May 14, 2003

Floor Statement: Wyden Fights to Ease Oregon's Economic Woes

The PRESIDING OFFICER. The Senator from Oregon.Mr. WYDEN. Madam President, I thank Senator Murray, the lead sponsor for this legislation.Oregon and Washington are really ground zero as far as the economic hurt in this country, and I thank her for all of her leadership and support. I will take only a few minutes tonight because I know we have had a number of speakers on this topic, but I think it is time to put a human face on this issue and try to make sure that people really understand what is at stake.In Eugene, OR, where I went to school, parents have recently been selling their own blood plasma -- that's right, their own blood plasma -- to pay for a math teacher's salary for one more year because the school district has been unable to come up with the cash to pay for a math teacher. I think that really says it all.As Senator Murray and other colleagues talked about, we are not talking about luxuries. We are not talking about something that would be frivolous or on somebody's wish list. We are talking about the most essential services in our society, making sure that kids get a good start, and decent health care. What it has come to in my State, which is in its third year now of financial meltdown, is we have parents actually going out and selling blood and this is what it has come to with respect to the finances of basic services.Something is really out of whack in this country when somehow the Congress is going to find ways to come up with billions of dollars to rebuild Iraq, but the Congress of the United States will not come up with the dollars that are needed to rebuild the States. That is what this effort on a bipartisan basis is all about.In my home State, we now have schools closing a month early. We brought an end to the medical-needy program which helped nearly 9,000 low-income Oregonians with unusually high health costs who do not qualify for our innovative health plan. More than 2,500 older adults and persons with disabilities have lost adult care, assisted living care, nursing home care, and the list really goes on.I particularly wanted to highlight the fact that these cuts and the hardship that has been engendered as a result of these cuts comes about at a time when some of our States have been on the cutting edge of innovation. I will take a minute to describe our health plan. The State of Oregon has been the only State in the country -- in fact, the only political jurisdiction on the planet -- that has been willing to force a discussion about tough calls in health care. Many feel, given the demographics tsunami that is ahead with millions of baby boomers retiring and the technology explosion, it is not on the level if you are not willing to make some tough choices in health care. That is what my home State did a number of years ago with the Oregon Health Plan, where we held the first nationwide debate about how to go about making choices in health care, making sure you are doing prevention first in kids and pregnant mothers. And all the services we know will reap great benefits in the years ahead.That is the program that has been slashed. It was not a program that engendered a lot of fancy services or Cadillac health care or profligate spending. It was a program that focused on the basics, on the essential health care services, on services that by anyone's analysis are just plain vanilla, essential services for our citizens.I bring this up by way of saying, as we move tonight to close out the discussion of these amendments, I certainly support the Collins amendment. It is very helpful. I would like to go further, for all the reasons Senator Murray has described tonight, that we think about these consequences in human terms: What is going on today in Eugene, OR, what is going on with the Oregon Health Plan where people did make tough and courageous calls. A lot of the States must be wondering now, what was the point of trying to be innovative? What was the point of trying to be innovative because when there were tough financial circumstances nationally beyond their control, the Federal Government said: That is the way it goes, we are not going to do anything to help tide you over so innovative programs such as the Oregon Health Plan are not decimated. These are critical issues. The budget cuts we have seen in health care and education are not going to be quickly healed. Regarding the national economy, we all hope for a speedy recovery, but it seems to me, by any calculation, the States are going to need significant and ongoing help to ameliorate the damage that has been done and to start pulling together the tatters of the social safety net and begin to help our citizens again. We are not going to repair that tattered safety net with just a few needles and thread; we will do it with real and tangible help, the way the Murray amendment seeks to do.I come to the Senate tonight to make it clear, what we seek to do in these important amendments is to try to give our States the tools in this struggle to provide the most critical of services, to tell them they are going to have a little bit more to get by with during unprecedented times. School finance in Oregon has been cut so drastically that they have curtailed the school year in some districts. We have been laying off teachers left and right. We have no way to attract them. Senator Smith and I co-hosted an important economic development summit at the end of last year with 1,300 business leaders from all over the State. They are worried, as a business community, that with the shortening of the school year in the country, it will be very tough to grow existing businesses and to attract new ones.Suffice it to say, we are not really happy about the Doonesbury cartoons either. We have been first so often in my home State -- with environmental protection, mass transit -- but we are not pleased to be first in terms of economic hurt and unemployment and the kinds of problems we have been outlining on the floor tonight.We have to start filling the holes in these devastated budgets. The situation is dire. In the face of this unprecedented suffering, many in the Senate believe the $20 billion allocated is not enough and the Senate must do better.Ultimately, budgets are about choices. Budgets are not just about charts and graphs and figures and lots of dark ink on paper. Budgets are about hopes and aspirations and what kind of country we want. I don't want a country and I don't want a State to have to sit by while the Government does not respond when people have to sell blood to finance a teacher's salary and we end up having the devastation to an innovative state-of-the-art health plan, the way the Oregon Health Plan was at the outset.I don't want to tell the people of my home State, and I don't think others in this body want to either, that the U.S. Congress can figure out a way to come up with billions and billions of dollars to reconstruct Iraq, hundreds of millions of dollars for tax cuts, and simply not come up with the critical dollars needed to keep our kids in school for a full year, to keep older people in health care systems that are a lifeline for them. I hope our colleagues will support the Murray amendment. The very least the Senate can do is to keep the huge budgetary hole the States have found themselves in from getting deeper and wider. The Murray amendment ensures that can be done.I urge the passage of this critical amendment. I yield the floor.