Legislators call 2007 a banner year


Fighting mandatory fluoridation, increasing funding for Rogue Community College, putting more state troopers on the road and overhauling the state's health care system were just some of the battles that local lawmakers waged in 2007.

State Sen. Alan Bates and Rep. Peter Buckley, both Ashland Democrats, have said the political winds shifted in Oregon after the November 2006 election, when voters for the first time in 16 years gave Democrats control of both chambers of the Legislature and the governor's office.

As a result, the 74th Legislative Assembly passed environmental protections, dramatically boosted schools' funding and layed the foundation for a watershed universal health care program championed by Bates, a local family physician.

The 18-page universal health care proposal Bates crisscrossed the state promoting is aimed at providing guaranteed health insurance to all Oregonians, including the 600,000 people who lack coverage.

The law establishes the Oregon Health Trust Board, charged with devising a plan that will lower health care costs, improve outcomes and renew the emphasis on preventive and primary care.

The board, under the leadership of Bill Thorndike Jr., co-owner and chairman of family-owned Medford Fabrication, will make its recommendations to the 2009 state Legislature.

"This is a moral crisis we're in," Bates, former chief of medicine at Rogue Valley and Providence medical centers, said in an earlier interview. "What we're trying to do is give everyone access to health care and bring the costs of health care down."

While Democrats championed these "victories," Republican state leaders, like Dennis Richardson of Central Point, chastized the lack of fiscal restraint.


Locally, Bates and Buckley pushed legislation that allowed the Ashland School District in November to ask voters to approve funding replacing the district's popular Youth Activities Levy.

The new law allows school districts to seek voter approval for a local option tax up to 20 percent of its operating budget, up from 15 percent.

Ashland's new three-year local option levy, which begins in July 2008, will fund core academic programs in addition to bankrolling enrichment programs such as traditional after school sports and student clubs.

Buckley said the law and the local levy in particular was necessary because the state falls short of adequately funding Oregon classrooms.

"With a hundred fewer students each year, it's becoming more and more difficult for the school district," Buckley said. "This will allow them to maintain a quality level of service to the students.

One of the most intense battles for local lawmakers this year came when state Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, brought forth once again a proposal to require cities to fluoridate their municipal water supplies.

If passed, the bill would have preempted an Ashland city ordinance, enacted in November 2006, forbidding fluoride or any other substance that would act as medication or a health supplement from being added to the city's water supply.

Bates and Buckley were quick to condemn the proposal, saying the plan would be tantamount to a power grab by state lawmakers.

Proponents of fluoridation say it's an inexpensive and harmless way to help prevent dental cavities, but critics charge that those claims are made on faulty science, and that fluoride &

an industrial byproduct of phosphate fertilizer manufacturing &

can lead to significant health problems, including bone deterioration and cancer.

"There are a lot of contradictory studies out there on water fluoridation; some studies say it's beneficial, some says it's not," Bates said at the time. "But thinking that fluoride is beneficial is not enough to make people drink it."


Local legislators were not completely victorious in 2007.

Unsuccessful was a proposal introduced by Buckley that would have lifted the statewide ban on so-called "inclusionary zoning," so cities would be allowed to force residential developers build affordable housing as a part of their projects.

The proposal died amid opposition chiefly from the Oregon Home Builders Association and the Oregon Association of Realtors.

Ashland City Councilor Cate Hartzell, who supported the proposal, said cities should have the option of enacting inclusionary zoning ordinances to create affordable housing for working-class families and for those who cannot afford market rates even for a starter home.

The two Ashland legislators also teamed up to fight for increased funding for Rogue Community College, which they say is shortchanged by the state's community college funding formula.

Under the state funding formula that Bates has decried as "kooky" and "perverse," local property tax revenues that pour into a college's coffers are deducted from what the school would otherwise receive from the state. As a result, RCC does not benefit from the millions that Jackson and Josephine County property owners shell out each year intended to help bolster the two-year school.

"All we're asking is not to be punished," Buckley told the House Education Committee he chairs.

Buckley introduced a bill in the 2007 legislative session to change the funding formula so RCC and a handful of other community colleges would not be penalized for being the beneficiaries of local levies.

Amid fierce opposition from lawmakers representing the Portland Metropolitan area, Buckley's proposal stalled in committee.

Bates, a member of the powerful Joint Ways and Means Committee, which oversees the budget-writing process, persuaded the panel's co-chairs to attach a so-called "budget note" to the community college spending bill.

That legislative directive basically instructs community college presidents to collectively consider a new funding formula and return to the Legislature next session with their plan.

"I don't think taxpayers in southern Oregon &

when they voted themselves the (additional) rate to fund community colleges &

wanted to subsidize the students in Portland or in other places that have relatively low (property tax) rates," said RCC Board President Kevin Talbert before the bill stalled.

Reaching across party lines, Bates and Buckley signed on to proposals offered by Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, that would have enacted a beer tax to create a dedicated funding source for the Oregon State Police so the agency can resume around-the-clock patrols.

"This is not about putting a tax up just to have a tax up," Esquivel said while pushing his proposal. "It's a matter of preservation of the state police force."

After several incarnations, the bill failed to gain traction amid a lack of interest among Democrats and GOP objections to approving any tax increases.

"People in this building need to stop worrying about the next election and do what's right," an exasperated Esquivel said of state lawmakers.

Esquivel says he has a better idea for next session. He wants to funnel to the State Police Patrol Division the $140 million in fees that the Oregon Liquor Control Commission collects each two-year budget cycle so the department can hire more troopers.

Bates, Buckley and Esquivel have said that creating Oregon's first rainy-day funds was one of the Legislature's biggest accomplishments in 2007 and one that boosted the state's credit rating, saving taxpayers millions in higher interest payments to Wall Street.

Opened with $290 million in corporate tax rebates that lawmakers canceled this year, the budget reserve is aimed at helping to stave off in future economic downturns the type of deep funding cuts lawmakers made during the 2001-03 recession, when state revenues plummeted.

Buckley has suggested that the corporate kicker be eliminated altogether and that money be funneled into the rainy-day fund. As for the personal kicker that goes to taxpayers when revenue projections exceed official estimates by two percent, Buckley says that law too needs to be retooled.

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