2015 Legislative Wrap-up:
Volunteers Are the Key
By Rich Spier
Oregon has a unique citizen legislature that depends on the wisdom of lawyer volunteers. Once again, Oregon’s attorneys stepped up and actively participated in the 2015 legislative session that began in early February and concluded in July. The Oregon State Bar successfully completed another legislative session. Our Public Affairs Committee, chaired by Travis Prestwich of Salem, provided oversight for the bar’s legislative activities. We owe our success also to the many volunteers from bar sections and committees, who tracked bills and advocated for the bar’s budget priorities and law improvement proposals, as well as our legislators with legal training and lawyer staff who provided valuable guidance and insight. I would also like to thank the OSB Public Affairs staff for their diligent effectiveness in ensuring that the Oregon State Bar achieved its goals this session. Here is a summary of legislative highlights, with credit to the many legal professionals who made them happen.
Oregon State Bar Legislative Priorities
The Oregon State Bar’s priorities for the 2015 legislative session, adopted by the Board of Governors, were to increase court funding (including eCourt and court facilities), adequately fund indigent defense and provide for low-income legal services. The priorities included the bar’s law improvement package of legislative proposals, which ranged from modification of Oregon’s Uniform Trust Code submitted by the Estate Planning and Administration section to legislation clarifying dissenters’ rights submitted by the Business Law section. This session the legislature was supportive of the bar’s priorities: legislators increased funding for the Oregon Judicial Department, the Public Defense Services Commission and the Legal Services program, and passed our comprehensive package of bar-proposed legislation.
A large part of our success stems from the commitment of bar members to the legislative process. Over the course of the session, members of the bar, as well as members of the Board of Governors, testified in committees, worked with legislators and stakeholders, submitted technical comments and suggestions, and made the Oregon State Bar’s Day at the Capitol on May 5, 2015, a rousing success with record attendance and legislative contacts. The advocacy demonstrated by bar members is a testament to our profession’s commitment to access to justice and the rule of law.
The Oregon Judicial Department Budget
As this year’s bar president, it was my honor to travel to the capitol and testify in support of this vital budget. I must thank Peter Bragdon, Mike Haglund, Ed Harnden and the Citizens’ Campaign for Court Funding for their continuing commitment to ensuring a sustainable judicial budget. In part because of their advocacy, the 2015-2017 Oregon Judicial Department budget includes a 2.8 percent increase over the 2013-2015 budget. The increased funding will allow for the hiring of approximately 20 new staff members. In addition, the legislature continued to fund Oregon eCourt implementation, specialty courts and some additional positions in family court.
Oregon eCourt. Oregon eCourt has been implemented in 19 counties, with Coos, Curry, Hood River, Wasco, Sherman, Gilliam and Wheeler counties going live on Sept. 14, 2015. This biennium, Oregon eCourt will receive $14.5 million in bonding authority to fund the remaining counties’ transition to eCourt, as well as $3.5 million allocated for training, technical operations and business processes. I would also like to take this opportunity to thank Mark Comstock who continues to ably lead the Joint OSB/OJD eCourt Implementation Task Force as we enter the final stages of statewide Oregon eCourt implementation. His service has been invaluable.
Judicial Cost-of-Living Adjustment. Although judges did not receive a compensation increase, the salaries of Oregon Supreme Court, Court of Appeals, Circuit courts and Tax Court judges are now linked to the positive cost-of-living adjustment received by executive branch managers. This is progress towards ensuring our judges are adequately compensated.
Courthouse Facilities. Three county courthouse construction projects were funded through the Oregon Courthouse Capital Construction and Improvement Fund. The 2015-2017 budget includes $17.4 million for the Multnomah County Central Courthouse project, shepherded through by Presiding Judge Nan Waller. This will fund the next phase of the Multnomah County Courthouse project. While the legislature declined to fund the Lane County Courthouse project this biennium, it did provide $2.5 million for the Jefferson County Courthouse, and over $7.8 million for the Tillamook County Courthouse. In addition, counties will be allowed to move funding from law libraries into mediation services in consultation with their presiding judges.
