The courts are full of cases in which one party agrees to do something in return for money or other assets and, for one reason or the other, welches on the deal.
That, in short, is the case the state of Oregon recently lost. It took possession of 700,000 acres of timber land from 14 counties in the 1930s and 1940s. In return, the state said it would generate income from that timber and split it with the counties.
When the state reneged on the deal and decided it would manage most of the land as wildlife habitat and for recreation instead of timber production, the counties were out their land and the income the state promised to generate from it.
It’s really a fairly straightforward case of one party, the state, unilaterally changing the conditions of a contract. In turn, the other party, the counties, want their money.
At least that was the assessment of a Linn County jury when it agreed with the counties and several tax districts that the state had massively shortchanged them. The jury set the amount at $1 billion. This has the lawyers at the state Department of Justice scrambling in a quest for loopholes to get the state out of its jam. They have appealed to the state Court of Appeals, which will take up the dispute on Feb. 22.
This makes us wonder what the state is trying to do, and why. It is arguing that one part of the state government, counties, cannot sue another part.
We’re not lawyers, but the fact that the state has taken the position of trying to wiggle out of a mess it created is unsettling.
The basics of the case are that the state shortchanged the counties. We have seen no evidence otherwise. When the state says it will manage land to generate income and then doesn’t do that, there is no other way to interpret it.
So the state will go to the appeals court. Ultimately, the case could end up in the Oregon Supreme Court. How it will turn out, we cannot say. But we can say the state is the irresponsible party and owes the counties their money, their timber land, or both.
These are not rich counties. They have been victimized by the state and by federal environmental laws, which have reduced the timber industry upon which they depended to a shadow of its former self. The result: The counties are on financial life support. Congress provides some money to help keep the lights on, but the state, at least in this case, has taken a hard line.
The sad irony is Oregon’s taxpayers will pay for the state’s poor judgment no matter the outcome of the legal case.
If the state loses, taxpayers will be on the hook for $1 billion.
If the state wins, it will have stuck it to the 14 counties and tax districts that it shortchanged.
Either way, the state will have done real damage to Oregonians.
We urge the attorney general and governor to sit down with the counties and negotiate an equitable resolution to this dispute. That’s the only reasonable way to settle the mess the state created.