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Christian Smith-Socaris on August 20, 2009 - 11:53am
The over-riding theme of the legislative session this year was how to resolve a $4 billion budget deficit. However, unlike many states, Oregon's legislators successfully avoided the worst cuts through fair revenue generators and spending cuts. They also continued to push forward on key issues like the environment, worker's rights, and healthcare. On several issues, such as climate change, the governor put forward an agenda to lead the nation and in other areas strong progressive legislators set out similarly ambitious goals. In many instances compromises tempered the boldness of the final product, but in most cases some real progress was made.
Tax, Budget & Stimulus: The budget gap was covered through a combination of $2 billion in spending cuts, use of federal stimulus dollars and $733 million in new tax revenues. While many decisions were contentious, the overall plan to balance the budget appears to be viewed by the public as fair and balanced with a recent poll showing 62 percent of of voters were in favor of the legislative actions, with 48 percent "strongly" in favor and only 26 percent opposed. Still, Oregon is a state with a strong anti-tax, anti-government minority and members of this group are now trying to put repeal of this sessions tax increases on the ballot in January. Referral is likely to involve multimillion dollar campaigns pitting an unprecedented coalition of business and allied groups against well-funded public employee unions determined to fight off further budget reductions should the tax increase referrals fail.
- Fair Share Tax Reform: The most significant new revenue comes from raising the states corporate income tax, a long-time progressive goal in a state where the minimum tax was unchanged from 1931 at $10 [HB 3405]. Lawmakers also increased the marginal tax rate for households making over $250,000 per year [HB 2649]. The final key revenue generator will be a 6-cent-per gallon increase in the gas tax to help fund transportation projects, but the additional levy won't begin until there are two quarters of job growth, of Jan. 2011. And to make sure that targeted tax breaks are actually benefiting taxpayers, all tax loopholes will sunset after six years.
- Stimulus and Transportation: $300 million per year has been committed to transportation capital projects [HB 2001]. This is expected to create 4,600 jobs each year for five years, though the inclusion of some questionable highway projects lead environmental advocates to oppose that bill. The state also implemented its own $175 million non-transportation stimulus to provide critical maintenance and energy efficiency projects at state-owned buildings, which is expected to create or save 3,200 jobs [SB 338]. The state has also completely allocated the entire $224 million in recovery dollars for road construction.
Worker's Rights: With an increasingly labor-friendly legislature, solid gains were made for workers this session.
- Worker Freedom Act: In a major victory for organized labor, SB 519 prohibits employers from discharging or disciplining employees who refuse to "attend or participate in an employer-sponsored meeting ... [with] the primary purpose ... [of communicating] the opinion of the employer about religious or political matters." This legislation responds to business union-busting efforts, as well as instances where employers try and coerce their workers into supporting political candidates favored by the employer.
- Whistle Blower Protections: HB 3162 expands the reach of Oregon's whistleblower protections applicable to private employers. Under existing law private employers are prohibited from discriminating or retaliating against an employee who in good faith reports criminal activity by any person, cooperates with a law enforcement agency conducting a criminal investigation, causes a complaint to be filed against any person, brings a civil proceeding against an employer, or testifies at a civil proceeding or criminal trial. House Bill 3162 expands whistleblower protection to any employee who "in good faith reported information that the employee believes is evidence of a violation of a state or federal law, rule or regulation." An employee asserting a claim under the new legislation can do so with the Bureau of Labor and Industries or in court, subjecting the employer to potential civil liability on the employee's claims.
- Contractor Accountability and Transparency: Lawmakers introduced legislation that would have implemented model reforms for monitoring the activities of private contractors doing work for the state. Unfortunately, the legislation, HB 2867 and HB 2500, was watered down substantially in committee. Under the final bills there will be some new standards for government agencies that want to contract-out work that could be done in-house, and a one-stop website where the public can access general information about how state agencies are spending tax dollars will be created.
One good bill that didn't get through was H 2831, which would have added temp workers to public employee bargaining units, but failed by two votes in the Senate.
