Oregon

Oregon’s Fiscal Discipline Positions It for Inevitable Recession

Economist Bill Conerly gives Oregon some love in a Forbes article that praises state policymakers for the fiscal discipline to create a Rainy Day Fund that now has grown to a size that should protect the state budget during an average-size downturn.

Economist Bill Conerly gives Oregon some love in a Forbes article that praises state policymakers for the fiscal discipline to create a Rainy Day Fund that now has grown to a size that should protect the state budget during an average-size downturn.

The economy is still growing, but someday it will stop. Economist Bill Conerly says Oregon state government, despite its liberal bent, is better prepared to meet the fiscal challenges of a recession than most states, including traditionally conservative ones.

“Oregon has built up its rainy-day funds to 9.7 percent of current expenditures, compared to an expected decline in a typical recession of 10 percent,” Conerly wrote in an article published last week by Forbes. “Further growth will occur next year, barring an immediate recession. That will cover the revenue shortfall of an average recession, but still leave difficult decisions about spending more on social services as people lose jobs.”

In the article, Conerly cites his personal experience advising Oregon policymakers following the crippling recession in the early 1980s. “State revenue fell so much in 1982 that the Governor [Atiyeh] had to call four special sessions of the legislature in one two-year budget period, plus two more special sessions the next biennium,” he said. That led to formation of the Governor’s Council of Economic Advisers.

As a member of the Council, initially appointed by Atiyeh, a Republican, and subsequently retained by five Democratic governors, Conerly said it became painfully obvious that revenue forecasts aren’t always accurate.

Oregon’s fiscal situation is complicated by the state’s heavy reliance on personal and corporate income tax revenues, which can balloon in good times and tank in bad times. “The state’s revenues swing wildly with fluctuations in corporate profits, capital gains and the earnings of small business owners, commissioned sales people and corporate executives on bonus plans,” Conerly explained. 

To compensate for sharp fluctuations in tax revenues, Conerly and his Council colleagues suggested creating a rainy-day fund.

“Building up a rainy day-fund means choosing not to spend available money,” Conerly wrote. “It’s difficult for any of us in our family budgeting, it’s difficult for politicians who gain votes by funding projects desired by constituencies, and it’s especially difficult for liberals, who believe in a larger role for government in healthcare and social services along with more funding for government schools. Though difficult, building up a rainy-day fund can be done.”

And it can be done, noted Conerly, a self-described free-market economist, in a “state with liberal political leadership that had the will to build a substantial reserve despite their desire to expand government spending.”

The secret, he said, is “to have that discipline, as Oregon and other states have demonstrated.”

 

Oregon’s Pending Political Divorce

Measure 97, which would raise taxes on corporations with more than $25 million in annual sales in Oregon, faces an uncertain future in the general election. However, it does seem certain that it's causing a political divorce in Oregon that will fuel polarization and make compromise harder to find.

Measure 97, which would raise taxes on corporations with more than $25 million in annual sales in Oregon, faces an uncertain future in the general election. However, it does seem certain that it's causing a political divorce in Oregon that will fuel polarization and make compromise harder to find.

Oregon voters can expect political rhetoric to escalate over Measure 97, the initiative to impose a gross receipts tax on corporations with large sales in the state, as the November 8 general election approaches.

However, the more intriguing question may be what will or should happen after the election, regardless of whether Measure 97 passes or fails? Chances are whatever happens will feel like a divorce. Andrew Bulkily, writing for Oregon Business, summed up the situation as going from “gridlock to civil war."

No one disputes that the stakes are huge. Oregon officials estimate Measure 97 will generate $3 billion per year in new state tax revenue. Proponents say most of that tax will be shouldered by large out-of-state corporations that currently don’t pay their fair share of the tax burden in Oregon. Opponents insist that the tax measure will result in higher consumer prices.

Emily Powell, the third generation owner of Powell’s Books, says higher taxes resulting from the passage of Measure 97 could drive the iconic Portland-based independent bookstore out of business. Powell says profit margins in the book business are too small and competition is too stiff to allow the store to raise its prices.

Measure 97 revenues have been touted by supporters, including Governor Kate Brown, as a badly needed and long overdue revenue make-up for K-12 school funding, health care and senior services. Opponents argue that the initiative can’t guarantee how legislators will spend the added tax money and that a big chunk of it will go to cover huge Public Employees Retirement System shortfalls.

There are people on both sides of the initiative who wish a compromise could have been reached to avoid a ballot measure mash-up that could be the most expensive political campaign in state history. Proponents and opponents have each raised double-digit millions of dollars to trade televised jabs this fall. Measure 97 backers weren’t in the mood to compromise, feeling that 2016 could be a moment to push through a major tax change on the ballot.

