Oregon lawmakers go into second half of session with a full plate

(Caleb Wolf/Special to Salem Reporter)

SALEM — Oregon’s legislators are halfway around their political track in Salem and major reforms in taxation, environment and education remain in the works.

They now have about 90 days to finish their work and go home.

Democrats, who dominate the House and Senate, say key proposals have already been passed and turned into law, including first-of-its kind statewide rent control.

About 200 bills have made it through, most with no controversy. They honor influential figures and tidy up technical details in existing laws among other steps.

Friday was a critical day. Legislative leaders mandated that proposed bills were being actively processed or they would die for lack of progress. That could whittle down legislators’ “to do” list considerably.

Hundreds of proposals are still being considered that would regulate guns, strictly require vaccinations, provide paid leave to Oregon workers and transform the criminal justice system.

“The vaccination bill is important, the housing bills are important, the funding bills are important,” House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland said. “There’s just so much going on right now. Our members, I think, are struggling to keep up with it all.”

Combined, they are just as powerful as the headliner bills, and as March turns to April, Democratic leaders are getting impatient.

“I’m nervous because March is basically gone, so now we have three months left,” said Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem. “That might seem like a lot of time, but to consider the magnitude of the proposals and bills…”

Asked when he’d like to see bigger bills move, Courtney was succinct.

“Today,” he said.

Expectations are high.

In November, Democrats took several seats to gain near-historic numbers in the House and a three-fifths majority in the Senate.

Gov. Kate Brown responded by proposing an ambitious budget, telling lawmakers this wasn’t the time for Oregon to “rest on her laurels.”

“It’s so hectic,” Sen. Laurie Monnes Anderson, D-Gresham, said of the session, which began Jan. 22. “Legislative Counsel hasn’t been able to get us our bills or our amendments in a timely manner.”

Some of those bills and amendments are complicated, Monnes Anderson noted. That’s also hard on state analysts, who calculate the fiscal impact.

Legislators are also dealing with the near-certainty of wide-ranging budget cuts. Not only is it challenging to find the money for new programs, but some existing services would have to be pared back.

“It’s tough,” Monnes Anderson said. “It’s not like we’re not trying, but it is frustrating.”

Longtime business lobbyist Shaun Jillions, whose clients are largely opposed to the Democrats’ agenda, said he doesn’t think there’s reason to panic.

Jillions remembers years ago when bills spent more time in committee. Now, lawmakers just “rush a bunch of bills through,” he said.

“I don’t feel like the session is moving slow at all,” he said.

Jim Carlson has been lobbying in Salem since 1987.

From his perspective, what he called the “big rock” issues — the priorities Brown, Kotek and Courtney share — are on the right track.

Carlson, who heads the Oregon Health Care Association, named Medicaid funding, the education budget, housing, carbon reduction and revenue reform as the top five issues coming into the session.

“Two of those five have crossed the finish line, or major pieces,” he said, referring to Medicaid funding and rent control. The others are coming along as well, he said.

“At this midpoint, we’re feeling that we’ve made some really good progress,” said Morgan Gratz-Weiser, legislative director for the Oregon Environmental Council. “All of our bills are moving along as they should. That said, the session is far from over.”

Felisa Hagins, political director for Service Employees International Union Local 49, said there appears to be more agreement on the K-12 education policies, and less general chatter about it in the Capitol than the cap-and-trade proposal, in part because a core group of lawmakers from both parties has put months of work into it.

The amount of engagement surpasses the major collaborative achievement of the 2017 session, which was $5 billion in state transportation funding, Hagins said.            

Last week, Kotek called for greater urgency from House Democrats.

On Friday, nearly all legislation that hasn’t been worked over by a committee or had a work session scheduled will die.

That deadline has quieted the generally chaotic Capitol, as more work is being done behind closed doors than in hearing rooms. Come April, a clearer picture of what lawmakers chose to prioritize will emerge.

But surviving March is only one victory in a gauntlet of political obstacles for law changes. Some lawmakers will see cherished proposals and pet projects slowly suffocate in committee.

Courtney wants to prioritize the agenda to get proposals onto the floor for votes. He’s leading by example.

