Over the past several weeks, we have reported on the mounting tensions growing within the legislature as they approached the final week. Typically, the attention of the legislature is consumed by final end-of-session bills, such as budget and major policy adjustments. Throughout our reporting this session, we have outlined the expectations that voters had from lawmakers as they transitioned towards annual sessions, suggesting that the short, 35-day session in even-numbered years was intended to give an opportunity for lawmakers to make slight program changes to state government and rebalance the budget. Instead, the short session has become a political playground perfect for the election season. Complicating the temperature of the legislature this week was a surprising turn of events, where rogue lobbyists tried to embarrass House Speaker Tina Kotek (D-Portland) by planting a story about her with facts that were blatantly untrue.
During the 2013 Legislative Session, the final week of session was dominated by talks of an agreement on reforming state pension liabilities, increasing taxation for certain businesses and the budget bills. As the legislature adjourns this week, there was no single issue that took center stage. Instead, we witnessed a plethora of bills come out of the woodwork.
On Monday, Governor John Kitzhaber announced a truce between business and labor groups over 12 ballot initiatives planned to be on the ballot in November. Included in the compromise was a widely known “Right-to-Work” initiative, allowing members of public employee unions to opt-out of paying union dues. The measure was believed to be highly controversial as it would be detrimental to the political strength of unions throughout the region. Also included in the compromise was an agreement from union groups to pull several measures that would increase taxes for high-income earners and corporations. The belief is that the removal of these ballot initiatives will allow the Governor, lawmakers and interests groups to work cohesively toward comprehensive fiscal reform in 2015.
On Tuesday, the legislature moved forward on the final version of a land-use “grand bargain” that had been widely reported on by local and statewide media outlets. In 2010, the Metro Council approved an expansion of the Urban Growth Boundary (UGB) and added new lands to urban and rural reserves in Washington County. The plan had been tied up in the courts for several years, and legislation was introduced this session seeking to affirm proposed land-use changes. In mid-February, the Court of Appeals remanded the 2010 plan, sending it back to the metropolitan area counties to amend. After spending several years in litigation, Rep. Brian Clem (D-Salem) and Rep. John Davis (R-Wilsonville) led the charge for the legislature to broker a compromise amongst stakeholders (elected officials, developers and property owners) and allow the plan to go into effect. After late night negotiations, Reps. Clem and Davis emerged with a compromise that received unanimous consent by both chambers.
After being tied up in negotiations for over a week, the legislature made significant headway on a bill allowing cities and counties to place a moratorium on medical marijuana dispensaries. In-fighting in the House of Representatives led to several of the bill’s proponents threatening their votes. However, leadership was eventually able to get members to pass the bill. Wednesday also featured the first late night hearings of the Ways & Means Committee, a clear sign that adjournment was imminent.
On Thursday, the Senate held extensive floor debates on a bill that would reform the rules governing class action lawsuits. The bill was highly controversial, as it would be implemented retroactively and would apply to lawsuits currently in the courts. After nearly two hours of debate, the bill died after a tied vote of 15-15. Some suggested that the chamber held the vote knowing wholeheartedly that the bill would die in order for Senate Democrats to use the vote against Senate Republicans in the upcoming elections. The Ways & Means Committee held late night hearings to finalize the budget bills. Included in the state bonding bill was $200 million for Oregon Health & Science University for the purposes of constructing a new cancer research center.
On Friday, the legislature was in a high speed race to pass the remaining policy bill and the budget bills from the night before. As one chamber waited for the other to send the remaining bills over for passage, they used this time to bid farewell to their colleagues who will not be seeking re-election in November.
There remain considerable growing pains as the legislature adjusts to annual sessions. There are three different perspectives of how the short session should be operated. Some believe the short session should be a playing field for fall elections, using the opportunity to introduce controversial legislation to gain the spotlight. There are some who treat the short session identical to the long, 160-day session, and introduce complex legislative concepts. And then there are those who believe in the justification provided to voters in 2010, that the short sessions are intended for budget adjustments and minor policy adjustments to improve state programs.
In the end, lawmakers adjourned 32 days into the legislative session while only passing a limited number of bills. Regardless of all the political posturing we have witnessed throughout the past five weeks, leadership was able to take care of the issues demanding attention within the voter-approved time frame. While there have been apparent growing pains in the legislature, we believe the institution is slowing learning how to operate within the confines of the short session.