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Cover Oregon, pot, guns on legislative agenda

SALEM — With legislative elections in the rearview mirror, Oregon lawmakers are turning their attention to the 2015 Legislature session.

When they convene at the beginning of February, the House and Senate will have more Democrats and fewer Republicans than they've had in four years. Democrats extended their majority to 35-25 in the House and 18-12 in the Senate.

Here's a look at just a few of the issues that state lawmakers will be confronting.

BUDGET

Passing a budget is the one and only thing lawmakers are required to do.

As there is every year, there's likely to be wrangling over the amount of money for schools.

Newly re-elected Gov. John Kitzhaber will start the deliberations on Monday, when he's scheduled to release his annual budget recommendation.

Thanks to steady economic improvements over the past two years, the most recent forecast shows the next two-year budget should have around $1.8 billion more than the last. That doesn't mean lawmakers can go on a spending spree, however, because costs go up too.

The economic improvement has been so substantial, in fact, that "kicker" tax rebates could be triggered, sending at least $290 million back to taxpayers. That's from a provision of the Oregon constitution that requires rebates if the state collects more in income taxes than anticipated.

COVER OREGON

Kitzhaber and senior legislative leaders have called to disband Cover Oregon, the quasi-public corporation that embarrassed the state's political leadership when it spent millions on a health insurance website that never fully worked .

House Speaker Tina Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney have already appointed a special committee to work up a bill.

Their work isn't as easy as just dissolving the Oregon Health Insurance Exchange Corporation, the formal name for Cover Oregon. They'll have to divvy up its functions across other state agencies while staying within the bounds of federal regulations.

Rather than using a state-based website, Oregonians can sign up for health insurance and see whether they qualify for subsidies at www.HealthCare.gov .

MARIJUANA

Oregon voters decided to legalize marijuana for recreational use and approved the bureaucracy to regulate it, but that doesn't mean there's no work for the Legislature to get ready for July 1, when pot becomes legal.

Among the pot-related issues that could pop up: restrictions on the packaging for edible marijuana products and sorting out the interaction between the new recreational marijuana system and the existing medical program. Recreational pot sales are subject to state taxation, but medical transfers are not.

Local governments also may continue their fight for the power to ban pot stores within their borders. Some cities and counties have also passed local marijuana taxes, which are disallowed under the voter-approved initiative and may draw legislative intervention.

Some lawmakers have also suggested expunging marijuana-related offenses from criminal records.

GUN CONTROL

The newly expanded Democratic majorities mean lawmakers are certain to wrestle again with gun-control measures.

Their past attempts stymied in the Senate, gun-control proponents now have a friendlier playing field.

A gun-control group founded by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has already said it will push for a bill requiring background checks on private gun sales. Oregon already has stronger background check mandates than other states, requiring them for sales at gun shows.

The supporters say they're trying to keep felons from owning guns, but critics contend a background check won't stop a determined criminal from getting hold of a firearm.

While most of the attention has focused on background checks, other gun-control ideas have been proposed in recent years, including a prohibition on carrying weapons in schools, the state Capitol and other government buildings. Under current law, people with concealed weapons permits can carry weapons in public buildings.