Which brings us to what happens after the election. If Measure 97 passes, the state’s available discretionary revenue will sharply expand. That would probably erase the projected $1.3 billion state biennial budget hole, but it wouldn’t necessarily determine how the balance of money would be spent. You could expect fierce arguments among interest groups over how much should go to K-12 schools versus investments in health care and senior services – and in higher education. You also could expect some high-profile business response, such as a business like Powell’s Books shuttering.

If Measure 97 fails, the state budget hole will loom even larger, potentially threatening cuts to K-12 and higher education funding and threatening Medicaid expansion. Perhaps worse, many in the business community may refuse to enter into discussions about how to meet that budget shortfall, PERS underfunding or tax reform because of the fractious fight they had to wage to defeat Measure 97. Oregon lawmakers may see hearing rooms full of angry faces unwilling to sit together in work groups to explore solutions.

It’s likely that the political zombie of a state sales tax would re-emerge. The sales tax has been the default idea for how to reduce the volatility of Oregon’s existing income-tax-heavy revenue system. However, sales taxes face their own haunting challenges, such as Internet sales. In Oregon, the appetite for a sales tax by voters has the same taste notes as brussels sprout ice cream.

If Measure 97 passes and Brown wins election, it will give her an effective mandate to guide how the new tax revenue should be allocated. However, it could dampen enthusiasm for climbing the steep hill to craft, pass and avoid a referral on a major transportation funding measure.

If Brown wins, but Measure 97 fails, Brown will have the challenge of trying to patch together a balanced budget, with limited credibility to court business support for alternative tax-generating options.

Brown’s position also would be weakened because she must run for election again in 2018 for a full four-year term. As secretary of state, Brown succeeded John Kitzhaber as governor after he resigned in 2015 and is running this year to fill out the final two years of the former governor’s four-year term.

This is a fairly grim picture. Sort of like a family portrait after a divorce.

Over time, views will soften, the more contentious personalities will be pushed aside and a dialogue can resume. But as the 2016 presidential election has revealed, strong political undercurrents can be unleashed, deepening polarization and crippling efforts to find common ground – or even a table where everyone can sit around to talk.

A Crack in Public Pension Wall Emerges in California

Many Oregon political leaders believe reforms are needed to public employee pensions to trim costs and plug a swelling unfunded liability, but few think reforms can pass a court test. Now a crack may be emerging in that impenetrable legal wall.

Many Oregon political leaders believe reforms are needed to public employee pensions to trim costs and plug a swelling unfunded liability, but few think reforms can pass a court test. Now a crack may be emerging in that impenetrable legal wall.

A state appellate court ruling in California will be studied carefully for its implications on whether public employee pension benefits are immutable or can be modified.

While unlikely to generate any immediate political response, the court ruling, if upheld on further appeal, could entice state lawmakers in California and elsewhere to explore public employee pension changes in the face of ballooning unfunded liabilities. Oregon’s Public Employees Retirement System unfunded liability has swelled to $21 billion.

The need to allocate more money for state and local public employee pensions has been one of the hardest fought issues in state legislatures around the country. Pension bills that have passed, including in Oregon, have mostly been struck down by courts as unconstitutional.

The Sacramento Bee reported the unanimous ruling by a California state appellate court says there is no absolute bar to modifying public employee pensions. The vested right to a pension “is only to a reasonable pension, not an immutable entitlement to the most optimal formula of calculating the pension,” the court ruling said. “The Legislature may, prior to the employee’s retirement, alter the formula, thereby reducing the anticipated pensions…so long as the …modifications do not deprive the employee of a reasonable pension.”

The effective prohibition of any change to an existing public employee pension provision, called the California Rule, stems from a series of court decisions beating back efforts to trim benefits and reduce costs. You could say there is an Oregon Rule, too.

Oregon’s latest attempt at what legislators called public pension reform was largely thrown out by the state Supreme Court. That’s what makes the new ruling in California intriguing. Does it reflect a crack in the California Rule? If so, how wide is the crack? And, most important, will the crack stand up when appealed to the California Supreme Court?

The genesis of the crack began in the judicial bankruptcy proceedings for the City of Stockton. Federal Judge Christopher Klein said "pension benefits could be reduced  in a bankruptcy action because bankruptcy is nothing by the impairment of contracts,” according to the Sacramento Bee’s reporting.

California’s Public Employees Retirement System (CalPERS) argued reducing state employee pensions couldn’t be ordered by a federal judge. Klein rejected CalPERS’ claim. However, Stockton never tested Klein’s opinion and emerged from bankruptcy without touching public employee pensions.

The appellate court opinion involved Marin County’s implementation of one of the public employee pension reforms included in the 2012 pension reform legislation enacted by the California Assembly and signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown. The provision that Marin County adopted prohibits using unused sick leave to “spike” pension benefit calculations.

