PERS Bill Moves on Fast Track to Senate and House Floors

Tackling the still-growing Public Employees Retirement System unfunded liability is one of the thorniest political issues facing Oregon lawmakers. What appears to be their best shot this session is headed to the Senate and House floors. The bill is more patchwork than policy reform.

Tackling the still-growing Public Employees Retirement System unfunded liability is one of the thorniest political issues facing Oregon lawmakers. What appears to be their best shot this session is headed to the Senate and House floors. The bill is more patchwork than policy reform.

A PERS bill is moving in the Oregon legislature that is more patchwork than policy reform, but it may constitute all that can pass in the 2019 session. The fast-tracked legislation could reach the House and Senate floors as early as next week.

Senate Bill 1049 is unofficially, but politically tied to the Student Success Act, which generates an additional $1 billion per year to boost education funding and imposes a commercial activities tax on larger corporations. The critical 18th vote provided by Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, was conditioned on legislative action this session on what she termed “substantive” reform of the Public Employees Retirement System. Johnson voted for SB 1049 in the Joint Ways and Means Committee.

The core provision in SB 1049 involves extending the minimum payment schedule for the $27 billion unfunded liability for another eight to 10 years, which accounts for the largest savings achieved by the legislation. Detractors called that another example of kicking the can down the road as opposed to actual reform.

“The bill does not meaningfully impact the system’s deficit or move Oregon any closer to solving its underlying pension problem,” writes The Oregonian’s Ted Sickinger, who closely tracks PERS issues.

SB 1049 includes a cost-sharing provision that would redirect a portion of employee pension contributions made to a supplemental savings plan that resembles a 401(k) plan. An amended version of the plan that was voted on left out an earlier provision that would have reduced the interest used to calculate the pension system’s money-match. The bill reverses a PERS decision and would give employees discretion on how to allocate investments in their own accounts.

Lawmakers added a provision to tap future net revenues from sports betting for an employer incentive fund to make lump sum payments to pay down liability. Lawmakers also tossed in a one-time $100 million contribution.

There was no mention of diverting personal income tax kicker rebates to reduce the PERS deficit.

Amendments to create a new tier of public employees who would receive a 401(k) plan in lieu of pension benefits didn’t pass in committee. 

Like most bills dealing with PERS, no one was really happy. Public employee union officials indicated they would explore a court challenge to cost-sharing provisions. Business advocates and some public employers didn’t think the measure went far enough. Legislators fretted over having to vote on the bill, fearing political consequences down the road.

“Not a single lawmaker questioned or expressed any apprehension about further underfunding the pension system and extending the deficit for another decade,” Sickinger reported. “That’s the bill’s main thrust – a strategy that could lead to further destabilization of the pension fund and land the issue back in lawmakers’ laps if investment returns don’t live up to expectations.”

In an even harsher judgment, Sickinger wrote, “Several committee members repeated the myth that greedy Wall Street bankers and the 2008 recession are to blame for PERS problems, rather than misguided and financially self-interested decisions by earlier legislatures and PERS boards that actually created the system’s structural deficit.” 

Governor Brown’s task force failed to coalesce around major proposals to reduce the PERS unfunded liability. Trial balloons on ideas such as raiding SAIF reserve funds didn’t gain any political traction. 

The PERS unfunded liability has continued to grow despite a strong economy and in the face of stock market volatility.

 

Deal Ends Senate Walkout, Lets Student Success Act Pass

After massive demonstrations and a Senate Republican walkout, Governor Brown stepped in to cut a deal that allowed Senate passage of the Student Success Act at the expense of two other high-profile bills – eliminating non-medical exemptions for vaccinations and strengthening gun laws. The deal annoyed some and didn’t produce any Republican votes for the education funding measure. (Photo Credit: AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

After massive demonstrations and a Senate Republican walkout, Governor Brown stepped in to cut a deal that allowed Senate passage of the Student Success Act at the expense of two other high-profile bills – eliminating non-medical exemptions for vaccinations and strengthening gun laws. The deal annoyed some and didn’t produce any Republican votes for the education funding measure. (Photo Credit: AP/Rich Pedroncelli)

The Oregon Senate, on a party-line vote, finally approved the $1 billion per year Student Success Act after Governor Brown negotiated a deal that scuttled high-profile vaccination and gun control legislation.

Senate Republicans ended their walkout that denied Democrats a quorum to conduct business on the Senate floor, delaying the approval of the education funding measure that was a top priority for the 2019 legislative session. But it wasn’t the only top priority and Democratic champions of the sacrificed measures expressed anger and frustration publicly. 

Republicans weren’t celebrating a victory. House Democrats were irate. Democratic Senator Betsy Johnson, the 18th vote to ensure passage of the Student Success Act, declared her vote was conditioned on leadership promises to approve substantial PERS reform legislation. If PERS reform legislation doesn’t pass, Johnson vowed to support and campaign for a voter referral of the business tax that will pay for Student Success education investments.

The deal reportedly only scuttles the vaccination and gun control bills for this session. They are expected to return – and most likely pass – in the 2020 legislative session, which begs the question of what was actually won and lost as a result of the deal.

The Student Success Act was destined to pass, despite the Republican walkout, as even GOP senators conceded. Senators couldn’t remain absent for the rest of the session. Senate Democratic leaders could have outlasted the walkout. They might have won public sympathy by ordering the State Police to round up at least two senators to reach a quorum, an action that was seriously considered.

Commanding the State Police to corral senators would have required permission of Governor Brown. She had other ideas and took the lead on Sunday evening to cut the deal that ended the walkout and put a stake into the vaccination and gun control bills. Democratic lawmakers weren’t active participants in the negotiations, based on their reactions in media interviews.

Speculation in Salem is that a robust quarterly economic forecast due out on Wednesday may have prompted Brown’s move to take over the negotiations. Increasing state tax revenues – and a larger personal income tax kicker – may have complicated the narrative around the need for a new tax incorporated in the Student Success Act.

If Senate Republicans couldn’t declare victory with a straight face, the “winner” may have been their tactic. Holding the Senate hostage worked and will likely embolden future legislative minorities to adopt the same hostage-taking tactic. It could even happen this session in the House. 

The “loser” may be legislative leaders who were undercut by a governor brokering a deal. Sometimes lawmakers ask governors to broker deals. But legislative leaders need to retain the ability to work out arrangements across a wider spectrum of legislative issues. This deal short-circuited two bills whose sponsors said their bills had the votes to pass in the Senate.  

Another "loser" may be businesses relying on Senate Republican leadership to protect their interests by stopping the revenue mechanisms contained in HB 3427 and HB 2020's cap and trade bill. Businesses may be upset that Republicans traded away opportunities to reduce the financial impacts from those two bills in an effort to stop social issues like vaccines and guns.

The political maneuvering to pass the Student Success Act this week doesn’t fully eliminate the legislation’s peril if referred to voters. A referral seems likely, even though Oregon Business & Industry, the state’s largest business lobby group, took a neutral position on the tax. Nike, which supported the Student Success Act, has already donated $100,000 to defend it if there is a referral. 

The referral may hinge on the PERS reform legislation, which has just been introduced and may be on a fast track. That legislation would stretch out the unfunded liability, providing some relief in the short term for public employers, but actually increase the liability. The most contentious part of the legislation is requiring public employees to contribute to their own PERS accounts, which could be a hard pill for some legislative Democrats to swallow.

The tax measure represented at least a two-session campaign by Senator Mark Hass to find a way to raise money for public schools while modernizing the state’s corporate tax system. The final version focuses the tax on an estimated 40,000 out of 460,000 businesses operating in Oregon, according to the Legislative Revenue Office. Hass credited Nike tax experts for providing critical assistance to fine-tune the tax proposal. A key compromise was to sequester the projected $1 billion per year in new revenue from going to PERS payments.

 

 

Political Poker Game Underway on Taxes, PERS and Cap and Trade

Willamette Week’s Nigel Jaquiss reports there is a high-stakes political poker game underway in Salem and Senator Betsy Johnson, who represents the 18th vote for a Senate supermajority, holds the most important cards. [Photo Credit: Willamette Week]

Willamette Week’s Nigel Jaquiss reports there is a high-stakes political poker game underway in Salem and Senator Betsy Johnson, who represents the 18th vote for a Senate supermajority, holds the most important cards. [Photo Credit: Willamette Week]

A billion-dollar boost for education, a new tax on large businesses and a cap-and-trade scheme may all boil down to how one Oregon senator votes, according to Willamette Week’s Nigel Jaquiss.

“Senator Betsy Johnson (D-Scappoose) holds almost all the cards” in a big-stakes political poker game that could determine the fate of the three highest-profile legislative measures in the 2019 Oregon legislative session, Jaquiss writes this week.

A keen-eyed, long-time legislative observer, Jaquiss says Johnson’s position as the critical 18th Democratic vote in the Senate gives her a lot of leverage. A three-fifths supermajority is required to pass tax-raising measures. Johnson also is one of two Senate co-chairs of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, which okays state spending authority. 

Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, may be the key vote that determines the 2019 legislative future for the Student Success Act, PERS funding reforms and cap and trade.

Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, may be the key vote that determines the 2019 legislative future for the Student Success Act, PERS funding reforms and cap and trade.

In Jaquiss’ telling, Johnson, whom he describes as a “business-friendly Democrat,” is reluctant to bolster education funding with a commercial activities tax without “significant PERS cost cuts.” This roughly parallels the view of Senate Republicans who staged a walkout this week, denying the Senate a quorum to take floor votes, including the vote on education funding bill. The 12 Senate Republicans feel left out of the final compromise on the tax measure, which has already passed the House, and want to slow it down to allow more time to negotiate an agreement on PERS.

Jaquiss says Johnson also isn’t keen on the Clean Energy Jobs bill that sets up a cap-and-trade system, apparently agreeing with opponents that it will result in higher costs for Oregon consumers. It’s little surprise – and probably not a coincidence – that the state’s leading business advocacy group, Oregon Business & Industry, just gave Johnson its first Jobs Champion Award.

