SALEM — Democratic leaders Friday called the 2019 legislative session a chance for major improvement in the lives of Oregonians, while Republicans wondered aloud about paying the bill.
“We have a very special opportunity to transform Oregon,” said House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland.
Legislative leaders of both parties, along with Gov. Kate Brown, spoke at a media preview hosted by the Associated Press.
The event mostly underlined previously announced game plans for the session that begins Jan. 22.
The only new proposal was one floated by Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, to come up with unspecified aid to help the more than 9,000 federal workers in Oregon who are impacted by the partial shutdown of the government.
House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said it sounded like an idea that should be considered if the impasse continues.
“I am absolutely disgusted by what is happening on the federal level,” Kotek said.
The 2019 session begins against the backdrop of a report by the Bureau of Labor and Industry that portrays a hostile workplace in the Capitol rife with alleged sexual harassment. The Legislature and the bureau are in mediation that could result in a settlement.
“We have to fix the broken culture in this building,” Kotek said.
Democrats won a 38-22 supermajority in the House and an 18-12 supermajority in the Senate, allowing them to pass tax bills without Republican help. Brown was elected to a full four-year term.
“Holy smokes!” Brown said with a smile as she sat down with reporters. “Oregon is at a turning point.”
Democrats laid out an ambitious list of priorities, saying they would seek an estimated $700 million tax package to shore up the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s version of Medicaid.
“I hope they move it early,” Brown said of the Legislature. “Within the first eight weeks.”
Democrats are expected to tackle a $2 billion tax plan for K-12 education improvements, a carbon emissions “cap-and-invest” program, statewide rent control, and campaign finance reform.
Alongside those major proposals are efforts by some Democrats on possibly contentious issues. Williamson said she was working on legislation to require paid family leave. Courtney wants to lower the minimum blood alcohol limit for drunken drivers from .08 percent to .05 percent — only Utah has a limit that low. Several gun control measures are being put forward, with leaders focused on ones requiring gun locks and keeping firearms away from children.
Despite their commanding majorities, the Democratic leaders said they hope to work with Republicans.
“We have an obligation to try to develop public policies that do not just benefit our respective legislative constituencies, our districts — but the state of Oregon,” Courtney said.
Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, said her caucus recognized that laws needed to be tailored for different needs around the state.
“The solutions that work in Portland don’t always work for the rest of the state,” she said.
Senate Minority Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, said Democrats’ plans benefited the Portland metro area and Willamette Valley at the expense of the rest of the state.
“We all know, in this room, that Multnomah, Washington and Clackamas County control the agenda,” Baertschiger Jr., said. “The needs of rural Oregon are much different than the needs of urban Oregon.”
Baertschiger Jr. promised to keep a running tally of the number and amounts of bills that will increase taxes.
“There is a tipping point where you are taxing too much,” he said.
Later in the afternoon, House Democrats issued a “Pledge to Every Oregonian” saying that the results of the 2018 election signaled a clear mandate from voters.
“Oregonians spoke loud and clear that they want to see transformative change for our state,” said Assistant House Majority Leader John Lively, D-Springfield, in a statement. “We are ready to get to work to build a better future for every Oregonian.”
After the preview press event ended, House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, said whatever happens during the 2019 session will be “owned” by Democrats.
“They truly hold the keys to everything — they are in full control,” Wilson said.
Wilson said he would let voters decide whether or not they like the outcome and vote accordingly in 2020.
“If this thing comes crashing down, if we have a recession with all these new taxes, Democrats will be holding a very large bag.”
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