SALEM — Speeches by top politicians at a meeting of state business leaders Monday may sound familiar to attendees of this year’s Oregon Leadership Summit.
That’s because, for the second straight time, lawmakers will focus on the importance of raising money to make a dent in a backlog of work on roads, bridges and other infrastructure to keep up with maintenance amid an influx of drivers on state roads in a booming economy.
That’s a repeat of what attendees heard nearly a year ago at the summit put on by the Oregon Business Council, a group of CEOs, directors and other business people who work to shape public policy.
“We are at the point in our state where (the road funding) pipeline is dry,” House Speaker Tina Kotek said during a speech at the last summit, in January. “The time is now to put people to work now (and) to build the infrastructure we need for the future.”
Senate President Peter Courtney also used his time last January to highlight the importance of a transportation package. While lawmakers failed to act on talk of improving roads and bridges last session and instead planned to try again in 2017, House Republicans say they will make roads a top priority for the upcoming 35-day session, according to Rep. John Davis, a Wilsonville Republican who will unveil a proposal at the Leadership Summit on Monday in Portland.
“I think there’s a middle ground we can possibly thread in 2016 to modify the low-carbon fuel standard, if not repeal it, pass a package and start reinvesting in the roads,” Davis said.
In one of the most highly public skirmishes during the six months following the last summit, Republicans fought with Democrats over a law that created a controversial fuel blending and credit trading program, known as the low-carbon fuel standard, or Clean Fuels program.
Republicans refused to vote for the gas tax and vehicle registration fee increases that would have paid for a transportation package after Democrats passed and Gov. Kate Brown signed the bill setting up the Clean Fuels program. The Legislature tried but failed to find a way past the blockage, and top lawmakers later said it would be put aside until 2017.
While short sessions were set up to allow lawmakers to make tweaks to problems that need quick fixing, legislators have increasingly used them to call for major policy changes.
Already in the 2016 session, which begins Feb. 1 and runs through mid-March, lawmakers say they plan to try to increase the minimum wage, create a carbon cap-and-trade system, and find more money to help with Oregon’s affordable housing crisis.
House Republicans are set to add a transportation package — a complex undertaking even in a six-month session — to that mix.
“It’s really challenging how legislators and leaders can say with the one hand they can deal with these major issues in 2016, but we’ll just wait for 2017 for transportation,” Davis said.
The proposal is a long shot. Lawmakers can be wary of taking difficult votes in short sessions, which fall during election years in the runup to the primary races. Republican primary challengers at times run to the right of fellow Republicans who vote in favor of raising taxes, including the gas tax.
Paul Romain, the oil industry lobbyist who is bringing proposals to gut or repeal the Clean Fuels program, said in an email this fall that “no legislative body is going to try to raise the fuel tax that close to an election. It will be a 2017 issue.”
Courtney, a Salem Democrat, has repeatedly called on lawmakers to shoot for another road funding package in 2017, not February.
Brown, who said during a speech last spring that legislators shouldn’t end the legislative session until they crafted and passed a transportation package, will also address the state’s road issues at the summit, according to Kristen Grainger, one of Brown’s spokeswomen.
“Yes, she will cover transportation,” Grainger said, adding Brown would also discuss “her blueprint for getting Oregon back on track and ensuring all Oregonians can benefit from economic recovery.”
The second part of Brown’s keynote address appears to fit in line with what’s known as the Oregon Business Plan, the Oregon Business Council’s top policy priorities.
The group last week unveiled its top three priorities. It plans to push to bring poverty below 10 percent in four years and raise the per capita income above the national average within the next four years, and it wants to add 25,000 new jobs per year through 2020.
Brown has said a top priority for the legislative session is increasing the minimum wage to an unspecified level that will help residents climb out of poverty. She has also asked lawmakers to focus on affordable housing.
Kotek, a Portland Democrat who has served as House speaker for two terms, will address the pressing need for affordable housing during her speech Monday, her spokeswoman said.
— Reporter: 406-589-4347,