Despite the statewide economic pinch that gripped Oregon lawmakers hammering out the state budget, several appeals for funding new Civil Rights enforcement programs look to be headed for victory.
This week the Oregon Attorney General John Kroger declared victory in the campaign first announced at The Skanner's Martin Luther King Jr. Prayer Breakfast last January.
"I'm excited to report that our effort to restore the civil rights enforcement unit at the DOJ was a success," staff assistant Julie Rutherford announced in an email Tuesday. "IT'S OFFICIAL! Between the letters, emails, phone calls and committee testimony during the ways and means state-wide tour ... we owe you a great debt of gratitude for helping make this possible."
In the final budget bill of the session, Rutherford, of the DOJ's Legislative and Constituent Affairs staff, helped coordinate Kroger's petition campaign urging legislators to spend $642,861 from the state general fund for three new staff positions dedicated to civil rights enforcement.
Kroger says the Legislature has now passed his top three agenda items, including a commission reforming Oregon's drug treatment and prevention system, and the green light to launch environmental crimes and civil rights enforcement units.
His office says the environmental crimes and civil rights units were funded by "shifting resources from lower priorities within the Department of Justice's budget," including cutting $2 million from legal services to the state legislature.
Rep. Chip Shields, D-N/NE Portland, was a key player in the effort to pay for new DOJ enforcement staff, voting to move House Bill 5054-A out of the Joint Ways and Means Committee. He says the move means the bills are likely to pass the House and Senate floors.
Kroger also publicly thanked Sen. Margaret Carter, D-Portland.
"Sen. Carter has been a powerful voice in this Legislature for civil rights and everyone who cares about civil rights and civil liberties in our state owes her a debt of gratitute," he said in a statement.
Also this week in the legislature, the Oregon Bureau of Labor and Industry won $280,680 for two new Civil Rights field representatives and an increase in the hours of a third.
Shields, in a statement, said the funds expand the bureaus existing civil rights division that investigates discrimination in housing, employment and public accommodation.
The efforts represent the biggest push to bolster civil rights laws and enforcement in years, with both Kroger and Oregon Labor Commissioner Bradley Avakian each pursuing stepped-up outreach, training and enforcement measures within their departments.
In addition, Shields this week was instrumental in House passage of a bill funding $1.5 million for pre-apprenticeship training for women and people of color to improve diversity in the building trades.
The very last bill taken up in the session, HB 3353, establishes a commission overhauling the state's drug treatment and prevention system.
By involving state leaders, law enforcement and treatment providers, Kroger calls it "an unprecedented effort to reduce crime by dramatically improving Oregon's drug treatment and prevention programs."
Gov. Kulongoski, Sen. Prozanski, D-Eugene, Rep. Tomei, D-Milwaukie, and Bruce Goldberg, director of the Department of Human Services, all worked to pass the bill.
After passage of the measures late Monday night, Speaker Dave Hunt issued a careful statement laying out how the new civil rights efforts in BOLI and the DOJ dovetail together without overlapping.
"This legislation does two important things. First, it provides increased investigative and enforcement staff to the Bureau of Labor and Industries – the primary civil rights enforcement agency in the state. Second, it allows for the creation of a civil rights unit within the Department of Justice to pursue violations outside BOLI's broad enforcement jurisdiction, such as free speech, other constitutional issues and criminal cases such as hate crimes.
"This legislation is consistent with the original proposal made by Commissioner Avakian early this session to provide additional civil rights enforcement at BOLI and in areas outside BOLI authority. It is imperative, especially during these difficult economic times, that state services be exercised with great efficiency and that we avoid duplication of services," Hunt said.