Four candidates for three state legislative positions discussed the economy, education, healthcare and other issues at the League of Women Voters legislative candidate forum Tuesday at the Holiday Inn Express in Roseburg.
The forum was unusual this year in that two contenders — incumbents Sen. Dallas Heard and Rep. Gary Leif — did not attend. The League changed its rules to allow their challengers, Senate District 1 candidate Shannon Souza and House District 2 candidate Megan Salter, to attend and changed the format from a question-and-answer debate to a topic-based forum.
Souza, a Democrat from Coos Bay, spoke about poverty rates between 18 and 48 percent in the counties of Senate District 1, which covers Roseburg, South Douglas County, Curry County and parts of Coos, Josephine and Jackson counties. At the same time, she said, businesses don’t have the workforce they need.
“The existing and emerging economies of District 1 are completely thwarted by a lack of workforce. We have these economies that would like to just flourish and blossom but cannot,” she said.
She sees the solution in creating the clean energy jobs of the future and developing the workforce through career and technical education to meet the existing needs of local businesses, including those in the manufacturing and health care industries.
Rep. Cedric Hayden, R-Fall Creek, represents House District 7, which includes North Douglas County and South Lane Couty. He said he’s disappointed that Gov. Kate Brown only funded voter-approved career and technical education by half.
“We need our young men and women to be able to enter the workforce and to have the technology to work here at home so they don’t have to go to the more prosperous metropolitan areas where there is more technology jobs,” he said.
He also supports the proposed Allied Health College in Roseburg.
The Democratic challenger for District 7, Christy Inskip of Cottage Grove, said real wages have remained steady since 1980, when dollars are adjusted for inflation, while the cost of living has increased.
“The American dream seems further away than it has ever been. The problem is that our rural economies are not what they used to be,” she said.
She said rural Oregon needs investment in small business and infrastructure. She said she would see that rural Douglas County received its fair share of job-creating infrastructure investment. She also said workers should be supported with paid family leave, child care subsidies and workforce development. She said there are not enough jobs here that pay a living wage.
Salter, a Democrat from Roseburg, said the state of rural Oregon’s economy was the catalyst for her run for office, beginning with the closure of Rose Elementary School and continuing with the closure of the county’s libraries.
“If we don’t diversify our economy, if we don’t have a long-term plan, where are we in five years? Ten years? Twenty-five? For far too long, rural Oregon has been left behind,” she said. “The urban areas are booming and Southern Oregon counties are on the verge of bankruptcy.”
She said many workers left during the recession and didn’t return, and that’s what’s creating the workforce shortage. Salter said the solution is investing in training programs, health care, clean energy, building and manufacturing. She said career and technical education and job training programs are the solution, and said schools and local businesses should partner to ensure students obtain job skills and are able to step into family-wage jobs. That helps businesses, too, because they don’t have to spend so much money recruiting and training workers, she said.
On education, Hayden said Oregon has the shortest school year in the nation and a high level of absenteeism. Combine those factors and students are actually receiving more like kindergarten through 11th grade, rather than 12th grade, putting them at a disadvantage. He suggested focusing more on individualized education. The state also has a funding problem, with public employee retirement increases taking dollars and teachers out of the classroom, he said, and the state has to get a handle on that.
Inskip said students who are better working with their hands need education that’s appropriate for them. She also said civics, art, music and physical education need to be restored to schools. She also said college needs to be more affordable and access to early childhood education should be increased. Funding education is one of the best investments that can be made in the community, she said.
Salter said she had worked as a preschool teacher both at a private and a public school and saw a big difference. The private school could spend money on music and art and the public school could barely make ends meet to prepare the kids for kindergarten. She said investment in students at a young age increases their high school graduation rates and life success down the road. For every dollar spent in early education, the payoff is $6 in economic benefits, she said.
Souza helped found a public charter school that’s now 15 years old. She said some students have so much trauma at home that one of the first priorities should be integrated mental health. She said human services and education budgets should be more entwined. She said schools in impoverished areas achieve low dropout rates by making classes relevant to the students.
On health care, Inskip said health care is a basic human right. People in rural areas and people who cannot afford health insurance should still be able to access care when they need it, she said. She said doctors need incentives such as loan forgiveness for practicing in rural areas.
Salter said at 19 she was working two jobs, neither of which provided health insurance. In a matter of a few short months she was hospitalized twice and walked out the hospital doors thousands of dollars in debt. But she said her story isn’t unusual. She said preexisting conditions should be covered, and no Oregonians should have to start a GoFundMe or file bankruptcy due to medical expenses.
Souza said there’s no place to have a baby in Curry County. Statewide, there’s a shortage of 5,000 nurses projected by 2020. Right now, 40 percent of nursing hours in District 1 are being met by travelers, she said. She said there’s money to be made in healthcare — in training our own health care providers and attracting already licensed providers.
Hayden, who is a dental surgeon, first ran for office because of the difficulties he ran into in some municipalities with his nonprofit organization that provides dental care for low-income kids. He said it’s hard for mom and pop businesses to afford health insurance, and in Douglas County, where they only have one provider, they need more options.