Oregon's Human Service budgeteers are members of LGBTQ community
During the 2021 Oregon legislative session, two very different people got to hold the gavel, lead the hearings, and craft the two-year budget for everything from public health to the Oregon Health Plan to key portions of pandemic relief.
One came from a background of organized labor and the other has been a lawyer and prosecutor. One serves Portland's Westside, and the other, the east.
But when it came time to craft the budget, the co-chairs of the Ways & Means Subcommittee on Human Services had this in common:
Sen. Kate Lieber, Senate District 14, and Rep. Rob Nosse, House District 42, come from the LGBTQ community.
It's the first time in Oregon history that this influential budget-writing committee has been led by two "out" co-chairs: a lesbian and a gay man. Records for such things aren't codified, but it could be a first for any state in the nation.
Both spoke to the Pamplin Media Group this summer about the lenses that come with being in the LGBTQ community, and how those lenses helped them craft a budget for the coming two-year period. Their comments have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Pamplin Media Group:
Both chairs of the joint Ways and Means Subcommittee on Human Services are members of the LGBTQ community. Is that lens important? And if so, how so?
Sen. Kate Lieber
It's something that I knew about Rob, but I didn't know him before this. I think that it's important for everybody to understand that representation does matter. It matters to be in the room where decision-making is happening. That being said, I think that Rep. Nosse and I really are working for all Oregonians. We created a budget that really reached out and made sure that it would serve those Oregonians who are really in need.
But I would also say that each of us has a "lived experience" that brings an important lens, especially when you're talking about the Human Services budget. We didn't actually have to explain ourselves to each other in a way that I think was really wonderful and unique. And it helped us work together, probably in ways that maybe were better than I even realized.
Rep. Rob Nosse
It's funny because, it's not like we spent a ton of time talking about it. (To start,) we were on a lot of Zoom meetings, with budgets, with stakeholders, with department heads in the Oregon Health Authority, or the Department of Human Services, trying to figure it all out. And at first, in January and February (2021) we didn't have any money.
I was like: What are we going to cut? How are we going to whack things? And then the ARRA dollars came in — the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — so then we had resources. Then in spring, we found out that the state's economy did not tank during the pandemic, that actually we had plenty of money.
And then at the end, you know, I don't want to say that we were spending money like drunken sailors, but … we'd been told — both of us are relatively new to the Ways and Means process and to the Legislature — that these are some of the most robust budgets in over a decade, in terms of what the Health Authority got, in the resources they have in the Department of Human Services.
It's not like Kate and I spent a ton of time processing, together, with all these people also being members of the LGBTQ community. But I do think it's a bond. It's a life experience that we have in common. And … you know, I think we're of similar age. I've never asked her how old she is.
(laughs) And I'm not gonna tell.
(To Lieber) You know, I remember once having a conversation with you where you said coming out was not an easy experience for you.
Right. It wasn't.
It certainly wasn't for me either. In 1991, when I figured out that I was a gay man in Ohio — that's where I'm from; I moved to Oregon in 1992 — I think I was 23 years old. And how I figured it out is a very funny story. I don't think I told you how it happened, Kate.
Oh no, you did. Yeah. Oh, yeah.
OK. It's a very funny story, Dana. It's funny now, but it was not funny in 1991. When I moved to Oregon in 1992, that was when the (anti-gay rights) Oregon Citizens Alliance had put their Ballot Measure 9 on the ballot, and I was like, "Oh my god, where have I moved to?" It wasn't that awesome being a gay person, you know, in rural Ohio, either, and now I've moved to this state where it's like going to be put in the Constitution! (Editor's note; anti-gay bills of the 1990s mostly were defeated throughout Oregon.)
You know, as a member of this community, I tell people I sometimes have to "come out" once a day or more, right? So it's very interesting to just have a comfort level with somebody who knows your story. And you don't have to say it.
