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June 30, 2007

Beaverton prepared for SEIU strike next month

Beaverton and the SEIU Local 503 city employees union have reached an impasse on a proposed three-year labor contract, making the possibility of a strike very real. About 220 city engineers, building inspectors, maintenance crews, heavy equipment operators, office staff and library clerks represented by SEIU Local 503 have taken steps to strike if no contract agreement is reached in the next 30 days.

Both sides will present their "last, best" offers to the state Employment Relations Board Friday in hopes of resolving the impasse. If that doesn't happen, the union’s 220 members could strike by July 29.

"There is definitely a potential of a strike," said Siobhan Martin, SEIU Local 503 organizer and one of the representatives for the Beaverton city employees.

It would be the first strike by city employees since the SEIU began representing them in 1980.

Both sides met Friday afternoon in what could be the last mediation session on the contract. Although some issues were resolved, neither side budged on key matters, such as health care costs and dramatic changes in the use of temporary employees.

No new mediation sessions have been scheduled.

Union negotiators are unhappy with the city's proposal to shift some health care costs onto employees, who would have to pay a larger share of the insurance premium for family members and a bigger co-pay ($15 per office visit, up from $5).

City officials have proposed that the union workers pay 3 percent to 6 percent more for medical insurance benefits, or an average increase of $17.60 a month for employees.

That's not a good idea, Martin said, because it could put the cost of health insurance out of reach for some employees. Already three of five new part-time library clerks have declined to pay for health insurance through the city, partly because it was too expensive for them, she said.

"We don't want to see the number of uninsured workers we represent grow because they can’t afford the health insurance," Martin said.

Union members also are unhappy with the city’s continued use of temporary employees in some positions. Those temporary jobs often do not include benefits and sometimes are paid less than union employees doing the same types of jobs, Martin said.

City Human Resources Director Nancy Bates said the city was prepared for a strike, but hoped the issues could be resolved without the strife.

She said the city asked employees to pay a "small share" of the health insurance cost for dependents that they accept the tripling of the co-pay requirement (which both sides approved Friday).

Bates also said the city would review its use of temporary and seasonal employees.

"I've always said that we can get this solved," Bates said. "I can't imagine that they would strike over such small issues."

Also among the city's most recent (and possibly final) offer, Bates said the city would give employees a 3 percent cost of living increase July 1; not require health insurance premiums for full-time employees (plans that cover dependents and other family members would have to pay); establishing temporary worker language that was in line with other agencies but still meets the needs of the city; and, reopening talks to share the increased health insurance premiums in July 2009 if the issue is still unresolved.

Bates said the city asked SEIU negotiators to take the proposal back to their members for a vote, but they declined.

If no contract agreement is reached by July 29, the city could implement its last offer, and the union would have the option of accepting the terms or going on strike.


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TriMet imposes inflationary price increase

The fiscal 2008 budget adopted by TriMet's board on Wednesday includes a fare increase absent any improvement in service, effective Sept. 1. The $741 million budget also includes continued construction on the 8.3-mile I-205/Portland Mall MAX Light Rail boondoggle and the 14.7-mile Washington County Commuter Rail project, and no new road capacity for automobiles.

The new cash fares will be $1.75 for two zones, $2.05 for all zones , $1.40 for youth/student and $1.70 for the shared-ride Lift program. Monthly pass fares will increase $2 for two zones to $65, all zones to $76, and Lift to $48; and increase $1 for youth/student passes to $25. No increases are planned for elderly riders.

Inflationary fare increases are becoming an annual event for TriMet. The Sept. 1 increase, for example, is a $10 increase for all-zone passes from September 2005. As it did in 2005, TriMet attributes the increased fares to increased employee benefits costs and rising fuel prices.

Other highlights in the 2008 budget include:

* $1.7 million to begin replacing the original 20-year-old ticket vending machines located along the Eastside MAX line with debit/credit-card-only machines.
* $1.1 million to retrofit 70 buses with new exhaust filters that reduce particulate and most other emissions by 90 percent. This is in addition to retrofitting now under way on 84 buses.
* 44 Accessible Transportation Program vehicles totaling $3.7 million, 90 percent funded with federal funds. Of the 44 vehicles, 13 are for expanded service.

TriMet's budget year runs from July 1, 2007 to June 30, 2008.


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Landmark anti-business session concludes

Lawmakers made the 74th legislative session the shortest in a decade when they adjourned Thursday. But despite its brevity, Republicans and Democrats alike agreed it was long on accomplishments that will damage the state economy. Although Thursday's legislative work didn't send any high-profile bills to the governor, the session was full of landmark anti-business, anti-growth legislation.

It included bills protecting the civil rights of gays and lesbians and the right for them to form domestic partnerships. The Legislature delivered for those who want all bars to go smoke free, those who want cars and electricity users to emit less globe-warming carbon, and labor unions who want to make it easier to organize workers. And it took the first steps toward what could become a system of universal health-care coverage.

With sizzling revenue collections, the Legislature had an additional $2.5 billion to bolster education, hire 100 more state police officers, and restore cuts to an array of programs that had been downsized during the 2001-03 recession-caused budget crisis.

Unlike past adjournments, Thursday's lacked the dramatic, final vote on a do-or-die budget deal or an into-the-night bill-passing marathon. This time, lawmakers breezed through late-morning floor sessions that required their votes on nine remaining bills.

Then at 12:36 p.m., the chambers' heavy wooden doors swung open so the House speaker and Senate president could man their chambers' rostrums, see each other from across the Capitol rotunda and conduct the traditional act of adjournment. They each pronounced that the work of the Legislature had been completed, brought their gavels down in unison and pronounced the session adjourned "sine die" - a Latin expression that, roughly translated, means without a day specified for the next meeting.

With several hours of daylight still left, Gov. Ted Kulongoski and his triumphant fellow Democrats had plenty of time to keep the political stagecraft going.

Within an hour of adjournment, a large entourage of lawmakers and supporters flanked Kulongoski as he signed into law the budget bills that appropriate a record $7.7 billion - more than half of the state's discretionary budget - to education.

Later, Kulongoski told reporters that without doubt, it was the Legislature's education spending - or investment, as he preferred to call it - that marked the session's greatest accomplishment.

"I just think, 25 years from now, how people will judge us is whether we actually saw the future, made this investment in education, tried to provide more opportunity for people," Kulongoski said.

Much of the Legislature's list of accomplishments coincided with the priorities brought to the Capitol by the governor, the Senate and the House alike. And little wonder. For the first time since the 1989 session, the state's top executive-branch official and the majorities in its legislative chambers were all of the same party: Democrats, then and now.

This session won't catapult Oregon ahead of other states, as did its pursuit of the initiative process a century ago or the bottle bill a generation ago.

But given the 2007 Legislature's willingness to push for renewable energy standards, update the bottle bill by adding those containing drinking water, and regulate businesses to ensure greater consumer protections, Oregon may able to reclaim its pride as a state of firsts, said Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene.

"I think we helped re-establish Oregon as a national leader for progressive legislation," he said. "It's been a long time since we've been on the cutting edge of progressive policy-making."

Republicans, who saw the Senate go Democrat in 2005 and then lost the House in the November election, ruefully acknowledged that one-party rule and a long-unrealized Democratic agenda made for a session that was long on accomplishments.

Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli of John Day said he fully expected a favorable reaction from the public as they size up the Legislature's handiwork. But that era of good feeling could be short-lived.

Public spending for more state police, new college buildings and restored school electives makes constituents happy, but it raises the likelihood that taxes will have to rise to keep up with future needs when the economy cools, he predicted.

The $70 million in fee increases were largely lost on Oregonians as bills were debated and voted on. But when they come due, businesses and individuals will notice.

And consumers may be pleased to learn that their insurance policies soon will be required to cover contraceptives and several medical treatments - but they may not be pleased that their premiums may rise as a result.

