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78th Assembly enters on themes of disparity, inequality

Last week we opened the legislative session for 2015; this is the 78th Assembly.

Rep. Brad WittThe opening is largely ceremonial, with swearing in for representatives and the inauguration of Gov. John Kitzhaber to his fourth term. The celebration and ceremony serve to remind me of the responsibility I have to best represent you and to best serve the people of our state.

We have a lot of work to do to move Oregon to a more secure place where working families can get ahead. As House Speaker Tina Kotek said, “If we are successful, Oregonians will know that it’s become a little easier to make ends meet; to feed their children; to turn a big idea into a thriving business. They will feel safer driving on our roads and over bridges. They will see that teachers are empowered to do their best work, and more children are succeeding in school. They will feel a bit more optimistic about paying for college, about retiring with security, and about living their senior years with dignity.”

Kitzhaber also focused on themes of disparities and inequalities in our state. He drew from the powerful realities of our neighbors who are struggling: 1 in 5 families living in poverty, 30 percent of children are food insecure and the unemployment rates for Oregonians of color and those with disabilities are still far too high.

“That should be troubling to all of us,” Kitzhaber said. “It’s our intent to lift up the whole community, not just part of it.”

There is so much to be done to reduce disparities and make Oregon work for everyone. We know that working families are struggling more than ever to make ends meet. There are more than 197,000 working Oregonians who make so little that they are forced to depend on public assistance programs just to get by. The minimum estimate for what it costs to provide this public assistance to low-wage workers is $1.7 billion.

With these sobering statistics in mind, a lot of hard work has been expended leading up to these first days of the 2015 legislative session. For the first time in legislative history, the co-chairs of the Joint Ways and Means Committee have released an early framework of the 2015-17 budget, which will be reviewed in detail over the next several months as we go through the hearings process.

This budget is designed to build on our historic investments in K-12 classrooms, improve funding for higher education and career training, preserve critical services for vulnerable families, and level the playing field for small businesses. Specifically, this $18.5 billion budget breaks down into the following allocations:

• 51.9 percent for education at all levels

• 25.8 percent for human services

• 16 percent for public safety

In addition, it lists priorities which could be funded if additional revenue becomes available in future economic forecasts. It is a far-sighted budget that seeks to turn away from the lean years of the recession and set us back on the path to reinvestment in Oregon’s future. I look forward to helping us work toward that end.

This week saw the announcement of a broad coalition coming together as “Fair Shot for All” this group is promoting policy solutions to create economic opportunities for working families.

The “Fair Shot for All” coalition announced these priorities for the legislative session:

• Raising the minimum wage;

• Ensuring all Oregonians earn paid sick days;

• Ending profiling;

• Providing a method for people to save for retirement; and

• Creating job opportunities for people with prior convictions and arrests.

The coalition’s website is at http://www.fairshotoregon.org/ and they’re on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/FairShotOR

Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, represents legislative District 31. He can be reached at rep.bradwitt@state.or.us

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