Governor expounds on state issues in Lebanon

Scott Swanson

Gov. Kate Brown told a near-capacity crowd Friday that she is committed to “common-sense” solutions as she addressed problems facing Oregon.

Speaking at the Lebanon Chamber of Commerce’s monthly Forum Lunch on March 31 at the Boulder Falls Conference Center, Brown spent an hour discussing the economy, education, health care, jobs and taking questions from the audience of more than 275, which included Sweet Home City Council members Susan Coleman, Lisa Gourley and Dave Trask, along with former Mayor Jim Gourley.

Brown was high-energy, witty and focused on her rural audience as she described her initiatives and vision for the state.

She thanked attendees “for coming out on a Spring Break Friday when it’s actually sunny.”

She opened with a story about five foster children, all from the same family, whom she represented as a lawyer before before becoming Secretary of State in 2009 and then governor, when her predecessor, John Kitzhaber, stepped down. A foster mother took all five children in, but then found she needed to move and was unable to find a residence with adequate bedroom space for five foster children, per Department of Human Services requirements.

“I said, ‘This is ridiculous,’” Brown recounted. “They literally were going to separate the kids and put them in different foster homes because there weren’t enough beds in the home.”

Also a state legislator at the time, she maintained two residences, in Salem and in Portland, and so Brown decided to move foam mattresses she had for that purpose to the foster mother’s new home to solve the problem until beds could be procured.

“That’s exactly what we did. The lesson for me is sometimes we need common-sense solutions to solve problems and that’s the perspective I take as your governor. How can we bring common-sense solutions to the table that will help our families be successful, that will help our families thrive?”

She listed several top priorities:

n “An excellent system of education for our children.”

“We are challenged in Oregon’s education system,” Brown said, citing the state’s high school graduation rates, which are among the lowest in the country. “I find it absolutely unacceptable.”

She said she believes it is “absolutely critical that every student graduate from high school with a plan for their future, whether that means going into a technical program, going into a career or going to college.”

She cited her own experience with her stepson, who “blew out of Benson High School a few years ago,” dealing with “issues that a lot of teenagers struggle with.”

She said she and her husband were “really lucky” to have the tools and resources to give him “support” and help him get a GED, which led to a job with the U.S. Forest Service.

“For me, it was a really important lesson that not all families have the tools and resources to assist their kids,” she said. “So it’s so important to focus on making sure that our school districts and our schools have what they need to make sure that every student graduates from high school with a plan for their future.”

She said a second goal is to create “a seamless system of education from cradle to career, citing some “great successes,” including Oregon’s mandated all-day kindergarten, which began last year.

“I know the teachers love it, I know the parents love it, but the most exciting thing is the kids love it,” Brown said of the program. She added that the state needs to do more, including building early childhood education to ensuring “seamless” transfer of credits for college students transferring from community colleges to four-year schools such as Oregon State University.

A “well-skilled education work force” needs tools, resources and professional development and coaching “to be successful in the classroom,” she said, noting that a Council on Educator Advancement was formed last year for that purpose. The need is particularly clear in rural communities, she added.

“We also need to make sure we are changing the face of our educator work force so it reflects the communities they educate in.”

n “Access to healthcare. This is fundamental and foundational,” Brown said.

“By any measure, the expansion of the Affordable Care Act has been an extraordinary success for the state of Oregon,” she said, citing how 400,000 residents have been added to Oregon Health Plan, a 50-percent reduction in “avoidable” emergency room visits, “roughly” $1.6 billion in savings to the state and federal governments, and over 23,000 jobs created since the ACA was created.

“That’s pretty dang extraordinary,” she said. “I can’t think of any type of investment we’re making at the state level that would create that level of jobs.”

Citing a report by the “nonpartisan” Commonwealth Fund, she said that a repeal of the ACA would have cost up to 40,000 jobs.

