Oregon Capitol (Amanda Loman/Salem Reporter)

Salem’s YMCA will see $4 million for early learning and childcare spaces in its new building. Cold medicine will be a little easier to get in Oregon. It’s easier to hire a physician’s assistant. Property owners in the Santiam Canyon rebuilding from last year’s historic wildfires will catch a break on property taxes and building regulations.

That’s a sample of legislation Salem area lawmakers managed to get passed before the 2021 Oregon legislative session concluded last week.

The session, which began in January, saw legislation aimed at reforming policing, addressing the pandemic-induced economic crisis, preparing for the upcoming wildfire season and others.

The Oregon Legislature also found itself unexpectedly flush with cash from the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan and Recovery Act signed by President Joe Biden in March. The federal stimulus package gave Oregon approximately $2.6 billion to cover state programs and service costs. It also included $780 million for new programs and services.

For the Salem area, that’ll mean millions for fire stations, parks, a bus line connecting Monmouth to Independence and other local infrastructure. The money will also fund programs to support businesses and provide health care to underserved communities.

Along with the federal infusion of cash, the Legislature dipped into its general fund to send $10 million to the city of Salem for police body cameras, a housing assistance voucher program, a homeless shelter and a project that’ll convert a hotel into housing for unsheltered individuals.

Additionally, the Legislature approved bonds to support several Salem-based projects including $6.6 million for the Salem YMCA’s veterans housing, $2 million for the Center for Hope and Safety’s domestic violence shelter and $7 million for the Willamette Educational Service District’s career academy.

Salem area lawmakers also had success in advancing their priorities.

State Rep. Representative Teresa Alonso León, D-Woodburn, said House Bill 2590 was her biggest accomplishment. The bill will create a legislative task force to look into how well colleges and universities are serving students — and who is graduating.

Alonso León pointed to statistics showing that Black and Latino students are less likely to graduate than their white counterparts. She said the task force will pay particular attention to challenges faced by students from minority groups, rural communities, low-income families, those with physical or learning disabilities and other disadvantaged groups.

“While a college education benefits students of all backgrounds, there are distinct economic benefits of this education for students from traditionally underserved and underrepresented populations,” she said. “In an era of increased wealth and income inequality, a college degree remains a powerful vehicle for upward economic and social mobility.”

After visiting campuses and holding listening sessions, the task force will develop proposals to improve graduation.

State Rep. Brian Clem, a Salem Democrat who chairs the House Special Committee On Wildfire Recovery, pointed to over a dozen bills intended to provide relief to communities still recovering from last year’s historic wildfires.

The bills would give property owners affected by the fires relief on their property taxes and allow them to sidestep some permitting and land-use requirements as they rebuild. Clem also pointed to a $600 million financial relief package passed by his committee and the Legislature that will help communities rebuild and prevent future fires.

A bill overhauling the state’s emergency management system was the most significant achievement of State Rep. Paul Evans, D-Monmouth. House Bill 2927 renames the Office of Emergency Management as the Oregon Department of Emergency Management and makes it independent of the state Military Department. The bill also renames the State Fire Marshal as the Oregon Department of the State Fire Marshal and makes it independent of the State Police.

The reorganization has long been a priority for Evans. He argues it’s needed to help each agency focus on its mission and not get entangled in turf battles. The bill also creates a statewide Emergency Operations Center and the Local Government Emergency Management Advisory Council to advise the Oregon Department of Emergency Management.

State Rep. Raquel Moore-Green, R-Salem, said her biggest accomplishment was House Bill 3036, which eased the legislative requirements around hiring physician assistants.

“This was important, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, as local providers experienced a strain in workforce shortages,” she said in an email. “This policy provides an increase in access and equity to much needed health care services in Oregon, particularly in rural areas.”

State Sen. Deb Patterson, D-Salem, said her most significant accomplishment during the session was Senate Bill 844. The bill creates a board of medical economists and healthcare providers to review the affordability of high-cost prescription drugs and make recommendations on how to bring down their prices.

Patterson said in an email that nearly 18% of Oregonians have delayed health care because of the cost.

“Too many Oregonians are skipping doses of their prescription drugs and their insulin because buying one more dose could mean they don’t make their rent or can’t buy groceries,” she said. “We need to make healthcare more affordable for seniors, families, business owners, and state and local governments.”

State Rep. Bill Post, R-Keizer, said his biggest accomplishment was House Bill 2648, which allows consumers to purchase medicines containing pseudoephedrine over the counter. The legislation undoes a 15-year-old law that required a doctor’s prescription for the medicine, a key ingredient in methamphetamine. Pharmacies now use an online system that tracks sales of the products and raises red flags for potential meth cooks.

“It will make one aspect of health care a heck of a lot less expensive for anyone in the Salem-Keizer area as well as all of Oregon,” said Post. “No more going to a doctor, no more expensive prescription versions.”

State Sen. Kim Thatcher, R-Keizer, said the most impactful bill she sponsored was Senate Bill 500, which gives more independence to the office of Public Records Advocate. The position was created in 2017 to provide training to government officials on requirements of the state’s public records law and to help resolve disputes over requests for documents.

Ginger McCall, the state’s first-ever public records advocate, resigned in 2019 citing political interference from the governor’s office. That sparked calls to give the office more independence.

Under the bill, the advocate will no longer be appointed by the governor and will instead be picked by the Public Records Advisory Council. (Disclosure: Salem Reporter Editor Les Zaitz is a member of the council.)

“Every Oregonian, including residents of Senate District 13, will be greatly helped by less cumbersome access to public records and the public records advocate is not influenced against public records disclosure by political actors since the office is now independent,” said Thatcher in an email. “This helps restore some of the trust people have lost in their state government.”

State Rep. Rick Lewis, R-Silverton, as well as Sens. Peter Courtney, D-Salem; Brian Boquist, I-Dallas; Fred Girod, R-Lyons did not respond to requests from Salem Reporter about their legislative accomplishments.

 Contact reporter Jake Thomas at 503-575-1251 or [email protected] or @jakethomas2009.

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