Health Care: Especially given the budget crisis, the state made very strong gains in reforming healthcare. Two major reform bills passed, H 2009 streamlines state health functions and implements reforms to promote electronic health records, develop an end-of-life-care registry, establish evidence-based clinical guidelines, and plan for workforce needs. It also creates the Oregon Health Authority, the Oregon Health Policy Board, the Health Care Workforce Strategic Fund and the Oregon Health Authority Fund. H 2116 funds medical coverage for 80,000 children and an additional 35,000 low-income adults. Another victory was protecting, and increasing, funding for Oregon Project Independence, allowing seniors to stay in their homes by providing in-home care services [SB 5529].
Broadband: HB 3158 establishes the Oregon Broadband Advisory Council (OBAC) and the Oregon Broadband Advisory Council Fund. The OBAC will focus on encouraging and supporting the deployment of broadband infrastructure as well as broadband supported applications. The OBAC will consist of representatives from the education, health care, public safety, telecommunications, and government sectors and will report on the affordability and accessibility of broadband and the extent of broadband technology use in energy management, education, government and the telehealth industry.
Environment & Energy: A united effort on the part of advocates and strong leadership from legislators made this another historic session for environmental protection.
- Water Management: Considered one of the most significant environmental bills in a generation, the state will now have a comprehensive, pro-environment water policy [HB 3369]. Highlights of the bill: protects streamflows in the Columbia River for migrating fish; requires environmentally appropriate standards and eligibility requirements for use of state monies on new water storage projects; and for the first time, place statutory protections on peak and ecological river flows, a key determinant of river health.
- Habitat Conservation: Three bills will protect Oregon from the costly damage of invasive species with increased fines, mobile check stations and emergency response funds [SB 571, HB 2020, HB 2220]. The state will also designate and develop the first two pilot marine reserves and guide the study of four others along Oregon’s coast (HB 3013).
- Climate & Energy: While none of the energy legislation passed in the form environmental advocates or the governor would have preferred, the state continued to improve its response to the climate crisis with three bills. SB 79 improves building codes for energy-efficient homes and buildings. SB 101 requires that new power plants are at least as clean as combined-cycle natural gas plants, essentially prohibiting the development of coal-fired power generation in the state, and prohibiting utilities from purchasing long-term contracts for importing such power into Oregon. Another important step came with the introduction of a low-carbon fuel mandate. The total life cycle greenhouse gas emissions of gasoline will be reduced 10% by 2020, which will exclude big carbon generators like liquified coal and rainforest-grown biofuels [HB 2186]. HB 2626 sets up energy efficiency programs, including in low-income communities. Unfortunately, the governor's signature cap-and-trade legislation, SB 80, was killed by lobbyists for large pollutors.
- Other Victories: The toxic, and potentially carcinogenic, flame retardant decaBDE will be phased out of household products such as mattresses and computers [SB 596]. In addition, fines for environmental pollution were increased for the first time in more than 30 years, and phosphorous will be banned in automatic dishwasher soap, protecting watersheds. SB 637 requires that schools adopt integrated pest management plans, helping to reduce children's exposure to pesticides. And, lastly, SB 676 permits the production, trade and possession of industrial hemp commodities and products. The new law sets up a state-regulated program for farmers to grow industrial hemp which is used in a wide variety of products, including foods, cosmetics, body care, clothing, tree-free paper, auto parts, building materials, and fuels.
- Budgets: With a huge deficit to fill education was poised for serious cuts of up to 30%, however, in the end lawmakers were able to significantly reduce though not eliminate the pain. Particularly hard hit were operating budgets for universities and community colleges, which were cut by nearly 10 percent while tuition increases were capped at 9 percent for the large universities and 6.5 percent for the small universities. One reprieve came in 27 percent more money for building projects. In the K-12 budget the legislature overrode the governor's veto to provide a $6.0 billion biennial budget that provides more even funding for schools by setting aside only $200 million in reserve for the second year, instead of the $400 million the governor wanted to hedge against falling revenues.
