What Matters Most to You in 2016?

As we head into a new year, CFM wants to know what policy priorities are most important to Oregonians for 2016. Lawmakers will convene a new legislative session in February, but they will only have 35 days to get their work done .

As we head into a new year, CFM wants to know what policy priorities are most important to Oregonians for 2016. Lawmakers will convene a new legislative session in February, but they will only have 35 days to get their work done.

From tackling Portland’s housing crisis to negotiating a plan for an unprecedented minimum wage hike, Oregon lawmakers have their work cut out for them in 2016.  

Education, health care, transportation, human services, consumer protection, environmental preservation, criminal justice, taxation: Those are just some of the priority areas calling for swift action and firm leadership in Salem as we look ahead to the next year. 

The Oregon legislature convenes February 1 for a brisk 35-day session. Soon after, statewide elected positions will be contested in the May primary and November general elections.

In the meantime, CFM wants to know what issues matter most to you. Is it finding more revenue for education and social services? Improving transportation infrastructure? Or maybe it’s something else entirely.

As we ponder the political battles ahead, CFM invites you to share what you believe demands the most attention from Oregon's elected leaders. Here’s what we’re looking for:

•  What are the top two policy priorities facing Oregon? 

•  For each of your two priorities, provide a short explanation of what you think should be done and how it should get done. Is legislation needed? Better enforcement? Bully pulpit leadership? Bipartisan support? Be as specific as you can.

•  In addition to your top two policy priorities, tell us what you expect in terms of leadership from Oregon's governor and from House and Senate leaders. What would you regard as real leadership? How can leadership be manifested so it produces positive results? What would you see as a lack of leadership?

Send us your submissions through Friday, January 8, and we’ll share them shortly after on our Oregon Insider blog.

This isn't a contest or a survey. Our intention is to reflect the range of thoughts and concerns that everyone shares with us. We will point out areas where a number of people's priorities overlap, but we also will include priorities that may generate only a single recommendation.

Please send your submissions to Justin Runquist, CFM’s communications counsel, at justinr@cfmpdx.com.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts.

Budget Battle Nears Final Showdown

Oregon lawmakers won't make their June 28 adjournment date as they continue to spar over a plan to balance the budget. But last week the sparring match took clearer shape when two rival revenue packages were unveiled by Democrats and Republicans.

The Democratic plan would raise $256 million more in revenue during the 2013-15 biennium, while the Republican plan would raise $352 million over the next two years, but also includes a $150 million tax cut for small businesses in the current biennium, which ends June 30.

A revenue-raising package is a precondition for majority Democrats to consider deeper cuts in public employee retirement benefits. However, some Democrats appear content to balance the budget with existing revenues and already approved PERS cuts and go home.

That's what might have happened except for Senator Chris Edwards, D-Eugene, who joined 14 Senate Republicans in voting down a $6.5 billion K-12 school budget. Edwards and Republicans may not have agreed on the reason for their vote, but the effect was the same — it forced leaders in both the House and Senate to consider alternatives to a balanced budget and more K-12 school funding.

Add to this political brew the support of business groups for tax hikes that affect their members. A willingness to go along with some relatively mild tax increases may result from looming ballot measures next year pushed by organized labor to impose even higher tax rates on corporations and high-wealth individuals. Legislatively approved tax increases now may take the wind out of the ballot measure sails next year.

Finding Budget Happiness

When Governor Kitzhaber returns from his Bhutan sojourn to find the secrets to happiness, he will discover unhappiness engulfs his homeland.

A Democratic plan to raise taxes on wealthy Oregonians and corporations evaporated on the House floor for that pesky constitutional problem of too few votes. Two days later, labor-backed Our Oregon responded by filing six proposed ballot measures to hike corporate taxes from as little as $185 million to as much as $1 billion per year. All that has business groups howling about a reprise of the divisive Measure 66 and 67 tax battles.

The purpose behind raising revenue is to prevent more K-12 school cuts. Nervous about the legislature's ability to boost spending on schools, droves of parents in the beleaguered Beaverton School District took to knocking on doors to drum up votes for a special levy.

The governor stepped back to let rookie House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, have a go at the $275 million bill, which never even came to a vote. Now it may be time for Kitzhaber to invite legislative leaders to Mahonia Hall to find common ground.

Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, told reporters the failed House tax vote last week created an opportunity to find solutions in the political center. In his first two years of this term, Kitzhaber was adept at finding bipartisan support for major initiatives, in part because he spent time meeting with both Democrats and Republicans. That same skill set will be called on this session.

