Image for Sessions Canceled After New COVID Case as Deadlines Loom

The untimely legislative shutdown prevented House members from making a dent in a backlog of pending bills after Democratic and Republican leaders struck a deal last week to end that logjam, giving Republicans equal footing on the legislative redistricting committee. Another potential deal to increase the likelihood of smooth legislative sailing was announced last week around ensuring every House member, regardless of party, will get at least $2 million in one-time investment funds flowing from the American Rescue Plan approved by Congress.

Lawmakers will return Monday unless a further postponement is warranted. The House floor schedule includes a group of 10 police accountability measures that emerged with unanimous votes and will be carried jointly by a Democrat and a Republican. However, the schedule also includes House Bill 2510, which would require trigger locks on guns and may incite pressure on Republicans to walk out and deny a quorum for a floor vote.

Road User Charge  
One of the most consequential bills considered last week was House Bill 2342, which would impose a mandatory per-mile fee on fuel-efficient passenger vehicles in lieu of a gas tax. The measure would go into effect July 1, 2026 and apply to 2027 and later car models that are rated at 30 miles per gallon or better.

The Joint Committee on Transportation took testimony that reflected competing interests between environmental advocates citing climate change and transportation industry officials worried about sustained revenue in the Oregon Highway Trust Fund. One estimate indicates the fund could become insolvent as early as 2024 without a new revenue scheme. Commercial truckers already pay a weight-mile fee, which is a form of road user charge.

As automobiles have become more efficient, gas tax revenues have declined as a percentage of vehicle miles travelled, which translates into less money to maintain a busier highway system. The growth of electric vehicles, which don’t pay any gas tax, has exacerbated the funding conundrum. Automakers have committed to even greater vehicle fuel efficiency, so the revenue shortfall from a fossil fuel tax is expected to worsen.

Road use charges have some built-in user challenges. Drivers who bought fuel-efficient vehicles like a Prius would likely pay more under a road use fee than the gas tax they have managed to reduce. Rural residents could have widely varying outcomes depending on the distances they drive to shop, go to school and see doctors. Paying 1.8 cents per mile instead of a fuel tax could benefit them, even if they have lower mpg vehicles.

Committee members heard testimony and debated options to HB 2342 that essentially expands the OReGo pilot project. Environmental advocates want to go further by using telematics to track fuel efficiency and miles travelled for the purpose of assessing a fee for environmental impacts. Lawmakers voiced concern about changing the tax system, penalizing motorists who bought fuel efficient vehicles while potentially rewarding owners of gas guzzlers. Some sympathy was expressed for simply increasing the state gas tax and indexing it for inflation.

Charging motorists for miles travelled requires tracking technology, which raises privacy concerns. Transportation officials have taken pains to ensure Oregonians current devices only track miles driven, not locations or time of day. Some motorists already employ a telematic device to track miles driven for mileage-based auto insurance.

There was some discussion by committee members about avoiding the concern by simply allowing a motorist to pay a flat $400 annual fee. Enough controversy remains that it seems likely the issue won’t move in the 2021 legislative session, but it could re-emerge in the shorter 2022 session.

Key Dates
The 2021 legislative session has passed the halfway mark with lawmakers staring upcoming deadlines and the pivotal revenue forecast to guide the remainder of policy and budget conversations. Here are the remaining milestone, with the next major deadline just three weeks away:

  • May 14 – Bills must have a work session posted for the second chamber or be considered dead (e.g., – House bills must have Senate committee work sessions posted).
  • May 19 – The final quarterly economic and revenue forecast is released, which serves as the cornerstone for final budgets.
  • May 28 – Bills must have a work session in the second chamber or be considered dead.
  • June 18 – Target date for end of session (Sine Die).
  • June 27 – Constitutional end date for session. 

A few committees, such as House and Senate Rules and revenue panels, are exempt from bill deadlines. The Rules committees in particular are dumping grounds for bills with continuing negotiations or legislation with friendly relating clauses that can be used for gut-and-staff amendments. This is the time of session when tracking bills, even ones thought dead, becomes precarious and less transparent, all the more so because tracking must be done virtually.

Homeless Camp Sweeps
The House approved, mostly on a party-line vote, House 3124 that extends the notice period to 72 hours before a homeless camp can be removed. The bill also mandates some protection and transparency for personal items collected during sweeps. The extended notice period would not apply if a sweep was in response to a public health emergency.

Longer notice requirements and protection for personal property reflect treating homeless people with more humanity.

Rep. John Lively, D-Springfield and sponsor of the bill, said the longer notice requirement and protection for personal property reflect treating homeless people with more humanity. The current statutory notice requirement is 24 hours. The City of Portland requires a 48-hour notice before sweeps. Some city officials complained about the cost of storing person items collected during sweeps.  HB 3124 now heads to the Senate.

Catalytic Converter Crackdown
By a 25-2 vote, the Senate approved Senate Bill 803, which seeks to thwart the theft of catalytic converters that contain precious metals by requiring scrap metal dealers to purchase converters only from commercially licensed vendors. Scrap metal dealers also would be required to maintain vehicle identification and license numbers to aid in tracking illegal activity. SB 803 now goes to the House for consideration.

Fake Vaccination Cards
Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum has issued a warning about fake COVID-19 vaccination cards, which KGW-TV investigative reporter Kyle Iboshi exposed in a recent report. “Hundreds, if not thousands of these cards have already been sold and we want to put a stop to it,” Rosenblum said. The FBI also warned people from buying fake cards in lieu of getting vaccinated. “People seem to take this like it is some sort of a joke when it is not a joke. People’s lives are at stake,” said Nenette Day, an assistant special agent in charge at the Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general’s office, told Iboshi.

New House Harassment Complaint
Freshman GOP Rep. Vicki Breese-Iverson has filed a complaint alleging House Agriculture Chair Brad Witt harassed her on a phone call that she said was intended to discuss her vote on a bill in Witt’s committee, of which she is a member. Her complaint indicated Witt brought up going out for a beer or dinner during the conversation. Witt voluntarily stepped down as chair and in participating in committee activity pending an investigation. Witt denies doing anything wrong.

Rising COVID-19 Concerns
COVID-19 infections continue to rise in Oregon, forcing several counties to restore previously relaxed business restrictions on restaurants, bars and gyms. The surge in new cases has prompted warnings from public health officials and Governor Brown to continue social distancing, mask-wearing and getting vaccinated. The threat of further coronavirus mutations rises as transmission of the virus increases.