Halfway Home, Oregon Legislators Still Face Huge To-Do List
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When business closed at the Oregon Legislature Tuesday, a breakneck session became somewhat less hectic.

Roughly halfway through the 2019 Oregon legislative session, April 9 marked the last day most bills could either be moved out of committee or shelved for another year.

But while the list of fallen proposals included some notable bills — lowering the drunk driving limit and disarming campus police, among them — the real challenges lie ahead. Democrats still have a hefty to-do list: They want to raise $1 billion annually for schools, rejigger the state’s tax code, usher through ambitious gun legislation and pass a complicated proposal to cap carbon emissions.

If those seem like easy tasks — after all, the party holds supermajorities in both the House and Senate and controls the governor’s office — consider that legislative leaders also have to make sure Republicans are engaged and willing to work with them.

Talks between the two parties have been mostly amicable so far, but there’s no guarantee that will last as the session wends its way to a close. It’s clear Republican and Democratic leaders are already seeing things differently.

“I kind of feel like I’m surfing on a tsunami of taxes,” said House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass. “Every inch of this building (is) firmly in their hands for the most part. So I think that they're using that opportunity to do everything that they've wanted to do for years.”

Meanwhile, House Speaker Tina Kotek said recently she thinks Democrats are “being very thoughtful.”

“There are very few bills where I think you have tension right now,” she said.

Halfway through, here’s where the Legislature’s biggest proposals stand.

Environment

Carbon emissions were always going to dominate this session, with legislative leaders signaling their intent early on to pass a complex cap-and-trade proposal this year. And as expected, the topic has been among the more controversial issues taken up in the Capitol so far.

Under the system lawmakers have proposed in House Bill 2020, large polluters around the state would be required to purchase credits for each ton of greenhouse gas they emit. The state would place a cap on overall emissions and decrease that cap over time, theoretically forcing industries to reduce their pollution.

Democratic leaders initially intended to hold hearings on the bill only in Salem, but Republicans successfully pressed for a series of “road show” hearings around the state. Those well-attended events revealed a great deal of fear and opposition to the proposal — particularly its expected impact on gasoline prices — but also a lot of support.

In response, leading lawmakers have introduced a wide array of amendments and a new program to help ease the burden of higher fuel prices on low-income households. Those changes, and many more, have been the subject of ongoing hearings. Lawmakers aren’t expected to take up HB 2020 for potential final passage until later in the session.

The session is expected to last until the end of June.

Other environment-related bills: Gov. Kate Brown has already signed Senate Bill 256, which is intended to ward off oil and gas exploration off the Oregon coast. The state has long had a moratorium on oil and gas activities in the water it controls. The bill made that moratorium permanent and ensured state-controlled areas won’t be used to assist drilling further out.

Lawmakers are also moving a series of bills meant to curb the use of wasteful products. The Senate on Thursday is expected to vote on Senate Bill 90, which would require that customers in most restaurants request a single-use plastic straw if they want one.

Bills preventing grocery stores from using plastic bags and food vendors from using polystyrene containers are also still alive.

Housing

The first bill signed into law this session made Oregon the first in the nation with statewide rent control.

The bill was a priority for Democrats and caps how much landlords can raise the rent and makes it harder for them to evict tenants without a reason. Gov. Kate Brown signed Senate Bill 608 in February, and it took effect immediately.

Lawmakers aren’t done, however, trying to address what they see as a growing statewide housing crisis.

Kotek is pushing a bill to require cities with populations of more than 25,000 people to change zoning laws to allow areas now zoned only for single-family homes to allow for multi-housing options, such as cottage clusters and townhouses. The measure, House Bill 2001, was recently approved unanimously by a House committee.

“What this bill is saying is that there should be more choice in single-family residential neighborhoods,” Kotek said. “Single-family homes are going to look different in the future.”

The Legislature is also considering a proposal to potentially generate $150 million for housing by narrowing the state’s largest housing subsidy: the deduction taxpayers can claim for mortgage interest payments. House Bill 3349 would eliminate that deduction for second homes and households with more than $250,000 in adjusted gross income.

The governor has encouraged lawmakers to approve $400 million investment to increase the state’s housing supply. She’s pushing for the money to address homelessness for children and veterans, in particular, and to expedite the growth of the state’s housing stock.

Campaign Finance

The most expensive governor’s race in the state’s history last year triggered renewed calls to rein in campaign spending this legislative session.

Oregon is one of only a handful of states with no limits on how much donors are allowed to give.

The Senate Campaign Finance Committee approved a measure to allow for a change in the state’s free-speech provision of the constitution for the May 2020 primary ballot.

Senate Joint Resolution 18 now goes to the Senate Rules Committee, chaired by Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, who said putting something in front of voters would allow for limits to be put on campaigns.

Lawmakers also continue to grapple with what the actual limits on spending would look like.

“Candidates themselves need to get the word out about who they are and what they stand for and to be honest with the voters,” Burdick said. “If they don’t have enough money to run a credible campaign, the voters will only hear what the special interests have to say.”

Lawmakers are limited in what they can do to curb independent expenditures, but they are hoping to add transparency requirements to ensure the public knows who is contributing to political action committees and political nonprofits.

Health Care

Funding for Oregon’s Medicaid system, the Oregon Health Plan, has been a major focus this year, with lawmakers looking to bridge a $922 million funding gap in the next budget.

Headed into session, Brown proposed a three-pronged approach: taxes on hospitals and health insurers, higher tobacco taxes and a new tax on employers. Lawmakers passed the hospital and insurer taxes early on, via House Bill 2010. The other two pieces are less certain.

