SALEM — She’s banged the big wooden gavel while filling in as substitute House speaker. He’s tweeted out a late-night selfie video of himself in the Capitol’s empty underground garage — the last lawmaker leaving for the day. Their desks are side-by-side on the House floor, just as their districts lie next to each other in Deschutes County.
Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend and Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond, are marking one month into the 2019 session of the Legislature — the first for both.
Since the House convened Jan. 22, the freshman lawmakers have had a steep learning curve. There are hundreds of bills to peruse, back-to-back committee hearings that can start at 8 a.m. and have gone as late as 9 p.m., brigades of groups coming to their offices lobbying on issues and major votes surprisingly early in the session.
The two had very different roads to Salem. Zika won a squeaky-tight GOP primary, then rolled to an easy victory in his Republican-heavy district.
Helt faced no primary challenger, then won in November despite the Democratic voter registration edge in her district.
Those factors have been reflected early in their performance in Salem. Zika has voted with Republicans on key issues so far. Helt has walked a fine line — supporting a Democrat-backed bill on taxes for the Oregon Health Plan, while sticking with Republicans in opposing statewide rent control.
Both sit on the House Human Services and Housing Committee, where Helt recently voted against an amendment offered by Zika to the rent control bill.
No hard feelings on that one, Zika said. “You vote your conscience.”
The Bulletin asked Helt and Zika how their first month in Salem has measured up.
Q: What’s your key accomplishment so far?
Helt: Introducing a number of bills with broad bipartisan support.
Zika: Getting the pilot program that brings affordable housing to Redmond — House Bill 2336 — through the committee with unanimous support. This shows that housing is an issue that all Oregonians face. Both parties are willing to address this issue.
Q: What have you found disappointing about the Legislature?
Helt: How quickly legislation with wide-reaching implications, and what may be unintended consequences, moves through the building. We also tend to spread ourselves very thin by attempting to partially fund a large number of programs, which translates to underfunded and underperforming programs.
Zika: It is always unpleasant to see bills that could drastically affect our small businesses here in Central Oregon negatively. Cap and trade — House Bill 2020 — is definitely one of those bills. While I agree that we need to preserve Central Oregon’s natural beauty and forest, the bill was discussed behind closed doors and without much input from the Republicans or the general public. The bill will increase our natural gas prices by more than 50 percent, putting a bigger strain on Central Oregonian households. I am hopeful that the cap and trade roadshow coming to Bend will allow the Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction to hear some good public feedback.
Q: What have you found surprising?
Helt: The amount of emotion that drives the legislative process and the formation of laws. It is surprising how much legislation is derived from tragedies that people have suffered. Having empathy toward people who have suffered so much while trying to navigate the legislative process has been a challenge as well as a deeply rewarding experience.
Zika: You are juggling a variety of issues — anything from day cares to land use reform. I’ve stayed late at night at the Capitol as a daily routine to read testimonies and bills in my committees. I’ve enjoyed every second of it and appreciate all the briefings and stories I receive from constituents.
Q: Democrats have a 38-22 supermajority in the House. House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, has said Republican aren’t “even speed bumps” against the Democrats’ agenda. As a Republican lawmaker, do you feel that your concerns and ideas are getting a fair hearing?
Helt: My Democratic colleagues have been very open and supportive of me this session, and I appreciate my colleagues from both sides of the aisle. I am also hopeful that my bills will receive public hearings and be fairly considered and debated. I’ve put a great deal of thought into my concepts, which is reflected in the bipartisan support they have received.
Zika: I do feel that I am getting my ideas heard by everyone. While I may agree to disagree with members of the assembly, our discussions are always cordial. Also, the fact that HB 2336 was the first bill to pass out of the House Human Services and Housing Committee this year speaks volumes to the bipartisan ideas and legislation I bring to the table.
Q: What are your top objectives for the next 30 days?
Helt: I will continue to prioritize my education, mental health, daycare and foster care bills.
Zika: I’m hoping to continue forming relationships with my fellow legislators to ensure we are working together to address our constituents’ concerns. I will also work to promote more policies that will help Central Oregon, which includes addressing our housing crisis.
— Reporter: 541-640-2750, email@example.com