As the crucial Senate floor vote for the Student Success package, Johnson could use her leverage on a PERS deal or to scuttle cap and trade, but probably not both, Jaquiss claims. Her decision may be informed by which option has the strongest political legs. 

In his article, Jaquiss says the other power player in this legislative poker game is House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland. She has a comfortable supermajority in the House (the Student Success Act passed by a 37-23 vote) – and gubernatorial aspirations. Wading into a contentious fight over PERS isn’t on the priority list, but she may not be able to avoid it. Kotek may have to do what it takes to smooth the way for Johnson’s vote on education funding. 

The idea floating around Capitol hallways to deal with the large and growing PERS unfunded liability is to require teachers and possibly all public employees to begin contributing to their own retirement funds. Governor Brown, who is term-limited and under pressure to address PERS funding, could accept that, Jaquiss says, but it would be a tougher draw for Kotek who enjoys high level of trust from Oregon unions. 

Keeping with the poker motif, Jaquiss says Senate Republicans see a delay on the education funding bill as a way to call the bluff of Democrats, forcing backstairs conversations into the open and either gain PERS concessions or a death blow to cap and trade.

Senate Republicans can’t hide out forever, so a deal or no-deal should emerge soon. The Student Success Act is a safe bet to pass. Everything else is 50-50.

 

Silverton Lawmaker Reports on Issues Close to Home

A GOP lawmaker from Silverton gives a mid-session status report to his constituents that focuses less on partisan issues and more on issues with local impact, such as oil train safety, operation of farm equipment on state highways and mental health providers reporting on patients who pose an imminent threat to themselves.

A GOP lawmaker from Silverton gives a mid-session status report to his constituents that focuses less on partisan issues and more on issues with local impact, such as oil train safety, operation of farm equipment on state highways and mental health providers reporting on patients who pose an imminent threat to themselves.

Rep. Rick Lewis, R-Silverton, is a member of the super-minority caucus in the Oregon House. But the former mayor and police chief of his home town hasn’t let that get in the way of pushing bills for his constituents.

In his April 17 newsletter to the folks back home, Lewis starts off by expressing concern about the state’s long-term fiscal sustainability, then quickly moves on to discuss what he has been doing in the first half of the 2019 legislative session that impacts his mid-Willamette Valley constituency. 

His most notable achievement is serving as co-chair of the Oil Train Safety work group, which began to meet in the spring of 2018. Lewis reports the work group produced two legislative concepts resulting in House 2209, requiring railroads that own or operate hazard train routes in Oregon to prepare oil spill contingency plans approved by the Department of Environmental Quality. HB 2209 passed out of committee on a unanimous vote.

Lewis also served as co-chair for a work group on House Bill 2201 that would establish a Veteran Educational Bridge Grant Program within the Oregon Department of Veterans’ Affairs. The program, according to Lewis, would provide assistance to veterans who don’t qualify for other kinds of assistance, such as veterans who could lose their financial aid because they are unable to complete a degree program due to the unavailability of required courses.

Lewis told constituents House Bill 2236, for which he was the chief sponsor, cleared the Oregon House. The bill, he says, clarifies the operation of farm equipment at low speeds on state highways and removes confusion when equipment moves across county lines that have had different regulations.

Rep. Rick Lewis, like many Oregon lawmakers, spends most of his time in Salem working on lower-profile issues of importance to the state and his local community.

Rep. Rick Lewis, like many Oregon lawmakers, spends most of his time in Salem working on lower-profile issues of importance to the state and his local community.

On behalf of his farm-centric community, Lewis expressed hope that House Bill 2264, which exempts farm machinery and equipment from property taxation, would be scheduled for a work session and pass out of House Revenue. 

Lewis said he was unsuccessful in pushing through House Bill 3406 that would have reimbursed small cities and counties if they waive system development charges for affordable housing. He indicated he would re-introduce his measure in the 2020 session.

Another failure Lewis noted was House Bill 3404, which he sponsored to clarify under what situations mental health providers would be required to report imminent threats made by their patients. The bill also would have granted civil and criminal immunity for providers who made reports in good faith.

The Lewis newsletter is not untypical for Oregon lawmakers who mostly work outside the polarizing bubble of partisanship on issues that concern everyday Oregonians. It is harder for legislators in the minority to move bills, but as Lewis’ report shows, it isn’t impossible.

News reports of the legislature, especially as the session winds down with high-profile issues in the balance, tend to highlight controversy. At the mid-point of the session, it is useful to give some light to the bipartisan and serious work that occurs without a lot of fanfare.

Student Success Plan, Tax to Pay for It Take Shape

Increased investment in early childhood education is one of the goals of the Student Success Plan that has been rolled out by a joint legislative committee. The rollout also included details on a commercial activities tax that could raise the $2 billion called for in the education plan.

Increased investment in early childhood education is one of the goals of the Student Success Plan that has been rolled out by a joint legislative committee. The rollout also included details on a commercial activities tax that could raise the $2 billion called for in the education plan.

The Joint Committee on School Success rolled out its “Student Success” plan that spells out how $2 billion in new revenue would be invested, where the money would come from and how it won’t be spent.

The leaders of the joint committee, which spent 14 months touring the state and visiting 77 schools, briefed reporters on the major components of their plan. As reported by OPB’s Rob Manning, the spending targets are:

  • $400 million per two-year budget cycle on early childhood priorities, including full funding for Early Childhood Special Education.

  • $600 million per biennium on “statewide investments” such as dropout prevention and supports for students with disabilities.

  • $1 billion per biennium for a “school improvement” fund, described as “non-competitive grants” toward specific goals, such as smaller class sizes, a longer school year and additional health professionals in schools.

The $2 billion they seek would likely come from a commercial activities tax tiered by the size of business earnings. Two options were presented, including one that would allow businesses to deduct labor expenses in exchange for a higher tax rate. Individual income tax rates would be adjusted slightly downward to account for pass-through price increases resulting from the new tax.

Rep. Greg Smith, R-Umatilla, a vice chair of the committee, spoke in favor of the new tax. He speculated other Republicans would join him to boost education funding.

“I think that there are Republicans who want to make strategic investments in education,” Manning quotes Smith as saying. “Once they have the opportunity to see what the revenue package looks like both on the personal income tax side and the commercial activity tax side, I believe there may be votes there.”

Committee leaders politely dismissed the idea that any of the $2 billion would go to higher education, even though Governor Kate Brown has hinted it might. “The goal of this committee’s work has been pre-K to 12 from the start, and that’s because in 1990, when Measure 5 was passed, we had a significant shift in how funding worked,” according to Co-chair Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland. 

Committee leaders acknowledged conversations to address the growing unfunded PERS liability, but noted none of the proposed commercial activities tax would go to PERS. 

Many legislative hurdles remain from a briefing to final passage of an ambitious education improvement plan, a new corporate tax and tinkering with personal income tax rates. Those conversations about PERS, which now include former Democratic Governor Ted Kulongoski, cast a long political and fiscal shadow over the plan and new revenue.

Brown has resisted engaging in ways to modify PERS benefits, focusing instead on ways to secure sizable chunks of money to whittle down the unfunded liability, such as the possible sale of SAIF. Kulongoski and former GOP legislator Chris Telfer are the chief sponsors of a pair of initiatives for the 2020 general election ballot that would reduce some public employee retirement benefits and divert some benefits to a 401(k) savings plan.

Tim Nesbitt, a former Oregon AFL-CIO president, says he has received a grant from the Oregon Business Council to form a broad-based coalition in support of the initiatives. Nesbitt said he hopes the prospect of a ballot measure fight will spur action in the 2019 legislative session.

Oregon labor officials have testified the two initiatives would fail to make a dent in the unfunded liability and likely would be declared unconstitutional. They insisted that boosting funding for education shouldn’t be an excuse for cutting benefits for public employees. 

 

Glimmer of Hope Surfaces on I-5 Bridge Project Restart

A glimmer of hope has appeared that Washington and Oregon may take the first steps to resume work on replacing I-5 Columbia River Bridge by restarting bi-state project office.

A glimmer of hope has appeared that Washington and Oregon may take the first steps to resume work on replacing I-5 Columbia River Bridge by restarting bi-state project office.

Someday, the I-5 Columbia River Bridge will be replaced. And Washington State hopes that someday is sooner rather than later.

The Washington Legislature generated some fresh enthusiasm when it included $450 million in a proposed transportation investment package to cover the state’s projected share of the cost to replace the bridge. Plus, Washington Governor Jay Inslee included $17.5 million to re-open a project office in his proposed 2019-2020 transportation budget.

The Southwest Washington legislative delegation has tried to stoke the appropriations fires and managed to make the bridge replacement that state’s number one priority in the propose transportation investment package that passed out of the Washington Senate Transportation Committee. However, with a portion of funding for such a packaged tied to creating a carbon fee in Washington, building the necessary support to pass it this year looks more like embers than sparks.

Washington looks poised to retain at least $8.5 million for a project office. While less than early-session expectations, opening a project office would begin laying the groundwork for replacing the bridge. Washington’s Department of Transportation, along with its Oregon counterpart, local cities and community partners, would start re-evaluating permits and design, develop a fresh budget and re-engage with stakeholders on both sides of the river.

Light rail, the bogeyman that helped sink a bi-state deal several years ago, remains a lightning rod. In his budget proposal, Inslee included a light rail provision, even though regional advocates encouraged calling for “mass transit“ to allow for further evaluation. Any mention of light rail has disappeared.

Meanwhile, Oregon, the putative partner in a bridge replacement deal, has been more or less quiet. There have been back-channel conversations between Olympia and Salem, but no real commitments. Majority Democrats in Salem are consumed with a cap-and-trade proposal and quest to raise $2 billion in new revenue for public education. A major transportation funding package is not anywhere near the adult table.

Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek remains the most ardent advocate for replacing the bridge, which is part of her North Portland legislative district. She probably has support in the office of Oregon Governor Kate Brown and a good chunk of lawmakers. But without a strong, definitive move by Washington officials there is little reason to start beating the drums in Salem. That definitive move appears to be on the horizon.

 

Climate Kids Lawsuit Could Overshadow Legislative Action

A group of 21 young plaintiffs, 11 of them from Oregon, are challenging the federal government to take responsibility for a “climate system capable of sustaining human life.” Their lawsuit has so far withstood five attempts to bock or dismiss it. They are inching closer to an actual trial that could prove a turning point on public acceptance of climate change and the urgent need for a credible response. [Photo Credit: Robin Loznak/ZUMA]

A group of 21 young plaintiffs, 11 of them from Oregon, are challenging the federal government to take responsibility for a “climate system capable of sustaining human life.” Their lawsuit has so far withstood five attempts to bock or dismiss it. They are inching closer to an actual trial that could prove a turning point on public acceptance of climate change and the urgent need for a credible response. [Photo Credit: Robin Loznak/ZUMA]

The efforts by Oregon Governor Kate and a Democratically controlled legislature to pass a measure to limit greenhouse gas emissions may be overshadowed by a more sweeping climate lawsuit initiated in 2016 largely on behalf of young Oregonians. 

The so-called Climate Kids have filed a lawsuit claiming a constitutional right “to life, liberty and property” under a government-backed “climate system capable of sustaining human life.” The lawsuit bears the name of Kelsey Juliana, who is a now a 22-year-old University of Oregon student. Juliana was interviewed on 60 Minutes over the weekend and declared, "My generation and all the generations to come have everything to lose if we don't act on climate change right now."

The longshot lawsuit, initially considered fanciful, has survived five attempts to block it in US District Court in Oregon, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court. Despite efforts by the fossil fuel industry and the Trump administration, the lawsuit continues to move toward an actual trial. 

“Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.” US District of Oregon Judge Ann Aiken

“Exercising my ‘reasoned judgment,’ I have no doubt that the right to a climate system capable of sustaining human life is fundamental to a free and ordered society.” US District of Oregon Judge Ann Aiken

The Climate Kids and their Oregon-based attorneys insist they have compiled what they believe is overwhelming evidence. A press release from Julia Olson, executive director and chief legal counsel of Our Children’s Trust, accuses the “federal government of creating a national energy system that causes climate change, is depriving them of their constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property and [failing] to protect essential public trust resources. We look forward to presenting the scientific evidence of the harms and dangers these children face as a result of the actions their government has taken to cause the climate crisis.”

Julia Olson, executive director of Oregon-based Our Children’s Trust, is co-counsel on the Climate Kids lawsuit arguing younger Americans have a constitutional right to a climate system that can sustain human life.

Julia Olson, executive director of Oregon-based Our Children’s Trust, is co-counsel on the Climate Kids lawsuit arguing younger Americans have a constitutional right to a climate system that can sustain human life.

Olson told 60 Minutes the evidence is staggering. The Supreme Court, in its unsigned decision to let the lawsuit proceed, called its breadth “striking.”

Juliana is one of 21 youth plaintiffs who range in age from 11 to 22 years old. The ages of the plaintiffs are welded to the core of the constitutional argument. One pleading on behalf of the youths said, “As the government continues to neglect the consequences of climate change, they say, their future selves – and their future children – will suffer.” Eleven of the plaintiffs live in Oregon. Other plaintiffs hail from Colorado, Florida, New York, Hawaii, Arizona, Alaska, Washington, Pennsylvania and Louisiana.

An extensive list of supporters has accreted as challenges to the lawsuit have proceeded. They included well known environmental groups such as Greenpeace and the Sierra Club, interfaith organizations and legal scholars. The League of Women Voters submitted an amicus brief that asserted it is a proper role for courts to act as a check and balance on political branches to address “irreversible impacts” that affect younger generations of Americans and generations to follow. 

Two of the underlying legal arguments that have emerged in Juliana v. United States involve “atmospheric trust litigation” based on a public trust doctrine, which has been applied to protect shorelines and other valuable natural resources.

Ultimately, the goal of the Climate Kids lawsuit are environmental policies that would accelerate efforts to reduce damaging greenhouse gas emissions and eventually abandon a carbon-based economy. Opponents variously argue that is an unattainable objective in any near-term time frame. Political opponents claim the lawsuit, if successful, would subordinate climate policy set by the President and Congress to a court ruling.

Assuming the lawsuit actually makes it to trial, the evidence presented could mark a turning point in broader public acceptance of the reality of climate change and the need for urgent action. The trial is likely to be linked with the Green New Deal that has been introduced in Congress and to propel more state environmental activism, especially in states like Oregon where the trial would be held and covered extensively.

 

Lawmakers Take Big First Step in a Busy Health Care Session

Health care issues will play a dominant role in the 2019 Oregon legislative session. One of the most significant health care bills that will help close the budget gap for Oregon Medicaid’s program moved through two committees last week. And a bill to start an analysis of state-sponsored health insurance for all Oregonians was introduced with 40 legislative cosponsors.

Health care issues will play a dominant role in the 2019 Oregon legislative session. One of the most significant health care bills that will help close the budget gap for Oregon Medicaid’s program moved through two committees last week. And a bill to start an analysis of state-sponsored health insurance for all Oregonians was introduced with 40 legislative cosponsors.

Oregon lawmakers took the first step last week to secure funding for the Oregon Health Plan and the state’s reinsurance program that helps pay for expensive health care claims. The revenue plan outlined in HB 2010, which passed out of the Joint Ways and Means Committee last Friday, will generate more than $400 million toward the anticipated hole in the state’s Medicaid budget.

The funding plan, which health care industry officials negotiated and support, extends a 6 percent hospital tax and a 2 percent tax on insurance plans. The plan introduces a 2 percent tax on “stop loss coverage” for large, self-insured companies. The insurance tax is expected to generate $320 million and the hospital tax $98 million.

Unlike in previous legislative sessions, this funding plan will extend for six years, not just a single biennium.

Other components of Governor Brown’s Medicaid funding package not included in HB 2010, but which will eventually face debate in the Capitol, include a $2 per pack increase on the state’s tobacco tax, a tax on employers with employees covered by Medicaid and a state General Fund contribution. Many observers believe the $95 million projected from the tobacco tax could be in jeopardy because it will likely be referred to voters to approve.

Republicans on the House Health Care Committee, which heard the bill earlier last week, offered amendments to exempt K-12 school district, college students and small businesses from Medicaid-related taxes. Chair Mitch Greenlick counseled against the amendments, which he said could upset a delicately balanced funding plan agreement. The amendments were defeated and two Republicans on the policy committee voted for final passage of the measure, sending it to a Friday hearing in the Joint Ways and Means Committee. 

Patching the Medicaid funding gap is one of several major funding proposals the 2019 Oregon legislature will face. Brown has called on lawmakers to unearth $2 billion in additional tax revenue to boost public education funding. The governor and Democratic legislative leaders also are committed to adopt some form of a cap and trade system that will impose costs on manufacturers and the transportation sector as a means to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

The Medicaid funding package is flanked by another health care initiative – the Health Care for All Oregon plan. Under Senate Bill 770, a board would be created to fill in details of what a plan would look like that replaces private and state employee insurance coverage, as well as estimate what such a plan would cost to implement.

Senator James Manning, D-Eugene, chief sponsor of the measure, says, “This is the first step. It’s not going to happen overnight. This bill provides an opportunity to get a fiscal analysis and develop a work group to drill down into the nuts and bolts of how we get there.”

With secure funding, the state Medicaid program, which serves more than 1 million Oregonians, will press for additional reforms carried out by coordinated care organizations (CCOs) throughout the state. Lori Coyner, who has resumed her job as the Medicaid director that she left in 2017, will be responsible for overseeing $5 billion in spending, holding annual cost increases to 3.4 percent and managing what is nicknamed CCO 2.0 over the next five years.

In an interview with the Lund Report, Coyner said her priorities include streamlining business processes, improving health equity, building stronger ties with tribes and addressing social determinants of health such as education, housing and transportation. This might involve spending dollars on non-medical costs, such as home air filters for families with asthmatic children. There also are efforts to tie affordable housing with social services. 

“Another big priority is looking at the behavioral health system,” Coyner added. “We are hoping to get a new behavioral health director and work closely with [CCOs] to advance integration for members with mental health challenges and addiction issues. We made big strides in CCO 1.0 in that area, but there is a lot more that can be done.”

 

Democrats Address Climate Change with Carbon Caps, Modernized Infrastructure

Democrats in the Oregon legislature and Congress will be pushing legislation to cap carbon emissions, including from transportation, which is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Oregon lawmakers will consider a cap and trade proposal, while Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio presses for a $500 billion federal investment in modernized infrastructure.

Democrats in the Oregon legislature and Congress will be pushing legislation to cap carbon emissions, including from transportation, which is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions. Oregon lawmakers will consider a cap and trade proposal, while Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio presses for a $500 billion federal investment in modernized infrastructure.

The Oregon cap and trade legislation was unveiled last week.  Oregon Public Broadcasting  provided a glimpse into its details.

The Oregon cap and trade legislation was unveiled last week. Oregon Public Broadcasting provided a glimpse into its details.

(Updated February 1, 2019)

While the big event in the 2019 Oregon legislative session is sure to be a $2 billion revenue package for schools and an industry-supported Medicaid package, the first major legislative thrust by Democrats will be a cap and trade bill designed to put a lid on carbon emissions. A key Oregonian in Congress is also pushing for a major response to climate change.

The bill is expected to surface by the end of the week. Its chief architect, Senator Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, says the measure will be very similar to a previously introduced bill, but with more clarity on issues such as oversight, mitigation for vulnerable industries and how quickly the emission cap will decline. Republicans are grumbling they haven’t seen evolving drafts since late last year.