In reality, the 2013 Oregon legislative session has not been overly partisan. Going into the session, observers said it would be necessary for Democrats to recruit Republicans to support budget and revenue packages — as well as wise to sustain the bipartisan esprit that developed as a result of the unique power-sharing agreement in the 2011 and 2012 sessions.

A Grand Bargain on PERS, Public Safety

Oregon lawmakers settle in for real Monday and will quickly see, if they haven't already, that the 2013 session pivots on the outcome of two tough political decisions — modifying PERS and public safety reforms.

The legislature's only absolute duty is to approve a balanced budget and Governor Kitzhaber has teed up that task on the backs of saving a lot of money on PERS and new approaches to managing public safety. He also wants to slow the rate of growth of Medicaid and save $400 million in projected health care costs in the next biennium.

Squeezing money out of Medicaid rests on the ability of hospitals, doctors and health systems to, in Kitzhaber's words, "bend the cost curve" of the health care delivery system. But squeezing money out of PERS and Oregon’s public safety system falls squarely on the shoulders of legislators.

If there ever was a need for a grand bargain, this is it.

That's undoubtedly why legislative leaders have created a bipartisan, bicameral committee with equal numbers of Democrats and Republicans to address the public safety reforms — or, in legislative parlance, to provide both parties with political cover on what surely will be tough votes.

Leaders know there will be hell-no votes on both issues in both Democratic and Republican caucuses. Bipartisan majorities will be required if PERS and public safety changes are going to pass this session.

The Results of Election Results

As Monday morning quarterbacks dissect Tuesday's election results, political operatives are busy figuring out what can happen as a result.

By virtue of Democrats reclaiming the Oregon House with a projected 34-26 margin, one party now controls both houses of the legislature, the governorship and other statewide offices. Questions abound on whether that is good or bad for various issues.

For example, will Democratic control throttle any effort to stem rising Public Employee Retirement System changes, which are squeezing K-12 schools, state agencies and local government? Public-employee-union financial and grassroots support played a major role in giving Democrats a majority in the House and may frown on any major changes.

Or, will the advent of Rep. Tina Kotek, D-Portland, as Speaker of the House help the sagging fortunes of the Columbia River Crossing project, which she strongly supports? Clark County voters dealt the latest blow by rejecting a funding measure for the extension of light rail north of the Columbia River.

And, will the legislature feel empowered to tackle thorny issues such as liquor privatization, marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage to forestall proposed initiative drives in 2014? Washington action on all three subjects could serve as motivation, as well as pressure on Kotek, who is poised to become the first lesbian Speaker of the House in the nation.

Add to that stew the frothy ingredients already on the table, including a set of expiring health care taxes, K-12 reform proposals, early childhood learning recommendations, postsecondary institutional aspirations and prison sentencing options. Not to mention a simmering concern — and debate — about how to stimulate job creation, which ranks highest on most voter priorities.

It does seem obvious that tax reform, the subject of a work group named by Governor Kitzhaber, will be an unlikely topic in the 2013 session. There isn't enough agreement in the work group, let alone among voters, and there may not be enough time to tackle the topic in an already congested 6-month legislative session.

Tax Measures and Tax Reform

When Oregon voters receive their ballots this weekend, they will confront three very different tax measures, which could have an impact on the prospects of comprehensive tax reform in the state.

The ballot measures deal with prohibiting more real estate transfer fees, phasing out the estate tax and modifying the corporate income tax kicker. Proponents of comprehensive tax reform in Oregon worry the measures could remove issues from discussion that could sweeten a broader tax measure.

So far, none of the tax ballot measures has stirred much public debate, overshadowed by the higher profile and more costly fight over two measures to allow privately owned casinos in Oregon.

The three tax measures have received spotty editorial support. Measure 79, which would place a ban on future real estate transfer fees in the Oregon Constitution, has been called overkill since there already is a statutory ban in effect. Measure 84, which phases out the estate tax, has been questioned because there already is a $1 million estate exemption. Measure 85, which redirects corporate income tax kicker rebates to K-12 schools, has been criticized because it won't automatically mean more money for education.

Local government officials seem resigned that the constitutional ban on real estate transfer fees will pass, with financial backing by the National Association of Realtors. Washington County is the only Oregon municipality with a real estate transfer fee in place. While there weren't any nascent plans to challenge the statutory ban on such fees, some local officials have suggested the tool would be appropriate for capital projects such as restoring and modernizing county courthouses.

Backers of the estate tax repeal have branded their effort as ridding the state of a "death tax" that cripples family-owned small businesses. However, the Legislative Revenue Office estimates the repeal, when fully phased in, would result in an annual tax savings of $120 million, suggesting it would have a fairly limited impact.