House Bill 2270, the governor’s tobacco tax bill, got a contentious hearing in the House Revenue Committee on Wednesday. The bill would hike cigarette taxes by $2 per pack, tax e-cigarettes and similar products for the first time and raise taxes on cigars. It’s not clear whether there’s support to pass a tax increase outright or whether it will be referred to voters.

Meanwhile, Republicans have accused Brown of hiding the ball on a proposed $120 million tax on employers who don’t spend enough on employee health care. Brown had telegraphed her intentions for months, but the tax was only introduced as an amendment to a placeholder bill, House Bill 2269, in late March.

A surprise this session has been a highly controversial bill to limit vaccine exemptions in Oregon.

House Bill 3063 would eliminate philosophical and religious reasons parents can currently use to justify opting out of vaccines for their kids. Those exemptions — and the region’s comparatively low rate of measles immunizations — have been blamed for an outbreak that impacted Oregon and Southwest Washington this year. But the effort to tighten vaccine requirements has prompted loud outcry from the group Oregonians For Medical Freedom. HB 3063 has passed one House committee and is currently sitting in the Legislature’s budget-writing committee.

Justice Issues

Democrats are making progress toward weighty changes to some aspects of the justice system. Those include dramatic changes to Oregon’s public defense system, more lenient sentencing rules for juveniles and a radical reshaping of capital punishment.

Oregon currently contracts public defenders for low-income criminal defendants, but a recent report found that system is potentially unconstitutional. The state could face a lawsuit if it doesn’t make changes. Under House Bill 3145, Oregon would begin to transition to state-employed public defenders who would theoretically be subject to more oversight and have lower workloads. The bill is currently before the budget committee.

Lawmakers are also considering law changes aimed at easing sentencing rules for juvenile offenders. Senate Bill 1008 includes provisions that could see certain prisoners in the juvenile system released when they turn 25 rather than being turned over to the adult prison system. It could also ensure juveniles can’t be sentenced to life without parole.

Senate Bill 1013 contains what some consider the strongest attempt to curtail capital punishment in recent memory. The bill wouldn’t ask voters to eliminate the death penalty. Instead, it would narrow the types of acts punishable by death, limiting them to terrorist attacks (including mass shootings), murders of children below 14 and certain murders in prison. The bill has passed out of committee and is awaiting a Senate vote.

As if all that weren’t enough, the Legislature also is considering referring a ballot measure to voters that, if approved, would kill the state’s unique policy of allowing nonunanimous guilty verdicts by juries.

Harassment

Like many state capitals across the country, Oregon’s statehouse has been rocked by a sexual harassment scandal.

In an effort to better protect lawmakers, lobbyists and interns, a newly formed committee is tasked with creating an equity office to handle both claims of harassment and training.

House Bill 3377 would create the Equity Office, a nonpartisan office charged with ensuring the Capitol is a safe work environment. The office would be staffed with two people, one to investigate harassment and discrimination claims and another to offer training.

The latest version of the measure also includes an offsite counseling service that would be able to offer advice to a person considering making a harassment complaint with the equity office.

Guns

Democrats have largely lined up behind an ambitious measure to strengthen the state’s gun laws.

Senate Bill 978, would give firearms dealers the option of raising the minimum purchase age to between 18 and 21 and require firearms to be securely stored when not in use. Some large retailers have tried raising their minimum age for purchasing certain weapons, but they’ve been sued.

The bill also places restrictions on the sale of unfinished and 3D-printed firearms — sometimes called “ghost guns.” Other rules in the bill would add hospital reporting requirements for patients injured by firearms and would allow colleges and universities to ban firearms on campus. The measure passed out of a Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday.

House Bill 2013 is more focused and would add an enforcement mechanism to a law passed last year closing the so-called boyfriend loophole, which prevented intimate partners convicted of domestic abuse from owning a firearm even if they didn’t live with or have children with their partners.

Schools

Perhaps the biggest task lawmakers are faced with this session is to come up with more money for the state’s public school system.

Their goal? $1 billion in new money every year.

The Joint Committee on Student Success plans to enact a new tax on businesses to come up with money to fund early childhood education, student mental health and district initiatives to improve graduation rates and other priorities.

Here’s where they want the money to go:

$400 million per two-year budget cycle on early childhood priorities including full funding for Early Childhood Special Education.

$600 million per biennium on “statewide investments” such as dropout prevention and support for students with disabilities.

$1 billion per biennium for a “school improvement” fund, described as “noncompetitive grants” toward specific goals, such as smaller class sizes, a longer school year and additional health professionals in schools.

Lawmakers are leaning on the idea of enacting a Commercial Activities Tax, likely tiered based on the size of businesses. They are holding their first public hearing on House Bill 2019 on Thursday.

Grab Bag

These bills are notable but defy easy categorization.

No more time change: Oregonians might be done with Standard Time. On April 4, the Senate passed Senate Bill 320, which would abolish the twice-yearly time change and keep most of the state on Daylight Saving Time year round, excluding a portion of Malheur County. Oregon would need approval from Congress for the change to take hold.

National popular vote: Lawmakers also appear on the verge of voting to honor the national popular vote in presidential elections. For the first time in eight attempts, the state Senate voted on — and approved — a bill to join the National Popular Vote compact. If Senate Bill 870 is approved by the House and signed by Brown, as expected, Oregon would join 15 other jurisdictions agreeing to give their electoral votes to whichever presidential candidate gets the most votes nationwide. The compact takes effect once enough states join to reach the 270 electoral votes needed to win an election.

Rolling stops: House Bill 998 would allow cyclists around the state to treat stop signs and blinking red lights as yield signs. They’d still have to yield to vehicles with the right of way but would no longer be required to come to a complete stop. Similar bills have died at least twice since 2003, but the concept is growing in popularity around the country.

This article originally ran on opb.org.

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