As lawmakers in Salem push toward completion, Democrats and Republicans alike agree that there has been plenty of movement in the Oregon state Legislature. The parties, as one would expect, disagree whether it has been progress or regression.
To hear Democrats tell it, the 74th Legislative Assembly has passed monumental environmental protections, dramatically boosted schools' funding and laid the foundation for a watershed universal health care program.
"We've been moving in the wrong direction for so many years that it is really gratifying what we've been able to accomplish this session," said Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland.
Buckley, a member of the House leadership team, said with Democrats in the driver's seat, "This has been the best year for education and the environment, and one of the best sessions for health care that we've had in a long, long time."
Republicans, however, said Democrats feel propelled by their regained majority status and are using their regained power to pay back their core supporters: the education lobby, labor unions and conservationists.
"At least one of those three (groups) had their stamp of approval on every major bill (passed) this session," said Rep. Dennis Richardson, a Central Point Republican. "I am not particularly happy with this session, but the people put us in the minority."
Richardson, the House Republican whip, said under Democrats' profligate ways, state government spending will increase $2.8 billion, or 18 percent, during the next biennium.
While eschewing such bills as the Oregon Oasis Project that would have created up to 7,000 new jobs by making 500,000 acre-feet of Columbia River water available to naturally arid Eastern Oregon for farming, Democrats instead opted to pursue tax and fee increases, even as state coffers are ballooning, he said.
"What a shame for Oregon. This just proves the old adage that there is never enough money," Richardson said during an interview on Saturday as lawmakers worked to meet the looming June 29 adjournment deadline, known officially as "sine die," which could happen as soon as Tuesday.
Republican Rep. Bill Garrard of Klamath Falls offered a stinging critique of the session: Simply put, Republicans are being "stampeded" by Democrats, who control the House 31-29.
"The Democrats have been saving up things for 16 years, and now they are trying to ram them through in one session," Garrard said.
Among his biggest disappointments this session: lawmakers were not able to agree on how to fund round-the-clock state police patrols.
"But, I am happy with what we got," said Garrard, alluding to the OSP budget that phases in 100 more troopers in the next two years.
As the vice-chairman of the Joint Land Use Fairness Committee, Garrard fought doggedly, albeit unsuccessfully, to prevent Democrat-sought changes to Measure 37, the state's landmark property rights law.
"To me, property rights are civil rights," he said, adding that Democrats are running roughshod over voters by pushing Measure 37 changes.
On the up side, Garrard said, he is happy that before the Legislature shutters its doors this week lawmakers were able to boost money for schools: an 18 percent increase for K-12 and a 22 percent hike for higher education.
"We've turned back, realizing how important education is to everybody," he said. "We've got extra money, and I'm for spending that in the right places."
Asked for his appraisal on Saturday, Rep. Sal Esquivel, a Medford Republican, said without a doubt this legislative session is "more herky-jerky" than the previous, but not in the same way that rancorous partisanship marred the past two sessions.
Why the change? One party rule, for one. The political winds shifted after the November 2006 election, when Oregon voters for the first time in 16 years gave Democrats control of both chambers of the Legislature and the governor's office.
"The majority party is still learning to be in the majority, and the minority party is learning to be in the minority," said Esquivel, known for working frequently with Democrats, especially Buckley.
Like Democrats, Esquivel cites the creation of the state's first structural general fund reserve as one of the session's pinnacle moments.
The so-called rainy-day fund &
opened with $290 million in corporate tax rebates that lawmakers canceled this year &
will help to stave off in future economic downturns the type of deep funding cuts lawmakers made during the 2001-03 recession, when state revenues plummeted.
Meanwhile, one of Esquivel's top legislative priorities &
securing a dedicated funding source for the Oregon State Police &
fell by the wayside after several attempts failed to advance various incarnations of his nickel-a-beer tax increase.
Esquivel said a proposal much less controversial than his proposed tax hike, is foundering in the state Senate, for no reason. He is referring to Senate Bill 338, which would have required that non-certified woodstoves be removed upon the sale of a home, as is already required in Medford, Talent and Jacksonville. The stalled bill would have also provided federally funded grants to help particularly low-income homeowners convert to cleaner burning woodstoves.
"The bill is sitting in somebody's desk, and I don't understand it," Esquivel said. "Healthy and clean air should be everyone's agenda, and this bill doesn't cost any state money."
covers the state Legislature for the Ashland Daily Tidings. You can reach him at email@example.com.
Round and round