Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Look Out, Varmints: Rep. Schaufler's Coming!

Democratic Representative Mike Schaufler does not appear to be a fan of the Endangered Species Act. During a hearing of the House Agriculture and Natural Resources Committee this afternoon, Schaufler sympathized with eastern Oregon ranchers who were advocating for several bills dealing with wolves. One bill would allow people to "take" a grey wolf if the animal is close to their house or threatening their domestic animals. Schaufler seemed to think this was a good idea. "In my humble opinion, if your cattle, your pets, your family, your property is threatened, you should be able to shoot any varmint that's making that threat, even if it's the last one on earth," he said.

But with Representative Schaufler, it's always better to hear him. Take a listen:

It's not immediately clear how many lawmakers agree with him. The bills were not scheduled for a vote.

Prettiest Speed Trap Ever?

An Oregon State Police car watches and waits this morning amidst the blooming cherry trees of the Oregon Capitol Mall.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Advocates Say "No Thanks" To Early K-12 Budget

For years, Republican Senator Jason Atkinson has been pushing his fellow lawmakers to approve a K-12 education budget as early in the session as possible. While his proposed Constitutional amendment probably isn't going anywhere this year, either, his idea does seem to have some traction among the three co-chairs of the Ways & Means Committee. While unveiling their budget proposal today, the three lawmakers emphasized that they want lawmakers to approve the K-12 budget by the end of April. Doing so, said Republican Representative Dennis Richardson, "would not leave the 197 school districts waiting to hear what their revenue is going to be."

But some in the education community don't see it that way. At a press conference immediately following the co-chairs' budget release, I asked about the push to approve a K-12 budget by the end of April. Craig Hawkins of the Confederation of Oregon School Administrators said "We would advocate to wait for the May (revenue) forecast and make a final determination then when we know what the real money is. Why make that decision prior to the time when we know what the total number of resources are going to be?"  Otto Schell of the Oregon PTA added: "There is no rush from our perspective to pass the budget sooner than normal."

Of course, when you're lobbying for lawmakers to add more money to your budget, a few extra weeks could come in handy.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Greenlick's Zinger

Democratic Representative Mitch Greenlick unleashed a real zinger on the House floor today. It came during a sometimes bizarre debate over HCR 14, which would have lawmakers adopt the "Code of the West" as a model of conduct for Oregonians. One lawmaker somewhat jokingly suggested that the resolution be amended to include lines from Robert Fulghum's All I Really Need To Know I Learned In Kindergarten, as suggested by BlueOregon's Kari Chisholm. Greenlick dryly responded: "The difference between this body and kindergarten is that kindergarten has adult supervision."

The resolution ultimately passed. Greenlick and 13 others voted against it. It remains to be seen whether the Senate will take it up.

Friday, March 25, 2011

House Set To Green-Light More Alcohol, Smoking...and Whole Grains

You just have to chuckle at the confluence of bills headed to the House floor Monday. Alone, none of these measures are especially remarkable. But there haven't been too many days in the Oregon legislature where lawmakers have given the go-ahead to more drinking, more smoking, and more whole grain bread.

Up first is HB 3042, a measure that would allow underage Oregonians to consume alcohol, but in an extremely isolated circumstances and in extremely limited quantities. I previewed the vote in a story I did for radio. In short, it has to do with college students enrolled in culinary arts programs.

Then, lawmakers turn their attention to HB 3334, which "allows the commercial production and sale of breads, rolls and buns made only with whole grain flours." If, like me, you were under the impression that this type of product is readily available across Oregon, apparently that isn't the least not legally. Oregon law forbids commercial bakers from selling bread unless it's been "enriched" with vitamins. Whole grain bread, the argument goes, does not need to be "enriched." As Representative Jim Weidner explained in his testimony to the House Business and Labor Committee, if this bill passes "organic and natural bakeries could now sell bread in a natural and nutritious state without the artificial presence of mandatory vitamin enrichment."

And finally, lawmakers get to vote on HB 3457, which would allow some people to smoke on the job, in apparent defiance of the Oregon Clean Air Act. But like the underage alcohol bill, this exemption would apply in extremely limited situations. Namely, if you're not an actor on stage, fuhgeddaboudit. When I first wrote about this issue earlier this month, the bill did not specify that actors would need to use herbal cigarettes, instead of the traditional nicotine-laden tobacco variety. Since then, thanks to a rather succinct little amendment, it's tobacco-free cigarettes only for your local theater's next production of "Hair."

