Mark Hass

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.

 

 

Hass: Boost Student Success and Curb Tax Volatility

Oregon’s economic forecast continues to look rosy, but also a little “bizarre,” according to State Senator Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, because the strong economy contrasts with struggling schools and Oregon’s unique personal income tax kicker law.

Oregon’s economic forecast continues to look rosy, but also a little “bizarre,” according to State Senator Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, because the strong economy contrasts with struggling schools and Oregon’s unique personal income tax kicker law.

Legislative newsletters and press releases can be informational, but not always newsy. The one dispatched today by Senator Mark Hass combines informational and newsy.

Senator Mark Hass, whom the Portland Business Journal referred to as Oregon’s Mr. Fix-It, hopes the work of the Joint Committee on Student Success, a rosy economic forecast and the prospect of returning a half billion dollars to state taxpayers could prompt action on Oregon’s volatile tax system.

Senator Mark Hass, whom the Portland Business Journal referred to as Oregon’s Mr. Fix-It, hopes the work of the Joint Committee on Student Success, a rosy economic forecast and the prospect of returning a half billion dollars to state taxpayers could prompt action on Oregon’s volatile tax system.

The occasion for the communication from Hass, a Beaverton Democrat who chairs the Senate Finance and Revenue Committee, was the release of the latest quarterly Oregon economic forecast.

“I want to update you with my impression of the remarkable economic forecast released today,” Hass wrote. “Most indicators – including jobs, income and gross domestic product (GDP) – are all improving. This suggests Oregon’s booming economy will continue into the foreseeable future.”

A booming economy also means higher-than-projected state tax revenues – quite a bit higher. Hass says state coffers will have $911 million more revenue than was projected in the state’s two-year budget approved during the 2017 Oregon legislative session.

“Because revenues grew faster than what economists estimated, the state will send back $555.3 million to taxpayers due to Oregon's unique ‘Kicker’ law,” Hass said. “So, we have this bizarre confluence of a strong economy, struggling schools and sending back a half billion dollars to taxpayers.”

Hass has tried unsuccessfully to convince his legislative colleagues on both sides of the political aisle to look seriously at ideas to reduce the volatility of Oregon’s income-tax-dominant taxation system and modernize state taxation of corporations. Here’s how he explains the dilemma:

“Oregon's volatile tax code is too reliant on the income tax. In good times when unemployment is low, the state brings in too much revenue and we send it back to the taxpayers. In bad times when people are struggling, Oregon has a train wreck. While today's forecast paints a rosy picture, it is important to remember the big jump in projected revenue is emblematic of Oregon's boom-and-bust revenue cycle.”

This may not be new “news,” but it isn’t information that makes its way into a lot of political discussions these days. When it does, it is usually in the context of calling for more revenue or blaming the Public Employees Retirement System for Oregon’s unsustainable spending.

Hass threads the needle differently. He says fixing Oregon’s “bizarre confluence” of a strong economy, struggling schools and a personal income tax kicker should occur during economic good times, not economic bad times. Warning signs abound, he says. Oregon’s economy is still growing, but the pace of its growth is slowing. The housing affordability crisis is taking its toll on many Oregonians. Personal income taxes make up 80 percent of the state’s General Fund, while corporate taxes contribute 6 percent.

Hass hasn’t given up on some type of tax reform, but is concentrating his efforts leading up to the 2019 legislative session on traveling around Oregon as part of the Joint Committee on Student Success, talking to students and education and business leaders.

“My hope,” Hass wrote, “is that through the work of the Student Success Committee and this economic forecast, we end up mixing new educational policies with structural tax reform for stable, well-funded schools, community colleges and universities.”

Gritty Issues Teed up for 2018 Election

Hot button issues such as PERS, Medicaid, immigration and taxes are already heating up long before the 2018 Oregon election starts in earnest and are sure to bring into focus questions over who can provide the political leadership to address these issues.

