Pot will dominate new legislative session
Budget battles have dominated the Oregon Legislature for years, but when the 78th assembly convenes Monday, Salem will be abuzz with talk about pot.
More than a dozen bills already have been introduced to restrict or enhance the July 1 legalization of recreational marijuana, made possible by the passage of Measure 91 in the November election. The bills range from requiring labels warning pregnant women about pot's effects to providing more flexibility for marijuana stores to operate near schools.
“Marijuana will get a lot of attention,” said Rep. Peter Buckley, D-Ashland, co-chairman of the joint Ways and Means Committee, which is responsible for crafting Oregon’s $18.5 billion budget.
Legislators also will grapple with agency budgets, the minimum wage, taxes and myriad other issues once the gavel falls Monday morning.
Lawmakers hope to quickly provide direction on the legalization of marijuana to the Oregon Liquor Control Commission, which will develop rules on retail sales that will go into effect in January 2016.
Buckley, who is on the Joint Committee on Measure 91 Implementation, said he's not willing to make major changes in a law that was passed overwhelmingly by voters. But he would like to allow growers to start their crops earlier than July 1 and encourage small-farm cultivation of marijuana, using microbreweries and wineries as a guide. Under Measure 91, a person 21 or older can legally have up to a half pound of dried marijuana and up to four mature plants as of July 1.
Some legislators want to get rid of the Oregon Medical Marijuana Program, saying it's not necessary once marijuana becomes legal. But Buckley believes it’s an important tool for keeping medicine affordable to those who need it.
Sen. Alan Bates, D-Medford, said he believes many marijuana bills will be thrown out as the session gets underway, but he’d like to see more restrictions on backyard grows to avoid neighborhood problems, a concern many Medford officials have expressed, as well.
Bates said he would like to see marijuana confined to greenhouses or indoor operations, particularly in urban areas.
While some communities such as Medford and Ashland have sought taxes on retail pot, Bates said the state has to keep pot prices low enough to keep the drug cartels out.
“We have a lot of work to do on marijuana,” he said.
Bates doesn’t expect rules regarding edible marijuana to be devised before July 1.
“There probably won’t be any edibles the first year,” he said.
Rep. Mike McLane, R-Powell Butte, whose district covers much of northern Jackson County, said his main concern with pot legalization is providing counties and cities with some local control over where marijuana retail stores are located.
“We need to set the policy of allowing our cities and counties to have as much authority as possible,” McLane said.
Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, said he’d prefer to leave Measure 91 alone and let the Oregon Liquor Control Commission work out the rules without interference from the Legislature.
He said Rob Patridge, a former legislator who is chairman of the OLCC, has the ability to figure it out.
If there are tweaks needed down the road, the Legislature can address them, he said.
BUDGET AND EDUCATION
Buckley and Ways and Means Co-chair Sen. Richard Devlin, D-Tualatin, put out the budget framework before the legislative session even started, marking the earliest point in recent memory when a budget was available for review.
One of their goals is to rebuild education after all the cutbacks during the recession, focusing this time on higher education — which will benefit Rogue Community College and Southern Oregon University. Holding down tuition increases will be another major focus, Buckley said.
He said K-12 grades should see some improvements as well, including full-day kindergarten and more early childhood programs.
Budget revenues could be impacted, however, by a kicker tax credit. The kicker is triggered when revenues surpass economists’ estimates by more than 2 percent. Buckley said he and Devlin will develop contingency plans to account for the kicker, which could cut into revenues by up to $400 million.
McLane said he’s hoping Democrats will open the budget process more than they did in the last legislative session.
“I’ve never known Peter (Buckley) not to listen,” McLane said. “I’m hopeful Democrats will engage quite a few people that weren’t engaged last time.”
McLane said he and Buckley do disagree quite frequently on how actively government should be involved in the lives of its citizens.
Lawmakers will consider whether to raise Oregon's minimum wage, which is $9.25 an hour. Some argue it should be $15 an hour to help workers support their families.
Buckley and Bates said they support raising the minimum wage to $10.50 an hour. Bates said he also would like to see more efforts made to get people off social programs, particularly young mothers who can’t afford to work because of the high cost of day care.
Bates said he will propose programs that will offer day-care assistance and possibly give single mothers two years' free tuition to get them trained for a job.
“We either have to do something or continue down the path of a permanent welfare system,” Bates said.
One of McLane’s biggest concerns this legislative session is to determine how to fairly tax companies such as Google and some of the data centers that have been located in Prineville. He said there is confusion in existing laws about whether these companies should be treated as communication companies or utilities. Because of the confusion, Google Fiber hasn’t come to Portland, McLane said.
McLane said he and other Republicans might consider a small increase in the gas tax as long as it’s tied to improving roads and bridges in the state. He said Democrats are pushing to extend a low carbon fuel standard that has been in existence since 2009 but remains a nebulous concept that could inflate gas prices by penalizing oil companies.
“I could see prices rise for transportation, but not for a program that is not going to go anywhere,” he said.
McLane said he would push to get the clean fuel program off the table for discussion and doesn't support a carbon tax on gas.
But Buckley said Democrats will push to strengthen the clean fuel program, which would attempt to force oil companies to supply the state with fuels that burn cleaner and produce less carbon.
“Republicans are angry at that,” Buckley said. “They don’t see climate issues the same way.”
Some kind of increase in gas prices could come out of this effort, Buckley said, but Republicans have indicated they might block it. The Oregon Department of Environmental Quality estimates the cleaner fuel could cost Oregonians anywhere from 4 to 19 cents a gallon at the pump, though some industry groups estimate it could be much higher.
Esquivel said he’s concerned about some 50 bills pending before the Legislature that would raise taxes in some form or another, mostly by making the rich pay more.
BILLS AND MORE BILLS
Esquivel said he’s looked over about half of the more than 1,000 bills that already have been proposed this session. They include a retirement program for Oregonians, paid sick leave and more extensive background checks during gun purchases, issues that Esquivel has opposed.
Esquivel said he wants to see more legislative oversight of administrative rules that are created by agencies after a bill has been passed.
He cited Senate Bill 100, the land-use reform bill of 1973 that created the Oregon Land Conservation and Development Commission, which he said has been extensively altered by administrative rules.
“There are so many doggone rules and regulations that nobody fully understands all of them,” Esquivel said.
Reach reporter Damian Mann at 541-776-4476 or by email at email@example.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/reporterdm.