The legislature lifted the expenditure limitation on bonds for the Multnomah County and Jefferson County projects to $39.8 million. This will allow the OJD to spend approximately $20 million of bond proceeds and up to $20 million of the required county matching funds to move these projects forward. Sale of the bonds is expected to begin in spring 2017.The legislature requested that Tillamook County report on its progress in the coming months. Special thanks to the Public Safety Sub-Committee of the Joint Ways and Means Committee for your commitment to funding Oregon’s courts.
Public Defense Services Commission Budget
For the 2015-2017 biennium, the PDSC, the office that provides public defense services at the circuit and appellate court levels, received a $5.6 million increase. This funding will boost case rates for private and consortia contract attorneys, increase allocations for mileage reimbursements and establish a permanent, full-time deputy general counsel position to administer the Parent Child Representation Program.
Funding for Legal Services
This was an outstanding session for those committed to access to justice. In the opening months of session, both the House and the Senate passed HB 2700, which directs 50 percent of class action unclaimed funds to Oregon’s legal aid programs. The bill was signed by Gov. Kate Brown on March 4, 2015. During the bill’s passage through the legislature, I was heartened to hear bipartisan expressions of support in both chambers for legal aid funding. The bar looks forward to working with all three branches of government, legal aid programs, the Campaign for Equal Justice, the Oregon Law Foundation, and other Oregon foundations and corporations in support of equal access to the justice system for all Oregonians.
In addition, at the end of session, the legislature provided a one-time appropriation for the Legal Services Program to offset an expected reduction in federal funding of up to 20 percent. Thank you to Sen. Richard Devlin and Rep. Peter Buckley for your support of this important program.
Thanks also to Travis Prestwich, Lane Shetterly, and to current and former Attorneys General Ellen Rosenblum, Ted Kulongoski and Hardy Meyers, as well as the countless lawyers who called, emailed, wrote and otherwise advocated for increased legal aid funding. And a special thank you to Rep. Tobias Read and legally-trained legislators, Senate President Peter Courtney, Sen. Floyd Prozanski and House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, for your tireless efforts to provide access to justice for all Oregonians. I cannot overstate the importance of having legislators with legal training who understand the importance of this issue.
2015 Law Improvement Program
Not only did bar sections and committees propose a comprehensive law improvement package for consideration during the 2015 legislative session, but also representatives from bar sections and groups traveled to Salem in support of and opposition to a variety of proposed bills. Many of the bar’s sections and committees established legislative subcommittees to review legislative language, track bills and submit comments and suggestions. During the session, over 200 bills were tracked by section and committee members. The Public Affairs Committee supported bar groups engaged on issues as varied as debt collection, costs of contested case hearings, the adoption of rules related to mediation confidentiality and the advance directive form.
In the coming month, the OSB Public Affairs Department will release the 2015 OSB Legislation Highlights. This summary of major legislation affecting the practice of law and produced by the Oregon State Bar since 1971 is published after every legislative session. Thank you to all of the volunteers who worked tirelessly to produce even-handed and unbiased descriptions of legislation in each annual publication.
And while it may seem like the 2015 legislative session just ended, it’s already time for sections and committees to start thinking about possible legislation for the 2017 legislative session. Proposals are due in April 2016 and will be reviewed during a legislative forum hosted by the Public Affairs Committee. In the coming months staff from the Public Affairs Department will be visiting each section and committee to discuss the process, answer questions and provide feedback and assistance as necessary. In addition, there is still unfinished business from the past session, including clarification of the guardianship statute, consideration of the uniform power of attorney act, a rewrite of the advanced directive statute, unlawful practice of law enforcement (notario fraud), debt collection practices, campaign finance and more.
With the move to annual sessions, the legislative process never slows down. I am grateful that so many bar members commit their time, energy and intellect to strengthening and improving Oregon laws. The outstanding results of the 2015 legislative session reflect the tireless efforts of all Oregon lawyers who participated. You are to be congratulated.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
OSB President Rich Spier is a mediator in Portland. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2015 Rich Spier