Sunday, February 3 2013, 10:16 PM CST
Oregon legislators have a lot on the agenda come Monday
SALEM, Ore. (AP) - The Oregon Legislature gets down to business Monday, opening a five-month session that will include a flurry of discussion on schools, prisons, pensions, guns and plenty more.
Lawmakers took the oath of office three weeks ago but delayed their official start until this week. After the 2012 election, Democrats retained control of the Senate and picked up seats in the House, ending a tie with Republicans. They'll now have an opportunity to push their own priorities without first securing the sign-off of GOP leaders, and they'll be eager to push for ideas that the GOP successfully blocked over the last two years.A look at a few of the issues that will dominate the Legislature's time:
EDUCATION One of the most contentious debates of any legislative session is over the amount of money that will go to K-12 schools, and this year will be no exception. Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber has proposed $6.15 billion, a slight increase over current funding, but legislative Democrats will be looking to boost that amount. Aside from funding, expect lawmakers to look at reworking the bureaucratic structure for higher education. Kitzhaber has proposed combining budgeting authority for community colleges and universities into a new Department of Post-Secondary Education. University of Oregon and Portland State University have also asked for independent governing boards to get more freedom from the rest of the statewide university system.
BUDGET Lawmakers don't face the same deep budget deficits that have defined the past two legislative sessions, but costs are still growing faster than revenue. That means more tough decisions are in store as legislators dole out limited dollars. The fight isn't limited to schools. Kitzhaber's budget proposal scaled back the time limit for people enrolled in Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, a welfare program that provides cash assistance for low-income families. Some legislators will want to keep the program intact. Public safety budgets have been a persistent challenge. Republicans want money for water projects in Eastern Oregon.
PRISONS With the inmate population growing steadily and the need for new prisons projected in the future, Kitzhaber is pushing lawmakers to change sentencing laws and hold the prison population steady. A panel he convened proposed eliminating mandatory minimum sentences for certain offenses and increasing the amount of "earned time" that inmates can drop from their sentences for good behavior or participating in prison rehabilitation programs. The governor says the savings could be reinvested in local parole and probation services to monitor convicts, along with police and counseling programs to prevent crime. Proponents say the move would save money for higher priorities - like schools and safety-net program - without compromising public safety. But it'll be an uphill climb to convince lawmakers who risk being labeled "soft on crime" in the next election.
PENSIONS As he's done with prisons, Kitzhaber has asked legislators to cut down on the long-term costs of pensions for government employees. Pension contributions from taxpayers have risen substantially to make up for devastating investment losses from the Great Recession. Republicans support pension cuts but want to cut even deeper than the governor has proposed. Democrats, who have substantial backing from public employee unions, have taken a cautious