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Drama Over Unemployment Benefits

Today's debate over the merits of a bill that would extend unemployment benefits for another six weeks to people out of work for nearly two years generated some of the most passionate debate of the session so far in the Oregon House. It's one of the cases where the "scoreboard" doesn't really tell the entire story. The bill passed 49-9, but not until members engaged a dramatic back-and- forth that included one lawmaker finishing her speech in tears. But perhaps the most significant speeches came from the two House co-chairs of the Ways and Means Committee. Republican Dennis Richardson and Democrat Peter Buckley both represent southern Oregon districts and have been working closely together in forming a legislative budget, which could be released as early as next week. While the two have generally have had a cordial relationship, at least publicly, they certainly disagreed on this issue.

First, take a listen to Richardson's speech, in which he described how he allowed the bill to move through the Ways & Means process, but would be voting against it on the floor:

Before you listen to Buckley's response, take a listen to a brief segment of Republican Kim Thatcher's floor speech. (You'll need this to understand one of Buckley's remarks)

Now, Buckley's fiery response to both Richardson and Thatcher:

And just for fun, another comment from Thatcher:

In the end, Richardson and Thatcher cast two of the nine "no" votes against the benefits extension. The other seven were also Republicans.

Casting A Wide Net

A bill that's up for a hearing next week in the Senate Education Committee would "allow children zero years of age or older ... to be eligible for Oregon prekindergarten program." Sub-zero children need not apply, apparently.

Friday, March 18, 2011

A Roundabout Bill

Senate Bill 341, which is up for a vote on the Senate floor on Monday, would make it a ticketable offense to drive alongside a "commercial motor vehicle" (i.e. a truck) when making your way through a multi-lane roundabout. You see, trucks need more room to navigate roundabouts, as this video so ably demonstrates. The measure would make sharing a roundabout with a truck a $180 offense and gives truck drivers the right to occupy both lanes of a multi-lane roundabout. But you won't encounter too many of these roundabouts for now, anyway. According to the report prepared by committee staff, there are just seven multi-lane roundabout intersections in the state of Oregon. 

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Wanna Smoke On The Job? Become An Actor

Under Oregon's smokefree workplace law, it's illegal to smoke indoors in virtually every public place in Oregon. A very short list of exceptions includes cigar bars and "smoke shops." Soon, you might be able to add live theater to that list. There's a push underway to craft an exemption to the smoking ban for performers in "a scripted stage, motion picture or television production" so long as "smoking is an integral part of the production."

Backers of the measure include the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, though executive director Paul Nicholson tells me the festival generally uses tobacco-free herbal cigarettes when their productions call for someone to smoke on stage. Nicholson says it's unclear under current law whether herbal cigarettes are permitted. However, the proposed bill doesn't specify that an actor would need to choose an herbal cigarette over the traditional variety.

Allowing actors to smoke on stage created an interesting situation in Minnesota a few years ago. There, bars quickly figured out that if you call everyone in your bar an "actor" then everyone can light up. Ultimately, a court there disagreed with that interpretation. The Oregon measure is up for a hearing tomorrow morning in the House Business and Labor Committee.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Pinnipeds: A Bi-Partisan Issue

Last week, Republican Representative Bill Kennemer stood on the House floor and urged Democratic House leader Dave Hunt to resign. Kennemer accused Hunt of spreading lies about Kennemer during past election campaigns. (Hunt, for the record, denies the charges.) But in yet another example of how politics makes strange bedfellows, it seems as though Kennemer agrees with Hunt on at least one thing:  Scaring the heck out of sea lions.

Hunt and Kennemer are listed as the sole co-sponsors of a measure that would "allow the use of noisemakers ... to deter pinnipeds." Just what is a pinniped? It's a term given to a variety of aquatic mammals. But for the purposes of this bill, think sea lions...the kind that love to hang out near dams and munch on salmon.

The bill is up for a hearing later this month.

