2013 Oregon Legislative Session Filled With Disappointments, Victories

By Chris Lehman

Oregon lawmakers had hoped to finish up their legislative session over the weekend. But it didn’t work out that way. Instead, the final gavel is expected to fall sometime Monday. Democrats control both chambers and the governor’s office, and they claimed a series of victories. But many of the highest-profile agenda items didn’t go as planned.

It wouldn't be a legislative session without some high stakes drama. And it's hard to think of a more tense moment than a late-June meeting about Oregon’s public pension system. Lawmakers had already trimmed cut cost of living increases for retired public employees. Now the legislature was talking about even deeper cuts. Unions were livid. Long-time union lobbyist Mary Botkin looked straight at the Senate Finance & Revenue Committee and said this:

Mary Botkin: "All I can say is, you probably have the votes. We understand that. I'm just going to close today by saying that we'll see you in court."

Botkin was wrong about the bill’s fate. It died in the closing days of session. But she was right about seeing lawmakers in court. A coalition of public employees unions is suing to overturn that separate public pension cut approved earlier. It's one of three major pieces of legislation that generated a lot of controversy, but are still unresolved. Here's another example. Take a listen to what Governor John Kitzhaber says as he finished signing this bill back in March.

John Kitzhaber: "We have a bridge."

Did you hear it? The governor said "We have a bridge." He was signing a measure to authorize $450 million in taxpayer money to help build a new span on Interstate 5 over the Columbia River. But Oregon didn't have a bridge. The Washington state Senate saw to that when it adjourned in late June without voting to approve that state's portion of the mega-project. Here’s another piece of legislation...

Crowd chanting: "Si se puede, si se puede."

...this one’s possibly headed to the ballot. A huge crowd gathered in front of the Oregon capitol in May. Governor Kitzhaber signed a law allowing people in the country illegally to get four-year drivers licenses.

John Kitzhaber: "Hoy estamos aqui para celebrar…"

But no sooner had the governor affixed his signature than opponents announced plans to collect voter signatures to force a statewide referendum.

Tina Kotek: "Good morning everyone. Please rise for the flag salute."

The legislature did make history this session. The House elected Portland Democrat Tina Kotek as Speaker. That made her the first ever openly lesbian leader of any legislative chamber in the United States. But the distinction soon faded into the background as the Democrat quickly found herself caught up in partisan squabbles. In April, Kotek suffered a political setback. She was counting on two Republicans to support a tax hike for schools. But those yes votes evaporated at the last minute.

Tina Kotek: "I’m disappointed that partisan conversations got in the way. We should have moved forward with the bigger package. But we'll keep working on it."

Democrats did keep working at the issue all the way up until the closing days of the session. That’s when they tried to advance what they dubbed “the grand bargain:” a package that combined tax hikes with what the Republicans wanted--deeper cuts to Oregon’s public pensions system, known as PERS. GOP Senators like Senator Fred Girod were suspicious of linking the two issues.

Fred Girod: "So if we voted for this bill and the PERS bill, it could go over to the House where we know they don't want the PERS bill. And all we end up with is the revenue bill. That's not a grand bargain. That's terrible."

The tax measure went down to defeat, and the pensions cut was tabled. Both decisions meant less money for schools. But even so, this year schools and human services received a boost in funding. That’s because anticipated tax revenues continue to rebound after the economic downturn.

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