Oregon’s new House Speaker tells outer SE Portland neighbors about legislature’s shake-up

Outer East Portland’s own Jeff Merkley says he was surprised his party came into power last fall. Hear how the Oregon House has changed under Democratic Party rule‚ in his words‚

Oregon’s top Democrat in the House, Jeff Merkley, tells people at a joint meeting of Powellhurst-Gilbert and Centennial neighborhoods why the legislature is no longer “business as usual”.

Story and photo by David F. Ashton
Oregon State legislator Jeff Merkley hails from outer East Portland; he is a David Douglas High School graduate, and has served the people of his outer East Portland district since 1999 in Oregon’s House of Representatives.

After a brief introduction by Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood Association’s returning chair, Glenn Taylor, Merkley stepped up to speak to attendees of this meeting, held jointly with the Centennial Community Association on March 13.

Other than light editing for brevity and clarity, we present Speaker Merkley’s own words‚

Powellhurst-Gilbert Neighborhood Association President introduces Oregon House Speaker Jeff Merkley.

Good evening, Mr. Speaker …
“My role [as Oregon House Speaker] was a big surprise,” Merkley began. “If we go back to the election in November, 2006, very rarely does an incumbent lose a seat; Republicans had more seats in the House than Democrats. But, the electorate was in the mood to change things. As a party, we developed a campaign ‘road map’ of issues we wanted to tackle.

“By the time election night was over, Democrats had 31 seats. The role of House Speaker goes to the party with the most seats. Thus, I am Speaker of the Oregon House of Representatives.

“I wanted to change things since I first ran in 1999. At the time, we had term limits‚ and I was happy to serve my term and move on. But, term limits were overturned, and here I am in my ninth year.

“There is an advantage in being in being in the legislature since 1999. That advantage is the perspective of time. Although I grew up here in the community, after college I worked in Washington DC at the Pentagon and the US Congress on strategic issues during the ‘cold war’.

“The [political] pendulum has swung far toward partisanship. That idea of working for Congress in a ‘non-partisan policy mode’ was appealing to me; but this notion has been diminishing over the last 20 years.

“Since becoming House Speaker, I have received the support of leadership on both sides to change this, empowered the minority, and I work in a non-partisan way.”

Merkley details changes
At the meeting Merkley covered many of the changes made since January quite rapidly, including:

  • Introducing a Means Committee Reprehensive into the process.
  • Restoring independence of the House Parliamentarian.
  • Changing the conduct of legislators; treating all with respect: “When citizens take their time to testify, although committee members may disagree 100% with them‚ they deserve respect for coming to share ideas.”
  • Changing how committee meetings are conducted: “Now, chairs and vice chairs [from the two parties] sit next to one another.”
  • Create incentives for members from all parties to work together. “Oregon citizens need a team working for them. This creates more communication across the body.”

No more “gimmes”
It was very important, Merkley said, that they change the “gifting” structure at the state legislature level.

“For special interest groups to take legislators to Maui for a ‘meeting’ ‚Äì there’s something wrong there. You can’t give gifts to judges. You can’t give gifts to candidates. I’ve pushed for the structure of giving ‘minimal gifts’ to legislators.

“Some said they thought this change would ‘disturb the culture’ too much. But, a system being able to give unlimited gifts isn’t right. We are there working for citizens, not special interests who can wine and dine legislators.”

Under the current standard, Merkley explained, items like T-shirts and coffee mugs are OK ‚Äì the standard is that the item must be worth less than $10‚ including meals, and gifts of entertainment. Still allowed are “receptions”, as long as all legislators are invited to attend.

“We want to convert these standards, these rules, into a law; but that takes bicameral [both Oregon House and Senate] approval to do,” explained Merkley.

Speaker Merkley tells why there is a “different feeling” in the halls of the Oregon House of Representatives these days.

A different feeling in Salem
“In the House, there is now a completely different feeling in the building.

“On our opening day, I asked former Senator Hatfield to swear me in. Hatfield, a Republican, took some tough and principled stands. In Washington DC, I worked with Hatfield. I saw how he treated people coming in to see him with respect. No, Hatfield didn’t turn me into being a Republican; but I didn’t change him either.

“In short, we’re trying to create a problem-solving atmosphere in Salem.”

Covers four major issues
Top topics Merkley shared with the group were fiscal responsibility, education, health care, and payday loans.

1. Fiscal Responsibility
“As a state we need to level out revenue flow. This means we don’t spend as much when times are good, so we don’t have to cut programs when there is a downturn. It was a huge challenge to get the ‘Rainy Day Fund’ passed in the House. It shouldn’t have been that hard to create a savings account.”

