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Capital Chatter: Shutdown help might be shutdown

Oregon legislation to help federal employees affected by the government shutdown might be going nowhere.

Oregon legislation to help federal employees affected by the government shutdown might be going nowhere.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, pushed the Legislature to prepare for future federal shutdowns. He introduced Senate Bill 722 to provide unemployment benefits for federal employees who are required to work without pay.

But the bill was pulled from a committee hearing set for Friday, that meeting was canceled and another committee is scheduled to send the bill back to Courtney next week with no recommendation about its future.

Legislators have been eager to help such employees. But there are glitches. The backroom talk is that accepting Oregon unemployment while still being employed — though not paid — could be considered a firing offense by some federal agencies. Besides, unemployment benefits can take a long time for processing, so a shutdown could be over and pay restored before the employees received benefits.

Senate Republicans proposed a different approach: Amend SB 722 to create state loans for federal employees working without pay. The loans would have to be repaid within five years.

Some Democrats like the idea as well, noting that some credit unions and banks have responded with similar offers of short-term, low-interest loans.

Congress and President Donald Trump have approved retroactive pay for furloughed and unpaid-but-working federal employees. A letter from the U.S. Department of Labor says states must get any such employees to pay back unemployment benefits they received.

Political stars align for education: If timing is everything, the Oregon Legislature is poised to make substantial investments in public education.

Four events occurred last Thursday:

• The state Department of Education and school districts released their 2018 high school graduation rates, which showed statewide improvement but vast disparities among schools and groups of students.

• The federal government — despite being partially closed — released its comparison of state graduation rates for 2017. Oregon fell to second-worst among states. New Mexico was at the bottom. (The District of Columbia was sandwiched between Oregon and New Mexico.)

• The Legislature's Joint Committee on Student Success formally released its recommendations. There were no surprises. The committee had discussed the ideas last month. Legislators will insist that increased money for schools be spent on specific, targeted areas. Districts will be held accountable for the results. A top requirement will be equity – recruiting and retaining staff members of color, and overcoming the achievement gaps among groups of students.

• State auditors presented the committee with their audit report on the Portland Public Schools and Department of Education. Legislators were aghast. Sen. Lew Frederick, D-Portland, noted that little had changed since he was a TV reporter in the 1970s and reported on the dearth of minority educators in the district. Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, urged his colleagues to read the audit report page-by-page because "there are significant findings in this audit that should be of concern to us." He cited Portland's high overhead costs in comparison with other districts.

Wise words from a rookie: One of the most impressive statements came from new Rep. Cheri Helt, R-Bend, a committee member who served on the Bend-La Pine School Board for eight years.

"You get on a school board and you want to make change, right? You have all these great ideas and you want to make all this change.

"But one of the things that I quickly realized, and was taught, was that the best thing we could do was have a vision and a goal. If we didn't have a vision and a goal, we didn't have anything to achieve. So we set a comprehensive plan."

When the school superintendent retired and the board hired a new one, the district stayed with the same goals: raise graduation rates, offer a rigorous education and meet each student's educational needs.

"In the last seven years, we've increased our graduation rates by 14 percent. And I can tell you the No. 1 thing we did in Bend-La Pine schools was not chase all the new shiny pennies.

"We didn't change what we were doing. We stuck to our mission. We stuck to our goals. And the results prove that having a focus was really the No. 1 thing we did. It wasn't any new curriculum. It wasn't any new programs that really changed that. It was just getting the education that the kids needed and focusing toward individualized education."

The Legislature frequently sends new directives to local school districts, with the best of intentions but sometimes unintended consequences, she said.

"We didn't react to everything the Legislature was handing us. … We kept to our mission and our focus."

She said the Legislature should set clear educational goals and stick with them, instead of being reactive and throwing curveballs at local districts.

Dull but important work: The legislative speed picked up this week, with more lobbyists hanging around the halls and hearing rooms. However, much of the initial legislation still was what House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, aptly described as "the dull work of government."

New legislators often fall into two camps. One is the ego, arrogance and talkativeness of "I know everything." The other is being overwhelmed by the magnitude of the job and the flood of legislative, lobbyist and constituent pressures.

It helps to have previous experience in dealing with the political colleagues and the public.

Unlike some newcomers, Helt seems appropriately comfortable in her role. So, too, was — and is — Rep. David Brock Smith, R-Port Orford, who was first elected in 2016. He previously was a Curry County commissioner, city councilor and school board member. Brock Smith does not talk a lot on the House floor or in committee meetings; when he does, he has something to say.

Tackling student behavior: Oregon schools are confronting a dramatic increase in disruptive student behavior. A change in state law might be to blame.

Lawmakers had sought to curb the use of physical restraints on disruptive students unless they posed an immediate physical danger to themselves or others.

The unintended consequence was that schools now remove all other students from the classroom if a student goes on a profane tangent, makes abusive comments or acts out in other ways — instead of removing the one student. So-called "room clears" can happen several times a week in a school, especially in elementary schools if a student has not yet learned self-discipline.

Sources tell me there is overwhelming support in the House and Senate to modify the law and allow removal of disruptive students. There also is pushback from some folks who want to keep the law as it is.

Let more cougars live: Gov. Kate Brown's administration is being asked to significantly reduce the Oregon quotas for cougar hunting.

Rob Wielgus, the retired director of the now-closed Carnivore Conservation Lab at Washington State University, said research in Washington state shows that killing cougars and other predators actually increases attacks on livestock, creates other problems and does not benefit deer and other wildlife.

Bipartisanship in action: Although far apart on the traditional political spectrum, Rep. Rob Nosse, D-Portland, and Sen. Dennis Linthicum, R-Klamath Falls, are supporting bills to allow Oregon to import medications from Canada, where the same drugs cost far less than in the U.S. The Trump administration would have to give its approval.

Rep. David Gomberg, D-Otis, and the aforementioned Republican Rep. Brock Smith support Senate Bill 256 to make permanent the state's ban on offshore drilling for oil and gas. Talking with me this week, they cited the potential damage to fisheries, tourism and recreation, as well as the likelihood that little oil or gas exists off the Oregon Coast.

Brock Smith chairs the Legislature's Oregon Coastal Caucus. Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, is vice chair. Other members are Sens. Dallas Heard, R-Roseburg, and Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, and Reps. Caddy McKeown, D-Coos Bay, Rep. Tiffiny Mitchell, D-Cannon Beach, Rep. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, and Gomberg.

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