Gritty Issues Teed up for 2018 Election

Hot button issues such as PERS, Medicaid, immigration and taxes are already heating up long before the 2018 Oregon election starts in earnest and are sure to bring into focus questions over who can provide the political leadership to address these issues.

Hot button issues such as PERS, Medicaid, immigration and taxes are already heating up long before the 2018 Oregon election starts in earnest and are sure to bring into focus questions over who can provide the political leadership to address these issues.

The 2018 election is more than a year away, but the issues that will animate campaigns are getting exposure now. As Republicans challenge monolithic Democratic control of the lever of powers in Oregon, the issues center on PERS, Medicaid and immigration. And more will follow.
 
In a news release Monday, the Senate Republican office deplored a “time bomb” decision by the PERS board that had the effect of inflating the unfunded liability of the public employee pension program to $52 million. With breathless prose, the release said, “Taxpayer-funded pension systems are combustible by nature, but Oregon’s ticking time bomb known as PERS is one of the brink of exploding.” Legislative Republicans pushed for steps to corral PERS funding but were unsuccessful.
 
The Oregonian added fuel to the Medicaid debate by reporting over the weekend that more than 37,000 Oregonians were extended health care benefits under the program even though they exceeded the earnings threshold – at a cost to the state of $191 million. The Oregon Health Authority reportedly has another 30,000 enrollees to check, so the number of ineligible Medicaid recipients could grower higher. A bipartisan majority agreed to a tax package in the 2017 session to sustain the core and expanded Medicaid program. Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, is pursuing a referral of the Medicaid tax package.
 
The potentially most explosive issue could be the call by Republican senators for Governor Brown to veto legislation declaring “sanctuary state” status. Their call follows violent attacks by Sergio Jose Martinez, including a sexual assault on a 65-year-old woman, who has been deported 20 times. Efforts by the Trump administration to step up deportation of undocumented immigrants has sparked public demonstrations both for and against the action.
 
The PERS and Medicaid issues have been stoked by Oregonian reporting. The PERS unfunded liability and sanctuary state issues have been fanned by Jonathan Lockwood on behalf of Oregon Senate Republicans. The Medicaid story’s fuse was lit by Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, who is the leading GOP gubernatorial candidate, largely due to his higher name familiarity.
 
Gubernatorial campaigns serve as referenda on how the state is doing and its most vexing issues. But few campaigns are so issue-centric before the front-running candidates have a chance to chisel out the political debate fault lines.
 
Brown is expected to seek re-election, but there is no consensus GOP challenger and the threat of a third-party bid can’t be ruled out. Political leadership is sure to be a major issue in the campaign. Republicans and even some Democrats will charge that Brown ducked out on leading toward a solution to the state’s $1.6 billion budget deficit. Brown can claim her leadership helped to push through a major transportation package that included funding for public transportation.
 
Oregon has become a reliably blue state, where Democratic statewide victories are pretty much a sure bet. That probably won’t change, but foul winds are blowing. Brown hasn’t alienated many core Democratic constituencies, but she hasn’t necessarily wowed all of them either.
 
Pointing to growing PERS liabilities, ballooning Medicaid costs and an immigrant bad boy may make headlines but aren’t the same as alternative solutions. This also could be a year where the politics of blame isn’t a big winner. But it is undeniable that gritty policy issues will consume oxygen in the 2018 campaign regardless who runs.
 
One final issue likely to emerge is whether to pursue revenue reform next year, despite Democratic leaders indicating it should wait until the 2019 session. Brown, Senate President Peter Courtney and Speaker Tina Kotek released statements arguing that reform wasn't possible until 2019, but a union-backed 2018 initiative similar to Measure 97 may spark interest in trying to head off another divisive and expensive battle at the ballot box. 
 
The question is who will take the lead and convene a working group. Senator Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, attempted compromise legislation in 2017 and may do so again. Brown could build off her transportation win and try to do the same on revenue reform. Brown's new Chief of Staff Nik Blosser showed an aptitude for such negotiations in 2017 and may be the person to do it again next year. A Republican candidate may jump into the fray with a plan and a strategy. The political risks are palpable, but the intensity of the issues may make the risk worth it.