Home News Local News 2014 LEGISLATIVE PREVIEW: Oregon lawmakers set modest agenda for February
2014 LEGISLATIVE PREVIEW: Oregon lawmakers set modest agenda for February
But when they return to Salem on Feb. 3 for the 2014 legislative session, and talk shifts to action, all signs suggest a much more modest palette of work.
“There is limited bandwidth for things that are really controversial,” said House Majority Leader Val Hoyle, who worked with her members on an agenda that reads less like “go big or go home” and more like “small is beautiful.”
“Our focus was: What are things that we can manage, that we can get done, that we have the votes for and that are going to make Oregon better?” Hoyle said. Priorities include making college more affordable, and holding state contractors accountable when they don’t deliver what they promised.
Lots of factors work against a dramatic reform agenda, starting with the length of the session — 35 days max, by law. Also, it’s an election year, which makes pretty much everyone jumpy at the Capitol. And, the big ideas mentioned above plus a few others got a cranky reception during last week’s “legislative days,” a prelude to the February session.
Take Cover Oregon, the state’s much-publicized effort to enroll residents in health insurance plans. During two pointed hearings, lawmakers grilled Oregon Health Authority Director Bruce Goldberg about repeated failures to get the official website up and running. One, Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend, suggested killing the program. It’s unclear whether that stance will gain any traction, said Rep. Bob Jenson (R-Pendleton).
“We’ve created about a $200 million hole. It’s somewhat difficult to solve that issue,” Jenson said. “I don’t know that (Kitzhaber) can do that (end the program).”
It’s a far cry from the February session in 2012, when Gov. John Kitzhaber got lawmakers to approve the health insurance exchange program that became Cover Oregon, as well as a number of big education reforms.
By all appearances, the governor has lowered his ambitions for the upcoming session and will play more of a caretaker role.
“We’ve passed a pretty big reform agenda over the last few years,” Kitzhaber spokeswoman Rachel Wray said in an email. “For the 2014 session, the governor is looking forward to working with the Legislature to ensure that adequate resources and oversight are available to continue implementing these reforms and meet the state’s health care, education, and economic development goals.”
Columbia River Crossing
Lawmakers peppered officials working on the Interstate 5 bridge replacement project with questions, signaling that supporters of the project, including Kitzhaber and House Speaker Tina Kotek, may have a hard time reviving it. Washington lawmakers have declined to fund their $450 million share of costs. Supporters hope the Oregon Legislature moves forward, approving a $2.8 billion plan that would rely on tolling, federal grant money and $450 million in state bonds.
“The reason for it being a high priority is we see it as being very necessary for the movement of our natural resource products we have in this side of Oregon to market sites,” Jenson said.
Liquor in grocery stores
Looking to dampen support for an all-out privatization effort, state liquor officials offered a plan to loosen regulations and allow distilled spirits to be sold in grocery stores. If approved, it would represent the biggest change to Oregon’s state-controlled liquor sales since the end of Prohibition. But lawmakers worried openly about rising prices on booze, increased shoplifting and potential harm to local winemakers, who could lose shelf space. In the meantime, a group backed by big grocery chains is working to get a privatization measure on the November ballot.
Jenson said lawmakers would likely be unsuccessful in halting the grocers’ attempts to get a measure on the ballot. “They will be very well funded,” he said.
OHSU funding request
Oregon Health & Science University is seeking $200 million in state bonding to help it match a $500 million challenge grant from Nike founder Phil Knight and his wife, Penny. No committees held hearings about the proposal this week, but OHSU President Joe Robertson and Dr. Brian Druker, a leading OHSU cancer researcher, were walking the halls repeating their pitch to lawmakers. The idea has backing from Kitzhaber and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem. But Hoyle notes that it faces stiff competition from other capital construction projects. “Lots of people see this as a worthy investment,” Hoyle said. “But that’s a lot of money.”
A combined House and Senate committee heard from Kevin Sabet, an outspoken critic of marijuana legalization. Sabet told lawmakers it would be a mistake to move forward with a bill that Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, is preparing that would ask voters whether they want the Legislature to legalize recreational marijuana use. Prozanski wants to head off an expected ballot measure on legalization and allow lawmakers to craft pot policy. But Sabet said he thought Oregonians would dump the measure after witnessing fallout from legalization in Washington and Colorado. Lawmakers will decide in February whether to dive into the debate or leave it up to voters.
On a party-line vote, the Senate Judiciary Committee introduced a bill that would require background checks on private gun sales. A similar measure failed to get a vote on the Senate floor last year, but Prozanski, the lead author of the bill, said this session senators will take that vote. Republican Sens. Jeff Kruse of Roseburg and Betsy Close of Albany opposed the bill. Kruse, foreshadowing the tense debate expected in February over guns, said he thought the bill was being introduced “to distract the citizens from the real travesty of what’s going on in this state and what’s going on with our health care system.”
Jenson said gun control legislation is hot topic, especially for Eastern Oregon.
“That will cause a lot of heartburn for us over here in District 58,” he said. “I would predict they don’t go anywhere, but they’re going to take time and energy.”
Jenson is also sponsoring two bills of his own. One would provide some exception to the licensing of technicians in the medical field due to changes that went into effect Jan. 1, he said.
“I’m very interested in doing that because it affects the well being of the people in my district,” he said.
The other bill would provide provisions that would allow people who are legally blind an opportunity to hunt using laser spotting. Jenson said the issue was brought to him by a constituent and that he, in another state, used to hunt with a friend who was legally blind.
“We’re very anxious to help them,” he said.
Observer reporter Kelly Ducote contributed to this report.