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PSN on March 20, 2008 - 10:40am
Oregon held an experimental even-year session in February that lasted just three weeks. Designed as a test for a possible switch to yearly legislative sessions (Oregon is one of 6 state legislatures that only meets once every two years), the short duration left little time for resolving controversial issues. Several bills, however, were passed that implement small but important progressive reforms. These reforms were focused on children, families, and the environment.
In support of children and families, Oregon passed several bills relating to education, senior care, foster care, mortgage reform and product safety.
On senior care, the legislature increased the Medicaid reimbursement rates and allocated $12.2 million for adult foster care, assisted-living and residential care centers. This should help ameliorate the problem of low reimbursements leading care homes to reject Medicaid recipients. On foster care, funding was increased by $7.3 million for child-welfare workers.
For homeowners, two bills reforming mortgage practices were passed. SB 1064 increases oversight of mortgage bankers and brokers. HB 3630 requires more complete notification to homeowners facing foreclosure. The bill also regulates foreclosure consultants and prohibits rescue mortgage scams. Two additional bills that protect homeowners from foreclosure managed to pass the House, but died in the Senate under firm opposition from the mortgage industry.
In education, the legislature preserved the ability of schools to charge tuition for full-day kindergarten. This arrangement had previously been struck down in court. Since full-day kindergarten lacks a state funding stream, without the law, schools would have to eliminate full-day kindergarten for approximately 3,000 children. While some lawmakers objected to the practice of charging tuition, agreement on appropriating the 50 million dollars needed to fund full-day kindergarten could not be reached.
On the environmental protection front, bills decreasing energy use and supporting renewable energy and green jobs made it into law, as did a bill promoting long-term planning.
Energy efficiency in government was given a boost by a bill that requires state agencies to reduce their energy consumption 20% by 2015.
Clean energy and green jobs were bolstered by legislation that expanded tax credits to renewable energy equipment manufacturers. The credits were doubled from $20 to $40 million dollars.
Smart growth is being fostered by legislation that moves forward the states 30-year land use review (the "Big Look"). Housing rights were advanced by legislation that prohibits "facially neutral" housing policies if they have a disparate impact on a protected class. This is an important reform in light of the diminished legal protections in this area that have resulted from adverse court decisions.
Criminal Justice: The Oregon Legislature also worked to get out in front of a ballot initiative that would mandate stiff minimum sentences for even first-time drug and property crime offenders. The initiative, which is likely to cost $150 million dollars or more if implemented, will now vie with a legislature-backed initiative that increases penalties on repeat offenders, offers treatment instead of prison for first-time offenders, and will likely cost just a fraction of the more draconian proposal. This attempt to prevent stiff mandatory minimum sentences is vitally important in a state that currently spends more on prisons than any state in the country on a per capita basis.
The legislature also bowed to anti-immigrant attacks and codified (SB 1080) the Governor's Executive Order to bar undocumented immigrants from being able to apply for Oregon's driver's licenses.
In the category of things left undone, Oregon failed to advance health care legislation that would have created a constitutional right to healthcare or to expand health insurance coverage for children.
With just three weeks in session lawmakers had to race against the clock to pass significant legislation. Given the time limitations, several significant steps forward were taken to help improve the lives of Oregonians. Only time will tell if Oregon decides the experiment was a success and moves to yearly legislative sessions.