Peter Courtney

A Challenge and a Legacy Lie Ahead for Legislative Democrats

Oregon’s Democratically controlled 2019 legislature will have its work cut out for it with a $2 billion revenue challenge for education, an $800 million hole to patch for Medicaid and passage of legacy legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions through a cap-and-trade program.

Oregon’s Democratically controlled 2019 legislature will have its work cut out for it with a $2 billion revenue challenge for education, an $800 million hole to patch for Medicaid and passage of legacy legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions through a cap-and-trade program.

The Democratically controlled 2019 Oregon legislative session will address a “once in a generation” challenge to boost education funding by $2 billion and a potential legacy-making bill dealing with climate change.

Expectations are high heading into the session, which begins in January. Neither will be a cake-walk to achieve, despite Democratic supermajorities in the House and Senate.

Some of the complicating factors are:

  • Oregon lawmakers also have to find more than $800 million to sustain the state’s Medicaid program.

  • The Public Employees Retirement System unfunded liability is expected to grow by possibly as much as $4 billion, with no strategy in place to reduce it.

  • There are signs the US economic recovery is facing headwinds caused by an escalating global trade war, political unrest in Europe and a weakening economy in China.

Passing major tax legislation – and avoiding a referral to voters – is never easy, whether for schools or cleaning up the environment. For example, despite polls showing general support for climate legislation, Washington state voters have twice rejected carbon tax proposals. Oregon’s approach, which involves capping greenhouse gas emissions and allowing carbon trading in a state or regional marketplace, is different, but will still be cast by opponents as a tax.

Governor Brown has called her $2 billion challenge for education an opportunity that lawmakers can’t pass up because of the state’s robust economy and the needed Democratic votes in the House and Senate to approve tax bills. Brown also has called the Clean Energy Jobs bill “absolutely a legacy issue.”

Senate President Peter Courtney has endorsed the legacy label for the Clean Energy Jobs bill. "As a 75-year older person – you know I'm going to go to the children and grandchildren – I cannot think of a more serious issue," he said.

While it might be legacy legislation, it also has been introduced and failed to pass in the previous two legislative sessions. Part of the reason is its inherent complexity. Ted Sickinger filed a report for The Oregonian that outlined some of the complexity, which includes exactly what emissions will be capped and what emissions will be exempted.

In the 2019 session, advocates for the Clean Energy Jobs bill have apparently cut a deal with utilities that say their ratepayers are already footing the bill for greenhouse gas emission reductions baked into their future energy plans. Even that compromise isn’t without some debate over whether the utility plans should accelerate emission reductions. Timber and agriculture also may be exempted.

Another complicating factor is “leakage,” which boils down to manufacturing operations relocating to another state to avoid the cost of a cap-and-trade system. Republican Senator Cliff Bentz points to Ore-Ida Foods in Ontario. "I do not want to drive it 150 yards away into Idaho," Sickinger reported. "It will be devastating."

A report unveiled last week confirms Bentz’s fear that the potential for leakage in the manufacturing and industrial sectors is substantial, which if it happened to any degree would throw shade on the legacy of the legislation. “It would also eliminate a big chunk of allowance revenue [advocacy] groups are expecting to reinvest in carbon reduction and climate change adaptation programs,” Sickinger said. 

Rural interests have expressed concern that the increased price of fuel for cars and trucks will disproportionately hurt them at the pump. Then there is a constitutional question about whether any tax revenue collected from cars and trucks can escape the Oregon Highway Trust Fund. In anticipation of that question, Senator Michael Dembrow wants to include a provision to fast-track a challenge to the Oregon Supreme Court.

There is the need to put the program, if created, some place in the state bureaucracy. In her recommended 2019-2021 budget, Brown calls for elimination of the Department of Energy. She proposed creation of a new agency – the Oregon Climate Authority, which would assume the role of the existing Oregon Global Warming Commission. Creating a new agency and identifying who will sit on its advisory board can produce legendary backroom legacies.

Finally, in a system that involves carbon credits, you need a marketplace to trade them. Backers of the legislation and some industry groups favor linking the Oregon cap-and-trade program to the Western Climate Initiative, led by California. Bentz worries Oregon will be like a flea on a dog’s tail without much influence on the direction of the marketplace. 

Neither the $2 billion education challenge or the Clean Energy Jobs bill figure to be among the early bills to move in the 2019 session. Their destiny inevitably will be as part of 11th-hour legislative maneuvers to clear a path to adjournment, probably sometime next July. That’s often how legacies are born.

 

 

Brown, Democrats Ride Strong Wave of Voter Turnout

Oregon Governor Kate Brown overcame a trail of administrative miscues and an aggressive campaign by challenger Knute Buehler to win re-election to a full four-year term. High voter turnout also swept out three Republican House incumbents and gave Democrats supermajorities in both the House and Senate. [Photo Credit: Steve Dykes, AP]

Oregon Governor Kate Brown overcame a trail of administrative miscues and an aggressive campaign by challenger Knute Buehler to win re-election to a full four-year term. High voter turnout also swept out three Republican House incumbents and gave Democrats supermajorities in both the House and Senate. [Photo Credit: Steve Dykes, AP]

Governor Kate Brown turned back a spirited challenge from Republican Knute Buehler and Democrats earned super-majorities in both the Oregon House and Senate by unseating three sitting House GOP members.

Oregonians rejected ballot measures to end the state’s sanctuary status, ban public funding for abortions and block taxation on groceries. Voters approved a measure to allow local governments to use public money with private developers to build affordable housing. In Washington, voters defeated a carbon tax proposal.

In key local races, Kathryn Harrington won as Washington County Chair and Jo Ann Hardesty glided to victory on the Portland City Commission, becoming the first African-American woman to sit on the commission. Oregon City Mayor Dan Holladay won re-election. A majority of local ballot measures passed. A full list of election results can be found here

The Brown-Buehler contest set campaign spending records in Oregon and may be the spark for campaign finance reform in the 2019 legislative session. Despite running an effective campaign, Buehler’s loss further dented the notion that a moderate Republican could defeat a Democrat in a race for governor in Oregon.

There may not have been a blue wave throughout the nation, but strong turnout by Democratic voters contributed to the defeats of incumbent GOP Reps. Julie Parrish (West Linn), Rich Vial (Sherwood) and Jeff Helfrich (Hood River). House Democrats increased their margin of control to 38-22, up from their 35-25 margin in the previous session. It takes 36 votes to reach a House supermajority required to pass revenue-raising measures.

Democrats managed to flip one seat in the Senate where Jeff Golden prevailed in a seat held last session by GOP Senator Alan DeBoer who didn’t seek re-election. That one seat was enough to give Democrats a Senate supermajority of 18-12.

