For a town hall Ways and Means Committee meeting, last Friday's event at the National Guard Armory was pretty tame. Responsible for hammering out the finer points—the pennies, nickels and dollars—of the biannual budget, the House and Senate committee is traveling the state to hear from constituents. And, in the past, this kind of event has been an excuse to excoriate them, especially in recent years when OSU-Cascades found itself on the chopping block.
But last Friday's meeting was mostly demure, a testimony perhaps to a legislative session that seems more about resignation than charged-up rhetoric.
The timing only added to the subdued meeting: The day before had marked the drop-dead date for bills to receive a hearing or work session. Any bill that hadn't received such consideration was already left for dead, and many of the committee's senators and representatives in attendance had just a day earlier watched their hard work and campaign promises stall out.
Moreover, most bills that did manage to survive the law-making gauntlet now are stuck waiting for budgetary bills to pass, the lynchpin of which is a proposal to reform PERS (see below). So while many people at the meeting spoke about protecting funding for early childhood education and the disabled, or granting $16 million in funding for OSU-Cascades' four-year university, none of those will receive earnest consideration until PERS reform and an accompanying revenue bill pass, which could happen as soon as this week.
PERS AND THE REVENUE BILL
After years of dilly-dallying, the Democratic-controlled Legislature finally looks poised to make some desperately needed changes to the state's retirement system, which is teetering under the weight of more than $13 billion in unfunded liabilities. Several bills were proposed to address the problem, but it is SB 822 that is looking to move forward; it passed the Senate earlier this month and is now awaiting likely approval in the House. Unfortunately, it is the most watered-down of all the measures proposed to tackle the ballooning costs.
Through a combination of cutting cost of living adjustments for retirees, eliminating a tax exemption for retirees not living in Oregon anymore, and delaying contributions to PERS, SB 822 would save about $350 million in the next biennium. It is not nearly as strong as the Oregon School Boards Association plan, which would save $1.3 billion per biennium, but legislators who support SB 822 believe it would be most likely to withstand scrutiny in the courts.
Associated to SB 822 is a revenue bill, HB 2456, which must be passed to justify the weak PERS bill that, if passed, will leave a hole in the state's budget about the size of $275 million. HB 2456 raises the cash by eliminating some tax deductions for the wealthy and raising taxes on corporations, much like Measure 67.
Both bills are hugely partisan. Because it deals with taxes, the revenue bill needs a super majority to pass—that means Speaker of the House Tina Kotek needs every Democrat and two Republicans to pass the controversial bill. It will be a tough sell, but as her aide told the Source on Monday, she wouldn't bring it to the floor if she didn't think it was a done deal.
Nationally, the federal government has failed to enact immigration reform, leaving any changes to the state legislatures. One Oregon bill has already been signed by the governor this session—after heated debate, undocumented Oregon high school graduates will now receive in-state tuition. A second bill, SB 833, is up in the air. The so-called driver card bill would grant driving privileges for four years to people who cannot provide proof of legal residence. The goal is to make sure that the estimated 85,000 undocumented drivers already on the roads know how to be safe and can obtain car insurance. The bill passed the house and is headed for the Senate.
Again, federal inaction on broadening background checks and banning certain guns and magazines is leaving the states to make change. Four deeply divisive Senate bills, each of which responds to the Newtown, Conn., and Clackamas Mall shootings last December, could become major bargaining chips as the session wears on.
SB 347 would allow school districts to prohibit concealed handgun licensees from carrying firearms onto school grounds.
SB 699 would prevent people from openly carrying a firearm into a public building.
SB 700 would require background checks for all private sales and transfers, except between certain family members.
SB 796 would require concealed handgun license holders to take a class from an in-person instructor and then take a written test before the permit is granted.
CITIES COULD WIN BIG
Cities and counties have been hamstrung since the '90s by two voter-approved anti-tax amendments to the state constitution—Measure 5 and Measure 50, which, respectively, capped local taxes at 1.5 percent of property value and dictated that property values could increase no more than 3 percent per year.
Two new bills would partially neutralize these measures. The first bill, SJR10/HJR8 would allowing taxing districts to pass temporary levies to raise revenues for services over and above Measure 5's 1.5 percent cap. The other bill, SJR 11/HJR 13 would tie assessed property values to real market value, which would reset each time a home is sold.
These bills would be major adjustments to state property taxes rules, requiring a constitutional amendment and votes of the people to pass. They face steep uphill battles in the Democratic-controlled Legislature, but would offer much needed relief to cities and counties around the state.
SB 536. The plastic bag ban would have expanded Portland's ban to the rest of Oregon and protected waterways across the state.
SB 850. The notorious get-out-of-the-left-lane bill from Portland-to-Salem commuter Ginny Burdick, is no more, much to speeders' annoyance.
SB 553. Though North Dakota recently passed a bill making it a criminal offense to abort a fetus after six weeks, these GOP interests were thwarted in Oregon.
HB 3460. This bill would limit medical marijuana growers to only three plants, a financially unviable number, growers say.
HB 3014. Oregon schools, including charter schools, will be required to set aside time each day for kids to say the pledge in the presence of the flag. Schools must do this just once per week now.
HB 3403. What originated as a bill mandating healthier snacks in vending machines has morphed into the creation of a 15-person task force called the Healthy Vending Task Force after fierce opposition from conservative sources such as The Oregonian editorial board.