This evening, the legislature adjourned its regular session after 23 weeks of operating in a unique pandemic environment. Although the session was unlike any before, lawmakers spent their final days in a familiar situation—long days navigating floor votes and, in some cases, managing controversies.
Earlier in the week, the Ways & Means Committee advanced an omnibus policy package to revamp the state’s ability to fight and mitigate wildfires after last year’s catastrophic fire season. The measure, S.B. 762, includes more than a dozen new programs and nearly $200 million in additional resources for communities across the state. On Tuesday, Democrats advanced the measure without any Republican support after a heated debate over a controversial provision requiring property owners in at-risk areas to establish defensible spaces, which could significantly increase costs for rural property owners. Republicans, searching for ways to disrupt the process and create leverage in the final days of the session, turned the measure into a negotiable item. After a long negotiation on Thursday, the presiding officers announced a new special committee to remove the provision and, instead, require the Board of Forestry to address the issue through regulation.
Republicans’ success at negotiating the terms of the omnibus wildfire package ultimately cleared the way for hundreds of other measures to move through the process swiftly. Among those measures were two major environmental initiatives long sought after by Democratic lawmakers and advocacy groups. These initiatives include an ambitious goal to eliminate carbon emissions from energy and a new, first-in-the-nation program to require product and packaging companies to subsidize recycling programs throughout the state. The recycling measure was among the more controversial proposals of the session, with a broad coalition of companies and industry groups arguing the policy went too far and did not recognize the nuances of certain industries. Nonetheless, the measure passed on the slimmest margin possible in both chambers and will continue to require lawmaker’s attention in future sessions.
Democrats also swiftly acted this week to scale back a tax incentive for businesses who report their income on their owner or shareholder’s individual return, such as partnerships and s-corporations. The incentive, created during a 2013 special session, sparked the ire of some Democrats who argued the policy was too generous for businesses and their owners. For several sessions, some tax-friendly advocacy groups and legislators tried to eliminate the incentive or add sideboards to prevent white-collar or larger firms from claiming it, to no avail. In this session, however, Sens. Ginny Burdick (D-Portland) and Brian Boquist (I-Dallas) proposed a measure, S.B. 139, cutting taxes for the smallest firms but limiting the number of larger firms eligible to claim the reduced rates. Ultimately, the detractors of the original policy were able to muscle enough votes to pass the measure.
Through the commotion of the session’s final days, the legislature completed its work to balance agency budgets and discretionary spending. The latter, a closely watched process in any legislative session, was burgeoned by the infusion of more than $2.6 billion in federal money through the American Rescue Plan Act. The budget bills outline billions of dollars in construction, infrastructure, and new programs that would likely be too steep to make a reality in any other session. Additionally, the budget measures dedicate $2 million for every representative and $4 million for each senator to spend on initiatives and projects in their district, so long as the spending meets federal criteria.
Every session has something that makes it uniquely its own. Sometimes it is a new major law or a political dispute that killed a potential new major law. For this session, however, it was the nature of the session itself that perhaps stands out the most. Legislators, advocates, and the public needed to adapt to new protocols that seriously hampered a process intent on interpersonal interaction. In spite of those challenges, the legislature adjourned its session with a day to spare and without the disruptive walkouts experienced in past sessions. In this strange world of the last 15 months, it almost felt, dare to say, normal.