Shortly before Democratic Gov. Kate Brown ordered Oregon State Police troopers to force the Republican senators back to the Capitol on Thursday, state Sen. Dallas Heard, R-Winston, was driving out of the state with grumpy kids in the car, and telling The News-Review he feels Democrats are out of control.
Eleven Senate Republicans had walked out of the Capitol on Thursday morning so there would be no quorum for the Legislature to take action on a climate bill. The Republicans said they plan to continue their strike through the end of session June 30, effectively killing all remaining attempts at legislation.
Troopers were dispatched Thursday to bring the senators back in handcuffs if necessary, but most, like Heard, were expected to head out of the state.
Thursday afternoon, when The News-Review reached Heard again, he had arrived in that undisclosed other state. And he had pretty sketchy cell service.
But he had plenty to say about the governor’s actions.
“It feels like tyranny on parade,” he said.
Heard said he’s had some discussions with law enforcement officers, and he doesn’t believe they’ll comply with the governor’s order. But either way, he doesn’t plan to go back any time soon. Even if the governor were to call special sessions later in the summer, he said he wouldn’t attend.
“I’m willing to sacrifice whatever it takes. If I can get people to stand with us, it’s worth it,” he said.
He said he’s personally more concerned about the Democrats’ plan to fine the missing senators $500 a day, which he said would be harmful to his ability to take care of his family, than he is about the possibility of being dragged to the Capitol.
Heard called the governor’s actions hypocritical.
“We’re talking about a governor who herself walked out and protested the legislature back in 2001 and denied quorum back in the waning days of that legislative session, and here she is the governor now using the state troopers of this state as her own personal police force,” Heard said.
He said the Democratic party’s absolute hold on the Oregon government has left them drunk with power. These are the types of actions that dictators take, he said.
He said it’s unlikely that he’ll be found where he is.
“I’m not really worried about all that. I’m more worried about the precedent that’s being set here, and I’m going to be eagerly watching to see if the people wake up and say, ‘Enough,’ or if they’re going to show me that they really just don’t care anymore and they deserve whatever comes to ‘em, which’ll be sad. But I don’t think that’s what’s going to happen,” he said.
Oregon State Police said in a press release Thursday afternoon that the Oregon Constitution allows the governor to take the action she did.
“Oregon State Police serves the Governor in her elected role as leader of Oregon’s Executive Branch of government, and she has now given a lawful directive which OSP is fully committed to executing,” it said.
It also said it has helped resolve similar situations in the past with the help of diplomats from both sides of the aisle, and that it is having polite communications with the senators because patience and communication is its first, preferred option.
Brown released a statement saying she took the action because the Senate had come to an impasse.
“It is absolutely unacceptable that the Senate Republicans would turn their back on their constituents who they are honor-bound to represent here in this building. They need to return and do the jobs they were elected to do,” it said.
The Roseburg Veterans Affairs Medical Center emergency room may soon be downgraded to an urgent care.
Director Keith Allen said in an interview this week he’s requested approval for the change because he believes it’s safer for veterans to obtain emergency care at other hospitals that provide full services. If approved, the switch could be made as early as December.
Allen is the permanent replacement for Doug Paxton, who left the VA in February 2018 and was replaced by two interim directors, first Dave Whitmer and then Kevin Forrest. Allen has been at the Roseburg VA since March 17 of this year, but this was his first interview with The News-Review.
While he spoke about his love for the mild, four-season climate of the Pacific Northwest and his desire to make this his final job before retirement, he also didn’t shy away from the much more challenging topic of the ER’s future.
The ER has been a flashpoint for tension between veterans and the VA senior leadership for many years, starting with the move to close the VA’s intensive care unit in 2009. The VA said the ICU was closed because it did not receive enough use. Veterans disputed that and fought for years to have it reopened. Some asserted that it was the VA’s first move in a longer-term plan to close the ER.
Allen wasn’t in Roseburg during those years but said he doesn’t think the VA was planning all along to close the ER.
“I think they tried the best they could to keep the emergency department,” he said.
But they weren’t able to retain providers or specialty services or even the support services necessary to maintain a quality emergency department, he said.
“We’re not providing the service. We’re an emergency department on the name of the building only and there’s very little we can do inside other than safeguard them and then send them off to Sacred Heart or Mercy or another facility that then does have the proper care for them,” he said.
Allen said he’d rather have the veteran needing emergency care go straight to a full-service ER. When veterans stop first at the VA, there’s a delay before they receive the emergency care they need. That increases the veteran’s risk and the VA’s liability, he said.
Allen also said 89% of the veteran visits to the VA’s Emergency Department are actually for problems that aren’t really emergencies, but rather urgent care. He said while emergency care is available for veterans in the community at Mercy, there currently is no private urgent care signed up to the VA’s network.
