14 Nov

Oregon Democrats try not to be sore winners

The last time the Democrats had 18 votes in the Oregon state Senate – and every set of numbers from Hillsboro and the Bruce Starr-Chuck Riley race suggests we’re at the next time – everybody remembers what happened.

In fact, some folks remember it all the time.

Struggling to get the state budget through the Great Recession, the Democratic three-fifths supermajorities in both houses put the tax-raising Measures 66 and 67 on the ballot, and to some surprise both passed. Ever since, it’s been a story that Oregon businesses tell to scare each other around campfires, and political fund-raising events.

They’re not the only ones with hard memories of the experience.

“I won’t go through that again,” declares state Sen. Ginny Burdick, D-Portland, chairman then and now of the Senate Revenue Committee.

“There are a lot of us around from 66 and 67 who don’t want a repeat. I’m not even talking about substance, but about the way it came down.”

Democratic control of the next legislature is solid – Oregon is the only state in the country where Democrats strengthened their legislative grip last Tuesday – but much else about the next session seems uncertain. Democrats have a short list of things they couldn’t get through the Senate last time – a clean fuels program, expanding gun background checks, funding Legal Aid – but the list of questions runs longer than the planned answers.

“I’m not going to deny that we are going to try to put things on the floor that we haven’t in the past,” Senate President Peter Courtney told the Salem Statesman Journal. “Are we going to do it all? No.”
Burdick insists that the shift in numbers won’t increase partisanship in the Senate. “With 16-14, there was intense pressure from both caucuses to lock up,” she recalls of the last session. At 18-12, “there’s more flexibility to vote differently from the caucus.”

(Someone who might have benefited from some flexibility, muses Burdick, was Bruce Starr, who voted with the Republican caucus on gun background checks and environmental issues and ended up with campaigns against him by two billionaires – Tom Steyer on the environment and Michael Bloomberg on guns. Either one might have accounted for a deficit now at 221 votes.)

Just what the votes and the agenda will be, however, hangs on several other things – such as a governor who had a less satisfying election than the legislative Democrats did.

“We really depend on the governor for leadership,” says Burdick. “It’s really not clear where he’s going to be, considering the terrible, horrible, very bad year he’s had.”

The governor’s year included not only the Cylvia Hayes embarrassment, but the unending trauma that is Cover Oregon, and a final victory over Dennis Richardson of only five points, carrying only seven counties.

Throughout the 2013 and 2014 sessions, legislative leaders deferred to the governor’s private back-channel talks pursuing a tax reform proposal. Those now seem less promising, and legislators might now be more apt to follow their own paths on the subject. Several legislators have ideas, and Burdick’s Senate Revenue Committee will soon be hearing a report from the state Department of Revenue on how a carbon tax might work.

Everybody’s polling shows that Oregonians are getting no closer to accepting the funding mechanism used by 45 states. Polling a sales tax, says Burdick, “You could tell people you’ll reduce the income tax, reduce the property tax, give everyone a free pony and a lifetime supply of chocolate, and you still only get to 48 or 49 percent – and you can’t go to the ballot with that.”

That leaves other, smaller possibilities being contemplated by some Democrats, such as closing tax loopholes or trying to change corporate deductions.

Everything also hangs, of course, on the looming possibility of the kicker kicking, of state revenues coming in more than 2 percent above two-year-old estimates, requiring everything above the estimate to be sent back to taxpayers. Currently, projected state revenues, with more than half a year of economic growth to come, is within $20 million of kicker level. There are adjustments that could be made if revenues were just above kicker level, but if the kicker does kick, it blows a hole of around $300 million in the state budget.

That would bring a whole new set of challenges and decisions before the new, larger Democratic legislative majorities. There might, however, be a limited appeal to a near-party line vote to raise taxes. We’ve been there before, in 2009.

And everybody seems to remember it.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, 11/12/14.

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