Legislative session opens as Democrats push agenda

Bolstered by a widened majority, Dems are pushing voter registration, the clean fuels standard and class-action money measures. An Independent party emerges; Obama’s budget reinstates timber payments.

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Monday marked the first day of the 2015 Oregon legislative session and the democratic majority wasted no time promoting its agenda.

The Portland Tribune summed up the initiatives:

  •  Automatic voter registration for people 18 and older, unless they choose to opt out, when they obtain or renew driver’s licenses. The House Rules Committee heard House Bill 2177, which unlike 2013, has the support of Oregon’s county clerks.
  • A state standard for fuels that will generate less in carbon emissions. The Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee heard Senate Bill 324, which would extend the standard past a scheduled 2015 expiration.
  • Use of unclaimed money from class-action settlements for Legal Aid programs. The House Judiciary Committee heard House Bill 2700, which differs from last year in that a judge would have discretion to award 50 percent to Legal Aid and 50 percent to programs related to the issue that prompted the class-action lawsuit.

The Associated Press quoted lawmakers on why they are moving so fast in the early-going of the session:

“We feel this is completing unfinished business from the last session,” said Rep. Val Hoyle of Eugene, the No. 2 Democrat in the House. “Things we ran on and said if we got a majority we would do.”

By moving forward quickly on some of their most provocative measures, Democrats can prevent them from becoming bargaining chips later in the session. They could come up for a vote in the House or Senate as soon as next week and reach Gov. John Kitzhaber’s desk quickly: “They definitely have the votes to pass,” said Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum, a Portland Democrat.

The fight over fuel standards featured a heated debate, reports the Statesman Journal:

Senate Bill 324 would require companies that sell gas, diesel and other fuels to reduce the percentage of carbon in those fuels by 10 percent over the next decade. The law originally passed in 2009, but it had a “sunset” of Dec. 31, 2015, which meant it is due to end on that date.

This new bill would extend the law and adjust some of its requirements.

The Portland Tribune reported that Republicans are using First Lady Cylvia Hayes’ alleged ethical missteps as a reason to delay the measure:

“We think that there’s a process for dealing with that and it will work its way through,” Rosenbaum said of questions surrounding whether Hayes and Kitzhaber misused their public positions to benefit Hayes’ consulting business.

The Oregon Government Ethics Commission is considering whether to launch a formal investigation of Hayes and Kitzhaber, and a decision is expected in March.

Another potential hot-button issue is the liberal-leaning legislature’s effort to expand voting access. OregonLive.com reports:

[Secretary of State Kate] Brown, telling the House Rules Committee that her “goal is to put a ballot in the hand of virtually every eligible Oregonian,” made several changes aimed at satisfying concerns raised when she first pushed the proposal in 2013.

The Democratic secretary of state said her new measure, House Bill 2177, gives prospective voters a longer time to opt out of being registered, and provides more privacy protections for minors registered in preparation for their 18th birthday. In addition, Brown said her agency would more tightly limit the age of driver’s license data it used to register voters.

While lawmakers are discussing bills, Oregon could become the first state in the country with three recognized political parties as the Independent Party of Oregon announced it has the numbers to be considered major.

The Statesman Journal reports:

The party, whose mascot is an elk, now has 108,744 members. That is six people beyond the requirement (5 percent of eligible voters in most recent election), party Secretary Sal Peralta said. It is up to the office of Secretary of State Kate Brown to verify all the members and make the official pronouncement that the Independent Party is, in fact, a major party. If so, it would change elections in two ways, Peralta said.

First, it would allow the Independent Party to participate in the May primary election, which is run by the state. Currently, the party runs its own elections during the summer. In the future, it would enjoy the same service from the state that Republican and Democratic parties do, with official ballots sent to members. Second, it would change how Independent Party candidates are nominated.

Despite being in session for a day, Lane County officials are already miffed by a proposal in Salem, according to the Register Guard.

The proposal in question could result in slashed state funding for Lane County’s district attorney, sheriff and jail staff, leaving them scrambling to meet state goals of lower jail populations and costs. Two years ago, law­makers passed House Bill 3194, sending $15 million over two years to help counties keep repeat-­offending criminals from cycling back into county jails and state prisons.

Called Justice Re­investment Grants, the program brought $1.4 million to Lane County over the past two years, helping to fund parole and probation supervision, restoring a GED program at the jail, and helping nonprofit agencies offer drug treatment and counseling.

At the Federal level, President Barack Obama released his budget Monday.

Included in that plan would be a reinstatement of timber payments, the Bend Bulletin reports.

The spending initiatives are all familiar to Central Oregon. The Secure Rural Schools program, which compensated timbered counties for harvest declines on federal lands, led to more than $2.8 billion in payments to Oregon counties from its creation in 2000 until it lapsed at the end of September. Earlier this year, Interior Secretary Sally Jewell issued an executive order, instructing federal land managers to work with local officials to develop a science-based strategy for minimizing the destructive effects of rangeland wildfires on the sage grouse’s dwindling habitat.

And members of Oregon’s congressional delegation have introduced legislation that would pay to fight the top 1 percent of wildfires — which account for 30 percent of suppression costs — through the Federal Emergency Management Agency, just as is done with hurricanes, floods and tornadoes. The White House also included the wildfire proposal in last year’s budget, but neither effort made much headway. The plan hopes to end “fire borrowing,” the practice within U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management in which the agencies raid other programs’ accounts when fire-suppression funds run out during increasingly intense fire seasons. While the other accounts are often backfilled, the work, including fire-prevention efforts involving removing hazardous fuels from overburdened forests, is often delayed or postponed.