Not surprisingly, Dembrow predicts a “noisy few weeks” when the Joint Committee on Carbon Reduction, which he co-chairs, considers the controversial measure, called the Clean Energy Jobs Bill.

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Environmental groups expect a cap and trade bill will pass this session. Governor Brown and Democratic legislators vigorously campaigned in support of climate change legislation. Brown's budget framework, released late last year, detailed the creation of a Carbon Policy Office, with a $1.4 million budget, that has been charged with exploring how Oregon can reduce its greenhouse gas emissions while still growing the state’s economy.

State Senator Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, and Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio will be on point with legislation to address climate change. Dembrow co-chairs the committee to take up a cap and trade system that seeks to limit carbon emissions, including from transportation fuels. DeFazio is floating a measure to invest $500 billion to modernize the nation’s transportation system and reduce carbon emissions, while increasing resiliency in highways, tunnels and bridges.

State Senator Michael Dembrow, D-Portland, and Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio will be on point with legislation to address climate change. Dembrow co-chairs the committee to take up a cap and trade system that seeks to limit carbon emissions, including from transportation fuels. DeFazio is floating a measure to invest $500 billion to modernize the nation’s transportation system and reduce carbon emissions, while increasing resiliency in highways, tunnels and bridges.

The basic idea is to set a fixed limit on greenhouse gas emissions and issue allowances that can be traded in an open market, which currently includes seven states and four Canadian provinces. The greenhouse gas emission limit would ratchet down over time.

The Environmental Defense Fund anticipates Oregon’s cap and trade bill will parallel a similar structure in California that extends to transportation fuels as well as regulated electricity and natural gas utilities.

As Oregon lawmakers hack away on climate change legislation, Oregon Congressman Peter DeFazio, who chairs the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, is preparing to push for a $500 billion investment to address crumbling US infrastructure, support “green” infrastructure that is more resilient to climate change and develop cleaner fuels. Among other funding, DeFazio proposes issuing 30-year bonds paid for by indexing the federal gas tax to inflation, which he says could generate between $17 to $20 billion per year to invest.

He wants the House to pass a version of his legislation in the next six months and it appears House Democratic leaders support his push.

DeFazio told Curbed in an interview there is a $102 billion backlog to repair America’s metropolitan transit systems and that critical transportation routes such as the Holland Tunnel in New York and the I-5 Columbia River Bridge could be wiped out by flooding or earthquakes, causing economic catastrophes.

Curbed observed, “[DeFazio] takes control of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee during a pivotal time when technology advances, long-term funding issues and climate change demand a comprehensive, forward-thinking plan.”

In quintessential DeFazio fashion, he said, “I’m going to approach it from a very hard-hearted way: Boy, you’re stupid if you don’t make these investments.”

 

Oregon, Washington May Provide Presidential Hopefuls

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and Washington Governor Jay Inslee are seriously weighing Democratic presidential campaigns in 2020. Both are from the progressive lane of the Democratic Party, have earned national recognition for their key issues and have campaigned in early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and Washington Governor Jay Inslee are seriously weighing Democratic presidential campaigns in 2020. Both are from the progressive lane of the Democratic Party, have earned national recognition for their key issues and have campaigned in early-voting states such as Iowa and New Hampshire.

Oregon’s and Washington’s role in recent presidential elections has been relegated to ATMs. Candidates swoop in, attend high-priced fundraisers and slip out of town, often without even a perfunctory press interview. That may change in 2020.

Oregon Senator Jeff Merkley and Washington Governor Jay Inslee have dropped huge hints they are considering entering the 2020 Democratic presidential sweepstakes. Though both would be considered today as political longshots, each has a distinct political issue to push. Merkley is focused on voting rights, Inslee on responding to climate change, as issue he has championed for years, including the book he coauthored, Apollo’s Fire

Merkley has earned national recognition for going to Texas to expose the internment at the border of asylum-seeking Latin American migrants and their children. Inslee gained recognition for leading the Democratic Governors Association as it reclaimed a number of statehouses in the 2018 midterm election. 

Both hail from the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, which could be a crowded lane in the 2020 Democratic primary with candidates such as Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Cory Booker and Kamala Harris. Merkley and Inslee have been point persons confronting President Trump on key issues such as immigration, environmental protection and trade policy. Both have hit the campaign hustings, appearing side by side at a campaign event in Johnson City, Iowa and in New Hampshire, both early-voting primary states.

One advantage Inslee has over better-known candidates, and Merkley, is his executive experience (Inslee served in Congress before his election as governor). Now serving his second term, Inslee can point to achievements on voting rights, a higher minimum wage, ensuring net neutrality and major transportation investments.

As Jennifer Rubin, an opinion writer for the Washington Post, sees it: “[Inslee] might consider stressing his entire record as evidence of his ability to successfully govern, which includes climate change policies, and his role in challenging Trump’s immigration policies. Almost as an afterthought, he notes that renewable-energy legislation helped launched a multibillion-dollar wind industry and helped his state lead in GDP growth and wages. That seems to be his greatest selling point – creating a progressive haven while growing the economy, raising wages and saving the planet.”

Another advantage of potential Merkley and Inslee candidacies is that neither are in their 70s, as are Warren, Sanders, Joe Biden – and Donald Trump. Merkley is 62 and Inslee is 67. They also are fresh faces on the national political landscape, which might appeal to newly registered Democratic voters that helped Democrats regain control of the House.

Merkley faces a big decision. If he runs for President, he can’t under Oregon law run simultaneously for re-election to the Senate. He has told reporters he will make a final decision in the early part of this year. Meanwhile, Merkley has staged what amounts to a marathon of townhall meetings in Oregon before the new Congress convened this week. It is unclear whether he has taken steps to recruit a campaign staff or start fundraising in earnest. Political observers suggest it may take anywhere from $40 to $60 million for a Democratic presidential candidate to make it to Super Tuesday primaries in March, 2020.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee, like his potential Pacific Northwest presidential aspirant Jeff Merkley, has gone to the US-Mexico border to denounce Trump administration immigration policies and establish their credentials as credible national contenders.

Washington Governor Jay Inslee, like his potential Pacific Northwest presidential aspirant Jeff Merkley, has gone to the US-Mexico border to denounce Trump administration immigration policies and establish their credentials as credible national contenders.

Inslee received encouragement to throw his hat in the presidential ring in 2016 as one of the few Democratic governors to survive. He has campaigned around the country for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in 2018, giving him more exposure than usually accrues to a governor from the Pacific Northwest. Inslee is given credit for helping seven Democrats capture statehouses and assisting some Democratic incumbents such as Oregon Governor Kate Brown fend off well-financed GOP challengers.

There are indications Inslee is lining up donors to his political action committee and preparing to form a presidential exploratory committee, which is something Warren did this week as she moved closer to becoming an announced candidate. He also has amassed a list of more than 200,00 climate change supporters nationwide that could serve as a jumping off point for his candidacy.

The presidential primaries will have some other new twists. California and Texas have moved up their primary election dates in a bid to have a greater say about who emerges as party nominees. As big states with sprawling, expensive media markets, they pose special challenges for lesser known candidates without big campaign war chests. 

Another challenge is the emergence of Beto O’Rourke, who lost his bid to unseat Texas Senator Ted Cruz while gaining a rabid national following and lengthy small-donor contributor list, and Harris, who represents California in the US Senate and received positive national exposure for her sharp questioning of Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh.

The best thing going for Merkley and/or Inslee candidacies is a clear focus, which will be essential in a field of up to 20 candidates and a Democratic debate schedule that begins as early as this summer. Democratic voters – and GOP political strategists – will be watching closely to see who stands out from the pack based on substance and style and who has the best chance to go toe-to-toe with Trump in the general election.

 

A Challenge and a Legacy Lie Ahead for Legislative Democrats

Oregon’s Democratically controlled 2019 legislature will have its work cut out for it with a $2 billion revenue challenge for education, an $800 million hole to patch for Medicaid and passage of legacy legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions through a cap-and-trade program.

Oregon’s Democratically controlled 2019 legislature will have its work cut out for it with a $2 billion revenue challenge for education, an $800 million hole to patch for Medicaid and passage of legacy legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions through a cap-and-trade program.

The Democratically controlled 2019 Oregon legislative session will address a “once in a generation” challenge to boost education funding by $2 billion and a potential legacy-making bill dealing with climate change.

Expectations are high heading into the session, which begins in January. Neither will be a cake-walk to achieve, despite Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate.

Some of the complicating factors are:

  • Oregon lawmakers also have to find more than $800 million to sustain the state’s Medicaid program.

  • The Public Employees Retirement System unfunded liability is expected to grow by possibly as much as $4 billion, with no strategy in place to reduce it.

  • There are signs the US economic recovery is facing headwinds caused by an escalating global trade war, political unrest in Europe and a weakening economy in China.

Passing major tax legislation – and avoiding a referral to voters – is never easy, whether for schools or cleaning up the environment. For example, despite polls showing general support for climate legislation, Washington state voters have twice rejected carbon tax proposals. Oregon’s approach, which involves capping greenhouse gas emissions and allowing carbon trading in a state or regional marketplace, is different, but will still be cast by opponents as a tax.

Governor Brown has called her $2 billion challenge for education an opportunity that lawmakers can’t pass up because of the state’s robust economy and the needed Democratic votes in the House and Senate to approve tax bills. Brown also has called the Clean Energy Jobs bill “absolutely a legacy issue.”

Senate President Peter Courtney has endorsed the legacy label for the Clean Energy Jobs bill. "As a 75-year older person – you know I'm going to go to the children and grandchildren – I cannot think of a more serious issue," he said.

While it might be legacy legislation, it also has been introduced and failed to pass in the previous two legislative sessions. Part of the reason is its inherent complexity. Ted Sickinger filed a report for The Oregonian that outlined some of the complexity, which includes exactly what emissions will be capped and what emissions will be exempted.

