What should this legislature focus on?

Dan Lucas_July 2012_BW

by Dan Lucas

The 78th assembly of the Oregon Legislature will officially start February 2nd.  The Oregon House and Senate will begin considering thousands of new bills. As they work through all of those new bills, what should they focus on? What are the major problems and challenges facing Oregon and regular Oregonians that need to be addressed?

1. The economies in rural Oregon communities. Many of Oregon’s rural communities are continuing to suffer. Jobs that went away when the timber industry was hit with environmental restrictions have not come back. Interim payments from the federal government to offset the impact of those restrictions have all but dried up. Some forms of payments may be needed in the short term, but what’s really needed is something that actually works to restore jobs in those communities.

If it’s not removing very questionable environmental restrictions, then the governor and legislature need to come up with ideas that will work. These communities have seen decades of failed ideas and failed promises – it’s time for something that actually works. As things stand now, Oregon is looking more and more like the Hunger Games movies – thriving and eccentric larger cities with destitute rural communities which are bearing the brunt of the voting decisions made in those larger cities.

2. Education performance in Oregon. According to U.S. Department of Education reports, Oregon has the second-worst high school graduation rate in the country1. That’s unacceptable. After decades of failed programs like Vera Katz’s CIM-CAM, failed leadership and failed promises, the governor and the legislature need to come up with a solid plan that produces defined, measurable results. They then need to be held accountable for those results.

3. Jobs and the number of Oregonians who’ve left the workforce. A May 2014 Oregonian article reported that the labor force participation in Oregon was at its lowest recorded point, “Just three in five Oregon adults are in the labor market, leaving the smallest share of workers and job seekers supporting the population since officials started keeping track in 1976.” The article noted “Job opportunities were so few and far between that thousands just stopped searching.”

Those people who have given up and left the workforce aren’t even reflected in Oregon’s 7.0% unemployment rate – the fifth worst state unemployment rate in the nation. Oregon needs to create an environment that attracts employers and that creates living-wage jobs.

4. Cost of college education. An in-state public college now costs around $23,000 a year. That includes tuition, fees, room and board, books, etc. The Oregonian reported a few months ago that Oregon student debt has doubled in a decade and the majority of Oregon college students graduate with more than $26,000 in debt.

A recent Forbes article noted that in the past 25 years “average tuitions nationwide have risen faster than general inflation and even health-care costs over the same period.” An October 2013 chart from U.S. News & World Report shows how much faster. A good first step for the governor and the legislature would be to determine what is driving up the costs of college tuitions. Why are college tuitions increasing nearly twice as fast as medical costs?

The success of the upcoming legislative session should be measured by how well the governor and the legislature address these four major challenges.

To read more from Dan, visit www.dan-lucas.com

1[UPDATE 1/26/2015] Oregon now has the nation’s worst graduation rate