Albany issue: What kind of majority?

You could have watched Albany council members starting new terms being sworn in on Wednesday night. Soon, council meetings will also be live on cable channel 28 in Albany.

You could have watched Albany council members starting new terms being sworn in on Wednesday night. Soon, council meetings will also be live on cable channel 28 in Albany.

A big question still hangs over the upcoming special election in Albany, according to the city council. But the council won't seek to have it resolved until after the vote.

As you remember, the city of Albany scheduled a special election for March 12 on two initiatives successfully sent to the voters by city resident Tom Cordier. The more significant of the measures would limit the city's "debt" -- not further defined -- to the amount the city had last Feb. 28 unless an increase is approved by the majority of city "electors in a primary, general or special election."

Mayor Sharon Konopa and City Attorney Jim Delapoer believe that, based on the definition of "elector" in state law, the initiative would require an absolute majority for any debt increase. That would mean yes votes from more than half of all the city's roughly 25,000 registered voters. And if that's right, the initiative itself would have to be appoved by an absolute majority as well in order to take effect.

Cordier, the sponsor, disagrees and says it requires only a majority of those voting. And when someone last summer filed an election law complaint against him charging him with lying on that point, the secretary of state found the complaint unwarranted, in effect backing up Cordier's claim that only a simple majority is required.

On Wednesday night (Jan. 9), the council voted to ask a court for an interpretation, but only after the election, and only if the initiative has received a simple majority of yes votes. The rationale: A court would not take the case until there is a concrete issue. Also there is this: If an absolute majority approves the measure, it's approved period. If any kind of majority rejects it, it's dead and nothing further is required. But if a simple majority approves it, the council then has to determine whether the measure was approved or fell short of what's required.

To voters in that election, this may all seem like unnecessary mumbo-jumbo, as it does to Cordier. He asked the council Wednesday not to pass the resolution but to have the city attorney meet him at the courthouse in the morning to try to get an answer from someone. The council ignored him -- as it has done before, which prompted this whole mess in the first place. Cordier says he may file something with the circuit court on his own, seeking a declaration that his interpretation of the majority question is correct. He won in court before, when Judge Tom McHill threw out the ballot title written by the city attorney. If Cordier files something with the court now, he may win again. And for clarity on the majority issue, voters then would have him -- not the city council -- to thank. (hh)

The commentary prompted a reponse and a rebuttal. Please read on. (If you have any comments on this issue or what should be done about it, please send them to hassohering@gmail.com.)

Albany Councilman Ray Kopczynski responds:  "Cordier, the sponsor, disagrees and says it requires only a majority of those voting. And when someone last summer filed an election law complaint against him charging him with lying on that point, the secretary of state found the complaint unwarranted, in effect backing up Cordier's claim that only a simple majority is required." The Sec. of State didn't find the complaint unwarranted, only that there was not enough information (at this time) upon which to make a decision. That's different than "unwarranted."

"Cordier says he may file something with the circuit court on his own, seeking a declaration that his interpretation of the majority question is correct." Isn't that *exactly* what the city is attempting to do?  As stated, I will be very surprised if any court/judge would make any ruling until after the measure fails or passes.  If the measure fails "straight up," there's no basis from which to make a ruling -- so we'll never know.  If it passes; there is that basis.  This happens all the time vis-a-vis ballot measures.  There's nothing unusual about the process.

"He won in court before, when Judge Tom McHill threw out the ballot title written by the city attorney." I disagree.  He did not "win."  The judge threw out *both* titles as written and wrote his own.  In addition, the judge also stated: "Clearly, the City consulted with bond lawyers for assistance in trying to capsulate the idea that there would be limitations in the city's capacity to borrow money if the measure passes as an effort to describe the initiative's 'major effect.'  While such might be the result of passage...” [my bold]  So, while admitting he could not (at this time) make a legal determination about these specifics, the judge had no qualms about stating his opinion.

As you're very well aware, words DO matter.  As such, I believe Mr. Cordier knows exactly what the potential end result of passage of this will be, and is exactly why he wrote the two ballot measures using different voting requirements.

