2001 LEGISLATURE - IT'S A WRAP
By James Sinks
SALEM In Eastern Oregon as elsewhere, the expectations were modest for the 2001 Legislature.
In fact, with narrow political margins in the House and Senate and a state budget that wasnt growing fast enough to preserve all existing services, the regions lawmakers priority lists at the beginning of the session were focused on keeping programs alive and not as much on creating ambitious new ones.
What a difference six months and a little political muscle can make.
Helped by appointment of three eastside lawmakers to top posts in the Legislature, including House Speaker Mark Simmons, R-Elgin, Eastern Oregon issues and priorities got more than a fair shake at the Capitol this year.
Even with a tight budget, this was the best session for Eastern Oregon in years, said Simmons, who has moved back to Union County.
A La Grande youth corrections facility that was set to be mothballed will stay open, although not as it was originally intended to be used.
Agriculture and forestry research, axed in the governors proposed budget, will keep receiving funding, as will county fairs. And small high schools will benefit from an additional per-student payment to keep academic programs viable.
In addition, rural Oregon will benefit for years from a $150 million grant and revolving loan fund created with lottery bonds to spur economic development. The effort to buy the Joseph line railroad will receive $2 million if an agreement can be reached with the owner.
The states financial picture wasnt bleak, to be sure. Estimated at about $12 billion, the states general fund and lottery income in the next two years is expected to be $1 billion more than the previous budget cycle.
But population growth and higher costs pushed the cost of government even higher, which meant some services would be reduced.
Rep. Ben Westlund, R-Tumalo, who was Simmons appointee as co-chairman of the joint Ways and Means Committee, said passing a budget that avoids painful cuts to schools, senior programs and police patrols was a victory statewide.
In light of the budget picture, lawmakers opted not to pursue any sweeping new initiatives in favor of keeping existing programs for senior citizens and schools going but most lawmakers dont find any fault with that.
Whats wrong with just staying the course on things? said Rep. Bob Jenson, R-Pendleton.
The agriculture and natural resource industries did very, very well in this session, and it helps a lot with senior programs to be able to restore all funding to programs that were whittled in the governors budget, he said. We made a promise going in that it was something we would do, and we did it.
Simmons said he worried initially that the session might sour, especially if revenue estimates dropped.
We did as well as we could have expected, maybe better, he said.
I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop, but if it did it wouldnt have made that big a deal.
Eastern Oregon University will get money for an addition to its science building at a cost of $28.9 million. Central Oregon will get $7.2 million to launch the states first branch university campus, dubbed Oregon State University-Cascades Campus.
And a major biotechnology initiative for Oregon Health Sciences University is expected to help stimulate research and field studies across the state, particularly in La Grande.
Overdue highway projects will get a boost from the first increase in state highway funds in a decade which comes from higher title transfer fees. The $400 million for those projects will be spent across the state.
Lawmakers were able to massage budgets to ward off painful cuts. State police management ranks will shrink, but officers will stay on the road.
As the dust settles from the 2001 session, most political observers say the governor was the biggest winner, earning approval and funding for most of his policy packages including the rural bond package and getting a boost if he decides to enter the race for U.S. Senate.
But the more congenial session, which was marked by a distinct lack of acrimony compared to recent history, meant lawmakers of all political stripes and locales were able to pass bills.
Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, applauded approval of $80,000 that will be split among four libraries Sherman, Baker, Heppner and John Day to create a connected network. In addition, small rural Type B hospitals will get an additional $14 million in state and federal funds to keep providing quality health care, he said.
He also supported deepening of the Columbia River channel, a move he said will help spur more international trade, as well as the governors bond package.
Lawmakers also passed non-binding resolutions asking Congress to speed Columbia River and Hanford Nuclear Reservation cleanup efforts and asking federal officials to study the management of the Hells Canyon National Recreation Area.
But there wasnt enough to satisfy all the requests.
We couldnt do everything for everybody, and thats always the case, said Sen. Steve Harper, R-Klamath Falls, who was able to secure $2 million to help drill emergency wells to help some farmers get water in the drought-stricken basin.
He said time will tell whether legislation passed this year truly benefits the state.
Its a lot like buying a used car, he said. Youre fine when youre driving out of the lot, but youre not sure whether you got nailed or not.
The one major setback was an effort to steer money exclusively to timber-dependent counties who were supposed to get about $28 million from the federal government in the next two years for schools, said Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day.
That money ended up instead helping raise funding for all of the states districts under Oregons equalization formula.
Jenson also had hoped to see more money for dealing with youth treatment in Umatilla County.
We dont have a lot of places over here to send our severely messed-up kids, he said.
Some of the big victories in Central and Eastern Oregon came in the form of defeats.
A proposal that would have created fees for studded tires slid off the agenda thanks to opposition from eastside lawmakers, and a proposal to equalize funding to regional education service districts was rewritten to protect small but well-funded agencies in Eastern Oregon, Simmons said.