Immigration issues on agenda for Ore. Legislature

Oregon's budget woes have dominated the Legislature in recent years, but Salem lawmakers next week are expected to wade into a slew of other hot-button issues, such as providing undocumented residents a driver's license and closing the loophole in background checks for guns.

Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, said he will vote for providing driver's licenses to undocumented aliens, a move that has been enacted in four other states.

"It's controversial, but I support the idea," Buckley said.

Another controversial bill would allow illegal immigrants who have attended an Oregon high school for at least three years to pay in-state tuition at colleges and universities.

A Public Employees Retirement System reform measure proposed by Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber could save the state $865,000 over the2013-15 budget by tinkering with the benefits.

These are some of the issues that will be heard at the Democratic-controlled Legislature, which convenes at 11 a.m. Monday.

Buckley, who is co-chairman of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, said most of these bills likely will get traction this session.

If the Legislature and the governor can agree on PERS and the K-12 education budget by February or March, budget battles won't dominate the session, Buckley predicted.

"If we don't resolve it in February or March, the budget will become the big issue," Buckley said.

Because there's the potential for a legal challenge to any PERS reform, the Legislature will seek a review by the Oregon Supreme Court on any bill.

Buckley said the state's revenue picture has improved, but there is still a $700 million to $800 million gap in providing the same level of services in the upcoming budget.

He said there's a strong push to invest in education to prevent any further cuts and to retain or add more teachers.

Resolving some of the issues over PERS will be key to the education budget, he said.

Buckley said he has been a strong supporter of immigration reform.

He said Oregon schools already have invested in undocumented children who have grown up in this state and have received a K-12 education.

He cited, as an example, a young woman in Ashland who has lived here since she was 7 and maintained a 4.0 grade-point average in high school and wanted to go to a university.

"She is an incredibly bright resource," he said. "Why would we waste this resource?"

He said that providing driver's licenses to undocumented residents would make the roads safer and also force those motorists to obtain insurance.

Buckley said he and Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, have been working on a plan to streamline the oversight of secondary education.

Buckley said the difficulty has been trying to ensure that the large universities don't get more clout over smaller schools, such as Southern Oregon University.

"The regional schools had to be unharmed by this proposal," he said.

Another issue that Buckley has championed for seven years is providing a broader range of health-care coverage, such as speech therapy, to children with autism. He said he's hopeful such a bill will pass during this session.

Republicans, who are in the minority in both the House and Senate, will be largely sidelined by their Democratic colleagues.

Still, legislators from Jackson County haven't embraced some of the bills being proposed and are ready to voice their opinions.

Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, said Oregon already has enough laws on the books to control the sale of guns. Any new measures wouldn't make a dent in criminals obtaining weapons, he said.

"It's like chasing a wisp of smoke," he said. "I think we already do quite an adequate job in the state of Oregon."

Esquivel said he doesn't think it fair that undocumented students pay in-state tuition while citizens living in many other states pay out-of-state tuition.

Providing driver's licenses to undocumented residents also doesn't make sense to Esquivel. He said he's heard the argument that an undocumented resident with a driver's license will be forced to get insurance, but he doesn't buy it.

Esquivel said he will battle against several possible new taxes being suggested this session, including more taxes on cigarettes, soda drinks, beer, gas, mileage and well water.

"I want to prevent Oregon from monitoring your well water and charging you by the gallon," he said. "That kind of thinking is just wrong."

Esquivel said he's perplexed that little mention has been made of job-creation bills that would promote the use of Oregon's natural resources and make a dent in the state's high unemployment rate.

Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, lost his position as co-chairman of the Joint Ways and Means Committee when Republicans became the minority party last November.

Looking at the state's budget, Richardson said he sees insufficient revenues to maintain services at existing levels.

"There is not enough to meet the promises that have been made," he said. "The question is where do you make your cuts."

Richardson said he is still studying some of the bills being put forward, but they are already raising red flags in his mind.

Richardson said that on the surface, he doesn't embrace the idea of giving undocumented students the same tuition as legal residents.

"In the past, I was not willing to pass laws that reward people who are here illegally," he said.

Oregon already has sufficient gun-control laws, Richardson said. For the most part, felons aren't going to be buying guns from law-abiding citizens, anyway, he said. Instead, they will turn to the black market.

"If someone who is an outlaw wants a gun, they will find a gun," he said.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476, or email

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