She told of meeting a “young” doctor in Klamath Falls who told Brown about a patient who, prior to getting on the Oregon Health Plan had visited the emergency room “every single month.” Since getting on the plan, the woman now has “preventive care” and a job, Brown said.

“It’s a win, win, win,” she said. “It’s a win for our communities, it’s a win for our families, it’s a win for really good health for our citizens across the state.”

Since the ACA expansion, Ore-gon has 95 percent of adults and 98 percent of children covered, she said, adding that she is “trying to get the Legislature to cover the rest.”

“That’s an enormous success,” Brown said, calling for applause. “This is a great Oregon story.”

n “Good-paying jobs in every single corner of the state.”

The state’s economy is doing “fairly well” with a state GDP that leads the nation and an unemployment rate of 4 percent – its lowest since the state started keeping records, Brown said.

She acknowledged, “though,” that the economic success has been centered in urban areas and “where we’re really challenged in terms of the economy is in rural communities.”

She noted that Lebanon is “growing like weeds – it is really amazing,” attributing that success to a “collaborative community spirit” and “obviously, location has been key, along with access to a “fabulous” community college and OSU, farther down the road. She also suggested that COMP-NW medical school and the veterans home have contributed to that.

“But not all of our rural communities have these types of assets,” she said.

Brown said communities that need jobs can be helped with investments in infrastructure.

She cited efforts to improve roads and bridges to reduce congestion in the Portland metropolitan area because “it impacts businesses all around the state,” to seismically retrofit roads and bridges, and public transit, all of which, she said, “are good-paying jobs.”

She also said development of a cross-laminated timber – “plywood on steroids” industry, for which the first manufacturing plant in the U.S. has been established in Douglas County, holds promise for job creation.

“Apparently, the wood that we grow here is particularly suited for developing advanced wood manufacturing.

“This is really exciting,” she said. “This is a great opportunity for us and for Oregon.”

Having toured LBCC’s Advanced Transportation Technology Center earlier in the day, Brown also noted that another promising innovation is unmanned aerial vehicles – drones, that are being developed there in a public-private partnership with Papé and other, smaller companies.

With three in-state testing sites, Oregon can “certainly be in on the forefront of this new technology,” she said.

n Small Businesses

“These are really the heart of Oregon’s economy,” Brown said, noting that 70 percent of jobs are created “when existing businesses grow and thrive.”

She said her Small Business Advisory Cabinet, “a diverse group of product makers” ranging from ice cream manufacturers to tech companies, are helping to create a “culture of entrepreneurship” in Oregon.

She said a key component to boosting business is access to capital and “technical mentorship.”

“This is another place that Linn-Benton Community College comes into play because they have a great (Small Business Development Center) to help folks who want to start their own business.”

But, she acknowledged, “We can certainly do better and we’re certainly working on that.”

Brown wrapped up her planned remarks by telling the crowd that she became governor believing that “we can take common-sense solutions to solve those problems. And that’s what I’m doing.”

Later, responding to a question, she added that she’s committed to workforce development, noting that she supported ballot Measure 98 in the last election, which would provide $800 per student at the high school level for career and technical education.

Citing the example of her stepson, she said, “I know what happens when students have hands-on learning opportunities.”

She cited a conversation with an instructor at LBCC’s ATTC earlier Friday, who told her when an automotive student writes an English paper about an engine he has been working on, “that student gets it.

“The education becomes rele-vant to that student. It’s not an English paper. It’s a paper about what he was working on in terms of the engine.”

Technical education opportunities can awaken students to “other possibilities” and “the power of their potential,” she said. “We need more of those experiences. The work that’s happening at Linn-Benton Community College is, frankly, leading the field. But we need it not just to be in the community colleges; it needs to be in our high schools and frankly, we know, particularly for girls and young women, it has to start earlier. It has to be middle school, it has to be elementary school in terms of the math and sciences – the STEAM education – science, technology, engineering, arts and math.”