"It probably will take a while for the extent of the damage to set in," Ferrioli said. "They're going to get sticker shock."

While many lawmakers left the Capitol with thoughts turning to next year's election battles over party control of the Legislature, Senate President Peter Courtney sized up the session's accomplishments as measures of how well the assembly lived up to its "test drive" of annual sessions. Part two of this experiment comes when the Legislature returns for a "supplemental session" in February.

Courtney said it was too soon to say when or whether to ask Oregon voters to amend the constitution to provide for annual sessions. But he said the 2007 session seemed to bode well for that possibility.

"We did what we said we were going to do. And any time you do what you said you were going to do, people can't get mad at you," he said, "because most of the time they don't expect you to do what you say. Especially in politics."


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June 29, 2007

Oregon leftists disgusted by tax fairness

Anti-tax crusader Bill Sizemore and the Oregon Republican Party submitted a new ballot measure this week dealing with taxes and spending. Yes, we hope you were sitting down for that shocker. The measure would allow a full deduction on state tax returns of all federal income tax paid, a move that opponents say will cost Oregon precious millions in tax revenue.

But Sizemore and his fellow initiative backers say they hope by gathering the 82,769 signatures needed to put the measure on the November 2008 ballot, that voters will decide the proposal provides them overdue tax relief. "The measure is designed to bring fairness to the tax system," Sizemore told WW.

Opponents called the proposal a rehash of Measure 91, rejected by voters in 2000 by a vote of 55 to 44 percent. That measure differed from Sizemore's latest tax initiative by extending the federal income tax deduction to corporations as well as individuals.

"Sizemore and the state Republicans are abusing the initiative system to send us backward," said Kevin Looper, executive director of Our Oregon, a coalition created to defeat ballot measures like Sizemore's.

So far only state Republicans are publicly backing the new ballot initiative. Another initiative also submitted by Sizemore mandates English language immersion for all immigrant public school students in Oregon's public schools, attracting support from a immigration reform group.

A former Republican candidate for governor in 1998, Sizemore is the "Initiative King," without rival in Oregon politics. In 2000, Sizemore was responsible for six ballot measures, drawing criticism for his signature gathering tactics.

In 2002, the Oregon Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers sued Sizemore, accusing the Clackamas resident of fraud while qualifying measures for the ballot. The Oregon Court of Appeals last year upheld a lower court ruling against Sizemore for $2.5 million.

Not surprisingly, Sizemore sounds bitter on the subject of education funding. "The children are a shill that liberal Democrats use to extract more money from taxpayers," Sizemore said.


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Tax-funded elections fraud trial provides drama

Vladimir: "Broussard was the mastermind -- he blackmailed me into doing it."
Emilie: "I'm still here."
Judge: "Ms. Boyles, before you testify again, I think you'd better get a lawyer."
Emilie: "Good idea, Judge."
Jurors: "I knew I should have called in sick."
Opie: "You see? The system is working."
Fireman Randy: "Can't wait to get mine!"


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Oregon Legislature takes a short break

With its shortest session in more than a decade part of the history books, the Oregon Legislature takes a short break, grumpy that it didn't destroy the entire earnings capacity of the state. They will look forward to a test drive of annual sessions before the 2008 elections, to take care of unfinished business like more tax hikes to address the new shortfall.

Lawmakers closed their 74th regular session since statehood at 12:36 p.m. Thursday. It was a rare daylight adjournment of the Legislature on a business day. The sessions usually end at night, early in the morning, or on a weekend.

Thursday's proceedings were anticlimactic with passage of bills allowing providers of adult foster care to unionize and making the Capitol grounds in Salem a state park. The Senate shelved an effort to resuscitate a bill for paid family-leave benefits.

Still, "It seemed to get a lot more done than previous sessions," said Carla Mikkelson, who just stepped down as president of the Salem City Club.

The 2003 and 2005 sessions, with control divided between the parties, were the two longest in state history.

But the political atmosphere changed last fall after Gov. Ted Kulongoski won re-election and Democrats won majorities in both chambers, taking over the House for the first time in 16 years and securing their control of the Senate. Their majority over Republicans in the House was 31-29.

"It's hard to compare legislative sessions in terms of more or less," Kulongoski said. "But I think this one is comparable to what they did in 1973," when several landmark laws were passed by Democratic majorities.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, set June 29 as an adjournment target that the Legislature approved on its opening day Jan. 8.

"Any time you do what you said you are going to do, people cannot be mad at you," Courtney said. "Most of the time, they do not expect you to do what you say -- especially in politics."

Big gains

Labor unions, consumer and environmental advocates all claimed big gains from the first Legislature with Democratic majorities since the 1989 session. So did advocates of domestic partnerships for same-sex couples and nondiscrimination based on sexual orientation, although the laws could face a statewide vote if opponents gather enough signatures in the next 90 days.

"During the session, the House has made good on leadership commitments to provide a new direction for Oregon by putting people over politics," said Rep. Jeff Merkley, D-Portland, who went from being minority leader to House speaker.

Lawmakers also added 100 patrol troopers to the state police and overhauled the government ethics laws.

Although Democrats often prevailed, they failed to pass major revenue-raising measures that require 60 percent majorities. They resorted to a constitutional amendment, which requires only a simple majority, to qualify a cigarette tax increase for a Nov. 6 ballot.

Lawmakers also sent to voters a rewrite of the property compensation measure that voters approved as Measure 37 in 2004.

"We worked to combat several things that Democrats will call a success," said Rep. Wayne Scott, R-Canby, who went from being majority to minority leader.

"Unfortunately, we weren't able to stop many of them. People will see that tax increases, government regulations and mandates on business are not helpful for Oregonians."

Balanced budgets

Unlike the past five years, favorable economic forecasts and increased income tax revenues made it possible for lawmakers to balance budgets with less of a struggle. They passed and Kulongoski signed record budgets for education.

"I've spent 16 years of my life working on education budgets and lobbying here from the time the property tax limit passed," said Rep. Brian Clem, D-Salem, a former legislative staffer who was elected last year. "This session finally made it worthwhile."

At 172 days, the 2007 session was the shortest since a 153-day session in 1995.

Unlike past sessions, the current Legislature plans to return in February for a test drive of annual sessions. After then, lawmakers will decide whether to send voters a measure to make annual sessions permanent. Oregon is one of six states where lawmakers still meet every other year.


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June 28, 2007

Oregon embezzler on paid leave

A U.S. Forest Service worker pleaded guilty Wednesday to embezzling more than $640,000 from the federal agency, most of it from the firefighting budget. Debra Kay Durfey, 49, of Echo, Oregon told U.S. District Judge Anna Brown that she deposited the money in a joint bank account shared with her boyfriend, Don Hollinger, a Forest Service contractor. She indicated in Forest Service records that Hollinger had provided various services when she knew they had not been performed, prosecutors said.

Durfey told investigators, however, that she handled the banking and Hollinger was unaware of the embezzlement.

Durfey also pleaded guilty to a tax fraud charge. She was indicted by a federal grand jury last November.

The scheme was uncovered after Durfey, a purchasing agent, mistakenly entered the wrong tax identification number for another man named Hollinger, who lived in Texas and complained that he had never done any firefighting in Oregon, Assistant U.S. Attorney Craig Gabriel said.

Durfey used the money for gambling, car and mortgage payments, retail purchases, farming and dining out.

Brown said Durfey faced a maximum of 13 years in prison, but the U.S. Attorney's office has recommended two years in its plea bargain.

Durfey also has agreed to repay $642,000, prosecutors said.

A Forest Service spokesman said Durfey has been on paid administrative leave pending her plea.


