Lawmakers claim victories amidst partisan wrangling
SALEM Oregon lawmakers on Thursday sprinted to the finish of a short session marked by controversy and procedural delays.
The Legislatures short session, which supporters sold to voters in 2010 as a time to clean up laws and budgets, produced more far reaching policies on the economy and the environment than last years long session.
During the 32-day session, Democrats claimed victory on two major policies they failed to push through last session: Hiking minimum wage and limiting the use of coal power in the state.
The Legislature also made some headway in addressing the states affordable housing crisis. The victory came with tactical pushback from Republicans. In a move to slow the Democrats agenda, Senate Republicans demanded that all bills be read in their entirety before consideration.
They refused to show up Feb. 25 when Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, scheduled a 5 p.m. floor session to move bills. The walkout forced Courtney to cancel the session because the Senate lacked a quorum.
Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, said Senate Republicans will not work late into the night to fast track an agenda pursued by the Democrat majority that features back room deals between Democrats and special interests and numerous broken promises of collaboration and compromise.
Courtney, who has served in the Legislature for more than three decades, said Thursday that there had been other similarly stressful sessions. However, Courtney said, the pressure from outside forces to pass certain priority bills has only increased.
The forces at play outside have become much more powerful in our political lives, Courtney said, adding that reporters could fill that in any way you want to.
Courtney then went on to fill in some of the reasons himself. Lawmakers were under pressure to come up with alternatives to proposed November ballot measures to raise the minimum wage, increase renewable energy and stop utilities from using coal power in Oregon.
More and more, the initiative process is being used to create major public policy in the state of Oregon, Courtney said, adding that he did not like that prospect. Courtney said lawmakers who defied the groups pushing for legislation faced the possibility those groups would recruit primary challengers, and the March 8 candidate filing deadline loomed over the session.
Courtney said he did his best to ease tensions in the Senate, and that included the decision not to ask the state police to track down missing Republicans. I didnt want to call out the state police, Courtney said. Lord, I didnt want to do that.
Both chambers passed unprecedented minimum wage legislation last month that gives significant raise over a seven-year period and customizes the increases to regional population density, income and other economic factors. Gov. Kate Brown signed the bill Wednesday.
It is my belief this bill is the most important vote well cast this session, and Ill guarantee you its the most important vote were going to cast today to the hundreds of thousands of Oregonians who need the real help in their lives that this bill will provide, said Senate President Pro Tem Diane Rosenbaum.
Senate Bill 1532 sets different minimums in each of three regions according to a countys population, median income and cost of living. By 2022, wages will reach $14.75 in the Portland area, $12.50 in rural and coastal counties with struggling economies and $13.50 in the rest of the state by 2022.
The first pay bump starts in July, from $9.25 to $9.75 statewide.
Reps. Brian Clem, D-Salem, and John Davis, R-Wilsonville, tried to come up with a last-ditch effort to give tax credits to offset the cost of the increases to farmers and small businesses owners who expressed fear that the expense could drive them out of business. Concerns about how those limited tax credits would be divided up put a wrench in the bill and forced a decision to wait on the proposal until the 2017 session, Clem said.
Another top priority for legislative Democrats this session was a controversial bill to double Oregons existing renewable energy mandate and stop the states two largest utilities from paying for coal power. The bill also greatly expands incentives for power plants that burn garbage and wood.
The Senate passed the bill on Wednesday on a near party line vote, with Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, joining Republicans to vote no on the bill. Since the House already passed the legislation, it goes next to the governor for her signature. Brown has suggested that she supports the bill, but has not said publicly whether she will sign it.
Portland General Electric already plans to close Oregons only coal power plant in Boardman by 2020 and stop purchasing coal power from out of state. But the bill will ensure Portland General Electric follows through on that plan, and it will force PacifiCorp to stop buying out-of-state coal power to serve Oregon customers.
The bill requires PacifiCorp, Portland General Electric and any new municipal electric utilities to get 50 percent of their power from renewable sources such as wind and solar by 2040. Representatives of Portland General Electric and a renewable energy advocacy group said during a hearing last month this means the biggest impact of the bill could be to discourage utilities from replacing coal with natural gas, although utilities will still need new natural gas facilities to provide reliable power when the wind is not blowing and the sun is not shining.
House Democrats early in the session negotiated a deal with affordable housing advocates, real estate lobbyists and builders on a plan to help increase the states stock of affordable housing while making some concessions to developers. The deal yielded a bill to end the states 17-year ban on requiring developers to include affordable housing in their plans, a measure to prohibit rent increases in the first year of month-to-month tenancies and increase notice for rent increases from 30 to 90 days, a pilot affordable housing program for smaller communities and controversial measure to allow annexations without going to the people for a vote.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said lawmakers would work to address the housing crisis again in 2017.
By the end of the session, however, Republicans agreed to up the tempo, after Democrats made some concessions in the interest of wrapping up before the weekend.