Every day, the Jewish Federation of Greater Portland and its Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC) work on behalf of our Jewish community in Salem. And every year we provide you with an “end of session” report, which will add to the length of this week’s Marc’s Remarks. Marc’s Remarks is a weekly email from Jewish Federation of Greater Portland President and CEO Marc Blattner.
Last month, the Oregon Legislature adjourned, finalizing a long and unusually contentious session. With a super majority in both the Senate and the House, Democrats passed a number of priority bills, including: a new business tax to raise a billion dollars for public schools (Student Success Act), a paid family and medical leave program, an increase in Oregon’s earned income tax credit, new affordable housing and tenant protection laws, campaign finance regulations and a referral to the voters for an increase in the tobacco tax. Many of these proposals passed in the final weeks of the session once Senate Republicans agreed to return after leaving the Capitol to prevent the Senate from obtaining a quorum. They did so in return for the Democrats agreeing to drop the climate change (or cap-and-trade) bill, HB 2020.
The JCRC saw a mix of success and disappointment. While excited to see the passage of funding for senior programs through a new provider assessment fee, as well as a mandate to provide Holocaust and genocide education in the state’s public schools, the JCRC regretted that wage theft legislation and gun violence prevention bills did not move forward.
The JCRC also helped to organize Interfaith Advocacy Day, which took place on March 4. The event, a full day of advocacy training, issue briefings, and lobbying at the Capitol in conjunction with the Christian and Muslim communities, saw over 250 participants meeting with their respective legislators in support of important human service programs.
Protecting Services for Seniors and People with Disabilities
The JCRC has a long history of supporting adequate Medicaid funding for Oregon’s most vulnerable populations, as well as funding for home-and community-based service options. At the beginning of the session, Oregon faced a $830-million Medicaid shortfall for the 2019-21 budget cycle due to the sunsetting of Measure 101’s healthcare provider assessment and the expected decline in federal support of the Medicaid population.
Early in the session, Governor Kate Brown signed House Bill 2010 into law. The bill includes a hospital assessment, generating $98 million for the Oregon Health Plan (OHP), as well as a health insurance assessment and managed care tax, generating $334 million for OHP. To provide the rest of the needed funding, Governor Brown proposed a $2-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax and the creation of an assessment on employers that do not provide affordable coverage to their workers. In the end, the assessment on employers did not pass, but legislators were successful in referring to the ballot a cigarette tax (HB 2270). HB 2270 raises taxes on cigarettes from $1.33 per pack to $3.33 per pack, eliminates the $.50 cap for cigars and subjects e-cigarettes and other vaping products to the 65% wholesale tax currently imposed on other non-cigarette tobacco products.
Supporting Holocaust and Genocide Education in High Schools
The results of a sobering survey conducted by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany were released last year: Twenty-two percent of millennials haven’t heard of the Holocaust or aren’t sure whether they’ve heard of it. Thirty-one percent of American adults (41% of millennials) don’t know how many Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Forty-one percent of Americans (66% of millennials) can’t identify what the death camp Auschwitz was. In partnership with the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education, the JCRC was committed to reversing this trend by helping to draft and introduce legislation to mandate Holocaust and genocide education in the state’s public high schools.
Senate Bill 664 unanimously passed. The bill requires school districts to provide instruction in the Holocaust and genocide beginning with the 2020-2021 school year. It also mandates that the State Board of Education develop academic content standards for Holocaust and genocide studies. Despite the bill’s overwhelming support, it was not without controversy. During testimony on the bill, a small group of Holocaust deniers forced the House Education Committee to momentarily recess and reconvene a short time later. The bill eventually made it to Governor Brown’s desk and on July 15, the Governor held a special bill signing ceremony at the Oregon Jewish Museum and Center for Holocaust Education.
Strengthening Hate Crimes Legislation
According to the Anti-Defamation League, over the last several years, the American Jewish community has been victimized by hate crimes more than any other religious community. As a member of the Attorney General’s Task Force on Hate Crimes, the JCRC supported legislation to revise and strengthen the state’s intimidation laws, which had been previously used in the prosecution of bias crimes.
