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County delegation sees changes for new term

SALEM - With the Democrats assuming control of the Oregon House of Representatives, Jackson County's legislative delegation will face significant changes when the 2007 Legislature convenes Monday.

As might be expected, Democrats will rise into more powerful positions while their Republican counterparts face political demotions:

Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, rises from back-bencher to player, winning the chairmanship of the Education Committee, and membership on the Transportation and Elections, Ethics and Rules committees.

Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, who chaired the Ways and Means subcommittee on human services in 2005 when Republicans ruled the roost, was booted from the fiscal panel.

Rep. George Gilman, R-Medford, everybody's "Mr. Nice Guy," drops to vice chairman of Transportation, the committee he headed in 2005. But Gilman was given a coveted spot on the Ways and Means subcommittee that funds transportation projects around the state.

Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, was dropped from Revenue, one of the "big two" legislative committees along with Ways and Means. He returns to Consumer and Business Affairs as vice chair, and won a seat on Rules.

Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland, continues on Ways and Means, but expects to spend most of his time crafting a universal health care access program as co-chairman with Bend's Sen. Ben Westlund of the Senate special committee on Health Care Reform. Democrats control the state Senate as well.

Sen. Jason Atkinson, R-Grants Pass, will again serve as vice chairman of the Environment and Natural Resources Committee, and moves from Rules to Legislative Operations and Reform.

Buckley, a liberal Democrat, said Education was his first choice.

"Education is my passion. All my kids went through the public school system." He said a major goal is to make progress in building an excellent school system, now that state revenues are up. He said he also wants to lower university tuitions and increase financial aid programs at Oregon's public colleges and universities.

Buckley also asked to be a member of Rules, the committee that becomes increasingly important toward the end of the session as the clearinghouse for bills on diverse issues that clog the final days. He was named vice chairman of that panel.

Buckley said the Southern Oregon delegation will meet regularly this year, with the major priority the Rogue River Greenway project from Central Point to Grants Pass.

"We would like to expand that," he said, which could involve enlarging Valley of the Rogue State Park and acquiring public easements on Bureau of Land Management, county and private lands.

Another Southern Oregon project is a five-county transportation package focusing on rail improvements and projects to upgrade the Port of Coos Bay.

With a bare majority in the House, Buckley said the Democrats need to produce.

"Democrats really want government to work," he said.

Richardson agreed. "The only way to solve our problems is through coalitions," he said, something that was in short supply during the contentious 2005 session.

Esquivel said he was not unhappy being bumped from the Revenue Committee. "I didn't really request it," he said. He said he was pleased when the speaker named him vice chairman of Rules, "the last committee standing," he said.

The real estate agent and former Medford councilman said he will focus on tax reform and he endorsed the creation of a rainy-day fund.

Another priority is increasing the number of state troopers by 300 over the next five or six years. Gov. Ted Kulongoski has recommended 160 new state troopers.

Gilman said Republicans can still get things done even if they are in the minority. "We're all in this together," he said, the new mantra in the state Capitol.

"Of course," he added, "it's nice (as a chairman) to be able to set the agenda." Gilman said he would like to see a solution to the traffic woes on Highway 62 between Medford and White City, but said that may take years.

"Right now there's as much traffic on 62 as there is on nearby I-5," he said.

And, he said, "It would be nice to get some curves on Highway 140 straightened out, and get a little money to fix a slide east of Lakeview."

Upgrading the Winnemuca-to-Medford truck route has been a longtime priority for Gilman.

One of the major issues facing the Legislature is universal access to health care coverage, and Bates is helping lead the charge. The Rogue Valley physician and Westlund co-chair the Senate Special Committee on Health Care Reform that worked during the interim to draft legislation.

That bill, to be known as Senate Bill 39, will be introduced early in the session. Bates said that will be his primary focus, although he continues as a member of Ways and Means as vice chairman of the general government subcommittee.

"We've got a lot of work to do," said Bates, but he said it was "enjoyable work."

Richardson, who was named vice-chairman of the House Health Policy Committee, will also serve as vice chairman of the panel's health care access subcommittee that will work on the Bates-Westlund bill.

"Presently, we practice 'sick care'," Richardson said. "What we really need is health and wellness care."

He said that might require a complete change in the health care delivery system and warned that the proposed legislation must be "affordable, sustainable and acceptable to the public, or it will fail."

Richardson was sanguine about his ouster from Ways and Means.

"That's politics," he said, adding he was happy with his new assignment, which allows him to focus on health care.

"I always grow where I'm planted," he said.

The opening day will include the swearing-in of House and Senate members and an address to a joint session in the House chambers by Kulongoski.

That afternoon there will be a flyover by U.S. Air Force jets and cannons will be fired on the mall. Staff are being warned that the noise may set off car alarms.

Don Jepsen is a freelance writer living in Salem.