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Friday, April 30, 2010

Oregon's Soak-the-Poor Tax Policy

Posted By on Fri, Apr 30, 2010 at 6:58 PM

Should a family living below the poverty level have to pay state income tax? Most states say no - but Oregon says yes.

According to a report released yesterday by the Washington-based Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the income tax in this state for a family of four kicks in at $19,800. That's $2,180 below the federal poverty line for a family of that size.

"A two-parent family of four living at the poverty line with just $21,947 in income had to pay $200 in Oregon income taxes in 2009, the fifth-highest amount among states for a family of four at that income level," a news release from the Oregon Center for Public Policy said. A "nearly poor" family of the same size with an annual income of 125% of the poverty level - $27,434 - would owe $764, the fourth-highest amount in the nation.

Those amounts might not seem huge, but for a low-income family they could mean the difference between paying the rent or being evicted, or between paying the utility bill and having the power turned off.

Only 13 of the 50 states levy income taxes on families living at the poverty level, the OCPP said. Nine Eight states have no personal income tax.

"The bottom line," said Joy Margheim, an analyst for the OCPP, "is that Oregon not only sets the level for having to start paying income taxes much lower than most other states, but it also imposes one of the heftier income tax bills on low-income families once they rise above that income level."

Margheim said the report underlines the need for a "robust improvement" in Oregon's Earned Income Tax Credit, a refundable income tax credit for low-income people who work: "A boost to the state's EITC is the most efficient and targeted way for Oregon to raise the income tax threshold and end the practice of taxing the work effort of working poor families."

A coalition called Oregonians for Working Families, including more than 95 health and human service organizations, labor groups, businesses and local governments, plans to "push for a significant increase in the state EITC" next year, the OCPP said.


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Thursday, April 29, 2010

OIA Plots Oregon's Biggest Land Grab

Posted By on Thu, Apr 29, 2010 at 8:23 PM

Oregonians in Action, the “property rights” group that brought us Measure 37 six years ago, has come up with a new bright idea – and it’s a real doozy.

OIA wants Oregon to emulate Utah, whose legislature in its 2009 session enacted a law that supposedly gives the state the power to use eminent domain to seize land held by the federal government.

“In the upcoming session of the Oregon legislature, Oregonians In Action will work with the Oregon legislature to pass similar legislation in Oregon,” the group said in a news release today. “This legislation would provide the biggest economic boost for rural Oregon communities in decades.”

It definitely would give a big boost to the bottom lines of corporations if they could get their hands on the federal lands in the West. The federal government owns 55% of the land in Oregon and 60% of the land in Utah. In Oregon, much of the federal land is rich in timber; in Utah the prize is minerals.

Lamenting that timber and other resources that used to form the backbone of rural economies “are now locked away by federal laws and regulations that have gone too far,” OIA calls for Oregon to enact a law similar to Utah’s House Bill 143, under which “Utah state agencies are given the authority to condemn federal property.  Ownership of that property would be transferred from the federal government to the state government.  Once acquired, the state would manage the property for the best interests of Utah residents.  That may mean that the land is retained in state ownership, or it may mean that Utah would sell the property to private citizens.”

That last bit about selling the land off to private citizens is particularly intriguing. It’s not hard to imagine politically well-connected timber, mining, ranching and other interests working out some pretty sweet deals for themselves.

“In either event,” the OIA news release continues, “land that is currently mismanaged and neglected by the federal government would be transferred to either state government or private citizens, who would make use of the land to create jobs, revitalize rural communities, boost the economy, and balance state and local budgets.  What a concept.”

Indeed.

“There is no reason why the Oregon legislature cannot follow Utah’s lead,” the OIA says. But I can think of a couple of good reasons without even trying.

In the first place, the constitutionality of the Utah measure is extremely doubtful. Even the state’s attorney general doubts it. Its real purpose, as described by columnist Lee Benson in the Desert News, is “to spark a lawsuit that will get the U.S. Supreme Court to rule more clearly … on the issue of the sovereign land rights of states. Already, $3 million has been set aside to pay the lawyers.”

In the second place, Oregon ain’t Utah … thank God. 

