Big Victories and a Climate Controversy Cliffhanger

Michael Dembrow

Friends and Neighbors,

When I wrote the last newsletter a couple of weeks ago, it felt as if we’d be going right up to our constitutional end date, July 11, but it now seems as if we just may finish a week earlier, just before or just after the Fourth of July.  Budgets are moving, tough issues are finally being resolved, while others are being let go for another session.  Other than construction bonding decisions that still need to be made and some decisions around tax credits, the one big unresolved issue is the transportation package.  I’ll let you know more about that one at the end of this newsletter.

The last couple of weeks have been exciting for me personally, as several of my priorities—statewide sick leave, “ban the box,” asbestos testing of residences prior to demolition, and even the resolution recognizing Peace Corps veterans, at last made their way through the Legislature.  Others, such as Access to Opportunity (Tuition Equity 2.0) and the Children’s Toxics bill, are poised to move to the floor this week or next.  Really exciting.  I’ll talk about some of them in this newsletter as well.

As I mentioned in the last newsletter, policy committees are no longer meeting.  All the policy action—on bills that still need amendments or that are still trying to find majority support—is now in House or Senate Rules Committees.  Most of the remaining work is now related to the budget, as bills with price tags are being heard and voted on in the various subcommittees of Joint Ways and Means.  Most of the subcommittees will finish up their work this week.  

So, my next newsletter may well be the one celebrating sine die (end of session).  Believe me, I can’t wait!!!

Bike Town Hall: This Sunday!

It’s the 7th Edition of our Annual Bike Town Hall and we are excited to bike a 6 mile loop in the Lents Neighborhood this weekend!  

The forecast calls for potential triple-digit temperatures, so be sure to hydrate and wear cool clothing and lots of sunscreen!  I hope you’ll join me and my partners-in-helmets Alissa Keny-Guyer and Barbara Smith Warner for this tour of happenings in the southern part of the district.  Riders of all speeds and skill levels are welcome.

Meet at 12:30pm on Sunday 6/28 at the Lents International Farmers Market (SE 92nd & Foster Road).  Please be on time so we can get the ride underway as scheduled!

More details on the route further down in this newsletter.

July Constituent Coffee: July 18th

Our July constituent coffee will be delayed a couple of weeks, to avoid the weekend of the 4th and because I will be out of town the weekend following that.  So, please join me on Saturday, July 18th at the Hollywood Senior Center for what will be a wrap-up of the legislative session.  I will give you the low-down on what passed, what didn’t, and all of the task forces and workgroups that will be consuming my time during the interim.  If there is a bill or issue of particular interest, I’ll give an update on that as well.

Constituent Coffee
Saturday, July 18th at 9am
Hollywood Senior Center (1820 NE 40th Ave)

Statewide Earned Sick Leave Heads to the Governor's Desk!

On June 10 I was honored and humbled to bring SB 454 to the Senate floor for approval.  We had a long, vigorous floor debate on the issue (click here to read my floor speech) and ultimately passed the bill on a 17-13 vote.  Two days later the bill passed the House on a 33-24 (with 3 excused) vote.  Once SB 454 is signed into law by Governor Brown (as she has promised to do), Oregon will become the fourth state in the nation with a statewide policy on sick leave—overall, the strongest state policy enacted to date.  You can read more about the new policy in this report from The Lund Report.

It took enormous effort to keep this bill alive and maintain its integrity over the many months since we first heard it in committee back in February.  Despite a lot of pressure to compromise on its core principles, we actually wound up with a program that maintains those principles AND is better in many ways than the original proposal.  It will be easier for employers to implement, while making sure that workers in all industries get the sick leave they need.  Next step: the signing ceremony with the Governor!

Success for “Ban the Box”: A Fair Shot for Ex-Offenders

HB 3025 is another important bill that seeks to help individuals traditionally excluded from getting onto a path to prosperity.  Its purpose is to give ex-offenders who have done their time, who have paid their obligation to society for their wrongdoing, a shot at rebuilding their lives and being able to support themselves and their families.  The bill makes it an unlawful employment practice to exclude an applicant from an initial interview solely because of a past criminal conviction. 