In the 2019 session, advocates for the Clean Energy Jobs bill have apparently cut a deal with utilities that say their ratepayers are already footing the bill for greenhouse gas emission reductions baked into their future energy plans. Even that compromise isn’t without some debate over whether the utility plans should accelerate emission reductions. Timber and agriculture also may be exempted.

Another complicating factor is “leakage,” which boils down to manufacturing operations relocating to another state to avoid the cost of a cap-and-trade system. Republican Senator Cliff Bentz points to Ore-Ida Foods in Ontario. "I do not want to drive it 150 yards away into Idaho," Sickinger reported. "It will be devastating."

A report unveiled last week confirms Bentz’s fear that the potential for leakage in the manufacturing and industrial sectors is substantial, which if it happened to any degree would throw shade on the legacy of the legislation. “It would also eliminate a big chunk of allowance revenue [advocacy] groups are expecting to reinvest in carbon reduction and climate change adaptation programs,” Sickinger said. 

Rural interests have expressed concern that the increased price of fuel for cars and trucks will disproportionately hurt them at the pump. Then there is a constitutional question about whether any tax revenue collected from cars and trucks can escape the Oregon Highway Trust Fund. In anticipation of that question, Senator Michael Dembrow wants to include a provision to fast-track a challenge to the Oregon Supreme Court.

There is the need to put the program, if created, some place in the state bureaucracy. In her recommended 2019-2021 budget, Brown calls for elimination of the Department of Energy. She proposed creation of a new agency – the Oregon Climate Authority, which would assume the role of the existing Oregon Global Warming Commission. Creating a new agency and identifying who will sit on its advisory board can produce legendary backroom legacies.

Finally, in a system that involves carbon credits, you need a marketplace to trade them. Backers of the legislation and some industry groups favor linking the Oregon cap-and-trade program to the Western Climate Initiative, led by California. Bentz worries Oregon will be like a flea on a dog’s tail without much influence on the direction of the marketplace. 

Neither the $2 billion education challenge or the Clean Energy Jobs bill figure to be among the early bills to move in the 2019 session. Their destiny inevitably will be as part of 11th-hour legislative maneuvers to clear a path to adjournment, probably sometime next July. That’s often how legacies are born.

 

 

Raising $2 Billion Won’t Be a Slam Dunk

Democrats hold all the main levers of power in Salem, including supermajorities in the Oregon House and Senate that could pass tax hikes without any Republican votes. But meeting Governor Brown’s $2 billion revenue challenge won’t be easy and certainly won’t be a slam dunk.

Democrats hold all the main levers of power in Salem, including supermajorities in the Oregon House and Senate that could pass tax hikes without any Republican votes. But meeting Governor Brown’s $2 billion revenue challenge won’t be easy and certainly won’t be a slam dunk.

Democrats hold supermajorities in the House and Senate to pass revenue-raising measures without Republican votes. Business interests may be relegated to the political sidelines. Yet, Governor Brown’s $2 billion revenue challenge in the 2019-2021 biennium seems tenuous.

In her budget message, Brown didn’t specify how she wanted to raise an additional $2 billion in revenue to fund public education. However, she has been very clear she isn’t interested in tying a revenue increase to reduction in PERS benefits, which business interests have advocated. The implication is that legislative Democrats have the votes and can decide on the details.

It may not be that simple. 

For starters, the PERS unfunded liability is likely to be larger. As The Oregonian’s Ted Sickinger reported, PERS investments so far this year have fallen significantly short of the assumed 7.2 percent return rate, which actuaries say could balloon the unfunded liability by as much as $4 billion. 

That won’t affect the current public employer contribution rate, which is already fixed for the next two years and cost an additional $1.1 billion. The PERS actuary predicts even steeper contribution rate increases beginning in 2021. Such a prospect may propel public employers to press harder for legislative solutions.

Jody Wiser of Tax Fairness Oregon has suggested paying down the PERS unfunded liability with a one-time diversion of the personal income tax kicker, pegged at $724 million. Voting to redirect a kicker payment to PERS is not impossible to imagine in a Democratically controlled legislature, but it still wouldn’t be an easy vote. Most of the kicker benefits flow to middle- and upper-income Oregon taxpayers, the people who typically write campaign checks to legislators.

Democrats have a comfortable supermajority in the Oregon House, but a less reliable one in the Oregon Senate. Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, isn’t always a sure bet to go along with her 17 other Democratic colleagues on tax issues. As one of the two Senate co-chairs of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, Johnson will be part of the Democratic leadership team, but also hold more political leverage. Johnson is one of those votes you have to earn, not just count on.

Governor Brown touted her $2 billion revenue challenge by saying, “Our current strong economy gives us the best chance in a generation to address persistent, structural challenges so we can achieve our full potential.” Brown’s challenge drew this response from House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, “This is not a challenge to the legislature; it is a challenge to the wallets and pocketbooks of hardworking Oregonians.”

Governor Brown touted her $2 billion revenue challenge by saying, “Our current strong economy gives us the best chance in a generation to address persistent, structural challenges so we can achieve our full potential.” Brown’s challenge drew this response from House Minority Leader Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, “This is not a challenge to the legislature; it is a challenge to the wallets and pocketbooks of hardworking Oregonians.”

Perhaps the biggest challenge to the $2 billion revenue challenge is the lack of a specific plan. Democrats pushed in the 2017 session a corporate tax restructuring proposal, but the proposal or something like it wouldn’t generate $2 billion. That means a tax plan would most likely need to affect business and personal income taxpayers.

A business tax hike might be a lighter lift after the congressional GOP tax cut that included several business tax breaks. But the federal legislation contained personal income tax provisions that limit state and local tax deductions, which will mean higher federal taxable income starting in 2018 for a chunk of Oregon taxpayers. Again, not insurmountable, but not necessarily easy.

Designing a tax proposal, especially one as large as $2 billion in Oregon’s context, will be messy. Tax ideas will be floated and dropped. The final product may not be a single tax increase, but a series of tax and fee increases. This revenue-raiser will be in addition to taxes and fees levied to fill the budget gap for Oregon’s Medicaid program.

How the $2 billion will be spent also will be the source of endless debate. A special committee traveled the state during the interim gathering ideas on how to improve public education in Oregon. It came up with a long list – and didn’t include suggestions for higher education.  

The slim 22-member House GOP caucus, with Rep. Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, as its new “superminority” leader, expects to be largely spectators on tax legislation this session. However, that doesn’t rule out a role as spoilers who seize every opportunity to take political pot shots at Democratically backed tax proposals – and rising PERS contributions by cities, counties and school districts.

There is always a possibility of a bipartisan revenue package, which might avoid a voter referral that would be costly and delay any revenue increases. Compromising on a $2 billion tax package would pose political risks for both Democrats and Republicans, but also afford potential political benefits.

Republican legislative control in a blue state seems remote, so negotiating for some “victories” as part of a tax package could be viewed by GOP voters as turning lemons into lemonade. Democrats could win accolades for leadership by including some GOP priorities instead of plowing them over in the legislative process.

One thing is sure. Raising $2 billion in the next biennium is not a slam dunk because there will be votes on one or more tax measures to raise that sum, huge debates over where the money should go and a dark shadow cast by PERS.

 

Brown’s Budget Focuses on Education, Human Services

Fresh off her successful re-election, Governor Kate Brown unveils her $23.6 billion General Fund budget that includes a $2 billion revenue challenge to state lawmakers to eliminate structural deficits in public education.

Fresh off her successful re-election, Governor Kate Brown unveils her $23.6 billion General Fund budget that includes a $2 billion revenue challenge to state lawmakers to eliminate structural deficits in public education.

Governor Kate Brown released her 2019-2021 budget recommendations that roll out ideas to shore up state health care funding, continue to invest in affordable housing and pay for initiatives she announced in her re-election campaign.

Proposed budgets are also notable for what they don’t include. Brown’s $23.6 billion budget proposal omits any mention of Public Employees Retirement System (PERS) cost-cutting or investing to restart bi-state conversations about an I-5 Columbia River Bridge replacement.

Her proposed budget did contain a $2 billion revenue challenge to legislators to bolster Oregon’s public education system. The challenge coincided with the rollout of the Coalition for the Common Good, consisting of Oregon public employee unions, a group of long-term care providers and Nike, in support of a major tax package.

“We want to bring a sole focus into revenue reform,” said James Carlson, president of the Oregon Health Care Association. “The reality is we can’t afford to waste another five years chasing a deal that may or may not happen” on cutting government costs.

Major business groups are positioned to resist a major tax overhaul without steps to reduce the $22 million unfunded PERS liability, which poses a drain on local government and school district budgets.

The $2 billion in new revenue would go to extend the school year, decrease class sizes, expand access to preschool and decrease college tuition at public universities. Brown faced sharp criticism in her re-election campaign for Oregon’s low high school graduation rate and failure to provide all of the funding voters authorized to expand career and technical education statewide.

Brown’s budget is heavy on aspiration and revenue projections. It also is very readable, has a reasonable amount of detail and is backed up by economic and revenue analysis. For example, it shows that $19 billion in revenue comes from Oregon personal income taxes, which represents 80 percent of the budget. Corporate income taxes and lottery proceeds contribute 4 and 5 percent, respectively. Roughly 50 percent of Brown’s proposed spending would go to education and 27 percent to human services.

Even though state lawmakers will have around $1 billion more in revenue than the previous biennium, Brown included tax increases in her budget, much of it to plug a funding hole for Medicaid. She proposed raising tobacco taxes by $2 and expanding taxes or assessments on hospitals, insurers and some employers.

In her budget, Brown proposes to shut down the Oregon Department of Energy and allow the state’s Chief Education Office to end. She asks for creation of an Oregon Climate Authority that would administer a “well-designed, market-based program to achieve our state climate emissions reduction goals at the least possible cost, while protecting our manufacturing industry and mitigating impacts on low-income and rural communities, communities of color, and Tribes.” 