I used to joke, Dana, that I did not want to be a "professional gay." (Lieber laughs). But when you're in a leadership role and a member of the community, it's important. Like, members of the BIPOC caucus (Editor's note: Black, Indigenous and People of Color) were talking about how it is (for them). I remember Rep. (Janelle) Bynum made a very poignant comment to me once. She said, "Rob, I'm the only (Black woman) in the House." It's kind of a big responsibility. It's an important thing. We want more diverse communities to be in the Legislature. And it's not that "straight" allies in the Legislature wouldn't bring up LGBTQ issues … but they might not do it with the same passion or energy or same authenticity in a way that Sen. Lieber and I are gonna do it.
Pamplin Media Group
I always want to think that Oregon is ahead of the curve on issues like LGBTQ rights, acceptance, visibility and equity. But that might be naive on my part. I'd like to hear what you guys think.
I think we compete with California in terms of policy at the state level for being which state is the most LGBTQ friendly. We have one of the most "trans-inclusive" Medicaid programs in the United States. If you're a trans person, and you need trans-centered medical care, and you're on the Oregon Health Plan, there's a pretty good chance you're going to be able to get it.
Yeah. I also think, though, that we can't just sit back and think, oh, Oregon's got it made. I mean, we just passed, for example, the LGBTQ panic defense ban. (Editor's note: the "panic defense" strategy is a courtroom tactic that asks a jury to find that a victim's sexual orientation or gender identity are to blame for a defendant's violent actions. Such a defense has been banned in Oregon, as well as California, Illinois, Rhode Island, Nevada, Connecticut, Maine, Hawaii, New York, New Jersey, Washington, Colorado, Virginia, Vermont, Maryland and the District of Columbia.) I think we were the 12th state to pass it. And that had been on the books for a long time. I was super proud to be able to be on that; Rob and I did a lot of work on that together.
Also, the SOGI (sexual orientation and gender identity) data collection means so much. When we were collecting data, we weren't collecting data in the area of LGBTQ. SOGI allows us to do that. … That is huge! And no one needed to explain it to myself or Rep. Nosse. Whereas you might have had to have a greater explanation for people who don't understand what that matters. Rob was just like: I got it. You don't even need to explain to me.
Again, when you have more diverse folks in the Legislature, it helps. Most of us politicians do care about trying to be friendly to the things that other people want to lift up, even if it's not your top priority. Certainly it's not hurting matters to have, you know, Tina Kotek as the speaker; that certainly comes in handy for things in the LGBTQ community, for sure. (Editor's note: Speaker of the House Tina Kotek is a lesbian). But it's nice to have some esprit de corps with other folks from this community, because you can get a little synergy going. You can get things going in a way that, sometimes, if you're the only one, it's just harder.
We did have an LGBTQ caucus, I think for — correct me if I'm wrong — for the first time, right Rep. Nosse?
Yeah, but we didn't meet very frequently, because, you and me, we were constantly meeting!
Oh, my gosh, I know. But … just to have been the first openly (lesbian) state senator matters. The governor, obviously, was the first LGBTQ senator (Gov. Kate Brown is bisexual). But there's been nobody else (in the Senate). It's just been really profound, especially in the Senate. I know the House has done a better job with representation in that community.
(Regarding the LGBTQ caucus in the House) Well, Tina Kotek is not running for the Legislature again … she's going to run for governor. (Rep.) Karin Power every once in a while complains that she's a young mom and has to make a living; that her wife needs her to find a way to make a living. And so we'll see.
Pamplin Media Group
How did you two establish the rapport as co-chairs? And did you do it before the session? Did you have a meeting to say: This is going to be the game plan.
Well, Dana, I think it's important for you to understand that I'm the funny one. (Nosse laughs)
Pamplin Media Group
We know that, Senator.