 

 

 

 


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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Survey: Bend Businesses Want More Handouts

Posted By on Wed, Apr 28, 2010 at 9:53 PM

The Bend Chamber of Commerce did a survey of its members and – surprise, surprise – most of them thought the city should be doing more to help people like them.

According to The Bulletin’s account on Tuesday, about 64% of those responding to the on-line survey answered “no” when asked if they thought Bend was friendly to business. Chamber Executive Director Tim Casey said it wasn’t so much that they thought the city was downright hostile as that they perceived it as indifferent: “They don’t feel like the city is going out of their way to take care of businesses.”

How should the city be taking care of businesses? Well, two-thirds of those responding said it should provide more incentives to encourage existing businesses to expand and new businesses to locate here. About the same number said Systems Development Charges (SDCs) were hurting job growth. And 72% complained about high income taxes – something the city has nothing to do with.

Speaking of incentives, ironically enough the same issue of the paper carried a front-page story describing how Epic Air apparently is under investigation by the FBI. The city sunk $140,000 of its own money into Epic and landed another $1.3 million in state loans and grants on the promise that the company would create 400 jobs; it folded after creating only 159 at its peak.

Hopefully the city won’t give an undue amount of weight to the Chamber’s survey results. For one thing, only 138 people bothered to respond – about 10% of the Chamber’s membership of roughly 1,300 and a microscopically tiny fraction of Bend’s total population of more than 81,000.

And you know damn well that most of the people who want taxpayers to be more generous with handouts to business are the same ones who scream “Socialism!” at any mention of health care reform or any other government policy that might benefit ordinary working stiffs.


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Friday, April 16, 2010

Oregon Tea Party Crasher in Right's Crosshairs

Posted By on Fri, Apr 16, 2010 at 7:28 PM

Conservatives in Oregon, and all over America, have found something new to be angry about – not that that’s ever any challenge for them.

The latest target of their wrath is Jason Levin, a middle school teacher in Beaverton who set up a website on which he vowed to “crash and destroy” the Tea Party movement. Levin planned to do it by infiltrating Tea Party rallies and trying to discredit the movement by carrying racist and/or homophobic signs, dressing up as Hitler and generally behaving like a douche.

Levin never got to actually infiltrate the Tea Party, however, because somebody discovered his site and spread the word, Fox News picked up the story, and legions of Tea Partiers and sympathizers started flooding the school district with angry calls and e-mails.

The district has put Levin on paid leave while it investigates whether he did his anti-Tea Party thing on district time or used district resources, such as computers. But that’s not good enough for right-wingers, who are demanding Levin’s head.

“This is a man who thinks it’s legitimate to further your political goals by lying, by stealing and damaging somebody else’s reputation,” radio yakker Lars Larson fumed on his Wednesday show. “I don’t want a kid [sic] like that teaching kids.”

Larson isn’t buying the argument that what a teacher does on his own time is his own business: “If you ran a Klan Web site on your own time, do you think you would be excused?”

Of course the Ku Klux Klan is an overtly racist organization that has engaged in acts of terrorism such as lynching, arson and blowing up churches, which would appear to put it in a whole different category from Levin.

In a message to a TPM blogger Levin maintained he didn’t use school district time or equipment to put up his site and defended his right to engage in political free speech.

“Any allegation that I used school district equipment or district time to create or maintain the website is completely and totally false,” Levin wrote. “The fact that teachers are held to a higher standard when exercising their right to free speech [in their private lives] is patently unfair.”

Meanwhile Levin has put his domain name up for sale, and the site now only sells “Tea-Shirts” to raise money for Levin.

It seems to me that the school district has handled this issue properly so far. If Levin used district time and/or equipment to engage in politicking, or if he tried to promote his personal political views in the classroom, he should be canned.

Otherwise he’s just an American exercising his right to free speech, and becoming a teacher doesn’t mean you forfeit that right – as I’m sure Larson & Co. would be the first to point out if Levin was pro-Tea Party instead of anti.


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Thursday, April 15, 2010

"Is There an Ex-Governor in the House?"

Posted By on Thu, Apr 15, 2010 at 4:39 PM

John Kitzhaber, the once and maybe future governor of Oregon, got a chance to show his medical skills as well as his debating talent at a candidates’ forum on the University of Oregon campus Wednesday night.

