Democrats hold supermajorities in the House and Senate to pass revenue-raising measures without Republican votes. Business interests may be relegated to the political sidelines. Yet, Governor Brown’s $2 billion revenue challenge in the 2019-2021 biennium seems tenuous.
In her budget message, Brown didn’t specify how she wanted to raise an additional $2 billion in revenue to fund public education. However, she has been very clear she isn’t interested in tying a revenue increase to reduction in PERS benefits, which business interests have advocated. The implication is that legislative Democrats have the votes and can decide on the details.
It may not be that simple.
For starters, the PERS unfunded liability is likely to be larger. As The Oregonian’s Ted Sickinger reported, PERS investments so far this year have fallen significantly short of the assumed 7.2 percent return rate, which actuaries say could balloon the unfunded liability by as much as $4 billion.
That won’t affect the current public employer contribution rate, which is already fixed for the next two years and cost an additional $1.1 billion. The PERS actuary predicts even steeper contribution rate increases beginning in 2021. Such a prospect may propel public employers to press harder for legislative solutions.
Jody Wiser of Tax Fairness Oregon has suggested paying down the PERS unfunded liability with a one-time diversion of the personal income tax kicker, pegged at $724 million. Voting to redirect a kicker payment to PERS is not impossible to imagine in a Democratically controlled legislature, but it still wouldn’t be an easy vote. Most of the kicker benefits flow to middle- and upper-income Oregon taxpayers, the people who typically write campaign checks to legislators.
Democrats have a comfortable supermajority in the Oregon House, but a less reliable one in the Oregon Senate. Senator Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, isn’t always a sure bet to go along with her 17 other Democratic colleagues on tax issues. As one of the two Senate co-chairs of the Joint Ways and Means Committee, Johnson will be part of the Democratic leadership team, but also hold more political leverage. Johnson is one of those votes you have to earn, not just count on.
Perhaps the biggest challenge to the $2 billion revenue challenge is the lack of a specific plan. Democrats pushed in the 2017 session a corporate tax restructuring proposal, but the proposal or something like it wouldn’t generate $2 billion. That means a tax plan would most likely need to affect business and personal income taxpayers.
A business tax hike might be a lighter lift after the congressional GOP tax cut that included several business tax breaks. But the federal legislation contained personal income tax provisions that limit state and local tax deductions, which will mean higher federal taxable income starting in 2018 for a chunk of Oregon taxpayers. Again, not insurmountable, but not necessarily easy.
Designing a tax proposal, especially one as large as $2 billion in Oregon’s context, will be messy. Tax ideas will be floated and dropped. The final product may not be a single tax increase, but a series of tax and fee increases. This revenue-raiser will be in addition to taxes and fees levied to fill the budget gap for Oregon’s Medicaid program.
How the $2 billion will be spent also will be the source of endless debate. A special committee traveled the state during the interim gathering ideas on how to improve public education in Oregon. It came up with a long list – and didn’t include suggestions for higher education.
The slim 22-member House GOP caucus, with Rep. Carl Wilson, R-Grants Pass, as its new “superminority” leader, expects to be largely spectators on tax legislation this session. However, that doesn’t rule out a role as spoilers who seize every opportunity to take political pot shots at Democratically backed tax proposals – and rising PERS contributions by cities, counties and school districts.
There is always a possibility of a bipartisan revenue package, which might avoid a voter referral that would be costly and delay any revenue increases. Compromising on a $2 billion tax package would pose political risks for both Democrats and Republicans, but also afford potential political benefits.
Republican legislative control in a blue state seems remote, so negotiating for some “victories” as part of a tax package could be viewed by GOP voters as turning lemons into lemonade. Democrats could win accolades for leadership by including some GOP priorities instead of plowing them over in the legislative process.
One thing is sure. Raising $2 billion in the next biennium is not a slam dunk because there will be votes on one or more tax measures to raise that sum, huge debates over where the money should go and a dark shadow cast by PERS.