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Capital Chatter: Brown takes opioid crisis to U.S. Senate

Governor testified before Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions about epidemic.

Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat, and Republican Gov. Larry Hogan of Maryland testified Thursday in Washington, D.C., before the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions about the opioid epidemic.

"Right now, the federal government recognizes the problem but is focused on punishment. That leaves us, the states, to right the wrongs of a war on drugs that has done nothing to address the issues that drive this public health crisis, while our prisons and our foster care systems are filled to capacity with its victims," Brown testified. "In Oregon, 60 percent of foster children have at least one parent with substance abuse issues, including opioids."

She urged the federal government to improve its data sharing with the states, to make generic overdose-reversal drugs readily available at an affordable price, and to no longer emphasize a punitive approach to addiction.

"We're going to have to move quickly if we're going to stem the tide," Brown told me by telephone afterward.

Last year, 180 people in Oregon died of opioid overdoses. Maryland, whose population is only 1.5 times that of Oregon, has 2,000 overdose deaths a year.

Committee members seemed moved by Brown's personal stories about drug-addicted Oregonians. I sensed a growing bipartisan awareness that opioid addiction is a treatable chronic disease.

Brown called for increased federal funding and for flexibility in how states respond to the opioid crisis. "I think this is an incredible opportunity for Congress to take action and get something done," she told me.

Within the next couple of weeks, she plans to sign the opioids-related bills passed by the 2018 Legislature and to issue an executive order declaring a statewide opioid crisis.

• Listeners and talkers: Most of the Senate committee members asked questions of Govs. Hogan and Brown, seeking ideas for how the federal government could best assist states.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Massachusetts, pontificated.

• Did the Legislature adjourn too soon?: Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney was perplexed.

It was late Saturday afternoon and the Legislature was about to adjourn its 2018 session after only four weeks — eight days ahead of its constitutional deadline. The Senate had wrapped up earlier in the afternoon; the House was still at work.

Courtney was biding time by holding his end-of-session media availability before the session had officially ended. A reporter had just asked him whether the session should have gone longer, because seemingly important bills were left on the table. No one had ever asked him that before.

The Salem Democrat quickly recovered and responded with a monologue on how other state legislatures and Congress were failing because they couldn't meet deadlines:

"Legislative bodies tend to lose control of legislative sessions. It's not unusual, especially when you have partisan fights, especially when you're trying to save the world. …

"Legislative bodies are breaking down across this nation because they can't observe deadlines. They don't worry about deadlines, etcetera, etcetera. And one of the things about governance is you've got to make government work. And it's not working in many states and in the nation.

"And part of the reason it's not working is they don't know how to organize. They don't know how to work through things efficiently. They don't know how to set deadlines. They don't know how to be disciplined."

• When it's time to go, it's time to go: The decision to try for a Saturday adjournment came as legislative leaders talked on Wednesday and Thursday of last week. The impetus came from the Oregon House, where Republicans agreed to suspend the regular procedural requirements and allow legislation to be considered sooner.

Lawmakers also had to juggle schedules around a busy weekend, especially for Republicans. The annual Dorchester Conference, which draws Republican activists from throughout the state, was being held Friday and Saturday in Salem. Also on Friday night, the Salem Area Chamber of Commerce was honoring Senate Republican Leader Jackie Winters as Salem's 68th First Citizen.

• Reaching her political prime: Last month, Winters received the Black Republican Trailblazer award in Washington, D.C.

She and the co-chairs of last year's legislative budget committee — then-Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, and Rep. Nancy Nathanson, D-Eugene — also were among the Oregon legislators honored this year by Oregon AARP. "Facing potentially deep cuts in services that older Oregonians rely on to remain in their homes, such as family caregiver training, Oregon Project Independence, and Medicaid Home and Community-Based Services, they worked diligently to preserve funding for these services," AARP said of the trio.

In November, Winters' fellow Republican senators chose her as their caucus leader. At age 80, she is in her political prime.

• Trump vs. Oregon: Democrats, especially in the Oregon House, and Republicans presented sharply contrasting views of legislation to stop some businesses from getting the same break on on state income taxes as they will now get on their federal taxes.

Democrats railed against President Trump and Republicans' tax "scheme," with Eugene Democratic Rep. Phil Barnhart's use of the word "fraud" drawing the ire of Grants Pass Republican Carl Wilson.

Republicans focused on the Oregon legislation's potential impact on local businesses. Sen. Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, said the state's economy was doing well, so why would the Legislature want to harm businesses?

"• Hey, hey, NRA": When Brown signed House Bill 4145 on Monday, Oregon became the first state to adopt a new firearms law since the devastating shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The timing was coincidental. HB 4145, which was one of Brown's legislative priorities, aims to close the "Intimate Partner Loophole" by blocking convicted stalkers and domestic violence offenders from possessing firearms.

Brown's office estimated that "some 300 students, gun safety advocates, and survivor families from across Oregon" attended the bill signing on the Oregon Capitol steps.

As they waited, a woman — wearing a shirt from a Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America — jumped into the circle and led the students in chanting, "Hey, hey, NRA. How many kids did you kill today?"

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.