Oregon lawmakers return to Salem on Monday, beginning five weeks of debate over gun control, marijuana legalization, the proposed Columbia River bridge and a wide variety of other matters big and small.
The pace will be fast, since the state constitution allows the session to last no more than 35 days without an unlikely bipartisan vote to continue beyond March 9. Most non-budget bills not scheduled for a committee hearing by Friday will be dead.
In recent years, legislative leaders have prided themselves on their ability to broker compromises on thorny issues. After the 2010 election, they dealt with a massive budget shortfall while navigating a 30-30 tie in the House. Last year, lawmakers approved a package of contentious legislation that cut public-employee retirement benefits while cutting taxes for some people, raising taxes for others and blocking local governments from banning genetically modified crops.
Senate President Peter Courtney, a Salem Democrat who is Oregon’s longest-serving sitting lawmaker, said he frets about the Legislature’s ability to continue that record, especially with a time limit that’s “inhuman.”
“I think we’ve set the highest bar in the nation for how a legislature’s supposed to function,” Courtney said. “It’s tough to live up to that session after session after session.”Voters approved the time limits in the 2010 election, when lawmakers promised to keep their sessions short in exchange for the authority to routinely meet every year.
“In the short session it’s very, very difficult to move things through if there’s opposition,” said Rep. Val Hoyle of Eugene, the No. 2 Democrat in the House. “I think things will happen quickly. Bills will die, a few will pass, and I’m looking forward to getting to work.”
Meeting with reporters and newspaper editors from around the state last week, legislative leaders promised a bipartisan tone. But House leaders also traded sharp barbs, setting the stage for the election season that will immediately follow.
The deadline to file paperwork to run in the May primary is March 11, two days after the deadline for lawmakers to wrap up their work. That means those who anger their partisans risk drawing a primary challenger. All 60 House seats and half of the 30 Senate seats will be on the ballot in November, when the parties will jockey for control of both chambers.
A fight over pensions and taxes, which dominated last year’s legislative session, is largely off the table after lawmakers backed the compromise during a special session in October. The debate over a proposal to replace the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River and extend Portland’s light-rail network into Vancouver, Wash., which lawmakers approved last year, will be back. Advocates are pushing an Oregon-only project after Washington lawmakers declined to fund it.
Democrats in the Senate are pushing to require a background check whenever a gun owner sells or gives a firearm to someone other than a relative. The proposal is already generating strong passions on both sides, but isn’t likely to go far in a Senate that declined to approve a nearly identical bill last year.
Lawmakers also are likely to debate how the state should respond to a push to follow Washington and Colorado in legalizing marijuana for recreational use. Even lawmakers who oppose the idea grudgingly say it’s likely to happen in Oregon, but there’s strong disagreement over whether the Legislature should write its own regulations in an attempt to pre-empt advocates from submitting their own directly to voters.