Lawmakers pass univ. autonomy, tiered sex offender system bills
SALEM, Ore. (AP) Oregon lawmakers adjourned the 2013 legislative session Monday after voting to give universities more independence, extend a tax that funds 911 emergency services and help financially struggling timber counties.
Lawmakers rushed to approve the final pieces of a two-year budget and leave Salem after 155 days five shy of the constitutional deadline to finish their work.
One of their final acts was passing an $800 million bonding package to fund construction projects around the state, including a 174-bed psychiatric hospital in Junction City. Some Republican legislators criticized the project because of the high costs associated with staffing and operating the facility after it's built.
The package, however, passed each chamber with a large majority Monday.
Lawmakers also allotted $35 million to pay for engineering plans to seismically reinforce the state Capitol and directed other money to fund campus expansion projects for universities and community colleges.
"(Infrastructure investment) is one of the best ways for government to create jobs, private sector jobs," said Rep. Paul Holvey, D-Eugene. "It's the way Franklin Delano Roosevelt led us out of the depression, by building our infrastructure."
In the hours before adjournment at 2:48 p.m., lawmakers voted to let public universities break free from the statewide higher education system, acceding to requests that came first from University of Oregon and Portland State University. In a concession to the other five schools, they also will be able to establish their own governing boards at a later date.
Proponents hope the independence will allow the universities to raise more money and better manage their own affairs.
Following years of deliberation, lawmakers again failed to pass legislation requiring people with prepaid cellphones to pay the same tax as other phone users to support the state's 911 emergency services. They did, however, vote to extend until 2022 the monthly phone tax. It was set to expire next year.
The bill failed in part because lawmakers were divided on how to evenly collect the 75-cent monthly tax from prepaid phone owners, who make up a growing share of phone users. Sen. Jackie Winters, R-Salem, pledged to work on this issue during the interim.
The Legislature backed a bill allowing rural, timber-dependent counties to use measures other than voter-approved property taxes to raise money for public safety.
"This is the worst thing we could possibly do, but it's the one thing we have to do," said Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg, who reluctantly supported the legislation.
Rural counties that once depended on federal timber revenues have been struggling to pay for sheriff's patrols, jails and prosecutors since a federal safety net expired. Voters in the counties have refused to raise taxes to fill the gap.
The Senate shelved a measure that would have phased out toxic chemicals in certain toys and children's products sold in Oregon, sending it to die in a committee that had no more scheduled meetings. The measure, which passed in the House before running into a brick wall in the Senate, was a priority for environmentalists who said it would protect children. Critics said it risked harming manufacturers.
Lawmakers also signed off on a bill that would set up a three-tier system for classifying sex offenders. The new classification system is intended to distinguish those at highest risk of becoming a repeat offender from those that have served their time and are not likely to commit another crime. Offenders that meet certain requirements could apply to have their names removed from the sex offender registry after five years.
And a bill championed by House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, that was rejected in the Senate on Sunday was revived and narrowly approved Monday. The bill, which now goes to the governor, would stop housing discrimination against low-income Oregonians who hold federally subsidized rent vouchers.
Kotek chalked up Sunday's vote to "end of session politics" and said she was grateful the Senate changed its mind.
The Legislature meets again in February for a 35-day session.
AP writer Jeff Barnard contributed from Grants Pass.
Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.