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State pays off unions ahead of negotiations

Lawmakers completed passage of the extra-constitutional catch-all "Christmas tree" bills today, including $125 million set aside for state employee pay and benefits. Government unions are still negotiating labor contracts for the two-year period that begins Sunday. If the final contracts cost more than $125 million on top of current spending, state agencies and universities must absorb the costs elsewhere in their budgets.Senate Bill 5549-A and the companion Senate Bill 994-A are called Christmas tree bills, because the package includes a little something for Oregon's many special interest groups who make campaign contributions and lobby hard.

The package also provides: $56.3 million for county roads, mostly in rural timber-dependent counties; $30 million for the General Purpose Emergency Fund, to be doled out by the Legislative Emergency Board once lawmakers leave town; $4.6 million to bail out the Oregon Museum of Science of Industry and pay off an old energy loan; $9 million to plan a public safety radio communications network; $4 million in payments to home care workers, a $2.8 million grant to the Oregon Historical Society, and assorted other projects.


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Emilie Boyles: Tax-funded election poster child

A woman who ran for City Council last year, and who was later accused of misusing campaign funds, testified Tuesday against a man who had collected signatures for her. According to a City of Portland audit that was performed late last year, Emilie Boyles violated the city's public financing code by taking out a year's lease on her campaign headquarters, a former restaurant that she planned to use after the campaign for a food bank she runs. The audit also found that she paid her teenage daughter $12,500 for Internet marketing work.

The money came from a new election program that gives candidates about $150,000 in public funding to run their campaigns, as long as they are able to collect $5 donations from 1,000 people who provide signatures. The program is designed to offset the influence of big money in politics.

Boyles' questionable use of the money came to light through an investigation by The Oregonian. Questions about the signatures she had collected surfaced as well when upon closer inspection it appeared some of them might have been forged.

After learning of Boyles' actions, city officials demanded that she pay back the money she had been given, but she left town amid the scandal.

Boyles later surfaced as a reporter at a Montana television station, the smallest television market in the nation, and in testimony on Tuesday said she had since been promoted to News Director.

Boyles was in court to testify against the man who collected signatures for her, Vladimir Golovan. He is on trial on charges of aggravated theft, forgery and identity theft in connection with last year's election.

State investigators say Golovan lied about collecting donations for Boyles and forged signatures for another City Council candidate, Lucinda Tate.

Both Tate and Boyles claim they did not realize there was a problem until the media revealed it to them.

"I think the city, quite frankly, was wrong in how they assessed the use of campaign funds," Boyles testified.

As for the money Boyles owes the City of Portland, she admitted in court that she has not done much to pay it back, which may be due in part to her small salary. At the television station in Glendive she makes just $9 per hour.


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Politicians remain cynical, voters have no choice

Cynicism among politicians has reached a new high in Oregon, according to a statewide poll conducted for The Oregonian and KGW-TV (8). Favorable ratings for Oregon's U.S. senators, Republican Gordon Smith and Democrat Ron Wyden, have fallen 10 percentage points from a similar poll taken two years ago.

"These are some of the worst numbers we've ever seen," said pollster Adam Davis, of Davis, Hibbitts and Midghall, the Portland firm that did the survey. He attributed the results to increasing unhappiness with the Bush administration. "Everyone is being pulled down," Davis said.

The numbers are likely to be seized on by Democrats who are hoping to bounce Smith from the Senate next year when he's up for re-election. Davis said the poll results could give them some fodder, but they go beyond one candidate and one party.

"Yes, Gordon Smith is vulnerable," he said. "But so are most Republicans, and, in fact, most incumbents."

He said he is somewhat surprised that Kulongoski's ratings remains stubbornly unchanged from a similar poll conducted last year. The governor appears to be having a successful legislative session this year, but that doesn't appear to be affect voter attitudes.

However, the fact that his numbers haven't declined could be read in a good light, Davis said. "For anything to be holding its own, you could consider that a victory."

Voters were split on their opinion of the Legislature. Thirty percent gave it unfavorable ratings compared with 36 percent who rated it favorably. Those numbers remain about the same as in 2005, despite indications that this session may end far more quickly than it did two years ago.


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June 27, 2007

Not enough room at trough, ox gets gored

In a last-minute deal, influential state lawmakers agreed to divert $4.6 million paid by Portland General Electric customers for energy efficiency to help the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry pay off a 15-year-old state loan. Twenty-five organizations including utilities, businesses, and ratepayer and environmental groups wrote a protest letter sent to all lawmakers calling the plan "the equivalent of consumer fraud."

Environmentalists and ratepayer advocates say they are outraged that the program, run by the nonprofit Energy Trust to help individuals and businesses buy efficient appliances or solar panels is being besmirched by a political grab by OMSI.

"Consumers will see a charge on their bills dedicated to energy conservation and new renewable energy projects ... but their money will be going to pay OMSI debt," the letter said.

The groups have asked Gov. Ted Kulongoski to use his line-item veto to cancel the payment, and threaten to sue if he doesn't. Kulongoski's spokeswoman said Tuesday that he is weighing their concerns.

Lawmakers defend their decision. The Oregon Museum of Science and Industry is a PGE customer, too, and desperately needs the money to pay off debt for energy-saving steps it took when building its current home in the early 1990s, say Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, and Rep. Mary Nolan, D-Portland, members of the joint budget committee.

The $15 million, 30-year loan was made in 1992 under a state Department of Energy loan program. The loan was to pay for general construction of the museum as well as energy saving features, such as high-efficiency lighting and windows and a cooling system that used Willamette River to cool the building. The energy savings measures cost about $10 million.

The resulting building uses 40 percent less energy than one that would have been built to code at the time, and continues to be a showcase for the technologies, said Mike Grainey, director of the state Department of Energy.

OMSI made its annual loan payment of $1.1 million for three years before a 1996 flood seriously damaged its building and threw it into financial crisis.

Between 1997 and 2002, the Legislature kicked in $3.8 million to help OMSI make payments on the underlying general obligation bonds. The state Department of Energy has since spent $4.5 million from a loans reserve fund to help cover payments, but that isn't sustainable and doesn't reduce what OMSI owes, Grainey said.

The $4.6 million from PGE ratepayers, coupled with matching funds from a recent private donation, would help OMSI reduce the loan's $13 million balance to a level it could handle, said Nancy Stueber, OMSI's president. And to the extent that the loan's original purpose was the same as many of the Energy Trust's programs, the transfer seems compatible, she said.

She added, "That's a decision made by legislative leadership, and we didn't know what source of funds they were considering."

Lawmakers of both parties support OMSI and urged a bailout, said Nolan, co-chair of the budget committee. "I have not heard from anyone who says, 'Let OMSI go bankrupt,' " she said.

Budget writers could not find more than $1 million of general funds, so they turned to the 3 percent "public purpose charge" that utility customers pay toward energy-efficiency grants, Devlin said.

Said Nolan: "This is very much in keeping with the program."

But advocates for the Energy Trust program, which helps customers take steps to decrease their electricity use, said it's a violation to pay for energy-saving steps that OMSI agreed to years before the 3 percent fee was added to utility bills in 1999 for that purpose. Ordinary ratepayers can apply for grants if they do something extra -- not for steps they took long ago.

Jason Eisdorfer, attorney for the Citizens' Utility Board, contends that it's unconstitutional to tax a specific group -- PGE ratepayers -- to pay off a state loan that benefits everyone in the state.

"You can't pick a person because of the utility district they live in and say, 'We're going to take some money from you for the state's obligation.' I think that's a fairly blatant constitutional issue."


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Sen. Betsy Johnson - Dirt, Cheap

Several people familiar with the value of metro-area industrial land say a property deal state Sen. Betsy Johnson brokered last September represented an extraordinary bargain for the buyer. In the transaction, records show Stanley Wagner, now 80, sold 232 acres on West Lane Road in Scappoose to developer Ed Freeman for $2.385 million.

