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Republicans call 2015 legislature a wasted session

Four Republicans speak at a forum in Wilsonville and outline hopes for the next election

Republicans hope to turn some of the policy shortcomings they saw in the 2015 session to their political advantage when they compete with Democrats next year for control of the Oregon Legislature.

Four Republican legislators, who spoke at a forum sponsored by the Tualatin Chamber of Commerce and Wilsonville Area Chamber of Commerce, laid out their criticisms of what the Democratic majorities did and didn’t do.

They also talked about what’s ahead next year, including a renewed effort to increase Oregon’s minimum wage and potential ballot initiatives, backed by unions, to raise personal and corporate income taxes on higher earners.

About 100 people attended at the Holiday Inn in Wilsonville.

While Oregon’s unemployment rate is dropping and the state’s tax-supported general fund and lottery proceeds are rising — a 13 percent increase in the current two-year budget — they say the state school fund could have been even higher than it was.

“I consider this session a missed opportunity,” says Rep. John Davis of Wilsonville.

The state school fund, which pays the lion’s share of school district operating costs, did increase 10.9 percent from $6.7 billion to just shy of $7.4 billion. But Davis says that total includes $220 million for all districts to provide full-day kindergarten, which started this fall.

Davis says lawmakers also could have done more for the state’s seven universities.

Meanwhile, lawmakers approved a requirement for paid sick leave and barred employers from asking about criminal history on job applications, although they still can raise the question during interviews and conduct background checks.

“This past session was a tough one in terms of anti-business sentiment,” says Rep. Bill Kennemer, R-Oregon City, who has spent seven years in the House and 10 in the Senate.

Davis says such measures will have little effect on larger businesses with the staff to carry out the new requirements, but “we’re adding on and piling on (small) employers.”

Democrats lead Republicans in the Senate, 18-12, and in the House, 35-25, their largest margins since 2009. Republicans will aim at whittling those margins, if not winning outright majorities, in the 2016 elections.

Kennemer was the top Republican on the House Business and Labor Committee, and Sen. Kim Thatcher of Keizer, whose district reaches north into parts of Washington and Clackamas counties, was on the Senate Workforce Committee — the panels that originated many of those bills.

Thatcher says, however, that small-business opposition helped Republicans modify or turn back some of those bills.

“You made a big difference. The employers were showing up at the hearings,” she says. “Some of them passed anyway, but I will tell you it could have been worse.”

Lawmakers did not advance to a vote in either chamber an increase in Oregon’s minimum wage, which at $9.25 per hour is the second-highest statewide rate in the nation. However, a work group is considering House Speaker Tina Kotek’s proposal to raise it in stages to $13 for the 2016 session, which starts in February.

Lawmakers also put a two-year hold on cities and counties from passing their own measures requiring employers to post work schedules in advance. A bill to do so statewide did not advance in the session.

Meanwhile, lawmakers passed bills requested by Gov. Kate Brown after her predecessor John Kitzhaber resigned amid influence-peddling allegations against him and first lady Cylvia Hayes. A federal investigation is continuing.

“But what did not come out of this session were meaningful ethics bills,” says Rep. Julie Parrish of West Linn, who sponsored her own bills that got hearings but went nowhere.

Brown’s bills expanded the Oregon Government Ethics Commission, reduced the governor’s direct appointees and shortened its period for preliminary review of complaints; barred statewide elected officials and the governor’s designated spouse from accepting pay for engagements, and require a review of how state agencies handle requests for disclosure of public records.

But Parrish says they fall short of what needs to be done, although her records-disclosure bill drew staunch opposition from local governments.

Not all the comments by Republican legislators about the 2015 session were negative.

Davis praised lawmakers for raising the amount available for schools to restart career and technical education programs from $10 million to $35 million in this budget cycle.

Kennemer won legislative authorization for a license plate to raise money for breast cancer awareness. His first wife died of breast cancer.

Parrish won a commitment for development of an urban hardwood industry that could produce wine barrels from white oaks in Clackamas County.

Thatcher, upon request, introduced a bill to take Oregon off Daylight Saving Time, although she made it clear she would not endorse its passage. It got a lot of attention and a committee hearing, but went no further.

“It’s interesting to see how legislation can take on a life of its own,” she says.




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