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Capital Chatter: Getting ready for 2018

Lawmakers are busy preparing bills for the 'short' session of the Oregon Legislature.

Lawmakers and their staff are at work on bills for the 2018 Legislature, which convenes in February for its so-called "short session." The Senate and House restrict how many bills each lawmaker may introduce because the Oregon Constitution limits the session to only 35 days.

Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, will re-introduce two bills that went nowhere in the 2017 Legislature. One, which was House Bill 3473, would prevent professors from increasing their PERS retirement benefits through outside employment.

Another bill, which was HB 3215, would require school districts to get state Department of Education approval before entering into fund diversion agreements — such as pension obligation bonds — to pay their pension liabilities.

"The 'short' session was created to have non-controversial bills and bills which are needed to correct 2017 legislative bills. I believe these bills meet these criteria," Whisnant said in a statement.

The big issue for 2018 is the controversial "cap and invest" legislation from Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, Rep. Ken Helm, D-Beaverton, and several workgroups. Oregon would join California, Quebec and Ontario by setting annual caps on greenhouse gas emissions and providing related incentives for businesses.

This legislation will test whether the top Democrats in the Capitol — Gov. Kate Brown, Senate President Peter Courtney of Salem and House Speaker Tina Kotek of Portland — can steer a centrist course instead of allowing urban Democrats to run roughshod over rural Republicans.

In her newsletter, Rep. Julie Fahey, D-Eugene, said that along with the Clean Energy Jobs Bill, she would be working on such legislation as "protecting workers from wage theft, removing discriminatory language from real estate documents, recognizing and honoring those who choose to be organ donors, and limiting a tax loophole for large corporations."

Senate Republican Leader Jackie Winters of Salem has staff working on a bill to strengthen Oregon's whistleblower protections in state government. That follows allegations that officials in the Oregon Department of Transportation retaliated against whistleblowers, including one who raised multiple concerns regarding the Motor Carrier Transportation Division.

Rep. Sheri Malstrom, D-Beaverton, is proposing bills to protect co-pays for prescriptions if a benefit plan changes midyear and to ensure hearing-aid coverage for dependents.

Rep. Knute Buehler, R-Bend, who is running for governor, said early this month that he would introduce legislation requiring an independent investigation into the Oregon Health Authority's overpayments to medical providers and requiring the providers to repay that money. I asked for more details and was told the legislation would be released once it was ready.

Sen. Alan DeBoer, R-Ashland, is part of the Legislature's recently formed Fire Caucus, which is advocating forest thinning to prevent catastrophic wildfires, making the Oregon Department of Forestry the first responders on certain fires instead of the U.S. Forest Service, and getting reforestation happening more quickly after fires.

Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, proposes that all law enforcement officers have regular check-ins with psychologists. In his newsletter, Frederick said: "The idea allows for a regular visit (perhaps every six months to two years, depending on the capacity of the agency) for officers to talk off the record with a licensed psychologist to help the officers identify and avoid anxiety triggers related to the stress they often encounter. I see this as a preventative measure and one that takes away the stigma of visiting with a psychologist. If everyone has to do it, no one is singled out for an issue."

• Can Oregon handle its future? That is the question being asked for Oregon Leadership Summit on Dec. 4 at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland. Speakers will include Gov. Brown, U.S. Sens. Jeff Merkley and Ron Wyden, and U.S. Rep. Greg Walden.

The annual summit draws hundreds of Oregonians from across the state. Organizers said this year's conference "will dig into two big questions affecting Oregon's future: 1) Can we solve our growing fiscal gap driven by government costs rising faster than revenues? and 2) How can we anticipate and capitalize on the coming wave of disruption driven by artificial intelligence, robotics and other breakthrough technologies?"

• A reporter's voice goes silent: Chris Lehman of Oregon Public Broadcasting was one of the few journalists left covering the Oregon Capitol on a daily basis. He's now gone, his office in the Capitol press room cleaned out after 11 years on the job.

Chris is not only a good journalist but a good person.

When I joined the Oregon Capitol press corps in 1983, the year-round reporters included the Associated Press, United Press International, The Oregonian, The Oregon Journal and Statesman Journal, as well as near-regular reporters from other newspapers, radio and television. Not so today.

I contacted OPB about Chris' departure, asking what happened and whether he would be replaced. I received this email reply from OPB Public Relations Manager Lauren Elkanich: "Thank you for reaching out to us regarding Chris Lehman. As a matter of policy, we do not discuss specific personnel matters. We will continue to have a presence in the Capitol, and do plan to hire a new political reporter for the Northwest News Network (N3) and OPB as soon as possible. That person will continue to report on the important news from the Capitol along with the rest of our political team that includes Lauren Dake and Jeff Mapes."

• Christmas trees are bipartisan: Staff members of the House Democratic, Republican and Chief Clerk's offices decorated Christmas trees together in the lobby outside the House Chamber. They paid for the accompanying doughnuts from their own pockets, not tax dollars.

Meanwhile, Don Curtis, Alan Bennett and their families set up the American Flyer and miniature holiday village beneath the Christmas tree in the Capitol Rotunda. The tradition of a train and Salem-like village began under Gov. Vic Atiyeh.

The Capitol usually is closed weekends – to save money – but it will be open Saturdays during the holidays so visitors can enjoy the decorations.

Officially called the "grand tree" or "holiday tree," the Rotunda Christmas tree will be lit during a ceremony that begins at 5 p.m. Nov. 28 with a performance by the West Salem High School choir.

• Giving thanks for Oregon State Parks: If you want to take a drive on Nov. 24, parking is free at the 26 Oregon state parks that normally charge $5 to park. The state Parks and Recreation Department launched free parking on "Green Friday" three years ago to encourage Oregonians to enjoy the outdoors on the day after Thanksgiving.

The nonprofit Oregon State Parks Foundation will provide free hot drinks and snacks at Tryon Creek State Natural Area and Fort Stevens, Rooster Rock, Silver Falls and Cape Blanco state parks.

• Updates, clarifications and observations: In my desire not to be sexist, I came across as sexist to Rep. Julie Fahey in my Nov. 9 column about the co-chairs of the Legislature's budget committee, Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, and Rep. Nancy Nathanson, D-Eugene.

I wrote, "Although it would be unfair to pigeonhole them, Devlin is seen as more of a detail-oriented, spreadsheet legislator and Nathanson as more of a people person." I thought it obvious that I meant "… more of a people person than he."

Ah, but never assume. I know that; I preach that; I didn't follow that.

Fahey thought I was implying that Nathanson was not as spreadsheet savvy as Devlin.

One of my operating theories of life is that almost every complaint has at least some validity. So I apologize.

My reference was that Nathanson was deeply moved by public testimony during this year's budget hearings while Devlin, the Legislature's longtime budget nerd, appeared more stoic. Although both might be spreadsheet wonks, their public styles complement each other.

On another note, a friend pointed out that I twice typed the wrong acronym for the Oregon Center for Public Policy in my Nov. 16 column. It is OCPP, not OCCP. That's what I get for using acronyms. Again, I apologize.

I've always thought that we journalists make more errors than we realize and fewer than the public thinks. Accuracy is our No. 1 responsibility, yet we're fallible.

On my "bucket list" is writing a book about my mistakes as a journalist and manager, on the grounds that we learn more from our missteps than from our successes.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Hughesisms.com/Facebook, YouTube.com/c/DickHughes or @DickHughes on Twitter.