SALEM, Ore. (AP) — The Oregon Legislature kicked off its five-month session Monday, beginning work on a new two-year budget and dozens of other initiatives.
As lawmakers convened, several hundred demonstrators massed on the Capitol steps calling for universal, government-funded health care — a demand that goes beyond the coverage expansions provided in the new federal health care law.
Their protest was the first of many that will be repeated by dozens of interest groups with myriad causes before legislators head home this summer.
The budget will be the top priority. Lawmakers will have to divvy up a projected $16.5 billion in general fund and lottery revenue — more than they had in the current budget, but not enough to keep pace with the rising cost of providing government services.
Legislators also will have to decide how much money goes to schools, public safety, and safety-net programs. In hopes of freeing up more dollars, Gov. John Kitzhaber has asked for major changes to public-employee pensions and sentencing laws.
Democrats running the House and Senate say they're focused on jobs and the economy, but they'll also be pushing legislation on housing, immigration and the environment.
Republicans will be in the minority in the House and Senate, but they may be able to team with centrist Democrats to advance some of their ideas.
Lawmakers have so far introduced more than 1,200 bills, but only a fraction will eventually pass the House and Senate and earn the governor's signature.
A group of activists hopes one of them will be a law creating single-payer health care in Oregon, eliminating the role of insurance companies and providing government-funded health care. Several hundred people, many donning red T-shirts for their cause, rallied in front of the Capitol.
The federal health care overhaul will extend health coverage to millions more Americans, but many will get the coverage from a private insurance company. Some people will still go without coverage, opting to pay a fine instead.
"It's a huge economic issue in this state and in this country that people don't have universal health care," said Kit Kirkpatrick of Eugene, "so other people have to pick up their emergency care."
Rep. Mitch Greenlick, a Portland Democrat who chairs the House Health Care Committee, said he supports the goal of achieving universal health care but doesn't think it will happen this session.
"I think getting there in one fell swoop is unlikely," Greenlick said, but Oregon is steadily increasing access to health care.