SALEM — The 79th session of the Oregon Legislature took off Monday with the traditional cascade of speeches, press conferences, lobbying, hallway hobnobbing, cake cutting and staking out political turf.
The highlights of the day were the State of the State speech by Gov. Kate Brown; a just-past-dawn press conference by her leading Republican opponent, Rep. Knute Buehler of Bend; and a cavalcade of first hearings on issues from drug pricing to carbon pollution caps.
The Legislature held its first even-year joint session since voters approved the 35-day session in 2010. They came together in the larger House chamber to hear Brown, the state’s 38th governor, give an upbeat picture of the future of Oregon that hewed to Democrats’ progressive agenda.
“My vision is an Oregon where we increase economic prosperity and do it in a way that ensures prosperity is inclusive,” Brown said.
Brown noted that companies in the state still must rely on out-of-state hires to fill many of their positions for lack of suitable local hires. To close the gap, she proposed a $300 million program to train residents in technical trades and careers that better match the job market in Oregon.
Though she included the plan in her speech, she will not ask the Legislature to consider the plan until the 2019 session. If enacted, she said, the program could begin as early as fall 2020.
Brown said the disconnect between jobs and skills was one of the main problems holding back a wider prosperity for Oregon residents.
“For too many in Oregon, the American Dream has become the Impossible Dream,” Brown said. “It seems no matter how much you work, it’s very hard to get ahead.”
Reactions to the speech, predictably, ran along party lines.
House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, praised the address, saying Democrats planned to capitalize on their political momentum.
“I stand with Gov. Kate Brown and her vision for an Oregon where everyone, regardless of where they live, has the ability to succeed and thrive,” Williamson said.
House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, said he was dissatisfied with the issues the governor chose to address. He would have preferred she address current problems such as the projected shortfall in the Public Employees Retirement System.
“The governor gave only a passing reference to our PERS crisis,” McLane said. “She did not address the scandals that have plagued the Oregon Health Authority, and she failed to provide any clear vision for how she would address the heartbreak and suffering of our state’s foster children. When is our state government going to get serious about solving the real problems that are staring right at us?”
The day began with a 7:45 a.m. press conference by Buehler, who is running for governor. In his first press conference since he announced his candidacy in early August, Buehler criticized Brown’s leadership in ensuring the safety of children in foster care.
“This is a situation that is heartbreaking to me and should not be tolerated in the Oregon that we all love,” Buehler said.
Secretary of State Dennis Richardson recently issued a scathing audit of the program.
Buehler called for $50 million to be infused into the current state budget to create a rapid improvement team to immediately implement the 24 recommendations in Richardson’s audit.
“If this isn’t a problem for the governor or Legislature to fix, why are we even here?” Buehler said.
Hearings and bills
The afternoon featured a joint House-Senate hearing on a carbon cap-and-invest program. Each chamber has introduced somewhat different variations on a program that would that would include the state’s largest polluters. The issue has been put on the fast track, with another hearing scheduled for Wednesday.
During the opening of the Legislature, both chambers had to vote on technical rule changes. Rep. Mike Nearman, R-Independence, rose to say he would vote no to protest the continued practice of allowing for anonymous “committee bills” that do not carry the name of a sponsoring lawmaker. “We are elected by the people and we are supposed to be accountable to the people,” Nearman said. “This practice flies in the face of what this institution should be about.”
The rule changes passed. Buehler and Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, voted no.
Bills were then read one by one in rapid succession, to be assigned to committees. House Bill 4029, which would ban a bridge over the Deschutes River at the southwest end of Bend, was formally introduced. It is a “committee bill” with no sponsor, though it does say the bill was introduced at the request of environmental group Oregon Wild. The bill was assigned to the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee, where it will have a hearing Thursday.
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