Oregon Lawmakers Face Pivotal Week on Big Issues

Veteran Oregon lawmaker Peter Courtney says this is the week the legislature must fish or cut bait on major decisions to avoid slipping into a special session to find a way to dig out of a $1.4 billion budget hole.

Veteran Oregon lawmaker Peter Courtney says this is the week the legislature must fish or cut bait on major decisions to avoid slipping into a special session to find a way to dig out of a $1.4 billion budget hole.

This is the pivotal week, according to Senate President Peter Courtney, that will determine whether Oregon lawmakers will spend more time this summer or fall in Salem in special session.

The keys to watch for this week, Courtney tells Jeff Mapes of OPB in an interview today, will be House votes on the K-12 education budget and an extension of the health care provider tax to pay for rising Medicaid costs. Courtney said if those two measures move this week, the legislature has a chance to adjourn by or before July 10, its constitutionally required deadline to approve a balanced budget and go home.

In his interview with Mapes, Courtney sounded less than optimistic about prospects for a $900 million corporate income tax increase and expressed concern that back-room haggling over tolling on Interstate 5 and 205 and potential compromises on low-carbon fuel standards could bog down progress on a transportation funding package.

Governor Brown said much the same thing last week to the Salem Statesman Journal. It’s time, she claimed, "to stop bare-knuckles politicking and move major bills including a hospital tax, a transportation package and a cost containment initiative.”

Brown's list omitted a revenue package, even though she and other Democratic leaders are rooting to pass such a package – if they can find at least one Republican in both the House and Senate to vote for it. So far that has proven elusive. The governor said she has met with nearly every lawmaker and walked away with, “I honestly don’t know whether the votes are there are this point in time.”

“We’re so close to a real, comprehensive solution this session – one that has been influenced by years of advocacy from all sides of Oregon’s political spectrum, including business and labor leaders, Republicans and Democrats,” she said." It’s time to get the work done.”

Predictions and pep talks may not offset the political barriers to progress toward a balanced budget. Republicans want deeper cuts in what they call “cost drivers” that push spending unsustainably beyond state revenues, even in good economic times. Democrats believe corporations aren’t paying their fair share to support state spending, and many think the existing corporate income tax has too many loopholes that allow big corporations to evade state taxation.

Lawmakers are debating today the latest iteration of tax legislation, which includes a corporate activities tax that would go into effect in 2019 and a "bridge proposal” of higher corporate tax rates between now and then. Democratic leadership on the House may try to move the bill despite an unknown vote count in the Senate.

The provider tax this session has faced ambivalence or opposition from portions of the health care community, including the trade group representing hospitals and health care systems. In the 2015 session, the health care industry came to Salem with full agreement a provider tax extension was among the earliest major bills to win bipartisan legislative approval. Now approval of a provider tax has become a political buoy indicating whether the 2017 legislature can avoid a special session.

The K-12 education budget, because it is the largest state agency budget, reflects a healthy increase over the current biennium, but not enough to satisfy K-12 education advocates or avoid teacher layoffs and the prospect of a ballot measure to impose a constitutional funding requirement similar to what is in the Washington Constitution. Failure to find a way to meet that constitutional funding standard has put the Washington legislature on the brink of a third special session this year.

Despite bipartisan support for a transportation package, there still doesn’t appear to be complete agreement. There always is a natural tension between urban and rural areas over allocating new revenues. Based on Courtney’s comments, there also is tension within the Portland-area legislative delegation about tolling on major interstate highways. And remember this is tolling without a new I-5 Columbia River Bridge.

End-of-session pressure often produces dramatic resolutions to seemingly irreconcilable positions. If Courtney, the longest serving legislator in the Capitol, is right, this week will determine whether there is enough pressure to break political blockades that can lead to timely adjournment.