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Oregon lawmakers get back to work Feb. 3

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 Monday, 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 because of 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.