SALEM - State policies requiring smaller school districts to merge or join larger districts have drawn so much criticism from rural residents that lawmakers have passed legislation requiring voter approval.

To ensure that voters have an opportunity to approve or reject any future school district mergers, Sen. Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, introduced Senate Bill 11, which was expected to pass out of the Senate Education Committee.

Jean Underhill-Wilkinson, associate director of governmental affairs with the Oregon Farm Bureau Federation, testified in support of the bill during a Feb. 5 committee hearing.

She told lawmakers that much of her success in graduating from Willamette University and earning her law degree from Lewis and Clark University was in part because of the high quality education and other benefits of attending Dufer High School with 55 classmates.

The state's largest farm organization is committed to keeping smaller rural school districts open because they are a critical component of the social and economic fabric of rural Oregon, as well as the state's agricultural industry.

Ferrioli said he introduced SB 11, in part, to make it harder for larger school districts to gobble up smaller school districts simply to reap the financial benefits.

Some of the other legislation moving through the Oregon Legislature recently included:

HOUSE BILLS

HJR 13 - Amends Oregon Constitution to prohibit personal income and corporate excise and income taxes beginning Jan. 1. 2005. Requires voter approval and is contingent upon passage of House Bill 2556, which would impose a general retail sales and use tax upon voter approval.

HB 2145 - Extends deadline for secretary of state to implement centralized voter registration system to Jan. 1, 2006. It also orders establishment of complaint procedures.

HB 2550 - Requires physicians to inform females contemplating abortions about fetal pain and to report abortions performed.

HB 2551 - Allows Water Resources Department to assess fees for providing faster service in processing water right exchanges and transfers or for assisting with required water management and conservation plans.

HB 2552 - Requires notice to parent or guardian before abortion is performed on minor, with specific exemptions.

HB 2554 - Provides exemption, upon request to cooperate in specific federal investigation, to state laws forbidding law enforcement agencies from collecting or maintaining information about political religious or social views, associations or activities of individuals, groups or businesses.

HB 2555 - Creates Board of Interior Design.

HB 2557 - Requires election of five members of the State Board of Higher Education (one from each of the state's congressional districts) and appointment of two members by the governor. Currently the entire board is appointed.

HB 2559 - Eliminates boards and bureaucracy, promotes access to health care and lowers costs by streamlining the Oregon Health Plan.

HB 2560 - Creates advisory committee on prioritized list of health services eligible for funding under the Oregon Health Plan.

HB 2561 - Directs Department of Human Services to collect rebates for

HB 2562 - Requires Oregon Health Plan participants to make a co-payment of $3 with each medical visit beginning July 1.

SENATE BILLS

SB 2548 - Allows person to display flag of Oregon or flag of United States along a state highway right of way provided they buy a $25 permit from the Oregon Department of Transportation.

SB 329 - Permits governor to declare state of financial emergency and suspend pay increases to state government and school employees.

SB 333 - Prohibits state government and school districts from executing collective bargaining agreements before funds are appropriated for related biennium.

SB 336 - Creates Environmental Justice Task Force to be appointed by the governor with one member each from the Commission on Asian Affairs, Commission on Black Affairs, Commission on Hispanic Affairs and Commission on Indian Affairs. Requires natural resource agencies to involve commission members in environmental decisions affecting minority and low-income communities. Requires annual reports and state staff.

SB 338 - Creates Expanded Options Program for students attending public schools in grades 11-12 to enroll in post-secondary courses for credit. Prohibits school districts from charging post-secondary costs.

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