When Oregon lawmakers take the oath of office January 14, Phil Barnhart won’t be there. The Democratic state representative from Eugene is stepping down after nearly two decades in office.
No other House member in the legislative session that’s concluding has served longer than Barnhart. He’s wrapping up his ninth term as part of Eugene’s delegation to the state capitol.
That’s about eight terms more than Barnhart expected to serve when he got elected in 2000 on a platform of re-working the way the state funds public education. “I thought it was going to be easy,” said Barnhart. “I’d be there for a year. They’d say ‘Thanks, Phil, for letting us know. We’ll fix it.’ And then I’d be back to my psychology practice. Well, that never happened.”
By his fourth term, Democrats had won a majority of seats in the House. Barnhart was handed the gavel of the powerful Revenue Committee, a position he held for the next decade. That meant that every proposed tax hike had to get past him if it was to become law.
But he says his biggest victory in that role wasn’t a tax, as such. It was a bill that requires lawmakers to review most tax credits every six years to make sure they’re living up to their intended purpose. “We had a lot of tax credits on the books that were accomplishing nothing for us, that weren’t doing the things to grow the economy or support families or do the other things that a tax credit ought to be doing. And we’ve gotten rid of most of those,” said Barnhart.
Still, putting tax credits under the microscope isn’t the kind of transformational change in the state’s revenue structure Barnhart was hoping for when he arrived in Salem. “We haven’t been able to break through to raise the kind of dollars that it’s going to take to fund schools,” he said.
Barnhart says he doesn’t plan to hang around the capitol once his term is over. Instead, he’s going to focus on another issue near and dear to his heart: climate change. “It doesn’t matter whether we fund education or not if we don’t take care of the climate change issue,” he said. “Because our childrens’ children will live miserably if we don’t get it fixed. And we have only a few years to do it.”
Barnhart wants to become an ambassador for the fight against human-caused climate change, though he doesn’t know yet what that role will look like. And while he says he’s certainly going to be paying attention to what goes on in Salem after he leaves, he doesn’t plan to peer over the shoulder of his replacement in the House, fellow Democrat Marty Wilde. “What I like to say about Marty is that he’s smarter than I am, and 30 years younger,” quipped Barnhart, before turning serious. “Legislating is effortful. It takes a lot of time. You gotta get it right. It was time for somebody else to take the job.”
House District 11, which Wilde will soon represent, includes parts of southeast Eugene, including most of the University of Oregon campus as well as Lane Community College. It extends south to Creswell, and wraps around the east side of Springfield and north to include the communities of Coburg, Harrisbrug, Halsey and Brownsville.
Copyright 2018, KLCC.