Lawmakers Talk Foreclosures, Budget On Last Day

Published March 6, 2012 9:00AM (EST)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — In the end, the Legislature's toughest bills passed with little controversy despite weeks of stall tactics and sometimes tense negotiations.

Oregon lawmakers voted overwhelmingly late Monday to approve a new budget, an education initiative sought by the governor and new foreclosure regulations. And then they shut it down for the year.

"We came together as a House and as a Legislature to prove, once again, that when we put policy over politics we can deliver for Oregonians," Co-Speaker Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, said.

After 34 days, lawmakers closed the curtain on the first even-year session since voters decided the Legislature should meet annually. The session will likely be notable, above all else, for ambitious changes made to health care and education at the request of Democratic Gov. John Kitzhaber, who got all four measures he fought for, some with changes sought by Republicans.

The Legislature "has laid the foundation for a more prosperous future for our state," Kitzhaber said in a statement.

Kitzhaber toughest bill, helps up while Republicans sought changes, will require school districts, community colleges and universities to sign achievement compacts with the state stipulating benchmarks they're supposed to meet. They'll be nonbinding, at least in the beginning.

Republicans said that they were satisfied that Kitzhaber will heed their call for enhanced standards for teacher evaluation.

The GOP was unsuccessful with attempts to increase logging on state-owned land and to withdraw more water from the Columbia River.

The parties maintained a fragile peace in the House, where they were tied with 30 members each. Neither had a majority, so they operated under a power-sharing agreement that required bipartisan support for anything to advance.

On-again-off-again talks over legislation intended to help distressed homeowners ultimately produced a last-minute compromise that will allow people facing foreclosure to demand a meeting with their lender and a professional mediator. It also would prohibit the so-called "dual track," in which lenders simultaneously work toward a loan modification and a foreclosure.

In a victory for Republicans, borrowers would have to meet first with a financial counselor unless none is available for 30 days. In a victory for Democrats, the counselors would not have authority to prohibit mediation.

The final budget plan would restore funding for 12 Oregon State Police detectives that were previously slated for layoffs. Rural legislators worried that the cuts would take scarce resources off the remote highways and force cutbacks in multi-agency drug teams.

Community colleges will get nearly $10 million for building projects, one on each of the 17 campuses, to build or renovate facilities that can be used for career and technical education. More than $4 million will be available to build a new school in Vernonia, where the old one was ravaged in recent flooding.

But other programs were not spared. Hundreds of state workers, particularly middle managers, are likely to lose their jobs, and the belt will be tightened on some safety-net programs.

"For us to deal with it in a bipartisan way, without having to strip the (reserve) funds or raise taxes, put Band-Aids over a gushing wound, is a miracle," said Rep. Dennis Richardson, R-Central Point, one of three chief budget writers.

Lawmakers grappled with a drop in anticipated revenue of more than $300 million.

The Legislature also passed a bill that allows cash-strapped timber counties to tap federal funds currently restricted to road maintenance in order to pay for sheriff's patrols.

By Salon Staff

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