When trust is broken

Chris Bouneff

I'll admit up front. For me, it's not hard to lose faith in government. I've watched it operate for too long that I'm not even amused by the game any longer. I crossed that line from young to old.

Given my wariness (or weariness), I shouldn't have been surprised when the Joint Ways and Means Committee co-chairs, in their effort to balance this year's budget, decided against tapping a rainy day fund and instead chose to raid an actual trust fund that benefits those living with severe mental illness. And, yet, that's where I found myself on Thursday. Surprised. Flabbergasted. Frustrated.

I asked a question I never thought I'd ask: When is a trust fund not a trust fund? (Answer: When the Legislature is the one asked to hold those funds in trust.)

A little history. In 1995, the state closed Dammasch State Hospital in Wilsonville, which served as a psychiatric hospital. The concern was raised at the time that closing Dammasch limited the number of available "beds" for people living with mental illness who needed treatment and housing.

The solution was novel. In 1999, the Legislature established the Community Mental Health Housing Trust Account. Proceeds from the sale of the Dammasch site (now the Villebois development) would be held in trust, and interest generated on the principal would be used to build community housing for people living with severe mental illness.

To date, the Trust Fund has worked. The Fund holds about $13 million in principal. And by one estimate, the use of interest income combined with matching private investment has led to some $5 million in new housing being developed around the state. All without costing the state general fund.

By definition, a Trust Fund is supposed to be held in trust. Yet the Ways and Means Committee wants to take $6.5 million in principal to balance this year's budget. And they want to do it without even holding a public hearing. (And, of course, without any assurance that the fund will ever be replenished. As those who passed the legislation in 1999 are about to learn, one legislature can't bind another with a promise.)

Beyond airing the issue, I'm at a loss for words. Is it legal? Of course. The Legislature created the trust fund and it can change the rules. Is it ethical? No, it's not. Good stewardship means honoring the Fund's purpose.

I guess once again, despite the years, I stand at one of those coming-of-age James Joyce moments. My lesson? When lawmakers use the word trust, don't trust them.

Comments

  • George Anonymuncule Seldes (unverified)
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    Reminds me of that great Emerson quote:

    "The louder he talked of his honor, the faster we counted our spoons." --- Emerson, Ralph Waldo

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    You know, Chris, desperation makes a lot of people do desperate things. There are, for instance, people right now raiding their own retirement funds (they've been holding in trust for themselves) because they need the money now. Is that also a great moral failing?

    Saying you don't trust "the government" is a handy cop out for shifting blame for being on the loosing side of a political argument to some amorphous entity, rather than where it really belongs - the voters. I'm on your side in this, but I'm enough of a political realist to know that a large number of voters don't give a damn about the mentally disabled, and will kick out politicians who do.

    Indeed, from getting to know Oregon's political leaders up close, I can tell you pretty authoritatively that they're far more moral than the average person I meet knocking on doors. Certainly they care a lot more.

  • Roy McAvoy (unverified)
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    Many of the homeless roaming our streets are the victims here. For some, the last hopes of housing are about ready to disappear for good. Our jails now house some of these same folks, a population of inmates who have done little more than to have severe mental health issues. I am presuming some lawmakers could care less about this population, but are they so naive they cannot see the long term costs to be incurred by tapping into this trust? Time to hold their feet to the fire.

  • Rep. Peter Buckley (unverified)
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    Chris--

    Hang on, we're still working to make this right. More info tomorrow.

  • rural resident (unverified)
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    Yet the Ways and Means Committee wants to take $6.5 million in principal to balance this year's budget.

    The budget gap is somewhere between $855 million and $1 billion for the remainder of this biennium. If the Ways and Means co-chairs can balance the budget by taking $6.5 million, they're truly magicians when it comes to money management.

  • Blue Sue (unverified)
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    Chris:

    I heard at the Capitol today that Rep. Buckley and a few of the other members are working hard to make sure this fund is left whole. Let us all hope that they find a way to protect the truly vulnerable among us.