Urgent care, he said, is what the veterans need, and he wants to focus on improving that care.
“I mean when you look at it, we’re really providing urgent care right now. We call it an emergency department, but it’s urgent care,” he said.
During his time here in 2018, Whitmer had also considered downgrading the ER to an urgent care, but rejected the plan. In part that was due to plans to make the VA campus the site of a 150-bed Oregon State Veterans’ home, which would increase the demand for emergency services.
That’s also a concern for veteran Dan Loomis, who said he’s hoping that gets factored into the current decision on whether the VA downgrades its emergency department. Loomis also said such a downgrade would leave Roseburg with a single emergency room — the one at Mercy — and he worries it could become overwhelmed.
“As long as the VA shows that the emergency room at Mercy is sufficient to handle all the county’s emergencies and not have the three and four hour wait time for emergency care for the veterans, as long as there’s some form of agreement and understanding between the VA and Mercy that Mercy is going to increase their capacity to handle emergencies, then I think that would be a good solution,” he said.
However, he said the better solution would be to restore the VA’s emergency department to one that is fully capable of handling veterans’ emergencies.
Douglas County Veterans Forum President Larry Hill said he thinks the decision makes sense, given the current status of the emergency department.
“To me, it’ll be OK. In the long run, this too shall pass and it’ll work out well,” Hill said.
Hill said his main concern is that billing for trips to Mercy will continue to be an issue, with veterans sometimes receiving large bills in the mail because the VA hasn’t paid them in a timely fashion or has rejected the claim.
Hill said he thinks most veterans will accept the downgrade at this point, but he predicted 10% to 20% would not — at least not without a lot of explanation and hand-holding. And those who hate it will soon come out of the woodwork, he said.
“He just has to be prepared for it. It’s going to be a rough ride, but it’ll get done,” Hill said of the director’s task ahead.
Allen said he knows the decision will be controversial.
“I’ll be open and honest with ‘em and I’ll take my shots. That comes with the territory. That’s what comes from sitting in this seat. I knew that when I took this. But I want to do the right thing,” he said.
An Army infantry veteran who served in the early 1980s, Allen joined the VA in 2006, but has had a long career working for the federal government. He was a truck driver for the U.S. Postal Service but said that job was taking a physical toll on him and he knew he couldn’t continue it until he was 65. So at 40, he decided to attend college.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, Allen took a job as a mechanic and then obtained a position as a project engineer at the Tampa, Florida VA. He moved his way up the ladder after that, becoming project section chief, chief of maintenance and operations, acting assistant chief and then acting chief of facilities. In 2013 he moved to Seattle where he joined the Puget Sound VA as chief engineer.
Allen obtained a master’s in national strategic resources at the National Defense University in Washington, D.C., a degree that put him on the executive track. After that, he worked his way up to deputy director at Puget Sound. While serving there, he did a brief interim stint at the Roseburg VA in 2017, lasting about six weeks.
He then became the interim director for the Walla Walla, Washington VA for 10 months before being appointed director in Roseburg. He said he likes the area for its four seasons with mild winters and non-humid summers. He loves mountains, lakes, parks and camping.
He also said he met many staff members during his short stint here in 2017 who really want to provide great service to veterans and felt he could work well with them. His primary goal is to provide what he calls “a center of excellence in healthcare for the veterans.”
He also said he wants to ensure that whistleblowers aren’t retaliated against, and that staff members feel psychologically safe and are willing to point out issues that impact the VA’s performance and patient care.
Allen said since he first entered VA leadership, he has striven to become a facility director and now he’s achieved that goal. So he doesn’t intend to use the Roseburg VA as a stepping stone to further advancement in another city.
“I’m where I want to be, so unless someone says, ‘Look Mr. Allen, we really need you to go here because that’s what the veterans need,’ I have no plans on leaving. This should be my last duty station,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Oregon, said in a conference call with Oregon reporters Thursday he’s still not sure why the Trump administration called recently for all 25 Job Corps Civilian Conservation Centers to be shut down or privatized.
But he’s glad to see the change of heart from the administration, a fact he attributed to a bipartisan effort to convince the administration that the CCCs like Wolf Creek Job Corps CCCs in Glide are providing an important service and need to remain as they are — open and under the management of the U.S. Forest Service.
“I think the strong response from around the country really sent a message about how valuable these organizations are,” Merkley said.
Nine of the CCCs were slated for closure. Wolf Creek, along with 15 others, would have been shifted from the Forest Service to the Department of Labor, which would have contracted with a private organization to manage it. All the CCCs were designed to offer training to students for whom traditional schooling wasn’t a good option. They offer an array programs from welding to GED preparation.