Hot button issues such as PERS, Medicaid, immigration and taxes are already heating up long before the 2018 Oregon election starts in earnest and are sure to bring into focus questions over who can provide the political leadership to address these issues.

The 2018 election is more than a year away, but the issues that will animate campaigns are getting exposure now. As Republicans challenge monolithic Democratic control of the lever of powers in Oregon, the issues center on PERS, Medicaid and immigration. And more will follow.
 
In a news release Monday, the Senate Republican office deplored a “time bomb” decision by the PERS board that had the effect of inflating the unfunded liability of the public employee pension program to $52 million. With breathless prose, the release said, “Taxpayer-funded pension systems are combustible by nature, but Oregon’s ticking time bomb known as PERS is one of the brink of exploding.” Legislative Republicans pushed for steps to corral PERS funding but were unsuccessful.
 
The Oregonian added fuel to the Medicaid debate by reporting over the weekend that more than 37,000 Oregonians were extended health care benefits under the program even though they exceeded the earnings threshold – at a cost to the state of $191 million. The Oregon Health Authority reportedly has another 30,000 enrollees to check, so the number of ineligible Medicaid recipients could grower higher. A bipartisan majority agreed to a tax package in the 2017 session to sustain the core and expanded Medicaid program. Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, is pursuing a referral of the Medicaid tax package.
 
The potentially most explosive issue could be the call by Republican senators for Governor Brown to veto legislation declaring “sanctuary state” status. Their call follows violent attacks by Sergio Jose Martinez, including a sexual assault on a 65-year-old woman, who has been deported 20 times. Efforts by the Trump administration to step up deportation of undocumented immigrants has sparked public demonstrations both for and against the action.
 
The PERS and Medicaid issues have been stoked by Oregonian reporting. The PERS unfunded liability and sanctuary state issues have been fanned by Jonathan Lockwood on behalf of Oregon Senate Republicans. The Medicaid story’s fuse was lit by Secretary of State Dennis Richardson, who is the leading GOP gubernatorial candidate, largely due to his higher name familiarity.
 
Gubernatorial campaigns serve as referenda on how the state is doing and its most vexing issues. But few campaigns are so issue-centric before the front-running candidates have a chance to chisel out the political debate fault lines.
 
Brown is expected to seek re-election, but there is no consensus GOP challenger and the threat of a third-party bid can’t be ruled out. Political leadership is sure to be a major issue in the campaign. Republicans and even some Democrats will charge that Brown ducked out on leading toward a solution to the state’s $1.6 billion budget deficit. Brown can claim her leadership helped to push through a major transportation package that included funding for public transportation.
 
Oregon has become a reliably blue state, where Democratic statewide victories are pretty much a sure bet. That probably won’t change, but foul winds are blowing. Brown hasn’t alienated many core Democratic constituencies, but she hasn’t necessarily wowed all of them either.
 
Pointing to growing PERS liabilities, ballooning Medicaid costs and an immigrant bad boy may make headlines but aren’t the same as alternative solutions. This also could be a year where the politics of blame isn’t a big winner. But it is undeniable that gritty policy issues will consume oxygen in the 2018 campaign regardless who runs.
 
One final issue likely to emerge is whether to pursue revenue reform next year, despite Democratic leaders indicating it should wait until the 2019 session. Brown, Senate President Peter Courtney and Speaker Tina Kotek released statements arguing that reform wasn't possible until 2019, but a union-backed 2018 initiative similar to Measure 97 may spark interest in trying to head off another divisive and expensive battle at the ballot box. 
 
The question is who will take the lead and convene a working group. Senator Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, attempted compromise legislation in 2017 and may do so again. Brown could build off her transportation win and try to do the same on revenue reform. Brown's new Chief of Staff Nik Blosser showed an aptitude for such negotiations in 2017 and may be the person to do it again next year. A Republican candidate may jump into the fray with a plan and a strategy. The political risks are palpable, but the intensity of the issues may make the risk worth it.

