MitchMessage: January 9, 2013

Pre-Session Report

My next two town halls, jointly with Senator Elizabeth Steiner-Hayward, will be held on February 2.  The first will be at 10am at Friendly House (1737 NW. 26th Ave at Thurman), the second will be at 2pm at the Cedar Mill Community Library (12505 NW. Cornell Rd. at Saltzman).  Come along and share your ideas with us for improving Oregon. 

I am eagerly awaiting my sixth session in the Oregon House of Representatives.  This 77th session of the Oregon Legislature will begin with a one-day organizing meeting on January 14 and will adjourn until we get down to work for earnest on February 4.  Three things will happen on the 14th --- we will elect the Speaker, we will adopt the rules, and we will have the first reading for about 800 bills that have been pre-session filed.  The first reading is an actual reading of the bill number and the “relating to” clause of each of the bills by the reading clerk.  This wonderfully archaic ritual is fun to watch, as the clerk buzzes through the bill reading in about an hour.  The importance of doing the first reading in advance of February 4 is that the Speaker’s staff will then be able to assign the bills to committees so we can get right down to work on the first day we come back into session.  The whole session is programed to have us finish by June 30.

During the last session the House was split 30-30 between the Democrats and the Republicans.  As a result of the last election the House now has 34 Democrats and 26 Republicans.  Tina Kotek will almost certainly be elected Speaker, since she is the unanimous choice of the Democratic Caucus.  I think she has all of the characteristics necessary to become a great speaker --- she is smart, hardworking, universally courteous, and very tough.  Tina will become the first openly lesbian speaker of any house of representatives in the United States.  She was, during last session, the leader of the Democratic Caucus.  Rep. Val Hoyle, of the Eugene area, is now Majority Leader in the House.  It is worth noting that with Senator Diane Rosenbaum, the Majority Leader of the Senate, three of the four leadership positions of the Legislature are held by women.  That is another important first for Oregon.

I have been named to chair the House Committee on Health Care once again, with two able vice-chairs, Republican Rep. Jim Thompson and Democratic Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer.  I expect that a great deal of my time and energy will be occupied with duties of the chair this session, as we continue the work we began in past sessions transforming the Oregon Health Plan and implementing the Oregon Health Insurance Exchange, now called “Cover Oregon.”  I will keep you informed on these topics as the session progresses.  I can say that the health care system in Oregon is going to change in some very dramatic ways, and I continue to believe that these changes will improve the access, effectiveness, and efficiency of health care in Oregon.

In addition to my work as Health Care Chair I have my usual ambitious legislative agenda.  Fortunately, I have an able legislative aide this session to share the burden.  Autumn Shreve, a recent graduate of the University of Oregon Law School, joined the staff in August and has already begun to focus on that agenda.  She will be a primary resource if you need help with any issue and will probably be easier to get to then I will be.  As usual Harriet is always readily available to deal with scheduling problems and to be generally there to help.

Among the new things I will be focusing on this session is a measure (HJR 1) to refer to the voters a constitutional amendment to abolish the death penalty in Oregon.  I have consistently spoken against the death penalty since my very first campaign in 2000, but I have done nothing to act on my beliefs.  I decided my conscience did not allow me ignore the issue any longer.  Stimulated by Governor Kitzhaber’s call for the citizens of Oregon to have a serious conversation about the death penalty I had the measure drafted.   I am now in active conversations with groups interested in helping get the measure passed if we can get the referral out of the Legislature.

Legislators are frequently invited to do “ride-alongs” with various professionals, such as state troopers, school principals, and teachers.  Legislative concepts frequently come out of these experiences.  About a year ago I did a “teacher for a day” stint in a grade school in northeast Portland.  I was appalled by the alarming lack of security at that school.  I was teaching in a third grade classroom right next to an unlocked door, one of several unmonitored and unlocked doors at that school.  I checked in with the security department of Portland Public Schools and found out they were as concerned as I was, but because of budget limitations they were not able to implement limited access systems, security TV systems or other security infrastructure improvements.  That got me to work on a bill (HB 2337) that would create a matching fund to which school districts could apply for help in improving the safety of their schools.  Ironically, I introduced the bill the day of the tragic school massacre in the East.

I will be back with some of my old chestnuts this year.  I have noted that it frequently takes several sessions to pass complicated legislation.  I have a couple of anti-smoking bills, including a $1 per pack cigarette tax and a proposal to move cigarettes behind the prescription counter.  The later proposal is in recognition that tobacco is more addicting than heroin and its use needs to be controlled.  I also have a gas tax proposal to provide resources for our failing highway system.

I have a bill to slow spending money on developing the Columbia River Crossing proposal until we have some indication that it really is possible to fund and carry out.  I am opposed on this idea by the Governor, the Speaker of the House, the entire business community, and most labor unions.  But it is clear to me there are better alternatives to do the job and that the current plan cannot possible happen, despite the fact that we have already spent nearly $200 million planning the project.

I am very worried about Oregon’s public health system.  Currently we lodge the responsibility for local public health in our counties.  But counties are currently under terrible fiscal stress and many are in danger of going bankrupt.  Few counties put general funds into the local public health system.  Consequently most of the local health agencies are fully funded by funds coming from the state, most of which come to the state through the Centers for Disease Control.  I have a proposal to create a regional public health system to relieve the counties by moving local public health to a system of eight regional public health agencies which could combine the resources to allow much more effective organizations.  This would modernize Oregon’s public health system.

My other committee assignment is the House Committee on Higher Education.  This session will provide special focus on our system of higher education as a part of the recognition that we have failed to support higher education in Oregon.  At the same time we have created goals for educational attainment in our population that will only be achieved by a new focus on the organization and delivery of higher education services.  We will particularly be dealing with the governance of our major universities and the questions of creating independent boards for Portland State and the University of Oregon.  I will continue to advocate for the idea that Portland State should become independent of the Oregon University System and should be governed by the same board that governs the Oregon Health & Science University.  An augmented board with responsibility for both major metropolitan universities would be in a stronger position to create a world-class system of higher education in the metropolitan area and therefore for Oregon.

We continue to welcome your emails urging certain policies.  We receive a great deal of mass emails from folks on all sides of issues.  But I can tell you that two or three original emails about heart-felt positions communicate much more effectively than 100 of the robot messages sent in response to a mass communication from some special interest group.  Please keep your messages coming.

Mitch