Settling the Dust

Michael Dembrow

July 14, 2017

Friends and Neighbors,

Well, it’s been nearly a week since the 2017 session came to an end, and I’m happy to say that I haven’t been to Salem once this week!!! 

The dust is still settling on the session, and the media is full of post-mortems and judgments of what we did and did not accomplish.  I want to apologize for the somewhat discombobulated nature of last week’s newsletter, which was very “real-time” in its description of the final days. 

If the session had ended a week earlier, it would have been full of disappointments, but fortunately some very important, if controversial, bills passed during the last week.  In some cases, they were bills that had passed one chamber earlier but were on hold in the opposite chamber’s Rules Committee (either because they needed tweaks or were part of a larger deal); in others, they were bills that were in Ways and Means for cost reasons and awaiting final decisions.  I wrote last week about some of them: transportation, criminal justice reform, reentry reform, reproductive health care, and healthcare for all children.  In this newsletter I want to mention some of the others.

That’s not to say that there weren’t disappointments, and in many cases we came frustratingly close:  many of them came down to being one vote short in the Senate.

I’ll leave discussion of the disappointments to another newsletter.  Not that I’m trying to forget them!  On the contrary, they represent ongoing commitment and effort for the 2018 and 2019 sessions.  You’ll hear more about them in upcoming newsletters.

And I will say that often the results were a mixture of progress and disappointment.  I mentioned in the last newsletter the mixed results on diesel: moving forward on school buses, stuck with the status quo on trucks and construction equipment.  The same can be said for housing: disappointing on protections from rent spikes and no-cause evictions, positive for substantial financial investments in affordable housing. (Here is a good summary of them.)

Overall, I would say that this was a successful session in many ways.  It was a strong session for the Governor, who wound up accomplishing most of her key goals (especially transportation and the various human rights issues) by the end of the session.  Though transportation and the search for revenue dominated the session and influenced much of our work, we ended up passing a lot of good legislation.  While debate on the House floor was often polarized and rancorous, in the Senate there was a surprising amount of collegiality this session, particularly when compared to the bitter 2016 short session.  Many bills wound up with surprising bipartisan support.  When we disagreed, tempers generally were kept at bay.  Let’s see if it stays that way!

For those of you that can make it, I’ll happily provide more details and answer your questions at tomorrow’s town hall and at upcoming constituent coffees.

Upcoming Events: Town Hall & Coffee

As you hopefully know, I'll be co-hosting a town hall tomorrow morning with my house Colleague Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer.  Hope you can join!

Post-Session Town Hall w/ Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer

Saturday, July 15th 10am-11:30am
PCC Southeast Campus, Great Hall



Our next in-district event will be the August constituent coffee -- but please note a change here.  Rather than the first-Saturday of the month, we'll be meeting on August 12th at the Hollywood Senior Center.

We are also working to nail down a date for this year's edition of our annual Bike Town Hall, so stay tuned for that.

Savoring Some Wins

Controlling the Environmental Impacts of Demolitions: SB 871

Successful legislating is all about patience, about progressing steadily forward on issues from session to session.  SB 871, a bill that made it through the House on the very last day of the session, is a good example of that.  Back in 2014 some people attending a constituent coffee brought up the problem of toxic asbestos and lead dust blowing into neighborhoods when homes are demolished, as is happening more and more frequently in Portland.  When we researched the problem, we discovered that precautions need to be taken when commercial structures are demolished, and when homes are remodeled; but when homes are completely demolished, there was a statutory gap. 

The result, some of you will remember, was SB 702, which I chief-sponsored along with Rep. Keny-Guyer.  At the end of the day, it was only a partial solution to the problem.  We had to limit the bill to a focus on testing and mitigating for asbestos, relying on DEQ to monitor compliance.  At the time, it was unclear which state agency would have jurisdiction over lead. We promised to form a work group during the interim to try to work out the issues around administrative oversight and inclusion of lead.  Ultimately, that lead to SB 871, which both solved the lead problem and clarified the role of the city in the process.  With the new authority created by SB 871, the city of Portland will be making it easy for neighbors to be notified of potential demolitions and the steps being taken to guard against toxins being released into the air and finding their way into gardens and other nearby surfaces.

