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Oregon legislators prepare for virtual session, set bill priorities for 2021

 COURTESY PHOTO: CHRIS GORSEK  - Sen. Chris Gorsek, D- Senate District 25, is now the senior elected official from East Multnomah County heading to Salem this year.  The experience of representing one's neighbors in the Oregon Legislature is something few have in their lifetimes. A total of 90 representatives and senators will meet again beginning Tuesday, Jan. 19, for the first legislative session of 2021. This year, however, will be very different. Because of the COVID-19 crisis, legislators will meet for committees virtually until at least spring, coming together in-person only to cast votes on the floor at the Capitol building while masked and distanced.

PMG FILE PHOTO  - Rep. Zach Hudson, D-House District 49, has been workshopping his bills for the inaugural session since the fall election.  Rep. Zach Hudson, a former Troutdale City Councilor who now leads House District 49, which encompasses Troutdale, Fairview, Wood Village, part of Gresham and a slice of Portland, has been hard at work crafting his bills since the election.

He will introduce legislation to make it easier for individuals without a bank account to cash checks with additional fees, if it is done at the institution where the check was issued. The bill would help people just entering or returning to the workforce — timely with the disruption caused by the pandemic.

"People without a bank account are often some of the most vulnerable in our society and charging them a fee to access money they have earned is a burden they don't deserve," Hudson said.

Hudson is also backing two bills originating in the Senate, aimed at reducing prescription drug costs and improving care. One would prevent "pay for delay," in which a pharmaceutical company pays a generic drug manufacturer to not produce a competing drug.

"It's amazing that such a practice exists in the first place, it seems patently unfair," Hudson said.

The other bill would license pharmaceutical representatives so the state can enforce better ethical standards within the industry.

Hudson intends to introduce a bill that would ban cosmetics tested on animals. The bill would not affect medical or pharmacological testing.

"Animal testing for cosmetics is not only inhumane, it is unnecessary and even misleading," Hudson said.

Finally, he is planning on introducing legislation to study mental health needs among Oregon higher education students and to initiate a pilot program in K-12 schools using trauma-informed practices. Part of that will be as chief sponsor to a bill recalculating the weightings assigned to K-12 students for school funding — the weighted average daily membership.

"The bill won't increase or decrease total school funding, it will simply reallocate money within the system to better support students who need it," Hudson said.

PMG FILE PHOTO - Rep. Ricki Ruiz, D-House District 50, is focused on supporting education and advocating for small business recovery in the wake of the pandemic.     Supporting education and school districts is a major goal for Rep. Ricki Ruiz, D-Gresham. Ruiz is another newcomer in Salem, after being elected to House District 50 in the fall. He wants to draw on his experience on the Reynolds School Board to secure better funding for education, especially as students continue to learn from home.

Ruiz will seek programs to bolster small businesses in his community for COVID-19 recovery and is pushing to have better access to the vaccine.

"East Multnomah County was hit hard by the pandemic, so we should receive proportionate doses of the vaccine," he said.

Ruiz is also supportive of lowering the voting age in Oregon to 15-16.

"If someone that age is working and paying taxes, then it makes sense they should have a say in their local government and how those taxes are spent," Ruiz said.

The veteran of the East Multnomah County bunch is Democrat Chris Gorsek, who made the shift from the Oregon House to the Senate during the 2020 election. Now he helms District 25 and has a slate of priorities he is advocating for.

"Flexibility is going to be important in the upcoming session," Gorsek said. "I think as a lot of the challenges of 2020 come to bear, we're going to have to respond in innovative ways to get people and the economy back on track."

He is working on setting standards of treatment for homeless by state agencies; requiring body cameras for all law enforcement officers; legislation that would require corporations to reimburse the state for the benefits provided to underpaid employees; and preventing the use of trickery, artifice and deceit during the questioning of kids under 18 by law enforcement.

Gorsek also plans on placing standards on TriMet to provide a baseline level of service to community members paying taxes and fees to the agency, improve school libraries, and back a bill coming out of the House to help homeowners avoid foreclosures.

"I'm looking forward to supporting the work being done on criminal justice reform and the environmental crisis," he said.

Serving the Sandy Area

PMG FILE PHOTO: BRITTANY ALLEN - Sen. Chuck Thomsen, R- Senate District 26, has served in the legislature for 10 years and said 2021 should be interesting because of all of the differences from the COVID-19 crisis. (Photo from 2019.)This will be District 26 Sen. Chuck Thomsen's, R-Hood River, 10th year in the senate, and about the upcoming session, he said "it should be interesting."

