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Senate says no to paid family leave.

Byline: David Steves The Register-Guard

SALEM - The Senate killed a bill Wednesday that would have created paid family leave, one of the few defeats for Democrats who enjoy a huge majority there.

The bill would have collected a penny per hour worked from each worker whose employer has at least 24 employees. The money would have been pooled by the state and then paid out at $250 a week for up to six weeks for those workers who took time off under Oregon's Family Leave Act to care for a new child or ailing family member.

The bill's defeat was one of the few surprises on a day when lawmakers followed a script to dispatch with the remaining two dozen or so bills that stand between them and adjournment.

The session is almost certain to wrap up today, giving the Legislature a day to spare before the June 29 deadline it set for itself in January.

The family leave proposal on Monday squeaked out of the House, where Democrats mustered their entire 31-vote majority to overcome Republican opposition. It was expected to have an easier time in the Senate, where the party holds 18 of the 30 seats and often counts on help from a former Democrat who dropped her party affiliation.

Instead, it failed on a 14-15 vote. Five Democratic senators - Joanne Verger of Coos Bay, Kurt Schrader of Canby, Rick Metsger of Welches, Betsy Johnson of Scappoose and Ryan Deckert of Beaverton - voted against the plan along with all 10 of the Republicans present. The five Democrats are known as moderate, business-friendly legislators.

Verger, who previously owned a car dealership with her husband, said the bill was well-intended but was rushed through the final days of the session without the Senate's usual allowance for deliberation and attention to detail. As a result, it left her with questions about how well the program would work should it begin in 2009, as House Bill 2575 called for.

Verger also said she had doubts whether the program would be sustainable or require additional revenue through a higher payroll deduction.

Metsger said the bill represented a good idea but not good policy.

Most troubling, he said, was the lack of opportunity for public hearings, so Oregon's workers could provide their own testimony about the costs, benefits and other particulars in HB 2575's approach to paid family leave.

"To tell the employees that this Legislature, with very little input from them, is going to mandate this ... I think is premature," said Metsger, who suggested that lawmakers work out some of the details and bring the proposal back to a planned special session in February.

Sen. Vicki Walker, D-Eugene, had no such reservations.

She noted that the annual cost to a full-time worker for the benefit would be about $20.

"I'll put my 20 bucks on the table right now," Walker said.

She told her colleagues that, since nearly all were beyond their early parenting years and were reasonably financially secure, they may not grasp as well as a workaday constituent the value of a $250-a-week safety net when a newborn arrives or a parent falls gravely ill.

"Think of the people who are not as fortunate as you," Walker said.

The Senate has the option of reconsidering the bill when it reconvenes today.

Lawmakers also gave final approval to an ethics-overhaul bill they'd declared a No. 1 priority when the session got under way in January.

The House voted 40-18 to approve the Senate-crafted legislation.

The Senate quickly voted to accept House amendments, sending the Senate Bill 10 on to Gov. Ted Kulongoski for his signature.

House Speaker Jeff Merkley, D-Portland, said the bill was one of the most important of the session.

"It goes to the heart of how we serve the citizens of Oregon," he said.

Many lawmakers said they agreed with the bill's aspirations - assuring that public officials govern without falling to the undue influence of special interests - but questioned whether SB 10 would work as intended.

"What we're doing is we're setting people up for failure," said Rep. Ron Maurer, R-Grants Pass.

"The rules are so convoluted that there's no way you're going to be able to follow every letter of the law."

Others said the bill fell short in more fundamental ways. Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, said the gift limit would violate Oregon's free-expression protections.

Rep. John Lim, R-Gresham, said it went after the relatively minor influence of lobbyists and interest groups that buy dinner or even create a controversy by flying lawmakers to swanky retreats in Hawaii or Palm Springs, Calif. - as happened in the past two decades. At the same time, the Legislature took no action to restrict campaign contributions in one of the few states where such contribution amounts are unlimited.

"Do you think it is right to catch a little fish while letting the big fish get away?" Lim asked rhetorically.

The bill also:

Requires quarterly reports on lobbyist spending, which would be used to build a database that could be viewed and searched via the Internet. Public officials and candidates also would have to make quarterly reports.

Limits to $50 the value of gifts to public officials from lobbyists or those seeking government contracts. This includes entertainment, food, drink and trips - although some exemptions would be allowed under certain circumstances.

Imposes a revolving-door rule barring former legislators from working as lobbyists in the first regular session after they leave the assembly.

Seeks to loosen the Legislature's grasp of the ethics commission's purse strings. Instead of seeking its entire budget from the Legislature through the state general fund, the agency's resources would come from fees imposed on every local and state agency, board and commission based on the number of officials subject to the ethics commission's rules and enforcement.
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Title Annotation:Legislature; Lingering questions and a rush to adjourn do in majority Democrats' efforts to fund a safety net for workers
Publication:The Register-Guard (Eugene, OR)
Date:Jun 28, 2007
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