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Tim Fought Associated Press Writer
Published: 01 March 2010

SALEM, Ore. (AP) -- Oregon legislators came to Salem on Feb. 1 in a political atmosphere still smoking from the Measure 66 and 67 tax campaigns and darkened by a jobless economic recovery.
When they left 25 days later -- three days ahead of the deadline majority Democrats set for a special session -- the smoke hadn't lifted and the clouds hadn't parted.
Even though the people had spoken on the matter in January and upheld the tax increases on the wealthy and on business, the bitterness of the campaigns run by business and labor ran was evident nearly every day of the session.
So were the economic numbers: 11 percent unemployment, 100,000 people running out of unemployment benefits, a $2.5 billion budget gap confronting lawmakers next year.
Oregonians looking at the Legislature's output -- 100 bills and assorted resolutions -- might see two themes:
-- Repairs.
The Legislature did fix-it work on the budget, on runaway tax credits for green energy, on a criminal sentencing bill from the last legislative session that was universally regarded as botched and on low-profile bills such as a whoops measure that returned to judges the ability to allow people convicted of hunting violations to keep their licenses.
A misplaced "shall" in a previous law required revocations in all cases, not what lawmakers had intended.
-- The session itself.
The Legislature sent voters an amendment to make annual sessions part of the state constitution. The February special session was billed as another audition for voters, a demonstration that it would be a good idea to have lawmakers in session in Salem every year, instead of every other year, as it has been since statehood.
The repairs part of the session was exactly what sponsors of a bipartisan movement had in mind when they began promoting annual sessions several years ago. Whether this February session was a successful audition, though, was by Feb. 25 a matter of partisan perspective.
Democrats said the session had been, in House Speaker Dave Hunt's words, "productive and efficient," reeling off a list of measures designed to encourage employment such as expanding access to a state loan program and help families through the recession.
``We think we can say that we genuinely stimulated jobs,'' said Senate President Peter Courtney.
Senate Republican leader Ted Ferrioli called the session an opportunity ``to do great evil,'' saying the Democratic majorities increased spending and borrowing, ignoring an impending budget crisis next year.
``I believe this month's ... session has not been a particularly strong advertisement for annual sessions,'' said the Republican leader in the House, Bruce Hanna.
Notable measures from the session:
-- Told school districts they could plan on a $6 billion school aid package promised them last year and added $12 million for day care for low-income workers and $10 million for college grants. Since revenues have consistently been running below expectations, the budget committees tapped reserves, trimmed here and there, and acknowledged that without new federal aid or an unexpected upturn in the economy writing the next two-year budget could be difficult.
-- Extended jobless benefits for about six weeks for an estimated 18,600 Oregonians who are among 100,000 expected to exhaust their eligibility for relief this year. Some have been on unemployment for as much as two years.
-- Repealed a 1920s law against teachers wearing religious dress in public school classrooms.
-- Voted to prohibit employers from using credit checks in hiring, a bill with major exceptions for financial institutions, law enforcement agencies and employers who say the credit check is "substantially job-related" and disclose the check to a job applicant.
The Legislature didn't do some things.
For instance, there was no move to repair the only-in-Oregon system of tax rebates known as the ``kicker.'' Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski wanted lawmakers to work on it, but the Democratic leaders paid the governor a call at mid-session to tell him it was a no-go. They said emotions were still too high after the tax campaigns to form a coalition for reforming the kicker, which has been popular with taxpayers but criticized as an impediment to the state's ability to save for hard times.
Out of concern that it might lead to harm to Oregon's canning industry, legislators rejected a bill to ban the hormone disrupter bisphenol A from baby bottles. That was a prominent example of the power of the jobs argument during the session.
The Legislature also didn't curb its members' ability to move into higher-paying jobs in state agencies, something critics say is an invitation to corruption among lawmakers who can influence agency budgets. A bipartisan measure got through the House, but the Senate killed it.
Next on many lawmakers' list: Re-election. On the ballot in November are all 60 seats in the House and 16 of the 30 Senate seats.
Democrats have 3-2 majorities to defend, which means 36 seats in the House. In the Senate, they hold 12 of the 16 seats on the ballot.

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