Unpopular budget cuts to two state departments are being avoided through a bizarre new technique: talking.
The innovation was prompted by a House Ways and Means subcommittee, which has forced union representatives and department managers to sit down and jointly shave money without cutting core services.
"It's such a different way to do a budget than how budgets were done before," says committee member Randy Leonard, a Portland Democrat. "I hope it's kind of a precedent."
In his proposed budget, Gov. John Kitzhaber's cut 157 positions, mainly troopers, from the Oregon State Police. That didn't sit well with lawmakers, so Leonard, the former head of the Portland firefighters' union, asked Jim Botwinis, president of the Oregon State Police Officers Association, to come up with an alternative. He suggested consolidating patrol districts to cut managerial costs. OSP administrators liked the idea and hope to restore 121 of the positions.
"The Legislature deserves as much credit for this as anyone," says Botwinis. "They had the moxie to say 'We want you to talk'--and they directed it."
Meanwhile, the governor's Department of Corrections budget also drew protests. Guards worried that his proposal to cut inmates' recreational activities as well as educational and drug and alcohol programs would lead to violence.
"The state probably has a need for one dungeon," says Mary Botkin of AFSCME, which represents corrections officers. "We almost ended up with 12 of them."
Last Friday, however, AFSCME and DOC administrators reached a tentative compromise that will restore the programs that were on the chopping block. Instead, money will be saved by slowing down hiring at new prisons and by cutting managers. "I'm very encouraged," says Botkin. "It really changes the way we do business with the department."
Hey, what are you working on?
It isn't easy being an amateur. Michael Tolley is the volunteer driver representative on the city of Portland's Taxicab Board of Review. The 10-year veteran cab driver has been pushing House Bill 3244, which would make any assault on a cab driver a felony. The bill stems from three driver murders over the past decade, including one in February. Over the past few months Tolley has taken a crash course in how to weave his way around legislative roadblocks. So far, so good. The bill has already passed the House and has a hearing May 17 before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Why is this bill important for taxi drivers?
Cabdrivers are particularly vulnerable because they work alone, they're known to have cash with them. They frequently have to go into high-crime and desolate areas and they are required by city code to pick up anybody who has a demonstrated ability to pay. Many assaults already are felonies, but not all. The bottom line is to post a notice in every cab that says assaulting a cab driver is a felony.
What was the hardest thing to learn about lobbying?
Well, four weeks ago I could have named maybe five senators. Now I can tell you the names of all 90, the committees they serve on, their party affiliation and what the other lawmakers think of them.
What do you think of them?
Even with 4,000 bills to consider, nearly every member of the Legislature has found time to sit down and talk to a cab driver. I've been real impressed.
It seems most people hate politicians.
There are a lot of people do, but I wish everyone could have this experience. There are some intelligent, dedicated and hard-working people down there. The negative things make the news; the hard-working legislators aren't newsworthy.
* Drug lords are rounding up allies in their fight against Gov. John Kitzhaber's pharmaceutical cost-control formulary. In a press conference organized by a former Pfizer lobbyist, members of the Oregon Bioscience Association, a trade association for biotech companies, claimed that Oregon would be blackballed if the bill passed, cutting off their access to venture capital.
* Two words of advice for Rep. Rob Patridge: caller ID. Word is, the Republican lawmaker was standing at PDX last Wednesday morning to catch a flight to Washington, D.C., for a national legislative conference. Patridge had dutifully obtained permission from House Speaker Mark Simmons to be absent...or so he thought until his cell phone rang at 5:05 am. It was the Speaker, saying Patridge's absences would not be excused. We're sure it's just a coincidence that Patridge has been pushing bills that run counter to the Speaker's plan to handle energy deregulation.
"We know that poor women and children don't vote and don't have the resources to contribute to campaigns."
--Kate Brown, the frustrated Senate Minority Leader, on lawmakers' reluctance to restore cuts made to the state's Human Services budget.
give a damn
* Willamette River Cleanup: So far, all that's moved is a bill sponsored by Randy Leonard that would prohibit dumping toxic fill on Ross Island. Expect to exit the 2001 session with no plan to clean up the polluted river.
* Mercury poisoning: A bill has to jump three hurdles before becoming law. It must pass both houses of the Legislature, then get signed by the governor. The proposal to phase out thermometers, thermostats and other products that include mercury made it past the first barrier when it passed out of the House of Representatives two weeks ago on a vote of 55-3. Now, though, it's been referred to a dormant Senate committee, where it will die of neglect unless the. Oregon Environmental Council can nurse it back to life.
* Big money in Oregon politics: The folks at Money in Politics Research Project have put together a list of campaign donors and free-spending lobbyists. Big Tobacco, Big Pharm, Big Labor...they're all there: www.oregonfollowthemoney.org.
* Mental health: Can you imagine your insurance agent storming into the operating room and halting a partially completed surgery because your policy has run out? Bizarre as it sounds, that's what happens in the mental health arena, where insurers cap coverage for psychiatric conditions and drug and alcohol treatment. HB 3017, which would grant "parity" to mental health coverage, is scheduled for a May 22 hearing and work session in the House Health and Public Advocacy Committee at 1:30 pm in Hearing Room D at the State Capitol in Salem.
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