Steward Summit II- An Interview with Steve Hughes

SALEM — It’s lunchtime here at the Steward Summit, and just as I’m about to fill my plate I looked across the crowded lines of people gathering for food to see Steve Hughes. Throwing smiles and shaking hands, he looked like a man on a mission, so I went over to see what the energy was about, and this is what he told me:

State Director of Oregon Working Families Party
State Director of Oregon Working Families Party

“I’m Steve Hughes. I’m the State Director of Oregon Working Families Party. And Oregon Families Party is an independent grassroots political party focused on bread and butter economic issues that matter to working people.”

“Such as?”

“We recently were in involved in campaigns to pass paid sick-days for working people in the city of Portland, and are working on similar efforts…statewide as well. So that every Oregonian soon will not have to make a choice between going to work sick, or losing a day of pay.”

“Why would you lose a day of pay?”

“Right now over 50% of workers in Oregon don’t have access to sick-days, and 80% of people in the service industry. These are people working in restaurants, working in adult care homes…places that often times you don’t want people going to work sick, but they have nothing that guarantees them the right to take a day off when they’re sick. So if they’re really sick they have to choose between staying home and not getting paid, or going to work and exposing their customers, clients, or coworkers to sickness. That also applies to people with kids, if they have a sick kid at home it can be devastating if you have to take a day off of work. You’re losing 20% of pay in one week to take one day off, if you don’t have access to a sick-day to take care of yourself, or your kid. So that’s really important.”

He continued, “Another big campaign that we’re working on is…we want to end the student debt crisis. It sounds big, but basically the problem with our student debt crisis right now is the policies that impact it are being decided at the federal level, and because our federal congress is totally broken, it’s really hard to imagine us getting out the cycle we’re in any time soon. The policy proposal we putting forward is called Pay it Forward, and what’s really exciting about it to me is that it’s a state based solution. It’s actually something a state legislature can enact that would allow students to go to school, to an Oregon based university, without paying tuition. And then upon graduation pay a small set percentage of their income post-graduation into a public fund that allows the next generation of students to go to school without paying tuition. So it basically removes tuition from the equation. For a lot of people this is an access issue:  people’s fear of going into debt is huge, and it’s actually causing people to choose to not go to school. It’s both a physical, and often times a psychological barrier to people pursuing a higher education. And what we’re trying to do is increase access, and reorganize the way that we fund higher education—away from what we have now—which is a loan based system where basically the banks are skimming off the top. The banks are a middle-man between us, and our education because we can’t afford to go to school, we take out a loan, we repay it with interest. They’re making a handy profit, and students are being put into greater and greater levels of debt. The average debt now is about $30,000 per student upon graduation, so it’s really reached crisis proportion. So we’re working on legislation to remove that, we’ve already passed a study bill in the last session, and we’re working on developing a pilot program now that the 2015 legislature will be evaluating, and hopefully passing.”

“Can you tell me more about how much money will be paid back, how is it different than paying interest?”

“The percentage hasn’t been set yet, that’s part of what the pilot program’s trying to decide. One proposal we put forward as a way of understanding it was .75% per year of school, so say you had a two year degree it would be 1.5%, if you had four year it would be 3%. And it works out, if you’re graduating, and you get a job right out of school making $30,000 a year say, that would be about $900 dollars a year that you would pay, which is far below what people are paying. We have people on our staff that are paying student debts now; they pay $200 dollars a month, and $150 of it is interest. It’s crazy! They’re going to be paying that for a long time, and the banks are the ones that make out like bandits in the deal, and meanwhile their interest-gathering does nothing to put anymore money into our education system, so we need to rethink how we do it. And we think this is an exciting proposal because it does rethink it, and it’s also something we can actually do here at the state level; we don’t have to wait for congress.”

“No federal red-tape, the state just passes it, and it starts.”

“That being said, Senator Merkley and Representative Bonamici have both introduced bills based on what we’re working on here in Oregon, into congress. Senator Merkley’s bill would actually help setup start-up money because it has to be pre-funded, until people start paying in you need money up front for the initial cost. So he’s got a bill in congress to setup a fund for states around the country who want to pilot this program, and we’re also working with the State Treasurer to pass a bonding measure in the 2014 election that would also open up avenues to pre-fund it. So there’s a lot of moving parts to this, but needless to say, I think what’s exciting about it is, even with all this federal stuff going on, this is something we can work on here–it’s real, it’s tangible–and to me if you want to sum up what working families is about: It’s about finding issue campaigns that matter to real people where we can actually make a difference at the local level. So much of what’s deciding our lives is policy set by states legislators, who a lot of people don’t even know who they are–so we want to change that–and we want to put working people back in the equation.”

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