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Capital Chatter: 'Absolutely' no politics at session

Democrats didn't let the governor down, but are still scratching head over special session.

The Democrats' script worked. They did not let their governor down.

In a one-day special legislative session called by Gov. Kate Brown, Oregon lawmakers passed her tax break for sole proprietors, and she got the desired headlines trumpeting her legislative victory.

Yet despite voting "yes" in support of their governor, many Democratic legislators afterward still were scratching their heads about why Brown insisted on a special session for such a small matter.

• How it happened: On Monday, Brown's House Bill 4301 passed the House 51-8 and the Senate 18-12. On Tuesday, she signed it into law.

Brown personally lobbied legislators, but the outcome had remained unclear. It wasn't until Senate Democrats caucused Monday that the bill's passage was assured.

However, the Democrats' reluctance was evident. Few in either chamber spoke in favor of the bill.

Sen. Sara Gelser, D-Corvallis, initially provided a "yes" vote on the Senate floor but switched to "no" once the bill had enough votes for passage.

The bill could have died that morning in a legislative committee. Democratic Sen. Mark Hass, of Beaverton, changed his "no" to "yes" to keep it alive. Hass did vote "no" on the Senate floor.

Hass chairs the Senate tax committee. Could you imagine the flak he'd take in the 2019 Legislature if he proposed eliminating or changing the small-business tax break after supporting it this year?

House Democrats had tried to kill the overall small-business tax break last year. This special session was filled with oddities, and one of the oddest was that Brown would not commit to keeping her tax break in the long-term. She said that would depend on analysis of how well it worked.

• Republicans go both ways: Senate Republicans were so irritated that most voted "vote" in order to make Democrats to vote "yes." The three Republican senators voting "yes": Republican Leader Jackie Winters, of Salem, whom Brown had lobbied extensively; Kim Thatcher, of Keizer, who at a press conference with Libertarians had said the bill deserved support; and Tim Knopp, of Bend.

Knopp has emerged as the Republican version of Sen. Betsy Johnson, of Scappoose: someone who stands by his, or her, convictions instead of toeing the party line. Maybe that's why Johnson and Knopp could collaborate on such issues as PERS reform.

In the House, Republicans gave a series of speeches bashing Brown but urging a "yes" vote. The speakers included Republican gubernatorial candidate Knute Buehler, of Bend, whose rhetoric sure sounded like a campaign speech. House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, let him talk instead of declaring his comments out-of-bounds.

• Election-year politics? Hmm: Republicans and newspaper editorial boards had panned the special session as an election-year ploy by Brown to help her re-election.

Sen. Brian Boquist, R-Dallas, asked the Oregon Government Ethics Commission for an advisory opinion "regarding the actions by the Governor leading up to, and participating, in a special session she called under what many believe are unconstitutional grounds, not for the purpose of public policy, but for furthering her reelection campaign using public resources. Merited or not, this is the belief of many today.

"This is not a [formal] complaint as there appears to be a loop hole large enough to drive a freight train through in Oregon's elections and ethics laws."

At her media availability after the special session, Brown reiterated that the legislation was a matter of "tax fairness for our small businesses, making sure that our smallest of small businesses could compete on a level playing field to similarly situated small businesses down the street."

A reporter asked, "Nothing to do with an election?"

Brown responded, "Absolutely not."

• Ridiculous or not: Oregon House Republicans said Brown's "absolutely not" response ranked second among the three most-ridiculous utterances during the special session.

No. 1 was a tweet from the Democratic Governors Association: "Oregon small businesses have an ally in the state capitol with @KateBrownforOR."

No. 3 was a comment by retiring state Rep. Phil Barnhart, D-Eugene, the chair of the House tax committee, who carried Brown's bill on the House floor: "We can improve equity in the tax system by voting 'yes.'"

• Memorial Day travels: Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, ended Wednesday's floor session by saying he knew all the senators were good drivers but urging them to drive carefully this weekend.

Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, said gas prices have risen more than 25 percent since President Donald Trump took office. "Since Trump has taken the wheel, he's driven gas prices in one direction — straight up," Wyden said. "The president's reckless decision to break our deal with Iran has only added to the spike in oil prices, and created massive uncertainty in oil markets that translates to more pain at the pump for drivers."

The Oregon Department of Transportation has banned travel of mobile homes, modular units and other wide loads on Friday afternoon and on Memorial Day. Wide loads and freight triple trailers are prohibited on some roads throughout the weekend. Some log trucks also are restricted.

The Oregon State Parks Foundation has collaborated with Zipcar and ReachNow to put free State Park day-use parking passes and State Parks guides in all their car-sharing vehicles in Portland. "The partnerships seek to increase access to the outdoors without having to own a car or pay for parking," the foundation said in a news release.

"With today's news, more people will have access to quintessential Oregon outdoor activities such as houseboating at Lake Billy Chinook, rock climbing at Smith Rock, fly fishing at Cottonwood Canyon, bungee jumping at Peter Skene Ogden, tide pool exploring at Devil's Punchbowl, or sand dune adventuring at Honeyman."

• Side note: My wife and I were eating dinner at a Lincoln City restaurant this week when a patron asked for a guide listing things to do. The helpful staff explained where to find the visitors guide.

As inland Oregonians who love visiting the coast, our suggested answer might have been: For those who are able, walk the beach. When you've gone far enough, turn around and walk the other way. Enjoy and repeat.

Dick Hughes, who writes the weekly Capital Chatter column, has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com, Hughesisms.com/Facebook, YouTube.com/c/DickHughes or @DickHughes on Twitter.