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Oregon Democrats Move Quickly On Top Priorities

This photo was taken by Senator Sara Gelser in the moments after the final passage of HB 2177.
This photo was taken by Senator Sara Gelser in the moments after the final passage of HB 2177.

Legislative Democrats in Oregon are keeping their promise to quickly use their larger majorities to their advantage.

On the first day of the 2015 Oregon legislative session, Senate Democrats called reporters into their caucus room. Majority leader Diane Rosenbaum said the first few weeks of the session would go quickly.

"There are a number of things that we're putting in a category of unfinished business that we want to get done,” she said.

Rosenbaum reeled off a list of five bills. Most had previously failed due to a lack of lawmakers supporting them. But with larger majorities in both the Oregon House and Senate, Democrats said those failures were soon going to be successes.

And they were right. Even the mid-February resignation of Governor John Kitzhaber didn't slow down the pace of the session. Lawmakers have now sent a series of high-profile bills to the desk of Governor Kate Brown, many on near party-line votes.

One of them is House Bill 2177, a bill that will automatically register eligible voters when they get driver's licenses. It was a big priority for Democrats but failed in the Oregon Senate two years ago when one of their members sided with Republicans.

It was on that day that then-House member Sara Gelser decided she'd run for the Senate. Gelser won race and replaced a Republican who had previously voted against it.

After she helped push the bill across the finish line, she was beaming.

"Today was one of the best moments I've ever had on the floor of the Oregon legislature,” Gelser said.

Gelser remembered the day the bill first went down to defeat. She was proud to see her name up on the Senate voting board this time.

"I took a photo,” she said. “I took a photo two years ago and now I have another one on my phone. I'll probably frame it and put it in my office."

Other priority bills that Democrats approved in the first five weeks include legislation about carbon levels in fuel, class-action damage awards, car insurance, and the state's failed health insurance exchange, Cover Oregon.

Some Republicans did vote for some of the measures. But many, like GOP Senator Jeff Kruse, complained about the speed at which the bills moved forward.

"For us to be rushing something as significant and monumental as this forward at such a breakneck speed is an irresponsible way to operate this government,” Kruse said. “The people of Oregon deserve better from us."

Kruse was speaking against a measure that will divert unclaimed class-action damage awards to a state legal aid fund. It became the first bill to receive the signature of new Governor Kate Brown. Republicans also fought hard against another bill: a measure that would create a low carbon standard for fuel sold in Oregon.

House GOP leader Mike McLane tried to delay the vote.

"It's March,” he said. “And this bill’s moving fast."

For him, too fast. McLane said the bill bears the imprint of former Governor John Kitzhaber and his fiancée, Cylvia Hayes.

"In a mere few weeks after the extraordinary occurrence of the resignation of Governor Kitzhaber, we find ourselves here on the floor of the House of Representatives voting on that program,” McLane said.

Kitzhaber and Hayes are facing a federal criminal investigation. But Democrats said the bill had nothing to do with the ethics allegations that led to the governor's resignation. In the end, it passed without a single Republican vote.

But despite the breakneck speed of the first few weeks, lawmakers have a lot on their plate before they adjourn this summer. A special committee is taking a look at possible changes to the voter-approved recreational marijuana law. And budget-writers are still crafting the next two-year spending plan.

Copyright 2015 Northwest News Network

Chris Lehman covers the Oregon state capitol for JPR as part of the Northwest News Network, a group of 12 Northwest public radio organizations which collaborate on regional news coverage. Chris graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree in 1997. He began his career producing arts features for Red River Public Radio in Shreveport, Louisiana and has been a reporter/announcer for NPR station WNIJ in DeKalb, Illinois. Chris has also reported from overseas, filing stories from Iraq, Burkina Faso, El Salvador, Northern Ireland, Zimbabwe and Uganda.
Chris Lehman
Chris Lehman graduated from Temple University with a journalism degree in 1997. He landed his first job less than a month later, producing arts stories for Red River Public Radio in Shreveport, Louisiana. Three years later he headed north to DeKalb, Illinois, where he worked as a reporter and announcer for NPR–affiliate WNIJ–FM. In 2006 he headed west to become the Salem Correspondent for the Northwest News Network.