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.



Californians OK Deficit-Avoiding Tax Hikes

California has gone where few states go — voters approved temporary hikes to both state income and sales taxes and a legislatively approved climate change measure has gone into effect that will auction off carbon allowances.

Increasing taxes and burdening businesses that spew greenhouse gases are supposed to tank the economy, but California budget analysts say the state could go from a decade of deep deficits to a budget surplus as large as $9 billion by 2018.

Californians also handed over the reins of state government to Democrats, giving Governor Jerry Brown a state assembly with two-thirds majorities in both houses. The last time one party held such a commanding position in the assembly was 1933, according to Bloomberg News.

Of course, the road from deep deficits to budget surpluses rests on more robust economic recovery and continued legislative spending control. A key piece of spending discipline is a legislative decision in 2009 to eliminate automatic cost-of-living increases and inflation adjustments for state programs.

Brown said voter approval of the tax hikes "validates the hard work the state has done to cut its deficit and balance its budget. California is now on the path for a fair and sustainable budget as long as we continue to exercise fiscal discipline and pay down debt."

Still, passing tax increases estimated to generate an additional $6-$8 billion per year until they expire in 2018 is a huge political achievement. The sales tax rate went from 7.25 percent to 7.5 percent and income tax rates rose for taxpayers earning more than $250,000 per year. For filers with $1 million in taxable income, the new state income tax rate is 13.3 percent, reportedly the highest in the nation.

Energy for an Energy Plan

Governor Kitzhaber has prevailed in persuading lawmakers to approve high-profile initiatives in education, early childhood learning and health care. Now he wants to tackle energy, which could prove a more elusive and tougher sell.

Earlier this year, Kitzhaber handpicked three dozen industry insiders to recommend innovative policy ideas and create a 10-year energy plan. Teams worked for four months, focusing on: 1) consumption/energy efficiency, 2) supply side/resource mix, 3) siting, 4) transportation, and 5) governance.

The group sent its recommendations to Kitzhaber, which now have been made public. Their major theme is reducing carbon dioxide emissions through energy source conversion, more reliance on renewables, and ditching power generation based on high-carbon fossil fuels. Most Oregonians may not know that more than half of the state’s electricity comes from coal-burning power plants.

One big hurdle in accomplishing carbon reduction is already surmounted as PGE has agreed to close down its Boardman coal-fired plant. But even that decision raises thorny questions as the utility looks for a way to replace a source of reliable energy to serve its base load.

Legislators had a previous taste of energy politics when they considered, but didn't act, in the 2009 session on a cap-and-trade proposal, intended to use market forces to encourage businesses with options to switch to energy sources with lower carbon emissions.

Since then, interest has grown in the merits of a carbon tax, which is a more direct disincentive for using fossil fuels. It also is a tax, which raises political flags.