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Pot bill suffers rare floor vote loss

Senate Democratic leadership was stumped Wednesday as bipartisan majority voted down a bill to control pot supply.

It doesn't happen all the time — but it does happen.

Senate Democratic leadership was stumped Wednesday as 16 senators, including five Democrats, voted down a bill that would have allowed the Oregon Liquor Control Commission to deny a marijuana production license on the basis of market supply and demand.

Sen. Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, and other supporters of Senate Bill 218 said the legislation was needed to counter a glut of marijuana on the market. Many marijuana growers have complained in recent months that the market is saturated, and prices are so low that they can't make a profit unless they are willing to sell marijuana illegally — across state lines, for instance.

"Socialism," Sen. Herman Baertschiger Jr., R-Grants Pass, responded disapprovingly.

Baertschiger and other opponents argued that it would be improper government overreach to artificially limit the growth of the marijuana industry to benefit existing producers. The market should be allowed to self-regulate, they said, even if that means growers struggle in the near term due to competition.

"These people took a chance, and they're losing," said Sen. Alan Olsen, R-Canby.

"It's a legal crop," Sen. Lee Beyer, D-Springfield, said. "It makes legal products. We don't regulate these kind of things … we don't limit entry into the business market."

Sen. Chuck Riley, D-Hillsboro, an SB 218 backer, protested that marijuana is unlike other cash crops in Oregon.

"This product has a very limited (legal) market," Riley said. "It can only be sold to people inside the state of Oregon."

In the end, the nays had it. Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, broke with others in his party to support SB 218. All other Republicans plus Democratic Sens. Betsy Johnson of Scappoose, Laurie Monnes Anderson of Gresham, Kathleen Taylor of Milwaukie, Jeff Golden of Ashland, and Beyer voted down the bill, sending Democratic and Republican leaders into a befuddled huddle on the dais.

Senate Majority Leader Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, flipped her vote to "no" for the purpose of reconsidering the bill. The Senate then voted 26-4 to send it back to the Rules Committee, where it could receive revisions to make it more palatable to reluctant senators — or it could languish and die.

"Obviously, this bill needs some work, and Rules is probably a good place to send it," Baertschiger said.

Most of the time, the presiding officer will only bring a bill to the House or Senate floor if its passage appears to be a foregone conclusion. It's rare that a bill is called up and fails to pass. A veteran Democratic aide said after Wednesday's floor session that it's happened just four times in the Senate in his entire recollection.

Oddly, this is the second time this session that a bill has been voted down on the Senate floor. However, the failure of Senate Bill 29 on March 4 was due to a few supportive senators' unexpected absence preventing the bill from getting the minimum 16 votes it needed to pass. SB 29 was brought up for reconsideration the next day and passed 17-12.

The chamber seemed unsettled, almost giddy, as senators took up another marijuana-related bill on Wednesday: Senate Bill 365, prohibiting local governments from slapping marijuana growers with extra system development charges. Deschutes County is the only county in Oregon that does so.

Beyer delivered an impassioned floor speech decrying the county's practice of using system development charges to target marijuana. He finished by urging senators to vote "no," then realized his mistake: "It's a 'yes' vote!"

The Senate was paralyzed with laughter for a solid 30 seconds after Beyer's gaffe — a reporter in the gallery timed it — before Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, was able to begin making his own case for SB 365.

The bill passed 25-5.