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State Legislature poised to tackle divisive cultural issues

Marijuana, guns and genetically modified food are among the topics that could dominate the Oregon Legislature's special session, which starts next week.

Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, said the Legislature will consider asking voters in November whether they want to legalize marijuana and allow the Legislature to craft rules to avoid some of the pitfalls of other states.

"We want to learn from Colorado," he said. "We want to learn from Washington."

The Legislature is looking at its own ballot initiative as opposed to initiatives written by marijuana activists.

The special session that starts Feb. 3 could be the first in a long time that isn't dominated by budget issues.

Buckley, who is co-chair of the Ways and Means Committee, said there will be fine-tuning but no major changes coming up after years of relentless budget battles.

During the first week of the 35-day special session, the issues that will take center stage should become apparent.

A comprehensive background check for all gun transactions could be discussed, but the controversial issue died in a previous legislative session.

The Legislature could take up the issue of labeling foods to indicate whether they contain genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Buckley said the Legislature could refer the GMO labeling question to voters.

The Legislature likely will look at fixes for Cover Oregon, which had a rocky rollout and has generated a lot of criticism from Oregonians.

Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, said he opposes the effort to have universal background checks.

"Show me how this will prevent tragedies like at Clackamas Town Center," McLane said, referring to a Dec. 11, 2012, shooting that left two dead and one wounded.

He said plenty of laws are already on the books to keep guns away from the mentally ill, felons and others. Many of those laws aren't adequately enforced, he said.

McLane said he supports setting aside tobacco tax revenue to help treat people with psychiatric issues.

McLane said Democrats, who were in charge of the launch of Cover Oregon, are now demanding accountability.

"In the end, it was a Democratic governor and a Democratic Legislature that watched as this incompetence occurred," he said.

The special session could be marked by Democrat efforts to quickly pass laws, or it could end up being marked by inaction.

Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, said he opposes the universal background checks for gun purchases, including private parties.

"Do you think the crooks are really going to do that anyways?" Esquivel said.

He said he predicts any efforts to pass a universal background check bill will fail.

Esquivel said he is particularly concerned about an effort by Democrats to change the tax credits for businesses, which was part of a bipartisan "grand bargain" worked out to balance the budget last year.

"I'm against cutting back on the tax credits for small business," he said.

Buckley said Democrats aren't reneging on the "grand bargain" deal.

He said the idea is to provide more tax breaks for smaller businesses and lesser tax breaks for larger businesses.

"This is not something we will force to happen," Buckley said. "If there's not bipartisan support, it won't happen."

Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, said Cover Oregon has been a failure, and its financial problems won't be sustainable for the state.

Richardson, who has announced plans to run for governor, said Kitzhaber and the Legislature need to acknowledge the failure in this session.

"We need to stop it now or we're going to continue spending money," he said. "We're throwing good money after bad."

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