Oregon special session kicks off, then stalls

Oregon special session kicks off, then stalls
(Steve Benham/KATU.com)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — A special session of the Oregon Legislature got off to a slow start Monday as Gov. John Kitzhaber and legislative leaders tried to hold together a flimsy agreement on pension cuts, tax changes and agricultural regulations.

The House and Senate repeatedly delayed their proceedings. A joint committee met mid-afternoon to introduce the measures more than six hours behind schedule. The committee tentatively planned to hear public testimony later Monday evening.

Kitzhaber had hoped to smooth out differences ahead of the session and finish in a day; Tuesday now appears to be the earliest possible adjournment.

Still, senior lawmakers were optimistic they could keep the deal from falling apart.

"It's no secret that this is going to require hard votes from both urban and rural legislators and for both Republicans and Democrats," said Rep. Mike McLane of Powell Butte, the House Republican leader. "I think we're going to get there, though."

Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said the deal was still intact and nothing had been added or removed "at this point."

The agreement between Kitzhaber and House and Senate leaders from both parties would cut pension benefits for retired government workers, raise taxes on some businesses and individuals, and cut taxes for others. Local governments would be prohibited from regulating genetically modified crops.

There were tense moments over the weekend and the agreement appeared to be in tatters, but Kitzhaber and legislative leaders worked to revive it Monday morning.

Part of the dispute stemmed from a disagreement over when the agriculture bill should take effect. Republicans wanted it to include a so-called emergency clause that would allow it to take effect immediately, preventing critics from collecting signatures to call a referendum at the ballot box or to approve more local ordinances that would be grandfathered in.

When the bill was finally introduced, it included the emergency clause.

As lawmakers met privately, critics held a news conference to denounce plans to prohibit local regulations of seeds and seed products. The measure is an attempt to supersede emerging efforts by environmentalists and organic food proponents to ban genetically modified crops at the county level in response to what they see as a lack of action by the state and federal governments.

Agricultural regulations have no place in a complex deal over pensions and taxes, said Ivan Maluski, director of Friends of Family Farmers.

"This is back-room politics at its worst," Maluski said. "Frankly, the Legislature and the governor should be embarrassed by the way this is moving forward."

The measure was included to help win support from Republicans, who have pushed for even steeper pension cuts and are reluctant to vote for a tax increase.

The proposed pension cuts would reduce the annual inflation increase in retirees' checks. Lawmakers on a House and Senate joint committee considering the legislation heard emotional testimony from current and former public employees who said the change would have a lasting impact on them.

"This bill affects real people who have worked hard in public service and have mapped out their lives based on a promise that was made to them," said Rob Sisk, president of the Service Employees International Union Local 503, the largest union of state workers.

Under the tax changes, higher income individuals would face a higher tax bill because their ability to claim certain deductions would be limited. Certain businesses with more than $1 million in income would also pay more in taxes. Cigarette and tobacco taxes also would go up.

Others would see a lower tax bill. The Earned Income Tax Credit for lower-income workers would be expanded, and certain types of businesses would pay a lower rate.

The path to the session began nearly a year ago, when Kitzhaber proposed a budget that included savings from cutting benefits for retired public employees. In exchange for the steep savings Kitzhaber wanted, Democratic legislators demanded tax increases targeting businesses and higher-income individuals.

This summer, lawmakers tried to reach an agreement that would blend pension cuts and tax changes, but they adjourned the regular legislative session in July without a deal.

A breakthrough was reached earlier this month following several days of marathon meetings between Kitzhaber and legislative leaders.

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