Unions fare okay as 71st legislative session ends July 6
SALEM - For the most part, the "strike-lengthened" 71st legislative assembly received a passing grade from union officials on issues affecting workers.
"We rate the Legislature's performance a solid C," said Tim Nesbitt, president of the Oregon AFL-CIO. "This was, on balance, a positive legislative session."
Bob Shiprack, executive secretary of the Oregon State Building and Construction Trades Council, said it "wasn't a bad session ... but we had to stay on our toes."
Mary Botkin, a lobbyist for the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Oregon Council 75, wasn't quite as upbeat, describing it as "one of the most unproductive and disorganized legislative sessions in our memory. Lobbyists in general - and Ralph Groener (also an AFSCME lobbyist) and I in particular - have never worked so hard to get so little."
Topping the victory list was passage of the AFL-CIO's "Working Families Agenda," which included a better deal for injured workers, extended benefits for dislocated workers, a patients' bill of rights, improved voting systems and reforms that will discourage misuse of the initiative process.
The Legislature approved the first package of pro-worker reforms to the state's workers' compensation system in more than a decade when it passed Senate Bill 485. As a result, more injured workers will qualify for benefits, benefit amounts will be increased, and claimants will be treated more fairly, Nesbitt said. In addition, the State Management-Labor Advisory Committee on Workers' Compensation will work on creating a new procedure to provide remedies for workers whose work-related injuries and diseases fail to qualify for benefits under the current system.
Nesbitt, Shiprack and Ken Allen, executive director of AFSCME Council 75, crafted the workers' comp reform bill during negotiations with Associated Oregon Industries (AOI) that were spearheaded by the governor prior to the session.
The AFL-CIO actually partnered with AOI on several key bills. AOI, the state's largest business lobby, supported labor's proposal for extended unemployment insurance (UI) benefits for dislocated workers and helped craft the Patients' Bill of Rights. In return, the state labor federation backed AOI's proposal to reduce UI tax rates paid by employers.
HB 3759 will provide an extra 26 weeks of UI benefits for most workers who don't qualify for federal trade-related assistance programs. The issue became a top priority for labor as plant closures and layoffs escalated due to the energy crisis, drought and foreign trade impacts.
Additionally, lawmakers corrected a problem in the unemployment law by removing the benefits penalty for dislocated workers who cash out retirement funds to get them through their period of unemployment (HB 2993). The Patients' Bill of Rights (HB 3040) passed without a single no vote. As a result, Oregonians in managed care plans regulated by the state will be able to count on continuing care when their treating physicians leave a plan, better access to specialists and the right to independent, third-party review (and, in some cases, the right to sue) when care is denied.
But cost controls were another matter. And prescription drug costs, in particular, became hopelessly politicized, Nesbitt said. The Republican leadership of both chambers refused to hold a hearing on an AFL-CIO proposal to control prescription drug costs (HB 3765 and SB 860). And they demanded a high price from the governor for applying to the Oregon Health Plan the same cost-control mechanism for prescription drugs that is used in almost all employer-sponsored health plans - a prescription drug "formulary" with a patient-protection provision that allows doctors to override the formulary when necessary.
Nesbitt said the worst possible approach to health care cost containment - reducing benefit levels - was attempted in SB 8 but defeated in the Senate.
Lawmakers approved extension of campaign finance reporting requirements to signature gathering campaigns. Currently, those who collect signatures can wait until an initiative qualifies for the ballot before reporting funding sources. Under HB 2575, signature gatherers will be required to report funding on the same schedule as regular campaigns.
Initiative petition sponsors and their signature gatherers will also be subject to tougher rules and penalties for shady signature gathering practices, under SB 216, approved by both houses.
Legislative business came to a halt the last week of June when House Democrats staged a walkout. The action was prompted by a controversial Republican move to try and bypass the normal procedure for enacting legislative redistricting,which is required every 10 years following a U.S. Census.
Under Oregon law, if lawmakers can't agree on a redistricting plan then the process is handed off to the secretary of state. Because the redistricting plan that passed the 2001 Legislature did so on strictly partisan grounds, Governor John Kitzhaber (a Democrat) can veto the bill and send the process to Secretary of State Bill Bradbury, also a Democrat.
Trying to avoid that scenario, the House GOP decided to try a new, unproven tactic: Pass a redistricting plan as a resolution rather than a bill. A resolution doesn't require the governor's signature; therefore, Kitzhaber could not veto it.
But the Republicans could not conduct business in the House without a quorum, so the Democrats simply didn't show up. Their position was strengthened by legal opinions from legislative counsel, the House attorney and the Oregon attorney general's office, all of whom issued statements saying Oregon law does not allow the redistricting plan to go forward as a resolution and therefore bypassing the governor's approval.