Thank you. Thank you. I appreciate that. And I think with Rob, the problem was he thought he was funny. And then I had to explain to him that he actually wasn't the super-funny one, and we have had a lot of ongoing meetings about that. (Nosse laughing throughout). No, actually, when I was running, I reached out. And Rep. Nosse was great. We had coffee together. We had a really good rapport then. And I think he was like, OK, well, I'll see if you win. …
So, Dana, I was a little bit sheepish because, ah, Kate is very fun. She's got a big personality. (Lieber laughing) I think I enjoyed meeting with her right away. We had this little awkwardness because her opponent in her primary was Dick Schouten. He's a retired county commissioner for Washington County, and his wife is Rep. Sheri Schouten, who's in my caucus. I think — well, I can probably get away saying this now — I probably wanted to endorse Kate, to be honest with you. And I did not feel like I could, because that might make for an awkward relationship with (Rep. Schouten), who's my colleague!
That was OK. We were all good with that. I mean, I was fine with that.
You were very gracious about it.
We met. And I reached out to other legislators who were LGBTQ because, one of the things that I was super concerned about is just: What's it like? Rob was generous with his time. We talked, and then we talked again and again. I kept seeing you about things.
And I invited you and your wife over for dinner. I figured that was something I should do. That was a lovely evening.
It was a great time. … And it was before the appointments (to Ways & Means) came out. After, I called you and was like, "Guess what …"
So Dana, I remember when I first got this role in 2019; being the co-chair for this subcommittee for Ways & Means is rewarding, but it's very hard. So, in 2019 … I got the assignment; me and Sen. Lee Byer. He'd been a legislator a very long time, but he'd never been on a budget committee. I mean, he served in the House, he served in the Senate, and had never been in a budget committee.
Here he was, brand-new to chairing this subcommittee, as was I. And it's the most complicated budget; the most money, the most — I don't know about the "most at stake," that's probably not fair. But you know, we're funding programs like the Oregon Health Plan, where we're standing up all these entities that rely on that Oregon Health Plan and money from it; we've got services to intellectual and developmental disability; services to the elderly and senior citizens; child welfare.
Until this last session, every term I'd served in the Legislature was sort of "pants on fire" in terms of an agency that was struggling. And so I remember in 2019 going, "I think I made a mistake. I should not have signed up for this committee." Twice, I told the Speaker, "I think you picked the wrong person." I didn't want to do this. I didn't come down here to whack programs that help poor people and old people. This is not what I signed up for. It's just very hard.
So this year, I immediately tried to figure out how to make sure I had a good "trauma bond" with Sen. Lieber. Because it's tough. I told her: I'm delighted that (Senate President Peter Courtney) sees something in you, to give you this very hard assignment.
Pamplin Media Group
I live in a building with about 300 apartment units. And if I told them that I was talking to the co-chairs of a Ways & Means sub, I think 298 of them would not know what I meant. What is your elevator pitch for explaining what Human Services entails?
When Sen. Courtney asked me, "Hey, what are you interested in?" I said: I'm interested in mental health, behavioral health — very important to me — and I'm interested in understanding the budget, because you can have the greatest policy in the world and if it doesn't get funded, it doesn't get funded, right?
So I explain to people: the Human Services budget is the budget that touches on what I would consider it to be humanity. All of the things that we do through the Department of Human Services, or through the Oregon Health Authority, touch people's lives in profound ways. The Department of Human Services has got everything from aging, and developmental disabilities, to child welfare. They're also doing response to wildfires.
Oregon Health Authority is all of our health care. There's the Oregon Health Plan. Now, during the global pandemic, people have really gotten to know the Oregon Health Authority in a way that they might not have. But those are all the kinds of things that we have to figure out how to fund.
The thing that struck me so much is just the sheer amount of federal dollars, and understanding the federal system. It makes for a complicated budget in some respects, because, you gotta spend (state) money to get (federal) money. And if you cut general fund (state) dollars, you've also cut a huge amount of federal dollars. And it's this very interesting balancing act.
I know when we were looking at cutting things, I just called it my "Oh S*** List," because I didn't even know how to explain to people how we would cut this, because it affects people so profoundly. I'm certainly glad that we didn't have to do that. Rep. Nosse and I went through the exercise, at the very beginning, of cutting the budgets. And that was really stressful. It was really hard. It was heart-wrenching. So in the end, I was just glad we could actually invest (instead of cut).