- Virtual Schools: SB 767, establishes increased transparency and financial accountability from virtual or online charter schools. The bill also calls for a two year moratorium on approval of new virtual schools and limits the expansion of existing schools to allow time to evaluate the educational quality, accessibility, and financial accountability of these institutions.
- Anti-Bullying: In a major victory for LGBT youth and other students who find themselves harassed and persecuted at school, protected-class language was added to the state's bullying law [HB 2599].
Housing and Consumer Protection: Consumers scored a variety of victories this session. Housing reforms were also achieved, but usually after bills were substantially watered down.
- Housing Opportunity Bill: Creates a dedicated revenue source for affordable housing with an estimated $15 million in funding for the 2009-2011 biennium [HB 2436].
- Bonds to Preserve Existing Affordable Housing: SB 5535 provides $19.4 million, $16.3 for multi-family housing with federal rent assistance, and $3.1 million for manufactured home parks.
- Foreclosure Reform: Unfortunately gutted before passage, the bill does require that lenders meet with borrowers and try to agree on loan modifications before foreclosure [SB 628].
- Mortgage Loan Originators: HB 2189 requires originators to be licensed by the state and have a federal ID number, and HB 2191 creates a registry of debt managers.
- Group Facilities: SB 287, HB 2138 and HB 2442 establish new rights for residents of nursing homes, adult foster homes and residential care facilities, and provide the Department of Human Services with the authority to take strong actions against facilities that are failing to prevent abuse.
Elections: A few significant reforms to the elections process made it into law.
- Ballot Initiative Reform: Importantly for a state that has faced significant problems with ballot initiatives being driven by right-wing zealots who have used fraud to get their pet policies on the ballot, the initiative system will be better protected from fraud and forgery by giving the Secretary of State more time and more tools to help crackdown on fraud [HB 2005].
- Ballot Access: The state will introduce fusion voting, where a candidate can be the nominee of multiple political parties, and decreasing the burdens on independent and third-party candidates trying to petition onto the ballot [SB 326].
- Internet Voter Registration: With efforts to overhaul voter registration practices sidelined by budget constraints, lawmakers still managed to pass internet voter registration [HB 2386], a low-cost measure that will be especially helpful in registering young voters.
- Youth Voting: Plans for encouraging students to register and vote will now be required of high schools, and voter registration and voting education will be incorporated into the state's essential learning skills curriculum [HB 3473].
- National Popular Vote: Passed in the House, but failed to get a vote in the Senate [HB 2588].
Criminal Justice: Facing spiraling costs for prison construction, the state had to look for savings in its correctional budget. However, the District Attorney's Association was dead set against reform. Another challenge was implementing the new mandatory minimum sentences that voters approved for drug and property crimes (Measure 57), a regressive policy toward addiction-driven crimes that is going to needlessly drive prison costs in the state. However, advocates and leading progressive legislators were able to build super-majority consensus around HB 3508, the criminal justice omnibus bill. The legislation institutes several important reforms, and continues the implementation of Measure 57 until February 15, 2010 and then it will be suspended until January 1, 2012, resulting in an estimated $25 million in savings. Increased sanctions will still apply to those committing fraud on the elderly, delivering a controlled substance to a minor and selling significant amounts of a controlled substance. Other provisions:
- Merit Time: Increases the maximum eligible earned time from 20% to 30% for non-violent offenders. This provision applies retroactively and is expected to save $6 million.
- Probation Violations: Changes the maximum amount of time a judge can sentence a person to spend in jail on a technical probation violation from 180 to 60 days, unless the person has committed a new crime, yielding a savings of $10 million.
- Probation Merit Time: Sets a minimum amount of time a person must serve on probation and allows for up to a 50% reduction in the length of probationary period if the person complies with the terms of probation; estimated savings is $1 million.
- Inactive Supervision: A person on post-prison supervision may be transitioned to inactive supervision after six months for crimes in categories 1 to 3, and after 12 months for crimes in categories 4 to 10; estimated savings is $5 million.