Homelessness and housing.
Cap and invest.
If you thought the even-year, short sessions in the Oregon Legislative Assembly were all about budget fixes and making small tweaks, think again.
- Source Weekly
Ahead of the short legislative session that starts Feb. 3, Oregon lawmakers are taking on what appears to be a full plate of new business—as well as bringing forth new versions of bills that didn't materialize in previous sessions.
Perhaps the biggest piece of "old business" left over from the 2019 session is a renewed effort to pass a cap and invest bill in 2020. HB 2020 was Oregon Democrats' 2019 effort to mandate increasingly deep cuts in greenhouse gas emissions in the state—a contentious topic that prompted Oregon Senate Republicans to flee the state Capitol, depriving Democrats of a needed Senate quorum to vote on the bill. That was the second time Republican lawmakers absconded last year; the first was in opposition to the commercial activity tax baked into the Student Success Act. That bill passed in the 11th hour of the 2019 session.
While it's too soon to tell whether Republicans will execute a similar strategy and deny a quorum over cap and invest this year, plenty of other topics will fill their plates for the 35 short days that make up the 2020 legislative session. And ahead of the session, plenty of those topics are already up for debate—including the underlying purpose of the short session itself. We checked in with our local legislators to see where they stand on those issues and more.
The spirit of the short session
Before 2012, the Oregon Legislative Assembly convened every odd year—sometimes extending the session extensively, or calling special sessions, to pack in all the necessary business.
But in 2010, Oregon voters approved a measure that allowed for an even-year short session, aimed at honing what lawmakers did during the long session. Some bills still adhere to that spirit.
2020's HB 4009, for example, is a bill aimed at modifying certain provisions of the commercial activity tax. HB 4154 seeks to exempt agricultural, viticultural, horticultural, floricultural and food products from being subject to the CAT.
But the original spirit of the short session has morphed, as legislators have taken on an increasing load in the even years.
"One of my biggest concerns is that the short sessions have turned into just 'mini' long sessions," said Sen. Tim Knopp (R-Bend).
Republicans elsewhere in the state also argue the short session doesn't offer enough time for deep dives into bills. Perhaps nowhere is that more evident than in the mammoth effort currently underway around new versions of greenhouse-gas-reducing cap and invest legislation. Both the House and Senate versions of the bills, released to the public Monday, are long and complicated. The texts alone for each bill—HB 4159 and SB 1530—take hours to fully read and comprehend.
Judy Stiegler was Bend's Democratic representative in the Oregon House from 2009 to 2011, when the legislature passed the bill that referred the short session issue to voters. She said at that time, legislators had concerns about seeing the short session move from "fixes and tweaks" to tackling big legislation.
"Those of us who were discussing this a decade ago—we didn't want to wade into issues we knew needed greater attention and focus. Who's not going to say climate change is a big issue—it is—but is it appropriate to deal with in a short session?" said Stiegler, now a political science instructor at Central Oregon Community College and a Source contributor.
"I am concerned that—especially if we're doing a dual-chamber situation versus a joint committee (the House and Senate each have a version of the bill, though it looks likely the Senate bill will be the one legislators work from)—that the bill will move quickly and people will not have a chance to read and understand any amendments or the bill itself," Knopp said. "Especially people coming from longer distances, I think it's harder for them to participate. So, I'm going to be watching that pretty carefully."
While some have suggested having a longer even-year session, one lawmaker, Sen. Kim Thatcher (R-Keizer), is proposing a bill this year that would do away with the short session altogether.
Short session priorities
While cap and trade legislation will continue to get lots of attention, Knopp and Rep. Cheri Helt (R-Bend) are also focusing efforts elsewhere. Senators get to introduce one new bill each short session; House members get two.
Knopp's bill this session, SB 1541, would freeze property taxes for low-income seniors. Helt is also a chief sponsor.
"I continue to hear from seniors that they're being stretched and having to make choices between paying for their property taxes and their medicine and their groceries," Knopp told the Source. "I don't think they should be put in a position where they continue to have property taxes increase year after year, especially if they're low income, because that has the unfortunate result of making some of them homeless."
Helt's bills include HB 4129, centered around prescription monitoring for veterinarians. Helt told the Source the bill was inspired by the death of Bend dentist, Dr. Marika Stone, who was struck and killed by Shantel Witt while riding her bicycle in 2017. A test of Witt's urine found, among other substances, evidence of Xanax—a drug a veterinarian had prescribed to Witt's dog two days before the crash, OregonLive reported. The bill would require veterinarians to register with a prescription monitoring program established by Oregon Health Authority.
Helt is also chief sponsor of HB 4128, a bill that would require post-secondary institutions in Oregon to come up with an assessment system that uses multiple data points, such as grades and test scores, to determine a student's placement in lower-division math and English courses. Right now, students at community colleges take placement tests for those courses, but as Helt explained, 93% of students at Central Oregon Community College, for example, are "underplaced." Doing poorly on an exam is sometimes attributed to test anxiety—which can ultimately cost students more in course fees to complete their degrees or programs.
Helt is also working with the chair of the House Interim Committee on Human Services and Housing, Rep. Alissa Keny-Guyer (D-Portland), on services for homeless youth. A renewed bill from last session, HB 4039 would direct $2.5 million from the state's General Fund toward services for unaccompanied homeless youth. Helt is also a sponsor of SB 1577, which would ban flavored tobacco vaporizer products in Oregon.
