Do What You Can Do 3/26/2021

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Senator Jeff Golden

 *  “I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something; And because I cannot do everything I will not refuse to do the something that I can do.”  
—Helen Keller

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The 2021 semi-session continues with Senate Floor sessions every Wednesday and Thursday and online Committee meetings five days a week. All of it plays out against a backdrop of speculation about a reprise of Republican walkouts to deny the quorum needed to legislate. I had my say on the subject in a Mail Tribune opinion column last Sunday.

But for now we’re moving along. Here’s some of what we’re debating.

Senator Golden presents on SB 335

Wildfire and Forestry

The big wildfire bill we’ve been negotiating for weeks drew attention after its first committee hearing last week. It has plenty of moving parts, with different groups stepping forward to negotiate every one. We’re filling in the details with a set of amendments that, I hope, will produce a package that can win Senate approval and move over to the House. The biggest disagreements are around the timeline for implementing measures—zoning, building codes, defensible space in extreme wildfire-risk areas—that will reduce chances for a replay of 2020’s Labor Day fires. Some groups want more task forces and reports and advisory committees to continue hammering out details.  I’m opposing that; after too many summers of megafire, we’re long on committees and reports and short on work that actually improves conditions on the ground. More to come on this as the legislation moves forward.

That bill didn’t cause as much heartburn last week as another we heard in my committee. SB 335 is my proposal to revise membership rules for the Board of Forestry on the premise that a regulatory agency shouldn’t be unduly swayed by the industry it regulates. Here’s how I laid out the idea. Turned out that the timber industry, as this coverage noted, is not wholly thrilled with the bill. I’ll be bringing it back for another hearing next week.

But that’s not even close to the hottest bill on the legislative plate right now.

Guns and community control

SB 554 sponsor Sen. Ginny Burdick

SB 554 sponsor Sen. Ginny Burdick introduces the bill

Yesterday morning I voted Aye on SB 554, which returns to local governments the rights they had until the 1990s to restrict the carrying of firearms in their own public buildings. I know how angry that vote will make some constituents—they’ve been very clear in recent emails about their feelings. As I’m trying to finish this up late at night in my Capitol office, I’ll take a shortcut and reprint what I wrote a couple of newsletters ago about the bill:

I have a mountain of email from around the state on this bill,
most of it opposed and much of it identically worded. Some of it is
furious, demanding the immediate resignation of any legislator who
supports the bill, thereby “absolutely” violating their oaths to uphold
the U.S. and Oregon Constitutions. For many this is THE “slippery slope”
issue, with an underlying belief that any gun safety measure is a serious
step down a path towards wholesale firearm confiscation and
subjugation to governmental abuse. I haven’t found entry
points to worthwhile conversation with people who hold that fear.

I flatly don’t agree that the Second Amendment is absolutely clear and
doesn’t allow for conflicting interpretations, because
conflicting interpretations from smart constitutional scholars have
surrounded it from the beginning. I’m impressed by the U.S. Supreme
Court’s 2008 District of Columbia v. Heller decision written by Justice
Scalia—that would be Justice Antonin Scalia. In it he writes that the
Second Amendment does not grant the “right to keep and carry any
weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever for whatever purpose.”
That would be news to the angriest people who’ve warned me to turn
thumbs down to this bill.

Other bill opponents have an argument that makes more sense to me. 
It links to the notion that the only effective answer to a bad guy with a
gun is a good guy with a gun. If local jurisdictions start designating
gun-free zones, they say, they’ll be marking places where dangerous
people can wreak havoc with no danger of being shot. They offer data
backing that idea, but there seems to be at least as many studies
indicating that more people get shot in areas where more people are
packing. I don’t know that I can sort that one out, but intuition tells
me the proliferation of lethal firearms in public buildings is not a
formula for public safety...and that local elected officials are the best
ones to make the call on an issue that plays out so differently in
different communities. 

Yesterday's 3+-hour floor debate ended with the fully expected party-line vote. For Republicans it was all about a needless assault on the right to bear arms. For Democrats it was about letting local elected officials decide one of the toughest policy questions around, according to what they think’s best for their communities. We couldn’t find a bridge.

After it was over I was one of several members to file a vote explanation with the Secretary of the Senate.

SB 554

The Senate listens to the three-plus hour debate on SB 554

Incarcerated voters?

One more bill bound to raise temperatures is SB 571, which gives incarcerated Oregonians, whether in prison or county jails, the right to vote. A few states do that now, and a larger number let felons vote after they serve their time.

I imagine this idea is jarring to many, and runs headlong into the notion that voting is the kind of privilege that someone convicted of a serious crime doesn’t deserve. My first impulse goes in that direction. But from there I start to think about our correctional system more broadly, how much (relative to almost every other affluent country) it emphasizes punishment over healing. And, even more to the well does our system work? THERE we have broad agreement: it’s a miserable failure. With the highest percentage of people behind bars of any highly-developed country in the world (which doesn’t keep us from simultaneously having some of the world’s highest active crime rates), and released inmates reoffending and returning to prison cells in staggering numbers, can anyone believe we’re doing this right?

For me a better question is, one that guides my vote on SB 571, centers on what we want from a correctional system (that’s “corrections,” not “punishment”). I want a system more attuned to re-integrating wrongdoers than throwing them away, because that way my community’s safer, and my tax bill for prisons is lower, after they’re released. Denying their vote is a small way of casting them out, of saying they don’t have a place among us anymore. Even if you think that’s part of the price they should pay for their crime, should the rest of us pay because they don’t have a realistic chance of peacefully rejoining society after release?

Data from states where inmates vote show drops in rates of recidivism. I’d like that same outcome in Oregon.

I hope you’ll consider coming to next week’s Town Hall.

Best until then.

Jeff (Signature)

Senator Jeff Golden, Oregon Senate District 3

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