Adjournment May Seem Like Only an Intermission

The Oregon legislature is on track to adjourn by July 10, but adjournment this time around may seem more like an intermission as corporation taxation, PERS, Medicaid, education funding and political leadership remain as hot griddle issues that won’t wait until the next election or next legislative session.

The Oregon legislature is on track to adjourn by July 10, but adjournment this time around may seem more like an intermission as corporation taxation, PERS, Medicaid, education funding and political leadership remain as hot griddle issues that won’t wait until the next election or next legislative session.

Oregon lawmakers appear on the road to adjournment by July 10, but with an air that the journey is just beginning, not ending on big issues such as taxes, transportation and long-term cost containment.
 
Last week, Governor Brown, Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek hoisted the white flag on an attempt this session to revise Oregon’s corporation taxation and raise additional revenue. They said corporate tax changes would have to wait until the 2019 session. However, public employee unions want to move up the schedule. They are already airing TV ads saying “big corporations” should pay their fair share of the tax burden in Oregon, which appears to be a bombing run to soften the ground for another revenue-raising ballot measure.
 
The Senate and House approved an $8.2 billion K-12 funding bill, which Republicans and Democrats said was not enough, even though it represents 11 percent increase over the current biennium. Republicans blamed Democrats for trying to ram through a tax hike without cost containment. Democrats blamed Republicans for refusing to budge on revenue, even though it meant serious budget cuts. Education advocates are furious and may push state leaders to do something before the 2018 general election or the 2019 legislative session.
 
The Oregonian published an editorial lambasting the lack of leadership in Salem, pointing a particular finger at Brown, who faces another re-election battle next year, with GOP candidates already salivating at the chance to unseat her. More than one Capitol wag suggested that Beaverton Democratic Senator Mark Hass showed more leadership on a corporate tax compromise and a more substantial cost containment proposal that included the Public Employees Retirement System. Hass and others have pointed to a growing fiscal crisis in Illinois that is faltering under the weight of huge underfunding of its public employee retirement fund.
 
There is still time for lawmakers to act on a transportation funding package, which was a bipartisan priority before the session started. However, its fate continued to hang in the balance, despite an announcement by Brown that a deal has been struck. Key players are still working hard to tie down final details, which could surface today.
 
But the major hiccup is an 11th-hour threat by Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, to refer the transportation package and Medicaid tax measure to voters. Democratic leaders scrambled to write legislative language in Senate Bill 229 that would allow legislators to write ballot titles for the referrals and schedule them for a vote at a special election January 23.
 
While the legislature cleared a tax increase on hospitals and a new tax on health insurers to patch the state’s Medicaid budget hole for the next two years, stomachs are still churning while Congress considers health insurance legislation that, in versions so far, make drastic cuts in federal support for the program vital to low-income Oregonians, children and the elderly housed in nursing homes. Whatever Congress does, it probably won’t have much of an effect on the 2017-2019 biennium, but its shadow will cast a pall over the program moving forward into subsequent biennia. Voter approval of a referral of the tax increases would turn the shadow into a serious rain cloud.
 
In fact, the issue of health care could be at the center of policy and political debates for the foreseeable future. Congressional Republicans seem hell-bent on reining in a fast-growing entitlement program and lowering insurance premiums, even at the expense of reducing what’s covered in health insurance policies. Democrats are defending the Affordable Care Act, while conceding it could use some repairs to remain viable. Meanwhile. Voices such as Providence St. Joseph Health CEO Rod Hochman deplore GOP legislation that slashes federal support for Medicaid when states have little financial ability to pick up the slack. Hochman said he and others in the health care industry hoped federal legislation would address some of the issues making health care delivery unaffordable for many Americans, including households with health insurance.
 
The interim – the time between legislative adjournment and the next session – is usually fairly quiet, with a few hearings, some work groups and early stirring for ballot measures. The looming interim may be anything but quiet and may make it seem like adjournment was just an intermission before the final acts.