Pamplin Media Group
Representative, what's your elevator pitch for "Human Services?"
So I mostly just say: If you're in a nursing home, this is the department that's standing up, regulating that, and making sure that workforce gets paid. If you have a parent, or a child, or someone in your life with intellectual and developmental disabilities, this is the agency that's providing services to help support that Oregonian be as successful as possible.
Most people know about the child welfare system, so I tell them about that, and I also focus a lot on the Oregon Health Plan and Medicaid, because that's the main thing that Oregonians know about the Oregon Health Authority. It's got some other things that it does as well, including the state hospital, and I tend to focus sometimes on food stamps, and the welfare system, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). This is the way the state works with the federal government on those programs.
Pamplin Media Group
We're talking about lenses. And Senator, you're an eight-year member of the Psychiatric Security Review Board, as a deputy district attorney. How does that experience come to bear on the budget? And I'm thinking now about the decriminalizing of mental illness.
That was huge for me. I prosecuted a lot of child-abuse cases and spend time in juvenile court. I saw the impacts that mental health had on families in a very profound way. When I got appointed to the Psychiatric Security Review Board, I would just literally read report after report after report where people tried to get help, and tried to get help, and tried to get help for their loved ones who were having these mental health crises. And their loved ones then commit a crime, all the way up to murder, right?
So it was such a disconnect for me. Saying: Wait a minute. We have people who are crying out for help. We have people who have no off-ramps before they get to the criminal justice system, and before we get to the state hospital. So I had that experience that I was able to bring in. I'm very passionate about mental health as being at the root of so many things.
One of the things that I was really interested in was the intersection of mental health and homelessness, which is why I joined the Transition Projects board. That intersection is so profound, right? That lens gave me the ability to come in and say, "There's a system here, and the system is broken." And we've got to figure out: How do we get off-ramps, for lack of a better word, to help people earlier, so that we have this prevention happening, and they don't have to become homeless, or don't have to enter the criminal justice system?
I was really passionate about that. And at the beginning (of the 2021 legislative session), Rob was, like, "We don't have any money, Kate." But we both started working on this idea: Behavioral health, substance-use disorder and housing are this three-legged stool, right? You've gotta actually fund all three of them. And then suddenly we had funds!
Rep. Nosse and I had already had these ideas brewing before that happened. So we were able to pivot pretty quickly and say, here is a really well-thought-out way that we can attack the behavioral health system. And if we had not thought about it ahead of time, or I hadn't brought that lens to it, I don't think we would have been ready.
I totally agree. I got lucky. In my chamber, what I had was a Speaker of the House whose wife works at Cascadia (Behavioral Health). And House Speaker Kotek hired, on her policy team, a woman who had a stint at the Oregon Health Authority in the behavioral health unit. So I knew with the Behavioral Health Committee in the House focused on those issues, a speaker who hired policy staff to help her figure out how to shepherd things through, that I was going to be supported, whatever we could come up with. And then frankly, I got lucky in that Sen. Lieber actually knew a lot about this topic as well. And she got lucky, because Sen. Courtney has also cared a lot about mental health in the long time that he's served in the Legislature.
Very much so. Yeah.
So when I saw our planning coming together, and advocates were getting really excited and telling us to do this or asked for this, and other people started piling in as well. And eventually, we got the signal: go ask for something. We cobbled some stuff together, and we also had bills from the governor, and bills from our colleagues. And it all came together in a great way.
If you had asked me in January if I was going to do this massive behavioral health package, I would have said, "No, I don't think that's the thing. I think we'll spend our time tinkering on the margins and trying to figure it out."
Pamplin Media Group
Representative, you've been an advocate for mental health parity. Looking at Oregon, compared to other states, are we there? Did we succeed? Are you where you want us to be?
