education reform

Tax Reform, Affordable Housing Top Readers’ 2016 Policy Priority List

Affordable housing is top of mind for many Oregonians heading into 2016. In September, Mayor Charlie Hales declared Portland had fallen into a housing crisis. The announcement helped set the stage for difficult state-level discussions about how to solve the problem. 

Affordable housing is top of mind for many Oregonians heading into 2016. In September, Mayor Charlie Hales declared Portland had fallen into a housing crisis. The announcement helped set the stage for difficult state-level discussions about how to solve the problem. 

We asked about top 2016 policy priorities, and you answered. The two most mentioned policy priorities were tax reform and affordable housing. A transportation funding plan and changes to the Public Employee Retirement System (PERS) also drew mentions.

As expected, when we asked about leadership, most comments zeroed in on Governor Kate Brown and her role in making needed changes, even as she faces election this November to complete the last two year’s of John Kitzhaber’s term.

Here are some highlights from what you told us.

Tax Reform

Jan Lee, a former state representative from Clackamas County and lobbyist, said it’s again time to explore a sales tax in Oregon. “We need a sales tax with some compensating features to reduce income or property tax a bit so that we have a system that fares better in all economic climes,” Lee says. 

While Oregon’s employment figures have shown strong growth over the past year, incomes have largely remained stagnant. But Lee believes changing the state’s tax system while raising the minimum wage could be enough to spur creation of higher paying jobs across the income spectrum.  

“The legislature can raise the minimum wage; if not one of this fall's ballot measures can achieve that result,” she says. “Maybe instead of some of the other tax credits now made available, there could be more tax breaks that businesses can earn by providing higher paying blue collar and white collar jobs to drive our economy and meet families' needs.”

“As always, close coordination with the Governor's office and open communication between the two party caucuses sets up a better opportunity for leadership to bring people together,” Lee explains. “Consensus is not expected, but achieving a little higher majority on important issues makes the system more workable.”

Tom Wilson, vice president of Campbell & Company, said it’s time to put the clean fuels bill approved during the 2015 Oregon legislative session and a proposed 10-cent per gallon gas tax back on the table. That’s just the start of a series of changes Wilson envisions for Oregon’s tax system, which he says will require top-down leadership.

“Governor Brown needs to lead the charge on this by reminding all the Multnomah County Democrats and Tina (Kotek) that there is actually another part of Oregon that needs to be served,” Wilson says. “Start to fix PERs by requiring members to contribute to their retirement like the rest so do. Do not allow the unions to jam through another tax on corporations.”

Affordable Housing

Four months ago, Mayor Charlie Hales declared a housing crisis in Portland, and news stories continue to surface about Oregonians struggling to keep up with skyrocketing rents and day-to-day housing costs. So, it’s no surprise that affordable housing is top of mind.  

Chris Vetter of  the Vetter Group and Don Mazziotti,  the former head of the Portland Development Commission and now a Portland-based management consultant, listed housing as their primary concern for Oregon in 2016.

“We need more affordable apartments and opportunities for urban professionals,” Vetter says.

Mazziotti says Oregon lawmakers should focus on easing the financial burden on homeowners and renters across the state.  

Jim Standring, president of Tigard-based Westland Industries, took another angle, suggesting lawmakers approach the affordable housing crisis with an eye toward improving Oregon’s land-use laws. 

“Oregon's land use system is totally broken and needs significant change,” Standring says. “Concerns about affordability and homeownership will continue to suffer without these changes.”

We hope you will keep talking to us about the priorities you want addresses in Oregon. We’re listening. 

Justin Runquist is CFM’s communications counsel. He is a former reporter for The Oregonian, The Columbian and The Spokesman-Review. Away from the office, he’s a baseball fanatic with foolhardy hopes that the Mariners will go to the World Series someday. You can reach Justin at justinr@cfmpdx.com and follow him on Twitter at @_JustinRunquist

Brown Signals Her Course of Action

Kate Brown held her first press conference today as Oregon's governor and sent clear signals about her legislative priorities, views on key issues and plan to move into Mahonia Hall.

Kate Brown held her first press conference today as Oregon's governor and sent clear signals about her legislative priorities, views on key issues and plan to move into Mahonia Hall.

Governor Kate Brown gave the first indications of her immediate priorities at a press conference today. She called dealing with stalled negotiations that have caused shipping delays at West Coast ports, including Portland, a top priority.

Just two days after replacing John Kitzhaber, who resigned amid an influence-peddling scandal, Brown said her predecessor didn't ask for a pardon and it would be too soon and too speculative for her to comment on whether she would consider granting one. The new governor indicated  she would work to release public records related to Kitzhaber and Cylvia Hayes as soon as possible.

