Activity in the state Senate ground to a near halt May 2, when most Republicans walked out, denying majority Democrats the 20-member quorum needed to conduct business. The walkout continued through this morning.
The walkout, The Oregonian reports, coincides with partisan friction over legislation involving firearm regulations, abortion and gender-related health care. Republican leaders have characterized the action as a protest against the passage of bills that fail to meet legal requirements for readability. The 1979 readability law in question, the Oregon Capitol Chronicle reports, requires every bill summary to be written at the equivalent of a middle-school reading level.
The walkout is the first since the November passage of a ballot measure designed to keep legislators at their desks. Measure 113, which passed by a two-to-one margin, bars lawmakers with 10 or more unexcused absences during a session from holding a legislative seat in the following term. That requirement most assuredly will be challenged in the courts as soon as it bars the first legislator from filing for office. That challenge could indeed happen this upcoming election cycle if the walkout persists.
Walkouts have long been a tactic used by parties in the minority to stall legislative action in Oregon. According to a list compiled by KGW, Republican legislators have staged seven previous walkouts, beginning with a protest over tax legislation in 2007. Before that, Democrats staged three walkouts, the most recent in response to a 2001 redistricting plan.
In the meantime, here’s what else is happening in the Salem:
May 5 marked another important legislative deadline in that bills needed to be scheduled for a second chamber committee vote to remain alive. As with prior deadlines, this does not apply to Revenue, Rules, Joint Ways and Means, or other joint committees. Also, a bill is never dead. Concepts can be kept alive through amendments or priority bills. Nothing is dead until session ends. Nevertheless, the deadline further reduced the overall number of bills, which helps everyone focus a bit more.
Bonus Pay Bill
On May 9, the Senate Committee on Labor and Business will finally hear a bill that would make it easier for Oregon’s employers to retain workers. HB 3205, which would exempt retention bonuses from Oregon’s equal pay act, is the product of much discussion and compromise that would help employers compete for workers with businesses in other states. This is an OBI bill and originally included hiring bonuses as well. Those were amended out in the House after much discussion. The bill saw no opposition on the House floor, but its fate is not certain in the Senate.
HB 3043 would expand Oregon’s Toxic-Free Kids Act by including an ill-defined “classes of chemicals” approach. It was heard by the Senate Committee on Energy and Environment May 3 following passage in the House. The Senate is likely to amend it to make the “classes of chemicals” language more workable. That change would make the bill better, as did a House amendment relating to the original, unworkable expansion of “mouthable” items in the base bill. However, the definition still too vague, and OBI remains opposed.
Last week was relatively quiet on the tax side of things. Thanks to the many people who testified in support of SB 5 on May 5, the R&D tax credit bill we’ve written about before. The key message we needed to deliver was that a credit must be broadly applicable, even beyond the semiconductor effort. Our most recent testimony is here. This week will be busier for tax items. Our bill to give the Oregon Tax Court exclusive jurisdiction over local income tax legal issues, HB 2576, is scheduled for a May 10 work session in the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee. We expect it to advance. In the House Committee on Revenue, HB 2199 and HB 3457 are scheduled for votes May 11. HB 2199 is the important enterprise zone sunset extension bill. We support this bill and are watching it closely for possible amendments attempting to reduce the “cost” of enterprise zones. The Oregon Education Association, the state teachers’ union, has been pushing a plan to carve out the property tax exemption for schools beginning five years after an initial zone exemption has been granted, which would effectively reduce the total exemption by 40%. Paring back the enterprise zone program likely would reduce the tool’s efficacy. HB 3457 would adjust the Strategic Investment Program (SIP) minimum project level upward for inflation. The -2 amendments would further restrict the program by limiting a county’s ability to enter into or negotiate a SIP, creating additional approval hurdles, and significantly increasing program fees. If problematic amendments are adopted on either bill, we will work with stakeholders to ensure a hearty House floor debate, then turn our attention to the Senate.
HB 3055 is scheduled for a May 11 vote in the Senate Committee on Energy and Environment. The bill would require electric utilities to buy more renewable energy from non-utility producers. This type of power has historically been significantly more expensive for utilities to acquire and will increase costs for ratepayers. PGE, Pacific Power, the Citizens Utility Board and OBI have testified in opposition to the bill, but it appears the committee remains intent on moving it.
OBI filed comments on the Employee Commute Options (ECO) draft rule floated by DEQ at the last rulemaking advisory committee meeting. Given the egregious approach DEQ is taking, we are implementing a broader strategy to oppose the proposal, including a coalition letter and legislator engagement. Rules are being updated for the existing ECO program, which was adopted in the late ‘90s in response to high ozone levels in the Portland Air Quality Management Area (Clackamas, Multnomah and Washington counties). Current rules require that employers with more than 100 employees at a worksite in that geographic region must reduce drive-alone commuting by 10% below a baseline. The draft rules propose a 20% reduction in employee commuting in that region. The rules would also expand the program to include all cities statewide with a population greater than 50,000 (there are seven such cities right now) with a proposed 15% reduction in employee commuting for employers new to the program. While these numbers may not seem onerous, the program will be challenging and costly for employers to implement, particularly for employers with a primarily in-person workforce or those not in close proximity to safe public transit options.
I-5 Bridge Funding
On May 4, the Joint Committee on Transportation held a second public hearing on HB 2098, which would provide funding for the Interstate 5 bridge replacement project. OBI has testified in support of the -2 amendment at both an informational session and at the first public hearing. A work session is scheduled on the bill May 16. A recap of current proposals:
- The -2 would fund the bridge with $1 billion in general obligation bonding, reaffirm the importance of the Rose Quarter interchange project, conduct a cost allocation study focused on freight users and stress open competition for procurement and contracting.
- The -3 would require project labor agreements, which could easily increase project costs by $1 billion. It would strip the Rose Quarter affirmation and cost allocation study and require that work on seven interchanges be scrapped if the cost of the bridge exceeded $6.3 billion.
- The -4 would remove the open competition language from the -2 (opening up the bridge replacement to project labor agreements) but is otherwise effectively identical to the -2.
HB 3308, which would establish a broadly supported third-party delivery and training system for alcoholic beverages, was heard by the House Committee on Rules May 4. OBI testified in support of this bill, which would strike a good balance in opening up new delivery options for Oregon’s retailers.