From Tom Cordier: The secretary of state's disposition of the untruthful charge never uses the language Ray claims. Ray quotes "not enough info (at this time)." Their letter states: "Not finding a violation of election law, the Elections Division determines this investigation is closed and does not intend to pursue this matter further".
About winning the case, Ray failed to include the statement following the one he quoted. Here is that quote. "In 'explaining' the potential effects of passage ,it
appears to this Court that [Delapoer's] proposed title editorializes where it should be more concise and impartial." Indeed we did win, to the point where the City was required to refund Court costs to the petitioner.

U.S. violence is down, far down

A reflection of our history.

A reflection of our history.

Here's something worth pointing out amid all the talk about violence and calls for more gun control: The United States keeps getting more peaceful even as gun ownership goes up.

Time magazine reports that there's nearly one gun in the U.S. for every American. That would amount to nearly 300 million firearms, making us what Time calls "by far the most heavily armed nation in the world." The implication of this phrasing is that this is something dangerous, something menacing. The facts, though, tell a different story. Even as more citizens make use of their right to keep arms, the murder rate in this country has been cut in half in the last 20 years. The rate was 9.3 murders per 100,000 people in 1992, and by 2011 it had fallen to 4.7 -- a stunning reduction of nearly 50 percent.

In the Wall Street Journal last month, there was a story giving credit for the lower murder rate to better trauma centers in our hospitals. But again, the facts as reported in the annual FBI crime reports tell a different story. The rate of violent crime overall also fell sharply, from 758 per 100,000 in 1992 to 386 in 2011. That's 49 percent, almost exactly matching the drop in the murder rate alone. And the skill of trauma surgeons did not cause that.

Compare us to the violent crime in, say, England, where private gun ownership is virtually banned. There, the Home Office reports "total violence against persons" in 2010-11 at a rate of 822 per ONE THOUSAND, which would make England more than 200 times more violent than the U.S. on average. That seems incredible, so the Brits evidently handle their statistics differently from the way the FBI does. But still, it suggests the U.S. is a more peaceful country as a whole, and getting more so all the time. Maybe we're more civilized, or maybe it's because we have more guns. (hh)

Mileage fee: A rational approach

The mileage fee would apply only to vehicles getting 55 miles to the gallon or better, starting in 2015.

The mileage fee would apply only to vehicles getting 55 miles to the gallon or better, starting in 2015.

Since 2001, the Oregon Road User Fee Task Force has worked on finding a way to collect money from owners of four-wheeled vehicles that don't burn fuel, or don't burn much. In 2011 the group proposed legislation, and it was rejected. Now, in 2013, it is trying again with a somewhat different approach.

The bill would authorize ODOT to collect a road user fee, starting in 2015, on vehicles that get more than 55 miles to the gallon. That would include electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

The bill leaves the amount of the fee blank, to be decided in the legislative process, but the task force has talked about a fee of one and a half cents a mile. That is very close to the amount of state road tax we all pay when we fill up at a gas station. The Oregon gas tax is 30 cents a gallon. Say you drive 7,000 miles a year and average 20 miles to the gallon. Do the math and you come pretty close to the the proposed amount of the in-lieu fee per mile. Owners who pay the road fee and also buy gas, for hybrids, could get a refund for any gas tax they paid.

The road fee would be paid on the number of miles that vehicles are driven. The mileage would be measured by a GPS-based smart-phone app or something like it provided by a private supplier. ODOT would have nothing to do with it, to reassure people who fear the system could let the government track them.

As an alternative, vehicle owners could pay a flat annual fee, but for most owners the mileage charge would be a far better deal. The gas tax alone, even though it was raised a year or two ago, has not kept pace with the cost of highway construction and upkeep.

This task force has worked on the issue for a dozen years. It came up with a rational approach, so now it's time to enact the bill so ODOT can set up the program and carry it out. (hh)

From Ted Salmons: Some points I would have to take issue with. If the "state" wants this method then they should foot the bill for the devices and their installation. Does Oregon have the right to collect road taxes for mileage driven out of the state?  People do go on vacation.

hh: No fee would be due for travel out of state or on private roads. That's where the GPS-based counting of distance comes in. I'll check on who would bear the cost of installing or buying appropriate gizmos.