Brown said she will maintain Kitzhaber's focus on early childhood learning, as well push for reductions in K-12 classroom size and closing the achievement gap in public schools. She said she supported requiring vaccinations for all children attending public schools, with exemptions only for medical reasons.

Following up on her own agenda as secretary of state, Brown said she will urge the legislature to approve her voter registration bill that would sign up anyone automatically if they have a driver's license. House Bill 2177 passed out of the Oregon House shortly after Brown press conference.

On other important issues, Brown said:

  • She supports increasing Oregon's minimum wage;
  • She expressed support for lower carbon fuel standards;
  • She will keep in the place the moratorium on state executions and agrees with Kitzhaber on the need for a broader conversation over the death penalty;
  •  She will work with legislative leaders on a possible transportation funding package;
  • She will engage legislators in negotiations over the 2015-2017 budget; and
  • She has dedicated a staff member to deal with ethics and public records reform issues.

On more personal issues, Brown said she plans to move into Mahonia Hall and decided to keep several senior staff members who worked for Kitzhaber to maintain policy continuity. She has named her own staff director, legal counsel and communications chief.

"They Are Here;" Now What Will We Do?

As the Oregon legislature appears headed for adjournment, possibly without a grand budget deal, The Oregonian is publishing a multi-part series by investigative reporter Les Zaitz revealing deep inroads into Oregon's drug scene by Mexican cartels.

Too bad legislative attention couldn't have been given this session to the underlying facts Zaitz has uncovered — bombings and shootings linked to the cartels, our own state drug lords, drug dealers in our neighborhoods, deaths from drug overdoses and challenges to law enforcement to bring perpetrators to justice.

"They Are Here," the headline on the lead story of the series published Sunday, is a scary reminder that we could see — or maybe already have seen — first-hand the kind of violence we usually associate with U.S.-Mexico border towns. It also hints at the long, grasping coils of criminal organizations that pursue drug trafficking like a business, hooking customers, bribing local officials and terrifying anyone who gets in their way.

Zaitz has won plaudits for his eye-opening reporting, which come ironically as The Oregonian scales back its profile as a print publication in pursuit of becoming a digital enterprise. Questions arise about whether stories like this will continue to be chased and reported in the new, emerging journalistic landscape.

While that is an important question, the more immediate issue is what response will Oregon law enforcement leaders give to Zaitz's story?

The Governor as Prop

Governor Kitzhaber will be sitting in First Lady Michelle Obama's box tonight as the President delivers his State of the Union Address. Kitzhaber's presence will be highlighted on national television when Obama talks about health care and Medicaid reform.

While in the role of a prop tonight, Kitzhaber has been anything but inert in pushing for health care transformation. His energy for health care reform, early adoption of the health insurance exchange and his push for changes in the health care delivery system have thrust Oregon to the forefront. His ideas for change have won widespread support among health care providers and insurers, business leaders and legislators on both sides of the political aisle.

Perhaps the most fundamental change Kitzhaber is pushing is a system of coordinated care organizations through the state that are charged with improving patient outcomes while reducing costs. Early efforts are aimed at problems such as treatment of complex, chronic diseases to avoid unnecessary hospitalization or prescription drugs.

Oregonians are too often reflected nationally by the shenanigans of Tonya Harding or the caricatures of the televised comedy, Portlandia. We may not know how to act when Oregon is singled out for praise in such a high-profile moment.

Kitzhaber will be joined in the First Lady's box by a teacher from Sandy Hook Elementary, a police officer who responded to the massacre at a Sikh temple in Wisconsin and the parents of a girl killed by gunfire in Chicago, just days after she participated in Obama's inauguration. They will be reminders of the collateral damage of gun violence in America and symbols of why Obama is asking Congress to act on gun control.

The Results of Election Results

As Monday morning quarterbacks dissect Tuesday's election results, political operatives are busy figuring out what can happen as a result.

By virtue of Democrats reclaiming the Oregon House with a projected 34-26 margin, one party now controls both houses of the legislature, the governorship and other statewide offices. Questions abound on whether that is good or bad for various issues.

For example, will Democratic control throttle any effort to stem rising Public Employee Retirement System changes, which are squeezing K-12 schools, state agencies and local government? Public-employee-union financial and grassroots support played a major role in giving Democrats a majority in the House and may frown on any major changes.

Or, will the advent of Rep. Tina Kotek, D-Portland, as Speaker of the House help the sagging fortunes of the Columbia River Crossing project, which she strongly supports? Clark County voters dealt the latest blow by rejecting a funding measure for the extension of light rail north of the Columbia River.

