Oregon Loses Strong, Moderate Voice

Moderate Republican Senator Frank Morse of Albany is resigning, saying his hope for tax and medical malpractice reform is flagging. Photo courtesy of the Statesman Journal.When Frank Morse announced his resignation from the Oregon Senate last week, the 30-member body — and the entire state — lost one of its most competent members. The Senate and the state also lost one of its most dedicated moderates whose hopefulness seems to be flagging.

"I have thought long and hard about this decision and I believe it is time for new energy," Morse told a hushed Senate chamber. "While serving in the legislature, I’ve worked harder than I have ever worked, but there comes a moment in one’s life when energy fades, and you know it is time to go. I love this state and I cherish the many friendships I’ve made in the legislature and throughout the state. While the work is not done, it is time for new energy to carry our state into the future."

In his final speech on the Senate floor, Morse also made a statement that, in retrospect, will characterize his state service. He urged lawmakers, one last time, to solve Oregon's tax and spending problems for "the sake of our children." Failure to do so is "destroying our state," he said. "It's destroying our schools."

Following a career as president and CEO of Morse Bros. Inc., a construction materials firm, Morse won election to the Oregon Senate in 2002. As The Oregonian put it in a story last weekend, he "was fit and well-groomed at 69 and always wore business suits and ties on the Senate floor. All business, he showed little patience for partisan antics or issues he deemed trivial."

When he spoke in committee or on the Senate floor, ears perked up to hear what he had to say, as he drew on his private sector experience to focus on policy, not politics.

In the 2010 general election, Morse toyed with running for governor, a challenge that would have given him, conceivably, a new zest for politics. But he eventually decided not to file and surprised some observers by making another Senate run.

Even as Morse labored over the years in favor of restoring balance to state tax policy, he also was heavily involved in health care policy, reflecting his service as chair of the board of directors of Samaritan Health Service, which operates a headquarters office, as well as hospitals, in his legislative district. He was a tireless advocate for medical malpractice reform, in a belief that many physicians practice defensive medicine to avoid being sued by opportunistic trial lawyers.

Yet, Morse often underestimated the very tough political push and pull between trial lawyers and physicians. Time and again, Morse tried to bring both parties to the table to hammer out solutions. Time and again, the effort failed. Both as a health care overseer and a private business owner, his irritation often was palpable — and that, on top of the tax reform he could not produce, contributed to what he called "his loss of hope."

The Oregonian reported Morse considered serving through one more legislative session in 2013 — he is in the middle of his third term, but he couldn't bring himself to stay around with so little chance for success on either tax or medical malpractice reform.

Many observers are asking how Morse's departure will affect chances for reform on both fronts. In truth, the answer is not much, with all due respect to the departing senator. The reality is that legislators and Oregonians do not appear ready to consider tax reform and it may take months of work by Governor John Kitzhaber and others to set the stage for a reasonable public discussion about what to do. So far, the governor's staff, who have been involved in back room discussions with business and union leaders, do not see a real chance for reform in 2013.

Senator Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, who often worked across the aisle with Morse on tax issues, does not hold out hope for tax reform any time soon and told The Oregonian last week that "losing Frank diminishes the chances even further."

On medical malpractice reform, prospects are just as slim. Negotiators for health care providers and trial lawyers have been meeting in private for weeks, but so far only a slim proposal has emerged — a process that could allow providers and patients who think they have been harmed to go to mediation before heading off to court. A legislative proposal is beginning to take shape and will probably show up at the Capitol in 2013, but if legislators like Morse were to review the draft, they probably would say that pre-court conversations won't do much to stem the tide of defensive medicine.

To fill the Morse seat, Republicans from the Corvallis-Albany area now will nominate a list of candidates. Commissioners in Benton and Linn counties will have 30 days to choose one of them who will serve through the end of Morse's term in 2014.

There has not been much speculation yet about who might replace Morse, but one name almost certain to come up is Rep. Andy Olson, R-Albany. He is one of two representatives in Morse's Senate district and might consider moving to the Senate to be a promotion, though he is currently is presiding over the House Republican bid to take control in 2013 and he could remain as House Republican Leader in the 2013 legislative session. It would be a lure nearly as attractive as moving to the Senate. The other House seat in Morse's Senate district is held by Rep. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis. Under Oregon law, a Republican must be appointed to fill out the remainder of Morse's term. His resignation is effective today.