SALEM — With as few as eight working days left before it is required to adjourn, the Legislature on Tuesday played its own version of “Beat the Clock” in a frenzy of last-minute lawmaking.
Bills dealing with a resurrected tobacco tax, increasing urban housing density and parental sick leave took important steps forward. But policy was overshadowed by partisan politics involving cap and trade legislation.
On the legislative front, a trio of key bills advanced Tuesday. The Joint Committee on Tax Expenditures voted to advance House Bill 2270, a much-amended version of a tobacco tax, to the House floor. Given up for dead just a few weeks ago, the tobacco tax was resurrected by Gov. Kate Brown and Democratic leaders in the Legislature as a way to help fund health care programs. The centerpiece of the bill is a hike in the tax on cigarettes from $1.33 per pack to $3.33 per pack.
A bill that supporters say will increase the availability of affordable housing in cities is also going to the House floor. The Joint Committee on Ways and Means approved House Bill 2001, which would require cities of more than 25,000 to allow duplexes and other “middle housing” units in areas zoned for single-family housing. Changes to the bill have won over some Republicans, including Rep. Jack Zika, R-Redmond, who testified in favor of it passing.
The Joint Committee on Ways and Means also approved House Bill 2005, which would mandate that Oregon workers get up to 12 weeks of paid leave to deal with family medical issues. It goes to the House floor.
Earlier in the session, Democrats passed the $1 billion-per-year business tax to pay for education improvements, but the fight is not over.
Opponents are mounting an initiative drive to put the issue on the ballot as a referendum. Under normal circumstances, if the referendum qualified for the ballot, the law would be put on hold until a vote at the general election in November 2020.
Senate Bill 116 is a preemptive move to require that if a referendum on the tax hike does qualify for the ballot, it would trigger a special election on Jan. 21, 2020. Advocates said the state can’t afford to put the tax on hold for a year to wait for a November vote. A special election would mean the Legislature would know the outcome prior to the beginning of its 2020 session on Feb. 3 of next year and could deal with any fallout if the tax was overturned.
But Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, voted against SB 116 in the committee, saying he is “opposed to manipulating the election process.”
The Legislative Fiscal Office has estimated a special election next January could cost $3.5 million. The bill now goes to the full Joint Committee on Ways and Means.. As a top priority of Democratic leaders, its likely to be fast-tracked for votes prior to adjournment.
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