I don't think so. So in addition to all the things that Sen. Lieber and I stood up in terms of funding and the Health Authority, and the coordinated care organizations, I worked with a bunch of mostly providers, but also some consumer groups, to bring statutory changes to our state based on Witt v. United Behavioral Health United, out of California. It was a federal lawsuit in 2019. Where (the plaintiff) wasn't getting care at a level that they needed; the kind of care that would be on par with what you would receive if, say, you had a broken leg or appendicitis.
They sued, and the state of California put in a bunch of statutes to codify that legislation, to say, "Hey, mental health care is going to be treated like medical care, and be compensated, offered, utilized in a manner that's similar to primary care — or the way that mental health professionals say it should be used."
So that's what House Bill 3046 was, an attempt to bring to this state. It's just getting started. I've got to cancel a couple of meetings tomorrow, as I'm going to the first rulemaking (meeting) at the Department of Consumer Business Services to begin to get the deal off the ground. One thing I'm excited about is that the advocates that I've worked with decided to not just focus on commercial health insurance, which was sort of where the Witt decision came out, but also reached over and included folks that are on the Oregon Health Plan.
So we're the first state to codify things from the Witt decision out of California in statute, and do it in a way that includes the Oregon Health Plan and coordinated care organizations as well as commercial insurance. So we'll see. Ask me in a year and a half if that law's working.
Pamplin Media Group
We've been talking about one specific lens and how this affects the work that you do. But the 2021 Legislature might have been the most diverse and possibly most accomplished freshmen class in the history of the Legislature. And I say that having covered it for 20 years. Can you both talk about the freshmen in both your caucuses and the lenses they brought with them?
The freshmen in the Senate were handed very powerful gavels in an extraordinarily unique time, right? We're in a pandemic and, obviously, that creates all sorts of issues. And you have (Sen. Kayse Jama, D-Portland, given the chairmanship of the Senate Committee on Housing and Development). You have (Sen. Deb Patterson, D-Salem, given the chairmanship of the Senate Health Care Committee). And you have me, who was given the budget for Human Services.
It was an extraordinarily unique time. I couldn't have been more proud of the freshmen that I was able to serve with. And I do want to call out some of our Republican colleagues who did a really great job, like (Sen. Dick Anderson, R-Lincoln City, vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Human Services, Mental Health and Recovery). I served with him on our human services policy committee, and he really got in there, too. I think that whole class was really a good one.
Also, I think, sometimes, not having served in a body for really long enables you to maybe move in different ways through it. It was such a unique time, but I didn't have any perspective on how it was supposed to be or not supposed to be. Right? I just knew that this was what it was. I actually think that might have been kind of helpful. It gave me the ability to be, like, "Let's just do it this way." (laughs) I didn't have any preconceived notions about how it's supposed to be done. And I think that that might have been the same for both Sen. Patterson and Sen. Jama.
I mean, talk about throwing them into the deep end, right? In the housing crisis that we have and in the health care crisis that we have, I just think they both really rose to the occasion. I'm super proud of them.
I have two observations about the freshman class (in the House). One is: Two physicians joined in our freshman class (Reps. Maxine Dexter, D-Portland, and Lisa Reynolds, D-Portland), at a moment when we're in the pandemic, and COVID is a filter for so much of what we dealt with in the session. It's partially why they were successful in their primaries. They both have pretty contested primaries, where they were definitely competing against other good candidates who were running good campaigns with resources and endorsements.
And so having two physicians joining us at this moment is important. I think, rightfully so, that people look to (health care) providers, to nurses, to nurse practitioners, to doctors, when we're experiencing health challenges.
The other thing I'm struck by is: We definitely had a class where there were more legislators of color. This Legislature was the most diverse Legislature we've ever had. This freshman class was the most diverse that we've ever had. You may not know this Dana, but we're also now a (House) that's majority women. That's also, in part, why the new legislators of color were so successful. It was a moment where issues that are important to people of color in this state were really getting elevated.
Kind of like what we were talking about at the very beginning of this interview: Representation matters. And having LGBTQ people in the Legislature means that LGBTQ issues get focused on and get lifted up in a way that our straight allies might not prioritize or maybe aren't as successful at because they don't represent the issues in the same way.