Brown devotes substantial funding to her Children’s Agenda, including $285.8 million to provide preschool for an additional 10,000 children, $20 million for housing stability for homeless families, $13.8 million to integrate disorder treatment and behavioral health programs for families and $10 to increase “quality, affordable” child care. Brown wants to ensure 100 percent of Oregon children have health care access and proposes $47.1 million for a comprehensive child welfare system “based on positive human development” and that reduces the need for foster care.

Another campaign promise that showed up on Brown’s budget is incorporating standards from the federal Clean Air and Clean Water acts into state law. She also wants to fund an effort to eliminate a backlog in pending air quality permits.

Brown recommended expanding Oregon’s automatic voter registration system by including other public interactions with state agencies, such as applying for a hunting license, as triggers and sending voters ballots with return envelopes with pre-paid postage. 

After a gubernatorial election that broke state spending records and involved independent expenditures funded with dark money contributions, Brown committed to work on campaign finance reform.

The budget proposal sets aside money for earthquake preparedness, firearm safety, a university program dealing with threat assessment and immigrant defense. Some $5 million is earmarked for funding rural broadband infrastructure and $10 million for remediation of rural brownfields so they can be redeveloped.

Brown titled her budget proposal, “Turning Point: An Agenda for Oregon’s Future.” Here is the opening paragraph of the budget document:

“Oregon is at a turning point. Hundreds of thousands of people have moved here in the past 20 years, and a million more are on their way. We’ve done some good things over the years, but our state is changing, and changing rapidly. With the aging of Oregon’s baby boomer generation, and the impacts of recent dramatic federal tax changes and burgeoning federal deficits exacerbating these changes, one thing is clear: we can no longer do things the way we have in the past. We must grow up as a state, and we need to decide – together – what we want to be over the next 20 years. The challenges of affordability, of educating our kids, of mitigating the effects of climate change, and of maintaining a strong democracy will not get better unless we change our approach.”

She says Oregon must renew faith in democracy, spend money wisely, address affordability, prepare for the future and “finally fix our underfunded education system.”

 

An Unexpected Defeat and a Promising Victory

GOP State Rep. Rich Vial, who didn’t have an opponent until July, may have been surprised on election night when he was defeated by political newcomer Courtney Neron. Both have interesting back stories that show political candidates have lives beyond politics.

GOP State Rep. Rich Vial, who didn’t have an opponent until July, may have been surprised on election night when he was defeated by political newcomer Courtney Neron. Both have interesting back stories that show political candidates have lives beyond politics.

First-term State Rep. Rich Vial, R-Scholls, wasn’t on many media ‘watch’ lists in the 2018 election and didn’t have an opponent until as late as July, but he was on the short list of defeated legislative incumbents the day after the election.

First-time candidate Courtney Neron, a mother of two and former high school Spanish and French teacher, rode a blue wave of support for Democratic women candidates to defeat Vial, whose campaign outspent her seven to one. Neron won by a 51 to 48 percent margin and her election contributed to House Democrats exceeding a three-fifths supermajority in the 2019 legislative session. 

Neron was selected to run for the House District 26 seat after Ryan Spiker, who won the Democratic primary in May, withdrew for health reasons in June.

Unlike Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, who also was unseated in the election, Vial wasn’t a high-profile or partisan political figure in Salem. A lawyer, family farmer and avid ‘birder,” Vial went to Salem, in his words, “to deal with serious and complex problems that affect Oregonians.” 

In his farewell legislative newsletter, Vial wished everyone a happy Veterans Day, thanked constituents for the chance in serve in the legislature and made a plea to end “gridlock and bitterness.”

Former high school Spanish and French teacher Courtney Neron was pressed into service to run as the Democratic candidate opposing a first-term Republican House member. With strong Democratic support based on her activism as a volunteer, Neron rode Oregon’s blue wave to victory and will represent House District 26 in the 2019 Oregon legislature. [Photo Credit: Corey Buchanan/Wilsonville Spokesman]

Former high school Spanish and French teacher Courtney Neron was pressed into service to run as the Democratic candidate opposing a first-term Republican House member. With strong Democratic support based on her activism as a volunteer, Neron rode Oregon’s blue wave to victory and will represent House District 26 in the 2019 Oregon legislature. [Photo Credit: Corey Buchanan/Wilsonville Spokesman]

“Dealing with serious and complex policies that affect Oregonians, including education, health care and criminal justice, as well as land use, housing and transportation, has been both sobering and humbling,” Vial wrote. “It has also been an inspirational and gratifying journey.” 

“Moving forward, it is my hope that our elected officials strive to overcome the tribalism and partisanship that has so deeply divided our communities and our government, both here in Oregon and around the country,” he continued. “One of my personal goals as a legislator has been to rise above the partisan mentality in our government that has led to gridlock and bitterness at a time when we most need cooperation and compassion.”

Vial added, “I continue to hope that we will move beyond this polarization, reject radical ideology and return to civility, genuine dialogue and a focus on doing what is right, rather than what is politically expedient. In doing so, we must recognize that we have so much more in common than we are different.”

Often lost in political campaigns are the human lives beyond candidacies. In his initial legislative newsletter, Vial described his “uniquely large family” that includes six biological children and “dozens” of children they parented. Seven Vietnamese refugees became permanent parts of the Vial household. He has more than 42 grandchildren.

Neron has an interesting back story, too, that includes living in France, Mexico and Germany before settling into a home with her husband and two children in Wilsonville. She attended the University of Oregon, where she met her husband, and earned a graduate degree from Pacific University.  Neron has taught in Yamhill-Carlton, Tualatin and Tigard. She resigned her teaching position to run for the legislature.

One of Neron’s top issues as an Oregon lawmaker will be working for smaller class sizes, which she says are critical to greater student success in classrooms. Her other priorities are “safer communities, logical transportation solutions and necessary environmental protections.”

 

Committee Identifies Long List to Improve Public Education

The 2019 Oregon legislature will have a long list of ideas to improve public education and increase high school graduation rates. Ideas range from a longer school year, adding back programs for gifted and special needs students and addressing the mental health needs of young people. And, of course, there is PERS to contend with, not to mention how to fund all those ideas.

The 2019 Oregon legislature will have a long list of ideas to improve public education and increase high school graduation rates. Ideas range from a longer school year, adding back programs for gifted and special needs students and addressing the mental health needs of young people. And, of course, there is PERS to contend with, not to mention how to fund all those ideas.

Improving K-12 education will once more top the agenda of the new Oregon legislature as Governor Brown and legislative leaders sort through a menu of ideas generated by the Joint Interim Committee on Student Success.

The committee trekked 2,700 miles, went to 10 communities and visited 50 schools before huddling last week in Salem to share ideas and settle on priorities. There were lots of ideas, some touted as game-changers. Many of them aren’t new ideas.

Shoring up public schools became a major issue in the gubernatorial election, with unsuccessful GOP challenger Knute Buehler pledging to scrape Oregon from the bottom five nationally in high school graduation rates to the top five in five years. Brown was more measured, pointing to the committee’s work as the basis for recommendations to the 2019 legislative session.

Brown did urge extending the K-12 school year, which was a popular idea among the welter of suggestions emerging from the committee, which sorted its exploration into three categories: school readiness, college preparation and high-quality classrooms.

Even the idea of extending the school year has options. Senator Mark Hass, D-Beaverton and chair of the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee, suggested reimbursing K-12 schools based on the days they actually operate rather than on a calendar extension. “It’s $50 million a day, but it’s $1 billion if we add 20 days to the school calendar,” Hass said.

Public education was a major debating point in the gubernatorial election, with  sharp differences  between Governor Brown and GOP challenge Knute Buehler. With Brown’s victory, the views that count the most heading into the 2019 session may be from her August 2018  education policy statement .

Public education was a major debating point in the gubernatorial election, with sharp differences between Governor Brown and GOP challenge Knute Buehler. With Brown’s victory, the views that count the most heading into the 2019 session may be from her August 2018 education policy statement.

Another popular idea is investing in career technical education so it is more widely available in high schools throughout Oregon. Voters approved Measure 98 in the 2016 election, but the legislature approved $170 million, not the full $300 million requested in the ballot measure. Expanded career and technical education is viewed as a way to prevent some students from dropping out.

One of the most impassioned parts of the committee session involved mental health. Rep. Sherrie Sprenger, R-Scio, was a school board member before her election to the House. “We’re hearing the same things I’ve heard for years. Mental health needs came up in every forum, every roundtable, every single time, every single school,” she told fellow committee members.

Concern also was expressed for students who show up in the classroom despite sketchy housing situations. Committee chair Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, acknowledged social problems bedeviling students and schools, but said efforts should be made to forge strong connections with existing social service and housing providers.

Senator Tim Knopp, R-Bend, offered other intriguing ideas, such as subsidies to ensure a supply of diversified classroom teachers and adding back TAG (talented and gifted) and special needs specialists, arts, music and physical education programs and increasing the number of librarians and counselors. He also reminded the committee that Oregon’s quality education model calls for smaller class sizes, which he said would cost an additional $2 billion per biennium to achieve. The Oregon School Boards Association says the quality education model has been chronically underfunded since its inception two decades ago.

How to pay for these ideas inevitably turns to revenue sources, including new or higher taxes. Democrats will hold supermajorities in both the House and Senate that would allow them to approve revenue-raisers without any Republican votes. However, the point of the joint committee was to reach some bipartisan consensus on an education improvement agenda heading into the 2019 session.

Any discussion of tax increases returns to the Public Employees Retirement System’s unfunded pension liability that has driven up costs to public employers, including school districts. Some observers called the PERS issue the most defining issue of the 2018 gubernatorial election. If so, voters sided with Brown’s cautious approach to whittling down the unfunded liability, though there may be pressure to take more substantial steps. In a post-election editorial, The Oregonian urged Brown to use the “political freedom” of her final term in office to exercise “courageous leadership” on the PERS issue.

