Oregon Legislature adjourns difficult session with mixed outcomes

The Legislature adjourned Friday after a contentious session. Although a budget and a transportation package were passed, there was no progress on long-term pension cost and revenue reforms.

SALEM — Oregon lawmakers adjourned a contentious legislative session Friday.

The more than five-month session yielded a two-year budget, new taxes, transportation funding, expanded health care benefits and staved off the need for second women’s prison. But lawmakers also succumbed to partisan gridlock over corporate tax reform, paring pension costs and tenant protections.

“At best, our successes are tempered by disappointment,” said Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem.

House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, said the session was the “most partisan and divisive” one he had “ever been a part of.”

The state faced a $1.4 billion revenue shortfall in the budget for the next two years. Republicans agreed to support moderately increasing taxes on corporations in exchange for reducing the cost of public employee pension costs and spending reductions, but the two parties were unable to reach an agreement.

A last-ditch effort to restructure small business taxes, which would have raised nearly $200 million in the next two years, also went by the wayside.

“The session will be more about missed opportunities than anything else,” McLane said. “The sound of a can being kicked down the road is resonating.”

Lawmakers passed a long-awaited transportation funding bill, made reproductive health care free-of-charge to patients and made undocumented children eligible for health care under Medicaid.

Democrats and Republicans did cooperate to pass a health care provider tax to help offset the state’s increasing financial responsibility for expanded Medicaid. Without the tax, 350,000 Oregonians would have lost health coverage, some Democrats argued.

“I am just really proud of the work they did this legislative session,” said Gov. Kate Brown, a Democrat. “There were some very difficult votes taken, both sides of the aisle, and I want to applaud their courage and their willingness to put politics aside and do the right thing for Oregonians.”

Some of those accomplishments, including the transportation package and the state’s funding mechanism for Medicaid appear to face possible challenges at the ballot box.

The legislature convenes the five-month session in odd numbered years. In that time, they must balance the state’s budget.

Lawmakers made cuts and ended tax credits in the effort to close the $1.4 billion gap.

“Our budget was the best we could do without real revenue reform,” Senate President Courtney said. “It funds schools better than expected. It limits tuition increases. It protects the Oregon Health Plan.”

Lawmakers came up with a few ways to save money in the future through Senate Bill 1067, mainly through holding down costs of public employee health benefit plans. The savings attributable to the bill in the next two years are indeterminate, according to the legislative fiscal office, but are projected to save about $1 billion in the 2019-21 biennium.

The transportation funding bill crowned lawmakers’ accomplishments this session, after a similar plan crumbled in 2015. Brown and legislative leaders identified the transportation funding deal as top priority for the session.

The bill raises the revenue over 10 years through an increase in the gas tax and registration and title fees, a flat tax on adult bicycles priced more than $200, and a 0.5 percent excise tax on the purchase of new vehicles.

However, lawmakers signaled fear that voters might challenge the proposal at the ballot: They passed another law to move up the date of any election on any referral to May 2018.

While a bill to ban no-cause evictions came to a standstill, the Legislature approved tens of millions of dollars in funding to address the state’s critical affordable housing shortage with emergency housing assistance, affordable housing preservation, state-backed bonds for development and an increase in the cap for the affordable housing tax credit.

Other legislation helps to accelerate permitting for affordable housing and accessory dwelling units and establishes a loan program to developers to purchase land for affordable housing.

“We made good progress, but we need to do more to protect renters from staggering rent spikes and no-cause evictions. In 2018, we will push to finish this session’s unfinished business on housing,” said Speaker Tina Kotek.

To avoid opening a second women’s prison, lawmakers expanded early-release and alternative programs to help keep low-level female offenders out of prison. They also reduced penalties for drug and property crimes, which are the main drivers of female incarceration.

Under another law, secret grand jury proceedings must be recorded.

Lawmakers also instituted a new mandate aimed at reducing racial profiling during police stops. The law requires police to collect data on race, gender and other information during law enforcement stops. The Criminal Justice Commission would analyze the data to identify trends and the Department of Public Safety Standards and Training would provide training to all law enforcement on preventing profiling.

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