Sara Gelser

Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, listens to a live stream as members of the House of Representatives finish business March 3 before adjourning. Gelser’s bill to allow mid-valley schools to continue their fifth-year programs passed the Legislature and headed to Gov. Kate Brown's desk.

The 2016 legislative session that wrapped up last week was a largely successful one for this region’s lawmakers, who saw many of their top priorities enacted into law.

Both District 8 Sen. Sara Gelser and District 16 Rep. Dan Rayfield are Democrats, who held solid majorities in both chambers of the Legislature and managed to push through a number of significant bills, including a minimum wage increase, a clean energy measure and a package of affordable housing legislation.

One piece of legislation that directly impacts Philomath students was Gelser’s Senate Bill 1537, which continues the so-called “fifth-year programs.” Philomath and some other school districts in the mid-valley offer such programs, which allow high school students who have completed the requirements for high school to defer graduation for a year while the districts use state school funds to cover the cost of community college courses.

Although a specific funding plan will now be in place, fewer students will be eligible to use it. SB 1537 passed the House on a 47-11 vote earlier this month and is awaiting the governor’s signature.

The bill establishes criteria for what’s now being called the “postgraduate scholar” program. The new postgraduate program won’t cover as many students as the old fifth-year programs did, however.

Mid-valley fifth-year programs have been around since as early as 2003. They work on a premise — encouraged by passage of Senate Bill 300 in 2005 — that students remain covered by K-12 district funds until they graduate. That meant schools could allow seniors to put off receiving their diplomas and take up to a year’s worth of college courses on the district’s dime.

Philomath’s school board approved an expansion of the district’s Beyond PHS program in May 2015.

The programs artificially lowered the graduation rate of participating districts and chafed lawmakers who represent metro areas. Some complained the state school fund was never meant to go beyond students’ senior year in high school, and that it wasn’t fair to allow smaller districts to do something that larger districts couldn’t without breaking the state’s bank.

Gelser sponsored SB 1537 to create a funding plan that allows students to get their diplomas on time while still taking advantage of the programs.

Students can become post-graduate scholars only if they have all their credits for a diploma; have filled out the federal financial aid form known as a FAFSA; have applied for and accepted all the grant-based aid for which they are eligible, such as a Pell Grant; and have applied for the new community college grant program known as Oregon Promise, which is open to recent Oregon graduates with at least a 2.5 grade point average.

Students who receive funding through Pell or Oregon Promise will not be considered part of the postgraduate scholar program. Districts will be allowed to tap state school funds only for students who aren’t covered by the other programs.

“During the first week of session, I was very worried as it appeared that there wasn’t a path forward for this bill,” Gelser said in an email. “However, superintendents and impacted students rallied and brought the bill back to life.

“What started out as a bill about sideboards became an example of great policy, and what can happen when communities work together across district lines. I’m so glad students will have this opportunity moving forward, and am grateful I had a chance to play a part in protecting these incredibly effective programs.”

Other Gelser bills

While members were limited to just two personal bills apiece during the even-year short session, Gelser was allowed three more as a committee chair and signed on to co-sponsor others. Altogether, she was tracking a total of 11 measures she considered “hers” on the dry-erase board on her office wall.

“Every bill passed this session,” Gelser said. “It’s the first time my board’s hit 100 percent.”

Gelser’s No. 1 personal priority was Senate Bill 1515, which made a number of reforms to the state’s child welfare system in response to abuses by a Portland-area nonprofit that was operating residential facilities under a license from the state Department of Human Services.

Among other things, SB 1515 tightens licensing requirements for such organizations, spells out sanctions for licensed facilities that don’t meet standards, directs DHS to promptly investigate abuse complaints and beefs up enforcement staffing at the agency.

“The bill was really about the Department of Human Services and holding the Department of Human Services accountable for putting the safety of children in its care above all other considerations, and it gives them the tools to do that,” Gelser said.

Other legislative victories for Gelser this session included:

SB 1571, which requires the Oregon State Police to analyze a years-old backlog of more than 5,000 evidence kits in rape cases. The legislation is known as Melissa’s Law after Melissa Bittler, a 14-year-old Portland girl who was murdered by a serial rapist in 2001. It later turned out that rape kits awaiting testing at the time contained DNA from Melissa’s killer.

SB 1558, which limits disclosure of student health records by colleges and universities, closing a loophole that was used by the University of Oregon in a lawsuit filed by a student who alleged she was raped by three UO basketball players.

House Bill 4080, a companion measure to SB 1515 that establishes the Governor’s Child Foster Care Advisory Committee.

Rayfield’s 2nd session

Rayfield also scored some victories in his second House session.

Perhaps the biggest was House Bill 4086, which extends unemployment benefits to workers who have been locked out of their jobs in a labor dispute. The measure was aimed at helping 180 locked-out workers from ATI Albany Operations, who had been walking a picket line outside the metal refinery since August. Unemployment benefits generally run out after six months, and there was no provision in Oregon law to provide benefits to workers in a lockout.

Even though Albany is outside his district, Rayfield said, he has strong family and business ties to the community and wanted to help. He joined District 16 Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany, as a chief co-sponsor on the bill.

“I know Albany and Corvallis people see a divide there, but really I think we’re all one community,” Rayfield said.

Rayfield also teamed up with Olson on two other successful bills this session:

HB 4072, which extends the sunset period on the University Venture Development Fund, a program that allows Oregon State University and other state institutions to invest in spinoff companies as they’re trying to get off the ground.

HB 4071, which provides health care assistance for Pacific islanders living legally in the state under the Compact of Free Association.

Despite their different party affiliations, Rayfield said he and Olson have found plenty of common ground.

“I think it’s easy for us to put aside partisan differences and just work together on what’s good for our districts,” he said.

One of Rayfield’s personal bills fell short. HB 4085 would have increased reporting requirements for independent campaign expenditures, giving Oregonians a clearer picture of which outside groups are giving money to support or oppose candidates and ballot measures in the state. The bill died in committee before reaching a floor vote in the House.

Both Rayfield and Gelser listed the passage of SB 1573 as a major disappointment of the 2016 session. That measure, part of a four-bill package of compromise legislation aimed at easing the shortage of affordable housing in the state, overturned local charter amendments requiring voter approval of annexations in more than 30 Oregon cities, including Philomath, Corvallis, Albany and Tangent.

Olson joined the two Corvallis-area Democrats in voting against the bill, but it passed anyway.

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