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Capital Chatter: What are the top state issues?

Last month, DHM Research asked 582 voters to choose which issues would be most important for them in voting for legislative candidates in the 2020 elections.

As the new year approaches, the No. 1 issue for Oregon voters is …

It depends on the voters' political leanings.

And remember, neither Democrats nor Republicans represent a majority of Oregonians statewide. DHM Research, a trustworthy outfit, asked representative panels of the electorate for their opinions. DHM found some surprises.

Last month, the company asked 582 voters to choose which issues — from a list of 15 — that would be most important for them in voting for state House and Senate candidates in the 2020 elections.

Oregon has about 2.8 million registered voters. About 35% are Democrats and 25% are Republicans. The largest and fastest-growing segment is composed of voters who belong either to another party or to no party. Together, these other-party and unaffiliated voters could hold tremendous power. The wild card is how they will vote.

In the DHM Panel survey, the top issues for the other-party and unaffiliated voters were: 1) health care, 2) taxes, 3) K-12 education, 4) government spending and 5) environment.

For Democratic voters who were surveyed, the top issues were 1) climate change, 2) health care, 3) environment, 4) housing and 5) homelessness.

Republicans ranked the top issues as 1) government spending, 2) taxes, 3) gun policy, 4) managing the state budget and 5) homelessness.

The affiliated and other-party voters are not represented in the Legislature, whose 90 members are either Democrat or Republican. So it's telling that in the DHM survey, these voters indicated they generally had more trust in Democrats than Republicans to handle most issues.

It also is interesting that the perennial issue of education was barely mentioned, presumably because the 2019 Legislature passed the Oregon Student Success Act. The legislation is projected to raise $1 billion a year to schools and pre-K programs for a broad range of program, including behavioral health services, which are a priority of students and educators alike.

Meanwhile, Oregon Sen. Jeff Merkley, a Democrat, reintroduced federal legislation this year to provide more counselors in elementary and secondary school.

Protect our wallets and balance sheets: Taxes, however, remain a key issue for Republicans and other-party/non-affiliated voters.

It is a privilege to do business in Oregon, and Democrats taxed that privilege to pay for the education improvements, which most lawmakers thought overdue despite disagreements about the financing. The new corporate activity tax kicks in Jan 1. Naturally, questions continue as to whether the tax will actually raise $1 billion annually, whether it is fair and whether it deserves alternations.

Fixes are required "as a result of the unanticipated difficulties of implementing such a large, complicated bill in a short time period," said Rep. Raquel Moore-Green, R-Salem. She will introduce legislation to exempt pharmacies from the tax.

The Oregon Department of Revenue conveniently summarizes the 11,000-plus words of tax legislation now enshrined in state law as: "The CAT is imposed on businesses for the privilege of doing business in Oregon, including those located inside and outside of Oregon. It's measured on a business's commercial activity — the total amount a business realizes from activity in Oregon.

"Businesses with taxable commercial activity in excess of $1 million must pay the Corporate Activity Tax. The tax is $250 plus 0.57% of gross receipts greater than $1 million after subtractions."

Rep. Shelly Boshart Davis, R-Tangent, said any tax on gross profits is irresponsible and is "very telling as to how the State of Oregon sees job creators."

From the Democratic side, Sen. Arnie Roblan of Coos Bay, a main author of the Student Success Act, wrote to his constituents this week, "These groundbreaking educational reforms and the corresponding funding package in the bill will significantly transform Oregon's education system for decades to come."

What about adults: Substance abuse, poverty, homelessness and other social conditions have confounded humankind for generations. These issues interact with societal violence and other concerns to spur much of the immigration and refugee flight that world leaders have debated, from President Donald Trump talking about people at the U.S.-Mexico border to Pope Francis focusing this week's Christmas message on migrant suffering.

But at the Oregon Capitol, hardly anyone outside law enforcement talks about the drug trade and Oregon's global role, even as the drugs flowing north from Mexico create harm there and here.

While legal and illegal opioids grab the headlines, meth is right behind.

School boards across Oregon must own up to how many kids need care for a panoply of issues — pot, heroin, legal medications not prescribed for them, eating disorders, mental health concerns and more. Treatment must be ongoing and fully available. But what about adults?

Democratic secretary of state candidate Mark Hass said that, if elected, he would order a full-scale audit to find gaps in treatment of drug and alcohol addictions. I expect that audit would show the obvious: Oregon has too few addiction services, just as it has as too few community mental health programs.

Oregon is consistent. When shuttering state facilities, Oregon never provides sufficient community options.

"Oregon is losing the war against deadly drugs and alcohol," said Hass, a state senator from Beaverton. "On average, five Oregonians die every day in alcohol-related deaths. Two die every day from drug overdoses. Two-thirds of Oregon prison inmates suffer from untreated addiction. Oregon has the fourth-highest addiction rate in the country."

It is no surprise that second-chance programs around Oregon often are driven by businesspeople because of their exceptional return investment on taxpayer dollars.

Add in homelessness: The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development reported last week, "While the rest of the country experienced a combined decrease in homelessness in 2019, significant increases in unsheltered and chronic homelessness on the West Coast, particularly California and Oregon, offset those nationwide decreases. … "

The reference to Oregon seemed gratuitous only because HUD Secretary Ben Carson's press release provided no details for the state, hammering on California.

As the DHM survey shows, homelessness remains a Top 5 legislative issue for Democratic and Republican voters. Many homeless individuals frequently wind up in hospital emergency rooms or city and county jails, where they are ill-served. Many homeless women are survivors of domestic violence. Many folks are employed but not at jobs that pay high enough wages or provide enough work hours for rent. Many are youth or families with children. Many dare not go to shelters for fear of being victimized. Many homeless people have substance or behavioral disorders or both.

Gov. Kate Brown, House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, and others have been staunch advocates for more housing.

But no one has stepped forward to make homelessness the critical issue for the Oregon Legislature — even though the governor, other state officials and the 90 legislators must see the faces of homeless individuals every day as they travel about Oregon's capital.

That might be changing. Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, is so vexed by the inability of Oregon's capital to serve the homeless that he will ask the 2020 Legislature for several million dollars toward warming shelters.

As 2020 dawns, perhaps legislators and the public will find time to peruse the Oregon Statewide Shelter Study, which was put together by reputable national consultants, which was released in August and which starts the conclusions section with this sentence: "Homelessness, especially unsheltered homelessness, is of catastrophic proportions in Oregon."

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.