- Associated Press - Monday, February 2, 2015

SALEM, Ore. (AP) - Democrats are wasting no time before using their expanded majorities in the Oregon Legislature to push forward with several of their initiatives that stalled in recent years.

As lawmakers formally began the 2015 legislative session Monday, hearings were scheduled on three Democratic priorities: Expanding a climate-change program, automatic voter registration and changes to the rules for class-action lawsuits.

In prior years, all three initiatives fell short of the 16 votes they needed to pass the Senate. The Senate now has two more Democratic seats and the House has one.

“We feel this is completing unfinished business from the last session,” said Rep. Val Hoyle of Eugene, the No. 2 Democrat in the House. “Things we ran on and said if we got a majority we would do.”

By moving forward quickly on some of their most provocative measures, Democrats can prevent them from becoming bargaining chips later in the session. They could come up for a vote in the House or Senate as soon as next week and reach Gov. John Kitzhaber’s desk quickly.

“They definitely have the votes to pass,” said Senate Majority Leader Diane Rosenbaum, a Portland Democrat.

Republicans say Democrats are rushing, denying critics a chance to have their voices heard.

“I always believe that reasoned arguments are persuasive, but I fear in this instance political payback is what tops the priority list for the majority party,” said Rep. Mike McLane of Powell Butte, the top Republican in the House.

Republicans have fought particularly hard against the proposed extension of Oregon’s low-carbon fuel standard, which was never fully implemented and expires as the end of the year. The program is designed to seed a market for cleaner-burning fuel sources such as propane or biofuels.

Critics told the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee that it creates unrealistic targets for carbon reduction, in part because Oregon already blends ethanol in fuels, and will raise fuel prices. The proponents say the program would be paused if gas prices rise too much.

“We’re about to embark on distortions of the energy market that could cause gas prices to go up,” said Sen. Tedd Ferrioli, who serves as the Republican leader.

If the fuel program advances, Republican leaders have threatened to halt a separate transportation funding package. They’ve also tried to link it to Kitzhaber’s embattled fiancée, Cylvia Hayes, who has advocated environmental initiatives, including the low-carbon fuels initiative.

Democrats are also pressing ahead with Secretary of State Kate Brown’s proposal to use driver’s license records to automatically register people to vote. Brown estimates it would add about 300,000 people to the 2.2 million registered voters.

A third bill would change the way Oregon handles class-action lawsuits. The measure was intensely disputed in the legal community when it was first proposed last year.

In class-action lawsuits, many of the people who are harmed never claim their portion of the judgment. Proponents want to use that money for legal assistance for the poor. But critics say it would unfairly affect lawsuits already in progress.

Legislative leaders have promised they’ll use their expanded majorities to pursue gun-control measures, but they haven’t yet been introduced. Sen. Ginny Burdick, a Portland Democrat who has long advocated stricter gun laws, said she expects them to move early in the five-month legislative session.


Follow AP writer Jonathan J. Cooper at https://twitter.com/jjcooper .


The bills are:

- Low-carbon fuel standard: SB 324

- Voter registration: HB 2177

- Class-action lawsuits: HB 2700

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