Betsy Johnson

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.

 

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.

 

A Happy Tale of Two Cities

It may seem strange to write about disparate developments in two Oregon communities in the same blog post, but what happened illustrates the solidarity of Oregon citizens when they face challenges.

In one case, hundreds of citizens, accompanied by a host of public officials, turned out in Vernonia this week to dedicate a new school building that replaces a former school ravaged by the disastrous floods of 2007 — which left many people homeless and resulted in a state and federal disaster declaration.  

The new school is a beautiful facility on higher ground that will help 600 Vernonia students from kindergarten through high school learn in a modern, quality environment. But it also is a tribute to the resilience of citizens who after the flood raised almost $50 million to finance, design and construct the new school. The last piece of the funding puzzle came in the waning hours of the 2011 legislature when Joint Ways and Means Committee leaders finally made good a session-long pledge to provide the last $3.9 million in bonding authority.

Citizens who ate the first meal in the cafeteria of a school that should last well into the 22nd century cheered as Reps. Brad Witt, D-Clatskanie, and Debbie Boone, D-Cannon Beach, and Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, complimented them for pulling up their own bootstraps in the aftermath of the worst flood in the history in this small Columbia County community.

The phrase "pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps" reminded me of a time many years ago when, as deputy director of the Oregon Economic Development Department, I spoke to a graduate school class in Clermont-Ferrand, France. Leaders there wanted to hear about how Oregon had diversified its economy after the decline in its forest industry. They reasoned Oregon's experience could help them identify a strategy to diversify beyond making Michelin tires.

My French translator that evening had difficulty communicating the meaning of "pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps." He ended up gesturing as he grabbed the seat of his pants and stood up.

That's what went through my head as I watched citizens in the small town of Vernonia celebrate their own success in lifting themselves up by the seat of their pants.

When Your Word Is Your Bond

In church yesterday, there was an interesting illustration in the lead pastor's sermon.  

To illustrate the importance of "your word is your bond," the pastor described the situation in 1988 when then presidential candidate George H. W. Bush beat the Democrat, Michael Dukakis, at least in part, because he uttered the words, "Read my lips... no new taxes." Then four years later, those words came back to haunt President Bush when his challenger, Bill Clinton, pointed out that he hadn't lived up to his promise.

The pastor drew spiritual lessons revolving around honesty, integrity and trust, but after hearing the sermon, my thoughts went to the application of the "your word is your bond" ethic at the Capitol in Salem where I have spent the last 30 years lobbying legislators.

On the basis of that experience, I would say that living up to the phrase was what set apart legislators and lobbyists alike. If their word was their bond, you could trust them. If not, trust broke down and it was more difficult to find middle ground on tough public policy issues.  

I have known a number of legislators over the years who have practiced that level of integrity in Salem, perhaps more in the past than currently. Here are just four examples of legislators you can count on today.