One of Courtney’s first proposals — Senate Bill 7 — would have lowered the blood alcohol content threshold for a drunken-driving arrest from .08 to .05. Only Utah has such a strict law.

It was poetic, in a way; as a young lawmaker, Courtney fought for .08 in 1983. Courtney said Sen. Floyd Prozanski, D-Eugene, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, wanted more work done on the idea outside of the session.

Rather than fighting it, Courtney is going to let it die.

“That’s a very big bill for me, but I’m going to live with it,” Courtney said.

Despite having the power to pass bills, Democrats don’t move in lockstep.

Every lawmaker comes in with a list of wants that can pull the party in too many directions, Jillions said.

“Be careful what you wish for,” he said. “When you start having that large of a majority, the expectations of what you will deliver are off the charts.”

Courtney said so far, the Democratic dominance hasn’t been an issue.

“I don’t see where the supermajority has been a factor in any of this in terms of causing dissension or anger,” he said.

Republicans, meanwhile, say they feel left out.

Senate Republican Leader Herman Baertschiger Jr. of Grants Pass says that when he took the post last fall he didn’t want Senate Republicans to be the party of “no.”

“I said, ‘What we’re gonna do is, we’re gonna bring our ideas and we’re gonna show contrast to how our ideas are better,’” Baertschiger said in an interview.

But he said Senate Republicans haven’t had that chance.

“We have not been allowed that on many of the bills,” Baertschiger said. “The amendments don’t even get heard.”

Strategically, the Republicans have few options.                           

“We’re running out of gas,” said Baertschiger. “All we can do is vote no. And we can do floor speeches and we can do remonstrances. But at the end of the day, they’re still gonna move this legislation.”                

This year, Democrats have the power to easily tweak bills how they want and pass what they want on a party line — if they stay together.

“When you have a business committee that has seven Democrats and four Republicans, the minority is completely irrelevant on that committee,” Jillions said.

“I think that the closer the Democrats get to their overall goal, and that’s full domination of this process, they are going to be less careful about doing things that keep the minority happy,” said House Republican Leader Carl Wilson of Grants Pass. “One of the big tasks of having immense power in any situation is how, ultimately, you’re going to deal with those who are being diminished by your strength. And I don’t see them letting off the gas until sine die.”

Sen. Tim Knopp, R-Bend, is considered a moderate in the Republican caucus.

He said he doesn’t think Democratic leaders are running the session in a partisan way, but he can’t say the same for many of the bills they are trying to pass.

“I think they are going to pursue their agenda, which, so far, appears to be partisan,” Knopp said. “We’ll see if they can reach across the aisle enough to make some of the key things bipartisan.”

Knopp said Democrats have reached out to him “a little bit.” But that doesn’t mean they’ve gotten him on board.

“Reaching out is different from incorporating ideas into legislation,” Knopp added. “Getting a bipartisan bill involves both sides giving something substantial.”

On Wednesday morning, in what signaled a transition point in the session, Wilson warned in a floor speech to the House that long afternoons were ahead.

Wilson said in an interview that Republicans could require the full text of bills to be read out before votes, rather than a brief summary.

That means a clerk has to read aloud word for word from legislation that can run more than 100 pages.

Republicans also can impede floor work by not showing up.

Democrats have 38 members, but House rules require 40 representatives to conduct business. That means at least two Republicans need to attend.

“We can, at any point in time, say we’re tired and we’re leaving,” Wilson said. “Leadership is going to have to make a decision what to do when the super-minority feels so beleaguered that they’re going to take a time out. I expect we’re going to exercise that option numerous times if we have to.”

House Republicans have been active in messaging, sending out near daily news releases hammering the notion that Democrats are hastily passing extreme policies.

“While Oregonians rush to file their returns by April 15, Democrats are feverishly pushing an array of tax bills that will burden the state’s working families with billions more in taxes – some that won’t even show up on your tax forms,” caucus spokesman Greg Stiles emailed out Wednesday. “The so-called Green Jobs Bill is nothing more than a ruse to foist a powerful new bureaucracy under the governor’s control.”

