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Plenty of other items to address in session

While reaching a balanced budget is the main objective of the Legislature as it opens its 2012 session today, local lawmakers say they hope to push through reforms and initiatives that would benefit Southern Oregon as well as the entire state.

Regional health plans and more support for timber-dependent counties are among the proposals legislators representing Jackson County want to discuss during the session that's scheduled to conclude by month's end.

Sen. Alan Bates, a Medford Democrat, said issues that had been percolating in the 2011 session will receive some consideration, but he doubts new bills will get much traction because of the reduced time frame.

"We're trying to wrap it up by the end of February," he said.

A constitutional amendment approved by voters in 2010 established annual sessions of the Legislature, with even-year sessions limited to 35 days and odd-year sessions to 160 days.

Bates said the Legislature will consider House Bill 3650, a sweeping reform of the Oregon Health Plan, which would make the state eligible for $400 million or more from the federal government as part of an attempt to reduce Medicaid costs.

The plan could start generating savings in a few years, he said.

"If we pull it off, it'll be a big deal," he said. "It'll be the pilot program for the whole country."

An analysis of the bill estimates it could reduce Medicaid spending in Oregon by more than $1 billion over the next 3 years and $3.1 billion over the next five years.

The state would be divided into seven regions under the program to better target specific problems that plague certain areas, such as chemical dependency or asthma. Jackson County would be in a region that also included Douglas, Josephine and Lane counties.

As one example under the program, indigent patients who receive expensive and fairly frequent emergency room care would find themselves in a community-run program that would offer less expensive health options.

Another issue that has affected schools in Jackson County and throughout the state is a high drop-out rate, Bates said.

He said many educators and child care professionals believe that children who live in economically challenged households require special attention at an early age to avoid becoming prime candidates for educational failure later.

While more than a half-dozen programs work with children 5 years old and younger, Bates said legislators will consider a more comprehensive approach that could start by July 1.

"It hasn't been a focused effort," he said of the existing system.

Sen. Jason Atkinson, a Central Point Republican, said he wants to urge the state to take an active role in pushing the federal government to continue timber payments for rural counties.

"The state plays a small role, but a key role," he said. "We want to make sure the issue stays on the front burner."

Jackson, Josephine and Douglas are among the many formerly timber-dependent counties in the state that have received millions of dollars in funding through a federal program that has helped pay for law enforcement, libraries and other local services.

Some smaller counties, including Curry County, have said they may be forced to abandon county government altogether if they lose the federal payments.

With the loss of the federal payments and diminishing state dollars, Atkinson said, drastic cuts also could hit local court systems.

As a result, people could face extensive delays in having their cases heard, which Atkinson said would violate the state constitution. That, he said, would be an extension of what has been happening for years in failing to adequately fund the courts.

"There has been a mindset for many decades that the judicial branch of government is an agency, not a separate branch," he said.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or email dmann@mailtribune.com.