Merkley explained that this fund would be built up by the State retaining the “Corporate Kicker”‚ the overpayment of company taxes to the State. The fund would also dedicate 1% of General Fund; and any unused funds from the state budget would go into the fund.

2. Education
“We are trying to strengthen Oregon’s educational system‚ from ‘Head Start’ through the university level. We need each student to get a full school year, and experience smaller class sizes.

“Long ago, communications were costly and difficult. Now, with electronic communication, and the advent of deep draft shipping, we need to‚ and can‚ compete in the world market. But, we need good education for our citizens to thrive in the global economy.

“The legislature is looking for efficiencies within the system,” Merkley stated. “One of those efficiencies could be a statewide pooling of health care insurance. Those who sell insurance say pooling policies will cost a lot of money; others say it this concept will save money.”

Merkley was asked why, when Parkrose and David Douglas school systems object to pooling their health care insurance plans, he sounded like he was in favor of the plan.

Merkley responded, “By consolidating the plans, you greatly cut the overhead. With competition, you improve that part of the market. The Oregon School Board Association attests that it will save money. Many people who are vested in the current system think it should stay the way it is. The logic is in the administration you will have savings. Essentially, pooling insurance programs eliminates the middleman. But, many of those who sell insurance argue otherwise.”

Taking on the issue of healthcare, Merkley says this issue is the #1 topic of concern he hears from citizens.

3. Healthcare
“We are the only industrialized country that doesn’t have a stable health care system. Health care is currently built around an individual having long-term employment. Times are changing. When I’ve gone door-to-door talking with people, concerns about healthcare ranks above those about our schools.”

Merkley called the situation an “insurance death spiral”. Today, fewer people have healthcare insurance; thus more uninsured are getting routine healthcare in hospital Emergency Rooms‚ where they can’t be turned away. This drain on the system, in turn, drives up the cost of insurance‚ and then even fewer people can afford coverage.

“People tell me they’re concerned that healthcare insurance plans are less generous with benefits. And, they’re concerned about the continual increase in the cost of pharmaceuticals.

“We’re working on this issue in two stages; one is regarding long term healthcare, and the other is healthcare for children.

“When I started in the legislature, talk about healthcare was an idealist conversation. Now it is an active conversation. Employers are worried about being able to provide healthcare for their employees.”

“Specifically,” the Speaker said, “Oregon firms must compete against overseas competitors whose employee healthcare costs are much lower.”

Turning to health care for children, Merkley said, “As adults, we need to provide accessible healthcare to every child in the state. It isn’t a cheap or easy thing to do.

“The way we’re approaching this is [raising funding] through an increased tobacco tax ‚Äì about $0.84 per pack. The ‘public cost’ of smoking, with long-term health problems, is about $11 per pack. This fee is a reasonable way for smokers to contribute.

“We need to strengthen more than insurance. We need a statewide nursing ‘help line’. In rural areas, we should also strengthen front-line [healthcare] clinics. It wasn’t approved by the ‘other’ side of the aisle; I don’t know if we’ll reach an agreement.”

4. Payday Loans
“One of the things hurting people in Oregon is short-term loans that carry triple-digit interest rates. Families end up in bankruptcy and divorce. When people go bankruptcy, the State usually ends up ‘picking up the pieces’.

“Our current Governor says that in the past, the State of Oregon eliminated usury laws. Legislators thought the market would never allow the rates to increase over ten per cent. We’re proposing a 36% cap on consumer lending — pawns, payday, or layaways.

“The lending companies,” Merkley added, “are strongly objecting to this legislation, saying capping interest rates will drive them out of business, thus limiting the number of places where someone with poor credit could get a loan.”

Questions mental healthcare
Ron Clemenson, vice chair of Centennial, voiced his concern about mental healthcare issues. “We’ve lost our mental health clinics and hospitals. And, when the State got rid of Dammisch Hospital, it didn’t replace it with anything.”

Merkley responded that the State has provided mental healthcare funds to counties.

“We’ve now decided,” Merkley added, “that we need to replace the Salem Sate Hospital,and other facilities. A lot of patients get NO treatment, instead of better treatment. Two years we passed ‘Mental Health Parity’. We now know people aren’t possessed by spirits ‚Äì this is a disease process! Mental health problems should be treated and covered under health insurance programs.”

A fulltime Oregon Legislature?
Merkley concluded by saying “We’re flirting with the idea of breaking our one, long, every-other-year session into two shorter yearly sessions. We wouldn’t be lengthening the time we’re in session. This would allow for more flexibility to deal with changing situations.”

You can learn a lot by attending your neighborhood association’s meeting. Outer East Portland’s meetings are listed in our Community Calendar ‚Ķ

© 2007 David F. Ashton ~ East Portland News Service

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