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    I understand the cynicism, but so far as I can tell, these are honorable people trying their damndest to do the right thing under impossible budgetary circumstances.

    We are fortunate to have someone with Peter Buckley's intelligence, integrity, and work ethic working on this budget, and I trust him to do the right thing, even when there are no good choices to be found.

  • Roy McAvoy (unverified)
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    I'm not sure raiding the ol 401k in tough times is analogous. This is more like grandma setting up a trust account for her disabled grandson only to have the parents of the disabled boy raid the trust to pay their bills. Wrong, very wrong.

  • Rahul (unverified)
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    nice posting Gay

  • Bill R. (unverified)
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    "I don't trust government."

    The government is us, we are it. So you don't trust yourself, eh! Well I don't trust us so much all the time, but falling into this right wing trap of making the government into some kind of a hate object, as if the government were something not of our creation is simply delusional. Yeah, we can make a mess of things but this idea of some kind of personal betrayal because we make a mess of things is trumped up kind of victimization and an avoidance of responsibility.

  • Salemite (unverified)
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    Update: The House Democratic leadership has intervened and removed the Dammasch Trust Fund from the proposed cut list, so this mental health housing funding will be protected.

    This issue is actually a great example of the way that the House under the leadership of Speaker Dave Hunt and Ways and Means Co-Chair Peter Buckley are providing opportunities for real input from Oregonians, and then acting to address those concerns.

  • jonnie (unverified)
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    Wow. It's amazing how far we have lowered our intelligence since the days of the formation of the US. Our Founders had a distrust in government because they understood that politician's desire is for more power. That's the essence of setting up three branches and formation of a republic vs. pure democracy. They understood that it was likely each branch would try and accumulate power over the other two.

    Remember, the Founders knew that forming a Republic government would be an experiment and would work only if the States held significant local power over the Federal Government. However, the Progressives at the turn of the last century changed that by making US Senator's elected via the People creating more "Democracy" but creating a lobbyists dream - more direct influence. Ever since then Progressives have been changing State Governments into Federal field offices. The most recent example is the strings attached to the "stimulus" money.

    Imagine how limited the lobbyists would be if we diffused the power structure like originally intended and went back to having State Legislatures to appoint US Senators. Governmental power would be closer and more accountable to the people. The further the power structure is developed away from the people by shifting it Federally, the less the government is "the people", the less people trust government, the more people become disengaged. The more Federalization that occurs, the further this experiment gets away from the Founder's intent and the more likely the government will fail.

    Bill - Government is a necessary evil that provides basic security in order for the People as individuals to prosper and develop as they see fit.

    It's not right-wing trap, just an understanding that if government becomes the prominent item in people lives, the less free and more subservient The People become to the political class - just as the political class intends, while giving themselves tax cuts by not paying taxes, sweetheart mortgage deals through Friends of Angelo and Rezko all, enriching themselves through jobs at Freddie/Fannie, all the while lecturing The People at every turn.

    So do I trust busybody and power hungry politicians who think they know better how to run my life than myself? Nope, never have and never will. You can hope for all the change in the world, or hope that government will make wise and good decisions, but it'll never happen.

    Charity, responsibility, begins at home and is within the Individual, not in government.

  • Mos Dusty Prop (unverified)
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    SAM ADAMS broke trust with the voters, the gay community, and his largest donor.

    RESIGN NOW!

  • jonnie (unverified)
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    Who would trust political bodies that:

    Legislate Pi

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indiana_Pi_Bill

    or that All American children are Above Average:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/23/education/23child.html

    and the latest from that State that is the mecca of Hope and Change - legislating Pluto!

    http://www.dailyherald.com/story/?id=273487

    Brilliant. Where do I sign up to place my trust, hopes, dreams, and happiness in the hands of Government?

