transportation funding

Glimmer of Hope Surfaces on I-5 Bridge Project Restart

A glimmer of hope has appeared that Washington and Oregon may take the first steps to resume work on replacing I-5 Columbia River Bridge by restarting bi-state project office.

A glimmer of hope has appeared that Washington and Oregon may take the first steps to resume work on replacing I-5 Columbia River Bridge by restarting bi-state project office.

Someday, the I-5 Columbia River Bridge will be replaced. And Washington State hopes that someday is sooner rather than later.

The Washington Legislature generated some fresh enthusiasm when it included $450 million in a proposed transportation investment package to cover the state’s projected share of the cost to replace the bridge. Plus, Washington Governor Jay Inslee included $17.5 million to re-open a project office in his proposed 2019-2020 transportation budget.

The Southwest Washington legislative delegation has tried to stoke the appropriations fires and managed to make the bridge replacement that state’s number one priority in the propose transportation investment package that passed out of the Washington Senate Transportation Committee. However, with a portion of funding for such a packaged tied to creating a carbon fee in Washington, building the necessary support to pass it this year looks more like embers than sparks.

Washington looks poised to retain at least $8.5 million for a project office. While less than early-session expectations, opening a project office would begin laying the groundwork for replacing the bridge. Washington’s Department of Transportation, along with its Oregon counterpart, local cities and community partners, would start re-evaluating permits and design, develop a fresh budget and re-engage with stakeholders on both sides of the river.

Light rail, the bogeyman that helped sink a bi-state deal several years ago, remains a lightning rod. In his budget proposal, Inslee included a light rail provision, even though regional advocates encouraged calling for “mass transit“ to allow for further evaluation. Any mention of light rail has disappeared.

Meanwhile, Oregon, the putative partner in a bridge replacement deal, has been more or less quiet. There have been back-channel conversations between Olympia and Salem, but no real commitments. Majority Democrats in Salem are consumed with a cap-and-trade proposal and quest to raise $2 billion in new revenue for public education. A major transportation funding package is not anywhere near the adult table.

Oregon House Speaker Tina Kotek remains the most ardent advocate for replacing the bridge, which is part of her North Portland legislative district. She probably has support in the office of Oregon Governor Kate Brown and a good chunk of lawmakers. But without a strong, definitive move by Washington officials there is little reason to start beating the drums in Salem. That definitive move appears to be on the horizon.

 

Threatened Medicaid Referral Creates Capitol Shivers

 A serious threat by Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, to refer legislation to raise funds to sustain Oregon’s Medicaid program from an increase a hospital tax and a new tax on health insurers has sent shivers down the spines of legislative leaders and created shudders for other interest groups that could be targets to patch Oregon’s budget hole.

 A serious threat by Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, to refer legislation to raise funds to sustain Oregon’s Medicaid program from an increase a hospital tax and a new tax on health insurers has sent shivers down the spines of legislative leaders and created shudders for other interest groups that could be targets to patch Oregon’s budget hole.

A big part of Oregon’s budget fix approved this session could spring a leak if Rep. Julie Parrish, R-West Linn, successfully refers the legislation that increases a hospital provider tax and adds a tax on insurers to sustain funding for Oregon’s Medicaid program.

Parrish followed through on her threat by filing a referendum petition with the Oregon secretary of state this week. She will have 90 days to gather less than 59,000 signatures of registered Oregon voters to refer the Medicaid funding package to the ballot. Parrish reportedly has monied backing to support the referral drive.

The threat by Parrish of a referral of Medicaid legislation has created what could fairly be called a panic in the state Capitol because it could undo the only major step lawmakers took this session to address a projected $1.4 billion budget deficit. The uncertainty caused by a referral would add to anxiety caused by congressional consideration of an Obamacare replacement that would reduce Medicaid funding sharply over the next decade.

Parrish says her goal is not to gut Medicaid, but “hold it accountable.” She wants to apply voter pressure to ensure Oregonians receiving Medicaid benefits are actually eligible and to address state mismanagement such as expensive IT failures. Parrish calls the hospital provider and insurer taxes amount to a sales tax on health care services and private health insurance, which are simply passed along to consumers. Coordinated Care Organizations also would face a tax in this legislation. A broad coalition of health care providers, insurers and CCOs supported the revenue-raising to maintain Oregon’s expanded Medicaid coverage. Parrish claims there were three other bills introduced this session that would have reduced the Medicaid funding gap without taxing hospitals and health insurers.

If a possible referral isn’t contentious enough, Democratic legislative leaders may have sparked an even wider partisan wildfire over a bill that would schedule a referral vote next January 23 and allow lawmakers to write the referral ballot title, which is sometimes all voters ever read about a measure.

