SALEM — Health care woes, wildfire policy and a cascade of political comings and goings swirled around the state Capitol on Monday.
Legislative leaders heavily frontloaded the “Committee Days” — sometimes beyond the stretching point — Monday and Tuesday with a total of 14 hearings each, while Wednesday has eight and Thursday, two.
On Monday, hearings overlapped, with lawmakers and invited speakers pingponging around the ground-floor Capitol hearing rooms. Some Republicans grumbled openly that the Democratic-controlled committees gave their concerns and issues short-shrift.
Upstairs, the House and Senate chambers were silent — committee days are “interim,” taking place between sessions as a time to plan, debate and vent — but no legislation can be considered until the 2018 session, lasting just 35 days, is gaveled to order Feb. 5.
Outside the hearings were political developments that will reshape the Central Oregon legislative lineup and reports of another Republican considering a challenge to Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, the GOP front-runner for governor.
Some of the highlights from Salem:
Three candidates chosen for vacant House seat
Robert Perry, a Redmond businessman and former Deschutes County Republican Party chair, is among three candidates for the open House District 59 seat. Jefferson County Commission Chair Mae Huston, of Madras, and businessman Daniel Bonham, of The Dalles, are also under consideration. The seat became open when Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, resigned to become the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development director for Oregon. Under state law, the appointment must go to a member of the same party as the lawmaker who resigned. Perry, Huston and Bonham were selected by local GOP committees. The final vote will be made by the commissioners of the counties in the district: Deschutes, Jefferson, Wheeler and Wasco.
More Medicaid overbilling likely
Oregon may have more Medicaid payment woes that could stretch into next year. Pat Allen, the new head of the troubled Oregon Health Authority, told the Senate Interim Committee on Health Care that the $74 million Oregon erroneously billed the federal government for may not be the end of the problem.
“Without doubt there are things that we are going to find out about,” Allen said.
Buehler sent Brown a critical letter and suggested an independent investigation was needed. Brown called for state authorities to seek the return of the entire $74 million owed to Washington. The payouts went to the state’s 16 coordinated care organizations.
Fires cost the state $33 million
In appearances before two committees, state and federal forestry officials said Oregon spent $33 million on fighting fires that burned more than 710,000 acres in the state. The largest blaze was the Chetco Bar Fire in southwest Oregon that burned 191,000 acres. In comparison, the Milli Fire, west of Sisters, burned 24,025 acres. Firefighters spent 40 days on the highest level of alert with all units available called into the effort. The 48,831-acre Eagle Creek Fire just east of Portland swept 13 miles in 16 hours, jumping I-84 and the Columbia River to set fires in Washington.
“That’s not our typical fire behavior,” said Jim Pena, regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service.
Officials had expected the hundreds of thousands of visitors coming to Oregon for the eclipse would cause several fires. But education and vigilance by local and state authorities kept the fire levels below an average year.
Lawmakers called for additional hearings on the fires during Committee Days.
Ferrioli nearer to departing the Senate
One vacant Central Oregon legislative seat moved toward being filled while another moved toward a vacancy Monday. One of the few exceptions to taking action between sessions is appointments by the governor. The Senate Rules Committee approved the nomination of Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, to the Northwest Power & Conservation Council. Ferrioli will have to resign his seat before he takes his $120,000-per-year position on the panel early next year. Ferrioli’s 11-county district includes northern Deschutes County and all of Jefferson County.
Conservative challenge to Buehler still sketchy
Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Roseburg, said Sunday he will wait until after the Jan. 23 special election to decide his own political future, dampening rumors he was jumping into the GOP primary for governor against Buehler. Conservatives who say Buehler is too moderate have been seeking a candidate with name recognition, money or both to get into the race. Secretary of State Dennis Richardson and House Minority Leader Mike McLane have both considered and rejected the idea. Hayden is one of the main forces behind the “No on Measure 101” campaign, which seeks to overturn portions of a $550 million health provider tax that would be used to fund medical insurance for low-income Oregonians. Hayden, who operates a dental business, spent nearly $20,000 last month on a poll by Wenzel Strategies, a Washington, D.C.-based firm with deep Republican ties, fueling rumors he might run. But waiting until late January leaves relatively little time for the fundraising and campaigning necessary for a statewide race. Buehler, who announced his candidacy in early August, has raised more than $1.8 million since then.
— Reporter: 541-525-5280, email@example.com
Editor’s note: This article has been clarified. The original version did not clearly state Gov. Kate Brown’s position on repayment of the Medicaid funds. Kate Brown made no public statements about seeking repayment until Nov. 7 when she ordered the Oregon Health Authority to try to collect the funds.