We've Got the Majority. Now What? 

With Democrats in Power, Will it be a Field Day for Oregon Activists? (Answer: Not by a Long Shot.)

Just two weeks ago, Democrats in Oregon did it: They reclaimed the majority in the state House of Representatives. Now—after two years of a split legislature in Salem preceded by years of Republican control—one party—the Democrats—controls the House, Senate, and the governor's mansion. It's time to get shit done.

Progressive and left-leaning groups across the state are gearing up for a productive legislative session. House Democrats have already laid out an agenda that includes plenty of liberal ideas—like jumpstarting the alternative energy industry, providing health insurance for all children, and beefing up funding for higher education. Meanwhile, groups from the Oregon Conservation Network to Basic Rights Oregon are putting the finishing touches on their legislative wish lists—the sort of things they'd like to accomplish in Salem in 2007, now that their political fortunes have changed.

"It's good to think about ideas that were impossible once, and are now in the realm of the possible," says Evan Manvel, executive director of the Bicycle Transportation Alliance.

Next year's session will hopefully be a stark contrast to the 2005 session. Not only were many promising and deserving bills shot down in the Republican-controlled House (and sat upon by a timid Senate), but also many didn't even get a hearing thanks to club-wielding leadership. The biggest example was Senate Bill 1000, which would have created civil unions and non-discrimination protections for gays and lesbians. The Senate stalled on the bill for months before finally passing it to the House, where Speaker Karen Minnis shelved it before representatives could even have a debate.

There were plenty of other egregious examples. Senate Bill 1037 would have fixed many of the flaws in Measure 37, but the House stuffed it with provisions that would've given large land developers even more power to screw with land-use laws. And on House Bill 3481, which would have created incentives and requirements for clean energy, industry lobbyists successfully stuffed it with rollbacks to pollution controls, dooming the entire package.

By the end of the session, only a few notable bills got through: the Real ID Act, which is designed to reduce fraudulent IDs and drivers' licenses, updates to the campaign finance disclosure system, and stricter statutes of limitations on sex offenses involving minors.

THE WISH LISTS

For good reason, activists around the state—the people who stand up for issues like reproductive rights, gay rights, the environment, transportation options, and affordable housing—are thinking next year will be different.

Basic Rights Oregon (BRO) may still be strategizing, but spokesperson Bryan Boyd says it's safe to assume the group will push once again for the goals of 2005's SB1000—civil unions, and an anti-discrimination law.

"We don't know how we'll proceed with it—whether it's split, whether it's one bill... none of that has been determined yet," he says. They're encouraged, however, that many Democrats expressed support for civil unions on the campaign trail. "We helped get these people elected and now we have to hold them accountable to what they've said."

Land-use planning advocates 1000 Friends of Oregon will keep their eye on Measure 37. "Our big focus is on fixing this train wreck," says spokesperson Eric Stachon. They may ask legislators to put the brakes on Measure 37 so a workgroup can take a closer look at the law's practical consequences, and recommend changes.

At the Bicycle Transportation Alliance, Manvel—who is fortunate to have cycling advocates on both sides of the aisle—thinks the funding outlook will be better next year.

"We've been working on our 2007 legislative agenda for eight months... but now some things that were less possible become more possible," he says. "We're looking at asking for new funding for things like a statewide system of bike trails." He'd also like to see the next transportation-funding package, Connect Oregon, include funding for projects that benefit cyclists. "There hasn't been an earmark for bicycles in the past. "

He'd also like to see stiffer penalties for drivers who severely injure or kill cyclists, and federal transportation safety dollars doled out more equitably for cyclists.

The Housing Alliance, a coalition of groups working on everything from tenants' rights to increasing the stock of affordable housing, was "confident that we would be successful, regardless of the outcome of last Tuesday's election," says Alliance member Ian Slingerland of the Community Alliance of Tenants. "There is growing bipartisan recognition across the state that safe, affordable housing is central to the health of our communities.

Without gridlock in Salem, however, their agenda—which includes things like a request for $100 million to build and maintain affordable housing, and help for tenants displaced by condo conversions—has a better chance of sailing through.

The Oregon Conservation Network (OCN) has an aggressive agenda that dovetails with the House Democrats' campaign pledges: They'd like 25 percent of Oregon's electricity coming from renewable sources (wind, solar) by 2025, an expansion of the recycling program so electronics don't end up in landfills, a package that promotes the biofuels industry, and closure of a loophole that lets industries dump toxics into rivers.

"Having Democrats in control of the House helps the environmental conversation," says Sybil Ackerman of the Oregon League of Conservation Voters (the OLCV is an OCN member). "This is a sea change in how our issues are heard. [With Minnis out as speaker] we can have real debates on the real issues."

Our Oregon has a wide-ranging agenda, from eliminating tax breaks for companies who ship jobs overseas, to firming up the state's payday loan regulations, pushing for expanded healthcare coverage, and even exploring a "right to privacy" in the Oregon constitution.

The City of Portland will be voting on a legislative agenda in December, but a draft is already circulating city hall: The city's in support of the Housing Alliance's $100 million for affordable housing goal, and the OCN's biofuels agenda.

Oregon AFL-CIO wants a "Workers Freedom Act: so employees aren't forced to attend religious or political meetings; Stand for Children will request a $300 million investment fund for K-12 education; and the Tobacco-Free Coalition of Oregon plans to push for a tobacco control package, including a "comprehensive smoke-free work place law"—i.e., a smoking ban.

Phew. That's a lot to get done.

THE REALITY CHECK

As exciting as a Democratic majority in the legislature may seem, the reality is that the session will need to be far more measured than many interest groups (and Oregonians) would like. The Dems' majority in the House is razor slim, and since many of the new Donkeys are from moderate—or even conservative—districts, progressive legislation will be far from a slam-dunk.

"Even though we have the majority, we still have to proceed with the same amount of caution and strategic vision," says Boyd at BRO.

Ackerman, at the OLCV, says they'll be taking a similarly pragmatic approach: The big challenge will be convincing moderate and conservative lawmakers that protecting the environment doesn't equal a loss of jobs. The Conservation Network won't move on any piece of legislation unless it also helps create jobs, improve the economy, and protect habitats.

There's also a very clear possibility that the legislature will become inundated with a flood of ideas, all from groups who've been waiting years for just such an opportunity. Lawmakers will have to juggle those interests with the nuts-and-bolts issues—like funding education and public safety—all within a span of six or so months.

On top of all that, the fact remains that corporate lobbyists will still have a far greater hold on even Democratic lawmakers than smaller public interest groups—and that could spell roadblocks for many progressive ideas.

The biggest challenge for opinion leaders will be to keep a realistic check on progressives' excitement. "Part of the joy of being a legislator is being able to bring in ideas you care about," says new Speaker of the House Jeff Merkley. "But the message I have to deliver is, 'Let's not get lost here. We were elected to promote core issues that affect every Oregon family.'"

"I want the tone to be that we're diving in with a strong sense of urgency—that we're hitting the ground running," Merkley says. Then, when the core issues—healthcare, education, and fiscal responsibility—are in the can, the legislature can move on to the larger goals, like civil unions and a ban on gifts from lobbyists.

But progressive groups may not have a whole lot of time to squeeze their ideas in; Merkley wants to shut the session down "in a timely fashion, possibly by summer." Once that happens, barring a special session, that window will close until 2009.

It's no wonder, then, that organizations are already planning for reality. Says 1000 Friends of Oregon's Stachon: "The biggest thing to worry about is expectations being too high."

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