According to the account of Kari Chisholm on the Blue Oregon blog, Kitzhaber was in the midst of a discussion with Bill Bradbury, his rival for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination, when somebody in the audience called out: “Is there a doctor in the house?” (Honest, that’s what he said.)

Kitzhaber, a former emergency room physician, jumped off the stage and dashed down the aisle to help an elderly man who, according to a witness, had fallen to the floor and was “frothing blood at the mouth, having a real bad seizure.” Kitzhaber administered first aid, checking the man’s vital signs and making sure his airway was open until paramedics arrived.

The interruption lasted about 20 minutes. When it was over, according to the Eugene Register-Guard account, Bradbury complimented Kitzhaber on his coolness. “I think John has just shown that he was a remarkable emergency doctor,” he said.

But like the seasoned politician he is, Bradbury also took the opportunity to slip in a zinger, chiding Kitzhaber as “someone whose contributions, if returned to the governor’s office, would be limited to diagnosing the state’s ills. ‘We need a prescription for economic and environmental health, because it’s time for action,’ Bradbury said.”


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Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tax Facts You Won't Hear at a Tea Party

Posted By on Wed, Apr 14, 2010 at 6:20 PM

As you wrestle with your 1040s, 1099s, W2s, Schedule C’s and other income tax impedimenta, the Oregon Center for Public Policy offers a few facts that should comfort you – and probably will surprise you, especially if you get your information from Glenn Beck and Lars Larson.

Surprise No. 1: President Obama and the Democratic Congress have not raised taxes for the overwhelming majority of Americans. In fact, 98% of American taxpayers – and 98% of Oregonians – got an income tax cut in 2009.

OCPP cites a report just released by Citizens for Tax Justice that found 98% of working Oregon taxpayers (“working” defined as those who report earned income) benefited from at least one of the four tax cuts included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act signed into law by Obama last year.

On average, Oregonians received $1,087 from these cuts. For the bottom 20% of earners the average was $461, for the next 20% it was $693, for the third 20% it was $650, and for the fourth 20% it was $753. The next 15% of Oregon taxpayers got an average tax cut of $2,090, the next 4% got $4,556, and the top 1% got a cut of $2,820.

A large portion of the break enjoyed by Oregon taxpayers came from the Making Work Pay Credit, which provided a refundable credit of up to $400 per individual or $800 per couple for taxpayers with incomes below $75,000 ($150,000 for married couples) with the aim of stimulating consumer spending. The average Oregon taxpayer got a $520 credit under that provision.

Surprise No. 2: State taxes and spending in Oregon now are no higher than they were 30 years ago, measured as a percentage of Oregonians’ total income.

“The public sector is no more expensive today than it was back in 1980,” OCPP Executive Director Chuck Sheketoff said in a news release. “It costs Oregonians roughly the same share of their total income” – that is, 15% – “as it did three decades ago.”

OCPP analyzed US Census data for every year from 1980 through 2007 (the latest available) and found that “with some fluctuations, in each of those years roughly 15 of every 100 dollars of Oregonians' combined income went to state and local governments in the form of ‘own-source general revenue.’” “Own-source general revenue” includes state and local taxes, fees and charges, and money from other sources such as the state lottery.

But at the same time, working Oregonians who think their taxes have gone up aren’t wrong, the OCCP said. That’s because the tax burden has shifted, with Oregon families being made to shoulder a bigger share of the state tax load as corporations have paid less.

During the period the OCPP analyzed, the share of total revenue paid by corporations went down from 4.6% to 2.2%, while the share paid by Oregon households grew from 22.6% to 26.5%.

“For what it’s worth,” the OCPP’s report said, “Oregon ranks in the middle of the pack among states and the District of Columbia for both the revenue state and local governments generate and the money they spend as a share of personal income.”


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Sunday, April 11, 2010

Doctor Bills, Stud Follies and Bradbury on a Roll

Posted By on Sun, Apr 11, 2010 at 5:16 PM

The Bulletin had a rather odd editorial (well, that’s not exactly news) on Friday morning. The subject was taxes, but what really interested me was the lead-in to that subject, which talked about medical care.

