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Editorial: The good, the bad and the ugly in Salem

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STOCK State capitol

The 2021 legislative session is rapidly drawing to a close, and our elected representatives in Salem are busily cranking out new laws. As is always the case, some of the measures making their way through the statehouse seem like solid pieces of legislation while others seem ill-advised at best or, at worst, downright awful.

It’s easy, for example, to get behind Senate Bill 513, which mandates the teaching of a half-credit civics class in Oregon public high schools. In an era dominated by bitter partisan politics, it is more vital than ever before that American citizens have a clear idea of how the mechanisms of government work, yet it is painfully obvious that is far from the case. According to the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, a once-every-four-years survey known as “the nation’s report card,” fewer than one-quarter of students surveyed were proficient in civics. And we can’t help thinking that a fundamental ignorance of how government works has helped fuel a horrifyingly widespread willingness to believe the most outrageous and dangerous political lies, from QAnon conspiracy theories to the thoroughly debunked claims that the 2020 presidential election was beset by fraud.

SB 513 sailed through the Senate in April with only three dissenting votes, was passed unanimously by the House on May 24 and now awaits Gov. Kate Brown’s signature before becoming law (that’s Civics 101, kids). Here’s hoping it will help produce a new generation of citizens who are better equipped to make decisions about the information they consume and the ballots they cast.

We are much less impressed with a pair of measures that, thankfully, have yet to win passage: House Bill 3291 and Senate Bill 137-2.

HB 3291 would make a small but significant change to Oregon’s vote-by-mail election system. Currently, voters who wait until the last minute to return their ballots have to hand-deliver them to the local elections office or place them in an official drop box for collection when the polls close at 8 p.m. on Election Day – ballots that arrive by post after that time are not counted. If HB 3291 passes, ballots could be mailed in as late as Election Day itself – the date on the postmark would be enough to make the ballot count.

While that would be an added convenience for voters, we foresee a potential problem with this legislation: Letters can take a while to get delivered. This bill allows up to seven days after the election ends for properly postmarked ballots to be received. In close races, that would add up to a week of uncertainty before the outcome of the election is known. In hyperpartisan times such as these, that could put an added strain on our democracy that we don’t need. Oregon’s time-tested vote-by-mail system is already among the most convenient and reliable in the country. While the extra convenience for voters would be nice, the delay in determining the outcome of the election just isn’t worth it. We hope this bill dies a quiet and dignified death in committee (although there is one provision we like: HB 3291 would allow county clerks to open and begin counting ballots as soon as they are received, rather than having to wait until the polls close on Election Day).

SB 137-2 is, simply put, a terrible idea. On the surface, SB 137 is a rather boring housekeeping measure that updates Oregon law to keep it in alignment with recent changes to the federal tax code, including changes connected to the CARES Act, the federal government’s sweeping COVID relief program. But amendment -2 goes much further than that: It would tax a portion of the relief money that went to hard-pressed Oregon businesses to help them survive the pandemic.

More specifically, it would count as taxable income any payments in excess of $100,000 in Paycheck Protection Program loans that were forgiven by the federal government. That would put another financial burden on Oregon businesses that are already struggling. If the state was hurting for money, there might be some justification for this move, but that’s far from the case: According to the most recent budget forecast, Oregon is awash in cash right now. This amendment should be stripped or the bill killed entirely.

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