Bradbury Enlists Governor Kitzhaber For Fundraiser

Former gubernatorial candidate Bill Bradbury is enlisting the help of the man he lost to in last spring's Democratic primary to help settle some outstanding campaign debt. John Kitzhaber, along with former Democratic governor (and current Metro Councilor) Barbara Roberts, will join Bradbury at a campaign fundraiser next week in Portland. According to state campaign finance records, Bradbury has $31,000 in outstanding loans leftover from his race for governor. All of that cash came in the form of personal loans from Bradbury to his campaign during the final six weeks before the May primary. The invitation doesn't list a required contribution level to attend, but it does note that the event is limited to 125 guests.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Blue Book Out

Although the Oregon Blue Book is available online, many people still insist on buying the hard copy. The 2011-12 edition of the Blue Book is now available, and Secretary of State Kate Brown will personally autograph your copy if you come to the State Capitol Gift Shop tomorrow at noon. If you just can't get enough of that Blue Book fun, you can join the 11 other people (so far) who "like" the Oregon Blue Book's Facebook page. And if you're really, truly a Blue Book aficionado, you can pony up $25 for a limited edition reproduction of the original 1911 version of the Oregon Blue Book.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Salem 101: "Notes From Mother"

I thought I was generally up to speed on all the legislative lingo, but I learned a new one today:  "Notes from mother." Democratic Representative Michael Dembrow explained the term today in a newsletter to his constituents:

      "When a legislator wants to allow Legislative Counsel to work with a constituent, lobbyist or advocate on a bill or amendment, he writes that person a “note from mother” that lets Legislative Counsel know that it’s OK to work with that person on behalf of the legislator. Some legislators write many notes from mother, while others have a policy against this practice. Personally, it’s very rare that I write one, but sometimes it’s helpful to have the attorney in Legislative Counsel work directly with the advocate on an issue that they’re more knowledgeable about than I am."

Capitol Currents: Now On Twitter

For a long time, I resisted joining the Twittersphere. After all, there are far more than 140 characters here at the capitol building on any given day. How could I adequately cover in-depth policy issues with a medium known for brevity? The answer, of course, is that Twitter will supplement my existing coverage here on the Capitol Currents blog as well as my on-air work through public radio's Northwest News Network. Look for Tweets on significant floor votes and other breaking political developments. So, without further ado, I present:  @CapitolCurrents

Monday, March 7, 2011

Remembering Ben Westlund

Oregon Treasurer Ben Westlund died one year ago today. Stacey Dycus has this tribute at BlueOregon.

History Is Made With 30-30 Vote [UPDATED]

Today, for the first time in Oregon's history, a vote on the House floor ended this way:  30 Democrats voting "yes" and 30 Republicans voting "no." Of course, it's not the first time there's been a 30-30 vote. That's a hypothetical outcome on every vote, assuming all members are present. But until this year, there's never been a time when the House has been evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. So it wasn't possible for a vote to wind up with an even 30 members of each party on opposite sides of the issue. Until now, this session has not produced any votes with the potential to generate such an outcome. Relatively few bills have reached the floor so far, and most have passed with wide support from both parties.

In the end, it wasn't a bill--as such--that produced a 30-30 partisan split. It was a motion by Democrats to delay for two days a vote on a bill: SB 301. That's a measure that would "reconnect" Oregon's tax code to the federal tax code. Democrats favor a version that focuses on the 2010 tax year (yes, the year for which you may have already filed your taxes). That version contains some tax breaks for tuition payments and medical expenses. Republicans prefer a version of the bill that contains the aforementioned provisions along with some business tax breaks for the 2011 tax year.

So, because today's proceedings were both historic and a bit convoluted, here's a scorecard:

1. Democrat open by proposing to delay voting on SB 301 until Wednesday to allow time to strip out the contentious portion of the bill from the part that everyone agrees on. (They said they'd be willing to bring the Republican-favored provisions to the floor in a separate bill, to allow separate up-or-down votes.) That's the proposal that produced the historic 30-30 tie.

2. Once that motion failed, the calendar reverted to the originally planned sequence of events. That meant it was time to vote on whether to replace the Democrats' version with a Republican-produced Minority Report. (You may be wondering how an evenly-split chamber could produce something called a "minority report." That happened because the GOP needed a vehicle to get their measure to the floor. So two Republicans actually voted in committee to move the Democrats' measure to the floor, which allowed two other Republicans to create a minority report.) Anyhow, the vote to substitute the minority report for the "main" version of the bill had the potential to create another 30-30 tie. But two Democrats (Rep. Barker and Rep. Schaufler) crossed the aisle and voted with the Republicans, for a 32-28 tally.