Ex-offenders face many obstacles after they have done their time and are seeking to find employment (and housing as well).  “The Box” is only one of them.  “The Box” is that box on a job application that asks the applicant to indicate whether or not they have ever been convicted of a crime.  In most cases, checking that box is a sure way to send their application into the recycling bin.  What the ex-offender needs is a chance to meet the employer face to face, explain the circumstances of their crime, and provide examples of their successful rehabilitation.  That’s the fair chance that they seek. HB 3025 will provide it.

Six other states-- Hawaii, Illinois, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, and Rhode Island—have passed similar legislation affecting both public and private employers.

This was one of those bills that came to the Senate Workforce Committee demanding a lot of me as the committee chair.  It had passed the House 33-27, with all Republicans voting against it.  The Senate President asked me to work on it with one of our Republican colleagues—Senator Jackie Winters of Salem—to see if I could come up with a version that would attract some measure of bipartisan support.  Senator Winters had a powerful interest in this issue because her own late husband, Ted (author of the memoir Lifer) had been an ex-offender with a life sentence, who turned out to be walking success story for giving someone a second chance.  As an African American, she also understands the extent to which this problem has an inordinate effect on minorities.

I’m pleased to say that we succeeded in coming up with a set of good amendments that got us several Republican votes (with the bill passing 21-8, with one excused) and a great new statewide program to help ex-offenders get back into the mainstream.

At the same time, Senator Winters and I introduced SB 969, which creates the Task Force on Reentry, Employment, and Housing—because Ban the Box alone will not remove all the many barriers that ex-offenders face in their lives.

Marijuana Committee Makes It to Mellow

Oh, yes, I almost forgot one of the most important committees of this session: the joint committee on implementing Measure 91 (aka, the Marijuana Committee).  That committee’s work has been beset by a number of conflicts over the last several months--some between the two political parties, some between the House and the Senate.  Most, interestingly, were related to the existing medical marijuana system.  The challenge has been to find the right way to keep the medical system and the recreational system separate but coordinated.  I think it would be fair to say that many people without a real medical need are using the existing medical system because they have nowhere else to go aside from the black market of illegal sales.  The post-M91 implementation effort is designed to induce these individuals to grow their own or purchase from state-run recreational sales locations.

The committee seems to have nailed down its final agreements last week.  One of the biggest challenges had to do with whether or not local jurisdictions should have the ability to prohibit dispensaries in their locales.  M91 made that possible for recreational sales but mandated no changes in medical sales. Last year the Legislature allowed local governments to prohibit medical dispensaries, but only temporarily.  That moratorium is now running out, so it’s important for the Legislature to decide what’s next.

I’m personally opposed to prohibitions on medical sales, particularly once we’ve managed to limit the medical system to those who really need it.  However, there are many Oregonians who do not want to see dispensaries in their neighborhood, particularly in those areas where most people disapprove of marijuana, recreational or medical.  This is especially true of the rural, Republican-dominated parts of the state.

Ultimately, the committee has decided to distinguish between those counties where there was strong opposition to M91 (55% or more disapproval) and those where there was not.  Those that disapproved when the measure came to the ballot will be able to prohibit dispensaries. (Residents could overturn that decision through the initiative process, but this is probably unlikely.)  Those counties that largely supported the measure or defeated it with less than 55% of the vote will still be able to ban dispensaries, but only via a referral to the voters of the county.  In effect, nearly all of Oregon east of the Cascades will be able to prohibit easily, while most of the areas west of the Cascades will have to go to the ballot box to prohibit it via a vote of local residences.

Access to Opportunity Comes to the Senate Floor

In 2013, after many years of trying, we finally passed HB 2787, which brought Tuition Equity to Oregon.  Henceforth, the children of undocumented workers, children who had been brought up here and graduated from Oregon high schools, could qualify for in-state tuition at our universities.  It has brought a new ray of hope for some very talented, hard-working young Oregonians. 