The prospect of privatization caused concern at Wolf Creek because of the importance of its training program in forestry conservation and firefighting. It’s the center’s most popular program and supporters feared it would be jeopardized if it were separated from the Forest Service.
Merkley said nobody knows what the impact of privatization would have been. There was no plan, and the Department of Labor doesn’t really understand the forest world, he said.
“You sever the connection to the Forest Service, I think you do deep damage to these programs. It’s hard for me to envision a contractor coming in, hiring people who don’t understand these programs, don’t understand the Forest Service, and somehow operating them effectively,” he said.
Merkley said the administration provided him with no evidence to back its claim that the CCCs were expensive and had a poor track record of placements after graduation. He also said he had asked for the statutory authority for the administration to make the changes, but didn’t receive that either.
He said the administration is now talking about developing new evaluation protocols, but he said what they’re looking for is a way to save face.
“What they’ve discovered is these organizations do a lot of important work and have powerful support in their communities. And that they just didn’t understand. They didn’t do an evaluation before they entered into this decision,” he said.
He said when he was able to reach Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, they had an intense and testy conversation in which Merkley brought up Perdue’s home state of Georgia.
“I asked how many forest fires they’d had in Georgia. He said none. I said that’s the difference, a big difference between our state and the West and Georgia,” he said.
Merkley said the effort to save the CCCs involved Democrats and Republicans from the House and Senate who had CCCs in their states slated for closure or privatization. Prior to the administration backing down, they put forward bipartisan legislation and wrote a joint letter to the secretaries of agriculture and labor. Merkley said he even found common ground with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose home state of Kentucky had three CCCs slated for closure under the administration’s plan.
Patrick Starnes is still campaigning, but not for governor.
Starnes ran for governor as an independent in 2018. Although he dropped out of that race in October, he has continued to push for his top issue of campaign finance reform.
This week, he visited Roseburg and spoke with The News-Review about why he thinks it’s critical to get big money out of politics and how Oregonians might accomplish that.
Starnes is formerly from Lookingglass and was living in McKenzie Bridge in Lane County when he made a run for House District 7 back in 2014. He campaigned then on the idea of a junk food tax that would pay for healthcare reform. He said he faced the powerful soft drink lobby in trying to put that idea forward. But he said money in politics impacts every issue, from PERS to the proposed natural gas pipeline that would run through Douglas County to Coos Bay.
These days, he drives from his home in Brownsville to Salem every Wednesday to attend the meetings of the brand new Senate Committee on Campaign Finance.
A number of campaign finance reform bills have moved forward this session, though they’re presently stalled by the Republican senators’ walkout that started Thursday. Still, when the senators are in, Starnes said there’s broad bipartisan support for finance reform, even at the top. Gov. Kate Brown’s promise to push for reform helped convince Starnes to drop out of the race in 2018, and Republican Tim Knopp of Bend has pushed for it too, he said.
The bill Starnes particularly favors is Senate Joint Resolution 18. It would put a measure on the ballot in 2020, asking voters to amend the Oregon constitution to create campaign finance restrictions.
Starnes said big money from labor unions and corporations will come “crazy out of the woodwork” to fight finance reform. They’ll hope to sway voters against finance reform, Starnes said, but he thinks the voters might approve the SJR reforms anyway.
“The people are there. I’ve traveled all 36 counties, and it didn’t matter if they were cowboys in Eastern Oregon or hippies in Eugene, they were ready to get big money out. Everyone gets it, and it’s bipartisan,” Starnes said.
Starnes was less enthusiastic about House Bill 2714, which would have limited individual contributions to candidates in statewide races $2,800 but would not have limited PAC spending. It passed the House, but stalled in the Senate.
He favors some other bills that deal with notifying voters about who’s spending money outside of the campaigns for ads in support of a candidate. Often no one knows who the donors are, so it’s called dark money.
The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case that type of spending is free speech, so it’s not possible for the state to stop it. However, what Oregon can do is insist that voters be notified who is spending the money on those ad, Starnes said.
Bills considered in the legislature this session would mandate top donors be listed on ads and mailers.
“We can’t limit it because of Citizens United, so it’s unlimited, but we can bring it out into the sunshine,” Starnes said.
Starnes said getting money out of politics would give other politicians the freedom he had during the gubernatorial race to do things like oppose the pipeline. He said the governor didn’t take a strong position on the pipeline and Republican candidate Knute Buehler favored it.
“I was the only one clearly against it. ‘Cause I had no strings attached. I didn’t have any big money coming in. And the same with healthcare. I was the only one that was clearly single payer,” he said.