The reason medical care costs so much, the editorialist opined, is that consumers get it too cheaply: “Were Americans forced to pay more up front for the services they use, they might not rush to the doctor’s office for every little ache and pain. Neither would they prod reluctant physicians so forcefully to order up MRIs and other expensive tests.”

I’ve heard that argument before, and every time I always wonder: “Where ARE all these people who are ‘rushing to the doctor’s office for every little ache and pain’? Most people I know dread going to the doctor and put it off as long as possible – sometimes too long. And I don’t know anybody who gets his kicks from having MRIs, CT scans and colonoscopies either.” (I’ve had all three, and trust me, they’re not much fun.)

But the argument fits neatly with the conservative doctrine that when something goes wrong, it’s always the little guy who’s to blame.

Thus the bankruptcy of General Motors wasn’t the fault of the executives who made bad decisions about what kind of vehicles to build – no, it was the fault of those greedy workers who wanted to be paid too much.

The subprime mortgage fiasco wasn’t the fault of the lenders who wrote unsound mortgages or the financial manipulators who packaged and sold securities based on those unsound mortgages – it was the fault of the low- and middle-income people who took out the mortgages.

And the high cost of health care isn’t the fault of health care providers, such as doctors who order unnecessary lab tests and MRIs because they have a financial interest in the labs and imaging centers that do them – it’s the fault of the patients.

In the conservative alternative universe the buck is never passed up, only down. 

***

Once again, as it seems to do in roughly two years out of three, the Oregon Department of Transportation has extended the studded tire removal deadline into mid-April because storms continue to dump snow on the mountain passes.

This almost-annual business of drivers rushing to get their studs removed and then rushing to get them back on again is ridiculous. Oregon should either (a) ban studs or (b) permanently extend the stud season to mid-April. Although people in Salem and Portland might not comprehend it, in two-thirds of this state it’s still winter.

***

Bill Bradbury, aspirant for the Democratic nomination for governor, has come out with his first TV campaign spot. It shows Bradbury, who has multiple sclerosis, rolling along on a Segway. “I’ve found in life that when you’re faced with a challenge, you just have to find a solution,” he says.

It’s a cute ad, but I’m not sure it conveys the proper aura of gubernatorial gravitas. To me, people riding Segways always look kind of silly.


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Thursday, April 8, 2010

Campaigns Look Spendier Here

Posted By on Thu, Apr 8, 2010 at 8:44 PM

Want to run for the Oregon Legislature? You’d better be able to get your hands on at least a quarter of a million dollars.

A new report on 2008 campaign financing by the National Institute on Money in State Politics found that Oregon was one of the most expensive states in the country to run in. Legislative candidates here raised an average of almost $250,000.

“Even that figure is deceptively low,” points out Oregonian blogger Jeff Mapes. “Oregon didn't have any real competitive Senate races in 2008, so races in that chamber were unusually inexpensive that year.”

Counting just the House races, Mapes calculates that only in five states – all much bigger than Oregon – did candidates raise more money: California, Illinois, Texas, New Jersey and Virginia.

On a per-capita basis, only in New Jersey did candidates raise more ($4.41 per resident) than they did in Oregon ($4.16 per resident).

Money talks, the institute’s research found. Nationwide, the winning candidates raised a total of $771 million – 71% of the amount raised by all candidates combined – while the losers collected only $222 million. The advantage of incumbency isn’t just a myth, either: Incumbents nationwide raised an average of $109,818, compared to just $32,155 for challengers.

Why are Oregon campaigns so expensive? As Mapes sees it, it’s not because candidates here need more money but because they can get more money: “Oregon is one of just six states with no limits on contributions - and no limits on direct corporate and union giving to campaigns.”

A state slogan from a few years back said that “things look different here.” In the wake of the recent US Supreme Court decision that corporations and unions have the same right as real people to contribute to campaigns, the whole country – politically speaking – could look like Oregon pretty soon. And that’s not a good thing.


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Wednesday, April 7, 2010

The Latest News from Tax Hell

Posted By on Wed, Apr 7, 2010 at 6:37 PM

We’re still waiting for the mass exodus of businesses that conservatives predicted in the wake of voter approval of Measures 66 and 67 to happen. Meanwhile, a couple of developments this week suggest that Oregon isn’t really such a horrible place to locate a business after all.

