Marcus Larson/News-Register##The Oregon State Capitol Building in Salem
Marcus Larson/News-Register##The Oregon State Capitol Building in Salem
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Randy Stapilus: 2018 could break Oregon’s short-session mold

This year’s Oregon legislative session, which opened Monday, Feb. 5, took the biggest fork in the road before it even convened.

On Jan. 23, voters across the state passed — by a landslide — Measure 101. It upheld taxes approved last year to underwrite a big portion of Oregon Medicaid costs.

The measure increases taxes 0.7 percent on the state’s large hospitals, including McMinnville’s Willamette Valley Medical Center, and 1.5 percent on most health insurance policies. It was strongly supported by the health industry, which recognized income from matching federal payments would amount to more than the tax bite, and much of the latter could be passed on to consumers anyway.

Voter rejection would have opened a huge revenue gap and risked loss of health insurance for hundreds of thousands of Oregonians. Dealing with that would have immediately come to dominate the short session. The voter embrace opens the door for a broader, more ambitious legislative agenda this year.

Paying for health care won’t vanish from the lawmaking scene entirely, however.

Complaints about the Medicaid funding bill referred to voters last month focused more on the structure than the need. So adjustments to the formula might be considered during the upcoming session.

Voters were surely expressing more of a desire to keep the insurance system operational than they were endorsing a specific plan.

Guest Writer

Randy Stapilus is a former Northwest newspaper reporter and editor who has devoted his career to covering regional politics and government. He is the author of several books on the subject, including the Oregon Political Field Guide, and maintains a blog at www.ridenbaugh.com that features a broad menu of commentary. A Carlton resident, he can be reached at stapilus@ridenbaugh.com.

After the vote, House Minority Leader Mike McLane said, “We must now shift our focus to improving efficiencies within the Oregon Health Authority and in the administration of the Oregon Health Plan. I hope legislators on both sides of the aisle will make it a priority to safeguard and protect the investment in our state government that Oregon taxpayers have affirmed.”

That is likely to become a subject for discussion.

So is the next Medicaid shortfall, expected to surface in another two or three years. Legislators may want to begin planning for it this year.

Short sessions usually focus in large measure on budget numbers. That prompted Senate President Peter Courtney to say, “Our budget focus must now shift to the February forecast and the effects federal tax changes will have on state revenue.”

But some participants may try to take another crack at some long-running budget issues, notably the badly underfunded PERS pension program.
Mark Johnson, a former state representative now serving as president of the Oregon Business and Industry group, authored a commentary in which he said, “The costs associated with funding the Public Employees Retirement System will continue to consume ever-larger chunks of the state budget until action is taken, and that means less money for classrooms and vital services.”

He indicated that might become a point of focus for his group, though it has proven a stubborn issue for years on end, even in longer odd-year sessions.
More than budgeting will come up this session as well.

One good bet, already the focus of a lot of supportive lobbying, is a state cap and trade or cap and invest system. Two bills, one in the House and one in the Senate, already have been released in conceptual formats.

The system is complex, but the core establishes a limit on greenhouse gas emissions that large producers can exceed by purchasing “allowances” in a kind of greenhouse gas marketplace.

Payments would be involved. The revenue would be used to introduce greater efficiencies, help cover added consumer costs and shore up communities hit hardest by global warming.

The hope is that the cost of purchasing the credits would, over the years, served as incentives for big producers to reduce their emissions. And at least conceptually, the plans enjoys backing from Gov. Kate Brown and House Speaker Tina Kotek — a good starting point.

A good deal of money could be at stake, providing an impetus for some intense lobbying. Strongly worded arguments have already begun to shape the debate on both sides.

There will be more as well:

n Affordable housing has become an increasingly heated subject, especially in the Portland area, so some effort to deal with it may arise.

n In the educational arena, several legislators, including Democratic Reps. Brian Clem of Salem and Margaret Doherty of Tigard, are suggesting class sizes be made subject to teachers’ union contract negotiations.

n One lobbyist noted that as coordinated care organizations begin looking to negotiate new service contracts, they may ask the legislature for some adjustments in their financing mechanism.

n Recent federal action enacting stiff solar panel tariffs could trigger some response in a state where solar energy has become increasingly important.

All of this will be happening in a context of something institutionalized by the calendar and something arising out of an unusual confluence of circumstances.
The normal, unavoidable elements are the session’s extremely compressed 35-day span and its election year setting. A roughly month-long election-year run is normally a prescription for dealing with nothing more than necessities and emergencies, mainly of a financial nature.

But there’s an unusual factor coming into play this year.

A large number of new people are involved — some entirely new and others moving into new positions. An especially large number of legislative personnel changes have occurred in recent months, giving us a new Senate minority leader and new Senate budget chair.

On top of that, the legislature’s chief revenue officer, who had held the job for two decades, retired last year. And sometimes significant personnel shifts kick loose legislation that doesn’t ordinarily see the light of day.

Odds are this will be quiet session, dominated by one or two major policy issues. But the new political season features some unusual elements, so stay tuned.

Comments

Don Dix

The 'mold of short sessions' was broken the day short sessions were approved. We all remember the promise made by lawmakers in 2010 ... 'we will address budget amendments and fine tune state laws and rules during these sessions'. Big frickin' lie!

There was never any intention to keep the 'promise'. These sessions are just another portal to push through bills without the proper vetting or discussion. Oregon lawmakers are the perfect example of government taking advantage of blind, unquestioning voters, and then moving the goalposts.





Rotwang

Spot on, Don!

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