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2011 Washington County legislative scorecard

Increased mental health funding, flexibility in providing jail inmates credit for good behavior are headed to the governor's desk for a signature, but land-use foes are still trying to convince Kitzhaber to veto an urban reserve bill

The 2010 Oregon legislative session has come and gone and in its wake is about a dozen Washington County supported pieces of legislation waiting to cross the governor's desk for approval.

Months before every legislative session a team of lobbyists works in Hillsboro to devise an agenda of bills that the county wants to push during the session.

This year the legislature tackled funding for a future high-capacity transit, road development in an urban reserve and issues surrounding public safety and housing. At each turn, Washington County city and county officials were in the mix.

Out of thousands of bills introduced in the Oregon House and Senate this year the county explicitly supported 13, of which 9 were passed. Only one bill opposed by the county passed this session.

That measure, HB 3188, would have required counties to create a separate fund for lottery monies and report their use to the Oregon Lottery Commission. County leaders argued their lottery funds are already adequately reported, but the bill passed unanimously in both chambers.

There were over 800 bills passed by the legislature this year and Governor John Kitzhaber has until Aug. 11 to veto, sign or passively allow each one to become law.

Below is a sample of county wins and losses.

The bills that passed

HB 3160:

The granting of good time and work credit for inmates now clarified

The statutes governing reduced sentences for good behavior and work for Oregon inmates were unclear before the passage of this bill. It was easy for judges and juries to knock time off sentences but the wording was too vague to allow inmates in the community corrections system the same benefit. The ambiguity was spotted by state legal council and without a change to the law, good time and work credit for inmates on parole or in alternative sentencing facilities would have halted.

HB 3225:

Road construction exceptions can be granted in Urban Reserves

This bill was not initiated in Washington County but began when Hillsboro sought to gain an exception from the legislature for building a major road in an Urban Reserve, outside of the Urban Growth Boundary. Washington County seized the opportunity and worked with Metro to rewrite the bill so that exceptions could be sought in a formalized way by any area in an urban reserve. 1000 Friends of Oregon opposed the bill, criticizing the public process installed by the law for making an exception. The fate of the bill is unclear because the governor has reportedly received push back from lobby groups which argue that these exceptions can be abused too easily. The governor's office didn't respond to a question from the News-Times asking about a possible veto.

HB 3650:

Washington County will receive more funding for acute mental healthcare

This bill is actually a sweeping reform of the Oregon healthcare system but buried within it is an enormous boon to the Washington County mental healthcare system. About 30 years ago the state began handing out money for counties to address the acute mental healthcare needs of its residents. At the time, its metrics for calculating monetary need were based largely on population. Since then, the population of Washington County has ballooned while the amount of funding lagged behind. Washington County currently receives $1 per capita for acute mental healthcare and Multnomah receives $7. However, the money could not be easily increased to Washington County because its funds come from a fixed pot from which Multnomah and Clackamas counties also draw their money. The legislature decided to address the inequity and got Multnomah County to agree to a funding reduction, freeing up an additional $4 million for Washington County per biennium. 'It was a zero sum game,' said Dennis Mulvihill, head of government relations for Washington County. 'This was a heady process and it took nearly 15 years of working on this but it was ultimately a multi-county effort to work it out.'

SB 960:

Special event and activity permitting now possible in areas zoned exclusively for farm use

The Association of Oregon Counties headed the effort to pass this bill which allows counties the option of granting special event and activity permits to areas exclusively designated for farm use. This permitting process can make it easier for farm land to be used for things like weddings, concerts, wine tastings and equestrian events. Mulvihill said this legislation originated from a casual discussion during a meeting at which Washington, Multnomah and Clackamas County representatives were present. The problem of not having a permitting process was mentioned and AOC decided to take up the issue.

'The system works,' Mulvihill said.

The bill that failed

HB 2075: Would have established pre-paid cell phone tax for 911 services

This bill would have applied the same 75-cent-per-month tax for 911 emergency services currently assessed to contract cell phone users to pre-paid cellphones. Pre-paid cell users are expected to soon account for 30 percent of all cell phone users, which is a large number of people not paying a tax needed to support 911 services, Mulvihill said.

'It's a tax equity issue,' he said.

This bill failed because it was a tax increase that neither cell phone providers, retailers, cell users or the legislature wanted to shoulder. Mulvihill said this bill will likely be revamped and will crop up again in a future session.

THe process: how washington county builds its legislative agenda

The county starts the process of developing its legislative agenda by taking into consideration requests made by community members and government departments.

Those requests are then evaluated by Government Affairs Manager Dennis Mulvihill and his team based on three guiding principles: To provide services in the most efficient and effective manner, remain accountable and responsive to citizens and to make Oregon' s quality of life sustainable.

If ideas proposed fit this rubric they are brought before the county commissioners who then examine them in work sessions and mold them into potential legislation.

'It's like making a wish list,' Mulvihill said.

Commissioners often go to Salem during the session to testify in committee hearings about why legislation they backed is important to constituents.

Washington County is just one of the hundreds of interest groups that lobby legislators for changes to the law, including everything from small cities to big tobacco. During the 2011 session, Forest Grove and Cornelius didn't engage in much lobbying, leaving most of the work up to the League of Oregon Cities, which employs a lobbyist to represent city interests in Salem.

But Hillsboro, Tualatin, and Portland all took part in major policy discussions in the capitol.

Because voters chose in the November 2010 election to now hold annual rather than bi-annual legislative sessions, the legislature has already established deadlines for filing bills for next session. Mulvihill and his colleagues have only a short lapse before they have to get back to the drawing board for the next legislative session in February.