State lawmakers have whittled down significantly the number of issues still in play as they head into the final week of their short legislative session.
Few in the Capitol believe that high-profile bills expanding background checks to private gun sales, referring marijuana legalization to voters or funding the Interstate 5 bridge between Portland and Vancouver have any chance for last-minute comebacks.
In their place are ongoing debates about a handful of more modest proposals: allowing cities and counties to enact bans on medical marijuana retailers; redistributing leftover funds from class action lawsuits to legal aid services; and a rewrite of the ballot title for the November referendum on short-term drivers’ licenses for illegal immigrants.
Lawmakers also have to square away tweaks to the current two-year budget.
In that funding arena, the main outstanding issue is Oregon Health and Science University’s request for $200 million in bonds dedicated to a new Portland cancer research center, as well as $74 million in bonding requests from six other public universities. The University of Oregon is seeking about $9 million in bonds for upgrades to Chapman Hall as well as repairs to a major utility tunnel.
The class action bill, House Bill 4143, would divert the unclaimed money damages from class action judgments or settlements in state court so as to bolster legal aid services for low-income Oregonians. Oregon is just one of two states where those dollars automatically return in full to the company that lost the lawsuit.
After it passed the House earlier this month, business groups have mobilized against the bill, including attorneys representing oil giant BP and tobacco merchant Philip Morris. Both those firms are involved in large class-action suits in Oregon court.
Senate President Peter Courtney, a Salem Democrat who has come out in strong support of the bill, said Friday the policy is still alive and that the situation is “dynamic and fluid” heading into the weekend.
“It would be great to be able to get a breakthrough in this area,” he said. “We’re all working hard to try to get it through.”
Conversely, Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli of John Day referred to the bill “as the biggest smokescreen I’ve ever seen.”
The policy is backed by trial lawyers’ organizations — traditionally big financial backers of the Democratic lawmakers — because it could allow them to collect more fees on the unclaimed judgments, he argued.
“This is political payback plain and simple, dressed up as an attempt to help the disenfranchised,” he said.
To dispense or not to dispense
Equally contentious is an attempt to allow local governments to ban marijuana retailers, or dispensaries, in their jurisdictions.
The proposed policy was revived in the House this week after running into opposition in the Senate, where it appeared to have been killed earlier in the session.
A vote in the full House on the amended bill, SB 1531, was expected on Friday. But ultimately it was delayed after an afternoon floor session was canceled abruptly.
Rep. Andy Olson, an Albany Republican who supports the policy, said Friday that Republicans have enough votes among Democrats in both chambers to pass the policy on an up-or-down vote.
But after Friday’s delay, he added, “It’s unclear whether Democratic leadership will let (those possible votes) happen.”
“Protecting local communities’ right to decide is at risk here,” he said.
Sen. Floyd Prozanski, a Eugene Democrat whose committee originally stripped the local ban provision out of SB 1531, said he supports allowing local governments to place “time, place and manner” restrictions on dispensaries “like any other business.”
“But allowing them to ban dispensaries would give them the right to regulate a medicine in a way that they’ve never had before,” he said. “That wouldn’t be any different from a community wanting to completely ban Vicodin or oxycodone because of documented abuses.”
Prozanski said that ultimately, he doesn’t expect the Senate to approve a bill that goes “much further” than placing “time, place and manner” restrictions on dispensaries.
Democrats also will try to pass a rewrite of the ballot title for the November vote on driver’s licenses, a revision that makes no mention of the fact the new licenses won’t require proof of “legal presence.”
To do so, all 16 Senate Democrats likely will need to support it, because none of the 14 Senate Republicans are expected to back it.
Ferrioli said Senate Republicans aren’t pushing for any specific bills in the last week of the session. But he said he hopes “to make it clear to voters that this wasn’t the short session that was sold to them” when they voted for annual sessions in 2010.
“It’s been all political positioning and featherbedding,” he said.
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