ACA and candy bars
The Grants Pass (Ore.) Daily Courier, Jan. 3
Thursday, January 09, 2014 4:00 PM
Some aspects of the Affordable Care Act, aka Obamacare, are a downright disaster. The most visible calamity is the federal and state websites, where people were supposed to be able to comparison shop for health insurance. The sites have only recently started to function properly, even though they were supposed to be ready Nov. 1. Also, people were told they could keep policies they liked, only to find out they couldn't.
Some parts of the act, however, have been greeted with open arms. People with pre-existing conditions have been able to get coverage. Young people up to the age of 26 have been able to stay on their parents' policies while they start their careers and work their way into jobs that offer health benefits. In spite of all the website problems, nearly 2 million people nationwide have purchased insurance policies through the health care exchanges.
This editorial is about none of these issues.
A little-noticed provision in the ACA places new requirements on vending machines and the companies that operate them. Companies that own and operate 20 or more vending machines will soon be required to include information about the calorie content of the items offered for sale in their vending machines. The Food and Drug Administration, which is expected to issue final rules on the vending machine provision later this month, believes such information will help Americans count calories and keep the pounds off.
In a nation where obesity is among the top health problems, the goal is a good one. The ACA provision is not.
Most of the nearly 11,000 companies that will be affected by these regulations are small, mom-and-pop businesses with narrow profit margins. The additional cost, estimated at about $2,200 a year, is real money to most of these companies. And while this alone would be reason enough to scrap the new rule, there's one that's even better:
This new regulation is an insult to our intelligence. Does anybody really think there are people out there who buy junk food from vending machines without knowing their little indulgence probably isn't a healthy one?
Maybe rules regarding vending machines in schools make sense, because children may not yet have the knowledge and experience to make good nutrition choices. But placing these kinds of regulations on vending machines in locations where the majority of customers are adults is silly.
We know that a candy bar isn't good for us. But guess what? We want one anyway. We'll make up for it with a salad at dinner.
East Oregonian, Jan. 6, `Where's Waldo' costly at EPA
Did you hear the one about the Environmental Protection Agency employee? He was the guy who missed 2.5 years of work and was still on the payroll, collecting a 25 percent bonus on top of his $100,000-plus salary.
Yep, he was the guy who flew first class and spent $1,100 a night on hotels in London.
He even said he needed a special parking space because of malaria he contracted in the Vietnam War, even though he'd never served there.
And here's the kicker: One of the reasons he got away with it for 10 years was he said he was a spy. The other reason: The EPA's top managers were asleep at the switch.
It's hard to judge how things work in the EPA. The agency has lots of secret corners. Like the secret email accounts some of the higher-ups used to keep the public's business out of sight.
We have John C. Beale to thank for opening the door to some of the inner workings of the EPA. He was the senior policy adviser in the EPA's Office of Air and Radiation and pleaded guilty to the theft of government property in September. He agreed to pay almost $1.4 million in restitution and penalties and is expected to spend time in prison, according to the EPA's Office of the Inspector General and court records.
Beale worked 24 years at the EPA. For the last 13 years, though, he played "Where's Waldo" with his supervisors. According to court records, for years he took many Wednesdays off to work for the CIA. Then, in 2008, he took six months off and didn't tell anyone where he was. Then, from June 2011 to December 2012, he never showed up at work, saying he was working for the CIA.
He also tapped the EPA for first class airfare, including six trips worth $45,094 to California to visit his family.
For the record, the EPA has 16,204 employees, plus one spy. The agency is known for sticking it to farmers and ranchers and others who are believed to violate federal environmental laws. But even the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that the agency overstepped its authority when it didn't allow an Idaho couple to challenge a wetlands ruling for their building lot.
We do not expect perfection from the EPA or any other federal agency. But we do expect good-faith efforts to do the best job for the American people _ who are footing the bill _ and to cultivate an atmosphere of openness. In the Beale case and others, that has not happened.
