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Disaster warning funds killed in secret

Gov. Kate Brown told reporters that the Legislature’s decision not to extend the state’s disaster detection systems was one of the “biggest disappointments” of this year’s session.

Brown wanted $12 million for early warning systems for wildfires and earthquakes. She put the money in her budget. The money was there in House Bill 5005. And then on June 25 it was zapped.

What happened?

Some sort of deal was hashed out in secret. The amendment that zeroed out the funding was anonymous. It passed out of a Ways and Means subcommittee without debate to explain why the funding was cut.

You shouldn’t be shocked. That’s the way a lot of Oregon government is done. Sure, many legislators say all the right things about transparency and accountability in government. But they don’t always walk the talk.

What’s interesting about this episode is that two of the state’s leading Democrats were on the subcommittee that killed the money — House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney. In other words, one of Brown’s biggest disappointments of the session happened right under the nose of the fellow leaders of her party.

Maybe they don’t talk to Brown about her priorities. Maybe they disagree. Maybe they made tough choices among several programs. Shouldn’t that debate be in the open so Oregonians can understand not only what their government is doing but how the decisions are made?

The wildfire detection system that got cut is called ALERTWildfire. It is a system of cameras operated in remote areas that enable firefighters and first responders to discover and monitor wildfires. It’s run by a consortium of universities, including the University of Oregon. The devastating Camp Fire of 2018 that killed more than 80 people in California provided more urgency to expand the system in Oregon. Some of the first cameras in Oregon were installed on Blue Mountain and Steens Mountain. But the program needs money to create a larger network. The anonymous person or persons behind the amendment killed the funding for this session.

ShakeAlert is a similar system of sensors designed to enable advance warning of earthquakes. It could give a public warning from just several seconds to a few minutes. That’s not ideal, but it’s better than nothing. Oregon doesn’t have enough sensors for it to work. California and Washington have made more progress. As for the funding, the anonymous person or persons behind the amendment killed it, at least for the time being.

Oregon’s laws underscore that the public is entitled to know what the government is doing and how decisions are made. Instead, what the public gets is episode after episode of secrets deals in Salem.