Smith Warner asked committee members to prioritize the ideas they support. She also asked them to consider what she called “categorical spending,” which would tie new funding to specific programs or possibly educational outcomes. Committee members will be pushed to pair spending ideas with enhanced funding options.

Legislative Democrats and Republicans will meet soon to organize for next year’s session and to take the first steps toward solidifying their respective agendas. Public education will certainly be on the top of the list for both caucuses, even if priorities and funding plans are still in process.

 

Brown, Democrats Ride Strong Wave of Voter Turnout

Oregon Governor Kate Brown overcame a trail of administrative miscues and an aggressive campaign by challenger Knute Buehler to win re-election to a full four-year term. High voter turnout also swept out three Republican House incumbents and gave Democrats supermajorities in both the House and Senate. [Photo Credit: Steve Dykes, AP]

Oregon Governor Kate Brown overcame a trail of administrative miscues and an aggressive campaign by challenger Knute Buehler to win re-election to a full four-year term. High voter turnout also swept out three Republican House incumbents and gave Democrats supermajorities in both the House and Senate. [Photo Credit: Steve Dykes, AP]

Governor Kate Brown turned back a spirited challenge from Republican Knute Buehler and Democrats earned super-majorities in both the Oregon House and Senate by unseating three sitting House GOP members.

Oregonians rejected ballot measures to end the state’s sanctuary status, ban public funding for abortions and block taxation on groceries. Voters approved a measure to allow local governments to use public money with private developers to build affordable housing. In Washington, voters defeated a carbon tax proposal.

In key local races, Kathryn Harrington won as Washington County Chair and Jo Ann Hardesty glided to victory on the Portland City Commission, becoming the first African-American woman to sit on the commission. Oregon City Mayor Dan Holladay won re-election. A majority of local ballot measures passed. A full list of election results can be found here

The Brown-Buehler contest set campaign spending records in Oregon and may be the spark for campaign finance reform in the 2019 legislative session. Despite running an effective campaign, Buehler’s loss further dented the notion that a moderate Republican could defeat a Democrat in a race for governor in Oregon.

There may not have been a blue wave throughout the nation, but strong turnout by Democratic voters contributed to the defeats of incumbent GOP Reps. Julie Parrish (West Linn), Rich Vial (Sherwood) and Jeff Helfrich (Hood River). House Democrats increased their margin of control to 38-22, up from their 35-25 margin in the previous session. It takes 36 votes to reach a House supermajority required to pass revenue-raising measures.

Democrats managed to flip one seat in the Senate where Jeff Golden prevailed in a seat held last session by GOP Senator Alan DeBoer who didn’t seek re-election. That one seat was enough to give Democrats a Senate supermajority of 18-12.

No changes are anticipated in Democratic leadership. Senate President Peter Courtney easily won re-election to a sixth term and has led the Senate since the 2003 session. Speaker Tina Kotek was elected to the Oregon House in 2006 and became Speaker in the 2013 legislative session.

Brown’s seemingly comfortable 5-point lead over Buehler didn’t necessarily reflect the bruising intensity of the gubernatorial campaign and the closeness of the contest, which drew national attention because the race was unexpectedly tight. The race also attracted gobs of out-of-state money as Brown and Buehler combined to spend a record $30 million.

In her post-election comments, Brown said her priorities in the next legislative session will be campaign finance reform, affordable housing and boosting Oregon’s low high school graduation rate, something Buehler poked at during the campaign. During her campaign, Brown announced a plan to incorporate federal clean air and clean water protections into Oregon law.

Other issues that will demand attention in the upcoming session include how to keep paying for Oregon’s Medicaid program, bolstering community mental health resources and improving child welfare programs.

There will be continuing pressure to address the unfunded liability of the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System and realign the state’s corporate tax system. It is unlikely remnants of the culture wars – immigration, abortion, transgender rights – will rear their heads in the legislature during the next two years.

A well-coordinated campaign apparatus consisting of labor, environment and progressive groups contributed to Brown’s re-election and the defeat of several ballot measures. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, expected to return as Speaker of the US House, credited a similar coordinated effort with the discipline and financing to regain control of the House and win governorships across the country, including in Trump country. 

Washington Initiative 1631, dubbed the Green New Deal, lost after large industrial corporations poured $31 million into a campaign to defeat it. If passed, I-1631 would have imposed a new carbon fee to fund conservation projects, renewable energy farms and struggling communities. The measure was endorsed by Governor Jay Inslee who called it “well-balanced, thoughtful policy.”

 

 

PERS: The Defining ‘Hot-Button’ Issue in the Governor’s Race

There have been grand bargains, court judgments, work groups, dire warnings, threats and inflated claims. Now there is a gubernatorial race that might turn on frustration over how to reform the Public Employees Retirement System. [Illustration Credit: Joan McGuire/Oregon Business]

There have been grand bargains, court judgments, work groups, dire warnings, threats and inflated claims. Now there is a gubernatorial race that might turn on frustration over how to reform the Public Employees Retirement System. [Illustration Credit: Joan McGuire/Oregon Business]

Ted Sickinger of The Oregonian has written a series of revealing articles about the Public Employees Retirement System (PERS), which his latest story calls the “defining issue” of the 2018 Oregon gubernatorial race.

Ted Sickinger is a long-time member of The Oregonian’s investigative team who has written extensively about the Oregon Public Employees Retirement Fund, from its arcane actuarial realities to the political firestorms it has ignited.  https://muckrack.com/ted-sickinger/articles .

Ted Sickinger is a long-time member of The Oregonian’s investigative team who has written extensively about the Oregon Public Employees Retirement Fund, from its arcane actuarial realities to the political firestorms it has ignited. https://muckrack.com/ted-sickinger/articles.

“Perhaps few issues more starkly delineate the views of Kate Brown and Knute Buehler in this fall’s gubernatorial election than Oregon’s public pension system,” Sickinger wrote. 

“Though PERS has been a hot-button issue in the state for decades, the political pressure may never have been higher,” he continued. “Schools, municipalities and government agencies are panicking as their required PERS contributions spiral to historic highs to help dig the system out of its $22 billion unfunded liability. There is no rescue in sight, and contribution rates are slated to jump again in July, pulling another $550 million a year out of public budgets statewide.”

Republican challenger Buehler has used the issue as a political club to criticize Governor Brown’s leadership. Brown has searched for ways to buy down the unfunded PERS liability and insists she won’t punish hardworking public employees. 

As Sickinger describes it, Buehler has promoted a set of PERS reforms closely paralleling those backed by Oregon’s business community. Brown dismisses Buehler’s “threats and bluster” and says she will concentrate on “actual solutions that solve the problem.” 

In reality, the window of possible changes isn’t very wide. “There is a limited menu of changes to the pension system considered economically meaningful and legally viable in light of past decisions by the Oregonian Supreme Court,” Sickinger says. “None would erase the pension deficit, though it is possible to make cost reductions that would help [public] employers.”

Sickinger walks through ideas on the table – public employee cost-sharing, which Oregon public employees already do, a $100,000 salary cap to limit large pension payouts and a transition to a 401(k) plan. 

Sickinger’s article touches on incentives and investments, including Brown-backed legislation to entice public employers to make an extra contribution to PERS and have the contributions matched by 25 cents on the dollar. Buehler calls the idea “political theater” with minimal impact on the unfunded liability.

Brown touts professional changes in the state treasurer’s office to achieve a higher rate of return. Buehler dismisses this, claiming the Oregon PERS portfolio has been one of the best performing funds in the nation.

Regardless of your politics or gubernatorial preference, Sickinger’s reporting on a major state issue is informative and cast illumination on claims, counter-claims and outright inaccuracies. 

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For starters, there were 145,963 Oregon PERS retirees through December 2017 – 127,687 of whom are considered Tier 1, the group with the most court-tested retirement benefits. Another 67,840 Oregon public employees are eligible to retire – 22,300 of whom are in Tier 1.

For the rest of the story, read Sickinger’s story, including a YouTube video on how Oregon got $22 billion in the hole.

 

How Oregon Might Look with a GOP Governor

Polls show the Oregon gubernatorial race is close enough heading into the November 6 election to wonder what a Republican governor in reliably blue-state Oregon would look like. (Photo Credit: E.J. Harris/East Oregonian)

Polls show the Oregon gubernatorial race is close enough heading into the November 6 election to wonder what a Republican governor in reliably blue-state Oregon would look like. (Photo Credit: E.J. Harris/East Oregonian)

Polls show the Oregon gubernatorial race is tighter than expected, at least by Democrats, and suggests it’s possible a Republican could capture the governor’s chair for the first time since 1978.

Buehler’s challenge to incumbent Governor Kate Brown is serious enough to ask what Oregon politics would look like if the state had a Republican governor while Democrats retained control of the Oregon House and Senate. Here are some thoughts:

Oregon Land Board

The three-member board that oversees state lands, from forests to submersible lands, would have two votes sympathetic to commercial interests – Governor Buehler and GOP Secretary of State Dennis Richardson. Some of Buehler’s biggest campaign contributors have come from leaders in the forest products industry, which could tip decisions in a different direction, such as the previously proposed sale of the Elliott State Forest.

Raising taxes and PERS

On the campaign trail, Buehler says he will block any tax increases until the legislature enacts cost-saving reforms to the Public Employees Retirement System. This has been a stand-off waiting to happen. Business interests – and more quietly school boards – would welcome this kind of pressure to force a compromise that reduces the unfunded PERS liability. A task force named by Brown spent months searching for ways to cut into the deficit and came away with a scant list of possibilities. Buehler may not fare any better, but he might bring fresh energy to the challenge.

State agency management

A Buehler victory would mean wholesale changes at the top of state agencies. Buehler has called out management lapses under Brown and he wouldn’t miss the chance to replace Brown appointees, especially since many Republicans may line up at his door seeking those jobs. 