No changes are anticipated in Democratic leadership. Senate President Peter Courtney easily won re-election to a sixth term and has led the Senate since the 2003 session. Speaker Tina Kotek was elected to the Oregon House in 2006 and became Speaker in the 2013 legislative session.

Brown’s seemingly comfortable 5-point lead over Buehler didn’t necessarily reflect the bruising intensity of the gubernatorial campaign and the closeness of the contest, which drew national attention because the race was unexpectedly tight. The race also attracted gobs of out-of-state money as Brown and Buehler combined to spend a record $30 million.

In her post-election comments, Brown said her priorities in the next legislative session will be campaign finance reform, affordable housing and boosting Oregon’s low high school graduation rate, something Buehler poked at during the campaign. During her campaign, Brown announced a plan to incorporate federal clean air and clean water protections into Oregon law.

Other issues that will demand attention in the upcoming session include how to keep paying for Oregon’s Medicaid program, bolstering community mental health resources and improving child welfare programs.

There will be continuing pressure to address the unfunded liability of the Oregon Public Employees Retirement System and realign the state’s corporate tax system. It is unlikely remnants of the culture wars – immigration, abortion, transgender rights – will rear their heads in the legislature during the next two years.

A well-coordinated campaign apparatus consisting of labor, environment and progressive groups contributed to Brown’s re-election and the defeat of several ballot measures. Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi, expected to return as Speaker of the US House, credited a similar coordinated effort with the discipline and financing to regain control of the House and win governorships across the country, including in Trump country. 

Washington Initiative 1631, dubbed the Green New Deal, lost after large industrial corporations poured $31 million into a campaign to defeat it. If passed, I-1631 would have imposed a new carbon fee to fund conservation projects, renewable energy farms and struggling communities. The measure was endorsed by Governor Jay Inslee who called it “well-balanced, thoughtful policy.”

 

 

Vancouver Acts to Relaunch Effort to Replace I-5 Bridge

Untimely bridge lifts delay and irritate motorists and freight haulers crossing the Columbia River on I-5. The City of Vancouver has stepped forward with a resolution seeking to restart a conversation to replace the bridge.

Untimely bridge lifts delay and irritate motorists and freight haulers crossing the Columbia River on I-5. The City of Vancouver has stepped forward with a resolution seeking to restart a conversation to replace the bridge.

Traffic and backups on I-5 haven’t abated and untimely Columbia River bridge lifts continue to slow and frustrate commuters, shippers and motorists just trying to get through. An effort to resume discussions of a new bridge is beginning to take shape.

The Vancouver City Council voted unanimously this week in support of replacing the I-5 Columbia River bridge. The Council resolution also asked Governor Jay Inslee to “provide adequate funding” for the Washington Department of Transportation to relaunch the process that came to a sudden stop in 2015 after Washington lawmakers refused to commit their share of costs and Oregon officials pulled the plug.

Other Southwest Washington municipalities may follow suit, with the goal of creating momentum that brings – or drags – Oregon policymakers back to the table.

That may be more complicated as Oregon transportation officials are finishing up recommendations to toll some or all of I-5 and I-205. The purpose of the tolling is to reduce congestion. Revenue raised from tolls would go to Oregon roadway investments, not a new I-5 Columbia River bridge.

Washington Congresswoman Jaime Herrera Beutler has threatened to block Oregon Interstate highway tolls because of what she views as their disproportionate impact on her constituents.

If bridge talks do restart, the extension of light rail to Vancouver may remain a sticking point. Attitudes north of the river may have changed, but a transit component may be a precondition for Oregon officials to re-engage.

The Vancouver resolution addresses this challenge by seeking a bridge replacement that includes “high capacity transit with a dedicated guideway.” This language would allow for either light rail or bus rapid transit on a new bridge, and presumably would provide some breathing room for future debate on both options. Bus rapid transit has been embraced as a more affordable alternative in some areas in Clark County outside of Vancouver.

The timing of renewed discussion also presents challenges. Oregon lawmakers passed a major transportation and transit measure in the 2017 legislative session. It contained no provisions relating to a replacement I-5 Columbia River bridge,  but did create a panel to review mega projects in the state moving forward. Based on past experience, another major transportation funding proposal would be difficult unless party leaders put their full weight behind a new bridge project. Veteran legislative leaders such as Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek may see this as an opening on a legacy project.

One of the failings of the Columbia River Crossing effort was its single focus on a new bridge and related highway improvements. In reality, Portland-area and Southwest Washington residents and businesses have broader transportation interests in common as population growth and business expansion continues on both sides of the river.

Vancouver officials have signaled a willingness to pursue some kind of bi-state partnership to identify common ground, regional transportation objectives and a strategy to find a bridge solution.

Collaboration has occurred at the ODOT-WSDOT level and there have been coalitions in both states supporting a new bridge, but elected officials haven’t driven the strategy or policy decisions.

 

Brown to Face Buehler in November

State Rep. Knute Buehler overcame more conservative GOP candidates to win the right to challenge incumbent Democratic Governor Kate Brown this fall in what could emerge as a marquee matchup this fall when a “Blue Wave” is anticipated nationally in the mid-term election after Donald Trump’s captured the White House in 2016.

State Rep. Knute Buehler overcame more conservative GOP candidates to win the right to challenge incumbent Democratic Governor Kate Brown this fall in what could emerge as a marquee matchup this fall when a “Blue Wave” is anticipated nationally in the mid-term election after Donald Trump’s captured the White House in 2016.

Oregon’s primary election didn’t excite voters as reflected by historically low turnout, but it did set the stage for what could be engaging contests in November.

Knute Buehler overcame a handful of more conservative GOP candidates to grab the Republican gubernatorial nomination, giving him a chance to carry on his vigorous campaign to unseat incumbent Democratic Governor Kate Brown.

Both wasted little time launching their general election campaigns. Before the votes were tallied Tuesday, Brown called for three formal debates and urged as many joint appearances as possible hosted by media outlets. Buehler scheduled a press conference Wednesday morning at the headquarters of Portland Public Schools to lambast a teachers’ union for “protecting a predator” who allegedly abused children and was transferred from school to school.

JoAnn Hardesty and Loretta Smith face a runoff in the fall for a Portland City Commission position, ensuring the election of the first African-American woman on the council.

Metro Councilor Kathryn Harrington and Bob Terry will vie in November for the Washington County chair position. Terry is currently the Commission’s vice chair. Former lawmaker Ryan Deckert, whom some observers saw as the frontrunner, finished third in Tuesday’s voting.

