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Personal freedom or public good?

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.