The Oregonian, Jan. 5, Legislative Agenda for 2014
In 2014, personal freedom promises to expand through the adoption of a small number of high-profile policies. That's the good news. The bad news is that Oregonians' autonomy tends to contract steadily through the approval of comparatively low-profile policies that impose one advocacy group or another's values upon everyone else. Most readers are familiar by now with most of the capital-B Big policies that will dominate public debate this year. We'll discuss those below. First, let's consider some of the small stuff.
Bees, for instance. Thousands of the insects died last summer following the improper application of a commonly used pesticide to a number of trees at a Target store in Wilsonville. The incident caused a brief furor _ there was even a memorial service _ and heightened interest in pesticide-related die-offs elsewhere in Oregon. And as often seems to happen, it will spawn legislation that probably isn't necessary.
Rep. Jeff Reardon, D-Portland, intends to introduce a bill during February's short legislative session that would effectively wrest several pesticides from the hands of home gardeners. Reardon's no-no list focuses on neonicotinoids, including the product used incorrectly in Wilsonville. Reardon hasn't proposed an outright ban. But homeowners who wanted to use these products would have to take a yet-to-be-developed online course, pass a test and obtain a license. Such tests now cost $58.
It should go without saying that bees are important bugs. The basic question here, however, is whether Reardon's proposed restriction on homeowners' freedom responds to a real problem. It may not. The state of Washington last year declined to restrict neonicotinoids, citing a lack of evidence that they play a significant role in reducing the bee population. If homeowners aren't doing meaningful damage, why punish them?
Unfortunately, the Legislature isn't a reliably hostile environment for well-meaning proposals that restrict personal freedom unjustifiably. This is the same bunch that prohibited people from smoking in their own vehicles if kids are present, after all. Windows open? Convertible top down? No matter.
Easier to predict are public debate, and possibly public votes, on a handful of high-profile issues that have received plenty of ink already. They include the approval of same-sex marriage and the legalization of recreational marijuana use, both of which are very likely to end up on the November ballot. They also include a proposed initiative that would apply to public employees in unionized positions. If such people choose not to join a union, the proposal would allow them to withhold union payments made in lieu of dues. Consumers also may gain the freedom to buy liquor more conveniently thanks in part to pressure brought by grocery stores dissatisfied with Oregon's antiquated liquor monopoly. Whether the state relaxes the rules on its own or voters decide the matter in November, this is likely to be a good year for those who want better access to a legal product.
The Bulletin, Jan. 7 Beware union influence
If legislators agree, managers in Oregon state government will soon lose some existing protection against layoffs.
A bill being drafted for the February legislative session would curtail so-called bumping rights for managers. Currently, those promoted into management can reclaim their earlier nonmanagement jobs if their new positions are eliminated. That bumping privilege goes on indefinitely, according to a report in the Statesman Journal newspaper, and allows them to oust people hired to replace them.
The proposed change would limit those bumping rights to three years for those promoted by the end of this year, and eliminate them altogether for anyone hired later.
While it seems reasonable to curtail such an excessive benefit, we're troubled by the way it came about. The Statesman Journal reports the change is part of the state's 2013-15 contract with the Service Employees International Union Local 503, although it would apply to all managers, including those affiliated with other unions. It is being drafted by the Department of Administrative Services.
The proposal is only one of the changes under consideration for the state's mangers this year and next, as the DAS proceeds with its Enterprise Management Solutions Project. A survey of about 3,400 managers was completed in December as the state tries to gain an understanding of its management structure. The survey collected information including what managers do, how many employees and dollars they supervise, how they are evaluated and how much they are paid.
Analysis of the results could lead to changes, including pay adjustments, with some managers' salaries frozen and others getting raises as the state seeks to match pay to levels of responsibility.
The SEIU has been vocal on this subject as well, the Statesman Journal reports, arguing in 2012 that 544 manager positions could be eliminated, saving $21.8 million for the state's general fund.
The union's concerns deserve a thorough hearing and study, but changes in the state's management structure should be driven by the information gathered in the DAS study, not by pressures from union contract negotiations.