"With the COVID crisis, I think it just makes everything a little bit harder," Thomsen explained. "There are going to be a lot of unknowns. It might take more time. The legislature will go out of its way to accommodate people."

Unknowns or not, Thomsen is hoping to promote utmost transparency in the virtual aspects of the session. He also sees this turn to virtual solutions as a way to make the legislature more accessible in the future even after the pandemic.

"I think what will come out of this is sometime in the future, we'll have both (virtual and in-person) and maybe that'll be a good thing," Thomsen said.

As far as priorities go, Thomsen says "I've never been one to have a ton of bills," but he does have a few efforts he'll be bringing to the floor.

"When you're in the super minority, you pick and choose your battles," Thomsen explained.

One of Thomsen's chosen battles is to help a Sandy woman get an abandoned RV removed from her property. She reached out to Thomsen for help in funding the removal, which she feels was unfairly put on her since she does not own the vehicle.

"I support a lot of constituents' bills," Thomsen added. "A lot of bills come down to how you're going to fund it."

Thomsen is also working on a bill to make advanced placement (AP)/community college credits more easily transferable and the language around which class credits can be transferred to state universities.

"We want to make it more transparent," Thomsen said. "(Students should be able to) plan at the junior college level what to take and what will transfer."

COURTESY PHOTO: JUSTIN WITHEM FOR REP. ANNA WILLIAMS - Rep. Anna Williams, D-House District 52, makes a vote on the Oregon House floor in 2020.Forging ahead with bills that didn't get their day last year, House 52 Rep. Anna Williams, D-Hood River, hopes to see the completion of three bills aimed to prevent child abuse in Oregon.

One bill will provide money for a child advocacy center; one will help fund a child abuse prevalence study and the third is aimed to provide funding for Erin's Law, which requires K-12 schools to adopt child sexual abuse prevention programs. These three bills were previously one omnibus bill, which Williams is hopeful will be easier to get passed individually.

Aside from funding for these preventions efforts, Williams hopes to secure money for search and rescue programs.

"The state mandates that the sheriffs are responsible for search and rescue, but we don't always provide them with enough funding to meet that mandate," Williams explained.

Like many of her peers, Williams will also put great focus on COVID-related and wildfire economic recovery.

Advocating for Estacada

As the Estacada area continues to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and the aftermath of the Clackamas County Wildfires, Rep. Christine Drazan has several related goals for the upcoming legislative session.

Drazan, R-Canby, represents Oregon House District 39, which includes Estacada, Eagle Creek, Barton, Beavercreek, Boring, Canby, Carus, Charbonneau, Fischers Mill, Mulino, Redland, rural areas of Oregon City and portions of Damascus and Happy Valley.

One of Drazan's goals for the legislative session is to support schools transitioning to hybrid learning, which would allow a reduced number of students to be in the classroom as others concurrently learn online.

"I'm really focused on getting kids safely back in the classroom," she said, describing this as "job number one."

"Not having access to a well-rounded education will cause challenges for kids long term," she continued, expressing concern that some virtual learning lessons are pre-recorded. "Learning online absolutely works for some students who have unique abilities, but most kids need to be able to ask questions and put things in context."

She added that in-person learning is also valuable for students' social-emotional health.

"How do you develop grit and persistence? For the most part, the positive sides of those characteristics come in a community," she said. "For the developmental stages our students are at, you don't get a do-over."

Drazan is also focused on wildfire recovery efforts and has been serving on the state's Wildfire Economic Recovery Council.

"We need to follow through on all of the cleanup and funding needs," she said. "It's important to ensure that we have adequate firefighting resources so we don't find ourselves in a position again where resources are stretched so thin. In our district, there was extra community support to fill in the gap, but being put in that position is problematic. We need to do better next time."

Many elements of the session will be held remotely because of the COVID-19 pandemic, and Drazan wants to ensure that this is not a barrier to constituent participation.

"I hope we can navigate the upcoming session in a way that allows for the public to really have access to the work that we do, and comment on our work," she said, noting that she plans to hold office hours virtually and via phone. "I can't fully represent our community without the opportunity for people to talk to me."

She added that this is a particularly important time for government leaders to advocate for the communities they represent.

"This is not an easy time for Oregonians. The government needs to be nimble and responsive to the challenges that they're facing," she said. "These are all complex challenges and we can't miss an opportunity to serve Oregonians."

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