Short 2018 Session May Have Less Drama

No single issue is likely to dominate the Oregon 2018 legislative session that begins Monday, but lawmakers will still be busy with issues ranging from reconnecting to the federal tax code to gun restrictions. And there will be some political jockeying in advance of the Oregon primary in May and general election this fall.

No single issue is likely to dominate the Oregon 2018 legislative session that begins Monday, but lawmakers will still be busy with issues ranging from reconnecting to the federal tax code to gun restrictions. And there will be some political jockeying in advance of the Oregon primary in May and general election this fall.

Voter approval of Measure 101 and Senate Democratic cold water on cap-and-invest legislation may remove much of the anticipated drama at the 2018 Oregon legislative session, which convenes Monday. Of course, any legislative session during an election year can have outsized political tensions.

Without a focus on patching a big budget hole or trying to thread the needle for a compromise on cap-and-invest provisions, there isn’t an apparent single issue that will dominate the session with an adjournment deadline of March 11.

One of the sleeper bills likely to draw attention is legislation to connect Oregon’s personal and corporate income tax system with federal tax changes enacted by Congress late last year. Oregon lawmakers have tended to favor connecting Oregon’s tax provisions with their federal counterparts for the ease of taxpayer filing. But there may be other considerations this time around, including how the new federal limitation on state and local tax deductions will affect Oregon taxpayers.

The Oregon business community wants to see substantial progress on reducing the unfunded liability of the Public Employees Retirement System, but that appears unlikely in the short 2018 session and during an election year. Governor Brown will ask lawmakers to create an Employer Incentive Fund to provide matching money for public employers that accelerate their contributions to PERS. The pressure to act also was relieved by the Oregon State Treasury’s announcement that the PERS fund posted a 15.3 percent gain in 2017, which is good news, but not enough to stem rising costs.

Other priorities for Brown in the short session include a measure to encourage construction industry startups in rural areas that can access low-rate loans from Business Oregon to build affordable housing. Licensing requirements also would be relaxed and grants would be available to defray the costs of apprentices.

Brown wants all licensed opioid prescribers in Oregon to register with a Prescription Drug Monitoring Program to generate information about opioid use and identify illegal prescribers. Her proposal also would provide for mentors in emergency departments to counsel people who have overdosed.

Another Brown priority is to create a reverse auction for state procurement as a way to squeeze more value and less cost for state expenditures. Her concept is to generate more competition among state vendors who benefit from the $8 billion Brown says state agencies spend every biennium. 

The governor is seeking a bill to prohibit people convicted of domestic violence or stalking from purchasing firearms. Oregon lawmakers approved legislation last year to empower courts to order the confiscation of guns owned by people deemed at risk of suicide or hurting others.

Passage of Measure 101, which secures funding for Oregon’s Medicaid program through this biennium, prompted Rep. Mitch Greenlick, D-Portland, to propose a constitutional amendment that declares health care is a right of every Oregonian. He has attracted 40 cosponsors for his referral that would appear on November 2018 general election ballot.

Likely GOP gubernatorial frontrunner Knute Buehler, R-Bend, is pushing legislation to force coordinated care organizations to repay up to $74 million in Medicaid overpayments and address transparency and management issues by the Oregon Health Authority. Buehler has called for bipartisan action, but his measure will invariably have a vapor trail of politics following it.

Some familiar legislative faces will be missing. Long-time Senate Minority Leader Ted Ferrioli and Senator Richard Devlin, the Democrat’s budget guru, have moved on to appointed posts on the Northwest Power Council. Cliff Bentz, who has served in the Oregon House since the 2009 session, assumed Ferrioli’s seat and Senator Jackie Winters was chosen to succeed Ferrioli as minority leader. Rob Wagner, a Lake Oswego School Board member, was appointed to fill Devlin’s seat.

Finding Budget Happiness

When Governor Kitzhaber returns from his Bhutan sojourn to find the secrets to happiness, he will discover unhappiness engulfs his homeland.

A Democratic plan to raise taxes on wealthy Oregonians and corporations evaporated on the House floor for that pesky constitutional problem of too few votes. Two days later, labor-backed Our Oregon responded by filing six proposed ballot measures to hike corporate taxes from as little as $185 million to as much as $1 billion per year. All that has business groups howling about a reprise of the divisive Measure 66 and 67 tax battles.

The purpose behind raising revenue is to prevent more K-12 school cuts. Nervous about the legislature's ability to boost spending on schools, droves of parents in the beleaguered Beaverton School District took to knocking on doors to drum up votes for a special levy.

The governor stepped back to let rookie House Speaker Tina Kotek, D-Portland, have a go at the $275 million bill, which never even came to a vote. Now it may be time for Kitzhaber to invite legislative leaders to Mahonia Hall to find common ground.

Senate Republican Leader Ted Ferrioli, R-John Day, told reporters the failed House tax vote last week created an opportunity to find solutions in the political center. In his first two years of this term, Kitzhaber was adept at finding bipartisan support for major initiatives, in part because he spent time meeting with both Democrats and Republicans. That same skill set will be called on this session.

In reality, the 2013 Oregon legislative session has not been overly partisan. Going into the session, observers said it would be necessary for Democrats to recruit Republicans to support budget and revenue packages — as well as wise to sustain the bipartisan esprit that developed as a result of the unique power-sharing agreement in the 2011 and 2012 sessions.