She introduced Jackie Mikalonis, regional solutions coordinator for the southern Willamette Valley, whose job, Brown said, is to “bust down barriers, to make it easier for companies to come in here, to make sure that state agencies are working together … concurrently.”

The governor spent nearly 40 minutes fielding a wide variety of inquiries and comments from the audience on topics including the following:

n Veterans Benefits: Brown said “there was a little misinformation out there” regarding her budget for veterans affairs. “My budget provided for a 100 percent increase since the last biennium; the Legislature went a little further. They did a 138 percent increase.”

She said she plans to announce a proposal in the near future, “but it’s clear to me that we need to do a better job in terms of meeting the needs of our veterans and specifically, ending veterans homelessness.” She also introduced Cameron Smith, director of the Department of Veterans Affairs, who, she said, “is doing an outstanding job.”

n PERS Reform: Lebanon Mayor Paul Aziz said he and other public officials across the state are “very concerned” about PERS reform and asked what it’s going to take to fix the problem.

Noting that the Oregon Supreme Court has ruled that PERS retirees must get what was promised to them, Brown said “I am willing to move forward and accept any solutions that are legally viable. I think we need to stay off what I call ‘the hamster wheel of litigation.’ That doesn’t leave us a lot of room.”

She said she is “pushing my team, internally” to come up with solutions and a committee of legislators is “working very hard on this.”

“It’s going to be a team effort and it’s not easy, as you well know,” she said.

n Minimum wage: Wyatt King, a Lebanon insurance agent, told Brown he appreciated the effort to tier minimum wage increases “because it’s important to both protect our workers but not crush small rural businesses. He asked what the legislature and Brown are doing to “increase upon that locally sized regulation so that the regulations fit the community and aren’t just a blanket solution.”

Brown responded that the regional solutions teams are “working on the ground to make sure that local communities and local businesses have the tools and the resources they need to be successful.

“I think the minimum wage structure was – I know it is controversial that we increased the minimum wage, but I think the way we did it reflected the different economic regions of Oregon.”

She said she has talked with Corvallis-based Stahlbush Island Farms, Inc. Co-owner/Vice President Karla Chambers about the impact of regulations on the agricultural community and how tax credits might be used to encourage small businesses “to hire folks with low job skills and young people to get them into the work force.

“There are other conversations happening about both land use and our state’s regulatory authority in a way that reflects regional differences.”

She told how she’d visited onion growers in Malheur County whose storage facilities were crushed by snow this winter, resulting in losses of up to 120 million pounds of onions, which must be buried “by a certain date” in addition to repairing or replacing the storage structures.

“When regional solutions teams work, they bring in, in these circumstances, the Department of Agriculture, the Department of Consumer and Business Services, so everyone’s at the table and we can quickly remove barriers, and I see that as Jackie’s job here in this region, to help businesses when they run into roadblocks.”

n Challenges for small businesses: Linn Lanes owner Gary Heintzman told Brown that small businesses had weathered “a five-year recession, and after we came out of that we were trying to talk ourselves into being positive again, and up comes your sick leave, minimum wage and, now, scheduling.”

He said the new laws were going to cost his business “about $20,000 a year. The only way we can come up with that is by raising prices and cutting back on labor. We still have to have a certain amount of labor.

“I look at things four, five years down the road and I think, ‘You guys are saying that you want to promote small business. That, to me, is a punishment on small business because we’re the 70 percent of the country, or whatever, that creates jobs.

“How can you say that that’s going to help small business in the long run, when it’s just going to raise prices across the board and a lot of small businesses, I do think you’re going to see over time, are not going to survive. We were lucky enough to make the recession and now we have this.”

Brown said she appreciated Heintzman’s perspective.

She said the legislature moved forward on the minimum wage after two ballot measures were floated at $13.50 and $15 per hour, which would have applied to the entire state by January of 2017.