  • Miles (unverified)
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    Saying you don't trust "the government" is a handy cop out for shifting blame for being on the loosing side of a political argument to some amorphous entity, rather than where it really belongs - the voters.

    But Steve, isn't blaming the voters a handy copout for shifting blame from where it really belongs, on the legislators who support and vote for a particular provision/bill? The voters didn't say anything about this trust fund; the Democratic leadership on Joint Ways and Means, however, did. It sounds like Rep. Buckley is now changing the provision, which is probably a good thing, but this has nothing to do with trust in government or trust in voters. It has to do with specific decisions made by specific legislators. We shouldn't be afraid to name names.

  • Dil Mirch (unverified)
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    Bring back voter tests! Not the ones at the polls, competency tests of basic literacy for legislators to pass before voting on a subject. If a majority can't pass, refer it to a select committee, or ask yourselves why you're voting on it. They can not possibly have considered the wider issues that led to Pluto's reclassification. It has been extremely unpopular, and they seem to be trolling for approval. I thought "Obamism" was to put science ahead of politics?

    Hasn't social security established as commonplace the non-trust trust? As far as the other kind, I have no sympathy for people that put trust in power hungry, corporate bought, manipulative people that take public money for a career. The Libertarian Party isn't more popular, not so much because of the policies or a "throwing my vote away mentality", but because it makes you think out your own position on issues instead of having a bandwagon to jump on. All cons succeed because the mark wants to believe that something that is pretty unlikely or downright impossible is the most reasonable explanation for the situation.

    I agree with jonnie. Everything since McKinley has been a dilution of the founding, democratic principles.

  • we? (unverified)
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    Bull R,

    That was a laugher.

    We can't distrust governmemt because we are the government?

    What a load of bull that is.

    The examples that make that laughable are endless. Apparently you don't even know what government today consists of.

    The EPA didn't even exist before 1971. It now has 17,000 employees and has an $8 Billion budget.

    On the local and state levels we have many agencies and programs that did not exist a few decades ago. We now have government offices chuck full of bureaucrats dreaming up ways to add more.

    As for the elected leaders in charge.

    Look at Sam Adams and his staff.

    A perfect example of "government" that cannot be trusted.

  • ws (unverified)
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    More special needs people on the street and in the jails could be exactly the outcome of a move like this. I recently went on a tour of the Washington County Jail in Hillsboro. It seems to be a very good, well run facility, and even has a separate section, or 'pod', in the jail for special needs people. If the legislature is going to risk the mental health housing fund account's ability to provide community housing for special needs people, perhaps they'd also better anticipate a corresponding expansion of the county's special needs section at the jail and an increase in the jails budget to acommodate that.

  • genop (unverified)
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    A cogent point became awfully muddled while wading through the comments. How can a fund set up to be self sustaining, and provide housing for those most in need of it, be raided and directed elsewhere? Apparently the will of the legis. changed during the course of the comments. That is good. The trust language should provide the answer however. Many trusts may be modified by the trustee but only under conditions set out in the trust agreement. The money generated by this trust is probably a pittance of the total needed to provide housing for the beneficiaries. A pittance however is better than nothing. In these days of belt tightening and budget busting, we need to be ever vigilant in protecting those unable to protect themselves. While the beneficiaries of the trust simply need a place to live, the trustee has a fiduciary duty to maintain the trust corpus, especially in the midst of legislative piracy. If the trust corpus must be invaded, then spend it all on housing for the beneficiaries. Thanks for bringing this to light.

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    "The EPA didn't even exist before 1971. It now has 17,000 employees and has an $8 Billion budget."

    And this is bad...why?

  • (Show?)

    And this is bad...why?

    Well, for one thing it means that rivers are no longer catching on fire, resulting in a devastating and irrevocable loss of totally bizarre events that should never occur in nature.

    For another, it means a dramatic reduction in human ingestion of arsenic, lead, pesticides, and other toxins, which has contributed to an unfortunate increase in human longevity and quality of life.

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