Local legislators: Efforts in Salem tending to be ‘defensive’ this year

Sean C. Morgan

Rep. Sherrie Sprenger and Sen. Fred Girod, Republicans who represent most of the Sweet Home area, say their efforts are largely defensive this year, from funding for fifth-year programs providing college to teens, to economics.

Whether he’s discussing the fifth-year program or minimum wage, Girod describes their efforts as addressing a divide between the rural and urban areas of the state.

They both oppose Senate Bill 322, which would eliminate the current mechanism for funding the fifth-year college program.

Currently, Sweet Home seniors can delay receipt of their high school diplomas, the district counts them as enrolled and uses state school funding to pay tuition to Linn-Benton Community College. The students receive direction and assistance from the district and receive their diplomas later, after a year or two in the program.

Other legislators are concerned that if districts across the state were all to implement this program, it would break the bank, and they are concerned about

equity in funding.

SB 322 died last week in the the Senate Committee on Education without enough votes to move it forward.

“We don’t have a problem yet,” Sprenger said. “You have a handful of students in a few districts doing this.”

Among students in her district, which covers Lebanon, Sweet Home and Stayton, many are students who would take a year off from education after high school, she said, and that “year off” doesn’t really mean a year.

The program provides resources to students who don’t know what to do or how to continue their education, she said.

This is one of the issues filling her email box, she said.

“My districts are doing it,” Sprenger said. “We’re watching it really closely. This isn’t something school districts make money on.”

Girod described the debate as “big school versus little school.” For once, the small schools have an advantage, and the larger districts want to stop it, he said. In large districts, the economies of scale that usually give them advantages work against them and keep them from implementing programs like this one.

While in other programs, Mill City may be looking for a math instructor, he said, Beaverton provides Chinese immersion.

“It really lowers the barrier to college for rural students,” Girod said. In rural communities in his district, dropout rates are high and college graduation rates are low. Going to college is a psychic barrier.

Supporting the fifth-year programs is a “fairness issue,” he said, adding that he has schools in his district that would benefit either way.

Both are concerned with other education issues too.

Student debt is another issue, Girod said, and he introduced a bill, SB 530, which would provide a tax credit to graduates with student debt. The bill received a hearing before the Senate Committee on Education in February but is not scheduled for any action at this point.

Girod, a dentist, spent nine years of his life in post-secondary education, he said. “I know what it’s like just even putting food on the table. We need to do something to reduce student debt.”

He noted that he was recognized as the Oregon Student Association’s top legislator two years ago for his efforts in education.

Sprenger said she is dismayed at the 2015-17 education budget. The proposed $7.235 billion budget would provide $108 less per student based on calculations from Stayton, she said. The legislature has since approved, without a single Republican vote, and the governor signed a $7.255 billion budget. Republicans had proposed $7.56 billion.

Sprenger’s fear is that it is meant to give the appearance that the state needs to increase taxes, she said. “My fear was confirmed,” she said, when another legislator stood up on March 19 and read a letter saying “we need a revenue increase.”

“I believe the lower budget now is to create an incentive for a tax increase later or to keep people’s kicker,” Sprenger said.

The kicker is a tax refund that occurs when actual revenues exceed projected revenues by more than 2 percent. The excess revenues are returned to taxpayers by check when this occurs.

“A lot of it is playing defense,” Girod said of this session. “My district is rural, so it’s impacted by agriculture and timber.”

He wants to make sure those activities stay open, he said. He’s watching bills from that perspective.

“In agriculture, a $15 minimum wage (one of several minimum wage proposals introduced) may sound good,” Girod said, but then he puts it into context of Oregon farmers competing with Idaho farmers, who pay a minimum wage of $7.25 per hour.

“This time it’s about holding back, pushing back,” Sprenger said of the session. “I’m really concerned about the minimum wage conversation with paid sick time,” along with many assorted bills that will make things harder for her district’s smaller businesses.

She notes that Oregon already has the second-highest minimum wage in the nation, behind Washington, and Oregon’s increases at the rate of inflation.

“It’s going to cost my small businesses,” Sprenger said. She thinks about the restaurant owner in Philomath who hasn’t taken a salary increase in two years, for example.

“I’m not concerned about Nike,” she said. “I’m worried about a lot of my small employers.”

They’re playing defense with gun bills too, particularly Senate Bill 941. The bill is scheduled for a hearing beginning at 1 p.m. on Wednesday, April 22, before the House Committee on Rules.

“The problem stems from Portland and Eugene,” Girod siad. “The extremes up there are very anti-Second Amendment.”

Girod lives in a rural area, and it may take law enforcement 40 to 45 minutes to get there if called, he said. That’s why he owns guns and has a concealed carry permit.

Rural legislators tend to be “very pro-Second Amendment,” he said, while the urban legislators in Eugene and Portland have voted for SB 941 and pushed it on out to the House.

“It’s aggravating,” Girod said. The bill, which would require background checks for private sales, would track sales and is the first step toward taking away guns. “It was an easy no vote for me.”

In other areas, a biofuels bill aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from transportation fuels, SB 324, is already passed and signed by the governor, Girod said. It will increase fuel prices by 20 cents to $1 per gallon, Girod said. Democrats say it will only by 4 cents to 20 cents, while the state tax is 30 cents.

The alternative, he said, is to harvest and plant new trees. The “reprod” would sequester carbon in wood.

“Wood is a very, very green material,” Girod said. “I’m doing everything possible to open up the forests.”