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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Spending to influence Oregon’s Legislature topped $25 million this session, led by drug industry

By Hillary Borrud Oregonian

Pharmaceutical companies spent nearly $2 million on lobbying during Oregon’s legislative session this year, as the drug industry worked to block lawmakers’ proposal to create a board empowered to set price limits for the costliest medicines. It would have put Oregon at the forefront nationally in addressing prescription drug costs.

Industry trade group PhRMA alone spent nearly $1.3 million on lobbying in Oregon from January through June. That was far more than any other entity devoted to swaying the state’s lawmakers this year and nearly four times the amount spent by the second-largest, the statewide teachers union.

Big pharma’s lobbying paid off, as lawmakers gutted the price control proposal in the final days of the session.

The group had 10 registered lobbyists. On top of that, individual pharmaceutical companies spent hundreds of thousands of dollars combined, according to state filings.

A spokesperson for PhRMA declined to comment on why its members felt they needed to spend so much on lobbying to kill the pricing proposal. Instead, he referred back to a statement by the group in June that Oregon lawmakers should look elsewhere in the health care system for cost savings.

The second largest spender on lobbying this legislative session was the statewide teachers union, Oregon Education Association, at $363,000. It’s not unusual for the group to invest heavily in lobbying state lawmakers; two years ago, the teachers union was the No. 1 spender on lobbying during the session when lawmakers ultimately approved a new business tax to fund education, according to state records.

This session, the teachers union’s top legislative priorities were to secure robust K-12 and community college budgets, get health coverage for part-time community college faculty and make class sizes and caseloads mandatory topics of contract bargaining, the group’s president said earlier this year. Lawmakers approved the community college faculty health insurance bill. But they greatly narrowed the bill to require labor negotiations on class sizes, restricting the mandate to schools where many families are low-income after the Oregonian/OregonLive reported that Portland Public Schools’ bargained system of paying bonuses to teachers with large classes disproportionately benefited students in upper-middle-income areas.

The third largest spender on lobbying was one of the state’s largest public employee unions, AFSCME Council 75, at $295,159.

Joe Baessler, associate director of Oregon AFSCME Council 75 and a registered lobbyist, said the union pushed hard for lawmakers to approve “essential worker” stimulus payments that he said would be a true thank you for workers in important, in-person jobs during the pandemic. Lawmakers did not pass a plan to issue those payments, but it’s possible public employees could still get some type of payment since the state has not yet finalized new labor contracts with AFSCME and SEIU 503.

Baessler said the union also successfully lobbied for an approximately $20 million initiative in the corrections department budget to decrease the use of mandatory overtime to staff prisons and supported a mandate for healthcare providers to work with certified interpreters when communicating with patients who prefer languages other than English. The union also advocated for a law aimed at ensuring heavy equipment rented by government agencies is safe, after a Benton County employee died in 2019 while operating a rented heavy vehicle known to be malfunctioning, according to a legislative document.

The fourth largest spender on lobbying was a trade group for timberland owners and forest products manufacturers, the Oregon Forest & Industries Council at $281,554. The timber industry walked away from the session with a tax cut, rather than the tax hike lawmakers set out to pass, and continued funding for an institute that supports the industry through lobbying and public relations as reported by OPB, the Oregonian/OregonLive and ProPublica.

In an emailed statement, the council said its lobbying priorities including “renewal of the forest products harvest tax and securing funding for the Oregon Department of Forestry and Oregon State University’s College of Forestry, which are also funded, in part, by the harvest tax.”

Lawmakers did those things – sort of. They kept timber harvest taxes to pay for the industry’s public relations institute, but they subbed in general fund tax dollars to balance the Oregon Department of Forestry and Oregon State University’s College of Forestry budgets after cutting timber taxes that funded the agency and college.

Oregon Forest & Industries Council also weighed in on unspecified aspects of wildfire policy legislation, the council said.

The fifth-largest spender was the long-term care industry group Oregon Health Care Association, which sank $256,802 into lobbying in the first six months of the year, according to state records.

Rosie Ward, senior vice president of strategy for the organization, wrote in an email that the long-term care industry group lobbied in the 2021 session for unspecified “initiatives to better protect seniors and help the sector recover from the devastating COVID-19 pandemic,” plus “investments to raise frontline caregiver wages throughout the state.” Lawmakers included $44.4 million in the state budget to increase reimbursement rates to assisted living, memory care, skilled nursing facilities and in-home care services for the purpose of raising workers’ wages.

A proposal the group specifically requested, but did not mention in their statement, will create a new “Oregon essential workforce health care program” under which the state will reimburse eligible long-term care companies for the costs of providing health coverage to their employees. Legislative analysts said it was unclear how much it will cost the state to implement Senate Bill 800, due to a number of factors including lack of specificity about the level of cost sharing between the government and private companies.

Oregon does not ask entities or individual lobbyists to identify bills or specific issues before the Legislature on which they are lobbying, something that is required in other states. Instead, entities list their legislative interests. For the Forest & Industries Council, those interests this session were “forestry, land use, taxes, business, employment.” The Oregon Health Care Association listed its legislative interests as “long term care, human services, budget.”

In total, organizations spent $25.9 million on lobbying Oregon state officials in the first six months of 2021. Two years ago entities reported spending nearly the same amount, $25.6 million, on lobbying during the first two quarters.

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