All five Oregon congressional incumbents easily won their largely ceremonial primary contests. None seem in trouble in the general election, though Republican Congressman Greg Walden may face a spirited challenge from Jamie McLeod-Skinner, who defeated six other Democratic candidates to win the chance to poke at Walden for his support of Trump administration policies. Oregon Democrats have set up a website called “Repeal Walden,” a gibe at his leading role in the failed congressional attempt to repeal Obamacare.

Some races were settled in Tuesday’s voting. Shemia Fagan unseated five-term Democratic Senator Rod Monroe in a race that centered on affordable housing policies. With no Republican on the ballot in the East Portland Senate district, Fagan is basically a shoo-in this fall and will help tilt the Senate Democratic Caucus more to the left.

Former Eugene lawmaker Val Hoyle defeated long-time Tualatin Mayor Lou Ogden to win the Oregon Labor Commissioner post, replacing Brad Avakian who didn’t seek re-election. Hoyle previously lost in her bid to become secretary of state, but now will become only the second woman to hold the Labor position in the 115-year history of the Bureau of Labor and Industries.

Lynn Peterson, a transportation planner and former chair of the Clackamas County Commission, cruised to an easy victory to become Metro president, replacing Tom Hughes who has served the maximum of two terms in the post. Nonprofit executive Juan Carlos Gonzalez received 55 percent of the vote to capture the Metro Council representing the western part of urbanized Washington County that Harrington has represented.

Kevin Barton handily defeated Max Wall for Washington County district attorney in what was one of the more visible local races. Barton, who is chief deputy district attorney, withstood a barrage of TV advertising from Wall, a former Polk County prosecutor and now a Beaverton criminal defense attorney. Election filings show the two candidates raised and spent around $900,000 in the campaign.

Pam Treece, executive director of the Westside Economic Alliance, defeated incumbent Washington County Commissioner Greg Malinowski. Former Hillsboro Mayor Jerry Willey won the Commission seat vacated by Terry.

Senate President Peter Courtney easily shrugged off a primary challenge, the first in a decade. Democrats hope to pick up a pivotal 18th Senate seat in Southern Oregon is a district where GOP Senator Alan DeBoer chose not to seek re-election. They also hope they can capture the Hood River House seat previously held by Rep. Mark Johnson who resigned to head the newly merged Oregon Business & Industry.

Oregon was one of four states holding a primary election Tuesday. Voting in Pennsylvania was marked by the primary victories of left-leaning candidates, including two members of the Democratic Socialists of America who won nominations in two Pittsburgh congressional districts. All of Pennsylvania’s 20 House seats are held by males, but that is expected to change with as many as four seats up for grabs for female candidates.

In Idaho, Democrat Paulette Jordan defeated an establishment candidate, running on a platform of protecting public lands, Medicaid expansion and relaxed marijuana laws. If Jordan prevails in November, she would be the state’s first Native American governor.

National Democrats are hailing Tuesday’s voting, noting larger turnouts and more voter enthusiasm for its candidates. The result of the voting, however, only produced one House Democratic gain in a special Pennsylvania congressional election.

Oregonians May Get Another Turn at Term Limits

Oregon experimented with legislative term limits more than two decades ago and the outcomes weren’t what was promised. Once lawmakers were elected, they immediately started angling for their next job, often overlooking serious policy choices staring them in the face.

Oregon experimented with legislative term limits more than two decades ago and the outcomes weren’t what was promised. Once lawmakers were elected, they immediately started angling for their next job, often overlooking serious policy choices staring them in the face.

Oregonians may get another chance to vote for legislative term limits. It would be a good opportunity to buy the idea once and for all.

Unsuccessful GOP gubernatorial candidate Bud Pierce is sponsoring an initiative to re-impose legislative term limits and apply them retroactively to sitting lawmakers. His measure, if it makes it to the 2018 general election ballot and is approved by voters, would disqualify Senate President Peter Courtney and House Speaker Tina Kotek, even though both will be running for re-election on the same ballot.

Term limits are not theoretical in Oregon. Voters approved them overwhelmingly for state and federal lawmakers in 1992. Ballot Measure 3 was partially voided in 1995 by the Oregon Supreme Court to exclude congressional representatives. The entire measure was tossed out in 2002, but not before the fruits of term limits could be assessed. To say the least, the fruit was over-ripe.

Instead of the intended new blood in the legislature, several former lawmakers decided to return to office. That was the good news compared to what happened to the newcomers. They hadn’t settled into their Capitol offices before beginning to plot their next electoral opportunity.

With just three terms in the Oregon House, lawmakers had to make their mark quickly and aim at their next political dart board. A body once distinguished by bipartisan collaboration switched almost overnight to caucus politics by both parties and a political merry-go-round by individual lawmakers of office-shopping.

Perhaps ironically, caucus leaders assumed greater power and imposed stricter party fealty. The concept of new blood morphed into political bloodletting, political opportunism and kicking the can down the road. Why make tough decisions when you would be gone in three or fewer sessions?

Oregon survived the experiment with term limits, but arguably didn’t benefit from it. Now it may have a chance to restore the concept.

For the moment, Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum must rewrite the measure’s ballot title – the most-read part of any ballot measure – to refer to its retroactive provisions. Then Pierce and his allies must collect 88,184 valid Oregon voter signatures by next July to place the measure on the November 2018 general election ballot. Because the idea of “throw out everybody” has a certain visceral appeal, chances are good the measure will make it to the ballot.

Previous Oregon term limits were voided largely on procedural grounds. It is still an open question whether term limits are constitutionally valid. Oregonians – and Americans – have accepted the two-term limit for governors and presidents.

Whether constitutional or not, the question Oregon voters should ask is whether term limits actually do what they promise to do. Empirical evidence in Oregon suggests they didn’t. They had the inimical impact of creating a shifting cast of political characters who began running for a new office moments after being elected to a legislative seat.

The concept of new blood ignores the demonstrable benefits of legislative continuity, not to mention legislative experience. It would be hard for anyone but cynics to deny the enduring contributions of long-serving lawmakers such as Senator Peter Courtney, a Democrat, and Rep. Eldon Johnson, a Republican, to mention only a few. Senate GOP Leader Ted Ferrioli has served for five terms and newly elected Senate GOP leader Jackie Winters has served in the Oregon legislature since 1998. 

Ironically, most lawmakers serve for less than 10 years and move on with their lives. Insiders know it takes at least two to three terms in the legislature to learn the ropes, let alone influence policy.

Hailing term limits is a lot like shopping for a brain surgeon who just graduated from med school. They may be cheaper and less experienced, but they aren’t who you want cutting into your skull to dig out brain tumors.

