Oregon Legislature reconvenes

Lawmakers convene at the Oregon Senate on June 29 after minority Republicans ended a walkout over a carbon-emissions bill.

The partisan excesses and political turmoil of the 2019 Oregon Legislature have been well-documented. But the now-finished legislative session also should be remembered for some good work on behalf of the entire state.

Much of that work was bipartisan. Much of it drew little public attention. Much of it would help rural Oregon.

There are many examples. Here are a few.

The Legislature fulfilled its constitutional mandate to write a balanced state budget for 2019-21, while also building up a healthy rainy-day fund. By the way, Oregonians will get to keep their “kicker” tax refund next year, although the amount won’t be known until next month.

Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, was a constant voice for fiscal sanity — and understanding the needs of rural Oregon — in her role as a Senate co-chair of the budget-writing Ways & Means Committee. Her reputation for holding state officials accountable was undaunted.

She and other lawmakers challenged public universities to learn from community colleges by collaborating on their building needs and addressing their deferred maintenance instead of constantly seeking state money for new buildings.

And Johnson was instrumental in securing state money for projects in Clatsop County — $1 million for the cleanup and redevelopment of Astoria Warehousing, $2 million to help turn a former youth prison in Warrenton into the new Clatsop County Jail and $1 million for stage and other improvements at the Liberty Theatre.

A proposed university center to train rural health care workers received $10 million. The proposed Southern Oregon Medical Workforce Center in Roseburg would be a collaboration with Newberg-based George Fox University. It would offer bachelor’s and graduate degrees in allied health professions, such as physical therapy and mental health. The concept is that people trained in rural Oregon are more likely to take health-care jobs in rural Oregon.

An increased 911 tax will help emergency dispatch centers hire more staff and modernize their technology. Although call volumes have increased dramatically, the emergency communication tax had not increased in nearly 25 years, according to the legislation’s tenacious sponsor, Rep. Lynn Findley, R-Vale. The monthly tax will rise over a two-year period from the current 75 cents to $1.25 per phone line. That measure, House Bill 2449, passed the Senate in the Legislature’s final hours. It was an illustration that even the best ideas needed constant attention and unending advocacy to survive the legislative process.

Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, and Johnson sponsored SB 290, which protects farmers, ranchers and volunteers from civil liability for helping fight wildfires. The legislation, which passed unanimously in both chambers, stemmed from the Substation Fire that burned more than 78,000 acres of crop and range land in Wasco and Sherman counties.

Another bipartisan bill successfully sponsored by Hansell and Johnson aims to increase student achievement and improve graduation rates through state coordination with FFA programs.

Among major issues on lawmakers’ agenda, they did a little bit to pay down the Public Employees Retirement System’s unfunded liability, although public-employee unions howled that it was too much and Republicans said that it was too little. In one little-noticed but important move, the Legislature also allowed the Harney District Hospital in Burns to offer a retirement program other than PERS and to fill job vacancies by rehiring PERS retirees without affecting those retirees’ pensions.

Oregon’s beleaguered child-welfare system gained the money and program changes to add 347 frontline workers. Oregon State Police can hire 40 troopers. Oregon State University Extension Service — one of the most popular programs among legislators — gained new investments for fire resilience, water basin research, organic farming and berry research. The Legislature appropriated $14 million to rehabilitate the Wallowa Lake Dam after Gov. Kate Brown visited the area and learned the potential for a dam disaster.

High-profile items such as family leave, education funding, climate change, gun control and rent control dominated the news at various times during the past five months. Amid dealing with those controversial issues — for good or bad — legislators collaborated on a lot of good work.

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