Legislative Control Center of Political Battles

Candidate filing day produced one clear conclusion — the political battles in Oregon this year will center on House and Senate races key to determining which party is in control when the 2013 legislature convenes. The House is split 30-30 and Democrats narrowly control the Senate 16-14.

Republicans failed to field a candidate for state treasurer or attorney general, even though the latter will be an open seat. Republican Bruce Starr is challenging Labor Commissioner Brad Avakian, a Democrat, but it is a non-partisan post.

Republicans and Democrats see the battle for control of the House through different lenses. Rep. Kevin Cameron, R-Salem, told The Oregonian, "I want to avoid the one-party situation in the future so at least there's a healthy balance in the policy coming out of this building."

Rep. Tina Kotek, D-Portland, said, "Democrats were blocked from passing stronger consumer legislation and from more closely scrutinizing tax breaks that take away money for services. We are going to get a lot of national attention... Oregon is one of the most likely legislative chambers in the country to shift to Democratic control."

Retirements could play a significant role in tipping the partisan balance in both the House and Senate. Two GOP senators are calling it quits — Jason Atkinson, R-Central Point, and Dave Nelson, R-Pendleton. Both seats tilt heavily Republican. However, the Senate seat held by retiring Joanne Verger, D-Coos Bay, could prove pivotal. 

House Co-Speaker Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, is running for the seat against Scott Roberts, a Coos Bay physician. Roblan beat Roberts in 2010 in a House race. If Roblan wins again, the seat will remain in the Democratic column and it may be difficult for Republicans to control, or even earn a 15-15 split.

A Republican incumbent, Senator Chris Telfer, R-Bend, who ran in 2010 for state treasurer, has picked up a formidable primary opponent in former House Majority Leader Tim Knopp. Whoever wins the GOP primary is the likely winner in the November general election.

In the House, seven representatives are leaving — Rep. Bill Garrard, R-Klamath Falls; Rep. Jean Cowan, D-Newport; Rep. Jefferson Smith, D-Portland; Rep. Dave Hunt, D-Gladstone; Rep. Terry Beyer, D-Springfield; Rep. Mary Nolan, D-Portland; and Rep. Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay.  Most of those seats will remain with the current party, though there could be a race in Coos Bay to replace Roblan.

The real battle in the House will be won or lost in the six Portland suburbs as GOP freshmen try to defend the seats they won in 2010. All six face Democratic opponents, including a return bid by former Rep. Carl Hosticka, who represented a Eugene district before moving to Portland and gaining election to the Metro Council.  

Why does control matter? The party in charge gets to appoint committees, including chairs, in what is a committee-driven legislative process in Salem. The majority also gets to set the political agenda for the session, including whether to increase taxes.

When Democrats held super-majorities in the 2009 session, they passed tax increases on their own, without the need for any Republican votes. All of that changed in the 2011 session, when the House was tied 30 to 30, making tax increases essentially impossible.  

In the 2013 session, tax policy will matter. For one thing, two health care taxes — a 1 per cent tax on commercial health insurance premiums and a tax on large hospitals — expire. The state has come to depend heavily on the revenue from both. Governor Kitzhaber is looking at overall tax reform. There also may be a push for another transportation or infrastructure funding package.