The 2020 session of the Legislative Assembly will open on February 4. City Club members got a preview of the “short session” from three local legislators: Democrats Senator Lee Beyer and Representative John Lively, each representing Springfield Districts, and Republican Cedric Hayden, representing a district that includes southern Lane and parts of Douglas County. Their consensus: low expectations and modest goals, with the prospect of a recurring controversy over climate legislation.
Asked about what would success in the session look like, the legislators agreed that making some budget adjustments, including fixing some issues with the Corporate Activity Tax “CAT” enacted last session, dealing with the $1.2 billion judgment awarded to counties in a lawsuit challenging state forest management and then setting the stage for subjects to be addressed in the 2021 session was about the best that could be hoped for.
Legislative leadership and the Governor agree that dealing with climate issues, by looking at another version of the cap and trade legislation that brought the legislature to its knees are high on their agenda, but the panel agreed that that would be particularly difficult, given there is no agreement among legislators on a solution. As Representative Lively put it: if a bill isn’t right at the beginning of the session, it won’t make it out of the legislature.
By the Constitution, the session is limited to 35 days (with the possibility of an extension of a very few days), and the legislative calendar requires that bills introduced get through their first committee within one week, an almost impossible task if there are an amendments. In response to a question, Representative Hayden supported the ide of doing away with the short session, which he described as a mad dash to get nothing done.
The panel agreed that one issue that called out for work was gaining ground on community mental health issues. They pointed out that almost half of the people confined in state hospitals were sent there by the courts to determine if they were fit to stand trial for a crime. While it costs $1,400 a day to house these people, they get little other than custodial care. Mental health professionals, and legislators, agree that the services they need, services that would help them reconnect with their communities, are best delivered in a community setting, not in the state system. The challenge is that not only is there inadequate funding for community mental health programs, but there is widespread opposition any time a proposal is made to site a facility in a neighborhood.
Budgetary issues the session will focus on include adjustments to the CAT designed to address unintended impacts, particularly on agriculture, as well as the $1.2 billion judgment awarded to counties. It is possible that the legislature will sidestep that issue, since the judgment will be appealed and there are discussions underway on some sort of settlement. If the legislature does need to address the judgement, the panel pointed out the irony that the only source of funds to pay the judgment would be other funds that typically go to the counties. They would end up taking the money out of one pocket to put it in another.
The cap and trade proposal offered last year is what lead to walkout by Senate Republicans. Although there are discussions on modifications to that proposal, there appears to be no consensus yet. Could this lead to another walkout, the panel was asked. While no one was willing to suggest that might happen, Rep. Hayden said that the existence of a supermajority in both houses left the Republicans with few options to oppose a program with which they disagreed. He noted that the Republicans felt that Democrats weren’t interested in listening to them because they had a super-majority. To some extent, Sen. Beyer agreed, noting that Democrats had walked out in 2001. “You have to use the tools available to you,” he said.
Health care is another issue where partisan differences may stand in the way of action. In recent years the percentage of Oregonians who have access to insurance has declined by 3-4 percent from the 96 percent level. While there is bi-partisan agreement that the goal is “universal healthcare,” they do not agree on the definition. On one hand it could be viewed as a “Medicare for all” approach while other legislators, like representative Hayden, believe that while all Oregonians should have insurance access for healthcare, that it should be a mix of public and private systems.