Johnson, a Scappoose Democrat whom political insiders call a top contender for her party's 2010 gubernatorial nomination, says she earned no money in the deal but merely acted as a go-between. Johnson explains she's a longtime friend of Stanley Wagner and his wife, Florence.

"We [Johnson and her husband, John Helm] were the bridge between a willing seller, who was an old, sick man who trusted me, and a willing buyer," Johnson said.

In this case, the willing buyer was Ed Freeman, a developer whose various Scappoose projects Johnson has championed since at least 2002.

Johnson says she first met Freeman through a mutual Scappoose acquaintance. She says she never invested or had any kind of business or personal relationship with him other than a real estate transaction WW and The Oregonian previously reported.

In that deal, Johnson bought 36.24 acres of property from Wagner in October 2004 and sold it to Freeman four months later, earning a gross profit of $119,000. (Johnson says she incurred costs that cut her profit to about $50,000; the Oregon Government Standards and Practices Commission announced last week it will investigate why Johnson didn't disclose the purchase from Wagner until 30 months after the transaction.)

In the more recent deal involving 232 acres next to the smaller Wagner parcel, Johnson says she made no profit but merely brought seller and buyer together.

"Sierra [Pacific, Freeman's company] came back a second time when the Wagners were interested in selling, and we were the bridge between Sierra and the Wagners," Johnson says.

For their part, the Wagners aren't complaining. Their attorney, Marsha Murray-Lusby, says they are "completely satisfied" with the transaction.

Yet several neighboring property owners along West Lane Road say the 232-acre parcel, which includes 90 acres that is now inside the Scappoose city limits and the urban growth boundary, is worth far more than the Wagners received.

"That's a hell of a deal for the buyer," says Bowlus Chauncey, who operates a company called Beaver Bark on 30 acres about a mile from the Wagner property.

Chauncey and Dave Molony, who separately owns 34 acres of industrial land along West Lane Road, say industrial property inside Scappoose's city limits and urban growth boundary is worth about 10 times the per-acre price of about $10,300 Freeman paid Wagner.

Those familiar with industrial land agree that it is a valuable commodity.

Port of St. Helens operations manager Kim Shade says the Port has only 40 acres of industrial land for sale. That land is more fully developed but five miles farther from Portland—which lessens its value—than the property Freeman bought in Scappoose.

The Port's asking price is $4 per square foot, or about $175,000 per acre—17 times what Freeman paid Wagner. "There's just not a lot of industrial land for sale," Shade says. "We're getting a lot of inquiries for our property."

Shade says the Port based its price on a November 2006 appraisal that evaluated recent property sales in cities such as Canby, McMinnville, St. Helens and Ridgefield, Wash.

Andy Kangas, an industrial-property broker at CB Richard Ellis in Portland, recently closed the sale of 14.23 acres of land in Gresham for $204,000 an acre. He echoes Shade's assessment.

"There's basically no industrial land left in the metro area," Kangas says.

Freeman acknowledges that the 232 acres he bought from Wagner last year is worth far more today. "Certainly, the value has increased since purchasing it as agricultural land," Freeman says.

After buying the land, Freeman got 90 of the 232 acres annexed to the city of Scappoose and rezoned industrial.

He says he'll spend another $2 million to ready the land for resale, making his gross acquisition cost $22,000 per acre—about a quarter of what Freeman says the land will be worth.

So did Wagner sell too cheaply? Getting the land annexed, which automatically brought a zone change to "industrial," is a process Scappoose city manager Jon Hanken says is "not difficult at all."

Annexation is something the Wagners' trustee, Murray-Lusby—or a higher-paying buyer—could have accomplished. Murray-Lusby declined to answer questions about why she didn't have the land annexed or whether she sought an appraisal or other buyers before OK'ing the sale to Freeman.

Johnson says her role was simply to bring together a willing seller and a capable buyer, and that she played no role in setting the purchase price.

What is undeniable, however, is Johnson's role in using her legislative prowess to increase the development potential—and therefore the value—of Freeman's land. Two bills she introduced—Senate Bill 680, which passed in 2005, and SB 807, still pending—encourage airport-related development. SB 680 created a program for three rural airports—Scappoose is one—that would promote development and ease runway access for adjacent property owners such as Freeman. SB 807 would create taxing districts to funnel property taxes back into airport-related projects for 25 years.

Greg Leo is a lobbyist for the City of Wilsonville, which fears a taxing district around the nearby Aurora airport would siphon away property taxes now going to other jurisdictions. Leo says Johnson's bills are "a big real estate play that funnels public money to private developers with little oversight."

Johnson insists, however, her only interest has been to promote economic development, particularly in her Northwest Oregon district. She says that the Wagner transactions are part of her 30-year effort to make the Scappoose airport an economic engine, and focusing on any single deal misses the larger context.

But Tom Heckman, a West Lane Road property owner who says he's known Stan Wagner for more than 50 years, disagrees.

"Stan got screwed on the deal," says Heckman. "When I was over at their house helping them pack up, I told Mrs. Wagner, 'You got robbed.' She said, '[$2.385 million,] that's enough for me and Stan.'"


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WWeekly Rogue: SEIU Local 503 boss

Soon after becoming president of Oregon's second-largest union in 2004, Joe DiNicola walked a picket line with some of his members for one hour on Christmas Day. Amid contract negotiations over wages and job security, 85 members of SEIU Local 503 were striking in front of the Parry Center for Children, a psychiatric treatment facility in Southeast Portland. The union members at Parry were among the lowest-paid in 40,000-member Local 503, making about $11 an hour.

What the workers, who picketed for 61 days through the cold rains of winter before settling at the end of January 2005, didn't know then was that DiNicola was keeping track of his time while he walked the line that 40-degree Christmas Day. He expected to get paid $44 for his hour, four times their regular hourly wage.

Over the past two and a half years, such intense clock-watching hasn't been unusual for DiNicola, who's tracked every extra hour he's worked. But other union officials say that is highly unusual because the Local 503's president is only supposed to get paid for a maximum of 40 hours a week.

From picketing to catching up on his email, DiNicola wants time-and-a-half for every moment that records show he works beyond a 40-hour week. Now DiNicola's attempt to receive back pay has some of the local's members wondering how much more Roguelike DiNicola is willing to become to get what they say isn't his.

In March, DiNicola officially requested overtime compensation from the union's executive director, Leslie Frane. He amended his time sheets for the time he has served as president of Local 503, Oregon's second-largest union behind the Oregon Education Association. In that time, he claims he worked more than 2,500 overtime hours—about 20 extra hours a week. It adds up to almost $110,000 in back pay on top of his annual $83,000 salary, compensation that comes entirely from union dues.

The unprecedented move prompted Frane to refer the matter to the union's executive board, which itself requested an outside legal opinion. In early April, the Washington, D.C., law firm of Bredhoff & Kaiser recommended not compensating DiNicola for the overtime. And on April 14, the board used that advice to reject DiNicola's request.

As president of the local, DiNicola holds a position that—according to the union's bylaws, constitution and policies—has never received overtime pay. The union began compensating its presidents in 1996.
Centaur Guitar


"I've spoken to past presidents," says Kathie Best, president of the union from 2000 to 2004, when term limits kicked in and DiNicola replaced her. "None of us think that he is entitled to this money."

The bylaws state that the president "shall serve on an up to full-time basis." The three presidents since 1996, Karla Spence, Nancy Padilla and Best, never sought or received overtime pay, according to a confidential memo acquired by WW to Frane and DiNicola from Bredhoff & Kaiser.

"If he kept such scrupulous records of his hours I can only conclude that this was deliberate," says Barbara Casey, a union member elected to the board along with DiNicola. Casey, who wants DiNicola to resign, calls his actions a "grandiose payoff" with the potential to "tear apart the union."

