Democrats' liberal wing flexes muscles
SALEM — Oregon will be the first state to automatically register drivers to vote and to give women access to 12 months of birth control at a time. Workers will get up to a week of paid sick leave. A controversial new global-warming initiative aims to reduce carbon pollution.
Evidence of the Democrats' expanded majorities was everywhere in the 2015 session that wrapped up this week. And while they didn't get everything they wanted — most notably, tax hikes for road construction — the liberal wing of the Democratic Party managed to break significant new ground on issues important to the left.
"This is the session I think people will remember as the year we put opportunity for working families first," House Speaker Tina Kotek, a Portland Democrat, told reporters an hour after the session ended Monday night.
The stage was set for Democratic successes in last year's election, when the party expanded its majorities in the House and Senate. The expansion empowered the party's liberal wing, which had been repeatedly stymied by more moderate Democrats willing to side with Republicans.
Even after the session was rocked by the stunning resignation of then-Gov. John Kitzhaber in February, Democratic leaders pressed ahead with what they called unfinished business — legislation that was stymied in previous years. It included an extension of the low-carbon fuel standard, which forces oil companies to reduce the carbon emissions associated with their fuels.
Democrats mandated background checks on private gun sales, and voted to use driving records to automatically register eligible citizens to vote. They approved a bill giving all workers a week of sick leave, which must be paid leave in companies with at least 10 employees.
In each case, Oregon was one of the first states to adopt the policy.
The breakneck pace frustrated Republicans, who complained Democrats were rushing through partisan and controversial legislation to please their campaign donors. Throughout the five-month session, Republicans repeatedly invoked the memory of Cover Oregon, the failed health insurance exchange that tried to be a national trendsetter but ultimately failed to launch a working website.
"I don't find anywhere in the constitution a requirement that Oregon be famous based on what bills we can get passed first in the nation," said Rep. Mike McLane, the top Republican in the House.
Liberals weren't universally successful.
A proposal to hike the minimum wage went nowhere, and advocates have taken initial steps toward putting the question to voters on the 2016 ballot.
Democrats failed in an effort to pay for road, bridge, airport and transit construction through higher taxes on gasoline, driver's licenses and vehicle registrations. Raising taxes would've required one Republican vote, and GOP lawmakers were united in their insistence that the low-carbon fuel standard be repealed first.
While Gov. Kate Brown and a group of legislators tried to reach a compromise that involved trading the fuel mandate for other carbon reductions, the effort fizzled amid intense lobbying by environmental groups and uncertainty about emissions data.
"No session is perfect," Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said in a statement. "Every session has accomplishments and disappointments. This session was no different. In some ways it was tremendously successful. In other ways it was historically difficult."
Courtney was a top champion of the transportation efforts and of an unsuccessful bid to remodel the Capitol, both of which died for lack of support from House Democrats.