SALEM — Despite a Democratic governor and larger Democratic majorities in both chambers, Oregon’s 2015 legislative session proved to be more turbulent than expected at its start months ago.
The session ended at 6:05 p.m. Monday, its 155th day, a few days short of the legal deadline Saturday. Among the final-day bills was more than $1 billion in state bonds for a variety of projects, including $300 million for school construction.
For one, the governor who started the session did not end up finishing the session.
Democrat John Kitzhaber took the oath for an unprecedented fourth term on Jan. 12. But just weeks later, he resigned amid influence-peddling allegations involving him and his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, and was succeeded on Feb. 18 by Secretary of State Kate Brown.
As a result of the 2014 election, Democrats gained two seats for an 18-12 majority over Republicans in the Senate, and one seat for a 35-25 majority in the House.
Just 23 days into her tenure as governor, Brown signed an extension of a standard requiring a 10 percent reduction in the carbon content of fuels over the next decade. Democrats, who failed to renew it two years earlier on a tie vote in the Senate, prevailed over Republican opposition.
But critics said the standard would raise the price of gasoline, and Republicans had warned they would walk away from negotiations over a funding plan for transportation projects — including a gas tax increase — if Democrats pressed them.
A tax increase requires at least one Republican to join the 35 Democrats in the House.
Although negotiators from both parties and both chambers reassembled in Brown’s office weeks later, they ultimately were unable to put together a plan linking funding with alternatives to the low-carbon fuel standard.
A Senate committee conducted a hearing on the plan, only for leaders to abandon it after a majority of House Democrats said publicly they would reject a deal tied to repeal of the just-enacted standard. Critics also raised questions about the assumed greenhouse-gas reductions in some of the alternatives proposed to the standard.
With no deal in the offing, the political ball will bounce back to the Portland City Council, which suspended its consideration of a street repair fee pending legislative discussion.
Democrats were able to flex their majorities to pass a statewide requirement for paid sick leave and a voluntary retirement savings plan for workers without access to one. However, neither chamber advanced an increase in Oregon’s minimum wage, which at $9.25 per hour is the nation’s second highest statewide rate only to Washington’s $9.47. Advocates have taken steps toward qualifying a 2016 ballot measure setting a $15 rate by 2019.
Democrats also expanded a criminal background check for most private gun sales and transfers without Republican votes.
Bipartisan majorities did approve implementation legislation for the 2014 ballot measure that legalizes marijuana for recreational use, and to tighten regulation of medical marijuana that voters approved back in 1998.
Temporary retail sales by medical-marijuana dispensaries can start only on Oct. 1 — three months after the ballot measure took effect this week — if Brown signs the bill. The Oregon Liquor Control Commission estimates that it will be well into 2016 before it licenses retail sales.
A related measure substitutes a sales tax on marijuana purchasers for the taxation specified in Measure 91.
Bipartisan majorities also approved measures to regulate use of body cameras by police, if agencies choose to have their officers wear them, and to ban profiling of criminal suspects by race and other characteristics.
Democrats also prevailed on a bill, which also failed on a tie vote in the Senate in 2013, that automatically registers people to vote based on driver records. They can opt out within 21 days.
It is the nation’s first such bill, advanced by Brown as secretary of state — and signed by Brown as one of her first acts as governor.
Brown will be up in 2016 for election to the remaining two years in Kitzhaber’s term.
Lawmakers will meet again in February for a session that is limited to 35 days.