After returning a week later, lawmakers passed HB 3633 to postponed for five months the start-up date for access to deregulated electricity for large business users. And they softened the rules by providing a regulated rate option for such users for two more years.
But, Nesbitt said, the Legislature "punted on our proposals to repeal or delay deregulation for at least three years until we regain an adequate energy supply."
SB 848 and HB 3150 (which would have repealed deregulation) never got beyond the committee level, and a minority report to SB 3009 to repeal deregulation failed 8-22 in the Senate.
"Time will tell if the Legislature's approach will protect consumers or simply lead us more slowly down the deregulation path to higher prices and unreliable supplies," Nesbitt said.
Shiprack said funding for rural infrastructure projects such as water and sewage treatment facilities and downtown development found its way into the governor's budget. Exactly how much money will be available has yet to be determined by the Ways and Means Committee, but it should be enough to stimulate job growth in rural Oregon. The building trades also passed its top priority - a bill requiring contractors to submit weekly certified payroll forms on public works projects.
Several bills targeting union construction workers stayed bottled up in committees throughout the session, Shiprack reported.
Anti-union contractors unsuccessfully sought to repeal prevailing wage laws, raise prevailing wage thresholds and prohibit project labor agreements.
Heavy lobbying also was required to derail an attack on public employees' rights to protect their accumulated funds in the Public Employees Retirement System. Following a "bad vote" in the Senate, SB 134 was wrestled into an acceptable package of reforms with the help of the governor. SB 830, which would have undermined collective bargaining and arbitration rights for public employees, was also defeated, but only after a concerted lobbying effort. HB 2010, dubbed the Portland Harbor Clean-Up, dealt with the Columbia River harbor lands in the Portland area targeted for federal Superfunds. If passed, the bill would have cost the City of Portland and Multnomah County approximately $8 million dollars a year - each, Botkin said, because the largest polluters and businesses located on the harbor would have been removed from paying property taxes.
"This was a blatant attempt to force other property tax payers to foot the bill for cleaning up the Portland harbor," Botkin said.
It was through labor's aggressive efforts that the governor agreed to veto this legislation and the bill was not moved to the floor for a vote, she said.
Stinker bills that passed included an Oregon Restaurant Association measure that prohibits local governments from setting minimum wage and living wage requirements for private businesses that receive subsidies and tax abatements from local governments (HB 2744-B). Lawmakers also approved bills to reduce employer penalties for failing to pay wages when due (HB 2867); to continue tapping into UI funds for the purpose of subsidizing low-wage employers in the JOBS Plus workfare program (HB 3441); and another to implement a new spending cap (HB 3997) - similar to, but less severe than, the spending limit sponsored by Don McIntire and rejected by voters in last November's election.
Lawmakers also failed miserably on tax fairness, Nesbitt said. By approving bills to cut capital gains (Senate Bill 67) and reduce corporate income taxes (HB 2281), lawmakers shifted more of the tax burden to working families and, by postponing the cuts to future years, set the stage for massive cuts to public services that most of them (because of term limits) won't have to deal with.
"These postponed tax reductions amount to reckless and irresponsible fiscal policy," Nesbitt said.
The Legislature did follow the will of the voters by providing funding to implement the Home Care Commission (HB 3816), mandated by last year's Measure 99. This commission provides an employer of record for the state's 14,000 home care workers, which will enable them to gain a voice at work via unionization.
Nesbitt said the Legislature failed to seize an opportunity to stop Bill Sizemore's abuse of the initiative process when it failed to enact HB 2706 in the final hours of the session. HB 2706 would have required initiative sponsors to prove sufficient support for their proposals (by submitting 10 percent to 12 percent of the total signatures needed for qualification) before the state issues a final ballot title. This would have curtailed ballot title shopping and the use of ballot titles as commodities for fundraising purposes.
Nesbitt said lawmakers also failed to address problems that continue to plague elections - the need to eliminate punch card ballots, proposed in HB 2587, and the lack of uniform ballots for statewide issues, which would have been remedied by HB 2666.
AFL-CIO proposals to make health care facilities safer for workers and their patients failed in the House. HB 3614 would have established "whistleblower protections" for health care workers who report unsafe conditions that affect patients; HB 3615 would have prohibited unsafe mandatory overtime for hospital workers; HB 3616 would have mandated the use of safe needles to avoid the spread of blood-borne diseases; and, HB 3617 would have encouraged safe staffing levels for hospital workers who care for patients.
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