Preview of Oregon’s 77th Legislative Assembly

Sen Doug Whitsett

by Sen. Doug Whitsett

The 77th Legislative Assembly convened last week to organize, to attend orientation classes, and to introduce bills to be considered during the spring session. Members newly elected, or re-elected last November, were administered the oath of office. Both chambers formally elected their leadership, who in turn formally selected committee chairs and appointed all members to serve on various committees. Bills will be assigned to committees and the work will formally begin for legislators on February 4th when the first committee meetings are scheduled to begin.

Governor Kitzhaber delivered the “state of the state” address to the members of both chambers assembled in the House of Representatives. He emphasized four points that specifically caught my attention.

  1. Governor Kitzhaber spoke at length about the critical need to address fiscal reform of the Public Employee retirement System. That system is currently unaffordable for the taxpayer and unsustainable for public retirees.
  2. He also dedicated a significant portion of his speech to describing the divide between urban and rural communities. He acknowledged that most of Oregon outside the Portland metropolitan area is not participating in economic recovery and promised to try to address that inequity.
  3. The Governor reported on the findings of his Public Safety Commission including their recommendations for investing in more evidence based practices and improving corrections outcomes. The objective appears to be to shift how and where corrections money is being spent. The need for appropriate changes is generally not disputed. What is in dispute is the most appropriate method for reducing the cost of incarceration to free up the needed shift in revenue.
  4. Finally, Governor Kitzhaber seemed to make education his first priority. This seemed somewhat incongruous because his recommended budget appropriates about 7.6 percent more funding to K-12 education while increasing spending for human services nearly 20 percent.

My office will spend most of the next three weeks in Salem learning as much as we can by studying, and analyzing bills and budgets that have been introduced as well as any draft bills that are made available.

All legislative bills must be written by Legislative Counsel. This process creates an attorney-client privilege that requires each bill to be kept confidential until introduced, unless that confidentiality is expressly waived by the legislator who requested the bill. For that reason, many bills are simply not made available for study until the time that they are actually introduced.

This Legislative Assembly promises to be contentious because we know that a number of controversial issues will be brought forward for debate.

Just a few of the more contentious social issues that we expect to see introduced include:

  • A bill to provide in-state tuition for undocumented alien students
  •  Multiple concerted efforts to restrict our Second Amendment Constitutional Right to possess and bear firearms
  • Renewed attempts to sanction marriage between members of the same sex

Four of the more contentious financial issues will include:

  • Whether to take action, and what action to take, on reducing the unsustainable cost of paying for the public employee retirement system
  • How to address the escalating costs of providing public safety services
  • Whether to pass a tax on the use of water for irrigation, industrial and municipal purposes
  • And how to pay for a new Interstate 5 bridge across the Columbia River

Both PERS reform and allocation of money to public safety services are most likely to be partisan issues for different reasons.

The public employee unions, that are by far the majority party’s largest source of campaign financing, are uniformly opposed to PERS reform. Some of those unions allegedly exercised significant political retaliation against those legislators that supported and enacted PERS reforms in 2003.

Many minority party members will be reluctant to embrace proposed changes in public safety policies because:

  •  Many of the proposed changes serve to overturn public safety initiatives passed by the people of Oregon
  • The members may not wish to be labeled soft on crime

The legislative process is, unfortunately, a numbers game. Forty eight votes are generally required to enact a law, including sixteen Senate votes, thirty one House votes and the signature of the Governor.

The majority Democrat party is currently represented by sixteen Senators, thirty four members in the House and the Governor. Therefore, a party line vote will enact most laws regardless of how the Republican members of each chamber votes.

A number of years ago the people enacted a constitutional amendment that requires a sixty percent majority vote in each chamber to enact a new or expanded tax. For that reason, tax laws require eighteen Senate votes and thirty six House votes as well as the signature of the Governor. Therefore, a party-line Republican vote in either chamber can stop a new or expanded tax from being enacted.

Finally, any change to the Oregon Constitution requires a two thirds majority vote in each chamber. Amending the Constitution requires twenty votes in the Senate and forty votes in the House. This is particularly important because the criminal sentencing requirements in both Measure 11 and Measure 57 were adopted by the people by constitutional amendment. Obviously, adoption of any changes in these mandatory sentences would require significant bipartisan agreement among the members of the 77th Legislative Assembly.

Senator Doug Whitsett is the Republican state senator representing Senate District 28 – Klamath Falls