The News-Review, Jan. 7, 2014 news stories we'd like to see
Murder and a school closure. Two massive fires and countywide financial peril. A helicopter crash and dismissal of a federal worker sidelined in her job for a year. Those were among the county's top stories as noted in the Dec. 29 News-Review.
Judging by most of them, 2013 is a good year to wave off as we accelerate into its successor. While we can't predict what stories the new year will bring, we can describe what we would like to report as the top 10 stories of 2014. Here they are, in no particular order. We'll let you decide how they should be ranked.
Timber industry gets needed boost: Congress approves legislation that guarantees steady employment and stable funding, eliminating the need for federal compensation to 18 Western Oregon counties with Oregon & California Railroad lands. The White House opts not to veto the bill.
Bureau of Land Management complies with O&C Act of 1937: The BLM takes action to ensure its lands are managed for sustainable timber production, creating more timber sales in the Roseburg and Medford districts.
Douglas County Library system restores hours, staff: All 11 library branches return to pre-recession service levels. It's one of several boons linked to increased timber harvests.
County improves its statewide health rankings: Researchers discover that the county has become a healthier place to live based on several factors _ fewer smokers, better access to primary health care providers, a healthy enrollment in Cover Oregon and a noticeable increase in walkers, runners and bicyclists.
Downtown Roseburg welcomes new tenants: A major grocery store chain announces plans to inhabit the former Safeway on Southeast Rose Street. This follows an earlier confirmation that a Roseburg health sciences college will be housed at the former Rite Aid on the corner of Southeast Jackson Street and Southeast Washington Avenue.
County graduation rates improve: All school districts report fewer dropouts as well as a bump in college-bound seniors.
Mascot kerfuffle quieted: An independent focus group polls 10 Native American tribes in Oregon, discovering that not one objects to the Indian names currently in use at primary and secondary schools.
Art Robinson rescinds his candidacy for the U.S. House: Robinson withdraws from his third challenge to Springfield Democrat Peter DeFazio. The Cave Junction Republican releases a statement in which he says he recognizes that his political stance and tactics have created divisions within his party, and he's returning to being a full-time scientist.
Unlikely? Perhaps. Regardless of whether or how these stories unfold, we wish a safe and prosperous 2014 to all our readers.
The News-Register, Dec. 29, Census data gives county snapshot
It's difficult to draw conclusions from census data, especially as compiled according to arbitrarily drawn ZIP codes. Recent data released by the U.S. Census Bureau and highlighted in a Washington Post article (and our news section) lead to questions about what it means for the McMinnville ZIP code.
As reported last week, McMinnville's 97128 ranks ninth in Yamhill county in median income at $45,149, meaning half our households are below and half are above. McMinnville is third in four-year college degrees at 23 percent, tied with Amity.
Dundee leads the county in both categories at $73,125 and 31 percent.
The Post article focused on so-called ``Super ZIPS,' where, says social historian Charles Murray, Americans with the highest levels of education and income are isolating themselves. Murray warns the trend will continue, as those growing up in Super ZIPs know only that way of life and likely will remain isolated from middle and lower class areas their entire lives.
Super-ZIP classification is earned with median household income of $120,000 and a 70 percent degree level. Lake Oswego is Oregon's closest candidate, with a $96,134 median income and 68 percent degree level.
It's not always an easy analysis. McMinnville, for example, is a socioeconomic melting pot, which tends to drop both numbers. Corvallis has a high degree rate at 53 percent but a median household income below McMinnville's at $41,374.
Many factors can skew the statistical reports. In Corvallis, for example, it's likely a large number of college graduates remain there, working lower-end jobs right out of college. Another factor that can sway numbers is the presence of high-paying industrial jobs not requiring a degree.
McMinnvillans love their town and its eclectic social and economic mix. Income and education are just two of many factors in assessing qualify of life and not always the best indicators of a successful community.
Super-ZIP status is not something to strive for. Still, these census numbers merit a place in the analysis of community health, and they should encourage our leaders to seek new ways to raise McMinnville's numbers in the future.