That crazy coin trick

Maybe we could solve all our economic problems by just revaluing these cheap dollar coins. Let's call them a million dollars each or, what the heck, a trillion!

Maybe we could solve all our economic problems by just revaluing these cheap dollar coins. Let's call them a million dollars each or, what the heck, a trillion!

Just how nutty our economic situation has become is shown by the idea of the trillion-dollar coin. Nobody with any sense except a few columnists -- and they are paid to write nutty stuff sometimes -- gave this notion any credence. But then on Monday our lone Oregon Republican in Congress, Greg Walden, introduced a bill to ban to this trick. And if the bill fails to get anywhere, which is likely, it will seem as though this crazy scheme actually had come political backing.

The idea, in case you missed hearing about it, is to make use of a law from the 1990s that allows the Treasury to produce certain coins for collectors. The Obama administration would order the production of, say, two or three trillion-dollar coins made of platinum. Then it would deposit them with the Treasury. And suddenly the government would have -- on the books anyway -- enough money to keep meeting its debts even if Congress refuses to raise the debt ceiling, which it will have to do some time in February or the government will be forced to default on payments due.

The debt ceiling itself may be a stupid law. If Congress has approved spending that requires borrowing, then why does it need to vote again on repaying the money it borrowed? But the platimum coin scheme is so patently ridiculous as a way around the ceiling that not even Obama would attempt it. It would be a like a public scam, a fraud openly committed. If the government could create money that way, then why doesn't is just mint 300 million million-dollar coins and send one to each American. Then everybody's problems would be solved, and nobody would care about the unemployment rate. Our man Walden didn't do himself any favors by sponsoring a bill to try to stop what nobody in his right mind would attempt. (hh)

From Warren Beeson: In your commentary you mention that Congress should raise the debt ceiling to pay for things they approved.  I agree.  However (and I'm not certain exactly how this applies) the (Democrat-controlled) Senate has not approved a budget in at least three years.  In other words, they have not approved spending as required by law.  So first they don't do their legally mandated job; and then they refuse to recognize the spending debt they are  illegally accumulating and correct that by cutting spending or raising the debt ceiling.  Nice work if you can get it.

Tobacco banned — again

No smoking, in two languages, has been the policy at the Department of Human Services for a long time.

No chewing or smoking, in two languages, has been the policy at the Department of Human Services for a long time.

Since the first of the year, the governor's smoking ban has been in effect in most of Oregon state government. Wait a minute, you say. Wasn't smoking banned already? Yes, it has been, for many years. State law bans it in any work place, including bars and taverns. And now some colleges including Oregon State University have banned it on all their outdoor property as well. So what exactly did the governor's executive order accomplish?

Well, the governor's office says it will save money. The executive order says that according to "conservative estimates," state employees who smoke cost the state more than $13 million year. Really? How? Presumably by being sick more often and incurring health care costs that non-smokers avoid. But in my experience -- from the days when smoking was still accepted -- the smokers among our employees missed work no more frequently than non-smokers, and the people who called in sick with some regularity did not smoke at all. Still, who am I to doubt "conservative estimates" the state claims it has?

A survey reported by the Statesman Journal, the Salem newspaper, showed that 4 percent of Oregon's 50,000 state workers smoke. That means the number of smokers in the state work force is about 2,000. Now if those 2,000 are costing the state $13 million a year in extra expense, or $6,500 per smoker, here's what the governor could have done instead of posting a redundant ban: He could have made smokers this offer. "If you quit, we'll pay you half the money we save." Bet you that a $3,250 bonus for quitting would work better than sending hapless employees out across the street every break to have a smoke. (hh)

Donna Francis Thurman (via Facebook): Oh Hasso, you are SO entirely correct!  Rather than making us (State employees) feel like criminals at best, or some kind of lower life form, the governor could have done something different.  The MEMO that came out to all state employees even encouraged non-smoking employees to approach their smoking co-workers and tell them how bad smoking is for them and the community.  I'll see if I can get a copy of that for you.  (It also told them "not to be rude" when they did so!)  Another DUHHHH moment in state government.

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