Amid setbacks, lawmakers make strides for equity and transparency
Even before the final gavel fell in Salem Friday, complaints rose about what didn't happen during the 2017 session.
We, too, are disappointed by the lack of meaningful tax reform and frustrated by the failure to find a middle ground on tenant protections. And refusal of the Democratic majority to consider even modest reforms to reign in the state's runaway public employee retirement costs is nothing short of legislative malpractice.
Tough questions and bit of political soul searching, however, should not overshadow the fact that our citizen lawmakers did manage to reach agreement on several important issues that will improve the quality of life for Oregonians. The transportation package, for instance, is a once-a-decade, bipartisan achievement.
The Legislature also passed new laws that address two cornerstones of democracy: people should be treated equally and governments should operate openly.
You can't end bigotry and bias with the stroke of a pen, but Oregon lawmakers made strides to combat discrimination in a several different ways.
Earlier this year an investigation by The Pamplin Media Group — The Times' parent company — and InvestigateWest showed that minorities in Oregon are being charged disproportionately with a variety of crimes. Some of the biggest disparities were seen in charges related to traffic violations.
Is that because drivers are being targeted because of their skin color? We don't know because for years, police and prosecutors fought efforts to require patrol officers to collect data about who they stop. House Bill 2355, an Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum initiative, finally broke through that political roadblock. The bill, which won unanimous approval in both chambers, addresses racial profiling by requiring stop data collection and anti-bias training for police.
Similarly, our investigation found that African American transit riders in Portland were disproportionately excluded from TriMet busses and trains, being tarnished with a criminal record for minor violations, such as skipping fares. A pair of bills, Senate Bill 357 and House Bill 2777 address this by reducing the severity of transit violations and allowing for fines (or community service) as penalties.
House Bill 2005, meanwhile, will attempt to close the gender pay gap. A recent analysis by ECONorthwest found that for every dollar an Oregonian man earned, a Hispanic woman made just 53 cents. Women of other backgrounds didn't fare much better: Native American women earned 69 cents, African American 77 cents, Asian women 79 cents and white women 83 cents.
HB 2005, which also had unusual bi-partisans support, came up with a mix of incentives and penalties that should motivate employers to ensure that women in their workforce are getting equal pay for equal work.
And, there were other efforts to break down barriers equity: House Bill 2673, signed by Gov. Brown in mid-May, makes it easier (and safer) for transgender Oregonians to legally change their names. House Bill 2864 establishes a process to adopt cultural competency standards at Oregon's public colleges and universities so that all students feel welcome on public campuses.
And House Bill 3464 clarifies that state and local agencies shall not act as federal immigration enforcement officers, so that all Oregonians, regardless of their immigration status, know they are safe in Oregon schools, workplaces and communities.
Opening up Government
A trio of bills, backed by Rosenblum and Gov. Kate Brown, made modest-but-important steps toward greater government transparency. Senate Bill 481, championed by Rosenblum, is the most important. It will end the all-too-common practice of ignoring requests for public documents. The law requires all public bodies in Oregon to acknowledge receipt of such requests within five business days, and to fully respond to the request within 10 days of the acknowledgment (or provide a written estimate of when the request will be fulfilled).
Senate Bill 106, meanwhile, proposed by the governor's office, creates the Office of Public Records Advocate and the Public Records Advisory Council to address conflicts between government bodies and those seeking public documents. Finally, House Bill 2101 establishes a "Sunshine Commission" to review the proliferation of exemptions public records.
Few of those efforts made front-page news this year, but they are reminders that this legislative session featured some real successes.