Legislative beauty's in the eye of the office-holder

Sweeping marijuana reforms and a Columbia River crossing proved to be elusive goals for the Oregon Legislature as it wrapped up its session last Friday.

Republicans give the 33-day legislative session low marks for excessive policy wrangling, while Democrats tout accomplishments that include improvements to health care.

"I would give it a B," said Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford.

Bates said rebalancing of the state budget was resolved quickly, and policy issues didn't bog the process down — though Republicans said just the opposite.

Bates said the Legislature signed off on a $200 million expansion of cancer research at Oregon Health and Science University.

Lawmakers added some fixes to troubled Cover Oregon, which is this state's version of the federal Affordable Care Act.

Bates said that despite the poor rollout of Cover Oregon, particularly the program's website, the state has signed up almost 250,000 residents who didn't have insurance previously.

He said he hopes that once the website is operational the state will sign up more residents in the private insurance portion of the exchange.

Despite his sense of optimism, Bates said about three or four percent of those who registered through the health exchange were probably incorrectly given Medicaid benefits rather than private insurance — a situation that Bates said will be corrected.

Despite the problems, Bates said many Oregonians have finally been able to see a doctor rather than having to put off preventive procedures such as colonoscopies.

"In the long run, this will save on health care costs," Bates said.

Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, said the legislative session was overtaken by partisan policy discussions rather than focusing on the state budget.

"I give it a D," he said. "We had 32 days of political games by the majority party and one day of actual gains. The budget process was not transparent."

Many Republicans had less than 24 hours to wrap their heads around the budget rebalance, he said.

McLane said the Legislature's high notes included funding for the cancer center as well as funding for building projects at Central Oregon Community College and a new courthouse in Madras.

McLane said the compromise legislation on medical marijuana provides up to a year for communities to declare a moratorium on dispensaries.

The Medford City Council is on track to approve a permanent moratorium on dispensaries. Medford has also enacted an ordinance that effectively bans dispensaries.

At the same time, McLane said, medical marijuana patients still are able to access to their medication.

He said he wasn't disappointed the Legislature didn't craft a bill that would have referred the issue of legalizing marijuana to voters.

"I do believe we'd be better off waiting to see what effects legalizing in Colorado and Washington have down the road," he said.

He gave lawmakers credit for expanding an urban growth boundary in Washington County, which was hammered out through a compromise between local governments, developers and conservationists.

"This is an indication that the one-size-fits-all land-use idea in Oregon isn't working," he said.

State Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, said he helped broker a deal giving cities the ability to declare a moratorium on medical marijuana clinics for up to a year.

He said he'd heard arguments expressed by cities that they would be violating the Controlled Substances Act if they allowed medical marijuana facilities in their communities.

"It's not as big a problem as cities feared it would be," Buckley said.

The moratorium may not solve the issue in Medford, where the city revoked a business license for Mary Jane's Attic and Mary Jane's Basement.

"I think the situation with Mary Jane's is going to court no matter what," he said.

Buckley said the Legislature enacted some tweaks to Cover Oregon that eventually should resolve some of its issues, particularly getting the website to work properly.

"We have cautious optimism that they are on track to get it working by next fall," he said. Only insurance agents can presently sign up clients online.

The Legislature extended an open-enrollment period for another month until the end of April.

Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, said the main impetus of annual sessions was supposed to be budget matters. Instead, he said, this session was marked by endless policy discussions, and little time was left for the budget.

Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, said the legislative session was notable for the bad bills that were stopped, such as a rewriting of the ballot title for a referendum aimed at overturning a law that allows illegal immigrants to obtain driver's cards.

Another proposal — House Bill 4144 — would have created a new investment agency in Salem that would have required a sizable investment in manpower and another layer of bureaucracy without enough oversight, Richardson said.

He said he supported a bill that would have required the Oregon Department of Transportation to notify Internet providers of road projects. This would allow those providers to have the option of installing fiber optic lines under the street.

Richardson said ODOT agreed to change its policy in the interests of improving Internet rather than requiring a bill to be passed.

"That was a win," he said.

In 2010, voters approved having annual sessions of the Legislature.

Richardson said the Legislature is supposed to look at economic issues and budget adjustments during the annual session, while avoiding policy debates.

"It won't matter what party is in charge," Richardson said. "The annual session will be used for political posturing and campaigns."

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or dmann@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter @reporterdm.


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