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Gov. Brown's $200 million initiative goes to House for an up-or-down vote; bill gets mostly bipartisan support.

A $200 million plan to boost future jobs in health care, construction and manufacturing — and focus training on people who have often been left behind in economic recoveries — is halfway through the Oregon Legislature.

The Senate passed it on a 23-3 vote Tuesday, March 1, and sent it to the House for an up-or-down vote. Senate Bill 1545 has already cleared the Legislature's joint budget committee.

The plan is known as Future Ready Oregon and blends work by Gov. Kate Brown and her staff, the Governor's Racial Justice Council — which emerged from the racial justice protests of 2020 — and business interests and regional workforce development boards.

Although Oregon's economic recovery from the coronavirus pandemic has resulted in more unfilled jobs than there are available workers, the plan will focus on training efforts in three sectors that will generate more jobs in the next decade. They are health care — which has been chronically short of workers for almost a decade, and also suffering losses in the aftermath of the two-year pandemic — plus construction and manufacturing. Skilled workers in those fields are retiring faster than younger workers can replace them.

The plan combines $76 million from the tax-supported general fund with $123 million in federal funds from Oregon's share of the American Rescue Plan Act, the $2 trillion pandemic recovery plan that President Joe Biden signed last year.

What supporters said

Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, referred to a Feb. 9 presentation by the Oregon Office of Economic Analysis, which concluded that a shortage of trained workers and a lack of lower-cost housing are barriers to Oregon's economic future.

"We need to get more Oregonians into training programs that will get them into career pathways and progress on those pathways to self-sufficiency and prosperity," said Dembrow, who leads the Senate Education Committee. "We need them now."

One barrier to full participation by would-be workers, he said, is the lack of social supports such as income, child care, housing and transportation while they are undergoing training.

Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Milwaukie, said the Governor's Racial Justice Council added its voice to augment the education and training programs advocated by business and workforce development boards. Council and task force members were asked about how the state should respond to longstanding racial, economic and social inequities.

"They looked at it from a perspective that has looked different from what we have seen in the past," said Taylor, whose Senate Labor and Business Committee conducted hearings on elements of the plan before the start of the 2022 session.

"We recognize the barriers inherent in certain populations' ability to prosper," said Sen. Lew Frederick, a Democrat from Portland — and one of four Black senators — whose written comments were read aloud by Taylor during the Senate debate. "This bill is an investment in our workforce, which is an investment for all of us."

Critics and a response

Not all comments were favorable.

Sen. Dennis Linthicum of Klamath Falls was one of three Republicans to vote against it. He said the plan should have been considered in the longer 2023 session — although there is a December 2024 deadline for states to spend federal funds under the 2021 law — and that some would-be workers will find they will require far more training for their jobs than the plan will provide.

Sen. Fred Girod of Lyons, who was among five Republican legislators who opposed the bill when it was in the joint budget committee, even questioned whether it was a proper use of the federal money. Unlike the infrastructure law that Congress passed and Biden signed Nov. 15, money under the rescue plan can be spent on a range of programs — and Oregon even plans to save about $500 million of it to balance the 2023-25 state budget.

Democratic Sen. Janeen Sollman said her home city of Hillsboro is a model for what the plan envisions. The top two employers in Oregon's fifth most populous city are Intel and Kaiser Permanente. She said there is cooperation among the school district — she is a former board member — Portland Community College and the Washington County Chamber of Commerce about what needs to be done to prepare people for work.

"What a boost Future Ready Oregon will be to have this workforce development occurring statewide to serve historically underserved communities, including dislocated workers and disconnected youth," Sollman said.

"Let's help people get back to work to help them thrive. We need smart comprehensive investments to support future generations. Future Ready does just that. Oregonians are ready for it."

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