The 2019 legislative session came to a turbulent conclusion as Republican senators returned from a nine-day walkout over cap and trade, but the drama overshadowed the hundreds of less-controversial bills passed over a four-month session, often with bipartisan support.
Rep. Greg Smith and Sen. Bill Hansell worked on a variety of policy and budget bills throughout the session, some tailored specifically to Eastern Oregon issues and others that have more broad benefits throughout the state.
Hansell was a sponsor or chief sponsor of 138 bills and resolutions, not all of which became law by the end of the session.
He was the chief sponsor of Senate Bill 290, which protects people voluntarily helping fight a fire in good faith, such as farmers helping fight wildfires on neighboring farms, from civil liability. Hansell likened it to Good Samaritan laws that protect people who stop and render first aid at the scene of a car crash.
He was also sponsor of SB 312, which requires public universities and community colleges to charge in-state tuition for Native American students who graduated from an Oregon high school. He said he heard from Nixyaawii Community School in Pendleton that they have tribal students who attend during the school year while living with relatives, but keep a home address outside the state.
“The bill seemed to make good sense that we keep these students in Oregon if they want to go here,” he said.
One of the bills Hansell sponsored was brought to his attention by a constituent in Adams, whose insurance denied coverage for a type of cancer treatment that Hansell himself benefitted from when he survived cancer. Senate Bill 740 requires insurance companies that cover radiation therapy for cancer to also cover proton beam therapy.
Another bill sponsored by Hansell will allow small rural cemetery districts to annex more land into their districts.
Hansell said it was a tough session, but he was pleased with the number of capital projects the district will see funding for.
He said projects such as a mental health-related renovation of the Umatilla County Jail and a joint medical and mental health Wallowa Valley Center for Wellness are expected to serve as an example to the rest of the state in better serving those with mental illnesses and addictions.
Smith was a sponsor or chief sponsor on 85 bills and resolutions this session. One was SB 408, which allows counties to approve certain types of land zoned for exclusive farm use to site utility facilities “necessary for public service.” He said the bill will assist Umatilla Electric Cooperative as it continues to serve the growing region.
Smith said despite prominent disagreements between Republicans and Democrats during the session, there was also bipartisan work. One example was a package of reforms of Measure 11. Smith, who didn’t sponsor the bill but did support it, said he believed the reforms balance “justice and mercy” for young offenders.
Measure 11, passed by Oregon voters in 1994, set mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenders and required offenders ages 15-17 be tried as adults, allowing them to receive life without parole. Under Senate Bill 1008, those convicted of a crime before their 18th birthday will be given a hearing halfway through their incarceration that would consider whether they might serve the rest of their term under supervision outside of prison. They will also be allowed to apply for parole after 15 years.
Offenders would not automatically be released, Smith pointed out, but the new law will allow the justice system to take into account how someone who committed a violent crime at age 15, 16 or 17 might have changed in the years since.
“I would hope I’m not the same person today as I was at age 15,” he said.
The beginning of the 2019 session focused heavily on education. Smith sat on the Student Success Committee that toured schools throughout the state as legislators worked on a package of bills to help boost graduation rates and other measures of educational success.
Smith ultimately voted no on the resulting tax bill, however. He said business and industry leaders told legislators they knew more revenue needed to be raised for education, and made an “extremely reasonable request” to be given a couple of weeks to come up with language they could support.
“When that deal was rejected, I knew I needed to step back,” Smith said.
He said much of the school-related work this session was focused on elementary and secondary education, but he expected assisting higher education would be a major focus in the next biennium.
He said beyond sponsoring legislation, an important part of being a rural Eastern Oregon legislator is also educating legislators from urban areas on issues facing rural Oregon and how one-size-fits-all bills might have negative consequences for the east side of the state.
That work will likely continue into the next session, he said, as the legislature grapples with how to address climate change while also protecting jobs and vulnerable populations.