There will be a lot of heavy breathing if the term limit measure reaches the ballot. Voters would be well advised to seek out the voices of people who lived daily with term limits and can tell you how they worked out in real life.

 

 

State, Federal Health Care Debates Remain in Flux

Oregon legislative leaders Tina Kotek and Peter Courtney want voters to know the fiscal risks of rejecting a tax package to sustain funding for the Oregon Health Plan, as federal lawmakers begin hearings on ways to stabilize coverage and premiums for the individual health insurance market under the Affordable Care Act.

Oregon legislative leaders Tina Kotek and Peter Courtney want voters to know the fiscal risks of rejecting a tax package to sustain funding for the Oregon Health Plan, as federal lawmakers begin hearings on ways to stabilize coverage and premiums for the individual health insurance market under the Affordable Care Act.

On the same day Oregon lawmakers prepared for a January vote on funding to maintain the Oregon Health Plan, a US Senate committee held the first hearing on how to stabilize the individual insurance markets under the Affordable Care Act. Both reflect the unsettled and unsettling condition of key parts of America’s health care system.

Legislators worked Tuesday on a ballot title for a referral sought by GOP Rep. Julie Parrish that could result in voter rejection of a tax package to sustain current spending levels for the Oregon Health Plan, the state’s Medicaid program.  If the tax package is voted down, state officials could face a budget hole of between $300-$500 million to plug during the short 2018 legislative session that starts next February.

An opinion from Legislative Counsel added more potential confusion to the issue that voters could be asked to decide in a January special election. The opinion says the way the referral is written would only eliminate the additional 0.7 percent assessment on hospitals from October 6, 2017 until January 1, 2018. The referral wouldn’t have any effect on the previously approved hospital assessment.

The draft ballot title clearly attempts to raise the specter of the impact of rejecting the tax package on low-income families, children and insurance premiums.

PROVIDES FUNDS CURRENTLY BUDGETED TO PAY FOR HEALTH CARE FOR LOW-INCOME INDIVIDUALS AND FAMILIES AND TO STABILIZE HEALTH INSURANCE PREMIUMS, USING TEMPORARY ASSESSMENTS ON INSURANCE COMPANIES, SOME HOSPITALS, AND OTHER PROVIDERS OF HEALTH CARE COVERAGE.

On Capitol Hill, GOP Senator Lamar Alexander kicked off the first hearing of any kind this year on the Affordable Care Act by declaring, "To get a result, Democrats will have to agree to something – more flexibility for states – that some are reluctant to support. And Republicans will have to agree to something – additional funding through the Affordable Care Act – that some are reluctant to support." Alexander said his priority is on lowering health insurance premiums.

On the day of the hearing, Washington Senator Patty Murray said in an op-ed in The Washington Post that Democrats are willing to work on a bipartisan approach to stabilizing insurance markets. In the op-ed, Murray raised the issue of creating a “public option” to ensure competition to hold down premiums in the individual health insurance market. Capitol Hill observers said that is an unlikely outcome in what already is viewed as a chancy legislative venture in the wake of the Senate’s failed attempts to repeal and replace Obamacare. Conservative groups have already launched a digital ad campaign slamming Alexander’s effort.

A more likely provision may be some kind of reinsurance program to broaden the base to pay for high-cost individuals, which tend to spike overall premium rates.

Alexander expressed hope his committee can produce compromise legislation by the end of September, which is a critical deadline for insurance companies that have to submit plans and prices for individual health insurance markets around the country. Skeptics doubt whether Alexander’s target date is realistic, especially in light of other looming congressional debates to raise the debt limit, approve a disaster relief funding package and approve some kind of FY 2018 appropriation.

For now, the Trump administration is continuing, with reluctance, to make subsidy payments to medical providers as called for by the Affordable Care Act. Insurers have warned that cutting off those subsidies, which essentially compensate for high-cost care for a few individuals, could lead to as much as a 20 percent increase in premiums, effectively forcing some people to drop their policies.

There also isn’t any clear indication how much or perhaps in what form Congress will authorize for Medicaid reimbursement to states in FY 2018. The Obamacare repeal and replacement bill that narrowly cleared the House earlier this year would have slashed $800 billion from federal Medicaid reimbursements over the next 10 years.

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.

Oregon Lawmakers Face Pivotal Week on Big Issues

Veteran Oregon lawmaker Peter Courtney says this is the week the legislature must fish or cut bait on major decisions to avoid slipping into a special session to find a way to dig out of a $1.4 billion budget hole.

Veteran Oregon lawmaker Peter Courtney says this is the week the legislature must fish or cut bait on major decisions to avoid slipping into a special session to find a way to dig out of a $1.4 billion budget hole.

This is the pivotal week, according to Senate President Peter Courtney, that will determine whether Oregon lawmakers will spend more time this summer or fall in Salem in special session.

The keys to watch for this week, Courtney tells Jeff Mapes of OPB in an interview today, will be House votes on the K-12 education budget and an extension of the health care provider tax to pay for rising Medicaid costs. Courtney said if those two measures move this week, the legislature has a chance to adjourn by or before July 10, its constitutionally required deadline to approve a balanced budget and go home.

In his interview with Mapes, Courtney sounded less than optimistic about prospects for a $900 million corporate income tax increase and expressed concern that back-room haggling over tolling on Interstate 5 and 205 and potential compromises on low-carbon fuel standards could bog down progress on a transportation funding package.

Governor Brown said much the same thing last week to the Salem Statesman Journal. It’s time, she claimed, "to stop bare-knuckles politicking and move major bills including a hospital tax, a transportation package and a cost containment initiative.”

Brown's list omitted a revenue package, even though she and other Democratic leaders are rooting to pass such a package – if they can find at least one Republican in both the House and Senate to vote for it. So far that has proven elusive. The governor said she has met with nearly every lawmaker and walked away with, “I honestly don’t know whether the votes are there are this point in time.”

“We’re so close to a real, comprehensive solution this session – one that has been influenced by years of advocacy from all sides of Oregon’s political spectrum, including business and labor leaders, Republicans and Democrats,” she said." It’s time to get the work done.”

Predictions and pep talks may not offset the political barriers to progress toward a balanced budget. Republicans want deeper cuts in what they call “cost drivers” that push spending unsustainably beyond state revenues, even in good economic times. Democrats believe corporations aren’t paying their fair share to support state spending, and many think the existing corporate income tax has too many loopholes that allow big corporations to evade state taxation.

Lawmakers are debating today the latest iteration of tax legislation, which includes a corporate activities tax that would go into effect in 2019 and a "bridge proposal” of higher corporate tax rates between now and then. Democratic leadership on the House may try to move the bill despite an unknown vote count in the Senate.

