Gov. Kitzhaber defends Cover Oregon

2014 legislative session starts Monday, lasts 35 days

By Lauren Dake / The Bulletin / @LaurenDake

Published Jan 31, 2014 at 12:01AM

Two parties, two chambers, four agendas

Democrats and Republicans in both chambers of the Oregon Legislature have released their priorities for the legislative session that begins Monday. Here’s what each caucus wants to accomplish, according to statements released by party leadership.

Senate Democrats

Senate Democratic leadership’s one-page statement, decrying gridlock in Washington, D.C., included these priorities:

• Access to higher education; vocational training for family-wage jobs

• Preserving $6.85 billion spending level for K-12 and preventing more school days from being cut or teachers from being laid off

• Economic growth targeted for rural and urban areas

• More funding for mental health and senior service programs

• A balanced budget

• Access to small-business loans

• Holding state contractors accountable for their work

Senate Republicans

The Senate minority, calling out an “out-of-touch” state government, included these specific proposals in its 2014 legislative agenda:

• Training for the unemployed; community college curriculum matched to the region’s hiring needs

• Expansion of the 2 percent tax cut of the last special session to small businesses, sole proprietors and single-member LLCs

• Scholarships for low-income, special-needs or foster students to attend private schools or to set aside for college

• Crop donation tax credit to encourage donations to food banks

• Shifting economic development efforts from urban to rural areas

House Democrats

House Democrats grouped their agenda into three broad categories: education, job creation and “better” government:

• Support for adults returning to school

• Workforce retention and development programs

• Rebuilding aging infrastructure

• Raising standards for government contracts

• Support for Oregon’s “most vulnerable” as well as for emergency responders

House Republicans

Minority Republicans are advocating the following proposals:

• Redirecting 30 percent of Energy Trust of Oregon funds to make public schools more energy-efficient

• Flexible land use rules in rural areas to attract large employers

• Tax credit for college graduates who remain in Oregon, plus extra relief on student loan interest for STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) students

• Limiting fraud by requiring a photo ID to use food stamp cards

• Support for employers that provide wellness programs

• Task force to review oversight of state IT projects

Sources: News releases from the Legislature’s party leadership teams, Bulletin reporting, The Associated Press

David Wray / The Bulletin

SALEM — Despite the many troubles with the state’s health exchange, Gov. John Kitzhaber defended it Thursday, saying shutting down the exchange is not the answer.

Kitzhaber, who is running for re-election, responded to calls some Republicans have made, including Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, who is running for governor, and Rep. Jason Conger, R-Bend, who is vying for a seat in the U.S. Senate, that the state should bail on its exchange and look instead to the federal exchange.

“Elements of the exchange are functional, and we have used them to enroll 90,000 people, so shutting down the exchange today is essentially telling those people and thousands of others, ‘You’re on your own,’” Kitzhaber said. “And to put that in perspective, 90,000 people is more than the entire population of Bend, Oregon.”

The governor spoke to a room full of reporters and editors on Thursday during the annual legislative preview hosted by The Associated Press.

On Monday, lawmakers will be back at the state Capitol for a 35-day legislative session.

Kitzhaber was grilled on why he didn’t know about the troubles long before the scheduled launch of the Cover Oregon website.

Throughout the process, Kitzhaber said, he was reassured the website would be ready. He knew there were problems but was told they were being resolved. There was a “disconnect,” he said, coupled with poor decisions, bad communication and likely management issues. But until an ongoing independent investigation is complete, he said, he would not know for sure what exactly went wrong.

“I’m accountable for it,” Kitzhaber said. “It happened on my watch.”

With further pressing, he told reporters “this isn’t New Jersey” and that he didn’t have a clear answer.

Issues with Cover Oregon will likely be one of the topics dominating the short legislative session. Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have proposed legislation that would add accountability measures to large state IT projects.

In an earlier panel with legislative leaders, House Republican Leader Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, said the most dangerous place in the Capitol currently is “between a Democratic legislator and a microphone as they rush to denounce Cover Oregon,” he said.

With the November election looming, it’s clear politics will factor heavily in this legislative session.

“Look, let’s just talk about what the reality is,” said House Majority Leader Val Hoyle, D-Eugene. “This is February in a year when everybody is running for election.”

Lawmakers also discussed the controversial Columbia River Crossing bridge project, legislation to expand background checks on gun sales and legalizing recreational marijuana.

“I heard the drumbeats from Washington and Colorado,” Kitzhaber said, speaking of legalizing marijuana. “I think it’s very likely in the not-so-distant future it will be legalized in the state of Oregon.” He added he believes lawmakers should discuss how to regulate marijuana this legislative session.

Lawmakers are also expected to tackle the issue of whether the state should privatize liquor sales, which the governor said “at first blush, it doesn’t sound like a good idea.”

Sen. President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said he hopes Oregon lawmakers can keep their reputation of being able to work “through our differences” and pass legislation.

“We’ll see how good we are on Monday,” Courtney said.

— Reporter: 541-554-1162, ldake@bendbulletin.com

... plus a governor’s ideas

On Thursday, Gov. John Kitzhaber detailed a few of his own goals for the 2014 Legislature:

Marijuana: Be ready to discuss regulating it

Liquor: Be wary of privatizing sales

Columbia River Crossing: “It is an Oregon priority” (and should be for Washington state, too)