Yesterday, the pharmaceutical company Genentech cut the ribbon to open its new manufacturing plant in Hillsboro. The facility will employ 250 people to start, with the prospect of adding more as production ramps up.

“Genentech executives say they chose Oregon for several reasons: taxes are higher in California; Genentech received Strategic Reserve Funds from the state; and there's a well-educated local population,” Oregon Public Broadcasting reported.

The mention of a well-educated workforce shows once again that tax rates aren’t the only factor in deciding where to locate a business – especially a business that employs people with more than a minimum skill level and pays more than minimum wage, which is the kind of business Oregon needs to attract more of.

Meanwhile, a study commissioned by the Council on State Taxation (COST), an association of corporations that lobbies for lower state business taxes, reported that Oregon tied for the lowest level of state and local business taxes in fiscal year 2009.

The study, conducted by the accounting firm of Ernst & Young, compared the amount of state and local business taxes collected in each state with the total size of the state’s economy. On that basis, Oregon tied with Delaware and North Carolina for having the lowest tax level.

The study also calculated how much state spending benefited business and compared that with total business taxes paid. According to that computation, Oregon tied with Virginia and Maryland for giving businesses the biggest bang for their tax buck.

The study doesn’t take last fall’s tax measures into account, but it does seem to show that Oregon’s business climate isn’t as hellish as opponents of the measures claimed – and continue to claim.

“The data confirm that Oregon voters and the legislature were right in asking businesses to chip in a bit more to address Oregon’s revenue shortfall,” Steve Robinson, an analyst for the Oregon Center for Public Policy, said in a news release. “Throughout the recent campaign on Measures 66 and 67, OCPP said business taxes were low in Oregon. This corporate-funded study reaffirms that we were correct.”

Meanwhile, Ben Jacklet, managing editor of Oregon Business magazine, wrote on March 31 that "I still am lacking the name of a single job-creating investor or executive who is in fact leaving Oregon because of Measures 66 and 67." Jacklet cites Genentech, Facebook (which is building a big server farm in Prineville) and Ferrotec (a Japanese company that's planning to open manufacturing plant in Gresham) as examples of businesses that are moving here. (ToH to Steve Novick on BlueOregon.) 

A few months ago I offered $25 to anybody who could produce a bona fide example of a business that moved out of Oregon because of Measures 66 and 67. I’ve had no takers, so I’m renewing the offer today. I’m pretty confident I’m not going to go broke paying off all the winners.  


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Sunday, April 4, 2010

As the Eye Wanders

Posted By on Sun, Apr 4, 2010 at 5:58 PM

I got to see and use the new, improved, expanded Redmond Airport terminal for the first time last week, and it’s a gem.

One bitch, though: If the powers that be could find tens of millions of dollars to expand the terminal, why couldn’t they find a few thousand to put number and letter signs – G6, A5, etc. – on the light poles in the long-term parking lot to help people locate their cars when they return from their trips?

***

Flipping through the Horizon in-flight magazine, I came across a full-page ad for Wenatchee, WA, bragging – in type half an inch high – about its “300 days of sunshine a year.” Is there ANY town in the American West that doesn’t make that claim?

***

Well, yes – Astoria.

Bend has fallen on hard times since the real estate bubble popped and things don’t seem to be getting any better: Friday’s Bulletin reported that notices of default – the first stage in the foreclosure process – hit a record in the fourth quarter of 2009.

But you don’t see evidence here of the kind of chronic, grinding poverty that’s everywhere in Astoria and the surrounding area. Nearly 16% of the population is below the poverty line (compared to 10.5% in Bend) and it looks like the town hasn’t had any real economy since the salmon canneries went away. It’s trying hard to be a tourist attraction but there’s precious little there to attract tourists, unless they enjoy 70 inches of rain a year.

***

Returning home, I realized that Bend is still a small town when I saw the local daily newspaper had devoted the bulk of its front page for two days in a row to a story about a cat stuck in a tree.


