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Oregon Lawmakers Enter Final Week After Testy Saturday

Oregon lawmakers spent most of the day Saturday at the state Capitol in Salem. Many said they'd rather be elsewhere, but still, lawmakers crossed a lot of things off their end-of-session "to-do" list.

A key legislative committee approved a $5.3 billion transportation spending package. The plan would fund a variety of highway and public transportation improvements. Funding would come from an increase in the gas tax and new taxes on vehicle sales and payrolls. Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, called the proposal the product of lots of work and compromise. "There are things that can really, potentially — if they're successful — will make big differences both in the economy of our state as well as in relieving congestion," Beyer said.

But some lawmakers on the panel said the package was moving in the fast lane and urged the committee's leaders to slow things down. Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, complained that she'd had less than 24 hours to study the 295-page amendment, unlike the core group of lawmakers that had helped draft the plan. "Four of this panel have had in-depth access to detailed information and professional experts," she said. "The rest of us are just running along behind you."

In the end, Johnson and Sen. Fred Girod, R-Stayton, were the only two members of the 14-member committee who voted against the measure. The proposal next heads to the House floor.

Also on Saturday, the House approved a bill that would expand coverage of reproductive health care in Oregon. It sparked a rare debate over abortion in the Oregon Legislature. The measure would require health insurance companies to cover a broad range of reproductive health care services — including abortion — at no cost to the patient.

Democrats, including Rep. Julie Fahey of Eugene, said the bill is needed because of possible changes to federal health care laws. "Restrictions on reproductive health care have profoundly harmful effects on public health, particularly on those who already face significant barriers to receiving high-quality care," she said.

Republicans, including Rep. Jodi Hack of Salem, said they largely support the proposal, with the notable exception of the abortion provision. "I am a pro-life woman and I am darn proud of it. And I have raised a young woman in my family to be the same," Hack said.

The measure passed 33-23 after a nearly two-hour debate. One Democrat voted with Republicans against the bill, which now heads to the Oregon Senate.

Another testy exchange came during a late-afternoon meeting of the House Rules Committee. There, Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, accused the Democrats who control the panel of executing a power grab by passing an amendment that would set a January election date for any measure referred to the ballot by voters following the legislative session.

Parrish is attempting to refer a $550 million tax on the health care industry to the ballot. Typically, items referred to the ballot by voters would appear on the next general election. In this case, that would be November 2018. Parrish says a January 2018 election date would effectively suppress voter turnout, as special elections historically have had lower turnout than general elections. Democrats say the earlier election is needed in case voters overturn the tax. That would allow lawmakers to revisit the issue during their February 2018 session.

Parrish got into a verbal sparring match with Rep. Dan Rayfield, D-Corvallis, over whether, in her job as a political consultant, she would personally benefit from the effort to overturn the bill. Committee chair Rep. Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, quickly banged her gavel and Parrish abruptly ended her testimony. Williamson moved on to a different bill before returning to the contentious measure later in the meeting.

The Oregon House won't meet again until Wednesday, but the Senate and some budget committees are scheduled to convene on Monday.

<p>The Oregon State Capitol in Salem.</p>

Bradley W. Parks

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The Oregon State Capitol in Salem.

Copyright 2017 Oregon Public Broadcasting

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.