SALEM — The Oregon Legislature will return to the Capitol this February to tackle issues running the gamut from expanding background checks on gun sales to setting the stage for legalizing recreational marijuana to easing state control over liquor sales.
The cornerstone issues — improving the economy, making education more affordable — will also be prevalent in the 2014 Oregon legislative session, but the hot-button issues are already generating headlines.
Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, is taking the lead on two issues guaranteed to make people pay attention: guns and pot.
Prozanski said he will introduce a measure expanding background checks on person-to-person gun sales, allowing for a continued exemption for gun transfers between family members. Prozanski pushed the same legislation last session as part of a package of bills that failed to make it to the chamber floor for a vote. Prozanski is confident the legislation will be more successful this time around.
“We’re closing that last existing loophole in our background law,” Prozanski said, noting that current law requires background checks at gun shows and when buying from a dealer. “We’ve had a background check for 25 years and it works, except we have this one gaping loophole that allows for a felon to have easier access.”
Prozanski is also spearheading the work on a referral to the voters to legalize recreational marijuana.
After listening to officials from Washington and Colorado, Prozanski said, it seems wisest to let lawmakers, not advocacy groups, create the guidelines of how to regulate marijuana. If lawmakers can pass a referral out of the February session, Prozanski said he was told at least one of the groups currently gathering signatures to put a measure on the ballot would not move forward.
And of course there will be a handful of bills related, at least indirectly, to the state’s rollout of Cover Oregon, the health insurance exchange.
Rep. Tim Freeman, R-Roseburg, is working on a couple of accountability measures.
“We have an abysmal record with informational technology projects that don’t work,” Freeman said.
One measure would add more legislative oversight to some larger technology projects. Another proposal aims to ensure more financial repercussions for not finishing a project, whether it’s done in-house or contracted with an outside company. He would also like to see more teeth in state contracts, allowing the state to pay when the work is done, rather than incrementally.
“That’s one simple concept,” Freeman said.
Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, has a measure that would ensure lawmakers and the governor have to purchase insurance using Cover Oregon, the state’s exchange. And Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, who is campaigning for governor, plans to introduce legislation to scrap the state’s troubled health insurance exchange and have Oregon participate in the federal exchange.
Another much anticipated topic expected to be addressed is whether Oregon should move forward with funding for the controversial Columbia River Crossing.
And other lawmakers will try to head off an ongoing campaign to privatize liquor sales with a plan that modernizes the state’s approach to liquor.
“I look at it as a typical, Oregon middle-ground approach,” said Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Eugene, the lawmaker leading the charge.
It would allow some larger stores of more than 10,000 square feet to offer liquor in their aisles, while the state would remain in the business of regulating liquor sales. Only liquor stores would offer craft liquor.
The session kicks off on Feb. 3 and, constitutionally, can last only 35 days.
For the Central Oregon delegation, the 2014 Oregon legislative session could be dominated by a focus on bringing jobs to rural Oregonians and making education more accessible.
House Republican Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, will be charged with leading his caucus, but plans to carve out time to advocate for a measure he hopes would create jobs in his area of the state.
The bill would allow the siting of industrial lands to be fast-tracked. It wouldn’t supersede land-use laws, he said, but speed them up in certain instances.
“We’re talking about compressed time frames,” McLane said.
The law would apply to towns with populations fewer than 17,000.
Rep. John Huffman, R-The Dalles, will work to help Central Oregon Community College get the funding it needs to acquire a building on its campus that is currently leased by Oregon State University-Cascades Campus. The move would release OSU-Cascades from its lease on the building, clearing the pathway for its planned expansion elsewhere.
“It’s a challenge for OSU to move forward with this hanging over their head,” Huffman said.
Huffman said he will also spend the abbreviated session lobbying to ensure Jefferson County gets the bonding it needs to improve its county courthouse.
Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend, who has been busy launching a campaign for the U.S. Senate, will return to Salem to push a measure to help single parents attending college.
The bill would require state colleges to provide child care on or near campus. Conger is also working on another education-related issue, which would make changes to a proposal by State Treasurer Ted Wheeler to create a scholarship and job-training fund for Oregon students. Conger likes Wheeler’s idea, but where Wheeler has suggested using state-backed bonds to fund the initiative, Conger has an idea that would tap funds already being collected through the state’s biggest utility companies.
Rep. Gene Whisnant, R-Sunriver, will ask for an update on a measure passed in a previous legislative session allowing veterans to use their military experience to gain education credit toward certificates in disciplines such as nursing.
“Being ex-military, I’m concerned about our young men and women coming back and not getting jobs,” he said.
Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, hopes to revive a measure he pushed last legislative session attempting to cut down on the number of fraudulent Medicaid checks. The measure would beef up the state’s ability to spot fraudulent claims by using a predictive analytic software before Medicaid checks are cut. Another bill he’s working on would allow local cities that have an unemployment rate higher than 7 percent to handle land-use decisions locally.
“They wouldn’t have to go to the state. The decision and the appeal is done locally, all in an attempt to drive jobs and manufacturing at the local level,” Knopp said.
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