Friday, May 27, 2011

Rep. Cannon Tries To Resurrect BPA Bill

Democratic Representative Ben Cannon is launching an effort to yank loose the stalled measure that would ban BPA in children's beverage containers. The bill passed the Senate last month but fell victim to a committee deadline earlier this week. The inaction infuriated environmental groups and spurred talk of an initiative petition. Now, Cannon is trying a little-used procedure called a "discharge petition" to get the bill moving again.

Basically, if Cannon can round up signatures from 31 representatives, the bill would come to the floor for an up-or-down vote. (Presumably one of those signatures will be his own, meaning he has to convince "only" 30 of his colleagues.) With the House evenly divided 30-30, this means that Cannon will have to convince at least one Republican to go along. Since GOP Representative Greg Smith is a co-sponsor, that would seem to be a slam dunk...except there's no guarantee that every Democrat will sign on.

Cannon will have until Wednesday to round up the needed signatures...with a 3-day holiday weekend in between. Cannon tells me he's certain there are at least 31 votes for the measure should it reach the floor, but getting the signatures is a different political equation altogether. (The discharge petition is a public document, meaning anyone can check later on to see who signed it.)

Cannon's co-chair in the House Energy, Environment & Water Committee is GOP Representative Vic Gilliam. While Cannon's move would seem to be an end-run around Gilliam's authority, Gilliam tells me he's "fine" with Cannon's move. "It was never my intention to kill the bill or stop it," says Gilliam.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Lobbyist Develops Vote Tracker App

An Oregon lobbyist has come up with a 21st century way of keeping track of where lawmakers stand. Shawn Miller is a capitol veteran whose clients include major players such as Associated Builders and Contractors, the Northwest Grocery Association, and Pacificorp. He's just released something called VoteCount, which is a smartphone application that allows users to track how lawmakers plan to vote on specific bills.

Lobbyists have long used paper tally sheets to keep track of legislators' positions. But Miller says those paper sheets quickly get cluttered with notes and revisions. He figured somebody out there had developed a digital version of the tally sheet, but he couldn't find any. And as he worked with a programmer to develop one, he found that many of his fellow lobbyists thought it was a great idea and wanted their own copy. Eventually, Miller developed an "app" that's adaptable to all 50 states and Congress.

The VoteCount app, which retails for about $20, allows users to place each lawmaker in a "yes," "leaning yes," "leaning no," and "no" column. It has a filter to let you sort the lawmakers by committee, and even updates itself after elections to reflect legislative turnover. "We're basically professional counters," says Miller. He says the app is an "influence management tool."

Many legislatures have wrapped up their work for the year, but Miller says he's already gotten feedback from lobbyists in Florida, Michigan, Louisiana and New York. The big prize, in terms of potential sales, would be the K Street market. To that end, Miller has landed an interview this Friday with Roll Call.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Another Deadline Comes And Goes

Another deadline for bills to advance has passed in the 2011 legislative session, but this deadline claimed far fewer victims than last month's. Today's deadline was for committee chairs to schedule work sessions for second-chamber measures--that is, for bills that were approved in their chamber of origin but are now seeking approval on the opposite side of the building. While today is the deadline to schedule a work session, the work sessions themselves may be held up until June 1st (i.e. a week from Wednesday).

This deadline saw fewer casualties for the simple reason that the bulk of bills that will die this session did so when they failed to move out of their chamber of origin last month. Bills that died today have already been approved by a majority of lawmakers in one chamber, but for various reasons failed to generate enough support in the second chamber.

At this point, that appears to be the fate for Senate Bill 695, a measure that would ban the use of BPA in children's beverage containers. Environmental groups call it one of their top priorities this session, and the bill passed the Senate 20-9 last month. But as of late this afternoon, SB 695 had not been scheduled for any work session in the House Energy, Environment & Water Committee, where it resides.

But of course, it's always true that no bill is truly dead until the final gavel falls. Indeed, several high profile bills now reside in committees that are exempt from most session deadlines:  Rules, Revenue, and Ways & Means. It's common practice for lawmakers to move a hot potato issue to one of those committees in a last-ditch attempt to keep the issue alive. (The Redistricting Committees and the Joint Committee on Tax Credits are also exempt from the deadline, but they deal with very specific issues and thus are unlikely to become committees of last resort.)  Additionally, a bill that appears dead may be resurrected in another form by being stuffed into a measure that's still alive, assuming that there's a "relating clause" that allows this.

And, toward the end of session, legislative leaders have broad power to, well, make things happen. Supporters of the BPA ban said this afternoon that they're holding out hope for a last minute intervention. But with an evenly divided House, it's unclear whether there's the political consensus to move the bill to a vote.

Monday, May 16, 2011

GOP Rep Blasts Governor For Missing Military Events

Former Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski was known for his dedication to members of the Armed Forces. Notably, the governor made it a point to attend the funeral of every Oregonian who died while fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So far during Governor John Kitzhaber's return to office, two Oregon soldiers have died overseas. The Governor has not attended the funeral of either one. When services for Marine Sargeant Matthew DeYoung were held in February, Governor Kitzhaber was in Washington DC at a meeting of the National Governor's Association. And this past weekend Kitzhaber did not attend the funeral of Oregon National Guard specialist Andrew Lara, who died last month in Iraq.

GOP Representative Julie Parrish blasted the governor on her Facebook page, noting that the governor also did not attend the Saturday opening of an Army Reserve benefits center in Oregon City. Parrish writes:

Still frustrated from yesterday so just going to get it off my chest. HUGELY disappointed in the Governor. Two very important military events yesterday; he attended neither. I get that family time is important, but as an Army wife, let me tell you, family doesn't always come first. I appreciate Oregon's leadership who showed up. Gov chose to serve Oregon for a third time - he should've been there yesterday! #fail

Parrish told me today that Kitzhaber may not realize the importance of his role as Commander-in-Chief. The first-term representative, whose husband serves in the Oregon National Guard, said "that means something to me, to see the folks who lead our service, show up and be there for the family."

Kitzhaber's press secretary, Christine Miles, did not respond directly to Parrish's comments, but said the governor had "family obligations" that kept him from attending the two events. Miles says the governor sent "high-ranking officials" in his place.

Friday, May 13, 2011

The Tiny Economic Bubbles Of Oregon

Someone tweeted that a good theme for yesterday's revenue forecast would be the song "Roller Coaster of Love." While I'm not sure what love has to do with it, there's no doubt that Oregon's economy has been on a roller coaster lately and the latest forecast continues that trend:  Down slightly in the short term, up modestly in the mid-range time frame, and beyond that...who knows? But the song that was running through my head during yesterday's presentation was actually the 1960's easy-listening classic "Tiny Bubbles."

To wit: state economists say the state is on the road to recovery, but the economic rebound isn't happening so fast and so dramatically as to raise concerns about another collapse in the near future. In other words, Oregon's recovery is not coming in the form of a giant bubble that could burst at any moment. Instead, economists seemed to say, the recovery bubble is much smaller. Tiny, in fact. And when it comes to economic trends, it seems that tiny bubbles make economists happy.

So without knowing whether to apologize to the late Don Ho or to the lawmakers and economists whose voices I appropriated, here's a musical summary of the state's current economic outlook. Take a listen:

Thursday, May 12, 2011

Revenue Forecast: First Look

The highly anticipated revenue forecast is being released at this hour. It's the number on which lawmakers will base their budgets for the next two-year spending plan. Initially, the numbers look positive...the state will have about $128 million more to spend than previously thought. But that's offset partly by a drop of $40 million for the current biennium, which ends June 30. Here's a link to the most recent numbers.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Proposed Redistricting Maps Now Online

The Legislative Redistricting website now has the proposed redistricting maps. One set is from Democrats, and the other set is from Republicans. The two parties now have until the end of June to reconcile their differences. In addition to many closed-door negotiations in the coming weeks, the Redistricting committees will also hold a series of public hearings for people to react to the proposed maps. While the committees previously hearings around the state, these new hearings will all be held at the capitol. They're scheduled for May 17 at 5 p.m., May 20 at 10 a.m., and May 24 at 5 p.m.

If the parties can't agree, the process then moves to the Oregon Secretary of State (for the legislative maps) and the courts (for the Congressional maps). Recent history suggests this will happen. It's been a half-century since lawmakers were last able to finalize redistricting "in the building."

UPDATE:  It's not explicitly stated on the redistricting website linked to above, but the Democrats' plan is "Option I" and the Republicans' plan is "Option II."

Monday, May 9, 2011

Governor, Legislative Leaders Issue Joint Statement

The politicians have emerged from today's Mahonia Hall summit. Here's the text of a statement released jointly by Governor John Kitzhaber, Senate and House leadership, and the Ways and Means Co-Chairs:

"We had a productive discussion today and have agreed on a budget framework and timeline to guide the Legislature’s consideration of state spending on key programs and services, including education, health care, human services and public safety.  Our agreement today is not meant to bypass the full Legislature’s role in approving the state budget, and we did not attempt to set specific funding levels for agencies.  Rather, we now have a common understanding of the Ways and Means Co-Chairs’ budget, and we agree on remaining budget issues and the resources available to meet them.  We also have agreed on an approach to restore funding to priority programs and services if there is additional revenue identified in the May 12th Economic and Revenue Forecast.

Furthermore, we agree that if there is additional revenue identified in the May 12th forecast, the first priority is to restore funding to programs within the Department of Human Services to protect the state’s most vulnerable citizens.  Next, we are committed to restoring cuts to public safety programs."

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The Great Pork Chop Debate

Baseball fans love obscure statistics. Read the morning paper and you're liable to see something like: "In last night's game, the Astros hit more triples following a rain delay of 45 minutes or more than any other team since the 1924 Philadelphia Athletics." I'm not sure if anyone keeps track of similarly obscure statistics here in Salem, but if they did, I'm willing to bet that they'd agree that the Senate today set a record for most mentions of "pork chops" during a debate lasting 15 minutes or less. I'm referring to the brief but spirited discussion over the merits of SB 424, which has absolutely nothing to do with pigs.

The bill would require drivers to yield to pedestrians who have signaled their intent to cross a street at a crosswalk by extending a portion of their body (a hand, presumably) into the street. Right now, drivers technically don't have to yield to pedestrians until the pedestrian actually enters the crosswalk. While the bill passed, not everyone thought it was a good idea, including Senator Betsy Johnson. Her colorful analogy started off a string of pork chop references. Take a listen:

In order, we heard from Senator Betsy Johnson, Senator Lee Beyer, Senator Frank Morse (twice), Senator Floyd Prozanksi, and Senator Jackie Dingfelder--the carrier of the bill, who actually broke the streak by simply mentioning "pork" (no "chop") but upped the rhetorical ante by mentioning the "hokey pokey."

The bill now heads to the House.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Kicker/Capital Gains Package Moves To Floor, Quickly

You can tell something was a foregone conclusion when a six paragraph press release lands in your in-box just moments after an action is taken. This is the way things work sometimes in Salem: After months of both public debate and closed-door discussions, a major policy decision is seemingly made within minutes--fifteen, in the case of this afternoon's meeting of the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee. Lawmakers on that panel approved with virtually no discussion a package of measures that could dramatically reshape the way Oregon taxes capital gains, as well as the way Oregon calculates the iconic "kicker" tax refund.

This is why I and several other reporters got out ahead of the story yesterday. The actual votes today were somewhat anticlimactic, according to one onlooker. Of course, there's sure to be more drama on the Senate floor, where lawmakers have more of an audience to wax pro or con on high-profile issues such as taxation. And even if the measures pass the Senate, it's still not clear how the package would fare in the House, where Democrats have expressed doubt about the capital gains reductions and Republicans are none too keen to touch the kicker.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Pushback On Electric Car Taxes

Oregon lawmakers this week will possibly tweak downward a proposed mileage tax on electric vehicles. As my public radio colleague Tom Banse reports, one big carmaker is pushing back against legislative attempts to impose a road tax on electric vehicles. The idea behind the fees is that electric vehicle owners will be using the roads, but won't be paying for them in the form of fuel taxes--or, in the case of plug-in hybrids, drivers could end up paying fuel taxes on a drastically reduced basis over their traditional-vehicle counterparts.

In Washington, lawmakers are mulling a $100/year fee on electric vehicle owners (above and beyond existing car registration fees). In Oregon, lawmakers had been considering a proposal to impose a 1.43 cents/mile "vehicle road usage charge" on people with electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles. Now, lawmakers appear ready to consider a lower charge, as well as a proposal to give people the option to pay a flat yearly fee, albeit one higher than the $100 version proposed in Olympia.

Under an amendment pending on the House Revenue committee which may be approved as soon as tomorrow, the tax would be lowered to 0.85 cents/mile. ("Lowered" in the sense of it being lower than the existing version of the bill...obviously, since no such tax exists now, if the bill passes it would be a tax increase.) The pending amendment would also allow drivers of such vehicles to choose to pay a $300 annual fee instead of the per mile charge.

But it's not clear how attractive that $300 charge would be. At 0.85 cents per mile, you would have to drive more than 35,000 miles per year for the $300 annual fee to be cheaper. That seems unlikely for most electric vehicles, which seem to be aimed at people who mainly use their car for local trips, although the plug-in hybrid version can certainly be taken out on long road trips. Rather, the annual flat fee option seems aimed at people concerned about the possible "Big Brother" aspect of tracking and reporting your vehicle movements to the state for the purpose of paying the "per mile" tax.