Bi-Partisanship and Civility: The First Signs of Fracture?

That could be true based on several events last week – and it also could be true as legislators come face-to-face with the tough decisions they knew would dominate this session.

First, in a very unusual development last week, Rep. Bill Kennemer, R-Oregon City, took to the House floor to lambast Democratic leader Rep. Dave Hunt, D-Gladstone.

As The Oregonian put it: "Standing on the House floor, his hands shaking with nerves and anger, Republican Rep. Kennemer accused Democrats of 'lies, lies,' and then demanded the resignation of Rep. Hunt, the Democratic leader and former speaker."

This is unusual because there is a written code, and also a longstanding tradition, to avoid personal attacks on the House floor. Kennemer was interrupted once in his remarks, but then was able to continue to the end. He called for Hunt's resignation claiming Hunt and then- Majority Leader Mary Nolan, D-Portland, unfairly attacked Republicans on the campaign trail for favoring a sales tax.

Obviously, the campaign tactic didn't work because Republicans ran the table in the November election, gaining the 30-30 split they now hold in the Oregon House.

The confrontation was part of an emotional and busy day at the Capitol that included an overflow hearing on in-state tuition for some undocumented immigrants, a lengthy discussion on extending unemployment benefits and testimony on whether it is okay for protesters to disrupt military funerals.

Several other tough issues began to surface, which could put at risk the civility that has characterized the legislature so far this session:

  • Government job vacancies: One report called these "phantom state workers." They are the positions often left vacant in state government to help agencies offset inadequate funding or threats to cut the budget. The problem this time around – there are so many vacancies, more than 4,475 vacant positions – that Republicans see a juicy target.
  • Business tax credits: The Oregon Committee, a coalition of business and industry groups, wants the legislature to follow through on its pledge to restore tax credits for business. Oregonian reporter Michelle Cole wrote about it this way: "The situation in Salem is starting to have all the ingredients of a good political melodrama, including surprise, suspicion and threats."

     

    The flap started last Monday when lawmakers discovered mistakes just ahead of final legislative action on Senate Bill 301, which would align Oregon's tax code with certain portions of the federal tax code. The bill included the business tax breaks, such as accelerated depreciation of new equipment and machinery, which the business lobby believes are essential for economic growth. The breaks will cost an estimated $90-$100 million and some Democrats believe the money should be used to avoid state government budget cuts. The coalition of business groups responded quickly by saying, "Our new understanding that bonus depreciation and Section 179 small business provisions do not automatically reconnect to the federal tax code in 2011 has created a potentially serious rift in the positive environment of the 2011 legislative session."

     

  • The state budget: he elephant in the room at all Ways and Means hearings is the state budget shortfall. More specifically, Governor John Kitzhaber's huge plan for changes in early childhood education, health care and other state programs where he has offered a high-level vision, but provided no detail. The issue came to the fore last Friday when the Ways and Means Human Services Subcommittee confronted the budget for the State Commission on Children and Families. Subcommittee members were frustrated by the lack of detail, but also knew that State Commission managers didn't have it. Ways and Means legislators know they have to produce a balanced budget by the end of June and they say, in effect, "time's a wasting."

With only four months to go in this legislative session, it will not be long before legislators grapple with tough decisions, such as those above – some of those decisions could come into play on the House floor this week. The test for legislators: Live the message of civility and bipartisanship they have been describing for weeks.

Photo caption: Rep. Bill Kennemer, R-Oregon City, created a stir by asking for the resignation of Rep. Dave Hunt, D-Gladstone, who was the Democrat caucus leader during the last election.