Choosing safety of schoolchildren over comfort of lobbyists and politicians

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

The System Can Work as Intended

One of the most important duties of the members of the Legislative Assembly is to ensure that taxpayer dollars are spent to best benefit the public. This often involves making difficult choices regarding what our true spending priorities should be.

Sometimes those decisions are not so difficult and actually are extremely easy to make.

During the 2015 session, a proposal was strongly promoted to spend $250 million of the state’s limited bonding capacity on a Master Plan Project to seismically retrofit and renovate the Capitol Building in Salem. That original cost estimate for only the construction work eventually grew to over $337 million. The total price reached more than $590 million when the costs of issuing the bonds and the interest on the debt were included.

Proposals for lounges to be used by lobbyists and legislators, a 4,700 square foot café and a 1,600 square foot area for members of the news media were added to the original plans. Most of those “comfort” areas are larger than the average home. Of course, these extravagances would be paid for with borrowed money, to be repaid with interest by Oregon taxpayers over 30 years.

The Department of Geology and Mineral Industries (DOGAMI) produced a study in 2007 stating that there are 275 school buildings throughout Oregon that would very likely collapse in the event of a major earthquake. Another 800 Oregon schools were rated as being at high risk of collapse and an additional 500 were considered at moderate risk. No fewer than nine schools on the Oregon coast are actually constructed in tsunami inundation zones.

All told, the study identified approximately 1,575 Oregon school facilities that would be unable to withstand a significant earthquake. DOGAMI has told us that a major subduction zone earthquake is virtually inevitable.

It would seem very easy to choose the safety of schoolchildren over the comfort of lobbyists and politicians at a capitol building that is largely empty when the Legislative Assembly is out of session. However, legislators often hear from lobbyists and special interests about what they want when they are in session. Meanwhile, the citizens we all serve are busy going about their business, trying to make a living, being with their families and too often sending their children to unsafe schools.

Senate Republicans were relentless in our efforts to prioritize school safety. Nearly daily remonstrance on the Senate floor kept the issue before legislators. We worked closely with the news media to help inform the Oregon public.

A newsletter I released almost a year ago detailed the enormous costs of the capitol renovation proposal, the very real needs of our school facilities and asked readers for their feedback. I was also extensively quoted in this Willamette Week article about the same topic.

The response my office received from constituents and residents from all over the state was loud, clear and nearly unanimous: Put the needs of our kids and their schools first.

That public outcry may have been enough to force legislative leaders to remember who it is that they really represent. Consequentially, the capitol renovation project stalled and seismic upgrades for schools was properly prioritized through the passage of Senate Bill 447. Approximately $175 million in bonding funds for Oregon school seismic retrofits was included in that bill.

Those efforts, and your input into the legislative process, are now starting to pay off in a massive way.

Business Oregon’s Seismic Rehabilitation Grant Committee agreed last week to approve $50 million for 41 projects at schools throughout the state. Those seismic upgrades will go a long way towards ensuring that our children will be safe in the event of a major earthquake.

The $50 million approved by that committee includes $1.5 million for Peterson Elementary in the Klamath Falls School District, $1.1 million for Paisley Elementary, $1 million for the gym at Crook County Middle School and nearly $1.5 million for Butte Falls High School. All told, just the first round of seismic rehabilitation grants will provide more than $5 million to retrofit four schools in Senate District 28 alone.

I believe this is a much higher priority use of the funds than what was previously proposed. To put it into perspective, in the six years before the Legislature funded this seismic upgrade program for schools, only $34 million had been awarded to fund upgrades at 37 schools.

Not all of the safety needs of Oregon schools will be met immediately. Approximately 107 grant applications seeking $123 million were received by Business Oregon. However, unfunded applications will be rolled over into the second round with new applications being accepted over the summer. Many of those unfunded applications should be considered under the continuing program.

The next round of projects is expected to total $125 million. Senate President Peter Courtney (D-Salem) has indicated that he will seek an additional $200 million in funding for the program during the 2017 legislative session.

In my opinion, this is a great example of our system of representative government working the way in which it was intended by our founding fathers. Oregon’s people actively participated and made their voices heard. Working together, we were able to stop wasteful spending and reprioritize that money to do the right thing for children, teachers and school staff throughout the state.

You rose to the occasion and made your wishes crystal clear. As a result, Oregon families will benefit from safer schools for decades to come.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls