Opening day at the state legislature is akin to the first day of school. You hear a rousing speech, followed by sessions that briefly touch on what you'll tackle throughout the year. There might even be treats—and there will certainly be some playground squabbling. And so it was at the opening day of the 2018 short legislative session, which we attended this Monday.
Gov. Kate Brown kicked off the official proceedings of Monday's joint session with her State of the State address—but not before Rep. Knute Buehler held his own pre-press conference, blasting the governor for her alleged lack of attention to the foster care crisis in Oregon.
Buehler says he'll add language to an existing bill this session, requesting $50 million to fund a "rapid improvement team" to address issues within the child welfare system. A report from Oregon Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, issued last month, alleges the system has a culture of bullying and intimidation.
In 2015, during her first year as governor, Brown ordered an independent review of the child foster care system and services. "Recent information has come to light that calls into question Oregon's foster care services and state agency accountability," Brown said in a Nov. 2015 press release. "This is unacceptable."
While Brown has clearly had this issue on her radar since 2015, nothing like kicking off what's already sure to be a rousing short session with a bit of political mud-slinging.
Brown's speech began with a personal story about her paternal grandmother's struggle with her doctor husband's drug addiction, which forced her to raise four boys largely alone. Still, Brown's grandmother's mantra was "education, education, education,"—a mantra Brown now shares as she rolls out her new "Future Ready Oregon" initiative, aimed at matching jobs in high-growth areas with the people needing jobs—and job training in Oregon.
Brown also touted Oregon's strides in increasing the graduation rates by 5 percent in her three years as governor, citing a focus on hands-on learning as reasons for that success. That led into talk of the current state of careers in the modern age, where a person tends to change careers—not jobs, but actual career fields—seven times. Brown made mention of her maternal grandfather's receipt of a pension after 40 years at the same company—which allowed him to retire and live on that pension for 35 years. This would have been the ideal time for Brown to mention the state of pensions in Oregon, and to call the legislature to action to address the shortfall with the Public Employees Retirement System—something she's worked to address by appointing a task force, called the PERS Unfunded Actuarial Liability Task Force, to review and propose options for making up the $5 billion in payments toward PERS. That task force released a report Nov. 1, which included a series of recommendations detailing funding opportunities of between $4.2 and $6.9 billion, in addition to local government matching funds.
One glaring omission from her speech was PERS, which ranks as high as improving education in the state right now, in terms of priorities. We suspect that needed work on this issue will be subsumed in partisan posturing in the run up to the governor's election. Oregon Republicans appear to be circling the wagons to target Brown, even while the tough work of the short legislative session begs for their focus.
It's an election year and there's bound to be political posturing. But with a short session and much to be done, we'd hope to see the focus on the actual tasks at hand.