Rep. Jodi Hack takes a photo as the House of Representatives works to vote on all bills and enact Sine Die to adjourn the legislative session Friday at the state Capitol in Salem. [Anna Reed/Statesman-Journal via AP]

Legislature adjourns contentious 2017 session

SALEM — The Oregon Legislature has adjourned the 2017 session — a contentious, nearly six-month period that saw lawmakers pass a range of new laws including a major transportation infrastructure package, restrictions on guns and tobacco, expanded health care for undocumented immigrants, mandated cost-free abortions and a balanced 2017-19 budget.

The session officially wrapped up Friday by a vote in both chambers to adjourn "Sine Die," a Latin phrase marking the end of their time in Salem for the year. With the constitutionally-required deadline of July 10, adjournment came three days ahead of schedule.

It began in early February when the state's budget hole stood at $1.8 billion, but progress stalled early on due to gridlock between Democrats and Republicans over a tax hike on businesses that resembled labor unions' Measure 97 and ultimately failed late last month.

While lawmakers eventually balanced the state's $21 billion operating budget and passed several major policies, changes to the state's pension system, tax structure and health care plans, among other things, were delayed for another year.

That may ignite ballot fights next year by special interests, including the same labor unions who backed Measure 97, while new legislation such as the transportation package and a multimillion-dollar health care tax to fund Medicaid may also be derailed by voters in 2018.

"We began the session with the most aggressive agenda in my legislative career," Senate President Peter Courtney, the Legislature's longest-serving member, said in a statement. "We had some satisfying wins. We structurally changed key ways in which we budget. We enacted a budget-saving provider tax. We passed the largest transportation plan in state history. We also had losses. We did not reach an agreement on (pension) reform. We did not reform our revenue system. At best, our successes are tempered by disappointment."

Last month the Democratic-controlled Legislature approved a record-$8.2 billion funding package for Oregon's public school system — up 11 percent from the previous biennium. For most of the state's 200 or so districts, it's enough money to keep current services going. But others say they needed at least another $200 million to avoid scaling back programs and up to 1,500 staff positions mostly through normal attrition and retirements.

A $670 million-tax package on hospitals and insurers was also passed last month to close a major chunk of the budget deficit, spare the shuttering of a mental health hospital in Junction City, Oregon, and maintain health coverage for thousands of Medicaid recipients. That package, however, may be thrown in limbo should three Republican lawmakers succeed in referring it to the ballot.

If they do, voters would decide its fate during a special election in January — a last-minute maneuver by Democrats that exacerbated tensions in the final days with Republicans, who blasted it as an attempt to sway the outcome.

"Democrats voted to rob us of our referendum rights and they will be hijacking future elections with voter suppression enshrined in state law," said Senate Republican Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli, "Republicans have a great deal to be upset with this session ... (Democrats) also passed the most extreme abortion funding law in the nation to force taxpayers to pay against their will for other people's late-term and sex-selective abortions."

Ferrioli was referring to this week's passage of a several bills concerning undocumented residents amid President Donald Trump's immigration crackdown attempts, such as strengthening Oregon's sanctuary laws and funding health care for more than 14,000 Oregon children who were brought to the U.S. illegally. Undocumented residents will also be able to access cost-free abortions and other reproductive care under another bill that mandates local insurance companies to cover abortions and other services at no cost to the patient.

"The message of this legislative session is this: In Oregon, Democrats are fighting to improve the lives of everyone who calls this great state home," said House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson.

A $5.3 billion plan to modernize Oregon's transportation and public transit systems over the next decade also passed this week — a major accomplishment for Democrats, Republicans and Brown after their first attempt for a much larger package failed in 2015. To pay for various projects, the bill increases gas taxes and vehicle title and registration fees and creates new taxes on employees' paychecks and automobile sales, a surcharge on bicycle sales as well as highway tolls in metro Portland.

Other policies that passed this session include pay equity for workers, raising the legal tobacco age to 21 and allowing transgender residents to update their birth records in private.

But other things didn't make the cut, such as bringing Oregon into the fold of several other states who want to elect the U.S. President by popular vote.

"We made strides to address Oregon's housing crisis, but we didn't pass sorely needed tenant protections," said Democratic House Speaker Tina Kotek. "We fought like hell to get to a long-term budget deal so we could finally stabilize our finances and make meaningful investments in Oregon's schools. We couldn't get it done, but we did lay the groundwork for success in 2019."

House Republican Minority Leader Mike McLane says the session will be marked by lack of leadership.

"Passage of the transportation package was among few positive highlights this session," McLane said. "In the end, the 2017 session will be remembered more for missed opportunities and our failure to get our state's financial house in order."


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