The board's rejection of DiNicola's request hasn't stopped him. He has now taken his grievance to his employer, the Oregon Department of Revenue, seeking restitution through that state agency. Despite Nicola's not having done any work for the state since becoming union president, the Department of Revenue still acts as DiNicola's employer during his tenure as president.

According to union agreements with the state, any money paid to DiNicola by the state during his presidency must be reimbursed by the union.

Thus, DiNicola filed a lawsuit May 9 in Marion County to "recover unpaid overtime wages" from the Department of Revenue.

DiNicola, a tax auditor for the state, didn't return several calls seeking comment.

It's not just past presidents and current board members who say DiNicola is wrong in his pursuit of overtime pay.

John Hawkins, president of SEIU Retirees' union, wrote in that group's recent bi-monthly newsletter that he was "not willing to look any member [of the union] in the eye" and say he was willing to pay DiNicola for his overtime.

"He's pulling the wool down over people's eyes," says Greg Ledbetter, a Local 503 member who works for the state insurance commission. "I think the vast majority of the union would be against this."


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Portland's tax-funded elections fraud defense

To insiders, Bruce Broussard is one of Portland's true political characters, a cheerful, rambling former Marine who has run failed campaigns for just about every office imaginable. The defense in the case of Vladimir Golovan, however, wants jurors to see him another way: As the bumbling mastermind of a partially successful scheme to defraud Portland taxpayers of $150,000 in the name of his political ambition.

Broussard testified for the prosecution this morning and repeated a story he told The Oregonian last year: He says Golovan offered to help him qualify for public campaign financing, the system in which city candidates who agree to limit their spending can receive everything they need to run a campaign. To qualify, candidates must collect $5 donations from 1,000 people.

Broussard testified that Golovan offered to collect 1,000 signatures from Russian and Ukrainian immigrants for $15,000. But Golovan told Broussard his campaign would be responsible for providing the $5,000, despite what the city elections law requires.
In his cross-examination, defense lawyer David Hall painted a very different picture: He suggested that it was Broussard who suggested that there was no need for Golovan to collect $5 contributions along with signatures. In opening statements Monday, Hall said Broussard also told Golovan to take signatures he'd collected on Broussard's behalf and give them to another candidate, Lucinda Tate.

Golovan is charged with 12 felonies, including aggravated theft, forgery and identity theft. He's accused of lying about whether he collected cash donations for candidate Emilie Boyles and forging signatures collected for Boyles and giving them to Tate's campaign.

It's unclear whether Broussard's testimony actually helped the prosecution, which called him as a witness. Although Broussard said he never signed a contract with Golovan, the defense produced a handwritten note, signed by Broussard, in which he said Golovan wanted $7,000 to collect 1,000 signatures.

At one point, the normally ebullient Broussard was reduced to mumbling, "I don't know where you're going with this." The judge asked him to speak up.


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Initiative "arms control" bill amended

Anyone being paid to obtain signatures on state initiative, referendum or recall petitions would have to register with the Secretary of State's office and complete a training program, under a bill that won final approval Monday in the Oregon House. A prior version would have required a tattoo on the inside of an arm.

Further, the bill would require chief petitioners to maintain payroll records for state review to make sure they are not violating the state's ban on the "bounty" system of paying petition carriers by the signature.

Supporters say the bill is needed to prevent the fraud and forgery that have occurred in past initiative campaigns. Opponents, including many House and Senate Republicans, say the rules could disenfranchise citizens by making it tougher to put initiatives on the ballot. The bill now goes to the acting governor for his signature.


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June 26, 2007

Sen. Betsy Johnson had expected Ethics probe

A preliminary investigation has been approved into allegations that State Senator Betsy Johnson failed to report her profits from a property sale that has been linked to legislation that she sponsored. Johnson did not attend the meeting. But afterward, she told The Associated Press that she had been expecting commission members to authorize the preliminary review of her case.

Johnson, a Democrat from Scappoose, says she sent commissioners a letter saying she will provide any information that they need.

If the investigation reveals that Johnson broke the law, she will likely face a fine.

Several members of the ethics commission have ties to Johnson, a timber heiress who comes from a politically well-connected Central Oregon family.


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Oregon Legislature graft: A no-limit limit

An overhaul of Oregon's government-ethics law, which voters approved more than three decades ago, remained uncertain Sunday night as lawmakers worked the weekend to wrap up their 2007 session. The House Rules Committee split 4-2 on a bill that passed the Senate last week. The committee's four Democrats supported a version - favored by House Speaker Jeff Merkley - that sets stricter and more complex limits on gifts to public officials than Senate Bill 10, which the Senate approved last week.

"I think the public expects ethics reform from this Legislature," said Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, who referred to the failure of several current and past lawmakers to report lobbyist-paid trips to Hawaii and other places.

John DiLorenzo, a Portland lawyer who has represented lawmakers accused of ethics violations, said a near-total ban on gifts would face a court challenge based on Oregon's constitutional guarantee of free expression. "By doing this, I think the proponents of this bill have ensured there will no longer be any limits," he said.

Under the Senate bill, gifts could not exceed $50 per legislator annually. The House version would be even stricter, although some exceptions would be allowed.

Two dissenting Republicans, including Rep. Vicki Berger of Salem, said the new version confuses things.

"I am not against new ways to restrict and make clear the gifting, feeding and inner workings of all parties involved," Berger said. "But we have not gotten there yet."

Berger and Rep. Sal Esquivel of Medford gave notice they will offer a substitute based on different recommendations last year by the Oregon Law Commission. Berger sat on a work group that developed those proposals.

Berger said afterward she could live with strict gift limits on lawmakers themselves.

"But we're talking about a vast array of local officials, and most are not paid a dime for what they do," said Berger, who was on the Salem-Keizer School Board from 1988 to 1992.

Janice Thompson, executive director of the watchdog group Democracy Reform Now, said the dispute over gift limits should not stall the entire reform effort.

"We support the idea of strict gift limits," she said. "But we want to emphasize the importance of the bill's diversifying funding for the ethics commission and the long-overdue move toward electronic filing and more frequent reporting of economic-interest statements."

Under the Senate bill, the ethics commission would receive some of its money from special assessments on state and local agencies, rather than relying on the tax-supported general fund.

It also includes a one-year waiting period before lawmakers can return to the Capitol as lobbyists and raises penalties from $1,000 to $5,000 per violation.

Lawmakers have set Friday for adjournment of the 2007 session.

In other action Sunday night, the Senate approved a related bill that contains changes in how the ethics commission handles complaints against government officials. The deadline for preliminary reviews would be extended from 90 to 135 days, and for full-scale investigations from 120 to 180 days.

The Senate approved a revised House Bill 2595 on a 29-0 vote after rejecting a substitute that would have allowed accused officials to opt for Marion County Circuit Court as an alternative to the commission. The bill returns to the House.

"We believe that the decisions about compliance with Oregon's ethics law should be made by those charged by the Legislature with developing and implementing the policies embedded in that law," said Senate Majority Leader Kate Brown, D-Portland.

The Senate also approved and sent back to the House a package of changes in the circulation of initiative petitions, contained in House Bill 2082, and several budget bills.


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State creates new political health insurance unit

A measure aimed at contracting-out and subsidizing a political effort to adopt a mandatory single payer health care system for all Oregonians is headed to the governor's desk. The governor's passage of the bill would furnish $2.3 million to create an Oregon Health Trust Board, hire an executive director and staff, and to finance the creation of a seven-person board made of union-approved appointees.

The governor must appoint an executive director within 30 days, if he signs the bill as expected. The new board would be charged with creating a universal health care plan by fall of 2008, and for the Legislature to vote on that plan in the 2009 session. Developed over an 18-month period, Senate Bill 329 was sponsored by Sen. Ben Westlund, D-Tumalo, and Sen. Alan C. Bates, D-Ashland.