The provider tax this session has faced ambivalence or opposition from portions of the health care community, including the trade group representing hospitals and health care systems. In the 2015 session, the health care industry came to Salem with full agreement a provider tax extension was among the earliest major bills to win bipartisan legislative approval. Now approval of a provider tax has become a political buoy indicating whether the 2017 legislature can avoid a special session.

The K-12 education budget, because it is the largest state agency budget, reflects a healthy increase over the current biennium, but not enough to satisfy K-12 education advocates or avoid teacher layoffs and the prospect of a ballot measure to impose a constitutional funding requirement similar to what is in the Washington Constitution. Failure to find a way to meet that constitutional funding standard has put the Washington legislature on the brink of a third special session this year.

Despite bipartisan support for a transportation package, there still doesn’t appear to be complete agreement. There always is a natural tension between urban and rural areas over allocating new revenues. Based on Courtney’s comments, there also is tension within the Portland-area legislative delegation about tolling on major interstate highways. And remember this is tolling without a new I-5 Columbia River Bridge.

End-of-session pressure often produces dramatic resolutions to seemingly irreconcilable positions. If Courtney, the longest serving legislator in the Capitol, is right, this week will determine whether there is enough pressure to break political blockades that can lead to timely adjournment.

Why Oregon Could Be Staring at a Special Session

House Speaker Tina Kotek and Republican Leader Mike McLane aren’t on the same page when it comes to how to proceed on addressing Oregon’s $1.4 billion budget hole, which could result in Oregon lawmakers spending a chunk of their summer in Salem trying to find consensus.

House Speaker Tina Kotek and Republican Leader Mike McLane aren’t on the same page when it comes to how to proceed on addressing Oregon’s $1.4 billion budget hole, which could result in Oregon lawmakers spending a chunk of their summer in Salem trying to find consensus.

As Washington lawmakers enter their second special session, speculation has begun to build on whether Oregon lawmakers are in store for a similar summer sequestration to plug a $1.4 billion budget hole and pass a transportation funding package.

Oregon lawmakers have roughly six weeks to find a political solution, even as political priorities in the Capitol don’t seem full aligned. House Speaker Tina Kotek wants action first on a revenue package. Legislative Republicans favor moving ahead on cost containment.

The disagreements don’t stop there. Kotek prefers a Corporate Activity Tax, which would replace the corporate income tax, provide a small amount of income tax relief for low and middle-income households and generate a net revenue gain of $2.164 billion. Senate Finance Chair Mark Hass, who started working on a corporate tax alternative last fall after voters soundly defeated Measure 97, is touting a different plan that would net the state just under $1 billion in additional revenue.

Hass’ Senate office saw a flurry of activity last week as Governor Brown, Kotek and Senate President Peter Courtney tried to broker a compromise version of a corporate tax. There is no sign they reached agreement on the plan’s tax provisions and, more important, on how much revenue it would raise in the next biennium.

Meanwhile, Kotek has stopped the flow of major bills, including a provider tax to fund Oregon’s Medicaid program and a transportation funding package, a 300-page piece of legislation that will receive its first public hearing May 31, with public testimony to follow June 5, 7 and 12. A provider tax package is vital to balancing Oregon’s $900 million Medicaid budget deficit and negotiations continue furiously behind closed doors.

Big decisions, especially ones involving votes to raise revenue, often are jammed into the waning days of a legislative session when fatigue sets in and pressure builds inside the Capitol to go home. However, Republicans hold the critical 36th vote in the House and 18th vote in the Senate to approve any revenue measure under Oregon’s constitutional three-fifths majority vote requirement. At the moment, they appear to be locked up pending movement on cost containment.

"My priority right now is budget" and boosting corporate taxes to fund services, Kotek told reporters. "Our goal is to get a long-term solution to our budget problems and tax reform. So any other bill will just have to wait until we get that done.” House Republican Leader Mike McLane responded, “This is Tina Kotek on her own. If that’s what she wants to do, she puts in jeopardy all we’ve working on in a bipartisan fashion so far."

Disagreeing on the order of how bills move is roughly akin to diplomats arguing about the shape of a negotiating table. It may seem trivial to outsiders, but it is the ball game to insiders. Controlling the order of voting is the leverage that Kotek believes will deliver the votes she needs to pass a revenue measure. Withholding GOP votes on a revenue measure is the leverage McLane wants to exert to win spending concessions from Democratic leaders.

The political order and timing of voting has significant ramifications for wrapping up a legislative session. It is hard to finalize state agency budgets when you aren’t sure what numbers to plug into those budgets. There is an inevitable amount of time it takes to prepare the paperwork so budget bills are ready for voting. This reality means Oregon lawmakers don’t actually have six weeks to reach consensus on a revenue-raising and cost containment deal, but more like three weeks if they want to avoid sliding into a summertime special session.

Another complicating factor to consider is the education budget. Lawmakers reportedly will begin negotiating a K-12 budget this week, further destabilizing discussion around budgets in health care and public safety. Those three issue areas make up around 90 percent of state spending, so if legislators finalize an early K-12 budget at historic numbers, it will leave less money on the table for vital human service programs, public safety and other considerations.

As Washington lawmakers have shown, political differences don’t necessarily melt away just because you are in a special session. They spent an additional 30 days in the first special session and wound up in essentially the same place. Now they have until roughly the end of June to solve their political puzzle. Oregon lawmakers have until July 10 to balance the budget or face their own special session purgatory.

At a floor session at the end of last week, Courtney once again voiced pessimism about enough votes to pass a tax measure, a cost containment plan or a transportation bill. Lawmakers will non-refundable summer vacation plans won’t be happy if they are stuck in Salem.

The good news is that a stymied Congress is unlikely to move ahead with a replacement for Obamacare and steep cuts in federal Medicaid funding that would go into effect in time to impact Oregon's 2017-2019 biennium. It doesn’t appear any major tax legislation will move in Congress before the Oregon legislature adjourns, even with a potential special session.

Session Anger Sparks Courtney Recall Drive

[Photo Credit: The Oregonian] Despite brokering the bipartisan deal that allowed the rancorous 2016 Oregon legislative session to end smoothly and early, Senate President Peter Courtney faces a recall drive led by a Woodburn Republican who says the longest serving Senate president in state history is “out of touch.”

[Photo Credit: The Oregonian] Despite brokering the bipartisan deal that allowed the rancorous 2016 Oregon legislative session to end smoothly and early, Senate President Peter Courtney faces a recall drive led by a Woodburn Republican who says the longest serving Senate president in state history is “out of touch.”

Senator Peter Courtney, the longest serving Oregon Senate president, is facing a recall attempt for the third time in a long political career that stretches back to 1980. The drive, which started collecting signatures over the weekend, may represent spillover hard feelings from the 2016 legislative session.