Medicaid Bill Clears; Tax and Transportation Bills in Limbo

Oregon lawmakers have passed a Medicaid funding measure, but appear stuck on a corporate tax increase and a transportation funding package with only three weeks left before the deadline to adjourn. Things are starting to get wild in Salem.

Oregon lawmakers have passed a Medicaid funding measure, but appear stuck on a corporate tax increase and a transportation funding package with only three weeks left before the deadline to adjourn. Things are starting to get wild in Salem.

Oregon lawmakers have cleared a bill to raise $550 million to prevent cuts in the state’s Medicaid program, but have no clear path on a corporation tax increase or funding for a major transportation package. Time is running out as the legislature faces a July 10 deadline to adjourn.

The House and Senate approved legislation that increases an existing hospital tax and adds a new tax to health insurance plans to pay for Oregon’s Medicaid program that covers more than 1 million Oregonians, 40 percent of them children from low-income households. Reduced federal funding for Medicaid was a contributing factor to Oregon’s projected $1.4 billion hole in the 2017-2019 biennium, which begins July 1.

House passage of the Medicaid funding measure came after Democrats defeated a Republican alternative with a smaller tax increase that would have funded the program for one year at current spending levels, but allow time to confirm the eligibility of Medicaid enrollees before funding the second year of the biennium.

After some backroom negotiations, Rep. Sal Esquivel, R-Medford, provided the necessary 36th House vote for a three-fifths supermajority to pass the Democratic Medicaid funding measure in the House. The Senate voted for the Medicaid funding bill by a 20-10 margin.

Lack of consensus on a general revenue increase sparked a variety of actions so far this week:

  • House Democrats voted along party lines to stall a vote on an $8.2 billion K-12 school budget until June 27. The Senate has already approved the public school budget, but House Democratic leaders believe delaying a vote in the lower chamber could be leverage to swing a deal on a revenue measure. One House Democrat called the maneuver a “Hail Mary pass."
  • The Oregon Education Association took the first steps to place two corporate tax measures on the November 2018 ballot that would seek to generate $1.75 billion annually for K-12 and higher education. One measure would impose a corporate gross receipts tax. The second measure would make it easier for the legislature to raise corporate taxes to pay for education.
  • The joint committee looking at a revenue measure entertained a passel of amendments to a compromise reached by Senator Mark Hass and Speaker Tina Kotek to raise $900 million in the next biennium. The compromise would initially increase the current corporate income tax rate, then phase in a commercial activities tax based on sales in Oregon, which would function like a gross receipts tax, but contains different rates for different kinds and sizes of corporations. At least one House Republican has signaled his potential support for this approach – if it can pass in the Senate. For now, Senate Republicans are reportedly locked up in opposition.

Frustrated by inaction on the joint committee’s bill, House Revenue Chair Phil Barnhart, presumably with Kotek’s approval, said he will pursue a separate revenue-raising bill, possibly one that makes it harder to qualify for lower rates on pass-through income. Even though this measure would generate only $200 million – far less than the $900 million in the compromise corporate tax bill, it has the procedural advantage of requiring only a simple majority, not a three-fifths majority to pass. House Democrats may force a floor vote on a larger corporate tax hike before the postponed voting next week on the K-12 school budget to put Republicans on the record. If it fails, they then can pass the smaller measure.

Also looming in the legislative bill stack is a cost-saving measure estimated to trim the projected budget deficit by $270 million.

Oregon’s Running Start on Affordable College

Free college education has become a campaign slogan in the 2016 presidential election, but Oregon has gotten a running start with the first class of high school seniors facing a deadline next week to apply for the Oregon Promise.

Free college education has become a campaign slogan in the 2016 presidential election, but Oregon has gotten a running start with the first class of high school seniors facing a deadline next week to apply for the Oregon Promise.

Oregon has gotten a head start on the challenge of free college education, with a deadline next week for high school seniors to apply for the new Oregon Promise program, which guarantees a “free” two-year education at a state community college.

