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Legislature in review: The Senate

The News-Times gave members of the western Washington County delegation a chance to share some of their favorite anecdotes from the session.

With all but one of the hundreds of bills that passed through this year's legislature signed by Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (the man once called 'Dr. No' this year vetoed only one bill, relating to the florist industry) and a short legislative session wrapped up weeks ago, it may seem like the work done by lawmakers is far in the past.

Yet, the bills crafted by Washington County's legislative delegation will have ripple effects for many years to come. Take, for example, the legislative boundaries negotiated by Hillsboro Republican Shawn Lindsay that will redefine Oregon electoral politics for the next decade. Or the bill pushed by state Sen. Bruce Starr that will reduce the number of contentious court cases over the culpability of parents whose kids die because of a lack of medical care.

With primary elections slated for next year, voters will soon get a chance to weigh on their legislator's performance.

But first, the News-Times gave members of the western Washington County delegation a chance to share some of their favorite anecdotes from the session, bills they're proud to have seen passed and those they were frustrated to watch die on the vine.

State Sen. Betsy Johnson (D-16th, Scappoose)

Sen. Betsy Johnson got a plum committee post during her 2001 freshman year in the Oregon Legislature and she has been focused on the state's budget ever since.

'My assignment now and always has been the budget,' said Johnson, now a veteran on the Joint Ways and Means Committee. 'My largest contribution to Washington County is that we came into this session with a $3.5 billion budget hole and we were able to produce a balanced budget.'

Her intensive work on the budget-writing committee precludes her serving on other policy panels.

'I had a little handful of bills that constituents asked me to work on but in this economic climate I knew I was going to have my hands full with the budget so I didn't shepherd a huge number of bills through this session,' Johnson said.

However, Johnson was a negotiator in a deal brokered with the Oregon Association of Hospitals that will fund the extension of insurance coverage to more than 80,000 children under the state's Healthy Kids Program.

Johnson will soon face the challenge of getting to know a new constituency because Senate District 16 changed significantly during this session's redistricting efforts. Her district will now encompass more of Washington County and less of Tillamook.

'Anybody with any familiarity with politics knows redistricting is a highly political activity,' Johnson said. 'The entire state has to go together like a giant jigsaw puzzle,' she says. 'That means if you manipulate one district, there is a ripple effect.'

The redistricting plans passed through the legislature handily and the changes will take effect in 2013, which means Johnson will run in the new district boundaries during the next election.

'I will be working to earn the trust of Washington County,' she said.

State Sen. Bruce Starr (R-15th, Hillsboro)

Bruce Starr's been in the Oregon legislature since 1999, when he was elected to the House of Representatives. Starr said a law passed this session finished a job he started in his freshman year.

In 1999, legislation was passed that eliminated the use of religious belief as a criminal defense.

This year, HB 2721, which Starr helped pass, 'finished the job we started in 1999' in eliminating a shield law for parents who refused to take their children to the doctor and instead relied only on prayer.

He serves as vice-chair of the Senate Business and Transportation Committee and is a member of the Joint Ways and Mean Subcommittee on Transportation and Economic Development.

This session, Starr sponsored SB 898, which allows the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to check the ages of performers and workers in establishments licensed by the OLCC. The bill authorizes OLCC inspectors to check the ID of workers to ascertain if he or she meets the minimum age requirements of the job, whether the worker is a stripper or a busboy.

'This is an anti-trafficking bill and aims to identify and provide services to young girls who may be victims of human sex trafficking,' Starr said.

However, another idea that Starr floated was shot down without a due hearing. Starr proposed the state should spend only 97 percent of tax revenue and save 3 percent in a constitutionally mandated reserve. He said many other states have a similar system for saving tax revenue.

'Democrats in the legislature refused to hold a public hearing on the bill,' Star said. 'I don't know when we will ever learn to save when times are good for when they're not so good. This is something we need to work on.'

The veteran lawmaker is also disappointed that there was no reduction in the capitol gains tax.

Oregon, which taxes capital gains like other income, has a top rate of 11 percent, the result of a tax increase passed as part of Measure 66. In January, the rate will drop to 9.9 percent. But currently, Oregon has the second-highest tax rate on capital gains in the nation, Starr said.

'It forces people with investments to move them outside Oregon or to not invest in our state,' Starr said.

Starr did succeed in passing SB 984 to get the City of North Plains an extension on the time it had to pay back its city unemployment fund.

'They had a situation where they were getting hit with steep increases in their unemployment bill because of 20 city jobs which are receiving extended unemployment payouts,' Starr said.

The city originally had to pay back $60,000 over a one year period into its unemployment fund but because of the new legislation it now has three years.