The measure calls for pooling state and federal Medicaid dollars, plus money from employers that do not offer health coverage to workers, and contributions from the uninsured. But Medicare is excluded from its purview and businesses, state and federal agencies, and insured Oregonians - temporarily - would not be mandated to participate.

An amended version of SB 329 passed the Senate on June 20 with a vote of 22-7.


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June 25, 2007

Dems caught with secret ballot multiple standard

Right after opening the new Congress in January, the Senate's Democratic Leadership introduced a bill that neatly outlined the thrust of U.S. Democracy-building efforts abroad: "It should be the policy of the United States," the bill said, " ... to use instruments of United States influence to support, promote, and strengthen democratic principles, practices, and values, including the right to free, fair, and open elections, secret balloting, and universal suffrage."

Now that Democrats are poised to eliminate secret ballots from the workplace, Americans are right to ask a simple question: "Huh?"

As early as this week, the Senate is expected to take up its version of the "Employee Free Choice Act," a deceptively named piece of legislation that passed the House of Representatives in March on a near party-line vote.

This labor-backed bill would authorize the creation of a union when a majority of employees publicly sign a union authorization card — thus eliminating the traditional secret ballot from union organizing drives and rolling back the clock on a practice that has been viewed as a prerequisite for free elections in most Western countries for more than a century.

No Coincidence

Why the change of heart? It's no coincidence the Senate will take up the secret ballot bill the same week that thousands of union members descend on Washington. Nearly 12 million union members voted in the November elections, according to a survey by Peter D. Hart Research Associates, with three-quarters of them saying they voted for Democrats.

Labor unions spent millions promoting Democratic candidates. They expect something in return. As AFL-CIO President John Sweeney told the Baltimore Business Journal, in a moment of post-election exuberance: "It was money well-spent."

Union bosses wouldn't be the only ones free to intimidate employees under the new law. Employers — including the people who write employee reviews, set bonuses and raises, and control future promotions — could stand over an employee's shoulder to see whether he or she sides with management or labor.

It's easy to imagine the anxiety of a single mother or a father of young children at the moment of truth. This isn't a bad flashback to the days when British landowners sent agents into the fields to tell tenant farmers how to vote. It is actually being considered by members of the U.S. Congress, and roughly half of them (the Democrat half) are ready to give it the OK.

Meanwhile, a vast majority of Americans, including a vast majority of union members, oppose a return to the old days. According to a January survey by the Coalition for a Democratic Workplace, nine of 10 union households favor protecting the right to a secret ballot.

Even the bill's authors acknowledge the importance of private voting: While their proposal would require a public vote to form a union, it would require a secret vote to disband one.

And what about the Advance Democracy Act of 2007? Its lead sponsor, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, also happens to be a co-sponsor of the Employee Free Choice Act. It seems Democrats support secret ballots for everyone — except Americans.

This isn't the first time Democrats have tried to have it both ways on this issue. Six years ago, several House Democrats issued a letter to a group of Mexican government officials chastising them for even considering a switch away from secret ballots. "The secret ballot is absolutely necessary to ensure that workers are not intimidated into voting for a union they might not otherwise choose," they wrote at the time.

Yet last month all but two Democrats in the House voted to abolish the secret ballot in union elections here. Among the 228 Democrats supporting the bill were two members who had insisted on a secret ballot just two months earlier for elections within the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.

A Sacred Right

Unions are justifiably worried about their membership rolls, which have been in steady and precipitous decline for the last 25 years. But the price of reversing this trend shouldn't be one of the fundamental tenets of a free society. Nor should elected representatives be complicit in the effort.

Republicans stand united in opposing this undemocratic gift to the Big Labor chieftains who helped deliver Democrats the majority and who showed up in Washington this week clamoring for a return on their investment.

The right to a secret ballot is sacred. If Democrats are unwilling to defend it, we will.

Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., is the Senate Republican leader.


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Kevin Durant viewed by Sonics yesterday

A few months ago, Texas star Kevin Durant took in a meaningless regular-season game between San Antonio and visiting Seattle, believing his likely NBA destination would be Memphis or Boston. On Sunday morning, Durant spent about 45 minutes working out for SuperSonics officials, almost certain that his professional future will begin in the Pacific Northwest.

"For (Seattle) to get (the No. 2 pick) was kind of shocking. It was kind of something different," said Durant, wearing a lime-colored shirt that didn't quite match Seattle's shade of green, on Sunday. "Once I had seen that ... I got my mindset ready to go to the Pacific Northwest."

Durant's workout for the Sonics came two days after he put on a sterling performance for the Portland Trail Blazers. Portland general manager Kevin Pritchard called Durant's workout "as impressive a workout as any I've seen in here," and seemed to open the possibility that the Associated Press college player of the year could go No. 1 to the Blazers.

"I'm just trying to sell myself to Seattle as well," Durant, 6-9, said.


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AFL-CIO to pick new Oregon Senate leader

After one of the longest modern-day tenures in a single leadership position, Democrat Kate Brown of Portland announced Sunday she is stepping down as majority leader. The move clears the way for a new leader with stronger AFL-CIO credentials, and could signal Brown's bid for another office. She has been mentioned as a potential statewide candidate, although she has said she won't run for U.S. senator. Brown, who turned 47 on Friday, is a lawyer.

Brown has led Senate Democrats for five sessions - from a minority of 10 in 1998 to a majority of 18 now. She said it's time for her to make a change.

"I was particularly honored to lead our caucus during this amazing last session," she said. "The time is right for me to turn over the reins to the next leader of this strong and unified team."

Democrats will choose a new leader after this session ends.

The majority leader serves as the party's principal voice during sessions, advances the party's agenda and oversees campaigns to elect party candidates to the Senate. As campaigns grow more complex and expensive, it is not unusual for a new party leader to take over between the end of a legislative session and the start of a campaign cycle.

Brown was appointed to the House in 1991 and elected twice. She was elected to the Senate in 1996 and became Democratic leader in 1998. She was minority leader in 1999 and 2001, Democratic leader of a tied Senate in 2003, and majority leader in 2005 and this year.

She had been proposed as her party's candidate for the presidency in 2003, when the Senate was split evenly. But Republicans preferred Democrat Peter Courtney of Salem, who now has held the presidency for three straight sessions.

Brown's nine years as Senate Democratic leader is one of the longest in a leadership position.

Courtney was House Democratic leader from 1991 to the end of the 1997 session, when he left the job to run for the Senate. Larry Campbell was House Republican leader from 1983 to 1990, when his party won a majority and he became the House speaker.

Potential contenders for Brown's position are Sens. Richard Devlin of Tualatin, now deputy leader, and Alan Bates of Ashland and Laurie Monnes Anderson of Gresham, the two whips. But Devlin and Bates are potential candidates for other offices, and Monnes Anderson faces a re-election race in 2008.


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The Oregonian? Who needs it anymore?

Here's a modest proposal: It's time to eliminate the The Oregonian. Yes, you read that right. The monopoly statewide daily ad sheet can easily be replaced with the Oregon Lottery. Think about it: Now that the lottery has topped $1 billion in annual sales, it's clearly one of Oregon's most productive operations. That billion dollars means the lottery accounts for more than $300 from every man, woman and child in Oregon. And it's a money machine that has a built-in element of pure democracy that makes news stories and editorials obsolete - along with the added advantage of helping us avoid nasty public debates about progressivism. I mean, who needs the Newhouse billionaires raking in all those millions?

This is how it could work:

There are video slot and Keno machines all over the state. These could act as voting machines. A player could simply fill out a card proposing a news story or editorial and then enter the card in the lottery system. Each day a random rotation of proposed articles could be entered. Then players could make their bets. If any proposed piece came up three in a row, it could become published, and the player who proposed it could get a prize!