House Majority Leader Jennifer Williamson, D-Portland, said she would likely do the same in that position.

Jillions disagreed with the tactic. He said the Portland area has an outsized impact on politics statewide, and those voters are largely in favor of what Democrats are doing.

“Talk about the proposals that you would put forward to address some of the issues that people see,” Jillions said. “Even though in this legislative environment, they aren’t likely to move forward, you ought to at least try.”

A major hurdle is raising taxes.

The Legislature is still waiting to find out how budget-writers will raise $1 billion per year for local schools as Brown has called for.

Oregon Business & Industry, an influential lobby that includes the state’s largest employer, chipmaker Intel Corp., briefed legislators last month on a proposed business activity tax. It would tax businesses on their sales, minus their production and distribution costs.

A competing proposal shares some DNA with Ballot Measure 97, a gross receipts tax that Oregon voters rejected in 2016, a follow-up 2017 plan by state Sen. Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, that never advanced out of committee, and Washington’s business and occupation tax.

That commercial activities tax is favored by the Coalition for the Common Good, an alliance of labor groups that also includes Nike. The coalition has also made its pitch to lawmakers.

At their core, both taxes would ask businesses that make more than $1 million in annual sales to help pay for Oregon’s K-12 school system.

“They’re very similar, in lots of ways,” Hass said.

It’s also possible that neither tax proposal alone will prevail.

“The last few days, we’ve been talking about marrying the VAT and gross receipts to a hybrid model,” Hass said. “That looks promising, but we’re still waiting for some new modeling on that, or even if it will work, and trying to figure out how that would be administered.”

At least 36 state representatives and 18 senators are needed to approve a new tax in Oregon. That gives Democrats little margin, although Hass is hoping that it won’t be his party alone that propels the $1 billion for schools to Brown’s desk.

“I’m working on that,” Hass said of trying to find support among Republicans. “I’m working hard.”

“People have a very different level of investment when it comes to schools,” Hagins said. “They want to know where the money’s going, they want to know what the big projects are going to be, they want to know how much for their districts.”

As they work out the kinks on policy, lawmakers have also been reckoning with years of bad behavior. They showed up for work this year just as a sexual harassment scandal in the Capitol reached full boil.

Legislative leaders struggled to address the issue, ultimately agreeing to pay $1 million to nine victims to settle a complaint filed by the state Bureau of Labor and Industries.

Additionally, there was a small and sputtering mutiny to remove Courtney from power.

The longtime Senate president took a week off for health reasons, leading to speculation that he was being forced out. Courtney ultimately returned to work and apologized for not responding more quickly to the harassment allegations.

In February, Kotek stripped longtime Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, of his role leading the House Health Care Committee, after Republicans complained about his treatment of a pharmaceutical lobbyist during a committee hearing. She also removed a Republican, Keizer Rep. Bill Post, from a committee spot over provocative tweets.

Legislators and lobbyists indicate it’s too early to assess what the 2019 Legislature will accomplish.

“There’s a lot of stuff,” Carlson said. “A lot of stuff moving and percolating.”

If Democrats fail to pass the massive reforms they’ve promised, critics may then blame culture issues, a big agenda or a battle for power in the Senate Democratic caucus, Jillions said.

“We’re so early in the process,” Jillions said. “This building, if they really want to get moving, they can do stuff in a matter of weeks.”

Baertschiger said the pace has been moderate — so far.

“I think towards the end of the session, this stuff is just gonna come like crazy. It’s just gonna come all at once,” he said.

Reporters Aubrey Wieber, Claire Withycombe and Mark Miller work as the Oregon Capital Bureau, a collaboration of EO Media Group, Pamplin Media Group, and Salem Reporter.

Follow Salem Reporter on FACEBOOK and on TWITTER.

SUBSCRIBE TO SALEM REPORTER — For $10 a month, you hire our entire news team to work for you all month digging out the news of Salem and state government. You get breaking news alerts, emailed newsletters and around-the-clock access to our stories. We depend on subscribers to pay for in-depth, accurate news. Help us grow and get better with your subscription. Sign up HERE.