AP file photo
SALEM — Oregon’s legislative leaders appear to differ as to what can be accomplished during the upcoming legislative session.
House Democrats have unveiled a slew of policy ideas, although Republicans and both parties in the Senate expressed trepidation about trying to do too much when the Oregon Legislative Assembly convenes for its short session Feb. 5.
In even-numbered years, the Legislature meets for sessions that can last up to 35 days. In odd-numbered years, they meet for about five months to hammer out the state’s two-year budget.
Leaders of the party caucuses in the House and Senate, as well as Oregon Gov. Kate Brown, took questions from reporters at the state capitol Monday.
Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said he expected to be “sweating rocks” by the time legislators convene next week, due to the swift deadlines during the short session.
Legislators have to move quickly if they want bills to move out of policy committees and to the floors of each chamber for a vote.
“My biggest concern is...to try to get through the session without doing harm to things we want to do long-term,” Courtney said. “...Already the expectations are well beyond what you can do in a 35-day session.”
Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, said that the short session would be largely focused on the state budget.
“The purpose of the short session is to deal with budget matters and urgent matters that can’t wait until the long session,” Burdick said, adding that voters’ affirmation of a state funding package for public health care in a special election last week makes the task less burdensome. “We had an easier job than we might have had if Ballot Measure 101 had not passed.”
Burdick said that education is a “top priority,” as legislators come together on a bicameral, bipartisan committee aimed at improving student outcomes and soliciting feedback from Oregonians about the state’s public education system.
Senate Republican Leader Jackie Winters, of Salem, newly appointed to lead the caucus, said she hopes for a “bipartisan atmosphere” during the session.
Winters said she is prioritizing a bill that would expand protections for whistleblowers, and is also focused on bills that address collective bargaining and government spending.
House Democrats released a set of policy priorities that included boosting consumer protections, gun safety and affordable housing; reducing class sizes in public schools and expanding career and technical training.
They also want to revise the state’s constitution to include health care as a basic right.
House Minority Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, called House Democrats’ priorities “ambitious” and “aggressive,” saying they were geared more toward the November election — including an effort to make health care a right in the state’s constitution.
House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, said she understands the language in the bill, championed by State Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, which refers the issue to voters, to be “aspirational.”
“My understanding is (Greenlick’s) goal is not to set up a right of action but to set up an aspirational goal,” Williamson said.
McLane disagreed, saying the measure “may be aspirational in how it’s marketed, but it is absolutely functional in the leverage that they’re seeking to dictate public funding, so we have to talk about that.”
“The question becomes, what’s the purpose of this, outside the political ramifications from the 2018 campaign, where Congress’ health care discussion may give them some leverage in swing districts?” McLane said.
But Speaker of the House Tina Kotek, D-Portland, struck a more sanguine tone, saying that she thought that leadership on both sides of the aisle could broker compromise during the course of the short session.
Kotek acknowledged the existence of some “unknowns” when it comes to the effects of federal tax reform on state revenues, as well as the need to reconcile “larger-ticket” budget holes, such as the high cost of the 2017 fire season, which ravaged communities from the Southwest coast to the Columbia River Gorge.
It’s still not clear what the precise effect of federal tax reform will be on Oregonians or on the state’s revenues, although analyses by state economists are underway. A more complete picture of the state’s revenue outlook is expected Feb. 16.
Gov. Brown, a Democrat who is seeking reelection in November, reiterated the policy priorities she introduced several weeks ago, when legislators convened for a round of interim committee meetings in early January.
Those priorities include closure of the so-called “Boyfriend” loophole, which would protect victims of domestic violence at the hands of an intimate partner they’re not married to, as well as a pilot program to help people who have overdosed on opioids recover with the help of a peer mentor; improving the state’s procurement process; and creating an incentive program to encourage public employers to pay down their share of the state pension system’s unfunded liability.
Brown also said that she plans to home in on the state’s economic fortunes in her “State of the State” address next week — Oregon has a comparatively high rate of economic growth and low unemployment rates across the state.