The Oregon Senate, on a party-line vote, finally approved the $1 billion per year Student Success Act after Governor Brown negotiated a deal that scuttled high-profile vaccination and gun control legislation.
Senate Republicans ended their walkout that denied Democrats a quorum to conduct business on the Senate floor, delaying the approval of the education funding measure that was a top priority for the 2019 legislative session. But it wasn’t the only top priority and Democratic champions of the sacrificed measures expressed anger and frustration publicly.
Republicans weren’t celebrating a victory. House Democrats were irate. Democratic Senator Betsy Johnson, the 18th vote to ensure passage of the Student Success Act, declared her vote was conditioned on leadership promises to approve substantial PERS reform legislation. If PERS reform legislation doesn’t pass, Johnson vowed to support and campaign for a voter referral of the business tax that will pay for Student Success education investments.
The deal reportedly only scuttles the vaccination and gun control bills for this session. They are expected to return – and most likely pass – in the 2020 legislative session, which begs the question of what was actually won and lost as a result of the deal.
The Student Success Act was destined to pass, despite the Republican walkout, as even GOP senators conceded. Senators couldn’t remain absent for the rest of the session. Senate Democratic leaders could have outlasted the walkout. They might have won public sympathy by ordering the State Police to round up at least two senators to reach a quorum, an action that was seriously considered.
Commanding the State Police to corral senators would have required permission of Governor Brown. She had other ideas and took the lead on Sunday evening to cut the deal that ended the walkout and put a stake into the vaccination and gun control bills. Democratic lawmakers weren’t active participants in the negotiations, based on their reactions in media interviews.
Speculation in Salem is that a robust quarterly economic forecast due out on Wednesday may have prompted Brown’s move to take over the negotiations. Increasing state tax revenues – and a larger personal income tax kicker – may have complicated the narrative around the need for a new tax incorporated in the Student Success Act.
If Senate Republicans couldn’t declare victory with a straight face, the “winner” may have been their tactic. Holding the Senate hostage worked and will likely embolden future legislative minorities to adopt the same hostage-taking tactic. It could even happen this session in the House.
The “loser” may be legislative leaders who were undercut by a governor brokering a deal. Sometimes lawmakers ask governors to broker deals. But legislative leaders need to retain the ability to work out arrangements across a wider spectrum of legislative issues. This deal short-circuited two bills whose sponsors said their bills had the votes to pass in the Senate.
Another "loser" may be businesses relying on Senate Republican leadership to protect their interests by stopping the revenue mechanisms contained in HB 3427 and HB 2020's cap and trade bill. Businesses may be upset that Republicans traded away opportunities to reduce the financial impacts from those two bills in an effort to stop social issues like vaccines and guns.
The political maneuvering to pass the Student Success Act this week doesn’t fully eliminate the legislation’s peril if referred to voters. A referral seems likely, even though Oregon Business & Industry, the state’s largest business lobby group, took a neutral position on the tax. Nike, which supported the Student Success Act, has already donated $100,000 to defend it if there is a referral.
The referral may hinge on the PERS reform legislation, which has just been introduced and may be on a fast track. That legislation would stretch out the unfunded liability, providing some relief in the short term for public employers, but actually increase the liability. The most contentious part of the legislation is requiring public employees to contribute to their own PERS accounts, which could be a hard pill for some legislative Democrats to swallow.
The tax measure represented at least a two-session campaign by Senator Mark Hass to find a way to raise money for public schools while modernizing the state’s corporate tax system. The final version focuses the tax on an estimated 40,000 out of 460,000 businesses operating in Oregon, according to the Legislative Revenue Office. Hass credited Nike tax experts for providing critical assistance to fine-tune the tax proposal. A key compromise was to sequester the projected $1 billion per year in new revenue from going to PERS payments.