2013 legislative session

How to Rate a Legislature

It's human nature to rate things, including legislative sessions. But what should you rate and why is it important?The end of every legislative session brings on the desire to "rate" a legislature.  From media outlets to advocacy organizations, the end of session report card or evaluation tool for a legislature is largely based on the ability of a legislature to deliver on the priorities of the organization producing the report card than on the actual performance of the legislature.

Perhaps, it would be better to characterize the end-of-session rating as a reflection on the ability of the media or organization to influence the outcome of a session instead of a reflection on the legislature itself.  This, however, is much less satisfying to the clients who receive reports of work from exhausted lobbyists or editorial boards who would prefer to opine judge legislators on their ability to produce results without the responsibility to actually advocate for them.

Thus, measuring or grading legislative performance is a truly difficult task. As a starting tool, one should look to what the Oregon Constitution requires of legislatures. They must meet annually and approve a balanced budget. Very little else is required of the legislature in the Constitution. In fact, much of Article IV that governs the legislature is about what the legislature cannot do instead of what they should do. Our founding fathers (and mothers) knew that legislatures would find a way to legislate as much as they could, so better not to direct them, just limit them.

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.

Huge Issues Loom in 2013 Session

The short 2012 session just ended and there are nine months until the 2013 legislature convenes, but it is still timely to look ahead at the issues that need resolution or are just ripening for action.

At the top of the list is how Governor Kitzhaber's health care transformation strategy will work and whether newly forming coordinated care organizations can squeeze out cost savings in serving Oregon's Medicaid population. The health insurance exchange will get up and running, just as the federal health care reform measure lands in the U.S. Supreme Court, which could toss some or all of the controversial reform legislation.

Despite a slow economic recovery, many parts of Oregon still feel the after-effects of recession and could benefit from state efforts to boost employment. Strong differences exist between Republicans and Democrats on how to stimulate job growth, especially in rural Oregon.

As a result of education reform measures pushed by Kitzhaber, K-12 school districts are signing achievement compacts to promote improved student learning. A question remains whether this reform will under-perform or have unintended consequences as have previous reforms such as No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top.

Lawmakers in February approved a measure that deals with home foreclosures. However, consumer advocates felt it didn't go far enough, while bank and title company officials said it might not work as expected.

Kitzhaber, who will be entering the last two years of his third term, has vowed to give tax reform another shot. This has proven to be as elusive as the pot of gold under the rainbow. While a majority of Oregonians feel the state's current tax system isn't sustainable, there is no clear consensus on how to refine or replace it. A state sales tax is certain to make another stage appearance, with a few clapping and others throwing big red tomatoes. 

Local governments are pressing for expanded access to property tax revenues. They are looking for authority to exceed property tax rate limitations for voter-approved levies. The temporary state hospital tax expires and hospital interests may be less willing to go along with an extension after proceeds were diverted from their original purpose.