There is a long road ahead before anyone will know whether the crack in the California Rule is real and just what it might permit in terms of modified pension benefits. That’s little consolation to lawmakers who will face budget holes and rising pension costs when they return to their state capitals early next year. But it does give them something to watch that could open a new conversation down the line.

Trump Tackling the Left Coast

As Republicans open their national convention in Cleveland, Donald Trump has pledged to put some surprising states in play in November, including Oregon and Washington. What does Trump know that most political observers in the Pacific Northwest fail to see? (Photo Credit:  Christopher Dolan/The Times & Tribune via AP)  

As Republicans open their national convention in Cleveland, Donald Trump has pledged to put some surprising states in play in November, including Oregon and Washington. What does Trump know that most political observers in the Pacific Northwest fail to see? (Photo Credit: Christopher Dolan/The Times & Tribune via AP) 

Presumptive GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump raised eyebrows when he told Republican congressmen that he expects to run competitively in November on the Left Coast, especially in Oregon and Washington.

Trump didn’t give away his secret formula for turning dark blue states into electoral votes for him, but it is interesting to speculate on what is behind his audacious claim.

The Statesman Journal reported what it called a “surprise result” from the latest batch of party affiliation sign-ups from motorists automatically registered to vote under Oregon’s new Motor Voter law – more people registered as Republicans than Democrats. Some 3,455 new voters aligned with the GOP compared to only 3.023 with the Democrats.

Before you get too excited over that news, note that 124,912 Oregonians have been registered to vote under the new law, but only about 8,500 declared a party preference, according to the secretary of state’s elections division. The small gain in voter registration by Republicans hardly makes a dent in the overwhelming Democratic majority in Oregon. Trump carried Oregon with 252,748 votes in the Republican primary, which was fewer votes than Hillary Clinton received (269,846) in soundly losing to Bernie Sanders (360,829).

But primary results and new voter registrations may not be what Trump and his lieutenants are pondering. They see a whole lot of people, including a vast majority of new voters, who don’t align with either party. There are more non-affiliated voters in Oregon than registered Republicans and almost as many as registered Democrats. This pool of voters could represent just the kind of uncharted electoral waters Trump plans to ply this fall.

Trump also may be planning to appeal to Democratic and independent voters in Oregon and Washington who voted for Bernie Sanders and are disenchanted with Hillary Clinton. Despite national polls showing nearly three-quarters of Sanders Democratic primary voters plan to vote for Clinton, that still leaves the other 25 percent for Trump to court.

Sanders did well in more than just Portland, so Trump’s campaign may try to pry away voters who oppose trade deals and still harbor ill feelings toward the Clintons on timber policies that reduced cuts on public forests and forced mills to close. He might even reach out to “Rust Belt” manufacturing workers in Portland and Seattle who feel left behind.

An active Trump campaign in Oregon and Washington, whatever that turns out to be from this unconventional politician, could give a boost to down-ballot Republican candidates. GOP gubernatorial candidate Bud Pierce seems disinclined to hook his hope to Trump, but Dennis Richardson, who is running for secretary of state, might find some common cause with the Trumpster.

Even if Pacific Northwest Republicans don’t enthusiastically embrace Trump and his message, they might still be willing to collaborate on campaign basics such as get-out-the-vote efforts, aiming to turn out voters who aren’t exactly in the political mainstream.

Win or lose in November, Trump has given the Republican Party a jolt and potentially set the stage for a larger, longer-term political realignment affecting both major parties. His unpredictability as a candidate has allowed doubt to creep in about the reliability of old political maxims, like red states and blue states.

Voter turnout, and to some degree voter mood, can be influenced in Oregon and Washington by ballot measures. Oregonians will be voting on a major tax increase on large corporations, which Republicans generally oppose, but also may fetch opposition from lower-income voters who fear the tax increase will be passed along to them in higher prices for groceries and gas.

Portland-area voters will be asked to approve a major a $750 million bond for Portland Public School renovations, a City of Portland gas tax increase and renewal of a Metro levy to fund regional natural areas. The cumulative impact of tax measures on the ballot could make Portland voters poutier than usual and more open to the kind of messages Trump traffics in.

Washington voters will decide on measures that would impose a carbon emission tax and urge a constitutional amendment that limits constitutional rights to people, not corporations. A gun control measure also may qualify for the fall ballot.

A Republican hasn’t won the governorship of Washington since the 1980s, but the last three elections have been tight. Governor Jay Inslee is seeking re-election, but with sagging approval ratings. He only won in 2012 by a whisker over his Republican rival, former state attorney general Rob McKenna. Pundits predict a vigorous battle for legislative control in the House, where Democrats hold a thin two-seat majority, and the Senate, where Republicans cling to an even thinner one-seat advantage.

If you were betting, you would be smart to keep your chips on blue in Oregon and Washington. But you might not want to lift your finger off the chips just quite yet.