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.