Oregon lawmakers continue to struggle to find the right mix for the short, even-year legislative session. They adjourned last Saturday after leaving a much-ballyhooed cap-and-invest bill sitting in committee along with a constitutional amendment to treat health care as a right.
Yet, lawmakers did notch notable accomplishments by tightening gun restrictions on domestic abusers, updating the state’s advance directives statute, requiring more transparency on drug pricing and changing the governance structure of Salem-Keizer Transit in return for future access to a local payroll tax.
And lawmakers didn’t totally avoid controversy. With largely Democratic votes, the legislature approved a bill that disconnected from the recently adopted federal tax cut to prevent Oregon small businesses from taking advantage of a previous Oregon tax concession and a new lower 20 percent federal tax rate. There were rumblings Governor Kate Brown might veto the state tax measure, which drew strong opposition from business groups.
The short session also served as a shadow boxing venue for Brown, who is seeking re-election this fall, and her most prominent GOP challenger, Rep. Knute Buehler of Bend. During the session, Buehler laid out his planks of his campaign platform, such as additional investments in child welfare and taking stronger measures to curb the opioid epidemic in Oregon. Brown responded by asking for $14.5 million more for child welfare case workers and pushing her own priority opioid measure.
The shadow boxing hasn’t stopped with legislative adjournment. Buehler called on Brown to veto the Democratic tax bill scrapping a small business tax break. If Brown vetoes the legislation, Buehler will claim credit. If she doesn’t veto the bill, he will condemn her for denying a tax break to small businesses.
The short session was shorter than the 35 days constitutionally allowed. Republicans wanted to head to the beach for the annual Dorchester Conference. Others sped north on the freeway to attend a retirement roast for veteran homebuilder lobbyist and stand-up comic Jon Chandler. Still others braced for filing deadline Tuesday.
As predicted after Senate Democrats hoisted the white flag on cap-and-invest legislation before the short session started, there wasn’t a lot of drama in the Capitol hallways. There was a lot of pressure, however. Short sessions resemble the flurry typical in the last month of a regular legislative session. One lawmaker observed, “In a regular session, there are deadlines followed by time to get work done. In the short session, there are just deadlines.”
Perhaps notwithstanding Brown’s potential veto of tax legislation, GOP Senator Brian Boquist is entertaining a legal challenge clarifying what legislation is truly a “revenue raiser” and on whether a measure to disconnect from the federal tax code that generates new revenue can be approved without a three-fifths majority vote.
In all likelihood, the dawning of primary election season will overshadow what did or didn’t happen in the short session. The primary will be held May 15, which is less than 10 weeks from now – plenty of time for campaign coffees, lawn signs and mailers.
Dale Penn II is a partner and leader of the CFM’s state affairs team. He has been deeply involved in government relations and regulatory affairs in Oregon for more than 12 years and was active on behalf of a range of clients in the 2018 Oregon legislative session.