Your 2016 Session: Sorting Through The Wreckage Of The State Legislature’s In-between Session
For decades, Oregon held a bi-annual legislature, with lawmakers meeting every other year instead of staying constantly in business like California and, well, most states; it was a quaint holdover from colonial days and perhaps an indicator that sleepy Oregon just didn’t have enough legislative business to occupy a full-time docket.
But six years ago, the Oregon legislature put on its big boy pants, changed that rhythm and held its first between-years session, a 35 day gathering of state senators and representatives primarily intended to manage any housekeeping that happened to arise between the every-other-year session, and to not let the dust fully settle on the capital building between sessions.
But with the recent 2016 session, which wrapped up in early March, the seams were ripped open on that concept of limiting the every-other-year session to basic housekeeping matters as activists pressured the governor and legislature to take up more pressing matters and greatly expanded the agenda to issues like gun control, student debt, global warming, affordable housing and whether the Newfoundland should be the official state dog.
Because this latest session happened as quick as a tornado whipping through a trailer park, the Messenger is happy to provide some forensic exploration about what happened over the several weeks in Salem—and offer some talking points so that our readers can sound informed and up-to-date with the comings-and-gone from the latest session.
Chiefly, minimum wage and carbon were the two biggest elephants in the room (note the ironic use of the term, as the Republicans were hardly a presence in the latest session, as the GOP occupied a minority position). With activists threatening to file ballot measures for both issues, the governor and legislature were forced to either consider the matters on their own terms, or accept potentially more dramatic measures at the ballot box in November. In both insistences, that tactic seemed to served well as Governor Kate Brown quickly signed into law a three-tiered increase, ratcheting up wages in the Portland-area to $14.75 an hour by 2022 in Portland, and $13.50 and $12.50 in other areas of the state.
As well, another threatened ballot initiative to mandate carbon emission reductions forced lawmakers hands, with the ultimate passage of the Clean Electricity and Coal Transition Bill. (For more detailed coverage of the bill, check out our last issue.)
But it was not all wins for environmental matters, as a companion bill, the Healthy Climate Bill, which intended to create “a market-based carbon reduction system,” failed. (In the “stalemate” column for the environmental category: Senate Bill 1557 was introduced to ratify the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife decision to remove the state’s 85 gray wolves from the endangered species list; that bill failed to receive a vote, leaving the wolves’ vulnerable status untouched.)
Just as the short session allowed for fast-tracking certain issues and agenda, it also had a limiting effect on other thorny matters, like public safety and gun control. The short session simply did not allow enough time for full consideration of several controversial bills. For example, a measure to allow police officers involved in fatal shootings to petition a judge to shield their identities passed the House, but it failed to reach a vote in the Senate.
Similarly, a bill to lengthen the amount of time the state police had to do a criminal background check for gun purchasers before the sale is approved automatically did not have enough time for a full vote. That bill, in particular, was tied to one of the recent mass shootings—and concerns that guns were being sold to persons with severe mental health issues. A year ago, a white supremacist killed nine churchgoers at a Bible study in Charleston, South Caroline. In that shooting, it was discovered that the shooter had legally purchased a .45-caliber handgun even though a background check on him was not completed. Oregon House Bill 4147, sponsored by Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson (D-Portland), would have closed what is known as “the Charleston loophole,” as currently a handgun may be purchased three days after paperwork for a background check is filed, even if the background check isn’t completed and even though the turnaround time for a background check is closer to 42 days. Although supported in the House, that bill failed to have a full vote.
The legislature also took advantage of the between-years session to manage some pressing issues, like affordable housing and foster care. With rental prices soaring around the state—up more than 60 percent in the past decade, while median income only has risen 40 percent—lawmakers have been trying to pump the brakes on real estate prices. For the past three sessions, legislators have tried to overturn the state’s ban on “inclusionary zoning” (only one of two in the country). With Senate Bill 1533, they finally managed to provide local jurisdictions the opportunity to require developers to include a certain number of affordable housing units in new projects.
But, in the same session, lawmakers also passed SB 1565, which accommodates developers by providing a five-year tax break for any new industrial property costing $1 million (but less than $25 million). Originally proposed in 2015 to exempt the new Willamette Valley Vineyards tasting room, the bill was colloquially known as the “subsidized wine” bill.
As well, defining marijuana laws was also a top order for the last legislative session.
State Rep. Tobias Read (D-Beaverton), who’s running for state treasurer, introduced a bill to exempt from state laws financial institutions (namely, banks) that provide services to marijuana producers, processors, wholesalers, retailers and researchers. That bill passed—and helps clarify what role banks can play in the marijuana business. A bill specifying that recreational marijuana retailers would not be allowed to collect sales tax from medical marijuana card holders, however, did not receive a vote.
Another big item on the agenda was tightening oversight and regulations for foster care in the state. With alarmingly high rates of foster care placement in Oregon (about 50 percent above the national average), and some recent alleged abuses, Sen. Sara Gelser (D-Corvallis) introduced SB 1515, which was nothing less than an overhaul of the Department of Human Services, which funds and regulates foster care; the bill creates higher standards for licensing and certifying foster care providers. The so-called Children’s Safety and Dignity Bill sailed unanimously through both chambers, showing that none of the elected are actively—or at least publicly—against protecting children.
And, oh right, perhaps the biggest party pooper of the session: HB 4140 passed, and bars the release of sky lanterns, with the risk of a $2000 fine. Yeah, kill joys!