Opponents of Measure 84 also have identified a potential flaw, which they say could create an unintended capital gains loophole.

The $1 Billion Elephant in the Room

Rep. Shawn Lindsay, R-Hillsboro, tweeted about it and coffee shop conversations clucked about it. Oregon public employers will have to cough up an additional $1 billion per biennium to keep up with financial demands of the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS). That will mean fewer teachers, firefighters and health care workers.

Ted Sickinger's account in The Oregonian reminded voters, public workers and policymakers that rising contributions to an underfunded PERS is the biggest single factor squeezing public budgets. According to Sickinger's report, PERS controlled $54.7 billion in assets in 2011, but that only covers 73 percent of its liabilities.

James Dalton, who chairs the PERS board, told Sickinger: "We have a $16 billion unfunded liability. The question isn't if you're going to pay. The question is when you're going to pay."

It isn't hard to see a connection between rising pension payments, along with spiraling health insurance premiums, as reasons for a declining public workforce. Data indicates nearly 250,000 public sector jobs were axed in 2011, with more cuts expected this year. Almost half of the public employment losses in 2011 were laid-off teachers.

There are 656,000 fewer public sector jobs than in pre-recession 2008. Economists say shrinking public payrolls create a drag on U.S. economic recovery by negating private-sector job gains.

The Oregon legislature has tried to curb public pension liabilities, but some of its legislative remedies have been struck down in court for effectively breaking the contract with public employees by changing terms of their retirement. Public employees say they gave up pay increases many times in return for longer-term pension benefits

That strategy, which was pursued in most states and at the federal level, now may be coming home to roost. Forest Grove School District Business Manager Mike Schofield estimated 30 percent of the district's budget goes to retirement benefits. Sickinger's story suggested the additional PERS burden amounts to $700 per household.

Assessing Wisconsin's Recall Vote

Assessing the impact of Wisconsin's foiled recall effort this week of GOP Governor Scott Walker can be tricky for a state such as Oregon. First off, we haven't had a Republican governor here since Vic Atiyeh a quarter century ago. But we have had, at both the state and local level, encouraging examples of collaboration between political parties and between political leaders and organized labor.

After reaching a 30-30 tie in the 2010 election, Republicans and Democrats in the Oregon House agreed to share power. Co-Speakers Bruce Hanna, R-Roseburg, and Arnie Roblan, D-Coos Bay, avoided most partisan flare-ups during the 2011 and 2012 sessions and instead made a round of statewide joint appearances to discuss key policy decisions. (Two former House speakers from different parties in Pennsylvania are serving time in the same state prison and may become bunkmates.)

Multnomah County Chair Jeff Cogen found a way to work with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, which agreed for the second time in three years to forego cost-of-living increases in return for leaving employee health benefits unchanged

Governor Kitzhaber counseled Oregon labor leaders to put aside potentially divisive ballot measures dealing with corporate taxation and higher taxes on the wealthy and focus instead on a measure to direct corporate kicker refunds to education. Kitzhaber said he would pursue another attempt to revamp Oregon's tax system, which is heavily reliant on personal income tax revenues, including capital gains.

These are stark contrasts to the bitterness that has gripped Wisconsin since Walker's election and his survival of a politically motivated recall drive.

Many pundits have drawn their own conclusions from the Wisconsin election. Republicans say it is a harbinger of GOP success in the November general election. Unions and Democrats blame their loss on being hugely outspent. Exit polls showed as many as 60 percent of voters in what was a relatively small turnout said they disagreed with using the power of recall for political reasons.

Why Oregon Judges Should Be Appointed

A cruise ship in the middle of the Aegean Sea may seem an odd place to launch the idea of appointing rather than electing Oregon judges.

But "A Modest Proposal for the Selection of Oregon Judges" was an onboard lecture topic of former Oregon Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul De Muniz, who is touring the Greek islands along with members of the Willamette College of Law faculty (and me). De Muniz will join the faculty after he retires from the bench the end of this year.

The independence of judicial systems and integrity of individual judges has made international headlines, most recently in Pakistan where that country's high court challenged Prime Minister Yusuf Raza Gilani for failing to pursue corruption cases against the president.

Many argue the rule of law and even democracy itself aren't possible without an independent judiciary. Yet judicial systems are inherently vulnerable.

"Politicians and scholars worldwide have long been impressed with the fragility of judicial power," De Muniz says. "When it comes to securing compliance with their decisions, courts are said to have neither the power of the 'purse' — the ability to raise and expropriate money to encourage compliance — nor the power of the 'sword.'"  

In the absence of these tools, De Muniz adds, "courts really have only a single form of political capital: Legitimacy."

