Oregon Legislature kicks off special session

Of the Associated Press

SALEM — The Oregon Legislature kicked off a special session Monday morning to consider pension cuts, tax changes and agricultural regulations.

Gov. John Kitzhaber called lawmakers to Salem earlier this month after negotiating an agreement with legislative leaders. The agreement would cut pension benefits for retired government workers, raise taxes on some businesses and individuals, and cut taxes for others. Local governments would be prohibited from regulating genetically modified crops.

Kitzhaber had hoped the session would last just one day, with differences ironed out ahead of time, but it quickly veered off track from the original plans. Morning action was repeatedly delayed as legislative leaders took stock of where rank-and-file lawmakers stood.

Drafts of two of the five bills under consideration still have not been made public — an indication that key officials are still negotiating details.

As lawmakers met privately, critics held a news conference to denounce plans to prohibit local regulations of seeds and seed products. The measure is an attempt to supersede emerging efforts by environmentalists and organic food proponents to ban genetically modified crops at the county level in response to what they see as a lack of action by the state and federal governments.

Agricultural regulations have no place in a complex deal over pensions and taxes, said Ivan Maluski, director of Friends of Family Farmers.

“This is back-room politics at its worst,” Maluski said. “Frankly, the Legislature and the governor should be embarrassed by the way this is moving forward.”

The measure was included to help win support from Republicans, who have pushed for even steeper pension cuts and are reluctant to vote for a tax increase.

The path to the session began nearly a year ago, when Kitzhaber proposed a budget that included savings from cutting benefits for retired public employees. In exchange for the steep savings Kitzhaber wanted, Democratic legislators demanded tax increases targeting businesses and higher-income individuals.

This summer, lawmakers tried to reach an agreement that would blend pension cuts and tax changes, but they adjourned the regular legislative session in July without a deal.

A breakthrough was reached earlier this month following several days of marathon meetings between Kitzhaber and legislative leaders.

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