However, not long after it went into effect, I began to hear from staff at community colleges and universities around the state that HB 2787 had a couple of flaws that were creating unintended barriers to some students.  In our 2011 version of the bill, at the recommendation of the Department of Justice, we put some arbitrary deadlines into the bill.  These are creating problems. 

First, to be eligible, students must enroll in the university within three years of high school graduation.  This is creating problems for some students who have chosen to go to community college before transferring to a university.  For financial or family reasons, they may not be ready to transfer that quickly.  (It’s not unusual for community college students to take longer than three years to get through their lower-division courses).

Second, access to in-state tuition is only good for five years.  Finishing within five years is a potential problem for those students who choose to begin at the university.  It is not unusual for students to take longer than five years to complete their bachelor’s degree.  If students need to take time off or attend part-time for work or family reasons, they will find themselves losing eligibility.

So why did we put these deadlines into the bill?  At the time, California’s tuition equity law was being challenged and had been overturned by the California Court of Appeals.  Our Department of Justice felt that our bill would more easily withstand a challenge if we had deadlines like this.  Soon after, the California Supreme Court reversed that decision and unanimously upheld tuition equity.  At that point, we should have stripped out the deadlines (no other state’s tuition equity law has them), but didn’t.  Now we must, and that is the initial reason for SB 932, the Access to Opportunity Act.

We’ve also decided to use the bill to address another major barrier that these students face: the lack of access to financial aid.  If their parents were legal residents, most would be eligible for a federal Pell Grant of $5,775 per year.  They are not, and there’s nothing we can do about that.  But we can grant them access to state need-based aid (up to $2,100 per year), as other states (including Texas, California, Washington, New Mexico, Minnesota, and Illinois) have done.  That’s the third thing that SB 932 does. 

Critics will say that we are thinning the soup by extending the Oregon Opportunity Grant to these students.  Well, in fact we are not.  One of the very positive outcomes of our improved budgetary condition this year is that the Legislature is increasing the Opportunity Grant by nearly 24% in the next biennium.  That means that more than 13,000 additional students will be able to receive a state grant next year.  Of those, the Higher Education Coordinating Commission estimates that around 350 undocumented students will be able to receive one. 

Clearly, this will not compromise the program in any way.  It will make a huge difference for some very low-income students in need of a lift.  I’ve gotten to know many of these students, both as a college teacher and as a legislator—I can tell you that they are well worth the investment.

Keep your fingers crossed!

Health Care Financing Study Slated for Funding!

You may remember the Health Care financing study bill (HB 3260) that we passed in 2013.  It called on the Oregon Health Authority to oversee a study of different ways of creating and financing universal health care in Oregon.  It was an exciting accomplishment, in part because the bill laid out the principles of what would constitute true universal health care.  However, because of budgetary constraints in 2013, no state money could be used to fund the study—the plan was to raise the necessary resources through grants and philanthropy.  Some money has been raised over the last couple of years, but we remain a few hundred thousand dollars short of what is need.  So we had to come back to the Legislature to extend the timeline for the study and seek some state dollars.

I’m happy to report that the Human Services subcommittee of Ways and Means voted today to approve an allocation of $300,000 for the study.  This is wonderful news.

Controversy After Controversy Around the Transportation Package

As I mentioned at the top, one of the main pieces of unfinished business that is still out there is the long-awaited transportation package.  We came into this session hoping to pass a substantial road improvement package based on an increase in the state gas tax and vehicle registration fees.  This was a high priority for the business community, for rural Oregon, and for legislators of both parties.  State and local roads need maintenance, bridges need repairs, and we need the good jobs that such infrastructure projects create.

It was always going to be a challenge, however, as tax increases always are.  Remember, to raise revenues, the Oregon Legislature is constitutionally required to pass both chambers with a 3/5 super-majority.  If all 18 Senate Democrats agreed on the package, it could conceivably pass on a party-line vote.  In the House, where the Democrats are one seat short of a super-majority, at least one Republican vote would be needed.

