Democratic Leaders Allowed an Oregon Lawmaker to Earmark $4 Million in Public Money for an Anti-Abortion Group

Abortion rights advocates say the Pregnancy Care Center of Grants Pass is essentially an anti-abortion health referral service.

Leading Portland Democrats are tripping over each other to condemn Texas’ new anti-abortion law—but their actions don’t completely back up their words.

On Sept. 1, for instance, after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to block Texas’ draconian new limits on abortion, Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) slammed the Lone Star State.

“It’s appalling that the courts aren’t protecting Texans from this extreme law,” Kotek tweeted. “We’ve worked hard to ensure full access to reproductive health care in Oregon and won’t stop fighting to protect those rights.”

Kotek, the longest-serving House speaker in Oregon history (she assumed the post in 2013), is running for governor next year. She hopes to succeed another former Democratic lawmaker from Portland, Gov. Kate Brown, who like Kotek is a strong abortion rights advocate.

Brown also expressed her dismay at the Texas law.”Reproductive health care and access to abortion is a human right,” the governor tweeted Sept. 1. “Here in Oregon, the right to make your own reproductive choices will continue to be protected by state law.”

Although Oregon is routinely ranked as one of the most abortion-friendly states in the U.S., both Democratic leaders stood by earlier this year as state Sen. Art Robinson (R-Cave Junction) proposed to direct $4 million to what experts say is a thinly veiled anti-abortion counseling service.

The earmark shows, even with Democratic supermajorities in both chambers of the Legislature and nearly 40 consecutive years of Democrats in the governor’s mansion, cutting deals sometimes trumps ideological purity.

Kotek was “appalled” by Robinson’s proposal to “misuse this rare opportunity to fund a so-called crisis pregnancy center,” says Kotek’s spokesman Danny Moran.

Nonetheless, Kotek voted for the enabling bill and, last month, Brown signed it.

In April, the federal government funneled $2.6 billion in COVID-19 bailout dollars to Oregon for economic relief.

Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem) wanted to keep Republicans on task, so they proposed a novel idea for ladling out some of the federal pork: Give each state senator $4 million and each representative $2 million to spend at their discretion.

Many lawmakers plowed the money into infrastructure or economic development. Others rewarded favorite organizations. Courtney, a long-term booster of the Salem YMCA, shoveled his whole $4 million allotment there. State Rep. Khanh Pham (D-Portland) gave $1.1 million to her former employer, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, for property acquisition.

“This targeted investment in community-building and housing was part of a response to stopping API hate,” Pham says. “As the only Asian legislator in the [Legislature] it was absolutely vital that I spoke out hard against rising hate and backed it with dollars and policy changes.”

But Robinson, a 79-year-old biochemist who lost to U.S. Rep. Peter DeFazio for Congress five times before winning his state Senate seat in 2020, gets the award for most eye-catching use of the bailout money.

Abortion rights advocates say the Pregnancy Care Center of Grants Pass is essentially an anti-abortion health referral service.

Samantha Gladu, who works for the National Network of Abortion Funds in Portland, says such centers prey on uninformed women.

“People deserve medically accurate information, which they don’t get at those centers, which are not qualified in any way to give medical advice,” Gladu says. “They’re politically motivated, anti-abortion advocates.”

The bailout money, which flowed from the federal government to the state general fund, is supposed to be used for educational, health-based or economic stabilization programs and COVID-19 mitigation projects.

It’s unclear whether Robinson’s idea will qualify.

George Naughton, chief financial officer for the state’s Department of Administrative Services, says the feds will release final guidance for disbursing the funds in the coming months and state officials will screen each of the earmarks against it.

“The bill has been passed,” Naughton says. “Our role is to implement what’s been passed by the Legislature.”

Grants Pass faces plenty of challenges that have nothing to do with abortion. Its hospitals are so overwhelmed by COVID-19 that patients in intensive care units are doubling up in rooms meant for one. And the unemployment rate in Josephine County is 20% higher than the state average.

Robinson’s earmark would be a windfall for the nonprofit pregnancy center, which had revenue of about $650,000 last year.

While Kotek spokesman Moran says such operations are “deceitful,” the center says it offers informed choice.

“We don’t pressure our patients to make any specific decision,” the center’s website says. “We believe people are intelligent and when provided all the information they need, each can make the best decision for themselves while considering others involved and those closest to them.”

Meanwhile, the center declined to say how it plans to spend the $4 million.

Gov. Brown’s spokesman Liz Merah says Robinson’s earmark is “incredibly problematic,” but she adds that the governor had little choice but to approve it.

“Because she did not want to jeopardize hundreds of millions of dollars in vital economic investments in every part of the state,” Merah says, “the governor signed the bill rather than vetoing that particular section.”

An Do, executive director of Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon, tells WW that Robinson “should be ashamed.” “Attaching any blame to [Kotek or Brown] for Sen. Robinson’s decision is inaccurate and a misrepresentation of the events and circumstances of last session.”

Moran declined to explain why Kotek allowed the expenditure to sail through the Legislature, placing the blame on Robinson, who Moran says “abdicated his responsibility to his community.”

“It is up to him to justify his choice to the families and businesses in his district who missed this opportunity for support,” he adds.

Robinson did not respond to requests for comment.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed comments from the office of Gov. Brown to a different spokesperson. Sen. Art Robinson’s party affiliation and home town have also been corrected. WW regrets the errors.

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