At the conclusion of the AG’s Task Force on Hate Crimes, the committee unanimously submitted several recommendations to the legislature encompassed in Senate Bill 577. SB 577 stipulates that violence, or the immediate threat of violence, based on a person’s membership in a protected class is a felony. It also formalizes definitions surrounding crimes of bias to facilitate accurate data collection by law enforcement agencies, thereby enabling the Criminal Justice Commission to analyze this information and provide an understanding of the prevalence of hate crimes in Oregon. Although the bill was voted out of the Senate Judiciary Committee unanimously early in the process, it wasn’t until the last two weeks of session that the bill made it to the House and Senate floors. After passage, it was signed into law by the governor.
Protecting Workers Against Wage Theft
The JCRC believes that every worker has the right to live and labor with dignity, safety and hope. Traditionally, victims can file lawsuits to hold bad actors accountable for wage theft, but now businesses are burying forced arbitration provisions deep in employment contracts, denying access to courts and juries. The JCRC is a member of the Oregon Coalition Against Wage Theft, which supports legislation that would authorize whistleblowers who identify violations to join the state attorney general as a party to the case, thereby bypassing forced arbitration provisions that deny victims their right to go to court.
The focus of the Oregon Coalition Against Wage Theft during the session was Senate Bill 750, which addresses these concerns. The bill expands the capacity of the Bureau of Labor and Industry (BOLI) to impose consequences for violating worker rights. It also enables BOLI to adopt innovative enforcement strategies designed to reach workers who are most vulnerable to workplace abuses, such as low-wage workers and immigrants. Despite much support and advocacy for the bill, it died in the Joint Ways and Means Committee at the end of the session.
Preventing Gun Violence
The JCRC is a coalition member of the Oregon Alliance for Gun Safety. We are jointly committed to making Oregon safer by keeping guns out of the hands of criminals and other dangerous individuals. The group is made up of businesses, faith communities, service organizations, nonprofits and elected officials.
The JCRC supported Senate Bill 978, which is a compilation of concepts attempting to limit gun violence, including, but not limited to, establishing a minimum age of 18 for the purchase of firearms, requiring safe storage of firearms, establishing strict liability for injury caused by a minor’s use of a firearm, and allowing the prohibition of firearms on college campuses.
In a rather unusual twist, despite having the required votes on the Senate floor, the bill was sent back to committee where it died. Shortly before the vote, Senate Republicans staged a walkout preventing the Senate body from having the 20-person quorum necessary to conduct business. They later returned, but not without getting assurances from Governor Brown that both SB 978, as well as a bill removing religious exemptions for child vaccinations, would not move forward. Shortly after adjournment, many advocates had already begun discussions about introducing legislation during the 2020 session.
Here is an interesting one with Jewish importance. The JCRC submitted a letter of concern on Senate Bill 320, which abolishes the annual one-hour time change from standard time to daylight savings time. Traditional Jews attend prayer services in the morning prior to leaving for work. These services take place at sunrise or slightly before sunrise, as the hours before daybreak are still considered to be night. In the winter months, services would not end until close to 9 am, presenting a problem for community members who cannot arrive to work so late in the morning. Unfortunately, the bill passed both the Senate and House and was signed by the governor.
The JCRC also assisted AARP Oregon with legislation tackling age discrimination in the workplace. House Bill 2818, among other things, would have prohibited employers from asking job candidates age-identifying information prior to a job offer. Unfortunately, the bill did not receive the necessary votes to even move out of committee.
We have much to be proud of regarding our advocacy efforts. We are grateful to the leadership of the JCRC, including Jeff Reingold, Chair, the Council members (made up of synagogue and agency representation, as well as at-large community members), George Okulitch, our community’s lobbyist, and our professional leaders, Bob Horenstein and Rachel Nelson, for the seriousness of their work and their efforts to strengthen our Jewish community and the State of Oregon.