Democrats defended the earlier vote as a way to prevent a deeper budget hole. If Oregonians rejected the Medicaid tax measure in a January special election, then lawmakers would have time to find an alternative during the 2018 short legislative session. Republicans charged Democrats with ambushing Oregon’s referral process and trying to suppress voting by scheduling a special election on a date with an anticipated lower voter turnout.

Parrish isn’t alone in threatening a referral. In fact, she finds herself a strange bedfellow with an entity she rarely agrees with – SEIU 503.  The largest union in the state made headlines earlier in session when it held a rally on the steps of the Capitol and threatened to refer any transportation package bill unless lawmakers secured new revenue for schools and other vital services. 

She and some Democrats also have threatened to refer the $5.2 billion transportation funding package. The threat from Democrats differs from Parrish. They want to hold the transportation bill, which has fairly broad bipartisan support, hostage to try to force legislative action this session on a corporate tax measure. After the transportation package passed out of committee Saturday evening, 16 House Democrats sent a letter to Speaker Tina Kotek urging her to “re-focus on the all-important task of identifying addition revenue.”  The implied threat hanging over the letter doesn’t go as far as SEIU’s saber-rattling, but it does raise concerns among stakeholders as we enter the final days of session.

Democratic leaders, including Governor Brown, threw in the towel on a corporate tax bill a week or so ago after it became clear there wasn’t consensus on a replacement for the current corporate income tax – and not enough votes to pass anything in the Senate. Nothing would be done to change the corporate tax, they said, until the 2019 legislative session.

The Oregon legislature is expected to wrap up remaining budgets and head home before its constitutionally mandated July 10 adjournment deadline, unlike at least four other states – Washington, Illinois, Maine New Jersey. It took three special sessions before Washington lawmakers reached a budget deal. New Jersey’s budget stalemate resulted in a partial government shutdown, but a solution was suddenly found after social media exploded with pictures of Governor Chris Christie lounging on an empty beach that was closed to the public because of the shutdown. Illinois has been in budget gridlock for three consecutive years.

Referral of the Medicaid funding package could bring Oregon back to the brink of a deep budget hole and put more pressure on legislative leaders to look at other tax hikes. Some education advocates are already urging lawmakers to resume work on a corporate tax measure earlier than the 2019 session, and perhaps as early as a special session later this year. If the Medicaid referral is successful, pressure would grow to look at cuts, not just in Medicaid, but also in the Public Employees Retirement Fund.

As noted in a previous Oregon Insider, adjournment can’t come soon enough, but even when it does it will seem more like an intermission than the end of the play. The animating issues of the 2017 session – the budget hole, Medicaid spending, corporate taxation and transportation funding – may still be anything but resolved.

Oregon’s Pending Political Divorce

Measure 97, which would raise taxes on corporations with more than $25 million in annual sales in Oregon, faces an uncertain future in the general election. However, it does seem certain that it's causing a political divorce in Oregon that will fuel polarization and make compromise harder to find.

Measure 97, which would raise taxes on corporations with more than $25 million in annual sales in Oregon, faces an uncertain future in the general election. However, it does seem certain that it's causing a political divorce in Oregon that will fuel polarization and make compromise harder to find.

Oregon voters can expect political rhetoric to escalate over Measure 97, the initiative to impose a gross receipts tax on corporations with large sales in the state, as the November 8 general election approaches.

However, the more intriguing question may be what will or should happen after the election, regardless of whether Measure 97 passes or fails? Chances are whatever happens will feel like a divorce. Andrew Bulkily, writing for Oregon Business, summed up the situation as going from “gridlock to civil war."

No one disputes that the stakes are huge. Oregon officials estimate Measure 97 will generate $3 billion per year in new state tax revenue. Proponents say most of that tax will be shouldered by large out-of-state corporations that currently don’t pay their fair share of the tax burden in Oregon. Opponents insist that the tax measure will result in higher consumer prices.

Emily Powell, the third generation owner of Powell’s Books, says higher taxes resulting from the passage of Measure 97 could drive the iconic Portland-based independent bookstore out of business. Powell says profit margins in the book business are too small and competition is too stiff to allow the store to raise its prices.

Measure 97 revenues have been touted by supporters, including Governor Kate Brown, as a badly needed and long overdue revenue make-up for K-12 school funding, health care and senior services. Opponents argue that the initiative can’t guarantee how legislators will spend the added tax money and that a big chunk of it will go to cover huge Public Employees Retirement System shortfalls.

