Homeless in Salem

A homeless camp in Salem.

As the new year approaches, the No. 1 issue for Oregon voters is …

It depends on the voters’ political leanings.

And remember, neither Democrats nor Republicans represent a majority of Oregonians statewide. DHM Research, a trustworthy outfit, asked representative panels of the electorate for their opinions. DHM found some surprises.

Last month, the company asked 582 voters to choose which issues — from a list of 15 — that would be most important for them in voting for state House and Senate candidates in the 2020 elections.

Oregon has about 2.8 million registered voters. About 35% are Democrats and 25% are Republicans. The largest and fastest-growing segment is composed of voters who belong either to another party or to no party. Together, these other-party and unaffiliated voters could hold tremendous power. The wild card is how they will vote.

In the DHM survey, the top issues for the other-party and unaffiliated voters werehealth care, taxes, K-12 education, government spending and the environment.

For Democratic voters who were surveyed, the top issues were climate change, health care, environment, housing and homelessness.

Republicans ranked the top issues as government spending, taxes, gun policy, managing the state budget and homelessness.

The unaffiliated and other-party voters are not represented in the Legislature, whose 90 members are either Democrat or Republican. So it’s telling that in the DHM survey, these voters indicated they generally had more trust in Democrats than Republicans to handle most issues.

It also is interesting that the perennial issue of education was barely mentioned, presumably because the 2019 Legislature passed the Student Success Act. The legislation is projected to raise $1 billion a year for schools for a broad range of programs, including behavioral health services, which are a priority of students and educators alike.

Taxes, however, remain a key issue for Republicans and other-party and unaffiliated voters.

It is a privilege to do business in Oregon, and Democrats taxed that privilege to pay for the education improvements, which most lawmakers thought overdue despite disagreements about the financing. The new corporate activity tax kicks in on Wednesday. Naturally, questions continue as to whether the tax will actually raise $1 billion annually, whether it is fair and whether it deserves alternations.

State Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Tangent, said any tax on gross profits is irresponsible and is “very telling as to how the state of Oregon sees job creators.”

From the Democratic side, Sen. Arnie Roblan, of Coos Bay, a main author of the Student Success Act, wrote to his constituents this week, “These groundbreaking educational reforms and the corresponding funding package in the bill will significantly transform Oregon’s education system for decades to come.”

As the DHM survey shows, homelessness remains a top 5 legislative issue for Democratic and Republican voters. Many homeless individuals frequently wind up in hospital emergency rooms or city and county jails, where they are ill-served. Many homeless women are survivors of domestic violence. Many folks are employed but not at jobs that pay high enough wages or provide enough work hours for rent. Many are youth or families with children. Many dare not go to shelters for fear of being victimized. Many homeless people have substance or behavioral disorders or both.

Gov. Kate Brown, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and others have been staunch advocates for more housing.

But no one has stepped forward to make homelessness the critical issue for the Oregon Legislature — even though the governor, other state officials and the 90 legislators must see the faces of homeless individuals every day as they travel about Oregon’s capital.

That might be changing. Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, is so vexed by the inability of Oregon’s capital to serve the homeless that he will ask the 2020 Legislature for several million dollars toward warming shelters.

Dick Hughes has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976.