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What's the Big Idea?

A Primer on the Main Issues Your Representatives Will Take On

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STATE POLITICS aren't nearly as sexy as national politics, but how our Democrat-controlled Oregon Legislature decides on wonky funding and policy issues will have a big impact on our daily lives. As the House of Representatives and Senate start their four-month sessions this week, Portland's representatives gave us the rundown on the biggest issues they'll tackle.

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REFORMING PRISON SENTENCES

Governor John Kitzhaber has an idea to save the state money in the long term: Flatline the prison population and scrap plans to build new prisons. It's about time, say Portland's legislators, who are expecting a political fight over a list of concrete reforms recommended by the state public safety commission: trimming sentences for pot possession and certain types of assault, expanding funding for courts that sentence people to treatment rather than jail time, and letting inmates knock more time off their sentences with good behavior. ["Jail is Broken," News, Dec 5]

"We can't continue to keep spending more on prisons than we are on higher ed," says Southeast Portland Representative Jules Bailey. Many politicians agree, but lightening sentences leaves them open to "soft on crime" attack ads.

"Some of us are going to have to step up and take the heat," says Northwest Portland Representative Mitch Greenlick, whose safely Democratic district will let him back sentencing reform and his own bill calling for a constitutional amendment to abolish the death penalty.

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CLOSING TAX LOOPHOLES

Lawmakers love to pass tax breaks for their pet issues. But the result in Oregon has reached absurd proportions: The state's 378 tax breaks give away $31 billion each budget cycle, while the state only takes in $27 billion from taxes. The good news is that in 2009, the legislature passed a law requiring all tax credits to sunset on a rolling schedule. That means legislators must fight for the ones they actually want to save. Only five tax credits will sunset this year—mostly having to do with not having to pay taxes on certain commercial properties—but legislators promise those and all new tax breaks will be under scrutiny.

"We need to closely examine the list of tax breaks, ending those that are ineffective or only benefit the wealthiest Oregonians," says Southeast Portland Senator Diane Rosenbaum.

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MAKING HEALTH CARE LESS AWFUL

Oregon is ahead of many states on rolling out the federal Affordable Care Act—but there are ways the legislature can make health care function better on a state level. North/Northeast Portland Senator Chip Shields is backing two bills demanding transparency from health care organizations: One would give the state attorney general the (strangely, currently nonexistent) power to sue insurance companies involved in fraud, and another would force Oregon's network of coordinated care organizations to meet in public.

The state also funds much of the Oregon Health Plan through a tax on health care providers. That tax expires this year, and renewing it might be a battle.

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ALSO ON THE AGENDA?

(1) Kitzhaber has promised to cut costs in the public employee retirement system.

(2) The last legislature required lenders to meet face-to-face for mediation with homeowners facing foreclosure by a third party; Portland legislators want to expand those mediations.

(3) Debating tuition equity, which allows kids of undocumented immigrants, who grew up in the state and graduated from high school, to pay in-state tuition for higher education.

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