An historic session at the Oregon Legislature
The legislative session came to a close Thursday afternoon, June 30, after passing a handful of budgets and minor policy bills. Newspapers sifted for evidence of failure and success, but all acquiesced that the session made history by being remarkably collaborative and civil.
I have to point out the excellent leadership of our governor. Before campaigns begin assigning undue partisan blame for specific things, I want to say for the record that Governor Kitzhaber vigorously fought to keep every promise he made at the beginning of the session. He held all sides accountable and dealt openly and fairly in transforming health care, passing a package of innovative education bills, and changing the culture of how we plan for long-term budgeting.
Very few of my bills reached the governor's desk, but many made excellent headway and are likely to have a shot at passing in a future session. It was difficult to pass any substantial policy bills with the House split at an even 30-30 along partisan lines.
But stopping substantial policy bills ended up being just as important - if not more important - than passing them. I was able to help stop dozens of tax and fee increases on everything from birdseed to soft drinks. We stopped silly ideas like banning bike trailers and requiring a doctor's prescription to purchase tobacco products.
As a co-vice-chair of the Consumer Protection and General Government Committee, I was a bit frustrated to sometimes be the only no vote on what I felt were ridiculous wastes of our time at taxpayer expense. We debated a bill that would make it illegal to sell gift cards unless they could be cashed out after the balance dropped below $5, provided it had been used once. The idea that this was going to have a meaningful difference in anyone's life is ludicrous and to spend taxpayer resources enacting and enforcing something so trivial when the state faces real problems caused me to advocate strongly against it. However, it passed. You'll now be able to cash out the last of your Kitchen Kaboodle gift card and put the $4.99 or less toward your mortgage.
The best thing we did this session was to pass the K-12 education budget before anything else in the state. We also added $100 million to the governor's recommendation immediately, then added an additional $25 million from the school stability fund toward the end of the session, along with several million for special education, rural schools and more. We also put Clackamas Community College's bond request from the general fund into action with $8 million. We did this while balancing a budget that was roughly the same as in the last biennium.
Our job was not simply to fund, but to transform, how government services are delivered. The health care transformation bill restructures how government health care is administered in small clusters. Currently there is little to no communication between doctors, so patients sometimes receive conflicting prescriptions or treatments that result in costly additional care. By targeting smaller clinical groups, the patient's care is collaborative among doctors, which we expect will cut down on errors, waste and fraud in the system.
We also transformed education. The education reform package consisted of a dozen bills. A handful of them were important to the governor, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party independently, but all were steps in the right direction. I committed to vote for the entire package in the spirit of cooperation with all sides. In the end, we were able to get broader support for school choice by allowing students to attend any school, streamlining the application process for charter schools, allowing some school districts to opt-out of ESDs (they will provide these services directly or through contractors) and allowing for stronger vocational training.
We also took the state superintendent of public instruction to an appointed position as deputy with the governor in charge. The process of electing the position had become compromised, as only one well-funded lobby group was interested in the outcome. The powerful teacher's unions have always been able to put their candidate into this position regardless of qualifications. The governor recognized this, and this bill was one of his number-one priorities.
Aside from all the policy work, some of my best moments were working on constituent cases - instances of people being stuck in a quagmire of bureaucracy who contact my office for help. When the state Parks and Recreation Department stopped working constructively with the Salvation Army's Camp Kuralti on a rails-to-trails project planned to go through the middle of their camp, I was thrilled to step in. The Salvation Army provides a camping experience for around 1,500 disadvantaged youth every summer, and a paved Springwater Trail-type pathway through the middle of camp would not only be a distraction but a dangerous risk factor in keeping the kids safe. The camp now has a memo of understanding making design considerations to minimize impact a priority of record.
One of the most impactful constituent service issues ended up one of the easiest to resolve. In an issue of parental kidnapping overseas, a simple missing persons report was needed to start the more elaborate international process. The family had been trying for two years to get the report but was told that the busy investigators would 'get to it.' After a call from our office, the case was prioritized and the family is one step closer to getting their child back.
This regular session was a tremendous experience, and it's been my honor to serve. Together, we've made history - and we've made Oregon a better place. I'm looking forward to doing so for the remainder of my term.
(Patrick Sheehan, R-Clackamas, represents House District 51 in the Oregon Legislature.)