There are people on both sides of the initiative who wish a compromise could have been reached to avoid a ballot measure mash-up that could be the most expensive political campaign in state history. Proponents and opponents have each raised double-digit millions of dollars to trade televised jabs this fall. Measure 97 backers weren’t in the mood to compromise, feeling that 2016 could be a moment to push through a major tax change on the ballot.

Which brings us to what happens after the election. If Measure 97 passes, the state’s available discretionary revenue will sharply expand. That would probably erase the projected $1.3 billion state biennial budget hole, but it wouldn’t necessarily determine how the balance of money would be spent. You could expect fierce arguments among interest groups over how much should go to K-12 schools versus investments in health care and senior services – and in higher education. You also could expect some high-profile business response, such as a business like Powell’s Books shuttering.

If Measure 97 fails, the state budget hole will loom even larger, potentially threatening cuts to K-12 and higher education funding and threatening Medicaid expansion. Perhaps worse, many in the business community may refuse to enter into discussions about how to meet that budget shortfall, PERS underfunding or tax reform because of the fractious fight they had to wage to defeat Measure 97. Oregon lawmakers may see hearing rooms full of angry faces unwilling to sit together in work groups to explore solutions.

It’s likely that the political zombie of a state sales tax would re-emerge. The sales tax has been the default idea for how to reduce the volatility of Oregon’s existing income-tax-heavy revenue system. However, sales taxes face their own haunting challenges, such as Internet sales. In Oregon, the appetite for a sales tax by voters has the same taste notes as brussels sprout ice cream.

If Measure 97 passes and Brown wins election, it will give her an effective mandate to guide how the new tax revenue should be allocated. However, it could dampen enthusiasm for climbing the steep hill to craft, pass and avoid a referral on a major transportation funding measure.

If Brown wins, but Measure 97 fails, Brown will have the challenge of trying to patch together a balanced budget, with limited credibility to court business support for alternative tax-generating options.

Brown’s position also would be weakened because she must run for election again in 2018 for a full four-year term. As secretary of state, Brown succeeded John Kitzhaber as governor after he resigned in 2015 and is running this year to fill out the final two years of the former governor’s four-year term.

This is a fairly grim picture. Sort of like a family portrait after a divorce.

Over time, views will soften, the more contentious personalities will be pushed aside and a dialogue can resume. But as the 2016 presidential election has revealed, strong political undercurrents can be unleashed, deepening polarization and crippling efforts to find common ground – or even a table where everyone can sit around to talk.

What Matters Most to You in 2016?

As we head into a new year, CFM wants to know what policy priorities are most important to Oregonians for 2016. Lawmakers will convene a new legislative session in February, but they will only have 35 days to get their work done .

As we head into a new year, CFM wants to know what policy priorities are most important to Oregonians for 2016. Lawmakers will convene a new legislative session in February, but they will only have 35 days to get their work done.

From tackling Portland’s housing crisis to negotiating a plan for an unprecedented minimum wage hike, Oregon lawmakers have their work cut out for them in 2016.  

Education, health care, transportation, human services, consumer protection, environmental preservation, criminal justice, taxation: Those are just some of the priority areas calling for swift action and firm leadership in Salem as we look ahead to the next year. 

The Oregon legislature convenes February 1 for a brisk 35-day session. Soon after, statewide elected positions will be contested in the May primary and November general elections.

In the meantime, CFM wants to know what issues matter most to you. Is it finding more revenue for education and social services? Improving transportation infrastructure? Or maybe it’s something else entirely.

As we ponder the political battles ahead, CFM invites you to share what you believe demands the most attention from Oregon's elected leaders. Here’s what we’re looking for:

•  What are the top two policy priorities facing Oregon? 

•  For each of your two priorities, provide a short explanation of what you think should be done and how it should get done. Is legislation needed? Better enforcement? Bully pulpit leadership? Bipartisan support? Be as specific as you can.

•  In addition to your top two policy priorities, tell us what you expect in terms of leadership from Oregon's governor and from House and Senate leaders. What would you regard as real leadership? How can leadership be manifested so it produces positive results? What would you see as a lack of leadership?

Send us your submissions through Friday, January 8, and we’ll share them shortly after on our Oregon Insider blog.

This isn't a contest or a survey. Our intention is to reflect the range of thoughts and concerns that everyone shares with us. We will point out areas where a number of people's priorities overlap, but we also will include priorities that may generate only a single recommendation.

Please send your submissions to Justin Runquist, CFM’s communications counsel, at justinr@cfmpdx.com.

We look forward to hearing your thoughts.