwide. For franchises, count all employees in the franchise network.

Large employers can meet Seattle’s minimum wage requirements in two ways:

  • Pay hourly minimum wage; or
  • Pay reduced hourly minimum wage if the employer makes payments toward an employee’s silver level medical benefits plan. For an employee’s medical benefits to qualify toward the minimum wage, the plan must be the equivalent of a “silver” level or higher as defined in the federal Affordable Care Act. An employer cannot pay a reduced minimum wage if the employee declines medical benefits or is not eligible for medical benefits.
  1. Hourly Rate

Large employers who do not pay towards an employee’s medical benefits plan pay hourly minimum wage based on the following schedule:

  Minimum Wage
2016 (January 1) $13.00/hour
2017 (January 1) $15.00/hour
  1. Medical Benefits

Large employers who do make payments toward an employee’s medical benefits plan pay a reduced minimum wage based on the following schedule:

  Minimum Wage
2016 (January 1) $12.50/hour
2017 (January 1) $13.50/hour
2018 (January 1) $15.00/hour

Once Seattle’s minimum wage reaches $15.00/hour, payments toward medical benefits no longer impact employees’ minimum wage. In subsequent years, the City of Seattle will calculate percentage changes to the minimum wage based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI).

SeaTac Minimum Wage 

Rate: $15.24 for workers in and near Seattle-Tacoma International Airport.

 Tacoma, WA hourly minimum wage

11/04/15 – Tacoma, WA voters approved a $12 city minimum wage phased in over two years. The new minimum wage will apply to most employees who work 80+ hours per year within Tacoma city limits and begins with an increase to $10.35 an hour on February 1, 2016, Jan.1, 2017: $11.15; Jan. 1, 2018: $12.

 

 

OREGON

Current:  $9.25

 Tier 1 (the Portland urban growth boundary)

July 1, 2016: $9.75

July 1, 2017: $11.25

July 1, 2018: $12

July 1, 2019: $12.50

July 1, 2020: $13.25

July 1, 2021: $14

July 1, 2022: $14.75

 

Tier 2 (Benton, Clackamas, Clatsop, Columbia, Deschutes, Hood River, Jackson, Josephine, Lane, Lincoln, Linn, Marion, Multnomah, Polk, Tillamook, Wasco, Washington and Yamhill counties)

 

July 1, 2016: $9.75

July 1, 2017: $10.25

July 1, 2018: $10.75.

July 1, 2019: $11.25

July 1, 2020: $12

July 1, 2021: $12.75

July 1, 2022: $13.50

 

Tier 3 (Malheur, Lake, Harney, Wheeler, Sherman, Gilliam, Wallowa, Grant, Jefferson, Baker, Union, Crook, Klamath, Douglas, Coos, Curry, Umatilla and Morrow counties)

 

July 1, 2016: $9.50

July 1, 2017: $10

July 1, 2018: $10.50

July 1, 2019: $11

July 1, 2020: $11.50

July 1, 2021: $12

July 1, 2022: $12.50

 

Milwaukie hourly Minimum Wage for city employees

10/22/15 – The Milwaukie City Council adopted a $15 minimum wage for all city employees. The resolution passed unanimously, putting in place a $15 minimum wage for not only full-time employees of the city of Milwaukie, but also part-time and seasonal workers, as well as interns.

Prevailing Wage Rates

In January and July of each year, Oregon’s Bureau of Labor and Industries publishes the prevailing wage rates that are required to be paid to workers on non-residential public works projects in the state of Oregon. Quarterly updates are published in April and October.

REGION #2

Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington Counties

Under the Davis-Bacon Act, employers can either choose to pay the fringe benefits as additional cash wages (which would result in an effective hourly wage of $38) or provide a “bona fide” benefit plan. Benefits that might be included in such a plan are retirement accounts (401(k) or pensions), medical insurance, vision insurance, dental insurance and life insurance.

 

Basic hourly rate             Fringe rate

Boilermaker               $33.92                           $23.34

Dredger                       $39.08                           $13.28

Fence constructor

(non-metal)               $24.10                         $10.12

(Metal)                          $20.50                         $ 5.09

Highway & Parking

Striper                            $26.11                          $ 8.20

An abuse of power: Oregon Democrats and the short session

When Governor Brown signed the new minimum wage law on March 2 she hailed it as an example of Oregon’s collaborative spirit. Far from it.

