Cate enters her second term in House

By Scott Swanson
Lebanon Local

Jami Cate sits in her new office in the state Capitol, where she’s embarking on her second long session as a state legislator, representing a new district that isn’t really that new.
Cate now represents the 11th District, with parameters comprising all of east Linn County south to the Lane County border, extending to Scio and Lacomb on the north and Shedd, Halsey and Harrisburg to the west. Sweet Home and Lebanon sit squarely in its midst.
She no longer represents the Santiam Canyon, where, she says, she developed some strong ties with the populace. It remains in the 17th District, which moved north after redistricting in 2021.

‘Frustrating’ for Freshman

Cate, who grew up on her family’s farm outside Lebanon, arrived in Salem as a freshman legislator in January 2021, replacing Sherrie Sprenger as 17th District representative, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic. She arrived in a capitol that was largely shut down, where legislative hearings were conducted virtually – an environment, she says, in which she sometimes got the feeling that necessary effort wasn’t being made to make sure legislation was well-crafted.
“I remember (in) multiple bills, there would be such simple amendments that would have created a better piece of policy,” she said last week. “And there just wasn’t that initiative to even move amendments, to even have those discussions. That part was very frustrating, to feel like we were on the cusp of having a great piece of policy and that little bit of extra effort just wasn’t being taken.”
She’s hoping for more in this long session, which convened Jan. 17 and runs through the end of June. Oregon alternates between 35- and 160-day legislative sessions, with the latter taking place in odd-numbered calendar years.
“I feel like our voice has been ignored and that makes it very hard,” she said of her first term. “One-size-fits-all doesn’t work, especially when we see such huge problems like homelessness and mental health. And housing. I think that fear is very prevalent and reasonable. How are these problems going to get solved? And are the solutions going to be workable for our small, rural communities?”

New Mix Brings Hope

The state has a new governor, Tina Kotek, a Democrat who was Speaker of the House before stepping down to run for the main office.
Kotek beat out Republican Christine Drazan, formerly the House Republican leader, by 3½ percentage points in November, finishing with 47% of the vote after winning seven of the most populous and urban of Oregon’s 36 counties.
Meanwhile, though Cate’s Republican party did not win an outright majority in the Legislature, the Democratic supermajority – a three-fifths majority of each chamber – that existed in both the House and the Senate over the past four years was broken. Democrats now hold a 35-25 edge in the House, one vote shy of a supermajority. In the Senate, Democrats hold a 17-13 edge, again one vote shy of a supermajority.
Cate said she’s “excited” by that change, which she hopes will result in greater attention to opinions from the other side of the aisle and more communication between the parties.
“If it only takes 31 votes for something to pass and the supermajority has 37, they don’t need my vote, right?” she said, describing her first-term atmosphere. “I don’t need to be lobbied about an issue. They don’t have to bring me to that way of thinking. It’s easy to be out of sight, out of mind.”
Cate said it was difficult to establish relationships as a young legislator when her colleagues were sequestered in their offices or not at the Capitol at all.
“Trying to find those connections that allow you to have that foot in the door to have those conversations, that part was the thing I struggled with the most.”
With 20 new members in the House and four in the Senate, they’re almost starting back where she was as a newcomer, but she said her goal is to establish those relationships.
“I would rather work as a collective – we know each other, we know where we’re coming from, so you can see through their lens a little bit more and they can see through your lens of ‘why do you feel such about an issue?’”
Cate said she expects a “completely different” leadership style from Kotek versus former Gov. Kate Brown.
“I do think the fact that a majority of Oregonians did not choose Tina Kotek to serve as our next governor, I think the fact that it was a close election, I think those are things that cannot be ignored.
“I do hope we see a different Tina Kotek than we saw as the Speaker of the House. She got things done, but they weren’t necessarily things that rural Oregon liked. I hope how she was elected really underscores the need for more bipartisanship on the priorities she chooses to use her effectiveness on, and really get some meaningful solutions for Oregonians.”

Advocating For Rural Interests

With well over 2,000 bills already introduced in the Legislature, and some 3,000 expected by the end of the session, Cate said her own priorities this term will be monitoring and engaging with that proposed legislation on behalf of the rural communities she represents.
“I’m kind of ‘less is more,’” she said. “The less damage we can do, the better for our communities. That’s my hope out of this session more than focusing on any individual bills.”
Some proposed legislation never gets legs, she noted.
“You hear about things and, OK, but is it a real threat yet? Until things unfold, it’s hard to predict.”
She said she anticipates “multiple threats against our Second Amendment rights” and she wants to see increased school choice options for parents.
“I think, for so many of our rural communities, it’s just we want to be left alone to do our jobs and to live our lives (without) just these constant intrusions of government and overreach and more taxation in the face of massive inflation.”

