Minimum wage, clean energy and cannabis are three of the top issues in the Oregon State Legislature this year. Lawmakers from throughout the state are in Salem this month for the annual legislative session. On Feb. 1, the 2016, 35-day legislative session began. In 2010, the Oregon Constitution was amended to add a short session during even-numbered years. During the short session, representatives are allowed to sponsor only two bills.
Central Oregon's Sen. Tim Knopp, [R-Bend], and Rep. Knute Buehler, [R-Bend] announced top priorities for the session. Knopp is championing forest management and reform of the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS). He opposes a minimum wage increase. Buehler, a medical doctor, is the chief sponsor of a bill that would permit pharmacists to distribute naloxone, the overdose reversal drug sold under the brand name Narcan.
Rick Osborn with the Senate Majority Office says Senate Bill (SB) 1570 requires organizational days during the short session years, which gives the Oregon legislators a better running start. "It allows the legislators to participate in trainings rather than doing that during the beginning of the session, so they aren't getting caught up in organizational housekeeping."
SB 1562 will bump up the start day for the odd-year longer sessions to begin in January. Having an organizational day will also give the public more notice when committee meetings take place. Right now, Osborn says a notice is posted 48 hours in advance.
"The extra organizational day with the short session particularly impacts the first week regarding transparency because it allows the bills to be posted prior to the first week's discussions in committee," he says. "It also helps to make the schedule of which bills will be discussed when in the first week of the session clear and transparent to the public."
Early Victory for Clean Energy
Clean Electricity and Coal Transition Bill Passes On Feb. 15, legislators in the House voted 39 to 20 in support of House Bill (HB) 4036 that puts Oregon on a path to eliminate coal from powering our homes and businesses. In Central Oregon, more than half of energy supplied to homes and businesses comes from power generated by coal burning. This bill also includes doubling the amount of clean energy used in Oregon within one generation, by 2040.
"The whole country is in the process of transitioning away from coal. HB 4036 will put Oregon out front as a leader in this effort," says Rachel Shimshak, executive director of Renewable Northwest.
"Today's bipartisan vote is a big step forward, positioning Oregon again as a leader on clean energy and climate. Oregonians want clean energy and healthy, breathable air, and HB 4036 moves our state in the right direction," says the Oregon League of Conservation Voters' Doug Moore.
House Bill 4036 will bring more clean energy jobs to our communities, protect consumers, and affirm our state's commitment to acting on climate change, said Andy Maggi of the Sierra Club. "It's interesting to have folks who are usually on opposite sides of issues coming together to support one plan," says Brad Reed of Renew Oregon.
Senate Bill 1574: Healthy Climate Act
SB 1574 directs the Environmental Quality Commission (EQC) to adopt goals limiting emissions, ultimately reaching a 75 percent reduction below 1990 levels by the year 2050. Farmers in Eastern and Southern Oregon and the Willamette Valley signed a letter stating that climate change "threatens rural communities' future by exposing crops to extreme and unpredictable temperatures, droughts, and floods." The Senate Committee on Environment and Natural Resources recommended that the bill be passed with amendments.
Raising the minimum wage in Oregon won't go down without a fight. Senate Bill 1592, which would have raised the minimum wage to $13.50 by 2019, died in committee. Senate Bill 1532, at the request of the Senate Interim Committee on Workforce and General Government, would gradually raise the minimum wage to $14.75 in 2022 in the Portland Metro area and the rest of Oregon would see a $13.50 wage. Committee member Sen. Knopp does not support the bill and says it would cost an estimated $1.3 billion to Oregon businesses. "The best solution is to increase the earned income tax credit; it directly affects the working poor," he says. "By doing it through the tax structure that's—I think—a much better solution than raising prices for everyone," he says. Sen. Knopp says the costs of a higher minimum wage would fall on seniors with fixed incomes.
The Chair of the Committee, Sen. Michael Dembrow, [D-Portland], says minimum wage workers shouldn't have to live in poverty and doesn't agree with the billion-dollar price tag. "The goal here is to give workers a better chance to be self-sufficient so they don't have to rely on public services or charity," he says. The typical minimum wage worker is a woman in her late 20s or 30s and usually has one or more children to support, according to Dembrow. "If there ever was a time where minimum wage was a training wage for teenagers, it's not true anymore," he adds.
Although Sen. Knopp didn't offer any specifications about the inner-workings of the tax credit, he says the easier solution would be offered in a state refundable tax credit. Sen. Dembrow says if the bill passes, workers will see a 50-cent increase beginning July 1, 2016.
Carrying around bags of cash isn't ideal for legal marijuana business owners, says Rep. Tobias Read, [D-Beaverton], one of the sponsors of House Bill 4094. The bill would mean that financial institutions in Oregon would not face criminal liability by doing business with legal cannabis businesses, according to Rep. Read. "The state and voters have decided that marijuana is legal in Oregon; the questions is how we can proceed responsibly," he says. This sends a "message to Congress that this is a critical problem that we need to solve."
Rep. Read says the federal government has relied on certain points in the Cole Memo, issued by the Department of Justice in 2013. The memo acknowledges that as different states pass laws related to marijuana use, its efforts will focus on specified enforcement priorities like preventing distribution to minors, cartels and preventing violence and the use of firearms in the cultivation of marijuana.
"We hope that it makes it a little bit easier for people who would like to proceed with financial services to legal marijuana businesses," says Rep. Read.
Senate Bill 1511 would prohibit marijuana retailers from collecting taxes on marijuana products if the purchaser holds a medical marijuana card or is the primary caregiver of a cardholder, and would require the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to register all cannabis products including medical grade. The bill is currently in the Joint Committee on Marijuana Legalization and was scheduled for a work session on Feb. 16. Look for an update next week in the Source's full feature on cannabis legislation proposed in the 2016 Oregon Legislature.