A Push to Make Oregon Public Record Oversight More Independent

The Oregon state capitol in Salem.

The Oregon state capitol in Salem. Shutterstock

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STATE AND LOCAL ROUNDUP | Ex-Dallas police officer sentenced to 10 years for murder … Federal judge dismisses states’ SALT cap tax lawsuit …Bill in Illinois would ban state from requiring employees to travel to states with strict abortion limits.

A proposal in Oregon would make the state public records advocate an independent office, an idea floated in response to allegations that some state leaders have tried to influence the agency. Under current law, the state’s public records advocate is appointed by the governor and is supposed to advise the public on records requests, provide dispute mediation when the government and public records requesters are in conflict and make suggestions for increased government transparency. Controversy arose recently when it was revealed that members of Gov. Kate Brown’s staff had asked the advocate to vet any legislation or reports relating to public records with the governor’s office before releasing them. Public Records Advocate Ginger McCall submitted her resignation over pressure from the governor’s office and said she supports legislation that would make the office more independent. McCall also said it’s important that an advisory council for the office be able to introduce legislation without the governor’s office approving it first. “That process is a totally not transparent process. (State) agencies can kill it in a quiet background deal,” she said. Public records processes have been the subject of much legislative action in the state recently. The last session of the legislature saw 22 exemptions to public records law passed, making the total number of exemptions over 650. Some of the new exemptions blocked public access to investigative reports, some tips to state police, and information related to endangered wildlife safety, moves that have alarmed government transparency advocates like Charlie Fischer, the director of the Oregon State Public Interest Research Group, which is evaluating the validity of some exemptions. "We have a lot of exemptions to look at already. The Legislature should just press pause on creating any more exemptions,” he said. Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Democrat, said it isn’t realistic to ask the legislature to stop making exemptions because sometimes they are needed to prevent a specific record from being made public. "I would be hesitant to do any absolute pause on them because circumstances might require it," Prozanski said. [Statesman-Journal; The Oregonian; Corvallis Gazette-Times]

MURDER CONVICTION | Former Dallas police officer Amber Guyger was sentenced to 10 years in prison on Wednesday, the day after she was found guilty of murder for shooting an unarmed man in his apartment. In 2018, Guyger entered the apartment of Botham Jean, who lived in her building on a different floor, and shot him twice while he sat eating ice cream on the couch. Guyger said that she mistakenly thought it was her apartment and that he was an intruder. "I was scared whoever was inside my apartment was going to kill me. No police officer would want to hurt an innocent person,” she testified. Guyger was fired from the Dallas police force three weeks after the incident. The jury that convicted Guyger on Tuesday reconvened the next day to consider her punishment. Jean's parents described in court how their family had been torn apart by his death. "It hurts me every day. How could we have lost Botham, such a sweet boy? He tried his best to live a good, honest life," said Bertrum Jean, his father. Convicted of murder, Guyger, 31, could have received a sentence of anywhere between five and 99 years. After the sentence was read, some people said they considered it too short, calling out "No justice, no peace." On Tuesday, the day Guyger was convicted, Ben Crump, an attorney for the Jean family, said that the verdict was a symbolic victory for many other black victims of violence, particularly those killed by police officers. “This verdict is for Trayvon Martin, it’s for Michael Brown, it’s for Sandra Bland, it’s for Tamir Rice, it’s for Eric Garner … For so many black and brown unarmed human beings all across America, this verdict today is for them,” Crump said. [NPRDallas Morning News; Fort Worth Star-Telegram]

SALT CAP | A federal judge this week dismissed a lawsuit brought by four states that challenged the $10,000 cap put on state and local tax deductions that Congress imposed as part of its larger tax law in 2017. New York, New Jersey, Maryland, and Connecticut sued the Treasury Department and the IRS, arguing that the limit on the amount of state and local taxes (SALT) that can be deducted from a person’s federal tax liability interfered with states’ abilities to set their own tax policies. The states additionally argued that the SALT cap, passed entirely by Republican votes in Congress, was meant to punish Democratic states with higher taxes used to fund more generous public services. But U.S. District Judge J. Paul Oetken dismissed the case. “The States have cited no constitutional principle that would bar Congress from exercising” its authority “to impose an income tax without a limitless SALT deduction,” he wrote. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, a Democrat, said the state is considering an appeal. "There is no doubt in my mind that President Trump's unfair tax policy targets New York and other blue states by funding tax cuts for corporations and the rich on the backs of New Yorkers. New York is already the largest 'donor state' in the nation—paying the federal government $36 billion more than we get back every year. The SALT cap takes this gross imbalance and supercharges it, costing New Yorkers another $15 billion each year,” he said. [Politico; New York Times; CNBC]

ABORTION TRAVEL | A bill proposed in Illinois would ban the state from requiring public employees to travel to states that have imposed strict limitations on abortions or require investigations into the cause of miscarriages. In 2019, 12 states passed laws restricting access to abortion, many of which surround Illinois, including Indiana, Missouri, and Kentucky. State Rep. Daniel Didech, a Democrat, said that what these states are doing is “very dangerous” but that his proposal isn’t all about abortion. Dietrich said that the main point of the legislation is to protect state employees who are pregnant from being in a situation where they may not be able to access necessary medical care. “This is not like a boycott of those states or anything like that, although in effect, it may look similar. The purpose of the bill is to protect women who may not be able to get the health care they may need when they’re traveling on official state business,” he said. Robert Gilligan, executive director of the Illinois Catholic Conference, countered with a slippery slope argument. "Do we prevent state employees from traveling to Flint, Michigan where they have less safe water? This type of thinking is endless,” he said. The proposed law would provide exceptions in instances where the government deemed travel “truly necessary.” [Journal Courier; Herald Review; Washington Examiner]

WOLVES IN WASHINGTON | Washington Gov. Jay Inslee sent a letter to wildlife officials in the state asking them to reduce the number of wolves killed during livestock conflicts. As the law currently states, the state can kill wolves after they have repeatedly attacked livestock, usually after an owner complaint. Livestock owners have to prove that they’ve first tried nonlethal methods, like lights or noise machines, to scare wolves. But Inslee said that wolves are still being killed at undesirable rates. “We must find new methods to better support the coexistence between Washington’s livestock industry and gray wolves in our state. The status quo of annual lethal removal is simply unacceptable,” Inslee wrote. Since 2008, the state’s wolf population has grown by 28% each year, and now stands at 126 individual wolves. [Oregon Public Broadcasting; The Spokesman-Review]

Emma Coleman is the assistant editor for Route Fifty.

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