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Government and Politics
Dispatches from public radio's correspondent at the Oregon Legislature. This is a venue for political and policy coverage of the state government in Salem and its impact on the people of Oregon.

The End Is Near For A Tumultuous Session Of The Oregon Legislature

Oregon's legislative session opened in January with words of hope and optimism from Governor John Kitzhaber. But when the final gavel falls, Kitzhaber won't be among those celebrating at the capitol.

On January 12, John Kitzhaber raised his right hand and took the oath of office to begin his unprecedented fourth term as Oregon governor. When the applause subsided, he addressed a joint session of the Oregon legislature.

"I thought I would take a few minutes and reflect about what I've learned over the last 36 years that might be of some value, and why I did it, and what I hope to achieve in the next four years which will complete the arc of my political career,” he said.

As it turned out, Kitzhaber's political career was over in about four weeks, not four years. He stepped down in mid-February amid a criminal ethics investigation. That probe is still underway and the former governor has largely stayed out of the public eye since.

But lawmakers soldiered on. Democrats used their larger majorities to pass through many of their legislative priorities. And his resignation paved the way for Oregon's second female governor. Kate Brown was Secretary of State and wasted no time in signing into law a series of bills that her fellow Democrats had quickly approved even as the state's highest office was in turmoil.

One of those measures was a bill that requires fuel producers to lower the carbon content of their products in Oregon. Environmental groups cheered the long-sought measure. The policy is dubbed the Low Carbon Fuel Standard, and is expected to raise the price of gas by up to 19 cents per gallon.

But Republicans called it a hidden gas tax and walked away from talks aimed at producing a transportation funding package. GOP representative Cliff Bentz predicted in March that the dispute would ultimately sink any bipartisan attempt to fund repairs to Oregon's roads and bridges.

"Even if my Democrat colleagues were to bring the Low Carbon Fuel Standard back in and place it on the table and say sure, we'll put this here for repeal or replacement or whatever, even if they would do that tomorrow, I would wonder if there's time left to get this done right,” Bentz said.

Bentz was almost wrong. Late in the session talks resumed and a $343 million transportation package emerged. It was funded by a four cent gas tax increase and hikes to vehicle registration fees. And it included a repeal of the Low Carbon Fuel Standard.

Many House Democrats blasted the deal and said it relied on faulty assumptions. Their point was made neatly for them at the bill's only public hearing. Oregon Department of Transportation Director Matt Garrett said the agency had vastly overestimated the amount of carbon reduction that would happen under the compromise measure.

"While I apologize for that, it's a mistake that I need to correct, I will own,” Garrett said. “But it does go in to part of this conversation. It's best to put it on the table right now and move forward from there.”

But lawmakers didn't move forward from there. After the hearing, the governor and legislative leaders quickly pulled the plug.

Lawmakers did act on other hot button issues. They passed several measures that helped usher a voter-approved measure to legalize recreational marijuana. They approved a statewide paid sick leave law. They approved a bill to require background checks for private gun sales.

And they enacted a first-in-the-nation law that will automatically register citizens to vote when they get their driver’s licenses. That was a bill that was first championed by Kate Brown when she was Secretary of State.

And it was one of the first bills she signed after becoming governor.