Interestingly, the legwork on the original bill was done by one of my student interns at the time—Elisabeth Swarttouw—who went on to become one of my full-time staffers during this session.  She very ably shepherded the 2017 bill to success.  It required repeated and lengthy consultations with the agencies, cities, the Home Builders association, and legislative counsel.  Thanks, Elisabeth!

SB 1062: Healthy and Safe Schools Plans

This was another example of one session’s work building upon another, again, a bill that I worked on with Alissa Keny-Guyer.  In 2015 we passed a bill (after trying unsuccessfully in 2014) requiring schools to be tested for the presence of radon gas.  There was growing awareness of the dangers of this environmental hazard in certain locations, but we knew that most districts were not testing for it.  We were able to locate federal dollars that could be used for this purpose, and schools subsequently developed plans for testing.

Then last spring the fiasco around lead-testing at Portland Public Schools exploded.  Alissa and I had assumed that lead in water was routinely monitored in schools (unlike the more “exotic” radon), but that was not the case.  Ironically, the water WAS in fact already being tested at PPS, but there was no clear protocol for releasing the information and acting upon it.  During the rancorous public meetings on the issue, parents pointed out that lead in water was not the only problem in our schools: lead paint, asbestos, carbon monoxide, and other toxins were also potentially present and needed to be addressed.  So, Alissa and I decided that we needed to come up with a way of addressing this problem more comprehensively and permanently

The result would eventually be SB 1062.  It calls on all school districts to create comprehensive plans for how they will monitor, test, and rectify toxins in their schools.  They will be assisted by the Oregon Department of Education, Oregon Health Authority, and DEQ. $2 million will be taken from an existing schools facilities fund each biennium to pay for ongoing testing for lead in water.  Parents will be notified promptly about the results of testing and the steps being taken to mitigate, and there will be a clear point of contact if they see something that concerns them.

I’m really proud of the work that was done on this bill and its principles of planning, oversight, and transparency.  Kids, their teachers, and other school personnel will be the long-term beneficiaries of SB 1062. You might think that passage of this bill would be a no-brainer, but in fact the bill (in its initial as SB 886) died once during the session, failing to get the votes to move out of Senate Education. I just couldn’t let that happen, and we tried again in Senate Rules with an identical bill under a different number and with broader sponsorship.  And then after it passed from Rules to Ways and Means it again seemed doomed, this time a victim of the session clock running down.  But thanks to some legislative CPR, I was able to get it back to life.  Many thanks to all the partners for sticking with this, and again to Elisabeth for helping to facilitate the work.

SB 719: A Common-Sense Firearm Safety Bill

Another bill that passed during the waning hours of the session was SB 719.  We thereby were again able to move forward on sensible firearm safety legislation this session (following up on background check and domestic violence legislation in 2015).  SB 719 will allow a judge to remove guns from persons found to be a threat to themselves or to others.  Designed to address individuals in the midst of a mental health crisis, it’s modeled after a successful law passed in California recently and one approved by the voters in Washington in 2016. 

This “Extreme Risk Protection Order” could be granted as the result of a petition by a family or household member (or law enforcement).  The person named in the petition could seek a hearing to contest the petition, but if the court decides in favor of removal, the order would stand for a year (subject to renewal).

As is always the case with bills about firearm safety, this one was very controversial and passed narrowly and largely along party and urban/rural lines (17-13 in the Senate, 31-28 in the House).  Other bills promoting gun safety were also proposed this session (e.g., closing the “Charleston Loophole”; requiring those obtaining Concealed Weapons Permits to demonstrate some competence in handling a firearm; requiring parents to keep firearms away from their children), but failed to move forward. 

I’ll continue to work with other legislators on this issue.  The courts have consistently upheld the authority of states, consistent with the Second Amendment, to place reasonable requirements on responsible firearm ownership.  Given the epidemic of gun violence in our country, I believe that it’s our job to do so.

