Lawmakers back school funding, sentencing changes
SALEM — The Oregon House backed a $6.55 billion budget for primary and secondary schools and the state Senate approved a hotly debated bill loosening sentences for crimes Monday as lawmakers continued pushing to finish their work and leave Salem.
A big test could come Tuesday, when lawmakers are scheduled to vote on tax increases for some businesses and wealthy taxpayers and, if that passes, on a plan to cut pension benefits for government workers. Lawmakers could adjourn as soon as Wednesday.
The combination would increase funding for schools, colleges, senior services and mental-health treatment while saving money on employee retirement for state and local government. But it faces strong opposition from lawmakers who say the state doesn't need more revenue and others who oppose cutting benefits promised to workers.
The spending plan for Oregon's K-12 public schools passed the House easily in a 53-5 vote. It now goes to Gov. John Kitzhaber. Spokesman Tim Raphael said he'll sign it. Combined with $200 million in cuts to retirement benefits for public employees, the schools' budget allows most districts to avoid teacher layoffs and school day reductions.
Most lawmakers spoke in favor of the plan, highlighting the dramatic turnaround from a few years ago when schools saw their budgets slashed.
Rep. Carolyn Tomei, a Milwaukie Democrat, called the budget a "turning point for Oregon public schools."
Some lawmakers, however, said the budget fell short.
"The cuts are just too deep," said Rep. Ben Unger, a Hillsboro Democrat. Unger said the Hillsboro school district that he represents will still have to lay off teachers and cut school days even with the increased budget.
On the other side of the capitol, Senators approved a scaled back plan aimed at capping the number of offenders housed in state prisons.
Among other changes, the public safety package, which passed the Senate 19-11, would reduce sentences for certain drug and property crimes. The bill would also lower penalties for some driving with a suspended license and marijuana-related charges. These policy changes would expire after 10 years.
An initial draft of this bill would have repealed mandatory minimum sentences for offenders who commit three violent crimes. Amid backlash from law enforcement, later drafts of the bill were significantly pared down.
The final package succeeded in bringing key law enforcement groups on board, including the state's district attorneys, sheriffs and police chiefs.
"That was a major accomplishment," said Sen. Jackie Winters, a Salem Republican who helped broker the deal.
Supporting the package was a politically difficult vote for some lawmakers who fear being perceived as soft on crime.
Opponents said they disliked the package because it made some changes to a voter-approved sentencing law.
"Going backward wasn't the right thing to do," said Sen. Tim Knopp, a Bend Republican.
The policy changes are expected to hold the state's prison population at 14,600 over the next five years, and save the state $326 million in corrections cost over the next decade. The savings from the sentencing changes would be reinvested into community corrections programs that seek to drive down recidivism and keep people out of prison.
The bill next goes to the governor, who has said he will sign it.
Also on Monday:
• The Senate overwhelmingly backed a bill that would allow schools to keep Native American mascots, nicknames and logos despite Kitzhaber's veto threat. The measure would reverse a decision by the state Board of Education to outlaw Native American mascots beginning in 2017. Schools would be able to keep them if they reach a written agreement with the nearest Indian tribe.
• The Senate voted for tougher sentences for animal abuse and neglect, in some circumstances. The measure was a top priority for Senate President Peter Courtney, who said it was prompted by the discovery of about 150 emaciated dogs on a property in his district.
• House lawmakers gave final legislative approval to a bill that would make paying for sex with a minor a felony on the first offense. More than 40 states make paying for sex with minors a felony on the first offense.