Lawmakers up fines for texting/talking on phone while driving

Lawmakers up fines for texting/talking on phone while driving
Members of the Oregon State House listen to floor debate Saturday, July 6, 2013. In the other wing of the building, the Senate also convened. Lawmakers are working furiously to adjourn. Legally, they have until July 13. (Steve Benham/KATU.com)

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — On the presumed eve of the final day of the 2013 Legislative session, Oregon lawmakers worked through the shrinking number of bills left to be addressed this year.

The Legislature agreed that people caught talking on the phone or texting while driving should pay steeper fines, bumping the maximum fine from $250 to $500. The bill now goes to the governor.

"I believe this is the next Mothers Against Drunk Driving issue," said Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, who made the bill a priority. Opponents said stiffening the fine would not keep phones out of drivers' hands.

Late Sunday night a budget committee took up a major bonding package unveiled only hours earlier. The package would boost funding for construction projects across the state, including $80 million to build a state psychiatric hospital in Junction City, Ore. It also funnels money to community colleges and public universities for campus expansion projects, and allots money for upgrades to state buildings.

A joint budget committee advanced the package to the Senate, despite complaints from several lawmakers that they hadn't had enough time to review the bill.

Other bills forwarded to the governor's desk would cap the number of permits for suction dredge mining equipment, establish a voluntary program to phase in a mileage-based road user fee for fuel efficient cars and require certain midwives to obtain a license.

Senators voted to extend several income tax credits that were set to expire. Among other provisions, the bill would increase a tax credit for film and television productions from its current level of $6 million to $10 million. The bill next goes to the House.

Not all bills made the cut.

Notably, senators rejected a much talked about bill proposed by Secretary of State Kate Brown that would have automatically registered nearly everyone with a driver's license to vote, potentially adding hundreds of thousands of newly registered voters to the state.

Debate on the bill provoked passionate testimony from lawmakers on both sides of the issue.

Sen. Jackie Winters, the first African-American Republican to serve in the Oregon Legislature, said automating the voter registration system trivializes the act of voting, a right she said her grandfather had to fight for.

"For me, voting has a very ... special meaning," said Winters, R-Salem. "I don't want to trivialize what a lot have died for, worked for (and) fought for."

Republicans and one Democrat joined her in opposition, saying people who choose not to register to vote shouldn't be forced onto the voter rolls.

Democrats said the plan would eliminate barriers to voting by identifying and enrolling otherwise eligible voters.

"This is a bill that enhances personal freedom and enfranchises every voter," said Sen. Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, D-Beaverton.

The Senate also voted down a bill championed by House Speaker Tina Kotek that would have stopped housing discrimination against low-income Oregonians who hold federally subsidized rent vouchers.

When the session ends, all bills left in committee die. Bills that don't survive must be reintroduced in a future session.

The House and Senate have both scheduled floor sessions to take up a handful of remaining bills on Monday, when they are expected to Sine Die. Traditionally, the chambers adjourn simultaneously.

Copyright 2013 The Associated Press.