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Pace at Capitol quickens as end of session nears

Some of the remaining top Democratic priorities, like campaign finance reform and affordable housing bills, have received hearings over the past week.

We're about halfway through the last month of the legislative session, and to say the pace in the Oregon State Capitol has quickened is an understatement.

Some of the remaining top Democratic priorities, like campaign finance reform and affordable housing bills, have received hearings over the past week. Legislative proposals believed to be on life support just days ago suddenly look likely to reach Gov. Kate Brown's desk before the Legislature adjourns.

The turnaround has been dramatic for Democrats' proposed tobacco tax increase, which has been reconfigured to go before voters instead of becoming law right away. It had a long-awaited committee work session Thursday morning, and Brown said Thursday she's pleased with the progress that lawmakers have made.

"We never gave up, and we never gave in," she said of the proposal's reemergence.

Paid family leave, a policy plan dormant for more than two months, reemerged this week with broad support from labor unions, businesses, and advocates on both the left and the right. The proposal advanced out of its original committee Thursday afternoon.

There were rumblings over the weekend that the biggest remaining bill this session, the controversial cap-and-trade proposal, was in trouble as moderate Senate Democrats wavered on whether to support it. But after a flurry of amendments, House Bill 2020 is back in motion and will likely get a House vote Monday. Brown said she is "cautiously optimistic" it will pass.

Democrats captured supermajorities in both the House and Senate last year, giving them the ability to pass tax increases without Republican support and giving them a healthier cushion on other controversial policies.

"All in all, I think we have looked at every policy individually (and) we have said, 'Is this good for the state of Oregon?'" House Speaker Tina Kotek said this week. "The supermajority I don't think as been as big an issue as maybe people thought it would be."

Even still, the more conservative Senate has proven an obstacle to some Democratic proposals, and Senate President Peter Courtney has been less reluctant than in previous legislative sessions to call a bill up for a vote even if it doesn't have the support to pass.

As part of a deal to end a Republican boycott of Senate floor proceedings last month, Democrats surrendered two bills backed by most majority lawmakers: a gun control measure and a proposal to end non-medical exemptions from mandatory vaccines for schoolchildren.

Separately, moderates in the Senate last week killed a bill backed by trial lawyers, a major Democratic constituency, that would have removed the cap on non-economic damage awards in tort cases, and this week voted down another bill supported by the environmental lobby, also a Democratic support base, that would have banned the use of polystyrene food containers by most vendors.

All that notwithstanding, though, it's been a productive session for majority Democrats, and they're hoping to finish strong by passing policies that many leading Democrats have been fighting to push through the Legislature for years, like paid family leave, campaign finance reform, and cap-and-trade.

"I think the story at the end of the session is that we did comprehensive and historically important bills on a variety of issues," Kotek said, "and I think it's really setting a course for the future of the state, hopefully, by the time we finish here."