Last week it was my special pleasure to meet with students from Newport High School. Mary Koike’s Environmental Systems and Societies classes were ready for me! They had reviewed the structure of Oregon state government, knew that each house district contained about 60,000 voters, knew how often we held elections, and came prepared with questions for their representative. The first question was, “What would you change about government or politics if you could?”
I said I worried about divisiveness and stridency – particularly at the national level. We seem to have lost the ability to compromise. We focus on winners and losers rather than winners and winners. But when we can all work together and pursue common goals and mutual success, I believe we get better results and stronger communities.
Students asked me about initiatives to protect the environment, bills I had introduced, the cost of higher education or college, and about housing and homelessness.
We talked about the Lincoln County economy and the important role of fishing, farming and timber, research and education, and tourism. I reminded these young people that a quarter of our local population is over 65 and retired. How does that affect the economy? The largest source of income here is not fishing or tourism, but pensions and retirement payments. “Retirement” is not recognized as another coastal industry but it certainly should be.
I asked for a show of hands from those students over 18 years old. They were the ones now registered to vote and I asked how they felt about 2018 and the three major elections scheduled. One told me he felt empowered but also a growing responsibility to better understand his community and what he was voting on. I reminded the classes that anyone who has visited a DMV office or has a driver’s license is now pre-registered to vote and will receive notification on their 18th birthday. In Oregon, we vote by mail instead of traveling to voting stations. We want to make sure everyone eligible is empowered and that voting responsibly is as easy as possible.
One student surprised me with their question. “Legislators only get paid about $20,000 a year. Is it worth it??”
“This is the hardest work I have ever done”, I said. “It is also the most rewarding. There is nothing like the opportunity – and the responsibility – to improve communities and change lives. The questions we face are almost always difficult. The worthy requests for funding always exceed the money we have available. And the job takes a lot of time in a district as large and diverse as ours”.
“So it is worth it?” the young woman persisted. “Yes”, I said. “I love what I’m doing and would happily do it for nothing.”
We talked about the future and the kinds of jobs that would be available. The average minimum wage earner in Lincoln County is a 31-year-old single mother. People deserve an opportunity to improve their situation rather than getting stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder. Our challenge is to create new jobs that workers can advance into and cover their living expenses. We need to give young employees and young families good reason to stay here.
We talked about career-technical education. Not every job and not every student needs a four-year degree to succeed. Yes we need dentists and accountants, but we also need plumbers and mechanics. But no matter what future young people choose, we must provide affordable options for those that pursue a university education, want to rely on our great community colleges, or need job-relevant training and skills.
Finally, we talked about automation and the growing evidence that “robots” will soon replace many workers. Computerized kiosks will take orders at fast-food outlets, self-driving vehicles will replace delivery services, and automated machines and artificial intelligence will handle much of our production and manufacturing work. These changes will create new jobs. But they will also replace a disproportionate number of the low-wage service positions which are prevalent in our coastal communities. How do we prepare? Will the people replaced move up or down the economy?
These were bright, attentive, and engaged kids. They asked hard, perceptive questions. They offered insightful answers to the questions I asked them. And as I got to know them in our hours together, I also appreciated that good students are a reflection of good teachers and supportive parents.
Several of the young men wore ties and I jokingly asked if they dressed for school that way every day.
Toward the end of my second class, one student asked me, “What is the biggest issue facing Oregon”. I took a breath and answered, “All of you!”
The kids laughed. And I quickly clarified that the question was about the biggest issue, not the biggest problem.
Our biggest issue is to adequately prepare the next generation of Oregonians, to give them the tools they need to succeed, and to provide them with opportunities to thrive.
These kids new well that one in five of their classmates were categorized as homeless. Most qualified for free meals at school. These are unacceptable statistics.
I recently helped pass the largest K-12 schools budget in our state’s history, but still Oregon lags three weeks behind the national average for number of school days. That means after twelve years, we graduate students with a full year less time in the classroom than neighboring states. Community colleges need and deserve more support. And our universities are growing unaffordable for many of our local students.
Increasing minimum wages mean little when starting positions at Taco Bell pay more than that legal minimum. And too often, people who work at the coast can’t afford to live at the coast.
Our challenge is to build a quality public education system that supports Oregonians from cradle-to-career. That means investing in early childhood programs, reducing class sizes and improving graduation rates at K-12 schools, making community colleges and universities more affordable, and supporting the expansion of modern career/technical education and vocational opportunities.
Our biggest issue is to prepare our kids and grandkids to succeed, and to create an economy that welcomes them. I believe they deserve that. Soon enough, I may need them to help take care of me. I want those kids to enter the workforce educated, motivated… and very grateful.
My time at Newport High was well spent. I’d be delighted to meet with other classes and other students around Lincoln, Tillamook, Yamhill, and Polk Counties.
Life is good here. Happy Holidays to all of you, and thanks for all you do to help make our many communities better, stronger, more resilient, and more interesting.
Rep. David Gomberg
email: Rep.DavidGomberg@oregonlegislature.gov phone: 503-986-1410
address: 900 Court St NE, H-371, Salem, OR, 97301