Oregon Legislature finds dead ends in 2013

Credit: Oregon Legislature

Oregon Legislature finds dead ends in 2013

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by Associated Press

kgw.com

Posted on July 8, 2013 at 3:37 PM

Updated Tuesday, Jul 9 at 6:26 AM

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - As Oregon lawmakers wrapped up their work and adjourned Monday, they closed the door on a legislative session notable as much for what didn't happen as for what did.

There was no grand bargain to increase taxes and cut pension costs. Gun control proposals got plenty of attention but no action. A plan to lower prison costs was significantly scaled back.

Even one accomplishment - funding for a new Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River - unraveled months later in Washington state.

An improving economy allowed for an end to years of painful budget slashing and brought an increase in school funding. Majority Democrats laid out one overarching goal - $6.75 billion in school funding - and they got it. But the effort was overshadowed by the failure of weeks of negotiations over pensions and taxes that might've produced an additional $250 million.

"We balanced the budget, we'll get out of here on time...We just weren't as good as I wanted us to be," Senate President Peter Courtney said.

Courtney pressed for dedicated funding for mental health, but it died along with the failed taxes-and-pensions bargain.

There were some high-profile changes that did make it through, of course. A bipartisan group of lawmakers backed legislation allowing young people living in the United States illegally to pay resident tuition at Oregon's public universities. Lawmakers also allowed people to obtain driver's licenses if they can't prove they're legally in the country.

Voters may get the ultimate say on the driver's license measure. A group of critics is collecting signatures in hopes of referring it for a statewide vote.

Marijuana dispensaries were legalized. Some universities will break free from the statewide university system. More homeowners will be covered by a requirement that mortgage lenders mediate with borrowers before initiating foreclosure proceedings.

After closing a $3.5 billion budget gap and navigating a partisan tie in the House following the 2010 election, lawmakers came into this year with Democrats firmly in control of the House, Senate and governor's office and with a steadily improving economy. Gov. John Kitzhaber worked with a fully Democrat-controlled Legislature for the first time in his three terms as governor.

Democrats voted to cut pension benefits for retired government workers, primarily by scaling back the annual inflation increases. Republicans complained that the plan fell far short of the savings needed to stem the Public Employees Retiring System's rapidly rising costs. A lawsuit backed by a coalition of public employee unions seeks to overturn it.

The session was dominated by months of partisan maneuvering over some combination of further pension cuts, tax increases, and business tax breaks that might have increased funding for education. Kitzhaber gathered legislative leaders at Mahonia Hall, the governor's official residence, but the two-day summit produced little beyond finger pointing.

Republicans said it was the fault of Democrats and their biggest financial supporter, the public-employee unions.

"Unfortunately, though there was every reason to believe compromise was possible, no deal was allowed to come to a vote," Sen. Ted Ferrioli of John Day, the Republican leader, said in a statement Monday.

Since shortly after taking office more than two years ago, Kitzhaber has pushed to reduce criminal sentences for some offenses to lower prison costs, and this year, he called on the Legislature to keep the prison population flat for 10 years. Months of tense negotiations between the law-enforcement community and lawmakers working on prison reforms resulted in much more limited changes that are expected to keep the number of inmates roughly flat over the next five years.

"The fact that we've made movement on all of those issues is pretty tremendous, given that those were difficult topics," House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said.

A high-profile push to require tougher background checks for gun purchases fizzled, even with renewed urgency following the shootings at Clackamas Town Center and Sandy Hook Elementary. So did an effort by environmental groups to continue Oregon's low-carbon fuel standard, which aims to promote healthier vehicle fuels but is set to expire.

Lawmakers approved funding for a new Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River - a top priority for Kitzhaber, Kotek and the business community but bitterly opposed by Portland neighborhood activists and light rail foes. The vote was for naught, however, after Washington lawmakers failed to approve their state's $450 million share of the funding. Project planners began shutting down after more than a decade and $170 million spent planning.

Lawmakers will be back in February for a 35-day legislative session.
 

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