5 min read

Batten Down The Hatches

Legislature wrangles over social policy and budget politics as it heads down the session's home stretch.

The Takeaway

Oregon lawmakers are bracing for a doubleheader of controversial measures next week, with the session’s most prominent social policy bills taking center stage on the House floor. On Monday, the House will hold its final deliberation and vote on HB 2002, which expands access to abortion and gender-affirming care. The measure, a top priority for legislative Democrats, has become one of the session’s most emotionally charged issues. And on Tuesday, the House will proceed with another controversial measure, HB 2005, raising the age to purchase a firearm to 21, allowing local governments to prohibit concealed weapons on their property, and banning "ghost" guns.

The Takeaway is a weekly session publication making sense of Oregon politics and policy. Every Friday while the legislature is in session, we publish a review of the week’s prominent topics and controversies. Subscribe to The Takeaway to receive these newsletters in your inbox!

In anticipation of long days on the floor, the House Speaker ordered all committees to cancel their meetings for next Monday and Tuesday. While the cancellations signal a lull in policy activity, at least for the first few days of the week, lawmakers are expected to remain busy on the floor, with some expecting the floor session to drag into the evening hours.

Joint Semiconductors Punts on R&D Tax Credit

While the legislature is without its mainstay political fights over new or higher taxes—at least at this point in the session—that does not mean it is still without tax controversy. On Wednesday, the Joint Committee on Semiconductors voted on a proposal to advance a renewed research and development tax credit to the end-of-session tax-writing committee. For many weeks, the committee was expected to deliberate and package a legislative proposal to boost the state’s attractiveness for semiconductor and other advanced manufacturing firms.

During Wednesday’s hearing, however, the committee punted the ball to the tax-writing committee, only sending a shell of a bill for consideration later in the session once the legislature has a clearer picture of state revenues. The move frustrated many committee members, including Sen. Mark Meek (D-Oregon City), who co-chairs the tax-writing committee. Without offering a policy recommendation or direction, those politics will likely play out through the conventional wheeling and dealing that goes on toward the end of the session.

Legislature Inches Toward Interstate 5 Bridge Replacement

Although the renewed effort to replace the 106-year-old Interstate 5 Bridge has not received the same level of attention as previous efforts, such as the Columbia River Crossing Project in the early 2010s, the legislature is closing in on a plan to dedicate $1 billion toward collaboration with Washington state and the federal government. On Thursday, the Joint Committee on Transportation held its first public hearing on the proposal, with environmental and conservative groups fighting over the cost and transit plans for the bridge.

Another concern in the committee is the role of tolling as a funding mechanism to pay for new infrastructure projects. Some lawmakers and interest groups fiercely oppose the idea of using tolls to pay for new bridges and highways, believing it hurts local communities. Notably, a bipartisan and bicameral group of lawmakers introduced a bill, HB 3614, delaying tolling for two years, except for the Interstate 5 Bridge. Gov. Tina Kotek (D) also recently balked at the costs of the bridge replacement project, saying the legislature could use its credit for more immediate issues, such as housing and homeless services.

Ways & Means Concludes Roadshow

Legislative budget writers on the Ways & Means Committee have spent much of their recent weekends traversing the state for town hall-style meetings on the state budget. Tonight, the group will hold its final roadshow meeting in Ontario. While crafting the budget began months ago, the work hastens upon their return. On May 17, the legislature will receive its final revenue forecast of the session, giving lawmakers the economists’ best guess on the state of the economy and available revenues.

Considering the economic uncertainty and worries about a recession looming, lawmakers are bracing for tighter budgets. In 2021, flush with federal pandemic aid, the legislature created new and expanded existing programs and services. Those funds have since dried up and the legislature must balance either finding new revenues or programs to slash to balance the books. Thus far into the session, the legislature has avoided serious conversations about searching for new revenues. It will likely come down to the next revenue forecast to tell if that is a feature or momentary quirk of this session.

Secretary of State Under Fire for Consulting Work

On Thursday, Willamette Week revealed that Secretary of Shemia Fagan was moonlighting as a consultant for an embattled marijuana company facing hefty tax liens from the Internal Revenue Service and Oregon Department of Revenue. While public officials are not barred from outside work, it is unusual, especially if it intersects with official duties. Today, Oregon’s Audits Division, housed within the Secretary of State’s Office, published an audit of the state’s marijuana regulations, suggesting they are overly restrictive and put the state at a disadvantage if the time comes when the federal government permits interstate trade of the crop.

The news of Secretary Fagan’s engagement seems to overshadow the Audits Division’s 33-page report on industry regulations, with reporters and political operatives questioning whether the outside employment influenced the audit. And, on Friday, Senate Republican Leader Tim Knopp (R-Bend) and House Republican Leader Vikki Breese-Iverson (R-Prineville) called for Fagan's resignation over the perceived conflict of interest. While the cannabis industry might otherwise be positioning itself for regulatory reforms, politics may stand in the way, perhaps even burying the audit entirely.

What We're Reading This Week

  • Republican legislative leaders are criticizing the legislature’s practice of avoiding policy committees in the other chamber by referring a bill to the budget-writing process, giving the second chamber no opportunity to consider or change measures before they become law.
  • Gov. Kotek and both chambers of the legislature are considering dueling bills establishing campaign finance limits. The will-they-won’t-they debate of campaign finance is reminiscent of past sessions where all the ideas were left on the table.
  • After two years without a permanent Legislative Equity Officer, who manages conduct and other personnel-related matters within the Capitol, the Joint Conduct Committee recommended the legislature hire the executive director of Vermont’s Human Rights Commission for the post.
  • A new rule from the Oregon Government Ethics Commission requires school board members to file statements of economic interest to disclose their sources of income and promote government transparency against conflicts. In an eastern Oregon school district, however, the rule was enough to convince all of its members to resign.
  • A bill passed by both chambers of the legislature would allow any city in the state to use photo radar to catch speeding drivers.

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