It's the same thing I feel for legislators of color. Having a critical mass of people join at a moment when the culture is really trying very hard … to wrestle with how we put equity in, and how we do things about racism in our institutions and our structures.
Pamplin Media Group
I'd like to keep focusing on lenses, or what I perceive as lenses. Sen. Lieber, you're a breast cancer survivor. You've seen our health care system from that perspective. Is that a lens? Does that affect you as a lawmaker, or as a budget writer?
Sure. Absolutely. I mean, I was 42 years old. So I was young. I had young children. That was a profound experience for me. I remember, the very short period of time that I was able to knock on doors (while campaigning for office in 2020), one of the doors I knocked on was this man, and we started talking about health care and deductibles. And he's like, "I've got health care, but I can't afford it," because he had cancer. And I was like, "Oh, my gosh, me too!" It's expensive, always meeting your deductible, especially in the early days. He was like, "I can't afford it." And I said, "I know exactly what you're talking about!"
We talked about having the scans, the PT scans, or having an MRI and the anxiety that that produces. It was just a lovely conversation with him. And I think that that just makes you understand. Like when people say they're choosing between lifesaving medicine or food. I was in a position where I thought I was gonna die. That? That, I get. It's so incredibly personal. I completely understand.
I want to make sure that we're not just saying, "OK, there's health insurance." We need to understand: What does it mean to have health insurance? What does it mean to have good health insurance that you can actually afford? Health insurance that's just health insurance? Well, that's just catastrophic insurance. So, yeah, definitely, being able to speak to that lens as a cancer survivor is super important.
Pamplin Media Group
Representative, same question: You're a practicing Catholic, you're involved in your church. Is that a lens that guides your time as a lawmaker and as a budget writer?
Wow. It's interesting that you bring that up, actually, because I feel like, in a pretty unchurched state, and with a bunch of lefties in the House Democratic Caucus, and in this area of the world, I'm sometimes a little nervous about coming out as a Catholic. I joke that, well, I'm as Catholic as a man who's very pro-choice and is married to his husband can be.
Sometimes people look at me most surprised, like, "You're a Roman Catholic?" I'm like: Yeah, I had 12 years of Catholic grade school and high school. It's in me, culturally. And I always say, look, there's a billion Catholics on this planet. There are the ones that are in Opus Dei (Editor's note: A conservative and influential branch of the Catholic church). There are the ones who are super-right-wing, who want to go back to a Latin Mass. And there's also liberation theology out of Latin America (Editor's note: a theological approach emphasizing the liberation of the oppressed), which is also part of our Roman Catholicism.
So there's a lot of the diversity within a billion of us who identify as Catholic on the planet. So with that said, except on matters of sexuality, I think I rely on my Catholic faith quite a lot, actually. It's not always obvious to me, how it (serves as a lens), but one place where I think the church is actually very progressive is on Human Services; also on workers and unions — unless you're organizing in a Catholic hospital; then they act like every other employer (Lieber laughs).
Some of those social values are about sharing and caring for community. The church is very pro-immigration. They have some of the most forward-thinking policies, and they lobby on those things as well. They have a lobbyist in Salem, and they definitely lend their voice around immigration policy and other issues.
Sen. Kate Lieber, D-Beaverton, serves Senate District 14, which includes portions of Northwest Portland. She is a mother of two, a community college instructor and an attorney. She co-chairs the Joint Ways & Means Subcommittee on Human Services, and sits on Senate or joint committees on Human Services, Mental Health and Recovery; Labor and Business; Legislative Counsel; and the budget-writing Ways & Means.
Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, serves House District 42, which includes a swath of Portland's Central Eastside from the Banfield Freeway south to Woodstock. He's the father of two children and works as an organizer for the Oregon Nurses Association. He co-chairs the Joint Ways & Means Subcommittee on Human Services; is vice-chair of the House Committee on Behavioral Health; and sits on the joint committees for Ways & Means and the Emergency Board.
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