The Democrats have been using this year’s short session to run the Legislature like an authoritarian one-party state. That’s what happens when one party is in control for so long.

2013-congress

In one case, the Democrats steamrolled Republicans and rammed a minimum wage bill, SB 1532, through the Legislature in just one month.

The Senate passed the bill 16-12, with the vote going strictly along party lines. The House vote was 32-26, with every Republican again voting no.

Under this major law that will impact workers and employers across the state, the base state minimum wage will rise to $9.75 on July 1. Wages will then rise at different rates in in three geographic areas, with the Portland area reaching $14.75 in 2022.

Then there’s what The Oregonian has called “one of the most far-reaching pieces of energy legislation the state has ever seen.”

On March 1, the Democrats rammed through the House on almost a strict party-line vote, the latest version of a controversial bill that would end the use of coal to provide power to Oregonians within two decades and expand the use of renewables to 50% of the power supply by 2040. Republicans then repeatedly failed to derail the legislation, after which all but one Democrat voted to pass the bill, overwhelming the no votes of 12 Republicans (one didn’t vote).

In this case, it wasn’t only the Republicans that were shut out of the process; so was the Oregon Public Utility Commission. The Oregonian reported that state utility regulators say they were shut out when it came time to craft the legislation and when members of the Commission tried to voice their concerns publicly, the governor’s office muzzled them.

To top it off, Democrats have abused the short Legislative session itself.

When voters approved Measure 71, providing for annual legislative sessions, in 2010, there was a general expectation that the short sessions would deal with emergencies and lower-impact bills, leaving the longer sessions for comprehensive and high-impact bills where deliberation and public input would be required.

Democrats have cast that approach aside this short session and run amok with major partisan legislation.

Apparently its true, to slightly rephrase Mark Twain’s observation, that “No man’s life, liberty, or property are safe while the Oregon Legislature is in session.”

 

 

A public vote on a convention center hotel: is Metro trying to pull a fast one?

A May 2013 rendering of a proposed Hyatt hotel at the Oregon Convention Center.

A May 2013 rendering of a proposed Hyatt hotel at the Oregon Convention Center.

I wrote recently about the absurdity of building a government-subsidized hotel to support the Oregon Convention Center.

Now it looks like Metro is trying to work an end-run through the Oregon Legislature to prevent voters from having a say on the project.

State law (ORS 268.310 says a district, such as Metro, can’t construct new facilities “unless the electors of the district first approve the financing of the facilities…” Senate Bill 64 would amend the law to allow the construction of new facilities to go forward if ,“The facility is acquired or constructed pursuant to an intergovernmental agreement under ORS 190.003 to 190.130.”

On Feb. 24, 2015, Metro President Tom Hughes told the Senate Committee on Finance and Revenue that the bill is no big deal. It relates “strictly to clarifying existing statutory intent regarding Metro’s authority under its home-rule charter,” he said. The bill “merely cleans up awkward word placement in the current statute that has been the basis for serial lawsuits by opponents of the Oregon Convention Center hotel whose goal is to prevent the project from moving forward,” he added.

But John DiLorenzo , a partner at the Davis Wright Tremaine law firm, took a decidedly different position on the bill. DiLorenzo represents one of a group of hotel owners and managers who have opposed taxpayer subsidies for the proposed Hyatt hotel. He told the committee the bill “is an effort to subvert the judicial process” and “would deprive voters of any opportunity to vote on financing for any new construction projects built by Metro.”

Dilorenzo expressed the view that the courts would ultimately agree that residents had a right to vote on the hotel project . “Please do not deprive the voters of their last chance to avoid what could be another government subsidized albatross,” he said.

Ignoring DiLorenzo’s concerns, the Senate Committee On Finance and Revenue reported out the bill by a 3-2 vote, with Democrats Mark Hass, Chris Edwards and Chuck Riley voting in favor and Republicans Herman Baertschiger Jr. and Brian Boquist voting against. On March 4, 2015, the Senate passed the bill by a vote of 20-10, with all the no votes coming from Republicans.

Now it’s up to the House.

If the bill is just minor housekeeping, what’s the hurry? Given the controversy over the Convention Center hotel, and the ongoing lawsuits to require a public vote, the House should stay out of the mess. If, as Hughes insists, S.B. 64 doesn’t really change the law, but just clarifies it, killing the bill should make no difference to Metro. If the bill would deprive voters of the chance to vote on the hotel, as DiLorenzo alleges, it’s an insult to the public and undeserving of passage.