Funding issues face Brown as she is sworn-in

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The Oregon Legislature will meet Monday to swear in newly elected members, adopt rules, and officially read bills – lots of bills.

The Senate has set a record for the number of presession-filed bills, with 738 this year.

That compares with about 125 in the early 2000s and around 500 for recent sessions, said James Goulding, the Senate’s reading and journal clerk.

As a result, fewer bills should be filed during the session, Goulding said, meaning lawmakers are getting more work done ahead of time, and the public gets more time to weigh in.

All those bills will give the public an idea of what will be on the agenda when the Legislature returns Feb. 1 for the start of the 79th Legislative Assembly.

But clearly, the biggest issue is the budget.

Oregon is facing a $1.7 billion budget shortfall to maintain current services and fund education ballot measures approved by voters. New programs will cost even more.

Gov. Kate Brown’s recommended budget includes proposals for new revenue, including increased tobacco and liquor taxes; fees on hospitals and insurers; and closing some tax loopholes.

Lawmakers also will look at ways to cut spending, with the most likely target the state’s growing public pension costs.

Here are some other issues to watch for:

Transportation

Republicans blocked a transportation funding package during the 2015 session after Democrats passed a contentious bill extending the state’s clean fuels program.

But both sides acknowledge funding is desperately needed.

The governor and lawmakers have been working since to develop support for a transportation package, which would send millions of dollars to the Oregon Department of Transportation for roads, bridges, and traffic congestion relief.

A package would likely come with revenue proposals such as a higher gas tax and registration fee increases.

Distracted driving

Drivers who occasionally take a peek at their email, post a selfie or take calls while driving will want to keep an eye on the proposed amendments to Oregon’s distracted driving law.

If passed, drivers who text, use social media or talk on the phone while driving could face jail time and thousands of dollars in fines.

Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney, a member of Oregon's Distracted Driver Task Force, met with law enforcement and state officials in December to discuss changes to the existing law.

The amendments would steepen distracted driving fines and clarify the law to include any mobile electronic device. Illegal actions would include text messaging, talking, navigation, accessing the internet or reading emails.

Officials are hoping stricter laws, combined with education and enforcement, will help reverse the uptick in distracted driving deaths.

"Distracted driving-related injuries and deaths are becoming an epidemic," Courtney wrote in his testimony. "Until we, as a state, take distracted driving as seriously as drunk driving we aren’t going to be able to change behavior."

Environment

Conservation groups are expected to again push legislation dealing with antibiotics in farm animals, genetically modified crops, and pesticides.

Another proposal would require the Environmental Quality Commission to come up with a plan for tracking air pollution from large dairies such as the Threemile Canyon Farms in the Columbia Gorge.

In 2005, researchers found elevated concentrations of ammonia and other nitrogen compounds in the eastern Gorge, with Threemile Canyon as a possible source.

The discovery prompted the formation of a legislative task force on dairies and air quality, but its recommendations, made in 2008, never were implemented.

Spurred by a proposed second mega-dairy in the area, lawmakers may require state officials to revisit the recommendations.

Marijuana

Expect the Legislature to address reported marijuana shortages that rattled the marketplace last year. In addition, there are a few interesting legislative concepts to watch out for.

There is a proposal to change the name of the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to the Oregon Liquor and Cannabis Commission.

Right now, the OLCC oversees recreational sales of marijuana. Medical dispensaries, regulated by the Oregon Health Authority, had to stop their sales of recreational pot at the end of last year.

The proposal calls for the addition of four commissioners from the marijuana retail industry, bringing the total number of commissioners to nine.

Another proposalcalls for the establishment of a task force for “social consumption of cannabis.”

That means 14 people would determine where residents and visitors could legally use pot in social places in Oregon.

The task force would “develop, in consideration of individuals who want to consume cannabis in this state but who do not have access to a private residence where cannabis can be lawfully consumed, recommendations for legislative or regulatory changes.”

Education funding

Last year, the legislature passed the K-12 education budget in the shortest amount of time in more than 20 years. It was considered a significant win by many as it had bi-partisan support and was one of the largest education budgets to date.

This year, however, is anticipated to be much more difficult. Gov. Kate Brown’s recently announced budget falls short by millions of dollars for education, compared to previous budgets. Some institutions need more to stay afloat, let alone grow.

The Oregon School Boards Association plans to focus on revenue reform and cost containment, which could affect PERS, Oregon's Public Employees Retirement System.

The Oregon Department of Education plans to focus on subjects including absenteeism, graduation rates, career technical education, safety in schools, and a more diversified teacher workforce in the upcoming session.

Reporters Jonathan Bach, Whitney Woodworth and Natalie Pate contributed to this report.


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