A Big Win for the Elliott

At the beginning of this session, we were faced with the potential of two big environmental losses: the repeal of the Clean Fuels program in exchange for a transportation package (which, as I mentioned last week, did not in the end occur) and the loss of the Elliott State Forest as a public resource.

Action in the last week of the Legislature guaranteed that the 82,500-acre tract in Coos and Douglas counties, much of it old-growth, won't be sold to a timber company. It will likely stay public.  The Elliott is managed by the state Dept. of Forestry but is held in trust for the common school fund.  As trust land, the forest’s main purpose is to produce revenue for schools, a task that has become difficult over the past decades due to endangered species issues (northern spotted owls, marbled murrelet seabirds, and coho salmon) and declines in the timber market. 

The ultimate decision over the Elliott, as it is for all trust land, is in the hands of the State Land Board, composed of the Governor, the Treasurer, and the Secretary of State.  The Legislature took two steps this session to resolve this problem and make it more likely that the forest will remain in public hands and open to the public.  First, Senate Environment and Natural Resources, and then both chambers, passed SB 847, which “creates [a] process for [the] State Land Board, Department of State Lands and Legislative Assembly to coordinate transfer of certain trust  lands managed for [the] benefit of [the] Common School Fund that have limited performance potential as assets of [the] Common School Fund to certain other public bodies better positioned to manage [the] lands for [the] benefit of [the] public.” 

It mirrors a program that the state of Washington has had for a number of years that has transferred ownership and management of some of their trust lands to other state agencies, such as Parks.  Over the years, Washington has bonded more than $900 million to “buy out” the schools’ interest in these properties. 

Along those lines, the second important step taken by the Legislature was to authorize $100 million in bonding to begin the kind of transfer anticipated by SB 847.  Over the next few months, a “Habitat Conservation Plan” (HCP) will be developed to protect the sensitive areas within the Elliott, while targeting other areas for harvesting.  In the long run, we are hoping that Oregon State University will take over part of the forest to use as a conservation research project, focusing on sustainable forestry and carbon sequestration. 

Having taken those steps, I believe that the Land Board, with strong commitment and leadership from the Governor, and support from Treasurer Tobias Read, will vote to keep the Elliott in public hands.

But it was a close call.  This all, of course, comes against the backdrop of many voices within the Trump administration calling for the sale of public lands as a way of raising revenue.  It’s another example of the Oregon Legislature choosing a different direction, one which I believe better embodies the core values of most Oregonians.

SB 644: Mining in Eastern Oregon

One of my bigger surprises this session was to find myself, in the last week of the session, as one of two chief sponsors of a bill dealing with mining in the frontier parts of our state.  How I, a Portland legislator and Chair of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee wound up in that position may be one of the more interesting stories of 2017, at least for me.

I won’t go into all the details, but it began with my effort to finally end in-stream suction dredge mining in those parts of the state where sensitive essential salmonid habitat is located.  At the time, I made a commitment to partner with a Republican colleague, Fred Girod (R-Stayton), who wanted to see changes made to streamline the permitting process for high-value precious-metal mines in Eastern Oregon.  I offered to do what I could to help with that effort, as long as environmental impacts were not compromised.

To be honest, I didn’t think it was going to be possible.  But at the end of the day we were able to come up with a policy proposal that unites all the state permitting agencies and local government permitting agencies into a single process that analyzes and puts any necessary conditions onto a mining proposal.  It maintains the necessary environmental and habitat safeguards while better coordinating the application process.  We got it to the point that Oregon’s major environmental land-use advocacy group, 1000 Friends of Oregon, removed their objections.  The bill then passed easily in both chambers.

It’s important to me, as an urban legislator and an environmentalist, to do what I can to find places where we can reconcile the need for economic development (which frontier Oregon desperately needs) with responsible environmental stewardship.  I believe that SB 644 struck that note.  There were many other land-use bills proposed this session (scores of them came before my committee) that did not.  As I stated in my floor speech closing the debate on SB 644, “I hope that passage of this bill sends a clear message that if people have concrete plans, are respectful of other people’s needs and concerns, and are willing to roll up their sleeves and work to achieve consensus, we can get things done in this state, get done the things that we need for the good of the entire state.”

