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.