According to state financial aid officials, more than 12,000 Oregon high school students have signed up, with the total expected to go higher by next Tuesday. That’s when students must have filled out their online application, submitted high school transcripts to show they have a 2.5 grade point average or better and completed a financial aid application. 

In the first year of the program, an estimated 7,000 Oregon Promise applicants are expected to enroll, which would push up the percentage of high school graduates who move on to college in the state. 

Senator Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, won legislative approval for the program because of its market appeal to students from lower income households and its relatively small cost. As The Oregonian’s Betsy Hammond has pointed out, many Oregon Promise applicants already would have qualified for financial aid that covered virtually all of the cost of tuition at a community college.

Even so, Hass says the program entices students to apply who might otherwise have not even bothered. Going to community college allows most students to stay at home and continue jobs they had in high school.

Eligible Oregon Promise students will be required to take a full course load and maintain a good grade level. They can take courses needed to move on to a four-year degree-granting institution or to earn an industry certificate. Hass modeled his program after one in Tennessee, which he says has increased enrollment at both community colleges and four-year colleges and universities.

The Oregon College Savings Plan allows for student accounts that can accept contributions from parents, grandparents or other relatives and realize tax-free earnings when they use the money for college tuition.

The Oregon College Savings Plan allows for student accounts that can accept contributions from parents, grandparents or other relatives and realize tax-free earnings when they use the money for college tuition.

Another Oregon program is helping college students hold down debt. The Oregon College Savings Plan, which began in 2001, now has more than $1.2 billion in assets spread over 86,000 student accounts. More than $170 million was contributed to Oregon College Savings Plan accounts last year.

Students are able to draw on their account to pay for tuition and other qualifying educational expenses when attending college or an accredited technical school. Oregon offers a tax deduction for contributions up to $4,600 for married taxpayers filing jointly or $2,300 for single filers, but tax-free earnings are the real advantage when the funds are withdrawn for qualifying college expenses.

Not every household has the cash to contribute to the plan. However, student accounts can accept contributions from more than parents. Oregon College Savings Plan officials point out that whatever money can be tucked away for a student is money they won’t have to borrow in the future when they attend college.

Assets in the plan are subject to investment cycles, so there is an element of risk. Many savings plan account holders saw their nest eggs shrink when the housing bubble burst in 2006-2007 and the subsequent financial industry meltdown. Oregon officials replaced the plan’s financial partner and overhauled the program to provide greater protection for student account holdings.

It’s worth noting that 36,000 Oregon college students received $57.3 million in need-based Oregon Opportunity Grants in the 2014-2015 academic year. Another $69 million in student aid will be distributed to qualifying Oregon students this year. Grants of $2,100 are available for full-time, full-year students at eligible Oregon postsecondary institutions.

Oregon has lagged other states in providing need-based student aid, but in recent legislative sessions has stepped up expenditures. The 2015 legislature authorized $140.9 million for Oregon Opportunity Grants, which was almost a 24 percent increase over the previous biennium.

Tackling High College Tuition

We may be witnessing the start of a movement to address the rising cost of college. The Oregon Senate approved a bill this week to study giving all Oregon high school graduates free tuition for two years at an Oregon community college.

Earlier this week, Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, a Republican, made the centerpiece of his State of the State Address a call for legislation to give all high school graduates in his state free access to community colleges and technical colleges. 

Policy analysts praised Haslam's proposal, which mirrors the study bill put forward by Oregon Senator Mark Hass, D-Beaverton, saying it is "big step toward a better educated work force."

In Oregon, free community college tuition for two years would appear to be a major boost to achieve the ambitious goal of 40 percent of Oregon adults having at least two years of college or technical training. The 40-40-20 plan also calls for 40 percent of the adult population to possess at least a 4-year degree and all Oregonians to achieve a high school diploma or its equivalent.

The burst of bipartisan support for free community college tuition may deflate after an analysis of the cost, as well as a comparison with the relative benefits and costs of an alternative — pumping more money into need-based student financial aid.