Money allocations from the print media to the various state agencies could be made in a similar fashion, through the distribution of bets.

This system would allow everyone to play the MSM game. Since each person would be writing proposed stories, we wouldn't need reporters or editors. In fact, the whole cost of advertising would be greatly reduced because the lottery would eliminate the cost of editorial and sales sessions, salaries and the urge by labor unions to pay The Oregonian significant amounts of money to represent their views.

Now, critics of this idea will undoubtedly point out that not everyone plays the lottery. Well, not everyone reads daily fish wrap either. And besides, how much of a chance do you really have to make or affect public opinion anyway? The only way the average Oregonian can get directly in on the spin game is through blogging. But with lottery voting, there wouldn't be that tedious need to surf the net, and anybody would have a chance of getting published. Very egalitarian.

What if a lottery-voted free speech doesn't pass constitutional muster? Well, that's the way it is in a game of chance. But considering how all non-progressive initiative laws get thrown out by the governor, legislature, and courts already, what's the difference?

So, Oregonians, this is a chance to close down that pesky Orwellian process, reduce the cost of the goods and services we buy, get rid of stridency and intolerance, eliminate the need for a nattering class and see that your money doesn't go to the Newhouse billionaires in New York who have owned The Oregonian for 60 years.

The greatest advantage of the lottery-vote system is that it would allow us to continue avoiding nasty public debates in Oregon. You know, the one where we all buy the union line or else. The lottery-vote system lets other poor suckers suffer the same way you do.

Mike Burton is vice provost and executive director of the School of Extended Studies at Portland State University.


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Budget shortfall nixes school upgrades, causes cuts

Tax money to operate Oregon public schools will rise by roughly $1 billion the next two years, but a review of district budgets for the fall shows most parents will see only small improvements in their children's schools. Increased costs - particularly for health care and salaries - will gobble just over half of the new money in a state where both school employee benefits and class sizes remain among the highest in the nation.

Combining state and local taxes, Oregon schools will have 14 percent more money to spend in the next two years. They'll get more than $9,200 per student - most of it from a record $6.245 billion in state school aid approved by the Legislature and expected to be signed into law this week by Gov. Ted Kulongoski. Many fast-growing districts are bumping up music and arts classes, cutting athletic fees and hiring teachers.


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June 24, 2007

Sen. Betsy Johnson fights for her political life

State Sen. Betsy Johnson can be loud, pushy and sometimes profane. She's also smart, savvy and not afraid to use her money and her political muscle - including influential and wealthy contacts she and her family have built all over Oregon. Her power and influence, she says, comes from her willingness to grab and wield every tool she can.

"I have a huge network," she says. "And I'm not shy about using the connections to help my district."

Johnson, a Scappoose Democrat, also had talked of turning her connections, money and ambition into a run for governor in 2010.

But the image she has built as a selfless champion of her district has been scuffed by the revelation that she made a fast $119,000 in a land deal with a developer she has repeatedly aided. She then failed to disclose the deal as state law requires. The state ethics commission will consider her case today.

The deal was part of Johnson's push for development around the Scappoose airport, where she and her husband, John Helm, have run an aviation business.

A timber heiress and millionaire several times over, Johnson argues she didn't need the money and that failure to report the deal was an oversight.

"My only motive was to help spur economic development," she says. "That has always been my goal."

Following her dad

When most legislators go home from Salem, a few people might recognize them or know their names.

But Johnson dominates her district, which covers Columbia and Clatsop and portions of Multnomah, Washington and Tillamook counties.

She can afford to spend virtually all of her time on politics. She does -- so much so that friends doubt she has much social life.

"I am ubiquitous in my district," she says. "I try to go to every event I can. Someone once teased me that I'd go to the opening of an envelope."

"She's the hardest working and most energetic person in politics I've ever seen in this region," says Deborah Steele Hazen, editor and publisher of The Clatskanie Chief.

"If you call Betsy because you're having an issue or problem, she will return your call. She may not always agree with you, but you'll always get a straight answer."

In politics, Johnson wants to emulate her father. Sam Johnson is legendary in Salem as the epitome of the citizen lawmaker. He made millions in the timber business and -- unlike many other Oregon lumber barons -- devoted himself to public service, as a state representative and mayor of Redmond. A combination of patriarch and fixer, the courtly and generous Johnson quietly ran his town: If you needed something in Redmond, you went to Sam.

The family's reach went well beyond central Oregon. Johnson's mother, Becky, served four governors on an array of commissions, and the family-run Samuel S. Johnson Foundation has given millions to charities since its founding in 1948.

Sam Johnson died in 1984; Becky died in January. Betsy Johnson weeps at the mention of her parents. "They always led by example to be upright and honest," Johnson says. "That's why this has been so painful."

Her father pushed Johnson and her sister to learn to fly, and both took to it with a passion. (Her sister, Patti, is a jet pilot and former member of the U.S. Aerobatics team.) Johnson turned to helicopters and -- seeded with family money -- launched her own company in a male-dominated business.

In the late 1970s, she moved to Scappoose, where her choppers frequently flew scientists to Mount St. Helens. She sold the business in 1993 in what she says was a seven-figure deal. Today, her husband runs Transwestern Aviation, a fuel stop at the Scappoose airport.

Mirroring her father, Johnson has tried to run local politics, though she admits her brusque style is nearly the opposite of her father's. She's boisterous and often profane.

She also has a cutting wit, which she sometimes turns against herself. This week, the heavy-set Johnson says she was listening to debate on a bill aimed at reducing obesity in Oregon. She turned to a colleague and joked, "I'm so jumpy now about all of these ethics questions. Should I declare a conflict of interest on this bill?"

Local officials say not much big happens in Johnson's district -- especially in Columbia County -- without Johnson's help or assent.

"Betsy is a pretty powerful person," says Rita Bernhard, a Columbia County commissioner and former Scappoose mayor. "She doesn't need to be doing this. But she knows how to get things done."

Deep pockets help

Jobs and growth are always big concerns in Columbia County. Local officials say about 70 percent of workers commute to the Portland area, and questions about the south county's future -- especially Scappoose and St. Helens, the county seat -- are often knotted by long-standing political feuds.

"It's nasty," Bernhard says. "There's a lot of history between people here, and a lot of it is bad."

Johnson elbowed her way into local politics, serving first on the Port of St. Helens Board of Commissioners -- the panel that had oversight of the airport and posed what her critics say was a built-in conflict of interest. She was elected to the state House in 2000, appointed to the Senate in 2005, then elected to the seat last year.

Her money has increased her influence. She donates to local political campaigns and spends thousands at school auctions and 4-H fundraisers.

She acknowledges that giving from her family foundation has raised her profile. In 1998, before Johnson ran for the Legislature, the foundation gave about $11,000 to local causes. As her profile increased, so did the giving. Last year, the foundation gave $68,000 to charities in her district.

"She has made it known grants are available through her family foundation," says Hazen, the editor. "I'm sure it's not the reason she does it, but it does get her picture in the paper a lot."

Johnson says her charitable giving is not driven by political motives.

"I try to separate 'Sen. Johnson' from 'Betsy' when I give money," she says. "It's not always easy to do so."

"Gravel wars"

Johnson says her aviation experience taught her that airports encourage economic development. Promoting the Scappoose airport honed her political skills and consolidated her influence during a bruising chapter in local politics Johnson calls the "gravel wars."

"Scappoose" is a Native American word meaning "gravelly plain." Deep quarry pits from gravel mining scar the area around the airport. Johnson and other airport users thought the pits drew birds, which made flying dangerous.

For more than 20 years, local officials fought plans for another pit on 400-plus acres east of the airport. In addition to the safety issue, she and other local officials saw the development potential for the site -- something not possible if it were mined.

