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Suman Raghunathan on April 19, 2010 - 2:18pm
Despite its brief legislation session, Oregon's State Legislature used progressive revenue increases to protect key priorities and pass major progressive bills to expand economic justice for job seekers and those seeking credit, extend environmental protections, protect religious freedom of teachers, stop predatory banking practices, and protect public employee whistleblowers.
A Smooth Budget Session Following Voter Approval of Progressive Revenue Increases: The Oregon State Legislature's 2010 Special Session began just days after the state's voters overwhelmingly approved two important ballot measures to ratify important laws passed in 2009 that would temporarily increase personal income and corporate taxes on the state's wealthiest residents and corporations. The two ballot measures, Measures 66 and 67, spearheaded by the Vote Yes for Oregon effort, are widely viewed as a progressive approach to dealing with the state's $4.2 billion budget deficit for FY 2010 and 2011 by temporarily increasing taxes on the state's highest-earning households (those with annual incomes above $250,000) and increasing the minimum tax on corporations operating in the state. Measures 66 and 67 will generate over $700 million in state revenue in the coming fiscal year.
Combined with budget cuts from the 2009 session, reserve funds, money from a tax amnesty program and reduced green energy tax incentives, the state was able to address an estimated $185 million deficit shortfall, although there are still worries that the state will likely face additional shortfalls when the legislature meets in 2011. With HB 3680, legislators reformed the business energy tax credit (BETC) to save the state $54.4 million in the current biennium and $86 million in the 2011-2013 biennium. A major success was approving SB 5565, which ensures that the $6 billion budgeted over two-years for public schools would be delivered to school districts around the state.
To help spur local job growth, the state approved HB 3698, which establishes the Building Opportunities for Oregon Small Business Today (BOOST) program to provide grants and loans to small businesses (less than 100 employees) in order to create full-time positions and fill the positions with employees who had been unemployed for at least 60 days.
Education Reforms: To support improved educational accountability and transparency in online education, HB 3660 will establish improved governance and finance models and promote access to online learning for students with disabilities and other obstacles. A second bill, HB 3688, makes illegal the practice of offering cash “incentives” for enrollment in a charter school.
With major implications for non-discrimination against observant Muslims and others, the state passed HB 3686, which will allow teachers or other public educators to wear religious garb but makes the effective date two years from now while a task force to review some of the complex legal issues involved. The bill will overturn a law banning religious dress dating back to the early part of last century when the legislature wanted to prevent nuns from teaching in the public schools.
Workers Rights and Wage Standards: With the passage of SB1045, the Job Applicant Fairness Act, Oregon joined Hawaii and Washington to become only the third state in the nation to bar employers (with a few exceptions) from using job applicants' credit histories as a screening tool during the hiring process. Despite opposition from the major credit agencies, who have attempted to draw a connection between poor credit and an employee's likelihood to commit fraud, hearings on the bill allowed advocacy group Our Oregon to build on public frustration with banks, creditors, and now credit agencies who have preyed on consumers-- all to build support for economic fairnesss. Our Oregon also worked to highlight and capitalize on the credit agency TransUnion lobbyist being forced to admit in a public hearing, "At this point we don't have any research to show any statistical correlation between what's in somebody's credit report and their job performance or their likelihood to commit fraud."
A couple of bills will ensure that public monies support decent wage standards in the state. HB 3651 will require that the prevailing wage be paid on public works projects involving the construction or installation of solar energy systems on premises, structures, or buildings owned by a public body. HB 3618 will modify the law governing home care services to provide workers’ compensation to more home care workers beginning January 1, 2011, and makes such workers eligible for representation and collective bargaining.
Stopping Predatory Banking Practices: The State Legislature also expanded consumer protections in the home loan and credit arenas. HB 3706 adds home loans and credit products (previously exempt) to the state's consumer protection law, the Unlawful Trade Practices Act. As a result, the State Department of Justice and private individuals now have the ability to prosecute big banks and lenders when they engage in predatory lending. Many other states' consumer protection laws already include consumer credit products. The state's payday lenders must now obtain a license to conduct business with the passage of SB 993; and HB 3610 allows homeowners facing foreclosure who are denied a loan modification the right to demand to see their lenders' calculations.
In another move fueled partly by anger over abuses by large banks, HB 3700 will allow public bodies starting in 2013 to deposit public funds in a credit union instead of a bank for the first time in order to reduce fees and maximize resources for public services.
Environmental Protection: On the environmental front, the Legislature passed HB 3613, which provides a ten-year extension of the state's moratorium against offshore drilling. Environment Oregon reports a coalition of environmentalists, fishermen, and coastal residents joined forces to continue this protection of Oregon's shores and marine life. The state also approved SB 1059, a statewide effort to plan and coordinate livable communities that reduce transportation-related greenhouse gas emissions - the product of 'grasstops organizing', according to Environment Oregon.
Unfortunately, the governor vetoed HB 3704, a measure approved by the legislature that would have allowed for the creation of an Oregon Beverage Cooperative to create drive-through redemption centers to assist bottle recycling and potentially replace the individual store redemption system currently in place in the state.
Environmental advocates report they came very close to passing SB 1009, which would have imposed a ban on the chemical BPA in children's products. The proposed measure died in a deadlock 15-15 vote on the Senate floor, underlining the sustained clout of the plastics industry. Advocates report continued hope next year for a state Senate bill to ban plastic bags, which had widespread and bipartisan support, but was ultimately sacrificed to allow a floor vote for the bill to ban BPA. With the demise of this bill, advocates are planning to advance SB 1009 in the 2011 legislative session and prevent plastic bags from floating into the Pacific from the state's waterways.