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Bridge, guns return when Legislature convenes

Jan 26, 2014


By JONATHAN J. COOPER
Of the Associated Press

SALEM — A plan to replace the Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River has only grown more contentious since Oregon lawmakers backed it last year, then watched it fall apart when the Legislature in Washington state pointedly decided it wasn't interested.

Now it's back, just one of several high-profile issues that will be rehashed for a second consecutive year when Oregon lawmakers return to Salem on Feb. 3 for a five-week legislative session. Gun control, clean fuels, Native American mascots and genetically modified crops also may be getting an additional round of debate.

There will be new issues too, such as marijuana legalization, money for cancer research facilities and attempts to avoid a repeat of the Cover Oregon debacle. The budget will need to be trimmed a bit due to lower revenue and higher costs, although massive cuts aren't expected.

But the bridge battle will be one of the biggest fights, testing the business community's influence and the political skills of Gov. John Kitzhaber and House Speaker Tina Kotek. The two Democrats have argued vociferously that Oregon's economy needs the highway project, both for the construction jobs it would create and the ability to more quickly move goods through the Port of Portland and the I-5 corridor.

Critics scoff at the project's $2.8 billion price tag, to be paid primarily by debt repaid from the state highway fund and by tolls. They're nervous about the increase of traffic on the Interstate 205 crossing caused by toll-dodging motorists. Some are queasy about building a highway into another state that's declined to chip in. If tolls revenue falls short of projections, or Oregon can't collect from Washington residents, or construction costs rise, Oregon taxpayers would have to carry the burden.

Several of the lawmakers who backed the bridge last year only did so after securing a requirement that Washington sign on before Oregon could spend any money. Many in both parties are taking heat from conservatives who don't like the price tag and the plans to extend light-rail into Vancouver, Wash, or from liberals who oppose such a massive highway project.

Convincing those lawmakers to maintain their support will be a tough sell.

Through it all, lawmakers will have at least one eye on the looming May primaries and November general election, when 16 of 30 Senate seats and all 60 House seats will be up for grabs.

With control of the House, Senate and governor's office, Democrats have a firm grip on the levers of power, but legislative leaders insist partisanship isn't a problem in Oregon.

“We actually have been able to work together and get many things done on the issues that matter to real people in our state and not get involved in the partisan gamesmanship and polarization of DC,” said Sen. Diane Rosenbaum of Portland, the Senate's No. 2 Democrat.

Republicans suspect that election-year politics are behind the return of a Democratic measure that would require a background check before gun owners could sell or give a firearm to someone who isn't a relative. Democrats think the idea is popular in GOP Senate districts they're targeting, although it also risks drawing the wrath and deep pockets of gun-control critics. The idea didn't have enough support to pass the Senate last year, and it's doubtful that it would this year, either.

Democrats are trying “to bring other issues into the fray to distract the people when it comes time for election from the real travesty, and that's what's going on with our health care system,” Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, said at a recent committee hearing where the bill was discussed.

Environmentalists may do battle again with oil companies over Oregon's low-carbon fuels standard, known as the clean fuels program, which is supposed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The program expires next year unless lawmakers extend it.

Oregon Health & Science University is pushing for the state to take on $200 million in debt to build cancer research facilities. The money would help OHSU meet a challenge by Nike founder Phil Knight and his wife, who have pledged to donate $500 million if the university raises an equal amount from other sources.

There may also be heated discussion over several potential ballot measures, including the legalization of recreational marijuana use for adults and a requirement that genetically modified foods be labeled.

Top issues in the 2014 Oregon legislative session

Here's a look at four of the top issues Oregon lawmakers are likely to confront when they begin a five-week legislative session on Feb. 3:

— COLUMBIA RIVER BRIDGE

Proponents of a massive highway and light-rail project that would include a new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River are refusing to drop it despite Washington state's decision to pull out. That leaves Oregon lawmakers to decide whether to take on the full burden themselves, minus planned freeway interchanges on the Washington side. Bridge backers say it would bring a safer bridge, create thousands of construction-related jobs and make it easier to move freight around the Northwest and through the Port of Portland. But critics wonder whether Oregon taxpayers should be shouldering all the risk, especially when Washington commuters are expected to make up 2/3 of bridge traffic.

— GUN CONTROL

Several Senate Democrats tried and failed last year to require a background check whenever a gun owner sells or gives it to someone other than a relative. The measure never got a vote in the full Senate because it didn't have enough support to pass, but proponents are trying again with a virtually identical bill. Lawmakers backing the background checks say they're trying to keep guns out of the hands of felons, but Republican critics see ulterior motives. They think Democrats simply want to force vulnerable GOP senators to take a controversial vote shortly before an election.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, has promised to allow a vote in the full Senate if the measure gets out of the Judiciary Committee again this year. There's no sign the political winds have shifted, however, so the gun-control bill is likely to fail if Courtney calls it up for a vote.

Oregon already requires background checks for firearms purchased from a licensed dealer and for person-to-person sales if they happen at gun shows.

— MARIJUANA LEGALIZATION

Activists are making a lot of noise about collecting signatures for a potential ballot measure legalizing the recreational use of marijuana for adults, and that has some in the Legislature nervous. They'd rather write the regulations themselves than end up stuck with laws written by activists.

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, has proposed that the Legislature ask voters whether to legalize the drug and, if they approve, have the Legislature hammer out the rules during the 2015 session when lawmakers will have more time. That may not be too slow for the activists, however, who are preparing to make a much more concerted effort at the ballot box this year than they did in 2012, when advocates spent very little money but still managed to get support from 46 percent of Oregonians.

There's likely to be a fierce debate about when and how the Legislature should wade into the debate over marijuana.

— COVER OREGON

Oregon's been thoroughly embarrassed by its failure to launch a working website for its health insurance exchange despite spending well over $100 million on the technology. Lawmakers in both parties are now promoting reforms in the way the state handles large information technology projects.

Republicans have proposed a task force to study what went wrong with Cover Oregon and a string of other IT failures that came before it, including projects at the Employment Department and the Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division. The task force would recommend standards for oversight by the Legislature.

Democrats say they'll push for a requirement that quality management experts be hired to oversee work done under large contracts at Cover Oregon and state agencies. Gov. John Kitzhaber has introduced a bill creating a team of technology advisers in the Department of Administrative Services.

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