7 Things to Watch for in the 2013 Legislature

Democrats sit in the Governor's office and control the Oregon House and Senate as the 2013 legislative session approaches with an enormous agenda full of weighty issues. (Credit: Associated Press)Oregon lawmakers are trekking to Salem for the start of the 2013 legislative session next week, which will feature heavy-duty issues such as education funding, higher education restructuring, health care transformation, prison sentencing, PERS reform, gun control and funding for a new I-5 bridge over the Columbia River.

Here are seven things to look for as the new session unfolds:

1. Leadership – New versus old 

The three key leaders in the House — Speaker-Elect Tina Kotek, Majority Leader Val Hoyle and Minority Leader Mike McLane — are all new to their posts. They worked together during the historic 2011-2012 power-sharing sessions, but how they relate to each other in this new environment with Democrats in control will be worth watching — and may very well determine whether some big issues will move or stall.

Across the building, Senator Peter Courtney will be sworn in for a historic 6th term as Senate President. Joined by Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum and Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, this team has worked together and knows how to negotiate in the tight corners of narrow Democratic control. 

2. Pace of the Session 

The budget has always set the pace of legislative sessions in Oregon. With one of the most experienced Joint Ways and Means co-chair teams in decades, the budget-writing committee possesses the know-how to make early decisions and move the session along quickly.

Their hold-up may be on major decisions on PERS and provider taxes that are called for to fill $600 million-$1 billion of assumptions in Governor Kitzhaber's proposed budget.

Since Oregon voters approved annual sessions, there is a new wrinkle in legislative scheduling. Lawmakers convene next Monday for three days of organizational meetings, then take a two-week break before returning in earnest in early February. The short break helps the legislature avoid wasting their constitutionally allotted session days with make-work informational hearings.

3. From Co-Chairs to Vice Chairs 

After a session in which all committee decisions in the House were made by Democratic and Republican co-chairs, we are returning to the world of one-party control. A major subplot of the session will be the relationships between former co-chairs, who are now in the role of chairs and vice chairs of committees. One Democratic chair already indicated his interest in continuing to hold joint office hours with his vice chair, just as they did when they were co-chairs. That may not always be the case in every committee.

4. Point of Conflict

During the 2011 and 2012 sessions, the point of conflict was often in the House with a 30-30 chamber, where at least four legislators had to agree on everything. Now with a governing Democratic majority in the House, the point of conflict will move to the Senate where Democrats continue to cling to a slim 16-14 majority. Two or three moderate Democrats could create a management challenge for Senate leaders.  

In preparation for this reality, the Senate President Courtney has appointed a few committees with equal numbers of Ds and Rs and even given some Republicans a gavel.

Even with a firmer grip on the majority, House Speaker-elect Kotek tapped two Republicans, who previously voted with Democrats on controversial tax provisions, to chair Ways and Means subcommittees.

5. Public Safety Juggernaut 

While there will be a number of issues that will raise heartburn for one party or another this session, one issue that causes both parties to tie themselves in knots is public safety.

In an effort to address the report from the Public Safety Commission in a bipartisan/nonpartisan way, the presiding officers in both houses established a Joint Committee on Public Safety co-chaired by two Republicans and two Democrats, with equal numbers of Republican and Democratic members.  If this committee can produce legislation acceptable to both sides, this may be a new way for legislative leaders to deal with thorny issues.

6. The 91st vote 

Governor Kitzhaber's third term has been dominated by his legislative successes during the 2011 and 2012 sessions. His ability to work with, and around, the legislature during his return to the middle office has been nothing short of impressive. Will he be able to continue his line of successes with both houses controlled by Democrats, including issues such as changes to the Public Employee Retirement System? Will the leaders of both houses be able to go home without the help of the Governor?

7. The Freshmen 

When the legislature convenes next week, 20 new legislators will be engaged in their first long session. 

Two are so-called "red shirt" freshmen — appointees who have now been elected to their first full term and will be learning the ropes in their first long session. Four are returning freshmen — legislators who served previously and are either returning to service or moving to a new chamber with new rules. The remainder are true freshmen, brand new legislators learning the process for the first time. 

These 20 members will change the character of their chambers and caucuses and will most certainly be looking to make their mark during this session. How or whether they choose to work together may produce an interesting storyline.