It's been nearly three months since Democrats officially stormed into office as the majority party in both houses of the state legislature, finally bringing the state under control of progressive, levelheaded lawmakers.
Now that they're approaching the midway point of their once-every-two-years session, it's time for a check up. What have they managed to accomplish in three months? Have they been able to overcome objections from Republicans, and—more importantly—conservatives in their own ranks? Will the 2007 session be one that sets the stage for future Democratic control of the state, or will it be a memory of broken promises and unrealized potential?
In past years, lawmakers have waited until the last month of the session to really get going, sending bills and compromises flying out of every legislative orifice. Does that make this too early to start passing judgment? Absolutely not. Early detection is the surest way to beat a horrible disease. So here's a list of some of the proposals that have made it, some that are on life support, and some that are still waiting on a diagnosis.
First, The Good News
After months of fits and starts, both the House and the Senate finally approved the creation of a sensible "rainy day" fund by temporarily suspending the "corporate kicker." In layman's terms, it's a savings account that the state can tap when the economy goes south. In good years—years like this one—the savings account will get beefed up; in poor years, lawmakers will have a pot of money to help pay for vital services that would otherwise get cut. Part of that money comes from the general fund, and part of it comes from the "kicker," the massive tax refund that largely goes to out-of-state corporations.
No matter which side of the aisle you're on, that's just sensible lawmaking. But the path to victory was lined with landmines. First, leadership from both parties came to an agreement—small Oregon businesses would still get their "kicker," but large corporations would have to forgo that money for the good of the state. Shortly after that deal was reached, Republicans began rebelling against their leaders, pledging to vote against any corporate "tax cuts."
Ultimately, Democrats in both the House and Senate gathered enough votes to pass it, ensuring that needed revenues won't be frittered away to large corporations.
Last Thursday, March 15, in another victory for common sense, the House voted to require insurance companies to cover birth control prescriptions, effectively expanding access to contraception across the state. The bill, HB2700, also provides emergency contraception for victims of rape and incest. Unsurprisingly, this would never have passed in the days of Republican power.
We Won't Know Until We Run Some Tests
In January, Democrats came out swinging with fists filled with bills—but noticeably absent was any mention of civil unions or protections against discrimination for gays and lesbians. In fact, Governor Ted Kulongoski avoided the topic during his inaugural address—a far cry from the impassioned plea he made in his 2005 State of the State speech.
In late February, though, as the deadline to introduce bills approached, lawmakers delivered SB2, which bans discrimination based on sexual orientation, and HB2007, which creates civil unions.
On Monday, March 12, the Senate Judiciary Committee—after a meeting peppered with testimony from ancient, fact-challenged homophobes—passed SB2, which will now move on to a full Senate vote. HB2007 has been assigned to a committee in the House, but at press time no hearings had been scheduled.
There's no way to know how successful this pair of bills will be, but the prognosis for gay equality is already much better than it was in 2005. Then, both bills were combined into one bill, SB1000, which didn't make it out of the Senate until late in the session, and then died in the House when then-Speaker Karen Minnis refused to give it a hearing. In 2005, the challenge was convincing moderate Republicans to vote for it—this year, the challenge will likely be convincing conservative Democrats not to vote against it.
Just as tentative is the fate of meaningful initiative reform. Last year, the Mercury reported on rampant, widespread violations of signature-gathering laws—and that the secretary of state's office was ill-equipped to investigate them. Enter HB2082, which would enact a series of reforms to protect the initiative process, including mandatory training and ID badges for all signature gatherers, and keeping convicted forgers from carrying petitions for five years.
The bill, though, hasn't made it out of the House Elections Committee, since it's still going through amendments.
"It's not dead or stalled," says a staffer for Representative Diane Rosenbaum, chair of the Elections Committee, adding that it'll be voted on by the end of April, when every bill has to be out of its original house.
We Did Everything We Could, But I'm Afraid It's Dead
Even a stalled bill has a better fate than SB505, which was an attempt by Governor Kulongoski to come up with a compromise to deal with the fallout from Measure 37, the law that requires governments to pay land owners for lower property values. The problem: SB505 didn't make either side happy, and earlier this month Kulongoski declared it dead.
So now what? Well, there's SB833, which is similar to SB505, but gives local governments a year and a half to process M37 claims—giving them a suspension of sorts. Of course, that year and a half would put us awfully close to November 2008, the next general election. Some observers believe that the legislature will come up empty on M37 reforms, and this battle will go to the ballot box.
Before the session started, Speaker of the House Jeff Merkley said he planned to have the session wrapped up by the end of June. Aside from a special one-month session that's scheduled for next February, that means that lawmakers have just a few short months to deliver on the promises of The Great Blue Wave of 2006.
Diagnosis? We'll just have to wait and see.