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Lawmakers to convene Monday after delay fails

SALEM — Brushing aside a last-minute court delay that failed, Oregon lawmakers will convene Monday in what is being billed as a "supplemental" session of the Legislature.

The Oregon Supreme Court ruled Saturday on a lawsuit filed by Sen. Larry George, R-Sherwood, that claimed the session runs afoul of the "emergency" the state Constitution requires for off-year sessions. The court's ruling ended George's attempt.

Substitute "test drive" for annual sessions, and you are closer to the real reason for the monthlong off-year meeting — convince the electorate to amend the constitution in 2009 to allow annual sessions.

To that end, a short meeting dealing with budget oversight and one or two "emergent" issues such as the subprime mortgage mess and new driver's license rules. By adjourning in a timely fashion, in this case Feb. 29, the leadership hopes switching from biennial to annual will meet with voter approval.

"We should limit the session to budget fixes, and one or two emergent issues," said Sen. Alan Bates, D-Ashland. He favors addressing the subprime mortgage mess with its attendant lending abuses and a proposal requiring proof of legal residency to qualify for a driver's license.

"I don't think," he emphasized, "that we should be doing political bills."

The supplemental session will convene Monday at 8:30 a.m., without the usual fanfare that accompanies the opening of the regular biennial conclave. House and Senate committees already have worked out their bills, which will be introduced opening day.

If the Legislature meets the end of the month adjournment date, it will duplicate the feat of the regular session that set — and met — a June 30 deadline to get out of town.

Legislators agree a politicized session — it is, after all, an election year — could drag out the proceedings and turn voters off of annual sessions. Oregon is one of six states that meet every two years.

Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, House majority whip, said the House committees are readying about 41 bills. Individual representatives are prohibited from introducing measures, although each senator gets to sponsor one bill.

Buckley said the House Education Committee, which he chairs, is introducing only two relatively modest proposals. One adjusts the 10th-grade assessment program and the other allows local districts to charge for full-day kindergarten classes for another two years. Schools in low-income attendance areas already have full-day kindergartens, paid for with a federal subsidy.

Bates said he does not plan to offer his own bill, unless possibly as a vehicle for some minor budget fixes in the Department of Human Resources. Bates is the only Jackson County legislator on the Ways and Means committee, which acts on fiscal requests.

Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, also wants a limited agenda.

"We should come in, fix some budgets and then leave," he said, though Esquivel said he wouldn't mind paying for another 39 state troopers for 24/7 road coverage and said he would like to see the proposed medical technology building at Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls funded.

Despite the leadership urging caution, some substantial and potentially controversial proposals are waiting in the wings.

Republicans are clamoring for the additional troopers on top of the 100 approved by the 2007 Legislature. And timber-dependent counties are looking to lawmakers for some help when federal timber tax revenue subsidies expire. The subsidies fund a large chunk of services in timber-dependent counties, such as libraries and law enforcement.

There is talk of a products safety proposal aimed at toy makers, funding the so-called "Big Look Committee" to review state land-use laws and possibly a bill to create marine reserves off the Oregon coast. Eastern Oregon legislators want to increase water storage capacity in the Umatilla Basin. Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferriolli, R-John Day, is pushing to align professional development for teachers to national benchmarks.

Another that could prove divisive passed out of the House health panel Jan. 25. The resolution asks voters to approve a constitutional amendment in November declaring that adequate health care is a "fundamental right" if all Oregonians.

About 600,000 Oregon residents do not have health care coverage.

Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, a member of the committee, said the proposal cleared the panel on a party-line vote, with Republicans voting no.

"There was no talk of how we would pay the billions it would cost to implement such a plan," Richardson said. He said legislation could have a "damaging impact" on how the session progresses.

"We should only be dealing with issues that cannot wait until the '09 regular session," Richardson said.

The first week will also see a new revenue forecast issued. Early indications say there could be some erosion of the November 2007, forecast that included an additional $35 million in revenue.

Gov. Ted Kulongoski warned of a potential slack revenue stream at an Associated Press meeting in Salem. "It may be flat or it may go down. We'll just have to wait and see," he said.

No one is expecting a repeat of 2002-03 when revenues dropped a staggering $1 billion, leading to five special sessions to pare spending.

Don Jepsen is a freelance writer living in Salem.