As a result, the Republicans have leverage if a transportation package is to be funded, and they are using it.  They are holding out for the repeal of the Clean Fuels bill (SB 324), the controversial carbon-reduction bill that the Legislature passed early in the session.  They have made it clear that they would not support even a modest increase in the gas tax without the repeal of Clean Fuels.  Needless to say, this creates real problems for those of us who would like to see us improving our road infrastructure but who are committed to reducing our carbon footprint. (Clean Fuels is the only significant climate-change bill to pass this session.) That certainly includes me, as one of the chief sponsors of the Clean Fuels bill.

The Governor, who has made the transportation package a priority for all the right reasons, has been pressing the Legislature to see if there isn’t a way to agree on a plan that would replace Clean Fuels with something that uses a different mechanism to get to the same carbon-reduction ends.  So, the Senate President and the Speaker of the House put together a special committee to explore the possibility of a comparable alternative to Clean Fuels, along with a transportation package that can pass.

The 8-member group met behind the scenes with the Governor’s staff over a number of weeks. Reports leaked out that it was getting close to a recommendation but couldn’t quite get there.  At that point, a group of 19 House members sent a letter to the Governor, letting her know that they would not support a package that included the repeal of Clean Fuels. (For the record, some of us senators were prepared to make a similar statement.)  With that, things precipitated, and a recommendation quickly emerged from the group (though in the end, not everyone in the group agreed with everything in it).

You can see an overview of the initial Clean Fuels replacement and the transportation proposal here:

Document 1

Document 2

We were briefed on the highlights of the plan late last week.  The details are still being worked out as I write.  We should expect to see hearings on the proposal by the end of this week.  At this point, what’s most important to me is that we have a clear understanding of the plan and the ability to have it fully vetted and debated.  To be honest, though, it’s going to be tough to do that with so few days left in this session.  And it’s going to be tough for me to support it, given what I’ve seen of it so far.

This is very much a story in progress, so stay tuned. 

Bike Town Hall: The Dirty Details

First, we’ll start at the Lents International Farmers Market. Check out the local vendors, and pick up some berries for snacking. The unique variety of food at the Market represents the community in Senate District 23 like no other farmer’s market!  We are excited to fill our bellies with local fruits and veggies! Are you?

Second, we’ll head to the Lents Town Center, a business district for shopping, dining and exploring on foot! This area is joined together by Foster, Woodstock, 92nd avenue and I-205.

Next up are the Belmont goats. These kids (get it?) were moved from “the goat blocks” on SE Belmont and 11th. You may have passed them by in your car, or stopped to give them a treat. Now they live on 91st and Foster, where they graze like there’s no tomorrow! Check out the goats’ personalities before you meet them on Sunday, here or watch a video about them here.

Are you ‘Lents Grown’? We’ll stop by Lent Elementary to learn about alternate forms of transportation to get around the neighborhood, including the Neighborhood Greenways, Safe Routes to School, and the Lents Green Ring Project! These projects are meant to encourage biking and walking through signage and community outreach. 

Then we’ll visit 104th and Yukon, where the city completed work on the Foster Floodplain project in 2012. This project was designed to mitigate risk of flooding on Foster road, and created a natural area for habitats and the community to access.

The Green Lents project has produced some really great community programs, including the Malden Court community orchard which is maintained by community members invested in developing the land, sharing the yield, building relationships, and creating learning experiences.

Next up, we’ll visit two different intersections to check out some Intersection Repair Projects. The first, at 85th and Knapp, will show us a project that was completed in 2013. Then we’ll ride over to 86th and Glenwood to see the painting in action! Check out the City Repair’s website to learn more about how to get involved in these creative and beautiful community building projects!

The NAYA Generations Project is our next stop. The Generations Project is a part of the larger NAYA organization, which provides a wide range of human services to the Native American community in the metro area. This site, which used to be the Foster Elementary School, is a housing development with subsidized units for seniors, low income families and foster parents.

Our last stop is the Portland Mercado! This is the first Latino market in Portland, with food carts, businesses, art and culture! The Mercado provides affordable retail space for new businesses to grow and thrive, while also bringing cultural diversity to the neighborhood.

See you in the district!

dembrow signature

Senator Michael Dembrow
District 23

phone: 503-281-0608
mail: 900 Court St NE, S-407, Salem, OR, 97301