Courtney's critics are perturbed about successful Democratic legislation in the short 2016 session to phase out coal power and raise the minimum wage. They also are upset that Courtney didn’t push through the resolution to ask voters to approve setting aside 2 percent of Oregon Lottery proceeds to help veterans.

The coal-to-clean bill, which was hammered out as a compromise between electric utilities and environmentalists to avoid a more aggressive ballot measure this fall, created political tension during the short session. House and Senate Republicans demanded that bills be read aloud in their entirety, which slowed down session progress and jeopardized passage of several major bills, including the coal-to-clean legislation.

Some of the venom of the short session landed on Courtney, who played a lead role in convincing Oregonians to amend the state Constitution and permit annual sessions. Skeptics said it was unlikely lawmakers would stick to minor housekeeping legislation and budget tweaks in the 35-day, even-year session. The 2016 session was packed with high-profile bills, including multiple minimum wage bills, several marijuana industry measures and significant energy and environmental legislation.

Matt Geiger, a Woodburn business leader who ran unsuccessfully for a House seat in 2014, is spearheading the Courtney recall. Geiger was planning to make another run for the House, this time as an Independent, but dropped his plans to pursue the recall.

Geiger said the higher minimum wage will harm the agricultural and small business sectors. The utility-environmental compromise on coal, Geiger said, would drive up electricity rates without real environmental benefits in Oregon. He also questioned a bill introduced by Courtney that would allow mass transit districts to impose a payroll tax. That bill never made it out of committee during the 2016 session, largely because Courtney let it sit in deference to the bill’s critics. 

“It’s time we remove from office someone who is clearly out of touch with the needs of his community and who only seems to care about which special interest is writing him a check,” Geiger said in a press release.

However, Dick Hughes, editorial page editor for the Statesman Journal, wondered aloud in a weekend column why Courtney is being targeted. The recall pecks at the coal-to-clean bill that passed, but it fails to mention the California-styled cap-and-trade energy bill that Courtney blocked, to the frustration of many Democrats.

“Peter Courtney is an odd target,” Hughes wrote. “I’m befuddled. The liberalist liberal among legislative leadership is House Speaker Tina Kotek, not Courtney.” It was Courtney who brokered the deal between Republicans and Democrats that allowed the rancorous session to end smoothly and early.

Courtney became Senate president in the 2003 session when there were 15 Democrats and 15 Republicans. He was the only Senate Democrat who Republicans trusted enough to hand him the gavel. He has held the post since then.

Courtney won re-election in 2014 and hasn’t given any firm indications of whether he will run again in 2018 when he will turn 75. The two previous recall efforts against him failed to gather enough signatures. In Oregon, the last 10 recall petitions have failed to receive enough valid signatures. The last successful recall election occurred eight years ago with the ouster of a Wheeler County district attorney. 

“Emergencies” Top Short Session Docket

Senate President Peter Courtney helped to convince Oregonians to approve annual sessions and now presides over a 35-day session packed with legislative “emergencies."

Senate President Peter Courtney helped to convince Oregonians to approve annual sessions and now presides over a 35-day session packed with legislative “emergencies."

The strains of a short even-year legislative session sprouted on day one as Republicans in the Oregon House and Senate demanded each of the 260 bills introduced be read aloud word by word.

The message sent by GOP lawmakers is that a 35-day session is too short to consider legislation raising the minimum wage, altering corporate taxation, addressing affordable housing and adopting a pair of far-reaching energy bills.

Those measures are on the legislative docket as a last-ditch effort to keep the issues they raise off the November ballot.

Oregon’s election-year annual session has evolved into a different, though perhaps inevitable role from its original conception. Senate President Peter Courtney, who led the push for annual sessions, sold the plan as a way to update the state’s biennial budget, pass minor legislative fixes and deal with emergencies that couldn’t wait.

Emergencies that can’t wait now apparently include blockbuster ballot measures that would raise the minimum wage as high as $15 per hour, slap a gross receipts tax on large corporate taxpayers and force Oregon utilities to ditch coal-generated electricity.

Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli tweaked Courtney’s memory of the purpose of the short even-year legislative session by saying, “As I recall, Oregonians were sold on the idea of annual meetings with the promise that the ‘short session' would focus on balancing the budget, making small legislative ‘fixes' and responding to emergencies that need immediate attention.  I'm sorry to report that the 'short session' has become little more than a setting for the majority party to pursue an over-reaching agenda of tax increases, regulation and ideological issues dear to the progressives who rule Portland and to a great extent, the rest of Oregon.”

The last part of Ferrioli’s statement reflects his underlying opposition to all of the heavy-duty legislative proposals that are on the table thanks largely to Democratic-leaning activists. The exception is the coal-to-clean bill that was negotiated by utilities and environmental groups.

Governor Brown has offered an alternative minimum wage proposal and Senator Mark Hass, chair of Senate Finance, is proposing a scaled down corporate tax measure.

While those high-profile issues command attention, other significant legislation has been introduced to address marijuana industry regulation, gun sales, processing of rape kits and a few bills that didn’t make it out of the longer 2015 legislative session.

The racer-fast pace of a short session – if a bill can’t get a hearing, markup and a vote in the first two weeks, it is basically dead – provides plenty of fodder for skeptics. House Republican Leader Mike McLane said one-hour notice for a hearing on a major bill doesn’t allow enough time from someone from Eastern Oregon to show up to testify.

In the end, emergencies are in the eye of the beholder. For many Portland-area legislators, for example, the growing housing affordability problem in the city has elevated to a crisis that requires a legislative response. Their proposed response, which requires construction of affordable housing and puts limits on evictions of renters, may not seem so urgent in other parts of Oregon.

With PERS Benefits Off the Table, Time to Reduce Costs

Oregon's gamble on trimming public retiree benefits failed and it now faces a $13.75 billion Public Employee Retirement System deficit, with few ideas on the table of what to do next. Photo by The Oregonian. 

Oregon's gamble on trimming public retiree benefits failed and it now faces a $13.75 billion Public Employee Retirement System deficit, with few ideas on the table of what to do next. Photo by The Oregonian. 

A lot of hand-wringing, but not much action has followed the Oregon Supreme Court's decision invalidating many of the Public Employee Retirement System changes aimed at reducing the state's unfunded liability.

Public employee union officials are clucking, "We told you so." Legislators are conceding there is little more that could be done to trim retiree benefits. And state and local public agencies are bracing for a round of stiff PERS contribution rate hikes in 2017.

