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Local GOP bruised by 'partisan' session

Democrats drove the agenda this legislative session, and Republicans are smarting over bills that affect how much you pay for gas and how you buy your guns.

The 2015 session wrapped up Monday night, and local lawmakers either liked what happened or didn’t, depending on the party they represent.

“I thought it was probably the most partisan I’ve ever seen in the whole time I’ve been there,” said Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford.

Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, played a pivotal role in the state’s budget, and he said the legislative agenda that Democrats pushed forward should come as no surprise to Republicans.

“We campaigned on issues like paid sick leave,” he said. “When we get into the legislative session and follow up on our promises, then people say, ‘How partisan.’ ”

More money will be poured into kindergarten, career and technical education, early childhood education and retirement programs, Buckley said.

“We passed a lot of bills that will have an impact on people’s lives,” Buckley said. “The higher education budget is the best we’ve had in years.”

Much of the controversy this session focused on marijuana, guns, a failed transportation proposal and clean fuels, but the Legislature also passed bills that increase fees on hunting and fishing, require businesses to provide retirement savings, mandate birth control pills be made available a year at a time, and require universities to improve reports on sexual assaults.

Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, said there was a desire in the 2013 session to build consensus with Republicans. “In 2015, there was very little of that,” he said.

Overriding Republican dissent, the Democrats passed an increase in gas prices for a questionable clean energy bill, McLane said. He said estimates of the price hike for gas range from 4 cents to more than $1.

He said none of the money from gas taxes collected will go to highway or bridge-building efforts. Instead it will fund a carbon-reduction program that hasn’t been clearly spelled out, McLane said.

Buckley said the state already has projects lined up that would benefit from the clean-fuels bill.

He said Oregon companies are investing in biofuel technology, and he cited a letter from DuPont encouraging the state to continue the clean-fuels act. DuPont has been working on creating fuels from cellulose and other plant-based materials.

Buckley said California has a similar clean-fuels program that has seen a price rise of less than 1 cent a gallon over the past five years.

“It’s a well vetted program,” Buckley said. “When you look at the data from California, it is a very workable program.”

The gun background check closes what Democrats say was a loophole in existing law that didn’t require background checks sold between private parties.

McLane said that if you loaned a gun to a friend for the day, you would be required to obtain a background check on that friend. And then when the friend returned the gun to you, he would be required to run a background check on you, McLane said.

Despite his objections to the new law, McLane said he acknowledged it might have some positive effects.

“It will be harder for felons and those with criminal arrests to get firearms,” he said. “It won’t prevent it. It will make it harder. Is it worth the cost?”

Buckley said he doesn’t think McLane’s portrayal of the gun bill is accurate.

“You don’t have to do a background check when you return a gun to someone,” he said.

Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, said that requiring background checks for gun sales and transfers isn’t infringing on law-abiding citizens' right to bear arms.

“Criticism of the bill is just playing to the National Rifle Association,” Bates said.

On other issues, Bates said Democrats should have compromised with Republicans.

Republicans wanted paid sick leave to apply to companies with 50 or more employees, while Portland Democrats wanted it to apply to all businesses.

“I give the Republicans some credit for wanting something reasonable,” Bates said.

Bates said he personally liked a compromise proposal that would have made the paid sick leave apply to businesses of 25 or more. Instead, the law requires employers with 10 or more employees to offer sick leave.

Bates said he’s particularly proud of funding full-day kindergarten, community college tuition relief and decreasing the costs of the Oregon Health Plan and Medicaid.

Even for Republicans, there were a few highlights this session.

Esquivel said very ill Oregonians now will have access to experimental drugs for treatment, and he applauded an agreement over sage grouse in Eastern Oregon that should save habitat. He supported a law against taking a photo up a woman’s skirt without her permission, known as “upskirting.” Esquivel also supported a law against “revenge porn,” banning someone from posting an intimate photo of a former ex-lover online without permission.

Esquivel opposed increases in hunting and fishing fees, and he also criticized Democrats for blocking changes to ethics laws in the wake of controversy surrounding former Gov. John Kitzhaber, who resigned in February amid an ethics scandal involving his fiancee.

In general, Esquivel said, the partisan nature of the Legislature is troubling.

“The way you gauge people is how they act when they have the authority and the power,” he said.

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