The legitimacy of courts can be undermined by politicization of the process of selecting judges. A recent example is a judicial race for the Wisconsin Supreme Court that occurred at the same time Scott Walker was running for governor on a platform of limiting the ability of public employees to organize.

Wisconsin judicial candidates accepted only public funding for their campaigns, so didn't receive contributions from groups or individuals, but that didn't prevent the Club for Growth from spending $300,000 to support the conservative incumbent judge and union activists raising another $300,000 for his more liberal challenger. The campaign was ugly. One ad skewered the incumbent for his failure as a district attorney earlier in his career to prosecute an alleged pedophile priest.

"Reforms must occur," De Muniz says, "because the current election process makes judges indistinguishable from the rest of the American political process" as they attract large campaign contributions, independent expenditures by interest groups and scads of advertising. He noted some judicial candidates have edged close to the free speech restriction included in judicial conduct rules by hinting how they might rule in certain cases.

Two Legislative Incumbents Face Stiff Challenges

It is unusual but not unheard of that two sitting legislators — a House Democrat and a Senate Republican — are facing stiff primary challenges. Even more unusual, both could lose in the May election.

Rep. Mike Schaufler, D-Happy Valley, a member of the building trades, often parts company with his more liberal Democratic colleagues, as well as public employee labor organizations, such as SEIU and AFSCME.

Plus, last summer at a labor convention, he got into trouble when a female lobbyist claimed he groped her breast. Schaufler called it "innocent horseplay."  House Democrats took the incident seriously and stripped Schaufler of the chairmanship of House Business and Labor Committee.

Now many of Schaufler's Democratic colleagues are backing his primary opponent, Portland teacher Jeff Reardon, who has never run for political office before. 

Here's the way Oregonian political reporter Jeff Mapes described the high-stakes and money-laden Schaufler-Reardon race:

         The newly detailed disclosure reports show that — if money is indeed the mother's milk of politics — two incumbent legislators face tough reelection races. In a House district including parts of Southeast Portland and Clackamas County, six Democratic legislators took the rare step of writing campaign checks aimed at taking out one of their own colleagues, Rep. Mike Schaufler, D-Happy Valley. The six lawmakers wrote checks totaling more than $10,000 for high school teacher Jeff Reardon's race against Schaufler, who has departed from Democratic orthodoxy on some issues and also lost a committee co-chairmanship following a flap about his behavior at a labor convention. 'There's always a risk when you do something like this,' said Portland Senator Ginny Burdick, who gave $1,500 to Reardon. Portland Senator Chip Shields gave Reardon $5,000. Schaufler, who has released his own list of legislators endorsing him, continues to have strong support from several business and labor groups and maintains a fundraising lead over Reardon.

The other incumbent under fire is Senator Chris Telfer, R-Bend. She was surprised to learn just before the candidate-filing deadline that former representative Tim Knopp, now executive director of the Central Oregon Homebuilders Association, decided to run against her.

News from "Bonny" Scotland

I came to Scotland to get away from my concerns for a time, but reading the newspaper — and newspapers over here seem more popular than in the U.S. — tends to limit relaxation.  The headlines in Scotland could easily be on the newspaper stand in Oregon, too. Perhaps it is possible to take some solace in knowing that every country has problems.

Judging by the following, not everything is bonny here.

CFM Partner Dave Fiskum was reading familiar newspaper headlines in Scotland when he could have been golfing at St. Andrews.

"Britain facing worst wave of strikes for a generation": That was the headline in The Herald on Wednesday, September 14, followed by this summary:

"Union leaders warned last night Britain is facing the biggest wave of industrial action for a generation that could involve thousands of Scottish public service workers.  Schools, hospitals and other services will be hit by the dispute this winter, with an announcement on coordinated strike action expected to be made today."

Union Settlements: Pro or Con for Kitzhaber?

As rank and file members of state employee unions consider proposed contract settlements, the jury is out on whether the process reflects political credit or debit for Governor John Kitzhaber.

A state employee and SEIU member rallies on the Capitol steps.The public employee collective bargaining process was one of the early tests of the strength of the governor's administration near the start of his third term in office. He campaigned, at least in part, on his ability to deal with public employee unions during collective bargaining negotiations. But critics of public employee collective bargaining contend that, when a Democrat governor's representatives sit across the table from union negotiators, it is like two friends deciding how to spend someone else's money.
It is not clear whether the rank-and-file will support the tentative agreements reached by their negotiators. According to The Oregonian and the Statesman-Journal, some members don't like the agreement and are urging other workers to reject it.  Beyond normal reporting, how do the newspapers know?