Bridge a top issue for 2014 Oregon legislature

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SALEM, Ore. — Here's a look at four top issues Oregon lawmakers are likely to confront when they begin a five-week legislative session on Feb. 3:

• COLUMBIA RIVER BRIDGE

Proponents of a massive highway and light-rail project that would include a new Interstate 5 bridge over the Columbia River are refusing to drop it despite Washington state's decision to pull out. That leaves Oregon lawmakers to decide whether to take on the full burden themselves, minus planned freeway interchanges on the Washington side. Bridge backers say it would bring a safer bridge, create thousands of construction-related jobs and make it easier to move freight around the Northwest and through the Port of Portland. But critics wonder whether Oregon taxpayers should shoulder all the risk, especially when Washington commuters project to make up two-thirds of bridge traffic.

• GUN CONTROL

Several Senate Democrats tried and failed last year to require a background check whenever a gun owner sells or gives it to someone other than a relative. The measure never got a vote in the full Senate because it didn't have enough support to pass, but proponents are trying again with a virtually identical bill. Lawmakers backing the background checks say they're trying to keep guns out of the hands of felons, but Republican critics see ulterior motives. They think Democrats simply want to force vulnerable GOP senators to take a controversial vote shortly before an election.

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, has promised to allow a vote in the full Senate if the measure gets out of the Judiciary Committee again this year. There's no sign the political winds have shifted, however, so the gun-control bill is likely to fail if Courtney calls it up for a vote.

• MARIJUANA LEGALIZATION

Activists are making a lot of noise about collecting signatures for a potential ballot measure legalizing the recreational use of marijuana for adults, and that has some in the Legislature nervous. They'd rather write the regulations themselves than end up stuck with laws written by activists.

Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, has proposed that the Legislature ask voters whether to legalize the drug and, if they approve, have the Legislature hammer out the rules during the 2015 session when lawmakers will have more time. That may not be too slow for the activists, however, who are preparing to make a much more concerted effort at the ballot box this year than they did in 2012, when advocates spent very little money but still managed to get support from 46 percent of Oregonians.

There's likely to be a fierce debate about when and how the Legislature should wade into the marijuana debate.

• COVER OREGON

Oregon's been thoroughly embarrassed by its failure to launch a working website for its health insurance exchange despite spending well over $100 million on the technology. Lawmakers in both parties are promoting reforms in the way the state handles large information technology projects.

Republicans have proposed a task force to study what went wrong with Cover Oregon and a string of other IT failures that came before it, including projects at the Employment Department and the Driver and Motor Vehicle Services Division. The task force would recommend standards for oversight by the Legislature.

Democrats will push for a requirement that quality management experts be hired to oversee work done under large contracts at Cover Oregon and state agencies.