Confession: I have not clicked on any news regarding whatever the hell is happening in Eastern Oregon. I won’t even hyper-link it. I may watch whatever parody episode South Park, the Simpsons, or ideally, Rick and Morty create. Maybe. (Definitely).
In this case, I don’t wish to feed the beast, although there is major room to discuss grazing policy, federal land use, and how rural America is being left behind. But somehow I don’t think that’s what the “militia”/”occupiers” are really conveying. Mostly, I’m not taking a moral stand on this issue – I just don’t want to feel sad.
But if you look past the doom and gloom of an anti-government militia uprising, there are plenty of good – government-led– things happening in the Beaver State. Oregon has a long tradition of pioneering progressive policies and legislation (e.g. First Container Deposit Bill in 1971, First Assisted Suicide Bill in 1994). This year, Oregon adds to that legacy. In 2016, Oregonians are automatically registered to vote when they interact with the DMV, they enjoy over-the-counter access to birth control; they are guaranteed paid sick leave, and they could be in line for a much higher minimum wage and a cleaner energy grid. As Democratic-voters determine the values and direction of the party, they should look to Oregon as a glimpse of what could be under a progressive Democratic federal government.
My beloved home state was the only state in the 2014 midterm election that saw its Democratic majorities increase. In other words, in all other states, Democrats lost seats in state legislatures or lost control of the chamber altogether. This simple fact no doubt helped fuel Oregon’s productive 2015 legislative session, a term that saw Oregon pioneer a few “nation’s first” laws. Most political attention has now been directed at figuring out the next President to blame and drawing out whether Barack Obama is lame, a tyrannical duck, or simply a lame-duck President in his last year holding on to what will be his last formal job ever. But, if we look past the narratives, there’s evidence of some cool policy happening at the state level and in the often forgotten about corners of the U.S.
On January 1, Oregon became the first state to automatically register eligible voters who obtain, replace or renew their driver’s licenses. Oregon’s “Motor Voter” Law is expected to register nearly 300,000 new Oregonians who did business with the DMV since 2013. That being said, we’re the land of “Freedom” (sometimes), so anyone can opt-out of registering if they fill out a form. New voters are set as non-affiliated voters by default. Of course, Republicans clamored about an infringement of privacy/rights, but the worst thing that happens to uninterested voters is receiving another piece of useless mail (since Oregon votes by mail only!)
Even more exciting, Oregon approved two new laws to give women easier access to birth control. The first bill, passed with bipartisan support (50-10 in a 60-member Oregon House with 34 Democrats), places Oregon alongside California as the only states that allow pharmacists to prescribe hormonal birth control (hormonal contraceptive patches and self-administered oral hormonal contraceptives) that will still be covered by insurance, skipping costly or inconvenient doctor visits. Before this, doctors had to prescribe them.
The second bill, less “controversial” and passed with even more bipartisan support (28-0 in the 30-member Senate, and 55-2 in the House), requires insurance agencies to cover a full year of birth control (pill, patch or ring) prescription at the time of prescription. Oregon becomes the first state in the country to do so. Furthermore, in an (unfortunately) commendable act, Alicia Temple – policy director for Planned Parenthood Advocates of Oregon – stated “We were pleased to hear from several male legislators who testified that they deferred to their wives in seeking guidance on their vote [on birth control].” Small victories.
Oregon also became the fourth state to approve statewide sick leave policy, joining California, Connecticut and Massachusetts. Employers in Oregon with 10 or more workers are required to give employees up to five paid sick days a year. The initial bill was introduced to affect all employers and mandate up to seven paid sick days! Now that’s bargaining, but hey, we’ll take it.
Although not enacted law, two other major pieces of legislation regarding coal energy and minimum wage are being taken up by the Oregon Legislature this winter.
On the energy front, on January 7th, environmental advocates and Oregon’s two largest utilities (Portland General Electric and PacifiCorp), which together provides 70% of Oregon’s electricity, agreed on a consensus deal to double the renewable energy mandate by 2040 and eliminate the use of coal by 2013. The group plans on proposing the Clean Energy and Coal Transition Plan in the 2016 legislative session in hopes to supersede a stricter citizen-initiated ballot-measure by Renew Oregon that would end coal use by 2030. Some recent pushback from the Oregon Public Utility Commission, whose primary charge is to protect consumer interests, has suggested that the proposed bill would increase electricity costs, shift risk from utilities to taxpayers, and wouldn’t actually reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Proponents of this deal wish to avoid a lengthy and costly public fight, and hope that the Legislature can mediate this proposal.
Lastly, Oregon Governor Kate Brown (America’s first openly bi-sexual Governor, FWIW), has proposed her vision for statewide minimum wage, gearing up for a contentious battle that may not be resolved until after her re-election bid in 2016. Oregon’s current minimum wage is $9.25, $2 more than the federal level and seventh highest nationally. Gov. Brown’s proposal includes a long phase-in timeline, increasing Oregon’s statewide minimum wage to $13.50 an hour by 2022, and $15.52 in the Portland Metro Area (as defined by the urban growth boundary).
Unfortunately, Oregon’s late May primary inhibits the same kind of national spotlight bestowed upon small states like Iowa and New Hampshire. Oregon should be more than just an afterthought, especially when it comes to liberal ideas. Amidst the national fanfare, continue to keep an eye out for what Oregon is up to – both for and against government (Go Home, Bundys).
Robin Ye is a fourth-year in the College from Portland, Oregon
*Post Updated: January 26, 2015