3. With the Minority Report now in place as the official version, it came time for lawmakers to give it an up-or-down vote. This vote was fraught with political complications, as Democrats who voted against this could be accused of voting against tax breaks for families (i.e. the tuition and medical expense components of the bill, which the Republican included in their version along with the business tax breaks). As it turned out, 11 Democrats, including Co-Speaker Arnie Roblan, joined with every Republican in voting for the measure, for a 41-19 outcome.

4. Now, the Republican-produced version of the bill heads over to the Senate, where it awaits an uncertain fate. The Senate is controlled by Democrats, but just barely. If the Senate Dems stick together and refuse to concur with the changes made in the House, the measure would go to Conference Committee. But if two Senate Democrats cross the aisle to vote with Republicans, the measure heads to the Governor's desk.
UPDATE: Senate Democratic leaders said late this afternoon that they expect the Senate will concur with the House changes to SB301 and send it on to the governor's desk as early as tomorrow. 

Friday, March 4, 2011

Lap Dogs and Valuable Veggies: A Round-Up Of Offbeat Bills

As the House heads for a potentially tense floor session on Monday, I thought it would be fun to take a look at a few bills that probably won't generate as much heated debate:

HB 3444 Apparently it's illegal to sell bread in Oregon unless you stuff it full of vitamins and minerals--that is, "enrichments." But bakeries that use whole grains don't necessarily feel the need to enrich their bread...arguing that whole grains are naturally enriched. This bill would bring those whole grain renegades back into the grace of the state of Oregon.  This memo from Representative Jim Weidner helps explain the situation. It got a hearing in the House Business and Labor Committee earlier this week.

HB 2429 Who wants to vote in May when you can vote in June? This bill would shift the date for the even-year Oregon primary by about four weeks. It gets a public hearing next Wednesday, March 9, in the House Rules Committee.

SB 160  Sparky, I'm trying to drive. Sparky, I'm having a hard time seeing around your furry rump. Sparky, if you don't get off my lap--and if SB 160 passes--I'm looking at a $90 ticket. (It's up for a hearing on March 14.)

HB 3545 Some lawmakers want to extend a carrot in the form of a tax credit to people who grow vegetables at home. The credit--up to $1000--could be claimed for garden-related property improvements such as raised garden beds or irrigation equipment. For people who already have those items in place, the bill would create a deduction of up to $500 for donating produce and certain gardening supplies to non-profit organizations that feed the homeless.  The bill is up for a hearing on Wednesday, March 9.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Update On Redistricting

More information is available today on those redistricting hearings I told you about earlier this week. The times and specific locations for the hearings are now available. The four lawmakers in charge of the process addressed reporters today, saying that the hearings will be a way for the public to "share thoughts and concerns" about  redistricting. However, the lawmakers do not plan to have a first draft of a proposed redistricting map available for public review at that time. They said those maps most likely won't be available until May. That would leave less than two months for the public and lawmakers to review the maps before the June 30th deadline for the legislature and the governor to complete the redistricting process.

More On Amusement Ride Regulation

Here's a little sidebar to my piece on possible changes to regulation of amusement rides in Oregon. While researching this story, I learned that the permit for the carousel at the Jantzen Beach Supercenter in Portland has been operating without a valid state permit since 2008, when its previous permit expired. A spokesman for Edens & Avant, the South Carolina-based real estate firm that owns Jantzen Beach, confirmed to me that the permit had lapsed. Robbie Robertson says the property management team at Jantzen Beach "became aware of the status several weeks ago" and this past Monday submitted the paperwork necessary to get the state permit up to date.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

No Trees Were Harmed In The Drafting Of This Bill

I can't say for sure whether SB 521 is the longest bill of the session, but at 1,117 pages it must surely come close. Senator Bruce Starr's proposal to re-organize the state's natural resource agencies under one umbrella would have consumed plenty of natural resources of its own back in the day when every bill was printed and distributed around the capitol. Nowadays most lawmakers and lobbyists prefer the electronic version. Starr's bill got a hearing this afternoon, along with a competing measure from Senator Jackie Dingfelder. Dingfelder's bill would merely create a task force to look at natural resource agency consolidation. It's just two pages long.

It should be noted that what makes Starr's bill so long is the need to insert the phrase "Oregon Department of Natural Resources" into existing state laws that currently mention other agencies. That said, I haven't read the bill line-by-line.