If you can't touch retiree benefits, all that's left is reducing costs associated with PERS. And lo and behold, the legislature is sitting on a bill that backers say could save $2.7 billion over the next 20 years in expenses to manage public retirement investments.Under Senate Bill 134, an Oregon Investment Department would be formed as an independent agency, much like SAIF Corporation. The department would be overseen by the Oregon Investment Council and responsibility to administer public retirement funds would fall to a professional investment manager, not the state treasurer. The treasurer would be the vice chair of the Council.

Even though this set-up would require hiring more staff members to manage a portfolio and assess risk, it would enable Oregon to free itself from the higher-priced consultants it pays for now. One benchmarking analyst said Oregon is a “high-cost fund compared to its peers, in large part because of Treasury's heavy reliance on outsourcing.” This is where the projected savings comes into play.

Cost-cutting has the drawback of not appearing to reduce the unfunded liability, but the advantage of reducing the outflow of cash to manage public retirement funds, while "in-sourcing" investment management duties.

Republican lawmakers may fret about hiring more state workers, but they may see increased local employment as a better alternative than sending big sums to Wall Street investment management firms.

The legislation, introduced by Treasurer Ted Wheeler, nearly passed in the short 2014 legislative session. The Oregon Investment Council expected it to fly through the 2015 session. But it hasn't.

Senate President Peter Courtney has sat on the legislation this session out of fear of creating another "Cover Oregon" calamity. But that was before the Oregon Supreme Court ruling on so-called PERS reforms. Now the legislature is staring at a financial tsunami far worse than Cover Oregon.

Wheeler's uncertain political status may be another contributing factor. Deemed constitutionally unable to run for another term as state treasurer, Wheeler appears to be considering his options. Many of those options could involve other elected officials – in the governor's office and in key legislative leadership positions. These potential opponents may not feel a need to give Wheeler a perceived "political victory."

While Courtney's reluctance and other elected officials' wariness are part of the normal political process, the PERS problem may force everyone to rise above "normal."

At a minimum, giving the Oregon Investment Department and the savings it might generate a second look could form the basis of a broad coalition business-labor coalition willing to find ways to nibble away at the problem without threatening retiree benefits. It seems like a much better use of time than hand-wringing.

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Perils of Driving and Texting

One way to make your point is to turn it into a video game. AT&T is using a simulator to show the dangers of driving while texting.

The Salem Statesman Journal staged a competition between Senate President Peter Courtney and political reporter Anna Staver to see who could drive the safest on the simulator while texting. Both crashed. Courtney crashed several times.

The PR stunt served to underline the point that more than 3,300 people were killed and 420,000 injured in the United States in distracted-driving crashes, according to a 2012 report from The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.​ Yet texting while driving is on the rise.

Loss of Wine a Reality Shake-up

A magnitude 6.0 temblor in the wine nirvana of Napa Valley may shake West Coast residents into realizing they need to prepare for earthquakes, including the inevitable Big One.

Many Napa wineries saw bottles and barrels of wine strewn in warehouses and cellars. Some placed damage estimates at as much as $1 billion, as insurance brokers reported many Napa and Sonoma wineries opted against supplemental earthquake coverage because of its relatively high cost.

Oregon wineries and other small businesses may be in the same boat. You know the threat is real, yet the price for insurance is prohibitive. The price of basic preparation, however, is within reach if people can be shaken into a realization it is smart and necessary.

Oregon Senate President Peter Courtney is again pushing for a major bonding campaign to retrofit Oregon schools.

Geologists and volcanologists in Oregon cite evidence that this area has experienced a major quake every 500 years or so. The last "Big One" was 314 years ago.

Natural disasters on this scale produce gallows humor. But officials stress that preparedness is not really a laughing matter. They note a major earthquake could level buildings, knock out bridges and disrupt basic utilities such as electricity, natural gas and water. Your house may still be standing, but the lifelines you normally depend on may be destroyed.

There are three faults running under Portland. Another major fault is just off the Oregon Coast. There are more in the Willamette Valley. The 1700 Cascadia earthquake occurred along the subduction zone running from northern California to British Columbia. Evidence shows it produced a giant tsunami that belted Japan. The Big One before that was in 1310, a span of only 390 years.

State, Local Revenues on the Rise

Legislators have a little more cash in the bank as the short 2014 session nears its mid-point, but maybe not enough to avert some spending cuts. Local school revenue derived from property taxes showed a healthy jump.

Oregon State Economist Mark McMullen delivered today the March economic forecast, which predicts another $14.8 million revenue. The forecast show revenues largely flat for this biennium and into future years, but is more optimistic on job growth than previous forecasts. In the near term, however, stronger job growth projections are offset by disappointing revenue collections.

The Office of Economic Analysis is optimistic about the future. Profitable businesses have been sitting on cash, waiting and building confidence to invest and expand. The state is beginning to see industries get close to production capacity. When combined with lower energy costs, brought on by expanded US oil and gas production, businesses are poised to begin expansion efforts. Labor force expansion follows business expansion creating opportunities for workers who are sitting on sidelines of the economy.

No personal income or corporate kicker is currently predicted for 2015, but the state is edging ever closer to hitting the target. McMullen reported the state is just $100 million away from a personal income kicker. April’s tax returns should give a better indication of the size of capital gains, providing a clearer picture as to whether the kicker will actually kick.

The outlook remains stable and there is evidence that economic recovery is spreading across regions in Oregon. The net changes over time suggest the growth trend will continue at a steady pace around 10 precent.

As lawmakers begin to push to close the short session, they will have a few more resources to dole out to agencies and pay for the costs associated with the passage of new policy bills. The amount is just enough to give budget writers some breathing room without giving other lawmakers a false sense of plenty — thus creating a rush of funding requests that cannot be met.

Even with new resources, the state will struggle to maintain a substantial ending fund balance as the costs associated with budget rebalances, devastating fire seasons and unexpected emergencies create risk for the remainder of the biennium. Lawmakers also face potentially large budget gaps in corrections and human services that will be major challenges in 2015.

A separate forecast showed a $98 million increase in revenue available to Oregon K-12 school districts. While most of the increase is the result of larger property tax collections statewide, the amount also reflects a temporary extension of federal timber payments and proceeds from state lands.

Large House Turnover Looms for 2015 Session

The 2015 Oregon House will be a substantially different from the one that convened just a year ago. Nearly a quarter of House members who were sworn in during the 2013 session have announced their intention not to seek re-election or are pursuing other electoral opportunities (some in the Oregon Senate).

In a state where relationships are key to legislative victories, the turnover in the House may break Oregon’s recent streak in passing major reforms.

The 14 House members not seeking re-election include nine Republicans and five Democrats. Together, they have served a whopping 117 years as elected members of the Oregon House through 103 regular sessions (and, for some, countless special sessions).