Collective Bargaining Rights for University Research Faculty

Towards the end of the session, I found myself devoting a lot of time to securing the passage of HB 3170, a bill that took me back to my days as Chair of the Workforce Committee, and even further back as someone engaged in higher education collective bargaining. 

Faculty at nearly all of our public colleges and most of our public universities have had collective bargaining units for many years now.  Higher education unions are somewhat unique because of the tradition of shared governance that has long been a feature of higher education.  Looked at from the outside, the firm line that we tend to see in traditional union settings between manager and employee can seem blurred.

One example of this blurring and consequent uncertainty is the case of university faculty who do scientific research and lead laboratory teams that may include grad students, post-docs, lab techs, and other personnel.  Are they faculty (and thus eligible to be represented by the union)?  Are they supervisors (thus excluded from union representation)?  Some semesters they may be primarily one, other semesters the other. 

SB 3170 clarifies that they are faculty first and foremost, as long as they are not supervising other faculty (i.e., other members of the same bargaining unit).  It is a simple, somewhat elegant solution that we were able to land on through a work-group process after the bill came over from the House.  It satisfied the universities and representatives of the faculty alike.  If the newly-eligible affected faculty ultimately decide they want to pursue union representation, it will still require a majority-vote legal process, but it will be possible.

I’m very pleased that it worked out, and this win wouldn't have been possible without the dogged work of my trusty aide Logan Gilles, who will be a friend to workers until the day he leaves this earth.

A New Look for Clean Energy Jobs

As I’ve mentioned, a lot of my work this session focused on getting our state ready to take action on climate change by putting a price on carbon pollution and using the resulting revenues to enhance the move to cleaner, more sustainable, more economically beneficial energy practices.  Partnering with colleagues in the House, Senate Environment and Natural Resources spent many hours exploring the best way to reach that end.  We met with counterparts from other states, including leaders in California and Ontario, business groups (both urban and rural) communities seriously affected by climate change, labor, and scores of citizens deeply concerned about the impacts of carbon pollution and climate change.

As a result of those discussions, I became convinced that the best avenue for us to make a difference here in Oregon is to link up with the efforts being made in California and other states and Canadian provinces in creating a “cap and invest” program that would guarantee our meeting our climate goals while invigorating our Oregon-based industries and workforce.  Based on what we are seeing elsewhere, it is definitely possible if done right.  

To that end, at the very end of session we drafted a new bill, SB 1070, with more than a third of all Oregon legislators signed on as chief sponsors or co-sponsors.  It lays out our best thinking at this point, but there are still more details that need to be worked out.  That is going to consume a lot of my time during the interim, but I look forward to this work.  It’s a heavy responsibility.  If done wrong, it could be harmful to our economy and to ordinary Oregonians; if done right, it could provide significant stimulus to our economy, and Oregon can help further the momentum for climate action on a regional level, which is crucial now that the federal government has chosen to go in the opposite direction and withdraw from the Paris agreements.  Our job is to make sure it’s the latter that happens.

For more information about SB 1070, here’s a press release that we put out upon its release last week.

As it happens, the California legislature is about to vote on re-committing to and extending their cap and invest program.  (The vote is scheduled for Monday.)  House Energy and Environment Chair, Ken Helm, and I just sent a letter of support to our friends and counterparts there, urging them to take that important step.  You can check out that letter here.

One final link – The Mercury did a rundown of some of the bigger progressive wins this session.  It’s worth a read.

OK, friends and neighbors, mes amis et mes voisins (yes, it’s Bastille Day!), that’s it for now.  Hope you’re enjoying this lovely summer as much as I—at long last—finally am!

dembrow signature

Senator Michael Dembrow
District 23

phone: 503-986-1723
mail: 900 Court St NE, S-407, Salem, OR, 97301