Progress on the Equity Front

… is bound to benefit Oregon’s environment in the future

By: Danny Schaffer

OEC is proud of its role in achieving cornerstone environmental legislation in 2015 – the reauthorization of the Clean Fuels Program and passage of the Toxic Free Kids Act. Not surprisingly, these innovative programs dominate OEC’s discussion of events in Salem. But also critical to environmental sustainability are the important steps by Oregon’s legislature to advance racial justice, health equity and the strengthening of families and communities.

Environmental progress is intricately linked to equity and access.

Full and equal citizen participation in environmental decision-making from all segments of society is a cornerstone of ensuring effective policy. Progress on all social issues – education, job security and welfare, health and voting rights – helps ensure that all citizens and not just the wealthy and powerful have the means to participate. And participation will help ensure that we can correct the disproportionate impact of adverse environmental conditions on communities that are disposessed.

What’s more, the population profile of Oregon is undergoing rapid and historic change. According to the 2015 report States of Change: The Demographic Evolution of the American Electorate, 1974–2060, Oregon’s minority population, which grew from 6% in 1980 to 22% in 2015, is expected to reach 44% by 2060. That means Oregon, like a growing number of states, is on track to become a “near minority-majority” state in less than two generations. Unless broad segments of the state’s population are fully engaged in the debate and claim a stake in the outcome, the environmental movement is destined to become an environmental movement by and for the few.

For these reasons, OEC, with the help of Joseph Santos Lyons, executive director of Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon (APANO), is offering the following recap of significant measures passed by Oregon’s legislators in the 2015 session. These measures are intended to empower and enhance the lives of the state’s increasingly diverse population. The goal is inclusiveness – a goal that will help state progress on multiple fronts, not the least of which is the environment.

Education Equity for English Language Learners (ELL students). It’s hard to participate if you don’t know the language. Since a growing number of students come from homes where English is not the first language, it’s important to provide in-school opportunities for young people to learn and perfect their English-speaking skills. In Oregon, the number of ELL students, which has more than doubled over the past decade, currently totals 57,000. Bipartisan House Bill (HB) 3499 provides $12.5 million to help improve ELL services. “All Oregon students, regardless of their socioeconomic background, deserve access to a high-quality education experience,” observed Rep. Gene Whisnant (R-Sunriver), a chief co-sponsor of the bill. “Passing this bill is a critical step toward ensuring our ELL students are receiving the resources and support they need while helping combat Oregon’s achievement gap.”

Access to Healthcare. Thanks to healthcare reforms at the state and federal levels, 95% of all Oregonians now enjoy health insurance. Yet people of color, immigrants and low-wage workers continue to represent a lopsided percentage of those who remain uninsured. They continue to be burdened by the fear and too often the reality of shouldering healthcare costs they cannot afford. Legislative victories marked by the passage of HB 2934 and HB 2522, as well as additional budget allocations, will expand access to healthcare, especially among the estimated 2,000 Pacific Islanders who have been excluded from Medicare, 6,000 low-income legal permanent residents who face a 5-year waiting period for Medicaid eligibility, 20,000 undocumented low-income children, and 50,000 working adults who earn too much to receive Medicaid but too little to afford health insurance under Cover Oregon. The battle over universal healthcare in Oregon is not over, but during this session legislators took important steps to combat this glaring inequity.

Paid Sick Leave. Go to work sick, or stay at home to recuperate while foregoing vacation days and even pay? Most of us have had to deal with this dilemma at some time. The pressure to “work sick” is particularly trying for Oregon’s low-income, 80% of whom lack paid sick time. Senate bill (SB) 454 builds on the success of paid leave laws passed in Eugene and Portland to extend “paid sick leave” rights to more than 500,000 Oregonians. Forty hours of paid sick leave each year won’t solve all of the challenges faced by today’s overextended workers and families. But it will help ease the worries that they face when falling ill. The bill will improve the health, morale and productivity of all citizens (not just those who are direct beneficiaries of the law). It will make Oregon a better place to live and work.

Voting Rights. The right to vote is a cornerstone of the US Constitution and a hallmark of our democracy. Yet recent legislation in a growing number of states has been designed to restrict this fundamental right, especially among minority populations. Thankfully Oregon is serving as a valuable counterpoint to measures adopted elsewhere. Oregon’s Motor Voter Law, HB 2177, will open the doors of democracy to a greater number of citizens, lending a voice to those who previously had none. In the process, it will broaden citizen engagement in the electoral process in ways that are true to the nation’s highest ideals. The outcome is likely to be a more vigorous and representative democracy. All citizens will benefit, most notably people of color and Hispanic and Asian populations. For example, APANO estimates that HB 2177 will add 20,000 Asian and Pacific citizens to the voting rolls in Oregon, reducing the number of the unregistered Asian and Pacific Islander (API) voters by half. The bill will also boost voting registration among citizens of color, Hispanics and other Asian populations.

***

An abiding principle of our nation since its founding has been that a vibrant democracy, responsive to the will of the people, depends in large measure on the education, health and social and economic well being of its citizens. That is what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he proclaimed: “Educate and inform the whole mass of people… They are the only sure reliance for the preservation of our liberty.”

It is this spirit that OEC congratulates APANO and other grassroots organizations that worked so hard during the past legislative session to push for the passage of bills that heightened the well-being and raised the voice of Oregon’s increasingly diverse population. The success they achieved makes the 2015 legislative session even more noteworthy and only increases our optimism for greater victories in the future.

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