Wetlands And Housing

Cate said housing is one of her concerns and she’s working on a bill to “help our rural communities show a more realistic inventory of buildable lands,” noting that wetlands restrictions keep significant tracts of otherwise buildable property economically nonviable.
“There are so many discussions of ‘How can we get more houses built and more affordable,’ and yet in so many of our communities, it’s wetlands that are the issue. We don’t have the buildable lands and if we don’t get some concessions around the buildability of wetlands, those mitigations are just so economically not viable.
“We can’t do our part to contribute to the housing goals. We can’t grow our communities and they all need to grow. We are all strapped for housing, across the state.
“And so we need to make sure that the housing solutions don’t just work for [the] metro, but work for all communities.”
She said she hopes that “such a tremendous crisis” will instill more urgency among those colleagues who represent urban districts.
“It’s just reached that critical mass of we have to deal with these issues and we need solutions,” Cate said. “You can have all the ideals in the world, but something has to give if we want more housing.”

Tax Credit for Volunteer Firefighters

Cate is a chief sponsor of House Bill 3175, which would establish a tax credit for volunteer firefighters, a companion bill to Senate Bill 728, already introduced by Sen. Fred Girod, Sweet Home’s/Lebanon’s former state senator before redistricting.
“It has already had a hearing that did very well,” she said.
Cate said watching volunteer firefighters lose their own homes while fighting the Santiam Canyon fires “broke my heart.”
A bill to that effect did not get through the Legislature during last year’s short session, despite having 30 sponsors, but “we are back again and already have lots of bipartisan sponsors lined up and so we are hopeful,” she said.
“It’s obviously something that is not a full solution to the complexities of our special districts, but it’s a step in the right direction. And it starts with having those conversations about the vital role of our volunteers and the fact that we’re having less and less of them all the time.”

Solutions For Cougars

Cate is also seeking to “take some nibbles around the edges of the cougar-hunting struggles.”
“So many of, especially, our livestock growers have been having depredation issues and really, with how the laws are, there’s just not as much flexibility around running dogs on cougars, which is most effective,” she said. “So I’m trying to create some allowances.”
She acknowledged that changes will be “difficult” because the current rules were triggered by state voters who passed Measure 18 (the Oregon Ban on Baited Hunting and Cougar Hunting with Dogs Act) in 1994, with a majority of 51.79%, so legislators will likely need more impetus to make changes than they might with another issue on which the public has not spoken.

Impeachment ‘Good Governance’

She also is supporting proposals to establish impeachment powers for the Legislature.
“Oregon is the only state in which the legislature does not have the power of impeachment over state elected officials,” she said. “In Oregon, even as we saw with multiple recall attempts of Gov. Kate Brown, the threshold was so high to even qualify on the ballot to give people a choice. This ability to have impeachment would give another avenue. If anything, that’s good governance and more checks and balances on the government that I’m in favor of.”

Electric Vehicles

Cate, who serves on the Legislature Joint Committee On Ways and Means Subcommittee on Transportation and Economic Development, is also concerned about the effects of proposed environmental rules that would ban the sale of gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035.
“It’s not workable in our rural areas,” she said. “Especially when we see bad storms and things knocked out in the electrical grid, or ice storms and prolonged periods of cold. It really brings into question the viability and ideal of having all-electric vehicles in rural Oregon. Is that workable?”
She noted that some Oregonians are pushing for fewer roads in the state, to use other modes of travel, but “even the I-5 bridge is a massive hang-up.”
“People don’t want more lanes and the ability to have more traffic, but again, in rural areas where we don’t have as many public transit options, cars are an option. If you live 10 miles out of town and you need to run to the grocery store, you’re not going to walk.
“I think there’s going to be continued pushes to be more and more electrified, and for more and more public transit that isn’t applicable to rural, and I’m just trying to bridge that divide.”

Constituents Need To Speak Up

Cate emphasized that communication from constituents is key to attracting attention and getting things done in Salem.
“I hope rural Oregonians invest the time and effort to come and advocate, because it really does make a difference,” she said. “It can often feel like it doesn’t, but it does.”
She said that when residents “bombard” legislators’ – not necessarily just their own – email inboxes with “thousands of emails a day, you start paying attention. You notice what’s a hot-button issue.”
“If rural Oregonians can really channel some of that, I think they would be amazed at the power of their advocacy.”
Cate said she suspects many rural Oregonians are “intimidated by the process.”
“That’s why I always try to advocate. I am here to be a voice for the people. I want to hear from folks.”
Even if constituents simply have questions about the process or how to get action, “when people feel like they are barking up this tree and getting nowhere and all of a sudden they have their representative involved. We start getting answers a lot faster.”