Slow going as OR Legislature hits 2-month mark

Legislators are working to solve big problems, but it's taking a while

The State Capitol of Oregon in Salem (KOIN, file)
The State Capitol of Oregon in Salem (KOIN, file)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) – Lawmakers in Salem are about to wrap up the second month of this roughly five and a half-month session, and yet some of the biggest issues before them have been slow-going at best.

Here’s a roundup of some of last week’s biggest developments and a recap of the toughest decisions that still loom:

TOBACCO

Senate Bill 754 would make Oregon potentially the third state in the nation to raise its tobacco age minimum to 21, following the leads of Hawaii in 2015 and California in 2016. The Oregon proposal passed the Senate Thursday and heads to the House. State estimates peg potential tax revenue losses at $1.76 million – less than 2 percent of total tobacco revenues- in the upcoming budget. Although those losses could be recovered through other proposals to raise tax rates on cigarettes and other nicotine products. None of those tax-hike measures, however, have gained momentum so far.

MARIJUANA

Senate Bill 863 is a proposal to shield the names, birthdates, driver’s license numbers or any other identifying information of potentially thousands of recreational pot customers amid worries over a federal marijuana crackdown. The bipartisan bill cleared the Senate Tuesday and heads to the House. Should it become law, Oregon pot retailers would have 30 days to destroy their recreational customers’ data- derived from IDs that are used to verify patrons are at least 21 – and would be banned from such record-keeping moving forward. Medical marijuana cardholders’ data would be excluded from the provisions. The practice, while common in Oregon, is either prohibited or discouraged in Alaska, Colorado and Washington state.

JOBS

The latest economic figures released Monday show the rate of jobless Oregonians tumbled in February to 4 percent – a new record-low since the state began tracking labor data back in 1976. That puts Oregon’s jobless rate also below the nation’s 4.7 percent unemployment rate. Nonfarm payrolls also added 8,200 jobs statewide last month, up from the revised gain of 700 in January. The rosy jobs report came just weeks after state economists said across-the-board growth in Oregon’s economy will funnel an extra $200 million into state coffers that wasn’t previously expected. Despite Oregon’s relatively rapid rebound from the economic downturn, public employee pension obligations and looming cuts to federal health funds have helped create a $1.6 billion-hole in the upcoming 2017-19 budget that begins July 1.

HEALTH CARE

The GOP’s contentious health care overhaul proposal in Washington D.C., was yanked from the House floor Friday minutes before its scheduled vote. It’s unclear what that means going forward for the existing Affordable Care Act – which dropped the rate of uninsured Oregonians to 5 percent- but current negotiations in Congress don’t change some of the immediate challenges looming over Oregon. Previously planned cuts to federal matching dollars for Medicaid expansion, which helped 375,000 low-income and disadvantaged Oregonians obtain health coverage, means Oregon has to come up with $270 million to keep services going at current levels during the upcoming 2017-19 budget that begins July 1. Among the most high-profile health proposals discussed in Salem thus far is House Bill 3391, which would ensure full reproductive health coverage and ban interference in accessing abortions – a response to proposed abortion restrictions and federal funding cuts under the now-tabled health care overhaul.

PUBLIC EMPLOYEES RETIREMENT

The Public Employees Retirement System currently is facing a $22 billion unfunded liability, largely due to policy, investment and contract decisions dating back several decades and exacerbated by the 2008 financial meltdown and attempts by the Legislature to overhaul the system. Those unfunded PERS obligations are putting an $885 million-strain on the next two-year budget cycle. But with previous court rulings and certain terms of collective bargaining agreements, Oregon lawmakers are limited in how they can trim the retirement system’s burdensome costs to taxpayers. Lawmakers on the House Business and Labor Committee and the Senate Workforce Committee have held multiple public debates and hearings about PERS, but so far none of the major reform proposals currently on the table have gone but beyond discussion.