“The legislature came together around the proposal that would create three economic regions, reflecting the different economies of those different regions and gradually moving us up to that level over a five or six-year period.”

She noted that a measure moving the minimum wage to $13.50 passed in Washington state, though she could not recall what the minimum is in California.

“So what we were trying to do is solve problems and I get that you would not necessarily see that as problem solving, but I think you would agree with me that the proposal we did made more sense than moving to $13.50 at the ballot measure.”

She said she’d “love” input on the paid sick leave issue, via Mikalonis or by calling or emailing the governor’s office.

Regarding the scheduling issue, she told the crowd that it is “one of many” bills in front of the legislature – “this session it might be 4,000 bills.”

She told the crowd that “your voices can really make a difference” in the Oregon legislative process and encouraged attendees to email or call their legislators “who, I assume, you have a good relationship with” as well as the chair and members of committees hearing bills on issues of concern.

n Education revisited: Tom Oliver of Lebanon noted that the local school district graduates between 68 and 72 percent of students, “depending on what numbers you look at.”

“That makes it really difficult for our community to thrive,” Oliver said.

He asked how Lebanon, which, he said, spends $10,700 per pupil “and the Department of Education says we need to spend at least $12,700. We’re a good ways from that. And because of Measure 5, Measure 50, we don’t have a lot of local options to change that model.

“So what can happen at the state level to address that?

Brown replied that she has proposed a $20 million graduation equity fund that would provide “an early-warning system” for students such as her stepson, “who are struggling in the fifth and sixth grade.

“A lot of these students are struggling in late elementary and middle school.”

She said the career and technical education programs she referred to earlier would provide “a kick in the seat of the pants at the state level for us to make sure we are providing you more resources for career and technical education. I know that because of the cut-off, there’s not enough money for some rural school districts to actually start a program.

“We’re trying to figure out a way to add more dollars to career and technical ed so you can have that program be provided.”

She said her administration is also trying to figure out how to provide “wrap-around” services for students who have experienced domestic trauma of various types “so that the kids can be successful in school.”

n Insurance Inequities: A local business owner told how her unemployed stepson, who “has no intention of working,” is “very concerned about his affordable healthcare. The questioner said she started her small business five years ago and pays $800 a month for insurance, “to my surprise.”

“I can’t afford to go to the doctor because the deductible is $6,500,” she added.

“What I see is that we’ve made affordable care for my stepson, who has no intention of working, and I don’t go to the doctor. I just am concerned that you are taxing more and more people that are trying to work, and not holding people accountable that don’t want to work and get free healthcare.

“How do we make an equitable system that actually gives us all healthcare that we can afford?” she asked, to vigorous applause.

Brown responded that she’s been working with Congressman Greg Walden on “how we can ensure that the exchange side of the ACA is more successful.”

She noted that ACA has “stabilized” in Oregon, with at least two carriers in every region of the state.

To make insurance costs affordable for “struggling families,” the first challenge is growing the pool of insured individuals and secondly, “how do we continue to do the subsidies?” adding that about 77 percent of those insured in the exchange are receiving federal subsidies.

She said her healthcare advisor is meeting with insurance industry representatives next week and will be coming up with some recommendations “and we’ll be working closely with our federal delegation, both Republican and Democrat, to make changes in the system in a way that I think will drive the cost to a higher level of affordability for everyone.”

She said conversations regarding the future of Medicare and whether it should be expanded to all Americans are “ongoing” and she will participate in them.

n Healthy Communities/Blue Zones: Brown said the Healthiest State Initiative “is still happening, but I will tell you it just hasn’t been on my high priority list in terms of state initiatives.”

Realizing from audience reactions that Lebanon is not a Blue Zone city, Brown said she wants “to get this on the front burner,” possibly next year.

“We want to create healthier, sustainable cities and from my perspective, the healthiest state is creating communities that are walkable and very livable. You all are doing it here, frankly. You may not be calling it that, but that’s what’s happening.”