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‘Punting’ and moving: Legislators talk 2017 session


STATE LEGISLATORS from Hood River, Chuck Thomsen and Mark Johnson, discussed the outcome of the 2017 legislative session in Salem.

Hood River News file photo
STATE LEGISLATORS from Hood River, Chuck Thomsen and Mark Johnson, discussed the outcome of the 2017 legislative session in Salem.

A turbulent session for the Oregon Legislature wrapped up July 7, resulting in a new transportation package as well as a flurry of bills — some successful, some not — from policymakers representing Hood River.

Sen. Chuck Thomsen and Rep. Mark Johnson talked to the Hood River News this week, reflecting on the 2017 legislative session. The two Republicans rated the proceedings favorably overall.

Budget issues loomed from the start.

Thomsen contended messaging from top Democrats that Oregon faced a $1.8 billion shortfall was misleading. He said that projection was based on a “desired spending level.” Cost-containment issues were effectively “punted” down the road, he felt.

But consensus on certain issues appeared to be in the cards.

“I think most of the stage was set. Everybody knew we needed a transportation package,” Thomsen said.

Transportation

A $5.3 billion transportation package marked the year’s largest stride for state government. Similar legislation had failed in 2015, but succeeded in a second, bi-partisan push.

The overarching bill passed with a 39-20 vote, with Johnson in favor and Thomsen voting “no.”

Thomsen said such legislation was necessary, but he didn’t vote for it due to elements that “broadened” the bill to areas unrelated to transportation, such as a payroll tax. “I think it’s a real stretch to take that out of your paycheck,” he said.

While he noted the program will help people who ride state-supported bus services, such as Columbia Area Transit, he disagreed with taxing those who don’t necessarily use the services.

Two projects in Hood River County made it onto the bill’s list: a bridge replacement environmental impact study for the Hood River-White Salmon Interstate Bridge and improvements to WaNaPa Street in Cascade Locks.

“We had a tremendous session for the Port of Hood River,” Johnson said.

The legislature included $5 million for the bridge study, he said. Also, a bill he and Thomsen worked on, HB 2750, creates a policy framework for the option of a public-private partnership in the replacement.

Johnson said the developments bring the port closer to the possibility of a new bridge.

Education

The state schools budget arrived at $8.2 billion, higher than warnings it would fall lower.

Details and funding for Measure 98, a high school improvement initiative voters passed in 2016, came into clearer focus.

Proponents, Johnson and Thomsen included, had advocated for about $290 million, but the Legislature settled on $170 million.

“It’s not as much as we had hoped for,” Johnson said, but it partially funds the program, which aims to improve graduation rates. He was on the work group that assembled the Measure 98 implementation plan.

The program directs state education funds to high school programs for dropout prevention, college readiness and career training.

Johnson also pointed to two successful education policy bills he backed: a college credits transfer bill and a bill creating an office of outdoor school.

HB 2998 is “all about college credits,” he said. “It’s long overdue. I think we really broke through (with) a landmark bill.”

HB 3350 creates an office of outdoor recreation within the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department. The plan includes hiring staff to oversee and lobby for outdoor school.

A bill Thomsen sponsored, the “Millennial Education Act,” found early support from co-sponsor Peter Courtney (D-Portland), but failed to get traction due to budget issues. The bill would have amended Oregon’s tax code to make student debt payments tax-free, relieving debt burden.

Its fate may not be sealed, according to its main proponent.

“I’ll bring it back next year, sure,” Thomsen said.

Business

A cider business bill, Senate Bill 667, sailed through both chambers without any opposing votes.

The bill mirrors rules established for wineries, allowing cider businesses to produce and sell their beverages and serve food on-site in farm zones.

Thomsen, a Pine Grove orchardist, was the key sponsor. He said he has no plans to get into the cider business, but SB 667 opens a new avenue for growers who participate.

Several labor bills made it through Salem, he said. A pay equity bill, HB 2005, and an overtime reform bill, SB 984, passed both chambers.

Session ends

Elected leaders balanced a $21 billion operating budget.

When asked about victories in the Legislature, Thomsen celebrated “Adjournment Sine Die,” the procedural Latin phrase before the gavel strike that closes the session.

As for summer plans, Johnson said he looks forward to returning to his district and meeting with constituent groups.

Thomsen has similar intentions now that he’s out of the Salem scramble.

“I’m just kind of wiped out, it takes a lot of you,” he said.

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