As they sip coffee and sit back in comfy swivel chairs, a half a dozen locals speak truth to power every other Monday morning.
Anyone can participate in these video chats with Sen. Bill Hansell, R-Athena, and Greg Barreto, R-Cove, in the Blue Mountain Community College boardroom. The two lawmakers sit behind microphones in the Capitol’s media room. This Monday, the Pendleton group included BMCC President Camille Preus, Pendleton Chamber Director Gail Nelson, Casey White-Zollman, vice-president of public relations at BMCC, and several others.
These discussions during the Legislative session take on the air of any congenial coffee klatch among avid political junkies, despite Hansell and Barreto being 250 miles away.
On Monday, attendees scrutinized legislation dealing with the Public Employees Retirement System, transportation infrastructure, restrictions on the awarding of noneconomic damages in wrongful death claims, predictive scheduling and other topics. The list of bills has been whittled down over the past few months.
“It’s all coming down to the wire,” Barreto said.
Occasionally the biweekly conversations lead to concrete changes in Salem. Take Senate Bill 43, for example. An earlier version raised the eyebrows of Preus and White back in March.
“It was concerning to us because the bill would have expanded the definition of lobbyist,” White-Zollman said. “The new definition included most public employees or anyone else who wanted to go and advocate for or oppose a bill in Salem.”
White-Zollman and Preus often travel to the Capitol to visit with lawmakers about legislation relating to community colleges. This bill, as then written, required anyone who spent more than an aggregate amount of $100 during the calendar year or stayed more than 24 hours in Salem during any quarter while lobbying to register as a lobbyist with the Oregon Government Ethics Commission.
That didn’t sit right with White-Zollman.
“That definition includes almost anybody on the east side of the state who drives to Salem to testify,” she said. “When you drive from this side of the state, it’s usually not a day trip. One night in a Salem motel usually costs more than $100.”
She brought her concerns to Hansell and Barreto during a video conference. Later that morning, Hansell asked his staff to review the Senate bill to determine whether the objection had merit. He thought it did. He learned a hearing on the bill was scheduled for that very afternoon, and worked up some testimony on the fly.
“He used the example of a couple who drove from Imnaha to testify a couple of weeks prior,” White-Zollman said.
“The trip from Imnaha, in my district, to Salem is over 800 miles round trip,” Hansell told members of the Senate Committee on Rules. “If reimbursed at the state rate, the traveler would receive $427.18 — well above the $100 threshold. Requiring local officials and common citizens to register may chill their inclination to come testify on legislation that directly impacts them.”
He proposed an amendment saying that no local public official or common citizen would have to register as a lobbyist in order to testify. The most recent version of the bill includes the amendment.
The Pendleton Chamber of Commerce sponsors the video chats, and Gail Nelson attends most sessions. She recalled when a 2015 bill ended up on the scrap heap after Pendleton participants expressed their opinion. House Bill 3034 would have charged rural hospitals property taxes if they didn’t give away a minimum amount of charity care. The law addressed the increasingly common practice of hospitals (considered nonprofit) purchasing for-profit clinics and removing them from the tax rolls. Nelson believed the bill would hurt rural hospitals.
When Barreto heard similar objections echoed by St. Anthony Hospital CEO Harry Geller and administrators at two other Eastern Oregon hospitals, he decided to visit to the House Revenue Committee Chairman, Rep. Phil Barnhart (D-Central Lane and Linn Counties).
“I told him I’d heard from hospitals that this was a bad bill,” Barreto recalled.
Barreto pushed, but Barnhart didn’t budge, citing the need for more revenue. Finally, Barreto said he instructed his staff to call hospitals in Barnhart’s district to inform them about the bill. Barnhart got a rash of calls from disgruntled hospital administrators. The bill was killed.
Hansell, along with Rep. Greg Smith, R-Heppner, also participates in a monthly teleconference sponsored by the Hermiston Chamber of Commerce. He said he benefits as much as the locals from the sessions.
“I find them very valuable,” Hansell said. “Legislation has come out of these meetings and we’ve also had the opportunity to amend or stop legislation we were alerted to.”
A lot can come from a simple, earnest conversation, White-Zollman said.
“They listen and find common ground,” she said. “They rely on us to bring them issues. It’s a two-way street here.”
Check the chamber calendar of events at pendletonchamber.com for the upcoming legislative video conference.
Contact Kathy Aney at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 541-966-0810.