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Federal aid, state records rules need work

Oregon’s U.S. senators have introduced legislation to prevent federal safety-net funds meant to help struggling timber counties from being spent to lobby federal officials. That’s a good first step, assuming Congress sees fit to enact the legislation. But the situation that prompted Sens. Ron Wyden and Jeff Merkley to act also highlights continuing weakness in Oregon’s public records laws.

The Secure Rural Schools program, co-sponsored by Wyden in 2000, was intended to help timber-dependent counties make the transition away from aggressive logging of public forests. Most of the money is dedicated to help counties pay for roads and schools in the absence of timber dollars. But some of the money is discretionary.

Douglas County, one of the largest recipients of SRS dollars, has spent at least $75,000 since 2015 to send county commissioners on trips to Washington, D.C. to lobby for more logging, according to reporting by The Oregonian. Previously, the newspaper revealed the county spent some federal money allocated before 2008 on “educational” videos promoting salvage logging after wildfires.

Wyden and Merkley credited the newspaper’s reporting for alerting them to the misspent money. But the public still does not know exactly how much was spent on lobbying trips, because Douglas County refuses to produce receipts for travel expenses unless The Oregonian pays nearly $2,000 in fees. The Douglas County district attorney denied a petition from the newspaper requesting a waiver of the fees, claiming county staff would have to spend 35 hours of clerical time to retrieve and review 170 pages, including five hours of review by a department head making $96.21 an hour.

All that to reveal to taxpayers how much of their money went to pay for airline tickets, hotels and meals for elected officials instead of schools, roads, bridges, law enforcement and other services.

Wyden and Merkley’s bill would give the U.S. Forest Service six months to clarify what spending is allowed and what is not, while prohibiting any of the money being spent on lobbying at the state or federal level. Counties would be required to produce an annual summary of their spending, which would be posted online. That legislation should be enacted without delay.

Meanwhile, state lawmakers should continue to work to strengthen public records laws and prevent public agencies from charging exorbitant fees to those making records requests.

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