In his race for re-election, Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem) has taken heat from his opponent for his push to proceed with a $252 million seismic upgrade and renovation of the Oregon Capitol. As WW has reported, Courtney’s plans could come at the expense of making more than 1,000 high-risk schools safe from earthquakes.
Since that story, his Republican opponent, former Marion County Commissioner Patti Milne, has criticized Courtney’s priorities.
In response, Courtney, who is seeking his seventh term in November, today called for another $200 million to upgrade schools, but the two plans could eat up more than half of the state’s debt capacity, according to state treasury reports.
Courtney spokesman Robin Maxey acknowledges the proposals will compete with other state construction needs. “Just because Peter is for it doesn’t mean the Legislature is going to approve it,” Maxey says. "We sense momentum is growing.”
Milne calls Courtney's fund-it-all proposal "political grandstanding."
"We have limited dollars. We know there will be a big one in Oregon. We know many of our schools need upgrades," she tells WW. “If we have limited money lets put it in the schools first. Why would we throw millions on the capitol now and pull apart remodeling that was just done?”
Courtney's proposal to beef up school retrofits might be a political move in an election year, but he's been a strong proponent of seismic upgrades.
In 1993, the Scotts Mills quake, rated at a magnitude of 5.6, shook Oregon and cracked the Capitol dome, forcing part of the building to close for renovations.
In 2005, Courtney pushed through legislation that spurred the Department of Geology and Mineral Industries to study and assess the potential damage to public buildings in the event of a 9.0 magnitude quake.
The department's 2007 evaluation of more than 2,000 school buildings identified 275 virtually certain to collapse, and another 745 with a better than 10 percent chance of collapse.
Courtney helped establish a $1 billion grant program for retrofitting schools. The Legislature has so far given out $30 million to retrofit 24 school structures and 18 emergency response buildings.
In 2011, the state's Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission wrote to Gov. John Kitzhaber to complain about the slow progress of school building retrofits, asking for $200 million to quicken the pace.
“As we sit here today more than a quarter of a million Oregon school children are forced to attend classes in buildings that are at a ‘high’ or ‘very high’ risk of collapse in a major seismic event,” wrote commission chairman Gerald Williams. "But there is something we can do about it; we can fully fund the Seismic Rehabilitation Grant Program to renovate public schools."
His request was denied by lawmakers.
In February 2013, the Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Commission recommended that the state prioritize upgrading hospitals and schools. The state Capitol building did not appear on the list of priorities. Yet that same month the Capitol Master Plan Review Committee called for overhauling the Capitol.
"I’m glad to see he’s joined me and other legislators in prioritizing school safety," says Rep. Mike McLane (R-Powell Butte), who voted against the Capitol renovation project. "I note that his proposal for schools is still less than the proposed bonding amount to retrofit the state Capitol."