And, will the legislature feel empowered to tackle thorny issues such as liquor privatization, marijuana legalization and same-sex marriage to forestall proposed initiative drives in 2014? Washington action on all three subjects could serve as motivation, as well as pressure on Kotek, who is poised to become the first lesbian Speaker of the House in the nation.

Add to that stew the frothy ingredients already on the table, including a set of expiring health care taxes, K-12 reform proposals, early childhood learning recommendations, postsecondary institutional aspirations and prison sentencing options. Not to mention a simmering concern — and debate — about how to stimulate job creation, which ranks highest on most voter priorities.

It does seem obvious that tax reform, the subject of a work group named by Governor Kitzhaber, will be an unlikely topic in the 2013 session. There isn't enough agreement in the work group, let alone among voters, and there may not be enough time to tackle the topic in an already congested 6-month legislative session.

Three Down – Only 26 to Go

As legislators headed home Friday to gear up for a second week in Salem, it was difficult for anyone accurately to describe the activities of the first three days because things moved much faster than normal at the Capitol — especially for opening days of a legislative session.

There was a crush of business as committees posted hearings on a large number of bills that probably will go nowhere. It prompted a lot of scurrying around, as lobbyists tried to figure what had a chance of passage and what didn't.

Three major "reforms" proposed by Governor Kitzhaber — education, health care and early learning — began moving down paths toward probable approval later this month. If you were betting, you would say the governor would win, but not without push-back by some Republicans who believe change is moving too fast for anyone to accommodate.

A so-called "budget deal" announced on the second day of the session last Thursday produced a bit of buzz, plus a couple headlines, but no one was sure about the real scope or impact of the deal. It turned out to be a "budget re-balance" plan, which means it represented an attempt by Joint Ways and Means Committee leaders to solve internal problems in the budget that had emerged in the last six months since adjournment last June.

The re-balance plan didn't address the current shortfall in state tax revenue, which has been pegged at about $305 million. Nor did the plan address any new revenue shortfall, which could be announced Wednesday when the state economist releases the latest revenue forecast at a joint meeting of the House and Senate Revenue Committees. It also prompted criticism of the Ways and Means co-chairs who took some of a recent Phillip Morris tobacco tax court-ordered payment — about $56 million — and applied most of it to the general budget deficit, not, as proposed, to funding for crime victims. Such is the stuff of Ways and Means.  Money ostensibly for one purpose is swept for another purpose.

Accurate Expectations for Short Session

Many Oregon legislators have lived through the different pace of the "experiments" with two short legislative sessions – one in 2008 and one in 2010. A number of new legislators and — perhaps more important — Governor Kitzhaber have not had the special experience.

That raises questions about proper expectations for the short session, which comes amid a lingering recession that has resulted in declining state tax revenue projections and just before the campaign season formally launches that will determine which party controls the House and Senate. The special session is scheduled to end no later than March 5, the day before the filing deadline for the May primary and November general elections.  

There are at least five major issues on the special session platter. Four of them are there because of initiatives by the governor as he seeks to re-make state government. The issues are:

         *  The need to balance the state budget in the face of a continuing recession that is sapping general fund resources for K-12, higher education, law enforcement, prisons and social services. The prospect of spending cuts is viewed as so dire that SEIU and AARP have bought advertising to decry further reductions in home, health and long-term care.

         *  Taking the next steps in the governor's education investment strategy, which will consolidate education management and funding priorities from kindergarten through graduate school under his leadership and an appointed education czar.

Planning for the February Legislative Session

While Oregon legislators are planning for their Christmas and New Year holiday celebrations, they also have February on their calendars.

That's when they will return to Salem for the first official "annual legislative session," which voters enabled when they changed the Oregon Constitution at the November 2010 general election.

Legislators experimented with annual sessions in 2008 and 2010 in an approach that some observers thought violated the Constitution.

Lawmakers arrive in Salem February 1 and probably will finish the session by March 5 or thereabouts — if, for other reason, than that the 2012 election filing day deadline is March 6, an event usually held in the House chamber.

At the moment, several major issues are on the February legislative agenda:

  • The next steps in Governor Kitzhaber's plan for education reform, which revolves around creating an Education Investment Board to oversee all of education from kindergarten through graduate school. The governor also envisions hiring an "education czar." The proposals remain controversial, especially in light of the recent dust-up between the State Board of Higher Education (which would go away with creation of the Education Investment Board) and supporters of now-fired University of Oregon President Richard Lariviere. In addition, many observers wonder how the governor will pull off the huge organizational changes, which include diminishing the role of the elected superintendent of public instruction, at a time when state money is drying up.