March 23, 2001 11:00 pm

By Dick Mason

Observer Staff Writer

Oregon House Speaker Mark Simmons, R-Elgin, had encouraging news for seniors at a town hall meeting in La Grande Friday.

Simmons said there is a good chance that all of the money needed for Oregon Project Independence, which funds assisted living programs, will be restored. No money for the $13.7 million program was included in Gov. John Kitzhabers proposed budget.

The Legislatures Ways and Means Committee has since budgeted $6.5 million for Oregon Project Independence. Simmons wants to see the program fully funded.

Simmons said that Oregon Project Independence is important to him personally because he saw how an assisted living program helped his last surviving grandparent, Stanley Girdner of Prescott, Arizona. Simmons grandfather lived to be 100 while staying in an assisted living center.

Assisted living gave him dignity, respect and independence, Simmons said.

Assisted living centers in rural Oregon have a particularly strong need for state assistance, Simmons said. He explained that many people in the centers in rural areas are on Medicaid. Centers with many residents on Medicaid are more likely to need state help.

Simmons said that without Oregon Project Independence some centers in rural areas might close.

Simmons was accompanied at the town hall meeting by state representatives Greg Smith, R-Heppner, and Bob Jensen, R-Pendleton. Smith and Jensen endorsed Simmons efforts to preserve Oregon Project Independence. They also spoke highly of the job Simmons is doing as speaker.

He is an honorable man. He does what he says he is going to do, Smith said.

Simmons town hall meeting was at Grande Ronde Retirement Residence. Simmons told about 50 people that he is a strong supporter of House Bill 2800. The bill would require hospitals to have a minimum number of nurses on duty based upon the number of seriously ill patients. It is a quality-of-care issue, Simmons said.

Simmons also addressed Oregons looming energy shortage. The state is facing a shortfall because low winter rain and snowfall have left reservoirs at exceptionally low levels. Water to run hydroelectric plants will thus be limited.

Simmons said the state needs more power plants operated by natural gas. He supports legislation to reduce the time required to build such plants.

We need to expand our power capacity, the House speaker said.

Simmons also addressed the budget problems Oregons public schools are facing. School districts with declining enrollment are being particularly hard hit because they receive about $5,000 per student from the state.

Simmons wants to soften the blow by having the state give money based not on current enrollment but rather the districts average over the last three to five years. This would prevent school districts from suffering dramatic fluctuations in funding.

The speaker also discussed the states budget kicker law. The law requires the state to refund the money it receives in excess of its revenue forecast when the surplus exceeds 2 percent. Simmons said that he does not want the Legislature to repeal the kicker. He said that without the kicker the states budget will ultimately become too large.

It is better for our economy if we dont spend it all, Simmons said.

It will not be known until May how much the state might have to give back because of the kicker. I believe we can take care of vital programs and still have a kicker.