Rep. Bob Jenson (R-Pendleton), the longest serving member of the Oregon House, is among those who will retire this year after serving 18 years as a state representative.

Legislative service is a tough business — long hours, low pay, months away from families and friends, all combined with an election cycle that is increasingly hostile. Yet, the service for many is rewarding, finding ways to pass legislation that is important to their districts, working collaboratively balance budgets and make important reforms.

Kitzhaber, Courtney Legacies Grow

The successful five-bill, three-day Oregon special legislative session will enhance John Kitzhaber's legacy as governor. It also signals a constructive working relationship between House Speaker Tina Kotek and GOP Leader Mike McLane. And the session provided campaign platforms for Reps. Dennis Richardson and Jules Bailey.

Almost lost in the shuffle was Senator Peter Courtney's win in establishing a dedicated funding source for expanded community mental health programs, which was his top priority before the start of the 2013 regular legislative session.

News coverage of the conclusion of the special session Wednesday showed a beaming Kitzhaber. For good reason. He took the tatters of a budget deal left on the cutting room floor in the waning hours of the regular session and wove them into a complicated deal that will result in more money going to K-12 schools and higher education. 

Kitzhaber's unwavering confidence he could find common ground among skeptical House Democrats and legislative Republicans stands in sharp contrast to his defeatist views expressed at the end of his second term of governor. His third term has been an unbroken string of negotiating successes that prove Oregon can be governed after all. And he gets much of the credit.

The Oregonian's Friday edition challenged Kitzhaber now to turn his attention and political capital to comprehensive tax reform, a goal that has eluded him as well as many of his predecessors. Hopefully, The Oregonian will forgive Kitzhaber if he takes the weekend off before starting his new quest.

The Kotek-McLane tandem held together well and under extreme political pressure. To make the multiple-bill compromise work, all five bills had to pass for any to survive. Kotek and McLane knew it would take different cross-sections of lawmakers from both party caucuses to pass the most controversial measures dealing with taxation, PERS cuts and a local pre-emption on genetically modified crops.

Only 22 out of 90 lawmakers voted for all five measures. Kotek and McLane were two of them. More important, they showed they could deliver key votes when it counted. The tax measure, a combination of increases and cuts, began in the House and came up three votes short. Kotek delayed declaring the final vote until she mustered three votes — all from her Democratic caucus.

The Might-Be, Could-Be Special Session

The September 30 legislative special session is the picture of conjecture. It might happen. Then again, it might not. If it does, we know when. If it doesn't, we may never completely know why.

Governor Kitzhaber and Senate President Peter Courtney appear to be in roughly the same position as President Obama and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Kitzhaber and Courtney see a grand budget deal as tantalizingly close, but face reticence or outright opposition from the political right and political left. 

Obama and Reid got a sprinkle of fairy dust on the Syrian issue with a possible diplomatic breakthrough by Russia convincing its ally to surrender chemical weapons to international authorities. Kitzhaber and Courtney might not be so lucky.

Republicans aren't eager to support a tax hike, which some business supporters see as the best antidote to a divisive ballot measure on taxation next year. House Democrats aren't thrilled about another round of benefit cuts to public employee retirees.

And the special session has another major component — the plan for Oregon to forge ahead alone on a new I-5 Columbia River bridge. Kitzhaber strongly supports this idea, but some of his allies aren't quite so firm. Courtney doesn't want to act unilaterally and offend Washington. Portland-area Democrats want assurance Tri-Met won't be on the hook to pay for operations and maintenance of light rail once it is extended into Clark County.

A Portland Democrat said he attended a fundraiser this week where half his colleagues were confident there would be a special session and the other half were equally confident there wouldn't be.

Legislature Adjourns, Post-Mortems Commence

Before you could say Sine Die, emails started flying describing the 2013 Oregon legislative session successes and disappointments.

Some rued the lack of a "Grand Bargain" on increased tax revenue and deeper cuts in the Public Employees Retirement System. Others pointed out individual successes, such as Rep. Brent Barton, D-Clackamas, who touted legislative approval of a $5 million investment for the Willamette Falls redevelopment "located at the heart of my district." A few deplored specific bills, such as Senator Doug Whitsett, R-Klamath Falls, who bewailed a bill dealing with tenants using Section 8 housing vouchers.

Oregon Pubic Broadcasting's Chris Lehman posted a story about a session of "missed opportunities." Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli was blunter, saying the 2013 session held promise for historic decision-making that didn't pan out. Treasurer Ted Wheeler applauded the legislature for sending his Opportunity Initiative to generate more money for college student aid to the November 2014 election ballot. 

Pretty much everybody, except Senator Chris Edwards, D-Eugene, took bows for increasing K-12 school funding by a $1 billion. Edwards thought it should have been more to avoid teacher layoffs and shrunken school schedules that will still face some districts around the state.

And there was something for almost everybody in the $1 billion lottery bonding measure, affectionately known around the Capitol as the Christmas tree bill. It contained $79.4 million for a new state hospital in Junction City, $15 million for Multnomah County Courthouse improvements, $10 million for the proposed convention center hotel and $618 million in assorted investments at public universities and community colleges. 

Lawmakers approved $34.5 million to undertake a major remodeling and seismic upgrade for the Oregon Capitol, which will involve a temporary home for the legislature while the building is jacked up and put on huge springs.

Courtney Urges Mental Health Spending Boost

Senate President Peter Courtney, D-Salem, called today for a "game-changing" investment in Oregon community mental health programs, but stopped short of specific recommendations on how to pay for $331 million in additional spending. Courtney noted that a number of funding options were under consideration — including a dedicated beer and wine tax increase.

The champion of replacing the state mental hospital nearly a decade ago, Courtney has maintained a passionate interest in treating the one in eight children and one in 18 adults in Oregon who suffer from mental illness.

He cited "recent tragedies," including the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, as a reason to act now to bolster mental health treatment programs.

Courtney's early-session pitch for mental health funding increases follows a tradition in Oregon of an issue quickly rising to the surface and changing the complexion of an entire session. In the 2011 session, an opinion from Legislative Counsel about federal tax reconnect legislation put pressure on the evenly divided Oregon House and its unique power-sharing agreement, which produced a solution without a political meltdown.

The longest serving Oregon legislator, Courtney said, "Nearly two-thirds of young Oregonians who need mental health services aren't getting them. We have to do better. Before we can fill their minds with knowledge, we need to make sure their minds are healthy."

A press release issued by Courtney said $285 million is needed for crisis services, case management, outpatient programs and housing for mentally ill adults. Another $46 million is need for programs for children and young adults.