The 2018 Oregon legislative session started under the cloud of a sexual misconduct investigation into soon-to-be former Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, and will be remembered as much for what lawmakers didn’t do as what they did.
The Oregon Legislature ended its biannual short session Saturday — more than a week earlier than state law required them to depart — with a flurry of action that included carving out money to help the Eagle Creek Fire recovery efforts and support new statewide rules regulating air pollution.
Lawmakers left Salem without passing a complicated cap-and-trade proposal that had been expected to dominate the five-week session.
Instead, the Democratic lawmakers who control both chambers opted to wait on the debate over how to curb carbon emissions and avoid a major political showdown with Republicans. The most attention-generating piece of legislation this session was a change to the gun law that tightens existing limits on who can buy a firearm. Legislators also passed several bills that housing advocates say will help address a statewide shortage of affordable apartments and homes.
Here are the highlights of the 2018 session:
Oregon lawmakers approved closing what’s been dubbed the “boyfriend loophole” this session. The measure expands the number of domestic violence abusers who are prohibited from owning a firearm. Although Oregon was reportedly the first state to pass a bill strengthening the state’s gun laws after the Feb. 14 shooting in Florida, the measure was in works before the deadly shooting. Gov. Kate Brown made passage of the bill one of her top priorities this session. The leading GOP opponent for governor, Rep. Knute Buehler, of Bend, was one of the few Republican votes to support tightening the gun law.
Before session started, there was mention of trying to further strengthen the state’s gun laws by closing what’s been called the “Charleston loophole.” Under current law, gun dealers can move forward with a firearm sale if a background check is not completed in three days. It helped the killer in the 2015 church massacre in South Carolina. Oregon lawmakers decided not to pursue the legislation this session.
Rep. Mitch Greenlick a Portland Democrat, tried for the third time to enshrine the right to access affordable health care in the state’s Constitution. With a budget deficit looming in 2019, he championed a legislative referral asking voters to show their support for universal health care. He’s worried there could be dramatic cuts to the state’s health care budget in the future. With the Trump administration’s efforts to end the Affordable Care Act and Oregonians voting overwhelmingly in January for a ballot measure that helped pay for Medicaid, the timing seemed right for Greenlick’s measure. But amid concerns of cost and possible litigation, the measure failed.
Lawmakers did approve a bill to make drug pricing more transparent. If a drug manufacturer increases prices more than 10 percent in one year, they must report to the state and provide a reason for the spike.
Legislators also made changes to the way the state’s coordinated care organizations are run. The bill requires coordinated care organizations — a network of health care providers that offer a range of health services to those under the Oregon Health Plan or Medicaid — to act with more transparency by opening up their meetings to the public. It also requires the organizations to put the state on notice if they are closing.
Finally, lawmakers approved the creation of a pilot program to tackle the state’s opioid crisis by, in part, using a network of peer recovery support mentors to help people dealing with addiction.
Democratic lawmakers were hopeful they could pass a lofty plan to curb the state’s carbon emissions by charging some of the state’s biggest polluters. The complex cap-and-trade proposal, however, faltered early on in the session and never picked up enough momentum or votes to pass. Lawmakers said they will push the measure again in 2019.
Watch: Explaining carbon pricing with chickens.
The major piece of housing legislation passed this session aims to both help increase affordable housing and boost the number of first-time homebuyers in the state.
Lawmakers increased what’s known as the document-recording fee from $20 to $60. The money will be put to use in a variety of ways, including to preserve and develop affordable rental housing, programs to help the homeless and boost services for veterans.
The same bill also included a program creating a first-time homebuyer savings account. It allows a homebuyer to put aside $10,000 a year and up to $50,000 over a 10-year period toward a down payment. Private lenders would have to agree to the program, and the money would not be taxed.
Legislators also made it easier to strip racist language from housing deeds and created a task force to address racial disparities in home ownership. They carved out $1.73 million for Oregon communities to identify ways to ease the housing crisis. Additionally, an approximate $5 million will help fund emergency shelters across the state.
One of the biggest education reform bills would have required school districts to negotiate class size with their teachers’ unions, just as they negotiate over salary and wages. It failed.
Another measure that would have effectively kicked Portland activist Kim Sordyl off the state board of education was also unsuccessful.
Reaction To Federal Issues
Top Democrats made a hard push this session to try to preserve net neutrality; the bill headed to the governor’s desk would require state and local governments to contract with companies that treat all internet traffic equally. Lawmakers also strengthened consumer protections after the high-profile Equifax data breach.
And once again, an attempt to have the state join the National Popular Vote compact failed. That measure sought to have Oregon join an interstate compact in which states cast their electoral votes for the candidate receiving the most popular votes nationally.
After a scathing audit from the Oregon Secretary of State’s office highlighted the state’s failure to protect its most vulnerable children, Brown made a late legislative request for an additional $14.5 million this session to hire 200 more caseworkers. Lawmakers approved the money.
Buehler pushed for an additional $50 million at the start of the legislative session. He suggested creating a “rapid improvement team” charged with stabilizing the state’s foster care system and implementing recommendations from the audit. That measure also failed and Buehler was already talking about the issue at the Dorchester Conference — a Republican issues conference — on Saturday.
Taxes And PERS
Legislators passed two tax bills in reaction to the massive federal tax cut passed by Congress late last year. Oregon was affected because the state automatically connects with many federal definitions of income.
One measure, SB 1529, ensures that businesses reporting overseas profits won’t get an additional state income tax cut as a result. That will produce a one-time gain of about $140 million, which legislators decided to put into reducing Oregon’s large public pension debt.
Some goes into a fund sought by Gov. Kate Brown that provides incentives for state and local public employers to more quickly pay off their debt, and some goes to individual districts to help bring down their PERS costs.
The second measure was more controversial. SB 1528 affects business owners that pay personal income taxes on their profits. If legislators hadn’t acted, many of these businesses would have been in line for an additional state tax break on top of the reduction they’re getting in their federal income taxes.
Business groups and Republican legislators argued that the state could afford to provide these state tax breaks for businesses to go into effect. But Democrats disagreed and pushed SB 1528 through the Legislature.
This bill has one other notable element: It includes a provision to help higher-income taxpayers who are hurt by the new federal tax law because it puts a new $10,000 limit on deducting state and local taxes. Under SB 1528, taxpayers could buy tax credits for contributions to Oregon’s college scholarship fund. Those credits could then be deducted from their federal tax returns. The total amount of the credits is limited to $14 million.
Jeff Mapes contributed to this story.