The freshman legislator is also a chief sponsor of a child-care package by fellow freshman, Rep. Jack Zika (R-Redmond) aimed at easing the child-care crunch. (Zika did not respond to the Source's requests for information on his 2020 legislative priorities.) Knopp is a co-sponsor.
Helt is also working on an amendment to a speed limit bill that would allow for lowered speed limits in chain-up areas on mountain roads.
Cap and invest, part two
At the federal level, the results of a November Pew Research Center poll showed that 67% of Americans believe the federal government is doing too little to mitigate the effects of climate change. But like the battle at the state level, views were divided largely by party. That view of the government's role was shared by the vast majority of Democrats (90%, which included independents who tend to identify with Democrats), with 65% of moderate or liberal Republicans (and right-leaning independents) agreeing. Among conservative Republicans, however, only 24% agreed with the statement. Another 26% of conservative Republicans said the federal government was doing too much, according to the Pew poll.
- Pew Research Center
Similar to last year's bill, this year's version would set a cap for greenhouse gas emissions in the state and would force big polluters to obtain "credits" for each ton of greenhouse gas they produce. The sale of credits would bring in money aimed at investing in climate resilience and a "de-carbonized" transportation system. Over time, the state would lower the emissions cap, making the standards tighter over time. The goal is to lower emissions to at least 45% below 1990 emission levels by 2035 and to at least 80% below 1990 levels by 2050.
One criticism of the 2019 bill was how it might have disproportionally affected rural communities. This time around, Democrats have proposed splitting the state into three geographical areas. Under this version, the Portland area would begin seeing more regulation, including increases in fuel prices, starting in 2022. Cities such as Bend and Eugene and others selling more than 10 million gallons of fuel per year would see changes starting in 2025. Among the most rural counties of the state, 19 counties would need to sign onto the program before they would see more regulation and increased fuel prices—though if they don't participate, they'd only be able to access a small portion of the funds received through the program.
- Pew Research Center
Another concession: reserving some of the money from the sale of credits for a fund for wildfire mitigation.
But another part of the plan that hasn't been as popular is the plan to make parts of the cap-and-invest scheme exempt from public records law.
HB 4159 reads, "It is the policy of this state that the market-based compliance mechanism of the Oregon Climate Action Program operate free of abuse and disruptive activity. It is therefore the intent of the Legislative Assembly that the provisions of this section and sections 5 (3), 27, 29, 30 and 31 of this 2020 Act be implemented in a manner necessary to prevent fraud, abuse or market manipulation..." and that certain rules "shall be treated as confidential business information."
That raises the hackles of people, including journalists, who want to see how public funds are being brokered.
"I have concerns about public records requests," Helt said in reference to the bill. "I want to make sure this bill is transparent. I think the people who are spending money should be accountable in the same way that I am accountable to the voters."
Knopp agreed, saying, "The government has proved over and over again that they are worthy of scrutiny by the public, so it concerns me that we would have a bill that deals with what they admit is hundreds of millions of dollars where there may not be the kind of public access or scrutiny or access or transparency that needs to be there. It feels like it takes us backwards from where we were at least in regard to that."
Knopp also said he's concerned that the bill won't make provisions for adding electric vehicle infrastructure in the state, and in rural communities in particular.
"I think it's a certainty that we're going to move to electric vehicles; the question is, is Oregon going to be ready for that? And this bill certainly doesn't move us in that direction in terms of helping—which you would think that it would," Knopp said.
The governor's stance
Short session or no, Democrats say mitigating climate change needs to start now and can't wait another year.
In remarks to the City Club of Central Oregon Jan. 23, Gov. Kate Brown reaffirmed her support for passing greenhouse gas-reducing legislation this year.
"Central Oregon is changing fast, but is still very much a natural resource-dependent economy, meaning it is often the first region to see the impacts of climate change, in crops and bottom lines," Brown said in a press release. "Left unchecked, climate change will have devastating effects on all that we hold dear. I am committed to crafting climate policy that protects our environment and also grows our economy. In Oregon, we can do both."
- Courtesy E2 Solar
- Gov. Kate Brown poses for a photo with E2 Solar staff during her visit to Bend Jan. 23.
On the same day as the City Club forum, Brown visited the new net-zero-energy building of E2 Solar, a Bend-based solar installer. E2's owners said they discussed with Brown the overwhelming response to the new Oregon Solar + Storage Rebate Program, passed by the Legislature in 2019 and launched Jan. 22, which issues solar rebates for solar electric systems for residential customers and low-income service providers. Just days after the program's launch, half of the rebate funds were already spoken for, E2 Solar reported.
Meantime, Bend's lawmakers—at least for the time being—are taking the wait-and-see approach to Democrats' 2020 cap and invest bills.
And to the big question of whether Republicans will walk again over greenhouse gas caps? That's also a wait-and-see.
"I think generally, it should be a last resort," Knopp said. "I think it was effective in drawing attention to the bill—and drawing the attention of the public to that bill—because I think it was just sliding through and people had no idea what was going on, and so it brought a lot of attention to it. You could see that in the polling where people were much more aware of the bill during and after the walkouts than they were before."
Voters, too, may have a say. On Tuesday, representatives from the SEIU 503 union filed two initiative petitions meant to keep legislators in Salem during the session. In a press release, chief petitioners Andrea Kennedy-Smith and Reed Scott-Schwalbach wrote, "If Oregon legislators want to stay in office and continue collecting a paycheck, they must show up to work." Those measures could appear on Oregon voters' November ballots.