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2005 Legislature Bills grind through legislature

August 17, 2005

Second-longest legislative session in Salem yields $75 million rainy day fund and a balanced state budget

Sen. Rick Metsger and Rep. Patti Smith are taking a break from politics — at least temporarily — after winding up the second-longest legislative session in Oregon’s history.

Both elected officials are tired from the commute to Salem almost every day for seven months, but they are pleased with the outcome. They helped stow away $75 million in a rainy day fund for emergencies and the state budget has been balanced without any major cut in education.

Plus, more dollars have been allocated for transportation improvements and veterans’ benefits. Oregon will also soon stringently regulate the sale of cold medicine to help stop methamphetamine production.

Smith, R-Corbett, and Metsger, D-Mt. Hood, were also successful in their bid to elevate the pear as the official state fruit. They believe the lead ranking under House Joint Resolution 8 can now be used as a marketing tool by Hood River Valley growers, and their peers throughout the state.

“This is just such a good thing for our agriculture industry. The pear is Oregon’s top fruit crop and it deserves this distinction,” said Smith.

With a Democratic Senate and a Republican-controlled House, it seemed unlikely to the bipartisan team in January that much would be accomplished.

“I think the Legislature finished with a very positive kick but it was a slow grind to get there,” said Metsger. “We threw a lot of rocks at each other until the last two weeks when we began to play well together.”

Indeed, sharply contrasting ideologies over land-use did stop any movement on Senate Bill 1037 to clarify the intent of voters with the passage of Measure 37. And House Bill 3481 to promote growth in the biofuels industry was also shot down because of conflicts over the fairness of pollution control tax credits for corporations.

Smith and Metsger ended up following the party line on many issues and often found themselves in disagreement. Metsger supported SB1037 on the belief that it, at least, laid out a uniform framework for processing Measure 37 claims. Smith felt the bill circumvented the will of a 61 percent supermajority who had approved the new law.

“I hate to say ‘I told you so,’ but it was just too complex an issue with too many divergent views for the legislature to resolve. Now the courts will make rulings and if people don’t like those rulings then they will give us a clear direction,” said Metsger.

“The people in this state have waited 30 years for fairness in the land-use system and we had the opportunity to give that to them. But the ‘no votes’ from people opposed to Measure 37 were loud and clear at the legislature,” Smith said.

Metsger believed that HB3481 rewarded large companies for complying with existing emissions laws. Smith felt extending tax breaks provided an incentive for firms to research new fuel sources.

He became frustrated with the House refusal to raise any new taxes, or even reinstate the 10 cent per pack cigarette tax that was overturned by voters with Measure 30. He did not understand why the $10 minimum corporate tax could not be increased, especially since it has remained unchanged since 1931.

“With the House ‘no tax’ mantra we couldn’t even have a discussion on these issues and that was disappointing,” said Metsger.

Smith said with revenue up and forecasts steady, it was important not to levy taxes that would impede business growth or stop the state’s climb out of a recession.

“The last thing that we needed to do to help our economic recovery was to raise taxes,” she said.

Smith is disappointed that her bill to lengthen prison sentences and keep better track of sexual predators did not make it through the political labyrinth. But she is pleased to have gained approval for a two-year study on the environmental effects of adding fluorescent dye to anhydrous ammonia, a fertilizer used in meth production. If proven to be safe, the brightly colored dye allowed under House Bill 2485 is expected to discourage large-scale theft of the chemical from farmers since it will identify both thieves and meth cooks. Oregonians have also been directed by the legislature to get a prescription for many common decongestants containing pseudoephedrine, a key meth ingredient.

“We brought Oregon to the status of having the toughest meth laws in the nation. And I think that’s a good thing,” said Smith, who was appointed to Gov. Ted Kulongoski’s Meth Task Force.

Metsger is very proud of his victory over the powerful utilities lobby to score better rates for customers. By sponsoring Senate Bill 408, he helped close the gap between the amount utilities charge rate payers to cover income taxes and the amount actually sent to state, federal and local governments. He predicts that monthly utility bills could fall by as much as eight percent for clients of large companies, such as Portland General Electric and PacifiCorp.

“This was the most rewarding and difficult bill that I’ve had. It felt good to beat out a powerful lobby group to protect rate payers,” said Metsger.

Neither Smith, who represents District 52, nor Metsger, who serves District 26, have decided whether or not to run next year for another term in office. They both plan to make that decision once they have caught up on a backlog of work in their private careers; she as a rancher and he in public relations.

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