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Saturday, April 3, 2010

The GOP's Grand Little Party

Posted By on Sat, Apr 3, 2010 at 6:16 PM

Inevitably, they’re calling it “Bondagegate”: Republican National Committee aides racked up a $2,000 tab at a Hollywood topless club featuring a bondage/S&M theme.

The club, called “Voyeur,” was inspired by the orgy scene in the 1999 Stanley Kubrick movie “Eyes Wide Shut.” Erik Brown, a California-based Republican political consultant, handed the RNC a reimbursement request for more than $1,900 for a visit to the club on Jan. 31, listing it as a “meal expense.”

Although Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele didn’t attend the outing to “Voyeur” and didn’t personally approve the expenditure, the incident has turned up the pressure on him to resign. Big GOP donors are said to be disgusted at his free-spending ways, including (according to a New York Times story) “$17,500 on travel by private jet, in addition to about $15,000 on limousines” plus “several hotel charges ranging in the thousands of dollars, including the W Hotel in Washington ($15,000), the Beverly Hills Hotel ($9,000) and the Four Seasons in Philadelphia ($7,000).”

And that was just for one month.

One of the few defenders of Steele has been Oregon Republican Party Chairman Bob Tiernan, who told The Oregonian’s Jeff Mapes that “Voyeur” isn’t as raunchy as news accounts have made it out to be.

“It's an extremely high-end bar, it's not a topless or bottomless or strip joint kind of place,” Tiernan said.  “They cover a hell of a lot more than a lot of nightclubs do.”

A review published in the Los Angeles Times when the club opened last October described “impromptu bondage and S&M ‘scenes’ being played out on an elevated platform by scantily clad performers throughout the night. … There is also a heavy net suspended above the club's lounge area where performers writhe above the heads of clubgoers. Even more provocative scenes are played out in an enclosed glass booth area adjacent to the club's dance floor area.

“‘It's pretty . . . intense,’ clubgoer Lee Stone admitted on opening night as one female performer with a horse's bit in her mouth was being strapped to the wall by another just behind the booth he was sharing with friends.”

It all sounds pretty kinky to me. But I guess I haven’t had as much experience inside strip clubs as Bob Tiernan has.

Tiernan told Mapes that although the club wasn’t as decadent as portrayed in the media, he still doesn't approve of the party reimbursing people for “spending $1,900 for drinks with your buddies.” The staffer who approved the reimbursement has been fired, and Brown is supposed to pay the party back.

Whether this latest flap will finally bring down Steele remains to be seen, but my guess at this point is that it will soon blow over. What the heck, these guys are working around the clock to save this great country from “socialism” and they deserve a little R&R sometimes.


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Thursday, April 1, 2010

A Public Option for Oregon?

Posted By on Thu, Apr 1, 2010 at 4:48 PM

The public option – government-supported health insurance offered as an alternative to private plans – was a non-starter in Congress, but Oregon could end up with its own version.

Anyway that’s the idea of state Sen. Alan Bates, who says he wants to head the effort to bring a public option to this state.

“We really have a good chance of setting up a public option here,” the Ashland Democrat told the Medford Mail Tribune.

Bates aims to take advantage of an amendment to the national health care reform legislation inserted by Sen. Ron Wyden that permits states to develop their own health care programs, provided they get the necessary waivers from the federal government.

Bates, who’s a practicing physician, said he’s been meeting with Wyden and state health officials to try to figure out how to expand the present Oregon Health Plan to offer a public option. Within two or three years, he said, the expansion could lead to universal health care coverage in the state.

At least one Republican legislator – Dennis Richardson of Central Point – indicated he could be open to Bates’s idea. “I know there is a need to have access to health care,” he told the Mail Tribune, noting that even families with health insurance often are overwhelmed by out-of-pocket medical expenses.

Richardson wants to see any expansion of the OHP take significant steps toward controlling costs. “Reform is often discussed, but rarely implemented,” he said.

“I think [a public option plan] could be worked out, but it will only be possible if the Republicans are involved in the crafting of the bill, rather than be ignored as often takes place,” Richardson said.

That’s all well and good – as long as Oregon Republicans are interested in really negotiating and not just stalling and obfuscating as their counterparts in Washington did.


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