Health care and human services

Under Democrats, Oregon carved out a niche in health care and long-term care delivery. These innovations have long enough roots that can’t be ripped out, but Buehler, who is a doctor, would covet the chance to put his own mark on Oregon’s health care system. He would likely face strong legislative opposition to Trump-like limitations on Medicaid and he might choose instead to focus on shoring up or even reinventing the state’s embattled child welfare system.

Homelessness

A politically opportune opening for Buehler would be combating the homelessness issue by significantly increasing community-based mental health resources, promoting innovative approaches to substance abuse and expanding options for victims of domestic abuse. In campaign ads, he has promised some “tough love,” which presumably means a coordinated effort to end camping in parks and on streets by providing more temporary shelters and affordable housing connected with services. Homelessness has emerged as a raw-nerve issue that has some urban Democrats weighing a vote against the incumbent they have supported in the past.

Redistricting

The quiet issue in the corner of this election is congressional and legislative redistricting, which will occur after the 2020 Census. GOP control of the governorship and secretary of state could give Republicans a bigger grip on how maps are redrawn. That could be especially significant if Oregon earns a sixth congressional district, which would be carved out of existing districts held by Democrats and potentially make one or more seats competitive in the 2022 election. Redistricting could also make a few House and Senate districts more competitive, making Democratic legislative control less a fait accompli. 

Legislative process
A Republican governor and Democratic legislative leaders could be like mixing oil and water. However, there has been a history in Oregon of bipartisan collaboration between moderate Republicans and Democrats. That is more likely if Buehler sticks to his moderate positioning and isn’t tempted to channel Trump policies on deregulation and tax policy. In fact, a Republican governor could be the galvanizing factor that breaks some logjams on policy issues in Salem by requiring bipartisan compromises.

Political Style
Brown has admitted she has a reserved, personable style that may not resonate with everyone, especially in the shadow of more flamboyant politicians, even though it has produced significant successes such as a higher minimum wage, major transportation funding package and a clean air initiative.

Buehler’s political persona isn’t over the top, but he has campaigned as a problem-solver willing to butt heads in Salem to get things done. His projection of himself as an action figure contrasts with the quieter approach of Brown and might be a better match for the political moment of this election, even if it results in inevitable public confrontations with Democratic legislative leaders in 2019.

 

Non-Unanimous Jury Convictions and Echoes of Jim Crow

Oregon is only one of two states that allow felony convictions with non-unanimous jury verdicts. Louisiana voters will decide this fall whether to scrap its provision, which detractors call the ‘last vestige of Jim Crow’ laws. Oregon’s constitutional amendment may share some of the same heritage.

Oregon is only one of two states that allow felony convictions with non-unanimous jury verdicts. Louisiana voters will decide this fall whether to scrap its provision, which detractors call the ‘last vestige of Jim Crow’ laws. Oregon’s constitutional amendment may share some of the same heritage.

Is Oregon’s law allowing a conviction without a unanimous jury verdict a vestige of the Jim Crow era in America? A report carried by Oregon Public Broadcasting suggests it may be.

Oregon is one of only two states that allow a felony conviction, except for first-degree murder, without a unanimous jury verdict. The other state is Louisiana, which is set to vote this fall on a ballot measure to scrap non-unanimous jury verdicts. Louisiana proponents of the ballot measure call it the state’s “last remaining Jim Crow law.”

OPB’s Conrad Wilson quotes Thomas Aiello, a professor of history and African-American studies at Valdosta State University: “Louisiana lawmakers adopted its system after the Civil War as part of a series of laws that enshrined white supremacy in the state…. Louisiana did so by making it easier to convict African-American defendants. Those convicts were then leased by the state to do the work that had been done by slaves.”

Oregon amended its constitution in 1934 to allow non-unanimous jury convictions. According to the Oregon Encyclopedia, the ballot measure was approved by voters following a 1933 trial involving a Portland hotel proprietor charged with murdering a Scappoose man. Eleven jurors favored conviction, but one didn’t. The jury compromised and convicted the hotel operator of manslaughter, which evidently enraged Oregonians enough to approve the non-unanimous jury provision in the Oregon Constitution with 58 percent majority.

The Oregonian editorialized, “The increased urbanization of American life and the vast immigration into America from southern and eastern Europe of people untrained in the jury system have combined to make the jury of twelve increasingly unwieldy and unsatisfactory.”

Passage of the non-unanimous jury ballot measure in Oregon followed a decade in the 1920s when the Ku Klux Klan flourished here, reaching 35,000 members and 60 local chapters in 1923, according to the Oregon Encyclopedia. In 1922, Klansmen were elected across the state in local, county and legislative offices. The Klan provided crucial support to elect LaGrande Democrat Walter M. Pierce as governor. While Oregon Klan members targeted their venom at Catholics, they also pursued legislation to ban land ownership by “aliens.”

Klan membership faded in the 1930s, but many of its members redirected their energies through a variety of local organizations. No one can say for sure whether the Klan or its sympathizers had any significant direct role in pushing the 1934 ballot measure. Nevertheless, the timing is suspect. 

Aliza Kaplan, director of the criminal justice reform clinic at the Lewis & Cark Law School, says flatly, “Both laws were based on discrimination and are relics of those times.”

The main impetus now to revisit non-unanimous jury convictions comes from the Oregon Innocence Project, which points out that it can lead to convicting innocent people. Wilson’s report cites the case of Brad Holbrook who was indicted by a grand jury for sexual abuse of a child and convicted by a non-unanimous jury. Holbrook was exonerated earlier this year after serving six years in prison.

Steve Wax, legal director of the Oregon Innocence project,” is quoted by Wilson as saying, “[Holbrook] would have died in prison without 12 jurors having said you did it. That’s wrong.”

District attorneys have expressed support for non-unanimous jury verdicts, claiming they help to avoid hung juries, court congestion and taxpayer expense. Wilson quotes Tim Colahan, executive director of the Oregon District Attorneys Association, “it clearly saves scarce resources in our criminal justice system.”

While the US Constitution guarantees everyone a jury trial, the US Supreme Court has stopped short of saying a conviction requires a unanimous jury in state criminal trials. A new challenge to that view may be rising through the Oregon Court of Appeals that highlights the challenge of minorities in a state such as Oregon to have a “jury of peers” and thus fall short of the US Constitution’s equal protection clause. Wilson says some Oregon lawmakers don’t want to wait years for a court ruling and prefer to address the issue directly.

Oregon’s Vicarious Congressional Race in Southwest Washington

Democrat Carolyn Long is mounting what many consider a more serious challenge than expected to GOP incumbent Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler in Southwest Washington’s 3rd Congressional District. The House seat is on the watch list of ones that could flip in the midterm election if the so-called “Blue Wave” materializes.

Democrat Carolyn Long is mounting what many consider a more serious challenge than expected to GOP incumbent Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler in Southwest Washington’s 3rd Congressional District. The House seat is on the watch list of ones that could flip in the midterm election if the so-called “Blue Wave” materializes.

Oregon’s five congressional races are a snore, but there is a competitive contest in Southwest Washington that Oregonians can enjoy vicariously via Portland TV.

Incumbent GOP Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler faces a stiffer-than-expected challenge from Democrat Carolyn Long. The best evidence Washington’s 3rd Congressional District is in play are the negative TV ads both candidates are running.

Herrera Beutler’s ad claims Long supports a Medicare for All health care proposal, which she says would bankrupt the nation. Long has countered with an ad that calls Herrera Beutler a career politician who has sold out to special interests and voted multiple times to scuttle the Affordable Care Act without offering an alternative.

The spirited race attracted a standing-room-only crowd for a debate in Woodland September 18. They jointly appeared before The Columbian’s editorial board in August for what turned out to be a two-hour debate that touched on health care, tax reform, border security, President Trump and impeachment. Another debate is scheduled October 17 in Goldendale.

Political pundits believe Democrats have a serious chance to flip control in the House in the 2018 midterm election. They identify around 80 congressional seats, mostly held now by Republicans, that could flip. Washington’s 8th Congressional District, which stretches east from Seattle’s suburbs to Ellensburg, is held by GOP Congressman Dave Reichert, has been in Republican hands since 1983 and is on the list. Washington’s 3rd Congressional District, which has been won by both Republicans and Democrats, is on the list, but viewed as likely to stay in GOP control.

Competitive congressional races have been fueled in significant part by women, either as candidates or as mobilizers around issues such as the #MeToo movement. The Herrera Beutler-Long race is one of 33 congressional races nationwide that features a woman running against another woman.

As election day nears, the performance and behavior of Trump is becoming a larger issue, especially in districts where international trade is a critical part of a local economy, as it is in Southwest Washington. Another motivating issue is the fear continued GOP control in the House will lead to cuts in Medicare, Medicaid and Social Security to reduce a growing federal budget deficit.

Herrera Beutler has not been an outspoken defender of Trump, but generally has supported his agenda and that of the House GOP leadership. Long has followed a typical Democratic campaign script, condemning the GOP-backed tax cut, warning about Medicare budget cuts and expressing support for impeaching Trump.

The candidates’ base of support tracks with the red-blue political divide. Primary results showed Herrera Beutler leading in more rural parts of Southwest Washington and Long leading in Clark County, which includes Vancouver.

Herrera Beutler grew up in Southwest Washington, played varsity basketball at Prairie High School, graduate from the University of Washington and lives in Battle Ground. After serving in the Washington legislature, she was elected to Congress in 2010 at the age of 31 and is the first Hispanic to represent Washington in Congress. She and her husband started their family – they have a daughter and son – while she served in Congress, leading her to champion maternity care issues.

Long grew up in Oregon, attended the University of Oregon and paid for college by working for Safeway, eventually becoming a produce department manager and a journeyman with UFCW Local 555. After earning her graduate degree from Rutgers, Long joined the faculty of Washington State University’s campus in Vancouver in 1995 and has worked there since then. She is married and has a 12-yer-old daughter. Her campaign website features her “award-winning jam recipes.”