"Betsy was one of the most formidable opponents I ever faced," says Jim Repman, then president and CEO of Glacier Northwest, the mining company that owned the site. "She's not adverse to conflict and isn't embarrassed about getting in your face and saying, 'Hey this is what I believe.' "

Johnson says she spent hundreds of thousands of her own money to help wage a land-use battle against the mining company with the city, county and Port of St. Helens. She also twisted a lot of arms.

In 1993, Vernonia businessman Tim Bero wanted to develop an aviation business park adjacent to the Scappoose airport. He needed Port of St. Helens approval for a "through the fence" permit so planes could come and go between the airport and his development.

The Port Commission -- with Johnson on the board -- would decide whether he got the permit.

"The day before the vote, Betsy called me and told me I had to line up behind her to fight this gravel pit or she would fight my plan," Bero said.

He refused and says Johnson led a successful fight against him -- leaving her husband's business holding the airport's only "through the fence" permit.

Johnson opposed Bero's plan because she didn't like it, she says. "To say I linked my support to the mining debate is a stretch."

The mining company finally agreed to go elsewhere and debate raged over who would get the property. Johnson started promoting Tigard developer Ed Freeman. Johnson, then a state representative on the legislative budget committee, leaned on state officials to site the new state police academy in Scappoose and accept Freeman as the developer.

Dianne Middle, the academy's director, told Johnson a site selection committee had already picked its finalists.

"She told me we had to reconsider," Middle says. "We had no choice."

When the Scappoose site fared poorly, Middle says, Johnson attacked the staff personally, accusing them of manipulating reports so they could pick a Salem site, where the new academy was eventually built.

Johnson says she believes the process was rigged from the start. "I make no apologies for fighting for something to help my district," she says.

Johnson eventually lined Freeman up to take control of the site from the mining company and lobbied the Port officials to subsidize Freeman's plans.

Freeman also figures in the deal that has landed Johnson into political trouble.

Freeman wanted to buy another piece of land to build a business park adjacent to the Scappoose airport -- a proposal strikingly similar to the one Johnson had fought years earlier.

This time, Johnson got directly involved. She borrowed against her stock portfolio so she and her husband could buy 36 acres from a local farmer for $635,000 -- and then sold it off to Freeman three months later for a $119,000 gain.

Johnson say they only made about $45,000 after expenses.

State law required her to report her interest in the property on her disclosure forms for 2004-05. She didn't report owning the land until April, two years after she sold it.

Johnson says she got involved in the deal only to help create jobs, and she regrets not disclosing it at the time. She also says she realizes that most legislators wouldn't go so far as to involve themselves directly in a land deal.

"I am unusual," Johnson says. "Not everyone has the ability that I do to step in and make things happen."


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State caught in naked election bias

Property rights activists are worried that Democratic lawmakers are trying to sway the outcome of this November's special election by using a biased ballot title for a proposed rewrite of Oregon’s property compensation law. They say early drafts of a proposed ballot title circulating at the Capitol suggest Democrats are trying to cast the measure in the most marketable of terms, emphasizing preservation of farm and forest land while soft-pedaling new restrictions on property claims.

"What you have here is one party trying to manipulate and influence what is supposed to be a neutral and balanced ballot title," said Dave Hunnicutt, president of Oregonians in Action, a group that opposes the law’s rewrite. "The ballot title makes or breaks the measure."

Democrats countered that their proposal is still a work in progress and that a new version that’s been submitted to the legislative counsel’s office for further vetting differs substantially from the earlier draft.

They also insisted they only want to accurately represent to voters the potential impact of rewriting Measure 37, the property compensation law passed by voters in 2004 that has proven to be a lightning rod in this year's legislature.

"It's not about advocacy, it's about accurately representing what the bill does and doing so in a clear way," said Anna Richter Taylor, a spokeswoman for Gov. Ted Kulongoski.

The early draft of the ballot title, obtained by The Associated Press, reads:

"'Yes' vote modifies Measure 37; clarifies right to build homes previously allowed; limits large developments; protects farmlands, forestlands, groundwater; requires adequate documentation for compensation claims; increases transferability of claims."

"'No' vote leaves Measure 37 unchanged; allows claimants to develop subdivisions on farmlands, forestlands and in groundwater restricted areas; allows commercial, industrial projects on all lands."

Passed by voters in 2004, Measure 37 requires that governments pay owners for property value lost from land-use regulations passed after the property was purchased.

If governments don’t pay - and claims against state and local governments have reached nearly $15 billion - they must waive the restriction and allow development.

The ballot language could play a critical role in the outcome of the Nov. 6 election, since that is what voters often base their final decision on.

The draft ballot title language was in a June 6 e-mail from Will Neuhauser of the Oregon chapter of the Nature Conservancy to Tim Nesbitt, the governor's senior policy adviser on Measure 37 and other issues.

A key Democrat who's been pushing the Measure 37 rewrite that recently won final legislative approval, Sen. Floyd Prozanski of Eugene, said he and Nesbitt have reached out to a wide range of groups for their feedback on the ballot title, including the Oregon wine growers and the Oregon Farm Bureau.

But opponents of the rewrite are concerned that environmental advocacy groups will wield undo influence over the final product and that the ballot title will not accurately represent the rewrite of Measure 37.

Lawmakers say input from various interest groups has helped advance and inform the bill that would modify existing property rights law by curbing development on high value farm and forest land.

"We did get input from polling about the structure of the measure itself and the language for communicating it," said Rep. Greg Macpherson, D-Lake Oswego. "It's important that we reflect where the people of Oregon are on this issue."

Portland pollster Mike Riley said opinion surveys showed that Oregonians are split on the question of whether to update Measure 37.


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Wrist slap coming in Big Ed rip-off

A bogus count of students from Eastern Oregon school districts in an alternative education program run by the Union-Baker Education Service District resulted in the districts getting $3.4 million in state money they didn't deserve, according to a secretary of state audit.

The districts were Baker, La Grande, Pendleton, Ontario, Hood River, The Dalles and 35 other smaller districts. Susan Castillo, state school superintendent, said she would try to get some of the money back.

Castillo sought the audit after questions of mismanagement at the education service district, based in La Grande, arose in 2004.

The audit found that districts had misreported 606 students between 1999 and 2004. Faults included inflating student numbers, claiming money for out-of-district or ineligible students and double-counting students.

The service district was responsible for tracking alternative program attendance in districts using the services. The districts gave the numbers to the state for use in calculating state school aid.

Initial reports indicated the district had overbilled taxpayers by $425,000. The audit revealed a much higher amount.

"It's ugly," said Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, whose district includes Union County. "And the worst part is that the kids are the ones who are going to suffer."

Release of the data coincided with opening statements in the criminal trial of a former ESD official blamed for the misrepresentation.

Castillo said the case illustrates why lawmakers should allot funds so the state can audit individual school districts and ESDs, who usually have a lot of autonomy because of a desire for local control.

The district was stripped of all state contracts. Its budget dropped from $23 million to about $7 million and the number of workers is down from 250 to about 30, said board chairman Dale Basso of La Grande.

The $3.4 million may only be the start, said Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day. He said the undeserved dollars were used to leverage federal grants that may have to be repaid.

An investigation found that administrators routinely ignored public bidding laws, hired unlicensed contractors and billed the district for trips they may not have taken or that weren't connected to school business.

The service districts are regional agencies that provide special education, nurses and other services to school districts within their borders, many of which are too small to provide their own.

The Union-Baker district ran its alternative program for at-risk students in and out of its boundaries.

Randy Harnisch, a policy adviser in the state Education Department, said both the ESD and the school districts were responsible for reporting inaccurate counts to the state.

He said he did not know if the misreporting was deliberate, but said the department will try to find out and that the amount of reimbursement sought from each district will vary.


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