State Rep. Deborah Boone came to Seaside’s Chamber of Commerce breakfast at the Twisted Fish July 31, not long after the close of the 2015 legislative session in Salem.
Boone represents District 32, which includes Seaside, Cannon Beach and all of Clatsop, half of Tillamook and parts of western Washington County, center of the Cascadia subduction zone.
A former member of the Oregon Seismic Safety Policy Advisory Council, she sees her job as helping prepare and protect residents from a quake or its aftermath. Legislators, she said, are not always receptive to contemplating disaster scenarios.
“When we discovered how much there was to consider on the mass casualties, nobody wanted to talk about that,” she said. “You think it’s hard to get a tent on the table in case of an earthquake or tsunami? Nobody wanted to talk about body bags.”
In reviewing the spring 2015 legislative session’s achievements, Boone touted passage of House Bill 2270, which creates the position of resilience policy adviser reporting directly to Gov. Kate Brown.
“If it had been part of the Department of Human Services, it would have been just a desk, someone doing a million other things,” Boone said. ”Since the governor is commander-in-chief, it makes sense for it to be there. I really stomped my feet to get that.”
Boone lobbied hard for a $300 million grant program to safeguard schools in earthquake zones. Grants between $4 million and $8 million will provide matching funds to school districts for seismic assessments and long-range facilities plans.
Funding was delivered as part of the Capital Construction bill, presented at the end of the Legislature’s session.
Boone referred to it as the “Christmas Tree” bill.
“Everybody comes to it to get their favorite ornament,” she said. “If you play the game all session, you may get your ornament after you’ve been told there’s nothing available all session. You have to be the squeaky, whiny child.”
Boone said she is constantly honing the art of deal-making.
For example, the Democrats’ 2015 caucus platform was built on more funding for schools, support for small business, greater access to health plans, economic incentives for the middle class and helping small communities, Boone said.
With those goals in mind, however, the end result didn’t always look like that.
While Boone voted with House Democrats just under 97 percent of the time this session, including votes for authorizing retail marijuana sales and chemical disclosure rules, she supported a self-service gas pump bill and initially voted to extend an exemption for a firearm criminal background check requirement. She later joined with her caucus in opposing the exemption in the bill’s third reading.
And as a member of the energy committee, “I was very generous on my side giving my colleagues on the east side of the state everything they want,” she said.
These kinds of trade-offs are necessary for all legislators in Salem.
“It’s all politics all the time,” Boone said. “Some of the votes you take, you literally hold your nose to vote for, because you know if you don’t vote for that particular bill with your caucus, you can kiss your whole portfolio goodbye. I’m serious. Not only that, if you’re a chair, you can be stripped of your chairmanship.”
Political in-fighting, even between members of the same party, can sink or stall a piece of legislation, especially for those on state committees.
“Who’s on first, who’s likely to have a bad election, who’s targeted, everything’s taped — you have to watch what you say and do when you’re on committee,” she said. “All that’s constantly being considered for ‘hit’ pieces for the next election. That’s a given, which is really disappointing, because there’s a lot of expended energy that is not conducive to good policy.
“That being said, I try to help my colleagues,” she added. “I don’t even think about what party they are. I look at the bill or policy they’re trying to pass.”
According to Boone, there are “two guys” who dictate what happens in Salem, and one person can stop anything depending on their position.
“The Joint Ways and Means co-chairs, Rep. Peter Buckley and Sen. Richard Devlin, decide — with direction at times from the House and Senate leadership — which programs and services, along with amounts of funding for agencies, get funded,” Boone said. “Members lobby them for their support, and decisions are guided by the majority leadership tempered by certain members’ wants and needs. Bills that do not require funding don’t normally go to Ways and Means, so the leadership decides on these.
“In reality there are a handful who run the show,” she added. “House speaker, Senate president, House and Senate majority leaders, governor. Also in the mix are committee chairs who can refuse to hear any bill or just give it a courtesy public hearing but not a work session, so no vote.”
The clean fuels bill divided legislators throughout the session, and its passage had the unlikely domino effect of sinking seismic safety measures.
Along with many Republicans and some Democrats, Boone opposed the extension of the clean fuels bill “because it didn’t really do much,” Boone said. “Would it add a penny at the gas pump or a dollar? No one could answer that.”
She said the bill could raise the gas tax anywhere from 4 cents to $1, “and puts the money into the ethanol industry in the Midwest and Brazil but does nothing to improve Oregon’s transportation system.”
In the grand scheme, the bill was a “negotiable chit” and proved pivotal in the collapse of the state’s $343.5 million transportation package crafted at the end of the session. Bundled into the package were millions for earthquake protections, especially bridge and road improvements.
Bruised after the passage of the clean fuels bill, Republicans withheld their support for the transportation package and negotiations collapsed in the 11th hour. The failure of the package strips funds for bridge, road and infrastructure repairs.
Meanwhile, should a quake hit, detours will be scarce.
“Driving from Tillamook to Bay City, you cross over seven bridges,” Boone said. “That’s just a small little piece of 101. All these bridges along the coast are going to be destroyed by an earthquake, and it wouldn’t even have to be a 9.0. Plans to renovate those bridges are not going to happen now.”
Boone looked back on the legislative season by paraphrasing Mick Jagger. “‘You don’t get everything you want,’ that was my mantra,” she said. “Those Rolling Stones songs have some truth.
“In 12 years down there as a rep and 17 as an assistant to different representatives, I’m still surprised how things work,” she added.