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Democrats resurrect bills as legislative session begins in Salem

Three proposals defeated by Betsy Johnson, GOP come back after Democrats widen majority

Democrats in the Oregon Legislature wasted no time Monday in using their larger majorities to advance three issues that died by a single vote in the past two years.

Legislative committees took up bills on the first day of the 2015 session that Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum, D-Portland, described as “unfinished business” from the previous two-year cycle.

They were:

• Automatic voter registration for people 18 and older, unless they choose to opt out, when they obtain or renew driver’s licenses. The House Rules Committee heard House Bill 2177, which unlike 2013, has the support of Oregon’s county clerks.

• A state standard for fuels that will generate less in carbon emissions. The Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee heard Senate Bill 324, which would extend the standard past a scheduled 2015 expiration.

• Use of unclaimed money from class-action settlements for Legal Aid programs. The House Judiciary Committee heard House Bill 2700, which differs from last year in that a judge would have discretion to award 50 percent to Legal Aid and 50 percent to programs related to the issue that prompted the class-action lawsuit.

All three bills’ predecessors died in the Senate in the past two years on 15-15 votes, when one Democrat — Sen. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose — joined 14 Republicans. Democrats now have an 18-12 majority over Republicans.

Two of the three bills, excepting the low-carbon fuels standard, passed the House during the last session.The fuels bill never came to a vote in the House.

Democrats have since expanded their House majority to 35-25 over Republicans.

Repeat for registration

Although other states are considering it, Oregon would be the first to register voters automatically upon changes in driver records, which would be transferred electronically. Records would not be forwarded for drivers under 18, those legally present in the United States but ineligible to vote, and a few people such as police officers and domestic-violence survivors whose information is not public.

The National Voter Registration Act, passed by Congress in 1993, requires states to ask new and renewing drivers if they want to register to vote. But their driver records are currently transferred to county elections officials by paper.

“Oregonians have demonstrated that if we put a ballot in the hands of voters, we will cast it,” Secretary of State Kate Brown said. “My goal is to put a ballot in the hands of virtually every eligible Oregonian.”

Though Oregon has historically high participation of voters already registered, it lags behind other states in the share of eligible people who are registered to vote.

“I think this is the single most important thing Oregon can do to change the face of elections” since Oregon voters approved all-mail balloting in 1998, says Steve Druckenmiller, Linn County clerk since 1987.

But all four Republicans on the House committee raised critical questions, including GOP Leader Mike McLane of Powell Butte, who took issue with Druckenmiller’s description of some barriers to registration as “repulsive” and “an unnecessary burden.”

His comparison of the struggle for voting rights for blacks in the South during the 1960s with postcard and online voter registration, McLane said, “is not well taken ... I think they are radically different.”

Low-carbon fuels

Lawmakers in 2009 authorized the Environmental Quality Commission to write rules for a standard, and the commission has done so. However, the 2009 law also carried an automatic expiration of 2015, unless lawmakers remove it.

California has a standard, which survived court challenges, and Washington has set into motion rulemaking. All three states have done so in pursuit of reducing carbon emissions.

“If we want people to invest and try to find solutions, you have to send a clear public message that the government and the public will be there for them, if they make an investment in a reasonable sense of the term,” said Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield.

Republicans have argued that Oregon’s contribution to carbon emissions is negligible, but a state low-carbon fuel standard would add to the cost of gasoline.

“I would urge this committee to not take any precipitous action before we know the true costs of the market distortion that we are calling the low-carbon fuel standard,” said Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli of John Day.

Class-action settlements

A different legislative committee began work on a bill, which also failed by one vote in the Senate last year, to allow some unclaimed money from class-action settlements to help fund Legal Aid programs.

Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum argued Oregon law allows “an unfair practice of returning unclaimed award money in class-action lawsuits to the very companies or individuals who caused that harm. ... This is a practice not followed in most states.”

Unlike the failed 2014 bill, the current bill would let a judge award half of the unclaimed money to legal aid and the other half to individuals or organizations related to the class-action lawsuit.

The bill would apply to class-action lawsuits on which a judgment has not been entered — including one involving BP West Coast Products, which a Multnomah County jury decided in January 2014 was wrong to charge a 35-cent fee for use of debit cards on gasoline purchases at Arco stations between Jan. 1, 2011, and Aug. 30, 2013.

About 2 million people were estimated to be eligible for $200 shares of a settlement. Claims were due by Dec. 31.

BP is appealing the verdict.

“This case could be tied up in the courts for five years and not a single dollar will go to Legal Aid before it is resolved,” a statement from a coalition of business groups opposing the bill said. “If the appeal succeeds, this legislation will generate no money for Legal Aid.”


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