From Coast Rep. David Gomberg
Honoring Our Veterans and Students
Last Monday, the Oregon House passed a historic Department of Veterans Affairs budget, funding programs for our veterans at over three times the current level. I was both honored and proud to present this measure which was the result of five months of work in my Ways and Means subcommittee.
Honoring Our Commitment to Veterans
In November (2016), Oregon voters approved Measure 96 by a margin of over 80%. That proposal added lottery funds to veteran programs and was expected to generate about $18 million on top of the current-service-level $10 million budget. But at the start of the session, facing a $1.6 billion shortfall, the total was reduced from $28 to $18 million.
Oregon veterans were frustrated by this, and so was I. I met with several veterans groups the first week of session and vowed to do all I could to fulfill voters’ promise to our servicemen and women.
We write budgets with the money we have, not the money we want. And that means that increasing funds for one program requires decreasing it for others. From day one, I and my fellow co-chair, Sen. Betsy Johnson, poured over budget details looking for savings and also negotiated with legislative leadership to allocate more money to our accounts.
In the end, we allocated $18.7 million from lottery funds and $7.5 million in general funds directly to the Department of Veterans Affairs. An additional $2.5 million in general funds was committed to construction projects at two veterans homes, and $2.5 million was added to the Health Authority budget for veteran-specific mental health care. By my count that totals $31.2 million for veterans, all told.
Last week Senator Johnson teared up when she made the final motion for committee passage. And as it passed, a hearing room full of veterans stood and applauded. It was a good day!
Monday on the House floor, the debate sadly devolved into partisan divisions over spending strategy. Some argued that ODVA should have received all the funding directly. I replied that results are what matter. I argued that mental health and housing were critical needs no matter which budget “pocket” the money comes out of. Fortunately, the budget was approved by a wide, bi-partisan majority.
Click on video to view my opening and closing remarks for the veterans budget.
Seven in ten Oregon vets are not connected to the VA system which gives them access to the benefits and support they earned through service to our country. This new budget doubles the number of local Veteran Service Officers, who work valiantly to connect veterans with those benefits. It also increases campus programs for vets seeking education and new opportunities. And It provides funding for suicide prevention and mental health supports. It increases housing programs and improves veteran homes.
We are all grateful to those who have served. This budget fulfills our commitment to keeping faith with the voters and with our Oregon veterans.
Honoring Our Commitment to Students
On Tuesday, the House took up the 2017 commitment to Oregon schools.
There can be no question that K-12 education is the highest priority for the Legislature. In my first term we increased funding by over $1 billion. Last session, we added $700 million more. And this year’s budget provides another increase for a total of $8.2 billion—another $800 million increase.
Before the vote, I contacted superintendents at my five different school districts in Tillamook, Lincoln, Yamhill, and Polk counties. I asked how this budget would affect local schools and our local students.
One superintendent told me plainly that the budget was an embarrassment and that I should be ashamed to vote for it. One thanked me and said they had planned for less. The other three responded that they could “hold the line” with this funding level, but that larger classes and fewer teaching days would likely result without systemic changes in the near future.
I remain frustrated. Our school year lags three weeks behind the national average for teaching days. That means after 12 years, our kids graduate with a full year less time in the classroom than other American students.
The result is more student absenteeism, lower test scores, and a disappointing graduation rate. Moreover, students often graduate unprepared for life after high school. That affects our economy, the ability of local businesses to find qualified employees, and the overall strength and cohesiveness of our communities.
Dramatic improvement in our support for education, local colleges, and our universities will require substantial changes in how the state collects and spends tax dollars, long-term cost reductions, and a systemic reevaluation of our tax structure.
Tax reform was considered at the last election and throughout this session with no consensus for changes. That discussion will continue. I expect to some see cost-containment proposals approved before adjournment. They include my own efforts to better collect debt owed to the state and find efficiencies across government.
For the next two years, our schools will limp on. But I believe we need to do better than limp. Our state needs to work together and find a better path to a strong educational foundation for all Oregon students.
Thank you for taking the time to read a little about what has been happening in Salem. The 2017 session is rushing to a close. If I can be of any assistance, please do not hesitate to be in contact.
Rep. David Gomberg
PS – In my last newsletter I talked about small business and the need to support them more. I also talked about the small business tax break approved in 2013.
I’ve now learned that one of the statistics I was given by the Revenue Committee for that discussion was in error. Lincoln County in fact, receives more than $2000 total. Wednesday I took the unusual step of standing up and apologizing to the House for my mistake. I apologize to all of you as well.
I continue to believe that we can do more for small business. But in this era of fake news and false statistics, we need to debate with real numbers.
address: 900 Court St NE, H-371, Salem, OR, 97301