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Capital Chatter: A weird and whacky week at the Legislature

Legislature's clock is ticking down with all the big issues still to solve.

On Wednesday, I greeted a veteran legislator at the Oregon Capitol with, "Happy Wednesday." His response: "The only thing you can say about today is that it gets us one day closer to being out of here."

That was from a Democrat — the party that controls the House, Senate and governor's office, and presumably has the power to get things done.

But things are not going spiffily on some big issues. A transportation-finance package — a top priority by Democrats and Republicans alike — is bogging down. One reason is House Democrats' supposed reluctance to add cost-containment provisions to Oregon's controversial Low Carbon Fuel Standard.

A revenue proposal — a sales tax paid by Oregon businesses — is moving even slower. Some advocates say it might await action until the 2018 Legislature, with the current Legislature taking smaller steps. Other advocates are more hopeful, warning that delays increase the chance of interest groups' putting a divisive tax measure on the ballot, as happened last year with Measure 97.

Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli of John Day says the so-called commercial activity tax should be put on the ballot for a public vote, if the 2017 Legislature deals with it all.

Meanwhile, the whole "need" for increased revenue is fuzzy because Congress and the Trump administration might change the federal tax laws. If so, Oregon could reap a tax windfall large enough to cover what Democrats say is the state's projected budget shortage for 2017-19.

If federal income taxes are reduced, Oregonians will have less federal tax to deduct on their state income taxes. Thus, Oregonians would pay higher state taxes because of their lower federal taxes.

• Blink and you'll miss the latest tax plan: The Oregon Education Investment Initiative, the business tax plan introduced May 4 by House Speaker Tina Kotek and two colleagues, is in flux. Kotek, D-Portland, and Senate Revenue Chair Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, are meeting almost daily to find the "sweet spot" between the commercial activity tax he was working on and Kotek's version of that tax.

The Legislative Revenue Office ran a simulation on the initial version being considered by Hass and the Joint Committee on Tax Reform. It shows how that version would affect the economy. I asked the office for the simulation that was conducted on Kotek's Oregon Education Investment Initiative, and was told that simulation had not been formally released. Really? The comparisons would be interesting.

• No rent control from this Legislature: Word is that the Senate is unlikely to approve rent control — or rent stabilization, as advocates call it. The Senate is dealing with a House bill, a priority of Speaker Kotek, that would allow cities and counties to impose residential rent controls. The bill also makes other changes in the landlord-tenant relationship, so the Senate may pass some aspects of the House version.

• Revenue and transportation first, please: Senate bills have been piling up in the House, awaiting action there. Some legislators think the delays are deliberate, so as to increase Speaker Kotek's negotiating leverage with the Senate as the Legislature enters its final weeks. Kotek said that was not the case, and Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, said he had seen no evidence of that.

I asked Kotek specifically about SB 719. She said the bill was sitting in the House Rules Committee because she wants to deal with revenue and transportation first. SB 719 would allow family members or law enforcement to obtain a court order to remove firearms from persons at risk of harming themselves or others.

It's a suicide-prevention bill. Suicides, not homicides, are the leading cause of deaths by firearms in Oregon.

Legislators, educators, health officials and others are making a public push to prevent suicides and to educate family members about warning signs. It's ironic and potentially tragic that a bill such as SB 719 would get caught up in the Legislature's political maneuvering.

Looking for a meltdown on Aisle 1, please: Legislative sessions follow a rhythm that usually includes at least one major meltdown or blowup before key issues are settled. Legislators from both parties told me that a meltdown is needed soon to rock lawmakers out of their entrenched positions.

Controversial bills follow a similar rhythm. That happened with the pay equity legislation, which arrived in the Senate as a contentious, partisan bill from the House.

But Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Milwaukie, and Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, were committed to achieving not only a compromise bill but a good — possibly great — bill. They are the chair and vice chair of the Senate Workforce Committee. Pay equity is a priority for each of them, although they have taken different routes.

There were blowups along the away, as legislators and staffers met with interest groups, but the Legislature ultimately passed the reworked bill on unanimous votes in the Senate and House.

In contrast, some controversial bills seemingly are dead because committee chairs and/or key backers have taken a "my way or the highway" approach.

• Working across the aisle: Senate President Courtney sent one environmental bill off to a "dead" committee, from where it has virtually no chance of resurfacing, to show Republicans he was committed to the bill's demise. I presume the bill was on the Senate Republicans' list of "bad bills."

• Past performance is no guarantee of future performance: Until the Legislature adjourns, which under the Oregon Constitution must be done by July 10, anything can change. Lawmakers can pass bills to amend legislation they've already passed. They can "gut and stuff" bills, discarding the original language and inserting a wholly new bill as long as it's related to the same general topic. They can kill or revive bills, sometimes for personal or political reasons that have little to do with the content.

The only sure thing is that the Legislature will balance the state budget for 2017-19 … eventually.

• First-hand stories about Oregon: Floyd McKay, who was my journalism instructor and newspaper adviser at Linfield College for a semester in the 1970s, has written an excellent book about his coverage of Tom McCall, Bob Straub and other political luminaries. McKay was a print and TV journalist in Oregon before joining the governor's office and then becoming a journalism professor at Western Washington University.

He'll be back at the Oregon Capitol at noon Thursday, June 1, to talk about his book, "Reporting the Oregon Story: How Activists and Visionaries Transformed a State." The book, which is published by the Oregon State University Press, stands out for being as much about his journalism as about the figures he covered.

His talk will be in Hearing Room E. Afterward, McKay will sign copies of his book, which is available for purchase in the Capitol gift shop.

Dick Hughes has been covering the Oregon political scene since 1976. Contact him at TheHughesisms@Gmail.com or follow him at Facebook.com/Hughesisms.

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